Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An embarrassment. . .

As the cantor of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for composing music for Sunday services, which produced reams of choral music, mostly cantatas. Because of this, it would be difficult to find a composer who wrote more sacred music. Like Victoria and Bruckner, Bach’s works stem from his own devotion. But more than any other composer, Bach uses complex music to articulate theology.
Readers who enjoy Bach’s music and want to understand this interplay between music and theology better will be grateful for Markus Rathey’s new book. Rathey has taught at Yale for many years and collaborated with great interpreters of Bach, including Masaaki Suzuki. Like Suzuki, he has an appreciation for Bach’s faith and has formally studied theology as well as musicology. 

Many introductions to religious literature and music presume that the reader is skeptical and secular. An implicit apology must be made for the author’s faith, an assurance that, yes, this is religious but it can be understood and appreciated by people who are not religious (everyone who is normal and cultured). Faith is embarrassing, and it needs be sent away like a bothersome child.                  From a review by Nathaniel Peters of Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy  by Markus Rathey published in First Things. . .
The third paragraph of his review is a gem.  It highlights the way we dance around the theology of those whose contributions we love but whose inspiration we cannot quite stomach.  Everyone from Harriet Tubman to J. S. Bach.  The people whose faith was not private or insulated from life but public and whose lives were shaped by the power of belief, conviction, and truth that endures forever. 

It has always irritated me when I go to the symphony and read the program notes in which the faith of the composer is sidelined to mere insignificant detail in their life and career.  Once hearing the Reformation Symphony of Mendelssohn I read in the notes not one reference to the musical theme (A Mighty Fortress) or the occasion (anniversary of the Reformation) or to the fact that Mendelssohn (alas I cannot get behind the new surname Bartholdy) was Christian and Lutheran!  Why, you might think that faith were hidden or absent from the creative mind and musical genius of this man.  So it is with Bach.  He is unfathomable apart from the knowledge of and the appreciation for this man of faith.

The truth is that we are mostly embarrassed by the faith of those heroic and gifted folks who went before us.  They shined in certain areas but it is always in spite of their faith and not because of it.  Our own skepticism and cynicism must redefine their faith in terms of spirituality (a concept largely unknown to people of faith) and treat faith at all as mostly an impediment to their personality and a burden they had to overcome to achieve greatness.

We cannot abide the idea that faith is deep, profound, and active in the lives of people -- that their accomplishments were informed by and their lives shaped by the power of this faith.  We try not to name God and certainly do not name the Trinity.  We treat Jesus as if He were mere inspirational hero and not Savior, as if sin were no big deal, and death were normal.  For if these were true, then we would need no Savior and no salvation and faith could be whatever we want it to be.

The erudite and elite treat faith the way you would a misbehaving child -- something that must be endured up to a point and then disciplined -- if necessary, put away when it draws too much attention.  So Bach remains loved for a musical genius no one can explain unless they discover what S. D. G. means and begin to sort out how this man lived his gift and craft within the liturgical life of a very Lutheran Church. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

A small detail overshadows a profound moment. . .

A few weeks ago an AP story on the death of Navy Seal Charlie Keating tarnished the whole significance of his heroic and noble sacrifice by turning the focus from him and onto his grandpa.  Probably not all that many folks even recall Charles Keating and his role in a financial scandal of the 1980s but the Associated Press wanted to make sure that this was remembered right along side the noble but tragic death of his grandson in Iraq.  No matter that the grandpa had died in 2014 or that the youth had no role in all of this but to love his grandpa as any grandson would.  Nope, the AP decided that there was a larger story in all of this.  There is a larger story but it was missed by the AP.

Charlie Keating is not alone.  I am privileged to serve a parish near Ft. Campbell, KY, and there are so many gallant and selfless young men and women who daily serve the duty of our nation's freedom and security every day.  They do it without much fanfare, without much financial compensation, without much complaint, and without much notice.  Their spouses and children wait and pray with their moms and dads while they are deployed in danger zones and in harms way.  They serve lonely and difficult schedules in which their families bear a significant burden with them -- whether in time of war or in peace.

Charlie Keating is not alone.  Cemeteries are filled with tombstones and bronze plaques that mark the heroic and sacrificial service of our veterans.  My dad and my father-in-law were veterans and I still feel the goosebumps of the rifle salute, of the soldier on bended knee, presenting the flag to my mom and my mother-in-law on behalf of a grateful nation.  I remember growing up and going through the solemnities of the Memorial Day celebration of a small town in Northeast Nebraska -- the band playing the national anthem, the guns sounding off, the click of the heels as soldiers proudly wearing their uniforms of generations before, and the white cross with poppies we set off to place on the soldiers' graves.

Charlie Keating is not alone.  Service men and women die in the line of duty.  Their lives are stolen from them by terrorists and insurgents, by rebels and warriors, by enemies and despots.  They lay down their lives and spill their blood from shore to shore and field to field.  Their remains are brought home to somber reception and are left far from the places where they grew up, lived, and their families remain.  They are remembered and forgotten, by memorial and plaque, by inscription and loved ones.  They have paid the ultimate price in devotion to the cause of liberty and for the sake of their country.

At least on this day a grateful nation can say "we remember and we will not forget."  But let it not be simply a day to pause between hotdogs and potato salad, between water sports and lawn darts, between our fun under the sun. 
  • Let it be a goal and a cause we live everyday.  
  • Let us be more noble citizens of this great land because of and in thanksgiving for those who gave their lives to secure, sustain, and seal our freedom.  
  • Let us not squander their legacy on foolishness but live with common sense so uncommonly found the great opportunity each day provides.  
  • Let us bequeath to those who come after us the sacred memory of the fallen as well as the noble responsibility to live honorably and for holy purpose the gift of citizenship, liberty, and justice.  
  • Let us remember them in tears and take up their example of passionate love for country, for the cause of what is good, right, and true, and what will preserve and protect us as a nation and people to whom God has given so much.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Nagelism. . .

Luther has fun telling of Jesus fetching for his mother water and beer and the meat.  He lugs timber and sweeps up the shavings.  Luther is here preaching vocation and the Lord's obedience under the Law.  In his being there and in the fact of his love, Jesus is truly God.  For only God could love us so, be human, weak, obedient, and suffer so much.  This is the opposite of the way sophists and natural religion think of God.  The attributes of God which are negations of our creatureliness imply regret that we are human.  Salvation is then dehumanizing deification.  What is wrong with us is not that we are human but that we are sinners. . . The Seven Headed Luther, by Norman Nagel

It began in Eden.  The enticement of the serpent was an implied notion that humanity was insufficient, that there was something wrong with being just human.  Eve swallowed the bite and so did Adam.  Humanity was not a gift but a curse.  Better to be like God than to be content in your humanity.

Ever since we have swallowed that thinking hook, line, and sinker.  We equate humanity with sin and we are in a panic to shed our humanity more than our sinfulness.  We struggle to cast off death with medicine and healthy living instead of meeting death where it was born in the doubt of the Word of the Lord and the desire to be something more than human.  We live with a death deemed natural and normal rather than confessing that we brought the horror of death, the fragility of life, and the tyranny of the moment upon ourselves with one smug act of uncivil disobedience.  We would rather celebrate life in the funeral home than enter the Church to be told the wages of sin is death.  We have defined sin out of our vocabulary so that we are disordered people with a diagnosis and an earthly remedy rather than poor, miserable sinners who cannot free ourselves.

What is wrong with is not that we are human but that we are sinners -- how bold and yet obvious!  Far be it from us to choose obvious wisdom over the convoluted ideas with which we justify ourselves and still play God.  Humanity is not the thing that must be answered and ultimately jettisoned.  Sin is our problem.  Sin bore death as the wicked, evil, and ugly stepchild of one simple act of doubt, disobedience, and delusion.  We do not need a way out of our humanity.  We need a Savior from sin.

Too often churches shy away from this and preachers would rather tell us how to have a better today and a happier tomorrow.  Too often we have adopted the silence of the world with respect to sin and wrong.  Fearing the judgement of others more than God, we have come to agree that humanity is the problem and sin is a minor issue.  Churches have become rehab centers where people go to get a quick fix from their problems, a quick diversion from their troubles, and a quick delusion about how easy it is to change and become the successes we want to be (translate that gods we want to be).

The vocation of humanity is deemed demeaning.  It is not enough to be husband to your wife or father to your children.  Life should consist of more.  It is not enough to be wife to your husband or mother to your children.  Life should consist of more.  Notice how the more is always "ME".  But this vocation is not a prison for our humanity.  It is the locus where we live and work and have our being as creatures of the Creator.  Christ did not enter time and history to release us from the inhumanity of our vocation as creatures living in relationship with spouse, children, and neighbor.  No, our Lord came as one of us to remind us that humanity is not the problem but the arena in which we live under God and in His kingdom until we are delivered fully from sin and death to awaken in glorious flesh in the new heavens and the new earth.

Only God could love us enough to become what we abhor -- human -- and then atone for our sins so that we could become once again what we were created to be -- human.  The sad truth is that the greatest impediment we face is that we too often regret our humanity more than our sin and so Jesus is hard for us to get and the Church seems out of touch and irrelevant to our lives.  In reality, we are the ones out of touch with the real issues of our lives and we desire that which is irrelevant to the problem and the God-given solution at hand.  The cross is not about God rejecting Jesus' humanity and therefor us but about sin atoned for, its debt paid, and its curse of death overcome.  Our creatureliness is not the problem.  It is our desire not to be human and the longing within to be gods that is the issue.  Our humanity is not the problem.  It is our sin and the death that sin has inflicted upon us.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Who said that?

We live in an age that calls itself enlightened but in which there is an astonishing ignorance in the area of religion... even of those who call themselves Lutheran..."

I am so often impressed with the prescient wisdom of people who look across the landscape and are not overwhelmed by the trees to see the forest.  I wish I were more like that.  The quote in question dates from 1846 and it was written by a Lutheran fairly new to the US who came here to flee a Lutheranism under siege by those who insisted that doctrinal differences did not preclude unity.  You know him.  CFW Walther.  As he stepped off a boat and surveyed the landscape of Lutheranism in America, he found a different challenge than he left in Germany.  Here it was not enforced unity but a willing surrender of the ancient and confessional heritage that had been Lutheranisms identity and reason for being.

It was done in the name of enlightened thought but it was the rudest and barest form of ignorance.  Lutheranism in America was a liturgical and confessional mess of people who did not know what it meant to be Lutheran in witness or in worship.  Walther's appeal to Old Lutheranism was not an appeal to a date in history or a pristine era but to a Lutheranism undeterred by fear of what people thought (papish) and unshaken in witness to the faith once and always believed, taught, and confessed.

Today we live in an equal crossroads.  We are told that confidence in the Biblical text is no longer possible because the Scriptures are simply wrong about too many things.  We are told that science is a more reliable teacher than the Spirit and reason must judge the Word of God.  We are told that whole sections of Scripture are just plain wrong or they have been misunderstood the whole of their history and now the faith is friendly toward GLBT etc...  We are told that feelings and preferences matter more than truth that endures forever and you choose a church home like you choose a comfortable pair of shoes (no matter that they may be bad for your feet or destructive to your faith).  We do so not because we think ourselves shallow or self-serving but because we think ourselves enlightened, intelligent, sophisticated, erudite, and creative.

Around us is an astonishing mountain of ignorance about the real issues of consequence that face us as churches and as a culture.  Abortion is not just a choice.  Sex is not just sex.  Marriage is not open to regular redefinition.  Children are not toys.  Science is not unanimous in its conclusions nor more reliable that Scripture and the faithful who have heard and believed its voice.  The environment is not a god or the primary cause of the God.  Liturgy is not to make us feel good.  Confessions are not open to regular re-interpretation or to updating as truth changes and the social conscience of culture shifts.  Truth is not a mile wide and an inch deep but pretty much the opposite.   Faith is not for a better life now and Jesus is not a life coach.

Even we as Lutherans are divided and confused before the world because we cannot agree among ourselves.  So we have an Amish option which pretty much disengages from the world and turns church into a refuge or we have the adapt or die option which embraces every social change or cause (eventually).  And then we have Missouri which harbors nearly every opinion depending upon which congregation you attend and to which pastor you speak.  Walther looked and saw pretty clearly the landscape then.  God help us to see it now as clearly.  And then to confess more boldly, worship more faithfully, and live more holy.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Lutheran is more than an occasional reference. . .

Me thinks thou dost protest too much. . .  

There are too many who think that being Lutheran is an occasional reference point to a past event or in a present day conversation.  Like those who insist they were baptized Lutheran (no such thing, can't be done, and if it is, it means that there is no baptism).  Or those who can tell you the pastor who confirmed them and commiserate about how hard it was to stay awake in catechism class but do not attend now.  Or those who wax eloquently about being Lutheran but who are so distant from the faith of the catechism or such a stranger to Lutheran Confessions that they would not recognize them if they hit them in the face.  Or those who can date their last real time spent in church to a hymnal or two prior to the one currently in the pews.  O those who define Gospel as the current issues that concern them or for which they are currently fighting (poverty, women's rights, sexual liberation, etc...).

It was not that long ago that Lutherans knew what to expect from the jurisdictional structures and their churches knew what to expect of those called Lutheran.  It was not a perfect era but the Lutheran identity was both stronger and more positive all the way around.  Today we struggle in this basic area.  Our definition of Lutheranism is broad and shallow and bears little resemblance to the Lutheranism of the Reformers or of our Confessions or our great-grandparents.

So, for example, when I read the second issue of The Living Lutheran I read a young woman describe herself and her Lutheranism in this way --
  • she found her faith when she came to college and to the the Lutheran campus ministry where she developed a passion for social justice along side her faith. . .
  • her first experience with church was baptism but she did not connect until in her 20s. . .
  • she strives for a balance between tradition and progress. . .
  • she is fighting for economic security for women and families (access to education and health care, freedom from violence, adequate pay and financial assistance). . .
  • she hopes fellow young women will feel empowered to become engaged in issues of social justice. . .
  • she sees the church living in spaces differently than it does now -- outside the four walls of a physical sanctuary. . .
  • she believes in people and our common humanity. . . 
  • she is a Lutheran because the church should be a welcoming and inclusive place (like her campus Lutheran church). . .  
I am sure she is a fine young woman but where is there anything concretely Lutheran in her self-description of what it means for her to be one?  Where is there even a mention of Christ, of God, of Word and Sacraments, of grace, of mercy, of sin, of forgiveness, of death, and of life everlasting?  How does this definition explain Lutheranism in general or her own Lutheran identity?  BTW I am not at all suggesting that you could find the same generic social gospel identity in a different Lutheran jurisdiction and that is what has me fearful.

If we do not know what Lutheranism is or how to explain it to the world (in a way that mirrors our own self-description in catechism and confession), how do we expect to pass this faith on to others?  Remember that this column was in the ELCA's denominational journal.

The other day my associate and I spent a couple of ours talking to a young man preparing for baptism as an adult about baptism, the faith, and the church in which he will be joined to Christ's death and resurrection and we never remotely covered anything mentioned above.  Instead we spoke of the cross, of Christ's suffering and death, of the means of grace, of the new life born of the baptismal encounter with Christ's death and resurrection, of the liturgy and the shape of a life of worship, of source and summit of Christian faith and life flowing from the liturgy, of the daily repentance that keeps us connected to and confessing of what God did to save us, etc. . .  I guess we come down hard on the traditional side of things.

What shocks me most of all about Lutherans are not what others think of us but how we define ourselves both inwardly as a community of faith gathered together and outwardly in witness to those who do not know us or Christ.  It is as if the cross were a footnote and the issues of sin and death were fringe to the bigger and better stuff of social justice, personal satisfaction, and our passions in life.  This is first of all a sign of bad catechesis.  Second it is the fruit of shallow preaching which neglects the Word of God and doctrine.  Finally, it is the confusion of a people taught by confused people about what it might just mean to be Lutheran -- the skeptic who is surprised after teaching skepticism that people do not believe much.

It is not rocket science.  Try cracking open a Catechism.  Try opening the Hymnal.  Try reading the Scriptures.  We can do this folks and we better or there will be no one who know what Lutherans are. . . and are not. . .

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Is papal infallability an open question?

  • Theologian Fr. Hans Kung in a 2008 file photo. 
    (CNS/Harald Oppitz, KNA)
Editor's note: Fr. Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian, says that he has received a letter from Pope Francis that responds "to my request to give room to a free discussion on the dogma of infallibility."
Küng declined to show the letter to NCR, citing "the confidentiality that I owe to the Pope," but he says the letter was dated March 20 and sent to him via the nunciature in Berlin shortly after Easter.
Küng says the letter shows that "Francis has set no restrictions" on the discussions.

Küng also said that he is very encouraged by Francis' recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia ('The Joy of Love'), "I could not have foreseen then quite how much new freedom Francis would open up in his post-synodal exhortation," Kung wrote in statement released to NCR and other media outlets. "Already in the introduction, he declares, 'Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.'"  Küng writes, "This is the new spirit that I have always expected from the magisterium" and makes a discussion of infallibility possible.

Following is the text of the statement about the pope's letter that Küng released to media. The English version is being released simultaneously by National Catholic Reporter and The Tablet at midnight April 27 (7 p.m. Eastern time, April 26 in the United States).
-- Dennis Coday, NCR editor

On March 9, my appeal to Pope Francis to give room to a free, unprejudiced and open-ended discussion on the problem of infallibility appeared in the leading journals of several countries. I was thus overjoyed to receive a personal reply from Francis immediately after Easter. Dated March 20, it was forwarded to me from the nunciature in Berlin.

In the pope's reply, the following points are significant for me:
  • The fact that Francis answered at all and did not let my appeal fall on deaf ears, so to speak;
  • The fact that he replied himself and not via his private secretary or the secretary of state;
  • That he emphasizes the fraternal manner of his Spanish reply by addressing me as Lieber Mitbruder ("Dear Brother") in German and puts this personal address in italics;
  • That he clearly read the appeal, to which I had attached a Spanish translation, most attentively;
  • That he is highly appreciative of the considerations that had led me to write Volume 5 of my complete works, in which I suggest theologically discussing the different issues that the infallibility dogma raises in the light of holy Scripture and tradition with the aim of deepening the constructive dialogue between the "semper reformanda" 21st-century church and the other Christian churches and postmodern society.
Francis has set no restrictions. He has thus responded to my request to give room to a free discussion on the dogma of infallibility. I think it is now imperative to use this new freedom to push ahead with the clarification of the dogmatic definitions, which are a ground for controversy within the Catholic church and in its relationship to the other Christian churches.

I could not have foreseen then quite how much new freedom Francis would open up in his post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Already in the introduction, he declares, "Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium."
He takes issue with "cold bureaucratic morality" and does not want bishops to continue behaving as if they were "arbiters of grace." He sees the Eucharist not as a reward for the perfect but as "nourishment for the weak."

He repeatedly quotes statements made at the episcopal synod or from national bishops' conferences. Francis no longer wants to be the sole spokesman of the church. This is the new spirit that I have always expected from the magisterium. I am fully convinced that in this new spirit a free, impartial and open-ended discussion of the infallibility dogma, this fateful key question of destiny for the Catholic church, will be possible.

I am deeply grateful to Francis for this new freedom and combine my heartfelt thanks with the expectation that the bishops and theologians will unreservedly adopt this new spirit and join in this task in accordance with the Scriptures and with our great church tradition.

My Comments:

I admit that I am not sure what to say.  Francis is keen on giving us moments that are filled with as many questions as answers.  This is surely one of them.  Fr. Hans Küng, hardly a spokesman for orthodox Roman Catholicism, seems an unlikely person to explore what infallibility means -- he surely already has in mind what he thinks it to mean!  Yet, as in his many forays to secular journalists and media personnel, Francis is keen on appearing flexible, reasonable, and willing to set a new course.  While this might be an important step for conversations between Rome and Constantinople and Rome and Wittenberg, it would hardly represent an end to the problems both have had with the papacy as an institution and office.  I fear this is one more instance of a hint of hope that will in the end result in more a photo op than real change but. . . who knows.  One thing is for sure -- many of my Roman Catholic friends who are already uneasy about Francis will have one more thing to be anxious over.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Words for everyman. . .

“In the whole Bible there are perhaps no words that everybody, everywhere, can identify with more fully than the ones St. Paul wrote to the Roman church: ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ (7: 19)."  So wrote Christian author Frederick Buechner.  But, of course, it is a statement of the obvious.

Whether Christian or not, whether acquainted with Scripture or not, we know the conflict within us between the obvious good that we should and the obvious evil we should not.  In typical form, we know the wrong we are to avoid and with glint in the eye and sinful joy of fallen heart, we go for the wrong anyway.  In much the same way, we know the pure and righteous that we should but so often we simply cannot bring ourselves to do it -- much less desire it.

It has been said the sin, especially original since no one has to teach us how to sin, is the one doctrine no one needs the Scripture to prove.  Open your newspaper, check out the headlines on Twitter, listen to the news on TV or radio.  We cringe at the evils that come from those who seem so little different from us.  We grow weary of the ever constant litany of terrible and shocking things that people do to others (especially those whom they supposedly love most dearly).  But then we look into the mirror and we know the shameful thoughts of our hearts and the bitter words that should never have been spoken and the gleeful delight we have taken in our clever dance with darkness.  Then on some level we understand.

I do not worry about those who wrestle with this conflict between the good we should and the evil we should not.  But I do worry and fear for those in whom there is no conflict -- only the emptiness of a mind and heart adrift without anchor in conscience and the voice of God to act as a rudder to direct the person.  As unsatisfying as it is to live within the tension of St. Paul, it is the creative tension in which God is at work.  Perhaps that is what Scripture means when it says the heart has been hardened or God has given the sinner over to his unrighteousness -- there is no tension, no conscience to reign on our sin parade, and no voice of God directing us to know evil and to know good.  Strange it is that the fruit of sin's rebellion in the Garden is the terrible knowledge that none of us wanted to know -- how we long to know only goodness, righteousness, and peace but instead we know their dark opposites.

It would be an awful place to end were it not for the full context of St. Paul's words. . .
[15] For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. [16] Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. [17] So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. [18] For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. [20] Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

    [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  Romans 7:15-25 ESV

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Who is Jesus?

Sermon for the Holy Trinity, preached on Sunday, May 22, 2016, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

         Last Sunday marked the end of the first half of the church year and today we begin the second half.  We go from focusing on the events in Jesus’ life: His birth, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven, to focusing on His teachings.  We do this today by directing our attention to the great mystery of the Trinity, one God in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, and this God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
          Jesus is one with the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.  He’s the pre-incarnate Wisdom of the Father, and before the Father ever said, “Let there be light,” Jesus was.
          In our Gospel reading, the Jews questioned Jesus’ identity.  They said He was a Samaritan, a man with a corrupted heritage, and they were certain He had a demon because He spoke the Gospel saying, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (Jn 8:51).  The Jews couldn’t believe this claim because the greatest of the greatest, the most faithful Jews of history died.  All the prophets died, and even their father Abraham died.  Jesus responded by saying, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56).  Once Jesus said this, the Jews definitely knew Jesus was possessed because there’s no way Jesus could have seen Abraham.  But Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58).  Hearing this, the Jews heard enough and they picked up stones to throw at Jesus because they considered His words blasphemous.  Jesus just identified Himself as God, the great “I am” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:14).  By saying “I am,” Jesus identified Himself as God, one with the Father.
John also testifies to Christ’s oneness with the Father in the beginning of his Gospel.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:1-3).  Jesus, the pre-incarnate Word was, and is, one with the Creator Father who brought all of life into existence.    
The Old Testament reading from Proverbs (8:1-4, 22-31) puts it another way.  With poetic language, wisdom is personified, and this Wisdom is none other than the pre-incarnate Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father.  In our reading, He proclaims His presence at the beginning, when the heavens were established and the foundations were laid.  He stood next to the Father like a master workman, a builder, and He daily rejoiced before the Father.  He rejoiced in the inhabited world and His delight was the children of man.
          Just take a moment and think about that.  The delight of the pre-incarnate Wisdom, the delight of the “I am,” the delight of the Son of God is the lowly creature man.  It wasn’t the beauty of the flowers, the strength of the beasts, or even the wonders of heaven, but it was man.  We are Christ’s delight, He finds joy in us, in you.  In all of creation, you’re the most precious thing to Him, and that’s why the Son of God became man, to be your Redeemer. 
          Every Sunday we confess it together, whether it’s with the words of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, or with the Athanasian Creed that we say today, we confess the incarnation of God’s Son.  Born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus is fully God and fully man.  Christ humbled Himself and was born in the likeness of men.  This likeness wasn’t a similarity, but a sameness.  He was the same as you in every way.  He was flesh and bone, He hungered and thirst, He suffered physically and He felt the full range of emotions that you do: happiness and joy, sadness and mourning.  Jesus become man and was like you in every way, except one...He was without sin. 
          Christ was perfect.  He followed all the 10 Commandments, He obeyed the Father’s will.  He was born without original sin having been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was sinless and the only man to walk this earth who was so, and He had to be, so that He could die on the cross and atone for all our sin.
          If Christ wasn’t fully man, He couldn’t have died on the cross, and if He wasn’t fully God, His sacrifice would be useless.  But because He’s 100% God and 100% man His death saves you from sin.  He paid the penalty for it.  Christ is your Redeemer, your Lord who frees you from death, and He gives you new life.  He promised this to you when He said “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death” (Jn 8:51). 
          This word is the word of the Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Christ alone.  This word is life changing, it’s life giving, but it’s also a word that’s counter-intuitive.  It goes against common thinking.  It’s a word that we can’t keep on our own.  So, Jesus has given us the Helper, the Holy Spirit, our Sanctifier. 
          Before Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, He told His disciples that He would send them the promise of the Father (Lk 24:49).  He did this on Pentecost, and having received the Spirit, the disciples were enabled to proclaim the Word of Jesus in different languages.  We heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon in our second reading today (Acts 2:14a, 22-36).  With the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter boldly preached Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the people of Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit worked through this preaching, and He created faith within 3,000 souls that day.
          In the same way, the Spirit creates faith in you.  Through the hearing of God’s Word, He gives you trust in that Word, trust in Christ Jesus your Savior.  We confessed this truth together last week when we said, “The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”  The Helper gives you faith and keeps you in it.  Through the continual hearing of Scripture, through the continual eating and drinking of Christ’s true body and blood, the Spirit strengthens your faith, enabling you to confess who Jesus is, enabling you to call Him Lord, and enabling you to keep His Word. 
          The mystery of the Trinity is difficult for us to understand.  Our rational finite minds are incapable of fully grasping it.  We can’t explain how our one God is Triune; and yet, He is.  This is the truth, and we have faith in this truth because the Spirit has given us this faith.  This faith confesses the one God in Three Persons.  This faith confesses who Jesus is: the only-begotten Son of God, and our Savior from sin and death.  And this faith confesses and looks forward to the everlasting life that Christ has promised us.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Matter matters. . .

I was reading Fr. Hunwicke, always a hoot, and he described a visit to the country and to a medieval chapel still in use as an Anglican parish.  He was given a tour and the guide told him how this church building was inconveniently placed.  Fr. Hunwicke mentioned that perhaps this building should have been sold to the Roman Catholics (who had purchased a much later formerly Anglican building near the heart of the town).  But the guide responded in horror that such would have been unthinkable.  This was the building that had history, it had stood for close to a thousand years, and it would be unthinkable to let this go for the sake of expediency.

That story got me thinking.  On the one hand I was struck by the illogical character of it all.  Why not sell the building inconveniently located and keep the newer building that fits the modern need of location, location, location (oh, and yes, parking!)?  We would do that here in the US in a minute.  We are not so attached to buildings and, unlike Britain and Europe, we routinely tear down perfectly good structures and build rather flimsy replacements because we think they fit our need better (and we thoroughly expect others after us to do the same thing).  We build for the moment and not for the future (except when we think the future is some stark and cold thing and then we construct monuments to the future that people will surely tear down -- not because they are unusable but because they are ugly!).

For people today matter does not matter -- feeling does.  It is the way that the spiritual but not religious mentality has captured our thinking and taught us that spirit matters but form and structure do not matter.  This is but another form of gnosticism and an unChristian conflict between spirit and matter.  Christianity is a religion in which matter does matter.  God made all things good, very good, and created man in His own image and likeness.  God did not favor spirit over flesh or flesh over spirit but saw them together as bearing the mark of His goodness.  Christianity is incarnational -- ours is the God who does not disdain matter but comes in flesh for us and for our salvation.  We are told from Scripture that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, that He took on the vocation of Joseph, His guardian, that He ate and drank and satisfied the hungry and thirsting, and that He honored sacred place with His worship and prayer.  This is not accidental or incidental.

In Fr. Hunwicke's story, there is a lot of Christian sense -- a church was solemnly anointed and consecrated and for, perhaps, a millennium has been a place where prayer has been valid and generations have been christened and churched, married and buried, in which the community has had its centre ... and such things do matter. Ours is an incarnational religion, in which places are sacred. Matter matters.

This is not some quaint story about some quaint old building.  It is a lesson.  We are too often tempted to believe that matter is important to science but not to faith, that science in the domain of the concrete and real and faith the arena of the spiritual and what is believed (but cannot be proved or experienced).  We would be wrong.  God created us with a vocation within matter, a calling to exercise dominion over His creation which He calls good, to be fruitful and multiply and fill it.  When sin stole this vocation from us and left us booted from Eden into a world which was in competition with us and must be worked, we did not relinquish that vocationInstead it became hard labor for us, without the delight of God in it all, it was a duty rendered in obligation to the Law.  Christ came not to release us from this vocation and calling but to enable us to reconnect to our identity and purpose and to equip us with the will and desire again to glorify God in the realm of the concrete.

Ceremony and ritual are not things completely indifferent but take on the character of belief, confession, and instruction.  The sacred space of the church is not simply rendered important when we are there doing our sacred duties but as a space consecrated and set apart for God's use and purpose, His glory and work.  God comes to us not in the ethereal but in the concrete of Word, water, bread, and wine.  We kneel and genuflect, stand and sit, bow and cross ourselves -- not to satisfy rule or demand but as outward sign and posture of worship, adoration, prayer, praise, humility, and solemnity.  We are too quick to tell our people that it does not matter -- that matter does not matter, that what you do does not matter, that worship practices do not matter... that only sincerity and feeling matter.  Yet feelings, as important and good as they are, and even sincerity as motive, can be more subjective and shallow than the concrete.  God does not merely live in our spirits.  He has redeemed us body and soul.  Matter matters.  It is good to be reminded of this every now and then.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mercy VS the Gospel. . . .

I am hearing some of my Roman Catholic folks concerned the way that Pope Francis is separating out mercy from the Gospel itself, holding to the doctrine but framing the response of the church to particular situations with mercy (charity?) sort of the same way that he has used the foot washing of Holy Thursday to signify the church's mercy toward those outside the faith.  But this is not something new to those outside of Rome.  It has been the continuous practice of many for a long time.  Perhaps it began in earnest with the social gospel movement in which doctrine was deemed less of value than meeting the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the refugee, etc...  It really goes back to the fear that if someone comes to the church with a physical need and we cannot meet that need, we have nothing good to offer them.  I have written about that here before.

At the end of Amoris Laetitia, Francis puts his point this way:
We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.”
For Francis (and for many Protestants), the dogma of the Church is subordinated to the primary value of mercy, perhaps we might go so far as to say that doctrine and mercy compete or can be in conflict with one another.   In AL, mercy is first in the hierarchy of spiritual values subordinate to it is the unfolding truth of God and the resulting the call to discipleship (which, if anything, is a call to carry the cross of suffering and adversity in this world while holding up at the same time the fullness of the divine revelation in the doctrine or teaching Christ has made known and the Spirit has proclaimed in His name.  In this way the call to follow Christ becomes more about the character of mercy than it does belief in what Christ has accomplished by His incarnation, obedient life, holy death, and life-giving resurrection. The inevitable conclusion is that worship and prayer are good, the sacraments are great, but virtue of mercy is better and greater.  In wonder if it is fair to conclude that in the spirituality of Francis, mercy trumps justice, love trumps truth—not that justice and truth are of no consequence but that they are lower in priority and secondary to the primacy of mercy.

Now there are some within my own church body who would rejoice in this train of thought.  They are those who constantly pit pure doctrine against mission, confessional against missional, and liturgy against evangelization.  It is as if we have redefined the Gospel so that the cross has become less fact than principle, mercy is less the atonement for the sins of the unworthy sinner than generic compassion, and grace has become unfailing acceptance rather than the grace that grants the Spirit to believe and repent and live (through the means of grace).

Francis is sounding like a boomer -- one who sees the institution of the church as something big and bad that has corrupted the simple faith of Jesus and the simple life of mercy.  At times I might agree with him that this is what has happened.  But I would insist that the church is not the enemy of mercy but the agent of Christ's mercy and that mercy is always cross shaped.  There is no mercy worth having that does not flow from the innocent arms of the Savior outstretched in suffering for the sake of the guilty, to win salvation, to pay sin's terrible debt, and to grant life to those living in the shadow of death.  It is from THIS mercy that the Church loves the poor, needy, outcast, disenfranchised, and refugee.  Of course the mercy work does not replace speaking the Gospel, calling them to repentance, and delivering the Kingdom to them in the living waters of baptism.  But neither can the Church care for the soul and be oblivious to the needs of the body and this mortal life.  Yet we dare not forget that the Church is not a philanthropic organization but the body of Christ, delivering Christ to the world through the means of grace so that a world apart from God and cut off from His creative and redemptive purpose may be restored through the blood of Christ.

Personally, I am growing weary of the constant tug of war between those who say mercy or Gospel, love or Truth, compassion or repentance. . . this is a false competition, a deception of God's purpose and will to pit them against each other, and a distraction from the work of doing both -- speaking Truth and acting mercifully!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The most important day of your life. . .

George Weigel recounts a couple of stories rich in the lessons of faith.

 I started thinking about this some thirty years ago, when I began working with evangelical Protestants on religious freedom and pro-life issues. (“Religious freedom” in that innocent age meant prying “dissident” Christians and Jews out of the clutches of the KGB, not trying to keep the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from bullying the Little Sisters of the Poor.) And I discovered that these folks had an interesting way of introducing themselves at meetings.

Throw a dozen Americans, unknown to each other, together, and the normal way of letting people know who you are is by saying what you do: “I’m Jane Smith and I’m a pediatrician.” Or “I’m John Jones and I work for Microsoft.” That’s not how my new acquaintances identified themselves, however. They’d say, “I’m Jane Smith and I was born again on” such-and-such a date, usually a few years back, when Jane would obviously have been an adult. “I’m John Jones and I was born again on. . . .” And so forth and so on.

When the introductions came around to me, I would say, “I’m George Weigel and I was born again on April 29, 1951—at which point I was precisely twelve days old.” It was a shock to some, but it did get a few interesting conversations about sacramental theology going.

Then, when I was working on the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, I had to describe the Pope’s visit to his home town, Wadowice, during his first papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979. He of course went to the church he had known as a boy; but what did he do when he got there? He went straight to the baptismal font, knelt, and kissed it. Why? Because St. John Paul knew that the most important day of his life was the day of his baptism: not the day he was ordained a priest, or consecrated a bishop, or elected pope. The day of his baptism was, literally, the font from which everything else in his life flowed.
Lutherans are baptismal people.  We take most seriously for our great joy the day when God reached through water to connect us to the cross of Christ, when we were buried with Christ into death and raised with Christ to new and everlasting life, when we put on Christ as clothing of righteousness, when we engrafted onto the Christ the Vine, when we were made members of the Body of Christ and heirs of heaven and all that He has prepared for those who love Him...

Sadly, what Weigel said of Roman Catholics is true of Lutherans as well.  We do not remember the day when we went down into the waters as one person and rose up, by the grace and Spirit of God, a new and different person, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works.  I ask catechism students this question on the first day of their instruction and nearly every one does not know their baptismal date, does not remember even being told when that date was, and often has trouble finding out the date from their parents.  It is a past ritual accomplished and not the powerful moment of our new beginning to be daily remembered and celebrated.  And we are poorer for it.

We do not remember this baptismal date as if it were something we did or something to replace a life of faith and faithful works born that faith.  No, we remember that date for what God did, according to His promise planted in water by the Word.  We remember that date for the life begun in faith from that moment and the life of faith lived out by the power of the Holy Spirit because of God's power and claim in water. 

Remember your baptism.  Remember that day when your parents brought you or perhaps you came of your own accord to meet the promise of God planted in water.  Celebrate what the Lord and does because He is faithful and He will do it.  Pray that the Lord who began this good work within you bring it to completion on the day of the Lord.  Pray that you be kept holy and blameless in the arms of Jesus.  Pray that you will never be distant from His Word or His House or His Table.  And tell of the promise of God to those around you, of the gift given in your baptism, and how that gift and new life has formed your identity as a child of God ever since.  For this too is answer to the hope that is within you!