Thursday, February 28, 2019

Trying to be who we are not. . .

The truth is that as a Lutheran I find myself with the gravest misgivings over the kind of evangelical wannabe efforts Lutherans sometimes attempt.  Whether it comes in the form of evangelism programs that struggle to marry Lutheran confidence in the means of grace with the typical emphasis on decision theology or in the form of workshops designed to transform your marriage, family, children, finances, etc., I am suspicious and wary of them all.  Many of them come with great claims and with the promise that you or the world around you will be deeply impacted by this six hour workshop or three night program or sixteen week series.  Perhaps I am alone in this but I think not.  I think most Lutherans find this kind of thing about as uncomfortable and ill fitting as those outlandish Christmas print suits sold at the holidays.  Who would wear them, really?

The program of the Lutheran Church is really the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  It is not that we do not talk about the Christian and his or her vocation.  We do.  But all of this flows cleanly and clearly from the work of the Spirit acting through baptismal water and not on the basis of the Christian's desire or choice.  In fact, by nature vocation is not at all about desire or choice but about duty and responsibility that accompanies this identity.  Read through Luther's Table of Duties and how he treats this idea of vocation.  You do not get to love your children or provide for them when you feel like it or when you think about it.  Nope, this is who you are and what you do as a parent.  In the same way, you do not get to choose to be a good citizen or when citizenship is easy because the politics of the nation is going your way.  Nope, this is who you are and what you do as a citizen.  The same goes with spouse, neighbor, etc... 

As far as evangelism goes, it is hard to reconcile a program which describes the Gospel as a pitch made to sell a choice when you also confess that you cannot by your own reason believe in Jesus Christ as Lord or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called you, gathered you into Christ, enlightened you with His gifts...  So how did that fit with Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion or any other decision based outreach program?  Not so well.  Few Lutherans could distinguish how we ended up any different from any other group working to pressure sell Jesus to an unsuspecting or suspicious unbeliever.  Few Lutherans wanted to learn the steps and practice the art.

Lutherans are at their best when they focus upon the work of God, the Word of God, the gifts of God, and the means of grace that do what they say, deliver what they sign, and accomplish God's purpose in speaking them.  Lutherans are at their best when we act as the churchly people we are by confession and history -- complete with the Divine Service, the Church Year, vestments, organ and choral music, the best of hymns (the Lutheran chorale), etc...  Lutherans are at their best when we focus less on our feelings or journey and talk about what God has done and is still doing where that Word is spoken and His sacraments administered.  But that means trusting the Lord to be in His Word and Sacraments and to work in them and through them to accomplish His purpose.  And that seems to be the struggle we have today.  We seem to want to be more like the next most successful evangelical ministry than to speak that Word of God and trust the Lord to work therein.

Now to be sure, I am not at all saying that we cannot learn something about noticing the stranger in our midst and welcoming him or her.  I am not at all saying that we shouldn't take stock of our property, facility, and working to make entrances and directions easier to find or parking more accessible.  I am not at all suggesting that we should be nonchalant about the works of God or about the urgency of God's Word in a world careening out of control away from its Creator.  We ought to be excited about the fact that God does what He said He would.  But at the same time it is a contrived and artificial Lutheranism which trades in the work of God for the realm of human labor and choice.

If you build it, they will come.  Okay, go ahead.  Laugh at me.  But there is some truth to this.  Even a Lifeway study (hardly Lutheran) suggested that those outside the Church expected churches to look like, well, churches and to act like them.  For everyone who is pleasantly surprised by the fact that this church does not look or act or smell like a church, there are ten who fear that the Church is trying to deceive them.  I think they are right.  Trying to say that church is fun, that the music of the church has a beat you can dance to, that the building looks like the mall and is just as comfortable, that Starbucks coffee is free here, and that worship will improve you or your life or the lives of your loved ones is just foolish.  We are not in the self-help business.  We are here to manifest the kingdom of God -- a kingdom that comes through the means of grace God has appointed and not our efforts.  People not yet of the kingdom do not find the faith easier or church more appealing when it is faith lite or church lite.  Be the church.  From those on the inside to those watching from the outside, acting like we are not the church of God will not help us relate or communicate the Gospel or entice the unwilling.  Be the people of the Word and Sacraments you are, live as this people from the Word and back to that Word, and strive to be the holy, righteous, and good people God has declared you to be.

Over the last few generations we have tried not being the Church and where has it gotten us?  Our kids do not take the faith seriously, neither do the people outside the church, and we have made casual and ordinary the most profound and exceptional things of God's grace.  In short, we have forsaken a sense of the sacred thinking it would help us welcome more folks into the door and the pews are emptier than they ever were and people no longer take us seriously.  So, why not try being who we are and doing what God has called us to do and being the people God claims we are.  How much worse could this do than what we have already done?

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The use and interpretation of Scripture. . .

We must deny to Protestantism any right to use the Bible, much more to interpret it.  Such is the assertion of a certain Cardinal Wiseman -- now almost two centuries ago.  It is a curious statement, indeed.  For if the claims of Rome are consistent with Scripture, then the study of Scripture would seem to be useful to support Rome and, indeed, turn the Protestant to Rome.  It is my conviction that faithful study of the Scriptures will not undermine Lutheran identity and teaching but honor it.  I would expect a Roman Catholic to be just as convinced that the use of the Scriptures would aid the conversation and conversion to Rome.  But that is the problem, now, isn't it?!  Rome and the Scriptures seem to have some daylight between them and some real tension.

Most Protestants believe that Scripture supports their position.  That is not surprising.  The problem with most Protestants is that they believe Scripture supports their position but they do not account for the catholicity and some of their positions are more novelty than what has always been, is now, and will be believed.  The key is not simply proof-texting your doctrine but living in it as the faithful who reject the idea that Christianity is merely an idea -- a theory -- but that truth that forms and informs practice and life. 

That is the claim of Lutheranism -- at the end of the Augsburg Confession we insist that if our confession can be found to depart from Scripture and catholic doctrine and practice, we will change to honor the Scriptures and live consistently with that catholic doctrine and practice.  While some may challenge this assertion or even laugh it off, the truth is that our appeal is exactly that -- to be captive to the Word of God.  In fact, the Reformation is less about such things as Purgatory or infused grace or other things than it is about authority itself.  Luther was certainly not the first nor the last to suggest that Councils have contradicted each other and Popes have disagreed with the Popes who went before them.  But Luther's claim to be captive to the Word was new enough to spark an entire movement.

Authority remains as much the issue for Christianity today and its conflicts as it was for Martin Luther and the Roman Church of His day.  While fewer and fewer people are ready to suggest that Rome's claims stand on their own merits, there are also fewer and fewer people who know those Scriptures well enough to listen with a discerning ear to what is preached and taught.  This is what has led to and continues to lead to the diversity among Christendom and the seeming inability of any group to speak the Word and let it stand upon its own merits.  Just as it was in the 16th century, so now we mark our distinctions on the basis of doctrine and truth -- not about feelings or desires or anything other than the Word of the Lord.

The typical Roman Catholic does not even see the need to reconcile the truths of his faith with Scripture and the typical Protestant does not even notice the distance between what he thinks is the faith of the Scriptures and what is blind innovation designed more to empty the Church of her identity and authority than to honor the hermeneutic of continuity that is the catholic principle.  So Protestantism continues to fracture and to depart from the creedal truth that it sought to protect and Rome remains an enigma -- insisting that Scripture is not at all unique or the only source and norm of Christian truth.  It is not a good thing for any Christian body that claims to be faithful to the Lord and His revelation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Hard words. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 7C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

    Jesus speaks hard words of love in our Gospel reading; and we don’t want to listen.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28). … I don’t think so Jesus.  Why should I?  They don’t deserve it.  We don’t want to love our enemies; to do them good, to bless them, or even pray for them.  They don’t deserve this kind of love...but then again, neither do we. 
    We don’t deserve love.  No one does, because love isn’t’s given.  But that’s not how we see it.  For us love is earned.  Just think about it.  Who in your life do you love?  
    This past week I asked the preschoolers this very same question during chapel.  I told them to close their eyes and think about someone they loved.  Who do you think their number one answer was: MOM.  Of course, it was mom.  Almost every single child thought about mom, not dad, but mom.  Why is that?  Why do you think kids love their mom?  I didn’t ask the why, but I’m pretty sure if I did they would have said something like, “Because she plays with me,” or “Because she makes me lunch.”  For us, love is earned.  We can deny this all we want, but the truth is that’s how we view love and that’s how we operate. 
We love others because of what they’ve done for us, what they’ve given us.  Again, think about the people you love; your friends and family.  Don’t you love those who are nicer to you just a little bit more than others who are just there?  When we were teenagers, didn’t we yell “I hate you” at our parents when they wouldn’t let us do something or give us what we wanted?  This is how we work with love.  If someone is good to us, then we’ll be good to them and love them.  But if they’ve harmed us, if they’ve done us wrong, or if we simply think they’ve done something wrong; well, then they’ll get no love from us. 
This makes sense; tit for tat.  You get what you earn.  All the great action movies and TV shows that we love have heroes who’ve been wronged and seek revenge on the evil doers; giving them what they deserve.  We cheer when the bad guy gets his.  That’s how it’s supposed to be.  We can’t wrap our minds around loving someone who’s sinned against us.  We look at Joseph’s reactions to his brothers in Genesis and scratch our heads.  His brothers didn’t deserve love.  Those who’ve wronged us don’t deserve our love.  They deserve our hate and to be punished; but so do we.  We don’t deserve God’s love, and yet that’s exactly what we’ve received. 
God’s love for you is different from the love that we have.  It’s not based on anything you do.  God doesn’t love you because you’ve been good to Him.  He doesn’t love you because you’ve earned it.  No, you don’t deserve God’s love.  What you deserve is everlasting condemnation and punishment.  You’ve done God wrong.  You’ve sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed.  You’ve heard His word and you’ve actively ignored it.  You’ve trespassed and sinned against God.  This isn’t small.  It’s not simply mistakes or accidents.  Because you’re a sinner you’re an active enemy of God, opposed to Him and His will at every turn.  And because of this, the very last thing you deserve is God’s love...but He gives it to you anyways, because that’s who He is.  God is love (1 Jn 4:16).
St. Paul put it best when he said, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).  The love of God is seen in His Son, whom He gave to die in your place.  Christ received what you justly deserve, and you’re given the free gift of God.  Jesus’ sacrificed His life for yours.  He gave everything for you, so that you might be forgiven, so that the quilt of your sin might be taken away.  Jesus died so that God could take you from being His enemy and make you His beloved children.  Christ is the very definition of love.  He fulfilled those hard words of love. 
Jesus loved His enemies and did good to those who hated Him.  He blessed those who cursed Him.  He turned His cheek when the soldiers spit upon Him and beat Him.  He didn’t resist as they stripped Him naked, taking His cloak and tunic.  He prayed for those who abused Him as they nailed Him to the cross: “Father forgive them” (Lk 23:34).  All this Christ did, all this Christ endured for you, because of His love for you...not because you’ve earned it, but because God wanted you.  He did what needed to be done so that you could be saved, so that you could be His beloved child. 
    You and I, we’ve received God’s love.  You’ve received it in the cleansing waters of baptism.  You’ve received it in the freeing words of Christ’s absolution.  You’ve received it in the life-giving body & blood of Communion.  You’ve received all of this freely, by God’s grace and mercy.  God didn’t deny His love for you because of your sin…so then how can we deny God’s love to those who’ve sinned against us?  We can’t.  Since we’re God’s beloved children, we can’t help but show love to those who’ve harmed us, who’ve trespassed against us.  We can listen to those hard words of love. 
    This love is contrary to the world.  The world says, “Love those who love you and hate those you hate you.”  But if we do that, what benefit is it for us?  That’s how sinners act, that’s how our Old Adam operates.  But we’re the forgiven children of God.  We’ve been made new in Christ; and therefore, we should live like it.  Jesus calls us to “Be merciful even as [our] Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).  This means we love like God, loving all people, even our enemies. 
This love always gives.  It helps those in need without thinking about what we might get in return.  It gives grace and mercy.  It gives forgiveness.  This love doesn’t judge and condemn.  Instead it builds up and encourages. 
Even though we don’t deserve it, God loves us.  He sent His Son to redeem us from our sins, to turn us from being His enemies into being His beloved children.  Having received this love, how can we not love others the same?  There’s no tit for tat with Christ’s love.  No judgement or condemnation.  The love of Christ drives us to act contrary to the way of the world.  Instead of revenge, we show mercy.  Instead of punishment we share grace; because that’s what we’ve received from our Father.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Necessity of Revelation. . .

Over and over again in Scripture we are confronted with the limits of reason, intellect, and experience.  From the questions of Job and God's answer to the coming of the Christ in flesh, Scripture points us to the wisdom that is formed by faith and kneels in holy fear before the awesome wonder of God's mystery revealed.  God does not explain Himself to us or even ask for our understanding -- only for our faith.

It is a curious thing how dissatisfying we find this call to faith.  It is not what we want -- this life of faith dependent upon the Lord to reveal Himself and make known the plan of salvation.  We want an easier path -- logical development, reasonable answers, and for God to wait for our approval.  We reduce faith to truth propositions to be dissected and learned with the mind.  We check off doctrines like boxes on a to do list.  We think that we can think ourselves into God's presence.  We reduce God to a certain kind of feeling.  We build towers of Babel designed so that we might approach God on common ground. We think that if we ascend to the heights of reason or the ecstasy of experience, we will meet God.  But God refuses to treat us as equals.  He does not give us places to ascend but has descended to us.  He makes Himself known to us so that we may apprehend Him solely by faith, planted by the Spirit, working through the means of grace.  And this is enough.

Nowhere are we less satisfied than with this dependence upon the Lord's revelation than when it comes to matters of heaven and the life to come.  How many pious platitudes are offered to the grieving about what the dead are doing and how much better off they are and what they would have wanted!  How many sentiments are offered in place of real hope -- the trouble the dead are causing God (as they caused us in life!) or how they are rearranging the furniture or redoing the schedules of the heavenly beings or flapping their arms with angel's wings!  Why is it so difficult for us to take God at His Word, to believe what He has said and let it be His Word, approached with holy faith and fear?

We fear the words of God are not enough and so we invent words to comfort and console, to bring a smile to the mouth and tears of laughter where tears of sorrow flowed -- as if this were enough to make the longing of our hearts go away and heal the deep and gaping wound of grief we wear over the death of those whom we love!  God does not invite speculation.  God calls us to faith, to trust in what He has said and to believe what He has promised --- all because of what He has already done in His Son, revealed as the fulfillment of the prophetic promise and the mighty deliverer who alone can release us from the prison of our sins and the death sin has caused.

Even Christians, the faithful who meet the Lord every Sunday in the Word and Meal, are gravely tempted by sentiment to speak where God is silent and to be silent where God has spoken.  It does not serve us well.  We too easily choose the feel good of the moment over the hope that endures, the sentiment that seems to comfort over the consolation that is Christ crucified and risen, and the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

My friends, let us not presume except that which God has said nor guess about what God has not.  Instead, in life and in death, let us joyfully affirm that our lives are hidden with Christ in God, in the future now unfolding but hard to see with mortal eyes, and in the revelation given not for us to understand but for us to believe.  It is not simply that God is not knowable apart from His self-disclosure, it is that we do not know who we are unless and until God Himself discloses that revelation to us.  This He has done, not by an appeal to be understood but by the solemn declaration of His Word, enfleshed for us and for our salvation, mounted on the altar of the cross, laid in the cold darkness of the grave, and risen in glory to raise us up with Him!  

Beloved, we are children of God, and it doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1John 3:2)  You are dead, and your life is hid in Christ in God. (Col. 3:3)

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Mythology. . .

No, this is not some piece about the Scriptures and Adam and Eve and miracles and suspension of nature's rules.  It is instead the mythology that accompanies our holiday practices.  The legend and myth of those secularized holy days is that somewhere within the balderized versions of sacred time lies the shadow of the divine, still hanging upon the backs even of those trying to flee its presence while keeping the ambiance of celebration.

Growing up as a child, Christmas Eve was more about church than anything else.  We had the children's Christmas program on Christmas Eve.  It was followed by the Divine Service.  The night was cold, the time was late, and the children walked out the door with a paper bag filled with a bright shiny red apple, some hard ribbon candy, a few chocolates, and some peanuts in the shell.  It was magic (in my mind).  The Christmas Eve supper was oyster stew, Bond-Ost cheese (with caraway seed), rye bread (homemade), head cheese, pickled herring (homemade), and other delights too wonderful to be imagined today.  From church to bed because the Swedes in my family got up at before daylight to be at church at the crack of dawn for julotta.  Then a family meal and presents and, by that time exhausted, a welcome nap.  It was glorious -- at least if I forget about how cold it was and how bad the heater was in that 1950 Chevy.

A part of me wants to believe that under our modern day Christmases of take out meals and last minute shopping and parties, a hint of such a Christmas of old still lives.  But that is the mythology.  It lives in the imagination of an ever decreasing few.  My kids have never known the wonder of such a day.  Our family Christmases have been sandwiched in the few hours between Advent 4 and Christmas 1 where dad was not busy at church or napping on the couch or visiting the walk in clinic for his annual bout of bronchitis.  Christmas was all about church, but not in the way I recalled it as a child in Nebraska.  They do not resent it and all my kids are people of faith (a credit to their mom and the Holy Spirit more than me).  But the myth ended with my generation.  Even in Nebraska it does not happen like it did of old.

I could detail the traditions of Holy Week and Easter (including the old Palm Sunday ritual of the religious inquisition and confirmation) and the result would be the same.  The mythology is that somewhere there still lives such vibrant and living traditions and families who live it out still all in the church with a few home routines on the side.  There is not much left to recover.  We must begin anew.  Much to my disappointment, it will not be in the recreation of our ancient past.  Time moves too quickly and the past is too far in the past.  There is no recovery mode left.  We are now more on the virgin ground of starting over.  And so it does. 

The church begins a fresh teaching and leading individuals and families to find Christmas in the Holy Incarnation of our Lord and to make the trek of Holy Week from palms and hosannas to cries of crucify to the hammer blows of nails to the cries of the Suffering Servant to the shock of salvation that comes by death to the silence of waiting for the Word to be fulfilled.  The church cannot count on history or knowledge or even the desire to learn the journey of the Church Year with its rich and profound lessons and piety.  We cannot spend our time trying to remember how it was and building into the folks today the same fading memory we have.  We must start fresh not abandoning the Church Year or the holy traditions but learning them together as if none had known them before.  It is a painful lesson for a person like me who would love to go back even if for a moment but it is the only future open to us.  Our secularized culture leaves us no choice.  The vast numbers of the unchurched or dechurched or no church now are a field waiting to be planted with the Word, nurtured in the piety of faith with its weekly rhythm of Sunday to Sunday and its calendar of color, liturgical variety, hymnic depth, and holy time, and, of course, the eschatological day to which all time points.

The myth is that if you scratch deep enough into the secular veneer you will find the religious core.  Nope.  You won't.  The secular core must be planed and sanded and formed by the Word and its piety into a place for God -- every generation!  No where is this more true than today but never was it not true.  Speak the Word.  Teach the doctrines of the Scriptures.  Pray.  Kneel before the Body and the Blood as it is placed upon the lips, heaven's food for earthly creatures.  Sing the faith.  Show the children.  Love the neighbor.  None of these can be counted upon to continue like the traditions of old we once thought immortal.  All of them must be learned anew by each new generation, taught to those in crib and cradle, proclaimed to those not yet of the Kingdom.  There is no other way.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Historic Organs of the World. . .

Historic Organs of the World
December 16, 2018
​The Gothic Organ
at Rysum
In the flatlands of Ostfriesland, a northwestern province of Germany near the North Sea, is a string of small medieval towns that comprise a district called Krummhörn. Some of these villages are quite modern, with grid-based streets and inns that cater mostly to European tourists looking for some fresh air. Other towns consist primarily of homes, and look like something out of a children’s book, with winding brick roads that make sets of rings around the center of the town. The village of Rysum (pronounced “Ree-suhm”) falls into the latter category, and most remarkably, in the heart of this picturesque town there sits a church which is home to one of the oldest organs in the world.
This single-manual instrument is the last survivor of the style of gothic organ that was found throughout parish churches in the northern Dutch- and German-speaking world. The builder was "Meister Harmannus", and his "fee" for building the organ is quite interesting — the details come from Eggerik Beninga's historical record Cronica der Fessen, in which he notes that "the pastor and church authorities at Rysum, through a letter from Olde Imell, overseer of Osterhusen and Grymersum, have asked that he allow them to transport their fat cattle over the Ems [River] to Groningen because of the organ that they commissioned there." This entry was dated to 1457, and so the organ was probably built a few years earlier.
The first definite date associated with the organ is 1513, which is inscribed at the base of the rear gallery. While the organ stands there today, originally it was on top of a rood screen separating the people from the altar. The dendochronology of the two large doors date the wood to the Baltics around 1480, and may have been added when the organ was moved.
Today, the instrument boasts seven independent stops, but the organ Harmannus built was a Blockwerk — a giant mixture with the possibility of playing either the full organ, or only the 8’ Praestant in the façade. The organbuilder Joachim Kayser was paid for seven register knobs around 1680, which may have been when the organ was separated into individual stops (though it could have been earlier). Regardless, the original mechanism to activate the 8’ Praestant still functions as it did in 1457, with a large lever just above the music stand.
The 12th century church of Rysum, which sits in the center of the town.
The keydesk of the Harmannus organ. The large stick hanging down is the stop control for the Praestant 8'.
Through the years there were minor modifications, but on the whole, the organ stayed largely intact, and in 1959, Jürgen Ahrend and Gerhard Brunzema restored the Rysum Organ to its 1513 condition, resulting in this stop list:

Praestant 8’
Gedackt 8’
Octave 4’
Octave 2’
Mixtur III–IV*
Sesquialtera II*
Trompete 8’*

*Reconstructed by Ahrend and Brunzema.
The tone of the organ is quite different from the Schnitger instruments we now commonly associate with northern Germany. Quite the opposite of the term "unrefined" that sometimes is associated with the Gothic period, I would describe the principals, at least sitting at the keydesk, as quite flutey, with an extremely warm, rounded tone. Here is the Praestant 8':

As you can hear, the acoustic is pretty dry. At first playing, I found the key action a little stiff, as the palates are so large and heavy, but paying close attention for a few minutes and adjusting makes playing the instrument a delight. All the principal stops together (i.e. everything but the trumpet and Gedackt) makes for an absolutely inspiring sound (though it is extremely loud for the player!).

The 8’ Trumpet is quite extraordinary in its own way, with brilliance and character throughout the compass. Though a reconstruction, it fits beautifully with the rest of the instrument, and it’s actually not terribly loud from where the players sits.
There are a few factors which make playing conventional repertoire difficult or impossible. It has no pedal, and the manual includes short octave. This means that the lowest octave of keys plays the following pitches:
The Rysum Organ is also tuned in quarter comma meantone, which strives to set major thirds at the beginning of the wheel of fifths at a mathematically pure ratio. Unfortunately, dividing the octave in this way results in some keys becoming unplayable. Here’s a recording of major triads progressing through the circle of fifths (C major–G major–D major…) on the 8’ Praestant:
Given all this, what sort of repertoire does one play on such an organ? The majority of surviving organ literature from the time of the Rysum organ in the German-speaking world (Buxheimer Orgelbuch, works of Conrad Paumann, Hans Buchner) comes from much farther south, and the pipework of the few other surviving organs from this era (Valère Basilica in Sion, the table organ at the Rätisches Museum in Chur) are built quite differently, producing a much brighter tone. The Ileborgh Tablature was probably compiled a little more toward the north (Stendal, between Berlin and Hamburg), but the notation is full of problems, and the music we can decipher is generally not as refined as works from the Paumann and Hofhaimer circles. However, the Rysum organ is the only Gothic instrument still surviving in which the majority of the pipework is in its original condition.

It is actually possible to play a few early pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach effectively on this instrument. The works from the Neumeister Collection work particularly well, and show off the rich, warm character of the Gedackt.
I think it’s hard for us modern people to grasp just how old this organ really is — but for context (as a colleague pointed out to me), we are now (in 2018), chronologically closer to Johann Sebastian Bach’s death than the year that the Rysum organ was built. All these things make this instrument a priceless treasure, and an invaluable insight into the tonal world of the late gothic period in parish churches.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Something to look forward to. . .

In the technology support department at the Vatican Museums, Villanova University student Justin Myers is spending a semester creating virtual tours of galleries, part of a larger project to make the museums accessible to everyone.

While the Vatican Museums website has some tours already available for individual parts of the museum, such as the Sistine Chapel, a seamless virtual walk-through tour is in the works, according to Myers, who has been developing and editing tours for nearly four months.

The idea is to create something that joins all the separate rooms together “so you can virtually walk through the entire museum,” said the 20-year-old computer science student from St. Peter Parish in Olney, Maryland.

“Almost all the rooms are done now that I’m finishing up my projects for the semester. Now we just have to link it all together, but that’s a huge project,” he told Catholic News Service Dec. 13.

The Vatican houses all sorts of treasures that too many of us never see.  Now perhaps we have a chance to visit without actually going there. . .

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Things are not always as they seem. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 6C, preached on Sunday, February 17, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We trust our eyes the most; that’s just who we are.  We want visual proof.  We want to see the truth.  But our eyes can’t see everything.  Our eyes can be fooled; after all, that’s how magicians make their living.  We can see one thing, but reality can be something completely different.  Things aren’t always as they seem, especially when it comes to our lives of faith. 
     Today we heard Jesus speak His Beatitudes, and every time we hear these “blesseds” they sound like complete nonsense.  Jesus’ words don’t fit with how the world works.  They don’t line up with what we see.  “Blessed are you who are poor….Blessed are you who are hungry now….Blessed are you who weep now….Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil,” (Lk 6:20-22).  This makes no.  Looking at our world, we’d never say these people are blessed.  Driving by those who stand on the corner with signs saying “Will work for food,” we don’t say to ourselves, “Hey look, that’s one blessed guy.”  No, we think of them as unlucky at best and swindlers at worst.  Hearing about people who are bullied and persecuted, those who are being sued because they’ve try to live and work by their faith, we don’t think they’re blessed.  No, we view them as victims.  Nothing we see about these people and their circumstances ever suggest they’re blessed. 
After this Jesus continued to speak more nonsensical words.  “Woe to you who are rich….Woe to you who are full now….Woe to you who laugh now….Woe to you, when all people speak well of you,” (Lk 6:24-26).  Again, this is backwards.  This isn’t what we see.  Those who have money, those who have all their needs met, those who appear to have a happy life, those who have a good reputation, we don’t consider them cursed or woeful individuals.  No, we say they're blessed, that they’ve been given all the good stuff.  We envy them.  We want to be blessed like them. 
Christ’s words are completely counter-cultural and counter-experience.  We just don’t see it.  We don’t understand what He’s saying.  How can those who have nothing be blessed and those with everything be cursed? 
The truth of Christ’s words here aren’t based on what we see though; it’s not grounded in the world around us.  Instead, Jesus is speaking about faith, about the life of faith, about what and who we trust in. 
Jeremiah spoke similar words in the OT reading.  “Cursed is the man who trust in man and makes flesh his strength….Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD” (Jer 17:5, 7).  Jeremiah calls those who trust in man cursed because man will fail.  And this is why Jesus speaks His woes as well. 
Christ doesn’t speak His woes simply to those who have, but those who trust in the earthly things they have.  Man, others, ourselves, our strength, the things of this world like money, power, and reputation, all of these will fail.  People betray us.  Our health and strength gives way to disease and weakness.  We never have enough money and it only takes one slip up to ruin our reputation.  These things don’t last, and they can’t give us what we truly need.  These things can’t give us life.  Even though we look at them and see what they can give us in the here and now, they can’t provide us with the everlasting life we need.  By trusting in these things, we’re like a shrub in the desert with no water to survive.  We have no hope at all.  But trusting in the Lord, we’re like a tree planted by the water, remaining green forever.  We have what we need, and in that, we’re blessed. 
    Jesus spoke His Beatitudes after people came to see Him, the very type of people He called blessed: those with diseases, those troubled with unclean spirits, and those who were in need.  These were the outcasts of the society; men and women and children that no one wanted around.  And yet, that’s not how Jesus saw them.  They were blessed in their need because in Christ their need was met.  He healed them, He cleansed them of their unclean spirits, and He proclaimed the everlasting life of God’s kingdom. 
    When you hear Jesus speak His Beatitudes, He explains why the blessed are blessed.  It’s not because of the condition that they’re in, but in what will be.  They’re blessed because their need is fulfilled in Christ!  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Lk 6:20-23).  The people who came to see Jesus were blessed because they trusted in Him and He gave them what they needed.  He healed them and He brought them into His kingdom.  And this is exactly how we are blessed too.
    When we come before our Lord, trusting in His grace and mercy, recognizing our woeful and shameful condition; confessing our sin, knowing that He alone can meet our need with His forgiveness and His life, we are blessed; you are blessed. 
    Our Lord never fails, and He’ll keep His promises.  That’s what the Beatitudes are, promises.  Yours is the kingdom of God.  By His grace and mercy, because of what Christ has done for you with His death on the cross, atoning for your sin, and with His resurrection from the dead, overcoming death, you receive everlasting life.  This is a certainty, even when what you see with your eyes looks completely different.
    You and me, we’re the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those who are reviled.  We go through life and have to endure all sorts of struggles, pain, and strife.  We appear to be pitiful and woeful individuals, but with faith in Christ, we’re not.  Trusting in the Lord, Your Savior, you are blessed because He gives you all that you need: forgiveness, life, and everlasting salvation.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.

The function of the catechism. . .

Some have suggested that there comes a time for a new catechism or at least a revision.  It is at one and the same time a curious statement.  I wonder if it just might forget the real purpose and value of a catechism.  The catechism is not a tool to be used to reflect change but rather one that promotes consistency and continuity, thus preserving the faith by passing on the sacred deposit faithfully.

A catechism is not, and has never been in history, seen as, an instrument for introducing new doctrine.  In Roman terms this would mean that a catechism is not a tool for the “development of doctrine” but is, in effect, just the opposite.  When a catechism is used to advance change, even rather deliberate change, the catechism betrays its purpose and history.  Although some would describe the catechism’s function as humble, that is, to pass on, simply and accurately, the pre-existing teaching of the Church, this is in reality not a humble task at all. To pass on the faith is the most basic and essential function of the faithful and the catechism is a tool of this noble purpose.

For Lutherans, the Small Catechism of Martin Luther has been the glue that binds the generations together and the common identity that spans geography as well.  Given that we live at a time when confirmation instruction is more varied and diverse than ever before and the very purpose and goal of this instruction is often up for debate, the Small Catechism has been a very effective agent in slowing the progress of change and transcending the diversity of method and content of confirmation instruction.  That is why the role of the Small Catechism at the center of the curriculum is so important and the abandonment of the Small Catechism in favor of other curricular material is so profound.

In the same way, periods of confessional and liturgical renewal have always come as the fruit of a time of catechetical renewal.  The catechism actually does function just as it is intended.  It preserves the faith and in this work of preservation sparks a renewal of that faith as the people of God are confronted with what was believed, confessed, and taught as a living voice and even a corrective one.  But increasingly the Church has grown restless with the past and impatient with the work of God and has determined to use the catechism for an alien work of introducing change and a disconnect with the past.

While this is certainly obviously truth with Rome as it struggles with the CCC and what to do with its words on homosexuality and the death penalty at a time when the public mood has moved away from the old positions (born of Scripture and tradition).  Not incidental is the role of Pope Francis to bring question if not disdain for those positions.  At the very least, this has introduced confusion -- something the catechism was designed to confront and resolve.  In this Lutherans should be paying attention.  Changing the catechism IS changing the faith.  It is one thing to make linguistic changes that reflect the change in vocabulary but it is quite another to change words because the intent is to change the meaning.

Some words to consider as we survey the chaos that appears to be the catechetical tradition of a church once united as much by that catechism as by the Lutheran symbols.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sobering Statistics. . .

I have no more reliable statistics to point out the decline in American Christianity than the numbers of Roman Catholic churches that have closed.  According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of parishes in the United States fell sharply from 2000 to 2017, from 19,236 to 17,156, a drop of 2,080, compared to a decline of just eight parishes from 1985 to 2000.  This is such a big issue that a while back Rome actually had a conference on what to do with buildings once sacred but now unused or deconsecrated.  Beyond Rome the stats are sketchy. 

Some have claimed that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week (including all denominations and non-denominational as well).  n estimated 30,000 congregations shut their doors in the United States from 2006 to 2012. Yet a recent study finds good news for churches overall—including the lowest closure rate of any American institution.

According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998. A key reason: growth in nondenominational churches.  Using the National Congregations Study (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, he estimates the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012.  In other words, Protestant congregations appear to die at the same time new open -- a far different scenario than Rome.  However, it is worth noting that denominational churches are the ones closing at a faster rate than non-denominational churches and more of the new ones opening are non-denominational.

The point is this -- there is a lot of real estate out there that was once considered sacred but now sits largely unused, empty, or has been repurposed for another but secular use.  Now if that building is a warehouse style structure like many newer non-denominational buildings and even denominational ones, who cares?  But what do you do with sacred art that cannot be taken down or all that stained glass or chancel appointments not likely to be reused?  Look on eBay.  They are for sale there -- at least a few of them.  It creates a confusion and certainly a disappointment for the faithful when they see a church building decaying and empty or what was clearly a church used for secular, even profane, purpose.  My sense of things is that this is but the tip of the iceberg.  There is more to come.  

While many of the buildings are in urban settings, many are also in rural settings.  As a child my family and I drove past a sister church building, an old wooden structure with a steeple, that had been sold at auction and was used as a hog house on a farm.  The steeple had been cut off but the line of the windows and the structure under what had been the steeple made it clear what it was before it was used for such an ignoble purpose.

But it does not have to be.  While Rome has priestly scandals and a shortage of priests that drive some of their numbers, many of the other situations happen in neighborhoods and settings where the majority of the population does NOT affiliate with any church at all.  I believe Jesus said something about the harvest being ripe.  Think about it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Being blessed. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6C, preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Hopkinsville, KY, on Sunday, February 17, 2019

In the Gospel for today we encounter part of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes – though something we normally hear from St. Matthew.  They are lovely words and we all love to hear them but they are hard words to keep.  The poor who see beyond their poverty to rejoice in the Kingdom, the hungry who are satisfied not by this food but the food of eternal life, the weeping who will laugh someday, the hated, reviled, and persecuted whose reward is not here but in heaven.  I mean really – who wants to settle for delayed rewards when you suffer present day hurt?

It does not get better.  Woe to the rich for this is as good as it gets, woe to the full who will learn hunger, woe to those who laugh because tears are coming, and woe to those of good reputation because the voices will turn on you – wait and see!  Who is comforted by such words?

When we die we will give up the pods the pigs eat for the Lamb in the Marriage Feast appointed on high.  When we die we will no longer have to war against desire and instinct in order to be holy.  When we die, the enemies so fierce in this mortal life will fade from sight and memory.  But what about now?  How do we escape the trials and troubles, sorrows and sighs, disappointments and death of this mortal life?  Where is our hope now?  Where is our joy today?  Is our only future a stiff upper lip in the face of a world falling apart in the hope of something better to come?

It may seem like Jesus is telling us to keep control of our feelings, not to give up, not to grow weary, and not to lose sight of the goal but that is not His message.  Jesus is contrasting the passions of the moment that will consume us for the passion that saves us – HIS passion.  Jesus has passion but it is not like ours.  He does not yearn for food for the body but the Bread of every Word from God’s mouth.  He does not seek riches that moth and rust destroy but the eternal treasure of love that does not fade away.  He does not give into His tears – which He does have – but for the joy set before Him endures the cross and scorns its shame.  He does not pander to people in order for people to like Him but endures the slings and arrows confident of the Father’s great love for Him.  Jesus is not filled with passion for Himself for His passion is for YOU and me.

Jesus will suffer and He will die and He will be laid in the grave – all the while enduring not only the rejection of those He came to save but the abandonment of the Father when on the cross He cries out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  Jesus is not without passion but His passion is for you and for me.  He will eat with sinners and die for them and cleanse them with His blood.

We are here today not because we hope God loves us but because we have seen that love in Christ.  The Savior who was baptized into our sin so we might be baptized into His righteousness.  The Lord who heals the sick to show He will heal the world by His death and resurrection.  The God who comes not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  The Christ who stretches out His arms on the cross to set you free – the sinner who should suffer and die.  We do not live in doubt or fear of what God thinks of us.  We know.  We know His love in Christ.  And we know we don’t deserve it.  And this love has given us new life.

So the words here direct us first to Jesus whose passion fulfills these words for you and for me.  But they are also directed at us.  Where is the focus of our passion?  Where is the desire of our hearts?  Because we are not who we were but by baptism have been born again, our passion is directed not on the things of this moment or even on ourselves but upon Jesus.  Because we know the power of God’s love, the desire of our hearts is not on the passing treasures of this moment but upon the eternal treasure of God’s love.

And what does it look like?  It looks like this.  We are not defeated and even in our weakest moments we are conquerors in Christ.  We are not the tired and weary who give up the fight, but we shall fight the good fight with all our might to belong to Christ and live in Him by His Word and Sacraments.  We are not the people whose passions rule our minds but the people whose minds are transformed by the Spirit to rule our hearts with self-control.  We are not the people who see with our eyes but who see by faith what our eyes cannot yet see.  God is with us, God has saved us, and God will deliver us to everlasting life.

What does it look like to belong to Christ?  We delight in His commandments and desire to be holy as Christ is holy and to be righteous as He is righteous.  We will live this out in our homes as husbands love and care for their wives and as wives love and care for their husbands.  We will live this out by loving our children and caring for them, not only in the needs of this life but by bringing them to Jesus in baptism and teaching them the faith at home.  We will live out this faith by hearing the call of God to come together in the Lord’s House, on the Lord’s Day, around the Lord’s Word and Table – not as a people who must convince ourselves we have to but because this is who we are.  We are the Lord’s and this is where God calls us to be.  We will give as generously as the Lord has given us to make sure this church endures, a pastor will be called, and a place will survive us – to care for our children, our grandchildren, and for the strangers we have not yet met who will come to Christ and meet here in this house of the Lord for prayer and praise.  We will serve our neighbors not because we like them or they are nice but because this is who we are and this is what Christ has done for us.

Dear friends, now is not the time to live in doubt or fear.  Now is the time to fear and love God, to learn passion for the things of God and His House.  For God has revealed to you the depths of His heart through His Son, Jesus Christ.  He has loved you with the everlasting love strong enough to endure the cross and grave and to rise again so that you might be His own and live under Him in His eternal kingdom.  Be of good cheer.  Rejoice and leap for joy, for your reward is great in heaven.  You are not the first to whom this call to faith and life in Christ is given and you will not be the last.

You may not be great or famous or live a fairy tale life but the Lord calls you blessed.  You are blessed not because you are poor but because Christ was made poor for you.  You are not blessed because you are hungry but because your hunger is satisfied by the Word of God.  You are not blessed because you weep but because His joy will erase all tears and sorrows.  You are not blessed because the world hates you but because God loves you.  So do not lose heart and do not be afraid.  You belong to the Lord by baptism and you live in Him by faith.  He will not allow your enemies to triumph over you but will deliver you from all your enemies and bring you into His everlasting presence in Christ.  And until that day, this is our consolation, this is our hope, this is our joy, and this is our peace that passes understanding.  Amen.

Whose failure?

The USA Today story on the parent's reaction to the priest's homily at the funeral of their teenage son who took his own life has gotten a life of its own.  You can read the actual homily here.  You can read their comments, well, just about anywhere.  Their complaint is that the priest did not use the homily to celebrate the life of their son, tow their son lived and not how he died, and certainly no calling their son a sinner or mentioning suicide (6 times).

The question in my mind has less to do with the priest than it does with the family and the church and preaching as a whole.  If this family was active in their church and did not just seek out a church for the sake of the funeral, and I am not saying that they did, either this family had not been listening to Scripture or preaching OR the priests had not been faithful to the Scriptures and preaching faithfully the whole counsel of God's Word.  For the issue is not whether the words of the priest were hurtful or not (when your teenage son takes his own life, just about any words you hear are hurtful in some way) but whether or not the people had failed to listen or the church had failed to preach.  Perhaps both.

The celebration of life mentality has no room for such things as sin and death.  It consoles with the hollow hope of a happy story, a rich memory, and a funny joke.  The fact that we as people have allowed things to get to this point, is testament to our own failure to know the Word of God and heed its truth and wisdom.  Redemption does not celebrate or complete the past and the funeral certainly does not canonize the dead.  Redemption answers sin with the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin, rescues us from God's punishment for sin by bearing its full weight upon the shoulders of our Savior, and answers death's reign with the triumph of the resurrection.  At the time of death our hope lies not in what we remember about the dead but the promises made in baptism, affirmed in faith, lived out at the altar rail, and sealed in the death that is not death anymore.  The funeral, like the Mass or Divine Service, nurtures us in this faith by recalling our baptismal gift, rehearsing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, feeding us upon the body and blood of our Lord, and teaching us how to live out this new identity as the people of God now, in preparation for everlasting life.

Who failed this family?  If their church was not preaching and teaching this Gospel, the church failed them long before the funeral.  If this was the preaching and teaching of the church but they refused to hear or failed to listen or chose the empty comfort of a life celebrated rather than the resurrection of the dead, then the family bears the responsibility.  This is exactly why preaching matters, why teaching is so important, why knowing the Word of God is key, and why we grieve not as the ignorant who have no hope, only a memory.

Could the priest have done better?  Of course.  But what he said was not the biggest problem.  When the churches fail to preach this Word of God or the people whose to listen to other voices, there is nothing to console our grief, heal our woulds, instill hope in our despair.  We are all sinners.  Nothing new here.  Our hope rests not in a memory but in the fact of Christ crucified and risen.  Our life is hidden with Christ, first through baptism and finally in death.  It is Christ who is at the core and center and it is Christ who gives us a future.  Any words you say other than this are just words but this Word (Christ) has the power to rescue us from the worst moments this life can offer.  I am sad for the family who did not hear this and even sadder for churches where this is not preaching and taught.  God will have something to say to those who refuse to hear but He will also have something to say to unfaithful shepherds who preach no Word or any words in place of the Word made flesh, suffered, died, and rose again.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The New Puritans. . .

Conservatives are usually the ones accused of being control freaks.  They are the big bad oppressive collective conscience sneaking into the bedrooms of America.  In reality, it is just the opposite. Oh, it is true that conservatives do not to promote the collective morality of right and wrong but they have little interest in being thought police or monitoring the bedrooms of the world.  They do believe that what is promoted in the media should not be the base and vulgar character of who we are but our better face, our nobler identity, and the virtuous over either the mundane or the evil.

No, the conservatives are not the new Puritans.  It is another movement for which the desire is to control not only what is said in public but what is thought.  No one must be allowed to say or even to think (if that thinking might influence action) anything contrary to what political correct thinking has determined is good, right, and true.  Take the whole idea of transgender and the great debate of which bathroom should be used.  Take the whole idea of the #metoo movement for which guilt need not be judged by any court for the individual to be condemned.  Take the "Baby, Its Cold Outside" Christmas song objections that cause some radio stations to pull a staple from their playlist.  The list keeps getting longer.  In fact, this group had to invent a new term (intersectionality) to figure out the ranking when the same individual has conflicting identities (a white gay male who is two strikes the oppressor for being white and male but gets one strike subtracted for being an oppressed identity as a gay white male).  Wow.  The lengths some will go to tell you how to map out the world according to the new standards -- not of right or wrong but of what is tolerated and what is not.

These postmodern Puritans not only want to control what appears in social media, what can be said on air, what music can be played, and what cannot be tolerated.  No, indeed, these Grinches get to decide what the standards are and change them at will.  So, returning to the Christmas playlist scandal, White Christmas is inherently racist -- even though it is about snow!  So the morality of  1940s America and Baby, Its Cold Outside does not matter but in a rape culture of the 21st century the police can change the laws to decide what is allowed and what is too abhorrent to be tolerated.  The creche is out, the burka is in.  Go figure.  The Christians are the oppressors and those without any real convictions are the victims.  Truth is determined by the feeling or the moment or the subjective judgment of the individual.  In the end, it is about control.  Conservatives want to conserve values that have stood the test of time and believe in what Benedict XVI defined as a hermeneutic of continuity.  Not so the post-modern purveyors of truth in a can, drink it up, pee it out and toss away the can (oops, recycle -- make the truth into something more usable!).

The Church must do more than simply survive, she must unmask these lies as often and as much as she is able.  This starts less with the public war of words than it does faithful teaching in the home.  This is what I get from the Benedict Option.  Not so much a disengagement as much as a doubling down to make sure that Christianity is believed and lived where it is supposed to be -- first in the home, then in the relationship to neighbor, and finally in the good citizenship that honors the rule of law as long as God's Law will allow.  It is not a fight for control but for the freedom to be who we are -- something the Bill of Rights was thought to have guaranteed but maybe not so much now.  It is not simply a freedom to believe as you choose or to worship whom you choose but to live out this faith.  If it is guaranteed for the Nones but forbidden for those who confess the Nicene Creed, then we have a constitutional problem.  Again, the Church is not the oppressor, the new force of Puritanism.  That role has already been claimed by those who drew a line in the sand and then keep on drawing the line wherever they choose.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sometimes great. . . always sturdy and solid

My wife and I enjoy visiting flea markets and antique malls (often it is hard to distinguish which is which).  We stroll down the aisles like a walk down memory lane, looking at things of our childhood now either considered junk or quaint antiques.  But the remarkable thing is how often we encounter good, solid wood, well crafted furniture that goes for a song.  They style does not fit the modern look we are going for and it is certainly not trendy.  But it is sturdy, solid, and good furniture.

We often joke that we could furnish someone's home or apartment for a grand and they would end up with solid wood, sturdy, and good furniture -- even if it did not quite look like it came from the latest furniture sale circular offering the appearance of wood, sturdy for now, and honestly rather fragile furniture, no money down and interest free financing so you can pay for it in installments, only to find it needs to be replaced about the same time it is really yours!

Even the "junk" furniture from olden times is not junky so much as it is well worn and well used.  Even then, it is prized now less for its shininess than for its patina (a nice term for the wrinkles that adorn our aged faces).  But I am not talking about stuff that looks like it was used over and over again, I am talking about the well crafted furniture when people did the work instead of machines and they used real wood.  In my neck of the woods that means mahogany or cherry or walnut or maple furniture with labels like Tell City in the drawers. 

When you think of hand-crafted furniture, you think of sturdy and solid stuff.  Occasionally, it is the great stuff that hits Antiques Roadshow and surprises us all with its pricey value. Mostly it is simply good, solid, sturdy, and well built furniture.  The kind that required skill and craftsmanship so that it would not fall apart in a day -- which folks back then would not have allowed or purchased!  Lets be honest.  The reason we have junky furniture today is because we have the technology to mass produce in wood look material made more of plastic and resin than anything else but its beauty is only skin deep and it will not survive the decade, much less the century!  The other reason we have junky furniture is because we can afford to replace as often as styles change the cheap, rickety, tasteless, and junky stuff that passes for furniture.  Even worse, they come in pieces with the benefit of dovetail and mortise that made for a tight fit that would last.

Now, while this image is still in your mind, think of how it might apply to such things as church
buildings, church furnishings, church art, hymns, church music, and the like.  I have a prie dieu in my office that is marvelous -- and over 100 years old.  Too many knees to count have prayed on it before I got it.  More knees will pray on it after I am gone.  It is sturdy, solid, and good furniture.  We are so intent upon building for the moment that we end up with junk in service to God.  Sadly, I bought that kneeler at a flea market for a song.  If this happens to the good furnishings of old, what happens to the cheap crap we pass off on God and the faithful?  It never even makes it to the antique store.  It is thrown into the garbage -- trash for the trash heap.  Let us make sure we do not make more trash for God or treat the things of God as cheap, mass produced junk -- here today and thrown away tomorrow.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

With friends like these. . .

The old expression says with friends like these, who needs enemies.  That becomes particularly apropos when those challenging doctrine and practice do so from the inside, in this case, inside the inside.  Professor Marie-Jo Thiel, whom Pope Francis appointed as a new member of the revamped Pontifical Academy for Life, recently advocated for a thoroughgoing reconsideration of the Church's teaching on sexuality and family.  According to Thiel, the Church’s teachings on sexuality have been a “complete failure.”  In view of the fact that these teachings have been undermined by the sexual abuse scandals and sometimes ignored by the faithful, Thiel said the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can never be approved must be rejected, along with the ban on contraception.  And this from a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life supposedly to defend and advocate for these teachings on homosexuality and contraception, to name but a few.

Thiel appeals to the idea of a decentralized, regional or geographical approach to what should or should not be taught and, of course, to the traditional liberal ideas:  a sense of self-determination and the individual conscience.  That is often the case with those who oppose doctrine.  They describe the ecclesiastical supervision that holds pastors and teachers accountable as some obtrusive and oppressive mechanism that violates the idea of individual freedom and conscience.  There are not a few Lutherans who have the same sort of ideas.  They question both the authority and the role of a church in protecting and defending doctrinal integrity and practice which conforms to that doctrine.  They speak of a fresh air in newly liberated lungs that breathe with the times and are closer to the people in the pews.  It is an appealing idea but its real purpose and result is to eliminate the idea of objective truth and to leave it subjectively to the beholder.  Again, it sounds appealing but the world does not need a church that is empty of truth or a church that echoes the familiar refrain of personal desire and preference and feeling in place of the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Don't fall into the trap.  This is the familiar back door entry of error and falsehood into the life of the church.  What cannot be confronted or changed directly is left hanging on the tentative hook of popular appeal, personal freedom, and individual truth.  What has not worked, must not be true and what is not true must be changed.  This is the mantra of so many who decry your grandfather's church and promote a relevant church, zeroed in on the moment without the baggage of history or the chains of continuity challenges what feels good or seems good to us now.  Contrary to those who agitate for such a false gospel, this will not grow the numbers of the faithful but will stifle such growth and end up killing the church from the inside, like a cancer.  With friends like these, who needs enemies?  Indeed, the devil need not say a word when those within the structures of Christendom so openly and brazenly erode away the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone.  Wake up, people.  It is happening in Rome, in Wittenberg, and in Geneva.  The same progressive voices from different lips whose words are an affront to the truth and a false gospel, bowing to a false god.