Friday, August 31, 2012

Thrivent Financial for. . . whom?

If you are not Lutheran, you are excused from this day's rant....

After thinking on a long conversation about Thrivent Financial and its changes, some things became clearer to me.  Thrivent (and before it AAL and LB) were effective not because they had the best financial products in the world but because they were connected to the church, because they were personal (not institutional), and because they had an appeal beyond simply a certain financial need.  When these began they were fraternals with a distinct identity and purpose.  They were FOR LUTHERANS.  More importantly, they were LUTHERANS helping Lutherans. It was Aid Association for LUTHERANS and LUTHERAN Brotherhood.  You were not a client.  You were a member and by membership, an owner.  You were not merely filling a financial need, you were helping other Lutherans with their own financial needs and, at the same time, helping your own Lutheran congregation, district, synod, and institutions.  It was a ripple effect.

The face of these groups was not an institutional face, no corporate headquarters or logo.  No, the face of these groups was the familiar face of a representative who was your friend, your fellow Lutheran, and the folks in your AAL or LB branch (again, your fellow Lutherans).  The financial was important, to be sure, but the face of the financial was the fraternal -- people with the same identity helping each other.  If you were suspicious about financial institutions, you need not be fearful of the folks who worshiped with you, who ate together with you at the pot lucks, who prayed with you in troubled times, who shed tears with you in times of sorrow, and who took up your cause as their own when catastrophe hit.

The face of these groups was so personal and so powerful, they became one of the ways Lutheran identity extended into the community.  The folks holding the bake sale for the child needing major surgery or hosting the spaghetti supper for the victims of a storm or having a yard sale to raise funds for the volunteer fire department were Lutherans who cared also about the communities where they lived.  The face of the Lutheranism they brought to the community was the welcome face of Lutherans who wanted to help, to share the burden, and to meet the needs -- even of those NOT Lutheran.

At some point, before the actual merger of AAL and LB into Thrivent, this became blurred.  It began with the desire to be bigger and stronger but with that desire the identity of these fraternals began to shift from the fraternal to simply the financial.  The whole rationale for the merger in 2001 was financial -- Thrivent will be a stronger company, able to offer a wider range of products, and more efficient (how many good things are destroyed in the name of efficiency).  The fraternal side of things was hardly a thought in this merger process as is documented by the way the old and strong branches were torn down to be replaced by weak chapters that ignored all the old loyalties and identities.  The fraternal side is required by the government's rules for fraternals but it no longer was an important side of the financial entity for Lutherans.

The members who voted for this merger had visions of the value of a stronger financial company and trusted that the fraternal face of this for Lutherans brand would remain.  Everyone now agrees that the branches (excuse me, chapters) are a dismal failure, limping toward a demise that would be all but assured were it not for those pesky government rules.  The community work has been replaced by Thrivent Choice -- your good work in your neighborhood or city has been replaced by a mouse click on the company web site that directs your dollars to a faceless and nameless organization known only by reputation.  The personal component which connected me to the folks in the pew and in the community is largely now gone.  In fact, the changes in Thrivent Choice will mean that any 501c3 (read that non-profit) can be the recipient of our dollars and the Lutheran ties now largely mean nothing whatsoever to the fraternal work.  We no longer work together at anything but a mouse click and our dollars are not the ones we raised together and matched and turned over for the good cause but simply checkbook charity without even the checkbook.

I loved AAL and LB for what they were and what they did.  I am greatly disappointed and even wounded by the loss of these and the move of Thrivent toward a generic Christian identity that is less fraternal than it is a financial services company (and a giant one at that) that also has a small conscience.  It is hard to feel like you are a member of this kind of firm.  It is easy to feel like the only thing that matters is the premium check or electronic debit for your financial services product.

I do not so much blame the head honchos in Minneapolis and Appleton as I do blame Lutherans.  We get so darn self-conscious about that name Lutheran and our Lutheran identity.  We have agreed to diluting the Lutheran out of this LUTHERAN fraternal organization just like we have allowed other Lutheran identities to dilute their own Lutheran brand until nothing but a history and a legacy remain.  We believe that sharing our little fraternal is a good thing and, well, if losing its Lutheran character is the price, well, I guess it is what we have to do.  Now I know that Thrivent Financial for Christians would be bigger and stronger than Thrivent Financial for Lutherans but that bigger does not mean better.  Frankly, I am not all that interested in a financial services company required to give money to non-profits in lieu of taxes on their profits.  I cannot imagine that this entity would engender much real loyalty from anyone.  We will buy its products if they are good and maybe remember to go online and click the thousand clicks until we find a list of charitable mostly non-Lutheran groups to get our money but to call such a thing a fraternal is to betray what the term fraternal means.  Is this what we are willing to settle for?

I want better from Thrivent.  I was it to be what it was begun to be -- a LUTHERAN fraternal, LUTHERANS helping LUTHERANS.  I lament the personal face of this fraternal and its replacement with a corporate identity.  I am not a complete fool.  We Lutherans will probably pass the diluted Lutheran connection with a big majority.  But the cost of this choice will be great and one day we will wake up and find that what was a great Lutheran partner to families and individuals is now just a generic financial services company that is obligated to invest some of its profits into non-profits.  We will have done it to ourselves but that will make the loss only greater.  I have a deep affection for the idea of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, built upon the courageous and visionary founders of AAL and LB.  It is the reality of a Thrivent Financial for any Christian who has got money that gets me angry.

Imbibing on a hot summer afternoon...

“From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”  So said St. Arnold (580-640), also known as St. Arnulf, seventh-century bishop of Metz.  Let me just say up front that I did not know the man.  We were never introduced and I did not read anything of him until only just recently.  But he seems a wise sort, indeed.  

I grew up knowing beer as a distinctive contribution to America of my German heritage and Lutheran soul.  My parents knew the family local brews of the region (Hamms, Storz, Schlitz, etc.).  Once they tasted Coors it became a favorite but, at the time, was not shipped into our corner of Nebraska.  Now they have gravitated toward the familiar Bud Light variety.

The first fruits of ill gotten gain in my teenage years (not of legal age) were cans of beer quickly passed from the car of one over 21 into the automobile of his junior, a clandestine though well known practice in the community.  Brand meant little then.  Accessibility was the key criteria.  In college I was introduced to the 3.2 phenomenon -- Kansas allowing 18 year olds to drink beer but watering down the alcohol content in the trade off.  Then in young adulthood I was introduced to European beers (Heinekin, usually).  That led to my first experience with the heartier lagers and a few dark brews -- at first off putting but later quite tasty.  

As time went on there were a few detours (including a very sad momentary experiment with something marketed as no-name beer -- beer without a label and not much taste either).  In the end I have come back to beer.  I enjoy it but seldom drink more than a bottle.  I have fully embraced some of the regional brews of Tennessee (Yazoo, for example) and enjoy the offerings of the local microbrewery (the Blackhorse).  I find it hard to think of drinking too much beer (as filling as it is for me) but it is definitely a gift of God borne of man's labors (though in Luther's home it was Katie who made the beer).

I cannot think of a more fitting thing to drink after cutting the lawn or while the steaks are sizzling on the grill.  It just seems right.  I recall one Synodical convention in St. Louis when Anheuser Busch (itself of Lutheran parentage) sent over a truck and we enjoyed a glass (well, plastic cup) while munching on hamburgers and hot dogs.  Our own district convention offers one night of hot and cold munchies and provides a beverage ticket (only two though it is not difficult to find folks willing to part with theirs).  We tend to be a bit self-conscious about beer and church but perhaps we a little too touchy.  Given the way we talk to one another or don't talk, the way we debate serious issues or don't, I can hardly see how some serious conversations over a good beer could hurt the state of the church.

No, all it all, I think St. Arnold of Metz had it about right.  “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”  Labor Day is coming up.  On this day we labor more about the grill than anything else.  Why not pour yourself a glass or pop the top of a can or tap a keg or use a church key on that bottle and talk a little theology while you are sipping away... you could do far worse.  Just don't forget Chesterton's advice in Orthodoxy, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”Gifts can be easily abused and their blessing becomes curse.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

It tugs at the heartstrings... it feeds the mind... it moves the soul... preaching the Gospel

I remember well when I was new to the ministry and serving in my first call.  I had substituted the word homily for sermon in the bulletin.  I liked it better.  At least I thought I did.  One Sunday an older member came up to me and said she did not know what that word meant and so she looked it up in her dictionary (this was long before the Google era).  She said one of the definitions was "a long, boring moral address."  She then told me that she thought I had gotten the word just right.  Ouch!

There was a time in American Christianity when sermons were emotional roller coasters.  It was said that the preachers of the Great Awakening had well honed tools in their word craft to elicit a heart felt response to the sermon.  It was long but exciting and in the end, if the preacher had done his job well, there was not a dry eye left in the house.  Then it seemed that sermons had given way to lectures designed to impart information, devoid of emotional appeal.  They were academic exercises in which the preacher demonstrated his intellect, showed forth his education and training, modeled his erudition and knowledge, and proved his points with enough passages from Scripture to make it impossible to refute him.  They were meant for the mind and not for the heart, confident that if the mind were convinced, the heart might follow (and just maybe the wallet as well).

When I was in seminary (too long ago to be relevant except to me), the best sermon was expository -- it followed the text, explained the text, used the text to inspire as well as inform.  It was less about an idea or a topic than it was a sermonic Bible study.  I still have many of those outline crafted for homiletic's classes (hence my affection for homily in place of sermon).  Once, when I was short of time, I submitted one of these outlines to a preaching seminar class taught by a Pastor not long from parish service.  He looked at the manuscript and said that there was nothing really wrong with it but he made me promise not to preach that way.  I think it got me a B minus.  He was saying to me that it is possible for the words of the sermon to be perfectly orthodox and the form acceptable and yet it was not preachable (or best left unpreached).  I still think about that.

We preachers need to preach the text but the sermon is not Bible study.  We preachers need to preach sermons that people can understand but the primary goal of the sermon is not mental assent to the ideas or propositions put forth.  We preachers need to preach to inspire, encourage, and comfort and these all involve reaching the heart but we dare not preach emotion.  We preachers need to preach faithfully and not for effect -- the light is focused on the Gospel and not the mouth of the moment speaking it but we cannot hide our own identity, experience, and personality or we end up with something more sanitized theory than personal word.  We preachers preach not for a goal but that the Law might be spoken with full force to convict and the Gospel might be felt with full comfort to relieve -- if we get that right, the goal will be achieved in God's own design and timing. 

I do not recall Walter A. Maier as preacher of The Lutheran Hour.  I have heard a couple recordings of his preaching.  I grew up hearing Oswald Hoffmann.  We were bidden to silence in the car as the radio brought his unique voice to us week after week.  I did listen to Dale Meyer though not as regularly.  I have not listened that much to Ken Klaus or now to Greg Seltz.  But of all the various styles these men exhibited, I find myself still hearkening to Ozzie.  His commanding voice and the cadence of his words... his knowledge of the text and of the hearers who were tuning in... his mastery of the phrase and his timing...  They continue to resonate in my mind and heart.  I have not (consciously, at least) tried to emulate him but I would be lying to say his preaching has not taught me much about preaching or helped me find my own voice in the pulpit.  I guess that what I am trying to say is that when we speak the text faithfully, when we are passionate in our speaking of that Biblical word, when we rightly distinguish Law and Gospel, and when remember that the pulpit is a borrowed place and the sermon borrowed time too valuable to be squandered on fluff, just maybe we have it about right.  Aiming for mind and touching the heart with the only thing that transforms both -- the preaching of Jesus Christ and Him crucified (as Paul ever reminds us).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Interesting challenge to common conceptions....

It is often said that Christians would benefit from a little loosening up, from less rigid views, from a flexible morality, and from demands made upon people.  Perhaps these is a bit of truth in these critiques.  According to Barna, many young folks find Christians less than winsome.

  1. The church is overprotective.
  2. Their experience of Christianity is shallow.
  3. Churches seem antagonistic to science.
  4. The church's approach to sexuality is judgmental and simplistic.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusivity of Christianity.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
But the funny thing is, Mormons are growing at a faster rate than Christians and they seem to break every rule when it comes to the complaints younger folks raised to the Barna survey folks.

Mormons are very protective.  Mormons hang around mostly with other Mormons.  They tend to send their kids to Mormon universities.  They appear to put family first before interest, relationships, friendships, career and business.  In some ways, they seem positively smothering when it comes to things Mormon.

Mormons have high expectations.  From tithe to missionary service to worship attendance to evangelism, Mormons place high demands upon their members.  They take care of their own in ways that even those folks most unfriendly to their religion grudgingly admire.  Shallow they are not -- at least when it comes to commitment.

Mormons do not seem to care how out of step their beliefs are.  It is not just with respect to science but even when it comes to historic, creedal Christianity, Mormons do not seem at all uncomfortable with their beliefs.  We Christians might complain about the strangeness of Mormon beliefs and practices (from abstaining from caffeine to wearing a certain underwear) but it does not seem to bother them or inhibit their growth.

Mormons are distinctly old fashioned about sex and marriage.  Mormons have a high morality when it comes to sex and marriage.  They unhesitatingly affirm abstinence before marriage, an exclusively heterosexual marriage, disdain for divorce, and lots and lots of kids.  Now these positions go against the grain of our culture but they seem not to hinder their growth.

Mormons have a high confidence in their beliefs.  Now I would hardly call Mormons orthodox Christians, some Mormons claim to be and others not, but they do not dilute or discount their doctrine.  They seem, as a group, to be more homogenous than Christians when it comes to what they believe and how they practice that faith.  They seem not to be bothered with self-doubt and angst the way Christians are over a Jesus who insists He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and there is no other way to the Father.

Mormons do not tolerate diversity when it comes to belief.  On the one hand, they tend to evangelize more by social relationship and truth teaching but on the other they do not have the wide range of beliefs the way Christians seem to be all over the place about what the Bible teaches and what constitutes Christian doctrine and truth.  They are very friendly but eventually that friendship gives way to an orthodoxy (in Mormon parlance) which is neither flexible nor changing.

Before we begin to look to the Mormons for ways to grow Christianity, which is certainly not the point of this post or anything but a desperate move, we need to take stock of how they violate all the supposed rules and still grow.  Could it be that those who are making these rules about growing the church got good grades in theory and sociology but were not paying attention in Sunday school or catechism class?  The last thing Christianity needs is to be less protection of our faith and especially our children, to ease up on the expectations of what is Christian belief and piety, embrace science more for ultimate truth, be more open to sexual experimentation and changing values about marriage and family, water down Jesus' own claims of exclusive hope inclusive for all sinners everywhere, or suggest that doubts are good and claims of truth are suspect.  It seems to me that those who do this have done enough damage to Christianity, the Church, and individual Christians.  Perhaps we need to spend less time with sociological theory and more time in Scripture, the Confessions, and the Catechism.  Period.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Another good one from On Religion by Terry Mattingly is the church-growth gospel according to Bailes: If churches want to reach millions of independent-minded young Americans they should learn a thing or two from craft brewers. Yes, he thinks this is true for Baptists who don’t drink beer, as well as the many Baptists who — reality alert — down a few cold ones now and then. It’s time, he said, for “craft churches” that reach niche audiences.

Terry Mattingly is one of the most thoughtful writers on the religion beat.  He never fails to deliver something worthy of your reading -- even when you disagree with his premise.  Here he has plucked an idea from a Wake Forest grad who thinks that the era of the growth of the mega-beers has peaked and that this may be saying something to those still on the mega-church bandwagon.  He offers the alternative of a niche marketing strategy in which the appeal is to specific tastes and not the broad, generic, uniformity known as the typical megacongregation.

From a marketing standpoint, the kid has a point.  We are finding a world saturated by look alikes.  Wal-Marts come in various flavors but all seem to stem from the same idea of trying to be all things to all people.  In the end this is not possible so they shoot for the broad middle.  Bailes thinks that there is something to be learned from the niche marketing of the small or craft beer brewers whose wares of more distinctive tastes and whose appeal is to a small section of the overall market.

I have long said that if you ditch the theology of it all, there is no marketing strategy to LCMS congregations trying to look like and act like and sound like the average mega church or mega wannabe church in their community.  In my own city, we have a half a dozen or so large congregations who have bought into the mega model.  They have the gamut from huge self-contained facilities to warehouse style worship centers to multi-site locations.  But what happens on Sunday morning looks very similiar in these very different congregations.  They are followed by a big tier of smaller congregations who have bought into the same marketing strategy and who try to be like the big boys as a means to becoming a big boy.  They, too, have tried to find a charismatic leader and to craft a worship service which is less like worship than it is a good entertainment venue.  What value would their be to Lutherans trying to emulate on a small scale what is already saturating the market?  How could we do on a much smaller budget what they are doing with big techology, big band, and big personality?  From a pure marketing strategy, it is foolish to be one more version of McChurch in a market already suffering from too many McChurches.

As true as that argument is, the premise is flawed.  It is not about marketing strategy.  When it becomes about marketing strategy, then it ceases to be the Church.  We are not in this for the money, the fame, or for market dominance.  We are not the Church because we want to be.  We are the Church because Christ has made us the Church.  He has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified His people to be His body, the Church, in the world.  The mission is not ours.  The mission is His.  He does not give us a sales target and then set us from to figure out how to achieve the goal.  He has given us the means of grace.  He has promised that where the cross is preached, He is there.  He has pledged to make His Word accomplish His purpose so that it never fails to return to Him that for which He has sent it.  We are there to be the voices that speak this Word to the world.  We speak not to achieve something but because faithfulness compels us to speak the Word of God that has called us from the darkness of sin and its death into the marvelous light of forgiveness and everlasting life. 

We preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ.  In season and out of season -- meaning God already knows that it is a message that will not always "sell."  As long as we are speaking this Word faithfully, it will be fruitful for His purpose.  If it is not fruitful, it may be that we are not being faithful.  If that is the case, we need to repent of our failure and amend our sinful ways by the aid of the Spirit.  If it is being unfruitful (at least to our eyes), it may be that this Word is unwelcome and rejected (as the prophets were unwelcome and rejected in the past).  We cannot afford to substitute a marketing strategy for the real witness of speaking faithfully the Word of the Cross, from preaching the Law in its full force and the Gospel in its richest sweetness.

A good marketing case can be made that far from shrinking from our Lutheran distinctiveness, we should be focusing upon that distinctiveness.  A good marketing cause could be made -- but marketing strategies are not the domain of the Church.  We do what we are called in Christ to do whether it is good marketing strategy or not.  Once we surrender the theology to the business model of success, we forsake our very purpose.

Terry has given us a lot to think about.  Perhaps it can reassure our Lutheran uncertainty about being Lutheran in modern day world but even when this marketing scheme matches where faithfulness leads us, we should never surrender one strategy for another.  Niche marketing may be the wave of the future but faithfulness to the Gospel is the way of eternity.  When we as the Church are faithful in preaching, teaching, administering the Sacraments, etc., God's Church will grow -- even if, as Pf. Kurt Marquart used to say, it must get smaller before it gets bigger!

Those who serve... and the chaplains who serve them...

Honoring those who serve and those who serve them in God's name....

Monday, August 27, 2012

Loose lips sink ships

Sermon for Pentecost 13, Proper 16B, preached on Sunday, August 26, 2012.

Is there a parent or child who has not gone through the awful experience of a child's forced apology? Even when the child does spit out the right words, he is a terrible actor and the rebellion of the heart is not hidden at all. Therein is the origin of the word hypocrite – the wearer of a mask. Long ago actors wore wax masks to hide who they were behind the character they were playing. It all comes together today in Mark's Gospel – the right words spit out before God but the mask that hides the unrepentant heart. Recalling the words of Isaiah, Jesus speaks of the divergence between the outward actions and the desire of the heart, the substitution of the doctrines of men for the doctrines of God, and the power of God to unite the inward desires of the heart with outward behavior through the Word of the cross.

So lets just jump in here. Jesus's disciples are accused of failing to wash their hands and the food their hands put into their mouths. This has nothing to do with cleanliness but with a symbolic or ceremonial washing which gives thanks to God. Jesus does not tolerate much from these accusers and hits them right back with Isaiah's words condemning lips that say the right worship words but hearts that remain unrepentant.

Some have tried to make this about rituals or ceremony. They wrongly think that Jesus is saying He would rather have sincerity over good form. But that is simply a lie. God had ordained much of this ritual for worship so it cannot be that God does not like ritual or ceremony. What God cannot abide is when we get the outward right but our hearts remain unrepentant. What God rejects is when we substitute the things we want to do for the things He has commanded. Lutherans should not be ashamed of ritual and ceremony in worship. What ought to shame us is that what we say and do is often at odds with our hearts. This goes to the heart and core of confession and forgiveness. And that is the same charge on those against ceremonial things.

Jesus complaint then is about unrepentant hearts - piety that masks unbelief and or unrepentance. It is not a choice between inward and outward. It is about the unity of lives that proceeds from the repentant heart out into the words and actions of a person's life. This is a first commandment issue. We are turning away from what God has said to focus either on what we want to do or what we think we can do. If we cannot be holy, we can at least be sincere. If we cannot be sincere, at least we can look holy. But both are lies.

The vanity of worship is not that we have ceremonies or ritual but that the words and actions of the liturgy are at odds with what is really going on in our hearts. That is why we begin with confession and absolution. By starting with the confession that we are sinners, that we deserve death, we take off the mask to be honest with God and with one another. Into such honest confession comes not the condemnation of an angry God but the sweet voice of absolution of our loving God. To our failures, lies, and masks, God comes with Christ’s death as payment for our sin and with his resurrection to raise us up from our death of sin to life in Him. Then and only then can true worship happen.

What God rightly expects of us is not a choice between sincerity and ceremony but an outward life that reflect the repentance and faith of our hearts. No outward behavioral change can transform the heart. If it could, the Law would work. But it doesn’t. No, the transformation of the heart is God’s work in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Jesus does not lament that what the Jews were doing was wrong but that their hearts were not in it. They were unrepentant. They did what they thought they were supposed to do but believed God would overlook the fact that this obedience was more about them than Him. Too many of us Christians are in the same predicament. We do the right things because we think they are good and should be done but our hearts are not been honest about sin. We love the Jesus of our imagination more than we love the Jesus of the cross. We prefer an inspirational leader to the Savior who shed His blood to save us from ourselves.

The solution does not lie in ditching ritual or ceremony. The solution does not lie in trying to be more sincere. God does not need us to indulge in any more naval gazing. We don't need to look inside of us. We need to look to the cross. We need to focus upon the love that became flesh for us, on the suffering for our sin that bore the fruit of redemption, and the life that overcame death’s hold on us. The solution lies in repentance – not a once in a lifetime change but the daily response of the heart to the mercies of God in Christ – living out our baptism.

The Word of God calls us to what it alone has the power to do – transform our hearts, to unmask sin, and to release us from its absolute rule. It is not fear that leads us to lay down our masks but the compelling power of love – love revealed on the cross. The heart is reborn by the power of such love to live in an attitude of daily repentance before the Lord. Grace is the currency of our salvation. Obedience is the Spirit’s work in us responding to that grace and love in Christ. You cannot be holy from the outside in but the work of God in our hearts results in the desire to be His people and live under Him in His Kingdom.

What we offer to the world is not the inspiration of our outward lives but the gift of honesty in which we lay down our masks and make confession of our sins, rejoicing in the mercy that lifts us up again. For too many of us, Christianity is like a child’s forced apology. We keep our hearts hidden from God and settle for a thin veneer of words and works to cover up what remains hidden within. Today is about the removal of the mask, the honest confession of our sin, the Spirit’s work of repentance in our hearts, and the fruitful lives of good words and good works that flow from God’s work in us.

To those tempted to choose between sincerity and ceremony, we are reminded that the worship that pleases God is not our choosing but His revelation. God speaks. We listen. He enables our response and that response is born of faith. From that faith flow the good words and good works of worship, witness, and service. True gain and godliness is the fruit of repentance, the work of the preaching of Christ and Him crucified. Amen.

I coulda said that...

Peter Leithart, a person with whom I have had some public disagreements, has decided to sound like me (okay, maybe not).  Anyway, he has taken up a popular theme of mine when it comes to preaching.  In his First Things piece on A Man of God Leithart has said some very wonderful things about the tension between what preaching and preachers have become and the apostolic legacy that is to define us.  I think they are worth passing on.  The piece is short and you can read it all here but I want to pass on to you three paragraphs packed with punch.

Alan, Luther, and Oden are simply restating the New Testament’s central claim about pastoral ministry. Since the preacher holds an apostolic office, he is called to imitate the apostles, who were determined to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

The pressures on this ancient discipline are enormous. One of the constant challenges of pastoral ministry arises from the sheer vastness of need that surrounds any pastor. As Eugene Peterson has often observed, pastors can camouflage their vocational failures under a frenzy of busyness—not least because church members notice busyness. A pastor devoted to prayer and the word looks like a withdrawn pastor, a pastor who doesn’t care much for his people, or any people for that matter. Parishioners may be more intrigued by a preacher who can speak in the latest slang, who quotes the hot bands, who jars them with obscenities from the pulpit than by a man who knows God deeply.

Preachers should believe that that God knows what people need better than people do. What builds the church is not a man who has acquired theological information, or a man who can keep the attention of a crowd. Theological information and rhetorical skill are important. But what a congregation finally needs is assurance that the man who speaks to them from the pulpit every week is capable of bringing God’s word because he is acquainted with the Father of Jesus Christ through the filling of their Spirit.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

You do not have to... became you do not need to... that is now you should not...

Some of the Reformation rhetoric was about the things the Church used to bind the conscience.  These things you must do, you have to do, and you cannot avoid.  The days of holy obligation, for example, were non-negotiables.  This is where we draw the line.  We may not like to characterize it in this way but it was.  It was said you do not have to enumerate all your sins in confession.  Who can know all his errors?  You cannot be forced to do what you are not able to do, etc...

But what you do not have to do, became you do not need to do this.  You can IF you wish but it is really not necessary.  So you could and probably should go to Church but you do not need to go if you don't think you need it.  You could have Holy Communion every Sunday but you do not need it and if it is not necessary it will be offered less often.  If you ask for it, it will be there but if you do not ask it will not be offered.  You could go to confession but it is not necessary and, in fact, the only folks who go are those who have trouble feeling forgiven from the generic absolution of Sunday morning. 

Then what you do not need to do, you should not do.  Since there are other vehicles through which you can obtain forgiveness and confession is kinda Roman Catholic, you should not use private confession at all.  It is confusing at best and offensive at worst.  Since you only need to go to Church and the Sacrament of the Altar if and when you feel like it, you do not need to go and probably should not go until the need is there, the attitude appropriate, and the desire fully formed.  Better to save this for a special occasion than to ruin it all by making it commonplace. 

We can say the same for vestments worn by the Pastor -- adiaphora that cannot bind becomes that which is unnecessary that becomes something distasteful and offensive.  Or kneeling.  Or chanting.  Or the use of the liturgy.  Or a thousand other things.  You fill in the blank.

The path of the Church of the Reformation has led to a false disdain for things once considered good, salutary, and beneficial.  Now we find ourselves apologetic for them when we do them and wishing we were more like our Presbyterian and Methodist and Reformed cousins -- free from all the catholic accoutrements and duties and obligations and church usages and ceremonies and rituals and rites that were the comfortable clothing of the Reformers.  And hidden in all of this is the idea that those who restore such things are legalists, formalists, and doctrinaire folks who are innovating novelty while the folks who are casting off the Reformation clothing of practice and ceremony are the true sons and daughters of the Reformation.

So, we have a situation in which missional missions in which the Eucharist is absent on Sunday morning and the Pastor robed in the polo, khaki, tee or faded jeans uniform of modernity and the preaching about people more than Jesus... well, they are role models the rest of us should follow and the ones who object are simply curmudgeonly grumps holding on to an antiquated world view and gramdpa's church (that nobody wants to go to anymore)...  [long sentence and all but I am not going to re-write it now]...

Just shows how effective a version of Neuhaus' dictim has been in gutting Lutheranism of its Lutheran soul... and not just today, either.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

What of seelsorge?

A million years ago when I was in seminary (beware of any sentence that begins thusly), there was much talk about seelsorge (care of the souls).  Indeed, the primary role and function of the Pastor is as seelsorger (carer of the souls).  It was all good stuff, mind you.  Lofty sounding.  Idealistic.  Theoretical.  I marveled at the discussion of the work of the Pastor characterized by seelsorge.  It was impressive to an impressionable young man.  But I have to admit, the glow was tarnished by the realities of church administration. 

As I worked the ancient mimeograph with more ink on my fingers than on the paper, I began to wonder what or if this seelsorge actually takes place.  As I emptied giant garbage cans collecting water from a terrible roof leak, I felt growing anger between the presumed spiritual duties to the soul and the practical stuff of making sure the furnace did not drown.  As I stood on the roof assisting an 80 something old man installing plexiglass over leaking translucent fiberglass panels designed to bathe the chancel in indirect light, I knew I was there to care for his soul but it was his life that I felt needed to be guarded most of all at that moment.

Every Pastor has those moments of awakening when the grand theory of seelsorge meets the dirty reality of parish administration.  It is not pretty and we try to hide the truth of it from aspiring candidates for the Office of the Ministry but it cannot be hidden for long.  There are those who have other paid staff to handle such things and the rare congregation where the lay have taken full ownership of this part of the parish life but most, dare I say nearly all Pastors find themselves in the thick of it more than they feel appropriate or salutary.

In the midst of all of this, we find ourselves now charged not merely with the care of the souls or the administration of the parish, we are also responsible for making sure marriages are happy and healthy, lives are full and rewarding, people are happy, satisfied and achieve their dreams/success, and children reach their full potential without too many screw ups.  At least that is how it sounds by what passes for preaching in so many non-denominational settings (clue in Joel Osteen) and not a few Lutheran look alikes.

I just listened to one such sermon critiqued on one Lutheran radio channel.  The title was something about how to have an affair (in this case with your spouse).  According to the opening banter, it was preceded by a PG-13 sermon on lighting the sexual fire with your spouse.  Glad I missed that one.  After the sermon the band played on about how important it was to lift the lid on the toilet seat -- nothing says love like bathroom manners, now does it.  But it is true that many marriages end it divorse (half, they say) and this guy said a third of those divorces were caused by extra-marital relationships.  Lord knows, the need is urgent.  His words were not terrible -- not Gospel but not terrible - but the folks could have just read the recommended book (The Five Loves) and gotten all they needed there.  And the snark would say, "But would they have read it?"  Probably not.

Seelsorge is not primarily concerned with better marriages.  Neither is it so concerned with achieving earthly success or happiness.  It is not a quick fix for wayward kids, either.  Seelsorege is about the soul.  I wonder if we have not forgotten about that.  We don't hear much talk about the soul.  We hear some talk about salvation (or being saved) but we Lutherans don't feel comfortable with that American vocabulary (well, most of us don't).  We do like to talk about justification but even that gets old when the same outline is preached week after week after week.  We could talk about santificataion but that offends with its expectation of repentance and new life.  Yet the care of the soul is the first mission of the sermon (the Word -- both verbal and visible).

It is not that we ignore marriage, family, the individual, and such.  But, as I was taught by a wise Pastor, we do not do counseling -- we give adivce from the Word of God, we hear confession, we absolve, we comfort the afflicted, and we afflict the comfortable.  It will surely result in improvements in life and relationships but these are fruits and not the goal of the means of grace.  We pray but no parish expects to pay a man to pray for them.  They expect real work and since most of the Pastoral duties are not "real work" we tend to busy ourselves more with those things that people consider "work" and worth compensation (running the parish like a finely oiled machine).

This I do as I must but this is not what I became a Pastor ro do.  The call documents still list the primary duties of the Pastor in terms of seelsorge.  Preach, teach, administer the sacraments and the keys, admonish the erring, bury the dead, comfort the grieving, offer supplications and petitions on behalf of the peope, etc... You know what these documents say.  They say less words than the typical pastoral job description but they say more weight and truth than these modern nods to good business practice.

I find I do my best to make the administration stuff get done so that I can get to the seelsorge stuff.  For some Pastors, perhaps, it is the opposite.  And therein lies the discernment of the pastoral temperment that is part of the Church's assessment and judgment of God's call which is affirmed by the ordination and its conferral of the authority of the means of grace.  Even the Augustana and its article on the Ministry has at its core seelsorge:  To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching [predigamt in German -- not merely preaching but the whole of the Pastoral Office and its authority of the means of grace], giving the Gospel and the sacraments.  Unfortunately, today we do not connect the life of the soul and its health with the means of grace.  We don't even think of it much.  We are all about spiritual dimensions to earthly lives but few of us would really trade spiritual peace for earthly health, happiness, and success.  Maybe out of guilt for such earthly preoccupation and pursuits we talk the talk of spirituality, I do not know.  But this has certainly had an impact upon the role and life of the Pastor in the lives of his people and his parish.  That cannot be denied.

It strikes me that the institutional part of our life tends to see successful Pastors more in terms of earthly goals and criteria.  If a Pastor can make a congregation grow, has good numbers to show for his efforts, and the community identifies him as a genuine mover and shaker, he moves up the food chain.  Those Pastors who focus on seelsorge are often called good Pastors but at the very same time institutional voices whisper about their suitability more for small and largely rural congregattions where they still like that sort of thing.  I might be wrong about this but I doubt it.  Perhaps this is one of the biggest differences between the typical graduate of Ft. Wayne and St. Louis.  The CTS grads are both attracted to and seek out the seelsorge about which they have heard for years in school  the CS grads are both attracted to missional stuff that puts the congregation on the cutting edge of technology, church growth ideas, and social impact upon community and the unchurched.  I might be wrong about this but I doubt it.

Well, you have heard enough of my rambling for the moment... so I will end it there... in the middle of things... which is an apt description of the nature of my Pastoral work.  In medias res....

Friday, August 24, 2012

A good word or The Good Word...

One of the most distressing changes in vocabulary has been the watering down of the word Gospel.  Gospel was once a word that immediately framed everything in terms of the cross and empty tomb.  It was once a word defined by specific content and not simply an attitude or principle.  But this word has been hijacked so that it means everything and therefore nothing at all.  It has become a generic word which was as specific as it could be.

I was listening to a sermon from another Pastor in my District and it came up in a discussion with a third Pastor.  It was interesting how differently we heard the same words.  He heard the Gospel all over the place.  I did not hear it at all.  What he heard was good advice for couples loving each other but finding that love difficult.  What he heard was good words about the difference between being in love and loving someone.  What he heard was a needful voice to address marriages more and more threatened by false expectations, self-centered definitions, and growing separation and divorce.  What I heard was hardly different from the stuff you might hear from Dr. Phil (not a Gospel preacher last time I checked).  What I heard was a discussion of love that did not define love in Scriptural terms (not that we loved God but that He first loved us and gave His Son....).  The only Scripture was the usual (the LOVE chapter).  The sound track could have been put together by Barry White (google him up if you are too young to know that name).  But there was no Gospel.  In fact, more than the Gospel gone awol, love was turned into a decision, a choice, a responsibility, and a job.  Apart from God in Christ, perhaps that is exactly what love is.  But in Christ we know love as gift, grace, mercy, blessing, sacrifice, and death that gives life.  But we did not hear that Gospel.  We heard only the generic gospel of the good that we woulda, shoulda, coulda done and how great it would have been if we had... and how it is not too late to start.  But that message does not belong in a Church nor should it be heard from a pulpit.

The good book in this sermon was not Scripture.  The good book was a marriage manual (The Five Love Languages).  Love may come from God (at least that was acknowledged in this sermon) but when it comes to us it becomes a choice, a decision, and a role we willingly take up.  If we love to get love, we are bad.  But if we love to love, then we are good.  Now, that said, the sermon assured us that if we began to heed this advice, we would end up with better husbands (though still with a beer belly) and better wives (though still not the beauty we imagined when we first married). 

My point is not that so much false doctrine may be preached from the pulpits in church body on Sunday morning but that Scripture is not being preached and the Gospel is not being spoken.  It can be true and sound good and even been needful counsel or adivce for people, marriages, and families under threat, but it is just a word unless it speaks Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  What do we preach?  Paul is unwavering here.  No other Gospel can be told but that Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified -- this is the wisdom and power of God.  Not pop psychology.  Not helpful hints to better relationships, marriages, families, jobs, lives, etc... 

It so often sounds as if we are narrow minded and judgmental when we criticize such sermons.  But we are only being as narrow as God is narrow -- for what He has given His Church to speak and that word He has called Pastors to teach is repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.  Anything else may not be terrible but it is an essential betrayal of the Pastor's calling and the Church's witness.  We don't need good words.  We need THE Good Word that is efficacious, that is powerful enough to do what it says, and that is faithful enough always to accomplish God's purpose....  We don't need gospel preachers.  We need the Gospel preached.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pastors don't let your bulletins print out in Comic Sans...

My wife's family is a lineage of printers to which graphic artists, videographers, and other artistic endeavors have been added over the years.  I have to defer to her wisdom and good eye (by the way, don't let her near something to proofread unless you can bear the full truth of your failings in vocabulary, writing style, grammar, and literacy).  One of the things I have learned from this pool of wisdom is to resist the temptation to print serious things in less than serious fonts.  In addition I have also learned not to indulge in a smorgasbord of fonts in one document -- a font for headlines and one for the body of the thing and that is about enough.

Unfortunately, there are so many folks who think frivolous type styles are just the thing.  They print out serious stuff in less than serious fonts.  This past summer I endured a less than salutary District Convention service printed out entirely in Comic Sans.

The Divine Service is the most serious of occasions.  It is the intersection of time and eternity by God's design and grace.  Our Lord brings heaven near to us in the means of grace.  In the balance, sins are forgiven, lives are reborn, hearts are moved to repentance, and everlasting life is bestowed.  This is serious stuff.  Don't trivialize the serious by framing the whole thing in a font which is meant to be used for a punch line under a cartoon! 

No, you do not have to use some Anglicized imitation of the typeface used in Great Grandma's German Bible.  No, you do not have to use some old English font that offers flourishes and antiquated forms of the alphabet.  Just use something weighty and serious.  Try Times Roman or Georgia or Garamond.  And while you are at it, skip the modern font faces like Arial or Helvetica.  They are fine for headlines but for folks who need reading glasses they are less than clear.

Some fonts tell you by their name that they are not for serious stuff.  Like the font family known as Jokerman.  Worship is not a joke.  God is not a joker.  Don't treat the serious stuff of the Divine Service as a joke.  This comes pretty darn close to mocking a God who will not be mocked.  We do not help anything by trying to lighten the mood by a cutsie type face.  We only make the most serious and truthful and powerful words -- the Word of the Lord -- into something trite, trivial, and impotent.  It is amazing what a simple thing like a font can communicate!

If you print things out, why not invest in Lutheran Service Builder.  Then you can use the neat little symbols for Pastor, Congregation, etc...  Look at the hymnal and try match the type faces used there. So, if only to allow me some rest, think twice about looking at the font list as your arts and crafts time in preparing the Sunday bulletin.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Body of Christ...

Sermon for Pentecost 12, Proper 15B, preached on Sunday, August 19, 2012.

If I say the phrase "the Body of Christ," it would be impressive to think how many ways it came be used. St. Augustine in one of his sermons famously pointed to the altar and said, "The Body of Christ." And there it is. The Body of Christ hidden in earthly bread, held in human hands, given into the mouths of the faithful, the bread of Heaven that feeds us until there is no unfulfilled hunger left. But the sermon went on. Augustine then pointed to the congregation and said "The Body of Christ." And so you are. You are the Body of Christ by baptism and faith. Christ has made You His body in baptism, each one of you parts of His Body the Church, wherein He dwells and through which He works.

In the grandest of all mysteries, we the Body of Christ the Church come to the Table of the Lord to eat the Body of Christ that we might become who we are. Now there is a lot to ponder. We come as the Body of Christ to eat the Body of Christ that we might become whom Christ has declared us to be. We are going to take a few minutes to ponder just this mystery – the Body of Christ the Church comes to eat the Body of Christ the Eucharist that we might become who we are...

The Body of Christ is in the Sacrament. Jesus insists this His flesh and blood are not spiritualized food but real food and real drink. His flesh given for the life of the world is given for us to eat in the blessed meal of the Eucharist. This is no virtual reality here but only reality and truth. His is not some spiritualized presence meant for the mind or heart but real food to be eaten and real wine to be drunk. It is the "realest" of real things. Whoever eats of this body of Christ and drinks of this blood of Christ will live forever. No idea can give this eternity; only the good that Christ gives, His flesh for the life of the world and for you and me. In its humble form, it is set apart by Christ’s own Word, held in my hand in the distribution, and placed upon your tongue to eat. It is wine, contained within this silver cup and drunk with your lips, the blood of Christ. Here is the holiest of the holy for You – God's holy people.

Who are you who come to eat? You are not some volunteer group of like-minded folks. Your presence is not accidental. You are the called, gathered, sanctified, and enlightened. You are the people of God, the people God has made, those whom He made members of Christ's body the Church through baptism. I do not make you Christ’s body the Church. Christ declares you this. You are whom He has made you to be by His death and resurrection. It is neither your achievement nor your choice. It is His work. You are what and whom He has made you to be.

We come as the Body of Christ to this table to feast upon Christ’s Body in the Sacrament. We come week after week. We come with our sins and failures, with our wounds and hurts. We come because Christ is here. Here He welcomes us as His own. He forgives us our sins and cleanses us anew. He restores us fallen and raises us up who have been made low. He does this not by planting an idea in us but by giving us His flesh hidden in the earthly form of bread – bread which He declares to be His body and wine which He says is His true blood. We are called to abide in Christ; this not as some mental exercise but the most practical abiding – the abiding of eating and drinking the food that is His flesh, His food that makes us who we are.

We Christ's body. Why? We are not here to live some trophy life for the world to envy. We are not here to look good against the backdrop of a bad world. We are here to do in works of mercy and service to our neighbors what Christ has done for us and set us free to do. It is not about me. It is not about you. It is all about Christ. It is the duty of faith that is the delight of our newly reborn hearts that we are privileged to do for others what Christ has done for us. This is not law demanded of us but the fruit of the Gospel’s work in us. It is out true, good, right, and salutary work on earth, a calling come to us in baptism and nourished and directed by this Holy Supper. The people of God are not random or chance. We are God’s own by God's design and purpose. We have a calling, a domain in which to do the works of light He has called us to do, and a future prepared for us as gift and blessing in Christ. Our homes, our neighborhoods, and our communities are the arenas in which we live as Christ’s body in the world.

Now here is the great mystery. It begins here within the Lord’s House but it never ends here. It begins here. We are made into Christ's body the Church at this baptismal font -- by the word and promise of God attached to this water. We are nurtured and fed upon the body of Christ through the Holy Supper of His body and blood. That is what worship is. God speaks, we listen. His Word bestows what it promises. Faith hears and responds with joy – in words and actions here within the Divine Service and in the world in acts of mercy and in works of service. It begins here but it does not end here.

We see Christ here. At this altar. In this baptismal water. In the voice of absolution. In the bread and cup of this table. We meet Christ's body here – just where He has placed His body. We receive it here. But this is not where the world sees Christ. The world does not meet Christ first in worship but first in the life of the people are who Christ’s body in the world. Christ's flesh for the life of the world is see here by faith in this Holy Sacrament, and, by the world, in YOU. In YOUR words of witness. In YOUR works of mercy and service. What a wonderful way to look at it! We come as the Body of Christ by baptism and faith to receive the Body of Christ in the Supper of our Lord that we might be Christ’s body in the world. Come to eat that you may become who you are, not for your sake only but for the sake of the world, for whom Christ gave Himself as much as He gave Himself for you. Amen.

A disconcerting picture...

Stand Firm has published a graph of the average faculty salaries for various educational institutions of the Missouri Synod.  You can look at it on his blog and I am most grateful for what he has done.  I did not put this together and do not have a clue how the numbers were crunched.  Even if they are off but a little, there is a disturbing obvious problem.  St. Louis compensates its faculty better than Ft. Wayne.  There should be some equity here.  We would expect that the seminaries of our Church would be similar if not exactly the same (housing costs might vary by local cost of living issues).  If we are to take these numbers at face value, then the Synod through its elected boards which govern the two institutions is being selective in compensation and that is not a good thing.  Perhaps some of it is due to funds available.  Perhaps some of it is for other reasons.  As an alumnus of Ft. Wayne I believe that the faculty there deserves equity with their colleagues in St. Louis.  It is not right.

So what is there to be done?  Let us give Ft. Wayne the financial support to make good on this inequity!  Job descriptions are probably fairly similar as are teaching loads.  The only reasonable difference should be cost of living and I do not believe that cost of living could account for more than $20K per year in difference.  We cannot allow this to stand.

According to the graph below, again borrowed from Stand Firm, only Concordia Ann Arbor and Selma compensate their faculty at a lower rate than Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne.  Again, most disconcerting!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Talk about doing ceremonial things unceremoniously!

This is Lutheran Bishop Sue Johnson (in chasuble) and Fred Hiltz, Anglican primate of Canada. Seems like the "Spirit of Vatican II" has spread to our separated brethren!

or here again in case that was not enough...

HT to Dr. John Stephenson for alerting me to this great breakthrough.  What a shame more of us cannot walz our way past doctrinal differences, structural barriers, and liturgical iodosyncracies, and sexual distinctions just to all get along.... one two three four... one two three four... one two three four...  BTW this is liturgical dance on steriods (missing only the flesh colored body suits!).

Doing ceremonial things unceremoniously...

The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual...”   C. S. Lewis

Once again Clive Staples Lewis has hit it on the mark.  One of the things we often face in the Church today is the way those leading worship show their disdain for what they do by the manner in which they do it.  For example.  I have sat in the pew at a District Convention worship in which the reader of the first two lessons engaged in a public conversation with the folks listening because they instinctively went to sit and he decided he wanted them to stand.  He read the lessons okay but the flippant manner in which he joked about sitting or standing only betrayed the very serious character of the Word of the Lord.  It was as if he was saying, "Okay folks, I will play your little game of church, standing here in my alb and stole, but don't for a moment think that this is who I am.  I am the fun guy who jokes and laughs and takes nothing all that seriously."  And that is exactly the message we got.  Except that it splattered all of its irreverence upon the Word of God about which we can never be irreverent -- especially within the context of the Divine Service.

When Pastors call vestments "robes" and show how uncomfortable they are wearing them, the folks in the pew get the message.  But they also know that he is not merely uncomfortable with the vestments; he is also uncomfortable with the very Office itself.  When Pastors act as if they must have cue cards to lead them through every moment of the liturgy until the sermon when suddenly they seem at ease, we know the score.  The liturgy is not important nor even the Sacrament but my words are.  When Pastors solemnly take the host and cup from an elder in street clothes and show their piety there and then make up words along the rail as they distribute the sacrament to the people and add a cutsie little twist on the dismissal formula, we get what they are saying.  Nothing is really all that important and we can be fast and loose with about anything except that moment of eating and drinking.

When we unceremoniously do the ceremonial, we are saying a great deal to the people watching and listening.  Those who serve as Pastors have no right to insert this message into the liturgy.  They are stealing something from the folks in the pew.  They are thieves and robbers who take from us what the ceremonial shows -- worship is not a casual moment but serious (even if not somber).  I agree with CS Lewis.  I say to all those doing this (inadvertently or deliberately):  stop it.  Please.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

How to clean a thurible...

Now I that this is probably not a hot button issue among Lutherans (but that does not mean it shouldn't be).  But, if you, like me, have ever faced a thurible with baked on resin, smoke, soot, and unnamed goo... well, take a gander....

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Shamelessly stolen from Fr. Z

Just in time for Sunday morning....

Explosive Amish Growth!

The Amish are one of the fastest-growing religious groups in North America, according to a new census by researchers at Ohio State University.

The Amish double their population about every 22 years, said Joseph Donnermeyer, the Ohio State professor who led the census project as part of the recent 2010 U.S. Religion Census. The skyward growth has made Ohio home to more than 60,000 Amish residents -- the most in any state. Pennsylvania ranks second with about 59,000 Amish people. Indiana ranks third with about 45,000.

Read it all here....

Any guesses as to why?  Well, they are having kids.  Lots of them.  And raising them in their faith.  And most of them, nearly all of them, are remaining with that faith.

Any lesson here?  If Lutherans are not growing, you might take note of the fact that we are having fewer children and we are aging.  In some parishes, there are few women of childbearing age.  And we are not raising our children in the faith.  So they are not sticking with it.  This ain't rocket science, folks!

Thou dost protest too much...

For years we have been told over and over again that young people are quick to embrace the liberal social positions and that they will eventually topple the battlements of those opposed to gay marriage, abortion, etc...  Now one columnist is suggesting that the evidence for this may be overstated.  Even more than this, those pro-life and more pro-life than those pro-choice are pro-choice.  The same goes for the gay marriage issue.  In other words, support for these radical social changes being imposed upon us is softer than the opposition which is quite firm.  Especially in the ballot box.

I will leave it to you to read and see if his arguments in this are pursuasive.  Follow all the links in his post to see how it pans out...  Read here at First Things....

Friday, August 17, 2012

Yesterday's bread or tomorrow's?

Sermon preached for Pentecost 11, Proper 14B, preached on Sunday, August 12, 2012.

Long memories are not always blessings; they can hold us captive to the past. Those listening to Jesus were focused on the past. Once they had passed through the Red Sea by God's blessing. Once Moses had given them manna in the wilderness (the miracle bread from heaven). Once they had known God's presence and His glory in a dynamic way. Now they were looking for a repeat, for more of the same. But Jesus refuses this call for a repeated sign. He IS the sign from God. His flesh is the bread of heaven given for the life of the world. Jesus refuses to point back when He has come with a future and to give the bread that is the foretaste of this feast to come.
In many respects we are still much like these people of God. We tend to dwell on the long memories of the past, holding more tightly on these than the hope that is our future in Christ. Sadly, we are easily tempted to settle for yesterday's bread – for the memory of what was and is now gone, than to expect or anticipate the future which is Christ's promise. We are sorely tempted to settle for a restoration of old glory that was and is no more than to hope for the greater glory of Christ's promise. Our vision of tomorrow looks remarkably like the best memories of our yesterday – more than the future which Christ has already prepared for us.
What does this mean? Like Israel of old, we long for the glory days in which life seemed simpler, when it was easier to pick out the good guys from the bad guys, and when our earthly struggles did not seem so difficult. We are greatly tempted to pray to God not for the future He has prepared but for the past we miss. God's people do not live in the past. God's people have a forward looking faith. We carry with us the past and God's merciful intervention for us. Yesterday is fully kept and fulfilled in Christ. But we aim for the future He has prepared for us!
What we need is not a rerun of manna – a golden older to help us get through this moment – what we need is the bread that bestows the living tomorrow of God's promise. We do not need an encore repeat of what God did in the past but the actual future made possible by Jesus' death on the cross for us and His resurrection from the dead that we too might rise. We are an anticipatory people. Our past in Christ points us to the future Christ has made possible. We live each day pointed toward the tomorrow Jesus' death and resurrection have made possible.
Jesus refuses to identify the bread of His flesh with the past. His bread is tomorrow's bread – the down payment and the foretaste of that which is to come. His flesh does not feed us merely a memory, only to leave us vulnerable to hunger again. No, He satisfies all our hunger and quenches all our thirst. Jesus give us the gift of Himself, the Christ of the cross where salvation was won and the Christ of the future who has prepared a place for us and secured our new destiny, that we may be where He is.
He is come down from heaven not to give us a yesterday cleansed of all its difficulties but to bestow upon us the future He has prepared for us. He is come down from heaven to raise us up to heaven. Eat of this bread and not "you will feel better now" but eat of this bread and you live forever. Faith is not a past memory regularly rekindled but the past that bestows the future Israel wanted a future that was a repeat of its past. God could not and would not give them this expired gift. He gave them a new future, a new hope, and a new destination.
Growing up we often ate bread bought at the day old store. It was still good but its future was limited. It was expiring. It had a past but not much of a future. Eat it or freeze it. We are always tempted to settle for day old bread from God. We are tempted to hope for a future that looks like a highpoint in the past. Maybe that is because the past seems more real to us. Maybe it seems easier to imagine a repeat of what was than to hope for what is not yet. But this is not the faith of Jesus. Christians are forward looking people.
Jesus did not come to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes or the manna in the wilderness or a new covenant with the same old terms. These were the signs that point us to the new God has done in Christ – the bread that satisfies forever, the life that is eternal which death cannot touch, the covenant promise written in the blood of Christ that makes its own future.
We are always grumbling about the future. We are always complaining about that which is to come. Whether our doubts about tomorrow or our fond remembrance of yesterday, we are so much like the children of Israel. As Jesus said once to the grumblers then, He says to us today. "Do not grumble among yourself. No one comes to Me except the Father draws Him. And I will raise him up on the last day." The last day. That is our focus.
Now we come to the Lord’s table. Here is Jesus welcoming the hungry and the thirsty with the promise that if we eat of Him we shall not hunger again or and if we drink of Him we shall not thirst for more. For everyone who looks upon Jesus and believes in Him will have eternal life and Jesus will raise us up on the last day.... Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. But not you. If you eat of this bread which is My flesh for the life of the world, You will live forever." Their miracle bread was a sign. It could not stave off death. This bread of heaven come down from above gives life to us and to the whole world. It has the power to overcome death so that even its memory will be banished from the future of hope and blessing God has already prepared for us in Christ.
We remember the past for what it is – the domain in which God has revealed His eternal mercy. But our hope lies not in yesterday. It lies in the future which Christ has promised, in the bread that feeds us the foretaste of what is to come, and of the hope that now we see dimly but soon we shall see face to face. The bread of Christ’s flesh has no expiration date. It is not bread with a only a past. It bestows the future He has promised. Because of this, we are free to live today fully and without fear and because of this death no longer holds us captive. We have a life, a future, sealed in Christ's death and resurrection, imparted to us in baptism, kept alive by the voice of the Word, and fed in tomorrow's bread.

The opposition to abortion is truly catholic...

There are those who complain that the Church teaching on abortion is recent and not ancient, some say it is no older than the 1950s. The fact is that too often this claim has been allowed to stand unchallenged.  It is as if we Christians agree that opposition to abortion may not have been ancient but the Church has found its back bone and voice at last.  I would commend Msgr Pope of the Archdicocese of Washington for reminding us of the universal, ancient (and therefore catholic) opposition to abortion.

Here then are some of his list of quotes:

The Didache (“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) ca 110 AD. Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion. (2:2)…The Way of Death is filled with people who are…murderers of children and abortionists of God’s creatures. (5:1-2)
Letter of Barnabas, circa 125: You shall not kill either the fetus by abortion or the new born
Athenagoras the Athenian (To Marcus Aurelius), ca 150 AD: “We say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion…, [For we] regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care… (# 35).
Clement of Alexandria: (circa 150 – 215 AD) Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, if order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the child completely dead, abort at the same time their own human feelings. Paedagogus, 2
Tertullian circa 160-240 AD: For us, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter when you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one: you have the fruit already in the seed. Apology 9:6
Tertullian (circa 160 – 240 AD): …we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy …the fetus in the womb. It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth. Apology (9:7-8)
Tertullian circa 160-240 AD: [John the Baptist and Jesus] were both alive while still in the womb. Elizabeth rejoiced as the infant leaped in her womb; Mary glorifies the Lord because Christ within inspired her. Each mother recognizes her child and is known by her child who is alive, being not merely souls but also spirits. De Aninta 26:4
Hippolytus (circa 170-236 AD): Whence certain women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility and to gird themselves round, so as to expel what was conceived on account of their not wanting to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time. From “Refutation of all Heresies” 9:7
Minucius Felix (180 – 225 AD): Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the infant (Octavious (30, 2))
St. Basil the Great (330 – 379 AD): The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events if we regard it as done with intent. The punishment, however, of these women should not be for life, but for the term of ten years. And let their treatment depend not on mere lapse of time, but on the character of their repentance. Letter 188:2
St. Ambrose: (339 to 397 AD) The poor expose their children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the womb with murderous poisons. and before life has been passed on, it is annihilated. Hexaemeron”, (5, 18, 58)
St. John Chrysostom (circa 340 – 407 AD): Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? Where there is murder before the birth? For you do not even let the harlot remain a mere harlot, but make her a murderer also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather something even worse than murder. For I have no real name to give it, since it does not destroy the thing born but prevents its being born. Why then do you abuse the gift of God and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the place of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? Homily 24 on Romans
St. Jerome (circa 342-420 AD): I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the church, their mother….Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Letter 22:13
The Synod of Elvira, 306 AD: If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys the child, it is proper to keep her from communion until death, because she has doubled her crime. Canon 63.
The Synod of Ancyra, 314 AD, Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees. (Canon 21).
Council of Trullo (692 AD): Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fœtus, are subjected to the penalty of murder. (Canon 91)

What can we add to this list? Anyone?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Time but not Of Time...

We call it the Church’s “year of grace” because, over the course of a year and through her liturgy, the Church makes present the saving events of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection and rehearses His teaching in the non-festival half.  Like most cultures, Christianity has a calendar, a cycle of time that orders its life. Though distinct from kronos or civil time, sacred time is not separated from it.  Like the Chrisitan in the world but not of it, the Church's "year of grace" is within the secular days and months of the year and yet apart from it.  For the Christian and for the Church, this means we must be biligual -- speaking both in the language of earthly time and its calendar of months and days that flow from January 1 to December 31 each year and in the language of the church year as it flows from Advent through the Sundays after Pentecost (ordinary time).

Time is not incidental to Christian worship -- no, not the clockwatching that usually defines how we connect time to what happens in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day -- but a sense of time, unfolding time, fullness of time, and time fulfilled.  In the context of the Sunday morning liturgy, time is held in suspension.  Yesterday (the day of Christ's death and resurrection) are not past but present.  Tomorrow (the day of His coming to bring all things to their culmination) is anticipated -- already here but not yet fully here.  The present enfolds the past and contains the future (at least the fullness of the glimpse that we are allowed for now).  Nowhere else does time live in its suspension except in the context of Christian liturgy with its proclamation in word and in sacrament.  In the Word we are so very conscious of the the Hebrews verse:  In many and various ways... but NOW.  Now  in the hearing of this living voice the past is made present with all its salvific effect.  Ini the same way, the Eucharist, the foretaste of the feast to come, is also the witness and proclamation of the Lord's death until He comes again.

It is not simply a different calendar but a different understanding of time.  Unlike the relentless clock that ticks away at the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years of a life marked by death's boundary, the Church knows time differently.  It is the arena of God's grace, the disclosure of His mercy, the redemption of the fallen, and the freedom of life from its captivity to decay.  We do not beat to a different drummer when it comes to the measure of our days, we have a completely different measure of those days.  Because God has unfolded in the past the ever present redemptive work of Christ (through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments), we are free from the chains of our yesterdays and see that time as the domain of God's redemptive work as well as our fallenness.  Because God has filled the present moment with His presence in the means of grace, we do not live on bondage to the moment.  The present becomes God's domain as well and our refuge for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption.  Here the absolution is the key to the freedom for goodness and holiness and righteousness (that in which we were clothed in baptism).  In addition, in the present moment, God has hidden the future.  It is not fully revealed but glimpsed by faith and where the Word is rightly preached and taught and where the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution.

The Church does not enter the world in competition with the time and calendar the world uses.  We engage in no tug of war.  It is gift and grace.  In the midst of time with all of its fears, God unfolds the answer to those fears and ushers in the era of mercy while the days, weeks, and months peel away the pages of our earthly calendars.  Christ was incarnate not only in our flesh and blood but also within this earthly realm of time, the ticking time bomb of death and amid all its fears and hastened pressure to complete our bucket lists, Chris stands as Lord of the day, the night, and all time.  He does the unthinkable in reclaiming what sin stole by manifesting His Kingdom amid the precious seconds and minutes of our decaying lives and world.  We come to the world not as those who have a different time but as those who know within time the eternal.  That is why the Church Year is so important.  It manifests the eternal amid the very temporal and temporary domain of our days.  It is a gift to us and to the world, inherited from the Jews but fulfilled in Christ to extend past the markers of the ancient rhythm.

When we fail to bring new people into the domain of the Church Year, we leave them helplessly exposed to all that time lost in the fall with but an mental image of God's gift.  The Church Year and its ordering of liturgical time points us to more than an idea but the experience of this gift in time but not of it, the blessing of the eternal within the temporal.  The fight for the Church Year is not some battle for bragging rights, it is the opportunity to see in the midst of time the eternal that is Christ and His gifts.  The loss of the Church Year is not a loss of externals but the surrender of the gift of time to its evil foes of the devil and death.  The Church calls the faithful to make the year of grace their very own that the gift of time might be manifest within earthly days, the place where we are daily made new in Christ. The unfolding mystery of Christ heralds His life before us and the world, beginning with the expectation of his Advent to the days of Pentecost and then in the ordinary time when events give way to teaching (doctrine). And it all begins anew in Advent again. The repitiion of the liturgical year is itself part of the preaching of the Word, the sanctification of our lives, and the anchor of the eternal amid the ever changing experience of mortal life.