Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. . .

Sermon preached for Palm/Passion Sunday, March 29, 2015.

   Today we recall how our Lord entered Jerusalem.  It was the Sunday before His betrayal at the hands of Judas, before a crown of thorns was placed on His head, and before the nails would pierce His hands and feet.  He entered the city as its King. No, He did not come in kingly garb as head of state nor did He enter as triumphant hero from the battlefield carrying the colors of victory.  He did not enter His city for temple or castle or for accolades and thrones. 
    He said it.  My Kingdom is not of this world.  His entry into Jerusalem could not have better portrayed His words.  For He was a humble King, mounted on a humble beast of burden, to the humility of betrayal, suffering, and death.  He was the innocent One who died for the guilty, the victim of the scheme of His enemies, and the last person on earth whom most would claim as King.  But He did this to keep the prophet’s promise and deliver His Father’s world to Him clean and holy.
    The law was not made for kings and queens.  At least that is what earthly kings and queens and presidents have claimed.  They are above it.  But not this King.  King Jesus came as one who was born under the Law in order to fulfill it – even when that meant the innocent dying for the guilty, the righteous for the evil, and the Lord of life for a people captive to death.  For a people like us, who refused the Law, who gave ourselves to very sin and vice, to every shame and evil, to lust and lies, to envy and thievery, to porn and pride...  What kind of King would suffer for the sins of His people?  For sins not His own?

    This King has come for sinners such as you and I.  And it is good that He came – for without Him we have no virtue and no hope of paying the mountain of debt our sins incurred.  This is His story but He has made us the beneficiaries of all that He came to do.  His tortured death releases us from the torture of our sin and death, from the living agony of waiting to die.  His lonely suffering has forged us together in unity as a people whose common baptism into His death and whose new life born of His resurrection embrace the lonely and lost.  He entered the city of His own will and desire.  He is our King and He has earned the right to claim us by suffering in our place and dying for us the death that was ours to die.
    Yet His Kingly love refuses to order us or compel us against our will.  He woos and wins us with the love that forgives the sins of guilty sinners, that pays our every shameful debt to sin we owe, that carries every burden we refuse to bear, and that pays the ransom none of us are worth paying for.  And not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious body and blood.  He is King like no other.  They called Him “King” as joke but the joke was on them.  He is the one and only man born of woman who has the right to this title and whose life is worthy of the name above every other name by which any would be saved.
    He claims no glory but the cross and He calls us to no other glory than the cross-shaped glory of that death.  He does not ask for our pity but has pitied us enough to save us at the cost of Himself.  He does not ask for our respect but has respected us who were like garbage to be discarded and forgotten. 
    He does not ask for our admiration but refuses to be idealized or His cross romanticized.  He asks us only to look upon that cross and see the suffering that releases us from suffering, the death that kills death, and the life that no one could take but He willingly offers.  And this cross is our glory.  We are determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.  Lord, where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life. 
    Jesus calls us not to regret but repentance, not to sorrow but contrition, not to lament but to hopeful faith. This is His victory painted in blood.  This is His life surrendered for the higher purpose of our own redemption.  This is His love not in words but in actions that have marked history even for those who refuse to be blest by that love. 
    And so we come.  We come to hear again the King who dies for His undeserving and rebellious subjects... to meet again in the shadow of the cross where our redemption was born... to recall again the water that cleanses us from all sin... to eat again His flesh for the life of the world and His blood shed for you and for me.   So today we say and sing, as we do each Divine Service:  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  Amen.

Has Protestantism run out of gas?

Last year, for the first time ever, Protestants lost their majority status in an annual survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 47 percent of America identifies as Protestant, with rates as high as 81 percent in Mississippi and as low as 10 percent in Utah.

In a series of some 22 maps of the US, we find the religious complexion of America charted out by states and denominations, among other things.  It is an interesting story of decline that has raised the question of whether or not Protestantism has run out of gas.  You can look up your own states of interest and see how it all pans out.  What interests me is how the once mighty force of mainline Protestantism has become something of a toothless tiger, consumed with social advocacy in place of the Gospel, experimenting with doctrines and worship practices that are probably not Christian at all, and content more with a past than a future.

Protestantism is a mixed bag at best.  There are some noble traditions with a serious past and who still bear some resemblance to a people who pay attention to God and His Word.  These folks sometimes degenerate into purity cults in which it seems the main job is to prove that they are better than others.  This even happens among Lutherans but it is not helpful to be skeptical or suspicious of everyone and everything.  On the other hand, there are many in the mushy middle who do not like the drift of their national church but who assume that things are okay if not of that crazy stuff is in their own back yard.  We have those in Lutheranism as well.  It is not helpful at all to hide in the congregation even if many do for at some point in time we must either face up to what we are a part of or find a better church home.  And then there are the crazies and the fringes who seem to believe that ignoring tradition and taking the Scriptures as a cue rather than the Word that endures forever is what church ought to be -- and that is exactly what they do and, in many cases, they seem to live in this crossless Christianity quite successfully (at last as the world counts it).

And then there are those who believe that diversity of doctrine and practice are no barrier to unity.  These are those who think that the great impediment to Christian witness is not a lack of substance but a lack of visible unity.  They harp on the divisions (which are not good) but forget that these divisions are generally the result of very different understandings of the Word of the Lord and the Gospel -- not just contentiousness.  Frankly, I do not see how God is glorified by a paper thin unity which cannot suffer honest discussion of the truth.

So. . . America is not the great Protestant hope it once was (if it ever was).  Whether or not that is a good thing I will leave to others.  But I can tell you it makes no difference until and unless we take the Word of God seriously, until we inform and conform our confession and practice to that Word, and until we are willing to shed the threads of our tradition that conflict with what has always been believed, confessed, and taught.  The redemption of Protestantism is a catholic confession, in which we are not islands of belief apart from the continent of Scripture and its witness -- clear and clearly confessed through time.  The truth is that the Word of God is rather clear and not at all muddled.  I would personally settle for churches that confessed without reservation and without footnote the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.  If such were to take place in Protestantism, there might just be some new life in the dying structures of what was once America's religious face.

Monday, March 30, 2015

One more reason Legos are the best toys!

Jeremy Loesch

Renewable energy. . . cooked birds

We always presume that we are so smart an that we can do what cannot be done.  So we decry the costs of one energy source in pursuit of that which is safe and cheap and easy (sort of like sex).  Everything worked fine in the test except for the fact that we cooked some birds in the process.  No, I am not opposed to solar -- just to the idea that we are smarter than God or that we can find a way that is pure, righteous, and holy.  We live in a sinful world, with a creation groaning in expectation of the new and eternal day, and until then we are not as smart as we think and we cannot find the pure path without cost and safe for everyone and everything.  Maybe we should not stop trying but maybe we ought to surrender our hubris that we are at least as smart as God and better at figuring His creation out than He was in making it.  Read about it here or check out the snippets below.

Supporters of renewable energies hope that new advances in solar technology will figuratively set the world on fire, but for hundreds of birds in Nevada last month, that scenario became a literal reality. Nearly 130 birds were set alight mid-flight during tests for the new 110 megawatt solar array plant in Tonopah, Nevada. 

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project uses 17,500 heliostat mirrors, each the size of a garage door, to direct sunlight to a central tower rising 1,200 feet above ground level. The combined energy is transferred to molten salt held in the tower, which is circulated and produces steam to generate electricity. Excess heat is stored in the salt, allowing electricity to be generated for up to ten hours without sunlight...
On January 14th, about a third of the plant was brought online for testing. Unfortunately, about two hours into the test biologists and engineers on site began to notice “streamers” – trails of smoke and steam caused by birds flying into the field of solar radiation. Any moisture on the birds was instantly vapourised, whilst some of the birds themselves burst into flames even as they flapped away. Nearly 130 birds were killed or injured during the test...

Federal wildlife officials have begun referring to the solar arrays as “mega traps” for wildlife, despite protestations by Ivanpah officials that the streamers are floating rubbish or insects straying within the field. But biologists believe the streamers are caused by a chain of reaction, as insects attracted by the tower’s bright light in turn attract bird species.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

From Palms and Hosannas to Crucify Him. . .

As we begin Holy Week, there is a perennial debate among Lutherans over the Sunday which was called Palm Sunday and now is called Passion Sunday.  I must admit that it is a curious one for me.  When I grew up the majority of Lutherans I knew had confirmation on Palm Sunday.  Instead of Jesus riding in on the back of a donkey, a row or two of finely groomed young men in the first real suits and young women in their white, lacy dresses were assembled for the rite Luther loved to hate -- confirmation.  So we did not hear much of Jesus entrance into Jerusalem amid palms and hosannas nor did we pay much attention to what was coming later in the week.  It meant one thing to us -- no more catechism class!  Yeah!  The two hours on Saturday mornings sitting quietly except to repeat memory work would finally come to an end.  Who could not be happy about that?  It was, at least in our minds and the minds of our relieved parents who saw us finally finished, a much more important occasion than what happened in the Gospel. So maybe this has soiled my perception of the argument in favor of palms and tilted my sympathies toward the passion over the palms.  I cannot say that I am objective about this but I am not without appreciation for the argument which changed the day.

Some complain that the reading of the Passion overshadows the rest of the week and renders the individual stories of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday superfluous.  I disagree.  We do have palms and hosannas -- where they belong in the great procession that enters Holy Week by following Jesus through the crowds to the cross.  We do pay attention to the grand welcome in which the Savior came to His appointed destiny humble and mounted on a donkey.  But we do this in the context of the larger outcome.  Jesus did NOT come for the crowds or the accolades or the welcome.  He came for the cross.  In the past the palms gave us a glory moment which was not Jesus' primary glory.  He came for the glory of the cross.

Yes, I agree.  It is cumbersome to read the whole Passion story in one fell swoop.  It is long.  It taxes the skill of the reader and the listener.  But such is the weight of these words that we at least once in Holy Week hear it all -- from beginning to end -- before we explore the smaller stories inside the big one.  Yes, it does kill the surprise ending but the Church and those who have gathered to celebrate the day already know the surprise ending -- we know He dies and we know He rises again.  This is exactly why we come.  To hear it all again -- the old story retold again, not for dramatic effect, but because this IS the Gospel. 

So sing All Glory, Laud, and Honor and wave the palms and shout the hosannas.  But make sure that on this Sunday everyone knows where this goes -- to the cross.  And don't forget to sing one of the great Lenten chorales (O Sacred Head, A Lamb Alone Goes Willingly, etc.) or one of my personal favorites, No Tramp of Soldier's Marching Feet.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A whim, a goofy mistake, or worse???

Helsinki: Orthodox Metropolitan Ambrosius of Helsinki of the Finnish Orthodox Church invited Female Evangelical Lutheran bishop Irja Askola to Altar with him during Clergy ordination at the Sunday Divine Liturgy. This has sparked much controversy.

He also ordered the Deacons to pray for the Lutheran woman bishop during litany. This has angered several Orthodox faithful.

Archbishop Leo- Primate of the Finnish Orthodox Church has condemned the incident and has asked Metropolitan to clarify the issue before considering any measures against him.

Major Finnish newspapers have reported the incident. Archbishop Leo have released an official statement on the controversial incident which is available at the official website of the Finnish Church.

Does this woman look like a Finish Orthodox bishop?  priest?  deacon?  laywoman?  What was in the mind of Metropolitan Ambrosius of Helsinki to invite female Lutheran bishop Irja Askola to the altar during a clergy ordination?  Read it in Finnish here.  So far I do not have a date.  Can somebody help me here?

Friday, March 27, 2015

The shibboleth of modernity. . .

From Breitbart:

Students at Kings College London (KCL) have successfully campaigned for the removal of a window featuring former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, an alumnus of the college, on the grounds that his stance on gay marriage makes him “homophobic”.  The move comes despite Carey’s reputation as a liberal while he was Archbishop, ushering in the ordination of women priests for the first time in the Church’s history.

He particularly attracted their ire during a debate on same sex marriage held at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in 2012. Lord Carey made a point about the new sanctity awarded to equality, saying: “It seems to me that so many of our current problems revolve around the all-too narrow attempt to make equality the controlling virtue. Acceptance of differences does not challenge equality. We are not the same.  Men and women are equal in the sight of the Lord but that is a statement about our legal status and not our identity. Same sex relationships are not the same as heterosexual relationships and should not be put on the same level.”

It was the last sentence in particular that angered the campaigners, who branded Lord Carey a “homophobe” and a “hate figure”, and began to campaign for the window’s removal. 

Modernity shouts diversity and condemns suppression EXCEPT for that which disagrees with its sacred values.  In a very short period of time the modern shibboleth has become gay rights and gay marriage.  It will not be long before every other right must bow at this altar -- including freedom of religion.  When that day comes we will discover just how fragile freedom truly is and just how effective an enemy is the thought and speech police who get to define what a homophobe is and what will not be tolerated in public conversation.  Churches need to pay attention to this for it will not be long before tax status and legal rights are stripped from everyone who dares to speak against that which once dared not speak its name at all.  It is also, sadly, a tacit admission of the bankruptcy of British culture and values that this is happening more and more in jolly old England.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The first casualty is usually the truth. . .

Read The National Review for an article on the push back to the Archbishop's desire to have teachers in Roman Catholic schools actually teach in line with Roman Catholic teaching.  It is not that difficult and certainly no stretch of the imagination to believe that those who teach in Roman Catholic schools would actually teach in line with Roman Catholic teaching -- whether or not they personally believe such.  Yet it is clear that when it comes to the highly organized and well funded gay lobby, this is exactly the things being challenged.

First they will characterize the teaching as rigid.  It is a typical move to paint orthodoxy as rigid, unbending, heartless, and unfeeling.  Who would agree with orthodoxy if it meant surrendering your heart at the door.

Next they will characterize orthodoxy as out of step with the people in the church.  How many times have we not heard orthodoxy described as not the mainstream of people's thinking or a stretch for the average person in the pew?  Here the point will be made that because there are Roman Catholics who disagree with the church's position, the position must change to fit the people's viewpoint.

And then, of course, they will attempt to discredit the moral high ground of those who press for orthodoxy.  But this is and has never been about who is holier -- it is about the unchanging teachings of a church and the ordinary expectation that a school that wears the church's name should be expected to teach and practice in conformity with that teaching.

Lest we think this is a uniquely Roman Catholic issue, we Lutherans have seen the Lutheran-ness of our own church schools diluted and weakened to the point where it is hard to identify anything in the curriculum or policies of such a school in conformity with the confessional standards of the church.  A particular example might be the promotion of evolution (we all expect that evolution will be taught informationally but we have a right to expect that it will not be promoted at the expense of Scripture).  Another example would be the area of worship.  Sadly many students in a Lutheran school go to chapels that bear no distinctive marks of Lutheran faith or piety.

Lutheran schools are expensive.  The parents pay good money in tuition.  The parishes support the school, facilities, and mission of the school with good money given in food faith.  The minimal common expectation is that the faith and practice of such schools will conform to the doctrinal positions of the larger church.  Apart from this is the basic question of why such a school could or should be called Lutheran in the first place.  Funny, though, is the fact that most of our parents make the great sacrifice of tuition and offerings in support of Lutheran education because they believe that Lutheranism offers something good and positive toward education.  Why else would you spend so much money on your child's education?  No, the basic and most foundational expectation of people sending their children to a Lutheran school is that the school will impart a solidly Lutheran education for their children.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Annunciation Of Our Lord

A quiet day. . . following my father's funeral. . . remembering the Annunciation. . . rejoicing in the gift to us all God placed within Blessed Mary's womb. . . recalling her resolute trust in the wisdom of the Lord and her consent to His will. . . renewing our own faith with the prayer that we may manifest such trust in God's gracious will. . . and resting our wounded hearts in His promise. . .

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The need for gravity. . .

While hearing of the space walk at the International Space Station, I was reminded that weightlessness is not a blessing but a bane.  It is harder to work in an atmosphere without gravity than it is with the gravity pulls against our every movement trying to be free.  Our bodies are made for gravity and require its constant pull for everything from muscle tone to bone density.

We stand staring into the sky and wish we could fly -- floating weightless in the sky (or at least enough weightlessness to keep us above but not too far from the landscape of the earth.  We dream of reaching the stars though the practical effects of such long term travel without gravity remain a danger as much as they are a desire.

We should be thankful for gravity for without it we would suffer in more ways than we can count.  But instead we find gravity an enemy against a vision of freedom which begs to be let go.  Surely there is a sermon in this or at least a devotion.  Especially in Lent we come face to face with the sober and often disappointing truth that we also need gravity for the soul, the pull of the divine with its unpleasant truth or we suffer as victims of an illusion that can offer us nothing real.

Lent is that.  It is the season of gravity, acknowledging the pull of the divine that keeps us where we need to be -- even if that pull includes the guilt and shame of sin.  Too much of our lives are not real.  We work with our minds and not our backs and the consequence is that our backs ache for lack of labor while our minds are weary from too much information.  We are a sedentary people who spend too much time in a chair, in front of a screen.  Like right now.  There is nothing wrong with it, per se, but what is wrong is when we confuse the digital reality with the true reality of things like gravity and sin and death.

So in Lent we focus on gravity -- on the constraints that have bound us and the conscience that carries its burden.  Like the illusion of independence that lies like the wreckage of a once mighty ship upon the rocks of the shore, gravity calls us to what is most real, most true.  The Word of the Lord speaks not in rhymes or platitudes but the truth that lays bare our deepest vulnerability.  Though we long to be free, sin has held us captive and we remain in bondage unless and until Christ frees us.

After the illusions are stripped away by the Law and the despair has left us with nothing but the cross, we find that we were created by God for God and that this divine purpose and life are what were missing in our futile attempt at freedom and this purpose and life are the gifts that restore to us our dependence upon Him who made and redeemed us.  Far from finding this dependence a disappointment, it becomes the only real freedom.

Gravity is a good thing.  We were made for it.  The gravity that grounds our bodies and the gravity that grounds our lives.  Facing reality means facing up to and accepting limits and boundaries. Our world is filled with make-believe and the illusion of freedom that consumes.  Into this comes the gravity of our Lord and His call to deny ourselves, take up his cross, and follow Him.  Instead of destroying our lives as sin has taught us to fear, it has given us back our lost lives.

Many of us spend our lives failing to understand just how fragile our lives truly are and how close we are to nothingness.  Lent is the helpful gravity that forces us to see with eyes wide open.  You cannot put your trust in earthly rulers, earthly kingdoms, earthly things... Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus.  He is the gravity that gives our lives identity, purpose, character, and hope.    

Monday, March 23, 2015

The loss of faith made music mute. . .

As a subscriber, I belong to the Nashville Symphony.  I love it.  It is like a mini vacation whenever one of our appointed concerts comes up on my calendar.  I know it is expensive but we do not go to the movies and we spend little money on entertainment other than the Symphony.

That said, it burns me up when I go to the Symphony and end up with half a program of atonal, modern music that seems to explore every aspect of music but melody.  The program notes are often replete with words describing what was in the author's mind in composing the piece and sometimes he is sitting in the audience with me.  The patrons are gracious and too many standing ovations are born of a deep desire to support classical music rather than exemplary composition.  The symphony players are wonderful and I am sure they playing the notes correctly -- but the notes sound more like an accident than a design.  That is not true of all modern music but it is true of too much of it.

In discussing this at home we have found ourselves longing to hear more old music than new because the atonality and melodic deprived nature of too much modern music leaves you with little but regret that you spend so much money to hear it.  I wonder how many of these pieces will be on programs in fifty or a hundred years but I have no doubt that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Dvorak, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Barber, and too many more will continue to be played.  Then I read a piece by Oliver Rudland in the March 2015 issue of Standpoint magazine (you can read it online here).

Rudland charts the eruption of music that accompanied the growth of the nation state but noted that a deeper set of convictions united the composers of this 19th century phenomenon -- the states and the music was predicated upon Christianity.  When in the 1960s the seismic shift of culture and authority raised its challenge to Christianity and gave birth to a sexual and moral revolution, music changed.  Popular music shifted the focus onto the feelings, the highs and lows of the casual relationship, and the unchained desire that had previously been merely hinted at in music.  Worse, it seems the classical music seems to have either died or entered a coma.  Rudland calls this a "God shaped hole."  Where classical music continued to live and breathe, it was fostered and sustained in the church.  Think of the exceptions -- Eric Whitacre, for example.  No, Rudland is absolutely correct.  Musical genius flourished under the inspiration of the faith and the tutelage of the Church.  Absent the belief and confidence in the value and virtue of our Christian identities, our music has gone mute -- except for that which glorifies and is preoccupied with sexual desire (too often under the guise of love).

Some will surely insist that I am wrong and Rudland mistaken but I think the erosion of the Christian foundations of culture and society have done far more damage than we care to admit.  They have left us without the song that inspires and ennobles us as people.  Instead we look down into the gutter to express when previous generations knew was better left hidden.  Either for lack of taste or ability or inspiration, modern music has failed to produce musical genius to compare with other points in history.  And that, my friends, is a sad state of affairs for us all -- even those who would never darken a symphony hall.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Asperges on steriods?!

"Holy water Bucket Challenge"Epiphany 2015 Ιερέας μπουγελώνει τους πιστούς Θεοφάνεια

Sent to me by a reader. . . sort of like the aqua version of the humongous thurible I posted a year or so ago.  . .

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Does it really cost too much???

A Wisconsin reader sent me a link to a series, part one of which is quoted here, on the resurgence of priestly vocations in the Diocese of Madison, in which the previous number of 6 has exploded to 33!  Bishop Morlino must be doing something right.  But my interest is in another aspect of the article -- the cost of preparing a seminarian for ordination.

As number of seminarians surges, Madison diocese seeks $30M to fund priest training Midway through the Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Dodgeville, the service took a sharp turn toward fundraising.  Monsignor Daniel Ganshert, the parish priest, told parishioners that for years, people in the Madison Catholic Diocese had been praying for more men to be called by God to the priesthood. The Holy Spirit has responded, Ganshert announced jubilantly.

There are now 33 seminarians, or priests-in-training, up from six in 2003 when Bishop Robert Morlino arrived. But that increase comes with responsibility, Ganshert said. The diocese needs $30 million to educate current and future seminarians — “a serious chunk of money,” he acknowledged. Ushers distributed pledge cards. The assembled were asked to dig deep.  The same scene is playing out across all 134 worship sites in the 11-county diocese. The effort, which began last fall and will continue through the end of this year, is the first diocesan-wide capital campaign in more than 50 years.  So far, the faithful have responded with vigor. Although the campaign has yet to expand to all churches, parishioners already have pledged more than $28 million.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Morlino said in an interview, giving immense credit to the diocese’s 110 priests who’ve been rolling out the campaign in their parishes. “They love the priesthood and they love the church, and this is the Holy Spirit working through them.” 

A priest’s training, called “formation,” doesn’t come cheap, and the diocese picks up much of the tab.
The diocese declined to pinpoint a per-seminarian cost. But back-of-the-envelope calculations, based on interviews and available data, suggest the diocese spends $250,000 to $300,000 to train each new priest, figures diocesan officials did not contest.

There are certainly those who would say "too much" and voices have probably been raised insisting that there must be a cheaper way to mass produce priests.  That is exactly what we have heard over and over again in Lutheran circles.  Is seminary really necessary?  Why not online training exclusively?  The training of pastors takes too long, costs too much, and places an impossible burden on the church and the candidate...

I would expect that a quarter of a million dollars is not far off from the average cost of preparing a candidate for orders in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Yes, it is a lot of money.  Given the usual 40 year career of service to the Church, it works out to be about $6K per year.  My own parish spends that much on utilities alone in a month or two!  So, if we are willing to spend that kind of money to keep ourselves warm in winter and cool in summer and to make sure there is running water and sewage costs are covered, why are we unwilling to spend that kind of money to provide a well trained pastoral presence in our congregations?  Why are we "cheap" when it comes to the ministry but spend what it costs to keep us comfortable when we are in church?  Is this not a matter of misplaced priorities?

The training of pastors for the church is expensive.  This is not because our seminaries are wasteful or our professors over paid or because the campuses extravagant.  This is because the money we invest in preparing those who will wear the yoke of the stole and act in persona Christi on our behalf is money well spent, wisely invested, and correctly prioritized.  We may not be able to afford the training we now give to those preparing for the pastoral office but we surely cannot afford less training?  This is important work.  This is an important office.  Those preparing and forming men for the pastoral office are doing some of the most important bidding of the church.  

I have repeatedly pleaded for the church NOT to finance pastoral education on the backs of the pastors and their families.  Yes, they should bear some of the cost but they are doing the Church's work on our behalf.  We need to step up to the plate on this and invest the funds necessary to fix this broken system.  BUT what is broken is not the expectation that our pastors will be well trained, thoroughly vetted, and commended to the congregations with confidence (within the bounds of human frailty).  If it costs that much to do it right, then that is what it costs, that is what we need to expect to pay, and we should rejoice that there are those whom the Lord is raising up to serve His people and His church in this way.

Some of you will argue with me on this but I think this is one area where we cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish.  If this is what it costs, then the only real question is whether we value the ministry high enough, esteem the office that delivers the Word and Sacraments to us as noble as God wills it, and are ready to put our money where our mouths are.  I think there is much to compare in this discussion with the example of the expensive oil that the disciples resented being wasted upon Jesus.  We are preparing men right now who will deliver the gifts of God to His people long after many of us are gone.  The forgiveness of sins that came to us at no cost was certainly not cheap -- it cost Jesus His priceless blood shed on the cross.  We cannot afford to be cheap with the preaching office that delivers this saving Word to God's people and to those who have not yet heard.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Requiescant in Pace

On Thursday night, about 10:30 pm, my Dad, Albur Peters, fell asleep in the arms of His Savior. He was 87 years old and leaves Florence, his wife of nearly 65 years, my brother Murray, my family (Amy and children Joseph, Andrew, and Rachel), and one sister and brother-law. He received Holy Communion about 3:30 pm that day and about 30 minutes before he died, we prayed with him the Commendation of the Dying, read Scripture to him, and he prayed with us the Our Father. Among the last words he heard before he closed eyes in Jesus were the final lines of the hymn, Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

We expect that his funeral will be Tuesday morning at Golgotha Lutheran Church, where he was baptized, confirmed, and a lifelong member. Burial will be here in Wausa. My Dad was adamant that there be no flowers -- first because he was a simple man and did not desire anything special and, as he insisted, it is Lent and there are no flowers during Lent. He worked nearly every day of his life and was at his store and business from the time he was diagnosed the first week in February until weakness prevented him. He was born at home and he died at home -- a blessed gift not often appreciated.

Please keep my family in your prayers.

No branch offices. . .

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod existed without division into districts for about 5 years or so after its founding.  In 1852, the Synod was divided into geographical regions -- ostensibly to allow the Synod President help to deal with the great distances between congregations.  Remember that all this time the Synod President was a parish pastor and seminary professor -- all at the same time.

What began as a clear understanding that districts were not distinct from Synod but Synod in that place has now degenerated into divisions of the church that see themselves largely as semi-autonomous representative groups.  Instead of districts being divisions of the national identity, districts are now often seen as representatives of the congregations to the dark, oppressive, and controlling dark force of a national church body.

Though our Synod still defines the district as merely a division of the national body -- synod in that place -- and though the constitution and by-laws of the district are first and foremost the constitution and by-laws of Synod, we wrestle with this perception issue every day.  We have come to think of congregations as being members of districts and districts being members of Synod.  In reality the only members of Synod are the clergy and the congregations, but for ease of administration purposes we have divided the 6,100+ congregations of Synod up into smaller administrative units.

I thought we had problems.  Then I read where Cardinal Marx, the purveyor of the new ideas about divorce, remarriage, and gay marriage, has said, "We are not a branch of Rome and it will not be a Synod to tell us what we have to do!"  The Episcopal Conference of Germany appears to see itself as free to accept or reject the leadership of a special synod in Rome or the decisions of the pope which might follow. “We cannot wait until a Synod tells us how we ought to conduct ourselves on Matrimony and pastoral practice for the family”.Marx was speaking like the dioceses were independent organizations and that no Synod or Pope could order the Roman Catholic Church in Germany to do anything nor could it regulate how they handled this particular area of concern.  I wonder if it is news to the Vatican and Francis?

Just goes to show you. . . we all have our problems. . . Wish I could find that perfect church body and congregation. . . than all my problems would be over. . . or would they?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The strange role of enforcer of orthodoxy. . .

The role of the judiciary as generally been to side with the institutional church whenever disputes have entered the courtrooms of America.  In a typical scenario, the court has let the institutional church determine what is orthodoxy and what is heterodoxy, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is authentic and what is foreign.  So, for example, the Episcopal Church has been quite successful in using the structures of the judicial system in America to enforce their rules and to kick out those who disagree from buildings and strip endowments from the hands of those who gave them.  Yes, in one or two instances they have prevailed who insisted that the institutional church had departed from the faith and forsaken their identity but for the overwhelming number of court appearances the institution has triumphed.

The government is loathe to enter into doctrinal disputes and is mostly concerned with the church following its own rules than trying to discern orthodoxy from heresy.  But now we find ourselves in the strange circumstance in which our own President is trying to enter into a dispute within Islam and decide which  version of Islam is right and which is wrong.  Predictably, of course, the version practiced by ISIS or ISIL is seen as inauthentic and foreign, an intruder to the normally peaceful and tolerant Islam known more in moderate nations of the Middle East, in Europe, and on the streets of America.  I am not sure that the President is correct and I am deeply suspect of the idea that the people who do not take their holy book literally or seriously are better adherents than those who read the language symbolically.  But that is not why I write.

I am writing to note how uneasy I am over the whole idea that a government agency or elected leader or appointed judiciary would presume to decide what is authentic to the faith in question and what is not.  In my own mind, this is dangerous ground.  If the President and his representatives can interpret the Qur'an and decide what it says and what it means, we risk them doing exactly the same thing for the Bible and Christianity.  Will the next step be the government interceding to decide whether Christianity prescribes gay marriage or not?  Will the government get to decide if the pro-life position proceeds from the Scriptures and Christian faith or whether it is an aberrant understanding of the Word of God?

While I understand what the President is trying to do, I believe it is the wrong tack to take.  It is not helpful in the long haul for outsiders to decide which version of Islam or Christianity is authentic and which is not.  In the end, we wait for those within the Islamic community throughout the world to rise up and challenge the violent face of intolerance and hate that is promulgated by ISIS and its minions.  All the pious expressions of the Presidential bully pulpit will not silence the voice of Islamicism.  This is an internal struggle for the life and soul of this religion.  The same is true for the conflict between liberal Christianity and orthodoxy.  The government enjoys using religions for its own purposes, some of them even salutary, but it has no insight into the faith nor has it any standing to determine what is true and faithful and what is not.  So I speak a voice of caution for those who would enter this debate without standing.  This is not the best way to fight what most all the world agrees is a fearful and fearsome enemy.

That said, I am sympathetic more toward the point of view that the words of a church's sacred text should normally be presumed to speak honestly and truthfully.  So when Christians read the Scriptures, we read with the idea that the literal reading is the first choice of interpretation unless the text itself directs us elsewhere.  So when we read the Qur'an, I am more sympathetic to the idea that the literal reading is also the first choice of interpretation unless the text directs us elsewhere.  Since I am not Islam, I await those who disagree with this to inform and challenge a group that does take its sacred text exactly as it is written.  Either this is a problem with the text or with the people reading the text; unless the President is an imam, he has only a guess where the problem lies, just like me. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Intimidation of Religious Leaders. . .

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Two Bay Area lawmakers are seeking an investigation of working conditions at high schools administrated by the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, over the archbishop’s proposed morality clauses for teachers.

Assemblymembers Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) are urging the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and Assembly Judiciary Committee to launch an investigation.  “California cannot become a laboratory for discrimination under the guise of religion,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter sent Monday. They said the rules “set a dangerous precedent for workers’ rights through manipulations of law that deprive employees of civil rights guaranteed to all Californians.”
Last week, Ting and Mullin were among eight Bay Area lawmakers who sent Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone a letter calling the proposal “divisive” and urging him to drop the clauses from the teachers’ handbook.  Cordileone responded to the lawmakers’ letter last week, saying he respects their right to hire whoever they want to advance their mission and seeks the same respect.

My comments. . .

Perhaps it is already too late in the game to exercise responsibility over church owned colleges and universities.  The issues of accreditation, federal money, student loans, and the independent nature of the governing authority of these institutions have all created a roadblock to the discipline or removal of faculty who teach in violation with the tenets of the churches who own or sponsor those institutions.  I wish it were not the case but I fear it is -- already a lost cause for too many of those institutions of learning begun by and still owned by churches.

That said, it is surely not too late to exercise responsibility over church owned high schools and elementary schools... or is it?  If you cannot attack the authority of churches to administer and run these institutions of learning within the parameters of their doctrine and practice, then you can use public intimidation and the court of public opinion to tear down the reputation of the schools and the churches that own and operate them.  That appears to be what is poised to happen in California according to the report listed above.

It is certainly clear that the present administration and its justice department has set a national standard in siding with employee rights against church employers and in crusading to restrict the right of free religion to a mere right of freedom to worship.  Perhaps that has encouraged those who believe now is the ripe time to attack the churches and the schools where doctrine, values, and practices are set not by popular opinion or current cultural norms but by the faith believed, taught, and confessed by those churches.

My point in all of this is that this is but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and there is more to come.  The orthodox Christian faith is under direct attack but the more insidious means of tearing down this doctrine and practice is the threat of intimidation and the destruction of the public reputation of these institutions.  As churches we need to be ready.  We probably cannot fight in the media without a means to make our voice known but we dare not cower nor fold out of fear of what people might think.  Our institutions may indeed shrink in size for a time as parents and members decide this is too much for them but in the long run holding fast to the faith once delivered to the saints will enable us to endure.  Whether in military chaplaincies or school ministries or social service agencies, we cannot cave in and abandon the doctrine and practice that is faithful to the Scriptures and therefore both catholic and evangelical in the best sense of those terms.  We may be misunderstood and tar and feathered by innuendo and open threat, but we shall gain nothing by succumbing to the court of popular opinion only to be in conflict with God's revealed will and truth. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An interesting view of contemporary Christian song. . .

It was 1976.  A familiy was mourning the death of a dad, H. Douglas Hall.  A friend of the family, Jan Michael Joncas, studying to be a priest, sat down to write a song of hope and comfort for the mass.  At St. Robert Church, in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 27, 1976, On Eagle's Wings was sung for the first time .  It was not recorded or copyrighted or published until 1979, but it has become one of the most popular contemporary Christian songs.

It exploded upon the scene and with it has come a new form of congregational song (not quite hymnody) heralded by the likes of Marty Haugen, David Haas, Jan Michael Joncas, and many others.  This has proven so popular that most Roman Catholic parishioners know this form of congregational song even better than the historic hymnody passed down from generations before.  Whether you like or it not, whether you agree with it or not, I thought this was an interesting subject and it was covered in Minnesota Public Broadcasting special you can watch below.

As Lutherans we know that when Rome catches a cold, we end up sneezing.  The contemporary Christian song that has so established itself in Roman parishes has made deep inroads into Lutheranism.  Take a look at the ELCA's Evangelical Lutheran Worship to find out how much Lutheranism has been affected.  While it is less profound in the Missouri Synod, it has made its impact here as well. 

I will note, as I am sure you will see, the gray hair seems to indicate that this has a generational component. That said, permit me to skip the rest of the commentary and simply let you watch the story.

This one-hour documentary explores the dramatic shift in sacred music beginning in the 1960's when major religions attempted to reach out to engage congregations. Minnesota is home to a significant number of highly accomplished songwriters and musicians who have helped bring new music to many faiths. A KSMQ production.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Known but unknown. . .

Sermon for Lent 4B

John 3:16 is perhaps the most well known verse in the Bible and yet we seldom pay much attention to its context or read its words in the way intended.  We read them out of our need to know God loves us but, even more than that, God loves us more than others, more now than ever, and more with each passing day.  It is the romance of love and not the character of the love John 3:16 speaks of.

Luther called this the gospel in miniature or gospel in a nutshell.  That it is and if it is the gospel in miniature then it is about the cross.  Whether or not you are Nicodemus of long ago, you hear in these words the clear voice of that gospel.  For this is not about the quantity of love God has for you but the description of that love.  You were not saved because tyouy deserved it or were worth it or because your works earned you God's notice or His favor.  You were loved with the sacrificial love of the Father fulfilled in His willing Son who gave Himself up for you on the cross.  You were lost, soiled and stained with sin, marked with death, and unable to do anything about it but lament it.  And Christ won you back even by His death on the cross.

For God so loved the world. . .  the key here is the very small word "so".  It is not so in the sense of much.  Like we might say "so" expensive or difficult.  Can God love you more? Can God love you less?  We assume that this little word descibes how much God loves us but God's love does not come in bits and pieces or dribs and drabs.  God loves.  This little word "so" is HOW God loves us.  God's love is always cross shaped.  It was in the first gospel of Genesis 3:15.  It was in the gospel the prophets spoke from generation to generation.  It was in the gospel near when John the Baptist baptized Jesus and named Him the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world..."  It was in the words and miracles of Jesus that prefigured the cross and framed it.

For God loved and the shaped of this love is the cross.  Could He have done less?  Was there ever another cup for Him to drink or another baptism for Him to be baptized?  That is the moment we see when Jesus prays for any other way but knows that there is only one way, one expression of God's great love -- the cross.

That whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life...   There is in this love no appeal to intellect, no request for understanding or consent, no appeal to spirituality or self-serving glory.  No, this is the call to raw and unadulterated trust.  That is the scandal of the cross.  It repels us for its brutality and yet hidden in the horror is the love beyond all telling.  We encounter this love not by reasoning our way to faith or by being convinced of its wisdom.  Its wisdom is always a scandal and always an offense.  No, God must act or this love will always be beyond our grasp.

God so loved that when this cross shaped love was a scandal to us, He made a way for faith.  He sent forth His Spirit, attached Him to the Word, water, bread and wine of His means of grace.  If you will remember, baptism was the subject of His visit to Nicodemus and the context in which we hear John 3:16.  God's love is cross shaped and comes to us where He has planted His cross -- in the waters of baptism.  You could say that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son and then gave us the water of baptism which unfolds us into that cross shaped love, attaches us to His death and resurrection, and imparts to us the Spirit to engender trust within us in this cross shaped love.

This love is no mere sentiment or feeling.  It is as concrete and real as the bronze serpent Moses raised and its effect is as concrete and real as the healing that resulted from those who looked to the bronze serpent trusting that what God said would be done.  Jesus' cross saves.  It cleanses and redeems, saves and rescues, kills and gives life -- no symbolism here but only that which is most true and real.

Everyone knows John 3:16.  Even those who do not believe probably know it.  But the miracle that gives us this Gospel in minieature says salvation by grace through faith imparted through the means of grace.  Maybe you have never heard of Nicodemus or of Moses, but the truth is that it was always God's plan to raise Jesus up on the cross and it was Jesus love and joy for us that enabled Him to endure the pain and bear the cross for us.  And this cross our Lord has planted in the water of baptism that delivers to us God' s healing, redeeming, and saving grace.

How an this be? We do not need to explain the mystery to own it.  Faith trusts it and the Spirit opens our fearful hearts to rejoice in its gift and blessing for unworthy sinners like you and me.

Youth Ministry. . .

The next time you think of rock style music and casual Christianity and think this is youth ministry, come back here and watch again. . . and again. . . and again.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Entrepreneurial Christianity

"L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers."   —Napoleon I    ("England is a nation of shopkeepers.")

Although the description was often seen as a disparaging one, Napoleon claimed that it was not intended to be so, but was merely a statement of the obvious fact that British power, unlike that of its main continental rivals, derived from commerce and not from the extent of its lands nor its population.

What was once true of England, is not much true anymore.  For a time America stole the moniker and it was our the single most powerful contribution to history.  Now we have traded making things and selling things into a consumer economy in which our shopkeepers are now service providers and ideas have replaced widgits or gadgets.

Except when it comes to religion. . .  There we retained our expertise at turning religion into a business, the Gospel into a product, churches into stores,  and pastors into shopkeepers.  We are still king of this entrepreneurial Christianity.

Entrepreneurial Christianity. . . it is often spoken of as a good thing -- even by some within my own denomination.  In reality it means that we have exchanged the goal of faithfulness for success and stolen the responsibility for the Kingdom of God away from God and made it our business - literally.  Whether we describe pastors as shopkeepers or sacramental entrepreneurs, the shape of the pastoral ministry has been profoundly impacted.  Even among those who hold to orthodox Lutheran theology, it is nearly impossible to divorce this practical reality from the expectation of who the pastor is and what he is charged to do.

We have built huge mall style complexes to service our clientele and our membership (really attendance) has become a revolving door of people coming and going.  So enamored with new and different are we that longevity in the pew or pulpit is not viewed without suspicion.  We don't want predictable (what we once termed reliable) but we do want the innovative.  We are drawn to programs like fish to water because that is something we do and something we can do.  It is too much to kask us simply to speak the Gospel and live its light at home, on the job, in our leisure.  On Sunday morning we expect more than last week even if it was good and salutary.  Like your favorite restaurant that changes the menu and ditches what you loved last week, Sunday morning has become the venue for the creative reinvention of who we are and what feels good.  We expect to be surprised by something new and feel we did not get our money's worth if we didn't get it.  So we shop for another church like we would new clothes -- all the while knowing that we have no more attachment to the Gospel than we did to yesterday's duds.

What might have been good for England, is no good for Christianity.  What once characterized America as a business nation whose business was business, is not healthy for the Church.  We need to give up our penchant for entrepreneurship in the realm of Christian faith and life and learn to be content with the means of grace and the Lord who retains ownership of His Church even if He has promised to work through our own voices in witness and our hands in service.

I once read all the mail sent to my church promising rich rewards it we changed this or did that or bought into a new program or spent more time visioning.  It was my weakness and vice -- the soft underbelly of every pastor who wants his church to grow and is tired of waiting upon God to grow it through the means of grace.  But I am less enamored of these promises than I once was.  I hope it is a good thing.  If I pass on my congregation to the one who follows me with as little of Larry Peters in it as I am able, I figure that is the best thing.  If what endures is the faithful confession and the confessional character of what goes on Sunday mornings, God will do the rest.  Really, He will.  If I teach people to trust the Word and Spirit of God more than me, I am doing what I have been called to do.  Really.

Take the faith seriously. . . Take the church seriously. . . Take the pastoral work seriously. . . Don't take yourself that seriously.  You can be replaced.  God cannot.  Your work is forgettable (happily so) but the Gospel is forever.  That is enough.  That is what I need to tell myself over and over again.  Maybe you do as well. . .

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Innovative. . . probably not. . .

Few people have accused Lutherans of being innovative or creative.  We are borrowers -- that is our vice.  We borrow from churches that are innovative and creative.  We borrow things but do not create or innovate much.  We are a dull and bland people -- who else would like plain boiled potatoes and boiled lutefisk (both white) on a white plate, with white tablecloth, and white napkins, while drinking a glass of milk.  We are too staid to think for ourselves so we allow others to think for us.  When we think they have come up with a good idea, we reach over and borrow it.  Never mind that they have long since given up on that idea and gone onto something different or that it may conflict with our deeply held beliefs and confessional standards.  We borrow the rejects of others, usually when they have become the tired old ideas nobody else is excited about.  We are a church constantly suspect of our own confessions and tradition, a church in awe of the creative and innovative spirit of others, and a church too often willing to exchange our own integrity for the prospect of something that might work better or fast than God's way.

I read something where Hillsong (Google that church) sees itself as a church that is constantly innovative.  It is never treading the same ground twice.  From music to mission to ministry they are a changing.  Some of that change involves departing from the faith once delivered to the saints but it is, I guess, a small price to pay for being ever new, ever fresh, ever creative, ever innovative, and ever re-inventing itself.  Most Lutherans don't want to do the heaving lifting of creative thought.  We are repristinators who have a snapshot in time as our model and think that things were probably much better then than now.  But we do have a soft spot for looking over the fence and seeing if the grass might be a little greener and we are not above borrowing a few ideas or so if we think if might make us a bit more successful at building our corner of God's kingdom.  And therein lies the conflict within Lutheranism -- the repristinators wish they had been born in another time (the one they consider the golden age of Lutheranism) and the borrowers are forever exchanging Lutheran doctrine, identity, and practice for whatever is new to them.

We Lutherans think that a beer (doesn't even half to be a good beer) and a brat (doesn't have to be good either) is pretty close to heaven.  We stay in on Saturday nights.  We go to bed early so we don't arrive late to church on Sunday (late meaning less than 30 minutes before the start of the service).  We sit in the same spot and wear the customary church clothes.  We go home to eat one of the five typical Sunday recipes.  We read the paper and pass out on the couch while the TV is on.  And then we go to work to build up ourselves for the upcoming weekend excitement again.

Some of us Lutherans are embarrassed by our lack of creativity.  Some of us Lutherans worry that our lack of innovation will kill this thing called Lutheranism.  Some of us are shamed by our willingness to use the same words for worship Sunday after Sunday without inventing something new and different.  Some of us are scandalized by the idea that the Word of the Lord, the confession of our faith, the shape of the Divine Service, and the piety that calls us simply to love our neighbor by speaking and living the Gospel to him or her is what God asks of us. 

Nope we are not very visionary.  Brothers, we are treading where we have always trod.  But. . . if we are being faithful, that is enough.  God did give us the responsibility and the power to win the world on our terms.  Nope, He made it perfectly clear that faithfulness is how we will be judged.  We get no extra credit for inventing new ways for God to work (outside of the Word and Sacraments) or for inventing new ways to worship (apart from the pattern of the sound words that we inherited in which the Word of the Lord is central). 

The Church is a mess.  The world is a mess.  Lutheranism is a mess.  But it is God's mess to sort out and straighten.  Our job is faithfulness.  We hold each other accountable for faithfulness (that is the most basic reason for our Synod anyhow, and to do together what is more than any of us can do alone).  We must practice self-control in our rush to trade faithfulness for worldly success or relevance.  We must reign in our wanton efforts to substitute our priorities, our ideas, our preferences, and our whims for the yesterday, today, and forever Word of the Lord.  Guess what people, the Church has always been one generation from extinction but the Lord is not bothered by this.  Why are we?  If we are faithful at home and on the job and in church, God has promised to do the rest.  His Spirit accompanies the Word and makes it fruitful.  His grace is where salvation is located.  His cross and empty tomb are the means by which hope is born. 

After being reminded of some poignant words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I repeat them here for you.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When his deal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.  

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by his forgiveness, and His promise.  We do not complain of what God does not give us; rather, we thank God for what He does give us daily. And, is not what has been given us enough?

When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.
Life Together, Harper and Row, 1954, pages 27-29.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Reclaiming Lutheran from legacy to identity. . .

Bad things happen when we are preoccupied.  That is exactly what happened in Lutheran higher education.  Our church body became preoccupied with things like the Battle for the Bible in the 1960s and 1970s, with harsh financial realities (from the 1970s to the present), with doctrinal disunity and practical chaos (from the 1970s to the present), with restructuring the Synodical ship (since the 1970s)...  The list could go on.  You get the drift.  Bad things happen when we are preoccupied with other things.

Among the Lutheran colleges and universities, what happened would fill a large book so we can't but touch on a few points here:
  • The system was undone and the schools that fed the seminaries and provided church work students became primarily colleges for laity with a tentative religious connection and their mission changed. . .
  • The costs of Lutheran colleges and universities mirrored the general explosive rise found among other private schools and even public institutions -- effectively pricing them out of the reach of much of the middle class especially when compared to the bargain prices of state sponsored schools. . .
  • The Synod assumed responsibility for a huge debt common to all LCMS colleges and universities and stopped being an effective means of support for the annual cost of their operation. . .
  • The Lutheran colleges and universities embarked on a necessary but very expensive capital projects program, even moving entire campuses from one location to another. . .
  • The faculties became more diverse religiously and politically and the distinctive character of Lutheran institutions and the unique Lutheran identity was tested to its very limits. . .
  • The focus of the administration of these schools shifted from institutional excellence and Lutheran integrity to fund raising (an essential task that eventually sucked all the air out of the boardrooms where their administration and regents met). . . 
  • The Lutheran colleges and universities developed their own constituencies and their connection to their church bodies that established and owned the campuses was weakened substantially. . .
  • The course work on the typical Lutheran college or university had little to distinguish it from many other institutions in which political liberalism, progressive social advocacy, and a skepticism of religion and faith predominated. . . 
Among these Lutheran institutions, the colleges and universities of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod fared much better in retaining Lutheran identity than did the relatively independent schools of the ELCA.  However, without a prominent mission to serve the larger church by providing training for church worker students and without the chapel being more than a symbolic center of the faith, our institutions also suffered a sort of drift away from Lutheran connection and Lutheran identity.  Unlike the ELCA, the LCMS was determined to do something about this.

Read here for one of the first steps in the quest to reclaim and renew Lutheran identity in the universities of the LCMS.  It is a hopeful beginning to what will surely take a generation or more of renewed determination and patient effort. But it is a beginning.  Thanks be to God for the willingness of both the university presidents, the President of the Concordia University System, and the Synod to make this first public statement of commitment toward the larger goal of reclaiming these schools for the church.  Some will quibble that it is too little or too late but I am encouraged.  While I am sad that Bronxville, a school close to my heart, was not yet ready to sign on, I am convinced that this will be even better for the schools in the long run than it is for the church.  Lutheran is not a liability.  It is an asset -- even on the campus of an institution of higher learning.  Unless I am mistaken, it is on a university campus where Luther began.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What offends YOU?

Sermon preached for Lent 3B, on Sunday, March 8, 2015.

    So what makes you angry?  People get angry over many things.  We get angry when people disrespect us, disagree with us, who cut in line, who cut us off in traffic... You name it.  We are easily wounded and angered by personal insult or personal slight.  Listen to the tone of our voices and the string of vulgarities that we erupt from our lips.
    Most of our anger is protective of ourselves, our feelings, and our loved ones.  But what offends Jesus?  Jesus seems to care little about the personal slights or irritants that offend us.  What offends Jesus is when the Word of God is silenced, when the things of God are made trivial or casual, and when the Gospel is turned into Law.  How does that compare with what bothers YOU?
    Jesus is not just angry.  He is indignant.  We saw His zeal for the House of God when leaders exploited it for their own purpose and ignored why God gave sacred space.  Churches that do everything but worship God, churches that are businesses instead of places of prayer and worship, and people who use church for their own ends and purposes.  When we forget the purpose for which God comes to our Sunday space, that offends God.  Does it make us angry as well?
    When the child, the stranger, or the sinner is turned away, that offends Jesus.  When God's people hoard the message of salvation or remain unchanged by its voice of welcome, love, and forgiveness.  This is what bothers Jesus.  When the cross is rejected or replaced with something that cheapens Christ's sacrifice for our sin, this is what offends Jesus.  Are we also offended by these things?
    God's anger is not some temper tantrum.  God's anger is a wounded heart over those whom He seeks to save and redeem who refuse His gracious favor or treat the message of salvation casually as if there were nothing special in the love that saved us by dying on a cross.  We spend too much time angry over personal insults or hurts but we lack zeal for the Lord's house, for the Lord's Word, and for the Lord's saving purpose.  That is what we see in Jesus – zeal not for some geography but for the place where God’s deliverance is proclaimed to the lost and dying.
    Scripture says "be angry but sin not..."  In other words, God does not excuse our anger because people really did offend or hurt us.  No, the call of faith is to learn to be offended by what offends God.  In other words, do we hate sin.  Do sin and evil offend us?  Do we despise the weakness of our flesh and the evil that comes from our hearts to our heads and mouths?  Does sin offend us enough to desire righteousness?  To seek forgiveness?  This is the fire in the heart of Jesus.  This is His zeal for you and me, the lost who deserved to be lost, condemned, and suffer.
    Are we angry enough over our sin that it moves us to repent of our sins and to hide in the refuge of God's forgiving love?  We are angry over many things but do we look into the mirror of our hearts and are offended at our guilt, at the shame of our sins?  To anger and sin not is to be moved to repentance by our anger of our own sin before we point out the sins of others.
    Are we offended by the way the poor are treated or have we become immune to their need?  The poor you will always have with you, Jesus reminded us. But have we grown so comfortable with the needy that we no longer love them as Christ loved us in our need or serve them as Christ served us?
    I have never read the book Fifty Shades of Grey or seen the movie but I have read enough about it to wonder why something so salacious and so dark can capture the imagination of so many? Even Christians!  How can we glorify such things like this while at the same time claiming to know what love is and to value this love highly?  Where is our zeal for righteousness?
    We presume we are important enough that we deserve to be treated better and maybe we do.  But we cannot afford to save our anger for personal insult or offense and have no room to care if God's Word is preached accurately, whether sin is hated and righteousness loved, whether the poor, the needy, and the children are loved as God has loved us? 
    Where is our conscience?  Faith calls us to a higher way of life – not to better morality but to a higher way of live in which we wear the cross and live our lives under it.  We are called to love what is good and right and true and to reject what is evil and wrong.  It calls us to protect life from conception to death, to protect those least able to protect themselves, to love the poor... It calls us to be offended by that which distorts or silences the Gospel and keeps the sinner from knowing God's hope and gift.
    Jesus' anger is a righteous anger – it is not directed against those who insult or slight Him but for the sake of those for whom He died.  To those who crucified Him, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness but to those who had so screwed up the Word of God that they did not see Jesus in it, our Lord had nothing but contempt.  The call of the Gospel is this – to love what God loves and to be offended by what offends God.  God reserves His hate for sins, not people.  We love sins and hate people.  What did we miss?  What did we get wrong?
    People thought Jesus was a little crazy to take God's house and sin and the poor so seriously.  Maybe we do, too.  And that is the problem.  We love the Gospel that protects, forgives, and loves us, but we are not so sure about the rest of those for whom Christ died.  This is a call to righteous anger of faith.  Amen.

Wise words from our presiding pastor. . .

Update from LCMS President Harrison.

Dearest Brothers in the Office:
I greet you in the name of Jesus, our constant hope and consolation in the ministry.

I’ve been re-reading Martin Brecht’s great three-volume biography of Luther.* Luther’s life was full of joy, love for the Scriptures, friendship and great conviviality. But it was also filled with disappointment. Near the end of his life, he described himself as “old, cold, lame and one-eyed.” He was so miffed at his own congregation in Wittenberg that the summer before he died, he resolved to leave town for good. He wrote Katie on July 28, 1545:
I would like to arrange matters in such a way that I do not have to return to Wittenberg. My heart has become cold, so that I do not like to be there any longer. I wish you would sell the garden and field, house and all. . . . It would be best for you to move to Zölsdorf as long as I am still living and able to help you to improve the little property with my salary . . . I would rather eat the bread of a beggar than torture and upset my poor old age and final days with the filth at Wittenberg, which destroys my hard and faithful work. You might inform Doctor Pomer and Master Philip of this (if you wish) . . . (AE 50:278, 280–81).

Katie did inform them, and the Elector sent Melanchthon out with a reconnaissance party to retrieve the old man, promising to make some improvement in the city. Luther was indeed a grumpy old man by this time, but his frustrations with the congregations in Wittenberg were hardly limited to his old age. There was, of course, the uproar early on, while he was hiding in the Wartburg after his great “Here I stand” speech at Worms. (During this week of Invocavit, you might check out the first of Luther’s “Invocavit Sermons” for a clinic on preaching to people in the pew, especially on preaching “love,” i.e., “third use of the Law!” See AE 51:70–75.) And already from 1526-27 and the time of the plague in Wittenberg, Luther frequently expressed his great frustrations with the city parish, both in sermons and private correspondence. The Gospel did not have the effect among the people that he had hoped, and it bothered him greatly at times. Of course, as he readily admitted, his old sinful flesh only exacerbated the matter.

And so it is with us. One cannot paint the whole Missouri Synod ministerium with one broad brush, to be sure. There are many brothers experiencing excellent times in their lives of service at this moment, and abundantly so. There are also many experiencing the cross in their office, and intensely so. It is, in many respects, like the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” It is a great moment in that, while post-modernity has demolished the purely rationalistic and empiricist opposition to metaphysical realities, leaving the door wide open for us to make the case for Jesus, yet the flood of “spirituality” and individualistic fantasy has pulled the populace away from the Church. Sadly, that includes a great many of our own. I don’t need to rehearse here the demographic challenges that we, and all of Western Christianity, face. You know this challenge very directly and deal with it daily.

Brothers, there is consolation, even for ministers of the Gospel. “What God institutes and commands cannot be an empty thing. It must be a most precious thing, even though it looked like it had less value than a straw” (LC IV 8). Luther’s comment applies to us pastors. “Therefore, every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to do all his life. For he has always enough to do by believing firmly what Baptism promises and brings: victory over death and the devil (Rom. 6:3–6), forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38), God’s grace (Titus 3:5–6), the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with His gifts (1 Cor. 6:11). In short, Baptism is so far beyond us that if timid nature could realize this, it might well doubt whether it could be true” (LC IV 41). Before you were called and ordained, all that is given in Baptism was yours. And it remains yours, even in times when your “timid nature” might not feel it or realize it.

And there is an even greater consolation precisely in your eternal election to salvation, which was made manifest in your Baptism. You know full well, pastor, all of those “in Him,” “in Christ,” “in the Beloved,” statements in Ephesians 1. “In Him you also, when you heard the Word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which He lavished upon us . . . making know to us the mystery of His will ...” (Eph. 1:7f.). You are baptized, pastor. That rock won’t move, come what may.

Moreover, you have not chosen your vocation by yourself. Sure, God gave you a desire to study for the ministry (1 Tim. 3:1); you were encouraged along the way by God’s people. Faithful teachers encouraged you. But it was the church, which finally put you into an office, or Amt (auf Deutsch). “St. Paul tells Timothy and Titus to entrust the ministry to faithful and able men (2 Tim. 2:2; 3:2; Titus 1:9)” (Chemnitz, Enchiridion, 28**). The church recognized your gifts, and God’s people in a specific location called you with a “special and legitimate” call. You were prepared, called and ordained to this ministry; you didn’t just start “gassing off” on your own (Rom. 10:15; Jer. 23:21; Heb. 5:4).

It is certainly true that all Christians are spiritual priests and enjoy the full privileges of this priesthood. As Chemnitz wrote, “. . . all Christians have a general call to proclaim the Gospel of God (Rom. 10:9); to speak the Word of God among themselves (Eph. 5:19); to admonish each other form the Word of God; to reprove (Eph. 5:11; Matt. 19:15) and to comfort (1 Thess. 4:18). And family heads are enjoined to do this with the special command that they give their households the instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But the public ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments in the Church is not entrusted to all Christians in general, as we have already shown (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:12). For a special or particular call is required for this (Rom. 10:15)” (Chemnitz, Enchiridion, 29).

I’ve always loved being a pastor. There is something amazing about being invited into peoples’ lives at their very best times and very worst times, and often in the lives of the very same people! But much more than that, we come into the lives of people with Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus for those who already know Him, and it’s all about Jesus for those who don’t. And as Dr. Walther so concisely and wonderfully stated in Thesis III of The Church and the Office of the Ministry, “The preaching office is not an optional office but one whose establishment has been commanded to the Church and to which the Church is properly bound till the end of time” (Church and Office, 181;*** Walther’s proof text for this is Matt. 28:19–20). The office is not finally about power or even authority in the sense that we usually think of. Jesus, after all, exercised His authority (exousia) by sacrificing Himself (Phil. 2). Thus, as Walther states (Thesis IV), “The preaching office [Predigtamt] is not a special state in opposition to or holier than that of ordinary Christians, as was the Levitical priesthood; rather it is an office of service [Amt des Dienstes].” And we pastors are called to serve up Jesus. “We preach Christ crucified,” or we should not speak at all, frankly. We bring the love of Jesus to the hurting, the weak, the sick, the destitute, the lonely, the aged, the young and everyone in between. And we do so because the Lord mandates that there be pastors after His own heart who do so.

Chemnitz notes several reasons why a pastor must have a legitimate call, and these points provide consolation for us today. It is not merely a matter of human arrangement or good order, he says.
  1. “God himself deals with us in the church through the ministry as through the ordinary means and instrument. For it is He Himself that speaks, exhorts, absolves, baptizes, etc., in the ministry and through the ministry” (Luke 1:70; Heb. 1:1; John 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:10, 17; 5:20; 13:3). So, states Chemnitz, we have clear proofs that God wants to use pastors as “His ordinary means and instrument.” If God is so minded, will he not hear your prayers pastor? Does he not care for you, too?
  2. “Very many and necessary gifts are required for the ministry (2 Cor. 2:16). But one who has been brought to the ministry by a legitimate call can apply the divine promises to himself, ask God for faithfulness in them, and expect both, the gifts that are necessary for him rightly to administer the ministry (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; 2 Cor. 3:5–6) and governance and protection in the office entrusted to him (Is. 49:2; 51:16).”
  3. “The chief thing of the ministry is that God wants to be present in it with His Spirit, grace and gifts and to work effectively through it. But Paul says in Romans 10:15: ‘How shall they who are not sent preach’ (namely in such a way that faith is engendered by hearing)? But God wants to give increase to the planting and watering of those who have been legitimately called to the ministry and set forth doctrine without guile and faithfully administer whatever belongs to the ministry (1 Cor. 3:6; 15:58), that both they themselves and others might be saved (1 Tim. 4:16).”
  4. “The assurance of a divine call stirs up minsters of the Word, that each one, in his station, in the fear of God, performs his functions with greater diligence, faith and eagerness, without weariness. And he does not let himself be drawn or frightened away from his office by fear of any peril or of persecution, since he is sure that he is called by God and that the office has been divinely entrusted to him.”
  5. “Finally, on this basis the hearers are stirred up to true reverence and obedience toward the ministry, namely since they are taught from the Word of God that God, present through this means, wants to deal with us in the church and work effectively among us” (Chemnitz, Enchiridion 29–30).
Dear Brothers in the office, we have a sacred vocation of service. We serve. Because we bear Christ’s own office, an office our Confessions say is derived from Christ and the apostles, we can expect among the joys and great blessings, thorns, trials, crosses and difficulties. Some of these are brought upon us by the weaknesses of those whom we serve. But the office is an office designed only to serve sinners! This is the way of Christ. Some difficulties, often more than we might like to admit, we bring upon ourselves through our own weaknesses and sinfulness. And I think, especially in my own life, of my sins of discontentment and anxiety. Yet we know, in repentance, that even our own failings are worked for good by our merciful heavenly Father!

I covet your prayers, even as I pledge you mine. I plan to write these letters from time to time to encourage you, not to burden you.

In Christ,

Matt Harrison
Invocavit 2015

*Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, trans. by James L. Schaaf, 3 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985–93).
**Martin Chemnitz, Ministry, Word, and Sacraments: An Enchiridion, trans. Luther Poellot (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981).
*** C. F. W. Walther, The Church and the Office of the Ministry, trans. Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012).