Friday, September 30, 2011

Dogma Does Not Develop...

John Henry Newman has been undergoing a resurgence and it is not salutary for orthodox catholic faith and confession.  Newman's rather famous claim to fame is the development of the idea that doctrine develops -- that dogma is not so much witness to unchanging truth but the evolution of truth.  It fits in well with the idea that Scripture is neither exclusive source or norm of Christian faith and life.  Tradition, papal authority, even conciliar authority may define new dogma.  There are those (Bart Ehrmanites) who like this idea and who constantly suggest that the Christianity of the Church is very different from the Christ of history.  They love conspiracy theories and posit Christian history with all the intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel as doctrines develop and heroes and anti-heroes duke it ought for whose dogma will endure and reign supreme.  What I have written here is not really historical survey as much as it is my frustration with the way this idea of doctrinal development has taken hold and become normative for Rome and even for those outside Rome.  For example, the ELCA and its decision to change teaching about gays and lesbians has, in effect, decided that doctrine has evolved past Scripture and its particular words to this regard.

Anyway, I ran across a quote from George Florovsky in this regard.  I like it because it is especially appropriate and especially blunt:

'Dogma is by no means a new Revelation. Dogma is only a witness. The whole meaning of dogmatic definition consists of testifying to unchanging truth, truth which was revealed and has been preserved from the beginning. Thus it is a total misunderstanding to speak of 'the development of dogma.' Dogmas do not develop; they are unchanging and inviolable, even in their external aspect — their wording. Least of all is it possible to change dogmatic language or terminology. As strange as it may appear, one can indeed say: dogmas arise, dogmas are established, but they do not develop. And once established, a dogma is perennial and already an immutable 'rule of faith' ('regula fidei'; o kanon tis pisteos, ο κανων της πιστεως). Dogma is an intuitive truth, not a discursive axiom which is accessible to logical development. The whole meaning of dogma lies in the fact that it is expressed truth. Revelation discloses itself and is received in the silence of faith...'

HT to Pr Mark Henderson...

Making the world safe for Islam

The man you see to the left is a Christian Pastor in Iran.  He is also under sentence of death.  Not because he is a criminal.  Only because he is a Christian.  He was never a practicing Muslim.  He did not really convert from Islam.  Apparently that does not matter.  Iran's religious rulers use the nation's court system to enforce their sharia law.  Christianity does not fit their idea of Iran.  So this Christian Pastor is not only a criminal for being Christian but is being used as an example to those who may  be tempted by the Gospel and to those who are not practicing Muslims.  Scarey, isn't it.  But true.

You can read all about it here.  The report is from Terry Mattingly.  I will not reproduce it all here but I encourage you to read it.  And then to ask yourself, Where is the outrage????  We got all excited about a couple of Americans hiking too close and imprisoned in Iran.  And rightfully so.  But where is the media, where is the outrage, where is the protest against the treatment of this man and his faith.  God forbid that any of us might be subject to such persecution and threat of death.  But.... would that we stood as firm and unwavering in the face of this threat!  Look into the faces of his two boys and his wife.... what lies ahead for them?  I urge you to write to our government and use every means to appeal to Iran to reconsider its verdict of death.  Apparently the religious leaders of Iran see the Gospel as a real and credible threat.  And they should.  But let us not remain silent about this man and the principle of religious tolerance.  Christians in America are accused of homophobia, Islamaphobia, and all sorts of things by those who cry out from the left.  Where are those voices in support of this man, this family, and this cause????

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another heads up fron the Synod regarding changes made in 2010

Election of Delegates to Circuit Forums
Prior to the 2010 LCMS convention, Circuit Forums (official gatherings of representatives of the congregations of a circuit) were required to meet prior to national Synod conventions to conduct essential convention-related business. This has not changed.


Circuit forums now must also meet prior to district conventions to handle two essential items of business:
  • Selection of a circuit counselor for the 2012-2015 triennium (for ratification by the convention)
  • Adoption of overtures for district convention consideration, including recommendations for synodwide mission and ministry emphases for the 2013-2016 Synod triennium
WITH DISTRICT CONVENTIONS BEGINNING AS EARLY AS JANUARY 2012, congregations must plan now to elect their circuit forum representatives (Synod Bylaw 5.3.2):
The circuit forum consists of a pastor of each congregation [of the circuit] and one member of each congregation designated by the congregation.
IT IS TIME FOR CONGREGATIONS TO SCHEDULE VOTERS MEETINGS to elect official circuit forum representatives.  Specific information regarding the business to be addressed by these circuit forums will be provided in future mailings.
Raymond L. Hartwig
LCMS Secretary

The Gates of Hell

We all know the text.  At Caesarea Philippi, the Lord is with His disciples.  He asks who they [the people} say that He is.  Peter speaks the bold confession.  "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!"  Then the Lord confers upon Peter and His Church the power of the keys to Heaven: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of the hall shall not prevail against it.”

What intrigues me about this text is how often we get the whole image wrong.  The Church becomes the city whose gates are being charged.  The Church becomes the sturdy and strong fortress that repels the raiders and is defended by the almighty power of God.  Now to be sure, this is the promise of the Lord -- the Church will endure against all her enemies -- but the whole image here is wrong.  The gates of the Church are not being attacked.  The Church is attacking the gates of hell and hell's gates cannot prevail against the onslaught of the the people of God armed with the might of His Word (the Word of mercy that forgives sins).

If we expand this a little, the whole image gets messed up in the minds of God's people by the way we have traditionally seen these words.  The city's weakest point are the gates, the place of entrance.  The walls and their defenses are strong but the gate is the most vulnerable point of the city.  The image here is not of God's city being attacked and repelling the attackers but the the city of the devil being attacked by the warriors of God.  His Church is the mighty army that does not attack from behind or from the side but head on.  At the very gates of hell, the Church of Christ marches in with all the power of the Lord God almighty on her side.  Truly "Onward Christian Soldiers."

Let's unpack it even more.  The city belongs and the attackers have entered onto the property of the city and its rulers.  The image here is of the world, claimed by the devil from the Fall.  He presumes to tempt the Son of God and bring Him down but Jesus will not be overcome.  The devil lays claim to the earth and all its inhabitants and flaunts his claim before the Lord (the story of Job).  The intruder is God and His people.  He comes into the very domain of sin, death, and the devil to overcome His enemies and ours.  He mounts the battle with His very flesh and blood.  He is nailed to the cross and while the devil snickers in delight, He has won the battle.  All that is left to the Church is to charge the gates with His victory song.

In addition, this works well with Jesus words of warning to His disciples of the treatment they will find, the suffering they will endure, the persecution they will face, and even the rejection they will meet.  The Church is in but not of the world and yet the Church barges into the domain once claimed by sin, death, and the devil with the Word of the Cross and it breaks the doors of the enemy.

I will have to admit that this is an evolving awareness within me and it represents a little break with the way this text was explained to me in Sunday school and preached to me over the years (and even with the way I preached this text from my early years as a Pastor).  Truly it represents and even fuller measure of the confidence and boldness the Spirit gives to us (and the way it transformed a fearful and reluctant band of disciples into the stormtroopers of Pentecost Sunday.  

This is even more comforting than the image of a refuge fortress repelling attackers.  We are those who dare to stand before hell's gates with the good news of the cross.  Truly it parallels the idea of Holy Cross Day, in which the very instrument of seeming defeat becomes the agent of Christ's triumph.  Perhaps we can think of the cross as a battering ram against sin, death, and the devil, against a people captive to darkness, and against a world marked and claimed by the enemy, but retaken by God in Christ.  Truly the image shifts our understanding of the Church as weak and vulnerable but kept by God from ultimate harm to a people endowed with the power of the Gospel through which God acts....

Bell Giving Himself to the World

Unless you have you head in the sand, you have heard of the controversy about Mars Hill (Grandville, MI) pastor Rob Bell and his most recent book.  It seems that the good pastor has set his sights higher than this congregation in Michigan and is giving himself to the whole world.

On Thursday (Sept. 22), up-and-coming pastor Rob Bell announced he's leaving Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich. in December. Bell's best-selling book, "Love Wins," raised more than a few eyebrows with the premise that hell doesn't include eternal torment. Now he's moving on.

"Our founding pastor, Rob Bell, has decided to leave Mars Hill in order to devote his full energy to sharing the message of God's love with a broader audience," the church said in a statement.

My point in this is that he is not the first to figure out that his books sell, that books make money, and that he needs to be free from the constraints of the local church in order to capitalize upon his books and speaking tour.  We have a host of popular pastors who are even more popular authors -- for whom the ministry is either a sideline or a stepping stone to bigger and better things.  Who expects that Hybels, Warren, Osteen, Lucado or Bell spent all that much time in pastoral duties, anyway.  They are there as figureheads, faces of a larger "ministry," and presences in the pulpit.  There comes a time, however, when the local congregation can get in the way of their expanding career possibilities.  Maybe a fellow like Osteen cannot trade his center stage TV moments away yet but perhaps the time will come when even this cannot contain his enlarged personality and presence.  For Bell, that time came and went and the congregation had to go.  Not that the congregation is entirely sad.  Even a new age, non-denominational, emergent church needs a real leader whose presence is there day to day and whose mind is on the church and its people.  Bell simply got to the point where he had to choose and he chose to give himself to the wider audience and leave behind the constraints of a local congregation.

I note that it did not take long for his peers in the mega pastor publishing industry to second guess his decision.  Within hours of the Mars Hill announcement, best-selling author and Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren was on Twitter, saying pastors who leave churches have less impact and no base for credibility.  Another commented that this was not the train wreck Warren envisioned (but this came from a representative of a literary agency that represents megachurch pastors -- did you get that? -- a literary agency that represents megachurch pastors!)  Perhaps it is my own sour grapes that I do not even have a dog who worships me much less a publicity manager or literary agent to hawk my wares.  Then again, even Methodism founder John Wesley gave up a settled pulpit to be an itinerant preacher.

In today's world, book tours and online virtual relationships are not enough to sustain a pastor's moral authority. Ya think?!?!  It all reminds me of a conversation with a professional church worker who complained that he was like Rodney Dangerfield -- nobody gave him any respect.  My answer was that respect is not a given -- it is earned.  Pastors have long since left behind the days when authority came with the collar alone.  It is pastoral presence at the sick bed, in the funeral home, counseling and hearing confession, preaching and teaching, presiding at the Sacraments, listening to long phone calls late at night, and sitting with people in their pain when nary a word is spoken...  Authority comes with the office and the office is not some theoretical entity but the practical place where the means of grace touch the lives of God's people through the flesh and blood instrument of the Pastor.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


University Lutheran Chapel will have to leave its home for, what, 60 years, now that the District has executed a sale order with a company that will turn the property into upscale loft housing.  Fortunately, the District will give the Campus Ministry a whopping $35K to find a new home on or near or perhaps in North Dakota in which they may continue reaching out to the students at the University of Minnesota.  Pardon my sarcasm but it just plain stinks.  It might have been one thing if the ministry were failing and the building unused but that is not the case... SHAME on you MNS..... SHAME on you..... Though it will be too late for ULC, now is the time for the good people of MNS to make a change in leadership from the DP to the Treasurer to the BoD.... Sold down the river for a pot of lentils... by your brothers and sisters in Christ...

Religious Suppression Claimed At Vanderbilt

After reading a couple of online articles in The Tennessean and then another report on Fox it seems that this is not much ado about nothing.

According to Fox: 
Is Vanderbilt University flirting with the suppression of religion? Yes, according to Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Law School. Specifically, Swain is referring to four Christian student groups being placed on "provisional status" after a university review found them to be in non-compliance with the school’s nondiscrimination policy. Vanderbilt says the student organizations cannot require that leaders share the group’s beliefs, goals and values. Carried to its full extent, it means an atheist could lead a Christian group, a man a woman’s group, a Jew a Muslim group or vice versa.  To read more, click here.

According to The Tennessean:
Vanderbilt has asked “a dozen or so” student groups, including five religious ones, to come into compliance with the policy, which says the Nashville school doesn’t discriminate against individuals based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Those groups, which the university declined to identify, have been given provisional status for the time being but could ultimately lose access to Vanderbilt funding and facilities if they don’t comply.

“We are committed to making our campus a welcoming environment for all of our students,” Vanderbilt said in a statement after declining to make administrators available for interviews Monday. But members and advisers of some of the groups said they were being unfairly singled out for expecting their officers to hold certain beliefs. The Vanderbilt chapter of the Christian Legal Society has rewritten its bylaws to include language that supports the university’s diversity policies. But when Vanderbilt asked the club to remove a requirement that the group president lead Bible studies, the club drew the line.  To read more, click here.

And more from The Tennessean:

Groups affected included the Christian Legal Society, InterVarsity and the graduate chapter of Campus Crusade. These organizations face an uncertain future because of a new policy that prohibits religious organizations from requiring that their leaders share the same beliefs and goals of the organizations they seek to lead. The policy goes one step further by hamstringing Bible studies.
According to a letter from the acting director of the Office of Religious Life, Bible studies are suspect because they “would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs.’’ The letter goes on to explain: “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers.’’
If this policy is implemented, it will make it harder for the students to have on-campus fellowship with like-minded believers and it will make it more difficult for them to grow in or even maintain their faith while on campus. The policy sends a clear message to students: religious associations are not a valued or respected part of the university’s ideological diversity.  To read more, click here.

Universities and colleges around the country are increasingly seeking to impose secular ideology upon religious organizations under the guise of political correctness.  This is pseudo liberalism and it is threatening the whole fabric of education.  What ever happened to the free exchange of ideas?  Could it be that only certain ideas are to be tolerated?

Wanna mix it up even more???  Vanderbilt is home to Vanderbilt Divinity School -- a highly acclaimed and thoroughly liberal seminary and school of religion.  Naturally, Vanderbilt officials refused to be interviewed or questioned.  So when you put it all together, it seems that we are left with one conclusion.  Religion is good if it serves the liberal purpose and it is bad if it does not.  Therefore, religious freedom cannot be allowed if it conflicts with other freedoms that have first priority.  I wonder if this is what you learn at Vanderbilt Divinity School?  For what it is worthy, a pretty conservative Lutheran went to Vanderbilt -- namely, Concordia Theological Seminary President Larry Rast!  Of course this was long before the current dust up.  I have no doubt that Vanderbilt is a highly rated and liberal flagship school.  It ranks consistently on the upper tiers of college ratings by all sorts of magazines and reviews.  My only question is whether or not you can go to Vanderbilt and remain a Christian while you are there...  Just a cynical thought from a fellow who lives 40 minutes up the road from the campus....

Lutherans are not dead yet...

Well, it comes as no surprise that the numbers of Lutherans in the US is down about 10%, 11% in Sweden, and 17% in Germany.  We all know that.  What may come as a surprise is that the number of Lutherans in the so-called third world or second tier countries is booming!

Lutherans in Nigeria have increased 390%, Ethiopia up 495%, Slovakia up 631%, the Netherlands up 782% (what's up here???) and, are you ready, up 1,379% in India!  Wow!  Lutherans are exploding in some parts of the world.  There are more Lutherans in India and the Netherlands than in the ELCA, about the same size as the Wisconsin Synod in Slovakia, and more Lutherans in Ethiopia and Nigeria than in all the US Lutheran groups combined!

These Lutherans have been paying attention to what we in the West seem to have forgotten -- the vibrancy of our Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel faith.  Would that we were experiencing the same kind of growth!  Whether or not we realize it, the promise is there.  Where we are faithful, God brings much fruit.  Sometimes that fruit is seen in growth in numbers; other times it is in growth in faith and maturity.  I just wish we actually believed what we confessed -- that God works through the means of grace.

Funny... and then!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sour Grapes...

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 21A, preached on Sunday, September 25, 2011.

    I looked up the phrase "sour grapes" only to find that the source given was not the Bible nor Ezekiel but an Aesop fable.  In Aesop's fable the Fox and the Grapes, we have a fox driven by hunger who tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine.  He jumped with all his strength as high as he could but they were beyond his reach. As he went away, the fox said smugly, "Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! Well, I didn't want sour grapes anyway."  Sour grapes refer to our anger, disappointment, and offense when things do not go as planned, promised, or anticipated.  I guess that counts most of us in.  Sour grapes describe us pretty well - at least some of the time.
    But today we did not listen to an Aesop fable.  We heard the prophet Ezekiel tell of the sour grapes eaten by the fathers that set their children's teeth on edge.  In other words, the people of God complained that when God did not punish the evil doer who repents, He was soft and when He gives the sinner his just reward, He was hard and callous.  But God speaks plainly of simply wanting all people to turn from the error of their ways and return to Him that they may be forgiven and restored.  Being a parent must be sort of like being God – you are damned of you do and damned if you don't.  God cannot win.  If He calls us to repentance, we complain, “Who me?  What about those other folks and their sins?”  If He forgives the public sinner, we complain, “Where is God’s justice?  Why if He only knew how bad those people really were!”
    The remarkable thing is that God still calls people to repentance – his experience with calling to repentance not working out so good.  Jesus points to all of this in the Gospel for today with the story of two sons – one who said no to his father and then relented and did the father's will and one who said yes but then never did what he had been asked.  So which one actually did the will of the father?  It seems an easy enough question to answer but the answer rubbed the religious leaders the wrong way.  For implicit in the answer is that they were not obedience or righteous but some unlikely folks were.  They did not like Jesus’ tone.
    The common complaint is that God is not fair.  Well, we heard about that last week.  And just maybe a few voices from within our own congregation have made the same complaint today.  What we forget is that refusing God's grace, means rejecting His promise.  You do not come to God on your terms.  Each of us meets God on His terms.  If we complain that God is merciful, it implies that we think we have earned His favor.  If we accept His mercy, then it implies that we are sinners and cannot earn His favor.  Either way we judge God as the one at fault – and not us.  It is sour grapes.
    God's greatest authority is not His wrath but His love.  God's greatest power lies not in the lightening sent from heaven but the Son whom He delivered up to be our Savior.  It is not His power to condemn but the power of His mercy that is without comparison. The real authority of God is His love.  His love forgives the guilty evildoer, forgives the wicked who confesses his wickedness, and forgives the sinner all his sins - no matter how great.  The engine of forgiveness is fueled by the obedient suffering and life giving death of Jesus Christ and not by our worth or merit.  To reject Christ is to reject what Christ has won and what He offers us freely - forgiveness, life, salvation.
    God never stops speaking mercy.  He calls to us in mercy.  Even the voice of the Law that calls us to repentance is sent forth in mercy.  When we hear and heed His call and repent of our sinful ways, He always forgives.  He does not forgive because we repent but because of Jesus Christ.  Repentance is God's work in us to prepare our hearts to receive what Christ has won for us. Every sinner is welcomed by God with the heavenly gift and grace that none of us deserves.  Whether we be the temple authorities so familiar with the house of God or the prostitutes and tax collectors so familiar with the house of sin.  It does not matter where we come from, but only that grace receives us.
    But, we complain.... it is not enough.  Israel rejected God because He showed mercy to those they did not think deserved it.  The dilemma for the religious leaders was John – do we honor him as prophet and heed his call (though we think ourselves better than that) or do we reject him and his call as without authority?  Ultimately it was the same dilemma with Jesus.
    It is all just sour grapes.  When Israel found our that the mercy of God was offered to all, Israel decided they did not want it so much.  When the people who believe that they are righteous hear that the path of God is repentance, they decide they do not want what God offers if to get it you have to go through confession and forgiveness.  Sour grapes.  Bitterness.  Resentment.
    Sour grapes always produces bad wine.  That is what we are left with.  Sour grapes and bad wine.  I am going to be blunt here.  There are plenty of folks among us, me included, who complain that we do not get what we deserve.  We figure that we are better than those abject sinners around us and God ought to know this and treat us differently.  We assume that because we are who we are, we should get better from God.  And that is the point.  It is because we are who we are that the only path to God is through repentance, contrition, confession, and absolution.
    They say in politics that the candidate who changes his mind is doomed.  People do not like candidates who change their minds.  Well, I do not know about politics of it all but God loves those who change their minds.  In fact, He makes that change of mind and heart possible by the gift of His Spirit.  God loves those who let go of their air of righteousness and, by the power of His Spirit, end up on their knees before Him.  In fact, God is in the business of changing minds. He takes the mind and heart of the stubborn sinner and the Lord changes that sinner through repentance, confession, and forgiveness.
    I can't tell you how many husbands and wives, parents and children, come to me for counseling and say, "I can't change.  I am who I am.  You will just have to love and accept me for who I am."  Baloney!  God is in the change business.  By the God's grace and the power of His Spirit, change is all around us - and within us.  To say you can't change or you really did not want or believe in the first place is sour grapes.  Change is how God works and it is all God’s work!
    So what will it be?  The sour grapes of those who complain that they did not need saving or the humble heart that confesses we are, indeed, sinners?  Repentance, confession and absolution keeps the focus right where it must be – upon the Lord.... that is where God meets us today...  And if, by the grace of the Spirit we hear His Word, heed His voice, and meet Him there, good fruit is born and great wine is made.  The authority of the Gospel is what calls us here today where the Word equips us with faith, builds within us repentant hearts, and instills within us the means to receive the grace of absolution and His power of transformation.  So let us not be the fox who complains because he decided he did not really want what was outside his grasp.  Let us hear and heed the call of Christ and meet Him in His Word.  There the sinful find forgiveness, the guilty find righteousness, and the dying find life.  Amen.

One of the Great Christian Poets and Hymnwriters of all time...

HT to Paul McCain and Ben Mayes...

Thanks for pointing out the day we remember the good work of this mighty man of faith.  His story is revealed not in the pain of his suffering but the sturdy and steadfast faith of his hymns and poetry.

Thanks to my colleague, Rev. Benjamin Mayes, for his fine translating work. This is a statement that Paul Gerhardt wrote on the occasion of his 70th birthday. It has been referrred to as his “testament” for lack of a better word to describe what this is. It is quite moving and powerful. He addressed it to his son. This, once again, amply destroys the myth that Paul Gerhardt was some sort of Pietist yearning to run free of the shackles of Lutheran Orthodoxy, a very, very common myth, sadly, even among a number of Lutherans, who really should know better. He offers absolutely wonderful advice here that we all do well to heed. For instance, when anger wells up in us, then we do well to say nothing but to pray the Ten Commandments and the Creed.

The So-Called “Testament” of Paul Gerhardt for His Son (Early 1676)

Now that I have reached the 70th year of my life and also have the joyful hope that my dear, holy God will soon rescue me out of this world and lead me into a better life than I have had until now on earth, I thank Him especially for all His kindness and faithfulness which, from my mother’s womb until the present hour, He has shown me in body and soul and in all that He has given me. Besides this, I ask Him from the bottom of my heart that when my hour comes He would grant me a happy departure, take my soul into His fatherly hands, and give my body a peaceful rest in the ground until the dear Last Day, when I, with all of my [family] who have been before me and also may remain after me, will reawake and behold my dear Lord Jesus Christ face to face, in whom I have believed but have not yet seen. To my only son whom I am leaving behind I leave few earthly goods, but with them I leave him an honorable name of which he will not have to be ashamed.

My son knows that from his tender childhood I have given him to the Lord my God as His possession, that he is to become a servant and preacher of His holy Word. He is to remain now in this and not turn away from it, even if he has only few good days in it. For the good Lord knows how to handle it and how sufficiently to replace external troubles with internal happiness of the heart and joy of the spirit.
Study holy theologiam [“theology”] in pure schools and at unfalsified universities and beware of the syncretists [those who mix religions or confessions], for they seek what is temporal and are faithful to neither God nor men. In your common life do not follow evil company but rather the will and command of your God. Especially: (1) Do nothing evil in the hope that it will remain secret, for nothing is spun so small that it is not seen in the light of day. (2) Outside of your office and vocation do not become angry. If you notice that anger has heated you up, remain still and speak not so much as a word until you have first prayed the Ten Commandments and the Christian Creed silently. (3) Be ashamed of the lusts of the flesh, and when you one day come to the years in which you can marry, then marry with God and with the good advice of pious, faithful, and sensible people. (4) Do good to people even if they have nothing with which to repay you, for the Creator of heaven and earth has long since repaid what humans cannot repay: when He created you, when He gave you His beloved Son, and when He accepted you in Holy Baptism as His child and heir. (5) Flee from greed as from hell. Be satisfied with what you have earned with honor and a good conscience, even if it is not all too much. But if the good Lord gives you something more, ask Him to preserve you from the burdensome misuse of temporal goods.

In summary: Pray diligently, study something honorable, live peacefully, serve honestly, and remain unmoved in your faith and confessing. If you do this, you too will one day die and depart from this world willingly, joyfully, and blessedly. Amen.

[Translated by Benjamin T. G. Mayes, 5/4/2007]

German TV has done (in English) an extended video remembrance of the life and work of Paul Gerhardt.  It is well worth the time to watch!

How did we get to this point?

Growing up in a German Lutheran congregation in Northeast Nebraska in the 1950s and 1960s, it was obvious that these folks loved order.  Whether this was due to the German or the Lutheran part of their origins, I did not know.  What I did know is that anarchy and chaos are antithetical to the minds and hearts of these people.  Order and routine were not only comforting but highly prized, even virtuous.

Our Pastors seemed to have had little marks on the flood of the chancel since they all seemed to move alike and stand in the same places at the same points in the liturgy.  Women were not allowed in the chancel and the elders set up for Holy Communion (so it was only 4x a year at first a later 12x). 

We were not allowed to leave our pew after the benediction -- not until we were given the go ahead by an usher.  The very slight nod of the head let us know it was time to leave and the line was moving orderly through the door.  The cry room was not so much a place to take a crying child as it was the place to take an unruly child to make him or her cry.  I know this from personal experience.

Families did not sit willy nilly but seemed to own or claim specific pews and they did not venture far from their routine seating order.  Visitors seemed to know this instinctively and they generally saw in the front pews where no self-respecting member would sit.

Until my senior year in high school, hymnals were brought from home.  A memorial for a great aunt left us not only with red (a little flashy compared to the blue but not necessarily gaudy, either) hymnals but pew racks fashioned especially to fit the curved wooden pew backs.

I admit to being an abject failure as an usher.  A couple of times at bat proved that I had not sufficiently studied and memorized the movements of the experienced ushers or was not observant enough to have noticed the routine.  There was no apprenticeship and so I washed up and out.  But, I did not really see myself as an usher, anyway.

Now, you might be wondering, what is the point of all this rambling, meandering excursus.  My point is this.  How did such a church with an intuitive sense for and love of order degenerate into a conglomeration of Pastors and parishes each doing their own thing and jealously guarding their freedom and independence to do what is right in their own eyes? I just do not get it.

Order was the first of Missouri's crises upon making it to the American shore.  I understand the desire for church order that would create a churchly kaiser like Stephan to carry them from their fatherland across the ocean to their new home.  I understand how some thought absent the bishop that they were not a church but anarchists who maybe should just get back on that boat and head home again.  What I cannot understand is how these German Lutherans crafted a democratic structure for a church body which they left only advisory and which cannot make or enforce any rules.  But that seems to be where it all ended.  And so we argue at each other through blogs and and online forums over issues that will not be resolved because neither side can legislate an answer.

History shows us the order behind the Lutherans.  Their regional jurisdictions involved little democracy but plenty of supervision and oversight.  In Germany the bishop was replaced by the superintendent -- hardly a term of endearment to folks who like to make up their own rules and go their own way.  Luther sided with the nobles in the peasant revolt (mostly out of the need for order and authority) and it was the excess of his most zealous followers that cause him to don the dress of the knight and ride in on a horse to end the looting, destruction, and vandalism of statue, stained glass, and sacred vessels.  But not today.

Today if you suggest to the Lutheran preacher that he use the lectionary you are called a communist.  If you suggest that one of the liturgical forms approved for the Divine Service be used, you care called a fascist.  It is as if we have turned the page and discovered that the Spirit no longer inhabits the old orders.

Now don't get me wrong.  I am not the liturgical police and I do not advocate a liturgical gestapo to inform on, judge, and convict offenders.  I am not in favor of abandoning pastoral discretion.  I do not believe in cloning.  All I really want is for Lutherans to talk like Lutherans, to sing like Lutherans, to act like Lutherans, and to look like Lutherans -- at least on Sunday morning.  We have had enough diversity in our past to satisfy us for a long time to come.  We do not need to push the boundaries out any further or we risk having no liturgical identity at all.

Why, even Franz Pieper sported a bow tie and a stray hat when 801 DeMun was dedicated in 1926.  Yet at the same time you cannot tell me that Pieper did not value a little order.  We do not all have to wear the same black suit and collar but we can surely limit ourselves to those liturgical forms and hymnals which our church body has commended -- at least a base or starting point.

I grow weary of those who insist upon recapturing some golden age of Lutheran theology and practice.  They give us liturgical folk a bad name.  But I am also weary of "the Pointes" and "the Alleys" who flaunt their freedom by trashing their Lutheran heritage and the moniker into merely a vague principle instead of a specific confession and practice.*

Like the solid Midwesterner I am, I look at my church body like I look at Washington, DC, and wonder -- what ever happened to common sense?  To our identity as a community, Synod, or nation?  To the common courtesy and politeness and respect for good order?

I suspect that our lack of order is as much a reason for our troubles as a Synod as anything.  All those jokes about rigid, staid, and stuffy Lutherans were funny when there might have been a semblance of truth to them.  We have long since buried that stereotype under a mountain of change.  We have Lutherans all over the theological and liturgical spectrum and it is getting harder and harder to know what it means to be Lutheran.

We act as if some degree of uniformity would kill us and kill the Church.  But then we love Wal-Mart because wherever you go, the stuff on the shelves is the same and the shelves are in the same places in the different stores.  We lament the chain mentality that has become American retail and food marketing yet we expect a Big Mac to be the same at every McDonalds and the pasta at Olive Garden to be predictable.  So then, why do our folks have to wonder when they see the sign "Lutheran" and the familiar maroon cross logo -- "I wonder what I am going to find inside?"  You should be able to predict something of what you might find there and what the Divine Service might look like.

Okay.  End of rant.  My apologies to those I have offended.  A little Lutheran medication and I just might make it through the night and things may be better tomorrow.  The good thing about tomorrow, it never comes!  Stay tuned for more....

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jonah - Unlikely Saint

Sermon for the Commemoration of Jonah, preached Thursday, September 22, 2011.

Matthew 16:1-4 (ESV)
    And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.  He answered them, "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.'  And in the morning, 'It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.  An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah."

Except the sign of Jonah.  Today we remember the most incredible of fish stories and it would all be nothing more than a fish story except the Lord describes this as His own sign, the sign of death and resurrection that prove His Word is true and His salvation has come.

Jonah was called to go and speak the Word of the Lord to bring repentance to a rebellious and sinful people.  He feared not only the people but the message that God had given him to speak.  So he ran.  We can well understand.  How many of us have said we were going to say something to this person or to that and then when the opportunity came, we, too, chickened out. We are not unlike Jonah.

Now this might end up being just another Aesop fable about the danger of running when you should have stood your ground, except for one thing.  God’s grace intervened.  You cannot hide from God.
Surely Jonah would have learned this from the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.  When they ducked and ran, the Lord came walking in the Garden to find them as well.  In the end, they too faced the unpleasant task of confronting their sin.  But instead of the death they deserved, the Lord tempered the curse of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with the promise of redemption and life.  They were banished from the garden but not without hope.

The word that Jonah was bringing to the Ninevites was not simply a word of condemnation for their sin.  It was a word of hope.  They were bing called by God to repentance and God had promised them forgiveness for confessing their sin.

But confession is a messy business.  Who among us would rather not run and hide instead of openly admitting your sin?  Who among us would rather not skip out on the nasty business of telling someone they were wrong?

Except Jesus.  Jesus did not run from His mission of mercy but welcomed the gracious will of the Father He was to fulfill.  He knew it would mean suffering and death.  He would spend His three days in the belly of the beast but the consequence of His obedience was not His own justification but our redemption.

Jonah might have been just another wannabe runaway except that Jesus holds up Jonah as a sign, no, THE sign that gives credence and authority to His own promise of forgiveness and salvation for a sin sick and dying world.  Nothing will testify of Jesus greater than the sign of Jonah.

We might think that some other way could have been possible to redeem a lost and sinful world but God insists that nothing else would do.  Jesus was born to suffer and born to die and born to be buried in the belly of the earth for three days and rise again that forgiveness and salvation might be preached in His name to the very ends of the earth.

And we are here because of it... Now will we run from His call to be His witnesses?  Will we shrink from speaking the Gospel because it might offend or people might not respond kindly to what we say?  Will we run from the rather small job of telling what the big job of Jesus has accomplished for us and our salvation?
Let us lay down our fears and rejoice in Him who has kept His Word, delivered us from sin and its death, and now calls to others through our words and deeds – that they too might know with us the joy of Him who died that we might live.

Jonah is not the lesson.  Jonah is the sign.  Jesus is the message.  Let us not forget it.  Let us not be fearful of it.  Let us not shrink from making it known.  This is not about what will happen to us if we run.  It is about the God whose mercy refused to let the Ninevites die without the Law and Gospel being proclaimed to them... about the Savior who fulfilled the sign of Jonah that we might believe with confidence... and about those whom the Lord does not let get away...

I am not much of a fisherman.  But I know that most fishermen have more stories about the ones they lose than the ones they catch.  Not God.  Not Jesus.  His story is about the Word that seeks and forgives and saves.  About the promise of grace that lets none escape from His grasp of mercy and love.  Not Jonah.  Not the Ninevites.  Not you.  Not me.

Or Again...


I have never seen Lutherans kneel ever before!

Kneeling, standing, and genuflecting -- does it matter?  Though the early Christians undoubtedly inherited from the Jews the prayer position of standing with arms outstretched, Constantine was known to kneel at his devotions and St. Augustine tells us: "They who pray do with the members of their body that which befits suppliants; they fix their knees, stretch forth their hands, or even prostrate themselves on the ground" (De curâ pro mortuis, v).

In the twentieth canon of the Council of Nicæa (A.D. 325) the fathers  decreed: Because there are some who kneel on the Lord's Day and in the days of Pentecost [the fifty days between Easter and Whit-Sunday]: that all things may be uniformly performed in every parish or diocese, it seems good to the Holy Synod that the prayers [tas euchas] be by all made to God, standing.  Apparently kneeling and genuflection had already found their way into the Divine Service.

In the West in the sixth century, St. Benedict enjoins upon his monks absent from choir to recite the Divine Office as a private prayer, not standing but kneeling throughout. So if not in public, in private kneeling was the standard posture of prayer and humility.  The practice of kneeling during the Consecration was introduced during the Middle Ages, and is in relation with the Elevation of the body and blood.  

So what does it matter?  It matters not in the sense that a particular external posture determines whether or not we are heard by God when we pray.  But ceremonies, ritual, and church usages are not merely external.  C.S. Lewis makes the point in his Screwtape Letters (a book I heartily recommend) that we are not souls trapped in bodies. We are incarnate spirits. What I do with my body I do with my soul. And therein is the issue.  The very value of external postures is when they mirror the internal posture of the heart (faith).  No one would say we must (except those with canon law) but in our liberty we can and do use external postures to mirror what is (or at least is supposed to be) happening internally.

In this parish we offer the chance to kneel (that is, we have kneelers in the pews).  We may kneel for the confession and for the prayers.  Maybe we will offer more opportunities to kneel in the future.  We do not require it but it is available.  Much in the same way some cross themselves and some do not.  Some bow and some do not.  We do not despise those who do nor do we despise those who do not.  But at least let us not misunderstand or slander those who do.  In the end I think C. S. Lewis has got it right.  Worship is not just a matter of the spirit and true spirituality does not despise or disdain the material.  After all, our Lord has chosen common and ordinary earthly elements to serve as the means of His grace.  Surely bodily postures and gestures are fair means of communicating the faithful response of His people to what He, in His grace, has bestowed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reproductive Technology's Achilles' Heel

Read here for the entire article.  I have quoted only a couple of paragraphs.  How many prophets have warned us that our technology is far ahead of our morality and our wisdom.  As St. Paul reminded us, all things may be possible but not all things are beneficial...  Clearly we need to think a bit more on this...

Dr. Barrett, an expert in multiple births with the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, told the doctors of the suit when he got to the meeting, then launched into a no-holds-barred lecture on the need to restrict in-vitro fertilization (IVF), a major source of multiple pregnancies and the often severe health problems that accompany them.

“What the IVF industry is doing is creating a population of sick babies … that is impacting all society,” he said after his address to the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society conference.

“If it’s so obvious the practice is doing harm, why do people still do it? I haven’t got the answer to that.”

In a medical field fraught with controversy, the creation of countless twins, triplets and beyond is perhaps the most pressing issue. The number of multiple births in Canada surged 45% to almost 12,000 a year between 1991 and 2008, according to Statistics Canada, even as the number of single births dropped. Often born early and at a low weight, multiples are at much greater risk of delivery complications and birth defects.

Statistics released by the society Wednesday indicate that the percentage of the treatment-aided pregnancies that result in multiples has dropped somewhat, to about 25%, but the specialists admitted that much more has to be done.

The Reform of the Reform

As we approach Reformation Day it is worth spending some time reviewing the legacy of our name's sake.  If there is anything we take away from Luther and his co-workers, it is that reform is not an event but an ongoing process.  The Reformation is not simply an event but a continual work of reform and renewal.  What was faced in the sixteenth century may or may not be the tests and temptations that face the Church today.  But one thing is sure, the Church will continue to face tests, trials, and temptations.  We will always stand in need of those whose clarion voices call us back from the brink into the evangelical and catholic stream of doctrine and life.

The reform of the reform does not mean that we go back to pick apart what Luther and his contemporaries accomplished.  The Confessions do not need to be re-argued in every age.  We confess them not as temporary truths which each age and generation must prove orthodox.  We confess them because they are orthodox and catholic and evangelical -- the truth held in trust by those who bear the name Lutheran for those who do not.  In fact, it is the claim of the Lutheran Confessions that we are the legitimate heirs of the catholic faith and the true community of Christ -- not just one derivation or incarnation of that truth or church.

The reform of the reform means that every age brings its own allure, its own cause to depart from the way, the truth and the life, and, therefore, the reform is continuous -- we never reach the end of our temptation and therefore we never overcome the need for constant renewal.  Our great temptation is not the same as another age or time but it is equally as dangerous and destructive.  We live under constant threat and the devil roaring about is as relentless in his waning hours as God is victorious.  With each approaching day he grows ever more daring and sows the seeds of our destruction with greater and greater fervor.  We cannot afford to be lazy or complacent.  Like the danger to the faith in Luther's day, what we face is often more threatening from within than without.

Lutherans are not a people seeking to recapture a golden age or era of Christendom or the liturgy or church music or ritual.  We are a people seeking to be as faithful in our own time and place as were our fore fathers in the Great Reformation and those who came before them as well as those who came after them.  The Confessions are the tools of this work of renewal, both in the application of what they define, direct, and describe and in the application of their principles and values to the situations not even envisioned by those who wrote and confessed them.  We receive, we commend, we add the best of the present, and we pass on.  It is not pretty and is often rather messy but we cannot afford to ignore or forget this ongoing reform.

Some of us might feel a kinship for a particular era or epoch in church history and life, but Lutheranism knows no date or time other than the living legacy of our fathers, the rich and grace-filled present moment given to us by God, and the future for which we prepare by being faithful today.  Every now and then we have a snap shot of a moment but it is one frame in a long reel of individual frames that form the living history of God's work -- past, present, and future.

Before we beat our chests the last Sunday in October, perhaps we had better take a good look at the state of the Church and our own confession and practice.  For we betray that past every bit as much by exchanging God's gift for a pot of present day lentils as we do trying to repristinate a bit of the past in the present moment.  The confessional and liturgical folk I like to hang around with are often accused of being blind to the changes in the world around us.  Those who trade Lutheran identity for the latest in church growth tools and methods are accused of betraying our identity for statistics.  We can afford to do neither.  We cannot ignore the present and its challenges or hide from the world within the closed doors of the sanctuary nor can we bring the world into the church and let it determine what is needful and salutary.  We are called to bring the Christ of the sanctuary into the world where He has promised to awaken faith in His elect, to work through the seed of His Word to bear the good fruit of His kingdom.  In order to bring this Christ to the world, what happens in the Church must be faithful, must not confuse the worship we bring with the gifts Christ offers to us, and must not abrogate the sacred deposit handed down to us by those who came before.  In order for us to bring Christ to the world, we must see the world for what it is and not some cut and paste version of a reality with which we might be more comfortable.  It is a constant tension and from the Great Reformation we learn to hold both together -- maintenance and mission, liturgy and awakening, faithfulness and fervor.

We are not of the world but we are certainly in the world -- not to mirror its empty values and hopeless end but to stand as beacons to the Light that enlightens the darkness.  We cannot afford to be casual and we must take seriously the Church, the faith, the means of grace, and the witness.  We should not take ourselves so seriously for we are just as much the sinners in need of redemption as those who are outside the kingdom.  Yet what a marvel of grace it is that God has chosen to work through the flawed and the failed to do His bidding.  Every day that we awaken to the great privilege of our partnership in the Gospel is a good day -- just as long we remember what we are called to do and what we dare not presume.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

From whence comes doubt...

Every departure...from our Lord's mandate only introduces doubt. Beloved, let us not set stumbling blocks before the people of God! Let us rather abide by the mandated institution of our Lord and thus live from the certainty of His giving. Take bread and wine, bless them with His words in thanksgiving, and thus give out to His royal priesthood His body and blood, having tasted of them yourself. Take anything else, bless them with His words and give them out, and what do you give out? Neither you nor your people have the first clue! We mayn't suppose our Lord is bound to what He has not commanded.

I copied those words from my friend Pr Will Weedon. They illustrate a great principle which is behind faithful liturgical practice. As a Pastor I get questions all the time about allowing this or that deviation from normal practice. Whether the simple rites of a wedding or funeral or the divinely mandated elements of the Lord's Supper, we find ourselves under the gun to pick and choose, to adapt and respect the wishes and desires of people. It seems such a little thing to make exception or agree with changes or experiment here and there. Some are certainly of more importance than others. Why would we refuse such earnest requests for exception? In the end, Pr Weedon has it right. We must live from the certainty of His giving.... The point here is to be true to the Word and to our Confessions.

There are those who love to poke fun at the slow pace of change in the Church. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Change? Why would we change? Why we love that old light bulb. It has served us well. Let's just wait and see if it may serve us still.

The reality is that Lutheranism has changed and radically so... There was a time when you could walk into any Lutheran congregation on Sunday morning and know what to expect liturgically. The Common Service was the rule, the Galesburg Rule (Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran Pastors and Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants), and a common hymnody made us thoroughly predictable. No more. There was a time when you could count on Lutherans to have learned the Small Catechism as youth or adults and to continue to look to the catechism as faithful expression of what we believe, teach, and confess. No more. There was a time when you would expect elements used in the Sacrament of the Altar to be uniform, that those elements would be treated with respect for what they are (by the Lord's own word, His body and His blood), and that those who commune would share a common faith and confession. No more. There was a time when you might expect that Lutherans heralded the family -- husband and wife (with their children) endeavoring to live within the framework of forgiveness and grace for as long as they lived. No more.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there was a golden age of Lutheranism or a perfect time for Lutherans or perfect Lutheran people. But there was confidence in the Word, confidence in our Confession, confidence in our catechism, and confidence in the liturgical expression of our commonly held faith. With all the changes, have we grown more confident or less? Are we more sure of the Gospel because it comes in so many flavors (sort of like the elements in the Sacrament of the Altar)? Are we more sure of Scripture because we have read all the scholars? Are we more sure of the order the Lord intended for His creation because of the various forms of family available to us now?

What the good Pastor Weedon is saying specifically about the Sacrament of the Altar, applies in many ways to many different aspects of our beliefs and our life together as Lutheran people. Experimentation has become more the rule than exception. Our tinkering with the faith has led us more to doubt than confidence. In the end we find ourselves drawing the ultimate false conclusion -- that it matters not what you believe or how you practice it but that you are sincere. Again, I am not suggesting that we never change but that faithful change grows from and reflects back to the source. Many of the changes we have seen have only left us more and more distant from the source and adrift on a sea of sincerely held doubt. Not a good thing...

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Prosperity Gospel and Its Derivations

There is a good article over at GetReligion that surveys both the purveyors of the "prosperity" gospel and its critics.  I heartily recommend it.  For my part, I particularly like one sentence:  "Whereas Augustine said that the essence of sin was the human person turned in upon him or herself, Osteen’s [et al] version of Christianity is all about turning inward on ourselves.”

We want so desperately to believe that God wants us to be rich in things, happy and content with our mortal lives, in control of our destinies, and successful in all our endeavors that we have learned to ignore or explain away much of what Jesus actually said.  The whole notion of carrying the cross is antithetical to the idea that God wants for us what we want for ourselves -- material comfort, physical ease, mental acuity, earthly success, and the insatiable desire for more.  This distortion may not be the fault of the evangelicals but it has surely come from that wing of Christendom -- more than any other.  We continue to resist any idea to the contrary and expect that the goal of God in our lives is to make today so blessedly happy and wonderful that our eternal tomorrow is more extension of the present joy than the unimaginable paradise and bliss that is not even glimpsed by the human eye or imagined by the human heart prior to glory.

Once I had a guy shake hands at the door one Easter Sunday.  As he walked pass me, he said, "Life's a bitch and then you die...."  Well, yes, sometimes but just as God does not desire nor create the bitch that life can be, neither does God contribute to the confusion of earthly joys with heavenly blessedness.  We live in the terrible tension in which earthly joys are both temptation and blessing.  But the same can be said about earthly troubles and trials.  They are both temptation and blessing.  And in the midst of them all, St. Paul brings the Gospel to bear.  He has known want and he has known abundance.  He desires to go and be with the Lord and to suffer here below to do the Lord's bidding.  He has complained to the Lord about his weakness and offered that weakness to the Lord, finding His strength made perfect there.  And so he confesses that God makes all things work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His eternal purpose.  As long as we are in this mortal flesh we struggle with this and seek to know the surpassing peace and joy of this faithful affirmation. 

Personally, I am comforted most of all by these words (whom a few suggest just might have been of the same St. Paul), who speaks of Jesus.  "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross and scorned its shame..." and it is my prayer in success and defeat, in abundance and want, that God will help me fix my eyes upon Jesus.  The gospel of prosperity, no matter from whence it came or who preaches it best, turns the eye away from Jesus and therefore from the good that God is working and the joy His presence and His purpose brings.  The prosperity gospel is, sad to say, so commonly held that folks in mainline, Roman, Lutheran, and even Orthodox churches have come to assume that it is the genuine teaching of our Lord.  For this reason, none of us can afford to ignore its effect or proclaim the truth with greater fervor.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Another blogger reported on his attendance at a Kansas District LCMS workshop on building worship.  You may want to read it all in his own words here.  It seems that as a church body we tend to target those new to the Pastoral Office in order to influence them away from things Lutheran and toward things that "work" -- as if our work brings people to Christ instead of the Lord and His Spirit working through the means of grace.

I quote the author:

One of the main thrusts of the conference seemed to be to drill in the idea that we have different forms of worship to draw in different kinds of people. There are those that like soft rock, and those that don't. There is the understanding that if we all do our own thing, everything we do is equally beneficial. And we have to offer as many products as possible, so that we reach as many people as possible. I heard it over and over again, some are able to do contemporary worship and some are not able to do it, thus they don't.

Sadly, the purveyors of such stuff do not seem to realize that the different forms of worship that draw different kinds of people also represent different confessions of faith -- in opposition to and in conflict with our own confession of faith and its practice (something that our own worship books and forms promote)....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A shame too great to be ignored...

Touchstone's Mere Comments has a great piece on the relationship of faith and voting.  I reproduced it here:

The Orthodox Rabbis & the Shame of a Legislator

Robert P. George wrote last week at the Mirror of Justice about the New York congressional race won by a Republican. A factor, he says, was a statement made to Jewish voters by Orthodox rabbis:
In the run up to the election, a group of Orthodox rabbis, most from Brooklyn, but including others, notably Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen, two nationally prominent Orthodox Jewish authorities, published a letter stating that "it is forbidden to fund, support, or vote for David Weprin."  The reason?  As a member of the New York state legislature, Weprin, despite his Orthodox Jewish beliefs, voted to redefine marriage to include same-sex partnerships.  This, the rabbonim declared, was chillul Hashem---a desecration, or bringing of shame, on God's name. The rabbis went on to say that "Weprin's claim that he is Orthodox makes the chillul Hashem even greater."
A commentator for Catholic Citizens of Illinois writes about this, and notes:
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
We are constantly faced with the media disdain for Roman Catholic politicians who vote with their faith and conscience against such issues as abortion and gay marriage.  It seems that the only Roman Catholic the media likes is one who votes against his religion and therefore proves his integrity by showing what he confesses before the Lord can be ignored for political expediency and the higher purpose of electoral gain.  Now we have an instance in which Orthodox Jews find their voice in the face of one of their own who voted against his religion and faith and is called out on it by his teachers.  This led to the surprising defeat of a Democrat and the election of a Republican to succeed the rather flamboyant Congressman Anthony Wiener.  If there were more Lutherans in public life, we might find ourselves speaking of them in the same vein -- but then Michele Bachmann left her Wisconsin Synod Lutheran home rather than own up to what her church taught!

I respect those whose conscience, faith, and voting record are consistent -- even when I disagree vehemently with them.  It is for me the measure of integrity when the markers of deeply held belief, moral authority, and political choice fall in the same line -- especially when they extract some cost from the individual politician.  I disagree with the media.  Those who say they believe one thing and vote another way are not heroic or noble but cowardly and weak.  We need people of conviction and integrity and not more folks who turn whichever way the wind is blowing.

The Baptist Church - Missouri Synod

Big news out of Nashville -- the Southern Baptists are considering a name change.  Yup.  It's the truth.  They have a study group working on it and everything.

Since we have determined that Missouri is synonymous with conservative, perhaps they will choose to be known as The Baptist Church - Missouri Synod.  But of course, that might mean some in Missouri might want to re-target their marketing since that niche will be filled with the Wal-Mart of Christian churches.  Perhaps, instead of a new name, they could have a couple of wholly owned subsidiaries aimed at different markets with a more upscale branding to attract those not interested in the Wal-Baptist Church.

And I quote the story:

Some thought-provoking angles, IMHO:
Possible names: How about American Baptist Association? National Baptist Convention? United Baptists? World Baptist Fellowship? Oops, all of those are taken. International Baptist Convention has been proposed — and rejected — in the past, according to the Associated Baptist Press article.
North vs. South: How far has the Southern Baptist Convention really come from its slave-era roots? How diverse is the convention? What do black Southern Baptists say about the proposed name change and the need for it?

From The Tennessean story:
  • The Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, a member of the name change study group, thinks the time is right for rebranding. He said the Southern Baptist Convention traces its roots to the Civil War — Baptists in the South wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the North disagreed.
Baptist or not?: In a post-denominational age, do the Southern Baptists want to drop just “Southern,” or will they consider chopping the “Baptist” too?
By the numbers: The Southern Baptist spin is that a name change may be needed because the denomination has a national and international reach. But what number of Southern Baptists really reside outside the South? It would be interesting to see a specific chart of membership by state and country. (GetReligion readers may remember the media confusion created last year by Southern Baptists from Idaho who got in trouble for trying to take orphans out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.)
Marketing: What are the pros and cons of a name change? The costs? The legal ramifications?

I am sure it won't be long before the Dollar General of Christian churches (well, mighty Missouri, of course) decides that maybe it should rebrand... or not.  All I can say is I don't know how I will sleep tonight!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It ain't fair, Lord!

Sermon preached for Pentecost 14, Proper 20A, on Sunday, September 18, 2011.

    Every now and then something happens when you sit back and think, "Well, that's weird."  If you were listening to the Gospel for today, you may have thought to yourself, "Well, that's weird."  It is certainly an odd situation. Laborers are called to work.  The call goes out at different times throughout the day.  Some worked the whole day and others barely worked at all.  Then when it came to the pay off, the first and the last of the laborers received exactly the same wages.  Who does that?  What might seem fair to the first one who went to work was lavishly generous for the last worker and therefore it seems completely unfair.  Who can understand such foolish generosity?  Well, who can understand the grace of God?
    The perspective of the laborer seeks fairness and equity.  You get what you pay for and you pay the laborer what he deserves.  That is the principle at work in the marketplace.  In order to know if what the laborer gets for his labors is fair, you have to know what others are getting.  You get what is fair with respect to your peers.  You get what is agreed upon, what has been negotiated.  These are the ways of the marketplace, this is the stuff of labor law, and this is why we have unions working on behalf of workers.  The goal is for the worker to be treated fairly, equitably, and respectfully.  We get this.  We sympathize with the worker.  It just does not seem fair.
    Well, lets unpack this a little further.  This is told by Jesus to the twelve disciples.  They had been arguing about who was greatest in the kingdom of God.  So Jesus speaks to them of the value of a child, of the glory of being the servant, of forgiveness offered seventy times seven to the guilty.  It is as if the disciples are being reminded over and over God’s mercy is your undeserved justice.
    If you look at this in more depth, the whole framework of this parable is between the master who acts justly (not quite the same as fairly) and the laborers who complain that his justice is not enough.  They want more.  We come to God thinking it is justice we want and Jesus is telling us that God has given us more – He has given us mercy – not what we want but what we need.  The goal of faith is to be content with this – with what God gives, with just what we need – without burning with desire for more or complaining to God for more.
    We seek rewards.  We seek compensation commensurate with the value we have assigned to ourselves and what we do.  We want to be noticed and appreciated.  We want at least what we had planned on and we expect to be surprised with generosity which is more.  But God deals in another currency. God gives us not justice or equity or fairness.  God gives us mercy and this mercy is just enough, just what we need, whether we are first or last.
    According to justice, what we deserve for our labors is death.  We all remember the famous words of St. Paul.  "The wages of sin is death."  If God were fair, there would be no mercy, only what is fair.  Only death.  The fair wages for what we have thought, said, and done is death.  Death plain and simple.  Those who would ask for more should begin right here.
    Whether we are the first of those whom God has called or the johnny come latelys who barely sneak in under the deadline.  Death is our justice.  But God is determined not to be just but to be merciful.  God gives us what we need – mercy.  He gives us what we need.  He gives the guilty forgiveness, the sinful righteousness, and the dying life.  As long as we look only through the eyes of fairness and equity, we will complain that God is not fair with us.  But if we will look from the eyes of God we will see that His mercy is beyond expectation, lavish, extravagant, and downright unbelievable.
    I am convinced that the default position of our hearts and minds is to complain.  Call it sin.  Call it ingratitude.  Call it pride.  Whatever you call it, we continue to complain that when God gives us what we need, it is not enough and not all that we deserve.  It takes nothing less than the Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to see that it is not justice which we should settle for but the full measure of extravagant grace and lavish mercy that God offers.  To the first, the middle and the last, it is the same – just what we need to save us.
    God's generosity is a scandal to us.  He continues to seek out even when He already has laborers.  This is generosity.  His generous Word extends the call – morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.  It is a generous Word.  He offers us reward – not the reward we expect but a reward beyond all expectation or comprehension.  God never gives us less but always more.  We show the poverty of our vision and understanding when we hold in our hand what Jesus' suffering and death has accomplished and then complain that it is not fair, not enough, or less because this sinner or that received the very same thing.  We lament and begrudge God's generosity to others as if it somehow diminishes what He has given to us.
    Who can understand the grace of God?  No one.  No one can understand it.  You can’t. I can’t.  His ways are not our ways.  His grace is not there for our understanding.  His grace is there for us to receive, rejoice, and share.  Grace does not require understanding – just the little  "Amen" of faith that says "Thank you, Lord.  What You have given is more than I deserve but just enough to meet my need.  It is just enough to relieve me of my terrible burden of sin, guilt, and death.  It is all I need.”
    Unfortunately, we have trouble letting go of this notion of fairness.  We complain and complain and complain.  We whine to God.  We whine to whom ever will listen.  We get ourselves all bent out of shape because we were not noticed or appreciated or thanked.  It is not fair.  Like the disciples of old we see only ourselves.  Well, thanks be to God that He is not fair.  If He were fair, we would stand condemned.  But because He is merciful, the last are first, the guilty forgiven, the dying reborn.  Is it enough for you?  Amen.

A Glimpse into the Present for Some of Us Living in the Past

Are you okay, Pastor?

A few weeks ago a newer family to our parish had a question for me as they shook my hand at the door.  "Are you okay? Man, I saw you go down and got kinda worried.  I was surprised that nobody came up to help you and then I saw you got back up again..."

What this person was referring to was my genuflection during the creed.  This life-long Lutheran had never seen it before and had assumed that I was merely an old man having a bad day (which could have been correct and was a fairly logical assumption).  But that was not it.  I was genuflecting during the creed, specifically at the words,
[Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and] was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man...   (Et incarnátus est de Spíritu Sancto ex María Virgine et homo factus est...)

These words are sort the fulcrum of the creed.  Everything we confess about God hangs on these words.  The genuflection at these words (or a deep bow for those of the Novus Ordo crowd) has been around for more than a thousand years.  We are not exactly when it began or where but we know by 1150 AD that it was common practice (if not universal).  Peter of Cluny (d 1156) tells us that genuflection at the words et homo factus est was a custom everywhere.  Some certainly had it earlier and some perhaps later but he writes as if it were the norm.

Here is an example of the faithful evolution of liturgical practice.  The Church has always held that the incarnation of our Lord is not only the core of our proclamation but that God condescending to become flesh and blood is rightfully met by the humility of faith that not only acknowledges Him as God of God, Light of Light, and true God of true God, but receives Him with faith.  The outward expression of this faith is the gesture of honor, the genuflection or kneeling at the words which confess this central truth and the lynch pin of our faith and confession.  God became man.

You can put Scripture to this.  Recall how St. Paul says that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue proclaim Him Lord.  But there is not particular passage to mandate such liturgical gesture.  Merely the response of faith.

To be sure, the practice is still not uniform.  Some Lutherans disagree about where to genuflect or if to genuflect at all (check out this or that).  Luther highly esteemed the custom and praised it in his commentary on St John’s Gospel (LW 22:102, 105) and mentions it again elsewhere in positive terms.

What of genuflection?  Genuflection (or genuflexion), bending at least one knee to the ground, was from early times a gesture of deep respect for a superior. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great introduced into his court etiquette some form of genuflection already in use in Persia. In the Byzantine Empire even senators were required to genuflect to the emperor. In medieval Europe, one demonstrated respect for a king or noble by going down on one knee. We know it most commonly today during a proposal of marriage.  (borrowed from Wiki)

Well, if Alexander the Great or Byzantine senators or European royals thought it was honorable to genuflect or kneel as a sign of humility, I think that we can see why this became the practice of the Church.  And to those who eschew practices as too "Catholic," I would ask why your intended deserves more in marriage proposal than does our Lord at the confession of His incarnation?

For those who find this utterly confusing, I cannot but help to pass on (in good humor) a cheat sheet prepared for those who find liturgical posture and gestures impossible to decipher. In the end I can think of no better way than to quote Pr Will Weedon from a few years ago:

Now, I was challenged on this and it was pointed out that I do not observe these rites as they are printed. The point being that I elevate, I genuflect, I sign myself with the cross on forehead, lips and heart before the Gospel, I kiss the Gospel book and the altar, and so on. In short, I do ceremonies that are neither prescribed nor suggested.

I would respond, though, that there is a great difference between adding ceremonies (especially historic ones) and dropping ceremonies or parts of the rite which are explicitly prescribed. Certainly in the rubrics of all three books, there are ceremonies that are suggested but not prescribed ("may" rubrics). The worth of any ceremony is in what it confesses. And above all, I'd argue, the text and the ordering of the text in each rite should be respected precisely as it stands.