Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Christ is in your boat. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 10, Proper 12B, preached on Sunday, July 29, 2018.

    I don’t know how it was when you grew up, but in my childhood home we cleaned up the house when folks came to visit.  This did not mean only dusting off the furniture and floors but also hiding away all conflicts and troubles and making nice toward everyone.  Perhaps we do that less today.  Social media seems to offer us a forum to expose all that once would have been hidden away.  It is as if we flaunt our faults and advertise our feelings – no matter what they are.
    Surely we face the same temptations before God.  Do we hide away all that is not right with us or do we admit all that is wrong.  It is our torture not only to suffer but also not to know what to do with what tortures us.  For what tortures us is not simply one thing or another but often it is so woven into the fabric of who we are that life is torture.  We do not simply go through rough patches, life itself is rough and tumble.  Faith does not ease the path but makes it more difficult.  That comes as no surprise to Christians.
    We live at a time when people delight in ridiculing what we believe, challenging the idea that God is good since He seems to allow all sorts of evil, and then insisting that what God says should be changed when people change their minds about sex or gender or who should be married.  The truth is that life can be torturous and faith itself can be a torture in a world so obviously unfriendly to the cause of Christ.
    But then we would find ourselves exactly where the disciples were when they headed out in a boat.  They were tortured by a crowd that left them not a moment of peace and they were tortured by Jesus and things they just did not get, much less a Savior who seemed intent upon finding a cross rather than escaping from it.  There in the boat they were making torturously slow progress for the wind was against them.  Does that sound familiar?  Do you ever feel like you are in that boat?  I do.
    And then there is another line in the Gospel for today.  It is a terrible line.  I cringed reading it and I expect you cringed hearing it.  Jesus is out there walking on the stormy seas that very nearly drowning them and it says “He meant to pass them by.”  Surely that is one of our greatest fears and perhaps the worst torture of all – God walks by ignoring us in our moments of weakness, terror, and fear.  Who wants a God like this?  We feel alone enough in this world without a God who leaves us to our misery.
    They cried out.  Who would not?  It would have better been a ghost than a God who walks by leaving people in their tortured moments.  But in their cry someone amazing happens.  Jesus stops and speaks.  They called and He answered them.
    “Take heart,” He says.  “It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The Lord did not pass them by.  He did not ignore their plight.  He was not oblivious to their tortured lives.  He was not aloof from their troubles.  He did not hide Himself from their wounds.  He did not look away from their sins.  He did not run from their death.  He was with them in the storm and He brought to their fears the power of His peace and the comfort of His mercy.
    Just as then, the Lord is with us.  We are not alone to wallow in our guilt or alone to hide in our fears or alone to find our way through life’s uncertainties.  We are not alone.  Christ is with us.  And we shall never be alone.  He has bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  He has suffering in our place for sin.  He has borne the stripes of our punishment that we might be healed.  He died to kill death once for all.  Take heart, you people of God, beloved of the Lord, the Lord is on YOUR side.  Do not be afraid.
    Two weeks ago we heard the prophet Amos testify to the promise of the Lord: “I will not pass you by.”  Abraham begged the three strangers that God would not pass him by and the Lord did not.  Moses saw God as the Lord most high passed and the great patriarch saw a glimpse of God’s glory.  We look up and before us upon the cross we see the Lord.  He could not pass by our sins nor could He pass by our death.  He was determined to take them both upon Himself and this He did that we might never be alone.
    We do not have a glimpse of His glory to console us but the full picture of His mercy.  We do not have a hint of His feelings but the Word of His promise to be our hope and our peace.  Yet even this can confound and confuse us.  We want to see with our eyes instead by faith.  We desire a hint of glory more that the presence of the Lord within the storms of our lives.  The disciples were astounded that God would come to them in this way and they looked back on the loaves multiplied and the people healed and wondered if they knew Jesus at all.  And maybe you have felt the same way.
    Then when it seems things could not get worse, they crossed over and all the needy people were waiting there on the other side – the sick running to Jesus for healing, the untouchables looking to touch Him, and the sinners seeking a God bigger than their sins.  In the end, it was not like they thought, not what they expected, and not what they had hoped for.  It would be a struggle all the way to Calvary and then to the Garden of the Empty Tomb and then to Pentecost.  What kind of God do we have?  But finally they would see. . . not with eyes but with faith.  And they would know the mercy of God not as reason to explain life but as hope that erupts in life’s worst moments. 
    And they would find comfort not in an ideal but in a reality so profound and powerful that even the wind and waves could not withstand Him, sin that would be erased by the power of His blood, and death that would have to stand aside because of the power of His life.  The challenge for you and for me is this.  Is it enough for God to be with us in our troubles and trials?  Is it enough for God to know the torments of our lives and the torturous moments that seem to hide behind every happiness?  Is it enough for Jesus to have gone for us into the suffering of the cross and to have laid His head upon the bed of our death?  Is it enough that the future which has been written for us is hidden until the Lord deems it right to reveal it to us?  Is faith enough?
    Jesus is in the boat with you.  Whether you see Him or not.  Whether the storm goes away or merely calms for a moment.  Whether you find happiness or merely know the contentment of His grace and favor.  Whether you find a smile in the storm or grit your teeth all the way to the other side.  Jesus is in your boat.  So take heart. . . and, to borrow a phrase:  Carry on.  Carry the cross, deny yourself, and follow Him.  For though the world turn on you, Christ will not.  Though everyone else abandons you, Christ will not.  Do not be afraid.  The Lord is with you.  Amen.

More for Rome to worry about. . .

Historically, the numbers of priests in America has declined every year since 1970.  The numbers peaks at about that year.  Note the huge increase in priests in 1950 and how, within 20 years, that number was in decline.  Further, those ordained since 1970 will soon either retire or be too old to serve the increasing population of Roman Catholics.  Look at it this way:
  • In 1950, there was 1 priest to every 652 Catholics in the United States.
  • In 2010, there was 1 priest to every 1,653 Catholics in the United States.
  • In 2016, there was 1 priest to every 1,843 Catholics in the United States.

Take a look at another graph.  This one compares the number of priests to the number of Roman Catholics in the US over the past fifty years or so.  The tipping point came about 1983.

While this is true overall, some individual dioceses have different numbers.  Consider for example:
  • Diocese of Dallas: 1 priest to every 6,229 Catholics.
  • Diocese of Los Angeles: 1 priest to every 3,931 Catholics.
  • Diocese of New York: 1 priest to every 2,055 Catholics.
  • Diocese of Chicago: 1 priest to every 1,624 Catholics.
Meanwhile consider my old home state and the diocese that exceeds the 1950 national ratio of priests to people:
  • Diocese of Lincoln: 1 priest to every 598 Catholics.
The numbers of Jesuits have declined nearly 42% since 1977.  That should be a personal thorn for Jesuit and Pope Francis.

No comment here but just pointing out some cliffs and wondering what Rome will do. . . 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Great wisdom. . .

In another place where discussion of the charges of abuse of a minor and general immorality against McCarrick (former Cardinal now resigned), some were suggesting that part of the punishment should be to be defrocked, or, to use another term laicized. There was a great deal of anger and frustration in the voices raised against the man accused and against those who seem to have known about it and ignored it.  I can understand it, I guess, although I am not in and have not been in similar circumstances.  I look at the whole thing from the vantage point of an outsider.  I listened but did not comment and yet I was compelled by the wisdom offered by one voice.

He said: Laicization is not the proper penalty.  It is not a disgrace to be a layman in the Church. 

How tempting it is to think of laicization as a penalty.  It is certainly true that to be suspended from priestly faculties, from episcopal office, or from higher office is a punishment due those who dishonor the office with their behavior.  Those who dishonor the office in certain ways cannot be allowed to hold the office and to fail to remove them from office would be to condone their conduct.  No one wants that.  Yet the punishment is not to be lay.  The punishment is to lose the office(s) once conferred upon that person but, as I was well reminded, it is not a disgrace to be a layman in the Church.  It is obvious but not so obvious we do not benefit from saying it again.  It is not a disgrace to be a layman in the Church.

So what would constitute a proper punishment?  Several things were mentioned although some may not be available.  One suggested a sort of penal monastic life, out of the public eye and with the rest of a person's life devoted to prayer, meditation, repentance, and the fruits of repentance.  Obviously Rome may still have such a place but few other traditions have something similar.  Other suggestions were similar -- banishment and complete removal from the public life of the Church.  Another reminded us of a more ancient possibility:  excommunication.  Now that would be something to capture notice -- especially since we seldom here of this used anymore.  To excommunicate is to hold the unrepentant accountable in the most profound and spiritual way.  I am not suggesting this but simply admitting that discipline: excommunication until articulum mortis.  The goal of this is not simply punishment and banishment from the sacramental life of the Church but to make it clear that this most serious sin must be answered with the most solemn call of the Church to repentance.

The modern times in which we live do not pay all that much attention to the seriousness of excommunication or to its consequences.  In other words, many folks simply shrug their shoulders and find another church or they use this as proof positive that the Church (and therefore God) is cold, aloof, judgmental, uncaring, and without compassion.  Since the threat is so seldom raised, the act of excommunication itself is like a toothless tiger.  I cannot help but wonder if restoring this ancient practice might send a grave warning to the leaders whose behavior has occasioned such rebuke or whose leadership failing has ignored these serious sins.  Surely Satan delights in the faults and failings of the most visible of church leaders!

But to get back to my point, being a layman is neither an insult nor a crime but a noble and honorable estate.  It does not deserve denigration nor should we treat the laity as if somehow there was some disgrace to their lack of churchly office.  Perhaps we have presumed this truth too long and need to say again and often that all the estates of the Lord are good, honorable, gracefilled, and worthy estates.  Husband, wife, parent, child, employer, employee, servant, slave, etc., have earthly attachments of honor or contempt to them but not in God's Word nor in His Church.  As Lutherans, this is one of the gifts and fruits of the Reformation -- the rediscovery of vocation (that does not apply simply or only to religious vocations or offices in the Church).  To be defrocked and therefore laicized is the requirement that Church owes to those who violate their calling and their duties as church leaders but it, in and of itself, is not the punishment.  We should not presume that removing the office is the end of the case for McCarrick or any whose scandalous life and conduct have cast shame upon the good and noble Church, betrayed the offices conferred to them in good faith, or are found guilty of false teaching.  No, there is much more the Church must do to those whose egregious behavior scandalizes the good work of the Church.  Making them laity again is a consequence of this moral failure but not its punishment.  And let us well remember those who, in complementary form, work in partnership to do the work God has called us to do, priest and people together.

Not as simple as it seems. . .

Europe is not as secular as it seems -- well, at least its people do not think so.  Survey says that more people think they are Christians than we thought.  But what does this mean?

It means that the situation is not as simple as some think and much more complex below the surface of the numbers.  Religious identity and practice are certainly both declining in Europe in measurable ways -- church attendance and beliefs among the top two markers.  That said, this does NOT mean that those who don't attend or who have rejected some or even most of the doctrines of their church bodies, consider themselves unChristian.  It proceeds even further.  The increasing numbers of the so-called "nones" are not blank slates but have retained some of the religion of their families and the culture.  It is not that they have no spiritual beliefs but a matter of how much of it is retained and what exactly has been incorporated into their identies and values. There is a murkiness and a profound complexity  hidden beneath any these figures.

In fact, that is the problem.  They consider themselves Christian but this is a Christianity divorced from the practice of worshiping together and from the body of dogma that the Church has confessed through the ages.  Yet the extent to which this is rejected varies among individuals and is not easily discerned by polling the populace.  Believing in a higher power has come to mean the same as believing in the God of the creeds.  Religious issues have come to be identified less as abortion and cohabitation and homosexuality and more as the hotbed political topics of immigration, national identity, and how to relate to the increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe.  What this may signal is that Christianity is fading as a cultural marker and becoming more an ethnic marker.  Those who claim to be Christian in Europe still do not say that religion plays an important role in their daily lives.  Their claim has become more ethnic than one of an actual faith, supported by doctrine and reflected in piety and lifestyle.  In fact, in the areas of values and life, those claiming to self-identity as Christians are not easily distinguishable from those who don't.

So what we are seeing is not simply that Christianity is fading away in Europe but that it is morphing into a more cultural and certainly ethnic identity and that dogma and piety are not essential to this identity.  To put it bluntly, the very idea of what is Christianity is changing.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

How do we look?

How do we look to those outside of Lutheranism?  I am thinking here primarily of Sunday morning.  Do we look like a gussied up version of typical American Protestantism or do we look like the casual, laid back evangelical style of non-denominational America or do we look pretty Catholic on Sunday morning?  The answer, I am afraid, is, It depends.

It just depends.  Some Lutherans look like a typical version of upper class Protestantism.  They have a hymnal and follow it -- not so much because they want to but because that is just who they are. They have an altar but the attention given to it is more functional -- a table for the meal.  They have a pulpit and it often stands above the altar both in height and in the eyes of the people -- they are Word people.  They have an educated clergy who is apt to preach and teach.  They wear vestments but more as a nod to tradition and sometimes are a little embarrassed by them (except for the academic gown, of course, since he is a seminary graduate!).

It just depends.  Some Lutherans are not so laid back but are plenty casual.  They could not be bothered by hymnals.  They are excited and may throw hands in the air or clap them to the beat of a catchy tune but they wear tees and jeans or polos and khakis all around.  They don't have much furniture but are up on the technology and have a great sound system and good projectors and screens as well.  In their liturgy they sing and talk and that about covers it.  Their preachers tend to preach relevant sermons on the issues people are encountering in their own lives and in their search for answers and help.

It just depends.  Some Lutherans have altars, statues, crucifixes, and all the accoutrements.  They have hymnals and other things printed up that add to the rubrics and even to the liturgy of the book. They are reverent in style even when children and infants make it hard to be rigidly formal.  They look and act just like what you would find in an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish or in the Roman Catholic Church down the street.  They have definitely beefed up the sermon but not at the expense of the ceremonies or structure of the liturgy.  They bow and kneel and genuflect and make the sign of the cross seemingly all the time. 

And the weird thing about it all is that they all claim to be Lutheran!  Though there are clearly some whispers behind each other's back, the wars are not all that bloody and they are fought mostly on blogs and the internet rather than in formal word to word conflict.  Their people are passionate advocates of their particular style of worship but when they come together, the nod seems to predominate to hymnals and the more ritualistic side.  So what is up with those Lutherans?

Especially when this is what they said nearly 500 years ago:  “Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people.” (AC XXIV.3)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The problem of smugness. . .

Just when Rome had thought that perhaps there would be some quiet and peace, news of another high profile cleric, a cardinal, hit the proverbial fan and it is clear that there are many who would have, should have, could have done something along the way to prevent this.  Whether it was the high profile nature of the individual accused or his close association with Pope Francis, the tragedy is that some were apparently considered above the scrutiny when Rome was cleaning house to put an end not only to the scandal but to the abuse itself.

Clearly the numbers of priests who abuse is not higher than the numbers of other abusers who have regular contact with children, youth, and teens.  In fact, it is not exactly true to claim that this is strictly a pedophile problem since most cases involved those in their teens.  That does not lessen the scandal or the outrage for such terrible behavior but is merely meant to remind us that this is not simply a matter of pent up sexual desire gone awry but of particular desire.  The vast majority of incidents involved boys or teens or young adults of the same sex.  In other words, the problem here was not the fact that priests are not allowed to marry but of the character of those who were ordained to be priests (and those who ended up as bishops).

Some Christians have been guilty of a certain smugness here -- and one that is both false and dangerous.  While it is true that marriage is commended by St. Paul as a deterrent to unrestrained desire that burns within, marriage is not a cure all for sexual sins of the nature that most abusers have manifested in the Roman Church.  Even if they were married, would these priests have been able to resist the homosexual desire or their desire for youth and children?  Has marriage prevented this same kind of abuse from happening among the clergy of churches where priests and pastors do marry?

The issues here are not simply marriage or even celibacy but those who seek ordination and those who are charged with commending the candidates to the churches for ordination.  This is a grave responsibility.  Just as not everyone who says Lord, Lord enters the Kingdom, not everyone who claims the call of God or who has the desire to serve the Lord is a fit candidate for ordination.  Discernment is the task assigned to those who must certify for ordination the candidates who seek orders.  No matter who these people are, there is a great and solemn weight of duty placed upon them to consider well and choose well -- for the sake of the faithful and for the cause of Christ.

I live in the Bible Belt and there is no shortage of incidents in the news of youth ministers who have heaped upon those in their care the same sort of sexual abuse seen in Rome.  In too many cases, there was clearly little review of the person or careful and deliberate judgment of their character and faith.  St. Paul insists that we lay hands quickly on no man and that those who are commended for ordination and service to the Lord and His people must be of good reputation and character.  Those who are not Roman Catholic have no room to gloat or point fingers for this kind of scandalous news
is a stain upon the whole Church.

Yet I must wonder why, at the same time we bristle at the news of such abuse, there are many whose liberality is ready to change pedophilia from perversion to a differently ordered desire?  Why are we ready to make the consensual nature of such relationships the final arbiter or morality?  In this age of news headlines for all kinds of unwanted and inappropriate sexual abuse, we will soon need to figure out whether or not we agree that something are always wrong and if there is a higher standard of morality than consent.  Until that happens, our trending culture presents a confusing picture of what is right or wrong and when it is right or wrong.  That ambiguity is not found in Scripture or tradition.

Friday, July 27, 2018

What is the offense?

From the News & Observer:
A Baptist church in South Carolina plans to remove a hand-carved statue of Jesus Christ because some congregants believe it’s too “Catholic” for their place of worship.  The hand-carved, 7-foot (2-meter) statue and accompanying reliefs depicting scenes from Christ’s life have been displayed outside Red Bank Baptist Church in Lexington for a decade.  But in a letter to the artist, Pastor Jeff Wright said the art would be removed this week.  “We have discovered that there are people that view the art as Catholic in nature,” Wright wrote in the letter to Delbert Baker Jr. A friend of Baker’s posted the letter on Facebook.”
In his own letter responding to Wright, Baker explained his vision of the art, saying it was meant to show Red Bank Baptist had a focus on Christian outreach.
"This is why Christ is represented as though he is stepping outside of the building, not just confined to the idleness of inner walls," Baker wrote in the letter, which his friend also posted on Facebook. "Under each arm, the reliefs depict scriptural and historical events that we as Christians believe represent the life of Christ."

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/nation-world/national/article212169759.html#storylink=cpy
It should be comical -- a Jesus with a too Catholic look about Him -- but it is sad.  There is no Sacred Heart which might identify this statue of Jesus with Roman Catholic piety but that is not enough to save it.  What is offensive is less the look than the Jesus who is holy and righteous, who denies Himself in suffering even to death, and offers His innocent death on behalf of guilty sinners.  It is the Gospel that is offensive -- offensive to our modern ears.  According to their pastor, the statue and reliefs bring into question "the theology and core values of Red Bank Baptist Church."  That is exactly correct.  The issue is not taste but theology, not preferences but truth. 

While I have no stake in the whole issue, I fear it is one more example of when churches have become uncomfortable with the true Gospel and cannot live with art that speaks the story faithfully.  Maybe I am wrong, and I would love to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it seems like more than simply bias and prejudice against Roman Catholics and more like some vocal folks who are uncomfortable with the Christ of the Scriptures.  What is interesting is that the relief sculpture has been there for a decade but now it the time when it is being removed.  The times, they are a changin, and Jesus is offensive precisely for being Jesus.  In that, the Baptists are certainly not alone.  While the creator was given the option of taking it down himself, it appears he refused to be party to its removal.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/nation-world/national/article212169759.html#storylink=cpy

Thursday, July 26, 2018

So sorry. . .

According to the NY Post:

The embattled rector of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan saw his pay cut — barely — as controversy swirled over his leadership.  The Rev. James Cooper’s salary dropped to $339,469 in 2012 down from $352,663 a year earlier when he also got a $25,000 bonus, according to new tax filings.  Cooper’s 2012 total compensation reached $1.2 million with benefits factored in. Those perks included his residence in a church-owned Soho town house, now valued by the city at $8.2 million, and a $118,675 housing allowance for his Florida condo.

Cooper came under fire from members of Trinity’s governing board angry that not enough of the wealthy church’s resources were going to philanthropy and that Cooper was too focused on grandiose development projects. By March 2012, almost half of the board had been forced out or quit. Cooper had contemplated resigning in the midst of the controversy, but only if Trinity could meet his demands, which included burial in the historic church graveyard where Alexander Hamilton was laid to rest.
Perhaps now would be a good time for Fr. Cooper to take in the Rejuvenation Services at Trinity.

Every Wednesday in the summer, Trinity hosts midday “Catch Your Breath” services, catering to Financial District workers on their lunch breaks. The signs outside—beneath the Episcopal flag and next to the rejuvenation posters—advertise the services in this way:
Take a break from the workday rush. Participate in a breathing exercise, enjoy some quiet time, and listen to a short teaching before tackling the rest of your day. Bring your lunch for a supportive midday interaction.
I tried to notice my breath, but my eyes wandered around the chapel. It was built in with the restraint typical of an American neo-gothic church: no painted saints or glowing virgins. But the wood tracery adorning the brownstone walls was beautiful. And behind Ellen’s breathing body, an effigy of Morgan Dix, the church’s first warden, looked piously up to heaven, hands clasped.

“It’s time to face those hard emotions,” Ellen said. “As you face them, inhale all that you have of those difficult emotions. As we exhale, we will exhale the antidote. For example: fear. I inhale fear. I exhale courage. Or peace.”
Oh, the many burdens of handling a church so well endowed with nearly everything except the orthodox and catholic faith!  Perhaps we could all offer a silent prayer for the conflict there between such an obviously low paid pastor and his flock. . . Or, maybe we could do a little yoga or meditation instead.  It's all the same, right???????

Not so drunk with pleasure. . .

While looking for something else, I came across this wonderful section from Martin Chemnitz, Examen, III:368.
"as though we thought the souls of the saints with Christ are so secure, drunk as it wore with pleasure and glory, that they do not think about the fact that the Son of God is always gathering for Himself a church on earth until the end of the world, or that they do not know, or certainly do not care, that the church, fighting under the banner of the cross here on earth, is exposed and subjected to various afflictions and persecutions, or that they neither desire nor wish nor ask for the church, which they know is laboring on earth under the cross, anything good from Christ, in whose presence, they are.  For because the blest in the fatherland are together with us, members of one and the same body, whose head is Christ, and because 'love never ends' (I Cor. 13:8), and the saints live with Christ and know that God has 'foreseen. . . that apart from us they should not be made perfect' (Heb. 11:40), but must wait 'until the full number of their fellow servants and their brethren' on earth 'should be complete' (Rev. 6:11), these are pious and good thoughts, that the blest in heaven, although they *may not* see the particular circumstances of individual persons living on earth, are nevertheless in a certain way of their own concerned about the general condition of the church, which they know to be fighting on earth under the cross, because they themselves have experienced how many and how great are the difficulties and miseries of mortal life, and that they therefore are of good will toward the living, as their own members, and that they desire and wish all good things from Christ, in whose free presence they live, so that these on earth, preserved and set free from sin, may be transferred to the society of the heavenly fatherland."
In a blessed way, Chemnitz preserves the essential connection between the saints on earth and the saints above and yet without extending beyond the Word of the Lord.  Above all, this gives the comfort to the saints still in warfare that the saints triumphant are not only on the side but prayers ascend from both sides of the great divide between earth and heaven for the same purpose and for the same goal, the consummation of all things promised.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Luther and Pope Francis. . . more different than alike. . .

There have been any number of articles and posts from Roman Catholics of late suggesting, perhaps even insisting, that Pope Francis was becoming a Lutheran.  He has been more than favorably compared with Luther himself by those inside and outside Rome.  But that is really a joke, or should I say insult both to Luther and to Lutherans!  Rome should be so lucky if Pope Francis was like Luther.  In fact, he is not and therein lies the real problem with this Pope.  Yet some of his detractors and admirers insist that he is like Luther or Lutheran in his thinking when it betrays the fact that they do not know Luther nor Lutheranism at all.

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQVtqjmx7zUOBVq2K2ubgDp3COQRp3nVDV98GtsALed8YGDZL-m-gFrancis is more like a liberal than he is a Luther.  In fact, he has more in common with generic liberal Protestantism than with Luther who really only wore that name when it meant something.  Protestant today means little except the rejection of most doctrine, the skeptical view of the Scriptures and its truth, and the affirmation of a general love and goodwill that is the Gospel (minus the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus). 

Carl Trueman put his finger on it.  If Pope Francis is a reincarnation from the 16th century it is not Luther but someone whom Trueman considers much worse:  Desiderius Erasmus.  Though the most famous clash between Luther and Erasmus was on the matter of free will, there are many other points of difference worth nothing.  In effect, it was a distinction not only on free will or the bondage of that will but on two completely different ideas of man;s capacity to effect some or perhaps all of his salvation.  It is the difference of a Christianity rooted in Scriptural truth and dogmatic certainty versus a hopeful idea of human creativity and redemptive work under the power of love.

It was not Luther who could be looked to as a voice to set aside the shape of humanity in male and female and the marriage created by God for as long as man and woman shall live and especially for the sake of procreation.  It was not Luther who questioned the legitimacy of Scripture's prohibition of homosexual behavior.  It was not Luther who opened the Table of the Lord to those who felt they had a place even though they did not agree with what was confessed and received at that Table.  It was not Luther who promoted confusion to confound critics (his was a clarion call for clarity in all matters of faith and life!).   No, Virginia, Francis is not Luther and Luther was not a forerunner of Francis.

In the end I am amazed at the ignorance of those in Rome who would claim Francis and Luther are pretty much the same or that Francis' revolution is the same as Luther's reformation.  Perhaps those years of formal dialog have only touched the barest few involved and the rest of Rome lives on the strength of stereotypes and epithets.  If Rome does not want to be characterized falsely as worshipers of Mary who kill Jesus all over again at every Mass so that people can be placed in Purgatory until they or their families and friends contribute enough works to finish the job Jesus couldn't, then why do Roman Catholics persist in foolish errors with respect to Luther and his heirs?  You cannot look at Protestantism today and find your way back to Luther.  The radical reformers have shaped the bulk of Protestantism, to be sure, and some, even too many, Lutherans have followed their dead ends but if you judge Lutheranism by what we have confessed formally, you can see Lutherans are not Protestants (the way that term is used today by all sides) nor is Francis a Lutheran or even a Luther wannabe.

Francis seems to say to all -- homosexuals, divorced, spouses of Roman Catholics, and everyone else -- pray and do good.  Luther would surely insist that prayer is good and good works should be done (for the sake of the neighbor and not to contribute to salvation) but Luther would never shrug his shoulders and say "who am I to judge" or "pray and do good" to those seeking certainty about their salvation or unrepentant in their sins.  Nope, the comparison may be fun to make but it contributes nothing to understanding either one of them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Easter Joy for Everyday

Sermon for the Commemoration of St. Mary Magdalene, preached on July 22, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    Today we're blessed to remember St. Mary Magdalene, and I do mean blessed, because the appointed Gospel reading for today is one that brings great joy.  You could say it brings Easter joy. 
    It's easy to have Easter joy on Easter Sunday.  I fondly remember Easter Sunday as a child.  I remember the smell of the sanctuary filled with lilies and the sound of the timpani drums crescendoing as we joyfully sang This is the Feast.  The whole day was filled with joy as the pastor proclaimed Christ is risen!  You could tell everyone had Easter joy knowing Jesus was risen from the dead, and since He lived, so would they!  Christ's resurrection means everlasting life for us, for those who trust in Him.  Knowing our salvation is complete in Christ, we should have an Easter joy every day.  But do we?
Do we have Easter Day joy in our lives?  Do we ever think about Christ's resurrection...what it really means for us?  Does the fact that Jesus died and rose again so that we'd have everlasting life affect us?    These are good questions to ask, and if we're being 100% honest, we might have to answer "No."  It's hard for us to have Easter joy every day of the year.  It's hard to see our risen Savior when our eyes are blinded with tears of sorrow and pain and grief.
    Our joy is blinded and darkened by the strife of life.  No one has an easy go at it.  No one has ever had a care free, stress free, struggle free, sorrow free life.  Everyone's gone through something.  We've all shed tears: tears over husbands and wives divided by divorce; tears over children who've strayed from home and faith; tears over broken and forgotten friendships; tears over losts jobs; tears over bills that are piling up and past due notices in the mailbox; tears over deployments and PCS's; tears over illnesses, surgeries, and positive test results; tears over the death of a friend, a spouse, a parent, a child.  All of us have had to walk through dark valleys.  During these times it's hard to see past the pain and hurt.  It's hard to see past the sin and death that plagues us and the world we live in.  It's seems as if there's no hope, no joy.  With eyes filled with tears and hearts filled with sadness, it's difficult to see Christ, to think about His life giving resurrection. 
    We see the blinding power of grief in Mary Magdalene.  On that first Easter she went to the tomb to finish the job of burying Christ's body.  Scripture doesn't specifically mention what her thoughts or feelings were, but I think it's safe to assume that she was filled with grief and sadness.  She had just witnessed the crucifixion of her Lord.  She saw her Savior hanging naked on the cross as He breathed His last.  She had been with Christ for a long time, ever since He freed her from the 7 demons that possessed her, and now she was going to His tomb to complete his burial.  Just imagine then the multiplication of her grief when she got there and Christ's body was gone. 
    We have the benefit of being able to see the whole picture of Jesus' death and resurrection.  We have the Gospels written down, so we know the whole story.  When we read about Jesus' crucifixion we know about His resurrection.  Mary and the others didn't necessarily have this.  Yes, they had the words of the Old Testament that prophesied the death and resurrection of God's Messiah and yes, they heard Jesus' words concerning His death and resurrection, but how easy is it to forget when we're consumed with grief?
Mary was consumed with grief.  She was so blinded by her tears that she couldn't see the risen Lord standing right in front of her.  She thought He was the gardener and all she wanted was Christ's lifeless body back.  She couldn't imagine anything else.  All hope was lost.  But the risen Lord didn't leave Mary in this hopelessness. 
    Just by speaking her name, Jesus cut through her blinding tears.  Christ opened her eyes so she could see Him.  He graciously called her to be the first witness of His resurrection.  Mary saw her Lord, not a lifeless corpse, but the risen Savior who conquered death. 
    Christ is your Savior and He has conquered death.  The grave has no power over you.  Because He lives, so will you.  Just as He did with Mary, the Lord's spoken your name.  In your baptism, God speaks your name and He puts His name upon you, marking you as one redeemed by Christ.  He joins you to Christ, to His death AND His resurrection.  "Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).  This new life is everlasting life.  It's the life that death can't take away.  It's the life in which the Lord promises you no more blinding tears. 
    In your baptism the Lord has opened your eyes, giving you eyes of faith to see your risen Savior.  These eyes aren't blinded with the tears you cry because they're ever focused on Christ.  They see Jesus and His atoning death on the cross.  They see the resurrected Lord who conquered death for you.  And they see His promised salvation.  All of this brings an Easter joy that is there every day of the year; even though you might not feel it. 
    The truth is, we'd love to feel Easter joy every day.  We'd love to be happy happy all the time, never brought down from the joyful mountain top.  But the joy of Easter isn't only a mountain top feeling.  The joy of Easter is the quite confident hope of your everlasting life in Christ even when it looks like all hope is lost.  Because we still live in a sin-filled world, we're still going to experience pain and loss and struggle and grief.  Our eyes will still fill with tears as we cry over broken relationships, the hardships of life, illness, disease, and the death of loved ones.  At these times we won't necessarily feel joy.  We may feel like all hope is lost.  But with eyes of faith, focused on Christ and His resurrection we can repeat the words of our psalm today: "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Ps 73:26).  With faith, looking at Christ, we know what God has planned for us, an everlasting life that is free from tears.  This is the life Christ won on Easter and this is the life that brings Easter joy. 
It's hard to have Easter Day joy when all around us we see troubles, grief, hurts, and pain.  Mary Magdalene couldn't see the risen Jesus through her tears, and neither can we.  But with eyes of faith, opened by God, we do see Him.  We have Easter joy, knowing that no matter what we see and endure now, we still have the promise

Come as you are. . . and don't expect to be changed

Nobody should be told that their sexual or gender identity in itself makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.  So the Church of England insists that all positions within the Church are open to all people as they are.  And to those who seek to treat us as a problem, to harm and dismiss us and deny our gifts and callings – that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated.  Offense is given not by those who depart from the Scriptures and tradition with respect to sexuality and gender but to those who do not depart from it.

Well, now there is something new.  Since the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has been understood as a people set apart to a higher calling and this was not lost on ordination.  Those whom the Church sets apart by Word and prayer to be pastors must be a people held to a higher standard (Read Timothy and Titus here).  But no more.  No more does service in the Church presume a higher calling or a set apart life.  Now it is come as you are and remain as you are.

According to Archbishop Welby, the perception that the Church is homophobic and transphobic is harming our mission, especially to young people.  We need to challenge this perception by reaching out to LGBT+ people with the good news of God’s love, modelling God’s welcome and care for all people.  In other words, what is distinctively Christian is not holiness but the welcome of God for all people as they are and His care for them as they are.

The distinctive mark of Christianity is not simply the welcome of sinners but the fact that in this welcome comes the transforming power of the Gospel.  We are met where we are but we are not left there.  We are changed.  We receive a new heart.  We are clothed with righteousness.  We are marked with Christ to belong to Him and to live as His own, to live under Him in His kingdom without end.  We are not affirmed for the broken, empty, shell of a person we are because of sin but healed through forgiveness, filled with the Holy Spirit, and transformed into the holy and righteous person God has said we are.  The consequence of this is that we cannot continue in sin and, because we have a new heart, we do not want to, either.

Of course, that does not fit with the current model -- one practiced even in some so-called Christian churches -- in which God made us as we are and this is good and does not need much more than some affirmation and the freedom to explore where it all leads us.  The most situational of all situation ethics is that if we like who we are (gay, straight, queer, transgender, male, female, etc.) then all is good and if we want to change who we are, that is good, too.  In any case, the Church cannot be allowed to do any more than cheer us on from the sidelines and offer us the (false) assurance that if we are good with is, so is God.  And that, my friends, is about all that is left for the liberal Christianity (hardly more than ceremonial agnosticism) that is the C of E.

Monday, July 23, 2018

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. . .

Jessie Taylor, husband of Elsbeth, departed this life in faith today.  We lift up the family before the Lord even as we give thanks to the Lord who rescues us from death and bestows upon His children the gift of everlasting life.  He has fought the good fight of faith throughout four years of cancer and now, in Christ, he has won the battle and rests from his labors.  With him, we await the day of the Lord when He shall bring us and all the dead in Christ together and bring to completion all of His promises forevermore.  Arrangements are still being made. 

Rubrics explained. . .

Old friend Gene Wilken has videoed the beginning of a series explaining the rubrics and rationale for them as practiced at Redeemer, Ft. Wayne, by the Rev. David Petersen.  Whether of not you agree, this is a very useful exercise of liturgical theology in reference to the way we conduct the Divine Service.  It is filled with good theology and some sound advice but most of all the urging of any pastor leading the people in worship not to act without due preparation and thought.  I pass this on even as we await other segments of this useful series.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Suffering the hate of the world. . .

When I grew up in the1950s and early 1960s, the Church was generally respected and admitted to be a force for good even by those who did not believe.  They may not have a great deal of confidence in the message proclaimed but they could see the good that was done by the Church and its institutions.  From hospitals to orphanages to disaster relief to things as mundane as AAL branches and other parachurch style structures, the Church was treated in a friendly way.  This is also true of the government.  Nearly everyone believed that the Church was a necessary thing and worth more than its message in good works -- even governments and political leaders.

Perhaps that colored the expectation of the Church and individual Christians too much.  We came to believe that America was a Christian nation and not simply a nation of mostly Christians (there is a big difference).  We began to believe that Church and State could actually be partners in a positive way and expected accommodations to the message for the sake of the good that was done (so that government would not have to do it).  We came to the conclusion that this was normal and should be normative in the way government, society, people, and the Church relate.  So it was a shock to us when in the late 1970s friction began to develop.

When the Church was seen as a force opposing the general direction of society, people outside felt betrayed and folks inside the Church were confused.  When the abortion debate crystallized this division, people began to have second thoughts about the good will and good works of the Church.  As time went on through twists and turns that led to the great divide over same sex marriage and its related issues, the folks outside the Church no longer had any confidence in the good works or good will of the Church and found that the Church was generally an enemy that must be contained.  The folks in the Church wondered what went wrong -- how could the comfortable relationship between the faith, the government, and the culture become to divisive?  So some churches began to rethink their old positions and found reasons and a rationale to depart from the historic and Scriptural teaching on everything from the sacredness of life to the shape of marriage and family.  Other churches retained their faithful and orthodox stance but still cringed with the unpleasantness of a world that rejected them, their message, and even their good works.

But the problem lies with the norm of good will and friendliness.  It was never a norm but a momentary diversion from the reality of the Church in but not of the world, the faith rejected and persecuted, and Christians hated as Christ was Himself hated.  We don't like this but this is the hard and blunt truth.  If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well (John 15:18-20).

The world hates us ONLY to the degree that we are hold to the true faith born of Scripture and witnessed in tradition.  

The sad truth is that too many Christians put their energy and attention to making sure that the world does not hate them. That is the great temptation to the Church -- especially when we think the norm is to be loved and respected even by those who do not believe. This happens when the faith is compromised, when our practice departs from Scripture and tradition, when we reject the Word of God to be welcomed by the world, and when we distance ourselves from our past in order to be relevant to the present. Underneath it all is the stark confession that many of us prefer the love and acceptance of the world to faithfulness and its potential of hate, rejection, and persecution by the world. We have become deaf to the voice of God while we hear very clearly the voices of those around us. It is not that we have become evil but we have allowed our weakness to rob us of the strength of our life in Christ and the power of Christ even in troubled times. Yet it is to this that Scripture also speaks:  Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of the world renders himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).

So the Church must choose -- friend of the world or friend of the Lord.  Let the choice be framed not in weakness and fear but in confidence and strength.  God is with us.  The Lord of Hosts is with us.  Though enemies are great, God is greater. 

Luther wrote of this fear in his famous A Mighty Fortress:  

1 A mighty fortress is our God,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He helps us free from ev'ry need
That hath us now o'ertaken.
The old evil foe
Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight;
On earth is not his equal.

2 With might of ours can naught be done,
Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the Valiant One,
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is.
Of Sabaoth Lord,
And there's none other God;
He holds the field forever.

3 Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpow'r us.
This world's prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He's judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

4 The Word they still shall let remain
Nor any thanks have for it;
He's by our side upon the plain
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child, and wife,
Let these all be gone,
Our vict'ry has been won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Where is your focus?

I have had not a few folks from my parish admit that they are daily brought down by the things of the world.  They hear of school shootings, of the abuse of women, of the immorality of those in power, of lies parading as truth, of kooks and crackpots threatening with nuclear weapons, and, of course, the shocking reality of abortion, GLBTQ, and everything else and they feel depressed.  Depression and despair are certainly a frequent consequence of keeping your TV or smart phone tuned to the 24 hour news cycle.  It is sure to test the mettle of even the most stalwart optimist.

Is the only alternative to stay in the dark and hide from all the evil and the shocking niws of the day?  Some would suggest that this is the path.  I might call this the Amish option.  To live apart and to live seemingly oblivious to these dangers and challenges is tempting.  The Amish dream that so many have is not as workable or as easy as some presume.  Is there another option?

I think there is. 

The righteous (meaning the people of faith) may not be unaware of all that shocks and threatens in the news but that is not the focus of their hearts or their eyes.  They are not ignorant of all the wrongs and evil in the world but they do not despair.  They have confidence in the grace and mercy of God.  The cross is ever before them.  They accept that the world has departed from the ways of the Lord but they do not depart from them and chief in this perseverance is the grasp on hope. 

Facebook is filled with the odd, the weird, and the evil things and yet we click on them -- perhaps out of curiosity more than anything else.  We want to know how cute child stars grew up into not such good looking adults.  We want to know about gross deformities and other anomalies.  There is no shortage of sinful curiosity and voyeurism involved -- the way we crane our necks to see what has happened in a car accident. The world is filled with the stories of personal struggle, tragedy, and woe but we have become not only those who yearn to tell all but also those who yearn to know every gory detail.  We are willing and willful consumers in oddity, evil, injustice, abuse, and tragedy.  This is not without its cost to us and our faith.  Our focus on these things is similar to our focus on the wrongs and evils of the world around us  and it all works to pull us away from Christ, far from the hope He has come to bring, and nearer to despair.

So what?  We can start by not being avid consumers of those media that foster violence and feed despair.  Think here movies, video games, and other media that are filled with violence, sex, and evil but that means limiting our intake of the kind of news that gives center stage to violence, conflict, controversy, immorality, and evil. The world is filled with voices that encourage heat, offer little light, and trade on excess.  For the Christian, this is not who we are or how we live.

Think of the warning of the prophet:   Isaiah 33:14-16 English Standard Version (ESV)
14 The sinners in Zion are afraid;
    trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?
    Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”
15 He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
    who despises the gain of oppressions,
who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe,
    who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed
    and shuts his eyes from looking on evil,
16 he will dwell on the heights;

    his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks;
    his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.

Or the encouragement of St. Paul:  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things. Whatever you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, put these things into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:8-9).

Friday, July 20, 2018

People of Good will. . .

Glory be to God on high and on earth peace, good will toward men. . . So we sang in the Gloria in Excelsis when I was growing up.  It changed a bit.  Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.  The idea of goodwill got lost in the new translation.  I am quite sad about that.  But the King James eloquence has given way to a desire for modern speech and simple language.  Some other translations have kept the goodwill part but kind of butchered its meaning.  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.  Or another Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased,

Good will has come to mean tolerance and acceptance.  People of good will overlook things that irritate them and concentrate on the bigger picture.  People of good will do not judge and so they are not subject to unkind judgments.  People of good will smile all the time and keep their mouths shut when things are said or done to which they cannot agree.  Not.  That is NOT good will at all.  God does not tolerate our sin or accept our evil.  He does not set aside His judgment.  He does not concentrate on bigger issues and.  He does not turn the other way when words are said or actions are done that offend Him.  He does not set aside His judgment.  His good will is not a shrug of the shoulders but the Incarnate Lord Jesus who has come to take our place in judgment, the innocent for the guilty.  His good will is that the sins for which we should be punished have been paid for by One who has no debt to sin -- our Lord Jesus.  His good will is that He has shown mercy by becoming His people's Savior and redeeming us sinners who are unworthy of His gracious favor.  His good will does not set aside His judgment but places that judgment on Him who alone is righteous.

The Church must be an agent of God's good will and not simply an echo of the world's flawed and failed idea of compassion.  The Church's calling is to continue to be formed by this good will into the new people we could not be by Him who has become our Savior.  The Church's mission is to tell of this good will to a world in denial with respect to sin and at peace with death.  The Church's purpose is to raise up hope where hope does not dwell by means of the faithful story of Christ crucified and risen and the works of love that will flow from those who hear and believe it.

Too often churches who stick with the script of God's Word are labelled judgmental and narrow and self-righteous and hypocrites.  Those churches who have abandoned God's Word and reduced it to a principle of love that accepts without judgment and tolerates without values are considered people of good will.  The only good religion in the world is one that is skeptical of its truths and flexible in its doctrine in order to be tolerant and accepting of all.  This is the great lie of good will.  There is no good will in refraining from telling the dying that he or she is close to death.  There is no good will in smiling while people pass their lives away soon to marked for judgment and death.  There is no good will in lumping all truth together and giving the individual the right to decide which truth fits him or her best.  There is no good will in making God a footnote to the lives in which He is the prime actor to save and redeem.  Good will demands that we call the world to repentance even as we seek to live in daily repentance by the power of the Spirit.  Good will demands that there is one name under heaven and on earth by which any and all who will be saved, shall be saved.

By all means let us be people of good will who bring God's good and gracious and saving will in Christ to all who do not yet know it.  But never let us reject the Word of Life because somebody somewhere will say we are unloving, unkind, or intolerant.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Not an absolute right. . .

Back in 1993 when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed, the burning issues were far different --  say protecting the the right of Sikhs to wear turbans or Native Americans to use peyote.  It was not a controversial cause.  The RFRA was a bipartisan measure with overwhelming support, introduced by liberal Democrats Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton -- none of whom were right of center.

The act mandated that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”  An exception is only allowed if two conditions are met:  (1) In the “furtherance of a compelling government interest.”  This is defined as an interest that is not just routine and is not just about improving government efficiency.  Rather, it must directly relate to core constitutional issues.  (2)  Even then, the interest must be applied in “the least restrictive way.”

Today the landscape has changed.  Abortion has widened to include life issues like physician assisted suicide and even euthanasia.  The then emerging gay rights movement has come mainstream and accomplish its original goals and more.  Same sex marriage was handled the way the Supreme Court decided abortion and with the same controversy in its wake.  Now the same law is being used to protect Christians opposed to even prevailing opinions about all of these issues.  Obamacare has created its own conflicts and the same Christians ask for that law to give way in the face of their religious objections.  Now some of those voices in favor of that law have thought better of it and are working to restrict its protections.

While we wait for the courts to balance protected religious liberty with anti-discrimination laws, there are those who want to anticipate that decision.  What could this mean for churches?  It is hard to overestimate how the rule of law might be used to restrain and prevent religious liberty from publicly teaching and preaching against what the courts and Congress have deemed the law of the land.  I am not attempting to be Chicken Little here except to say that the powers of the government always include taking back privileges once thought sacred. 

Democrats are working to amend the 25-year-old Religious Freedom Restoration Act so that it cannot be used under religious freedom to discriminate against people, including gay, lesbian and transgender citizens.  It would deny the protection of religious liberty of one individual when the civil rights of another individual would be impinged.  They claim that one liberty cannot be used against another liberty.  The proposed bill would add to the 1993 law to specifically prevent the RFRA from exempting civil rights laws, employment law, protections against child abuse or access to health care for the sake  of religious claims.

So we see the future.  Obama already spoke of religious liberty simply as freedom of worship and thus placing boundaries on the exercise of this freedom within the public square.  Now come restrictions to this religious liberty in other areas.  What is most troubling is that the right of religious freedom is being abridged in favor of other rights deemed more important.  So what is to prevent the same logic from being used against the very causes the Democrats are seeking to protect?  Of course, there is little chance of this passing today.  What happens in the future is a guessing game.  Be warned, however, because this is clearly the direction being charted by one party and its leaders.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Save a used book store today. . .

Got this news. . . .
We are Loome Theological Booksellers, as far as we know, the world's oldest theological bookstore.

You can find us on Main street in historic downtown Stillwater, the birthplace of Minnesota, on the beautiful St. Croix River and WE NEED YOUR HELP TO KEEP US HERE!

Back in the 1970s, our founder, Doctor of Theology and college professor, Thomas Loome began rescuing books from dying libraries, monasteries, seminaries.  He gathered them from all over North America and England into our first brick and mortar location in the Old Swedish Covenant Church, also in Stillwater.  From there, year after year, he gave these books new lives by getting them into the hands, and then the hearts and minds of the thousands of visitors to his bookstore.  They came, and still do, from all over the world.  But only if YOU help....

I have purchased books from Loome though I have not visited.  I hope that this difficult stretch will be overcome and his business continue.  A number of wonderful old haunts have come and gone and I miss pouring over bulging bookshelves of dusty volumes that probably had not been the subject of people's interest for a long time.  I don't know how you feel about a used book store and particularly a theological book shop but I feel a rather sacred bond with them.  So if you can do nothing else, please pray for the good folks there.  They seem to me rather like family.

Voting for or against the Will of God. . .

The Irish will have had the unique opportunity to vote for God or against Him in no less than two referendums -- one on abortion and one on same sex marriage.  In America, we have followed the lead of the Supreme Court in determining whether or not these are constitutional.  Well, let me put it another way.  The SCOTUS has determined these to be the law of the land but has had to invent rights not explicit in the Constitution or Bill of Rights to do so.  Original intent has long been lost on these issues.  Though it is conceivable that votes could here be taken in some way on these issues, it is not quite the same as voting them in or out as do the Irish. 

What is the meaning of such a vote?  Well, that depends.  In one sense it is a vote to distance the received tradition of law, society, and morality from modern day wants and desires.  There is certainly no absolute need to allow abortion or to sanction same sex marriage.  It is a desire to make the law fit the mood of the people at this moment, laws that give a snapshot into the state of things both moral and religious.  No one in their right mind would argue that all law, common, moral, and religious, has been on the side of preventing abortion and prohibiting same sex marriage.  Yet that is the point.  The votes are to distance not only religion but the received tradition from the present moment.

One thing that the vote does NOT do is overturn the will of God.  It cannot change the Word that endures forever.  Whether that vote takes place in Ireland or in church assembly, we cannot change the Scriptures by vote.  Democracy may be a messy but decent form of government (as many have said) but it has no place before the revealed will and word of God.  We may choose to diverge from it and disregard it but we cannot change it.  It is not within our power.

But there is another thing the vote does not do (neither the vote of SCOTUS nor the votes taken by the Irish).  Conflict and dispute cannot be voted away or ended by legality.  These are essentially values issues and votes do not change values.  That is why they remain disputed.  The law has been changed but the changing of that law and indeed its very moral base is what is in dispute.  The law can force upon us a rule that is unjust before the Word of God and the conscience informed by that Word but it cannot force us to approve of the injustice.  In this respect the votes in Ireland no more settle the issue than the votes of the SCOTUS have for America.

Common values have always been the cornerstone of any democracy.  That is perhaps why it has not worked as we hoped when we have attempted to export democracy to places where values are in dispute.  But it is certainly the glue that has bound our nation.  Not so much a common religion (for Christian expressions have been so varied and so diverse as to be different as night and day and yet democracy has flourished because of those common values).  Diversity can exist only within the tension of common values.  Once that diversity transgresses common values, the very fabric of the democracy is at stake.

America shows no signs of resolving the great divide over abortion or same sex marriage.  Indeed, other issues only magnify that divide -- assisted suicide, euthanasia, transgender. . .   The horizon is filled with other issues that will surely only magnify and expand our great divide and the reason for that is that a change in the law cannot change the moral conscience.  Maybe the Irish will find that out as well.  Divisions so entrenched, without an obvious means to bridge them, will be their own issues for the future . . . both here and in Ireland.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Between Lust and Righteousness. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 10B, preached on Sunday, July 15, 2018.

    We live in a liberated day.  Sex is just sex.  It does not have to mean anything.  It does not necessarily mean love and it certainly does not mean children.  It means desire and in our age desire rules the roost.  Those who object to our pandering to desire are called prudes or narrow minded and judgmental people.  It is said that they are unhappy and so they try to make the rest of us share in their own unhappiness.  The only voice of conscience that we pay any attention to is the one that says, “Go ahead and do what you want.”  Our world cannot conceive of anything consensual being wrong.

    In many ways, Herod the Tetrarch was more moral than we are.  He was a man of lust who lived in an incestuous marriage and seemed filled with desire for his wife’s daughter as well.  How lurid is it when a step dad has his teenage daughter do an erotic dance for the benefit of the perverted eyes of his friends!  His immoral life was public knowledge and St. John the Forerunner had publicly held him accountable.  Yet, Herod had a conscience.  He knew John was a righteous and holy man and he protected John even against Herodias, his brother’s wife whom he took as his wife, who wanted John silenced permanently.  Though he was perplexed by John’s call to repentance, he heard John’s preaching of the kingdom gladly.

    Even the mighty Herod was convicted by his own conscience and by John, the prophet of God.  He is just as evil as his father who had killed the boy babies of Bethlehem in pursuit of Jesus but he was constrained both by the high esteem John had with the people and his own conscience.  At least until Herodias  found a way to tie Herod’s conscience in a web of deceit. She coaxed her daughter in the art of seduction until Herod lost his mind in the desire of his loins.  In a spontaneous act of stupidity and indulgence, he offered Salome anything she wanted up to half his kingdom.  In front of the assembled guests, his offer became a public promise he had to keep or risk being seen as a fool.

    Moved by her mother, she asked not for riches or property but for the head of St. John on a platter.  Here was Herod’s ego served up on a tray bearing the head of the righteous man who he knew was a prophet sent from God.  It is bloody and gory and yet it is not far from the things we see every day when conscience is beaten down by desire, lust rules the hearts of both men and women, and immorality is called good often enough so that we begin to believe our own deception and lies.  Such is the fate of a righteous man or woman still.

    The world hates righteousness.  It hates the law of God that holds up the standards of righteousness.  It hates the Son of God who alone is righteous and keeps that unflinching law.  It hates the prophets who come to preach repentance and the return to righteousness.  It hates the Lamb of God whose righteous death saves a guilty world.  It hates the people clothed with that righteousness before the world, a righteousness by grace and not works.  So the world hates preachers who preach righteousness and people who come hearing and repenting of sin.

    The most truth you ever say is when you kneel here in the house of the Lord and admit that you are sinful by nature, that you have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that you have sinned by the evil you have done and by the good you have not done.  What brings you to this truth is nothing less than the Holy Spirit and the same Spirit works in you repentance so that your confession is not just words but the voice of a contrite heart begging to be remade and reborn clean, whole, and righteous.

    And that is what Jesus does.  With the voice of absolution, He makes not only your sins go away but He works on your sinful desire.  He strengthens the voice of the conscience within you so that God may guide you to avoid evil and do good.  He transforms your heart so that you may learn to see that the Law of God is good and right and true and He makes you want what is good and right and true.  He clothes you with His own righteousness just as He pays once for all the impossible debt your sins have accrued.  He delivers you from the just punishment you deserve by carrying it on His own shoulders on the cross.  He sends you forth with a clear conscience and with a heart that hears the voice of the Spirit and the Word of God even though you will not always heed it.

    The world hates you.  And if you make peace with the world, you lose the gift of a clear conscience and you surrender the gift God gave you in your baptism.  You may fear the world but do not forget or discount the power of God.  A wounded animal is the most dangerous one.  The world hates you and seeks your destruction because the world is still suffering under the wounded devil who lost but is still grabbing as many as he can taken down with him.  The world hates you and mocks the Christian values you hold and delights in calling you a hypocrite and gloating over your every fall and failure.

    But Jesus is with you and He is more powerful than the world and the devil.  He can harm us none.  He’s judged.  The deed is done. Or so we sing in the A Mighty Fortress.  We belong to Him.  He will not surrender us to any power under heaven and on earth or of the devil.  He holds us in the palm of His name.  The only freedom that is real is the freedom to live without fear in the Christ who lived and died and rose for you and now clothes you in righteousness as His own.  Do not lose heart.  Evil is powerful and real but the cross more powerful and even more real because it bestows an eternal victory upon us.

    We pray the Lord to grant us strength.  We pray that the courage of our convictions may be granted to us in the trials, troubles, and temptations of this world.  We pray for the courage of John who refused to surrender truth to lies or accept immorality as good.  We pray for the faith not to fear the power of the world but to rejoice in the power of our Savior.  We pray for the witness of John to guide us to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and for the example of John to endure under persecution and suffering.  We pray the peace of God that John knew in prison and even before the executioner’s blade.  We pray for those who still surrender their lives rather than renounce Jesus Christ and who are faithful even to death so that they may receive the crown of everlasting life.

    Friends, do not be fooled.  We live in tough times.  Not only is the Word of God under assault but our culture works so very hard to silence the voice of our conscience to make us immune to guilt and to prevent us from repentance.  We live in dark times when immorality is held up as good and truth is bent by desire.  We live in difficult days when being a Christian forces us to make hard choices between faithlessness and faithfulness all the day long.  But in the midst of all of this God is at work.  His sword is His Word, His power is the cross, and His goal is not our condemnation but our salvation.  We have no perfection to prove we are good but only the cross and we have no righteousness of our own to wear but the righteousness of Christ.  And yet this is enough – enough to sustain us to the end.

    What is our prayer?  May the Lord who began this good work in us bring us to completion on the day when He comes in His glory.  That is our prayer.  Finish in us, O Lord, Your new creation.  Keep your people holy and blameless through absolution.  Strengthen Your people with the food of Your flesh and blood.  Guide Your people with the living voice of Your Word.  Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  Some of us may be spared but some of us may suffer the same fate as John.  We have already witnessed the martyrs whose white robes endure the threats of the enemy all around the world.  Truly the blood of the martyrs is the seed of church.  And what is planted in suffering will be raised in glory, what is planted in weakness will be raised in strength, and what is planted in death will bear the fruit of eternal life.  God grant it in Jesus name.  Amen.

No silent protest. . .

I was reminded again of a old friend, a poem written by William Carlos Williams.  Called "The Catholic Bells," it speaks of the witness of bells of a church that sound into the silence of an empty world or even the noise of a world against its witness.  You can listen to an old recording of the author reading his own poem here.

I grew up with church bells though among them was not the bell of my home parish, some miles out into the country.  Yet there the bell sounded to call the faithful from farm and home to worship and tolled itself again during the Words of Institution and the Our Father (seven times).  Neither were there Catholic Bells as in the poem but Swedish Lutheran bells and a Methodist bell thrown in as well.

My first parish did not have a bell or a tower but a family gave an electronic carillon in memory of a loved one and it served as a substitute.  My current parish also did not have a bell but now we have two.  One grand cast iron bell that weighs perhaps a half a ton and a smaller school bell size one.  But were given by faithful folks in the parish and members of the parish saw to it that a low tower was raised and the bells now sound forth to call us again to worship and prayer.

The bells speak even to those whose ears are otherwise closed to our witness.  They remind neighborhoods and communities of the presence of the Church, of the place where the Gospel is preached, of the Holy Sacraments that deliver to us Christ and His gifts, and of the faithful gathered in response to God's beckoning.  It is a small witness but one similar to the witness made when neighbors look out their windows or walk out to get their Sunday paper and see the people of God in their cars, dressed for worship and headed to the Church.  It may not be much but it is not as small as we might think, this witness that sounds into the ear or fills the eye.

Perhaps it is time to remember how profoundly these things speak in a world committed to silence the explicit witness to Christ and His death and resurrection.  I am not at all suggesting that we leave it to that or abandon our words and works.  I am only saying that we are left with more than the option of a silent protest before a world intent upon silencing our voice.  No silent protest here -- bells that sound and people on their way to the Divine Service.  A voice and a visual!  God bless them!

Tho' I'm no Catholic
I listen hard when the bells
in the yellow-brick tower
of their new church

ring down the leaves
ring in the frost upon them
and the death of the flowers
ring out the grackle

toward the south, the sky
darkened by them, ring in
the new baby of Mr. and Mrs.
Krantz which cannot

for the fat of its cheeks
open well its eyes, ring out
the parrot under its hood
jealous of the child

ring in Sunday morning
and old age which adds as it
takes away. Let them ring
only ring! over the oil

painting of a young priest
on the church wall advertisng
last week's Novena to St.
Anthony, ring for the lame

young man in black with
gaunt cheeks and wearing a 
Derby hat, who is hurrying
to 11 o'clock Mass (the

grapes still hanging to
the vines along the nearby
Concordia Halle like broken
teeth in the head of an

old man) Let them ring
for the eyes and ring for
the hands and ring for 
the children of my friend

who no longer hears
them ring but with a smile
and in a low voice speaks
of the decisions of her

daughter and the proposals 
and betrayals of her
husband's friends. O bells
ring for the ringing!

the beginning and the end
of th ringing! Ring ring 
ring ring ring ring ring!
Catholic bells-!