Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gratitude is not enough. . .

    Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve 2014.

     Thanksgiving seems to be all about gratitude.  And it is.  But gratitude is not enough.  It is not enough to be thankful and still be focused upon ourselves, what we have or do not have.  Gratitude that surveys all our blessings and says “thanks” is a good beginning but we need to move past a rehash of all our abundance.  We need to focus less on the blessings and more on the One who blesses.
    As long as we are focused upon the blessings, we are still in bondage.  We live in fear of losing them.  We condition our gratitude because of them and if they are gone, we are left ungrateful and bitter.  No, it is a good start to be thankful but it is not nearly enough.  Once we shift the focus from the blessings to the One who blesses, then we will know true freedom, contentment, and peace.  Then we will learn the grace of giving instead of fearful keeping.  Then we will find not only that things have changed but we have been transformed.
    St. Paul told the Philippians that it was kind of them to share his trouble.  It was, in reality, more than kind.  It followed the example of the God who shared our trouble – even to suffering and death upon the cross.  And that is the key. 
It is one thing to give thanks for the blessings God has supplied us but it is another to use those blessings with the same generous heart God has shown toward us unworthy sinners.  Giving and receiving are a partnership, according to St. Paul.  They are not one way avenues but broad boulevards of giving, receiving, and giving again.
    St. Paul describes how the gift is transformed.  It becomes a fragrant offering pleasing.  The sweet smell of gratitude comes when we take what God has given us and use it for His purpose and glory.   A grateful heart is the center of it all but a grateful heart leads to a grateful life in which we seek opportunities to give the way God daily and richly supplies all our needs of body and soul and all things.  God looks for opportunities to give.  Those who receive His gifts with faith will look for opportunities to give too.
    This fragrant offering of blessings used to bless others and glorify God become an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord.  Pastors hear people ask all the time how much should they give.  It is an impossible question. But it is often borne of a fear that we are not giving enough.  It is the conscience at work warning us that gratitude is not enough.  Something is expected of us before the work of God is complete.
    Tithes and offerings are acceptable to God – not because they meet a minimum standard – but because they are borne of faith that esteems God more highly than self and even more highly than the blessings themselves.  In other words, when we gift others with that which God has given to us and when we return to the Lord the first fruits of His own generous gifts, we demonstrate that our hearts are not focused on the things we have received but the God who gives so richly and generously.
    The work of God’s Church is not a burden upon us but a wonderful opportunity.  The poor are not heavy burdens or duties placed on us but opportunities.  As Christ focused not upon the cost of loving but its fruit or benefit, so do we focus not upon the gift or the cost of giving to others but the fruits of that giving love at work in us and through us.
    At the end St. Paul says that our hearts motivated to give and bless as we have been given and blessed pleases God.  Maybe it is old fashioned to talk in this way.  As a whole we do not worry as much as previous generations whether what we do pleases God as much as we are concerned that we are happy.  But St. Paul is instructive here.  Pleasing God is the means to contentment of heart and peace of mind.  God calls us to do what is good and right knowing it will lead us to contentment.
    To receive with thanksgiving is good.  To give in faith is better.  St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that it was kind of them to share his trouble.  It was indeed but it was more than that.  It reflected God’s own kindness who looked upon us in our need and entered suffering and even death that we might be saved.  It has pleased Him to do this in love, freely, and without cost to us.  And we are grateful.  But this is another step.  That is the gratitude that moves us to give as He has given.
    We are a people who have many blessings.  We live in a rich and abundant land.  We enjoy a lavish life, especially compared to most other people.  We are heirs to a wonderful history and legacy of freedom and the protection of law.  We have an abundance of food, shelter, security, medical care, and safety nets for those in need.  But we are not always grateful and we do not always acknowledge these blessings.  We have come to expect them, to think that we deserve them, and that these are not gifts from God but rights we are due.
     It is not enough to be thankful.  We are called to learn to return to the Lord the first fruits of His own giving love and to embrace the needs of others as opportunities to demonstrate the faith that lives within us.  It is not simply about gratitude but how you use what God has given.  Once we learn that, we are freed from the prison of fear and enjoy the liberty of living as the gracious people of a gracious God.  Here is where contentment, peace, and joy enter in.  Here is where we learn to see how the blessings given can become a fragrant offering and acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.  When faith learns that, it is impossible to dampen the heart or any circumstance to steal our joy.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Who blinks first. . .

Polls have been suggesting recently that Christians of all confessions tend to believe that people must make the first move to find God before God responds with grace and salvation..  Some believe that God has made the first move and already decided who will and who will not be saved.  Others believe that God is open minded but expects you to make the first move.  Others believe that faith is the response to the work of God the Spirit working through His Word.  Others believe that you have the ability to win over a somewhat reluctant God to you and your cause.  Others are not so sure anybody can or will ever know the answer to these questions.  Read some of it here. . .

It seems that old heresies never grow old.  On the one hand we have Pelagius who insisted that enough free will remained in the person to make a decision to follow the Lord by the strength of your own will.  It sounds good but it does not square with Scripture.  In the end Pelagianism and any of its variations were condemned
by Church Councils (Carthage in 418, Ephesus 431, and Orange 529).  These councils did not simply reject Pelagianism and its derivations but insisted that such was contrary to Scripture.  The perennial endeavor of reason to make sense of all the oddities, exceptions, and descriptions of God and His ways has always been our great temptation and has led many astray, choosing to satisfy the mind rather than live in obedience to the mystery of God.

On the other hand, we have the more difficult path of Scripture and the great tradition.  Here God's grace always makes the first move, no matter the appearance to the eye.  God is ever at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying His Church by the means of grace.  So when the Word speaks and it appears nothing happens, the faithful trust that God will deliver to Himself the fruits of His Word at His appointed time.  It is the great shibboleth of modernity to look into the mirror of what sin has done and admit that we are in bondage and cannot free ourselves.  Yet, this humility is exactly the first mark of the Spirit's work in us -- both showing us the limits of our ability to access the gifts of God and the willingness of God to seek us out and deliver to us what Christ has earned and won.

Some are greatly concerned that Christians are genuinely confused about who blinks first, whose initiative begins the work of saving, sanctifying, and sustaining to the end those who will be saved.  I will admit to sometimes being worried.  But it is the nature of Christian life to live always under the authority of God's Word and within the great tradition of the saints in whom God has worked.  While I am concerned that we may be raising generations of Pelagians or at least semi-Pelagians, I am consoled by the fact that as long as people remain under the tutelage of God's Word, are shepherded by His Spirit working through the means of grace, and live within the fellowship of God's people assembled on His day, in His name, around His Word and Table, the same Lord is at work recalling us from our favorite heresies and restoring us to the narrow path of life within His kingdom.  While simplistic, it is still true -- God is not finished with me yet.

Every snapshot of Christians and the Church will leave us wanting for more, fearful of the errors and confusion so hard to eradicate, and captive to the tension of saint and sinner.  That is the realm in which God is still at work.  It is like the person who comes to me fearful he might have lost his faith.  Well, he may be struggling but as long as he remains concerned about that loss of faith, God is still at work in Him.  The truly lost do not admit or acknowledge their lostness.  They do not seek to be found nor do they miss the sound of the Lord's voice, feel hunger and thirst for His table, or regret the loss of fellowship with their fellow redeemed.  We are people.  We run hot and cold.  We live in the world.  The devil's assaults and advances daily threaten what God has begun.  Yet He will bring to completion what He has begun in us.  Whether we see it or not, faith is confidence of this promise, what we do not now see but believe.  That is my personal comfort as a sinner within the Kingdom of God who daily struggles against the enemies of my faith.  That is my vocational comfort as a pastor who serves sinners like me in their struggles -- even to death and eternal life in Christ.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

An Honest Librarian

I have in the neighborhood of 10,000 books (and growing).  I will admit that I find it nearly impossible to throw away a book.  I have books I wish I did not have.  I have books that I wish I had read (and may still).  I have books I wish I had not read (regret without contrition).  I have books that I use to look up things but will never read.  I have books that think I should read (but it is growing less likely each year that I will).  I have books I have read once and that was enough.  And I have books I re-read.  Anyway, the visual fits me better than I care to admit.

The Comfortable Middle

Rome seemed to step back from the precipice and Pope Francis has called his flock back to the middle.  Those who complain about the liberalism in the Episcopal Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are complaining about the loss of the moderate middle.  Some within the Missouri Synod complain that the conservatives have the upper hand and that what the church needs is to reclaim the middle ground.  On the clergy self-rating forms, the middle is the comfortable place for pastors to place their doctrinal and liturgical practices.  It is the safe place.  Or is it?

I am growing increasingly suspicious of that comfortable middle.  Is what the church needs really a moderate middle ground of theology and practice?  Will the world be convinced by a church that believes but not too much?  A church that takes doctrine seriously -- but not too seriously?  A church that practices its liturgical identity but not too devoutly?

The sad truth is that the moderate middle is not a stable place.  It depends upon the fringes to the right or left for its definition.  It is not a solid position at all but an aversion to extremes, to zealotry.  The moderate middle has been moving over the past several generations and it is a decidedly leftward journey.  This is true for society, for politics, and for religion.  All this means is that we have not moved too far ahead of the pace of change so that we are avante guarde but neither are far off the pace so as to be behind the curve.  In the end we are comfortable with change -- just not too much or too fast. 

The disgruntled in the ELCA or Episcopal Church do not pine away for a church that believes like it did in the 1900s but rather a church like they were before the sex wars of the last decade or so.  They want to reclaim a moment in time not so much because they believe it is best but simply because it represents a breather before the craziness began and they saw their churches slip into high gear as forces forcing change upon their people.  In the same way, Baptists pine away for the glory days when everyone was envious of their growth or Missouri pines away for its days when membership losses were unimaginable.  We have sought an untenable position in a middle ground which is constantly moving and which offers us nothing and equips us with nothing substantial to offer those outside our ranks.

The comfortable middle ground of doctrine or practice is not our saving hope.  It is a lie.  We do not need Lutherans who are not too Lutherans but Lutherans who are fully convinced that the answers of their Confessions and catechism are not only relevant but required of those who wear the name.  We need a people who are true believers in the Scriptures, in the efficacy of that Word, and in the means of grace to bestow what they sign.  We need pastors who are thoroughly convinced that what we preach is true and the truth of what we proclaim when we speak as confident Lutherans.

Congregations are perhaps rightfully concerned when they get a zealous Lutheran pastor.  For too many years we have shrugged our shoulders at the casual way we wear the name or do what we do on Sunday morning.  It IS shocking to find Lutherans so convinced of the truth of their Confessions that they truly do believe everyone should believe as a Lutheran.  I am not speaking in a sectarian sense (ONLY Lutherans go to heaven) but as a people convinced of our doctrine and practice and unapologetic of this doctrine and practice before the world.

Scripture does not speak kindly of the future for the lukewarm.  Statistically, the comfortable middle does not bode well as the place to stake a claim for our church.  We already have too many people who are embarrassed by the label.  What could be worse than people convinced of the truth of our confession, the legitimacy of liturgical worship, and efficacy of the means of grace?  Only a people who are not too sure about it all.  The world may fear the zealot but the world has even less respect for a people who do not fully believe their own truth.

So I am ready to ditch the idea of the comfortable middle, the sacred ground of moderate Christianity or moderate Lutheranism.  If zealots scare us, maybe we need to be scared.  Yes, zealots might need to learn to love the people for whom Christ died as much as they love the doctrinal purity that proclaims it faithfully.  But the moderates need to learn that love does not mean ignoring, adjusting, or betraying the truth of God's Word.  No, I am not asking for people to pursue the church as purity cult or to make ideology more important than the people for whom God's truth has been given.  What I am asking is for those who think the comfortable middle is our saving hope to learn some holy boldness and speak with the same passion, conviction, and confidence as the early church in Acts or Christianity in times of persecution and test. 

What is the need to belong to or join a church that you can live without?  We are all too busy for such commitments.  But a church you cannot live without has rightful claim on our days and our attention.  We do not gain by promoting a Christianity or a Lutheranism that is a nice addition to the life you already have.  What God calls us to proclaim is the Gospel that forgives sinners, gives hope to the despairing, and gives life to the dead.  There is nothing moderate or middle ground about such a Gospel!

Friday, November 28, 2014

The secret history of birth control pills. . .

It's hard to decide which is the crazier part of birth control pills' journey from experimental contraception to a federally approved drug. Was it when they were tested on non-consenting, male patients at mental hospitals — or when some women were given the pill as a treatment for infertility?

Development on the birth control pill began in 1950, when Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger approached a scientist named Gregory Pincus to begin work on a reliable, easy-to-use contraceptive. Pincus was working at an independent lab in Massachusetts, the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.

What happens next is, honestly, a bit unbelievable. The pill ultimately became an integral and important resource for millions of women, allowing them to take control of their fertility, their families, and their lives. But the path to building this-now ubiquitous drug was paved with questionable ethics and dodgy research methods that would never pass muster today. The creators of birth control are responsible for developing a revolutionary contraceptive — but they misled their test subjects, many of whom were not equipped to give consent, along the way.

If that whetted your appetite for more, you can read a summary here or the book itself that has presented the history of the birth control pill and how it came to be.  Considering the great impact of the pill upon American culture and life, it is a book long over due.

What I found especially shocking is that but 130 women tried the pill before it went into production.  Granted that the aspirin would probably not pass FDA muster today but it is scandalous that something with such profound consequences had so little pre-market testing.

What is shocking is that we are constantly struggling to deal with unintended consequences of decisions made under the press of time or circumstance.  ...researchers concluded that the asylum patients were "just as psychotic as they were when we began to give them the drug."   Now that is a statement.  Hmmm... would that birth control pills resulted in such a benign effect upon the whole of American society.  No such luck...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Blessed Thanksgiving

My father-in-law died Wednesday evening after a long illness.  Join me in prayers of thanksgiving that he fell asleep peacefully in the arms of his Savior and for the comfort and consolation of his family.  Thank you for your kindness in remembering my family in your prayers as we pause to give thanks to God, in what should be, a life of thanksgiving and praise.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Our Tone Deaf Administration ?!

Peter Berger, a Lutheran sociologist with a solid reputation, has raised some serious questions about the current issues that demonstrate the conflict between religion (faith) and the law.  He has blamed the tone deafness of President Obama and his administration for much of this -- at least for providing the atmosphere for such conflict to thrive.  He may be overstating his case some but, in general, I think he is spot on.

Read his article in The American Interest here.  If you cannot wait, read the snippet I have provided:

...every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.

One commentator has suggested he thinks Berger may have overstated yet he does see the tie here between the deafness of the Obama administration to the impact of faith upon the culture of America.  He also suggested that perhaps the population has responded opposite of the administration in its growing desire to have faith communities speak on political issues facing Americans.  You can read him here.

According to a recent Pew survey, almost 50 percent of Americans think churches and houses of worship should express their views on political and social issues, an increase of 6 percent since 2010. Three-quarters of the public think religion’s influence in our national life is declining—and most of those people think it’s a bad thing. If anything, the Obama Administration seems to be contributing to a pro-religion backlash.

What I think is that we have never had a political institution so overtly insensitive to or opposed to churches than the Obama administration. Some may blame the President and others may see this simply as a consequence of his failure to lead with an appreciation for the faith that is interwoven into nearly every aspect of American public and private life.  Whatever the dispute here, the administration should certainly be held responsible for its failure to accurately estimate and appreciate that faith is here to stay.  No President in my own memory has shown such blindness to this fact although I am not sure that privately some might have equaled Obama in their disdain for the religious point of view.  What remains to be seen is the legacy of his tone deafness on matters of faith.  Maybe he does not realize this tone deafness because the one thing that this President (like many others before him) is constantly in tuned to is himself.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The end is the beginning. . .

Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, Sunday, November 23, 2014.

     The last few weeks have been strong on the subject of the end times.  Today is the end or culmination of that focus that comes at the end of the church year, the last Sunday after Pentecost.  These are unpleasant subjects for most folks.  Talk of judgment day and the end times seems a downer.  It is like God is raining on our parade and stealing away our lives from us – along with all the good things we want to keep and the future things waiting to be done.  But it is not what it seems.
    It is indeed the beginning of the end – not only the end of the church year but the literal end.  We are one year further from Bethlehem and Christ’s coming to the manger and one year closer to His coming in glory, showing forth all His majesty and sitting in judgment over all people.  We will not lose this focus as we start another church year November 30 but will continue to talk about the beginning of the end.
    The beginning of the end did not just start.  It began when the day of the prophets gave way to the day of the fulfillment of the prophetic word.  When Christ took flesh and blood as the Son of God in our form, that was the beginning of the end.  When sin’s back was broken by Christ’s death to pay all our debt for sin, that was the beginning of the end.
    When death was killed by the life that the grave could not hold, that was the beginning of the end.  The end times are not some future date to predict but clearly defined as the moment when the promise became reality, when Christ became incarnate as our Savior, when His suffering bore all our pain, when His death paid all sin’s debt, and when His resurrection overcome death with the power of His life.
    That was the beginning of the end so don’t go looking to unwrap the mystery of the day as if it were some puzzle God has given us to solve.  But there is more.  The end IS the beginning.   We seem inclined to focus on what will end on that day when the heaven’s open, when Christ rides down in glory to complete His new creation, and when all humanity will stand before Him and be held accountable.  But do we consider what begins then?
    For though this life and this worn out flesh and decaying world will pass away, the new will come that death cannot touch, that sin cannot soil, and that despair cannot steal joy away again.  On that day our lives of fear give way to the future of hope begun anew when we rise with Christ to our own joyful resurrection and enter into the place He has prepared for us.
    On that day our lives of selfishness shaped by fear gives way to what the generous love of God has prepared for those who love Him.  On that day hope is fulfilled for now and forever.
    On that day our feeble and small good works that none of us can recall shall be remembered for all eternity and receive the reward none deserve.  On that day the evils that everyone has forgotten will be remembered by the God who must deal with sin – either through the mercy of Christ or the eternal judgment of punishment.  That day is when the end becomes the beginning – the day of our own future as the children of God and hell‘s day for those who refused His mercy.
    The parable of the sheep and the goats seems all about the law but it is really about grace.  The end is not the end.  Our faith endures.  Our lives endure.  Death cannot steal anything from us.  Our sins do not get the last word.  Our good works live on.  Our judgment was the cross.  This is what Christ reveals about the future prepared for us and all who love Him.
    Now we wait.  Not as the aimless wait for the unknown but as the confident to anticipate the future.  Now we wait.  Not as the fearful who dread the end but as the hopeful who await the new and everlasting beginning God has prepared.  Now we wait. Not as the sad who worry about the outcome but as the joyful who long to hear the blessed voice of the Master: “Come, ye blessed of My Father; inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  God grant it.  Amen!

Generational turnover. . .

A recent article in the ELCA's The Lutheran has sparked a discussion of the impending change in the face of Lutheranism when the largest group of Lutheran pastors (those 55 and over) begin to retire.  One statistic that has held relatively constant for the LCMS is 325 pastors retiring each year so that means that 3200 pastors may retire in the next 10 years -- a very significant slice of those pastors currently serving LCMS congregations.  The statistics in the ELCA are not remarkably different.  You can read the article in The Lutheran here.

For years some have been taking pot shots are our seminaries for pushing recruitment as a self-serving means of preserving faculty and institutional identity.  Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this but the overwhelming reality is that large numbers of LCMS pastors will face the prospect of retirement in the next 10 years (me included).  In addition to needing new pastors (not a myth but a very real need), we will also see what this will do to change the face of Lutheranism.

In the ELCA this retirement boom will mean:
  1. Fewer and fewer ELCA clergy will have any memory of the predecessor bodies and the majority of the clergy will know only life within the ELCA...
  2. Fewer and fewer ELCA clergy will remember a day when there was not such a great divide in Lutheranism and when Lutherans were much closer than today in their understandings of Scripture, church, ministry, etc...
  3. Fewer and fewer ELCA clergy will recall the battles that have left this church body scarred with conflict and losses (the battle over the issue of gays and lesbians within the church and ministry, in particular)...
  4. More of the ELCA clergy will presume the stances of their church body on a whole host of social issues has always been what it is now...
In the LCMS this retirement boom will mean:
  1. Fewer and fewer LCMS clergy will have any memory of the split and controversy over Biblical authority that marked Missouri's history so deeply...
  2. Fewer and fewer LCMS clergy will recall the institutional structures that once provided nearly all LCMS pastors (junior college, senior college, and seminary pathway) and most will assume that all pastors came from outside the church colleges or from second careers...
  3. Fewer and fewer LCMS clergy will recall when other Lutherans had more in common with Missouri than conflicts with us over doctrine, faith, and practice...
  4. More of the LCMS clergy will identify with the more conservative perspective on doctrine and practice that resulted from the split in the 1970s...
I am no crystal ball sleuth to predict what the future will look like, but I feel somewhat safe in suggesting the future will reflect those changes. . . 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The borrorers. . .

Scripture has infiltrated the vocabulary and expressions of the English language like none other.  We use figures of speech and turns of a phrase that we assume have a history but, unfortunately, have forgotten that this history leads to the Bible.  This reflects a day when our speech and the prose and poetry of God's Word were thoroughly intertwined.  I wonder when the day will come when we will be asked to exile from our manner of speaking those phrases and expressions that come to us from the Bible.  While some bemoan the cause of doctrine and complain about churches that, in their view, resemble purity cults, we live in an age in which secular life and speech are undergoing their own cleansing by the purity cult intent on separating all things religious (but mostly Christian) from who we are, the lives we live, and our culture.

Read it all here... or below is a preview for those impatient. . . 

13 examples of everyday expressions that came from the King James Version of the Bible, or at least were popularized by it:

1) “At their wits’ end”

Psalms 107.27, KJV: “They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.”

2) “A two-edged sword”

Proverbs 5.4, KJV: “But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.

3) “A drop in the bucket”

Isaiah 40.15, KJV: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.”

4) “A house divided against itself cannot stand”

Matthew 12.25, KJV: “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.

5) “A labor of love”

Hebrews 6.10, KJV: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.”

6) “A man after my own heart”

Samuel 13.14, KJV: “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.”

7) “Nothing new under the sun”

Ecclesiastes 1.9, KJV: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

8) “Fire and brimstone”

Genesis 19.24-26, KJV: “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

9) “Fight the good fight”

Timothy 6.12, KJV: “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.”

10) “Beat swords into ploughshares”

Isaiah 2.4, KJV: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

11) “It’s better to give than to receive”

Acts 20.35, KJV: “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

12) “In the twinkling of an eye”

1 Corinthians 15:52, KJV: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

13) “The ends of the earth”

Zechariah 9.10, KJV: “And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

They do not build them this way anymore. . . to our shame

I have long lamented the way the churches put up cheap, warehouse buildings that are supposed to represent the God who made and sustains all things.  Apparently the best we can do or afford are buildings that are temporary and reflect more the nature of fallen humanity that the eternal and almighty God.  Then, as if adding insult to injury, we equip them with temporary things.

In contrast to this, another age and another generation worked to build that which was worthy of God and their buildings have proven rather cost effective -- enduring even the neglect of their people.  Here is one such instance -- a German Roman Catholic parish slated for closing that sat empty for 6 years and yet still testifies to the craftsmanship of its builders, especially in a pipe organ that had not received any attention for those 6 years and still regaled the ear with the splendor of music.

Read about it here. . . snippets below.

HIS SCENE HAS BEEN PLAYING OUT all over the United States and many parts of the world. One such tragically sad closure is that of the Holy Trinity (German) R. C. Church in Boston’s South End. It was exceptionally unique and beautiful. Established in 1844, the current building was dedicated in 1877. The parish was closed in 2008 and the church building recently put up for sale. Serving the German community, it was also home for many years to the Traditional Latin Mass. (This is especially notable prior to Pope Benedict’s 2007 Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum on the celebration of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of 1962).

Holy Trinity was one of several churches in downtown Boston built in the nineteenth century to serve an enormous immigrant population. These edifices, many within a few short blocks of each other, are larger than most cathedrals throughout the United States. Many issues, some complex and some tragic, leave the nineteenth and twentieth century configurations of the Archdiocese hopelessly out of date and unsustainable.

UT NEW LIFE BEGINS TO BREATHE ELSEWHERE: I received a phone call from Fr. Jonathan Gaspar, Director of the Office of Divine Worship and Priest Secretary to His Eminence Se├ín Cardinal O’Malley. The historic organ at Holy Trinity Church, an E. & G. G. Hook, Opus 858, ca. 1877 was being removed in five days in order for it to be preserved. Before it was to be dismantled, he asked me to come in for a look and to record the instrument one last time.

The hope is that this instrument will continue to lead the people in singing God’s praises in a brand new Neo-Gothic style chapel being built by the Archdiocese near Boston’s newly developing waterfront. Although not designated as a parish, Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel will serve a great need in that location. Pending the outcome of fundraising, this organ will have an opportunity lead the Church in sacred song again.

As I began to play the forty-five rank instrument, I thought of the generations who came here to worship God. For one hundred sixty-four years, this parish nourished the faithful. Playing these last notes in this church was a sacred privilege I did not deserve.

HAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SHORT ten-minute visit tuned into nearly two hours. The organ was in shockingly good condition for having not been serviced in six years. (This is a testament to a highly robust music program that featured several ongoing choirs.) After six years, the tuning was remarkable except for some reeds, which one expects. The chests were in astoundingly good shape. One hundred thirty-seven years after it was first built, this instrument wants to sing on! It must.
Typical of the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Hook organs are its deep and rich colors. I savored the distinctively warm flutes and strings supported by beautiful 8’ foundations. The reeds were colorful, and the instrument, well balanced. Rebuilt and revoiced by Conrad Olson in the 1950’s, the instrument is highly versatile, capable of leading hymns as well as accompanying chant and choral music.

Exploring various colors, I wandered into improvisations of hymns and chants I thought fitting for a last farewell. Among them were Praise to the Lord, and For All the Saints to honor all those who came before to worship here. In Paradisum and Lux aeterna were fitting for what felt like a funeral for the organ and for this magnificent church. Finally, I share with you the very last notes I played that day, an improvisation on Ave Maris Stella. Its somewhat mournful tone is fitting. The final phrases linger on a bit too long, as I did not want to leave.

The bells in the tower, (which originate from New Orleans during the Civil War—another intriguing story) as you can hear, still work beautifully:

Saturday, November 22, 2014

No PC God. . .

Sermon preached for Pentecost 23, Proper 28A, on Sunday, November 16, 2014.

    We live in a well policed world.  There are thought police to tell you what you should and should not think.  There are speech police to tell you what you can or cannot say.  And this PC world has no winners or losers, for everyone is supposed to get as many chances at bat as they need, nobody keeps score, and we all get a trophy at the end.  We get equal everything - equal parts of the pie, equal shares of the wealth, and equal responsibility for the work and bills that make things happen.
    But we have no PC God.  Indeed, God is a scandal to the modern mind.  He does not treat everyone the same.  He treats us differently.  Our great temptation is to complain that this is not fair.  The parable we heard today is certainly not about fair. God gifts people differently, according to their abilities, and expects more from some and less from others but faithfulness from all.  It is no wonder that this God is a mystery to us.
    In the story of Jesus, each was given treasure to manage each according to his ability.  Even though we find it hard to say, God doesn’t.  Some have more and others have less.  We are not all the same.  This is not a cookie cutter world.  God gifts us differently according to our ability but all of us are capable of faithfulness to what God has given and what God expects of us.
    God gives us gifts.  But in the parable one got 5 talents (in silver that would be worth $200K or gold worth $6 M today), and one got 2 talents ($80K to $2.4M today) and one only a single talent (about $40K in silver or $1.2M gold).  Different according to ability.  We would like to believe we are all the same but we are not.  God knows we are not the same.  He gives to us according to our ability.
    But God still gives.  He gives His gifts to His people.  It is His decision who gets what and He does not love some more or others less but gives us according to our ability.  And He gives us these things not so that we can use them as we desire or squander them but for His holy purposes.  God gives us these things that we may use them to serve Him and He holds us all accountable for what we have been given and how we use it.
    Now there is something more in this parable.  God wants to give us more.  God is not stingy but generous.  He wants to give us more but the premise of that more is proving faithful over what we have.  Stewardship is the promise of more to come and the premise of stewardship is faithfulness.
    God is not fair.  He is foolishly and unfailingly generous.  We are consumed with measuring that generosity and trying to interpret it.  We want to quantify His love.  But that is the language of fear,  jealousy, and selfishness – not of faith.
    Like the man in the parable we complain.  God is hard on us, He is hard to please, He is stingy, and He wants me to fail.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God seeks to reward you but your reward is conditioned upon faithfulness over what He has already entrusted to you.
    We measure God’s generosity but what we ought to be measuring is our faithfulness with what He has given.  Faith sets aside the yardstick by which we compare ourselves to others and faith refuses to complain about God’s seeming lack of generosity.  Because faith sees His giving love in Christ and knows that God is unfailingly generous to all His people.
    God loves us equally but each of us are given according to our ability and each of us are held accountable for what He has entrusted to our care.  His way of love is unfailingly generous but He expects from us nothing less than faithfulness.  His goal for all our lives is the same – that we be faithful, that we live under Him trusting in His mercy, that we use faithfully what He has entrusted to us, and that we enter His eternal joy.
    In order to possess this joy, we Christians need to stop looking over our shoulders to see what others have, stop comparing what we have to what others have, and start focusing on God’s giving love and working to be faithful in everything that He has entrusted to us.  That is the key to contentment.

Restoring art to the purview of the Church. . .

Relevant magazine hardly sounds like the kind of forum that would be friendly to the idea of the Church as patron of arts, fostering the nobility of beauty in service to the Gospel.  But, surprise, surprise... you can read the article here on Five Ways the Church Can Make Great Art Again. . .

Some good news. . . In the same vein, coming up on the 151st birthday of the one who established the architectural firm which once epitomized the artistic vision of founder Ralph Adams Cram reminds us that the company is still in business, literally enjoying a renaissance of interest in church buildings of noble character, artistic vision, noble intent, and liturgical orientation.  Always good to know that we still have people who desire to build temples instead of warehouses in the Name of the Lord. . .
Not surprisingly, the 1960s through the 1990s were lean years for the company in terms of church architecture — they survived through private and corporate work. But the dawn of the twenty-first century signaled a return to the firm’s favored milieu. It began with a request in 2000 to restore Cram’s 1910 First Presbyterian Church in Far Rockaway, New York. More requests for help in refurbishing such “legacy” structures began to come in — and then entirely new commissions. Tellingly, a number of these were for Catholic parishes — a signal, perhaps, that the appetite for ugly churches has waned among us. Certainly Anthony, a Catholic himself, is overjoyed by this development.
And for a little fun. . .

How to translate the liturgical direction to be seated:

Mainline protestant
Please stop standing and sit down.
Please stop kneeling and sit up.
Please stop lying on the floor and return to your seats.
Please come down from the rafters and return to your seats.
Tent revival
Now that you all have Jesus in your hearts, you may leave the altar and return to your seats.
Once you've stopped chatting among yourselves, please feel free to find a seat. Whenever you're ready, folks, whenever you're ready...
A cruel joke (there are no seats).

Oh, you are already sitting.
Fresh expressions
An ironic joke (there are nothing but seats).
Oops. I can't believe I just said that out loud.
What an insensitive thing to say. Words like this simply perpetuate cultural stereotypes and the hegemony of able-bodied discourse. The congregation's constant uncertainty about whether to stand or sit is a small price to pay for our moral superiority.
Inner city mission
For pity's sake, Johnno, could you please stop heckling the preacher and sit down!
Rural parish
You can both sit down now.
School chapel
That's my final warning, boys.
Sunday school
Oh hell – they're starting to riot – oh hell – I've completely lost control

Friday, November 21, 2014

Having a bishop and/or the exercise of episcopal authority

As many of you may already know, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod does not call anyone bishop -- at least not formally.  Partly from our bad experience with one (Stephan) and partly because of our inherent lean to democratic structures within a national church body designed with limited authority, we are instinctively suspicious of that term.  Some have noted that we shy away from calling a few bishop so that we can all be bishops and do what we darn please.  There is always a measure of truth in a sarcastic comment.  There is some in this one, too.

That said, we do confer episcopal authority to a specific set of ordained men -- both on a national level and within mostly geographic districts.  This ministry of oversight (though I detest our fear of using the term episcopal authority) is essential to any and every church body with integrity of doctrine and practice.  They are not shift supervisors but exercise real episcopal authority over the doctrine and practice within their area of responsibility -- over both clergy and congregations.

Congregations are free to organize themselves as they will (within certain parameters) and to administer their own affairs as they choose (again within broad parameters)  but we believe that doctrine and practice are not congregational or private but the most public expression of who we are as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  Therefore congregations and clergy voluntarily surrender a measure of their independence to live within the common confession and life of a church structure in which certain officers have authority over their doctrine and practice.

I personally think it is a bit of foolishness not to call them bishops.  Others may disagree.  What all agree upon is that having people called bishop is itself no guarantee of orthodoxy or faithfulness in doctrine and practice.  What we should also be able to agree upon is that the episcopal exercise of such authority is essential to maintaining the bond of peace, sustaining the catholic confession, and practicing faithfully who we are.  The problem here is not what you call them but whether or not they will act upon the authority invested in them to oversee the doctrine and practice of those within their responsibility.  Sometimes those with the most hierarchical structure are positively abysmal at this oversight (thinking here the Episcopal Church).  Sometimes those most adverse to calling them bishops act like them (thinking here a few of the most faithful District Presidents in the LCMS).

We have watched the Extraordinary Synod in Rome (which calls them bishops) and found, to our shock, that on some votes (120 to 60) a significant number of their overseers have some very different viewpoints on what is faithful doctrine and practice (the polarities between Cardinals Burke and Kasper are hard to miss).  Indeed, one Roman Catholic commentator has suggested the most basic benefit of that Synod was to find out who is for us and who is against us.  Therein lies the rub.  You do not need to wear the title bishop to think that you have the right to depart from Scripture and the catholic tradition.  It happens all the time.

None of us delights in those who use their authority to chafe and irritate but what the churches need now more than ever are faithful overseers (really, could we not just use the churchly term bishop?) who speak the truth in love to those tempted to surrender the truth for the sake of love.  Rome needs them, Constantinople needs them, Canterbury needs them, and, guess what, St. Louis needs them.  We need more than administrators but teachers and examples of the faith who will challenge us to be the best we can be, living in faithfulness to our confession and in fervent service and submission to the saving will of Christ.  We need men who can say to the stupid stuff, "stop."  We need men who can say to the distracted, "pay attention."  We need men who can say to those who wanna be somebody else, be faithful to your confession.  Period.  We need men who can say to congregations "you cannot do that" and to clergy "enough already."  And we also need men who can speak positively and passionately why we believe, confess, and teach this and why the world needs to hear it.  When you get bishops like that, it matters less what you call them than you listen to them!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The God of Choice. . .

Of all the idols available to us, perhaps the most enticing is the idea of choice or preference.  We live in a world in which we make constant decisions about what we want or like -- at this particular moment.  Nothing of the choices we make is necessarily decisive for we retain the right to change our minds about anything and everything.

It has had the effect of making childhood, particularly adolescence, more confusing than ever before.  We do not make choices that endure but living in a constant state of making choices -- often from among the same options -- over and over again. 

As a child I grew up with barely a couple of channels on TV and never had a problem finding something to watch.  Today our children have hundreds of choices on their TV in addition to the myriad of choices available to them in video games, computers, internet, and other technological toys.  In fact, some of those choices require you to redefine the setting and rules of the game over and over again -- every time you play.

Henry Ford is said to have remarked that you could purchase one of his cars in any color you wanted so long as it was black.  Now we paint our wardrobes, rooms, and things with a myriad of choices that are limited only by our desire and imagination.  Color, style, design, and preference choices spill over from the walls of the homes in which we live to the displays of all those wonderful technological toys we love.

We view church and faith within the same consumer mindset.  We shop for the right church as if we were looking for a shirt.  It turns out that our loyalty to the church of our choice is not very deep.  We regularly change out churches like we do our shirts.  There is a growing segment of people who are not really members of any church but transient Christians who stop here and there on their way to the next thing that promises to satisfy their whims, at least for a moment.

Scripture and spirituality have also been surrendered to the idol of choice.  We no longer believe in God but we do affirm a spiritual desire.  We no longer believe the Bible but believe certain things in the Bible.  Either of these may change depending upon the choices available to us and our mood at the time.  We want to be spiritual but not if that means committing to something long term (other than self, of course).  We want to say we believe in the Bible but, really, not some of those strange things the Bible says that no modern person really believes anymore.

Even sexuality is not immune from the press of choice.  We are who we are but who we are may change with whim, desire, and availability.  Today the choice may be straight but tomorrow it may be bi and later gay.  Gender is bendable, flexible, and a choice more than a given defined by the sexual organs.  Today I use the boys bathroom but tomorrow I may self-identify differently.  The ultimate conclusion to the idea of "love the one you are with" is reflected in a gender identity which involves a range of choices which may be satisfying rather than one.

The problem in marriage is not just whether only male and female may marry but why limit yourself to marriage at all.  Culture has surrendered the idea "to death till us part" and left us with a commitment that lasts only as long as we find it pleasurable, satisfying, and easy.  It did not take very long to find out that gays divorce as quickly as straight people or that many gay people have come to the same conclusion as many straight people -- why marry at all?  So marriage has become a word defined more and more by personal preference and "what it means to me."  Children are a problem because they are permanent (at last until we can get them to the day care center).

The problem is that it sounds so awful to suggest that we change so we have labelled this change growth.  We grow as people, our opinions grow, our commitments grow.  We are ever growing (and changing) and it seems antithetical to growth to stick with one God, one Scripture, one gender, one spouse, etc...  Growing people need room to grow and the institutional structures of marriage and family may be too constrictive for a growing people -- unless, of course, we radically re-define them!

The Lord knows us.  He knows our fickle hearts, minds, and ways.  The slavery to preference or desire is nothing new nor is it new to Him.  But He has fashioned Himself as the God who is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  In contrast to our evolving ideas of who we are, what life is, and what we want out of it, He is the one constant.  Eventually we will tire of the constant need to set our general preferences for life.  Eventually we will find our desire to choose will itself become a choice we do not have to make.  This may happen when we are left high and dry by the choices, preferences, and options available to us.  Or it may happen when the Word of the Lord addresses our heart and the Spirit finally breaks through the clutter with a ray of light.  Either way, God is patient.  Yet we dare not confuse His patience with a lack of concern.  He is a jealous God -- not because He is consumed with Himself but because of His passion for us.  That passion was displayed most profoundly when Jesus surrendered Himself to death for His already dead people, paying the freight for our sins with His own blood, and suffering for all -- even those who put Him on that cross.  The Church that endures is the Church that is patient, that trusts in the promise of the Lord more than in what they see and hear and feel, and that expects the future God has prepared for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  There is great comfort to me in this enduring truth through which my own brief and inconsequential life (at least to the world) endures to life eternal!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Francis' Agenda?!?

Pope Francis has “pushed the door open” on the issues of homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, and no vote by a future Synod of Bishops is going to reverse it, according to one of the pope’s closest advisors. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference and a member of Pope Francis’ inner circle, said in an interview with Die Zeit that the pope himself had ordered the rejected paragraph on homosexuality to be retained in the Synod’s final document.

It was widely reported by the world’s press, including interviews with high-ranking prelates, that the paragraphs relating to homosexuality and Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in the mid-term document aroused shock and outrage among some Synod fathers. The paragraphs asked whether the Church could learn to “accept” the homosexual “orientation.”

In the Synod’s final document, the fathers failed to approve a paragraph mentioning the Synod’s discussion of appropriate “pastoral attention” for homosexual persons and quoting Church teaching that homosexual unions are not “in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.”

Despite only garnering 118 out of 180 votes, and thus failing to meet the needed two-thirds majority, the Vatican included the paragraph in the published document along with the vote tally. Likewise, the document included a paragraph on the discussions about opening Communion to civilly ‘remarried’ divorcees that had failed to gain the needed votes.

 This report, whether accurate in part or in whole, suggests that no one less than the Pope himself has intervened to turn what appeared to be a defeat for the progressives and restore language that will certainly be interpreted as an opening for gay and divorced Roman Catholics.  Even if it is not intended this way, it is certainly how it will be seen by those inside and outside of Rome.  Makes you wonder if Benedict is having second thoughts. . . I know that many both within and outside of Rome are having some. . .

Vexing. . .

The highly influential Hillsong Church and it’s head pastor, Brian Houston, are in the news because, at first glance, it appeared that they might be backtracking on Scripture's position on homosexuality.  The pastor has assured the world he has not changed his position at all but was nuancing that position in an attempt to keep the conversation open with those who disagree with the Bible's position on homosexuality.  He has been adamant that this massaging of an approach was an attempt for the church to remain relevant in the ongoing conversation with the world and those who oppose the traditional and Scriptural position.

I was asked a question on how the church can stay relevant in the context of gay marriage being legal in the two states of the USA where we have campuses. My answer was simply an admission of reality—no more and no less. I explained that this struggle for relevance was vexing as we did not want to become ostracized by a world that needs Christ.

What is striking here is less what he said or did not say about homosexuality but with his pursuit of relevance and his fear that his church(es) would become ostracized by a world in need of the Gospel.  It is clearly a problem for many Christians and has led to a distinction between public words and private conviction.  What we say in public is sufficiently vague as to keep the door open while in private we remain convinced of the Scriptural and traditional position on this matter.  Perhaps Houston is not unlike the desire of Pope Francis in trying to keep the doctrine but to publicly appear welcoming and sympathetic to GLBT, their families, and those who ally with them.  We have all wanted to do this on one issue or another or at one time or another.

I certainly do not fault those who find the dilemma vexing.  It most certainly is vexing.  But it is also a tension Jesus not only predicted but warned His Church about.  There will be those who deny the truth for the sake of public acceptance.  There will be those pressed by fear of persecution (the worst form of ostracization).  But the counsel of God's Son is to remain steadfast in the truth that endures forever.  Instead of apologizing for what we believe, we are called to speak it.  A defense of the faith is not an attempt to make it reasonable or comprehensible to the world.  Such is not possible.  His ways are not our own.  We walk not by sight but by faith -- trusting in that which mind cannot understand and eye cannot see.

We get in trouble more by waffling before the challenge than by simply letting our yes be yes and our no be no.  Houston is now viewed with suspicion by those who are not so sure he might have walked back his support for the Biblical truth and he is certainly viewed with suspicion by those to whom he had hoped to remain in open conversation.  How can you dialog with those who believe one thing privately but say something different in public?

In the end it is a lesson.  To be faithful means that the world will not understand, will not agree, and will, indeed, persecute those who speak the truth faithfully -- even when they speak it in love.  But we can do no less.  We can no more fail to speak the truth than we can afford to speak it in such way that it becomes a weapon rather than invitation.  For the Word of the Lord will produce its own results and God will bring forth His own appointed fruit from its speaking.  That is enough for you and me to know.  We are speakers of the truth but God is its voice and its power.  Regardless of how the truth is received by the world, it will not return to Him empty handed.  Once we get that right, we will find it easy to escape the conundrum that Pastor Houston and Hillsong have found themselves in.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Too much focus on the vehicle?

One of the perennial arguments of any current discussion of worship is that music is essentially neutral and that it is the text that matters -- the music being little more than the vehicle to deliver the text to us.  The earliest forms of Protestantism were not so sure about this.  One of the first things to go among them was chant and, though they were cautiously in favor of congregational song, it was only within strict parameters that hymnody began as we know it.  Some restricted the text to paraphrases or the literal wording of the Psalms (safe because God inspired them) but to these texts they had a smaller number of melodies which were associated almost exclusively with Psalm singing.

Lutherans bucked the trend and both preserved chanting and provided an atmosphere in which congregational song and liturgical music flourished.  Even then it was not without some complaint.  Bach was too busy on the keyboards for many and some thought that hymnody worked best when accompaniment was simple, plain, and drew little attention to itself.  We have all suffered through the mythology of Luther quotes (why must the devil get all the good music) or the equally false idea that he borrowed liberally from pub songs and secular melody (and countenanced it) to obtain suitable tunes to go with early Lutheran hymn texts.  Thankfully these have been pretty much exposed as falsehoods and inventions by scholars.

Now, nearly 500 years after Luther, we find ourselves in the midst of music battles within the worship wars.  The same old tired ideas of the past have been brought forward again and pressed upon us.  Music is neutral.  It does not matter what tunes we sing  but merely the text within that musical form.  So Christian rap and the great Lutheran chorales differ more on the scale of culture (high or low) than value or worth.  What foolishness we tell ourselves!

The early Christian hermits were suspicious of music.  They knew the power of music to drive, if not overwhelm, the text itself.  Chant was kept but polyphony, instrumental music, and congregational song were viewed by these desert fathers as influential as the very words of the music.  So Orthodoxy remains sung but absent instrumental accompaniment (especially in contrast to the use of the pipe organ in the West).

Music is more than merely a vehicle for the text.  It is itself a medium that communicates values, ideas, and identity.  Some would have us believe that music is to the text merely a vehicle to get the words into the minds and out the lips of the people and that it does not matter if that vehicle is a classy and elegant automobile or a lean and maneuverable scooter or motorcycle or a sturdy truck.  It matters not if it is a Mercedes or Mazda, Harley or Hummer, luxury sedan or junker.  The text is all that is important.  If this were the case, we might have less to argue about except culture.  But it is not.  Music matters and not simply as a delivery vehicle for the text.  It imposes ideas, can conflict with the text, has the power to overwhelm the words, and even detract from the content.

For this reason, music must not only deliver the text but serve it -- serve it as its hand maiden (as Luther put it) so that the aims of the text become the aims of the tune as well and what ends up is a comprehensive whole of text and tune working together for the same purpose, to deliver the same message, and to honor the same God.  The sad truth is that we choose songs we like not only for what the words say but simply for how it all sounds to us.  In fact, sometimes we never know or realize what the words actually say while remaining in love with the sound of the music.  Such is incompatible with Christian music, especially hymnody.  What distinguishes Christian music is that text and tune become a seamless whole in saying the same thing to heart and head -- at the same time.  When and where that happens, music is blessed and made as noble as any servant can be in serving a higher good.  When and where that does not happen, it is unworthy of worship, unworthy of our attention, and unworthy of the God whom it seeks to honor.

The danger in the Church today is as much from vehicles headed in a different direction from the Word of the Lord it claims to sing as it is from Christians who refuse to acknowledge the often obvious contradictions between preference and truth.  Christian music is NOT primarily about what we like but about what is faithful in words and in music.  We have, sadly, become accustomed to presuming that what we like is good enough for God.  What we forget is that it is nneither good enough for God NOR for us. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

All politics is local. . .

Some have said that Cardinal Kasper was playing to the hometown crowd when he brought up the issue of divorced Roman Catholics.  The population of Germany is growing more and more secular.  The numbers of Germans leaving the Church and therefore relieving themselves of the church tax burden grows with each succeeding year.  The age of the German Church is increasing and youth are not replacing them.  The benefits provided by the church tax structure, while generous now, are unsustainable given the above.  Some have said that Kasper is reacting not to a Roman Catholic problem but a German situation.  Interesting. . .

The same outspoken Cardinal has been caught up in a controversy in which private comments were recorded and made public in which he insisted that African Roman Catholics had to be excluded because of their hometown crowd and the difficulty in raising the issue of homosexuality.  According to Kasper this is a taboo subject among the Africans.  In a sense, he is admitting that his situation is different from theirs and that Rome may have to find a way to accommodate such differences (though probably he means that the Africans are at some point in time going to have to live with the recognition of gays and gay marriage already clearly intrenched in the West).

The point I am making is that no church and no Christianity can survive if it offers one answer for one set of people and another answer for others.  Rome is united more or less by its Pontiff.  Francis seems to have done a good job of uniting many folks in disappointment with him and his leadership.  Those who press for the full inclusion of gays, divorced, and other excluded groups will surely be disappointed with Francis' bungled leadership of their cause.  Those who insist upon a hermeneutic of continuity are undoubtedly disappointed with Francis for seemingly opening the door to radical change (or at least the expectation of such change to come) on these issues.

It all points out both the strength and the inherent weakness of the papacy.  On the one hand every religious group benefits from a clear and confident leader but on the other hand the leadership of such a large and diverse group means the confrontation with local needs and desires that are often at odds with the national unity and purpose of the larger group.  Where you have a Pope who is well respected and trusted, JPII, it is possible to unite people with disparate aims and purposes and to lead them to walk together.  When you have a Pope who is a theologian and a man of integrity, B16, people will listen to him even when they do not agree with him.  But when you have a Pope who appears to waver, to speak out of both sides of his mouth, and to give a false impression of what he believes or desires, it can only weaken and further divide an already weak and factionalized communion.

Lutherans and others cannot afford to watch this spectacle in Rome with only morbid curiosity.  The pressure upon our leaders is the same.  Faithfulness in doctrine and practice must be married to a compassionate heart.  Truth cannot be set at odds with either humility or kindness.  We struggle with the same issues and pressures as well as other issues.

For the Missouri Synod we run the same risk of being a rather loose conglomeration of independent but cooperating congregations (when it suits their interests) instead of being a churchly body that unites our divergent parishes.  We have enjoyed the leadership of an administration which has so far worked to enjoin faithfulness in doctrine and practice with a welcome face of compassion and kindness but every day brings new tests for this leadership.

St. Paul insists that our credibility before the world and our integrity with one another is our ability to speak the truth in love.  To lean on love without truth is to lie and to be content with truth minus love is be equally unfaithful.  God help us and may He raise up those who will lead us in both faithfulness and service.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

More Pope than they bargained for. . .

There were those in Rome who seemed to tire of the unbending theological integrity of JP2 and B16.  Both were professorial in a church where some longed for a more communal and informal leader.  Much is made of the vestments worn (or not) but I think this says little about JP2 or B16.  They were clearly servants of the office and of the church they served and they wore what was the given vesture of the office.  And therein is perhaps the greater difference between them and Francis.  Francis is the picture perfect pope for modernity -- he eschews the trappings of the office and opens his arms and his mouth with words that seem to imply "lets just be friends."  He is no one to judge, wishes a more welcoming stance toward gays and divorced, is not so sure about capitalism, and wants to be seen as pastoral more than anything else.

But... and there is the rub.  Francis is more papal than JP2 or B16.  Both of them worked incrementally and acted more in concert with their forebears and collegially with their fellow bishops than Francis does.  He appears to egalitarian but he acts more arbitrarily than either of his predecessors.  He seems not to abide dissent while JP2 and B16 patiently endured the slings and arrows of the liberals (especially among the American crowd -- including one nun who presumed to tell the pope what to do with women and the priesthood).  In contrast Francis has had it with people who won't go along with his agenda (I thinking here of his actions toward traditionalist Cardinal Burke and other papal appointments or demotions).  He listens to the voice of the bishops without hearing and when they vote contrary to his desire, he ignores them and inserts paragraphs into the final report of the extraordinary synod that they rejected.  He is his own man but not in the right way.

The public and press seem to be cheering him on but this pope is more autocratic and papal than his recent predecessors and he is too much a pope for me.  Any pope who sees himself above his church, smarter than the bishops, willing to act on his own to get what he wants, unwilling to tolerate dissent from those whose worst criticism is to move more slowly and not to depart from the tradition of the church, well, that is too much pope for this Lutheran.  In the end Francis acts more as a solitary figure than either B16 or JP2 and this is exactly the kind of pope which makes Lutherans suspicious.

I was warming up to B16 and thought this is one guy who understands more of Lutherans than those who went before him (including Leo X) but I am completely turned off by Francis.  He is too papal for this Lutheran.  Yes, he may dress more simply and live (at least in appearance) more commonly than other popes but his actions and words indicate he is more enamored with his power than I am comfortable with (and has made many with the Roman Catholic Church also uneasy). 

Francis, like Obama, is a good talker but it seems he says what the people in the particular audience want to hear and does not necessarily betray much of his own personal convictions or intentions.  He is like those in Missouri who want to separate substance and style, who think you can keep the theory but change the practice.  As I have often said, if you act like an Evangelical on Sunday morning, you will end up believing like one.  This is exactly what bothers me most about Francis.  He wants his church to act differently and shrugs his shoulders if this means a break with tradition. 

Now to be sure, as a Lutheran I have not invested much in the debate about what to do with so many divorced Roman Catholics.  But I AM invested in the way Rome moves its weight around on the issue of homosexuality, on what side it falls on the worship wars, etc...  Why?  Because when Rome sneezes, Lutherans get a cold.  We have invested so much in Rome's post-Vatican II ideas of worship and it has done some of the same damage to us as it did to Rome.  We stand together against abortion and euthanasia and assisted suicide (among the many pro-life issues) but this is exactly the kind of divisive issue that Francis seems to want to find wiggle room within.  We stand together against the redefinition of marriage and family but I worry what damage will be done to the Lutheran hold outs against the gay agenda if Rome seems to capitulate even a little.

Nope, I would rather take the Rome of Benedict and his little red had trimmed in ermine and John Paul and his awful chanting and even Cardinal Burke and his long red capa more than this blue-jeaned Francis who wants us to find a way to be nicer, friendlier, and more winsome.  He is exactly the kind of pope that scares a Lutheran like me and I think he should scare more of those outside of Rome and this within.

From the Hardt. . .

The Rev. Fr. Tom G. Hardt (+June 1998) of blessed memory has spoken well and exhaustively with respect to the Lord's Supper in Confessional Lutheranism.  His expertise and careful scholarship have given to Lutherans great blessing as well as much for us to ponder.

This has been made a gift to the us all by the faithfulness of First Trinity, Pittsburgh, PA,  and lies under the custodianship of Erling Teigen.  Please read and take care to honor the conditions on which his contribution has been made available.  No part of this document is to be further published or disseminated by any means without the express permission of Erling T. Teigen, 314 Pearl St., Mankato MN 56001 (e-mail: ).  The text is available here.

Completed in 1971, Dr. Tom G. A. Hardt was pastor of St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, Stockholm.  His faithful witness in the face of the Swedish Lutheran Church's liberalism is heroic and all Confessional Lutherans owe him a debt of gratitude.  Noteworthy is his honor of the sainted Dr. Robert Preus as friend and his dedication to the sainted Hermann Sasse.  

If you are Lutheran and want to read one of the most thorough and careful treatments of the Lord's Supper available to us, this is the document to read. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A wise voice from Rome. . .

The Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family, specifically, the issue of the divorced, has been somewhat of a soap opera.  By the time you read this, undoubtedly the background will be revealed and people will find that the press was irrationally exuberant (to use an old term from Alan Greenspan).  There is not going to be a radical adoption of the secular agenda with respect to marriage, family, homosexuality, etc...

That said I was struck by the wise counsel of Cardinal Pell.  He appears to be both articulate and faithful in his perspective.  I was particularly encouraged when he indicated that the overwhelming majority of speakers noted the initial document's failure to reflect the teaching of Scripture and the tradition of the church.  These are words that warm my heart, and, I suspect, the hearts of many Lutherans like me who watched with both fear and trepidation as Rome's spectacle unfolded in the news.  That is exactly what we need to listen to and hear as well as what we need to speak and proclaim to the world.  The teaching of Scripture and the tradition of the church with respect to marriage and family is not some antiquated and prudish position born of fear but a gift and blessing (to the world as well as the good folk of the Church).

If we heard more common sense spoken like the Australian Cardinal has wisely and faithfully addressed, we would all feel better about Francis as Pope and about the witness of Rome to other Christians and to the world with respect to such an important issue as marriage, family, and homosexuality.  A pastoral tone cannot be a euphemism for ignoring either what the Scriptures have said and the church has witnessed through the ages.  To be pastoral is to be faithful to this wonderful and blessed truth.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Do not be ignorant. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 22, proper 27A, preached on Sunday, November 9, 2014.

    From Left Behind to Heaven is for Real, movies try to tell us what the Scriptures do not say.  Is there a subject more curious to us than what happens to those who die?  Are they in heaven already as some passages of the Bible suggest or are they sleeping in death awaiting us as other passages seem to say?  The short answer is "yes".  In other words, every perspective on those who have gone before us can give us but the smallest facet on the whole picture.  Speculation, however, offers us little real value and nothing of the sturdy hope we need to endure to the day of Christ’s return, the Bridegroom who comes to claim His bride.
    We do not hope because of what appeals to our curiosity or what touches our feelings.   We do not believe because of a little boy who thinks he went to heaven and returned and we do not believe because the answers to all our questions are rational and reasonable.  God has given us what we need to know in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.  Explaining away the mystery of death or our resurrection is not the source of our hope.  Christ is.  And faith is how we approach Christ – trusting in His Word, in its sufficiency and in its truthfulness.
    St. Paul warns us "Do not be ignorant."  What does he mean?  Ignorance is not an intellectual problem, not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of trust and confidence in what you do know.  Don't be stupid.  In other words, do not ignore or overlook what God has made known simply because it is not all that you want to know.  We do not have a lack of answers from God but we do lack confidence in Christ who is the answer.
    We have a preoccupation with questions.  Like the child who constantly asks the mother "Why" – we refuse to be comforted by what we have been given to know and insist upon dwelling on and speculating about what has not been given to us to know.
    We have looked at the comfort God has provided and decided that is not enough.  So we have sought after comfort elsewhere, from other sources, and ultimately a comfort of feelings instead of facts.  But where will this lead us?  Nowhere.  This is appealing but not strong enough on which to hang the hopes of our lives and our death.
    We are not the first to turn up our noses at what God has or has not revealed and insisted that we want more or different answers.  In Paul's day there was the same lack of faith in what God has revealed and promised and the same pursuit of other comforts and other promises.  Do not be deceived.   We have been given Word and promise enough to keep us in Christ until the day of our joyful resurrection and blest reunion.
    What do we know?  We know that Christ Jesus died to kill death and that He rose again to impart eternal life.  We know that His death was real and we know that He appeared to more than 500 witnesses.  We know that He is the author and pioneer who writes our future and walks it before us, where we shall go with Him and in Him.
    Easter is certainly about Christ and His resurrection but it is equally about us and our own resurrection sealed up in Him.  Those who die in Christ live in Him.  He is not a God of the dead but of the living.  Yet for now we live captive to time and waiting for the completion of all that Christ began.  We live in anticipation of what is to come but waiting in faith for that day, for that revelation, and for that future.
    What does He bid us do?  Stay the course in faith.  Trust in His promise.  Live and act on the basis of what we do know – we know He died for our sins, that He rose for our new life, and that we already own this forgiveness and new life by baptism, though not yet in full.  Yet we shall not only be with Him but like Him – wearing the glorious flesh that death and disease cannot touch, where disappointment and despair cannot go, and where tears no longer flood from our eyes in pain and painful longing.
    In the Gospel for today, Jesus told a parable to put the focus where it belongs – not on the curious but upon the solid promise of His Word.  He died.  He rose.  He will come again.  Ten virgins waited but only five acted on the basis of what they knew and prepared for the wait.  The other five slept in blissful ignorance.  They were neither prepared nor ready to receive the bridegroom.
    God has given us what we need to know to endure and by His Spirit we grasp hold of the hand of His promise by faith.  In baptism, we died to rise in Him and with Him to the life He has promised and prepared.  For now we wait, girded and strengthened by the means of grace.  And by the knowledge He will return to finish His new creation.  Are you wise or foolish?  Do you act on the basis of what you know or do you live in the fantasy world of what might be?  There is only one comfort.  Stay the course, trust in His Word (that you know), live in joyful anticipation of what He has promised, and feast upon the foretaste of the marriage banquet to come. Amen