Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Man's authority / God's authority

Sermon for Epiphany 4B, preached on Sunday, January 28, 2018, by the Rev Daniel M. Ulrich.
 “Authority” is a long four letter word.  We don’t like authority, that is, unless we have it.  We don’t like the idea of others being able to tell us what we can and can’t do.  This goes against the very core of our American sense freedom.  We’ve turned authority into a bad thing, but it’s not, at least not in and of itself.
We don’t like authority because those who have it often abuse it.  They use it to lord over us.  We even use to control others, to make them do what we want…but not Jesus.  He doesn’t use His authority to keep us down; He uses it to raise us up to everlasting life.  Jesus’ authority is the authority for salvation. 
            Christ’s authority isn’t like man’s.  Man’s authority comes from others.  For example, police officers have the authority, the power, and the right to arrest criminals because they’ve been given this authority by the government.  It’s the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens and to punish evil.  If you’re not a police officer you have no right to investigate crimes or arrest criminals.  If you detain someone, that’s called kidnapping, but police officers have this authority. 
The authority of the government also comes from outside of itself.  It comes from God.  St. Paul explains this in Romans 13.    Ultimately all authority comes from God.  He gives it.  He gives it to the government for the purpose of protecting and caring for people.  He gives it to parents for the purpose of raising up and caring for children.  All authority comes from God for the good purpose of serving others.  Authority is good when used according to this purpose, but we sinners don’t always do this. 
We don’t use the authority God’s given us for the benefit of those around us.  Instead we see it as power to satisfy our wants, to be in control, to have others listen to us, to make them do what we tell them to do.  We like it when others serve us. 
We also don’t honor those with authority as God planned it either.  We see this very clearly in God’s 4th Commandment: Honor your father and mother.  Of course all of us know of times when we haven’t done this, both as children and adults.  As children we’ve disobeyed, talked backed, ignored house rules.  As adults, we’ve thought poorly of our parents, calling them crazy, thinking they don’t know what they’re talking about. 
Of course this commandment doesn’t just apply to our moms and dads.  Luther explains this is extended to all in authority.  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.  How often do we not do this?  We speak ill of those in authority.  We call them names and degrade them.  This isn’t the proper respect God calls us to show to them, respect that can be given even if we disagree with them.
An excellent example of God’s design and plan for authority in Moses.  God called Moses to lead His people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  Moses was to serve the people and they were to follow and listen to Moses because he was God’s man and prophet.  God gave Moses authority, not to abuse Israel, but to serve them.  The people of Israel needed Moses to be their mediator between God and them because they were sinners and they couldn’t stand before the mighty voice of God and the great fire of His presence. 
Near the end of Moses’ life God promised to raise up for Israel a prophet like him.  “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.  And I will put my words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Dt 18:18).  This promised prophet would serve Israel with authority, He’d speak only the words of God.  Jesus fulfills this promise.  Christ as all authority because of who He is, the very Son of God. 
During Epiphany we see Jesus’ identity revealed.  We see Him as the King worshiped by the Magi.  At His baptism, the Father’s voice announced that Jesus is His beloved Son.  Today, we see His authority, speaking the very words of God.  The people in the synagogue were astonished as Jesus taught because they saw His unique authority.  It wasn’t like when the scribes taught.  They always said, “Thus says the LORD.”  Their authority came from God, from His Word, but Jesus’ authority came from Himself, for He is God, the very Word of God Incarnate. 
The evangelist John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn 1:1-3).  Jesus, the very Son of God, the Word Incarnate, the Word through whom all things were made, fulfills the promise of the prophet like Moses.  He leads God’s people.  He is God’s Man among the people, to serve them.  He is their mediator.  And His authority is greater than Moses’, for He has authority over all things.  He even has authority over life and death.
            Jesus displayed this authority when He healed the man with an unclean spirit.  This spirit recognized who Jesus was.  He cried out,”What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?” (Mk 1:24).  Yes!  Yes He did!  Christ came to overcome the unclean spirits, to overcome Satan, sin, and death.  That’s the purpose of Jesus’ authority, to save God’s people, to save you from sin and death, to make you clean and give you life. 
            Jesus’ authority is in service to you.  The One who has authority over all creation, over life and death, has come to serve you, to give you life.  Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn 10: 17-18).  Christ willing laid down His life on the cross for you.  He shed His blood so that it might wash over you and cleanse you from you sin; so that you might be pure and holy.  Christ also took His life up again.  Rising from the dead, walking out of the tomb, Jesus overcame death and He gives you life.  No longer is death then end.  No longer does death have authority and power of you.  In Christ you have everlasting life and salvation. 
Our Lord is the Holy One of God and He has all authority.  This authority is perfectly good, used only in service to you.  Jesus’ authority is the authority for salvation, for your salvation.  In His name...Amen. 

Hiding the Light. . .

There are some who believe that the only hope for traditional churches, that is, confessions, sacramental, and liturgical churches, is to ditch their identity and mask who they are by being as much like the evangelicals whose mega churches we covet (at least as much like them as one can get away with).  I must admit, all theology aside, I have never understood the logic of this.

Where I live, as where most of us live, there are large evangelical and/or fundamentalistic congregations with great resources to provide the kind of warehouse buildings that fit what they do on Sunday mornings, the expensive audio/video/lighting set ups that turn these warehouses into a virtual canvas on which they paint whatever they want to display, and the bands and divas that represent more than an amateurish equivalent of the musical style people listen to in their ear buds.  We who look from the outside have to admit that what they do, they do well.  Their pastors dress and act the part and they are supported by an extensive cast of paid and volunteer folks who do everything from direct parking to working the consoles that control the technology.

When Lutherans (well, I am one) try to mimic their evangelical counterparts, they do so without all the bells and whistles, without the right canvas, and with a more limited staff and expertise.  Their bands are more like gospel garage bands and less like the polished groups you would find in Osteen's service or on Hillsong's campuses.  They do a pale and often embarrassingly poor imitation of what others do very well.  Who is attracted by this?  Who wants a greasier version of McDonalds without the arches, McCafe, and the fries that make it all worthwhile?  Nobody.  Or at least not enough people to make it successful.  Marketing teaches you to be the best in your niche.  Again, theology aside, why do we think we will attract people who can get a much better version of what we are peddling down the street?

I have already written about how successful Missouri has been at adult converts over the years and yet some among us seem intent upon minimizing who we really are because we think that won't compete.  The reality is that our market provides little competition when it comes to solid Biblical, Law/Gospel preaching and teaching, honest and reverent liturgy, music more than for the mood but as a real partner to the liturgy in singing the Word into our hearts and back to God, and a sacramental vitality which locates God not somewhere out there but right here where His promise is attached to water, word, bread, and wine.  The truth is that we offer what many Christians from evangelical or mainline backgrounds are missing --  the kind of rich, profound, Biblical and confessional theology that stands out in a world of empty words and sweet sentiment.  We offer in Lutheranism worship which is meaningful not because it strikes a chord within us but because it conveys what it speaks and promises -- the sacramental reality of a God still incarnate among us but now through the means of grace.  We preach a Gospel which is not about opinion or idea or feeling or desire but the clear and vibrant story of what God had done -- the God whom we know from His works, and now through His greatest work in His Son. 
These converts come as a people who found they could not maintain the image of success they were promised at Church, who were broken not only by the world but also by a church which insisted that if they had followed the plan they would have it all, and who long for God when their hearts are empty of emotion and their minds numbed by constant change of a world spinning out of the control.  Many of them are burned out, the casualties of pop Christianity that did not deliver what it promised, and others are those who finally saw through the haze and found that there was nothing solid and real at the end of the tunnel and and the light they had seen before was artificial.  That is not to mention those disaffected Roman Catholics whose marriages failed and they found no restoration or who got tired of rushed masses by weary priests or parishes that became so big they had no real association with their clergy.  All of these can be found in nearly every LCMS congregation.
Yet we have nothing to offer them as long as we run from our confidence in Scripture, our liturgical authenticity that is partner to our confessional identity, our piety rooted in the sacramental presence of the God who is still Immanuel, and our voices raised in songs that teach and shape what we say back to God and out to the world.  Could it be that when our people leave it is because they no longer see these things in our congregations and presume, falsely, that we have nothing worth holding onto?  Could it be that if we tried being who we are, the best of our Lutheran identity in the Word and the catholic tradition, we just might see the growth we once knew?

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

An immersive video experience. . .

It was one of those free magazines that has an article or two but exists mainly to showcase products for churches (convincing the reader that one cannot exist without those products).  I don't know when I got it or why I did not toss it away but I was put on hold one day and reached for something to peruse while I waited.  This magazinad was nearby.

Apparently an arson attack on a Lutheran congregation in the state of Washington destroyed the building and its AVL (audio, video, and lighting) set up.  In rebuilding, they were able to obtain an even more immersive audio video experience than ever before.  While the article did not really tell me much, the photos did.  The congregation uses its walls as screens and blankets the walls with video projection from no less than four HD projectors.

The photos showed the altar and pulpit with a video background that looked like stone walls and stained glass windows and then with the landscape of the city at night (buildings and landscape all lit up).  My assumption here is that the congregation can literally paint whatever landscape it wants across the walls.  Such is the power of the technology available that it is no longer limited to screens.  In fact, judging by the photos in the article, the images are painted from floor to ceiling and from one end of the building to another.

The article was really selling the brand of projector but in doing so it gave me pause to think about how this power to image literally anything could be used for ill just as much as it might be used for good.  Underneath it all is this somewhat sobering assumption.  The bottom line is that there is no permanent image in this congregation's worship space -- only the blank canvas.  In addition, without any permanent imagery, the faith itself somewhat takes on the same temporary character as the images which are projected upon the blank walls.  In other words, there is nothing there at all until something is projected upon it.  It is the ultimate virtual church.  I am uneasy about this and about the implications to both the church and those who worship there.

The whole idea of a church building is to give shape and form to the faith confessed.  Integral to that faith and form is the idea of permanence.  While no one expects things built of stone or brick or wood or steel to be eternal, neither should we assume that these things are temporary -- at least not as temporary as a projected image!

The other temptation is to be creative.  Without limit or boundary to what can be done, what should not be done is as tempting as what ought to be done.  That is a simple truth that surely cannot be denied in this circumstance as well.  I am not, by the way, impugning the integrity of the pastors or staff of this congregation.  I am assuming that creativity can often lead to presumption and that just because we can, we ought to do it.  I believe there is even something Biblical in that thought.  What is possible is not always what is beneficial.  Even under the best of circumstances restraint would have to be the keyword for such technology.  The church at worship is not an entertainment experience and the technology to create whatever we will is often at odds with the focus upon the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Maybe I am just an old curmudgeon who thinks too much. . . or maybe not.

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Reality Check. . .

There are many who complain about the state of Christianity today.  It is a mess, to be sure.  We are most conscious of those outside the faith pressing against us.  We have people trying to silence the voice of the faithful from the public square.  We have a media intent upon portraying Christians as ignorant, foolish, superstitious, narrow minded, domineering, and judgmental people.  We have judges trying to take away things like clergy housing allowances and legislators rethinking charitable tax contributions and a host of things even more significant.  We have universities who ridicule the faith and people of faith and insist that intellect and religion are mortal enemies.  We have a culture intent upon redefining gender from the body to emotions.  We have a cavalier approach to the sanctity of life which assigns to the living the choice to kill babies in the womb, euthanize elderly in nursing homes, and allow people a painless physician assisted end to life when they deem it not worth living. As great as all of these threats are, I  really don't fear atheism or secularism or elitism or progressivism or any other threat as much as I fear a Christianity which has lost confidence in the Scriptures and lost enthusiasm for living out what we believe, confess, or teach.

If there is anything that will weaken the Church more than the forces outside poised against the faith, it is a casual attitude toward doctrine and a lackadaisical attitude toward life within the Church from those who claim to believe.  Nothing is as powerful against the faith as the lukewarm faith of those who choose reason and science over Scripture and who do not feel the need or the importance of being in the Word and at the Table of the Lord regularly and faithfully.  Lets be honest here.  The real enemies of the faith are those who claim to be friends but who dismiss what is to be believed and who find other causes more compelling that being together around the Word and Table of the Lord on the Lord's Day.

We have had a reality check in the form of a culture which we once thought friendly to the faith but has now proven to be an enemy.  We cannot depend upon those outside the Church to form and nurture morality.  We cannot depend on those outside the faith to defend our right to believe, teach, and confess faithfully what the Scriptures teach and tradition affirms.  We cannot treat catechesis casually nor can we afford to let pass without challenge the casual way so many Christians wear the name of Christ.  We cannot pass off the job of teaching the faith to programs and professionals in the Church for it is precisely this abdication of individual and parental responsibility that has left us vulnerable today.
There are those who look at our problems with Pollyanna eyes -- who presume that it is merely a matter of tinkering with worship formats or song choices or preaching more relevant sermons to change the status quo.  Those who believe that a programatic change will solve the problems we face are deceiving themselves.  The problems we face internally and externally call for nothing less than repentance and for a renewal of the faith that puts us regularly and faithfully in the Word at home and at the Church around the pulpit, font, and altar.  In order to identify the false teachers, the people in the pew must be more diligent in knowing the faith and knowing what grounds the faith.  In order to keep the Church faithful, the people in the pew must insist upon doctrinal sermons that really do teach the faith and are faithful to the Scriptures, liturgy which is true to the form and shape which has marked Christian gatherings since the earliest days of the faith, and hymns that speak the Gospel and do not simply give voice to what we want, feel, or think. 

The truth is that the Church has always been smaller than we think.  Like the remnant in Israel who heard and heeded the voice of the prophet and worshiped the Lord in spirit and in truth, Christianity has been marked by the faithful who hear and heed the Word, who faithfully believe and confess the creeds, and who worship the Lord with faith in the means of grace.  The true Church - the one which is faithful to Christ, faithful to His Word, faithful in doctrine, and faithful in practice, is and has always been smaller than our inflated rosters and rolls or the self-identification of people to pollsters.

My point here is not to depress you but to encourage you.  YOU need to be faithful.  You need to be faithful to your baptismal vocation.  You need to be faithful to the Word and to a life of catechesis in that Word.  You need to be faithful in your marriage or singleness, to your family and in your home, and to the places where you work and enjoy your leisure.  Your faithfulness is the life of the Church, established, nourished, and nurtured in Christ our Lord.  Your faithfulness is what will commend the faith to those who come after you and witness to those who do not know Christ now.  You cannot depend upon the structures of the Church or even her "professionals" but the life of the faith and the vitality of the Church rest upon you, the people in the pews.  There is no church which will survive unless the pews are filled with people who know and believe the Word of God and who love and desire the grace bestowed in the sacramental life of the Church and who desire to serve the Lord faithfully right where they are (in home, at work, and in the world).

The doomsday prophets sounding an alarm that the days of the Church are numbered are false prophets.  The Word of the Lord endures forever and God will not allow the gates of hell to overcome the Bride of Christ.  But we cannot live in the false security that our faithfulness does not matter, our witness is not important, and our orthodoxy does not count.  Of course we need faithful pastors and church workers -- that goes without saying.  But if you, the people of God, do not see how important your faith, your piety, your worship life, and your witness is, you are discounting that which God holds high.  Legislative support and political victories and a friendly press and university system would be nice but the real keys lie in faithful people, knowing the faith, living the faith, and being faithful in worship. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Beginning of the ROMAN Catholic Church

There is probably no one who will agree with me on this but it is my belief that what we call the ROMAN Catholic Church today really did not come into being until the Council of Trent (1545-1563 with the Tridentine Mass finally in 1570).  The monolithic character of the Roman Catholic Church is hardly in evidence, except in the office of the papacy, prior to Trent and the uniformity of its liturgy and life is the direct fruit of Trent.

What I am not saying is that there were two distinct churches prior to Trent but that the Catholic Church prior to Trent and the one defined by Trent have distinct characteristics and differences worth noting.  Though prior to Trent Rome was not exactly in chaos, it could be said that Rome was at least a vast umbrella of theological and liturgical strains that lived side by side under the cover of the papacy.  This may be what some call chaos.  Perhaps the nature of its life prior to the printing press and following Gutenberg could account for some of this but the job of Trent was not simply to respond to Protestants but to shore up many of the loose ends in the Roman Catholic Church that could have allowed or even encouraged a Luther.

Everyone knows that the monastic houses of Rome often manifested and even encouraged theological distinctions and differences which were reconciled by their uniform fealty to the Roman Pontiff.  It was not simply a matter of different orders or disciplines but also different theological emphases and identities.  Ask any diocesan bishop of Luther's day and he would complain not only of the indifference of monastic orders to local episcopal jurisdiction but also that they fostered a distinct theological identity -- all in competition with the local authority and, in many cases, in disdain of the local authority.  Perhaps it is with reason since secular clergy, especially in rural areas, were too often ill-trained and ill-equipped except to read the mass and perform the functional rituals of the sacraments.

Liturgically there was even less unity than theologically.  There was no uniformity either in the layout of missals in the Middle Ages or in their content. Some of those missals began the church year with the Christmass vigil and ended with Advent; others began with Advent and ended with the last Sunday after Trinity.  Some did not even include Advent.  Others lumped the sanctoral cycle in with the temporal cycle and others kept them distinct.  The liturgical colors were not uniform.  So the piety fostered by these differences was also different from place to place.

One of the things we should have learned from the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is that it is impossible to look at the Roman Catholic Church today as if it were the same communion that Luther faced.  It is just as true that the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic Church is a distinctly different church than the one Luther knew.  Perhaps it could be said that the goal of Rome is to see a seamless unity between the early Church, the medieval Church, and the Roman Church both before and after Trent (as well as into the Vatican II timeframe) while the goal of Lutheranism is to mark those differences because they actually did contribute something to the story begun in 1517.

I am not at all saying that the complaints of Luther are no longer valid or that Rome's complaints of Luther have not changed over the years.  Rome has a more nuanced view of Luther today and some of what people think were Luther's big points seem to have been satisfied (mass in the vernacular, is but one example).  These are not exactly true.  There have been many cosmetic changes in Rome but the core of Luther's complaints still stand -- even with JDDJ and its claim to have solved the justification riddle.  Lutherans have forgotten much of what it means to be Lutheran and stand more on their caricatures of Lutheranism than their own Confessions.  But under it all, it is simply not possible to look at Rome today and presume that this is the same church Luther faced.  Trent is the major factor in this difference but not the only one.  Of the Lutheran problems, well, I have written on those before in the hopes that we will recover our theological and liturgical identity more fully from the Augsburg Confession than our dreamy eyes wishing we were evangelicals.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

A smug dismissal. . .

A number of folks from my parish have visited Noah's Ark and some have expressed interest in the newly opened Museum of the Bible.  I am not sure if I will visit either, although the idea of a full size Noah's Ark is intriguing -- if only to imagine the scale of it all.  As far as the Museum of the Bible, I am told it is filled with interactive exhibits and, since I am fairly old fashioned in this, I prefer simply to look at old things (like I do every morning in the mirror).  Yet by all accounts both are doing well.  I hear that the Noah's Ark Creation Museum continues to attract crowds and that there are long lines awaiting a first glimpse of the Museum of the Bible.

Whatever hesitance I have in visiting either is more than made up for by the almost uniform disdain of the educated elites in condemning both.  The Creation Museum is treated less as a museum than a Six Flags for Fundies and the monumental effort of the Green/Hobby Lobby family is undermined at every turn.  Yet under all of this is the remarkable difference between the average American and those who hail from liberal academia.  Most Americans are at least curious but the skepticism of the liberal, progressive, secularist, avant guarde seem to have not even a shred of curiosity.  They only condemn.

They complain about the manner in which some of the antiquities were obtained.  Well enough, I guess, except that at least they were maintained in a region well known for destroying its own history!  They complain that it is an intrusion to have something so overtly religious -- especially one so close to the halls of government.  There is no wall high enough or deep enough to separate church and state for these folks.  They complain that the folks who have put these together are not intellectual heavy weights (at least not in the crowd they hang with).  I guess the only true education is a thoroughly secular one and the only true intellectual is one who does not believe in anything except himself and what he espouses.

Both the Creation Museum and the Museum of the Bible have shown the great gulf between America's intellectual and academic elite and the ordinary folks across the country.  This is a problem.  The problem is not that Christians are slighted or Christian history smugly cast aside but that many (dare I say most) of those who are regarded as the brightest bulbs in the room have disdain for and dismiss most Americans as being ignorant, superstitious, foolish, gullible, and naive.  For these folks the only good religion is one that does not hold to much except that which justifies what is politically correct (at least at this juncture in time) and the only good religious person is one who does not vote for our leaders or speak in public. 

Strangely, most Americans at least listen to those who disagree with them.  Those who are often considered narrow minded and judgmental watch TV, listen to the news, and read -- especially the opinions of those intellectuals who seem to dominate news and opinions.  But, it seems, the other side prefers to complain and condemn the "other side" without bothering at all to listen or learn much about it.  I wrote a while back about how the retired leader of Public Broadcasting went out on a tour of America (outside the saltwater and urban bastions of liberalism) and found, to his surprise, that Americans were not bitter, selfish, ignorant, or jealous but mostly content, generous, well informed, and happy. 

We live in a polarized society but it seems that this works more to the advantage of those who find the Creation Museum or Museum of the Bible to be shockingly naive and who have judged most Americans (especially the Trump voters) to be positively neanderthal in the politics, religion, and culture.  Without bothering to listen or learn, they can condemn with impunity and, since they have control of much of the media, they have a self-serving platform on which to disseminate their condemnations and bitterness.

Friday, January 26, 2018

From my home state. . .

Click here to hear a PBS story on a FSSP seminary in Denton, Nebraska, that had a 13 week chart topping CD of Gregorian Chant.

What stuck out to me was this statement:  The chanting and the Latin lessons are part of the daily routine for the 90-some seminarians who will live and study here for seven years.  In other words, at a time when it seems most Protestant churches are seeking out ways to bypass seminary entirely or in part with online preparations for their candidates for the ministry, this seminary already has a longer program than any of them (7 years) and is intent upon forming the piety of their seminarians as much as their pastoral character.  Now that is something to reflect upon. . .

The obligatory Latin lessons and chanting study are part of the early period of their study, time referred to as the contemplative phase.  I am not sure that much time is ever spent upon this aspect of piety at the seminaries I know.  Concordia Theological Seminary certainly has the nod but this is less as the formal study of the students than the religious life of the school centered in Kramer Chapel and the liturgy of the hours, the weekly Eucharist, and the daily chapel.  It is there for the students but it is not an obligatory exercise in the way the FSSP seminary requires.

One of the hardest things to face a pastor upon leaving seminary and arriving at his first call is loneliness.  Yes, the loneliness of being apart from the friendships created at seminary and the support of professors but more than this.  The spiritual loneliness of having had a rich and profound devotional life centered in the Chapel and lived out together under the Word and at the Table of the Lord is gone.  It is replaced by the fact that you, as pastor, are now the preacher, teachers, presider, and chief intercessor of the parish.  You go from being the one who is daily fed to the one who feeds and it is very easy to be only a giver and seldom fed.

Pastoral formation is very important but the spiritual formation of the pastor is just as important.  Nearly everywhere I go pastors complain about not finding time for their own devotional lives and how easy it is to be in the Word from the professional perspective of a teacher and preacher and how hard it is to be in the Word devotionally.  The resources we have today are many but the discipline of those tools is generally left to the pastor and that is the problem.  Marriage and family are just as demanding upon the pastor as the parish and it is too easy to defer to the needs of home and congregation and not give piety and spiritual life the attention they deserve.  The pastor is also the chief devotional leader in his household as well as the congregation.  I know that was and is true for me and I know that it is a very common issue among our pastors.

Having this as an intentional part of seminary is both wise and practical.  For surely these will be with the seminarian long into his pastoral life.  We would do well to consider how to draw upon the rich resources of our own liturgical and devotional tradition and form this into the curriculum of our seminaries.  As I said earlier, I know that the chapel is not only the geographical center of the Ft. Wayne campus but its beating heart.  That said, a curriculum which formally includes piety and spiritual formation is a worthy and necessary cause especially for Lutherans today.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Turkey allows first new Christian Church building in modern history. . .

The first brand new Christian Church building to be built in Turkey since the Republican era -- not an insignificant fact.  After a few hurdles and as a result of planning that began more than four years ago, the government has issued approval for this structure to be built.  It is not insignificant.  Turkey is an Islamic country but has maintained a largely secular government and yet that government has walked a very thin line in trying to deal with the majority Muslim population in a region well known for violent protest and, at the same time, deal with the historic Christian roots of a much smaller population.
The government will permit one of Turkey's Christian communities to build a church, the first such house of worship to be built completely from scratch in the Republican Era. According to Vatan newspaper's Emre Eser, the church will be built in the Yeşilköy district of Istanbul with funds provided by the Mardin Syriac community.

The Virgin Mary Syriac Church will cost $1.5 million, and according to sources from the Prime Ministry who spoke with Anadolu Agency (AA), the decision to approve the building of the church was made during the luncheon Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held with minority leaders on Friday at Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. There are 25,000 Syriac Christians in Turkey, 18,000 of whom live in Istanbul, and the church will be built within the confines of the Catholic Cemetery in Yeşilköy.
In this case, the decision may have been spurned on by the violence in Syria and its devastating effect especially upon the Christian population of Syria.  Turkey is not without a significant population of refugees.  Part of the balancing act was that no new land was appropriated but the decision was made to build the new church structure on land already marked for Christian usage (a Catholic cemetery).

All of this simply points out the fact that Christians have been a minority in the Middle East for a long time but now face virtual extinction.  The Christian presence in many areas, though it has dated from the time of Christ, has fared worse than any other population in the face of upheaval, war, terrorism, and violence.  Sad to say, Christians fared better under dictatorships than they have under the semblance of more democratic governments.

Although ISIS may be on the decline, there is no promise that Christians will fare much better in their absence.  In the end Christians in the Middle East have long been used as pawns in the power struggles between factions of Islam, the tension between modernity and traditionalism, and the gulf between those who might prefer a more secular government and those who are intent upon a theocratic structure.  How many historic and ancient church buildings have been destroyed and how many Christian populations decimated only to see one new building arise in the most Western of the nations of the Middle East!  Pray for our brothers and sisters who face daily threats and persecution and whose future is more tenuous than ever before.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

It can't wait until tomorrow. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 3B, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, January 21, 2018.
              Many of us are procrastinators.  Our tendency is to put things off.  I’ll start exercising next week.  Cleaning the house can wait till tomorrow.  That school report isn’t due until the end of the semester; I’ll start on it next month.  We assume there’ll always be more time.  Why do it today when I can do it tomorrow?  Procrastination may not be a big deal or have major consequences when it comes to cleaning out the garage, but when it comes to repentance, we can’t put it off.  The consequence of this is life and death.  Repentance can’t wait till tomorrow.  The time for repentance and following our Lord is now. 
               Two weeks ago we heard John the Baptist out in the wilderness proclaiming the coming of the Lord.  The Mightier One was going to follow after him.  But now John was in prison and Jesus, the revealed to be God’s Son, was on the scene.  
               Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God.  He preached repentance, just like John.  But unlike John who always pointed forward to the Christ who’d fulfill God’s salvation, Jesus pointed to Himself.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).  The time was fulfilled; the time when God would keep His promise to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to King David, and to all His people; the time when He’d send the Savior who’d crush Satan’s head and free His people from sin and death.  That time was now.  The kingdom of God was here in Christ Jesus. 
               All of the OT, all of the time between the Garden of Eden and Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was a time of preparation.  God was directing His people to the Savior who was coming.  He was showing them the salvation He planned for them.  This salvation was seen in the Flood, when God saved Noah and his family from the condemnation and destruction of the sin filled world.  This salvation was seen in the Exodus, when God freed His people from the slavery of Pharaoh.  This salvation was seen in all the sacrifices of the temple by which the people were declared clean.  All of this pointed forward to the time when God would send the promised Savior who’d fulfill the salvation of His people. 
               The time of waiting was over.  Jesus, the Son of God, was fulfilling the plan of salvation.  He came to His people and proclaimed the good news of the Gospel.  He came to take their sin upon Himself.  He came to sacrifice His life on the cross to pay for their sin, to suffer the judgement of death so that they might be forgiven, so that they might be God’s holy people, so that you’d be God’s holy people.
               The salvation of Christ isn’t just for the people of old.  It’s for you.  It’s for all who suffer under sin and Satan.  We’re in the same condition as the people of Scripture.  We’re sinners, trapped under Satan’s rule.  We need to be set free from this kingdom of death and brought into God’s kingdom of life.  That’s why we pray “Thy kingdom come.”  We need God to initiate His kingdom among us, to bring us into it, so that we can live godly lives here in time and there in eternity.  We look to this promised kingdom of God. 
               Today, when we think about the coming of God’s kingdom, we think of the second coming of Christ on the Last Day.  On that day the salvation Jesus won for you on the cross will be fully revealed.  On that day you’ll be free from sin, you’ll be free from death. 
               In expectation of that day many people have searched the words of Scripture hoping to find out when this day will be.  They look for signs of the last day so that they can be ready for our Lord.  This search is in vain.  No one knows the exact time of Jesus’ return, not even Christ Himself.  Only the Father knows when this will be.  We may not know when that Last day will be, but we do know when the last days leading up to this day will be.  These last days are now.  We’re living in them.  The last days began with Jesus, in His bringing of the kingdom.  The kingdom of God has already come in Christ, and it will come again on the Last Day.  And sense we don’t know when our Savior will return, we need to be ready for Him to come back at any moment.  We can’t procrastinate.  We need to be prepared through repentance.
               There’s no time for us to delay in turning from our sin and following our Lord...time is fulfilled.  We can’t say, “I’ll repent tomorrow.  I’ll start following Jesus next week.”  There may not be a tomorrow.  There may not be a next week.  Christ could come back before then.  We may die and have to stand before the judgement seat, and the threat of punishment for our sin is very real.  Like the people of Nineveh, we need to repent now. 
               Jonah was sent to these ungodly people.  They were enemies of Israel, wicked and evil pagans who worshiped false gods.  Their evilness reached preflood proportions and God was going to destroy them and their city.  So He sent Jonah to proclaim this message of condemnation and punishment.  Going a day’s journey into the city Jonah said, “Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jnh 3:4).  Hearing this, the people believed God.  All of them, from the greatest to the least fasted and put on sackcloth, they repented, and God relented of the disaster. 
               D0 you notice how the people of Nineveh didn’t put off their repentance?  Even though they knew when God was going to destroy their city, they didn’t procrastinate.  They didn’t wait till day 39 to repent.  They repented right away.  They believed God’s judgement was real and serious, and they realized there was no time to delay.  The time was fulfilled.  They needed to immediately turn from their sin, just as the disciples immediately followed Jesus. 
               When Jesus called to Andrew and Peter, to James and John, all of them immediately left their fishing nets and followed Jesus.  Not one of them procrastinated in this.  They heard the Word of the Lord and believed.  The time of God’s salvation is fulfilled.  His kingdom is at hand in Christ.  These are present realities, not just for Andrew, Peter, James, and John, but for you.
               The time of repentance is now, and so is the time of God’s forgiveness.  We can’t put off turning from our sin and God can’t put off forgiving your sin.  In all His grace, mercy, and love, God the Father is here, right now, to forgive your sin for the sake of His Son.  He’s here, right now, absolving you of your sin through His almighty word. Your Savior is here, right now.  He’s coming to you in the Sacrament of the Altar to give you His salvation.  He’s here, right now, calling you to follow Him, to receive His everlasting life.  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”  Receive God’s forgiveness and life.  Receive the gifts of His kingdom in Christ, so that on the Last Day you can receive Him when He comes again.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.