Friday, February 28, 2020

What is their practice?

In a conversation a while ago, the subject of what kind of changes a new pastor might make to the new congregation in his charge elicited some interesting replies.  Much of the interest was in reforming practices and changing those things that prohibited or impeded the mission of the congregation.  There was a great deal of discussion about buildings, staffing, mission statements, core values, and a host of other buzz words for things missional.  When it came to worship, there was little discussion except to ditch the organ, hymnal, and things traditional in favor of culturally friendly forms of worship (including sermons that fit the subjects and interests of the people).  It was as if nobody even needed to talk about this since everyone knew what must be done.

In a very different conversation among traditional Lutheran types, the same kind of question came up.  There was much discussion about reforming practices not in synch with our Confessions, teaching and preaching the faith, and working to make the parish more Lutheran.  When it came to worship, restoring the hymnal was typical.  There was a comment made by several which I found curious.  When the discussion moved to the frequency of celebrating the Eucharist, several indicated that they accepted the practice of the parish before they came and did not change it.  This was their practice, after all, and they did not want to impose their pastoral preference upon the congregation.

In other words, certain liturgical practices -- including the frequency of the celebration of the Eucharist -- were considered sacred.  So if they found the parish using some odd mix of hymns instead of the ordinary or some other bypass of the rite as printed, they would keep whatever they found.  And if they parish had the Sacrament monthly or twice monthly or even quarterly, they would respect the practice as they found it and leave it in place.  Now I respected their hesitance to making wholesale change, I found it worse than odd that the frequency of the Eucharist was left untouched.  Surely if there is a place to make change, it is to preach and teach the parish into the ordinary practice as described by the Lutheran Confessions -- weekly Holy Communion!

The point of my post is that moving a congregation to a weekly Eucharist is NOT imposing the personal preference of the pastor upon the parish.  Plenty of things ARE an imposition of clergy taste over lay but not this.  If there is a justification for making changes, this is one that has Confessional authority.  Now I am not suggesting that any pastor simply announce a change like this and leave it at that nor am I ever suggesting that this is something a congregation should vote upon but I do believe the the focus of preaching, teaching, and catechesis should be on restoring such essential Lutheran identity and piety.  This includes weekly Communion.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Things to fix. . .

Okay, like a bug to the light I was drawn and could not help it.  I say a headline that said "15 Things that should not be happening during the Mass" and I had to know.  What fifteen things?  Some were predictable.  Some were odd.  Some were a little petty.  Well, you take a look.  Do any of them apply outside of Rome, say to Wittenberg?  

1) Clapping During Mass 
Have to admit I am NOT a fan of applause during the service **unless** there is some special occasion or reason but certainly not in response to musicians or to signal agreement with something said.
2) Too many extraordinary ministers of the Holy Eucharist 
I wonder if Rome is not the only place where the chancel has become crowded.  Could it be the aftermath of the everyone a minister phase?
3) Receiving from the cup when you are sick 
I have been the last to receive from the chalice for 40 years and have never missed the Divine Service because of illness!  I do not agree with feeding the craziness that presumes you will catch something from the chalice.  Studies have proven the hand is more likely the problem.  Why not give up shaking hands?  Which brings me to. . .
4) Wandering around during sign of peace, peace sign during sign of peace 
Though I like the sign of peace, I do wonder if it has been mistaken for a gesture of friendliness or welcome.  We exchange the peace before the Introit, after the absolution, so technically it is not within the liturgy exactly.  Yet I do find it tiring that sometimes it is a labor to get people to remember why they are here and turn the attention where it needs be.  Peace signs?  Never seen it.
5) Excessive socializing before Mass 
Here I disagree. BEFORE the Mass, socialization is fine.  WHERE it takes place is the issue.  Sometimes the nave is so loud and busy that you cannot even pray before the sound of the bells and the start of the Eucharistic liturgy.  So socialize all you want to in the Narthex or entryway, come early to do it so you won't be late to the worship service, and by all means gladhand all you want afterwards but give the Divine Service its dignity.
6) Not fasting before Mass 
Fasting is good bodily preparation, said Luther.  I agree.  But I am even more concerned that people do not even think about what they are here for or what they will receive.  We announce after the Prayers that people should read Luther's Christian Questions and Answers, look at the Communion Statement, and pray the prayers printed in the worship folder and in the Hymnal.  Do people do it?  Probably not.  But we did about everything we could to get them to do so. . .
7) Keeping your phone ringer on when you go to Mass 
Need I say a word here?  Phones should be turned off, silenced, and pocketed during the Divine Service.
8) Not donating 
I disagree. We do not donate.  We bring tithes and offerings.  But I do agree that there is something wrong when we come to receive and refuse to give.  Giving is part of the new heart and new nature given to us in Baptism.  Are we refusing to follow the Lord's own example of generosity and thankfulness?
9) Leaving early from Mass 
Unless you are ill, headed to the restroom, or late for work, or the fire alarm is going off, come before the bell rings, stay for the entire service, and leave after the benediction.  Is that so hard?
10) Bad preaching during homilies 
Now, I am sure that a Roman Catholic might have a bit more occasion to complain about this than others, but it is a common complaint.  Make sure bad preaching is not about style but content.  Good content badly preached is way better than pious baloney preached with conviction, wit, and humor.  Close your eyes and listen and ask for a printed copy of the sermon to review it.  Where the Word of God is faithfully preached and the Gospel proclaimed clearly, thanks be to God!  The rest can be learned.  Try those Preaching Modules, LCMS complainers and those about whom they are complaining.
11) Receiving Communion in the state of mortal sin 
Sadly, this is something that I can do little about except warn those who commune without confessing or without true penitence.  We can judge outwardly but only God can judge the heart.  Yet, it is a serious enough issue that we should be warned from time to time about communing without repentance.
12) Dressing improperly 
What?  Lutherans don't have a corner on the dressing down problem?  If you have nicer clothes wear then but in any case wear the nicest you have.  What you wear on the outside too often is a glimpse of the problem on the inside.  At least dress modestly.
13) Not ringing the bells during the consecration 
Lutherans were forced to give up the bells and elevation and, while this is not a serious doctrinal infraction, the consecration bell is a salutary way to draw attention not to the moment of Christ's presence but to the Word attached to the element and the assurance that it is what Christ says it is.

14) Genuflecting towards the altar when the tabernacle is located elsewhere 
Not sure this is a Lutheran issue.
15) Holding hands during the Our Father
Not sure about this one either.  I don't think that the things that people do to feel closer during the service are necessarily bad but they do confuse warmth and personal affection for the unity that belongs to Christ and those who live in Christ by baptism and faith.  That confusion is not good.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ashes to ashes. . ..

O Lord, who has mercy upon all, take away from me my sins, and mercifully kindle in me the fire of thy Holy Spirit. Take away from me the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh, a heart to love and adore You, a heart to delight in You, to follow and enjoy You, for Christ’s sake. Amen. (Ambrose of Milan)

"Ash Wednesday" by Christina Rossetti

Part I
My God, my God, have mercy on my sin,
For it is great; and if I should begin
To tell it all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.

My God, Thou wilt have mercy on my sin
For Thy Love's sake: yea, if I should begin
To tell This all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.
Part II
Good Lord, today
I scarce find breath to say:
Scourge, but receive me.
For stripes are hard to bear, but worse
Thy intolerable curse;
So do not leave me.
Good Lord, lean down
In pity, tho’ Thou frown;
Smite, but retrieve me:
For so Thou hold me up to stand
And kiss Thy smiting hand,
It less will grieve me. 
“Lent” by Christina Rossetti
It is good to be last not first,
   Pending the present distress;
It is good to hunger and thirst,
   So it be for righteousness.
It is good to spend and be spent,
   It is good to watch and to pray:
Life and Death make a goodly Lent
   So it leads us to Easter Day.

In the very midst of life 
    Snares of death surround us;
Who shall help us in the strife
    Lest the foe confound us?
        Thou only, Lord, Thou only!
We mourn that we have greatly erred,
That our sins Thy wrath have stirred.
    Holy and righteous God!
    Holy and mighty God!
    Holy and all-merciful Savior!
    Eternal Lord God!
Save us lest we perish
In the bitter pangs of death.
    Have mercy, O Lord!

In the midst of death's dark vale
    Pow'rs of hell o'ertake us.
Who will help when they assail,
    Who secure will make us?
        Thou only, Lord, Thou only!
Thy heart is moved with tenderness,
Pities us in our distress.
    Holy and righteous God!
    Holy and mighty God!
    Holy and all-merciful Savior!
    Eternal Lord God!
Save us from the terror
Of the fiery pit of hell.
    Have mercy, O Lord!

In the midst of utter woe
    When our sins oppress us,
Where shall we for refuge go,
     Where for grace to bless us?
        To Thee, Lord Jesus, only!
Thy precious blood was shed to win
Full atonement for our sin.
    Holy and righteous God!
    Holy and mighty God!
    Holy and all-merciful Savior!
    Eternal Lord God!
Lord, preserve and keep us
In the peace that faith can give.
        Have mercy, O Lord! - LSB 755 
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13, ESV)  

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Pitched his tent toward Sodom. . .

I don't know why I did not see it before.  Read through the account of Lot and Abraham separating their herds and choosing different grazing grounds. 

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.  Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord. And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock.
The land was not able to sustain all their needs for they had an abundance of livestock and servants and were tripping over each other, not to mention the fact that the pastures were being eaten to the dirt.  People were becoming resentful of each other.

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen.[a] Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10 And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. 12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom.
Abraham left the choice of locations to Lot.  Lot, however, was moved by the rich ground, pitching his tent toward Sodom.  He was moved by visions of grandeur, of an easier life, and of an abundance that would satisfy his wants.  Abraham left him to the choice and each went their separate ways.

The missing sentence in these quotes is a big one.  Lot was filled with wickedness and the men were great sinners.  It was a sign of things to come.  Lot was captured and his many possessions and great wealth confiscated and Abraham had to rescue him and his family.

Perhaps that is the problem facing liberal or progressive Christianity.  They have pitched their tent toward Sodom, enticed by visions of grandeur.  Instead, the enemy has stolen their identity and robbed them of their treasure.  Their voices are left to lamely echo the sounds of the public square and the authorities of the age have rendered the unique things of the Gospel forbidden and not to be tolerated in public speech.  And now, oblivious to what they have lost, we wait for what we hope will be an Abraham to rescue us and retrieve the church from its captivity.  That is what happens when you pitch your tent toward Sodom or to any political or religious identities that are not the Triune God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  But too often we find the vision too tempting and go for broke in our pursuit of an easy relevance and esteem among men.  In the end, the only thing that matters is faithfulness to God, to the voice of His Word and to the tradition each generation has handed down faithfully, from the baptized of one age to another.

In the end, Abraham was blessed beyond imagination and, well, you know how Lot's story ended.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

Monday, February 24, 2020

We don't want to and you can't make us. . .

There is and has always been a little bit of a childish streak in Lutherans.  We are so loathe to have rules that sometimes we appear downright chaotic.  We are so adverse to requirements that our first inclination is to antinomianism.  Nowhere is the more true than when it comes to the ministry and the liturgy.

If the bishops would be true bishops [would rightly discharge their office], and would devote themselves to the Church and the Gospel, it might be granted to them for the sake of love and unity, but not from necessity, to ordain and confirm us and our preachers. . .Smalkald Articles; Part III, Article X. Of Ordination and the Call.  [emphasis added]

This is not from the pen of the more conciliatory Melancthon but from the fiery hand of Luther.  And yet it is clear. If bishops would be true bishops, we would have bishops  -- for the sake of love and unity.  But you cannot make us!  As soon as you say we must, we say we must not.  Now sometimes this is salutary.  Here the Reformers are making a point.  The distinction between bishops and priests evolved over time and was not the same in the early church as it had become at the time of Luther (or our own time!).  They would grant the evolution of the office and have bishops and even accept the Roman bishops if they would be real bishops.  Here Luther points to the essential role of chief teacher and preacher of the faith.  While some may quibble with the way Luther put it, historians would be hard pressed to disagree with how the office evolved over time.  As to whether the evolution of the office was of the bene esse of the church or the esse is another matter.

Yet as truthful as it might be to make this distinction, the idea has grown in Lutheranism that for the sake of love and unity is not all that important.  Some would bristle at the idea of bishops and insist that is not kosher for Lutherans.  Our divergent liturgical practice reveals that unity and love is second to individual expression (and here I am not talking about adding ceremonies to the liturgy but abandoning any hint of the liturgy and certainly not using the traditional hymnody of the church).  And, by the way, evangelical wannabes are not the only ones who do this.  Some of us traddies also appreciate our freedom to snub our noses as love and unity and do what we please.  Again, I am not all that concerned with additions to the Divine Service as much as I am omissions and, even worse, the elimination of the liturgy. 

To get a room full of Lutheran pastors to agree on anything is a monumental achievement when it comes to anything like vestments, liturgy, clerical collars, or the Office of the Pastor (and Bishop).  We are sometimes like a room full of rebellious children insisting that "you can't make me."  So what has happened?  Pastors dress their taste and their offices may not at all be evident from the way they look.  Congregations (led by pastors) worship according to their taste and their denominational identity may not at all be evident from what they do on Sunday morning.  Love and necessity apparently don't count for much and we all tend to do as we please.  But then we complain about the lack of brand loyalty among Lutherans and how hard it is to find a church that fits your taste. 

From where I sit, the old attitude of we don't want to and you can't make us has not born much good fruit for us and our great attempt to cover it with a grand theological word (adiaphora) has only hardened the divisions among us.  Kyrie Eleison.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Green Lent. . .

Over at the Church of England the faithful are being urged to turn their attention from Jesus and His atoning work or from catechetical renewal or from any calls of repentance from sin to other pursuits.  They are called to use the forty days of Lent to calculate the carbon footprint of the meal they just ate, to switch to a renewable power supply, or to plant a tree.  This is not the purple Lent or even the unbleached muslin Lent but a green Lent. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, issued this 40-day challenge to Christians to engage in God’s plea for us to “Care for Creation”.   Their environmental focus will be accompanied by a set of 40 short actions they might taken, sober reflections to accompany their acts, and prayers to pray to help them become more environmentally conscious.  How wonderful!

It is so mundane and ordinary to focus upon the Passion of our Lord or turn your attention to the basics of the Christian faith and creed or to struggle harder to resist the impulse to sin and to live the holy and righteous lives we were given in baptism.  Much better to take those forty days of purpose and focus them on the greater cause of climate change, environmentalism, and the protection of nature from the onslaught of mankind humankind.  Yes, we would all do well to consider joining our English cousins in this noble pursuit during the season of Lent.

Perhaps some might want to tell me how they plan to heed the call and take up the green flag in their march toward the Holy Zion of nature's pristine perfection?  I would most appreciate some practical hints on how this might be done.  Sadly, my pastoral formation took place so long ago and within the limitations of a more orthodox Christianity so I am not so acquainted with these more modern expressions of Lenten piety.  I can well imagine that her majesty will be whipping out the calculator on her phone to tally up the carbon footprint of her own meals and looking into solar panels and windmills at Buckingham and planting trees -- all the while singing the great Lenten hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.  It would do well for us Anglophiles to follow her lead.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Code words. . .

We live in an age of code words that seem to imply noble intention and even encourage consensus but in reality most of those code words are just window dressing.  I am thinking of the thousand and one times when there is disagreement in the Church, usually between progressives and traditionalists, and someone crafts a press release to suggest that with study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care, and mutual respect it is hoped that consensus will be achieved.  What this really means is that the traditionalists will be given some time and then they will have to jump on the bandwagon and get with the program.

This has been the fog that has surrounded every church body that has wrestled with GLBTQ+ issues.  The progressive wing, usually in control of the seminaries, offices, and structures, realizes that they need the traditionalists (or, rather, they need their money) and so change comes incrementally until finally it is nearly a done deal.  At that point in time, the traditionalists are given a sort of olive branch.  Stay and change your mind, stay and shut up, or leave.  That is what happened in the ELCA in the wake of the move to approve same sex relationships that led to the full adoption of the GLBTQ+ agenda and it is what we see happening right now in the not so United Methodist Church.  Put up or shut up or leave.  What makes this so interesting and so frustrating is that in nearly every case, it is those advocating change, a departure from the teaching of the Scriptures, and the witness of tradition who are on the short end of the stick.  It shows at one and the same time how the control of power structures, the press of the media, and the difficulty in bucking cultural change can work against maintaining the catholic faith.

There is only one reason why people would study, pray, and discern an issue and that is to depart from the position or statement of faith they had and embrace a change.  It has happened time and time again.  In the Lutheran Church in Australia, after the issue of women's ordination failed over and over again, the path was not to let the Word of God, Lutheran Confessions, and tradition have the last word (no).  Instead, the progressives were able to get the church body to study the issue further in an attempt to discern the Lord's will.  Apparently that will was not sufficiently clear before.  But there was only one reason to study, discern, and pray.  And that is always to give the progressives time to change minds and votes to depart from the faith and historic practice of the Church.

So does that mean I am against studying an issue?  Of course not!  The Church always benefits from studying an issue but that study must not be open ended, in which the outcome is allowed to transgress the holy ground of Scripture and tradition.  It is good to study an issue from the sources of God's Word and the faithful witness of the catholic tradition but we are the students here and not the teachers.  We learn from the Scripture and the historic faith -- we do not teach the fathers or attempt to instruct God.  That always leads to the dead end of heresy and apostasy.  It always did in the past and it always will in the future.  The sooner we figure this out the better.

But Pastor Peters, you say, this is what you have said time and time again on this blog.  You are correct but when people are not listening or hearing, you must repeat yourself from time to time.

Friday, February 21, 2020

On Auto-Pilot. . .

While making an extended trip recently, I rented a car that had lane assist, smart cruise control, and blind spot alarm.  Literally, you could lift your hands off the wheel (which I do not recommend!) and the car would drive itself, centering it in the lane, keeping appropriate distance from the traffic ahead, and monitoring the speed.  Wow.  At first I fought against these technologies.  Later I became more accustomed to them and even welcomed the second tier of oversight of my driving and the driving of those around me.  It is a precursor of that day when the driver of a car will not be directly involved in the moment to moment control of the car but a back up to the self-driving technology that is most certainly in the future.

Christians run the risk of the same kind of auto-pilot.  We can easily presume that we don't have to willfully do anything.  Good works will just happen.  We do not have to consciously work for them.  We will automatically know right from wrong -- we don't need to be guided by God's own words of instruction (the Law).  We will pray when and if the Spirit moves us to pray -- piety does not need to be deliberately scheduled or directed.  We will go to Church when and if we need to -- we do not have to do anything (we are under the Gospel, for Pete's sake, not the Law!).

Yes, there are people who actually think like that.  Too many of them.  Too many of them Lutheran as well.  It is as if our spiritual lives just happen.  For too many Christians, the will does not need to be shaped or directed or constrained.  It will happen.  Apparently St. Paul did not get that memo.  Read the words of St. Paul, the preaching of letters, to Christians where auto-pilot was not working.  He is blunt and sometimes painfully so.  He does not shy from commanding Christians to do what is good and right and true.  He does not presume anything but compels Christians to walk worthy of their calling in Christ.  He does not leave sanctification to chance but tells Christians to listen to the Word of the Lord and then to do it.  The same comes from the writer of Hebrews.  He does not leave church attendance to chance but compels those in his hearing NOT to neglect the weekly assembly around the Word and Table of the Lord.  St. James does not at all deny justification by grace through faith but also is very conscious of the old Adam still lurking in the shadows of the heart and so he says in the most clear of words "faith without works is dead."

We live at a time when people think of their lives in Christ as solitary and individual, where church is optional and where the voice of God speaks more clearly in their hearts than in His Word.  They suffer from the same passivity of the car with such wonderful tools that can fool the driver into thinking he does not need to do anything.  But we Christians cannot afford to be asleep at the wheel.  That is even more profoundly true for Lutherans.  Our heritage and treasure in justification does not preclude nor eclipse the training in righteousness which should and, indeed, must happen in us.  God justifies us without any cooperation on our part but our sanctification happens with the operation of the will.  And the fruits of this show up in our need to be together in the Word, at the Table of the Lord, and in prayer before His throne of grace.  Sometimes I encounter people, sometimes my own lapsed members, who think that church works against their spirituality.  They are on auto-pilot and have bought into the lie that they not only do not have to do anything, but anything they might do could and probably will work against their spiritual comfort.  And that is exactly what sometimes God is doing.  A little spiritual discomfort is the fruit of honest Biblical preaching -- making sure that we do not doubt the certainty of what God has promised but neither taking for granted His gifts by presuming we don't need to do anything to keep them.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The cost of doing nothing. . .

Was it Edmund Burke who said it?  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Or is it a version of Proverb's wisdom: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it."  Whether or not Burke is the author of the first quote, this Biblical truth is profoundly evident when it comes to predicting the relationship of children to the Church as they grow into adults.  Where parents have been active in pursuing the faith while their children are in the home, it is almost always true that the children will not depart from the faith.  It is not magic.  There are children who rebel but statistically it is something like 85-90% true that children who are raised in the faith and attend church with their children while their children are growing up will remain active in faith as adults.

Unless their children marry outside the faith, that is.  In other words the Proverbial formula and the Burke quote are not absolutes and there are variables.  Marrying outside the faith is a big one and it definitely works against the faith learned in the home.  It was once thought that the Christian in the marriage would bring the non-religious spouse to the Church but the more recent experience is the opposite.  The non-religious spouse will most likely draw the Christian away from the Church and the faith.  Or so the polls tell us
A parent’s religious identity (or lack thereof) can do a lot to shape a child’s religious habits and beliefs later in life. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that regardless of the religion, those raised in households in which both parents shared the same religion still identified with that faith in adulthood. For instance, 84 percent of people raised by Protestant parents are still Protestant as adults. Similarly, people raised without religion are less apt to look for it as they grow older — that same Pew study found that 63 percent of people who grew up with two religiously unaffiliated parents were still nonreligious as adults.
Furthermore, it is even less likely that a non-religious person will marry or cohabit with a religious one.
In the 1970s, most nonreligious Americans had a religious spouse and often, that partner would draw them back into regular religious practice. But now, a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who isn’t religious — a process that may have been accelerated by the sheer number of secular romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials have a nonreligious partner or spouse, while only 26 percent have a partner who is religious.
And we can add to this the increasing age at which children marry.  What this means in practicality is that not only is the couple more likely to live away from their parents and where they were raised in the faith but also that, deprived of this family support, the couple, religious or not, will feel even greater pull away from the faith and the Church than closer.  What this means for the next generation is also significant.  Without the example and presence of grandparents and extended family, it is even more likely that the pull away from the Church and out of the faith will continue without challenge and without the encouragement and example of the family that remains.

  • For the many millennials who never had strong ties to religion to begin with, this means they will be even less likely to develop habits or  make associations that would encourage return to religion.
  • Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a spouse who is nonreligious; for young adults raised in the faith the secular worldview will be reinforced by the non-religious spouse and for those who are non-religious there will be little to challenge that secular worldview.
  • Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion work against any belief that faith or religious institutions are simply relevant or necessary for their children.
  • Absent the positive influence of parents, grandparents, and other extended family who are actively involved in religion, it is even more likely that their children will be raised with an exclusively secular worldview and a negative perception of religion.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Common Man. . .

The movie The Two Popes has a scene in which the new Pope Francis says to the one who brings him the vestments he must don as the Supreme Pontiff "The carnival is over."  With that Jorge pushes aside the red shoes and the red mozetta trimmed in Ermine.  Francis insists that he is a common man.  Whether or not this happened this way, the dramatic license certainly accords with the Pope's decision to cultivate such an image.  No papal palace apartment, no papal kitchen, etc. etc.

Some applaud this and are happy to have a Pope who is more like a common man.  But this is an image and a false one.  No Pope is a common man.  He is by his office uncommon and unique.  He is no democratic idealized ruler of the Roman Catholic Church but more autocratic than many of those who came before him and much more so than his predecessor.  He is no populist man of the people but enjoys his celebrity status and cultivates it with his impromptu sessions with press on airplanes and phone calls late at night and, in particular, with his vague answers to specific questions.  He slaps a woman's hands who holds too long on to His and then apologizes when he fears how it affects his closely guarded image as a common man.  He makes fun of priests who try on vestments and belittles those whose rigidity submits their personal desires to rubrics.  In this he is not common or humble but arrogant.

Now some of you might be wondering what this all has to do with a Lutheran.  Well, we struggle with the same sort of fake humility and the false image some pastors cultivate of a common man.  They refuse to wear any uniform that his historic importance in favor of their own personal preference.  Whether we are talking about clerical collars or vestments, it is not humility that eschews the traditional vesture of the ordained.  It is hubris and pride.  To say "that is not me" is to impose your preference and choice upon the office you bear.  If one does this with such things as clergy shirts and vestments, it is highly likely that the same personality will look at the rubrics of the Divine Service as a series of not so important suggestions that can easily be cast aside and the doctrines of the faith as the same sort of "maybes" that need not be heeded.  That pastor presumes that his preference to depart from the tradition of the fathers is his domain and his prerogative when the reality is that rubrics and creeds and confessions are for the protection of the faithful against the whims of the pastor.

Those who would add to the Divine Service rubrics and rituals once there but lost due to the pressures of authorities in opposition to Lutheranism (like the elevation, for example) or to the fear of things katolisch (chanting, for example) or to the irrational fear of things (the common cup, for example) are not imposing their own preference upon others but restoring what was ours but was lost to us for no good reason.  This is not the same as the pastor who chooses khakis and a polo over a clerical collar or worn jeans and a tee shirt over alb, stole, and chasuble.  The pastor doing this is imposing himself upon the office and insisting that people see him as he wants to be seen rather than through the veil of the office conferred upon him by election and ordination. 

Those who dispense with the creed in favor of their own literary efforts or who omit the creed entirely are imposing upon the faithful a whim of their own preference or arrogance when the creed is there precisely to defend orthodoxy and to give the faithful a voice to confess it in common in the Divine Service.  Those who ditch the liturgy in favor of their own creative efforts are imposing themselves on the very thing that protects the faithful against the whims of those who lead their song of praise.  Those who abandon the hymnody of the ages with its focus upon Christ in favor of contemporary song that appeals to the rhythms of the age or the sound of popular music are imposing preference over the content and substance of the faith that these hymns preserve and profess.

Some believe that pastors who hold to the traditions of the fathers are imposing their own personal preference upon the people and that those who follow the ceremonial of the rubrics are swimmers readying themselves to tackle the Tiber.  They are mistaken.  We have much more to fear from those who cultivate the image of the common man in order to blur the rightful distinction between pastor and people and to avoid the particular responsibilities placed on those who seek the office and on whom the Church confers that office.  Let the Church be warned.  So wake up, Rome, Francis is no common man and wake up, Lutherans, your pastor should not be one either.  They bear offices that require them to be set apart and for them to distance themselves from these offices ought to raise warning bells for the people in the pew. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

You're Guilty. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 6A, preached on Sunday, February 16, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

Today we pray - O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name.  Amen.
               They’re famous questions that always get asked.  Whenever something terrible happens; whether it be an earthquake, a tornado, a terrorist or mass shooting attack; whenever innocent people suffer through no fault of their own, we ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why is there so much suffering?  And why aren’t those bad people who obviously deserve to suffer, why do they get an easy life?  It’s not fair.”  We wonder about these things, and we especially wonder about them when we’re the ones suffering.  “Why me?  Why is my family hurting?  Why did I get this awful disease?  It’s not fair.  I don’t deserve it! … But yes, yes you actually do deserve it.  We deserve everything we suffer, and much more, because of our sin.  You and me, we’re not innocent.  We’re guilty. 
               We justly suffer because of our sin.  We confess this every time we gather together in worship.  We confess our sins and admit our guilt saying we’ve sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone.  We admit we justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.  We admitted this again in the prayer of the day as we put our “Amen” to it, saying we justly suffer the consequence of our sin.  We hear the accusing and convicting word of God’s Law and we have no defense against it.  We must plead guilty.  All of us, every single one, you, me, and everyone else walking this earth deserve to suffer. 
               This is a radical truth in today’s world where everyone claims to be a victim.  Very rarely do we think that the pain and suffering we feel is a real result of our own doing.  Instead, it’s always somebody else’s fault.  They’re guilty.  They’re the ones who’ve hurt us.  It’s not my fault my friend is mad at me; never mind the fact that I didn’t fulfill my promise to them.  It’s not my fault I didn’t get that job promotion; even though I regularly get to the office 15 minutes late.  It’s not my fault I’m mean and bully others; my parents didn’t love me enough.  It’s not my fault I don’t have a job or money; the colleges didn’t prepare me.  It’s not my fault I ate the fruit of the tree, the serpent tempted me.  It’s not my fault I ate the fruit, the woman you gave me told me to do it.  It’s not my fault.  This is the motto of the day.  It’s been the motto of the day for us sinners from the very beginning.  We want to play the role of the innocent.  We want to be the victim.  We want to pass the blame on so that we can’t be held accountable, even if that means passing it on to God.  But that’s not the case.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount leaves no one a victim.  All of us are guilty.  All of us are to blame.  We’re not innocent.  It is our fault.
               We confess every Sunday that we sin not only in our actions, but also our words and thoughts.  But do we actually believe this?  Do we actually believe the sinful things we say and think are on the same level as those big sinful deeds, like murder, adultery, and theft?  Of course not.  We comfort ourselves in our sin by comparing it to those biggies.  Sure, I called that man a fool and directed some other four letter words his way, but I didn’t kill him.  Sure, I watched that Netflix movie that I wouldn’t watch with anyone else around, but I didn’t actually cheat on my spouse.  Sure, I told a little white lie and sold it by saying “God as my witness,” it’s not like I committed perjury in the Supreme Court.  We want to divide our sin into bigs and littles, ones that obviously deserve suffering and the punishment of death, ones we tell ourselves we’d never commit, and then ones that we commit everyday but don’t think they have the same level of evilness.  But it doesn’t matter what we think.  What matters is what God thinks.  What matters is what God says. 
               Jesus’ words leave no one innocent of those “big” sins.  “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. …  Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. …  Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. … Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven... or by earth ... And do not take an oath by your head.  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:21-37).  None of us are innocent.  We’re all guilty of murder.  We’re all guilty of lust and adultery.  We’re all guilty of taking our Lord’s name in vain.  We’re guilty of all of it.  And what we deserve is present suffering and eternal death. 
               God warns us of this.  He tells us this is what we deserve.  Because we’ve chosen to turn from Him and His commandments, because we’ve decided to give in and follow our sinful desires, because we’ve ultimately set ourselves up as our own gods, doing whatever we please, we deserve to suffer.  We can’t say we don’t.  We can’t say we’re good people, because we aren’t.  No one is good by God’s standards.  You aren’t good.  I’m not good.  And so we shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer.  We need to see suffering for what it is, the just consequence of sin, and we need to repent.  You need to repent.  I need to repent.  We need to turn from our sin and look to God because He is good.  He is the only One who is good.  He’s merciful and He freely gives what we don’t deserve.
               There’s nothing we can do to make up for our sin.  There’s no fine we can pay; no jail time that repays our debt to society and God.  There’s no amount of good work that erase the evil of our sin.  We’re guilty, and we’re always guilty.  Just like a felon, who even though has served out his sentence, he’s still guilty of the crime.  There’s no way for us to change that.  So we must be declared innocent by another.  God must proclaim your guilt removed.  And He does this, because His Son became the only true victim.
               Christ Jesus is the only man who can be called innocent.  He’s the only one who has no guilt, but He died the death of a guilty man.  Jesus took your guilt and bore it on the cross.  He suffered your present and eternal punishment.  All your murder; all your adultery; all your theft and slander and covetousness; all your blasphemous words and idolatry; all of it Jesus carried to the cross and He suffered for you what your sin justly deserved.  He did this so that you could be forgiven.  He did this so that you would be called innocent.  He did this so that the punishment of hell’s fire wouldn’t be yours.  Christ bore the weight of your guilt so that you wouldn’t receive the death sentence.  He willingly gave His life so that you’d have life. 
Being 100% honest with ourselves, we must admit we deserve to suffer.  We always say we just want what we deserve, but in reality, we don’t, because that means hell and damnation.  But by God’s grace and mercy, you don’t get what you deserve.  Instead you receive your Savior.  You receive His forgiveness.  You receive His everlasting life.  So admit your guilt.  Lay it before the Lord.  Don’t try to play the victim.  Repent.  Receive the life of Christ.  And be declared innocent.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.