Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Ghosts of Christmas. . . Not. . .

Okay, I heard it again.  You know.  The old saw about the Blessed Virgin Mary being an unwed mother.  Wrong.  In the marriage customs of the day, a contract was made between the groom and his family and the bride’s father and pay a bride-price (mohar) would be paid.  This is the betrothal spoken about in the Gospels and it was the legal equivalent of a marriage ceremony. True, the bride could remain in her father’s home for a time (perhaps up to a year) but she was married and to break this marriage contract required a divorce (remember that Joseph was considering doing just that).   It would appear that Joseph and Mary were formally wedded in a ceremony sometime after the angel came to Joseph in the dream.

Then there is the next goofiness.  Mary and Joseph were refugees, the equivalent of modern day illegal aliens or those fleeing the war torn countries of the Middle East or elsewhere.  Wrong.  That is not to diminish the plight of those who are refugees, banished from their homes by governments, war, or violence.  No, indeed.  But that does not fit Mary and Joseph.    They were headed to Bethlehem for a census, a registration of families largely for the purposes of taxation.  They were not without a home even though there was no guest room available (there probably were no "inns" in Bethlehem but guest rooms made available to family and travelers).  They were given whatever space was available, the lower part of the house which they shared with the animals.  The "innkeeper" was not without compassion and as soon as the guest rooms cleared out, Joseph and Mary moved into one.

And the flight into Egypt was not homeless fleeing violence in the homeland but the direction of God to protect His only begotten, born of Mary by the Holy Spirit, so that He would be able to fulfill His saving purpose.  As soon as the danger passed, they went back home.  And while they were in Egypt they did not face any threat or suffer.  From all that we know, their time spent in Egypt was without incident.  While this is as close as you might get to legitimately calling them refugees, this was a personal call by God with the promise of His protection.  That is not exactly what marks the refugees we see today.

And for the most idiotic.  "Jesus had two dads and he ended up just fine."  WRONG.  Jesus did not have two dads.  He was the one and only Son of the Father entrusted into the able care of Joseph, His guardian.  Joseph did not play dad or even act as a substitute dad.  That does not diminish Joseph's role at all.  Jesus insists that He must be about His Father's business.  Jesus knew who He was.  At the same time, Jesus honored Joseph as a righteous man, a man of faith, and the right person to extend the care and protection of God's command.  In this respect, Joseph remains an example of faith and righteousness for all men, fathers to their children and guardians to their step-children.  But to say Jesus had two dads is to miss the whole point and trivialize the Holy Family and Joseph's place within it for effect -- because of the same sex marriage issue we face today.  Not the same.  Not even close.   What makes matters worse, it seems that some churches, those friendly to same sex marriage, have put this foolishness on their church sign boards.  Shame on you.

It is not that word that was/is the problem. . .

A person visiting smiled the knowing smile to me and then said they caught how I had slipped in that word into the creed, catholic.  It was the kind of banter that would take place when somebody, usually a child, did something forbidden and folks were snickering because he almost got away with it. Lutheran aversion to the word catholic is not Lutheran.  In fact, it is not that word that was or is problematic.  While some have played with the Reformation to make it out that Luther was styling a church more to his liking, the real cause of the Reformation (at least the Lutheran one) was to emphasize the word catholic and de-emphasize the word Roman.  What had become the identifying character of the Roman word was conflicting with the character of the catholic word.  To be blunt, Rome was getting in the way of catholic.  Lutherans never had or have a problem with the word catholic; it was and is a problem with the word Roman.

And, by the way, Lutherans are not using the word catholic to say "me, too"  -- yeah, we are also catholics.  There are no garden varieties of catholic -- only one catholic, full, whole, complete, and universal faith.  You don't have part of it or some of it are a version of it.  You either have it or you don't.  This is the standard Lutherans set for themselves beginning with the Augustana.  This faith confessed is the catholic one.  Yes, we know that it is not the Roman one but that is what the Reformation is about.  Roman had replaced catholic to the point where it conflicted with what was believed, taught, confessed, and practiced at all times and in all places. The Reformers, in effect, denied that the word “catholic” was equivalent to or a synonym of “Roman.” 

For all the pious drivel that has been bantered about in this 500th anniversary year, Rome is still requiring that Lutherans be Roman in order to be catholic.  Lutherans are still confessing that catholic is not a synonym for Roman.  Yes, we ought to be people of good will and kind and polite but we should be talking about the great issues that divide us -- not to find common ground but to resolve serious differences.  Common ground is fine and has been there from the beginning.  The Confutation found no problem with many articles of the Augustana and spent precious little ink on others.  We know the issues.  Why can't we face them and discuss them openly, like adults, not simply to find commonality but to address the historic divisions between us?

FWIW, the odd curiosity is that groups that never intend to be catholic (for example, those who reject baptismal regeneration or the real presence, among other things) seem to have no problem with that word.  Lutherans, who insist that what we confess and practice is either the catholic doctrine and practice or we will change it, are the ones who hesitate to embrace the word.  But it is not the word catholic that was or is the problem.  It is the word Roman and its equation that what is Roman is by definition catholic.  At best we should be standing with others who challenge this assertion (like the East) but it seems more and more we are standing alone, both as Lutherans against Protestants out of control and as confessional Lutherans within Lutheranism.

To be honest, I am relieved 2017 is over so that we can stop spending our time correcting the false ideas of what Luther believed, who he was, and what the Reformation was all about.  Now that the hype is toned down, we can get back the issues at  hand.  How did we celebrate the Reformation in our parish?  We had indepth studies of everything in the Book of Concord except the Formula (that is coming).  We had historical displays (complete with a replica of the original Luther Bible and a host of other things, including the Wittenberg altar piece).  We preached the unchanging Gospel to a changing world.  In short, we did the things Lutherans are supposed to do all the time.  Remember the past, confess the faith, preach the Gospel, and administer the Sacraments.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas IS about gifts. . .

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Day), preached on Monday, December 25, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth….And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (Jn 1:14, 16). 
    Take a moment and answer this question: What’s Christmas all about?  Is it about family and friends, being together for the holidays?  Is it about generosity and giving?  Is it about being grateful for all that you have?  All the Hallmark holiday movies say this is what Christmas is about.  These sentiments are nice and good, but that’s not what Christmas is about.  We all know that Christmas is about the gifts...not the gifts you give, but the gifts you receive…not the ones wrapped in paper and boxes, but the One wrapped in cloth and laid in a feeding box.  Christmas is about the gift that God has given to you, His Son, the only real true gift. 
    True gifts are freely given.  That’s the definition of a gift.  They’re given without any requirement.  They’re not rewards.  They’re not payments.  Gifts aren’t earned or based on merit, and their given without any expectation of getting anything in return.  When we understand what a gift truly is, and then when we look at the gifts we give, we see our gifts really aren’t gifts at all. 
    We give gifts that are rewards.  Our children have been extra-good lately.  They’ve made it on the nice list, they’ve done the chores and gotten along with their siblings, so we give them a few extra gifts.  Our friends helped us out this year when we were ill, so we give them a gift to say thank you.  These gifts, although they’re nice and considerate, they’re not really gifts.  They’re payment for good and helpful actions.  There’s nothing wrong with giving these rewarding gifts, but they’re not truly gifts that are freely given.  They’ve been earned. 
    We also give gifts for selfish reasons, whether we know it or not.  It makes us feel good when we give a person a gift, when they say thank you.  We pat ourselves on the back for our generosity.  We like seeing the smiling faces of our children as they rip open those boxes.  They’re joy is contagious and we feel like a kid again.  We like feeling that kid-ish joy. 
We give gifts because we don’t want to look bad.  How many of us have given a gift because we were certain someone would give us one and we didn’t want to show up empty handed?  We all have.  No one wants to be that person who looks greedy, always receiving and never giving. 
These types of gifts aren’t freely given, they come with an expectation of return.  We get something from them: self-congratulations, an emotional pick-me-up, reputation brownie-points.  This doesn’t mean these gifts are bad, it just means they’re not really gifts.  They’re not freely given.  But that’s not how it is with God’s gift.  Christ Jesus is the only true gift that is completely freely given.
We didn’t merit the gift of Christ, at least not in a good way.  The Word of God didn’t become flesh and dwell among us to reward our good behavior.  Jesus wasn’t born because we’re on the nice list.  God gave us His Son because we’re sinners, because of our sin, to rescue us from our sin.  We don’t earn Jesus.  We earn death.  That’s the reward we merit.  But the gift that you receive is Christ, who saves you from sin and death. 
This is why God gave you His Son.  This gift is completely 100% for you, for your benefit, for your life.  God receives nothing in return for this gift.  There’s no selfish motives on His part.  He doesn’t need an emotional pick-me up, self-congratulations, or even reputation brownie-points.  God is the Almighty, the Creator of all things, and yet His love for you is true and so is the costly gift of His Son. 
God sacrificed His only-begotten Son on the cross for you.  He gave everything for you.  He sent His Son to dwell among us, to take on our flesh, to take your sin and guilt, to suffer the consequence of death on the cross, so that you would live.  Jesus was born to die.  Jesus is the true gift of Christmas, and through Him you receive all the priceless gifts of God: forgiveness and peace, life and everlasting salvation. 
    Through Christ, you receive grace upon grace.  God’s merciful giving never stops, and it’s always free.  There’s nothing you do to earn it.  You can’t buy or merit God’s forgiveness.  God graciously gives His absolution because Christ shed His blood on the cross.  He paid for your sins.  Because of this sacrifice, God removes your guilt.  He declares you innocent and with this declaration, you receive the gift of peace. 
    The angels announced this gift at Christ’s birth.  Appearing to the shepherds outside the city they sang “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Lk 2:14, KJV).  This is the same message announced to you today in the good news of the Gospel. 
This peace isn’t the sentimental peace of Hallmark movies or even peace between us here on earth that we so often think of.  This peace is the peace of God.  This peace is the good pleasure of God for those who receive Christ their Savior.  This peace is yours, declared and given to you in God’s means of grace, in His Word and Sacraments.  Because of this peace, you stand before the Lord free from the fear of sin, and death.  And with this peace you receive Christ’s everlasting life and salvation. 
    Christ was born to die so that you’d be forgiven, to bring you peace, and He rose from the dead so that you’d have everlasting life.  Christ overcome death, the reward for your sin, and He gives you the gift of life.  This life is forever, it’s yours even in the midst of death.  The grave can’t take it away.  Forever, you live with your Savior, and when He comes again on the Last Day, you’ll see this gift of salvation in full.
    Christmas is all about gifts, about God’s gifts that come through the gift of Christ Jesus, born this day.  In Christ, you receive grace upon grace.  You receive God’s gifts of forgiveness and peace, gifts of life and salvation.  These are true gifts freely given in God’s Word and Sacraments.  So let us come before Him and His altar today to receive these gifts in the Lord’s Supper.  Let us thank the Lord for these gifts, always rejoicing in them.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

The end of cremation. . .

Read about it here. . .
Eight times a year a funeral director sets off by boat from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base carrying about two dozen plastic bags filled with unusual human remains. The powder he pours overboard is from corpses that have been “cremated”—not by fire, but by liquid.

That’s how the University of California, Los Angeles, disposes of bodies donated to science: by dissolving the flesh off their bones. The bones are then ground to dust and scattered into the sea two miles offshore, forming white rings that slowly float away into the Pacific Ocean.

U.C.L.A. is the only place in California that liquefies the dead. But after five years and hundreds of bodies processed, Dean Fisher, director of the university’s Donated Body Program, hopes to change that. He has been working with state legislators on a bill allowing funeral homes to use this process, called alkaline hydrolysis. The state Senate has until September 15 to consider the legislation, which has already sailed through California’s lower house with a vote of 71 to 3. “The science says this technology is safe and has environmental benefits,” Fisher says. If California approves the new death rite, it would join a club that includes parts of Canada and several U.S. states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Wyoming.
For the first time in the U.S. 2015 saw more people cremated than buried in the ground.  It is not a fad but it is a reasoned choice by those who do not believe in burials that take up valuable property and a reasonable choice by those who find the average cost of a funeral shocking.  Cremation usually costs less than a third of a burial, saves on some natural resources; and relieves the demand of valuable real estate (right now the most expensive land in the world is a cemetery plot close to the place where Marilyn Monroe is buried).

The process is called alkaline hydrolysis and goes by names of biocremation, aquamation and resomation.  It may well become the replacement for cremation by fire which we are seeing replace traditional burial in the earth.  So what do you think about this?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Glory, Angels, and Shepherds. . .

The sermon for the Eve of the  Nativity of Our Lord, December 24, 2017.

     The traditional announcement marks a different way of counting time and only heightens the distance between the way people saw things at the time of our Lord's birth and how we see things today.  The glory of God, the angels of the Lord, and the shepherds of old have all been transformed by our way of thinking.

    We approach things decidedly different than the people of old.  Remember when Moses saw the glory of the Lord and His face shown with brightness?  The people who saw him were not encouraged by what they saw, but fearful.  They told Moses that they would listen to Him but they wanting nothing to do with the Lord for if they heard the sound of His voice or saw His glory, they would surely die.

    It is the same with angels.  Just as we have tamed God and made Him into a unthreatening old man, so we have declawed the angels and made them into the stuff of myth and legend.  We like angels.  We not only want to see one, we want to be one, complete with wings and flowing blond hair.  Not so the people of old.  The angels were threatening to them and they were happy to keep their distance from them.

    In the Gospel for Christmas, we encounter shepherds.  These were not the romantic figures of our imaginations but common men without pedigree or education.  Their vocation meant long times away from family and home as well as soap and water.  They lived with their sheep, protecting them with their lives and guiding the stubborn critters to find food and water and safety from predators.

    But they all came together when the shepherds got to see both the angels and the glory of the Lord.  You may want to have seen the angels and the glory of the Lord but these shepherds were driven to fear.  The angels and the glory of the Lord was shocking to them.  Before they could hear the Word of the Lord about what took place in Bethlehem, they had to be calmed down.  “Fear not!  I am not here to scare you but to tell you good news for you and for all people.”

    We think of Christmas with fondness and joy.  We have rich memories of times spent with families of old, of presents given and received, of meals shared, and of holiday traditions that warm our hearts.  Not the shepherds.  They were filled with fear.  For the glory of God and the appearance of the angels exposed them and all the secret sins they had tried to keep hidden.  If God was near, there was no place to hide and if there was no place to hide, then they would be alone in their sin before God’s glory and the messengers of His terrible will.

    The angels had to calm them because their instinct was that God had come to judge and only the Holy Spirit could convince them that God had come to save them.  So the angel tells them the good news or Gospel.  And what is this Gospel?  It is not that God accepts you as you are or that you have nothing to worry about from God’s wrath or sin is no big deal or that as long as you are happy, God is happy.  No, the Gospel is radical.

    You will find the Lord in the flesh and blood of a baby, born of a Virgin, laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and here is Your Savior, the Messiah long promised of old.  God is no longer the God of the mountain tops or hidden in the heavens or far off.
God has come near, filled with grace and mercy, to redeem those who confess their sins and to save those who know they cannot fix the problem of that sin and its death.  The fearful and terrible God has come as He promised, in our own flesh and blood to suffer for our sins and die our death upon the cross, and to rise up and give to us everlasting life. 
    The fearful and terrible God whose glory and whose messengers caused the shepherds no little angst has come as Savior, Christ, the Lord.  He is Lord, the God through whom all things were made.  He is Lord who spoke to Adam and Eve of the Son who would saved them.  He is the Lord whom Moses saw upon the mountain top.  He is the Lord whom Israel followed through the wilderness and to the land of hope and promise.  He is the Lord who spoke through the prophets of what was to come.  He is the Lord who is now fulfilling that prophecy and that Word.

    He is the Messiah, the Christ, who is come to sit upon the throne of David forever and who will carry the burdens of our lost lives upon His own shoulders.  He is the King who rules by suffering for His people.  His Kingdom is not of this world but we meet that Kingdom in the world wherever His Word speaks and His sacraments are administered.

    He is the Savior who takes the sins from the guilty and declares them holy, who purchases those enslaved to sin not through silver or gold but with His holy and precious blood.  He is the triumphant warrior who fights our enemy the devil and wins for us not only the day but eternity.  He is the Savior gives what He has won freely to those who believe in Him.  He saves us not by compelling us but by grace, not by our own works or good behavior but by His own saving work upon the cross.

    The shepherds were right to be afraid.  Without Christ, God is terrifying and our sins are inescapable.  How can this be?  It was what the Virgin Mary uttered when the angel came to her to declare that she had found favor in the sight of God and would bear His own Son in her womb.  How can this be?  It is what the shepherds thought when they tried to reconcile the terror of a holy God with their guilty sins and when they tried to listen to angels they had learned to fear and when they encountered the glory of God in the darkness of the night.

    And it is our question today.  Though we are two thousand years removed from that night when angels sang and the glory of God was revealed, we are still in shock over just how radical this Gospel is.  The Gospel is not reasonable or rational.  It is not oriented toward our feelings or filled with sentiment.  It is about sin and the only place that sin is forgiven and about death and the only One who can release us from that death.  It is about the glory of the Lord and the surprise of grace that this glory is revealed not to condemn but to save us.

    It is troubling that Christmas has become so ordinary, so predictable, and so comfortable.  The shepherds were shocked by the angels, scared to death by the glory of God, and in awe of the God who was determined to become their Savior.  What about YOU?  The shepherds were left alone.  The angels went back into heaven.  The glory of the Lord  was in Bethlehem.  And they were left with a choice.  Do we go back home to the sheep or do we go to Bethlehem and see this things which the Lord has made known to us?

    And that is the question before you tonight and the question you face every Sunday morning.  How do we respond to what the Lord has done?  The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem and found everything as the Lord had told them.  This is our Bethlehem.  The Word is the manger that holds Christ for us.  The Holy Communion is Christ incarnate in bread and wine for us to eat and drink.  And in that Word and Sacrament is the Gospel, the God who has become His people’s Savior.  In that Gospel is our redemption, our rebirth as new people created in Christ Jesus from a past defined by sin and death – for a future defined by forgiveness and new and everlasting life. 

    What does it say when Christ is greeted every week with a shrug of the shoulders or a question whether or not we feel like church?  What does it say that we prefer our old lives marked by sin to the radical new lives of holiness and righteousness He calls us to?  What does it say that we run after every new thing and treat the only thing really new as yesterday’s news – God come to earth to save us His people?  The glory of the Lord is His mercy.  The presence of the Lord is our hope. And the result of the Lord’s presence is rejoicing and peace.

    The shepherds glorified and praised God for what they had seen and heard.  Mary pondered all this in her heart.  Tonight we have the opportunity to do both.  As we sing the old carols and sing the familiar liturgy, we glorify and praise God as those who believe what He has said and done.  And every day we ponder anew this Gospel in our hearts as we live out the new lives He has given us, not for self but for the Lord, loving God by loving our neighbor.  But the one thing we cannot do is to go back home and live as though this story had not happened. 

Be not afraid.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  O come let us worship Him.  Amen.

Progress or Change. . . has been written on the subject of doctrinal development, in particular, from the likes of John Henry Newman, but nearly everything that we struggle to say has been shaped by the seminal thought of that monk and theologian of LĂ©rins, St. Vincent (d. 445).  St. Vincent spent the early part of his life as a Roman soldier and later converted to Christianity within a monastic vocation.  He left us but one, single, solitary writing, the work called Commonitorium (c. 434) which is a full treatise on the subject of the “catholicity” of the Church.  He is, of course, the author of the famous definition of catholicity that has become so much a part of our modern conversation about doctrine and truth.

… which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.  (2.6)
Ultimately, the Church is catholic because Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and not because it is something we as people can effect, either from within or without the Church. How foolish it is for us to think that we sinners could somehow cobble together the catholicity of the Church simply by confessing orthodoxy or condemning heterodoxy or justifying schism!  Catholicity remains the domain of the Spirit and it is the fruit of His work alone that Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever, is confessed faithfully in doctrine and creed that also does not change.  Catholicity is not an achievement as if you can check off the boxes but a reflection of the life and place of Scripture within the Church and the living tradition that flows from that Word of God.

Catholicity is not the result of a compromise vote nor even a consensus agreement but is the Spirit's work, working through the means of grace, to inform, guide, and guard the sacred deposit.  While we certainly do cooperate with the Spirit in this endeavor, it is not the result of our own labors.  Even so, catholicity cannot simply be repeating what everyone already knows in the same formulations.  Language changes and circumstances change and it requires of us that we be able to address the unchanging dogma of orthodox Christianity within formulations and a vocabulary that does and must change as it engages and addresses the world with the living voice of our Lord.  It is also truth that iron sharpens iron and, though the doctrine does not change, we do progress in the way this doctrine is known and confessed.  Perhaps the most profound example is the Nicene Creed and its expansion of the second article under the duress of those who disbelieved the witness of Scripture and the consistent and catholic faith of who the Son of God is and is not, especially with regard to His incarnation.

Again, from St. Vincent:  Christian doctrine may be consolidated with years, expanded with time, grow loftier with age.  At the same time, that same doctrine must remain incorrupt and undefiled.  It cannot change even though its expression may progress and be sharpened and more well defined, especially under the threat of opposition and challenge.  Perhaps we might not contrast  progress and change in exactly the same way as St. Vincent but his example is not without help.

 According to St. Vincent, such progress or development cannot betray what cannot change.  In contrasting progress and change, St. Vincent sees this as organic and consistent with its own integrity and not the betrayal of itself.  He writes: “But it [progress of religion] must be such as may be truly a progress of the faith, not a change; for when each several thing is improved in itself, that is progress; but when a thing is turned out of one thing into another, that is change.” The progress cannot mean a change in the essence of the Church's confession and doctrine.  Therein lies the difficulty.  Progress has become for us today the euphemism for just that -- change, radical change, in which the past is not merely adapted but often repudiated and the doctrine that was once the glory of the Church has become an embarrassment.  I wonder if this is not especially true when it comes to such things as creation, the definition of what sin is, and such unpleasant topics as cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, et. al.

Vincent is very concerned to distinguish between “progress,” the organic development that occurs primarily as that doctrine is confessed, and “change,” in which the substance actually becomes something beyond or different from that which was from the beginning.  The faith confessed does not change but must remain identical with itself so that it recognizable and consistent from age to age and from place to place.  Think of what Benedict XVI called the hermenuetic of continuity.  This is, by the way, exactly the claim of the Lutherans in the Augustana and the challenge laid at the feet of Rome.  Progress became change and novelty and innovation transformed what had been until it was no longer consistent with what was.  Whether you admit this claim is correct or not, it is clearly the claim of the signers and of those who continue to confess the Augsburg Confession.

On the other hand, change is quite different.  When what is confessed turns into something different, the Church is cut off from those who passed on the sacred deposit and the faithful are then isolated from that faith.  Progress means, for example, that new terms may be used to confess what has always been believed, taught, and confessed -- such as homoousios in the Creed.  The word was new and it represented a progression in the doctrine of Christ but not a change, not a novelty, not an invention of something foreign or alien to what was before it.  The form of expression may evolve but not the doctrine itself and such evolutions are authentic and legitimate only if they keep the same meaning [eodem sensu eademque sententia].   The truth does not change.  For St. Vincent, and for the Lutherans in their Augsburg Confession, doctrinal formulations which conflict with Scripture and the catholic tradition are not the only problem but invention is also a problem.  We do not add to the truth even though how we apply the unchanging truth and how we confess it may progress.

So, for example, the Church's stance on sexuality (and marriage) or capital punishment are not open to redress for to change them is to repudiate both the Scriptural witness from which that truth comes and to betray the faithful confession of that truth through the ages.  This is certainly the horns of Rome's dilemma today.  For Lutherans, the landscape may change even though the circumstances are familiar.  So issues of who is ordained and what morality is consistent with the Scriptural witness are not small matters at all but go to the heart and core of what it means to be catholic.  That word cannot be a term we claim but must also be a term proven not only by words but also by practice.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

An enduring kingdom with no bounds. . .

Sermon for Advent IVB, preached on Sunday, December 24, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

[The Lord said to David] “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.  Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16).
    David looked around his house.  It was a sturdy house made of cedar, a house fit for a king.  Then he saw the tent that the ark of God dwelt in.  God was living in a tent.  David immediately understood the disconnect.  Why should he, a man who was once a shepherd boy, live in a greater house than the one true God?  With faith, David wanted to a house fit for Lord, but God wouldn’t allow it.  Instead He made a promise to David: to make his house even greater, to make his kingdom endure forever.  This promise God fulfilled in Christ, and you’re a part of that enduring kingdom. 
    When we think about kingdoms, we generally think in geographical terms; nations and states.  We think about borders and boundaries.  Images of walls pop into our heads.  But kingdoms aren’t necessarily geographical places on a map.  Borders and boundaries don’t define what a kingdom is.  Kingdoms are defined by the rule of a king.  A kingdom is the reign of a king, his authority.  The walls that separate nations only show where the authority of one king ends and another begins. 
    The enduring kingdom promised to David, that is, the kingdom of God, it isn’t a place.  It doesn’t have geographical borders.  The Lord’s kingdom isn’t limited to heaven’s pearly gates.  The kingdom of God is everywhere.  It’s where Christ the King is. 
    The promise that God made with David to make his house sure forever, to establish his throne forever (2 Sam 7:16) wasn’t a promise of an earthly kingdom.  God wasn’t guaranteeing an ever existing state of Israel with a Davidic king sitting on the throne.  No this promise was a repeating of the promise God gave to Abraham - to make him into a great nation and to bless all peoples through his Offspring (Gen 12).  And this was a repeat of the promise given to our 1st parents, Adam and Eve, that God would crush Satan through the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15).  All these promises were promises of the Messiah, the Savior who would free His people from the tyrannical kingdom of Satan, sin, and death.  Jesus is that Savior King, born of the line of David. 
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, he greeted here with the Lord’s favor and he clearly announced that she would give birth to the promised Son of David.  He said, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:31-33). 
Christ brings the kingdom of God.  He is the King who saves His people, not from earthly enemies, but from Satan, and sin. 
At the beginning of every baptism we’re reminded that all of us are conceived and born sinful and are under the power of the devil.  St. Paul says it like this, we’re slaves to sin (Rom 6:15-23), that is, we’re under sin’s authority and rule.  Satan and sin are our masters and king, and we obey them.  They rule our lives.  We give into his temptations and sin affects of our relationships. 
There’s nothing we can do to escape this kingdom.  We’re trapped under Satan and sin’s rule.  There’s no walls we can climb over or dig under to get away.  We’d be forever enslaved in this tyrannical kingdom if Christ our King hadn’t come to free us, to bring us into His kingdom. 
Christ has defeated the tyrants of Satan, sin, and death with His life, death, and resurrection.  Christ lived the perfectly righteous life that you and I can’t.  And this perfect life He sacrificed on the cross for you.  He willingly endured the death of your sin so that you’d be free from death, so that you’d be liberated from its kingdom.  Your king ransomed His life for your freedom and brings you into His kingdom. 
    You receive citizenship in the Lord’s kingdom through your baptism.  Through that water God brings you out of slavery to sin and death, He frees you from you satanic master.  God places His name upon you.  He marks you with Jesus’ cross.  Christ is your King and you receive all the benefits of His kingdom.
    You receive the forgiveness of your sin.  God absolves you of your guilt and He declares you innocent because your King paid the penalty of your sin. 
    You receive the righteousness of Christ.  It clothes all that you do as you live in His kingdom.  When you were in Satan and sin’s kingdom, you obeyed them.  You gave into their temptations.  But now you obey Christ.   
    You receive everlasting life and salvation.  In Satan’s kingdom there’s only death.  But in Christ’s kingdom there is only life.  He is the life.  His resurrection on Easter conquers all death and won everlasting life for His people.  This life and salvation He gives to you, and He promises you that all who believe in Him will live, even though they die.
    In Christ, God fulfills His promise to David.  Jesus is David’s son and He sits on the throne forever.  His kingdom is everlasting.  No one and nothing can bring an end to it.  Nations rise and fall, heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s kingdom will endure forever.  
    God’s kingdom isn’t a place.  It’s not marked by walls or borders.  You can’t find it on a map.  It’s found only in the reign of is Christ, and you’re part of it.  Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you receive all the benefits of God’s kingdom.  This kingdom has no end, it endures forever, and nothing can take you from it.  Nothing can overcome it; for nothing can overcome your King, the Son of David, Jesus Christ our Lord.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Guerilla Warfare. . .

I was reading the other day about a war Pope Francis is waging against his enemies.  It was a story about how the Pope was undermining his own prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (head worship guy).  Francis had appointed Cardinal Sarah, an African, to the post but was now isolating him, removing the Cardinal's people replacing them with people opposed to him, and even removing aspects of the office from his portfolio of responsibilities.  It has become the typical way things get done under some popes and Francis is proving adept at guerilla warfare.  This is the art of waging a war without directly taking on anyone.  Francis has been doing a great deal of this kind thing since he became pope.  He does not directly answer his critics who directly appeal to him for answers.  He undermines those who disagree with him.  He dismisses some without cause while allowing others free rein to press the envelope on his behalf.  It is the art of church politics.

Lest we think Francis is alone in this, it is the customary way things are done everywhere from the halls of power in Washington, DC, to other churches without popes and even in congregations.  Is there a pastor alive who has not been pulled aside and warned that people are not happy or people do not like the way he does this or that or even that there are people who will leave if the pastor does not stop doing this or start doing that????  None of these people are ever named.  If they do exist, they insist upon the cover of anonymity and never directly question or attack.  You name the denomination or the region of the country and you will find the same modus operandi at work.  People are unhappy, Pastor, no, not me but others and this is what they are saying. . .

It happens on the larger scale as well.  Instead of directly confronting the issues, too much happens with little skirmishes over smaller issues -- even though we all know that this is not about the little thing but the little thing is a substitute for the big one.  People find it easier to whisper behind closed doors than to publicly address big topics that often need to be addressed.  Conventions pass the same boiler plate resolutions that pass by large margins reaffirming what we have believed, taught, confessed, and practiced in the past but all the while things are being challenged and changed.  Not through the front door but in the back yards across the nation. 

Straw men are erected to battle, positions are characterized in ways that people do not even recognize themselves or their stances, and weasel words are used -- the kind that say one thing but can mean whatever you choose them to mean.  Yes, we do have Alice in Wonderlands who insist that words mean only what we say they mean, nothing more or less.  Social media has only amplified this problem.  We see it in tweets from presidents and their critics.  We also see it from those who claim to be above that kind of thing.  I am sure people will accuse me of doing the same thing. 

The point is this.  There are things we should be talking about but we don't.  There should be frank and blunt conversations going on when we have differing opinions or hold different positions.  Real disagreement is never a problem when we face it head on, when people of good will sit down to hammer out their disagreements or admit that they no longer believe or teach or hold the same.  When we sit down and talk about these things openly, unity is not damaged but potentially strengthened.  When we don't, conflict flourishes and division increases.  It is the poisoned fruit of guerilla warfare.  Maybe other places we can get away with it.  Not in the Church.  Not in congregations.  What enters by the back door almost always is impossible to confront -- until it is too late and the damage is done.  What we face up front can even strengthen us as people and as the Church. 

No, I am not facing a serious issue in my parish.  No, I do not think the good ship Missouri is floundering.  But we all have a lot of rough water ahead unless we figure out how to sit down and own up to what we say and what we mean and to be accountable by Scripture and our Confessions.  Of course, that does not quite work in Rome. . . but then, again, that is not my problem.  Missouri is.  Lutheranism is.  500 years and passing or not.  Luther begged for a Council, even an honest conversation that was more than one word (revoco).  When the Lutherans sat down to say what they did believe, teach, and confess, we produced an admirable and clear document, the Augsburg Confession.  I would like to think that if we sat down and conversed openly and honestly again, things might just have the same result.   But then again, I am a hopeless romantic who always wants to see a happy ending.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A ceremony of the Word. . .

On my shelf I have various versions of the Bible.  They go from the Contemporary English Version and its careful use of a rather limited vocabulary to An American Translation with its idioms unique to America and to a particular time in America to St. Paul's Cotton Patch Version of his epistles and its homage to the Southern dialect to rather English versions (King James to New English Bible) to the many English versions from American publishers.  Some of those versions are positively unusable for anything that personal pleasure.  They would cause grimaces and laughter if used on Sunday morning and are not suitable for serious Bible study.  Others seem designed to roll off the tongue with elegance and eloquence that honors the words as the Word of the Lord.

I was reading a while back about translations and the work of translators and the author suggested that the attempt to use sacral language, a language particular to the worship of God and recognizable for this was the deliberate pursuit of a ceremony of the Word.  He cited in particular the KJV rendering of the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon.  The translation allows the words to sing even while speaking them but also lend themselves to chant in a surprisingly wonderful marriage of text and melody.  It is not so much about taste but about the perspective of sinners before the Most High God who has deigned to come low in the flesh of His only begotten Son for them and for their salvation.  It is language designed not to treat God as an equal but to live within the tension of the God who is greater than all and yet who comes to us incarnate in our flesh and speaking our langauge.

It is really a question of whether there is a way of translating that honors the Scriptures as that authoritative, efficacious, and infallible Word without distancing us from what it plainly says.  I believe there is.

Some in Rome has been chafing under the translation adopted some seven or eight years ago.  In particular this is noticeable in the collects but it is also profoundly apparent in the creed (consubstantial, anyone?).  There are still many who reject the new translation as not ordinary language.  Perhaps that is its strength?!  When the Worship Supplement of the LCMS came out in 1969 it was clear that some words were too wedded to the moment.  They became embarrassing or even downright humorous as the years passed them by, the liturgical equivalents of leisure suits!  One liturgy boldly began, "We are here... because we are men." 

Liturgical beauty is not aesthetics.  It is about honoring the Lord while at the same time communicating His Word and delivering His means of grace to His people in ways that honor Him as the Lord.  It is not about distance but about respect, words that encourage a sense of awe, just as their counterparts in ceremony do the very same thing.  It is about words that teach even as they speak,  bestowing the reverence of which they speak.  It is one reason why I have to bite my tongue and say what is usual instead of saying "Thus saith the Lord" after the pericopes are read in the Divine Service.

I think that gets it about right.  A good translation is, indeed, a ceremony of the Word.  Such words are not mere matters of taste or of clarity but in the way they address us they also call us into the obedience of faith and the submission to the Word as a people who not only believe it but believe in it.

Monday, December 25, 2017


A Blessed Christmas to all my readers. . .

May the Lord bless you with the full joy of His incarnation and may this holy joy support you in all the days to come.

Pastor Peters

If you are about to be Christmas-ed out. . .

A Blessed Christmass Morning. . .

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, she being great with child.

And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered; and she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes; and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: That ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 

Click here for the continuous Christmas music from Lutheran Public Radio. . .

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A blessed Christmass. . .

The Christmas Gospel?

Yet, it is often in the darkest most disorienting moments that faith can be rediscovered, and truly embraced. And it may – or may not – come from time spent in a house of worship.
The opening words of an opinion piece speak to a circumstance well known among the great holy days of Christendom.  People come to Church carrying their wounds and their sins, struggling under the weight of the disappointment and despair they carry every day, and lamenting the stresses of family, work, and self.  They are always there on Christmas.  Even when the faithful families of the parish have boarded planes, trains, and automobiles to head off to children or parents or even grandchildren to more idyllic settings of Christmas, the hurting and fearful do venture out to find a place where hope may be reborn, where sins may be forgiven, and where new life may be created within them, in the peace that passes understanding.

Then the opinion piece goes on. . .

I think the best way to rekindle faith is to be in places where faith can find us. I’m not simply writing to invite you to a mosque or synagogue or church. I’m inviting you to places where people of faith gather and participate in the movement of progression and inclusion we are working hard to achieve.
Now things begin to go downhill.  Is it true that the Gospel of the Incarnation of the Son of God is mostly about the movement of progression and inclusion?  It gets worse. . ..

We urge people of faith and good will to take solace and comfort in the fact that there is a strong current of inclusion, unity, acceptance and celebration of faith among the faithful in the places we gather – houses of worship, communities.  This is the message we as spiritual leaders want to convey to people of faith – especially now in the most holy time of year and in a time where our collective faith has been tested by so much societal malice.
That is exactly the problem.  In far too many places where the wounded and hurting and fearful will gather the real Gospel of Jesus Christ has been exchanged for a false and misleading hope of a world which affirms all genders, all ideas, all ideals, all desires, and all truth in the name of a God who is more like an aging Santa than a powerful warrior who is come to fight for His people and give them victory over their enemies.

Christmas Eve is not about a progressivism or inclusion (at least not in the sense being used here).  It
is about the utter hopelessness and despair of a world which has tried everything to free itself from fear, from the prison of guilt and shame, and from the weakness of a truth incapable of doing anything but affirming our desires.  It is about the God who has come to our rescue not with works or even words but with the Word made flesh.  Here is the Child born of Mary who is like us in every way but sin to rescue us from what sin has undone and restore us to the God who made us.  In Him alone is the way, the truth, and the life that a world in conflict and people hurting and fearful look.  He is the One whose real inclusion brings a family out of the ruin of division and in Him we see beyond ourselves and the self-inflicted prisons of desire.  He creates in us new and contrite hearts no longer content with the old ways that are dead ends and filled with the new desire to life with the real and everlasting end of fellowship with God.

A blessed Christmass to you all and the everlasting joy of the eternal Son of the Father whom we know as Mary's Son be with you now and always.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Closed Communion Gone Wrong. . .

Overheard again.  We cannot have Holy Communion on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day because there will be visitors there who either do not understand or will not accept the discipline of closed Communion.

How sad it is that the ChristMass will not be a ChristMass at all for those who think there are just too many problems and too big a can of worms to deal with the issue of who may commune openly!  Instead, we will omit the Sacrament and betray the whole name of this holy day -- wimping out because we have either failed to teach this or just don't want to deal with it.  Really?  Is this the best we can do?

I am certainly not in favor or relaxing the discipline of the Table as some sort of Christmas gift to those who should not commune but neither am I agreeable to dispensing with the whole problem by banishing the Sacrament from the Christmas services of the Lord's House.  To those who feel compelled to omit the Mass from Christmass, it is time to step up to the plate and face the whole issue head on.  The people of God deserve better than avoiding the problem by avoiding the Sacrament.  There are ways to be responsible with who communes and to do so in a positive way instead of simply saying "no" to the people who are not in fellowship with us.  The risk of someone slipping through who should not be there is not a risk for the pastor who knows his flock and the pastor who is faithful in his explanation of and his practice of closed communion.

Our doctrine is not born of fear and neither is our practice.  So if you are in a parish where the Mass has been banished from Christmass, it is time to have a conversation with your pastor.  There is no requirement that the Sacrament be offered at every service time scheduled for Christmas Eve or Day but there is not need to omit it from the calendar because of a "what if" question.

Finally, an appeal to families.  If you are faithful members of an LCMS congregation and you will invite those not of our confession to join you in the Divine Service, you owe it to them, to your pastor, and to the faith to be informed of what closed communion is and to address your guest before you get to the church building on Christmas eve or morning.  Don't have that dear in the headlights look when the usher stops at your pew and your guests don't have a clue what they should or should not be doing.  Everyone can come to the rail for a blessing.  Nothing is more powerful to the person new to our church or to the faith as a whole than faithful people who prepare them for what is to come and how be a good guest.  When they see how important it is to you, they may just find the curiosity to discover how important it could be to them.  Will some be offended?  Yup, you can count on it.  But the true offense is not given to those who come looking to press the envelope and cause a scene.

We have beheld His glory. . .

I well recall the first time I saw the liturgy done with a full ceremonial -- well, maybe that is not accurate.  Perhaps I saw it before but I did not look at it carefully or note the meaning of those ceremonies until later.  The time to which I am referring was in college.  It was at an Episcopal church, an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal congregation.  I was visiting with a friend.  It was a radical experience for a Lutheran who grew up with TLH, the formal liturgy from page 5 & 15, but done in a rather low church style.  The language was similiar -- TLH and the Prayerbook 1928 -- but the forms were different because of the rich and elaborate ceremonial.

Of all the things I noticed, the attention given to altar and the Gospel Book stood out.  Both of them were censed.  The priest kissed the altar at the start of the service and kissed the Gospel Book at the end of the Gospel reading.  This stood out to me.  My own church body was in the midst of what many call the Battle for the Bible and we claimed to hold the Scriptures in the highest esteem but I had never seen a Lutheran kiss the Bible.  I had it drilled into me in Sunday school and catechism class that Lutherans did not commune with those with whom we were not in fellowship and, pointedly, never with those who did not affirm the Real Presence.  We believed that one the altar Christ was present in bread and wine, literally, as His Word pledges and promises.  Yet I had never seen a Lutheran kiss the altar.

The first Lutheran I ever saw kiss the altar was the Rev. Dr. Edward F. Peters, my German and Greek instructor at St. John's College, Winfield, KS, who was the celebrant for a special "campus communion" at Trinity Lutheran Church, Winfield, for a special holy day (though I cannot recall specifically which holy day).  There was no Gospel Book so there was nothing for him to kiss; the Gospel was read from the printed bulletin even though it was set into a large Bible suitable for the Gospel Procession (something also new to me in a Lutheran setting).

The first Lutheran I ever saw kiss the Gospel Book was the Rev. A. R. Kretzmann at the installation of the Rev. Charles Evanson as pastor of Redeemer, Ft. Wayne, a couple of years later.  His voice was commanding as he read the Gospel for the occasion and a large, gold pectoral cross with a ruby in it made for a big impression upon me but neither matched the significanse of his head bowed, kissing the pages of the Gospel.

These things made such an impact on me and that I have done both for most of my ministry.  Some have a problem with this but as long as I have not asked the folks in the pew to do it, it has not been much of an issue.  I have been a pastor for a long time, now in my 38th year as an ordained LCMS pastor.  Over time I have come to realize that two very different groups care about worship.  Those who really believe what the words of the liturgy say and those who don't.  In the muddy middle you will find most Lutherans.  At the start of my ministry, the only people who really seemed to care about Sunday morning were those who were accused of not taking the Word of God seriously.  Conservative Lutherans were minimally ceremonial then.  Those who used more ceremony were often viewed with suspicion -- they were presumed not to be orthodox in doctrine.

All of that has changed.  Many of the most conservative pastors and parishes in our church body today are also among the most liturgical.  Caring about doctrine has begun to go hand in hand with caring about what happens on Sunday morning.  Ceremonies have meaning because we believe what they sign;  although it can also be said that as long as the ceremony and the liturgy remain, there is a constant reminder of orthodoxy even when the presiding ministers and the people no longer believe what the words say or the ceremonies sign.  Yet it has left me wondering. . .

If we are most serious about the Word of God, believing it to be that living voice of Christ addressing us as the Word made flesh through the words of Scripture and the voice of the reader, why would we hesitate to kiss the book?  Why would we not accompany the doctrine with the practice that shows what it is we believe in a profound way?  We kiss our wives and husbands when we come and go.  We kiss our children to show them our deepest affection.  We kiss our grandbabies with all the love of grandparents who wonder why we waited so long to have them.  We stand for the flag.  We put our hand over our hearts for the pledge of allegiance.  Why would we not kiss the Gospel Book?

If we are most serious about the Real Presence of Christ, in bread and wine, on the altar as His Word insists, to be distributed to the faithful for their blessed communion in Christ's flesh and blood, why would we not honor this place with a kiss, a display of our deepest affection for the God who gives Himself to us in this most real manner? 

So this is my question.  Nobody in their right mind is suggesting that we MUST display our faith in these ceremonies.  But why then are these viewed with such suspicion or seen as unnecessary or excessive when Lutheran do them?  If anybody ought to be kissing the altar it ought to be those who believe that Christ is present there according to the promise of His Word in forms of bread and wine.  If anybody ought to be kissing the Gospel Book it ought to be those who believe that this is the living voice of our Lord still speaking to us the once and eternal Word, the means of grace?

Just a few meandering thoughts as we approach Christmas and the holy incarnation of our Lord. . .

Friday, December 22, 2017

Have yourself a merry little millennial Christmas. . .

Culturally relevant. . . theologically suspect. . . and just plain wrong on so many levels. . .

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Taboos. . .

Taboo means something prohibited or restricted by social custom or religion.  There were once commonly held taboos -- things that you just did not say or do (especially in public).  These things were violations not simply of modesty but of our mutual respect.  The word comes to us from the Polynesians, Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu ‘forbidden, prohibited’.  The concept is nearly universal.

Taboo is now seen as an unfair and unhealthy restriction.  There is little that is taboo today -- on TV, in the movies, in the news, and in conversation.  Perhaps social media has encouraged our modern release or relaxation of things we did not speak of or do in public but I doubt you can blame social media for our lack of discretion.

The sad truth is that we have been on a path encouraging and flaunting vulgarity and breaking taboos for a very long time.  We think it is freedom, pure and simple.  But it is an abuse of freedom and the most shameful glorification of that which our conscience knows better.  More than this, it encourages a climate in which we are ever more vulnerable to those who are driven by desire -- against women and men, but especially against children.  The more we embrace vulgarity and breaking our taboos, the more those sexual predators flourish and the despicable acts of violence that dominate the news are given sanction and approval.  We claim to be more and more liberated; in reality we are more and more fearful, having witnessed the shocking acts of violence and sexual aggression that have become the norm in the news.  Predators of all kinds flourish under the seeming approval of desire and the dropping of taboos. In the end, we leave to our children not only a culture of depravity but also a world much less safe.  Even well-intentioned and seemingly decent people are moved to do what was once considered taboo, thinking that such behavior is now normal and safe.

It is time for us to remember again the value of things which are considered taboo.  It is time for us to reclaim conversation from words that shock and demean.  It is time that we take back the airwaves from those who glorify perversion and violence.  We must do it in the name of safety and for the sake of our children if we will not do it for the cause of decency and goodness.  We must fighting back against the casual crudity that has come to dominate nearly every public and private conversation and has turned us against our own very natures, replete with their ability to exercise self-control.  Such violence of words naturally gives way to violence of deeds.  Vulgarity betrays our our understanding of ourselves and the very things that separate us from animals, dominated by instinct and defined by desire.  Even worse it create the cover for sexual and violent behavior that is an assault against others. We should not allow predators to hide behind the notion that absent taboo, anything and everything is normal and salutary.  To do anything less is to violate our own dignity.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Who changes teaching. . .

A while ago the internet was all abuzz about the Pope changing the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church with respect to the death penalty.  Some wise and seasoned voices reminded those tempted to extremism that the Pope cannot change church teaching.  Not even can he change church teaching by invoking the chair of Peter and speaking from it.  He can clarify but he cannot change the faith.  I suppose it is a comfort to those who awaken almost daily to news about what the Pope said here or there.  But it is also worth examining the whole issue.

What Pope Francis has said is that the death penalty is contrary to Church teaching.  What makes this so interesting is that the Vatican actually has had an office of executioner -- though it has been vacant for quite some time.  So, whatever this Pope has said, previous occupants of the papal throne have not found it so.  Furthermore, any idiot knows that the Scriptures do speak of the right of execution, not as any private rite but as part of the instruments available to those charged with protecting, guarding, and leading God's people.  This was a tool for the pursuit of justice and to punish wrongdoers which existed within clear parametrs.  So anyone who suggests that the death penalty is contrary to Church teaching must either ignore or explain away this Old Testament witness.  In fact, though many find it distasteful, the death penalty cannot be judged contrary to historically contrary to Christian doctrine.  There is no conflict between the pro-life teaching of the Church on behalf of the unborn, vulnerable, and aged AND the death penalty.  They speak to completely different situations.  At the same time, life is always sacred and can never be treated casually or without grave consideration of the heavy responsibility placed upon those who promulgate and administer the law to promote virtue and punish wrongdoing.

Therefore, the Pope cannot say with any integrity that the death penalty is contrary to the constant teaching of the Church without admitting that the Church was in error prior to his declaration.  When Francis deals with ambiguity with more ambiguity, he not only confuses and confounds those within His flock, he creates hardship for others (yes, even Lutheran) who attempt to maintain the Biblical witness and teaching consistently.

BTW  Lutherans face the same problem when we disconnect our witness and teaching from our Confessions and venture to go where Lutherans have never gone before.  So we see the example of the ELCA which did not deny that their departure from Lutheran teaching and faith with respect to homosexuality and same sex marriage but affirmed a principle which not only excused but even required them to depart from the past witness.  According to the ELCA, Church teaching changes when the Spirit leads us past the Scripture or when being faithful to the "Gospel principle" requires us to abandon what we have believed, taught, and confessed in the past.  It is no wonder that other Lutherans find it hard to recognize their wandering cousins as part of the Lutheran family.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Live in the Light

Sermon for Advent 3B, preached on Sunday, December 17, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him (Jn 1:6-7).
Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, … the light no darkness can overcome.  Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening,…and the day is almost over.  Let Your light scatter the darkness…and illumine your Church.  These are the opening versicles of Evening Prayer, chanted back and forth between pastor and congregation.  From the very beginning of this daily prayer office it’s easy to see the theme of light and darkness, and this makes sense.  The sun has set and darkness surrounds us.  This darkness can be frightening.  We can’t see, we can’t make out the shapes and shadows off in the distance.  But this blinding darkness isn’t what terrifies our souls.  The darkness that does that is the darkness of our sin and death.  This is the darkness that Christ, the Light of the world, has overcome. 
          John the Baptist bore witness to this Light.  He was the forerunner sent to point God’s people to Jesus, something he physically would do just one verse following our Gospel reading.  “[Seeing] Jesus coming toward him, [John] said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).  His job was to direct people to their Savior, and he did this faithfully, always pointing away from himself.  John wasn’t the One, he wasn’t the Light, he was only a voice. 
          Last week we heard John’s words, words of repentance.  Out in the wilderness he proclaimed a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This message drew a crowd.  People went out to see him and the religious leaders took notice.  They sent men to question John, “Who are you?”  John’s response was clear and concise.  He confessed, “I am not the Christ” (Jn 1:20).  His answer directed away from him.  Instead of explaining who he was, it was more important to say who he wasn’t.  He wasn’t God’s Anointed One, the One who’d take away his people’s sin; the Light who’d illuminate the dark world.  He was only a voice that proclaimed the coming of the One who would do all these things. 
          Jesus is the Christ.  He’s God’s Anointed One.  He’s the Light, and He’s the One who fulfills all God’s prophecies and promises, promises of life and light.
          The prophet Isaiah said, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;” (Is 61:1-2).  The prophet wasn’t saying this about himself, but about the Messiah.
          Near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when He went back to Nazareth, he stood in the synagogue and read these words from Isaiah.  And then, sitting down He said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).  Jesus is the one who fulfills Isaiah’s words.  He is sent to proclaim the Good News of the Lord, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, because He’s the one who brings that favor.  He overcomes your sin that sets you against God.
          Our hearts are filled with the darkness of sin.  We want to sin.  We want to put ourselves before everyone else, including God.  That’s what sin is, a perverse turning inward upon ourselves, and this sets us against God.  It makes us His enemies.  We don’t love Him.  We don’t care to hear His Word.  And we most definitely don’t have a desire to follow His commands, because His commands are directed outwards in love and service to others, but we only want to love and serve ourselves.  For this disobedience, we rightly deserve death, everlasting death.
          Because of our sin the darkness of death overshadows us.  No matter what we do, we can’t escape it.  We stand before God guilty, deserving His vengeance...and yet, He sent His Son to proclaim His favor, because Christ received this vengeance in your place. 
          Born on Christmas Day to die on Good Friday, Jesus took the guilt of your sin upon Himself.  He carried it to the cross in love and service for you.  While our hearts are only filled with the darkness of self-love, Christ loves you.  Everything He did, He did for you, so that your sins may be forgiven, so that your guilt may be taken away, so that you may live in God’s favor, in the light of Christ forever. 
          This light you receive in your baptism.  In this water Sacrament you receive the forgiveness Christ earned for you on the cross.  The sin and guilt that darkens your heart is illuminated and you receive a new heart, an enlightened heart.  This is why the newly baptized receives a candle lit from the Christ candle.  As the pastor passes the candle to the baptized he says: Receive this burning light to show that you have received Christ who is the Light of the world.  Live always in the light of Christ, and be ever watchful for His coming, that you may meet Him with joy and enter with Him into the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which shall have no end.
          Baptized, forgiven, and with faith, we don’t want to live in the darkness of our sin and death, we want to live in Christ’s light.  That’s our prayer, that He’d enlighten the darkness of our hearts by His visitation. 
But what it mean to live in the light?  It means we don’t live in the darkness of sin; it means we try to live righteous lives according to God’s commands. 
          St. Paul wrote, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true),” (Eph 5:8-9).  Living in Christ’s light means we try to live righteous lives according to God’s Law.  It means we’re not turned inward on ourselves.  It means we rejoice and give thanks for all the blessings our Lord has given to us.  It means we worship Him, listen to His Word, and come to Him in prayer.  It means we love and serve all those around us, fulfilling the second table of the commandments.  It means living the sanctified holy lives God’s given us.  And it means we repent and turn to Christ when we fail to do so. 
When we sin, we naturally want to cover it up, to hide it away in the dark, but in doing so, we place ourselves right back into the shadows of death.  Christ died so that you wouldn’t be in the dark, so repent and receive His light, His forgiveness and His life.  Turn to Christ and listen to the Good News He proclaims: You’re forgiven. 
I must admit, I’m usually a scrooge when it comes to decorating for Christmas; not because I don’t like Christmas or the decorations, but because of all the lights on pre-lit Christmas trees that never work.  They’re so frustrating...and yet, there’s a value in struggling to get them working, because they serve as a reminder.  The lights on our trees and houses, are reminders of Christ, the true Light of the world that no darkness can overcome.  His light never goes out.  Christ’s light overcomes your sin and death.  This light you’ve received in your baptism, so live in it.  Live in the light of Christ and not the darkness of sin.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.