Friday, January 31, 2020

While I am at it. . .

I have always been curious about the colors of vestments among Roman Catholics.  There are those voices that are vehement in their disdain for blue for Advent, for example, but then you see three priests and a deacon wearing green (in the photo to the left) and others wearing white.  What is it with that?

This is not the only example.  I could should hundreds of pictures of masses (Latin or Novus Ordo) with priests and deacons wearing different colors while serving at the same altar (especially concelebrations).  Did they run out of one color and let people pick their choice?  Did they run short and use the only color they had for the remaining priests (perhaps those who were late to the Sacristy that day)?  Is there a reason for this?

Orthodox and Eastern Rite Roman Catholics have a somewhat different approach to the color of the season -- even within themselves much less in contrast to the West.  So I would expect it there but why does it seem to happen so often among Roman Catholics -- even in papal masses?  I wish someone would enlighten me as to where there is rhyme or reason to this or mere accident without any rationale.  The Orthodox can often look like a cornucopia of color when they gather for festive services.  Is there a hidden Roman rubric for this?

Colors are more recognizable at Lutheran altars because it is more likely that Lutherans use paraments.  Many (dare I say most) Roman altars have no frontal whatsoever and the vestments of the priest(s) is the only clue to the color of the day and the season.  Is there are reason for this?  Are Lutherans and Anglicans the only ones who properly dress the altar?  I wish someone had an explanation for this.  It seems like many Roman altars are not works of art that deserve to be left uncovered and yet they are.  I might understand it if the altar itself were a sculpted wonder of wood or stone.  But the rest?

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Snicker, Snicker. . . Pastor wears a dress. . .

I am confident that no pastor or priest has not heard the snicker of a child pointing at the dress that pastor wears.  We expect it from a child who knows no better than to make fun of what he does not understand.  What is unexpected is when Lutherans who supposed to be adults can do no better than laugh at the old joke and when they have no words to answer the curiosity of the child about vestments.  What is downright foolish is when Lutheran pastors know no better than to call vestments robes and to reveal how uncomfortable they are wearing them while vested for service.  Yet that is exactly what we see far more often than anyone would care to admit.

I suspect such discomfort is for several reasons.  One of them might be to let folks know how awkward these men of God feel in these vestments, how they wish they did not have to wear them, and how foolish they think the whole matter of wearing vestments really is.  Another might be that they don't want folks to think that maybe they like wearing the dress and so they put out the unmistakable signal to all who see them that this is not their style or preference.  But I fear a worse reason.  I fear that the discomfort with vestments is really about the discomfort of hiding away the man and living out the office before God's people.  Nobody likes to wear a uniform that might just be stronger than one's own personality and clothing certainly are a primary expression of taste as well as being an extension of how we see ourselves.  The truth is that too often those pastors who find it hard to wear vestments also find it hard to be a pastor.  This is where the joke ends, by the way.

No where is the pastor more invisible as a man and no where is his role more profoundly noted than when the man sets aside personal taste and preference and dons the historic vestments of the Church (at least in the West) to speak in His name the Word of life, lead God's people in praise of Him whose salvation is revealed in Christ, and to administer His gifts of grace to them.  Nobody cares if Larry Peters forgives their sins but time and eternity hinge upon God's forgiveness.  The names we place upon our children are sometimes foolish and mostly temporary but when God names us as His own in the waters of baptism this is both a great mystery and delight with eternal consequence.  The food we eat is a matter of taste and preference except when the Lord sets His table in the midst of our enemies and delivers to us nothing less than heaven's bread and salvation's cup, the flesh of Christ and the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance that we are His and He is ours.

How odd it is that we would presume to dress ourselves for such an office and for such a ministry!  How reasonable it is that we would be dressed apart from the world's fashion and from all that vesture reflects to wear a dress, to be yoked with a stole, to be girded with a rope, and to be covered with a type of seamless robe.  For then it is clearly revealed to all who see us that we are not our own men.  We belong to the Lord, more particularly to HIS service.  The words we speak are not our own but His Word.  The actions which we take are not our own but the actions of His own direction in which His promise is manifest.  It is so much easier to be me than to be God's.  That is the reality.  But the pastor cannot afford to be me when it comes at the cost of God's purpose.  Even when we are not at ease with being God's man in this calling, it is important for God's people to know what this means and for us to be at peace with it.

So laugh with the child who says pastor is wearing a dress but teach the people well what it means to be vested for His service.  For how else will they understand and learn to live out their own place and vocation as the people of God vested with the peculiar clothing of Christ's righteousness?  Ahhh, that is the irony.  Pastors are not the only ones who wear the clothing of another.  All those who are baptized do the very same thing!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The March of Progress. . .

In the past and often in the present, the US is on the forefront of positive change.  From advances in medicine and technology to income to productivity to the protection of civil rights, we expect to at or near the top.  In education we have struggled but are not far behind.  In other areas, perhaps those we would prefer not to be at the top, we have also struggled.  Now there is news of a statistic that does not reflect favorably upon us as a nation and people.

The United States, it appears, has number of single parent families in the world.  Lest we dismiss this as a mark of those families not of the faith, the numbers for Christians are not significantly different from the numbers reported by non-Christians.  These are the startling conclusions that have arisen out of a Pew Research Study that examined family arrangements in 130 countries.  In the US, almost one out of four children (23%) live in a household with only one parent and no other adults.  To make a comparison, worldwide the percentage is 7% or one third the rate within the US.  China, not usually considered a bedrock nation in support of the family, we find only 3% of children live with but one parent.  In Nigeria it is 4%.  In Canada it is 15%.  In France it is 16%.  And in Denmark, often cited as a people happiest with the state of things, the statistic is 17%.

So it does not matter if the nations are richer or poorer, Communist or capitalist, Muslim or Christian, conservative or liberal, all pretty agree that children should be raised by both their mother and their father and the stats support that goal.  In the United States, well, not so much.  How did it get to this point?  That is the subject for another post.  But for now it is worth consideration that this statistic does not live in isolation from other similarly troubling statistics on the family.  The US leads the world in the percentage of folks over 60 who live alone (27%, compared to a world average of 16%) and in the numbers of young adults 18-34 who still live with their parents (20%).  This also points to the problem among extended family relations.  Worldwide, 38% of children live in extended families situations (with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.) while this is true of only 8% of American children.

The breakdown of the family is without question.  We see the signs of these problems all around us and the statistics only reinforce what we see.  Later we may take a few moments to unpack these numbers and pursue some reasons why things are not so good.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Healing Our True Infirmities. . .

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, preached on Sunday, January 26, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). 
We’re obsessed with our bodies, especially how they feel.  We focus on our infirmities.  We think about our aches and pains when we get out of bed.  We think about the chronic conditions that plague us.  We’re concerned with our diseases and illnesses.  But are we concerned with our true infirmity?  Do we think about the infirmity that causes all other infirmities?  Do we think about our sin?  If we’re being honest, more often than not, the answer is no.  Our aches and pains are on our mind, but not our sin. 
In our Gospel reading, we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  After John had been arrested, because he spoke out against King Herod’s sin, Jesus appeared on the scene and continued to preach the message that John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17).  Jesus called His first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  These fishermen dropped their nets and followed Christ to become “fishers of men.”  And then Jesus went throughout the region teaching and proclaiming the gospel.  He healed all sorts of diseases and afflictions.  It was this healing ministry that made Him famous.
News quickly spread about a miracle healer in Galilee and people from all over brought the sick, those afflicted with disease and chronic pain, those oppressed by demons.  Epileptics and paralytics were carried before Him.  These people had no hope before.  The ailments of their bodies were a fact of life that could never be changed.  But now, now there was hope.  Now, someone was there who could alleviate their suffering, and they went to great lengths to come to Him.  People from all over followed Jesus because they wanted to be healed and they wanted to see healings…and so do we.  We want Jesus to heal us.
We want Christ to alleviate all our physical sufferings.  We want Him to heal all our diseases, our sniffles, our everyday aches and pains, our chronic pain, our cancers and heart disease, our terminal illnesses; whatever it is, we want Jesus to cure it, to make it all go away.  We want Him to be that miracle healer for us.  That’s what we pray for. 
Think about your personal prayers.  When do you pray to God the most?  What do you ask God for the most?  We come to Him when we’re physically suffering, and we want Him to take that suffering away.  We come to Him at the doctor’s office and in the hospital room.  We pray for negative test results and miraculous recoveries.  Look at our church’s prayer list.  Who do we pray for and why?  We pray for the sick, for those who’ve just received a serious diagnosis, for those who are suffering physical ailments.  We pray for recovery, for healing.
Now, before you begin to think that I’m suggesting we shouldn’t do this, I’m not.  It’s good and right for us to come before God with cares and concerns.  It’s good and right to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are ill.  It’s good and right to call upon God for help in our time of sickness and need.  This is a sign of faith, and God wants us to do this.  But too often we do this without recognizing what our true need is.  Yes, we’re need physically healing, but more than that, we need the healing of our sin.
The physical infirmities we have, our chronic sickness, our life threatening diseases, they’re only a symptom of our true problem.  The true problem is our sin.  Our sin is the cause of all of this.  I’m not saying that you get sick and have aches and pains because God is punishing you for a specific sin that you’ve committed.  No, that’s not what God does.  But our sin, your sin, my sin, it’s the cause of sickness because sin destroys God’s creation.  Sin ruins the life God made for us.  This happened all the way back in the Garden when Adam and Eve chose to reject God and instead did what they wanted to do.  That’s what sin is.  Sin is a rejection of God.  Your sin is a rejection of God.  It’s a turning inward on yourself, and the result of this rejection is brokenness.  The result of this rejection is separation from God and His life.  The result of this rejection is death, and so that’s what you suffer.  Your ailments and illness, it’s the sign of your death.  You need to realize this and repent of your sin.
Remember the message that Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  When you suffer sickness and disease, you need to repent, because it’s a sign of your sin.  When you endure the everyday aches of life, you need to repent, because it’s a sign of your sin.  When you mourn the death of a loved one, you need to repent, because it’s a sign of your sin.  When you see death in your life, you need to repent, because youre a sinner, and you need the true healing that only Christ can give.  This is why Jesus came.
Jesus is the Great Physician that heals that which truly afflicts you.  Jesus didn’t come to be a miracle healer that’s only concerned with your physical problems.  Jesus is the miracle healer that cures you of your sin and death, and He does it with the medicine of His Body and Blood. 
Christ heals your sin, He cures your death with His death.  The forgiveness of Jesus’ cross removes the quilt of your sin, it washes it away.  And this forgiveness is given to you in the miracle Lord’s Supper.  That bread which is His Body and that wine which His is Blood, its the medicine of immortality.  It takes your sin and death away and it gives you everlasting life.  It takes care of your true infirmity so that everything else you suffer can’t harm you.  Does this mean you’ll never get sick again?  Does this mean you’ll be healed of all diseases?  No.  But it does mean you can endure your physical infirmities by the strength of Christ who died for you.  It means that you have everlasting life, and no sickness or disease, no death can take that way. 
Like the people who came to Jesus in the Gospel, we seek Him wanting Him to do away with all that plague us.  We come to Him in prayer, pleading for relief.  And this is good, for He is the Great Physician.  But He’s the Great Physician not because He only heals our bodies.  He’s the Great Physician because He cures us of our sin.  His message is “Repent,” and when we come to Him in repentance we receive the forgiveness that cures, the forgiveness that gives you everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Holiness and saints. . .

In Letters to Malcom, C. S. Lewis observed that the churches of his childhood “did tend to be too cosily at ease in Sion.”  That is the inherent danger of Protestantism without God's presence tied to time and space (at least since Jesus' ascension).  Without the Sacraments which locate Christ in baptismal water and in eucharistic bread and wine, Jesus inhabits more virtual space than real.  Without the primary sense of God's Word being a living voice through which He works and in which the Spirit is present, the Scriptures take on more of an encyclopedic or moralistic role.  Hence the What Would Jesus Do. 

I am not sure that we are ever to be casual about God's House and our place therein.  We are not there by our own merits, to be sure.  We are there only at the Father's invitation.  Even then, it is Jesus who walks us through the door.  Only because we are in Christ can we ever be worthy of a place in the presence of God -- much less open our hands and mouths to receive His gifts.  While some worry about reverence being off putting, I worry about the opposite.  When the things of God and our presence before the Lord becomes a casual thing, danger is most certainly ahead for the person and for the Church.  In this day and age we are in little danger of being too solemn in worship but we are in great danger of treating worship and the God whom we worship frivolously.  Sort of like the humorous stories that too often pass as sermons and the music which is designed to touch the soul with its beat yet fights against that purpose with trivial text.

Therein lies one of the dilemmas faced by our lack of knowledge of the saints and their stories.  Even Biblical figures are treated like we would treat God -- a besty instead those who have gone through the great tribulation.  The necessity of saints is, of course, the necessity of heroes and heroic figures through whom we glimpse God's mighty power -- even if that power is exercised only to save the unworthy and undeserving.  Saints may teach us but they are not quite teachers.  Saints model the faith but they are not simply role models.  Saints are windows into the sufficient grace of God and into the mercy of God without end.  They are great and mighty not because of personal achievement but because they have known the Lord, wrestled with Him in life, and rested in Him in death.  They spur us on not like the coach who says you can do this but as those whose lives are mirrors of God's goodness, grace, and glory.  The are icons.  Through them we glimpse something greater.  God who is rich in mercy and whose steadfast love endures forever.

They show us what God has paid for our redemption when we know their sins and flaws.  They show us what we are to pay in taking up our crosses and following Jesus by faith.  They show us that there is a goal to this seemingly aimless life and it is not simply to live until we die but to died in Christ so that we might live forever.  Our children will choose heroes to emulate and follow and inspire.  Sadly, they are flawed people who glory in their flaws and in whom is no lament or contrition or repentance.  From rock stars to media sensations to sports figures to the faces on the silver screen, they will find heroes -- unless we offer them real heroes in the saints through whom we glimpse the face of God.  We live today not with an abundance of heroic figures but in a poverty of heroes worthy of our attention.  But the lives of the saints could remedy this lack.  It would help even if we only learned the stories of the great figures of the Bible.  But we need not stop there.

Do yourself and your kids a favor.  Teach them the stories of the saints.

Monday, January 27, 2020

It is just a door. . . or is it?

I often wondered about the number of doors through which one must pass to enter the average nave.  In my own parish, three sets of doors must be opened before one finally enters the aisle on his or her way to the pew.  Sometimes I think there should be more -- when loud conversations from outside the nave filter in and disrupt the silence or the words or the music of the liturgy.  Some of our people who have trouble walking think there should be a short cut.  I admit that I have only thought of doors in a utilitarian way.  Perhaps I am missing something?

David Mills in his column in the New Oxford Review recalls some words from Romano Guardini.  They are good words to remember.   Don’t run through the church doors but think about what they mean, writes Romano Guardini in his small book Sacred Signs. Pause a moment beforehand so as to make your entering-in a fully intended and recollected act.  Nobody pauses before a door unless they are uncertain about where that door leads.  But should we?  Should we pause before entering the door to the Church?  Or should we bust right through on our way into the presence of God?

I doubt whether most folks think much of doors.  They are like intersections on the road or turn lanes on the highway.  They are simply there to guide and guard as people get from one place to another.  When I watch on Sunday morning, I see people rushing for the door and then slowing down.  For some that reduction in speed is to greet old friends and acquaintances.  For others it is because they are still a bit unfamiliar with things and they need to take stock of where things are and where they are going.  Still others survey what is between them and the nave as a gauntlet and stop for a moment to figure out how to make it through the sea of faces and hands to the relative safety and comfort of the pew. 

It is in the pew, after all, that most of us believe things begin in earnest.  Whether kneeling or sitting, head bowed or  hands folded, in prayer or meditation, the people of God settle themselves for what is to come.  Entering the House of God is not considered part of this preparation by most of us.  But should it be?  Guardini suggests that it should.  Guardini explains:
“Between the outer and the inner world are the doors. They are the barriers between the market place and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the man who opens it to go inside that he must now leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which here are out of place, his curiosity, his vanity, his worldly interests, his secular self. Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.”
I wish I would have read this a long time ago.  I wish my people would read this regularly.  There is much wisdom here.  Doors are barriers and lines of demarcation that define spaces.  Between the world and the nave, we pass through doors to help us transition into the holy space that belongs to the Lord.  The doors do not do it all and certainly not without our recognition that they exist and mark the dividing lines of the world and God's holy presence but it is helpful to us to see doors in this way.

After the announcements, I usually say to the congregation something like this:  During the prelude let us turn the thoughts of our minds and the direction of our hearts to the Lord so that we might be receptive to His Word and worthy of His table.  It is a door.  The time for casual gabbing has ended and we turn toward the presence of God -- literally!  It is not long, perhaps 4-5 minutes, but this prelude time is my attempt to draw attention to the space, to the domain of the world that must now give way to the domain of God.  In head and heart we surrender to the Lord.  We are His people, washed in baptismal water and marked with the Holy Cross.  We are here at His beckoning and by His invitation we will hear the sound of His voice and feast upon the very flesh and blood of Christ.  It is impossible to make the shift from parking lot and lives defined by the world's pressures, stresses, and demands to the Lord's grace, mercy, and gift without at least this pause.

I will quibble a bit with Guardini.  We do not make ourselves clean.  Even that preparation is done by the Lord through the confiteor and the ego te absolvo.  He rescues us from our sin that stains our lives and He renders us worthy in His sight.  Even more reason for the pause between one world and His holy ground.  Oh, well, you know how what I read can get me thinking. . . 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Am I relevant?

Over and over again today Christianity is confronted with the fear of being irrelevant and pursues relevance in any way that will prevent the Church from being tossed aside like yesterday's leftovers.  This quest for relevance has led churches to adopt culturally friendly views of the earth, sexuality, worship, and truth.  But the result of our preoccupation with what the world thinks of us is that the Church is weaker and more fragile than in her infancy when she was being killed in arenas.  Yet the relentless pursuit for relevance goes on.

What the world means by relevance, however, is not exactly what the word meant originally. Relevance is defined today as being in step with the times or sympathetic to the prevailing winds of thought and belief.  Relevance means constantly changing or adjusting to where people are or what direction people are headed.  The sacred text of such relevance is written by poll and survey and in pursuit of such relevance the Church must constantly take the temperature of the world around her.

Though we are bombarded by the demand for a relevant Church, what this really means is that Church must abdicate to the whim of the moment and to random thoughts unsecured and unrestrained by concepts of eternal truth. To be sure, we must be cognizant of the world around us and of the particular opportunities afforded us by the times as well as an awareness of doors that have been closed by those same times.  Who in Scripture could have foreseen such things as gender confusion or in vitro fertilization or machines that prolong the life of the body.  Relevance requires us to be able to address what was never even on the radar of the faithful of old.  But how?

That said, it might well help inform us as to the task before us if we spent a moment refreshing our understanding of what the word means and from where it has come to us. Like so many other words, relevance is a term which has moved on and no longer resembles its origins.  It might not be an exaggeration to suggest that relevance has come to mean exactly the opposite of its original meaning

From the Latin, relevance is re (again) + levare (to lift).  In other words, it means to pick up or lift up something again.  And again.  And again if necessary.  What this means is that something has been lost or dropped along the way and it must be picked up again.  Whether it was let go out of indifference or formal rejection is not specified but relevance means to rescue what was lost and restore it to use again.  So the Latin root of relevance literally means the direct opposite of how the word is used today.  Today relevance means something new, novel, creative, and spontaneous but in the past it meant to restore the old, familiar, ordinary, and regular.  It is like using the familiar old spoon your grandmother used to stir up her famous dish instead of throwing the ingredients into a food processor and pressing pulse a few times.  Tradition is the focus of relevance -- the gift of the past to the present and the future.  Traditional is relevant.

Again and again the Church refuses to abdicate to the moment and holds forth with the voices of the past and the eternal Word of the Lord in a world impatient with what is and in love with what might be.  So the Church again and again reminds us of and lifts up for another generation the unchanging truth of God's Word and the holy deposit of the faith once delivered to the saints.  The path to relevance is not to live in the past or in the present and certainly not in the future but rather to make sure that the present and future have an anchor in and are securely moored in that which does not change.  The Church does not simply repeat the past or its formulations but fashions them freshly for the changing circumstances of the present and gives to the future the wisdom of those who went before.  We do not simply rehash or repeat the same weary and tired phrases of old but preach anew and teach with new vigor the once forever faith.  When translations are required, it is the Church's duty to render them accurately and faithfully.  When new challenges arise, it is the Church's job to respond with the eternal principles of the catholic faith pointedly directed to the moment.  When the world is heading one direction, it is the obligation of the Church to restore the true North of the compass of God's Word to a people who will be lost without its clear direction.

Who among us has not dropped our keys or some cash or groceries or important papers.  But we do not abandon them.  No, if something important has been dropped, we stop to pick it up again.  Such things are too valuable to abandon and must be restored over and over and over again, if necessary, to prevent the tyranny of the moment from making the Church lose her way.

Relevance cannot demand that the Church omit or reject or skip over the doctrine once delivered to the saints or the preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  Just the opposite, the Church, if she is to be relevant, must pick up what has been lost and find the courage to speak what has been lost to silence.  And if folks around us or the world and its values are offended by this, relevance requires us to do nothing less.  Freshness comes not from the constant replacement of what is with what might be or could be.  Rather, it comes from clinging to the vision and identity rooted in time but timeless in shape and blessing.  When the culture is hostile to his or threatens the Church's existence because she was faithful, we cannot afford to abandon such relevance in favor of the more modern ideal.  We must endure through the Word that endures forever or we will not endure at all.

If the world rejects such relevance and insists upon new and different, then the Church must be willing to become the martyr for the sake of the changeless Gospel. What good would it do anyone to be relevant to the moment but lost to eternity?  What gift can the Church offer the world if she no longer holds to what has always been believed, taught, and confessed?  What cost is there too us to be judged irrelevant by those who have no anchor beyond the moment?  What cost will we bear for abandoning the world without end truth for a truth that consoles us with lies and comforts us with what is new at the cost of the truth of God which endures forever?

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Phases of life. . .

A man who is not a liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at sixty has no head.   Or, so said Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) or before him George Bernard Shaw or before Him King Oscar II of Sweden and a host of others back probably to Edmund Burke or Anselme Polycarpe Batbie.  The origin of the quote is not important but the fact that such a quote has so many authors indicates its undisputed truth is so profound that everyone has claimed to be its source.  It is a truth that is original of few but reflective of many.  It is certainly true of me.

I began with a rebellious attitude toward everything from liturgy to church music to politics to morality.  In this, I expect I am not alone.  And yet the journey of this mortal life is not without its twists and turns or without its growth and maturity.  Yet it seems that much of what continues to cause us problems within Christianity represents people toward an opposite end -- moving from relative conservatism to radical liberalism in which there is ultimately not much truth at all and little of that truth that is universal.  It is not simply a rebellion against truth or order as much as it is an immaturity that parades as wisdom.  It is not growth at all as much as it is a refusal to grow and an abdication to self against anything and everything that would restrain or govern desire, whim, thought, and inclination.

I recall once telling the joke that I knew the Lutherans would be the first to rise on Judgment Day because the Bible says that the dead in Christ shall be the first to rise and I could think of none more dead in Christ than Lutherans.  What I discovered is that the joke was on me.  The Church lives not by spontaneity or novelty or creativity or progress but by faithfulness.  The very things that once I ridiculed have become the pillars of the faith, the sources of both my strength and my comfort, and the means to the true freedom Jesus has promised (freedom not from authority but from sin and its death and the freedom to live out the noble life of good works and worship pleasing to God that sin had prevented).

The gift of God is that He does not leave us where He found us.  While this is most certainly true of the old man rooted in sin and decaying toward the inevitable death that is sin's gift to us, it is also true of how we see the things of God -- from Scripture itself to the Divine Service to the sacramental life of God's people to the nature of this baptismal vocation which we live out.  This is true of youth so filled with fervor and enthusiasm and of old age so filled with cynicism and weariness.  Ours is a journey toward an end and this end is not self-directed but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It is, even before we discover it or begin to behold it, a sanctification that through daily repentance and faith leads us ever closer to God's will and purpose (even though we may not see it at all).

Some presume that this journey will finally end up on earth at Rome (or Constantinople).  So many have come to that conclusion (even Lutherans).  This is certainly not something to which I would agree.  Rome is not only a place of tradition but is also a place where much novelty over the years has become essential truth and practice.  Certainly this is true in the obvious things to which the Reformers objected (from purgatory to the treasury of merits to the claims of papal infallibility to the replacement of the sacramental with the sacrificial in the Mass).  But it is also true in another sense.  Without the unchanging Word of God to place boundaries and fences around man's penchant for novelty, even Rome is subject so invention.  That is why the papacy is both so important to Rome and why that communion is so vulnerable.  We see this in the vast distance between a Benedict XVI and Francis.  But that is a subject for another blog post so let me continue with what I began.

The pursuit of the liberal or progressive end is first begun by and fueled by a rejection of the truth and infallibility of Scripture.  That is the downfall of Protestantism in its many and various forms.  From truth to sin to death to morality in general, the deterioration of the faith among Protestants is made possible by the rejection that Scripture is true, that it is factual, and that it's truth is eternal.  It is not that Protestantism suffers from no pope but that it has too many.  The individual is made pope or ruler over truth and life with reason, preference, taste, etc., over the Scriptures, creed, and confession.

Lutheranism is rescued from this individualistic view of truth and faith and worship only by her Confessions.  So when we marginalize or ignore or reject our Confessions, we Lutherans end up right where Protestantism is.  It is only when we study and sustain these Confessions that we have half a chance of avoiding the emptiness that is modern Christianity.  And if you look at those Confessions, one of the first things you discover is that Lutherans are not the nominally liturgical Protestants so many once thought or now think but the evangelical catholics they insist.  These Confessions insist upon a Sola Scriptura which is neither naked or alone but surrounded by a community of faith born of this life-giving Word and sustained by the Spirit who comes to us in this Word.  While some commenters fear giving too much weight to tradition, I fear just the opposite.  When we strip away from Scripture the community that has been called into existence by its Word and sustained by that Word (and Sacraments), we leave ourselves so very vulnerable to the Protestant end of a truth adrift from anything except magisterial reason or sentiment.

So if you are trying to figure me out, don't try to frame me against Rome or Geneva or Constantinople but place me squarely among those who live by the power of the Word clearly confessed and taught by our Confessions and lived out within the careful liturgical life of Sunday morning.  I did not begin here but my whole life has moved me here and I rejoice it in.  It is my hope and expectation that the Spirit will work the same growth and maturity in youth and bring us to the blessed joy of a church both evangelical and catholic in doctrine and piety.  My greatest fear in all of this is not a church too confessional but one not confessional at all.  For such a church will preserve Scripture only briefly before God's truth is exchanged for the changing truths of preference, sentiment, and desire.  My friends, few churches have made the trip back to orthodoxy but plenty of them have left and never looked back at all.

Friday, January 24, 2020

A contrarian. . .

Some have publicly and privately accused me of being rather negative and disparaging toward Lutheranism and Lutherans in particular.  I am wounded by that comment.  To be sure, I have my moods but generally I am a relatively calm and hopeful contrarian.  But if it does appear that I am angry or short-tempered or moody, it is because I care deeply about my parish and about Lutheranism as a whole.  It is not because I think Lutherans have run out of gas that I complain but that people are putting sugar into the gas tank when only high test will do.

The liturgical movement of which I have been a very, very, very small part, is not essentially about smells and bells or about high culture or low culture or about ambiance.  It is a pastoral movement.  Indeed, the evangelical catholic movement of reform that is known as Lutheranism is not primarily a theological movement but a pastoral one.  And the connection between what we confess and how we worship is not an aesthetic one but a pastoral one.  Whatever Lutheranism is, it is essentially defined not by Luther or any individual Lutherans but by her confession and her liturgy.  In this respect, it is a pastoral identity and not a theoretical one.  Lutheranism, and in particular evangelical catholicism, is not a cerebral identity but a piety both of witness and of worship born of and living within the framework of what the Church has always believed and taught.  So Lutheranism, or as our confessions put it, evangelical catholicism, is a liturgical movement whose primary theological emphasis is pastoral.  Unlike other aspects of the liturgical movement, its origins in Lutheranism were among parish pastors who had the daily and weekly task of speaking God's Word to God's people, catechizing young or new to the faith, visiting the sick, burying the dead, absolving the penitent, teaching the Scriptures, praying, leading the Divine Service, and nourishing God's people in the rich sacramental green pastures He has provided.  So, in this respect, most Lutherans involved in the movement are just that, parish pastors who are not only concerned about but actively involved in such things as good biblical preaching, the weekly Eucharist, vital catechesis, and the richest sacramental, liturgical life possible within the framework of what is good, right, beautiful and possible.

If it appears that I am often angry or impatient or dour, it is because I find myself constantly having to defend this proposition against those who see Lutheranism as a reflection of the individualistic character of society, largely cerebral, and without much need to assemble together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  I grow weary of those who think constantly in minimums or who would downsize both ceremony and theology in pursuit of the simple faith of Jesus without the messiness of creed, confession, and liturgy.  I am tired of those who think that the best Lutheran pastors are those who do what the people want on Sunday morning while maintaining in theory the substance of the faith.  I am cranky mostly because there are those who presume that Lutherans are an evolution toward a purer form and away from their earlier years of richer liturgical life.  I am frustrated when Lutherans who have no seminary training recall how it was when they grew up and then hold that yardstick up as that which should judge and define who we are for all time.  I am soured more by the squandered opportunity of the evangelical catholic identity than by those who fail Lutheranism in other ways.  I cannot for the life of me figure out how Lutheranism became a democracy in which we vote on how often Christ will come to us in His Holy Sacrament or whether we will conveniently ignore who we are as the evangelical catholics of our confession in favor of a more comfortable Protestant set of clothing.  Other than this, I am a pretty happy go lucky fellow.  I love being a pastor and work hard on behalf of the people in my care and the pursuit of an authentic evangelical community of faith whose creed and confession is in sync with our liturgy.  I do not want less from Lutheranism but always more -- sometimes much more than we are content to give and be.  That is what is behind me, my ministry, and my meager offerings on this blog.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Why we need the Church. . .

Some have suggested that one big reason why we need the Church is to tell us what is true and what is myth or legend in the Scriptures.  It began at some point in time, I suppose, when scientific exegesis began to divorce what the Bible said from what it meant -- about the same time some concluded that the Jesus of the Scriptures and the Jesus of history were two very different Jesuses.  But throughout the history of Christianity the issue has never been what is true or not and who gets to decide.  Even St. Thomas Aquinas who puts it this way:  All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal [sense].  We forget this at our own risk.

We now live in an era in which the very idea of truth is suspect.  Science comes as close to truth as anything in our modern area and even scientific truth changes and adjusts from time to time and from scientist to scientist.  So when it comes to the Bible, modern scientific erudition says that the chief task of the exegete is to figure out what is true and what is not.  Never mind that nearly all of it is presumed to be myth.  And then there is the joke behind it all that says it does not matter that it is not true.  The value of Scripture is to impart moralistic truth illustrated by stories never meant to be taken literally.  Whether it is about facts or history or sex or truth or morality, it is true only if we agree with it and its truth does not proceed from historicity but from consent and agreement.

But think about it, folks.  If we were never meant to believe the parting of the Red Sea actually happened, why would we presume to believe the incarnation or crucifixion or resurrection or ascension happened? If there was no Garden of Even or Adam and Eve or a forbidden fruit, why would we believe that God is love or light or merciful or gracious -- let alone that there is fruiit that actually becomes the Blood of Christ. Where do you begin and where do you end in your distinction between truth and falsehood.  If the Church exists to arbitrate the claims of Scripture and render judgment on what is true and what is false, is there anything that true for more than a moment or more than one person?   When the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip ‘How can I understand without someone to teach me?” was he asking Philip to help him navigate the narrow path between real and fake facts or was He asking Philip to reveal Christ to him -- the Christ of whom Isaiah spoke?

The whole premise of liberal Christianity is a contradiction.  Change what is true into a question or reject something entirely and the whole of the Scriptures is changed and it is left as an empty shell. Change Eden and you change Gethsemane and the Garden of the Tomb and it becomes entertainment without the power to answer sin or death or guilt or purpose.  If the stories in the Bible are simple allegory, it has no power to save anyone or to point us to the Savior.  It is only a random collection of proverbs and colloquial wisdom. The Exodus has meaning only if it is true.  The Flood means something only if it happened.  Adam and Even are relevant only if they lived as described.  Even the details are not incidental. Believing does not make them true anymore than not believing makes them false.  Whether or not we understand them does not give them more or less authority or authenticity.  Indeed, it is just the opposite.  If we can tell these stories without them being true, then the only thing that matters is us and nothing exists without us giving the words authority and meaning.  We need the Church not to tell us what is true and what is not in Scripture but to speak the Scriptures to us for in them is wisdom and faith, knowledge and salvation.

C.S. Lewis said that Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Accordingly, our ancestors who believed Him were either fools, con-artists, or normal people who were convicted by the Spirit to faith and who raised up their children in this truth and life.  If we pass on to the generations that would follow us something that is not true, we are the same kind of liars and con-artists.  Or, we are people of faith in whom the Spirit has worked to enable us to trust the unbelievable.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Putting a price on the priceless. . .

I well recall the time a farmer came into my dad's store and complained about the price of a dishwasher his wife wanted.  He offered my dad a ridiculously low price for the dishwasher and my dad said he would take it home before he would sell it that cheaply.  It was our first dishwasher.  My mother was so happy. 

Everything has a price, people say.  But the problem is when we attempt to put a price on the priceless.  It is not simply that we are undercutting another or bargaining for a good deal.  It is much worse.  It is when we put a price on things that are priceless.  That is the essence of the pro-life cause.  It affects not only abortion but reproductive technology and birth control and nursing homes and caps on spending on the aged.  We put a price on life.

Now I am no fool.  Though some insist that it is socialized medicine that defines life by the almighty dollar, I know that our insurance industry does the same.  We negotiate coverage and deductibles and limits.  I got a tetanus booster because my doctor informed me that if I wait, it will no longer be covered by insurance.  You get the picture.  Magnify that image by an aging nation and a declining birth rate.  Costs go up and cost reduction is the goal of the day.  My own congregation switched to a high deductible policy for our full-time staff and it shifts the burden from employer to employee.  We all know it.  We put a price on everything.  Why not put a price on life?

It happens all the time and not just in abortion clinics or pharmacies or wherever birth control is purchased.  People are putting a price on a child and deciding it costs too much to have one.  Maybe they are proactive and prevent the pregnancy or maybe they use a medical procedure or pill to abort a pregnancy.  Life is priceless -- except when people look at whether they can afford to have a child (whatever that means afford).  We can afford what we want and we cannot afford what we don't want. 

I visit nursing homes.  I see what age and infirmity looks like.  I hear the sounds of despair in the cries of the residents.  It is impossible to miss what is there and what is missing -- like signs of a family or visitors.  I hear people all the time ask why it would be so bad to put these folks out of their misery and I listen to folks asking their family and friends not to let them suffer so.  I also hear the complaints about the high cost of skilled nursing facilities. But I also see that the staff of most of these facilities is low wage folks who come and go.  This is not their end goal but a starting job on their way to better employment.  We put a price on the priceless all the time.

That is the inherent weakness of all economic systems.  That is why all economic systems so often conflict with the values of God and the morality of His Law.  And that is why it is so hard to live in but not of the world.  Some churches and pastors have chosen to live only in one.  A few hide away from all everything that would conflict with their faith but most find a way to accommodate it and even exploit it.  Have you never heard of religious entrepreneurs?  Some of the biggest and most successful churches have worked the system so that they are of the world as much as in it.  The rest of us try and find a balance, a way through, a path to maintain some integrity.  It is hard work.  It is messy.  And it never feels like you have gotten it right.

God put no price on us but valued us with something that is beyond value.  He gave His one and only Son for a world of sinners worth nothing.  He renders priceless what is cheap.  Only God can do this.  And that is what God did.  This is what the Church proclaims to a world with a dollar sign on everything.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Where is your starting point. . .

I have been thinking about some comments on this blog six weeks or so ago when it was suggested that confessionals borrow from Anglican or Roman sources, live in medieval times, and cannot accept that fact that there is a Western American liturgical model that is fairly middle of the road that we already follow. Albs and stoles, introit, confession and absolution, readings, sermon, offering, sacrament, dismissal. Traditional mostly English and German hymns. Doctrine from the Small Catechism. A solid faith grounded in Scripture. This is what we as a church need to be. I get it.  There are folks in my parish who only tolerate chanting, who like things simple, and who don't get why I even bother with a fuller ceremonial.  For them it is a matter of taste and preference.  Some of them would love it if we ever even sang any hymns (or sang the same few over and over again).  I get it.  I understand.  But there are things they do NOT understand.

One is knowledge.  Most of us base our knowledge on our own experience.  Yet we would never pay somebody to file our taxes for us or treat our diseases or fix our cars if that person only had the same level of knowledge we have.  That would be foolish.  So first of all it needs to be acknowledged that pastors are highly trained (4 years of college, 3 years of graduate courses, and 1 year or practicum).  Compared to most, this is an exceptionally well trained clergy.  We do learn a few things in this.  One of them is to look beyond our own experience base to understand who we are as Lutherans and how worship relates to this confession.  We all have preferences.  Most folks are mistaken in presuming that my preferences are obvious from watching worship at the parish I serve.  Our liturgical practice is NOT my preference but informed by my education in a Lutheran seminary and our Lutheran confessions.  Neither is our liturgical practice shaped by poll or majority vote or common consensus.  How we worship is not taste but confession -- Sunday morning says something about what we believe.  Now, to be sure, not all Lutherans get this or even agree.  They are, quite honestly, wrong.  And the disconnect between confession and how we worship is one profound reason why the ELCA is bleeding off members like nobodies business and Lutherans don't even know what to expect when they come to an LCMS parish anymore.  This confusion and diversity has not helped  us one bit.

Another is history.  Anyone and everyone can pick a snapshot in time and say this is the best in Lutheran worship and practice.  We all do it.  It is wrong headed in the worst way.  The history we use most of all is OUR history and not the history of the church as a whole.  Lutherans often fall victim of picking one moment in time and saying this is the best era of Lutheran history and then they try to recreate it.  Can't do it.  It is a fool's mission.  We are where we and we live when we live.  I grew up on page 15 from TLH but the vast majority of my people did not and do not.  We cannot go back.  So we are always making choices in an effort NOT to satisfy most but rather to be as faithful to who we are in confession on Sunday morning.  This means looking at not only the whole of Lutheran practice but the intent of our confessions -- to be the true evangelical catholics.  Lutherans are loathe to make absolute rules about what you can and cannot do on Sunday morning but that does not mean anything goes.  Instead it means that we should strive for unity of form and a basic uniformity of practice for evangelical purpose and for the benefit of our identity in the world and the care of the flock. We may not have many maximums but we ought to have clear minimums without which Sunday morning is not Lutheran.

Another is need.  Where we might have been able to look like liturgical Protestants in another time and get away with it, we live in a completely different world today.  Protestantism is imploding on its embrace of culture, society, and social progressivism.  It has abandoned the Scriptures and allowed personal conscience, preference, and reason to be the source and norm of the faith.  We should not want to be associated with the demise of both evangelicalism and liberal mainline churches.  Both ends are dying.  That is not where we can go.  Secondly we cannot no longer afford to be ambiguous about what we believe, confess, and teach.  On Sunday morning the faith needs to be on full display before a hostile and skeptical world.  Vestments draw attention to the office and not to the man.  Kneeling, genuflecting, and bowing show the world that these are not empty gestures but honors given to the present Lord who IS here in the means of grace.  Chanting separates what happens in worship from simply words said and directs what we do to the high doxology of united praise in the song for which music was created.  It is counter cultural in a confessional way.  We either need to be real Lutherans or give up the term.  The times require nothing less.

Finally, is moderation.  While Lutherans may have raised this term to almost sacramental level within our identity, moderate liturgical practice is hardly something to be commended.  Moderation is a crutch we use because we either believe the people in the pews cannot deal with who we are confessionally or the world around us cannot.  The people in the pews deserve nothing less than the truth of our confession lived out on Sunday morning and the world around us will not be engaged by anything less than this full truth.  The time when we could get away with anything less than authenticity has long passed.  Moderation is not a principle we can afford in a world which is at work trying to moderate who Christians are, what they believe, and how they express that faith.

Something ought to be said about individualism.  At some point we got the idea that pastors are only distinguished from the lay for purposes of order and that every individual is a priest with full ability if not faculty to act as such.  I don't know where Lutherans got this definition of the priesthood of all believers but it does not accord with our confessions.  The individualistic bent that predominates in Christianity today is at odds with Lutheran faith and identity just as it is at odds with orthodox Christianity.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Do you like lamb?

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany preached on Sunday, January 19, 2020.

    Do you like lamb?  I must admit that I cannot resist the lamb on the menu of the Depot.  It is delicious.  Maybe you have never had lamb?  No chops on the grill or a nice leg of lamb with mint jelly?  But still I ask:  Do you like lamb?  Maybe you have have eaten lamb and did not realize it.  I am not talking here about the way people deceive you with venison disguised as beef.  I am talking about the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  Then, yes, you have eaten lamb and although it was obvious what you were eating, you may not have been paying attention.  Now you know.

    The setting in the Gospel is just after Jesus’ baptism at the hand of the John.  John was squeamish about the whole thing but went ahead at Jesus’ insistence.  By the end of it all, John had regained his courage.  Now his finger pointed to Jesus and his voice made known for all to hear:  Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  What John pointed to was the flesh and blood of the incarnate Son of God.  Jesus the man standing in front of them is being identified with the Lamb of God that every Jew knew of – this is the Passover Lamb who marked their deliverance from slavery and the sacrificial Lamb who is slaughtered in the temple and whose blood is the atonement for their sin.  That is how they heard John then.  That is not how we hear him today.

    When we think Lamb of God, it is not a finger pointed at a man but bread set apart by the Word of Christ to be His flesh and wine set apart by His Word to be His blood.  We are not pointing to same thing as John but it is the same Christ.  The Christ whom John pointed to is the same Christ whose flesh is our food and whose blood is our drink.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  What Passover marked was a deliverance that hinted at the greater deliverance Jesus would accomplish by His death and resurrection.  We are not delivered simply from proud Egyptian Pharaoh but from sin, from the tempting lies of the devil and from the dark desires of our own hearts. 

    What Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, accomplished in symbolic act by a lamb sacrificed for the sins of the people, we see happen upon the altar of the cross for the sake of a sinful world.  God counted the blood of an animal as righteous because that blood pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose blood has the power to cleanse every sinner from their sin and clothe them with righteousness before the Father on high.  We are not delivered by a symbol but by real flesh offered in suffering, real blood shed, a real death from the only real innocent man.  That is all that is bound up in the finger of John and his proclamation that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin.

    And this witness of a finger pointing to Jesus and the voice declaring who Jesus is has become something even more profound and mysterious.  It is the Sacrament by which the thing symbolized is realized, wherein the word is turned into food and drink, and by which the Jesus out there all around is made accessible and available to us with all His gifts and grace as we eat and drink.  The Church may still stand like John before the world and point to Jesus in the Scriptures and call Him the Lamb of God.  But here, in the house of the Lord, when we point to the Lamb, we point to the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. 

    You have heard me say it before that it is crazy to tell our children that God is up there somewhere.  What good does it do our children to have a God who is somewhere out there?  If we want our children to know God’s presence, then we must point to the means of grace by which Christ lives among us and makes Himself accessible to us so that we are forgiven, set right before God, and delivered from the devil and his death. The God who is up there somewhere came in flesh to be near us and so that we might be near Him.  The God who is up there somewhere came to walk the path we could not and did not want to walk.  He made His way to Calvary to answer for our sin and the sins of the whole world.  He lived a holy life so that those who live in Him might be declared holy and righteous in His name.  He died a real death and rose with a real life so that the people who live in the valley of the shadow might be raised to the very top of the mountain, where the veil of death is cast off once and for all.

    Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He does not symbolize that Lamb but actually is the Lamb.  He does not wear this as a title but fulfills the purpose of the Lamb, offering Himself into death for our sin and offering Himself as our food in the new Passover of this Sacrament of His body and blood.  Here we are not only kept in Christ and fed and nourished by His grace so that may endure the trials and troubles of this morning life.  This is our witness to the world around us – the Emmanuel of Christmas is not in the manger but on the altar, not in the flesh of an infant but in the bread of the Sacrament, and from the cross He comes to this altar.  He redeems not our feelings to make us feel better about our condition but redeems our bodies marked by sin for death to forgiveness and life so that its claim on us is over.

    We Lutherans are foolish.  I grew up when the Sacrament was offered four times a year.  We forgot what it was that Christ had given to us and what we had to give to the world.  Jesus became an occasional treat instead of our regular food.  Over the course of several generations the claim of our Lutheran Confessions and our earliest history and practice has been restored.  Holy Communion is more and more frequent.  That is good.  It happened here when 25 years ago we moved from every other week to every week.  It is a good thing that the weekly Holy Communion has been restored.  Now what is left to be restored is a piety rooted in this blessed table and the body and blood of Christ.

    So do you like lamb?  No, not the lamb as a choice selection off a restaurant menu or even a seasonal offering at the butcher.  I am talking about this Lamb.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  They say that lamb the meat is an acquired taste.  Perhaps it is.  But I know that the taste for the Lamb of God in this Holy Sacrament must be acquired.  It does not come naturally.  The Holy Spirit must plant faith in us to see this bread for what it is – the flesh of the Lamb of God – and this cup for what it is – the blood of the Lamb of God.  The Spirit must help us to, as St. Paul says, discern this presence by faith and learn to desire its gift and yearn for its goodness.  The Spirit must ready us through repentance, confession, and absolution to be fit to receive this body and blood of Christ the Lamb of God.  And the Spirit must work to put this food to good use so that we grow up in maturing of faith and holiness of life before our heavenly Father.  And one day, we will feast upon this food in heaven on high.

    There is a point in the Eucharistic Prayer when the pastor says, “Gather us, we pray, from all the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.”  If you notice, the hands of the pastor move from open wide to drawn us right to the bread and cup in front of him and of us. It is a small reminder that the food of heaven is present here, not the full meal but the foretaste or appetizer.  Soon, however, it will be our main course and our eternal food.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world gives us His flesh as food and His blood as drink, a taste of eternity now until it becomes the food of eternity in the life to come.

    Do you like lamb?  Well, you sing about it every Sunday.  You sang it today already in the first hymn, the hymn of the day, and you will sing it again.  The words of John:  Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world.  In just a few moments you will sing John’s words but not to the God who is out there somewhere.  You will sing it  to the Lamb right now on His throne on this altar, waiting for us to come eat the bread of salvation for which there is no price and to drink the cup of salvation which satisfies our thirst forevermore.  Today we talk about it in the sermon, but in just a few minutes it won’t be talk.  It will be people kneeling, mouths open, and hearts rejoicing.  For the Lamb of God is our real food and our real drink and it will keep us in the covenant of His mercy to the most real of all lives – the one which death cannot end, sin cannot stain, sorrow can not distract, and temptation cannot succumb.  Lord, give us this food always.  Amen.

As it ought to be. . .

A friend forwarded a defense of the Novus Ordo written by a Roman Catholic priest.  In the end it was not so much a defense of the rite as it was a call for the rite to be celebrated as it ought to be.  "If the rite is carried out as it ought to be” is, however, a big "if."  The Roman Catholic Church has suffered through decades of experimentation that have made the typical Novus Order anything but the rite as it ought to be. The priest admits that the problem lies with the fact that for too long the rite has been seen as an outline to be adapted and shaped into something local.  Liturgiologists call this inculturation.  In other words, time has not been kind to the typical celebration of the Novus Ordo.

Before you turn up your nose and insist that this has nothing to do with you, Lutherans are in much the same boat.  It is not that the rites that were bequeathed to us by the liturgical reforms of the 1970s cannot be celebrated with orthodox form but that the rites are so often not celebrated with any real liturgical integrity.  Inculturation has come to mean that everything about the service is a local decision.  Ask any Lutheran pastor who fills in and you will hear how many times a congregation (or pastor) presents a laundry list of items that usually begin "We do something different here. . ."

Now while some might object to those who add to the ceremonies expected by the rubrics or add to the rites, I don't.  My objections are with those who put the liturgy on a diet or change its clothing until it is barely recognizable any longer.  It is one thing to reduce the number of hymns or to take advantage of the liturgical options inherent in the hymnal but it is quite another to simply x out large portions of what is there.  The other thing that is a problem is when the ordinary is treated as a thematic element and is replaced routinely by thematic hymns or songs.  So the hymn of praise is not the Gloria in Excelsis but anything that has an element of praise to it.  Likewise the other parts of the ordinary.

While it is typically true that most Roman parishes suffer from the banal, cliched, and throw away music, Lutherans are not immune from this problem.  Even where the liturgy is retained, the choice of music can detract from the liturgy and become the focus instead of the Divine Service.  No where is this more true than when music for the Divine Service is treated as mood music.  Again, my experience is that this is a typical problem for the Roman Church but it is not uncommon among Lutherans.

Clearly the issue before us is agreement upon some sort of liturgical minimums.  Fuller ceremony is not required but there ought to be agreement upon basic ceremony and liturgy that is consistent with our confessional identity.  That said, there is more chance of this happening in Rome than among Lutherans.  Lutherans treat adiaphora as unimportant and betray the uniqueness of that term in order to provide cover for Lutherans doing whatever they darn please on Sunday morning.  Maybe this priest has hope for Rome in this area but I am not at all sure I have much hope for Lutherans regaining a sense of who we are on Sunday morning.  If anything, the diversity of what it means to be Lutheran on Sunday morning will increase rather than decrease.  I say this with a sigh and only hope and pray that the places where I have served have been catechized well enough not to fall into that trap.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The pipe organ is ancient. . .

From another web site:

The earliest known pipe organ, the hydraulis, invented in the third century BC, ingeniously used water to maintain the pressure in its wind chest. This animation illustrates the mechanism:

This reproduction instrument at Bath illustrates some of its potential for sound:

No wonder the Byzantine emperors used it in their court ceremonies. This German reconstruction sounds much more refined:

No wonder Mozart referred to the pipe organ as the King of Instruments and it has been acclaimed as the most complex engineering of man up to the modern era!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Tool for Renewal. . .

From a church body whose own statisticians predict institutional death in little more than a generation and from another where an entire diocese reports average attendance of a medium sized parish in my district has come a tool for renewal designed to make relevant the irrelevant and appeal to people burned out on doctrine, orthodoxy, and truth.  It was presided over by an ELCA bishop and by Bishop Curry famous for his sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding.  It was the love doctor and a love liturgy minus most of the things that would ordinarily constitute a typical Lutheran or Episcopalian service.

You can watch Curry's sermon on Facebook.  It is can be viewed in its entirety here.  The revival, “The Way of Love Up North,” was a cooperative effort of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Northern Great Lakes Synod.  Replete with the obligatory references to nature's God, with Native American religious imagery, Tibetan prayer flags on the altar and missing the Triune Name of God, the assembly heard not from God but from the poem “The Creation” by American author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson.  In the sermon,sermon, Curry preached on the that looks like “death to self,” rising to a “true self” and giving to others -- echoing St. Paul without really mentioning Jesus.  In place of the creed, the congregation confessed:

“We believe that God is present in the darkness before dawn; in the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands, conflict and caring link arms, and the sun rises over barbed wire.
We believe in a with-us God who sits down in our midst to share our humanity.
We affirm a faith that takes us beyond the safe place: into action, into vulnerability and into the streets.
We commit ourselves to work for change and put ourselves on the line; to bear responsibility, take risks, live powerfully and face humiliation; to stand with those on the edge; to choose life and be used by the spirit for God’s new community of hope. Amen.”

In place of the Our Father, the people prayed:
Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.”

You can be sure that such a liturgy will revitalize the dying hulk of the ELCA and The Episcopal Church.  And, if the things are working against us, it may be showing up in a congregation near you.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The magic in the room. . .

I grew up in a parish without an altar rail.  I am not sure of the history or why there was no rail.  Rails are very common and almost ordinary in every other Lutheran parish around.  But it was not until I went to college that I really notice the rail.  Trinity Lutheran Church in Winfield, Kansas, has a circular altar rail that is hard to miss.  In fact, the acolyte had to stand on the back circle of the rail to reach the office lights on the back wall.  It was then I began to notice what I had been missing.

The altar rail is not simply utilitarian.  It means something more than just a handle on which to lean.  It marks a place or rather it is a marker between places.  On one side is the domain of God and those who serve Him.  On the other side is the domain of those who are served.  When we confuse the two, all kinds of things go bad.  I did not realize this until fairly recently.  Now I see the wisdom of it.

Despite all the folklore about the rail being used to keep livestock out of the chancel, the altar rail is the meeting place between the God who serves and the people who are served.  I well recall while serving as a Deacon at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, feeling strange that there was no rail.  There had been but a remodel under the guidance of then pastor Herb Lindemann they had removed the rail and people stood around the altar.  Since then the rail has been restored.  There is an order there that was missing before.  It is not about who is kept out but how the divine service functions.  God who serves and we who are served by Him.  It is amazing how the rail marks this Divine Service.

Roman Catholics ditched the rails like crazy after Vatican II.  Lutherans are cheap and we may have omitted them from newly built structures but we did not spend a great deal of time or money rehabbing the old structures to fit the new liturgies.  It was a wise coincidence of stinginess and liturgical wisdom.  Now some Roman Catholics are searching the corners of their buildings for the old rails to reinstall them or purchasing them from newly closed church buildings.  They have also found that the simple fact of a rail makes a difference.

There is something else.  I think that the rail may have something to do with a vibrant belief in the Real Presence and its absence may have something to do with our casual approach to the most holy presence of our Lord.  Rails remind us to kneel and kneeling reminds us that we who are being given the most precious gift of all are also unworthy of this grace.  The more casual treat the things of God and how we receive them, the more casual they become until God Himself is hardly worth our time or effort.  And if an altar rail can discourage this shrug of the shoulders before God's presence on earth, then it is one of the most valuable pieces of furniture in any chancel.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Oops. . .

Missed it.  So I guess we will have Assinorum Day Observed today!  The day included the tradition of a parading a couple of kids (not goats) on an ass (not a person) right into the church, next to the pulpit during the sermon.  The congregation would respond with loud “hee haws”.

Sounds Bad. . .

There was once a day when fundamentalists ruled the day, at least in America.  It is hard to find one today.  Where fundamentalism once insisted upon truth, the Christian world seems more or less reconciled to truths according to the definition of reason or preference.  Where fundamentalism once insisted upon doctrine that did not change, the Christian world seems more or less reconciled to the idea that even doctrine cannot escape evolutionary change and adaptation.  Where fundamentalism once was anchored in an inerrant Scripture, the Christian world seems more or less reconciled to the idea that the Scriptures at least do not lie when it comes to matters of salvation but even then they are less the Word of God than they might contain some of it.  Where fundamentalism once insisted that the reliability of Scripture and its consistent witness in tradition were key to the maintenance of the faith, the Christian world seems more or less reconciled to the idea that the individual creates and defines the faith and Scripture and tradition can either help or hurt in this pursuit.

Inerrancy has become a bad word for the modern ear.  Nothing is without error in the modern mind.  Everything is adjustable and there is no place for a Scripture that is not flexible or fluid.  Even once stalwart defenders of inerrancy seldom talk about it and others have left it simply to the original monographs -- effectively leaving the term an antiquated idea for something that no longer exists.  But you might be surprised at those who, along the way have held out for the inerrancy of Scripture.  They are not all fundamentalists of more recent origin but the fathers of old and even the popes and councils of Rome.  Lutherans of the Missouri stripe should not be so fearful.   Maybe some others should awaken to their own history and confession.

Augustine, for example:
On my part I confess [concerning] those Books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honour and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these Books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand.
Down to the original paragraph (but not adopted) at Vatican II:
Because divine Inspiration extends to everything, the absolute immunity of all Holy Scripture from error follows directly and necessarily. For we are taught by the ancient and constant faith of the Church that it is utterly forbidden to grant that the sacred author himself has erred, since divine inspiration of itself necessarily excludes and repels any error in any matter, religious or profane, as it is necessary to say that God, the supreme Truth, is never the author of any error whatever.
As we all know, modern minds cannot live with such absolutism -- at least one that deposits truth in an ancient and non-adjustable source.  So there were objections at Vatican II to this wording -- though the wording reflected magisterial teaching from the papacy.  In the end it was predictable where the counciliar document ended up:
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
The issue remains that if Scripture (and tradition) contain errors, then there can be only one reliable and authoritative source or judgment.  In other words, “Modern Man” has ultimately become not only the norm but the very source of revelation. The individual decides what of Scripture and its living faith expressed in tradition what he or she is willing to accept and heed.  Reason and preference have become the only magisterial powers.  In the end the entire Deposit of Faith ends up being a joke and this is exactly how Modernism wants it.

Lutheranism may dispute how effectively Rome has lived out this affirmation of Scripture's truthfulness but it remains that Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, and Pius XII saw where the road of modernity was leading and how crucial inerrancy was and is to maintaining the Deposit of the Faith.  We came out of the 1960s and 1970s bruised and bloodied by our own Battle for the Bible and we thought that preserving the language of inerrancy would be enough.  In the end, we may have won that battle but we are right now losing the war to modernity.  We have not spoken of or treated Scripture as this infallible rule and norm and so our people have, to one degree or another, summarized or boiled down the faith to that which seems reasonable and defensible to them.  The language of inerrancy is still held in our documents but our minds find it hard to admit it.  And we are not alone.  Look around and you find most denominations that were once castigated as fundamentalist have done just about everything imaginable to avoid being so labeled.  It has become a pejorative term, offensive to the image of the modern man educated and sophisticated.

In the 1973 A Statement the LCMS declared: We therefore believe, teach, and confess that since the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God, they contain no errors or contradictions but that they are in all their parts and words the infallible truth. We hold that the opinion that Scripture contains errors is a violation of the sola scriptura, for it rests upon the acceptance of some norm or criterion of truth above the Scriptures. We recognize that there are apparent contradictions or discrepancies and problems which arise because of uncertainty over the original text.  The LCMS continues to hold to the theory though in practice it is often hard to hear much on this topic.  In 1978 Evangelicals put forth the Chicago Statement to define and confess “biblical inerrancy” among conservative Protestants and Evangelicals (though little has been said of late).  Could it be that we get it?  We see how passe this idea has become and how offensive to the modern mind with its penchant for redefining everything from truth to gender?  Are we silent because we no longer believe it or because we fear too much talk about the infallibility of Scripture will offend the folks in the pews (and even those in the pulpits) of our church body?

We do not find Scripture reliable and truthful.  This is not a judgment we render because we have found its facts to be proven trustworthy.  We do not make the Bible true anymore than we can make God's Word false.  This is a given.  It is the perspective of faith.  To deny the reliability of the Scriptures is to attack the basic foundation of belief and to reduce the Christian faith to mere morality.  Either the Scriptures are inerrant or they are contain errors that reason must sift through.  Rome has an out because they have a chair from which popes speak without error and they believe the Church is the guarantor of truth (through councils, popes, and her magisterium).  While no confessional Lutheran is ready and willing to structure the same kind of thing Rome has as its back up, neither are we willing to surrender the faith to the individual, to reason, or to a Scripture that may or may not be telling you the truth.  And there you have it.  We are either stuck with a term that grates upon the modern mind or we are left with a truth that has no real basis in fact or hedge against change.