Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Do not be afraid. It is I.... says the Lord.

Sermon preached for Pentecost 11B on Sunday, July 29, 2012.

The Gospel we heard this morning comes right after the feeding of the five thousand and Mark references this in His account. From the sparse beginning of five loaves and two small fish, they ended up with twelve baskets of leftovers – one for each doubting disciple to cart home to the fridge. Having fed the people with bread for their stomachs and the Bread of Life for their souls, Jesus heads off alone to pray. He sends the disciples ahead in the boat. Perhaps they were so focused on the miracle food they did not even pause to think how Jesus would get across to the other side. So Jesus goes off alone to pray but Jesus can never be alone. He is always accompanied by the fears, needs, and cries of His people.

Mark tells us that Jesus looked out on the water only to see the wind against the boat – making headway only painfully because the wind was against them. By the way, I wonder if this isn’t about the most apt description of Christian life in the whole New Testament – making headway only painfully because the wind is against us! So Jesus came walking by them – not intending to stop but unable to leave them in their fears and terrors. Neither can Jesus leave us alone as prisoners to our fears and terror. Then, as soon as Jesus got into the boat, the wind ceases. But they were not calmed. Instead they had more questions and more fears.

The disciples did not understand grace. They just did not get it. They understood getting something for nothing, food you did not pay for or prepare – but they did not understand grace. They understood their fears but they did not understand Jesus. They were focusing upon the works of Jesus when they should have been focused upon Jesus. Hardened by their fears, calloused by their disappointments, suspicious of good news, and cynical of hope, they were caught in the grip of their anxiety and uncertainty.

Neither did the crowds get Jesus or understand grace. They understood that they had been hungry and were now full but they did not get the who or what or why it happened. They loved the idea of food you did not have to pay for or prepare but they still did not translated this action of Jesus into grace. Perhaps we are not so different from those crowds. In our prayers we cry out for understanding, for explanations, and for reasons – both for the good and for the bad that happens to us. But grace is not about wisdom to understand or words that explain or reasons to put it all in context. Grace is the presence of God amid fear, the voice of God to comfort and console our hearts, and trust in what your senses and reason cannot fathom.

Jesus is the Giver of bread – Jesus knows our needs and is not oblivious to those needs. Daily and richly He gives us all things, says the catechism. Jesus is the Giver of Miracle Bread – the kind that comes down from heaven. Jesus knows our captivity to sin and the dominion of death in which we live out our lives. He knows this struggle first hand. Grace is the God who comes to us where we are and grace is the God who refuses to leave us where He found us. He comes to us with the Word that does that which it says, with the touch of water that cleanses, the voice of absolution that sets us free, and the bread and wine which feed us His body and blood, food for now and for eternal life.

We are like the disciples in the boat, making headway only painfully, in a world set against Jesus. We may cry out for answers but God gives us much, much more. He stands with us in our terror and His voice proclaims peace. He reassures our fearful hearts with the promise that He is with us and will never leave us. You do not need to understand this grace or explain it – just believe it. The Spirit is come just for that purpose – to teach our fearful hearts to trust in Christ the giver of grace sufficient for all our needs.

Christ is always there, walking on the waters of our discontent. Christ is always there, speaking to us and calling us by name in the midst of trouble. Like the disciples of old, we get our fears and we get our needs. We come together to pray that may trust in Christ the answer to our fears and the supply of all that we need.

When the wind is against you, cry out to Jesus and His voice speaks calm. "Do not be afraid. I am here." When the storms of life threaten you, cry out to Jesus and His voice speaks comfort. "Do not be afraid. I am here." When evil rears its ugly head, cry out to Jesus who is greater than evil. "Do not be afraid. I am here." He is always there. Walking on the waters of our discontent, upon the waves of our fears, and upon the stormy seas of our fragile lives. If we do not see Him, it is because we have allowed our fears, our worries, and our doubts to dominate our vision. If we do not hear Him, it is because our ears are too attuned to hurt, wrong, and fear.

Remember the promise made to you in your baptism into Christ. "But now says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."

Dear friends, the Word of God is not some lesson to be learned or some mystery to be unpacked and understood. The Word of God is the living voice that speaks to us over and over again: "Do not be afraid. I am here." The Lord seeks not our understanding or consent. He invites merely our faith and trust – not in the things He has done but in Him who does them, in our Savior, Jesus Christ. You get grace not by reasoning God out but only by trusting in Him. You see grace when you see the Lord standing with us amid our fears, getting dirty for our sins, tasting the cold darkness of our death, and rising to call us into fellowship and life in Him. We are here today just for that – for the voice of comfort and hope who meets us in the fearful wreck of our lives and says, "Do not be afraid. I am here." And here, He is. In the voice of forgiveness, in the fellowship of the baptized, in the communion of His body and blood. Amen.

Disturbing Trends...

Sometime ago I posted a report of a move in San Francisco to ban circumcision as infant brutality and child abuse.  I am not sure that the move went anywhere but it was a signal of an ever encroaching "big brother" mentality -- somebody else knows better than you for your health, for your children, for your religious views, etc...

Now comes a report very disturbing -- especially because of the history of Nazis and Jews in Germany.  I quote:  “On June 26, the District Court of the Federal State of Cologne ruled that circumcision of children for religious reasons at the instruction of parents constituted the infliction of bodily harm and therefore was a punishable offense.”  Of course, for observant Jews, circumcision of male children is not optional.  It is required as a matter of Jewish law.  To prohibit it is, in effect, to forbid Jews from being Jews.

You can read the whole report here with additional links.

The observance of a faith is seldom merely a matter of the heart.  It is an internal conviction that drives external behavior.  Values mean choices and those choices are as distinctive as the religion.  Here is but one example of an attempt to define religious freedom merely as the freedom to believe and worship without the accompanying practice of that faith.  If an age old religious practice such as circumcision can be banned, then this does not bode well for religious freedom in general.  BTW circumcision is not merely the domain of Judaism but is also practiced by Muslims and other religions.

My point is that we are seeing in various places and in various ways a subtle and yet deliberate movement to restrain religious practice in a way that undermines the very security of religious freedom.  It comes in different forms -- the HHS mandates for birth control, abortifacients, and abortion... or a ban on circumcision... or the forced silence of religious whenever their position challenges the prevailing modern social trend (gay and lesbian marriage, for example).  It is a disturbing trend that goes across national boundaries and transcends peoples.  From Canada and its insistence upon public approval for government position on gays and lesbians to the US and the attempt to restrain Christian witness against abortion to Germany and its judicial ban on circumcision to sharia law which refuses to allow the practice of any faith but Islam to France and its ban on religious symbols -- we are all surrounded by a tolerance which is intolerant of disagreement.   Frankly, though some would insist there is a difference, I do not see much difference in the examples cited before.  It is governmental enforcement of belief and practice defined by those in power -- designed to constrain the religious freedom under which every belief is guaranteed equal rights to practice their rites...

Monday, July 30, 2012

A remake almost as good as the original...

Shamelessly borrowed from Fr. Z and his What Does the Prayer Really Say blog:

At that time, back in 2007, the Official WDTPRS Parody Song Writer, the esteemed Tim Ferguson offered us a tune.  He came up with something based on Pete Seeger’s classic (made famous by the Byrds in 1965) :
Go to the altar (turn, turn, turn)
look to the East now, (turn, turn, turn)
there’s a time for every Mass now, if it’s valid.
The time for banjos and dancing is gone,
dust off the censer, and toss out the bong.
No need for hugging, we all get along
let’s keep our focus together, on Jesus.

Page through the Missal (turn, turn, turn)
remember the rubrics (turn, turn, turn)
there’s a time and a purpose for those words there Pure,
humble rev’rence is what we now lack,
just do the red words and say those in black.
When we say High Mass, there’s no need for crack,
just let your deacon and subdeacon guide you.

Now weed your library, (turn, turn, turn)
use some discernment (turn, turn, turn)
it is time now to brush up on your Latin.
Farewell to Vosko, McBrien, Hans Küng,
deep down you knew that they just peddled düng,
the 60′s are old and the Church is still young
what still subsists is a thing of great beauty.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Missing for a while and now back...

For some years, coinciding with a previous administration, this little article on the crucifix was missing on the Synod website... now it has returned.  It is a good read.

Q: Is the use of crucifixes a Roman Catholic practice? Doesn’t the empty cross provide a better symbol for Lutherans? How does the LCMS feel about using a crucifix in church? [Note: A crucifix is a cross with a statue of the crucified Christ on it].

A: A common misunderstanding among some Lutherans is the opinion that a crucifix, or the use of a crucifix, is a “Roman Catholic” practice. The history of Lutheranism demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular and routine feature of Lutheran worship and devotional life during Luther’s lifetime and during the period of Lutheran Orthdoxy. It was also the case among the founding fathers of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. If you were to visit most of the original congregations of the LCMS here in the United States you would find lovely crucifixes adorning their altars, and in addition, beautiful statues on the altar of Christ and the four evangelists, or other such scenes. There is nothing uniquely Roman Catholic about this.
Many Lutherans and Lutheran congregations use crucifixes. Crucifixes are used in the chapels of both of our seminaries and our International Center. Lutheranism has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful reminder of the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation, on the cross. A crucifix vividly brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s divinely inspired words, “We preach Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). Interestingly enough, while there is certainly nothing “wrong” with an “empty” cross, the practice of using an “empty cross” on a Lutheran congregation’s altar comes more from non-Lutheran sources. At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the proper place of pictures, images, statues and the like in the church. Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that such art in the church was not wrong, and was a great aid for helping to focus devotional thoughts on the truths of the Word of God, no greater truth can be found that the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the world’s salvation.

The “empty cross” is not a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, as some say, for the fact is that the cross would have been empty regardless of whether or not Christ had risen from the grave. The point to be kept clear here is that both an “empty cross” and a crucifix, symbolize the same thing: the death of Christ our Lord for the salvation of the world. Many feel that the crucifix symbolizes this truth more clearly and strikingly. That has been the traditional opinion of historic Lutheranism, until the last 50 years ago, due to the influence we will now mention. Some Lutherans began to move away from crucifixes during the age of Lutheran Pietism, which rejected much of Lutheran doctrine and consequently many Lutheran worship practices. At the time, Lutheran Pietists, contrary to the clear position of Luther and the earlier Lutherans, held that symbols such as the crucifix were wrong. This was never the view of historic Lutheranism. Here in America, Lutherans have always felt a certain pressure to “fit in” with the Reformed Christianity that predominates much of the Protestant church here. Thus, for some Lutherans this meant doing away with things such as crucifixes and vestments, and other traditional forms of Lutheran worship and piety.
It is sad when some Lutherans are made to feel embarrassed about their Lutheranism by members of churches that teach the Word of God in error and who do not share Lutheranism’s clear confession and practice of the full truth of the Word of God. Lutheranism has always recognized that the use of any symbol (even the empty cross) can become an idolatrous practice, if in any way people are led to believe there is “power in the cross” or that a picture or representation of a cross has some sort of ability, in itself, to bring us into relationship with Christ and His Gospel. Any of God’s good gifts can be turned against Him in this life and become an end in themselves. Page 22 of 22 Lutherans have never believed that banning or limiting proper artwork in the church is the way to prevent its improper use. Rather, we believe that proper teaching and right use is the best way, and the way that is in keeping with the gift of freedom we have in Christ to use all things to the glory and honor of God. Thus, many Lutherans use and enjoy the crucifix as a meaningful reminder of our Lord’s suffering and death. It might interest you to know that our Synod’s president has a beautiful crucifix adorning the wall of his office, constantly reminding him and visitors to his office of the great love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. In short, and this is the most important point of all: there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, or our Lutheran Confessions, about the proper use of the crucifix, just as there is nothing wrong with the proper use of an empty cross, or any other church symbol by which we are reminded of the great things God has done for us. We need to guard against quickly dismissing out of hand practices that we believe are “too Roman Catholic” before we more adequately explore their use and history in our own church. In Christian freedom, we use either the crucifix or an empty cross and should not judge or condemn one another for using either nor not using either symbol of our Lord’s sacrifice for our sins. Usage: We urge you to contact an LCMS pastor in your area for more in-depth discussion.

Published by: LCMS Church Information Center

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A virtual reconstruction of the Second Temple...

For those interested in a more illustrative vantage point on the Second Temple (the one as Jesus encountered) this video gives you a wonderful perspective through computer imaging...

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Bumpy Ride on the Bosporus

Metropolitan Jonah, the evangelical convert who became the head of the Orthodox Church of America (one of several Eastern Orthodox denominations in the U.S.), has been ousted from his office.  The reason, reportedly, is his aggressive public stands against abortion, homosexuality, and other controversial moral issues...

You can read all about the battles and the final end of Metropolitan Jonah other places and I will not attempt to duplicate all the coverage here.  Read it on GetReligion or a dozen other good sources.

What impresses me in this is how this shows the problems inherent to Orthodoxy in America.  It is in many respects captive to its own culture and this resignation reveals much about the ethnic and cultural identities which work against Orthodox vitality and presence.  It shows the fractures in the unity and difficulty with which the various Orthodox jurisdictions function in America.  Finally it reveals that those who are attracted to Orthodoxy often find the same contradiction and paradox as those attracted to Lutheranism -- the theory of these churches is often different than the practice.  It is this that has caused many disillusioned Lutherans to swim the Bosporus but when they get there they often find the same conflict between the church of the theologians and the church lived out in the parishes and jurisdictional structures.  There is no church NOT in need of the reform which calls her faithful back to the sources and to reflect their core doctrine in their united practice.

I have a friend who left Lutheranism for Rome and he once admitted that what he missed most is the music of the church -- in hymn and anthem some of the greatest gifts to Christianity came from a Lutheran pen.  The Church that gave birth to Bach may not be entirely comfortable with him today but the average Roman parish is even further removed from the gold standard of church music.  Contradiction is all around us and you better think twice about swimming the waters of one faith or another in order to find a perfect place.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Conscious of our past... living in the present... directed to the future...

In the two parishes I have served, their history begins about the time of the great mission movement in Missouri (1958-1959).  In both parishes I came along as the fourth Pastor.  The first Pastor was the mission planter who came with nothing but a few names on a piece of paper, a used car, a family, and a goal of establishing a congregation where none had existed before.  I am forever grateful for their faithfulness.  They planted and I came along years later to tend and water what the Lord began through their efforts.  They were followed by the second Pastors in these parishes -- men who did not stay long but accomplished the difficult job of shifting an identity from a man to a parish, with its own building and center in an altar, font, and pulpit.  Then came the third Pastors and both parishes found some conflict and growing pains.  Perhaps it was the times, perhaps it was the parishes themselves, perhaps it was the men -- or a combination of all three -- but they went through some struggles.  And then I showed up, the fourth to serve in Cairo, New York, and here, in Clarksville, Tennessee.

I came to an established parish with its gifts and blessings, problems and struggles.  I came to follow the Pastors who had gone before me.  I came to find a history in that place -- from people who first signed the charter that officially began this congregation to the absent members who had long ago stopped being a part of the koinonia of Word and Sacrament in this place to the people whose prayers had elected and called me to be their Pastor.  At every turn I am conscious of the fact that others came before me and that another will follow me.  Even if I serve 30 years in one place, I am but a snapshot in the longer story of God's work in and among His people.  So I build on the legacy that was prepared for me (good and bad) and another will build upon my own legacy (which I daily pray will, like John the Baptist, increase Christ and decrease me).

History is not a bad thing to remember or to contemplate every now and then.  Even Popes are temporary occupants of seat.  Luther was here and gone too quickly.  Pastors great and small find time as the great equalizer.  Christ is the constant.  I hope that all Pastors have a good sense of the past and a focus upon the legacy they leave -- and not just a preoccupation with the present moment to which we so easily succumb.  It is when we forget the past and ignore the future that we get into trouble.  More problems have been caused by those in the Church forgetting God's work in yesterday and overlooking the consequences of their words and actions today than by anything else.

I found this unique video that illustrates this sense of history and the work of the present that will become the living legacy bequeathed to the future.  This video is an unusual one. It depicts three priests singing of the history of a parish. And as they sing that history becomes present. There are men and women depicted going back to the 16th century. Sacraments are celebrated, people pray, and light candles. And gradually the people look more and more modern and then are of the present. Every parish holds the past as well as the present. For since God is present, God is past, and so God is future.  Heaven and earth may pass away, the Word of the Lord endures forever.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Kodak Moment...

Consider the scene. The Bishop has taken his place at the entrance to the sanctuary. He is prepared to confirm some twenty children. It is a sacred moment, a Sacrament is to be conferred. The parents are in deep prayer thanking the Holy Spirit who is about to confirm their children for mission….. Oops, they are not!

Actually, they are fumbling with their cell phone cameras. Some are scrambling up the side aisle to “get the shot.” Others are holding the “phone” up in the air to get the blurry, crooked shot. The tussling continues in the side aisle as parents muscle to get in place for “the shot.” If “the shot” is gotten, success! If not, “woe is me.” Never mind that a sacrament has actually been offered and received, the point was “the shot,” the “photo-op.”

Consider another scene. It is First Holy Communion. Again, the children are assembled.  This time the parents have been informed that a single parishioner has been engaged to take shots and could they please refrain from amateur photography. This is to little avail, “Who does that deacon think he is telling me to refrain, denying me the shot!?” The cell phones still stick up in the air. Even worse, the parish photographer sends quick word via the altar server, “Could Father please slow down a bit in giving the children communion? It is difficult to get a good shot at the current (normal) pace.” After the Mass the photographer has two children along side, could Father perhaps “re-stage” the communion moment for these two since, in the quick (normal) pace of giving Communion, their shot was bad, as the autofocus was not able to keep up…”Look how blurry it is Father.”

It would seem the picture is the point.

Actually I would propose, it is NOT the point. Real life and actual experience are the point. Further, in the Liturgy, the worship and praise of God, the experience of his love, and attentiveness to his Word is the point. Cameras, more often than not, cause us to miss the point. We get the shot but miss the experience. Almost total loss if you ask me.

I wholeheartedly agree with the concerns of Msgr. Pope about the intrusion into the sacred moments of the liturgy by our presumption that technology always improves and does not detract from what is happening. In fact, we too often miss the whole thing because we are so concerned with the shot, with preserving the moment in time, or by our desire to have a Hollywood moment at this event in the life of the family.  This often happens right in the context of Sunday morning -- when people flash away as if the Mass were a tourist destination.  I cannot tell you how many times I have cautioned folks against missing the moment by trying to preserve it.  It is a caution most often offered in vain.  

I am even more troubled by the mostly funny videos of wedding disasters (who can forget the priest who drops the host down the front of the bride and then begins to reach into her cleavage to retrieve the errant host).  What troubles me is not that these moments happen -- unfortunately they happen all the time -- but the perspective of the video camera means that someone was filming the event from right up close and personal -- the very place no videographer or photographer should have been!

I would only close with more words from this wise and pastoral priest:

A final reiteration: Remember the photo is not the moment. The moment is the moment and the experience is the experience. A photo is just a bunch of pixels, lots of 0’s and 1’s, recorded by a mindless machine and printed or displayed by a mindless machine. A picture is no substitute for the actual experience, the actual prayer, the actual worship that can and should take place at every sacred moment and it every sacred liturgy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012

Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?

Once again we have seen the terrible answer to that question.  For all our wondering, for all our whispered through tears "why did this happen" or "who could have done such a thing," the answer is plain.  From the heart proceeds all sorts and kinds of evil.  We can refuse to acknowledge it and deny the truth of Scripture.  We can busy ourselves in search of rational causes in our desire to feel safe and secure and in our quest for someone to blame.  We can call in the experts to explain it to us or to tell us how to feel safe from such vicious attacks.  We can call it by a thousand names and try to diagnosis it as sickness.  Some will be comforted by these intermediate causes and by the attempt to find an answer to the why that keeps us up at night.  But, underneath, is the unpleasant truth none of us wants to admit.  We are sinners.

We are not moderate sinners who can keep our hearts controlled, our passions on a short leash, and our evil natures in check.  We are sinners.  We are big sinners.  We want to think that the shooter in Aurora is a strange anomaly -- an occasional sampling of the very few who live on the fringe of sanity and reason.  But it is a convenient lie we tell ourselves only to disguise the reality of sin and its hold on us.  We desperately want to believe that we and most are good people who occasionally say and think and do bad things.  We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, after all.

It is in times like these that Christian faith is most needed -- not because God has the answer to our question "why" or because God can insulate us from the bare and brutal terrors of the night and day which proceed from the sinful heart.  No, we need the Lord because such evil and such seeds of destruction live in all of us.  We need a God who is so determined to redeem us that He is not put off by the reality of what lies hidden under a veneer of civil goodness.  We need a God who is not so put off by this unbridled sin and unmasked evil that He cannot and will not stand among us and with us in Christ.  In the scattered fear of such obvious evil, we cling not to false hopes but real hope, to the cross planted in sin and death to bring forgiveness, healing, and life to us and our world of darkness and pain.

Christians gather for more than answers.  We come as the guilty to admit the sin within.  We come as the prideful to be taught repentance.  We come as the vulnerable to find refuge.  We come as the hurting to find comfort.  We come as the despairing to find hope.  We come as sinners to be redeemed.  We do not hide behind illusions or lies.  We admit and confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.  There is no health in us.  We sin against God and we sin against each other and we sin against ourselves.  We may think that our soiled words and thoughts are not so bad as deeds but they are different by degree and not by essence.

And the surprise of the Gospel is that God comes to us in our need.  He comes to us with all that His grace has promised.  He comes with more than we dare hope for and more than we deserve. Our hope as a nation and as people within this nation lies not in explanation but in the power of mercy, grace, and love at work in Christ.  We lift high the cross when our arms are tired and our hearts wounded.  We may be tempted to find comfort in supposed explanations or in the assurances that these kinds of things are freakish acts seldom repeated but do not give in.  Do not settle for less when you can have a God strong enough to stand in the muck and mire of our evil and make us clean.  The One who alone stood for us in the place of judgement and now stands with us in the mercy seat where victim and sinner together find redemption and hope.  Acting through us, Christ extends His comfort to others and claims our voices and our arms as His own instruments of blessing amid the worst hurt and the greatest destruction.

We need many things in a time like this but what we need most is a Savior who can stand with us, among us, and for us and speak comfort, healing, redemption, and life.  This is the one and only answer that counts....

For your lisitening pleasure...

SACRED MUSIC FOR THE WORLD...You can listen to the best of the Church's music 24/7 at www.lutheranpublicradio.org.  You'll hear hymns like "Thy Strong Word," "The Church's One Foundation," "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart," "God's Own Child I Gladly Say It," "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less" and more.  You can also listen on mobile devices like an iPhone, iPad and an Android phone.

BTW... soooooo much better than those guilty pleasure YouTubes I have posted recently!!!!!!!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Baptismal debate... porteds larger problems

Living in the South brings with it the predominant mode of baptism -- not ours. Believer's baptism, with all of its missing sacramental identity and its focus shifted to the person being baptized, is the norm here. Is it no wonder then that the Lutherans are bombarded with propaganda from those opposed to sacramental baptism and the baptism of infants and small children. I have spoken of this before. What gets me is how easy it is to throw us Lutherans off -- to the point where we begin thinking that infant baptism is a later practice invented by the Church.

If Scripture will not silence its detractors with its own cohesive argument for sacramental baptism of infants, small children, youth, and adults, then we have to ask what did the early Church do with baptism. If the early Christians got it wrong, it must have been wrong from early days... OR, they have it right and infant baptism is exactly the presumptive practice of Scripture that accompanies its rich baptismal theology.

It is a pure and simple historical fact that the Church has always baptized infants. The very earliest Christian documents outside of Scripture speak of the practice which is presumed in Scripture. For example take the Apostolic Tradition written about 215 A.D. which directs the baptismal practice of the Church by saying:

The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. (Apostolic Tradition # 21)

This is neither the first nor the only document of early Christian history that speaks to the baptism of infants and small children but this is explicit in addressing those who cannot speak for themselves and of the parental role as sponsors who speak on their behalf in testimony to the miracle of grace given and bestowed in baptism.

Why, then, are we so uneasy about questions directed to infant baptism?  The church bodies which refuse this practice should be on the defensive for they are the ones out of step with Scripture and tradition.  It seems to me that if we Lutherans can be caught up in doubt over an explicit baptismal practice, consistent with the doctrine of baptism found in Scripture and amply attested in the early Church, well, then, we can be caught up in doubt about anything and everything we believe, confess, and teach.

It is a great sadness that Lutheran doubts can be so easily exploited by those so clearly in the wrong when it comes to baptism.  Theirs is the novel or new teaching here -- not ours!  It should not be.  We should be exploiting doubts in their minds and not the other way round.  This is the tip of the iceberg.  Just weeks ago we took in new members and one of the things asked of them is if Lutheran confession is consistent with Scripture -- the true teaching of Scripture:

P    Do you hold all the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God and the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from them and confessed in the Small Catechism, to be faithful and true?
R    I do.

I have never had someone say "I don't" but clearly the depth of this conviction is at issue here.  One of the most troubling things about Lutherans is that we too quickly concede the position of Scripture to others and assume that our own confession and faith does not square with Scripture (and tradition).  Clearly one of the areas in which we need to work most is this confidence that our faith is grounded in Scripture, faithful to Scripture, and accurately reflects what Scripture unequivocally teaches.  Period.  In Bible study and catechesis the most consistent questions I receive are those which ask "but what about" the teachings of other churches (here, most likely Baptist, Church of Christ, or holiness groups).  "But..." -- in other words -- can they be wrong and we be right?  Yes.  Period.  This is most certainly true.

Until we address this Lutheran deference and doubt, we will continue to bring people in the front door only to have them sneak out the back door into one of the many stripes of evangelicalism...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

And I was a stranger and you welcomed me...

North Dakota is home to few things but many Lutherans and here is a heart warming story of diaconia at work in a small Missouri Synod parish where the doors have been opened to people without a place to stay in a state undergoing a surprising oil boom.  You can read from the article here but I have included a few paragraphs below and some photos as well....

Each time someone new arrives at Concordia Lutheran Church looking for a place to stay, the Rev. Jay Reinke has the same reaction: “Oh Lord, not another one.”

The small Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Williston has 30 to 40 job-seekers sleeping inside the church on a typical night, with dozens more who stay in their vehicles in the church parking lot.
The practice started in May 2011 after a man from Idaho told Reinke he was going to give up and go home. Reinke invited him to sleep on the floor of the church.

After that, a second man stayed, and the numbers gradually grew. A total of 450 people — primarily men — have slept inside the church while they searched for work and housing, along with an unknown number who have called the parking lot home.

New arrivals to Williston are often unprepared for the city’s severe housing shortage driven by the influx of people looking for oil jobs. Those in need of housing quickly hear about Concordia through word of mouth.
When they arrive, Reinke gives them the same message:

“I’ll say, ‘I need to tell you that you are a gift. You’re a gift to us. You’re a gift to Williston. Welcome,’” Reinke said. “Sometimes men have just started to cry. They have been so alone, they’ve just really suffered. And they haven’t felt welcomed.”

The number of guests sleeping on cots or on the church floor peaked at 54 in one night. Reinke aims to keep it in the 30s, but sometimes it’s tough.

Here is more:

Bob Guderjohn, who has been one of Concordia’s elders for 18 years, said there were some community discussions about developing an emergency shelter or other solution, but those plans seem to have disintegrated.

“Nobody stepped up other than Pastor Reinke and our church,” said Guderjohn, adding that community members and other churches have made financial contributions.  The “overnighters,” as Reinke calls them, have created some stress for the congregation.  Guderjohn, a former deputy sheriff, said he was strongly against letting people stay overnight until he started getting to know them. “The vast majority of them are simply people trying to make it work,” he said.

Last week, Reinke hosted Bible studies for the overnighters and as many as 40 people attended and were actively engaged in the discussion. Some who have stayed at the church have become church members or are taking classes to become members. Reinke has baptized two of the overnighters.

Mercy work is never easy, often thankless, usually misunderstood... but it is one of the marks of the Church and this congregation and its Pastor stand tall in our church body as workers of mercy and servants of Christ...

For photos, click here.

Pr David Juhl made me do it...

Guilty pleasure is still a sin... but I will let this one pass.... It is July, it is hot, we all need a break!  Laugh a little or you will cry a lot...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Justice... the ultimate fruit of faith...

Three years ago the ELCA youth gathering in New Orleans met under the banner of Jesus, Justice, and Jazz -- an unlikely combination of terms but, I guess, somehow appropriate in a city of New Orleans.  It was interesting that justice was the overall theme but it paralleled the social stance of the entire ELCA, in which doing justice (note the terminology) is the equivalent of speaking the Gospel.

Well, it is three years later and the ELCA youth are headed to New Orleans again.  This time the theme is Citizens with the Saints (a nice play on New Orleans and the replacement of justice with the solidarity term of citizens).  The overall theme of the gathering is predominantly justice and the preparation for the gathering promotes this theme strongly.

The youth are urged to hold a Justice Day event prior to the gathering.  There are ample resources for this on the ELCA website.  It is clear from the resources that this justice idea permeates the gathering and that justice consists primarily in terms of advocacy.  The youth are given areas to pursue for their justice day:
Affordable Housing
Community Care
Cultural Literacy (didn't get this; urges watching Crash or Slumdog Millionaire to prepare)
Envirconmental Sustainability
Literacy Matters
Play and Learn
Relationships Matter.

In other words, the playbook for this youth gathering is taken from the agenda of just about every left of center political organization around -- which, in some ways, the ELCA has become.  Practice justice.  Do justice.  By the time the kids leave New Orleans, it will be thoroughly impressed upon them that living the faith and sharing Jesus has a great deal more to do with these justice issues and advocacy stances than just about anything else.  So, they will be prepared to take up their roles as adults in the ELCA and assist in the great march from church to an agency of the political left.  While not much of this may infect Sunday morning, it is clear that the purpose of Sunday morning is to help us do on Monday morning the justice advocacy and justice works mentioned above.

I have no particular beef with the ELCA youth gathering except that the very same people planning this event would look at, say, a Missouri Synod Higher Things event and condemn "indoctrination" of the youth to a particular doctrinal view of Lutheranism.  All I am saying is that this is in no way less an indoctrination and one that pushes the Lutheran brand further and further from its confessional and catechetical identity.  I am troubled by the ease with which we substitute doing justice as witnessing the Gospel and sharing Jesus.  Perhaps telling is the final comment on the promo video:  I want them to come back home so in love with Jesus that they will be active in the place where they have been planted on this earth...  I hope and pray this will happen as well -- although I think the planners and I would have different definitions of what it means to be active. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Descriptive.... Not Prescriptive...

When the ELCA decided to sanction gay marriage and gay clergy, there were howls of protest from Missouri claiming that they had violated the letter as well as the spirit of the Lutheran Confessions.  Alas, it made little difference in the outcome.  The very documents of the ELCA sexuality study all but admitted that their conclusions were in direct opposition to the Lutheran confessional understanding of marriage.

The ELCA position affirmed that the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.  However, they also affirmed that this was not necessarily definitive for a Lutheran jurisdiction looking at the whole question today.  In other words, the Lutheran Confessions were descriptive and not prescriptive of Lutheran doctrine and practice.  In any case, those with bound consciences to disagree with this judgment were supposedly protected in their disagreement.

Taking a cue from the ELCA, nearly every Lutheran in Missouri practicing some form of contemporary worship, as well as many who use the Hymnal, would say the exact same thing about the witness of the Lutheran Confessions about worship -- they are descriptive and not prescriptive.  So, when we claim not to have abolished the Mass or commend church usages (Lutheran speak for ceremonies, rubrics, and the like), the claim is made that these words cannot be forced upon Lutherans today.  They were not intended nor can they be used to prescribe what Lutheran teaching and practice is or should be.  They were merely descriptive of what Lutherans were doing then (and thanks be to God we are not the same kind of catholics today that they were then!!).

Why, who would have thunk it!  The ELCA in official teaching and the LCMS in practice believe pretty much the same thing about the Lutheran Confessions.  We can read them as historical documents, as reflections of Lutheran teaching and practice at the time, and they do contain core Christian teaching, but we cannot use them prescriptively to say what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach nor can they norm Lutheran practice on any level.

Hmmmmm... news to the Confessors, I would think!  What point is a confession if it merely describes -- like a snapshot of a particular church at a particular time facing a particular circumstance?  What ends up happening is that we will view the Confessions as we do old family photos -- laughing at some (the naivete of those people them), teary eyed at others (wasn't that sweet), sad at others (wish we were back there), and oblivious to others (can anyone remember who that was, oh well, doesn't matter)... Either what we confess prescribes who we are and how we live out this confession or it is hardly worth having those Confessions at all -- except for nostalgia sake!  When we confess that we keep the Mass more rigorously and zealously than our opponents and when we address church usages in those Confessions, we Lutherans are binding ourselves to a common faith and practice which goes to the heart and core of what it means to be Lutheran.  We cannot raise up against others whom we believe to play fast and loose with those Confessions in certain areas and then justify our own decision to ignore or abandon confessional teaching and identity in other areas.  When we do this, we are making Missouri out to be the same kind of church body and hold the same kind of confessional subscription as those we love to condemn - namely the ELCA.  We have to awaken to the fact that the means used to justify so much of what is going on during Sunday morning in Missouri is in plain and direct opposition to what we say we believe, to what we insist we confess, and to the practices to which we have bound ourselves before the Lord and the world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


You would think that Judaism represents a bulwark against the increasing practice of cremation... but you would  be wrong. Cremation remains a taboo among most Jews, especially in Orthodox Judaism but also in the more liberal groups. No one has any hard numbers on how prevalent the practice of cremation is among Jews. Conversations with Jewish funeral professionals from across the country suggest that the proportion of Jews who choose cremation varies widely by geography but they do agree the numbers are increasing.

Though both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbinical authorities frown on cremation, Jewish law is not unclear about it and directly bans the practice. It is common to have both Conservative and Reform rabbis officiate at the funerals of people who will be cremated but Orthodox groups allow no such leeway to their rabbis.

According to figures from the Cremation Association of North America, cremations have risen nearly three-fold since the mid-1980s to about 40% of all funerals.  Depending upon the place, the rate for Jews may vary between 3% to as high as 15% in some cities.  Interestingly, the Jews have the same issues with the ashes as others -- many of them refuse to claim the ashes and the remains then are left unburied.  This is even more troubling to Jewish religious leaders.

“Jews have always had the tradition, going back to biblical times, to create a space on earth to mourn the dead,” said Rabbi Andy Bachman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. “The simplest way to put it is, if you go all the way back to Abraham’s first act after Sarah died, it was to secure a plot of land in order to bury her.”

Apparently, Christians, Jews, and non-Christians share an inclination to cremation for the same reasons -- it is cheap, it is quick, and it is easy.  I am not at all sure these are the most important criteria for deciding what to do with the remains of a loved one, but this is the direction we see -- even among those with the strongest historical precedents against cremation.

It also appears that cremation seems to be losing its stigma for both Christians and Jews, well on its way to becoming the most predominant funeral practice.  What is the common lament among Christians and Jews is that our burial practices are further and further removed from the context of what we believe, confess, and teach and more and more tied to a pragmatic view of the minimum that needs to be done.  It appears that for all religions, the almighty dollar trumps the Almighty Word and its tradition.  If it can happen so easily and so quickly for burial practices, who is to say what else cannot be changed?!

Roundtable on the Gospel

I am passing on this Vimeo of a Roundtable on the Gospel including Tullich Tchividjian, Mike Horton, and the "Rodfather," Rod Rosenbladt.  I found this interesting because of the intersection of the Lutheran Rod Rosenbladt with these evangelicals on the very central core of what the Gospel is and how it works.  You watch and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lookin for a Buzz

A comment provided a link to some discussion of worship by Rich Mullins.  All in all, it is a helpful and interesting read from someone who has little in common with Lutheranism but who understands that entertainment worship is not the panacea that some claim for fixing all that ails the church.  You read it and you let me know what you think...

A very interesting thing happened in Wichita, Kansas, where a bunch of people who had been going to my church. They were, like, in the 20 year olds group - they had been going there for several years, and they went over to visit The Vineyard. And after they started visiting The Vineyard they decided to join The Vineyard. So they went forward, and the pastor said, "Why do you want to join our church?"
They said, "Well, because your worship is just so exciting to us."

And you know what the pastor of The Vineyard said? He said, "Go back to your old church. We don't particularly need you in this congregation because this is what will happen: You used to go to the church where you've been going for about three or four years because you got a buzz out of it. So suddenly you come to visit our church and we give you a better buzz so you decide that suddenly you no longer want to be faithful to the church where you're a member. Suddenly you're going to go to a church that gives you a better buzz. You know what's going to happen? You're gonna get used to the way that we do our worship service here and then you're not gonna get the buzz out of it and then you're going to go seek out another church. You'll end up being the member of about 50 dozen churches by the time you're 50 and you won't have helped anybody and you won't have grown because you will have gone from one goosebump feeling to another."

It worries me that in churches, the demand among people my age and younger, is that we make services more exciting to us. You don't go to church for excitement. That's why you go to movies. We go to church for fellowship. We go to church to be taught the Apostles' doctrine. And we go to church for the breaking of bread. We go to church for the sake of sharing all things. We don't go to church for thrills. And yet we find that part of our religious experience so boring that now suddenly you can't only have church with a piano and an organ. Suddenly you have to have an entire orchestra. All of the sudden, you have to have a rock combo. You have to have a backbeat in order to sing a hymn because we want a sensation.

And you know, what's very scary to me are people who come away from services where they've just been beat to death with a lot of sensationalism. And you know what? I enjoy those services, too. There's something really cool about being able to go to a church (I like to do it occasionally) where you get to clap your hands and you get to whirl around and you get to sing at the top of your lungs and you get to yell "amen" whenever you want and there's a rhythm in it. You know it's that whole, tribal kind of exciting thing.
But the danger is, we frequently mistake that sensationalistic wonderful experience for being a spiritual experience. It's not a spiritual experience. It's a fun experience and there's nothing wrong with it, but if we think that that's spirituality then we've missed the boat.

Please understand I'm not criticizing an exciting service. I'm merely saying that that is not the equivalent of a spiritual service. Does this make sense to everybody? We live in a world that says if it doesn't feel powerful, it's probably not real. Well, I have a feeling like it is real whether it feels real or not. I have a feeling that maybe sound doctrine is more important than goosebumps. I have a feeling that a real "holding all things in common" is more spiritual than a lot of dancing around and clapping your hands.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Transparent and clearly seen...

Sermon preached at Golgotha Lutheran Church, Wausa, NE, on Sunday, July 15, 2012.
It has been an unusual church year. We have heard more about and more from John the Baptist than ever before. It began with Advent and John’s call to repentance. On June 24 we observed the Nativity or birthday of St. John – his is the only birthday on the church calendar besides Jesus. That ought to tell you something. Now, a few weeks later, we hear the story of his shameful death by the hand of Herod, courtesy of a little help from Herod’s wife and her daughter. The story of John is big in the Gospels. Jesus speaks with both affection for John, His cousin, and commendation for his faithfulness and righteousness. Lets take a moment to fill out the picture.
John jumped in his mother's womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came to visit – a clear sign of faith and of the intersection of the lives of John and Jesus. John was given a special name for his prophetic purpose just like Jesus received a special name by God. John stirred up the countryside and city with the call to repent for the Kingdom of God was near. John met Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and there the hidden Jesus was revealed to begin His public ministry of bringing that promised Kingdom to fulfillment.
John passed off his disciples to Jesus and when they were reluctant to leave him, John told them to ask Jesus if He was the one to come or not. John was then content to fade into the background so that Jesus would be front and center (He must increase, I must decrease). John's personal righteousness led Jesus to hold him up as the greatest prophet. John was Elijah whose presence marked the beginning the Messianic reign. Then, when it seemed that John could slip into the elder statesman status of prophet emeritus to watch God's plan of salvation unfold, we hear this story of lies, deceit, and death.
The death of John was no accident. It was planned. Herod the Great had 10 wives and at least 9 sons. Herodias had married one and then married another, Herod Antipas, on her way up the ladder of power. Antipas was already married but that did not matter. He may have loved her but she loved power more and used her beautiful daughter to make sure she got what she wanted. The Jews hated him, in part because he built Tiberias on Jewish burial grounds but Herod, either out of faith or fear, was slow to antagonize John even when John publicly condemned Herodias’ marriage. So when the time was right, John was arrested and would have been left in prison but Herodias saw her opportunity to kill her thorn.
Jesus came to Galilee condemning Herod the fox but insisting John was no reed shaken by the wind. John’s witness to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world did not waver. Of all born of woman, Jesus said John was greatest. But John sought no glory or fame. He lived for the Kingdom of God – to announce that it was near, to point to the One who brought it, then to become transparent so that only the Kingdom of God and its bearer Christ might be seen.
The Kingdom of God comes not by glory but by suffering. John suffered as Elijah in life and then an ignominious death – all for the sake of the Kingdom. Yet his death is not some sad defeat but He was faithful unto death and we know the promise given to those faithful unto death, they receive the crown of everlasting righteousness and life.

All our suffering is made clear in Christ. His triumph is born of suffering and His death becomes the source of our life. Even in our suffering, Christ is triumphant. That is why we are here today. We bring our defeats, our scars, and our wounds hoping and praying that it is not in vain. I look across the scorched fields and into faces of disappointment. So much labor and so little hope of gain. What we see most clearly are these things. But what John tells us is that only when we are transparent and Christ is clear, does life have meaning and purpose. As tempted as we are to see life in terms of our gains and losses, we would be wrong. John saw what physical eyes hardly ever see. The Kingdom of God is ours even in the midst of suffering, pain, and loss. Christ is ours and we are Christ’s. When we fade away and Christ is center, then we everything.

The world may insist that your treasure lies in what can be seen or done or what people think of you. John shows us the truth. The only memory that counts and the only treasure that counts is the Kingdom of God which Christ ushers in by His suffering and death. We are here today with the prayer that this Kingdom be our greatest treasure, that Christ may increase and we decrease, that what God began in our baptism may come to fulfillment – that we die and Christ live in us and through us. Like St. Paul reminds us, we have died with Christ. We no longer live but Christ in us.

Our greatest witness to the world is that we do not fear becoming transparent and Christ becoming the focus, we are not afraid of decreasing so that Christ may increase, and that we gladly grasp hold of the treasure of Christ’s kingdom even if it means letting go of the things of this world. When we find contentment in this transparency and focus all on Christ, the world sees the glorious Kingdom which John proclaimed and Jesus fulfilled by His death and resurrection. From John we learn that death and loss mean nothing in the face of Christ’s life and His eternal gain.

John was no superhero or a superman. He was like you and me. But His witness was clear. I am not the One – I am not worthy to stoop down and tie His sandal. The Greater One was always John’s concern. So it is for you and me. John was content in faith to be transparent that Christ may be clear.  That is why we are here today. To learn this truth, to live this truth, to die in this truth.

When Christ is clearest and we are most transparent, then is when we have the most to give the world. It is shown in our actions of love and mercy, in our confidence amid uncertainty, in our hope amid suffering, in our last hour when death comes near. In life and in death, we faithfully point to Christ. It might be good to remember what else Jesus said. John was greatest of all those born of woman but he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than even John. When we are transparent and Christ is all, we are greatest. We have lost nothing at all – not to doubt, not to drought, not to defeat, and not even to death. Because we live in Christ and Christ lives in us by baptism and faith, we live forever. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Stung by a dying bee...

On one of the Anglican blogs I read:  A sociologist has observed that one sign of a dying organization is that it will try to exercise increasingly tighter control over its shrinking membership.  Average Sunday attendance across the Episcopal church in 2010 was 657,831 in the United States. That compares to 856,579 in 2000 (a 23% decline in only ten years). In contrast the Anglican Church in North America now numbers over 1000 congregations and reported an increase in Average Sunday Attendance of 15% in one year (2010-2011). The ACNA also reported that 13% of its congregations were in the process of planting a church during 2011. 

That does not mean the Episcopal Church will die quietly.  In fact, the Presiding Bishop (we have mentioned Bp Schori before) is being vindictive toward any and all (retired or active) bishops who fail to toe the line with the Episcopal Church and its ongoing property and jurisdictional struggles against more conservative Anglicans.  Seven (or nine, as one counts it) bishops have been charged because they were friendly for the Diocese of Quincy (IL) lawsuit with the Episcopal Church.  The breakaway Diocese of Quincy has filed suit against the Episcopal Church in an Illinois Court, asking the court to clarify its rights to the name and assets of the diocese.  It is intending to leave -- not as an individual parish but as a whole diocese.

The issue is germane for Lutherans as well since some in the ELCA have complained about the same adversarial treatment against those congregations seeking to leave the ELCA with their property in tact.  It would seem that the ELCA seeks the same control over the process of leaving as well as the rules under which a parish might leave -- protecting itself and even vindictively seeking control away from the majority who wish to leave (even when that majority does not meet the proportional requirement of the ELCA -- just recently adapted for even more control).

I confess that I do not understand it all.  Either it is a blatant move to seek assets to sell and prop up the bleeding Episcopal Church or ELCA OR it is a vindictive power play to punish those who wish to leave.  It is certainly one aspect of the Church not acting very churchly and seeming rather small in heart.  Those who complain about the rights of the minorities in these various situations should be reminded that the minorities have the opportunity (in nearly all cases) to join existing congregations staunchly within the realm of the Episcopal Church or the ELCA -- thereby strengthening those existing congregations.  But, that said, it is certainly news of a disconcerting nature...  such childish actions by those who claim spiritual maturity.

Unlike these groups, Missouri nearly always lets those who want to leave, well, leave -- property in tact unless hindered by a mortgage to LCEF in which some complications arise.  And, in fact, it is the greater wisdom to have those go and to wave good bye to those who have a different confession or no longer wish to play by the same rules as the rest of their brothers and sisters.  It would be better all the way around if those in opposition to the church and its confessions/practice would choose to leave rather than change them -- whether Lutheran or Episcopalian or whatever...  I do not like this nor do I welcome such defections but how long can a divided church body remain viable?

Before those who think this applies to Missouri, I might suggest that the things that divide Missouri have yet to be fully addressed in a candid and confessional conversation.  Instead, in Missouri (as elsewhere), we have dealt with things by discussing constitution and by-law more than what Scripture says and our Confessions teach.  I would suggest we give this latter tack a go before throwing up our arms and insisting that we are not of one mind.  But, sadly, like our cousins in other church bodies, our disagreements tend to revolve around the organizational rules more than the real Biblical and confessional issues themselves...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The role of the internet in fellowship...

For a few weeks now, while my desktop gets a new hard drive and I finish the seemingly endless job of locating the software disks and licenses to load it all up, I have been mostly offline.  I got email and then exited.  I posted to this blog and then exited.  I did not visit my usual blogs or discussions forums and missed my usual web sites.  Some might think it was well time I got off the internet, a salutary and long overdue withdrawl from technology and its complications.  And so it was/is -- at least in some ways.  But it also left me feeling somewhat isolated -- more so that I had been for a long time.

After the District Convention in June, our circuit brothers won't see each other again until the Fall.  This, combined with the loss of many email addresses and favorites, meant my forced isolation from the internet was also an unwelcome and discontented absence from many friends and acquaintenances.  I miss the contact of churchs and pastors the blogosphere and internet provides us.  I rather enjoy the stories, ruminations, random thoughts, and family updates from my net circle of friends, colleagues, and their families. 

When you live in a small Southern city, these friends through the web often connect us and make it seem as if we were actually closer to the Lutheran heartland than we (at least me) are.  It occurs to me that this just might be one of the greater blessings and benefits of our technological connections.  They provide bridges across the distance of geography and even idology.  I connect not only with like minded folks but with people across the theological spectrum.  So when it is all back up and running, I will need to manage my free time well to catch up, reconnect, and converse with friends again....

When the only thing that is heard is "no"

Christianity is not simply a series of negative “No’s,” but an uplifting series of ringing affirmations—rooted in ultimate truth, designed for our salvation...

I read those words in an article describing the misunderstanding of John XXIII (not the progressive radical but the hopeful renewer of tradition).  I like them.  These words do not express new or unique truth but a perspective often forgotten in the sea of ideas where Christianity must compete in this world.  That is not to say that Christianity is only "yes" -- it is not.  Faithful Christianity is, indeed, a series of "no's" that can neither be ignored nor explained away.  But the confession of faith to the world is primarily positive.

Note what it is we confess in the Creed:  I believe/We believe...  This is affirmation and not condemnation.  Oh, to be sure, confessions of faith (first seven ecumenical councils, Lutheran Confessions, etc...) always condemn or anathematize the opposition but they do so only first having expressed positively what is to be believed, taught, and confessed (within and outside the Church).

Somehow this has gotten lost.  Christians have come to be seen as against sex, against women, against gays, against freedom, against modernity, against birth control, against abortion, etc.  The world has heard only the "no's" (rightful and faithful) but none of our "yes's!"  In this, the world has heard only part of the Christian faith and too many have rejected the voice of Christianity because it has been primarily the voice of "no."  Certainly you cannot exclude the "no's" from Christian faith and witness but the primary nature of our faith and witness -- especially to the world -- is positive.

I think this is one of the enduring blessings of Luther's catechism (and why it is to troubling that the catechism is becoming an unknown book and a foreign language to his heirs).  Luther's explanations are primarily positive.  Think of the Creed with its three-fold reflection on God.  I believe in the Father means that I believe that God has made me and all creatures, endowed me with my body and all its parts, daily and richly blesses my life with all things needful for this body and life, defends and protects me from all enemies and evil.  From that positive affirmation of what God has done comes what we do in response:  "Thank and praise, serve and obey" (with all the "no's" inherent in gratitude, worship, service, and obedience).  The same is also true of the second article.  From the joyous affirmation of who Christ is and what He has done (the positive) flows the faithful response (inclusive of all the "no's" being His own in a world opposed to Him and living under Him in His kingdom while being in this world, and serving Him in holiness of life, speech, and faith).  The third article likewise confesses what we cannot do -- only to point to what God has and continues to do to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify me and His Church.  I could go on and on...

I am convinced that the more we distance ourselves from this primary Lutheran confessional and catechetical document, the Small Catechism, the easier it is for us to think of Christianity, and of Lutheranism in particular, as a series of "no's" more than the positive affirmation of what God has done and continues to do among us, in us, and through us.

Confessional Lutherans are often characterized as curmudgeonly old foggies who resent their lost youth and its prominence and are left with only "no's" to express about everything modern (from worship to music).  This is hardly the case but it is often the poor way we express legitimate concerns of faithfulness, authenticity, and efficacy in these areas.  We must remember that we affirm within the Church and witness this affirmation to the world before we begin listing the things we must, in order to be faithful, say "no" to...  I am not at all suggesting that we refrain from saying "no" to that which we must but I am confident that when this is the place we begin and this is the familiar refrain heard in the Church and in the world, nothing else will be heard.  The more distant we are from the language and posture of Luther's Small Catechism, the more likely we will find ourselves shouting "no" and then wondering why people reject us or just don't get what we are saying.  Some of the renewal needs to begin with the once common identity and experience of Lutherans, instruction in and familiarity with the Catechism.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Luther and the call to sin boldly...

It is the oft repeated criticism of some that Luther was either demented or demonic for the way he urged folks to sin boldly.  It does not take much smarts to figure out that this charge is a canard which has little standing in truth, but, well, it keeps on coming...

A certain James Swan has taken it to himself to refute this old change and he has done extensive research and has ample documentation to suggest that this is not as simple as it seems and that Luther cannot be so cavalierly dismissed.  You can read it here.  I have summarized Luther's points below.

“If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace…” “…if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners...”  “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

Unfortunately, some Lutherans have not gotten the point.  They missed the second part of Luther's words:  if grace is true, you must be true and not fictitious sinsIt is not only that do commit a lot of fictitious sins; we confess a lot of them, too.  Not so long ago I was at a churchly event and the script (cannot bring myself to call it a liturgy) did just that -- it led us to confess fictitious sins and kept us from confessing the real ones.  Gone were the words about sinful nature and uncleanness.  Absent was the usual "thought, word, and deed."  Missing in action were the familiar "by what we have done and by what we have left undone."  We were not miserable at all.  We were failed but not irredeemable.  
Lord, too often I have tried to make it on my own and failed miserably... If only I had tried harder, maybe I would not have failed so terribly -- it was not my sin that made me miserable but that I did not succeed in this sinful isolation...  leaving a path of hurt and disappointment behind...  Oh, yes, I cannot ignore the folks who were counting on me to succeed and whom I disappointed and scandalized by my inability...  I have lashed out at others and even at You when my foolish plans have gone wrong...  No good blaming others or making them bear the burden for my inability.  The same for God.  I should have succeeded and I screwed it up and I should not have dumped on others for my inability...  Father, help me trust in Your strength, learn from Your wisdom, bow humbly before Your throne of grace...  If only I had a little more faith, knew the Scriptures better, and was not so proud, I could succeed and I would succeed and then I would not have to be in this position...   Help me to stand firm in my faith... let me boast of nothing but Christ's righteousness...  If I work at this with Your help, I can fix it and I won't be back here on my knees like I am now...

Okay... snark off mode.   Where do such words of confession intersect with the Commandments?  Where is the acknowledgement of mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa?  Where is the awareness that sin is not just lack of good but real and unmistakable evil -- in the heart as well as in the life?  We are too good at framing confessions as failures of will to do what we should or be who we ought to be.  We need the real words of the confession to remind us that sin is not simple lack, it is the captivity of the heart, the reign of evil, the friendship with the devil, the world, and sinful nature, and death.  We need to confess that we have done something and not that we did not try as hard as we should or do as good as we might have done.

Snark mode on... But, dear friends, for fictitious confessions of fictitious sins, there are fictitious absolutions as well.  

Back to earnest words... Why is it so hard to simply say "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?"  We don't need different ways to say something similar.  We need to say in the clearest and plainest way possible (as does the absolution in the hymnal) "I forgive you..."  This is part of Luther's contention -- confessing fake sins and receiving fake absolution gains you nothing.  Sin bodly.  True repentance means honest acknowledged of what sin is, of your sin, and of its consequences.  The fruit of true repentance is this honest confession (which itself is the fruit and work of the Spirit in you).  And the response of God is true absolution -- in unmistakable terms as red as blood and as real as the cross.  That is what Luther contended for and what some of us Lutherans have forgotten...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reject the words and You reject the Word...

The sermon for Pentecost 6, preached on Sunday, July 8, 2012.

    We are well accustomed to challenging the wisdom and methods of those who serve us.  Politicians and government have been fair game for a long time.  We all think that we could have done a better job than those now in the statehouse or congress or White House.  It is a small step then to say we think we could do things differently and probably better if God would let us be in charge.  We want to separate God from His will and His works.  But it cannot be done.
    What we forget is that the what of God's mercy is inseparable from the who behind that mercy.  In other words, rejecting what God does or how He does it means rejecting God Himself.  Jesus found that kind of rejection among those whom you might have thought knew Him best – the people of His home town.  But they rejected Jesus for a whole host of reasons – from what Jesus was doing to whom He was hanging around with to what kind of family He came from.  In the end, they believed that God would not, could not, and therefore did not act this way and they rejected Jesus.  Their rejection cut them off from His grace and His gracious works.
    Jesus came to His hometown not as a miracle worker but as the bearer of the Kingdom of God, the promised deliverer to release people from their sins.  He came to bring them the Kingdom but they rejected the Kingdom Jesus brought.  They thought they were only rejecting the messenger but they were really rejecting the message of God itself.  We run the same risk of rejecting God because we don’t like how God acts or when or what He chooses to do.
    Jesus returned as the hometown boy to Nazareth.  He comes to do what He did elsewhere.  This was not about a few miracles here and there but about the Kingdom of God Jesus brought in His life, words, and ministry.  Jesus was not trying to impress people.  He was there to deliver what He brought to other places – the kingdom of God with all its righteousness, peace, and joy.
    The people were shocked by this.  More than that.  They were appalled.  God would not act like this, they thought.  God could not come in this way, they reasoned.  God did not come in Jesus nor was the kingdom of heaven present in Christ, they concluded.  Now they thought they were protecting the Kingdom by rejecting Jesus as the messenger – too common and too familiar.  In reality, they were rejecting God's kingdom totally.
    So, Scripture says that Jesus could do mighty work there EXCEPT healing a few folks.  We would be happy with healing as a mighty enough work of God.  But Jesus is here pointing to the greater work of believing.  The healing works were temporary signs of grace, markers, if you will, for the Kingdom of God.  But Jesus was aiming higher.  Jesus was aiming for trusting hearts, reborn in grace, to love and do the Father's will.  It was this greater work we call faith that Jesus was unable to bring to His hometown. 
    What is interesting here is what happened next.  According to Mark, Jesus sent forth the Twelve to do for others what His own hometown crowd had refused.  Jesus sent forth His disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed.  What the people of Nazareth had rejected then became the gift and blessing to other people.  This time the Kingdom of God would be proclaimed not by the Son of God in human flesh and blood, but by the flesh and blood messengers of Jesus whom we call apostles.
    Jesus sends them forth in their mighty journey and in this momentous task with nary an extra coat, a bite to eat, or some traveling money.  Nope, they did not need these things when they had the promise of God's Son.  They did not need earthly marks of power or prestige.  They had the healing Word of God that calls forth repentance and imparts faith.  They had the Word that does what it promises – what did they need in addition to this Word that speaks forgiveness, life, and salvation to its hearers?  So they went forth light on baggage and loaded down with the Word of the Lord.  And the result was that the demons ran and the sick were healed and they lost and dying were born again by faith.  Even without Jesus physical presence walking with them on the way, they had all they needed in the Word He gave them and in His blessing and call to preach the Kingdom, to bring forth faith, and deliver the gifts of God to people in need.
    We come here week after week and often complain to God that we pray and nothing happens, we go to Church and still we suffer problems, illnesses, and struggles, and we don't see God's hand at work in our lives.  We complain that we feel alone and on our own, that the Kingdom of God seems so far off from us and our ordinary lives of struggle, pain, and trial.  Like the people of Nazareth, we wonder if there could not be more, if there should not be more, if there is not more.  Pretty soon we end up rejecting God with questions about His plan, His purpose, and His timing – rejection that ends up pushing God away from us and turning our backs upon Him.
    We might be content if we saw a few ills healed, some demons disappear, and felt a sense of God's power and might.  Instead, we lament that all we have is this ordinary Word and familiar table.  But the point is that this is how God works.  He works through Word and Sacraments.  Rejecting how God works or what God is doing is rejecting God Himself.  The Lord cannot be divorced form His means of grace and the key to it all is to trust in what we do not see but know through the witness of His Word.  They key is faith.
    Like the people of Nazareth it is our great temptation to presume we know better and to judge the Lord – thinking that we can separate the personal Word from the content of that Word. When we make this distinction we lose what He has come to bring.  The Kingdom is His gift and that Kingdom is inseparable from Him.  There in the Kingdom is righteousness, peace, and joy.  There is forgiveness and life.  There is hope and redemption.  And Christ is where He has promised to be – in His Word and Sacraments... in the living voice of the Gospel, in the living waters of baptism, in the living grace of absolution, and in the living food of this Holy Communion.
    God will not spend forever trying to argue with a stubborn or willful heart.  God will not wait forever for our fearful minds to see and know.  The people of Nazareth lost it all when Jesus dusted off His sandals and sent forth His disciples with power, two by two bringing the Kingdom of God to cities, villages, and people of all kinds.  They had their integrity in tact but their hearts were empty and cold.  Friends, do not let this happen to you.  Do not waste your life away questioning God's wisdom or timing.  Do not fret away the hours by being caught up in what might have been or could have been.  God has done His work in Christ, bringing to us the Kingdom and clothing us with His grace for forgiveness, life and salvation.  Don't reject the gift because it comes in a form you do not recognize or appreciate.  Come to God through His Son, meet the Lord where He will be found in the means of grace, and rejoice in the mightiest work of all – the simple faith that says "amen" top what God has accomplished by His gracious will and purpose – for you, for your salvation, and for your eternal contentment and peace.  Come to the Lord when and where He will be found, while salvation is near, in the means of grace that deliver Him and His kingdom to us.  God help us, in Jesus' name.  Amen.