Friday, December 31, 2010

The Godless Sacrifices of the Papists

In 1532 Luther proclaimed "By the grace of God the abominations of the impious sacrifice of the papists have been done away with, namely, the Mass, which the reprobate pope along with his doctors adorned with the name “sacrifice.” And the true worship has now been restored, that is, the preaching of the Word of God, by which God is truly made known and honored..." Luther's Works, Vol. 12 : Selected Psalms I. 12:4

What Luther was speaking to (from the context of his remarks) had to do with the restoration of the sermon and the proclamation of the Gospel to the Mass.  Certainly, Luther was also condemning the language of the Roman Canon and the practice of the Church at the time in which the emphasis was not upon Sacrament or grace conferred but sacrifice offered.  This was, however, old news, since Luther had already offered, reluctantly to be sure, two forms of an evangelical Mass many years earlier (Formula Missae some 9 years before and a bit more radical Deutsche Messe some 6 years before).  

Dorothea Wendebourg published an article in the Lutheran Forum that deals with some of these issues.  In it she suggests that "Luther's assessment of the reformed order of service in Wittenberg stands in sharp contrast to the judgment of today's liturgical scholars..."  She suggests that today we are more likely to emphasize the continuity with liturgical tradition than the new beginning Luther's words seem to envision.

So who is right?  Without reviewing the whole article here, I would suggest that one big difference is the context.  What was a radical departure in Wittenberg nearly 500 years ago is hardly radical today.  The restoration of the sermon is old news to us and the current worship scene -- even among Lutherans -- is more likely to see the centrality of the sermon than the Sacrament as essential to the worship service.  Luther would be shocked at the state of worship among non-Roman Catholic Christians of the West.  What we know of Luther's overwhelming joy at the return of the sermon and the replacement of the sacrificial motif with the sacramental, would surely turn to sadness and great despair as the Divine Service is absent from the life of most Protestants and the worship service itself ordered more as divine entertainment than divine mystery made present.

Luther's liturgical reform was not the overthrow of the Mass but the restoration of the Sacrament as the center of the Mass and the proclamation of the Gospel as the second of its twin peaks.  We know that Luther's return to Wittenberg following his captivity in the Wartburg was accompanied by shock and dismay over what had happened while he was away.  The more radical elements had literally overthrown the Mass and Luther had no stomach for such a reform.  He sent them packing in order to restore the Mass and shortly thereafter offered up his own evangelical order (albeit in Latin) in which the guiding principle of reform was to make as few changes to the outward appearance and observance of the Mass as were required to accomplish the overall goal of restoring the Gospel and the Sacrament to their rightful places as the two towers of grace that held up the whole Mass.

There are many within Lutheranism today who love to appeal to Luther's words in 1532 as justification for their abandonment of the Divine Service in favor of a local liturgy decidedly non-liturgical and with not even a passing resemblance to the liturgical tradition Luther inherited or added to by his modifications of form and content. In fact, in not a few discussions those who offer the Divine Service from the Lutheran Service Book as the form(s) to be used in the Lutheran Church today are accused of re-imposing the Mass upon the people of God and undoing the Reformation work which is Luther's liturgical legacy.  They delight in speaking about the ceremonial usages, ritual, and practices as adiaphora -- falsely translated as things unimportant or indifferent instead of things about which no rule can be demanded which would bind the consciences of men with the rules of man as conditions upon their salvation.  They have grown weary of the discussion of lex orandi lex credendi and instead appeal to what works to pack the pews or fill the offering plates.

I maintain the Luther would not cotton to such abuses of freedom that have become the license to do whatever you darn please on Sunday morning.  In fact, it is my great confidence that Luther just might run out of town many of those who speak and act more like  Andreas Rudolph Bodenstein von Karlstadt and label them all as dangerous sectarians with revolutionary tendencies.  We do not need any modern day Bildersturm from those who, like Karlstadt, have more in common with English Baptists, Puritans, and Calvinists than Lutherans.  What would Luther think walking into the stark boxes of many modern church buildings, without an altar or the Sacrament, without pulpit or lectionary preaching, and without adornment and ceremonial to draw attention to the purpose of this holy space?  I think he might wonder if it were time for a new Reformation....

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Person of the Pastor Fades Away in His Presiding

“Clad in his sacerdotal vestments, [the priest] sinks what is individual in himself altogether, and is but the representative of Him from whom he derives his commission. His words, his tones, his actions, his presence, lose their personality; one bishop, one priest, is like another; they all chant the same notes, and observe the same genuflections, as they give one peace and one blessing. . . The Mass must not be said without a Missal under the priest’s eye. . . But, when it is over, and the celebrant has resigned the vestments proper to it, then he resumes himself, and comes to us in the gifts and associations which attach to his person. . . "  John Henry Newman

If on arrival to a new parish, I have made changes, and I have made many, I have taught first and changed later, lest people get the idea that the chancel is the domain of the Pastor's personal preference.  Such is a dangerous and terrible thing for it places the personality and preferences of the Pastor center stage at a very time when that personality and preference must recede so that Christ may be heard and seen through the words and actions of the Pastor.  Such is, after all, the purpose of the Office of the Ministry as Lutherans confess in the Concordia.  The Office is inseparably tied to the means of grace.

There is great benefit to Pastors being much the same in the chancel.  Whether in manner, words, or actions, a high degree of uniformity in Pastors presiding and even preaching lends the people to the conclusion it is not about them as people but about the Word they speak and the Sacraments they administer.  I am not speaking here of a mechanical uniformity, the kind of German precision which erases the face of the Pastor completely, but rather a careful attention to the Word and Sacraments of Christ as pre-eminent in all that the Pastor says and does.

I do not see a great benefit to Pastor's winging it at the altar or pulpit -- their ministry and the consequences are too great to be cavalier with the mysteries of God.  Certainly it does no one good to read slavishly from missal, lectionary, or sermon text as if these words were unfamiliar and strange to him.  Nevertheless, by his attention to the missal or lectionary book and to the sermon as proclamation of Christ, it becomes clear to the folks in the pew that the words bear not the authority of one man but of the Office for which Christ has set him apart and carry the authority of Christ to do what the Word and Sacraments promise.

One of the great and troubling conclusions from those who worship without the Divine Service, in what has become called "contemporary," is that the gifts and abilities as well as personality and preference of the Pastor are central to all that goes on (as are the gifts and performance of the musicians and others in these services).  I fear that one of the unforeseen consequences of making the Pastor and musicians the "star performers" of the service is that the authority of their words and the confidence of the people in their actions moves from confidence in Christ's Word and in the promise inherent to the Sacraments to the ability, sincerity, accomplishment of the "star performers" -- much in the same way those who put on a good show are often held in higher regard than those who may have a better voice or ability but do not possess the "stage presence" to give their gift a platform.

When the Mass is ended and the people go in peace to serve the Lord in their baptismal vocations lived out in the world, the Pastor is also free then to resume his person and become himself.  For some it is undoubtedly a relief to take off the vestments and leave behind the role and calling and for others it is with great regret and sadness that they resume their person.  For me it is the latter.  The highest and holiest of moments is when I as Larry Peters disappear into the work of Christ He is doing among His people through my voice and hands.  Sometimes it is a great melancholy moment for me to walk back into the empty nave, make my way to the Vestry, and become "me" again.  It is easier for me to know who I am and what I am to do when I act in the person of Christ and it presents me with a whole other challenge when it left for me to simply be Larry.  I am not sure if this is a good thing or not, but I know that God does not want those who serve Him in the Office of Pastor to confuse their personal identity with their role and purpose as instruments of the means of grace by which He is present among and continues to bestow the gifts of grace and mercy to His people.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Breathtaking Virtual Tour

A friend has passed on to me these links which offer you a virtual tour of some of the most precious real estate in the world -- St. John Lateran and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

To tour St. John Lateran, click HERE.

To tour the Sistine Chapel, click HERE.

Unbelievable beauty! 

The Only Medical Procedure in Which Success Means Death

We are all familiar with the ancient medical dictum of do no harm.  We expect that when we go to the doctor we will either receive treatment or medicine designed either to cure or to relieve pain.  We do not expect to die as a result of medical intervention.  Now aside from the currently illegal active euthanasia of patients or the withholding of medical treatment (especially extraordinary medical procedures), there is only one medical treatment whose success results in death:  abortion.

Only a day away from the Holy Innocents, the senseless slaughter of the youngest first born males of Bethlehem by demonic Herod, we find ourselves poised to begin the New Year with an anniversary of sorts -- Roe v. Wade.  This is surely about more than a court decision though it is certainly about that.  We cannot discount the tear in the ethical and political fabric of America when a foolish and arrogant Supreme Court (let us not forget Justice Blackman) decided to take this issue away from the public and legislative process and impose their morality upon us.  But the truth is that the Court hastened what would surely have come on its own, eventually, because we were already moving toward the idea of sex which has neither consequences nor morality -- at least not any more than any other legalized pleasure available to us.

I am struck as we approach 2011 just how far the culture has come on this and yet how bitterly divisive this issue remains.  On one hand, we have had a steady number of abortions each year (1.2-1.4 million abortions each year).  It has brought the culture of death very close to us with some 46+ million or more abortions performed since the procedure became "legal" in 1973 (to get a perspective on that number, it is about the number of worldwide abortions each year and more than the entire population of such nations as South Korea, Ukraine, Columbia, South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Poland and Canada, to name a few).

A snapshot of abortion facts shows:

  • Nearly half of all pregnancies to American women are unintended; four in 10 of these end in abortion.
  • About half of American women have experienced an unintended pregnancy, and at current rates more than one-third (35%) will have had an abortion by age 45.
  • Overall unintended pregnancy rates have stagnated over the past decade, yet unintended pregnancy increased by 29% among poor women while decreasing 20% among higher-income women.
  • The number of abortions has declined slightly over the years; in 2005, for example, 1.21 million abortions were performed, down from 1.31 million abortions in 2000.
  • Nine in 10 abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
  • A broad cross section of U.S. women have abortions:
    • 56% of women having abortions are in their 20s;
    • 61% have one or more children;
    • 67% have never married;
    • 57% are economically disadvantaged;
    • 88% live in a metropolitan area; and
    • 78% report a religious affiliation;
    • Black women are 3 times more likely to have an abortion than white women;
    • Hispanic women are twice as likely to have an abortion as white women;
  • 48% of all abortion facilities provide services after the 12th week of pregnancy; 9 in 10 managed care plans routinely cover abortion or provide limited coverage. About 14% of all abortions in the United States are paid for with public funds, virtually all of which are state funds. 16 states (CA, CT, HI, ED, IL, MA , MD, MD, MN, MT, NJ, NM, NY, OR, VT, WA and WV) pay for abortions for some poor women.
 As we mourn for those young martyrs for our Lord Jesus Christ, in deed if not in will, we cannot forget the scandal of our modern world and the terrible stain that abortion has cast over our land.  It is a scar upon the medical technology and prowess for which we are legitimately proud and it is an infected sore on the protection of the weakest and most vulnerable which has been the hallmark of the American mind and heart.  As we approach 38th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in just a few weeks, pray that the war on the unborn will come to a halt.  Pray that medicine will return to its ultimate purpose of doing no harm, healing, and relieving pain.  Until these happen, there will be no end to the pain and suffering of the American heart and moral compass and innocents will continue to suffer death at the hands of their mothers, fathers, and all who see this not only as their right of last resort but their personal choice.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ha!!! I knew it.... I just knew it...

From blogger and Lutheran Pastor Todd Peperkorn:

Bethesda, MD—Religious leaders have contended for millennia that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. In a new study appearing online in The FASEB Journal (, an international team of scientists, including researchers from the United States and Israel, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.

Just a thought... this could explain why those who do not like incense are so, well, surly...  And, I am thinking of one person in particular here, if that person is reading this now... gotcha!

Not a Good Statistic

At First Things a reader offered a widget that charts the usage of words in published books from 1920-2008.  In it the word sex has predictably seen a huge increase in use.  The word homosexual has seen something like a 1000% increase.  The vulgar word for intercourse has seen a 6000% increase.  Aren't we fortunate to have been released from the prison of politeness and modesty that had kept such things in check.  Now at last we say what we want, be as provocative as we dare without fear of recrimination, and be as vulgar and base as a person can be and get away with it all.  Ahhh, the blessing of freedom.

The only problem is the quality of our discourse has made a definite nosedive over the same period.  It has become impossible for kids and adults to speak without peppering their conversation with words that once offended.  In fact, we struggle now to find even more offensive terms so that we might fully exploit the full range of our freedom of expression.  About the only bad words left to say are religious and the only sure way to offend is to speak religious truth out loud.  Ahhh, the wonderful gift of freedom.  But what of its intended and unintended consequences?

I worry about the direction of our public conversation.  I know how difficult it is for me to watch a movie with my twenty somethings without being embarrassed by the dialog even more than the visual shock of violence, perversion, and sexual intimacy.  What do families do with younger children?  I venture it is hard to watch TV together or go out to the movies as a family.

My point is simple... license is not liberty.  We have not yet learned that.  We have learned how to take what was once in the shadows and bring it out into the light of day but we have not discovered that this is not always wise or good and, in fact, may be foolish and very harmful to us.  At the same time we have a politically correct police force to make sure that religion and morals do not enter the public conversation, we seem completely ill equipped to know what to do when that conversation is consumed with the most vulgar and base speech we can muster.

Who was it who said, "on the publishing of many books there is no end..." or something to that effect.  What might such a pundit say about what is in many of those books.... hmmmm....

Monday, December 27, 2010

Renaissance of Traditional Nuns in Nashville

As the Renaissance was a flowering of thought, art, theology, and science, so are we in the South finding a renaissance, of sorts, in the novitiate -- at least to one very traditional order.  You can read the NPR story HERE and discover these radical women and their traditional ways.  The unbending rhythms of prayer and silence and worship have beckoned more and more young women (twenty somethings). With their long habits and disciplined regime, these conservative sisters have become, it seems, the new face of radicalism.

I am not here to report on a successful convent but to remind folks that those who appease the culture, who work to make the Church culturally friendly or even relevant, have become the new face of traditionalism.  Those who believe the Church has its own culture and one of its most important traits is that it does not change with every whim of fad or trend, have become the new radicals.  And it is not limited only to Roman Catholics.  The same is true among Lutherans.

The praise bands and casual worship styles of the baby boomers are no longer radical but ordinary -- run of the mill.  Youth are increasingly finding these dated and even trivial as they search for that which does not change and for those things that help to tie them to the living heritage of the past.  For these youth, the radical future lies with liturgy, chant, silence, hymnody, and truth yesterday, today, and forever the same.  The day when it was radical to hoist a guitar and sing "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" have come and gone.  Thank God.  The whole nature of the worship wars has shifted and the new face of the radical future looks like altar, reverence, vestments, chant, and hymnody.  It has moved away from the sermon as a story or many stories with a moral to the deep encounter with the mystery long hidden and now revealed in Christ.

I know because I have three twenty something kids and none of them wants anything to do with the kind of worship the boomers like me used to think attracted youth.  They are radical traditionalists and they are not alone.  Look at Higher Things as the new radical while the Terry Dittmer style of youth ministry has become old fashioned and, perhaps, passe.  It is something to look at for those who are into charting movements within the Church.  I hope that our church body is awake enough to realize what is happening and to pay attention to it all.  We run the distinct risk of marginalizing ourselves to the sidelines by sticking with something that is so 1960s and 1970s and enjoyed more by people in that age group than by their children and grandchildren. 

If a convent flourishes in the face of dying monastic communities all across the nation, maybe there is a signal there worth noting...  It is something to think about, that is for sure!

The Shadow of the Pope

"On a rainy Christmas Eve, Pope Benedict XVI followed a procession of Swiss guards, bishops and priests down the central nave of St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate midnight Mass before dignitaries and a global television audience. And Monsignor Guido Marini, as always, followed the pope..."  so goes a story in the Washington Post about B16's "master of the liturgy."  You can read the whole thing HERE.

Now some folks out there might thing this is a bit much -- even somewhat persnickety toward the ceremonies and rituals of the liturgy.  There are not a few voices, even among so called conservatives, who think that attention to detail in the liturgy is out of control fussiness and, well, not real manly, so to speak.  I find it strange that some folks can be so concerned with pure doctrine and then have such a cavalier attitude toward what goes on Sunday mornings.  They have little interest in things liturgical and little concern for the consequences of their practices (except, of course, for the holy grail of close(d) communion).

According to the article, the Pope has a shadow who knows the liturgy, whose concern is faithful practice, who knows the Pope to know where he needs to be and what needs to be done, and who is content to be in the shadows and not center stage.  I think that many parishes could use a shadow for a Pastor who is less concerned about things liturgical and somewhat casual about his role as presider.  It is not like people in the pew do not notice when things do not go smoothly, when it is clear how out of their element some Pastors are in the chancel, and how uncomfortable some Pastors are with the ceremonial aspect of the service.  They do notice and they either find themselves frustrated or they learn that the ceremonial and ritual of the liturgy is unimportant (which is just one step away from discarding the liturgy in favor of contemporary worship).

Now I am not a persnickety presider.  I do not fret over the position of my hands or other odd details.  Sunday I had a 3 year old boy come up into the chancel after the intercessions (much to the consternation of the grandmother) and casually took the boy's hand and returned him to his family without much of a stir.  But I am attentive to my role as presider and I cannot forget the counsel given me over the years for strong, loving and wise pastoral leadership at the altar. 

The Pope's shadow knows what sometimes Lutherans forget -- what we do makes as much of a statement as what we say.  I applaud someone who is attentive to the details -- not out of concern for aesthetics but for the faith, for what is confessed by the actions of the liturgy and witnessed by the faithful. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Danger of Sentiment

Before you go off on those unemotional Lutheran types, I am not suggesting that emotions be absent from our worship or that emotions are automatically at odds with our faith (though they certainly can be).  But emotion and sentiment are not the same thing.  I get emotional.  My eyes filled up with tears at the end of the The Dawn Treader (CS Lewis; the third Narnia movie, for those who have no life).  I am not necessarily anti-emotion but I am solidly against sentimentality.

The "aw... how cute" kind of sentimentality has taken over Christmas and stolen its message from us.  We have turned the stable into the cutest and most comfy little place -- why, women everywhere ought to give up hospitals and birthing rooms to head outside and give birth in one for a Hallmark moment you will never forget.  We have made the straw and the manger into the best little bed any child might want and we have lined up the animals to warm the Christ child with their breath as if this image were a combo of America's funniest and Animal Planet.  Look at the Mary and Joseph on those cards and it makes you wonder why we don't have Mary and Joseph dolls to go along with Barbie and Ken since they are just so beautiful and so handsome.

We have forgotten that there was nothing cute about that first Christmas.  It was a story of conflict, rejection, make shift, make do, rude and bare circumstances.  Jesus came into the flesh in the midst of life's worst and His birth is the result of the God who is determined to embrace us in all our weakness, fallenness, and mortality.  By allowing sentiment to steal the day, we forget the very meaning of why He was born and what He came to accomplish for us and for our salvation.

I vote "no" on the Hallmark moment Christmas and "no" on the vain attempts to justify ourselves by saying "it really wasn't so bad" how Jesus was born and where He spent His first days.  I vote "no" on carols that sing of sweetness and refuse to sing of the death that He was born for, the suffering that was His purpose, and the mountain of sin that compelled Him to come in love to the rescue of us (His fallen and condemned creation).  I vote "no" on all our foolish attempts to turn His story into a fairy tale with a happy ending and a moral to the story that we can all apply and get something good out of it (Buddhist, Muslim, or athiest).

I am not saying we must be devoid of emotion but we must not let Christmas be stolen right from our hands by the every attempt to cutsie up the stench of the world that Jesus was born into -- and literally, in the stable.  I think this is one of the reasons why Christmas is losing hold of us and our culture.  It has become a cute and sweet story that is so sugary it should be labeled a hazard by the American Dental Association.  We don't need to sweetness but the strong an sturdy love that is capable of bearing the full burden of our sin, the full weight of our fallen life, the full impact of our death, AND answer it all with grace great enough to repair, redeem, restore, and renew us from our lost condition.

So enjoy the emotion but don't give into the dark side and turn Christmas into a sentimental moment.  God was not coming to the Island of Misfit Toys to do His bidding but into our world with all that is real about our pain, sin, fear, sorrow, and death.  He comes not to band-aid us through nor to pat us on the back and tell us we are not so misfit as we thought.  He comes with the grace that confronts sin and all its consequences and overcomes its deathly grip upon us as only the Son of God in human flesh can do.

A little thought about sentiment... if you cannot see the wood of the cross in the wood of the manger, you have not yet learned what Christmas is about.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why December 25?

Joe Carter over at First Thoughts has pointed me to an article on the reason why and the history behind celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25.  Written by Andrew McGowen, this is a pretty thorough going look at the answers offered and which is most likely the real reason why Dec.25 is Jesus' birthday.  You can read it HERE.

I am not going to rehash the article here, but to say how often the ordinary explanation chosen for such things is one that casts doubt and suspicion on the motives of early Christians.  In this case it is the idea that Christians chose Dec. 25 to draw attention away from a pagan festival (Sol Invictus or Saturnalia).  Why does it always seem that people put agendas on such explanations and make it seem that the early Church was somehow duplicitous in the way it acted?  We find this such a common knee jerk response to so many questions.  Here the author suggests that there were theological reasons, or, better perhaps to say significance, for the choice.

Of course, someone always has to bring Constantine in these things as if he was a nemesis of truth instead of its defender.  So it just may  be that there is no nefarious reasoning to all of this but an honest attempt to work within the framework of common scientific or accepted reasoning on these things -- and then you end up with December 25.

My point is that dealing with the date is often the tip of the iceberg among those who believe that the best way to celebrate Christmas is to demythologize it from its Biblical captivity.  Well boo hoo to all those who feel that the text must be explained away, Christian practice must be exposed, and the ordinary way of thinking must be deceptive rather than forthright. 

I grow weary of those who believe that they are doing a service to truth by denying it, doing something credible to debunk the credibility of the text and practice of Christendom, and doing science by insisting that Scripture cannot mean what it says and Christian practice must have been born in some tug of war over who is the real Jesus...

Makes you want to say "grow up" to those children who can only say "but" to God's Word.... Why can't they simply go to a Sunday School children's Christmas program and listen... Oh, well, we all have our crosses to bear and those who would vainly try to correct some Christian errors of belief or practice as their most faithful service to God are the crosses to be born by the catholic and orthodox Christian community everywhere.

Read the article and it just might make some sense that the Church was not acting arbitrarily but within the framework of accepted science and belief....An honest attempt to put things together for the sake of the Word and not against it...

What was God thinking?

Sermon preached for the Nativity of our Lord, Christmas Day, December 25, 2010.

    I remember a movie scene in which a proper woman was sitting somewhat out of place at a bus station.  Every now and then she went up to the counter to find out if the bus was coming.  Each she was told “Yet it is coming.”  Finally after many hours, she heads up to the counter clearly frustrated.  “Is the buscoming or not?”  And the ticket agent replies, “Oh yes, it is coming.  It will be here tomorrow just as the schedule says.”
    I wonder if that is not how Israel felt.  What was God thinking?  “Messiah is coming,” says the Lord through the prophets.  But Israel went more than 400 years without one voice heard in the land saying “Thus saith the Lord.”  God said the day was coming but they had grown so weary of waiting, they had given up.  And then came a wild man named John.  Immediately they thought he was the one.  But John said “No, not me... He is coming and He is greater than I am...”  He insisted he was merely a witness, a voice crying in the wilderness.
    When finally the Messiah was born, the Word of the Lord who spoke in creation, the people had stopped hoping, stopped expecting, stopped looking. They had grown content with their lives - no matter how good or bad those lives were.  So Jesus came into the world, the Word made flesh, and yet the people of His promise did not recognize Him or receive Him and neither did the world that He had made.  What was God thinking?
    The true Light was coming into the world.   He came to His own but they received Him not.  They were looking for another or not looking at all.  He came to the world He had made, and they were not looking either.  But the ways of God are as hidden to us as God is hidden – until God discloses them and reveals Himself.  We do not seek Him but He has sought us out.
    We do not apprehend God but God apprehends us, we do not comprehend God but God comprehends us, by becoming one with us in the incarnation of His Son.  We do not ascend to Him but He descends to us.  What was God thinking?  That this is the one and only way it can happen, the one and only way that a world which was lost to Him might be redeemed to be His own again, that God must act on behalf of a world which cannot.
    We seem consumed by the idea that God ought to be plain, easy to figure out, easy to understand, and easy to predict.  It is not because we have not tried.  We have tried and tired of it all to get on with life.  But that is indeed the problem.  God is not plain until He makes Himself plain, not easy to figure out until He imparts the understanding of His Word, not easy to predict until we know what to look for... or more precisely, whom to look for.
    And what does John say.  To those who received Him.... to those who were willing to let God be God, He gave the right to become the children of God – born not of flesh but the Spirit, not for a life bounded by death but for the life in which death has no domain, not for a life improved but a life reborn and transformed as only God can do.
    To all who received Him, He gave the power and right to become the children of God – adopted by grace and given the new birth of baptism and the new name of Christ.  So that the children of God are no longer an ethnic identity or a family lineage but the new birth of water and the Word and the Spirit who gives us the voice to “Amen” what God has done and is going.
    God was so careful and we were so careless.  We acted on a whim and bargained away eternity with only the knowledge of death to show for our shrewdness in the garden.  We ran from Him in fear and tried to cover up our sin but the result was hate, jealousy, revenge, and death.
    God was so careful and we were so careless.  He was placing the plan of our redemption in place and we insisted we did not know what He was doing and could not see any sign of His efforts.  We stoned the prophets and turned away from God in order to live our lives without His intrusion.
    God was so careful and we were so careless.  Comfortable in our beds, we missed it when the heavens opened, the Son was born, the angels sang, and stars shone.  We could not figure God out but God figured us out and did not what we expected but what we needed.  He delivered up a Son whom Israel could not claim exclusive right to own and a world write off as some body else’s Lord.  God was so careful to make sure it would be about Christ and not human will or desire or righteousness.  And to all who received Him, and who receive Him still... the surprise of grace.  That is what God was thinking.  For you and for me, the surprise of grace and of mercy beyond all human imagination.  The Word was made flesh and we have seen in Him the glory of the everlasting Father and the miracle of our own redemption.  Lord, help us to see this always....  Amen

What do you hear?

Sermon preached on the Eve of the Nativity of our Lord, December 24, 2010.

    Of all the things in the story of Christmas, it seems that angels have captured our fancy more than any other.  Think of the many references to angels in the familiar carols of this season: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" or "Angels from the Realms of Glory" or "Angels We Have Heard on High" – just to name a few!  The Christmas story is just not complete without a sky full of golden haired angels, soft as silk wings, harps and voices making music.  Yes, we love our angels.
    But as much as we love those angels, I fear they are more fairy tale than reality to us.  Like the bell in the movie Polar Express, the sound of the angels grows ever more distant to our ears.  It is truly sad to think that we hear everything else so clearly but no longer hear the sound of hope sung when first the night sky..  The stillness of our night is broken by sirens that scream out accident and danger... it pulses with the rhythmic sounds of a city that does not sleep, of people who work through the night, and of lives busied with parties and pleasure... its silence is marred by the tragedies that become tomorrow’s headlines of trouble and disaster.  We hear a lot of things but most of them are not good and not much sounds like angels.  It is not a matter of unbelief as much as it is that we listen to and for other things.
    We hear so very clearly and plainly the sounds of anger and dispute, of bitter debate and argument, of violence and pain.  Because we hear these so clearly, the song of hope the angel’s sang is only a distant echo in our years.  We come tonight to listen for the angels song again so we might join in their song of praise.  How sad it is that song of hope that is Christmas is heard clearly only one night a year.
    It certainly puts a lot of pressure on the service tonight and upon me as preacher.  Is it too much pressure?  Are we expecting too much from one night.  Speaking from the vantage point of this pulpit, I guarantee that what I say tonight cannot make up for a whole year of focus away from the manger.
    God never meant for Christmas to be a a one shot hope, a single solitary moment of light enough to shine in a whole year full of darkness.  Christmas was never intended to be a one stop super night in which we get a fix of religion, a dose of hope, a glimpse of peace that must last us throughout the coming year.  If the angel’s song is distant in our ears and our hope grows weak, it is not God who has left us but we who have wandered far from the manger.  We have allowed our ears to hear and our hearts to focus upon everything but the sound of hope, peace, and God’s good will which Christ’s birth ushered in.
    This is not just about skipping Church.  You can be in Church every week and be focused on everything other than the sweet sound of the Gospel.  When we choose only to hear the sounds of our selves – both the sounds of our disappointments, pain, anger or troubles as well as the sounds of our joys and happiness, then our ears and hearts become closed to the voice of hope that once rang out into that night sky when Christ was born for us.
    Let me speak bluntly to you.  Even as a Pastor, I struggle to hear the Gospel's sweet sound of hope and I am here every week.  Just like you, my heart and mind are constantly weighed low by the struggles and sorrows of this mortal life – those from within my own family and those from within the larger family of this congregation.  Every one of life's disappointments or broken dreams muffles the sound of the angels from our ears and threatens to steal away the hope and joy of Christ’s coming.
    Even our moments of happiness and triumph act as a thief to seal away our hope.  The world plays a tug of war with Christ for the focus of our hearts.  Within us is a battle between the person we were and the person we are in Christ by baptism and faith.  If you have trouble hearing the sound of hope every day, it is because the wrong side is winning out in the competition for what your ears hear and the focus of your hearts
    For the shepherds to leave their flocks and the Magi to journey so far from home, they had to close off their ears and hearts from themselves and the world’s doubts and fears.  We struggle today to do just that.  It is so very easy to listen only the voice of our despair and disappointment, to hear only the sound of our pain and fear, that we walk all through the year and wonder “where is God?”  “Why do we feel so alone and so distant from the Lord?”  God does not shout but speaks the still small voice of angels heralding the Savior’s birth, of shepherds milling around a manger, of hope that comes in the surprise of a baby who is the Son of God in human flesh and blood.
    So I call upon you tonight to leave behind the distractions that distance you from the joy and peace of the Savior.  I urge you to leave here the sins that weigh you down with guilt and shame, to leave here sounds of anger and dispute, to let go of the constant battle over who is right and who is wrong, to drop out of the eternal competition to be noticed or recognized.  I ask you to leave here the broken hearts and broken dreams that would consume our every moment and energy, the disappointments and despair we carry around like chains upon our happiness and joy.  Leave these behind so that your ears may be free to hear the song of hope and joy the angels rang out so long ago.
    Christ was born to show us God.  He was born to carry the burdens of all that is wrong with us and in us.  He was born to forgive our sins and reconcile us to the God who made us.  He was born to establish the power of forgiveness to bring together people torn apart by angry words or hurtful actions.  He was born to live the obedient lives we cannot live and to cover us with His holiness and righteousness.  He was born to call us from death's shadows and darkness into the light of His life.  He was born to set us free to walk in newness of life, where self-control replace self-indulgence and hope replaces despair.
    Christmas is no one night performance but the dawn of a whole new life, lived out in the hope and joy of our Incarnate Savior.  The hope, joy, and peace of this night are meant to be our constant possession and the focus of our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds.  Let go of all that competes with the sound of hope sung to night, leave behind all that would distract you from the gift of the manger, and learn to carry this sweet Gospel gift in your daily life both now and even to eternal life.
    Every Sunday is a return to the manger, a return to the Word and Table of the Lord, where God works to clear our heads of all distractions, to cleanse our hearts from all temptations, and to refocus our ears and eyes upon the manger where Christ was first revealed, the cross where His saving purpose was made clear, the empty tomb where His gift was unveiled in its great glory.  Let this not be a one nighter but the dawn of a whole new way of life lived out in the grace, love, hope, and mercy of the Savior we meet in the manger.  For only then will we hear the sound of God’s voice leading and directing us to the peace that passes all understanding and to the anchor of hope that sustains us through life’s storms.  Amen

Too Many Hymns and Carols and Not Enough Services

Every year it is an unacceptable compromise -- which hymns and carols of Christmas do we sing and which do we leave unsung this year.  I wish we had more services so that I could use them all.  It is just as unacceptable for me to leave out the great hymns of Christmas ("All My Heart, this Night Rejoices") as it is to go through Christmas without singing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."  I can only think of one possible solution.  We need about 4 services Christmas Eve, 4 Christmas Day, and then a full complement of services (such as Easter Monday through Wednesday pericopes).  Sadly I might be there mostly alone...

It strikes me funny how each year I hear people say "Well, I did not believe you could have Christmas and not sing ____________________________(fill in the blank)" and the hymn or carol you fill in the blank is different for each person.  It is testament to the power of hymns and carols to shape how we approach the Holy Day and how the message of those hymns and carols can speak to us the wonderful message of hope that is born on Christmas.

I tried a couple of years to leave out "Silent Night" but this was perhaps the biggest mistake of my Pastoral career.  So it was put back in, the final hymn of the evening, with lights low, candles in hand, and organ fading out to silence, until only the voices alone echoed in the Sanctuary... Each and every Christmas Eve these are the final words that are heard as the people leave...  The interesting thing is that they stay, transfixed by the darkness and filled with the emotion of the moment... and who wants that feeling to pass... Ahhh, I don't either.

I must admit that I am most partial also to the Scandinavian hymns and carols of Advent and Christmas -- all those years of getting up so early on Christmas morning for Julotta.  These are not so popular as the German and English hymns and carols, but they are great, too.  I think of "I Am So Glad when Christmas Comes" and I think of my grandparents, family traditions, and the marriage of German and Swedish Christmas customs and traditions -- the way it was when I grew up.

So sing them out and sing them long... the wonderful songs, hymns and carols of Christmas that make it part of all that is wonderful, all that is hope, all that is peace, and all that is joy at the Nativity of our Lord...

Friday, December 24, 2010

He Throws It Around Like a Drunken Sailor

Christmas is about grace.  Not the kind of grace that you sip because it is in short supply, rare, and hard to come by... no, the grace of Christmas is like the bar tab of a drunken sailor -- it is excessive and lavish and scandalously poured out.  But that does not make it cheap!! It is like the wad of cash flashed to a world in poverty and then tossed out into the crowd as if there were no end to it all.  God is not stingy with this grace but remarkably generous and this makes the surprise of grace into a scandal and affront to human sensibility.

We would expect God to be circumspect with this grace -- to make sure that it flowed only to the right kind of people and then only in dribs and drabs.  But God is not like this.  He dishes it out as if it were common -- even though it is the most special of all commodities and the richest of all the treasures the earth has known.  He shows this grace by keeping His promise to people wayward in their piety, wearing only the filthiest rags of righteousness, stinking the awful odor of death, and whose hearts and minds have been so closed off to the reality of their plight they do not see or smell or realize who they are or what they have become.  They look into the mirror and see in clouded vision a decent chap staring back at them -- not perfect but not so bad either.

It is completely unreasonable of this God to be gracious when He has every right to stick to justice and let justice condemn the whole lot of us with one fell swoop of judgment.  But that is not how this God operates.  His justice is cut with mercy as He has determined to become His people's Savior from before the first terrible indiscretion and sin led them down the garden path to doubt, disease, despair, and death.

He darkens the door of our neighborhoods by being born in the alley, in a stable, among the animals within the dirt of their domicile and in the stinking dung of their latrine.  A little hay becomes the bed that should have belonged to a King.  A few shepherds should have been the whole world in kneeling adoration.  Angels sang in sweetness what a world should have proclaimed with gusto.  A Virgin Mother from nowhere's ville and a betrothed husband whose maiden was first the Mother of God before she was his wife -- where did He get this cast of characters?

Ah, but He came to us who were made by Him and we knew Him not.  The lavish and excessive grace of His birth made us fearful more than it bade us come -- what kind of God would be so foolish with His precious grace and what kind of God would stoop so low for a clearly undeserving people? 

In the end the thing that makes Christmas so great is the same thing that makes it so darn hard to take seriously -- it is grace beyond all measure, liberally applied, poured out in richest flowing stream...  That is what we meet in the Manger, what we see in the cross, what we find in the tomb missing its Lord... God grant us the Holy Spirit that this relentless and reckless grace may find in us faith to receive it, hearts to rejoice over it, gratitude to give thanks for it, and courage to share it with others with the same seemingly reckless abandon that God has given it to us...

A Blessed Nativity to all my readers.... Pastor Peters +

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Some beautiful carols... enjoy!

Liturgical Excesses at Christmas

Christmas is often a night of liturgical excess -- no, not so much incense and ancient ritual but trivial stuff added to the service just because it is neat, its cool, we have the technology, we can make it better than it was....  I see a lot of bulletins from my members (who seem to do a lot of traveling for Christmas since this city is less a home town for them than it is the place where they live for now).  Some of the stuff I read about in these bulletins makes me grimace and sigh.  It is not enough to add the candlelight and turn off the lights to sing Silent Night in German, we have to come up with all sorts and kinds of ways to sentimentalize and trivialize the miracle of the manger and the Incarnation.  From sermons written from the vantage point of an animal in the manger to "litanies" asking for people to be "nicer in the coming year" to children stuck in here and there to give them something to do... and then to top it all off, the liturgy itself is often truncated or omitted to "save time."

I suppose at Christmas I should be a bit more charitable and express a little bit more good will toward my fellow Pastors and parishes but it is hard to let some of these things go by.  Now, don't get me wrong, I turn off the lights and sing Silent Night in German and if all goes well, there is not a dry eye in the house by the end of the stanzas and the organ is but a fading echo into the stillness of the night.  It is just that we try to make the night special and the service "different" on the very night when the thing that makes it special is the news of the Incarnation and how Jesus' coming in flesh prepares us for His return in glory.

I am not the Grinch that stole Christmas but I don't think that Santa has a place in Church on Christmas Eve.  Nor do I think that there is ever a time when we should sing "Jingle Bells" on the holiest of nights.  I just wish that we could make it a rule that on Christmas we ditch the strange and the affected in order to be true to the liturgy, the great carols of the season, and the story of His birth.  When people come back to Church for Christmas services, we owe it to them to put on our best face, and that face is the one in which our personalities fade out and Jesus' coming in flesh is front and center.  The liturgy and the great Christmas hymns and carols do that just fine.  Communion, with it incarnational parallels, is, in my mind, essential to the services for the Nativity of Our Lord.

Well, I guess I have vented enough for today. . .

President Harrision is now ALSO a parish Pastor...

Our Synodical President has accepted a call to serve also as a part-time Assistant Pastor at Village Lutheran Church, Ladue, MO....  Read some of the points of His letter announcing this...I have put in bold some of the statements that stand out in his reasoning and are heartening to me as a Parish Pastor of the LCMS for more than 30 years.  The call to this parish is privilege, affirming the locus of the parish as the most vital place where the work of the Synod flows forth, placing the whole of his ministry as Synod President within this pastoral focus, and providing him not only access to parish life but accountability to a specific people in a specific place (pulpit and altar).  I say AMEN to this!

From: Matthew Harrison, President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

Date: December 19, 2010

Grace and peace in Jesus, “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25)!

This morning, Sunday, December 19, 2010, I personally informed the pastor, elders and members of Village Lutheran Church, Ladue, Missouri, that I had accepted the congregation’s call to serve as their assistant pastor. The call was not acted upon hastily, or without significant consultation.

In providing you with the following information, I want to lay out for you a brief explanation of the personal and theological reasons why I am taking this path.

The constitution and bylaws of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod specifically allow the President of the Synod to hold such an office. The bylaws state: The President of the Synod shall be a full-­time executive and shall serve as a voting member of the Board of Directors of the Synod. (a) He shall not be in charge of a congregation or hold a chair at any educational institution but may be called as an assistant pastor, provided such services do not interfere with his official duties as President. (3.3.1)

There are a number of reasons for this action. I shall only note a few items here.

With respect to the Synod’s national office:

Though no President (or congregation) has acted on this privilege for many decades, in its wisdom the Synod recognizes that its President may be a called pastor at a local parish. This was long the practice of the Missouri Synod, and has been the practice of the Lutheran Church in general for most of its history.

• While those of us in national leadership have noted a lessening of local loyalty to the national church, we have less often acknowledged the local perception that the national office has distanced itself from congregations. Accepting this call is my own concrete affirmation of the vital, in fact, most vital role of local congregations and pastors in our mission, mercy, and life together as a Synod (John 10:12-­?16).

• The new structure of the Synod greatly increases the CEO responsibilities of the President. It is more vital than ever that amidst the many tasks of the office, it be carried out pastorally, and with the church’s pastoral and missionary task firmly in focus and close at hand (1 Pet. 5:2).

• In this called, pastoral position, I am directly responsible to the senior pastor and board of elders of Village Lutheran for my preaching and teaching there. I believe it is healthy even (especially!) for the President of Synod to be directly accountable to a local congregation in this way, and to God himself for such a congregation (Heb. 13:17).

With respect to my particular person I note the following.

• St. Paul states, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).

• In the core of my being, I am a pastor. I view life pastorally. I view the mission of the church pastorally (Jer. 3:15). My work at LCMS World Relief and Human Care moved the church’s work of mercy to a pastoral model, closely connecting care with local altars, fonts, and pulpits worldwide.

• I am energized by and find great joy in preaching, teaching, and pastoral visitation (2 Cor. 1:24).

• A called pastoral relationship with a local congregation allows me and my family to be cared for by a group of Christians in a way that would otherwise not occur (Gal. 6:6). Village Ladue recognizes this care as a vocation of service to the Synod.

• My two boys are in high school. Their time at home is short. For ten years they have rarely heard me preach or teach. I desire to preach to my own children in these vital years of their Christian formation. As Synod President I could well be absent every weekend. For the sake of my wife and boys at this stage of our lives, travel must be reasonably limited. Wonderful things may be accomplished for the Missouri Synod over the next number of years, but (God help me) not at the expense of the faith of my own family (Eph. 5:25; 1 Tim. 3:4).

The bylaw states that the president “may be called as an assistant pastor, provided such services do not interfere with his official duties as President.” I note the following:

• This called pastoral position involves preaching once every month or two; teaching the occasional Sunday Bible study; and visiting a handful of shut-­ ins each month (1 Tim. 5:17; Matt. 25:36). It involves no meetings and no administrative duties. I shall receive from this position no compensation, or even reimbursement for mileage. This call is a gift. My service shall be a gift (1 Thess. 2:9). This call is not a so-­called “status call”—a call merely for the purpose of an ordained man being able to remain on the LCMS roster.

• My clear priority is and has to be the called position of Synod President, which is more than full-­time (Luke 17:10; 1 Cor. 15:58).

With respect to district presidents:

• While I have chosen to act upon a matter of freedom, not all district presidents have such freedom in their respective district constitutions, nor are their respective circumstances the same. I will guard each district president’s freedom, right, and responsibility to act as he and his district believe is best for his particular circumstances (2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5:13). Their office alone makes them worthy of our deepest love, support, and continual prayer (2 Cor. 11:28).


Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. . . . Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13:18-­21).

Pastor Matthew Harrison

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Where do we look for the manger?

Like the songs says about lookin for love in all the wrong places, our great temptation is to look for the manger in all the wrong places.  We search out Jesus in the moments of our own accomplishments and the earthly triumphs of our strength, intellect, and cunning (without even realizing the limitations placed upon us by sin and our mortal frames).  We search out Jesus by the light of our moral deeds and our own righteousness (forgetting that they are flawed and frail).  We search out Jesus in silence of earthly peace and gestures of good will (forgetting that Christ's peace is not the same as a ceasefire nor politeness the same as His favor).

God plants the manger not on the rich soil of our successes but in the worn out soil of our failures.  God places the manger not on the carefully crafted foundations laid by our attempts to be holy and good but in the midst of our failed efforts and the stains of our sins.  This is something missed by the greeting card manufacturers who picture Bethlehem as a quaint little town, with a comfortable stable and a picturesque manger.  God planted the manger in the midst of Israel's sleep of doubt and death.  He planted the manger on the neglected hopes and cold dreams of a people who had long before stopped expecting much from God.  In the stink of dung, in the darkness of night, and in the wild loneliness of animals, God put the manger where His Son was laid.

Still that is where we find the manger.  In the moments of our defeat and in the dullness of our senses, Christ is born.  On the soil of our sin and guilt and death, Christ is born among us still.  In the wounds of our suffering and the pain of living as outcasts in a world no longer friendly to God and His purposes, Christ is born among us still.  We do not wait for things to be right, for lives to be fixed, for good behavior, or for achievement in order to see the manger and know the Christ.  He comes as the Light to our darkness not the capstone to our greatness.

We seem to think that in order for us to see God, we need to become great.  In the end we have it backwards.  The greatness of the Lord is that He comes to us in the midst of our sin and failure, darkness and death, to shine with the light of forgiveness, life and salvation.

The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote in 1867 the words that have become a beloved carol:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
    I thought how, as the day had come,

   The belfries of all Christendom
   Had rolled along the unbroken song
   Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:

"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

    "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
    The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good will to men."
Till, ringing singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

In despair I bowed my head.... believing that God must be dead or sleeping or preoccupied because the world is filled the sounds of anger, dispute, hate, and injustice.  Surely God would not plant His manger in such a place!  Or could it be that this is indeed the very place where the manger must be set, where the Savior must be born, and where the Light shines?  Where do you look for the manger?  If you do not see it, perhaps you are looking in all the wrong places.  The bells peal and the light shines where darkness is darkest, where pain hurts its worst, and where there is nothing of goodness and greatness.  For such is the place that needs the manger -- every other place has no need of a Savior... think about it. . .

Where do you go with your fears?

Sermon preached for St. Thomas, December 21, 2011.

Today we remember the Apostle Thomas .  Thomas (Hebrew or Aramaic for “twin”) was also called Didymus (Greek for “twin”); either his parents gave him a very weird name, or he might have had a brother by the same name, or, perhaps, this was a nickname. He was absent when the Risen Lord appeared to the other apostles on the evening of Easter Day.  Miffed at their account, he refused to believe that Christ had indeed risen until he had seen him for himself. I imagine that the other disciples went after him and when he saw Him the following week, he said to Jesus, “My Lord and My God.”

Because of this, he has been known ever since as “Doubting Thomas,” “Disbelieving Thomas” or even “Faithless Thomas.” We all have preached this one to death on the second Sunday of Easter so I am going to look at him from another perspective.

We find stories circulated in the Mediterranean world that he went to preach in India; a community in the Kerala district claims descent from Christians converted by the preaching of Thomas. Among Indian Christians, tradition claims that Thomas was speared to death near Madras, and accordingly is often pictured holding a spear.  Since he was credited with the building up of the Church through his missionary journeys, a carpenter’s square also is a regular symbol of the apostle.

You might remember his earlier words with Jesus, when Jesus announced His intention of going to Jerusalem, even though His life was in danger there: Thomas said to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:7-16) Thus, we see that Thomas was sturdily loyal -- if also a bit foolish for such bravado is what often got Peter in trouble.

You may also remember when Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas was the one who responded, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”   To this Jesus answered: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:1-6)”

John 21 records Thomas as one of the seven disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee when the Lord appeared to them. Aside from these Biblical accounts, he appears only as a name on lists of the Apostles.  And that is about all we know of him except, of course, his famous doubts.

Perhaps Thomas might better be known as honest Thomas, who did not hide his fears under a veneer of piety but put them out into the open for all – even God – to see.  I laud Thomas for being honest enough to speak out loud his fears because I think that too often we do not address those fears.  We bury our fears and our doubt under a thin veneer of piety -- hoping that will make them go away.  But the only way to overcome fears and doubts is to confront them. 

What do we do with our fears?  Where do we go with them?  Pastors have doubts and fears, too.  Some of them about our families, some about our parishes, and many about ourselves. We who are called to speak the word of Christ to the people of God.  We who are given responsibility for saying to God’s people “Thus saith the Lord.  We who must loan our faith to those whose wounds and sorrows have weakened their own.  Where do we go?  We all go to the very same place.  We bring them to Jesus.  Or, someone from among the fellowship of believers goes after us so that we might bring them to Jesus.

Thomas’ mistake was to walk away – to be gone when everyone else was there.  If we run from them, we too will surely miss God’s revelation of Himself.  But if we bring them to Jesus, He will answer them.  Thomas's sin was in missing Church -- a lesson I do not forget to remind folks of on the Second Sunday of Easter.  We cannot overcome our doubts by avoiding the Lord's House, by ignoring His Word, or by absenting ourselves from His Supper.  Just the opposite.  If there is ever to be a chance for us to exclaim with confidence, "My Lord and my God!" it will be because we were near the Lord who comes to us through His Word and is present with us through His Sacraments.

Doubts and fears are part of the way of Christian life -- life lived in the tension between the old Adam still in us and the new person created in baptism.  Life lived in the tension of being in but not of the world.  Life lived in the tension of belonging to Christ in a world that crucified Him.  It is less important that you have doubts and fears, than you know what to do with them.  Today we bring them to Jesus.  Just before Christmas.  When our busy lives become even busier, the failures of the world seem compounded, and our own limitations and failings are even more obvious.  We bring them to Jesus and He bids us meet Him here in His Word and Sacrament.

Interesting, Thomas is never recorded to have actually placed the finger in Jesus' hand or his hand in the wound of Jesus' side.  It was not necessary.  Where Jesus is, our doubts and fears melt away and all we are left with is the joyful confidence that screams out amid a world unfriendly to His cause and our own failed righteousness, "My Lord and my God."  Amen

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holy Obligation

My first call was to a little parish on the east side of the Catskill Mountains.  On Sunday morning we had 150 on a decent Sunday.  But come Christmas Eve and the Church would be filled to capacity for two services.  The folks who could not get themselves into Church during most of the rest of year, understood that Christmas was a day of holy obligation and they were there in force on Christmas Eve.  As much as I was frustrated by their mostly occasional attendance the rest of the year, I was heartened to see that Christmas was deeply embedded in their hearts and lives.  It was as if there was at least a foothold for Jesus and it was fitting enough that this foothold was at Christmas -- the beginning of the story.

I do not sense as much the feeling of holy obligation.  In fact, even "religious" folks are more likely than not to describe Christmas in terms of family celebration, general love and good will, and the particular traditions of their own manner of observing the day.  In fact, attendance by those not so regular on Christmas has, indeed, fallen off.  It is no longer part of the culture of Christmas to gather in Church.

It strikes me odd because even though no one in my family was or is a church worker, Church was always the most central part and deepest of my childhood memories of Christmas.  We would gather for the children's Christmas program on Christmas Eve and then the Divine Service to follow.  On our way out the usher would hand us a brown paper bag in which was the shiniest red apple known to man, some chocolates, some hard candy, and a few peanuts in the shell.  It was a great treat to which we looked forward for the entire year.

Dad was inevitably the last one to leave.  We would sit in the cold car waiting for him to come, shivering in the icy blast of winter, our breath seen even inside the vehicle.  Finally he would come and we would get home late.  No respite there.  About 4 am, my mother would get us up and we would make our way to Grandma & Grandpa's in order to go with them to Julotta -- the Swedish Christmas service that begins at dawn.  Only after a night and day full of Christmas services, would Christmas finally be here.

For most folks in America, Christmas begins and ends without a trip to Church -- much less an evening and day spent in God's House.  My children have learned that Christmas is about Church -- maybe they resent it but it would not matter, it is what goes with my job.  Christmas Eve is spent at Church from 5 pm until nearly midnight.  Then we are back on Christmas Day.  I do not think they resent it anymore than I did of old -- they simply accept it.  This is a holy day, a day of holy obligation.  We come for the manger that was where Christ was first come, for the Christ who is here in Word and Sacrament, and to prepare for the Christ who is coming again.

Christmas has become more and more about things other than Christ and less and less the holy obligation of the faithful to remember His coming, receive from His presence, and prepare for what is to come.  In the end I find this terribly sad.  If I could go back in time, those Christmas Eve late nights and early Christmas morning would be high on my list of moments to repeat again and share with my wife and my children.  So in the end we offer to our children less and less to remember, less and less to receive, and less and less to expect.  It becomes more about us than about Him.  It becomes a Christmas every Jew or Muslim can celebrate right along with us and get out of it about the same as most folks who might identify as Christian.  And that is a particularly sad thought to have so close to Christmas....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph? Who is this guy and what part does He have in Jesus' story?

    The last Sunday in Advent is traditionally Mary's Day.  On this day we hear of the visit of the angel, her consent to be the Mother of our Lord, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and her song, the Magnificat.  We marvel at her faith and faithfulness and struggle to be as trusting of God, as confident of His will, and as peaceful amid life's changes as was this Virgin Mother.  But not this year.  Matthew talks about Joseph.  Joseph??? Who is he?
    Today we remember Joseph, not the father of Jesus, but the guardian whom the Lord chose just as He chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus.  He is the oft forgotten one in the story of Jesus' birth.  Today we take a look at this man whom God placed to be father figure, teacher, example of faith, protector and defender of the Holy Family.  What kind of a man was he?
    Joseph had been betrothed to Mary, a year long engagement process that began with the meeting of the families and ended with a marriage celebration banquet.  But early on in this process Joseph found that Mary was pregnant.  With a child from the Holy Spirit.  Now the idea of a virgin birth was not so crazy in Joseph's day.  Whether a virgin birth is possible is a question only a modern scientific world would ask. A virgin birth was not so crazy to people of the New Testament period.  It was a common belief that the great men at the time, from Plato to Alexander, had been born without human father. Maybe a virgin birth did not strike Joseph as far fetched as it does us today.  But Joseph would be shocked by our modern reproductive technology, where science has replaced mystery and conception is something we control instead of God.
    So perhaps the usual perspective on Joseph is not the only way to see him.  Perhaps Joseph's shock at the pregnancy and his suspicion that Mary had been unfaithful and was unworthy of marrying him, were not the only things to stick out of this story.
    The usual take on this is that Joseph didn't really get it until the angel appeared to him in a dream.  I found that some in the early church had a quite different view. Matthew tells us Mary was "found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." Found by whom? Well, by Joseph.  Could this suggest he already got it that the babe in her womb was from the Holy Spirit.  So why did he plan to dismiss her, being a righteous man?  Being righteous does not mean morally superior but is a way of affirming a person’s faith – Joseph was a god fearing man.  A God-fearing man might assume that since Mary's child is of God, Mary herself belongs to God, and perhaps the best thing for him to do would be to quietly step out of the picture.
    Why does the angel say "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife." Why would he be afraid if he were angry over his fear that Mary had been unfaithful to him.  Could it be that what he feared was not scandal or public humiliation but God?  Could it be that Joseph stepped back from this whole situation as did Moses who took off his shoes when he realized he was standing on holy ground?  Could it be that this was Joseph’s holy ground and, in deference to God, he stepped back until God assured him that Joseph had a place and a purpose in God’s plan – just as Mary did?
    Joseph was a just man.  He was not simply fair minded but open to the wisdom of the Lord.  He was a God-fearing man.  He was a compassionate man who desired no harm to Mary.  He was a pious man whose concern was not himself or Mary but the Lord.  When the Lord assured him that he had a place and a purpose in the unfolding drama of the incarnation of God's Son through the Virgin Mary, Joseph accepted the call of the Lord and did what was good and right before the Lord.  This is the perspective of faith.
    Joseph was a man of faith who trusted in the Word of the Lord without fear for himself or his own future.  It was God's will that was most important and Joseph was obedient to the will and purpose of God.  He would do what the Lord required of him – without fear and without regret.  Such is the measure of the man whom God chose to be father figure and guardian of His only-begotten Son.  So God chose well both the Virgin whom He set apart to be Mother of our Lord and Joseph whom He set apart as guardian protector.
   What we see in Joseph is grace under pressure.  He teaches us by his own example.  He shows us the justice and wisdom of God are to rule our hearts and minds and our relationships with others.  God's way is the path on which we are to walk.  He encourages us not to be quick to judge the Lord but patient and faithful.  He shows us how to apply God’s compassion and charity to our relationships with one another.  The compassion of God is what is to rule our earthly relationships and love is the dominion of faith and faithfulness.
    What we see in Joseph is faith to inspire our own faith in God when everything around us screams no, God's "Yes" is what we will hold on to.  What we see in Joseph is trust in the Lord when our eyes, minds, and hearts are filled with fear, uncertainty, or doubt.  We will trust in God who does not disappoint us.
    Finally, Joseph teaches us the path of obedience.  It is not only that we believe the Word of the Lord but we follow in its way.  We walk with the Word as the light on our path, encouraging obedience in us and showing us the path on which the obedient will walk upon.  How do we keep God's Word without walking in the way He has called us?  Such is the example of Joseph who did not only believe in his heart but acted upon that faith to walk in God's way.
    We know Mary's story so well we hardly need to hear it again to break out into her song and to ponder with her the grace of God shown to her and through her to us.  But Joseph we do not know so well.  Yet his story is an equally compelling story of justice, compassion, faith and obedience.  He was a godly man, a God-fearing man, a man of faith.  Now, as we come to the end of this Advent season and prepare to enter into Christmas, we face challenges to our faith, impediments to our joy, limits to our understanding, and tensions in our earthly relationships.  Will we trust in the Lord as did Joseph of old.  Joseph’s example speaks powerfully of the way faith plays out in the lives of God’s people.  May we follow him as He followed the Lord.  May we find place and purpose in God’s plan as Joseph did of old.  May we learn faith and charity from Joseph, and see how to live out our lives of grace under the pressure of the world around us and our own hearts inside of us.  Amen.

Wait upon the Lord.

Sermon preached on Advent 3, Sunday, December 12, 2010.

    The call of Advent is to slow down.  It is not Christmas – at least not yet. But Advent is not some speed bump on the way to a busy holiday season.  We slow down our urgent pace in order to be patient, to live patient lives, to trust in the Lord when dark the road or confusing the path.  Advent is a call not to rush the Lord or push Him along, but to wait upon the Lord and to await His revelation of the right time, the fullness of time, the ripe moment, and fruitful time.
    Who wants to wait?  Who wants to slow down.  Life is short, the world moves fast.  We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare but none of us wants to be anything but the rabbit.  Amid all the other terrible crosses we must bear in this life, God places one more burden on us and tells us to wait on Him, to wait upon His timing, and to trust in Him when everything around us says nothing is happening.  Why, Israel waited thousands of years before the Christmas darkness dawned with light and hope.  Who could blame them for giving up on God and turning their attention away from Him and on to themselves?  We may wait even longer for the story of Christ to be finished; will we also grow impatient and turn away from the Lord and on to ourselves?
    Be patient, God asks of us.  You know the Word of the Lord, the Spirit dwells within you – transforming your mind  – what you hope for and desire is on its way - just not yet.  The example of the farmer.  I grew up around the farm, in a farming community and the farmer does a whole lot of waiting.  It is not the idle waiting of a wait and see attitude but the purposeful waiting of one who knows what is his to do and what is not.  If the seeds were planted, the soil fertilized, the crops weeded, then it is up to the God of heaven to finish it.  It is a purposeful waiting as the farmer does for the harvest.  This is the patient and purposeful waiting God's people do upon the Lord.  We wait for what we know is coming – not for what ifs or what might be.  We wait not to see what the conclusion might be but because we know the outcome in Christ.
    We wait as strangers wait to be shown the way.  As you must wait upon those who know the place better than you, we wait upon the Lord.  He has already died and rose to new life.  He has already ascended to the heavenly places.  We wait for Him because He knows the way and only He can lead us where we need to go.  We wait for Him because He knows where we are going.  He is the author, the pioneer, the first born of those who will follow Him.  So we wait for Him who knows the way.
    We wait as people wait for the honored guests to come.  In the East, it is not the front of the line that is the honored place but the end of the line.  Now you would never know that from one of our pot lucks.  We wait upon the Lord as those who wait for Him who is the last to come, the bridegroom who comes to the wedding.  We wait upon the Lord in honor of Him who is the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.  The party will not begin until He comes to begin it.  So we wait for Him and are busy with His work until He comes.
    We wait upon the Lord in whatever circumstances our lives are in – we don't head out to the mountain top to camp out for the Lord.  Peter was so full of himself he missed the absurdity of three tents on the Mount of Transfiguration.  We don't go somewhere else to wait for the Lord to finish His new creation.  We wait upon the Lord right where we are at – in the bonds of marriage, within our human families, as workers for our employers, and as good citizens of our communities.  We wait where we are at, doing what we do as vocation from the Lord, for the Lord to come and finish this new creation.
    This means that sufferings and trials cannot be avoided.  As long as wear this human flesh and blood, we will bear the marks of life's struggles.  Like Job of old who was wounded and alone and still remained faithful to God, so we find ourselves often alone, hurting, and struggling.  I have never met anyone who wanted to be like Job but in many respects we are all like Job.  We wear the scars of the past, the bleeding wounds of our fallen mortality, and we lament what we cannot understand and what has made us seem so terribly alone.  But, like Job, we trust in the Lord.  We wait for the Lord.  Faith waits for the fullness of God’s grace and mercy to unfold when everything around us says “no” – faith says “yes!”
    We wait in the certain hope and confidence that the Lord will keep His Word.  The prophets of old had little understanding of God's ways but they knew enough to trust the Word of the Lord to deliver what it says.   None of them knew exactly how the Word of the Lord they spoke would actually unfold over time and history.  They did not need to know this.  They knew the Lord was trustworthy and true.  So they called the people to wait upon the Lord in repentance and faith.  The same goes for us.
    We do not have a crystal ball to see tomorrow before it happens.  Like the prophets of old who spoke within nothing but their confidence in the God who keeps their promises, so do hold onto God's Word and wait upon the Lord.  It is not as if we are not resigned to trusting in the Lord.  We trust Him because He is trustworthy, we wait for Him because He delivers on what He has promised.  We wait as a people who expect what God has promised.  So we cling to His Word because that Word holds of our future in it.
    We have seen the manger.  We have watched the cross.  We have looked into the empty tomb.  Because we have seen God's works in the past, we wait for the greater mercy and grace to be revealed when He comes in His glory to finish what these began.  We have met Him in the baptismal water.  We have met Him in the absolution.  We have met Him in the bread which is His body and the cup of His blood.  Because we have received the grace given to us in the Word and Sacraments, we wait for the finishing of the new creation, for the fulfillment of our hope, and the final unveiling of our own future in Him.
    Fools are always rushing in where the brave and wise dare not tread.  We are no different.  We run through life indulging ourselves while ignoring the cost of such self-indulgence.  We allow the distractions of the moment to steal our hope.  We allows the press of our desires and our want for things to happen right away to erode our faith and confidence in God.  We take upon ourselves the things which belong only to God.  We live with our fears instead of laying those fears before the cross.  Today we are told to be patient.  To wait upon the Lord.  Not to presume but to have faith, not to work it our for ourselves but to place our confidence in the grace of God revealed in Christ our Savior.
    You have grace to guide you through each day, You have God's presence and peace as Your constant companions.  You have the track record of God's words kept and His works revealed in the past.  So be patient.  All you need is trust – God has all the rest covered.  All you need is faith, God will do all else.