Thursday, January 31, 2019

Episcopal failure. . .

If you have read here before, you have heard me harp on the failure of bishops, of ecclesiastical supervision and discipline, and of the dangerous distance between what we say we believe and how e live out that faith.  Of late we witnessed a supposed Roman Catholic leading the charge, so to speak, on behalf of abortion laws that now allow abortion up to the point of birth.  Imagine, one minute earlier the child is legally possible to abort and one minute later that same child has all the rights and privileges of being a protected human life.  Perhaps the only thing more shocking than the abortion law itself is the fact that those who claim to belong to the Roman Catholic Church have not only worked for but now celebrate their progressive accomplishment!  Unless, of course, you find the timidity of his Archbishop and others within that church body to condemn those elected leaders a greater scandal.

Perhaps there is another aspect of this to further illustrate the hesitance of the bishops to be bishops.  Cuomo is divorced, living with another woman, and, though claiming to be Roman Catholic, apparently has not presented himself for communion in more than a year.  So he claims without impunity to be a good and faithful Roman Catholic and yet has publicly violated church teaching without showing any repentance, contrition, or remorse.

Lest we Lutherans think too smugly of the sins of Roman Catholics in this, we have our own episcopal failures that should grieve our conscience and cause us concern.  The whole issue here is one of integrity.  Bishops are charged, in large measure, with preserving the public integrity of the Church by watching over doctrine and practice and holding congregation, clergy, and public figures accountable.  Indeed, if we are not so concerned about the integrity of the faith, at least we should be concerned for the salvation of the individual's soul.  The role of ecclesiastical supervisor is to walk the often difficult but essential line between the care of the soul and the preservation of the integrity of what is believed, confessed, and taught.  While it might be a heavy burden to bear and a difficult tightrope to walk, no one compels a man to be a bishop (or whatever other name you choose for those who fulfill this role and purpose).  If it is important for the Church to be a faithful administrator and good steward of the resources entrusted to her, then it is no less important to maintain the unity of the faith and manifest the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Blanks in which to fill in the name. . .

It was not long ago somebody mentioned that we seemed to pray for Barack Obama by name more than we seem to pray for Donald Trump.  The reality is that while we always pray for our President, Congress, state and local leaders, etc., we do not always pray for them by name.  When I looked back, the numbers of mentions of the office and the name of its holder was pretty much the same for Trump as it had been for Obama.  Perhaps the one who noticed was particularly offended by one president or the other and therefore noticed one president's name more than the other.  But it got me thinking.

In the prayers, there is often a blank for the name of the office holder to be mentioned.  This is not simply true for the secular leaders but also for folks in the Church.  We pray for _____________ (insert name) our bishop (or district president) and ___________ our priest (or pastor).  The blank can be filled with a name but does not have to be.  And that is how it ought to be.  We pray for the office no matter who the office holder is -- a beloved president or one we abhor, a beloved pastor or one we dislike.  Praying for our nation's president means praying for the one who occupies that office just as praying for our pastor means praying for the man who serves us now as pastor.

Names are important to us and we want to be where everybody knows our names but we do not need to say the name before God.  He knows who they are.  In fact, He also knows who the sick are and what their needs are.  It may sound good to mention names but we are no less praying for them when we omit the names than we are when we include them.  But some folks get upset when omit the names.  Do they believe that God will skip over them in the blessing distribution if their names are not said out loud?  Is that what we really think? 

I sort of like omitting the names.  It is a healthy reminder to me that the pastoral office was there before I came and it will be there after I am gone.  The person is not the key thing but the office.  While it is surely true that when you are pastor in one place for 26 years, the folks there have long ago equated pastor with one person -- me.  But now that we have an associate pastor, they are gently reminded that the person comes and goes but the office remains.  That is a good thing.

On the back of our Sunday bulletin there are lists of names of those who serve in various ways on Sunday morning.  While I am not advocating we drop that list, I wonder if we do not pay too much attention to those names and to the need to list the name and be recognized by name for what we do.  Neither my name nor the name of my associate appears in any signage at our church.  It is not a secret but it is not paraded before the world or the parish either.  It is there in small type just enough so that people can find it if they need it but not big enough to draw attention to it.

The liturgy does not emphasize the identity of the pastor or the people but instead focuses the attention to Christ and His gifts.  This is not an omission but how it should be.  In churches without the liturgy, the pastor, worship leader, singers, etc., are front and center and their personalities are  central to their identity and to the relationship they have with the people in the congregation.  The liturgy is the liturgy no matter whose voice is leading it and whose voices respond.  This does not slight either pastor or people but gives needed perspective at a time when everything hinges upon me and personal identity and preference.  This is a good thing and one worth remembering from time to time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Miracle of Proclamation. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 3C, preached on Sunday, January 27, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    What’s more fantastic: seeing a miracle, or hearing about it?  Seeing of course.  Given a choice, we’d choose to see a video of a great event instead of hearing someone describe it.  We want to see our Lord do great things.  That’s just who we are.  Images for our eyes are more satisfying to us than words for our ears.  And yet, the great miracle of our Lord is accomplished through the proclamation of His Word. 
    We want to see miracles, not hear words.  We want the Lord to prove what He says by backing it up with some sort of sign.  And it’s always been this way.  It was this way for Moses.  When the Lord tasked him to lead Israel out of Egypt.  Moses was certain no one would believe him, so God gave him signs to perform: turning his staff into a snake; making Moses’ hand leprous and then healing it; and even turning water from the Nile into blood (Exodus 4:1-9).  Gideon, one of the judges that the Lord raised up to deliver Israel from oppression, likewise wanted proof of God’s Word.  He asked the Lord for two signs: first to make dew fall only on a fleece blanket, leaving the ground around it dry; and then the next day, to make the ground wet, but the fleece dry (Judges 6:36-40).
Likewise, the people of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth wanted a sign.  Having come home, Jesus went into the synagogue one Sabbath day and He stood up to read.  The Scripture He read came from Isaiah 61(:1-2): The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  After reading these words, Jesus sat down and revealed the meaning of these words.  He said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).  The words of Isaiah were fulfilled in Him.  He is the one whom the Spirit anointed to proclaim the Lord’s favor.  He is the Messiah, the Savior, the One who proclaims.
Hearing this, the people marveled.  They wondered at Jesus’ words.  How is it that the son of Joseph, a boy who they saw grow up, could say this.  Knowing what they were thinking, Jesus continued to speak.  He knew they wanted Him to prove His words with a miracle, but He didn’t. 
Like Moses, like Gideon, like the people of Nazareth, we want God to prove His Word with a miracle for our eyes to see.  We want Him to give us a sign confirming all His promises of mercy, because what we see doesn’t seem to fit with those promises. 
How is it, that Jesus can say there’s good news for the poor, when so many continue to go without?  How is it that He can say there’s liberty to the captives and yet there are still people who are imprisoned, persecuted, and killed for the faith?  How is it that He can say there’s recovery of sight to the blind, healing for those who are ill when our loved ones still get sick, when we still suffer from cancer and heart attacks, when we still mourn the death of loved ones?  How is it that He can say there’s liberty for the oppressed when we still have to endure all sorts of temptation from Satan and the world around us?  How can He say it’s the year of the Lord’s favor when everything we see looks like disfavor?  If only He’d give us a sign, a miracle, then maybe we could believe His words. … Well, at least that’s what we think. 
We think that if Jesus would just perform a miracle for our eyes to see, then we could look past all the hurts and pains, all the suffering and sadness, all the sin and death and believe Jesus’ Word.  But the truth is, no miracle could do this.  No sign can make us believe.  Faith only comes from hearing the Word of God.  
 Just think about all the people who actually saw the miracles Jesus performed.  Not everyone believed He was the Christ.  They still doubted, they still wanted more.  After He fed the 5,000, people came back to Jesus wanting Him to do it again.  But instead of making breakfast for them out of thin air, Jesus said the true food He gives is His flesh and blood.  Hearing this people turned away.  They couldn’t believe Jesus’ word even though they saw His miracle (John 6).  Likewise, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16, the Rich Man from hell calls up to Abraham in heaven asking him to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers.  But Abraham responded, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).  Miracles and signs aren’t the foundation our source of our faith, God’s Word is, and that’s the real miracle.
    Christ didn’t come to be a traveling magician, He came to proclaim.  Listen again to the words Jesus read from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  Christ has come to proclaim. 
    Jesus is the very Word of God Incarnate.  He came to speak, to announce the coming salvation of the Lord and to accomplish that salvation.  As He walked through the land He did exactly what Isaiah 61 prophesied.  He announced the Lord’s favor, His grace and His mercy.  And from the cross, with His last dying breath, He proclaimed the work of redemption complete.  “It is finished” (John 19:30).  The poor have good news proclaimed to them, for they’ve been given what they lack.  The captives and oppressed are set free from the sin and death that enslave them, and the blind have received back their sight, seeing their Savior with eyes of faith.  All of this, is accomplished through His Word.
    Through the proclamation of Christ, the miracle is done.  You are brought to faith and you receive exactly what the Lord promises.  Through His Good News, you’re set free from sin.  Your sin is forgiven and you’re released from the condemnation of guilt.  Through His Good News, you’re brought to life.  As you hear about the salvation Christ accomplished for you, the Spirit brings you to trust in that salvation, and you receive it.  There’s no need for you to see a miracle, for your faith created by God’s Word is a miracle. 
    We want to see miracles in our lives.  We want to see God do the undoable.  We want Him to give us a sign, proof of His almighty power, because we think that seeing a miracle would create faith.  But that’s not the case.  Seeing miracles doesn’t create faith.  Hearing the proclamation of Christ’s Gospel does.  So come to where the Lord speaks His word.  Hear the Good News of Christ proclaimed.  And know that through this proclamation God performs a great miracle: He forgives you your sins and He brings you from death to everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Vosper Part II

You may recall my blog post on the Rev. Gretta Vosper (see, pastor of West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, who faced a church tribunal over her atheism. Apparently not. In a tersely worded announcement Nov. 7, it was said that Vosper and the UCC’s Toronto regional body “have settled all outstanding issues” and she “will remain in ordained ministry.” Further explanation of the deal is sealed by court order. Now that is interesting? Does she have something on somebody?

Vosper, pastor of West Hill in 1997, “came out as an atheist” in 2001, in the process stripping away all language about any supernatural God from prayers and hymns. In her 2008 book “With or Without God” she openly celebrated her “atheist” identity. Her congregation also changed. It began to define itself as “theists, agnostics and atheists” with “roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition” who seek truth and justice without mention of Jesus or the Bible.
The UCC was formed by a 1925 union of Canada’s Congregationalists, Methodists and a majority of Presbyterians. In theory, it still holds to its orthodox founding creed that includes worship of “the one and only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being and perfections” bit it seems there is some wiggle room there. The United Church of Canada was a celebrated ecumenical achievement some wanted to emulate in the US but failed to light a fire under the prospect of such a Protestant union across denominational lines. 

By government data, Canadians identifying with this body dropped from 3,769,000 in 1971 to 2,008,000 in 2011. The number of congregations dropped a third over those same years to 2,894. However, the church reports only 424,000 full “communicant” members and average attendance of 139,000. Hmmmm, if God is optional, church attendance must be optional as well.

Monday, January 28, 2019

A Waste of Money. . .

Everyone knows the famous Churchill quote about how we shape their buildings and then are shaped by them, for good or ill.  Across the landscape of America there are tons of church buildings imagined by architects who did not have much of an idea about how to design a church building and what really counts.  In many cases, these were buildings built by well-meaning people, usually as the first structure, and financed by faithful gifts seeking to go as far as possible.  The architects usually tried (and still try) to do too much, tried to be too creative, and tried to imagine something new and different for a church building that was meant to do what churches have done since the beginning.  Church architecture does not have the same goals as secular architecture and the building is not nearly as important as what takes place within it.  Whether it impresses is less important than whether or not it serves its purpose as the place with the faithful gather around the Word, font, and Table of the Lord for the creation, nourishment, and direction of the faithful.

This is one area in which congregational autonomy is not helpful.  If the architect proposes something which is simply not useful for the holy task of being where the faithful gather around the means of grace, there is no one to tell them this will not work.  Yes, we have some structures in place for those congregations using Lutheran Church Extension Fund dollars to fund the place, but even then the consultation is optional and has no real power to stop a disaster.  Secondly, disaster is usually seen more in terms of construction techniques than its design ability to handle its holy purpose.

To be sure, earthly temples made with hands do not try to make a comfortable home for God but they do exist to house the holy and essential things of the Church -- the Word preached, baptism celebrated, and the table set for Christ's meal.  It is not simply a matter of aiding and assisting this holy purpose but, practically, not working against it.  The tragedy is that too many buildings actually work against and hinder the gathering of God's people.  It is not merely a matter of merely being ugly but of failing to provide fitting space for the holy calling of worship.  When that happens, it is no wonder that such a building can work and will work against the mission of that congregation.  Some congregations are compromised by their facilities -- again, not simply a matter of too little space or ugly space but of space that fails in its most important and essential purpose.

Perhaps there should be fewer church architects, perhaps it should be a specialty only of those who take the time to learn what it is that the church building exists for and how that is different from other public spaces that are not focused upon the Word and work of the Lord.  Art can help to cover mistakes and fix some surface issues but the decor cannot repair a poorly conceived building that works against its primary purpose.  Maybe I am asking too much but I have seen too many first structures that cost a great deal of money and yet failed to do what they were supposed to do and too many buildings that have structural flaws that hamper the future of the congregations that invested their hopes in these structures.  It is time to see that a good building is not costly but the most economical first step for the mission and next phase for the flourishing congregation.  Mistakes are far more costly than well thought out and well designed structures.

In a few congregations I know well, a well meaning building committee trusting their architect has left them with a building that does not serve its purpose well, is costly to maintain, and actually works to hinder their purpose.  The problem is that they are caught in the inability to redo what they have or sell it and have enough recovered investment for a do over.  So be careful.  Low ceilings, strange roof configurations, tiny chancels, no place for musical instruments or musicians, too many steps for people and too few to raise the altar and pulpit for clear visibility and prominence -- these are just a few of the obvious errors that congregations live with.  Buildings should free us for mission and become our mission.

To thine ownself be true. . .

One of my elementary school teachers said over and over again to us impressionable 6th graders:  To thine own self be true.  She was quoting Shakespeare but it sounds downright Biblical and even non-Christians appreciate the idea of a single person captive only to his or her conscience.

Sometimes Luther is blamed for this since he said at the Diet of Worms:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen
Luther had not read Shakespeare and was no Erasmus.  He did not see the conscience as the ultimate guide and guardian but the conscience captive to the Word of God.  Luther was not saying, as we do in modern terms, I must be true to myself.   Luther was saying he had to be true to the Word of God.  Whether or not you appreciate Luther's point, Luther cannot be credited or blamed for the idea that my conscience is my true me and this is the only voice to which I must listen and be true.

Maybe we need to begin with what conscience is not. Even Christians have come to think of conscience as the inner voice, the voice of the true self when in reality conscience was and has always been the voice of God.  If God planted this conscience and informed it with His law, it remains His voice and His guiding.  Apart from Scripture and the living tradition of the faith, conscience still informs this basic and natural law.  But for the Christian, it is the voice of God that hears, recognizes, and heeds the Scriptures as the Word of God that endures forever and the living tradition of the faithful, the catholic faith of what has always been believed, confessed, and taught everywhere in Christendom.  Conscience cannot simply be reduced to following your “inner voice.”

St. Thomas Aquinas defined conscience as “nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action,” and reminded us of how the conscience works:
  • the conscience serves as a witness (to point us to the evil we have done and the good we have not done),
  • the conscience works to incite to action or to bind (so that when we have judged an action evil or good, we are moved to act upon that judgment), and
  • the conscience excuses, accuses, and/or torments us (when we have done the evil we should not and also then to assure us when we have done the good).
Therefore, conscience is more than a feeling, more than instinct, more than intuition, and more than the inner voice of you.  Conscience always poses a question, even a challenge, asking the person to discern, based on what you know (Scripture and tradition), whether the course of action is the right or wrong course of action in this context.

The voice of conscience can be manipulated.  We can shut down this voice of God.  When we have grown comfortable with the sins we commit, we effectively mute this voice of God.  Even though our actions are violating what we know, the sting of conscience is removed. Even though this sin contradicts the law of God written in your heart, the sinner has learned a way to justify the sin in the mind and to feel comfortable with the sin in the heart so that the conscience is no longer pricked when that sin is committed.  For this reason, the conscience must remain informed by the Word of the Lord which not only teaches but retains the boundaries for the conscience.  Through the means of grace the Spirit is at work teaching and reinforcing the conscience -- not the inner voice but the voice of God's Word.

This is why the Church works in us through the agency of the means of grace to form our conscience according to the objective and unchanging truths of God.  The more we know the good and the more we desire it, the more the conscience is able to inform and guide our feelings -- in effect working to make them honest.

So then to “follow your conscience” does not mean to do what feels right or what you think is right but to do that which is right -- the right of God's Word, the lamp to our feet that enlightens our path.  Even in ordinary ways our laws on earth expect you to act not simply on the basis of what you know and believe to be right, good, and true BUT on the basis of what the law says.  If you tell the cop you did not know the speed limit for that road was lower than the speed you were going, your ignorance does not excuse.  You should have known.

This above all: to thine own self be true 
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

A change of heart. . .

In the Great Litany we pray God to deliver us from sudden and evil death.  It is one of many ways in which we pray the Lord to keep us in the face of times and events we can neither predict or know.  Death was once one of those things.  Dying suddenly was then considered an especially terrible death.

Today we no longer pray that way.  Because we fear suffering more than anything else, a sudden death devoid of suffering is considered the most blessed death of all.  Where we once prayed to avoid such a sudden and evil death.  Now, it’s a blessing --  he or she went so quickly; what a blessing; that is how I want to die.

To go one step further, we want to be in charge of our own deaths.  Give us pills so that we can die painlessly when we choose -- before something bad happens to us or we must endure great suffering (even the suffering of not knowing we are suffering!).  Even Christians are not immune from such an idea about death in which a sudden death is best and a death you can plan is even better than best.

We worry about the prospect that someone enduring the death penalty might suffer and therefore have deemed the whole thing sub-human if even a bit of pain accompanies their death (usually for the most heinous of crimes that caused untold suffering to their victims and the families of those victims).  I am not at all saying that we should cause suffering purposefully but I do wonder how we got to the point where the worst possible thing we could endure IS suffering (and not death!).

I certainly do not want people to suffer but is the elimination of suffering the most significant cause of the Gospel?  In our effort to prevent and eliminate suffering from all people (suffering which is caused by sin) do we not run the risk of the logical conclusion of a euthanasia culture?  When even hydration and food become "extraordinary" means of prolonging life, are we not essentially saying that death is better?  By consoling ourselves with the idea that since we do not want to suffer, we know our loved ones would not want to suffer, and therefore it is the most merciful thing we can do to kill them to prevent such suffering, what values are highest?  Is this not the same idea that says it is better to kill a child than to have that child born into a world that does not want them?

Instead of dying well, we are focused solely on living well.  The most noble deaths are not those which happen to the person suddenly, before suffering is endured, but the death that comes after a long suffering life.  I am daily impressed with those in my own parish who suffer great pain and affliction and yet who remain the most cheerful people, content in their faith, and at peace with God even within such suffering.  I think here of one woman who has ALS and yet whose demeanor and faith humble me every time I see her struggle with things she once did without a hitch.  There is something we have lost when we focus only on living well and forget that it is also possible to die well, to die in the faith, trusting in the Lord, and content with the measure of His grace in their hour of great need.

Judging by the typical funeral message preached today, the oddities that pass for new funeral rituals, the obligatory eulogies or story telling that happens at wake and funeral, and the lack of much mention of the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting, we only want to celebrate this life.  Period.  Even Christians.  And this, friends, is a problem of great magnitude.  In the shift of funeral focus from mortality and its answer in Christ's resurrection to the sufficiency of memory and yesterday to console us, we have been robbed of real hope and have gutted the Gospel of its most transcendent gift.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

More goofiness from the Anglicans. . .

Toronto Anglican Bishop Kevin Robertson marries his homosexual partner on December 28, 2018, in cathedral Bishop Robertson (left) with Mohan Sharma (his partner) and Bishop Susan Bell of the Diocese of Niagara, who presided. (Photo) Source: Virtue Online
Honestly, I am not sure what to make of this.  First is the smile of Bishop Bell who is either thrilled to be there or wishes she had gone to have a root canal done.  Then is the strange floral leis that adorn the two, uh, grooms?.   Then there is the complete absence of clerics on a bishop who is marrying his, uh, partner.  Finally, this whole thing takes place against a backdrop of tradition -- from the rich wood carving of the sedelia to the altar and its beautiful paraments to the vestments on Bishop Bell (actually quite nice).  It all goes to show you that you can wear the right clothing and have a great pedigree of consecration but that does not mean you are really a bishop.  In this case, it does not appear that any bishop in union with Nicea and Constantinople is anywhere near this whole affair.  And that, my friends, is the problem.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Other people’s crosses usually minor - compared to mine. . .

A while back somebody forwarded a rant from an individual whose complaint was that their pastor did not answer his cell phone and did not return email promptly.  The complainer indicated that this was a minor cross to be -- among the crosses born by pastors -- and the pastor had a duty to carry and answer his cell phone and return emails right away!  Ouch!  It could have been written by a member of my parish.  After all, I do not live on my cell phone and I do not check my email every minute of the day.  I have a so-called smart phone but the person who has it is not that smart and does not want to live on a smart phone.  That said, there is something here worth noting.

A million years ago, when colleges were first invented and I, the first in my family, went to college, my parents loaded up my stuff, drove me there, unpacked my room, handed me a $20 for emergencies, and told me not to call unless it was an emergency (since long distance was expensive).  In contrast, when my kids went to school, they had cell phones and called and texted our family constantly.  Some might see this as progress but I am not so sure.  Constant access is not necessarily progress and it leads to some unfounded suppositions.

One is that everything you think needs to be phoned to someone, texted to someone, posted to social media, etc...  You might think that this is a strange thing for somebody who has a daily blog to say but not everything you might think is worthy of sharing.  But because we can, we do.  Therein lies some of the problems with our less than social media and our constant need to vent.

Another is that everything that happens needs support or help from others for you to get through it.  I managed to go to college, work part-time, have some fun, and the like without phoning my parents about it.  I managed to study for exams, write papers, deal with unpleasant professors, and deal with the angst of peers and the opposite sex without phoning mom or dad or texting them or turning my exploits into digital stories to be shared.  And I was the least exceptional person I knew (and know).  I am, above all things, average.  Why is it that suddenly everything has become a crisis and every crisis needs to be shared, the aid and succor of friends and family to get through it, and somewhere to unload about having to go through it all?

Is it because in the end, other people's crosses are considered minor compared to our own?  Could it be that we suffer from a syndrome of having the worst of it all while others we know and strangers on the street have gotten off much more easily than we have?  The insistence that what a person is feeling or what that person is thinking or whatever frustration that person is enduring is worse than anyone else has a name.  It is narcissism.  Narcissism has a source.  It is original sin.  Not only our hearts are curved in on themselves, so are the minds and everything else about us.  We have suffered more than others, have heavier burdens than others, are persecuted worse than others, and are smarter than others (and more interesting, I might add) because we are consumed by ourselves.  While the technology of the past may have prevented this from being quite so obvious, we have exploited our technology in large measure to reveal just how consumed we are with ourselves and how much we need others to know what we are thinking, feeling, hurting, or suffering.  It is a truly narcissistic thing to believe that the crosses borne by others are minor compared to the ones we bear.

Once I visited a aged woman in a nursing home, a survivor of World War II (from the German side), and a rather bitter individual.  She was complaining to me about how bad she had suffered in her life and I was mostly silent but I did interject that all our sufferings pale in comparison to the suffering love endured for us when Jesus died on the cross.  "Pastor," she said, "Jesus never suffered like I have!"  I guess that says it all. . .

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Are they really bishops?

Some accuse those of us who want real bishops of being enamored of purple clerics, pectoral crosses, miters, croziers, and a pallium thrown in for good measure!  But even those who have all of these and the hands of three other bishops laid on them may not be real bishops.  Being a bishop is not about what you wear, it is about what you do.  The heart of the episcopal ministry is oversight of doctrine and practice and the ecclesiastical discipline that gives order and integrity to the unity of the church.  It is surely a nice thing to have bishops come to recognize and proclaim the consecration of a brother in this ministry and succession has a nice and romantic appeal to it but if a bishop refuses to do what he is set apart to do, no vestments, apparel, or appointments can cover this lack.

There are those in the Missouri Synod who insist we do not have bishops.  I pray that they are wrong.  I do not care if they wear cope and miter or carry a staff or have a ring to kiss but I do care that they take most seriously the role that they play in the unity of the church, the integrity of our doctrine and practice, and the good reputation of our church and her clergy before the world as much as within her people.  I hope and pray that all those with loud protest against bishops are wrong.  It is my daily duty and at every Divine Service to pray for Roger, my District President and bishop, who exercises this particular ministry of oversight and ecclesiastical discipline within the confines of my district.  His job is difficult -- made even more difficult by our congregational structure as well as the independence and isolation of many within the district.  I am sure that his plate is fuller than I even care to know but I daily rejoice that faithful men carry out this special duty among us and I am happy to call him my bishop -- no matter what the nomenclature of his official office.

We have all seen the breakdown of the episcopal office in Rome.  Bishops in so many churches have become jokes -- from the infamous (James Pike and John Shelby Spong) to the embarrassing (Gene Robinson) to the scandalous (Theodore McCarrick).  But the Episcopal Church and Rome are not alone in there need for real bishops.  They have all the outward vesture and appointments of the office but they fail when they must stand for truth, for the integrity of what is believed and confessed, as teachers and preachers of the Word that endures forever, and as guardians of the sacred duty of maintaining this discipline among an increasingly undisciplined lot.

Rome is greatly concerned about form -- specifically the form of the consecration.  Rome is all about proper order -- and that is important -- but what good is the form all nice and neat and wrapped up with a ribbon but without the ministry itself?  Minus the ecclesiastical supervision, a Roman bishop is like a kid dressing up but not really a cowboy or firefighter or Jedi or whatever.  Lutherans, in particular my own jurisdiction of the Missouri Synod, has always been suspicious of the accoutrements and title.  Whatever.  But without the ecclesiastical supervision, a Lutheran District President is but an elected paper pusher and business administrator, like a boss who imagines himself a captain of industry.  The problem is that the Church is not a business and should not behave like one (though even in business there appears to be more accountability than you too often find in the Church).

We have got to stop squabbling about the word and the appointments of the office and realize and reclaim the essential and profound episcopal role.  Call him what you will, he is key to the health of the faith inside the church and its good reputation before the world -- every bit as much as is every individual priest and pastor and perhaps even more so.  So as we make our way through this new year, pray for the man who exercises this responsibility on your behalf for the sake of the church.  Even better, let him know of your prayerful support.  And do not shy from his ministry when it is directed your way.  If we are being faithful, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain from him who tells those in our care and those in the community around us that we have done well as good and faithful servants of the Word, called and ordained, set apart and installed for the particular ministry of the Word and Sacraments of the Lord in this particular place.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Jars of clay. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 2C, preached on Sunday, January 20, 2019.

    There were six earthenware jars there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding 20-30 gallons.  This water was not for bathing or for cooking or for drinking.  It was not for the ordinary purposes of every household. This water belonged to the Rites of Purification of the Jews.  After the actual washing that rids the body of dirt and odors, the ceremonial cleansing takes place that puts the body right before God.  The Jews did this for everything from the foods purchased at the market to the feet upon entering the house.  This was not something symbolic that they invented because it seemed cool.  The Lord commanded it.

    Remember when the Pharisees accused Jesus and His disciples of disdaining the laws of Moses because they failed to wash their food so that it would be ritually clean.  Read through Leviticus and you find the commands to wash and the rather tedious lists of things clean and unclean.  Read of the washings that preceded the entrance of the priest into the Holy of Holies or of the preparation for the scapegoat of Yom Kippur. 

    There were many guests at the wedding and many to be made ceremonially clean and now the earthward jars were almost empty.  Jesus called the servants to fill them.  This required a source of living water, a spring or a stream.  A cistern would not suffice.  I am sure the servants were thrilled at the prospect of hauling several hundred gallons of water into the house a second time, more than a thousand pounds!  But this they did, filling them up to the brim.  This had a holy purpose, after all.

    Then Jesus did something shocking.  By turning the water into wine, the jars were ruined.  Clay jars were common enough but who wants to head out to the market for 6 such large earthenware jars – unless you have to!  Yet by turning this purification water into wine, the jars were stained with both the color and the flavor of wine.  This is no incidental detail.  Jesus is telling us something here.  This was not just a miracle but a sign, a sign of the Kingdom.  So pay attention.

    The purification that came by ritual washing with water would be replaced with the washing of a new covenant, of water become wine become the blood of Christ.  The old covenant would be complete and could no longer deliver what it symbolized.  That is because the One whom the symbol promised was already present.  The hour had not yet come, the hour of the cross would wait a few years, but the Bearer of the New Covenant was already here.  He was already bringing the washing that did not simply symbolize but actually delivered the purification that it signed.  Here is the Lamb of God already prefiguring His work and purpose.  Here is the cleansing that does not get repeated like ritual washings but, in the baptismal water, once for all delivers to the baptized what it signs.

    Jesus “ruined” the Old Covenant not by abolishing it but by fulfilling it.  That is what this water into wine is all about.  If it was about more wine for those who had already drunk more freely Jesus would still be refilling bottles for weddings in Palestine.  If it was about a symbol, then the water would have only appeared to be wine and would not have smelled and tasted like wine – wine enough to stain the earthward jars and ruin them so that they could not purify anything any longer.  Jesus was ushering in a new era, a new covenant, and it began with the fulfillment of the Old and the end of its ability to symbolize anything.  The old purification water now pointed to Jesus.  The wedding feast pointed to Christ the Bridegroom who is come to take His bridge, the Church, to cleanse her so that she might be clean, and to make her His own bride forevermore.

    This was not some coincidental invitation to a wedding of a family member but the design of God.  He is the bridegroom and the Church is His bride.  Just as this is the end that Jesus is preparing and the shape of what He has come to do, so does this relationship mark the beginning of that public ministry.  The first of His signs Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, where He manifested His glory and His disciples believed in Him.

    This was not about more wine.  They were drunk enough already so that they could not tell good wine from the cheap stuff.  But Jesus is not some to give more drink to the drunk.  He is come to bestow the pure wine of His blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  Jesus is come to end the old rites of purification and their rules about clean and unclean and He is the cleansing of the sinner and the purification of the unclean, once for all.  Jesus is come to fulfill the promise symbolized in the ritual washings of old and to give a new sign in which He is the power at work making the sign bestow what it symbolizes.

    Last week was the baptism of our Lord.  He went down into the baptismal water clean but He came up stained with the dirt of your sin and mine.  He was preparing the water so that it was no more a symbol but a sacrament and means of grace that bestowed what it signed.  You don’t have jars standing in your entryway at home, waiting for the dirty to be rendered ritually clean.  That is why it says “of the Jews.”  This belongs to the old covenant but not to the new.  You don’t wash in baptismal water over and over again, but once for all.  For the power of this baptism is not its symbolism but what it does.  It bestows the gift of forgiveness and marks with the promise of God’s new life.

    The jars are not simply jars that happened to be there.  The represent the old covenant.  Christ has kept it once for all.  The jars can no longer be filled with purification water.  They were stained by wine.  And not just any wine but the wine of Christ, His blood, that cleanses all sinners from their sins.  We are not baptized again but we are not finished with the wine.  For the wine will continue to come to us, purifying and cleansing us from all that stains the baptismal identity.  This the wine does by becoming the blood of Christ and feeding and giving the thirsty to drink of His blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sin.

    All of this happened when?  On the third day.  This is not a nod to chronology of the event but to the kairos, the full and ripe time, the Messianic moment.  Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ now lives again.  In Him is the life, the only life, that can render the dirty clean, rescue the dead for life, and restore the lost to their rightful place as sons and daughters of the King.  We are the baptized.  We have been washed clean in baptism, and now we come to this wedding feast, for the blood that cleansed us, keeps us clean, and marks us for eternal life.

    At this first sign of the Kingdom, only the servants who had to fill the jars with water and carry the cup of wine to the steward of the feast AND the disciples who came as guests with Jesus knew what had happened.  But at the end of His ministry, on the third day when He rose again, a whole world would find out what began here at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. 

    Baptismal fonts are filled with water not for drinking or for cooking or even for ritual cleansing.  They are filled with the water of the Kingdom that has the power to rescue our lost lives, lead us through death to everlasting life, and forgive our sins and all their guilt.  Like the stone jars of old, the baptismal font and its water are used for a holy purpose and this alone.  There is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism for the forgiveness of your sins, Paul says.  There is one Bridegroom who is come for the one bride, the Church.  There is only one who can cleanse the Church and make the bride a vision of beauty, holiness, and righteousness.  This is what Christ has done and does.  This is that to which the first of Jesus signs in Cana of Galilee points.  This is not a story about extra wine for drunk wedding guests of a people worried about what people might think if they ran out.  Jesus does not waste the grace of the Kingdom on such foolishness.  This is about an end to the old covenant, the One who fulfills the past once for all, and about a new future for the bride living with her bridegroom forevermore.

    This story is about YOU.  You and your baptism and you and your new life sealed in Christ by His gracious favor.  Thanks be to God!  Amen

Only ignorant and poor women have children. . .

On message and in media, an underlying supposition of an educated worldview is that there are too many children, too many poor children, in particular, and that any educated intellect will come to the conclusion that this is true.  Hidden within this train of thought is eugenics -- the idea that the population of the world needs to be cleansed of the feeble in body or mind or at least the potentially feeble and only certain children deserve to live.  While the proponents of using contraception to prevent people, especially the wrong people, from having children deny this and insist it is about quality of life, it is difficult to remove the idea of a better race from those who believe only children who can expect a better life deserve to be born.

While one might think that such a point of view was the hallmark of fascism or some totalitarian state, and it has and is in some places, in the West the proponents are the educated elite and those who have positions of power which they exercise on behalf of liberal and progressive causes.  Like this.  So when French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in upon this very subject last fall, it was both predictable and consistent.  What was not predictable was that a backlash might come from, get this, educated women who have many children. 

Macron stated publicly that human fertility—especially on the African continent—reflects ignorance and oppression.  He was discussing African demographics at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event in New York City, Macron said, “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children…This is just because a lot of girls were not properly educated, sometimes because these countries decided the rights of these girls were not exactly the same rights as the young man.”  I might be worth noting, to the surprise of none, that Macron has no children of his own.

The mantra of the Gates Foundation and Macron is that all across the world, including the United States, the poorest people tend to have more children than the rich. This is a global crisis in the making, according to this year’s “Goalkeepers” report (get that term, Goalkeepers -- one whose duty it is to keep something at bay!).  While these watchdogs ponder fertility, it is worth noting that birth rates have been cut in half since the 1960s, many places face an under population of people to work and contribute to the massive social programs that support not only the poor but the aging population of the West, and some governments have taken up incentives for folks to have children or more children.

The Gates Foundation, a big promoter of contraception and a supporter of programs to reduce fertility, has found an unlikely ally in prosperity, feminism, and the self-centered life.  In other words, people are having fewer children not because of those like Macron who are offended by children but because they fear children will steal away the resources of time and money they want to spend exclusively on themselves.  Children are more and more seen as an enemy of personal happiness and fulfillment, except by those who have achieved their dreams of happiness and fulfillment and who turn to having a child much as one might purchase an expensive toy they have always wanted but could not afford until now.

The stunning reality is that Christians routinely echoes this idea so abhorrent to the Scriptures, maybe not at first, but the liberal and progressive wing of Christianity finds it impossible to resist piling on board the efforts to make man the enemy of creation instead of its steward.  There is no reconciliation possible between the God who commanded mankind to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over all creation in His name and the kind of aversion to children and the human imprint upon the earth.  That is not to say we are given license by God to rape and pillage His creation.  Not at all.  But neither are we to presume that we are enemies of God's purpose in making all things.  In addition to this, we have the example of the child, in the center of Jesus' teaching as well as in His presence to remind us that children are precious to the Lord and not some resource to be prevented or squandered.  It is surely by the way we treat our children and how we bring them up to know and love the Lord that we will be measured and not by the silliness of the things the educated elite foist upon us.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Media bias. . .

USA Today, the first result when you search for the march in Google News, began their story by saying, “more than a thousand anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.”

Media bias has been documented in a variety of ways but it is always worth pointing to one more rather egregious way that the media deliberate misstates the truth (what we ordinarily call a lie).  In nearly every year since the March for Life began, the count of those who marched for the cause has been minimized in order to promote their own bias for the pro-choice movement and to discourage support for the pro-life cause.  When the media is in support of something, they routinely exaggerate the size of those gathered in favor of the issue or cause and when the media does not support something they routinely diminish the numbers of the supporters of that issue or cause.  We all know that and yet nothing could be so obvious than to state the numbers of anti-abortion activists as more than a thousand when by every other estimate the numbers were more than 100,000!!!  In some years, when weather is kinder to a January march in Washington, DC, the numbers of well exceeded 500,000.  But that would give the whole pro-life movement more credibility and USA Today, among other media organizations fully in bed, so to speak, with the pro-choice movement, could hardly contribute to something which might give more legitimacy to the pro-life cause.  No, it could not.

Watch this video and see if there were more than a thousand or more than one hundred thousand!!!

Need I say more?

Monday, January 21, 2019

No more envy. . .

There was a time when I was envious of the Roman Catholic Church -- not the theology but the view of the church overall -- at least from the outside.  It had an order that seemed especially profound in the face of chaotic Protestantism.  It had a reverence in the liturgy for a presence that was not posited in feeling or desire but in the Holy Sacrament.  It was deeply influential even upon Protestants who did not take long to follow the lead of Rome in everything from liturgy to lectionary to Biblical scholarship.  It was blessed with universally acknowledged leaders of intellect and influence (from Paul VI to John Paul II to Benedict XVI).  It was involved in a seamless circle of social justice, social service, and educational ministries that made Protestant efforts seem paltry and small in comparison.  Rome seemed to know who Rome was -- at least that is the way it was at the time I was jealous of its self-confidence.

But no more. . . I am not envious of Rome much and in fact have grown to profoundly dislike many of the things that once seemed to attract me.  It seems to have little order at all, little discipline and even less doctrinal and liturgical supervision.  Episcopal conferences and individual bishops act independently and disagree with the teachings of Rome without fear -- as if it were an association of independent dioceses or nationalities instead of one communion.  Its reverence for a present Christ within the mass seems to have faded away and their liturgical practices shock us with their casual attitude toward rite, history, and confessional integrity.  Rome is in complete disarray with regard to the mass.  It has surrendered its moral and theological integrity until Roman Catholic institutions seem indistinguishable from their secular private and public counterparts.  While some may complain that JPII and BXVI talked the talk, it is clear that neither seemed able to rein in the homosexual subculture that produced leaders such as Theodore non-cardinal McCarrick.  The seamless garment has developed many tears and it has become a cafeteria of issues in which both teachers and the faithful seem to pick and choose what they like and do not like.  In short, Rome no longer sparkles.

My complaints with Lutheranism have less to do with the theory than the practice.  Lutheranism has always been more catholic than its people have felt comfortable with -- at least in the last 300 years or so.  Even though it was not the catholic Lutheranism of its symbols, the Lutheranism I grew up with did offer a deeper unity of doctrine and practice than we see today.  In fact, there was much to commend the faith in looking at its success in numbers, schools, universities, and catechesis.  If it was Protestant, it was a churchly protestantism that no longer exists.  I wanted Lutheranism to recover its catholic identity and churchly order -- the thing I coveted in Rome.  I wanted Lutheranism to be the church it claimed to be instead settling for the church it was.  I wanted to see a Lutheranism with leaders of stature and wisdom -- all a time when Missouri was crumbling under the split and the ALC/LCA had decided to move to the left (ordaining women in 1970 and already in pursuit of a skeptical and higher critical view of the Scriptures), I had hoped there would be those whose stature and authority might call back the forces of radical change (at least the way JPII seemed to do).  Now I must admit that Rome no longer holds much magic -- and this is not simply a statement about the more recent sexual abuse charges.  Rome has feet of clay just like Lutheranism.

It was not a theological attraction which Rome offered me but an order, a liturgical identity, and a cohesiveness that I wanted from Lutheranism (and still do).  Some of my college friends swam the Tiber but I have no such intentions.  I want the best of Rome to resurface but not as an insider who wants the best for his church.  I want Lutheranism to be all that it claims to be and this I do as one who believes the claim of catholicity of this church's symbols.  It is my fear that Christians can no longer depend upon its institutional identities to find the reform their jurisdictions so deeply need.  In the end, I hope and pray that it will be lay people who will insist that if this is what we believe, confess, and teach, then, for God's sake, this is what we ought to believe, confess, and teach.  I am encouraged by the younger pastors, especially those from my own alma mater (Ft. Wayne).  I am thankful for the many resources available to us (books, journals, blogs, and hymnal).  In the end, I am no longer sad to admit that my envy of some things Roman has long ago ended.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A joke or perhaps worse. . .

 A 15th century statue of Christ and Mary was given a fresh coat of paint -- a rather child-like and somewhat loud renovation that has provoked both laughter and outrage. The wooden statue was from a chapel in the village of El Ranadoiro, about 35 miles west of Oviedo, and depicts Christ on the lap of His grandmother, St. Anne, with his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary standing to the side.  The figures were plain wood for more than 400 years but now sport bright colors.  St. Anne now wears a hot pink veil and sky blue robes, Christ lime green, and St. Mary in a light turquoise veil and deep red robes. Each face has eyeliner, bold red lips, and pink fingernails.  Joke?  Worse, mockery.  In any case, an old statue was defamed.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

More Roman Goofiness . . .

Just to show that the GLBTQ agenda is embraced by more than liberal Lutherans and others and to show that goofiness in Mass happens as frequently as goofiness parading as the Divine Service among Lutherans. . . and that Lutherans are not the only ones to flaunt the teachings of their church. . . watch and pray. . .

Can the church become a sect. . .

Watching another blog, a questioner was quite concerned with the state of affairs within the Roman Catholic Church and wondered it if was the same Church or had betrayed its identity.  The responder wrote:  . . .the Church cannot become something that she isn’t.  An acorn cannot become a giraffe and the Catholic Church cannot become some sect. . .  As it is written, the statement is true.  The Catholic Church cannot become a sect because God has p[laced His promise upon her.  But if Catholic has become a mere synonym for the Roman Catholic Church, then the statement is not a fact but a supposition of those who hold it.  The Roman Catholic Church can become a sect and, in fact, that is the very present danger given the theological and moral climate within Rome now (just as was the contention of Luther in the 16th century).  When any orthodox Christian community turns its back upon the Word of God or trades the True Gospel for a false gospel, that community has forsaken its claims of truth, fidelity, and authenticity.  Even the Orthodox Church admits that fidelity is the source of authenticity and not a particular office or the claims of those office holders.

To be sure, Luther was no radical reformer who insisted that the Church had died in the darkness and could not be reformed and had to be reconstituted.  Luther insisted that where the Word was proclaimed faithfully and the Sacraments administered faithfully, there was Christ and there was His Church.  Luther saw the Church as reformable.  Luther said the Roman Catholic Church had lived in darkness when the Gospel did not predominate and where the Scriptures were not the authority but it was not complete darkness.  The Church never ceased to exist but Rome has ceased to be that Church and had, indeed, become sectarian because of its condemnation of justification by grace through faith alone and by its substitution of man-made doctrines for the doctrine of the Scriptures -- not to mention the placing of pope, council, and teaching magisterium above the Word of God as source and norm of all that is believed and confessed.

According to the responder, the Catholic Church has been abused by her custodians.  They have dressed her up in false colors and made her to dance to dreadful tunes, on display for the world.You get no argument from me on this point.  Yet it is not simply that Rome's leaders have abused their role as custodians of the sacred deposit, they have also forsaken their right to exclusive claim of that deposit.  For the faith is not entrusted to an institution but to a community of believers, to the baptized born anew by water and the Spirit, hearing and believing and following the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking through His Word, and gathered at His bidding to receive the gift of Himself in the blessed Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.  When that community forsakes the Word, they lose its promise and their identity as the people of that promise and their leaders as custodians of it.

Lutherans believe in apostolic succession but not in a continuous mechanical succession of hands.  Rather Lutherans insist that there must be a succession of ministers AND a succession of faithful.  We joyfully affirm that the office of the Holy Ministry is one of the marks of that true Church but not the sole mark.  It exists with a community of hearers and believers, of people washed and cleansed, attentive to the voice of the Word, and gathered at His bidding to receive what His own Word promises in the blessed Supper of the Lamb (first here and then in eternity).  An episcopal office alone cannot guarantee this fidelity and authenticity nor can the so-called Petrine office alone be this guarantor of the Church.  It is an all or nothing sort of approach that Lutherans insist upon -- the faithful pastors and the faithful hearers together in complementary relationship. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Toxic thoughts on toxic masculinity. . .

We live in a time when, if it is not a sin to be male, it is at least suspect.  From the #METOO movement to radical feminism that has transformed male and female to the gender identity movement that has become the avant garde social cause of the day, the least and the most lost among all people is the man.  Even the folks who sell us razors to shave our beards and scents to cover up our manly odor have jumped on the bandwagon to warn of men being manly as if it were a disease.  Masculinity itself is under siege and has been marked as toxic to men, women, and children.

In reality, of course, there is no such things as toxic masculinity -- only males who behave as children and are not masculine at all.  If anything, masculinity is not something pervading boys in their journey to maturity or our society as a whole.  It is in short supply.  We live in a woman's world in which women do not need men to support them, defend them, give them children, or even be friends.  The only good man today is one who does not think like, speak like, or act like a man.  Boys in school are treated with drugs and discipline for their failure to be like girls.  Universities have become places where ideas too strong to face are relegated to a prison of thoughts and both men and women given safe places where they can find a refuge from things they find offensive.  The media seems to suggest that most straight men are either homophobic or closeted gay and the only good men are those who are fully in touch with their feminine side.

Maybe it was a man's world and there were certainly many men behaving badly but masculinity is not the some toxic force that must be hidden away or treated as something dangerous.  It is the gift, the gift of complementarity created by God, a gift not only needed because we see the wisdom of it all but the very design that under girds all of creation.  The most dangerous things to our culture is not masculinity but a lack of it, in which men have no role or purpose or dignity to aspire to and to live out in concert with women.

If there is a problem with masculinity, could it be that too many homes have an absent father or never had one at all?  Could it be that painting all of men as toxic, sexist, abusive, and threatening has consigned them to the fringes of our society where it is more likely for them to become toxic, sexist, abusive, or threatening?  Could it be that some arenas of the church have actually adopted this idea and created a false Christianity in which the first sin men must confess is being a man?

As the father of two young men and a young woman and the grandfather of one young girl, I live in fear for a world in which gender is divorced from anatomy, questions replace statements in the values and the roles in which we work together for the common good, and one gender is presumed to be suspect at best or toxic at worst.  The family is already under too much pressure to survive the generic condemnation of one its constituent parts.  The church is a community already threatened by a loss of the divine reality with skepticism toward the Word of God now to blame God for the sins of some and to confuse His order with the infusion of prevailing politically correct ideas that contradict that Word. 

So thank you but no, I refuse to confess that being masculine is toxic.  I refuse not because of my self-esteem but purely out of my respect for God and His order, no matter how badly we have abused His gift or distorted His creative intent.  I refuse to believe that to tell a boy to be a man is a bad thing. 

The shape of a counciliar church. . .

On October 11, 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II into session, something like 2,200 bishops walked in the procession (out of a total of perhaps 3,000) and perhaps 2,600 attended the some of the sessions.  This was huge comparison to Vatican I when some 744 were at some point in attendance but votes on various issues number in the 500s.  Attendance was about 25-30% less than the total due to illness, circumstance, death, and a host of other reasons.  Still and all, Vatican II was a behemoth of a gathering.

There are those who wonder if there can ever be another universal council in the future?  To put things into perspective, a future Vatican III would be gigantic -- on a scale almost impossible to imagine.  If such a council were to be convened today, the number of bishops who could have a place and a voice would dwarf even Vatican II and could be as high as 5300!!  Compare this to 250-300 or so participated at Nicea in 318.  Even the USCCB held in November, one national conference, numbered about the same attendees as Nicea.

By now you are wondering why a Lutheran is spitting out attendance numbers at Roman Catholic councils.  First of all the point is to suggest that a deliberative council on such a scale is hardly possible and, if technologically possible, hardly workable.  The time in which a gathering of any church group on such a scale can actually debate and deliberate has come and gone.  Such large gatherings become the domain of the few who actually prepare for the meeting, control its agenda, and direct its outcome.  Rome or St. Louis, the address does not matter.  How does a room of 1,000 or more prayerfully consider and deliberate anything anywhere?

Some have suggested that such a form of synodality ought to be the shape of the new Rome.  I am not so sure that is even possible much less desirable.  Some have suggested the same thing for Lutheran gatherings even on a smaller scale.  Again, I am not at all sure that such a thing would be desirable even if it were possible.  The reality of the deal is that such large groups rarely are capable of doing the kind of theological reflection and discernment to make even routine decisions, much less the difficult choices in time of conflict.  Our own LCMS finds itself stymied by the clock or the short attention span of the delegates or the constant call of the question just when discussion begins to get good.  We have made far reaching decisions at such gatherings and then found ourselves struggling to put the pieces together after the delegates have gone home (think here of the LCMS restructuring that took place at the same convention in which the Rev. Matthew Harrison was elected Synod President).  One need only hearken back to a convention in which at the same time the Synod moved to adopt fellowship with a church body that was on the verge of ordaining women while unelecting the Synod President who had led them toward that end and electing one far more conservative (LCMS 1969).  Who can make sense of it all?

Is there something better?  I am not sure.  Perhaps we could conceive of a structure in which solid deliberation could take place and wise decisions carefully determined by majority vote.  I am not at all saying it could not happen.  But in place of it all, perhaps the Synod Convention ought to begin our conversation rather than end it and do this by providing solid Biblical and doctrinal essays to delegates summoned to hear the Word of the Lord.  Perhaps this could proceed from the Synod Convention into the Districts and winkels and forums of our church body and only then return to the level of the Synod Convention to resolve.  It often seems like these gatherings spend more time in PR moves and in voting on the obvious than they should.  How bad could it be if these celebratory moments took a backseat to honest, deliberate, and confessional studies on the subjects and doctrines in the news or being challenged (even outside the Church)?

Though I know it is a dangerous thing, I was just thinking. . .

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Is Evolution the end of Christianity. . .

What I couldn't really resolve was this evolution issue. When I arrived on campus at Princeton, I was still a young-earth creationist. I believed that if one ceased to be a young-earth creationist, one would cease to be a Christian. It had always been presented to me that way: Believe this or cease to believe at all. Slowly I began to let go of that.  So records the doubts, fears, and movement of one evangelical into Rome.  Rome solved the problem of Scripture and of evolution.  Scripture was true because Rome said it was (except where Rome determined it never intended to present fact) and evolution could be compatible with Christian faith (perhaps to be seen in relation to the previous parenthesis).

The problem with hitching the reliability of Scripture to a church, council, or pope, is that it elevates whoever guarantees Scripture above Scripture.  This is the inherent issue underlying the whole of the Reformation -- the problem of authority.  I struggle to see how the reliability (infallibility) of Scripture, one of the most ancient orthodox Christian truths and dogmas, can be hinged upon such recognition either by a church structure or by individual reason or any other thing.  Scripture is true and reliable and without error because it is the Word of God and it claims for itself that which cannot be claimed for any other -- not even the Pope (at least in the early Church and from Scripture itself).

The problem with evolution is tied to the reliability of Scripture.  While some make it out to be a simple exegetical problem dealing with the meaning of day, it is not quite that neat and clean.  The problem also lies with Jesus and St. Paul who refer to Adam not in some symbolic way but as a real man, in time, in history.  It is not a Genesis problem but a Scripture problem.  If creation is a symbolic account in Scripture and not a historical one, then how is it that Jesus references Adam as an historic person -- and St. Paul as well?  It is also a problem because one has to wait until more modern times before it is possible to find much justification for anything but a historical understanding of the Genesis account of creation.  No one in their right mind is saying that there are not symbolic overtones to what took place OR that the Genesis account is full and complete (and therefore satisfactory for the curious mind).  That does not translate into the fact that Genesis, indeed, the whole of the Old Testament, and the words of Jesus and St. Paul are merely mythological.  There is plenty of symbolism to factual things -- from the Temple and its sacrificial center to Calvary and Christ's once for all suffering and death.

While I am not at all ready to say that evolution is a disqualifier for heaven -- only God will decide who enters and who does not and it will be solely because of the merits and mercies of Christ alone -- the idea that evolution can exist quite comfortably within the framework of a reliable Scripture is a step too far.  The Church cannot speak where she has no authority and yet she must speak and contend for that which has been revealed.  That God created, that the creation account of Genesis is history (if not complete in every detail), that Jesus witnessed to the existence of Adam as historical man, and that St. Paul did as well, cannot be ignored or set aside in favor of some scientific view of history (one which remains a theory since nothing in evolutionary thought has been seen or replicated or witnessed except the changes within species themselves).  We have a mess of archeological evidence and though science may have put its best guess as to how to read it all, even this is not unequivocal and does not end the conflict between our estimation of what we see and what God has said.

But that is the issue.  If council, teaching magisterium, and pope sit above Scripture, then there is no need to hold on to Scripture's reliability.  It is nice enough but not essential if God has placed others above the Word.  In a sense, this goes back to Erasmus and Luther.  Luther held that the doctrine of Scripture was plain enough to be known and believed (that is not to say there is no need of theologian) but Erasmus believed the Scripture (at least the doctrinal part of it) was too confused and dark to be known easily or clearly and that was why the moral level was the realm at which most people encountered the Word of God.  That is perhaps simplistic but not far from the truth.  Luther had some admiration for Erasmus that man but could not be reconciled to his thought.  While some thought that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched, it is perhaps the other way around.  Erasmus was the one who pushed past Scripture as revealer of doctrinal truth and it was Luther who was more akin to medieval theologians who saw Scripture as a Word to be preached and that Word preached was about nothing less than doctrine and truth.  That is where we end.  Scripture is reliable not simply as ethical lamp to light the feet but as the beacon Light of God who speaks truth, revelation, doctrine, and moral guidance to the Church and the world.  Those who find it easy to pass up creation and Adam as less than historical tend to emphasize morality above all.  As a Lutheran, true to form, that is not a place where we can go -- our DNA and the DNA of our Symbols is doctrine and truth or nothing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Some thoughts on a few phrases. . .

The Roman Canon begins:

Te ígitur, clementíssime Pater, per Iesum Christum, Fílium tuum, Dóminum nostrum, súpplices rogámus ac pétimus: uti accépta hábeas, et benedícas hæc + dona, hæc + múnera, hæc sancta + sacrifícia illibáta: in primis quæ tibi offérimus pro Ecclésia tua sancta cathólica; quam pacificáre, custodíre, adunáre, et régere dignéris toto orbe terrárum… 
We humbly pray and beseech Thee, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ Thy Son, Our Lord, to receive and to bless these gifts, these presents, these holy unspotted sacrifices, which we offer up to Thee, in the first place, for Thy holy Catholic Church, that it may please Thee to grant her peace, to guard, unite, and guide her, throughout the world…
While Lutherans rightly bristle at these words that announce what is happening at the hand of the priest, there is another dimension in which the offering is true -- the mistake lies in the one doing the offering.  It is not we who offer to the Father the sacrifice, unspotted and holy, but Christ who offers Himself on our behalf -- the once for all sacrifice now made present for us as the holy food of the baptized.  Any Lutheran knows this.  But there is something here we often miss.  The sacrifice of Christ once offered continues to plead for us and Christ continues to point to what He has accomplished to the Father, on behalf of His Church.  The Church remembers this and rejoices at the Word and the Meal in which the offering becomes the voice in our ear bestowing that which is spoken of and the food upon our lips bestowing the flesh and blood of the sacrifice with all its fruits.

Lutherans are rightfully wary of the idea that we are the offerers and Lutherans are rightfully wary of that the force of this offering is heavenward to the Father instead of directed to us but we should not fear and ought to rejoice that the bread we eat is His sacrificial flesh and the cup we drink is His sacrificial blood and that by this blessed communion we are swept up by Christ to the Father to be received by God as His own baptized, believing, restored, forgiven, and declared righteous children.  We are being offered; we are not doing the offering.  Christ is presenting us as those who for the joy set before Him He endured the cross and scorned its shame and in whom the Father, because of Christ, is well pleased.

Later is another truth so sorely missed in our own day and time.  That is, how this canon defines the Church.
…una cum fámulo tuo Papa nostro N., et Antístite nostro N., et ómnibus orthodóxis, atque cathólicæ et apostólicæ fídei cultóribus.
…in union with Thy servant N., our Pope, and N., our Bishop, and with all orthodox men: indeed, with those who cultivate the Catholic and apostolic faith.
Orthodox doctrine is not incidental to the church nor to the faith itself.  Indeed, this emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy is central to the church.  Our social media world is filled with pious platitudes that disdain the church and worship and emphasize moral behavior.  Now far be it from me to suggest that moral behavior is not a good thing.  But the central focus of the faith lies in confessing and worshiping rightly who God is and what God has done (the Athanasian Creed gets it just right in its first words).  The central focus here is does the person confess to the true faith -- not is that person nice, does he pay his taxes, care for his neighbor, and is he a credit to himself, his family, and his community.  None of those things are bad nor should we distance ourselves from them but communion with the church is communion in the faith -- doctrine confessed and lived out in the worship life of the baptized gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  What we need to be concerned about is whether the person professes the catholic {universal} and apostolic faith, born of the Scriptures and faithfully bestowed as the sacred deposit from the Apostles?  True charity does not exist apart from this orthodoxy nor in opposition to it -- not even in competition with it.

This faithful and orthodox confession lies not simply in checking off doctrinal boxes (okay, yeah, I believe in God, that He made all things, in original sin, in Christ my Savior, etc...).  Doctrine and practice are not different things joined together but different sides of one thing.  Rome seems to have forgotten this (perhaps because the Roman Canon is largely forgotten in favor of other options) and Lutherans, among others, are also tempted to disconnect them.   No one can love what he or she does not know.  To love God is to love the only God as He has made Himself known—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — if you do not believe in the Most Holy Trinity.  Again, the Athanasian Creed puts it right -- whoever desires to be saved must confess the Trinity and worship the Trinity aright.  In a small but profound phrase the Roman Canon emphasizes orthodoxy as the basic condition of Church membership.  This is not only something we can and should affirm but this is the cause which must be recovered not only in Rome but among us Lutherans as well. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The triumph of the subjective. . .

There is no doubt that we live in a time in which the subjective as ascended and the objective has descended in priority and importance.  All around us is a world filled with the definition of preference -- from the way we set up our smart phones to the way we shop to the way we see ourselves and even define gender.  Marriages tend to fail not because of great moral failure as much as people who simply tire of being married (it is not fun anymore).  The married choose not to have children because they fear children will be more work than fun (got that right) and they don't want to impede their happiness -- even with children.  We go to work where work is fun and we look for another job when work is no longer fun (God forbid we might have to work simply for the paycheck).  We wait our whole lives for the moment when we can retire and live only for ourselves (as if we have lived solely for others before we retire).  Yet, for all the so-called happiness we live for and for the heavy focus on what we want and like, we seem to be less happy than those who had big families, worked far harder and longer than we, and lived lives more defined by others than themselves.  We are depressed and find it hard to want to do anything.

I was reading the story of one person's battle with depression and he insisted that one of the paths to his healing was to distrust his subjective experience -- to dethrone the god of pleasure, want, and desire. After all, in the life he was living, nothing ever “sounded like fun” (that’s the nature of depression) and so he began to look beyond what things sounded like and past his immediate wants or desires and force himself to do things he did not want to do.  In the end, he discovered that looking beyond the realm of his subjective experience and desire was the release to the prison of depression that had even cause his hospitalization.

In another article, the author said that depression tended to be shown in an abundance of sentences that began with I think, I feel, or I want (or do not want).  This author, a therapeutic counselor to those depressed, also noticed an abundance of expressions that included words like never or always.  These absolutes tended to inflate and exaggerate the negative feelings and only compound their impact in stealing ever semblance of joy or contentment.

The life turned inward is not a full or free life but one in which bondage to feelings and the search for happiness empties the soul and does not fill it.  Yet this is the epidemic we face as a world abandons an external and objective truth in favor of feelings and desires and a flexible value systems that does not filter or judge either except to excuse, justify, and elevate them as the supreme focus of life.

This is not without application to the faith.  Christian faith which turns from the objective of Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen and to the realm of feelings and experience is a faith emptied of its power and promise to the hurting and to those living in the shadow of death.  If faith is to offer our world any real hope, it must begin with the confrontation of the subjective and the affirmation of the objective, with the surrender of our lives and our stories to the one life and one story that has the power to redeem our lost lives and restore the right relationship with our blessed Creator through the merits and mercies of His Son, our Savior.  This work is the work of the Spirit, to make Christ known and to teach our fearful hearts to turn away from the dead end of introspection and to the path of trust in Christ alone.

Christianity does not begin nor does it end with the preoccupation with of the inner life. The Christian faith begins with the objective truth of the death and resurrection of Christ. That transcendent reality is both a point in history and time attested to by the testimony of witnesses and the point of faith born of the witness of the Spirit to things we have not seen and yet believe. Regardless of our subjective questions, feelings, and experience, the concrete reality of Christ’s death and resurrection remains.  This is where hope and healing begin.