Sunday, June 30, 2019

The greater danger. . .

There was a time when perhaps the danger was making Christianity inaccessible by the implication that it is no big deal to be Christian and easy peasy to live the Christian life.  I know that when I was growing up in the 1950s it seemed that American culture was an ally, or, at least not an enemy of the faith.  It seemed that Christianity and American culture went together like different donuts in the same box of sweet delights.  Of course, it never was quite that easy or comfortable a fit.  The tensions that existed were minimized by both sides and both were willing to do this because it was in the interest of both to do so.  They had common goals like duty, responsibility, family stability, children, and productivity.  People without faith were compelled to a sense of morality that often appeared indistinguishable from the morality of Jesus and the Scriptures.  Yes, I know it was more illusion than truth but that was the way it was.  By the end of the 1960s it had all changed.

Now, looking back, it is understandable why so many feel a sense of nostalgia for a time when it did not appear to be difficult to be Christian and it certainly did not seem to cost you much to be identified as a follower of Jesus.  Yet, the boomer in me and in the folks of my generation have bequeathed a terrible legacy to the church of today.  We still cling to the idea and have taught it to our children that being a Christian isn't really all that hard, you can disagree with the Scriptures and still be a good Christian, you do not need to practice your faith and still be a good Christian, your life and lifestyle does not need to change to be a good Christian, and Christianity is more like a little something extra than it is an ontological transformation.

It is long past time to be more honest and forthright with ourselves and with our children.  Being Christian is not the easy way.  Going with the flow of culture and the world and the sinful desires of the heart is the easy way.  Christianity is not for the faint of heart.  Christianity is hard.  It does not only expect a change in you but constantly calls you to repentance (to change) in which the old you dies and the new you in Christ continually arises to live in but not of the world.  That is the state we are in today.  We live in a world no longer overtly friendly but one that is downright suspicious of Christians, suspect of the Church and its motives, and quite willing to reject any and all claims of truth that do not accord with the momentary desire of the heart.  Christianity is no longer the easy religion it once seemed.  If that day ever was, it is long gone.

It is this that Rod Dreher's Benedict Option and the voices of others address.  We can no longer afford a shallow, uncertain, compromising Christianity (as if we ever could).  Now it requires of us that we be faithful when faithfulness is hard and the world loves to sit in judgment against us.  Christianity cannot afford to be an option of compromise to the world -- not in doctrine or life.  And it will certainly hurt to stand up and to stand out as the people God has declared us to be in Christ.  Our words will risk being labeled as hate speech, our actions of charity will be rejected unless they abandon every form of witness which accompanies them, and our ranks will thin under the duress of a world in which a crossless Christ dies for people who do not sin.  Abortion has placed this tension in the limelight but even here we cannot win the day simply by passing laws to make killing the unborn evil, we must also offer a positive witness for why life is good and valuable.

As a parent and grandparent I wonder what kind of world my children will live in when they are my age and what kind of world my grandchildren will grow up in -- and, of course, whether they will remain faithful as the world increasingly rejects anything of orthodox doctrine and practice.  Living in the South I know we are buffered against some of the more overt forms of persecution of Christianity but it is but a temporary refuge.  What happens in the bastions of illiberal liberalism will soon show up here in Tennessee, as they already have the rural remotes and suburban regions of the Midwest where I grew up.

The greater danger to us today is not a Christianity which is deemed loveless by those who reject the truth of the Scriptures but a Christianity which is too spineless and weak to be true to Christ in a world of challenge.  We do not risk making Christianity too difficult for those who might be interested in pursing their interest in the Gospel but we certainly do risk making Christian too casual and easy to be worth believing and living.  Cheap grace was Bonhoeffer's charge but we have made cheap grace normal and a pious and godly life that reflects our baptism and faith something rare.  It shows up in the evangelical preaching which attempts to offer a good life now as a worthy substitute for a life that is eternal.  It is just such a Gospel that is a mile wide but an inch deep which forces God to submit to your desires and places upon Him the requirement of change.  Any talk of a Benedict Option has at is core not a political strategy but a desire to be the holy men and women God has declared us to be, to strive not for what will get us by but the fullness of our lives in Christ under the cross, and for the courage and will to live under Him now so that we will be prepared to live under Him in eternity when He comes to claim us for this everlasting life.  Far from making too much of sin and redemption, judgment and absolution, life in Christ in the world, we have made too little and our Christianity has become fat, bloated, lazy, and selfish.  Strangely enough, there are those even in orthodox churches who tell us to give up even more to the prevailing winds of change.  It is not simply sexuality that is at stack but truth.  Until we realize this, we risk making even cheaper the costly redemption which Jesus paid for with His own life and death.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The usurption of love. . .

There was a time when churches ran hospitals and profit was not the primary concern, mercy was.  There was a time when churches ran orphanages and the concern for a child was greater than the openness of adoption to people in a variety of lifestyles.  There was a time when churches fed the hungry and people saw love in action and tasted it.  There was a time when the poor found refuge in the churches who found them jobs, supplied short-term needs, and helped them back on their feet.  There was a time when churches were almost universally recognized for their service of love to those least able to care for themselves.  Was it perfect?  Of course not.  Were there abuses?  Yes, there were.  But it would be hard to argue that it was a system more imperfect and with less abuse than the system we currently have in which government has become the lead agency in mercy work and churches have become non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who work in partnership with government but according to their rules.

In the process of this shift, churches have become seen as NGOs in the minds of those inside as well as outside the faith.  Churches are increasingly under pressure to abandon anything explicit in terms of witness or identity and to become values neutral in their cooperative work with governments and their programs to help those in need.  It is difficult today to be a church and to be an NGO partner to the government since the witness that accompanies our works of mercy is, by law, omitted from nearly everything we might do.  With government money comes strings, rules, and guidelines on how we can and cannot work together.  It is a delicate balance at best and a capitulation at worst.  Under it all, our people still desire to do good, to be agents of help, love, and mercy, but they struggle to know how to do this in our world of governmental rules and NGOs.

In the end, we are hard pressed to say that social action does not trump dogma and in our quest to be relevant in the present moment we run the dangerous risk of being irrelevant for the eternal one.  If we are willing, even under duress, to surrender who we are and our voice in witness in order to satisfy our desire to do good and to be seen as doing good before the world, then we betray the very truth that compels us to love our neighbor.  So by giving into the rules and, even more importantly, the cash flow that finances our role as NGOs, we are also giving up our confession before the world of Christ alone.  When it comes to a choice between doing something good and confessing Christ faithfully, the sad reality is that too many churches will choose the first and give up Christ for the sake of caring for those in need with somebody else's money and according to somebody else's rules.

Even worse, we learn the terrible lesson that charity is best managed by others, by experts, by governments, and and by NGO partners who would define and direct what happens in that charity.  We learn that the separation of Church and State means that nothing permeates the wall between them and that the State can tell the Church how to play ball and what rules to follow even though the Church is presumed to be silent in the public square.  What does it do to congregations and the larger church structures if we give into the temptation to leave charity to the smart people, to the experts, to those who have the structures to manage such an enterprise, and to those who have the money to institutionalize what was, in Scripture at least, the work of amateurs who were moved by the compelling force of the love that had served them in Christ?  Could it be that the price we pay is to surrender churches as Church to churches as agencies of government, NGOs who provide a place for charity to happen and some of the volunteers but who have lost their souls in the process?

Loving our neighbors is supposed to be an exercise of holiness, of the new identity created in us by baptism and of the new life we live as Christ's own.  Yes, the world has changed and governments have changed and laws have changed and the rules have changed.  But who we are in Christ and the holy lives of charity we are to live should not be the cost of adapting to such changes.  In the end I do not have an answer as much as I have a question that ought to haunt the churches who willingly take up their roles as NGOs in order to do something for good.  Are we surrendering our souls for the sake of the poor and was this what Christ expected of us when He called us to love our neighbor as He has loved us?

Friday, June 28, 2019

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. . .

Rightly or wrongly, Lutherans have been associated with the reintroduction of hymnody.  To some, especially those affectionados of the Latin Rite, hymns are an often unwelcome intrusion to the sacred texts assigned to the liturgy.  The cry of those is to sing what is in the missal, not to sing hymns.  Still, it is impossible to see how hymnody can ever be forgotten or banished from what happens among the faithful when they gather on Sunday morning.  So, for better or for worse, hymns are here to stay.

If that is the case, then what we sing should be a singularly important issue for those who plan worship.  It can never be a matter indifferent.  Hymns have become too important to overlook what is said in them (I should have said sung in them).  Equally, the melody should also be of importance since music is not neutral at all but itself conveys a message, sometimes even more strongly than text.  Think how many of us like the sound of popular songs even though we cannot recall more than a few of their words.  This is because music is a powerful medium, sometimes even more lasting it our memories than words.  So if hymns are here to stay, then let us work for that which is richer, rather than settling for that which is poorer.

When things are going well it is easy to pray, easy to believe, and easy to worship.  It is precisely when our world falls apart that hymns are most valuable.  We sing the faith by singing the hymns that have been written and sung through the ages by those who voices were equally challenged by the changes and chances of this mortal life -- just as we are now.  We cannot afford the luxury of shallow texts or music that detracts from the words even when life is good, we feel great, and faith is easy.  For when we face sickness or challenge, persecution or trial, our memories will fail to give us strength and power and the empty words and discardable melodies of the good times will surely fail us in the bad times.

Words matter to a Church and a faith in which we confess the Word made flesh, the Word that proceeds to accomplish God's purpose in sending it, and the Word that brings faith to hearts closed to belief.  Words matter and what we sing matters.  Not every hymn must confess every doctrine or give an unabridged rendering of what we believe but they must be orthodox in theology, solid in substance, rich in poetic image, and elegant of language.  These are the hymns that survive, that are sung down through the ages, and that are taught to children.  Words matter and hymns become the sung form of our vows to know only Christ and to make Him known.

If words matter, then music matters.  Music is not an indifferent medium but has the power elevate the words or mask them entirely with an identity that ends up competing with a text -- no matter how profound those words.  The music for hymns should be well-crafted, appropriate to the text, singable in range, without so complicated a rhythm that attention is drawn away from the words, and lacking in the kind of sentimentality and saccharine sound that makes it prove unusable over time or an embarrassment to another generation.  We all know when text and tune have married together to form something bigger and more profound than either alone.  This should not be a rarity.  This needs to be the norm.

Certainly among Lutherans a liturgy without hymns is the odd man out but hymns have become a staple of every theological tradition.  If this is true, then those who plan worship and those who lead it must give more than passing attention to what is sung and to the tunes with which we sing it.  Anything less and we have not simply squandered the gift of hymnody but abused the faith itself.  The marriage of text and tune, the wedding of liturgy and hymns, and the union of yesterday's voices with our own are worthy of our most profound attention.  Our failure to give such attention to hymnody will leave the Church and each of us Christians worse, poor, and ailing.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

What Lutherans don't believe. . .

I’m a convert.  I was Lutheran.  No Communion for me before I converted.  Lutherans don’t believe what Catholics believe about the Eucharist. Period.  No Communion for them, or any other person who doesn’t believe what the Church teaches.  This is not rocket science and every Catholic who has even the slightest clue knows this is true.  I’m not making this up.  So says a popular Roman Catholic blogger (a convert from Lutheranism).

While I agree that it would be inappropriate for a Lutheran to expect to receive the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood in a Roman Catholic parish and inappropriate for a Roman Catholic to receive the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood in a Lutheran parish, the part I find curious is Lutherans don't believe what Catholics believe about the Eucharist. Period.  Well, what part of what Roman Catholics believe do Lutherans reject?  The Real Presence?  No, Lutherans are adamant about that.  The bread is Christ's body and the wine is His blood.  Christ's body and blood are distributed and can be taken to your harm when received without faith or repentance.

Do we disagree about Transubstantiation?  Yes, but part of that disagreement has to do with the fact that some in Rome insist that the Real Presence REQUIRES Transubstantiation while Lutherans insist it is a philosophical explanation of something Scripture does not explain.  Everyone agrees that the Sacrament is called bread as well as the body of Christ.  Lutherans wonder what is the big deal.

Do we disagree about how the Sacrament is effected?  Perhaps.  While Rome insists that priests are given more than simply the faculty but also the power to effect Christ's presence, Lutherans insist that this remains with the Word -- although the Word is not magic in the mouth of whomever but the Word spoken through him whom the Lord has, through the Church, set apart for this ministry.

Do we disagree about what is received?  Probably not.  The Word is clear.  For the forgiveness of sins.  Both Lutherans and Roman Catholics are pretty big on sin and absolution and the healing power of this Sacrament to forgive our sins as well as nurture, nourish, strengthen, and sustain the Christian (worthy through repentance and faith) does not seem so much in dispute.

My point is NOT that Lutherans and Roman Catholics ought to be visiting each other's altars.  Rather, my point is that here even a former Lutheran seems to lump Lutherans in with those who have no Real Presence, who believe it is merely symbolism, and who give to the bread and wine no power except whatever marginal food value may lie in them (everything else in the Sacrament being done by the person receiving!).  That Lutheran has either forgotten what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess OR never knew it in the first place!

And, so it seems, Pope Francis is also confused.  Perhaps he does posit more trust in what Lutherans believe about the Sacrament but he certainly appears ready to ignore where Rome and Lutherans disagree when it comes to Eucharistic hospitality.  Flying back from Romania, the Pope Francis told reporters in off the cuff remarks that “there is already Christian unity,” that there is no need to “wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist,” thereby implying that Eucharistic hospitality is ready to begin.  Recall the fact that this is the Pope who seemed to imply that spouses who are not Roman Catholics might be granted special dispensation to commune at Roman altars.  This appears to go a big step further. If this is indeed what Francis meant — and he has a history of being vague, of saying radical words that were later walked back — then it is not only Lutherans who need to regroup but all of Rome.  Though some are scratching their heads in wonder, what did he mean and what else could he have meant, it is clear that Rome has as much need to get its ducks in order as Lutherans do!

For now the gates of the rail are still closed but it would help if at least we would state each other's positions accurately.  Strangely enough, one of the fruits of ecumenical dialog is that we have to figure out what we believe in order to say it to those with whom we disagree. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Pelagianism. . . the new official religion of America?

Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  That is what it says.  Though there have been those who have been working for some time to prevent Christianity from having a favored place among the religions that mark America's past and people, the judicial branch has been establishing a religion.  This religion is marked by one basic doctrine, liberty, and has come to mean liberty in its most radical form and shape.  Written by then Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, in 1992, the court found: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

So it has come to be that despite a prohibition against Congress enacting laws to establish one religion or prevent the free exercise thereof, the SCOTUS has been slowly working on the definition of a new religion of radical individualism and radical freedom -- one that the founders would not recognize and one that is alien to both the Constitution of the US and to the freedoms this constitution was established to protect and preserve.

You can read it all here.  In a fine piece of writing, the Junior Senator from Missouri has detailed the establishment of Pelagianism as the new religion of America. In case that is not enough to whet your appetite, then read below:
     Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation. It was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” The key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect.
     This idea famously drew the ire of Augustine of Hippo, better known as Saint Augustine, who responded that we humans are not achievement machines. We are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace.
     But Pelagius was not satisfied. He took his stand on an idea of human freedom. He responded that God gave individuals free choice. And he insisted that this free choice was more powerful than any limitation Augustine identified. . . .Pelagius said that individuals could use their free choice to adopt their own purposes, to fix their own destinies—to create themselves, if you like. That’s why a disciple of Pelagius named Julian of Eclanum said freedom of choice is that by which man is “emancipated from God.”. . . .
     Perhaps the most eloquent contemporary statement of Pelagian freedom appears in an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, in a passage written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 1992, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he wrote this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
     It’s the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.
     The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he is most alone, able to choose his own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighborhood and church—these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice. And this Pelagian idea of freedom is one our cultural leaders have embraced for decades now.
     But here’s the paradox. For all the big talk about individual freedom, Pelagian philosophy has made American society more hierarchical, and it has made it more elitist.
This is no accident. Pelagius himself was most popular with the old senatorial families of Rome—the wealthy, the well-connected. The aristocrats. They were his patrons. And why? He validated their privilege and their power.
     Because if freedom means choice among options, then the people with the most choices are the most free. And that means the rich. And if salvation is about achievement, then those with the most accolades are righteous, and that means the elite and the strong. A Pelagian society is one that celebrates the wealthy, prioritizes the powerful, rewards the privileged. And for too long now, that has described modern America.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Defined by our demons. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 2, Proper 7C, preached on Sunday, June 23, 2019.

    There is a common idea today that the most important thing in life is to be true to yourself and own your desires and let those desires define you.  So the first words out of our mouths is not a name but an identity – from sexual identities such as gay, straight, transgender, queer, to other identities such as disfigured bodies to economic status to experience to a thousand other things.  Hi, my name is Larry and I am . . .   The demons within do not shame us but have become our pride.  The desires that once were secret, we now shout form the mountain tops.  The hidden things in us have become the first words we say to introduce ourselves to someone else.  Our demons have become our names.

    Jesus encounters a man with demons.  These demons had held the man prisoner for some time.  He had cast off all the man’s modesty and the demon abandoned clothing to walk around naked.  The demon had cut the man off of house and home and he lived in the places of death with the graves and tombs of the dead.  The demon had been cut off from family and friends and lived only in the company of other demons.  He wandered in loneliness and shame and misery.

    In today’s world, this is not a bad thing.  Better to admit and even flaunt your demons rather than live a closeted life in which you wage a personal battle against whatever sin and desire lurk therein.  Our modern world would rather see us naked and exposed on social media, controlled by the forces of our demons, rather than live pious, upright, and self-controlled lives.  Our modern world parades our weakness, our desire, and our shame, giving into the demons instead of struggling against them.  But not Jesus.  We let our demons name us but Jesus names the demons to set us free.

    The demons knew that Jesus had not come to accept or affirm them.  They beg Jesus not to torment them.  They knew that Jesus had come to command the demonic to come out and depart from this man.  And the first step in this exorcism was to call out the demon by name.  The demons came out and entered a herd of pigs.  Remember that pigs are unclean according to the Mosaic law.  The unclean spirits came to live in an unclean herd of unclean animals, to hide in darkness because they cannot live in the light where they are exposed.  Into the herd they went and off the cliff and down into the depths of the sea.  The man was freed from his demons and went home to start a brand new life.  For what had prevented his life were those demons and they had ruled over the man’s heart and mind and life until Jesus set Him free.

    Friends, the world invites you to let your demons, your sinful desires, and your weaknesses rule over you but God has come to rid you of your demons and to teach you to live holy, upright, and self-controlled lives.  Our Lord has come to set you free.  Within this freedom, the rule of Christ leads you past beyond your weakness and shame and sets you right with God your Father so that you may live in the Spirit and under the Law where right is right and wrong is wrong.  This is His gift of freedom.

    The world wants you to live according to your demons as if these demons can fulfill you, fill the emptiness within, or answer your loneliness.  The world says whatever sexual desires you have are good as long as they are consensual.  There is no right or wrong, only the right time and the right person.  The world says it does not matter the coarseness of your vocabulary but only that it feels good to you.  The world says that happiness and contentment come from doing whatever you please when you please.  The world says your body is your raw material to be remade as you desire.  But these are lies.  The man was not free while his demons ruled, but captive to his demons.  He was a prisoner to evil.    

    Christ comes into our lives not to affirm what is wrong but to call it out and give it a name and then to cast it out.  This is not a mere story.  This is what our Lord continues to do.  He finds us prisoners of our desires and captive to our sins.  He finds us lost and alone, living an empty and lost life.  And Jesus calls forth our demons, leads us to repentance, and sets us free through forgiveness.  The fruits of this forgiveness are lives lived in holiness and righteousness, in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord who died to set you free.  The outcome of such a life restored from demonic power is a people who live self-controlled lives, no longer willing to be pawns of the devil or to be defined by their demons.  This is YOUR life, redeemed in Christ, reborn from the waters of Holy Baptism, led by the Spirit of the Risen Christ, fed and nourished by His Word and at His Table.  You are the people whom He has called from darkness into His marvelous light.  You are the free who no longer have to live in bondage to your wants and desires.  He has set you free to be defined by the brand new life and future prepared for you instead of by the past that once cast its long dark shadow over you.
    In the rite of Holy Baptism the pastor calls out the demon.  I command you to come out and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ.  This is not some antiquated language from another more ignorant and superstitious time.  This is current language and a current power to address the powers of the devil that still afflict us, still tempt us, still tie us up in knots of lies, deception, fear, and shame.  This is the Word of the Lord speaking to a people still battling with our demons and still the victims of all our sinful desires.  His claim over us is broken not by our desire or even by our efforts but by the power of the cross and by the Word of the Cross still preached into our ears and hearts.

    For only Christ can unleash us from the chains that bind us.  We do not battle against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.  The devil still walks about like a lion seeking whom he may devour.  His greatest power over us is our sins.  He tells us the lies that our sinful hearts want to hear as he once did to Adam and Eve in Eden.  Say it, do it, become it. . . Whatever that desire is, no matter how wrong it is, do what comes easy and natural to a people marked by sin.  To these lies, Christ speaks the truth.  To the power of the devil, Christ holds up the cross.   To the shame that holds us captive, Christ’s blood cleanses us and makes us perfectly clean.  To the guilt that hides in us, Christ bestows the gift of a clear conscience through His holy and mighty word of absolution.

    Do not give into the desires of your hearts.  Do not let your feelings become your facts.  They are prisons in which your lives are stolen from you, your past dominates you, and you future is lost to you.  Instead, live in the light of Christ.  This is why we come to Church.  Christ’s light and life are here in His Word and Sacraments.   This is why we confess our sins.  We name our demons and admit all that we have thought, said, and done wrong.  This is why absolution is so central.  Only by forgiveness can the shame of our past give way to the joy of the present and the promise of a whole new and eternal future.  This is why He sets His table in the midst of our enemies and feeds us His flesh and blood.  Here we are strengthened by His grace so that we do not return to the prison of our wants and the captivity of our desires.

    What shall we do in response to all He has done?  Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.  This is what Christ said to the man held captive by his demons so long ago and set free by the power of Christ.  This is what we hear every Sunday.  Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  We have a purpose.  We have calling.  We have a vocation.  We have a new life to live.  That life centers not on what we were or what we did but who we are in Christ and the life we now live in Him.

    No one wants a pastor who lives by his desires.  Pastors have demons, too.  I have many demons within – just like you.  I live no charmed life nor is it easy for me to deny those demons and live the new life Christ gave me in my baptism.  That is why I have to be here every Sunday -- so that His Word lives in me and His body and blood define me.  This is who I now am.  I am a child of God by baptism and faith.  The name I wear is not the name of my demons but the name of Christ splashed over me in baptismal water.  I am His own and now my daily calling is to live in Christ the new life that He has given me, living under Him in His kingdom, now and even forever more.

    Let's be blunt.  We live in a world of self-indulgence to things not neutral at all but evil.  People of God, refuse to be defined by your desires or to wear the name of your sins.  Release them to the power of His blood and live in Christ the new life that He gave you in your baptism.  This is the only true freedom and the only real life that will not end in death.  Amen.

A Day Bigger than Reformation Day. . .

After the shot heard round the world with the posting of the 95 Theses, the Holy Roman Empire began a time of questioning, challenge, and even turmoil.  Though only 19 when he assumed the throne. Charles V was not spared a deep and profound challenge to that throne in the rise of the  Lutheran Reformation.  His desire to end the revolt was hampered by the relative balance of authority between the princes and himself.  In addition he had his own agenda that required their consent and, even more, their cooperation and finances.  Distracted by wars with the Ottoman Turks and the League of Cognac, little was done to prevent the spread of the Reformation throughout the 1520s..

By 1530 there was enough pause on the fronts to allow Charles the freedom to focus on the religious division that had arisen in Germany since the Diet of Worms in 1521.  Better late than never, Charles called an imperial Diet for Augsburg in April of 1530 to confront Luther and his agitators.

The Lutherans went to work to present their teachings.  Desiring a unified confession before the Emperor, Luther, Melanchthon, and a few other Wittenbergers had met at Torgau a month before to draft a confession now known as the “Torgau Articles.”  Luther was hamstrung by his outlaw status and was unable to travel to present this confession to Charles V so Philipp Melanchthon, a lay theologian from Wittenberg and ally of Luther went on his behalf to present their confession.  But  Melanchthon did not present the "Torgau Articles" as written.  Instead he revised them as part of a political strategy as well as a theological one.  Completed on June 23, this is what became the  “Augsburg Confession.”  Luther was on board but Charles initially refused to hear the confession.  Finally, he relented and Melanchthon read this confession before the Emperor on June 25, 1530.

Though October 31, 1517, might be the start of the Reformation, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession is the more formal date for coalescence of individual voices into one confessional movement that gradually became known as the Lutheran Church.

With some 28 articles, the Augsburg Confession is a very positive document.  In fact, 21 of the articles were largely accepted by Rome as catholic and orthodox with only the final 7 addressing issues and calling for reforms.  So Melancthon worked with Luther and others not only to address what the reformers found to be a distortion of Scripture but also to identify this reforming work as a catholic movement, borne of the Church and living from the Church to renew what had been corrupted or distorted.  Melanchthon's many quotes and references to the Church Fathers and Church Councils from the ancient Church are meant to demonstrate Lutheran continuity and consistency with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith down through the ages and to imply that it was Rome who deviated from this Scriptural and confessional truth -- not the Lutherans.

Lutherans insisted that catholicity implied not only consistency with the faith down through the ages but faithfulness to the Scriptures.  Nowhere is this more profoundly shown than in the Augsburg Confession.  The Lutherans also insisted that the issues they identified and the challenges they raised showed that it was precisely a medieval distortion to this catholic faith and practice that was at fault (specifically the sweeping changes adopted in the eleventh century during the papacy of Gregory VII, sometimes referred to as the “Gregorian Revolution”).

The Lutheran contention remains.  We are not a sect.  We are not schismatics.  We are not out to begin a new church.  We are not radicals (except in the sense of adhering to Scripture and Tradition).  We are orthodox.  We are catholic.  We are renewers of the faith and not destroyers.  Perhaps if the times had allowed a real debate over these claims, thing might have been different.  But there was little desire to show the same conciliatory spirit from Charles V or the Pope.  And in the end, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession brought no unity except to those who insisted the fidelity to Scripture is more important than fidelity to Popes and Councils.  It was a good beginning and on this day we remember with thanksgiving those who stood so boldly and yet positively for the faith as well as against error.

Monday, June 24, 2019

A memory and a future. . . not the same. . .

My mother is Swedish and grew up in a predominantly Swedish community and she grew up in the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America (we called it simply Mission Covenant Church).  It was a break off of Lutheranism which was born of a pietistic revival movement in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Like most movements of pietism, it began in the home and worried the authorities in the Lutheran State Church of Sweden.  Soon it was hard to reconcile the church and what was happening in the homes and soon this awakening became the Swedish Mission Church in 1878. Their disaffection soon grew into a movement to emigrate to America where freedom and economic opportunity was attractive.  And they came.  In 1885 they formed the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America, with early leaders like PP Waldenström, 1838–1917 and David Nyvall, 1863–1946.  The result was a voluntary “covenant of churches” committed to sharing the Gospel, provide for the training of ministers, and some flexibility in non-essential doctrines.

The name changed to the Evangelical Covenant Church of America in 1954 and later the "of America" was dropped.  It was and remains a very small denomination.  Now 840+ congregations and some 178,000 members, it is largely unknown outside the Midwest and the only real connection most folks have with the church body is a painting.  In the 1920s, Warner Sallman created an illustration for the denominational magazine, Covenant Companion, called The Son of Man; it was later redone as the famous oil painting The Head of Christ.

It was to this congregation my great-grandfather came, with wife and two daughters.  He taught Sunday school in Swedish, wrote poety, did pencil drawings, and made money as a carpenter (starting with wooden wagon wheels).  It was a joyful group but conservative.  No drinking, smoking, or other public vices were allowed.  My mother was surprised by her first visit to a Missouri Synod congregation with my father and to the sound of card playing and cigar and cigarette smoke wafting from the church basement.  From my grandparents' sun porch I watched when a mixed marriage of an LCMS boy to a Covenant girl brought coolers of Lutheran beverages into the basement of the Covenant Church as the pastor was walking up to the front door.  Soon, with giggles, we watched as the coolers were hastily removed never to enter again.  The Covenant Church was reliably and predictably conservative, especially in piety.

At their Annual Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, June 27-29, the Evangelical Covenant Church will test their covenant precisely on the foundation of piety and not of salvation doctrine. At issue is welcoming of GLBTQ people and clergy and what to do with First Covenant Church, Minneapolis, which has pushed the boundaries and opened all its doors. The ECC leadership is recommending that this congregation be forcefully removed from the body.  They have brought charges against the congregation for moving way ahead of the body itself in issues of human sexuality.  There has always been a certain degree of latitude in the ECC but this will surely test the ties that bind.  If a congregation has enough freedom to change this, what will bind them to the rest of the covenanted brothers and sisters?  Who knows?  What will happen?  Each side will have time to present their case and their will be time set aside to consider this before a vote happens.

But the old Mission Church of my youth is already long gone.  Its North Park University has kept the legacy of its founding without letting that identity limit its freedom.  Covenant members now dance and drink.  But it is a story less about piety than the power of conviction, less about doctrine than the freedom to ignore or disagree with the doctrinal consensus of the church body, and less about their past than modernity.  In the end, it is the story of many denominations who once knew what they believed and taught and why and now find it very difficult to hold onto this consensus of truth in the face of cultural change and challenge.  I suspect the Swedes of my youth will be hesitant to eject this congregation even though they may not be ready to join them.  And so a church will change not by the front door but by the back door, until those who cannot recall how it used to be are placed by those who can only remember the present.  And is that not the danger before us all?

Update. . .   The ECC voted to remove the congregation and expel the pastor with 75% of the delegates taking the step -- the first time in 134 years!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Statistics. . .

A wise man once said those who live by statistics will die by statistics. In our information age, we are inundated by statistics.  We are drowning in statistics.  We are chocked by statistics. And most of them are largely ignored. Could it be that we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information or is it that we don't like what those statistics say?  I don't know.  I am not sure I want to know.

Statistics can often be a wake up call for people who cannot see the forest for the trees but they can also be so dense that they prevent us from seeing the very light that gives life.  In our election for Synod President, statistics have been bantered about on all sides.  On one hand, the sobering state of the good ship Missouri is revealed in unflattering and even alarming statistics.  On the other hand, there are those who are as good at manipulating numbers as they are ignoring them.  None of the other candidates have much to boast about (things are not much better in Michigan or a certain California congregation than they are in Missouri in general).  But I fear that is the only way we know how to speak to one another or parse the problems before us.  We are killing ourselves with statistics.

I am sure that there is a place for them but the reality is that statistics can neither accurately describe what is wrong or point us to what will fix what is wrong.  Statistics can tell us that things are not good but it will take more than some numbers on a spreadsheet to figure out what these actually mean.  Even when we figure out what they mean, statistics cannot tell us what to do in order to turn the ship around.

The reality is that we know what is wrong and we also know what to do in response.  The problem is that we either have lost confidence in the answer or we simply don't what to do it anymore.  That is the issue that statistics cannot explain or teach.  The Church does not grow because of our great programs.  The Church does not grow because we have great locations.  The Church does not grow because we make people happy.  The Church does not grow because we have great social media skills or communication skills.  The Church does not grow because of us.  God grows His Church.  He grows it through the Word of God preached faithfully in season and out, accurately with careful distinction of Law and Gospel, and consistently applying the whole counsel of that Word.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. That Word will not fail to return to the Lord having accomplished His purpose in sending it.  The Holy Spirit works through that Word to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify His Church.

I am not forgetting the Sacraments.  God acts through water which is not simply sign or symbol but the very means through which  the sinner dead in trespasses and sin is joined to Christ's death and resurrection, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works, and transformed from no people into the people of God.  God acts through the Blessed Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood to feed and nourish this faith in the people of God and in this Holy Communion they are forgiven and nurtured and kept in this faith and fear.  Absolution is God's voice that speaks to the penitent sinner and the chains of his sins fall away and his clear conscience is restored.  Through it all it is God at work, through means, to be sure, but God working to grow His people and grow His Church.

If Missouri is to be rescued from the dismal statistics, it will be through faithful preaching and teaching and faithful administration of the Sacraments.  That is what is so sorely needed among us.  We have all the information we need.  We know our congregations are filled with aging people (just like the neighborhoods around us).  We know that our culture is even more unfriendly to the cause of Christ than ever before (you would have to live in a cave not to know this).  What we seem to forget too easily is that the key lies in the Word and the people gathered around that Word, believing the Word and acting because that Word is efficacious and true.

We have tried ditching the liturgy, taking off vestments, ignoring the sturdy hymns of old, telling jokes to make people laugh, being relevant to the moment, turning into a self-help center, and mimicking the music on people's playlists.  So what has happened?  Are we stronger?  Have we stemmed the tide of loss?  Are we better equipped to be the Lutherans we say we are?  Statistics tell us that none of these is the answer to our problem.  But that is because we keep treating a spiritual problem with a programmatic solution.  If we die because we are faithful to our confession, passionate in our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen, reverent in our worship life, singing with the church that went before us the sturdy hymns of old, and praying expecting God to hear and answer us, then we have done all that we can do.  But if we die because we have confused people with the dichotomy between what we believe and how we practice the faith or because we treat God and His House and the things of worship as if they were merely an entertainment venue or because we no longer expect God to be where He has promised and to do what He has said He will do, then we have much to fear from the Judge who will hold us accountable.

Statistics cannot make alive what is dead nor can they defend us against the assaults of the enemy.  Those who live by statistics will die by them.  When we begin to learn this and when we remember what the Lord has promised, then maybe things will turn around.  Until then, we are destined to hear more bad news from those who chart those pesky stats.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

How did I miss this?

“Starting on March 12th  this year, and lasting over three months, more than a thousand women will be celebrating a Silver Jubilee: the 25th anniversary of their ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England. Bristol Cathedral led the way, with 32 deacons ordained priest, and the following week three ordinations took place in Sheffield diocese on the 15th, 16th and 17th March, when twenty-five women were ordained as priests, and ordinations continued in other dioceses through April, May and June.”

 First of all, the obvious.  Grey and brown copes, miters, and stoles?  Really?  Well, at least the staff seems to match the drab vesture of these female bishops.  Or could it be that the colors really are befitting the celebration of the silver anniversary of the momentous decision to ordain women to the priesthood in the Church of England.

If you will recall, part of the push for women's ordination was the belief that by acting inclusively the Church of England would be renewed, the many disaffected folks would be drawn back into the life of the church, young people would be interested in religion again, and the church would no longer be deemed irrelevant or out of date.  In addition to the drumbeat for justice that demands a definition of equality in which there are no distinctions between men and women, the idea was that women in the priesthood and episcopate would breath fresh air into a stale church body.  But what has happened. 

Church attendance has not rebounded in England but continues in free-fall.  Especially among the young, the abandonment of the C of E is profound with only 7% identifying as Anglicans (roughly the same percentage as those who identify as Muslims!).  The Church of England continues to be seen as a cultural institution (sort of like the monarchy) and less and less in terms of creed, confession, and faith.  Whether the ordination of women has hastened this may be up for debate but it has certainly done nothing to reverse the trend.
The other fruits of women’s ordination are more obvious. It did not take long for the ordination of women to morph into support for gay marriage and transgenderism.  It may not have been the intention of those who began the cause to ordain women but it was certainly the stepping stone to the almost wholesale rejection of the ancient church and its Biblical definition of sex, gender, family, and morality.  At the very least, the loudest voices for the ordination of women have cried out for the completion of this step in the radical inclusion of nearly every doctrine of the GLBTQ movement.  At the same time, the rush to abandon creedal and confessional Christianity has left the Church of England powerless to address its drift from orthodox Christianity.  It has become, like much of Western Anglicanism, a doctrineless church except for the non-negotiables of feminism, gay liberation, and the embrace of whatever trend culture seems infatuated with at the moment.  Indeed, without the few remaining orthodox voices here and there and the Africans, Anglicanism would be empty of any Biblical and doctrinal orthodoxy.

Far from being the exception, the Church of England has simply followed the pattern of other churches of other theological traditions who have likewise embraced the ordination of women.  Whether you are talking about the Church of Sweden or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or Canadian denominations, the ordination of women did not stop there.  Sooner or later those churches who found justification for ignoring the apostolic tradition of nearly 2000 years and the rejection of the implicit and explicit Biblical expectation of a male only presbyterate and episcopate find it easy to find reasons for ignoring and rejecting other tenets of Christianity.  Eventually, there is little discipline left to reign in even the most egregious violations of Christian orthodoxy -- except, of course, those who would presume to challenge the GLBTQ agenda.  There seems to be no end to the energy within these church bodies to enforce the new agenda so friendly to everything except Biblical and traditional orthodoxy and morality.

It is for this reason I am so suspicious of those splinter groups who wish to restore the churches that they once knew to a state just prior to the more radical decisions of the last decade or more.  The North American Lutheran Church, the Anglican Church in North America, and others like them find it hard to reject the ordination of women.  They turn back the clock a bit but do not challenge the basic theological underpinnings that gave rise to the radical departure from doctrine and morality they find so objectionable.  I would hope that they will restrain the forces of radicalism but history shows that once a foot is in the door it takes little more than a generation before the door opens wider.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Fake ecumenism. . . .

“Walking together, this is already Christian unity,” said Pope Francis, “but not waiting around until theologians agree so that we arrive at the Eucharist. The Eucharist is performed every day through prayer, through the remembrance of the blood of our martyrs, through works of charity, and also by loving one another.”  The Pope gave a concrete example of such an  “ecumenism of prayer:”
In one European city, there is a good relationship between the Catholic archbishop and the Lutheran archbishop. The Catholic archbishop was scheduled to come to the Vatican on Sunday evening, and he called me to say that he would arrive on Monday morning. When he arrived, he told me: “Excuse me, but yesterday the Lutheran archbishop had to go to one of their meetings, and he asked me: ‘Please, come to my cathedral and lead the worship.’” Eh, there’s fraternity. Coming this far is a lot. And the Catholic bishop preached. He did not do the Eucharist, but he preached. This is fraternity.
As cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Pope was also in the habit of preaching in Protestant churches.

Now some of you probably laud such ecumenism and practice it.  Some of you may think that this is exactly the kind of hospitality in worship that ought to characterize churches even when doctrinal and liturgical differences divide them.  Some of you may even think that this is just the kind of thing that will result in real ecumenical accomplishment.  I think you are wrong and that this kind of thing is a sad betrayal of what preaching is and what ecumenism ought to be.

To enter the pulpit is to undertake the most solemn task and embrace one of the most profound responsibilities laid upon the Church by our Lord.  We are warned over and over again in Scripture about those who treat the Word of God carelessly or lightly.  We are given clear directions for those who would be set apart by Word and prayer for this responsibility.  We are given many injunctions against substituting the words of man for the Word of God or distorting the kerygma with that which has neither been commanded or sanctioned by God.  No one of differing confession should preach in our churches and we should not preach in churches where we have no confessional unity.

Note that there are plenty of occasions and venues where it is entirely permissible and even laudable for us to address one another, to speak the faith before others, and to cooperate in externals for the sake of the urgent causes before us (the poor, the pro-life cause, works of mercy, etc.).  I am not saying that we should never address one another.  What I am saying is that what happens on Sunday morning and within our own churches is too important to be tasked to others outside our confession or even to those untrained and unauthorized for this ministry.

As Lutherans we believe the Word of God is God's voice at work among us.  This does not merely apply to the readings from Scripture but to the entire liturgy and especially to the sermon within that liturgy.  Preaching is not some small thing but, on a practical level, the place where we encounter the majority of our people. In the ordination and installation rites of our agendas, we highlight this sacred and solemn responsibility assigned to those set apart by Word and prayer for this particular task.  We cannot treat casually what God has made profound.  Preaching is not something that happens in a neutral place but is the fruit of a real relationship.  Even when a guest preacher comes to our congregations, that preacher comes as one from among us, whose confession is our confession, and who is under the same authority and responsibility to preach faithfully and truthfully what God has said and done in Christ.

We are risking much by treating preaching as a small thing -- whether by those ordinarily assigned this responsibility or by those who might occasionally enter our pulpits.  The problems we have today of doctrinal ambiguity and the failure of confessional integrity are in some great measure the fruits of our indifference to and casual treatment of the preaching task.  It is not only who preaches but what they preach that we must take care to consider well.  It is for this reason alone, no one outside our confession should preach to our people and we should not presume to preach in other congregations.  We require of vicars and deacons who preach that their sermons be reviewed before they are preached.  This is not an academic exercise but a consequence of understanding the sermon as the voice of God and the preacher as an agent of the Lord's own speaking.  God's people deserve at least this.  So when someone outside our confession preaches, we give them access to our people and give them the credibility of our pulpit and it either says to them that preaching is not that big a deal or it says to them that the differences between us do not matter.

Again, I am addressing what happens on Sunday morning and not the occasional opportunities that may not at all relate to worship.  We do preach to the world but that preaching is evangelistic and not within the context of worship.  What Pope Francis did and the archbishop in his story is not ecumenism at all but a betrayal of the trust and authority given specifically to those who speak to us in Christ's name of all that He has done.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Where your treasure is . . .

There are plenty of folks who think of piety as an old fashioned word in a world of folks spiritual without being religious.  It is as if piety has become a substitute for faith and one that takes its cue from a variety of sources and forces.  The fascination with Eastern meditation and exercise has certainly drawn in a host of self-proclaimed Christians and so many think of it as a neutral practice that can be used by a variety of religions and religious (or those without one)

Scripture is replete with references to piety, to those outward acts that are born of the faith of the heart.  Of course, they also warn against an inner faith that does not display in external life and externals that are not born of a believing heart.  Perhaps the most profound definition of piety is from the words of our Lord who said that where your treasure, there your heart would be also.  Someone has paraphrased His definition in this way:  Piety is the heavenly gaze that the earthly journey.  This is a helpful addition to the conversation.

Piety is the object upon which your eyes gaze and the focus of your heart and how this guides, directs, and shapes the outward path of your life.  Piety is prayer and devotion, to be sure, but it is also choices made because faith has informed the heart and created the will to desire that which is good, right, and holy AND the courage to seek these things.  We do not talk nearly enough about these things as Lutherans.  Indeed, the common charge against us is that we either have no piety at all or an invisible one.  Both are false.

Our Lutheran piety flows from the Word and back to the Word of God.  We are people of the Word.  The Word read and preached is one of the twin pillars of Sunday morning.  But we are also people of the Sacraments.  Baptism is not simply a past event that took place at a particular time and a particular location.  Baptism is an identity, a new life born of water and the Spirit, in which we are connected to Christ's death and die and connected to Christ's resurrection and live, never to die again.  Confession is not simply an option for those who cannot find a clear conscience on their own nor is it reserved for big sins.  Confession of sins is how we live out our daily life of repentance and forgiveness.  It is not perfunctory but deliberate and in response to God's call and promise not simply of forgiveness but of His presence and work to keep us blameless through absolution and strengthen in us the will and desire to seek that which is good, right, and holy (His Law).  We are also a Eucharistic people, who take seriously the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, who prepare to receive it worthily, and who rejoice in the God who gives us a place at His table and is both priest and food.  In short, the Divine Service directs us to the heavenly meal even as it meets here and now with the foretaste of that eternal feast.

Our Lutheran piety is shaped by the catechism. Though we mostly think of the Small Catechism of Luther as an instructional tool for youth and those outside Lutheranism, it is also prayer book.  The catechism of Luther is structured to be prayed as it is confessed and the explanations are both a reflection of that blessed relationship we have as dear children of our dear Father and a means to living out this relationship in daily life.  Not a few prayer books have accompanied the Catechism to help God's people pray their faith as they confess it.

Our Lutheran piety is directed to good works.  Though we steadfastly insist that these works contributed nothing to our salvation, these works both glorify God and serve our neighbor (thus fulfilling God's will and purpose in our lives).  We do not have a secular piety as some of our critics charge but are manifestly concerned for our lives as good citizens, good neighbors, and good samaritans.  This is what the Lord has done for us and we, who are born in Christ by baptism to be His own and live under Him in His kingdom forevermore, serve for the benefit of others the grace we have received.

Our Lutheran piety is also reflected in hymnody.  It is no secret that the Lutheran Reformation was as much a sung Reformation as it was anything else.  The people learned the great catechetical hymns of Luther and sang them as they do still.  Our hymns are not little ditties we like to sing but as much confession as creeds are before the world.  They are doctrinal and profound, rich in Biblical imagery, and enable us to sing the faith we say we confess.  This is the piety that produced a J. S. Bach, for example, and has raised up faithful and profound church musicians in every generation.

Lutheran piety is less concerned simply with what we should not say or think or do but what we are free to say, think, and do.  They are less oriented toward rules than they are reflective of our joyful vocation as God's baptized people who delight in using the gifts He has given responsibly.  Though some might be offended by such moderation, it is a moderation after the Lord's own example, whereby His own are free not from but for their holy lives of faith, worship, witness, and service.

We are not well known for this piety in large measure because it is neither unique nor is it marked by exclusive practice (like the rosary is to Rome or the respect given to the icon in the Eastern Church).  We are not well know as a people who refuse drink or dance and yet we dare not treat these things with indifference.  God has given good gifts -- though not without the potential abuse that may turn even His good gifts into burden, abuse,  or curse. 

Lutherans would do well to remember that short little definition -- a heavenly gaze that shapes our earthly journey.  It aptly describes the power of piety that accompanies a living and serious faith.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

God is doing a new thing. . .

Strangely enough, what does evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism have in common?  Apparently it is the idea that God is constantly reinventing Himself and His Church, generation after generation, issue after issue, trend after trend.  It is as if Scripture did not warn against departing from the sacred deposit or forgetting the tradition or abandoning what had been taught.  For the weakness of our modern age is our ignorance of history and, even worse, our lack of interest or curiosity about the past.  Instead we are future focused -- and not on the future God has prepared and that we anticipate in the Eucharist but the future we imagine and we desire, asking God to come along instead of lead.  Nowhere is this more true than discussions about sexuality, gender, the truth of Scripture, the factual basis for our creedal confession, and worship (including hymnody).

Lest you think that it is only Protestantism in its various forms that is so enamored, read what Pope Francis has reportedly asserted:
Jesus does not want the church to be a perfect model, satisfied with its own organization and able to defend its good name… Jesus did not live like this, but on a journey, without fearing the upheavals of life.’
Living like Jesus demands the ‘courage of renunciation’ …a willingness to abandon traditions that are dear to us.
Changing and adapting is not about imposing something new, ‘but leaving aside something old.’
‘God often purifies, simplifies, and makes us grow by taking away, not by adding, as we might do.’
‘True faith cleanses from attachments. As a church, we are not called to corporate compromises, but to evangelical enterprise.’
In other words, what God has done is not as interesting or as important as what God is doing or might do.  From Rome to Wittenberg to Geneva to your city, Christianity is in danger not of holding onto the past and becoming irrelevant but embracing the future and becoming impotent.  Our only power and our only purpose is the Word of God that endures forever.  Faith comes by hearing the Word and this Word is itself the power to accomplish what it says and the Holy Spirit works through this Word.  (Not to diminish the Sacraments, but to highlight the sacred deposit of doctrine.)

The mantra of Pope Francis, church growth gurus, the sexual liberation movement, the feminist movement, contemporary Christian music and worship, and preaching and teaching today is that the new thing God is doing and the future we are visioning is not only more important than God's saving acts in the past but the sacrificial offering we must make if the Church is to survive and thrive.  Except for one thing, those jurisdictions that have forgotten their past and embraced the future of their own imagining have declined at rates faster than those who live by the faith of their fathers and guard the sacred deposit of God's Word and Sacraments.  Strangely enough, there are those who view the means of grace as precisely the attachments that Pope Francis believes are an impediments to evangelical enterprise (whatever that means).

Our congregation has an Instagram account and recently it was mentioned how many churches on Instagram have more to say about people coming out as gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer than about Jesus' death and resurrection.  In other words, the rainbow flag has replaced the cross.  This has always been the temptation -- to make the Gospel more about me than about Jesus -- but it is even more pernicious today because it is the prevailing trend all across culture and religion.  The individual me has become the center of everyone's universe and with it we run the risk of completely forgetting the Gospel itself and returning to the prison of self that once made the free captive to sin and its death.  The quotes from Francis are deliberately vague.  That is how he communicates.  But they are specific enough to give support for the whole idea that faith is one person wide and one person deep, just like the truth that under girds that faith, the faith that is confessed, and the life lived out from this faith identity.

To Francis and all those who think that the Church must be rescued from this sacred deposit and set free from her tradition, I plead with you to exercise care and caution in your quest to find vitality and life.  Once Christ crucified and risen becomes only part of our message or is displaced from our preaching and teaching, we have nothing left to offer the world, nothing to say to the culture of death, nothing to offer to the despairing, and no hope to offer anyone.  We have become the worst of the choices available, worse than a sect, we have become merely a lame echo of the sinful heart whose desires are both its truth and its purpose.  We all have much to answer for before God but it is of this that Jesus says to those who cry "Lord, Lord," "I know you not."

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Happy, Hopeful, Filled with Joy -- Confessing the Trinity

Sermon for the Festival of the Holy Trinity preached on Sunday, June 16, 2019.

    When were the moments in your life when you were the happiest?  When you married?  When you first held your children in your arms?  Or maybe your grandchildren?  Or perhaps it was the dream job.  Whatever it was, that fullest moment of joy is often the thing we long to remember and attempt to recreate the whole of our lives.  Husbands and wives dream of looking at each other with the same joy of that first moment of love pledged before family and friends.  Parents think they will always recall those blessed moments of a child’s first cry, first laugh, first steps and then the memories fade.  Personal accomplishments and the honors that come from others fill us but only too briefly before the glory is gone and the moment lost.  Happiness is a hard thing to hold onto.

    Jesus said “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”  Immediately the enemies of Jesus jumped on this.  Abraham is dead and you are not yet 50 (actually he was barely 30).  What are you talking about?  And we might wonder what Jesus was talking about as well.  What could it mean that Abraham rejoiced that he would see Jesus’ day and how he did see it with gladness and joy is beyond belief. 

    When Adam and Eve stood before the Lord condemned and ready to be banished from Eden, our Lord gave a promise of a son of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head and restore all that was lost in one brief moment of rebellion.  If you follow Genesis a little further you find a curious statement when Eve gives birth to her first born.  She said, “I have gotten a man from the Lord” (Genesis 4:1).  She was wrong in that her son was not THE man whom the Lord has promised, the fruit of the woman’s womb to kill the devil, atone for sin, and create a heavenly future.  But in that moment, she looked into the face of Cain and she did not see simply a baby.  She saw the promise of the Lord which would be fulfilled through her.  Her joy was not simply a mother’s joy over the birth of a child but the hope and promise of God one generation closer to be fulfilled than it was before.

    Abraham’s most joyful moment came when Sarah delivered the son no one could have predicted.  Filled with the life and promise of God, their old bodies had delivered up a surprise by God’s grace, long after child conceiving and child bearing years had passed.  You could think that Abraham’s best moment of joy was when he looked into the face of the son he never thought he would have and rejoiced.  But Abraham had more than flesh and blood in Isaac.  He had the future God had promised.  This was not a single boy but the first of offspring more than the sands upon the shore or the stars in the sky. 

    Hidden in those generations was the promise so long ago whispered to Adam and Eve, kept alive through the ages, soon to unfold in twelve sons become twelve tribes, through the Law and the covenant relationship through Moses, in the land of promise that was the down payment upon the eternal home, in the prophets who called a wandering people to repentance, and John the Forerunner who would prepare the way of Him who would fulfill all things for Abraham and all His children – even to you and me.

    Abraham saw this by faith.  He could not have seen what Mary, the Virgin Mother, would look like or what features would adorn the face of Jesus but He saw the promise of God in the face of Isaac, a promise one generation closer to fulfillment than it was before.  This is what Jesus refers to.  By faith Abraham, credited as righteous, saw the promise of God in his own day.  On that day, his joy was fullest and his heart happiest.  God was keeping His promise. 

    How can we find such joy?  It will not come in trying to recreate a time or a place or a setting from our past.  It will not even come by trying to keep alive the memory of that moment in time.  But the eternal joy our hearts and minds so desperately seek is not beyond us.  It is ours by faith.  We do not wait for the full revelation of God’s grace and favor, of His mercy and kindness, of His saving promise.  All this is done.  The one all sufficient sacrifice has been made and the payment for our sin rendered in full.  The death that waited for all men has been transformed by God into the gateway to life which death cannot touch, where tears no longer flow and hearts no longer grieve and pain or want no longer torment.  And this we see in Christ, our joy.  He has revealed to us the Father so that we may learn to pray with joy, Our Father, who art in heaven.  He has given us the promise of the Spirit whom the Father has sent in His name to break through the walls of unbelief, fear, pride, and arrogance and bring us to the humility of repentance.  He has saved us in the waters of our baptism, spoken to us in the voice of His Word, and fed and nourished us upon the very Body and Blood of Christ our Savior.
    We are already His children but not yet what we shall be.  When we look into our children and grandchildren, we see like Abraham.  These are not only our sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.  They are a generation closer to the finish of His new creation, one generation closer to the breaking upon of the heavens, the sound of the trumpet, and the ground coughing up the dead to everlasting life.  They are a reminder to us of the promise that is not only our hope but also our joy, a promise one generation closer to its finish and completion when the saints on earth shall be one with the saints above and sing as one choir the “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Sabaoth” that we now sing from different places.

    To confess the Holy Trinity is not to check off a doctrinal box as if somehow we were explaining the grandest mystery of God’s identity in terms a child could get.  No, we confess Him as He has revealed Himself and not as some stuffy dogma that seems so impractical and too theoretical to do us any real good.  No, we confess the Holy Trinity as a people who know the promise of God’s Triune name, who remember what God has said and what God has done, and who see time unfolding toward His appointed end.  Each and every generation of voices raised up to confess “We believe” bring us a step closer to the finish of all that Christ began and the completion of all that God has promised to do through His Son.

    We confess this Holy Trinity not to safeguard God – who does not need our help – but to safeguard the promise, so faithfully and carefully delivered to us down through the ages and generations and now given to us that we might faithfully place in the hands of the children the promise given to the fathers.  We confess this Holy Trinity not as some philosophical or linguistic exercise in trying to imagine the unimaginable in human words.  No, we confess this Holy Trinity the way Eve looked into the eyes of Cain her son and saw God’s promise, the way Abraham looked into the eyes of Isaac his son and saw God’s promise, the way blessed Mary looked into the eyes of Jesus her son and saw God’s promise.  The past is fulfilled but the future is still unfolding.  We confess what God has done and said because it is our hope and joy of all that is yet to come.

    Abraham and Sarah desired not just the promised land, or a son, but a better country, that is, a heavenly one – where sin did not convict, where death did not reign, and where tears did not flow. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. He prepared for them a city by grace and they received it by faith. They rejoiced in what God gave. 

Now it has come to you.  Will you join their faith?  Will you join in their joy?  Will you see with eyes of faith the unfolding future that God has prepared for you and me and for all who love Him?  Will you speak this hope before the world by confessing what God has said of Himself and done for His people, to redeem them from their sins, die to kill the reign of death, and rise to bestow life without end?  Will you teach these words to your children and grandchildren so that their joy may be so full?  Will you confess the creeds as a people of hope who know the promise and who believe it?  Will you speak of the Holy Trinity not as some dusty doctrinal confusion but as the most relevant and profound cause for joy?  For this is what we say when we confess the Creed and why we confess it here within  the household of God’s people and before the world.  And this is our cause for joy – today, for our lifetimes, and forever.  Amen.

HT With ideas from several sources used in this sermon.

News to me. . .

On a pan-Lutheran online forum, one of the actual Lutherans said Baptism saves only to have another so-called Lutheran respond says who?  Now you might be thinking this is a joke or at least hyperbole -- and I wish it were -- but it is not.  One respondent quoted the Catechism:  "It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare."  Hmmmm.  That could have sealed the deal but apparently even the Catechism does trump private opinion.  Well, St. Peter wrote "Baptism now saves you" but I am not sure even the Word of God would make all that much difference to many.  But that is the sad state of Lutheranism today.  We have forgotten our Catechism and we do not trust the Word of the Lord.  So we are left with opinions, some pious and some not so pious.  And that is the state of it. 

Lutheranism is dying, as many have noted, but its death is hardly due to Lutheranism being Lutheran.  In fact, it is dying precisely because Lutheranism has forgotten what it means to be Lutheran.  It has so little to offer anyone anymore.  Some Lutherans have decided that they are Baptists with a little chancel flourish, willingly surrendering the Sacraments in pursuit of a Word that is inerrant but not efficacious.  It is true enough but not a dynamic force that is actually able to do what its words declare.  Others have spent too much time looking at the grass next door and have decided that the pace setters for modern Christianity are the purveyors of an entertainment style Christianity with plenty of relevance but not all that much transcendence.  Still others have watched the growing gulf between Scripture and culture and have let their angst at being left behind push them to try and harness the horse of change and ride ahead into the no man's land of doctrineless orthodoxy.  Then there are some Lutherans left who fight over vestments and liturgy and whether things good are essential or things essential are good -- an impossible debate to win when the winning card is adiaphora.

That is why I am so passionate about trying to simply be Lutheran.  We can do no worse by taking our Confessions seriously than we have by ignoring them, by taking the Word of God at face value rather than reasoning it away, by expecting God to be where He has promised to be and to do what He has promised to do.  Lutherans have worked so very hard not to be Lutheran, why not trying working at least as hard trying to BE the Lutherans we say we are. 

If you are with me, then we need to stop trying to save institutions and act like Lutherans.  We need to be the Lutheran Church and not a community service organization or a group of self-help entrepreneurs or a witty troop of entertainers.  If we plan on taking God seriously and His Word seriously, then we must also take worship seriously and the means of grace seriously.  They go together.  Worship is not about the preference of pastor or people but about the Most High God who has deigned to dwell among us, rich with grace to forgive, save, and enliven a sinful, lost, and dead people.  Mystery is not a cultural force or the byword of the moment but the aura of God's presence, glory hidden where He has placed it, that beckons and woos us into knowing Him as He has known us -- a Shepherd and His sheep.

When we do this and fail, we will have no shame and no regrets.  But until we do this we will have only shame and regret.  We will continue to mask our identity and sell our souls to the people who make the best promises we can afford.  I don't want to do that.  I don't think most of our church body wants to do that.  I live in hope and pray that our seminaries are turning out pastors who won't want to do this either.  This is our future -- our only future.  Anything else will hold no future for us at all, except the prospect of being mightily successful in growing a church either nobody on earth wants or God cannot recognize as His own.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Beautiful churches. . .

An interesting view of some of the most beautiful churches in the world. . .  Take a gander. . .

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Catechesis is not rocket science. . .

Many times we find ourselves hard pressed to define what it is we are to do.  We know we ought to do something.  But we are not sure what it is that we are to do.  So we end up either doing nothing or waiting to do something until it is too late.  Such is surely the case with catechesis.  As a pastor I have encountered parent after parent who waited to baptize a child, pick a church, pray with a child, or teach the faith.  They were waiting until they saw interest in their children or until the child could choose what the child wanted.  They were waiting until things all fell into place (especially with respect to baptism) and family and everyone could be together or on board.  They waited too long.  The child grew up outside the faith, without an identity as a child of God or an example of what it means to believe and live out the Christian faith.

Catechesis is not rocket science.  I know.  It is an old expression.  But it is still true.  It means that it is not so difficult that only a few know what it is or how to do it.  It means that we can know what it means to raise our children in the faith, a series of several basic things all within the grasp of every family.  So, if you are one of those who is waiting, stop waiting and start catechizing.

Take your children to church.  This is the most basic step.  Show your children that worship is part of your life as a Christian and model this example to them.  Let them come to know the house of God as a familiar place, the rhythm of the Divine Service as a familiar pattern, the language of the liturgy as their own vocabulary, and the people of God as their own brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let them come to know their pastor as their pastor and shepherd.  Let them come to know the voice of God read and preached from the Scriptures as the voice of the Shepherd who knows them and whom they know by His Word.  Show them how to participate.  Read the words, sing the hymns, bow, pray, kneel, sit, stand, with your attention on the Lord whose house you are dwelling.  Hold their hands together when we pray and point to the words on the page of hymnal and service folder so they may learn to read, hear, follow, and internalize the Word of God.

Pray with your children and pray for them.  At home, begin the day with prayer, a ritual prayer that they can identify and learn as morning prayer.  Pray before meals, giving thanks to God for what He has provided.  Pray in times of stress, fear, doubt, worry, joy, happiness, and thanksgiving.  Pray at evening and bedtime, again in ritual form so that they identity these prayers with these times and learn the words so that they can pray them.  Children learn by repetition.  You do not need to be creative.  You can always begin with the Our Father as your prayer.  Teach them to say "Amen" at least in the beginning, until they can learn the rest of the words.

Read to your children the great stories of God's mighty deliverance.  Read them the Bible.  Yes, it is a good thing to have picture Bibles and children's Bibles but some of them abridge and alter the stories from God's Word almost to the point of them being unrecognizable.  Read them the Bible.  Read them the lessons that will be read when they worship on Sunday morning.  Read them key passages that they can learn to memorize.  Use the Psalms in your devotions.  Use the Scriptures to answer their questions about things spiritual and things physical, things that have to do with daily life and the big things which challenge us.  This is not simply instruction for head knowledge but so that your children come to know the voice of God's Word as the most reliable source of what is true now and will always be true, the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Sing hymns at home.  Teach your children those hymns.  Yes, Jesus Loves Me is fine but a child's mind is like a sponge.  Teach them the parts of the liturgy.  Teach them the great and sturdy hymns of old that were there before they were born and will be there after they die.  Teach them what they will sing on Sunday morning.  Show them the book.  Use your computer or CDs to help introduce them to the songs of the faithful that have proven their value by their endurance.  You can do this.

Read to them the Catechism of Luther.  No, you don't need to start with the more elaborate and extended treatments the flow from Luther's words but Luther's simple words by which they will come to know prayer as dear children speak to their dear Father or to fear, love, and trust in God, etc...  It will also help you address your children on the touchy subjects that will surely come up -- from the dreaded conversations about sex to the sad ones about death to tricky ones about commandments and moral truth.  Because you know the Catechism and they know it, these conversations will be facilitated.

Don't wait.  Do it now.  Start while they are very young.  Raise them up in this pattern of faith.  They will bless you for it.  This is what it means to train up a child in the way he should go.  Give them a foundation in the faith on which to grow.  And if they depart from it, they will have something to return to. . .   You can do this.  It is not rocket science.  But it may be far more urgent and important than even rocket science!  By the way.  Happy Father's Day!