Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Trinity Games. . .

The Trinity is like… well, choose your heresy. . .

Arianism – the sun, which produces light and warmth
Tritheism – the same wine in three bottles
Partialism – the egg which has shell, white and yolk/shamrock with three leaves
Modalism – water, which is ice, fluid or steam
Or, the Trinity is like nothing at all. . .   Pick your poison.  Confess the Mystery, debunk the Mystery , trivialize the Mystery or ignore the Mystery. . .   In any case, it is always worth listening to Hans Fiene.  Let the games we play with God's self-revelation begin!!

By a tree. . .

Who on the tree of the cross didst give salvation unto mankind that, whence death arise, thence Life also might rise again; and that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom. . . is a thing that some of us do not like about poetry.  Perhaps it is that we prefer the precision of scientific language without nuances of meaning.  Perhaps it goes back to the ancient years spent in high school with a teacher who failed to make us either love or understand poetry.  Perhaps it is that we no longer have time to think, reflect, and return to the product of the poet's pen and so we disdain his offering.  This could just be the reason why hymns have run out of favor among some and why we prefer the bland words of contemporary Christian worship to the richness of great hymnic poetry.

In any case, I resent what LSB did to the TLH words of the Proper Preface for Lent.  I do not like reserving the semblance of those words for Holy Week alone and this putting something other in place for the Sundays in Lent but most of all I despise what was done to the richness and compactness of that wonderful and ancient text.  Why?  No answer will suffice.  I refuse to be consoled.  Yes, I know it is well after Lent but my complaint refuses to be silenced even by the passage of time.

It was and is the Preface for the Holy Cross among the Romans.  WHO by the tree of the Cross didst give salvation unto mankind: that whence death arose, thence life might rise again: and that he who by a tree overcame might also by a tree be overcome: through Christ, our Lord.  According to the background of the Common Service, Who, by the Tree of the Cross, didst give salvation unto mankind: that whence death arose, thence Life also might rise again: and that he who by a tree once overcame, might likewise by a tree be overcome, through Christ our Lord; through whom etc., is from Shipley's Ritual of the Altar, which after many emendations, successively rejected, it was adopted by the Committee as is.   This was the Tridentine Proper Preface for Passion and for the Holy Cross but its sources are more ancient, the cross referred to as tree being a familiar phrase from the ancient church.

So, there. . . I have it off my chest.  I shall feel better now -- at least until next Lent when it will all come rushing back.  I suppose I can understand the wisdom of reserving these words for Holy Week but I cannot for the life of me understand reworking them.  The poetry said it best in the older version.  Ahhhh, the confession of a curmudgeon is so liberating!!!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

They Mystery Is Revealed by the Truth Confessed. . .

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, preached on Sunday, May 27, 2018.

    We live in a world in which big things are compressed into no more than 140 characters or, perhaps 280.   It is a world of sound bytes that has helped to diminish our already short attention spans.  And then you come to Holy Trinity Sunday and it falls to the unlucky pastor to try to explain the Mystery of the Three in One and One in Three in 10 minutes or so.  To make it all worse, you opened your bulletin and saw the longest of the creeds is the one we confess on this day.  Will it ever end?  Maybe...

    We will not attempt to unpack the Mystery today but simply to speak of it as God Himself has revealed and rather than make the incomprehensible simplistic, we will confess the Trinity and leave it at that.  The errors are to easy to fall into and the temptation great to trivialize what is the most awesome and majesty Mystery of all, God’s self-revelation as one yet three, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    What is important to know is that God is able to be known, that He does not remain cloaked in unapproachable majesty.  God has made Himself known, not leaving up to us to define Him or to explain Him.  We can and do know the Lord and we can and must confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or we will not be saved.  But at the same time, we cannot reduce God to a proof text or a tweet or a hashtag that eliminates the mystery. 

    Like the Mystery of our Lord’s incarnation, how the Son of God, God of God and Light of Light, True God of True God, can fit into the womb of the Virgin, the Mystery of the Holy Trinity is hidden.  It is certainly not a secret.  No less than Jesus Himself reveals the name of God with which we are marked in baptism.  The secret has been let out of the bag by God Himself but the Mystery remains.  It is not because God has not done enough to reveal Himself but we cannot know what is beyond our knowing.  That we cannot know, we are able to confess, as we do in the Creed.      

    The Mystery of the Holy Trinity is not so remote that we cannot worship it.  As the Athanasian Creed says, the catholic or universal faith is that we worship the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity.  God has not revealed Himself so that He may be understood or comprehended but He has revealed Himself so that we may worship Him in spirit and in truth.

    The math does not add up.  Three is three and it is not one.  But God, even the God who has become small enough for the Virgin’s Womb, is too big for human philosophy and science.  The words we would use to explain Him would be stretched beyond all semblance of reality.  Yet the Mystery of the Holy Trinity is not far off but near, as near as the water of baptism and the name placed upon those washed in Water and the Word.  It is the name we invoke as we begin our gathering every Sunday and it is the name we confess before the world in witness. 

    We confess the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity not as some convoluted theory but as the Father who delivered up His beloved and only Son and who sends the Spirit in His name so that we may believe.  It is the awesome mystery of the God who is fully complete in Himself and yet who desired to create all things and even you and me in order to love what He had made.  It the amazing mystery of the Love that refused to discard His creation when our first parents rebelled against the Lord and sought a life without Him.  It is the wondrous mystery of the God who became His people’s Savior by standing in their place to fulfill the Law and by suffering in their place to pay sin’s awful price.  It is the hopeful mystery of the God who claims us as His own, enables us by baptism and faith to be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom, and to pass with Christ to our own joyful resurrection and everlasting life. 

    God is love.  He is the first love that loved us when we loved Him not and, indeed, did not know what love was.  He is the eternal love begotten of the Father and proceeding from the Father for you and for me and for our salvation.  When we confess that God’s ways our higher than ours or His thoughts higher than our thoughts, we are not talking about knowing more than we know.  Of course that is true also.  But it is precisely because He loved us when we loved Him not that God is incomprehensible.  It is because He loved us when love required the ultimate sacrifice of His one and only Son that God is incomprehensible. 

    God should be judge but should not be Savior.  We expect Him to punish but we cannot every figure out why in the world He would take the punishment of the sins of the whole world upon His own Son.  We expect God to be unapproachable and the fact that God comes to us, makes His home with us, calls us to Him, cleanses us from all our sin, and raises us up to everlasting life – that is pure mystery.  Who would do that?  Not me.

    Who would counsel the Lord and lie saying that we were worth the cost of redeeming?  Who would plead the cause of those who had become enemies of God through sin.  Who would predict that when Adam and Even abandoned the Lord in Eden, He would continue to seek them out and all their sons and daughters with the promise of redemption?  Who can figure out such love?  God is love.  The Trinity is the shape of this love.  But it is not what we know and it is not what we would expect.  This is the surprise that we confess when we call Him Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    Earthly love always has limits.  Husbands and wives know the limits and know their lives crumble when pushed beyond those limits.  Children know exactly how far they can push their parents.  And, by the way, parents are not so stupid as to be in the dark about the manipulation of their children.  But God’s love is without limit.  He first loved us when we were loved Him not, He saved us not because we were worth saving but only because of His divine and tender mercy, He is patient with our weakness and He restores us when we fall.  Who can know the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge and love of God?  Who can know His mind or speak to Him as He speaks or act as He acts?

    Even though the Mystery of the Holy Trinity remains, it is not unapproachable.  God has put His name on us in our baptism.  He has covered us with the alien righteousness of our Savior.  He is given us the Spirit so that we might believe and rejoice in what His love has bought.  This is how we confess the Trinity.  We say back to Him what He has said to us but with the Spirit teaching us to believe this, to rejoice in this, and to anticipate the very future He is bringing to pass.

    The heart of the Trinity is not something to be explained but the love that has reached us and reaches us through us to others.  The Trinity is not something we prove or explain but how we live, the redeemed of the Lord who have been washed in His blood and to whom has been given the new vocations of worship, witness, love, and service.

    We confess the God who is Three in One and One in Three because that is how He has revealed Himself.  We guard this confession against those who would try to explain God to us.  We rejoice in this confession because it is love, the purest love, that binds Father to Son and Son to Spirit and all in one.  And we are filled with gratitude because that love has found room for you and me.

    Nicodemus wants to know how this can be.  God wants Nicodemus to surrender His desire to understand – moved by fear as much as curiosity.  But in it he misses who is standing before him and the joy of this encounter is lost to him.  Jesus invites him and us to participate in this blessed mystery of love by being born again, from above, through water and the Word.  That is where we too must stand.  Those who worship God in Spirit and in truth are those who meet the grand mystery where God has revealed Himself, where He has promised to be, and there live together formed and shaped into His Church and body.

    Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and to the end of all the ages.  Amen.

I don't believe what my church does. . . read in The Federalist that not everyone in churches believes what the church confesses. . . at least when it comes to abortion.  You go ahead and read the article Yes, You Can Be Pro-Choice And A Christian, Even Though It’s Not Consistent.  D. C. McAllister cites the Pew Research study which gives purports to give the percentage of church members who approve of abortion and believe it should be legal in most circumstances.  Read it and then tell me where we went wrong.

          Episcopal Church: 72%

United Church of Christ: 72%
Presbyterian Church USA: 65%
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 65%
African Methodist Episcopal Church: 64%
United Methodist Church: 58%
National Baptist Convention: 57%
Anglican Church: 56%
Presbyterian Church in America: 54%
Orthodox Christian: 53%
Roman Catholic: 48%
American Baptist Churches USA: 47%
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: 46%
Seventh-day Adventist: 42%
Church of God in Christ: 41%
Churches of Christ: 36%
Southern Baptist Convention: 30%
Mormon: 27%
Church of the Nazarene: 27%
Assemblies of God: 26%
Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.): 20%
Jehovah’s Witness: 18%
The surprises?  Well, no surprise for the first four and number six on the list.  They are among the most liberal of all Christian denominations.  What is a surprise is that the African Methodist Episcopal Church and National Baptist Convention are such supporters of abortion since a disproportionate number of abortions are of African American babies -- thus fulfilling Margaret Sanger's desire for birth control and abortion to be ethnic cleansing (eugenics).  Could it be that this support actually encourages her racist agenda?  Another surprise is that the Orthodox are majority supporters of abortion -- definitely in conflict with the church's stance (although the Orthodox have not been as vocal in their opposition as Roman Catholics or the LCMS).

The biggest surprises for me were the members of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who support abortion and its legality.  While not a majority, it is close and it is clear that the case and the cause have not been well addressed and taught, or, if they were, how little the people were listening to that catechesis on the most basic life issue.  Could it be that our people have been listening to other voices and have decided that either it is a lost cause or an unworthy one?  Clearly, we have our work cut out for us!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Trnity Sunday Recessional Hymn

HT Neil Stauffer

For mature audiences. . . began to strike me as rather odd -- something we have grown so accustomed to that we do not even see it or hear it.  That is the warning that comes on before nearly any form of media shows graphic violence, sexual content, or language.  For mature audiences.  What a strange thing to say!  Is it a sign of maturity that finds all forms of graphic violence, sexual acts, and vulgar language acceptable and appropriate?  Is it a mark of our age, wisdom, and experience that we think we can watch things we deem inappropriate for children and it will not affect us?  Is it a mark of our advancement that we are not affected by brutal and graphic portrayals of violence and sex nor are we affected by vulgar language?  Is that maturity? Adult content.  Hmmmm.  Is it a mark of adulthood that we may view pornography with abandon or watch things that might corrupt a child but it has no effect upon us?  Porn stars are routinely described as adult film stars.  Are those films really adult?

I wonder if there is anything adult about adult content or anything mature about things for mature audiences.  I wonder if it is not completely backwards.  These are the most childish and adolescent things of all.  Is sitting in the dark, rather hiding in the dark, while watching things you would not want your mother or your grandmother or your boss to see an adult activity?  Is is maturity to watch brutal acts of violence and to hear F-bombs thrown around so often that you no longer hear them?  We have some strange ideas of adulthood and maturity.  It shows in the way we treat themes and images we find inappropriate for children but fine and dandy for us big boys and girls.

I can understand those who are all up in arms about guns.  Guns are an easy target and those who taut gun rights are also easy targets.  But why are we so upset about guns but not about the violence that pervades video games, TV, and movies?  Isn't there something wrong when someone like Quentin Tarantino who makes his living off that kind of thing complains about violence in real life?  Why are we so excited about men who abuse women but not up in arms about the pornography which encourages such distorted and objectification of women?  Why do we not see a contradiction between those who prey upon women and women who think beauty is synonymous with revealing dress and suggestive behavior?  It is not merely a men's issue.  It is a maturity issue.  We are not acting like adults when we presume that the stuff not appropriate for children is appropriate for us.  Age and maturity are not the only arbiters of right and wrong.  Some things are always wrong.  Is does not matter how hold you are or how mature you appear or think yourself to be.

Morality does not change for adults.  The moral compass does not filter out mature from immature.  Right is right.  Wrong is wrong.  That is the problem we face in a world in which we no longer have a common morality and take our cue for what is right and wrong from trend and fad.  When Christians complain about this it is not because we are prudes but because we have values -- values designed by God to make us more noble and not less free and values which discourage the things that are base and vulgar in view of those things that are good, right, noble, pure, beautiful, honorable, and godly. 

It is tiresome to sit at home and watch TV only to face a barrage of violent or horror films that masquerade as entertainment or to suffer dialogue which is written with such poverty that F-bombs and the like suffice for erudition.  I do not have any young children in my household but I do fear for grandchildren who face live in a culture of confusion in which adolescence parades as maturity and adulthood for childishness.  When I was a man I put away childish things.  To grow up into Christ who is the head is to grow up to things that do not debase or degrade but honor and encourage with the purity of the love that sacrificed all for our sake.  Every time I see a warning for adult content or the suggestion that what follows is for mature audiences only, I just want to scream.  Grow up!!!

Monday, May 28, 2018

I am not one of them. . .,+You+also+are+one+of+them.+But+Peter+said,+Man,+I+am+not..jpg

Three times Peter denied.  I do not know the man!  And, when he is charged with being of His disciples, I am not one of them!  He did not merely distance himself from Jesus but from those who were with Him.  His betrayal was not merely to our Lord but to the fellowship of those who live in Him by faith.  When Thomas is mentioned after Easter, it is first in the context of his absence from the fellowship of the disciples and then in the context of his doubts or refusal to believe without the self-same proofs they had received in the presence of the Risen Lord.  Where had he been?  What would have been so important as to keep him from the fellowship of those who gathered behind locked door?
Perhaps the most striking thing about us as people is that we are not alone.  Though individuality is the most striking phenomenon of the modern times, the individual is not the epicenter of human existence before then.  After all, none of us come into existence by ourselves. We are born of parents (two of them when biology is unassisted by technology and still two when considering the ingredients of humanity even in test tube form).  Yet even these two parents are themselves part of a larger family and this family joins other families into the community, society, and culture that mark our non-solitary existence.  None of us comes into being by ourselves.  Scripture says this.  None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.

In the briefest of moments, we begin to acknowledge familiarity and acquire language.  Our whole lives are marked with this community context from the earliest of our days.  Of course, we are not identical but what marks us as individuals is less than what connects us together as a people. Surely there is something individual about us, but it exists mostly in the abstract.  Even then, we discover a bit of this individuality largely by comparing ourselves to others. We define ourselves in conjunction with others and we not only need them to exist but need them to know who we are.  The first great conclusion of God in the unfolding events of our creation is that, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  We were never intended to be alone.  Adam soon discovered this in his task of surveying and naming all that God had made.  It became a pattern so familiar to him that he saw no one was like him.  So the Lord made use “male and female.”  Our lives were lived to be shared and yet, when it comes to salvation and our relationship to God, we tend to frame this all in individual terms.  Why?

Let me say a radical thing.  No one is saved as an individual.  No one is saved to be an individual.  We are saved because of the work of God through others and we are brought into the Body of Christ, the congregation of the saints, the assembly of the redeemed, the community of the baptized, and the many voices that speak as one in confession of Jesus Christ before the world.  Is there a Christianity that is not also the Church?  Can there ever be a Christianity apart from the Church?  Where did Jesus ever teach an individual salvation or even an individualized path to salvation?

Individuality is the breath of our modern world but it is a poisoned air brought into the Church to make it possible for people to think of being saved and not belonging to a community of believers gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Individuality has become word we use in the Church but it is not of the vocabulary of Scripture or tradition.  If the fool says in his heart there is no God, it is the fool who says I do not need the Church.  How often don't we hear the smug individuality insist, “I don’t need a priest or a pastor or a mediator or a church -- I can go straight to God.”   Of course, nobody says that can't “go straight” to God but even then no one goes straight to God alone. They go in company of the saints and because of those who spoke the Word first to them.

Nature is not about the individual.  Neither is salvation.  The sooner we let go of this lie, the better off we will be.  It is not the Church that needs us.  We need the Church.  We do not get a choice -- go it alone or walk together with the people of God.  When we walk alone, we are not alone.  Even when we pray as our Lord taught us, it is the voice of the faithful speaking in one voice.... Our Father who art in heaven.  So let us in the Church stop catering to the foolishness of our modern preoccupation with the individual and let us begin again to acknowledge the good that is the Church and to give thanks to the Lord that we are not alone.

Remembering those who paid the ultimate price for our liberty. . .

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Sad State of Affairs. . .

Not surprisingly, the Irish have voted to join the league of nations in treading under the lives of those unborn for the sake of so-called freedom.  In this vote, the Irish have become one of the last of the nations to repudiate their Christian heritage and their Roman Catholic identity and it has taken only about 35 years to do it.  With roughly the same number voting voting to repeal the 1983 Amendment to the Constitution recognizing equal rights to the unborn as passed the Eighth Amendment, two thirds of the population voted to allow abortion in the first twelve weeks of the pregnancy.

Even worse than the vote was the joyful glee of those who returned just to vote for repeal and the uninhibited excitement of those who voted to allow the killing of the unborn.  This is the saddest commentary on the whole cause.  How is it that something regrettably legal and hopefully rare has become a cause for which people are actually partying in the street?  Death is no cause for joy and death is what this vote means.  So that is the state of affairs in the so-called civilized world.  It is not only the religious who cringe but all those who believe that life is precious and deserves the most profound protections.  But for a nation as solidly identified with the Roman Catholic faith as Ireland, it is one more sign of the precipitous decline of religion and morality in one more European country and the barbarism that is the soft underbelly of secular humanism.

Kyrie Eleison.

Liturgy and Mission the typical Lutheran, even to some on the liturgical side of the aisle, liturgy is basically insider stuff and the rubrics but the polite etiquette of those who gather for the liturgy.  All of this is in stark contrast to the world outside and the mission to those in the world unconnected to what takes place inside.  This is all very neat and tidy.  It relieves those who want to be set apart from having to deal with the world – at least during the liturgy.  It also relieves those who do not want to be set apart from having to act holy within the liturgy.  It works for all of us. . . except the Lord.

The grand presumption is that those who care about liturgy do not care about missions and the equally grand presumption is that those who care about mission care nothing at all about liturgy.  At least that is our story and most of the people would prefer to stick with it than to disrupt stereotypes with the truth.  In reality, the distinctions are more artificial than substantive.  We have made them up to justify ourselves.  It is quite convenient to write off people according to our stereotypes and that is exactly what has been done for some time. 

There are those who have disputed this characterization.  I think of Bo Giertz and his masterful pamphlet Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening.  But we seldom listen.  So instead of paying attention and admitting the fallacy, we have fostered it.  The liturgical types snicker at the way the missionals play church like a religious entertainment and variety show.  The missionals snicker at the costumes and rituals of the liturgical.  It works for all of us.  It certainly worked for David Luecke when he tried to put distance between evangelical style and Lutheran substance.  And it has worked for those who insist that the liturgy is only for those who are already the people of God by baptism and faith.  But both sides have missed something.

The liturgy is not some peculiar language and etiquette of a people who meet behind closed doors.  No indeed.  The liturgy is the means by which God posits His Church in the world and the means by which the Church addresses the world with God’s presence and His saving acts.  The liturgy is not self-referential but neither is the mission to the world.  The Church does not exists for itself nor does it exist even exclusively for God.  God has made His Church to be the means of His presence and the voice of His Word to those who do not know His presence and who have not heard His voice.  The neat and tidy divorce between liturgy and kerygma is a modern invention.  Think of the age old story of the representatives of the Christianization of Russia.

    Vladimir summoned together his vassals and the city elders, and said to them: "Behold, the Bulgars came before me urging me to accept their religion. Then came the Germans and praised their own faith; and after them came the Jews. Finally the Greeks appeared, criticising all other faiths but commanding their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them. They preach the existence of another world. 'Whoever adopts our religion and then dies shall arise and live forever. But whosoever embraces another faith, shall be consumed with fire in the next world.' What is your opinion on this subject, and what do you answer?"
    The emissaries went their way, and when they arrived at their destination they beheld the disgraceful actions of the Bulgars and their worship in the mosque; then they returned to their own country. Vladimir then instructed them to go likewise among the Germans, and examine their faith, and finally to visit the Greeks. They thus went into Germany, and after viewing the German ceremonial, they proceeded to Constantinople where they appeared before the emperor. He inquired on what mission they had come, and they reported to him all that had occurred.. When the emperor heard their words, he rejoiced, and did them great honour on that very day.

    [Then] the emperor sent a message to the patriarch to inform him that a Russian delegation had arrived to examine the Greek faith, and directed him to prepare the church and the clergy, and to array himself in his sacerdotal robes, so that the Russians might behold the glory of the God of the Greeks. When the patriarch received these commands, he bade the clergy assemble, and they performed the customary rites. They burned incense, and the choirs sang hymns. The emperor accompanied the Russians to the church, and placed them in a wide space, calling their attention to the beauty of the edifice, the chanting, and the offices of the archpriest and the ministry of the deacons, while he explained to them the worship of his God. The Russians were astonished, and in their wonder praised the Greek ceremonial.
    [When the emissaries reported on] the Greeks, ‘they led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here."
The liturgy does not only matter to those who already belong to the Jesus Club.  It is not about temple behavior or proper etiquette but about preserving the Gospel and manifesting to the world the Kingdom not of the world but certainly in it.  Theology must sing, according to Martin Franzmann.  All theology is doxology.  This is not true simply of theology in the abstract but about the most practical of theology, the theology that sings.  Schmemann aptly named his own liturgical theology For the Life of the World.  It is not incidental.  Liturgy cannot be left tot he professionals because it is the life of the people of God planted here in the world.  It is here that the people of God are directed toward their holy vocation of being the people of God in the world.  It is here the world encounters the wholly other of the God who is love.  The Word is the living voice of God through whom He works just as He did in bringing all things into being.  The Sacraments are the miracles through which He manifests His gracious presence to bring the people of the world into His life and worship. 

This does not mean that the liturgy is a tool anymore than Scripture itself is a tool.  What it does mean is that the liturgy is not self-serving and not antithetical to the mission at all but that which shapes, informs, accomplishes the mission.  The liturgy is both the place where God gives Himself to us and it is where the work of the few happens on behalf of the many.  Theology and mission all intersect in the liturgy.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

If we were wrong. . . live at a time in which a large number of people believe the church was wrong about infant baptism, wrong about the presence of Christ in the Supper, wrong about the truthfulness of Scripture, wrong about marriage, sex, and life, and wrong about Jesus and His claims.  In other words, there are many who think themselves Christian but who believe that for the majority of its history, the church did not get right many things are among the most celebrated causes today.  That surely includes the idea that sacraments are at best symbols and nothing more and that Scriptures is either wrong or we understand it wrongly when it comes to the historicity of even major stories.  It also includes the definition of marriage, of who can marry, of the purposes of marriage, and of the intricacies of gender diversity as the world today defines them.  And yet these who think the church wrong, have not abandoned Christianity as much as attempted to redefine it away from doctrine and onto a simple yet noble ethic of love (love that really means tolerance, acceptance, and the celebration of whatever feels good).

What is striking, however, is that few seem to be bothered by the fact that God is so weak or distracted as to sit on the sidelines of the church's errors and not intervene to correct them (at least until the present day when it seems things changed).  If it was wrong, what kind of God sits by powerlessly as infants and small children are routinely baptized and told that by this baptism they died with Christ and rose with Him to new and everlasting life?  If it was wrong, what kind of God is impotent to prevent the church from believing and teaching that in Holy Communion Christ's real flesh and real blood is real food?  If it was so wrong, what kind of God watches while people in His name and the church He established confused myth with history and fable with fact?  If it was wrong, what kind of God tolerates the persecution of homosexuality and the diversity of genders until 2,000 years later secular society compels the church to change?

A church which could be so wrong, for so long, on matters as fundamental as Baptism of the Lord's Supper, the historicity of the events in Scripture, and the shape of the most basic human social relationship raises as many questions about its God as it does about itself. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

One of three great feasts. . .

Sermon preached on the Thursday after Pentecost, May 24, 2018.

Pentecost was one of the three major festivals in Israel’s calendar – so important that it expected the faithful to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple.  This is why so many were there when the Spirit descended as tongues of fire and the disciples spoke in many languages.  It was one of those days set apart to remember the God who gave the Law on Sinai and thus established a covenant relationship with His people.

This covenant was not simply the commandments and the call to be holy as God is holy but the promise that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had made in Eden that He would become His people’s Savior, delivering them from the end of the law and its punishment of death with the Lamb of God who would take away their sins and the sins of the whole world.  Sinai was this promise.  I will be your God and you will be My people.  This was a promise whose fulfillment was yet to be written in the birth of the Messiah but whose consequences were anticipated with the promise that He would hear their prayers, bestow His Spirit, provide for their needs, place His name upon them, and guide them to the day when the promise was made flesh.

The Church understood this.  The three ancient feasts are Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany, on which it is said on the day itself and through the octave.  This custom reflects the traditional baptismal character of these celebrations, which go back to the very earliest days of the Church.  Pentecost became a festival reborn by the grace of God and transformed by the Savior who keeps the Law and the promises of God and who delivers the Spirit to men, women, young, old, Jew, and Gentile, that everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ might be saved. 

In the history of Christendom, Pentecost was, like Easter, an eight day celebration.  It began with a vigil like the Easter vigil in which the focus was upon baptism – the seal of the promise upon those who come through water and the Spirit to be incorporated into the covenant people of God.  It was a holy day to remember the Law fulfilled in Christ and the mercy of God long promised now kept in Christ.  Now Epiphany has been forgotten and Pentecost a shadow of a memory.  Left with only Easter among these three giants of days, we are clearly the poorer.

In this week of Pentecost, those who were baptized and given the chrism of oil at the Pentecost vigil wore the white robes of their baptism through the entire eight days.  The old English name for Pentecost is Whitsunday or white Sunday in remembrance of this.  It was such a holy day that there are still parts of Europe in which Pentecost Monday is a holiday off of work.

Although begun long before the liturgical reforms in the 1970s, Pentecost faded almost from view.  Now we find a feast that must compete with high school graduations, with the wedding season, and, all too often, with Memorial Day and its holiday traditions.  Sadly, now Pentecost is largely a footnote, stripped of its octave and with hardly a vigil celebrated anywhere.  The greater tragedy is that the connection between Christ and the Spirit, between baptism and our life as a people who delight in the Law of the Lord, has also been severed.  To the point where Pentecost is merely the Church’s birthday and the fire of the Spirit no more than candles on its cake.

So why is this loss so terrible?  Because the Spirit has become a phenomenon. 

Instead of the witness to Christ, the Spirit has become His own personality.  People seek the Spirit and His gifts as if He were somehow separate from the gift of Christ and the righteousness of Christ bestowed upon God’s people in their baptism.  We treat the Spirit as if He was the forgotten God who must be rescued from obscurity instead of acknowledging the Spirit as the One who points to Christ and opens the heart of the believer to trust in Christ.  We treat the Spirit as some ghostly force instead of the One who has enlivened the Word with its power to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify a people fit for the Lord by Christ’s own grace and favor.

It is not quite the end of the octave of Pentecost but we are still in its afterglow.  The red is still on the altar and the readings draw us back to what happened when the Father fulfilled His promise and sent through His Son the Spirit of life.  And it all calls us to remember our baptism, to rejoice in the Spirit who taught our fearful hearts to believe, and to live out the new lives in which the Law of God is not some force to deny us happiness but the true and everlasting path of real contentment and peace.

Today we remember that Pentecost is not a phenomenon or simply an event but the fulfillment of a promise.  The Giver of the Law has become its Keeper and we are the beneficiaries.  The Promise of God has been kept and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is Christ our Lord.  The day when water and the Word of God named us as Christ’s own people remains the day of our new birth into a covenant with God that He refuses to renounce ever.  The name of Jesus has become our name of prayer.  The voice of the Lord still speaks in the Word that is power and life.  The fire of the Spirit burns in witness before the world, shining the Light of Christ to those in darkness and burning through the cold emptiness of the sinful human heart to teach us faith.  The work of the Spirit is still sanctifying us, making us holy, so that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways to the glory of His holy Name.

Come, Holy Spirit, shine in our hearts today, that we may know Christ and make Him known, and so fulfill the rich promise of our baptism by being kept faithful until our Lord Jesus comes to finish His new creation and bring to fulfillment a new heavens and a new earth.  Amen.

Piety and Pietism. . .

Lutherans, especially Missouri Synod Lutherans, are rightfully suspicious of things pietistic.  Pietism did no small damage to the faith over the years - at least the more aggressive forms.  Yet there is no denying that pietism is thoroughly intertwined in Lutheranism and Lutheran history. did not begin as a challenge to Lutheran orthodoxy so much as a complaint against the poverty of Christian life and values of the people who claimed an inward faith.  Those who complained believed that Christianity was not or should not be so much a doctrinal system as a guide for practical Christian living (morality).  Perhaps the leading voice was Johannes Arndt (1555–1621), whose devotional writings were extremely popular in the 17th century, especially his major work, The Four Books of True Christianity (1605–09).  It was a guide to the meditative and devotional life proposed as an alternative to a reasoned and intellectual systems of doctrines.  So Arndt was deemed the father of Pietism, although its roots in mysticism cannot be denied.

When Frankfurt pastor Philipp Jakob Spener published his book Pious Desires, he called for a  fundamental reform of theological education in which he stressed the religion of the heart of the religion of the head.  He urged “small churches within the larger church” to provide a venue for prayer, Bible reading, moral scrutiny, and works of charity. Certainly Spener did not intend upon  leaving Lutheranism but he was aggrieved by what he considered the ignorance of the clergy and the church’s lack of spiritual vitality.

Spener’s notions were institutionalized in Halle by August Hermann Francke, who established the Frankesche Stiftungen (“Francke Foundations”) schools, an orphanage, a printing press, and similar establishments -- some of which are still in existence today, i. e. Halle Foundations.  Like the birth of Methodism, the goal was to put into practice more sanctified living, practical education, and social ministry.

This was part of the move by Frederick William to unite Reformed and Lutheran churches of Prussia in 1817.  Frederick William was a devout individual who was convinced that there were no substantive theological differences separated the two churches. From insisting upon an identical liturgy, the Frederick William IV to declare in 1852 that the administrative union of Lutherans and Reformed.  Opponents of the push to union emigrated the US beginning in 1839 and eventually  established the conservative Lutheran synods of Missouri and Buffalo.

Now Martin Luther’s own spiritual and theological development was touched by mystical tradition. During his early years as an Augustinian friar, he first was introduced to the mystics and he himself acknowledged the work of Ps-Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and, especially, John Tauler.  However, when you look back at Lutheran and Reformed churches in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth churches, it is not always to easy to mark the clear lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists” that we desire to make today.

Today it is tempting to judge piety as an outgrowth of pietism and to heap upon an earnest desire for a Biblical and sacramental piety the charge of pietism.  It is a false change.  The righteousness of God that becomes ours through the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit is most certainly the righteousness of faith. It is our salvation and no one should confuse this piety with lofty emotions, or a holy attitude, or even a feeling of trust.  However, faith does transform us “in heart and spirit and mind and powers” (FC SD IV) and there is something clearly amiss when we condemn this faithful work of the Spirit with the striving of the individual to produce in himself a righteousness not of Christ but of himself alone.

The piety that we live out in our daily lives involves good works that give evidence to this internal faith.  Good works flow naturally from faith, outward piety expresses the inward piety.   Lutherans have always affirmed that “it is God’s will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works,” that the works to be done are “those that God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word,” and that these works are done “when a person is reconciled with God through faith and renewed by the Holy Spirit” (FC SD IV).  Lutherans have never devalued external marks of this piety -- only the coerced works legislated upon the individual (such as fasting by law on one day as opposed to desire of the individual to fast).  Outward acts of piety such as fasting are not at all discouraged but only do we refuse to legislate the Christian life by rules to require such.  Yet it is tempting for some to insist that these are dangerous.  What is more dangerous, however, is an atmosphere in which piety is discouraged, in which the traditions of old become strange and foreign, when faith becomes merely a matter of the mind, and when good works are not the subject of preaching and teaching.

The Formula of Concord goes on to state: For many create for themselves a dead faith or delusion that lacks repentance and good works. They act as though there could be true faith in a heart at the same time as the wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin [Romans 6:1-2]. This is impossible. Or, they act as though a person could have and keep true faith, righteousness, and salvation even though he is and remains a corrupt and unfruitful tree, from which no good fruit comes at all. In fact, they say this even though a person persists in sins against conscience or purposely engages again in these sins. All of this is incorrect and false.  And by these words, we Lutherans have rightfully echo the manifold calls of St. Paul to manifest the marks of the faith in daily life, to live worthy of the Gospel, to imitate him as he imitates Christ, and to walk in the way.  To suggest that Christian freedom makes these things indifferent is to ignore the teaching of St. Paul and indeed of our Lord Himself to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and bear the cross.  Repentance, good works, and a rich piety are never means to earn the love of God but they are certainly the fruits of the love of God and the power of the Spirit at work in our lives.  They do not distance us from the Word and the Sacraments but call us closer to their grace.  Pietism wrongfully confused and distracted us from this but it is just as wrong to confuse piety with pietism.

Take a cue from Luther (Thank, Praise, Serve, and Obey) and check out William Weedon's new book on just this subject.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Superhero Mass. . . To rev up your dull worship services. . .
From the Diocese of Scranton, the latest innovation in an Easter Vigil for the modern world; Corpus Christi parish in W. Pittson, PA,  the Superhero Vigil Mass.  More Pictures here. . .

Or for more goofiness. . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The people, they are a changin. . .

We all knew the times were a changin but it appears that the people are a changin as well.  In an article entitled Where Protestants and Catholics Go When They Leave Their Churches that appeared in Christianity Today, I read where 1 of 6 Christians in the US changed their religious affiliation over the four year period surveyed.  My first question would be whether those changing are the same folks changing several times or different folks.  After that would be the question of whether these folks also changed in the period before or after that four year survey time.  In other words, are the people changing the changing kind of people -- regular church shoppers, for example.
The other big question is where did they go?  The answer is most likely to other churches but which churches benefited from the moves?  Are there patterns that might tell us something about the churches that gain or lost or the people moving around?  The study mentioned surveyed 9,500 individuals, between 2010 and 2014, and find some not so surprising things.  For example, Roman Catholics tend to remain Roman Catholic, change churches half as often as the rest of those who change, and tend not to become Protestant.  Wow.  Who would have seen that coming?!  Protestants tend to change about the same rate as Roman Catholics but remain Protestant.  Wow.  Earth shattering.  When both groups do change, they tend to drop out of church altogether.  About 6.5% or Roman Catholics and 7.4% of Protestants.  Again, not exactly a big surprise.

But within Protestantism there were some changes worth noticing.  About 16% changed from one brand of Protestant to another label.  This would mean 1 of every 4 Protestants made a move in the 4 year period surveyed.  And, again, the chief beneficiaries tend to be non-denominational "churches".   Non-denominational churches, now the second-largest category of all American Protestants, benefited more than any other group.  The categories are:  Baptists are first with 22.9%; non-denominations next at 18.2%; then Methodists, 14.8%; then Lutherans, 11.8%; then all the others.

Here is the most predictable surprise:  non-denominational congregations also show the largest number of defections.  About 24% (1 of ever 4) of non-denominationals changed churches -- double the number of Baptists (12%) and Methodists (12.9%); three times the number of Episcopalians (8.6%) and Lutherans (8.6%). Guess what?  Lutherans had the lowest defection rate of the groups studied.  

Of course, this is a survey and therefore it does not necessarily jibe with the actual reports of the church bodies mentioned (some of whom had much larger actual losses than these numbers might indicate).   However, it may be said that the biggest declines from the liberal end of Episcopalians and Lutherans is probably over and so this might have picked up on the end of all that.  I don't know.  What I do know is that catechesis works.  (Or rather, the Word works!)  If we thoroughly catechize our people from a young age, that will have more to do with discouraging defections for any reason than anything else.  Catechesis, catechesis, catechesis.  Those are the key words for today.  Teach them well and they will not depart from the faith.  When will we start acting like we really believe it???

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Breath of Life. . .

Sermon for Pentecost preached on Sunday, May 20, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

In order to survive, we need to breath. Without oxygen, our bodies can’t function. Our brain, liver, and other organs can be damaged within minutes if we don’t get enough air. Breathing is important; so important that it’s something we do automatically. We don’t have to think about breathing, we just do it. Likewise, we need breath for everlasting life, for physical everlasting life. This breath doesn’t come from our lungs and the oxygen in the air, but from the Spirit, speaking the Word of God that’s about Christ our Savior.

I.​We see the life giving power of the Spirit in the very beginning, when God made man. All other life God spoke into existence. He said “Let there be fish, and sea creatures, and birds, and land animals,” and there was. But this isn’t how God made man. God got His hands dirty when He made Adam. First, He formed him from the dust of the ground, and then He breathed the breath of life into him.

​When you look at the Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, the same word can be used for both breath and Spirit, ruach. Now, even though this word isn’t used for the “breath of life” that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, it is the word that is used for the “breath” that entered the dry bones of Ezekiel, bringing them to life.

​The Lord showed Ezekiel a valley that was full of dry bones. These were the remains of an exceedingly great army that had been dead for a while. God asked Ezekiel if these bones could live, and Ezekiel, being faithful, answered that the Lord knew they could. God could raise this dead army to life. So God told Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones and say: “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD...I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezk 37:4-6). Ezekiel spoke the word of God, and the bones came together. Sinews and muscle, skin and flesh covered these bones. Complete human bodies stood before Ezekiel...but they weren’t alive.

​Even though the men who stood before Ezekiel appeared to be alive, they weren’t. They were just skin bags filled with bones because they didn’t have the breath of life in them, they didn’t have the Spirit. Again, God told Ezekiel to prophesy, to prophesy to the breath, the Spirit, the ruach, to enter these men...and he did. The ruach came into them and they lived. They received the Spirit of God and they were alive. Likewise, you’ve received life through the breath of the Spirit.

​We confess this every time we speak the Nicene Creed. We say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” The Spirit is the giver of life. He’s given you life; made you alive, you who were dead in your sin and trespasses. Even though we may appear to be alive, standing with healthy bodies full of muscles and breath; walking and talking, thinking, doing the things that people who are alive do; in our sin, we’re dead. There’s no life in sin. Because of our sin, we’re just skin bags full of dry bones. There’s no life in us apart from the life the Spirit gives, apart from the life that comes through the Word of Christ and His forgiveness. This is how the Spirit brings you to life; through the proclamation of Christ.

II.​In the Upper Room, as Jesus was speaking with His disciples before His betrayal and crucifixion, He promised the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Helper. He said, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me….He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Jn 15:26; 16:14). The Spirit bears witness to Christ. He only speaks of Christ, for life only comes through Christ.

​Jesus, the Son of God, is the only one who overcomes the sin that kills you. He alone is sinless. He alone could pay the death price of our sin. And He alone sacrificed His perfect life on the cross for you. Because Jesus hung on the cross in your place, God the Father forgives your sins. They’re washed away by the blood of Christ, no longer able to kill you with the everlasting death your sin deserves, because where there’s no sin, there’s no death. In Christ, there’s only life, and the Spirit brings you into Christ as He proclaims Him to be the Savior.

​Some people say we don’t talk about the Holy Spirit very much in our church. Our sermons focus on the Father and the Son. This is true. Christ is central to our faith. He’s the foundation of our faith. And He’s the only way to Father. And the Spirit would have it no other way. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, isn’t concerned if our sermons aren’t about Him, because He’s all about Christ. As Jesus said, the Spirit glorifies Christ, for He is the only way of salvation. There’s only everlasting life in Jesus...and this life is a physical one.

​I wonder if we too often forget that the everlasting life that Christ won for us is going to be a physical one. I’m afraid we think that our soul is the only thing that’s important to God, that our bodies are just temporary and that our flesh is the reason for our sin. But this is completely contrary to God, for He didn’t make us as floating souls. He made us physical beings. He made a body for Adam, and He knitted our bodies together in our mother’s womb. Are bodies are important to God. They’re part of our life. This is why Christ became incarnate, to redeem our bodies.

​When Christ rose from the dead defeating death, it was a physical resurrection. When He appeared to His disciples, He physically stood before them, flesh and bone. They could touch Him. And this is how it will be for you in your everlasting life.

After the dry bones came to life through the Spirit in Ezekiel, the Lord explained that they were the people of Israel, they were God’s people. And then God spoke this promise: “Behold, I will open your grave and raise you from your graves….you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live” (Ezk 37:12-14).

You are God’s people, the New Israel, who’ve received with faith the forgiveness that Christ won on the cross. And this is God’s promise to you. On the Last Day, when our Lord comes, He’ll raise your body from the grave, and you’ll receive the glorified body, free from sin that God has planned for you. We confess our hope in this promise when we say, “I the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

​God gave life to Adam by breathing the breath of life into him, breathing the Spirit into him. The dry bones Ezekiel saw were given life by the breath of the Spirit. And you too receive life through the Spirit. Without Him, we’re just a skin bag of dry bones. The Holy Spirit brings you to life through the very Word of God. This Word is about Christ your Savior, and the Spirit gives you faith to believe and trust in Him for salvation. With this gift of faith you receive the gift of everlasting life, a physical everlasting life in the glory of your Lord. In Jesus name...Amen.

Thoughts on the songs we sing. . . you have not done so, you may want to read some of the things written by those in the Wisconsin Synod who are working on the next hymnal for that denomination.  There is much to consider. Far from being simply about which hymns to include, they talk about the whole idea of the congregational song.  What is being sung and what is not being sung are important enough but what they need to sing, what they should be singing may be an even more important questions.  Of course, we have a history of pastoral concern for the piety of the people.  That was, indeed, Luther's concern and it was reflected in a rather conservative view toward liturgical reform.  Yet, when it came to hymns, Luther was not conservative.  He was somewhat radical -- not radical in the sense of what was sung but radical in the sense that the songs mattered, that they taught the faith and gave witness to it.  As a result, the Reformation was as much sung into the hearts of people as preached.  His liturgical reform was slow and deliberate but his hymnological efforts and those of his peers proceeded at a fairly brisk pace.  

Robin Leaver has suggested that Luther's heirs may have given short shrift to Luther's original purpose in singing hymns.  I fear he is exactly right.  We have focused more on what people want to sing, what hymns they find meaningful and moving, what hymns express their response to God, what hymns stick with them after they left the building.  But have we forsaken the catechetical, didactic, and confessional purposes for the singer's spiritual experience of singing?  Ask Lutherans which hymns are their favorites and you will find a diverse array of songs -- many of which [most of which?] are not found in any Lutheran hymnals.  Instead, the songs enter the mind and heart through ear buds from playlists formed by people who are singing as much about their religious experience as about God Himself.

Just as music has become entertainment styled to individual preference and taste, the church's song has also been subject to the same kinds of preferences and taste.  Hymnals were once simply the domain of churches and their publishing houses but now they are thoroughly beyond the control and scope of the church.  The music used in worship is as much the domain of individual artists and the distribution vehicle of the media as it is anything else.  Even in liturgical churches, the music of the service comes from these sources rather than the official channels and even when the hymns and songs of the liturgical assembly are from hymnals and official churchly sources, that does not mean this is what the people hum on their way out the door.

Where once the prospect of a hymnal was somewhat straight forward and there was a high expectation that what was published would not only find its way into the pews but into the heads and hearts of the people in those pews, now it is much more complicated and there is no assurance that the book will be bought, or if purchased, used.  So the domain of the hymnal publisher has become a mine field.  There are many publishers and many hymnals but even more song writers and venues through which they promote their music.  It must be asked by those who invest in a hymnal publishing venture whether or not the work will be justified or whether it will be the last effort.  So, it at the very least, we must do better than simply give people what they want.  We must give them what they need, what the church needs, what the faith needs, and help them come to see not only what they want to sing but what they should be singing.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Liberal Christianity. . . some thoughts. . .

The late Cardinal George of Chicago once said, “Liberal Christianity is a failed experiment.”  The only people who do not know this are liberals.  True enough, every church has a liberal faction or a progressive wing.  These folks are the ones who purport to care for people more than doctrine and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the church survives and even flourishes.  At the same time, however, the people they care for are left without grounded hope and real truth and the church that survives looks little like the church of old and is an echo of the culture, though slow and behind the curve.

Liberal Christianity is always late.  It is late to jump on social trend and late to adopt fads of music, psychology, and culture.  It is tardy to the party but it does not see it.  When folk music finally entered the church, it was on the way out of musical fashion.  Contemporary worship is contemporary only in the minds of the boomers who live in the past.  Cool is lukewarm and the shine has worn of the chic for those who try to keep up with pace of change.  Everyone outside the church knows this and finds it all not a little amusing -- except those who keep putting the nickels in the praise bands and singing the same tired old refrains.

Liberal Christianity is neither new nor fresh but old and tired.  It does not innovate but tries to sustain a moment in time which has faded from view in the landscape of everyone else.  It lives in the past and confuses this past with the future -- not the ancient past of Scripture or the early church but the recent past of memory.  The way we did it when we were young. . .  It is not simply theological but liturgical, not simply about the faith but about politics.  It loves freedom but eschews those who refuse to march to its dated tune.  Its freedom is the worst possible bondage.

Liberal Christian exists primarily to protest against what it does not like.  It does not exist as a positive force but as a negative voice.  Liberal Christianity is like the child that never grew up and never grew past the complaints against parents and the raw deal of childhood.  Liberal Christianity is angry -- angry with those who insist that doctrine matters, that truth is historical, that words mean what they say, that reason is not the filter for God's voice, and that we have something to learn from those who went before us.  Liberal Christianity has trouble seeing itself objectively and takes itself too seriously. 

Liberal Christianity is not an ideology or even a philosophy but a methodology.  It is adaptive.  It deals with sin by removing behaviors from the category.  It deals with death by making the most of this life.  It deals with truth by substituting feelings.  It deals with fact by focusing on relationship.  It adapts itself to the world around it.  It adopts the sexual ethic of the moment (usually a protest against the past).  It adopts the cause of the moment (such as climate change).  It is individual and makes the individual not only the center of Christianity but the measure of truth.  It loves relevance but fails to see that it is irrelevant to the past that went before and the future unfolding right now.

Liberal Christianity loves individualism but underneath it is insecure and is a mob mentality.  Liberal Christianity envisions itself as the radical outside but it is so very much an insider.  You are free to be an individual so long as your individuality fits with the mold of the group.  It complains against those who insist upon walking in lock step with the ancient and catholic faith but it insists upon the same rigid and unbending uniformity.  Liberal Christianity is in this way not liberal at all but the most wooden and stiff version of the faith.

Liberal Christianity lives in the moment.  That means it is focused not on the world to come but this world.  It cares more about the environment than about heaven, more about improving social conditions than freeing sinners from their sins, and more about blaming those who are wrong than finding real remedies for the real wrongs people endure.  Liberal Christianity would rather have the government doing social work than the church running hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, and the like.  Liberal Christianity loves the public school system and is inherently critical of parochial schools as indoctrination centers.  Liberal Christianity loves diversity but mostly the diversity it promotes and not the real diversity where the Word and Truth meet to set us free from the bondage of sin and its death.

In the end, liberal Christianity is neither liberal nor Christian.  It is a betrayal of the true liberality of love that flows from the Christ and His cross and it is a distorted Christianity that bears little resemblance to the fathers of the faith and offers little hope for a real future.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Would a booth boost confessions? Luther's day the Confessional Booth was unknown.  It was not in common use until the end of the 16th century and was something of an innovation.  Before then the penitent confessed to the priest wherever the priest was, though the absolution often took place at the altar.  Some priests used a stool and the penitent knelt before the priest to make confession.  I am not at all sure where the booth idea came from.  Someone once suggested that it came from Lutherans.  While I cannot say this is not true, it would surprise me.

For nearly 400 years the confessional was a staple of Roman Catholic architecture.  Sometimes it was a simple wooden box and other times a rather elaborate piece of furniture.  It enabled the priest to be hidden behind a screen or drape while typically the penitent knelt in an open booth, seen by others but whose confession was in secret.  After Vatican II, this was often replaced by a reconciliation room in which penitent faced the priest.  Among some, the confessional booth is undergoing a revival.  Some have complained that the confessional booth was used by some priests as a cover for sexual abuse.  I am sure that this may have happened by disreputable and despicable priests but find it hard to believe that it was common.  In any case, the reconciliation room does not seem to have encouraged private confession among Roman Catholic.
The strange thing is that many Lutherans have said to me that they would prefer the confessional booth to face to face confession.  If they were going to get up the nerve to make confession before the pastor, the relative anonymity of a booth would encourage them.  It is, in their view, easier to confess sensitive things without having to look into the face of the father confessor.  I find this most interesting.  It seems that anonymity remains one of the conditions many would place upon restoring the ancient practice of private confession (whether Roman or Lutheran).  While I certainly understand it, it is rather foolish to think that the ear hearing the individual confession of the people of the congregation would somehow not recognize who was speaking.  I can recognize most of my folks when they call on the phone and do not need to have them tell me who they are.  I expect many pastors who have been there in the same parish a while have developed the same familiarity.  Yet, the reality is that some would prefer not to face their pastors when make confession and this might be holding some of them back from initiating their first confession.

Some pastors would insist that anonymity deprives the pastor of his ability to provide faithful pastoral care to the penitent and give Biblical counsel to those who find themselves repeatedly in the same sins (don't we all?).  It would, in their view, work against the whole purpose of confession and absolution.  I expect that most folks I have spoken with would trade some of the familiarity for anonymity and would be willing to forego the counsel in order to be able to get something off their chest without having to look their pastor in the eye.  It would seem that they have come for the absolution and not to be counseled about their favorite sins.

In any case, I doubt that the confessional booth will find many friends among Lutherans -- even though some have suggested it just might help to restore a practice that, while it never disappeared among Lutherans, has certainly been in decline.  It may surprise some Lutherans that it was once a practice so popular that concern for the pastor advised him to sit down because of the extraordinary burden of so many penitents.  That said, perhaps the people are onto something.  If they would avail themselves of this rich gift and treasure, then perhaps a booth would not be out of line even for Lutherans.  I will wait and see what happens. . . as I expect some of you will. . . who wish the whole idea of individual confession and absolution would simply just go away for good.

That said, some Lutherans and probably not a few Roman Catholics who find the whole thing distasteful and unnecessary seem to delight in making full public confessions on Facebook and other social media.  In some cases, the confessional might be the last place where sins are admitted rather than the first.  What a strange time in which we live.  The folks who find it hard to confess anything to the pastor, tell the whole world in detail what they have thought, said, and done.  And yet they do so without the prospect of any real absolution at all.  Could it be that the real problem with confession has nothing to do with venue and everything to do with the fact that we don't think our sins are bad enough to be wrong but bad enough to boast about to our nine thousand closest friends on Facebook.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Thoughts on membership. . . wonder if most pastors don't get a little crazy when the topic of church membership comes up.  On the one hand we are told that it matters greatly.  Consider the solemn words addressed to those who join and the equally solemn words addressed by those who join.  Far from suggesting that these words do not matter, these words call us to read them slowly and deliberately and to speak them with equal gravity.  Membership is a solemn covenant and a contract that presumes that something will flow from the address to and promises from those who join.  Indeed, death is promised as a preference to forgetting or taking lightly the call from the Lord to be gathered with His own around His Word and Table.

On the other hand, church membership does not seem to matter all that much.  It does not seem to matter to those who, despite the solemn address and their somber promises, are routinely absent from the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.  They have, as Hebrews' preacher put it, gotten in the habit of neglect of the assembly that comes at the beckoning of the Spirit on the Lord's Day (His resurrection day, the eighth day).  It does not seem to matter much to churches since we all routinely keep people on the rolls, as it is said, long after they have grown stale and strangers to us.  All congregations have people on the official membership list who no longer even live in a local zip code and some of them, it is sad to say, have no active address on file.  Their whereabouts are unknown and not just on Sunday mornings.

That said, we often distance this membership in an organization from the membership that does count -- the one wherein our names are written in the Book of Life in the ink of Christ's blood.  And that is the strange thing of it all.  Instead of seeing a connection between the two rolls, the earthly community of faith and the heavenly assembly, we routinely distance one from the other.  The people absent from the Lord's house insist that they have not lost faith and church is not required and you can be a Christian, a good and faithful Christian, without having to get all hot and bothered about church.  They insist that their names are written in the Book of Life and that is all that matters. 

On the other hand, it has been the grave temptation of the keeper of the church rolls on earth to confuse a piece of paper in the church office with the company of the elect.  Sure, you do not have that confusion today nearly as much as it was made in the past but still it is easy to presume that the number of the elect is the same as the names written on the rolls, with the possible exception of a few names here and there.

Church membership matters not because the church says so but because our confession of faith matters.  Sadly, we live in an age in which people routinely belong to churches because of things other than what that church publicly professes.  I cannot tell you how many times people have come and asked to commune at our Lutheran altar and have given good, salutary, and blessed Lutheran confession of what is present there on the altar, how we are to receive it, and what it accomplishes in us.  But they belong to a church that does not even come close to confessing the same thing.  They live within the anomaly of a church that teaches one thing while they believe another.  But it does not matter since church membership and what you believe are frequently and routinely differentiated from each other.  Why?  Why do we presume that the individual confession matters more than the public confession of the assembly?  Why do we trivialize church membership in this way?  Should not we strive with all our power to be connected to an earthly community of faith that is the most faithful to the Scriptures and whose practice is a faithful reflection of that belief?  Is this not precisely why church membership matters?  It should be.

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of emphasizing the invisible church whose borders and boundaries are not the same as earthly jurisdictions that we have come to the terrible place of diminishing the value, importance, and blessing of our earthly belonging to a community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  In the face of a divided Christendom, in the complex confusing array of acronyms and denominational realities, we want to believe in a grand unity and that is understandable.  Our desire is met by the Lord who not only establishes this unity but gives it His promise and blessing.  One as the He and the Father are one.  Yes.  But that does not diminish the value of or lessen the urgency for our unity with those with whom we make common confession and witness before the world, to whom we make ourselves accountable, and together we hear the voice of the living Word and, as the baptized people of God, come to the place He has prepared at His Table where the past is made present and the future is anticipated. 

True, the real members of a church are those who gather, hear, confess, and eat but that does not mean there is no list, no roll, no record of our belonging.  Indeed, the challenge is that every Sunday the majority of Christians tend to be absent from their family home together with the Lord in His Word and at His Table.  The task before us is not only to reach out to those not yet of the Kingdom but to be the conscience of those who have forgotten what it means to belong.  That is both the problem of church membership and why it matters.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Mega Problem. . .

No one would be foolish enough to suggest that sexual indiscretions and abuse is a problem strictly for non-denominational churches.  That is ridiculous.  However, there are layers of accountability inherent to denominational structures that are absent in most non-denominational churches -- churches often built upon a single outsize personality or perhaps a family legacy.  Now it seems that allegations and suspicions are hanging over what might have been a happy retirement party for Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Church.

According to a report in Christianity Today Online:  “If you’ve been sexually harassed or harmed, your pain matters—to us and to God,” the suburban Chicago megachurch posted on its Facebook page, along with details about how to get help.  A handful of Willow Creek’s female leaders, including cofounder Lynne Hybels, also joined the Silence Is Not Spiritual campaign, calling on evangelical churches to stand up for women who had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Now the megachurch may have a #ChurchToo problem, one that pits cofounder Bill Hybels against some of his longtime friends. A group of former pastors and staff members has accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, the Chicago Tribune reported tonight.
The voices of those accusing are not people with a grudge against Hybels but folks who have been part of the core and center of the Willow Creek ministry and association of churches for a very long time.  There have been investigations and so far no charges seem to have stuck but the number of allegations and the individuals who are raising them is not going to go away soon.

Why does this matter?  First of all, the church, founded in the Willow Creek Theater in Barrington, Illinois, is an evangelical powerhouse with a worship attendance of more than 25,000 and an association that has cultivated all kinds of leadership programs and publishing encouraging other congregations to follow its lead.  Clearly the ripples extend well beyond the congregation itself.  So many have held up Willow Creek as a model organization that this will a difficult stain upon its reputation and influence to disregard.  On top of that, the retirement of the founding pastor and its central personality is always a test for megachurches and will certainly be one for Willow Creek.

That said, there is a central weakness in non-denominational mega churches that cannot be denied.  While it is certainly related to succession and the continued success of the enterprise as a whole, it is also related to the fact that most of their boards and governing structures are self-sustaining and tend to be populated by people who support the status quo.  There is little in the way of independent authority with the stature to challenge major leaders like Hybels when charges or allegations threaten.  We have already seen this happen in other similar churches time and time again.  While some are quick to condemn denominations and jurisdictional structures, they offer at least the real potential of holding church leaders accountable -- even charismatic and larger than life figures.  It is no guarantee that things will not go wrong (as they certainly did for the Roman Catholic Church and the priest abuse scandal) but it is more likely that the wrongs will be acknowledged and remedied when there are independent authorities in the church to hold people accountable.