Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What do we do with history?

Every now and then it makes the news that the Lutherans said/say that the papacy is the anti-Christ.  Immediately people point to good and honorable people like John Paul II or Benedict XVI or Francis and say "how can you say that about these men?"  But, of course, this is not a personal judgement but a statement about the Church, about faith, and about salvation.

Good Pastor Charles McClean put it very well when he wroteas long as the papacy insists on the last seventeen words of Boniface VIII’s bull Unam Sanctam – that it is “absolutely necessary to salvation that every creature be subject to the Roman pontiff” – the papacy is Antichrist.  To be sure Vatican II has allowed for salvation outside those subject to the Roman Pontiff, calling us separated brethren "ecclesial communities" if not churches.  We can all admit that the papacy of today is not quite the same as the one to whom the Lutherans were responding in the sixteenth century.  But I think the real issue here is not so much about what the Lutherans said or say as much as it is about what we do with our history.

A Roman Catholic priest once said to me that Rome is like a train.  It keeps adding on cars century after century and it slows the whole train down but no one is willing to or inclined to unhook any of those cars.  What Rome once said, it may not still say, but Rome is not about to renounce what was once said.  Now the truth is that almost all churches are like this -- not just those in communion with the Roman pontiff.  We have trouble both personally and institutionally repenting of our errors.  But this remains one of the great problems in ecumenism.  The only honest ecumenism is one which takes history seriously and does not gloss over what was once said and confessed only because it has been affirmed recently.

If Lutherans have said (confessed) error, it needs to be pointed out, confessed, rebuked, and corrected.  If Rome has confessed error, it needs to be pointed out, confessed, rebuked, and corrected. Before the ecumenical endeavor can be successful, we must surely get our own house in order.  Now, this does not mean we have to silence every crack pot (in this case, blogger, like me) or fix every Pastor or every parish not all they should be.  What it does mean is that those things that have gone forth from the Church in the name of the Church must be subject to the highest of standards.  Rome has many boxcars full of things to deal with (and I am not speaking here only or even primarily of the sexual abuse issue that everyone immediately thinks of).  There are official pronouncements and teaching and liturgical expressions that do not pass muster as catholic or evangelical, in the best sense of those terms.  For Lutherans, we have fewer cars on our train but we also have some things to own up to (here I think of Missouri's recension of the Augsburg Confession by its confusing and wrong action with regard to lay ministry).

What are we to do with history?  As long as we ignore it or presume that things are not as they once were, we have left ourselves open to the kind of relativism in which words mean, as we heard in Alice in Wonderland, what I want them to mean and nothing more or less.  Those who look at Lutheranism askance because of the condemnation of the papacy as the anti-Christ might also want to pay attention to what documents has the seal of the papacy on them.  We have to deal with this history.  We cannot explain it away as if the words do not mean what they say nor can we simply choose to conveniently forget that we ever said what we said.  That is true for Wittenberg, for Geneva, for Rome and for all Christian traditions...

Monday, April 29, 2013

More to come. . .

Sermon for Easter 5C preached on Sunday, April 28, 2013.

    I am sure it comes as great surprise to you that snacks are a weakness of mine.  My great affection for snack foods often caused a stern rebuke from my mother and a warning not to fill up on snacks because there was a big meal to come.  As often as this happens in the context of food, it happens even more frequently in the context of how we see our lives in the world.  This is the ever present danger to Christians – that we become so full of the present day, we have no room for the more that is to come. 
    Today in the Gospel Jesus insists that there is more to come.  That must have sounded strange to disciples who had witnessed the Lord heal the sick, feed thousands, calm storms, and raise the dead.  Exactly what kind of more to come was Jesus talking about?  It is the kind of more to come which is not obvious to reason or discerned by the eye or dreamed in the heart.  This more to come is made known by the Spirit who will guide the disciples into all truth.  Only the Spirit can impart what Jesus promises.
    What the Spirit will deliver is what the Father has given Jesus.  This Jesus gives to the disciples and to you and me and all believers.  This is not some different doctrine or deeper truth than the death and resurrection of Christ.  No, the more that the Spirit will bestow is the knowledge of what Jesus has done, the means of grace that bestow His gifts, and the faith powered by the spirit to live out this new life in Christ.  The fruits of Jesus' victory belong to those for whom He died and rose again. The more to come is the Spirit’s bestowal of the freedom from fear, forgiveness to cover sin, and life stronger than death that Christ won and with it the power that enables us to do the will of our Father in heaven, leading the holy lives we were created for.  This the Spirit does by making Christ known to us.
    The work of the Spirit is to lead us into practical truth – not some theoretical knowledge but that which restores us to our Father in heaven, teaches us faith, and restores us so that we may begin to fulfill the holy purpose He intended for our lives.  This keeps us in grace through forgiveness even though we sin.  This sustains us amid trials even when we waver. This  empowers our witness when we know not what to say.  This keeps us blameless and ready for Christ to come and finish His new creation.
    What does it all mean?  Everyone of us faces us the great temptation to be satisfied with a little better today instead of the glorious eternity God has waiting for us.  We are easily victims of settling for today instead of yearning for His eternal tomorrow.  We are prone to put our whole energy into getting all the world counts as valuable instead of pursuing holiness of life and conversation.  Part of us bristles at the idea that we must exercise self-control.  But self-control is the mark of life in Christ, the fruit of the Spirit in us.
    As a child I wanted everything all at once.  As an adult I still want it all now and all that is to come.  But there is only so much room in our hearts and minds and lives.  If they are filled with the moment, there will be no room for Christ and His gift of eternity.  Not only the present joys tempt us.  It is also the present trials and sufferings.  For these tempt us to despair that Christ is not enough.
    Jesus says that a little while His disciple would see Him and then no longer and than they would seem Him again.  Of course there are nuances of meaning.  Soon He would suffer and they would not see Him until He rose again.  Soon He would ascend to His place at the right hand of the Father and then He will return in glory as Lord and Judge of all.
    For a little while the world will seem to be our all, sorrow and lament will steal our joy, suffering will mar our happiness.  Either way, we are warned against presuming too much from the moment so that we miss eternity.  Like a woman in childbirth finds the anguish of labor fade when her baby is born, so are our lives suffering the anguish of a labor in which Christ is born in us.  This does not happen without suffering but even suffering cannot endure the joy of Christ's return in glory.
    There is more to come.  Do not drink too deeply of the world's pleasures nor its sorrows.  Both will give way to what the Father has destined, our Lord has accomplished, and the Spirit will reveal to you and me.  There is more to come.  It is in this forward looking and anticipatory faith that we live now as God’s children by baptism and faith and remain steadfast until He returns.
    Jesus cannot stay as He is.  He goes so that He can be present sacramentally.  Neither can we remain as we are.  Now, the person we were must die baptism’s death that the new person we are in Christ may rise from baptism to live.  We who were once enemies of God are now His very children baptism and faith.  The holiness which stood in judgement against us outside of Christ, has become, in Christ, the way and goal of our new lives in Christ.  Lives in which service is greatness, sacrifice is love, and suffering is not defeat.  Do not lose heart.  Do not grow weary.  More to come...
    When Jesus returns, all that is will give way to all that is eternal.  He has given us all we need to sustain us through this mortal life.  He has given us His Spirit to believe in Him.  He has killed the old Adam in us in baptism and brought us forth as brand new creations in baptism.  He sustains this new person with His Word and Meal.  He has taught us to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to seek that which is good and right and true, and to yearn for eternity.  In the face of this, nothing else will do.  We cannot settle for today or allow today, either joys or sorrows, to distract us from the grace in which we stand and the promise of our eternal future in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

What is most shocking...

One clinic worker testified that she saw aborted fetuses moving, breathing and, once, “screeching.” Another described a 2-foot-long fetus that “didn’t have eyes or a mouth, but it was like … making this noise. … It sounded like a little alien.”

A third witness recalled how, as ordered, she used surgical scissors to snip the spine of an aborted fetus she’d found in a toilet, its arm still moving. “I did it once, and I didn’t do it again,” she said. “… It gave me the creeps.”

The above quoted from the USA Today...

As shocking as what the testimony given, what is most shocking to me is what USA Today calls the breathing child who survives an abortion.  USA calls them aborted fetuses.  Foolish me, I thought we called them babies.

It would seem that abortion doctor Gosnell has two things going for him.  Most of his clients were poor, Black women and aborted black children.  In our age, neither group has much political standing.  So this terrible travesty of medical practice and his killing machine which operated with brutality, strangely insulated from the horror of what they were doing, went on for 17 years before anyone noticed enough to do anything about it.  What kind of pro-choice sanctions such an absurdity?  What kind of newspaper has the gall to call living, breathing, moving babies aborted fetuses?  Words are often used to mask the horror and minimize the shock of things as much as to magnify them.  I hope that these paltry words are exposed for their failure to sufficiently describe to us the terror of this man and the scandal of a culture of death that allows it...

Now thats a different take on things. . .

Read it all here...

Francis Cardinal George has a provocative column entitled:  I'm religious but I'm not spiritual...

It’s somewhat fashionable these days to describe oneself as “spiritual but not religious.” This is supposed to mean that one is open to an experience beyond the commercial or the political but not tied to “institutional” religion. One claims an experience of transcendence that is bound by no one else’s rules.

People can always make claims to any kind of experience. The question is always: Who cares? Why should anyone care where someone else gets a spiritual high? Because no one really cares, the claim to be spiritual but not religious is always safe. It’s never a threat and can be dismissed quite easily. The claim to be religious is different. It is a claim that God himself has taken the initiative to reveal himself to us and tell us who he is and who we are. Religion binds us to God according to his will, not ours, in a community of faith that he has brought into existence. Being religious can therefore be threatening.

Being religious as a Christian starts with the belief that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Faith in Christ’s resurrection is central to Christian religion. Jesus is not just someone’s personal idea. He really exists in a real body, now transformed by conquering death itself. Those who are “spiritual” often deny Christ’s resurrection as a physical event, something that makes its own demands when you bump into it. They prefer a Christ who is safely an idea in their minds, made in their image and likeness. By contrast, the risen Christ, the real Christ, breaks into our experience and personally seeks those he calls to be religious, to believe what God has done for us, much to our surprise.

Meeting the risen Christ spiritually therefore depends upon believing in him religiously. We are given the gift of faith in the sacrament of Baptism, in which we are configured to the risen Christ. Faith perdures, even when there’s not a lot of spiritual tingle in our lives! “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” is the cry of a religious person who asks Christ to take him beyond his own spiritual experience into a new world where bodies as well as minds share in God’s grace. Faith takes seriously everything that comes from God. The faith-filled person is sure of God and distrustful of himself. Unlike faith in God, experience is often wrong in religious matters.

While I might not have written as the Cardinal has, I get what he is saying.  It is fashionable to think of one as being spiritual -- an untethered and unbounded spirituality which is, as we say in Nebraska, like the Platte River -- a mile wide and a foot deep.  There is great breadth to this loosely defined spirituality which embraces ideas for all kinds of sources, often in conflict with each other, but which find reconciliation in the peculiarity of the individual who defines and decides them.  This spirituality is an Alice in Wonderland approach to "faith" in which words mean what I say they mean -- nothing more and nothing less.  To say you are spiritual is to use a term so broad that it means little at all.

In contrast to that, the good Cardinal is surely suggesting that faith and true spirituality is deeper than the moment and wider than the individual.  It is not a made up entity defined by the "spiritual" person who is his own guru.  True spirituality has roots and a foundation, built upon the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (to quote a spiritual leader named Paul).  True spirituality is not untethered but is anchored in truth that endures.  It is a deep river with a long past and a long future, that flows not aimlessly but purposefully to its appointed goal.  It is the Church, the ultimate religious institution, that is the mother of such spirituality by providing the womb of baptism, instructing in the Word that endures forever, and inviting to the nurture of the Table a world lost in darkness and error. 

Yeah, I get it when people say they are religious and spiritual but do not want to have anything to do with the organized church or religion.  When the church of your imagination is but one soul wide and deep, it is easy to control it, to justify it, and to excuse its flaws.  When the Church of Jesus enters the picture, it is messy, filled with sinners, led by flawed and failed people, and shows its warts all the time.  Organized religion may not be pretty but it is a whole lot more substantial than the dream world inhabited by spiritual people who are not religious.

As one who cringes under my own flaws and failings as a sinner and who laments the sinful humanity and flaws and failings of the whole of the baptized people of God, I understand the desire of those who seek a spirituality unbounded by reality.  But I would have the Church with all her flawed and sinful members and leaders before I would exchange real truth for the what ifs of a dream that can only ever be a dream.

Christianity is helped by having a few dreamers but the nature of the faith and of the Church is that we have mortal men and women, sinners in thought, word, and deed, who lament their sin but find that the good they should, they do not, and the evil they shouldn't, they do.... But Christ is still there... forgiving, restoring, binding up, and sending them forth... as the people of His promise -- though certainly not perfect or holy apart from Him.  No, I dream of a pure Church but the Church of my choice is real -- filled with real sinners saved by a real Savior who died a real death and rose to impart a real life... and who still comes to us through the real Word of the Gospel, through the real splash of water in baptism, and in the real bread and wine that is His body and blood.

Cardinal George and I may not have much in common but we both find more to hope for in a real church than in the dreamworld of an untethered spirituality only one person wide and deep.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Say it ain't so....

HT to Gottesdienst Blog...

One of the official publications of one of our LCMS Districts reports that a retired pastor has just been given an honorary doctorate from one of the Concordia universities owing to the fact that under his leadership, his congregation's music "transitioned from the emphasis on traditional music and added a more Gospel oriented genre."

It is bad enough when this happens, it is worse when it is not only official sanctioned but held up as exemplary service.  Perhaps we ought to have a whole new category of honors in the LCMS... one for those who courageously have jettisoned Lutheran faith in confession and in practice in missions, parishes, districts, etc...  Surely we would have more people to complete for this honor than if we counted up those who restored a lip service Lutheranism to its confessional, liturgical, and catechetical identity.  But just maybe that is exactly what we need... an honor bestowed upon those pastors and parish musicians who have tirelessly worked to rekindle an awareness and affection for the Lutheran Divine Service and the richest tradition of hymnody, choral, and liturgical music that supports the full expression of the Divine Service.

Anybody in with me?                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Seasons of the Year. . .

We have a neighbor who hangs out flags from a pole near her front door.  These flags fly the colors of the day or the season.  So, for example, the day after Thanksgiving our neighbor had a Santa Claus flag to accompany the Christmas wreath hanging on her front door.  By the time the New Year arrived, Santa was gone, replaced by a generic Winter scene.  Soon that gave way to Valentine's Day and a bright red heart.   Valentine sentiments were packed up and a shamrock for St. Patrick showed up.  Eventually that too disappeared, replaced by an Easter lily.  The Easter lily gave way to a Spring/Summer symbol and then a 4th of July image and later a generic Summer picture.  Finally that gave way to Halloween and Halloween gave way to Thanksgiving -- complete with Pilgrims.

You know what I am talking about.  You see them all over the place.  They mirror the seasonal displays in the big box discount stores or the seasonal food choices of the supermarket.  It is a generic seasonal year that may mirror religious holidays but does not follow them exclusively.  We see and hear this marking of time according to the major holidays and we think little of it.  The truth is that this seasonal year is a mirror of the kind of marking of time we know as the Church Year.  So, why does it seem so ordinary to put out the flags of the generic year and so extreme to follow the outline of the Church Year?

Honestly, I wish I knew why Christians found it so difficult to order their lives around the Church Year.  We seem intent upon following some calendar -- either one we borrow from the retail centers or one we invent to cover the holidays and special days in our families that are important to us.  So, why do I feel like the odd man out when we observe the Church Year?  Is it just me?  Or is it that the Church Year means something and the generic holiday year means little more than personal taste and desire?  I am not so sure...

But I have to wonder if merely observing the Church Year within our families just might help with the teaching of our faith to our children and the mirroring of our faith to the world....   I cannot help but believe that this is exactly the reason why the Lord ordained a year of holy days in the old covenant and why it is so important for us Christians to renew the sense of "holy time" that the Church Year imparts.  What a blessing it would be if we paid less attention to the merchandise displays of the stores or the made up symbols of the seasons and actually took it upon ourselves to order our lives and our time around the Church's Year of Grace!  What a blessing and what a witness to the world!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Uncertainties about the Shroud

The Shroud of Turin has been in the news of late -- new dating seems to suggest that is was from the time of Jesus.  Some are passionately for the authenticity of the Shroud and others equally vigorous in their dispute of this conclusion.  Most of us are caught in between -- with a mixture of curiosity about the Shroud and hope that perhaps it might be real and an ancient icon of the Lord.  I admit to uncertainties, curiosities, and, yes, a little hope.

You come to your own conclusions.  I merely pass some things to consider...

The latest scientific tests show that the Shroud of Turin dates to the first century. Go here to read more. Still, Shroud skeptics say it’s a medieval forgery. So here are some questions for them:

1. If it’s a fake why hasn’t anyone–even with modern technology–been able to reproduce it?
2. How did the forger not only know about photography in the Middle Ages, but manage to produce what is, in effect, a photographic negative?
3. The image is not painted, but “singed” or burnt on to the fabric. How did they do that?
4. The “burned” image doesn’t penetrate more than the surface level of the cloth. Paint would soak in wouldn’t it?
5. When paintings are put into a 3-D replicator they don’t produce successful 3-D images. This does. How did the forger do that?
6.  They found pollen and traces of soil from the area of Jerusalem. Did a medieval forger in Europe think of that and travel out there to get samples?
7. Are carbon 14 dating tests ever wrong? We’re assuming someone in the Middle Ages was a fraud. What if the modern scientists cheated? Its possible isn’t it?
8. The man in the shroud was nailed through the wrists. Medieval artists showed Christ’s nails through his hands. How did the medieval forger know that the Romans nailed through the wrist and not the hand as people thought back in the Middle Ages?
9. The forger even got the details of the wounds correct because the flagellation wounds correspond not only to Roman flagella, but to the direction from which the two men would have whipped the victim according to Roman torture techniques. How did the forger know that?
10. The pigtail at the back? It links up with the hair style of Jewish men who had taken the “Nazarite vow” in the time of Christ. This was some fantastic forger no?

And a great documentary that frames the whole debate. . .

Friday, April 26, 2013

From Down Under

From the news down under:   Bishop-elect Henderson

Bishop-elect Henderson addresses the convention.AUSTRALIA – Rev. John Henderson was elected Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) April 22, 2013.  The election was made on the first day of business at the LCA’s National Convention, which also made the decision to change the title of the synodical head from “President” to “Bishop.”

Rev. Henderson has been Principal of Australian Lutheran College, LCA’s post-secondary institute, since 2009. He was ordained in 1982, and served parishes in four LCA districts until 2001. He was Vice President of the Lutheran Church of Australia from 2006 to 2011, and a member of General Church Council from 2003 to 2011.

He has also been involved in broader ecumenical work, serving as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia from 2002 to 2008. He was a member of the LCA’s Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations, a representative at the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue, a founding member of the Regional Interfaith Dialogue SA Asia (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the Indonesian government), and co-founder of the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Lutheran Church–Canada’s (LCC) President Robert Bugbee was invited to speak at the General Pastor’s Conference, and to bring greetings to the General Convention on behalf of LCC.

In addition to the celebration of the outgoing president and incoming bishop, the General Convention has seen the LCA struggle over the issue of the women’s ordination. “The question of ordaining women to the pastoral office continues to be a contentious one for the Lutheran Church of Australia,” President Bugbee reports. “It is clear that the convention is quite divided in the matter. The national pastors’ conference asked for current dialogues to continue, and for other discussions to intensify during the coming three years.”

My Comments:

There are many who think that the election of John Henderson does not bode well for the future of the conservatives within the LCA. Henderson is more noted for being a politician than a theologian and some raised concerns about his management of the ALC. His stint as Secretary of the NCCA (National Council of Churches in Australia) and the happiness of many within the Lutheran World Federation over his election all points to the LCA departing from the Theses of Agreement that was the foundation of its unity some years ago.  I am personally saddened if, indeed, this is the case since we have enjoyed the gifts and apt theological mind of Dr. John Kleinig for many years.  The future may be difficult for many within the LCA and the battle against women's ordination has gained a potentially powerful enemy in the election of a new presiding bishop there.  Prayers are in order...

Self-fulfillment. . . vs Self-denial

The basic modern premise of most views of life (including some that call themselves Christian) is the goal of human life is self-fulfillment.  Religion, vocation, marriage, leisure, even children all exist to aid and assist the goal of self-fulfillment.  The ultimate self-fulfillment is freedom -- unbounded and unboundaried.  In other words, the perfect spiritual fulfillment of self is the perfect and free exercise of freedom to pursue desire.

While they may be few doubts that such a view of life is behind the lifting of restrictions upon abortion and the move to redefine marriage (not so much from who will be married but what constitutes marriage), what is also true is that the Christian agenda has been hijacked in support of this radical secular and individualist view.  Humanism, whether secular or religious, has long and deep roots in the modern era but in the longer term past it was hidden behind the greater virtue of self-denial.  If anyone wonders why historic Christianity is having a hard time today, it is clearly because the ethic of the Kingdom is diametrically opposed to self-fulfillment as the goal and insists that self-denial is the highest human good.

Following up on Holy Thursday and Jesus' call to love one another as He has loved us -- complete with the demonstration of that love in the foot washing -- it is the opportune moment to rekindle the fire under the virtue of the Kingdom that comes not from the flowering of mankind to his great potential but from the example of the Holy Man and Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Although I am among those who harbor some reservations about the new Pope, I applaud his willingness to confront head on the selfish and self-centered underbelly of a world built upon the goal of personal fulfillment.  His humble nature and this touch of humility given to the papal office are profoundly needed in a world in which Christianity is increasingly twisted to become another self-help means to perfect personal freedom and every subverted desire is exposed without shame.

If you were to listen to the media you might believe that our greatest problems are too many guns, too much, too little government intervention in our lives, too many rules to restrain our desires, too much personal responsibility, etc...  In reality, we are swimming in our own self-indulgence.  We have decided that desire is the most truthful voice to be heard and every other voice -- conscience, morality, religion, and restraint included -- should be treated with suspicion and skepticism,

What pleases God, that pleases me... we sang not so long ago.  The words are from the great Lutheran hymn, I leave all things to God's direction.  In place of such reliance upon God to define and direct the goal of our lives, we have come to believe that what pleases me, that pleases God.  In worship we pick and choose what appeals to us and we define worship from the vantage point of personal preference -- convinced that if we like it, God will like it.  In morality, we look at sex, work, play, and culture from the vantage point of personal preference and desire.  There are no rights or wrongs in this world -- none, except perhaps, denying self.  So if we marry whom we want for however long we want, we treat our children as possessions (from conception to adulthood), we expect employment to be fulfilling more than productive, we act as if the goal of our lives were play, and we have surrendered every aspect of taste to what feels good in the moment (when was the last time you visited a modern art gallery).

Too many have decided that since self-denial does not sell and self-fulfillment does, the Christian Gospel must be redefined to be relevant.  In reality, any redefinition of the Christian Gospel and of the shape of the morality of the Kingdom only make us irrelevant to our purpose, to the plan of God, and to all that is eternal.

In case you do not believe me, why not read the latest on the frontal assault against morality and truth:
USA Today and a modest proposal to allow polyamory...

1    I leave all things to God’s direction;
    He loves me both in joy and woe.
His will is good, sure His affection;
    His tender love is true, I know.
My fortress and my rock is He:
What pleases God, that pleases me.

2    God knows what must be done to save me;
    His love for me will never cease.
Upon His hands He did engrave me
    With purest gold of loving grace.
His will supreme must ever be:
What pleases God, that pleases me.

3    My God desires the soul’s salvation;
    My soul He, too, desires to save.
Therefore with Christian resignation
    All earthly troubles I will brave.
His will be done eternally:
What pleases God, that pleases me.

4    My God has all things in His keeping;
    He is the ever faithful friend.
He gives me laughter after weeping,
    And all His ways in blessings end.
His love endures eternally:
What pleases God, that pleases me.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Foot Washing?

So, Pastor, are you doing foot washing this year?

Usually words like that are meant to be a joke – playing on the catholicity of our parish practice and attempting to goad me into an argument.  But this is one highly symbolic and yet also greatly misunderstood rite for which I have no great affection.  Not because I do not believe it happened – no, I do believe that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples just as John 13 records.  The problem is that as an action it does not have the same meaning today.

Everyone understood washing the feet at the time of Jesus.  It was an everyday, several times a day task given that walking was the primary mode of transportation and open toed sandals the primary foot covering. 

It was an action in which certain cultural boundaries were clearly defined.  Guests did not wash their own feet if there were servants present.  Foot washing was done by the lowliest of the slaves in the household.  There was a pecking order to these things.  Jews and early Christians lived within these social conventions – even though, within their own gatherings, these social conventions were replaced by the ethics of the new kingdom and a mutuality of service.

The foot washing episode does not exist in isolation.  It mirrors the clear teaching of Jesus which He proclaimed over and over again in other settings (Mark 10:41-45; Matt. 20:24-28; Luke 22:24-27).  There is reference to the symbolic attention give to this everyday practice in the times following Jesus (1 Tim. 5:10) as a continued aspect of Christian hospitality.

Though foot washing is referenced some in patristic literature (Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles, Sulpicius Severus, Sozomen, and Benedict of Nursia), these were generally in the context of the same everyday hospitality noted above and not specifically as a liturgical rite.  Even the Apostolic Constitution’s instruction to wash the feet of the sick when they visit is not necessarily liturgical, though it was symbolic.

When Jesus calls His disciples to wash feet, it was not the introduction of a new rite within the sacramental boundaries of Baptism and the Eucharist.  No, Jesus is demonstrating the radical nature of the Christian ethic that is displayed in the lives of the baptized.  Radical service, in this context, does not mean symbolic foot washings but the daily foot washing of loving and serving your neighbor as Christ has loved and served us.  All works of mercy, in addition to the Word of mercy in the preaching of the Gospel, are part of the greater witness of the Church and the vocation of the baptized.  While this might include foot washing where foot washing remains culturally understood, it is not about literally washing feet.  It is about loving God by loving your neighbor – not out of the fear of the Law nor of a mistaken sense of duty or obligation but as the flowering of Christ’s love within you, the baptized believer.

My problem with foot washing on Maundy Thursday is that the attention goes to the act as rite and less to the call to love God and love your neighbor.  The disciples whose feet Jesus washed saw the connection between this daily duty and the new life of the Christian.  Peter got it.  He did not like it but he got it.  And when he got it, he knew that what he needed was more than just clean feet.  His old heart was still rooted and planted in an old morality of duty.

The new commandment Jesus gave is not to be seen through the lens of foot washing but foot washing demonstrated the higher calling of humble, loving, cheerful, and self-less service.  If we wash feet once a year, we have lost all sense of Jesus’ words and action.  Foot washing is the normal everyday life of the baptized.  Others before self is not a rite, it is the new and radical ethic of the Kingdom.  It is no less needed today than in generations past.  At least in America, where the care of the poor, sick, indigent, and aged is seen as the duty of the government or insurance, it is urgently needed.  Far too much of our life in the Church is self-centered.  Perhaps today the call would be to clean toilets.  Watching as I do as good church folk spill their “free coffee” in the fellowship hall and walk away or clean out their expired food items for the food pantry or toss away plate after plate of untouched food at a pot luck or argue about how much money the government ought to spend on the indigent and how they should take care of themselves, we need to hear more about the avenues of radical service within our daily lives and less fascination with a once a year liturgical rite rooted in a cultural necessity that no longer speaks much to our modern mind.  Jesus' point here is well taken.  The new life under the cross is not primarily about words but is just as much about works, the good works that flow from repentance and bear in our lives the fruit of the Spirit's work.

Connect John 13 to Matthew 25.  When, Lord, did we do this to you?  When you did it to the least of these My brothers.  That is what foot washing demonstrates.  We get off easy if all we do is annually clean a few toes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What makes Him good?

Sermon  for Easter IVC preached on Sunday, April 21, 2013.

    Have you ever noticed how we abuse the word "good"?  This tastes good when it doesn’t, this is good for you when it tastes terrible, he or she was a good person when they died and we have nothing better to say, that's a good kid when we mean average, he's a good Pastor when we mean not great...  We use "good" in a relative sense, a comparative sense.  What we often mean is "not terrible".  So when Jesus comes along saying "I am the Good Shepherd" we hear Him say that He is good in a relative sense – and to quote His own words – good compared to the hired hands who care nothing for His sheep.
    We say Jesus is our Good Shepherd and that translates into kind, compassionate, forgiving, does what He can, but, hidden in there is also the idea that He could do more if He wanted or we could talk Him into it.  We hear Jesus say He is the Good Shepherd but good to us often means that He loves us just the way we are – with all our quirks and weaknesses, faults, and failings.  You know how familiar that sounds.  We have said those words to a spouse or parent.  But Jesus is not good because He loves us as we are.  He does not love our quirks, weaknesses, faults, and failings.  What makes Him the Good Shepherd is that He died for them.  He loves enough not to leave us as we are – sinful, unclean, dead in trespasses...
    We say Jesus is our Good Shepherd but we often live with the nagging doubts about whether Jesus will give us what we want or do what we ask of Him.  Our definition of good is getting what we desire from Him.  How many times don’t we say “if you loved me, you would buy this or do that for me...”  When He answers our prayers with “No” we wonder if He has turned against us.  Instead of trusting in His answer, we assume we need to fix things by trying to be good.  Jesus is not our Good Shepherd because He does what we ask or gives us what we want, He is our Good Shepherd because He has laid down His life for His sheep.
    We love to call Jesus our Good Shepherd but we generally want a shepherd who will follow us around and clean up our messes – not a shepherd who expects us to hear His voice and follow Him.  Jesus it not good because He follows us.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd because He has laid down His life for His sheep – it is this Gospel that faith hears and it is this Shepherd that faith follows.  His path is the way of life that we hear His voice and follow.
    Jesus said to those who rejected Him:  "I told you already but you did not believe Me."  What kind of love is greater than the love shown in the Shepherd who dies for His sheep?  What greater good can Jesus be than the Good Shepherd who dies for the sins of His sheep?  What we have a problem with is that good has come to mean something different to us than it does to Jesus.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd because He loves us even to death for us.
    He is good because He gives us that which we do not deserve – in the grace and mercy that counts us as His own, makes us new, washes us clean, clothes us in righteousness.  He is good because He calls us to Him and counts us as the children of God when we rebelled against Him and chose the path that lead to death.  Our Good Shepherd loves us enough not to leave us as we are.  We are not our own, we have been bought with a price.  Our Good Shepherd loves enough not to leave us to our own distorted values, priorities and goals.  He has set us on His path, the one He forged through death to resurrection to eternal life.  Our Good Shepherd loves us enough to grant us ears of faith attentive to the sound of His voice but faith is also the call to follow Him, to walk in His ways, and to delight in His will.
    Why is it so easy for us to doubt when troubles come our way?  Why is it so easy for us to put a higher value on the things of the moment than the eternity He has prepared for us?  Why is it so easy for us to demand a Savior who hears and follows us instead of one whom we hear and follow?  If Jesus is Good only because He gives us what we want today, He has only created spoiled children who know little of love.  God has given us His presence, His forgiveness, and His grace for this day and the needs of this mortal life but they are all in preparation for the eternal life which is to come.  We keep on thinking that if you get it right today you will get eternal life as your prize when the truth is if you get eternal life, then this life is the hidden prize that comes with eternity.
    Jesus is the Good Shepherd meaning the RIGHT Shepherd, because He is the only one who dies for His sheep, who forgives His sinful flock, who bestows on the unworthy and undeserving eternal life.  Good here does not mean better than other shepherds as if Christian faith were a better deal than other religions.  No, it means ONLY Shepherd, only faith, only way, only truth, and only life.  Jesus is Good and there is none other.  Lord, where can we go but to YOU?  This verse we just sang does not mean that Jesus offers more than others, it means that we have no other place to go, no other shepherd who is good, and no other hope except that which offers eternal life.
    Now this might be a good place to end the sermon but it does not end here.  Not because I keep on talking, no, but because you finish this sermon when you walk out this door and follow Him.  The rest of today, Monday through Saturday, you finish this sermon as You take what You have heard and heed the sound of His voice, walking in His way, delighting in His will, and showing forth His righteousness in your words and works.  The last word of the Gospel lesson might be “follow Me” but this the first word that marks who we are and what we do when we leave the doors of this house to live as His children in the world.
    Jesus is the Good Shepherd because He is the ONLY Shepherd who love us enough to die for us, to forgive our sins, to lead us to holiness of life here, and to lead us to eternal life to come.  That is what good means.  Now, we have the opportunity to mirror that goodness in holy lives and holy conversation... today, tomorrow, and each day to come.  And that, my friends, is how this sermon ends.  My sheep here My voice and they follow Me.  Amen.

The Blight of the Arts... according to Luther

As Luther stated in the preface to the 1524 Wittenberg Hymnal, he was “not of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim.”

That is what Luther said.  That is not what Lutherans have done.  Whereas Luther would “like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them,” Lutherans have had a history of being cheap with and dismissive of the arts.  Yet wherever Lutheran renewal takes place, there is a rediscovery of the arts in service to the Word and as a means of proclamation of the Gospel.  It is encouraging to me, then, to see a renewed sense of appreciation for the place of beauty and the arts in worship -- our utmost for His highest, so to speak.  Yet it is not without resistance.

There are some who harken to the days of little boxes or the experimental shapes of the 1960s and 1970s in which forms were somewhat plain, if not stark, to match the plain, simple, if not stark, liturgical function that these buildings housed.  Textiles were appreciated for their texture more than their symbolism.  Paint was utilitarian and not ornamental.  Shapes were blunt and the edges hard.  Supporting structures were exposed and often became the only ornamentation in the entire building.  Altars became as plain as the folding card tables of the 1950s.  Pulpits were lowered and crosses made smaller in scale so that they seemed to disappear into the walls behind them.  The focus was definitely upon the people, the most important ornamentation of the building (at least for some).

Such plainness is a pseudo-piety as much as those who worship the art without looking at the Gospel it speaks -- confusing an aesthetic purpose with the goal of knowing Christ and Him crucified.  Today the ornamentation is likely to be more a reflection of our love affair with technology than it is with art and beauty.  It is the grand attempt to manipulate the attention of the people in the pews (or theater seats) and keep everyone on message.  PowerPoint has become the new means of grace and the power of the visual image is seem less in how it speaks the Word and more in how it impacts the people.  My family loves to parody the commercials for abused and stray animals and the mournful tones Sarah McLaughlin singing on the arms of an angel...  Sadly, much of what we do with technology in the church has about the same purpose -- to loosen up the emotions of the folks watching so that they react more, appreciate more, and give more.  That is pretty pathetic for the Church of Bach.

As we have come through Lent, Passiontide, Holy Week, and Easter, my thoughts go back to the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach.  As much as I long for the ones lost, I am supremely grateful for the ones we have.  Here is art in service to the Gospel in depth, in beauty, in gift, and in skill.  Sadly, the Lutheran Church that produced such a talented composer and gifted performer has all but lost the sense of beauty in service to the Gospel that his work epitomizes.  We cannot play his music on the electronic boom boxes we call organs.  We cannot sing his music because our choirs are in love with Twila Paris and think she is the end all.  We cannot hear how his music sounds because we do not foster individual players (when was the last time other than a high and holy day your Lutheran Church had strings or woodwinds or brass?).

No, we look at what works... and what works cheap.  When we put up our buildings, when we staff them, and when we put together Sunday morning.  When we get to heaven I am not sure that God will laud how much we saved in His worship.  The devotion of the woman who "wasted" expensive ointment on the Lord will be lauded for all eternity but our cheapness before the Lord in art and beauty will last only for a moment.  And for those who say that this money could have been used for the poor (who said that in Scripture???), I counter that it seldom is...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

World without end...

Some of the linguistic changes of the liturgical movement have endeared themselves but some remain uncomfortable despite decades of use.  One of the modernizations I still struggle with is the close of the collects:  ...ever one God, world without end... or the end of the Gloria Patri:  ...is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen..   For whatever reason, I still prefer "world without end" to "now and forever."  Perhaps the Orthodox expression is better, "unto the ages of ages," but it is not without its problems, too.

Forever is a difficult word today.  It seems clear enough yet we have trouble unpacking the idea of forever in a world so captive to the moment.  Nothing is forever today; even the things we say are forever.  Almost all our forever decisions and commitments end up being rather temporary and it does not seem to bother us much anymore.  Our parish received new members last month and they solemnly promised to suffer all rather than fall away from this faith and this church... forever.  I remember a circuit gathering many years ago when we were discussing something and the now sainted Jim von Schenk (yes son of that von Schenk) offered an answer from the hymn:  "Praise the Almighty, my soul, adore Him!  Yea, I will laud Him until death....  Forever to us becomes until death.  Or perhaps until something major makes us change our minds.

World without end seems to move the whole thing from us to something outside ourselves.  In more noble terms, it is as if we are tying the statement to some point outside of a frame of reference defined by time at all.  I wish we could go back and reclaim this ending for regular use.  It speaks well and part of the whole function of liturgical language is to speak well.  That explains the great affection with which we continue to hold the King James Version.  It may not be as accurate as some of the more modern versions but it certainly speaks well, especially on a cold day while a casket is being lowered into the ground and a people have come to hear "The Lord is my shepherd...."

The Greek "eis tous aionas ton aionon" and the Latin "In saecula saeculorum" or "per omnia saecula saeculorum", variously rendered "ages of ages" or "world without end" or "now and forever", perhaps began as a Semitic idiom (the Hebrew le'olam va'ed – literally, "from this world to the next" or, better, "le'olame 'olamim" ) and then ended up adapted into Koine Greek. Ephesians 3:21 is certainly relevant to this discussion as are 1Kings 1:31, Isaiah51.9, and Daniel 9.24.  My study tells me also that the original, now archaic, meaning of "world" is lifetime, and it fits well enough with "saeculum". The "without end" part seems to be a rendering into idiomatic English of the plural genitive (e.g. King of Kings, Lord of Lords, ages of ages, etc.) so often used to make a superlative in biblical Latin, which probably reflects the similar Hebrew idiom. 

I know that "world without end" is an obsolete expression from the King James era but I still prefer it to "now and forever".   Liturgical language is meant to be heard.  Unlike words we read or write, liturgical language has a voice, a vocal presence.  As such, it does not change as quickly as the vocabulary of the newspaper or everyday conversation.  It does not race to keep up with culture and the peculiarities of linguistic change.  It is as its best when it is intentionally behind the times, a few generations removed from trend or fad so that it may speak in a timeless sense, not at all captive to the moment.

World without end...  Whether we admit it or not, we do enjoy the richness of liturgical English.  Think of the Church of England and those royal occasions when a world of people sits to watch on TV and listen to the sound of that familiar accent speaking in more ancient form words that bring the weight of eternity to a given moment.  It sounds better.  It fits the tone and tenor of an occasion filled with pageantry and costume, horse drawn carriages, and regal music.  I do not mean to imply that worship is the same thing or even similar.  It is not a show and not meant to entertain.  But in like manner, worship draws more from the past than it does the present moment, bringing to bear the Church of the ages whose history is the living faith of the dead, as well as addressing the people here present.  Sometimes language has the power to assist this in subtle yet profound ways.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Do you pray this?

I was taught by several that the answers to our questions are often found in the hymnal.  So, if you open the cover of Lutheran Service Book, you pray: ...open my heart to the preaching of Your Word so that I may repent of my sins, believe in Jesus Christ as my only Savior, and grow in grace and holiness... or again Grant me Your Holy Spirit that I may be ever watchful and live an dtrue and godly life in Your service... or again May Your Word pass from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the lip, and from the lip to the life that, as You have promised, Your Word may achieve the purpose for which you send it....

Of late the Lutheran blogosphere has erupted in conversation about sanctification. Some of the conversation has been heated.  It is related to the issue of the third use of the Law (the Law as guide to the good that we have been set free in Christ to do under the guidance and power of the Spirit).  Some Lutherans have come pretty close to denying the clear word of the Lutheran Confessions.  They seem to be saying that the Law only kills, and only the Gospel has a positive effect.  In effect, they are denying the third use of the Law (the use effective only for those whom God has already declared righteous in baptism and to whom He has imparted the Spirit working faith in their hearts).  This has created quite a stir.  On the other hand, there are those who speak of sanctification almost as the rehabilitation of the old man, the old dog, so to speak, learning new tricks in Christ.  They speak of the cooperation in this becoming holy as if there was some room to boast of our progress.

I am not intent on repeating everything here or attempting to fight anew this battle but in the venue of this arena.  What I am concerned about is that the huff has created an atmosphere in which we feel it is safe only to preach justification and to leave all the rest unsaid and up to the Spirit.  Such preaching would be clearly out of step with both our Lutheran forbearers and with the catholic and evangelical faith prior to the Reformation.  We must preach the whole counsel of God and this includes the preaching of sanctification -- NOT as the rehabilitation of the old man (for he has died in baptism) but as the birth of the new person created in Christ Jesus for good works that glorify God and show forth that faith is genuine.  There is a certain synergism here but not one in which we can credit ourselves for the progress.  We not are teaching the old dog new tricks.  We are becoming the people we have been declared to be in our baptism.  We are reaching forth with the new desire of the hearts made new for the good that is both our purpose and the fruit of Christ at work in us.  The same Jesus who justifies us sinners before God is the one who is at work in us so that we show forth His righteousness in our daily lives.  There is progress here (not one which we may chart or one for which we can take credit) but the Christian through the means of grace grows in grace and this has positive effect in our life and conversation.

To quote Luther:
This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness;
  not health, but healing;
  not being, but becoming;
  not rest, but exercise.
  We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way;
  the process is not yet finished, but it has begun;
  this is not the goal, but it is road;
  at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified.

To quote an Orthodox theologian (Schmemann) saying the same thing from the point of the liturgy:
"And the holiness of the Church is not our holiness, but Christ's, who loved the Church and gave Himself for her 'that He might sanctify her...that she might be holy and without blemish' (Eph 5:25-27). Likewise the holiness of the saints as well is but the revelation and the realization of that sanctification, that holiness that each of us received on the day of baptism, and in which we are called to increase. But we could not grow in it, if we did not already possess it as a gift of God, as his presence in us through the Holy Spirit." (Schmemann, Eucharist, pp. 23, 24)

It would seem that the big problem is how to talk about sanctification without talking about us, how to talk about sanctification without keeping a track record of our wins, and how to ascribe the cause and glory to Christ without letting ourselves off the hook for working to become the people God has said we are.  The answer is not a set of words or a formula but keeping the focus off ourselves and on to Christ.  There is no doubt that both justification and sanctification must be preached with the same vitality and conviction.  Love is not a job description.  The commandments have always laid forth the path of holy life.  Apart from Christ, it is the killing word that shouts our failure.  But in Christ it is the guiding word that shows us what this new life which Christ has given us is to look like.  The power and motive is not improvement of the old but the increase of the new as the old is being killed until that final day when it is fully gone and we close are eyes in this life to awaken in Christ for the life to come.

When I spoke of the single estate and of the call to holiness in this blog some days ago, I receive a number of personal emails thanking me for saying more than just "no" to the flesh.  These were from single folks who truly desired to live holy lives and yet in Church on Sunday morning they heard little of holy life (the calling of both single and married) and everything of the evils of sex apart from marriage.  It reminded me of how urgent the preaching of sanctification is.  The Christian witness cannot merely be no.  It must also be God's yes and in this respect the appeal to holiness and purity of life and conversation, to the good works we were created in Christ Jesus to do, and the new person we were raised up from the baptismal water to become.  What else are we to make of Christ's call to "Go and sin no more...?"

It would seem to me that what we have forgotten how to say from the pulpit has remained accessible to us in the hymnal.  From the cover and the prayers before and after worship to the words of the hymns themselves, we have a wonderful witness to the work of the Christ in me as well as the Christ for me.  Could it be that what preachers find hard to say in the pulpit is said with clarity and conviction in the prayers and hymns of the faith?  If so, when it is not clearly witnessed in the preaching, let us remember what is prayed and sung for this message of sanctification is no less the counsel of God and His Word than the justification we find so easy to speak...

1 O God, my faithful God,
True fountain ever flowing,
Without whom nothing is,
All perfect gifts bestowing:
Give me a healthy frame,
And may I have within
A conscience free from blame,
A soul unstained by sin.

2 Grant me the strength to do
With ready heart and willing
Whatever You command,
My calling here fulfilling;
That I do what I should
While trusting You to bless
The outcome for my good,
for You must give success.

3 Keep me from saying words
That later need recalling;
Guard me lest idle speech
May from my lips be falling;
But when within my place
I must and ought to speak,
Then to my words give grace
Lest I offend the weak.

4 Lord, let me win my foes
With kindly words and actions,
And let me find good friends
For counsel and correction.
Help me, as You have taught,
To love both great and small
And by Your Spirit's might
To live in peace with all.

5 Let me depart this life
Confiding in my Savior;
By grace receive my soul
That it may live forever;
And let my body have
A quiet resting place
Within a Christian grave;
And let it sleep in peace.

6 And on that final day
When all the dead are waking,
Stretch out Your mighty hand,
My deathly slumber breaking.
Then let me hear Your voice,
Redeem this earthly frame,
And bid me to rejoice
With those who love Your name.

You can follow some of the debate here...   and here...  and here....

The Same Church

“We are today not another Church as 500 years ago. It is always the same the Church. What is one time holy for the Church is always holy for the Church and is not in [an] other time an impossible thing.”
From then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in an interview in 2003

Every time you read or hear someone suggesting the Church must change or die (meaning here doctrine), it appears to be a perfectly reasonable statement (from the perspective of the world).  It appears perfectly unreasonable, on the other hand, to insist upon that which not jot or tittle may change and which, though heaven and earth may pass away, this truth is steadfast and endures forever.  Such is the dilemma of the faith.  Paul seems to have expressed it about as well as it can be when he speaks of the foolishness of God and the weakness of God being chosen over the wisdom of the world and the strength of men.  This is certainly the scandal of the faith.

Yet this is exactly what the Church is being pressed to do.  Not tolerance or even acceptance of things once found objectionable, but the declaration of holy given to that which Scripture says is not and, likewise, the declaration as unholy that which Scripture has said is holy.

The sad truth is that the Church has for so long been silent over the heterosexual sins of cohabitation, premarital sex, and promiscuity, that now we have fall into the trap of unfairness when we raise our voice against same sex marriage or the redefinition of family according to the whim of the moment.  The culture honestly wonders what the big deal is.  Has not the Church lost its voice over certain issues in the past?  Why now must the Church speak?  Let is go...

I am not entirely comfortable with the idea (Luther and Lutheran or not) that marriage belongs simply to natural law.  There is too much invested in Scripture in the relationship between husband and wife, father and mother and their children.  These are not merely utilitarian functions but divinely assigned roles with redemptive consequence.  The language of Scripture and the Church uses the imagery of the man and woman, husband and wife, father and mother and children to speak of the nature of the kingdom of God, of the love of God, even the nature of God.  No, it may not be a perfect analogy but it is divinely sanctioned in Scripture.

To declare things holy that Scripture says not and to make unholy the things that Scripture says are is to cut to the heart of the faith and shake the very foundations of what is believed, confessed, and taught.  It is no small matter, indeed.  It is not merely love that does not end but the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Love can triumph over the Word for the Word and the Love of God are the same, embodied and incarnate in Jesus Christ.  Love is never generic; it is the love revealed by the obedient life and life-giving death of Christ.  The Word of the Lord is not some generic word but the Good News of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen.  The Gospel that we preach is Christ specific, cross shaped, and it touches every aspect of our lives and identities.  Change in this realm cannot be possible without the loss of the very distinctiveness that the Church is established to be and to make known.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sorry to intrude upon your Sunday, but...

Someone sent this to me and I just has to pass it on...  You know, it only takes a spark to get a fire going...

Next time you see one of those bumper stickers,
remember what it behind it all:

For Good Shepherd Sunday. . .

Some very fine chant settings of the ordinary. . .

Nicholas Wilton is another of many composers of outstanding liturgical music in our time. Here is his website where you can hear some of this work.

 Nicholas Wilton's Missa Brevis Sample Recordings:
[SND] kyrie.mp3
[SND] gloria.mp3
[SND] sanctus-benedictus.mp3
[SND] agnus-dei.mp3

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Told you so. . .

A major new study that tracked more than 12,000 Canadians over a period of 14 years has found that regular attendance of religious service offers significant protection against depression.

In an article published in the April issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan write that incidence of clinical depression was 22% lower among those who attended religious services at least once a month compared with people who never attended.

“Significantly fewer monthly attenders reported having episodes or a diagnosis of depression,” the authors write. “This … suggests a protective effect of religious attendance.”


Researchers said religious attendance lowered the risk of depression in a “dose-response” fashion: People who attended frequently had the least depression, those who attended occasionally were in the mid-range and those who never attended had the most.

The study found that people identifying themselves as spiritual but not attending religious service did not experience any health benefit.

Read for yourself here...

Hmmmmph!  So much for those of you who say you come to church sad and leave depressed -- due largely to the sermon!  There is a salutary effect to church attendance -- even if psychiatrists cannot pin down the what or why of it.  We know.  It is the wonderful grace of God!  Depression and its causes are all around us.  In Church we have something else.  We have the steadfast love of the Lord that is stronger than the cause of darkness;  come and dwell in the light of the Lord.

Tetzel has nothing on Contemporary Christianity

Much has been made of the Tetzel dog and pony show selling indulgences -- some of it mythology to be sure but not all.  Yet for all that is made of the slick entrepreneurial production that peddled indulgences (forgiveness at the ridiculously low sale price of....), modern day Christianity is replete with gimmicks that would shame even Tetzel (at least I think so, since I am not quite old enough to have known him personally).

The old "strange but true" line and the venerable "truth is stranger than fiction" are not exaggerations when it comes to the lengths people will go to, usually in evangelical Christianity, to make a "big splash" for Jesus.  It is a shame that these same folks ridicule the time honored liturgical rites that accompany the high and holy days of the Church Year.  They could learn something about ceremony which teaches instead of gimmicks designed to entertain and impress.

My favorite line in this is the guy who announces "the best pastor in the world..." at the end.  Cheesh

What a shame that Jesus had to make do with a colt, the foal of an ass.  I guess sometimes the colt is gone and some churches are left with only an ass....

Friday, April 19, 2013

Finding God in Disaster...

Okay, another Newtown like setting and another ecumenical "service" and another opportunity for the President to be religious leader of the diversity of faiths that comprise our nation... only this time in Boston.  I am not sure about these events.  I do not believe they have been around that long.  Perhaps they have no history prior to 9-11.  I am not sure.  I do recall the President speaking on behalf of the nation when moments of tragedy, disaster, or attack have come our way -- recall Clinton speaking at Oklahoma City or Reagan at the Challenger disaster...  I do not recall any ecumenical services in prior disasters or tragedies or attacks.  Maybe my memory is dim.  Could be.  But I am not sure what we want these events to do, either.

My point here is not to attack them or give them my glowing recommendation.  My point here is to ask what we expect from them.  Solidarity?  Comfort?  Answers?  I just do not know.  I am tempted to think that the media and the 24 hour news cycle has elevated them in importance.  They have become more important because of the imagery of it all.  Perhaps they also reflect the kind of urge for an American civil religion which explains and comforts us as a nation (beyond the comfort we derive from our personal faith and our home churches).

Then I read this little tidbit on Barth (the theologian and not the Missouri District President).

Looking back on these early days, Barth later remarked with some regret, “During my time as a pastor… I often succumbed to the danger of attempting to get alongside the congregation in the wrong way. Thus in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shook the whole world, I felt that I had to make this disaster my main theme the following Sunday, which led to a monstrous sermon on the same scale.” (from the definitive Barth biography by Eberhard Busch, p. 63) Yes, Barth took as his sermon text the current event of a disaster, rather than an actual portion of Scripture. He tacked on a bit of Psalm 103 (“as for man, his days are like grass”) at the beginning, but this sermon was clearly about the boat, and Barth was not leading his congregation into the word of God, but into the world of current events. “Do not stop short at my words, then, but consider for yourselves what God wished to say to us through this.” Yes, apparently God was speaking in this disaster, and Barth thought his job as a preacher was to interpret the “word of God” in the Titanic disaster, rather than the word of God in Holy Scripture. “Later, I was sorry for everything that my congregation had to put up with.” (Busch, p. 64)

Could it be that, like Barth tried to do back before he was Barth and was still a mere parish pastor, we want to understand what God is saying in this disaster?  Could it be that we are trying to find God IN the disaster?  If that is the case, then God help those who address us in such quasi-religious events.  How do you hear God speaking through disaster or interpret the disaster as an act or action of God?  If Barth the mighty theologian cannot do it and lived to regret it, perhaps we might tread carefully on the same ground.

I grieve for those who have lost children and loved ones in school shootings, in terror attacks, in natural disasters, in man-made disasters...  I grieve for the world in which we live where violence, destruction, and death intrude upon the safety and sanctity of life.  I grieve for the real fears that move us to exchange liberty for possible means to security.  I grieve for occasions when Presidents and pastors must stand before people and address their wounds and grief and loss with words that cannot undo the terror done -- for whatever cause that stole the lives and innocence from us.  But I also grieve for the poverty of our spirits content to find God speaking in disasters through the what ifs of orators who wax poetic about the tragedies and losses we suffer.

Barth lived to regret his Titanic sermon.  Maybe we will live to regret our attempts to find God in the ruins of a school or a marathon or a fertilizer plant or a fallen building....  Maybe we preacher will remember that we have no wisdom or call to discern or translate the God who speaks through disaster or tragedy... the only call and wisdom we have is to speak the God who speaks through His Word.  Not throwing Bible passages at the troubles of life in the hopes that some will stick but to speak the whole counsel of God's Word because it is only this Word that gives us life.  What Barth learned, I fear we have yet to learn as a nation.  So we settle for those who think they can find God speaking through disaster when what we need is the God who speaks through His Word...  Here and here alone is the legitimate hope of a wounded and grieving people.  Hope has a face and that face is Christ... Hope has a shape and that shape is the cross.  Hope has a purpose and that is to carry us through our suffering to the place where tears and suffering and death can come no more.  I am not sure how you do this on a dais with different religious who agree on little.  I am sure how to do this by speaking Christ without fear or apology.  Maybe we will continue to have these quasi-religious gatherings in time of national angst but I hope the people grieving and hurting get more than this to help them through the day of trouble...

Tepid Christianity

  1. Only slightly warm; lukewarm.
  2. Showing little enthusiasm: "tepid applause".

I remember a line from a book.  A visitor has come.  A woman is caught without a fire.  She has tea in the pot but it is barely warm.  She offers it to her visitor.  "I am sorry it is too cold," she apologized.  "It is not too cold," replied the visitor, and, then when her back was turned, he whispered, "It is not too hot either."

Surely that is exactly the problem today.  The Church is not too cold -- it is just warm enough to know that the Gospel is there.  But it is not too hot either -- it is lukewarm, safe, and not a danger to anyone.  Is this the Church of Christ?  Is this the Church we seek?  Can we settle for a tepid Christianity which is neither cold nor hot, merely lukewarm?

One of the themes of Benedict XVI which Francis has picked up is the idea of a moral poverty and an empty Christianity too distracted by the desires of the flesh and too weak before the temptation to consume rather than give, to seek to be served rather than serve, and to an easy faith which does not challenge one's words or actions.  I think this is a healthy moment for Christianity as a whole.  I know it is healthy for my own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

We have grown accustomed to a cultural Christianity in America in which religion and the public square have seemed allies if not served as such.  We have become comfortable at a welfare state in which the government serves the poor and those in need with a little assistance from the Church (instead of the other way around).  We have become lazy in the face of a morality which was public though not very private and enforced in the court of public opinion more than in faithful preaching and teaching.  Now, a couple of generations removed from Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution, we find ourselves aghast at how culture has become an enemy of the faith and have become merely naysayers to the images of freedom and acceptance promoted by a liberal and libertarian agenda.  It is as if we do not know how to act or speak anymore.  Some have responded with the shrill voice that grates and wins no battles and others have decided to make accommodation to the direction of the culture.  Is there no other path?

Must we be left with a tepid Christianity which is neither offensive nor powerful, a little sweetener for our otherwise sour days?  Is all we can hope for a lukewarm faith which offends no one and lives mostly in the hidden domain of private thoughts and feelings?  Have we only the mediocrity of the mundane or the enterprise of entertainment left to us on Sunday mornings?

I believe that Benedict is correct in the view that a renewed Christianity begins with a renewed Sunday morning.  For me as a Lutheran this means a renewal which has its source in and draws us back to the means of grace.  This is source and summit of our individual vocations as the baptized people of God and our daily piety.  If Sunday morning is not renewed, there will not be a renewal which endures.  Key to this is the preaching task.  We must preach the whole counsel of God and preach it without shame or embarrassment.  We must preach as those who not only believe it but who live under it, the flawed and failed sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ to live not for themselves but for Him.

I also believe that Francis is correct in exposing the moral emptiness of much of what passes for life today and the values of even supposedly Christian people.  The Gospel is not some overarching principle of love.  It is the love that is manifest in the great epiphany of the Cross.  It bids us to a bridge laid between God our Creator and we His fallen creatures -- the bridge which is Christ, His incarnation, obedient life, holy suffering, life-giving death, and resurrection to new and eternal life.  But it does not end there.  It moves us to love what He loves and transforms the desires of our hearts so that the will of God becomes our delight as well as our duty.  The Church must recover her voice to speak the moral truth of Christ to the world but not in some theoretical way as if we were out to win an argument.  This must happen because we live this truth within the framework of our frail and weak humanity, still afflicted by the thorn of the sinful nature yet not without the power of the Christ who lives in us.

If Lutheranism fails, it will not be because the faith confessed is wrong.  It will come as the inevitable end of a lukewarm Lutheranism confessed without real conviction that this is the catholic and evangelical faith.  It will fail because of the tepid faith of those who lead from the chancel and sit in the pews.  It will come because personal preference has been allowed to dominate creed, confession, worship, and piety.  It will come because Sunday morning has become the domain of the personal, the mediocre, and the prevailing wind of culture and entertainment.  It will be because Lutheran has become merely an idea instead of the living reality of a people gathered to confess this truth and live in its light.

A vigorous Christianity will offend some.  Those most offended will probably be those who have found the faith and the pews comfortable refuges away from the scarey culture or the comfortable family rooms dedicated to entertainment and dictated to by the whims of pleasure.  The world may be less offended than surprised.  That surprise provides the window of opportunity to speak Jesus Christ to the nations and to bring the nations to the Church.  If it comes to the demise of a tepid Christianity and a Church lacking enthusiasm for the Gospel, such an entity will hardly be missed by those inside or out.  Will the Son of Man find faith when He comes again?