Monday, December 31, 2018

Ponder, Ponder, Ponder

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas C, preached on Sunday, December 30, 2018.

    August Rodin sculpted the famous figure of a man, chin in hand, sitting, and thinking.  He is called simply “The Thinker.”  We know not what is on his mind.  He may be considering the great mysteries of the universe or he might be wondering what he is hungry for or he may be daydreaming nothing significant at all.  Who knows what lies in his mind or where the focus of that mind is.  He is simply the thinker.  The sculptor has let it to our imagination what the man is thinking.  Perhaps that is his intent. In any case, we want to think it is a noble thought and not something as stupid or foolish as thinking he should have forgone that last piece of pizza the night before.

    With Mary we have no such dilemma.  The Virgin Mother of our Lord is a great ponderer.  But the object of her pondering is not some theoretical mystery or even some ordinary choice.  It is her Son.  She has been pondering the child in her womb since the voice of the archangel first stirred within her the promise of the Father.  She pondered how and why and what it all meant.  She pondered not the ordinary motherly thoughts of boy or girl, tall or short, handsome or homely, healthy or not.  She pondered the Son of God who took flesh from her and whom she would deliver up to save us all.

    When it came time for her to be purified in the Temple and for the first born male of her womb to be presented according to the Law, she had been pondering already for nine months and forty days.  Still she had no answers.  Then in the experience of that temple, more things to ponder and more questions.  There is Simeon who breaks out in song and grabs the baby right from her hands in order to praise God who has kept His promise.  There is Anna who is older than dirt and now rejoices that her life has been made worth living because she has seen her Savior.  And there is that word of a sword to pierce her own heart even as she hears that her Son’s life will not be a happily ever after.  Ahhhhh, Mary had much to ponder.

    In the story of Christmas you find curious shepherds, singing angels, visiting Magi, preoccupied residents of Bethlehem, and an angry Herod but the most profound individual is Mary.  While any ordinary mother would be fussing over nursing and clothes and who gets to see the baby so young, Mary has bigger things on her plate.  She ponders the Son of God whom she has just delivered up from her womb as the Savior not only of the world but her Savior as well.  She does not busy herself with the plans of a parent to design her child’s future but awaits the awesome and yet awful unfolding of God’s design on the Son of her womb born not simply to live but to die.  If she tosses and turns in the night because her mind will not stop it has nothing to do with the mundane things that trouble us.  She dreams of Jesus who will save His people from their sins even at the cost of His own death upon a cross.

    So, what do you ponder?  If you are like me, you think about ordinary stuff more than extraordinary, you fuss after routine things in life more than the exceptional, and you think about what ifs that have little if anything to do with the eternal Son of God made flesh.  Your pondering and mine is as childish and foolish as it can be in comparison to the weight of the heavens and the future of the earth that Mary ponders as she looks into the face of her Son.

    And that is exactly where we meet today.  We meet as a people who confess too many ordinary things occupy our attention and we do not think enough on Christ and His salvation.  We come as a people who admit we think more of this mortal life than the heavenly life His coming has made possible.  We come as a people who should be pondering God’s Word and praying more but in weakness, weariness, and want we find it hard to read the Bible or pray more than a few sentences before sleep claims us.  We are assembled not as the noble to commended but as sinners preoccupied by sinful things, who wish we were holy but who do not work very hard at being holy.

    We come to learn from Mary how to ponder, how to think of the things of God, how to rejoice most of all over the mystery of the Son of God in flesh and blood for our salvation.  We come to learn from Mary to see past the stereotype and to see Christ as He is and not how we would like Him to be.  We come to learn from Mary to worship Him with the best of our hearts and minds and with the simple things of daily life done for God’s glory and in thanksgiving for Him who graced the womb of the Virgin that we might be saved.  We come to learn what it means – Christ for us, Christ with us, and Christ in us.  We come to learn what it means to the new people baptismal water created and not the old people who think being bad is where its at.  We come to learn that God has not come to excuse us or condemn us but to save us . . . and how we might live as the saved, whom God has declared just.

    However deeply your heart has been pierced, however frustrated or bitter you are at what your lives have been or have not been, however great the challenges that lay before you, however painful the prospect of living even one more day, Jesus has come for you.  Jesus has come for you.  Jesus has come for you.  This sad and pitiful life is not all there is but the barest prelude to what the Lord has prepared for those who love Him.  Ponder not upon the things that make you angry or the people who tick you off or the things of life that are not as they could or should be.  Do not dwell upon the minutiae of a cheap life.  Instead, ponder what it means for God to value you enough to shed the blood of His Son to save you.  Instead ponder what it means to be called the child of God you are by baptism and faith.  Instead ponder what it means that Christ died so you might live and bore your sins on the cross so that your conscience might be clear.

    And if that is not enough, ponder the joy of Him who endured the cross and scorned its shame that You might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom forever more.  If that is not enough, ponder the love that delivered up the Son of glory to the womb of the Virgin so that you might be set free from sin and its death.  If that is not enough, ponder why God would pay such a high cost for you, with your tired old sins and your half-hearted efforts to be righteous.  If that is not enough, ponder the strength the Lord has made perfect in your weakness, the bruised reed He has not broken and the dimly burning wick He has not snuffed away.  If that is not enough, ponder the life that waits for you in death, hidden in darkness the everlasting life and the grand reunion with those who have gone before.  If that is not enough, then ponder that God has spoken to you the voice that absolves you of all your sins and has fed you the flesh of His Son and His blood for the forgiveness of all your sins and as pledge and promise of the eternal banquet feast to come.  If that is not enough, ponder this.  Jesus is yours and you are His.

    Ponder this for a while and you just might discover the joy that sustained the Mother of our Lord who knew the son in her womb was not hers to own but the Savior who would deliver the world.  Ponder this and you must might find the strength of a mother who watched her son die for all on the cross and who waited for Easter to finish the story with her own hope of redemption and reunion.  Ponder this and you must might find the courage to carry on. . . one more hour. . . one more day. . . as she carried on, outliving her husband and her Son.  Ponder this for a while and your cold heart may warm and your complaint may fade to gratitude and the tears of your sorrow become tears of everlasting joy.  Amen.

The Oldest Intact Book. . .

Europe’s Oldest Intact Book Was Found in a Saint’s Coffin

The St. Cuthbert Gospel is the earliest surviving intact European book. Some time around 698, it was slipped into the coffin of a saint.

Saint Cuthbert’s fame grew following his death in 687. The hermit monk’s body, so the story goes, was found to be incorrupt over a decade after his passing in Northumbria (today’s border between England and Scotland). The miracle led to a cult around his remains. Offerings were placed at his tomb. Some time around 698, a small red book was slipped into his coffin.
This manuscript — known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel, or Stonyhurst Gospel (for Stonyhurst College where it was once held) — is the earliest surviving intact European book. It was removed from Cuthbert’s coffin in 1104, during a transfer of the saint’s remains to a new shrine in Durham Cathedral. “In an eyewitness account of the events surrounding the ceremony of Translation, which took place on Monday, August 29, 1104, [an] anonymous writer describes an investigatory opening of the coffin on the night of Thursday, August 25,” writes historian Calvin B. Kendall in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. “After examining Cuthbert’s body for evidence of incorruption, the monks reclothed it with costly garments and restored it to the coffin, and ‘As soon as the body of the blessed Father was shut up in the coffin, they covered the coffin itself with linen cloth of a coarse texture, dipped in wax.’”

The book, however, was kept as a separate relic. Today the 1,300-year-old manuscript retains its original pages and binding. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012, and is now on view in the London institution’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, that opened October 19th.

“Its excellent state of preservation can be traced at the outset to the significance it held — a carefully prepared gospel text, which was transferred with the relics of St. Cuthbert to Durham in 1104,” writes scholar Robert D. Stevick in Artibus et Historiae. Because of this remarkable condition, it’s an important example of Insular art, which was created on the British Isles and Ireland between 600 and 900 CE. “There is interlace pattern in two panels on the front cover, step-pattern implying two crosses on the lower cover, a prominent double vine scroll at the center of the front cover—elements of this early art that have been well catalogued for their individual features as well as for their affinities to similar decorative elements in other artifacts,” notes Stevick.
It puts some perspective on this thing called time, God's greatest gift that became the curse of death when man chose himself over God.  Seventy or eighty years, says the Psalmist, and sometimes, if life is very full and there are many accomplishments to show for it all, we might say it is enough.  But thanks be to God that our Creator refuses to say that is enough.  He has become our Redeemer, sending His Son from the eternal day into one day, in the womb of the Virgin, born in a stable, laid in a manger, to live, yes, but to to die and to rise to reclaim time for us.  More than simply reclaiming the first state of Eden, God has given us a new Eden with a new heavens, a new earth, and a new and glorious body to wear.  This is what we come to remember, to learn, and to proclaim on the eve of a New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Will it run out of gas. . .

To those of us who struggle with the ever changing face of modern life, further and further from the Biblical shape of life, the hope is to turn the tide and make some headway in our rush to a secular world in which all truth is surrendered to feeling and preference and desire.  We too often think of this in terms of a war in which battles will be won or lost but the final victory will be ours -- a victory not of heaven but of earthly triumph against the enemies of Christ.  We see the emptiness within heart and soul of modernity and presume that it should eventually die under the weight of its own paucity of truth, morality, and virtue.  But the process of secularization will not run out of gas nor will it ever give up. It will burn like a quenching fire through every nation and transform every culture, stripping away our common life and our common hope in Christ until it leaves nothing of the faith present. The Church only hastens this mad pursuit of death by accommodating this culture and surrendering itself to the comparative morality in which nothing is sin and forgiveness means accepting yourself for who you are.  In Rome the sex abuse scandals have done even worse damage than the tragic abuse of the children and teens by giving up every moral high ground and admitting their hypocrisy of words that have no action behind them.  In Wittenberg the two kingdoms has been distorted into the belief that that a wall exists with the Church concerned with salvation but not so much with the holiness of the lives of God's people or the raising up of virtue before a fallen world.  Too many have muddied the waters by hoping that political leaders and parties can be used to do what the Church alone is established to do -- the witness of the Gospel and its fruit in the faith and faithful lives of those who hear and believe.

The Church was sent to the world with hope.  This hope is not some fragile dream of a better life, of freedom to pursue desire, of the liberty to define self and truth for the moment, or to make peace with death.  This hope is transforming because it does none of these.  This hope is of the redemption of soul and body, the whole person, created anew in Christ Jesus in the waters of baptism where the people of God are joined to Christ's death and His resurrection.  The fruits of this life are not some self-centered righteousness but the righteousness of Christ, once alien and strange but daily and richly by the work of the Spirit at work in the baptized that they may become who baptism has made them to be.  This hope is not to some weak and vague spiritual existence but to the solid promise of the resurrection of the body like unto Christ's own glorious body and not some floating future in the clouds but a new heavens and a new earth.  The Church has the moral high ground not because we have proven ourselves worthy but because we continue to wear Christ's righteousness as the ill-fitting clothing of a people whose old Adam still tempts, tries, and troubles this new life but who are growing into this clothing ever more each day (though seen clearly only by God) until death becomes the door to the finish of His new creation in us.  When we surrender this righteousness of Christ to the press of culture and the legitimization of self-interest and desire and call this the Gospel, we stand with empty hands before the world, nothing to offer but pious platitudes that few pay much attention to anymore.

The history of the Church is one of heights and depths, of corruption and reform, of sin and repentance.  Within this often ugly history, the only thing that continues is Christ and Him crucified and risen.  Renewal has come only through the return of His Word to the front and center of our life together and the piety flowing from and back to the altar where we kneel to adore and rejoice to receive the very flesh of Christ in bread and His precious blood in wine.  The liturgy and preaching have always been these forces for renewal and the rescue of a lost Church has always come from the repair of belief separated from praise.  Lex orandi lex credendi is not a slogan but admission that there is no confession apart from worship and there is no worship that is not confession.  And when the preaching and liturgy of the Church are there to reclaim us, there is hope — not only for those within the Body of Christ but for a world which has lost all its hope. The task of winning the hearts of people young and old is not a program or a methodology but the confident proclamation of the living voice of that Word that endures forever and the liturgy in which we say back to God, pray back to God, the very Word He has spoken to us.  Liturgical renewal and the renewal of preaching and teaching are not options but the only essential path for the Church to fulfill her calling and for the work of the Kingdom to continue while a world is at odds with Christ and the people of God.  If that means we must give up kingdom building and the goal of dominance, then let us joyfully abandon such political dreams and pursue the real mission of the Church in faithful preaching, teaching, liturgy and the works of mercy that flow from these as the rich fruits of the Spirit among us.  If this means that reality will leave us with a smaller, more zealous, and hopefully purer Church, then let us leave the wisdom to the Lord and stop confounding and confusing the mission of the Kingdom with the gathering of statistics.

Finally, as we approach the end of one calendar year and the beginning of another, let us not put our hopes in evil that will run its course but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Let us not surrender our hope for some pragmatic view of accommodation but stand on Christ the solid ground.  Let us relentlessly pursue the faithful preaching and teaching of the doctrine of the Scriptures attested to within the catholic tradition and just as relentlessly pursue the compassion of Christ for those broken by sin, guilt, and death.  Let us give up being company men attempting to preserve an earthly tent and proclaim the heavenly temple in which there is real and honest hope by the resurrection of Christ and His pledge that we too shall rise.  The final chapter has already been written even if we do not see it with mortal eyes.  We behold it with the eyes of faith and the victory we long for here on earth against all enemies of Christ and His Church is already accomplished but not yet fulfilled in us.  May He who began this good work within us bring it to completion on the day of Christ.  This is our urgent prayer and our confident hope.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. . .

Before Renovation. . .
Some, even some commenters on this blog, have complained that the cost of beauty is too great, that we cannot afford to build beautiful churches anymore.  Others have lamented that the money spent on beautiful buildings is wasted when there are more urgent and more important needs -- from missions to mercy work on behalf of the poor and needy.  Still others insist that this is nothing less than idolatry and complain that we are attempting to worship stone and wood instead of the God who cannot be contained in a mere building.  Perhaps there is some truth to all of these positions.  Beauty does cost and yet the value of an investment in beautiful buildings cannot be simply be judged on the basis of initial cost.

After renovation.
God does not need beautiful buildings.  He was in a tent long after the rest of Israel had built more permanent structures and resisted King David's plea to let him build the Lord a fitting house.  But the Lord did not simply relent and allow King Solomon to build the Temple -- He designed the structure down to the smallest detail and commanded that it be built as He commanded without concern to the cost of such an elaborate structure.  Amazingly, the people and their king were glad to be allowed to build for the Lord such a house -- despite its cost.  God does not need a fancy temple, but He knows that we do.  So for generation after generation the Temple stood as the beating heart of Israel's faith, life, and identity.  When desecrated, it was rebuilt.  When its worship faltered, it was renewed.  Prophets came and went but the sacrifices of the Temple remained.

Jesus never disdained the Temple or what was supposed to go on within its courts.  He did, of course, both lament and critique the stewardship of those who were to keep the Temple as a beacon of faith and light that was to point to Him.  He spared no words of condemnation and upturned the tables of those who had forgotten the purpose of the Temple.  He honored the synagogue with His presence and never once suggested that the golf course or fishing boat or a darkened bedroom were sufficient substitutes for the place where the Word was preached and the sacrifices offered.  Somehow or other we have forgotten this and made Jesus an enemy of beauty or at least no friend to it.  We offer the Lord and the Lord's people warehouses devoid of holy things for the holy people who worship therein.  We think that we are being good stewards but we tear down the flawed and cheap buildings of our past with the same pace as we level retail and commercial establishments in order to keep pace with current trend or because they cost more to keep than to destroy.  Then we wonder why there is so little appreciation for or desire to be in the holy places where the Lord makes His presence in the Word and Sacrament.  God does not need eloquent spaces but we do.

Building of beautiful churches makes a significant statement about who we think we are, who we think God is, and how much we value the Lord and His gifts.  Within the stone and steel, brick mortar, wood and glass something is said about God and about us -- perhaps something we do not like to admit.  We spare few dollars on our comforts (a cool place in summer and a warm one in winter, easy chairs, fine technology, and lots of other things) but we won't waste money on things that testify in art and music what God has done.  Sadly, most Lutheran churches do not even have a choir or a building or an organ sufficient for the music of our greatest musician -- Bach.  We are not alone.  Beauty is not a high priority for us.

Beautiful church buildings are not so much monuments to us as they are places where we experience in the eye the vision of the Revelation of St. John and anticipate the heavenly liturgy.  While they need not be overly extravagant in cost, they need to have the integrity that flows from what happens within that space and express in some sort of way the awe of those who regularly receive within these walls the inestimable gifts of God.  Beauty and form are not ends but means and the heavenly liturgy of eternity which we anticipate and even rehearse here on earth is, according to Scripture, not devoid of art and music that befits this majestic experience.  More importantly, beauty identifies this as sacred space, space defined not by what we do but by what God has done and still does and has promised to do for us, among us, and in us.

Once the church in a given community was both centrally located and was the most prominent building in that community.  Imposing, perhaps, but inspiring most of all as it attempted to make fit for the eye what the Word of God says and does.  By the the time of Luther, other buildings competed for this prominence and began to draw the eye away from the House of God and to palaces and government buildings that instead testify to mortal greatness. Today we live in a world of huge steel and glass houses and they testify less to the prominence of God in our midst than to the temples of finance, retail and commerce, government, and, most especially, our penchant for leisure and pleasure.  Here I think of the great stadiums for the sports teams and their power is revealed by how much people will pay for naming rights and for the privilege of signage on their walls.  To those who say buildings do not matter, I challenge them to look at these monuments and say they are silent about our beliefs, priorities, and values!

No, it may be a comfortable lie we tell ourselves but it is still a lie that beauty is too extravagant a thing for churches.  God does not need fancy temples, but we surely do.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Time for a Revival?

Just down the road from me is First Christian Church, one of the older established congregations in Clarksville, Tennessee.  I have to admit that I was not all that familiar with this church body until moving here.  According to their own definition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”  Apparently the wholeness movement has hit a few bumps in the road.

According to the annual Disciples of Christ yearbook, this church has experienced such a profound and rapid decline that it threatens the viability of the whole denomination.  By their own numbers, church membership shrank to 411,140 in 2017 (down from 497,423, or 17 percent, from 2014) and, perhaps a more accurate barometer of health, the average worship attendance dropped to 139,936 (down from 177,141, or 21 percent, from 2014).  Get behind those numbers and you find that additions by baptisms are at 4,344 (down from 5,808, or 25 percent, from 2014) and transfers of membership into the church are 7,441 (down from 15,111, or 51 percent in 2014).  In other words, these increases cannot keep pace with the transfers out and the death of current members.

From the Restoration Movement begun in the early 19th century by Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, several churches were born.  The Disciples are the smallest of seven historic oldline Protestant denominations. Once over 2 million in membership, the denomination has lost two-thirds of its memebers since the 1960s. Remember that at one time it boast a number of prominent members, including Presidents Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and James Garfield.

The Churches of Christ – also heirs of the Stone-Campbell movement -- also are in decline though not nearly so steep or so quick. The Disciples joined other oldline Protestant denominations to embrace sexual orientation and gender identity at their 2013 General Assembly.  The Disciples have lost about 77 percent of their membership since their highest membership in 1964 and now fall into the category of small denominations, somewhat like the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) or the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  It is quite a slide from their heyday but judging by what is happening down the street from me, it appears to be a real problem for this denomination born out of a revival movement.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The glory of the Lord. . .

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, preached on December  25, 2018.

    If some of you notice, you may wonder why your senior pastor wears the dalmatic – the vestment of the assistant in the liturgy.  It is a curious thing that ordination to a higher office does not erase the lower offices that precede it.  Even the Pope can serve as humble deacon or even acolyte.  That is not how it is in our world.  Presidents do not take turns cleaning toilets in the White House – glory flows one way and once you have it, you do not let it go for anything.  But that is not the case for God.

    The holy Incarnation of our Lord did not cause Him to cease being God.  It did not require Him a leave of absence from His place as the eternal Son of the Heavenly Father nor did it mean that His glory and power were no longer His.  He sets them aside to fulfill His saving vocation to you and me and for the sake of the whole world but that does not mean He has given up His place as God’s Son or that He is no longer worthy of the glory that belongs to Him as the Son of God.

    God is forever confounding us with the mystery of His love.  He overturns the laws of nature at will – parting seas, multiplying loaves and fish, healing the sick, and raising the dead.  So the God who made all things has determined to become the Savior to redeem His fallen creation.  We may see it strange that the mighty God of heaven comes into the womb of the Virgin, is born in a stable, laid in a manger, and manifested in flesh.  But God does not.  This is strange only to those who think glory is a river that flows only one way.  But God’s glory has dwelt among us and we have seen Him, the only Son of the Father, in flesh as ours and blood, to be our Savior.

    Even the angels cannot fathom how God works.  They can only kneel before Him and adore Him.  So why do we think that we can fathom the awesome mysteries of God and plumb the depths of His wisdom or sit with Him as equals sharing conversation?  Like Job of old, we are reminded.  God’s ways are not our ways and our ways are not God’s ways.  We cannot presume to advise Him nor can presume to get Him.  It is ours to worship Him, to kneel before Him, to adore the Word made flesh, and to rejoice that this is happening not for Him but for you and for me.

    All things work together for our good.  That is what St. Paul says.  But we see this verse to apply simply to the realm of human choices – where we go to college, what career we choose, where to work, who we marry, if we have children, where to invest, and when to retire.  This is small thinking.  The things that work for our good are time and history, from the creation of the world to the patient love of God who bore with us sinners who deserved only His wrath to the God made flesh to be our Savior.   

    We think too small if the good we seek is an easier or better today, a healthier life, a richer bank account, more pleasant experiences, more or better things, or a life without disappointment and with a great deal more happiness.  It is like the child who chooses the bigger coin over the smaller one of greater value.  We think too small.  For the good of the Word made flesh is an eternal tomorrow, a new heavens, a new earth, and a new you and me, rendered righteous and holy by the blood to dwell in the presence of the Most High without fear and with great joy forevermore.

    God has displayed the great and grand mystery of His glory.  He loves you.  He loves me.  Not because we are lovable or because we can do anything for Him.  He loves us in spite of the fact that we are unlovable, worthless, and stained with sin and tainted with the stench of death.  He does not hold His nose to dwell among us or come quickly to get it all over with.  No, His glory unfolds over centuries and with promises so hard to see until finally the pieces are in place and we see God in the face of Mary’s Son.  His glory is to love, not with the shallow love that has limits beyond which it will not go but with the boundless love that is willing to be stretched out in suffering, rendered unclean by dwelling with those unclean, and dying to set the captives free from death.

       The Lord’s glory is to love you.  You are worth it to Him.  Look in the mirror and you will behold the mystery.  Any reasonable God would have dismissed you as not worth saving and gotten on with it.  But not the Lord.  The world chooses between nature and the desires of man but not the Lord.  He has not chosen nature but sees one creation with you as its crowning glory.  In all your weakness, in all your sin, in all your brokenness, in all your need, and in all your death, it is the glory of the Lord to come for you, to hide His glory in flesh until even that flesh can no more hide it.  You are not lovable but He has loved you and this is the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of His once for all sacrificial suffering, the mystery of the God of life who dies for the dead, the mystery of the life that death can no longer threaten or snuff out.  This is the Word made flesh, the glory of the eternal Father, manifested in His Son, who is born to save us.

    This Lord will always be Emmanuel.  His ever still the God who is with us.  If sin and death cannot keep Him from us or His love from saving us, we rejoice today to acknowledge that this Lord Jesus is and always will be our Emmanuel.  But He is not in the manger.  There is no baby waiting for you.  He was born in flesh, He grew into manhood, He died and rose again.  We remember the manger but we do not look for God’s glory there.  The risen Lord has ascended on high and even so He is not gone.  He has not abandoned us.  In His glory He dwells among us still – not in the fragile fold of feelings or dreams but in the concrete splash of water, the voice that speaks forgiveness, the bread that feeds us eternal life and the blood that cleanses us and makes us holy. 

    The Light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  The glory that saved us still shines like a beacon into the world where death and despair still reign.  The hope that cannot be disappointed still triumphs over evil and wrong, satan and his demons.  That is the glory that beckons to you this day.  He has come to His own, to you and to me, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit we have seen Him, received Him with faith, rejoiced in Him, and abide in Him today and forevermore.

    The presents are shadows of Him who is present with us, whose glory dwells not out there but in here, and whose great mercy still opens eyes, transforms minds, and makes holy the sinner.  This is what we speak to our children as we tell them Luke’s precious story.  This is what is hidden in every gift exchanged.  This is what is symbolized in every holiday meal just as it is fed in the holy meal of this altar.  This is the voice of singing learned from angels and the wonder learned from sheperhds and the worship learned from Magi.  The glory of the Lord is that He loves you, He has borne the full measure of your sin and died its death and now you are free.  Free to behold Him in His glory, His glory now and the eternal glory to come.  And for this, God be praised.  Today.  Tomorrow.  And forevermore.  Amen. 

GLBTQ and other issues impact on churches. . .

As Methodists ponder their own conflicted future over sex and gender issues, one ELCA veteran (Reverend Dave Keener) listed the fall out from their decision to abandon Biblical and Confessional teaching.  I think he is pretty well on the mark regarding the outcome of the failure of "bound conscience" and the impossibility of such disputes coexisting within one church structure.  You aread it and see if this is not an accurate description of the price the ELCA (willingly and, some might say, gladly) paid:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.
  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.
  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.
  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty.  It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.
  • Theological education. Since the vote the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.
  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision the denomination has continued to drift. With it’s decision the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common.
  • Generational impactThis article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.
  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Gifts of Chist for Everyday

Sermon for the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, preached on December 24, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    There are many Christmas traditions: caroling, special dinners and treats, trees decorated with beautiful and meaningful ornaments.  Every family seems to have their own special thing, their own unique way of celebrating Christmas.  But there’s one tradition that everyone  Everyone loves Christmas gifts.  We love to get them and we love to give them.
    The traditional picture of Christmas is the tree all decorated with lights and ornaments, and under that tree are gifts.  But these gifts aren’t simply in brown cardboard boxes closed-up with packing tape.  No these gifts are wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbon and bows.  This wrapping makes the gifts extra special.  There’s an excitement and anticipation thinking about what’s inside.  Part of what we love about Christmas gifts is the wrapping paper, ripping it open to reveal the surprise inside. 
   Looking back at my family Christmases growing up I remember the paper, not the nice wrapping paper that covered the gifts, but the ripped paper that was all wadded up and littering the family room floor.  My brothers and sisters and I, we tore through that paper like it wasn’t even there.  The hours that my mom spent wrapping those gifts was all undone in a matter of minutes.  And what did we do with that paper? ... We threw it away.  We brought in the large trash bag and tossed everything out.
   We didn’t appreciate the wrapping paper.  We didn’t appreciate the time our mother spent making   those gifts special.  We only cared about the gift.  But often, our appreciation for that quickly went away.  We forgot about it.  That new toy we had to have found its way to the bottom of the toy box. 
The reason why we give gifts at Christmas is because on that first Christmas our Father in heaven gave us the greatest gift of all, His Son.   And just like the gifts that will be under our trees tomorrow, God’s Gift came wrapped, not in pretty paper, but in a swaddling cloth, & then in a burial cloth.
   The swaddling cloth of Christ’s nativity isn’t a small thing.  It’s not just a cute image of baby Jesus wrapped in a cozy blanket.  The fact that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloth points to the fact that God’s Son came to us in the flesh.  The Gift of God is His Son Incarnate, it is His Son in flesh and blood, just as He promised. 
   Through the prophet Isaiah, God promised His gift: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14).  This name, Immanuel, it means “God is with us.”  This doesn’t mean that God is only with us in thought.  This doesn’t mean that God is only with us in spirit.  This doesn’t mean that God is only with us for emotional support, cheering us on as we go through life.  No, this means that God is literally with us, that He has come to walk among His people.  It means that God’s Son has taken on our flesh and blood, so that He could redeem our flesh and blood, so that He could completely save us from our sin, so that there can be a resurrection of the dead.  This is why Jesus is the greatest gift of all, because He is our Savior.  He paid the price required to buy you back from sin and death, and that price was His very life. 
   We give gifts as an act of love.  God’s Gift is an act of love, sacrificial love that’s beyond compare.  “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10).  The love of God, the love of God for you, that love drove the Father to give you the greatest gift of all, His very Son to pay for your sin. 
Jesus was born to die.  He was born to give His life up in ransom for yours.  The gift of our Savior wrapped in swaddling cloth is the gift of our Savior wrapped in burial cloth.  The gift of Christ is His life and His death.  Christ atoned for your sin with His death.  Christ won you forgiveness, life, and salvation with His death.  The Father’s Gift on that first Christmas Day is the Gift of Good Friday, the gift of our Savior...and this Gift never stops giving.  Christ is the gift that gives unto everlasting life.
    The Gift of our Father isn’t just given once.  We don’t just receive Jesus only on Christmas Day.  We receive Him every day.  We receive Him every Sunday in this very place as we gather together to hear His Word and receive His Sacraments.  In these means of grace, God continues to be with us.  He is here giving us His Son and the gifts of forgiveness and life.  God is with us, Immanuel, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  God is with us, Immanuel, wrapped in the Word of Scripture.  God is with us, Immanuel, wrapped in the waters of Baptism.  God is with us, Immanuel, wrapped in Absolution, the forgiveness of sins.  God is with us, Immanuel, wrapped in the bread and wine, Jesus’ very body and blood for us to eat and drink.  God is with us, Immanuel, to give us His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation!
   I’m not gonna lie, growing up, Christmas and my birthday were my two favorite holidays, because on those days I got gifts.  And I’m sure that’s same for many of us here.  We like to get gifts.  That’s part of who we are as selfish sinners.  We like to get more than give.  But the gifts we want, they’re temporary and fleeting.  They don’t last, and neither does our appreciation for them.  We grow tired of the gifts we’ve received, always looking forward to the next best thing.  Don’t let this be the case for God’s Gift to you, because there is not other next best thing.   
   The gifts of Christ aren’t temporary or fleeting.  They don’t change.  God’s forgiveness in Christ is the same today, tomorrow, and forever.  Our Lord, because of His love for you, is always there, wanting to answer your repentance with His forgiveness.  Don’t neglect this gift.  Don’t take it for granted.  Don’t think of it as a cheap gift, because it’s not.  Your forgiveness was costly for our Heavenly Father.  It cost Him everything, His only Begotten Son.  Christ died for your life, so repent, turn from your sin and  come and receive His gift. 
   God has given you His gift...Christ Jesus His Son.  On Christmas He was wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger, and then on Good Friday He was taken from the cross, wrapped in burial cloth and laid in the tomb.  Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, is the gift that pays for your sin, the gift that gives you forgiveness, life, and salvation.  God gives this gift at all times, so receive it all times.  Don’t let it it be thrown out with tomorrow’s wrapping paper.  Come and receive the gift of God’s love, through His Son, through His Word, and through His Sacraments today, tomorrow, and everyday.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

A Hogan's Heros Christmas Flashback

Lost matters of truth. . .

Christianity is defined not by opinion or even decision but by doctrine, by truth.  It might seem obvious but, look around you, the world has done a fairly good job at re-inventing Christianity and making it into something almost alien to the Scriptures and unrecognizable to the catholic tradition.  Protestantism seems to wallow in a slurry of whim, desire, feeling, and experience. It picks at the Scriptures as if it were a buffet and chooses the things it likes and disregards the things it does not.  All of this in pursuit of a better today and a happier life -- all to celebrate when death comes (hopefully after a long and rich life).  Jesus is not much more than a bystander in all of this but He makes people feel better about their self-interest and desires.

One might think that liturgical churches would be more immune to all of this.  A quick glance at the Episcopal Church and the ELCA Lutherans shows that possession of a faithful liturgy is no guarantee of doctrine preserved and a faith maintained in tact.  In fact, some of those who appear rather orthodox on Sunday morning have adopted the most radical approaches to the whole GLBTQ agenda, to the social issues of poverty, climate change, and justice, and to friendship with culture in which it is culture that gives the cues and the churches that give it legitimacy.

In the midst of all of this, Rome once seem more immune to the pressures than others.  The days of tie dyed chasubles and religious Peter, Paul, and Mary songs have waned.  The Latin Mass has seen a resurgence and the younger priests seem more intent upon being Roman Catholic than generations before them.  But the abuse scandal has tarnished the moral authority of the Roman Church and the current Pope seems intent upon creating cracks in the foundation rather than patching them up.  The current Youth Synod illustrates this well in its attempt to listen more than speak and, if it speaks, to soften the doctrinal stance in favor of assuaged feelings on the part of those who find that doctrine unacceptable.

The Church, however, is defined by the Word of God and is expressed in doctrine. Focus groups and synodality or consensus are not the sources of doctrine and truth. We face the strange times of those who refuse the dogma of Christianity but desire a diluted form of Christianity.  The great temptation faces churches is the desire to choose between making people happy and being faithful to the Lord, between earthly success defined by numbers and statistics and the heavenly well done.  When the church fails to make it clear that Christianity is captive not to preference or opinion but to the Word of God, we do not only fail the Lord but we fail those who believe that you can have the church without faithfulness to the Scriptures.  Whether this is due to timidity on the part of the churches or due to an outright disdain for what has always been believed, confessed, and taught, there is no integrity in either.

I might add that while some have accused the Missouri Synod of isolation, of hiding from rather than engaging the world, this is also no option.  While I might admit that Missouri was preoccupied with other things in its past and while it was certainly true that some, perhaps many, in the Synod preferred to remain insulated from and aloof from the world around them, this is certainly a false characterization of the Synod today.  In fact, we face our own group of folks who believe that our historic stands on everything from creation to close(d) communion should be eased in favor of a less dogmatic Christianity and one in which the Word of the Lord is either unclear or includes words that may not bind conscience.

However you look at history, you have to respect that the great disputes among Christians, including the the 16th Century Reformation, considered matters of substance and truth.  They did not ignore or avoid doctrine but debated matters of greatest importance.  They asked the questions of substance that have always confronted humanity -- sin, redemption, grace, mercy, death, good conscience, truth, and destiny.  They followed different cues, sought different authorities, and came to different conclusions, to be sure, -- this is why I am a Lutheran and not a Roman Catholic. But modern Christanity betrays this serious past and exchanges truth that endures for the lie of the moment -- whether that modernity is voiced by those who claim no connection with the past or by those who presume to live in continuity with that past.  Whether in matters of liturgy or doctrine, witness or work, we offer the world the one saving truth of a holy God who made all things, the tragedy of wondrous birthright exchanged for a fallen humanity so dark and deep that only a bloody sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God can atone for this sin and only the risen Son of God can end the reign of death.  Apart from this we have not merely lost the truth but the very reason for our existence.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Blessed Christ Mass

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, she being great with child.

And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered; and she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes; and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: That ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 

Click here for the continuous Christmas music from Lutheran Public Radio. . .

Monday, December 24, 2018

A story of two women unlikely mothers. . .

Sermon for Advent 4C, preached on Sunday, December 23, 2018.

    By all accounts, this event we are preparing to celebrate should not have been.  It began with a woman who should not have been pregnant.  Elizabeth was old, too old for her womb to conceive a child and too old to carry that child to term and too old to care for that child when born.  There is a reason young people have children – it is because old people are simply not up to it.  We are not only wearied by the prospect of keeping up with the child in youth, we are too filled with life’s disappointments to do anything but fear for their future.  So us old people simply spoil our grandchildren in hopes that when life hits them in the gut, they will recall us and not give into bitterness and hate.

    Elizabeth was well past the age of having a child or raising one and her husband even older, weaker, and more tired.  Yet in the surprise of this all, her ancient womb is filled with life by the promise of God.  He will not be the Savior but he will prepare His way.  He is a cousin to Jesus but more than that, He is the forerunner who prepares His way, who sounds the trumpet call of repentance, and announces that the new thing the Lord had long ago promised was now being done.  He jumped in his mother’s womb as sign and testament that this was not only his destiny but his choice.

    Mary was equally the unlikely candidate for motherhood.  It was not simply that she was young – we have no idea just how young she was – but she was a virgin.  When the archangel came to call to tell her the future God had prepared for her, she answered “How can this be since I am a virgin?”  Even virgins know where children come from and she knew that she had never been with a man and that there was no mortal chance that her womb could conceive a son.  Except that with God all things are possible.  What man can only imagine, God delivers.  And He delivered to her virgin womb the flesh and blood of His one and only Son.  She knew that there was great risk in His offer but she was so confident of His grace that she did the most unlikely thing – she consented to become the Mother of God.

    When these two unlikely mothers meet, both with wombs filled with God’s promise, what does Elizabeth say of Mary?  Blessed is she who believed that what the Lord promised will be accomplished in her.  For what brings these two unlikely mothers together is faith.  With man it is impossible.  An old woman with a son in her womb and a virgin also with a son.  Both of these women believed the word the Lord spoke to them and trusted in Him to do what neither could do without Him.  The hallmark of their life was this crowning moment – not how or even why but because the Lord said so, they believed His Word.  And that is where you and I enter this story.  That is where Elizabeth mother of John and Mary mother of Jesus invite us to stand with them in faith.

    In faith Elizabeth received the promise of a son to her womb.  In faith she rejoiced to see Mary, virgin mother of our Lord.  In faith John jumped in the womb.  In faith Mary listened to the archangel’s announcement.  In faith, when she could not see how this could all be, she acquiesced to the Lord’s will and purpose.  In faith she beheld in the face of her own Son the Savior of the world.  In faith we too will kneel and acclaim Jesus God in flesh, on this eve of the eve of the Christ mass.  In faith we look at the cross and see our own redemption accomplished.  In faith we hear the baptismal promise that God is ours and we are His own children.  In faith we listen as through words our sins are forgiven never to condemn us again.  In faith we trust that what Jesus says, He means:  This is My body and this is My blood.  In faith we stare into death and look into the darkness of death and insist this is not the end.  In faith we await a new heavens and a new earth and our own place within that glorious and unending future.

    Christmas is not about gift or sentiment, not about decoration or family gathering, not about jingle bells or Santa, not about certain smells or foods.  It is about faith.  The faith that rejoices to believe God keeps His Word, that He has come to deliver His people from their sin and to answer death’s claim with the promise of life without end.  In this faith we come.  We need more than a holiday, more than a few days of distraction, more than a few moments of full bellies and a hint of pleasure.  We need nothing less than what Elizabeth rejoiced to see and John in her womb rejoiced to hear and shepherds came to see and wise men came to worship.  We need Jesus.  We need the power of His life to rescue our lost lives and His holiness to cover our sin.  We need His Spirit to teach us the wisdom that begins with the fear of God.  We need to learn from Him how to be holy, how to be righteous, how to be good, and how to delight in as well as follow His commands.

    Christmas is not many things.  It is one thing.  It is Jesus.  Just maybe it takes it one old woman who never thought she would bear a child and one virgin who did not even think it was possible in order for us to believe this. Just maybe it takes a prophet in the womb to jump for joy thus begin His prophetic ministry even before He is born for us to know what Christmas is and how best to respond to it. 

    You are just as unlikely as Mary and Elizabeth to be the children of God’s promise and the vehicles of His grace and favor to a world still in darkness.  But God has called you by name, washed you clean in the waters of your baptism, whispered into your ears the voice of His forgiveness, placed upon your lips the body of Christ and His blood, and set you apart for a holier purpose and a higher calling than the moment, the kind of earthly pleasure which can fill this moment, or for the work that can only endure for today.  Like Mary and Elizabeth, you are His people through whom He will work.

    So do not merely listen to the story but learn it so that you may tell it to your children and to those around you, whomever they may be.  Do not merely delight in a gift but rejoice in the God who gives Himself to you.  Do not put away this joy like you will soon put away the presents and the decorations.  Do not go back to the way things were before Christmas interrupted everything.  This is your call to faith, to trust what eyes cannot see and hands cannot touch.  This is your call to faith, to believe that the things of God which are beyond our senses are even more real than the things our senses know.  This is your call to faith, to take the radical Word of God for what it says and to make everything, including your feelings the servant of this Word.  This is your call to faith, to set aside the life the world calls good in order to live out the goodness of the Lord who loved you enough to become your Savior.

    And soon the day will come when empty memories will fade so that your minds and hearts may be full of His present joy.  Soon the day will come when you will experience first hand the joy of the angels over one sinner who repents.  Soon the day will come the rhythm of our earthly lives will give way to a new beat and our lips will learn the new song of eternity.  Soon the day will come nothing will diminish your joy and no sorrows will cause your eyes to tear and no disappointments will leaven you wounded.  Soon the day will come when calendars and clocks will no more count down our lives and we will wear the glorious bodies of eternity.

    But. . . until then. . . Blessed are YOU who believed what the Lord said will be accomplished.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Would you kneel?

If Christ would born today, would you pull out your ear buds and listen to the voices of the angels in song or stick to your own playlist?  If Christ were born today, would you leave your work and your home to discover the new thing God was doing or would you wait for a rerun to watch on your own schedule or a podcast to run in the background while you were focused on something else?  If Christ were born today, would you kneel before the Infant Savior and King or would make yourself comfortable in His presence?  If Christ were born today, would you take off on the great journey across the unknown toward a goal still vague in your mind or would you stay home and stick to your own routine?  If Christ were born today, would you bring Him the richest gifts of your treasure -- gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- or would you have Amazon deliver Him something quick and easy (a gift card, perhaps)?

This is no what would Jesus do kind of speculation.  Christmas comes once a year but Christ is present with us every Sunday in the Word preached, sins absolved, baptism recalled, and Holy Communion received.  It might be an interesting game to see how far one might go to emulate the Holy Family in their reception of the mystery of the Word made flesh and the singing angels who provided a heavenly soundtrack and the shepherds who left work and home to visit the unknown of God born to a Virgin within a stable or to follow the Magi in their walk by the light of His natal star.  But it is no game.  Christmas comes every Sunday.  Christ is here.  He is here with all His gifts.  He is accessible in His Word and Sacraments.  Salvation's day and salvation's bread and salvation's cup are all wrapped up into the one Divine Service where we hear God speak and where we eat the flesh of Christ and drink His blood.  If we would leave behind the playlist, kneel in His presence, leave work and home to see Him who is our Savior, follow the Light to be in the presence of the Light of the World, and bring Him our best for His glory to go back to Bethlehem, why not do the same for the Bethlehem of the Lord's House on the Lord's Day around the Word and Table of the Lord???

Some thoughts on the night that is the eve of when it all happened first. . . even though we joyfully acknowledge that what happened then is still among us full of grace of truth and offering forgiveness, life, and salvation for all who will hear and follow, kneel and worship, rejoice and give thanks. . .  A blessed ChristMass Eve. . .

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Immersed in the Prayer of the Church. . .

My wife, the daughter of a printer, is my proofreader for most things published (though not for this blog and hence the typos, errors, and grammatical mistakes are ALL mine and mine alone).  In reading through the weekly intercessions before printing, she said the most profound thing to me.  In these prayers, I am included without having to pray for myself at all.  Praying the prayer of the day is praying for me and my own concerns.  I wish I would have said that.

I grew up in the day when extemporaneous prayer was real prayer and praying the prayers of others was praying with training wheels on -- it was not authentic and not real prayer.  As a young pastor I was told many times by many people that my prayers sounded like a book -- a compliment I thought but it was not meant that way at all.  In fact, it was being suggested to me that I really did not know how to pray at all, that even my extemporaneous prayers sounded like they were written by others and not the authentic fruit of my own heart and composition.  For a while I was deeply wounded by this charge.  Then I got over it.

If I were teaching homiletics in seminary, which no one would ever want me to do, I would not let anyone write a sermon until they had spent a year immerse in the preaching of others -- earthly church fathers, medieval preachers, Luther and other Great Reformers, even the American preachers of the Great Awakenings.  But I would also have them read the sermons of many of our great preachers who have published collections or internet sermons to read and hear.  You don't learn preaching by preaching, you learn preaching by hearing sermons preached.  That is where good preaching begins and why I still spend a fair amount of my devotional time reading the sermons of others.

Translate that into prayer.  If I were teaching someone how to pray, I would not let them start with their own prayers but urge them to begin by learning from the great pray-ers of Christian history, reading the collects of Cranmer, and looking at the prayers and petitions which have stood the test of time and appear in prayer books new and old.  Would it be too quaint to suggest that they find themselves a dogeared copy of The Lutheran Hymnal and pray the General Prayer of the Church over and over and over again?  Would it be too obvious to suggest praying Scripture, at least the prayer book of the Psalms?

What my wife stumbled upon is that the Prayer of the Church could easily be the form and outline of the prayers of God's people as they individually pray in their closets and cars, at their breakfast tables and in their beds, and together with family or in solitude.  Because of her comment, I have begun making the Prayer of the Church available in print after each service so that people may take them home and pray them in their own time and place.  Immersed in the Prayer of the Church we are free from the sometimes difficult burden of knowing where to start and what to say.  And hidden in the Prayer of the Church are the prayers and petitions of our own individual needs and wants.  If we let them be. . .

So you will not get a complaint from me if you begin with and stick with the hymnal as your prayer book and the Prayer of the Church as your individual dyptych and if you find help for the desires of your heart to prayer in the sturdy and eloquent prayers great Christian men and women of old have left us -- a rich and living legacy that neither diminishes our own words but provides a prayer when no words come and a school from which we learn to pray. . .

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Scripture's deaf ear. . .

Canon Rosie Harper, chaplain to the Church of England’s Bishop of Buckingham, jointly issued a Twitter complaint against Scripture for being, well, tone deaf to modern sensibilities. . .

‘At the deepest level we have chosen to create an image of God which colludes with the toxicity of male dominance. So much religious language is violent. It is about heroic leadership, Kingship, subjection, dominance. It’s about who wins and who looses. It’s about punishment and reward. There are wars, physical and spiritual. Every level of oppressive patriarchy is right there in our holy text…This is about so much more than making a few women bishops. This asks us all if there is a way in which Christianity can be so counter-cultural that inhabits a universe that is free form gender war at every level…To even begin to make that happen we need to talk about pronouns. While God goes on being caricatured as ‘he’ the conversation cannot even begin.’
What is somewhat humorous but in the saddest sort of way is that we find Scripture always offensive but not our own desires or acts or words. . . that we find Scripture such a toxic substance but find sin acceptable if not understandable. . . that we find it so easy to dismiss the story of the Bible as violent, misogynistic,  homophobic, {fill in the blank here} but we have a positive view of our selves and of our educated and mature perspective on all things. . . that nearly everything that is wrong with the world today can be placed at the feet of the terrible male, unrepentant of his masculinity, and, worst of all, probably white.

We want to redeem things for the moment. . . God is redeeming them for eternity.  So we live in the moment, judging yesterday with disdain and insisting there can be no tomorrow without our wholesale redefinition of the way things are and then we call this the real Gospel that is hinted at in Scripture but hidden below its own patriarchy of dominance, abuse, violence, and privilege.  We, meaning the modern person replete in all our modernity of glory, think that God is caricatured when it is God who has defined Himself and emptied Himself in love to redeem us, not in the least, from our own pompous self-importance. . .   What a Christmas we have to look forward to!!!!

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Easy Choice Isn't the Best Choice. . .

After a round of parish consolidations and closings two decades ago, Pittsburgh is consolidating and closing more parishes over a long stretch, reducing the number of church buildings to a fraction of what there were 40 years ago.  It is not alone.  Dioceses all over the USA and the Western world are struggling over what to do with the declining numbers of priests and parishioners.  That is not simply a Roman problem.  My own parish recently purchased an altar, pulpit, font, rail, hymnboards, and floor candlesticks iin pristine shape from an ELCA parish that had recently closed (at fire sale prices, by the way, so missions should take a look at buying used!).  My own LCMS district has listed parishes that are closing or on the verge of closing in nearly every annual report and it is not alone in this sad statistic either.

In a conversation about this very thing my wife's response was wise and blunt, "Why is the church surrendering?"  Why, indeed!!!  Rome has a choice -- do the work of renewal to bring more parishioners back and welcome new converts OR close nearly empty buildings.  Rome has a choice -- either reduce the need for priests by closing churches and consolidating them OR work harder to recruit candidates to the priesthood.  The easy choice is always to close down the buildings.  The hard choice is to renew the faith around the building targeted for closing and recruit more priests to serve on the front lines of the this evangelization.

For Lutherans the choices are remarkably similar.  as I write this I lament that my own home parish has been forced to beg around neighboring parishes to serve as a dual parish -- after having their own pastor for more than 100 years.  They were never large -- seldom had a regular attendance of more than 80-100 -- but they were dedicated and sacrificial and from this faithfulness they produced a significant number of pastors and teachers for Lutheran churches and schools -- more than most large parishes!!!  I am in their debt for the faithful witness that inspired and encouraged my own journey to ordination and financially supported that pathway so generously.  Why does it have to end up this way?

At a recent district pastoral conference, a list of statistics was sent around showing the numbers and percentage of unchurched by county throughout the geographical region where I serve.  This is the Bible belt, the heart of Baptist country, the home of the Church of Christ and a host of other rather uniquely Southern denominations, and Trump country.  There is no county in which the majority of its population either claims a church home or worships there once a month or more.  In other words, whether rural or urban or suburban, the field is ripe, the Lord is calling, and the work of the Kingdom awaits those who will serve the Lord's purpose with the Lord's Word.

The easy choice is to close and lament the closure for a few days and then to look to innovative and creative ways to plant a-traditional missions.  The harder choice and the better one is to use what remains as resource for a renewed effort to reach the people with the Gospel and rejoice with the angels in heaven over every sinner who repents.  It is hard, there is no easy way, but it is the hard choice of those who went before us and it cannot be anything less than our choice today.  The church will not be saved by doctrine lite or worship lite or by forms and buildings that look more like retail centers than churches.  The church will not be saved by changing the beat of the church music or by replacing one instrument with many.  The church will not be saved by realized efficiencies and cost savings.  The church will not be saved by parachurch entrepreneurs who repackage failed retail strategies and offer them back to our parishes as the current recipe for success.  The church will not be saved by quietly ignoring Biblical witness and catholic tradition in order to embrace the new wave of cultural, sexual, gender, or technological choices emerging around us.  The church will only be saved by faithful preaching of the Word of the Lord within and outside the buildings where the faithful gather.  The church will only be saved by the faithful witness of those who hear and believe and believe and follow the voice of their Good Shepherd.  The church will only be saved by holding to the truth that is forever in the Word of the Lord that does not change -- without embarrassment or shame.  The church will only be saved by the hard work that accompanies the Lord's Word faithfully preached and lived out in neighborhoods and cities and across the prairies of our land.

Can we learn from those who look at what is happening around us?  Sure.  We can learn much from them but we cannot learn how to do what God has called us to do or what to speak to those not yet of the kingdom.  These come from Scripture and the catholic witness across the ages.  Renewal has always come from renewal in the Word -- the preaching of that Word and the teaching of that Word.  Yes, we need to be welcoming and we need parking and we need signage and we need to be deliberate in our work of making known who we are and where we are.  Yes, we need to warm up to the natural witness of the faithful to those with whom they work, live, and play.  Yes, we need all of these things but we dare not mistake these for what makes the church grow.  That is the Word of the Lord faithfully preached and taught, the water that welcomes with new life, and the table where the Lord welcomes with His flesh and blood.  We are not to argue people into the kingdom or even make the path easy.  We preach repentance and forgiveness and we call the faithful to worship which is the highest priority on their time, minds and hearts open to the teaching of Scripture and the catechism, knees bent in prayer for the church, the world, and those with special need, and wallets upon to support this mission here and everywhere.

The easy choice is not the faithful one. . . now is not the time to surrender but to rekindle our efforts to do what God has called us to do and to be whom God has called us to be. . .

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dissonance in rites does not harm consonance in faith

So what does it mean that Lutherans confess there may be differences in ceremonies and this does not impede the unity of the Church. . . Chemnitz provides some answers. . .  The idea of adiaphora is often used as license to do as you might please, with lesser being better than more ceremonies.  But it is clear that adiaphora has less to do with a laissez faire attitude toward ceremonies than it has to do with papal use of ceremonies as good works that earn you something and that Lutherans still afford the benefit of uniformity over diversity.

The people shall be instructed, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 14 [:40], that it is God’s will that, when the congregation gathers together for the administration of the Word, Sacraments and prayers, all things are to be done and observed with good decency, in order, and for the building up. And therefore the churches of the Reformation have and retain certain free, adiaphorous ceremonies, not with an understanding like that of the pope, who has forced his precepts upon the church, as mentioned above, but only to the end that in such assemblies everything may be done decently, in order, and for building up:  that there may be one certain order where, when, by whom, and in what form and manner the administration of the Word, Sacraments, and prayers will be held, what should come first, what should follow after; and that there may be such ceremonies as give external indication that great exalted, serious things are happening in the congregation, so that the ceremonies may serve as guidance, incitement, admonition, and stimulus, that the people may concentrate their thoughts and lift up their hearts in all humility, so that with sincere devotion they may dispose themselves to the Word, Sacrament, and prayer in the congregation.  For this is what Paul means when he says that, in such assemblies, all things are to be done with good decency, in order, and for building up.

Therefore, the people shall frequently be exhorted to love such gatherings of the church of God, because there God desires to be present, to work through Word and Sacraments, and to give His grace to believers.  They should also enjoy attending these ceremonies before and after the sermon and use them to the end here stated.

And though Christians are not everywhere bound to the same specific ceremonies- for Christian freedom has its place in this article, as the ancients say, “Dissonance in rites does not harm consonance in faith”- nevertheless, because there is still all manner of benefit inherent in keeping ceremonies as uniform as possible, and because this also serves to maintain unity in doctrine, also because common, simple, weak consciences are all the less offended and rather the more improved, it is therefore viewed as good that, as much as possible, uniformity in ceremonies with the neighboring Reformation churches should be achieved and maintained.  And for this reason, in the matter of ceremonies, all pastors in the churches of our principality shall henceforth strictly abide by and conform to the order described below, and it shall not be neglected without exceptional and considerable cause.

Additionally, the common people may nevertheless be instructed regarding such ceremonies, how they are a matter of Christian freedom and to what end they are observed and used, lest the old papistic delusion become attached to ceremonies once more.  (Chemnitz’s Works, Vol. 9. Trans. by J Corzine, MC Harrison, and A Smith. Ed. By J Corzine and M Carver, CPH, 2015, pp. 78-79.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The problem of digital giving. . .

Let me begin by saying I understand the problems of giving in a cashless society.  I, myself, seldom carry cash and, if I do, I carry very little cash.  The debit card has taken over the check book and cash as the ordinary way to pay for things.  My parish has had electronic giving in one form or another for many years -- though most recently it has become a very significant potion of the total money received for the work of the Kingdom.  So I am NOT suggesting that we buck the trend and insist upon cash or check as the only acceptable means for giving to the Lord and supporting the work of His Church.  That said, the challenge of cashless giving does have theological implications -- especially within the liturgy. The question is not whether or not to use digital forms of giving but maintaining the connection between the liturgical offertory and the tithes and offerings of the faithful.  This is not simply a matter of how best to provide means for people to give but how to connect this giving to our own deep and profound Eucharistic theology.

I am, in so may ways, indebted to the wisdom and work of the Rev. Heath Curtis, pastor of Trinity Lutheran in Worden, Illinois.  He is certainly tasked with this responsibility on behalf of the LCMS but he is also devoted to the topic, as witnessed by his August 2018 interview on the Issues, Etc.  Curtis has rightfully reminded us that from the Western Church’s ancient beginnings, the offertory is related to the Eucharist, and its position in the middle of Mass, between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is not accidental but deliberate. In reviewing the liturgical history of the offertory, Curtis explained the people would bring up their gifts of bread and wine to the priest, as well as the first fruits of their labor, which they offered up to God for the support of the church. From these first fruits, the priest would offer up the bread to the Father, on behalf of the community, bread that would become the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.

“It absolutely matters how people give liturgically,” Curtis said. The Offertory, he said, is not simply a transition point between the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful, but for the people to “worship the Lord with the sacrifice of their giving.”  Pastor Curtis said churches need to think deliberately about how to maintain that act of worship in giving and respond to the ways in which people are giving.  The important task of the Church with respect to giving is to establish for the giving members the context of “first-fruits giving,” the setting aside or the tithe or a dedicated portion of their income to the Lord before their money goes to anything else, is a liturgical act whether done online or in the pew, whether it is done weekly or monthly or even quarterly. People who give automatically this way must be taught this connection and catechized in this connection so that even digital giving maintains this appropriate context for what we give and how we give it.

It is always an easy and tempting idea that giving to the Lord the tithes and offerings of a grateful people is really just paying a bill -- the same way we routinely pay bills online.  When this happens and the liturgical shape of this giving disappears, this temptation is even grater to see giving as fair share activities and subscription fees in exchange either for belonging to or receiving services from the Church.  Surely as we approach the solemn and profound season of the Father's gift of His most precious Son, it is time for us to speak anew of the worship of hands and resources to accompany our words, songs, and prayers.  The response of God's people to God's most amazing gift is to kneel in worship, adore God in flesh, believe the Word of Promise about Him, and offer Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as once the Magi did in Bethlehem and the wise still do in the Bethlehem of the Lord's House where He comes to us in the bread that is His flesh and in the cup of His blood. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Rejoicing in Repentance

Sermon for Advent 3C, preached on Sunday, December 16, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    The Old name for this Sunday is Gaudete, which means rejoice.  It’s the first word we sang in the Introit and rejoicing is a major theme in all of the readings.  The prophet Zephaniah called God’s people to shout aloud and rejoice.  Paul famously encouraged the Philippians to rejoice always.  In the Gospel reading from Luke, even though rejoicing isn’t mentioned specifically, you can be sure that the people Jesus healed rejoiced.  And rejoicing as a theme makes sense this time of the year as we get closer and closer to Christmas. 
    We rejoice in the traditions of Christmas, in the celebrations, spending time with family and friends, some of whom we only get to see once or twice a year.  We rejoice in the dinners and holiday treats.  We rejoice in presents, receiving gifts and giving them.  Rejoicing is part of Christmas, not just because of the traditions, but because our Savior.
    We celebrate and remember our Lord who came to us to save us from sin and death.  Jesus was born to die so that you would live.  So as we think about our Lord who was born on Christmas, the only fitting response is rejoicing. 
     But rejoicing isn’t the main theme of Advent.  Advent is a time of preparation, a time of looking forward to the coming of our Savior.  During these 4 short weeks we not only prepare to receive Christ on Christmas, but to receive Him when He comes again to judge the living and the dead.  This was the whole purpose of John the Baptist.  God sent him to be His messenger to prepare the way of the Lord; to make ready the people of God to receive Jesus as He began His ministry.  John did this by proclaiming repentance, calling people to turn from their sins.  Through repentance we prepare for the Lord; therefore, Advent is a time of repentance...a time for us to turn from our sin and look to Christ.
    We don’t often consider the call to repentance as joyful.  John’s message of repentance was a hard one to hear.  He called people a brood of vipers.  He pointed out their sin and proclaimed the wrath and they deserved because of it.  This was why John was in prison.  He rebuked Herod for his adultery with his brother’s wife and Herod didn’t like that.  So, he tried to shut John up by locking him up. 
    Are you ever like Herod?  Are you ever like the Pharisees and scribes who refused to hear John?  Yes you are, and so am I.  None of us like to hear about our sin.  We don’t like it when others point it out, rightfully telling us to stop it and repent.  We don’t like to hear messages of judgement.  We only want to hear praise and affirmation.  We want to her sermons that make us feel good, sermons that tell us everything is okay.  And if anyone points out our sin, well then we attack.  We return that favor, maliciously pointing out all of our accuser's faults.  We quip, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  We self-justify, explaining away our guilt any way we can.  Never do we receive a call to repentance with rejoicing.  Never do we thank a pastor for a heavy Law sermon.  Never to welcome someone’s words of warning...and yet, we should. 
     Repentance should be a joy for us.  We should welcome words of warning.  We should receive God’s Law with thankfulness because these are words of love.   The Lord calls you back in repentance because He doesn’t want you to suffer the punishment of eternal death.  He calls you to repentance because He wants you to receive Christ’s forgiveness.  Hearing the words of God’s Law, repenting of your sin, confessing them before Him, this should all be a joy, not because you find pleasure in it, or because it feels good, but because of Christ’s absolution that you receive. 
It’s difficult to confess our sins, especially privately with the pastor or with the person we’ve sinned against.  It’s uncomfortable to truly examine our lives, to face our shame and guilt, and to voice what we want to keep hidden.  And yet, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, with faith and trust in God’s mercy, we speak our sins aloud.  We come before God on our knees, we come before His pastors, we come before our brothers and sisters in Christ, confessing our sin, so that we might receive and hear our Savior’s forgiving words.  This we rejoice in, and this God rejoices in.
    We’re not the only ones who rejoice in the forgiveness of sins.  When you repent and turn from your sin, God rejoices, He rejoices in you.  The prophet Zephaniah said, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17).  The Lord wants your repentance.  He wants you to turn to Him, confessing your sin.  He wants to give you forgiveness.  That’s why He sent His Son.  That’s why our Savior took on our flesh, so that He could die to pay for your sins.  That’s why the Lord sends His messengers to speak His Law, so that you would hear it and repent.  In Jesus’ famous parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin He said, “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10).  God and His angels rejoice over you when you repent.  All of heaven delights in the forgiveness you receive. 
    The reason we rejoice this time of the year is because we look forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth.  We rejoice in our Savior and the salvation He gives.  We rejoice in God’s call to repentance.  This call is a gracious act of love.  Our Father wants you to turn from your sin.  Our Father doesn’t want you to receive the just punishment for your sin; that’s why He sent His Son to be born and die.  So during Advent, as you prepare to receive our Lord, not just on Christmas but on the Last, rejoice in His call to repentance.  Rejoice in going to confession, because that’s where you hear His absolution...that’s where you receive your Savior and the gift of His forgiveness.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.