Sunday, September 30, 2018

A season of purification. . .

No one enjoys reading about the vine being pruned back so that it might bear better and more fruit.  No one is comforted by the idea that some will fall away.  No one is consoled by the prospect of judgment beginning with the household of faith.  No one hopes for a purification by fire -- the way impurities in gold are literally burned off.  No one likes the idea that the Lord is chastening and disciplining those whom He loves.  Indeed, when any of these are read on Sunday morning the statement The Word of the Lord almost ends up being a question -- especially when it is the Gospel for the day.  How can this be good news?

In comparison to decades ago when it literally seemed that all you had to do was ring the bell and people showed up or put out the call and seminaries were full, the Church seems to be going through a time of great pruning and purification. When you stand before the great but empty churches of Europe, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that the rain clouds have dried up and moved elsewhere.  Indeed, the once luxuriant vine of Western Christianity seems dry and withered in comparison to 50 or 100 years ago.  We live today with the reality of paper membership that never shows up in worship or comes only very occasionally.  We live today with the struggle to raise up church workers, particularly pastors, at the same time we see congregations shrinking and seemingly unable to afford full-time clergy.   Churches all across America are closing their doors and in Europe the buildings are maintained largely by government money and taxes.  At best, we face a time of indifference to the Christian faith and at worst we find outright opposition to the most basic tenets of the faith.  We have people who are Christian in name only and whose Christianity fails every creedal test of orthodoxy except the modern mantra of spiritual but not religious.

So should we despair?  Should we give up?  Should we surrender to the tide of secular Christianity and social movements that substitute for the Gospel?  Some are gravely tempted but along with the promise of purification, pruning, and punishment, the Lord has made His promise.  The gates of hell shall not prevail.  This is not the end or even the beginning of the end -- unless we surrender to our enemies because we fear the power of God is not enough.  The problem is that we have assumed that our goals are God's goals or that our hopes of a powerful majority to reform culture is what the Gospel was given to do.  We have presumed that our idea of kingdom building is His as well.  And this is part of our weakness and weariness.  Jesus said it but we seem not to have heard it.  His kingdom is not of this world.  He will not rule by might but in mercy and His sword is His Word.  That is what some of us have forgotten.

In Hebrews we are encouraged by the fact that God loves us enough to discipline us, to rid us of our false ideas, and to purify us of our sin-tainted desires.  Are we paying attention?  His love is big enough even to discipline us and His mercy is large enough to keep us from being doomed by the power of our sinful desires.  Yet this comes to us at some cost and part of that cost is giving up the idea that God needs us to do for Him what He cannot do.  With that is the cost of admitting that we are more fearful of the world's rejection than the Lord's.  We want both so bad that we will offer the world a Christianity lite before we, knowing they will reject it, say to them what God has said.  In this we have lost confidence in the Word of the Lord and the promises of God to do what He has said through the means He has chosen.

Yet for those who remain in the faith and who come to the Divine Services of God's House, there is still hope.  Ours is not a waning hope or an impotent Word and no where is this made more clear than when the tides of popularity run against us.  In time of doubt and persecution, the Church is forced to be more clear about what we believe and confess and so are we as individual Christians.  Iron sharpens iron.  Even in this time when we struggle, we have all around us a great vision of how God has blossomed the faith in places we thought would always be our poor step children.  We have heard the new voices of men and women who rise up to confess the faith without apology, to come to the worship services of God's House confident the Lord will be there and bestow what He has promised, and who raise up their children in this same faith and fear.  The soft belly of our weak Christianity is exposed but the result is the strengthening of the faith.  We may have to shed some of the visions of grandeur we once harbored but in the process we will see the faith more fervently believed and confessed by those who refuse to cower or soften the Word of the Lord. In this we see that from time to time a pruning and purification is necessary in the Church that the faith may survive.  In this the whole history if Israel, its apostasy, exiles, occupations, and restorations remain most instructive. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church always needs reforming) was not a motto for the 16th century but is the byword for the Church of every time and place.  

Am I discouraged?  Some days I am because I know what I want God to do and it is easier to think I can win God over to my point of view than to trust Him who knows all and who wills for His Church to testify to His Gospel and welcome sinners to forgiveness and life in Christ.  It has been stolen by some as a motto but the Lord actually means it -- greater is He who is in YOU than he who is in the world.  This is what I wrestle with and pray about day in and day out.  I expect you fight the same battles.  But do not give up or give in.  The Lord of hosts is with us.  The God of Jacob is our stronghold.  Though the mountains crash into the sea and waves roll up on the land, God is still here and forever committed to the fulfillment of His saving will and purpose, today and forever.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Theology or Idealogy?

Growing up it was common to say that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer.   It was also common to say that the Roman Catholic Church was the Democratic Party at prayer.  That is no longer the case as any idiot can say.  Then it was common for people to say the same thing about the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  I am not sure that even the Republicans know who they are now so I would be highly presumptuous in suggesting that the LCMS could resolve that question for them and lead them in prayer.  As far as the Democrats go, I am not sure if they pray or what they pray for (at least the ones who insist they are still Catholic or Christian).  In effect, mainline Protestantism has become a pale echo of whatever liberal (some choose to call them progressive) political and social causes have captured the social media as well as the regular media.  Still in all, it was usually assumed that if political and social causes were a cause for disunity, the clergy and the folks in the pews were at least united in what they believe, confess, and teach about God.  Notice I said was assumed.

I read this from an English commentator:  There is greater unanimity among the bishops of the Church of England over Brexit than over the doctrine of the Eucharist.  In other words, the tide has shifted and where once churches were at least united in faith about God, they are now more likely to be of one mind about social and political causes but of many minds when it comes to God.  The United Methodists made a recent slogan of open minds as if to suggest you did not have to believe anything and could believe whatever you wanted and they would welcome you with open doors and open arms.  As we have seen, however, those open minds stop being open when it comes to questioning basic social positions and political causes like rights for gays and lesbians, same sex marriage, support for gender identity choices, abortion rights, and feminism.  Believe what you want about God, just don't say you oppose these sacred truths.

What happens to a church when agreement in faith is replaced by more or less agreement in social justice movements, individual rights to define identity and gender, the sacred choice to kill the child in the womb, the holy cause of deciding for yourself when life is no longer worth living, and the over all gender superiority of women over men?  Well, look around you.  You see what were once the giants of the American religious scene now a shadow of their former selves.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and ELCA Lutherans have lost more members than most churches ever had in their heyday.  Worship attendance is in major decline in these churches.  Sunday mornings will often find little talk about God from the pulpit -- except to sanction the prevailing social or political opinion of the day.  The graying of these churches is obvious.  [Once my family and I visited an ELCA congregation on a Sunday morning (no Missouri was close) and we were instantly the youngest folks there!]

Now I am certainly not saying things are hunky dory in Missouri or Wisconsin or any of the miniature alphabet soup synods of Lutheranism or even in the ACNA or Episcopal break offs or the splinter groups from other denominations.  They are not.  But I venture to say that the folks in the pews there are much more united in their confession of God and in the doctrine from His Word than they are the politics or social justice cause parading as either Gospel or morality today.  And that is how is should be.  Unity of faith is our only real cause -- unity of doctrine and practice to present to the world a solid witness of this we believe.  We may and will have different opinions and cast different votes in the ballot box but this we believe in common.  We may even have people who disagree with sacred causes (such as the pro-life cause) and yet, as a church, it is clear where we stand, captive to the Word of God.  But our social causes and our politics are not shaped by poll or trend but by the Word of God.  For good or for ill, this is how it should be.  The Christian witness has been crippled by our failure to stand together upon the creedal confession of the Triune God and it cannot be rescued by the substitution of either social or political cause.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Lake Wobegon where art thou?

It has been a long time since Lake Wobegon had any good news and it appears it will be a long time before the prospect of any common sense prevails in the state that once was called the Lutheran Homeland in America.  The University of Minnesota has decided that failing to call people by their preferred pronoun may be an expelling offense.  
Failing to refer to a gender-confused student, professor, or staffer by his or her “preferred” pronouns could become a fireable or expulsion-worthy offense at the University of Minnesota, according to proposed guidelines currently under consideration.  The administrative policy document, titled “Equity and Access: Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Names and Pronouns,” claims that individuals’ understanding of their own gender “may include female, male, transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, Two Spirit, intersex, nonbinary, and many others.” It further claims that gender identity “cannot be observed” and “may shift over time,” and that “the only way a person can know an individual’s gender identity is when they tell you.” . . . The document also calls for allowing gender-confused individuals access to “University activities and programs consistent with their gender identities including, but not limited to, housing, restrooms, locker rooms, recreation services and activities, and camp programs.” [emphasis added]
When I was a college student, there were protests to defend the right of free speech on campuses across America but apparently that right has been abridged -- all when it comes to the ever touchy subject of sex identity and gender.  

What is the most egregious part of this whole thing is the insistence that the only way a person can know an individual's gender is when they tell you.  So, instead of name that normally begins a conversation, the announcement of the gender of the moment will come first and this will be the defining characteristic of everything else -- name, personal pronoun, appearance, dress, interest, whatever.  It is one more example of the exaggerated role of desire and how this has become the only sacred truth that cannot ever be transgressed upon the soil of an institution of higher learning.  No religious truth can be allowed to stand without skeptical review but we must take a person at a . . . the person's word.  Today I am a. . . so call me. . .

Of course, the university will not be arbitrary and will hold a 30-day public comment period this fall before enacting the final version of the new rules.  Great comfort there, eh?  But Lake Wobegon has learned to be embarrassed by the U of M before.  This university is certainly no stranger to promoting political correctness and the latest left-wing ideas. Just before Christmas, faculty and staff were told not to display either religious or secular Christmas and Hanukkah on campus -- anything and everything including Santa Claus, Nativity scenes, dreidels, or menorahs. In May, the school backed down after public backlash forced them to cancel plans to teach a doctor to perform abortions and provide abortion training. . . for now.

My point, of course, is that universities have long ago surrendered their credentials as places of higher learning and adopted a single prong view of what will be taught and what will not be allowed to be taught, discussed, or spoken out loud.  At the very time when independent and religious schools are most needed, the position of most of these is financially tenuous and under threat from those who insist that government money defines the curriculum and agenda of the campus.  Think about this as you send your sons and daughters off to uni this month and pray for them!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

So much for collegiality. . .

The sad news from the sad state of affairs in the Episcopal Church:

Episcopal dioceses in the United States which reject the notion of same-sex “marriage” must now allow gay and lesbian couples to “marry” in the church.  The Episcopal Church’s General Convention meeting in Austin, Texas [in July] found a way to expand gay “marriage” rights into all dioceses while seemingly respecting the consciences of local bishops who object on theological grounds.  Praised as a compromise that doesn’t alienate traditionalists, the resolution essentially allows an end-run maneuver around the consciences of the leaders of eight U.S. dioceses who are standing firm against same-sex “marriage.”  Beginning in December, when a gay couple wants to “marry” in a diocese where the same-sex “marriage” is not condoned, the priest who has agreed to conduct the ceremony will be free to bypass his or her bishop and reach out to an Episcopal bishop elsewhere who can step in and provide “pastoral support” for the mono-gendered couple.  Not all bishops were enthusiastic about the resolution. Some expressed grave concern that the move undermines their authority and could lead to a schism within the Episcopal Church.  Bishop John Howard of Florida said his diocese was still reeling from the 2003 consecration of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson, which led some clergy and lay members to break from the denomination, according to a report by RNS.  Bishop William Love of Albany, New York used stronger language, saying, “I’m concerned that when this passes, the floodgates are going to open once again, the bloodshed is going to open once again, the insidious lawsuits are going to continue once again.”The dissenting bishops were part of a small minority, however.
The Episcopal Church has always somehow managed to maintain polite collegiality even when bishops disagreed over such things as the ordination of women or blessing same sex marriages or, truth in the cases of Bp James Pike and Bp John Shelby Spong.  But this collegiality seems to have come to a grinding halt in front of the GLBTQ agenda.  Now the episcopal authority of a bishop in his [or her] own diocese no longer rules.  Priests can find another episcopal visitor to sanction what their local bishops prevent -- at least when it comes to a same sex couple.  The real question is how long it will be before the bishop is nothing more than a well dressed administrative figurehead in the diocese and an episcopal church becomes a presbyterial one.  I don't think it will be long -- except when it comes to matters of property where bishops seems to rule and pursue without mercy the property of any and all congregations who dare to disagree.  So that is what episcopacy has come down to these days.  Hmmmm.  It is no wonder the worldwide Anglicans find it increasingly difficult to know what to do with American Episcopalians.  Oh well, it has confounded courts and churchly tribunals so it is likely Anglicans from around the world will be stymied as well.  The church of the prayer book is gone and the church of the bishop is soon to go, as well.  What remains?  Well dressed clergy who seemingly do not have to believe anything much about God except look good while pretending to worship Him while at the same time advancing every liberal social cause in His name. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Could I have a moment, please????

The one thing that the Latin Mass was really good at was prayer.  It was a prayerful setting and it encouraged people to pray through the Mass as priest and choir were occupied with most of the work and the words.  But that was also its weakness.  About the only thing people did was pray (if they were attentive to it).  Otherwise, the people in the Latin Mass were almost irrelevant to what was going on.  Indeed, it was much like a private mass with an audience.  Okay, some will say I am being too hard on it all but I think there is some truth to my words -- more truth that some folks are willing to admit.

That said, the weakness of the Novus Ordo and most of the liturgical reforms that have followed its lead (including Lutheran) is that it is hard to find time to pray in the Divine Service.  Indeed, in the typical parish you have light conversation, laughter, and even boisterous words right up until the bell is rung or the organ begins intoning the first hymn.  I have been in some congregations where the organist seemed to pile on stops in an effort to drown out the talk and take over the lead, pointing people to the fact that now was the time to sing.  And that is one of the problems.  The people do too much.  The folks in the pews are always doing something -- speaking, singing, listening, pulling money from their wallets, walking around, picking up hymnals and putting them down, etc...  We are too busy and their are scant moments available for us to pray without someone thrusting a hand out for us to shake, whispering into our ears, nodding to us because we forgot to pass the plate, as well as all the liturgical things we can and should be doing.

I lament the loss of silence.  I lament the quick pace to things -- the presumption that if there is a moment of silence, it is a mistake by someone and a distraction from the methodical and quick pace of things from Invocation to Benediction.  We have no time for anything -- least of all a pause now and then to bow our heads and actually pray or meditate.  I have struggled to try and slow us down and provide some quiet moments but the truth is that we have all become uncomfortable with silence.  We click through the liturgy like we do the remotes as we survey the channel offerings on our TVs.  If we did get 30 seconds or so of undirected time in the Divine Service, it would seem like the worst of all punishments and the longest of breaks.

Now to be sure, I am not so sure that this is all due to the liturgical innovations of the 1970s.  We were certainly moving in that direction in many ways -- not just in church.  For Lutherans, some congregations and some pastors kept the pace of the '41 Hymnal going just as fast as the newer ones. It is not simply a problem with liturgical leadership.  It is a problem with us.  I well recall at a church meeting once in which we were given 5 minutes of silence to pray.  Within 30-45 seconds, most of us had already said all we wanted to say to God and found the remaining time an almost unbearable burden.  Prayer is not natural to our sinful hearts.  We learn it and we learn it best by slowing the pace of things and giving us moments of respite from our constant agenda of words, songs, actions, and listening.  I only wish we would learn to find more time for silence, more room for personal prayers and meditation in response to the means of grace in words for our ears, water to make us clean, and Christ's body and blood to feed us everlasting life.  For there is much to ponder. . . if only we had the time. . . and the will. . .

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Who is the greatest?

Sermon for Pentecost 18, Proper 20B, preached on Sunday, September 23, 2018.

    None of us would be so bold or brash as to argue openly who among us was best or greatest?  We are not so crude as the disciples.  Instead was argue about sports teams or political parties or a thousand other things that mask our egos and cover our arrogance with a smokescreen.  I know.  I do it all the time.  So do you.  We have come a long way and we have learned not to be quite so obvious as the disciples.  But that does not mean we are better.

    In fact, we are the ultimate fools, bigger fools than the disciples who argued so openly on the road about who was greatest.  Why?  Because we think we have even fooled God by our suave and smooth moves.  We are like children who protest they have not eaten the candy or the cookies while the evidence is right there on their lips.  Gotcha!

    Nothing is as shocking to us as greatness that is revealed in suffering and in mercy that is given to those who do not deserve it.   It is no wonder why the disciples were arguing along the way about their own greatness.  Nobody wants to talk about the kind of greatness that is delivered into the hands of man to be killed and after three days rise again.  You don’t want to talk about it and neither do I.  But Jesus insists upon it.  In fact, it often seems that is all He talks about.

    Unlike our own day when old people act like children, in Jesus’ day children were tolerated, not valued.  The best children were those neither seen nor heard.  Yet Jesus puts a child in their midst and says “whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me...”  It was a shocking way of turning the tables upon the disciples.  They were, after all, the ones who were acting like children in their petty arguments over who was better and who was worse.  Jesus takes a child in His arms and makes this the sign of the Kingdom.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first and the one who is greatest must be the servant of all.

    Jesus is not giving a recipe for greatness.  Do this and you will get ahead of others.  No, Jesus is still talking about His own death and resurrection.  Greater love has no one than He lay down His life for those whom He loves.  This is not a principle which we are to apply in our own lives but the radical shape of grace that must come down from on high because it cannot come from us. 

    This is not some new law designed to help improve us so we can be better people.  This is directed squarely at the old Adam in us that continues to fight for a relative righteousness in which we are better and others are worse.  This hits us squarely in the head because although we know that most people are hard to love, we presume that there is something in us which makes us worthy of being saved.  And this points to the shock of grace that delivers the unworthy and the undeserving and proves its power not by savagely overcoming its enemies but by willingly being sacrificed for the sake of those who will be saved.

    This is the repeated message of Scripture.  The God who opposes the proud but gives grace to humble.  The Song of Mary who delights in the God who has seen her lowliness but who has exalted her by His gracious favor anyway.  Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.

    We hear this over and over again because it is our nature since the Fall to ignore this or to believe it may be true for others but it is not true for me.  And in fact you will hear this same truth in various ways over the course of the next month or so of Gospel readings from the Gospel according to St. Mark.  The message gets old in our ears but it never wears out.  We need to hear it over and over again because it goes to the heart of the Gospel.

    The great temptation for us is to listen to the words of Jesus, nod our heads, and then go right back to using the ways of the world to define what is great and what is small, what is good and what is bad, what is powerful and what is weak.  Even in the Church we still try to lord it over one another and turn the Gospel into a new law to be enforced.  It was for this that a great Reformation took place in the 16th century and it is for this that God must continue to raise up voices to recall us to the way of the cross and not the path of power as the world knows it.

    The kingdom of God is won by losing.  Jesus loses His life.  He does not do battle with our enemies but gives Himself up as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the whole world.  He does not triumph by leaving His enemies in a trail of blood and death, He sheds His own blood and enters into death for us.  His resurrection does not erase or put into the background this suffering and death on the cross but shows that what He did accomplished what He promised.  He rises so that He might draw all people to Himself.

    Those whom He saves by His death and resurrection do not move to the head of the line to be in charge.  They carry their own crosses and give up their own lives in suffering and in service just as He did for us.  We are not redeemed to get ahead of others but so that we might finally and fully be set free to love as He has loved us and to serve as He has served us, putting others before ourselves. 

    When the Cubs broken their 108 year old losing streak, somebody jokingly commented that it was sad to see such a perfect record destroyed.  We laugh but no one gets excited about a perfect record of defeats.  How easy it is to put our redemption into the same terms.  How easy it is for us to want to see victories, to reshape the world using the Gospel as a weapon of power, and to be a people who must be reckoned with.  But that is not what Jesus asks.

    Our Lord does not ask us to carry Him but promises to carry us.  Our Lord does not ask for us to fight for Him but He insists He has fought for us.  And when He sends us forth in His name, He does so as meek children who have nothing to say but what the Lord has said and no victory to boast of except the victory born of suffering, death, and the defeat of the cross.

    He is not asking us to be childish.  We are certainly experts at doing that on our own. Instead He calls us to be child like.  As a child trusts his parents and receives their love without having earned it in any way, so do we trust Jesus and rejoice in His unearned and unmerited love.  His power is perfected in weakness.  We offer Him all our sins and all the reasons why we are nobodies and He washes us in baptism and makes us His very own.  Once we were no people but how we are His people.  He directs us with the living voice of His Word.  He feeds us the heavenly food of His flesh and blood.  We were the least, the lost, and the last and by His death and resurrection we receive the first fruits of His redemption.  We are still the least, the lost, and the last by the world’s standards and yet Jesus sends us forth in His name to the world and tells us to trust in Him, to keep our eyes upon Him, and He will make all things come to pass as He desires.

    I remember Ted Turner who in his media mogul heyday insisted that “Christianity was a religion for losers.”  Well, he was right though he did not see it.  In Christ we lose our lives so that they may be born again by water and the Word.  In Christ we who were no people have been made the people of God.  In Christ we are sent forth into the world not with the tools or weapons of earthly power but with the cross.  And if we trust in Him and bring the Word of the cross to the world, the last will be made first and the children will be redeemed and the humble will be exalted not merely for our fifteen minutes of fame but for all eternity.  Amen.

The politics of shame. . .

Let me say that I do not have a clue if Judge Kavanagh is guilty as charged or not.  Certainly his character seems to challenge the accusations but until the evidence is there, all we have are accusations.  Well, that is not quite true.  We have more than charges and accusations -- we have the power of shame.  Indeed, it seems like some have honed the art of shame politics for certain causes at least.  That is my concern.  The politics of shame is not a very accurate barometer of morality.

Why is the power of shame so great in service to the #metoo causes but not so powerful against those who use abortion as a means of birth control?  Why is the power of shame so effective against those who question how gender has become a feeling and choice but not so effective against those who make consent the only barometer of morality?  Why does the power of shame work so well against establishment types but not so much against people who live on the cutting edge of choice and identity?

Before some of you rush to accuse me of hate speech, the point I am addressing has less to do with Judge Kavanagh or his accusers than our willingness to let shame do what was once the realm of justice.  The concern here is that we once thought the accused innocent until proven guilty -- and still do for some charges, but not for others.  Absent the proof, shame is used as an effective substitute and this is not good for justice, not good for politics, and not good for us as people.

I am thankful that I grew up before every stupid thing I said or did could be recorded for posterity on smart phone and played on YouTube for all to see.  But my grandchildren will not be so insulated from the immediate consequences of their foolishness.  And it will mark them just as old accusations have already marked Judge Kavanagh -- whether he is guilty or not.  History will weigh anything good he has done against the accusations against him.  In the end, the question remains who will be left to lead if every foolish, stupid, immature, or questionable word or action will be allowed to shame someone from the national stage?  No one is perfect -- not that this should justify or excuse immorality and illegal action.  Yet some of the sins of the imperfect were good teachers of character and the people grew from their failing.  If the politics of shame are allowed to remove some of those people from the national stage, the choices left to us may not be what we want or need.

Some of those whom we now acclaim as our greatest leaders were people with flaws and failings that would certainly disqualify them from leadership today and, if they refused to leave that national stage, the politics of shame would do what honest justice could not.  Again, my point is to raise a question about the power of shame, the accusations that may not be provable, and the innocence that may not be enough to restore a person so accused.  What do we do then?

Monday, September 24, 2018

Not the same. . .

Being good at preaching and being a good preacher are not the same.  There are many who are exemplary orators and speakers in the pulpit.  I can think of many folks who have the ability to turn a phrase and to deliver a line well.  Nadia Bolz-Weber is certainly good at preaching if that is all preaching is.  She keeps your attention, that is true (partially by being shocking).  She tells a good story; I'll give her that.  But being a good preacher is less about the art than about the content.  Now to be sure, I am NOT suggesting that preachers should be lazy in the pulpit or fail in their pursuit of excellence in the craft.  I am not saying that at all.  But success in the pulpit is less about the art of keeping people's attention, keeping them awake, or leaving them with a catch phrase than it is imparting to them the Word of life, being faithful voices of the Christ who speaks through the pastor by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The truth is I have been known to glaze over during some sermons.  I well recall a 47 minute sermon in which I went from nearly nodding off to being angry that the preacher had used so much time to say so little.  I understand the problems of those in the pews who have listened to all sorts of things all week and who are now expected to listen with full attention to the preacher who can expect them to take note (at least for the first 13-15 minutes or so).  I am not blind.  I watch the faces of parents who are struggling to make sure their fidgety children do not become the sermon and aching elderly who are trying to keep their minds from their pain long enough to actually hear a sentence or two from the sermon.  I see the hands using the bulletin as a fan when the air is stuffy and who shiver under too light a jacket when the air is cool.  But the power of the sermon is not in the star who stands in pulpit but in the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Our attention is requested because it is the Lord speaking through the mouth of the pastor and not because the pastor is so great.

Being good at preaching may help you keep attentive when the sermon is empty but it will leave you empty on the way out.  A faithful preacher may not compare to the gifted orators for whom the sermon is an extended monologue in which to shine but they will give you what you need to find peace from a guilty conscience, life in the shadow of death, and hope for an uncertain tomorrow -- all by the Word of the Cross!  I would certainly counsel preachers to work at the craft of preaching but I would also counsel the hearers not to judge by star quality -- this is not The Voice or America's Got Talent.  No, judge the sermon by what is said.  And that requires you to know the truth of God's Word well enough to sift through the words to find the Word of life.  In that way, every sermon is only half the pastor's or preacher's responsibility for the other half belongs to the hearer.

Be not deceived.  Being good at preaching is not the same as being a good preacher.  To those charged with the task of preaching, work at both so that you do not become a hindrance to the Word or to the hearer.  To those charged with hearing the Word of the Lord preached, work at knowing the Word so that you may recognize when it is faithfully spoken and rejoice in its promise and gift.

By the way, I do not write this as one who smugly presumes I am better than I am in the pulpit.  I struggle even after over 39 years of writing sermons and delivering them.  But a little holy fear about preaching is not at all a bad thing.  In fact, it could be exactly the right medicine for the malady before us of people who are good at preaching but not good preachers.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Who needs it?

A few years ago in a blog post entitled, “I Don’t Worship God By Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere,” Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, asserted that he doesn’t feel intimacy with God through singing, he rarely attends church, and most of the most godly and influential Christians he knows don’t regularly attend, either.  This is an individual who championed the church of the god of preference in which worship style and musical taste was offered to fit as many desires as possible.  This is a guy who inspired the worship style in which music was almost sacramental -- the spot at which we most connect and feel the intimacy of God's presence -- and now he admits to not attending any of those services!  He and “most of the godly and influential Christians he knows.”  Surprised?  You should not be.  When faith is me 'n Jesus, worship is an option at best and, if you don't need it, you don't have to have it at all.  For without sacraments or a sacramental Word that is efficacious in its preaching, what does church provide that you cannot get all by yourself at home?

The reality is that for a long time the focus of worship among many churches has moved away from God and the means of grace through which He has promised to work to the Christian.  When personal preference for worship or musical style becomes the focus, then we are powerfully affirming their supposition that worship is mainly about them.  If they are happy, then God is happy.  When we talk about worship style or even congregation as being a good fit for that person or their family, then we are telling them that what drives everything is how they feel and the job of pastor and congregation is to support their feelings.  When we make worship entertainment or sermons practical how to advice about getting what they want from God or anyone else or when we allow them to see the church as a spiritual buffet to appeal to taste, we are saying that none of this is all that important -- certainly not as important as it is fun, easy, rewarding, entertaining, or useful -- all of which are determined by, who else, the person.  When we strip the sacred from the space and define the space by the same technology that entertains them at home, we are admitting that we have little to offer except a repackaged and rehashed version of the stuff they already have, they already value according to taste, preference, and desire, and they trade in or switch out as taste or desire changes (sort of like marriage).

In other words, we have become enemies of God and of His purpose by co-opting worship for us and our wants and our preferences and by substituting feeling for truth as the great judge of what is good, right, beneficial, and holy.  When our theology of worship has devolved into worship that is no longer centered upon God and His means of grace, what God has done and does through the Word and Sacraments, the only thing left to justify church at all is how we like it, what we think we get out of it, or how it appeals to our personal preference and taste.  And from then on, it is a constant battle to get ahead of the curve lest we fall behind and get judged irrelevant.  It is the triumph of spirituality over religion (the truth religion of Christ and Him crucified).  Who needs the church in all of this?

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Fools for Christ. . .

So often we are confounded by those who have long ago abandoned the doctrine and practice of faithful Christianity but who persist in calling themselves Christian.  You have heard those who insist that this or that in Scripture cannot be taken literally but must be meant metaphorically -- all because what Scripture says and the Church has believed does not now fit the individual's own preferences and biases.  Or those who insist that it does not matter if it is all mythology (which they are pretty sure it is), if that mythology leads people to being better people, then it is all good (never mind that better people here means those liberated from antiquated and controlling views of sex, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, gender identity, and the usual environmental stuff).  It is so very nice that so many who have long ago surrendered both heart and mind to forces against the solid witness of Scripture and tradition still ache to call themselves true Christians, true Catholics, true Lutherans, (you substitute the term).  It is so very touching, in a way, to see the affection that these unorthodox believers still have for the Church as long as orthodoxy is optional, reason is the only real magisterium to judge truth, and no doctrine can intrude upon consensual willing consciences.

What is even more quaint is how these liberated idealists insist that their view of Christianity is the true one and that the faith has been hijacked by conservatives, paranoid types, and those unhappy folk who want to inflict their unhappiness on us all.  Never mind what Scripture says, it cannot and does not mean condemnation for sex outside of marriage.  Never mind what Scripture says, it cannot and does not mean abortion is wrong and a woman does not have a right to flush the child who lives in her womb.  Never mind what Scripture says, marriage cannot possible be monogamous nor can divorce be wrong and everyone gets to define their own sense of partnership and call it marriage and family as they will.  Never mind what Scripture says about sin, it cannot and does not mean that you are really guilty of anything except denial of self, desire, and want. 

What is so very strange is how it has come to be normal for political folks to stand apart from their church and take the so-called high road of conscience to preserve invented rights and then insist that any true blue believer would and must do exactly the same thing!  What is so very stranger is how the general public sees this rebellious folks as heroic and morally pure when the positions they espouse break every moral teaching of Christianity!  What is so very stranger is how speaking the true Gospel of love that forgives the sinner his or her sins and leads them to repentance that reflects this self-denial, this cross bearing, and this following of Jesus is now hate speech not to be tolerated in public.  What is so very strange is how many of us in the silent majority sitting in the pews have come to accept this as normal -- even routine -- when it is anything but!

Why, it has become downright weird when Churches and their members stand on faith yesterday, today, and tomorrow the same!  It has become odd to believe that Scripture means what it says, does what says, and delivers what it promises!  It has become strange to find churches where people worship according to ancient form and pattern focused upon Christ and Him crucified and risen!  Of course, there never was a time when this was normal and it has always been the scandal of Christianity but there was a day when most of the folks who questioned the faith were outside the Church and not its members and leaders.  Surely Paul had it exactly right:  We are fools for Christ's sake.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Closed Churches. . .

It is not the first by any means but the story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune chronicles the closing of a few congregations, typical of many churches shutting their doors across the prairie states and, in this case, Minnesota. 100 years, Lutherans in this farming community on the Minnesota prairie have come to one church to share life’s milestones.

They have been baptized, confirmed and married at La Salle Lutheran. Their grandparents, parents and siblings lie in the church cemetery next door.

But the old friends who gathered here early one recent Sunday never imagined that they would one day be marking the death of their own church.

About the series This is the first in an occasional series about Christianity at a crossroads — a time of unprecedented decline in church membership and a changing future for the faith.

When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.
Though the story focuses especially on Protestant congregations, it is also true that the numbers of Roman Catholic buildings also are on the decline with mergers and church closings.  That said, the stark reality is that in the last 16 years or so the ELCA has lost nearly one third of its membership, the Presbyterians two-fifths, and the Methodists one sixth.  The aging demographic of these prairie congregations is unmistakable with baptisms in the ELCA (Minnesota) down 43%!

While there are surely many reasons for this, the story fails to note that these same churches have made a rather dramatic shift to the left both in theology and practice.  During this same period, they have moved to accept most of the GLBTQ agenda with respect to marriage and the openness of these churches to gay, lesbian, transgender, etc., clergy.  During the same time period, these same churches have identified with the left not only in terms of the social agenda (pro-choice) but also the political (read through church resolutions on immigration, for example).  Yet there is no denying that these communities themselves are in decline and the population of rural areas ages faster than in urban and suburban areas as well as offering fewer jobs and reasons for young adults to stay.  Family farms are increasingly small agribusiness and use technology and farm machinery to do large scale what individual families did generations before.

The future of the prairie is not a small thing for Lutherans of all stripes.  Lutherans in particular have a larger proportion of their congregations in these rural areas and as they decline, they contribute to the decline of the whole denomination.  Added to this is the diminishing presence of Lutherans in the greater urban domains across America where buildings are also being sold and people saying good bye to once vibrant ministries. 

So what will America look like once these churches close?  On one level, these communities will lose an important dimension of the communal life and identity, a place for folks to gather, and a resource to address ills within their communities.  On another level, the Christians who must find new church homes will find it hard to relocate their memories in new places and to live with the loss of sacred places once home to generations of their ancestors.  Finally, the churches are among the last to leave these communities after the doctors, lawyers, grocery stores, hardware stores, banks, pharmacies, lumberyards, mechanics, and a host of others who leave main street a ghost town.  As one who grew up in just such a small town in Nebraska, it is a hard pill to swallow.  But as much as this is difficult for those directly involved, this will mean the closing of a vast chapter in American history as well as the history of the churches of these immigrant groups who fed us, created jobs and businesses to employ us, shaped our values, defended our nation against our enemies, and provided the firm foundation on which millions lived their lives.  There is much here to consider. . .

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The leap no one wanted to make. . .

In the wake of the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II (it is unfair to blame the Council for those changes since little was actually directed by the Council itself), Roman Catholics complained that they did not know their church anymore.  Non-Roman Catholics wondered if the Reformation was over because Rome had given up and given in.  Rome still fights the same battles over those liturgical changes and Protestantism has pretty much been won over by Rome's leadership of both missal and lectionary.  According to recent evidence, perhaps even Paul VI was surprised by what went forth in his name (but from the actual pen of others). Lutherans, in particular, followed Rome's example and this has remained an area of some concern for them as well.

The first issue is one of rupture.  Nearly all liturgical change prior to the post-Vatican II reforms was incremental.  It was a small step.  Yes, things changed but the changes were not dramatic nor were they disruptive.  Some were greater than others but on the whole history was rather kind to the folks in the pews and they saw a remarkable consistency - think of the changes of Trent lasting pretty much for 500 years.  For Lutherans, this is no less true.  The forms were consistent though the loss of our liturgical identity proved to be a greater issue than slow and deliberate evolution of the Divine Service.  This was in part addressed even in our Lutheran Confessions -- a concern for liturgical changes that were not startling or disruptive to the faithful.  Whether we like the changes of modern liturgical reform or not, there was a distinct rupture between the past and the future. This is never good and it is certainly a failure of the pastoral responsibility of those charged with such liturgical supervision.  Yet we Lutherans followed the example of Rome and introduced radical liturgical change with the publishing of Lutheran Book of WorshipLBW has continued to influence the shape of this change though the LCMS tried to step back a piece with a doctored up version of what had been in use when it published Lutheran Worship in 1982.  Lutheran Service Book took a much more nuanced view of liturgical change and the acceptance of this hymnal is testament to the benefits of a more pastoral and deliberate pace to reform.

The second issue is more difficult.  That is the underlying premise behind much of the early liturgical movement.  There was at one point in time a rather Polly Anna like view of liturgical change which believed that a pristine and primitive common source could be found and this source should be the primary influence over liturgical change.  In reality the liturgical history of the West is much messier and less simple.  There did not turn out to be an early source that was uncorrupted by elaboration or devoid of less catholic accretions.  In the end, I suspect this is a good thing.  The liturgy is not something which cannot change but is rather something so important that change must be slow, deliberate, gradual, and careful.  We should not look for some perfect rite to be restored nor should we try to recreate a particular moment in time.  Liturgical change is inevitable but the pace and extent of that change is certainly something the Church must exercise great care in managing.  Even Lutherans must not view the 16th Century Church Orders as the zenith of Lutheran liturgical form or practice but neither dare we ignore them or their influence over our past and present.

The last issue has to do more with integrity.  History and sources have sometimes been seen as a vast parts bin from which we may shape what we want.  In other words, we have the technology, we can make it better than it was.  Here, in particular, some attention should be given to cut and paste liturgical reform and its suggestion that all pieces will fit together if we want them to...  The Church's rites have an integrity of form and content which is tested and even destroyed when we simply exchange parts and pieces without much concern for the uniformity of language, musical style, and liturgical form.   It is clear that this was the view of the anaphora of the Novus Ordo and in deference to this bias vastly different Eucharistic Prayers were inserted into the form though they were so different as to represent a more significant change than was first presumed.  Lutherans, often under the guise of adiaphora, have long been guilty of this locally (even though the forms officially published suffer less from this ill).  Pastors pick and choose, replacing hymns for parts of the ordinary without respect to what they say and the role they have in the liturgy.  Especially for festive occasions Lutherans often mix and match things with a nod to diversity but end up with something that is at best a hodge podge and at worst unintelligible.  From forms to rubrics, we cut and paste until it becomes identifiable with nothing.  I can think, for example, of Lutherans who have attached the Words of Institution to everything from Matins to Vespers to create a Divine Service (and a host of other things that are not worthy of mention) in an effort to create from the chaos a Divine Service.  In the end it is like a meal where foods compete with each other.  Just because you can does not mean you should.

So consider this a plea for deliberate and gradual liturgical change, for dealing not simply with the ideal but also the real, and for making sure that the Divine Service has integrity of structure and content.  And if for no other reason, do this out of pastoral concern for the folks in the pews who put up with changes that do not help but actually hinder their faithfulness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

So how religious are Americans and their counterparts across the world. . .

Considering leaving?

Among Protestants surveyed by LifeWay, a change in teaching is probably the most significant trigger to people walking out the door or considering taking a walk.  That said, the graph tells us what we already knew in that when people change addresses, they often change churches (denominations).  Surprising and yet somewhat predictable is the change in preaching style as a reason for considering a change (since preaching style and doctrine are often connected).

I suspect that people are not being entirely honest when it comes to music style changing.  According to LifeWay the number who mark this change as a reason for walking is surprisingly low -- 5% -- but we know that there is, in reality, a significant turnover when just such a shift comes (usually from traditional church music for that denomination to contemporary).  Of course, this is often accompanied by a change in preaching style and theological identity as well so it is not often isolated as the only factor.  Perhaps another reason is that so many of those surveyed by LifeWay have already long ago moved to contemporary Christian music -- so many that this has, in effect, become traditional for some, even many, denominations.

My favorite line in the study is:  The more people go to church, the more committed they are to attending their same church. How sad it is that we need to be reminded of this. The reality is that the people most likely to walk are those who live on the fringes of the church's life and work and identity.  It is unusual, though not rare, for folks who have been faithful and regular over the long haul to simply wake up one morning and seek a change.  In fact, the survey said that those who have been members over the long haul are pretty well certain they will stay until death or move forces them from their church home.

If there is cause for concern, it is that the average size for Protestant congregations is so small -- under 100 people.  If 15% of a hundred walk, that is going to be felt big time in those congregations.  If the congregation is even smaller, those leaving could make or break the financial viability of that congregation -- especially for denominations accustomed to a full-time pastor.  Most church members have been at their church longer than their pastor.  One of the most significant factors in people choosing to leave or to stay in their church is how much their identity is wrapped up in that congregation.  For many congregations, a significant number of members have been there longer than the current pastor.  Again, could this be saying something about pastoral longevity and how this affects the stability of a church's membership?  Could a revolving door history of pastors coming and going work against the congregation in a whole host of ways?  I suspect there is more here than meets the eye.  In the end this could give comfort to some and make others uneasy about the future. 

Some 76% of those surveyed believe their participation in the life of their church has been helpful to them as individuals, helpful to their spiritual lives, and supportive of their faith.  That is a number we ought to pay some attention to -- only 3% think that statement is wrong or are not sure how true it is that their church has been helpful.  I must admit that I am a bit surprised by this. 

In the end surveys can end up seeing only what they look for.  I hope that no one uses surveys to redefine what their church believes or does.  We ought to be more grounded than the latest and most recent poll.  But in the end, it does suggest that we should not be as worried as some have been that their people are waiting to run.  That said, non-denominational churches and those new congregations that pop up overnight seem to be overly dependent and crowded with people who left in search of something new -- and who will leave again if something new or better comes along.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Belief for the Unbelieving. . .

               How often do we feel like we’re walking through life and there’s no light?  How often do we feel like we’re all alone, like God is far off, that He’s listening to other people’s prayers, that He’s taking care of them and has forgotten about us?  We know this isn’t the true.  With head knowledge we know God’s promises; we know that we’re His blessed, chosen generation, that we’re His people and He’ll never abandoned us, and yet, there are times in life when it feels like He has.  During these times, when it seems like all hope is lost, it’s good for us to follow the example of the father in the Gospel; praying, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” (Mk 9:24) 
               If anyone ever knew the darkness of despair, it was the father in our Gospel reading.  This man’s son was possessed by a spirit that made him mute.  And not only that, it tried to kill the boy by throwing him into fire and water.  This spirit plagued the boy from childhood.  His whole life was tormented by this spirit, and so was the father’s.  Helpless, all he could do was watch as his child suffered.  As parents, there’s no greater hurt that we feel then when we see our children hurting and there’s nothing we can do about it.  It tears us up inside to see them in pain, suffering illness and disease.  Our only hope is that we can comfort them, if even just a little bit.  The father had a glimpse of hope when he heard about Jesus.
Jesus healed many people with all kinds of diseases and ailments.  He cleansed people with leprosy and healed many who were paralyzed.  He cast out demons and even raised the dead.  Hearing about all these miracles, the father had hope.  So, he brought his son to Jesus. 
At first, he asked the disciples to heal his boy; something the Lord enabled them to do before.  When Jesus sent out the 12 earlier in Mk 6, He gave them authority over the unclean spirits (Mk 6:7), and they cast out many demons as they went along proclaiming the gospel (Mk 6:13).  But, this demon they couldn’t cast out.  They couldn’t help the boy.  And again, the father despaired. 
When Jesus approached all the commotion, He asked what was going on and the father spoke up, explaining his great need.  Filled with hopelessness, he asked Jesus one last time for help: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). 
“If you can.”  These words prefaced the father’s final request.  “If you can.”  These words have a sense of doubt in them, a sense of unbelief.  “If you can.”  This man questioned Jesus.  Did he really believe Christ could help after His disciples had already failed?
For many, unbelief begins with failed hopes and dreams.  Struggling through life’s darkness, we question the goodness of God.  We question whether or not He cares and loves us.  We question whether or not He’s really all powerful, and if He is, why doesn’t He do something?  Why doesn’t He stop all the evil?  Why doesn’t He stop all the pain and hurt?  Why doesn’t He stop all my pain and my hurt? 
We all know someone who’s turned from the Lord because of the bad things He let happen in their life?  People lose their job for no apparent reason, and after struggling to make ends meet, they lose their house as well.  People who live active and healthy lives out of nowhere become terminally ill.  A child dies after a long painful fight with cancer, taken before they can enjoy fully what life has to offer.  A friend is taken in a tragic way, dying in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.  There’s no shortage of terrible things happening in this world.  Just take a quick look at the headlines and you’ll see more tragedy than you can handle.  For many, these terrible things drive them to unbelief.  They become angry with God asking why.  Why did He allow bad things to happen to good people?  Why did He allow bad things to happen to me?  They want nothing to do with Him.  Some even hate our Lord.  Maybe you’ve even question the Lord’s goodness in times of your suffering? 
               The father in our Gospel had his doubts.  He wasn’t sure Jesus could help.  And yet, Christ answered the darkness of the father’s despair with the light of His life.  Responding to the man’s doubt, Jesus said, “If you can”!  All things are possible for one who believes” (Mk 9:23).   Those who trust in the Lord will receive all of the Lord’s blessings, even if those blessings seem impossible.  These blessings include deliverance from pain and suffering, deliverance from the seemingly never ending darkness and despair of life, deliverance even from death.
Hearing Jesus words, the father asked for what he lacked.  He asked for the faith to trust in Christ, to trust in the goodness of the Lord: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9: 24).     
On our own, it’s hard to believe.  On our own, it’s downright impossible for us to believe.  With our own strength, we can’t trust in the Lord’s goodness when all we see around us is despair.  No amount of positive thinking on our part will give us the hope that is strong enough to carry us through the dark times of life.  The faith we need to trust in God’s goodness and mercy must come from Him.  Like the father, we must pray, “I believe; help my unbelief.”  And graciously, the Lord answers this prayer, through the working of the Holy Spirit. 
It is the Spirit of God who gives us the faith we need to trust in our Savior.  This truth of faith we confess every week as we speak the Creed.  When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” what we’re really saying is, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ , my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” (SC, Creed Article III).  It is the Spirit of God, working through the good news of the Gospel, working through the gracious promises of our Lord, who gives us belief and keeps us in that belief.  The Lord has chosen us for faith; faith that trusts in Christ our Savior; faith that trusts in His salvation won on the cross. 
Our Lord hasn’t left us alone in the darkness of despair.  He came to us, to live in this darkness, so that He might overcome it with His light.  Born in that stable He grew up and lived in our sin filled world.  He knew the struggles of temptation.  He knew sorrow, mourning the death of loved ones.  He understood suffering and pain, and all of this He took to the cross.     
The OT reading from Isaiah (50:6) speaks about the suffering our Lord endured.  Jesus didn’t turn from the pain and suffering of the cross.  He knew His suffering and death was the only way to save you from death.  So He gave His back to be beaten and flogged.  He faced those who struck Him in the face.  He endured being spit upon and mocked.  He willingly died on the cross in order to overcome the sin and death that plagues us.  He gave up His life, so that you would have life, so that you’d be delivered from the darkness of despair and brought into the light of His everlasting life. 
The OT reading for today ends with these words, “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Is 50:10).  God hasn’t abandoned you.  He hasn’t left you alone in your despair.  He sent His Son to suffer and die in order to save you from your despair.  Christ endured more suffering than any of us could ever imagine.  His pain was more than any of us could ever bear.  The weight of the whole world’s sin and despair was on His shoulders, and He willingly carried it so that you would be saved from it. 
There are times in life when it seems like there’s no light.  There are times in life when it seems like there’ll be no relief from pain and suffering.  Like the father in our Gospel, we might be despairing; we might question God’s mercy and goodness toward us.  But during these times we still trust in the name of the LORD.  During these times we hold fast to our Savior, knowing that He can, and He does save us from all that afflicts us.  The light of His salvation is there, even in the darkness of our sin and death, and nothing can take that from us. 
We’re God’s people; His blessed, chosen, generation.  He’s inclined His ear to us and He listens to our prayers.  God’s provided us the light that we need when we’re in the darkness of despair.  He’s given us His Son, who died and rose so that we might have life and salvation.  This is what the Lord blesses us with.  He’s chosen us for this everlasting life.  With Spirit worked faith, we trust in this life, always praying, “I believe! Help my unbelief. Our Lord is faithful, He will do this.  He will bring you out of the darkness into His marvelous light.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.