Tuesday, February 28, 2017

It is good, Lord, to be here. . .

Sermon for Transfiguration A, preached on Sunday, February 26, 2017.

It is great sport to poke fun at Peter – either His foolishness or his failings. It is downright funny when the water gives way, Peter sinks into the sea, and must cry out to Jesus to rescue him.  It is sinfully delightful when Peter opens his mouth and inserts his foot.  And then we Lutherans giggle that he is supposed to be the first pope!  But we are laughing at our own weakness. Peter is nothing but a mirror of our own failings.  Even on this Sunday when Peter is so overcome by everything all he can think about is camping with Jesus high above all his problems – never wanting to go back down.

It is good to be there.  For where Peter is, that’s where we yearn to be.  Who among us would not gladly leave the valley of our frustrations behind to escape to the mountain of our dreams?  We grow weary of the costs of spouse and family, of the constant string of problems to fix and troubles to deal with.  We grow tired of the grind of work and live in the dreams of our next day off, our next vacation, or the permanent vacation of retirement - when we can do what we want and not what others want.  We have sweat the toil of earthly labor and we have groaned with tired muscles and over stressed minds.  We long for rest – just like Peter!

Is there any one of us who would not exchange the uncertainties of tomorrow for the permanence of a today in which we have what we want or what we need?  Of course we would!  Sin has created a certain melancholia in our lives in which yesterdays were good old days and the future is filled with fear.  We don’t like living in the face of the unknown that may tear down all we have built up.  We want our easy life, our happy life, and we want it right now.  That is what Peter was saying.  We understand it.

But Peter could not stay on that mountain to camp out with Jesus in the clouds.  It was not because Peter had failed in some way.  The choice between mountain top and valley of the shadow had been made for Peter, as it has for us -- by Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Peter was an ordinary sinner.  and sinners -- ordinary or special -- no abiding place here on earth.  There is no escape or refuge where we can hide.  Unless someone faces sin and its death for us, we will be vagabonds searching for peace where there is none and running away from the troubles and trials that will surely follow wherever we go.

Jesus humanity is like ours.  He has no desire to suffer, no want to die.  But if He is to give us the glory that is His, He must descend the mountain and enter the valley of the shadow of death for us and for our salvation.  Because Jesus cannot stay hiding in the clouds, neither can Peter.  Neither can you.  Neither can I.  We must go down the mountain.  But down the mountain comes the greater glory hidden in suffering and death that forgives and gives life.

Jesus must go down the mountain.  He came not for dreams but for death, not for soaring mountain heights but for the depths of sin.  Moses was once on a mountain but he could not stay.  God sent him down with the Law to act as protective guardian against our harm and to point us to the Savior whom the Father would send.  Elijah had to go down to speak the Word of the Lord to the people, calling them to repentance and filling them with the hope of God’s deliverance, mercy, and grace.

You must go down as well.  You walk with Peter, Moses, and Elijah -- not in dreams but amid the reality of this life where we still wrestle with sin every day and where we are dogged by death that still threatens to steal our hope.  You live your life not in some utopia where happy endings are for all but in the real world where marriages are a struggle, where children cost us more than money, where work is hard, and where leisure is a temporary rest at best.  And this way you walk is called faith.

The way we walk is not by sight but by faith – faith amid struggles, costing sacrifice, carrying sorrows, fighting against sin and its temptation, and living still in the shadow of death.  Faith sees all these things and sees through them because we see Jesus.  You bet your life would be easier without the demands of marriage and family, without the burden of work, and without illness, age, and death.  But here is where Christ has come.  Here is where we live out our lives of faith.  Here is where we see Jesus and Him only – even though tests, trials, troubles, and tribulation tries to steal our gaze.

Here is where we learn to live out the new life our eyes struggle to see but the water of baptism promises and the Word of Christ speaks. Here is where we learn to live as the new people created in Christ Jesus for good works.  Here is where we find the commandments not only accusing our sin or driving us into the arms of Jesus but teaching us how then we shall live as the children of God we are by baptism and faith.

Peter was a fool but so are you and so am I.  We have no best life now to dreams about.  We have this life and we live it by faith, seeing Jesus even more clearly than we see disappointment and death.  We have this life and we live it by faith, fighting against sin not to win God’s approval but because He has come to us in Christ and made us His own as the free gift of God hidden in water and proclaimed in the Word that does what it says. 

Our true joy lies not in a dream world we escape to but in this life where Christ is and we are in Christ His new creation.  The Law and the prophets do not point to a mountain top resort but to the valley where a cross is planted.  And Jesus is there.  There in Christ and Him crucified is the glory that is accessible to us, that saves us as we are, but does not leave us as we are.

Listen to Him is no command from the Father but an invitation to hear the voice of Christ when our eyes see nothing.  It is a promise that Christ is there when our hearts feel nothing but fear, guilt, shame, and bitterness.  It is the hope of a people who live in the world but not of it, destined for more than what we see, a future that is seen only by seeing Jesus.

This is why we are here.  Here where Christ is.  Where His glory is.  Where His mercy is.  Where our hope is.  In the taste of bread that is His body, in the sip of wine that is His blood.  In the Word that calls to us through the wilderness of our sins and its death, I am here, I have saved you, and I will be with you always. In response to such grace, the Christian gives up a dream but a better reality today and a future beyond all our knowing.  And in response to what God has said, what more can we say than "It is good to be here."  Right here.  Right now.  In the arms of grace.  Amen.

Schools of Doubt. . .

Schools are supposed to be places of learning but they have become arenas of skeptics who refuse all wisdom not their own.  I am not only speaking of those who teach in these schools but the students who will not be taught what does not conform to their own wisdom or experience.  Instead of imparting knowledge, schools have taught their students to doubt what they hear and trust only what they feel.  And if they are not skeptical enough, they are taught to question even their feelings so that it all accords with the uncommon wisdom of political correctness.

Children who should be looking with awe and wonder at the world around them are taught to look inside and wonder about sexual feelings and identity they know nothing about.  They are led like lambs to the slaughter to be sacrificed on the high altar of unproven ideas and suspect truth.  So instead of encouraging children to be inquisitive or even allowing them to be silly, they are urged to ponder the adult ideas that have captured the wandering minds of a people captive to their fickle feelings about desire and happiness and fulfillment.  It is the ultimate betrayal of their youth by those who think they know better.

It is no different when they graduate and some well meaning speaker encourages them to trust nothing but their feelings and to let nothing stand in the way of their dreams.  They have little knowledge of history and have learned only that their truth is subjective and transitory.  Then they head to institutions of higher learning filled with instructors who value novelty above all.  If it is not new, it cannot be true and truth is an antiquated category anyway.  They are urged again to trust feelings more than anything else and to be suspicious of anyone (except those who mouth the party line).

If some of them end up thinking of religion, it will not take long before the same skepticism about authority and truth will raise questions about whether the Jesus of creed and confession is the Jesus of Scripture or the Jesus of history -- as if anyone could ever know any Jesus very well.  Absent the facts of creation, sin, redemption, and resurrection, they will learn that it is all really about spirituality (one that is present in bits and pieces in every religion) and a morality built upon the shifting sands of what is right right now.

Though the Lutheran elementary school is under threat from shrinking finances and a pool of students, it is needed now more than ever.  Though the Lutheran high school is becoming an endangered species, it is needed now more than ever.  Though the Lutheran university faces enemies all around and skyrocketing costs that make it harder than ever to justify for church and student, it is needed now more than ever.  And part of that reason is that parents are either struggling with or have given up on trying to teach the faith to their children to counter the secularization and uncertainty fed to their children by educational institutions and the media alike.  I applaud those parents who believe that the best they can give their children is to raise them in the faith but I know the pressures they are under and the factors against them.  Now more than ever the Lutheran school is needed to support and encourage the noble task. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

non-ordinary Ordinary Time. . .

If you are Roman Catholic, you have been observing these Sundays since Christmas ended as Sundays in Ordinary Time.  You noted the change when the color shifted from white to green.  It is all the doing of the liturgical and lectionary changes that followed Vatican II.  Prior to that time (1970), the Sundays were announced according to their season (Sundays after Epiphany or Trinity).  Now they have to live with the rather dull sounding name Ordinary Time.  But this word does not mean the typical definition of "ordinary" but ordinary in the sense of ordinal.  They are counted as the weeks of the year.  So when Epiphany no longer counted the Sundays, they became the first Sunday in Ordinary Time (quite literally the first Sunday of the time counted through the year as opposed to after a feast).

Lutherans, at least the LCMS kind, did not take to this.  Ordinary was, well, just too ordinary and we kept the nomenclature of after Epiphany for these Sundays now coming to an end or after Pentecost for those in the other green season, the longer one.  Those in the one year lectionary call them Sundays after Trinity.  We keep the tie to the feast so that the feast continues to set the tone for the whole of the season (up to 8 Sundays after Epiphany and too many to remember after Pentecost).

Since Easter does not cooperate with our penchant for order and varies from early to late and late to early, it messes up our nice and orderly way of counting time.  But Easter is not only to blame.  Sometimes (2016 was one) we ended up with no real Sundays after Christmas (the Circumcision and Name of Jesus was Sunday, January 1, and then we skipped right over January 6 to the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday after Epiphany).  Christmas (and Easter) tend to foul up our desire to keep things counting progressively and the lectionary can literally have us move from birth to age 12 to age 2 or so and the appearance of the Magi and it can leave us with Sundays to spare in a season shortened because Easter is early this year and something has got to give.

Rome ended up with the problem of what to do with those Sundays left unused after Epiphany (at least in the Pre-Vatican II calendar) and they solved it by adding them onto the end of the year.  At the end of the liturgical year, an oddity happens in the traditional calendar. Left over Sundays reappear and added back in until the liturgical year is concluded.  This is, of course, due the moon and shifting date of Easter, and therefore Ash Wednesday and Pentecost.  Depending on when they fall, the Sundays after Pentecost might not take you all the way to Advent.  So, Sundays never used prior to Ash Wednesday suddenly appear and get added back in (at least for those using the Extraordianary Form which is, by the way, not at all ordinary).

There are all sorts of things we do to order the calendar, especially in ordinary time.  For Lutherans this means skipping some Sundays at the very beginning of the Pentecost season.  Unfortunately, we never add them back in.  We solve the dilemma by adding enough pericopes to have more than enough no matter the whims of the moon, Easter, Ash Wednesday, and Pentecost (the most movable of feasts).   So much for the rubrics (the red letter rules that tell us what day it is and what pericopes belong to it).  Just thought you would like to know. . .

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Burying the Alleluias. . .

It may seem odd to take down a perfecting good Alleluia [banner or the like] and lay it into a box and bury it in to the ground.  But some do.  Literally.  And if we do not do it literally, we do it figuratively.  The Alleluias of the Divine Service will be gone, out of sight, though not out of mind, for the next 6 weeks of Lent.

We bury the Alleluias during Lent to remind us that this is a time not of parties and celebration but of repentance and meditation upon the cross.  This is shocking to us because we have come to believe that life is supposed to be happy -- one lifelong celebration of good times. Today we bury that thought and on Ash Wednesday, one of the most solemn days in the Church Year, we come wearing the external ashes of our inward repentance.  Here we acknowledge that we are sinners, sinful both by nature because of the Fall and by thought, word, and deed -- both in the evil done and the good left undone.

Historically Christians have buried their alleluias today and been marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday as external signs of the call to inner restraint, self-control, and struggle against sin -- the fruit of the Spirit and of repentance.

Scripture is replete for seasons or times of repentance.  The Old Testament calendar included them and so does our Church Year today.  There is a time to put distance between us and this world, to mourn the sin the world denies, to put on ashes even though the world tries to wish away its disappointment or trouble.  What does St. John tells us, 'Do not love the world, nor the things of the world. Whoever is a friend of the world is an enemy of God. Friendship with the world is death.' This fallen world is a world filled with temptations for a fallen people. What does St. Paul do? St. Paul tells us he restrained his body as if it were a boxing opponent that could only be subdued by blows. St. Paul knew that although all things may be lawful, not all things are beneficial.  He refused to allow himself to be governed by raw desire. He beat down desire to be governed by the Spirit and the Word. We put aside or bury our Alleluias for the same reason.  As the collect we have prayed so often puts it, it is our daily prayer  'to so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.'

Saturday, February 25, 2017

In My Name. . .

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” said our Lord Jesus, “there am I among them.”

The words of Matthew 18 are simple and plain but their meaning is not.  Over the course of time these words have come to mean that we who invoke the name of Jesus invite and even compel His presence.  In this respect, the name of Jesus has become almost magical, as if it were a spell or incantation recited to draw a reluctant spirit into the material world.  The truth is so far from this impression as to make our mistake laughable.

Where two or three are gathered in My Name has little to do with the intention or will of the people and everything to do with where Christ has placed His name -- the Word and the Sacraments.  The promise of our Lord is not that if bidden He will come but that He will always be present in the means of grace.  He cannot but keep His pledge and promise of His Word and He wills to do nothing but fulfill that pledge and promise for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  It is not the Lord who comes to us when we ask Him but we who gather where the Lord always is. 

The invocation is not even a sentence.  In the Name of. . .   It is an implicit acknowledgement that we are gathered because He has promised and where He has promised and not to make Him present.  This is one of the underlying keys to the liturgy and to the sacramental life of worship that our Lord has given as gift to His Church.  How sad it is, then, that we who use the liturgy every Sunday and whose confessional identity is thoroughly sacramental fall into the trap of turning our Lord's words into a formula or recipe instead the promise of the Word, of water and the Word, and of bread and wine and the Word.

We do not ascend into the heavenly heights but God has brought low the heavenly glory and hidden it in the ordinary of material things where He makes known to us and bestows upon us the riches of His gifts and grace.  Sacramental theology is incarnational.  God comes to us.  God does not compel us to come to Him but comes to us in the flesh of the Word Incarnate, in the voice of the Word proclaimed, in the words of the Word written, in the address of the Word absolving, in the Word in and with the water, and in the Word in and with the bread and wine. 

The name of Christ is not some ritual formula to be said to make the Lord do what we want but the name that delivers to us His mercy and accomplishes His purpose in the places where He has promised.  The name of Christ is shorthand for the Word and Sacraments.  It is this aspect of Lutheran piety which the liturgical movement has sought to recover, to distinguish us from those for whom the Lord is an idea to be thought, a rule to be obeyed, or a truth to be believed.  Christ is present among us not because we want Him to be or because we have acted piously or because we the truth is accepted as fact.  Christ is present because He has willed to be present, attached Himself to His Word and Sacraments, and works through these means to accomplish His saving purpose.

As Luther said in the Smalcald Articles, everything else is just enthusiasm and everyone merely Schwamerei.  When we detach Christ from the means of grace and we make Him and His presence subject to our ministrations or dependent upon our feelings, we are left with nothing certain at all.  Our worship life is then the shifting sand of hopes, dreams, wishes, and feelings absent any real promise at all.  Feelings do not legitimize Christ's presence nor do they give authority and weight to our faith.  That is not to say they are bad but simply that feelings do not establish Christ or His presence among us.  They flow from the means of grace and are transformed (as our the minds of God's people) as the fruit of Christ's presence and the consequence of His grace among us and for us. 

The name of Christ is not like a wizard's words that suddenly shake the wand and zap us with magic.  The name of Christ is the Word of Christ, His water, His bread and wine and His voice to absolve.  When we begin to get this, we also find the joy and freedom that is the true and living fruit of the Gospel.  We do not begin with the invocation because God is hidden and must be summoned but because, bidden or not, God is present.  We have come to the very means of grace wherein He has attached Himself so that by the power of the Spirit we may receive what He has promised to give for the joy and edification of His people and for the equipment of His people for their vocation both toward God and neighbor.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A changing definition of "elite". . .

I had prepared something to post sooner but then decided to wait.  Sure enough Millie Hemingway did a better job than I could have in responding to the diatribe of Meryl Streep who won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes.  You can read her words here. . .

Let me instead focus upon one line.  Streep said, “Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press.” 

Hmmm.  Streep would have us believe that she and her Hollywood cohorts are an oppressed group.  Think about this.  The average person in that room wore clothing that cost more than most families spend on clothing for an entire year.  The venue and its production cost more than most school budgets for a year.  The media provided not only prime time access to the goings on but made sure that it all made the news in a variety of ways following the event itself.  The combined income of the folks in that room was greater than the entire economy of most countries in the world.  The work of an actor may be difficult but it is not back breaking (Anthony Hopkins said this) and most of the people of the world work harder than Hollywood to find basics like clean water, secure shelter, food, and medical care.  At the end of this event, they all went home to houses that hardly anyone in the TV audience could afford to visit -- much less live in.  Most of the folks in that room could pick up the phone and be plugged directly into the power brokers not only of Hollywood but the world (witness the access they had with President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton).  I could go on.  I think you get the picture.  These are the elite of the elite and Streep was preaching to the choir.

I must admit that my view of Streep has been indelibly etched by her portrayal of a self-absorbed woman who abandoned not only her marriage but her son and then tried to come back and steal him from his dad (Kramer vs Kramer).  While I appreciated her role in The Devil Wears Prada, that part could hardly have been much of a stretch for a woman accustomed to power, glamor, and being a member of the elites in America.  For what it is worth, I was greatly disappointed in her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, an iconic figure who ended up looking demented in the biopic starring Streep.  So, I am not really a fan even though the verdict has been rendered and she has been deemed the best of the best.  But whether I like her as an actress or not, she is neither oppressed nor threatened by me or Trump or anyone else.  Folks like us will continue to go to the movies and watch them on DVD and wait for them to run in edited versions on TV and all the while she will collect a grand salary for her work and people will presume that with her notoriety there is wisdom that makes her smarter than the rest of us.  But it is a sham.

The real oppressed today are those who refuse to bow before the Baal of progressivism, who stand against the prevailing mood and opinion of culture (in everything from gender identity to sexual politics to ecology to anti-religious sentiment).  The real oppressed today are bakers who lose everything because they won't bake a cake for someone who could have gotten a cake from anywhere or the child in the womb treated like it is somebody's possession to be discarded with the garbage on a whim or those threatened with banishment from the public square because they believe a truth no longer tolerated.  I am not oppressed and have never claimed to be.  But I know who is.

Meryl Streep and her friends in Hollywood want to run the White House as if The West Wing was still in production.  They are not shy about telling us all what we ought to think, how we ought to vote, how we ought to act, what we ought to say, and when we ought to shut up.  They can have their opinions.  This is America, after all.  But their opinions count no more than mine nor the opinions of anyone else.  They have access to media and they exploit it well but they remain elite in every way that term is defined.  Vilified by a few -- maybe.  Unpopular with the new occupant of the White House -- maybe.  Oppressed?  Not at all.  Wake up and smell the roses.  The smug put downs that are not radical or edgy at all betray the intolerance of those who claim to be tolerant and the arrogance of those who have the most access to media and power in America.  I do not believe Trump is a hero or a savior but neither is he a villain.  In the great debate, ideas and arguments count -- not innuendo.  Maybe we will all be better off when Trump and Streep both realize this.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The reading for Epiphany is from the. . . uh. . . Quran.

Christians are often completely unfamiliar with the Quran and are often surprised to find out what is really in the Book of Mohammed.  They would probably be most surprised to find out that there is a version of the Christmas story in the Quran.  This is hardly a parallel to the familiar Bible texts that detail the conception and birth of Jesus to His mother, the Virgin Mary.  In fact, this story is a denial of the basic truth of Scripture -- that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Messiah long promised.  While there are words about the birth of Jesus, the account describes Mary as "ashamed" and tells how Jesus miraculously comforted Mary in her doubts by insisting, in His infant voice, that he was truly a "servant of God."  It must be noted that Muslims do not acknowledge the Scriptural claims of Jesus as the one and only Son of God in flesh or the atonement for the sins of the world the incarnate Son of God accomplished by His saving death and life giving resurrection.

All of that, however, was left unclear when worshippers on Epiphany hear a the Quran chanted at an official service at the Scottish Episcopal Church's Glasgow Cathedral.  There the people were treated to the Muslim version of the Virgin Mary's conception of Jesus, chanted Madinah Javed from Sura 19 of the Quran.  You can see it here on their Facebook page.   There the cathedral's Facebook page describes the service as a "wonderful event," reminding them "that it is not only Christians who give honour to Jesus."

The fact that this happened only betrays the vacuous character of liberal Christianity, not only in England but throughout the world.  All those COEXIST bumper stickers would strip away the unique truth of the Scriptures and empty the Christian kerygma leaving only a thin moral veneer to a faith divorced from truth and deposited in bits and pieces in all the religions of the world.  That this took place in an Anglican Church is not surprising and that some laud this is also not shocking but what is most troubling is that many folks wonder what is the harm?  The harm is that a modern text like the Quran is given equal status with the Scriptures, the word of Mohammed the same weight as the Word of the Lord that endures forever, and the classic creedal identity of Christianity reduced to one of many ideas about God.  The harm is that the Word that saves has been reduced to words that merely describe and something lacking real truth or power to do anything but elicit feelings and encourage generic goodness and brotherly affection.

I can imagine that some would hail this as a big step forward.  In reality it is one more sign that orthodox Christianity is more and more becoming a stranger to Anglicanism and to continental churches.  Sadly, I can well imagine that something similar might take place in liberal Sweden among those who claim to be Lutheran.  Surely this is not all that much different from Native American prayers and "readings" from a variety of sources that have graced all kinds of official and semi-official church gatherings in America -- from an ELCA women's convention to the installation of the most recent Episcopal Presiding Bishop.  The mainline in America have squandered their heritage of faith and step by step make their way to apostasy.  It is not only issues of sexuality that betray a guiding truth foreign to the Scriptures but the abandonment of any real truth that Christians may know and confess and any claim of the Bible to be the source and norm of that truth.  I wish I could say it was all just goofiness but what happened in Scotland is not benign.  It is a cancer spreading through Christianity and Christians and it threatens our very identity and existence.

Sorry folks, for whatever reason this did not post when it was scheduled.  So it came after Remember him? on Feb 18, when it was supposed to be the other way around.  If you wondered about Feb. 18's post, read this one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Justice or Vengeance. . . Love or Hate

Sermon for Epiphany 7A, preached on Sunday, February 19, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

[Jesus said] You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Mt 5:38-39).

We all love it when the bad guy gets it in the end; when the school yard bully gets knocked down.  All the best movies have heroes and villains with the heroes delivering justice.  However, what we often consider to be justice is actually vengeance, driven by hate, driven by a desire to get even, to punish those who’ve done us harm.  But these things are contrary to Christ; they’re contrary to our lives as Christians, people redeemed from sin and death.  Our Lord and Savior calls us not to get even, but to repay evil and hate with love. 

But you say, “Wait a minute.  What about ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?’  Didn’t God say that?”  Yes He did, but this isn’t what you think.  This law of retribution isn’t about revenge or getting even.  It’s about justice that seeks out equivalence. 

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” wasn’t a legal prescription applied literally and indiscriminately.  If a man’s eye was accidently poked out by a friend, the friend’s eye wasn’t gouged out to make all things even and fair.  If there was an accident and someone’s front two teeth were knocked out, the one who caused the accident wasn’t held down while others pulled out his two front teeth.  The law of retribution was about justice.  It treated the life and body of everyone as equal in value, regardless of their status or place in society.  And it protected the offender from excessive punishment, something we’re quite good at doling out. 

In seeking revenge (our so called justice), we go over board.  Not only do we want to make people pay for what they’ve done, we want them to suffer more than we did.  We get even and then some.  Someone who embarisses us we seek to humilate and ruin their reputation.  Our brother takes a toy away from us and we inflict physical harm.  The person who cuts us in line we curse and swear, calling down God’s wrath and damnation upon them.  The person who accidentally rear ends us at the stop light we sue for all they’re worth, even if no damage was done. 

All of this we do quoting “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  Our sinful nature has turned this into a self-justifying phrase, allowing us to do anything and everything in the game of payback.  We usurp the law of retribution, making ourselves judge, jury, and executioner, fulfilling our lust for blood and vengeance.  This of course isn’t what God intended. 

Like last week’s Gospel, we hear Jesus rightly teach His disciples the full meaning and truth of God’s commands.  He explains to them that they’re not to seek vengeance.  Christ isn’t teaching pacifism here though.  Rather, He’s calling His disciples, all followers, you and me to lives filled with generosity and love, instead of lives filled with grudges and revenge.  “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs of you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:40-42).

As followers of Christ, we are to live peaceful lives with others, generous lives going above and beyond for others.  We’re not to repay evil with more evil, but overcome it with good, with love (Rm 12:18-21).  And this extends even beyond our actions.  It also includes what’s in our hearts. 
Jesus continues “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Unlike “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” this isn’t from God.  No where did God ever say to hate your enemies.  This teaching is completely from us sinners.  It comes from our sinful desire for vengeance.

It’s easy to hate those who’ve wronged us; it comes naturally.  We don’t have to practice this.  The problem is hate isn’t just a disliking of someone.  Hate is a desire for bad things to happen to them, either by our hands or someone else’s.  Hate is what causes us to smile when bad things happen to them and say, “Good, they got what they deserved.”  But there’s no room for hate in the hearts of Christ’s redeemed.  We’ve been given new and clean hearts, hearts that are filled with love for neighbors and for our enemies. 

And again, this love isn’t just a warm fuzzy feeling.  It’s an attitude of good intention that’s fulfilled in action.  This love is seen in acts of service.  We love our enemies not just in feelings, but in words and actions, doing good for them, helping them, praying for them. 
But why?  Why should we love those who hate us?  This isn’t fair and it’s not logical.  It’s not easy to repay hate with love.  That’s right, it’s not easy to love our enemies, but that’s what we’re called to do, because that’s what God does. 

God loves our enemies unconditionally, just as He loves you unconditionally.  Just as He gave you life and cares for you, so too has He given them life and cares for them.  “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45b).  God cares and loves everyone equally, whether they’re Christian or not; that’s why He gave the law of retribution, to show that all human life is equal in value….And it’s because of this same unconditional, indiscriminate love that God ultimately fulfilled the law of retribution Himself when He punished His only begotten Son in our place. 

We’re God’s enemies.  We’re sinners, separated from God, standing in direct opposition to Him.  Even though He’s given us life, we act as our own gods.  We steal justice away from Him.  We blaspheme Him with our words and actions, and because of this, we rightly deserve death at His hand.  This isn’t vengeance, but true justice.  The wages of sin is death, therefore we must die.  That’s fair, that fulfills the law of retribution...but that’s not what you receive. 

Even though you’re enemies of God, He is gracious and merciful to you, redeeming you from your sin (Rm 5:10).  In unconditional love, He punished His perfect Son in your place.  Jesus suffered the ultimate form of capital punishment on the cross.  Unfairly, He died for your sins and God gives you His righteousness.  You’re declared innocent, no longer an enemy.  You’re covered in Christ’s righteousness and you’re perfect in God’s sight, being perfect, just as your Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).

God sent His Son to die for you, for all people, including your enemies, those who hate and harm you.  Christ’s death paid for your sins, and theirs.  God’s love in Christ forgives you your sins, and enables you to forgive those who sin against you.  It’s not easy to love our enemies, to repay hate with love, to turn the other cheek.  In fact, this may be the most difficult thing to do at times, and yet as forgiven children of God, that’s what we’re to do, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, that’s what we do.  With hearts that have been created new and made holy, with faith that knows how much we’ve been forgiven, we forgive others.  We repay hate with love, with God’s love shown forth in Christ Jesus.  In His name...Amen.

On the development of doctrine. . .

St Vincent of Lérins firmly rejected the possibility of new revelation.  “What is the deposit?” he replies: “It is that which you believed, not that which you invented.”  Yet at the same time, St. Vincent not only admits but is positive about the theological growth that confesses that revelation.  The author of the famous dictim that defines catholicity, Vincent understands proper theological development as the move to confess ever more clearly what is believed and confessed always and everywhere.  So doctrine moves from the implicit to the explicit, much the way that the Trinity, which is not new, unfolds and becomes ever clearer both in confession before the world and when challenged by heresy.  Again, St. Vincent: “By your explanations, let that which was believed obscurely now be understood clearly. What antiquity venerated without comprehension, let posterity now understand.”

John Henry Newman wrestled with St. Vincent's words and with the question of doctrinal development.  He found too narrow the scholastic idea that doctrinal development consisted of the Church logically deducing new truths from accepted premises.  Newman was much more friendly to the idea of doctrinal development that St. Vincent and yet even Newman left boundaries, insisting that legitimate doctrinal development maintains its essential continuity with the original revelation and does not exceed it.  Yet even Newman seemed intent upon reconciling doctrinal invention of the Popes, treating the Immaculate Conception of Mary (objected to by Protestants and Orthodox alike) by suggesting  that if the Apostle Paul had been asked “whether or not our Lady had the grace of the Spirit anticipating all sin whatever, including Adam’s imputed sin, I think he would have answered in the affirmative. If he never was asked the question, I should say he had in his mind the decision in 1854 in confusio or implicité” (“Letter to Flanagan,” p. 159).

St. Vincent of Lérins distinguishes in his Commonitorium between profectus (advance, progress) and permutatio (change, alteration). Orthodox theologian Augustine Casiday explains this important distinction:
An advance, then, as opposed to a change, works out an implicit but inchoate teaching, without compromising what is already “plain and clear” and all the while retaining whatever has already been established. By implication, a change violates this norm—either by introducing something entirely new, or else by contradicting what is already manifest, or even by abandoning an established definition. According to Vincent not all variations that occur throughout time are changes (which are by definition illegitimate): some of them are advances (which are by definition legitimate). The examples that Vincent gives to illustrate an advance come from the councils of the church, when occasionally it was necessary to introduce a new word “for the better understanding, never for a new interpretation of the Faith.” On the basis of this distinction, Vincent was prepared to denounce heresy. (Remember the Days of Old, p. 66)
In the end Newman, who first rejects the Vincentian canon of catholicity, ends up reinterpreting it to make room for legitimate development which, it can only be said, is left to papal wisdom to recognize and define -- something Lutherans, Protestants, and the Orthodox will dispute.  How can it be said that the claims of papal supremacy, for example, reflect the harmonious development from the early Christian position?  And the list of questions goes on -- for if there is legitimate doctrinal development that can allow for such "invention" (too strong a word?) then who gets to determine what is legitimate and what is not?  That is the big question and the hole Newman leaves.

Blessed St. Vincent of Lérins: 'Development' in the Christian Church and in her Doctrine: Development must take place eodem sensu eademque sententia [keeping the same meaning and the same judgment/opinion].  Lutherans can live with that.  Rome cannot.  Elucidation but not invention, iron sharpening iron to clarify and confess in response to question or challenge, but not novelty.  This is the opposite of the Vincentian dictim and the Lutheran claims in the Augustana!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The mystery that is Lutheranism. . .

Opening my issue of Cross Accent I found an article by Markus Rathey on Luther.  His is one of many articles re-examining Luther.  On the one hand, I am thankful for the renewed interest in Luther.  On the other hand, part of me wonders if this is not some renewed attempt to muddy what we have known.  For example, Rathey, with whom I have emailed, insists that we know little about Bach's personal piety and not much about the Lutheranism in which he was raised or in which his musical career flourished.  He is dismissive of previous works on Bach that have spoken of his Lutheran faith and how that faith is revealed in his work. 

I wrote to him regarding his belief "that we do not know much about Bach's personal piety":  Surely this is in jest since the piety of J. S. Bach has been thoroughly investigated and described on the basis of his work and his own personal Bible (in the library of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) and has been one of the subjects of many books (including but not limited to the Robin Leaver books cited in the notes to the article and Bach Among the Theologians (Pelikan), JS Bach and the Liturgical Life in Leipzig (Stiller), Bach – the Music of the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner), Bach (Boyd), and Bach in Koethen (Smend) in my own meager library alone plus so many articles in professional literature that it makes such a statement more than careless but reckless and untrue.
Rathey was undeterred.  He does not believe Bach's personal study Bible, housed in the Concordia Seminary Library in St. Louis, offers that much help in the pursuit of Bach's personal piety.  He responded:

As you point out, we have several sources that can provide some insight into Bach's piety: his personal bible, as well as his theological library, and his works. What we do not have are any personal letters by Bach in which he expresses details of his own piety. Bach's library is only of limited help because we do not know with which of the books he agreed and how/why he acquired the books.

This leaves his bible as primary source. The bible, which he probably acquired in 1733, contains interesting comments in the margins and some underlined verses. The marginal comments and underlined verses reflect a particular interest in certain theological topics but they are not enough to really reconstruct a theological profile of Bach's religious convictions. Please don't get me wrong, I am sure that Bach was a pious person and that his own piety stood in the tradition of Luther's theology; however, as I demonstrate in my article, Luther's theology had undergone transformations in the 200 years between Luther and Bach. Different theological school were competing and even someone who identified as "Lutheran" could hold very diverse views on specific theological questions. The two major camps in Bach's time were Lutheran Orthodoxy  and Pietism. Different Bach scholars have identified Bach sometimes with the one camp, sometimes with the other. I see Bach closer to orthodox Lutheran theology but we don't have indisputable proof for this view (what makes this so difficult is the fact that even the pietist movement in the 17th/18th centuries developed and flourished within the Lutheran church).   Some of the scholars in the past have been too optimistic in their attempts at reconstructing Bach's religious convictions. 

It is my contention that the issues at work are several.  One may be the need to review scholarship and make new what is familiar.  It is the familiar academic skepticism about what has been known before and what can be known today.  I understand that.  The other, I believe, represents a thoroughgoing unfamiliarity with Lutheranism.  Lutheranism remains an enigma to Bach interpreters and to people in general.  Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker wrote an extensive piece on Bach and the impact of his theology upon his music.  Again, he is attempting to go beyond what has been said in the past.  I remain encouraged by this renewed interest in Bach, especially in Bach's faith, but I must confess that one the hurdles the Bach biographers and interpreters must pass over is a significant lack of knowledge about Lutheranism in general and, specifically, Lutheran history.

While this unfamiliarity with Lutheranism is certainly true of those outside of Lutheranism, it is no less a problem for Lutherans looking at themselves.  I maintain that Bach's Lutheran faith and piety are not such a mystery but are are fairly well revealed by a look at the liturgical life of the cities and churches where Bach lived and served.  He had his problems with employers and job descriptions, to be sure, but we know the context in which Bach worked, the life of the parishes Bach served, and the character of His music stands for itself. 

I also maintain that there is an agenda in muddying the rather clear waters through which we see Bach and ourselves.  Ours is an age which delights in ambiguity but Bach lived in a era in which revelation, truth, and doctrine were anything but ambiguous.  We tend to impose upon our confessional documents the same sort of skepticism we impose upon Bach and His Lutheranism.  We presume our own modern hesitance and uncertainty upon the past.  More than this, we also try to read in the current projects of social advocacy upon the past.  In this regard, Ross attempts to explore Bach's antisemitism -- giving some credibility to a charge of Bach's prejudice as if he were a bigot who had it in for the Jews (just like the way we want to pin the sins of the Nazi's upon Luther).

Instead of these, what this ought to be is an occasion for Lutherans to speak more clearly, to address the Lutheran distinctives of Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament, the theology of glory and of the cross, etc... What we ought to be doing is addressing the curious with more than our own version of skepticism and with confidence proclaiming what we believe, teach, and confess.  Perhaps this newfound interest in Bach's piety and faith could become an opportunity for Lutherans to get together on the same page, to address a curious world with who we Lutherans are and what we believe, and show forth this renewed Lutheran faith and piety before the world.  Or would that be too much to expect?  In the meantime I can sit and lament that Bach's faith is treated as a curiosity, Lutheranism is a mystery, and Lutherans an oddity.