Saturday, November 30, 2019

Shhhhhh. . . Maybe nobody will notice

In case you missed it, today was an auspicious anniversary date that has largely been ignored, forgotten on purpose.  The new Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in the wake of Vatican II on April 3, 1969, became effective in most countries and was introduced on the first Sunday of Advent of 1969.  That year the date was November 30. So why has no one paid much attention to the 50th anniversary of that dramatic change in liturgical life, piety, and, yes, doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church?  Why have other liturgical churches also effected by the Novus Ordo not paid homage to this anniversary?

Could it be that no one wants to remember it?  For the traddies in Rome it was a mistake.  For the progressives, it was but a first step.  For Lutherans the event marked our own plunge into liturgical reform (for the LCMS it was publishing the Worship Supplement that same year). We were already at work on a pan-Lutheran hymnal that never succeeded in its goal of unity but was a profound departure from the gradual reforms of the past.  For others it was overshadowed by other religious news from the priest abuse scandal to the emptying of belief and the abandonment of the creedal confessions of the past.  In any case, it should not be forgotten.

Novus Ordo was not all bad and neither was the Liturgical Movement that gave it birth but some thing were absolutely tragic.  The radical disconnect with what had gone before was felt well beyond the pale of Rome.  The liturgical change that moved by leaps and bounds instead of small incremental steps left clergy and laid confused and disoriented.  The opportunity to disconnect style from substance gave birth to a whole movement that abandoned the liturgical tradition even in church bodies that once knew it well.  The movement to incorporate indigenous culture certainly was made possible by Novus Ordo if not promulgated by it.  The loss of a great and historic musical tradition may be largely irreparable.  The mass abandonment in the pews was hastened by if not caused by the liturgical tremors that left the faithful wounded.  The Novus Ordo participated in, even if it was unwittingly, the move to a personalized and individualized sense of what was meaningful, relevant, and good within worship.

The good things that came out of Novus Ordo were almost accidental rather than deliberate but we should not forget them.  The re-connection between what was happening with the priest at the altar with the folks in the pews cannot be overlooked.  This is a good thing.  The worst of the Latin Mass was the fact that priest and people seemed to operate in different worlds within the same liturgical space and this was unhealthy.  The move to re-establish a voice and role for the laity was good.  There will be arguments over whether the 3-year or historic lectionary is better but no one can deny it has led to a renewal of preaching even in places like Rome not ordinarily known for preaching.  In addition it sparked a renewal and flourishing of hymnody that has produced more modern equivalents to the great and historic hymns of the past than any other age. 

So I can see why some would not want to celebrate this anniversary but I cannot understand why we would ignore it.  The clock cannot be turned back.  Fifty years has passed and for good or for ill this is the liturgical landscape around us.  Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others all were affected by what Paul VI invented under the tutelage of Bugnini.  So we need to come to turns with it all.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Walk with me. . .

The first lines of hymns and spiritual songs are often an interesting place to see more clearly a glimpse of what is going on in the hearts of those who sing them.  We may sing "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light" and "Jesus, Lead Thou On" and "Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus" but I fear what we are really singing is "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me."  It is one thing to follow Jesus but it is quite another to have Jesus tag along with us.

This anonymous spiritual of the African-American tradition has become the theme song of Christianity.  While one commentator has characterized the song as a “communal lament,”  another said it is a 'sorrow song,' meant for individual rather than group singing.”  All of them beg Jesus for His companionship throughout life but most especially in the hard times.  Though the sentiment is understandable -- who has not felt this way -- the direction is wrongheaded.  Jesus is not the follower; we are the followers.  He leads.  We follow.  He cuts the path.  We follow behind.  He forges the way.  We tread where He has trod.  All the way to everlasting life!

I want Jesus to walk with me
I want Jesus to walk with me
All along my pilgrim journey
I want Jesus to walk with me
In my trial, Lord, walk with me
In my trials, Lord, walk with me
When the shades of life are falling
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me
In my sorrow, Lord walk with me
In my sorrows, Lord walk with me
When my heart is aching
More of our songs have it right than have it wrong but I wonder if we are hearing the words or merely filtering them through our predisposed idea of Jesus walking with us?  That is why the scandal of preaching is so damaging.  When the pulpit reinforces the idea that it is God's job to walk with us, to fix our problems, to take care of our mistakes, to clean up our messes, and to make us feel better about where we are, who we are, and where we are going, the whole Gospel is lost to us and the cross becomes antithetical to our relationship with God.  So it is no wonder that we expect God not only to accept us as we think we are but to approve us and and commend us for being true to ourselves (instead of being true to Him and His Word).

I don't want Jesus to walk with me.  That is the last thing I need.  I need a Jesus who will challenge the direction I am going and call me back (repentance) and guide me where I may not want to go but need to go.  I expect I am not much different than anyone else.  So maybe we need to pay attention to what we sing and stop singing some of the things that get it all wrong. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A perfect Thanksgiving. . .

I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, surrounded by extended family and friends.  Nowhere is this idyllic image of small town America more powerful than during holidays like Thanksgiving.  Even though my family was small, two boys and my parents, we were a large group gathered around the table at every special event or holy day. Actually, until more recent history, that meant some of us were not at the table per se but at TV trays or holding plates on our laps sitting on the stairs.  But that is fodder for another post...

Whether or not we actually tried to mimic the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving Day in America, we did strive to reflect the values of that powerful image.  There was food in abundance reflecting the abundance of a rich and resourceful land -- the very reason for Thanksgiving was to give thanks for national blessings upon us as Americans.  There were people of all ages around the table reflecting the extended family gathered together in one place and the familial building block of American history, culture and life.  There were images of our prosperity but it was a humble image and reflected the values of humility and deference that were inherent to a Swedish-German town on the prairie (and to America as a whole -- at least a couple of generations ago.  There was the picture of politeness and nice manners as a family sat calm and patient waiting for the food to be served, the prayer to be prayed, and the pecking order of respect to be observed.  There was a sense of roles and responsibilities that made it clear we knew who we were and we were comfortable with who we were (women cooked and set the table and men worked and brought home the bacon -- not in a sexist sense but as people who learned from their past and grew into the roles and responsibilities defined more by servant roles than authority or dominion).

In conversations I heard about the folks who are eating out today (some by choice and not because of lack of family or friends who issued invitations).  I listened to those who eschewed the familiar turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie in favor of pork loin and a ton of other alternatives as they make the holiday their own.  I know about families divided by miles and intention for whom Thanksgiving is no reunion event.  Some of these are military families in my parish but many of them reflect the diaspora of our modern day world where distance is not only a reality but a choice made against the values of community and closeness that once defined us.  I thought about the many single who had no family even as I spoke to my middle son who lives out of state and who will not be at my table (though he will be with his grandparents and extended family).  I could go on...

My point is this.  Rockwell's American Thanksgiving is not just an image of the past, it is a past which many in America are intent upon rejecting (either formally or informally).  We have become a culture at war against who we were, whether we understand it this way or not.  I once thought that Rockwell's Thanksgiving remained the desire of people even though they had to live with limitations and the deficiencies of a circumstance in which parents and grandparents were not local and jobs and cultural mobility tended to isolate people.  I don't think so anymore.  I think for many Americans, our Thanksgiving traditions reflect a rejection of the Rockwell era.  Family is more and more me and the person I live with.  The kitchen is a beautiful and well equipped place where we heat up food made by others.  Family are folks you call a couple of times a year but not people you live with or even want to live near.  Marriage is struggling as much because we are not so sure we desire to be married as it is because of other factors. Roles are confused and conflicted as much because we refuse and reject the old patterns as it is because of necessity or circumstances.  Responsibilities are forced upon us but we bristle at the imposition of thinking about or serving others.

If Rockwell were painting today, would he paint a picture of people camped out for the bargains early Friday morning?  The interesting thing about this picture, is that we are shopping as much for ourselves as we are for others in those early morning bargain hunting expeditions on Black Friday.  I am concerned about this -- not so much concerned about those who find their Rockwell holiday impaired by circumstances beyond their control as I am those who no longer see the importance of the values of family, community, responsibility, and humility.  We are uncomfortable in our old skins and still not comfortable in the changing skin of the day but we are determined not to go back, never to go back.

It is no wonder that the Church is more and more out of step with our culture and the patterns of the world around us.  We continue to speak of family, community, responsibility, unity, and humility as these gifts and this pattern of new life flow from Christ -- but we are speaking to people who have embraced the values of me, individuality, diversity, difference, license, and aggressiveness.  We have come to like a culture of vulgarity, crudity, and self-interest and this not only mars the old portrait of Thanksgiving, it has created a very difficult barrier to speaking the Gospel in our world not convinced that there is anything wrong with the direction of life and culture.

I did not mean this to be such a downer... but thought I would share a few thoughts as my own family, still many miles away from our extended family, tries to live out the Rockwell Thanksgiving still. . .  And at the same time I remember my uncle who died Sunday and whose death makes the table even smaller. . .

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

For the youth. . .

How many things have been foisted upon the Church with the appeal “We must do it for the young people?  So much damage has been done to the faith by those (and I will be charitable) well meaning folks who presumed their own preference upon youth and insisted that something must be done in order to attract or keep youth.  We have endured everything from contemporary music which was contemporary to no one to staged goofiness and irreverence designed to make people feel at ease and at home in the House of God.  And where has it left us?

I write this as one who positively hated the nine hundred stanzas of the German dirges that were sung over and over again in my home Lutheran congregation.  Yet, even as a youth growing up hating those hymns, I would have gladly endured them again and again over the ridiculous pablum of folk music that began to inhabit churches in the 1960s and 1970s.  Though we Lutherans have "wised up" and chopped off most of those stanzas, I would still gladly sing 27 stanzas of one of those old chorales that actually said something to the vacuous repetition of meaningless phrases that passes for contemporary Christian music (CCM) today.

The whole idea of youth ministry presumed that our youth did not have the intellect, stamina, or piety to accept the faith whole and undiluted and so it had to be repackaged into some kind of strained mush flavored with the taste of the moment in order to get them in the doors or keep them there.  It all began with a lie we told ourselves about youth and it became the means by which we cleverly snuck in our own preferences for music with a beat, words without meaning, and liturgy that was more about me than about God.

Now I am not at all suggesting that everything would have been hunky dory in the Church if we had left the poisoned fruit of "We must do it for the young people" alone.  The times were changing and it was not going to turn out well -- sexual revolution, drug culture, anti-institutional sentiment, and the like was not going to skip over the church's youth.  It was always going to be hard.  But we robbed those same youth of their anchors in the faith of their fathers and we left them even more vulnerable to the doubts and disdain of that period.  We can and must repent of what was done then but even more we ought to learn a lesson.  Shallow teaching, catechism lite, music that sounds like their playlist, and church that is fun prepares no one for a life as God's baptized child and sets up those same youth to fall into the great temptation to cut and run.

The sad reality is that over the many years we have seen decline (since 1971 at least) we have been toying with worship and catechesis as if these were ours to tinker with.  Dare it be said that those whom we lost we might never have had at all?  Could it be that we sold them an illusion of what church was and never introduced them to the faith of their fathers handed down from one generation to another?  Did we set them up to fail by failing to give them the solid food while feeding them on baby food that was not solid enough to nurture a faith that would endure?

Do me a favor.  Don't do anything for my grandchildren or my children but teach them the faith, introduce them to the richness of the liturgy in the Divine Service, sing into them the sturdy hymns of old, guide them to live out their baptismal vocation as a child of God by water and the Spirit, and feed them the most real bread of all in Christ's flesh for the life of the world and the truest fruit of the vine in His blood that cleanses us from all our sin.  Then they may have a chance.  If we cater to their youth and give them less that the Way, the Truth and the Life, we have sunk them for sure.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

What kind of king?

Sermon preached for Pentecost Last on Sunday, November 24, 2019.

    We all know what kings look like.  They have dignity and power – or at least the show of having power.  Modern day monarchs are not like the mighty royals of old but we all tune in to a royal wedding because we know we will see a great show.  Elizabeth II may not have the power Henry VIII had but she has more grace, dignity, and pomp.  So when it comes to calling Jesus King, we know what is wrong.  Kings don’t suffer.  Kings don’t reign mostly naked from a cross.  Kings don’t die as the innocent for the guilty.  Kings don’t bleed to make clean their guilty subjects.  Kings don’t plead for their killers.  It is no wonder that people found it hard to call Jesus King, nailed to a cross as a victim, seemingly too weak to save Himself, so how can he save us?

    St. Luke records the questions that were thrown at Jesus like stones and arrows.  He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His chosen one.  And the soldiers also mocked Him saying, If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.  You see they secretly wanted to see Jesus do just that.  They wanted a King who to turn tables on His enemies and come down from the cross to kill those who tried to kill Him – but they did not want a King who remained on a cross and who died like every other man whom the cross claimed as its victim.  They really did want to believe that Jesus was the Christ of God but they would only see Him as Christ if He did what they expected the Christ to do – not a willing Lamb led to the slaughter.

    If the picture of Jesus nailed to the cross, suffering and dying, was not enough to sweep away all hopes and dreams that Jesus was who He claimed to be, then the words of Jesus sealed the deal.  Father forgive them, for they know now what they do.  For what kind of fool absolves those who kill him?  What kind of king forgives his subjects who put him to death?  They might have waited to see if Jesus would come down from the cross and prove to be a real King but when Jesus spoke, He removed all their doubts and they were done with Him.  He was no King.  At least no King they wanted.  Let Him die.  Let His blood be on us and on our children.  They judged Jesus no real King at all.

    The Father forgive them part we get.  In other words, our Lord is pleading with the God of heaven not to remember the kangaroo court that condemned Jesus, the false changes laid against Him, the flogging and taunts to satisfy the crowd, the suffering He endured, the nails pounded into His flesh, the mockery and side show of fake homage they offered Him, and the final agonizing sigh in which He would surrender His spirit.  But how you the Father not remember this?  This was His Son, eternally begotten of the Father, who came in time to the womb of Mary to be born in flesh to save the world, according to the play laid before the foundation of the world.  How could God forget?

    But Jesus is doing more than pleading for the Father to forgive them.  He is asking the Father to count His sacrificial death as the sin offering to render them forgiven.  He is praying that His crucifixion and death count as their crucifixion and death – the great exchange of the sinless for the sinner, so that these guilty might be saved.  For the only hope for those who crucified Jesus was Jesus crucifixion.  If everything stopped now and Jesus came down from that cross, you and me and those who put Him on that cross would not have a chance in hell to avoid God’s righteous anger and the lawful punishment of eternal death.

    Then there is that word them.  Who are them?  It certainly refers to the Roman soldiers who were carrying out orders.  They were still guilty but it was complicit guilt.  They were not acting on their own but upon orders from above.  Jesus Himself makes this distinction when He insists that those who betrayed Him and ordered Him to die had a higher guilt than those who carried it out.  And yet them includes Pilate and Herod, the leaders of the Sanhedrin, His fearful disciples who ran and hid, even Judas who betrayed Him.  The them includes the two who were crucified with Him, one on His left and one on His right.  The them included every sinner who lived and died before this day when Jesus mounted the altar of the cross and those who watched it happen and those not even born when it took place.  The them includes you and me.

    But what does Jesus say?  For they know not what they do.  This does not mean that they had no idea that if you mounted a man on a cross with nails into his flesh that he was not going to die.  Everyone knew that.  But what no one knew but Jesus and the Father and the Spirit was that this was not one man dying but the Son of God dying for the sins of the whole world.  What no one knew but Jesus and the Father and the Spirit was that this was the Lamb to whom all the slaughtered lambs looked when they shed their blood on Passover and Day of Atonement.  What no one but Jesus and the Father and the Spirit knew was this the head of the devil was being crushed this day in fulfillment of the promise to Adam and Eve.  What no one knew but Jesus and the Father and the Spirit is that on the third day Jesus would rise again, that forgiveness, life and salvation would be preached in His name to every end of the earth, and that all who look to Him in faith will be saved.

    Friends, what kind of King do you want?  Do you want one who looks the part and carries out all the pomp and majesty or a bloody King who suffers and dies in your place upon the cross in order to save you.  You cannot have both.  Though Jesus calls upon the Father to forgive and remember no more the sins of those for whom He has died, Jesus refuses to forget the cross.  He insists that His Church lift it high before the world, as Moses once raised the bronze serpent, so that this cross might be a magnet for sinners.  Jesus insists that this cross be preached to the ends of the earth so that hearing, a lost people might believe and believing a dead people might life.  Jesus refuses to let the wounds of that cross heal – just as Thomas found out on the Sunday after Easter.  For in these wounds the King offers healing to a sin sick and death bound world.

    Friends, what kind of King do you want?  The Spirit works in you to lead you past the desire for a king who looks the part to the King who does all things to save us.  The Spirit is right now at work through the Word proclaimed and preached, calling your heart to repentance so that you may know the joy of sins forgiven and guilt removed.  The Spirit is right now working in you that you may do and be that which is well pleasing before God – having faith to call Him Lord and thanksgiving for what Christ the Lord and your Mighty King has done to save you.

    Once a people were happy to disown Christ as King.  We have no king but Caesar, they proudly said.  Now it is time for you own Him in the humility of faith and in bold witness before the world.  We have no King but Jesus.  And we know no Jesus but the crucified Savior.  Amen.

Who do you suppose wrote this?

"....  the Antichrist presents himself as a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist.  He ... seeks the consensus of all the Christian confessions, conceding something to each one."

"The crowds follow him, except for tiny groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Chased by the Antichrist, they tell him, 'You have given us everything except for the one thing that interests us, Jesus Christ,'"

"Today, in fact, we run the risk of having a Christianity that puts Jesus with his cross and resurrection into parentheses,"

"There also are relative values such as solidarity, love for peace and respect for nature. If these are given an absolute value or uprooted from or placed in opposition to the proclamation of the fact of salvation, then they become the basis for idolatry and are obstacles on the path to salvation." 

Writing from the perspective of a confession that has some rather specific things to say about the Antichrist, I am profoundly appreciate of the witness given by Cardinal Biffi who served the Roman Catholic community as archbishop, bishop, priest, and deacon. Before his death in 2015, he showed himself to be prescient with respect to the challenges of our present day and the godless culture that has become the hallmark of Western Europe today. Rome could use more folks like him -- people who are willing to speak up against the current tide of obtuse words and progressive direction promoted by Pope Francis. Alas, the few voices that remain to challenge the current occupant of the Vatican are under distinct pressure to cave in or be silent before Francis and the direction he has set for Rome.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Fools for Christ. . .

Sermon for the Funeral of Larry Arthur Harris, preached on Thursday, November 21, 2019.

Dr. Larry A. Harris was born in El Paso, TX, to Lavonne and Luster (LP) Harris.  Larry lived in various places but called Palmyra home for much of his life.   He was received into God's Kingdom through Holy Baptism as an infant in 1950 and was confirmed in his baptismal faith on May 2, 1965.  Larry liked to say that he was "Lutheran always."  He was a member of Grace Lutheran Church for nearly 27 years.

Larry was an APSU alumnus and a member of the Sigma Xi.  Although his first desire was to be a forest ranger, he ended up with a biology degree and began work with a shovel at the zinc plant.  Before becoming a chiropractor, he was a mechanical engineer – toying for a time at becoming a pastor.  Larry operated the Harris Chiropractic Clinic for 26 years.  He was well known among the business community of Clarksville.

Larry was survived by five of his children; Natalie (Tim) Weatherford, Nicole Harris, Tiffany Harris, Amelia (T.J.) Mobley, and Colan (Cassidy) Harris, nine grandchildren; Kaley, Chandler Weatherford, Kaitlyn, Christopher, Hunter, Hayden, Taylor Flemister, Joshua Wyatt, and Noah Mobley, one great grandchild; Elouise Williams, the mothers of his children; Patricia Edwards and Kelly Burwell, and longtime companion, Carmen Reagan.  He was preceded in death by his daughter, Andrea Wyatt.

I knew Larry Harris for more than 26 years.  How shall I say this.  Larry was a character.  At times he would open his mouth and none of us knew what was going to come out.  I am not sure Larry did either.  There is no shortage of stories to tell and Larry would not shy away from any of them.  He was certainly not a forgettable individual.  He was a character.  But God knew past it all and saw who Larry was in his heart.

Larry’s faults and failings were not hidden away.  He would tell you about them just in case you missed them.  What you saw was what you got with Larry Harris.  And we are here in this Church today because God loves characters like Larry.  Jesus came to be the Savior and Redeemer of those who hide not their sins away but confess them to the Lord.  And the blood of Christ cleansed him from his sins and it will for each of us.

The Psalmist says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and by that definition Larry was no fool but a wise man.  When he died on Sunday, he died with the voice of Jesus in his ears and with the taste of Jesus upon his lips.  He had just been to Church which was his custom on the Sundays.  We all know where he sat.  He did not come in too early but not too late to greet a great many folks along the way to his seat. 

And today we give thanks to the Lord who speaks into the ears of His people with the voice of His Word, who feeds His people upon their lips with His holy body and precious blood, and who in death opens their eyes to see Jesus face to face.

We spend a great deal of time and effort in this world trying to protect ourselves.  We hide our mistakes lest people think less of us for the foolish things we have said and done and the sins that would shame us.  We work very hard to put on a face of wisdom, of calm, and of stature.  We do this so that we will find recognition and approval from others.  But there is only one wisdom and that is the wisdom of faith and there is only one approval that matters, the judgment of God.

The Psalmist says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  In Corinthians St. Paul reminds us that we are fools for the sake of Christ, determined to know and to believe in the one and only Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  For the wisdom of the world will pass away and all that a man thinks of himself and all that others think of us will fade away into nothing.  But the foolishness of a God who loves sinners, who has sent His Son to suffer in our place upon the cross and die our death, that will last forever.

Larry knew this.  He said to all the time that he was Lutheran always. And to be Lutheran is to know this Gospel.  That God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. To be Lutheran is to know that sins which remain hidden cannot be forgiven but those confessed to God are covered with the blood of Christ.  To be Lutheran is to know that your sins that touch the lives of those around you are also not beyond the healing power of Christ and His redeeming love.  To be Lutheran is to glory not in your decision to be God’s but in God’s choice to claim you in the waters of baptism and mark you with the cross of Christ for now and forevermore.  To be Lutheran is to hunger and thirst not for the food that must eaten and drunk over and over again but to feast upon the flesh of Christ and the blood of Christ that feeds us eternal life.  To be Lutheran is to live in the clothing of Christ’s righteousness and to die in confidence that because He lives, you live.  This is Larry’s legacy and this is what made Larry wise.

We are constantly tempted to believe that we are what we make of ourselves, that the measure of our lives is determined by the accolades and recognition of others, and that our legacy lies in our accomplishments.  These things offer us nothing lasting and their value is but passing.  But the love of Christ who takes our sins upon Himself, who dies our death so that we might live, and who lives to take us into His eternal presence, that is what lasts.  The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. 
And because of this, those whom the Lord loves and has redeemed endure forever.  Larry lives forever.

To you, his family and friends, and to those with whom he sat on Sunday morning in this sanctuary, the comfort for our grief and the hope in the face of our loss is in Christ.
To know the Lord’s love, to love the habitation of the Lord’s house, to lay our sins before the feet of Jesus, and to live ready to pass through death and the grave to our own joyful resurrection with Christ, this is the only thing that can heal the hole in our hearts, the empty place in our lives, and longing for those whom we love who have died.  Larry was a character but he lives a life larger than his stories, that the stories you love to tell about him, and memories that live in you.  He lives now in God’s nearer presence the life Christ prepared for him and for each of us.  So now, let us cling to this faith as our hope in the face of death and the answer to our many questions and fears.

There is no reason to enlarge a man in death greater than he was in life.  There is no gain in glossing over a man’s sins, faults, and failings as if these did not matter.  Larry was a great man because God gave Larry the value of the blood of His Son.  This was what gave Larry’s life meaning and what gives us hope in his death.  Larry’s sins, faults, and failings found an answer not in our understanding of them or of him but in the blood of Christ that alone cleanses us from all our sins.  Larry put on the clothing of Christ’s righteousness in his baptism and God, ever true to His promise, will clothe Larry with the perfect white robes of heavenly glory when Jesus comes again to finish His new creation.  Larry knew that if his life mattered it was because the Lord was his shepherd and that he lacked nothing because the Lord was his everything.  He could be blunt and generous because He knew a God of truth whose generosity was without limit.

So my friends, those whom the Lord loves, let us find in this moment faith to trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, not only for the grief of a life too suddenly take in death, but for the hope of a great reunion and a grand resurrection in which tears and pain and sins and death will trouble none of us anymore.  This was Larry’s hope in life and it will be our peace in his death.  It is this that makes fools who believe the wisest folks of all.  And it is this wisdom that does not disappoint us in the greatest hour of our weakness and need.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  If Christ is in you, though your body is dead because of sin, yet shall you live by the Spirit because His righteousness clothes you.  And the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you and he will give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you by faith.  So what shall we say then?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son but willingly gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things in Christ?  Who can separate us from the love of Christ? 
I am persuaded that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, not powers nor height nor depth, no, not anything in creation can separate us from the love of Christ in Christ Jesus, our Lord. 

For this Gospel, Larry was willing to be called a fool and for this Gospel so should we.  How foolish it is to gather today and expect that those who die in Christ live and will rise again.  But this is what Larry believed.  And this is why we have hope.  

Speaking to you his children and grandchildren and great grandchild, Larry was determined that you be raised in the faith, that you would receive God’s kingdom in baptismal water, and that you would be confirmed in that baptismal faith.  And so you were.  I encourage you to consider this a gift and a legacy and not to disparage such a gift.  You can make sure your child’s life is full but if the child’s soul is empty, you have done that child no favor.  Think about this as you consider your own faith and the responsibility you bear for yours as Larry did for you.

Speaking to those who loved Larry but who found that love difficult, love is never easy and it never pays back more than it costs.  We see this in Jesus who gave Himself into death for us but who won back only sinners, those whose only claim to fame was that Jesus loved them even to death.  So judge love not by you get from it but by the sacrifices you give for it.

Speaking to all of you, let me remind you that the only wisdom that endures is the faith that joyfully acknowledges what God has done in Christ to save you from your sin and to deliver you to everlasting life.

Enforcers of a particular moral stance. . .

As we all know, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke has proposed stripping religious institutions of their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage.  "Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities, should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same sex marriage?" CNN anchor Don Lemon asked O'Rourke at the network's Equality Townhall (GLBTQ+ Debate).  "Yes," the former Texas congressman responded. "There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.  As president, we're going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans."

Yes, it is a goofy thing to say designed to appeal to his base and go nowhere and yet we cannot ignore it.  Every candidate does it but, in this case, the whole idea of punishing those who refuse to get on the bandwagon with this issue or that is gaining support overall from the left.  It has been nearly two generations since courts found that Bob Jones University could lose its tax-exempt status for violating “fundamental national public policy.” So far the decision has only been applied to Bob Jones University but. . .  In a piece in Time by Mark Oppenheimer in 2015, the argument was put forth that It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses. … for those tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality.

The issue is made critical because all sorts of wealthy organizations are flush with cash and yet pay no taxes.  Consider Yale University with its endowment of about $30+ billion and the city of New Haven and state of Connecticut -- both of which could use the money.  There is a conflagration of social policy advancement and the need to come up with revenue streams that may unite people and groups in favor it restricting or eliminating tax exemption.  While the federal government would not directly benefit as much as state and local governments, the federal government is the grantor of tax exemption and must take the lead in all of this.

But the perspective I want to focus upon is the role of religious institutions in particular in advancing or sustaining the sexual liberation agendas by force rather than argument.  In denominations where the social policies have walked in step with the culture and even in advance of popular support, there has been an internal policy of punishing those who disagree.  Strangely, doctrinal orthodoxy has not been required of churches of clergy with such stridency but when it comes to social policy that is different.  It is a mark of the sexual orientation debates that threat is a legitimate tool to use against those who disagree while toleration is considered normative for those with theological disputes.  There is a lesson in here somewhere.  I am not sure I need to point it out.  But the reality is that as time goes along, those on the leading edge of such issues will increasingly try to serve as enforcers of these required positions where diversity is no longer allowed.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A longing for home. . .

Strange it is that at a time when the world was clamoring for things old, the Church was bent on providing new and different things -- from worship to piety to the faith itself.  I am reminded of the desire for antiques and in particular for those things that remind us of our past, of our homes, and of an age long gone except in our hearts.

Some would write this off as mere nostalgia.  Backward looking people who love to fear the future most of all.  But it is far more than this.  Nostalgia, as the Greek roots indicate, is a pain or ache (algea) we feel for our “home” (nostron): “pain for the return, ache for the homecoming.”  It is an essential longing not simply for the ambiance of the past but for a home.  Anthony Esolen wrote of this in his book a year ago that I have just gotten around to begin (Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World).

Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again but that has not stopped us from trying.  Man made religion was invented for just this purpose -- to answer the longing within for our Creator and to give some order to the chaos around us.  But man made religion has done nothing to show us where home is or provide a path to that home.  So the modern world has accepted the longing and attempted to make peace with it.  Music, even popular music, remains the place where this longing continues to be expressed.

While it could be written off as the melancholy want of a pristine age or perfect moment, unmarred by unpleasant and hurtful realities, it is not this.  It is the ache for a place and a home in a world where change happens with a rapidity that leaves us dazed and confused.  It is the pain that fills us at the thought of life without purpose or direction or end.  It is the emptiness of a life without destiny.

As I write this I have returned from the cemetery after a funeral of a member.  We gave God praise for the earthly life of the deceased but more than this we gave God praise that this man's life had a direction and destiny greater than the world and greater than this life only.  Begun in baptismal waters when mother and father brought him to the font, this destiny is now complete.  The funeral celebrates his homecoming while we still ache for that day when tears no longer flow, bodies no longer grow weak and frail, memories no longer fade, fears no longer threaten, sins no longer convict, and death no longer looms over us.

The Church provides a glimpse of this future, a foretaste of our end in the happiness of God's destiny and a home that is finally home and finally forever.  The Church is the voice of anticipation in a world which can only look back and wish.  She sees not only where we began and around to see where that beginning has led but forward to what that journey will end.  Twists and turns no more, the end is the God whose breath gave us life and whose life is now our breath forevermore.

The funeral gives us pause to remember that life is not an aimless wandering but a directed journey we may not see or realize or even know until it is there.  God has planted in us this ache for that future and a pain that will not ease until it is revealed and we are there.  This is a good thing.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Giving Thanks. . .

The thanksgiving prayers after communion were once more the variable of the liturgy than its ordinary.  Over time, at least for Lutherans, the prayers typically used have been reduced to just a few.  Three are printed in LSB.

We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


O God the Father, the fountain and source of all goodness, who in loving-kindness sent Your only-begotten Son into the flesh, we thank You that for His sake You have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament, and we ask You not to forsake Your children but always to rule our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may be enabled constantly to serve You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


Gracious God, our heavenly Father, You have given us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Your Son's body and blood. Keep us firm in the true faith throughout our days of pilgrimage that, on the day of His coming, we may, together with all Your saints, celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All of them are perfectly good prayers, fitting, and eloquent expressions of the gratitude of God's people having been fed upon the holy mystery of Christ's flesh in bread and His blood in wine.  Yet I find that it is also good to explore additional prayers -- both those within the treasury of collects within LSB and those which may have come to us from other traditions.  LSB offers some choices easily accessible in the front cover of the book itself. 

They include:

Blessed Savior, Jesus Christ, You have given Yourself to us in this holy Sacrament. Keep us in Your faith and favor that we may live in You even as You live in us. May Your body and blood preserve us in the true faith to life everlasting. Hear us for the sake of Your name.


Almighty and everlasting God, we thank and praise You for feeding us the life-giving body and blood of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Send us Your Holy Spirit that, having with our mouths received the holy Sacrament, we may by faith obtain and eternally enjoy Your divine grace, the forgiveness of sins, unity with Christ, and life eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Lutheran history offers many other choices.  But I have recently have recalled one that is from the Book of Common Prayer that is also a good choice.  A version of it appeared in the 1969 Worship Supplement but I like the original:

Almighty and everliving God,
we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us,
in these holy mysteries,
with the spiritual food of
the most precious Body and Blood
of thy Son and our Saviour Jesus Christ;
and dost assure us thereby
of thy favor and goodness towards us;
and that we are very members incorporate
in the mystical body of thy Son,
the blessed company of all faithful people;
and are also heirs, through hope,
of thy everlasting kingdom,
by the merits of the most precious death and Passion
of thy dear Son.
And we humbly beseech thee, O Heavenly Father,
so to assist us with thy grace,
that we may continue in that holy fellowship,
and do all such good works
as thou hast prepared for us to walk in;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit,
be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2019

A loss of rhythm. . .

As I have often said, the loss of the Church Year has had its consequences for the whole view of attendance at worship.  Perhaps we could expand on this.  It appears that the weekly rhythm and its disruption both for work and pleasure has had consequences for attendance at worship as well.  There was a time when you could count on the fact that people worked during the weekdays and had the weekends off.  This impacted the life of the Church and contributed to the success of the Sunday morning gathering time for worship and study.  Now that this rhythm has been disrupted with work schedules that are all over the week and leisure time not only at a premium but entirely personalized, the churches have found lots of competition.

But churches are not the only ones suffering.  The desynchronization of our lives has impacted far more areas than simply churches and worship times and attendance.  When we once shared the same temporal rhythms — five work days, two days off, plus federal holidays — our times are now all over the place.  We could blame the dictates of demanding employers but the reality is that it is much more than the boss's fault.  We want to define our schedules.  There are numbers of people who want to work at night or weekends only or other atypical calendars. On top of this, we have seasonal changes in our schedules and rotating shifts as well as the ever common second and third jobs (with even odder schedules such as Uber drivers).  On the other end of this phenomenon is the fact that Americans tend to work longer and take less time off than other workers.

In addition to the Church, people are suffering.  Family relationships are subject to greater stresses due to the scheduling knots of work, school, shopping, and play.  From husband and wife to parent and child, the family is pulled many different directions and the pressures have both created the cracks and widened them.  Add to this the extended family and our folks are finding themselves hard pressed to schedule holiday get togethers or other traditional family events.  This is just as true for the struggle to find time for and schedule time together with friends.  There is a reason so many folks admit to being lonely.  We do not have regular or frequent opportunities to enjoy friendships and so we depend more and more upon digital connections.

It is one more reason why there is a cost to technology and a cost to individuality.  Until we figure out that we are the ones who are bearing the cost of that isolation, we will continue to yearn for what was and struggle to find ways to replace what has been lost along the way.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Being Scotch about Churches. . .

One of the churches set to close.
I grew up when the word Scotch also referred to being a careful spender.  Or, to put it more bluntly, to be cheap!  Apparently the Scottish Church is looking at what they need and what they don't with a view to divest themselves of some unnecessary assets.

According to the BBC:   Almost half of Aberdeen's churches are being considered for sale as part of a "once in a generation" review.  The 10-year plan recommends 15 buildings for disposal, with 15 being retained and the future of a further three under consideration.  The ChuMy rch of Scotland report said it aimed "to reshape the church estate".  Rev Scott Rennie, planning convener for the Presbytery, said there were "many more" church buildings than needed and that "difficult choices" lay ahead.

Aberdeen is not alone.  Shetland is set to close 20 churches.  Yet this is being framed not so much as a consequence of decline as an opportunity to cash in on unneeded assets.  The Presbytery of Aberdeen review is to "allow for the renewal and revitalisation of the national Church in Aberdeen".
Rev Rennie, of Queen's Cross Church, explained: "The Presbytery has a legacy of many more church buildings than they need.  "We recognise that we will have to make some difficult choices on which buildings should be retained and which should be let go.  "At the heart of our decision-making process is the desire to see a sustainable future for the Church of Scotland and its effective mission and pastoral care for the people of Aberdeen Presbytery.

Interesting that at the same time the conversion of one of Aberdeen's church buildings into a mosque was also announced.  It seems that there are some people who remain religious and some religions looking to increase their presence.  The Church of Scotland is not one of them.

My point is this.  The decline of Christianity in the West is not a Roman phenomenon nor is it a Roman problem.  It is a problem that has found more churches rather than fewer and it will continue until at least we admit that the issue is the message as well as the methodology.  We cannot correct a message problem with new and creative means.  The most serious issue Christians face is whether or not they believe the Word of God.  In the face of so many defections over sexuality, transgender, climate change, environmental issues, etc., too many churches have forgotten the Gospel and have nothing to say to the world except to mirror back to the people their own preferences and prejudices.  In the end, more buildings will be sold for the cause of relevance.  You can count on it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Arguing people into the Kingdom. . .

Every pastor has had folks who wanted to argue over this and that.  Occasionally we even find a real Calvinist who wants to debate double predestination.  Once in a while a Mormon or JW will approach with a willingness to engage.  Our arguments with Rome are old enough to be enshrined in our confessional documents.  But there is something wrong with the idea that you can argue someone into God's Kingdom.

I have no doubt of the sincerity and integrity of many of those who are engaged in Christian apologetics.  By all means, we should have them present a defense of the hope that is in us and give witness to the world of what we believe, confess, and teach.  That said, I do not think it is possible to argue someone into the Kingdom of God.

I do not stand alone in this.  John Henry Newman was likewise underwhelmed by the idea that Christian apologetics can reason or argue someone into the Kingdom: “I have no intention whatever of denying the beauty and the cogency of the argument which these books contain; but I question much, whether in matter of fact they make or keep men Christians.” Reason is good, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and useful to the faith but reason cannot bring someone to faith.  It is the Holy Spirit alone calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying the Church and each individual member of it.  Faith comes by hearing and that is true because the Word is a means of grace through which the Spirit is at work.

I have had a few debates with folks over the likes of infant baptism, predestination of the unelect, the liturgy, the Real Presence, etc...  But never have I been able to reason someone to my point of view.  Luther said it best.  Captive to the Word (and therefore captive to the Holy Spirit) is the only way the blinders are taken off, the blindfolds removed, and the heart and mind opened to God.  So when a more recent opportunity to argue came up, I deferred after a few goes at it.  It was not that my heart was not in it -- I thoroughly love to argue/debate.  But I have come to the conclusion that it is downright impossible to argue someone into the Kingdom of God.

Newman went on.  Faith is not a vague impulse, but a habit of mind: “assenting to a doctrine as true, which we do not see, which we cannot prove, [only] because God says it is true.” God does not require or expect us to understand Him or His ways.  They remain a mystery to us -- a mystery as oblique as the Trinity, for example.  But hidden in the darkness of this mystery that will not submit to the reason of our minds, God is.  God is there.  Hidden so that only faith can see Him and faith can only come from the impulse of the Spirit and the prompting of the work and power of God.  It is not a matter of a checklist of primary doctrines one must check off but our assent to God -- in the same way as blessed Mary:  Let it be to me as you have spoken.  Submission to divine truth cannot be argued into the heart and will of man but remains the work of the Spirit through the Word and faith is its best and most noble fruit.  Minds can and will be changed but it is not the force of our words or the cogency of our defense or the authority of our arguments.  It is and remains the work of the Spirit, working in us that which is well pleasing to the Father.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A walking billboard. . .

Clarksville is an unusual Southern city in some way and typical in others.  One of the ways it is typical is that hardly ever do folks here encounter a pastor or priest in the clerical collar -- at least outside of what happens on Sunday morning!  We live in a community where the pastoral uniform varies from a sport jacket and tie to a church personalized polo and khakis to a tee shirt and jeans.  It is the rare occasion when people see a black shirt and narrow or neckband collar.  When they do, it is usually my associate or me or one of the few Roman priests in town.

I know that the collar is still eschewed by some in Lutheran circles, perhaps many.  I know that many still think of it simply as personal preference.  In reality it is more serious than a fashion statement.  A clerical collar clearly marks you as a minister of Christ's Church and is a walking billboard of liturgical, confessional, and orthodox Christianity.  I have no proof but I have the deep suspicion that the real reason some Lutherans do not wear the collar is that they do not want to bring that attention to themselves.

It is attention.  Nearly everywhere I go in the community someone will either recognize me or my parish or the Christian faith because of that little bit of plasticized fabric worn around my neck.  I get asked for money, for prayers, for advice, for counsel, and a host of other things -- only because they see my clerical collar.  I have had babies dumped into my arms on airplanes and even a mother ask me to take her son into the restroom (obviously pre the abuse scandals!).  But most of the time people come up to to me with concerns for the faith, with questions about doctrine and piety, and with stories of their own struggles in the faith over time.  The clerical collar opens mouths up even if it does not open many doors anymore.

If I could have my way, I would make it a rule that every Lutheran pastor had to wear a clerical collar.  It will never happen, of course, even if we were about to pass laws on such a thing.  Lutherans instinctively resist authority (even the authority of God!).  Nobody would give me the time of day after such a rule was laid down!  But the reason I believe it should be made has nothing to do with personal preference.  It has everything to do with the fact that the pastor in clerical collar is a walking billboard for the faith and for the Church even when he says nothing or does nothing particularly religious or winsome.  If for this reason only, it would be worth it to make every pastor purchase and wear a clerical collar.

But you are free to disagree.  You may be wrong but I think I am pretty much on target with this.  Pastors and priests who ditch the collar are trying to preserve the anonymity that will prevent them from being outed as a man of the cloth when they want to be incognito.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A U-Haul Truck. . .

Living in a highly mobile community, there are U-Haul places all over the place.  From trailers to trucks, you can't drive more than a few miles without seeing a franchise.  The cost of them varies.  When too many trucks and trailers are coming to a place, the cost of them goes up.  When too many of them are leaving, the cost of bringing them in drops.  People are moving in and moving out all the time and the surest sign of it are the U-Haul trucks and trailers waiting for folks to rent and the U-Haul trucks and trailers you encounter driving down the road and parked in the neighborhoods of this city.

There are about as many churches in this city as there are U-Haul places.   I fear that perhaps we view them like the franchises that provide us with the move by yourself equipment.  They are not ends in and of themselves but simply tools to help us get where we want to go, safely but also cheaply.  Could it be that the reason formal association with religious communities and attendance at worship is in decline is because those who are interested have found self-help resources elsewhere?  Perhaps the internet, video streaming, and social media?

Most folks have some sort of desire to see a destination to their mortal lives but increasingly the Church is seen as less and less essential for this journey and other resources or tools equally helpful in getting you where you want to go.  Some of this, let us be frank, is the fault of those churches who fail to offer a compelling reason to belong and be there.  Those churches walking in lock step with culture and who adopt as their causes the social and environmental causes of the day fail to provide a reason why one needs to belong or attend in order to participate in accomplishment of these goals.  It leaves these religious communities with fellowship as the sole purpose for uniting with and being a part of Sunday morning and beyond.  This fellowship is not the encounter with the divine but the support and encouragement of like minded folks who seek the same things.  Even this aspect of what they offer is hardly compelling.  Social media is the ordinary means of fellowship in the digital age.

Those churches who offer help to achieve other goals (personal edification and contentment, improved relationships, and guidance to accomplish goals of employment and experience) offer a similarly less compelling reason to belong or attend.  In this instructional purpose, live-streaming and podcasting are at least as effective as putting on clothes, driving to a location, and sitting through other things before fast forwarding to the reason that brought you there.  For these communities, the digital age raises serious questions about the need for assembly, a building, or an institution.

Sin and forgiveness, life and death, chaos and order, and our encounter with God where God has made Himself accessible are categories that make it difficult for virtual churches to compete with the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  The more orthodox the message, the more difficult it is to substitute digital access for being there, belonging, and participating in what God is doing.  It is harder to classify these churches as U-Hauls that take us where we want to go and much easier to see them as destinations. 

For those who would insist that the Church itself is transitory, how can we reconcile this with Jesus' promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her?  Is not the vision of St. John in Revelation the glimpse of the Church as she shall be from the vantage point of how she is here and now?  The Church is not some means to an end but an end.  What we see now is not what shall be forever, of course, but that does not mean that the Church will be replaced with something other. 

Inherent in this is the understanding that no self-help vehicle can help us get there.  Only God working among us through the means of grace can do that.  We do not come at our own volition but at His bidding.  We do not come where we desire but where He has made Himself available and accessible.  We do not do what we want but are captive to God's own purpose in order to receive His gifts.  No digital footprint or virtual reality can displace the need for this Church and for what goes on therein.  The whole idea of who the Church is and what God is doing in the Church begs us to set aside technology for truth, virtual reality for that which endures forever, and our own agenda for the purpose of His kerygma. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Listening to angelic music. . .

Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God—in human form. — John Eliot Gardiner

I don't know whether you agree with Gardiner or not.  Perhaps you are not even sure who those names refer to or what kind of music they may have composed.  But his words tell us something of the purpose and power of music.  It is not simply music to move the soul or appeal to personal taste or entertain or provide background noise.  It is to give us the voice of God.  How easy it is to forget this.

We live in an age in which music has become personalized.  We all have our own playlists and favorites.  We listen in the ear buds while the world around us is silenced.  We use music to calm our nerves or comfort our anxieties or pump us up.  But God's great gift is the music that accompanies the Word of God into our ears, minds, and hearts.  That is music's ultimate purpose.  It is not selfish for us but selfish for God's purpose and design.

How easy it is to presume that music was created and given to us merely for our pleasure or enjoyment.  What a shame that we are so self-centered to believe that any of God's gifts were merely tools for our own pursuit.  Music was given to be a servant of the Word, at least according to Luther.  But Luther did not stumble upon this.  He, unlike others of the Great Reformation, saw that music was always connected to the people of God, to their lives of prayer and worship, and to the way they heard the Word and it was written into their minds as well as their hearts.  As Augustine once so famously said (or is presumed to have said), He who sings prays twice!

Gardiner is spot on in seeing that the epitome of this was the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Schooled in the Lutheran doctrine and faith from childhood, he lived in the Word and the Word lived in him and through him in a body of work unparalleled by any other composer.  Mozart could captive God's laughter but Bach was able to capture the nobility of His love poured out for us in Christ not as sentiment but as profound gift and blessing.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Challenging a false perception. . .

There are those in Rome who know little of the Reformation but who love to blame Luther for everything that went wrong with Rome in the 16th century as well as everything that is going wrong today (including labeling Pope Francis a "Lutheran."  This would be laughable except that some of the people falling into this error of history should know better and they are muddying the waters in part on purpose.
And there is no doubt, then, that from the beginning the Reformation was a protest in the name of the word of Christ and Rome charges the Reformation, day after day, of being the actual origin of subjectivism and individualism, of autonomy and anarchy, which now apply to all domains. And Immanuel Kant, who first formally articulated this autonomy, is therefore called the philosopher of Protestantism by Roman Catholics. his apostles against the deviations that had invaded the Roman church in the domain of life and doctrine. It was principally different from humanism, building a dam against the unbelief that continued to reach out further from Italy, and later, just as Rome [did], it protested against the Aufklärung [“Enlightenment”] itself. This Aufklärung, which is not stronger and which won no larger a following in Protestant countries than it did among Roman peoples, is not to be explained from the Reformation but rather from an abandonment of the principles of the Reformation.

Kant is, therefore, not to be mentioned in the same breath as Luther. They each moved in entirely different circles of thought. For Kant there is nearly nothing left of the great truths of Christianity, wherein Luther found his power and peace—as far as content, Kant’s faith consisted in the trilogy of rationalism. Kant was the philosopher not of the Protestantism of the Reformation but of the Aufklärung; he was a kindred spirit not of Luther but of Rousseau.

—Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview, edited and translated by Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, Cory C. Brock (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019) -- a book published a century ago but only now translated into English.
Some bloggers and others on behalf of Rome charge against the Reformation all the ills of our modern day, including but not limited to the origins of subjectivism and individualism, of the idea of personal autonomy and anarchy or lawlessness, which now afflicts most Christian.  As any real student of history should know, it was Immanuel Kant, who first formally gave voice to these ills and who ought to be called the great Protestant philosopher.  You can blame Luther for a lot of things but it is neither fair nor credible to blame Luther for the modern ills that affect Lutherans and just about everyone else.  Wake up, Rome, and smell the roses of history and fact.

Friday, November 15, 2019

After the Fall. . .

One of the things we learn from God after the Fall of Adam and the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden is a hard lesson.  That is the truth that there is no goodness that is not born of or lead to suffering.  That is the plight of the world post Fall.  Of course, the cross is the prime example of this but we are called to take up the cross and follow Jesus and warned not to expect smooth sailing but rejection, persecution, and even death.  We, however, reject this path in order to follow the path of least resistance and adopt the lure of the illusion of an easy life.  We are shocked when suffering happens to us.  It is not fair, it is not right, and it is not just.  Did not Christ suffer so that we would not?  It is not God's duty to insulate us from the pain of suffering and help us find the hidden way to love without cost, happiness without sacrifice, and life without service.  Sure, we know better (and so guilt is born) but knowing with the mind that something is true does not translate into changing the desires of our hearts. 

Our desire to find a path without suffering is, in part, the reason why we seek a "Christian" society or nation in which morality has the force of law and culture is either an unwitting or intentional ally.  If we have a society in which common values and goals are shared between church and state, then it is less likely we may be asked to give up anything for the sake of faithfulness or sacrifice anything for the sake of a larger good.  But a culture in which “Christianity” dominates through force and majority rule may not be one of great virtue but merely a reflection of the ordinary truth that the strong rule the weak.  In the same way, the faith is not triumphant when sacrifice or suffering is excised from the walk of faith.  Neither faith nor the Church is made stronger when the way is eased for a more comfortable Christianity.  In order for lives to change, hearts must change and with this change must come the willingness to suffer for the sake of doctrine and practice of the faith. The heart does not have to change if behavior is enforced by fear of punishment.  So the path of Puritanism ended up with laws ruling but hearts still filled with wrong desire.

What we have forgotten, the early Church knew only too well.  If a Christian walks in the way of the Cross, suffering will ensue.  The faithful must be prepared to lose, at least as the world counts it, in order to be faithful.  This is clearly what Christ teaches.  Today we find ourselves in a world in which faith has been manipulated into a means to get what you desire out of life and where the sign of God's blessing is to resolve the problem of suffering and relieve the person from loss.  In the early Church, the stories of the faithful were the accounts of martyrdom in which the threat of death did not shake the resolve of the faithful to remain true to Christ.  The heroes of these early years were not those who found accommodation but those who suffered all rather than fall away.  In contrast, today we celebrate the rich and famous, the sports figures and entertainers, who seem to be able to have it all and to do is their way.  In this scenario, however, the Church is hardly different than the world around her and resembles the creation of Christ's blood hardly at all. There was, after all, a reason why the earliest canonical heroes (saints) are mostly martyrs.  While we may idealize such devotion today, none of us wants to be placed in the cross hairs of such a choice.

The Gospel does not make us into better consumers but teaches us to sit in the lower place, to serve as Christ has served us, and to suffer gladly with Christ in confidence of the great reward that this world may not see or know.  God is not where suffering is absent but hidden in suffering.  Someone said to me years ago that if you are not covered in blood you are not standing close enough to Jesus.  While rather crass and blunt, the point is well taken.  Jesus did not promise us a rose garden but He did warn us of the rejection, persecution, imprisonment, and death to come for those who seek to know Christ and Him only.  Our life does not manifest worldly marks of success but flows from the Cross and the Cross alone.  Is this not what the Benedict Option is about?  Is this not a challenge to the kind of institutional Christianity in which God's job is to make us so successful and happy that the world will want to know what makes our lives so rich and so easy?  Luther's theology of the cross is not cliche or slogan.  It is the way of Christian life.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Love and Marriage. . .

It could have been said that once marriages were arranged by families searching for that which was good for their children and if love was learned and became a part of it all, so much better, but if not still fidelity.  That model gave way to a romantic image of marriage in which people meet and fall in love and marry and somewhere along the way announce this to their families and introduce their families to each other.  Today it is less marriage than cohabitation and people try out each other like one might test drive a car, except this test drive may turn into a long term lease but still not exactly ownership.  People today struggle to find places to meet and to discern who the folks really are whom they meet (especially if the introduction first happens over social media).

In fact there is something to be said about marrying for something other than love.  Some of the most happily married people report that they did not marry for love. They may have learned to love the one they married, but that is not why they married whom they did.  They married because it became the right time for them to marry, they found people who shared their values, goals, and dreams, and they trusted these people (with their affection but even more with their futures and as prospective parents to their children).  It may sound kind of pedestrian but it does not diminish romance.  In the end, it only removes romance as the pivotal reason or factor for choosing the person whom they chose or remaining married to the person whom they married.

If there are issues we face today about love and marriage, some of those issues relate to the overwhelming burden laid upon marriage as an institution and your spouse as a person.  Today marriage itself is seen as a vehicle for personal satisfaction, contentment, and happiness.  When marriage no longer fulfills these rationales, the marriage is dissolved and the person is free to pursue another who will make these things happen.  In addition, with the shrinking number of friendships and the growing isolation of people, the pressure upon the spouse to be best friend, counselor, entertainer, inspirer, encourager, affirmer, lover, and spouse overshadows the roles and responsibilities historically expected of a spouse (partner in the responsibilities of shelter, home, life,  etc., and parent).

Love, at least the love that was traditionally spoken of in the Judeo-Christian tradition, has not been seen either exclusively or even primarily as romance but as service.  Jesus never asks us to like our neighbor but He does call us to love our neighbor, specifically as He has loved  us.  And how did He show us His love but He who should be served became the servant of us all, even to death upon the cross.  It would seem that churches have somewhat caved to the romance which is about infatuation and desire but have neglected to instruct or hold accountable those married with the love that is service and sacrifice.  It is unmistakable that this is what St. Paul is saying when he writes of submission and loving wife as Christ loved the Church. 

In my own case, after over 41 years, my wife knows my faults and failings.  She may not have made her peace with them, but they do not surprise her.  They may frustrate her still but we did not marry out of any illusion of soul mate or romance that would never die.  And I could say the same about her.  What binds us together is not an idealized love but a real one which does not run from service and sacrifice.  This, I believe, is the most profound and real love there is.  Romantic love (what I mean here is the infatuation and attraction which has its source in desire) is not real.  It comes and goes.  But the marriage remains.

Some years ago I wrote of this love I witnessed in my father-in-law and mother-in-law.  He with Alzheimer's had begun to forget ordinary things and especially the more recent memories of his life.  But their love, tested and tried by the burdens of this terrible disease, did not wither or die under this new stress and challenge.  It continued to flourish.  She served him not of duty or obligation but of love and her sacrifices were willingly made in compassion and respect of this man rendered more frail by this insidious disease.  In response, he recognized this love and responded with his own devotion to her, accepting her direction, welcoming her rehearsal of memories lost to restore them as much as able, and her expectation of him to do as much as he did for as long as possible.  There is hardly a more profound and true love to be seen.  While I hope and pray my wife and I will not find ourselves in such a circumstance, I also hope and pray that we might serve and sacrifice out of love the way this couple's life together displayed. They did not marry for love but from the desire to love -- complete with all of its sacrifice and service.  Marriage was not the fruit of a love that pre-existed the vows but marriage was the garden in which love was learned, lived out, and appreciated. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Resurrection -- It's Physical!

Sermon preached for Pentecost 22, Proper 27C, on Sunday, November 10, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    With the gift of faith, there are many things that we believe and confess.  We believe in the Trinity, one God in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We believe God created all things in 6 days.  We believe that Jesus is the very Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, and that He died on the cross to save us from sin.  We believe He rose from the dead so that we’d have everlasting life.  These are foundational doctrines of our Christian faith, and we confess them in the Creeds.  Along with this confession we also confess our certain hope in the resurrection of the dead. 
    The resurrection of the dead was the question of the Sadducees in the Gospel reading today.  But before we get to that question and Jesus’ answer, we need to first know who the Sadducees are. 
    There were two main Jewish traditions or groups during Jesus’ time: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The Pharisees were the larger of the two, and were popular amongst the people.  They were strict followers and teachers of the Torah, of the Law.  They believed and taught that in order to live under God’s favor again, the people of Israel needed to separate themselves from the Gentiles, they needed to go back to the way it was during the time of Moses and David.  The taught a strict observance of the Mosaic Law and even added some extra traditions to insure they followed the law.
    The Sadducees were a smaller group, but they too were very influential.  They believed the written Law, but they didn’t hold to the extra traditions and teachings like the Pharisees did.  They also didn’t believe in angels, or spirits, and they didn’t long for a Messiah like other Jews did.  And they also didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.  That’s what makes their question to Jesus stand out. 
Right off the bat, Luke tells us that the Sadducees denied a resurrection, and yet they still asked about it, not because they wanted to know the truth, but because they wanted to make Jesus look bad, make Him look like a fool.  Their hypothetical “what if” question was so extreme it borders on the ridiculous, and that’s the point.  The Sadducees believed the resurrection of the dead was a ridiculous idea...and there’s still some today who say the same thing.
    It’s nothing new for our Christian faith to be mocked and ridiculed.  Ever since the beginning, people outside the faith have seen it as unintelligent, backwards, and simply foolish.  Christians are mocked because they believe in a Savior who died.  The Romans laughed about this; people still laugh.  What a ridiculous notion to believe that God died.  What a ridiculous notion to believe Man rose from the dead.  Intelligent people, smart people know that when you die nothing happens.  There’s no spiritual realm, there’s no physical life after least that’s what they say. 
This mockery is hard to endure.  It hurts and angers us when people outside the faith poke fun, but we shouldn’t be surprised.  Jesus said this would happen.  But sadly, what is surprising is that there are modern day “Sadducees” in the faith.  There are Christians who claim there’s no resurrection of the dead.
    A little more than a year ago, I read an article written by a woman who teaches at a Christian university, and during the semester it was brought to her attention that a majority of her students didn’t believe in a physical, bodily resurrection.  They believed in an afterlife of eternity with God, but they assumed it was only a spiritual life.  The students associated the body with sin; it was the flesh that was sinful and bad, and therefore the body had to be shed for the perfect more spiritual life.  But is that what God says?  Is that the truth of life that the Word of our Lord proclaims?  Absolutely not!
   The resurrection of the dead is the whole point of salvation.  Everything the Lord did was for this purpose, to redeem soul and body.  The will of God is that you will look to Jesus and believe in Him for eternal life and be raised up on the last day (Jn 6:40). 
    Jesus didn’t shrink at the mocking question of the Sadducees; He didn’t politely agree to disagree.  He went to the Word of the Lord and spoke the truth.  He went back to Moses and the burning bush.  Our Lord said, “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.  Now He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (Lk 20:37-38).  Notice what Jesus said, notice what God said at the burning bush: God is the God of the living, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Notice the present tense.  God didn’t say He WAS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  These OT saints live.  They have life in Him, because God gives His people life in His Son.  God gives us life, He gives you everlasting life in Christ, through His death and resurrection. 
   Death is of the devil.  It comes from our sin, not our flesh, not our physical bodies, but our sin.  Yes, we sin in our bodies.  Our hands do things they shouldn’t do.  Our eyes look at things they shouldn’t look at.  Our feet take us places we shouldn’t go.  Our mouths speak words we shouldn’t speak.  We give in to passions and lusts and desires, but it’s not just physical sin.  We give into these with our thoughts, with our hearts.  Your sin isn’t just a bodily affliction.  Your sin is a condition of body and soul.  Your sin is complete separation from God, and attitude of hostility to Him.  This is your original sin, born into this condition, born into death.  But God is the God of the living, and He gives you life.
    He gives you life through His Son, through the God-Man who died on the cross, dying the death of your sin; through the God-Man who rose from the grave defeating death so that you’d have life.  This life, it isn’t just a spiritual one, it’s physical.   If Christ only gives you a spiritual eternal life, then why did Christ take on our flesh and blood?  Christ became incarnate so that He could redeem you and your body. 
   Your body matters, it’s important to the Lord, it’s how God created life to be.  In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, He gave our first parents bodies.  He formed them from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life in them.  God’s plan for life was always a physical life, where we would live in perfect union with Him, free from sin and death forever.  This is what He promises you.  This is what He gives you.  Because Christ died you will live.  Because He rose from the dead, you will rise, physically with the glorified body that you were meant to have, free from sickness and disease, free from pain and suffering, free from sin and death. 
   God is the God of the living: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  These saints are alive, and on the last day, they will be raised, and so will you.  Jesus became incarnate so that He could die and rise, so that He could redeem your body.  Your promised resurrection isn’t just a spiritual one, it’s physical.  Your promised life isn’t just a spiritual one, it’s physical.  Your body matters.  This was the plan God has for you and for all of creation from the start.  You will rise, you will live, body and soul, with your Lord in the new heavens and new earth, forever.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.


Come to me. . .


I grew up in a small German Lutheran congregation in a cornfield in Northeast Nebraska.  Outside the door is a reference to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession which was important when it was begun but now seems to be more a matter of curiosity or indifference.  Inside is an oak altar, a small version of a high altar that these Germans might have remembered from their past.  It has a crucifix, candles, and a statue of Christ.  Nearly ever other congregation of this era has the same statue.  Those who have built new buildings probably took this statue with them (though not, perhaps, the crucifix) if they constructed it in the 1950s or 1960s.

The statue is, of course, the famous Thorvaldsen Christ now, strangely, associated more with the Mormons than the Lutherans. Bertel Thorvaldsen is probably not well known out side of Europe or Denmark, in particular. Many do not consider him a great sculptor since the movement is away from an idealized realism to more abstract art. But in his day and age, this Copenhagen-born son of a wood carver was considered one of the 19th-century’s greatest sculptors on the continent, with patrons from all over Europe.

Strangely, he lived for most of his life in Italy.  Born in 1770, he moved to Rome in 1797 and did not return to Copenhagen in 1838.  Some thought him the successor of the Italian neoclassical master sculptor Antonio Canova, famously known for his statue of Eros and Psyche. Some of Canova’s sober beauty and warm naturalness are seen in Thorvaldsen’s Christus Consolator, often referred to simply as Christus.

Made in Carrara marble, the Christus is around 11 feet tall and portrays the Risen Christ with the inscription “Kommer til mig,” that is, “Come to me,” in Danish.  According to Fanny Coe’s 1896 travel book The World and Its People, this statue was exceptional.  She wrote:
Christ is represented with open arms, saying to the world ‘come to me and I will give you
rest.’ It is considered the most perfect statue of Christ in the world. Thorwaldsen (sic) did the whole work himself, not entrusting any portion of it to his pupils, as was his custom. When it was finished, he was seized with despondency. “My genius is decaying,” he said to his friends, “my statue of Christ is the first of my works that I have ever felt satisfied with. Till now my idea has always been far beyond what I could execute; but it is so no longer. I shall never have a great idea again.”
The moment Thorvaldsen finished the sculpture it was moved to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, where it resides today.