Monday, November 30, 2009

Blessed is He who comes...

Sermon for Advent 1, preaching on Sunday, November 29, 2009.

Did you think perhaps you had overslept a couple of a months -- skipping Christmas and heading right to Palm Sunday? The use of the Palm Sunday entrance as the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent may seem odd but it fits perfectly.

The Gospel for today was special for the early Christian believers who lived in Jerusalem. Like the homecoming of a hero, they remembered the day that Jesus was welcomed into the capital city with palms and hosannas. For the first 100 years of Christian history, there were actually people who could say, “I was there when Jesus entered Jerusalem. I cried out with my voice added to the crowd shouting ‘Hosanna!’” Now when you hear that, it might seem that you are too far removed from Jesus’ coming to have any personal connection like the people of old did. That is what you might think, but you would be wrong.

What might have been said so long ago, is truly our own claim today. We too can say we were there for Jesus’ coming. We spoke hosanna with our own voices to welcome the King who comes in the name of the Lord. We are God’s people who meet the Lord who comes to us in His Word and at His Table every week. Every week we sing in the Sanctus: “Hosanna in the highest... Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” But unlike the people of old, our claim is not merely to have been there for an event, we have received from Him the fullness of His grace and gifts. We are not merely those who cry out to Him, we are those who receive from Him the fruits of His life, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection. And we are those who look through this Word and Table to glimpse the heavenly future He has prepared for us. The Lord who came, who comes, and who is coming again is what we proclaim with hosannas today.

Later in this service when we sing “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,” think of those who first spoke those words long ago, how you are like them, and how we celebrate His coming then, now, and on the last day. For the very same Lord who entered Jerusalem that day is here with us today in Word and Sacrament -- not some spiritual Jesus confined to our feelings but the flesh and blood Savior who comes to us still in the mystery of His Holy Meal.

“Blessed is He who came,” is what we sing in acknowledgment of Jesus’ incarnation by the Holy Spirit to the Virgin Mary, of His holy life keeping for us all the commandments, of His suffering for us the full weight of our sins, of His dying in our place the death that overcame sin, and of His rising to life that death has no more power to overcome. Blessed is He who came is the song of those who remember how Jesus became flesh and blood, lived and die for us, and rose to open to us the door to everlasting life.

We praise Him for the mercy that His coming in flesh made possible both to us and for us. We praise Him for answering the call of our need and accepting the burden for what our sins have done. We praise Him for giving to us all that He won – a free gift for us that cost Him His life on the cross.

“Blessed is He who comes...” we sing every Sunday. For our Lord did not only come once long ago. He comes to us still through His Word and Sacraments, the means of grace. We believe that the same Jesus who entered Jerusalem on the back of that donkey now comes to us on the back of bread and wine in the Eucharist, on the back of water in baptism, and on the back of a voice in the Absolution that forgives our sins and proclaims the Gospel.

I have often wondered how it is that we who know this can absent ourselves from the Lord's House? We come to Church not to meet friends or hear a preacher or listen to a choir or sing a favorite hymn. We come because Christ is here where He promised (in Word and Sacrament). We come here to meet the living Lord Jesus Christ and receive the gifts only He can give.

We praise Him who is still among us as He promised “Lo, I am with you always” and who still passes out to us the fruits of His victory over sin and the grave. How does Jesus keep His promise to be with us always except through His Word and Sacraments? We praise Him who is not distant from our lives or confined to hopes and feelings but near to us in our time of need and always. He is our Emmanuel, the God who is with us, who is accessible to us, and who is present among us in water, in word, in bread, and in wine. Our Lord once came among us to suffer and die and still comes to deliver the grace He won.

“Blessed is He come will come again,” we sing. We believe that Jesus will return to claim those who are His own, to open the graves of the blessed dead, to bring to an end this veil of tears, and to bring us and all the saints to be with Him in eternity. Jesus promised this return over and over again. He would go on ahead to prepare the way for us, that we may be with Him, where He is. When we sing this benedictus we are looking forward, anticipating, and grasping for that day when we exchange mortality for immortality, sorrows for joy, and death for life eternal. Our Good Shepherd will return to claim His sheep and to feed and water them in the green pasture and still quiet waters of our heavenly home.

We praise Him who comes again – a day hidden in the heart of God but for mercy’s sake and not for fear or judgment. We praise Him for that day when the work is finally done and salvation’s miracle is finally complete. Until then, we live in His presence and grace in Word and Sacrament.

Until then we admit all the limitations of our sin filled world and are sinful flesh. No, we are not the people we should be, not the people He has freed us to be. This mortal journey is too filled with tears and sadness at every turn. The good we would, we do not and the evil we should not, we do. What is wrong with us, we cannot repair, but He who comes in the Name of the Lord has the power to save and redeem us. Only in the arms of our blessed Redeemer do we find hope. Until we are with Him in heaven, His coming to Bethlehem is the ground of our hope and His coming to us in Word and Sacrament delivers to us His grace of forgiveness, life and salvation.

Our joy lies in Christ. In the Christ who came among us in great power, whose life, death and resurrection purchased hope and grace for all. Our joy lies in Christ. Who still comes among us through His Word, His Water, and His Table. Our joy lies in Christ. Who is coming again to finish His new creation. And in that joy in Christ, we joyful sound out what the disciples of old proclaimed so long ago: Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!

We were there with Him in our baptism. We are still with Him through our communion in the bread which is His body and the wine which is His blood. We are still with Him in the Word that has the power to keep all its promises and do what it says. And we shall be with Him in eternity. We are already numbered among the saints, whose names are written in the book of life.

This is how Advent begins. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord... So we begin this first Sunday in Advent another journey... to the Manger to remember His first coming.... to Galilee and Israel and Jerusalem where He fulfilled the prophet’s Word... to the cross and suffering and death where He paid its awful price.... to the empty tomb and the resurrection where He pointed us to what waits for us, who live in Him... We sing every Sunday “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord...” and while singing we recall how He came, even as we celebrate His coming among us still at font, table, and pulpit... and we stand with hearts planted in heaven waiting for the completion of our journey of faith... for the eternal moment when we meet Him in His glory so that we might enter into that glory forevermore... Amen!

Trust in the Lord - Key to Thanksgiving

Sermon Preached for the Day of National Thanksgiving, 2009

So it has been quite a year, hasn’t it. The times they have tested us as a nation. The mighty have fallen. In 1953 General Motors CEO Charles "Engine Charlie" Wilson said “what’s good for GM is good for America...” In 1969 Chrysler marketed the SuperBee as a “Six pack to go” – today it comes with a side of your favorite Italian food courtesy of Fiat. And I could keep going and going. The mighty have fallen. The Psalmist tells us not to put our trust in flesh and blood or earthly rulers or kingdoms – we might add stock markets, once seemingly impervious American icons of industry and political fortune. No, we are bidden to put our trust in the Lord.

The world focuses always on the mighty, the movers and shakers, but bigness is a temptation that will surely leave us undone. Christians in America are tempted to beat our chests with pride and work to become the Wal-Mart giants of religion. The big and mighty fall but the Lord endures. As we approach Thanksgiving we are mindful of that temptation to give thanks for and to flaunt size and earthly power. But we are bidden by God to trust not in these but in Him, whose goodness fails us never. This is the message of faith for today.

The Psalmist says to us not to put your trust in earthly rulers or earthly kingdoms, not to place your confidence in flesh and blood and lives and dies, in the mighty who fall or in powers that wax and wane. The Psalmist bids us to put our trust in the Lord. And that is what the humble and faithful know best of all. Thanksgiving begins with knowing whom to trust.

Flesh and blood are not the all of our lives. We are but mortals but this mortality has been shown the majesty of life stronger than death, through the Lord who wore our humble flesh and blood to a cross and a tomb. We are but mortals and yet to this mortality God has visited with grace sufficient for each day, with mercies new every morning, and with the surprise of hope and redemption we neither deserve nor dare ask for. Flesh and blood come and go but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

As Christians we do not face the fall of the mighty or the weakness of mortal flesh with regret. We have something stronger in which to trust. It is not regret that speaks when we survey the landscape and find earthly powers wanting. We speak faith – joyful and grateful faith in the God who does not disappoint us, who has given to us His very Son, Jesus Christ. It is not with regret that we look around and admit our leaders and rulers have feet of clay and can not be trusted with our all. It is faith that speaks when we look to Him who can be trusted, the Good Shepherd who leads us by the still, quiet waters and rich green pastures of His grace that supply all our needs and never disappoint us.

As Christians it is not with regret that we admit we are not the powerful and the mighty. Earthly power and might is not our goal or purpose. God has chosen to work through the ordinary and humble. With faith we confess not ourselves but Him, the powerful and mighty Savior whose blood pays for every sin and whose life bestows victory today and eternally. When we look around at brokenness of our world, we do not regret its weakness but look beyond it to the God who supplies all our needs... trust in the Lord and you will not be disappointed.

Trust in the Lord who supplies the rich treasure of forgiveness to take away our every sin... who freely gives to us this gift that cost Him His all on the cross. Trust in the Lord who has chosen to hide in death the path to life everlasting... raising up a cross – the symbol of death to become the symbol of new life and hope through all that His death accomplished for us. God has hidden life eternal in the death of His Son and it is by being joined to His death that we are born again in baptism, as Olivia was tonight.

Trust in the Lord who seals to each of us the gift of eternity. He gives us nothing less than His pledge and promise – nothing can separate us from His love. If God be for us, who can be against us? If we can trust Him for our eternal life, then we can trust Him also for our mortal lives. If we can trust Him with our sins, then we can trust Him for the daily bread we need as well. So the cross speaks to us in unmistakable terms – God alone is trustworthy and true.

The mighty have fallen... the times have tested us... flesh and blood have shown their weakness... earthly wisdom and knowledge have failed us... our riches have declined in value through it all... but the one things that has not lost its value nor given up its strength is the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. From faith’s humble vantage point we learn, our God supplies our every need. Period. No qualification or fine print. No fear of bankruptcy or merger – God stands secure, certain, and stable... and those who stand in Him know the security that keeps us always safe, the confidence that keeps us always sure in change and chance, and the firm foundation that holds us up always when everything else lets us down. The mighty have fallen but those who stand in Christ are mighty secure despite what comes or does not. Trust in the Lord and you will not be disappointed. Our God supplies our every need – physical and spirit... today... tomorrow... and forever. For this we give thanks... not on one day only but forevermore... Amen

Just Another Manic Monday...

I do not know the hour or the week or the month or the year, but I know the day. Our Lord will return on a Monday. It seems that Mondays are always disasters or disaster clean up days. Perhaps it is because in comparison to Sunday, anything on Monday is a let down. Perhaps it is because we put off things over the weekend and so Monday ends up being the dump for all things unresolved, unkept, and unpleasant. But Monday it is... today, anyway.

I have never understood why a Pastor would want to take off Monday? Why would you want to postpone the inevitable of Monday's lost loose ends, moved meetings, common complaints, and poorly memorized messages. For example, today I am trying to recall, "Did so and so say they were going to court or was it something else?" "Did so and so say they were going into the hospital or had just been?" "Did I hear correctly that the toilet in the narthex restroom overflowed during second service?" "Who passed me a note after second service and what did I do with it?"

It is the bane of this Pastor -- Monday, that is. But like I said, what could compare with Sunday and not lose out on the comparison? On Sunday morning we are gathered in the presence of our Savior who speaks to us through His Word, who addresses our sins with His voice of absolution, who washes us clean in the water of His baptism, and who feeds us heaven's bread and cup in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. In comparison to this, any day would pale. It just happens to be Monday.

After singing the likes of "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" and "Savior of the Nations, Come" and "O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee?" and "O Bride of Christ, Rejoice," I can hardly abide the silence of Monday morning alone in my office. I want to be back in the place where hymns redound and voices sound.

After addressing some 240 communicants by name ("The Body of Christ for you, John...), I am left with the let down of a quiet building in which the meal is complete even as the worship of our lips and lives continues in other places. I want to be back at the altar bringing the Sacrament to the wanting hearts of my people.

After bidding prayers from a sung Advent Litany with bells (Come, Lord Jesus) to the intercessory prayers of a gathered people petitioning most for people not here among us, I can hardly get through the solitary prayers of my own hour of prayer. I want to be back kneeling with God's people praying for the whole people of God in Christ and for all people according to their needs.

But it is Monday and here I am... to follow up on messages passed... to schedule appointments and meetings for the week... to tend to things like bulletins and newsletters... to meet with the staff over a meal and prayer... to make phone calls, send emails, and a few visits too... and to bring it all to an end in time to be home with my wife for the last of the Thanksgiving turkey in one of my famous pressed sandwiches... Ah, such is the life of a Pastor... at least on Monday morning...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Maranatha.... Come, Lord Jesus...

Although Advent makes it clearer, it is amazing how many times we pray "Come, Lord Jesus" or in the language of the ancient Church -- Maranatha. A child learns to pray before eating, "Come, Lord Jesus." The hymns of old include something more than 130 instances when we bid the Lord "come" in song. Perhaps the clearest is the wonderful Advent hymn, "Savior of the Nations, Come." Every Sunday in the Eucharistic prayer of Divine Service (Settings 1 & 2) we add our voices to the prayer: "Come, Lord Jesus."

Yet for all our praying and singing of these words, I wonder if we really want Him to come. We live so much of our lives in isolation from the Lord, areas of our daily routines where, for all intents and purposes, we have cut the Lord off and chosen to live on our own strength and power. How can we bid Him come and still choose to leave Him out of part of who we are and what we do?

For all our singing and praying, I wonder if we really want Him to come. Some of us are pretty comfortable here. We have jobs that we like, families that we love, economic security and hopes and dreams of things we want to see or do or experience. Many of us want the Lord to come only after all our list of dreams and choices has been fulfilled. We don't want the Lord to rush it and deprive us of all those things we want.

For all our complaining and frustrations about the things in our lives, many of us are far more at ease with the misery we know than the heaven of His promise. Like the fit of an old shoe that no longer looks good but knows the ins and outs of our foot, we have grown accustomed to this life even with all its limitations. We even speak of death as being natural -- except for those that come too early in a person's life. Death should know its place... just as God. Neither should come lest bidden and even then give us a chance to think it over first.

But the heart and core of Advent is this prayer for the Lord to come. Period. Not after we have done all we want to do or after a long and happy life or after we have emptied out the 401k. Come, Lord Jesus.... Come quickly... Come, now. And just maybe that is Advent's main purpose -- to help us become comfortable with the prayer that so concisely sums up this season.

He comes to us in the voice of His Word to call us to faith, to speak to us the kingdom that endures forever, to absolve us of our sins... He comes to us in water to seal us to the death of Christ that we might be born anew to His life, to bear the mark of our identity as a child of God, and to give us the clothing of Christ's righteousness to wear... He comes to us in the bread and cup that is His Body and Blood to feed us heaven's food, to unite us to Him, He to us, and we to one another in the everlasting fellowship of the redeemed, and He gives us glimpse of the heavenly banquet that awaits those who trust in Him. He comes to us in these means of grace so that we are prepared for His coming, so that we welcome that coming, so that we are at peace with His coming, and so that we live in anticipation of that coming.

But in order for this all to happen, we must turn our focus from ourselves and this mortal life, to Him and the abundant life He comes to bring to us. We must learn to yield the day to His care, this life to His leading, and this mortality to His sufficient grace. Perhaps there will always be part of us in tension with that blessed phrase of prayer and song "Maranatha," but, hopefully, and more and more, we place the weight of our being into the words "Come, Lord Jesus," and less and less of it upon this world, our desires, and our selves.

One key phrase of this Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany season is the word of John the Baptist: "He must increase, I must decrease..." When we pray, "Come, Lord Jesus" we are in essence echoing the prayer of blessed John. The more we say it, the more we pray it, the more we sing it... the more at peace we are with what it says. "Come, Lord Jesus."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mystery and Clarity

Our Lord has given us just enough information about Him in order for us to worship Him. He has made clear to us information enough to save us. The rest is seen dimly, accepted and not fully understood, and worshipped -- even where understanding ends and acceptance of the Mystery begins. This is no more true than with respect to Christmas.

The Incarnation of our Lord is filled with mystery and such mystery often causes us to raise questions -- questions that are not answered by God because the answers are not necessary for us to know. It is enough for us to know the what without the how or even why.

Mary is chosen as the Virgin who will be the Mother of God. But why? Was it something within her that singled her out or, as she herself chooses to answer, only grace that regarded her of low estate and raised her up with the honor of being the Mother of our Lord? What about all those loose ends in the story -- Joseph and the engagement and what did that mean exactly and who was he and what about the census/registration and the journey and the inn without room that left a stable with a manger and the shepherds who came and the angels who sang? I mean anyone who looks at the words of the Gospels is filled with questions more than answers...

What does it mean that Jesus is God incarnate? How can God take on mortal flesh and blood and what kind of being is such a marriage of human and divine and was Jesus a genus child or an ordinary mortal with respect to learning and growing and why is there so little information about His growth and maturity? Again, more questions than answers.

But enough... enough to know that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic word... that He is who is claimed to be... that we are bidden to worship Him as did the shepherds and angels... that we can trust in Him for all things needful for this body and life and for the forgiveness, life, and salvation that ushers is heaven and its eternal reality...

It is enough... satis est... But hardly enough for the skeptics... yet more than enough for those who come to kneel at the manger... As we approach Advent again we are left with our questions and with the few words that God gives as answers... enough to worship the majesty, behold the mystery, and trust in the miracle... It is enough...

So often we try to turn Christianity into some highly systematic and reasonable faith that provides thoughtful and deliberate answers to all the questions we might have. Perhaps that is why I was never as fond of systematics as I was of historical theology or liturgical theology. It is enough to worship the mystery and trust in that mystery... for today and its urgencies and for eternity and its promise... It is enough... satis est...

We journey through Advent to the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord in the hopes that we will learn what God has given... is enough... to believe, to worship, to be saved...

Friday, November 27, 2009

An Awkward Position

So here I sit reading the paper on Black Friday -- not a day on the liturgical calendar but almost more in tune with the pulse of American people than any day on that calendar. I read of a man camped out at Best Buy from Wednesday 4 pm till this morning when the store opened at 5 am. I heard on the news of a woman trampled at the Toys R Us here in town.

The Church Year comes to its close almost with a whimper. The last Sunday after Pentecost (or Christ the King or whatever it is called) is a small bump on the highway of our lives. Advent begins, unfortunately, at the end of a week and on the week end more marked by turkey, shopping, and football than thoughts of another year of grace.

The older I get, the more I notice this awkwardness. It is as if the great transition from one Church Year to another lost in the busy-ness of days filled with overeating, overindulging, and overspending. I worry about this loss and about the way we have forgotten this significant step in the passing of God's timing.

The end of one Church Year is out of synch with our secular calendar and with our own seasonal pulse as the world around us shifts into high gear toward Christmas. The start of a new Church Year is too often lost in the push toward Christmas music, Christmas decorations, Christmas presents, and Christmas parties. Advent is not simply time of preparation but time of waiting. And waiting is the discipline of Christian faith and life. We wait upon the Lord, we wait upon His wisdom and purpose, and we wait upon His time and timing.

That is what the end of one Church Year and the start of a new one should be teaching us. We do not direct the pulse of history toward its destiny, God does. We wait upon the Lord -- not as the regretful who lament what we cannot know or control but as the faithful who trust in His providence because we have seen the revelation of His grace and favor in Christ our Lord. We wait upon the Lord -- not as the frustrated who bide their time because someone was late for an appointment but as those place our time in His hands and wait the fulfillment of that which the clock can never measure. We wait for the Lord -- not as the idle who grow weary with nothing to do but as those who have been given a mission and purpose to proclaim the Savior with words that speak of His suffering and death and resurrection and actions that extend the care of His love to those around us.

Those who direct the liturgical calendar have tried to prop up the end of the Church Year by called it various names from Christ the King Sunday to the Sunday of the Fulfillment. It is not the name we need to prop up but the sense of time that the Church Year bestows upon those who follow it. Its rhythm and pulse, understandably foreign to our consumer culture and secular world, is the different drummer that Christian people march to. What we need is not some artificial elevation of one day or another but a sense of who we are and where we are headed -- which is exactly what the Church Year gives to us.

As we are poised to begin another Year of Grace, we need to be careful lest the intrusion of the secular calendar and its celebrations steal away the spotlight from the liturgical calendar. We need to be careful about the endless string of emphases and theme Sundays that come from the head offices of all the Lutheran jurisdictions. We need to be careful about connecting one Sunday to the Sunday to come and to its Sunday past as links in the chain of a people who wait upon the Lord, who are busy during the wait with His purpose and mission, and who live each day trusting in Him whose promise is fulfilled in Christ, whose grace is sufficient for the day, and whose mercy is glimpsed even in sorrow and struggle, trial and tragedy. We wait upon the Lord...

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Nov. 29 - Advent I - Divine Service, Setting 1 -
8:15 & 10:45 am

Dec. 2 - Advent Midweek -
Soup & Bread at 6 pm;
Evening Prayer at 7 pm

Dec. 3 - Advent Midweek - Divine Service
(Setting 1 - spoken) - 11 am

Dec. 6 - Advent II - Divine Service, Setting 1 -
8:15 & 10:45 am

Dec. 6 - A Merry Little Christmas --
Jason Coleman, Piano - 4 pm

Dec. 9 - Advent Midweek -
Soup & Bread at 6 pm;
Evening Prayer at 7 pm

Dec. 10 - Advent Midweek - Divine Service
Setting 1 - spoken) - 11 am

Dec. 13 - Advent III - Divine Service, Setting 1 - 8:15 & 10:45 am

Dec. 13 - Children's Christmas Play - 5 pm

Dec. 16 - Advent Midweek -
Soup & Bread at 6 pm;
Evening Prayer at 7 pm

Dec. 17 - Advent Midweek - Divine Service
(Setting 1 - spoken) - 11 am

Dec. 20 - Advent IV - Divine Service, Setting 1 - 8:15 & 10:45 am


Dec. 24 - The Eve of the Nativity -
Carols & Divine Service - 6 pm
Candlelight Divine Service - 8 pm

Dec. 25 - The Nativity of Our Lord - Divine Service, Setting 1 - 10:45 am

Dec. 27 - St. John, Apostle and Evangelist - Divine Service, Setting 3 - 8:15 & 10:45 am

Dec. 31 - Eve of the Name of Jesus - Divine Service, Setting 1, (spoken) - 7 pm


Jan. 3 - Epiphany (Observed) - Divine Service, Setting 1 - 8:15 & 10:45 am

Jan. 10 - The Baptism of Our Lord - Divine Service, Setting 1 - 8:15 & 10:45 am

Jan. 10 - Choir and Orchestra - 4 pm - The Music of Praetorious
Choral Evensong for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

A Thanksgiving Day Warning

I caught a few words from Glen Beck yesterday declaring the parallel between Moses and the children of Israel and America the land of the free. It is not unusual for these over the top characterizations. Usually they come from the far right or evangelicals; in this case it was from a Mormon. Wherever it comes from, it does not enhance us as a nation or as Christians in this land. Just the opposite, it diminishes us to turn our love for America into a religious love for a nation we have deemed the promised land and divinely ordained people of God.

We who call ourselves Americans have much to be grateful for -- we have a heritage of liberty that was provided for us by those who gave their limbs and lives in forests, jungles, and fields... on beaches, city streets, and desert sands. We have a history of hard working people who cleared fields and built highways and established factories and business. We have a rich treasure of natural resources, wonders, and beauty. Of all people, we have much to be grateful for and it would not hurt us to ask from time to time, "why is it that I should enjoy so much and from whom comes all of these blessings?"

America may be a nation of Christians (the vast majority) but we are not a Christian nation. For that reason we must be careful about well intentioned but over extended religious metaphors. We who call ourselves Christians in this rich and blessed land would do well to remind each and every American that with much blessing comes much responsibility. Our blessings will speak shame to us if we use them foolishly or selfishly. Our treasures will become a great burden upon us if we define life and its richness only by financial or material wealth. Our legacy of liberty is made hollow when it excuses or justifies immorality. If we can serve as a conscience to America without beating our chests with self-serving righteousness and speak truth in love, then we will serve our nation well and be worthy of this blessed citizenship.

So whether in Church this morning or preparing for the big feast, we who call ourselves Christians in America must not forget that we do not give thanks merely for blessings but for Him who is the source of all that is good and true and beautiful. We know this God as the Creator of all and the Giver of every good gift because He has revealed Himself through His Son. We look at life and we look at all that this life values, through the lens of the cross and empty tomb. The Lord has done great things for us and to us... let us make Him known to all the ends of the earth with praise and thanksgiving.

A Blessed Thanksgiving to you all...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gospel Deficiency

Gospel deficiency is the major crisis of the evangelical church. The good news has been replaced by many things, most often a therapeutic, self-help approach to biblical application. The result is a Church that, ironically enough, preaches works, not grace, and a growing number of Christians who neither understand the gospel nor revel in its scandal. So says Jared C. Wilson on the First Things blog...

WOW... this evangelical has gotten it... The Protestant churches (and not just evangelicals) have for a long time moved from proclaiming the Gospel to using the pulpit to meet the felt needs of the hearers. The subject matter has moved from the forgiveness of sins and the One whose death and resurrection makes this forgiveness possible to making us feel better about our selves, our lives, and our world. The themes of the proclamation has moved from the great gulf between God and man to a man centered world in which we face impediments to our desire to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and successful. The focus of the of the church's life, ministry, and proclamation has moved from God to me -- without a seeming ripple of guilt or hesitance to define everything through the lens of my feelings, thoughts, and desires.

BUT not only the Protestants are afflicted with this deficiency; some Lutherans also are deficient of the essential Gospel proclamation that guarantees we receive what God intends for the redemption of our lost lives, for the rebirth of our lives by grace, for the renewal of our lives in faith, and for the restoration of our relationship to the God who invites us to call Him Father.

Now this might only be a matter for the pulpit if the Gospel were present in the Sacrament of the Altar every week and the liturgy retained its historic flow and pattern, words and song. When the Sacrament of the Altar is there, when the liturgy is there in its historic fullness, when the church's song sings out the Gospel, it is possible for the folks in the pews to walk away without much of a sermon and still to have been embraced with the grace of God that forgives, instills new life, strengthens in hope, and sustains the weary to everlasting life. BUT, when the liturgy is missing, the Sacrament of the Altar is not there, the hymns do not sing the Gospel in song, then the sermon is the only place left for God to meet the hearer with His grace and favor.

This is why for Lutherans it is not and cannot be merely a matter for the pulpit. It is an issue for the altar and what takes place there, for the liturgy (the Divine Service), and for the Church's hymnody and song. For this reason renewal is not a renewal from the pulpit but from both the pulpit and altar so that the people of God who meet every Lord's Day in His name will receive what God intends -- the richest of His treasure of grace through the divinely intended means of pulpit and table and the historic pattern of the Divine Service that enfolds these and the music of hymn and song that sing the Gospel so that we may hear it there as well.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who Is Offended

I was perusing some headlines when I came across a story about a church in America's heartland (Terre Haute, IN) that was under fire for a message on its sign board. The sign stated, “Jesus died and rose and lives for you. What did Allah do.” According to the story, people were mightily upset about the sign. They were offended by a church message that many people would deem “intolerant” and raised objections to what they considered to be an offense against Islam.

While I am not here to defend this or any particular sign, I find it very interesting that Islam needed to be defended by those who were not Islam, that it was offensive to those who did not believe in this religion that another religion might "challenge" this faith. Well, news to me. For about a half a century now, Christianity has been portrayed in the poorest of light in the news media, TV, and movies yet I do not recall any non-Christian running to defend the Christians against this offense. But I digress. I do not want to open the door to the slights against Christianity that no one has bothered to notice, much less defend.

The point in this all is how those who are offended take the offense. For Christians it has been largely a quiet long suffering of abuse from those who neither understand nor respect Christian faith and practice. From the ridicule over the the nearly unanimous stance of Christians pro-life to the quickness to parade in public the sins of Christian leaders, the Church has stood by in quiet strength against those who defamed us. We did not organize hit men or women. We did not rally a cry to holy war against our accusers. We did not threaten the lives of those who spoke disparagingly of our faith, of our churches, and of our piety.

To be sure there were crazies whose self-proclaimed Christian faith was used as justification for murder or mayhem but did any Christian churches rally to them or their cause? No, there was uniform condemnation for the man who murdered an abortion doctor in Wichita and for other extreme acts of violence. Never once did Christians offer support for or condone in any way the threat or action against those who disagree with us.

Islam has many qualities that may be attractive to Christians -- a strong discipline of prayer, a deep respect for and adherence to worship and practice of the faith, and a high regard for clerics as well as a general heeding of their words and counsel. Most Pastors (no matter what their church tradition) would be happy if their people prayed rigorously five times daily, worshiped with diligence and faithfulness, and heard and heeded their sermons and teaching.

Islam is an evangelistic faith -- like Christianity -- except that its evangelism is tinged with fear and with the embrace of this faith comes the call not to be passive or quiet against those who would defame Islam. Christianity attempts to win people through the proclamation of the Word of God and the actions of love and charity in Jesus' name. As much as we Christians believe that faith is essential for living out this life and for possessing the life which is to come, we do not convert under threat. Now someone is always sure to raise the issue of the Crusades and a few other dark moments in Christian history but Christians were not the only aggressors there and this violence has been roundly condemned as not only wrong headed but sinful.

Yet Islam is a faith that includes a violent side. Moderate Islamic people choose not to follow the clear dictum's of their Qur'an. The only fault we can make against those whom we consider to be extremists or fanatics is that they follow the words of their holy book to the letter. As one author put it:

"the Qur'an contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers. Some are quite graphic, with commands to chop off heads and fingers and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding. Muslims who do not join the fight are called 'hypocrites' and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join the slaughter.

These verses are mostly open-ended, meaning that the historical context is not embedded within the surrounding text (as are nearly all of the Old Testament verses of violence). They are part of the eternal, unchanging word of Allah, and just as relevant or subjective as anything else in the Qur'an.

Unfortunately, there are very few verses of tolerance and peace to abrogate or even balance out the many that call for nonbelievers to be fought and subdued until they either accept humiliation, convert to Islam, or are killed. This proclivity toward violence - and Muhammad's own martial legacy - has left a trail of blood and tears across world history."

Let me quote just a few: Qur'an (2:216) - "Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not."

Qur'an (3:151) - "Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority".

Qur'an (4:95) - "Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their persons. Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit (at home). Unto all (in Faith) Hath Allah promised good: But those who strive and fight Hath He distinguished above those who sit (at home) by a special reward,-"

Qur'an (9:29) - "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued." [People of the Book means Christians]

My point is this... Why is it that the culture is more concerned about offense given to one religion than that given to another? And why is it that a religion which advocates praying for your enemies is put on equal stature with one that advocates killing your enemies? I am no expert in Islam and do not advocate hate except hate for sin. I am not a huge fan of the five word sermons that appear on church sign boards (though I too am guilty of some of them). But in this case I find it hard to find where the signboard of this one particular church is so offensive... except that the truth always offends (Law) before it can amend (Gospel)...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Good People... Good Intentions... Peer Pressure

By the way... this window to the left is the means of grace window of Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, TN, and at 8 feet in diameter it shines over the altar to challenge us to believe in this Word and Sacrament every Sunday...

I continue to be impressed by the good people of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We may not show this goodness in visible ways but I have met hundreds of Pastors and thousands upon thousands of lay folks over my 30 years as a Pastor and there are few whom I would classify as bad eggs. Of course, I have disagreed with many, had arguments with many, and been angry at many but I believe their hearts are genuinely desirous of what is good for our Church. I have spent the weekend with some 700 people in our church body and this goodness has been reaffirmed over and over again.

That said, I wonder why it is that as Lutherans struggle so with confidence in our confessional identity and evangelical catholic practice. I think part of it is the culture of our ethnic heritage (as Garrison Keillor jokes about Lutheran timidity and penchant for downsizing). Some of it is that we attend conferences and meetings with those who do not shy from trumpeting their horns and we, who have been too well taught to keep silent and not to trust in our works, don't have anything to say in response. This subtle peer pressure means that we always tend to believe they are more effective than we are.

But there is more... and that is that our methods are not glamorous or self-serving -- our methods are Christ's methods -- the Word and the Sacraments. We do not control these, we do not update these to meet the times, we do not transform these to make them more successful... all we do is trust in them... that when we speak His Word, His Spirit works to accomplish the purpose for which He sends it... that when we apply water in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that water kills and gives life, destroys and gives new birth to one who wears Christ's righteousness, and bears the mark of belonging to the Lamb (not to mention his/her name is written in the Book of Life... that when we set apart bread and wine according to His Word, heaven's meal is glimpsed and tasted and the food we need most of all is given to us today "for the forgiveness of sins" and as the fellowship meal of those who belong to His Body, the Church. What is required of us is trust... trust in the means of grace... trust in Christ...

What we need to do as Lutherans is to trust in the means of grace -- not to look for better ideas or methods from those who do not share this confidence in the efficacy of the Word and Sacraments. What we need to do as Lutherans is to place these means of grace center stage in all we are and in all we do. Pastors need to lift up the Word and Sacraments over and over again until the people of God hear it and hold on to it as the life-giving hope and promise of God that will not abandon them or leave them as orphans in our world of terror, sin, and death. What we need to do as Lutheran congregations is to pour enough resources into the Sunday morning experience of the Word and Sacrament that good music serves this Word, good architecture and art draws our visual attention to this Word, good common sense directs how we make our way through the hymnal (especially for those new to us), good welcome is given to those who walk through our doors new to our churches, good preparation is given to making sure that the fullest resources of the liturgy and hymns are woven together into a seamless fabric of ordinary, pericope, sermon, and service, and good motivation is given to those in the pews to invite people, share the Gospel with people, love their neighbors, and care for the poor and needy in Christ's name...

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Pastors and parishes have a good heart in the Lord and for the Lord... but what we lack is confidence in the means of grace... the kind of confidence that will enable us to shift our dollars and time from the pursuit of methods and paradigms and programs of others into the pastoral and congregational ministry rooted in, shaped by, and directed back to the means of grace... We need to resist the temptation to look over into the neighbor's yard as our library of resources and we need to resist the peer pressure of those who hold similar positions in non-Lutheran churches. Can we learn from others, of course, BUT... what we learn must be filtered through the Lutheran lens of Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel, Confessional and catholic identity, faithful and evangelical practice that reflects this faith and trust in Christ and in His means of grace.... Well... enough pontificating for one morning...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Lutheran Angst and Self-Guilt

I just sat through another meeting in which we Lutherans paid a non-Lutheran (Northern Baptist, in this case) to showcase what they are doing right and we are doing wrong. He was powerful and persuasive, witty and humorous, passionate and confident. All the things, apparently, we are not. So we paid him to address a plenary gathering and then we paid him even more to address a small group (the people most likely to purchase his books). It is not that his words were completely worthless or that we should not listen to those outside our tradition. It was that much of what he said is directly opposed to who we are and what we say.

The purpose of the Church... according to him, our Lord established the Church to make disciples to change the world... according to Lutherans, He established the Church to proclaim the Gospel so that the Holy Spirit might work faith in the hearts of the hearers and that they might be brought from death to life and in particularly to life eternal, through the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that has accomplished the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of our lost lives.

The purpose of worship... according to him, worship is not the end but merely the means to an end; that worship is nothing more or less than a program or tool in the overall quest of making disciples.... according to Lutherans, worship is the high and holy cause and purpose for which we are saved (see the Athanasian Creed)... whoever would be saved must confess the catholic faith and the catholic faith is that we worship the Trinity in unity. . . and so on. . .

The work of God in the sacraments... according to him, his church kills people by drowning them in immersion and we Lutherans send them through a car wash... according to Lutherans, our Lord does kill and make alive in baptism, imparts to us the Holy Spirit and all the gifts won for us by the life-giving death and life-bestowing resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, connecting us to Jesus Christ in a sacramental way so that we can say with Paul that we have died with Christ and rose with Him to new and newness of life...

These are just three things I recall from his plenary address and I took no notes.... I could probably come up with more...

My point is... yes Lutherans have congregations that need "revitalizing" but the how to on this will not do from the perspective of those who do not believe in Word and Sacrament and the efficacious Word of the Gospel. We do not need to be instructed by those whose methods are antithetical to our very Confession of Faith. We need to revitalize congregations who have lost their sense of purpose or become inwardly focused but surely we are not so lacking of people and programs that we cannot use Lutheran means to this end -- building upon the strengths in our Confessions and our identity to accomplish this salutary task.

Why are we as Lutherans so darn filled with self-doubt, with angst and guilt, that we would abandon who we are in order to adopt methods that will surely lead us away from our Confessions and our Confessional identity? Do we have no talents or sage individuals to help us meet the needs of our church body without selling our souls to others?

I listened to our Synodical President raise the challenge before us of stewardship to finance the mission, passion to accomplish the mission, and program resources to equip us to do the mission but instead of our Confessions or our Lutheran teachers of old (or of today) or even Scripture, we hear of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bill Borden (nothing to fear but fear itself, and no restrictions, no retreats, no regrets). When I asked him a question following his Q & A session (which had time for only four questions), I asked about the growing practice of starting missions in the LCMS which eschew the name Lutheran and do minimal teaching about their Lutheran identity (something established Lutheran congregations are even doing). He responded about how he was old fashioned and he thought it was not a bad things to emphasize Lutheran identity but he surely understood that they were making this "sacrifice" in order to accomplish a greater good (soul winning). So I guess this is neither an endorsement or a condemnation but an admission that this practice will continue.

I truly believe that the folks who spoke were well intentioned, that they have a heart for the Church and the work of God's kingdom -- just as nearly everyone who sat in the room listening to them. But I also believe that we are truly misguided in our search for success when we leave behind our Lutheran identity, when we do not turn to our Confessions for guides in this pursuit, and when we fail to capitalize (or even mention) the Lutheran strengths of Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament, catholic and evangelical identity. I too want the Church to grow but I do not see how adopting the methods of or listening to people who do not understand or even ridicule our Confessional identity will help us do anything but become more and more like these people (also well intentioned and passionate) and less and less like the Lutherans we are -- unless, perhaps, that is what we want to do...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Going to Church Does Not Make You A Christian

Having heard it again, from a well meaning individual, it is time to look at this statement again. Going to Church does not make you a Christian. Okay, I get what is being said but not going to Church does not make you a Christian either. If neither going to Church nor not going to Church makes you a Christian, I would hold that at least going to Church has the potential to make you a Christian. For where two or three are gathered (a liturgical statement from our Lord referring to the two or three who are gathered around His Word and Sacraments), there is Christ among them and where Christ is, the Holy Spirit, and where the Holy Spirit, the means to breaking through the hardened shell of our human heart and prompting within us the faith that trusts in Jesus Christ. Simply going to Church does not make you a Christian but going to Church places you in the context of the means of grace (the life giving Word and life bestowing Sacraments) which are the means through which God works to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify His Church and those individually who are members of it.

I know that there are those wooden blocks who sit in the pews and whose hearts and minds are closed to the Holy Spirit and the means of grace through which the Spirit works. I do not know who they are but I know they are there. Not going to Church is not going to assist the Spirit in breaking through to them. In fact, I have known people who have told me they came to Church to satisfy a mom or dad or husband or wife or because it was the thing to do on Sunday morning and the Lord slowly and surely built within them faith until all of a sudden they realized that they believed. And it happened because they were in Church where the Word and Sacraments of the Lord were.

There are people who are legitimately prevented from being in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day or any other day and not being in the Lord's House does not keep them from reading His Word, from praying, and from the joyful acknowledgment of all that Lord has done for them through His Son Jesus Christ. I know soldiers in my parish whose deployments kept them from the gathering around the Word and Table of the Lord with their fellow believers. Of course God did not leave them alone nor abandon them, but they would affirm that this condition is not only NOT optimum for their life and strength of their faith, it was a struggle to maintain their faith and hope under conditions of loneliness, stress, and threat. They were thankful to return to a place where they could be together with the Lord and His people once again. In many cases it was a joy reflected in tears and peace that was overwhelming.

Lets be careful to say what we mean. Not being able to be in the meeting together of the Lord's people as He intends does not mean we are alone or apart from His gracious love and mercy, but being together in the Lord's House and not neglecting this opportunity and gift IS the intention of God for all Christians and every Christian.

Being in Church and not being in Church are not equal options. When by good reason we are prevented from being in Church, we can feed on Christ by faith in our heart... But every other occasion it is the intention of the Lord that we feed on Christ in His body and blood given to us in His Holy Supper and together hear the Word that has the power to keep its promises and do what it proclaims...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

We Believe vs I Believe

Originally the creed that left Nicea and Constantinople read we believe... At some point in its liturgical use, it changed from plural to singular (I believe). Luther had it both ways -- plural in the sung creed and singular when spoken. Apparently the Latin was singular prior to the Novus Ordo of Vatican II when it became, again, plural. Now a new English translation, more closely aligned with the Latin, is returning to the singular (at least by my occasional visits to Roman Catholic liturgical blogs. Before LSB had it singular (actually, the repetition of the creed from Lutheran Worship 1982, it explored a plural verb (We believe). Knowing that it was going to be a change, I went ahead and rehearsed the plural and the change from Christian to catholic so that we would not judge the new book simply by this proposed change. Some did not like it. Others found it not so different. Most went along with whatever.

I have come to appreciate the "We believe" of the creed more and more. Now I know all those out there who insist you cannot confess for others and how a creed is spoken as an individual's confession of faith. Certainly we keep the Apostles' Creed singular because of the way that creed functions in Baptism as the faith confessed of those to be baptized. But I want to explore a different attitude toward the creed entirely.

I like "We believe" because it reminds us that faith is not an individual matter. The creed (even Apostles') is never distinctly personal or individual. No one of us writes the creed confessed or owns its confession as an individual. The creed belongs to the Church. When we confess any creed we place ourselves into submission under the Church who created and passed down that creed as the faithful confession of what the Apostles taught and Scripture teaches. This is no "I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows" but the I believe of one who is being initiated into the Church through the waters of baptism and as part of that initiation expresses submission to the faith by taking the faithful and orthodox creed and owning it as his or her own.

The Protestants among us always define faith individually and I know whereof they come... but as much as each one of us believes for himself or herself, our faith is learned from the Church, our Mother, who imparts to her children the constitutive knowledge of the faith... the Trinitarian Confession. We believe for ourselves as individuals but we confess this faith as children of the Church, our Mother, who was established by Christ and who endures to the end without being overcome by the assaults and arrows of the enemy. Hell's gates cannot overcome her. She belongs to Christ. The Church is not some utilitarian arrangement for those who need help from others. Christ established His Church to be His holy Bride, equipped her with all the treasures that she may radiate His grace to the world, and He protects and defends her to eternal life.

Remember when Jesus speaks of how oft He had wanted to gather the children of Israel under His wing as a mother hen gathers her chicks? Well, just how does Jesus do this today? How does He gather us lost and wounded, marked by death? How does He do this? Through His Church! Where He has placed His Word and His Sacraments, where His ministers stand and speak in His place the life-giving Word of the Gospel, and where His people find their voice under the prompting of the Spirit to say and sing their AMEN to all that He has done. His Church mothers us with His grace with the treasures of His riches that He has entrusted to her care -- the sacred mysterion (word, water, bread, and wine).

When we stand together and speak together "We believe" is it a subtle yet real acknowledgement of our place within this blessed fellowship as children of God. When we pray, we pray "Our Father" even when we pray alone. When we confess, it is our own voice that speak but the words we speak are given to us to say -- the wonderful confession whose first forms predated much of the New Testament and whose words were renewed in Council to answer the heretic and silence the doubting. Whoever would be saved must confess... not what is formed in their feelings or the thoughts are given birth in their minds... no, whoever would be saved must confess the catholic faith and the catholic faith is this... We believe...

What I am saying is not an argument from history or practice but from the essence of the relationship we have to the Church in which the Holy Spirit works to continue to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify each of us and all of us together. Luther had this high sense of the Church == reflected in the conservative nature of his Reformation. Calvin, Zwingli, and the other radical reformers were much bolder when it came to dismantling the sense of Church or transforming it from that Mother who give us life to an organization of rules and laws and minimum requirements.

When the Lutheran Confessions speak of Church and Ministry, of unity and fellowship, of liturgy and preaching -- it is within this sense of the one, the holy, catholic, and the apostolic Church. This Church exists not for her own glory but to glorify her Lord, soon to be her husband in the marriage supper of the Lamb for all eternity. This Church has the authority of Him who has chosen her -- His Word and His Sacraments, the means of grace. This Church instructs us in the faith and calls us to rightful submission when we would speak of what the faith is -- exchanging the freedom to speak as we might to speak the words that were first others before they were ours... This we believe. . .

The Nerve of Some People

In days gone by when little children heard stories of the mission fields from the missionaries who told their story at Mission Festival (the hottest day of the summer, two services divided by a sumptuous meal or all day at church), we fancied up images of deepest darkest wherever, of half naked pagans only hours away from their last missionary as a meal, heads shrinking in the vat of magic fluid, and spears or little darts marked with terrible poison.... well, I digress...

My point is that at one point in time the civilized, Christian society saw the heathen in these far away continents as the ones who needed to hear what we needed to tell. Generations of missionaries and mission work went forth from America and Europe, too. Like children who are to be seen but not heard, we were not interested in what these people had to say, only that they would listen to us. And listen they did.

They listened and they told others around them what they heard, until the numbers of Christians exploded. The once familiar image of a Lutheran as tall, blond haired, blue eyed, and fair skinned is soon to be replaced by dark skin, dark eyes, and tastes that definitely do not run to sauerkraut and lutefisk. They listened and they believed the Word that was told to them. They took to heart the teaching and they ordered their churches with churchly offices like Bishop. They manifested the heart of Jesus in care for those no one cared for and set up orphanages and schools and hospitals. They learned how to think with the Christian mind and approached issues and problems as we had taught them through the light of God's Word.

Now they speak back to us what we taught them -- but most of us do not want to listen. To a secular Europe from whom missionaries once came, they speak of re-evangelizing Europe and call for faith to be born again among the very people who helped give it birth in Africa and Asia. To a liberal and doubting European Christianity, they speak of revitalizing church attendance, of Bible study, of reintegrating Scripture into their world view now dominated by raw scientific truth and humanistic expression. To a culture inebriated with sensuality and in search of license for their excess, they speak of morality and of self-control, of responsibility and accountability.

Now they speak back to us what we taught them -- but most of us do not want to listen. To an America still in love with consumerism, they call for equity and justice, for raising up the cause of the poor and needy before self, of loving neighbor enough to give up privilege. To an America so enamored with the individual, with individual freedoms and choice, they speak community and order, of relationship and responsibility. To an America where truth is personal and personally defined, they speak objective truth in the Word that is yesterday, today, and forever the same. To an America in which sexuality dominates nearly everything, they speak of modesty and decency, of morality that does not change, of chastity outside of marriage and of marriage that is man and woman.

Now they speak back to us what we taught them -- but most of us do not want to listen. When the come to visit us they bring mitres and copes and staffs and we stand there in our polos and khakis and sandals, texting while they talk and tweeting while they pray. They bring up our ancient creeds and our Confessions but we are more interested in technology and cutting edge ministry, in powerpoints than needlepoints, of music that flows from our tastes instead of music that serves the Word and speaks the Gospel. They are liturgical without being formalistic and we are formalistic in our anti-liturgical desire.

I am thankful for those Anglicans in Africa and Asia who may be the hope for Anglicanism if the children of those who sent those missionaries will listen to the children who came to faith because of those missionaries... I am thankful for those Methodists in Asia and Africa whose very numbers have become an anchor upon the deathward drift of Methodism into the oblivion of a crossless Christ and a Christless hope... I am thankful for those Lutherans in Africa and Asia who have the nerve to tell the ELCA they were wrong to adopt and embrace homosexuality and who have the nerve to tell the LCMS that they need to make friends and come to the Table of the Lord with people throughout the world who share their faith but look and sound different.

I am thankful for those faithful missionaries who learned no new paradigms but proclaimed the cross and empty tomb in word and action, believing that this Word is efficacious and God will bring to fruition the seeds they sowed. I am thankful for the hearts of my grandparents and parents who listened to those missionaries at those Mission Festivals and who raised one day offerings of sacrificial giving to make sure their work went on. I am thankful for those children who were born on the mission fields and still chose church work vocations because their heroes were their parents and the noblest task the work they did to bring Christ to the nations.

I am thankful for the nerve of those, many still dependent upon our dime, to speak to us words we may not want to hear but must... and I pray that we will listen... in Europe, in Scandanavia, in Lutherland of Germany, in Canada, and in America. Lord, help us to hear from them the Word we once taught them...

O Spirit, who didst once restore
Thy Church that (she) it may be again
The bringer of good news to men
Breathe on thy cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days
There may be men whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology
To Father, Son, and unto thee. Amen

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How We Define Ourselves

The truth is that we define ourselves in relation to something or someone else. As a child I grew up defining myself in relation to my parents and extended family. People knew me by my relation to my mother, father, grandparents, and other family members whom they knew. I would introduce myself as the son of my father and mother. Now I often introduce myself to some as "Amy's husband" when they know my wife or as "Joseph's, Andrew's or Rachel's Dad" when they know my children.

I define myself in relation to what I do. One of the first things we do when we meet is say what it is that we do -- our vocation defines us. I am a Pastor... I am a nurse... I work for Trane... I am retired... Sometimes we define ourselves in relation to where we live... the list of things that we use to define ourselves can go on and on.

Increasingly in our culture, what defines us is our sexuality. The labels of straight, gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered, etc., have become the things that most capture who we are. Where other relationships may come and go (my relation to my parents or children or spouse or even work), our sexual identity is seen as the thing endures. Who can forget when Governor Jim McGreevey announced "I am a gay American." After being husband, father, politician, and Governor, what he chose to define himself was his sexuality.

All of these relationships that we use to define us are incapable of giving to us the identity that we need and long for -- the one identity which is planted and rooted in eternity and does not change even as we do change. That relationship is our relationship to God. Yet we cannot relate to God until and unless He chooses to relate first to us through His Son, Jesus Christ. The great longing within us to know who we are and to define us as individuals and our place within the great creation are ultimately dependent upon God's first action to reach out to us.

The great travesty of sin is that it has become a condition upon our nature that renders us -- dare I say it -- sub-human, less than we were created to be. Yes it has marked us with death but the death that is the worst is the death of our identity and place within the great creation that sin caused. We have tried to repair this missing element in our lives by defining ourselves in relation to many people and things but none of these answers our need or satisfies our longing.

When Augustine said that his soul would not rest until it rested in Thee, he was echoing this aching quest to know who I am and my place within all that is around me. We want to know who we are and we choose many paths to answer this question yet none of these answers can satisfy our longing until we are able to see ourselves in relation to God our Creator.

Our relation to God our Creator cannot be explored until God bridges the gap sin has created and comes to us in the fullness of humanity through His Son. He must meet us on the soil of our sub-humanity in order to repair the breech, restore what was lost to us, and give us what we want and need most of all -- identity and place.

I am sure that I read where C. S. Lewis said something about sexuality replacing our quest for God, when religion and faith are no longer the focus of our identities, we are left only with our sexuality and our sensuality. I listened to an Orthodox priest who said we cannot accept "human nature as an independent thing, as somehow: 'I am whole and complete in myself, and I only lack supernatural grace.' That is not the Orthodox view. The Orthodox view is: 'I am now abnormal. In my fallen humanity, I am not my full self. There’s a sense of sub-humanity in my humanity.'"

The priest went on to say: "I find it very interesting in modern life, people define themselves with aspects of what they like. They define themselves sexually or they define themselves professionally. It’s only some aspect of man, but not the whole and complete man. And I think that’s what destroys politics. You have interest groups that are trying to find meaning where there is no meaning, and they’re giving themselves this kind of existential meaning by saying: 'I’m homosexual. I’m heterosexual. I’m a professional. I’m a blue collar. I’m an immigrant. I’m a native,' or whatever or however you want to define it. These things are all attempts to get by the essential fact that you are nothing until you’re with Christ."

This is what the Church comes to proclaim -- not a better life today, not finding happiness, not figuring out how to have a better marriage or be better parents, not how to have more sex or better sex, not how to be more popular or more well liked, not to have more things or get ahead financially, no! None of these things can satisfy the longing within or answer the questions that matter of who I am and where is my place? Only Christ. When we begin defining ourselves in relation to Christ -- to the person we were made to be in the waters of baptism, the person who lives not by sight but by faith, the person for whom God sets an honored place at His Table when we deserve not even crumbs.... then we will know contentment and peace that passes understanding.

It is not that all these other ways to define ourselves are so terribly evil (as son or parent, for example) but they are deficient. They cannot give to me the identity I need, the one that was lost to me when a simple act of choice on the part of my first parents stole from me what should have been my birthright. Now, in the new birth of baptism, I receive what was supposed to be mine from the beginning -- my identity planted and rooted in God my Creator as the gift of Jesus my Redeemer through the Spirit who teaches me to know this and trust in this grace. This is who I am... now... no matter what life brings me or does not... and who I am eternally because of Jesus' resurrection.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When We Eat Together But Do Not Share the Same Meal

Of all the things that bother me in so much of what is called "contemporary" worship, perhaps the thing that bothers me most is the practice of having multiple worship "styles" under the same roof. This is a fairly common practice and it is justified by giving people what they want but the damage it does to the congregation is often unnoticed.

At Grace we have two services, almost identical, at 8:15 and 10:45 each Sunday morning -- the same bulletin, hymns, choir, etc... with the exception being we do not baptized the same child at both services -- we pick one. Yet even this practice of two identical services has created two distinct groups within our congregation -- the early people and the late people. Each service has its own identity and manifests its own personality even though the presider, preacher, liturgy, hymns, and sermon are the same. The one thing that brings unity to this diversity is that we all know each other's language of worship and know each other's hymns. We are one in this even though we may be different in other things.

Yet in most congregations the services themselves are different. The "traditional" service is inevitably the earliest service (often at the ungodly hour of 7 am). Then a "blended" service and followed by a "contemporary" service. They often have cutsie names like "Reverent Majesty" or "Blended Praise" or "Celestial Celebration" (okay, okay, I made them up). And it all sounds innocent enough and caring enough -- if you want to go full blown happy clappy, you still want to make the old fuddie duddies at home (since they are the ones with the money), so you make choices acceptable to each taste (as far as is reasonable).

But the forgotten issue in this is how many congregations do you have? Do you have one congregation with multiple worship times or do you have multiple congregations? I am more and more convinced that you have multiple congregations -- distinct and separate and unwilling to be together. The "traditionals" do not know the songs of the others nor do they want to. The "blenders" are there because it is blended and they want the biggie praise choruses mixed in with generic Protestant hymns -- all within a changing ordinary (whatever that is). The with it folks want cutting edge music and no ordinary at all. These folks like spontaneity and surprise and don't want creeds and canticles, rubrics and rules. Unless you are singing "Silent Night" (Christmas transcends all divisions), these groups are separate and distinct and that is how they want it to be.

What does this say about the congregation? When you have three groups with three distinct identities, it does not take long to have three distinct visions and missions. How do you vision cast for three different and distinct congregations? I am confused by this. I have a hard enough time keeping two groups separated only by service times to see themselves as one congregation without all these other distinctions to distinguish them.

The truth is that we needlessly divide congregations and for the worst possible reason (personal preference and "taste") when we offer multiple worship services that are distinct and different and all for the reason of appealing to "what people want."

This is not just about music. The soundtrack of worship is simply the easiest way for me to highlight the differences. This is not just about music -- the more "contemporary" means the less identifiable the order, the ordinary, and even the propers. Many "contemporary" services focus upon one lesson and one only and often that lesson is unrelated to the pericopes. Sermon series abound that keep these folks from the liturgical pattern of the church year and the lectionary.

Our worship wars are not simply about congregations that have chosen different paths but about individual groups within one congregation that have chosen different paths. It is one thing to fight the worship wars between congregations; how do you fight them within the same congregation? We have not even begun to describe the architectural distinctions and logistical needs different to each group -- solved by some by having the "traditional" service in the sanctuary and the others in the gym/worship center/family life building. Again a distinction -- we all meet at the same address on Sunday morning but we go to different rooms and do different things -- is it no wonder that unity is one of the first casualties of diversity?

My point is this. We can go to a buffet restaurant and we can all eat what we want and we can sit at different tables... but are we eating together? Is it possible that we eat together in the same place without sharing the same meal? This begins to sound like one of St. Paul's Corinthians problems... And it is a problem we have yet to fully address.... I love the Chinese buffet but I know that it is different to go there and we each come and go back and forth to the buffet, eating different things... than when we sit at home around the table and eat the same food.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Prooftexting as Methodology

When I was in Seminary, one of my homiletical professors told us that every point in your sermon must be supported by a proof text. Suffice it to say that this resulted in either sermons with few points to supported or long sermons that ended up stringing Bible passage after Bible passage. Once, in another homiletics class, I was crunched for time and fudged by turning in a sermon written for this above mentioned professor. The second professor called me aside and said that while there was nothing "wrong" with the sermon, I was to promise him that I would never preach that way in the parish.

It seems to me that prooftexting is a deficient methodology whether you use Bible passages to proof text your point or passages from the Lutheran Confessions. The Christian faith deserves a well reasoned paragraph, with passages used both to frame and support the line of reasoning, that does not turn the Word of God into debate points but lets that Word speak. For that Word to speak, it is not enough to have a passage thrown at your opponents or thrown under your outline.

St. Paul spoke of the analogy of faith. Roman Catholics and Orthodox might speak of Tradition (capital T). Lutherans speak of tradition (a small t but still tradition). We confess that which has always been believed, taught, and confessed, in every place and at every time. We confess the catholic faith. This is Luther's contention and it has become enshrined in Confessions which insist we speak not with a sectarian voice but with the catholic voice that has been spoken from the earliest of days. With equal fervor the fathers of the Church are quoted with Scripture to show that what we believe teach and confess is neither novel or trivial but catholic and evangelical.

We have many subjects that need addressing in the Church. Everything from sexuality to worship cries out for Truth spoken in love. I have been impressed by some of the documents that our own LCMS has produced. I think for example of the wonderful CTCR document on marriage and family (click HERE for a PDF copy). No less than Richard John Neuhaus (of blessed memory) spoke approvingly of this statement (in the pages of First Things). It was well reasoned, reflected a familiarity and respect of the fathers of the Church, knowledge and understanding of our Lutheran Confessions, and an evangelical spirit.

Recently the Council of Presidents of the LCMS have produced some Theses on Worship in an attempt to frame the debate some have called "Worship Wars." It is a document notable not for what it says but for what it does not say. It is an outline of points and passages -- prooftexting. You can read it HERE . My biggest complaint is not simply what is said, but what is not said, and what should be said -- but these do not fit the form of an outline and proof texts. These would require a thesis and its reasoned development showing a respect for the fathers, a familiarity with the Confessions, knowledge of Scripture, and an evangelical spirit. A few of those things are lacking in this document.

Phil Secker, Doctor and Teacher of our Church as well as curator of the legacy of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, has prepared a critique of these Theses that is worthy of consideration. You can read it HERE. His point is well taken. Individual passages from Scripture and the Confessions miss the mark when the principle that predominates is absent -- namely the conservative liturgical principle elucidated in the Confessions in many places. Well, you can read what he says.

It has always been my feeling that one of the weaknesses of the Synodical Catechism is the seeming prooftexting methodology which makes the point, prints out a passage or two in support, and then goes on to the next. I would much prefer one or two passages with a paragraph that explains the point, puts it in the context of our catholic faith and confession, and then leads us to the proper and faithful conclusion.

Prooftexts are often merely theological two by fours that we use to hit people over the head... "oh yeah, well in Hezekiah is says this! So top that!!" Finally, my biggest complaint is that it is a very Protestant method -- one born of a church without tradition and unleashed from its life and confession lived out over the generations. We can pick and choose passages out of context and cut and paste them together to say just about anything -- Christians have been doing this and technology has only made it easier. I heard a YouTube video of Benny Hinn using passages cut and pasted together to prove that Adam could fly and that he had visited other plants throughout the solar system. Ooooh, way kewl. But, alas stupid, childish, and, well, outside the Christian sphere entirely.

Maybe it is high time we put aside this popular methodology and instead were concerned more about the catholicity of the faith. You can find just about anything in Scripture than can be abused and distorted from its context to say whatever you want it to say. Recall the old joke about the smart alec Pastor who claimed he could find a text and preach a sermon on any subject given to him. A woman sought to prove him wrong and suggested laxatives as the topic. Without a blink, the Pastor said his text was Exodus 34:4 "And Moses took the two tablets and went up into the hills..." and preached his sermon. Is that what we want or how we want the great issues of the day treated? Lets learn a new method (or relearn an old one that is not prooftexting).
Sermon for Pentecost Twenty-Four, Proper 28, preached Sunday, November 15, 2009

In my off duty moments I sometimes look for those shallow but uplifting “feel good” movies to watch and I saw one a while ago called Stardust. It is the goofy story of a star that falls to the ground and becomes a beautiful young woman who falls in love with a handsome young man. It take some twists and turns to get to the predictable end. One of them is a witch who wants to steal the star and use her energy to renew her aging appearance. In the final attack, the star lady hugs her man and tells him to close his eyes. Why, he asks. What do stars do, she says. And then she shines with a light that destroys her enemies and they live happily ever after.

Obviously it does not take much of a plot to occupy my little mind. But there ended up being a sermon there in her words and in the words of the prophet Daniel this morning. What do stars do? They shine. The prophet Daniel calls upon the people of God to shine like the stars they are. We are the wise and the faithful of the Lord. We are those to whom God has made Himself known, to whom He has shown the redeeming and healing power of His love, on whom He has shown the brightness of the one true light of Jesus Christ. Even amid the sorrows, struggles, and strife of this earthly life, we shine with the brightness of Christ’s light.

Christian life is not for the timid but for the bold – those whose holy boldness comes from the Spirit. Our lives in Christ are not timid lives but the bold, courageous, and strong lives of a people who have been born anew in baptism from sin to righteousness, from death to life in Jesus Christ.

We shine not with our own light or righteousness but with the light of Christ, with the righteousness of Christ. We shine not with our earthly successes or accomplishments but with the glitter of a cross that has become the symbol of hope and the empty tomb which silences death’s taunt. The grace of God has come to us and we wear that grace as our badge of victory and the holy identity of the people of God, by baptism and faith. So what do those whom God has made stars do? They shine.

Today the Lord invites us, equips us, and makes us to shine like the stars we are in Christ. Not with our own light, not to illuminate ourselves or what we have done -- for sin has rendered us incapable of shining. We cannot reflect the light of our God because of sin. Christ, the Light of the World, came to restore what sin stole, so that we may shine with His light and to share the light of Christ to a world still in darkness. We shine not with our own light but with the borrowed light of Christ who lives in each one of us by baptism and faith. We shine not in testament to what we have done but to witness what Christ has done. We shine with the brightness of Christ’s one true light.

We shine as the people who through Christ have overcome sin, triumphed over death, and now possess the life which is everlasting. We shine as the people who have Christ and if we have Christ we have everything. It is not our light but Christ’s. Don’t give me any false modesty here. We are called to shine like the stars we are in Christ, testifying to Christ and all that He has done.

What do stars do? They shine... Today God bids us shine like the stars we are. We shine not at the conclusion when all our earthly battles are over but right now in the midst of the fight to remain faithful and true to our Lord. Here within the earth’s bleak wilderness, we shine with the hope of Christ. Here amid our wounds and scars and even while bleeding, we shine in Christ.

Here in the face of death that still must be faced, of illness that can steal our today but never our tomorrow, of economic troubles that can leave us earthly poor but not our heavenly riches... here is where we shine with the brightness of Christ’s light.

Be of good courage, my friends, your sins are forgiven, your lives firmly planted in the soil of grace, your hopes secure in the arms of our crucified and risen Savior. So shine, like the stars you are. Shine as the courageous in the face of persecution, fear, and uncertainty. Shine as the courageous in Christ, whose victory we hold on to when everything else is gone.

Shine in the fellowship of the Church, where our individual lights come together to form a giant beacon of light together. Shine in the fellowship of the redeemed who bear one another’s burdens, who love one another even with our failures and failings, who forgive one another not because we deserve it but because Christ forgave us, who bury every bitterness at the foot of the cross and who dig up a harvest of treasure in the life which never ends.

Don’t wait for your life to be perfect to shine... don’t wait until you become fully the person God has called you to be to shine... don’t wait for all the tears to be over or and aches of this mortal life to disappear before you shine. Shine NOW as the stars you are by baptism and faith.

As we face the uncertainties of the world and as we realize ever more that truly we live in the latter days, we cannot afford to be timid or uncertain or fearful about that which is most true – even Jesus Christ. Christ has given us His light so that we might shine with His light, marking the place where hope is planted on the soil of despair, sending forth a beacon into all the darkened corners where death reigns, refusing to allow the darkness its final word. Shine, like the stars you are in Christ. Shine with faith, shine with faithfulness, shine with works that glorify God, shine with witness to the cross and empty tomb, shine with humility that champions others before self, shine with love for the poor and needy, shine with care for each other as the family we are in Christ...

Shine not with your light but Christ’s... not for your glory, but His... not for others to see you, but to see Christ who lives in you... What do stars do? They shine!

...there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been... but fear not...your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, those in Christ to everlasting life...And all those who are wise in faith shall shine like the stars in the sky above; and their light shall turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. What do stars do? They shine... so people of God... stars who have been made to shine with Christ’s light... it is time to glitter and shine to your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, your community and the strangers you meet... shine with Christ’s light. It is what stars do. Amen.

What Is A Lutheran?

It should not be so difficult to answer that question. What is a Methodist is a hard question -- having lived in the Northeast where the Methodists tended to be the most liberal churches in town and now in the South where Methodists actually have tent revivals. What is an Episcopalian/Anglican is a hard question -- we are seeing the destruction of one national church and the unsettling of a worldwide communion because they cannot agree on what an Episcopalian is. What is a Roman Catholic is not so hard but complicated -- it can range from being in communion with the Bishop of Rome or it can include being conversant with its myriad of theological statements, councils, and canon law. But what is a Lutheran? That should be an easy one -- a no brainer!

Lutherans have written confessions -- not just 39 articles but a whole volume of confessions written over a nearly 60 year history to encompass just that question. But it seems that these Lutheran Confessions (Book of Concord 1580) are less and less used by those who call themselves Lutheran to define their Lutheranism.

When the ELCA began its many threads of departure from the mainstream of Lutheran identity, what the Confessions said had little real bearing upon the arguments and ended up having little to say about their chosen course of action, say, to acknowledge and approve of same sex relationships and GLBT clergy in "committed relationships."

When Missouri talks about worship, the conversation is generally not about what the Confessions of the Lutheran Church say, but what they do not say. Luther's practice, though of no binding character to any Lutheran, becomes the model more than what the words of those Confessions actually say (like about keeping the mass and its ceremonies).

My point is this, if we claim these Confessions but do not listen to them, then we, in effect, have no Confession. And that is a big problem. For without the Confessions, Lutheranism becomes a personal identity whose definition is no larger than one individual. If that is the case, then we might well be left with the Wisconsin Synod in saying there is no such thing as the Lutheran Church -- only a Lutheran congregation.

Who Lutherans are or are not is not a matter subject to individual interpretation. Our Confessions are written in pretty plain language. There do not speak in some foreign tongue or legalese that needs a dictionary to translate. They speak forthrightly and clearly. Our problem today is that many within Lutheranism are no longer comfortable with what our Confessions say so they pay lip service to them and use confessional "principles" to justify their own presuppositions.

The congregationalists see congregationalism in the Confessions even though there was no such thing as congregationalism in 16th century Lutheranism. The mainline Protestant style folks see ecumenical imperatives and social justice issues even though these very Confessions would be shocked by the unity in diversity and political advocacy that some Lutherans have adopted. The low church evangelicals see personal and individual identity as paramount and read saving souls at all costs into the Confessions even though such individualism was abhorrent to those who penned their words. The high church types read liturgical correctness into these Confessions and their disdain for the preaching and teaching task even though the Confessions are concerned about ritual for what it proclaims and see proclamation (preaching and teaching) as central to everything the Church is and does. I could go on...

What is the big problem in reading the words? I am amazed at the ways we will go to try and reformulate the Confessions so that they speak my answer to the question "What is a Lutheran?" It should be easy to answer that question and the answer should be rather consistent from person to person, church to church, place to place, time to time.

Perhaps we need to admit the obvious... We want to keep the institution called the Lutheran Church but we want to make it into something different... If that is the case then let us fight this battle openly -- for the heart and soul of Lutheranism. But let the battleground be what we have said and what those Confessions still say... and those who refuse to live under their banner may need to consider finding another church home if they cannot live in the one marked, defined, and practiced according to the Book of Concord.