Saturday, September 30, 2017

Gnosticism - the heresy that will not die. . .

Oh, to be sure, modern day Gnostics are not exactly the same as the Gnostics of the first century but they are clearly kissing cousins.  We live in an age in which there has been a massive revival of the Gnostic dualism of the material and the spiritual with the material clearly being bad and the spiritual being that which really matters.  Except today we call it spiritual but not religious. This represents an attempt to strip man from his body, from any hint that flesh and spirit form a sacred and God-given identity, or that the flesh is any more than raw material to be shaped as the spirit desires.  In this heresy, the incarnation is at best an irrelevant detail and at worst a downright embarrassment.  And the outcome of the faith is hardly new flesh but the eternal release from all things fleshly -- the ultimate freedom.

Gnosticism is at least in part responsible for the current fixation on gender confusion.  As the gnostics hold, no one's identity is permanently tied to what you see in the mirror.  Instead, your identity is really who you are on the inside! The physical body therefore can be manipulated by estrogen or testosterone to achieve the desired end, mutilated and butchered by surgery to create the look you feel is really you, and even changed as often as is necessary to keep up with the ever evolving spirit. For the body is merely a container, a vehicle, a space to contain the real person, the spirit.  So, if, for example, an accident of birth creates a conflict between the body and the spirit, you know which must be changed.  The body is, in this case, a restrictive cage in which the real person is trapped and therefore the most noble course is to break open the cage and free the spirit. This is the gnosticism of our age. In this Gnosticism, the real person is no longer the whole person -- the embodied soul -- but the enslaved soul whose evil material body has become a prison.

Marriage becomes, in Gnosticism, the pursuit of a soulmate, a person with whom you have a spiritual tie or complementarity.  It certainly cannot be about bodies that fit together, the love that flows from God's own creative love and produces new life, or the merging of two lives into one flesh.  Nope, there is no organic unity to marriage, only a spiritual complementarity.  God forbid we should even begin to talk about love that sacrifices, suffers, or puts another before self.  None of that works in an individualized view of the spirit in which freedom from sacrifice, suffering, or deferment to others is the key to it all.

I could go on but the danger here is that Christians have heard this Gnostic heresy so often from the world that they have incorporated this false duality into their own thinking.  It is certainly understandable.  After all, it makes it much easier to reconcile Christianity to the zeitgeist and to find accommodation with culture.  But the problem here is that Christ is not he Savior whose incarnation, suffering, and death redeem anything or anyone but He becomes instead the emissary of the great but distant divinity who enables us to find the path to the freedom from the flesh (material).

Maybe the folks I encounter are just different but I am finding more and more people who claim to be Christian but who believe this spiritual but not religious idea, who do not find reincarnation incompatible with the faith, who are friendly to the idea that Christianity is true but not in an exclusive sense, and who really do not understand what is the big deal with same sex marriage, transgenderism, and every other kind of sexual trend (or perversion) -- since it is just sex, just the body, and it is all good if it is consensual (the spiritual permission to use the body as you may desire).  These are the ones who seem to be as connected to their tattoo artist as their pastor/priest and who view the body, as with everything else in life, as a canvas for self-expression.

There are no new heresies.  Only the same old ideas hashed and rehashed as if recycling were not simply about what to do with our empty water bottles but the same noble pursuit of old ideas who have some abiding value (even if they cannot save).

Friday, September 29, 2017

Air Conditioning Hell. . .

Got your attention, right?  Okay, I am not going to write about air conditioning hell.  That would be foolish.  But who could argue that we have effectively done the same thing by eliminating hell from our vocabulary, teaching, and preaching?  Of course we have.  Hell is hardly talked about anymore and if it is, it is joked about as if it were not real.

What I am not suggesting is that we preach fire and brimstone again.  I am not in favor of squeezing out the Gospel in order to preach more of hell and its fire.  What I am hoping is that there is a way that we can talk again about the reality of hell and about the consequence of unbelief.  Ours is not a weak and frail God who will forget our sin.  Ours is a God whose wrath over sin is as permanent as is that sin.  Without the blood of Christ to cover those sins, they remain and stand as testament against the sinner.  Having rejected the blood of Christ or our guilt, the sin remains and God's wrath remains.  It is the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin.  Christ died for all, to be sure, but those who reject the righteousness of His life as their new baptismal clothing and who distance themselves from the suffering and death that paid sin's debt benefit nothing from His once for all sacrifice.

It is as if we have become embarrassed over hell.  Have a couple of generations with a new lectionary helped us to forget the mentions of hell in the Scriptures?   Have we skipped over this in catechism?  Have Bible studies focused on personal interest or benefit skipped over this topic?  I am not sure it matters but it is as if we have had amnesia when it comes to hell.  We believe life is good and Christian life is better but we all go to God as spirits when we die and it is all good.  At least that seems to be the common idea about what happens to the dead.  Is it because that is what we want to believe or what we have come to believe without any real mention of hell anymore?

I have to admit I find it distasteful to talk about it.  It is even harder to sing about it.  Even I was taken aback when a missing stanza was restored to Lift High the Cross in Lutheran Service Book.  We love to sing about lifting high the cross, proclaiming the love of Christ, and then about stanza 5 it all comes to a screeching halt with:
5 Let every race and every language tell
of him who saves our lives from death and hell.
Hell?  Ouch.  You mean that outside of Christ there are consequences?  More than judgment and some stigma but real pain and suffering?   Where weeping and gnashing of teeth will never end?  What?  Really?

Of course it is distasteful.  Only a demented personality would enjoy the prospect of eternal pain and suffering.  But air conditioning hell will not make it pleasant, avoiding it will not make it go away, and ignoring it will not make it disappear.  Only the preaching of the Gospel, the power of the Spirit, the gift of faith, and the blood of Christ that avails for sin can take hell from us.  Failing to talk about hell does no one any favors -- not the unbeliever secure in the grasp of sin, not the Christian wavering in the face of temptation, and not the power of the Gospel preached, taught, and sung. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Bad etiquette. . .

While it was written by Michael Davis, Editor  of the Catholic Herald and on the occasion of the filial correction 62 scholars issued to the Pope, it has profound implications.  Davis aptly describes which spiritual discipline is so difficult and why we prefer to talk about how we feel instead of sin and forgiveness.  His unholy trinity is surely as applicable to Lutherans as to Roman Catholics.  We tend to believe doctrinal error has no real consequences and it is downright rude to call someone to account.  Sin is sin.  Error is error. These things have eternal consequences and no one is well served when we ignore them or politely talk around them.  This is the elephant in all our rooms.  It is of great consequence for the spiritual discipline of the local congregation and all the members, for the church at large and each pastor, and especially for those who have a special teaching responsibility for the Church.  To the world it is positively medieval.  To Christians, it should be the mark of love.
It's bad manners to discuss the terrible effects of sin. Waugh, like the authors of the correction, broke the taboo.  If nothing else, the authors of the “filial correction” are guilty of bad etiquette. They’ve breached 21st-century Catholicism’s trinity of taboos: authority, heresy, and sin. Their reverence for the Holy Father is matched only by an apparent belief that doctrinal error has real implications for the fate of our immortal souls. It’s all rather unpleasantly medieval.

Yet these themes also play a major part in 20th-century English literature. Lady Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited spoke so movingly to her lover Charles Ryder about the gravity of adultery, in one of literature’s greatest break-up scenes:

Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful. Always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. “Poor Julia,” they say, “she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her little sin. A pity it ever lived,” they say, “but it’s so strong. Children like that always are. Julia’s so good to her little, mad sin.”

Our ancestors knew what we’ve long forgotten: sin isn’t an intellectual shuttlecock – something to bat around in the pages of magazines and university debate clubs. It can’t be rationalised or explained away.

Why? Because we don’t have to wait till Judgement Day to face the consequences of our sins. They infect our souls like a virus, and eat away at our moral courage like termites. The more we sin, the more likely we are to keep sinning.

That’s why Jesus Christ – the great physician, the carpenter’s son – gave us Holy Mother Church. She heals our souls through Reconciliation, and braces our resolve with the Eucharist. Sin is fast-acting, but so is grace. And the sacraments are its vehicles.  But to misuse the sacraments is worse than to not use them at all. St. Paul warns us that “he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself.” It’s the Church’s job to form our conscience, to teach us right from wrong.
And that’s the danger inherent in Amoris Laetitia. If the Church tells the laity that adultery might not always be that serious a sin, they won’t confess it. They certainly won’t amend their lives. If the Church then welcomes them to the altar-rail, she’s inviting them to eat and drink their own damnation.

God may forgive the faithful if they’re misled by their priests and prelates. But that stain on their souls won’t go away, as Julia Flyte reminds us. Adultery doesn’t stop being a sin just because we “draw the curtains on it.” Our conscience won’t grow stronger if we “put it to sleep with a tablet of Dial when it’s fretful.”

Sin has consequences. Waugh knew that. So do the authors of the filial correction. The question is, does the Pope?

Gospel of John as Baptismal Text

Click here to go to Outer Rim Territories for recordings of the Rev. Dr. William Weinrich teaching at the 2017 Indiana District Pastor's Conference in May of this year.  The narrative of the Gospel of John is replete with and guided by images and stories which reflect the central necessity of baptism for the reality and life of the church. Through discussion of select sections of John’s Gospel, culminating in the passion of Jesus as the institution of baptism, the presentations will attempt to make clear that the Gospel of John is a distinctly baptismal text. To be begotten from above through water and Spirit is to partake in the life of Jesus who is himself the gift of eternal life and whose life is itself the life lived in view of baptism.”

Dr. Weinrich is the author of the Gospel of John in the Concordia Commentary Series and is a great teacher (my teacher, mentor, and friend since 1976 -- when we were both, shall we say, young men). 

HT  Christopher Gillespie

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bishops and Their Councils and Conferences. . .

I have wondered for some time what exactly the Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference is. An Episcopal Conference or Conference of Bishops or National Conference of Bishops is an official assembly of the bishops of the Catholic Church in a given territory (nation). I get that.  Episcopal conferences existed for more than forty existed before the Second Vatican Council gave them formal status (Christus Dominus, 38), and Pope Paul VI set up guidelines (1966, motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae). Yes, all it takes is Google to discover that they are all governed by Canon Law (1983)  But what exactly are they?  It seems that both conservatives and progressives within the Roman Church have issues with episcopal conferences.

Episcopal Conferences seem to have a status greater than individual bishops and yet, they really have no specific theological stature. The Bishop of Rome claims status over the Universal Church and individual bishops, priests, and even deacons have status over specific locales but Episcopal Conferences?  So what does this mean, practically speaking.  If a majority of bishops in a national episcopal conference decide something, then that obviously has greater import and priority over individual bishops and dioceses, right?  Well, even if it does, why?  Why does a conference of bishops have greater authority, status, or jurisdiction over the local bishop?  It seems to me an invention without real status or authority but yet it certainly acts as if it  had such authority and status.

By now you are glazed over and wondering what kind of stuff I am putting in my coffee.  Well, it does have reference to Lutheranism.  Many, perhaps even most, Lutheran denominations have a form of an episcopal conference.  It could be the Council of Presidents in the LCMS or the Bishop's Conference of the ELCA.  I  can understand how the individual District President or Synod Bishop has authority and jurisdiction.  I am not sure where the idea of a council or conference of presidents or bishops came from?  We Lutherans distinguish the President or Bishop from the pastor not by divine right but by human assignment of responsibility.  So for us, there is no class distinction between bishops or presidents.  It is a distinction of function or responsibility we have assigned to those pastors who have been elected to these offices.  But doesn't a council or conference of presidents or bishops imply that this class distinction?  Doesn't having such a group invest them with responsibilities and jurisdiction that our theology has not assigned?

I understand pastoral conferences since by our own definition (at least in Missouri) members of Synod are pastors and congregations.  I am not sure how the ELCA describes this but I cannot imagine that clergy do not have similar status within their own structure and theology.  Since we have both a congregational and a ministerial identity and status, it is logical that a pastor's conference represents a relative consensus of those who are members of the Synod.  But what about bishops or presidents councils or conferences?

Don't get me wrong, I am not necessary opposed to them.  In fact, I can see how they might function for good.  My question involves not their advisability but the theology of it all and how we both invest and justify the authority, responsibility, and jurisdiction we place in them.  It may well be that these are simply anomalies.  They are not really anything -- that is, anything more or less than we want them to be.  I suspect that Rome would like them to have more than this kind of identity and I think we Lutherans would prefer some sort of legitimacy as well.  That is why I ask the question.  What is the theological status, authority, and jurisdiction we assign to national groups such as episcopal conferences or councils of [district] presidents?  If someone could enlighten me, I would appreciate it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Do you begrudge God His generosity?

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 20A, preached on Sunday, September 24, 2017.

    We live in a world of entitlements.  We have drunk deeply of the koolaid of what we think are our rights, what we are owed. Watch all the lawyer commercials on TV.  You are owed compensation.  You are owed happiness.  Others owe you respect for your opinions, no matter how screwy they are.
    At the same time, we are not responsible even for our screw ups.  We are victims.  Victims of a bad home, a poor school, a repressive society, of a prejudiced culture, of an inequitable marketplace, and of an unjust world.  The problem with this is that grace does not fit in this kind of world.
    Your sinful hearts insist you deserve better than life has given you.  You should be first in line, you should be paid more than you are, and you should not have to shoulder the full responsibility for anything.  This is the complaint in Jesus’s story.  This is the scandal to our modern mind.  God is not fair. We are not rewarded as we should and others get what they do not deserve.  Sinful hearts cry out for justice.
    We have heard since childhood that we are good, we are awesome, we are better and smarter and more deserving than others.  Sin always plays the victim.  You deserve a break and others do not deserve mercy.  God is not fair.
    But the Law of God says you deserve nothing.  The Law of God insists that you belong not at the head of the line but at the end.  The Law of God insists that the wages of sin is death, even for the little sins we do not think are all that bad.  The Law of God says you are guilty and that justice means you should die. That is the voice of the Law to a people who think we are good.
    Then, when you think that there is nothing left, when there is no hope, the surprise of grace enters in.  God is not fair but He is more than fair, He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  God gives to the unworthy what they do not deserve, He kills His own righteous Son for the guilty, and He gives everlasting life a people who deserve
    The Law says you should get nothing but the Gospel says you get everything you don’t deserve and nothing of what you do deserve.  You get a Savior who loves you enough to suffer and die in your place on the cross.  You get forgiveness for the sins you do knowingly and deliberately as well as the accidental ones.  You get the life death cannot kill but that Christ died and rose to make possible.  It is the best news ever.
    But this grace still seems to rub us the wrong way.  Grace is fine when it comes our way but grace is not so good when it comes to others not so deserving in our own minds.  And so the question comes:  Do you begrudge God His generosity?  Do you receive with joy what God has given or do you despise His grace and insist you deserve more?
    This is not a story about pagans and Christians but about Christians who know they deserve judgment and death and Christians who think they deserve reward and have earned a better life now and eternal life to come.  This is not about saving the lost but about Christians who think it is a big sacrifice to give up their Sundays for church or who think it costs them a lot to try and be good and it is not fair for God to save the sinners who are rescued by His Word and Spirit without having given up as much as we have for the sake of the Kingdom.
    This is a parable of warning.  And it goes to the heart of the Gospel.  You are saved by grace and works.  Faith abandons your works and refuses to boast in them.  Faith delights in being last because it means you are still in line when you should have been booted out a long time ago.  Faith gladly exchanges all hopes of justice for the richness of mercy.
    The truth is we credit ourselves with faith and call it a choice when only the Spirit can work faith in us.  We still think of goodness as a sacrifice and figure we deserve something for even trying to be holy.  We figure because we go to church, God owes us something.  We begrudge God His generosity and we have turned salvation into a business transaction.  The mercy of the Father, the love of the Son, and the power of the Spirit are gifts to you that you do not deserve.
        Do not grumble because God is gracious to others.  Rejoice because God is gracious to YOU.  If you want proof of God’s generosity look in the mirror.  You are living proof of God’s generosity. 
    Justice would require us to pay for our sins but Christ paid. Who is the one who bore the heat of the day and worked to pay the debt?  It is not you, it is Jesus.  And now you stand in line waiting upon the Lord to give you what only Jesus earned.  We are not entitled.  We are the beneficiaries of what Christ earned and faith is trusting in the promise of the Master, the reward for those who deserve nothing.   The last have already been made the first.  And you are living proof of it all.  Thanks be to God!

Who are we really?

Numbers above do NOT correspond to numbers below.
When Reformed liturgical customs began to be introduced into Lutheran territory, things got hot and heavy quickly.  Wolfgang Amling, leading theologian in Anhalt, began by seeking to remove the exorcism from the baptismal rite in 1590.  When disputes became pointed, everything came to a head in 1616 when Johann Georg, Margrave of the Silesian duchy of J√§gendorf, issued a list of 25 changes to the liturgy and to the church. It comes from my friend Joseph Herl’s book, Worship Wars (p. 111): 
  1. All images are to be removed from the church and sent to the court.
  2. The stone altar is to be ripped from the ground and replaced with a wooden table covered with a black cloth.
  3. When the Lord’s Supper is held, a white cloth covers the table.
  4. All altars, panels, crucifixes and paintings are to be completely abolished, as they are idolatrous and stem from the papacy.
  5. Instead of the host, bread is to be used and baked into bread loaves, cut into strips and placed in a dish, from which the people receive it in their hands; likewise with the chalice.
  6. The words of the supper are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
  7. The golden goblets are to be replaced with wooden ones.
  8. The prayer in place of the collect is to be spoken, not sung.
  9. Mass vestments and other finery are no longer to be used.
  10. No lamps or candles are to be placed at the altar.
  11. The houseling cloth is not to be held in front of the communicants.
  12. The people are not to bow as if Christ is present.
  13. The communicants shall no longer kneel.
  14. The sign of the cross after the benediction is to be discontinued.
  15. The priest is no longer to stand with his back to the people.
  16. The collect and Epistle are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
  17. Individuals are no longer to go to confession before communing, but rather register with the priest in writing.
  18. The people are no longer to bow when the name of Jesus is mentioned, nor are they to remove their hats.
  19. The Our Father is no longer to be prayed aloud before the sermon, but rather there is to be silent prayer.
  20. Communion is not to be taken to the sick, as it is dangerous, especially in times of pestilence.
  21. The stone baptismal font is to be removed and a basin substituted.
  22. Epitaphs and crucifixes are no longer to be tolerated in the church.
  23. The Holy Trinity is not to be depicted in any visual form.
  24. The words of the sacrament are to be altered and considered symbolic.
  25. The historic Epistles and Gospels are no longer to be used, but rather a section of the Bible [selected by the minister] read without commentary.
Okay, now tell me the truth.  How many of those things are you secretly happy that somebody stopped?  And if these had been long ago removed from your own Lutheran parish, would you be upset if some upstart young pastor showed up to restore them?  Especially if he removed an American flag to put the candelabra and processional cross there.

My point?  We are less comfortable with our Lutheran identity than we are being generic Protestants.  And that, my friend, is a problem for all Lutherans.
                                                                                         HT Brian Hamer

Monday, September 25, 2017

What it takes to get disciplined in the Episcopal Church. . .

I have written earlier about the rather tawdry story of the dealings of LA Bishop J. Jon Bruno in trying to take away land and buildings from St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, CA.  Short hand version:  The Bishop went to court to get the property away from the congregation when it voted to break away, gave the property to those remaining with TEC, and then tried to sell it out from underneath them -- all without requisite approvals and in a rather high handed manner.  Great sums were spent on litigation.  Well, now finally, Bishop Bruno has been handed a 3 year suspension from the high court of TEC for his actions in the whole sad affair. 

While some might cheer the fact that justice has been done, of sorts, I am saddened by the fact that you can get a bishop disciplined in TEC for a matter such as this but not for immoral living, not for denying the creed, not for violations of the Prayerbook and the 39 Articles, and not for heresy against Scripture.  In other words, you can tread all over the faith and still be okay in this denomination (denying everything from the Virgin Birth to the physical resurrection of Jesus, for example) but if you fail to get approval for real estate transactions, you will be held accountable.

But before the rest of us get too smug in our condemnations of the remnant of a once great church, we just might find that we are in a similar boat.  Oh, to be sure, conservative churches are typically very hard on immorality but it can be nigh unto impossible to get even conservative churches to do much more than stand and complain on their soap box about basic denials of doctrine and breeches of practice against their confessional standard.  We live in such an age of relative truth that we hardly know how to identity and label heresy and apostasy anymore.  And we appear to be comforted by the fact that, at least for now, it may not quite be in our own backyards. 

I certainly do not countenance a purity cult in which one is guilty until proven innocent and the manifold acronyms of splinter groups who insist upon starting new rather than finding another to join.  Nope, you will not get a pass from me on the sin of schism that insists upon agreement on everything under the sun.  But neither will you find me comforted by the fact that at least immorality and financial issues will rouse the sleeping church.  Somewhere we need to figure out again the path between a narrow truth and path that finds doctrinal fellowship with hardly anyone and one so wide there is not real truth left at all.  The most conservative groups among us fight as much with each other as anyone else and it has not borne any good fruit and the liberal churches know how to fight only about things unrelated to the faith and its poisoned fruit is equally as evident.  God help us!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pope Receives Correction from 62 Roman Catholic Scholars, Now 147 Signers. . .

After being delivered on August 11, 2017, and without a response, the 62 signers of the letter of filial correction to the Pope made their 25 page document public today.  Interestingly, one of the charges against the Pope is that he appears to view marriage like Luther.  No similar action has taken place within the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, when Pope John XXII was admonished for errors which he later recanted on his deathbed. More to come. . . “profound grief” and “filial devotion,” Catholic clergy and lay scholars from around the world have issued what they are calling a “Filial Correction” to Pope Francis for “propagating heresy.”

The Filial Correction, in the form of a 25-page letter, bears the signatures of sixty-two Catholic academics, researchers, and scholars in various fields from twenty countries. They assert that Pope Francis has supported heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the Eucharist that are causing a host of “heresies and other errors” to spread throughout the Catholic Church.

The correction was delivered to the Pope at his Santa Marta residence on August 11, 2017. No similar action has taken place within the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, when Pope John XXII was admonished for errors which he later recanted on his deathbed.

“With profound grief, but moved by fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ, by love for the Church and for the papacy, and by filial devotion toward yourself, we are compelled to address a correction to Your Holiness on account of the propagation of heresies effected by the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia and by other words, deeds and omissions of Your Holiness,” the signers write in the letter.
“As subjects, we do not have the right to issue to Your Holiness that form of correction by which a superior coerces those subject to him with the threat or administration of punishment,” they state.
“We issue this correction, rather, to protect our fellow Catholics — and those outside the Church, from whom the key of knowledge must not be taken away — hoping to prevent the further spread of doctrines which tend of themselves to the profaning of all the sacraments and the subversion of the Law of God,” they add.

The signers respectfully insist that Pope Francis condemn the heresies that he has “directly or indirectly upheld,” and that he teach the truth of the Catholic faith in its integrity.
They say that they make “no judgment” about the Pope’s culpability in propagating the seven heresies they list. They add that it is not their task to “judge whether the sin of heresy has been committed” whereby a person “departs from the faith by doubting or denying some revealed truth with a full choice of the will.”

The letter was made public today, six weeks after the signers received no response from the Pope.
 UPDATE. . .
The Secretariat for Communications of the Holy See has blocked access to the web page that adheres to an initiative that accuses the Pope of here, connected to what he wrote in “Amorislaetitia”.  From the Vatican’s computers you can no longer go to the page in question, in any language.  Outside the Vatican, however, the page is accessible.

“Access to the web page that you are trying to visit has been blocked in accord with institutional security policies.”

We give You thanks. . .

An interesting tidbit from Fr. Hunwicke.  I have copied the whole of his post for August 3.  It is interesting but more than that raises questions worth pondering.
There appears to be a consensus that there is no evidence for the Our Father being in the Mass anywhere in Christendom before about 350. Before that, it was a non-liturgical prayer used, perhaps several times a day, either privately or among groups of the Faithful. And the evidence is that during this period, when Christians shared the Our Father, they concluded it with a kiss of peace. The earliest evidence I know for this is in Tertullian (c160-225; see de Oratione PL 1 1176-9). A custom had grown up of people omitting the Peace after the Our Father when they had been fasting. Tertullian disapproves of it because it includes an inclination to boast publicly about fasting, contrary to Matth 6:16. He calls the kiss the signaculum orationis; the sealing (as a document might be sealed) or finishing-off of the prayer. Rhetorically, he asks: 'What prayer is complete when the holy kiss has been torn from it? Whom does the Peace impede as he is doing his duty towards the Lord? What sort of sacrifice is it, from which people go away without the Peace?' And a couple of paragraphs earlier, speaking about the ending of the prayer, he uses the phrase assignata oratione; 'when the prayer has been sealed'. Similarly, Origen (c185-254) , commenting on the Kiss of Peace referred to by S Paul in Romans 16 and elsewhere, describes it as happening 'after the prayers' (PG 14 1282). Since S Paul never specifies where the kiss is to be given, Origen's 'after the prayers' presumably reflects the usage of his own time.

It seems highly likely that what happened is this. When the Our Father was introduced into the Mass, it brought with it its concluding signaculum, the Kiss of Peace. Thus the Pax in the Liturgy is not, in itself, a reconciliatory preparation for Communion, but a 'signing off' from the Our Father and the Eucharistic Prayer. We find this situation reflected in the Letter of Pope S Innocent I to the Bishop of Gubbio in 416 (PL 56 515). Troublemakers in Gubbio had been saying that it was better to follow the custom of another Church as to the position of the Peace rather than that of Rome; the Pope responds ' the Pax has to be done after all the things which I'm not allowed to mention to show that the people have given their consent to everything which is done in the mysteries and celebrated in Church, and to demonstrate that they are finished by the signaculum of the concluding Pax'. The fact that he employs the very term signaculum which had been used by Tertullian suggests that we are dealing with conventional usage widespread enough to be common to Rome and North Africa and over a period of at least two centuries.

Thus the Roman position of the Peace appears to have a meaning and logic which go even beyond the introduction of the Our Father into the Mass, back to those early days when Christians met in little groups to say the Lord's Prayer together. That logic was the communal and corporate assent of God's People to the Lord's own Prayer. Of course, this does not exclude the notion of the Peace as a gesture of reconciliation among those who, as one Body, are just about to receive in the Eucharist the one Body and the one Cup of the Blood of the Redeemer. That theme is itself suggested by the last few clauses of the prayer, concerning mutual forgiveness.

But I wonder if there is a slightly different alternative narrative which might be valid here. Might the passage I have quoted from Tertullian relate not to the extraliturgical use of the Lord's Prayer among Christians, but to its use within the Mass? He does seem to be talking about something more corporate than merely a semiprivate prayergroup. And note the phrase 'What sort of sacrifice ...?' And there is a paragraph nearby where he criticises the habit of sitting down after the Peace; if the Peace simply concludes a little prayer meeting, why should the participants not be allowed to sit down once it was over?

Another And ... Having criticised his fellow Christians for witholding the Kiss so as publicly to flaunt the fact that they had been fasting, he goes on ' ... on the day of the Pasch, on which there is a rule of fasting which is common to all and as it were public, we rightly drop the kiss, because we don't care about hiding the thing [i.e. fasting] which we are doing with everybody else'. Those familiar with the traditional Roman Rite will recall that, to this day, we do not exchange the Sign of Peace at the Good Friday Mass of the Presanctified, nor at the Mass of the Easter Vigil (even though the celebrant has said the words). This is because we are all deemed to have been fasting.

Questions arise: if the Our Father was within the Mass as early as the time of Tertullian, what does this do to our understanding of the early history of the Liturgy? How are we to fit in the apparently second century evidence for the Peace coming at an earlier point in the Mass? Why should those fasting consider it appropriate to withold the Kiss? What is the relevance of all this to the Eucharistic Fast, first witnessed in North Africa at the end of the fourth century? And does the evidence we have considered derive support from Dom Gregory Dix's compelling theory about the Mass of the Presanctified (i.e., that the third century practice of Christians communicating themselves privately on weekdays from the Host which they had reserved at the Sunday Mass, and blessing by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and then drinking a cup of wine as an 'antitype' of the Blood of Christ, is found as the Communion Rite of the traditional Roman Good Friday liturgy, simply transferred from the private to the communal context)?
I must admit I find this all fascinating.  We have many questions.  Why do some rites omit the Our Father?  When was the Our Father an essential part of the rite?  Of course, we may not ever answer these questions.  I have little confidence of a red thread to chart the course of liturgical development -- certainly not one that makes sense of it all or explains everything to our liking.  There do seem to be some things that are always present.  The Eucharistic Prayer, for example.  Whether flexible and fluid (bishop praying as best he is able and at some length) or neatly nailed down by Pope or Council, the form is present even when the words are not yet uniform.

Perhaps the best beef Lutherans have with the Roman Canon is not simply the sacrificial language that Luther found so objectionable but the nature of that sacrificial language.  It is not Eucharistic at all!  In our journey of discovery, it is not only a search to uncover the missing links that connect the medieval Roman anaphora with earlier ones but a rediscovery of Eucharistic prayers -- not petitions that ask of God for something or tell God what we have done (and how good we really are) but real Eucharistic prayers that recount, give thanks, and rejoice over what God has done and the effects of His creative, saving, and sanctifying grace upon us.  Check out the thanksgivings in say Psalm 136 and compare that with some Eucharistic prayers that do everything but formally give thanks.  It is not simply about form but about content.  Whether the Our Father and what if the Verba Christi were not present in some rites is interesting but largely a curiosity for the few.  Eucharistic praying is the domain of all the faithful.  The biggest thing missing from Lutheran canons and from Rome's is this Eucharistic praying, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that does not presume to replace or add to what Christ has done but gives context and supreme place to what Christ alone has done.  That is the most relevant liturgical curiosity for the folks in the pew -- especially in a world in which we have increasingly become satisfied with what we can do and have done.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The pressure of the therapeutic Gospel. . .

Longer ago than I would care to admit, while on a vicarage (internship) within a then very large congregation, I served under a pastor who saw one of the most significant roles of the pastor as counselor.  Indeed, he came to the parish after I arrived and immediately began seeing individuals and families as a Christian therapist.  It took up a great deal of his time and I was not privy to who or what went on (as it should be).  But this was a parish of some 700 people in worship over 5 services a week, with over 100 in each catechism class, 200 or more in the preschool, and with a full-time staff of only a pastor, vicar, secretary, and custodian (with some part-time preschool staff, organists, and a choir director).  For good or for ill, it made a big impact on me.  On the one hand it appeared to me that people were hungry for this and in need of good, Christian counseling.  On the other, it frightened me since I knew little to nothing about how to do it -- just enough to be dangerous.

A couple of stints with the proverbial dysfunctional family systems you find all over the place and in the church as well and I found myself doing a fair bit of counseling.  Though to be fair, I was never sure of my role or skill or whether this is what I ought to be doing.  Then a wise older member came to me in private to talk.  He said in the gentlest of terms that I was not called to be chaplain to families but as pastor and he reminded me that my primary roles were preaching and teaching the Word, catechizing young and old, baptizing, presiding at the Lord's Table, absolving the penitent and admonishing the impenitent. . . you know the stuff printed on most Lutheran call documents.  I listened in awe both at his ability to describe, from the perspective of the pew, who the pastor is and what he is to do and how it cut against what I had been gradually easing into.  I remain forever grateful to him for his kind, wise, and sage words.  I have not forgotten them.

As modernity has pushed the church to the margins and fringes and Christians both lament their diminishing place and are frustrated by what is happening, the Church and her ministers have searched for ways to make a difference.  In the press of it all, both pastors and the Christians themselves have forgotten what the church is for, what the teachings of Jesus Christ require, and, indeed who the Church is.  So, on the one hand, both clergy and lay have been attracted to the appearance of meaningful and relevant place, purpose, and position -- from the gurus of self-help to people seeking everything from happiness to ease to the entertainment which distracts us from the things we cannot change.  But the Church cannot be the Church nor can she recover her rightful place and purpose until her people abandon their complacency and their timidity and confront the world and the direction of culture.  It is the requirement that the Church not become mere apologist (meaning "I am sorry") for God or for the appearance of irrelevance nor succumb to the temptation to find relevance in a therapeutic chaplaincy to the prevailing liberal order (justifying the progressive viewpoint on everything from sex to marriage to the environment to technology).

Listen to the prescient words of an Episcopalian sage speaking to a the role of Church in the world some 75 years ago: 
When the Church at last comes out from the valley of a deserved humiliation, it will find that it is held in small esteem, that it is poor and despised; but such an approach to a worldly world is the only one by which to persuade that world that there are better things to live for than the current wisdom has revealed. Such humiliation, embraced and not resented, is required if one is to draw mankind to God. That is the meaning of the crucifix, whereon hangs One whom Christians are at least supposed to worship. He died for truth, for God, to rise again in power. In the end men listen to Him, understand, worship Him; but to bring that about in the world of tomorrow Christians, like Christ, must again be willing to lay down their lives in defiance of the mores of the world. The future of the Church, under God, lies in no other hands than its own.
In every generation the saints, believing the demand to be from God, have devoted their lives to renouncing and denouncing, as basic poisons, those things upon which mankind today would feed. The Church, these later years, has forgotten how to renounce and denounce them. Instead it has sought to soothe a sick mankind with ointment of sentimental piety plus injections of a superficially optimistic geniality. 
The prophetic role has not gone away but it has chosen to speak the word that mirrors its surroundings and offers, at best, feelings, instead of the Word of God that speaks forgiveness to the sinner, new hearts to evil, and life to the dead.  There is little prophetic value in listening to the complaints of a people whose biggest gripe is that they are not happy -- unless it is to convict them with the Word of God and offer an answer to the guilty conscience and the constant pursuit of feelings over truth.  I am not despairing of real therapy but only of those who presume that this is the real domain of the Church and the pursuit of her ministers.  We are preachers and teachers, priests and intercessors, confessors and catechetical instructors and, when the Church realizes this, the Church no longer can be cowered into the fringes or edges of the world but can speak with confidence the only Word that does what it promises.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Whose debt is greater?

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 19A, preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Union City, TN, by the Rev. Larry A. Peters

When I lived in New York we would often travel on a toll road. Sometimes we would recognize the people in the car behind us and pay their toll for them as a surprise.  They would pay the toll of the car behind them until it became a chain of unexpected payments.  But it was a game, almost a joke.

Today the Gospel talks about accounts being settled but there is no joke and it is no game.  It is the most real of real life situations.  And it all starts, as Jesus’ parables often do, with an innocent question, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”  And in typical form, Jesus does not answer Peter’s question with an easy or even a direct answer.

There was a King who wished to settle accounts; an audit, if you will.  This man is in business.  He is no philanthropist.  He keeps track of what is owed.  Debts were matters of law, after all.  So he calls them in and reads off the debt.  10,000 talents.  How much?  A talent is a month’s wages so it is a staggering debt of 10,000 months wages – in other words it was a debt that no man could pay in his whole lifetime.  There was no possibility of paying back this debt even if the King were patient and extended the terms.  It is like the high interest credit card that accrues interest faster than you can pay.  So the man was blowing smoke by asking for more time to pay it off.

Then comes the clincher.  This debt, so great as to be impossible to repay, is forgiven.  It is forgiven not because the debtor was worthy or because he was a good cause or because it was a hardship case.  It was solely out of the compassion and mercy of the King that this debt was marked paid.

Then the same servant went to a co-worker who owed him 3 months wages, choking him, having no mercy, and putting him in debtor’s prison until every penny was repaid.  This did not go unnoticed.  It was not an injustice – the man owed the money – but it was inconsistent with the mercy the man had been shown for his large debt.  In the end, his huge debt was re-instated, he was thrown in prison without hope of ever escaping his debt impossible to repay.  Then Jesus turned to Peter and said, “If you will not forgive your brother from your heart, my heavenly Father will do this to you.”

God does not shrug His shoulders and forget our sins.  The debt must be paid.  Jesus has paid the debt.  Our account is settled.  We are forgiven.  That is not in dispute.  Peter’s question and ours is the same.  But what does God’s forgiveness have to do with my dealings with other people?  Give Peter some credit.  He knows that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He know the Lord is merciful.  He remembers the Day of Atonement and the forgiveness in the blood that covered his sins.  He just wants to know how far mercy goes.  He is suggesting 7 times.  This is no small offer. 

Think of it this way.  Your deadbeat brother    who does not work and his wife who shops like a pro, rack up credit card debt that threatens their house.  Would you give them the money to repay the debt and keep their house?  If you looked into the eyes of their innocent children, would you?  Some of us would.  But how many of you would do it 7 times?  No, Peter is not being stingy.  But neither does Peter grasp the depth of God’s mercy.  Peter is as shocked by Jesus’ answer of 77 times; so are we.  Who does that?

Only God. That is the answer.  Only God has such extravagant mercy.  Only God forgives like that.  The problem lies in the fact that we know how much the Lord forgives others.  We see the specks in their eyes so clearly.  But we do not see the log in our own eyes.  We do not believe that we are the debtor who could not possibly repay what he owes.  We would rather be the King who forgives than the spiritually bankrupt soul who can do nothing but beg for the Lord’s mercy.

Jesus is telling Peter and each one of us that we are debtors whose debt has been forgiven.  That our sins are great and the mercy of God greater still.  That we are the guilty beggars who were dead in trespasses and sins until someone gave us new life.  That we were ones so buried in debt, guilt, and shame that somebody had to dig us out.  We were not forgiven little but much – so much that our hearts and minds cannot even accurately recall or confess how many and how great are our sins.  In order to accept this mercy, we must admit our guilt.
Sheriff Arpayo, the Arizona lawman whom President Trump pardoned, must acknowledge his guilt in order to benefit from the pardon.  You must acknowledge your guilt in order for you to benefit from God’s forgiveness.  The innocent are not pardoned and those who owe nothing cannot have their debts forgiven.  This parable is first about you and your guilt and then about God and His mercy.  But it does not end there.

The wicked debtor is condemned because he did not get that he was guilty or what mercy was.  You cannot be forgiven the mountain of your debt because of sin and then hold back the same mercy who committed small sins against you.  And compared to the sins we have committed against God, every sin someone has committed against you is a pittance.

After the parable Peter realized that this whole discussion about forgiveness was volatile.  It was more than he bargained for.  If you refuse to forgive others, you are insisting that you have no sins that need forgiving.  The big issue here is not how many times your brother sins against you but how great is your sin, how great is God’s compassion and mercy to forgive you, and whether or not you own up to those sins and that debt to mercy.

And, by the way, on our journey to the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are reminded that this whole thing was not about ceremonies or vestments or personalities or anything else but about grace, about mercy, and about forgiveness.  The Reformation was about the cross where our accounts were settled, where the guilty were met by the blood of Christ that cleanses all our sins, and where those dead in trespasses and sins were made alive in Christ to do the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light. 

You do not forgive your brother because he deserves it. You did not deserve it.  It is pure grace and mercy in Christ.  You were not forgiven because you deserved it.  It was pure grace and mercy in Christ.  You do not place limits on forgiveness for others because no such limits were placed upon you.  To refuse forgiveness or limit it only shows you do not get sin or your guilt.
To forgive your brother shows that you get it, by faith, through grace. Amen

Fighting over real estate. . .

So often we adopt the world's standards to judge effectiveness and success.  Drive through my city and you would at once identify First Baptist Church as the model of achievement.  It has a sprawling campus that took over a once important side street.  It includes huge buildings for such things as a gym and fitness center as well as worship space.  It has abundant parking.  It has a staff of many full and part time people, most specialists in one area or another.  It has a full fledged cafeteria.  It has ATM machines located throughout the complex.  It has non-English congregations and satellites with edgy names to attract people who don't want to go to church.  To the naked eye, FBC is the biggest, baddest, and best church in town.

Drive down the street a bit and you encounter a rather small and very old chapel.  It looks as if it is surrounded by a fellowship or educational structure and has another building across a small parking lot.  No one would realize that this is, in reality, the largest church in town.  It is Roman Catholic.  The chapel is used during the week and on weekends the rather nondescript structure is filled with people for mass (the fellowship hall was long ago converted into a sanctuary).  It hardly seems right but this parish has almost as many families as the Baptist has members.  It is not unusual for Roman Catholics to be somewhat under the radar in the South but it is also a clear statement against the idea that the Church is about real estate.

The national as well as diocesan Episcopal Church jurisdictions have spent untold millions over real estate.  In the ELCA we also have a legal trail in an effort to hold onto buildings and property.  We have created church banks to finance real estate and construction costs.  Many congregations spend the majority of their income paying off the mortgages and not a few have gone broke trying.  Sadly, in many of these facilities, the space devoted to worship is secondary to all sorts and kinds of other activities much less important than worship.  I fear we have given into the illusion of success size offers and we think that facilities are one of the chief definitions of that success.

Don't get me wrong.  I am not at all suggesting that we be cheap with structures built to house the worship of God or that we abandon the witness of a house of the Lord dedicated to His Word and Sacraments.  What I am suggesting is that we build buildings to house many things that are not necessarily bad but they have nothing whatsoever to do with the worship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We drive by the solitary chapel with nary a fellowship hall, classroom addition, gym space, or recreational center and we think "how sad."  Perhaps it is the other way around.  Maybe we should be driving past the mega campuses with all their non-essential amenities and shake our heads in sorrow that it has all come down to real estate.  And this from a God who had no place to lay His head and even had to borrow a tomb from another!  Birds have nests, foxes have holes, and churches have loads of geography and buildings.  We need to remember the Kingdom of God is not of this world and this world's marks of success and accomplishment should not be used to define that Kingdom.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

If only funeral homes served liquor. . .

If you have read here much at all you already know my complaint about the turning of the funeral into a celebration of joy life.  I will not rehash my litany of the wrongs this has done to the way we view death and our need for and expectation of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. I am sure you will all breathe a sigh of relief about that.  But several conversations of late have helped me understand it all a bit more.

The funeral has become the wake!  Why did I miss that?  We have not turned the funeral into a celebration of life, we have confused the wake with the funeral.  We don't have wakes anymore.  Why?  Because nothing we do is located into the home anymore.  The traditional (Irish) wake has a long and storied history. Some still practice the traditional wake but many, if not most, have come around to the more staid idea of a time of visitation. The wake was, in part, utilitarian.  Death was not so easily certified and the wake was to see if the body was, indeed, dead.  The wake was a watch over the deceased.  But it was also born of the need to have people remain with the body until burial.

The time of waiting for the person to “wake” began to be accompanied by more people, some food, and much drink until the mourners and family came together as much to remember, tell stories, and reflect upon the life of the deceased as much as any other reason. The wake became a party but the guest of honor did not eat or drink and resided in a box.  Of course, there was a religious side of it and a prayer vigil was certainly part of it, as well. When all of this moved from the home to the funeral home, the food may have gone along for the ride but somebody forgot the booze.  It was often a social rite that highlighted the loss is one of a social group and how it affected the whole group.

Traditionally, the body would be prepared by the family and laid out in a designated room at the family home. The body would never be left unattended, just in case the deceased did “wake.”  The length of the wake depended upon the funeral. The wake would begin as soon as the body could be prepared and it would continue until all left for the Church. All the clocks in the house would be stopped at the time of death as a sign of respect for the deceased.  Mirrors would be turned around or covered. Candles would be lit and placed around the deceased.  The Rosary would be said at midnight and most left, leaving only the closest family members to watch through the night.  It was part of the healing process for family and friends left behind -- time filled with tears, laughter, and memories -- not to replace the Christian hope but because of it.

Now we have only visitation.  A long or short line (depending upon how well know and beloved the individual), the signing of the guest book, a few moments before an open casket, a few words exchanged with the family of the deceased, a few moments before the revolving picture book showing highlights of the individual's life, and you can be home in about 15-20 minutes.  Or, if that is too much, you can view online, sign the guestbook, and not have to bother with personal contact.  Our lack of having a real wake has left us with the desire to convert the funeral into one (minus the booze, of course).

Here is my radical thought.  Serve booze at the funeral home.  Go back to the wake instead of the staid, chaste, pious, and brief visitation.  Eat, drink, tell stories, laugh, cry, and sing.  And then we can meet death in the funeral and face its sting with the cross and empty tomb.  Then we can let the funeral be about Christ because the wake was about the dead.  What do you think?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Value of Forgiveness. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 19A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, September 17, 2017.

    Every now and then it sounds odd to end the Gospel reading by saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.”  Today is one of those times.  The reading ends with Jesus saying, “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:34-35).  This doesn’t sound like the good news of the Gospel...and it’s not.  This is Law, it’s all Law.  It’s the command of the Lord to whole heartedly forgive those who sin against you.  This you must do.  It’s not an option.  So, where’s the Gospel, the good news?  It’s in the forgiveness: the forgiveness you receive from Christ that enables you to forgive others. 
    These Law words come at the end of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the story of a servant whose mountain of debt was forgiven and yet he refused to forgive a fellow servant’s tiny debt.  Jesus told this story in answer to a question from Peter: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21).  To our ears, this sounds pretty generous.  Just think about.  Your brother, your wife, your friend, they sin against you.  The first time you forgive them.  Then, a week later, they sin against you again in the very same way.  This time you’re a little more hesitant, but again you forgive them.  Then the very next day they do it again.  No way you forgive them now; three strikes and you’re out. 
    We can’t image forgiving someone seven times.  It’s nonsense.  It’s not fair to us.  It makes us look like a fool.  But Jesus says our forgiveness is to be greater than seven times.  He answered Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22).  Jesus isn’t putting a limit to forgiveness, capping it at 490 times.  Jesus is saying forgiveness is to be limitless, and He illustrates this with the parable.
The king was settling his debts and a servant was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents.  This amount of debt is unheard off.  It could never be paid off.  Even if the servant’s salary was extraordinarily high and he never had a day off, this mountain of debt would ensure imprisonment for 1,000 years or more.  This is physically impossible; there’s no way the servant could pay it back.  But what does he do?  He falls on his knees and pleads with the king for more time to pay it off.
This servant had to of known it was impossible to pay this debt and yet he still wanted to try.  He convinced himself he could work hard enough to pay it off.  From our seats this sounds illogical and foolish, and yet we do the very same thing.  We know we’re sinners.  We know our sin debt is so large there’s no way we can pay it off, but like this servant we convince ourselves we can.
How many times to we sin against friends and say, “I’ll make it up to you.”?  Or you husbands, after you and your wife have a fight don’t you try to win back her affection with flowers and a nice dinner?  As children and teens, after we got in trouble, didn’t we then behave, didn’t we clean our room and take out the trash without being asked hoping to get back in our parents’ good graces?  Our natural inclination is to do good work in order to make up for our sin. 
We want to earn our forgiveness.  We think it’s the only way.  We sin against God in thought, word, and deed and the only logical way to make up for this is to do good in thought, word, and deed.  And when we do this good, we feel good about it.  It makes us proud and we convince ourselves we’re alright with God.  But we’re not alright with God because our good works don’t make up for our sin, because even our good works are tainted with sin. 
The reason why we convince ourselves our good works can pay off our debt is because we want the glory of saving ourselves.  We want to do it all; to be our own savior.  This is a trust in our abilities, in our power, in ourselves, and this is idolatry with us as our idol, our god.  But no matter how hard we try, we can’t free ourselves from our unpayable sin debt.  It’s impossible, just like the servant couldn’t pay off his. 
Knowing the servant couldn’t pay off his debt, the king had pity on him, not because he deserved it, not because the king expected the servant to work extra hard, not because he was a talented beggar, but because the king was gracious and merciful.  The king released the servant from all his debt, he forgave him.  The king declared him debt free, just as your King forgives you and declares you debt free. 
Only God’s grace and mercy releases you from your sin debt.  God forgives you, not because you deserve it, not because you work extra hard and promise to do better, but because Christ paid your debt by dying on the cross.  God forgives you for His sake, because Jesus took your sin upon Himself and paid it off with His precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  There’s no way you could pay this debt, no matter how hard and long you work, not even for a thousand years.  Only Christ could, and thanks be to God that He has.  
    The forgiveness of the king in the parable illustrates the magnitude of God’s forgiveness.  He’s forgiven your mountain range of sin debt because of Christ and His cross.  This is the good news of the Gospel...but the parable doesn’t end there. 
    The now debt free servant left the king’s presence and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii.  This debt was miniscule in size compared to the debt he was just released from.  It could’ve been paid off in less than a year.  But this servant showed no pity on his fellow servant.  He seized him and choked him, demanding payment.  You would think he’d be more gracious, that he’d pay forward the forgiveness of the king, but he didn’t.  Hearing about this servant’s unwillingness to forgive, the king delivered the servant to the jailers until he paid his debt.  This means the servant was imprison for life. 
The unforgiving servant’s refusal to be gracious and forgive his fellow servant showed he didn’t value the king’s forgiveness.  Likewise when you refuse to forgive those who trespass against you, it shows you don’t value God’s forgiveness.  It shows you don’t want it, that you think you don’t need it.  If you don’t want God’s forgiveness, He won’t force it on you.  But without His forgiveness, you’ll forever be imprisoned to sin. 
The forgiveness of your sin debt is more valuable than anything you could ever earn.  It’s more valuable than any other gift you’ve ever received; and you show how much you value this forgiveness by sharing it with others.  Like Joseph, who forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery, you are to graciously forgive your brothers, no matter how many times they sin against you, no matter how big their sin against you is.  Whatever sin it is, it’s miniscule compared to your sin before God.  Having been forgiven much you forgive much, and you do it gladly. 
The Lord calls you to forgive from your heart.  This means you completely release your brother from their sin debt.  To forgive from your heart means to never bring it up again.  When you forgive from your heart you don’t expect payment in the future.  Even if your brother sins against you 490 times the same sin, you gladly forgive with no strings attached, because you’ve been forgiven. 
We forgive those who sin against us not to earn God’s forgiveness, but to show forth Christ’s love and to show we value His forgiveness.  Valuing God’s forgiveness, we forgive others.  We forgive without limit because we’ve been forgiven without limit.  God our King has canceled our sin debt, a debt we could never pay back.  Christ’s atoning death on the cross, the sacrifice of His perfect life paid the price of our sin.  It’s this forgiveness that we trust in, not our works.  And it’s this same forgiveness that we wholeheartedly share with others.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Childless leaders. . .

A mention in First Things (print edition) brought to light the fact that with the election of President Macron of France, the leaders of Europe's biggest members of the G7 are childless.  Angela Merkel (Germany), Theresa May (Britain), Paolo Gentiloni (Italy), Leo Varadkar (Ireland), and now Macron join the Dutch Mark Rutte and Luxembourg Xavier Bettel.  Should we be concerned?  Is this something significant?  The larger meaning in all of this is that the leaders reflect something of the constituencies they serve.  Add this to a recent Canadian Broadcasting System's recent public service announcement in which a woman texting is interrupted by an impetuous little girl, a red head no less. The announcement ends with the warning:  Don't let yourself get sucked into the dead end of motherhood.

But that is the issue, isn't it?  How we view children has changed.  God's command to be fruitful and multiply has become a burden on women, indeed, on us all.  Children are not helpful to careers, they are not friendly to the environment, and they cost too much of us (dreams, money, time, and energy). Maybe it is simply a coincidence that the leaders of Europe are childless.  Maybe I am overreacting.  Maybe it is all a momentary phase, a fad, and a trend.  I doubt it.  I wish there was nothing to be concerned about.  But I think you and I know better.

The absence of children is telling.  Walk into any congregation where there is no child fidgeting in the pew or whimpering baby and you can feel the emptiness.  Look across the landscape at cities with empty school buildings and you can see the impact of a lack of children on any community.  Watch as people show intolerance and frustration with a child at a restaurant and you get the sense of how profound the impact of fewer children is upon us all.

Life has become only and always about the individual.  The freedom of the individual seems to triumph over all other things.  We do not produce but consume -- even when it comes to house, home, and family.  We have invested our future not in our children but in our technology.  Our hopes lie not in those who wear our name and carry on our faith and values but in silicon valley and its latest and greatest gadgets.  That is the poverty of our present day culture.  But it has not been thrust upon us.  We have fully embraced it ourselves -- much the way the forbidden fruit of Eden was gladly chosen and willingly eaten.  The struggle of the faith is not only for God the Redeemer of His people but for His creative will and intent.  Strangely, the fruit of sin is that we no longer even yearn to be creators or equals with God as did Adam and Even.  No, we are content to die as long as we can consume all we want before death comes.  Will there be anyone left to mourn our passing?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lutheran Amnesia. . .

When I was growing up and Holy Communion was four times a year (whether you needed it or not), the preparation for the Sacrament was a Corporate Confession and Absolution service, held a few days before the Sacrament was to be offered.  The service was on page 47 in The Lutheran Hymnal.  It included an Exhortation, the familiar words of confession, and a choice between a short question pointedly asking the sincerity of what was confessed OR a longer form with five questions complete with an even more pointed response (Verily, you should. . . ).  Then the absolution was declared.

There was no rite for individual confession.  In fact, the Small Catechism that I was taught included no rite either.  It was as if the whole thing had been erased from Lutheran memory.  And it had.  So, as Pastor Mark Surburg put it, "from 1856 to 1982 there wasn’t a rite for it in the hymnals published by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (one did appear for the first time in the Worship Supplement of 1969). From 1943 to 1986 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the English translation used by the LCMS. From 1943 to 1991 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism used for catechesis in the LCMS. If you don’t read and speak German, and you received catechesis and Confirmation between 1943 and 1991 it is almost certain that you never learned about private confession, much less how it is done."  There is the shocking statement.  Even though the Confessions not only mention but commend individual or private confession and absolution, most Lutherans had no clue that there was such a thing.  Either because they were not taught faithfully or the rites were suppressed, Lutherans developed a clear case of amnesia regarding private or individual confession.

The first official sign of change came in the Worship Supplement 1969 but the big splash came when Lutheran Worship 1982 finally included a rite.  Sadly, there was not much catechesis about the restoration of that rite and so it was a big splash that was later forgotten and the status quo of silence continued even to the present day.  When a young pastor shows up right out of seminary, having been taught about the value of private confession from pastoral practice, liturgics, and Confessions classes, to address the topic of private confession, people immediately are suspect of him.  Does he lean toward Rome?  It is not their fault, of course, because they were not properly taught and their church had suffered amnesia with regard to this blessed and wonderful sacramental rite and its gift to the penitent.  But it does explain why so many are so confused about what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach with regard to private or individual confession and absolution.

So now we have the rite restored to both hymnal (LSB) and catechism and there are more pastors now willing to teach this wonderul gift with which Christ has blessed His Church, but are we willing to receive it?  It will be a long time before we find ourselves in accord with the Apology or with practice Bach knew in which additional times and additional pastors had to be assigned for the many desiring confession or even the time of Loehe when he found the burden so great that it was permissible for the pastor to sit on a chair while handling the great number of confessing people.

It is well known that we have so explained and extolled the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many troubled consciences have received consolation from our teaching. They have heard that it is a command of God—indeed, the very voice of the gospel—so that we may believe the absolution and regard as certain that the forgiveness of sins is given to us freely on account of Christ and that we should maintain that we are truly reconciled to God by this faith. (Ap. XI.2).

Monday, September 18, 2017

I think he is on to something. . .

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Have you noticed. . .

Have you noticed that every advance in technology (specifically the smart phone kind) seems to be countered by a decline in civility and politeness?  Technology began with great promise but we have not handled well its gift.  We know how to press buttons and swipe screens but we have forgotten how to say "Hello" and how to have a meaningful conversation.  We look at the screens in our lives all the time but find it hard to look into the faces and eyes of others.  We have turned avoiding people into an art on the internet and social media but we have forgotten the art of simple conversation that once began great friendships.  The truth is that these small screens have radically altered our lives and not necessarily for any good purpose or outcome.

Sherry Turkle wrote Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other.  Her story is a sad reflection upon the basic premise of technology as a means to improve our lives.  The improvement has led to fewer facts and more feelings, less objective reporting and more fake news, the blurred line between self-promotion and media, and, the incredible loneliness for people who would seem on the outside to be connected more than ever before.

This is not simply about smart phones although they have increasingly become the center of our lives.  Our children have had their brains rewired by their connections to social media and the internet.  Games have taken on a larger than life role and this technology makes it harder and harder for people to distinguish fact from fiction, the virtual from the real, and digital connections and real friendship.  How we meet and where we meet has been completely transformed.  It is not always bad but the bad seems to outweigh the good.  After all, the media fosters lies and deception and there is no greater lie or deception than how we present ourselves to people who have little chance of every getting to know us face to face.

We shop online, work online, have sex online, pursue hobbies online, and hear our news online.  What need have we of personal contact?  In fact, human contact has become a type of interference with our digital world and its digital lies.  The worst is when we make our smallest children addicts to technology and use the screens to keep them quiet and occupied while we focus on our screens.  The smart screen has made it harder for us to learn, to read, to retain what we read, and to think.  Worse, the smart screen has made it harder to justify the waste of mind and body on pursuits that are "better" done digitally.

When people turn to technology as the wisdom to rescue them from loneliness or from despair, we know we have gone the wrong direction.  When we saturate worship with the lessons we learned from that smallest of screens, we confound and confused others and ourselves.  The screen has become more than our weakness but the places of our secret pleasures and self-indulgent lives.  But it is not the screen or smart phone that is the problem -- it is how we use this technology and the values we attach to it and to its particular perspective on us and our world.

Truth is the first but not the last casualty and yet the Church seems addicted to the idea that technology is not the problem but the answer.  It can help, of course, but its help can be and too often is a source of tension for us and our lives.  Friends become the digitally likeminded people and what happens on the web is treated as the glowing reality that we seek and not the dull shine we have learned to live without.  Technology begs to be used responsibly but instead we text and drive, surf and do not part, and then look surprised because we missed something or missed seeming something.

Lord, rescue us from the prisons and captivities we have placed upon ourselves and give us clear and true vision of what You count as real so that we may survive a digital identity and rekindle with others the grace upon which we stand.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The role of the faithful. . .

We often are deluded into thinking that the essence of liturgical change is about producing words and notes on a page.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The true and essential vision of the liturgical movement could not be satisfied simply with rites and rubrics.  The center of it all was and remains the faithful, their lives flowing from and back to the means of grace within the Divine Service.  They are not simply those who are directed by the change but also those who will decide the fruitfulness of that change.

For this reason, it can never simply be about rites and rubrics, about the purity of the form or the care with which the form is utilized.  It has also to be about the catechesis which allows the faithful to live out their faith within the rite and about the fruitfulness of the rite in supporting the faithful and their life centered in the Word and Table of the Lord.  The fruitfulness of it all is judged not by its perfection of form or of practice but must also include the faithful who live within that rite.  So for this reason, the best liturgical development is deliberate, slow, and incremental.  Abrupt, quick, and radical change alienates the people from their liturgical home and distances them from the very place where their faith is born, fed, and nurtured.

Rome has had voices who invested everything in the reform and other voices who invested everything in the undoing of the reform.  So there is a war between those who believe rites are constantly evolving and this change is shaped by and informed by goals and outcomes AND those who believe the rites should be fairly static and shaped by and informed by only the past.  In other words, we have the proverbial missal war between Paul VI and John Paul XXIII.  Both really believe that the triumph of one missal will settle the issue and solve the problem.

Both sides have forgotten that while the ink was still drying on the Vatican Council documents and the liturgical reforms produced in the wake of Vatican II, Father Romano Guardini, a pioneer of the pre-conciliar liturgical reform, wrote in 1964 that if the faithful were not equipped and receptive to liturgical transformation, “reforms of rites and texts will not help much.”   What many have forgotten (on both sides) is what both the Council and Fr. Guardini concluded, the faithful, not the rubrics,  determine the fruitfulness of a liturgy.

Lutherans would do well to listen to this conversation.  We followed Rome in deciding that liturgical change should begin anew and disconnect the past and the present.  We produced a hymnal which had little except a nod to those who went before (LBW and, to a lesser extent, LW).   It was surely not the contradiction Rome experienced between Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form (Latin) but it was enough to make it hard to transition to a new book, nonetheless.  We were in love with forms and legislated the change by rubric, forgetting that the faithful vote on the fruitfulness of the change by their attendance and by the piety born of those rites.

Now Lutherans are in worse shape than Rome.  We have institutionalized the changes and the diversity of rites by forcing them to live together on the pages of the book and, to some extent, in the pews also.  It has not been pretty.  We have a plethora or rites and musical settings that have left us more and more divided on Sunday morning (by preference) and more and more diverse as Lutherans to the point where we are no longer all that sure what Lutheran worship looks or sounds like anymore.  We have been judged already by the faithful but this judgment was hindered by the fact that we did not teach the changes well and so our people were not well equipped to weather the change and to judge the fruifulness of that change.

Now some 40 years later we see the consequences of such a radical diversity (fueled even more by the creativity, borrowing, and publishing of rites that are as local as one parish alone).  Let me note that this is not simply about ceremonial but about the shape of our liturgical identity and that life that flows from such identity.  Look at LSB and ELW as books of the church and you see the width and breadth of the diversity that has left worship local, congregational, and pastoral with little to rein in the growing gulf between those who claim to be Lutheran.

What might have happened if the pace of change had been slower and more deliberate, if the past was as represented in the liturgical section of the book as the future, and if diversity were not the primary indicator of goodness?  I cannot tell.  I do not know.  But what I do that we can hardly afford more polarization, more diversity for the sake of diversity, and the local options that threaten to betray us.  Note that I am not really talking about liturgical or ceremonial additions to the Divine Service as much as I am talking about rites that compete and are so different from each other that it is hard to see the family line at all.

The faithful still have a great deal to do with the fruitfulness of the changes we promote.  Nothing has changed there.  How many of our back door losses represent votes by those disenchanted by the liturgical changes of the late 1970s and  early 1980s?  How much of our inability to get along has been fueled by the possibility of local adaptation and change that seems to glorify personal preference over everything else? 

We cannot turn the clock back so our age will require that our catechesis pick up where our liturgical changes have failed us.  The only success that endures is the fruitfulness of liturgical change and the folks in the pew have a lot to say about that.   We better do everything we can to give them instruction and preparation so that it does not come down simply to what we like or do not like.