Monday, December 31, 2012

Do we need a savior to save the Savior?

As tradition spirituality wanes, some are attempting to build a spirituality (and a church) around coffee houses, art galleries, engaging music, personal fulfillment, etc...  Read on...

The mural painted on the side of a building in the Deep Ellum warehouse district here is intentionally vague, simply showing a faceless man in a suit holding an umbrella over the words “Life in Deep Ellum.” Inside there are the trappings of a revitalization project, including an art gallery, a yoga studio and a business incubator, sharing the building with a coffee shop and a performance space. 

It is Christianity which these emgergents are attempting to revitalize and some say you must first destroy what you need to build.  So they have ditched nearly every trapping of Christian faith and identity.  But will what they build actually be Christian or the Church?

Life in Deep Ellum is part of a wave of experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent “church” in an increasingly secular culture, and it comes as the megachurch boom of recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, Jumbotrons and smoke machines, faces strong headwinds. A national decline in church attendance, the struggling economy and the challenges of marketing to millennials have all led to the need for new approaches.

“It’s unsettling for a movement that’s lasted 2,000 years to now find that, ‘Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community aren’t connecting with everyone in the community in the way they used to,’ ” said Warren Bird, the director of research for the Leadership Network, a firm that tracks church trends.

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. Even so, nearly 80 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, and close to half say they pray at least once a month.

The “spiritual but not religious” category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call “post-Christian.”

So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like “spiritual communities” and “gatherings,” with services that do not stick to any script. 

It seems that to be relevant, one must be irreverent -- disdaining anything that once defined Christianity and the Church.  No script or plan is necessary.  The whole thing is literally made up as they go along.  Well, not exactly.  They know the secular landscape pretty well and mirror back to the people some of the stuff the people themselves know and value -- technology, for example.

For new leaders coming out of seminary, “the cool thing is church planting,” Mr. Bird said. “The uncool thing is to go into the established church. Why that has taken over may speak to the entrepreneurialism and innovation that today’s generation represents.”

That generation includes Mark Batterson, the 43-year-old pastor of National Community Church in Washington.

“If the kingdom of God had departments, we’d want to work in research and development,” Mr. Batterson said. 

“It’s pretty low risk to wander into a bar or movie theater or hotel,” Professor Thumma said. “It ends up delivering the message of relevance: we’re just like you, we’re struggling, we might have a beer together — and our faith is also relevant.”

Oh yeah... faith.  Well, we cannot say exactly what we believe but we are pretty sure we do believe. . . something.
Maybe I am being harsh and unfair to these folks.  But I am tired of those who want to save the Savior and redefine church out of the church.  The Church has always has an abundance of saviors and God has no shortage of helpers to reshape the message and the messenger.  The only problem is that there have been few, if any, lasting successes that did not embrace the faith once delivered to the saints and practice in accord with the tradition of the apostles.

From our Synod President's Lighter Side

As my wife said, "If more children did things like this the world would be a better place!"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The seeming solution cremation provides...

Though some posit cost as the chief attraction of cremation over burial, I would offer another reason.  We have become a people of wandering souls who live in dozens of places but few of them we dare to call home.  Nothing brings up the problem more clearly than the question of where we shall be buried.

Pastors are prone to the problem more than others.  I have lived away from my childhood home for more than four decades.  My wife is in the same boat.  Where we now live is not the place that either of us think of when we think "home" (no disrespect to either congregation or community).  My wife's family will all be buried in Northern Indiana and mine in Northeastern Nebraska.  But what about us?

It is no wonder that many choose cremation -- it either postpones or eliminates the problem of where the remains will make their final resting place.  The remains have become as nomadic as the people they were in life.  Children and spouses carry the urns and ashes with them on some strange journey that seems to have no destination.

I have twice been called to the home of a deceased member to counsel the family on what to do with urns and ashes found while cleaning up the loose ends of a parent who died or was rendered helpless by mental fragility.  "What do we do with these?"  Ahhh, that is the question.  And that is the weakness of the choice of cremation.  It is often merely the deferral of a larger question to another time and another person.  "What do we do with these?"  Indeed.  What DO we do with them?

It is even Scriptural -- here we have no abiding city -- not in life or in death.  Always in transit.  Yet this is itself a part of the problem of grief and the way we face up to death.  It is easier to believe in the journey than the destination.  So we cremate without knowing what to do with the remains.  Then we have a celebration of life (instead of a funeral) to make us feel better about it all.  In both cases the emphasis is on the trip and not on the destination.

It would seem to me that that is precisely why we need the funeral, why we need to have this journey placed in larger context, and why we need to find a way to reverently dispose of the bodily remains even as we find our comfort and consolation in Christ who died that we might live and who lives to bring us with Him to heaven and eternity....

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Missing Jesus. . .

Ahhh, would that Jesus were only missing from the creche and, sadly, not from the services and sermons of Christmas... as I fear He was in many churches. . .

CLINTONVILLE, WIS. — Police investigating thefts from nativity scenes at three churches here believe the thief was delivering a message: The baby Jesus does not belong there until Christmas.
In all three incidents involving Lutheran churches, only the baby Jesus figurines were stolen, lifted right out of their mangers.

“I said, ‘Hey, baby Jesus is gone,’” said Marvin Marotz, a parishioner who noticed the problem last week outside St. Paul Lutheran Church.

When police responded and checked other churches, they found baby Jesus figurines also had been absconded the same day from holiday nativity scenes outside Christus Lutheran Church and St. Martin Lutheran Church.

Police Chief Terry Lorge suspects the thief believes that such displays should be historically accurate -- and should not include Jesus until the day Christians celebrate his birth.

In a similar theft a few years ago in Clintonville, Lorge said, the baby Jesus figurine was returned to his manger on Christmas Eve, just as mysteriously as he had vanished.

Read more here. . .

Extending the franchise. . .

From G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy:

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross. 

Tradition is the extension of the franchise.  Not exactly a theological way of putting it but solidly in line with the theology, nonetheless.  Earlier in this section, Chesterton laments the false competition between democracy and tradition.  I quoted only the last part of that treatment.

Tradition provides balance, continuity, and grounding.  Without it, we are doomed to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about -- that is, to the present moment.  If there is a danger to Christendom today, it is hardly that we are too wary of the moment, too cautious about capitulating to the present tense, or too quick to embrace trend and fad.  The danger is that we are doing only this, having cast off our anchor and lost our moorings by disdaining the tradition that delivered to us the sacred deposit and made known the saving Gospel.

No one would suggest that tradition become a dictator but neither should the present moment be allowed to run rough shod over our confession and practice, inherited from the saints as our faithful and fruitful legacy.  We can add from the best of today but we dare not lose our grasp on that which brought us to this moment.  From creed to confession, we are at our best when we acknowledge our debt to the past and build upon it with our utmost for His highest, bequeathing to those who follow us the best from yesterday and today.

For us as Lutherans this is a pointed message to those in the ELCA who have chosen to be set adrift on the sea by ecumenism which leaves unreconciled the significant differences and embraces progressive social change that regresses to the level of base desire.  Having refused to hear or heed the past, we are only as deep as the moment and will pass on not a legacy as much as an attitude that we know better than any who came before.  It is also pointed to those in the LCMS who would believe that substance can somehow be preserved in some encapsulated form while the style of a thousand others is adopted as our new look and language.  Having refused to believe that either confession or creed has a face or a form, we have taken the noble work of the masters who went before us and adopted the stick figures of a people too impatient to learn and too convinced that we are not your grandpa's church (as if this were the most important aspect of our identity).

The Lutheran franchise is in danger, alright, but it is in danger more from within than without.  The faith will surely endure if the denominations do not but it would be an incredible waste if the Church of Luther and Bach denied knowing even knowing these people on Sunday morning.  We currently face a crisis of catechesis in which some Lutherans teach generic truth over the short term without confronting those who would be Lutheran without the bold confession of :We believe, confess, and teach" and the bold confidence "This is most certainly true."

A little listen to the past is a good thing.  We lose nothing by listening.  We gain nothing by closing our ears and our minds.  If we expect to extend the franchise, and here I mean pass on the evangelical and catholic faith, we must do more than claim a heritage.  We must embrace and confess tradition.  2 Thess. 3:6; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor.11:23; 2 Tim. 3:14;2 Timothy 1:13-2:2...  It is significant that Jesus' disparaging remarks about tradition are always aimed at those who have corrupted it or exchanged the truth for the lies of their own manufacture.

Friday, December 28, 2012

For the Holy Innocents...

While remember the children in Newtown... we cannot also but recall the first blood shed for the sake of Christ by the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem...

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we do sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

The widening gulf between the seminary and the parish...

Wallace Alston, Jr. the former director of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, wrote in one of his books that the gap between the academy and the local parish is widening.  His reference was to the distinction between academic theology and practical theology and he suggested that clergy are leaving seminaries today more steeped in theology from an academic perspective but less prepared to deal with the practical reality of people in spiritual crisis and need.  I am sure there is a ring of truth to his words.  

My wife was schooled in the old manor of teaching nursing to students.  She worked the floors in the hospital from day one and had an immense practical aspect to her academic training.  The lament today is that nurses come out with bachelor's degrees but have given shots mostly to oranges, started IVs only a couple of times, and have little experience in the daily life of the nurse at the beside.

My concern is somewhat different.  The disconnect between seminary and parish that concerns me is that which centers upon the confession, life, and liturgical identity of Lutheranism.  Honestly, the seminarian heading to his first call is more likely to find a mishmash of catechetical and liturgical realities.  This is in contrast to the rich liturgical life and to the confessional focus of the training provided him in seminary.  This is not a new divide.  I found it when I entered my first parish some 33 years ago.  The congregation had actually been thinking about jettisoning the name Lutheran because they did not think it communicated anything positive -- not to them or to the people in the community.  Thankfully some saner heads prevailed here but the reality was that my first years were spent catechizing the people as if none of them knew what a Lutheran was.  It was formative for me and prepared me to the same in my second and current parish.

What troubles me is that this gulf has widened.  Contemporary worship and music has invaded the church culture and life of Lutheran parishes to the point that many seminarians find that their first worship services as Pastors are conducted in a physical setting, language, and context alien to Lutheran confessional identity.  It is more and more likely that the new Pastor will find that the liturgical life of his first call will look more like the non-denominational church down the block than the koinonia expected by the confessional standard named in the parish constitution.

In addition, we have lived through Bible studies that speculate more than teach so that the people listening to the new Pastor have been led to believe and now accept pretty much as truth the idea that the Scriptures are a muddled book, that their truth is adjustable and flexible, and that no one can really say anymore "Thus saith the Lord."  Personal opinion has become at least as powerful as this is what has been believed, confessed, and taught through the ages.  Contrast this with the high degree of confidence in Scripture and tradition which the seminarian learns in his academic training.

Finally, it is more likely now than ever that the first parish will expect that diversity and flexibility are as important as faithfulness to the life and ministry of the congregation and the Pastor.  This has grave implications for who communes, how we do the work of the Lord, and who we connect with in mission and Christian identity.  Congregations are often divided by personal taste in worship (contemporary or traditional) and by what has come to be known as missional vs maintenance orientation.

It is no wonder that there is more disillusionment among new Pastors than ever before and more conflict in parishes.  Now there are those who suggest that the seminary needs to adjust its training to account for this.  Perhaps St. Louis leans more toward this than Ft. Wayne does.  But the real issue is the question of Lutheran identity and practice itself.  The seminary teaches the candidate to have confidence in the Scriptures, in the sacraments, in the liturgy, and in the evangelical and catholic tradition.  Is this a bad thing?  Is this not the very thing that the parish ought to expect from a Lutheran Pastor?  

My fear is not that we will end up with an academic clergy unable to provide honest pastoral care.  My fear is that we will end up with two seminaries -- one for those who with to be Lutheran in style as well as substance and the other willing to be flexible.  I say this not because I believe that one or the other seminary wants to head in that direction.  I say this because I believe the pressure mounts upon the seminaries to produce candidates to fit their constituencies.   Already we have the stereotype that one seminary produces high church candidates steeped in Lutheran orthodoxy and the other produces open and flexible candidates who know how to make it happen.  The bigger issue is not whether or not this is true but why we have such divergent expectations in the first place.

The goal and the outcome should be a seamless theology and practice, formed by Scripture and the evangelical catholic tradition, and adept at providing pastoral care to people in the real world around them but in an authentic and faithful manner.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Word was made FLESH...

Christmas Day Sermon preached on December 25, 2012.

    Drive through town and you find all sorts of signs telling to keep Christ in Christmas.  We have made it a quest to rescue Christmas from materialism.  All our bumper stickers and law oriented signs demand that Christ be kept in Christmas with all the moral outrage of a people who believe that Santa and presents have stolen the holiday from Jesus.  Perhaps they have. But it is not without its irony that while we are trying to keep the material from taking over Christmas, Christmas is about God's embrace of the material.  The Word became flesh.  There is nothing more material than that.
    The Word became flesh.  Or, incarnation.  Before this God could never be seen in the material.  He might appear as something but did not take on any material form.  God is spirit, Scripture says.  In fact, it is not only that God is spirit, it is that flesh almost became equated with something evil or at least less noble than spirit.  Flesh became a piece of smelly stinky clothing that no one pure and clean would put on.  But God did.
    Spiritual things have long dominated our ideas of religion.  We have often spoken of the body as if it were a prison holding the spirit in and the job of religion to set the captive spirit free.  Sadly, I even heard this from a pastor in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings – talk of the slain children being set free to become stars and angels.  What consolation is there in that?  The consolation comes from God taking on flesh and all its weakness.
    God created Christmas by embracing the material of our flesh and blood in order to save us.  The dust and minerals and water that make up this body became the temple of the most High God.  That is what Christmas is.  Far from God disdaining the material, He took on our material flesh and blood to become our Savior.  He became flesh to save our flesh from our fleshly sins.
    The Word became flesh, that the flesh might become divine.  Let me say that differently, God descended to us wearing our human frame so that in Christ we might ascend to Him and be received into His divinity for eternity.
    The problem with religion is that it is mostly our attempt to ascend to the heights of heaven to be with God, the tower of Babel approach.  But there was never and still is no chance that we can ever ascend to God.  We are rooted and planted in sin and its death.  We are captive to the chains of our mortality and unable to free ourselves.  If religion is to free us from the material so that our spirits can ascend to God, there is not a hope in hell for any of us.
    But, if faith is in the God incarnate, the Son of the eternal Father who also became Mary's Son, then this salvation is not only possible, it is our true and blessed possession by faith.  God brought heaven low that we might be lifted up.  And this is still what happens in worship every Sunday morning.  We do not ascend to God, but God brings heaven low to us and we glimpse its glory in the forgiveness of our sins and we taste our future in the bread which is Christ's body and the wine that is His blood.
    Repentance is not making us feel worse about ourselves.  Repentance is facing the truth.  We cannot ascend to God.  Our hope lies instead in the God who descends to us, who is incarnate in our flesh and blood, to live as one of us yet without sin, to die in our place the death of sin, and to rise to bring us with Him to heaven and the eternal place He has prepared for us.
    The glory of God is in flesh and blood – that is the surprise of Christmas. That is also why the Sacrament of the Altar is so connected to Christmas.  As Christ became flesh for us, so now does He make Himself present in the material of bread and wine.  He comes to us and meets us where we are only to raise us up by His promise to the future we eat as foretaste right here, now.      Whether we read Christmas in the wonderful details of Luke's story as we did last night or whether we read Christmas in the poetic description of the Word made flesh as we read this morning from John, the message is the same.  God does not disdain the material but enters the material, takes on flesh and blood, to save us and that our mortality might be swallowed up in His divinity forevermore.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth... and through this incarnation, we are raised up to heaven and its glory, taken up into God's deity, to dwell there in Him forevermore.  Amen

It happened....

Christmas Eve Sermon, preached on December 24, 2012.

    "It happened..."  Or, if you are old like me, "It came to pass..." but that sounds more like fairy tale than fact.  "It happened" is better.  It happened that a government wanted a census to bring in more tax dollars.  No surprise there.  The census listed people and property so that taxes could properly be levied on all.  The census took years to complete.  In southern France, they had a tea party rebellion which took the Roman Caesar 40 years to put down.  In Palestine, zealots fought the census also. 
    Not Joseph.  He did not fight.  He packed up his pregnant wife and they head off to the family home in Bethlehem.  Caesar had nothing to fear from this carpenter and his wife.  Or so it seemed.  Caesar did not realize his little tax program was part of God's greater plan.
    It happened in Bethlehem.  The rule of Caesar and the obedience of Quirinius led Joseph to head to his ancestral home.  He comes with Mary who is soon to deliver and then, right there in Bethlehem, without room or notice, the child is born.  It happens all the time.  Women, mostly poor women, go into labor at all the wrong times and places.  But the child is born according to God's script.  No matter how untimely for the people, it was God's time.
    It happened.  As Bethlehem slept, the silence was pierced by a child's newborn cry.  But there were none to hear.  Some shepherds were told of it and invited to come and see.  They were frozen in fear after a visit from angels so they did as they were told.  A stinky, hard, rough crowd – unlikely to witness a birth and unlikely to fear much of anything.  But they feared God.
    It happened.  A Savior is born.  Christ the Lord.  Bethlehem is a small town so it is not like it would be hard to miss its newest citizen.  But still, they were given clues.  He is wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
    It is not like a baby is much to see.  Parents and grandparents look but to the rest of us, a baby is a baby.  Yet this child was different.  He was born to make the night shine, the angels sing, the shepherds visit, and the magi journey.  They shared what they had been told concerning this child.  God is come in flesh and blood, the Son of God is born, the Savior long promised.  They talked about what had happened.  Just like we talk about what happens.
    It happened.  While all is unfolding, Mary is there.  She is the one to whom the Angel spoke, who felt the first movement of the child in her womb, who marveled at the visit where she was called the Mother of my Lord...  Mary was the first Lutheran!  She pondered all of this in her heart.  "What does this mean?" - the good Lutheran question!  More than this, what does it mean for ME?
    It happened.  A fact in history.  What you believe about it or what you don't believe about it cannot change what happened.  Faith does not alter events – it unfolds them.  I have told you the facts.  Now it is up to you to ponder, to put it all together... and this requires faith – a faith given to you by the Holy Spirit.  To help you answer, "What does this mean... for ME?"
    It has been some week.  A world at war here and there.  An economic cliff only days away.  A neat and tidy school that is stained with blood.  I wish I could erase all the risk of living or make it safe to believe, easy to believe. I cannot.  It happened whether you believe it or not but what it means awaits your faith to make the miracle your own.  All I can do is tell you the story and invite you to ponder it.  Ponder it with Mary startled at the news or Joseph who thought he should ditch Mary quietly or shepherds who found their quiet night interrupted by angels or Magi on the long journey to a place where they were not sure what they might find...  It happened.  They pondered.  We ponder.  And the Spirit is at work.
    God no longer pronounces judgments from mountain tops.  In many and various ways He spoke to His people of old, but now, He has spoken the final Word through His Son.  He takes on the flesh and blood of a little boy child to walk among us the holy life we could not walk.  He lives among us to meet the death we never want to meet and to die for those still His enemies.  He rises on the third day so that death cannot claim the final word and you and I might have hope for more than today.  He came for the broken and defeated to heal them and give them victory.  It happened.  He came.  For you.  For me.
    What He gives us is no mere memory.  We have more than a past.  We have a future.  We add nothing to what He has done but claim it by faith as the birth of our Savior, to live a holy life in our place, to die the fearful death in our place, and to rise for us to the life that death cannot overcome.  Faith meets the Lord there... in the ordinary of flesh and blood and a baby's face... in the ordinary of the Word that actually does what it promises... in the water that kills so that we may be made eternally alive... in the bread which hides His flesh for the life of the world and in the wine that is His blood shed for all, but most of all for me.
    It happened.  Whether we believe it or not.  But what it means for you depends upon faith.  Either it is merely a fact in history or it is the life changing fact of God at work to save us from our sins and deliver us from our enemy death.  It does not change the fact... but faith does change the result.  Faith insists that as random as it all was, this birth, this life, this death, and this resurrection was God acting "for ME."  We are here not simply to remember but to receive, not simply to acknowledge but to claim, and not simply to rejoice, but to rejoice in the salvation that God has brought to us... here and now... in the person of His Son.  May God give you the faith to grasp the miracle and to claim the mystery of the love born to save the world... to save you... and me.  Amen.

Behind what?

Glancing over some headlines, I saw George Weigel had one that said "Two hundred years behind what?"  I only scanned the content but the question is good enough.  We are always being told that the Church is behind.  We are behind in offerings, behind in attendance, behind in technology, behind the trends in society, behind in adapting to the changing world, etc...  I suppose it is true.  We are behind.  But what are we behind and why does it matter?

If we are behind a culture racing off to erase all distinctions between male and female, lifting the constraints of desire to pursue pleasure without restraint, redefining the social building blocks of our community to accommodate to fit whims... well, what does it matter?  Should we be in the forefront?  Should the Church abandon the trumpet call of Scripture to listen to the background muzak of a culture defined exclusively by self-interest?  What would that look like?  Where would it end?

If we are behind in technology, will that be the end of the Church Jesus established by His own blood?  Perhaps we should have all bought into laser discs and Betamax.  Technology drives culture and desire -- if you don't think so take a gander at the things that sold on Black Friday, that magically appeared under the tree a few weeks later, and opened up to oohs and aahs at Christmas.  Technology can be an aid or a curse but in both cases it is a voracious consumer of cash and a fickle source of return on the bucks spent.

If we are seen as behind the times by those outside the Church, will it make us more relevant to the unbeliever by agreeing with whatever happens to be on the mind of the unchurched at any given moment?  If the Church merely mirrors back what comes from the unregenerate heart, will the Church be embraced and Christ be worshiped more than if she remains faithful to the steadfast Word that endures forever?

If we are judged behind the times by some within the Church, are those the voices of wisdom, faith, and weight that ought to guide us?  Before we decide to listen to our homegrown critics who lament that our worship, our witness, and our works are old-fashioned and outdated, perhaps we ought to first weigh the value of their counsel and the depth of their faith.  Often, no, nearly always, those within the Church who clamor for change are not prophets but the false prophets we are warned about by none other than Jesus. 

It strikes me that Jesus says none of His critics are satisfied.  They complain He is too somber when He speaks of repentance and they complain He is unworthy when He speaks of joy.  The critics are still saying the same things but now about the Church.  I think we spend too much time wringing our hands in worry and anxiety over what others think of us and too little time considering whether we are faithful to the Word of God and the catholic tradition -- in other words, considering what Jesus thinks of us.

Now maybe I am wrong -- I most often am, according to my family and friends -- but it seems to me that we Lutherans are influenced more by these complaints than others.  It could be that my experience from within is limited to Lutheranism and so I do not see that other traditions are vulnerable to the same uncertainty.  In any case, we have spent far too much time wondering what others think and whether or not we are current and far too little time proclaiming the unchanging Word of Christ, doing the work of the Kingdom, and making sure that we are faithful to Christ in both.

I know we are behind the times.  We ought to be.  We are not anchored to public opinion.  We are not dictated to by demographics or polls or changing mores.  We are anchored to the Word that endures forever that speaks the Christ who is Alpha and Omega, first and last, yesterday, today, and forever the same.  We are anchored in the means of grace that offer an exclusive stability to a world captive to and in love with change.  There would be something pretty darn wrong if we woke up one morning and people began to think the Church was current in thinking, accurately reflected the feelings and desires of the people around us, and exploiting adept at incorporating every evolution society and technology.  Such a church is worthless to Christ and no church at all.

There is an incredibly irritating commercial on my satellite radio in which one voice repeats back what the other voices says over and over and over again.  The point is that the mimic is a fool.  It is supposed to get you to purchase some product or another -- I forget which.  That is exactly what happens when the Church catches up so that she can speak back to people what they have first said.  That commercial could not make me purchase any of its products and such a Church could sell nothing to a people desperately in need of redemption and life stronger than death.  

For the right perspective, the words of Nagel in the introduction to the Lutheran Worship hymnal cannot be beat:  “Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise.” “Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is his name, which he put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are his.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Life together...

Third Midweek Advent Sermon of 2012.

Life Together Koinonia

Life together is perhaps the most misunderstood of the three foci we have considered this Advent.  It is too often confused with the stuff of coffee and donuts and is made trivial and even peripheral to what it means to be a Christian and to be the Church.

Life together is the life Christ won and gave to us – it is life in the Spirit.  We do not create this family or relationship but recognize the family and relationship established by God by the death and resurrection of His Son.  It is this community that flows from God's baptismal gift and our common life born of baptism and faith.  We recognize what God has done.

This life together is not what we think of fellowship.  It is not primarily or even secondarily meals in common.  Rather this community represents lives that have intersected as Christ came to us as one of us that we might be saved through Him and brought into a relationship of blood all those whom He has redeemed.  Our common life together is the fruit of what Christ has done.  It is not a choice we make to live in fellowship with people.  It is a given that proceeds from our lives and our relationships given birth and shaped by His saving action.

We speak much of community, especially in the light of national tragedies like the shootings in Newtown.  Though it is surely true a tragedy like this that brings a community and a nation together and galvanizes our common life and responsibility to each other, tragedy does not create community.  Community makes tragedy bearable.

As Christians we sense this in the deepest form of community that there is – a diverse and different people whom God has made one in the common death of baptism and the common life of the baptized who rise up new creatures in Christ.  We cannot be brothers of Christ and not be brothers and sisters in Christ to one another.

This life together is a life of confession and forgiveness.  What do we pray?  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  You cannot forgive others until you have been forgiven.  It is precisely out of our encounter of grace that forgives our sins that we recognize our life together and show it forth in the forgiveness we ask of and offer to one another.

This is manifested in the way we confess together our common sins and our individual sins in the common words of the Sunday confession.  With one voice we come as the sinners for whom Christ died and in His one voice we are made one in the absolution that releases us from sin's captivity and the heavy burden of guilt.  What keeps us apart from one another is not likes or dislikes but sin.  The unity we share as Christian people is established when sin and its barriers are torn down.  This is what Christ did on the cross and this is what the cross does for us when we are baptized into Christ's death and rise in His new life.  Sharing a cup of coffee in the place we call a fellowship hall is nice enough but it has no power to bind us to one another as the blood of Christ has done in our baptism and in our baptismal life of confession and forgiveness.

Life together is not finding common bonds to connect us but building upon the common bond Christ has accomplished for us.  While it is a good thing that we share common interests and have common likes and dislikes, fears and joys.  These things are powerless to bind us as one.  Only the blood of Christ establishes our fellowship and makes this fellowship stronger than every gender, race, ethnic, and economic division.

Life together means loving and living together as imperfect sinful people whom Christ has forgiven.  The homogeneous principle says that people who are like each other have the greatest community and common bond.  This may be good sociology but it is poor theology.  The church connects us in a community in which the different and diverse are bonded together in the most profound and deepest connection of all – the cross of Christ and our common life in that cross by baptism and faith.

Life together does not presume to judge (or we will be so judged).  God is the judge and His judgement is His and His alone.  We live our life together not with those whom we judge to be worthy or deserving or like us against others less so.  We live our life together as the sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ recognizing in the face of others Christ Himself.  We are all under the judgment of God and that judgment is relieved of fear only because we stand in Christ... together.

Life together is born of the font but is gathered by the Word around the Table of the Lord.  Fellowship is not food shared at a pot luck – as much as that has become an important part of church culture.  The food fellowship that binds us is His table, our participation in the body and blood of Christ here where the Lord comes to us as He has promised.  This unity is not trivial but profound.  It expects that we share the common faith of the creed and Scripture.  It binds us in the most solemn unity of all.  It leads us forth strengthened and renewed by the food that is only Christ's to give and for only those who know Christ and are known as His own.  It is the recognition of Christ's life for us, His gifts to us in the means of grace, and His life through us to others in His name.

We too often forget this.  We let petty divisions tear down what Christ has built up.  We focus on personalities and personal characteristics instead of our common life in Christ.  We talk uncharitably about each other as if this unity were something trivial or non-essential.  We side up against one another and take personally when our opinions differ.  We act as children who threaten to take our toys and go home if we do not get our way.

Our life together is to be marked by the willingness to put others before self, to serve before being served, to give without counting the cost or expecting return.  Is this not how Christ has created us a place in the fellowship of His blood and is this not how Christ has valued and set us apart as His own.  Our life together is a gift but with that gift comes responsibility.  We meet together at the foot of the cross, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us.  We wash one another's feet and share each other's burdens and joys as if they were our own.  We eat together regularly at His table.  Can there be anything less or anything more than this to the fellowship we call the Church?

I began by saying that life together may be the most misunderstood of the three foci of this Advent.  Yet it connects witness and mercy works.  The witness of the early church was reflected in their life together – “See how they love one another...”  From their life together shaped by the love the Father has for the Son and the Son has for us, their witness was marked not merely by words that faithfully told the story but by works of mercy in service to others – love demonstrated, yes, first for those within the household of God but not only so.  Tonight we come under the banner of love that welcomes us to prayer, that receives our praise, and that creates and nurtures our life together... that our witness may be faithful and that our works of mercy in service to others may be fruitful.  Amen.

Happy humility...

Sermon for Advent 4C, preaching on Sunday, December 23, 2012.

    A friend of mine wondered what the Gospel reading would sound like if it happened today and the Angel came to a typical 21st century person.  He surmised the Angel's lines would read the same.  But the response could not be "How can this be?" but "SHUT UP!  Get outta here! Or No Way!"  And the answer, if positive, would not have been "let it be to me as the Lord has said" but rather "FINE! Or Whatever!"  His point is that we live in a rude age, in which outrage is bold as brass and humility as rare as precious gems.  Maybe he is right.
    Mary's humility is amazing to us.  Her humility is not some act designed to impress.  It is the genuine article.  She is happy to be humble and her humility is the source of her joy.  Contrast this with the seemingly insatiable desires of our hearts, seldom happy or content with anything.  We sometimes say the humble word but inside we want it all and we want it all for ourselves.
    Riches are, in reality, not much consolation.  According to people who have it, affording just about anything seems to provide little in the way of contentment.  Now that is not to say that poverty is all that rewarding either.  Contentment, as we heard last week, is a focus of the heart and not the fruit of achievement or possessions.  Sadly, the more we have, the more we want.  Like most of us, I can recall a time when, newly married and dirt poor, we seemed to have a much easier life than the hurried and harried moments of today.  No, when we have more, the bar of happiness is raised so that more is needed before we will even begin to be happy.
    Not so with Mary.  She is at peace with God and, because of this, with herself.  She is calm within the storm of God's unfolding plan of salvation.  This is not because Mary is unique or different or holy or perfect.  This is because Mary's heart is rooted and planted in faith.  She trusts the Lord and this trust is enough for her peace.
    Humility is not a virtue you can cultivate.  Humility is the fruit of faith.  Mary shows us this faith in the words of her song, the Magnificat.  She marvels that God saw her.  Contrast this with our almost incessant need to be noticed or fawned over.  Mary's surprise is that God saw her amid all that God has to see.  "Who am I that the Lord would see me?"  More than this, she is surprised that the Lord would look on her and not be repulsed by what He saw.  Contrast that with the feeling that who could not look at me and love me of a people in love with themselves and with the moment.  We wonder why anyone would not notice us; Mary wonders why anyone would notice her.
    Mary's humility is born of the awe that God could look at her, see her in all her need and weakness, and love her still.  Love is not really a gift in our culture; it is a right which we demand.  So it is not surprising that we are not satisfied by love.  In the world of faith, love is not obligation but always gift. That the Lord would see her and love her was a precious gift to Mary.  It is a gift we think about?  Do we find wonder and joy in God's notice and love?
    Mary's joy flows from a humble faith, surprised at God's notice, in awe of God's love, and willing to receive God's gift and plan for her life.  She was convinced that God had given her all things in the Christ whom He had placed in her womb.  She sings of her Son who has become her own Savior and is with Him from birth to death, pondering all this in her heart and rejoicing at the love for her that He brings from the Father.  Ponder does not mean deep thought to unlock the mysteries but awe and wonder at God’s mercy and grace give so freely to the undeserving.
    Sadly, we are not content because we have lost the sense of love as a gift, we no longer are surprised at God's notice of our lives – we demand it.  We expect Him to notice our joys and needs.  But we are not at all sure that Christ and salvation are enough for us.  We are happy to receive salvation but we are not above asking God for more.  It is like the prince whose false humility says to those invited to his birthday party, "no gifts please."  Then when they come with only their greetings and love, he asks, is that all there is?
    Mary's example is profoundly needed for a people no longer content with God's watchful eye or satisfied with His giving love or comforted by His Word of promise.  Why is it so difficult for us to be happy when we have so much and know so much?  Could it be that we expect others to supply us with happiness – a happiness which is only the fruit of a humble faith and a heart impressed that God sees us, knows us, and still loves us?
    With our sense of self-righteousness instead of repentance, we make happiness impossible.  With the feeling that God owes us something, we find no contentment in His love.  With the idea that we deserve His mercy, the great miracle of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection as the price of our sin are all discarded as "is that all there is?"  Mary's example is not personal holiness but humble faith.  Her lesson for us is not to reach in ourselves to find peace, but the peace that comes from trusting God's grace and knowing the gift of His mercy.  We honor her not as a sinless example of human flesh and blood but rather as a sinner whose heart rejoices in God her Savior, who marvels at God’s grace and trusts it implicitly.
    Mary looks at God's Word and promise, at the Son whose life begins in her womb, and she says, "What more can I want?"  Note what she does not say: "what more can I have?" Rather, "what more can I want?"  I am full.  The Lord has given me all things in His Son.  In this humble faith, one finds the precious fruit of happiness.  Surely this is exactly what we need to hear as tomorrow we dig into the presents in search of contentment, happiness, and joy!  Amen

Content to live as children. . .

Quite strangely, we seem utterly content as Americans to live as children with our government as our parent.  We get an allowance from our governmental parent and chafe at any suggestion that such is neither owed to us or not in our best interests.  We want to be protected from any who would do us harm -- even ourselves.  So we are content to have the government decide the allowable size of the sugary sodas we love and what we should eat and what we should not.  We want to be protected against the improper use of ladders, power tools, and other mechanical objects and appliances so that even we screw it up, it is not our fault.  We blame others for our failings and believe it is not only the prerogative of government but our right to have government fix what is wrong in us or around us.  The massive amount of social programs (including the tax code) would be shocking even to those who sought to expand the governmental safety net (like FDR).  We look to government to protect us from any criticism of our sexual choices or relationships (hence the right to free contraception and abortion and the move to redefine marriage).  And then when our choices have proven wrong, we expect that the government will bail us out (such as when we build in areas prone to flooding and do not have insurance).

We like being spoiled children with a government structured to be our indulgent parent.  Which makes it even more surprising that we are so resistant to being children of God -- except that God our Father is not nearly such a self-indulgent dad as is the government we have created.  He does not whisk sins under the rug but confronts it with all its might, power, and deathly consequence.  He does not wink at unrighteousness but clothes us unworthy with the righteousness and holiness not of our own earning.  He does not turn away from our lawlessness but creates us in us clean hearts to love the order that is His gift.  He does not save us because we are worthy but loves and saves the unworthy, the undeserving, and the wretched sinner alike.  Yet for all He has done for us in His Son, we prefer the sugar daddy of government to the fatherly love and affection delivered to us in Christ.

This, if no other, should help us to see what it means to live under sin's curse.  This is exactly what we confess when we acknowledge that we are sinful by nature and unclean through and through.  Apart from the grace of God we are just that -- the spoiled child who demands the whim of desire be satisfied and refuses any and all responsibility for who and what we are.

Far from being a sign of the progress of our civilization and culture, the political choices of a majority of Americans bears striking resemblance to what we in confession lament about ourselves.  It is not that America has changed but that the mask we once wore has now finally and fully been discarded.  We have looked into the mirror of our souls and considered that it is not so bad being who we are.  This is the last and final stage of deception.  For if the devil steals from us the desire to take responsibility for who and what we are, the second thing he will steal is our self-respect.

As we come to the close of this year we find that the price of redemption is the exposing of this lie and its deception.  In the Church we call this repentance and we believe it to be the work and domain of the Spirit.  Such repentance is impossible without the aid and guidance of the Spirit of God.  Such repentance is the mark of the Spirit's work in us.  There is little future for churches that have chosen to mirror to their members the lie of such dependence and wickedness that parades as good.  There is little such a church can offer us except the religious blessing of our taste for governmental parenthood.  The Church is and will always stand in tension against such indulgence and lack of personal accountability.  So the Church is and will remain an unpopular voice.

In the animated movie Wall-E the fat and self-indulgent people had to be shaken from their dazed and complacent status as dependent and self-indulgent children.  The movie seemed to make the technology the villain but it was only a tool used by people on themselves.  In the movie the little robot became a Savior assisted by a few others.  Perhaps this is an image of what Christ has done for us.  He has awakened us to the fallen state of our lives first before He can redeem us.  You see this imagery played out in sci-fi movies all the time (for example, in Matrix, Neo must first awaken to what he is and what life has become before he can know anything more -- a hard truth to be sure).

There are some who lament the loss of the culture as aid and friend of the Church.  It was never really an aid or a friend.  When its ends paralleled the Church, they partnered but it was never anything more than a utilitarian cooperation in externals and not the walking together of like hearts, values, and goals.  I am somewhat grateful that we can dispense with such pretense and be honest.  We as people are content to be children of our government as long as it indulges us and does not hold us responsible for our choices.  We are resistant to the Kingdom of God and to becoming children of our Heavenly Father because He does not indulge us or suffer our foolishness gladly.  Truth is and always will be uncomfortable.  Christ is and always will be unsettling to a people moored to desire and adrift from consequence and responsibility.  Perhaps this is exactly the time God has created for us to speak clearly the Gospel that offers us more than approval for our consenting desire.  Far from hoping to restore a lost age (perhaps the 1950s) we need to summon up the courage to speak clearly and courageously the truth of Christ.  Then we will truly be the Church of Christ.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Good video...

On the heels of Christmas Day and the Gospel, a good video to reinforce the message. . .

And we beheld His glory... as of the only Son of the Father. . .

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

    There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

    The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

    And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.


Monday, December 24, 2012

What sweeter music can we bring?

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 

And the angel said unto them,
    Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
    For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
    And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Odd Christmas Trees of 2011 -- Can we top it in 2012

The Japanese Gold Tree
We’ve previously featured this tree made completely of pure Gold, here on OC. A creation of Japanese jeweler Ginza Tanaka, the tree is worth $2 million and unusual enough to make it to our top 10. It weighs 12 kg, is 2.4 m high, and is decorated with plates, ornaments and ribbons – all made of gold. Talk about a golden Christmas!
Photo via BornRich
The Cell-Phone Tree
No, it’s not a tree that moves. It’s actually a tree made of mobile phones! Westcom Electronics in My Tho, Vietnam, proudly displayed their 15-foot Christmas tree built with 2,500 cellular phones. It sure would have been funny if the tree had started to ring. However, this wasn’t possible since the phones used were not in working condition.

Photo © AP
The Chainsaw Tree
A project aimed at environmental awareness, this tree was made out of the tools used to cut down real trees. Noli Llavan, an environmentalist from Palawan, Philippines, made this Christmas tree with confiscated chainsaws. It was displayed on a main street in Puerto Princesa, a part of the campaign to end illegal logging and mining in Palawan.

Photo © Romeo Ranoco/REUTERS
The LEGO Tree
As the name suggests, this tree is made completely with LEGO bricks. It is 33-foot tall and consists of a whopping 600,000 bricks, complete with LEGO ornaments and a LEGO star on top. The tree was on display at St. Pancras International in London. It was created by Duncan Titmarsh, UK’s only Certified LEGO Professional. Did you even know such a title existed?

Photo via The Verge
The Plastic Bottle Tree
40 thousand Sprite plastic bottles went into the making of this 13 m tall tree, adorned with 40,000 lights from the inside. It made a pretty sight all lit up at night, in Kaunas, Lithuania.

The Bicycle Tree
It amazes me how the Chinese can make anything out of anything. A shopping mall in Shenyang displayed a 39-foot Christmas tree made of 230 bicycles. I appreciate the effort but it looks more like just a pile of bicycles, than a Christmas tree.

The Jack Daniel’s Tree
140 oak barrels of the popular whiskey brand were used to create a tree in Lynchberg, Tennessee. The hand selected barrels were stacked high to form a 26-foot tree, and decorated with tree lights. It might disappoint you though, that the barrels were empty.

Photo © Jack Daniels
The Knitted Tree
This warm tree was created by women from knitting circles of Poole, in the UK. 1,200 green woolen squares were sewn over 9 months and placed on a metal pyramid frame. The squares will later be used to create warm blankets for needy people in Romania and Sri Lanka.

Photo © BNPS
The Book Tree
On display at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center at the University of Nevada, this tree is made up of old, recycled books. It is 9.5 foot tall and is made of National Union Catalog books from the pre-1950s.

Photo via FoxReno
The Junk Tree
And now, for the ugliest of them all. This 12m tall tree was erected in Berlin, much to the dismay of the city’s residents. Called the ‘Traffic Tree’, this one consisted of scrap metal branches, decorated with discarded household items and battered toys. Old traffic lights were added for illumination. And the worst part? Massive flame throwers, which blast fire into the sky every 30 minutes!

Photo via BerlinSidewalk
Read more at Top 10 Christmas Trees. . .

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The word that dare not be spoken. . .

I have long read the thoughts of Msgr Charles Pope who is erudite, thoughtful, and, perhaps to the surprise of many Lutherans, quite Biblical.  He has posted of late about that place which dare not spoken -- HELL.  We can talk all you want of heaven but it is frowned upon to speak of hell or the prospect that there may be any folks destined for it.

We have come to live with the idea that the way of salvation is broad and straight and easy to find... and the path to hell is narrow, crooked, and hard to find.  How easy it is for us to manipulate the words of the Lord to fit our desires and values instead of paying attention to the hard truth He speaks.  Perhaps some will posit the Roman problem here with Vatican II.  I am not so sure.  I well recall the hope of Fr Richard John Neuhaus who certainly believed that there was a hell but certainly hoped that it would be found empty on judgment day.  Whatever our hopes and dreams, the reality is found in the Word of the Lord.  Jesus does not speak of hell as a possibility but as a reality.  As much as I am sad to lament it, Scripture makes no promise that those who will be saved will be a majority or even many.  Whether many or few will be saved is His to determine and it is not my purpose to preview or second guess the Lord.  Yet the reality is that that Scripture gives far more indications that few will be saved than many.

As we enter into this new Church Year, it is wise for us to remember the grave question, "when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith?"  (Luke 18:8)  We are easily given to the Wal-Mart temptation that the Church will be a mighty and pervasive franchise delivering salvation in great quantity to a willing clientele -- sort of like the crowds on Thanksgiving evening or before Black Friday dawn.  This may be a pious hope but it is not the operating principle which which the Church faces the present day and the task the Lord has assigned.

I am saddened by those who make hell into the motivation for bringing the good news of salvation to the world.  Surely the Lord seeks a people moved not by fear but shaped by hope!  But it is foolish and American wishful thinking to believe that hell either does not exist or it is rendered pointless by God's willingness to shrug His shoulders at unbelief.

Msgr Pope has written well on this subject.  While I may not appreciate all that he has written, I am encouraged that even in Rome the once forbidden subject is being spoken of in public again.  You can read him on the links below but I have listed here some of his summary points:

Just a few summary bullet points:
  1. The Biblical teaching, that there is a Hell, and that many go there is in no way ambiguous. When asked directly whether many would be saved Jesus answers soberly, and I would suppose with great sadness, that “many” were on the wide road that led to perdition, and that the road that led to salvation, was narrow, and difficult and that “few” found it.
  2. Jesus the main source – No one loves us more than Jesus Christ, and no one has worked more to save us than Jesus Christ. Yet no one spoke of Hell more than Jesus Christ, or warned of judgment with greater sobriety.
  3. Words mean things – However one may wish to interpret the biblical data, “many” does not mean few, and “few” does not mean many.
  4. Hell is, in a sense, necessary if human freedom is to have any meaning. All while Hell has mysterious aspects, understanding its existence must be rooted in the fact that God respects the freedom he has given us, even if he may regret the choices we make. But we are summoned to love, and love requires freedom, and freedom requires that our choices be about real things.
  5. That hell is an eternal reality is also mysterious, but is caught up in the mystery of the eternity itself. It would seem that as we move from this temporal world toward eternity, our decisions become forever fixed and final.
  6. Devastating – It does not require an advanced degree in sociology to understand that, to remove the unambiguous biblical teaching on the very real and possible outcome of Hell, is to remove strong motivation to seek a Savior and salvation. It is therefore no surprise that as the teaching on Hell has been largely set aside by the modern world, that recourse to the sacraments, prayer, Church attendance and any number of spiritual remedies have suffered significant declines during the same period.

Friday, December 21, 2012

I just knew you Lutherans were formalists. . .

While a Lutheran Pastor serving in, say, Nebraska might not be accused of the sin of formalism, it is a pretty common complaint labelled upon Lutherans in the South (known variously as either a Mormon-like sect that worships its founder or Catholic lite -- without half the odor or calories).  I cannot tell you how many times I have addressed this in my 20 years in the South.  I cannot tell you how many times a mixed religion marriage has left the Baptist to inquire about whom we worship.  My favorite is when the non-Lutheran spouse of a Lutheran soldier watched the accoutrements of liturgical worship being cleaned up after the benediction.  It was finally the opportune moment and so she put it to work and accused like a Baptist tract.  "I always knew Lutherans were formalist!"

"And indeed we are!  We worship the forms as God" I said.  "But for us Lutherans, the forms are God."  I proceeded to explain the means of grace and that while for the Baptist Christ is one place and His Word another, Christ is the Word, His its voice speaking, and His power at work in it and through it.  While as a Baptist you might have baptism here and Christ there, for us Lutherans Christ is in baptism -- the arms of Christ embracing us, the death and resurrection of Christ enveloping us, and the gifts of Christ bestowed upon us.  While as a Baptist you have bread and wine (grape juice) here and Christ there, for us Lutherans Christ is in the bread so that it is His body eaten and in the wine so that it is His blood we drink.  "Where is the Christ you worship? I asked.  She was speechless so I answered her.  "Christ is in the heart and feelings or out there somewhere in the air we breathe or up there somewhere in heaven.  You Baptists have never had Christmas because Christmas is Christ the Emmanuel, the God with us, in Word, water, bread and wine.  You Baptists worship an absent Christ who is present only in nebulous ways in feelings and thoughts while we Lutherans worship the Christ is located where He has placed Himself -- in the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace.  The only problem you have is that Scripture agrees with us and it does not agree with you!"

You are darn right we Lutherans are formalists -- we worship the form as if it were God because it is God -- God with us, God for us, and God among us!  That is the genius of the Lutheran confession -- the means of grace are all over what we believe and all over what we confess and all over what we teach.  Instead of apologizing for this or running from the accusation, we should claim and turn it back on the evangelicals and Protestants who have merely an absent Christ or one who is but generically present as in the air and all things.  Rome may have a similar understanding but the Christ who is with us has become for Rome the Christ whom we must still appease with our own repentance and works in the sacrament of penance or the Christ whom we offer to the Father anew as our "get out of jail free" card.  Rome has lost the benefit of Christ's presence in the means of grace by focusing more attention upon Christ's Vicar of the Vatican or the infallible Tradition (capital T) or the Mass more sacrifice than sacrament.  I say this not out of pride but out of regret for the Reformation still incomplete among our Roman cousins.

Our problem as Lutherans is not that we are too Lutheran.  Our problem is that we are not Lutheran enough!  We are so fearful of accusation that we have become embarrassed of our confession and apologetic of our faith in the means of grace to do what they promise.  We are not Catholic light but evangelical and catholic full strength!  It is this vibrant sense of Christ's presence and our confidence in what that presence brings to us that gives us our identity and makes the Reformation worth while.  Instead of disowning this we need to flaunt it for in flaunting it we confess Christ faithfully. (As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes...")