Friday, January 31, 2014

Dead or living?

G.K. Chesterton is said to have remarked that “a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” There is great wisdom here.  Drop a leaf or a twig into a stream and it is doomed to go where the stream leads.  Only a fish can swim against the current, upstream, to its appointed goal.  A great ship is a powerful thing upon any water but stop the engine and it is thrust along with the waves as if it were nothing but the smallest bit of floating debris.

The Church is dead when it has no ability to resist, no force to exert, and no power to drive her against the current of trend and fad.  Like the twig in the stream or the mighty ocean liner without an engine, the Church is subject to the force, power, and direction of others -- unless she uses her power and resists, even runs against the tide.  Cultural Christianity is such a dead thing.  It is thrust where the interests of others want to go and it has no power or force to resist.  It will take on the appearance and shape of the causes and issues around it until the Gospel as something else is lost and forgotten.

We seem to live in a time when we have forgotten this fact.  When people would believe that the Church is best when she is ahead of the curve instead of resisting its impulse. When people are content to let the Gospel not only be defined by others but willingly surrender the Word that endures forever for the whim of moment. 

The stream of this mortal life has its ups and downs.  Sometimes we think we are on the verge of winning and other times we sink low in the desperation of defeat.  Sometimes it is the best of times and sometimes it is the worst of times.  The Church has to offer something more than a slap on the back for our victories and a hug in our defeats.  We need real hope.  We need redemption from the lies we tell ourselves and from the lies we tell others.  We need rescue from believing in those lies we tell others and ourselves.  We need something that does not mask life in all its brutal and wonderful reality.  We need Light to shine in our darkness so that the darkness cannot overcome it.  This is what is at stake -- not some foolish question of relevance or personal preference but the deeper question of redemption, rescue, and renewal.  This is why we swim against the stream so easily distracted from trouble and so easily overcome by hollow victory.  Life is at stake -- the life that we live in the moment and the life that is without end.

The Church has its own culture to bring to the world.  The last thing on earth we need to do is either to accommodate the culture around us or try to swim ahead of the stream in order to be relevant.  We are here to announce the Kingdom, to usher in the Kingdom by the proclamation of the Word of the Lord and the administration of the Sacraments of Christ, and to secure the Kingdom in the lives of its people through daily repentance and through individual and corporate confession, and absolution. 

It is an amazing thing that there are any salmon in the world whatsoever -- the swim from freshwater home into the sea where they spend most of their life, the return to the freshwater grounds of their birth by the tortuous swim against the stream, and the spawning and eventual death -- having given their all to secure the future.  Funny thing, though, the salmon never stops to wonder if it is all worth while, if the process is working or not, or if others are following.  The salmon simply does it and we are all the richer for it.

Would that we in the Church were so focused upon the goal, upon what we know in Christ, that we could be as diligent in the faith, in the work of the Kingdom, and in the sacraments of life and worship that we could avoid the seemingly inevitable navel gazing, constant self-doubt and questioning, and the empirical evaluation of the success of it all --- perhaps we might be as successful as the fish who swim against the current to do what God has given them to do...  Just a thought and we all know how dangerous these things are for me...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

She died alone. . .

A young woman who died alone in a drab apartment, remaining there for three years until the property was repossessed; by which time, her skeletal remains were waiting for the bailiffs. During those years, she had been sat in front of a television set that was still on, surrounded by recently wrapped Christmas presents. It couldn't get any more pathetic... The woman, initially identifiable only from dental records, was Joyce Carol Vincent, born in 1965; but it appears that there was not much else about her life that was in anyway as concrete.  A recent film documented this like no other I have seen. Paradoxically, it has a Festive setting; but this is definitely not A Christmas Carol, or for that matter It’s a Wonderful Life—quite the reverse in fact. There is no redemption here, and, perhaps, therein lies the reason why it still haunts me so. Documentaries rarely make any money when shown in cinemas. One released at Christmas, dealing as it did with a lonely death, was always going to be a hard sell. And so, not surprisingly, Dreams of a Life made a pittance at the box office when released in 2011, but it did gain some impressive reviews.

Read more here. . .

The story above is certainly odd but not as rare as some might think.  For all our connections, many of us live relatively lonely lives.  We live unnoticed and so our death is also anonymous.  Undoubtedly we are shocked by this story -- though not entirely surprised.  Too many of us live alone, with few real connections to other people.  So it is not surprising that many die alone.

I recall as a young Pastor coming to a shut-in's for a scheduled visit only to find a cold dead body there waiting for me.  I stayed with the body until a coroner came and the folks from the funeral home.  It was a rural area and the family of this man did not live close.  Eventually it was all sorted out but I felt so terribly sad that Peter had died all alone.  It was completely foreign to me to sit with his partially clothed body on the floor and wait for things to be done as they must but, at the same time, I did not feel I could do anything else.  So I sat and read from the Psalms and prayed for the peaceful repose of the soul of a man I had known only for months.  I was with his wife when she died in the recovery room of the regional medical center.  His own health was not bad but clearly he suffered a broken heart when Lydia died.  It was as if life were too much for him to bear alone.  I wanted to stay with him so that his body would not be alone.

Where these stories of lonely lives and lonely deaths might have been more common in rural areas, today we find them increasingly common in urban areas (the story above took place in London).  We live in close proximity to people yet live rather solitary lives.  It is to this very situation that the Gospel speaks and it is for this we proclaim Emmanuel.  Having lost the ministries of hospitals to large chains and having been stymied by the government requirements upon other caring ministries, is this not an area where we as the Church might make a big impact for the sake of Christ?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Too casual to be worthwhile?

Sermon preached for Epiphany 3A, on Sunday, January 26, 2014.

    We have all received those invitations that say "Come as you are, leave when you must."  These casual gatherings have no set schedule in which you dress for comfort and expect to have a good time.  It has become common to invite people to church with the same laissez faire attitude about what happens there.  We dress for comfort, arrive late, leave early, and expect to be entertained; some call this worship.
    In contrast to this, we encounter our Epiphany Lord calling disciples and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  According to our Lord, we dare not come as we are but wear the clothing of repentance.  We come not at our convenience but because today is the day of salvation.  We come not to be entertained but to confess our sin, to be forgiven in Christ, and to walk in His way the cross shaped path of life in the obedience of faith.
    Jesus calls us to repent.  The message here is clear.  We cannot come as we are.  There is something wrong with the way we are.  We are rendered unclean by our sin and death has claimed us.  The work of the Holy Spirit is to awaken us to the knowledge of our sin and to the death that has become our prison.  What is comfortable or convenient pales in the face of this great need for redemption and new birth.
    Jesus calls to us because the path we are on is a dead en path.  It leads only to one end.  To death now and death forever.  The call of Christ is the radical call to turn around.  Only the Holy Spirit can open our eyes and hearts to hear and see what must be done.  Only the Holy Spirit can move us from the way of death to the path of life in Christ.
    Jesus calls us to the Kingdom of God.  From an aimless wandering toward the empty promises of pleasure and happiness, escape and entertainment, we have been called to a purposeful life – directed by the Holy Spirit to the appointed end of everlasting life within the Kingdom of God.  Here death can no longer threaten us and here our sins can no longer accuse us.  Life in the Kingdom of God is life made possible, sustained, and directed by nothing less than pure grace.
    Jesus calls us to follow Him.  Freedom is impossible as long as we are captive to sin and walk on the broad boulevard of death.  This freedom is an illusion.  We think we are free to choose what makes us happy but this is the living lie of the devil who hides the destination of death that is behind this illusive freedom.  Only when we surrender our stubborn wills to Jesus are we truly set free.  The Spirit is at work exchanging the lies that kill for the truth that gives life, for the sins that hold us in bondage for the grace that forgives and set us free. 
But this freedom is worthless unless it directs us to Christ and willingly surrenders our will for His gracious will, our pride for the humility of faith, and our independence for the dependence upon Christ that redeems the lost forever.
    Jesus does not call merely for the repentance of the heart but for the repentance of a life.  We have a new vocation.  To the disciples of old our Lord said He would make them fishers of men.  That is to say that faith does not add something to whom we are but involves the radical redirection of our lives as only the Holy Spirit and only grace can do.  Lives once lived only for self, are now lived for Christ.  The life of doing it my way becomes the life of willing and joyful service to the Lord.  Faith surrenders our purpose and claims God's purpose as our own purpose and goal for all that we are and hope to be.
    Jesus gives to us new power.  Where once we thought power was defined by threat, we discover the greater power of the Gospel – of Him who lived in humble service, obedient to death on a cross, in the great exchange of the rags of our sin for the glorious raiment of righteousness in Christ.  Our Lord died to give us this Gospel.  He lives to speak it in His Word and deliver it in water, bread, and wine.  The Gospel of the Kingdom speaks the end of sin's reign, the death of death itself, and the birth of a new life joyfully lived in service to God and neighbor.
    We are gravely tempted by the idea of a casual faith, a casual church, and a casual Christian life.  There is nothing casual about sin and death.  There is nothing casual about the Kingdom of God.  We have for too long told ourselves the lie that whims can substitute for real repentance, that our occasional attention can substitute for the whole of our lives of discipleship and faith.  We have for too long accepted the fallacy that the Kingdom of God must work around us – our wants, our likes, our preferences, and our desire for convenience and comfort.  It is to this casual approach to religion and faith that our Lord speaks His call to repent and follow Me today.
    The pews of the Church are not empty because call to repentance and faith have been made too difficult but because our casual approach to God offers no compelling reason for anyone to give the Church a second look.  I am not suggesting that we put artificial road blocks in the path of those who might consider the faith but that we have minimized and diluted the call to repentance and the Gospel of the Kingdom so that it hardly seems necessary to believe or belong at all.  We may be fruitless because we have unfaithfully proclaimed the Gospel to a world which gave it the once over and found nothing urgent or compelling there at all.  This is not the fault of Christ but our own failing.
    The glory of this call of our Savior is that He has promised to provide all that we need.  He gives to us the Spirit so that our ears hear the sound of His voice and recognize Him with faith.  He gives to us the clothing of holiness in the waters of our baptism so that we might be holy in Him.  He gives to us the path of life in the shape of the cross so that we might know how to live that it may be well with us and we may live long.  He gives to us the food of the supper that His strength may be made perfect in our weakness and we may be restored from weakness in the face of temptation.  And in response to all He has given, faith returns nothing less than our all.
    There is a common phrase today.  “Whatever!”  There is nothing whatever about the Kingdom of God, about the holy ground of God’s presence among us in Word and Sacrament, about the call to repentance and the promise of absolution, about the direction of new life born from baptismal waters, and about the vocation of the baptized in worship, witness, service...
    Today we hear the call of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit add the only word that can or needs be added to this call to repentance, faith, and life under the cross.  Amen.

Twinkie Church

We have all heard the sad story of an iconic American brand that ended in bankruptcy.  Such seemed the fate for the Twinkie a year or so ago.  Then the Twinkie came back minus the Hostess company that made this dream cake famous.  A box of 10 reborn Twinkies will cost $3.99 and, contrary to popular myth and legend, they come with a 45 day shelf life.  The sugary treat that Americans once consumed in massive quantities is back in the saddle again without much change and no healthier than before.  To increase its appeal, the new owners have shifted the distribution strategy to bring the tasty treats to more convenience stores than was possible before.

What is gold on the outside and white on the inside?  A banana might be the answer and it would be healthier than the Twinkie but we all know that the Twinkie is king of the sweet snacks -- fresh out of the wrapper, stale from sitting on the shelf a while, battered and fried, or however else you might serve it!

Unfortunately the Twinkie Church is also just as popular.  It is sweet and sugary, filled with calories that satisfy the taste but give the body little of real substance.  We seem doomed to a Christianity tempered with Twinkie Church, a Gospel-lite that is heavy with sentiment but empty of real talk of sin and death, the cross and repentance, forgiveness and new life.  It is not that the gospel packaged as a sugary treat does not sell -- it does!  The point is whether or not it is the real Gospel at all.  Jesus said to beware of gaining the whole world and losing your soul.  Christianity struggles with these words -- more today than ever before.  We want to be successful and we don't have much patience left to wait upon the Lord to work.  So, like Abraham and Sarah before us, we have substituted our own game plan for the work of the Kingdom.  No church body is completely immune from this temptation.  Rome had its Vatican II and Orthodoxy has its Western Rite Eastern churches (oxymoron?).  Lutherans have folks marching to the beat of the Rick Warrens, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscolls, and Joel Osteens.  Twinkie Church is not in retreat but advancing along all the lines of Christianity.

We live in a world in which we do not want to eat our dessert first; we want to eat only the dessert.  We are starving the church and Christians by feeding them food that has no food value, that cannot sustain their faith in the reality of Christian life in a world unfriendly to the faith, and that will end up rotting our insides.  The answer, however, lies not with the Law but with renewed preaching of the true and authentic Gospel.  Instead, churches unwilling to sell their souls to this devil have sold an extra arm or leg or hand with blended services and blended sermons that attempt to mirror the best of both worlds (while being true to neither).

Rules will not kill the sugar addiction and the Twinkie Church will not disappear because it no longer appeals.  Rather, our taste for sentiment over truth and our reinvention of the church as a me centered community will only be overcome by renewed faithfulness -- preaching the Gospel of the cross with renewed passion and practicing renewed catechesis for all ages.  As has been shown in study after study, the Twinkie Church appeals more to Christians than those outside the Church and instead of reshuffling the cards what we need to do is to concentrate on passionate preaching of the cross and intentional catechesis.  Eventually the Twinkie Church will fail to live up to its promise and people will come looking for something real and solid.  It has already happened to many here in my town.  It will happen to you. 

Do not despair, faithful Lutheran pastors and people.  Do not lose heart.  Do not give in.  The temptation is great and it has always been but the Gospel is worth nothing less than our best.  The means of grace have the promise of God.  Worship which is centered in the means of grace is the path of the future as it has always been.  The once and future church is not the invention of the moment or the abdication to culture and personal preference but the faithful proclamation of the Cross.

A commercial we would probably never see in the US... and why not?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Asking for more instead of settling for less. . .

We hear an almost universal call for shorter sermons.  I am sure that this is common across the great spread of denominations and congregations.  Many have said that this is due to the impact of culture, the media, our short attention spans, our ADD minds, etc.  Could it be that there are other reasons?  Could it be that the preaching is not as good as it ought to be?  I am not trying to throw the preacher under the bus and I certainly do not mean to hold myself up as a role model but the desire for shorter sermons may have something to do with the sermon itself.  I just wonder why we think the best preachers use the fewest words; I think the best preachers are not stingy with words but neither do they treat them as cheap commodities either.  The best sermons are not necessarily those that last less than 7 minutes.  If our people want briefer sermons it might be that this is a backhanded appeal for quality than it is a definition of quantity.

We have a membership at the Nashville Symphony and I have never attended there without the audience clapping for more.  Often we are rewarded with an encore as a reward for our persistent applause and even that is not enough.  We want more.  We have attended a few other concerts of late and the same was true of them.  The whole audience applauded in the hopes of hearing more.  I do not see movies often but when I go to the theater I do not see people leaving early.  In many cases they remain even through the credits – hoping for more.

I have heard sermons that left me disappointed because they ended too soon.  I listened oblivious to my watch or the passage of time.  This does not happen as often as it should but it happens, praise God.  On those occasions, I am moved by the skill and ability of the preacher to do better in my own preaching task, to work much harder at the craft itself.  Sometimes the folks in the pews notice.  They don’t know what exactly is different but they wish it happened more frequently. I expect that most preachers and most folks in the pews understand what I mean.

Often the problem is we try to do too much.  Sermons are not theological treatises to answer every question.  They are best when the Word of Christ is the center and focus.  The whole point of preaching is to let the Word of the Lord speak through us clearly.  Too often we preachers approach the Word as if it is not adequate in and of itself and requires something from us.  I am not saying that we merely string Bible passages together.  Instead of explaining the Word, we need to apply it and apply it first to our own hearts and lives before we apply it to the lives of others.  The person I know best of all is me and every Sunday I preach first to me, speaking the Word to my own heart and life but out loud, so that others hear.  When I get into trouble it is when I presume to think I know the hearts of others as well as I know my own.  When I lose my way in the pulpit is when I treat preaching and the sermon as something for others. 

The other side of the coin is that we try to do too little.  Sermons without a point.  We often waste the attention of the hearers by preaching what we feel little about.  Our lack of passion and conviction are obvious to the folks in the pews even if they are not obvious to us as preachers.  To be honest, if we have nothing much to say, it is often because we do not know the Word well enough.  It is too much a stranger to us and not the familiar voice of our Good Shepherd to His sheep.  As Lutherans we benefit from a lectionary that gives us a starting point.  If we cannot be familiar with the whole of Scripture, at least we can we can learn the lectionary, more than one week at a time, but as the whole of the Church Year unfolds, treating seasons and not merely Sundays one at a time.  If we know our destination, the shape of the journey will be much easier to map out.

What I can say is that if we wait to write the sermon until a few days before it is given (exception of course for unexpected occasions like funerals), we will not give the preaching task our best nor will we give the people what they deserve.  As I have said before, preachers need to read sermons as well as write them, hear them as well as preach them, and discern the qualities of good preaching (both in terms of style and content).  I recall learning to preach as walking with giants.  If we are to become one, it stands to reason we should walk with them – becoming familiar with the giants in the preaching task over the ages.

Wouldn’t it be great if preaching and preachers improved in this essential task to the point where people would be asking for more instead of hoping for less?

Monday, January 27, 2014

What a difference a couple of generations makes. . .

Recently a federal court struck down Virginia's anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional.  I was actually surprised that any states still had anti-sodomy laws on their books since a decade ago (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003) the US Supreme Court ruled that such laws were not constitutional.  When I looked it up I discovered  Idaho, Utah, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana still had anti-sodomy laws on their books and Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas had laws outlawing sodomy for homosexuals only.  It seems Virginia's Attorney General is asking the court to reconsider.  Illinois was the first state to throw out its anti-sodomy law in 1961.  By the end of the next decade, 19 other states joined Illinois. 

California was the first U.S. State to adopt what we now call 'no-fault' divorce; it happened in 1969.  That bill was signed by none other than then Governor Ronald Reagan.  Since 1985, no-fault divorce has been available in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.  This eliminates the need for one party to be cited for wrongdoing in order to get a divorce and has eased the general restrictions, availability for, and access to divorce.  By all accounts it is not only easier but cheaper to get a divorce under the no-fault laws existing in every state.  It did not take long after the elimination of the ban on attorney advertising to open the way to firms which specialize in obtaining a cheap and easy divorce.  Here in Clarksville we have Divorce Incorporated, a franchise of lawyers specializing in divorce and other family law.  Now we routinely (even Christians) presume that a parent's happiness is a higher priority than a child's welfare.

Of course, it is no secret that on January 22, 1973, with a 7-to-2 majority vote, the US Supreme Court threw down nearly all constitutional barriers to abortion.  More than this, it established abortion laws tied to the medical technology of the time by deciding when fetal viability wrote the fine line between abortion and legally protected life.  This has remained a hotbed of discontent and division among Americans ever since.

In October of 1989 Denmark became the first nation to recognize same sex marriage.  Eleven years later Vermont Governor Howard Dean signed into law the first civil union law in the nation. In 2004 the Supreme Court of  Massachusetts acted to recognize the right of same sex couples to wed and the legislature failed to oppose the court's decision thus making same sex marriage legal.  Massachusetts was the first state to do so.  By the end of December, seventeen other states and the District of Columbia will have also issued marriage licenses to same sex couples. 

In December, a Utah court found the prohibitions against polygamy were also unconstitutional.

My point in this?  The pace of change is hastening and the boundaries that once seemed unchangeable have been moved with surprising ease both here in the US and throughout the world.  What will happen next?  Who could have predicted where we would be today if you were alive in 1960?  The pace of this change as well as the radical nature of such changes have tested the fabric of our national identity and created serious and deep division among the people.  We are more divided than ever before on the state of the family, the nature of our community, the shape of our society, and what is moral or immoral.

In other words, this rapid pace of change is not merely an issue for Christians and for religion.  What else will suffer because we have broken down barriers at such speed?  How much change can we as a community and a nation endure before the threads of our national and local unity are shredded? Something to think about during this month in which we ponder some of this change....

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The best of times and the worst of times. . .

One of the best things and the worst things of the pastoral ministry is that you are there in the wost possible moments of a person's life and the best of times for people.  As a Pastor you hold in your hands the fragile life of a child, bringing them to the waters of Holy Baptism.  But you are also there when babies are diagnosed with terrible illness and when they die.  As a Pastor you witness the vows and promises of confirmands young and old in the joyful moments of the affirmation of their baptismal faith.  But you are often one of the first called when promises are broken and life comes tumbling down around these very same folks.  As a Pastor you are there to preside at the wedding of two people at a moment when their life is rich in the promise of a future.  But you are also there to hear and counsel when promises gloriously made are broken and the vows "worse, sickness, till death part's us" come true.

For some this can be a difficult burden -- too difficult to bear -- and it makes the office of the Pastor an impossible vocation for them.  Sadly, some of those do not find it out until they are thrust into those best and worst of times.  If there is a Pastor who has not wondered whether he was cut out for the ministry (especially in the first years of that ministry), I would worry about that guy.  We all wonder, sometimes on a daily basis, if we were cut out for this.  That is a good thing when it points us away from ourselves and to the Christ whom we deliver to His people through the means of grace.  It is a good thing when it strips us of the temptation to the smug and prideful self that confuses the power and shape of the office (Mark 10). 

I have recommended a number of men to the Seminary and encouraged a few more to consider the vocation of Pastor.  All of them possessed the intellectual capacity to learn what they must learn.  All of them received nurture in the formation of a pastoral heart both by the academic discipline and practical preparation for the Pastoral Office.  Not all of them were able bear the burden of this tension between best of times and worst of times -- the tension into which all Pastors are thrust by the Church.

Sometimes it is almost unbearable.  I find myself a sponge soaking up the wounds and hurts of my people.  On Sunday morning I look into faces of folks I know, well enough to know how life has battered and bruised them and even what temptations they face and what troubles have befallen them.  I was told a long time ago that if you preach to pain, you will find many hearers.  Those were both wise and truthful words of advice which I gladly pass on to others who will listen.

But it is also incredibly rewarding.  I am not so much talking about sharing the wonderful moments but the opportunity to speak the Gospel to hurting people, grieving people, broken people.  The reward is not being able to help so much as it is having the Word that delivers its promise, the efficacious Word of life, hope, forgiveness, and redemption.  Speaking Christ to those carrying great weight of guilt, shame, hurt, fear, and doubt is the reason I stay in this vocation.

Christmas is one of those times in which I am most acutely aware of the burdens my people bear.  On Christmas Eve I see a family struggling with unemployment, a wife grieving the recent loss of her husband, parents sitting alone where children once were with them, a mom or dad who suffers the unwelcome solitude of children spending the holidays with the other divorced parent, and families whose greatest victory is simply getting through one more day (whose expectation of the holy day is relatively small).  Though we proclaim the joy of this holy season of our Savior's birth, it is a joy that comes to us where we are -- amid the defeats, troubles, trials, and disappointments of this mortal life.

It is privilege to be with these folks in their worst moments even more than their best.  It is this that marks a shepherd of Christ's sheep -- a quality hard to recognize in candidates for the pastoral office, a skill hard to teach to aspiring clergy, and a lesson not easily learned even by those who want to master it.  On this day commemorating St. Titus, Pastor and Confessor, I just wanted to say something about life as a Pastor, dwelling with the people of God in their worst moments and in their grandest of times, sharing their burdens and finding these opportunities to proclaim Emmanuel, God with us, as our hope and joy, at Christmas sure and always!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

We got it all wrong. . .

If you were one of those who turned on one of the Christmas season TV specials purporting to separate fact from fiction or myth and legend from truth, you probably encountered one of the many so-called scholars who delight in debunking the Christ of Scripture and tradition from the Jesus of history.  If you took seriously the claims of these self-appointed guardians of truth and justice, you probably ended up wondering if anything we know of Jesus is true or it is all mere legend and manufactured history.

All of them seem to begin with a premise which they insist cannot be challenged:  that the Church and even Scripture itself has misrepresented Jesus and mischaracterized not only the man but the events themselves for deceitful purpose.  In other words, the church has lied to you because the church is interested in profiting from your deception in some way or another.  I would suggest that it is exactly the opposite.  A goodly number of careers would be cut short and no small number of books discredited if we took any or all of Scripture at its face value.

Deconstructing history is a thriving entrepreneurial enterprise and has been since the the nineteenth century.  Some of the names are well known and others relatively obscure but they have in common the vocation to disavow the Church of Scripture and tradition, creed and confession.  The end result is fairly predictable:  all we know of Christ is reduced to the moral example of non-judgmental and self-less service to the disadvantaged.  But surely it would have been far easier for a deity to come up with such a behavioral change without resorting to such an elaborate and detailed deception as the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament!

Sadly many of these voices carry the authority of various churches and church run institutions (from professors to purple clad bishops.  It is as if the only legitimate expression of Christian scholarship is to debunk the Gospel, stripping away its historicity, and leaving us with a stranger for a Christ who comes not to save but to make us into better people.  Any idiot knows that Joel Osteen can do a better job of making us better folks without all details of doctrine and mythological history.  If God were really only interested in shaping up behavior, it would hardly have been necessary for Him or the Church to resort to a grant deception of the likes of the Old and New Testaments.  Yet that is exactly what the so-called critics would have us believe.  We got it wrong.  We got it all wrong.  We got God wrong.

I would be comical were not so effective at fueling the Church's critics, so successful at filling otherwise faithful Christian folks with doubts, and providing such speculative programming for media who wish to appear to be interested in true religion.

The only good thing is that now that Christmas is over, we will not have to suffer the fools much longer -- at least until Easter comes.  Then it will start all over again.... Sigh....

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Culture of Creed and Confession

For years I have been arguing that culture and personal preference have no place in the liturgical shape of what happens on Sunday morning, in the practices of the liturgy, and in the music of the liturgy.  In essence I have been saying that style is not a criteria of worship.  Perhaps I have been wrong in the way I have been addressing this issue.  Let me redress this topic once again but from another tack.

Culture and style do have a place in the church's liturgy and the music of worship.  It is not, however, the culture and style of the people (pew or pulpit) but the culture and style of the confession.  What I am saying is this.  Our Lutheran Confessions do have a culture and a style.  Culture and style do have a rightful place in shaping what happens on Sunday morning -- but not the culture and style of the people involved on either side of the altar rail.

The Lutheran Confessions insist that church usages (another term for rituals), ceremonies, and liturgical practices flow from the faith itself.  These are not the domain of the individual or the individual clergy or even the individual congregation.  They are inherently the domain of what is believed, confessed, and taught.  Personal preference is not a viable or legitimate criteria for determining what is done.  They flow from creed and confession and so they are catholic -- they transcend culture and preference because they have their own culture and style.

Honestly, I am somewhat sick of the arguments back and forth in the culture and liturgical wars that have dominated the conversation in my own church body for more than a generation.  We throw the same old tired arguments, Scripture passages, and theological quotes at each other with little movement on either side.  Instead we have become more and more entrenched and the gulf between us wider and wider.  It has become less a war of words and more a jockeying for control and influence.

Let me direct the conversation to a different point.  Do our creed and confession have a culture or style?  If they do have a style and a culture, as I insist, then our faithfulness to creed and confession does have a shape on Sunday morning (liturgy) and the music of the liturgy is not a question of personal preference but a vehicle of that shape.

From the earliest of days, the liturgical shape of the faith has been pretty consistent (in both West and East).  Liturgical historians have argued that the liturgy grew, and I suppose it did in the sense of becoming more elaborate, but the shape did not grow.  It was.  It was born of the Jewish patterns of worship inherited by Christians and of the Upper Room.  It was not the product of any culture or of the personal preferences of any individuals.  It became its own culture and that happened pretty quickly.  Like the canon of Scripture, it was not voted upon or defined by individual or council but was affirmed as if it had always been.  The Church discerned the liturgy even as she discerned the canon of Scripture until they both became so obvious it was unmistakable.

It has been a relatively modern invention to shift away from the culture and style of creed and confession and move to the preference of individuals (on either side of the rail).  Certainly it was one of the poisoned fruits of the radical reformation.  Sadly, Lutherans ate some of this poisoned fruit because of their own failure to take their Confessions seriously and their lack of confidence and appreciation in what they had. The liturgy became perfunctory, the devotional center moved from the Word and the Table to the feelings of the heart and personal preference, and things catholic became foreign to the very church that claimed most of all to be catholic and evangelical..  In our lost self-confidence, we began borrowing little things from others and we told ourselves it was about style and not substance.  In our radical pursuit of the Great Commission and our slice of the success pie, we made it a choice between liturgy and evangelism.  Who would not choose more Christians over chanting, vestments, the liturgy, hymnody that confesses, or even a weekly Eucharist?  Now we find ourselves battling over which culture, what style, and whose preference wins out.  All the while we have lost sight of the fact that yes, there is a culture, style, and preference that does bear upon Sunday morning -- the style and culture of creed and confession.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sit close... it makes a difference

I read something a while back about how yesterday the lecture is as a tool of teaching.  Apparently it is so yesterday that one painting from the fourteenth century shows students distracted and even sleeping.  Ahhh, another testament to the need to juice up how we teach with visuals!  Or so it seems.  But the point is that the lecture does work.  It always has and always will.  It is the hearer who does not work.

Jesus employed the lecture effectively but some in the back neither heard nor were impacted by His lecture style presentation.  Paul had the same problem.  In the painting, those in front are engaged.  Only the folks in the back are not.  Is is the fault of the lecture, the lecturer, where they sit, or the students themselves?  Many have suggested that those who sit in the back come not to be noticed and to avoid noticing what is happening in the classroom.  It is an astute observation.  When I go to a conference and want to type away on my laptop or read some other material, I always sit in the back (neither to be noticed by nor to be interrupted by the speaker).  When I am genuinely interested, I always sit near the front.

The lecture or even the lecturer are not the issues or the problems (well, not usually) but the student or the hearer.  Truth to be told, we sit in the back because we do not want to be engaged, because we judge something else more important to our attention, and because we want to be on the outside looking in.

The same thing happens in church.  I have never understood why people sit as far away from the chancel as possible.  But almost certainly these seats fill up before those front and center.  Sure, there may be other things involved (HVAC issues, sound issues, different comfort levels to the seating itself, etc...) but most of the time the people sitting far on the fringes of each side and the back are deliberately trying to be far from what is happening.  Why?

Parents who take their children to the back so as to avoid distracting others, end up giving their children a bird's eye view of the read ends of the folks ahead of them --- all the way to the altar.  They see nothing at all and inevitably are a bigger handful than those who can see.  Adults who sit in the back or all the way to the sides, are further from the altar and pulpit by choice.  I can only assume they do not want to be engaged by what they hear or see.  Like the students who chose the back so they can focus on something else, could it be that people sit on the far sides and back to distance themselves from what is going on Sunday morning?

Again, I do not get it.  You pay the big money to sit on the 50 yard line, in the seats on the floor in the concert hall or basketball arena, near the ice for hockey, etc...  why?  Because you see more and how you see it changes the closer you are to what is happening.  So, either our people in church think nothing is happening, nothing is happening that is all that significant, or nothing is happening that is worth their full attention, or... well, they would sit up front.

Let me say it one more time.  Sit up close.  It makes a difference.  Not just in the stadium.  In the sanctuary as well.  Try it.  Try it for 8-10 weeks.  Then go back and see the difference from where you were sitting on the far edge or read of the nave. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world...

Sermon for Epiphany 2A, preached on Sunday, January 19, 2014.

    A strange line from the Gospel stuck out at me.  John the Baptist says of Jesus "I myself did not know Him."  What does this mean?  What about when John jumped in Elizabeth's womb when a pregnant Mary came to visit?  They cousins.  Did Joseph and Mary not load up the family in the minivan and visit the relatives?  What is John saying?
    Jesus is about 30 when He comes to meet John in the waters of the Jordan River.  But we know precious little about his life up to that point and the most details we know relate to the final week in His life.  Jesus will only be known when and how He reveals Himself to us.  We are consumed with chronology but God deals in the fullness of time, the moment ripe for His action. John knew Jesus but how John knew Jesus was forever altered when in the full of time God disclosed Jesus as His Son and the Messiah long promised.  The fullness of Christ's identity was to  remain hidden until in the fullness of time God revealed Him.
    Reveal Him, John did.  It was unmistakable.  Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  You cannot get more obvious!  Jesus is the spotless Lamb – the one without blemish or stain of sin but whose shoulders will bear the sin of the entire world.  All the sacrificial lambs of old looked to this fullness of time and this Lamb for power to cleanse from sin.  It is highly significant that Jesus is first revealed to us as the Son of God and the Lamb of God.
    Jesus discloses Himself as none other than the promised Lamb of old.  His is the sacrifice to which all previous sacrifices looked; they only have power because of Christ to come.  Unlike the sacrificial lamb's of old, the people did not choose Him but He came of His own will, fulfilling His Father’s will, to suffer for our sins and die there on our behalf.  He is the God who saves His people and Jesus is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
    Though tempted to think of sin as some preliminary matter to be disposed of, Jesus insists that it is this for which He is incarnate.  Jesus came for sin, to wear it for us and bear it for us, that we might wear His righteousness and bear the baptismal mark of the people of God.  No, Jesus is not come to be some sort of example of goodness for us to strive for, no role model for us to become.  Jesus is come to do what only He can do and we cannot.
    Jesus' is no inspirational story designed to draw out the good in us and lead us emulate Him.  Jesus is not some prototype of what we can be if only we tried harder.  No, Jesus is not come to shine the light on goodness but to expose sin to His Light, to suffer for sin, to die its death for us, and to be raised to draw us unto Himself.  Jesus does not ask you to emulate Him but to believe in Him, not to do what He does but to receive what only He can give – by faith.
    In ancient times the people offered the sin offering but not now.  Jesus offers Himself to death for us and our salvation.  He is not a shining example of goodness but the sin-bearer for all.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He is not some motivational coach to help us discern the wise path to success.  No, He is now here to draw out our good side.  He is here to wear our sin and die in our place.  His calling is not to showcase His virtues but carry the terrible burden of our sin.
    This Jesus is better than John could have ever imagined.  While John might have expected somebody good to follow, instead he got the Son of God.  John points to Him whose revelation finds the chronological time transect the fullness of time, by God’s plan.
    So John sends His reluctant disciples to Jesus because there is no other who does the work of the Kingdom, no one whose Word fulfills the promise of the prophets.  They remained hesitant but John is adamant.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and Jesus is the Son of God in human flesh.  These two truths only God can reveal.
    God has not forgotten us.  God will not turn away from us and our sin forever.  The promise given has become the promise kept.  The sins that once killed us have been have in turn been killed and the Light of Christ now shines and darkness cannot overcome it.  Not then, not now, and not ever!  The Lord has seen the suffering of His people and intervened by grace.
    The question facing is simple – where do you find this Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?  Is He a creation of your own imagination?  No, I will tell you where the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world reall is – He is there hidden in the fullness of time, living for the ripe moment of our own redemptive grace.  So John tells us what He saw when His prophetic heart ran out of ink and was forced to write in blood.  Responding, the Church proclaims blessed is He and the Church still points to where this Christ is – in the cup, on the Table the  Church still screams: Blessed is He comes in the Name of the Lord.  Amen.

They smell the same. . .

Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come.  So said Pope Francis in an interview...  This is what ecumenism of blood is. It still exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptized in. We need to take these facts into consideration.

Francis is correct.  We live in an age in which the blood of the martyrs is mixed and no one distinguishes Roman Catholic blood from Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, etc...  And there is too much of that blood to be mixed because of the persecution that continues, unnoticed, unmarked, and without the outrage of most of those who champion human rights in general.

I do appreciate how he has put it.  We have not managed to take the necessary steps toward unity between us and perhaps the time is not yet come, nor, it seems, will it come in the foreseeable future.  That is one thing.  But to the world we smell pretty much the same (except, of course, for those Christians who have forsaken nearly every Christian distintiveness for the cover of a cultural faith that merely mimics whatever social movement or voice is raised.  And there are too many of these as well.  But for those creedal Christians who wear the clothing of the liturgy on Sunday morning, we Christians do not smell any different to the world around us.  We stink the same to them.  Unless I am wrong, the week of Christian unity is coming up and Christians will practice some silly ecumenism in which we prove we can play well together and too little real ecumenism of substance but the world is watching and we need to exercise some discretion here.

Whether we like it or not, the world does not carefully distinguish some Christians from others, or even some Lutherans from other Lutherans.  When the ELCA acts, the LCMS and all the other sets of initials that are worn by Lutherans feel the heat.  When the LCMS acts, all the other Lutherans get painted with the same broad brush.  This is the often unreported and unrecognized ecumenism that we inside the Church fail to appreciate.  We are painted the same color by those outside of us and, in the smell test, we smell the same to those outside of us.  This means that for the sake of the ecumenical endeavor we owe some sensitivity to those who will be labeled by our actions and judged by our words.  I am NOT suggesting that we compromise the truth but rather that it is even more important in this day and in this age that we speak that truth in love.

Francis has certainly raised some dust with his comments but those comments have not been without their impact upon other Christians.  We have already seen how the actions of Lutherans have been interpreted within the media (Yankee Stadium but one example).  We live in an age when we are blamed for the sins of other Christians, when other Christians are blamed for our sins, and when we are all marked by comments good, bad, or foolish.  We may not have found common ground but the world paints with a broad brush.  It happens in the tragedy of martyrdom and it happens when one thing or the other grabs the headlines as Christians and Christian groups make the news.  We need to take this into consideration to make sure we are heard as nuanced as as we should speak so that we do not give fuel to the fire of misunderstanding and confusion that already exists.  Do not shy away from speaking but make sure you not only speak the truth but speak it clearly and carefully and with love as the cause.  Perhaps then the internal ecumenism might make better progress...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Societal reengineering and the shape of life

For most of my life there has been a deliberate, albeit somewhat disorganized, movement to reengineer the whole nature and basis of our society.  It began with the outbreak of the 1960s and its counter culture of drugs, sex, and rock and roll.  Many thought that this might simply be a binge from which society would wake up to its senses and restore the order that had pretty much characterized the previous generations.  No such luck.  The rebellion of the 1960s turned out to have a more profound and lasting impact upon us than anyone then could have thought or dreamed.

Soon after no less than the ultimate establishment defined a right to privacy which, among other things, rendered unconstitutional nearly every provision designed to prevent abortion.  Whether this was right or wrong, the impact of such a sudden decision from a such small subset of the whole of society meant that abortion wars would continue decade after decade unabated.  Without the democratic process to unfold and reflect popular wisdom, even supporters of the anti-abortion movement were not prepared to fend off challenges for the next forty years and still.

As if this were not upheaval enough, the rise of cohabitation lent some sense of normalcy to what every previous time had found an aberration and oddity.  With sex free from the constraints of pregnancy and disease, marriage was deemed less essential to the blossom of human relationships.  Free sex gave birth to the destruction of every constraint upon consensual sexual activity.  The right of privacy meant that laws against sodomy fell and no one could regulate what happened behind closed doors.

Even the onset of the scourge of AIDS and HIV infection could not restrain the movement to bring homosexuality to the forefront.  Queer soon became a badge of pride and the TV networks began including gay characters and even devoting whole series to pushing the gay agenda.

Again the legal system advanced the cause of gay marriage more quickly than the legislative process and, to the surprise of many, states enacted laws favoring gay marriage as quickly as courts began to strike down prohibitions as unconstitutional.  This happened not merely in the expected bastions of liberal politics but also in the heartland of Iowa.  Unbeknownst to the populace, however, gay marriage was not simply about opening the door to gay couples what had been available to straight couples.  Instead the very institution of marriage is being redefined by those so new to its legal access.  Sex is in.  Children are out.  Marriage is optional.  Fidelity is a choice that may or may not come with marriage.

Now we have found polygamy struck down in Utah and gay marriage allowed -- surprisingly among those who first favored polygamy and then became the most strident against homosexuality.  Where will it all stop?  That is the point.  It will not stop.  The genie is out of the bottle.  But what remains so difficult is that the pace of this change has left us with a reengineered society that had little in common with its forbears and in less than two generations.  It is as if we are all panting from the completion of a sprint none of us expected to run but we cannot pause too long or we will find ourselves hopelessly behind.

For most of my life I have experienced a process of societal reengineering that has left us with fewer and fewer values we held in common with our parents and grandparents and fewer and fewer values that unite us to one another.  We are not a quilt with many different colors, patches, and textures sewn together; we are a torn comforter, frazzled at the edges, worn in the very places that should give us comfort and warmth, and with big holes that leave us vulnerable to every wind of cold.

You already know this.  But again, the victims of this explosion of change that shows no sign of relenting are less the adults than the children.  The vast majority of children in America do not know a home with a mom and a dad but a home without one, with a mixture of children to whom you have no blood relationship, and without the stability of place, the support people of extended family, and the presence of adults to teach, nurture, protect, and order their lives within a veil of security and love.  Perhaps this in and of itself will cause the pace of change to slow but I am not sure any of us can apply the brakes.  What it has already resulted in is gridlock politically in which common ground is rare because common values are no longer shared.  What it has resulted in is stress within the home, the school, and the neighborhood as children are left more and more to themselves to determine what is good, right, and true.  What it has resulted in is an educational system in which the weaknesses of society are clearly evident and what the home can no longer supply is now the burden placed upon the school (along with reading, writing, and arithmetic).   In the midst of all of this, the Church finds fewer children regularly in the pews or in Sunday school, families whose participation is less regular than their parents, and stresses placed upon program and identity that have left us more uncertain as to what we believe even though we generally believe we ought to believe something.

Where will this all turn out?  I have no crystal ball.  What I do know is this.  The children and grandchildren of my own kids will find a world fraught with greater danger and much less carefree for their childhood and an adulthood that will look less and less like my own journey from my parent's home into my first home with my wife and then my children.  What this means for the Church is that we will be under greater temptation to ditch truth and doctrine for what works in the short term but this will leave our legacy for future generations less tenable than the Church our parents bequeathed to us.  And those are some meandering thoughts during this week of focus on issues of life at the beginning of what will most certainly be another year of change and decay (as we sing in Abide with Me).  Lord,  have mercy.  Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.  Amen.

Monday, January 20, 2014

You are the Christ. . .

Sermon preached for the Confession of St. Peter for the Circuit Pastors.

    Who is Jesus.  That is the question.  You are the Christ.  That is the answer.  We in the Church spend far too much time and money and energy on things that either avoid or ignore or detract from both this essential question and this essential answer.  St. Paul put it this way.  I am determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Would that we as the Church today could be so confident!
    You are the rock, said Jesus.  The other day the whole interstate out here was backed up for miles when a rock the size of a VW fell off the cliff of stone onto
I-24.  Stones do not cause traffic pile ups; only rocks.  Stones can chip your paint and ding your car but they don't stop anyone.  Only the big rocks bring the mighty semi and the speeding commuter to a halt.
    If we are not making headway in the world, could it be that we are stones instead of the mighty rocks we need to be.  Stones irritate.  Rocks stop people in their tracks.  The Church has become content to throw stones.  We irritate people.  We complain about their morality.  We complain about their values.  We complain about their lifestyles.  We complain about their lack of concern for the things that matter.  But the world goes speeding by undaunted by our whining voices.
    Peter got it right.  He did not always get it right but today we recall the words of conviction that were from the Holy Spirit and not simply his own best guess.  You are the Christ, said Peter.  You are rock, said Jesus.  I confess to you that I am more often than not scared to death to be that bold.  I worry what people will think of me.  I worry that people will reject me.  I worry that people will not like me.  I find it hard to say it so bluntly, so clearly, and so confidently.  Maybe you do, too.
    The Lord does not ask us to be nor does He need apologists.  He does not need translators to water down His Word.  He does not need us to explain away His miracles, His works, or His Word.  He does not need spiritual gurus to help folks get in touch with their inner self or find the path to material success.  He needs people of conviction, guided by the Holy Spirit to faith, who will simply speak His Word to the world.  He needs people to provide the right answer to the question of questions.  You are the Christ.
    Traditionally the observance of the Confession of St. Peter (technically on Saturday) ushers in the week of Christian unity.  But what kind of unity? Sadly, it is often the weak unity of the lowest common denominator.  So we speak of Jesus the influential religious figure, the moral authority of Jesus, the skilled teacher of Jesus, or Jesus the gentle and compassionate lover of souls.  But God did not send Jesus nor did Jesus consent to incarnation to be recognized for His moral authority or teaching skill or even His compassion.  Jesus has come to be the Christ.  Period.      This is what makes Christianity objectionable and this is what makes it powerful.  The blunt and powerful truth about which we cannot compromise.  This is the point of non-negotiation.  People like moral authority figures – they may not follow them but they admire them.  People like compassionate figures.  We all want folks to be nice to us so we like leaders who invite us to be kind and compassionate.  But what stops the world in its tracks is that Jesus is the Christ, the rock of stumbling for those who refuse to repent and the cornerstone of new and redeemed life for those who confess their sin and rejoice in His mercy.
    Christ does not end suffering; He redeems it.  And those for whom He suffered take up their crosses and follow Him, losing their lives for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel in order to keep them for eternity.  I suspect that one of the reasons why we prefer and empty cross is that we do not be reminded of suffering.  To be the Christ means to suffer and to belong to Christ means to participate in His suffering.  There is no other way.
    Pebbles make terrible building materials but the structures of stone live on through generation after generation.  Much of what the Church does is like those stones – looks good for a moment but can't hold up anything.  We have been sent with both a question and its answer.  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the Christ.  Either this is the strong foundation for our individual lives as the baptized children of God and the life of the whole Church, or else we are building on sand and shifting stones.  Some say the Church has to reinvent herself to be relevant.  The surest way to irrelevance is to reinvent yourself.  To be relevant we must be faithful to Christ.
    When we are faithful, God will make us fruitful – bearing not the momentary fruit of the day but the everlasting fruit that earns eternal reward in heaven.  The call today is to be like Peter.  You are the Christ.  The saints who have gone before us took up this Gospel and many sacrificed their very lives to bequeath to the next generation this eternal truth.  We can do no less for this time and for the future generations still to come.
    Dying for this Gospel gives us the strength to live it faithfully.  What does it profit us if we gain everything and lose our souls?  No, dear friends in Christ, we cannot afford to follow a world afraid to believe anything and willing to sacrifice everything for a moment of pleasure.  If we are to be useful to Christ and if we are to obtain what we hope for, we need to be rocks.  Who we are and what we proclaim can be nothing less than Jesus the Christ crucified for you... for me.  When we take up this cause, we will not have to worry about relevance or success.  For where Christ is proclaimed, God is at work, and He will bring to pass what He wills.  If we have been ineffective, could it be that we were content to toss a few stones on the broad path to destruction when what we have been called to do and to be is the Rock of confession – You are the Christ...  Amen.

Spontaneity is overrated...

In my first parish a few folks complained that all my extempore prayers sounded scripted, like memorized prayers.  I must admit that it did not bother me but it clearly bothered them.  They had been taught or came to the conclusion that prayers made up at the moment were better prayers, more authentic prayers, and more "Spirit" led prayers than prayers that followed either the wording or form of the ancient prayers (perhaps collects is the better word).  I never did get it down right -- perhaps too few "jist wannas" or "Father Gods" in my prayers.

The one place where I fear we have regressed terribly lies in the prayer of the church.  The great petitions, supplications, and prayers of the people have devolved into rather banal, trite, and sentimental statements that stand in stark contrast to the more carefully and nobler words of the Divine Service.  In part this is because so little time and energy is spent preparing for these petitions.  I have sat through pastors who paged along the collect section of the altar book, stringing together collect after collect into one long general prayer.  It was a sad and disjointed movement from one collect to another in which it was easy to forget what we were supposed to be praying for.  I have sat through pastors deconstructing of the language of the collects into a new modern setting but one in which the subject and occasionally the object of our prayers was confused and confusing.  I have also sat through some wonderful biddings and petitions in which the great architecture of the collect was adorned with eloquent and profound words -- obviously practiced and not spontaneous but instructive as well as prayerful.

I came across this quote the other day and it applies well to the subject at hand: Spontaneity in liturgy is found in the movements of hearts as they respond to grace, not in the liberty of individual priests to impose their personal piety on the common prayer of all.  The quote dates from 1981 and suggests that for Rome, at least, spontaneity is hardly a blessing, especially in prayer.  I wish we paid some attention to this.  What is spontaneous in the liturgy is not contrived spontaneity in which the planned and predictable is made to look off the cuff.  No, what is spontaneous in the liturgy is how the heart is moved to faith, to repentance, and to rejoicing by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit who enables and engenders the faithful response to what God has done.

Our own Synod provides useful petitions for each week -- at no cost, I might add -- not to be slavishly followed, word by word, but if nothing else than a teaching tool.  How to pray liturgically.  It was never the title to any course work I have taken but it should have been.  Given the many occasions (planned or spontaneous) in which the pastor is called to raise up prayers to the throne of grace, we ought to know how to pray in such a way that the people are edified just by listening into the hushed conversation of man to God.  I was never taught how to pray for Grandma Jenkins painful corns or to say grace for a group of impatient wedding guests who are hungry and want to eat.  It was trial and error.  I prayed the prayers of the prayerbook until I learned how to venture the found of my own voice in summoning and leading God's people to pray.

Spontaneity is overrated.  Especially when it comes to public and liturgical prayer.  If you cannot improve upon the good words of those who went before, for Pete's sake do not saddle the ears of God and the ears of the people listening in with less than that which is good, right, and true.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Whose baptism is it?

Sermon preached for the Baptism of Our Lord, Sunday, January 12, 2014.

The waters of the Jordan churned with life and death. Jesus came to the waters with His life and came out wearing our death~ We go in as the dying to die there under the waters so that God might bring forth new life in us. Today the waters of . baptism are as filled with life and death as the waters of the Jordan Jesus encountered when He was baptized by John.

The waters of baptism are not without controversy then and now. Jesus arose from those waters to face the skepticism of John's crew of followers and the nearly universal rejection of those whom He came to save. Churches still refuse to see in this water what Christ has placed in it and the truth of baptism continues to be rejected out of hand by too many Christians.

Not long ago I was approached by someone upset that Lutherans baptized infants. How can infants be baptized without faith? He asked me. Why do they need to be baptized since only willful sins condemn us? He was adamant that what counts is not baptism reading and agreeing with the Bible and making a conscious decision to follow Jesus and to live a holy and obedient life. I guess we are often confused about whose baptism it is and ever tempted to make baptism fit us instead of meeting Christ there in the water.

Whose baptism is it? That is the worthy question. When we make who is baptized and how that baptism happens the center, we miss completely the gift that God has hidden in the water.  When we turn baptism on what we do, we turn gift into burden.  As Norman Nagel loves to say, it is all in who is running the verbs.  If we run the verbs in baptism, it is a dead end.  Only if Christ runs the verbs does it lead somewhere.  Baptism is an event, a fact in time and space, but it is not merely that. We Christians do not claim that we were baptized but that we ARE baptized. God gave us a new identity. The old one that came to the font is dead and gone. A new identity is born.

As rich as baptism's symbolism may be, it is not merely a sign or symbol. Instead it is the promise that delivers what it says and bestows what it promises. This is why St. Peter can say baptism saves you. It is not an obedient act fulfilling the law of Christ but a sacramental encounter with Christ; it is Gospel.  So the death and life of baptism are not merely in the mind of the beholder but hidden there in the water itself. We are not our own. The one who came to the waters is gone and a new person has arisen in righteousness from those baptismal waters. It happened to Jesus, too. He was baptized into our sin; He who knew no sin became sin for us. Like a clean person who bathes in dirty water, Jesus went down pure but came out covered in our dirt. Just the opposite of you and me. We came as dirty as death but we came out of that water not only clean but holy and righteous in the eyes of God. Who we were died and who we are in Christ now lives never to die again. We are not who we were.

Christ is not only for us but in us. His is the new life we now wear . We are not on our own but live in Christ who lives in us. We are not individuals who make a choice but those who have been called with the great invitation of the Word, brought to the water, and been reborn into the family of God, the Church.

Each Sunday we walk by the font as a reminder that baptism is not only our past but our present and future. The water is sign and symbol of this new: life but also the agent and instrument of that new life. Christ came to the waters for us and now we come to the waters to meet Him and be reborn in Him.

Feelings are wonderful. Choice and decision are good. Knowledge and understanding are great. But this is now what we build, our hope, our life, and our future upon. They come and go. Baptism remains. Who are you? You are the baptized. That is your identity. Don't ever forget it.
You are not above Christ. It is not your baptism to make of what you think. Christ's commands us to meet Him in the water because there He comes to us, there we die and are raised with Christ to new and everlasting life. There in the great exchange we surrender our sin and its death and Christ gives us His holiness, righteousness, and eternal life. This baptism is Christ,'s and He is here in the water to give it its power to save.

Luther was often so depressed he found it hard to get out of bed.  Look at the lives of the great saints and you do not find ease but trouble, trial, doubt, and despair.  Thanks be to God that Luther had a godly wife who would remind him when his heart felt empty that the fact of his baptism remained and God’s sure promise endures.  This is what we do for one another.

When we rise up from the water, we find we are not alone. The Spirit of the Most High God dwells in us to kill off doubt and fear and put faith and joy in its place. The terrible loneliness of sin's prison of shame and death is gone and we are now given life in the Church, with all the redeemed of the Lord. The old life centered around me fades to the new life centered upon the we of Christ and our brothers and sisters in Christ. The old self- centered focus of life is dead and in its place love for God, love for neighbor, love for righteousness, and love for service.

Whose baptism is it? It is not yours. It is not your obedience or decision or choice but Christ's saving will and purpose that give baptism its power. If it were yours, you could be baptized and keep the command and forget about it all. But because it is Christ's baptism, we are not who we were. We have been reborn and every day that we live is lived in the light of what Christ has done for us in that baptism. Jesus was numbered among us once so that we might be numbered with Him forevermore. This is the baptism that saves. Amen.

It is true only if everything is sexual. . .

It seems that we know nothing at all about somebody until we know every possible sexual thought and desire.  Biography has gone from the subject of the person to the lewd and often crude presumption of the sexual thoughts of the person.  Such sensational biography has become the staple of the way we dissect figures of note.  It is shameful what is done and shocking how innuendo and rumor are used to defame the dead.  Once the specter of a dark and perverted sexual desire is raised, it seems impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Deborah Solomon has written a 512 page "biography" of Norman Rockwell that has done just that -- let a dark genie out of the bottle and no amount of truth will put it back.  Rockwell is one of America's most beloved illustrators and painters -- a recent auction of his Saying Grace brought a record $46 Million!  Yet Solomon's most notable achievement in her book is to defame the character of Rockwell with baseless charges of pedophilia and perverted sexual desire.  There is no evidence and no substance to these charges but only the suspicious mind of the author of this so-called biography who presumes that everything is sexual.  Solomon insists that Rosie the Riveter is masturbating and soldiers are homosexual and dozens of other completely outlandish and false interpretations of Rockwell's famous works.

My point here is not to refute Solomon.  Others can do a fair enough job of defending Rockwell against these crazy charges.  My point is to show how everything has become sexual in our modern culture.  We define ourselves by sexual desire, we use sex to buy and sell merchandise, we protect pornography and refuse to allow religious free speech, we insist upon condoning and accepting every past perversion as the sexuality du jour...  Wasn't it CS Lewis who said that absent God, everything becomes sexual?  We are not waiting for this to happen.  It has arrived.  Everything has become sexual.

Lewis again:  They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still a mess.  If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right.  But it has not. I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess.  Indeed, it is not hushed up.  Everything is sexual and sex has become that which defines and consumes us as a people.  Are we better off?  Have things improved because of our openness?  We cannot talk about God in the public sphere but there are no limits to the sexual conversation and images in the public sphere.  As Solomon proves in her so-called biography of Rockwell, even the dead are not immune from our voyeuristic pursuit of everything sexual.

If everything is sexual, nothing is -- at least not in the sense of the goodness in which sex was created and intended by God.  Again, Lewis: “If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But, of course, when people say, 'Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,' they may mean 'the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of'. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.”

The charge against Christians is that they are preoccupied with sex.  It is ridiculous.  Lewis:  "Our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so “natural,” so “healthy,” and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour." [Emphasis added]  

We repress nothing at all and we suppress nothing at all.  That does nothing to make us nobler but instead diminishes the character of our lives and our very identity as human beings is made captive to one desire.  The call of the Church is not to repress but restrain this desire -- indeed any desire that would threaten us by unleashing it from every aspect of judgement or self-control.  When everything is sexual, nothing is.  This does not free us to love but makes this love unattainable.  The chaste are not unaware of sexual desire but, as Lewis suggests, those who know it best of all and yet without the blinders of desire that would mask its gift and purpose.  Just because we have appetites does not mean that satisfying them is good.  Even if we label the appetite natural it does not allow us to satisfy it with impunity.  When everything becomes sexual, nothing is sexual and love becomes an afterthought.  Far from being repressive, the call of the Church is the most liberating of all the voices.  

For more on the deceptive and mistaken "biography" of Rockwell, read here...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

It takes too long. . .

The recent document from Pope Francis had ignited some fierce debates among even his most loyal Roman Catholics, including this one from former judge and now FOX News contributor Andrew Napolitano.  It is a well reasoned reply from an ardent Roman Catholic and worth a read.  I focus on merely one part of a sentence from the critique: [Francis] attacks free-market capitalism because it takes too long for the poor to get rich.

The fact that it takes too long to get rich is an impatience which Francis shares with people on the far extremes of all political thought and those within the Church who believe that social justice is a higher calling that the proclamation of Christ crucified.  If it is taking too long to go about it in the right way, then those on the right and left extremes of the political spectrum insist that the forces of threat, intimidation, sanction, and punishment from the government must be employed to hasten the path toward the desired goal and outcome.  It is the classic case of settling for a change of behavior instead of a change of heart.

Now I do not for one mean to suggest that the fear of getting caught and the fear of punishment should be abandoned by the kingdom of the left (the civil realm).  Such are the divinely appointed tools for the pursuit of the divinely appointed aims of the government in its dutiful obligation to protect, preserve, and sustain order.  What I do mean to suggest is the idea that these are the only means to be employed for real and honest social change.  Those within the Church so often grow impatient with the pace of reform in the secular world and insist that the Gospel has failed and therefore the resources of the Law must be employed to prod the process along.  Christianity has a confused focus, confused goals, and a confused definition of the Gospel.

I maintain that the crisis of Christianity is that we have grown impatient for the Kingdom of Heaven and so we are left with the effort to create our own heavenly image of an egalitarian state here on earth in which there is no morality which condemns but only the ethic of approval.  We have so confused the Gospel that it has become more a cause for social change than the redemption of the sinner through the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin.  It is a politically correct world in which justice is the signal cry of the kingdom of God instead of mercy and the gravest of all injustices is the refusal to affirm the sinner in his or her sin.  It takes too long to transform the world one person at a time through the preaching of the Cross, so the Church has substituted social causes for the real work of redemption and judges the success of the kingdom of God by the adroit use of political power and means to the desired end (liberal or conservative).

Impatience is, at its root, a lack of faith in God and in the means of grace through which He works to bring repentance to and redemption of the lost sinner marked for death.  If the Gospel is not working quickly enough, we fill the pews with churchly sanctioned entertainment as a substitute for the Mass or Divine Service in which the focus is upon the Word and Table of the Lord.  If the Gospel is not working quickly enough, we change it into a Gospel imperative (another word for Law) and back it up with whatever teeth we can employ.  If the Gospel is not working quickly enough, we drop the distinctives of doctrine and dogma in favor of a vague and generic Christianity rich with sentiment but with a poverty of truth.

As Pastor of a parish with multiple ministries for the poor and needy, I know the frustration and how easy it is to grow impatient with the pace of social improvement.  I see people within my parish who search for jobs, health care coverage, and some level of economic security and I know how quickly we become frustrated  by the often excruciatingly glacial speed of improvement.  I have worked through the flawed systems of health care, care for the mentally and emotionally ill, and the criminal justice systems and know first hand how easy it is to grow dissatisfied with the state of things and how tempting the desire to force improvements to come faster.  I know how hard it is to hold up the values of the single estate, marriage, family, children, and chaste lives in all these circumstances and how disappointing to see the often nuances of difference between those who claim faith and those who refute it.  It is often a consuming passion. The great temptation is to conclude the pace of change is too slow and to use other means to get where you want to be -- and so it has gone from income redistribution in the political sphere to entertainment style worship in the churches.

Faith trusts not only the will of God but the timetable of the Lord.  God works whether we see the signs of His progress or not, whether we can chart the pace of that progress or not.  From time to time we see things clearly but the other 99.99% of the time we walk through the murky uncertainty and disappointment of the day by faith, trusting in what is unseen but divinely appointed.  That is enough.  It is not a call to inaction but a solemn awareness of what IS our calling and what is not...  Everything takes too long -- except the things we do not want or like.  The whole record of Scripture is the uniform cry of humanity captive to sin and its death "how long, O Lord?"  And the answer is the same.  "Trust Me..."  How long is always too long for us and always just right for the salvific purpose and plan of God.  Thus the constant tension of and relearning of the sufficiency of grace the call to trust in that grace -- implicit within it the call to trust also God's timing.  Such is not a cause for inaction but for doing what we are given to do and leaving the rest to the Lord whose Church and world they are.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I live for the applause. . .

There was a time when modesty, even if it was not of the heart but only feigned, was thought the more noble virtue of life over self-contentedness and pride.  I miss those days -- before we exposed ourselves in text messages, showed our stupidity on YouTube, told all our secrets on Facebook, measured our lives by those who friend us, tweeted every incidental thing we thought, said, or did, and strove to multiple the 15 minutes of fame into a lifetime of recognition.

Our culture of narcissism has not been without effect upon all our institutions, even the Church.  It has become the duty of the Church to offer us the spiritual side of us its spotlight, highlighting our want and self-defined need to be recognized, to receive approval, to have our felt needs affirmed and met, and to showcase who we are within worship.  Churches are judged more on friendliness than on doctrine and this friendliness is not merely welcome but almost a total obsession with the visitor's wants and needs.  I was sent a blog post about a person who went around visiting different churches and complained that in the congregations where he visited hardly anyone asked what was going on in his life or initiated a conversation on the deeper subjects of his wants, needs, struggles, or sorrows as an individual.  He received a warm welcome but he was not the object of their attention and so he failed the churches he visited.

If you are against the ordination of women, it is not considered a doctrinal issue at all but a refusal to allow the God-given talents and abilities to be used by women in the equally prominent domain of pastoral service.  If you are against gay marriage, it is not a doctrinal or moral issue but the promotion of injustice and the refusal to allow gays the same avenues open to straight people.  If you are against contemporary worship, it is not about doctrine but about taste -- highbrow culture over pop culture or the reverse.  In short we have made nearly every doctrinal issue into a personal issue, a personal affront if you disagree with me, and by thin skinned people, at that.  Because of this it is nearly impossible to have a theological conversation between those who disagree on these and other doctrinal and moral issues of our time.  It is hard to find feminists or gay who have orthodox and confessional theological views -- the slippery slope of our need to be noticed seems to encourage outrageous and shocking statements and behavior.

Lady Gaga (whom some call Lady Gagme) has done a pretty good job of translating this culture of narcissism into pop music.
    I live for the applause, applause, applause
    I live for the applause-plause
    Live for the applause-plause
    Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me.

    The applause, applause, applause
    Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights on)
    Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch (make it real loud)
    Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights on)
    Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch (make it real loud)...

Part of this is why I instinctively shudder when people applaud during worship.  Yes, I know that this is not always a sign of self-absorption but it is so attached to it that I find it hard to justify any applause within the Divine Service.  Part of this is why I find having choir, organ, praise band, and soloists up front, in the chancel.  It is as if we not only tolerate but even encourage the focus to be on the people.  Part of this is why I find the street clothed pastor in contemporary worship settings to be in conflict with our liturgical reality (in which vestments distract from the pastor as person instead of drawing attention to him and the liturgy functions to rein in the great temptation to emcee the worship service).  How easy it is for us to turn worship into a sanctified setting of America's Got Talent or The Voice!  And how destructive that is to the ministry of the means of grace to us!
I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause
Live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me.

The applause, applause, applause
Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights on)
Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch (make it real loud)
Give me that thing that I love (I’ll turn the lights on)
Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch (make it real loud)