Saturday, June 30, 2018

Thanks be to God!

Sermon preached for Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 2018.

We think it is a big deal when out of our mouths comes “The Word of the Lord” but even Satan can say that and mean it.  The part of the proposition that takes faith is the part that says “Thanks be to God!”

It does not require faith to know who God is or what He has done or even to publicly affirm these truths.  The devil can and does do that.  He knows the Scriptures better than we know them.  Knowledge often passes for faith but it is not.  The devil knows the same things people of faith know.  But he does not believe in Jesus.

Pilate knew enough to mark the cross of Jesus with the charge laid against Him by the Pharisees:  “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  But knowing that Jesus was the rightful King of the Jews or knowing that Jesus was not guilty of anything worthy of death, is not that same as confessing “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord...”

Peter did know who God was and who Jesus was and followed by the side of Jesus for years but it did not stop him from denying that he ever knew the Lord while hiding by the fire, trying to blend in and avoid being seen as a follower of Jesus.  The leader of the apostles of Jesus was one of the first to deny the Lord.  Imagine that!

Paul certainly knew the Law and the Prophets better than any of us know them but it did not keep Him from holding the coats while he stirred men up to stone Stephen for confessing Christ or gaining a reputation as an enemy of the Christian Church.  He knew the Word better than all of us but it did not lead to faith that joyfully acclaimed Jesus as Lord.  At least not until the Holy Spirit came to him.  Blind and broken and he saw what he had missed.

On this day when we commemorate St. Peter together with St. Paul, we are forced to admit that knowledge is not faith, no matter who you know or how much you know.  Both of these names would lie forgotten in the annals of history except that the Holy Spirit was there to transform their knowledge into something more profound and more powerful – faith.

There is where we stand today.  We recall the mighty who have fallen and those thought they knew everything but in reality knew nothing at all.  Knowledge of salvation is not the biggest problem.  Faith is.  Trusting in what eyes cannot see and the mind dismisses as fancy.  That was and is our problem.  We don’t have a problem admitting what Scripture is or what it says.  Our problem is believing it and trusting it and building our lives on it instead of what our eyes see, our minds reason, and our egos claim.

Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. . . Peter’s knowledge becomes faith because the Spirit is at work in that Word.  Paul’s pedigree of learning and his stature as a holy man becomes something far more profound when he learns to believe under the prompting of the Spirit.  And it happens to you, as well.

Faith is not a right reading of the evidence or what makes sense to our logical minds.  Faith is trust, planted by the Spirit where there was none, created by the Word and Sacraments, and strengthened by the same work of the Spirit through the same means of grace.

Peters knows fishing but nothing of the Lord’s heart and gift until the Spirit brings him to Jesus and Jesus to him.  Paul knew nothing of the Lord’s heart until the Spirit released him from his blindness and he saw the light.  You think that if you know more, faith will be easier but knowledge is not faith and faith is not knowledge. 

It is faith that caused Peter to proclaim what flesh and blood had not taught him but the Spirit did.  It is faith that turned an enemy of the Gospel into its fiercest defender and the Spirit did it.  It is faith that turns you from the knowledge that puffs up to the confession of Christ that saves and the Spirit did it all, building you up in love so that you may build up others in the love of God which is ours in Christ.

Once the Spirit has done his work, the lips that once blathered on about all the things we thought we knew or thought were important finally confesses simply and with greatest of joy, “Thanks be to God!”  And that is what we do today.  This is the work of the Spirit that you believe and that you confess and that you remember your baptism and that you eat and drink salvation’s food and cup.  And there is one more work of the Spirit.  Your life begins to reflect in holy thoughts and holy words and holy deeds this thanksgiving.  Amen.

The Hymnal 2024. . .

From the Hymnal Project Website where the WELS hymnal is being prepared in preparation for 2024 (seems like a long way off but not so much for a project as big as a replacement worship book). developing the service materials for the new hymnal, it has been the goal of the Rites Committee to provide both clarity and consistency among the services used for the congregation’s main weekly services. We want people to know the function of each element of the service and for each service element to serve the same function in each service.

In response to sampling this revised service text and progression, congregations expressed appreciation for the consistency and clarity it provided. For example, the canticle “Lord, Have Mercy” (Kyrie) will not be connected with the confession of sins but will be a series of petitions on the basis of God’s mercy following the absolution. The Verse of the Day will now be called the Gospel Acclamation and people will stand prior to it, making it clearer that this service element is not a sung response to the Second Reading but rather serves to prepare us for the hearing of the Gospel. Worship leaders and worshipers responded favorably to these elements of the service.

Perhaps the part of the service where the response was most negative was related to the post-Communion conclusion of the service. The “Song of Simeon” (Nunc Dimittis) was not included as a standard element of the service but was replaced by a note indicating the optional inclusion of a hymn or canticle following distribution. The Rites Committee will revisit this issue as they finalize the services for the new hymnal. While it remains to be seen how many and which specific ones, we can say with certainty that musical settings of the Song of Simeon will be included somewhere in the new hymnal - even if it is in a separate “Canticles” section and not within the services themselves.
It might serve to refresh your memory that with the publication of Christian Worship as the WELS replacement for TLH in 1993 that an innovation moved the Kyrie from its historic position following the Introit and before the Gloria in Excelsis to a place between the people's confession and the pastor's absolution.  In effect, the Kyrie became an echo of the people's plea for the Lord to be merciful to them voiced first of all in the confession of sins.  The historic place for the Kyrie was left with a one sentence statement:  In the peace of forgiveness, let us praise the Lord.

Now it seems that the next hymnal will move the Kyrie to after the absolution but still not part of the historic form of Introit, Kyrie, and Gloria in Excelsis.  It is another strange innovation that seems born of an uncertainty of what the Kyrie is.  Now it will become an echo of the absolution?  In liturgical theology, the emphasis of the Kyrie (either the short Kyrie or its extended litany form) is not on us and our sinfulness but rather on the Lord, whose mercy is revealed in the salvation accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. Though it has traditionally been translated, Lord, have mercy, it could be translated Lord, You are merciful!  The emphasis not on our sin but upon the mercy of God -- mercy certainly outlined in more detailed statement in the Gloria in Excelsis.

The other curious innovation is a rejection of the one distinctly Lutheran addition to the Divine Service, the inclusion of the Nunc Dimittis as the ordinary post-communion canticle.  LBW and its heirs added another canticle to the choices of a post-communion song but clearly the Nunc Dimittis was primary.  Now, apparently, the WELS hymnal project sought to remove it entirely and suggest that any song or canticle may be sung where the Nunc Dimittis long stood.  It appears that people were not so positive about this suggestion and it may change but it does suggest that the WELS hymnal group saw its mandate not as conservator of a tradition but clearly having the freedom to change that tradition.  Interesting because this group was one of the last to stop using TLH and yet it seems be the one that has not shied away from tinkering with this legacy of the Common Service then and in the book to come.

BTW if you want to see even more from the Hymnal Project, look at the list of hymns from CW that did NOT make it into the new book, at least for now. . .

Friday, June 29, 2018

Support for the Underdog. . ., Luther is criticized for supporting the nobles against the common man in the Peasants' War that brought to a climax what had been relatively small rebellions over issues of taxation, corruption, and more local concerns.  In this context, we find it hard to understand Luther, who in our own imaginary world is the voice of the ordinary person, the first to effectively promote the cause of the individual, and one of the inventors of humanism.  But things are seldom as simple as we wish them to be and things seldom as black and white as we desire.

Lyman Stone wrote in First Things of this.
Luther is sometimes criticized for not supporting the peasants, as if he owed complete loyalty to the populist wave. But we should note that the rebels were not democratic reformers, but apocalyptic radicals seeking the institution of heaven-on-earth. When a group of radicals took the city of Münster in 1534, they formed a polygamous death-cult centered around charismatic leaders who duped their followers into a disastrous siege, in the hope of initiating the End Times. Their campaign was more Jonestown than Yorktown. Thus, when Luther condemned the rebellion, he did not condemn a political platform. Indeed, he supported many of the practical reforms the peasants demanded, and pushed the German nobles to adopt them! Rather, he condemned the mobs for trying to institute cultic theocracies based on their idiosyncratic and often violently repressive readings of scripture. He argued that the conflict was basically civil in nature—neither side could claim to be representing God.
Though we would like to believe that the Peasants' Revolt was the first spawning of a movement that would ultimately find its noble fruit in our own American Revolution -- a revolt less about taxes than the birth of a philosophy, a cultural identity, a societal transformation, and a brave new world.  It would be a convenient idea but not one that smelled of much truth.  Though some blame Luther for siding with the overlords against the righteous cause of the peasants, this was not the only context for what happened.  Luther has much to account for in this as well as other areas but the chaos promoted by some would have resulted in a tyranny that would have been no better and most likely far worse.

The point is this.  I love the old saying that when you venture across a pot of crazy, it is best not to stir it.  Luther was only marginally responsible for stirring the pot that resulted in the death of so many peasants and a supposed smear upon Luther's democratic credentials.  There were many things at work.  There were legitimate complaints against excesses and corruption in church and state but there were also illegitimate folks who took advantage of the people's cries for their own corrupt and excess purposes.  The cost in blood of this revolt did not simply give Luther pause, it encouraged him in his pursuit of the two kingdoms idea, in the cause of vocation for the common man and the noble and the cleric, and the acknowledgement that although the citizen has duties to the state, the state also has duties to the citizen. Different duties but both accountable to the God who will judge all. 

In the end, perhaps, Lutherans became gun shy.  They had their own ecclesiastical structures so closely tied to the state that the prophetic voice was silenced and so in Europe today the church may have actually aided in the creation of a secular state filled with people who view religion as heritage and not faith.  If we Lutherans today have anything to learn, we cannot abdicate to the state the moral voice nor can we dutifully follow the rules of the state that would diminish, dilute, or destroy the voice of the Word.  It is messy, to be sure, to be in but not of the world.  But it is where God has placed us and it is in this context our holy vocations meet civic responsibilities.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Spiritually depressed?

As others have reported in the article:  “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Associated With Depression: about 25 percent of people, spirituality was stronger than religious belief, whereas religious belief exceeded spirituality in about 75 percent. Interestingly, there weren’t large differences in spirituality versus religiosity as a function of age, gender or ethnicity. However, spirituality clearly predicted increased depressive symptoms over the decades of the study. The risk of depression was over a third greater than for those in whom religious belief was higher than spirituality, showing a meaningful difference between religion and spirituality as a protective factor.

Why would this be the case? The survey data did not estimate specific factors related to depression, so it is only possible to speculate. While religion represents deeply rooted belief and practice, usually coming from family and cultural background, spirituality represents a departure from that traditional, familiar support.

People seeking spiritual answers may be coming from a position of distress, searching for answers or looking for relief from mental suffering.  Such folk may be more vulnerable, leading to a failure of religion to prevent depression. In either case, this could create a self-selected higher risk spiritual-but-not-religious group. Those who have lost or abandoned traditional faith may have additional risk factors for depression, potentially connected with problems growing up, directly related to religious institutions or family practices, which may have led them to move away from religion.
It would be easier to take up a rant against the spiritual but not religious.  I wonder about other questions associated with this survey.  Are the spiritual but not religious people who are entering the whole dimension of faith or those who are leaving it but who want to hold on to parts of their past?  Are the spiritual looking for or even expecting the same things from spirituality that religious are looking for or expecting from from religion?  Is feeling better (i. e. not depressed) a good marker to use for the value of spirituality or religion?

It would seem to me that some aspects of life are easier without faith, at least the Christian faith.  It is certainly easier to dismiss sin than confront it, repent of it, and seek to amend your sinful ways.  It is certainly easier to find a path that is heading the same direction as society instead of one that seems to require to swim against the current most of the time.  It is certainly easier to melt into the crowd than to stand apart from it and risk or suffer rejection and persecution.

It is also curious that Christians, who are told to expect rejection, suffering, and persecution and even to glory in them, still seem to be more hopeful and at peace than those who avoid such rejection, suffering, and persecution by following the crowd.  Is this hope and peace associated with a way around the distasteful condemnation and its consequences or is it the stuff that enables the Christian to not only endure but to thrive in spite of it all?

There are many things wonderful about being part of the faith, the faithful community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord, but I am not at all sure that we should either expect or presume the promise that on the whole we will be happier because of the faith.  Indeed, the whole goal of the Lord is less our happiness than our holiness, a faith tested like gold by the fire of the smelter and not by a light polish of the cloth.  Holiness is not a pursuit that is generally associated with happy times -- unless, of course, your heart has been recreated in Christ Jesus to love what He loves and seek what He seeks.  Then, my friends, holiness and happiness may just find their perfect intersection, begun in this present day and brought to completion in the world to come.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Words even for a Lutheran to note. . .

Msgr Charles Pope wrote on his blog:  On the Worthy Reception of Holy Communion. . . 
Part I

Last week in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours, we read this from St. Justin Martyr:
No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes what we teach is true; Unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ (Apologia Cap 66: 6, 427-431).
St. Justin may have had in mind this text from the Letter to the Hebrews, which links proper doctrine to the reception of Holy Communion:
Brethren, Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace and not by their ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those devoted to them. For we have an altar from which those who serve at the [old] tabernacle have no right to eat (Heb 13:9-10).
Thus, communion points to doctrine not hospitality. The Eucharist comes from a basic communion of belief and serves to strengthen that belief. It is no mere ceremony; it is a family communion rooted in our communion with who the Lord is and what He teaches. This common belief makes us brothers and sisters in the Lord.
In the modern debate about who can and should receive Holy Communion, some presume that everyone has the right to approach the Eucharistic sacrifice and partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord. In this view, limiting or discouraging indiscriminate reception is dismissed, not only as unjust, but as contrary to the practice of Jesus Christ, who “welcomed everyone,” even the worst of sinners.
In this sort of climate, it is necessary to explain the Church’s historical practice of what some call “closed communion.” Not everyone who uses this terminology means it pejoratively; to some extent it is a fair description.  For the Catholic Church, Holy Communion is not a “come one, come all” event. It is reserved for those who, by grace, preserve union with the Church through adherence to all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. Our response of “Amen” at Holy Communion signifies our communion with these realities along with our faith in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Many today have reduced Holy Communion to a mere sign of hospitality, such that if the Church does not extend it to all, we are being unkind. This misconception is often based on a mistaken understanding of the nature of the Last Supper (and the Eucharist that proceeds from it). Many years ago, Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, articulated the misunderstanding well. Following are some excerpts from his Collected Works, Vol 11, Ignatius Press pp 273-274:
Nowadays [some] New Testament scholars … say that the Eucharist … is the continuation of the meals with sinners that Jesus had held … a notion with far-reaching consequences. It would mean that the Eucharist is the sinners’ banquet, where Jesus sits at the table; [that] the Eucharist is the public gesture by which we invite everyone without exception. The logic of this is expressed in a far-reaching criticism of the Church’s Eucharist, since it implies that the Eucharist cannot be conditional on anything, not depending on denomination or even on baptism. It is necessarily an open table to which all may come to encounter the universal God …
However, tempting the idea may be, it contradicts what we find in the Bible. Jesus’ Last Supper was not one of those meals he held with “publicans and sinners.” He made it subject to the basic form of the Passover, which implies that the meal was held in a family setting. Thus, he kept it with his new family, with the Twelve; with those whose feet he washed, whom he had prepared by his Word and by this cleansing of absolution (John 13:10) to receive a blood relationship with him, to become one body with him.
The Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes that sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family.
That is why, from the beginning, the Eucharist has been preceded by a discernment … (I Corinthians 11:27ff). The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [the Didache] is one of the oldest writings outside the New Testament, from the beginning of the Second Century, it takes up this apostolic tradition and has the priest, just before distributing the sacrament saying: “Whoever is holy, let him approach, whoever is not, let him do penance” (Didache 10).
This makes clear the root of the problem: the failure to see the Eucharist for what it truly is: a sacred banquet wherein those who enjoy communion with the Lord (by His grace) partake of the sign and sacrament of that communion. Holy Communion serves to celebrate and deepen the communion already operative through the other sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession.
You may label this communion “closed,” but at its heart it is more positively called a sacrum convivium, a sacred meal of those who share a life together (con (with or together) + vivium (life)). This is not a “come one, come all” meal; it is a Holy banquet for those who wear the wedding garment. The garment is righteousness and those who refuse to wear it are cast out (cf: Matt 22:11-12 & Rev 19:8).
Many moderns surely would prefer a “no questions asked” invitation to all who wish to come. It fits in well with the popular notion of inclusiveness and unity. To a large degree, though, it is a contrived unity, one that overlooks truth (the opposite of which is falsehood, not just a different viewpoint). Yes, it overlooks the truth necessary for honest, real, substantive unity. Such a notion of communion is shallow at best and a lie at worst. How can people approach the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion and unity, and say “Amen” when they differ with the Church over essentials such as that Baptism is necessary; that there are seven Sacraments; that the Pope is the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth; that homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery are gravely sinful; that women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders; that there is in fact a priesthood; that Scripture must be read in the light of the Magisterium; and on and on? Saying that there is communion in such a case is either a contrivance or a lie, but in either case it does not suffice for the “Amen” that is required at the moment of reception of Holy Communion.
Such divisions do not make for a family meal or a sacrum convivium. Hence, to share Holy Communion with Protestants, dissenters, and others who do not live in communion with the Church is incoherent. To paraphrase Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict), the Eucharist is not a table fellowship with publicans and other “sinners”; it is a family meal that presupposes grace and shared faith.

Part II

Today we will discuss the need to approach the Sacrament of Holy Communion free from serious and unrepentant sin. Let’s consider some texts showing that the Church’s desire that her sons and daughters receive Holy Communion only when in such a state is not only a proper but loving. The excerpts are followed by my own commentary, presented in red text.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Cor 11:27-32).
St. Paul teaches that examining oneself is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If that is violated, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than bringing the blessing of union with our Lord, it brings condemnation. Therefore, out of respect for Christ and for our own good, the Church requires us to be in a state of grace when we receive. We are required to abstain from Holy Communion only when there is mortal sin (confessions of devotion, however, are highly recommended).
[At the Last Supper the disciples asked] “Lord, who is it [who will betray you]?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night (Jn 13:21-30).
It is unclear whether the “morsel” taken by Judas was Holy Communion. If it was, why would Jesus have dipped it? Still, there is something of a picture of what unworthy (sacrilegious) reception of Holy Communion might cause in an extreme case.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Mat 5:21-26).
Note the use of the simple word “first” in the second sentence. Jesus teaches that we cannot approach the altar if we are filled with hate or injustice toward our brethren. Reconciliation and the restoration of unity are required prior to approaching the Sacrament of Holy Communion, lest our “Amen” be either incoherent or a lie.
A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (Code of Canon Law # 916).
The use of an act of contrition mentioned here is an exception, requiring the impossibility to go to Confession beforehand and including the necessity of receiving Communion immediately thereafter. Such would be the case for a priest who is in an unworthy state but who must celebrate Mass. There are some pastoral notes that can be added later for those who struggle with some habitual sins that are possibly grave (e.g., masturbation). The Catechism has some commentary that a confessor can apply to a penitent in such cases. No Catholic should simply take it upon himself to use the exception described in Canon 916. A confessor must be consulted.
To respond to the invitation to Holy Communion, we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”
Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385).
If anyone is holy, let him approach; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 10, 9).
The Didache was written sometime between 90 and 110 A.D, hence very early on there was an understanding that the Eucharist was not merely a table fellowship with sinners but rather a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Church.
Presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion should be a conscious decision, based on a reasoned judgment regarding one’s worthiness to do so, according to the Church’s objective criteria, asking such questions as: “Am I in full communion with the Catholic Church? Am I guilty of grave sin? Have I incurred a penalty (e.g., excommunication, interdict) that forbids me to receive Holy Communion? Have I prepared myself by fasting for at least an hour?” The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (2004 Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1).
In all these writings we see a tradition that is scriptural, ancient, and clear: the Eucharist is a sacred meal that requires of us something more than just “showing up.” There are warnings against irreverent reception, in which the Eucharist is regarded as ordinary or is treated casually.
Is the Church merely being “fussy” about Holy Communion? No more so than were St. Paul and the Holy Spirit, who inspired him to write and warn us against unworthy reception of the Eucharist. Rather, the Church is charitably exhorting us to receive the Eucharist but also warning those who are unprepared to refrain from reception. Indeed, Scripture warns that the unworthy reception of Holy Communion brings not a blessing but a condemnation. This is God’s teaching, not mine.
Perhaps an analogy can be found by noting that some people are allergic to penicillin. For them, a drug that has saved many lives can be life-threatening. Similarly, sinners, though not by accident or genetics but by choice, will find that the Eucharist—life-giving to many—is not so for them when in such a state. In charity, the Church teaches that those individuals unprepared to receive Communion must refrain from doing so until the problem is resolved. This is charity, not cruelty or a lack of hospitality.
In tomorrow’s post I will develop some of these principles further, discussing some pastoral issues and some solutions aligning with the Church’s stance. Indeed, questions arise as to what is meant by mortal sin and how dissenters, those in serious sin, and those in invalid marriages or other irregular situations should be handled. Such questions and issues must be handled charitably and equitably by the Church, but not in a way that violates the principles given by Scripture and Tradition on the need for worthy reception of Holy Communion. The clear instruction of Pope Benedict XVI, written as Cardinal Ratzinger, deserves to be reiterated and needs to be better taught and applied with clarity and charity:
The practice of indiscriminately presenting oneself to receive Holy Communion, merely as a consequence of being present at Mass, is an abuse that must be corrected (2004 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Memo to Cardinal McCarrick, # 1).

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Lord Remembers. . .

Sermon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, preached on Sunday, June 24, 2018.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  The name John means the Lord is gracious. Two names that mark the beginning of the Gospel’s fruition.  Zechariah means the Lord remembers and the Lord did remember the shame of Eden and the promise to Adam and Eve.  The Lord did remember Abraham and His promise to build a nation from one man and one woman.  The Lord did remember Moses and the promise to deliver His people from their slavery and deliver them to a new land of promise.  The Lord did remember judges and kings who ruled as types of the King who would sit on David’s throne forever.  The Lord did remember the promise of the Temple, the House of His presence where sacrifice prefigured the promise and where prayers and praise were offered to the One who was to come.  The Lord did remember the prophets who came without warning, without welcome and often with disdain by a people who had become too comfortable living with God.  The Lord did remember as Israel became a nation captive to foreign armies and making its peace with enemies, no longer hoping for triumph.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people had forgotten.  The things of their past and the time of their present had become routine and ordinary.  God had become a distant God and the rituals of the Temple were no longer accompanied with the hope and expectation of the Messiah.  The people had forgotten the God who could not forget them and whose remembrance of their sin, their death, and their destruction called to Him for redemption long after the voices of the people were silent.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people had forgotten the promise of grace and settled into a pragmatic religion of works that made sense.  Do good and good would be done to you.  A God who could be bought off by works or even perhaps by intentions was not the God who remembered His people but it was the God the people had become comfortable with and the only God they knew.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people had forgotten there was nothing in the blood of oxen or goats or even a lamb without blemish that could atone for sin, that this blood had power only because it promised the blood to come that had the power to cleanse a dirty people from their sins and made the clean, wrapped in the robe of a righteousness not their own, to eat and drink the sacrifice as the heavenly food for a mortal people.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people were not watching or waiting and so when the first sign of the new day of salvation dawned, they saw only an old man and an old lady surprised

by an unexpected pregnancy.  They saw only an elderly priest who has some sort of fit and not the sign that this day had dawned with the promise of the ages ready to unfold right there before them.  They shrugged off the strangeness of what happened to Zechariah and went with their lives while a mute priest pondered the angelic word.

    On the day Zechariah took his turn to offer the daily sacrifice, the lambs were killed, their blood drained and spilled upon the altar, and his feet were cleansed.  Wearing the breast plate of judgment upon his chest with the stones of the twelve tribes upon it, Zechariah was presented with a coal from the fire and a bowl of incense so that he could enter the Holy of Holies.  He went in alone to pray for the people of God.  Smoke ascended as a sign of God’s favor.  Zechariah came out to give the Levitical blessing. All of this had taken place in silence and the benediction that we hear every Sunday was to be the first spoken word.  But Zechariah could not say anything.  He had met the angel in the holy place and was made mute.

    For nine months Zechariah was silent, reduced to scrawling a few words on a wax tablet.  All the while the child grew in the womb of his wife Elizabeth.  Zechariah means the Lord remembers but the people could whisper mocking words against the silent old man and his wife without child until the twilight of their lives when no one had a child.  They could have wondered if this was a sign but they did not.  They were too busy gossiping about it.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  While Zechariah sat in silence and Israel whispered, Elizabeth receives a visit from her cousin Mary and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps.  Elizabeth responds with joy that the mother of her Lord would come to her.  It was an amazing meeting – an old lady whose womb had the surprise of a child and a virgin also with child.  Somebody might have seen that God was doing something. 

    When the child was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, suddenly his tongue was freed and he spoke.  “His name shall be called John.”  John means the Lord is gracious.  And then, when a man who had been mute for 9 months finally speaks, from his lips comes the song of praise that marks this child for his destiny as the forerunner of the Messiah, the prophet to prepare His way.  Zechariah’s blessing to the people came in form of a canticle we sing with him.  The Lord has visited and redeemed His people.  Our savior from our enemies, the fulfilled of the promise to Abraham, the Most High God has come to shine the light of His grace upon a people unworthy and undeserving.

    The Lord has remembered His promise even though His people forgot.  The Lord remembered His mercy even though His people deserved nothing of His kindness.  God has kept the promise of Zechariah’s name and delivered up the prophet who stands between the covenants of history to prepare His way.  And God has become His own people’s Savior, coming in flesh and blood to serve and suffer, to deliver and die, to redeem and give rebirth to those dead in trespasses and sin.  John means the Lord is gracious and the graciousness of the Lord comes in the new name under heaven and on earth by which any and all will be saved, the blessed name of Jesus.  And this is the name that John came to serve and the name that is raised up on the cross to draw all people to Himself.  This name, you dare not forget.

    So we come today to lay claim to the One who fulfills the promise of His name.  Jesus means He will save His people.  The Lord has remembered, the Lord is gracious, and
the Lord has saved His people.  It is a trinity of names that are not without meaning and not without hope to a people who too often surrender their hope to make peace with the situations and circumstances of this mortal life.  We are ready to live with death as long as it comes to us when we are ready for it and we are ready to live with sin as long as we all keep our secrets but God remembers, God is gracious, and God has saved us through His Son.

    Names have meanings.  We often forget that.  Zechariah means the Lord remembers. To an aged priest beginning to do his priestly duty in the Temple, that name became prophetic.  Even when His people forget, the Lord cannot.  Today is the nativity of St. John the Baptist, the only other person on the church’s calendar remembered on his birthday.  That day proved to be the fulfillment of Zechariah’s name.  John means the Lord is gracious.  When the Lord should remember only our sin, He remembers us in love.  John came to announce the One to whom all the Law and Prophets looked, the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Jesus means He will save His people.  And in that name we meet the God who came down from on high to deliver His captive people from the guilt of their sins, the debt of punishment those sins accrued, the captivity to the Devil, and the death that held their lives prisoner.

     We wring our hands in fear and whine in complaint that God has forgotten us, ignored us, left us alone to our own devices, and abandoned us in our hour of need.  It is never God who forgets.  We are the ones who forget.  The Lord remembers.  He does not ignore anything, not even our sins but forgives them, does not leave us without His Word and Spirit, and has promised to be a very present help in time of need.  Would that everyone of us wore Zechariah's name (the Lord remembers) and just may be we would know the peace of John's name (the Lord is gracious) and the joy of Jesus' name (He saves His people).

    What can we say but “Thanks be to God!”  What can we do but remember what the Lord has done, how He has kept His Word, how He has fulfilled the promise of the names:  Zechariah, John, and most of all Jesus.  Teach it to your children, pray it together in your homes, and do not neglect the meeting together of God’s people around His Word and Table where we are reminded of the promise given and fulfilled in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Journey of the Good Shepherd. . .

I would assume that for hundreds of years, perhaps longer, the third Sunday of Easter (second Sunday after Easter) was Good Shepherd Sunday and, for those Lutherans using the one year lectionary, it still is.  Even in Rome there is this disconnect.  Since the three year series has moved Good Shepherd Sunday to the fourth Sunday of Easter (third Sunday after Easter).  I had been curious to find out why this move took place but had never bothered to research it.  Now there is an answer of sorts. the three year lectionary was invented by Rome (and everyone else followed, for good or for ill), it was in Rome that the answer, of sorts, is to be found.  It seems that there was much debate over this when the calendar was being reformed.  In the end, the decision was made to keep Good Shepherd Sunday on the Sunday it had always been.  But then, you might ask, how did we end up with the Sunday moved one week later in the three year calendar?

In July of 1966 the situation was thus:

The apparitions of the risen Christ must occupy the principal place. Currently they are read on Easter Sunday, the six days of Easter week, and on Low Sunday. Two possibilities may be considered here.  The first proposal is that the six Gospel readings in Easter week be kept in their traditional locations.

The alternative proposal is that these same Gospels be read on Easter Sunday (Mark, Luke, John) and the 1st Sunday after Easter/2nd Sunday of Easter (the other three readings from John). The pericope of the Good Shepherd then ought to be transferred from the 2nd Sunday after Easter to the 3rd Sunday after Easter/4th Sunday of Easter...

Concerning this dual proposition, the opinions in the Coetus and among the relators were diverse. The second proposal has the advantage that the different accounts of the apparitions are read on Sundays and would, therefore, be made known to the people, which currently does not happen; the disadvantage is that, in this way, the same pericope is not always read on Easter Sunday, and that the Gospel of the Good Shepherd, as well as Good Shepherd Sunday, must be transferred to the week following, which does not please several [members].
But in the end, the alternative was dismissed.  So the proposal accepted by the Fathers of the Consilium was that Good Shepherd Sunday should remain in its traditional location, as the 3rd Sunday of Easter (2nd Sunday after Easter).  In July 1967, the proposal distributed to every episcopal conference, the participants of the first Synod of Bishops, and around 800 periti (biblical scholars, liturgists, pastors, etc.), that Good Shepherd Sunday is in its traditional location.  However, two years later, when the typical edition of the Ordo lectionum Missae was promulgated in 1969, Good Shepherd Sunday ended up having been moved to the 4th Sunday of Easter, with the accounts of Our Lord’s appearances to the disciples at Emmaus (Years A and B) and at the Sea of Tiberius (Year C) read on the 3rd Sunday of Easter.

Why?  According to Annibale Bugnini, it was thought that the Good Shepherd them interrupted the sequence of resurrection appearances and so the 1967 Ordo was “radically revised” in early 1968 on the basis of 460 responses received from the Bishops and periti who were given a copy.  So, apparently the concilium charged with the reform came to one conclusion and, after how many responses we do not know, the decision was made to change the lectionary.  Of course, that sheds so much light on the matter.  What is does reveal is that at the time so many things were in a state of flux and the changes were coming so fast that they were accepted almost without thought and so we ended up with the one year and three year lectionaries out of sync in Lutheranism and in Rome and it has, apparently, been going on too long now to do anything about it.

Read it all here:  A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990).  For if ever there was someone who was making things happen, it was Annibale Bugnini and, it seems, even Paul VI did not know what was going on in the reforms that have become his convoluted legacy.  And that is, perhaps, the only real reason we have for why the choice of the larger group was overruled and Good Shepherd Sunday in the three year lectionary ended up on a different Sunday than the one year lectionary.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Is the Lutheran option viable? must admit that it is a tantalizing question.  Rome has both bellied up to Luther and distanced itself from him.  Unfortunately, so have the Lutherans.  In the wake of the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses, Lutherans have spent a goodly amount of time letting people know where they think Luther was wrong and where Luther needs to be clearly and unequivocally rejected (think Luther and the Jews here).  In some respects, we are not sure what to do with Luther or which Luther we like best.  He can be irritatingly, shall we say, earthy.  He can be mind numbingly long winded.  He can be strangely contradictory.  He can be unfailingly bold.  He can be catholic.  He can be Protestant.  He can be conservative.  He can be radical.  Is he the young Luther or the Luther of middle age or the old Luther?  Such is the pursuit of academics attempting to systematize Luther and make him consistent (or consistently boring).  As important as Luther is to the Lutherans (indeed to all Christians and to history itself), the Lutheran Church is not bound to his every word.  We are bound to the Concordia, to the Book of Confessions.  Luther is certainly a voice in those confessions and a figure who looms large over them but his writings are not the equivalent of the Book of Concord.

The next problem for Lutherans is what to do with the Book of Concord.  We have argued for a very long time around Latin terms (quia and quatenus) because or insofaras.  But perhaps the greater problem for us Lutherans is that our people are largely ignorant of these confessions so important that they inhabit the primary and unalterable articles of our constitutions and the pledges to them essential to both ordinations and installations of our clergy.  How impactful can they be when we as a church body know them more by myth and legend than by sight or experience?  This is even more true for clergy who promise fidelity to documents that they have read perhaps only once for a class and do not view as the guiding or boundaries words for them and their ministries.  So if there is to be a viable Lutheran option it must be, well, Lutheran and it must flow from the foundational documents to which we have bound ourselves -- both on the level of the clergy and those in the congregations.

Along with this is the question of whether they describe or prescribe both faith and practice.  There are many, even so-called conservatives, who insist that some, perhaps much, of what is proclaimed is descriptive of the Lutherans at the time and does not prescribe a practice that we ought to follow today.  Herein lies the issue of the weekly Eucharist, the use of the liturgy, the church year, vestments, ceremonies, etc.  While not really things indifferent, adiaphora have sparked more battles among us than the things that cannot be wished away or redefined.  Yet even here remains a real question.  Is the issue of the weekly Eucharist and the liturgy the same kind of question as vestments or how rich or simple the ceremonial that accompanies the Divine Service?  Even some conservatives would insist that it is all wide open and rules cannot be written regarding their use even while they would affirm that these are indeed salutary.

While we are at it, the Lutherans also wrestle with those things that were not issues in the 16th century and so were not addressed directly within those confessional documents.  While no one but an ignorant fool would challenge the idea that Luther and his followers presumed marriage of one man and one woman, that homosexual behavior was disordered and sinful, and that gender was not an indefinite concept defined by the individual, Lutherans have come down on different sides in modern times.  Some might delight in writing off the more liberal brand as not really Lutheran but clearly they outnumber the confessional variety (at least in North America and Europe).  Whether or not African Lutherans will swing the balance toward the confessional stance is a promising hope but not a certainty at this point.  For now we Lutherans will have to deal with a landscape in which to those outside of Lutheranism the brand is socially and theological liberal.  It may be a complaint of Missouri and Wisconsin and others that this is not the only form of Lutheranism but it is clear the numbers remain on the side of the Lutherans on the left.

Finally there is the issue of declining numbers.  Whether you are in the ELCA and have seen a radical decline or in Missouri and seen a nominal decline, it is clear that the largest Lutheran body in America is those who used to be Lutheran (not all that different from many other denominational situations).  Congregations are growing smaller but that is not the kind of growth that is sustainable.  The ability of those congregations to maintain an full-time educated clergy is highly debated among us.  The Lutheran birth rate is down about where it is for those who are not religious and this is not a good sign for churches that have historically depended upon growth through progeny.  While few Lutherans are in the dark about the bleak forecast for our future, Lutherans passionately debate whether this can be rectified by being more Lutheran or less (with the less side seeming to be stronger now).

So, that might make you think I was pessimistic about our future.  I am not.  I believe that Lutheranism is viable not because we are doing a great job of making it viable but because this is the shape of catholic and evangelical faith.  The Lutheran faith is in a stronger position than Lutheran jurisdictions and congregations.  Rome is not in an enviable position.  Orthodoxy isn't either.  Protestantism is in chaos.  Evangelicalism has become the domain of charlatans and is a sham of its once serious theological self.   I am not sure that you can say that any of these as a faith is in a stronger position than its jurisdictions and congregations.  Rome has the papacy for good or for ill and right now it is for ill.  Orthodoxy is more an ethnic reflection than one of faith.  Protestantism has caved in for lack of a real confession.  Evangelicalism is more interested in numbers than faithfulness to Scripture, creed, or confession.  I feel like Peter.  "Lord, where can I go?"

So the end result is this.  The Lutherans are correct.  Where the Gospel is purely proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered, there is the Spirit calling, gathering, and enlightening the Church.  Rome has been reformed over and over again and it has not corrected the abuses or the ills that Luther saw in his day or the cracks that Francis has made in its structure.  To rush to Orthodoxy requires a culture transplant and without the ethnicity one remains somewhat on the outside and the curious problem of what to do with all the time that has passed since the last ecumenical council.    I do not consider Protestantism or Evangelicalism worth a second look.  So I will stick with Lutheranism and hope and pray that the Lutherans will give up their self-doubt and their isolationism and their tendency to borrow whatever seems to work from whomever appears successful in the moment, and try being Lutheran according to their Confessions.  I will cast my lot in which those who are Lutheran heavy and not Lutheran lite (not because they hang on every word of Luther but because the Confessions do not merely describe a moment in time but expect and anticipate that those who confess like them will practice like them).  Missouri is the last and best hope for Lutheranism in America and the African Lutherans seem to be coming to this judgment as well.  So for all our problems, I am not ready to swim away.  Even if Lutheran jurisdictions wither and die, Lutheranism will continue to survive.  I just wish we Lutherans believed it enough to take it seriously on every level of our identity.

Now let me say, without equivocation, that the Lutherans cannot return to a pristine moment in time or look backward to find our anchor.  The Confessions are not true simply in a historical sense but confess for then and now a faith that does not change.  We cannot be our grandpa's church and face the future but neither can we be out of step with that past.  We must face where we are and the issues before us and address them with the same confidence in our Confessions as did those of other times and places.  Our future lies with a church renewed by her confessions, revitalized by the efficacious Word that accomplishes the purpose for which the Lord sends it, shaped by the Sacraments that deliver what they sign -- real presence and not a symbol alone, and a hope that compels us to live this new life as a holy vocation in but not of the world, doing the good that God has called us to do because of the good He has shown to us in Christ.  When we begin doing that, our future will change.  Yet, in any case, it is not institutional survival that is our goal but to live under Him in His Kingdom now and forevermore.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Extremism in defense of. . .

I am old enough to remember Barry Goldwater saying, in the midst of the 1964 campaign for President of the US, that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.  Actually I was so moved by his campaign that I put some Goldwater bumper stickers on cars parked in front of my father's place of business -- something that I learned was a good intention gone awry.  Strangely, we generally only remember the front half of that quote.  The rest of it being "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." have to remember that 1964 we lived in the after math of the Berlin blockade and with the Berlin Wall, still wounded by the assassination of President Kennedy, facing the uncertain future of communist aggression and the start up of the Viet Nam war, as well as racial tensions that threatened to divide our nation.  It seemed to me that Goldwater was just the fellow we needed then.  In any case, I was too young to vote and was barely even a foot soldier in the cause for which he stood.

The quote has stuck with me but in part because the landscape has changed so profoundly and with it the quote itself.  Extremism in defense of liberty may be called a vice in our present age but extremism in the causes du jour of liberalism is, apparently, no vice at all.  We have seen a Roman Catholic university dismiss a conservative tenured professor for violating a right guaranteed to us as citizens and to him within the definitions of academic freedom.  We have also seen Kevin Williamson fired from the Atlantic ostensibly because his extremism was on the wrong side.  He has identified this as symptomatic of progressivism’s intolerance and hypocrisy.   According to Williamson, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, cheerfully published the pugilistic Christopher Hitchens, but could not tolerate Williamson. “Hitchens was in the family,” Goldberg says baldly. “You are not.” In other words, it is not the extremism that Atlantic objected to but the direction of that extremism.  Williamson was fired from the Atlantic not because he was extreme, but because he was extreme in the wrong way [his was the defense of the pro-life position].

I am not at all suggesting that we should be as extreme, irritating, or as in your face as some authors have been (on either sidee) but I am pointing out to the hypocrisy that once presumed some objectivity on the part of the media and now shows that there is a real and not imagined bias against positions that violate the accepted liberal line of politics, religion, morality, and truth.  It seems that we live at a time when not advocating the correct politics, religion, morality, or truth will get you fired.  In other words, we live at a time when censorship in pursuit of the liberal line is alive and well.  If and when the day comes when no other views but the accepted views of the majority (or at least the liberal elite) will be heard, we will have seen the fulfillment of Orwell's fear in Animal Farm and 1984.  It may have taken longer that Orwell predicted for some to be more equal than others or some truth to be found intolerable, but that day has arrived in the public square.  And, as I have written here before, one can only wonder how long it will be before the right of free speech and freedom of religion will find limits depending upon what is said and what is proclaimed.  In the end, the powers that be will attempt to muzzle God the way out of season voices have been silenced in the public square.  It is then we will see if the faithful and their leaders have the backbone to resist and choose faithfulness to the Lord over the acceptance of their peers.

All of this has not only great bearing upon the state of religion in America but the religious enterprise.  Here I am thinking of the ability of churches to maintain colleges, universities, and even parochial schools in the face of a context that abhors what they stand for.  It might be nice to go the way of a Hillsdale College and disassociate yourself from government funds and their strings but nearly every educational institution receives something from the government even if it passes through the hands of the student first (student loans and grants).  Eventually there will be rules to define who can receive that money and who cannot -- rules that will effectively force the churches to decide if they can afford to do it without the government money or if they have to given in or close the doors.  That day is coming.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Interesting. . .

The Costume Institute's spring 2018 exhibition—at The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters—will feature a dialogue between fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine fashion's ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.

Serving as the cornerstone of the exhibition, papal robes and accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside The Vatican, will be on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Fashions from the early twentieth century to the present will be shown in the Byzantine and medieval galleries, part of the Robert Lehman Wing, and at The Met Cloisters.

Still time. . . on through October 10, 2018. . . 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Female Orthodox Deacons. . .

Apparently Orthodoxy is serious studying and debating the issue of a female diaconate.  Perhaps you might find some of it interesting.  In any case, it is clear that though this is about sources, people are picking and choosing from those sources to further their own point of view. . .
You can read it here first. . .

The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess advocates for the reinstitution of the ordained order of deaconesses for the benefit of the Orthodox Church today. We also appreciate that this is a significant issue that prompts a range of opinions, and we consider it to be part of our work to promote empirically grounded conversation.

Unfortunately, distortions and misrepresentations of the historical record, as well as fallacies about the interest in renewing the female diaconate, have been propagated by some of those opposed to deaconesses. Furthermore, when making their case, some detractors misunderstand and misrepresent the ecclesiology, history, and theology of the Church.

Correction of these errors is necessary for honest dialogue. By no means exhaustive, this article by the St. Phoebe Center Board provides solid historical and theological information about the diaconate by theme. We undertake this project with humility, knowing that while we offer up our own efforts, the Holy Spirit is also at work.
Those on the other side have their own view of the issue.  You might take a gander here. . . 
Those contending for the creation of a new order of women clergy in the Orthodox Church under the guise of restoring the ancient order of deaconess (such as those at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess) make up in tenacity what they lack in historical balance. Their recent piece in the Public Orthodoxy site makes a number of statements and claims about the ancient order of deaconess. These statements are not so much false as incomplete. By adding to the picture what they deliberately omit, one can know (in the immortal words of Paul Harvey) “the rest of the story”.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

It's no wonder. . .

The old joke has the Christmas and Easter attender telling the pastor he needs a new schtick since every time the fellow comes to church the pastor is preaching about the birth or resurrection of Jesus.  It is old but not that far off.  I have had people say we talk way too much about sin and forgiveness and I have had folks suggest that people would be more likely to attend if sermons were more practical -- how to achieve your goals was one subject offered. truth is that the conversation in the public square is more and more regulated.  The threat of hate speech looms large over those would venture to disagree with the politically correct line on just about anything.  While some think it will never come to the point of the speech within the church being regulated as such, we may not be that far off.  California is looking at extending the prohibition of so-called gay conversion therapy to other media that promotes this now forbidden idea. The California State Assembly passed a bill that would outlaw “the sale or lease of goods or services to any consumer” that “includes efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex” (whatever "goods" mean).  There are more and more voices insisting that the First Amendment may not protects homophobic expression.  If it becomes any more forbidden, the church may be the only public place where it is allowed but how long will churches suffer being a pariah for a stance that many have deemed a losing battle?

If this is the case and the confines of religious public free speech is restricted only to the church building, it will mean that many of the voices challenging the ascendant liberal causes will be effectively shut out of the debate.  It seems that Democrats may have an unofficial list of promoted causes (and therefore also the banned causes) that will define them in the future.  Their heavy hitting financial backers have decided that the party ought to pursue (on top of support for same sex marriage, abortion, and gender freedom):  free universal healthcare, free college tuition, and reparations to atone for slavery (in addition to legalizing marijuana).  It seems that in order to be Democrat you have your platform made for you.  Whether or not you agree with these ideas, the point made is that these are the Democratic positions on these issues.

The point is this.  The political atmosphere is more and more pointed, the positions more and more monolithic, and the practical outcome of it all is that these are the only positions on the issues which are being allowed.  The old cover of religious freedom may not be enough to sustain a public voice that does not echo the party line.  And this soon becomes the expectation of people who go to church.  They have begun to believe that the church should mirror back to them their already existing positions and not argue with them.  In other words, the church is tolerant only in the sense that some things will not be tolerated.  Apart from this the churches are about as welcome in some places as Chick-Fil-a.   If corporate offices can be made to toe the line, how long will churches survive the threats?  Remember that it did not take more than a day before Starbucks shut down its operations for sensitivity training.  Many are wondering when and if the church will get the hint.

All I am saying is this.  If we think the marketplace of ideas is still free, we are deluding ourselves.  Whatever else may be true, this is the case.  The political media and its liberal leadership have figured out that shaming the voices against you is just as -- if not more -- effective than fighting the battles out in words and debate in the public arena.  Our ideas do not have to lose, only to be discredited or tarnished against the moral compass of the day.

Consider this from Concordia Publishing House:

This morning, we learned that Google ads will no longer accept anything related to the domain. They stated that the reason is because of the faith we express on our website. He was told, as an example, that things like our Bible challenge on our VBS webpage would clearly need to come down before they could consider us for ads.Incredibly sobering and disappointing. It is an uphill battle but our mission and customers are worth it. It is why we are here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The turn of a phrase. . . adultery.  I am not sure where I first read it or heard it.  I wish I knew the source.  It is a phrase first used to describe cohabitation and those who have divorced and remarried outside the sacramental veil of Rome.  It is not only applicable to the Roman circumstances in which it was given birth.  It is a rich phrase that reminds us of something we too often forget.  Adultery is certainly forgivable, as is any sin against the commandments of God, but habitual adultery is itself something different.  It seeks not forgiveness but approval, not an absolution but an acknowledgement that it is not really a sin at all.

Habitual adultery is done by those who think their situation irregular but not immoral and who believe the fault lies not with them but with the commandment.  Either it is a wrong requirement or else it is a requirement impossible to fulfill -- in either case, it can be ignored and one must only wait for the time when the Church will catch up to where culture already is.

Habitual sin is a different problem than sin.  I am not here speaking of how in weakness we commit the same sins over and over again but rather how we set ourselves up to only sin -- not in weakness but because we believe it is an error to call it a sin.  Much of what we see in the world around us that challenges the morality of the Scriptures is less a challenge to sin but an insistence upon the habitual sin being justified and approved.

In a world intent upon sexual liberty, the free access to contraception and to reproductive technology when it suits them, and the right to abort the life within the womb, we do not simply face sin but the habitual sin that is convinced it is no sin at all.  The answer to this cannot be absolution.  The answer to this cannot be equivocation.  The answer to this must be the clear and resounding voice of the Law to bring about true and honest repentance.  Then absolution may apply and the sinner find the clear conscience he or she thought you could obtain by redefining the sin as no sin at all.

The Scriptures presume that Christians have will power, have the ability to practice self-control -- if not perfectly still the intent and ability with the aid of the Spirit to rein in the desires within.  Sin is certainly no mere habit that is corrected by retraining but retraining in righteousness is certainly key to living as the children of God we are by baptism and faith.  Habitual sin and this life of righteousness cannot live together.  Something will have to give.

Something to think about. . . so have at it folks. . . 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

An Insignificant Seed. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 4, Proper 6B, preached on Sunday, June 17, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

               Seemingly small and insignificant things can become very significant.  For example, planting one small apple seed can in time produce a tree that will supply people with fruit for many years to come.  This is how it is with God’s kingdom.  The kingdom of God, the only kingdom that spans all space and time, grows from what we might consider small and insignificant things: the seed of Christ; the seed of His very Word and Sacraments.
               Scripture is ripe with imagery that compares God and His Word to seeds and growth.  Is 55 (:10-11) says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  In the first parable of Jesus that Mark records, the famous Parable of the Sower, where the farmer throws seeds on all types of ground, Jesus explained that the seed is God’s Word.
               Seeds seem to be insignificant to us, at least they do to me.  I understand they’re important, that we need them to grow food and flowers, but I don’t really think much about them, and I would venture to guess that most of us don’t.  Visually speaking, seeds aren’t impressive.  They’re small.  Seeds are cheap.  You can buy a pack of seeds from Walmart for a few bucks.  Seeds don’t excite us, they’re just there; a normal, common, underwhelming thing.  You could say we have a blasé attitude towards seeds.  Unfortunately, we often have this same blasé attitude toward God’s seeds. 
               We don’t think much about God’s Word.  We’re unimpressed by His Sacraments.  For us, these seeds seem insignificant.  What’s baptism but a little bit of water poured on a person’s head?  What’s the Lord’s Supper but a tiny bit of bread and a sip of wine?  What’s God’s Word but an old book written thousands and thousands of years ago in a culture that’s no longer relevant?  This is the attitude we often have toward God’s Word and Sacraments.  They’re just normal, common, underwhelming things.  They don’t excite us.  We don’t look forward to them.  We see them and say “Meh.”  But these means of grace aren’t normal.  They’re not common, and they’re most certainly not underwhelming.  These means of grace are miracles.  They’re how the Lord comes to you, how He gives you His very uncommon grace.  Through these seeds He makes His kingdom grow as He brings you into His kingdom, sheltered by the Tree of Life, sheltered by Christ’s cross. 
               In Jesus’ parables today, He uses the imagery of seed and growth to explain what God does in His kingdom.  In the Parable of the Seed Growing, Jesus tells the story of a man who scatters seeds on the ground and then lets them be.  Having planted, the man goes about his daily routine, sleeping and waking.  He doesn’t do anything else to the seed.  All on its own it begins to grow.  First the blade, then the ear, and then finally full grain, ripe and ready for harvest.  Jesus speaks this parable to illustrate how it is in God’s kingdom. 
               The kingdom of God grows in the very same way, without our help.  God increases His kingdom when He converts them, when in faith they turn to Christ, trusting in His death and resurrection for their life and salvation.  This faith isn’t the product of anything we do.  It’s a product of God alone, a product of His seeds, His very Word that proclaims the Good News of Christ.
               God’s Word is a powerful Word.  It’s a significant life-giving Word.  In the beginning God created all things by speaking His word.  God gives life, He gives everlasting life, to all those in His kingdom through the Word Incarnate, through His Son, Jesus Christ.
None of us have life in and of ourselves.  None of us decide for ourselves to be born.  We’re given life by God through our parents.  And even then, we’re still not alive, because we’re dead in our trespasses and sins. This is the truth of God’s Word.  Throughout Scripture, God is clear, there’s no life in sin.  When our first parents sinned, the plunged themselves and all of God’s creation into death.  From that point on, all of us were conceived in sin.  All of us were born into death.  And yet, God overcomes this death with life through His Son and the Tree of Life, the cross of Christ. 
For many, the cross has become insignificant.  We see crosses everywhere, and we think of it as a neutral symbol.  The cross is simply a shape that looks nice on necklaces and T-shirts and bumper stickers.  But the cross of Christ isn’t an insignificant shape.  The cross is the very place where Jesus redeemed the world.  On the cross, Christ saved the world from sin.  He died the death of sin so God could bring sinners to life in His kingdom.  Jesus made the cross, what was meant to be a tree of death, into the Tree of Life.  And this Tree shelters all people, including you and me.
               Jesus’ second parable today is about the shelter of God’s kingdom.  Christ says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?  It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mk 4:30-32).  The mustard seed is the smallest seed.  Looking at it, you’d say it was insignificant...and yet...through it a significant tree grows, sheltering birds from the hot and harsh sun.  That’s how it is in God’s kingdom.  The branches of the Tree of Life shelter God’s faithful people from the hot and harsh condemnation of sin and death.  The cross of Christ saves them, and it saves each and every one of you. 
               You’re brought under the shelter of Christ’s cross.  You’re brought into the kingdom of God through the seemingly insignificant seeds of God’s Word and Sacraments.  By that little bit of water poured over your head, water that’s combined with God’s life giving Word, you received God’s uncommon grace, a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.  This new birth isn’t a birth into death, but birth into the life of Christ.  By the seed of God’s Word, your faith in Christ grows as you hear His Gospel, as you hear His Absolution, as you hear everything your Lord has done for you and your salvation.  And through the seed of His Supper, the eating and drinking of Jesus’ very body and blood, your faith is nourished and strengthened to trust in Him for salvation, strengthened to receive His grace and forgiveness, strengthened to serve Him and others with love.
               The kingdom of God grows from the seed of Christ our Lord.  What appears to be an insignificant cross is actually the Tree of Life that shelters all from the judgement of sin and death.  Through the cross of Christ you are saved.  You’re brought into the shelter of His kingdom in seemingly insignificant ways, through His Word and HIs Sacraments.  From this seed, you receive the very significant fruit of everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.