Monday, October 31, 2016

A sweet Luther. . .

It seems that the statue of Martin Luther that graced the meeting of the Pope and Lutherans in Rome was made of chocolate.  What does this mean?

Were they hoping that a chocolate Luther would be more likely to melt in the presence of a hot and heavy Pope?

Could it have been the sweet Luther was there to balance out the sour and bitter Luther of 500 years ago?

Do you suppose they were trying to face up to the Forest Gump Luther whose chocolates hide the fact that you never know what you are going to get with him?

Maybe they were trying to make Francis hungry enough to want to set table with the Lutherans and share THE meal?

We all know Luther got too close to the dinner plate (look at the statue of him).  Perhaps Francis has a sweet tooth as well and his, shall we say, plus size cassock may have been a secret plan to entice him to munch down on Luther a bit.

Life is better with chocolate.  I would say we are all a little better off for Luther as well.  Though I am certain that there are many who could not or would not say that.

Pope meets with Lutherans

Meeting with Lutherans in Rome on October 13, 2016, Pope Francis was asked about what he likes and doesn’t like in the Lutheran ecclesial community.  The Pope said he likes Lutherans who are active followers of Christ, while he dislikes Christians who are hypocritical or who have a lukewarm faith.  “I like all the good Lutherans, eh?” he said. “There are many good ones, the Lutherans who really follow Jesus Christ. On the other hand, I don’t like lukewarm Catholics or lukewarm Lutherans.”

Imagine that.  The Pope wants Lutherans to be good Lutherans or not at all.  Hmmm.  Was he reading my mind?  Was he reading the minds of so many Confessional Lutherans?  Hard to say.  His point is well taken.  The path to ecumenical renewal will not lie with lukewarm Roman Catholics and lukewarm Lutherans getting together.  If there is an ecumenical hope, it will grow out of the desire to fully embrace the identity of both partners.  In addition, no religious tradition is helped when its adherents are ho-hum about what their church believes, confesses, and teaches.

Normally I would not comment but I cannot help but focus on the words of Pope Francis and the irony of a Pope telling us Lutherans to shape up and take our faith seriously.  Interesting. . .

In addition Pope Francis said:  "In being of service to the most needy we experience already that we are united: it is the mercy of God that unites us."  While theologians speak of doctrine, the faithful act in mercy, according to Francis.  It sounds good but in reality doctrine in not merely the purview of the theologian.  We are all guardians of the sacred deposit and witnesses to a Gospel that is certainly evident in works but no less in faithful words (sound teaching). 

“The Apostle Paul tells us that, by virtue of our baptism, we all form the one Body of Christ. The different members, in fact, are one body.”  The Pope went on to say, “This is why we belong to each other and when one suffers, all suffer, when one rejoices, all rejoice (cf. 1 Cor 12.12 to 26). Let us continue with confidence on our ecumenical journey, because we know that, beyond the many open questions that still separate us, we are already united. What unites us is much more than what divides us.”

Interesting words from a Pope who as recently as 2014 republished an article written in 1985 in which he blamed Luther and the Reformation for most of the ills of society and branded them as heretics.  While I agree that there is much that unites, there is still much that divides us and as good as good works are for the benefit of our neighbor there is no less a need to confront doctrine and truth in the light of the Scriptures.

What does being Lutheran matter?

So we live in an age in which non-denominationalism has even swept up denominations and rendered nearly every church either tolerant of just about any beliefs or confused in what they believe.  So we live in an age in which doctrine is the bogyman of happiness, contentment, and peace.  So we live in an age in which diversity has become the trump card over doctrine, confession, and truth.  So we live in an age in which sin is not sin and death is a compassionate friend.  So what does it matter if we are Lutheran or not?

Being Lutheran matters because the Gospel matters.  If there is any reason at all for Lutheranism to exist, it is to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus crucified, who atoned for our sins and the sins of the whole world with His own righteous life, life-giving death, and death overcoming resurrection. The Gospel is not whether or not God likes you, whether or not you like God, whether or not you are spiritual, whether or not you are happy, or whether or not you think you are good.  The Gospel is the incarnate Lord by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary who for us and for our salvation was crucified, died, and was buried, and who was raised again on the third day.  This is the message of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings.  This is the story of Scripture.  If the Gospel no longer matters, then it is true that being Lutheran no longer matters. 

Being Lutheran matters because the Church matters.  Lutheranism is a churchly movement unlike those Protestant and Evangelical movements which are centered in the individual.  The Church matters because the Church is the creation of Jesus Christ, His body and His bride, wherein He delivers to those for whom He died the fruits of His once for all sacrifice, cleansing us from our sins and bestowing upon us everlasting life.  The Church matters because our piety is planted not in our feelings or our thoughts or our desires or our accomplishments (works) but in Christ alone and Christ is not theory or idea but flesh and blood.  He comes to us through the efficacious Word that delivers its promise and the Sacraments that bestow what they sign.  If the Church no longer matters, then it is true that being Lutheran no longer matters.

Being Lutheran matters because worship matters.  Lutheranism preserves the catholic and apostolic form of the mass and centers that Divine Service where Christ intends it to be -- in Himself.  If Biblical, catholic, and apostolic worship can be entertainment or enlightenment of the mind or ethereal experience of something we deem spiritual, then it is true, being Lutheran no longer matters.  For Lutheranism, if it is anything, is the practice of a confession, the face of whom we meet in the Divine Service.

Being Lutheran matters because piety matters.  Lutheranism in piety, hymnody, and devotion turns us to the cross, to the Scriptures, and to the means of grace.  Piety is not an exercise of self-improvement or the whim of the moment or the trend of the day.  Piety is not inspiration to do better or be better.  Piety meets Christ where Christ has promised to be -- the Word and the Sacraments.  We pray what God has said because this is the most certain pray we can pray.  We pray the creed as a people whose piety is rooted and planted in God's revelation of Himself.  We pray the liturgy because even when we are outside the Divine Service, we are focused upon Christ and His coming to us through the means of grace.

Being Lutheran matters because sin and death matters.  Death is not normal but the curse of Eden to a rebellious people and all their offspring.  Sin is the reason death exists.  When sin no longer exists and we are free to indulge the desires of our hearts without the voice of conscience or the Word of God to challenge, then perhaps Lutheranism will seem irrelevant.  When we have made our peace with death and let technology and self-interest define what life is, when it begins, whether it is worthy, and when it shall end, then perhaps Lutheranism will seem irrelevant.  But as long as a guilty conscience cries out for relief and grief appeals for comfort before the grave, Lutheranism has a purpose and a cause.  If sin and death no longer matter, then it is true, being Lutheran no longer matters.

On this day when we remind ourselves and the world around us that we are Lutheran, we would do well to remember
  • that our glory is not in a man for whom we are named but the eternal Gospel, 
  • that the Church is not irrelevant, optional, or non-essential to this Gospel and its proclamation, 
  • that worship is the Divine service to us before we can serve the Lord in any way shape or form, 
  • that piety is not our self-expression but Christ living in us and through us, 
  • that sin and death imposed themselves upon us by our own free choice until Christ came to release us from their everlasting bondage and captivity.
Lutheranism matters for these reasons.  We are here to preserve not an institution created by men but the everlasting Gospel and the worship, life, piety, and hope that proceeds from that Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Lutheranism will last only as long as we attend to these causes.  Lutheranism will succeed only in so far as we are faithful to these causes.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Luther et al. . .

While one may agree with Heiko Oberman that initia Reformationis is initia Lutheri, this does not mean that Luther is the whole Reformation. His act of protest, remembered on Reformation Day, points toward a deeper and broader movement that Luther himself could not contain and did not desire. . .   No, Luther may be the beginning, but he is not and cannot be the whole. 

With this paragraph you can see how the Reformation claims not only many sources but many heirs.  Here we read of the Wesleyan connection written by Dale Couter.  His is not the only voice to protest an understanding of the Reformation exclusively Luther and its offspring as exclusively Lutheran.  You can read him for yourself.

His perspective is shared by many.  The Reformation had many sources although Luther was primary and many heirs of which Lutheranism is but one.  Yet it is this very premise that is the occasion for my words.  Though it is understandable at the start of the gear up to the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation many would claim part and lineage, the view of the Reformation that sanctions the birth of so many churches so decidedly outside the catholic tradition is hardly a fruit of the Reformation that Luther or his theological heirs would laud.  In fact, it is what most Lutherans would call an unfortunate fruit of the Reformation, even perhaps a poisoned fruit.  The fact that many jumped on board the Reformation or allowed its consequences the opportunity to distance themselves from the catholic doctrinal and liturgical identity that the Augustana claims is hardly something we Lutherans should laud or allow to stand without challenge.

Luther would not know the state of the churches that claim their birth in the Reformation he began.  He would not countenance their disregard for the means of grace, for the sacramental identity and piety that is catholic and apostolic, or for their practical principle of private Biblical interpretation  equal to or surpassing the great weight of tradition.  Luther would not give such legitimacy to those who claimed kinship with him and his theological heirs.

As we approach the Reformation's 500th Anniversary, everyone from Wesleyans to Roman Catholics seek to share in the event.  To be sure, they all have a part but it is hardly one that would put us on the same stage.  The evangelicalism that claims to be rooted in the Reformation is not a movement which Luther would laud.  What began with personal piety has evolved into a thorough going modern identity that has been quick to equate numbers with faithfulness, worship as a tool of outreach, feelings as the equivalent for sacramental reality, and the personal self that remains the focus apart from Christ and His atoning work.  The lack of much reference to the forgiveness of sins in the preaching and teaching of evangelicals is itself a boundary marker to suggest that the Reformation Luther knew and the one they claim is not at all the same.

As much as Rome has changed, Rome remains the same communion Luther knew and found so bitterly disappointing.  Though there have been popes who exemplified the best of Rome, the current one would prove quite a conundrum for Luther.  In the end Luther would find just as wanting today as then the doctrinal imprecision that seems to invite contradiction and confusion and the appeal to sources other than Scripture to know the truth of God.  The re-introduction of indulgences only a year before the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is not merely insensitivity but evidence that Rome has not become Lutheran when it comes to justification.  Those who read me know that I long for true reunion with Rome and the healing of the 16th century schism but no amount of longing for this can erase the roadblocks in doctrine and practice which say that Rome is not much more friendly to the Lutheran Confessions today than it was when they were first offered.

Lutheranism is surely a mess but there is little in evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, or even Rome to give hope or encouragement for this Lutheran to jump ship.  Yes, the Reformation had many sources and many fruits but not all of them are equal or salutary.  As we celebrate the Reformation today and begin the ramp up to 500, now is not the time to ignore or paper over the serious differences that remain between Lutherans and others who find their roots flowing from the Great Reformation and Rome and its seeming willingness to give Luther a kinder and gentler reappraisal.  Lutherans must surely come to terms with their own messes (largely born of an unwillingness to pay attention to our Confessions and to hear the Scriptures as the voice of God).  But Lutheranism remains in my mind the best alternative for a faith that is thoroughly evangelical and catholic.

If there is one lesson we ought to remember on the cusp of this anniversary it is that reform is not achievement or a location but a process and a continuing journey.  It will not end in my lifetime and it will not end anytime past then unless the Lord Himself brings all things to their consummation.  Until then I will endeavor to remain faithful in word, confession, teaching, and practice to the Lutheran goal of catholicity in faith and work that flows from a robust Scripture able to deliver that which its words promise.  Some may think my words harsh.  They are not meant to be.  I simply refuse to look through rose colored glasses at those who claim to be heirs of the 16th Century Reformation or those to whom the words of protest were directed.  For that matter, I refuse to look with rose colored glasses at Luther and the Lutherans as well.  To do anything less is to defame the Reformation and dishonor Luther.  Live and let live will not solve either the issues raised at the start of that Reformation nor will it resolve all the various outcomes from that Reformation.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Sanitized Sanctuary. . . the homogenized Christian life. . .

In many respects we have placed personal comforts and desires front and center -- even before the Lord and His gifts.  We worship best when the temperature is mechanically kept at 72.5 degrees, when the humidity is below 40%, when small children neither fidget or make noise, when we have a water bottle or Starbucks near at all times, when hymns are drawn from the mainstream of what everyone knows, when stanzas are kept to no more than 3, when sermons conclude within 10 minutes (preferably on a happy note the way the news ends with the newest cutest YouTube video that is all the rage). . .  I could go on.  You don't want me to. . . neither do I.

Imagine how it was possible for folks to worship before a sound system conditioned what hit our ears or heat kept us toasty in winter or the AC kept us cool as cucumbers in summer or pews were padded (or replaced with individual well padded seating that reclines and has cup holders) or pastors realized that after 40 minutes folks may not be listening with their full attention or nurseries kept fussy and noisy kids far from the worshiping congregation. . .  Because that is how Luther found church on Sunday morning and most folks before and after him (at least until the more modern age of the last 100 years or more).

How did we get to be so preoccupied with creature comforts and a sanitized setting for church?  How did we grow so narrow minded and intolerant of anything that makes us uncomfortable?  I wish I could go back in time and prevent it.

I was speaking to a group of grandmothers about marriage and mentioned that the first great commission was to go and multiply and fill the earth.  Now you might think that grandmas would stand up and cheer since they live for grandchildren, right?  Wrong.  Instead I got an icy stare from some and some bitter comments from others "what about those who cannot have children?  How do you think they feel?"  So, we cannot encourage couples to have children because some cannot (never mind that more of them are simply choosing not to have them). . .  When did we become so sensitive to our feelings that to affirm something not everyone might have was being rude or callous or harsh?

I dare say that there was a time when truth trumped feelings, when the norm was said even when some were not able to live up to it, when we did not wear our feelings on our shirtsleeves and took offense at everything we did not like.  I wish I could remember that day!  If the pastor looks at us in the wrong way or someone forgets our names or someone fails to acknowledge who we are or what we have done or has the nerve to disagree with us, we pack up our toys and leaves.  Every pastor and every congregation knows the reality of this and wrestles with the line between integrity and pandering.  What has made us so fragile and weak that we must have a sanitized sanctuary on Sunday morning and live a homogenized life. . . or else?

Just wondering. . . aloud. . . today. . . And for those who think me rude, I am not immune from these self-absorbed feelings either.  That does not make it good or right, however.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Liturgical Movement at a Crossroads. . .

The Liturgical Movement began as a movement ad fontes, to the sources.  There was a rebirth of study and a huge crop of resources to provide us with more information than had been widely available about the history that brought us to the place where we were liturgically from the 1940s through the early 1960s.  I look over the volumes in my library with a copyright in that era and I find some splendid and rich treasures from a general liturgical perspective, from the perspective of Rome, and from my own Lutheran forbears.  Not all was good and sometimes we presumed too much from our meager efforts to find those sources but in most cases it was a flourishing of resources that fed and nourished a solid liturgical renewal.

What began at the sources evolved into something different.  For some it was an effort to recreate a pristine era in which the liturgy was unstained by the accretions of time and culture.  For others it was an opportunity to bring wholesale change to what happened on Sunday morning -- even to break with the past and promote something radically new.  For others it was a chance to bring incremental change both to purge some of what had been added and make careful and deliberate evolution of the Divine Service.

It might be said that the initial concern was not so much theoretical as it was practical -- especially for some.  It did not remain entirely practical and took on the character of an "ology" or a discipline where study of the forms took center stage from the concern for the people and the means of grace.  We saw this evolution in the Lutheran groups from the St. James Society to Una Sancta.  Rome had its own domain of the insulated scholar somewhat distant from the parish priest meeting his flock in the mass.

Now after the Liturgical Movement has come and gone and come again, we see a serious divergence in purpose and path.  On the one hand, there are those who remain in pursuit of a pure liturgy.  Others have come to see the liturgy as mere tool to be used for other purposes (diversity, feminism, GLBTQ, social justice, you name it).  Still others have re-examined the original resources and pointed out where they are lacking and attempted to find again the purest sources.  But the most helpful of those in the liturgical movement have restored this to its pastoral roots and its concern not for worship in theory but for Sunday morning and the people of God gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  This is where I see myself.

I am truly encouraged by the great numbers of pastors who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the Divine Service and who conduct the Divine Service with grace, reverence, and warmth.  I am encouraged by the pastoral liturgical preaching that connects the church year and the liturgy itself to the pericopes of the lectionary and weaves the whole Divine Service into one fabric.  I am encouraged by the many younger pastors who are committed to bringing their parishes into the catholic identity our own Augustana proclaimed and prescribed as the Lutheran genius.  Yet in the midst of all of this have come changes and issues that none in the Liturgical Movement could have possibly anticipated.  Who in the 1940s-early 1960s could have foreseen the inroads of evangelicalism into Lutheranism and what our people find on Sunday morning?  Who at this time period could have predicted the advent of desk top publishing and technology that would make it possible for a local congregation literally to publish its own liturgy and hymnal every Sunday?  Who would have envisioned the erosion of catechesis, of knowledge of the Scriptures, and of denominational identity and loyalty that would have left our people ill-equipped to judge what is faithful and what is not?  Who would have an idea that the internet, social media, and communication would have made it possible for people to take things from all traditions and invent their own recipe for Christianity or even substitute the virtual reality of technology for church at all?

As a Lutheran I see this pointedly expressed in the divergence between Missouri and the ELCA.  In the hymnals it is clear that ELW and LSB have different starting points and different ending points, different influences and different purposes.  That is true not only of the liturgy but of the body of hymns.  It is also true of the character and content of the worship conferences in which both groups have influence.  Think how differently the Valpo Liturgical Institute is from the LCMS Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Music.  Imagine how hard it is for us to even speak the same vocabulary when the divergence between the paths has become so profound!

Rome has its own twin polarities between those who guard the post-Vatican II mass against their enemies who promote a liturgical hermeneutic of continuity and seek to recover what was lost when the Latin Mass was replaced and the high altar became a table.  In the case of Rome and Lutheranism, this liturgical divergence is not without its political counterpart.  The mass has become a symbolic battlefield in which many fights are fought but often conflicts that have nothing strictly to do with the liturgy itself.  The new confessionalism of Lutheranism throughout the world is decidedly conservative when it comes to liturgical renewal just as the face of non-beige Roman Catholicism is also conservative both doctrinally and liturgically.  Perhaps this is where a new ecumenism can be born but, if that is the case, it will begin precisely where the Reformation also began -- a people and positions similar but still far apart.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A 15th Century Mass in Sweden Recreated. . .

This video is a Swedish historical reconstruction of a Roman Rite mass (I believe Dominican Rite) as it would have been done October 4, 1450, 17th Sunday after Trinity.  It is not a liturgical celebration but a historical recreation of a pre-Tridentine mass and as such includes some of the local and regional characteristics that were substantially reduced when the uniformity of the Tridentine Mass replaced this.

Here is a translation in English of the introductory comments:
"We have reconstructed a High Mass from 500 years ago in an ordinary Swedish parish church, namely in Endre Church, one mile east of Visby in Gotland. We imagined ourselves to be participating in this high mass on an autumn Sunday in the middle of the 15th century. It is local people who are participating in clothes typical for the time, and we have tried as much as possible to reconstruct [something to do with (worship) services] in the Diocese of Linköping at that time - since Gotland belonged to that diocese.

"The service is conducted in an incomprehensible language, a language incomprehensible to the people: Latin. Because church services at the time were not considered a medium for communicating information, except for silent prayers. Just as one cannot describe what is fascinating about a melody or a sight, one shouldn't be able to understand or describe the central mystery of the universe. The congregation waits for the central moment, when the bread and wine shall be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

"The priest was helped by a chorister, perhaps the [experienced?] youth whom [his soul has discovered?] and who with time would be sent to Linköping in order to attend the cathedral school. Songs, mostly from the Bible, were sung by the local cantor. We don't know exactly how the music went in the medieval churches. Maybe Endre Church had a specific order which required a qualified cantor like the one we shall see here.

"The Sunday service began when the priest sprinkled Holy Water on the congregation. This was to remind them that they had become members of the Christian church through baptism. The Holy Water would drive away all the powers of evil.

"Let us now place ourselves in the Middle Ages. Let us try to grasp the atmosphere in a normal Swedish parish church, in a time where man still believed himself cast out into an empty, cold existence, when Europe was still unified, and when the central mystery around which everything revolved was that Jesus Christ, had become man, had died, and risen again for all."
This video was made together with the Parrish, Kristi Lekamens Katolska församling i Visby, and sung in one of the medival churches of the Island of Gotland. Anders Piltz, the Priest is a proffesor of latin in Lunds University and also a Catholic Priest. The Cantor is Mattias Östborn also Cantor at the Catholic church of Visby. 

While the video is not recent, it has only recently made its way to Facebook and to YouTube and is something worth considering as we approach the Reformation and think about what the state of the church was from the perspective of an ordinary parish on Sunday morning.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I invented the internet. . .

We all remember snickering when Al Gore seemed to take credit for inventing the internet.  Yet as funny as that ill conceived remark was, it is not funny when we exactly the same thing by presuming a naked Scripture, ripped out of tradition and devoid of the wisdom of the saints who read the Word of God before us.  It is not a problem unique to a few and is pretty much the domain of the many in Christendom but it is surely more predominant among the evangelicals and Protestants.  Yet, I do not for the life of me know why.

Tradition bears no promise of infallibility but neither does that promise accede to those who sit alone with the Word and start from scratch as if no Christian had sat at the feet of Scripture, no council debated those who disagreed with Scripture, and no wisdom to be gained by at least listening to the saints who went before.  It may seem odd for a Lutheran to say this but it should not be.  Luther did not translate the Scriptures from a vacuum but used as many resources as he could lay his hands on to consider how to render the Word of the Lord in German.  His preaching on the texts and his lectures on various books and topics are framed by more than his own inner voice.  Yet it  has become fashionable to forget that.

Consider some quotes from names old and new:

“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”  —Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.

“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.”  —J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” JETS 25 (1982): 414

“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.”    —Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?

It is the height of arrogance to believe that your own erudition and intellect alone unpack the Scriptures.  When we speak of tradition, we speak neither of tyranny of those who went before or the isolation of those who came after but of a common perspective before the Word in which we are neither obligated by nor offended by the well worn paths of those who went before us.  We are, instead, instructed.

"The nice thing about the well-worn paths is that they are, well, well-worn. The footprints of thousands of adventurers have crushed the brambles and smoothed out the treacherous bumps. Doctrines that have been refined over centuries, whatever their weaknesses, at least usually have the strength of having gained remarkable clarity (at least, for those patient enough to examine them) and having weathered the barrage of centuries worth of objections, becoming ever more refined through the process. Brand-new doctrines, like brand-new trails, don’t have this advantage. Indeed, they are often hard to make out at all, so that anyone trying to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazer is likely to miss the new path entirely and wander off a cliff. This is not to discourage the important work of trailblazing (whether in mountaineering or in theology); simply to note that any trailblazer needs to recognize that he has a lot of work to do (more than he can probably do single-handed) before he is ready to advertise his trail to the public and say, “Come and follow me!”  (Brad Littlejohn)

The Scriptures are not virgin soil or untamed wilderness through which we must chart a new way.  Others have gone before us.  We walk in their paths and even when we depart from their guidance, we do so as those who have been instructed and not because we are enamored with novelty.  We often forget this.  Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever and the Word of God endures forever are both statements to reminds that Scripture does not speak with forked tongue nor does it change its mind.  We may have gotten it wrong in the past but if we follow the well worn path of those who went before, we are less likely to get it wrong.  Scripture is a catholic book in this regard and those who would open it must by nature be catholic in perspective or they will surely fall victims of their own insularity or diverge from the Truth for the sake of a novelty that is error.

This is one of the reasons why I so appreciate the Augsburg principle -- catholic doctrine and practice vs novelty and individuality.  Our Confessions really do have hermeneutical help for the exegete. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How did I miss this?

Screen Shot 2016 08 22 at 10.05.08 AM 300x134 Another Random Act of Justice

For people of normal conscience, the death of a loved one is a deeply painful time. For those of us who have had to make funeral arrangements for loved ones, it is a stressful time. But imagine the discomfort as you make funeral arrangements to realize that the funeral director is a male wearing female clothing.

So begins an article in Touchstone called Another Random Act of Justice on August 22, 2016, authored by

It is the story of a family owned Michigan funeral home, a male director whom they employ who desires to dress as a woman, and conflict between the funeral home's dress code, the Obama Administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and the transgender rights of expression and such.

The funeral home's concern is offending its clients at a very difficult time in their lives.  The man's concern is the freedom to wear a female clothing while interacting with that public.  Everyone agreed that the man could dress as he desired on his own time.  The dilemma is what to do at work.  The man was let go from his job and, as we all might predict, the EEOC took up his case using the courts in an attempt to force the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home to allow the biologically male employee to dress as a woman.

Normally, of course, in these type of situations, Christians always lose. But Mr. Rost was represented by Doug Wardlow, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom (“ADF”). Mr. Wardlow argued that the funeral home did not violate Title VII, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in employment. Rather, he argued that Mr. Rost was protected by a different federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which says that the government cannot force someone like Mr. Rost to violate his faith unless it demonstrates that doing so is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling government interest.” The infamous American Civil Liberties Union and its local partner, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, also filed briefs in this case against the funeral home owner.

In a seemingly random act of justice, last Thursday, a federal court in eastern Michigan agreed with Mr. Rost that the EEOC’s actions violated RFRA. In his 56-page Opinion and Order (should it really take 56 pages for this type of case?), available here, Judge Sean F. Cox, a President George W. Bush appointee, wrote the following:
The Court finds that the Funeral Home has met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs . . . Rost sincerely believes that it would be violating God’s commands if he were to permit an employee who was born a biological male to dress in a traditionally female skirt-suit at the funeral home because doing so would support the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift. The Supreme Court has directed that it is not this Court’s role to decide whether those ‘religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial….’ Instead, this Court’s ‘narrow function’ is to determine if this is ‘an honest conviction’ and, as in Hobby Lobby, there is no dispute that it is….
Normally, an absence of common sense and the newly minted rights of the individual's self-expression would have conspired to leave us licking our legal wounds or else intimidated even by the prospect of legal action to back down from principle.  In this case, we met the surprise of a judge who considered all rights and determined that religious rights are not open to be trampled upon in pursuit of every other presumed right.  Of course it is a victory but we might just have to wait for the appeals process to find out if this ruling will stand.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Rejection of Jesus is really rejection of our own sinfulness and need of a Savior. . .

Sermon for St. James of Jerusalem, preached on Sunday, October 23, 2016, at Grace Lutheran Church.

Today is one of those days when the mission of the Church is plain and clear.  Five boys are received into the Kingdom of God in the waters of baptism.  Three families have come with their children to receive the cleansing of water and the Word of God.  This is why we are here.  This is what the mission is.  This is why we lift our prayers, why we raise our voices in praise, and why we open our wallets to the offering plate. 

Now this may seem super impressive if you have only seen baptisms one at a time.  And it is.  But the miracle of the Kingdom is the same miracle for one or five and it is the same miracle you count on whether you are two or ninety two.  The miracle is this:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

On days like today it is especially great to be a pastor and it may just be that pastors become more impressive as five are welcomed into God's kingdom in one fell swoop.  But you may not know that pastors go home every day and face their families who know that this miracle did not happen because of the pastor but because of the mercy of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.  From a distance a pastor is impressive but his family knows he has feet of clay.  Noah faced his shame before his family,  Abraham had to face Sarah after Ishmael was conceived, and Moses put his staff behind the door when he sat down to eat with Zipporah, who knew all his flaws.

But not Jesus.  Jesus was not flawed.  He had no secrets to be found out that His family had to hide and He had no hidden sins for His enemies to gloat over.  He came in righteousness for sinners great and small, young and old, famous and anonymous.  His preaching and His life were perfectly synchronized on you, on Alexander, Collin, Declan, Westin and Watson, and on me.  His family did not get it.  The disciples who were supposed to be His friends did not understand Him or His kingdom – at least not right away.  But Jesus gave them no excuse to reject Him except their own unbelief, their own sins and shame, and their own weakness to death.  He came to meet us under the banner of the Law He kept perfectly for you and me, under the shadow of the cross where our sins would be paid in full, and in the shadowed darkness of a tomb where death would die once for all.

Jesus came without flaws for flawed people, the holy One for sinners.  In the end, our unbelief is less a rejection of Jesus than it is a refusal to admit our sin, to confess our failures, to repent of our wrongs.  The irony is that Jesus who had every right did not reject us, but we find excuses to reject Him and His mercy.
He put Himself in our place to death and rose to bestow on us a life none of us deserve.  We think we are rejecting Jesus but unbelief is simply a refusal to believe that we are sinners who need a Savior, unworthy who require mercy, and the dead who need to be raised to life.

Though we want to make unbelief the fault of Jesus, it is not caused by Him.  Christ cannot be blamed for the trouble we have believing in Him and receiving the precious gift of salvation.  The darkness is ours and with it all our fears.  But the miracle of it all is that Jesus came for that darkness, to shatter it with His light.   He came to meet our fears and bestow upon us the peace that passes understanding.

Unbelief is ultimately borne of weakness – the weakness that will say anything but God be merciful to me a sinner... the weakness that cannot save us but can certainly keep us from the Savior who can save us...  the weakness that insists upon credit for at least trying but finds it too hard to admit by grace, through faith, in Christ alone.  Unbelief is weakness but that weakness is strong enough to close us off from God's grace.

Once so long ago a people thought they knew Jesus but they knew little of Jesus and even less of themselves.  They rejected Jesus because they rejected their own need of a Savior.  They refused to believe in a God who had to come to them and put Himself in their place even to death on a cross and save them. 

Those who rejected Jesus were condemned not by Jesus but by their own unrepentance and the utter failure of their own good works to do them any good.  Greeks complained that Jesus made no sense.  Jews complained that Jesus did not do the mighty signs th   at would have made them believe.  The friends and family of Jesus complained that it was simply too much to believe that Jesus was God incarnate, God in flesh and blood – all except for Mary, of course, who heard the Word of God, pondered it in her heart, and believed that it would be as God had said.

Today we remember James.  James came around.  All the Word of the Lord Jesus spoke and the Spirit working in that Word broke down the barriers of His heart, convicting him of his sin and building faith to trust Christ alone.  James was a sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ and saved by grace. James lived no gilded life.  He met Paul and Peter in the midst of controversy in the Council of Jerusalem and tradition tells us he died a martyr's death.  The miracle of His life is the faith that the Spirit worked and the redemption that came as undeserved gift to a sinner who was unworthy of any of it.  But Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

Five boys met the Lord in the miracle of water and the Word.  They came with nothing in their hands and no righteousness to offer.  And Christ was pleased to meet them there where He has promised and to give them what they did not deserve.  Just as He came for you, working through the Word upon your ears to establish faith in your hearts, with the splash of baptismal water to make you clean and the taste of His flesh in the bread and His blood in the cup to feed you to eternal life. 

Sometimes things come into clearer focus.  Questions like why we are here?  What is the Church about?  What is our mission?  What do our tithes and offerings actually do?  Today it is all made a little clearer.  Today we leave behind our excuses, and lay down our protestations.  Christ did not come for the righteous but for sinners.  Not to be understood but to save.  Not to reward the good but to offer hope to the flawed, failed, and broken.  Not to get something from us but to give us what cannot be purchased, won, or earned.  Christ Jesus came to save sinners.  This was the scandal that Nazareth refused, the stumbling block for James, and the hill the Holy Spirit climbs before our hearts rejoice in this Gospel

Christ Jesus came to save sinners.  And where sinners confess their sins, trust in the healing power of His blood, refuse the temptation to unpack or explain the mystery, and meet Him upon the solid ground of His Word and Sacraments, Jesus is still there saving sinners from their sins, rescuing them from their death, and restoring them to the Father.  He comes for little boys in mother's arms and holding daddy's hands at the font.  He comes for pastors with feet of clay.  He comes for folks like you. 

James was once not so sure to make of Jesus.  But Jesus knew exactly what James needed.  Nazareth was sure - Jesus was a carpenter’s son and not the Son of God.  By the Holy Spirit James came to faith.  Today with James of old, the saints of every generation, the newest who join us at the font, we cry out to Jesus.  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  Amen.

Baleful music. . .

[In the church Christians] find delight not in the baleful [evil intentioned] songs sung by theatrical performers, songs which lead to sensual love, but in the chants of the Church.  Here we hear the voices of the people singing in harmony the praises of God.    -- St. Ambrose
There are those who insist that all music is neutral and all equally suited for use in the church and for the faithful.  They would suggest that text is what distinguishes music -- not its form but its content and words.  It is a common thought today.  We have had everything from polka masses to jazz masses to folk masses to U2charists.  Our people listen to Christian music in a whole variety of genres -- if not in church, then on radio, iPods, computer, and the like. So what is the big deal?  Christian rap is differentiated from chant on the common basis of what the words say, right?

Although it is unpopular to suggest otherwise, not all musical forms are equally suitable for worship.  Some forms inescapably are locked into sensuality in which words are secondary to the sound of the music itself.  Some forms of music have not only an appeal in lyric but in sound to that which is, as St. Ambrose suggested, evil intentioned.  Sensuality is sensuality whether the subject is virtuous or wicked.  When the sound is what drives the music, no words can fully redeem or even overcome the impression of the sound or the form.  Such sensuality is directed to the self and sees the role of music as a liberating force from the imprisonment of self or self-control.

The music of the Church appeals not to sensuality but to the Word, to the Gospel itself, and sings the story of God's redemptive work both in preparing for and then delivering up His own Son as Savior and Redeemer.  Josef Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, put it this way in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
In liturgical music, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation. Ultimately, it rises up out of the love that responds to God's love made flesh in Christ, the love that for us went unto death.
The music of the Church is not performance music but music in service to the Word, as Luther oft described it, the handmaiden of the Word.  It has not agenda of its own but only serves the Word -- both to communicate this Word to the hearer and to allow the hearers to speak with one voice in confession of this Word before the Lord (and the world).  It is not a competition of styles that we face but the confusion about music's very purpose and how music is to be used.  Again, from The Spirit of the Liturgy:
That is why singing in the liturgy has priority over instrumental music, though it does not in any way exclude it. It goes without saying that the biblical and liturgical texts are the normative words from which liturgical music has to take its bearings. 
The music Christians inherited was Psalm singing.  Early on Christological hymns were added -- some of which became the ordinary of the mass (Gloria in Excelsis).  Some are even alluded to in St. Paul (Philippians: At the name of Jesus. . . ).  Gregorian Chant was the first fully developed form exclusively born from and designed for worship.  Polyphonic music added to this and introduced instruments into more prominence but as support for both text and melody and not in competition for the stage or the mind of the hearer.  Attempt was made to distinguish liturgical music, the music of worship, from religious music which is neither directed to the mass nor designed for it.  It would be good for us to retain that careful distinction. Another quote from The Spirit of the Liturgy:
Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos. If we want to know whom we are dealing with, the Holy Spirit or the unholy spirit, we have to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to say, "Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor 12:3). The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with logos, a form of that logiké latreia (reason-able, logos-worthy worship) of which we spoke in the first part of this book." (p 151) 
Finally, silence is itself a part of the mass and daily office.  Living in a world in which music and sound dominates our lives, the music of the liturgy exists within silence that is not in opposition to the music but, like the appropriate music, a constitutive part of that Divine Service.  It is almost impossible to escape the sound of something -- from TV to radio to iPod to traffic -- we are immersed in sound.  Perhaps we do this because we think it important to make our presence known and felt.  We dominate by shattering the stillness with organized or impromptu noise.  Silence is not merely a pause between musical selections, silence is its own positive force allowing us to consider the reflect upon the Word that has touched our ears and hearts in speech and song and, by the power of the Spirit, is even now accomplishing the Lord's bidding.  And that is an appropriate place to end -- for it is the Lord's bidding that is at the heart and center of the music of the Church.  It is not program or tool for its own glory or for the goals and outcomes of the one making this music but always the domain of the Lord both in focus and in outcome.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Awkward hands. . .

Having had a couple family weddings in the last year, I am familiar a bit with staged photographs.  It is clear from what I have seen that hands remain a problem for folks.  What to do with them, that is.  I still recall my mother telling me as a boy to get my hands out of my pockets.  I wish a few folks on those photos had heard her voice and remembered what she said.  We are often in a quandary over what to do with our hands -- do they belong in our pockets, at our sides, clasped. . . where do they go?  I know a few folks who should probably put their hands in their pockets no matter what my mom would say.  They are dangerous hand talkers and their hands are literally all over the place -- all over you if you are not quick!

We say that idle hands are the devil's workshop.  Speaking again of pictures, how many shots have been spoiled by someone's lame attempt at humor and some finger horns placed above somebody else's head?  Hands can get us into more than a little trouble.  Ask anyone who has been caught red-handed, so to speak, with the goods they did not pay for!

When someone is not so mechanically inclined, we often described them as unhandy while the one who does well with tools is called a handy man.  Hands are good things even if they sometimes get us into trouble.  No where are we more troubled with what to do with our hands than in worship.  Even the pastors sometimes find themselves awkwardly trying to figure out what to do with hands that seem either out of place or uncomfortable no matter how you hold them.  It is one of the reasons I long ago went to the classic fingers and palms touching pose of prayer for all those moments in the liturgy when the place of our hands is left unspecified.  Without this practice it is a great temptation to either organize things (hymnal, bulletin, etc...) or wring my hands unconsciously.  It is a small discipline to keep them together and focus on other things. I wish more of us felt the need to solve the problem of what to do with our hands.  Some of us feel the constant need to do something with them -- anything -- and it is nothing but distracting for those folks around us.

Often we might describe someone as working with their hands.  My dad certainly did this.  He was a plumber, electrician, and HVAC man who owned a hardware store for 58 years.  He worked with his hands though not only his hands.  We as Christians also work with our hands.  Our hands joined in prayer symbolize part of the work of the baptized, our calling or vocation.  We are called by God to pray not only out of need but out of concern for the people and things of value to our world.  Prayer is part of the baptismal vocation, the right use of God's name is, after all, to call upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  The children of Israel may have lifted hands in prayer, we fold them as we endeavor to so the same thing -- to pray.

Emotions find their way into our hands -- from the fist gripped in anger or fear to the open palm extended in welcome to dancing hands of a happy heart.  You see this also in the way pastors hold their hands at certain points in the Divine Service -- extended, folded, uplifted, etc...  I guess I am just old fashioned enough to wish that more pastors were taught to fold their hands in the classic position of prayer throughout the liturgy.  Hands can be distracting.  If it is a good discipline to teach our children, it is good enough for us to practice also.  Hands give us subtle and some not so subtle messages.  It is good when our hands before us reflect the posture of heart and mind -- especially within the Divine Service.

1 Timothy 2:8 - I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.  Psalm 63:4 - Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.  Luke 24:50 - And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.  Ezra 9:5 - And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the LORD my God. . .

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Passion is overrated. . .

While talking to a group of people helping their congregation sort through the call process and elect a pastor, I heard them often speak of the desire to find out what the candidate's passion was.  It was as if this was the defining key to the individual and would thus give them the information they needed to figure out who was the magic man to be their shepherd.

I did not say anything at the time but it has since bothered me more and more.  The whole idea of a person's passion as that which defines them is a false one.  Now I am not saying I do not have passion, but my passions are hardly the lens through which I make sense.  In fact, just the opposite, I fear my passions only confound and confuse who I am.  For in most cases, my passions are not the faithful steeds who pull me to greatness but the rebellious stallions who must be controlled and kept under bit and bridle or they will undo me.

That does not mean that all passion is sin but that passion itself is dangerous.  Passion is impetuous and indulgent.  It skews the values we should assign to certain things and tends to turn life upside down by our new found want or desire.  Passion is more than anything else the pursuit of happiness (or pleasure, if you can separate that from happiness).

We live in an age in which we are told not to settle for a job but to find a place to pursue your passion (and one hopefully that will pay you extremely well to go after what makes you happy).  But what about all those unpleasant jobs that must be done?  Are there people whose passion really is snaking out a plugged up drain or spraying for pests and varmints or looking at people's diseased feet and rear ends?  Life is filled with things that have nothing to do with anyone's passion but they are still worthy things that must be done.  No parent relishes changing a baby's blow out mess in a diaper which has barely contained the toxic substance but this, too, is part of parental vocation.

Don't ask what the pastor's passion may be.  You don't want a pastor who has only passion.  You need a pastor who may not do all things well or with equal enthusiasm but who does them all -- from preaching to teaching to administering the sacraments to visiting the sick to burying the dead to catechizing the youth and those new to the faith, etc...  What happens if your pastor's passion is really video games?  Or golf?  Or fishing?  You had better hope that he has something more than passion and it would help if he had some self-control or do you plan on paying him to play video games, tee up on the green, or haul in a prize walleye?

Truth told, we would all be better off with a pastor who in most things is average but who has a strong sense of duty and self-control.  Passion is overrated.  Consistency and constancy is underrated.  The people were following the typical path of trying to find out who is the real guy behind the personal information forms they received but they were mistaken.  We are not defined by our passions.  We are characterized by the things we do not want to do but we make ourselves do over and over again because they need to be done -- the messy, dirty, unpleasant but essential things to life and work.

The sad truth is that our passions are usually for things that do not matter all that much.  We have a passion for social media but it has not satisfied our desire for friendship and we are online but still lonely.  We have a passion for pleasure but the shape of this pleasure seems to be solitary games on smartphones and tablets and computers as well as porn that substitutes for true love.  We have a passion for self but the cost of such self-centeredness is often the pursuit of anything more than the feeling and whim of the moment.  The reality is that your dream job may only ever be a dream, that your perfect spouse may not exist in flesh and blood, that your passions are better the good things that you must learn to value more than innate instincts and desires.

Passion is overrated.  Steadfastness under pressure and in the face of unpleasantness is underrated in church and home and life.  It is just as dangerous to talk about faith as passion or it may be as distant from us as the unfulfilled dreams that occupy our idle moments.  If we only go to church when we feel like it, we will not go at all.  If we do not pray except when we cannot avoid the urgency or when we really want to pray, we will never pray.  If we take personal devotion time only when we have the time or the desire, our spiritual lives will grow stale and sterile.  If we read Scripture only when we are passionate about it, the cover will gather dust.  Passion is overrated.  Force yourself to do what is good and right and salutary and pray the Lord that these may become your new and true passions.

Friday, October 21, 2016

What's upstairs???

It is certainly a common perception of life as having two dimensions -- a physical realm in which objectivity and concrete things live and an upper storey that possesses spiritual reality.  At one point in history this idea of a two-storey universe had as its upstairs the realm of religion and, specifically, Christianity.  It was the common idea that united Europe when the Roman Empire fell and it was the almost universal realm of the Church until the Reformation.

The lower storey was the arena of work and family life, sort of a first article domain.  The upper storey was the domain of values that attached to things physical and concrete but did not derive from them.  As long as there was some sort of commonly ascribed upper storey, the various differences of race, ethnicity, and vocation were not threatening and, in fact, were drawn together.  When a common religion could not be replaced by another common system of values, then we were left with more troublesome contradictions to deal with in the physical realm.  When the same secular identity of the first storey became the criteria also of the second storey, the whole thing began to fall apart.  What modernity has been doing slowly at first and then with more rapidity is the bleaching out of positive values and religious identity to make both the lower and the upper storey values neutral and religion free.

The outcome of this has left our culture with a mass of contradictions and the inability to resolve them.  The the aftermath of his erosion of common values and religion has left us with conflicting truth and values that divide us and leave it to the politicians to bridge the gaps -- between individual liberty and the common good, religious liberty and politically correct vocabulary that attempts to silence even religious disagreement, and the new values of personal expression and diversity that had no precursors in the old, more homogenous world-view that went before. So something had to replace values and religion.
In place of values and religion, the upper storey has become dominated by psychology, the pop psychology variety which appeals to intangible things like feelings, desires, and wants.  The non-sacramental world that has replaced the poles of sacramental reality and ethical certainty has left us merely a collection of individuals whose individual consciousness now defines and orders our whole sense of what is real and good. Reality has become a psychologized notion in which the supreme values are assigned to ideas, thoughts, desire, and feelings (personal expression) instead of an objective deity and external notions of right and wrong, virtue and vice, truth and falsehood.

Personality has come to define all things in a world where nominalism is its organizing and governing philosophy.  The only and all-surpassing good is self-expression and freedom must be adjusted to allow this self-expression without hindrance (except in the most extreme cases of harm).  Our modern world has become a global network of “relationships” or affiliations, formal and informal, real and virtual.  We use this web of relationships as the means of finding our own personal value among those who value us. It is no surprise, then, that the “experience” of a person's gender is more important than the actual biology of one’s gender, that this is a fluid reality because it is based upon feelings and desire more than upon physical reality, and that this is the greater defining characteristic of who we are than nearly anything else. Marriage then has less to do with sex, children, or even love and becomes a consensual attraction and affirmation of a psychological relationship tied to the goals of personal happiness and self-expression than it does with any traditional sense of the union of a man and a woman.

We look in vain to find a way to reconcile the substitution of psychology with values and faith.  Though some have sought to join these together, the end result has always been that God has become merely an idea, religion condensed to sentiment, and the moment the defining factor in both doctrine and morality.  In the past we wondered who was upstairs.  Now we are no longer at all convinced that any personal being is there and so we are left to wonder what is upstairs -- the what of feeling, thought, desire, and idea.  In such a reality, there is little reason to argue over specificity since nothing can be known or proven on any factual or real level.  Coexist becomes the only path and, if hope endures, that coexist will become a more single and ordinary principle giving expression to the triumph of self.

The problem with this, of course, is that Christianity does not know a two storey universe.  It knows only one domain, the seen and unseen, in which the Father created all things, the Son has come in flesh to rescue, redeem, and restore what was lost to the Father, and the Spirit engenders both the awareness and faith in this saving act and instills the desire for communion with the Father and life ordered according to His will.  My point is that compromise will gain us nothing in a worldview that has eradicated God and truth and replaced it with feelings, desires, ideas, and pleasure.  We can do only one thing:  proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Getting what we deserve. . .

The temptation before us is great.  We Lutheran pastors stand before the altar armed with just enough liturgical theology and history to be dangerous and enough freedom grounded in the ever present appeal to adiaphora to be destructive.  The liturgy and the hymnal become for us mere tools, or better, suggestions upon which we are free to build our own authentic service.  Instead of the guiding force of tradition, we are enslaved to the promise of relevance.  We seek not a mystical encounter with the Mighty God through the means of grace but something the people will deep meaningful.  We proceed to treat worship as if it were merely one of the many programs we are accustomed to running and we judge its success based upon outcomes.

That is the temptation of Lutheran pastors but we are not alone.  Every age and every group and every individual who has sought to reform or just tinker with the liturgy has faced the same enticement to treat the liturgy the way science treated the broken body of Col. Steve Austin in the old Bionic Man series.  As good as our work may be, it lacks the one thing that the liturgy has -- the test of time and history.  It has withstood the test of many eyes and many hands and proven its endurance.
"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful and which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones."  Thomas Merton

The fruits of our many meddlings into the shape and text and melodies of worship are not good.  We have lost any sense of liturgical unity -- note I am not saying uniformity.  We do not all know the same words, the same ordo, or the same songs of the liturgy.  Nowhere is this more apparent that when planning for large gatherings in our church body.  We end up with a forced minimalism because we know that a certain number, perhaps even a significant number, of our people will be unfamiliar with the liturgy we choose.  Because we really do not want to learn the liturgy or its setting at the same time we gather for larger events (think Synod Convention), we tend to hymn settings of the Divine Service instead of sung or chanted liturgy.  We may even speak the entire service except for the hymns in an effort to get all of us on the same page.

Second, we have lost a connection to our own past, to the people of our past, and to our very identity as people walking together.  Not your grandfather's church has come to mean the abandonment of the very things that once characterized what it meant to be Lutheran.  So our creations tend to distance us or even cut us off from our ancestors who once confessed with us the same faith we claim today.  This may not seem significant but when we continue this from one generation to another it effectively isolates us from each other and prevents more than a single generation from participating in the Sunday morning service.  We already have enough division due to preference of time or "style" but to divide us according to age or generation imposes a division we need not create.

Third, we have failed to acknowledge that there will be those who come after us.  We do not bequeath to them anything more than "well, this is what we did" and we leave them on their own to invent what has already existed and to develop outside of the tradition of faith and life what is our tradition.  It would be as if we abandoned every ordinary thing of life and said to the generation to come "you figure it out."  From creed to confession to liturgy, we almost require those who come after us to start from scratch and figure out what works for them without the benefit of any guidance from the past or any help from the present.

Finally, we must ask ourselves how much of our liturgical invention proceeds not from an enlightened sense of what worship is but just the opposite -- a poverty both of information and desire?     Merton again:  [Because they do not] understand the treasure they possess they throw it out to look for something else ....   Let me given an analogy.  An aunt of mine passed away and her house was a treasure trove of photos, newspaper articles, and family trinkets.  However, when her sons got around to cleaning out her house, they tossed nearly everything.  They did not see the significance of most of it, did not value much of it, and so they simply got rid of it.  They were sure of one thing, if they did not see why to keep it, they were sure no future generations would see the value of those things either.  Sadly, they were correct.  If we do not see the value of these things, it is certain that those who come after us will not either.

From Robert Taft, S. J.:

For over a century now the Christian Churches, first of the West, then also of the East, have been preoccupied with liturgical renewal, under the influence of what is known as “The Liturgical Movement,” a worldwide effort dedicated to making Christian liturgy better. But good liturgy is liturgy that glorifies God and sanctifies those glorifying him, and that is his gift to us, not ours to him. For we can glorify God only by accepting the unmerited gift of sanctification he freely gives us. If it is God who does it, how could it be better? It could be better from our side, for we too have a part in the liturgy, which is neither magic nor unconscious. So God’s part would better achieve its aim if we would drink more fully from the saving waters he offers us in the liturgy via a participation that would be more active, more conscious, more communal.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Righteous Judge. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 22, Proper 24C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, October 16, 2016.

    Very rarely are Jesus' parables as straightforward as this one.  From the very beginning we're told it's meaning: always pray and don't lose heart (Lk 18:1).  Hearing this parable, we're to follow the example of the widow, we're to be persistent in our prayers.  But why?  Is it because persistence pays off?  Is it because if we continually pray and come before God pleading our desire every day God will give it to us?  NO!  This isn't why our Lord tells us to be persistent.  We're persistent in our prayers because our Judge is righteous and He always give justice to His elect.  It's because of who our Judge is that we don't lose heart.     
I.    The widow in the parable had been wronged and she sought out justice from a judge.  However, this judge didn't have the upright kind of character that we expect judges to have. He was an unrighteous man and "neither feared God nor respected man" (Lk 18:2).  He had no moral bone in his body; he didn't care about what was right or wrong, he didn't care if justice was served or not...he only cared for himself. 
And because of this, he ignored the widow's plea.  He refused to give her justice.  But she wouldn't give up.  The routine of pleading and refusing went on for a while, until finally the judge had it.  He gave in and performed his duty.  He gave her justice; not because it was the right thing to do or because he had a change of heart, but because he got tired of the widow nagging him.  
Hearing this parable, our sinful natures' first inclination is to interpret it as a lesson on the power of prayer and how to get what we want.  We see how the widow got her desired justice by being persistent in her plea.  So, we think to ourselves, "If I pray hard and long enough, just like this widow, then God will relent and give me what I want."  But this is a wrong and even sinful view of prayer.  This makes prayer a self-indulgent endeavor, no different than the whining of a child who kicks and screams in a toy store, pestering his parents until he gets the toy he wants.  This thinking twists the gift of prayer into a way of strong arming our Father into giving us what we want.
That fact of the matter is that we can't rightly pray on our own.  Our sinful nature, our Old Adam only knows how to pray for what he wants.  Left to ourselves, we pray for all the wrong things, the things of our fleshly sinful desires. 
But we're not alone in prayer.  The Holy Spirit is with us, teaching us what to pray for, teaching us to pray for daily bread, for deliverance from evil, for forgiveness of sins.  The Holy Spirit helps us to continually pray for justice against our adversaries: the world, the devil, and our sinful nature.
This trio of adversaries beats us down.  They put the weight of temptation, sin, and guilt on our backs.  The world provides us with ample temptations to sin.  Television and the internet, society and culture, our jobs and careers, even our friends and families lead us to sin.  They lead us to think, say, and do things that break God's holy commands.  They lead us to fear, trust, and love things other than God.  And our sinful nature is more than willing to comply.  We easily give in because our Old Adam wants to.  Then, once we give in, Satan attacks us with guilt.  He convinces us that we're all alone in our sin, that there's no hope.  He leads us into despair, telling us that God can't love sinners like us. 
These adversaries attack all the time, day and night; and there's nothing we can do about it, except pray.  We pray with the help of the Spirit, coming day and night to God, crying out for justice from our righteous Judge (LK 18:7), pleading Him to avenge us against our adversaries.
II.    The judge in the parable wasn't a good judge.  He delayed in helping the widow.  He had no desire for justice; and yet, even though he was unrighteous, he still gave her justice.  Christ, through this parable, is teaching us about God's character.  He does this by contrasting it with the unrighteous judge's character.  Jesus said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says.  And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them?" (Lk 18:6-7).  Of course not!  Of course God will give justice to his elect, because He is righteous.
    God desires justice, that's His will.  He cares about what's right and wrong.  He's the righteous Judge who can't tolerate lawlessness.  Because of His righteous character, He must punish those who sin against Him and His perfect law.  Those who hurt others and don't respect man, those who care only for themselves and who don't fear God, they must receive their punishment.  They must be repaid for their sin.   The wages of sin is death, sinners must receive their death sentence.  This is justice.  In order for justice to be served, sinners must die...and this includes you and me.
Each and everyone of us is a sinner; we're like the unrighteous judge who doesn't fear God nor respect man.   Our sin is our sinful prayers.  When we think we can strong arm God into giving us what we want, this shows we don't fear Him.  When we pray only for the things we desire and want, instead of the needs and wellbeing of our neighbor, this shows we don't respect man. 
The Righteous Judge demands death for our sins.  But God is also  gracious and merciful, and in this mercy, He sent His only Son to serve this death sentence for you.  Jesus, the God-man, sinless and perfect, died the death that sin requires.  Christ our Savior willingly took your death upon Himself, and with His death, justice was served.  Christ took your guilty verdict and you're declared innocent.  With His death, God gives you forgiveness and you're avenged against your adversaries.
  The unrighteous judge delayed in giving justice, your Righteous Judge doesn't.  When you come to Him, pleading for justice, He's there with the forgiveness that overcomes your sin; He's there with the innocent verdict that takes away your guilt; He's there with the death and resurrection of His Son that defeats Satans.  Through the words of His Gospel, through the waters of His Baptism, through the Meal at His Table, your Righteous Judge gives you justice.  And this justice preserves you as you stand against your adversaries.
III.    We have justice through Christ our Lord right now, but we don't always see it.  Our adversaries continue to torment us.  We still suffer from their attacks, and because of this, it's easy to lose heart, to give up the faith, to stop praying to the Lord.  But we mustn't.  We must be like the widow who persevered in her prayer.  She never lost heart in her pursuit for justice even though it seemed like she'd never get it.  At times, it seems like we won't receive justice.  The world continually tempts us; the devil never rests in his pursuit of pulling us away from God; and our sinful nature is always with us.  But God doesn't delay in giving justice.  It's already been served in Christ.  And because of this, we don't lose heart.  We come before our Righteous Judge, knowing He hears us, giving us justice. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we persevere and stay strong in the faith.  We continue to stand up against our adversaries, we continue to come before God, because He is gracious and merciful and He's provided justice in Christ.  In Jesus' name...Amen.

Could sleep require more faith that even being awake. . .

There are those who say growing old is not for sissies.  It isn't, to be sure, and I am beginning to find the truth in those words.  There are also those who say they would not know how to make it through  the day without faith.  I know what they mean.  Every urgent ring of the phone, every headline news story that insists upon our attention, and every minor brush with death that accompanies life all point us to the arms of Him who is our refuge and strength.  It does take faith to live (unless you are content to live as a gnat in a room full of lights).

As much as these are true, the sleep at the end of the day that our bodies need and our minds yearn to enjoy is also an act of faith.  Sure, it does require faith to live but we live in possession of our reason, understanding, strength, and will.  We have choices to make and actions to take that too often mitigate against the idea of living on pure faith.  But when we lay our heads on the pillow at night, we surrender the powers of reason, understanding, strength, and will and we entrust all to God.  It is the ultimate act of faith for certainly none of us knows when we close our eyes in sleep that we will wake up the next day. Every night is therefore an anticipation of the day when can never know for certain, of the last day we no more will awaken here on earth, and when our lives can no more be improved or salvation worked out with fear and trembling.

I love the night hymns and the evening prayers that meet this rest and its uncertain future with the hope and confidence of St. Paul -- whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.  It takes faith to live but I wonder if it does not take even more faith to rest, to sleep, and not to know for certain what the end of that sleep will be.

Luther has taught us to pray:  I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night.  For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.  Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.  Amen.

We also pray:  O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with Your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with Your grace and goodness, with Your holy Word ad Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever.


Merciful Father, whose guiding hand has brought us to the completion of this day, we humbly pray You to stay with us and shelter us in quiet hours of this night that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this passing world, may rest in Your changeless peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Gracious Lord, we give You thanks for the day, especially for the good we were permitted to give and to receive. The day is now past, and we commit it to You. We entrust to You the night and rest in Your peace, for You are our help, and You neither slumber nor sleep. Hear us for the sake of Your name.

Lighten our darkness, O Lord, and by Your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Your only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We praise and thank You, O God, for You are without beginning and without end. Through Christ You are the creator and preserver of the whole world; but above all, You are His God and Father, the giver of the Spirit, and the ruler of all that is, seen and unseen. You made the day for the works of light and the night for the refreshment of our weakness. O loving Lord and source of all that is good, mercifully accept our evening sacrifice of praise. As You have conducted us through the day and brought us to night's beginning, keep us now in Christ; grant us a peaceful evening and a night free from sin; and at the end bring us to everlasting life through Christ, our Lord; through Him be glory, honor, and power to You in the Holy Spirit now and always forever and ever.

We praise and thank You, O God, through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, that You have enlightened us by revealing the Light that never fades. Night [is falling / has fallen], and day's alotted span draws to a close.The daylight which You created for our pleasure has fully satisfied us, and yet, of Your free gift, now the evening lights do not fail us. We praise You and glorify You through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord; through Him be glory, honor, and power to You in the Holy Spirit now and always and forever and ever.

Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in Your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Your only Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Eternal God, the hours both of day and night are Yours, and to You the darkness is no threat. Be present, we pray, with those who labor in these hours of night, especially those who watch and work on behalf of others. Grant them diligence in their watching, faithfulness in their service, courage in danger, and competence in emergencies. Help them to meet the needs of other with confidence and compassion; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with Your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with Your grace and goodness, with Your holy Word ad Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever.  Amen.

We pray when we go to bed, therefore, because sleep is itself an act of faith.  We pray that we will enjoy the rest and meet it with a clear conscience. We ask Almighty God to help us see what we have done well and to keep us from pride, to see what we have done badly and to forgive us, and to see what we could have done better that we may learn from it. We ask the Lord of all mercy to forgive our sins for the sake of Christ, our Lord.  Then we pray that if the Lord does grant us the gift of another day, we may glorify Him in it and if we do not receive another day, that we may be received into everlasting light and life through the merits and mercies of Christ alone.

Living does require faith.  But sleeping perhaps even more.  At least the good sleep that rests the mind and refreshes the body.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Faith is by nature wild. . .

The taming of faith is the constant endeavor of church and of the individual Christian.  We cannot have a faith that stares into the great mystery and simply believes.  Oh, no.  We must have logical and reasonable support for this thing called faith.  It can surely support our intuition and it can bless the reasoned pursuit of the unknown but faith cannot be allowed to contradict what logic or experience tells us.  We want faith but we want a tame faith, a faith that neither shocks nor confounds.  We want a faith that confirms both what we think and experience but we are not so sure about one which calls us to take the great leap into the realm of what our senses cannot know and our minds cannot comprehend.  We do this because we want a tame God as well.  One predictable and reasonable, with whom you can negotiate and who will compromise with us to achieve at least part of an intended end.

That said, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as the God who meets us in His incarnate Son is not this God.  He is wild and scary -- not because He is unpredictable but because He is.  He is a God of promise who keeps His Word.  He is a God of power -- not because we have no idea where that power will be shown but because we see that power displayed shockingly upon the cross.  He is a God of mystery -- not because we must unpack Him and engage Him to get to know Him but because His nature contradicts and confounds our sinful nature.  We meet Him on the ground of faith.  It is not where we would want to find Him but it is where He has come to us -- this wild and untamed God who bids us to depart from the safety and security of our senses, our reason, and our experience and then delivers to us His Spirit to lead us where we are not at all sure we want to go.

The Word of God is not tame -- it is wild.  It does what it says!  It is the living voice of the ever living God who died that we might live.  It is the address of a Good Shepherd who does not disdain His sheep but loves them even to His death.  It is no mere truth proposition but a lively Word that speaks and in speaking it acts to deliver the result the Holy Spirit speaker intends.  That God's Word is true is an easy enough thing to believe.  That God's Word is efficacious, that it delivers what it says and does what it promises.  Well, that is harder to believe.  Only the Spirit can bid our reluctant and fearful hearts to believe this.

Consider the ancient prayer before communion.  Lord, I am not worthy to receive You but only say the Word and I shall be healed...  Yes, only say the Word.  This is no tame God or toothless Lion but the God whose Word truly is a two edged sword and it does have the power to heal the sin sick soul and restore the lost to the life God intended.  The shocking thing in the Sacrament is not that the flesh of Christ is present in the bread or His blood in the cup but that it is given to us to eat and drink.  We repulse against this not because we have an aversion to flesh and blood but because no reasoned mind or thoughtful soul can comprehend a God who does this.

We speak of faith but it is not faith we seek.  We seek something that is weak and impotent but makes us feel better -- a creation of sentiment and sincerity.  That is not faith.  Faith always wavers on the balance beam of trust and doubt; it always requires the Holy Spirit and the infusion of God's grace and power to secure the fragile and weak trust.  Faith is always "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief."  Faith knows no other way.  Only whole and complete dependence upon the Lord.  Nothing in our hands we bring.

Our age is not so much troubled by the fear of God as it is the fear of faith.  We want a God, a deity who knows how to be a God.  We do not want a God who behaves contrary to expectation, who desires mercy and not sacrifice.  We do not want to believe if believing means that God is acting in His Word, if water is more than symbol or sign, or if bread and wine really convey the mystery of His flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sin.  We want a tame God, to be sure, but we want even more a tame faith -- one that does not require too much of us, that conforms the things of God to our reasonable expectations, and that does not require us to only believe.

The task of preaching is not simply to call us to faith but to remind us faith is wild and not tame, explosive and not quiet, transformative and not comfortable.  If only we had the faith the size of a mustard seed!  Even that is too much for a people afraid to risk all on mercy, on the God who suffers for His suffering, dies for the guilty, covers the shameful with righteousness, and rises to lead them beyond imagination into the heart of the mystery of God.  No, this kind of faith is even more frightening to the sin shaped heart that God Himself.