Monday, November 30, 2015

Sounds pretty Lutheran to me. . .

Confessional Lutherans make much of the fact that the liturgical movement's fascination of liturgy as the work of the people or by the people misses the boat on so many levels.  We love to remind folks that the liturgy is God's work for us, God's serving of His gifts to His people.  What was impressive to me is this brief series explaining the Mass in which Fr Douglas Martis, the director of the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary, captures this very well and easily explains the nuances in that term that must be explored to understand the word fully.

The people's work, the work of Christ done on behalf of His people, and the work of the people in Christ doing what Christ has done... pretty Lutheran to me!  Or, could it be that there is more of a catholic consensus here than some would imagine, that liturgy has further dimensions that express the fuller notion of what it means to worship God.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

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

Borrowed from the Rev. William Cwirla who authored it for Higher Things.  What a great introduction to Advent!

The church year in the West begins with with a preparatory season called “Advent.”  The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “appearing” or “coming,” referring to the appearing of a great king or even a god.  In Christian usage, it refers to the appearing of Jesus Christ in two ways - His first appearing as the Child born of the Virgin Mary and His second appearing in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.  You see, Advent isn’t only about getting ready for Christmas; it’s also about getting ready for Jesus’ final appearing in glory only the Last Day.
We live in the last days, between Christ’s first and second appearances.  He is always present with us, and always has been since the beginning.  His presence is made audible and visible to us by the Spirit through the preached Word and the Sacraments.  Only briefly did the Son of God show His face some 2000 years ago.  Only at the end will we see His face again when He appears in glory.  Until then, we watch and wait for His second advent even as we celebrate His first.

St. Bernard wrote this concerning the coming of Christ:  “In the first coming, Christ comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, He comes in Spirit and power; in the third, He comes in glory and majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.”

The season of Advent has its origins in France and Spain in the 4th and 5th centuries.  As early as 380, the Council of Saragossa urged faithful Christians to attend church every day from December 17 through Epiphany (January 6).  Early calendars in both the East and the West indicated a 40 day period of fasting, beginning on November 14.  The liturgical principle is “fast before feast,” following the pattern of Lent and Easter.  Before a major feast there is a period of fasting - solemn, repentant preparation.  This stands in sharp contrast to our consumerist culture that feasts first and then diets afterward, resolving to “do better” in the new year.  Joyful feasting and disciplined fasting go hand in hand.  

Advent has four distinct Sundays themed by the readings from the holy Gospel:  

The 1st Sunday in Advent focuses on Christ’s appearing in glory with the image of His triumphal ride into Jerusalem as the messianic King. 

The 2nd Sunday brings John the Baptizer’s prophetic voice calling Israel out to the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord.” 

The 3rd Sunday again focuses on John the Baptizer, this time on the content of his preaching of repentance and his greatness as the forerunner of the Messiah. 

The 4th Sunday emphasizes Jesus’ immaculate conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  During the final week of Advent, it is customary to pray the “O Antiphons” from December 17 to December 23, a series of ancient prayers addressed to Christ in terms of Old Testament prophesy.

Advent is a season of quiet anticipation and expectation.  The One who once came in humility by way of Bethlehem’s manger, David’s donkey, and Calvary’s cross, who now comes to us hiddenly in His holy Word and the blessed Sacrament of His body and blood, will soon come visibly in blazing glory to raise the dead and give eternal life to all who call on His Name. The tone of Advent is joyful anticipation, a mixture of holy fear and expectant joy, like that of a mother-to-be awaiting the arrival of her first baby.

Advent is a time of sober patience.  Sadly, our instant gratification culture seems to have had more influence on the Church than the Church has had on the surrounding culture.  Advent has been gobbled up by the frenzy of the “winter holidays,” which now begin after Halloween!  By the time Christmas arrives, most are too weary to worship and too burned out from decking the halls to celebrate the birth of the world’s Savior with any degree of joy much less energy.  Remember, Christmas is a twelve day feast, beginning on December 25th.  In celebrating Advent in all its somber, sober watchfulness, we Christians can give a priceless gift to each other and to the world by showing the patient hope we have in Jesus’ coming.

The season has its own peculiar customs and traditions.  One cherished tradition is the Advent wreath.  This evergreen wreath with four candles is a tradition from northern Europe.  Each candle stands for one of the four Sundays in Advent.  The closed circle is a symbol of God’s eternality.  Like the circle, our Lord is without beginning and without end.  The evergreen branches represent the eternal life that is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a life that transcends death itself.  Just as the evergreen remains alive and fresh even in the dead of winter, so Jesus fills us with new life even in death.  “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”  (John 11:25-26).  

The candles remind us of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.  They also represent all baptized believers in Jesus who reflect His light into the darkness of this world and proclaim Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9-10).  Each successive week in Advent, another candle is lit.  Sometimes smaller candles or little red berries are added to count off the days between Sundays.  At Christmas Eve, the Advent wreath is replaced with a single white Christ candle, signifying the appearing of Christ in the world.  

As the candles on the Advent wreath burn ever more brightly with the approach of Christmas, we are reminded of how near is the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Good news indeed!  He comes to judge the world in His righteousness, and the verdict will be “innocent” in His atoning death.  Your faith in Him will not be in vain.  He comes to save!

Other Advent customs include the Advent calendar with its little doors or pockets each concealing a gift or Scripture verse and counting the days to Christmas, and the “Jesse Tree,” depicting the family tree of Jesus as the promised Branch from the stem of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1).  Advent calendars and Jesse Trees make fun family projects during the season of Advent.

The intent of Advent is not to “take the fun” out of Christmas but to restore the joy and celebration to Christmas by having a period of prayerful preparation and to put the holy back into the December "holidays."  As we celebrate Christ’s first coming by way of the Virgin and the manger, and as we delight in His sacramental coming to us in the Word and Supper, we await His coming in glory at a day and an hour no one knows.

 E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come
 And night shall be no more
 They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
 For Christ will be their All!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Prayers for the end of a Church Year. . . and the beginning of another

When I began as a pastor, there was only THE Lutheran Hymnal (1941).  I learned to know and use that resource very well before eventually introducing Lutheran Worship.  One of the things I miss are the collect and prayer for the end of the Church Year.  TLH directed you to acknowledge the changing of the church's calendar in a special way that I miss.  Maybe you will also appreciate the prayerful address of the end of one church year and the beginning of another.

We thank Thee, Lord God, heavenly Father, that in the past church year Thou hast preserved Thy Word among us in purity and by it effectively quickened our soul; and we beseech Thee, Thou wouldst graciously forgive us all our neglect, unbelief, and disobedience with respect to Thy Word, and continue unto us this precious treasure with Thy blessing forevermore; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.


O Thou Father of Mercies, we bring unto Thee this day our sacrifice of praise for the innumerable spiritual blessings with which Thou hast favored us in Christ Jesus during the church year now drawing to its close.  Thou hast cause Thy divine Word to be preached to us, which is able to make us wise unto salvation; Thou hast permitted us to enjoy the holy Sacraments for our comfort and sanctification, and hast accompanied the means of grace with the effectual working of Thy Holy Spirit in our hearts.  We bless Thee for Thy goodness and praise Thy holy name; and we beseech Thee, Thou wouldst in mercy forgive us all the sins of the past year for Jesus' sake and gracious preserve the blessed light of Thy Gospel unto us and all Christendom.  Govern us by Thy Holy Spirit, that, receiving Thy Word with gladness and continuing therein all our days, we may be sanctified through Thy truth and finally obtain eternal salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Then as the clock ticks its ways from one Church Year to another, let us also pray:

Almighty Lord God, who hast by Thy grace this day permitted us to enter a new church year, we beseech Thee, grant unto Thy Church Thy Holy Spirit and the wisdom which cometh down from above, that Thy Word, as becometh it, may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve Thee, and in the confession of Thy name abide unto the end; through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.


O Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, and Only Wise God, Thou hast brought us to the beginning of another church year and we acknowledge with thankfulness all the mercies which Thou hast bestowed upon us from the beginning of our lives to this moment.  We praise Thee for preserving us from day to day, from year to year.  We thank Thee for food and raiment, for health and strength, for kind friends and benefactors, for peace and protection by day and for rest and safety by night. for our many advantages in this favored land, and for all other blessings.  But, above all, we heartily thank Thee for the gift of Thine only-begotten Son to be for men on earth the Savior from sin; for Thy mercy in having called us to salvation through Jesus Christ; for the Church in which Thou hast placed us; for faithful ministers; and for Thy holy Word and the blessed Sacraments.

Do good, we beseech Thee, to the Church, which Thy right hand hath planted, and water it abundantly with the dew of Thy blessing.

Cause the Gospel of Thy dear Son to be preached with wisdom and power, and give us grace meekly to hear and gladly to receive the Word of Christ, our King, that, accepting Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, our only Redeemer, we may be united unto Thee by faith and walk in the way of Thy Commandments all our days.

Dwell in the hearts of our baptized children, that they may sing hosannas unto Thee; and add to Thy Church daily as believe and are saved.

Prosper all endeavors to spread abroad Thy Gospel in the world.  Show Thy truth unto them that are in error; teach Thy ways unto the wicked, and let sinners be converted unto Thee.

Strengthen the weak, comfor the afflicted, and sanctify the faithful through Thy truth.

Bestow Thy favor upon our land; and grant that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by Thy governance that Thy people may joyfully serve Thee in all godly quietness.

O Thou God of peace, sanctify us wholly, and may our whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Faithful art Thou, who has called us, who also wilt do it, to the praise of Thy holy name, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Friday, November 27, 2015

But in the real world. . .

We talk the good talk from the pulpit and in the classrooms of the churches but often the way we operate gives a distinctly different witness.  We speak of Christ as our true and only foundation but then we stew and fret over statistics and the financial bottom line as if Christ had little to do with how things work in real life.  We preach Christ alone but then we act as if gimmicks will get them to church on Sunday morning and giving them what they want or like will keep them there.  We say that God is efficacious in working through the means of grace but then we put the onus on the personality of the pastor, the welcoming activity of the congregation, and the upbeat character of Sunday morning as those things which differentiate a healthy parish from one in decline.  We beat our chest about our Reformation heritage but we don't want to hear the sermons of Luther from the pulpit or worship like they did in Bach's church or go to confession like Lutherans once did.  We lament the major doctrinal divisions that define Christianity today but we allow such things as personal preference, musical taste, and cultural trend to further and even more deeply divide us -- even within the same congregation!

Pastors are just as guilty as the folks in the pew for speaking one way and living another.  It is after all the real world in which we live.  Things are not quite as simple as they seem in the real world and we must often sacrifice our principles to go along and get along.  We insist that we are fully committed to Lutheran identity, confessional integrity, and doctrinal purity but we purchase our devotional resources from those who insist baptismal water does nothing, Holy Communion is but a symbolic communion at best, and the Bible is really a book of rules to live by or secret ways to get what we really want from God, spouse, children, workplace, or neighborhood.

We read the stories of the Bible and discount them as if the saints of old did not live in a world like ours, did not have to face the difficult choices we must face, or had some special advantage or secret wisdom we do not possess.  The truth is far simpler and yet much more difficult.  They heard the Word and believed and believing followed without any guarantees or special graces to prevent them from the risks that faith always requires.  It is nice to talk about how things are in the real world and how difficult it is to live Christian faith in that real world but it has always been that way.  The saints are the saints not because they possessed special wisdom or extraordinary character but because they trusted when everything in them and around them insisted it could not be done.  And when they fell, they came crawling back to God in repentance and found the surprise of grace to receive, absolve, and restore them.

Yes, we live in a world unfriendly to God and His Word and His Kingdom.  Yes, we live in a world where the things of God, the Word of God, and the ways of God are largely misunderstood and rejected.  Yes, it is a challenge to remain steadfast in doctrine and practice and endure the scorn of people we know and people we don't as well as ending up about as out of place as Amish in the big city.  But it has never been any different.  We are often fooled by the mythology of culture friendly to faith and its values but Jesus it not legend.  Jesus is Lord of real life people living in a real life world.

Jesus was blunt in warning us about this.  But we have chosen to forget His warning and to pine away for what will not be until a new heavens and a new earth replace this one.  Jesus does not promise a dull and bland Christian life but one with ups and downs, tests and trials, sorrows and struggles.  Oh, and yes, one thing more.  An outcome.  Where tears do not flow, where sorrows do not tear at our hears, where disappointment does not embitter, where sins are excised from the memory and sinful desire from the heart, where enemies lies defeated, dead, and forgotten, and where darkness has given way to Christ our eternal light.  We are not asked to find ways to make Christian life or the Church's work easier but to remain faithful especially when it is not easy but hard as hell.  The promise is now for a little while suffering but then glory.  The promise is not abandonment but the Spirit to lead us and guide us into eternal truth.  The promise is not fend for yourselves but the richest food of Word and Table.  This is our real world.  God help us to recognize it and live in it.  Amen.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Honest Thanksgiving. . .

As we sit before the well stocked table of food we will consume to excess, only to rest up afterwards to shop until we drop, we often drop a few pious platitudes so as not to forsake entirely the spiritual character of this day of thanksgiving.  So instead of leaving you with my own pious platitudes or worse, my own angry frustration, I will leave you with one of my favorite poems on thankfulness -- one written before there was an America and before there was a Thursday in November designated as a national day of Thanksgiving.

GRATEFULNESS  +  by George Herbert (1593- 1633)

Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee       By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast given him heretofore     Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst    To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,   And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan    Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love    Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain     Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be     Thy praise.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Practices. . .

Our Synod is trending another new idea -- all over the place.  The theme is best practices and throughout Synod and its Districts best practices conferences are being held, newsletters written, and blogs posted.  All in all it is a good thing.  So much of what we do in the parish is designed to get us by and is not therefore the best we can or should do.  It is a good thing to be encouraged by best practices instead of what will pass for the moment.

Though you might think that best practices is largely a creation of the missional element in Synod, confessionals are also getting on board.  The appeal is to learn what others are doing well so that we do not have to reinvent the wheel and the benefit is that some of the pitfalls and kinks have been worked out before you start.  I always google an idea we have to see if somebody is already doing it and to see if we might learn from them rather then trudge on through our own comedy of errors in order to make it work.

What intrigues me is the very name best practices.  It implies that other practices are not the best, perhaps not even good, and possibly harmful.  That not always something we are quick to acknowledge.  We Lutherans have clung to the idea that adiaphora means anything goes, everything is equal, and nothing is too bad.  That, of course, is just plain wrong.  Even when Scripture does not command or forbid something, that does not mean that every choice we make is equal.  Adiaphora may mean that a command from the Lord cannot be applied but it does not follow that whatever we decide is equally good, right, and salutary.

In fact, some of our worst worship practices in Lutheran parishes are justified with just this idea -- adiaphora means freedom to do what we please, whatever is right in our own eyes, and whatever we decide to do is just fine.  Adiaphora mean mean that no absolute rule can be applied but it surely does not mean that every practice is equal.  There are many things which are adiaphora in the Divine Service but best practices require us to aim for a higher goal -- that which is most faithful to the spirit and word of our confession (here it means the exegetical key to the Lutheran Confessions which claims that we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice).

BEST practices then means that we keep the ceremonies that do not conflict with the Gospel, our practices are consistent with the Church that went before us, and that we give vote but not veto to those who came before us.  I wish that we Lutherans could agree on this -- heck, I wish all Christians could agree on this!  Innovation, creativity, and spontaneity are not marks of the Spirit's life within the Church but faithfulness is.  I cannot for the life of me figure out why we agitate so against this.

Best practices also trumps likes, dislikes, and personal preference.  We have gotten into the awful habit of rating things -- from hymns to chanting, from vestments to preaching.  Not everything that is best is appealing to us.  In fact, it is usually the opposite -- that which is best is often that which conflicts with our wants, desires, and preferences.  We need to aim higher than what we could do and work for that which is best -- the most faithful expression of our Confession.  When we begin here I think some of our identity confusion, some of the band-aided worst practices, and some hopeful unity will be the happy result.

In any case, we must challenge the foolish idea that because nothing is commanded, everything we might do is equal in weight, value, and faithfulness.  That is the hidden lie behind those who seem intent upon ignoring everything in our Confessions except those references to adiaphora -- the refusal to require this for the unity of the church.  We ought to be concerned for more than just the esse of the Church's doctrine and life but also for the bene esse (essential or minimums vs best practices).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Somehow I must have missed the installation of the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Michael Curry, on All Saints' Day.  In any case, I must not have been the only one.  His installation included the requisite nod to diversity (The Native American Drumming Prelude by the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians of Maryland) but conspicuously absent was any presence by their ecumenical partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Perhaps they were lumped in with the Moravians who participated. Hmmmm.  Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man played in what was, if anything, an uncommon liturgy for a decidedly uncommon occasion.  A Rabbi prayed a prayer from Proverbs and an Imam prayed.  Another nod to diversity.

They prayed for an end to the patriarchal arrogance of the past and for the entire human family -- not only those of the household of the faith.  (O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne.)  Surely we would all do well for an end to arrogance and hatred!

God was addressed as Transforming God, not a name or even an attribute usually associated with prayer in Scripture.  The Great Thanksgiving began in Spanish and the Sanctus was a Spanish language hymn paraphrase.  Everyone got to be a soloist in the sung Our Father in the familiar Malotte setting.  They sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a choir sang Deep River and, of course, a Marty Haugen distribution song was sung.  At the end, the familiar words of the James Weldon Johnson hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing sent the folks on their way.

There was a welcoming party of clergy, an asperging party of clergy, and a seating party of clergy.  There was a deacon of the table, chaplains to the Presiding Bishop, intercessors, oblation bearers, and ministers of communion.  There was surely a great show -- nobody knows how to throw a party like the Anglicans -- but it was a curious installation into a curious communion at a curious time, both in global terms and in local American terms.  It reminds us of a church with a great past and a very uncertain future.  But I guess that is exactly what the Episcopal Church in the US is -- a communion with a great past but a very uncertain future.

For my part I think that if he has better taste in vestments than Bishop Jefforts Schori did, it will be an improvement.

BTW if you have a spare 3 hours and 46 minutes you can watch it all here. . .  The Episcopalians can always be counted upon to put together a good show, even if some strangeness and hollow words raise a question or two about what is actually happening. . .

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Sunday with many names, but one truth!

Sermon for the last Sunday of the Church Year, preached on Sunday, November 22, 2015.

    This is a Sunday with many confusing names - Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday of the Fulfillment or Consummation, the Last Sunday after Pentecost.  It would seem that we have a name for every taste and preference for this end of the Church Year.  But if the names are a mishmash, so are the readings.
    In the Gospel Jesus tells us many things - a bit about fig trees, something about the signs of the times and the need to read them, and something about staying awake lest you be caught unawares.  What binds it all together and that which underlies all Jesus says is “Heaven and earth may pass away but My Word will NOT pass away.”  This keys everything together.
    Jesus’ claim separates Himself from everyone else on earth.  You will not remember my words tomorrow or next week or next year.  You won’t recall what you ate or did today when the time passes.  And that is okay – well, except that you should remember what I say!  Things come and go.  We are used to this.
    Things come and go, they change, they move in and out of style, and they move in and out of our memories. But there is one thing you cannot afford to forget. That is the Word of Christ.  His Word endures forever.  When everything else that we know is gone, His Word remains.  That is our hope!
    Jesus does not just say “My Word endures forever.”  Jesus fulfills the promise of that word by rising from the dead.  His resurrection proves the truth of Jesus’ word.  That death cannot claim Jesus or hold Him is not a curious fact.  It is, according to St. Paul, the foundation of all that we know and believe, of our forgiveness, of the hope of salvation, and of the gift of eternal life.  If Christ is not raised, His word is a lie and we are doomed.
    But because Christ is raised, His Word is the pivotal reality that defines and shapes who we are and how we live and what we hope for in the face of death.  On this the last Sunday of the Church Year here is the word and promise on which the whole of faith rests.  Christ is our risen King who lives and reigns for all eternity, who will call us before His throne of grace for the final judgment to give to us and all believers eternal life.
    I love it when a wordsmith can put a mighty truth into a few words.  Jaroslav Pelikan did just that with this claim of Jesus. He said “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters.”  If Christ is risen, our sins are forgiven, we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, we have an Advocate before the Father, He has gone to prepare the way for those who belong to Him.
    If Christ is risen nothing else matters – not a darn thing!  Only the Word of the Lord endures forever.  So do not be dismayed by the troubles and trials of this mortal life.
You are destined for something better.  Do not be deceived by the glimmer of today’s glory and happiness, there is more and better glory to come.  Do not despair that the world seems your enemy and life is a struggle, your victory lies not in things going your way here and now but in the eternity no one can steal from you.  Do not fear the loss of this world’s treasures, for the treasure God has given you, none can take from you.
    And the converse is also true.  If Christ is not risen, nothing else matters.  No matter how much happiness or success you can achieve for yourself, your heart will never be satisfied and death will steal it all back in the end.  No matter how great your accomplishments or glory, you will be forgotten in the annals of history and you will still be dead.  No matter what great things you have done, your sins will still define you just the way we are taking down statues of yesterday’s heros because their sins speak louder than their accomplishments.
    It is the Word of Christ that changes everything.  Sinners stand forgiven.  The defeated are made victorious.  The small are deemed great.  The guilty are made righteous.  The short-lived are given eternity.  The dead are raised.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  That is the fulcrum on which our hope rests, the promise of our future hangs, and the comfort of our Gospel rests. This is what binds together the day and gospel.
    The lesson of the fig tree is that when it sends forth its leaves, summer is coming.  Christ’s resurrection is that leaf, the sign for our future and the sign of our future.  You can ignore many things in this life and nothing matters but you cannot ignore this or everything falls.  If Christ is risen, nothing else matters – everything will pass away and only what is Christ’s will endure.  If Christ is not risen, nothing else matters.  Every thing will pass away and nothing will endure – least of all you.  So stay alert.  Live today in this eternal hope.  You belong to Christ Your King.  Your future is in Him.  Everything passes away but Christ and His Word and because you live in this Word by baptism and faith, YOU are eternal.  Amen.

No news is good news. . .

I have come to dread the 24 hour, 7 day a week news cycle.  I cannot remember a morning when there was not breaking news on my local TV stations and none of it is good.  I often listen to satellite radio in my car and I can listen to any number of news programs but more and more the choice is classical music.  The stress of hearing about every bad thing that happens throughout the world is often more than I can bear -- amid the bad news from hospitals, doctor's offices, funeral homes, etc... of the folks in my parish.

It makes me wonder what kind of toll this is all taking on us a society.  Bad news travels too fast and it gets to the point where we are not sure whether or where to hide from it all.  As bad as this is for adults, what are we doing to our children?  I was talking with parents who describe the fears their children express -- fears not of monsters under the bed but of the real death and loss of the parents, siblings, and loved ones.  I cannot recall my own children expressing such fears and it makes me wonder whether any of us realizes the intense stress and anxiety we are placing upon our children who absorb bad news like a sponge and often without knowing what to do with it all.

As hard as it is for me, once a confirmed news junkie, to say this -- I think it has gone too far.  I think it is high time to exercise a little discretion and to allow our children to be children for a while.  We have placed academic pressure upon the preschool, the kindergarten, and the elementary school to the point where we drug every antsy child, ditch recess in favor of prep for standardized tests, and insist that they choose a vocation by age 7 or they will fall behind the learning curve of their peers.  We have stolen their fun and steal every game which threatens to leave them with a hang nail or else we impose rules upon the game designed to prevent winning or losing.  Even recess is no fun anymore.  And then we leave them to the mournful sounds of tragedy, trouble, trial, and terror that is the news.  No wonder we are prescribing anxiety medicines to our kids!

No doubt the pressures on moms and dads in this regard are greater than were upon me or my parents.  They may not be able to escape fully the constant press of bad news, the onslaught of fear, and the accompanying anxiety but their role as parents requires them to provide a childhood for their children.  Part of the comfort of the children flows from their confidence in God's providential care, in the presence of God when fear and terror are also found, and the power of God to fight for us that we may endure the twists and turns of this mortal life and remain faithful.

I am not suggesting that we raise our children to be naive but I do believe that we should carefully discern the amount of bad news they absorb from the news.  We cannot prevent them from hearing or experiencing the reality of our fallen world but we surely owe them the full benefit of Christ's steadfast and enduring love as their strength, support, and security in uncertain times and amid the real despair all around us.  From ISIS to sex predators to hidden enemies, there is no shortage of fear.  What there is a shortage of is confidence in God's providence, courage of faith amid disappointment and within the darkness of the times, and the consolation of God's mercy when things are bleakest.  If you are a parent, do your children a favor.  Make sure they know even better God's merciful love and protection as they know the things that foster the power of fear and terror in their lives.

Our children see way too much violence, they are dulled by the constant barrage of erotic images, they learn too quickly what the little blue pill does but not to delay medical treatment for an erection lasting more than four hours, and the constant disappointment of our leaders, our institutions, and our role models... they do not hear enough about God's goodness, about His never-failing love, about His mercies new every morning, about the wonder of His creation, and the surprise of grace.  If there is a kid at your home, think about what they see and hear from others and what they need to see and hear from you.  Children are resilient but they are not indestructible.  Whether yours is a picture perfect household or a broken home with one parent barely keeping it together, don't let your children grow up to a constant string of bad news.  It steals their childhood and, even worse, it embitters and poisons their adulthood.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everything is awesome!

One of the things I have noticed is that there is plenty of what Alan Greenspan once termed irrational exuberance going on in the church.  It is irrational exuberance to adopt diversity as the primary goal of witness and worship.  It is irrational exuberance to borrow indiscriminately from all sources and presume that there will be on consequences upon doctrine and confession.  It is irrational exuberance to believe that practice is just practice and that we can change, move around, and adapt practice without affecting what it is that we believe, confess, and teach.  It is irrational exuberance to welcome every advance in technology and adopt it into the worship life of the congregation and make it the primary platform of mission.  It is irrational exuberance to think that the best way to make people come to church is to make church less like church and more like what they are already doing on Sunday morning.  It is irrational exuberance to insist that every idea have equal status and every voice is equally true when it comes to who we are, what we believe, and how we live as church.  It is irrational exuberance to believe that the savior of the church is coming in the next trend, the next wave of technology, or the next fad of worship.

Now there are surely those who think that I believe no new idea is a good one.  They are wrong.  I use Instagram and blog and utilize technology more than most.  But I do not attach to these any hope that they will make the Gospel or my ministry relevant or successful.  I am fully convinced that God and His Spirit make things happen and that our role is to faithfully proclaim the Word so that God can do what He has promised.  I think there are plenty of good ideas out there but the ideas are not our savior, they will not rescue a moribund church, and they will not transform us from faithful minority into mighty majority.  Confidence that God will work through the means of grace and courage to be faithful to the Word of the Lord -- these will be our hope, our future, and our victory if only we will manifest such confidence.

There is a certain naivete among many in the progressive wing of most all churches.  We saw it in the LCMS in the 1970s and our conflict, we see it in Rome and its less than fruitful Synod on the Family.  This naivete seems to devalue the means of grace and God's work through them and to expect that culture, society, trend, and what people think in the moment are the places we need to focus to reinvigorate the church and her mission.  There is no down side in this way of thinking.  The progressives have made their peace with change and have rested their hope for the future in that change.  Everything is awesome if we just get along, celebrate our differences, flaunt the values of diversity, and adapt to what is happening and what is being thought right now.

The theme song of the progressives in every church seems to be the same:  Everything is awesome!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Shaping pastors for the church they find or the church that should be. . .

There has been much discussion about the supposed and real differences between Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  I would not presume to present an informed study of the differences but I do have a few notions based upon some experience on campus and some experience interviewing seminarians from both schools (though certainly not a representative sample).

Concordia St. Louis (CSL) seems to have adopted either a conscious choice or a default position to prepare pastors to serve the great diversity of parishes within the Synod.  It feels as if CSL has listened to the District Presidents and to the parishes and heard the message that both DPs and congregations want pastors who will respect things as they find them.  I do not mean to suggest that this constitutes an insistence that nothing be changed.  What I do mean is that CSL trains pastors for what they will find when they get to the parish.  In the worship of the chapel, for example, there is a broad diversity of music and forms that, while they do not mirror everything you will find in the parish, they do give a nod to the diversity of musical styles and instruments, worship patterns and forms, participants and leaders.

CSL is missional in the way that term is bantered about among us today but it also attempts to be traditional -- seeing the main thing as what works.  CSL has not only Bach at the Sem but the Crave Coffeehouse ministry, both decidedly out of the mainstream of the ordinary LCMS parish.  It is less that CSL is wedded to an ideology than to doing what needs to be done.  If it is praise band, then we will do a praise band.  If it is liturgy, then we will do liturgy... etc.

Concordia Fort Wayne (CFW) seems to hold up an ideal and prepares pastors to bring parishes into the fullness of Lutheran identity and life.  If DPs and parishes have a problem with CFW pastors, it is because they are intent upon the changes that bring the fullness of Lutheran confessional identity into the parish's worship, teaching, and life.  They seem to train pastors toward the goal or outcome rather than how things are on the ground, so to speak.  I do not mean to suggest that this is arbitrary or that they insist upon changing everything right away.  Rather, I sense that they will move the parish deliberately and intently toward the goal of the fullest and richest Lutheran confessional identity possible.  So the worship life at CFW flows from the hymnal, utilizes a rich and diverse musical palate in which the pipe organ is the central instrument, because the hymnal is our book and the expectation is that worship in the parish will be from that hymnal.

CFW is confessional in the way that term is bantered about among us but it is also creative in the use of technology and social media, for example, in the pursuit of this confessional Lutheran mission.  CFW hosts an international student body and an international presence in Lutheran bodies from Africa to Russia to the Baltic to South America.  You will not find a praise band at CFW but you will find the worship life of the chapel mirrored in far off places from Siberia to Lithuania to Kenya.

I may be off base here but I don't think so.  And it brings up a great question.  Should we shape pastors to serve the congregation they will find or should we shape them for the parish it should become?  I suppose the best answer is yes to both -- yes, we will train pastors to serve in whatever circumstance they find but we will also train them to lead the parish into the fullest expression of confessional Lutheran doctrine and practice possible -- gently, pastorally, but intentionally and authoritatively.  If you have to choose, I lean to CFW.  Our church body and our parishes benefit most when their pastors have a clear idea of what it means to be Lutheran, what it is that Lutherans confess and teach, and are willing to catechize, teach, and lead the parish toward this goal. 

Having served a couple of parishes half a continent apart, the hardest question to answer for many of our people and parishes is the most basic one -- what does it mean to be Lutheran?  Liturgy and outreach are falsely accused of being either competitive or in conflict.  Where the Divine Service is celebrated richly and fully and consistent with our Lutheran Confessions, people will be equipped for and directed to the mission of the church.  Where the Lutheran faith is taught with conviction and confidence, people will be given the tools to witness confidently and boldly in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities.

Friday, November 20, 2015

All will be admitted. . .

This little line at the end of a papal answer is telling:  This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted. 

It appears that when the Synod did not go where the Pope wanted, he redirected the outcome -- which is well within his right except that such a departure is not merely a change of practice but in effect a change in doctrine which, unless the Pope declares he is speaking ex cathedra, he cannot do.  Even then, he cannot contradict doctrine already established.

Now some of you may not care what happens in Rome.  Others are nodding their heads thinking that Rome got what Rome deserved when this man was elected.  But my concern is this.  Rome is the elephant in the room when it comes to many different moral teachings -- from same sex marriage to abortion among them.  Rome coughs and Lutherans get a cold.  Trite but true.  And the point for us Lutherans of the confessional kind is that we have counted upon Rome -- its size, and its ability to flex some muscle -- in our own struggle to maintain continuity with the doctrine and practice of the apostles, Scripture, and the catholic tradition.  If Rome proves to be unreliable or willing to change, it only isolates us even more.  We have already seen most other Lutherans cave on the subjects of same sex marriage, GLBT clergy, and abortion.  We LCMSers stand virtually alone among the Lutherans in resisting the impulse to disregard the clear teaching of Scripture and the unbroken doctrine and practice of the Church since the apostles.  Yes, we do have support from WELS and ELS but they are very small and even more isolated than we are.

I am NOT sounding the alarm that we are in danger of being swallowed up in this cultural move to create a sexual ethic and family morality that fits the tone and tenor of modern times.  What I am suggesting is that we need to realize that under Francis Rome may not at all be a reliable partner in our public stance against the shifting sands of right and wrong.  What I am also saying is that we need to be prepared to stand way outside the stream of thought and tolerated positions in order to remain faithful to God's Word and apostolic doctrine.  The time is coming when itching ears within and without the once steadfast Christian bodies will exert their influence to tear down our continuity with the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles and to hitch our wagon to the uncertain course of bare desire unleashed from all restraint.  This is not about nuance but about the core teaching of the Church with regard to Scripture and its unchanging voice, the doctrine of the apostles, and the faithful practice that follows from them.

What did the Pope say?  Whether the pace is faster or slower, the outcome is the same.  History has proven him correct -- unless those who hold for the Word and catholic doctrine and practice are willing to risk a smaller more faithful church and to risk being tarred and feathered in the press.  But I suggest that battle will be fought not in the spotlight of the media but in the home, faithful parents teaching their children well and in churches where we talk about this and teach the faith, dig into the Scriptures, and stand with the Lord against a moral and doctrinal wind in which people think and do whatever seems right in their own eyes.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Leading from behind. . .

The Lutherans who came from Saxony and who later became the Missouri Synod were not so sure about democracy.  Their were real and legitimate concerns about anarchy in a political structure in which people voted their desires (more than conscience, anyway).  I have always been a closet monarchist and hope for a benevolent and faithful royal but that does not seem like it will happen soon.  In the meantime we are left with a structure that seems intent upon exploiting its weakness -- leading from behind OR following the almighty poll.

Polls surely seem designed to produce leaders who do not lead at all but who follow the often fickle and shallow whims of the people.  It seems like we are consigned to elect the very people who do not know how to lead, how to make an unpopular decision, and how to act when there is no real consensus from the momentary snapshot of the people's desires.  Absent those willing to lead, we seem content to elect people who are good at deflecting the blame, procrastinating before urgent problems, and telling us what we think we want to hear.  You can apply that equally to Republicans as well as to Democrats.  But there is something silly about a political process in which candidates compete to do what we think we want them to do more quickly and efficiently than others.

As telling as this problem is for the political discourse and election process in America, it is also killing the Church.  The Church has been subjected to the same polling machine as politics.  We regularly find out that only a minority of Roman Catholics go to Mass, believe in priestly celibacy, reject the ordination of women, believe that the Gospel is the only way of salvation, etc...  Lutherans, not as large as Roman Catholics, are not overlooked in this.  We regularly hear how our people want this in worship or that, are not so sure where they stand on abortion, homosexuality, etc...  It is as if we are being fed the same hogwash as the political sphere in that the most effective leader finds out where the people are at, gets behind the people, and follows the whims of their thinking or feeling wherever they lead.

Pastors need to learn quickly that they are not there to follow the sheep but to shepherd them, to guide them, to lead them to the verdant pasture and still, quiet waters of the Lord's Word and Sacraments and to preach the whole counsel of God's Word and not what people desire hearing.  In season and out of season was the slogan from St. Paul.  Peach thou the Word and plant it home.  This happens not only in the pulpit but in the classroom, in catechesis and Bible study.  Our own church body is foundering not simply because our people are not so sure about the positions we once believed were right but also because they just don't know what we believe, confess, and teach.  Most of the great questions of the faith are deemed open questions in which anyone's and everyone's answer is equally valid or true, at least for this moment in time.

Some LCMS pastors are not so sure women should vote.  I am not so sure any of us should vote.  We say that we do not vote on matters of doctrine and faithful practice but we write enough resolutions and we pass enough motions and overtures to question that stand.  That I agree with it or vote for it does not make it true.  Voting is an exercise of choice that has become a birthright even to religious entities.  Even the Synod at Rome allowed the participants to vote on the statements that will become the outcome.  Can bishops out vote the Pope?  Can Lutheran pastors veto the Word of God?  Can conventions overturn the Will of God?

We have contentious moral issues that are shaped by serious and consistent theological statement -- abortion and same sex marriage come to mind.  We have contentious theological issues that are shaped by serious and consistent theological statement -- creation comes to mind.  WE have contentious liturgical issues that are shaped by serious and consistent theological statement -- contemporary worship and music come to mind.  The hidden fear behind all of this is that we cannot afford to get too far ahead of our people or they will reject our positions and us.  The greater fear ought to be that if we fail to teach, fail to hold the unchangeable faith, and fail to worship consistent with our confessional stand, we cease to be who we say we are.

There has always been in Lutheranism a hermeneutic of continuity.  We ended the Augsburg Confession with the bold statement that we have not departed from the Word of God or from catholic doctrine and practice.  That is the golden thread of Lutheranism.  But look around at the Lutherans today and we see all sorts of ways we have ignored the voice of Scripture and tradition to go our own way -- from the areas of sex to worship, from Scripture to science.  Yet we have justified this, at least in part, by insisting that we cannot afford to get ahead of our people.  I would say just the opposite.  We cannot afford to follow them when they choose to depart from Scripture and tradition either out of ignorance of the Truth or out of willful desire.

Nobody needs a President or Congress who will listen to the will of the people.  We have the technology to vote on everything that comes up and we can govern ourselves according to the whims of the moment.  Polls can pass for legislatures and we will get exactly what we want for ourselves.  No one needs a pastor who listens to the people and repeats back to them what they want to hear.  They can do that nicely without the inconvenience or expense of clergy.  America needs leaders who will lead us where we are not sure we want to go because it is the right thing to do.  Churches need pastors who will hold us to the Word of God and catholic doctrine and practice.  Without them, it is anarchy (everyone doing what is right in their own eyes).

Leading from behind is not leading at all -- not for parents who cater to their children's every whim or for politicians who shape their positions according to the latest poll or for pastors who exchange the Word of the Lord which endures forever for the latest wind of change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

For Strength and not fear. . .

Sermon preached for Pentecost 25, Proper 28C, on Sunday, November 15, by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich.

Signs are very important in our lives.  When we drive, we look at road signs to help us get from one place to another.  In school, we look at signs in the form of grades to tell us how we’re doing in our studies.  Aches and pains, fevers and coughs, are signs that tell us that we’re sick and need to see a doctor.  We rely on these signs, and many others, to give us information so that we can navigate our daily lives. 
Jesus speaks a lot about signs in the Gospel reading today, signs that foreshadowed the destruction of the temple, and signs that foreshadow the end of the world.  Although these signs are scary in nature, Jesus doesn’t tell us about them in order to scare us.  No, He gives us these signs to strengthen us. 

The setting for our Gospel reading is the temple and the Mount of Olives opposite it.  During Holy Week, Jesus went to the temple every day and taught His disciples.  After coming out of the temple, one of the disciples mentioned the beauty and magnificence of it.  And it was a grand building.  The temple was made of massives stones and it was decorated with intricate engravings and gold.  The temple sanctuary towered 15 stories high; it was a skyscraper for that day.

This massive building was the center of the Jewish life, it was the center of the Jewish world; it was the very place where God promised to dwell among His people.  However, this great building wouldn’t stand forever.  Jesus responded to the comment by His disciple by prophesying its destruction.  “Do you see these great buildings?  There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mk 13:2). 

Hearing the prediction of this future destruction, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Jesus when it would happen, and what signs would foreshadow it.  Jesus gave them 4 signs.  The first sign would be the rise of false teachers.  Second, there would be wars and the rumors of wars.  Third, there would be natural disasters, earthquakes and famines. 

The forth and final sign that Jesus mentions is the persecutions of His followers.  He warns the disciples, “Be on your guard.  For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.  Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.  And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mk 13:9, 12, 13a).  This sign might be the most terrifying of all.  The other signs can be seen and avoided somewhat.  However, the persecutions that Jesus mentions is unavoidable, for it comes from the hands of those closest to us, our family and friends. 

Hearing about these signs and the destruction of the temple would have been terrifying for the disciples.  The temple’s destruction would signify the end of life, the end of their world.  And in fact, Jesus was speaking of the end of the world.  These signs that foreshadowed the destruction of the temple also foreshadow the Last Day.  Before Christ’s return, before God destroys this sin filled world and creates a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1), we’ll see these same signs.  We’ll see false teachers proclaiming false doctrine; we’ll hear about wars; natural disasters will plague the earth, and Christians will be persecuted.  These signs will be seen in the future, and they’re seen today.

Right now, we see the signs that point to Christ’s return.  The false teachers that Jesus warns about are all over our TV’s and their books line the shelves of every bookstore.  They claim they alone have the true way of Christianity.  But in fact, when you listen and read their teachings, many don’t teach Christ at all.  Wars are they top news story every evening.  We hear of terrorists bombings and attacks.  Just this past Friday, Paris was attacked by terrorist killing over a hundred people and wounding over 300 more.  This congregation knows first hand about war with the Fort Campbell being here in our city.  We have family and friends who serve in the military and who are deployed right now because of war.  The natural disasters Christ spoke of also are taking place.  Every year the mid-west is spotted with tornados and their destruction.  Coastlines are battered with hurricanes and flooding.  Drought leads to poor crops and famine. 

And yes, the persecution of Christians is a reality today.  Worldwide, it’s conservatively estimated that over 100,000 men, women, and children are killed every year because of their faith in Christ.  Videos and headlines cover the internet with the beheading of Christians.  In this country, there are shootings that target Christians, on college campuses, and even inside church sanctuaries.  Every single sign Jesus speaks of are seen today, and they will continue to be seen until Christ comes again on the Last Day. 

As we daily see these signs we can become frightened.  The fear of war, natural disasters, and persecution are very real.  But Christ doesn’t give us these signs to frighten us.  He tells us about them to strengthen us, so that we won’t be caught off guard, so that we won’t be surprised when trouble befalls us, so that we don’t loose our faith in Him.  We know the signs, but we also know the outcome.  Christ promises that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mk 13:13b).

This promise is based on the fact that you’ve been given everlasting life in Christ’s redemptive death on the cross and His death defeating resurrection.  When Christ returns on the Last Day, this world will be destroyed and all will be punished for their sin.  However, you won’t receive this punishment, because Jesus already suffered it for you on the cross.  He received the death sentence that is rightly yours.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice, God graciously forgives you all your sin.  Your Father in heaven no longer condemns you.  No long will He punish you.  Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you bear His name and His righteous life is credited to you. 

We don’t know when Christ will return.  Peter and Paul tell us that the Last Day will come like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pt 3:10).  But when we see Christ descending from heaven in all His power and glory, there will be no doubt that the end has come.  At this time the unrighteous will be filled with fear because they’ll receive the punishment they deserve.  But Jesus tells us not to fear, for we know that we won’t receive that punishment.  Rather we’ll receive the reward of eternal life.  We’ll live with Him forever in the new heavens and new earth that our Father will prepare for us. 

The destruction of the temple eventually occurred in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans.  History tells us that each and every one of these signs occurred during the 40 years that passed between Jesus’ words and the temple’s destruction.  Today, we don’t know when Christ will return.  We don’t know what day will be the last.  But we do know that our Savior will return.  We see the signs of it every day.  But don’t cower in fear as we see them.  These frightening signs don’t frighten us, for we know what is coming.  We know that when Christ returns we’ll be taken to live in paradise with Him because He has saved us with His death and resurrection.  Because of the faith in Christ that we’ve been given, we’ll endure to the end, and will be saved.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

The Blessing of Longevity. . .

No, I do not mean merely living a long life.  I am talking here about pastoral tenure.  A long pastoral tenure is a good thing.  It is a good thing to stay in one place a long time.  Shepherding the people of God is a task whose purpose benefits from long tenured shepherds and whose sheep benefit from that long tenure.

Living in an age when we Lutherans have been slowly accumulating practices and adopting values from Evangelicalism, the process of becoming Lutheran again does not happen quickly and it benefits from the long tenure of a patient, loving, and unabashedly Lutheran pastor/shepherd.  It does not help that our people too often identify Lutheran doctrine and practices as merely the quirks of individual pastoral personality.  Short pastorates not only reinforce this mistaken idea but they also make it harder and harder to re-establish the strong, positive, and vibrant Lutheran reality of confessional teaching (doctrine) and practice (liturgy).  No one benefits when the use of the hymnal or not, the practice of careful distribution of the Sacrament (close(d) communion) and the faithful teaching of Scripture and catechism is seen simply as "this is how Pastor So and So did it..." 

It is also true that sustained witness and teaching happen over the space of a generation or so.  In other words, we may influence the adults but we will have the greater impact upon the children as we rediscover what it means to be Lutheran in theology and practice.  The blessing of longevity is to establish not only solid teaching but to sustain that teaching from one generation to another. 

No one would deny that our congregations and clergy seem to be facing more conflicts and bitter disputes today than in previous eras.  Ask any District President and he will define his episcopal ministry largely in terms of firefighting -- of going into conflicted parishes and trying to dampen the flames and end the destruction.  Longer pastorates tend to reduce the kind of conflict that sometimes sends parishes through a string of several pastors on their way to a period of somewhat peaceful harmony and concord.

Why even the Pope is recognizing this.  So far in his 31 months as pope, Francis appointed 456 bishops -- sounds like a lot until you realize that is but 9 percent of the total number of bishops, and about 13 percent of the active (non-retired) bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, it would take him 8 more years to have named half the active bishops and make for more than a slight change in the culture and character of the Roman See.  In contrast, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict by their combined long tenure have made a mark on the Roman Catholic Church that will not be quickly or easily changed.  Perhaps the recent Synod and its largely unproductive outcome is testament to this fact.

So I would encourage pastors to think in long term perspective.  When I entered my first parish, the average tenure of first pastors in their first calls was 22 months.  At first glance, I hoped that I would reduce that average.  But the Lord had other plans and I stayed almost 13 years, the second longest tenure of my class (as far as I know).  And it was good -- good for the parish and good for me.  The period of conflict that preceded my arrival there was transformed into harmony and concord that continues.  The same is true of my present parish.  I have been here almost 23 years and had no idea I would be here this long.  But it has been good for them and good for me and the result has been a fruitful time of growth and accomplishment and, most of all, unity!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Even the Pope finds roadblocks. . .

Pope Francis ended the bishops’ meeting, the so-called Synod on the Family, on Saturday and it appeared he was both frustrated and angry at the process and the outcome.  This is interesting since he was the one who designed the process, called the Synod, and pretty much stacked the deck for the outcome by deciding who would participate in the Synod and what it would cover.  That was not enough for the Pope to find a roadblock that apparently prevented the outcome he has desired.

In the end, the Pope complained about those within the Roman Catholic Church leaders who “bury their heads in the sand” and hiding from the suffering of the people and the issues facing the family. There was little real change but the bishops did agree to some kind of qualified review on a case by case basis of those divorced and also remarried.  There was no welcoming language toward homosexuals.

The Pope has made no secret of his desire to find some sort of opening or accommodation for the divorced and gay Roman Catholics but he also is guilty of sending mixed signals, treating doctrine as if it could be sustained while practices changed.  This was, perhaps, too much for those who insisted that changing practice was, in fact, changing doctrine and this neither he nor the Synod could do.

In his final address, the pope spoke passionately and appeared to somewhat criticize traditionalists when he insisted that the Church should be bold enough to confront difficult these difficult issues “fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.”  Who knows what that really means!  He seemed downright angry when he said that the synod had “laid bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families”.

The more radical path in our age of accommodation is to stay the course, hold the doctrine, and keep the practice consistent.  Nevertheless, it is clear that is not what Francis wanted.  So the second Synod has come and gone and it has left everyone in Rome upset and with an axe to grind.  The traditionalists complain that the Pope ignores established and unchangeable doctrine and the liberals insist that the Pope could have prevailed to make the changes if he really wanted to make them.  In the end it makes the Roman Catholic Church appear somewhat pathetic -- as if they believed that tinkering with a few things might mollify the critics and yet keep the appearance of solidarity with Roman teaching and practice in the past.

“A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts,” the Pope said as the synod came to a close.  I know what he means but I also know that the faith is not at all rooted in the life of the people but we are rooted and planted in the Kingdom by the means of the efficacious Word and Sacraments.  Of course, the faith cannot remain aloof from or apart from the life of the people but the faith is rooted and planted precisely by the faithful proclamation of the unchanging Word of God and by the faithful administration of the Sacraments according to Christ's own design -- nothing less and nothing more.  The Pope comes perilously close to sounding the call for the church to make herself relevant and significant in the life of the people.  The relevancy of the church comes not from what we do but from the fact that sin still stains the conscience, that relationships continue to be broken, the illness continues to shadow the goodness of life as God created it, and death still claims us. 

I wonder how long Rome will be able to harness the divergent groups to the same wagon and if the time is coming when Rome will split apart -- not in the least hurried by a Pope who vacillates on the things about which he should be firm and who appears weak according to all sides of the matter.  Oh, well. . . more blog posts to come. . .  I am still awaiting the Roman Catholic watchers to parse the outcome of the Synod more fully. . . if that can be done!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Do you know God?

Sermon for Thursday, November 12, preached from the lessons for Trinity 24.

      We encounter this text over and over again.  It is a compelling picture.  A woman who had gone from doctor to doctor and become the victim of all that was wrong with the medical system of the day.  Does it sound familiar?  If you have waited in an emergency room you know her frustration.  And then there is a man who is desperate after watching his daughter suffer and die.  The body is not even cold and he leaves in the hope that the man about whom everyone was whispering -- the only one who might hold hope in the face of death.
    Today we would tell the woman to try one more doctor and tell the man to give up his hope and make his peace with death.  Today we would dismiss such a story as pure superstition or whimsy.  Even the pious would say God is too busy to be bothered with everything and sometimes even God cannot or will not intervene so get over it and get on with it.  But not here.
    Need I remind you that the word translated in this text to make well or to heal is the same word as to save.  There is more to these stories of desperation and hope than somebody merely looking for one more day or a pain free day.  No, this is about faith that knows God, knows the heart of God, and knows where God is to be found.
    Faith does not presume to have all the answers.  Faith does not even guarantee knowing the right questions.  This woman did not think to ask Jesus but simply thrust out her hand to touch Him.  Perhaps she piously did not want to bother Jesus who was headed out on a mission to the urgent need of another.  Perhaps she was not sure that Jesus would acquiesce to her need if she had asked Him directly.  You can fault her for this but she knew enough to know that Jesus was her answer -- whether her body was restored or not.
    Faith knows God – knows the power of God.  This wounded woman and grieving dad knew the power of God.  God can.  That was their faith.  God can.  But this was not theory for them.  They knew God could and they believed He would.  They knew God’s power and they knew the heart of God was rich in mercy, that God’s will was nothing to fear.
    Faith knows God, knows the heart of God, and knows where God is.  The grieving father went to Jesus and did not wait for Jesus to come to him.  The woman with the flow of blood did not wait for God to come to her, she sought out God where God was to be found - in the flesh and blood of His one and only Son.
    So what about you?  Do you know God?  This is not a question about aesthetics or theory but about God's power to answer the crying needs of this mortal life.  God has revealed Himself to us so that we might know Him but even more so we might know His power to intervene in our sinful, wounded, death bound lives.  This is the conviction faith believes - that God can.  We look to the cross and what do we see?  We see the God who has the power to redeem, save, heal, and make well.  This is about seeing God in the great advancements of men even when we abuse the technology or trivialize it for foolish end.  This is about seeing God in all things, the God whose power glues together the universe and holds the might of man in the palm of His hand.  This is about seeing God in the cross where every hopeless cause and wounded heart finds answer.
    This is also about knowing the heart of God, knowing the will of God.  This is about the faith that does not fear God’s gracious will but counts upon it.  This is about the faith that looks to the cross and sees there in unmistakable terms what God thinks about you and your need.  This is about the boldness of faith that lives life in the shadow of that cross.
    And finally, this is about knowing where God is.  Choosing not to hide in the corner of your room but to seek out and be faithful in the house of the Lord where His Word speaks, His water cleanses, His voice absolves, and His flesh and blood feeds.  Know where the Lord is to be found and put yourself there.  That is the example of this grieving father and this wounded woman.  Don’t sit at home and complain about things that do not matter when Christ is here, in this place, still healing, making well, forgiving, redeeming, and saving.  Do not dismiss the means of grace for they are the very instruments of God’s hand at work and Jesus power to address us with heavenly grace and lavish mercy.  Do not dismiss the grace that enables you to stand in the midst of your struggles as somehow less effective or less important than the grace which releases you from all your struggles.
    Know God and His power.  Know the heart of God in His Son.  And know where God is to be found in His Word and Sacraments. . . and then you will hear the sweet words of Jesus that turn affliction and death upon their ears. . . Go, your faith has saved you.  Amen.

Remember those credit card ads and the idea of something being priceless?

According to one source, the price for human fetal parts and tissue: From $30 to $100 per specimen.  It is a paltry sum compared to what we pay for a car, for diamonds, for a house, etc...  It might seem that life is cheap.  Except for one thing.

God set the price pretty high -- not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious body and blood were we redeemed.  The cost placed upon loving us was a price impossible to pay except for the Incarnate Son of God.  God so loved the world that He gave up his one and only Son to pay it—for our sake.  We can surely act like life is cheap and we can treat casually what God has given His best to accomplish but we cannot diminish the true value God placed upon us and this fallen world we corrupted.  That is what we see every time we look at the cross.

Man is still sinful, still under Satan's dominion, still driven by Satan’s lusts, and still tempted by Satan's values.  He would cheapen the cost of our redemption and also each of us in order to mock the incomprehensible worth of Christ’s sacrifice. But Hell has already been overcome and now all Satan's accusations are only talk.  The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.

We shall prevail but that begins with repentance and it requires us to leave the lock step formation of this sin-sick world and walk in the way of Christ, taking up a cross to follow Him in a pathway of self-denial that gladly puts first those whom the world has deemed cheap but God has valued as priceless as His Son.  God forgive us!