Sunday, January 31, 2016

A blast from the past outdated hymnal

A what?  An outdated hymnal?  What would that be?  I know of hymnals no longer in current use but I would hardly call them outdated.  I have a shelf full of hymnals no longer in use in parishes, books that were published between 40 and 100 years ago, but I would never presume to call them outdated.  Outdated is what you use of those things where the information has changed or is no longer reliable.  It is not a term to be used of hymnals once held in the hands of the faithful, whose voices swelled the song, and whose words testify of the faith once delivered to the saints and now passed on one more time.  No, there is no such thing as an outdated hymnal.

This Christmas I received the gift of a hymnal more than 111 years old, imprinted with the name Lulu Schulz, and I marveled at a book that included all of Luther's Catechism with additional questions and answers, most of the liturgical rites common to the life of the church, the Augsburg Confession, all the Psalms, and the requisite hymns and liturgies.  Outdated?  Certainly not! 

A hymnal might be judged unfaithful if it does not faithfully confess the mystery of God and His work of redemption.  It might be deemed shallow if its songs speak too much of the heart of the people singing and too little of the Gospel which gives than cause to rejoice.  It might be deemed inferior if its words or music were faddish and more accurately reflected the moment than the legacy of the faith and the best of the present age.  But how can you call a hymnal outdated?

Sure, the world has discarded the ancient cadence and style of Elizabethan English and prefers modern syntax but that does not make the hymnal outdated.  Maybe the world has deemed the chant of ancient days passe or the great chorales too difficult but that does not make the hymnal outdated.  In fact, these judgments are themselves subject to trend, fad, and whim and may not be sustained by the ages that follow.  But the books remain and their testament to the Gospel in song stands as witness to the fact that we learned the faith from its instruction and still am in debt to its wisdom, faithfulness, and truth.

I could take any one of the many Lutheran hymnals on my shelf and have a perfectly usable book to inspire my tongue and teach my mind.  Sure, some might be better than others and others lesser but outdated?  No, not these books.  If I held in my hands the hymnal given to my grandfather at his confirmation I would have a book still thoroughly usable and faithful (even if many of its texts and tunes did not pass into the current book used in the LCMS).  If I opened the pages of the book that was new to my dad and ancient to me when I was confirmed, I would still have a wonderful treasure of words and music to teach and guide my heart and mind in the faith.  Hymnals that are inferior probably should be discarded but hymnals that are otherwise faithful even though no longer in regular service are good books and worthy of our attention still.

Outdated?  No way!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Which is worse?

Every now and then universalism raises its head again -- those who step into the place of God and decide everything in Scripture is really irrelevant and faith superfluous.  All will be and are saved.  God could not, would not, and shall not offend against the egalitarian presumption of largess in which all are saved or none.

I will admit that I am a universalist -- not the kind above but the kind who hopes and prays that when all is revealed on the last day there are no goats, there is no weeping and gnashing of teeth, and there is no one who hears the voice of judgment condemning them to hell.  I truly want all to be saved but I am content to leave it all to the wisdom and mercy of God in Christ to sort out.  I do not presume to judge in His stead but it is my pious hope and prayer that when the curtain is drawn back there is no one in the outer darkness. 

Like others (notably Richard John Neuhaus), I do not doubt that hell is real and wretched beyond imagination.  I do not doubt that there are those who deserve to be there and I count myself as one so deserving.  I do not doubt that the only hope of redemption for the lost and condemned is the blood of Jesus Christ and it is my plea and hope to be saved without any merit or worthiness or effort on my part.  We know that some will be saved.  Scripture does not leave us in the dark.  Revelation already points to those who have gone through the great tribulation, whose robes have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.  The bosom of Abraham is not empty.  We know that the elect shall be saved and Christ is adamant that He has lost not one of those given (elect) to Him.  I trust His Word.  But I do hope against hope that in the hour of death repentance reclaims the proud, the haughty, the rebel, the Pharisee, and the sinner -- those of all stripes and nationalities.  I hope against hope that the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sins will in the end reclaim and cleanse all from the stain of sin and its cohort of death. 

Surely it is this that motivates us to spread the Gospel.  We hope against hope that, not given the privilege of knowing who are the elect, the work of evangelization will awaken in everyone faith by the Holy Spirit, bring forth the fruit of repentance, and bear the good fruit that lasts of good works.  This is not a doctrine of universal salvation but its pray and hope that at the same time defers to Christ for judgement, the wisdom of God to reveal it all, and the mercy of God to save any and all who will be saved.

I am not troubled by those who share this kind and blessed hope but it does trouble me that there are those who are not so bothered by the idea that people will suffer eternity in pain of hell and in suffering beyond comprehension.  It surely does trouble me that there are those who think the Christian Gospel so fragile and weak that they care not if it is told to others or kept to self.  It surely does trouble me that there are those who equate all claims and truths so equal that the cross is but one of many options and the Word of God but many voices claiming what none can fully offer.  It surely does trouble me that there are bitter so-called Christians who are happy people they know will be judged unworthy of eternal life and people they do not know will share the same fate.

There is surely something wrong with having just celebrated Christmas and then feeling so comfortable, safe, and secure in the idea that the incarnate Lord came for a few and the rest can be dismissed with the shrug of the shoulder.  I pray and hope that hell will be empty and even Satan Himself will have repented.  I have nothing to tell me that such will be the outcome and I am perfectly willing to trust to all the condemned the same mercy of God that has redeemed me, a lost and condemned sinner.  But it is my hope and prayer that all will be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  And it should be the pious hope and prayer of us all.  It is my consternation and confusion that there are Christians either too lightly concerned for the Gospel and pure doctrine that they have no mission zeal or so certain of those whom God will condemn that they feel no urgency or responsibility to speak and live the Gospel except within the realm of private belief.

It is damnably wrong to insert ourselves into the judgment seat of Christ and presume to know or have the hubris to decide who will and will not be saved.  But it is surely just as wrong to live perfectly comfortably with the idea that the folks next door either do not need the Gospel or were not include in the promise of Christ's blood.  Surely we all ought to hope and pray that hell will be empty. . . at least until we are given to know otherwise by the only One who does know.

Friday, January 29, 2016

I thought we had problems. . .

Rome is no panacea of perfection and the goofiness and idiocy we too often see in Lutheran parishes on Sunday morning is not isolated merely to us. . .

Footnote. . . Rome disciplined the priest.  Well, that is visitation, supervision, and accountability.  Despite what the Today show oohed and aahed over with clear sympathies toward the priest against the dark forces of authority, Rome did good.  Now it is time for Lutherans to get a backbone and tell those doing some of the stupid stuff among us that it is time to stop.  Period.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

When WE is a brick wall keeping out THEE. . .

At the heart of our vision. . . so begins a PR piece sent to us by a Lutheran group thinking we might have some funds we might want to send their way.  The mission is probably laudable and doing credible work but the mission statement, core values statement, and vision statement were all written from the perspective of the people and offered little room for the Lord to squeeze in.  It was not intentional and I am sure that these folks listened to all the right voices, read all the right books, and attended all the right workshops on how to craft and use these devices to identify, explain, and inspire people to rally around your cause.  But it was language that could have been used by any secular organization and it did not give the Lord much room to direct or speak to what was being done in His name.

As any pastor who opens his mail will attest, there is no small cottage industry out there trying to help congregation's sharpen their focus, communicate their mission, and rally people to their cause.  Once I thought it was a tool that could be faithfully used but when we set up a group to actually write a mission statement, look at our core values, and cast a vision before the people, the end result was more navel gazing than it was useful work.  Perhaps it was my own ignorance and inexperience or just maybe this is inherently one of the weaknesses of the whole thing.

I am beginning to wonder if we need or even should have a vision.  It would seem to me that visions inevitably narrow a focus which in Scripture and Confession is rather broad (at least when it comes to such things as the means of grace).  Our vision tends to become preoccupied with small things, with attitudes, with feelings, and with outcomes that are generally pretty hard to evaluate.  God's vision is expansive and inclusive but narrowly focused upon and through the efficacious Word and the Sacraments that deliver what they sign.  In the many PR pieces I have read, the mission, vision, and values defined seldom have much more than lip service to do with the means of grace.

Contrary to what many people think, I don't have a vision for what the Lord wants us to do or to be.  But I have listened to the voice of His Word, I do pay attention to what we have confessed in our Concordia, and I am mindful of the catholic doctrine and practice that underlies everything we are and everything we seek to do as the people of God in a particular place.  I do have personal preferences (don't we all) but it is a fool's errand to impose a pastor's personal preferences upon a congregation (any more than it is to pick any other one person or even group and impose their personal preferences upon the whole).  It would seem to me that what we ought to be talking about is being captive to the Word of God, shaped by the faithful confessions that witness to this Word, and gathered around the Word preached and visible (in the Sacraments).  It is through these God has chosen to work in us, for us, and through us.  Maybe things would be better if we spent more time on His vision and less time on our own.

Or, maybe I am just plain wrong again.... either way, it behooves us to reconsider what we are saying and doing in all the time spent vision casting, mission defining, and values considering...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jesus turned everything upside down. . .

The radical nature of the incarnation and the topsy turvy shape of our Lord's ministry - even to the willing suffering and death of the cross - are often addressed in theory while at the same time trying to claim this upside down Gospel as normal.  Let me explain. 

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1. 20b-31).
Just off Christmas and the many sermons and carols that speak of the lowliness of Christ's birth, we forget how radical it is that God would become His people's Savior, the Creator would become flesh and blood and enter the domain of the creature, the righteous would die for the vile, and the innocent would wear the sins of the guilty.  We preachers sometimes preach and teach as if this were the new normal and are constantly shaving off the rough edges of its radical, upside down shape.

We think in worldly terms and want to dominate the landscape of the nation and the globe with the Gospel but then we end up mirroring back to the world the zeitgeist instead of confronting them with the radical inversion of the God made flesh.  We borrow from Wal-Mart and advertising scions the tools of the trade to sell the Gospel like a product and win consumers and admirers instead of calling people to repentance, to faith, and to discipleship. 

If the Gospel were not so radical and strange, we would not need daily repentance and contrition to recall us from our wandering eyes and hearts still struggling against the curvatus in se that calls us to the shadows and darkness.  If the Gospel were not so radical and strange, good works would be absolutely normal and natural and no one would have to admonish or encourage Christians for their lack of them (but then half of the New Testament would also be gone).

Epiphany is the season of revelation -- constant revelation that discloses the inversion of grace in a world of sin, death, and evil.  Magi who take on a long journey only to find a child at its ends, a hidden miracle of water become wine, disciples called from the normal of fishing to the radical up side down vocation of fishing for men, food miraculously multiplied, people miraculously healed, the dead raised -- and all the while the outcast, rejected, publican, and known sinner is the often unwitting recipient of grace so surprising.

The world is made upside down.  Christ is incarnate, revealed in word and works, headed to the cross.  There is nothing normal or ordinary about this.  It is so radical that it scrapes against our old nature every day of our lives until we surrender this flesh to death and awaken in His arms and glory!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

As was His custom. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 3C & St. Timothy, Pastor, preached on Sunday, January 24, 2016.   

     Customs are the things we hate in our families and love in others.  How dull our old and familiar routines and how interesting the ordinary routines of others!  It is fun to start new traditions but we find a certain drudgery in doing the same things over and over again.  Habits are often seen as mostly bad things – a straight jacket on creativity – but spontaneity is almost always deemed better.  Never mind that another word for spontaneity is impulse!  As true as this is for other things in life, it is also true of matter of church and faith as well.
    Today we find Jesus in the synagogue on the Lord’s Day.  Are you surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  Jesus found Himself in the synagogue or Temple faithfully.  It was His custom.  So Scripture puts it.  Jesus fulfills all righteousness.  Even the 3rd Commandment.  Thou shalt sanctify the holy day.  He does this not as drudgery but delight.  He does this not to free us from the duty of worship but to turn this duty into delight.  So that you and I might become righteous as He is righteous.  So that you and I might love the Law and Word of God as He loves them.
    You will find no support for skipping church in Jesus.  It was His custom and His delight to be where the Word and presence of God are.  And this is what He bids for you and me.  So what is your custom?  Today as we recall St. Timothy, we remember that he was raised by a Christian grandmother and Christian mother.  His family raised him in the faith, to know the Lord’s house not as stranger but as one who is at home there.  Is that the case for you?  Oh, sure, today we have the diehards who brave snow and ice to be here but it is a question not for the timid alone.  It is for all of us.  Is this place our home or a place that is foreign to us?       
    Worship is not optional.  We are a faith community and not merely a collection of individuals who share a common interest. You were baptized into the body of Christ, the Church, and you were taught the Word by others in that body. You gather around the Word as a people who hear the voice of our Good Shepherd and who as godly sheep come at His beckoning call.  It is this that St. Paul attests in the Epistle.  Members of the body, living together in holy purpose and calling, before the Word and around the Table -- that is the communal nature of our faith and worship.
    Worship is not optional.  It is here that we are washed clean of our sins and it is here that we are absolved of sins we commit.  It is here that we are given place at the table Jesus sets before us and here we eat His flesh and drink His blood.  It is here that our children are brought to living water, taught the living Word, and fed the living food so that we may pass to them what was once passed to us.
    Worship is not optional.  It is here we receive His gifts and here we are taught to praise Him in ways that delight Him.  Here we speak back to Him what He has spoken to us and show we believe this Word.  Here we return the gift of music to the God who gave us voice, rhythm, and instrument.  This is not the odd use of music but what it was created for.  We praise the Lord because we believe His Word and rejoice in His gifts.
    No less an authority than Justin Bieber said you don’t have to go to church to be Christian – going to Taco Bell doesn’t make you a taco, now does it?  We wish the Biebs well in his new found faith but his analogy is all wrong.  We don’t go to church to become a Christian but because we are one and because we want to remain one.  Going to church does not make you automatically a saint but it is the single most outwardly significant public act of those who claim to believe.  To be where Christ is bestowing His gifts is the first desire implanted by the Holy Spirit among those in whom He bestows faith.  If that is not the case, then something is terribly wrong.
    As was Jesus' custom... so is our custom.  Worship places us in the context of the Word that speaks, the Spirit who works through that Word, the Table that feeds and nurtures us.  Faith is hard enough when you have the benefit of brothers and sisters in the church, a pastor who speaks God’s Word to you, people who join you in prayer, an absolution that relieves you of sin and its guilt, and a table just for you to eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood for the life of the world.  Without these, faith is downright impossible to sustain.  Don’t fall away.  Don’t let your friends do it.  Don’t let your family do it.  Jesus was in the synagogue, hearing and preaching the Word, brought there as a child of Mary and of Joseph His guardian... Timothy and his mom and grandma, too, found delight in the Lord's House around the Word of the Lord.  Let it be said of you as well.  The Christ who died for my sin and lives for my life is here, generously bestowing His gifts through the means of grace.  Can any of us afford to be anywhere else?  Amen.

The growing division of America. . .

We experience it politically and in religion and morality as well.  There is a significant divide in America between the center and the coasts.  While no area is thoroughly homogeneous and exceptions are found to the rule, the great ballyhooed Red and Blue political divisions are becoming hardened and more profound.  Take a look below at the graphic.  You can find the rating of your own hometown here (as long as it has a population of more than 6,000).

I was recently reminded that since I had moved from the East Coast to Tennessee now 23 years ago I had lost my street cred to speak to what was going on there.  The truth is that while serving on Long Island and halfway between NYC and Albany I did not notice the huge divide that seems so obvious now.  I found less of a difference than I expected between where I served in New York State and my home area of Nebraska or the places where I went to school (Kansas and Indiana).  Now I am not so sure.  I hear from many blog readers out that way that the divisions are more fully entrenched but even more obvious than ever before.

In the end, this is sure to create havoc for church bodies that span the nation and we have already long experienced the stereotype of salt water districts vs the Midwest in our own LCMS.  I wonder how this will bode for our future.  This is especially true given the fact that our presence in the Northeast is limited to mainly smaller parishes.  We are clearly less of a presence in those areas than we were a generation or two or three ago.

Yet it cannot be simply explained in political terms.  A recent article tried to tie the conflicts in the LCMS and the presence of dissidents on both sides to the Tea Party Movement.  It sounds good in theory but it is neither simply a cause/effect of the division nor can it predict how things will move.  All in all, I am greatly concerned by the seemingly permanent divide between the coast lands and interior in politics, morality, and religion.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The same God or not?

Unless you don't keep up on news like this, you have probably heard a great deal about the dispute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution of some repute.  It seems a professor there was suspended for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  You can read about it here.

I do not intend to rehash the facts of the case but the idea is one that Christians have wrestled with for a long time.  Some have come down on the side of the same God and others have insisted different Gods (or should I say a false god and a true God).  The arguments are not without substance on both sides and many believe that there are other overtones to the whole discussion (like Islamophobia).  I know it is difficult to distance the current political events and the war on terror from this discussion but the facts are that both groups worship one deity but the rest of the truth is the the deities are completely different and the revelation that discloses these deities is not only different but contradictory.  I do not see how it is at all possible to say that both Muslims and Christians worship the same God and I know that there are few, if any, observant Muslims who would admit this.

To say that Christians and Muslims worship a supreme being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and created the world, is merely to say that we both worship gods—that we worship the same kind of thing.  This is from a good article from The Federalist.  Written by Matthew Cochran, you can read it here.

On the other hand, an article by Benjamin Corey insists that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God.  You can read it here.   And this is the basic logic that’s wrong: “You describe the object differently than I do, therefore it is a different object.” Unfortunately, that logic would get us into all sorts of problems.  Corey insists that the descriptions of this might vary but the same God is being described.

“There’s a difference between worshiping the right God, and worshiping the right God rightly.
One can affirm we are worshiping the same God without it being an affirmation that one is worshiping the right God in the right way.  So, yes: Christians and Muslims do in fact worship the same God– but that doesn’t mean everything you’re assuming we mean when we say it. It’s not a confession of Unitarian Universalism. We’re not saying both religions are the same and equally true or correct.   All it means is we affirm that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all trying to worship the same entity: Abraham’s God.

My problem is with this statement:   All it means is we affirm that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all trying to worship the same entity: Abraham’s God.  Well, no, we are not all trying to worship the same entity.  Christians are worshiping the one, true, and eternal God as He has revealed Himself.  This is what we confess in the Athanasian Creed.  The catholic faith is this, that we worship one God who has made Himself known to us in the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It would seem to me that at issue here is whether or not the Christian revelation is definitive.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old but now in these latter days He has spoken to us through His Son.  With these words the writer to the Hebrews does not allow competing revelation or conflicting truth.  There is one God who has revealed Himself definitively in Jesus Christ and apart from Him this God remains hidden, perhaps hinted at but not knowable for salvation.  St. Paul also supports this.  There is only one name under heaven and on earth by which any will be saved.  Or... Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Or another one... no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  These last being the very words of Jesus Himself.

The Muslim may, indeed, regard prophets of the OT and Jesus himself to be prophetic and in certain ways consistent with Mohammad and the teachings of the Quran but the Muslim does not claim Jesus as the full and final revelation of God or the only-begotten of the Father nor does the Muslim confess the Trinity.  If the Muslim refuses, does not this more than anywhere else that the Muslim does not consider the Triune God true but false and offensive to his own Allah.

In the end, I am not persuaded.  Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.  It may be a slap in the ecumenical face but I believe it is also dangerous to presume unity where there is none and to so easily disregard what is one of the prime confessions of our faith.  Unless one confesses this catholic faith in the Triune God, one cannot be saved.  That says it all.  We do not confess a partial knowledge of God but to know God fully as God has revealed Himself (as opposed to knowing the fullness of His Divine essence).  BTW I am not so quick to believe that everyone who claims to be Christian in one of the 40K versions of Christianity is orthodox or worshiping the same God that the Athanasian Creed (or Apostles and Nicene) confess.  It would seem to me that evangelicalism has substituted a personal relationship with Jesus for Scriptural integrity, dogmatic confidence, and confessional catholicity in such a way that it makes me about as nervous as those who insist Muslims and Christians worship the same deity.

You might want to peruse the words of another one who is deeply suspicious of the Christians who presume Muslims and Christians worship the same God and who believes that Jews also deserve to hear the Gospel and should not be omitted in the evangelistic endeavor of Christianity.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Irony. . .

Irony is when one's ordinary expectations are juxtaposed against the reality of what actually occurs. Most often the expectation and the reality are opposites. To quote Alanis Morissette, “isn't it ironic... don't you think. . . It's like rain on your wedding day... It's a free ride when you've already paid... It's the good advice that you just didn't take... Who would've thought... it figures.”

Understanding the way of the the opposition is the key to appreciating the irony. If you do not see the opposition between the two, the irony itself is lost. Paradox is a sort of irony, in that the reality is opposite of the seemingly logical conclusion. So it is in Christmas that we laud and honor David's Son who is come to sit on David's throne forever and fulfill the promise of the Father.  Yet the irony is that David's Son is come to die for David's sin.  It was all there hidden in the shadow of David's torrid story of lust, domination, adultery (perhaps rape), illicit conception, conspiracy, murder, and smug contentment that he had gotten away with it all.  But we usually miss it.

Read 2 Samuel 11-12 again.  This is not some sad love story that turned out bad but David's stealing of Uriah's wife, the murder of Uriah, the appearance of righteousness that hides his terrible sin, and how all of Israel was caught up in the deception.  But not the Lord.

He revealed the terrible deed by deceiving the deceiver who owned up to his sin only when he knew the Lord and His prophet Nathan knew.  David sat in sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate his repentance but repentance does not remove consequences.  The prophet Nathan announced that the Lord had taken away David’s sin; he would not die. There must have been a sigh of relief that uttered from David's lips but not so quick as for him to hear that blood cries to blood: “The son born to you will die.” (12:14)

Now this is where it always was dicey for me.  What kind of God would claim the innocent life of a child who had no part in David's sin as consequence of that wrong?  We ask the same thing all the time.  What kind of God would do that?  But, of course, the story demonstrates the mercy to be revealed when David's Son dies for David's sin, David's Lord becomes his innocent sin offering.  Not the child conceived in his adulterous rape of Bathsheba but the one who is hidden in this story all along -- Christ, the innocent who dies for David the guilty.

No matter how you explain this story you are still left with a dead baby, an innocent character in this lustful tale who seems unfairly chastised for his father's transgression.  But surely this is exactly how we ought to feel for Jesus who is incarnate for but one purpose -- to die in our place for our sin.  How we should feel.  But do we?  We complain about the gross injustice to the child of David and Bathsheba but do we complain about the gross miscarriage of justice over Christ who died for David's sin and ours -- the innocent for the guilty?  Isn't it ironic?  Yet even this unnamed child is not outside the mercy of God.  His lost memory is remembered forever by the God who gives and redeems life through His Son.

For David and for each of us, the irony cannot be lost upon us.  The guilty live and the righteous dies.  The shameful sinner receives mighty mercy.  The one born into sin and who embraces that sin is redeemed by the one sinless keeper of the Law who exchanges with us His righteousness for our dirt and scandal.  That is what lay hidden in the manger and in the stable.  It was what the Angels sang about, what Mary magnified in words of song, and what the world is called to know wherever the Gospel Word is proclaimed.  The innocent dies for the guilty.  If you do not get this, what you celebrated at Christmas is an illogical and odd excursion or diversion from the reality of everyday life.  But if you see the irony and embrace it with faith that trusts such incomprehensible wisdom and unfathomable love and mercy of God, then Christmas naturally leads to Calvary.

A little irony... a great paradox...  What shall we do but, like Blessed Mary, ponder it in our hearts with faith.  God is not like us.  Thanks be to God!  God is for us!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

It's time for the church to do the heavy lifting again. . .

In a prescient article in First Things, James Rodgers has acknowledged the terrible truth that for many years the church has depended upon the culture to do the heavy lifting of instilling morality in our children.  We deferred to the school to teach our children about sex and then failed even to address the growing gap between the values of culture and our Christian understanding of male, female, marriage, family, and sex.  And now we complain that we cannot count on the school any longer -- except to teach that which is in conflict with what the Scriptures teach.

We deferred to the state the cause of the poor and welfare not only sucked up the budgetary dollar but our own grateful relief that they are no longer primarily our burden.  Yes, we still have food pantries to fill in the gaps but most of our people and most churches happily confess that the welfare programs of the community, the county, the state, and the federal government are the primary agencies through which we reach those in need.  The tax dollar has replaced the personal responsibility to look into their faces and the call to carry their burdens with them.

We deferred to the almighty federal dollar to make church owned hospitals financially viable and church run social service agencies now depend more upon federal program funds than the support of churches or Christians.  So when the federal government decides to enforce rules in conflict with our values, we cry and complain but we are not ready to step up and replace the lost funds so that we can continue these ministries without feeding at the federal food trough.

We depended upon a common moral fabric in secular culture and sacred community too long and we were slow in acknowledging the widening gap between the ethical center of a nation and of a Christian community.  Yes, even Lutherans have been slow to acknowledge that not even our much trumpeted two kingdom idea can solve the dilemma created when the morality of the neighborhood and nation are in stark contrast with the morality of God's kingdom.  Now some complain when our church leaders take public stands -- fearing that they are violating that two kingdom idea and putting us at risk for confusing political and moral ground.

We cannot depend any longer on the government to get it right or the culture to back us up.  We are back upon the risky and uncertain soil of an exilic people, strangers in a strange land that we thought we could call home and depend upon to mirror our own ideas of good, right, and salutary.  Yet we have not surrendered our secret desire to be all things to all people and regain our status as the Wal-Mart of the religious marketplace.  So we are loathe to take on the argument or to make a stand which might expose the fact that we are not only now walking to different drummers but we have always been called to a different cadence (even when we thought a silent majority still worked).

I have no crystal ball but I suspect that the world was always the dangerous place it is now, that the values of the secular world were always in conflict with the values of the Kingdom and only appeared to overlap, and that Jesus really did mean what He said in the Sermon on the Mount and the many other times when He told us in shocking terms not what it might but what is always meant to be in but not of the world.  We must be a refuge but not merely a refuge.  We must step apart from the grand boulevard of values and ideals in conflict with the Word of God but we must not hide from our responsibility as salt, light, and messengers of the Gospel.  It will certainly be dicey and difficult and we will lose our way but this is the cause and purpose for which God formed us for Himself and called us His Church.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Neverending marriage feast. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 2C, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, January 17, 2016.

    Everybody loves weddings.  They're great celebrations of love as a man and a woman are joined together in holy matrimony and they become husband and wife.  These two people have promised before their family, friends, and God to love, honor, and keep each other at all times, in good and in bad.  God unites these two people into one flesh, and what follows is to be a lifelong union of love, service, and commitment.  But before this couple goes off to start their new life together, there's the reception, that big party with food, beverages, and dancing. 
I.    Our Gospel today takes place at a wedding reception.  Jesus, His disciples, and His mother Mary, were all invited to a marriage feast.  These feasts were a big deal in the 1st century, bigger than wedding receptions today.  Marriage feasts were huge celebrations for the whole village and lasted 7 days.  They began as the bridegroom went to pick up his bride at her parent's house, and from there, the two processed to their new home, followed by a parade of family and friends.  Once the wedding party reached the new couple's home, the feasting began.  There was much joy as everyone blessed the couple and celebrated their new life together with music and dancing, food and drink. 
    This marriage feast at Cana must have been a lively celebration, because it ran out of wine.  The guests indulged their unquenching thirst and they drank this couple dry.  Running out of wine at a marriage feast would have been a huge embarrassment, much like it would be today.  If a couple today ran out of beverage at their wedding reception, everyone would remember it.  Whenever anyone thought of this couple they would remember the lack of drink at their wedding. 
    Mary brought this need to Jesus, but He responded by saying, "Woman, what does this have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come" (Jn 2:4).  Jesus' response to His mother wasn't harsh or disrespectful; it was simply a statement of His purpose.  He wasn't there to perform tricks, to provide beverage for this one celebration.  He was there for so much more, to provide so much more.  He was there to manifest His glory, to show that He provided for the never ending marriage feast.  And Jesus did this by turning water into wine.
Christ told the servants of the feast to fill the six large stone jars that were there with water, and to take some to the master of the feast.  When they did this, the water was no longer water, but wine, good wine.  When the master of the feast tasted this good wine, he called for the bridegroom and said, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine.  But you have kept the good wine until now" (Jn 2:10).  The master of the feast was confused.  Why would the bridegroom waste the good stuff on those who obviously had indulged themselves enough already to the point that they wouldn't notice this wine's superior quality?  Why waste the good stuff? 
John finishes the retelling of this miracle at this point.  We don't know anymore about this marriage feast.  We don't know who the bride and groom were.  We don't know how the bridegroom responded to the master of the feast.  All we know is that at some point, this marriage feast ended and that upon seeing this miracle, Jesus' disciples believed in Him.
We're told that this miracle was the first of [Jesus'] signs, and that it manifested his glory (Jn 2:11).  This miracle was the first of Christ's in chronological order; He had never displayed His glory like this before.  But this sign was more than just the first in a long line of miracles, it was the exemplar, the archetype.  By turning water into wine at this marriage feast, Jesus shows us a sign of what His purpose is.  He has come to provide for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb that has no end. 
II.    This marriage feast celebrates the wedding between God and His people, between God and you.  This Feast has begun like the marriage feast at Cana, with the Bridegroom coming to claim His bride.  Jesus Christ, the true Bridegroom, has come to you, to claim you has His bride, not because of your beauty, but because of His unconditional love for you. 
    We are by far the most unattractive bride.  We don't have jewels hung around our head.  We don't have a pure white gown.  We don't have any sort of dowry or anything to offer our Bridegroom.  Instead, we're completely mired, covered with our thoroughly shameful and disgusting sin.  There's absolutely nothing about us that brings our Bridegroom to us.
    He comes completely on His own.  His unconditional love compels Him to come for you, to make you clean and pure for the wedding.  Paul writes, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:25-27).  Christ has done it all.  He has prepared you to be His wife.  He has washed you clean with the blood that He shed on the cross.  He has sanctified and made you holy with the washing of Baptism, and He has given you the pure white gown of His righteousness, to wear forever. 
    This marriage feast between you and the true Bridegroom is like no other.  The joy and celebration over this union is never ending.  It is celebrated everywhere, with angels and other Christians, singing in heaven and all over the earth.  The happiness of the bride at Cana can't compare to the happiness and joy that we have with our Bridegroom.  We know that He'll never leave us.  We know that He'll always be faithful.  We know that He'll always provide for us, for our everlasting life and for the marriage feast that'll never end.
    Every Sunday, our Bridegroom gives us a foretaste of this feast.  Every Sunday, He comes to us, providing us with food and drink like no other. At the wedding feast at Cana, He provided good wine out of water.  In the Divine Service, at the Lord's Supper, He provides us with excellent wine, His blood.  This drink has been shed for us on the cross and given to us to constantly cleanse us from our sin, to constantly make us ready and prepared, to constantly forgive our sins, so that we would be holy and sanctified for Him.
    The celebration of the union between Christ and you is a celebration that will never end.  Our wedding receptions end after a few hours.  The marriage feast at Cana ended after 7 days.  The Marriage Feast of the Lamb never ends.  It's a celebration that will continue forever.  It goes on every day that you are here on earth, in good and in bad, as you live united with Jesus, in His love, His righteousness, in His forgiveness, and in His salvation.  This celebration will continue when your Bridegroom calls you home to heaven, where you'll see Him face to face.  There you'll taste the fullness of the Marriage Feast.  There you'll live with your Bridegroom only in good.  There you'll never experience the sin and death that mires this life on earth. 
    The turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana was Jesus' first sign.  It was the first time He manifested His glory, but it was more than that.  It is when He showed why He came.  In this epiphany-miracle, Jesus revealed Himself to be the Bridegroom of God's people, providing for His wife, the Church, all that she needs for life.  Jesus Christ provides what you need for everlasting life with Him.  He purified you with the water of baptism.  He cleanses you has you drink the wine of the Lord's Supper, His shed blood on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus Christ, the true Bridegroom, has come to claim you, His bride, and He brings you into the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, that has no end.  In Jesus' name, Amen.

A disturbing trend. . .

According to research, in 1960, the height of the post-World War II baby boom, there was one dominant family form. At that time 73% of all children were living in a family with two married parents in their first marriage. By 1980, 61% of children were living in this type of family, and today less than half (46%) are.  Within the next generation it may drop again until it is but a third or so.  That is certainly not without the realm of possibility.

Clearly the toll upon the nuclear family has been steep -- beginning with the divorce of sex from procreation and the normalcy of birth control (as well as disease control).  It took a great stride forward when no-fault divorce became the norm in the land.  It is heightened by the situation in the urban areas where the absent father is the norm and only a small percentage of children have any kind of father (biological, step, married, or cohabiting with mom) in the home.  It is also poised to take another great step forward as the stats begin to adjust for the redefinition of marriage that has led the courts to change marriage laws and redefine the family once again.

There is also a hidden statistic in all of this.  For there is no way to account for what the picture of things might be if we had some or more of the 58-60 million abortions that have become legal, safe, but hardly rare since the courts intervened again to dictate to the nation (January 1973).  A culture of life has been under threat from nearly every corner of culture and education and this remains one of the most entrenched divisions and hot button issues within the greater society of America.

What is also significant is the static percentage of remarried and blended families means that this is not merely a reshuffling of the home but the virtual absence of a  male role model in the life of nearly 1/4 of our children is now a fact for too many families and a not so subtle encouragement for pregnant unmarried women to abort rather than carry the child in their wombs.

Just a little bit more of not so good news as we observe the solemn anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The almighty conscience

“It’s not up to any minister who is distributing the Eucharist to make a decision about a person’s worthiness or lack of worthiness. That’s on the conscience of those individuals,” according to Archbishop Cupich of Chicago. . .

There has been a lot of talk about conscience these days.  The ELCA held up the idea of bound conscience to deal with those who disagreed with the CWA 2009 determinations on homosexuality and church and the clergy.  If someone really believed something is so far afield from their beliefs (because surely the Word of God could not be clear or tradition, for that matter), then one can appeal to conscience as the final arbiter of truth.

But of course the ELCA probably learned this idea from the Swedes when they introduced the novelty of the ordination of women and allowed individuals for whom conscience prevented them to be ordained separately from women and individual dioceses to dissent from the practice.  For a time, anyway.  That was back in 1958 and it seems there are no conscience clauses allowed now more than 50 years later.  There is an expiration date on conscience, it seems.

I do not recall much of that talk among the Missouri kind of Lutherans, though perhaps there was among those who decided to ordain Seminex grads in violation of Synod rule and practice.  Anyway it did not get much traction here -- though it might in the future.  We still have conflicts over a number of issues and they show few signs of peaceful resolution.

But Rome has picked up the idea again.  If you cannot get a Synod or a Pope to do what you want, you can leave it up to the almighty conscience.  At least that is how Archbishop Cupich of Chicago (a less than worthy successor to Francis Cardinal George, at least so far).  He has suggested that whether divorced or remarried or gay and coupled (legally or not), it is on the conscience of the individual to determine if they are worthy to commune.  Worthy here is not in the sense of righteous or holy apart from Christ but rather in a state of grace -- without unconfessed/unrepented sin.

Whatever you think about open vs closed communion and/or the communion of those living in opposition to church teaching (such as communion of the divorced or partnered gay as in this case with Rome), the appeal to conscience represents the ultimate triumph of humanism and the enlightenment and is not at all consistent with the Christian faith.  Individual conscience may have been the ultimate fruit of the Enlightenment but it was not what Luther had in mind and it is not at all consistent with Scripture and the catholic tradition.  Elevation of reason or conscience over Scripture and the catholic tradition represents a slap in the face to truth that is objective and larger than the person and the moment.  This is a dead end for orthodoxy and the triumph of a relativism in which the faith and the church is ultimately only one person wide and deep.

Cupich is being disingenuous to his own religious tradition and is applying the most modern standard of truth to what is a question facing the whole church.  The role of conscience is not to define or deliniate Church teaching, but to conform to it.  Properly speaking, conscience is not an appeal to self or to reason or to feeling but the informed conscience, the domain of the Spirit who teaches, guides, and instructs the heart to faith and obedience.  Worthiness does not mean those without sin but those who are not living in grave sin, without repentance, for whom the sacrament would bring harm and not blessing to them (as St. Paul describes in I Corinthians).  Just as the individual must be rescued from the failed conscience that no longer warns them of their sin, so also the church must be rescued from the public scandal of implying those who flaunt basic doctrine and moral teaching are good to go when it comes to approaching the Lord's Table.

Cupich is not being pastoral in allowing this confusion to reign and deferring to the almighty and individual conscience to discern and define truth and righteousness outside the magisterium of Scripture and the catholic tradition.  Neither are Lutherans being pastoral in turning a blind eye to those who commune and leaving it up to the individual conscience to answer who should and should not be at the rail.  Again, this has zero to do with whether or not the person is a sinner and everything to do with whether or not that person is in a state of grace, has faith, and is repentant.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The fundamental right to choose to die. .

A recent Canadian Supreme Court ruling has determined lethal-injection termination is a charter right (the equivalent of what we might term a protected right under the constitution). As a consequence of this, euthanasia will surely be legitimized, placed under one or another bureaus of the government, and rendered routine for society in Canada.  As it was described:
[S]ooner or later, death will become a civil servant. He will operate in the open, during business hours, with a budget and a boss. His work will be humanized and bureaucratized. Death will be licensed, regulated and empowered by law to solve a public policy problem—the unacceptability to certain people of certain types of dying.This marks a major shift in the meaning of death, from ineffable human destiny to legislated human right....
While a significant portion of America is in conflict over the right to life, much of the rest of the world has pushed onward to the other side -- the right to say good night to life when and how one chooses.  It is, in the eyes of many, a fundamental right, the right to die.

How strange it is that death which became the curse of rebellion for those who believe the Scriptures and the enemy of an all too brief life for those who do not believe them has now become normal, routine, and even, can we say, welcome over the prospect of living!  How strange indeed that death who placed the ticking clock of mortality over us while Satan gleefully giggled has now become the new normal -- even Christians succumb to the idea that death should come to us under our own terms and when we are ready to surrender ourselves to it, we should have the freedom to do so!

There is but one who willingly surrendered Himself to death and He died not for Himself but for those captive to death and living in the chains of its wretched prison.  But what of a Gospel that proclaims an end to death for a people who no longer see death as an enemy, who no longer view its appearance as a constraint upon their freedom, but choose it willingly as the purest exercise of that freedom?

What happens in Europe and Canada are not long from the shores of the US and what has become the new normal there will certainly try to become the new normal here as well.  Perhaps this is what Bernie Sanders meant when he suggested that what works in Denmark ought to be the model here.  The Danes have already tinkered with the view of death and worked to make a right what was once a dread to be put off at any cost.

How strange it is that we should give up trying to overcome death with technology, medicine, and religion and now tame it, domesticate it, and turn it into a pet!  Surely this is a sign of our fallen state that the life we were given as a gift would become a curse and the death that was our curse would become a gift!

Unleash the hounds of reason and you end up with all that mocks common sense as much as it contradicts Scripture and the Gospel!  Of course, it is the perfect answer to those who view human life as an offense against the pure nature of creation.  How better to decrease your carbon imprint than to return your body to the dust of the earth!  The goddess worship of the green queen of nature has taught us to hate life and love death.  Hmmmm....  God, help us from ourselves!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Life as a Muddle. . .

Lutheranism, like Christianity in general, has entered the muddle years.  We have muddled up the very things that we once knew clearly and concisely.  We no longer are sure what it means to make such basic affirmations as this is what the Word of God is or says.  We speak of the Gospel in such broad terms as to render alien to its definition the cross, suffering, blood, and death.  We treat baptism psychologically instead of sacramentally -- as if God inhabited more our feelings than anything else born of water the Spirit.  We act as if the Lord's Table were only incidentally His and it is our hospitality that decides who will commune, what kind of bread and what will be in the cup that are supposed to be His flesh and blood, and what words we will use to make the supper meaningful (when the old Verba or Words of Institution seem so, well, routine). 

The middle muddle years are the time when we have grown long past the exuberance and promise of youth into an adulthood winding down out rather than up.  We watched as our hopes and dreams were tossed to and fro over a world or real life problems and stolen from our hands by the actions of a history none of us wanted.  We were left with the disappointment and, no matter how hard we have prayed, the distinct feeling that God is not listening to us (perhaps no more or less than we are failing to listen to Him).

We have everything of the Church except faith.  We have made constitutional review and restructuring a science and become experts in its formularies.  We feel that we are the Church because we have all the trapping of the Church but we do not know for sure what we ought to be doing as the Church.  We can count on no common morality, we share no common vocabulary for confession or for worship, we sing what we want and we all want different songs.  We have left to our children a series of acronyms for churches, parachurch organizations, and ideas instead of the raw confidence in God's Word that endures forever.

But this is not rocket science.  We need not await a genius.  A little child can remind us what we need.  We need to surrender our preferences and listen to the voice of God speaking through His Word.  We need to learn anew the wisdom of the Catechism.  We need to listen to the hymns of old that have stood the test of time and learn to sing them anew before we begin substituting our little ditties for the great heritage.  We need to open the hymnal and pray its words.  We need to get up off our duffs and go to church, bringing the entire family together, and paying attention to what happens there.  We need to support the Church and God's work as if it really were the high priority we said it was.  We need turn off some of the technology to rekindle the art of friendship the way Christ showed us friendship, loving us even to death.  We need to love our neighbors not with lofty words but with the courage to share with them the one Gospel that saves and share with them the resources God has supplied us in abundance to relieve their poverty. 

Living in a muddle is not a fatal diagnosis.  It is what always happens when we choose shadows over the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  Step into the Light.  It is harsh at first to our tender eyes but the Spirit is there to focus our sight so that we might possess anew with great joy and the peace of a clear conscience the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Christ has come to bestow.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Powerful words. . . worth our careful attention

On this blog I have complained about the feminization of the Church, the break down of the family, the trivializing or even irrelevancy of marriage, the confusion over gender identity, etc... and too many others for me to list here (it might just seem like I am merely an articulate curmudgeon!).  But one author has directly addressed not the heresy of the final relatio of recent the Roman Catholic Synod but its failure to address reality.  Rome is not my jurisdiction but these words are so pointed, clear, and true that we would all benefit from a careful read.  I won't reprint the whole thing -- but it is hard not to!

Read it below:

It may seem like little to expect, in our time of rapid cultural disintegration, that Catholic bishops, who presumably can draw upon the clear teachings of the Church’s Founder, the wisdom of countless philosophers and theologians, the witness of Catholic missionaries and teachers, and the life-breathing works of Catholic artists, should refrain from repudiating all of that to join a rainbow parade of sexual confusions.  But these days we’ll take our favors when we can get them.  Otherwise the synod has been of no help.

The synod’s final recommendation to Pope Francis is mainly bland and inoffensive.  It is also an exercise in unreality.  That’s what happens when your mode of thought and expression is neither philosophical and theological, nor earthy and poetic: It does not aspire to reveal the essences of things, and it does not confront the sweat and mire of the created world.  The bishops write in sociological patois, abstract and banal at once.  Reality escapes them.
Let me illustrate.  The document insists on the complementarity of man and woman, and quotes Pope Francis as suggesting that each sex does not know itself except in relationship with the other.  But in what does that complementarity consist?  The bishops won’t say.  Pope Leo XIII, who spent his long pontificate writing about the Christian family, said that the father’s authority in the family, which is a gift to its members, proceeds from the fatherhood of God Himself.  The bishops do not cite Leo, nor do they note that fatherhood has been under assault in every Western nation for the last 60 years.  Boys spend their school years having their natural energies smothered with drugs, and having their natural bent toward what I call hierarchical adventures frustrated or belittled.  The bishops turn aside.
Men are to be like Saint Joseph, they say, the protector of Mary and Jesus, and that is well enough, but some men must be providers for and protectors of women and children even if they do not have Joseph’s meek character.  How do we raise all boys, whatever their dispositions, to be strong and faithful fathers?  Obviously, we must work with the masculine nature, acknowledging its reality and training it up to maturity.  But the bishops ignore the problem.  All they do for men is to wag the finger and repeat that tired bit of feminist nagging, that women’s entry into the workplace—often to the detriment of the family—has not been answered by men doing more of the household chores.  Real men wear aprons.
The bishops repeat a common reading of Ephesians 5:21, “Submit yourselves to one another,” as if it applied only to men and women in marriage, and not to the whole of the Christian life.  Yet almost in the same breath they say there must be no “subordination,” and again the patois gets the better of them.  There can be no submission without subordination.  If a man submits his energies and his fatherly authority to the welfare of his wife and children, he has established a hierarchy or taxonomy of goods, whereby one good—say, his delight in risk—will be subordinated to another (say, the security of the family).  Besides, subordination is what Saint Paul is talking about.  His Greek hypotassomenoi is exactly equivalent to Latin subordinati.  The Christian life is to be characterized by subordination, as the lower obeys and honors the higher, and the higher submits to the good of the lower.  That, after all, is how the body works, as Paul is at pains to remind the egalitarians of Corinth.  There is such a thing as a body without a head.  It is called a corpse.
And what if it is characteristic of that God-ordained masculine nature to form hierarchies?  For nothing dangerous or difficult in this world is ever done without them.  They are at the heart of every great cultural institution in the history of man, from the Greek gymnasion to the medieval university to the Renaissance art studio to Bell Laboratories in its heyday.  Without hierarchy you cannot dig a canal or build a city wall or fight a battle.  Or, for that matter, bring a heathen people to Christ.  But the bishops will not consider it.

So, too, do they turn their eyes from passion.  It seems strange, in a document on sexuality, that the bishops seem unaware of what moves men and women to make the beast with two backs.  By their account, young men and women shack up because they are insecure in their finances, or because they are beholden to the philosophical errors of individualism or of a certain kind of feminism, or because they have witnessed the pain of divorce.  Let me correct you on this point, your excellencies.  If a boy and girl are playing house and doing the child-making thing, there is nothing, financial or otherwise, to prevent them from getting married.  If they are committed to each other for life, they should make that promise public before man and God.  If they are not, they are lying and are willing that their children should pay later for their hedonism now.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Home is where the heart is. . .

Home is where the heart is, we say, but for many of us the heart is at work.  It is not uncommon for folks to admit that they are relieved when time off is over, the vacation is done, and they can go back to their normal work routines.  It is also not uncommon for a new mother who took time off the job to deliver the child to find herself longing to go back to work.  It is not uncommon for us to find reasons to leave the house and do something, anything, rather than stay at home. In other words, we have learned to view the home as a kind of unwelcome captivity that needs an escape (more than now and then).

We have gotten to the point in history in which home is not home to most of us but merely the place where we sleep and occasionally eat.  I know that personally and I bet many of you will admit it is more true than you care to imagine.  We buy already prepared foods or eat take out so the kitchen is less for the actual work of making food than reheating it (or, truth be told, a showcase in which we display our newly purchased treasures in the form of labor saving devices).

According to Wendell Barry, the home has taken on aspects of a divorce:  Marriage … has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other. The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple does their consuming.  From money to things, we decide whose domain this will be and, more importantly who will exercise control over this area.  Such negotiated rights sound more like roommate arrangements than the shared life generations before called marriage.

You can read an extended discussion of the whole thing here. . .  I will not attempt to summarize or duplicate what you can find in longer form there.  However, I do want to focus on a couple of lines.

In the pursuit of freedom (which we mistakenly conflate with autonomy) we have successfully made it possible to be homeless at home. Our kitchens resemble cafeterias, our homes motels. Afraid of losing “who we really are,” we go to great effort to ensure that home will not become a prison of domestic captivity. 

The key here is autonomyConfusing freedom with autonomy and we bow at the altar of choice and presume this is an ultimate definition of a successful life.  It is no wonder that the Church is having a struggle if we think that autonomy is the highest value.  From the marriage vows and the dreaded obey word to the Paul idea of mutual submission we have come to bristle at the very notion that any of us really needs the other.  We have skills, we can earn our own way, we don't need some patriarchal vestige of the past to put the reins on our freedom and autonomy -- except in the things we have come to define as demeaning or beneath us (usually anything to do with the home).  Our work at home has come to be defined as chores nobody really wants to do -- so it is easy to justify paying others to do it or depending upon the helicopter parents to come in and do it for us.  The end result of our autonomy is that marriage itself has become peripheral to who we are and how we live.  It is no wonder then that such marriages fail because they are no longer fun or rewarding or simply because they turn out to be work.  It is no wonder that folks put off marrying until a later age when there are so many other things more urgent and more noble than domesticity.

Yet we cannot forget that God designed us, wired us, for exactly that.  Running from that which is domestic is running from the inherent nature of our humanity -- even within its fallen state.  The home is not a perfect place but the longing for home haunts even those who have made their peace with singleness and who have told themselves they enjoy coming home to an empty place.  I think the author has keyed in on exactly those things that have left a home seeking people homeless even when we have an address and when we have a family.  Until we learn it is neither weak nor a personal defeat to admit this is exactly who we are and the place we were created for, we will find many things unsatisfactory in our lives, our marriages, and our homes.

I cannot help but smile at that commercial that seems to play with our vocalized ideals and confront us with the longing within that teaches us what we say we want is not exactly what we mean...  You watch and tell me if this is not the visual image of the well crafted piece of writing from Crisis Magazine!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Pastor as Model. . .

Though we here on earth are loathe to hold ourselves up as examples (more false modesty than the real conviction that we have nothing to model), St. Paul is not to slow to say "follow me... the sound pattern of my words and works... the Gospel I proclaimed to you..."  St. Paul, who also called himself chief of sinners, was not in the least suggesting that he was sinless or without blame.  He depended upon the righteousness of Christ just like the anonymous baptized whose names are known only to God.

It seems to me that one of the chief roles of the pastor in the parish is that of model.  I do NOT mean the idea that he has attained some spiritual plateau that others can also reach if only they try hard enough.  I do NOT mean to say that the pastor is holier than those who sit in the pews.  Rather, the modeling I am talking about has to do with external piety.  For example, when they see the pastor make the sign of the cross, they are encouraged to recall their own baptism when God's triune name was placed upon them.  When the people see the pastor bow his head at the name of Jesus, they will eventually connect this gesture to St. Paul's own words (at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow. . . etc...).  When they see the pastor genuflect, they see the response of the faithful to the incarnation (if they can just get over the knee jerk reaction that suspects him of being a Romanist).  When they see the piety of the pastor displayed in the ritual gestures of the liturgy while in the chancel, they have a model for their own piety and worship.  When they see the Pastor hold up the Word of God as they proclaim "The Word of the Lord," they understand that his voice has become a tool of God to speak to them.

Lutherans are certainly not people to establish rules that would require the folks in the pew to make the sign of the cross, bow, genuflect, kneel, etc... but when they see the pastor do these things they have an example to follow.  Many would appreciate these gestures but do not know how to do them.  The pastor models this before the people -- the fuller ceremonial of which they may only watch or participate in part.

Nowhere does this hit home more than with the altar servers who assist in the chancel -- from acolytes to lay assisting ministers.  The modeling of the pastor taking seriously what happens in worship leads the child and the adult who may be thrust into a less familiar role within the liturgy to know how to exercise this assisting role.  The youth who sits with me as an acolyte watches me pray, sees me open the book and follow the order of worship, sing the hymns, and, guess what, they tend to follow!

As parents we model all sorts of things for our children -- the teaching without words that happens for good or for ill as they see what we do, hear what we say, and watch how we do these.  As pastors we do this as well.  The reverence we show is not without impact.  It teaches.  We model this before those who are with us in the chancel and we model this before those in the pew and they learn from it.  Piety for the baptized includes reverence learned from the our fathers in the faith.  This is not an artificial piety reserved only for certain space but at least for that space and it is mirrored in other things outside the chancel (at least that is the hope).

So I would say to the pastor who finds resistance to such reverence that the best thing he has going for him is his own modeling of this piety and reverence before the people -- especially the youth.  When the pastor treats the things of God casually, you know what the message is -- this is not serious, this is not important, or this is a joke.  When the pastor treats the things of God with reverence and the devotion of faith, you also know what the message is -- God is here, speaking through His Word and acting through His Sacraments to deliver His gifts to His people.  And I would ask those who may be tempted to dismiss such ritual or ceremonial as Roman hangovers to step back from judgment, watch, and see.  They might learn just how Lutheran these things are.

Friday, January 15, 2016

When no news is good news. . .

Primates of the Anglican Communion gathered for Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral on January 11. The service concluded the first day of the week-long private meeting, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury so that the Primates could pray and reflect together on issues of common concern.

Anglicans sighed a breath of relief.  The Primates of the Anglican Communion prayed.  And that is about it.  The whole communion is being stretched to its limits and is about to burst.  There is little that they can agree upon.  Not who should be ordained.  Not what defines marriage.  Not what the
Gospel is.  Not what the Sacrament of the Altar is (Communion won't be attended by GAFCON Primates nor a number of others).  But they can sing Evensong!  And sing it well.

Those in developed nations are dismissive and intolerant of their African peers.  Those in Africa and other nations considered undeveloped are serious about the faith and their churches are growing but their voices cry out to deaf ears.  Inclusivity accepts nearly everything but disagreement with the liberal line. Diversity loves to showcase color in the faces of its hierarchy and membership as long as they toe the same theological line or remain silent in their dissent.

The Roman Catholic Church set up the Ordinariate when it became clear that Anglicanism was imploding and they have drained off a significant number of the most serious minded Christians.  Anglican Churches have been set up here and everywhere to provide a somewhat seamless transition for disaffected Episcopalians who reject the church body but love the Prayer Book.

And so goes the way of a once noble and respectable church body... 

Since I write this, the Anglican Communion has suspended The Episcopal Church (not sure yet what all that means) but read the documents below:

“Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.”
The primates of the Anglican Communion have suspended the Episcopal Church from full participation in the life and work of the Anglican Communion. On 14 January 2016 a motion was presented to the gathering of archbishops and moderators gathered in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral that called for the Episcopal Church to be suspended for a period of three years.
The resolution as shared with Anglican Ink calls for the Episcopal Church to lose its “vote” in meetings of pan-Anglican institutions and assemblies, but preserves its “voice”, demoting the church to observer status..
The motion asks that representatives of the Episcopal Church not be permitted to represent the Communion in interfaith and ecumenical bodies or dialogue commissions, nor serve on the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council, nor vote at meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council — whose next meeting is this summer in Lusaka. Unlike the recommendations of the Windsor Report, which called for the “voluntary withdrawal” of the Episcopal Church from the life of the Communion, today’s vote directs the archbishop to discipline the American church.
The Episcopal Church may not take part in the decision making process “on issues of doctrine or polity”, either, agreed the primates.
The motion further asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to “appoint a task group to maintain conversations among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of commonality, and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held in the love and grace of Christ.”
The Anglican statement: 
Today the Primates agreed how they would walk together in the grace and love of Christ. This agreement acknowledges the significant distance that remains but confirms their unanimous commitment to walk together.
The Primates regret that it appears that this document has been leaked in advance of their communiqué tomorrow. In order to avoid speculation the document is being released in full. This agreement demonstrates the commitment of all the Primates to continue the life of the Communion with neither victor nor vanquished.
Questions and further comments will be responded to at a press conference tomorrow at 1500. Full details are available here.
The full text is as follows:
1. We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.
2. Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.
3. All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.
4. The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.
5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.
6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.
7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.
8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.

It's all good. . .

It's all good.  Well, no, it isn't.  It is not all good.  And therein lies the problem.  The church is loathe to say anyone is wrong -- just like every pastor hates to be the bearer of bad news or a naysayer.  The world loves to judge the church for judging others or other ideas or truth.  But this judgment is often that there should be no judgment whatsoever.

For too many churches this is reality.  It is all good.  You can believe anything and everything (as long as you are not rigid in your ideas).  Flexibility is next to godliness and it has come to the point where a flexible truth is the best truth to most folks.  Instinctively we tend to agree with this.  Relativism is the first idolatry and really the only one.  Bendable truth is the best truth as long as we get to bend it the way we want.

But the reality is that heresy and practices that proceed from it are like a poison to the church and to the faith.  A bendable truth is not merely one form of truth but no truth at all.  Flexible truth is worthless and holds up nothing at all.  It is not all good.  Jesus insists that this is the case and warns against those who depart from the way in the same manner Paul warns against those who surrender the sacred deposit for the winds of change and the novelty of invention.  Let him be anathema who preaches a different Gospel than the Gospel I proclaimed to you.  There is not much flexibility in that kind of truth.

Hermann Sasse put it succinctly.  Just as a man whose kidneys no longer eliminate poisons which have accumulated in the body will die, so the church will die which no longer eliminates heresy.  Now there is a practical manner of describing how the poison of uncertain truth and flexible doctrine can kill the church from within! 

We tend to be wary of those who are certain and yet it is this certainty which the church possesses through the witness of Scripture.  We offer not mere opinions or reflections based upon feelings but the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  It is either this eternal and unchangeable truth or it is no truth at all.

At the same time, this truth is not sectarian.  It is not captive to an individual, an idea, or a moment but is catholic.  It is this truth that Lutheranism claims confessionally.  It is this truth that we must guard in an age of relativism when truth itself is suspect.  We speak in such broad terms about the little bit of truth posited in every church body and it sounds so noble, so humble, but who wants to be part of a church that has only a little bit of the truth?  Who can trust a church that claims to have but a version of this truth?  The claim of catholicity, with the rigorous defense of truth against heresy, is that which distinguishes Lutheranism from the beginning and this will be our future -- or our demise if we surrender our confidence in the things in which we have been taught for a best guess.

For Missouri this is becoming personal.  We must either get a handle on how to deal with those who teach and confess in conflict with what we have publicly said is our faith or we will end up with no truth left.  For some other Lutherans, thinking here of the ELCA, the surrender of truth has already happened and in its place the gospel of social justice and advocacy has replaced the good news of the cross.  For the ELCA one of the most important sins to be confessed is the sin of exclusivity -- even the exclusivity of the Gospel truth itself.

Now for Rome we begin to hear the same kind of thing.  The Vatican has issued a new document on Christian-Jewish dialog. The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.“    You can read about it here.  Apparently not all who will be saved will be saved through Jesus Christ, confessing their faith in the sufficiency of His blood to accomplish what their works could not.

There is poison at work here and it is attacking the very exclusivity of Christ and His atoning work.  But that is the end result of all heresy -- no matter how it begins.  Unless and until a church body can deal with this false teaching, the poison will grow and it will do what poison does -- it will kill!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Problems with language

We talk much in the church about advancing the Kingdom or building the Kingdom or doing the work of the Kingdom.  The problem with such phraseology is that it can easily permit us to believe that we make the Kingdom of God come or that, if we choose, we can prevent the Kingdom from coming.  There is grave danger in presuming that the Kingdom of God comes because of our efforts or the Kingdom of God is hindered by our opposition.

The doctrine of election reminds us that God has and will to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify those whom He has appointed.  But since we are given no such knowledge of who is and who is not elected, it is our privilege to witness the Gospel to all people and leave the rest for Him to sort out.  Therein lies some of the problem.  We want to do what God does and we want to know what God knows.  In our desire to influence the works of God, we want to know what God knows (who is and who is not of the elect) and we want to do what God alone does (judge).  Instead, we have been called and set apart to do what God has given the baptized to do -- to worship, to witness, to serve our neighbor, and to pray. 

Pastors often grow frustrated at the slow pace of God delivering up the results of their faithful preaching and teaching.  But we often forget that part of faithfulness is not only preaching and teaching faithfully, but also waiting patiently upon the Lord to bring to fruit the seeds He has planted.  Nothing is as dangerous as well meaning pastors or church people who want to help where the Lord has not requested our aid.  As an example we are reminded how the Lord insists that the wheat and tares must grow together until the day appointed for the harvest and even then others will glean the fields and separate the wheat from the chaff.  It is enough for us to do what God bids us to do and to trust that the Lord will fulfill the rest.

People often grow frustrated at the lack of measurable results.  Pastors are evaluated not by their faithfulness in fulfilling the duties and tasks assigned to them but by whether or not the statistics show growth.  Churches are judged not by the faithfulness of the preaching and teaching, worship and witness, service to neighbor and works of mercy but by the almighty numbers.  If we would be faithful then we cannot claim for ourselves what God has reserved to Himself and neither can we grow weary in the well-doing of what He has assigned to us.

Pastors do not grow churches and neither do people.  Churches grow by God's design and purpose through the means of grace.  Period.  The Kingdom of God does not come by our prayer or by our works but by the work and will of God.  If we do what God has given us to do, we have done what God requires.  Nothing will be gained by presuming to do what God alone can and does accomplish.

Yes, we want the Kingdom to grow and the congregation as well.  Yes, we believe it is God's will that the Kingdom advance and the church grow.  It is, however, a short jump from these wants and desires to presume that God is either not working fast enough or efficiently enough so that He must require our help, aid, or interference to make happen what is either not happening or not happening as quickly or as predictably as we desire.  That is dangerous territory. 

What God has given us to do is not a small thing.  Faithfulness is always a struggle in a world either prone to doubts or prone to distractions.  Faithfulness is always a fight when the old Adam still insists we know better than God and we can do better than the Lord.  Faithfulness always seems inconsequential when we want to predict and control the outcomes.  But faithfulness is always exactly enough for the Lord to do what He has promised.  With man it is impossible but with God it is not merely potential but the promise.  He is faithful.  He will do it.  Once we learn this, we shall be freed from so much that is not given us so that we can give ourselves fully to what has been given us to do.