Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Last Vestiges of Romanism or the Consistent Voice of Lutheranism

Lutherans have always had a, well, problem understanding themselves. It started with Luther. Unlike Calvin and his Institutes or Aquinas and his Summa, Luther is relatively disorganized when it comes to systematizing his theology. You can find contradictory statements within Luther that, it seems, Luther was okay with but the Lutherans who have followed him are not so okay with. So Lutherans have debates about early Luther vs late Luther, the young Luther vs the mature Luther... We would like a Luther who was at least consistent and if not, then at least consistent in a certain direction so that we could predict his evolution of thinking. But instead we have a Luther who is disjointed and inconsistent, unorganized and even contradictory (as much as we can tell of him, since he is not here to defend himself).

It seems that for much of Lutheranism we have fought over which Lutheranism is the authentic Lutheranism -- the one, for example, which is perfectly comfortable talking about Mary's ever virginity or maintaining the ceremonies of the Mass (save for a few which contradict the Gospel) or is willing to keep the Pope if he will allow the Gospel to be preached or the one with four sacraments instead of two... OR the one that has been shaped by an identity fully comfortable in its separation from Rome, antagonistic toward things catholic or Popish, one which speaks as if Lutheranism did not exist prior to Walther or Pieper or Koehler, or the one which feels more at home in generic Protestantism than in evangelical catholicism. So, in matters liturgical and even theological we have some Lutherans who insist that some of the statements of Luther and other Lutherans were before the last vestiges of Romanism had been cleansed from Lutheran identity instead seeing Lutheranism as a consistent voice for conservative reform in which the things received from tradition hold a high and honored place to be challenged only when they prevent the Gospel from speaking clearly.

It is, perhaps, the genius of Luther and Lutheranism that we are not a systematic faith as much as we are a practical faith, shaped by the urgency of a need to reform but a conservative reformation principle which refuses to toss things out just because people don't like them or they do not fit with the prevailing mood among Protestants. In this respect, Lutheranism remains heavily in debt to Rome -- especially for those things in which there were not disagreement or those things which required no theological honing separate from the received faith of the day. It is in this respect that Lutheranism is sort of like the early Church prior to the time when by council and edict the faith was codified (I do not mean creedally here but by the concerted theological effort at making the faith reasonable, organized, and systematized).

It is also our weakness as Lutherans that for many, many things we cannot appeal to a uniform voice but find, instead, conflicting and even contradictory statements among Luther and the great Lutheran theologians. And without a magisterium to define this, it means that each Lutheran can identity with his or her own perspectives on many (generally non-essential) questions. It also means that Lutherans tend to argue a great deal -- which would not be a bad thing were it not for the fact that some arguments become vicious and bitterly divisive.

In matters liturgical it is this conservative reformation principle which is being questioned most of all. Instead of keeping what was and removing it only when and if it conflicts with the Gospel, the operating principle among many Lutherans is that we begin with only that bare minimum and add to it when and what we want -- a position which is basically Luecke's Style and Substance argument. According to this way of thinking, if you have a Law/Gospel sermon, then whatever else is included in the worship service that does not conflict with the Gospel is authentically Lutheran (here meaning mostly contemporary songs and a distinct lack of liturgical form or content -- even the creed and the Our Father)... If you get it right in the sermon, the rest does not matter so much. But of course this violates that conservative liturgical principle of our Confessions and our confessors. They would insist that the form of the Mass with its historic parts are in and of themselves expressions of the Gospel and the guarantee that the Law/Gospel voice of God speaks when we are gathered in His name -- so that it not be dependent solely upon the sermon or preacher.

Today in theology and in liturgical practice, we find ourselves caught between very different camps who come with the same perspective -- what is the least amount we may believe or the least amount of identity present in worship that we can get away with as Lutherans. For the ELCA this meant reducing the Gospel to a principle that allowed it to violate the clear word of Scripture... for Missouri is often means that what happens on Sunday morning is a free and open choice of the Pastor, the parish, and the people -- their wants, desires, and what they feel comfortable with... Both sides demand a clear word from the Confessions to challenge them, and lacking one, insist that their version is as legitimate as anyone else's. What we have forgotten is the conservative reformation principle that manifests itself with a very careful take on what we have received (tradition) and how we have worshipped (liturgy).

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Church Would You Belong To If There Were No Lutheran Church?

I learned from watching Perry Mason on TV that you never ask a question that you do not already know the answer to or you will be in trouble. I learned from a wise teacher that you do not ask a question that you do not want to know the answer to or you will be in trouble. But I have a history of not listening to the people I should... and I have asked of people in both parishes I have served, Which church would you belong to if there was no Lutheran Church?

I ask this question in order to find out which church holds to the faith that they identify with -- both theologically and liturgically. Sadly, I hear over and over again answers like the " Methodist Church" or the "Baptist Church" or the "Presbyterian Church" or, worse, "Faith Community Outreach Non-Denominational Church..."

When I say this is bad or worse, I am not intending to direct that comment simply on other church bodies but, more to the point, find that our Lutheran people (and many of her Pastors) do not understand what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess. They are not comfortable in their Lutheran skin and are really "shape changers" (yes I love sci-fi) who wear a Lutheran skin but underneath hold to a theological and liturgical identity that is fundamentally at odds with their Lutheran outer shape and form.

I have had families catechized into Lutheranism by other Lutheran congregations (ELCA and Missouri are equal opportunity offenders here) and they are scandalized by such things as baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, and the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. They identity Lutheranism with conservative Protestantism -- unfortunately not the conservative Protestantism of Luther but of the American evangelical spectrum. They are attracted to Lutheranism for its stand for Biblical authority and truthfulness but do not see Scripture as efficacious -- less as a living voice speaking and doing through that speaking what it says and more as a book of faith propositions or rules for living. They are attracted to Lutheranism for its orderliness and reverence in a world of disorder and irreverence on Sunday morning but they do not see liturgy as Word and Sacrament, the arena where God has placed His name and through the elements where He has placed His name, stands among His people to serve them with His gifts and graces won on the cross. They are attracted to the seeming consistency of Lutheranism because they find such inconsistency in American Christendom but they do not deposit this consistency in the Lutheran Confessions or see this Book of Concord as the locus and doctrinal standard of the Church. They are attracted to Lutheranism because they want a congregational church body which still has a structure and unity larger than the local congregation yet they refuse to let this structure oversee or challenge congregational decisions to do as they please in this or that.

The truth is I do not want to know what choice many of the people in the parish or Pastors of this Church would make for a church home if there were no Lutheran choice. You are here within the pale of the evangelical catholic faith expressed in and flowing from our Lutheran Confessions. This is not a paper identity but a real identity that extends to the realm of the liturgy on Sunday morning and the practices of the parish in general. This is where you are, and it is my job to teach you and woo you to become comfortable within this Lutheran skin. That is the calling of all those who are Lutheran Pastors -- not to find out the scary answer to this question of which church if the Lutheran Church did not exist, but to teach, preach, catechize, woo and win people over to the faith they have identified, at least on the surface, as their own. And the job of my Bishop and my colleagues in this Church are to hold me accountable to this. For we are hypocritical and deceitful if we attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the unchurched or underchurched to a church we are not at ease with and in. Before we can ask anyone outside our communion to become one with us in that communion, we must be or must be working toward being fully conversant and comfortable with who that communion is, what she teaches, and what she confesses.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On the Use of Other Elements

Some years ago members of my congregation visited their home congregation over the Christmas holiday. As is usual, they brought me back a bulletin. It should be said that this was an ELCA congregation and that the Pastor was female and well along in a pregnancy -- a fact no incidental to this discussion. In the instructions for the distribution of Holy Communion, those communing were told that all the individual cups contained wine except "for those closest to Pastor's stomach" (a pregnancy reference here) which contained grape juice "for those unable to drink or who do not like wine." A year or so ago I read through a bulletin from an LCMS congregation that a member had visited. It too had instructions for the distribution offering non-gluten hosts for those with gluten allergies and non-alcoholic wine for those unable or unwilling to drink wine.

I am suspicious of this growing practice to alter the elements in the Lord's Supper to fit either the health needs or tastes of communicants. Perhaps the day will come when we will have a special distribution point to care for those with unusual tastes or physical needs for the elements of the Lord's Supper. Maybe the day will come when we will have substitutes that we can all agree are better than the ones which our Lord used when, on the night when He was betrayed, He took bread. . .

I believe we should leave well enough alone. The Church has historically taught that the bread must be made of only wheat and water with "sufficient gluten to attain the confection of bread." In the same way the Church has historically taught that the wine is the fruit of the vine (grape) and whose fermentation is not corrupted or prevented. We know from the Corinthian situation that the Lord's Supper had been abused so that the people there had drunk freely enough of the cup of the Lord so that they became drunk and they communed to their harm and not their good by such callous disregard for the Lord's Supper.

Why not leave it at the Lord's intention and institution? Bread (whether leavened or not but of wheat flour) and wine (historically of a rather high alcohol content but without regard to color). Wine was used by the Church from the very beginning for the Eucharist. Grape juice did not even become a real option until Mr. Welch came along and invented a way to pasteurize grape juice so that it would keep long enough to be used. Of course the Temperance movement was one of the first modern attempts to bend theology and praxis to fit social whims. And this is what gave birth to individual cups... but leave that discussion for another time.

So what do we do with people who desire to commune but are prevented either from allergy or medical condition from receiving either gluten or alcohol?

I encourage worshipers to recall that the total Christ is present in either element, the so-called Doctrine of Concomitance. It is sufficient for you to receive either bread or cup alone, when you cannot, for medical reasons, receive both. That is, when you receive the bread or the cup you receive the full Communion in the Lord Jesus Christ and what you receive is not diminished by the lack of either element. This solution seems to resolve the issue with more compassion and less embarrassment for all than to provide alternate food (such as non-gluten bread, or grape juice) in alternate containers (such as individual glasses). Others suggest what the Roman Church offers to priests unable to drink alcohol -- intinction that allows the host to touch the wine in minimal form. Certainly this intinction is an acceptable substitute but not one with which Lutheranism has had a great deal of history.

Since the time of year when Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper was far removed from the time of grape harvest, this would have prevented any fresh, unfermented grape juice from being present. To go beyond what Jesus did throws the whole nature of the Sacrament into uncertainty (I cannot say whether Christ is present in grape juice or non-wheat bread but neither do we have any assurance that He is). Why stop with non-wheat bread or grape juice? Why not substitute some other element entirely? No, I say let it be sufficient for us to do what Christ did. Period. (At the very least I hope we can forgo the cutesy ways of describing where the element of choice can be found...)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Too Many Books or Just Enough

Sermon Preached for the Commemoration of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, December 27, 2009

If you visit my office, you might look at all the shelves and all the books and wonder why so many. If you are like most, you might say “Too many books.” But how much is too much? How many is too many? Remember in the movie Amadeus when the Emperor Joseph II commented on Mozart’s premiere: Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect. To which Mozart replied: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty? The composer did not have too many notes – just enough.

Today the blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. John told us that if all the things Jesus said and did were written down there would be too many books for the world to contain them all. We might argue with John. We would not think it would be too much information. We wish we knew more, had more answers for all our questions to fill in the gaps in Jesus’ life and explain the mysteries. But John insists that we have just enough that we might believe in Jesus Christ and have life in His name. If everything were written down the world could not contain all the books but these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing you might have life in His name.

Just days after Christmas, with all the details of the Christmas story fresh in our minds, all the gaps in the story also fresh in our minds. Where did the Magi come from? What about Joseph and Mary – who were they really? But to all our curious questions, John tells us simply that Scripture is true and Scripture is enough – all we need to believe in Jesus Christ for ourselves and to proclaim Him to the world.

Scripture is true. It seems straight forward enough. By why is it true? It is not true because I believe it. God said it. I believe it. That makes it so. That’s what the bumper sticker says. But it is wrong. My believing it has nothing to do with it. Scripture is true because God spoke it and God is truth; His Word cannot lie or deceive. Period. It is His own Word not because we declare it to be, not because those who spoke it declared it to be, but because God declares it to be His Word. That is part of the revelation of Jesus Christ – that Jesus claimed the Scriptures of the Jews to be God’s Word, and with His own voice spoke the truth of the Father to us. My believing has little to do with the truthfulness of Scripture.

This is what John is telling us. John does not guarantee the truthfulness of God’s Word – He writes as a witness to the truth of God, recording what He has heard and seen from Jesus Christ. John writes as one who heard the Word first spoken through the mouth of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. He writes it as witness to what He saw Jesus do. He writes is as witness but not as author – it remains God’s word.

And Scripture is enough. It is enough for us in spite of all the blank spaces, dead ends, unanswered questions, and mysteries left unexplained... God’s Word is enough to make known Jesus Christ and His salvation to us – and for us to make Jesus Christ known to others. God’s Word is true. God’s Word is truth. God’s Word is sufficient. That is the message of John to every age and generation, especially to our own age and generation with all our questions, curious natures, and doubts.

John writes as witness – as One who saw and heard with his own eyes and ears, the Word made flesh who for us and for our salvation gave Himself into our death to bestow upon His life. And as witness writing words of witness for every generation, John admits that the world could not contain all that Jesus said and did – not because He talked and acted non-stop but because the printed page and human language cannot contain the fullness of the mystery of this Word made flesh for us and our salvation. God presents this mystery to us not for us to understand but to accept, to believe. We own the Mystery of the Word made flesh when we come to the manger with faith to meet in the face of this Child the Son of God.

John writes to give not an exhaustive definition of God and the Mystery of the Incarnation but to give us enough, just enough to believe... Sufficient revelation not to answer all our questions but to make known Jesus Christ to us, and through us to others. Here is it, He says, and in that Word there is enough for the Spirit to work to bring you to saving faith, that you might own the mystery of Jesus Christ as your own. Here is enough for you to believe and if you testify to this, it will be enough for others to come to faith through your own witness. John’s witness is enough for us and for our witness.

So here we are.... only days from Christmas... We know its story by heart. Angels and swaddling clothes. Shepherds and Magi. Full inns and a bright star. Joseph and Mary. Jesus the long promised Son of God in our own human flesh and blood. It is not all that we might want to know... but it is enough to reveal to us what is essential to see the Mystery of the Word made flesh, to own the Mystery of the Word made flesh by faith, and to proclaim the Mystery of the Word made flesh to others.

Too much information does not clarify. We have all been in those awkward moments when someone gave us more information than we bargained for. It seldom clarifies and usually muddies up the waters. God does not appeal to our reason or understanding. He calls us to faith. He has given us just enough to believe. To meet Jesus in the manger... to walk with Him to the cross... to marvel at His empty tomb... to be born anew in the water where He has placed His name... to be nurtured on the Word that has the power to do what is says... and to be fed and nourished by the bread that is His body and the cup which is His blood...

He is the Word made flesh... the Word spoken by the apostles and evangelists of old... the Word written and proclaimed from printed page... Here is where we meet the Christ of the manger... Here is where our hearts are born anew to faith... Here is where we confront the limits of our reason and understanding, where we lay down our questions, doubts and fears... Here is where heaven touches earth and salvation is revealed... And we are given just enough that we might believe and be saved... Just enough that we might proclaim it to everyone, from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to all the ends of the world.

If it were up to me, I would have had God take a good stab at filling the earth with all the words that disclose Himself and His ways to us. But God has disclosed to us one Word – the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And He has given us just enough in His Word, the Scriptures, to know Jesus Christ. The Word that is true, the Word that is enough, to make known to us Jesus Christ and His salvation. Amen

Christmas Brings Out the Best and the Worst

Christmas is both the occasion for our best in worship and our worst. I think that most Pastors realize that there will be people in the congregation who do not regularly visit God's House and they work very hard to make sure that the sermon speaks faithfully the Word of God, both Law and Gospel. I know that parish musicians work very hard with choirs, soloists, bells, chimes, and instrumentalists to bring the best the parish has to offer in the music for the Nativity liturgy. I hope that parishes work hard to post greeters, to have ushers who notice who is new and who is not, and to provide a warm welcome to those who do not feel at home in the House of the Lord.

Christmas also tends to bring out our worst. We are often content with the sentiment of the day more than we desire to hear the full truth of what the Incarnation means. Case in point is when we turn Christmas into some sort of birthday bash for the Jesus who is now, what 2000+ years old. Lots of candles on that cake -- I guess that is where the candlelight service idea comes from. Or when we focus on good will and miss the entire point of that wonderful grace statement of the angels. Or when we focus on the Baby in such way that we isolate the Baby from what the Man Jesus is come to accomplish.

I think of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and the words, "This little Babe so few days old has come to rifle Satan's fold..." The is great depth to those images of the great battle between Satan and his age and evil wisdom against the Baby whom God sends filled with righteousness. That is a great place to start to unpack the Christmas miracle of the Word made flesh.

Once when I was either young and foolish or young and cynical -- you decide -- I did the Paul Harvey thing -- for those who did not hear anything between the birth and the rebirth of Jesus (Christmas and Easter), I told them the "the rest of the story." I had people hopping mad at me for spoiling their Christmas with all that talk of cross and suffering and death.

I believe, as much as I hate to admit it, they were right. The way I was preaching the Gospel was intended to shock and punish them for not being there the rest of the year. Now I do my best to avoid the sentimental stuff and yet I am sensitive to the need to preach to the wounds and hurts that the Babe in the Manger has come to address -- suffering, sin, sorrow, and death. The means this Child uses to address our wounds is the same -- the cross and suffering and death -- but the way you say it can make all the difference.

My people travel a lot at Christmas and bring me back bulletins from the congregations they visited. I am amazed at how many churches sing one or two stanzas of nearly all the well known carols -- destroying both the poetry of the carol and cutting off its message so that at best the people get angels and shepherds. I hope that the sermon did not also cut the message off, leaving the folks with just the sweet details of the story without telling the purpose of this birth.

Christmas brings out the best and worst when it comes to worship -- sometimes the best means digging a little deeper than one stanza of all our favorite carols... going a little further than angels and shepherds in the story... spending enough time to explain why God would send His Son in our flesh and blood... Some of the great carols do just that when we sing all their stanzas. I hope the sermons for Christmas do as well.

This year we used "All My Heart, This Night Rejoices" as the hymn of the day for Christmas Eve. Not one of the more well known Christmas melodies -- especially deep in the heart of Dixie! But oh the words... and what they tell...

All My Heart This Night Rejoices or listen to it here or here.

1 All my heart this night rejoices
As I hear
Far and near
Sweetest angel voices.
“Christ is born!” their choirs are singing
Till the air
Now with joy is ringing.

2 Hear! The Conqueror has spoken:
“Now the foe,
Sin and woe,
Death and hell are broken!”
God is man, man to deliver,
And the Son
Now is one
With our blood forever.

3 Should we fear our God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
Freely gave
His most precious treasure?
To redeem us He has given
His own Son
From the throne
Of His might in heaven.

4 See the Lamb, our sin once taking
To the cross,
Suff’ring loss,
Full atonement making.
For our life His own He tenders,
And His grace
All our race
Fit for glory renders.

5 Softly from His lowly manger
Jesus calls
One and all,
“You are safe from danger.
Children, from the sins that grieve you
You are freed;
All you need
I will surely give you.”

6 Come, then, banish all your sadness!
One and all,
Great and small,
Come with songs of gladness.
We shall live with Him forever
There on high
In that joy
Which will vanish never.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

There is still room. . .

For a long time I have been telling people that new hymns are always being written (not just contemporary Christian songs) and that many of these will become the classics of some future day. I cannot help but melt my heart before the creche every time I sing Jaroslav Vajda's wonderful words and Carl Schalk's magnificent melody: Where Shepherds Lately Knelt. We sang it Christmas Day as the recessional hymn and I cannot think of a more wonderful statement to carry home with you from the worship on our Lord's Nativity.

Where Shepherds Lately Knelt

1 Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me,
But there is room and welcome there for me.

2 In that unlikely place I find Him as they said:
Sweet newborn babe, how frail! And in a manger bed:
A still, small voice to cry one day for me,
A still, small voice to cry one day for me.

3 How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
His prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.

4 Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
Its way into my heart—unasked, unforced, unearned,
To die, to live, and not alone for me,
To die, to live, and not alone for me?

As Norman Nagel once wrote so eloquently, "We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before, and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day -- the living heritage and something new." Now with Jerry gone to be with the Lord, I am ever more mindful of those who have added the best of this day to that rich and wondrous tradition received from those who have gone before.

If you do not know this wonderful hymn (and anthem), listen here. Tell me its words and music have not imparted to you the wondrous hope that is this season!

So we sing the old, learn the new, and pass on to those to come the best to guide them as they add to this rich deposit their own contribution... all for the glory of the Lord and the service to his Gospel...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Do not be afraid!

Sermon preached for Christmas Eve, the Eve of the Nativity of our Lord, December 24, 2009.

When I was a little boy I would tuck the covers of my bed in beside me to prevent any of my limbs from extending outside the bed. After all, everyone knew there were monsters under the bed. To extend an arm or leg was to dangle bait in front of the unknowns that hid in the darkness. That was my fear as a child. I have come a long way since then. Every now and then I purposefully extend a limb out – it is not because I am brave; I think it is like a test to see if the things I feared are still there.

Kids have fears. Some of them are fanciful like the presumed monster under the bed. Some of them are honest fears like passing a test or making the team. Some of them are dark and very real – like the divorce of your parents or the death of a grandparent. My childhood fears were a whole lot less menacing than the things kids fear today. Drugs, offenders and abusers of the worst kind and violence are among the top fears of kids today. Much worse than the things I was afraid; kids have more to deal with than I did growing up so long ago.

Adults have fears too. A few of our fears are little things but many of them a giant and real. We fear losing our jobs and being unable to support our families. We fear distance that turns husbands and wives into strangers. We fear not giving our children what they really need. We fear paying the bills after Christmas has come and gone. We fear sending our kids to war in far off places. We fear rogue nations that have nuclear powers. We fear terrorists who look and sound like the people next door.

We all have fears – those of us nearer life's beginning... and those of us near life’s end. We have legitimate and real fears that won’t go away just because somebody lifts up the blanket and says there is nothing there or pats us on the back and says everything is going to be okay. We all have fears, real fears. This is why Christmas is so important. We come tonight to remember the God who promised to deal with our fears, the prophetic Word that sustained the people of old in their fears, and the One whose birth fulfilled that promise. Fear not... Do not be afraid. Here are equal opportunity words for today – for the old and young, the rich and poor, for wild imaginations and calm self-control. Do not be afraid! I am with you!

The Christmas story begins with the call “Do not be afraid.” Zechariah was afraid that he would die without a son and angel brought him the good news that Elizabeth was pregnant with a son. Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your son shall prepare the way of the Lord, the voice in the wilderness. Don’t forget Mary the Virgin, to whom an angel’s appearance was the cause not of joy but of great fear and trembling. “Do not be afraid,” said the angel to this young woman. But her favor with the Lord meant being a pregnant Virgin engaged to man who would not understand that the child in her womb belonged to the Lord. Fear no, Mary!

And then there was Joseph who found out the Virgin he was engaged to and had not touched was pregnant. “Do not fear taking Mary as your wife,” the angel said. But Joseph had much to fear in his reputation, his stature in the community, and a world that loved scandal. Then when she delivered her first born Son and laid Him in a manger, the news that went out to the shepherds from the mouths of angels was, again, “Do not be afraid.” Accustomed to predators and thieves, the shepherds were not prepared for a sky full of angels singing to them. “Fear not, indeed.”

And so we come tonight with all of our fears and to us the angel still says, “Do not be afraid!” But how can you NOT be afraid. There is everything to fear. Our world is like a house of cards and we are always one breath away from total destruction. What difference can an angel’s greeting mean to us with all our problems, worries, and fears?? God gives to us exactly what we need . Not with words only does He speak. “Do not be afraid.” No, He comes with nothing less than His presence, His power, and His peace to answer our fears. “I am with you, I forgive you, I will save you, nothing will come between you and me.” says the Lord. Words that deliver on their promise because of the Baby laid in a manger by a Virgin Mother so long ago.

Do not be afraid. Your sins are not greater than God’s forgiveness. Your troubles are not greater than God’s mercy. Your sorrows are not greater than His joy. Your struggles are not bigger than His power. Do not be afraid is exactly what we need to hear tonight. This is not some naive “all is well” but God who comes to live in our world of fear so that we might have peace, who is born to die so we might live, whose is present among us in Word & Sacrament.

On most Sunday mornings you hear me pray, just before we commune, “Deliver us O Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In Your mercy keep us from all sin and protect us from all fear as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord.” That is what He gives to us – hope to answer all our fears. We pray “protect us from all our fears... and in all our fears.” Who was born of Mary and laid in the manger – He is the answer to all our fears. He is the peace that passes understanding, the source of our endless joy.

The Lord does not lie to us and say “You have nothing to fear.” We know better than that. As a child afraid of what was under my bed, it did nothing to calm my fears when my mom or dad told me there was nothing there. What comforted me was the fact that my mom and dad were with me. I was not alone. That is what God says to us through the gift of His Son. Your fears may be real but My power is even more real. You may have many fears, but I am here and my power is greater than all your enemies. Jesus was born to answer the fears of young and old, great and small. Jesus was born to address our fear of living and our fear of dying... our fear of getting what we want and of giving away what we might need... our fear of the things we cannot control and the things we can control. He answers them all.

He comes in flesh and blood to keep the promise of God that we will never be alone... that sin and death do not get the last word in our lives... that we are not on our own to face our enemies... that we don’t have to figure out how to redeem our lives from fear’s power, Christ has don it. Christmas is the birth of hope to a people captive to our fears. Christmas is the gift of God’s presence so that we are not alone – not ever. Christmas is the Lord addressing with mercy when we expected condemnation or rejection. Christmas is God breaking up the monopoly of fear in our lives with the gift of His own Son, wearing our human flesh and blood to live with us in our world of fear and to overcome everyone of those fears even at the cost of His own life on the cross. The fears we cannot face, He faces for us. In Christ we stare into the face of our fears with the power of the cross and empty tomb. Fear has met its master in Jesus Christ, born of Mary and laid in a manger. God is here. Emmanuel. The God who is with us.

This little Babe has come to take on the power of fear, the burden of guilt, the darkness of death, the bondage of sin, and the brokenness of our lost lives. He grew up to face all our enemies and He put Himself between us and our enemies on the cross. When we peer into the manger tonight, we see the face of Him who is bigger than our enemies and powerful enough to answer all our fears. So I bid you come. Come to the manger and lay down all our fears, big and small, foolish and real... lay down all that troubles you... lay down all your weakness and all your sin... lay down your despair and pain... Here in the manger is the Lord of life and death who has come to answer your fears. Leave them here and take faith home with you. Leave behind the guilt that torments your soul and the fear of living and dying that keeps you from living the abundant life of Jesus' promise. Leave them here and walk out that door trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, restored to His joy and peace through this Word and this Sacrament that keep His promise and keep Him near, full of grace and mercy, hope and truth. Walk away from all your fears, from sin, from the threat of your enemies... all through the power of His forgiveness, life, and salvation... Live in the knowledge that You belong to Him and that nothing is greater than His good and gracious saving will extended to you in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Do not be afraid. He is with you always. Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2009

What Is Here and Gone... What Is Here to Stay!

I love Christmas -- don't get me wrong when I complain about the commercial character of what the holiday has become, I love Christmas! I love the family gathered together. I love the gifts (thoughtful and surprising, homemade and carefully purchased). I love sitting down to baked ham, Amy's famous hash brown casserole, green beans, homemade rolls... and don't forget her pumpkin pie and, new this year, a strawberry cheesecake. I love the smell of the house with its cookies fresh from the oven, homemade carmelcorn with mixed nuts, and the white chocolate chex mix. I love delivering goodies to neighbors and friends and having the door bell ring and people dropping off goodies at our house, too.

But these are things of a season and when the season is over, these things also come to an end. That is not a bad thing -- it is the simple recognition of what they are and what they are not. If they continued throughout the year, they would become ordinary and routine and we would seldom notice them anymore. Some of us might wish they would continue -- I am not sure where I stand on this. (My waistline definitely is urging me to say that these should remain occasional and only for a season.)

The Christmass does not leave us when the trees are packed away, the Christmas crowds are a memory, and the music shifts to other seasons. The Christmass does not leave us like the creche, the Advent wreath, the poinsettias, and such. It remains. Christmass heralds the beginning -- the flesh and blood Savior who is born of us, born among us, to live as one of us, in this world with all of its limitations, to live under the law with all of its demands. Christmass heralds the beginning but what it heralds is not withdrawn when the calendar moves on. The Christ whose Nativity Mass is this holy day and festival season remains with us always.

His grace has been born among us to stay with us. His first Advent makes possible His advent in water, Word, bread and wine. Through these means of grace the promise of that birth is kept day in and day out, week after week, until God alone seals its transition to eternity. The promise of Emmanuel is kept in the Manger so that it may be kept in Word and Sacrament -- and this promise will not be withdrawn until He stands upon the earth again with angels in His train to bring to completion all that His birth began.

So the Christmas that I love and that may have only a marginal connection to the Christ Mass of His Nativity -- this may come and go. But the Christ Mass of His Nativity heralds the beginning of what He will never withdraw -- grace big enough to forgive our every sin, mercy wide enough to embrace every sinner, hope strong enought to raise every despairing heart, comfort rich enough to sustain the lonely, the suffering, and the grieving, and peace that may pass understanding but does not pass us by... not until He signal the end of the glimpse and the beginning of the face to face mystery of eternity for us and all who receive Him.

What is here and will soon be gone... this season of celebration, decoration, and feasting --- it can come and go... but the "Lo, I am with you always" is just that -- always with us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

To all who received Him, He gave the right to become the children of God.

Sermon Preached on the Nativity of our Lord, Christmas Day, December 25, 2009

We live in a time when rights are demanded. We are very protective of the things we believe are owed to us. Freedom of speech, worship, religion, press, property, and so on... these rights which we insist be given to us and never denied. Who among us cannot name our Miranda rights? Sometimes we forget that what we call rights were earned by those who paid for them in blood. Like the nation that forgets these rights and freedoms came at great cost and must be defended by every generation, we who call ourselves the children of God forget that this right had to be earned for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. It was not always our right – not until He was incarnate, until He suffered, and until He died that we might have the right to be called the children of God.

On this holy day of our Savior’s birth, we heard the Christmas story according to St. John. Unlike Luke’s attention to detail, John gives us the meaning of it all in eloquent words and grand images. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth... He came to His own and His own knew Him not but to all who receive Him, who believe in His name, He gave the right to become the children of God. That is what the manger is about – our Lord who did not belong to our sinful and fallen creation came in our flesh and blood that we who did not belong to His glory might be declared His own. It is an amazing right that Jesus has bestowed upon us.

With the right to be called the Children of God comes the gift of belonging. St. Peter reminds us that once we were strangers, no people at all, but now we are God’s people. St. Paul reminds us that once we were enemies of God but now He has extended to us the hand of friendship and family.

God's own child I gladly say it, says the hymn. I am God’s own child by baptism and faith – words that none of us could say unless the Word through whom all creation came to be, came to be our Savior, incarnate in human flesh of the Virgin Mary. I am God’s child is the right that only the legitimate and obedient Son of God could earn and then bestow upon those who had no right to be called the children of God. If we are children of God, then we are also members of His own family, the Church.

The Church is not some volunteer organization to whom we belong because we share common beliefs. The Church is the family of God. Entrance into the family is God’s alone to give and this is what we come to acknowledge today. We have been given the right to belong to the Lord, to be part of the family which is His Church. With that belonging comes rights and privileges, and chief among them is a place at the table of the Lord.

When I was a kid, family gatherings had their hierarchy and only the most senior members of the family sat at the dining room table; the rest of us on TV trays or the floor because the kitchen table, too was reserved. In order for someone to move up to the table, someone had to die. By the time I got my place at the table, the people I wanted to sit with were all gone. Here we are invited to the Table of the Lord, given a place at that table only because Jesus had to die. Through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, even those who have gone before us with the sign of faith are at this Table, for only one half of the circle is visible here on earth, the rest is with God in heaven, where we will be soon.

With the right to become the children of God, comes the gift of a future. Once we had only a past, but now as children of God we have a future. You know what it means when we talk about people having a past. It is a nice way of saying bad things about people. Well, we are those people. We came to God with only a past of sin and guilt and death. But now that we have been adopted into God's family, now that we belong to Him, we have a future. We are given the life that death cannot overcome. We are given a glimpse of the future that awaits us in Jesus Christ, a tomorrow no longer defined by fear.

We are heirs of Christ and therefore all the good that God has, becomes our own possession, as Scripture says, held in trust for us now but ours for sure, nonetheless. You know you belong when the estate calls you in to the reading of the will. Well, we are those heirs to whom Christ has bequeathed all that He accomplished for our salvation. We are heirs of all that Christ won by His obedient death and life-giving resurrection. Earth is no longer simply sin and death but now it is also the arena of God’s forgiveness and gracious gift of life. Heaven is no distant reality but the balance of that which we already know as foretaste today.

There is one right you cannot afford to forget or take casually – that is the right to be called a child of God, a son or daughter to the Most High. This is the gift to us that comes from the manger, from the Word made flesh. From His fullness we have received grace upon grace, to any and all who will receive Him, who believe in His name, He has given the right to become the children of God – born not of flesh and blood nor the desire of man but the love and desire of God... We the prodigals who had no right are given the right to belong, to be at His table, to be released of our sinful past, to grasp hold of our eternal future, and to know the richness and the fullness of the grace that no longer calls us outcasts but the family of God. When Christ came down from heaven to wear our human flesh and blood and be part of our world of sin and death, He was making it possible for us to become citizens of heaven, members of His family the Church, for today, for all of time, and for eternity. We belong to Him. Amen.

The Nativity of Our Lord

The vigil of Christmas has its own proper solemnity at Prime in the announcement of Christ's birth. In some monasteries the cantor, vested in alb and violet cope, setps into the choir, accompanied by torches and thurible. He censes the Martyrology on the violet covered lectern, and after announcing the date, lifts his voice to sing. All stand with him, as at the Gospel, and at the phrase "in Bethlehem" they kneel, and at the words "the Birth of our Lord" all prostrate themselves for the first adoration of the Son of God become man.

In the year 5199 since the creation of the world
when God made heaven and earth;
In the year 2957 since the Flood;
In the year 2015 since Abraham's birth;
In the year 1510 since the exodus of the people of Israel
from Egypt under the staff of Moses;
In the year 1032 since David was anointed King;
In the 65th week of years according to Daniel's prophecy;
In the 194th Olympiad in the year 732
after the building of Rome;
In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian Augustus
when there was peace in the whole world;
In the 6th era of the world's history;
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father,
desired to sanctify the world by His gracious coming
and was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and now, after nine months,
He is born at Bethlehem,
of the tribe and line of Judah,
as Man, of the Virgin Mary.
The Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh!

Wonderful the dignity thou has bestowed, O God upon the human nature, when thy hand wrought creation to bring man into being -- yet more wonderful still the condition of humanity when, by thy grace, thou didst bring recreation to thy creation. Grant, we pray thee, that as Jesus Christ, they dear Son, stooped low to share our human nature, so we, by thy grace, might share in His divine nature. Through the same Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord, who livest and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, sharing thy life and kingly power, as one godhead supernal, from all eternity into all eternity. Amen

We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth

1 We praise You, Jesus, at Your birth;
Clothed in flesh You came to earth.
The virgin bears a sinless boy
And all the angels sing for joy.

2 Now in the manger we may see
God’s Son from eternity,
The gift from God’s eternal throne
Here clothed in our poor flesh and bone.

3 The virgin Mary’s lullaby
Calms the infant Lord Most High.
Upon her lap content is He
Who keeps the earth and sky and sea.

4 The Light Eternal, breaking through,
Made the world to gleam anew;
His beams have pierced the core of night,
He makes us children of the light.

5 The very Son of God sublime
Entered into earthly time
To lead us from this world of cares
To heaven’s courts as blessed heirs.

6 In poverty He came to earth
Showing mercy by His birth;
He makes us rich in heav’nly ways
As we, like angels, sing His praise.

7 All this for us our God has done
Granting love through His own Son.
Therefore, all Christendom, rejoice
And sing His praise with endless voice.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

You are NOT too little...

Sermon for Advent IV, preached Sunday, December 20, 2009

Remember the 1999 Superbowl TV commercial where children shared their aspirations and dreams... ''When I grow up, I want to file all day. I want to claw my way up to middle management. Be replaced on a whim. I want to have a brown nose. I want to be forced into early retirement...'' The ad appealed to our desires of greatness within the reality of the humble existence most of us live. The truth is that we allow ourselves to be boxed by all sorts of limitations – some of them thrust upon us from others and others we placed upon ourselves. We live everyday with the fears that we will never be big enough for this or smart enough for that or rich enough for this or courageous enough for that... but today we heard the prophet say to a little village lost in a sea of greatness – you are not too little to belong to God.

This little village that meant nothing to anyone, meant everything to God. You, little Bethlehem, too small to be counted and forgotten by all... The Lord has great things in store for you. Think of the history there. Bethlehem was lost in comparison to mighty Ahaz the King. Ahaz was great but what kind of greatness? A King who refused to ask the Lord for the sign the Lord was poised to give, who sacrificed his own sons to pagan gods, who nailed the temple doors shut and closed off Israel to the grace of God. Think about it, I had to remind you about Ahaz but you already knew about Bethlehem. Such is the promise of greatness that comes from the Lord.

Israel the once proud and mighty nation that became evil, abusing the poor and corrupting the young... Israel who lied and cheated to win instead of trusting in the Lord. Israel’s greatness was but a faint memory of David and Solomon amid its losses and wounds. Yet the little burg of Bethlehem is remembered by a whole world. Such is the promise of greatness that comes from the Lord.

Those who strive to make themselves great may buy a few minutes of fame in the history of the world but they lie gone and forgotten in the great scheme of things. Yet those whom the Lord makes great are remembered forever, by people who are not even of the household of God, and in the annals of human history until time is no more. Such is the promise of greatness that comes from God.

Today we heard about Mary, an unknown Virgin who had nothing to offer God but her humility. Hardly a candidate for greatness – there were many who thought they would be remembered forever but Mary was not one of them. She was content to be a servant of God – however that worked out. And now all generations call her blessed and hail the greatness of the woman who became the Mother of God.

She had every right to fear. What would Joseph do when he found out? Her fears proved justified because when he did, he was ready to cast her aside – until the Lord intervened to preserve this family that would become home to His own Son. What would people think of her – unmarried and pregnant? She had every right to fear because the world was filled with the hypocritical moral outrage that delighted in picking someone, and making them an object lesson for right and wrong, with the help of a few well placed stones. But instead of being remembered for moral failure, Mary is remembered for virtue – the very model of faith, whose trust in the Lord was vindicated eternally.

She had every reason to be afraid – the Word from the Lord was simply unbelievable. Who would believe such a story and how could she believe it herself? It was inconceivable that God would take on flesh and blood but even more that He would choose an anonymous Virgin from the wrong home town. But Mary did not reject this out of the world promise of God.

She offered every reason why she was not a good candidate for God’s grace – she was a Virgin, a nobody, who had nothing to offer God. But in the end, she consented to His will, she yielded to His grace. And now the world knows the name of this young maiden whom God chose to be the Mother of our Lord. Such is the nature of God’s grace to make great what is humble.

We always have excuses why we are not the right person, why we have nothing to offer, why somebody else should do the bidding of our God. Sadly this is often a false humility. We say we cannot because we do not want to or we choose to believe we are too small for God because we lack confidence in His grace. The Lord insists that those whom He has set apart for His Kingdom lack nothing they need to accomplish His purpose in their lives. We are not too small for the Lord – if we trust in the power of His grace. We are not too small for the Lord – if we have confidence in how big is His grace...

Little Bethlehem was not too little for God to use this village and now everyone knows the name of this hamlet made great by the Lord. In the silence of one night, a baby’s cry kept the promise of God and made this little village the greatest city on earth, the birthplace of hope for sinners forgiven and for the dead to be raised to life eternal. Such is the nature of God’s grace to make great what is humble.

And Mary was not too little. She was a nobody with nothing to offer the Lord and yet His grace found a home in her, she trusted in the Lord, consented to His will and become the Mother of God and the model of faith for billions of Christians. Her shame became her glory by the power of God’s grace. Such is the nature of God’s grace to make great what is humble.

Now... what about YOU? You come here with nothing but sin and death hanging over you. You come here with fear in your heart, trying to believe. You come here with every excuse why the Lord should not be interested in you, why somebody else should be chosen to do His bidding... But God invites you to offer Him your shame so that He can transform you with His grace. Our Lord Jesus Christ invites you to bring to Him all your sin, that He may forgive it... all your fears that He may calm you with His presence.... all your failings and failures that He may clothe you with righteousness... all your illness, afflictions and death, that He may heal you with His grace to eternal life... all your death that He may give you life and this life in abundance... all your excuses and lack, that He may supply you all the resources you need to do His bidding in your life... We are not too small because God’s grace is greater than all our sin, all our lack, and all our need.. Such is the nature of God’s grace to make great what is humble.

So if you insist that your sin cannot be forgiven, that you are not good enough or strong enough to belong to the Lord or do His bidding... the Lord does not dispute your humility but asks you to trust in His grace. Do you trust Me?, He says. And then He points you to a forgotten village remembered forever as the birthplace of His Son... a nobody who become the Mother of our Lord... the God who notices the humble but ignores the proud... who does not look for greatness in us but promises to make great those who bring to Him their sin, their failure, and their death... turning us from nobodies into His eternal somebodies... So bring your shame, bring your fears, and bring your excuses and lay them before the Lord... and see what His grace can do. For the God whom Jesus Christ reveals is the God whose grace makes great what is humble. Amen

The Need to Smooth the Rough Edges

One of the great differences between the Church today and the early Christian Church is our modern day need to smooth over the rough edges of the faith, to systematize it, to make it reasonable and rational, and to explain everything away. I cannot say I am much impressed with this. It seems to me that God confronts us with the Mystery of the Word made flesh, the Mystery of salvation by grace, the Mystery of atonement by God in flesh dying for flesh, the Mystery of the resurrection -- giving us just enough to believe and little more.

We bombard God with questions and people bombard their Pastors with questions -- all in the hopes that everything has its place, that all can be neatly tucked in to some clear and rational outline whose answers are reasonable to us (in our modern day sensibilities) and cogent enough to be remembered and explained to others.

Is this how God deals with us? Or does God unfold and confront us with the bundle of contradictions and loose ends of who He is and what He has come to do -- within the limitations of human language and understanding? I tend to think of the later. Luther probably so as well. Luther was not much of a systematician -- an exegete and a dogmatic theologian but nothing so organized as we would want him to be or God to be.

In some of the great historic litanies (I think back to the Lift Up Your Hearts book Thomas Coates put together for the Concordia Senior College Chapel) we find these contradictions placed together and prayed in devotional form. At Christmas especially my mind is drawn back to some of those words and how they do not hide or explain but simply lay out all of these seeming contradictions in prayer form.

What we see in the Manger is not something easily explained, not easily compatible with human reason and logic, and not at all expected. It is the unexpected -- yes long predicted but who among us will not admit the prophet's words are clearer in hindsight than foresight?). It is this raw but dynamic edge that has somehow been lost.

The creeds are not the cause -- they merely encapsulate these rough edges into summary form for confession before the world, as the voice of faith in baptism, and as the voice of orthodoxy in the Eucharist. Maybe some of the systematicians are at fault (Aquinas among them). But mostly it is our desire, dare I say compulsion, to clean up God's language, to tidy up after His pen, to footnote and explain what He has left raw and bare... I was once taught in Seminary that when looking at the variant readings, it is a good bet that the most difficult reading is the earliest -- given the tendency of people to try and make sense of or coordinate text with text and give God a little help (such as the longer ending of Mark's Gospel).

Lets leave the loose ends as they are -- they do not diminish at all the credibility of the Gospel nor do they hinder the proclamation of that Gospel. In fact, I think that our compulsion to tie up God's loose ends and have an answer for everything hinders the Gospel and its work in us and through us.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Reason for the Season

This is that time of year when I find signs on lawns, bumper stickers, and even a banner/billboard or two reminding me, "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." I know the sentiment behind it but, well, do we really want to blame Jesus for what has become "Christmas?" I think it a shame that Jesus gets stuck with Santa, consumer excesses, binge eating and drinking, a focus on material things, etc. Jesus is hardly the reason for that part of the season.

Maybe it is our guilt for taking the season away from Jesus that makes us come up with trite little slogans to help us recall that underneath all the layers is the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. I would suggest that Jesus is not under all these layers but that another holy day stands side beside the holiday conscripted by the world. When mangers and menorahs, Christmas trees and stars, carols and cards are deemed to be marks of the holiday and not marks of the Holy Day, then Jesus is no longer the reason for this season. The Jesus season lives along side but distinct from the one all too familiar to us.

I would suggest that we would best be served by trying to keep them distinct and not merging them or seeing what is as layers added on to what began. They are as different as night and day. I am no Scrooge. I do not disdain the public displays of religious symbols stripped of their religious character. I do not cringe when the great carols of Christendom are played as blue light specials call us to purchase something. I don't advocate murdering Santa so that Jesus can have center stage. I suggest that we Christians distinguish the Christmass from the Christmas it has become.

The awesome mystery of the Word made flesh can hardly be threatened by a fat old beneficent man in a red suit. Come, now; is Jesus so weak as to be muscled out of His own holy day? What we had hoped Christmass to be has certainly been carjacked by those who saw a different purpose and goal for this holiday. But instead of fighting it, we might be better served by promoting the Holy Day that lives along side of but is distinct from what passes as the remembrance of Jesus' birth.

We do not need to bake Jesus a birthday cake or give Him a moment of silence before we tear into the packages so carefully wrapped and then layered under the tree. We do not need a false piety born of guilt over what we have made of His day. We don't need to blame Jesus as the reason for this season.

The Church needs to focus on the message -- in the beginning was the Word... and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us... full of grace and truth... and all who receive Him receive the right to become the children of the Most High God... Lets spend our time on the Holy Day that lives side beside the holiday -- distinguishing and separating the two without become the voices of bah humbug or the purveyors of a shallow religious truth that somehow ends up being a call to "why can't we all just get along (good will)?" Let us focus on the reasons for His coming, fear, sin, death, loneliness, hopelessness, broken hearts and broken lives... and then the people will know who Jesus is. He is the One who gives to us what Santa cannot and never, what this world cannot promise or provide, what our hearts and minds hope for and dream of... Life no longer defined by our failures or our failings... Life no longer lived under death's long, dark shadow... Life no longer marked by only our wounds and our fears...

So I, for one, say, let Santa and Wal-Mart have this season. Don't blame Jesus for it and don't try to dig through it to find Jesus. He won't be there. He will be where He has promised to be... in the Word that accomplishes its promise... in the water the cleanses, kills and gives new birth... in the fellowship of those whom He gives a place at His table... in the bread which is His body and the wine which is His blood... these places where His Name is and where He is just as He pledged... Lo, I am with you always... Let this belong to Jesus and we have nothing to fear from reindeer or jolly old fat men in red suits... No sireee.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Trends and Bad News...

According to polling data, there has been a steep decline in attendance at Mass among Roman Catholics of all ages. In 1955 75%, 3 of every 4 Roman Catholics of all ages, attended Mass weekly. Now, the steep decline among Roman Catholics and a slight up tick among Protestants has left us with about 45% of each in worship weekly. As recently as 2000, there were 10% MORE Roman Catholics in Mass than Protestants in worship (53% vs 43%).
You can see the decline in all age groups among Roman Catholics. It is dramatic.

So what do we make of this all? I am no guru of the Gallup but it is clear that this is a major problem among Roman Catholics. And judging from the statistics that Lutheran denominations report, we are in no better shape. We could spend out time excusing, explaining, and extrapolating reasons for all of this -- and the reasons for this are legion -- but I have one question. When did the Church settle for occasional attendance? Since when did occasional participation in the sacramental life of the Church become acceptable, tolerable, or "enough?"

Maybe it is high time we started saying (with a straight face) to people -- God's expectation is that all His people will be in His House on His day (the only exception being when too ill to attend, when forced by employment to work, or when attendance is a virtual impossibility (for whatever honest reason). Is that so hard? Hey people, I know you think it is optional, but it ain't. Church attendance is the ordinary expectation of all God's people, all the time. So, quit the whining, excuses, and justifications... and get you but into Church. Period.

It is demeaning when Pastors have to act as if they were parents to adults who should know enough for themselves... it is a waste of time better spent doing other things when Pastors, Boards of Elders, and others in the parish are forced to be the consciences of those irregular in attendance. Yes, I know people may treat you badly, no one really noticed or cared you have been gone for seven weeks, and when you did come back people made a joke out of how long you had been gone... I know... BUT we attend not for people but for the Lord, whose grace is His gift to those who heed His invitation, whose Word is worthy of our presence and our ears, and who has earned the right to expect us to be there where He is. Hey, get to church. You know you should. God does too!

Lets Call a Pastor and Hire a CEO...

When I was first placed from the Seminary into my first call, the Bishop told me that he had wrestled with this placement, at first placing me in one parish and then, finally, in the one which I ended up serving. As "Bishop," it was his role and place to know the parishes of his district and know the people being called to their first place. The first time my wife and I drove through town to find where we would be living, I was convinced he made a mistake. A big mistake. The first two years there I was depressed for what we left behind in a marvelous home parish (Redeemer, Ft. Wayne,) chapel life (CTS, Ft. Wayne), Pastor (Charles Evanson), and many friendships. Plus my new parish was a congregation divided over the charismatic movement, without confidence in or an identity rooted in the Lutheran Confessions and our liturgical life that flows out of those Confessions.

I was wrong.

We stayed there almost 13 years. The congregation flourished (not because of me but because of a window of opportunity which the Bishop saw and I only saw in retrospect). We moved from non-liturgical worship to the Divine Service, restoring first TLH to the pews, then introducing LW, weekly Eucharist, the chalice, chanting, and a wonderful musical program of choirs and instrumentalists. We went from no mission support to a credible amount for the work of the kingdom beyond our locale, to a food pantry that fed some 2,000 people annually, to clothing distribution, jobs placements, and a host of other services to poor in our county (of which there were many, and still are). We reviewed the catechism, the Augustana, we moved from "what do you think" Bible studies to "what does it say" and through it all grew and grew.

I had many interviews over those more than a dozen years. I also had a number of calls. I detested the interviews. I felt uncomfortable selling myself like a cheap commodity but that is clearly what the interview was designed to do. I found most of the questions impossible to answer (if you were Pastor here, what would do about...). I suspected there were conflicts or issues behind many of them (Are you comfortable with the Synod's position on women -- yea, I think they are good and we ought to have a lot of them... but I am not so sure about the men... ha ha).

When a congregation called me out of the blue, with nary an interview or contact with me prior to the call, I dismissed it because it was in Tennessee and I was in New York, and, well, nothing against Tennessee, but nobody moves from New York to Tennessee -- it just ain't done! A little over an hour north of the city, I could not even imagine myself in Tennessee. But just before sending a letter that said, "God said no, so sorry," I felt guilty for not even visiting. So I went. And it revealed the painful truth that this might be the right place and the right time.

No one in Tennessee was prepared for a liturgical Lutheran. We started all over again with introducing the hymnal back into usage, teaching for a weekly Eucharist, introducing chanting, reintroducing the chalice, etc... Now 17 years later the congregation has grown and expanded in countless ways. Though it still leaves me wondering how I got here, I know it was the right time and the right place.

I have had a few phone interviews since coming here and I hate them. What does a children's sermon have to do with who I am as a Pastor? What does whether people call me Larry, Pastor Larry, Rev. or just Pastor have to do with knowing me? Several attempts at moving to substantive issues were left with silence. After it was done, I felt like I had sold myself short in the interview but then I did not want to sell myself at all.

So this Lutheran Pastor is proposing we ditch them and the process whereby we seek out a Pastor like we would a CEO. I am proposing that Bishops know their parishes and the people on the call lists well enough to speak opening and forthrightly with the parishes. I am proposing that we go back to putting some trust in the Holy Spirit and the Church and less in our questionnaires and (phone) interviews. I am proposing that parishes wait before making a judgment and give a Pastor a chance before deciding they like or don't like him. I am proposing that Pastors not have calls for at least two years into a new parish and that they focus their heart, soul, body and mind on that parish, on loving its people, on seeking its best for them and from them, before making a judgment about that parish.

I know it will never happen... but I would love to see it!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Problem of Mary

The problem of Mary is made more difficult by the fact that Lutherans stand between Rome which has made too much of her (contrary to her own words) and Protestantism which has ignored her (contrary to Scripture). Lutherans have a rich Marian tradition but we seldom have the guts to face up to it. We give her grudging honor and place because, since we honor Scripture, we must... but our hearts are seldom in it... The issue becomes more pointed when you come to the Fourth Sunday in Advent and Mary is all over the place.

We call her Mary rather casually but our history is to address her as the Blessed Virgin Mary. We call her blessed because her own words prophetically point to this address as the intention of God in choosing her of low estate whose willing trust and consent to His will are both her humility and her glory. All generations shall call her blessed... not because of Scripture demands it but because to honor her in this way is to honor the God who chose her. To give her this glory is to give glory to Him who is her glory, the fruit of her womb, Jesus.

The Confessions call her semper virgo -- ever virgin -- and Luther even late in life refers to her immaculate conception. Modern day Lutherans eschew this as a medieval anachronism which we gladly ditch. If you think this, try reading Martin Luther's Commentary on the Magnificat and see if these are merely eccentricities of the past hanging on in our Confessions and in Luther. In addition the festivals of Mary were kept on the calendar (when many were not).

Hymns well describe her place, without the title but with the role as queen of heaven, "O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises, Alleluia. Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord... Alleluia!" She is the "Most Highly Favored Lady" of all Christendom and she is the leader of our praises, the first who pondered in her heart what it meant that the Son she would bear would be the Son of God in flesh and blood. Her trust and consent to the Lord's will is the model for all Christians to follow.

Her own contribution to the hymnody of the Church is the Magnificat. Surely there is no hymn so eloquent in its humility and so uplifting in its glory than these words of Mary!

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus! Can we at least learn to be comfortable in saying of her what Scripture says -- not with the duty of something required but with the heart of appreciation for her place and role as the Theotokos -- the Mother of God?

In preschool chapel we were going over the Christmas story with the large creche and I asked the 3s and 4s to tell me who the various figures were. When I got to Mary, one little girl said with great enthusiasm. "She is the Mother of God!" Ah, out of the mouths of babes! Would that we all could say with the same wonder and enthusiasm. "Mary, Blessed Virgin Mother of God!"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What to do for Christmas. . .

I have to admit that I am torn by the choices of what to do for Christmas Eve liturgy. Part of me wants to have a Service of Lessons and Carols (Kings College, for example). I love this wonderful invention and have used it at other times (though not Christmas Eve). It is a bit of work for the choir, though. I guess a part of me must be English because I listen to these on YouTube all the time (they are hardly broadcast in the US anymore).

Part of me wants a real high mass -- I mean if you cannot do a high mass with smells and bells on Christmas, when can you? But it is more work for me and less work for the choir and living in an area where a lot of my regulars leave to visit family elsewhere, I have a shortage of my best trained acolytes and servers. And though I have a group of folks who like (or at least put up with incense) I know there are others who would have a fit.

Part of me wants something easy on me -- the building is full of strangers who have a marginal connection with the Church and her liturgy and only the barest familiarity with the classic Christmas carols so this means preparing something that accommodates those whom I know will be present (as I said above, a lot of my regulars will be traveling). So this means a spoken order with carols interspersed wherever possible but still the mass form.

Part of me wants to cancel Christmas Eve because, well, I don't like it. I like Christmas morning (and I would have the Christmas Day Mass whether anyone but my family came or not!). Thankfully Christmas morning has grown and we now number about 100 or so (compared to the 500 or so on Christmas Eve). But here we can do a full Hauptgottesdienst without apology (and a small choir will sing there as well). Plus we will sing one of my favs of the newer carols -- Where Lately Knelt.

In my mind I have an image of a late (11 pm or midnight) service on Christmas Eve with the Divine Service sung and the great carols (with at least one newer to our repertoire so that we continue to learn and grow even during Christmas). Then, perhaps due to my Scandinavian heritage, I would like a Christmas Dawn Divine Service -- again with the richest of our ceremonial tradition. I would probably be alone at both of those... Folks in the South do not go for late night services and nowhere do folks relish the thought of being in Church at 6 am.

So we will use a spoken Divine Service with carols substituting for the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei at 6 pm and a continuous distribution (my folks call it the warehouse version) and a more typical version of the Divine Service with sung responses at 8 pm (this one candlelight). And if all goes well, I will be home at 10 or so (or perhaps stopping off at parishioners for some festive ale)... and then back at 10:45 am for Christmas Morning Divine Service... It is not what I would like but an acceptable compromise, I guess...

Strange thing though... after 17 years in this parish, the folks who will come to fill the spots vacated by traveling regulars are actually regulars in and of themselves -- C and E Christians... so I view this as a great opportunity to speak the Gospel to people who do not give themselves much chance to hear it... And you know what, some of them hear... and some of them come back before Easter... testament not to the preacher but to the Gospel preached... just a few thoughts on a Saturday morning as we head down the final stretch toward the Christmas schedule...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Who was there in Bethlehem?

In preparing a devotion for Senior High Youth, it struck me that the folks in Bethlehem who crowded the inns and scarfed up all the spare beds were not unthinking and uncaring strangers but the family of Joseph and Mary.

If the census required that all of the house and line of David be registered from their home town, the folks who kept Joseph and Mary from a room were not some mob of foreigners but, well, their aunts, uncles, cousins and their hoard.

It is often true that we treat strangers better than we treat our own family members and loved ones -- a fact often proven true at Christmas when houses are filled with people who come together not necessarily because they want to be there but because they are family and this is what families do. I have often noticed that strangers are more kindly in their willingness to give up something for someone in need than the people who know them, and supposedly care for them. Perhaps this puts a whole new light on the Bethlehem and no room in the inn thing.

Mary and Joseph were going home, all their relatives were there, too. So, just as Jesus was rejected by those around whom He grew up, we have here another rejection. This one at the hands of His very family members. It makes it even more pointed when John says, He came to His own and His own knew Him not...

It also makes it logical why it is easier to tell a stranger about the good news of Jesus than it is to speak the Gospel (or the Law if need be) to those closest to you. Those with whom we are most closely connected and to whom we should be most forthcoming in witness, are those who do not want to hear what we have to say and with whom we find it hardest to speak honestly, openly, and clearly of the hope that is in us and the faith we confess.

Perhaps it all started in Bethlehem, when folks looked at of their rooms to see who had showed up looking for a place, and somebody said, "Go back to sleep. It is so and so's son or so and so's daughter." And if they noticed a bulge that said "Baby coming!" they probably thought, "Well, they should have planned this out better and gotten here early like we did. It won't hurt them to suffer a bit. They will find a place...eventually"

And still it continues... Why Pastors have trouble serving parishes that include family members or in places where they grew up... Why people have trouble sharing the Gospel with those closest to them... Why we fawn all over the new faces on Sunday morning and say not a word to the familiar faces of people we know well but don't get along with so well... A line of rejection and hesitance that began with Joseph and Mary seeking a place in a village swelled up with relatives who were not willing to give up theirs for anyone... not even the Son of God...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Did You Go Out to See?

This question Jesus asked of the crowds that had gathered around John and then around Him: What did you go out to see? (Luke 7:24-26). It is a good one. Some were obviously drawn to the spectacle of it all -- a wild man appearing suddenly on the scene proclaiming the immanent kingdom of God. Some were there out of yearning for the promise of the prophets and hoped that he might be the One. Some were curious but hesitant, wanting to be in the right place at the right time but not so sure this was it.

Jesus Himself addresses some of it. A reed shaken in the wind... A messenger swayed by the press of public opinion or what was "in" at the moment -- no, that was not John. A man dressed in soft clothing? A prosperity prophet showing you how to get all you wanted out of life -- no, that was not John. A prophet? Now that was John -- the messenger of the Most High whose voice cried in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

Unless I am severely mistaken, these Advent words are well appropriate to the Church today. Instead of a clear voice speaking truth, many Christian voices have become echos of what people are saying, of what is the current buzz, of what is on the cutting edge, of what is "in" and relevant. These voices have indeed forsaken the very purpose for which Jesus founded His Church and have ceased to be messengers of the Lord who prepare His way. We are well reminded that the Church belongs to the Lord, that we stand as messengers of the Lord are to speak God's truth even when unpopular or unwelcome.

Instead of exposing the false hopes of a Utopian world, too many within the veil of Christianity have exchanged the tomorrow of God's heavenly gift for a beefed up version of today. Their words speak about the things we can do to make this world better (that is, how we can have more, feel better about it, and fulfill our desires for pleasure and happiness) but they do not speak much of the new world that Jesus has promised and in which Jesus is even now preparing our place. These voices think that if you make a difference today you have done all that God has bidden you to do. We are well reminded that love and compassion that we show today is in view of and because of the perfect future that awaits us in eternity -- we dare not confuse them or equate them or choose between them.

A prophet... now that is the role that so many within the Church delight in being, the role of the Church that many desire more than all others. But it seems that they have forgotten that the prophet in Scripture is not a predictor of the future or the creator of that future but the spokesman for God who speaks God's future and God's time. We speak of the Lord who had entered our world through His incarnation, who stays here full of grace and mercy through the Word and Sacraments (the means of His presence), all so that we are fully prepared to receive Him when He comes to end today and begin the eternal tomorrow that was always His plan and purpose. We are well reminded that if we are to be the prophetic voices of Christ in our own age and time, it is not because we can predict what will happen or glimpse tomorrow through some crystal ball, it is because we see God's future through the Word of Christ and proclaim this to people who do not know what God has prepared for those who love Him and who await His appearing. This means not doom and gloom but forgiveness to the contrite, healing to the wounded, purpose to the aimless, hope to the despairing, and life to the dying. This message is not just "no" (that this too must be spoken) but is mostly about God's "yes" to us and to our needs and lives crying out for answer and redemption.

Every now and then it would not be so bad if the people asked themselves the same question: What did I come here to see?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Creative... Within Parameters

When God created the heavens and the earth and all things, He had no raw material to work with. He created what He used to create even more. It is this creation ex nihilo (from nothing) which no one has done since God did it. Our creations are always ex materia (out of material).

It has always been the rub against us that we cannot do what God did. Perhaps that was part of the attraction of the forbidden fruit. Our desire to be like God includes the desire to be creators in our own right -- though our creations are always from something and never out of nothing.

Part of living within the realm of God's creation is learning to be at peace with the difference between what we make and what God made. It is a certain contentment to live as the creature -- something that escaped us because of our rebellion and sin -- that Jesus came to impart. He shows us this contentment by deferring to the Father throughout His ministry (I have come to do My Father's will... I speak not my own words but the words of Him who sent Me... etc.). Though there is no monarchy in God by nature (no hierarchy of state -- see the Athanasian Creed) -- there is a monarchy of deference. What cannot be imposed upon the Son, the Son chooses... and the Spirit as well.

We who wear the flesh and blood our Creator gave us might learn something from the choice of submission. It is especially true when it comes the area of creation.

Even within the Church there are those who ruminate to start from scratch (as if this could ever be done). They long for the earliest days of Christianity when the Church was finding her identity and things seemed rather fluid and spontaneous compared to the present moment. They disdain the history that has brought with it complexity, tradition, and shape. They want to make the Church new without any restraining forms or formulations from yesterday. And they want it to happen every generation -- a spontaneous rebirth that makes the Church relevant because it is only as old as the moment.

When it comes to worship many hanker for the same blank slate. Instead of all those things that are their heritage -- forms and hymns, calendar and vestment, art and color -- they want to create out of nothing what will happen on Sunday morning. What is seen as a start afresh is generally a rehash of what culture sees as current or "in" but that is a discussion for another place. Tired of what has been, they think that the vitality of the Church flows from being new each week -- new in the sense of who we are, how we define ourselves, and how we interact together in what we call worship.

Those among us (from many different denominations) who are opposed to this tabula rasa approach to faith and life, are not naturally content to live within the parameters of history, tradition, and theology. We have learned this contentment. It is not that we are completely passive but our creativity is deliberately within the boundaries of that which we have received, what was delivered to the saints, and passed down to us. This is no stale, musty scent of yesterday but the living tradition of the saints, who, when they ascend to glory, leave us their place among the congregation as testament to the gracious actions of God working within the forms He has chosen (words, water, bread and wine...).

This contentment is what the Church and those within her struggle to achieve -- a peace of sorts with who we are and where we come in to this ever growing book of God's energy and saving works -- we are another chapter in the longer story that only God will end when the moment is ripe and right.

Sometimes we as people joke that we were born in the wrong era... I like to think that sometimes. I imagine myself at ease in another age when the music popular at the time is like the ancient music of the masters I listen to all day long. But we were not born at the wrong time. Though we sometimes wrestle with our age, we were born at the right moment. It is not the time we were born into or born for that needs to change but our contentment within this frame of the passing frames of God's timing and purpose.

It goes back to creation... to learning to be creative within the parameters of the material God has supplied us... All in all, I believe I am well supplied. I have great works of theology, great liturgical theologians, great musical treasures, a rich and diverse treasure of piety... there is much for me to use in my creative task... not like God to be sure, but creative within the parameters given to us and the material God Himself as supplied... It is a great theological and liturgical perspective...