Friday, May 31, 2019

Immediacy. . . and Transcendence. . .

Nearly every day in the snail mail and email I receive some sort of pitch by a parachurch group or author on how to equip my congregation to meet the challenges of our ever changing world and how to make me into the kind of visionary leader who will assure the survival and growth of the church I serve.  It is almost intoxicating in its appeal to my own personal vanity as well as to my own personal hopes and desires to see my congregation, my region, my church body, and the faith flourish in spite of the enemies against her and threats to her survival.  I WANT to believe that these folks have the key, that a solution to our seeming decline can be purchased like a program or learned like a technique.  It is an appeal that competes with faith and attempts to run circles around our trust in God's will and purpose and His agency in the means of grace.  I am sure I am not alone.

The immediacy of the problems we face is met with an urgency and immediacy of solutions.  Inevitably, they are conceived of and described apart from the means of grace.  It is as if the Word and Sacraments were also rans in the competition for ideas, programs, and tools to make the church grow and prosper.  It is as if God had somewhere said that He had done all He was going to do and now it was up to us to do the rest.  On the one hand it sounds good because we wall want to do something but on the other hand it should sound the warning bell within us because it presumes that we are not merely guardians of the truth nor its voices in our day but those who will either kill or make alive.  Something that God has reserved only for Himself.  If I, a conservative, confessional, liturgical Lutheran are tempted by such sales pitches, it is easy to see how so much of Protestantism is consumed by them.  Because we live at a time when immanence had replaced transcendence in the preaching, teaching, witness, and life of so many Christian communities -- even Rome.

This lack of a any real sense of transcendence has led to a certain flattening of the message.  It shows up in the way the preacher focuses almost exclusively on the present.  It is revealed in funerals that have become mere celebrations of the life of the deceased.  It shows up in youth work which basically competes with the fun places of the world for an ever decreasing attention span in the pursuit of pleasure.  It shows up in morality which leaves it up to the individual to decide what works in the moment and calls it good.  It shows up in truth that is one person wide and one moment deep in time.  It shows up in sacraments that have been reduced to signs and symbols without any power to bestow what it is they show.  It shows up in the Word which is a take off point for a message that ignores the main message of the Scriptures.

It has left the leaders of the church with the idea that that his or her actions are more central and crucial than Christ’s -- not only to the life of the church but also to its growth or decline.   It has transformed the liturgical movement so that the horizontal is more important than the vertical, the real presence in the pews more profound than in the water, bread, and wine of the Sacraments, and the Scriptures mere proof texts for a talking point designed to make folks feel better about the very things that the Savior came to defeat.  It explains why so many liturgical churches have lost respect for the liturgy, traded in the sturdy hymns of doctrine and piety for momentary appeals to sentiment (but with a beat), and turned the building into a theater with comfortable seats and fellowship into the snack bar that provides refreshments for the show.

In the end, even liturgical churches show for pastors who have a certain style, casual and easy, and whose preaching does not preach and whose teaching does not teach.  It has made us forget not only the call to the man of God who is God's prophet and priest in this place but the whole upward call of God that is meant to transcend this moment.  The ceremonies of the liturgy have been replaced with special effects (smoke machines), special music (designed to entertain while mirroring the sound of secular music), light shows (designed to keep the focus on the stars of the show and worship leaders), and theater (complete with good acting and directing) replaces our focus on the Christ who instituted the Word and Sacraments as the means by which He is present among, acts upon, and incorporates into Himself a people who will be called His Catholics lose respect for the sacraments because of a lack of sympathy for the officiant. They shop around for a priest whose style is more moving or simpatico, as if the Real Presence were not enough.

Strangely enough, those who lead such churches are often rendered powerless to say anything against such intrusions into the holy place where God dwells and instead have been forced by our need for people's approval and money to tacitly accept even when they know is poison.  Whether Rome or St. Louis, it hardly matters.  The bad guys have universally become those who stand up and stand against such a betrayal of Christ and His Word, of churches and their historic confessions, and of the very shape of priesthood and episcope.  Sadly, where the form remains, it is no longer three dimensional or alive but flat and empty, filled with the sad and weak mirror of the moment that gives people just what they want as it kills them.  Transcendence is what the world needs.  Immanence is about all Christianity seems to have to offer.  We are starving the hungry and feeding them with the very causes of their sickness unto death.  All the while God is seeking to renew His Church and refresh His people with a call to repentance and the efficacious Word and life-giving sacraments that gives us Christ.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Belonging. . .

Once you were no people, says the apostle, but now you are God'speople.  Or another way, our citizenship is in heaven.  In both cases, the profound image here is one of belonging.  You belong.  Not because you say you do but because God has made you belong.  God has done something to give you place and purpose.  You have a new identity.  You are His people, the sheep of His pastureYou are not your own, you belong to Him who purchased and won you.  These are shocking words to a world in which we are our own people, we define ourselves, we identify our gender, and we are who we want to be (without objective standards to this reality).

It may seem that belonging is not all that important to people today.  That is how we want things to be but in reality we are always struggling to find a place and purpose and an identity that connects.  We may not follow a uniform wave of style or identity but belonging to a group is not optional -- even though the group may be smaller rather than a majority, belonging is still important.  The ever present labels that we use to identify ourselves are borrowed from those labels used to identify groups.  So those who would insist that we are free to be a group of one are overlooking how it is that we function in practice. 

The Church has as part of its Gospel the gift of belonging.  It begins with the God who is not far off but near, so near, in fact, that He wears our flesh in the womb, is carried for nine months, is born of flesh and in flesh.  God has not made His dwelling somewhere out there but among us.  Like us in every way but sin, we proclaim a Gospel of incarnation.  And this God exercises His claim on us by incorporating us into Himself, in the life of His Son, through the miracle of water and the Word.  This is the shock of baptism -- not that infants are baptized but that God is actually acting through this baptism to kill and make alive, to make new what was old and dead, and to give a new identity to one marred by sin and its death.

So the Church is a place of belonging.  Not Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (as God defines the genders) but all are made one in Christ.  We are one people, under one Lord, confessing one faith, and living out together the one life born of the font at the table and by the Word.  We belong not by our choice but by God's claim.  I have called you by name, you are Mine.  This is the gift and the new reality of the Gospel.  It is not opinion that binds us or common likes or dislikes but God's claim manifested in water and Word.  The Church is not accidental but deliberate and God is the actor who makes it all happen.  Many still come from east and west, north and south. . .Yes, it does happen.  From every identity and economic group and from every race and place.  The unity of the Church is then not something we negotiate or work out but God's work and gift.  This is not less of a unity than we would create with a common address, leadership structure, and rules but even greater than what we would create.  This is what it means to belong.  And this belonging is what we were hardwired to need and want.

This is no small thing to a world where we live alone before our screen, in the imagined reality of a virtual world, defined largely by preference and desire.  Those who speak to the culture around us on behalf of Christ know this and sometimes we within the Church have forgotten just what a gift and a profound message this is for our world so lonely and alone.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Preaching and teaching the Gospel. . .

We live in an information age.  We are gravely tempted to think of proclaiming the Gospel as instruction, imparting information.  It treats the Gospel as if it were merely information and the preaching task as similar to the myriad of YouTube videos you can find to teach you to. do everything from software fixes on your computer to repairs on your car to what supply side economics are.  The Gospel is in danger of becoming merely instruction in knowledge and not a way of life and a new identity rooted in Christ and His saving work we encounter this through the means of grace.

That is one great danger of much of what we do to bring new people into the Church.  We instruct them.  We impart to them knowledge.  Now I am not at all suggesting we stop teaching but I am saying that instructing with knowledge is not all that there is for us to do.  We are to bring people into the life of the Christian community, the family of God in which the pastor functions as the father.  Is this not what St. Paul does when he describes himself not as lecturer or teacher but as father in the faith?  The role of the father includes instruction but is not simply limited to that.  The father leads by example and so St. Paul can call his people to imitate him as he imitates Christ.  The father lives out the faith within the family and for the benefit of the family.  Every statistic on how children continue in the faith bears this out.  When dad is the faith leader, there in church on Sunday morning, and the anchor of that family's faith, it is more likely than ever that the children will continue in the faith.  It does not at all diminish from the role of mother but highlights the particular gift and grace the father brings to the home and family.  This is what St. Paul is getting to.  Teaching and information are certainly imparted but not alone without the context of the family and the fatherly role as model and mentor who teaches and exemplifies what he teaches.

The Scriptures are very clear that the faith is imparted not by throwing a book at people and telling them to read it for themselves but as imparting the sacred deposit, the living tradition, the way of life that is this Gospel (not merely as the education of the mind but of the heart).  Part of this involves displaying within a life of suffering and pain the endurance of the faith and the joy of the Lord.  It is no secret that when St. Paul talks about imitation suffering is very important to that.  And it is this that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.  Blessed are you WHEN you are persecuted, reviled, lied about, disparaged, rejected, and abused for ME, for MY sake, because you belong to Me.

The term here is relationship.  Pastors live in a special relationship with their people and this is not confined to the classroom but is most profoundly lived out outside that classroom within the domain of life lived out in the world but not of it, amid struggle and suffering, showing forth the hope that is in us, loaning our hope to those whose hope is tested by trial, and proving the constant home and welcome (think Prodigal Son and Waiting Father) that allows the fallen, wanderer, and those caught in error to find a welcome and a home again.  That is why this pastoral relationship is enhanced over time and long pastorates.

Information is part of it, perhaps even the start of it, but not the end of it.  That is what often seems to be lost on a world and a church in which the person is alone before a screen instead of together within the family.  There are a ton of great videos on the internet.  Some of them are better and clearer in their teaching of the faith than most pastors can do on their own in the parish.  Yet it is not enough simply to provide information and turn faith and life in Christ into an informational transaction.  We impart not merely a body of knowledge but the shape of a relationship.  This is the fruit of catechism class in which the pastor not only teaches the faith but models it before those who are preparing to be confirmed in their baptismal life within the congregation. This is why as people we tend to define the church and the faith less by the information we got and more by the shape of our pastor's life and ministry among us?  Is this not what St Paul means when he uses the term imitate to describe this life lived out together?  Is this not what we do as pastors in our congregations?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Does it pay to pray?

Sermon for Easter 6C, preached on Sunday, May 26, 2019.

    Of all the claims of Christianity, claims about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of prayer are most in dispute.  I have people who come to me every week and say, “Pastor, I prayed but the Lord did not answer my prayer.”  Sitting in the homes of those who were once good Lutheran folks are a people discouraged because they have prayed day and night for something only to find no answer to their prayers – at least not what they wanted.  To a few God seems very talkative but to most God is a mask of silence before their petitions.

    This is, in John’s Gospel, the third time that Jesus says, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, he will give it to you.”  John 14, 15, and now 16 record the same promise.  So is Jesus a liar or a mere exaggerator or do these words mean what they say?  There is not one of us who cannot lament that we have prayed the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and being and come up empty handed.  So either there is a hidden secret to getting what you want from God or some impediment in our lives preventing the prayer of righteous people from availing the answer we seek, or maybe we have missed what Jesus is promising.

    Note that our Lord does not promise that whatever we desire, we will get.  Once Herod was so enamored of the dance of his step-daughter Salome that he vowed to give her whatever she asked – up to half his kingdom.  Only when the servant brought up the platter with the head of St. John the Baptist did Herod lament a promise made in haste and kept only because he feared losing face before his rich and powerful friends.  The Lord makes us no such open ended promise to fulfill every desire of our sinful hearts.  We have no pledge from Him that we will get whatever we want.  God is no vending machine in which we put in our prayers and await the prize.

    Jesus connects our desires with the words “in My name.”  This does not render the promise mere figurative language but it does place the promise within the context of the faith.  Whatever we ask in Jesus’ name is not an open ended promise to give us the moon if we want it but to pray from faith, out of faith, and in faith.  Whatever we might ask does not free from its prison the unbounded desires of the sinful heart and lay them before God as Salome laid before Herod the demand for the head of John.  The promise lies in the context of faith.  We pray "in Jesus' name" or to put it another way, from the foot of the cross.

    Jesus Himself makes this more clearly in the next sentence of the Gospel reading for today.  “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” He says: “The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.” The prayers of the faithful are prayed in the context of the hour that is coming when Jesus will not speak in words but in deeds, that is, in the cross.  Our prayers are prayed from the vantage point of the cross, by hearts connected to that death by baptism, and by minds who know the saving will and purpose of God through the cross of Jesus Christ.  What does this mean?  It means that our prayers flow out of our knowledge of God’s good and gracious will as revealed by Christ’s death upon the cross to redeem us and the whole world.

    Prayer is not a matter of catching God on a good day or praying in some secret code or convincing God why He should give us what we desire or asking for the moon and then reminding Him that He promised us nothing less.  The people of God pray from the vantage point of the cross where the saving will of God is revealed and as a people who, through the power of the Spirit, have not simply been reconciled to this will and purpose but delight in it.  It is not that we begin by trusting in God for the little things and build up to the big ones but God has given us the moon, literally heaven, first in Christ, and from this treasure beyond price we learn to trust Him for the little things of daily live.

    But what does this mean, you might be thinking, for me when I have something I want from God and pray for it?  How can I pray so that I will be sure to get it?  And that is the point.  When we offer our prayers through the cross, we pray for those things that are in accord with the saving and will and purpose of God revealed in that cross.  He who gave up His only Son, how will He not give us all things in Christ?  What things?  The things for which Christ became incarnate, for which He suffered, and for which He died and rose again.

    Too often we treat God and prayer as if He were some miserly ogre who does not want to give us anything.  To often we treat God and prayer as if there were limited grace and God had to pick and choose on whom to bestow the limited quantity of His grace, favor, and mercy.  We pray as if our prayers were in competition with others and we had to convince God that we were more worthy, our needs more urgent, and our prayers more righteous.

    How foolish we are!  The God who has given us all things in Christ, will He withhold anything we need or fail to bestow upon us any of the rich gifts our Savior won for us on the cross that was made by us?  Of course not.  To pray in Christ’s name is to pray from this confidence that God has given us all things in Christ – already – and that He will bestow upon us all things needful and withhold from us all things harmful, so that we may be kept in faith to the day when He comes again to bring us and all His people into His eternal presence – when prayers will no longer be needed as they are today.

    I do not say this to tell what you should not be praying for but to place the prayers of your heart within the context of that cross.  When we pray as the people of that cross who have received so generously the gift of salvation by our Lord’s suffering and death, we know that we can be bold and confident before that cross.  We can pray with the greatest assurance that what we pray for through the sacrificial death and life giving resurrection of Jesus will be granted us.  We know that whatever the answer, God’s good and gracious will cannot let us down.

    The Name of Christ has power because He suffered and died on our behalf, fulfilling the Father’s will.  This is not some secret code word to tack onto the end of our prayers but a people praying from faith, in faith, and for the outcome of that faith.  In the Our Father, we say this with a profound economy of words:  Thy will be done.  We know the will of God in Christ and have seen it on the cross and now, kneeling before the Lord in prayer, we pray for that will to be done, with respect to the concern of our heart now lifted before the throne of God.  Whether they are small and insignificant things or the great and impossible things of this life, we pray them as dear children coming to their dear Father who already trust that He will hear and answer us rightly because He has given us Christ and salvation in Him.

    Apart from Christ, prayer is a crap shoot.  It is a people offering their what ifs to a maybe God.  But in the name of Christ, we pray as a people who wear that name by baptism, who know that name through the cross where forgiveness, life, and salvation was won, and  who confess that name before the world.  Prayer’s answer is not nearly as important as what we already know of God and have already been given from God before we even knew to pray. 

    Apart from Christ, we have nothing certain but eternal death. When we ask God for anything in faith in Christ, when we ask Him to help and heal, forgive and save, comfort and give peace – we pray as Christians. We obey God’s command to pray and we trust in His promise to hear and answer.  Prayer is the posture of faith.  We look to God for every necessity because God has shown us His goodness in giving us His only Son to die and rise for us.  We expect mercy from God because mercy is what the cross reveals.  To pray is to confess this.   Prayers do not work because of many people pray for the same thing but because we already have the answer that counts most of all – the cross. 

    The sad truth is that we Christians act as if prayer were superstition.  Read on Facebook and people who claim faith tell you that if you pray for this cause and pass it on to five of your friends, good things will come.  How foolish we are and how pitiful.  For we think prayer is answered for any other purpose except the mercy we already know on the cross.  We have surrendered the real promise of faith for fake assurances.  We have the cross.  The Father in heaven knows what you need and He who has given you all things in Christ will hear your prayer and give you the answer that is in accord with that cross – even when the answer is not what we want. 

    God waits for your prayers.  He has planted the cross before you, given you grace beyond measure or imagination, and He who has given you all things, how will He not give You all things in Christ.  Whatever you ask in Jesus’ name and He will grant.  If whether we live or die, we belong to Christ, there is the freedom to pray.  We must be taught to pray not because we don’t know what the desires of our heart are, but because we don’t know who to offer them to.  This is what Christ does in the cross and this is why we pray.  Amen.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Do not forget. . .

I well remember the Memorial Day (we called it Decoration Day back then) rituals of the small town in which I grew up.  An assembly of the whole community at the park near the auditorium began the day.  With the old howitzer on the pedestal, the school band assembled to play the National Anthem (I directed one year), and the rows upon rows of white crosses decorated with American flags... I still remember my Dad in his army hat orchestrating much of the action.  And the kids.  Children upon children lined up to carry each a cross to every veteran's grave in the cemeteries of the community.  It was a big deal... The white crosses represented the grandfathers, fathers, and sons of this small town on the Nebraska prairie.  They would not be forgotten and they were remembered -- all together at least one day a year.  The final noble act was the playing of taps -- usually the best trumpeter in the band.  In the solemn silence of that moment, aged vets still living, some squeezed into their old service uniforms, some younger veterans of a war no one seemed to remember and a few from the first great war, all at the same time raised a crooked, broken, wrinkled, wounded, young and straight hand in salute. 

Those who lived and died for the cause of our nation did not live in vain or die in vain.  I remember the tears flowing down cheeks of men and women, the aged and the children.  I remember the jerk of my neck to each volley of the gun salute.  I remember running over to where these men stood and shot their weapons -- to pick up the spent brass shells.  Not in vain did they live or fight or die... not in vain...  In towns across America the old ritual of Memorial Day took place.  The VFW and American Legion saw to it.  So did the people whose grandfathers, fathers, and sons left waving their hands only to return in boxes covered with flags.  Not in vain, no sir, they did not die in vain...

This weekend I thought of it all again and of my father whose grave has now been decorated for 5 years.  And tears filled my eyes... a part of me wanted to be back there fifty years ago, led by my Dad and people like him, to remember with white crosses, solemn salutes, cracks of rifles, and the sad but noble strains of Taps... remembering and never forgetting the men (and women) who served our nation by making the greatest of sacrifices... for you... for me...  But here I am remembering him, the sacrifices of our vets, especially those whose bodies fell on battlefields far away, and hoping that I am reminding the world not to forget. . .

Sunday, May 26, 2019

More words do not improve. . .

Remember the giant stack of pages that introduced and defined the Affordable Care Act?  Ever look at the mass of paper that is the federal budget each year?  More words and numbers do not bring clarity.  In fact they often contribute to more confusion and confound more than they instruct.

I remember when the Living Bible came out and a comparison was done of the number of words in that paraphrase versus the number of words in a typical translation and it did not take long to discover that Taylor's explanation (paraphrase) took far more words than the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouths and pens of Scripture's writers.  In many cases, perhaps even most, the words added to explain and clarify what the Lord said did just the opposite.  In some cases, the words actually contradicted and took away from what the Lord had said.

So, you may be wondering, where is this going. . .  Liturgical language is an economy of words, words well chosen not for their abundance but for their conciseness.  When you look at the Divine Service, you see few words that speak well.  But too often that is not enough for those who lead the Divine Service.  Ad lib has come to mean add words.  And that is the danger.  More words do not make for clarity but confuse and obfuscate the poetic language of liturgy and hymns.

My point to those leading worship is to stop improvising, stop ad libbing, stop trying to improve upon the language of the liturgy, and stop trying to act as a comic, commentator, or master of ceremonies for God.  You are adding words but not helping the cause.  In fact, your words make the service longer and people blame the liturgy for what you add.  You may think that you are improving upon the Divine Service but you are taking away from it and from the people's focus on the Lord's Word and Sacraments.

Don't try to make the liturgy more personal.  It is personal not because you make it so but because the Lord deals with us personally, encountering us through His Word and Sacraments with His gifts and grace.  It is personal because the Lord has become incarnate, lived among us as one of us (without sin) and suffered for us and in our place upon the cross.  The focus of the liturgy is Christ and not us.  We are not the center of it all, Christ is.  It is fake personalization when we try to make the liturgy more homey or personal.  This is Christ's job.  Preach the Word.  Administer the Sacraments.  God will do the rest.

This wisdom goes for directions within the liturgy.  If you have a worship folder, hymn boards, and a hymnal, you do not need to constantly tell the people what is going on before they do it.  They are not stupid.  They can read.  You only encourage them to be lazy and offend them as you presume they must be led like children through the liturgy.  Stop it and they will pick it up and go with it.  You are only demeaning them by presuming that they can neither read nor understand the words on the page.  Give it a rest.  If you must make a change to the order, do so at the beginning of the Divine Service so that you do not end up distracting God's people from what is happening within that Divine Service..

And one more thing.  If you are leading the service, your parts are well marked and so are the parts of the people.  Let them do their part.  It does no one any good when the leader presumes that the people will not respond either quickly enough or loud enough and so you must be both leader and respondent.  It only encourages people in the pew to be lazy and it suggests to them that they are not needed since the one presiding is doing all the parts himself.

Okay, do you feel better?  I do. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Rebels. . . without a cause. . .

Perhaps you have read me lament how our culture has worked so hard to make friends with death, at least a painless death which comes when you are ready for it.  In any case, it is still difficult for us to hide our fear of death -- no matter how hard we try to befriend it.  A good example is the way we treat age.  Our culture seems to dread old age more than death -- or perhaps because it reminds us of death!  We live in a world in which youth is adored and old age is something to be neither seen nor heard.  So we have old people acting like they are children and children doing just about anything and everything to prevent them from having to deal with old age.  What a world!

It is strange because we live at a time when the aged are increasing in number and in proportion to the population as a whole.  Could it be that we don't want to admit who we are?  Yet older folks are invisible in our culture.  Except, of course, the aged who betray their age with a youth that seems quaint while affirming the preference for being young.  We can tolerate a Betty White or a Tony Bennett who seem ageless but when it comes to those upon whom time has left its mark by way of broken and fragile bodies and minds, well, nobody wants to see that!

I get the AARP magazine and newspaper and it is filled with images of older folks (defined as those over 55) who are still youthful as if to tell the rest of us this is the way to age, growing old gracefully while masking as much as possible any of its cruel effects.  So issue after issue tells us of the aged (yes, those over 55) who are still sexy and athletic.  The implication is that this is the only way to grow old and if it does not apply to you, well, then maybe you ought to move to one of those states that allows you to pull the plug on life when it is no longer worth living.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the Biblical culture in which the hoary mane was a badge of honor and the elderly were seen as precious treasures of wisdom, experience, and life.  Instead of the stereotypical Eskimo idea of wandering off on the ice to die, the Bible lauds the aged as heroic testaments to the triumph of God's grace and the endurance of faith.  The story of the Presentation and Purification would not be the same with a Gen X Simeon singing about heading home from church instead of an aged prophet ready to die.  Nope, as much as we try to make friends with death, our refusal to honor the aged and the way we consider them a burden betrays our Achilles' heel -- we are as afraid of death as we are of growing old.

Movie quotes constantly remind us of Bette Davis who said growing old ain't for sissies.  She was right.  It is not.  It takes strength of will and character and faith to endure the onslaught of time and keep on hoping against hope for the God who is our help from generation to generation.  Perhaps it takes someone who has seen a few generations come and go to appreciate that.  In any case, it is high time that the older folks stopped being invisible (unless they did not act or look old) and all our culture stopped worshiping the fountain of youth.  God has not promised to make us forever young but to bestow upon us eternal life -- something far different from a moment in time repristinated over and over and over again.  I cannot tell you what it will be like but it is better than we can imagine and makes all our hopes and dreams of such a future pale in comparison.  Our glory is not in our past or in our youth but in the God who erases the sins and guilt of our yesterdays, releases us from the prison of the moment, and bestows upon us the gift of eternity.  As I said, I don't know how to describe that future but it will certainly be better than old butts in skinny jeans and wicked hair cuts that jump from the pages of the latest fashion magazines.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Lutherans and. . . Lutherans

So often people on both sides insist that the differences among Lutherans in America are not that great, that it is a matter of degree more than substance, and that it is a matter of time, some being slower and others being quicker to embrace change.  All of these are true, to a certain degree, about some aspects of those differences.  Nowhere is that made more clear than in the recent Forum Letter when Editor Richard Johnson chronicles the sad story of the evolution of Visions and Expectations to Trustworthy Servants of the People of God.  Now you may expect me to jump upon the obvious -- that the ELCA ordains GLBTQ folks without question and Missouri does not.  Though this is a clear and profound difference, that is not what I wish to reference.  Instead, hidden in the language of the new document is a radical shift in understanding marriage and divorce.  I wish I could say that this is isolated to the ELCA, and, at least officially, it is.  In reality the soft underbelly of any Lutheran congregation is the fact that divorce is no longer treated with sadness, regret, or entered into with the greatest reluctance.  It has become normal.

In V & E (of clergy), marriage is the normative relationship, established by God, and divorce is a reflection of sin, to be reluctantly allowed in some cases.  That evolved into an understanding in which divorce happens to the best of marriages.  In other words, any sense that divorce as something of great reluctance or regret is replaced with the simple reality that, hey, it happens.  Now, regardless of how often divorce happens or of who gets divorced, under it all the Church must maintain the Biblical model of family in which divorce is never normal but always met with the greatest regret and reluctance on the part of all.  When clergy no longer strive for or attempt to hold to the Biblical model of marriage and divorce, then they no longer reflect God to the people but all the brokenness and failings of the people to God.  It becomes like a threat to God.  This is the way things are so what are you going to do about it.  This is one difference between Lutheran groups.  Do the clergy strive to fulfill the Biblical model or do they settle instead to reflect the state of things about them?  Trustworthy Servants is clearly tilted away from the idea that clergy have a higher calling or that their marriages or divorces or have a duty or responsibility to reflect the Biblical shape of marriage and family.

One word is notably absent from the replacement for Vision and Expectations and that word is chaste (though to be accurate it appeared only twice in the previous document).  According to this new document (sent back for review but due out again by 2020), cohabitation is not good but there is no expectation or suggestion that sexual intimacy should be resisted or restrained until marriage.  Oh, to be sure, deepening levels of sexual intimacy should be accompanied by deepening levels of commitment (whatever that means) but it is clear that the idea that any clergy could be expected to restrain their sexual impulses is not only quaint but unrealistic.  That is the point.  The document to replace the 1990 version of that churches expectations of pastors was rejected not because it went too far but because it did not go far enough.  The first casualty of this war on Biblical morality is the word chaste.  Now Missouri has kept the word (at least in its catechism) but we do not talk nearly enough about the expectation of chastity to single and fidelity to married.  Though this is uniformly applied to straight and gay, the ELCA clearly finds it not only sexist but impossible.  In Missouri, we tend to avoid such blunt talk simply because it offends.  It is not that we no longer believe it but that we are not sure it will sell in the pews and so we pay lip service to this truth without actually raising up these standards for actual consideration and practice by both clergy and lay.

While I do not believe Missouri's future will involve following the ELCA's example in regularizing GLBTQ relationships within the clergy and the church, I cannot but notice that when it comes to fidelity and chastity and the idea that clergy should be held to higher standards than lay, we are behind the ELCA in time and degree but we are heading in the same direction.  That is something worth noting and changing so that our practices reflect more consistently our confession.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Potentially queer. . .

Apparently the Lutheran Church in Sweden (at least the Diocese of Västerås) has published a pamphlet to help those teens who are GLBTQ and who feel confused or oppressed because of it.  In the pamphlet, the teens are encouraged by Biblical examples of potentially queer people (they must be gay because they don't fit our stereotypes of straight).  It is a creative concept, for sure, but hardly anything more than the worst kind of novelty and unfaithfulness to the Bible.  It just might have been aided by the fact that the most recent Bishop elected identified as a gay man.

While one would have to give the effort a high grade for ingenuity, the whole thing offers teens legitimately wrestling with their desires nothing less than the worst kind of fake comfort and leaves them even more vulnerable than ever.  What kind of foolishness would presume to identify Biblical characters who just might be like me?  Instead of this, we have a Savior who was tempted in every way as we are tempted but without sin.  Should not this be the hook on which we hang our angst, our fears, our desires, our guilt, and our shame?  Is not the key here that we are not victims of our desires but in Christ are given strength for self-control?  Of course, this is not politically correct but it is Biblically true.  I am not sure when the decision to jettison Biblical for relevant and current was made but I am sure it was long before Bishop Mogren's consecration in 2015.

All of this, however, is less radical than Nadia Bolz-Weber's foray into sexual ethics called Shameless.  Her approach is not a tinkering with the Biblical morality and vision of sexuality but a wholesale rejection of it and of all the Christian morality that has come from it.  According to Bolz-Weber, it is always and only about sex and everything else must be submissive to sexual desire.  Hers is a shocking rejection of traditional Biblical, Christian, and Lutheran teaching of marriage, family, sex, and desire and the only thing more shocking is that she continues to be the diva of edgy and emergent ELCA style Lutheranism for youth as well as adults.  How long this can continue will depend less upon Biblical counterpoint than upon the stomach of ELCA people.  Apparently they can tolerate more than I thought possible.

I guess the Scriptures have been more true than we think since it is clear from Genesis that when sin entered the world it was first about sex and that remains one of the central issues where the sinful infection continues to cause us problems.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Shelf Life. . .

A while ago my household dug through to the ends of the pantry in our kitchen and found a few things with expiration dates that shocked and embarrassed us.  On the one hand, I am not the kind of person who pays all that much attention to best if used by dates and wonder if some of those dates are put on by manufacturers who want you to toss out and replace what you have not used recently.  But I do realize that not every food item is equal and some things really are best if used by.

There are things in the church that do have a shelf life and, if they don't have a formal expiration date, they have an informal use by date.  Things in worship should not shout the time frame in which they were composed or written.  As I have mentioned before, some of the fruits of the liturgical movement of the 1970s were dated in topic and style.  Read the old collects for the Roman Novus Ordo (prior to the more recent translations) and you see what I am talking about.  Liturgies that have a shelf life are liturgies not worthy of use in the life of God's people.  They should not be generational and liturgical innovation and change should, by definition, be deliberate and incremental.  You know what I mean, the hermeneutic of continuity (for you BXVI fans).

But the same is true of hymns.  Hymns that scream a date and a time are hymns unworthy of use in the Divine Service.  That does NOT mean that all the hymns need to be hundreds of years old.  It means that when we publish a hymn in a hymnal or commend its use to the churches, it better be a hymn worth singing more than once, more than this year, and more than this generation.  Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to find good hymnody that is modern -- contemporary music by definition has a shelf life.  It wants to be identified with a particular moment and even, perhaps, a particular place.  Like the playlists on our phones, contemporary Christian music is by definition tied to a moment in time and does not meet the expectations of a hymnal meant to last for at least a generation.

I would echo this sentiment for architecture, church art, and vestments as well.  Yes, I went through a tie dyed chasuble phase.  But I have repented and look for that which will fit the next generation without embarrassment or explanation.  You have undoubtedly read my comments about modern church architecture and the not to subtle clues from secular spaces which have little in common with the needs of a sacred assembly.  My own parish had a Fellowship Hall with burnt orange carpeting, lime green walls, electric blue sliding curtains, and bright orange doors and heating ducts.  Yes, it was repainted and needs it again, by the way.  When we build or create something to hit the peak of a trend, we burden our future with our shortsightedness.  And, to be frank, we don't have the money to waste to constantly be in style with the times.  Nor do we have the space in our worship books to waste on things we will sing once and nevermore.

So shelf life is an issue for the church.  We need things with a long shelf life.  Liturgies that last for generations upon generations.  Hymns that speak as profoundly to the next century as they did the century in which they were written.  Architecture that can stand through the ages without worrying about style.  Art that is as authentic and beautiful for the next generation as it was for the last.  Vestments that can be worn a long time without looking old.  So when you look at what the church does, where it does it, and how it does it, that which glorifies God and speaks to the moment best is that which is not married to a style that came and went yesterday.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Unchanging joy in an ever changing world. . .

Sermon for Easter 5C, preached on Sunday, May 19, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    There’s one constant in life: it’s constantly changing.  Everything changes.  Nothing stays the same.  A quick look through history proves that fact.  Our world changes.  Societies and cultures change.  Our values and popular morality change.  We change: our thoughts and opinions; our bodies.  Sometimes change is good and we should recognize that.  But there’s also times when change isn’t so good.  It can be painful and hurts.  During these times we may feel a loss, we may begin to despair, thinking there’s no hope for the future.  But there is hope, because even in the midst of all sorts of change, the Spirit of God gives you an unchanging joy. 
    We often don’t do well with change.  It’s not something we usually enjoy.  Sure, there are times when spontaneity and a little change can spice up our lives, but for the most part, we’re creatures who like things to remain the same.  Look at where you’re sitting right now.  Isn’t that the same pew you always sit in?  We want things to stay the same because there’s comfort and certainty there.  We feel safe in the same old same old. 
    But nothing stays the same old same old.  Our world and culture changes.  Just listen to anyone from an older generation talk about the good ol’ days.  These days are often brought up as they bemoan the current state of things.  The world isn’t like it used to be, it’s much faster now.  We’re always on the go, moving from one thing to the next.  The traditional values that marked our culture are different.  No longer are Christian morals the norm.  Now, everyone gets to decide on their own what’s right and wrong.  In this new world, it can be hard for us to see a future, at least a positive one. 
    But our world isn’t the only thing that changes, our personal lives change, and these changes are often the most painful and sorrowful.  Divorce, loss of job, the diagnosis of cancer, deployment and change of station, the unexpected death of a loved one, even the expected death of a loved one, all of these change our lives in many and untold ways.  When they happen, we don’t know what to do.  The uncertainty of the future rocks us to our core.  
    The disciples were about to experience this type of massive change.  In the Upper Room, before Jesus was betrayed, He told the disciples about changes that would come.  He said, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me...Truly, truly I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:16, 20).  With these words, Jesus was telling them about His crucifixion, and that this change would make them sorrowful. 
    After Christ’s arrest, His sham trial, and public execution, the lives of the disciples were changed; their future uncertain.  Just think about it, the prospect of going on without Christ, their Lord and Teacher.  The disciples were filled with sorrow as they contemplated going on without the One they lived with for three years, the One they saw perform all sorts of miracles, the One who promised the coming of the kingdom of God.  And yet, this change wouldn’t ultimately be for their sorrow, but for their joy!
    Hear again Jesus’ words.  “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me...Truly, truly I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:16, 20).  Jesus not only foretold the disciples sorrow, but He also promised them joy.  Their sorrow would be turned to joy, in Christ’s resurrection.  And not just any joy, but a joy that would never be taken from them (Jn 16:22).
    This joy is a constant joy.  This joy is an unchanging joy.  This joy is a result of Christ’s death and resurrection.  On the cross Jesus defeated all sin.  He overcome the disciples’ sin, the world’s sin, your sin.  He shed His blood to cleanse you.  And with His resurrection He won you everlasting life.  Jesus’ death and resurrection, this is a constant that never changes.  Jesus death and resurrection is a fact of the past, never changing.  He died once for all, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6:10).  This redemptive fact affects your life: your past, your present, and your future.  Because of what Christ has done for you, God gives you the promise of life. 
    The joy of everlasting life that God has given you, that joy is your’s right now, at this very moment, even in this world filled with change and sorrow.  This joy isn’t a forced happy joy that never feels sorrow or pain.  This joy doesn’t super-glues an artificial smile on your face.  No, this joy recognizes the pain and sorrow in our world.  But this joy also knows the certainty of salvation.  This joy recognizes with confident hope Christ’s promises fulfilled.  And this joy rejoices knowing that the forgiveness of Christ and His promised everlasting life can’t be taken from you.  These are certain realities based on Christ’s death and resurrection, and no matter what you’re going through, nothing can change that! 
    The constant changes of life can bring us to tears.  We can feel lost and adrift in an ever changing world, uncertain what tomorrow will bring.  We can be filled with sorrow; and yet, at the same time, we have a joy that is unchanging, a joy that’s certain and true.  This joy is based on Christ and His death and resurrection.  It’s founded on His promise salvation.  No matter what twists and turns life throws your way, you belong to your Savior.  And the unchanging joy of everlasting life in Him, that is a gift that belongs to you.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.   

Little things. . .

When I was a child, my mother insisted that I take care of my toys and, most especially, pick them up and put them away.  It was her conviction that unless I learned how to take care of these things (the little stuff of the world), I would never be able to have or care for the larger things of life.  She was and is a wise woman.  Steeped in the work ethic and personal responsibility of her Scandinavian upbringing, she exemplified her mother's saying, If everyone sweeps her own stoop, the whole world will be clean.  Today people often giggle at such quaint ideas but there is a great deal of truth in her words and truth that can well apply to the Church.

Rubrics (literally red letter words) are often ignored, argued with, and intentionally broken but I think it is foolish to think that we can be found faithful in the great things of the Kingdom while playing fast and loose with the little things of God.  In fact, I have often found that those who are unfaithful in those little things are also unfaithful in the big things.  In this, our Lord finds the same connection.

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:10).  This wisdom was also noted by St. Augustine.  Quod minimum, minimum est, Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est. [What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing. But to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing.]
(from St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 35)

Rubrics offer us guidance in applying the truths we believe, teach, and confess to the practice of those things.  One example is how we care for the reliquae, that which remains from the distribution, or, even more significantly, the spills or crumbs that happen during the distribution.  Here Luther's own example is instructive even when his words may not be quite as clear.  Kneeling on the floor to literally suck up the spilled blood of Christ demonstrates unequivocally that Luther was neither a receptionist or one who believed in a symbolic presence over a substantial one.

On several occasions questions have arisen in winkels (local gatherings of clergy) in which what we believe has been questioned and I have asked "what do the rubrics tell us to do?"  For in the rubrics we see doctrine in practice.  You can laugh about those little red letter directions in the hymnal, missal, and agenda but you dare not take them lightly.  They were placed there for a purpose by people who understood (even when we forget) the connection between belief and practice that has been the core and center of our church's life since the beginning.

Little things matter.  As a parent, we often presume that it is the big stuff that tests our mettle but in reality the parent's most profound tests come in faithfulness in the little stuff.  As one example, teaching the doctrine of prayer is less significant than giving the great witness of parents praying, of praying with their children regularly, and praying at times of special need.  I would say the same thing applies to pastoral ministry.  We face our greatest challenges not in the once in a decade issues that confront us but in the daily prayer, teaching, preaching, presiding, visiting, counseling, and such.  Little things count and the Lord does not ignore those little things.  Jesus was not a big picture guy and neither should we be.  We must be both and the little things will matter even when we do not see it.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The way they love. . .

It is often suggested (even by those within the pale of orthodox Christendom like Fr. Jim Martin, SJ) that you cannot say you love or accept gay people (or substitute the gender fluid choice of the person speaking) and then reject the way they love.  In other words, to accept the person is to give place and approval to their sexual behavior.  Remember here that no one is condemned simply for having a same sex attraction but for acting upon that attraction.  That does not mean that this attraction is the equivalent to heterosexuality.  What it does say is that there is a distinct difference between thoughts and desires and the acting out of those thoughts and desires.  Not every heterosexual thought or desire is the same or without condemnation.  Sin has corrupted every person and every heart and planted within that heart desires that do not honor the Lord or reflect His ordering of us and creation.  That said, the pivotal idea here that must be challenged is the idea that accepting the individual means not only accepting their desires but granting approval to his or her behavior -- the behavior the flows out of those desires.

It is also said that since God made people the way they are, we must accept them as they are -- gay, straight, trans, or whatever.  What people may believe is not the arbiter of truth.  Believing it does not make it true any more than not believing renders it false.  While it may sound neat to say God made me the way I am, it is hardly Biblical.  Did God intend for people to be born with physical or mental handicap?  Did God intend for a baby to be born addicted to drugs?  Did God intend for people to be born with genes that might portend cancer or addiction or physical ill down the road?  Did God intend for people to be born into a world of poverty, want, need, violence, inequity, etc?  Our feelings sound good in certain lights but they sound terrible in another light.  Our feelings should be respected as feeling but they do not define or make truth.  God does that.  And we are privileged to receive that truth and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to believe it and to live because of it.  That is the Gospel.  Not that our feelings define us or must be accepted no matter what or honored as the ultimate truth.

Are there cultural things in Scripture that refer to a specific context and time?  Of course.  Not everything in Scripture is truth there for all time and for all people.  That does not diminish the Word  of God.  We are not forbidden for all time from eating shrimp and lobster or pork chops or bacon.  Everyone knows this.  To place God's creation of them male and female into the same category as shellfish or pork is, well, ludicrous. 

Finally, how you love is not a fluid thing or a flexible thing or something you define.  If that were the case, there could be no condemnation for anything consensual at all.  How you love is not something you define.  God has defined the shape of love, creating them male and female and commanding them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and have dominion over all else He made.  Can humans screw it up?  Of course they can and regularly do (everything from sexual abuse to adultery to pornography to prostitution to bestiality to a host of other things imagined but not yet even formally invented).  And that is the point.  God has created a shape and an order of love -- one that He applies even to the Church the bride and Christ the bridegroom.  So enough with all the goofiness that loving the individual means accepting and approving all that they think, desire, say, or do.  If that were the case, Jesus Himself would be superfluous and we would all be good just as we are, deep in our sins.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

That is ugly. . .

I will never forget when a parishioner looked at a crucifix I had put up with shock and disgust, saying That is ugly.  Well, yes, it is ugly.  No cross was or is pretty.  We have cleaned up crosses and turned them into things of beauty but the reality is that the cross was never meant to be pretty.  It is the place where sin was borne upon the shoulders of the sinless -- a beautiful act of redemption but hardly a beautiful sight to behold.  The disciples ran in fear.  Only a few women and blessed St. John could stick it out before the cross.  It was ugly, to be sure.  But what do you expect???

We need to see the ugliness of the crucifix, the brutality of the scars, and the pain which our Savior bore to redeem us sinners from all our sins, repair the breech between us and the Father, and bring us home to His dwelling place.  Nobody puts up a crucifix because it is pretty.  Profound, yes, and awe inspiring but not pretty.

When St. Paul insisted that we preach Christ and Him crucified, St. Paul had in mind exactly that brutal and shocking image of Christ, the holy and righteous Son of God, wearing the ugliness of our sin and being obedient even to death on the cross to rescue us sinners by His blood.  We have a far too idealized image of the cross -- one without a body or blood or shame (earthly shame, that is).  Cursed is he who hangs on a tree, says the Word of God.  His visage was so marred that He could not be seen without cringing, says the Scripture of Him who would suffer and die upon a cross.

Nope, we have made the cross something it never was -- pretty.  But in doing so we rob the cross of its glory and we distort the profound character of the Gospel that Christ died for us while we were sinners and His enemies and not because He found something good in us or we deserved any of His redeeming love.  We want a happy Jesus but this happy Jesus is a fake Jesus.  The Jesus whom God reveals is the suffering servant of Isaiah, the wounded Messiah long promised, the flesh born to die, and the death that kills death once for all.  It is not pretty or beautiful but it is compelling and, if the Spirit is at work in us, we cannot but look upon that cross in wonderment and awe.  Who would do such a thing, bear such a price, and deliver such an unworthy people?  Only Christ, the Son of God, who was in plan for just that moment from the foundation of the world.

There are representations of the cross that are extra life-like (should I say death-like) and they are hard to look at but to look away is to miss the most eloquent love ever revealed on earth -- that Christ should die for you and me and for the sake of the whole world save us from the sin we had grown so accustomed to and so comfortable with!  We make friends with death but cannot look upon suffering and God hates death and bears the suffering of the whole world to release us from its curse.  Can anyone explain that?  No, no one can.  But we can believe it and rejoice in the power of such love.  And if we can do that, perhaps we will learn to find beauty even in suffering.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Not enough to stay two steps ahead. . .

Got another email. . .  You know how that goes.  This time there was a rather salutary truth.  A pastor complained that if all the churches were doing was trying to be one step ahead of another, it might last for a while and there might be some growth but in the end, the church may still die.  That is simple but profound.  Yet that is exactly what churches have been doing for ages and what many are doing with even more vigor now -- copying others and trying to stay one step ahead of the pack!  It is as if we have grown so accustomed to and adept at re-inventing ourselves, that we no longer notice any contradiction there.  We out program, out spend, out technology, out shock, and out vulgar until in the end the world does not know who Christians are anymore and Christians are not sure, either.  So I have a radical thought.  Maybe programs are like the pacifiers that do nothing but make us feel like we are doing okay, keeping busy, relevant, etc...  Maybe the real emphasis ought to be on the family.

No church can do much to make sure the faith exists beyond the generation in the pews UNLESS they teach the parents how to teach their children the faith at home.  In other words, the only program that counts is catechesis and teaching those who catechize -- especially parents for the sake of their children.  We have dumbed things down so that the Small Catechism is about as big as we tackle and it has become the domain of professional teachers in the churches instead of parents in the home.  We have turned pastors into professional pray-ers and forgotten that the work of intercession belongs to all the baptized.  We have turned the sturdy church music of old into eminently forgettable words and tunes that have a good beat but no meat and so our children are being entertained to death by people who think entertainment is the end that justifies the means.

Part of the reason we have NONES is that we did not catechize their parents well and they did not catechize their children.  It is not simply a new wave of agnosticism but a failure to teach the faith and teach it well and equip the teachers to teach the faith.  So it all became somehow less important and less real and less urgent than the pressing matters of this moment.  We forgot that the world was doing a very effective job of catechizing them into a life where pleasure, feelings, self, entertainment, experience, and technology can meet all their needs.  We forgot that the world was doing a very effective job of teaching morality without morals, the naturalness of death with dignity if you cannot have life on your terms, and to live for me only.  Kids are under great pressure to discount and reject the truths of the Christian faith and the Word of God and they cannot survive without a strong foundation, a living faith in the home, and the Divine Service calling them like a magnet to the places where God is, God gives, and God keeps them.  We put them in children's church or nursery or playtime with the youth group and used the church as a babysitter instead of giving them Christ.  So when they summon up their voice to say that they are a NONE, we are surprised???

Part of the reason we have DONES is that they left the faith and the church without being fully catechized in the first place.  I have seldom met people who left the church over serious doctrinal difference but I have met people all the time who were there once but gradually were pulled away because the forces pulling them away were stronger than the forces pulling them in.  Now, is some of that their fault?  Of course it is.  But we must also admit our own complicity in the matter.  We did not address issues of life and morality clearly and with the Word of God.  We did not speak to God's creation while science was inventing theories to explain it all away.  We did not give them the tools of the Scriptures and catechism to know the faith.  We let them sing nice songs instead of the sturdy chorales and hymns of faith that actually taught the faith.  We taught them nothing really all that big or important was happening on Sunday morning.  We gave them the idea that there is no difference between pastor and lay, one church or another, and that sincerity was more important than doctrinal clarity and truth.  So when they left, we were surprised???

Catechesis.  In the Church.  To the parents.  To the children.  The discipline of weekly attendance at the Divine Service.  The real Divine Service with real hymns that take most seriously Christ in our midst giving His gifts and speaking the language of the faith from the worship place to the home and carrying it all with them in the heart.  Isn't this the only program that really counts???

Friday, May 17, 2019

Presiding over the death of a church. . .

I have an acquaintance who spent more than a generation in a dying congregation.  He was a faithful pastor who stayed with his people until the decision was made to close the doors.  He was there for the final service and assisting the congregation in disposing of its property with the dignity that a house of God deserved.  It died not without his and the faithful efforts and energy of the people.  Of course, it is always true that more could have been done but he accorded himself both with dignity and faithfulness to the very end.  It did not take long before another congregation called him and he went to his new call to fulfill his pastoral vocation, though not without sadness for the congregation that had closed its doors under his watch.  He was a faithful shepherd nonetheless.  He will always be remembered for his work to keep what seemed inevitable from happening.  No one likes to be the last pastor out the door and yet sometimes somebody has to be that man.

In contrast, a month or so ago a man died after not only watching his church die but hastening on the death by gutting the church of the integrity of its doctrine and by relativizing its truth until there was little distinctively Christian left in her.  She still has buildings but they are largely empty and her once thriving Christian presence is now a hollow shell where faith once lived and now is gone.  But this man was a darling of the media and a power broker in the larger church.  In his death, many honored him for his work, though the work itself was one of the contributing factors in the death of his church under his stewardship.  The man was Cardinal Godfried Danneels and the once impressive Belgian Roman Catholic Church is a prime example of the emptiness of progressivism and the lies the progressives tell. He was a personable figure, well educated, fluent in many languages, and a prince of a guy -- except to the orthodox tenets of Christianity and to any orthodox morality and ethics consistent with this confession.  The man delighted in every wind of change and embraced them with vigor.  About the only thing, it seems, he could not stand is orthodoxy.

It is a tale of contrasts.  If a faithful pastor preaches and teaches the faith and exercises faithfully the ministry committed to him and a congregation (or more) dies under his care, there is no scandal or apology needed.  But when an unfaithful pastor distances himself from the very faith he is supposed to proclaim, works to enhance the breech between the church of old and the church of day (and tomorrow), that pastor has traded his integrity and, indeed, his dignity for a pot of lentil soup and betrayed the office and trust placed in him.  The greater shame lies with Pope Francis and others who continued to befriend and laud this man even after his retirement and the Belgian Roman Catholic Church was placed on life support.  This man failed the faith and the faithful failed this man by treating him as if he were noble and honorable.  There is no honor in doing everything in your power to kill what is entrusted to you as priest or bishop.

This is what I find so curious.  Why does the world continue to laud progressives who doubt the Scriptures and distort worship and play church as if it were a power game?  Why do men like these retain respect from those outside the faith and those within the confines of churches?  Why is it that it is so painfully obvious to everyone but those in the media and the progressive movement that robbing the faith of his historicity, tearing down the pillars of liturgy and morality, and erasing the distinctions between the Church and the world is sounding the death knell for the faith?  How many more empty church buildings and regional churches must be lost to inconsequence in the name modernity or progressivism or improvement?  Lutherans and others need to beware of those who come to save the patient (the Church) and who find they must kill her to save her.  The Church already finds the way to apostasy hard to resist; she does not need the powerful voices of leadership to help her on her way.  I know it is heresy today but the Church will not die because we have always done it that way before.  But she will die or at least lose her soul as we abandon her dogmas and her identity in worship to the prevailing mood of the times.  The world does not long need or show much interest in a hollow echo but the Word of the Lord will endure forever and out of the ashes God will bring the elect to their appointed destiny long before the foundations of the world were laid.

Sad to say it but the world does not need nor have those like Cardinal Danneels does anything on behalf of a Church that cannot close her ears to the whisper of change which leaves the faith and the faithful weak and vulnerable.  There is a lesson for here for us.  There is no dishonor in being faithful and faithfully serving the Word and Sacraments and the doors to a church building closing but there is no victory in dishonoring the faith and the faithful for the sake of every whim of doctrine and change.  In the end, they will have to account to a higher authority but their progressive works will follow them and stand as evidence of their failure to uphold the sacred deposit and pass it faithfully on those of the next generation.  Lutherans are not immune from such leaders, either, and we need to pay attention to the example set by those who ending up killing the Church trying to maker her relevant or palatable or modern.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

We just want to DO something . . .

In case you missed it, this year is the 50th anniversary of the New Mass (Novus Ordo) promulgated by Pope Paul VI under the stewardship of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini.  It seems that the later wrote an autobiography in which he revealed that the operating principle of the reforms, reforms that are labelled Vatican II but which came out after the Council and without the Council's knowledge or approval, were guided by the principle of participation.  In this Paul VI had already, apparently, complained that Latin and the shape of the Latin Mass were preventing participation of people and children and impeding the church's evanglistic efforts.  So the two cooperated in a very discreet (dare I say secretive) effort to remake the whole Roman Catholic Church (which they did).

What is interesting is not the Novus Ordo, which is rather tame and ordinary, but the idea that the people need to do something and want to do something in worship.  How many goofy and destructive things have been fostered in the spirit of giving people something to do?  Strangely, this principle which was behind so much of the movement to make worship more egalitarian and diverse and to give the people in the pew rights and responsibilities of leadership (time in the spotlight) has not been followed by entertainment worship.  In fact, the evangelicals seem to violate every principle of participation.  Their music is for entertainment purposes, led by professionals (kids, don't try this at home), replete with professional quality video and audio, on a large stage, with a pastor who preaches by entertaining using Scripture as a pretext for saying what he or she wants to say.  About the only thing the people in their cushioned seats do is drink their vitamin water or Starbucks and pay for the entertainment. 

We invented the ordination of women because our culture found equality to mean interchangability and was offended by the idea that a woman could not do what a man did.  We invented the GLBTQ churches because we found it offensive to think that marriage of one man and one woman (clearly the Biblical norm) was the God ordained form of family or that the church should sanction this above others.  We invented all sorts of roles (from lay readers to praise bands) to give our people something to do so that they would not be passive before God.  And in doing so, liturgical churches struggle to keep folks while the big box non-denominational evangelicals entertain their people to death while the folks just sit there (oh, and clap and sip their drinks of choice, and pay).  Could it be that our people did not want to participate?  Did the reformers get it wrong? We do everything in our power to erase the mystery and make worship practical and give people a part to play and still they have not packed the pews.  Could it be that we presumed a blip among boomers was the coming thing for all generations?

The only churches who have been able to hold their own in the exodus of Christians from the pews are those where distinct roles between clergy and lay are outlined, where mystery is emphasized, and where God's actions are held higher than our own in worship.  We thought (even Lutherans) that the key to growth or retaining our people was giving them something to do.  We were wrong.  It sort of reminds me when a member revealed that his preparation for first communion was the suggestion that nothing all that important was happening, the bread was not very tasty, the wine icky, and you would feel no different after eating and drinking the Lord's Supper.  Don't expect too much because nothing going on in worship is really all that important or earth shattering.  Yup, that person may be correct but it is not because they have read the Word of God right or know their liturgy.  And it is an easy jump from the idea that God is doing nothing to the idea that I am doing something and what I am doing is the most important thing of all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I'm a person of faith. . .

In one of the quieter moments of Holy Week, the TV was on in the background and I heard one of the NBC Today anchors say I am a person of faith.  I did not think about it all that much but it started a discussion in our household.  Maybe I am an old has-been but I found it confusing, to say the least.  What faith?  What faith are you a person of?  If it is so important to suggest that you are a person of faith, why don't you just admit you belong to this church or that?  At the minimum, she could have said she was a Christian.  But instead all we got was the vagaries of modernity that mean something without saying anything -- except that they don't mean anything at all and by saying nothing, they are saying everything.

I am pretty confident that Christianity will not be and cannot be outlawed.  But that is hardly the point.  You do not need to outlaw a faith that can no longer be claimed openly in public.  The real danger is not that Christianity will be outlawed or that churches will be regulated (or, help us God, taxed), but that Christianity will become the religion that cannot be named in public and that Christians are protected in their faith only behind the closed doors of home or worship space (sounds better than church).  In other words, you do not need to directly challenge Christianity if you have made it unfriendly or offensive to speak its name in public or to identify a specific church by name.

Consider this.  After the terrible killings of Christians in Sri Lanka, former President Obama and wannabe President Hillary Clinton both condemned not the targeting of Christians but the attacks on Easter worshipers (and travelers).  It would be as if Muslims were not called Muslims or members of Islam but described as Ramadan worshipers.  It is a curious way to say it and even more curious in that both prominent people chose to phrase their tweets in exactly the same way.  When the 2016 attacks on GLBTQ folks were mentioned, the attacker was not condemned as targeting night club patrons but gays, lesbians, and transgenders.  Yet when Christians were clearly the targets in Sri Lanka, the prominent folk did a credible duck and save to avoid saying those who massacred them were aiming for Christians.

Any of this individually might be a mere curiosity but together it suggests that the time will come sooner rather than later when the very name Christian will be offensive enough to be banned from the public square.  Christians will be allowed to practice behind closed doors in home and worship spaces but they will not be accorded the privilege of being identified or owning their faith by name in public.  That is what I see.  And it is all revealed by the seemingly innocuous skipping of the name Christian or the identity of their church by folks casually conversing about the various things of Holy Week.  I am a person of faith.  Whatever that means.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion pointed out that it took the journalists at USA Today 15 paragraphs before mentioning the word “Christian.”  Tell me that this was accidental.  If it is an offense to misgender (whatever that means), why is it okay to ignore the word Christian and to do everything in your power to avoid it (except when you can speak it in a negative light)?  Yes, I am being sarcastic and small but if we are to keep our integrity as Christians in the public square, we will have to point out what the media is doing to us (with the permission and cooperation of those who make the news).

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Jesus the Shepherd and Temple. . .

Sermon for Easter 4C, preached on Sunday, May 12, 2019.

    Though we seldom stop to think about it and rush to the familiar and comforting words of Jesus who says "I am the Good Shepherd," the John 10 text we read today as the Gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday has a context.  According to John, Jesus has made His way to the Temple for the celebration of the Feast of Dedication.  Of course, this feast has a prehistory but you know it best because it becomes later the Feast of Hanukkah.  It was on this day that Jesus said these words and this is the context into which Jesus places those words.

    The Feast of Dedication is literally a feast of reconstruction.  In the time between the Old and New Testaments, read in the Apocrypha, First Maccabees 4:36-56, there is a story every Jew would have known and loved.  Some 200 years before Jesus was born, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV had overcome Israel and occupied its land.  He rejected monotheism and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  So he turned the Temple into Jerusalem into a shrine for Zeus.  To make matters worse, he insisted upon being called Antiochus Epiphanes – that he is literally the manifestation of God. 

    In the wake of such devastation, Israel was filled with mourning and lament but it was also a nation divided and weak.  There were the Chasidim (like Pharisees), the holy ones, who added laws to the Law of God but held to the whole Old Testament and who believed in the resurrection.  On the other side were the Zadikim or righteous ones who held only to the Torah and did not believe in the resurrection.  They were the forerunners of the Sadducees. 

    A Chasidim resistance leader by the name of Judah Maccabees arose who was so successful against the Zadikim that they appealed to Syria for help.  They got more than they bargained for.  The Syrians were not allies of the Zadikim; they came to steal the nation away.  Antiochus gloated as the governor of Syria was killed and then took up the cause against Judah Maccabees and the revolt.  His every attack met with greater resistence from the Maccabees, until, with a force of 10,000, they vanquished Antiochus to make Israel an independent nation once again.

    Upon entering the Temple, they found the desecration and decay of the most holy site in Israel.  They cleansed the Temple, washing it olive oil, rebuilt the Altar of Burnt Offering, replaced the sacred vessels, and restored consecrated priests to Temple service.  With an 8 day celebration they rejoiced over the restoration of the Temple.  Now, 200 years later, Jesus stood there, recalling the great victory and the rejoicing over the fact that the forgiveness of sins might be the center of the Temple’s worship once again.

    It is in midst of all this then, they asked Jesus if He was the Messiah  When Jesus answered them, they were ready to stone Him for His blasphemy. Into this Jesus says:  “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.  I and the Father are one.”

    Now we begin to see.  Jesus was not simply claiming to God here but uses this occasion to proclaim Himself the Temple of the Lord.  He is God and He is where God is to be worshiped. Jesus had already said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.”  Jesus pushed the envelope hard.  All the Law points to Jesus.  The voice of the prophets speak of Jesus.  He is the Temple and His flesh and blood are the sacrifice.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus is who He claims to be; you know this because He does what He says He will do.

    So when He says His sheep hear His voice and He knows them and they know Him, Jesus is exposing the unbelief of those who knew of Judah Maccabees but did not know the Law and the prophets.  For if they knew the Scriptures, they would know that the Scriptures testify of Jesus.  His disciples did not challenge Him but followed Him.  In return Jesus gives them more than the forgiveness of their sins but the surprise of everlasting life.  They belong to Him and neither death nor all the powers against Him can snatch His sheep from His hand.

    We like symbolic language, like when God likens Himself to a mother hen seeking to gather His people like a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.  Most appropriate on Mother's Day, you know.  But Jesus is not using symbolic language.  Jesus is not talking theory here but practices what He preaches.  He dies to prove that death cannot steal us from Him and He offers Himself as the sin offering to prove that sin cannot condemn us when we are in Him.  He over comes all our enemies to prove that we have nothing to fear.  He is on our side and now, by baptism and faith, we are His sheep, the flock of His hand, not volunteers for the Kingdom but those whom the Father has elected to salvation and given to Jesus to be His own.  No one can snatch us from Him.  Nothing can steal us from Him who has done all things so we might be His and live under Him in His eternal kingdom.

    And if Jesus is the new Temple, if He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, what does it mean to follow Jesus?  It means to be where the voice of Jesus speaks His Word to us and here where the sin offering has become our meal in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.  It means not an end to the Temple but its fulfillment and not an end to sacrifice but one all sufficient sacrifice which takes away the sins of the whole world.  It means standing together in this faith and worship, holding up this Gospel before the world – not a private faith or an individual before God.  What do we say?  As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  This crucified and risen body and blood is our witness to the world.

    The Good Shepherd is not some symbolic identity but the real thing.  He has reconstructed the Temple in His flesh, crucified and risen.  Read in the book of Revelation and you will see that the Temple is not erased but fulfilled in Christ.  He is our Temple.  He is our Light.  He is our Life.  We know the Father through Him and the Father will send forth the Spirit in His name in order to bring home to our hearts and minds and lives this blessed truth.  This is what binds us to Christ and it is in this that we live and work and have our being.

    Faith is not a good feeling we get from Jesus but the assurance and the confidence that Jesus is who He claims to be and has done what He has promised to do.  God has reconstructed the Temple in the crucified and risen flesh of Jesus and God still speaks to us the voice of Jesus through the words of Scripture.  You stick with this Christ who gives us His flesh and blood as our food and you cannot be snatched form His hand by any power or any enemy.  You stick with this Christ who speaks that we may know Him and follow Him and no one and nothing can snatch you from His hand.  You be where Christ is in His Word and Sacraments and He will dwell in you.

    These are not conditions placed upon the promise but the means of grace through which that promise is fulfilled.  Christ is the Temple and the old building will pass away because it is not eternal.  Christ is eternal.  Christ is the sin offering through which the sinners are forgiven and made righteous.  No blood but the blood of Christ cleanses us from this sin.  Christ is the heart of the Scriptures and its voice so that those who hear the Word of God hear the living voice of Christ speaking and doing what He has said.

    For eight days the Maccabees rejoiced over their victory over Antiochus and the restoration of the Temple.  Easter is the 8th day, the beginning of a whole new reality. Our joy will not be limited in time but is now and will be eternal.  He will raise us up and He will be our Temple for all eternity.  This is what we see now through a mirror dimly but what shall be clear and plain on the last day.  This is the victory He has won and the gift He has bestowed on us by which any and all who will be saved shall be saved.  Thanks be to God.  He has done all things well.  Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!

Credit goes to Pr. David Peterson for inspiration.