Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Old hymns that never grow old. . .

From the time when Jesus sung a hymn with His disciples on Maundy Thursday, to the present day, the Church has sung “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” That is not news.  We all know it.  What you may not know is that one of the oldest hymns and spiritual songs sung by Christians through the ages is still sung -- part of the Lutheran Service Book service of Evening Prayer.  It is known as the Phos Hilaron and itself the basis of many paraphrased hymns that follow this original sung prayer.

The Phos Hilaron (from the Latin Lumen Hilare) is often simply called Joyous Light of Glory and qualifies as both one of the most ancient of the Christian hymns and one still sung often within the life of the Church. It's words were first recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions (dating from around the 4th century and perhaps written about 150 AD).  It was chanted during Vespers as the lights were lit while the sun was setting.

Saint Basil the Great called the hymn “one of our oldest and most beloved hymns.” This was such a part of the life of the ancient church that they did not know who wrote it but only knew that it had been so long a part of the evening prayer office that it was a standard.  This thanksgiving for light was sung when it was customary to keep a lamp lit at Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem. The early Christians sang this hymn as the evening light was lit -- the light being a living symbol of the Lord's presence even in the ordinary darkness of the setting sun and rising moon.

In the LSB this canticle is sung responsively, the pastor chanting the opening line and the people joining in its words before the thanksgiving prayer is prayed.  All of this forms the entrance rite or beginning of Evening Prayer.

Joyous Light of glory: of the immortal Father; heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. We have come to the setting of the sun and we look to the evening light. We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever. O Son of God, O Giver of life: the universe proclaims Your glory. (LSB 244)

This appears twice in paraphrase in our hymnal.  Its first line is O gladsome light, O grace Of God the Father's face, and while the author is unknown, the translator is Robert Seymour Bridges and it dates from about the 200s.

O Gladsome Light, O grace
Of God the Father's face,
Eternal splendor wearing:
Celestial, holy, best,
Our Savior Jesus Christ,
Joyful in thine appearing.

As daylight turns to night,
We see the fading light
Our evening hymns outpouring,
Father of might unknown,
Thee, His incarnate Son,
And Holy Ghost adoring.

To Thee of right belongs
All praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, Life-giver;
Thee, therefore, O Most High,
The world doth glorify
And shall exalt forever. (LSB 888)

A more modern paraphrase is even more popular (probably due to the tune used in this setting).  It is Carl Daw's paraphrase (first known to Lutherans when it was inclused in Hymnal Supplement 98).

O Light whose splendor thrills and gladdens
With radiance brighter than the sun,
Pure gleam of God's unending glory,
O Jesus, blest Anointed One.

As twilight hovers near at sunset
And lamps are lit and children nod,
In evening hymns we lift our voices
To Father, Spirit, Son: one God.

In all life's brilliant, timeless moments
Let faithful voices sing Your praise,
O Son of God, our Life-bestower,
Whose glory brightens endless days. (LSB 891)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

We pray because. . .

Sermon for Sunday, Pentecost 7, Proper 12C, preached on Sunday, July 28, 2019, 
by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

We pray, that’s what we do.  Daily, we come before the Lord; we fold our hands and bow our heads and we talk to God.  Sometimes these prayers are written prayers, prayers we’ve learned as children, prayers that’ve been passed on through decades and centuries and even millennia.  Sometimes these prayers are extemporaneous, spoken on the spot, unique to that time and that situation. 
But have you ever wondered why we pray?  WE PRAY BECAUSE OF WHO WE ARE AND WE PRAY BECAUSE OF WHO GOD IS. 
               We pray because of who we are.  We pray because we’re in need.  All of us are in need, every single one of us, whether we think we are or not. 
We’re in need of earthly things.  This need is different for different people; and at different times in our lives our needs will be different.  During these needful times we find ourselves more willing to pray.  Think of life changing events, medical troubles: heart attacks; strokes; cancers.  As we lay in the hospital bed, or as we surround our loved ones in that hospital room, we pray.  Think about serious car accidents.  As we stand looking at our vehicles crumbled, as we get a phone call telling us our teenage son or daughter has been in an accident, we pray.  Think about job loss.  As we contemplate what the upcoming days, weeks, and months hold for us and our family, we pray.  Think about deployments.  As we worry about the safety of our spouse or child, we pray.  Think about trouble in marriages and between parents and children.  As we wonder if there’ll ever be peace and reconciliation, we pray.  The list of earthly needs could go on and on.  We’re in great need.    But let us not think that these are our only needs. 
We pray because of who we are.  We pray because we’re sinners and we need God’s forgiveness.  This is our greatest need, because God’s forgiveness in Christ gives us everlasting life.  When we pray for healing in the hospital room and for safety during accidents and deployments and for another job to pay all the bills, we’re asking God to care for us in our temporal lives; and this He promises to do.  Jesus pointed His disciples to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and explained how if God cares for these, then He certainly will care for you (Mt 6:25-34).  But our Creator doesn’t just promise to care for your earthly life.  God promises to care for your everlasting life.  He promises you salvation.  And it’s with these promises that we pray. 
We’re in need of forgiveness so we pray for God’s promised forgiveness.  We come before our Lord and remind Him of what He says.  We hold Him accountable to His promise of forgiveness in Christ. 
We pray every day, we confess that we’re sinful and unclean, that we’ve sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone.  We confess we deserve the Lord’s present and eternal punishment.  And with this confession we pray for God’s promised forgiveness in Christ.  And He answers this prayer, because of who He is. 
               We pray because of who we are, and we pray because of who God is.  He’s our Father who invites us to pray. 
We often think of prayer as something we’re commanded to do, and we are.  St. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians says “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:16).  But this command isn’t a dominating law.  This command is a gracious invitation.  We get to pray to God.  God wants us to pray to Him.  He wants us to come to Him with our petitions and needs.  He wants us to do this so that He can answer our prayers.  He wants us to do this so that we’d look to Him for everything, realizing He’s the source of all good things.   
We dare not come before God on our own, thinking we’re worthy of asking Him for whatever we want.  Instead, we come before Him because He’s invited us, because He’s made us His children through the waters of Baptism.  And as His children, He’s given us the ultimate prayer that asks for everything we need.  
The disciples saw and heard Jesus pray, and they wanted Him to teach them how to pray.  We might think this request is a bit silly, after all prayer comes naturally, doesn’t it? …  No it doesn’t.  And here is a perfect example of that.
At the National Youth Gathering, our youth took part in a “homeless” experience.  We walked through different stations that talk about homelessness and ways in which we can help our neighbors with this need.  And after each station, the leaders asked for volunteers to pray.  What do you think followed?  A period of awkward silence.  No one immediately spoke up.  This could be partly because teenagers aren’t usually willing to put themselves out there in front of strangers, but it’s also partly because we don’t think we know how to pray.  And in truth, we don’t.   On our own we don’t know how to pray.  We need to be taught. 
Jesus taught His disciples how to pray.  He didn’t teach them a specific posture for prayer, although the traditional folding of hands and bowing of head are good to help us stay focused in our prayers.  He didn’t teach them an acronym like ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) to help organize their prayer, although that can be good too.  No, Jesus gave them a specific prayer, specific words to come before God with.  When you pray, say: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen. (Lk 11:2-4)  This prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is a prayer of God’s promises.  This prayer is pleasing to Him, and in it, we pray for all our needs, both of body and soul. 
With the Lord’s Prayer we ask for our earthly needs.  With the Lord’s pray we ask for forgiveness.  With the Lord’s pray we ask for God to protect us from temptation.  With the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to rule our lives and to lead us into godly living, and to bring us into salvation.  And all these petitions, He answers.  He answers them because He is merciful. 
We come before our Lord because we’re in need.  We suffer in this world, from sickness and disease, from spiritual distress.  We need our Lord to carry us through.  But we dare not pray of our own worthiness.  We pray because He invites us, because He has made us His children.  And we pray because God is merciful, promising to hear us, promising to give us what we need.  So, with faith, we pray.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

Who wants to be saved?

The evangelization of Europe and from Europe across the world fulfilled the Lord's word of Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world.  It is a tremendous story.  Though some of the conversions could have been less than voluntary, these abuses do not detract from the reality of a world in search of hope and meaning and redemption.  In the confident story of Christ crucified and risen, the Church led a people ripe for conversion to know their eternal destiny in the hands of a loving God whose mercy is revealed in the Word made flesh.

So what happened?  Why do we work so hard today and find such different results?  Where is the Church on fire at Pentecost and the thousands who from a single sermon wanted to know what they must do to be saved?  Is the Gospel no longer a power and force to touch the hearts of sinful men?  These are the haunting questions that lie under the good hearts of those who serve in parishes and missions, the front lines of evangelization today.

But we would do well to remember that the soil is different.  In a world where death was always near, where grief was part of everyday life, where disease claimed young and old, where life was a struggle, where hope was in short supply, and where people felt powerless in the face of forces greater than themselves, the Gospel was the answer to the question everyone faced.  Now, though we live with all the same circumstances, we no longer yearn for answers.  We have made our peace with death, we celebrate life with a good story rather than mourn, we turn to medical technology more to relieve pain than heal ills, we invent hope when we need it, we have confidence in our technology to supply our entertainment, we expect happiness, and we are inebriated with a sense of entitlement.  The Gospel is nice enough but hardly needed to live a rich, full, and happy life on our terms.

It is not the Gospel that has changed but we have changed.  The soil is different today, to use our Lord's own imagery.  We are rocky and hard and the seed of God's Word does not make it into our hearts either to convict us with respect to sin or save us with mercy.  We no longer think we need God or anyone.  We have come to believe we are complete and whole on our own.  We have a take it or leave it attitude toward our faults, failings, and foibles as well as our virtues.  We no longer accept the idea of any truth true for all time, for all places, and for all people.  Everything, including truth, has become captive to the power of preference.

We raise our children to believe that they are wonderful, they can do whatever they want, that they can trust the desires of their hearts as the surest voice of wisdom, and that if things go wrong it is not their fault.  And guess what?  They listened.  Not just the current generation but going back years and years the children grew into adults with a sense of entitlement but without a great sense of responsibility, with a demand for privilege without a willingness to work for it, with an expectation of freedom but without a desire to earn it.  It shows everywhere -- even to the point where when individuals exhibit the ordinary virtues it becomes newsworthy and a YouTube sensation.  So of course it shows up in religion or the lack of it.

There was a time when it was nearly a universal desire to be saved.  If you asked who wanted to be saved, almost every hand in the room went up.  Today we no longer want to be saved because we are not sure being saved is needed, all that important, or even all that great.  Today God is not the giver of perfect freedom but a fence trying to box in our freedom to be what we want, who we want, and to have all of it accepted and approved.  So when Jesus insists the Son will set you free, we respond like the Jews of old, "Who needs that freedom?  We are not in bondage to anyone."  And they are correct.  The life we live today is not captive to anything -- not to restraint, not to morality, not to history, and not to truth.  And where has it gotten us?  We are fine on the outside but inside we are weak, vulnerable, fearful, gripped by angst, and so worried about the future that we think it unwise to bring children into it.  This hard shell is what the Lord has to crack before the Gospel makes its home in us.  But the Church dare not despair.  God is at work.  His Word will not return empty.  He will accomplish the purpose for which He sends it.  It is only ours to speak that Word in witness and hold to the doctrine once delivered to the saints.  The rest is God's to do -- as it always has been.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Offended by offense. . .

Sadly, we live in a world in which offense is a common word that is generally misunderstood.  We are offended by all sorts of things today.  A story a while ago found Starbucks asking police to leave their establishment because a few folks were offended by the presence of the men in blue drinking coffee (as if that were out of the ordinary!).  College students routinely riot because they offended when a speaker might have the nerve to disagree with them and speak on something they find objectionable (as if democracy existed only to protect what we want to hear).  But in the Church this word has been used in a variety of contexts that betray what it really means.  People insist that they are offended by churches that do not ordain women, promote the GLBTQ agenda, or support the global causes of the day (from climate change to gun control).  They are not offended.  They simply do not like what they hear.  They claim offense but offense in the Scriptures means something more than hurt feelings.  It means a scandal to the faith and, in particular, a scandal that threatens the faith of an individual Christian.  This is not something inconsequential but profound.  To be offended, then, means to have the very foundation of your faith shaken to its core.

Quite frankly, I am sick of the word.  I am tired of the way people banter it about -- Christian people.  I am tired of those who claim to be offended by their pastor when he is not as attentive to them as they wish or does not do what they desire.  Their faith is not in doubt and they are not scandalized.  They are simply miffed, peeved, ticked off.  That is not offense.  Do not use the word in such a way that it makes shallow and meaningless that which truly offends.  I am tired by those who say they are offended when they go to a church somewhere and do not like the music they hear or the welcome they received or the fact that they could not commune in a place where they were not members or in fellowship or believed the same faith.  You are not offended.  You are angry.  But you are angry at the wrong things.  That is what offends me.  When people are not angry over the distortion of the true Gospel or the preaching of anything but Christ crucified or the fact that the body and blood of Christ are treated casually or a place at the Lord's table as a mere matter of polite hospitality -- well, that is what offends me.  But these have become the bad people, bad churches, and bad positions in a world in which truth is true only for a breath but feelings last forever.

It is high time that we were all reminded what matters and what doesn't.  Quite frankly, your feelings are not all that important.  Feelings come and go.  Feelings do not last.  Check the divorce rates for my facts to support that statement.  Feelings are not our foundation nor are feelings the primary drivers of faith, doctrine, and truth.  Hurt feelings are not an offense. It is not nice and nobody likes having somebody walk all over their feelings but that is not offense.  Hurt feelings do not threaten your faith.  But those who speak the creed but do not believe its words, that is offensive.  Those who abuse the Scriptures to make them say what they want them to say, that is offensive.  Those who treat the body and blood of Christ as something ordinary or casual or common, that is offensive.  Those who insist that people are not baptized unless they have first reached a certain age and are baptized in a certain way but that baptism itself does nothing but symbolize their own decision, that is offensive.  Those who insist that what the Bible calls facts are legend or myth, that is offensive.  Those who elevate the principle of love above the God man who in love stretches His arms out in suffering, that is offensive.

We pastors have taught our people that when the church does not do what you want or does what you do not want or when your feelings are hurt in some way by pastor or people in the pews, that is a big thing -- something so big that it justifies leaving the church or abandoning the faith entirely.  Even if we did not say it from the pulpit, we taught them this by failing to teach them clearly what does matter.  So when some Lutheran family decides that they are going to another church because they like the beat of the music or the youth sports program or the upbeat messages that tell you how to get God to get what you want, we owe it to them to say that they are really leaving the faith.  Renouncing your baptism and rejecting Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist or reasoning away the truths of Scripture are not some little things that do not count but go to the heart and core of what it means to believe God, to trust in His Word, and to be saved.  When we tell our people that it does not matter which church you go do as long as you go or that it is okay to let your children decide if and when they want to go to church or that membership means rights and privileges without responsibilities and obligations, well, then, we have taught them to be offended by what does not count and to dismiss the things that do.

If we cannot learn what it means to be offended, then we need to excise that word from our vocabulary.  Offense is not about the fast food lane taking too long or a phone queue that requires us to push too many buttons or about people driving too slowly on the interstate or the person who is not smiling at us when they wait on us.  These things may be rude and irritating but that is not what it means to be offended.  Christians especially need to awaken to the way this word is being used wrongly.  Christians need to know what is offensive and what does matter.  What matters is doctrine and the practice that reflects that doctrine.  That is what counts.  What matters is truth that endures forever.  That is what counts.  What matters is eternal life (not your best life now).  That is what matters.  Once we teach our people what matters and what does have the power to offend (to scandalize and threaten our faith), we will begin to see some of the baloney that consumes so much of our time and energy disappear and we will be free to contend for the faith without the fear that somebody won't like and will pack up their toys and play in somebody else's toy box.

The Church will not prosper by the elevation of feelings to the place of doctrine and truth and the Church will not appeal to those outside the faith by pandering to feelings over the bones of truth and doctrine.  We who are called pastors have a special responsibility to make sure that people know the truth the saves and the feelings that distract from Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Before it is too late. . .

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hymns that speak the faith. . .

A while ago someone complained to me about Lutheran hymns (humorous because some of the hymns that were the subject of their complaint were not Lutheran in origin but Anglican!).  "That is just not me or what I want to sing."  The complainer added that they wanted upbeat songs in church that made them happy to sing and reflected what they were feeling in the moment.  My answer did not address personal taste or preference or even whether or not they were happy.  My answer was all about content.

What should we be singing about?  Well, let me put it another way.  WHO should we be singing about?  Since Jesus Christ is our salvation, should not our hymns be about Him?  The sad truth is that many of the most popular songs used in worship (whether contemporary or classic Gospel songs) are more about us than about Jesus.  They focus on the feelings we have or the perspective we place upon our faith and they do this very effectively but their content is not what we ought to be singing.  We ought to be singing about our Lord, about His incarnation, about His holy life, about His teaching, about His suffering, about His death, about His resurrection, and about His coming again.

It is amazing how many songs and hymns used in Christian worship -- even those in common use -- have little to say about who Jesus is or about what He has done.  That is an epic fail for Lutherans -- whom some would credit for reintroducing hymnody to the Church!  The strength of the Lutheran chorale and the mark of classic Christian and orthodox hymnody from other sources remain the content -- what this hymns sings about who Jesus is and what He has done.

Now I would agree that there some more difficult melodies among these hymns with great content but none of them represent an impossible challenge for people to learn to sing and learn to love to sing.  Yes, it is true that a good parish musician can help make this easier (which is one reason why we should not be cheap when it comes to paying a good organist).  But the issue still revolves around whether the function of hymnody is for me to sing what I want and to sing hymns that say what I want to say OR whether it is for me to sing about who Jesus is and what God has done for us through His Son.

Some have suggested that during the distribution is a good time to let people have their sinful pleasures of hymns that sing what they want to sing and about themselves and their feelings.  The reality is that this is a terrible time to sing the happy songs about us.  At the very moment when we are receiving the Lord's flesh and blood, we ought to be singing about this great and grand mystery and what this blessed communion bestows upon us.  An awful lot of distribution songs and hymns do not have much to do with God or even about the Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood. To those planning the hymns for the service, the goal should be what does this hymn say and about whom does this hymn speak.  If the answer is not Jesus Christ and the salvation our Lord has accomplished, then that hymn or song is unworthy of the Divine Service. This is not about taste but about truth, not about preference but doctrine, and not about us but about Him in whom salvation is to be found.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

It was all a con game. . .

The not so United Methodists are in turmoil over what will happen after the vote to maintain the current position on the GLBTQ opening.  What is interesting is that those who wanted change and an open door for the GLBTQ agenda are now accusing the conservatives of a secret agenda to destroy Methodism and create a situation in which schism is inevitable.  In other words, those who insist the church of today must bear resemblance to the church of the past are really playing a con game designed to destroy the unity of the church and make it untenable for the progressives to remain.

The spokesman for this opinion is none other than Bishop Minerva Carcaño of San Francisco, one of the most liberal bishops of United Methodism’s most liberal jurisdictions.  Remember that she was one of the bishops who insisted that the denomination’s supreme court, the Judicial Council reverse its decision against the Western Jurisdiction’s choice of an openly partnered lesbian activist Dr. Karen Oliveto as bishop (someone who should not have been considered remotely qualified for that office).  What is even stranger is that the Western Jurisdiction is in free fall decline and now represents less than 3% of the church’s members.  Now these liberals are insisting that it was a conservative plan all along to create a new denomination and is threatening to withhold money from those mission churches who had the audacity to disagree with them.

Bishop Carcaño admitted: “As the weakest of all the jurisdictions, the West has been dependent on the connectional church for its survival. Loss of the connectional relationship will accelerate its decline.” How strange that is.  Their liberalism in what is perhaps the most liberal area of the country has not at all contributed to growth but only hastened their decline.  Again, the progressives are searching for a way to blame conservatives not only for their decline but for their need to start a new denomination.  Sound familiar?  Of course it does.  This is typically the way things go for inclusives who welcome anyone except those who disagree with them.

So this is old news, you might be thinking, and what is my point?  My point is this.  Since when did the Scripture promote or the ancient church sanction change at the expense of the sacred deposit and faithful tradition passed down since the apostles?  Apparently, that is the new breath of some sort of spirit that is blowing within many churches.  Change means abandoning the faith once delivered to the saints.  Whether we are talking about doctrine or practice, that is the agenda of progressives.  Distance yourself from the past and even from the explicit word of Scripture in order to achieve the aims of culture and the dream of enlightenment.  This is true of United Methodists and Lutherans and Anglicans and Roman Catholics.  The forces against the intrusion of the world's beliefs and values upon the churches must rally against the charge that they are the cause of schism and put the blame right where it belongs.  Change or die -- that is the mantra of the progressive movement.  But what it really is about is change AND die.  Remember that the churches in the most liberal areas of the nation who have adopted such changes to radically disconnect them from their past have not done better but have only hastened their decline.  This is the common truth everywhere. The hermeneutic of continuity is not the path to our downfall but the only path to our sustainability and growth.

Friday, July 26, 2019

I just want you to be happy. . .

The ideal of every parent is to turn out happy kids.  At least that is how many parents see their job.  We parents tend to entertain our children to death, take up their cause even when they are in the wrong, fight their battles for them, and defend everything they say or think or do -- all for the cause of their happiness.  It is a noble task.  We learned it from parents who did the same for us.  They wanted us to have a better life than they had.  I know I was motivated by the same goal for my children.  But happiness is an elusive goal and probably not an achievable one.

Our kids cannot be insulated from sadness, loss, pain, or regret.  And they should not be.  Life is not about happiness.  Contentment cannot find its source in things around us that go as planned or desired.  And many of the things that make us happy (at least in the moment) are self-destructive and immoral.  We need to be careful about this god of happiness.  It can and will become our undoing.  But even worse than parents who work to make their children happy is when we put God in service to the same goal and make happiness rather than holiness, self-satisfaction rather than salvation, HIS goal as well as ours.

It seems to me that much of modern day Christianity has gone off the rails in pursuit of personal happiness and in making Scripture and God the servant of this happiness.  In church after church where people gather on Sunday morning, the object of the sermon and the focus of the teaching is on people rather than God.  Absent from the conversation is any mention of sin (except the sin of self-denial).  We live in a time in which individualism has become the defining principle of life and individual happiness the goal.  Marriage, family, and even jobs have become secondary to the individual happiness of the person.  We flaunt who we think we are and insist that everyone else's job is to respect and honor our identity of the moment.  We consider the goal of our parents, employers, religion, and society to be to provide for our happiness -- even though this is a changing goal.  Even though we are not always sure what makes us happy, we do not shy away from making others responsible for our unhappiness and for making those same people responsible for making us happy.

While this may be a serious problem for parents and others, our pursuit of happiness at any cost and our desire to make others, especially God, responsible for that happiness will empty the Church and not fill it.  Once people discover that religion is no panacea for pleasure and happiness, they will become the hardened disenchanted who once believed that God cared and wanted them to be happy and now don't care about God at all.  It is a dangerous thing to surrender the real Gospel of forgiveness of sins, the rescue of our lost lives, the gift of eternal life, and salvation for a false gospel of personal happiness and fulfillment.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Value for our money. . .

It occurred to me after a comment about how long Lutheran funerals are that we exhibit our values in hidden ways.  Think, for example, how this comment betrays our values.  We think nothing of spending thousands of dollars at the funeral home purchasing a casket, placing it in a vault, embalming the body, transporting the body, holding a visitation at the funeral home, preparing the grave, marking it with a stone, and such.  We try to personalize it all -- at a cost to be sure but one worth paying for those whom we love.  But then we complain that 45-50 minutes is too long to spend in the funeral at church.  What does that say?

Of course, the same could be said about weddings.  Perhaps the most common complaint about church weddings is that they are too long or that the bride and groom did not get to personalize the rite and make it just their own.  Now think about this.  We are prepared in our culture to postpone the wedding (while cohabiting, of course) until we can afford our dream wedding, we spend a fortune on the costumes worn only for that day and for part of that day, we get the flowers and cake and reception we desires (no matter the cost) and party on with abandon in celebration of the occasion.  But then we complain that 35-45 minutes is too long to spend at church for the marriage rite itself.  What does that say?

In many cases, what happens at church is an afterthought and not the essential thing when death claims our loved ones or when we marry off our sons and daughters.  Even Christians are so tempted to think this way.  Culture has become a great vacuum cleaner and it has cleansed Christians so of their faith identities that how we bury and how we marry looks much the same as folks around us who have no faith or church identity.  I am speaking broadly, to be sure, but this is surely the case.  We will spend thousands of dollars to bury a body while thinking of the funeral itself as something indifferent just like we will spend thousands of dollars on a wedding and while dismissing what happens in the church as an afterthought.

The call of faith is to live as we believe.  While some think the big scandal is cremation, I would consider much of what is considered typical in our burial practices is even more scandalous to the faith.  We don't need to celebrate the life of the deceased but to celebrate the fact that those who die in Christ are not dead and death has not been allowed by Christ to have the final word in their lives.  While some are ready to give up marrying in the church and settling for the blessing of a marriage, I think it is time that we gave the world something to notice in the way we observed a wedding -- putting Christ first and rejoicing with great attention to the union of husband and wife before the Lord and within His family, the church.

What kind of value are we getting for our money?  We spend whatever it takes in time and money to send off the dead in style but forget where we are sending them.  We spend whatever it takes in time and money to party on with husband and wife on their wedding day but forget what marriage is (ordered in time by our Creator and blessed by Christ our Savior).

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

People were bringing their children to Jesus. . .

What we hear in the Gospels, we see every time parents bring their sons and daughters to the waters
of baptism.  Just as it was 2,000 years ago, so it has been and still is.  This is the primary responsibility of parents to their children -- to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, through the means of grace, so that the Holy Spirit may bring them to faith and keep them in this faith until death.  All other things we do as parents flow from this first priority and responsibility.  That is what we do in baptismal preparation -- teach the parents what their duties and promises are and how this is witnessed within the baptismal rite itself.

Once baptized, the parents continue to fulfill this holy calling by bringing their sons and daughters to church for the Divine Service and for Sunday school and catechism classes.  By bringing them every week to the Divine Service, God's House becomes their familiar home and the place where they know God gives His gifts, sustains His people, and they respond with praise, thanksgiving, prayers, supplications, and offerings.  Sunday school and catechism classes do not replace the parents or take over the job of teaching the faith.  These educational ministries supplement and support the parents in their own primary vocation toward their children.

Confirmation does not bestow gifts or sacramental grace to complete baptism but acknowledges particular points along the journey from the font to the table to the heavenly banquet.  In this point, the Church acknowledges the teaching of the faith and the confession of the catechumen's faith with joy and thanksgiving.  Those who come for this confirmation do not come alone but in the midst of parents, sponsors, and the whole church family -- not simply as witnesses to an event but as those who have also invested in this day.  I have always loved how in Rome and some Anglican churches the confirmand comes forward with parents (and even sponsors) to kneel before the bishop.  It is a powerful picture of people bringing their children to Jesus.  Here the bishop (or in Lutheran case, the pastor) represents Christ.  I find it a much more compelling symbol than our usual practice of the youth coming forward on their own or with a group to kneel at the rail. 

When our youth fall away, it is not simply a failure of the Church and certainly not the failure of the Church to make things fun or exciting or entertaining.  But it is a failure all the way round.  In so many cases, we never took seriously the responsibilities and duties that began at birth, that led to the font, that brought the children weekly to worship, that saw the Sunday school and catechism classes as reinforcements to the parental role at home, and confirmation as the acknowledgement of one step and not a graduation from religious life.  I cannot tell you how many times a parent has come to me in tears as one of their adult children has fallen away from the faith (or from the Lutheran faith).  In many of those cases, the parents failed to bring the child faithfully after baptism and, while church attendance perked up during the catechism years, their children did not learn the weekly habit of the Lord's House on the Lord's Day around the Lord's Word and Table.  The children learned from the parents' example that worship was optional (and prayer) and that church was on the fringes of their lives and not foundational to who they were and are.

I urge parents all the time not to fall into the temptation of thinking intentions substitute for piety, that their children will wake up one morning and want to go to church even though they only went occasionally growing up, or that attending to sports or music or dance or other Sunday diversions does not conflict with their primary purpose and role in bringing their children to Jesus.  If we in the Church preach this and parents hear, I have great confidence that this decline can be reversed.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Be served before you serve. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 11C, preached on Sunday, July 21, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

                Today we hear the familiar story of Mary and Martha.  These two sisters lived in the village of Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem.  As Jesus was passing through with the Twelve, and possibly with other unnamed followers, Martha invited Him into her home.  This was no small invitation.  She was now responsible for feeding at least 13 hungry men, along with everyone else who was there.  No wonder she was upset when she saw Mary doing nothing. 
Being completely honest, most of us would be right there with Martha, complaining about how Mary wasn’t helping, leaving us to do all the work.  But Mary wasn’t ignoring her serving responsibilities.  She too was serving the Lord, just in a different way.  Mary was serving the Lord, by being served by the Lord.
                There are two ways to serve, Martha’s way, active service, and Mary’s way, passive service. 
                Active service is what we think of the most.  It fulfills God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:39).  When we help those in need, we’re serving the Lord.  When we donate food and volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, we serve the Lord.  When we visit the sick and pray for those in the military, we serve the Lord (cf. Mt 28:31-46).  When we hold leadership positions in this congregation and help with VBS, we serve the Lord.  Actively serving the Lord is a good thing and all of us need to find a way to actively serve.  But like all good things, our sin touches active service, and leaves its mark.
                Sin touched Martha’s service.  First, she became upset with her sister.  We too become upset when we think others aren’t helping. We get angry with people when they don’t pull their weight, whether it be at work, school, at home, or even here at church.
Secondly, Martha was sinning because she tried to stop Jesus’ service to Mary.  When we refuse service and help from others, we’re denying Christ’s service to us.  God works through means.  He serves us through others.  When children refuse care from their parents, they refuse Christ’s care.  When parents in old age deny help from their children, they deny Christ’s help. When we refuse help from friends when we’re in need, we’re refuse Christ’s help.  Christ serves us through the hands of others. 
                Sin also skews our service by turning it from being about the benefit others into being a source of selfish pride.  Serving others is another way for us to stroke our ego.  We enjoy being told we’re a good person because we help.  We like getting titles and awards for donating money and volunteering.  What’s even worse, we can become confident in these accolades and believe we’ll be rewarded with salvation for them.  But no matter how many people you help, nothing you do can save you from your sin.   
                Finally, because of sin, any benefit that active service produces is short lived.  Nothing lasts.  The hungry we feed will become hungry again.  The sick we visit and nurse back to health, they’ll get sick again.  Active service takes care of earthly necessities, and there are many.  But because sin has broken our world, this life can’t last forever.  All will die, no matter how much active service we do.  For eternal life only one thing is necessary, and passive service fulfills that need.
                We see passive service with Mary.  As Martha was running around, actively serving, Mary was quietly sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to everything He said.  But how is that service?   Just like Martha who was served the Lord by fulfilling the commandment to support her neighbors in their physical need, Mary was serving the Lord by keeping His commandment to remember the Sabbath day.  By sitting and listening to Jesus speak Mary was keeping the Lord’s commands.  She was not despising God’s Word but holding it sacred and gladly hearing it and learning it.  What better way to serve the Lord than to follow His command and listen to His Word? 
                When Mary listened to Jesus, she was serving Him.  You too serve the Lord by hearing His Word.  You’re serving the Lord right now.  Every Sunday when you come here to hear God’s Word preached, you’re serving Lord.  Whenever you open your Bible for devotions, you’re serving the Lord.  And at these times you aren’t just serving the Lord, but He is serving you.
                We hear from Jesus’ own lips that He came not to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45).  This service is ultimately seen on the cross where He gave up His life to pay for your sins.  Christ shed His blood so that you would be forgiven and have everlasting life.  But Jesus’ service didn’t end with His death.  It didn’t end with His resurrection and ascension.  Christ continues to serve you today, and He’ll continue to serve you until He comes again. 
                The Lord serves you the same way He served Mary.  When you hear God’s Word, He works faith within you (Rom 10:17).  This faith is a service from God, it’s a gift from God. 
                God’s serves in His Sacraments.  At your Baptism He placed His name upon you and claimed you as His own.  At this altar He gives you Christ's body and blood that nourishes and strengthens your faith, preserving you unto life everlasting.  God serves you here.  That’s why we call worship the Divine Service.  In it God serves you, through His absolution, through the preaching of His word, and through His Sacraments. 
                We saw Martha running around serving Jesus and everyone else.  When she came to Him upset, He gently told her that one thing is necessary.  That one thing is faith given through the hearing of His Word.  Through passive service to the Lord you receive what’s necessary.  And this will never be taken away from you.  God will continually serve you through His Word and no one and nothing can stop Him (cf. Rom 8:38-39). 
                Through Martha and Mary, God shows us that active service shouldn’t take place to the neglect of passively serving God.  This doesn’t mean active service is bad.  Active service is good, and it flows from passive.  Through passive service, God creates faith, and then with this faith, we go out and actively serve our neighbors.  All service comes from first being served by God.  Because Christ died in our place and because He’s given us faith we can do nothing else but serve others.  So serve the Lord today.  Be served by Him here, and then share that service to others.  In Jesus’ name… Amen.