Thursday, October 1, 2020

Midwestern attitudes. . .

How quaint it is to have traditional and Biblical morality equated with Midwestern attitudesIs that the best you can do?  Is the worst charge leveled against those who take seriously the Biblical ethic against the confusion of letters that form the current plethora of sexual choices, genders, attractions, and desires that these are simply Midwestern attitudes?  The good people of the Midwest deserve better than this.  It is not because they are Midwestern that they have such attitudes.  It very well could be that they have these attitudes because they take seriously what Scripture says, they listen to the Word of the Lord, and they are formed by that Word instead of forming what it says or means for themselves.

I grew up in that Midwest.  People were generally reticent to complain about their neighbor.  It is not that they did not have opinions, they did, but they also had restraint.  They may not outwardly object to some of the craziness of the coasts, but neither did they follow this kind of craziness either.  Sure, there were cities with a different spirit -- Nebraskans love to dream about giving Omaha's attitudes to Iowa.  Iowans love to imagine dumping Des Moines together with its opinions out of sync with rural and small towns.  Minnesotans tire of having their state characterized by what happens in Minneapolis.  Across the landscape of small town and rural America, most are reflective of those Midwesteran attitudes of personal responsibility, accountability for your mistakes, the sanctity of marriage, the treasure of children and grandchildren, and going to church on most Sundays.  I struggle to find fault with this.  In fact, most folks across America and outside the cities might think that this is the kind of stuff that made America great.

My point here is not to glorify Midwesterners.  They seek no such glory.  My point is to wonder out loud how such once universal values have become something derided as Midwestern when they are, if anything, Biblical and churchly.  It was not that long ago when nearly everyone in America would have agreed with the things mentioned above.  Urban, suburban, small town, or rural, the people across this land had a much clearer and more universal moral consensus than we have today.  We have become a people divided and conflicted by those divides.  We are an angry people -- over the obvious of COVID 19 and its consequences but also over the pace of change and the dizzying effect of waking up to the new normal of every kind of sexual identity, of sometimes violent protests on our streets, of children who seem banished from school for another term or maybe year, and a political culture which is downright nasty.  If this is progress, well, who wants it?

All of this commentary began with an article on how seminaries have welcomed all kinds of LBGTQ+ folks only for them to find the pulpits across our nation are not quite ready for them.  While these seminaries have encouraged them to explore their spirituality, the hurdles they face out in the church remain.  This should come as no surprise.  The churches have generally always lagged behind the seminaries in their embrace of new things.  What is a surprise is how quickly this has moved from being labeled traditional or Biblical objection to the regional quirks of an as yet unenlightened people.

Returning to the chapel of Luther Seminary, one such individual found a welcome he had not found in the wider church.  “I got to preach on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, the idea of coming out and being unbound. And there was a really good reaction to that,”said Austen Hartk.  I can imagine he was somewhat disappointed that to the folks in the pew the story of Jesus raising Lazarus had little or nothing to do with coming out and being unbound and everything to do with the prefigurement of His own resurrection and the promise that in Him all who are dead in trespasses and sins can look forward to the resurrection and eternal life.  But it is a quaint notion that the Scriptures address mundane things like sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection, and faith and trust.  Perhaps too quaint for those who believe every story of Jesus is a story of their own judgment free journey of discover.  The reality is that the ELCA and most all liberal Protestant denominations are bleeding members and money right and left.  Some say that is about prejudice which is giving way to openness and freedom and acceptance.  Others are pretty sure it has to do with a once Biblical church having lost its Biblical moorings and chosen to float with the cultural tide.  Those darn Midwestern attitudes need to be woke, I guess.  I pray that they can hold out long enough to cause a thorough redress of a morality no longer Biblical and a faith in which Jesus is less a Savior than an idea.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Where theology is done. . .

In our age we have come to believe that theology is done best in institutional settings.  The colleges, universities, and seminaries of churches have become the domain of the serious theologian.  As Lutherans we fostered this idea with the baggage of the gymnasium and university brought with us from Germany.  But it was never true in any real sense.  As the sainted Martin Franzmann put it, Theology must sing.  All theology is doxology or it is not true or real.  I think that this is at the core of what David Scaer means when he says all theology is Christology.  For where do we meet Christ except in the Word preached, the water of life splashed, the whispered confession heard, and the taste of Christ's body and blood on our lips.

I remember reading the explanation of why one academic returned to parish life.  I’m leaving the academy to return to the parish in order to do theology. The parish is what theology looks like.  Wow.  I wish we actually believed it still.  For it is true whether the parish is a lively place of theological discourse or mundane place of programs that work (or not).  The parish is where theology comes into the cross hairs.  If it does not happen in the parish, it will not happen on the ground of higher educational settings or it will become the domain of mere theory.

The seminary cannot really form pastors but it does prepare the man for the formation of life long vocation in the parish.  I am not one of those who would smugly suggest that there are no pastors in colleges or universities or seminaries but if theology happens there it is because men bring it there from the parish and not the other way around.  Our conversations as pastors together and with our people are the most important conversations of this world and this life.  When this no longer happens, theology itself suffers.  Where it does happen, the Church flourishes whether numbers or influence wax or wane.

I have no confidence that we have seen the worst and things will improve.  But neither do I believe that the challenges we face are all that different and certainly not worse than the Church faced in her first decades of survival.  When the voice of the apostles was still heard, there was challenge and controversy.  When the voice of became a memory and the Word of the Lord a book, there were challenges and controversies still.  When temporary structures became permanent institutions, there were challenges and controversies.  When churches had buildings and property and influence and money in the bank, there were challenges and controversies.  When our structures are threatened and we no longer have a place at the table in the halls of power, we will still face challenge and controversy.  But it dare not be focused upon what we have lost that gave us standing and stature in a worldly sense.  It must be about theology, the confession of Christ in a a world unfriendly and always unfriendly to Him and His ministers and His people.

St. Paul was not distracted by travel, torture, persecution, imprisonment, and the like.  This was his calling.  St. John was not constrained by exile but this was his calling.  We are not being restricted by the pressures upon us for this is our calling.  Structures and institutions come and go but the Word and Sacraments remain and whether they are, there is the Church.  This is the place where theology lives not as ideas exchanged but as people who come to receive the Holy Mysteries.  There, in the hands of flawed men and from their voices, comes the Word that gives birth to faith, the water that imparts life, the absolution that gives the good conscience, and the body and blood of Christ that feed us the foretaste of the eternal feast to come.  It is here, in this entity, in the parish, that Christ entrusts with the whole mission of the Kingdom of God.  

The parish is not one small part of the Kingdom but the footprint of that Kingdom in that slice of space, time, and geography.  Everything the Church is in a cosmic sense is manifest in the local where people and their bishops still meet on the Lord's Day, in the Lord's House, around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Theology is not a discipline of the academy but the conversation of the parish, the house of God among His people.  If theology does not live here, it will not live anywhere.  This is not some accidental truth or an inconvenient detail which must be rescued or fixed but the design of God.  Theology must sing.  And sing it does in the parish.

I must confess that when I enter a pastor's study, I look to his bookcase first.  The theological task is fed by wonder and curiosity and these aid and abet conviction and equip service.  If his shelf is filled with the latest how to books or pop psychology or feel good trash, it is hard for me to imagine how the man preaches with conviction the Word of the Lord that endures forever or welcomes the people of God to the banquet feast that anticipates heaven.  

Theology is our enterprise not as a distraction from ministry but because the ministry is theological to its core.  We believe, teach, and confess.  We do it within the community of those called out and gathered before the presence of Christ where He has pledged to be.  Our past is His and our present is His and our future is His.  And He has warned us of those who cry "Lord, Lord" and those who like weather vanes move with every wind of change and those without roots.  My brother pastors, we cannot afford to be practical and we must dare to be theological.  

Things will get worse but the Church will abide.  We kneel not before an image of power but a cross, not before a philosophical system but a crucified Savior, and not with intellects to comprehend but with faith to trust.  This is theology.  This is the theology that sings.  And where it sings, people will come and the gates of hell will not shut this down.  Christ has already triumphed. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

In pursuit of an earthly kingdom. . .

The idea of a Constantinian shift is not new but it has been taken up and renewed in the modern day by Stanley Hauerwas, among others.  The tension between the kingdom in the world but not of the world and a kingdom which transcends the world is neither new nor easily resolved.  In antiquity the debate began about the value offered to the Church by access to the Emperor and the sanction of the imperial authority.  No one but a fool would suggest that the conversion of Constantine and his secular power has been anything but a mixed blessing at best.  At worst is the suggestion by some theologians and historians of antiquity that the political and theological consequences of the 4th-century Constantinian integration of the imperial government with the Christian Church has beguiled the Church and distracted her from her first mission.  

With the First Council of Nicaea the so-called Constantinian shift is dated. The term itself is probably best credited to the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.  His claim, however, and the whole idea of a  Constantinian shift has been disputed and by some rather big names.  Peter Leithart wrote a book to argue that while there was a "brief, ambiguous 'Constantinian moment' in the fourth century", there was "no permanent, epochal 'Constantinian shift'".   Defending Constantine is the name of Leithart's 2010 book to answer to Yoder.  Leithart argues that Constantine was a real Christian.

To put it bluntly, the whole idea is that when Christianity becomes mainstream it sacrifices its identity and its message.  The suggestion here is that the Church is weak and naive in contrast to the shrewdness of Caesar who woos the Church in order to make Christ to serve his own purposes.  I wonder if at the root of this is the whole fear that the mere idea of “Christendom” has been a bad thing for the Church.   

Integralism is a Roman Catholic theory about how the church should exercise political authority over earthly rulers.  The term has been used against the “modernists“ and any idea of a synthesis between Christian theology and the liberal philosophy of secular modernity.  The proponents of this Roman Catholic political integralism believe that all social and political action should flow from the faith and be shaped by that faith. What is common with the idea of a Constantinian shift and this integralism is a rejection of any separation of church and state.  What is at odds is whether the driver of this car is the state or the Church, with the Roman Catholics arguing, of course, that  Roman Catholicism should be the proclaimed religion of the state.

Now none other than Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has entered the debate with a book entitled A Gathering Storm:  Secularism, Culture, and the Church.  His argument is that liberalism has proven to be a failure, that its poisoned fruits have been a "caustic secularism" that is destroying our culture and undermining our very existence.  Mohler believes that it is up to Christiansto restore the Biblical foundations to the culture.  He is not without his critics for this evangelical version of integralism.

In a book review, Greg Forster calls out Mohler for swallowing lock, stock, and barrel the idea of this integralism.  Forster does more than simply defend liberalism.  He insists that its key ideas have been derived from Christianity, especially its views on universal human rights and natural law.  Foster posits these in medieval theology dating from the 12th century.   Mohler is charged with inciting a culture war that would, in effect, give birth to an evangelical Christian nationalism. 

I am not a fan of either Constantinian shift ideas or integralism.  I do believe that in the vacuum created by the fall of Rome, the Church did step in and became an imperial religion and I do admit that this has been the cause of no small problems for the integrity of the Christian doctrine and the life of the Church.  I am not at all suggesting that it was unavoidable but I am suggesting that it has created pendulum swings of power that have at least distracted the Church and her message and at worst have corrupted the Church and her Gospel.  I do believe that the great temptation of the government to harness the resources of religion for its purposes and the Church to control the state for her advantage has been hard to resist.  Now the whole idea is more tenuous than ever before.  Christianity was never meant to transform earthly institutions and not in the least to give new birth to the state.  

As a Lutheran I must admit that Luther, in a better position than most in this connection, has bequeathed to us a legacy of church and state ideas that have proven harder to hold when that state has shown its true colors and become an outright enemy of the Gospel.  Is there anyone who believes that Trump will do anything more than slow the press against orthodox Christianity?  Does anyone really believe that there will be some accommodation on marriage, gender confusion, abortion, or the labeling of the Gospel has hate speech?  We have had a reprieve but hardly more and it takes but a Biden and one term to undo whatever gains have been made.   We have no Frederick the Wise or John the Steadfast.   

Christianity began under persecution and conflict from a variety of sources but those who argue that Christianity was never meant to be ostracized or threatened by culture, the state, and the ever changing face of modernity are, I think, naive. The Gospel works on the person and is not some grand force of God to undo Eden's stain and rescue us from ourselves for a period of earthly triumph.  Every generation has faced this temptation and every generation that has remained true to the faith has had to abandon such ideas in order to survive.  In the end it is not he who triumphs but he who endures who will be saved.   

Early Christianity had little in the way of an institutional existence or window of stability. Churches were centered in the home, gathered around the bishop, to hear the Word read and preached and to receive the body and blood of Christ.  Everything else was risk and vocation was anything but comfortable (in an earthly sense).  At some point this was replaced with virtual security and with it came the opportunity to be attentive to the world around them in a way not possible before.  In the aftermath of COVID and in the flourishing of a progressive movement that challenges the very foundations of orthodox Christianity, the Church may lose the luxury of institutional security.  We may not be confined to our homes but we will be a kept people, kept from the public square and kept behind the closed doors of our churches.  The illusion of stability and a place at the table will give way to risk once again and, with it, we will have to decide whose we are.

The wreckage of time has given birth to good stories but no happy endings.  From Luther and his friendship with the Frederick and his heirs to the tattered rags of Constantine's Christian empire to the idea that America was a Christian nation, we have been all too willing to sacrifice dogma for the sake of influence and to give up the voice of the prophet to give comfort and aid to secular Zion.  Ours is a mission of survival for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel -- not for earthly gain or progress or political power.  

We have always had to hold our nose in the voting booth though sometimes the stink has been harder to mask.  Today is no different.  But we vote where we must for whom we must not for the sake of some better world but for the preservation of the Church and the freedom to proclaim the Gospel (including the good works toward neighbor that do make a difference).  We must always be cautioned to remember that today's political friends will become tomorrow's theological enemies.  This is not cynicism.  This is the reality of living in the world but not succumbing to it, in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom and not distracted by the idea of an earthly one.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree. . .

Apparently, in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit it was discovered that a baby was baptized using the wrong formula (we baptize vs I baptize) and after consideration by the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, it was decided that this baptism was invalid.  The priest who watched the video of his baptism saw the error and found he had not been, as the CDF determined, validly baptized.  So the concern is that all of his priestly administrations are also invalid.  Or perhaps only illicit.  But either way a problem.

Sacraments have our confidence because we do not go off the reservation in playing with the formulas or the elements.  So it is not a small thing when people mess with the formula or the elements.  It is something that degrades the confidence we have that the Lord is doing what He has promised to do.  He has not given us a broad directive to figure out what works for us, what appeals to our feelings, or what fits the circumstances.  He has given us His Word and Sacraments, plain and simple.

Now, it seems, some have used this issue in Roman Churches to suggest that all baptisms outside of Rome are suspect (with the exception of the Orthodox, of course).  Funny how a Roman Catholic error is used to cast suspicion on Protestants and, perhaps, Lutherans, as well.  

But what about Protestant baptisms. Prior to Vatican II when Protestants converted to Catholicism, they were at least "conditionally" rebaptized because there was some concern about the validity of their Protestant baptism. 

If some deacons and priest use invalid words, despite the fact they are told to use the correct words in fact it isn't optional, it is required by their ordination's obedience, how many more Protestant ministers improvise in prayer and baptismal forumulas and no one knows it even if a baptismal certificate is possible to obtain, which it isn't for some Protestant denominations?

I recommend now, that all Protestants be conditional baptized prior to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.

Well, there you have it.  If Rome sneezes, we must presume that Protestants have a cold.  I am quite sure that there are Protestant baptisms worth questioning.  Only a fool would vouch for things he does not or cannot know.  Yet raising questions where there is no direct evidence is never good.  It does not do anyone any good to second guess everything on the basis of an error now.  Especially one with a Roman flavor to it.

I have encountered some, perhaps even many, who have asked to be baptized conditionally because they either have no record of their baptism or no assurance that this baptism was in water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  But to meet all baptisms with such suspicion will never have a good outcome.  Baptisms are not guilty until proven innocent.  It will surely come back to haunt them and us.  Trust but verify.  Reagan was not a theologian but he got this much right at least.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

The death of a headquarters and resurrection of the parish. . .

It is no secret that national headquarters are suffering.  For years we have built up the idea in business, industry, arts, entertainment, and, yes, religion, that it matters more what is done on the larger scale than it does on the local level.  That seems to be fading.  We found out that big business is so big it does not even know what happens outside of its institutional center.  We discovered that people could work from home or not work at all and what mattered was the people ordered and products were delivered.  The ordinary man in brown became as important as the head of Ford or GM in the grand scheme of things.  Industry struggled and the ordinary truck driver became the most important link in the chain -- along with the folks on the assembly lines.  Arts and entertainment taught us that those folks who are paid so much to produce, direct, and star in movies can be as essential to life as the closed anchor store in the darkened mall.  And just maybe, those who press for churchly things on the national level have discovered that the parish is the most important place in the life of Christianity.  And this may be the key to it all.  

If the parish rises to its always essential but too often forgotten place at the center of it all, then just maybe there is hope for Christianity after all.  We have been so busy building mega churches and small earthly kingdoms to justify our existence that we have all but ignored that where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is, there is the Kingdom in our midst, and there is the gate of heaven.  In the end, it is this that is key to the life or death of Christianity.  You will notice that Hebrews does not challenge us to maintain the endless zoom meetings or not forsake the conference calls but not to neglect our meeting together (THE assembly, ecclesia, and qahal) where Christ is present according to His promise, distributing the gifts He has pledged to us.

I hope and pray that we may attention to this.  The challenges whose answers might have led us to wait for the call from the bishop or to listen to the pronouncements of national headquarters to figure out our way through the pandemic had to be confronted on a local level.  How we deal with the judgment that the Kingdom of God is not essential will not be argued by lawyers in courts as much as it will be decided by the people who put on their masks (or not) and come to be where Christ is, willing to risk this mortal life for the eternal.  We will not be saved by PPP programs or other temporary financial measures but we shall be saved by the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all our sins.  And that blood is poured out for us into the cup we must drink if we are to be Christ's own and live under Him now and eternally.  We will likely be smaller but less distracted by programs or stuff that too often competes with the Divine Service for central place in the life of the Church and in the hearts of God's people.  If our sports leagues and yoga classes and self-help groups fade, it just may allow us to see again why we are the Church and what we as the Church are to be about.

Popes and bishops, presidents and superintendents, whatever you call them, did not mean as much as the local pastor or priest.  That is always how it was, though it is sometimes forgotten.  We were failed by most of our institutional incarnations of the Church but we have been rescued by courageous pastors and people who insisted against all professional advice that the Church must continue to live by the Word of the Lord which endures forever and the Sacraments of life and worship.  But God has not failed us.  He is still where He has promised to be.  As long as we are there, too.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

How self-indulgent. . .

If you watch the do-it-yourself programs on TV, you see how many times a perfectly good house is stripped bare and re-imagined to another era, tearing down walls in favor of the open concept and making it a schizophrenic building (looking one way on the exterior and another on the interior).  If you want an open concept home, build one.  Do not destroy the integrity of a home built in the day when rooms for a specific purpose mattered.  That is my opinion, anyway.  Buy the house that fits what you want instead of stripping down to the bones and building it back up (and then having it done again the next time things change).  A very large family home (once belonging to my great-grandparents) with all sorts of wonderful turned and carved oak had a remodeled kitchen that looked exactly like the early 1970s.  I know the original kitchen was terrible but what good did it to when it was remodeled to look out of character with the exterior and the rest of the interior.  But maybe you have a different opinion (a wrong one but different).  LOL

The same thing is true of remodeling churches.  Styles go in and out but the most fool hardy thing to do to an historic structure is to make it reflect a moment in time that is in conflict with its exterior.  I follow the Liturgical Arts Journal and its photos of Roman Catholic buildings rescued from poor 1960s-1980s renovations that took away the integrity of the building.  Thankfully, they are being restored not necessarily to their former glory but at least to some measure of integrity with the building's overall structure.  It is an amazing thing to see and I am happy to see that people are spending the money to do time travel with some of these terrible deconstructions.

Lutherans have done the same terrible job of taking what was once a building with some consistency and destroying it.  Some of those congregations have taken up the cause of restoring  their buildings (St. James in Indiana comes to mind) but others, populated by frugal Lutherans, are not sure it is worth the money.  If you ask me, it is.  Beauty in service to the liturgy is one facet of our obedience and devotion, not unlike the expensive ointment lavished upon our Lord.  Though some might suggest that this is self-indulgent, it is actually money well spent.  The most self-indulgent thing of all is to remodel to fit the moment without care to the integrity of the building.

It is simply impossible for me to believe that the God who specified with such detail the plans for the Ark, the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and the Temple could now countenance our refusal to invest anything in the cause of beauty in service to His worship and His glory.  So I would suggest that we be both careful in our spending but not cheap in the way we treat the buildings that house the worship of God's people and the place where He serves us with His gifts.  This is no less true of remodeling efforts.

Friday, September 25, 2020

How Protestant Can We Be?

That America has always been a WASPish sort of country is hardly in dispute.  For a very long time the majority face of Christianity has been anything but WASP but you would be hard pressed to know it -- except in the Irish or Italian or Polish neighborhoods of some urban areas.  Suburban flight disrupted those old neighborhoods and moved the Roman Catholic population into new subdivisions, in some cases quite a ways away from where they once were.  As the populace moved away from the places where a common language and heritage bound them together, they learned that America could be decidedly unfriendly to them, their roots, and, especially, their religion.

I was reminded of this not long ago when I read the oft quoted but so far unascribed but pithy observation:  “America is such a Protestant country…even the [Roman] Catholics are Protestant.”  If this was true of Roman Catholics, it was even more true of Eastern Christians.  The Byzantine liturgy is not simply foreign to America but alien to most of the cultures of those who immigrated to America.  It remains a tradition somewhat cloaked in mystery to most Americans.  The curious iconostasis raises questions to Americans accustomed to an upfront and rather transparent form of worship.  What goes on behind those walls?  The odd vesture, the lack of pews, the many candles, the icons themselves, and the sound of the chant all combine to make it clear to any American who wanders in, "Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore."  Yet even the various jurisdictions of Orthodoxy have left the safety and comfort of neighborhoods and disbursed more than most could have imagined.

Lutherans were also strangers in a strange land.  The beer halls contributed to the rise of the Temperance Movement and with that a rather typical condemnation of things German.  Two world wars did not help.  But Lutherans found it safe to be a little less Lutheran in their venture to the American landscape.  So much was this accommodation to the resident culture that when others came to America they condemned the Lutherans who had gone before as Lutheran in name only. CFW Walther was one but not the only voice suggesting that Lutherans had tilted too far to the side of Protestantism.  While it was also true of the Scandinavians, they assimilated more easily than the Germans while retaining a bit more of their Lutheran appearance than some others.  

The problem in all of this is that the Protestant forms have prevailed.  Even Roman Catholics suffer from a tendency to see dogma as choices in a smorgasbord of truth and what binds is less a common set of beliefs than it is a common tradition and common affinity for the Pope.  Visit any typical Roman Catholic congregation today and you will hear the mighty hymn of the Reformation and pop-Gospel more than chant, a praise band that mirrors contemporary Christian music more than the organ, and spoken liturgy more than chanted.  Lutherans say they have not abolished the mass but it might be hard to find a Lutheran to defend that proposition today.  Lutherans prefer Protestant terms like the Lord's Supper to mass or Eucharist and, even though we use Divine Service I am not sure our people get why.  It is not for lack of teaching but for the press of American culture and its Protestant shape.  The larger the Lutheran congregation and the more likely you will find there a praise band and music from the Protestant playlist more often than a Lutheran chorale.

So it is no wonder that there are arguments from folks reading this blog.  They probably grew up in the period in which Lutherans were more comfortable in their Protestant skin than in the catholic clothing of their Augsburg Confession.  I grew up in that era as well.  I watched my home congregation and pastor shift from a quarterly Holy Communion to monthly and then twice monthly and then on the fifth Sundays and festival days as well.  I saw my home pastor move from the Geneva gown to cassock surplice and stole to alb and now occasionally chasuble.  However, it is more typical to presume these to be personal affectations of the pastor than representative of Lutheran identity.  What bound us together was the Small Catechism but as congregations have used other materials to supplement or even replace the Catechism, even this common focus of belief and prayer is either weakened or missing entirely.  It is as if Lutherans tolerate the liturgy more than embrace it and perhaps Walther would criticize our forebearers as much as he berated the Lutherans he found in America in the 1840s and beyond.

My meandering thought today is that the Protestant ethos is so deeply rooted in us that no matter how hard we are pressed to acknowledge our catholic identity, it is a difficult idea to sell.   Still.  And if Rome has become the Protestant Catholic Church in America, it would be strange for us to try and steal their thunder.  We are not sure what to do with the Orthodox, so, I guess we will continue to be a church of many colors, mostly red, white, and blue.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Always spending, never spent. . .

Grace is an amazing thing -- and not because of the hymn.  Grace is amazing because God is always spending it in unlikely ways on an undeserving people.  In many respects, God is shockingly extravagant and even foolish in our minds' eye.  We forgive people whom we deem forgiving.  We give to people we judge to be legitimately in need and deserving of our kindness.  We pay attention to people whom we believe are worth our attention.  But God does none of that.  He forgives the undeserving.  He gives to those whose need is more apparent to Him than to them.  He pays attention to the people everyone else overlooks, the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the children, the weak, and even sinners!  Who does that?

God's grace is amazing also because as much as He spends it, it is never spent.  His grace is unlimited and His mercy without end.  There is something impossible about that.  We fear giving things away because we fear we might need it someday.  We give but we make sure that we have enough for ourselves.  Our giving is not only governed by fear but we give as a people who are sure grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, and even forgiveness are in short supply and must be rationed or we will come up empty.  That is part of the reason why it is so difficult for us to be kind and merciful and compassionate -- we treat these are things that need to be protected and preserved rather than given out and given up.  

Over and over in Scripture we find this contrast -- the limits and limited things of this world and this mortal life vs the unlimited things of God.  So heaven and earth may pass away but the Word of the Lord will not pass away.  It is forever.  His steadfast love endures forever.  His mercy is without end.  But the world is already passing away.  While we might be tempted to lament the passing of this age, faith leads us to see that this is not the end but the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth and a new life without all that diminishes this heaven, earth, and life and with everything that can only be hinted at here. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The dead shall be raised. . .

We are warned over and over again that it will be the death of Christianity if we do not. . . well, fill in the blank.  Every age and generation has faced its own set of doomsday voices insisting change or die or bemoaning not your grandfather's church.  It is that the voices today are more sophisticated than the toga wearing prophets with their hand written placards on street corners.  They are smooth as silk and so very convincing in their earnest calls to reform the aging and leaking bark of Christendom.  But just as once a generation watched John the Forerunner show up with all the accoutrements of a spokesman for God, we all worry that maybe the naysayers might be correct.  The damage done even by stealing our confidence in God's promises and in the efficacy of the means of grace is great damage, indeed.

I get the emails almost daily.  Innovate or die.  This is not the same world it was and we must change to meet the challenges before us (change doctrine, change liturgy, change methods, change paradigms)...  I hear the drumbeat of culture insisting that caring for the poor is more urgent that agitating for the lives of the unborn.  I meet people who define themselves by body art, body alteration, or by body mutilation and am told that self-expression is the only real freedom.  The right of people to define themselves by their own whims, wills, or wishes has to be affirmed before you can say anything else...  

But this is not quite the same as shifting from German to English as our primary language.  And this is not about modernizing our language to fit the changes that take place in vocabulary.  This is not even about embracing and using technology to aid in the mission.  This is about who we are.  For the changes presses upon us are far deeper than a surface image but go to the core of what it means to be a Christian.  When we depart from the language of sin and forgiveness, cross and empty tomb, death and resurrection, we depart from the Gospel.  When we encourage the people who are searching for their best lives now, we are discouraging the Gospel from finding a home in them.  When we renovate the faith like we would a kitchen, we are doing more than making changes in appearance.  No, the danger before us is changing and dying.  And in case you do not believe me, look at those churches that have adapted and changed and made the Gospel simpler or more palatable to the modern ear and mind.  Are they growing?

Nearly every heresy began with the attempt to meet the people where they are with a more basic and plainer Gospel.  And it shows.  In the thirty years the ELCA has been in existence it has bled off two denominations and a couple of million people -- most of whom do not belong to any church anymore.  Yet this church has been on the cutting edge of nearly every social movement -- feminism, racial justice, homosexual rights, marriage redefinition, climate change, wealth redistribution, immigration issues, and gender fluidity.  It has closed buildings, merged seminaries, and created all sorts of financing plans to justify their apostasy but the numbers will catch up with them soon.  Just as it has for the Episcopalians and the not-so-united Methodists.  These churches are bankrupt of faith but rich in every trend, fad, or change.  How are they doing?  Most of them are a mere shell of their once robust selves.

It might be cause for despair.  We are surely in the business of killing churches and silencing the Gospel and it might look like there is little hope, little vitality, and little future left for orthodox Christianity.  It was G. K. Chesterton who put it so pithily but what he observed has been true long before he coined the phrase.  “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

Structures and institutions will wax and wane but the Church will not die.  If needed, and it surely is, God will raise up Christianity from the dust of man's best ideas and innovations.  He will rescue us from our need to revolutionize the Gospel, make it more relevant, and make its taste more palatable to a generation tired of truth and weary of doctrine.  He will not do it because we ask Him to do it but because He has given His pledge and promise.  The gates of hell shall not prevail.  We think that this is about the enemies outside of the Church and the powers against Christ but perhaps the most urgent enemies are those who come in Jesus' name saying Lord, Lord.  In every age religious leaders and those who are entrusted with the sacred deposit have proven the more formidable enemies of Christ and His Word that endures forever.  God does not need our advice or our entrepreneurship.  What He does ask from us is faith -- trusting that He will do what He has promised through the means of grace He has given.  Who knows?  God may raise up this dead and dying Christianity and grow His Church here as she grows on the mission fields far away.  We can only pray it will be so and act at least as if we truly believe He will.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Tiffany Chapel. . .

 Wow.  That is all I can say!!!  Download a PDF brochure.

Created by Tiffany’s newly founded firm, Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, the chapel demonstrated the firm’s artistry and craftsmanship in producing ecclesiastical goods ranging from clerical vestments and furnishings to mosaics and leaded-glass windows. The chapel, it was reported at the time, so moved visitors that men doffed their hats in response.  it now makes its home at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Florida.

The chapel’s rich, Byzantine-inspired interior was built up from simple classical forms, columns, and arches, which are huge in size relative to the chapel’s intimate space (1,082 square feet, including the baptistery). Visitors entered another world of intricate, reflective glass mosaic surfaces and light filtered through the intense colors of stained-glass windows—a world that enveloped them and at the same time dwarfed them through its massive architectural forms. It included six ornately carved plaster arches, 16 mosaic columns, a 1,000-pound, 10-by-8-foot electrified chandelier, or “electrolier,’’ in the shape of a cross, a marble and white glass mosaic altar, a dome-shaped baptismal font, and several windows.

From Chicago to New York

After the Tiffany Chapel won many medals—including one for the imaginative adaptation of its imposing chandelier for electricity—it was dismantled at the closing of the world’s fair.

In 1898, a wealthy woman named Mrs. Celia Whipple Wallace bought the chapel for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, under construction at the time in New York City. Never placed as it was intended, the chapel was relegated to a basement crypt where its arches were cut to fit under a low, broadly vaulted ceiling. For more than 10 years (1899–1911) it functioned as a chapel at St. John the Divine and then was closed when the choir above was completed for services.

Unchecked water damage took its toll on the architecture and decoration of the chapel, and in 1916 Louis Comfort Tiffany wrote to the church of his concern that “the mosaic work has suffered” and offered to remove it at his expense.

Reinstalled at Laurelton Hall

Tiffany had the chapel removed and installed, with substantial repairs by his workmen, in a free-standing building at Laurelton Hall, his Long Island country estate. There the chapel remained as a monument to his art until 1949, 16 years after Tiffany’s death, when the Tiffany Foundation began dismantling the chapel and selling off portions to institutions in the region.

In 1957, when Tiffany’s abandoned estate was ravaged by fire, Hugh and Jeannette McKean of Winter Park, Florida, were notified by a Tiffany daughter that some of his most important leaded-glass windows were still intact. In 1930, after his graduation from Rollins College, Hugh McKean had been one of the young artists in residence at Laurelton Hall as part of a program established by Tiffany. Years later in 1942, Jeannette McKean had established a gallery-now The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art-on the Rollins College campus and named it to honor her grandfather. Her interest in Tiffany glass had prompted her to curate a show of his work at the gallery in 1955, one of the first one-man exhibitions of Tiffany work in the second half of 20th century.

Rescued to Winter Park

The McKeans visited the devastated Laurelton Hall site, and Jeannette decided they should buy all of the mansion’s then-unwanted windows and architectural fragments. Two years later the McKeans purchased the components of the chapel that remained at Laurelton Hall.

For decades, many of the chapel elements had remained in packing crates as the McKeans researched the locations of the various chapel furnishings that had been dispersed after 1949. They systematically acquired these furnishings as they became available to keep all of the chapel parts in a single collection.

In 1996, the Board of Trustees of the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation endorsed an expansion project for the Morse Museum that would fulfill the dream of the McKeans to reassemble Tiffany’s 1893 chapel. A team of architecture, art, and conservation experts was named to begin the more than two-year project of reassembling the chapel. The chapel opened to the public in April 1999, the first time since it was open at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Monday, September 21, 2020

You owe me . . .

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 20A, preached on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

     We live in a world of debts and debtors, of favors given and favors owed, where you get what you pay for and employment law insists you be paid what you are owed. So it is rather easy for us to get the idea that God owes us something.  We give up our Sunday mornings so God owes us a decent Monday.  We put up with sermons so God has to put up with our whining prayers.  We admit we screw up once in a while so God has to take His responsibility for all the things that are not what we think they should be. We deserve to be happy at least some of the time so God’s job is to give us a little happiness every now and then.  Do I need to go on?

    In our world, God owes us something.  But in reality God does not owe us anything – except to punish us for our sins and leave us alone to our chosen miseries. That is the world in which we live.  We go to church and say an occasional prayer and give a dollar or two and so God owes us a little something in return.  That is the way our economy works on earth.  An eye for an eye.  A tooth for a tooth.  But that is not the way of God.  Ours is not a God of justice and but of mercy.  This is both the joy of the faith and the scandal of the faith at the same time.

    The parable of the vineyard workers describes an outlandish economy in which wages are not earned but given as gifts, where people do not get paid what they are owed but receive more than earned or dared to expect, and where the last are made first over and over again.  The shock of this parable is that Jesus is not talking about or to people outside the Church but is talking about us Christians.  He is contrasting those who truly believe with those whose hearts still betray the lie that they did something to earn God’s favor.  This parable is a warning to Christians who might be tempted to think that justice is a better deal than mercy and who might presume that God owes them something for all that they have had to put up with in the faith.

    Every heresy is in reality the same heresy.  No matter how it sounds or what it says, every heresy is about deserving God’s kindness.  Every heresy is about the idea that faith itself is a good work that deserves to be rewarded by God.  Every heresy either adds something to the cross or takes it away in order to show that we have done something, earned something, and deserved something of the grace shown to us sinners. We think the heroes of this parable are the people who worked in the heat of the day and all day long for the Lord and the grave injustice of this parable is that they did not get more than those who worked less.  Human fairness says that they deserved more.  But the real heros are those who agreed with the owner for nothing and simply trusted Him to be generous with them and that what He gave them would be good enough.

    You grow tired of hearing and I grow tired of preaching this same Gospel of grace and yet none of us can afford to hear anything but this Gospel week after week.  Our hearts are not places of transparent virtue but dark dens of desire.  You may leave here on Sunday having been absolved of your sins, having heard the Word of God, and having been fed upon the Body and Blood of Christ.  But it will not take long before all of this will translate into demands that God listen to you, that you are not as bad as most folks and you are only slightly less good than the best of them, and that you give more and do more than most folks and therefore you have earned a little better treatment from God than most folks.  You would be lucky to get out those doors before these thoughts start creeping into your hearts and minds.  I know I never even get to those doors before I begin to grumble like those who got their wages and then complained because less deserving folks got the same.

    You may think that you have grown up enough that you are well beyond hearing the simple Gospel of God’s favor and kindness but you are not.  That is why we must hear the cross every Sunday.  That is why we must hear of justification by grace through faith every Sunday.  That is why we must endure the sermons that strip away our pride and expose our sinful hearts and lives to the Lord and why we must hear again that we are saved by grace and not of ourselves or any of our own doing but solely and completely through the merits of Christ alone.

    Two things appeal to us.  One is the idea that those who are saved are better people than those who are not.  The other is that it does not matter what you do, God has decided to love and save you and so you are in like flint while God has decided He just does not like those other poor souls.  The doctrine of election is not an explanation of why some are saved and not others.  It is the doctrine that comforts us by reminding us we are not saved because we have believed longer or better or lived holier than others.  We are all saved by grace and nothing else.  You cannot make sense out of mercy.  That is why the parable includes this sentence.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Do you begrudge my generosity?”

    Christ bore the heat of the day on that lonely cross.  He lived the one and only righteous life that deserved God’s favor.  He died as the innocent for the guilty.  He rose so that sinners marked for death might live forever.  There is no place for you in this Gospel EXCEPT to rejoice that Jesus did it all for you, that He did it solely out of great love for you, and that He did it quite apart from what you deserved.  Every one of us are the Johnny come latelys whose suffering is nothing compared to Christ, who are clothed with His holiness, who are forgiven for His sake, and who live solely because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.


    Jesus did not die for good people or for those who would come to faith or for those who might be rehabilitated into decent folks.  Jesus died for the world, for the whole sinful world, for sinners whose sins deserved only punishment and eternal death.  Unless you count yourself among these people, Jesus has nothing whatsoever to give you except what you deserve.  And you better think long and hard about whether or not you want to risk getting that.

    Everywhere in the world, “first come, first served” but in the Kingdom of God the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  Everywhere in the world you should be able to get what you deserve but in the Kingdom of God you are shown mercy and grace beyond.  Everywhere in the world, you ought to get paid according to how hard you worked but in the Kingdom of God, you are paid the wages of eternal life because Christ worked Your salvation all by Himself upon the cross.  This is a scandal to the mind but to the heart of faith that repents, it is the best news anyone can ever hear.

    Now before you get the idea that it does not matter then how you live, remember what St. Paul says.  “Shall we sin more so that grace may abound?”  Of course not.  For the miracle of the Spirit’s work is that when our hearts have been convicted of sin and confronted with all that Christ did to save us, faith is born – faith that desires more than anything else to actually live up to and as if you were the people Christ has declared you to be.  Yup, you got it.  Fear of punishment cannot make you stop sinning but a new heart planted in grace can make you try.  You may think the one with whom you are angry does not deserve mercy, but be merciful as God has been with you.  You may think that people have to prove themselves to you but be generous as the Lord has been with you.  You may think that forgiveness must be earned but give it as freely as the Lord has forgiven you.

    There is no free lunch.  Somebody always pays.  Even the hamburger and hotdogs we will eat at our Grill and Chill.  But the one who has paid the price so that you may eat freely of the eternal banquet is the Lord Jesus.  So eat believing and drink rejoicing that He has chosen to be merciful beyond measure and generous beyond all reason.

    We are not workers expecting just wages but people who deserve nothing, to whom God has given everything.  It is not simply that Christ earned salvation for us but that the Father gives to us freely what it cost Christ everything in suffering and death to earn.  Rejoice in God’s mercy, counting Christ’s merits as yours and wearing your flesh so that He might suffer, die, and rise for you.  There is no justice in this and it is not fair at all.  But it is good news, indeed, the best good news anyone could ever hear.  Amen.

Interesting. . .

You know how it goes.  You have some free time and you go online and a click here and a click there and pretty soon you are somewhere where you never thought you would be.  Well, that happened to me and I encountered an Episcopal congregation with a praise band and, well, suddenly I was rather frustrated.  I am accustomed to praise bands and contemporary Christian music in Lutheran circles but I guess I had hoped that the folks who gave us Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer were somehow insulated from the rather mundane stuff of church growth, CCM, and conforming to an evangelical model to pack them in.  You can just for yourself.

 

It is an Episcopal congregation and the building looks impressive enough (though plain) and the priest had a half-way decent sermon (well, perhaps better than halfway).  But. . . there was that praise band and the terrible sound of it all (makes you hope that it was better in person).  And, well, it was so. . . mundane.  I have heard decent praise bands but still would not recommend them on the basis of the ability of a praise band to lead congregational song -- which is the most essential duty of parish musicians -- much less the theology and quality of the music and the musicians.  But it does go to show up that Episcopalians, usually thought to be higher up the food chain of culture and erudition, may not be all that much different than the rest of us.  I still recall the apt title of that devotional classic -- My Utmost for His Highest -- and wonder whether we are still seeking the best or settling for what comes easy or what is popular.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

A restoration. . .

Down the road in Nebraska (from where I grew up) a Roman Catholic parish restored its church, removing the shackles of its previous modernization, to look very much like it was.  Here is the before and after of St. Wenceslaus, Wahoo, NE.

According to sources, the altar rail is also returning.  You will note the addition of figures painted on the ceiling panels and in the wall arches behind and to the side of the altar.  But do you also note what is missing?

The original church featured a raised pulpit (to the left) and the pulpit was left out of this restoration.  In its place is a rather nondescript lectern.  Some might call it an ambo but it is hardly more than a lectern.  It clearly looks out of place compared to everything else and it is certainly not what befits the ministry of the Word.  The raised pulpit may be out of fashion still in Roman church design but it would have been more faithful to restore the pulpit than to leave it out.

This was the complaint of the Reformation 500 years ago and it remains the typical complaint Lutherans have about Rome -- they continue to routinely neglect the preaching of the Word as an integral part of the Mass and this is shown here by a restoration that leaves out the pulpit.  I know that raised pulpits are not exactly the favorite of modern Lutheran restoration or liturgical design but in the first image you see the important place the Liturgy of the Word has within the fullness of the Mass while in the second photo you notice that the Word is more an afterthought to the design than something integral to it.

There are good Roman Catholic preachers and there is great Roman Catholic preaching.  But overall, this remains unfinished business dating from the time of the Reformation.  When will the Word be given its liturgical and architectural due?  I am not without the same complaint in Lutheran congregations in which the altar is minimized in size or stuck in a corner off center or treated as a glorified credence table.  We have the same problem with different execution.  The Divine Service or the Mass deserves to have the Word and the Sacrament prominently figure in the design.  It is a good restoration that might have been great.  Those who are contemplating this in their own parish should take note. . .

Saturday, September 19, 2020

To me, it means. . .

Over the course of the past years I have grown more and more frustrated with the ability of people to define things and to define themselves in ways that diminish the whole idea that words mean something.  Take for example Joe Biden's or Mario Cuomo's or Andrew Cuomo's or Nancy Pelosi's claim to be devout Catholics.  They are no such thing -- not because I have some innate ability to see into their minds and hearts but because their words and actions betray the lie on their lips.  You cannot be Roman Catholic and approve of, vote funding for, or legislate for free access to abortions that are free.  It is not possible.  This is no minor error here. In the same way, you cannot be Roman Catholic and not believe in the Real Presence.  You cannot claim to be devout and then reject basic tenets of the faith.

But Roman Catholics and politicians have no corner on this market.  Lutherans do it all the time.  You cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and believe in salvation by your works.  You cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and reject the Trinity.  You cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and reject infant baptism or baptismal regeneration or that baptism saves you.  You cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and accept the fact that Scripture is replete with error except in the narrow sense of those things that apply to our salvation (so you cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and say Adam and Eve are mythological characters or that the miracles of the Bible or of Jesus did not happen or that Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave).  I would also suggest that you cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and accept or approve of abortion.  These things are not little things that can be dismissed in favor of something bigger.

Although I will lose some of you here, I will also say that you cannot be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and reject any or parts of the Lutheran symbolical books.  Here I am not saying that you must simply accept them all as Lutheran Confessions but that the content is also required.  I will admit that it might not be necessary for a church body not to formally include all in their confessional article but it is not possible for that same church body to reject some of those confessions.  Some Lutherans would insist that it is not only possible but the best Lutheran form to pick and choose from those Confessions the way they have picked and chosen what is in Scripture -- confessing and insisting upon some items but rejecting others or refusing to be bound by them.

Let me go one step further.  It is not possible to be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and reject what is in those Symbols.  For example, can you be Lutheran or claim to be and insist that the frequency with which you observe the Sacrament of the Altar is an indifferent matter?  Can you have the Mass every quarter whether you need it or not and claim to abide by the Confession that we observe the Mass every Lord's Day and every other day there are communicants desiring to receive it?  Are ceremonies truly a matter of indifferent things so that you can say you are Lutheran but reject the liturgy, reject the customary rituals and ceremonies which the Augsburg Confession insists we have retained?  It may be possible for ceremonies to differ but is it possible for ceremonies to be rejected almost in toto as they are by many Lutherans on Sunday morning?  It is one thing, for example, not to practice them but to affirm that they can and are rightly practiced but in our church body there are those who insist that the elevation or genuflection or a thousand other things are not Lutheran.  Are they right or wrong?  Can you be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and reject or refuse to offer private confession?  Can you be Lutheran or claim to be Lutheran and insist upon the right to define Lutheranism or read the Lutheran Confessions according to your own interpretation?

So, have at it and take me to task.  But I am inherently suspicious when any conversation about doctrine and practice begins with "to me, it means. . . "  Do you get to decide what it means?  Do you get to decide what the Confessions say?  If you do, then in what sense does anyone give consent and promise to them in ordination or installation?  It is like saying that you love hamburgers but you only eat veggie burgers and then call them hamburgers.  Language cannot survive if words only mean what you decide they mean.  We do not live in Humpty Dumpty's world or in a Humpty Dumpty church:  "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

I am frustrated by those, pastors or lay, who insist that they are devout but whose devotion is to something other than what their church believes, confesses, and teaches.  I grow weary of those who say they are Lutheran but who look nothing like Lutheran on Sunday morning.  There is no such thing as Lutheran in theory.  The fabric of Lutheranism is tearing not because of outside threats but because inside the big tent people are picking away at the very threads that we say bind us together.

I will risk going further.  There are those who insist that Scripture is so clear that it settles every argument and establishes every position.  But if we all accepted this, there would not be a plethora of churches and we would not need creeds or confessions to apply what Scripture says to us.  The clarity of Scripture does not conflict with the creeds and confessions which have applied and bound us to its doctrine and truth down through the ages.  I am not saying that Scripture is vague but I am saying that we are -- that we find wiggle room where there is to be none and that we make our reason and preference the ultimate magisterium over Scripture and for this reason creeds and confessions have not only been beneficial but essential.

It is a funny thing, really.  We decry those who are Republican in name only or Democrat in name only or Roman in name only or Lutheran in name only but we do exactly the same thing when we define the faith and its faithful practice for ourselves and find every possible way out of binding us to what we have decided we do not want or like.  And then we complain about the egregious examples of those who have, like Humpty Dumpty, emptied our language of meaning in the cause of elevating individualism, preference, and experience.  Finally, the Augsburg Confession insists it is a catholic document but could it be that we have made it into a Lutheran one?  If we have, have we really held to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession at all?  Is it no wonder that all the kings horses and all the kings men cannot put our Humpty Dumpty church and world back together again?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Slaves of fear?

Sermon for Trinity 15, preached on Thursday, September 17, 2020.

Matthew 6:24–34 (ESV): 24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

If there were ever words we need to hear but do not want to hear, Jesus said them.  Part of us cannot understand why He would speak so – doesn’t He know we are in the midst of a pandemic still?  Or is that exactly why He speaks in this way.

No one can serve two masters.  You notice that Jesus does not make a case for this truth but merely presumes it.  Not the part about serving two masters but the part that you and I will inevitably serve a master.  In other words, we are not masters.  We are always servants, even slaves.  That is the part none of us wants to hear.  We think of ourselves as masters of our technology, our schedules, our lives – so good at multi-tasking and balancing work, home, and play.  But Jesus insists we are slaves, but of what?

We want to believe that we are masters of our own destinies, adults who are large and in charge, and people of substance.  Perhaps it was easier to believe this lie before COVID came alone and shook us to the very ground of our being.  Yet, the technology and social media tries to still allow us the lie.  Stay at home, watch the world go by on your screens, and keep distance from people and you will wait it out and still be in charge.  I am here today to say it is all a lie.  

You are not at the top of the food chain or the height of creation.  You are at the bottom.  You were created to be at the top and you were made by God to be the pinnacle of His work.  But you exchanged this privileged position for the bottom of the heap.  You are a slave.  Your parents exchanged their privileged position as lords with the Lord of all Creation to become slaves, captive to sin and bound to the destiny of death.  But this was not their choice alone.  They brought down you and all those born after them and through them.  Their curse has become your curse even though there is enough of Eden left in you to believe that you were made for better than what you are.

Worse than this, they brought down all of creation.  The whole creation groans under the weight of sin and its death, like a woman in labor without any prospect of producing a child.  Yes, we love the illusion that we are large and in charge, masters of our own destinies, but we are slaves who have brought down the world upon us and with us.  Now we are not lords of creation but we suffer because of it.  What we think improves on God’s work, destroys it and what destroys God’s work are the very people who were supposed to be its masters – you and me!

Even creation is better off than you.  For the Lord takes care of the birds of the air, the foxes in their holes, the fish in the sea, and the flowers of the field.  The Lord does not watch over their demise but clothes with the beauty in spite of sin and reveals the nobility of all God’s creation in spite of our screw ups and the curse that sin has cast over all that God has made.

But there is one thing God has done for you that He has not done for the birds of the air, the animals in the forest, the sea creatures, or the grass of the meadow.  The Lord has come to save you.  He did not expend all the resources of His mercy on behalf of nature and its crowning glory but He has emptied the bank account of His mercy for YOU.

You cannot serve two masters.  You cannot live under the dominion of your desires or your lusts or your wants or even your fears and claim to belong to Christ.  He will not share you but will challenge any and every kind of mammon that stakes a claim to the you He has purchased and won with His own blood.  So do not live in fear.  Do not live in lust.  Do not live in want.  Do not live in desire.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, mind, body, and soul.  For you are His and whether you live or die you belong to Him.

Listen again to the hymn stanzas we just sang and pray them as your daily prayer in the face of hearts captive to desire or worry or anxiety or fear:

Consider how the birds above
    Feed day by day with carefree ease—
Does God not keep them in His love?
    Are we not worth much more than these?

The lilies grow, they do not toil;
    How fair is their fragility—
If God clothes these, which quickly spoil,
    Will He not clothe both you and me?

Set not your heart on food or drink,
    Nor be weighed down by worldly care;
About such things the godless think,
    Yet never thank the Lord in prayer.

Be on your guard against all greed,
    For life is more than what we own.
Our Father knows our ev’ry need
    Before our needs to us are known.

Be not afraid to suffer loss
    Of all the things for which you pray,
For He who faced for you the cross
    Will give you strength to live each day.

Seek first God’s reign, His boundless grace,
    His holy name in all you do:
Christ first and last in ev’ry place;
    All else will then be given you.

How long will we let the lie live. . .

I don't know how it is where you live, but where I live there is an unpleasant truth that has been hidden behind a lie.  The unpleasant truth is that online education is NOT the same as in class school and the lie is that by providing online classes, our children are getting a good education.  While I believe that this is true for all grades, even for high school and college, it is even more true for elementary age children.  Who in their right minds actually believes that children from preschool through grade 2 can be adequately taught online?  Do we honestly believe that online classes are an equivalent to in person classes?

The lie became possible with technology.  If COVID 19 has happened thirty years ago, we would not have had the option of online classes.  But because we have entered the age of the screen, the presumption underneath our technology is that the screens can replace in person activity.  The permanence of the temporary (which is the digital or virtual reality which the internet provides) has changed how we think of ourselves and how we deal with others.  From the ever present smartphones to the computers and screens that replace typewriters, file cabinets, and copiers, we have bought into the premise that technology not only replaces in person interaction but improves upon it.

People do not need to go to the office; they can work from home and be as productive and happy at home as they might have been in an office building.  We do not need personal contact; the screen suffices.  Thus we are freed from the daily commute, from the cost of central hubs or headquarters, and from the need to provide good work environments.  Instead we can simply add in a small monthly stipend to provide a more ergonomic chair or high speed internet or whatever else an employee needs to do his or her work at home.  At first people seemed to love it -- delighting in wearing a good shirt or blouse over their sleep pants or leggings so that they look good for the Zoom meeting or facetime interaction.  Then when working from home was complicated by having to take care of children or by a loneliness that no screen could answer and it has been made worse by the need to assist the children with their online lessons.  Suddenly the reality is not as great as the hype but we have locked ourselves into the lie.  How long will it take for us to realize and admit that online and in person are not the same?

What we believed about the workplace has become and even more sacred truth of education.  It was already beginning long before COVID.  Everyone from colleges to seminaries were wondering if it might be cheaper and easier to educate people at home on their screens.  We gave all sorts of justifications for at home and online classes but under them all was the presumption that watching the screen was the same or almost the same as in person schooling.  Then COVID shut down colleges and schools and seminaries and we were captive to the screen -- not by choice but without our choice.  We limped through the end of last year online and now have decided that in many places and for many schools we have no choice.  Now we are left to make the best of things and reliant upon technology.  It remains to be seen if colleges and universities can continue to charge a premium dollar for what is anything but a premium education.  It also remains to be seen if we are doing our children a favor or a grave disservice by replacing in person instruction with online replacement.  Time will tell but we are generally agreed that preschool and the first years of elementary education cannot be replaced by the screen.  It will certainly further the divisions between the apt and those who struggle in school as well as the great divide between the haves and the have nots.

Not to mention, the ever popular idea that worship need not be in person and that online church is an adequate replacement for sitting in the pew.  If you have read here before, you know my feelings on that subject.  Some pastors are pumped up by statistics of how many outside their own congregations are watching but underneath the statistics is another set that is not so exciting.  Many people do, indeed, take a glance at religious content but few of those watch the entire video and most of them stick around for a few moments before clicking on to find other interests.  

It is one thing to depend upon technology in time of crisis when you have no choice but it is quite another to presume and invite technology to replace face to face contact.  The lies we have told ourselves will come home to roost sooner or later.  It will be up to us to admit the lies we have told ourselves are, indeed, lies, and to confront those lies with truth.  At least I hope that is what will happen.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Hymns and their backgrounds. . .

670 Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

1 Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
    Raise the glad strain: “Alleluia!”
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, pow’rs,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
    “Alleluia, alleluia!
    Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

 

2 O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
    Lead their praises: “Alleluia!”
Thou bearer of the_eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord:
    “Alleluia, alleluia!
    Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

 

3 Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest:
    “Alleluia, alleluia!”
Ye holy Twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant, raise the song:
    “Alleluia, alleluia!
    Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

 

D 4 O friends, in gladness let us sing,
Supernal anthems echoing:
    “Alleluia, alleluia!”
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One:
    “Alleluia, alleluia!
    Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”


The text of this hymn dates from 1906 and is from the pen of English hymn writer John Athelstan Riley.  Riley (1858-1945) lived a long and well-traveled life.  He was a native of London with an education at Eton and Pembroke College, Cambridge, but traveled to Middle Eastern countries including Persia, Turkey and Kurdistan to study the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches.  As you can see, the sources for this hymn text are older, based on a couple of Orthodox or Byzantine prayers, the Te Deum and the Axion Estin. The first stanza addresses each of the traditional nine choirs of angels. The second stanza focuses on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The third stanza urges the faithful departed to join in praising God, including the church patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs and saints, addressed in groups similar to those in the Litany of the Saints. The fourth stanza finally addresses the present congregation to join together in praise. The hymn directs the singer to the traditional Three States of the Church (the Church Triumphant, the Church Expectant, the Church Militant), reflecting the belief in the communion of saints.

Hymn to the Theotokos  - Axion Estin -  From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: 

It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos,
ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
without defilement you gave birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos we magnify you!

Listen and love it!

 

 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Inconceivable. . .

 Any fan of the The Princess Bride, now a cult classic, will struggle not to snicker when you hear the word "inconceivable" or not to think of the unforgettable dialogue between Inigo Montoya and Vizzini.  I do not think it means what you think it means.

Some things simply do not matter once you get past a certain point.  Everett Dirksen, the famed Senator from Illinois put it this way.  A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.  Of course it is hyperbole but not by much.  Who among us can imagine what it is like to have billion dollars?  We can certainly conceive of the amount and write it out with decimal precision but to imagine in our minds having it or spending it is a completely different thing.

It is not that heaven is beyond our conception -- we can conceive of it well enough by writing down what is there and what is not there.  Scripture does this.  No sin.  No death.  No pain.  No tears.  But we cannot imagine it.  Life comes to us in bits of shining accomplishment and overwhelming failures, in life that is too brief and death which seems to be permanent, in fits of joy that are accompanied by lifetimes of pain, and in moments of happiness that too quickly give way to tears of sorrow, disappointment, and despair.  We can conceive of it but it is hard to imagine what it could be like.  Scripture is filled with little images that we use to compare what we see around us to what is promised.  Some of them are quite nice, actually.  But heaven is unimaginable.  We take it only by faith.

In his book The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis suggests that our more accurate notion of the size of the stars that appear so small in the night sky really makes little difference to us.  They are so far away from us that it matters little to us what size they actually are.  For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same.   He is, of course, exactly right.  It may help us to note the correct distance we are from the stars and how large or small they are (as opposed to the size they appear in the sky) but in our mind's eye it matters not so much.  Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined.

Imagining heaven is great sport but hard to do.  Whenever somebody begins by saying "Heaven is like..." you know we are in trouble.  Well, yes. . . and no.  Inconceivable means beyond belief.  But that is precisely what we are being asked to do.  To believe.  To believe what we cannot imagine.  The Kingdom of God comes by faith not by sight.  No matter how much we try to reduce the Christian life to rules or explanations or figures or sums, it is simply beyond imagination what we routinely believe, confess, and teach.  That is why the Spirit must be involved.  No amount of argument or rationalization will help.  Writing it out on paper like putting down the unimaginable sums may be possible but faith is not something one can write.  Faith is trust.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of God and the Spirit is the power both of that Word and in the heart that hears.  Minds may try to conceive but the imagination of the Spirit must inform our hearts to faith in such an impossible announcement of good news.  And may God do that to us anew every day!


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Impractical but Godly advice. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 19A, preached on Sunday, September 13, 2020.

     Although we wish it were not so, until we have been raised in a glorious body like Jesus and dwell with Him on high, we will be plagued with sin.  We will sin in thought, word, and deed and we will be called to account for these sins.  For this reason, we have private confession and the general public confession that forms the preparation for every Divine Service.  We get that.  We do not like it but we get it.  Maybe we think ours are not the worst sins and that many of our sins would not even happen if we did not have to put up with the sins of others but we understand sin is part of the daily struggle.

    Therein lies the rub.  We must suffer the sins of others and figure out what to do about them.  Last week Jesus framed this in the context of the Church – calling the sinner to confession and then restoring them through absolution.  Jesus attached to this earthly response to sin a heavenly dimension.  Whatsoever sins you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Whatsoever sins you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.  That means that forgiveness is not a matter of whim or something we can treat as perfunctory.  This is a heavy load the Church carries and something no pastor can take lightly.  But it also affects you.

    From all of this St. Peter then asks the perfectly practical question that is in all our minds.  “How often must I forgive my brother who sins against me?”  This is slightly removed from the “tell it to the church” circumstance last week.  It is a distinctly personal question asking for very practical advice from Jesus.  We all want to know.  But, if you noticed, Jesus did not answer St. Peter and He is not going to answer us either.  There is no limit, no line in the sand, and no boundary.  Jesus tells St. Peter and each of us that we are to forgive as often as the sinner repents and not simply with empty words but “from the heart.”  This leaves no room for us to count the sins of others or keep tally of them.

    The parable Jesus tells to illustrate His point is not about who to forgive or how to forgive or even how to discern whether repentance is genuine.  The parable simply tells what it means to be forgiven and therefore to forgive – the thing we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s prayer.  The Kingdom of Heaven does not keep count of wrongs nor hold up hoops for people to jump through to prove their sincerity.  The Kingdom of Heaven is rich with generosity and extravagant with forgiveness – way too lavish for us.  But you cannot be a citizen of this Kingdom and be a penny pincher with God’s grace.  Now this is a hard thing to accept.


    If you will not forgive your brother when he sins against you, you will not be forgiven by your Father in heaven.  Who wants to hear that?  None of us does.   This is hard for us is because we know how much we are forgiven.  We know the measure of God’s grace and mercy which has been applied to us and our sins.  And we count on that abundant grace and mercy or we could not face God at all.  But to know and count upon that forgiveness from God means that we also know the full measure of what Christ is asking of us when He calls to forgive each other.  

    This is not something that happens once in a blue moon but the stuff of our everyday lives as the baptized people of God.  We confront this every day with the weight of a guilty conscience, with the shame of thoughts we should not think, with the words that were spoken and cannot be taken back, and with the actions we have taken that have brought harm and hurt to those we love.  We daily sin much and daily need to be forgiven much, as Luther reminds us.  And this means others sin much against us and we need to forgive them much.  We are not given the luxury of holding back or picking and choosing the sins we forgive.

    Honestly, I do not believe the problem is not wanting to forgive.  Of course, the old sinful self does not want to forgive any more than the old sinful self wants to admit our own sins.  But we know that bitterness is a poison in our lives.  The problem is that we know what forgiveness costs us.  This is compounded by the fact that we know how much God has forgiven us.  The difference is that we believe it is easier for God to forgive us than it is for us to forgive others.  And that is the key.

    In reality, it is the other way around.  God’s forgiveness cost Him much more than it costs us to forgive each other.  This is the message of the parable.  The servant owed a thousand talents – a talent was a year’s wage.  It was an impossible amount to work off or pay back.  In contrast, he was unwilling to forgive a peer who owed him three weeks wages – an amount that he could have repaid.  That is the connection between the parable and everyday life.  God has forgiven us so much and it is this abundant grace that makes it possible for us to forgive others.

    No one forgives on their own.  It is the Holy Spirit working in us and our cooperation with the Spirit that empowers forgiveness.  Instead of taking your brother’s sins into your hands, you place his sins against you in the hands of the same Lord who has so graciously forgiven you.  You treat your brother who has sinned against you the way you have been treated by your brother Jesus Christ.  It is no wonder there is a battle in you – the new person created in Christ Jesus from the waters of baptism against the old, sinful self who does not want to forgive.  This is the context in which our daily lives are lived out.  The old man fighting the new person created in Christ Jesus.  Forgiveness IS the domain in which this battle is fought, front and center in our lives.

    This is not about ethics or morality.  This is not about judging people worthy of forgiveness.  This is a battle of wills – between the old, sinful self that is dying but not dead, still fighting against the grace of God and the new person created in baptism and the Christ who lives in you, building you up in Him.  The very shape of our new lives in Christ is forgiveness – the forgiveness God has given to us that flows through us to those around us.  By our forgiveness of others, we show that we are the new people created in Christ Jesus within the baptismal water and in whom the Spirit is at work.  When we are unwilling to forgive others, we show that we are still the same, old, sinful selves rejecting God’s forgiveness and therefore refusing to forgive others.  You cannot have it both ways.

    Sure, there are times when forgiveness cannot be applied.  God tells us that these are painful moments when the sinner is allowed the hardness of his or her own heart.  After being refused over and over again, God turns the person over to their sinful wills and choice not as a sign of God’s rejection but because the person has rejected God.  It grieves the Lord to do this.  It ought to grieve us as deeply when there is no impenitence and there can be no forgiveness.  I am not talking here about inconsistencies between a person’s words and deeds.  Words and deeds are always inconsistent in a fleshly people where the new person is fighting to put down the old Adam.  Impenitence is not when words and deeds are at odds but when the heart refuses to admit wrong, refuses the condemnation of the Law and commands of God, and refuses the promise of grace in absolution.

    Jesus is not saying that forgiveness simply papers over sins or that it allows us to escape from the earthly consequences of our sins.  We do not treat sin as if it did not happen or was not a terrible thing.  Neither do we let the sinner off the hook.  We confront the sin as God has confronted us and our sin.  We hear the confession of the sinner as we have confessed to God, we absolve the sinner as we have been absolved, and we do it over and over and over again.

    In Psalm 130 we say, “If you, O Lord, should mark (that means count) iniquities (that means sins), O Lord, who can stand?”  In other words, the defining shape of our Christian life is not counting the sins of others against us because God has not counted the sins against.  The Psalm goes on, “But with you there is forgiveness that you may be feared (that means believed).”  Now take those words and transfer them to your brother or sister, your husband or wife, your child or parent, your neighbor or co-worker...

    We cannot count the sins of others and expect that God does not keep score.   We forgive sins because that is what the new person, created in Christ Jesus in baptismal water, has received and now gladly does for others.  All sins.  The sins we have committed in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone, are given to Christ who has settled account for them once for all.  And in forgiving others, their sins of thought, word, and deed, sins of commission and omission, we also give over to Christ who has settled account for them once for all.  And this is why we can stand before the Lord.

    So the Lord is not threatening us when He says “So also will my heavenly Father do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother ‘from the heart.’”  No, what Jesus is telling us here is that forgiveness is the mark and shape of new life in Christ and without it, we are not the new people God has created us to be in baptism and therefore still in our sins.  So, dear people loved by God, let us strive by the power of the Spirit to forgive one another for in doing so we are rejoicing in God’s forgiveness of every one of our sins, through the great cost of Jesus body broken on the cross, His blood shed for us, and His payment of the price of sin once for all.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.