Saturday, April 30, 2016

Learning a lesson from our forbearers. . .

In the US few seem to grasp the appeal of a Donald Trump.  Though I am not a supporter of Trump, it is not difficult to understand his appeal.  We live in a nation in which change has become rapid and in which we feel distant from our past and from the institutions that provided an anchor for our lives and a direction for our hope.  The cultural elite have promoted a political correct kind of nation in which choice is devoid of moral value except the need to disdain the sins of our past (mostly oppression).  In this vacuum there is little for the ordinary American to hold onto -- until someone comes along who speaks out loud what many have whispered, who does not seem intimidated to the gods of diversity and politically correct speech, and who dares to throw it all in the face of the media and the powerful ruling class which decides what ideas will and will not be tolerated.  It is a culture of outrage from folks who feel like they have few places left to express their indignation.

What is happening in other places (in England, for example, and the working class there apt to blame their plight on Thatcher's resurgence of the free market), is happening in America as well.  Schools are talking more about bathrooms for transgender than about teaching children the three R's.  Workplaces have become battlegrounds for existence.  Police and legal authorities have been painted with the broad brush of bigotry and oppression.  Food police are telling us what we can eat and drink.  Obamacare defines what we want from the health care system.  Even though a woman may very well become President and a Black is our President, we are everywhere charged with mysogyny and racism.  Certain lives matter but not the unborn.  Religion is better not seen and best not heard in the public square.  Businesses are shut down for refusing service to people who could easily find others to satisfy their wants without much trouble.  Terrorism that is clearly born of one religion and one ideology is treated with kid gloves.  In Cuba the arrest of dissidents is deemed the equivalent of a lack of jobs or health care for all and our own President does not disagree.  What are we to think?

Immigrants are doing better in all of this because, unlike the white working class, immigrants have retained the social and religious institutions that promote cohesion, identity, and provide them support.  While I am not unsympathetic to the challenges faced by blue collar workers and their families, I wonder if this dearth of social and religious institutions to support them and sustain their identity is not one of the bigger challenges to face us as a nation.  As a nation we no longer enjoy unanimity when it comes to our values.  Diversity has left us unsure if we really do have things in common and the result is suspicion and fear.  The campaign of the progressives to allow religion only to challenge their definition of oppression has left us feeling isolated and without a voice.  The pace of change and the marginalization of once important institutions like the church have left many of us angry, frustrated, and fearful.

The decline of the neighborhood, the disbursement of the family across the nation and globe, the challenges to family, the myriad of choices that pull us in different directions, and the individualization of faith are all as significant as the economic troubles that face the working class.  Add to that the weakened structure of the family, the absence of strong male role models, and the negative portrayal of masculinity and we are ripe for an election that is more than anything else a protest and the outcome which will inevitably satisfy few of the voters who cast their ballot for change.  Obama's promise of the change you can believe in left us more divided than ever.  We want America to be great again but I wonder if this is possible unless and until we address the lack of social and religious institutions and structures that are essential to the well being of any group but especially at a time when the white working class fears their place and dreams are slipping away from them.  The answer cannot simply be economic.  It must also address the common values and the common esteem for church that once marked Americans across the board.  Fixing the wallet will not repair the isolation, end the reign of fear, and turn off the anger against those who have decided that faith is only good if it is private and silent.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A video tribute to Elizabeth II at age 90. . .

Keep us sober. . . and on the horse. . .


Good words from our Synod President:  Keep us sober. . . and on the horse.

Keep Us Sober and on the Horse

by Matthew C. Harrison
“The world is like a drunken peasant. If one helps him into the saddle on one side, he will fall off on the other side.” — Martin Luther (Luther’s Works, vol. 54, pg. 111).
Sometimes the Church can be “like a drunken peasant” too.

Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). This text comes at the end of the account of Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus was just the sort of unlikely character that Jesus sought out, and boy did the “religious experts” complain about it (v. 7). But Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (vs. 9–10).

Luke’s gospel makes a particular, joyful emphasis on the “the lost who are found.” In the parable of the wedding feast (Luke 14:7–11), the “master” invites the guests to the great banquet. Those invited repeatedly come up with excuses, so the master commands that his servant go “to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). Then follows the sobering teaching: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). And after that comes the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1–7). The point? “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Next the woman finds the lost coin. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:9–10). Then the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) with its fabulous conclusion: “‘This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 24).

Throughout all of these, who does the finding? It is certainly God the Father and also God the Son in these and many other texts.

How did Jesus in His earthly walk “seek the lost”? He went! He preached! He healed! He also appointed apostles (“sent ones;” Luke 9:1–6), and the 72 (Luke 10:1–12). The Book of Concord rightly states, “The office of the ministry [preaching office] stems from the general call of the apostles” (Treatise 10, German). But folks who encountered Jesus and who did not have a vocation as an apostle also had a tremendous hand in “seeking the lost.” Think of the woman at the well. She went home, told others about Jesus and “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Or consider the Gerasene. After Jesus sent the demons named “Legion” into the swine, “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away . . . And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:38–39). These lives were radically changed by Jesus’ Gospel, and they stayed in their communities, told others and many believed.

Here’s the “drunken peasant” part. We are prone to pit the glorious gift of the spiritual priesthood of all believers (with its right and privilege of speaking the Gospel in the context of everyday life) against the Office of the Ministry, which has the responsibility of serving at the behest of Christ through the call of a congregation. The former exists so “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). All of us as spiritual priests have the right and responsibility to speak of Jesus to those in our lives and communities and to invite them to church! As pastors, some are given the responsibility of shepherding, proclaiming the Word and giving the Sacraments to the gathered flock. Both activities are part of the mission of Jesus “to seek and to save the lost.” When we pit these two offices or vocations against each other, we are on the wrong track.

To fall off one side of the horse is to say, “Lay people don’t have the right and responsibility of speaking the Gospel” or worse, “The Gospel is only effective when spoken by a pastor.” To fall off the other side is to assert, “We don’t need pastors. And men who are regularly preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments don’t need to be pastors.”

God keep us sober . . . and on the horse!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Late Birthday. . .

From History
On this day in 4977 B.C., the universe is created, according to German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, considered a founder of modern science. Kepler is best known for his theories explaining the motion of planets.
Kepler was born on December 27, 1571, in Weil der Stadt, Germany. As a university student, he studied the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’ theories of planetary ordering. Copernicus (1473-1543) believed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, a theory that contradicted the prevailing view of the era that the sun revolved around the earth.
Johannes_KeplerIn 1600, Kepler went to Prague to work for Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the imperial mathematician to Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Kepler’s main project was to investigate the orbit of Mars. When Brahe died the following year, Kepler took over his job and inherited Brahe’s extensive collection of astronomy data, which had been painstakingly observed by the naked eye. Over the next decade, Kepler learned about the work of Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who had invented a telescope with which he discovered lunar mountains and craters, the largest four satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, among other things. Kepler corresponded with Galileo and eventually obtained a telescope of his own and improved upon the design. In 1609, Kepler published the first two of his three laws of planetary motion, which held that planets move around the sun in ellipses, not circles (as had been widely believed up to that time), and that planets speed up as they approach the sun and slow down as they move away. In 1619, he produced his third law, which used mathematic principles to relate the time a planet takes to orbit the sun to the average distance of the planet from the sun.
Kepler’s research was slow to gain widespread traction during his lifetime, but it later served as a key influence on the English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and his law of gravitational force. Additionally, Kepler did important work in the fields of optics, including demonstrating how the human eye works, and math. He died on November 15, 1630, in Regensberg, Germany.
There is one more thing you should know about Kepler.  He was a Lutheran!

Though science does not pay all that much attention to Kepler’s calculation about the universe’s birthday in our modern age.  Cause we are smarter.  For we have determined a hundred years or so ago that Kepler got it wrong.  Our scientists invented the Big Bang theory, which says that Kepler was close, in fact, according to modern day wisdom, his calculations were only off by about 13.7 billion years. 

What means Jesus' mercy to the sexual sinner?

Often Jesus is seen as sympathetic to those caught up in sin.  The adulterous woman from John 8 is usually cited with the words "then neither do I condemn you..."  But it is too quickly forgotten how Jesus follows that with "Go and sin no more."  Jesus' outreach to sexual sinners such as this adulterous woman is often understood as some putative license to sin sexually.  In fact, it is not at all permission to continue in that sin.  That Jesus ate and drank with sinners, in particular those sexual sinners, is testament to the judgment of Jesus they, every bit as much as the exploitative tax collectors, were also in dire need of being called to repentance.  Apart from this repentance, they would not inherit the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed first of all by His very presence. No, Jesus did not relax the commands with respect to sexual sin but intensified God's ethical demand for holiness even as He reached out in love to those who violated this demand most egregiously.

The popular image of Jesus is that, unlike the keepers of the Law and the custodians of the moral requirements of that Law, our Lord shrugged His shoulders at sin and wickedness, that He was rather sympathetic to those who found the requirements of the Law too burdensome, and that He was willing to disregard the Law in favor of a higher principle (love, for example).  In fact, our Lord Himself addresses such misunderstanding in Matthew 5:17-20 (not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it).  Furthermore, the fulfilling of the Law does not eliminate it.  The Law remains to curb in the extremes of human sinful desire for the protection of all people and it continues to mirror to us our lack, our failure, and our sins -- thus pointing us to Him who has no lack of righteousness, who did not fail to obey it perfectly, and whose only sins were those borrowed from us so that He might pay for them once for all.  Finally, the much misunderstood and maligned third use of the Law guides the hearts of those whom the Lord has redeemed by the power of the Holy Spirit not to fear holiness but to love it and to seek it with all heart, mind, body, and strength (though always understanding it will be an imperfect obedience always and ever fully dependent upon the alien righteousness of Christ).

Rachel Held Evans has written often and more recently upon the subject of Jesus and those who live upon the fringes of Christianity, due, in her mind, to the narrowness of churches that seem to forget Jesus' concern for those far removed from sexual respectability.  I am suggesting, however, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross to preserve gender complementarity. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to ensure that little girls wear pink and little boys wear blue. Jesus lived, taught, died, and rose again to start a new family in which Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female are all part of one holy Body. Certainly there will be those who reject the gospel because of the cost of discipleship, but let it be because of the cost of discipleship, not the cost of false fundamentals, not because they've been required to change something they cannot change.  (emphasis hers)

Not because they've been required to change something they cannot change...  But surely this is exactly Jesus' point.  Scripture often has lists of sinners who shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  They must change.  Though they may be powerless to change, our Lord is neither powerless nor unwilling to effect the change.  Our Lord connects us to His death and resurrection not for symbolism but to kill what is already dead and to bring new life from that death.  It is a regeneration only our Lord can do for we have no power except to live the death that is our fate chosen by our first parents, condemned by our sins and miserable in our inability to redeem ourselves.  He changes us, who belong to Him now, who are not our own but His, to glorify God in our bodies.  If this is true for thieves, liars, coveters, murderers, idolators, adulterers, and the like, why is it not also true for those whose desires do not mirror God's creative purpose and plan?  Jesus is replete with calls to deny yourself and follow Him and St. Paul insists that self-denial is the hallmark of God's redeemed people (Titus 2:11-14 and Colossians 3:1-17). 

The ethical calling of Christian life never reverts to the desires unworthy of the Kingdom but transforms His people through the renewal of mind and heart to reflect the desires born of life in this Kingdom by the Holy Spirit.  Our Lord's mercy for the sexual sinner is in no way a justification for continuing in this (or any) sin but the start of the conversion which is never complete until God brings it to completion in the life which is to come.  If Scripture would caution us that giving and taking of a spouse and having children belongs only to this life, then surely it means also that sexual desire itself is temporary.  The burden imposed upon those whose desires do not reflect God's will and purpose in creating them male and female is not eternal for this too shall pass away when our desires are fully and finally fulfilled in Christ alone.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wouldn't it be cool if. . .

Every now and then a written description requires that I look for the visual image.  The current baptismal font of Salisbury Cathedral is comically hideous.  Well, I could hardly exit this comment without looking to see if it was justified or accurate.  Sadly, I must concur.  It is comically hideous.  Too much that defines church architecture and liturgical furnishings fit that definition.  We are in no shortage of those things that are comically hideous.  Usually these things are foisted upon the church by people who know little of the liturgy, care less for form and proportion, and define beauty as in the eye of the beholder -- paid for by the well meaning who seem to think that beauty often begins with the question:  wouldn't it be cool [neat, etc...) if. . .  Beauty in service to the divine is hardly ever cool (even when we use that word to describe it).  It is most often borne of great effort from the artisan but always the fruit of knowing what this means and how it is used and how the visual teaches these things.  I am sure somebody thought this was cool but its symbolism is ineffective and it stands in stark contrast to that which surrounds it.  Maybe creations like these are what moved some to think less is more.  Looking at this, I almost find myself in agreement with them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

So now for a little while you sorrow. . .

Sermon for Easter 5C preached on Sunday, April 24, 2016.

    It is Maundy Thursday in the Gospel reading.  While John may omit the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper, He includes a fuller glimpse of the entire conversation.  He is speaking to them of what is to come – of His betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection.  The disciples were confused by it all.  He is preparing them by placing the cross soon to come in the context of the eternal salvation which is also soon to come.
    The disciples do not see it.  Or perhaps better, they do not want to see it.  Like Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ talk of suffering and death, they do not want to believe that the Kingdom of God must come through pain and suffering.  We don’t want to admit it either.  But according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God will only come through pain and suffering.  God cannot simply erase the sinful past that began in Eden and led up to this present moment.  That past must be paid for, atoned for, and satisfied not with silver or gold or good intent but with Jesus’ own flesh and blood in suffering and death upon the cross.
    God cannot simply do away with sin with words.  Only the Word made flesh can answer the mountain of sin and its terrible stepchild of death.  He was born to die and it is only this death that will answer sin with forgiveness, grace, and mercy.
    Redemption’s suffering happens in a moment of time but it effects an eternal outcome. Three hours in time on a cross buys an eternity for those who believe in Christ.  A life of suffering on earth endured because you are in Christ will find the reward of eternal joy.  Jesus knows this better than His disciples and better than we know it.  The Kingdom of God is born through the suffering and death of Christ or it will not come at all and we will still be in our sins and subject to death.
    The child in us wants to think that what Jesus did makes everything better in an instant.  We want to believe what Jesus did ends suffering and pain for those who believe in Him.  But the Kingdom of God comes in YOUR life in the same way.  Your sufferings do not atone for your sins but because you are in Christ, the world has marked you for suffering and Christ Himself has called you to take up your cross and follow Him.
    In other words, the weeping, lament, suffering, and sorrow of this life are not imagined.  These are real.  They hurt.  Jesus knows this.  He does not lie to you.  He does not shield you from this.  He is painfully honest with us.  We live in the world but we are not of the world.  We no longer fit in this world because we have been marked for the Kingdom of God in baptism.  We are odds with values of the world and strangers to the ways of this world.  The pain of this is not imaginary.  It is real.  Jesus Himself wept in the face of death and loss.
    But the reality of this suffering and pain does not last.  It is momentary.  It lasts only for this brief mortal life.  And it must give way to the great and eternal joy that God has prepared for those who love Him.  You were redeemed not to have your best life now but for eternity.  You are citizens of heaven in a world that resents this.  You are called to endure, to be patient, to meet the sufferings of this mortal life in confidence of the holy joy that does not end, what God has prepared for you that for now you grasp by faith until the day when you see it face to face.
    The life of a believer is no sprint to the finish but a race to the end.  For this reason, our Lord sends His Spirit.  Alone we will not endure.  Tested and tried by sorrows and struggles, defeats and disappointments, and living with the daily regret over sin and its effects will kill us unless the Spirit is at work in that daily repentance and empowering us to fight against the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh.  So, you fight.  But your fight is not for salvation – Christ fought that fight.  Your fight is to endure in faith, to remain steadfast in confidence that your time is coming when your joy will be full, the birth pangs complete, and Christ is fully formed in you.
    Like a woman in labor, this is the fruitful travail in which the eternal joy of the Kingdom is born in you.  It is not that you forget the pain but that it no longer matters.  So do not lose heart.  Do not judge eternity by this moment of pain.  Do not let this moment of pain determine eternity.  Your time is coming.  It is a little while.  You have sorrow now.  I know it; you know it.
    There is no denial about this.  But as sure as you have sorrow now, it will not last.  Christ will see you again and your hearts will burst into rejoicing so full that the painful memory has no room to linger.  And this joy is certain.  It is not the what if of a dreamer but the because of Christ’s death and resurrection.  And no one and nothing can take this joy from you.  A little while... is nothing in comparison with eternity.  This is what we come to hear when life grows hard, when we grow weary and tired, when the pain is great and we struggle to see the future outcome of our faith. . .

And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms strong... The golden evening brightens in the west, soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest, and sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.  For lo there breaks a yet more glorious day. The saints triumphant rise in bright array.  The king of glory passes on His way.  So sing the people of God who have learned to rejoice no matter how great their sufferings.  We belong to Christ.  We have the Spirit.  God has given us new birth to the eternal life in which joy and only joy remain.   Christ is risen!  Alleluia.  Alleluia!

The fragility of liberalism. . .

You have already read here of those students who find themselves offended, frightened, and shocked at the encounter in university with ideas with which they may disagree.  Now the news has brought to light more on the offense, fear, and loathing of that with which students disagree -- namely, a few scrawled pro-Trump words on a whiteboard and on a few sidewalks.  Who would have known that a dry erase marker and some sidewalk chalk would become such agents of shock and awe within the setting of universities whose assaults on just about anything traditional have shocked and awed conservatives for a long time!  But that is not my point.

Liberalism has become wimpish - or more accurately, liberalism has revealed its true weakness.  It cannot tolerate disagreement.  It refuses to allow those who dispute its values or challenge its facts.  It is a fragile and frail liberalism that students espouse in their pursuit of a safe environment, protected from the offense of competing ideas, and secure from the violence of those who might dare to believe something different.  It is, I believe, an evolutionary revelation that liberalism is inherently weak, fearful, and fragile.  Liberalism has always been this way but now, in the beginning of its triumph within the cultural and political frameworks of the West, its dark side has been revealed for a world to see -- it indeed it will see it.  Liberalism cannot tolerate anything else.  Though for years its litany of complaint was for a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas, now it refuses to allow any other voice and threatens anyone who dares to speak otherwise with terms like misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc...  This does not refute anything but seems a tacit admission that liberalism is not strong enough to compete with other ideas, values, or programs.

In contrast to this, Christianity has always found itself open to challenge (both from within and without).  Scripture tells us that iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).  Indeed this has been the case.  Our most ecumenical and universal creed, the Nicene, was born of challenge to Scripture and to the doctrine of Christ.  It was this challenge that bore the good fruit of language both more precise and more faithful in saying who Christ is and who He is not, reflecting but not superseding the Word of God in arriving at this confession.  This was not late but early.  Already in the Book of Acts such conflict was openly confronted at the Council of Jerusalem and each side was given opportunity to state its case.  What prevailed was not the opinion of men but the judgment of God.  This is exactly what we Christians believe, confess, and teach.  God's Word endures forever and will triumph -- no matter what the appearance of the day or the moment may lead us to think.

That said, liberalism seems poised to allow no such free exchange of ideas.  In contrast with Christian expectation in the eternal endurance of the Word of God and the victory of Christ, to whom the Father has subjected all things, liberalism insists that competing claims cannot be allowed voice and the meeting of competing ideas cannot be tolerated.  I believe therefore that the difference between the Christianity, which has always been forced to sort out truth from the myriad of competing opinions, and liberalism, which heralds tolerance but refuses to grant it, is exactly this -- confidence in the outcome.  Liberalism lives with the rightful fear that its values and its ideas are weak, fragile, and futile.  Man must be kept from hearing choices for surely the option of liberalism will fail, later if not sooner.  Christians believe the opposite.  Wherever the Word of God speaks, the Spirit is at work and the cause of the Gospel will come to its fruition according to God's plan, will, and design.  Nothing can stop it.

Liberalism is, as some have posited, passive-agressive.  Its power lies not in its ideas (which are doomed) but in its ability to play the victim and demand both compensation and refuge from anything that it deems hurtful.  Christianity appears the victim but Christians are so confident in the outcome that we can endure the taunts and assaults of our enemies without fear.  God will prevail.  So St. Paul can say and we learn to echo his words:
[1] Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. [2] Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. [3] Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, [4] and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, [5] and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)

Christ IS risen!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Preparing tomorrow's pastors. . .

In January the newest edition of the Missio Apostolica, now named Lutheran Mission Matters, inaugurated the change in name with an issue devoted to Pastors and People in Mission.  Published by the Lutheran Society for Missiology, the journal has an impressive list of names attached to it.  Dale Meyer, President of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, is the author of the first article on the Messengers of the Message.

He makes statements with which no one can disagree.  Seminaries need to form pastors who are continually growing in personal sanctification, men who take theological head knowledge down into their hearts, first and foremost because it is the message of their own salvation. Then, as a consequence, they go to congregations and communities as messengers of salvation, pastors who model the Christian life.  Well, of course they do.  We face special challenges today that certainly are not to be met by a more secular clergy, a less pious ministerium, or pastors who model anything less than the Christian life.  But then it becomes clear that this is not simply about pastoral formation and a nobler character to the Christian life of those pastors, it is about assigning at least some, maybe more than some, blame upon pastors for the sad state of affairs today.  There are many reasons [why our young people are leaving the church], but there is one that especially grieves us at Concordia Seminary; and I know it grieves all who love their congregations. This reason is the conduct of pastors.

Dr. Meyer mentions some of the more egregious examples of poor pastoral behavior, the kind we would all be shocked to admit really does happen.  But it does.  Churches are not museums of the perfect but hospitals for sinners.  That certainly does include pastors.  According to Meyer's anecdotal experience, the problem does not lie with the doctrine and confession of the pastor.  He learned his doctrine well enough.  The problem lies with the pastor's personal skills.  His doctrine is probably correct, the Law and Gospel rightly divided, but the messenger bringing the message is in some way flawed.

In another paragraph Meyer defines the challenges faced by a culture which devalues truth, over values cultural diversity, fosters political correctness, and is spoon fed liberalism by the media.  But instead of identifying this as the major problem facing a church speaking the yesterday, today, and forever message of the Gospel to a world living under the same condemnation of despair, disappointment, and death that every has plagued every age since the Fall, the major problem is fixed upon pastors who are not sufficiently holy, warm, welcoming, and personal.

I know that I am an impediment to the faith of some but I am also an example of the unworthy who is redeemed and restored by the God whose mercy is only for sinners.  Pastors meet their people under the cross and any pastor who does not do so is not only a fool but a liar.  Pastoral authority does not come automatically with the office but is earned by his service to God's people with the means of grace, the gifts of God for His unworthy and undeserving world.  But the flawed pastor, and they all are flawed, is neither the chief problem nor the place where we must start to fix what is wrong.

More than anything else, I believe that the crisis facing us as a church body is a crisis of faith.  Do we believe that God works through His Word and Sacraments or do we believe that the means of grace must be assisted in some way by the ministrations of the clergy or the church?  The world seeks answers and it seeks answers from people who actually believe them.  For some time now the church has tended to respond to the queries of the inquirer skeptic more with questions than with explanation points.  Yes, our pastors need to be respectable and respectful, humble and forthright, those who seek to be holy as much as they seek to be right.  But that which saves is not the behavior of the pastor.  The Word of the Lord that endures forever is what redeems the lost, saves the dying, and rescues the sinner.

Some, perhaps Dr. Meyer, fear we are living in a world in which the messenger is more the focus than the message.  If the saving message is carried by a flawed messenger who causes offense, many people will reject the Gospel, or at least have nothing to do with that congregation. The messenger must be a different kind of person, a leader willing to let his life be scrutinized for the sake of the more important message.  But I fear even more that the blame on the flaws of the pastor and the focus upon the formation of a holier messenger will only highlight even more the messenger over the message. 

Because there has been a problem with the conduct of some pastors, much more attention will also be given by the seminary to the character of the candidate for ministry...  There will always be pastors who are flawed and fail.  I am chief of sinners in this department.  Yes, the seminary (and the DPs who recommend the seminarians) need to give attention to the character of the candidate for the office of pastor.  Yet I fail to see how character alone will change the fact that we as a Synod are not fully confident in the Lord to keep His Word, not fully convinced of the truth that does not change, not fully united in the doctrine and all its articles, and not prepared to order our practices according to our Confessions.  If we are not sure, we have little of substance to offer those who waiting outside our doors in our neighborhoods and communities.

In the end I suspect that Dale Meyer and I do not disagree all that much about the outcome and goal -- we both want the church to grow, sinners to be reborn by the grace of God in the splash of water, the dying to be raised to life by the Gospel, the guilty to be released from their chains by the voice of absolution, and the hungry fed upon the bread that is Christ's flesh for the life of the world and given to drink the cup of salvation that is His blood.  But I suspect we do disagree on how best to prepare young men for the office of pastor.  The seminary cannot afford to focus on the formation of pastoral character if it means focusing less on doctrine and it cannot afford to model the diversity of what one might find in the parish if it means surrendering the values of our Lutheran identity on Sunday morning. 

I believe Pastor Matt Peeples is correct when he writes, “People are tired of spin and gimmicks. . . . As a result of being bombarded with messages, they have become more savvy to what the message is really communicating. We are in a time where what you are saying is as important as how you are saying it. What you are saying needs to be genuine and authentic.”  But I also think that what people are seeking is more than authenticity in the person.  They seek authenticity in the message.  If we as Lutherans want to connect, it will be through the Word of the Lord that endures forever and not simply the messenger.

Once last thing.  “Let’s take ten congregations that weren’t getting along with their pastor." asked Meyer of a district president.  There are many reasons why congregations have conflict and do not get along with their pastor.  Sometimes it is the faithfulness of the pastor in preaching the Law and the Gospel to a people accustomed to hearing the Gospel as if it were merely a means to a better today instead of an eternal tomorrow or hearing about sin as if it were simply a matter of not trying hard enough.  Sometimes this conflict is because the conflicts of the world follow us into the church and find a home in the pews right there along with our virtues.  And sometimes it is because Satan is working his darnedest to distract pastors and people from the cross and onto ourselves. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Living Lutheran. . . born of the dead The Lutheran magazine. . .

I opened my mail and found a new magazine -- well, it is really not new but the name is.  The Living Lutheran is the new flagship publication of the ELCA.  The Lutheran had been in decline for a while (not unlike many, if not most, denominational magazines).  That said, however, The Lutheran was a strange mix of official periodical striving to maintain some editorial objectivity and distance.  I watched as this translated more and more into advocacy for the lefter side of the ELCA equation.  Most folks did.  The stories seemed to feature GLBT folks in greater proportion than one would find them in the pews of the ELCA congregations.  They also advocated diversity to the extreme -- I had already mentioned the kind of welcome one article fostered in which sensitivity to other religions meant refraining from anything anyone might find objectionable.

Living Lutheran will never be accused of upholding any confessional doctrinal integrity (except perhaps their loyalty to diversity, feminism, and the GLBT agenda).  The first issue did not disappoint me.  There were articles on water renewing the earth and the church, autism friendly activity bags, a Lutheran/Methodist partnership, eco-evangelism, healthier living, etc...  Peter Marty explained that the greatest achievement of Easter was not freedom from death but freedom from our fears.  It seems that sin is an also ran among the problems of mankind.  I found that the ELCA bishops are discussing the future of their church body by trying to assess where they are now and what God has in store for them. I read of the sacredness of creation (of saving butterflies and Flint, MI).  I read of a smiling face on worker priests (now called bi-vocational clergy).  But the page I spent the most time on is the list of deaths where I tend to see the names of pastors I have known or those who served parishes with which I have had a passing familiarity.  All in all it does not speak well of the living part of the Living Lutheran now does it.

Now this might appear that I am down on denominational magazines.  I am not.  I have consistently championed The Lutheran Witness in my own parish and on this blog.  What commends a good denominational journal is less the flash than the substance.  Yes, good graphics and a winsome appearance helps but what people look for and what builds a great journal is the meat and potatoes of what we believe, why we believe it, how we practice this faith, and what challenges lie before us in all of those areas.  The journals that are dying generally have forgotten that they are vehicles for the faith and for the church.  Instead of advocating what Scripture says, what they confess, what the creeds say, etc... too many journals have taken to questioning the faith, disputing what has been believed, taught, and confessed, and advocating largely for liberal social positions.

The church and Christianity have enough skeptics outside the faith.  We do not need to provide internal agencies to raise the same kind of doubts about what the Bible says, what the creeds confess, and what has always been believed, confessed, and taught through the ages.  Yes, the church press needs to be objective and its job is not to gloss over wrongs or lie on behalf of the institution but the real crying need is for journals who advocate FOR the faith and not against it.  Our people are inundated with material from sources unfriendly to the faith or who offer a novel approach to Christianity inconsistent with creed and confession.  Our people listen to pop Christian music, popular radio and TV preachers, and read internet theology from questionable sources.  They don't need to find this stuff in a church sponsored monthly magazine.  They need a source that draws them back to Scripture and catechism, hymnal and prayerbook.  Do that well and you have not only a top notch denominational journal but a real asset for folks in the pew.   I am happy that The Lutheran Witness does this well.  Living Lutheran, well, the best I can say is that they were not off to a great start.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Who said it could not be done?

Though she sometimes made me wince and other times made me roll my eyes, Mother Angelica earned grudging respect in my eyes for take a few bucks and a dream against all those who said it could not be done.  She almost single-handedly turned a garage idea into a media powerhouse that still serves as a most effective face and voice for Roman Catholicism.  At age 92, she died leaving many accomplishments as a legacy but none more enduring that the Eternal Word Television Network.  Through TV, radio, and internet, this media reaches hundreds of millions of households.  Though I am not necessarily in agreement with what is produced by the EWTN, I admire her dogged persistence and the success she achieved.

Some of her quotes are absolute gems:
 “If it wasn’t for people, we could all be holy.”
  • “Holiness is not for wimps and the cross is not negotiable, sweetheart, it’s a requirement.”
  • “There will be hard times when your faith will be attacked and when your doubts will be increased. What will you do? Persevere in prayer now.”
  • “Those who tell the Truth love you. Those who tell you what you want to hear love themselves.”
  • “We cannot put off a change of life for tomorrow or old age, for there may be no tomorrow.”
  • “Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy feeling in the stomach.”
  • “Only in eternity shall we see the beauty of the soul, and only then shall we realize what great things were accomplished by interior suffering.”
  • “God is not a slot machine. We don’t go to God to get something; we go to give something.”
 A few years ago Paul Crouch passed away.  Though from a radically different theological perspective than Mother Angelica, he possessed the same gift of kitsch and folksy gab and also began a worldwide media powerhouse with a few bucks and a dream.  He once told the story of how a Lutheran bailed him out when his whole dream was threatened with death -- giving him $50,000 to stave off the bills and allow expansion.  I thoroughly detest most of what happens on TBN (Trinity Broadcast Network) but he got my grudging respect for continuing on when the rest of us would have quit.  Sadly and shamefully, however, Crouch financed his enterprise with the crassest of sentimental and guilt appeals and, as usual, they usually worked pretty well among the viewers drawn from throughout the theological spectrum.

Once the LCMS had captured the religious market and reached untold millions at a time when religious use of the newest broadcast media was hardly noticeable.  Walter A. Maier and The Lutheran Hour (the longest running religious radio broadcast) became the preacher in living rooms and kitchens across America (more non-Lutheran than Lutheran).  As a child I watched This Is the Life and saw then unknowns like Martin Sheen and so many others cast in religious drama that conveyed the practical truth of the Gospel.  Then production became expensive and professional and the LCMS seemed to back off of its role as pioneer in the use of media for the cause of the Kingdom.

We in the LCMS seem to be unable or unwilling to recapture our place at the forefront of technology.  We have made noble stabs with the use of YouTube and very effective but cheaply produced short videos.  We did produce a credible documentary on the role of a Lutheran Rosa, Rosa Young, to herald a Black hero within our own tradition.  We have done some blogs and such.  But why can't we take a few hundred dollars and turn it into a dream of a media machine to promote the catholic and evangelical confession that we believe is the lasting and enduring legacy of the divine work in the Reformation?

I fear that one of the reasons is that our people are more interested in what Paul Crouch's network is broadcasting or the local Christian pop radio station is airing or a hundred other places.  And that is the rub.  While it would be great for such a media presence to reach out to those outside the Church, it must first be supported and encouraged by those within the Church.  I wish our people were as excited about the Gospel, about the faithful preaching and teaching, and about the reverent liturgical worship of confessional Lutheranism as those new to our church. 

We Lutherans have produced giants in the faith and yet it often seems that these great individuals are more appreciated by others than among Lutherans.   Consider how distant Bach and the Lutheran chorales are from the typical Sunday morning fare of our parishes.  I wish we were as enamored by the gifts the Lord has provided from the gifts of such Lutherans as those who are outside Lutheranism are!  Why can't we support a media enterprise to present the world with the best of Lutheran composers and their musical witness?  Why can't we build a showcase for the winsome and yet powerfully faithful preaching and teaching that happens all around us?   Why are we more interested in what other traditions are doing instead of acknowledging and heralding our own?  I believe it can be done.  I believe it should be done.  What do you think?

Friday, April 22, 2016

They used the liturgy but they did not live there. . .

Another great stolen line -- this one from my longtime friend and mentor, the Rev. Charles Evanson, speaking at a St. Michael Conference.  He used the line to describe how the Pietists had retained the form but emptied the form of any real significance or influence upon their faith and piety.  It was as though they put on a set of clothing for Sunday morning but took off the stiff, ill fitting, and uncomfortable clothing to be the real me (the real Christian).

This is the state of things for many Lutherans.  They are not those who have abandoned the hymnal or who have cast aside the liturgy.  They have no screens or praise bands.  They have no contemporary replacement for the familiar page numbers.  They follow the liturgy but their heart is not in it.  They do what they do on Sunday morning but what they do on Sunday morning, apart from the preaching of the Word, has little to do with their faith and piety in the week.  These are bread and butter, salt of the earth kind of Lutherans and yet they see the liturgy as Sunday clothing and not a real reflection of who they are.

Growing up I saw the pastors change but they all stood in the same place at the same time in the Sunday service and they all seemed to follow the same directions.  They were not high church or liturgical in the way we might characterize folks who have more ceremonial or ritual.  Indeed, they are often very strong anti-Catholic folks when it comes to the ceremonial of the liturgy.  But even in their low or broad church liturgical style they still stand out from the landscape of much of rather anti-liturgical Christian America.  They follow the hymnal because it is their hymnal and they are Lutheran but their heart is not in it and they do not live in the liturgy.

Though the worship wars usually focus upon the fringes -- those who have cast off all remnant of liturgical identity versus those who love to debate the proper places and manner of censing during the Divine Service -- the real worship war is between those for whom their faith and piety live in the liturgy and are shaped from the liturgy and those whose faith and piety are at home somewhere else.  The work of liturgical renewal is not the restoring of the ceremonial from one source or one period or another, it is for the faithful to be at home in the liturgy and to live their faith from the Divine Service.  The work of liturgical renewal is not the recapturing of a pristine moment from the past but to recover the piety that is at home in the liturgy and the faith that is formed and shaped by the means of grace within the Divine Service.  The work of liturgical renewal is not about the recovery of Eucharistic vestments or chanting or a host of a hundred other catholic forms but the so that we may live within the Divine Service and our lives of faith flow from that encounter with the Crucified and Risen Lord within the liturgy of Word and Table.  This is the real worship war and it is fought not between the fringes but for and among those who use the liturgy but do not live there.

Pastor Evanson taught me this.  He showed me that Sunday morning was not foreign to your piety and life as a Christian but the essential place where this faith and piety is formed and from which we live the baptismal vocation out.  Would that all Lutherans learn to be at home with the Lord in the liturgy, where the means of grace are lived out for us, among us, and through us.

The problem with the advertising bug. . .

In his 1966 essay "The Worship of God in a Secular Age: Some Reflexions," Complete Works: Prose: Vol. V, 1963-1968, ed. E. Mendelson (Princeton University Press), the poet W.H. Auden warned the Church about the dangers inherent in the Church’s use of mass media. “I am convinced that the Church cannot make use of them without falsifying what She stands for,” he wrote. Written a half century ago when the media captured a much smaller slice of our lives and had a very different influence, I wonder what he would say today.  The mid-sixties use of television, radio, and print advertisements threatened, in his view, to render the Church's message banal and ordinary.

One can hardly prevent the use of such technology and every congregation, hierarchy, and agency has a social media presence.  I am not necessarily advocating the Amish option of complete disengagement from technology.  However, our use of such technology cannot mirror the way the populace or the marketplace uses such media or we will, as W. H. Auden so presciently observed, taint the message with the media used to proclaim it.  “In the New York subway one can see placards saying: ‘Go to Church next Sunday. You will be richer for it.’ The effect of this is to put going to church on the same level as buying a particular brand of cigarettes or tooth-paste” (from the same Auden essay).

This is exactly the problem.  The Gospel has been marketed as if it were merely a product, with concern for market share, the target audience, and how the message will be received.  And we have done such a good job of it as Christians that those not yet of the Kingdom view the Gospel as a product, look for choices as they would shopping for any other product, and go for a church that fits their preferences the way they would shop for a phone.

The Church is not marketing anything.  We have no product to sell.  We have no target audience (unless you define it as all those not yet of the Kingdom).  We do not provide a service or life-enhancing program.  We speak the Word of God to all those in the world (whether those in or not yet of the Kingdom).  We address the world not with what they need to do but with what God has done.  We trust the Lord to work through the means of grace (Word and Sacraments) as He has promised.

I am NOT suggesting that we remove ourselves from the social media but we must not allow our presence there to become that of a religious purveyor of a religious product.  We do not have to justify who we are the world nor do we have to prove the value of the Gospel to the world.  We speak and God works.  We apply the splash of water in the Triune Name and the promise of God is kept.  We absolve the penitent and they are forgiven.  We give the bread and cup with Christ's Word and the flesh and blood of Christ are given as the food of the faithful to eternal life.

The downside of evangelicalism and the whole entrepreneurial impact upon religion is that the Gospel has become a thing, a product to be marketed and sold to a religious consumer, and the tools of this consumer oriented transaction borrowed from the business community.  Once we realize that we don't belong there, then we just may learn how to use technology in a different way and tarnish the Gospel less as a product brought to a market to satisfy a consumer.  Believe me, Popes taking selfies and ads designed to mask who we are in order to overcome bias against religion will not help in the long run.  The Lord has promised.  If we faithfully speak His Word and administer His Sacraments, He will build His Church.  He is faithful.  He will do it.  He does not need help from an army of marketing gurus who think they know how to place religious product for mass appeal.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

You did not even ask where I go?

Sermon preached for the Circuit Pastors anticipating Cantate, one year series.

I miss the old Latin names for the Sundays.  Next Sunday would be Cantate – from the introit for the day: O sing unto the Lord a new song.  But, of course, none of the disciples wanted to sing.  They did not even ask Jesus where He was going.  They had had enough of all this talk of betrayal, suffering, death, burial, and resurrection.  They were sick and tired of hearing about it.  So in John’s record of the Upper Room they sat there like lumps on a log while Jesus waxed eloquent about His departure into death and how it was expedient for them for Him to die.

“So you are sad,” says Jesus to His disciples.  But your sadness is misplaced.  You are sorrowful over the wrong things.  You are sad that the Kingdom of God comes only through betrayal, suffering, and death.  You are sad that the shepherd will be struck and the sheep scattered.  You are sad that your three year apprenticeship as disciples will seemingly end in the defeat of your Rabbi.  You are sad that you have left home and career and hitched your wagon to the God who has come to wear the dirt of sin, die its death to pay its awful price, and lay in the belly of the earth for three days.  You want Easter without Good Friday.  But this cannot be, says Jesus.

Well here you are living 2000 years later and we are still sad and mopey for the exact same reasons.  You want a happy church, a happy faith, and a happy life.  You want secret wisdom to turn enemies into friends, to get ahead in the competition for things and pleasure, and to prevent illness and pain.  You do not want a crucified Jesus but a joking Jesus who will make you feel better about yourself, your life, and your desires.  You want a God who will approve of whatever sick and sinful things live in your heart and not one who will challenge you or expose your secrets.  Well, guess what.  I want that, too.  We are in the same boat, folks.  But that is not why Jesus has come.

He has come to go where we do not want to go.  He faces temptation and does not fall.  He lives obedient to the Law we could not keep.  He does the will of the Father we refuse.  He goes willingly to suffer as the innocent for sinners, and to die the death that was not His but ours.  He rises not to put it all behind Him and forget its painful memory but to proclaim this death to dying sinners that they might have life and to join these dead shells of bodies to His body in baptism.  He rises not to put the cross away but to raise it up until we cannot be see it and believe it.  He rises to give us His crucified flesh in this meal and to give us His shed blood in this cup.

He dies and rises and soon ascends so that the Spirit may come – and not merely to enable faith in our dark and dank hearts but to convict us concerning our guilt for sin, our lack of righteousness, and to remind us that we are subject to judgment.  The Spirit will give to you what is Christ’s.  He will wash your sins away in Christ’s blood.  He will clean your ears so that you may hear Christ’s voice.  He will clothe you in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness.  He will seal in You’re the life the grave cannot steal and keep your remains until Christ gives you the new and glorious flesh of the ever-living.

But you don’t want to hear about that and neither do I.  We would all rather hang our heads in disbelief that sin is really so bad somebody had to die or that death is not some how a natural and normal part of life.  We would all rather spend our days pondering how to grab all the gusto we can so that we can empty our bucket list before our bodies become weak and our memories frail.  We would all rather have God whisper in our ears how to win the lottery and live large than to seek righteousness and live holy.  We are not ready to ask Jesus where He is going because we fear the answer.  And that is why He must go and the Spirit must come or we will be spectators of God’s salvation and not participants in His merciful redemption.  Repent and believe the Gospel!

The Spirit will take all that is Christ’s and give it to you.  And that begins with a real and objective take on who you think you are, what sins you have done that you deny, how horrible death is, and how little you can do about any of this.  But from the depth of this despair, the Spirit will raise you up new, wash you clean in living water, clothe you in righteousness not your own, place a new song in your heart that trusts the Lord for all things, and give you the courage not to fear and the joy that nothing can diminish.  The Lord your God is your strength and song and He has become your salvation.  Cantate!  O Sing Ye!

Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

The problem of judgment. . .

Lutherans are getting all excited about the prospect of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the start of the reformation with the real or imagined nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church on All Hallow's Eve, October 31, 2017.  I'm excited, too, but also concerned.  When we look back we look at history through our own lens and it makes it harder, not easier, to understand what happened in the past.

Lord knows that Luther has suffered too many judgments.  There are a few who think him a heroic figure, sort of a modern day cultural warrior fighting to bring enlightenment, humanistic virtue, German might, and the full virtues of a true renaissance man to bear.  Gag.  There are some who make Luther out to be a true medievalist in the face of a world on the brink of change.  Gag.  There are those who would describe Luther as a deliberate thinker and strategist who planned it all out from the get go.  Gag.  There are those who describe Luther as mostly mentally ill who translated his own brokenness into a cause that merged his personal struggle with the unfolding of a new Europe.  Gag.

Luther was not a god.  He was just a man.  But he was God's man, captive to God's Word, and, within the framework of human frailty, Luther was an agent of renewal (one of many whom God used and still uses to recall His Church to the unchanging truth of the Gospel).  He was certainly not a perfect man, maybe he was even a troubled man, but God worked through all his flaws for a moment of light to shine in darkness.  Would that those who wear his name today were a bit more Lutheran (like him) but that is another topic.

Between 40-50 years ago, a long smoldering struggle became a flash fire in Missouri.  It was a time of great suffering for many, dividing families and friends.  It took down a seminary, consumed the principal figures in the struggle, and defined our church body for several generations.  It is still an open wound among those old enough to recall it.  My own life and friendships were forever changed by what took place at 801 between Jack and John and pastors and parishes and convention sides for nearly a decade.  In the end, Missouri lost a hundred thousand people and some of our more prominent parishes and a couple of districts were reduced to a shell of their former selves, even having had their District President deposed from office.

We have struggled to understand it all, make sense of it all, and put it all behind us without forgetting to learn some lessons from it.  But there is the problem of judgment that does not necessarily become clearer after the passage of time.  It would have been impossible to come up with a coherent answer to the questions of what happened and why then.  It is just as difficult today.  Some place the whole thing into the cultural context of America and make it a churchly sample of the overall turmoil of life in the 1970s in the US. Everything from Vietnam to the sexual revolution to feminism to civil rights to drugs to rock music was behind the explosion in Missouri. We had traditionalists trying vainly to hold on to the past and control the future and we had revolution detaching us from yesterday and determined to bring a brave new tomorrow.  But was that what happened in Missouri?

We had those who psychoanalyzed Missouri and made it all about Freudian foibles and dysfunctional leaders and their families finally escaped from the asylum.  It was a personality cult and a struggle between personalities too rigid to compromise and too proud to admit wrong and perfectly willing to take down an entire church body in the process.  From Otten to Preus to Tietjen we did have strong personalities who certainly played prominently in the struggle but iss that what happened in Missouri -- all that happened?

Worst of all were those who said it was all a turf war, a power play, the raw and unfettered egos of people out not for principle or truth but for self.  I refuse to give this much credence for the major figures in the struggle even though I would well admit that there were bit players in history who acted in this regard.  Was it all a power play among those throwing their weight around that defined Missouri's conflict?

Was it about truth?  Was it about the Gospel?  Was it about the Bible?  Even some from within the struggle discount the theology involved and say that the folks involved had more in common than in conflict.  Surely, however, the people involved were not playing at things trivial or were they so shallow as to be willing to dismantle schools and traditions and a church body over small points and not big ideas!  I believe that it was primarily a theological struggle.  I believe that behind the times and the people were major conflicts of important truths and I am unwilling to credit the principal players in the struggle with mere egos devoid of conviction.  In fact, it was not only theological but it was a theological battle still being waged within Missouri albeit on different fronts.

Yet the point remains.  If we cannot agree on what happened in Missouri a couple of generations ago, while many of the second tier of players are still around, how can we depend upon accurate judgments from historians to define Luther and his legacy?  If you are looking for consensus and agreement, you will surely be disappointed.  There is no short cut to history.  We want a quick PBS video to make it all clear and plain, a paragraph to explain the centuries, but there is none.  Only the honest legwork of reading and thinking. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Easter is not a question mark. . .

As you probably know, I love a good turn of a phrase.  George Weigel put one together for an article on the First Things blog.  Easter is not a question mark.  It was tied to what what “former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described [the Church] as ‘silently waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark’.”  In his piece he recounts the evolution of Harvard University's crest Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae [Truth for Christ and the Church]. Christ and the Church were jettisoned over a hundred years ago; the crest now reads, simply, Veritas. The joke was that the crest’s next iteration would be Veritas? – thus honoring the post-modern canon that there is no “the truth,” only “your truth” and “my truth.”

In Lent we heard again Pilate ask what is truth?  Truth for those outside the faith may have a question mark but for the Christian truth has a name, a face, and an exclamation point.  We are not those who content ourselves with opinions,  guesses, or suggestions.  As St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15, if Christ be not raised, then...  The character of the preaching of the early church was not in question marks or possibilities but in the facts of Christ whom you crucified and God raised.  What distinguishes us from other eras in Christian history is that Christians themselves and certainly the academics as a group believe that Easter is a question mark and that truth itself cannot either be known with certainty or in its fullness.  All we have is the murky haze of our skepticism, at least according to many.  This contributes also to the mistaken idea that all religions are true enough for those who adhere to them and every religion has some component of truth to their doctrine.  Christians are the ones who are also saying these things.  It is no wonder that we are not making headway with the world.

Easter is not a question mark.  Scripture is not filled with questions; it is filled with answers.  Our hope is not built upon pious myth or legend, suggestion or opinion but upon historical fact.  If the preachers cannot say this, it is no wonder why the folks in the pews do not believe it.  If the Church has no confidence or certainty in the things which we believe and confess, it is no wonder why we are impotent before the world.  The grand success of Christian missions in places like Africa did not occur because the missionary communicated his thoughts or wishes but because Christ was proclaimed as the one and only truth for every person.

There is great romance in the idea of the faithful gathered to await tidbits of wisdom from the Lord but it is a completely false image.  God has not called, gathered, or sent forth a church wrestling with her doubts but a church confident of the Word of God and the message of Christ crucified.  We have wasted the imagination of our people on such things as what would Jesus do when we have the facts of what Jesus did and does through the means of grace.  It may be polite to act as if ours was merely a version of the truth but it is a lie.  There is the catholic faith except one confess one will not be saved.  There is a history anchoring this Gospel and there is a history of those who believe it.  There is Christian practice which conforms to this divine Word.  If a question mark is added to any of it, it is not because the Lord has placed it there.  It is because we presume ourselves too wise to believe what is said and too sophisticated to be captive to that Word.  That is not a problem with the faith but with the faithful, or should I say faithless.  If we are only confident that we have questions, doubt, or uncertainties, then we have no confidence at all.

When our Lord complained of those with little faith, He was not speaking strictly of the size of it -- as if faith came in sizes.  He was complaining about the lack of faith, the question marks placed where God has put an exclamation point.  What distinguishes too much of Christian witness today are not the confident confessions of what we believe but the hesitant suggestions of what might be true.  It is not only unhealthy for those within the faith but it makes it impossible to speak to the world.

BTW though we are all familiar with the UMC campaign on open doors and open minds, I had a member drop off a PR piece from an ELCA congregation that sends to all who change address.  It was even more pointed against answers.  It showed a cartoon with a pastor shouting explanation marks from the pulpit and then showed Jesus with question marks in his comment bubble.  They did not claim answers but promised  humility for those who had questions and an open venue for the exploration of answers so that all might grow.  They did not believe they were called to claim or hold the truth but to love, that every denomination sees God through their own glasses, and that Scripture has been used to inflict pain and suffering... but all they are trying to do is love.  My member was shocked that something that wore the name Lutheran could so blatantly reject objective truth.  I wish I were that surprised!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

You're in good hands. . .

Sermon preached for Easter 4C, by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich, on Sunday, April 17.

          Jesus is referred to by many names throughout Scripture: Lord; Immanuel; Savior; Son of God; Son of Man; King of the Jews; the Way, the Truth, and the Life; Messiah; Christ; and the list can go on and on.  Each name tells us something about Jesus, who He is and what He does.  Today, we focus on one specific name that Jesus gave Himself...the Good Shepherd. 
          This name conjures up many images and thoughts.  It brings to mind the comforting words of Ps 23, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Ps 23:1).  This name paints the picture of our Lord holding a lamb in the security of His arms, an image beautifully sculpted in the Good Shepherd statue that stands here in the front of the sanctuary.  This name tells us a lot about Christ our Savior, and it also tells us a lot about ourselves, because we’re the sheep of the Good Shepherd.  GOD HAS PLACED US INTO JESUS’ FLOCK AND HE KEEPS US SAFE IN HIS HANDS. 
          In our Gospel, some people came up to Jesus and asked Him about one of His names.  They wanted Him to answer plainly, was He the Christ?  Was He God’s chosen One who would save His people?  Jesus responded, “I told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (Jn 10:25-26).  Jesus had already answered this question plainly.  The words that He spoke and the miracles He performed testified to the fact that He was the Christ, the Son of God, come to save God’s people. 
          The sole purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, the very reason why He became Immanuel, God with us, was for Him to perform the works necessary for our salvation, the very works that proclaimed Him the Christ.  Like a good shepherd who goes after his straying sheep, to rescue them from danger, our Good Shepherd came after us who’ve strayed in our sin. 
          We willing follow the hunger of our sinful bellies and wander off in search of grass to feed on.  We indulge ourselves on the fleeting pleasure of this life, making them the most important thing.  We desire to go our own way instead of following after the Shepherd.  We leave the security of His Word and go after false words and ideas that sound pleasing and good, but only lead to our destruction.  We continually wander down misleading paths and become lost in sin, guilt, and death, with no hope of saving ourselves, with no hope of finding our way back to Jesus’ flock. 
          But our Good Shepherd has come after you and rescued you from your wandering ways.  He didn’t leave you lost.  The Good Shepherd came and laid down His life for you to save you from your sin.  He quietly endured the revilings, mockings, beatings, and death of the cross to save you from you lost sinful condition.  He died so that you will live.  He was wounded to heal your wounds.  And with the God given gift of faith, He places you into the security of Jesus’ flock. 
          On our own, we can’t know Jesus.  We’re so completely lost and turned around in our sin that we can’t find our way back to Him.  We can’t see or follow Him.  It’s only through the gift of faith that God the Father gives to us that we can know our Shepherd.  Only through the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God can we believe in Him. 
          The people who questioned Jesus in our Gospel didn’t believe in Him because they weren’t part of His flock.  But we believe because we are.  This belief isn’t something that we produce on our own.  This faith and trust isn’t our doing, it’s from the Lord.  Our place in the flock is given to us.  We’re given the gift of faith and given into the good hands of the Good Shepherd.
The image of being held in good hands is a very comforting one.  We all want to be held up and protected.  When children are frightened, sad, or hurt, they run to their mothers and fathers to protect and comfort them.  It’s instinctual for us to run to good hands. 
          Allstate Insurance has capitalized off this desire to be in good hands.  They call themselves the good hands people and their logo is two hands cupped as if they were holding you up.  I must admit I find Allstate’s commercials quite entertaining, especially the Mayhem commercials.  In these commercials, the Mayhem character, a man in a suit with cuts and bruises, causes all sorts of accidents.  These accidents are so extremely outrageous, destructive, and caused in humorous ways that they can only be described as mayhem.  After he has causes all sorts of trouble, the Mayhem character suggests that we better get Allstate insurance in order to be protected from mayhem like him.  And then, one final question is asked, “Are you in good hands?”  This question suggests that if you buy Allstate insurance you’re in good hands, you’re protected from all sorts of chaos.  Now, I’m not sure how you would answer this question in regards to your insurance policy, but when it comes to being a part of the Good Shepherd’s flock, the answer is a most certain “yes”.  You’re definitely in good hands.
Your Good Shepherd has made you a promise.  He said, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:28-30).  No one and nothing can steal you away for the security of your Shepherd’s hands.  No tribulation, distress, persecution, danger; neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor present things nor future things; no mayhem, no sin, no person, absolutely nothing can steal you away from Christ, because He is greater than all.
Jesus is one with the Father who gave you life and who placed you into Jesus’ care.  You can be assured that nothing can snatch you away, because Christ has already conquered everything that tries to steal you away.  He’s overcame Satan, sin, and death with His perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection from the tomb.  All your enemies have been defeated, Christ has conquered all, and your Good Shepherd leads you to the good things, to forgiveness, life, and salvation in His name.
          He leads you to the green pastures of His Word, where He gives you life.  As you hear Scripture read and preached, your faith in Him is refreshed and strengthened so that you can continually see Christ and look to Him for life.  He leads you to the still waters that cleanse your soul.  At the still waters of baptismal font, your Shepherd washed you clean, and then every time you hear His absolving words, He washes you again.  And He leads you to the table He has prepared, to eat the meal that sustains you into everlasting life, the meal of His body and blood laid down for you.  There are no better things in life than these, because life only comes through these.  Life only comes through the Good Shepherd who is the Life.
You’re in good hands, the hands of the Jesus, the Christ, the Good Shepherd, and He’ll never let you go.  He holds in His arms and protects you from all danger, from Satan, sin, and death.  These three can’t get you, they can’t snatch you away because the Father has placed you into Jesus’ flock.  Through the gift of faith, through the hearing of His Word, through the waters of Baptism, through the eating of the Lord’s Supper, you’re placed into the good hands of your Shepherd, the hands that were pierced on the cross for your salvation, and nothing can snatch you away.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)  Alleluia!  (Alleluia!)