Thursday, November 30, 2017

Another Lutheran Anniversary. . .

Dr. John Stepheson put me onto this statement from the SELK (free or old Lutheran Church vs EKD or state church) reflecting upon a somewhat ignoble anniversary, 27 September!  This 200 year anniversary was not one to celebrate but a somber reminder of how vulnerable a state church was to the power and influence of the governmental ruler. 

27 September 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the exact time of the adoption of the "Cabinet Order" by the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, when he imposed upon Evangelical Lutheran churches in the former Prussian provinces the rule that they must accept the Reformed Confession and be joined together in a common church.

SELK-Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt D.D. (Hannover), wrote:  It is my concern that this day should not go unnoticed, but call us to awareness. There is no reason to celebrate this day for because of the 27 September 1817 was the beginning of the suppression of the Lutheran Communities and their parish pastors in Prussia. This way also gave birth to the refugee Lutheran families who sought refuge in North America or Australia and founded those Lutheran churches which today are sister churches of the SELK (begun in 1972).

In Marburg in 1529 no less than Dr Martin Luther called an end to any with Huldryich Zwingli because of his symbolic supper understanding of the Lord's Supper and Christ's presence therein, and with great regret had to say: "You have a different spirit!" King Friedrich Wilhelm III was of the same spirit in finding no reason to keep the integrity of the Lutheran Confession and three hundred years later, the King decided that the Lutheran and Reformed Church was distinguished not by doctrinal distinction but "only by external differences". This marks the beginning of the marginalization of Lutheranism in Prussia.  In 1830 Friedrich Wilhelm III then required the union of the two confessions insisting that the Reformed and Lutheran churches be unified.  Bishop Voigt recalled with thanksgiving the sacrifices and examples of those who faithfully resisted this false union at great cost to themselves, thus providing for the future creation of the SELK in Germany and those churches (including the LCMS) born of the immigration that resulted from this religious persecution.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fountain Pen Sales Are Growing. . . some of you may know, I use a fountain pen exclusively.  Well, not just one.  I have a small collection of 30-40.  A few I have purchased.  Most are gifts.  Some are hand me downs from my family members.  I love writing cursive and love the feel of that pen and love watching the ink as it is laid down upon the page.  Computers are fine except the speed of my cursive coupled with the delight of the fountain pen match the pace of my thinking better.  Plus, when you put a line through something, it is still there to be reclaimed if you decide it was a good sentence.  Delete it from your word processor a few times and things are lost forever.

According to a Bloomberg Pursuits article given to me by a member, smartphones, tablets, computers, and all things digital have NOT slowed the sales of the fountain pen at all.  In fact, in 2016 sales increased by 2.1% making fountain pens a $1 BILLION market.  Okay, so it is not close to the sales of a Big Mac or as common as the ubiquitous ball point, it is still a growing market.  Especially in Japan!  There fountain pens leaped in sales by 20%.  China leads the market is cheap but thoroughly usable fountain pens.  In fact, I have several to carry with me when I travel so that if I lose it, I can easily replace it. I have a half a dozen pen shops in my favorite's list and I often visit  Pens are a hobby, as well.

You feel something when you hold a fountain pen, when you place the nib on the paper, and when you put the ink on the page.  Pens are also works of art.  A couple of mine are too precious for me to use -- except occasionally.  I have expensive pens (a Montblanc, for example), several upper priced pens (Watermans), many old favorites (Parkers), some family heirlooms (the Scheaffers my parents got in grade school and used throughout high school), and some just for fun.  For whatever reason, I am very attracted to blue pens and blue ink, although silver (the pen body and not the ink) is not far behind.  Some like the real fat boys.  They are fine but I tend to use a slightly slimmer version more often.

Although I have bottles of ink, I tend to use cartridges simply because I travel a lot and want to have a spare easily accessible.  I would love to own one of the Japanese Nakaya pens.  I have been told they are simply wonderful new pens.  But all in all I am excited that there are collectors or writers who join me in my uncommon pursuit of an anachronism in our technological age.  Join me and swim against the tide!  Buy a fountain pen today!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Being righteous or wearing righteousness. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 25, Proper 29A, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, preached on Sunday, November 26, 2017.

    The great temptation was and is always to wear Christianity as ill fitting clothing instead of being Christian.  To put it another way, Christianity is more a bumper sticker than the essence of the vehicle, more like a Titan’s team jersey worn on game day rather than a real identity.  It is our temptation to wear righteousness on the outside of us instead of being righteous.  This was certainly the temptation of the Pharisees who were righteous on the outside but whose hearts were empty of faith.  Is it true of us?  
    The easy way to view Jesus’ parable is to see the goats as really bad people whose sins are worse than the sins of the sheep.  But is that what Jesus says?  The protest of the goats is not that they didn’t do the good works Jesus spoke of but rather when did they NOT do them?  So the real scary prospect in this parable is not that the goats are bad but that their works might be no different than the works of the Christian.  Could it be that they lacked nothing in external righteousness but only lacked faith?  Could it be that those who knock saying “Lord, Lord” are not answered because it is not the voice of faith speaking?
    This is the long way of saying that this parable is not at all about works but is about faith.  The righteous sheep see grace but they do not see their own works.  The sheep are focused not on their works but only the work of Christ. When did we do this, Lord?  The righteous do not deny they have done them but they cannot believe they deserve God's notice.  Their focus is on grace and in this grace, their works disappear.  They see Christ’s work most clearly and do not see their own works at all.  This is the righteousness of the heart.
    The sheep are those who have been declared holy by God in their baptism and they not only wear the righteousness of Christ on the outside of their lives.  This righteousness has changed the focus of their hearts.  They see only what God has done and their lives are lived in response to what God has done.
    The unrighteous are surprised that their works are not enough.  When did we see you Lord hungry or wounded or imprisoned and NOT respond?  Their protest shows the focus of their hearts.  They see most clearly not what God has done for them but what they have done to prove themselves to God.  Their righteousness looks great but it is only skin deep and inside is an empty heart.
    They are at home in their works.  They expect people to notice their works.  They expect God to notice them.  They want their works noticed because they believe they have done things worth noticing.  They talk the talk of faith but they live in the realm of their works.  They wear their righteousness like clothing on the outside but inside their hearts are empty.  They are convinced their works will please Christ and so Christ’s work is not as important to them as what they have done.
    Hebrews tells us “without faith it is impossible to please God.”  No good work pleases God except those born of faith in Christ’s saving work upon the cross.  In fact, there are no good works apart from this faith, apart from the Spirit’s work in us, and no righteousness that does not proceed from baptism’s gift of new life and faith’s apprehension of that gracious gift.
    The righteousness of Christ which is put on us in baptism and which we wear by faith does not live on the outside of us but on the inside.  It is not a righteousness which simply covers our sin; it is a righteousness which transforms us so that we desire to be the righteous people God has said we are in Christ.
    The goats want to be noticed and are sure that their works are worth noticing.  “When did we see you Lord and NOT do these things?”  Not the sheep; they are uneasy about having their works noticed or lauded.  “Lord, when did we do these things?”
    The sheep don’t want to be judged by their works because they know these works cannot compete with the great good work Christ has already done on their behalf. So the sheep want to be judged by the cross, by the Law fulfilled, by the promise kept, by the mercy displayed, and by the hope born in Christ alone.
    To be merciful you must know mercy.  To be righteous, you must know righteousness.  To be holy, you must know holiness.  These are what we see in Christ and these are what His grace and Spirit bestow upon us.  And from this, good works are produced in our lives – works which contribute nothing toward our salvation but give evidence of the faith therein.
    So St. Paul says “the just shall live by faith” and St. James says “faith without works is dead” and the Athanasian Creed say “those who have done good will  enter eternal life and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire” and St. Paul says “by grace are you saved and not by your works” and they all agree.  The sheep insist that it is all Christ alone and the goats insist they contributed something to it all and this should not go unnoticed.
    When I was a little boy, we received hand me down clothes from my cousins.  They were older and bigger than I was and the clothing did not fit well even after I grew into it more.  It was easy to see that these clothes were not really mine.  When you buy clothes, you buy them for the fit.  When they fit like a glove, everyone can see that the clothes are yours.
    When you wear righteousness on the outside of you without faith in the heart, it does not matter how good are the good works.  They do not fit.  They only reveal the inconsistency between the outside and the emptiness in the heart.  When faith lives in the heart, the works flow from Christ and are not ill fitting or foreign but are the natural fruit of faith and the work of the Spirit.  They fit. Jesus is contrasting the good works that flow from the heart of faith from the empty heart that can produce no good works.
    God uses the good works that flow from faith NOT to save you but to bless your neighbor and to show forth the grace and mercy of the Lord to the world.  You do not see them and you are not expected to see them.  But the Lord does.  He gives them the ultimate compliment.  You did them to Me!  And He invites you to know the blessedness of the Father and to enter into the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world.  Your works cannot save you but that does not mean your works do not receive God's notice and the honor of His grace.
    Without a heart of faith to produce those good works, these works only testify that you do not belong to the Lord.  The works do not glorify Jesus -- no matter how good they look -- but expose the emptiness within.  What distinguishes the works is not qualitative, as if some works were better than others,  but rather by what produces them.  Only faith can produce good works.  And faith will always produce good works.  And these good works that add nothing to your salvation will not pass the Lord’s view unnoticed or unrewarded.  Amen.

The best religion is weak religion. . .

A liberalized Islam is the best Islam.  A liberalized Christianity is the best Christianity.  What is at the heart of modern progressivism is the desire to unhook religion from its doctrine.  It is not because progressivism has any vested interest in religion.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  The vested interest of progressives and the liberal elite is to gut religion of all of its doctrine and to reduce its practice to a casual living out of a relative truth. All of those coexist bumper stickers and ads desire to eliminate from religion anything and everything that is distinctive but especially those things that conflict with the values and goals of the liberal and progressive elites who put them up.

Sadly, some of us have bought into this idea.  There are those who would insist that the future of Christianity lies not with a renewal built upon the distinctives of its holy book but with a distancing of that faith from its revelation.  In other words, the less seriously we take the Scriptures, creeds, and confessions, the better it is for the faith.  Progressive Christianity has bought this hook, line, and sinker.  It has willingly surrendered the truthfulness and factual basis of Christianity in the Bible and that has led to a surrender of the values and morals of this Christianity, especially with respect to the GLBTQ agenda.  In fact, this embrace of much of Christianity as myth and legend has led to the situation today in which orthodox and creedal Christianity is seen as sectarian, narrow, judgmental, and discriminatory.

Certainly this has been the shape of Judaism.  Now more than ever, Judaism has become an enthnicity, a culture, and a history more than the distinctive doctrine and identity of the Old Testament.  Judaism is typically very comfortable with liberal values and causes.  Even forty years ago a pointed question at a ministerial association meeting on Long Island found the Jewish representatives unable to agree if the Messiah was ever thought to be a man, an individual, in place of a movement (either for education and service or for the protection of the Jewish State).  It was shocking to me that modern day Judaism was reduced to personal improvement or the protection of Israel when describing who Messiah is and what He has come to do.

Whether or even if Islam might ever have a liberal rebirth, whole or in part, remains an open question.  Yet, if progressivism prevails, Islam will have to rebuke its own holy book in the Quran and reduce the things that once were taken as fact and truth to myth and legend.  It will have to take as symbolic the many things now treated by most Muslims as truth.  Some of us might hope for a day when Islam will, as Judaism and Christianity before it, offer up its doctrine and truth on the altar of expediency for a higher goal of tolerance and peace.  As attractive as this might seem to some, I find it hard to believe that the hope for world piece depends upon all religion abandoning its truth.  In fact, I refuse to sacrifice the truth of the Gospel for any earthly cause, even world piece.

Instead I believe that the best future for all religion is to examine the truth and the revelation it claims.  I have full confidence in the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit to work as the Lord has promised to engage all religions and show the truth of the faith that confesses Jesus Christ as Lord.  I believe that the Gospel has shown its power and vibrancy.  I welcome the opportunity to speak the whole counsel of God's Word and not some watered down version of Christianity to meet all religions and their adherents.  The peace that matters is the perfect peace that passes understanding.

Some may think that hope of tomorrow lies in Jews being bad Jews and Christians being bad Christians and Muslims being bad Muslims.  I think the hope of tomorrow lies in Judaism and Christianity and Islam examining their truth and I am confident that the Word Incarnate will guide and the Jew and the Muslim to the one saving Name.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Betrayed by our universities. . .

Some months ago my wife and I visited friends in Virginia and that included a trip to Monticello and to the University of Virginia, both designed by the same man, Thomas Jefferson.  The original campus was a marvel of educational idealism.  Students and faculty lived in close proximity and the lectures of the classroom were continued and even supplemented by the conversations outside the classroom.  It was Jefferson's appeal to learning as an honorable goal that fueled the idea and turned it into brick and mortar.  His love of books and his appreciation for the arts were not only personal but professional.  This, too, he passed on to the institution that was one of his most considered and prominent legacies.

Now, hundreds of years later, we find ourselves in a different spot.  A university education is one of the most costly purchases a person will make in their lifetime.  Our economy is shadowed by student debt that hangs over graduates at the same time many wonder if any of it will ever be repaid.  Business complains that the educational process is not practical enough and it should be directed less at education than at training for jobs.  The process is taking longer and longer -- in part spurred by the indecision of students and the need to start over when majors change and also because it is great fun to live on somebody else's dime the life of leisure within the carefully controlled atmosphere of a campus.  Besides, many are not sure they will find a job they like that pays what they want, anyway.  The typical campus is no longer a place where there is a free exchange of ideas and has become the domain of the politically correct who espouse progressive liberalism.  Students behave like spoiled brats in demanding the classes they want to take, the grades they want to receive, and the teachers whom they want to take.  On top of it all, entrepreneurs are building a whole new university system in which no one really goes to college but the university lives in a virtual world and classes are online.  Would Jefferson recognize the university today?

Underneath it all, however, the problem is less political than it is educational.  We no longer have a core curriculum that unites many majors and minors.  Knowledge is no longer the real goal and the graduates have been taught some things but not necessarily to think and have certainly not been given a thorough intellectual preparation.  If our colleges and universities cannot make a coherent argument for what was once called a liberal arts education or articulate for an integrated core curriculum, then perhaps it would be better and certainly cheaper to put many of these students into tech schools or trade schools.  If those same institutions, now working so hard to promote a self-described valueless view of education, cannot coherently describe the role of moral and spiritual formation as a partner to the free enterprise of inquiry, then they have failed in the foundational endeavor for which they exist.  Again, we ought to think twice about putting parents or students into debt for a piece of paper that means a great deal in academia but not so much in life.

Listen to the way the products of our universities speak, how difficult it is for them to think and write cogently and coherently, and how ill-equipped they are of history, rhetoric, and logic.  We complain about fake news but in many of schools of higher education our kids are learning fake truths about the past and present and therefore making faulty decisions about the future.  Before we turn them all into job training programs for vocations that may not even exist four to six years from now, maybe we ought to reconsider the original role and purpose of a college education.  Maybe we ought to instill a love for learning, the values to judge ideas, the broad perspective of history that informs the present, and the language skills to articulate well that past, address the present, and shape the future.

If this is a problem for secular schools, it is no less a problem for the Christian college and the Lutheran university.  These must be more than a secular institution with a chapel.  Our values and our vision, steeped in Christian history and informed by the living Word of God, should direct us even more to the noble pursuit of learning and the worthy purpose of education.  Otherwise our religious institutions of higher education will become the domains of the very few who can afford them and the fewer still who think that the only faith has to offer the grand scheme of life is some window dressing.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christ the King. . . not a fan. . .

In a world with a penchant for happy endings in which everything resolves, the underdog wins, and the righteous prevail, Christ the King Sunday fits perfectly.  In a Church which confesses Christ King in the womb, King in the temple both for his presentation and for his tutelage of the scribes and elders, King in the waters of the Jordan, King roaming with His disciples, King on the donkey, King in the Upper Room, King in the Garden, King in suffering, King on the cross, and King even in death, well, it just seems odd.  We do not acclaim Him King at the end but see Him King from the beginning in the great mystery of the faith.

I always felt like the attempts to organize the end of the Church Year (think LW and its calendar of 3rd last, 2nd last, and the end or LBW and its Christ the King after Rome) were all being too neat and tidy.  I can understand it and do appreciate the intention.  But the whole thing is just off.  It is off to get to the end of the Church Year and suddenly acknowledge Christ is the King when it is exactly that He is King from the very beginning, the incarnation, and all the way through.

It just seems like we are trying to fix the story so that Jesus Christ becomes King at the end of the sequence, the end of the story, as the result of a long process.  As another has already noted, cleaverness sometimes confounds and confuses rather than clarifies.  Here it is exactly that.  It confounds and confuses Jesus' self-revelation and treats it as if each was merely a chapter in the story leading up to the great climax at the end.  Furthermore, it is not even the end. . . yet.  Instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI for the Roman Calendar, Christ the King was a convenient foil to Reformation Sunday (both observed at the end of October). In 1970 Rome moved it to the last Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Furthermore,coming right before Advent and its Palm Sunday entrance just agitates against the truth, fostering the idea that He is King at the end of His redemptive suffering and not King on His way to that suffering.  Looking at this again, it makes me glad that those responsible for the LSB calendar avoided the temptation and ditched the popular but unsatisfactory label of Christ the King and that they also avoided the other attempts to give the end of one Church Year a big smash (Sunday of the Fulfillment, being just one of those names).  Instead we got the rather pedestrian Last Sunday of the Church Year, which it is.  And maybe we should just leave it at that.

How long is a week?

I was recently reminded of Harold Wilson, sometime Prime Minister of England in the 1970s who said "A week is a long time in politics."  It was a grand statement then but an understatement today.  In our 24 hour news cycle, a week is a lifetime.  We flit from story to story, disaster to disaster, tragedy to tragedy, event to event -- until we are dizzy from it all.  We barely got going raising funds for the victims of Harvey when Irma, Jose, and Maria showed up.  We are just getting a handle on this shooting or that when somebody else decides to unload a weapon on a crowd.  We are not even quieted from the last terrorist violence before another one comes along to steal the spotlight.  It is no wonder we have ADD. 

The Church follows two calendars.  Sure we must deal with the ordinary calendar followed by the world when this is the last Sunday in November.  But we also see this as the last Sunday in the Church Year, before we will begin anew the cycle of remembrance of the events in our Lord's life (by which we were saved) and then focus on His teaching (by which we are sanctified).  For us the primary calendar is the one most folks forget or do not understand.  It is a journey not simply through the chronos of time that ticks away like a second hand but kairos which unfolds with the grace of God and moves to ripen the moment until the right time or consummate day.  So the Church Year too often lives on the edge of our daily lives but we come to worship on Sunday morning to be refocused from simply the moment to the day of salvation.

Sadly, too many churches and even those with liturgical roots are giving up the Church Year entirely.  Sermon series derail the pericopes as the heartbeat of this God defined way of counting time.  Colors and liturgical details are often absent -- formally dismissed by some as optional extras and forgotten by others who hearken to the next and newest way of doing "church".  Yet the Church Year calls to a people so tempted by today to look to God's mighty acts of deliverance in the past that foreshadowed and prepared the way for His Son.  And it reminds us that our time is lived out in His hand, no matter how full of ourselves we can be.

A week is a long time in politics, even a day for news is long.  But unlike the things that capture our attention for a moment and then are displaced by other things, the Word of the Lord endures forever and His time moves toward His own appointed goal, for us and for our salvation.

So today we bid farewell to one year of grace and begin another, each one moving us further from Bethelehem and His coming to the Virgin by the Spirit and closer to the day and hour none of us knows when He will come to bring all things to their perfect consummation and completion.  Listen to the collects for the end of the Church Year and the beginning of another.  They call us to pray even as they remind us why we are praying:

We thank Thee, Lord God, heavenly Father, that in the past church year Thou hast preserved Thy Word among us in purity and by it effectively quickened our souls; and we beseech Thee, Thou wouldst graciously forgive us all our neglect, unbelief, and disobedience with respect to Thy Word, and continue unto us this precious treasure with Thy blessing forevermore; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.

Almighty Lord God, who hast by Thy grace this day permitted us to enter a new church year, we beseech Thee, grant unto Thy Church Thy Holy Spirit and the wisdom which cometh down from above, that Thy Word, as becometh it, may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve Thee, and in the confession of Thy name abide unto the end; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.

The Lutheran Liturgy, Agenda, pages 181 and 49. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Roman Complaints about the 3 year lectionary. . .

There has been a long going debate between those who use the 3 year lectionary and the historic or one year lectionary (historic as a form but not necessarily the same lectionary throughout time).  This has been going on in the LCMS for some time.  I will admit that I have feelings for both and I use one lectionary on Sunday morning and the other for a regularly scheduled mid-week service. Strangely, the same complaints the Lutherans have made are echoed by the Roman complaints listed here (with an obvious exception or two).
Firstly, by lengthening the readings and emphasizing the homily, the new lectionary takes focus away from the Sacrifice, which is the heart of the matter.  Lutherans would not recognize the legitimacy of this complaint since Lutherans affirm both the Word and the Supper as the means of grace, neither over shadowing the other but complementing the other.

Secondly, an annual cycle is a more fitting unit of time because it is naturally complete. All Western and Eastern rites have always had one-year cycles . . . the repetition of one year allows the faithful to become more familiar with the readings, and to enter ever more deeply into them as the years roll on. The multi-year system in the Ordinary Form, on the other hand, provides the faithful with so much more to forget, with far fewer opportunities to be inspired by a familiar passage.  This is one often listed by Lutherans who choose the historic lectionary and it is hard to deny.  While the 3 year lectionary undoubtedly provides a broader perspective from the Scripture, it has not necessarily translated into a broader or deeper knowledge of them.  In fact, it remains the unresolved question of whether it is better to know more Scripture less well or to know less Scripture better?  I go back and forth but this remains a solid point of dispute.

Thirdly, there is a principle in the revised lectionary that continuous readings should be preferred to the sanctoral cycle. . .  The ultimate goal of our public worship is the sanctification of the faithful, not a material knowledge of Scripture, which is more proper to catechesis and study. Thus it is fitting that we use the Scriptures to celebrate the saints, who have been sanctified as models for us to venerate and imitate. Without their lives, in which the Word is (so to speak) made flesh, Scripture itself is a dead letter. So it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy to give primacy to the sanctoral cycle, and to have readings directly connected with the saints, than it is to follow a fabricated system of continuous readings that seems to ignore the fitting cultus of the saints in the Mass.  Lutherans complained a long time ago that the sanctoral cycle had stolen the church year away from the lectionary and many Roman Catholics made the same complaint.  Hence the 3 year lectionary was not the only attempt to reduce the multi-layored sanctoral cycle which often ended up silencing the ordinary readings for the Sunday.  Lutherans probably should be complaining just the opposite -- the readings of the church year dominate and the sanctoral cycle is either intentionally ignored or conveniently forgotten from the lives of most people on Sunday morning.

Fourthly, the integration of Scripture into the Mass is much more evident in the old lectionary. For example, on a saint’s feast day, the prayers throughout the Mass invoke and honour the saint, the readings and antiphons extol the saint’s virtues, and the Sacrifice unites us with the saints as the Church Militant meets with the Church Triumphant in the Eucharist. Throughout the usus antiquior, the language of Scripture, its vocabulary and rhetoric, permeate the liturgy in almost every prayer of the priest. This is far less obvious in the modern liturgy, where the lectionary has been greatly increased but the other fixed prayers have been greatly decreased. I will agree here that the language of the old lectionary was much more ingrained into the vocabulary of the liturgy but I am less sure that this was due to the lectionary itself or due more to the fact that the King James English of the Bible mirrored the same English used in the collects and liturgical texts.  That said, it would be better if we returned to a closer connection between the language and vocabulary of the lectionary and the liturgy.  That would not, however, require us to choose the one  year over the three year lectionary.

Fifthly, despite its much greater magnitude, the new lectionary does not, in fact, merely add Scripture to the liturgy; it omits many passages that had been proclaimed faithfully for over 1,500 years of Catholic worship, especially those one could consider “difficult”. The classic example is St Paul’s exhortation to examine our worthiness to approach the Eucharist lest we condemn ourselves by partaking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27-29), a passage abundantly present in the usus antiquior, but that never appears once in the new cycle of readings. The revisers of the lectionary admitted openly that they were editing out passages they deemed “difficult” for modern man. Thus, the new lectionary does a disservice to the Christian people by depriving them of certain challenging texts that the Church’s tradition had always shared. As one modern writer concludes: the new lectionary presents more of Scripture’s words—and less of its message. This reveals a systematic fault in the reformers’ mindset that is certainly not operative in the old lectionary.  While this is not as true of the Lutheran Service Book lectionary as it is true of the Revised Common Lectionary, one cannot escape the reality that some of the more difficult readings for the modern mind to hear have been omitted from the three year lectionary.  This may have been an editorial goal of some but it should have been thoroughly reviewed and corrected by those who guard such things.  There is certainly a tendency to be more politically correct with the RCL and, while some would laud this, it is clearly a distinct weakness of the RCL and, to a much lesser extent, derivative lectionaries such as the LSB version.

Finally. . . the way Scripture is treated in the liturgy should give us a clue about how important it is. In the usus antiquior, the kisses, bows, chants, incensations, etc., that occur with the reading of Scripture ennoble it much more than the simple reading that usually occurs in the Ordinary Form, whose plainness of ceremonial matches the Cartesian emphasis on quantity of text over quality of liturgical placement and meaning. It is not too surprising that, in such circumstances, the homily often overshadows or competes with the word of Scripture, since there is almost no difference between how Scripture is proclaimed and how the homily is proclaimed.  The way we treat the Word of God is telling.  Dr. David Scaer has opined a time or two about how significant a Gospel Book can be as drawing our attention to the Words of Christ.  I think there is something here to consider.  Further, it is more typical in a Lutheran congregation that no ceremony is attached to the readings -- not even holding up the book when saying "The Word of the Lord."  We are a ceremonial people (watch a sports event) and ceremonies display the weight and significance of things.  To rob the reading of the Scriptures of any ceremony is to say to people that this Word is nothing special.  The sainted Kurt Marquart taught me by his own practice to kiss the altar during the Introit and I see kissing the Gospel book as the same gesture both of affection and humility as well honor.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thoughts on Prayer. . .

Prayer is essentially a petition to God of fitting things, that is things consistent with the faith and with the promises of God to us.

I grew up thinking (despite what I was taught) that prayer was my chance to step into the arena with God and fight for my cause, prove my worthiness, and change God's mind over to my perspective on the thing for which I was praying.  In other words, prayer, like salvation is to some, becomes a business transaction in which we give up what we think God wants in order to get from God what we want.  Sure, it is couched in all the right pious and holy language to mask the abruptness of such a prideful posture but, in the end, that is pretty much what it ended up being.

I encountered the idea that prayer is a petition to God for the things befitting the faith and reflecting the promises of God from a devotional book (though I cannot recall which one).  It has stuck with me.  The name of "Jesus" is not a secret code word attached to a prayer that makes God do what we want.  The agreement of two or three others to our prayers is not a way of forcing God to give us what we desire.  The job of prayer is not to plead our cause before an unwilling and uncharitable God who must be cajoled and even hoodwinked into giving us something He does not wish to give.

What this means, if you think about it, is that prayer is really the test of our confidence in God's good and gracious will.  We do not pray to change the mind of God but to plead the cause of our heart and our will all the while expressing our confidence in His good and gracious will.  When we pray "Thy will be done" it is not the last resort of a people who want anything but God to decide what is good, right, and salutary for us but the first hope of a people who gladly admit we do not see things as they are nor do we know our hearts as He does.  So our deference to His will is not some forced posture in which we regretfully defer to Him as the fearful do the powerful.  No, indeed.  It is because we know Jesus Christ and His saving will and purpose in His incarnation, obedient life,  life-giving death, and triumphant resurrection that pray at all.  He who did not spare His only Son, will He also not now give you all things in Him?

That is the key.  Prayer is in Christ.  It is the petition of a people whose hearts have been created new in baptism, in whom the Spirit has worked to break down the barriers of the heart to faith and the mind to understand, and for whom God's gracious will is our greatest hope and confidence.  We pray in Christ, as a people to whom the saving will of the Father, manifested by the Son, and made known by the Spirit are the reason we pray at all.

The things we pray for, then, are the things in keeping with the faith, with the new and contrite hearts the Spirit has created within us, and with the revelation of God's perfect saving will.  These fitting things are the things only newly created hearts know to pray for and the things for which only newly created hearts desire. When this is hard for us, the Spirit is there to intercede, to turn the groans of our fears and stresses into words of faith, and to remind us of the Our Father when our minds cannot find the words and our hearts the desire to pray at all.

Pray not for all things you want but for the things that befit the faith, the knowledge of God's will and saving work in Christ, and the things that only a new heart, created in baptism, knows to pray.  You no longer need to convince God you are worthy for these nor do you need to wrestle with His will and change His mind.  Then the Amen becomes not merely a signal that the prayer is over but the joyful and confident expression of a people who know that God's will is good and gracious and that God will give us all things fitting, all things good, all things right, and all things salutary to our survival as His child now and to achieving the outcome of our faith in the salvation of our souls.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Thanksgiving Reflection. . .

As best we can figure, about 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians came together to share an autumn harvest feast.  That became the first Thanksgiving celebration in the colonies but not the last. For several hundred years, individual colonies and then states declared times of thanksgiving.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year.  In 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States.  He pointedly marked the successful conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution as occasions for that particular thanksgiving. His successors John Adams and James Madison kept up the practice, also designating days of thanks during their presidencies. Then, in 1863, right in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made a presidential proclamation of a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

For many Americans, Thanksgiving has lost most of its religious significance and has been detached from our own history except for the Pilgrim connection.  Instead, we celebrate Thanksgiving by cooking and eating a sumptuous meal with family and friends before embarking on one of the biggest holiday shopping days of the year.  Of course, we also spend our day watching football (at great American sport being played by fewer and fewer youth but still highly popular both on the collegiate level and as a professional sport). Center stage is the turkey, a Thanksgiving staple so ubiquitous  roasted, baked or deep-fried and it would not be Thanksgiving without it.

Though the Native Americans were friends at the first celebration, our national meal is often interrupted by our national disputes and Native Americans are particularly edgy about a meal in which they were a guest but became the victims in a competition for the land.  Jews also have a harvest festival called Sukkot.  So do the Canadians and other nations.  Not at the same time and not with the same menu, of course.  And the Native Americans had meals to celebrate the bounty of the earth and their gods long before the Pilgrims showed up.  But the question today is what kind of meal has it become?

Thanksgiving is not a church feast or festival but it is not unchurchly, either.  In fact, it is good to look around you at least once a year and forego the depressing news of the nation and the world long enough to see all that we take for granted.  We in America live rich lives.  We have come to count on things as if we were owed them.  We talk too much about rights and now enough about privilege.  We expect a great deal but often find it hard to give back.  We live ever more solitary lives and so one day when we invite family and friends in we should take full advantage of the occasion.  It would not hurt us to say a prayer of thanks and to make this the start of a daily tradition throughout the year.  And it would not hurt if we commit ed ourselves to the cause of gratitude.  Contentment begins with gratitude and maybe we would all be happier if we were simply grateful for the richness of the lives we lead, the great treasure of liberty, and the awesome gift of freedom.

So, go ahead and eat and watch football and even shop.  But let it all begin with a sober reflection on what we have been given as a nation and people and a somber nod to the duty and responsibility that accompany it all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Chipping away at a stone mountain. . .

Many years ago there was a partisan cartoon depicting Luther with a chisel and mallet chipping away like a sculptor at a mountain of stone shaped like the Pope.  This is an effective cartoon but not so good with history or theology.

Luther's issue was not simply with the particular Pope of the moment or even with the papacy itself.  Luther's issue was the Gospel, the locus of authority for doctrine and faith (the norma normans or norming norm), and the errors accumulated over time that had cast a shadow of this Gospel in the life of the Church.

But there is something else wrong with that cartoon.  That is the idea that the Roman Catholic Church of Luther's day (or of our own) represented a homogenous and cohesive theology or a monolithic church, consistent in time and the same everywhere.  In truth, Rome was and is an umbrella church in which the papacy represents the stem in the middle holding it all together with allegiance to the Bishop of Rome.  But there was not and is not internal consistency among all Roman Catholics as to all that is believed and confessed.  On the one hand, we have the catechisms that, like Lutheran Confessions, are supposed to be not only apt descriptions of what ought to be believed but what is believed.  On the other hand, history shows that just as once the Franciscans were a theological party differentiated from the Dominicans and the Jesuits from the Jansenists, etc., so today Rome is suffering from a party spirit that threatens the unity of the Roman Church.  The 62 scholars who issued their challenge to Pope Francis on the heels of the Five Dubia of the four cardinals and some 800,000 signatures on a petition are not contending for practice but for what the Roman Church believes and confesses -- a significant challenge not seen in 700 years!

While in the past the pope was generally the arbiter of such disputes, now this pope has made himself a party to the disputes.  These different "schools" or parties or theologies are now centered in the papacy or those who have been able to manipulate the Pope (who is not generally regarded as an intellectual heavy weight). This is a oddity because it also appears that Pope Francis seems to be comfortable being the head of a party among those disputing what is Roman Catholic and what is not with regard to marriage and to the communion of those divorced.

Lutherans are not contending with a solid piece of stone but a patchwork of various kinds of stone once cemented together by papal authority but now cracking. . .

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

God's Talents and God's Servants

Sermon for Pentecost 24, Proper 28A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.

                Much like the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, we read the parable of the Talents and we think it’s about us: we’re the servants who’ve received talents, gifts and skills and abilities, and we’re to use them to grow God’s kingdom.  We’re not supposed to hide them away.  But is this parable about us, about what we do for the kingdom of heaven, or like all parables, is it about God and what He does for His kingdom, what He does for you?
                Jesus spoke this parable to the Twelve Disciples immediately after He told them the parable of the Virgins.  Both these stories speak about the coming of our Lord on the Last Day.  No one knows when that day will be, so we must be ready; we shouldn’t waste what the Lord’s given us as we wait for Him, like the servant did. 
                The master in the parable was going on a journey and he entrusted his property to three servants.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to the third one.  These servants were supposed to take care of these talents, to use them for their master according to his purpose.  The first two invested the talents and doubled them, but the third one dug a hole and put his talent into the ground.  He was afraid to use it and thought it was safe there. 
                When the master returned he settled the accounts.  He was pleased with the first two servants and rewarded them because they used the master’s talents for his purpose.  But when the third servant came he said, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground” (Matt 25:25).  This upset the master because even though the servant thought this way about his master, he did nothing.  The servant should’ve at least put it in the bank to gain some interest.  That would’ve fit with what he thought about the master.  But because he did nothing, the master called him a wicked and worthless servant and threw him out into the darkness. 
                It’s easy to hear this parable and think it’s about us.  We hear the word talent and we think about our talents, our gifts and skills and abilities.  We talk about these talents beginning in our childhood.  Parents and teachers watch us grow and they see what we’re good at, what we enjoy, and they encourage us in these things.  Sometimes these skills and abilities turn into a career.  Sometimes we just pursue them as hobbies.  As Christians we understand that these gifts and abilities are given to us by God, and with faith, we rightly want to use them for His glory.  We want to invest our talents in God’s kingdom. 
                That’s what it says on the front cover of our worship bulletin: Talents to Invest.  If your talent is music, you can lead God’s people in song by joining the choir, singing loud in the pews, or playing musical instruments for festival worship services.  Maybe you're a handyman or you like to build.  There’s ample opportunity for you to use these talents as you maintain the place where God’s people gather for worship and fellowship.  Maybe your talent is teaching.  God’s church always needs teachers, people who instruct and pass on the faith.  God has given all of us gifts and abilities, different talents, and all of us can use these in the Church.  I encourage you to find a way to share your talents with your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Use them to God’s glory.  This is a good thing...but that’s not what this parable is about. 
                The talents in the parable aren’t your talents.  The talents in the parable is money, the valuable stuff in the master’s house.  A talent was a monetary unit that was very valuable.  It’s been estimated that a silver talent was valued at about 7,300 denarii, and a denarius was equal to a day's pay.  So, a silver talent was worth 7,300 days of work, 20 years of pay.  And a gold talent was worth a whole lot more than that.  The master entrusted his most valuable things to the servants. 
                What’s the most valuable thing in God’s kingdom?  It’s His Word: His Word preached and His Word administered in the Sacraments.  God’s Word is the most valuable thing in the kingdom because through God’s Word you know who Christ Jesus your Savior is.  Through the Word, you hear how God’s Son became man so that He could die on the cross and pay for your sins.  You hear of Christ’s resurrection by which He won everlasting life for you.  Through the Word faith is created in you and you receive new life in the waters of Baptism and the forgiveness of sins in the Body and Blood of Christ.  God’s Word is the most valuable thing in His kingdom because through it you receive forgiveness and everlasting life.  And this Word He entrusts to His servants, to His pastors to faithfully preach and teach for your benefit. 
                Remember, Jesus spoke this parable specifically to His Twelve Disciples, the men He would be sending out to proclaim the Word of God.  Christ entrusted the Gospel, the good news of His death and resurrection, to these men, not to hide and keep in a hole until Christ’s return, but to preach and to share and to proclaim. 
This parable stands as a warning for God’s ministers.  They’re not to be like the worthless servant who hid his master’s talent.  They’re always to keep God’s Word with them.  They’re always to use God’s Word according to His plan and purpose.  The disciples were to speak this life-giving Word so that God’s kingdom would expand and grow.  God’s pastors are to faithful speak this life-giving Word so that God’s kingdom would expand and grow.  This is the only way that God’s kingdom expands and grows. 
                The faithful servants in the parable didn’t earn more money for their master, it was the investment of the talents that did this.  The talents did the work.  The talents earned the investments.  The servants were simply faithful in handling the talents according to the master’s plan.  And this is the same when it comes to God’s Word. 
Nothing pastors do based on their own abilities creates faith in God’s people.  Nothing you do creates faith within yourself.  Our talents, our gifts and skills and abilities, they don’t create faith, they don’t expand and grow the kingdom.  Only the Word of God brings people to faith.  Only the Word of God delivers forgiveness of sins.  Only the Word of God gives life! 
That’s why you’re part of God’s kingdom, why you faithfully wait for Christ’s return, because you’ve received faith through the hearing of God’s Word.  You have the life of God’s kingdom because you’ve heard God’s Word preached. You have the life of God’s kingdom because you’ve received His Word in the Sacraments.  Thank the Lord, for all His faithful servants and pastors who’ve proclaimed God’s Word according to His plan and purpose, for your benefit, for your place in God’s kingdom. 
God is the Master and His talents are His Word and Sacraments.  These He entrusts to His pastors, not to hide, but to preach, to teach, and to administer, so that the Word would produce more, making faithful saints, making you faithful saints.  Hearing God’s Word, you know Christ your Savior and through His sacraments you receive His forgiveness and life in the kingdom of heaven and you faithfully wait for His return when you’ll enter into your Master’s joy.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.