Tuesday, January 31, 2017

God's wisdom. . . your blessing. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 4A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, January 29, 2017.

We consider ourselves to be pretty smart.  Collectively, we humans have a vast amount of knowledge, of wisdom.  We think clearly and rationally about things (or at least we like to think that we do).  Together, there’s no problem we can’t fix...well, except for one...and that’s God.  I don’t mean to say that God is a problem.  The problem is that we can’t know God on our own.  Our smarts, our knowledge, our wisdom, they’re nothing when it comes to knowing God because to know Him is to have faith in Christ Jesus and His cross.  But these things are foolish to the world.

I.    We’re pretty smart, there’s no doubt about that.  Just look at all the impressive things we’ve been able to do.  Cars and planes; phones that are essentially supercomputers in our pockets.  Doctors have developed medicines and vaccines that treat and even cure deadly diseases.  All of this has been accomplished through reason, knowledge, and wisdom.

Our wisdom and reason are gifts from God, and we confess this in the Creed.  When we say “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,”what we’re saying is “I believe that God has made me, that He’s given me my body, soul, and reason.” These things are good gifts and we thank the Lord everyday for them.  But, even though our reason is a gift, we can’t use it to know God.  In the third article when we say “I believe in the Holy Spirit,”what we’re actually saying is “I can not by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” But why?  Why can’t we believe in Christ and know God based on our wisdom and reason if they’re gifts from Him?  Because we’re sinners and our wisdom is fallen.

Our wisdom is tainted by our sin.  It’s turned inwards, looking only at our thoughts and feelings, looking at what we see around us instead of looking towards God and His Word.  In our postmodern world that says truth is always only our opinion, we set ourselves up as the deciders of truth.  We look deep within ourselves to define the truth of our own reality.  And this is the problem.  In our sinfulness we set ourselves up in God’s place.  In sin, we make ourselves the all knowing one who knows good and evil, the one who knows how to fix the problem of sin.

So, what does our fallen wisdom tell us is the solution?  Good works, large offerings, being in church every Sunday?  Whatever it is, the solution can’t be Christ and the cross, because that’s foolishness, or at least that’s what the world wants you to believe.  Paul says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”(1Co 1:18).  The message of Christ crucified is a foolish message to the world because Christ died.  How can He be the solution to sin, how can He be the Savior of the whole world if He died a criminal’s death?  This is why the Jewish leaders mocked Jesus on the cross, and this is why the Greeks mocked Christians.  No one wants a God and Savior who dies.  Instead, we want a powerful and spectacular Savior, one who only does extraordinary things.

But thanks be to God that according to His wisdom God sent His Son to be our Savior, to be weak and to die on the cross, because this is exactly what we need.  Christ and His cross is the only solution for the problem of sin.  According to justice, sin must be paid for, and the only one who could make this payment is the sinless Christ Jesus.

In Micah, we hear the prophet rhetorically asking what God’s people should bring to the Lord in offering and sacrifice.  “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”(Mi 6:7).  This is exactly what God did for you.  There’s nothing you can offer or sacrifice to God to pay for your sin.  You can’t fix this problem...only God can.  God gave you His only Son to die on the cross, to take the punishment of sin, so that you would be released from it’s guilt.  This is God’s wisdom, and in this wisdom you’re blessed.

II.    In our Gospel today we hear the familiar words of the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’sake”(Mt 5:1-10).

 Jesus calls all of these people blessed.  But they don’t seem to be very blessed according to our fallen sinful worldly wisdom.  People who are blessed are the opposite.  They’re the ones who have an upbeat spirit, always happy, never depressed.  They’re the ones who have no reason to mourn.  They’re the strong, the ones who show no mercy and get want they want.  They’re the ones who never suffer any hardship or persecution.  They’re the ones living their best life now.  It’s crazy for us to consider someone blessed who’s poor in spirit, who’s mourning, who’s persecuted.  We look at them and we pity them because they appear weak and unhappy.  These people aren’t blessed, they’re in need...but this is exactly why they’re blessed.  These people are blessed because their need has been fulfilled.  They’ve received everything they need in Christ and His cross.

You’re are blessed because your need has been fulfilled by Christ.  Jesus’Beatitudes weren’t spoken to worldly people, they were spoken to His disciples, people who followed Him and trusted in Him for salvation.  Jesus’disciples are blessed, His believers are blessed, you’re blessed because you know your Savior and receive His salvation.  And this isn’t according to your wisdom, but according to God’s.  You know your Savior because you’ve been given faith in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

When we say “I believe in the Holy Spirit”we are saying “I can not by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” But this isn’t the end of our confession.  When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,”we’re also saying that “the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” You believe in Jesus Christ, You know God your merciful Father, because the Holy Spirit has given you faith.  Through the hearing of God’s Word that proclaims Christ Jesus our Savior, through the Sacrament of Baptism where God’s Word is joined to that water, you’ve received faith.  You know Christ your Lord, and the Holy Spirit keeps you in this godly wisdom as you continue to hear God’s Word and receive His Sacrament.

The wisdom of the world says the cross of Christ is foolish.  The wisdom of the world says the “people”of the Beatitudes aren’t blessed.  The world says you’re not blessed because you’re a Christian, but you are blessed.  Through the wisdom of God you and all the faithful are blessed in Christ Jesus because He gives you what you need, forgiveness and life everlasting.  His cross fixes the problem of sin.  No matter what your situation is, you’re blessed because of your Savior, and in faith, you continued to be blessed receiving His forgiveness, life, righteousness, and the joy of heaven.  In Jesus’name...Amen.

Like Christian Pornography?

No, I am not advocating for a Christian version of porn or even suggesting that something like that is possible.  I am wondering, however, if we do not already have a version of Christian pornography.  The realms of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), entertainment worship, piety rooted and fed by desire, and the health and wealth gospels and their purveyors have provided us with a false idea of what Christianity is -- just as false and addictive as pornography is in relationship to sex within the context of love, marriage, and children. Just as pornography is without love or real intimacy, so does this Christian "pornography" provide neither the divine love of the Word and Sacraments nor the real intimacy of water that washes the heart clean or of bread upon the lips and wine drunk down with the flesh and blood of Christ Himself.

Absent a real Jesus who is touched and tasted in objective forms or means, pop Christianity with its teary sentiment and doctrinal ambiguity offers Christ merely as an idea for the mind to comprehend or a feeling for the heart or a tool to be used in the practical pursuit of the desires of the flesh (no matter how noble sounding they might be).

This kind of a Christian "pornography" is as solitary as ear buds that stream in love songs purportedly to Jesus but sufficiently sensual to arouse desire and sufficiently similar to personal preference as to glorify me, myself, and I -- as much as Jesus.  Christian "pornography" is as individual as one set of eyes and sees what it wants to see and experiences the Gospel filtered through preference, subjective truth, and personal esteem -- and one that seems so blatantly selfish as to be the means to getting the marriage, children, job, happiness, and fulfillment I want.

Christian "pornography is a guilty pleasure for those who tell themselves the same lies as those who are addicted to the explicit portal of sexual images -- I can quit when I want to quit and I do not need these things.  Christian pornography has become the guilty pleasure of Lutheran and other liturgical Christians who know that this is not what Sunday morning is about but who have surrounded themselves with evangelical music, preaching, teaching, and piety Monday through Saturday.  Though we tell ourselves we can quite whenever we want, it is clear that many of us do not want to quit (or, could it be that we cannot?).

Sure, we know better, but though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak and we find it hard to wean ourselves from the soundtrack of love ballads to Jesus, of preachers who focus on getting what we want in the here and now more than eternity, and of doctrinal ambiguity that allows us to tailor a faith to fit us (more than we are transformed into the faith).  We have learned well to silence the conscience -- at least when it comes to CCM, entertainment worship, pop celebrity preachers and teachers, and a piety rooted in achieving the desires of our hearts.  From the personal playlist that blares into our ears from our phones, we hear the real soundtrack of our lives (no matter how hard we protest).  We are bi -- as rooted and planted in CCM and its evangelical identity as we are into Lutheran doctrinal and liturgical identity. We love our CCM, evangelical seeker worship, and our generic Christianity as much as we love being Lutheran (perhaps even more).

I have come to the unmistakable conclusion that it is impossible to be Lutheran in doctrine and practice and identity and still listen to the pop music of the generic Christian station,, listen to the pop purveyors of the health and wealth gospels, and believe that this represents "intimacy" with Jesus more than the water the kills and makes alive, the voice of absolution that speaks and sins fall away, and the bread and wine that feed us Christ's flesh and blood.  You cannot have it both ways.  Either you will love one and end up despising the other or you will end up lost and confused -- caught between a reality that is not real and a reality that must be approached by faith alone.  I have friends who insist that though they listen to the pop Christian soundtrack all week long and read all the popular books by the celebrity Christian authors, they still go to a Lutheran Divine Service and this is who they really are. I wish I could believe them.  For a while I believed this same lie.  I was wrong.  It has the same effect as pornography except that we grant it a legitimacy that porn never had. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Tinkering with liturgical text is tinkering with the faith. . .

So, guess what the Pope has been up to. . .

Pope Francis has ordered a review of “Liturgiam Authenticam,” the controversial decree behind the most recent translations of liturgical texts from Latin into English and other languages. The commission, established by the pope just before Christmas, is also tasked with examining what level of decentralization is desirable in the church on matters such as this.
Archbishop Roche, number two at the Congregation for Divine Worship and for 10 years chairman of the International Commission for English Language in the Liturgy, will chair this commission (bypassing its Chair, Cardinal Sarah, who has a more friendly posture to Liturgiam Authenticum).   The major difference between “Comme le Prévoit” (1969), which governed translation for the first liturgical books after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and “Liturgiam Authenticam,” which  determined the 2011 English translation of the Roman Missal “was that the Holy See in its directives opted for a shift of the guiding principle of translation from that of ‘dynamic or functional equivalence’ in 1969 to the principle of ‘formal equivalence’ in 2001.”  (According to Roche)

As I posted a while ago, the liturgy forms and defines us so that changing the words of the liturgy changes the faith and changes us as well.  Sometimes this is a good thing.  When we restore what was lost to an unfaithful or less than noble adjustment of the liturgy but it can also be a bad thing -- when the departure from the past is hastened and novelty replaces faithfulness.

Lutherans recall the Common Service of 1888 as a time of great restoration and a move that had profound consequences for the faith.  We also recall how the more radical changes of 1978/1982 had a different effect (creating more diversity on Sunday morning rather than less and inadvertently aiding and abetting the wholesale transformation of the liturgy into a fully local endeavor presided over by the local pastor and determined by personal preference.  Though this was not at all the intention of the revisions of ILCW, the end result only encouraged the kind of wholesale distance from our liturgical tradition that still creates tensions within and between Lutheran church bodies and fosters the idea that what happens on Sunday morning is primarily defined by personal preference.

Rome Catholics also know that changing the liturgy is changing the faith and so Benedict XVI's reform of the reform provided more consistency between the actual Latin and the English translation (more literal and less equivalence).  Francis knows that if he wants to leave his mark on the church, the most profound means is to change the liturgy.

Where have all the seminaries gone, long time passing?

So, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary is selling its campus and moving to another location in Berkeley, California, nearer the Graduate Theological Union.  No more dorms or classroom buildings or chapel.  Instead it will comprise a campus consisting of 20 offices, three smart classrooms, a student lounge and a sacristy. A large space will be filled with furniture that can be reconfigured for worship services, gatherings or study.

And then Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary announced their intent to reunite, renewing a promise that began 187 years ago.  For 129 years one institution and then for 58 years neighbors, now they will be one institution again.  Remember that Trinity was itself a union of Hamma and Lutheran Theological Seminary many years ago.

We already recounted the move from Lutheran Southern Seminary to a division of Lenoir-Rhyne College and the move to merge the ELCA seminaries in Philadelphia with Gettysburg and the sale of the Philly campus.  Before that Luther and Northwestern merged.  We already mentioned the strange circumstance of the elimination of daily chapel there.  In Chicago, Lutheran School of Theology works with McCormick and the Association of Chicago Theological Schools so that its identity is only somewhat distinct.

The seminaries of the ELCA are downsizing, merging, and providing seminary education for other church bodies and the numbers of students continues to decline.  Unlike the LCMS which has only had two seminaries -- both with a national constituency -- the ELCA has opted for regional seminaries.  The number and regional location were a bit confused after the merger in 1988 since both ALC and LCA schools became official seminaries of the merged church (Seminex deployed its faculty to a mixture of those schools and did not remain a separate entity).

In comparison to the average ELCA seminary, each seminary of the LCMS looks relatively healthy.  That, of course, does not deal with the LCMS situation of online education for some (SMP) and the fact that either campus could hold the combined enrollments of both.  Some are all for an LCMS realignment but I think it is healthy to have two schools (even if the way we fund them is inherently unhealthy and unsustainable).  Some also complain that both LCMS schools are located in the Midwest (St. Louis and Ft. Wayne) and these folks think that we could benefit from a salt water district location.  I am not so sure that is worth the cost and upheaval and vicarage should intervene to broaden some of that perspective.  Besides, though the culture is different, the faith is not (or should not be) and the job of the seminary is to teach the faith and not the local culture.  In this day and age, geography is less distinctive than the great division between rural and urban.

I have not even mentioned all the Lutheran seminaries who have simply closed or ceased to exist.  Their numbers would fill a paragraph.  That said, as Lutheran seminaries decline in number and the number of Lutheran seminarians also declines, the day is coming when a great number of active clergy in both major Lutheran denominations will hit retirement and the rate of graduates will not meet the need (at least for the short term).  Perhaps this also hits the whole question of what seminary education should look like for the future.  Note that PLTS is giving up a campus for a couple of smart classrooms.  Whether this is a smart move or not, remains to be seen.  I do find it ironic that there are those who plead for streamlining and reducing the content of seminary education because of cost and need -- all at a time when the challenges facing those graduates continue to grow (theologically, in numbers, and in financial viability of some congregations).  I maintain that, in the face of great challenges, we should not be reducing the curriculum or eliminating the time we spend with those seminarians before sending them out into a rapidly changing world.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Where indeed?

One of the great issues with Protestantism in general has been its disconnect with the ancient church.  I am not the source of this great insight, it has been and remains the issue that has left Protestantism both divided and confused as to the nature of the Church.  Peter Leithart, always a good read, The End of Protestantism, has recently brought up this disconnect -- as one of many who have noted that this remains the Achilles' heel of those churches born of the Reformation (especially the Radical Reformation).

As Lutherans we do not quite fit under the modern style label of Protestant but we feel the pain of this as well -- not in our Confessions which are thoroughly catholic in doctrine but certainly in our practice which is so often at odds with what we say.  Lutherans are not immune from the dangers of disunity and, strangely enough, often those with a liberal view of the faith have tended toward a more catholic worship life than those who are orthodox in doctrine.  It is much more likely that you will enter an LCMS or WELS congregation and find the Sacrament absent and the liturgy either truncated or missing entirely than is true of the ELCA (which generally follows the book).

It leads to an impossible question that is nonetheless worthy of our consideration.  Where would Luther go to church if he were alive today?  Would he recognize the sound of faithfulness from those conservative Lutheran voices and put up with worship so foreign to his own catholic experience and practice?  Or would he tolerate a faith often vacuous and trendy in order to find liturgical practice more in keeping with that of the Reformation and early Post-Reformation churches?  Or would he abandon Lutheran congregations and Protestantism in general to find a home in the Latin Mass of Rome so familiar to him or the Novus Ordo (perhaps with a more evangelical canon)?  This is no mere academic question or fanciful conjecture.  It goes to the heart and core of what the Augustana claims is the very hallmark of Lutheranism -- we have not departed from catholic doctrine or practice!

Even more modern day voices of Protestantism have wondered about this question.  "The great Athanasius, now in London or New York, would be found worshipping only at Catholic altars.  Augustine would not be acknowledged by any evangelical sect.  Chrysostom would feel the Puritanism of New England more inhospitable and dry than the Egyptian desert (p. 271, John Nevin's Early Christianity).  Where would the saints of old find their worship home?  You know their names, these giants of early Christianity, and you identify with their fight for orthodox confession, but where would you meet them on Sunday morning?  How do we reconcile the disconnect between orthodoxy in theory and practice which is all over the page?

To be sure, no Lutheran is at ease with Leithart's resolution of this disconnect or with the future orientation of the unity of the church as an evolutionary unity to come, born of the ruins of confessions (with their "shibboleths") and the renewed and reformed shape of creed and liturgy.  It is a dream to think that unity is worth anything if it comes at the cost of doctrinal specificity and, as scandalous as the divisions of Christianity are, no less scandalous is the doctrinal fuzziness and heresy that are daily encountered both on the level of national jurisdiction and local parish (in the broader view of Christianity in America). 

Protestantism remains in search of a suitable replacement for sacramental realism.  Some have replaced the sacraments with prayer as a means of grace and others have turned the moment of conversion with its requisite decision into the moment of greatest sacramental reality and unity with Christ.  Others have sought this assurance of God's presence in the spiritual gifts of a charismatic movement (on the wane but it has certainly left much in its wake) while still others have simply made feelings into that which validates faith, grace, and the presence of God.  Lutherans have the answer but seem to be forever forgetful of their own identity and sacramental vitality -- preferring too often to mirror the Evangelicals than to mine the riches of their own confessional, liturgical, and theological history and identity.

Let me say one thing with apology or equivocation -- if Luther would not walk into your church today and feel at home, you are not quite Lutheran!  If Athanasius or Augustine or Chrysostom would feel a stranger to the liturgy and preaching of your place, then there is a problem.  For the real issue with Protestantism in general has always been this -- they have disowned their fathers in the ancient church!  And the real issue for Lutherans is that we remember them in our hearts but that memory seems unlikely to inform who we are in practice (both the fathers and the Confessions!).  That is not to say Rome is in great shape or that Orthodoxy offers a panacea church without problem.  Both of those traditions face their own issues (Francis being a big one for Rome and jurisdiction and ethnicity being the twin peaks for Orthodoxy). 

As a Lutheran let me say this.  If we Lutherans spent half as much time knowing our own confession and ordering our practice to reflect that confession as we do peering over the fence to see what other churches are doing (especially Evangelicals), we would be in pretty decent shape.  As you can see around you, this does not appear to be something that will quickly resolve to the favor of our heritage and legacy anytime soon.  So, the battle for Lutheran identity will continue.  Lutherans, be who you are!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

No slippery slope. . . a precipice of apostasy. . .

Ten Canadian Catholic bishops took the unprecedented step of issuing guidelines and giving direction to priests in the face of assisted suicide in Canada.  These are not what you might think.  The bishops did not lay out an argument and a plan to resist and even condemn the choice of death.  Just the opposite, they took this practice and began to normalize it within the context of the faith.  They found commonality with this anti-life practice, even affirming that it may be permissible, perhaps even desirable, for a priest to anoint a Roman Catholic about to receive such a deliberate, self-willed, death-dealing dose of medication designed with only one purpose -- to end his or her life.

“Persons and their families, who may be considering euthanasia or assisted suicide and who request the ministry of the Church need to be accompanied with dialogue and compassionate, prayerful support.”  This is the first step -- support for those who are inclined to end their lives and compassion for them in their suffering.  These bishops go so far as to suggest that the person choosing assisted suicide is not "culpable" but vulnerable to his or her suffering.  They affirm the giving of the Sacrament of Holy Communion “to assist a person in growing in their union with Christ,” and in particular, Viaticum, or final communion, which “has a power of particular significance and importance as the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection.”  These bishops admit that Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins yet leave the door open "in ways known to God alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance" -- as much as assuring that the choice to end one's own life is morally acceptable from an earthly perspective and divinely redeemable from the heavenly perspective.

The bishops should have kept silent rather than give moral and faithful sanction to a process that has decided suffering is worse than death and death is a small price to pay to relieve it.  But they did not keep silent.  They took a stance which, though not exactly approving of the law of medically assisted suicide in Canada, has come as close as possible.  They have sacrificed the pro-life stance of their own church in order to appear to be compassionate and understanding to those who live with chronic pain and whose suffering will not end except in death.  The presumption is that this is an incredibly complex issue facing the church and the individual priest and it is hard to navigate the path to an appropriate response.  What this ends up saying is that the issue is too opaque to be considered simply within the framework of ordinary morality, right and wrong, and ethical truths that do not change.  If this is not a door to official sanctioned situational ethics, I do not know what is.

Honest and faithful pastoral care for souls begins with knowing Him who is the Creator of every soul, with knowing His good and gracious will, and knowing what He has done to redeem the world from sin and its death. Honest and faithful pastoral care acknowledges and is attentive to the plight of suffering, and manifests a certain tenderness, patience, and compassion with those who suffer. But no honest and faithful pastoral care suggests or gives tacit approval to the idea that the suffering is itself worse than death and justification for ending life.  There is no “gospel” to mercy without judgment, to grace without truth, or to ministry that remains passive when the great issue of the sacredness of life lies in the balance in the face of a tilt toward the sufferer and his or her own judgment.

Every pastor knows he is no grand wizard to end suffering or explain it so that it makes sense to the sufferer.  We cannot end suffering and this is not our ministry or our calling. What we can do and what we are called to do is to place the suffering and the sufferer within the veil of Him whose suffering has born the ultimate fruit of mercy, forgiveness, life, and salvation and to hold up the Suffering Servant of God as our strength and help in greatest weakness and pain.  Our Lord's suffering was greater than any and all our suffering and yet He willingly endured it for the sake of those who would be redeemed by that suffering.  For His sake, we endure and we are sustained by His grace in the midst of our suffering -- both that which comes because we are His own and that which is the result of a world of sin whose effects will not be fully undone until the resurrection of the faithful.  The message of Scripture is clear -- we suffer as those

Suffering is not new to us but the technology is new to end life quickly and "painlessly" (can death ever be rendered mute by claiming it is painless).  The suffering of those who suffer is not hidden from God.  They are not without His gracious favor even in the midst of their pain.  As St. Peter reminds us: 
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And
       “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Everybody can read; but nobody is paying attention. . .

Literacy is a good thing.  We have highly prized the ability to read and write (and think).  We depend upon it.  Now that our lives revolve around keyboard in some form or another, literacy is key to nearly everything we do.  And it seems that world literacy is higher now than it has been ever -- especially in developed nations but also in undeveloped.  The problem is not with the literacy end of the spectrum but in our ability to concentrate on what we read, recall it, and transform it into that is actionable.  This is down -- way down!  In fact, as the New York Times put it, we now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish!  This, from a newspaper which used to pride itself on the length of its stories and the number of trees that had to be harvested to make possible its vast number of pages!

It seems that many of us have forgotten how to read and a fourth of all Americans have not picked up and read through a single book in the last twelve months.  We are masters at manipulating our fingers (especially thumbs) but this manual dexterity seems to have had an accompanying side effect of numbing our mind.  How does this work?  With posting on forums, writing on the walls of Facebook, texting and tweeting increasing at exponential rates, why is it that we find ourselves hard pressed to pay attention to a book long enough to actually read it -- from cover to cover?

We are buying books at a high rate and some of us, fewer than in the past, are reading them, but apparently cliff notes are too in depth for our pathetically short attention spans.  So are we really into books or into the appearance of them?  Much is made of digital format books -- from Kindles to the books on our iPads -- but the problem is that the form cannot make up for a lack of interest in or the inability to remain focused long enough to actually get that content into our heads.  In the past there were always visual learners but this is kind of crazy!

Eight seconds.  That is what a recent survey by Microsoft concluded was the average attention span of an American now is.  Eight seconds. . . not much longer than it takes to read this sentence.  It has dropped by one third since 2000.  By 2050 we will be in deficit territory and someone will need to tell us our names just so we know who we are!

All of this is a grave problem for a people of the Book.  All of this is a serious issue for a church believing in catechesis, that knowledge drawn from the Book is worth knowing and growing into.  All of this is a major concern for a Gospel that proclaims the Word made flesh.  We may soon be ditching catechisms and turning its content into the latest and greatest video games -- just to be able to communicate the faith to a generation that does not pay attention, has trouble recalling what they read, and may not remember how to use what they read, if they read it at all.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Don't get religion???

I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.  From an interview with Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the New York Times, with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. . . 
We don't get religion.  I get that.  I think that this is typical of most media outlets because, as surveys have shown, media personnel tend to be less religious than the average American (at least based upon church attendance).  I wish it were a simple matter of education that could correct the media errors when it comes to religion in America.  The problem is larger than this.  The minds of the media elite and the skeptics finds it unimaginable to believe what reason or science cannot confirm.  For too many of those in the media and among the powerful elite in our country, religion is a mystery not because of what the particular faith may say but because anyone would believe what their eyes cannot see, their minds cannot comprehend, and their experience cannot prove.  It is not what is believed but the idea of belief itself that stands at the heart of the media's inability to get religion.

Of course, this is not surprising.  This is not unique to the media but is exactly the perspective of the heart apart from the working of God.  What is surprising is that Dean Baquet was raised in a catholic home, that the reporters and pundits have grown up in America where religion and religious liberty is woven into the fabric of our land, and where faith is not a side street but the main street of the majority of our people.  What is surprising is that somewhere along the line the people who anchor news, report on the events of the nation and world, and comment on culture and politics have lost touch not only with the nation and its people but with their own youth.  This is the danger of an educational system in which not only is one point of view favored but other points of view are no longer tolerated and this is the danger of a public square when religious voices are no longer allowed.  What has happened here is a generation of political correct speech and speech police have so banished any doubt or question of the accepted values of the educated and the elite that it is impossible for many (most?) to recall or appreciate that the vast majority of Americans DO believe in God and that Christianity in America has been the face of this faith since our nation was born.

The religious have a pretty good idea of what the media and the cultural and political elite believe, think, and value.  They are confronted with this daily in the ordinary media outlets as well as in the entertainment industry.  They daily meet a barrage of propaganda from this political and cultural left.  The problem is that the media and the pundits and most of those in the entertainment industry live lives insulated from religion in general and Christianity to be specific.  In their minds, the only good religion is one that does not inform the values or mind of the adherent and the only good religious people are those who don't adhere to much that the "church" believes, teaches, and confesses.  They are so convinced that religious facts are fiction that they do not hear as the faithful nor do they listen for the faith when they do find themselves within the domains of worship and piety.  That is why they do not get religion.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The liturgy draws us out of ourselves. . .

It has often been said that the liturgy draws us out of ourselves -- it pulls us from the ordinary domain of how we feel, what we think, what we like, and what we want and puts us in the domain of God.  Therein His grace and favor and the power of the Spirit lead us to admit and confess what our sinful hearts fear (in our sins) and meet us on the ground of what Christ has done (more than we dare expect or hope).  We don't make the liturgy do this; the Word of God in that liturgy accomplishes this (often against our sinful wills so wedded to our feelings, desires, and experiences).

We do not worship in order to get something out of it but we get something out of it because Christ is there, accessible through the means of grace and laden with the gifts of His once for all sacrificial death.  The liturgy does this not because we recognize valuable tips along the way or because we are open to change or because we desire this.  The liturgy does this because it IS the Word sung, said, proclaimed, and prayed.  The Spirit is at work in that Word.  We do not enter the liturgy to forget ourselves but in the presence of our gracious God and confronted with what His love has accomplished for us and our salvation, we are drawn out from the confines and prison of thoughts, feelings, desire, and experience.

One of the worst things we can do is try to gauge the measure of our progress in sanctification while the liturgy leads us into the Word of God and to the Table of our Lord.  The liturgy is not an experience worth having but the experience of God's gracious presence which redefines what is good, right, true, beautiful, and salutary.  When we mine the liturgy for something relevant or useful or spiritual or profound we miss what is present there in the Word and Sacrament.

People who go to Church hoping to get something out of it often end up going home disappointed and, at least in their estimation, empty handed.  People who cross their arms and wait for the preacher to fix something or give them some practical and useful tip to employ at home or at work, usually go home without the pithy and practical knowledge they sought.   People who approach the Lord's Table thinking that this will be a good experience, end up failing to experience the good that Christ has deposited there in His flesh and blood.

The liturgy is not the most practical use of our time -- at least according to the measure of the world and our own hearts.  Preaching is seldom the mine where we find rich and useful ore we can refine and benefit from as we seek to fulfill our goals and desires.  Both of these are, in that respect, the most impractical wastes of time and at the same time deliver to us the most profound gifts of grace that can ever be encountered on this earth.

When my mother told me "it is good for you," it was almost always something distasteful I never wanted to experience again.  From the lima beans that sat on my plate until they were cold to the visit to the dentist who was going to "fix" my teeth, I listened to her tell me it would be good for me.  It may have been but that did not keep me from vowing "never again."  When we tell the world that the liturgy is good for them or worship is useful, the world is rightly suspicious and we are just as duplicitous as my mom.  It does no good to tell a child to go to church because he or she will have fun or to coax a reluctant spouse by saying it will be good for them or to invite an unchurched neighbor by suggesting that maybe they will get something useful from the experience.

Worship is the place where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we forget ourselves and all the proprieties by which we define who we are -- at least long enough for that same Spirit to soul-search us into confessing our sins and woo our reluctant hearts into the presence of God where His Word addresses us with forgiveness and His flesh and blood become our food for eternal life.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

True Light

Sermon for Epiphany 3A preached on Sunday, January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Mt 4:16).

When I was a student at IU, I went on a cave tour with a group from church.  There’s many memories I have of that trip, like crawling through mud on our bellies and coming face to face with a bat hanging inches from my head.  This experience with the bat was unforgettable, but there’s something else that was even more unforgettable, how dark caves actually are. 

Our tour guide led us deep underground into a large cavern.  We were so far down there was no way any sunlight could reach us.  The only light we had was the artificial light from the small lights that lined our path.  With a quick warning, the guide turned off the lights, leaving us in a paralyzing and overwhelming darkness.  No one moved or made a sound.  We were in shock of the complete darkness.  After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, the guide flipped the lights back on, filling the cavern again with artificial light. 

That artificial man-made light provided us comfort in that dark cave, but it can’t comfort us in the darkness of our lives.  We live with a lot of darkness, both in the day and the night.  This darkness comes despite the sun’s rising.  We can’t escape it and no artificial light, no man-made solution, can overcome it, because this darkness is the result of our sin.  Our sin covers the world in spiritual darkness and death; but the light of Christ saves us from this darkness.  The light of Christ comforts us and brings us into everlasting life. 

The light of Jesus was long foretold of by God’s prophets.  Quoting Isaiah, Matthew shows that Jesus fulfills all these prophecies.  Isaiah said, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death on them a light has dawned” (Mt 4:15-16).  In order to see how Jesus fulfilled this prophecy, we first need to know the history of Zebulun and Naphtali.

These two tribes of Israel lived in the northern part of the country.  When the Assyrians conquered them, they deported many Israelites and pagans from other lands moved in.  This deportation brought oppression and spiritual darkness into the land.  With the pagans came their false religion and false gods.  It was because of this influx of non-Jewish people and false worship that this region became known as the “Galilee of Gentiles.”  This wasn’t a good name. 

When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s arrest He went north, to the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, to the Galilee of the Gentiles.  And in this movement, the prophecy of Isaiah 9 was fulfilled.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the World went into the darkness of Galilee and His light was seen by those who were dwelling in darkness, in the shadow of death (Mt 4:16).

But Jesus isn’t just the Light for those in Galilee, those in 1st century Israel.  He’s the Light of the world: past, present, and future.   

In our society, today, we try to overcome all sorts of darkness with false hopes, with man-made artificial light.  Feeling emotional and physical pain, we turn to anything and everything that might offer us even a small bit of release from suffering.  Many elderly and terminally ill, people who endure the darkness of depression, people who daily suffer physical discomfort contemplate suicide, thinking their lives aren’t worth living anymore, thinking death is better than a painful life.  People unhappy with their lives seek happiness wherever they can find it, whether it be in sex outside of marriage, drugs and alcohol, retail therapy at the mall, or in all sorts of false religions that promise a happy and pain free life. 

All this darkness, all the pain and suffering we endure, all the death in our lives is a consequence of our sin.  We cause it, and yet, we’re unable to overcome it.  We fumble around for a light, only to fall deeper and deeper into more darkness.  We can’t make an artificial light bright enough to overcome our sin and death.  But Jesus has come and He’s the true light that overcomes all darkness. 

Christ calls us to live without the fear of the darkness because He’s the light that overcomes it; He’s the true light that overcomes it for you. 

Jesus began His public ministry preaching the same thing that John the Baptist did, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17).  When John proclaimed this, he was announcing that the kingdom of heaven would soon be here.  When Jesus proclaimed this, He was announcing that the kingdom of heaven was here in Him.  The kingdom of heaven isn’t a worldly kingdom with earthly power and false solutions to the darkness of sin.  The kingdom of heaven is from God; it’s God’s work of salvation where He gives you the true solution to sin: forgiveness!

The only way the darkness of sin and death can be overcome is for sin to be taken away, and Christ Jesus has done this.  He came into our dark world and saved you by being your substitute on the cross.  He shed His holy precious blood and sacrificed His innocent life to pay the penalty of sin.  He defeated death by rising from the grave.  His death, resurrection, and forgiveness are true light.  Unlike artificial light and man-made solutions, Christ’s light and forgiveness never fail or go out. 

And Jesus invites you to live in this light.  Jesus called to Peter, Andrew, James, and John saying “Follow me” (Mt 4:19).  He called them to live in His light.  Likewise, He’s called you to follow Him and live in His light.  He did this in your Baptism where the Spirit gave you the faith to trust in Him, to believe in His death and resurrection for your salvation.  As you continue to live in this dark world, He strengthens your faith as He feeds you His life giving Body and Blood, and as you hear His forgiving Words of Absolution. 

Unlike our daily lives here on earth that are filled with the darkness of sin and death, the everlasting life that we’ve been given is only light.  In the book of Revelation, God promises that He’ll wipe away all our tears, that death will be no more, and that there’ll never be mourning, crying, or any pain (Rev 21:4).  In Galilee, Jesus healed all kinds of disease and sickness.  Those oppressed by demons, those who suffered epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed were all healed.  These miraculous healings pointed to the everlasting life we’ll have in heaven. 

Through these miracles, Jesus foreshadowed the work of His cross.  On the cross, He penetrated the darkness, shining forth His light, overcoming sin.  We still suffer disease, illness, pain, sorrow, and even death here on earth, but in heaven, we’ll no longer live in this darkness.  Then we’ll be living in Jesus’ glorious light forever, and in faith, we confidently wait and endure the darkness of our day, knowing that our Savior has already overcome it. 

Darkness no longer has the upper hand.  We have no need for artificial light that only offers temporary comfort, for the true Light has overcome the overwhelming darkness, shining forth forgiveness and everlasting life.  The light of Christ can’t be turned off.  Like Him, it’s always present in His gifts--in the waters of Baptism, in the healing words of Absolution, and in the Bread and Wine that is His Body and Blood.  Through these means, He sustains you as you endure the darkness of our world and live in His light.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

I found Jesus. . .

On another forum a Lutheran Pastor said that he found the presence of Christ and the Body of Christ at a Maundy Thursday communion service at First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, a citadel of the Southern Baptist fundamentalist crowd. Grape juice, cubes of white bread, consumed in the pews amidst friendly people who welcomed me there. He went on to throw down a challenge:  So tell me that this was not the sacrament.

I will admit that I have had parishioners who made the same affirmation.  I feel Jesus more there (whatever generic Protestant or evangelical church they were at) than I feel when I am in a Lutheran Church.  Those are the times when you treat the comment with compassion and catechize the person.  Feelings do not validate truth.  Feelings do not trump doctrine.  Feelings do not confirm what is real or false.  Feelings are not an adequate or faithful barometer for what is good, right, salutary, and of the faith.

We use feelings in all the wrong ways and they lead us to all the wrong destinations and then we wonder how we got there!  Feelings are not bad.  I am not saying that.  No one is saying that.  But feelings used to discern the body of Christ (think First Corinthians) are placing feelings over the Word of God.  Feelings that are used to validate our experience of Christ (did you feel any different after church or receiving Holy Communion or after having been baptized) displace our faith and confidence in what does not change and what is not subject to the whims and changing fancy of what we feel.

A number of years ago a commercial on TV sang "I feel like chicken tonight."  It was a play on the whims of taste and desire.  What do YOU feel like eating today?  They change.  Just like when we order one thing that seems to perfectly fulfill our fancy until we see what somebody at the next table got out of the same restaurant kitchen.  Feelings are not bad but they were never meant to be the lens through which we discern God's presence or approach His truth.  The mystery of Christ's presence is apprehended not on the level of feelings but on the level of faith.  Baptismal water feels like every other kind of water and the bread and wine of the Holy Communion taste like any other bread (minus yeast, seasoning, and everything else that "tastes") and wine (and I have had people ask me what kind of wine we use in the Sacrament because they like its taste).  We apprehend Christ not on the plane of feelings but in faith in the objective voice of His Word preached and taught, the spoken absolution, the Triune Name in water, and the Words of Christ's Institution that set apart this bread to be His body and this cup to be His blood.  Feelings, by the power of the Spirit, flow from the objective Word and we learn to love as encounter the love we did not know, request, or deserve but is ours nonetheless.

The same poster to the forum said:  I was reared under the Galesburg Rule and amidst Lutheran "superiority" and triumphalism. Had I stayed under those strictures, I would have missed much grace, inspiration, and opportunities to experience the Body of Christ.  Again, something is very wrong here.  The Galesburg Rule (Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants and Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran preachers) was not born of superiority nor was it a sign of triumphalism.  It was born of the desire to protect those who come to the altar and those unable (to discern the Body of Christ) from harm to their faith (unless we no longer take St. Paul at his word).  It was not a wall built to protect the better from the worse but to guard the sacred deposit of truth and make sure that at the rail and from the pulpit doctrinal integrity and authentic unity was preserved and even fostered.

Finally something must be said about the missed "experience of the Body of Christ."  Again, experience is not bad but experience is no more apt or able to discern the presence of God or define the unity of the faith than feelings.  It is the Word of God by which doctrine and practice is formed and accomplished.  God is not where I feel Him to be or where I have experienced Him but where He has promised to be -- in His Word and Sacraments.  To be faithful to the means of grace is not to build a fence around us but to meet God at the bridge through which He has made Himself accessible and wherein He delivers to us His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Feelings and experiences are grand and wonderful -- gifts of God.  But they are the curse and doom of those who attempt to make them the judges of what God has said, what God has promised to do, and where God has promised to be.  What is a moment of catechesis from a parishioner who struggles rightly with Lutherans who have forgotten how to host God's house and to extend God's welcome to those who come is a great scandal and offense from one who is charged in ordination to preach and teach God's Word faithfully, according to the Lutheran Confessions.  What might be an opportunity to teach the faith to someone who has latched onto the disheartening fact that our experiences are not reliable guides to where God is and what God does, is a grave error from one charged with the teaching of those people truth from error and falsehood, by the Word of God alone.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The vanishing Word. . . .


Let me begin by saying that I laud the work of Gideons, even if the Gideons themselves make me a little nervous.  The Gideons tend to be drawn from those Christian groups that believe in decision theology, that faith begins with the Sinners Prayer, and the primary quality of Scripture is its inerrancy (but not its efficacy).  So I am not one to beat a drum for the Gideons even though I believe that their goal of distribution of Scripture is a good one.

For as long as I can remember I have opened the drawer (usually to the night stand by the bed) in a hotel or motel room to see if a Gideon Bible is there.  In the past I seldom found the Bible missing.  Now, it seems, I should be ready to expect no Gideon Bible.  A story in the Washington Post has supported the vanishing Gideon Bible.

A survey conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association and hotel research firm STR found that 79% of American hotel rooms included religious material in rooms, compared with almost all of them—95%—a decade ago.  For many travelers these days, rooms with no Wi-Fi access would be unthinkable. Nearly all—98%–of the 8,000 respondents in the survey said their properties had in-room wireless internet, up from 82% a decade ago.

Read back to a previous post on how the internet has replaced God in our lives.  According to the trend reported by the AHLA, we are more upset by a lack of WiFi than we are a missing Bible.  That is not merely a fact, it is a sign of the problems we face and the investment we have made in truths over Truth.  Sadly, even if a Gideon Bible were placed again in every hotel or motel room, it would not reverse the trend of trusting the world wide web over the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

My friends remind me that their Bible is on their phones and even Concordia Publishing House has Kindle and other app forms of the very good Lutheran Study Bible.  That said, I think there is still something significant about the missing book.  I rather doubt that the absent Scripture is replaced by those who turn to their WiFi in room in order to search the internet for a Bible passage.  But, go ahead, prove me wrong.  I would love it!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The rest of a warrior but no pause for the cause...

Giants sometimes come in small packages.  Jean Garton was a small woman of great stature.  She was for a long time one of the lone voices calling attention to the horror of abortion and she did so in the most compelling and yet winsome manner.  She staked out her position through stories. She placed the larger issue of life and its sacred character within narratives that begged the hearers to believe that they were better than abortion.

Her stories were always in furtherance of community—the community in which the powerful take care of and protect the marginal and the powerless. She would use illustrations from everyday life and incidents that were not so common to make this fundamental point.  For instance, she would often link graciousness and kindness under pressure when a baby was ‘wanted’ to what pro-lifers do for women in crisis pregnancies when the woman is, at best, ambivalent around the fate of the child she is carrying.

I heard Jean speak on many occasions -- some formal opportunities to restate the position pro-life and others in casual conversation.  Her classic white hair and special voice gave the demeanor of a grandmother (which she was) but this was a grandma with a dynamic personality for a special cause.
Jean did not come to the cause of life quickly.  She was not hesitate to speak of the evolution of her position.
My involvement in the abortion battle began on the “choice” side back in 1968 when I found myself pregnant at 40. We already had three children and number four was definitely not on my agenda. “Every child a wanted child” claims the pro-choice slogan, and this child wasn’t.
The “practical solution” was an abortion. However, where I lived the state law prohibited abortion so I joined an abortion-rights group to help change the law.
What changed, however, was me. That “unwanted pregnancy” became a very wanted child.

I eventually became a convert to the pro-life position and, in 1973, found myself speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing because, as the old line says, “Once you see, you can’t unsee.”
Jean was one of the most profound voices within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod on behalf of life, the unborn, and the child and she was one of those who transformed our church body into the most pro-life church body in America.  She would never admit that she was a force to be reckoned with but everyone who knew her, knew not to discount the little white haired lady with the lilting voice.

Lutherans For Life exists in part because of Dr. Jean Garton and she served instrumentally in its formation in 1978 and was its first president.  She served on many boards within the LCMS -- not in the least the Board of Directors of our Synod.  Only recently led an energetic presentation at our Lutherans For Life National Conference in October -- on the theme “Here We Stand.”   There she received the Dominus Vitae award in honor of her lifelong, Gospel-motivated labors to affirm God’s gift of life. Her acclaimed and influential book Who Broke the Baby? is entering its third edition of publication. This past summer Jean spoke at the NRLC Convention’s Prayer Breakfast and you can read her address here—“Where there is Life, There is Hope.”  Read her own words in First Things.

Jean is an example of what we can do if we wish to do it -- it is due to people like Jean that abortion is a national issue, that the pro-life cause continues to increase, and the cause of death was transformed into a force for life.   God bless you, Jean.  May you rest in peace.  Now joined with the saints, with your beloved husband Chic, and with the thanks of those whose lives you have touched and enriched beyond measure.

Not just about abortion. . .

Though the impetus for the grass roots movement for the cause of life was formed in response to the legalization of abortion in 1973, the cause is not just about abortion.  It is about the sacred character of life and the many threats against life.  These come not only from predictable enemies of the cause such as Planned Parenthood, but also from a whole variety of sources that claim to promoting the cause of justice or advocating for those whose lives may not be "worth living."

The good news about abortion is that for the first time in years the number of abortions performed seems to be dropping.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control released abortion figures (from 47 states but not including Maryland, New Hampshire, or California) and that number has declined -- continuing a trend. The numbers an estimatee of the rate of abortions at 12.5 per woman of child-bearing age (15-44), and the ratio of abortions at 200 per 1,000 live births.  The bad news is that this seems to mirror an overall decline in the birth rate.

There is worse news.  There has been an increase in the number of countries allowing a person to decide for physician assisted suicide when they decide the living is too painful.  In a few, this judgment is allowed to be made by children.  In very few does it require a medical prognosis that the affliction will be fatal.  Chronic conditions may be used to justify a choice to end a life.

The birth rate is declining because access to contraception, including the morning after pill, is increasing.  Fewer children are being conceived and so there are fewer abortions as a result -- at least in developing countries -- but the numbers of children aborted continues to increase world-wide -- reaching toward 58 Million annually!

Life is the issue -- life from its conception to natural death.  Life is under assault -- at all stages along the line.  The cause continues not only anti-abortion but pro-life at every stage.  It is not about a choice but about a value assigned to life that prevents us from treating any lives as superfluous or expendable before the so-called higher values of pleasure or convenience.

Although the numbers are hard to determine, it does seem that more and more businesses are desiring to exit the debate entirely and are ending corporate sponsorship of abortion providers (think Planned Parenthood) in order to prevent unwanted publicity.

Ohio is on the vanguard of legislative attempts to restrict access to abortion once the beating heart is detected or viability determined (about 20 weeks) yet every effort to provide legal protection to the child in the womb is met with legal challenge and threat.

Clearly it is not just laws that must change but minds.  While our pro-life position is informed by our religious beliefs, it is not simply a religious cause.  The sacred character of life has remained on the most profound causes for just societies -- at least until the issue of abortion became framed as a woman's right to choose for her own body.  Neither can we sigh with relief that abortions are declining since that decline means that the use and effectiveness of contraception has increased and some of the means to prevent pregnancy actually are merely means to prevent an embryo from attaching to the womb (provoking a spontaneous abortion).

So pray this day that the trend of lower abortions continues even as you rally for the cause of protecting all life at all stages. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A little sociological memory. . .

Back at the old Concordia Senior College in the classroom with Prof. Ted Westermann, I first encountered the name and the sociology of Emile Durkheim, a man some refer to as the father of French sociology.  Just in case anybody is listing, I still have a couple of those Durkheim books on the lesser used section of my library.  I cannot toss out a book, even one I have not referred to for 40 years.

Durkheim taught, among many other things, that no society can survive without a common "collective conscience."  Either it will self-destruct from within or it will succumb to the forces outside without the majority of its members holding to and supporting this “collective conscience” and its implicit common morality. As societies become more diverse, this diversity tests the limits of this unity and, as the "common collective conscience" grows continually weaker, the society itself becomes ever more vulnerable to the tears to its fabric from within and the threats outside. 

This diversity is not merely the fruit of different religions but also different cultures and their inherently different worldviews.  When those different religions can find a common ground to support a "common collective conscience" those differences offer no threat to the core of unity but when when those different religions contradict each other over what is true, what is right, and what is good, they erode the ability of that society to function as once both to achieve common goals and to address common enemies.

Every society requires a certain commonality in order to function as one nation and people, a set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as one of the primary unifying force within that society.  Judaeo Christian communities have long shared a common morality and ideal which made it possible for societies including both groups to function as one.  Of course, national identities and ethnic prejudice can work against this but they pull against the natural common values that both inherently share.  Muslim Christian communities do not share this common morality, values, and sentiments.  In fact, the ordinary ethnic and nationalistic tensions are exacerbated by the tensions created by this lack of a "common collective conscience."  Where religious groups have worked to fully assimilate into their communities, such tensions may be minimized.  Europe is but one example of these tensions made worse by a lack of assimilation and "common collective conscience."

Durkheim was concerned before his time about how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence precisely when things such as shared religious and ethnic background could no longer be assumed.  It was to this end that Durkheim wrote much about the effect of laws, religion, education and similar forces on society and social integration to replace this "common collective conscience."  I do not recall everything from the sociology classes back at CSC, but I do recall how prescient Durkheim was in looking at what were already under stress in his lifetime and have come to full fruit in the diversity and pluralism of a modern world in love with the very things that mitigate against the "common collective conscience" he found essential if a society is to survive and flourish.

Friday, January 20, 2017

As a new President is sworn in. . .

The day so many dreaded has come and a new President will be sworn in.  Since November 8, we have been daily reminded that this was not the choice of the media or the pundits and the Democrats are still trying to figure out with the media elite what caused Trump to be elected.  Could the fear of religious liberty being restricted have been the issue that stunned the insiders and brought victory to Donald Trump?

The exit polls tell a surprising story.  Trump received 81 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote and Hillary Clinton took but 16 percent. What is surprising is that Trump did far better than the squeakly clean and religious Mitt Romney or the "I am one of you" evangelical George W. Bush.  This fellow not known for his morality also over-performed among other theologically conservative voters, everyone from traditionalist Catholics to Pentecostals!. This is no small achievement for a fellow married three times, an admitted adulterer, who said he was not sure he had ever asked God to forgive him of anything!  So why would these support a candidate so different from them and their values?

Some are suggesting that the most logical answer is that they felt that their religious liberty was under assault from the liberal establishment.  They had to vote for the only candidate who appeared willing both to respect and support religious freedom. According to Sean Trende of RealClear Politics noted, since 2012:
Democrats and liberals have: booed the inclusion of God in their platform at the 2012 convention (this is disputed, but it is the perception); endorsed a regulation that would allow transgendered students to use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their identity; attempted to force small businesses to cover drugs they believe induce abortions; attempted to force nuns to provide contraceptive coverage; forced Brendan Eich to step down as chief executive officer of Mozilla due to his opposition to marriage equality; fined a small Christian bakery over $140,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; vigorously opposed a law in Indiana that would provide protections against similar regulations – despite having overwhelmingly supported similar laws when they protected Native American religious rights – and then scoured the Indiana countryside trying to find a business that would be affected by the law before settling upon a small pizza place in the middle of nowhere and harassing the owners. In 2015, the United States solicitor general suggested that churches might lose their tax exempt status if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. In 2016, the Democratic nominee endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, thereby endorsing federal funding for elective abortions.
Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost.  Obama was quick to castigate those who clung their guns and religion when cultural change threatened and Clinton was quick to condemn Trump's supports as "deplorables" who should neither be tolerated or supported.  What both did not realize is that they that they were by policy as well as words marginalizing both Evangelicals and traditional  Christian groups against the impingement of religious freedom in the name of cultural progress and trendy social advocacy.  Over and over again it appeared the Democrats felt the biggest threat to America was bathroom restrictions while Americans felt more and more threats to their faith and to their ability to express that faith within the public square without intimidation or consequence.  It is certainly all the more surprising since both Obama and Clinton claim more than Christian roots, they claim to be active professing Christians (perhaps even more than could generously be assigned to Trump).

Democrats went from being the party of the working class to the party of the cultural elites whose positions threatened this very working class and their most sacred values of faith and morality.  If these were not to be tolerated, they had little choice but to vote for someone who promised not to tread upon this religious liberty.

Sounds good.  It is the real reason for the election of Trump?  I could not say.  It is certainly one of many.  Whether the cultural and political elites in America have awoken to the reality of the fears of ordinary Americans is an unfolding story.  We will see.  The more marginalized these ordinary Americans feel, the more shots across the bow they are likely to lob in an effort to allow their point of view to be heard.  This, after all, is the very purpose of democracy.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Just plain goofy. . .

According to Vatican Radio, Pope Francis said:
“About rigidity and worldliness, it was some time ago that an elderly monsignor of the curia came to me, who works, a normal man, a good man, in love with Jesus – and he told me that he had gone to buy a couple of shirts at Euroclero [the clerical clothing store] and saw a young fellow – he thinks he had not more than 25 years, or a young priest or about to become a priest – before the mirror, with a cape, large, wide, velvet, with a silver chain. He then took the Saturno [wide-brimmed clerical headgear], he put it on and looked himself over. A rigid and worldly one. And that priest – he is wise, that monsignor, very wise – was able to overcome the pain, with a line of healthy humor and added: ‘And it is said that the Church does not allow women priests!’. Thus, does the work that the priest does when he becomes a functionary ends in the ridiculous, always.”
Remember my post about little boys who grew up dressing like dad?  Remember the affection and desire of a son who wants nothing more than to grow up and be just like dad?  Now the pope switches it up a notch and suggests that there is something effeminate about a seminarian or young priest trying on vestments at a clergy store.  I can imagine well enough that Lutherans are smiling now and thinking the same thing as the pope.  Pastors who like vestments are not real men.  There is something less than manly about those who try on vestments on the way to becoming pastors.  Cause we all know that the ministry is more than vestments.

Well of course the ministry is more than vestments.  And chanting.  And ceremonies.  And a host of other things.  But it is not less than the outward vesture that says the man is a pastor (priest).  It is not less any of than these things. It is more than them all but it is not less than them.  What would we have a seminarian or pastor aspire to?  Khakis, a polo, skinny jeans, a tee shirt, a plexiglass podium, a flashy Power Point presentation, a scruffy 5 o'clock shadow or man beard, a stocking cap to cover the man bun even when it is 90 degrees outside, a warehouse with a stage, a worship band complete with drop dead gorgeous worship diva, mega screens, Starbucks in the narthex (lobby), a parking lot crew with an extended length golf cart to chauffeur them to the door. . .  You tell me what things say "the office of pastor" or "the pastoral office is the chief means through which God delivers His means of grace to His people" or "this church stuff is serious business????"

It is an easy target to suggest that a seminarian trying on vestments is full of himself, arrogant, vain, or whatever.  What does it say about the one who tells this publican/Pharisee style story?  Is the pope saying "God, I thank you that I am not like him..."  I think it says something.  It says something when a pope who believes his office as the vicar of Christ is the work of the Spirit then intervenes to say "I don't want to wear the traditional vestments; it is not my style."  Or, "I am not going to live in the papal apartment where popes have lived for hundreds of years cause that is not my style."  Or, "I love to schmooze with Lutherans and tell them doctrine is less important than good works."  I will tell you what it says, it says this pope thinks it is his office to question everyone but nobody can question him.

This Lutheran really does not care much for this current pope.  It is because he loves the photo op more than serious theology, appearance more than substance, and pleasing the world more than being faithful in doctrine and there are plenty of Lutherans just like him.  We think it is manly to say "you will never catch me in a clerical collar or wearing fancy vestments or bowing or kneeling or whatever..."  Could it just be that this is not humility at all but the greatest of arrogance and pride?  I am not going to label anyone but I offer this sobering thought.  The ministry needs more men who put themselves under the yoke and less of those who think they can define the yoke to fit what they want, think, feel, or prefer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Makes you melancholy for old style liberalism. . .

Yes, I know it is an old joke.  But it is still funny.  The sign on the marquee of an Episcopal Church:

We welcome everyone willing to welcome anyone.*

(*The rest of you are welcome
to become Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans!
Okay, so you won't find this part on any marquee.  I just thought it was funny and most liberals were already thinking this way anyway...)

The rest are not welcome.  Period.  Don't bother.  Unless you have open borders, the borders are closed to you.  Unless you withhold judgment from everyone, anyone here is free to judge you.  So, unless you are agreeable to dropping all objective truth, our subjective truth is that you don't belong.

There was a day when old style liberals believed in the strength of their ideas.  They were willing to argue with those with whom they disagreed.  They sought engagement with those who held to other truths.  They were confident enough in their reasoning to believe that no reasonable person would not agree with them, if only they had a chance to talk with them.  No more, apparently. Liberalism has grown so weak it must be protected, so fragile that it cannot stand engagement with those who disagree, and so shallow that it has no arguments strong enough to withstand the public debate.  And to think, they say conservatives are narrow minded, weak, and fearful!  In my mind the surest sign of a weak position is the fear to debate with someone who disagrees and the desire to prevent those who disagree from having a chance at the microphone.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reading through the stack. . .

Christmas, well, actually, post Christmas, has provided a chance to read down the stack of things set aside for, well, post Christmas reading pleasure.  I am not sure how much pleasure there is in what I am reading.  Some of it is rather, uh, disheartening.

In the Forum Letter for December, Editor Richard Johnson reports that way back in October the President of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, Robin Steinke, announced that the seminary was making some changes.  These are not just changes.  According to Pres. Steinke, in order to better accomodate the needs of our community they are no longer holding chapel five days a week.  She has all the right reasons for justifying this change -- students living and working off campus, the distance learning programs of the school whose students are not even close to campus, and, perhaps one unspoken but still true reason, attendance is down.  She wrote that it did not make sense to hold chapel five days a week."

Editor Johnson rightly called attention to the things in that announcement that just don't seem right -- like the fact that chapel makes sense or is supposed to make sense.  I concur.  I am pretty sure that nearly everyone in my parish would agree that church does not make sense (me, too!) but that making sense is not even on the radar of reasons why we have it.  The compelling reason for worship is not the need or the reasonableness of it or even if people want or like it.  No, the compelling reason is the will and command of God to gather His people (even if only 2-3) and to bestow upon them the riches of His grace in the Word read and preached and the Sacraments administered according to His own design.  This is what compels us to worship.  God is there.  The Lord is bestowing His gifts.  In the means of grace, we meet the incarnate Savior who saves us.  That ought to be enough.

To be fair, worship is an incredible bother on our schedules.  Perhaps that is why a typical Lutheran only sees 1 of 5 to 4 of 10 who are "members" there on a given Sunday morning.  Why, really, Sunday morning is the only time for soccer, grocery shopping, catching up on TV, sleeping in, being on Facebook, etc...   Why interrupt your busy schedule of work, leisure, and play for something as boring, useless, senseless, and worthless as worship?  Right?!?

Lest we Missourians sit smugly and snicker, I think the Seminary in St. Louis set up a chapel without chapel a few years ago -- a scheduled day for spiritual contemplation without leaving bedroom, workroom, kitchen, or dining hall.  I know they caught some flack for that.  I am pretty sure that in response to the same idea, Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, did the "sensible" thing of setting up another worship opportunity, or, ah, chapel.  A reasonable response to declining attendance or interest, right?  Goes to show you.  CTS is way out there.

Finally, Luther Seminary reported that since chapel is no longer scheduled for 5 times a week (how often exactly IS it scheduled?), they surely would not need an administrative assistant in the seminary pastor's office.  Which come about the same time the seminary pastor left because her call and the evolving position don't align well.  Which really makes it easier not to have chapel.  Ah, the Lord works in mysterious ways!  What else will the 590 students do with that 30 minutes a day!

PS. . . Maybe they will soon be selling off the organ and chapel appointments at Luther Sem. . . meditation rooms don't need all that clutter.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Lamb of God. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 2A preached on Sunday, January 15, 2017.

Growing up we watched Lambchops the puppet and thought of lambs as pets or cartoon characters. Lambs were sweet and cuddly.  But that is not how Jews thought of lambs.  For the faithful Jew, the lamb was no pet but the animal of sacrifice whose blood was shed in the Temple for the forgiveness of sins and whose flesh was the food of the Passover.  This was no sweet and cuddly pet but a lamb made ugly with the sins of the people, bled so that this blood might cleanse the worst sinner.  Lambs were born to die.

Jesus came not as a pet to be cuddled and adored but as the perfectly white Lamb of God on whom the sins of the world would hang.  He was absolutely holy, pure, righteous, without spot or blemish but He was not born to stay that way.  He was born to bleed, to suffer, and to die.  When John named Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world nobody listening mistook Jesus for a pet. Like the mom who dresses up the toddler in white, it was not to last.  This was no accident but the very reason for His coming, the purpose for His incarnation, and the destiny that awaited Him in the waters of His baptism and in the suffering of the cross.

Behold the Lamb of God, John cried out for all who would hear.  Jesus is the Lamb of God like no other lambs before Him.  He was holy, righteous, and pure as no son of man had ever been since the fall in the Garden of Eden.  He was born without sin to confess, without disobedience to cause Him guilt, and without the shame of unrighteousness.  No flesh and blood had ever been born like Jesus and none would ever be born like Him again.

He was the Lamb of God but not for the admiration of the adoring or as an example for the guilty to follow or as a coach to encourage the sinners to try harder in their battle against sin.  No, He was the Lamb of God to take upon His own shoulders the burden none of us could carry and to wear that weight all the way to the cross.  He was the Lamb of God not for a world who wanted Him but for a world so corrupted by sin they did not recognize Him and refused to believe they needed His help.
Jesus was not born for us to love but because He loved us when we did not know enough to love Him.  He came not to be the toy of our emotions or the example of what we could do if we tried harder.  He was incarnate not to rescue our hopes and dreams but to save us from the sin that stained every aspect of our lives and the death that waited for every one, sooner or later.  The Gospel is not about a people who need a little help or inspiration to find a happy life.  No, the Gospel is about sin and death and a people so captive to sin's darkness that they don't even get it – much less Him.

It was in the first blood of circumcision that Jesus gave the hint of what awaited Him on Calvary.  It was in the rage of Herod and the death of the Holy Innocents that the stakes of everything were revealed.  It was in the Temple where the 12 year old Jesus waited with the scribes, teachers, and elders while His family headed home that He revealed whose business He was here to do.  It was in the dirty water of the Jordan River that His holiness began to be stained by the sin and dirt of every sinner in all the world.  It was in the words of John that the identity of Jesus was clear – all the lambs whose blood had been shed looked forward to Him whose blood had the power to cleanse the world from sin.

Jesus is the prophet who spoke through the mouths of men so long ago and in the Word made flesh fulfilled their words.  Jesus is the priest who sacrifices and who is Himself the sacrificial Lamb to be offered not for the good but for the bad, not for the noble but for the shameful, not for the righteous but for the sinner.  And Jesus is King of a Kingdom the likes of which this world has never seen.  He is the King who serves His people with His own suffering and death and makes them into a royal priesthood and a kingly people in which He will display His glory.

You know what the problem is?  We treat Jesus like He is a cuddly pet, someone for us to love and play with.  We treat Jesus like He is a lifecoach to help us achieve our own hopes and dreams.  We treat Jesus like He is a teacher to show us how to do for ourselves and reach our goals.  We treat Jesus like He is an idea to be debated or a feeling to be felt or a fact to be believed. 
But Jesus is no symbol, no figment of our imagination, no pet, and no mere idea.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We treat Jesus as if He were not real but the truth is that none of the lambs who went before Him were real.  Despite all the bleating voices and bleeding bodies, they were not real.  They were mere symbols awaiting the blood that can afford to pay for sin, the blood strong enough to cleanse sinners, and the life holy enough to satisfy the gaze of God.  The dreams of a generation of generations has now been made flesh for us and the whole world.

We come to Church and we treat it all as if it were merely an act – pastors who sing what they could say, who wear costumes nobody else wears, who bow and genuflect and kneel as if it really meant something, who preach about irrelevant things, and who feed you bread you can hardly believe is real bread much less the body of Christ.  It all seems like this is an act and we are all merely playing a part.

How real is all of this against the big realities of our daily lives?  What does all of this have to do with the big realities and great problems of bills that must be paid, marriages that do not live up to our dreams, jobs that do not pay us what we are worth, children who do not do what we tell them, of bodies that wear out until just waking up is filled with aches and pains, or dreams we postpone because we cannot afford them?  We think that these are the real problems we face and these are the troubles of this mortal life we need to be fixed.  What does the Lamb of God offer us for these?

I am here to tell you that the biggest problem in your life is sin and the destiny that awaits you is an eternity of death and that this is why Christ came, why He was born in our flesh and blood, why He was baptized into our sin, why He suffered in our place, why He died our death, and why He rose to give us undeserving sinners the new and everlasting lives none of us deserve.

Church is the most real thing of all in life because it is here that you receive Christ, the real Lamb of God for the forgiveness of real sins hidden here in bread with His promise and wine with His name.  All the rest of life is play acting without the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the only way our lives are real is because we know the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by baptism and faith.

This Lamb is the most serious and real of thing in life and what happens in Church is the most serious and real of all things - more than anything else in life! Here is sin answered, death killed, past fulfilled, and the new future written.  Jesus did not give you a lamb to comfort you but a Lamb to die for you and save you.  This Lamb is no symbol but real food for you to eat and drink so that you may live in Him forever. There is nothing more real that this Gospel, nothing you do more real than what happens in this place, and no life more real than the one Christ gave you in your baptism and in which you live through death to eternal life!  When we get it, it all changes – today, tomorrow, and forever.  Amen.