Monday, September 30, 2019

Feast and fast. . .

Feast days were once welcomed with great joy.  The calendar did not only offer direction for liturgy but gave occasion for indulgence.  Feast days came with their own great food traditions and with the expectation of celebrating them with family.  It is the other side of what happens in the liturgy in Church.  But we live in a time in which every day is a feast day and there is no fast.  This is not only a problem for the liturgy but for our lives at home where the church year was once part of the family schedule as much as birthdays and anniversaries.

In the liturgy, when every Sunday is a feast day, there is no normal except the feast.  This may seem to be a little problem but the reality is that when a Sunday in Advent is not distinguished from a Sunday after Christmas or Epiphany or a Sunday in Lent or a Sunday after Easter or a Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity, take or pick), there is no calendar to see or experience except in the words you hear read (and hopefully preached).  I grew up in an era in which it was nearly impossible to be there for worship and distinguish the time of the church year without referencing the bulletin or Ashby calendar on the wall.  In my day, that meant a rather low church version of the Divine Service (even on Easter).  We had no ashes on Ash Wednesday and no palms on Palm Sunday.  Of course, we had the Sacrament first quarterly and later monthly so the norm was also Word alone.

Today it is more likely to find every Sunday a feast day with few things to add to those special days on the church calendar.  I remember visiting a parish and wondering what feast day was being celebrated only to find the norm was full entrance procession, Gospel procession, choral anthems plus, etc.  The congregation even sang the Our Father (unfortunately to the Malotte version as if the pews were full of soloists).  I wondered what might possibly be added for the more solemn feasts but could not think of anything.

Some time later I began to realize that this is in part the influence of a culture in which every day is conceived of as a day of indulgence.  While this might not meant great ceremony, it does mean great indulgence -- self-indulgence.  Eating out is no longer special but the norm and with restaurants delivering food to the door we do not even need to dress up to feast upon the fatted calf.  We do what we want when we want it without saving much for special occasions.  We may not be formal in dress or demeanor but we no longer feel constrained by anything and indulge ourselves because we believe we deserve nothing less.

The church's calendar was once an influence over what happened in the home.  In everything from determining seedtime and harvest, the church year was as much an influence as the weatherman or the Farmer's Almanac.  It did not stop there.  Penitential seasons were reflected in the muted tone of the family's life in the home.  The extras of desserts and special foods were replaced regularly by lighter meals and fish on Fridays and even times of fasting.  In contrast, the feasts were accompanied by extravagant foods and large gatherings of family and friends.  Easter was lived out in the home with unique and special foods and by a table spread designed to be shared. 

All of this was occasioned by an article on dieting called the No S-Diet.  Snacks, sweets, and seconds are limited to days beginning with "S" -- Saturdays and Sundays.  Other days could be added (birthdays, anniversaries, civil holidays, and church feast days).  The inventor reasoned this through from looking at how we have lived down through the centuries but the interesting idea is how this connects with the rhythm of the church year and how that calendar influences our lives at home.  I am not recommending the diet or the book but I am intrigued about how such an approach ties the church to the home and the home reflects our piety.

The regular rhythm of the church year has been the connection between feast and fast.  Lutherans may have challenged the idea of a legislated fast but we certainly do not reject the benefit of fasting, of living a more restrained life -- especially at the table.  Fasting is now more tied to fad diets and other approaches to diet and exercise -- especially among those spiritual but not religious -- than it is tied to our faith and life together as God's people.  Rome has reduced required fasting down to just two days per year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In the past there were days all throughout the year in which Christian people exercised some restraint and then other days in which they indulged themselves.  Even without our own Lutheran calendar Christmas is twelve days and not simply that moment when we unwrap our gifts.  Holy Week is observed every day and not simply on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Easter extends to the Monday through Wednesday following.  Pentecost as a vigil. 

Our society encourages us to have whatever we want, whenever we want it -- delivered to our door in minutes!  Just do it, eat it, and enjoy it -- including “sinful” things! We no longer eat fruit or vegetables in season but strawberries are available all year long -- imported from that part of the world where they might be in season.  If we cannot find what we want at a local store, everything on earth is available shipped to our door through the gift of the internet.  From chocolate to desserts to whatever, we are bound by little or nothing in our pursuit of what we want, when we want it..

We need help to order our lives, to restore a sense of rhythm in which feast contrasts with fast, and rest with work and leisure.  We need the help of the liturgical calendar to influence this rhythm and help us extend some order to our self-indulgent lives.  This surely makes sense to any Christian who recalls the calendar of the Old Testament and its New Testament adaptation but it does more than makes sense, it helps us bear good fruit in our piety and practice of the faith.  This is one of the ways we teach the faith to our children and help them begin to order their lives early on -- rest and work, school and play, feasting and fast.  What do you think?

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Of Angels and Archangels. . .

For too long we have suffered with all kinds of goofy and saccharine ideas of angels.  They have become in our minds the chubby little cherubs who send love arrows but are largely benign.  They have become mere adornments to liturgy and life.  We presume we become little angels when we die and we call obedient young children our little angels.  The angels of our imagination bear little resemblance to the Scriptures.   As we celebrate the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels (also known as Michaelmas), it might be a good time to discard these lies and legends and focus on real angels — their existence and their work.

Luther himself has spoken many words about the existence and work of the angels:  “That angels are with us is very sure, and no one should ever have doubted it.” (What Luther Says, p. 23).  Angels appear regularly throughout the Old and New Testaments, especially at the pivotal times when God acts on behalf of His people and unfolds the revelation of His Son.  We see them in the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Temptation to the defeat of Satan in the heavenly places in the Luke and Revelation accounts. Though it is true that angel may also refer occasionally to people and to the preincarnate Christ, there are too many other references to dismiss these spiritual creatures of God.  “He makes His angels winds, and His ministers a flame of fire” (Hebrews 1:7); “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”(Hebrews 1:10).  Angels exist by God's design and for His purpose -- to serve the unfolding revelation of His gift of salvation in Christ and to serve His people on behalf of this saving will and purpose.

The term may be angel but the meaning of that term is messenger.  Again, Luther:   “a messenger. . . Thus this name is commonly applied in Scripture to all messengers of God in heaven and on earth, whether they are the holy angels in heaven or prophets and apostles on earth. . . But the heavenly spirits in particular are called angels because they are the highest and noblest messengers of God” (What Luther Says, p. 23).  The angels are the messengers who herald the deliverance of God and when they appear they always point to what God is saying and doing.  Think how this is revealed especially in the Annunciation:  “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). The angels do God's work and never pause from this holy purpose -- from their earthly assignments on behalf of God's saving grace to leading the heavenly chorus singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty.” (Revelation 4:8)  The Word on the angel's lips is always God's Word.

But angels do not always simply announce what God is doing.  They also fight against the enemies of God and of His people, thwarting the evil plans of Satan and his minions to defend His Church from their attacks. “For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). There are good angels and there are evil ones.  Christians are not captive our fears of those evil angels but we are warned clearly in Scripture to be vigilant, for “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).   Again, Luther: “A Christian should know that he is sitting among devils and that the devil is closer to him than his coat or shirt, nay, closer than his own skin” (What Luther Says, p. 399).  Evil angels serve the devil's purpose to try to wrest us from the grasp of God's grace and from the faith that trusts in His salvation.  As Luther taught us to pray each day: “Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me” (Luther’s Morning Prayer).  The evil angels are as frustrated as their leader for their power does not compare with the power God has given to those who do His bidding, who behold “the face of Our Lord God” and  who “stand in the presence of Him whose name is Omnipotens, the Almighty” (What Luther Says, p. 25).  Their greatest power is the Word of the Lord on their lips.  We sing this with Luther and with the generations of those who have sung with him:  "Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us, We tremble not, we fear no ill; They shall not overpow’r us. This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done; One little word can fell him” (LSB 656:3).

In the Creed, the Church confesses not only God's creation of all things visible but those invisible, seen and unseen (angels) and in the liturgy every Divine Service the Church calls us to join “with angels and archangels, we laud and magnify Your glorious name.”   It is worth remembering that in the reform of the calendar, Luther insisted on retaining Michaelmas as a principal feast day of Christ. Today you should have heard how the Lord used Blessed Michael and the angels to deliver His people from the accusations of Satan and how the devil and his minions were cast out of heaven using the Word of Christ.

Delivered from Satan by the hand of Christ and served by His holy angels, Christians learn from them to keep the Word of the Lord upon our lips, to sing praises to the God of our salvation, and to serve the Lord in obedience and faith.  These angels teach us  humble obedience to God and how not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.   Within those many tasks, is our care for our children, the aged, our neighbor in need, and those who suffer the afflictions of body and mind.  As Luther reminds us: “the angels do it with joy; for it is well pleasing to God.” (What Luther Says, p. 24)  They rejoice to be His servants. Within our regular gatherings around the Word and Table of the Lord, we join them in praising the goodness of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light, who saved us by His blood, and who has allowed us to be His people and do His work on earth as the angels do above.  “For this, now and in days to be, Our praise shall rise, O Lord, to Thee, Whom all the angel hosts adore With grateful songs forevermore” (LSB 522:8).

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Effecting change. . .

I read an article on the Pope's selection of new cardinals (not the ones wearing baseball jerseys) and realized he had now appointed a clear majority of those cardinals eligible to serve as papal electors.  He appointed 66 of 124 under the age of 80.  Pope Benedict XVI appointed 42 and John Paul II appointed 16.  Francis has cemented his legacy by appointing those who mirror his own theological perspective and pastoral direction.  Of course, that is his prerogative but it is also the way you effect the state of things after you are gone.  It is not devious.  Every pope has done it.  But it is effective.

Those who lament the state of the church should pay attention.  The way we change the rudder of the church is through her ministers -- those who preach and teach the faith and who will recruit other pastors and eventually even become the teachers of pastors.  If you are in a church body suffering from a hapless drift toward modernity, take note.  The seeds of this drift were sealed long ago by those who were formed to be pastors and church leaders.  In the same way, those who wish to see this changed and a more profound theological orthodoxy in place must look also to the long view of who is recruited for the pastoral office and who trains them as the key to reversing the decline.

As I write this, my own church body suffers from worship wars, closed communion wars, change or die wars, and ecumenical wars.  We have serious divisions on these issues.  We have people who think that worship is mere style that is no mirror to substance or confession and congregations virtually indistinguishable from big box non-denominational churches on Sunday morning.  We have people who do not think that the source and summit of the life of the Church and the spiritual lives of God's people is Word and Sacrament within the Divine Service.  We have people who think that who comes to the Table is a local decision and does not have all that much to do with what people believe or not about anything except if they love Jesus.  We have people who are desperate to see the shape of the faith changed to be more accommodating to the world and confront less the obvious differences between orthodox Christian confession and the thoughts ideas, and values of the culture around us.  We have people who insist that formal fellowship does not need to be declared to be united in prayer, confession, work, and worship with Christians who believe, teach, and confess differently.  This is not new we all know this,

The change does not happen top down.  The change in the office of Synod President has some impact but it cannot be effective if other factors are working against him.  The change will not come through Synod Convention.  It is always good when our church body says to itself and the world around us that we hold these doctrinal positions and we order our practice faithfully but resolutions do not change what happens locally.  The most profound way to effect these changes is to send faithful men to the seminary to be taught by faithful professors and then to be called into congregations to preach and teach the orthodox faith to those in the pews who will impart it to their children at home and live it out in their daily lives.  This is the lasting way to effect good change (and to undermine such faithfulness, lest we forget and fail to do this).

My plea for all those who want to see their church move away from the secularized and cultural Christianity of modern times is to do just this.  Send faithful young men to the seminary where they will be taught faithfully and call them back into the congregation to preach and teach the practice orthodox Christianity and to keep doing this over and over again.  If you are in one of those groups organized to address the theological drift of your church body, pay attention.  Francis knows the score in Rome and how to effect a legacy of change that reflects himself -- it is by electing cardinals who will choose his successor, by appointing like minded bishops who will run seminaries and recruit priests of a like mind.  It is the way the faith has always been corrupted and the way it has always been reformed and restored.  If it is to happen among Lutherans, it will happen this way.  The right people in the top job is good and the clear record of the church from its assemblies is good but the best thing we can do to keep the church faithful is to recruit faithful young men, send them to faithful seminaries, and call them back into the congregations to preach and teach the renewal of the faith from the ground up.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The funeral as religious barometer. . .

One of the ways to chart the religious decline in a nation is not only church attendance but how people typically deal with death.  Take England for example.  Eight-years-ago 67 per cent of people requested traditional religious services with but 12 per cent choosing a non-religious funeral. Last year (2018), just 13 per cent opted for a religious funeral and the vast majority chose a secular remembrance of their death with rites and ceremonies of their own choosing.

America is always well behind other countries when it comes to such trends but the same trend can be seen among us as well.  More and more Christians are opting for a Celebration of Life in which happy and nostalgic remembrances replace the funeral rite with its focus on the hope that is in us in Christ. 

The religious funeral is dying a rather quick death in England with more and more Britons are opting for increasingly secular and, well, rather quirky ways to mourn their dead.  Instead of people dressed in  black with pallbearers marching in unison and the somber tone of grief and tears among the mourners in crematoriums, churches and cemeteries, the British are expressing their grief in more personal ways.  In the vast majority of cases, it's no longer in a traditional funeral service.  According to the largest provider of funeral services in Briton, funerals now represent the unique life an individual has lived. They are seeing requests for wonderfully personalized ceremonies, whether that be on the 18th hole of a golf club, or having a pet dog present on the day. The choices are endless, it would seem, and few requests are considered out of bounds.

Americans have turned their funeral homes into places for more than viewing the dead.  Increasingly they have become venues for the same kind of personal expressions of grief and remembrances of the  life of the deceased without benefit of church, rite, or Scripture.  Even among so-called Christians!  It is one more way in which we as a nation find ways in which the faith has become increasingly distant from the ways in which we see ourselves or understand life in general.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Preaching the Creed. . .

I was reading a sermon of St. Augustine, preached to catechumens preparing for baptism.  The sermon went through the creed phrase by phrase.  This section was preached on the forgiveness of sins:
 “The forgiveness of sins.” If this did not exist in the Church, there would be no hope. If there were no forgiveness of sins in the Church, there would be no hope of a future life and an eternal liberation. Thanks be to God who gave his Church this gift. You are about to come to the holy fountain; you will be washed by baptism; you will be renewed by the bath of regeneration; and you will be without sin when you come up out of that bath. All those past things that were pursuing you will be destroyed there. Your sins were like the Egyptians following, pursuing, the Israelites, but only up to the Red Sea. What does that mean: up to the Red Sea? Up to the fountain of Christ consecrated by the cross and blood of Christ. What is red makes red…. If you see the cross, notice the blood, too. If you see what is hanging there, notice what is flowing. The side of Christ was pierced by a lance and our price flowed out. Baptism is marked with the mark of Christ, that is, the water by which you were dyed and as it were passed through the Red Sea. Your sins are your enemies. They follow you, but only up to the sea. When you will enter that sea, you will escape and those sins will be destroyed, just as while the Israelites were escaping on to dry land, water covered the Egyptians. And what does Scripture say? “Not one of them remained” (Ps 105[106]: 11).  (Augustine, Sermon 215, 8, PL 38, 1065)
The reason why this section is so memorable is that I had just presided at a couple of baptisms and so I had just prayed twice on one Sunday Luther's memorable Flood Prayer.  The similarities between this sermon of Augustine and that Flood Prayer are unmistakable.  It reminds me that few things are really new.  I wonder sometimes if any part of my sermons are really original at all -- listening to so many sermons and reading them leaves little room for originality but more borrowed creativity.  What is certainly true of my sermons must also be true of Luther whose borrowed phraseology remains a powerful prayer within his reformed baptismal rite.  Who knows who Augustine borrowed it from?  In any case it does not diminish from the edification that flows from those words.

I wish that more of our baptismal instruction and new member classes were of the caliber of this preaching from Augustine.  Sadly, I fear it is not.  Preaching the creed should not be the odd occasional sermon but part of our regular catechetical work on behalf of those preparing for baptism, adult confirmation, church membership, AND the ongoing renewal of the faith among those long ago baptized and confirmed.

That is about all I have for today. . . 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Celebrity Status. . .

It occurred to me, as it might to many others, that a person spends a great deal of time and energy to obtain celebrity status and then spends a great deal of time and energy to hide from that celebrity status.  A curiosity, indeed.  In much the same way, we tend not to notice celebrities when they show up where we least expect or fail to look like themselves.

On TV is a commercial in which Taylor Swift is a waitress and bartender and few recognize her even though her poor service and ineptitude at those roles should have suggested something was amiss.  Perhaps you have seen it.  It is a humorous take on reality.  We could all be served by famous people and never know it because none of us expect to be served by famous people.  That is the key to it all.  We expect to be served by anonymous folks who have no names or special identities.  We expect to sit in special places at special tables and to be served by people who are always in the background while all the attention is on us and what we are saying and doing.

A few weeks ago we heard something of a parable from Jesus about presuming our place of honor and choosing instead to sit lower rather than expecting privilege that did not belong to us.  We hear Him all the time tell us about humility -- sometimes warning us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought and other times by demonstrating a servant's heart.  He knows our hearts and bluntly insists to disciples competing for honor that it is not to be that way among us.  But most of all He simply does what not one of us expects.  He who should be served is the servant of all.

Now you may be wondering about a rambling thought in which Taylor Swift and Jesus are the only two named individuals.  My point is not to compare the two but to describe how unlikely it is that celebrities might be servants or servants celebrities.  Most folks work their whole lives to get up a step or two on the ladder of success where they are not the servants of all.  Few look back as they make their way up that staircase of accomplishment and notoriety.  Yet it seems curious how many long for anonymity and find the top of the heap is not what they expected it to be.  They don't really want to give up that celebrity status but they would like to disappear ever now and then.  They want a break from fame (though seldom from fortune).

Our humility is usually a temporary reprieve from exaltation, a vacation from the burdens of fame but not quite an embrace of servanthood.  Our Lord is Son of God in human flesh and blood but this was no fantasy trip to see how the other half lives.  This is His saving purpose and destiny.  He is determined to embrace this servanthood even at the cost of suffering and death upon the cross.  He does not take a break from the glory of heaven but leaves to accomplish a greater glory -- one revealed on the cross.  And the miracle of it all is that He did this freely out of His great and profound love for us.

What is even more amazing is that this is the path He calls us to follow.  Take up your cross and follow Me, He says. Love as I have loved you.  We would do just about anything to avoid becoming servant of all until the Holy Spirit creates in us a new heart in which this servant life is not what we run from but run to.  You see this in the history of Christianity and its mercy works on behalf of the poor, the sick, the orphan, the widow, the aged, the infirm, and those alone.  From the cause of the unborn to the insistence that death cannot be consoled with a funny story and a smile, Christians continue along the way of humility, service, and mercy work.  This is not and should never become a vacation time of service before we head back to our glory lives but the radical direction of this new life created in us in our baptism into Christ.

Given the way Christianity has been hijacked by those who make God into the servant of our own ignoble pursuits of selfish gain and the elusive dream of happiness, it has become a radical Gospel, indeed.  We need to take care lest humility and the path of the servant become mere diversions in our self-centered lives.  Such is a grave betrayal of the Christian Gospel and perhaps the chief threat to the vitality and viability of the Christian faith itself.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The trick is mercy. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 20C, preached on Sunday, September 15, 2019.

    So what do we do with this parable?  Why did Jesus tell this story?  We would have preferred other information to this confusing account of a crooked manager and an inept owner who ends up commending his dishonest employee.  Go and do likewise?

    Is it that we are so vain that we see ourselves in every parable?  So we read the stories Jesus told and we think they are primarily about us and primarily about what we ought to do, as if the Gospel were merely ethical instruction on how to be better people.  But this parable is worse.  Who is the hero we should emulate?  The blind owner or the scoundrel employee?  If God is the owner, it seems as if God is the one who is being tricked by His despicable and conniving steward.  At least that is how it seems to us.  Be shrewd and the trickster will get what he needs from God.

    Most of the time this parable gets turned into a lesson on stewardship.  But how foolish is that?  Be smart as a thief and quick and you can trick God into forgiving your sins and you still get to keep the property.  Now that is stewardship that could work!  We could have classes on how to outsmart God and how to be one step ahead of God so that you get what you want.  We would like to be told how to make friends with money and still be spiritual.

    Or perhaps we got it all wrong.  Perhaps this parable is not about us.  Perhaps this parable is not primarily about stewardship.  Perhaps the goal is not to trick God into getting what we want.  Perhaps that is the trick God has played on us.  Perhaps this parable is, in fact, about God, about mercy, and about living out your faith in the good works that show the Kingdom of God lives in you.  The hard part of this parable is that we cannot serve two masters, and there are only two choices.  Satan and his sham treasures which are only briefly yours and never purchase what you want or need most... or God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.  He who loves even scoundrels and liars and cheats and adulterers.

    The truth is that we love the idea of justice and part of us wants a just world in which the bad people get what is coming to them and the good people also get what is coming to them.  But that world is a dream, a broken dream shattered in the reality of Eden when Adam and Eve gave up their birthright for the fake freedom the serpent offered.  That world is a dream, a broken dream shattered by the good that good people do not do and the evil that is their secret delight so that no one is good, no one is righteous, and no one is what God created them to be.  That world is a dream, a broken dream shattered by the fact that sin cannot be hidden and its punish death cannot be ignored or refused or reasoned with.  We neither need nor should we want justice from God.  What we should want and what we should seek is what God offers:  mercy.

    This parable seems to be nonsense.  A slick and manipulative manager steals what belongs to another and when he is caught, he steals more and the owner lets him off.
Nobody likes this parable.  Because it offends our sense of right and wrong and our desire for justice.  Mercy is always offensive.  The truth is that we not only cheer the righteous underdog who wins against the evil enemy, we also cheer when a con man cons other con men and when the down and out find a way to success.  Under it all, we don’t want mercy from God; we want the keys to success – even if the path is a bit shady and less than honest.  But what God offers is the confusion of mercy.

    God’s mercy not only offends us but it confuses us because it is so lavish, so generous, and so freely given.  We can understand God saving the folks who go to church and try to be good and pay their taxes and work hard for a living and even love them when their kids go astray.  That is who we think we are.  We deserve such mercy.  But not the evil, the vile, the shameful, the wicked, the despicable, and the deadly.  They deserve justice.  But God gives to those we judge good and to those we judge evil the same mercy.  Repent, people of God.  The blood of Christ cleanses sinners.  The death of Christ rescues you from death and the grave.  None of it because you deserve it!

    You cannot serve two masters.  It is more obvious to us that you cannot serve God and money.  It may be less obvious to us that you cannot call for justice for some and mercy for others.  For just as love for God and the love of money cannot live peaceably in the same heart, neither can the love of justice and the love of mercy live in the same heart.  When God tells us to make friends on earth with our stolen wealth, He is reminding us that mercy is that stolen wealth, the treasure none of us deserve or are worth.  It does not belong to us but yet God gives it to us for the sake of Christ, the Righteous One who suffers in the place of the guilty and dies for those who freely chose death.

    Jesus is not saying to pad the wallets of others, buying people to get what we want. Jesus is calling us to live as the merciful to whom mercy has been shown.  Is this not what we pray for in the Our Father when we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?”  Is this not what we use our money for when we heed the call of God to be Good Samaritans, to feed the hungry, the clothe the naked, to house the homeless, and to heal the wounded?  Is this not what God has called us to do with our time, loving our neighbor as ourselves and serving our neighbor as Christ has served us?  There is no reward in this on earth – especially when the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.  The only reason for such good works is the mercy that constantly surrounds us with grace upon grace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Yes, by all means, be faithful with money and property and time and ability.  But do not forget to be faithful with the mercy that has redeemed you, a lost and condemned sinner, not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood of Christ for you.  But do not try to trick God.  God has tricked you.  You came to Him for justice and He gave you mercy.  You tried to manipulate Him for your ends, and He freely gave up His one and only Son for an end you did not even see coming – for the redemption of your lost lives and for the gift of life death cannot steal.  You were looking for a pat on the back from God and instead He gave Himself into your death so that you might possess now and for all eternity the salvation none of you deserve.  The trick is not ours, it is Gods.  The currency of heaven is not justice or money or reward but mercy.

    We sing about this every Sunday.  What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord.  I will take the sup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord.  I will pay my vows to the Lord, now, in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord’s House, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

    To those who wish to steal His kindness, God freely gives it.  To those who come for justice, God gives mercy beyond justice.  To those who come for a reward, God gives the treasure they neither merited nor deserved.  That is the message of this parable. We think that Jesus is trying to tell us to give more money and be better people.  All the money in the world and all our good deeds can purchase us nothing at all.  We continue to be tricked by Satan into believing that temporary treasures should be the focus of our lives and our good works can make everything right.  And all the while God is there, with mercy so lavish and generous that it seems positively wasteful to us.  His extravagant grace is not our hope, it is His promise.  This is why we cannot serve two masters.  Mercy owns us all or not at all.  Grace possesses us fully or not at all.
    To those who would murder the vineyard owner’s son in order to possess the vineyard, God freely gives it.  To those who would trick God into getting mercy, God freely gives it.  To those who think themselves good, God freely gives real goodness in the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ our Lord.  You do not need to get this parable for God has gotten you in it.  He has swallowed up all your shrewdness and what you thought you could get by deception or by merit, God has given you freely in Christ Jesus.  In Christ, there is only one purpose for the things of this world, and that is to display the kingdom.  In Christ there is only fruit of the good works we go, they testify of Christ and that we belong to Him.  In Christ we see that justice is not what we need but mercy and this is exactly what God gives us.

    Thanks be to God.  Amen!

Home schooling. . .

I must admit that the whole home schooling movement caught me somewhat by surprise.  Over the years of my ministry I have seen it grow and grow.  In my own parish are many families of home schoolers.  While confessing that I am not sure I have the nature or patience to serve as teacher to my children as a home schooler, I do have to admire how many of those create extremely effective environments of learning.  As a whole home schooled children tend to know their stuff better than the average student in another school setting.  That should come as little surprise since those home schooled enjoy a higher and deeper level of commitment to their education than the typical parent stressed by work, work at home, the temptations of self, and such.  It is a balancing act for us all.

Still in all the fact that some 2 million children are home schooled is impressive.  Their is a certain level of sacrifice involved on the part of parent and child but there are also great benefits to be reaped.  That said, the fact is that all children are home schooled and every home is a school of some sort.  As Christians we not only admit this fact but count on it.  Our understanding of the faith and the primary examples of the faithful come not from the Church but from the home in the form of our parents.  It has always been this way and always will.  Even those who profess no faith at all are home schoolers.  They are surely imparting their values (or lack thereof) and teaching their children by implication and impression if not by outright design.

This is the fact so often lost on the role and power of the family.  Every home with children is a home school.  Whether by deliberate intention or by accident, every child is first shaped by what they see, hear, experience, and learn from the home environment.  Mom and Dad have no choice but to be teachers and examples.  Though we do not often phrase this in this way, this is the profound truth and impact of the home upon the life of the child, for good or for ill. 

The Church depends upon the home first to provide the faithful center in which our children learn to call God Father not by doctrinal instruction but by prayer from their earliest days.  The Church expects not to replace parents but to support their primary role as teachers of the faith to their children and the agencies of the Church are supportive by nature -- Sunday schools and catechism classes.  The Church may have the ability to make up for certain things that lack at home but the Church cannot bypass the home to instill the deep and abiding values of the faith.  The Church is best when instructing the children in doctrine to support the instruction in piety and life that is already formed in them in the home.  The Church needs to be careful not to compete with the home or to busy the lives of parents and children with programs that do not relate to this central role  of teaching and nurturing the faith -- a lesson hard for churches to learn.

The tools are there.  Bible story book, Bible, catechism, hymnal, etc...  These are the resources provided to teach the faith.  The opportunities are there.  Bed time prayers, meal time prayers, discussions of events from the perspective of our faith and morals, etc...  The only question remaining is if the will is there to take up the cause and home school our children in the faith.  So if you have never had a formal math or literature or science class with you children, that does not mean you do not teach them.  Even if your children get on the bus each morning and head to a public or private or church school, that does not mean you are not a home schooler.  The sooner we remember this truth, the better it will be for our children, for the home, for the Church, and for the faith.

Monday, September 23, 2019

What really damns. . .

Sadly, no longer do most folks fear the divine judgment at all.  On the one hand most folks are not sure if hell even exists, much less if anyone is really in it.  On the other hand, hell is too good for those who have been judged lacking in the court of moral opinion.

The Jeffery Epstein death (was it murder or suicide?) has provoked again the idea that for some, hell is too good and that the world ought to get a vote on who should be condemned there.  To be damned in the court of public opinion is more significant than to the come under the scrutiny of God's judgment or suffer His eternal condemnation.  It seems that the real judgment that matters is when the world deems these so guilty that they are beyond redemption.

Mass murderers, especially of children, fit such a bill.  So do those who violate the prevailing social mores (from those who misgender to those who adhere to the values of the Kingdom while the world has moved on).  In other words, we reserve to ourselves the ability to grant eternal judgments against those whom we abhor but we refuse to grant to God any accountability for good and evil.

It is a curious situation in which we find ourselves.  On the one hand our culture seems to reject out of hand the idea that there is any divine power or being to hold accountable any and all people, On the other hand, we seem to reserve to ourselves the judgment by which we condemn the objectionable to a fate worse than death.  What is even more curious is that we cannot even agree to what constitutes sin EXCEPT in the case of the most egregious wrongs.  So the standard if judgment is always moving, sometimes to the surprise of those doing the judging even as to those being judged!

We want a hierarchy of guilt as much as want the right and privilege of determining who is guilty!  At the same time, we want to be able to define guilt and to determine how the guilty should suffer.  It should not be lost to us that we are terribly inconsistent in this.  Isn't it really simpler and more straight forward to trust in the Law of God to define what is wrong and what is right and then to assign to God the judgment that discerns not only the guilt or innocence but what is just and what is merciful?  Perhaps we will never learn unless the Lord reveal it to us.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Biblical history supported. . .

I have often repeated the wisdom of Dr. Paul Maier who said archeology is a friend to Scripture's chronology and historical record.  Another historical fact in the Bible chronology appears to have been supported by an archeological find.  It seems that an ancient stone altar that was discovered in Jordan in 2010 has revealed inscriptions about a war in which the Moabite kingdom won control of the city of Ataroth from the Kingdom of Israel.

Hidden within the Moabite ruins of Ataroth, in Jordan, Live Science reported there were two lines of inscriptions in the ancient Moabite language, with Egyptian Hieratic numerals. The first inscription seems to refer to bronze looted from Ataroth and the speculation is that these were spoils of war sacrificed at this altar.

The second inscription is still somewhat a mystery. Only fragments remain but they were able to decipher enough to reveal “4,000 foreign men were scattered and abandoned in great number.” It suggests that the victorious Moabites were able to scatter the remaining forces of Israel to take the city.

While there are still many questions, it does appear that the age of the stone altar and the nature of the inscriptions could be referring to the Moabite rebellion against Israel and their capture of Ataroth, something mentioned in the Hebrew Bible where the Moabites were required to pay an annual tribute to Israel.  These inscriptions carved into the stone altar confirm the Biblical records of this war between the Ancient Israelites and the Moabites and this is another example of the authenticity of biblical records.  It also gives new insight into the advanced nature of the Moabite culture.

Instead of being afraid of archeology, the Biblical record gains credibility from such archeological finds.  Instead of discounting the Biblical evidence, we should presume its accuracy.

Friday, September 20, 2019

More than meets the eye. . .

There are all sorts of reasons why there are fewer men in seminary.  We could spend a day listing all of them we could think of and it would make us feel even worse about the great need and the dismal numbers of those preparing to be pastors.  I have heard a host of reasons from the influence of culture to the fewer numbers of young Lutheran (fill in the blank) men to the cost of education to the pitiful salaries paid to too many pastors.  You can figure it out.  But there is another reason. . .

I was reading to my Bible study from 2 Timothy in which St. Paul commented on the role of mother and grandmother Eunice and Lois and their faith upon the man and the vocation of young Timothy.  It is a reminder that many of those preparing for seminary (like the ones nearing retirement) were supported along the way by faithful moms, grandmothers, and other family.  I cannot encourage congregations and families enough in their prayers for young men and their discernment of the pastoral vocation and their support along the way as they are formed for that ministry

Of course, the elephant in the room right now is the burden laid upon those considering and choosing to become pastors by the sins and failings of those who are (or were) pastors.  It is a painful time for the Church and a painful moment for those who may consider but find the burden of the clergy and their very public sins more than they can bear.  I understand this.  But this is not simply the many sins of some pastors.  It is the way Satan is using this to undermine both those currently in the office as well as discouraging those who might be.  This is a time of spiritual warfare for the Church and for those who are and those preparing to be pastors.  

Satan hates anything of God and Satan hates pastors and those preparing for this service.  Satan knows that the easiest way to strike against those in the pew is to tempt the pastors who lead them and to magnify their sins in a very public way.  Jesus knew this and cautioned the disciples of old and those who succeed them by quoting from Zechariah (13:7), Strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.  It is Satan's goal to scatter the flock and he begins by undermining the nobility of the pastoral calling and attacking those who are pastors.

Let us be frank.  Sometimes this happens right within the congregation.  As I write this I note several pastors who resigned from their parishes and from the clergy roster as victims of congregational conflict.  Now maybe they did not handle it well but the fact is that Satan fuels just this kind of problem in a profound effort to weaken congregations, discourage people in the pews, and cause pastors to give up the vocation they trained so hard for and which the Church conferred upon them.

This is not simply about statistics or cultural change or demographics or economics but about the real battle that is taking place inside our congregations and within the homes and lives of our pastors (and those who might become pastors).  Now more than ever, this is a time in which we need prayerful support for our pastors and for those preparing for the pastoral office.  I encourage you as God's people to pray for your pastor, to prayer for the parish in which he serves, to pray for those in college and seminary right now preparing to become pastors, and to pray for those young men who are in catechism class or middle school or high school and watching as they consider the Lord's call.

We can answer all the reasons for declining numbers of young men preparing for the pastoral office  with good and earnest programs but the reality is that Satan would still be at work undermining our programs and finding cracks in the programs and in the men touched by them.  If you see your pastor struggling or want to make sure that there will be a man to follow your pastor when his time of active service ends, do everything in your power to help.  Financially support the seminaries and support the programs in place to help with educational debt.  Financially support the congregation so that the pastor can turn his full attention to his work (and will have health insurance to cover him and his family).  These are both very important.  But do not neglect the ministry of prayer as you lift up the man whom you call pastor today and those who you may call pastor in the future.  Pray and pray and pray.  Pray in the worship service and pray on your own.  Pray against the plans and powers of the evil one who seeks to overthrow God's people especially by wounding their leaders.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Amusing ourselves to death -- literally

From the Bishop of the Anglicans in Norwich who turned their cathedral into an amusement park:
God would be “revelling” in the joy a “glorious” helter-skelter has brought to Norwich Cathedral, its bishop has told his congregation from its slide.  The fairground ride had been in the nave of the cathedral for 11 days.  It was intended to give people a different view of the building, although some accused the cathedral of “making a mistake”.

The Bishop of Lynn, the Rt Revd Jonathan Meyrick, delivered his sermon from halfway up the ride.  “God is a tourist attraction,” he told his congregation during the cathedral’s final service with the helter-skelter as a backdrop.  “God wants to be attractive to us… for us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world around us and this glorious helter-skelter is about just that.”

The bishop had climbed to the top of the helter-skelter before edging halfway down the slide, where he stopped to deliver his sermon.  He then received a loud cheer as he whooshed to the bottom.  “Enjoying ourselves is a good thing to do and God will be revelling in it with us and all those people who have found fun and joy and laughter here,” he said.
Enough has been said about the folly of making God's House into a fun house.  I will not pile on to the stupidity of such a move.  Instead I want to focus on how the Bishop has tapped into the modern idea of God -- the therapeutic moralistic deism kind of God -- who has no more noble intention than our amusement and no more noble goal than making us happy at any cost.  This is certainly in step with the zeitgeist but it is very out of step with the Lord.

We have, even within the Christian community, adopted the idea that amusement is the highest purpose and the most noble goal of life.  As if this were not scandal enough, we have presumed that the same is true for the mighty Lord who is God above all.  Amusement and entertainment, pleasure and whim represent, in this view, not a distraction but the central focus of this mortal life.  Marriage and work, children and community, nation and society all are subservient to overall goals of amusement.  Redemption's ultimate purpose is to set us free to pursue such amusement and to pursue such happiness.  In this view the Church exists for this alone and worship becomes a mere tool of such pleasure.  Under it all is the equally scandalous presumption that God is happy when we are happy and His work is directed toward this goal, if not exclusively at least primarily.

But is this not exactly the weakness exploited by Satan in the Garden when his questions to Eve presumed the same thing.  Does not God want you to be like Him has become does not God want you to be happy.  They are not far from each other.  To seek such happiness above all things is the path not of God's will and purpose but the desire of the sinful heart.  God ends up watching us like a parent who belly laughs at his son or daughter amusing himself or herself.  And some Christians cannot see how this is not good, right, and salutary.

In the end, the cathedral has placed Eden's fall front and center, not to expose it for what it is but to laud it as the best thing for us.  In the end the bishop has forgotten that underlying God's saving work is His will and desire that we should be holy as He is holy.  In the end, the world is not so much applauding God as it is sighing with relief that holiness and righteousness can be cast aside without guilt or fear.  Amusement, happiness, and pleasure can be given prominent place in what God desires for us, we desire for ourselves, and what the Church exists to encourage.  Redemption ends up being rather an afterthought in such a scheme.  And if that is the cast, Satan must surely be laughing -- amused by the way churches have adopted his modus operendi as their own business principle.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Unreasonable Grace. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 19C, preached on Sunday, August 15, 2019 by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    Again we hear Jesus’ parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.  There’s a lot that can be said about Jesus teaching with parables and stories.  Stories are an important tool for instruction.  They get our attention; we want to know what happens.  They’re memorable; they stick with us.  Stories are illustrative; they show truth at play in real life situations.  And Jesus’ parables are no different.  But there’s something surprising about many of Jesus’ parables. … They’re unreasonable. 
    Look again at the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  This shepherd has 100 sheep, and he loses one.  Right away we see the shepherd isn’t very good at his job.  The whole job of a shepherd is to keep his sheep, and he loses one of them.  But, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, because sheep do wander off at times, and keeping an eye on 100 of them can be tough. 
So the shepherd sees that one is missing.  Now, simple math says that if you take 1 away from 100, you still have 99.  The shepherd still had 99 sheep to tend to.  He was still responsible for keeping 99 other sheep alive.  Again, simple math says that the value of 99 sheep is more than 1 sheep; therefore, it’d be reasonable to just forget about that missing sheep, one that probably wanders off all the time anyways, and look after the rest, making sure not to lose any more.
 That’s what we’d do.  We’d look at the other 99 and value them more.  We’d forget about that other sheep.  In the grand scheme of things, what’s just one sheep?  What’s just 1 compared to 99? 
But this isn’t what the shepherd does.  He leaves the other 99 in the open country and goes looking for that one that was lost, with no guarantee of finding it.  He risked 99 for 1. 
Some commentators and Bible Study notes will say that these 99 sheep weren’t left completely unattended; that there’d be partner shepherds there to help.  But Jesus doesn’t say that.  And even if that’s true based on traditional shepherding practices, that still doesn’t reasonably explain why a shepherd would spend time searching for one sheep when there’s no guarantee of finding it.  It could be severely wounded.  It could be dead, having fallen off a cliff, or torn apart by a predator.  Or that sheep could just be simply lost forever, unable to be found.  No matter what, there’s a great risk of not finding it, and then how foolish would that shepherd be?
But this parable has a happy ending.  Luck would have it that the shepherd did find that sheep.  And so he carries it back to the flock. 
But then, the shepherd continues to be unreasonable.  Going home he calls his friends and neighbors and invites them to rejoice and celebrate in the finding of that sheep.  Who does that?  It’s just a sheep, and if this was a formal celebration with food and drink, the cost of that could be more than the cost of that found sheep.  The whole Parable of the Lost Sheep is unreasonable.  And the same can be said about the Parable of the Lost Coin.  One lost coin out of 10, forget about it.  And then to celebrate its finding like you won the lottery, how foolish! 
    It can be hard for us to comprehend the point of Christ’s parables.  The stories we remember, but the truths they teach we don’t always grasp because they don’t fit with the reasonableness of our world.  And that’s the point.  Jesus’ parables aren’t about our world.  Jesus’ parables aren’t proclaiming the truths of what we value and what the world around us values.  Jesus’ parables are about the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus’ parables are about what He values.  Jesus’ parables, they’re unreasonable because He is unreasonable.  He’s unreasonable with grace.
    God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down...I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (Ezk 34:15-16).  Christ is the Shepherd and He comes looking for His lost sheep.  That’s you, that’s me.  We’re God’s lost sheep.  We’re lost, not because we simply can’t find our way; but because we wander off.  We wander off into sin.  We’re not the 99 who stay put.  We’re that one sheep that strays all the time.  We see the green grass of temptations and we follow it.  We don’t want to stay put.  We don’t want to stay in the safety of God’s flock, listening to His Word.  Instead we wander off into the darkness of sin, satisfying our immediate desires, not thinking about the dangers that surround us; not thinking about the devil that lurks around wanting to devour us (1 Pt 5:8).  If it weren’t for our Savior Shepherd who came for us, then we’d be lost forever, unable to find our way back.  We’d be dead.  We are dead. 
    We can’t find our way back to God because we’re dead in our trespasses.  We’re trapped with no way out.  We need our Shepherd to come and put us on His shoulder and carry us home.  That’s what Christ did.  He put our broken, dead, sinful selves on His shoulders.  He carried our sin to the cross, and there He left it.  There He died, so you would live.  The Shepherd exchanged His life for you, His straying sheep.  What an unreasonable thing to do, to die for someone who constantly rejects you, who consistently turns from life to death, and yet that’s what Christ did.  While you were still a sinner, Christ died for you (Rom 5:8), you as His flock, and you as a single sheep. This is completely unreasonable grace, and what’s even more unreasonable, this is celebrated.
    At the end of Jesus’ parables, He gives an explanation: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7).  There’s joy over repentance.  There’s joy over salvation.  All of heaven, the angels of God and the saints who’ve gone before us, they celebrate your salvation.  All of heaven celebrates when a sinner is brought from death to life.  There’s no greater joy for God than when one of His sheep is saved.  There’s no greater joy for God than when you repent of your sin and look to your Savior Shepherd for salvation.  So repent.  See how unreasonable Christ is for coming after you.
    Jesus’ parables are unreasonable.  Jesus is unreasonable.  He’s unreasonable with grace.  No one in their right mind would die for sinners.  No one in their right mind would give up their life for an evil person.  And yet that’s what Christ has done for you.  It’s unreasonable that your righteous Savior would die for you, a sheep that constantly strays, and yet He did.  It’s unreasonable that angels and saints in heaven would celebrate this, and yet they do.  Christ came to find the lost.  He came to find you.  It’s unreasonable, but that’s what He did, and that’s what He celebrates.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Formal informality. . .

The whole nature of contemporary worship forms is a contradition.  It is an informal form which is formalized.  In other words, it is a casual thing which is forced to take on aspects of formality simply because of the scope of it all (the numbers of those attending) or the common focus upon one end.  It is, as it were, the difference between dinner in which people eat what they want alone at their tables and converse as they desire, in a world on their own AND dinner theater in which people eat and drink at their own table but focused upon the same entertainment.  Formal informality.  The goal is not to be formal but the nature of it all requires that the intentional informality take on aspects of the formal.  One person emcees the entire event.  There is a stage.  There are performers.  There is a theme or direction for what takes place.  It is informal by intention but forced to be somewhat formal simply because of what it is and the scope of it all.

Those who belong to a liturgical church but yearn for what happens in the evangelical and big box non-denominational churches have attempted to create a contemporary worship that is designed to be as minimally formal as possible.  Of course, in reality it is not informal at all.  It is scripted, planned, directed, and controlled.  The audio and the video are controlled and there is little the is as spontaneous as it wants to appear.  In fact, a great deal of work goes into making the formal appear informal, causal, spontaneous, and unscripted.  But the impression remains among those on both sides of the stage that this is casual and that the only formality permitted is the formality required to make the scripted event look casual and unscripted.

In contrast, I often describe the worship in my parish as informal formality.  It is not that we script informality but that we have an abundance of children under the age of 5 and this brings with it a certain level of informality -- even though the worship is decidedly formal, scripted by the book, ceremonial, ritual, and paced out according to the rhythm of the church  year and the liturgy.  Those who preside chant and bow and genuflect and elevate and stand certain places and hold hands a certain way.  So do many in the pews.  But at the same time, one must account for the fact that we have children whose voices are not mute, who fidget in the pew, who have to visit the restroom way too often, who sometimes munch on Cheerios, and who, although they know what is happening within the Divine Service, as still kids.  On both sides of the chancel, we acknowledge the presence of children without letting them control or direct the Divine Service.  We lead them through the Divine Service and they are absorbing what happens and learning its words and rhythm while still being, well, kids.  We are not casual about anything but we have 50-70 children at the Divine Service every week.  We are formally incorporating them into the pace and rhythm of the Divine Service while at the same time acknowledging that they are learning, they are children.

Informal formality and formal informality are not the same thing.  Formal informality is a deception.  It purports to be casual and spontaneous when it is as scripted as any high church liturgy.  It is scripted in such a way as to make it appear to be unscripted.  It is, in this respect, a lie.  Informal formality does not attempt to be anything but formal, liturgical, reverent, and ceremonial and yet it does so with a congregation of infants, children, and youth who are occasionally unscripted yet are being catechized and taught at the same time.

What I find humorous is that contemporary worship and contemporary Christian music is as well practiced and rehearsed as any liturgical service.  In fact, more so.  The liturgical service is practiced not by rehearsing its words and actions but by worshiping within its structure, language, music, and ritual.  It is practiced not by preparation but by doing and praying the liturgy.  In this respect, it is teaching the children who may seem to be casual and informal how to be formal and reverent.  It does not happen overnight.  It happens over time.  Whether you are a child in the Divine Service or a stranger to a liturgical tradition, you practice and rehearse by being there week after week after week.  It is authentic in this regard where the scripted contemporary service that tries to appear spontaneous is a deception.

As I have said before, my wandering and meandering thoughts can often go strange places. . . so it was today!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Great Feminist Pius XII. . .

The Roman Catholic Church proclaims as dogma that the Virgin Mary "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950, in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus by exercising papal infallibility.  Lutherans might complain about this and the East prefers the Dormition of Mary but from a modern day nun is a curious perspective, indeed, on this day and its appointed readings.

The feast of the Assumption means that Mary is just as good as the guys.  Or so says Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ.  She addresses the Assumption of Mary as a rather common occurrence -- both from within the salvation history of God's people and from secular history as well.  Apparently a lot of people have been raised up there somewhere, wherever that is, where God is.  Everyone from on the mythical twins who founded Rome to Roman emperors to, well, a lot of folks.  The moral of the story is that Jesus and Mary rate with the great ones.  However, don't get too comfortable with that image because being with the great ones is a struggle and not something wonderful or peaceful.  Revelation 11 & 12 are seen to identify Mary with the refugees and immigrants who fight for place.  Mary's song is not peaceful either but unsettling and even, well, violent.  There you have it.  A Roman Catholic nun's perspective on the Assumption of Mary.  I am not making this up.

Preaching and teaching on behalf of the Church is a solemn responsibility.  It is not exclusive to women or to religious to make up things and invent meanings to the texts before them.  But when it happens, those who add to or subtract from God's Word should be marked and avoided.  The faith deserves more than speculation or moralism or even heresy.  The faith and the faithful deserve preachers and teachers who will be faithful to Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.  They should not ever be subjected to the doubts or imaginings of the preacher or teacher in place of the truth that does not change.  But when it does happen, the faith expects the faithful not to sit politely but to rise and depart quickly from the places and peoples who substitute what I think for the moment for the truth that endures forever.

So another unique perspective on this is how prescient Pope Pius XII was in 1950, to imagine the feminist movement and to give them a little feast so that they might know that Mary was as good as the guys, that she gave as good as she got, and that Mary is a radical voice for everything, including immigration.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A few random thoughts. . .

When I was a child, I looked forward to summer.  It was not simply the end of the school year (for that matter, I loved school) but it was the beginning of a season less busy with the ordinary and with more room for the extraordinary.  For my family that meant cookouts and days spent on the beach at the river and time on the farm (from cutting cockleburs to putting up hay) to just playing outdoors.  Those were the days when my brother and I said good-bye to our mother in the morning and did not return until meals.  It was a time in which the danger so much a part of our mentality today was far from our thoughts and fears.

As a young adult, summer was time off from college and time for work.  Back then you could actually work through the summer and earn enough money to pay for most of your college expenses come fall and spring!  But it was also time back with high school friends -- friendships put on hold because after graduation we disbursed to the four winds in our various academic pursuits.  After seminary, summer was marked by my ordination and move to my first parish.  It was a summer of excitement as the adventure began and I finally (after 8 years) was entering my first full-time job.  Even after this, summers were lazy times.  Sunday school was not held during the summer and the whole life of my first parish slowed down greatly during June, July, and August.  It was a welcome pace as we had not only more leisure time but more time to spend with those whom we loved.

Somewhere summer began to disappear.  This last year it was hardly distinguishable from the rest of the year.  There was no slow down or even pause.  It was no different than the months before or the months after.  Part of it was the time away due to the Floor Committee Weekend, the National Youth Gathering, and the Synod Convention.  Part of it was the fact that our beloved Cantor of 22 years retired and we were in active search mode for a successor to continue his legacy.  Part of it was due to the fact that we continued to take care of our granddaughter while her mom and dad attended to their full-time jobs.  Part of it was due to the fact that I had some deadlines to meet through the summer.  But I missed summer this year.  I longed for the old days in which you found time to come home early and stay up late and host family and friends around the grill and take off for parts unknown.  I missed it because it never happened this year.

Part of me blames technology.  I have one of those smart phones that means I am connected even when I am technically off.  Emails find me, texts ding, and the phone rings.  The pace of life is dictated by many things but especially by the rapid speed with which technology finds us and we find others.  I am not at all sure that cell phones or emails or social media have improved life and made me more productive but they surely have blurred the distinctions between work time and time off.  This is definitely not a good thing.

Part of me blames, well, me.  I admit that I find it hard to take my foot off the gas and slow down.   It is easy to fall into the trap of confusing busyness with success and to use a full calendar rather than the ministry of the Word and Sacraments as justification for earning your wages.  I know I am guilty of that.  I take on too much and some of what I take on does not need to be done.  But all of that does not stop me from looking at the calendar and wondering where did summer go, what about all those things I thought I would do in the down time of summer, and why the world seems to be going faster rather than slower.  Guess it is time to put away my white shoes that I never wore.  Labor Day has come and gone and with it all my summer hopes and dreams.  Maybe you are in the same boat?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Tradition is the radical choice. . .

There was a time when to step into a church building was to enter an alien space.  The threshold was a marking point between the world and the world to come, between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.  It was not simply the architecture that made churches stand out.  It was who they are and what went on within.  The Church clearly understood to be the holy ground on which one stood before the Lord, where the people of God received His gifts and grace, and where the people of God anticipated the promise which was theirs by baptism and faith.

For those entering a church building, it was a strange experience -- something clearly out of the ordinary.  I had a hint of this when a young man came to the door of our church building and asked if he could come in and pray.  When he entered the Sanctuary, he gasped.  He said, "This is a real church!"  He stood and looked around at the stained glass and the dance of their colorful lights upon the floor and furnishings.  He stared at the Christus Rex above the altar.  He was in awe of the painting behind the altar, of the statues around the building, and of the imposing altar, pulpit, and font.  He looked at the processional cross and candles.  He saw the thurible off to the side.  It was some time taking it all in before he bowed his head to pray.

I had not thought much about what I saw -- it had become normal to me.  I had forgotten that the Church is anything but normal to the world and that by architecture and decoration this foreign space was planted in the world but not of it.  Perhaps for too many generations there has been the push to erase the distinction between the sacred and the secular and to build church buildings that looked familiar and ordinary (like the public spaces and shopping malls of the world).  Perhaps the Church has come to blend in instead of standing out.  With this young man I was reminded again that the Church is not meant to blend into the landscape or speak with an indistinct voice.  Just the opposite.  The Church and what happens within her walls is other worldly.

We live in an age in which perhaps the most radical thing the Church can do is to be true to her roots, to honor the tradition passed down through the ages, to speak with the vocabulary and voice of Scripture, and to act with the rites, ritual, and ceremonies through which the means of grace come to us.  Tradition has become the most radical choice and position today.  In fact, the Church needs to become weird again. 

If we are to be the people of God and manifest the marks of His eternal kingdom to a world that knows not us or His kingdom, then who we are and what we do must point to the world to come, to the transcendent God has planted within this world of time and space.  By our reverence and worship we manifest this eternal truth to a world so bound to the moment.  We demonstrate that these things are REAL and eternally so. When we act reverently and bow toward the altar, we point to eternity. When we kneel in confession and at the altar rail, we point to eternity. When we pray with closed hands and bowed heads, we point to eternity. When we worship in the sacred language of Scripture and tradition, we point to eternity. When we dare to remember and confess our sin and death in confidence of God's forgiveness, we point to eternity. When we touch the baptismal water and make the sign of the cross, we point to eternity.  We we sing in unified voice the hymn, chants, and high thanksgivings of the ordinary and pericopes, we point to eternity.  When we wear vestments that mask our individualized choices of clothing and dress, we point to eternity.  When we hear the organ intone the song of the Church and the voices of the choir raised to God, we point to eternity.

This has never been normal but odd, weird, even bizarre behavior before the world.  We need this now more than ever.  We need to be who we are and not who we were before baptism set us apart to be the children of God and faith heard the voice of God calling us to enter into His holy place to receive His holy gifts.  The Church needs to be radical in this way now more than ever.  We have tried making the Church less odd and more normal and it has succeeded only in distracting us from who we are by God's grace and design and what we are here to do.  We have bled off members and strength by making our peace with the world, accommodating the world's ideas and desires, and compromising the doctrine of Scripture and the historic witness of the saints.  No more.  Let us be bold enough to stand out and courageous enough to be weird.  Now more than ever the Church lacks not because God has failed us but because we have failed Him.  Let us be renewed in our desire to believe and confess what reason and science finds quaint or ridiculous.  Let us commit ourselves to live and confess the mystery of God manifest in His Word and Sacraments without fear.  The time has come for us to be unapologetically God's in a world where this is the most radical thing we can be.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Triumph of the Holy Cross. . .

Jesus upon the cross speaks seven words before He is ready to give His final sigh.  Then, as the Evangelist Matthew records, When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He yielded up His spirit. At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  The triumph of the cross reveals what was hidden.  What was hidden?  The altar!  Not the face of God or even the back of God walking away in the distance but the altar.  It was revealed.  It was not packed up and put away as something no longer needed but revealed in all its glory to the eyes of those who had not seen it before.  Its sacrifice offered and received for the sake of the world, it is revealed to us as a place now accessible by God's grace and design.  The sacrifice once for all offered to the Father is now offered to us.  The same sacrificial body and blood.  The same crucified and risen Savior.  Now revealed to us in the mystery of bread and wine to be adored with the worship of lips that confess what God has done and gives and in the mouths that receive the Lamb of God with faith and thanksgiving.

Too often the liturgy is seen in terms of what we do and what we want and what we will get out of it.  With that is the presumption, so terribly false, that if we are happy with it and like it, God is happy, too.  The veil of the temple is torn in two and the altar revealed so that our focus does not rest upon us but upon Him who made this sacrifice as Victim and now offers it to us the sacrament of that sacrifice as Priest. The goofiest idea of all is that the liturgy should be and its success defined as what we find meaningful.  The liturgy is centered in the altar, in the sacrifice once offered to the Father and now offered as sacrifice become sacramental food to us, in which our sins are forgiven and we are thereby assured that we are His forevermore.

The Mass is heaven on earth. God literally rips the curtain and reveals Himself to us at the altar of sacrifice where the Lamb of God gave His life for the life of the world.  The perfect Victim and spotless offering offered once for all is now given to us.  The Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom without end is come to us in time, the foretaste of the eternal feast upon our lips and in our mouths.  This Christ is present here where He has promised whether we believe or not, but our belief is our worship and our reception in faith is our worthiness to stand before Him and receive what He offers.  God does not need the liturgy but we do.  We need it because we are still afflicted by the temptations of the world, the torment of the Old Adam who fights against God's redeeming work, and the time and space which is passing away toward its appointed destiny and we with it.  Here is where God reveals Himself and gives Himself to us.  And it is in this Holy Communion that we abide in Him and He abides in us so that we may bear the good fruit that endures.

When the veil of the temple was torn in two as Jesus breathed His last upon that cross, it not only opened heaven for us, but gave to us the sacrifice as sacramental gift and food.  It looks to physical eyes as it is -- bread and wine -- but we see with the eyes of faith that it is Christ's flesh for the life of the world His cup that cleanses us from all our sin.  The death and resurrection of Christ certainly did  raise the dead to heaven, but it also brought and brings heaven on earth to those who are dead in trespasses and sins and born anew to life stronger than death in baptismal water -- a life fed and nourished upon the Body and Blood of  Christ.  Now we see what God sees, the future He has prepared, ourselves as His own new creation, and on this altar, the very and true and corporeal flesh of Christ and His blood.  Within the Divine Service we are united in this blessed communion with Christ and through Christ one to another, in perfect harmony the parts of Christ's body living as one under Christ the head.  If you do not see this in the triumph of the Holy Cross, you have missed something profound and life changing.

Friday, September 13, 2019

If we only believed. . .

The internet has been abuzz with the news that some 70% of Roman Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence and presume that Holy Communion is but a symbolic meal on less than real food.  Oh, the shock and the horror of it all!  But seriously, is anyone really surprised?  I wonder what the real numbers are for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  I doubt that we would feel all that much better than Rome.  Of course officially we maintain a robust confession of Christ's real presence in the bread which is His body and the cup of His blood.  But. . .

Once we stop preaching this, it will disappear from our radar and our beliefs.  The sad truth is that the decline of doctrinal preaching means that most of the folks in the pews are not confronted with what the Church believes, confesses, and teaches as they should be.  Catechetical preaching is urgently needed among Christian people whose primary source of information has moved from the catechism and Bible to the internet and whose idea of truth has narrowed down to one person and one moment.  Doctrinal preaching is urgently needed and especially among the sacramental churches.  Lutherans are no different.

In the move to a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, I told my parish I would not simply make the weekly Eucharist happen but would preach and teach it so that they would understand this was not about my preference or theirs but about what we believe, confess, and teach.  At one point I was told by a parishioner that it was embarrassing to have me point to the altar as I taught about the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood only to see that nothing was there -- it was not communion Sunday.  Another suggested that the preaching and teaching had made them ache to receive it and the ache was almost greater than she could bear when it was not offered.  In the end, they learned that this was not adiaphora and was not personal preference but our identity and confession.

Though sometimes these quotes are apocryphal, it is said that Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said something to the effect: If Catholics really believed that God Himself were present in the Eucharist, they would crawl toward the altar on their stomachs.  I don't know if he said it or not.  I will leave that to others to track down but the sentiment is exactly right.  If we believed.  Ahhhh, that is the problem.  If we actually believed what we say we believe, what a difference there might be in the way we paid attention on Sunday morning, in the shape of our piety, and how we approach the mystery of Christ's presence in the Holy Sacrament.

Lutherans are sacramental Christians.  Our piety flows from the means of grace, the center and focus of the Divine Service.  Our life together is rooted in our baptismal identity.  We hear the Word of God not as some distant word but the familiar voice of our Good Shepherd who calls to us by name and whose voice we recognize.  That Word is the life-giving Word through which the Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying us and all believers in Christ.  It is an active Word, bestowing that of which it speaks.  We are absolved by the voice of Christ speaking through the mouthpiece of the pastor and our sins fall away as the Word is spoken into our ears.  We meet the crucified and risen Lord where He has promised to be -- in the bread which is His body and in the wine which is His blood.  These are not mere symbols but bestow that which they sign.  As Flannery O'Connor famously said, if they are just symbols, then to hell with them!

Sadly, it is often hard to see this on Sunday morning.  We come to God's House with the same enthusiasm we come to a root canal.  We dress to be comfortable but look more like a people headed to a BBQ than to the place where God comes to us as He has promised.  We barely mouth the words of the responses and sing with all the vigor of a people ashamed or embarrassed by what we are singing.  We come to the Lord's Table as if we were heading to snack on something inconsequential instead of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood.  We treat the remains of the Supper as if they were nothing but leftovers (and think how Jesus commanded the disciples to treat what remained after the feeding of the thousands!).  And we go home as if nothing particularly special had happened while we were here.  So when asked what we believe about the Real Presence, it is probably true that we are either not at all sure what it is that we believe or doubt the reality of the whole thing.

We are our rites.  Casual worship makes for casual faith.  What did we used to pray?  Read, mark and inwardly digest?  Try that on Sunday morning with the liturgy.  Wisdom!  Attend!  The Word of God is read!  God is here not in some vague and nebulous fashion but the flesh and blood of Christ right here in bread and wine.  Pastors need to preach it.  People need to hear it.  We all need to believe it.  And we all should act like we believe it.  So many of our problems are related to not actually believing what the Word says and the presence of Christ in holy water, holy bread, and holy wine.  From open communion to the abandonment of the hymnal and liturgy to the loss of the great hymns of the faith to a clock watching people who have more important things to do and places to be than God's House right now to regular attendance that has come to mean once a month or so and to the loss of vocation and the fear of generous giving -- are these not all related to the fact that we no longer believe what we confess and confess what Scripture teaches and teach the Word of the Lord that endures forever?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Children and morality. . .

Better late than ever, so to speak, some politicians have jumped on the idea that having a child is an immoral choice for a world of scarcity, poverty, and climate change.  Yet the reality is that just as some are coming to terms with this, the circumstances have changed and the planet is less in danger of too many people than too few.  This is particularly true when it comes to what drives the economy and those who produce what we need.

Some are beginning to suggest that we have, in the developed world at least, entered the “fertility trap” in which the lifespans of our people extend while the number of children born decreases, thus leaving us with a shortage of those responsible for the economy’s primary production and consumption.  It has often been said that social support networks did well when they were introduced because there were so many paying into the plans for every one receiving a check.  In most developed nations, that is no longer the case.  Those workers who are earning and paying into the social service networks across Europe and even in the US are declining in comparison to those receiving benefits -- due at least in part to the fact that the retired tend to live a fourth to a third of their lives after retiring!  But the real issue here is the decline in the birth rate.

China has had a rigorous policy of enforced birth control and what government has not legislated, culture has produced for Japan, Korea, and Scandinavia.  While there have been some programs to encourage the birth of children, they have had only marginal success.  In many developed nations and even among those known for producing a giant share of the world's goods, the birth rate is too low to sustain the status quo.  The US enjoys a higher fertility rate than most developed nations due to the higher birth rate among migrants. In this, the US has a rather unique ability to absorb immigrants which most nations do not enjoy and, indeed, do not want.  Some nations such as Japan have a virtual prohibition upon immigration.  Despite the rhetoric, the US continues not only to welcome but to assimilate immigrants more successfully and seamlessly than about any other nation in the world.

All of this is well and good.  Statistics are important indicators of the problems before us.  But the great impediment to children is the fact that children and the family no longer enjoy a privileged place in society and culture.  The bigger issue here is that values have changed and the family, with two parents and their children, has dropped in priority both in the minds of young people before they reach adulthood and in the minds of adults (of nearly every age).  It is not uncommon for people to roll their eyes when they see a large family of three or more children.  What was once considered a normal or even small family is not met with judgment even from grandparents and extended family.  A child may be tolerated but more than one child is often seen as excess.  The media and propaganda have done their jobs well and the ideal of a small family or no children at all has permeated the modern mind -- and even the mind of Christians!

My own parish is an anomaly.  We typically have 50-60 children in worship under confirmation age.  In other words, a sixth of those in the pews on a Sunday morning are kids.  We have an abundance of young parents and three is a typical number of children for the families in our pews.  It was not always so.  In fact, there was a time when some of those past child bearing years resented the noise and movement of children in the Divine Service.  We had to develop a culture of welcome for the young parent and the young child.  Part of that was the fruit of renewed preaching and teaching on the role and value of the family in God's design.

Though President Harrison has taken many hits for saying it, our decline as a church body mirrors the decline of the family, the drop in the birth rate, and the aging of the population outside the church.  It has been the subject of some ridicule among those who oppose him but the truth of his words are reflected all over the parishes of the LCMS.  We no longer value the family the way Scripture does or see children as the treasures of our church.  We may not be enemies of children the way some governments and cultures are but neither are we ready to take on those voices around us and advocate for children and the family.  Abortion and birth control have surely done their jobs in providing us the means to avoid connecting sex with love and love with marriage and marriage with children but it did not start there.  It started with a change in the desires of our hearts and with the flourishing of the idea and ideal of me -- the triumph of the individual!  The decline in our Lutheran school systems is surely reflective of the decline of the numbers of children in our families.  This is a cord of many strings woven together and it has us all in knots.

Children are a gift and blessing and a heritage from the Lord.  We were created for family and family is the ordinary shape of our lives -- even after the Fall of Adam made this family a working relationship that succeeds only with the glue of God's forgiveness.  We need to say it publicly, from the pulpits of our churches, in the Sunday schools and catechism classes of our churches, and teach what the Scriptures say.  This is essential not because it is an economic need but because it is God's design.  This is who God created us to be and what our lives on earth were meant to look like.  The family is not optional and neither is marriage (of one man to one woman).  This does not demean those who yearn for marriage and find no spouse nor does it detract from those whose gift from God is to live a single life, chaste and without burning with desire for what they do not have.  All I am saying is that the culture has to begin to change within the Church before we will impact much outside the doors of the church building.