Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Christ's peace here. . .

Sermon for Easter 2C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
                Peace is something we all want in our lives, but we rarely find it.  What we wouldn’t give for some peace and quiet in our ever changing, constantly moving, always on the go lives.  What we wouldn’t give for some peace from all the social conflicts and politics unrest, from all our struggles at work, from all the shouting at home.  Peace seems to be absent in our world, nowhere to be find.  But it’s not absent.  It’s here.  Christ’s peace is right here, in His Word and Sacrament, for you. 
                The disciples were without peace on Good Friday.  Their Lord was gone.  The One they’d followed for three years, the One they left everything for, was gone.  Their Teacher whom they lived with and saw perform all sorts of miracles, He was gone; dead.  He was betrayed by Judas into the hands of His enemies, and He was betrayed by all the rest when they ran away after His arrest.  Peter betrayed Christ when he outright denied knowing our Lord, even though just a few short hours before he promised he’d follow Jesus wherever He went, even to the point of dying for Christ (Jn 13:37). 
The disciples were without peace on Saturday, not knowing what would happen to them.  As they quietly kept the Sabbath, their future was uncertain.  They were without peace on that first Easter Sunday, afraid and confused, not knowing what happened to the body of the Lord.   Peter and John saw the empty tomb, but they still didn’t understand the Scripture.  That night, they all gathered in a locked room because they feared the Jews.  Would the Jewish religious authorities come looking for them?  Would they be arrested and beaten, accused of stealing Jesus’ body.  Would they be handed over to the Romans to be crucified like Christ?  Just imagine the angst and anxiety the disciples felt.  And then, out of nowhere, Christ appeared in their midst.
The first words out of Christ’s mouth were exactly the words His disciples needed: “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19).  These words weren’t hollow encouragement or tentative assurance.  These words gave exactly what they said.  The Lord His peace, peace of the forgiveness of sins. 
The disciples needed this peace, this forgiveness.  They’d abandoned their Lord.  They denied knowing Him.  They didn’t believed His resurrection promises.  But with Christ’s words, that guilt was taken away.  He was there to give them peace.  He was there to send them out, so that they too could speak peace giving words of forgiveness. 
                On that first Easter night, all the disciples knew the peace of forgiveness and the joy of the risen Lord, except for one...Thomas.  Thomas wasn’t there with the other 10.  We don’t know why or where he was, but he didn’t see our resurrected Lord.  He didn’t hear His forgiving and peace giving words...and when they others told him about Christ’s resurrection, He refused to believe.  He wanted physical proof, hard evidence. 
So the next Sunday, again, they all gathered in a locked room.  And again, our risen Lord appeared to them.  And again He said: “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:26).  Then He turned to Thomas and told him to put his fingers into the nail holes of His hands and to put his hand into His pierced side.  Immediately, with words of faith, Thomas confessed, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).
                Jesus appeared with peace and forgiveness for His disciples, men who’d abandoned Him, men who’d doubted His.  And we do the same.
Like the disciples, like Peter, we abandon the Lord in interest of self-preservation.  We hide our faith when it’s not beneficial to show it: in the hallways of school, at the water cooler at work.  When our faith causes us to be an outcast or social pariah, we deny it.  We abandon the Lord when we look for peace in other places: in our bank accounts, in our social status, in the governments and laws of this world.  We abandon our Lord and the holy living He’s called us to when we give in to the temptations of our sinful flesh and the world.
Like Thomas, we doubt the Lord and promises.  Instead of hearing and believing the words of Scripture, we want to see physical evidence.  We demand God give us the proof of miracles.  We want Him to give us personal assurances on our own terms instead of trusting the Word He’s spoken to all.  We want to be the deciders of our faith, what we can believe and what we won’t believe.  We want to pick and choose the truths of Scripture. 
In all of this, we think we’ll find peace.  Peter sought peace in his denial, thinking it would save his life, but it only brought guilt and shame.  Thomas sought the peace of physical proof, but the Lord says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).  Our sin, our abandonment, our doubting, it doesn’t bring peace.  It brings death.  But the Lord has overcome your death and brings you peace, right here, today. 
Just as our Lord came to His disciples in that locked room, He comes to you here.  In His Word and His Sacrament and He says “Peace be with you.”  This peace is the forgiveness of your sins.  As you confess your abandonment and doubt, the Lord answers with His absolution, spoken by His pastors.  These men, like the disciples, Christ sends out to forgive the sins of repentant sinners.  And after that absolution is spoken, the pastor says, “The peace of the Lord be with.” 
Christ’s peace comes to you in His Holy Supper.  As you eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood, He gives you the peace won with His death and resurrection.  You receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.  After words of our Lord are spoken, the pastor raises the host and the cup and proclaims, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  And then again, after you’ve communed, you’re dismissed with these words, “The body & blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.  Depart in peace.”    
In these things, in the Word and Sacrament of our Lord, you are given His peace.  This peace is a constant, always here.  Here you receive the forgiveness of sins.  Here you receive everlasting life.  Here, in His sanctuary, there’s peace from all the craziness, chaos, and turmoil of our sinful world.  This peace is a peace the world cannot give.  This peace is everlasting and it overcomes all sin and death.  It overcomes your sin and your death.   
Christ gave His peace to His disciples after they abandoned and denied Him.  Christ gave His peace to Thomas when he doubted the Lord’s resurrection.  And Christ gives you His peace through His Word and Sacrament.  This peace is the forgiveness of sins.  This peace is the assurance of life.  This peace is your promised salvation.
Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Thnking back so long ago. . .

In our jurisdiction those assigned a vicarage (internship for the non-Missouri reader) and those put into the first placement as pastors of the church hear their assignments within a grand worship service attended by the bishops of the church (District Presidents for the Missouri reader) and the seminary faculty.  In the pews sit their families, hardly containing their angst and excitement awaiting the solemn announcement.  In the old days they clung to an atlas to find out where St. Bernard of the Prairie was in rural Iowa.  Today smart phones have made it so much easier to find the hidden address where you will begin your service.

It is a curious practice to some but one of the ancient traditions of our jurisdiction.  Of course, we all know that the decision is made by seminary placement officers with the give and take of those responsible for local episcope or ecclesiastical supervision within the districts (dioceses to the non-Missouri).  But that does not mean that this is a political process or a random one.  In fact, it only works because we really do believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in it (it seemed good to us and to the Spirit. . . ).  Some like to deride this as a modern day version of smoke filled rooms in which trades are made and people tried in various places and districts offering up both pleas for someone and a willingness to forego this round for a higher place in next year's draft.  I don't.  I believe the human structures do not preclude the work of the Spirit so that the candidate can believe and the church can affirm that God has placed these people where they are placed.

In my own case, my vicarage took place about exactly where I wanted to go but the circumstances I found were not in my plan.  My bishop actually died within hours of the placement and I was going to be alone for a goodly time in a parish with hundreds and hundreds in Sunday school and even more in worship each week.  When I got there, I found a parish still grieving the death of their pastor, and, having called a pastor, still not fully prepared to receive anyone as their new pastor.  I ended up being organist, liturgist, and preacher for the first service each Sunday, assisted and often preached at the two later, and also at the Wednesday services.  While some vicars find they preach seldom, I never failed to preach at least twice a week from the get go.  In the end, conflict surfaced and the parish suffered both from trying to call someone too quickly and still grieving the loss of the man who had been there for 16 years before he died.  But God placed me there for a reason and it was more apparent long after the vicarage year ended than while I was enduring it.

My placement came into the same district but between Albany and New York City in a small parish at the edge of the Catskills.  It was a congregation that had been without a pastor for several years and suffered conflict and division.  I often joke that I instantly united the congregation because none of them wanted me and so their factions could come together in their uniform belief I was not the right man for that congregation.  The truth is that both my wife and I agreed.  I would have taken a parish on the outskirts of hell if it had been offered but no calls came.  The first years of difficulty, conflict, and challenge gave way to nearly thirteen years of solid growth in faith and in numbers until when it seemed good to us and the Spirit to accept a call to Tennessee, we left amid tears -- ours and theirs.  Where I was sure this was either a joke or purposeful trial or mistake on God's part, it proved to be God's wisdom and purpose.  Again, this judgment did not come right away but over time.

Without the belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in the process and that God has placed this person here, both congregation and clergy are left to see this as a job and not a calling, an employment instead of a vocation with a destination.  That is the most destructive thing for the congregation and for the pastor.  The people in the pew must believe that God is at work in bringing this man to the congregation or else they will render a verdict upon his ministry simply on the subjective basis of personality or preference.  At the first perceived mistake, they will cry out for him to be fired or removed.  Patience comes only when we believe that God is at work and charity is offered not because the man deserves it but because God is worthy.  At the same time, the man placed there also needs to believe that he is not there by accident but by God's providential purpose, doing not his own bidding but God's, and working not for his agenda but the Lord's.  He will forgive their mistakes and rash judgments not because they are worthy but because God is and God's plan and purpose expect that we will trust Him and His judgment.

So let me say that there will be disappointment and glee, frustration and hope, sighs and smiles on placement day -- probably on the same faces.  The people and the pastor will be tested by time and circumstance.  When hurt feelings or dispute come, both will be tempted to believe that God made a mistake or was absent from this process but I urge both to resist this judgment.  Instead, as people of faith and the faithful pastors whom God sends, it is incumbent upon us to believe that God is not only in the details but present with the people and the pastor and that His purpose and His outcome will not be foiled or flawed.  God is in this place.  In Ft. Wayne and in St. Louis.  God will be in the place where you go -- wherever that will be.  I am more convinced of this truth now than I ever was.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Leave it to the experts. . .

Some in Rome wonder how their church got from the rather careful and incremental expectations of liturgical change that are embodied within the documents of Vatican II to the radical disconnect in which the old or Latin Mass gave way to a vernacular mass that innovated more than reformed.  One suggestion is that it was the retreat of the people doing the mass (bishops and priests) and their decision to leave it to the experts that ended up with a liturgical renewal that looked more like invention than reform.

It was put like this:
Over the decades, an international network of professional Liturgical Experts had grown up who were mostly not particularly marked by precise or original scholarship but maintained a close network of meetings, conferences, and journals. After the Council, they soon came to dominate the Diocesan Liturgical Committees which the Bishops set up, and then the liturgical bureaucracies created by the Episcopal Conferences. Bishops felt that they themselves didn't really know about Liturgy and were glad to be able to leave it to The Experts.
I wonder if something of the same happened to the liturgical changes within Lutherans about the same time.  I wonder if there was not a view, not entirely uniform, that experts should be leading and guiding the discussion of what the liturgy ought to be.  I wonder if the fear that those doing the liturgy did not know the liturgy well enough was underneath the deference to the experts who should know best.

The experts in the liturgy should not be equated with academics who study such things.  To be sure, we need the academics and we should pay attention to them but the experts in the liturgy should be, if they are not, those who do the liturgy regularly.  In other words, the real experts are the pastors who lead the Divine Service and the people whom they lead.  At least they should be.  Sadly, if they are not, then we are in big trouble.

I have to admit that liturgical practice is often shaped less by what should be (consistent with our doctrine) than it is what people want or prefer or what, well, works.  Some of those leading God's people on Sunday morning have either deliberately chosen to be unschooled in their task or have decided other things are more important that presiding at the Divine Service.  By their lack of interest or by their decision to put other things ahead of the liturgy, they have positioned themselves and their people to be shifted by every wind of change in pursuit of that which satisfies the most folks or that which seems to work to pack the pews.  They have, in my humble opinion, failed in their primary task and abdicated their responsibility to whim, preference, or statistic.  No pastor should ever think that Sunday morning is utilitarian or a less important responsibility that justifies placing their attention elsewhere.  If Sunday morning fails, everything else in the parish suffers.  If the Divine Service is not source and summit of all that the pastor does and of the expectation and life of the people in his care, nothing good can replace this.

What it means to be an expert in something is to be familiar with it as one who knows it.  The experts in the liturgy are those who pray the liturgy regularly and faithfully.  Indeed, the liturgy is part of our catechesis and one of the schools in which we learn as well as practice the faith.  We are and ought always to be students of the liturgy -- both the pastors who lead the Divine Service and the people whom he leads in the Divine Service.  Know the liturgy well, like the back of your hand, and you are well on your way to becoming a so-called expert.

That means knowing the rubrics.  Red letter directions are not incidental helps but the signs and guideposts which help us know and understand what and why we are doing what we are doing in the Divine Service.  Both those leading and those being led need to know the rubrics.  Read the red and do the black.  That is not some witticism but the profound wisdom of becoming a star student in that which is the most important thing that happens in the life of the parish all week long.  This is our calling -- as pastors and as people -- to read the red and follow its guidance do it.  It amazes me how many people ignore the rubrics and it is so often quite obvious when those leading the Divine Service are ignorant of these important guides and rules.

While I am at it, knowing the liturgy means also knowing the church year, the pericopes, and the hymnal.  I well recall a cartoon in which a pastor pulled down a lever and the hymnboard spun the numbers until they settled in like a slot machine on the hymns for the day.  Sadly, this is more true to form than any care to admit.  The hymns, at least for Lutherans, are an integral part of the Divine Service and great care and wisdom should be employed in the choice of what is sung and when.  In the same way, preaching is not the only thing that suffers when each Sunday is viewed on its own and the pastor and people are blind to what has been and where the church year is going.  We have resources to help us here but no resource is more profound and essential than simply knowing it (dare I say it, memorizing by use the assigned portions of the lectionary and the hymns in the hymnal?).

As long as we defer to the experts, we will risk the loss of that which is most important or suffer the great disconnect when the pace of change runs faster than the minds and hearts of God's people.  But if we take up our roles (pastors and people) as experts by use of the liturgy and all its parts, we will be able to preserve what was passed down to us faithfully and manifest a hermeneutic of continuity in which the past is not the sole dictator of practice but neither is it of no consequence.  Rome found this out too late and is still trying to pick up the pieces.  Perhaps we are not as far gone as Rome but we as Lutherans have surely suffered in this vein as well.   

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Groomed for leadership. . .

Got an email the other day from an organization which was formed to make leaders of pastors.  Perhaps it is too difficult to make pastors of leaders so this group is starting at another point.  I do get regular emails from them and print communications as well.  All of it is designed to equip pastors to be leaders, to survey the landscape of our changing world, and to accomplish the complex work of being missional and visionary forces in the world today.

Strangely enough, there is not much there on being a pastor.  There is a never ending supply of modern buzz words about the demands and opportunities thrust upon well meaning but unprepared pastors (implied if not stated bluntly).  There is the promise of research from all the most current sources on what it takes to be a leader, a missional leader, and undertake a strategic plan for great success in this moment.  There is much about the Millenial Generation (guess they did not check my own birth date) and how they believe God is harvesting this generation for leaders who will lead in the Kingdom of God.

When you do the hard work of self leadership you end up doing more of...
  • the stuff that stirs your soul.
  • the stuff that you want to spend the rest of your life doing.
  • the stuff you’re flat out uniquely good at doing.
You beat back the natural, creeping, “Do I Have What It Takes?”
Most leaders quietly question when they get out of bed in the morning because...
  • They skipped getting clarity about themselves. They think it’s too late. (It’s not.)
  • They drift. They know their sweet spot but they let others call the shots for them.
As a result they get trapped in round peg/square hole org charts doing what they’re not good at doing...and not doing it well.

Today, I want to simply acknowledge the two other common combatants that contribute to the "Do I Have What It Takes?"

Are you feeling called to a higher level of leadership? Are you being groomed for more responsibility in your organization? Do you feel overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of leadership and long for some help?
We are covering topics that you didn’t get in seminary such as hiring, firing, and strategic planning for complex ministries. We will study together the latest research on leadership and what it means to be a missional organization in today’s cultural context.
 I have no doubt that these people are sincere, well meaning, and desire only the best for the Kingdom of God.  I just think that they have confused pastors with leaders (at least in the usual definition of leaders as the business or political or social context would speak of them).  Pastors are not those kind of leaders.  God has not given us special wisdom to discern the crystal ball of societal and cultural change nor has He promised to raise us up as people with a visionary perspective on the present or future.  He has not equipped us for general leadership but for the special role as pastors who preach and teach the Word of God, who baptize and preside at the Lord's Table, who absolve sinners, who visit the sick and shut-in, who admonish the unrepentant, who counsel those in distress, who warn the erring, who bury the dead, who comfort the sick and grieving, who give hope to the dying, and who pray at all times for all conditions and manner of people within their care.  If this is the leadership to which they are calling a cohort and if this is the pastoral vocation for which they offer help and aid, then God bless them.  But is it?  Or is this idea of leadership notably absent of the very things that the call documents outline as the duties and responsibilities of the pastor and the promises and pledges he makes when ordained and installed?

God knows I want to be leader.  I suspect every pastor secretly wants to be.  Well, perhaps that is not true.  We may not want to be leaders as much as we want to be saviors who rescue the flawed and failed churches in our care if only by the sheer strength of our will, the magnetism of our personalities, the sharpness of our wit, the gift of our humor, and rally a world for Jesus.  That is not our strength but our weakness.  

Perhaps the gift of the ministry is that God is trying to save me from myself and my grand ideas and my sinful presumptions.  Perhaps that is exactly the reason why God did not select leaders but apostles and called them to select pastors and not leaders and why the Church has followed in their steps.  Perhaps that is why God took off the plate the idea that we invent, control, or manipulate the resources and set pastors aside to preach the Word in and out of season and administer the Sacraments (means He established, still controls, and uses to accomplish His purpose).  Perhaps the Church suffers less from a lack of leaders than she does faithful pastors who do what God has set apart pastors to do.   

Oh, well, you know me. . . always an opinion. . . and some meandering thoughts. . .

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Everyone is invited. . .

So I saw a photo of the Archbishop of Canterbury holding up a sign inviting people to come together for coffee in their local C of E parish.  Now some of you might be thinking that it is a long overdue attempt to invite the members of the C of E back into church -- given the fact that so many have either exited from the life of the church.  Offering a cup of coffee could be a start to offering them the nourishment of the Word and Table of the Lord.  But if that is what you thought, you would be wrong.

The C of E has not undertaken a new outreach program nor has it begun an effort to call back into the life of the church those who have absented themselves from it.  But, as good citizens of the realm, the Church of England is cooperating with the government to promote civility, conversation, and calm in the face of the political divisions surrounding the Brexit debacle.  So what Arbp Welby is asking folks to do is to come it and have a cup of tea (or perhaps coffee) and talk together about the things that divide them.
Churches are being encouraged to host “informal cafĂ©-style meetings” over the weekend of 30 March “to bring together people of all standpoints and encourage open discussion.” The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, have today backed newly-commissioned resources to invite people to “get together and chat over a cup of tea and pray for our country and our future”.
As you can see I am a bit behind the times in my reading.  I suspect the offer to tea and crumpets has resolved all the disputes that divide England and Brexit will have long ago been resolved as you read this (or maybe not).  But I do find it curious about the energy and effort put into such a conversation while the C of E withers and dies.  The English Church is wonderful about order and puts on a great show but it has long ago given up doctrinal integrity in favor of an inclusive church that is on the right side of change -- when change must happen.  They invented the position of Verger to make sure that even in the chancel everyone knows what they are supposed to do.  I just wonder if the Church of England itself has forgotten what it means to be church.  Tea is nice and so it a chat but whatever happened to preaching the Word in season and out, teaching the faith as once delivered to the apostles, and administering the Sacraments instituted by Christ?

Friday, April 26, 2019

A parent's goal and responsibility. . .

In the wake of the college entrance scandal, perhaps we will begin to discuss the difference between having a degree or even a degree from a elite university and getting an education.  That would be a good thing, to be sure.  It has been a long time in coming for America to have a conversation about what education has become, how degree mills have hampered the real goal and purpose of education, and the broken state of the American system of education.  But there are other things worth discussing.

How is it that parenting has become about making sure you child has all the doors opened to him or to her, protecting the child from responsibility or consequences of his or her actions, spending whatever is necessary to give the child all the technological tools available, and pursuing the illusive dream of happiness?  What happened to the larger issues of truth and morality and of faith and goodness?  We have all followed cars with bumper stickers lauding their children's achievements.  I also recall once following a car with a bumper sticker that said My kid can beat up your honor roll kid.  And then seeing one that said My kid is not on the honor roll but is a good kid. 

Mark Hemingway wrote a piece about the college entrance scandal and some other things in The FederalistYou can read it here.  I was struck by this paragraph:
... my wife and I have a very different view of what a proper education looks like than does American culture writ large. Our primary goal is that we raise children who continue to practice our Lutheran faith and have stable, child-rearing families.
Now there is a once common idea that has become a noble but uncommon today.  That is the idea that parenting is more about raising stable children, with honest values, with a strong Christian faith, and with the goal and desire to become honest and decent husbands, wives, and parents themselves.  I happen to have met the Hemingways (you might know Mollie from her work at The Federalist or as a commentator on Fox).  They are a high profile couple but they are faithful Lutherans, who are regulars at the Divine Service in their home parish, and who raise their children in this faith.  That was once more common than it is today.  I wonder if that is not a big part of the problem.  When the focus shifts from the core of what it means to parent to the peripherals, the children are not the only losers.  Our culture suffers when we fail to prepare our sons and daughters to be husbands and wives, when we fail to prepare them for their role as parents, and when we fail to instill in them the values that equip them to be good citizens and good neighbors.  But most of all, our children suffer when we fail to teach them to know God as Father and their Lord Jesus Christ and when they live outside the realm of His mercy and love.  So parents, bring your children to baptism, teach them the catechism, read to them the Scriptures, pray with them, and bring them to the services of God's House.  An Ivy League school is no substitute for this.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The end of an era. . .

Word has reached us that Herman John Otten, born March 3, 1933, has died, April 24, 2019.  Nobody in the Missouri Synod is unfamiliar with his name and people my age and older have been accustomed to the headlines of Christian News for more than 60 years.  It is the end of an era, to be sure, and no one can predict the impact his passing will have on the Synod in which he never served as a pastor but exercised profound influence.  At this point there will be a Commital Service held at Camp Trinity on April 25 for family and local friends and a funeral Service will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church at a later day and time.

When I was in college, it did not take long to discover Christian News and it was urgent reading (that and Missouri in Perspective) during the tumultuous years of the Lutheran Battle for the Bible.  To his credit, Herman Otten correctly saw that there was a different spirit developing at the flagship seminary of the Synod.  Many will disagree over how different that spirit was but it is clear in hindsight that an unhealthful distance had developed between old Missouri and the emerging face of the new Missouri of the 1960s.

Herman was a tiger in print but gracious in person.  As a college student choosing a seminary several of my friends and I made the pilgrimage to the Oracle of New Haven.  We were surprised to find that he was a most welcoming fellow in person and would not let us leave without a meal.  When I was in my first parish, I encountered the Monthie family who had hosted Herman and his brother Walter on their farm some summers of their youth.  It was in the Atlantic District, his old stomping grounds, that I met other members of the Otten family -- Marie Meyer, his sister, and Paul Behling, his cousin. Later I got to meet Walter and Ruth Otten.  Suffice it to say that not all the Ottens sounded like Herman!

The last time I spoke to Herman was when he called me earlier this year to congratulate me on an opinion piece I had written for the Forum Letter.  "Brilliant" is what he called me (even in print!).  It was not the first time he had quoted my blog but most of his quotes were not flattering.  Herman was not a person who believed personal loyalty should overlook disagreements.  In fact, you could be brilliant one moment and a hypo-euro sacerdotalist another (a serious charge from Otten).  Herman judged all things by issues and was dogged in the pursuit of what he felt were the most important causes to face Lutheranism in general and Missouri in particular.  Nearly every Synod President or candidate for that office since the 1960s had to deal with Herman.  He was remarkably consistent but he would not fail to punish those who crossed him or who took him for granted or ignored him.  If you were mentioned in Christian News you were one of many.  He was still relishing his role as kingmaker and influence right up to the hour he died.  And to think that for most of that history he typed every word, bicycled the copy to Washington, Missouri, all the while pastoring a Lutheran congregation in New Haven and running a Lutheran camp nearby (with the help of his large family).

What does one say to the passing of an icon and an era?  I wish I could come up with something pithy.  All I know to say is this, Herman Otten left some rather big shoes and long outlived in years and in influence those who were his targets.  As far as the future is concerned, it is likely that his family and some of his cohorts will keep publishing the newspaper for a while but like many enterprises, the Oracle of New Haven left no line of succession and no clear future for the enterprise that guaranteed him a mention in everyman's history of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  What is ironic is that he died in the midst of trying to unseat a Synodical President he initially worked to elect -- a familiar place for Herman over the years but with an ending that was a surprise even to him.  One thing you cannot say, however, is that Herman was unclear about his faith or uncertain about his conviction that Jesus Christ was and is his Savior and Lord.  So now is a time to let that be the final word and to wish to his family the comfort of the Gospel and the hope of the resurrection of the dead to everlasting life..

Death with Dignity or Life with Hope?

Sermon for Easter late, Series C, preached on the Resurrection of Our Lord, Sunday, April 21, 2019.

    Death with dignity is the mantra of our modern age.  Either life on your terms or death with dignity.  Our culture insists that nobody should be born to a world that does not want him or her.  Nobody should be forced to live a life they find unhappy or burdensome or painful.  Nobody should settle for a shell of a life as the aged in nursing homes or the frail of mind or body whose life is not well lived.  Nobody should have to have to care for people simply because they cannot care for themselves.  If you cannot have life on your terms, then death with dignity our culture cries!  A simple procedure in a clinic and flush the life away.  A pill and you breathe no more.  A syringe and those whose lives are not worth anything can end them without pain.  A late night mistake is swept away by a morning after pill.

    The world is so good at demanding life on our terms and death with dignity.  But what kind of consolation prize is dignity if you still have to die?  Did anyone ask the child in the womb if the child preferred a hard life to an easy death?  What happens to those who in a weak moment would end it all but who change their mind in the morning?  What do we say to a child who has a life of struggle to look forward to – death is all the hope that life wrote for you?  What do we say when death becomes merely a choice and life is made cheap by the toss of a coin or the whim of a feeling?  Life on our terms was the lie of Eden and the curse of sin.  Death with the illusion of dignity is another lie from the same mouth.

    The world may call it death with dignity but thanks be to God that He does not.  The Lord finds no dignity in our death.  God finds no dignity in death to answer for a long life of suffering or a short life ended in the womb or anything in between.  The Lord has not surrendered hope to a quick and painless end to life.  No, indeed.  Do not buy into the lie that death with dignity can make up for a painful or sorrowful life.  It is a cheap and easy solution that is no solution at all.  It is the lie upon lies that still threatens to deceive even Christians and it is the shadow behind our celebration of Easter and Christ’s resurrection victory today. 

    Death is not nice or kind but ugly, humiliating, and shameful.  In the end, a breath and the heart stops and the pain and suffering may be gone but in order to end it, you have to kill the patient.  None of us is at ease around death.  How many people die alone at home or in hospital rooms because their families cannot bear the pain of watching them die?  If death is so friendly and kind, why can’t our families be friends with it when we lay dying?  You and I know that death with dignity is the same kind of pernicious lie as life on your own terms.

    You may settle for death with dignity but thanks be to God that the Lord refuses to settle for it, refuses to surrender you to the sin you have chosen and the consequences of that sin in death.  Thanks be to God that the Lord is not willing to let you have your best life now only to let it end with a body in a box.  Thanks be to God that the Lord has moved time and eternity to deliver to You honest and real hope.  In this hope, death offers no consolation but Christ offers true victory.

    There is a time to mourn, a time to be born, and a time to die and that is where it would end if God had not sent His one and only Son into the womb of the Virgin, to live the holy and righteous life we could not and to die in our place the death we feared most of all, and to rise to bestow upon us the hope, the promise, and the gift of life that death cannot diminish or overcome.  That is why we are here today.  The reign of sin is done and the prison of death has been undone by Christ and by the power of His resurrection.

    To say Christ is risen is not to repeat a fact or offer an opinion.  To proclaim Christ is risen is to acknowledge that death never had and does not now have any dignity but neither does it have any power before the Risen Lord and those who live in Him.  It cannot steal from us that which Christ lived and died and rose to give. It cannot end the life that is eternal.  Even the grave itself has surrendered its threat and become a pawn in the hands of the mighty God.  For as the Psalmist reminds us, the grave is the gate of death and the way to everlasting life.  Here is hope for the sinners whom God has declared righteous and here is the life that comes not as consolation prize for the dead but as the new and true reality no longer captive to sin and its death.

    We may shudder before death but the devil shudders before the empty tomb.  We may attempt to make friends with death so long as it waits until we are done with life or comes quickly and painlessly but God refuses to make friends with death.  He has poured all His power and might into answering the claim of death upon our lives.  He does not surrender life to any idea of a well lived life or even to death with dignity, no the Lord insists that those who die in Christ shall live in Him.  The Lord insists that He will extend forth His own hand into the dust of the earth and bring forth all the saints and deliver them to everlasting life.  The Lord will wipe away tears forever and not simple console in the moment for the life that Christ gives to us is greater than any pain death can inflict.

    The cross finished off death by killing it.  And it could hold Christ no more.  In three days He rose.  His disciples were told it was coming but had grown so accustomed to death they found the resurrection of Jesus an even greater shock than His death.  They walked to the grave not simply as the curious who wondered what the story was.  No, they came as a people who wondered if hope was real, if the Word of Christ could be trusted, and if death had given up not only Christ but all who die in Christ.  It took them a while.  It takes us a while.  We still wrestle with the great temptation to make our peace with death instead of trusting the promise of life.  We still surrender our hope to the fear that death still has its claim on us and therefore we must find a way to die with dignity.  We will grieve and shed the tears of a people who want to hope but who struggle to be convinced that hope is as real as death.  Our faith is not yet complete.  And this is why we come today.  We come to be renewed in the Word and refreshed by the Easter meal.  We come to taste our future in the crucified and risen flesh of Christ and His blood.

    We have come to hear again how Christ died and how He lives now, never to die again.  We have come to feast on the meal that anticipates a future even as it delivers to us the fulfillment of the past.  We have come to remember the dead not by their lives but as the living who have a future.  We have come to rehearse the story of life so that we have something to say to a world still figuring out what to do with death.  We have come to expose death’s lie and to be reborn in truth of the hope Christ has given us.  We have come because we now believe that dignity in death is no blessing if death is still the end.  We have come as did the people of old who peered into the grave and rushed home knowing that nothing could ever be the same again.

    Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  This is our joyful acclamation.  We say these words not only for Jesus but because they are our hope for more than a long life and an easy death.  We shall live in Christ forever.  Death has no dignity and the hope we have in Christ has no match.  It is over and death never had a chance.  At its worse, it can only take from us that which sin had already defiled.  And soon the day will come when we shall wear the same glorious bodies as Jesus and God shall erase death from our memories forevermore.  Easter’s news is that Christ lives, we have hope, and we don’t have to settle for lies and illusions, for the most real life of all is that which awaits those who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and who live in Him by faith.  Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

He died so that we might rise. . .

Sermon for Easter Sunrise, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on the Resurrection of Our Lord on Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
                It’s still pretty early in the morning for most of us...so, why did you get up this early?  Why, instead of sleeping in and coming to one of the later Easter Services, did you get up, probably before the sun?  Mary Magdalene rose before the sun to go to Christ’s tomb, to finish the rush burial job that was started on Friday.  She got up to mourn the death of the Lord.  But that’s not you got up early.  We didn’t rise early today to mourn, but to rejoice and praise the One who rose from the dead so that we might also rise and have everlasting life! 
                We’re a people who are very familiar with death.  Death is all around us.  Everywhere we look, there it is, before our eyes.  It’s on our TVs in our movies and shows, even in the commercials for this medicine or that drug.  Every night there’s a report on the news about death in our town and in our world; death from accidents and death from wars.  We construct buildings in our cities to deal with death and dying: doctors’ offices and nursing homes.  In every community, the hospital is one of the largest, if not the largest, building in town.  We see death on a daily basis, and because of that, we begin to think that death is a natural thing, that it’s just part of the circle of life. 
                But if death were natural, if it were normal, then why do we try to stop it?  Why do we go to the doctors when we’re ill?  Why do we donate money to organizations who are trying to find a cure for cancer?  Why does it hurt so much to mourn the death of loved ones?  If death was a natural part of life, all of this would be contradictory.  But death isn’t a natural part of life.  Death is foreign to life.  It’s the complete opposite of life. 
When God the Father created all things; when He breathed the breath of life into our first parents, death wasn’t part of the plan.  God’s plan for us was to have everlasting life with Him.  But we ruined that with our sin.  Our first parents brought death into the world when they refused to listen to God and listened instead to the temptations of the devil, eating from that forbidden tree. 
We walk in death every day of our lives because we continue to walk in our first parents’ footsteps: like father like son, like mother like daughter.  Every day we choose sin over the life of God.  We refuse to listen to the good commands of our Lord and instead we listen to the temptation of the devil and the world around us.  And because of this, the judgement of death is rightly ours.  And there’s nothing we can do to fix. 
We can’t stop death.  We can’t cure every disease.  We can’t prevent death from accidents or death from violence and wars because we can’t fix the root cause death.  We can’t fix sin.  Born with sin in our heart we continue to sin.  And because of that death continues in our world.  But again, that wasn’t God’s plan.  Death isn’t what the Father wanted for you, so He sent His Son to fix it. 
Christ undoes the death your sin causes; and He does it in the most paradoxical way.  Jesus overcame death by dying Himself.  His sacrificial death on the cross fulfilled the judgement of God against your sin because Jesus was sinless.  Christ was without sin, completely perfect, and yet He died a sinners death, He died your death, and thus won the forgiveness of sins for you.  Because Jesus died, your sin is forgiven, and where there is the forgiveness of sin, there’s life and salvation.  This is what Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday proves.
When Christ walked out of that tomb, He claimed victory over death.  The war against Satan, sin, and death is over.  Victory is Christ’s, and it’s for all of those who are in Him, including you.  Satan and death have no more claim over you.  Christ won you everlasting life, and this life He gives to you right now. 
You receive life in your Baptism as your old sinful nature is drowned and your new self is raised to walk in the life of Christ.  You receive life in Christ’s Holy Supper as He gives you His very body and blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of your sins.  You receive life in the word of God’s Absolution as He takes the guilt of your sin away.  In these you have everlasting life right now.  You have the promise and the guarantee of the resurrection of the dead. 
                The everlasting life won by Christ’s death and resurrection is a present reality.  It is yours already, today ... and yet we still see death in our lives.  This is a continued result of sin, but yours is the promise of everlasting life. 
Paul assures you that death won’t reign forever.  “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:51-53).  The work of salvation that our Lord began with His death and resurrection; the work of salvation that He works in you as He forgives you your sin; that work will be fully completed and fully realized on the last day.  On that day, all His faithful saints, including you, will rise to the glorious everlasting life He has prepared for you.  Your mortal bodies, bodies that are plagued with death, will be put off and you’ll receive the imperishable body the Lord planned for you.  It’s this life that we look to.  It’s this life that we hold on to in the midst of all the death we see and experience. 
We mourn death because it’s not natural.  It hurts because it’s not supposed to be there.  But we can endure this pain and sorrow because we have the hope of the resurrection because Christ rose from the dead.  This hope isn’t the wishing we do when we throw a penny in the fountain.  No this hope is confidence as we live a life of faith, knowing that Christ is our Savior.  We face death daily, not with fear, but with faith.  With faith, we know the outcome.  With faith we look at death head on and say: “Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  (1 Cor 15:54-55).  Death’s sting and victory are no more.  Death sting and victory are gone; they’re destroyed.  Death has been defeated in Christ’s death and His resurrection has won you everlasting life. 
We know death well and we act as if it’s natural...but it’s not.  Christ died to undo the death our sin causes.  His resurrection early on that first Easter Day overcomes death, and it won for you everlasting life.  This is why we’re here so early today.  This is why we rose before the sun, because the Son of God rose so that we might rise and fully know the glory of the life we have in Him! 
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Allel