There was a time when to step into a church building was to enter an alien space. The threshold was a marking point between the world and the world to come, between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. It was not simply the architecture that made churches stand out. It was who they are and what went on within. The Church clearly understood to be the holy ground on which one stood before the Lord, where the people of God received His gifts and grace, and where the people of God anticipated the promise which was theirs by baptism and faith.
For those entering a church building, it was a strange experience -- something clearly out of the ordinary. I had a hint of this when a young man came to the door of our church building and asked if he could come in and pray. When he entered the Sanctuary, he gasped. He said, "This is a real church!" He stood and looked around at the stained glass and the dance of their colorful lights upon the floor and furnishings. He stared at the Christus Rex above the altar. He was in awe of the painting behind the altar, of the statues around the building, and of the imposing altar, pulpit, and font. He looked at the processional cross and candles. He saw the thurible off to the side. It was some time taking it all in before he bowed his head to pray.
I had not thought much about what I saw -- it had become normal to me. I had forgotten that the Church is anything but normal to the world and that by architecture and decoration this foreign space was planted in the world but not of it. Perhaps for too many generations there has been the push to erase the distinction between the sacred and the secular and to build church buildings that looked familiar and ordinary (like the public spaces and shopping malls of the world). Perhaps the Church has come to blend in instead of standing out. With this young man I was reminded again that the Church is not meant to blend into the landscape or speak with an indistinct voice. Just the opposite. The Church and what happens within her walls is other worldly.
We live in an age in which perhaps the most radical thing the Church can do is to be true to her roots, to honor the tradition passed down through the ages, to speak with the vocabulary and voice of Scripture, and to act with the rites, ritual, and ceremonies through which the means of grace come to us. Tradition has become the most radical choice and position today. In fact, the Church needs to become weird again.
If we are to be the people of God and manifest the marks of His eternal kingdom to a world that knows not us or His kingdom, then who we are and what we do must point to the world to come, to the transcendent God has planted within this world of time and space. By our reverence and worship we manifest this eternal truth to a world so bound to the moment. We demonstrate that these things are REAL and eternally so. When we act reverently and bow toward the altar, we point to eternity. When we kneel in confession and at the altar rail, we point to eternity. When we pray with closed hands and bowed heads, we point to eternity. When we worship in the
sacred language of Scripture and tradition, we point to eternity. When we dare to remember and confess our sin and death in confidence of God's forgiveness, we point to eternity. When we touch the baptismal water and make the sign of the cross, we point to eternity. We we sing in unified voice the hymn, chants, and high thanksgivings of the ordinary and pericopes, we point to eternity. When we wear vestments that mask our individualized choices of clothing and dress, we point to eternity. When we hear the organ intone the song of the Church and the voices of the choir raised to God, we point to eternity.
This has never been normal but odd, weird, even bizarre behavior before the world. We need this now more than ever. We need to be who we are and not who we were before baptism set us apart to be the children of God and faith heard the voice of God calling us to enter into His holy place to receive His holy gifts. The Church needs to be radical in this way now more than ever. We have tried making the Church less odd and more normal and it has succeeded only in distracting us from who we are by God's grace and design and what we are here to do. We have bled off members and strength by making our peace with the world, accommodating the world's ideas and desires, and compromising the doctrine of Scripture and the historic witness of the saints. No more. Let us be bold enough to stand out and courageous enough to be weird. Now more than ever the Church lacks not because God has failed us but because we have failed Him. Let us be renewed in our desire to believe and confess what reason and science finds quaint or ridiculous. Let us commit ourselves to live and confess the mystery of God manifest in His Word and Sacraments without fear. The time has come for us to be unapologetically God's in a world where this is the most radical thing we can be.
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Too often the liturgy is seen in terms of what we do and what we want and what we will get out of it. With that is the presumption, so terribly false, that if we are happy with it and like it, God is happy, too. The veil of the temple is torn in two and the altar revealed so that our focus does not rest upon us but upon Him who made this sacrifice as Victim and now offers it to us the sacrament of that sacrifice as Priest. The goofiest idea of all is that the liturgy should be and its success defined as what we find meaningful. The liturgy is centered in the altar, in the sacrifice once offered to the Father and now offered as sacrifice become sacramental food to us, in which our sins are forgiven and we are thereby assured that we are His forevermore.
The Mass is heaven on earth. God literally rips the curtain and reveals Himself to us at the altar of sacrifice where the Lamb of God gave His life for the life of the world. The perfect Victim and spotless offering offered once for all is now given to us. The Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom without end is come to us in time, the foretaste of the eternal feast upon our lips and in our mouths. This Christ is present here where He has promised whether we believe or not, but our belief is our worship and our reception in faith is our worthiness to stand before Him and receive what He offers. God does not need the liturgy but we do. We need it because we are still afflicted by the temptations of the world, the torment of the Old Adam who fights against God's redeeming work, and the time and space which is passing away toward its appointed destiny and we with it. Here is where God reveals Himself and gives Himself to us. And it is in this Holy Communion that we abide in Him and He abides in us so that we may bear the good fruit that endures.
When the veil of the temple was torn in two as Jesus breathed His last upon that cross, it not only opened heaven for us, but gave to us the sacrifice as sacramental gift and food. It looks to physical eyes as it is -- bread and wine -- but we see with the eyes of faith that it is Christ's flesh for the life of the world His cup that cleanses us from all our sin. The death and resurrection of Christ certainly did raise the dead to heaven, but it also brought and brings heaven on earth to those who are dead in trespasses and sins and born anew to life stronger than death in baptismal water -- a life fed and nourished upon the Body and Blood of Christ. Now we see what God sees, the future He has prepared, ourselves as His own new creation, and on this altar, the very and true and corporeal flesh of Christ and His blood. Within the Divine Service we are united in this blessed communion with Christ and through Christ one to another, in perfect harmony the parts of Christ's body living as one under Christ the head. If you do not see this in the triumph of the Holy Cross, you have missed something profound and life changing.
Friday, September 13, 2019
Once we stop preaching this, it will disappear from our radar and our beliefs. The sad truth is that the decline of doctrinal preaching means that most of the folks in the pews are not confronted with what the Church believes, confesses, and teaches as they should be. Catechetical preaching is urgently needed among Christian people whose primary source of information has moved from the catechism and Bible to the internet and whose idea of truth has narrowed down to one person and one moment. Doctrinal preaching is urgently needed and especially among the sacramental churches. Lutherans are no different.
In the move to a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, I told my parish I would not simply make the weekly Eucharist happen but would preach and teach it so that they would understand this was not about my preference or theirs but about what we believe, confess, and teach. At one point I was told by a parishioner that it was embarrassing to have me point to the altar as I taught about the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood only to see that nothing was there -- it was not communion Sunday. Another suggested that the preaching and teaching had made them ache to receive it and the ache was almost greater than she could bear when it was not offered. In the end, they learned that this was not adiaphora and was not personal preference but our identity and confession.
Though sometimes these quotes are apocryphal, it is said that Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said something to the effect: If Catholics really believed that God Himself were present in the Eucharist, they would crawl toward the altar on their stomachs. I don't know if he said it or not. I will leave that to others to track down but the sentiment is exactly right. If we believed. Ahhhh, that is the problem. If we actually believed what we say we believe, what a difference there might be in the way we paid attention on Sunday morning, in the shape of our piety, and how we approach the mystery of Christ's presence in the Holy Sacrament.
Lutherans are sacramental Christians. Our piety flows from the means of grace, the center and focus of the Divine Service. Our life together is rooted in our baptismal identity. We hear the Word of God not as some distant word but the familiar voice of our Good Shepherd who calls to us by name and whose voice we recognize. That Word is the life-giving Word through which the Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying us and all believers in Christ. It is an active Word, bestowing that of which it speaks. We are absolved by the voice of Christ speaking through the mouthpiece of the pastor and our sins fall away as the Word is spoken into our ears. We meet the crucified and risen Lord where He has promised to be -- in the bread which is His body and in the wine which is His blood. These are not mere symbols but bestow that which they sign. As Flannery O'Connor famously said, if they are just symbols, then to hell with them!
Sadly, it is often hard to see this on Sunday morning. We come to God's House with the same enthusiasm we come to a root canal. We dress to be comfortable but look more like a people headed to a BBQ than to the place where God comes to us as He has promised. We barely mouth the words of the responses and sing with all the vigor of a people ashamed or embarrassed by what we are singing. We come to the Lord's Table as if we were heading to snack on something inconsequential instead of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood. We treat the remains of the Supper as if they were nothing but leftovers (and think how Jesus commanded the disciples to treat what remained after the feeding of the thousands!). And we go home as if nothing particularly special had happened while we were here. So when asked what we believe about the Real Presence, it is probably true that we are either not at all sure what it is that we believe or doubt the reality of the whole thing.
We are our rites. Casual worship makes for casual faith. What did we used to pray? Read, mark and inwardly digest? Try that on Sunday morning with the liturgy. Wisdom! Attend! The Word of God is read! God is here not in some vague and nebulous fashion but the flesh and blood of Christ right here in bread and wine. Pastors need to preach it. People need to hear it. We all need to believe it. And we all should act like we believe it. So many of our problems are related to not actually believing what the Word says and the presence of Christ in holy water, holy bread, and holy wine. From open communion to the abandonment of the hymnal and liturgy to the loss of the great hymns of the faith to a clock watching people who have more important things to do and places to be than God's House right now to regular attendance that has come to mean once a month or so and to the loss of vocation and the fear of generous giving -- are these not all related to the fact that we no longer believe what we confess and confess what Scripture teaches and teach the Word of the Lord that endures forever?
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Some are beginning to suggest that we have, in the developed world at least, entered the “fertility trap” in which the lifespans of our people extend while the number of children born decreases, thus leaving us with a shortage of those responsible for the economy’s primary production and consumption. It has often been said that social support networks did well when they were introduced because there were so many paying into the plans for every one receiving a check. In most developed nations, that is no longer the case. Those workers who are earning and paying into the social service networks across Europe and even in the US are declining in comparison to those receiving benefits -- due at least in part to the fact that the retired tend to live a fourth to a third of their lives after retiring! But the real issue here is the decline in the birth rate.
China has had a rigorous policy of enforced birth control and what government has not legislated, culture has produced for Japan, Korea, and Scandinavia. While there have been some programs to encourage the birth of children, they have had only marginal success. In many developed nations and even among those known for producing a giant share of the world's goods, the birth rate is too low to sustain the status quo. The US enjoys a higher fertility rate than most developed nations due to the higher birth rate among migrants. In this, the US has a rather unique ability to absorb immigrants which most nations do not enjoy and, indeed, do not want. Some nations such as Japan have a virtual prohibition upon immigration. Despite the rhetoric, the US continues not only to welcome but to assimilate immigrants more successfully and seamlessly than about any other nation in the world.
All of this is well and good. Statistics are important indicators of the problems before us. But the great impediment to children is the fact that children and the family no longer enjoy a privileged place in society and culture. The bigger issue here is that values have changed and the family, with two parents and their children, has dropped in priority both in the minds of young people before they reach adulthood and in the minds of adults (of nearly every age). It is not uncommon for people to roll their eyes when they see a large family of three or more children. What was once considered a normal or even small family is not met with judgment even from grandparents and extended family. A child may be tolerated but more than one child is often seen as excess. The media and propaganda have done their jobs well and the ideal of a small family or no children at all has permeated the modern mind -- and even the mind of Christians!
My own parish is an anomaly. We typically have 50-60 children in worship under confirmation age. In other words, a sixth of those in the pews on a Sunday morning are kids. We have an abundance of young parents and three is a typical number of children for the families in our pews. It was not always so. In fact, there was a time when some of those past child bearing years resented the noise and movement of children in the Divine Service. We had to develop a culture of welcome for the young parent and the young child. Part of that was the fruit of renewed preaching and teaching on the role and value of the family in God's design.
Though President Harrison has taken many hits for saying it, our decline as a church body mirrors the decline of the family, the drop in the birth rate, and the aging of the population outside the church. It has been the subject of some ridicule among those who oppose him but the truth of his words are reflected all over the parishes of the LCMS. We no longer value the family the way Scripture does or see children as the treasures of our church. We may not be enemies of children the way some governments and cultures are but neither are we ready to take on those voices around us and advocate for children and the family. Abortion and birth control have surely done their jobs in providing us the means to avoid connecting sex with love and love with marriage and marriage with children but it did not start there. It started with a change in the desires of our hearts and with the flourishing of the idea and ideal of me -- the triumph of the individual! The decline in our Lutheran school systems is surely reflective of the decline of the numbers of children in our families. This is a cord of many strings woven together and it has us all in knots.
Children are a gift and blessing and a heritage from the Lord. We were created for family and family is the ordinary shape of our lives -- even after the Fall of Adam made this family a working relationship that succeeds only with the glue of God's forgiveness. We need to say it publicly, from the pulpits of our churches, in the Sunday schools and catechism classes of our churches, and teach what the Scriptures say. This is essential not because it is an economic need but because it is God's design. This is who God created us to be and what our lives on earth were meant to look like. The family is not optional and neither is marriage (of one man to one woman). This does not demean those who yearn for marriage and find no spouse nor does it detract from those whose gift from God is to live a single life, chaste and without burning with desire for what they do not have. All I am saying is that the culture has to begin to change within the Church before we will impact much outside the doors of the church building.
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Sermon for Pentecost 13, Proper 18C, preached on Sunday, September 8, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
In today’s Gospel reading, we heard some confusing and harsh words from Jesus. It sounds like Christ is encouraging us to hate: to hate our parents, our spouse, our children, our family, to even hate our very own life. This sound right. The great one word summary of God’s commandments is love: love God with your whole heart; love your neighbor as yourself. And yet here Jesus plainly says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). So how do these go together? How can God command us to love and Jesus tell us to hate?
First, we need to understand that God’s command to love and Jesus’ words of hate aren’t contradictory. When we love the Lord with our whole heart, we will love our neighbors as well. And yet, if we don’t love God with our whole heart, if we have other loves before Him, then we can’t love our neighbors. So if our love for family prevents us to love God, then Jesus’ words are spot on. We must hate everything that we put before our Lord. It must be Christ above all.
Jesus spoke these words to a crowd who was following Him. That’s what disciples do, they follow. They closely follow a teacher, and Jesus wasn’t the only one who had disciples. There were other teachers who had close followers, people who left everything, their homes, their occupations, even their families. As a disciple, the most important thing was the teacher and his word. Christ’s followers are to value nothing more than Him, not even the closest relationships that we have.
This ultimately means that following Christ has a cost. Discipleship carries with it sacrifice, even a sacrifice of relationships. That’s what Jesus is talking about. This can be a hard cost to handle. Our family is supposed to be one of the most important, if not the most important thing in our lives. Our parents gave us life. They raised us and cared for us. Our spouse and children bring us joy. We share fond memories with our siblings. Sure, not all of family life is great, and family can bring with it great pain and sorrow, but for Christ to tells us to hate them, this is a hard thing. Blood is thick and the family bond runs deep. And yet, following Christ means putting Him before them, even at the expense of losing family relationships.
This cost of discipleship, sacrificing relationships, this can be hard to bear. And yet, the most difficult sacrifice for us to make is our self. We hear Jesus’ words of hate and we’re shocked. Shocked so much so that it’s easy for us to not hear what He says about hating our very own life. Of all things, this is the most unthinkable thing to hate. How can Christ tell us to hate our lives? Shouldn’t we love ourselves? Isn’t it important to have good self-esteem? Shouldn’t we be proud of who we are and what we can do?
We love our life, and that’s the problem. We love our life too much. We put it first. That’s what sin is. Sin is the reordering of things so that we’re on top and everything else is below us. Sin puts us first in all of our relationships. It puts us first before God. This is the greatest cost and sacrifice of discipleship; hating ourselves; denying ourselves, putting Christ first.
We want to live a self-first life. We want to be on top. We want to be the most important thing. We want the world to revolve around us. We want to be self-sufficient and in charge. And this even applies to our faith. We want to be the one who chooses to follow Christ. We want to be responsible for our salvation. But we can’t, because we can’t pay that ultimate cost.
As Jesus was talking to the crowd that was following Him, He told two small parables. On the surface they seem to be simply wise words about considering the cost of something before you do it. Before you start a building project, before you start a war, you need to sit down and be sure that you can finish it. But what does this have to do with discipleship? Jesus used these parables to teach the crowd that there was a cost to following Him. They would have to sacrifice to be His disciples, and they needed to know that upfront so that they could be ready for it.
This is important for us to remember. There’s a sacrifice to following Christ, and we need to be ready for that. We can’t assume that our life is going to be all puppy dogs and roses. Following our Lord is difficult, so we need to be ready for those trials and temptations. But more than that, we need to sit down and understand the true cost of discipleship and realize that it isn’t something that we pay.
The true cost of discipleship isn’t us reordering our lives and putting Christ first. The true cost of discipleship isn’t a giving us leaving our family. The true cost of discipleship is Christ Himself. The true cost of discipleship is His righteous life for your sinful self-first life.
We hear Jesus words we put ourselves at the center of them, thinking that we have to pay to be His disciples, and yet the opposite is true. Christ paid so that you would be His disciple. Christ paid so that you would be cleansed from all your sin. Christ paid so that you’d be rescued from death and the devil. Christ paid so that you’d have life. Christ paid so that the Spirit could create faith within you through the proclamation of the Gospel. Christ’s sacrifice, Him giving up His life on the cross for you, that’s the only way you can be His disciple.
There’s nothing we can give of our own to be Jesus’ disciples. There’s no reordering of our lives that we can do without first receiving the gift of faith. And with that faith, we can follow our Lord. With that gift of faith we can count the cost of disciples and meet it trusting our Lord. It’s only by the grace of God that we can be called disciples. It’s only by the grace of God that we can be a part of His family, having brothers and sisters in Christ, a family bond that runs deeper than any earthly family relationships we have. . Praise be to God, that Christ paid the cost and we’ve been made His disciples. In Jesus’ name...Amen.