Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A better place. . .

Sermon for Lent 5A, preaching on Sunday, March 29, 2020.

How often don’t we comfort ourselves in death by saying that our loved one is in a better place.  Funny how in a pandemic, medical professionals are working their tails off to prevent death and we are willing to put up with every kind of constraint on our daily lives to keep death at bay.  Perhaps this better place is only better if you no longer want to live here and live now.  And our culture is making that choice available more and more through legalized assisted suicide.

I don’t know whether people tried to comfort Mary and Martha by reminding them that Lazarus was in a better place.  But Jesus did not.  Jesus did not offer half a comfort or a bitter consolation in the face of death.  Jesus entered into the place of death and called forth Lazarus to life.  Jesus did not suggest that where Lazarus lie was a better place than life.  In fact Jesus challenged the reign of death over Lazarus and over us.

How often don’t we face a tragedy or disaster with the great question “Where was God in all of this?”  That is what Mary and Martha wanted to know.  They wanted to know where God was when death came like an enemy into their home and stole away their brother from their midst.  They refused consolation and demanded an answer from Jesus.

Perhaps we are no different.  Christians are so often silent in the face of disaster and tragedy because we fear we have no answer.  Where was God?  We fear the only answer is “I don’t know.”  But that is spoken not out of faith but out of ignorance.  Jesus has come so that we know where God is when disaster, tragedy, and pandemic comes our way.  Jesus is there facing death on our behalf with the power of His life.  He is standing among us with the Word of life, the water of life, and the food of life that death cannot overcome!

There is one more curiosity in this text.  It is death that draws Jesus to Bethany and it is death that Jesus confronts on behalf of Mary, Martha, and a world held captive to death and the grave.  But the trade off in this is that Jesus, who comes to give life, is Himself marked for death.  The last line of the Gospel stands out:  From that day forward, they made plans to put Jesus to death.  The Lord of life comes to give life to the dead but to do so He must die.  That is not irony, that is the cruelest test of all.  But Jesus does not shrink from this test or from that which will give to a world a life stronger than death.  No, Jesus does the opposite.  He sets His face like flint to head to Jerusalem and to the death that is surely waiting for Him there.

My friends, none of us can be comforted by false hopes or empty words. There is no refuge for us in the fake consolation that the dead are better off dead than alive.  Do not let those empty words lips slip from your mouths or those empty thoughts pass through your mind.  This is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is the God who has come to take on death on the cross, to pay for sin with His own blood, and to rise to bestow His triumphant and everlasting life upon the unworthy like you and me.  We come to Jesus because He insists death is not good nor a better end than suffering but the final enemy to be destroyed.  And He HAS destroyed it.

My friends, in the face of fear, panic, and death, do not pester God with questions He has already answered.  Where was God in all of this?  Instead point to where God was.  God was in Christ entering into the cold darkness of death to rescue those who were captive to its prison.  God was in Christ bearing the full weight of sin and its punishment so that the guilty might be set free by the judgment of righteousness.  God was in Christ standing with the very people who had chosen death in order to focus their eyes on hope and the life that death cannot overcome.

We who come here today come as a people who have died with Christ in baptism and now live in Him.  Death has been swallowed up in the victory of Him who died and now lives.  As He did for Lazarus, long ago, Jesus will one day do for you and me.  He will enter into the place where our bodies lay and call us forth to eternal life.  Death’s choke hold over us has been released by the only one strong enough to die and rise again.  Unlike Lazarus, this will be no restored human life with all its earthly struggles but a glorious body, a glorious life, and a heavenly one without struggle but with only joy, peace, and contentment.

There IS resurrection.  It did not sound like Martha was very comforted by the prospect of her brother Lazarus rising again on the last day.  But this is not some consolation prize for the terrible things life has caused us to suffer nor is it some pale imitation of our present lives.  No, my friends, Christ offers us a true and everlasting life that has no comparison with today.  This is not some consolation prize for our suffering nor is it a reward for our good behavior.  This is the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work.  Walking into Lazarus’ grave to call Him forth, making His way to the cross of sorrow, enduring the agony of its suffering, dying the death that was ours to die, laying in the cold darkness of the grave, and rising to give life and hope to you and me and the whole world.

So come.  Come and believe.  Come and rejoice.  Come and be comforted.  Come and hope.  The enemies of God and of our lives have met the Lord in battle and the power of His life has overcome them.  As He lives, we live.  We carry this hope in us now as an earthen vessel carries a precious treasure but soon the weaker vessel will be replaced with a glorious one what will match the treasure.  That is our hope, my friends!  Amen.

He has already won. . .

Reading over at First Things I encountered a very perceptive comment:  Pete Buttigieg will not be the Democratic nominee. Though he will not win the presidency, he can claim one real achievement: solidifying a consensus among educated Americans that it is wrong to oppose a candidate because he is married to someone of the same sex.  Even though it seems that the LBGTQ+ crowd hardly considers Buttigieg their candidate, he has already won a battle perhaps even bigger than to win the Presidency.  He has put America on notice and Americans have responded positively to the idea of a same sex leader.  If you think about it, this would have never been dreamed only a decade or two ago.  In a remarkably short span of time, same sex couples have gone from the fringes to Iowa normality.  Sure, there are those who will reject him and any gay candidate only because that candidate is gay but the silent majority of Americans have given tacit approval to the idea.

At the same time, those who would reject same sex marriage or an LBGTQ+ leader have also been branded as on the fringes of American society.  Those who object are immediately branded as ideologues or ignorant folk who either live and breath hate or who just plain don't know any better.  It is not just the extreme support for the LBGTQ+ agenda that believes this but perhaps a majority of Americans -- at least those who are part of the public square and the current political process.  What is remarkable is that VP Mike Pence and his wife have not been accorded the same acceptance or tolerance.  They have become the target of those who suggest that their brand of religious and social conservatism should automatically disqualify them from public office.  Imagine that since it was not all that long ago their religion and politics might have been considered fairly mainstream.

There is definitely trouble ahead for church bodies like mine that have not jumped on the bandwagon of social change.  It is certainly one of the reasons why President Trump has so much support from mainline Evangelicals and conservative Lutherans (and Roman Catholics).  Even if we may be offended by his coarseness, his tweeting style of communication, and his personal morality, many have come to believe that he is our first line of defense in protecting not only our religious rights but our freedom of speech.  Some may cringe that it has come down to this but that is the state of affairs in America today.  A president who will defend our right to a theology and a voice in the public square temporarily is also in a position to place judges in office who can guarantee that our rights will not be infringed upon for a generation.

There are so many who cannot figure out why church going folks from conservative and evangelical communities support the President.  It is not so hard to figure out.  It may not be so much that they are supporting the man but insuring that the policies of religious freedom and free speech will not be constrained by those who are quick to brand such faith and witness hate speech not to be tolerated in the sanitized America that so many progressives envision.  It remains to be seen how this election season will turn out but for those who see the acceptance and support for a gay man in a same sex marriage as normal, there are certainly bigger things at play than President Trump.  Everybody knows that America is changing but if our new culture and society have no place for the traditional view of the marriage, the protection of life, and a traditional understanding of marriage, orthodox Christianity may have to become an underground religion.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Quality of life. . .

My mother is almost 90 and has a number of serious health issues.  Truth told some days it is an effort to get up, make her way to the kitchen, and sit for most of the daylight hours.  When I talk to her, almost daily, she often wonders why the Lord has kept her alive for so long and what purpose there is in her continuing to live.  She is a Christian and believes that life is God's domain but it does not prevent her from speaking and praying from her pain, frustration, and fears.  We all know this because it happens to all of us from time to time and for others more often.

Add to this is the constant barrage of concerns fueled by a world which does not believe in God, does not believe in the sacredness of life, and does not believe that God has a purpose for anything.  Instead, the world judges life by its quality.  Quality of life has become the buzz word of our age.  Not only the aged and infirm but youth and adults daily must wrestle with the question of whether or not their lives are worth living.  No generation was faced with such a question like our own age has been.  More than anything else, this question has been the reason for the dramatic rise in assisted suicide laws that allow folks the opportunity to make a legal choice not available to anyone ever before -- should I end my life with the assist of drugs that would allow me a painless death.

Before I go on I cannot but point out the strange paradox of those who insist that capital punishment has no moral basis and that no drugs can assure a safe and painless death for those thus condemned.  Odd, isn't it, that something we insist cannot be guaranteed to the prisoner on death row can be routinely offered to those who wish an assist in their decision to end their lives.  Ah, but I digress.

According to one online source, Quality of life, the degree to which an individual is healthy, comfortable, and able to participate in or enjoy life events. The term quality of life is inherently ambiguous, as it can refer both to the experience an individual has of his or her own life and to the living conditions in which individuals find themselves. Hence, quality of life is highly subjective. And that IS the problem.  Quality of life is highly subjective and captive to the whims of the moment.  My point is that quality of life is not and cannot be used in a Christian context.  To use this term is to subject life itself to our judgment, specifically to the most subjective judgment of  all -- the individual who is going through struggles, afflictions, or pain that makes his or her judgment anything but objective.

As I listen to my mother, I remind her of what she already knows and of the counsel her own pastor gives her regularly.  Our lives have meaning and value not because we or anyone else has rendered that judgment but because of God's grace in giving our lives their beginning, sustaining our lives according to His will and purpose, redeeming our lives with the holy and precious blood of His only-begotten Son, and delivering our lives from the end of death and the grave by our Lord's mighty resurrection from the dead.  While it is tempting for us to delve into the realm of speculation (God must have a purpose for your life of He would not keep you alive), the Christian meets God not on the ground of speculation but upon the firm ground of His Word and promises.  She knows this.  I know this.  We both need to hear it again from time to time -- especially when the troubles, trials, and temptations of this life make us question God and even disregard what God has made abundantly clear to us through His work of salvation and redemption in Christ, His Son.

Pastors, like sons, must learn to listen.  We cannot afford to cut off the complaint of those who find themselves in such a position.  But neither can we leave them without the clear and abiding counsel of God's Word.  The Lord knows the weakness of our hearts and the afflictions we bear and until He delivers us fully and finally from the burdens that fill our lives with pain and sorrow, He has given us the promise of His Word as our comfort, His presence with us in the day of trouble, and His grace sufficient to carry us through this suffering even as it will carry us through death to everlasting life.

The Psalms are the first place we go for consolation.  After all, David was not without his own complaints to the Lord and his own insistence that his life was no longer a joy but a burden he was not sure was worth bearing.  But read through the laments of David and you find yourselves led past the trials and troubles to the end, into the presence of God and the sufficiency of His grace that will not fail His people.  You will look in vain to find Scriptural support for the way we banter about the term quality of life and decide if our lives are worth living.  But you cannot avoid the great comfort of God for those whose lives are filled with pain, sorrow, doubt, and despair.  Not in the least is the fact that God has judged our lives as priceless because of the priceless currency of His Son whom He gave to save us and who willingly suffered all things for us that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom here and forevermore in heaven.  Judge your life not by the quality of the moment but by the value the Lord has attached to it with the salvation freely given to you but at the cost of Jesus' agony and death on the cross.  This is what I say to and pray with my mother as a son who loves her and this is what I say to and pray with the people in my care as a pastor who loves his people.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not the new normal. . . I pray

In our effort to do something for our people when worship services are either limited or curtailed, we have established patterns and expectations that may come back to haunt us.  I am not faulting the intent but worried about the consequences of making worship without the gathering of the faithful a normal idea in the minds and hearts of our people.

Let me suggest the obvious -- that there is nothing catholic or Lutheran about sidestepping the norms of our practice and make it possible for people to commune in their homes with bread and wine (or grape juice) while listening to or watching the Divine Service being broadcast by the pastor from an empty church building.  It pains me to see and hear that some are doing exactly this in an effort to bring comfort and consolation to their people.  But that is exactly the point.  There is no comfort and consolation where confidence does not exist.  Such home communions with technology providing a live or recorded broadcast of the service and the Words of Institution put a question mark precisely where an explanation point is needed.  What are they receiving?  If we cannot answer that question with confidence from Scripture, tradition, and our Confessions, then we are mistaken in our well intended efforts to serve the people of God.  For in time of fear, panic, and anxiety, it is precisely confidence that is needed.

Adding to this is the constant assault of email, print, audio, and video to our people.  I have refrained from posting much precisely because Facebook and other platforms and overflowing with pastors broadcasting on a daily basis.  It has been our practice too direct people to the Chapel at Concordia Theological Seminary, the Word Endures Forever by Pastor Weedon, and the daily devotions of our Synod President.  There are more than enough faithful offerings for our people.  We supplement this with a liturgy or two recorded from our live services (we are holding 18 Divine Services per week with ample capacity for more than 150 to attend and still meet the recommended limit of 10!).  We send out one email a week WHEN there are changes to be noted.  I am not saying you have to do what we do here but to consider the overload of offerings being given to the faithful -- unprecedented (even though that is an overused word).  Can we keep this up after the viral threat is over?  Should we?  Will our people expect it?  Will this replace face to face contacts?  For some?  For many?

I also have a word of concern is how the recorded or live Divine Services are being received.  If our people are sitting at home with a cup of coffee in their pajamas watching the Divine Service as they would any other Facebook offering or YouTube video, we may have taught them something that we did not intend.  If you watch the Divine Service at home, dress up, put aside distractions, and give your full attention to the liturgy of  Lord's House.  If our people are subjected to weeks, perhaps months, of watching at home with a casual attitude toward their outward and inward preparation to hear the Word of God, we have not helped them mature in their life of faith and prayer.  In essence, we will have taught them that what happens in worship is no different that the cute meme on Facebook or the funny YouTube video and that worship itself is basically a spectator sport.  Is that what we intend to do?  Then it would help our people if we encouraged them to watch with the same attitude and posture they would if they were in the Lord's House.

So perhaps you will fault me for raising these concerns but I know from experience what it takes to unteach something you did not mean to teach.  Extraordinary times require extraordinary courage, strength, and faithfulness on the part of both pastor and people.  What they do not require is the kind of innovation which may suggest that live streaming is an apt substitute for being together in the Lord's House or holding up your bread and wine to the screen at home is the same as Holy Communion or that the constant stream of communications will continue when the day comes and the doors to the churches will open again and life will, hopefully, continue as it was -- at least with respect to our lives of faith and worship!  My appeal, therefore, is to make sure that what we are doing in time of pandemic does not become another problem we must deal with when the pandemic and panic ends.  Faithfulness is still the primary expectation of those who lead the churches and of those who sat in the pews -- especially when times preclude our weekly meeting together in the Lord's House (as Hebrews reminds).

Saturday, March 28, 2020

If. . .

Though it has not been spoken out loud by folks in my parish, I am waiting for it.  I suspect that it is, perhaps, behind the reticence of churches to challenge the idea that they are non-essential social gatherings and therefore shut down for the duration.  Or, I could be too harsh and judgmental and it just may be that some do not have any real idea what to do except to do nothing.

The old saying about Luther and the end of the world and his choice to plant an apple tree is probably a myth but a good one.  Christians ought not act differently in the face of a pandemic than they do when dangers are more subtle and usual.  We do what we do and that is nowhere more true than when it comes to the Church and her ministers.  We do what we are given to do.  It is not irrelevant to preside at the Eucharist, to preach the Word, to absolve the penitent, to admonish the erring, and to comfort the wounded and fearful.  This is who we are and what we do.  But it is probably true that we are somewhat haunted by the old question of why?

The stone of stumbling for so many is called “theodicy.”   Some would put it at the heart of faith but I am not so sure.   Anyway, it goes like this:  If God is all good and all powerful why is there suffering? If he is all good God would want to end suffering. If he is all powerful he is able to end suffering. Therefore he must not be either all good or all powerful. 

One Christian writer has suggested that this sort of seventh grade level of logic is less bothersome to him but he is astounded that so-called adult philosophers and theologians still pick their brains over it. I’ve therefore suspected that they don’t really puzzle over the question. It’s really just an adolescent hissy fit because they have decided they don’t like God.  I like that.  They don't like God so they posit a question that makes God look back no matter what.  Sort of like the old question, pardon my impolitic choice of example, have you stopped beating your wife yet?  In this case, the question is:   “How can a good God allow suffering?  Is suffering a punishment sent from God because sin?  Is the COVID-19 virus God’s judgment on mankind?

I hesitate to speak for God but I think it is fair to say the disasters, catastrophes, and pandemics of our world are not caused by God but by sin and its reign of death and destruction.  All creation groans under the weight of this deterioration.  That said, this does not mean that God does not use the disasters, catastrophes, and pandemics that do occur as both wake up calls to the reality of our world fading away and as calls to repentance and faith. Scripture is replete with acknowledgments that suffering is a part of life.  When we suffer because we have done wrong, that is just.  When we suffer unjustly because of faith or acting rightly, God has promised not only notice but reward for suffering under such persecution.  Again, when we suffer as a result of our sin, then God does not need to add to this judgment -- it is the natural judgment which is the fruit of that sin.  When disaster occurs because of our failures, we must acknowledge that sinful lives bear sinful fruits.  Even in pandemic, man's complicity cannot be forgotten in our effort to assign blame.  But it is a false perception of God that He is somehow hurling down lightning bolts as punishments against us for what we think, say, and do wrong.  He does not need to.  Sin has consequences that even forgiveness does not vitiate.

God is not, however, detached from our suffering.  In fact, God does intervene to prevent suffering -- is this not the agency of the angels?  Furthermore, God has relented against the disasters and judgments we deserve and placed the full weight of our sin upon the shoulders of His only Son.  Because of this mercy, we pray.  God hears our prayers and answers our prayers -- not because we have argued our case and proven worthy of an exception but because it is His will and purpose in Christ to pour out grace into the tortured circumstances of this mortal life and to deliver us from even the sufferings that we would deserve. 

It is exactly this interference for the sake of grace that is the very heart of the Gospel. God could not be content to watch our suffering or sit idly by as our sin and death consumed us.  Indeed, the cross teaches us that God embraced our human suffering and bore in the body of His Son on the tree the full weight and burden of its punishment and pain.  Unlike our temptation to run from suffering, God races toward it.  The Lord does not always deliver us from suffering -- though sometimes He does -- but He is ALWAYS present with us so that we may endure it. Remember when the three Hebrew boys were thrown into the fiery furnace and the king said there was a fourth one there with them?  Was that not the grace of God intervening?  That episode was itself a shadow of the Christ and His coming to us sinners in our world of sin to meet with us and for us the suffering and death of sin.  The Lord knows our pain and has made it His own.  He has borne our iniquities upon the cross.  He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  By His wounds we are healed.

So perhaps it is the wrong question.  Is the Lord the cause of suffering?  Should we not be asking where is God in the midst of it?  And how does His grace support, strengthen, and sustain us through it all?

What Augustine did say. . .

Nobody knows but I am pretty sure that St. Augustine did not say "He who sings, prays twice."  That said, St. Augustine should have said it.  And he did say something that could have given rise to it.
“I feel that our souls are moved to the ardor of piety by the sacred words more piously and powerfully when these words are sung than when they are not sung, and that all the affections of our soul in their variety have modes of their own in song and chant by which they are stirred up by an indescribable and secret sympathy.”
—Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book X, chap. 33, MPL, XXXII, 799ff.
I am told all the time that we are no longer a singing culture.  Glee clubs have gone the way of all flesh.  Elementary, middle, and high school choirs are shrinking and, when they do sing, they tend to sing along with a CD to a fairly popular song, more like many divas singing solo than a real choir.  Church choirs are waning as well.  In the age of praise bands and worship divas, there is not much room for the SATB choir (or, for that matter, for the great choral treasures of the past).

But I do not really believe what I am told.  I sit in traffic and watch the mouths of people singing along to their favorite sound tracks.  People hum, whistle, and sing while at work.  Music is around us all day long.  We often remember TV series and commercials more by their theme song or background music than by the name of the series or the product being advertised.  Choral music in which people sing in parts may not be as strong as before but singing is every bit as much a part of our lives and culture as ever before.  It is individualized -- we listen to it alone more than together -- and it is governed more by personal preference than ever before but we are a people surrounded by the sound of music.

I am sure there are folks in my parish who wish we did not sing so many hymns or so many stanzas of the hymns we sing or all the liturgy but it has been long enough that I do not here so much about it anymore.  Music is medium through which the Word is repeated back to God and we give voice to that which is most certain and most sure -- His promises!  Hymn, song, and chant are all mentioned in Scripture and described as the most appropriate vehicle of the praise that flows from the people of God in response to His mighty deliverance.  Most of us cannot imagine a service without hymns, without chant, without voices raised in song both from pew and choir loft, and without instrumental praise, especially from the mighty organ (as Mozart called it, the king of instruments.  And that is not only how it should be but how God meant it.  Those who are not fans of music in service to the Word will have to learn to live with it in heaven -- at least as St. John describes the heavenly liturgy!

Friday, March 27, 2020

What do we know?

As it appears that the numbers of corona virus infections increases and the government decreases the number allowed in "non-essential" gatherings, it might be good to remember.  We have no way of knowing exactly how many new infections there really are.  We are charting the number of infections identified without knowing if these are really new or simply existing infections now identified by testing.  We could be overestimating the numbers or underestimating them.  That said, if we have any confidence in the numbers from those countries where the virus first hit, it would appear that it is declining.

It is good to make some comparisons.  In the US, at least 14,000 people have died and 250,000 have already been hospitalized during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 26 million Americans have fallen ill with flu-like symptoms.  Look at those figures with the infections of the corona virus. Coronavirus Cases so far this year: 42,878; deaths: 682; and recovered: 370 (as of mid-March).

The point of this is not to suggest that we should minimize or ignore the threat.  The point of this is to suggest that the panic and hysteria that has caused us to hoard toilet paper and empty store shelves as fast as they can be restocked is also a major problem facing us.  We can meet this threat with common sense (washing hands as we have been directed), with cooperation (looking at the common good and not everyone is on their own), and with faith (Christians should not be panicking even in the face of real threats!).

People of God, this is our time to show the world love does not disappear when threats appear, that the hope within us is not fragile or weak, and that the God who sent His one and only Son to save us will not abandon us in our hour of need.  Why do we we sing those great hymns of faith and gather in the Lord's name?  Is it only for good times or for show?  I am certainly not saying that we should ignore the threat but neither should we ignore the mercy of God and the love that suffered death to give us life.  Whether you find a way to gather with brothers and sisters in Christ in small numbers or shelter in place at home, we are not our own and we are not on our own.  None of us can predict exactly where we are at in this cycle or when it will all end but all of us Christians know to what lengths God has gone to save us and should be comforted by the fact that God's mighty investment in us and in our redemption will not leave us high and dry in the face of this or any other threat.

 "If God Himself Be for Me"  by Paul Gerhardt, 1607-1676

1. If God Himself be for me, I may a host defy;
For when I pray, before me
My foes, confounded, fly.
If Christ, my Head and Master,
Befriend me from above,
What foe or what disaster
Can drive me from His love?

2. This I believe, yea, rather,
Of this I make my boast,
That God is my dear Father,
The Friend who loves me most,
And that, whate'er betide me,
My Savior is at hand
Through stormy seas to guide me
And bring me safe to land.

3. I build on this foundation,
That Jesus and His blood
Alone are my salvation,
The true, eternal good.
Without Him all that pleases
Is valueless on earth;
The gifts I owe to Jesus
Alone my love are worth.

4. My Jesus is my Splendor,
My Sun, my Light, alone;
Were He not my Defender
Before God's awe-full throne,
I never should find favor
And mercy in His sight,
But be destroyed forever
As darkness by the light.

5. He canceled my offenses,
Delivered me from death;
He is the Lord who cleanses
My soul from sin through faith.
In Him I can be cheerful,
Bold, and undaunted aye;
In Him I am not fearful
Of God's great Judgment Day.

6. Naught, naught, can now condemn me
Nor set my hope aside;
Now hell no more can claim me,
Its fury I deride.
No sentence e'er reproves me,
No ill destroys my peace;
For Christ, my Savior, loves me
And shields me with His grace.

7. His Spirit in me dwelleth,
And o'er my mind He reigns.
All sorrow He dispelleth
And soothes away all pains.
He crowns His work with blessing
And helpeth me to cry,
"My Father!" without ceasing,
To Him who dwells on high.

8. And when my soul is lying
Weak, trembling, and opprest,
He pleads with groans and sighing
That cannot be exprest;
But God's quick eye discerns them,
Although they give no sound,
And into language turns them
E'en in the heart's deep ground.

9. To mine His Spirit speaketh
Sweet word of holy cheer,
How God to him that seeketh
For rest is always near
And how He hath erected
A city fair and new,
Where what our faith expected
We evermore shall view.

10. In yonder home doth flourish
My heritage, my lot;
Though here I die and perish,
My heaven shall fail me not.
Though care my life oft saddens
And causeth tears to flow,
The light of Jesus gladdens
And sweetens every woe.

11. Who clings with resolution
To Him whom Satan hates
Must look for persecution;
For him the burden waits
Of mockery, shame, and losses,
Heaped on his blameless head;
A thousand plagues and crosses
Will be his daily bread.

12. From me this is not hidden,
Yet I am not afraid;
I leave my cares, as bidden,
To whom my vows were paid.
Though life and limb it cost me
And everything I won,
Unshaken shall I trust Thee
And cleave to Thee alone.

13. Though earth be rent asunder,
Thou'rt mine eternally;
Not fire nor sword nor thunder
Shall sever me from Thee;
Not hunger, thirst, nor danger,
Not pain nor poverty
Nor mighty princes' anger
Shall ever hinder me.

14. No angel and no gladness,
No throne, no pomp, no show,
No love, no hate, no sadness,
No pain, no depth of woe,
No scheme of man's contrivance,
However small or great,
Shall draw me from Thy guidance
Nor from Thee separate.

15. My heart for joy is springing
And can no more be sad,
'Tis full of mirth and singing,
Sees naught but sunshine glad.
The Sun that cheers my spirit
Is Jesus Christ, my King;
That which I shall inherit
Makes me rejoice and sing.


One of the differences between. . .

Every church body has its tensions. It seems that many of them are about worship, sex, and politics (secular and church).  But I have observed that there are some tendencies that seem to transcend the denominations.  Those who promote their denomination are generally called conservatives or even arch-conservatives or, in the case of Lutherans, confessional.  Often these have little to do with essential disagreement over doctrine and faith but center more upon practice and piety.  On the other hand, those who seem to minimize their denomination or confessional tradition are often called progressives or even liberals, or, in the case of Lutherans, missional.  They tend to find denominational structures, bylaws, and even the name itself.

You would be hard pressed to find a conservative Lutheran ditching the name Lutheran from their congregation's identity or omitting the hymnal or skipping the lectionary or eliminating fellowship arrangements in determining who communes or forgoing vestments or such.  It is not because these folks are company men but because they have confidence in their confession, they accept the wisdom of the church over the centuries, they are concerned about the tie between dogma and worship, they take equally seriously the words of Scripture that call us to mark divisions as they do the words of Scripture that call us to proclaim the Gospel. 

On the other hand, progressive Lutherans worry that the name Lutheran may be driving folks away and is not all that important anyway, that there are folks who do not like hymns or liturgy, that it is more important to be welcoming than to worry about communing worthily, that the traditions of the church are mere suggestions one is free to dismiss for whatever reason, and that the Gospel trumps everything in Scripture.  It is not because they have anything against their denomination but they see themselves pursuing a higher purpose -- not making members but bringing people into a personal relationship with Jesus.  This is their exclusive purpose and for the sake of this purpose, nearly anything and everything else takes a distant second place.

The Methodists are finding the tension between their own progressives and conservatives so impossible that they are ready to split.  Some Lutherans have already done so (from the ELCA to the NALC and LCMC).  Even Roman Catholics have serious tensions between those who want to see more openness to change and those who insist upon preserving not only the faith but the order of the past.  In some respects it is surprising that the LCMS has kept these competing tensions together (despite the fact that some on both sides would just as soon get rid of the other side).

In this respect, the words conservative and progressive seem to have less of a base in doctrinal difference (though a good case could be made that there are doctrinal differences between the positions) but have a great deal to do with how the church operates on Sunday morning and what things are important to the church's life and ministry.  In other words, these words and these differences are born of a presupposition that there is a difference between style and substance.  The Lutherans who are progressive insist that they are being true Lutherans (just as the conservative ones).  The same is true of the Methodists and Roman Catholics and, well, you insert the church body of your choice.  Yet that is precisely the problem.  Although nearly everyone seems to accept it, I am not at all sure that there is any truth or legitimacy to the idea that style and substance are different and can be separated.  In fact, I am pretty confident that the root of many of the problems we face across the scope of Christendom has to do with the idea that faith and practice, substance and style, doctrine and practice can be pealed apart and treated differently.  But then, as you probably know, most folks would call me a conservative or even arch-conservative.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

An ordination sermon. . .

Sermon for the Ordination of Vicar Richard Neely Owen on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

Big Challenges. . .

Of course everyone knows the big news.  Concordia Portland is closing.  Some of the goofier stuff I have read suggests that it is being closed because of its appearance of friendship to LBGTQ+ concerns.  Others have suggested it is being closed because it is theologically liberal.  Both of those give too much credibility to the theoretical and ignore the practical.  Small schools like Portland are in the fight for their lives and some of them are going to die, even some of our schools.

A million years ago we came up with the Concordia preparatory system to train church workers and, if there were lay folks who wanted a theological education, they could attend as well.  We set up an elaborate system of boarding high schools, two year prep schools, and a two year finishing school just to produce pastors for the church (and some Lutheran teachers to boot).  Things started going sour when the high schools began to close.  People were not so sure they wanted to box up their young'uns and send them off at such a tender age.  All of this corresponded in time, at least, to the beginnings of Missouri's theological wars.  Then a Senior College was closed and a Seminary moved to its campus and nearly all the two year schools became four year colleges.  Where the pre-sems and the church work students were once the center and core of the school's mission and purpose for existence, now the schools were competing for every 18 year old out there and trying to offer every program that would appeal to those students and make them enough money to stay open.  Except for Seward and Ann Arbor, church work students became an asterisk instead of the beating heart of the school.  Then the Seminaries welcomed men without languages and the shine began to rub off of the Concordias.  They were no longer essential to the Synod's need to pump out pastors.  About the same time the pipeline of 18 year olds began to decline.  Schools began expanding their core mission to find someway to pay the bills.  River Forest found a mission in on site master's programs for public school teachers.  Then the online revolution changed everything.  Suddenly a Portland was in cahoots with a for profit firm to become an online degree mill.  It worked for a while but the numbers of undergrads on campus did not grow.  They ran afoul of the government and costs went up and profits declined.  They found themselves where so many small religious and/or private colleges find themselves -- depending upon tuition for cash to operate and a shrinking pool of 18 year olds.  In the end they could not find a magic way around the wall.  They were in need of cash and competing against cheaper state schools and better endowed private schools.  Portland died because they could not sustain the business model and they had no certain path to fix what was wrong with their model.

I have no insider knowledge but I have read most of what has been published on the closing.  The Synod had no pool of money from which to bandaid the school through and the school faced the loss of its line of credit and its notes became due.  The regents had no choice.  It is sad and tragic but it was not a surprise and is not surprising to those who chronicle the state of private and religious colleges in America today.  Portland was not the first and it will not be the last.  The shake up going on is still rattling through our Concordia University System.  In the end you have to wonder how we can operate a church system of schools in which 1/7 or less of its students are Lutheran and the numbers of church work students is less than 5% of the total enrollment.  The schools who survive will have to find a way to operate in this environment.  Maybe Mequon is an example of a broad and diverse university but I am not sure we can make a case for needing even Mequon being a school of the LCMS.  Gustavus Adolphus in tiny St. Peter, MN, probably has the highest Lutheran student population (40% or more, I am told) but it is a legacy school building upon generations who were and will be Gustavus grads.  The ELCA schools are less tied to the national church but they too have been closing and some of those will not survive the purge either.

You will not be hearing the last of the fight our schools are in just to survive.  We are not alone and we are not immune to the pressures on these small schools.  They do not have enough endowment to be secure, depend too much upon tuition to operate in the black so little ups and downs in enrollment can have big effects upon their fiscal health, and there are cheaper and, in some cases, better options among the state sponsored schools (some of whom offer instate students free tuition).  My alma maters are gone -- St. John's College more than 30 years ago and Concordia Senior College more than 40 years ago.  We thought things would settle out but they have not.  The ride will be rocky, my friends, and we will have to make some hard decisions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Principal Feast

It is strange that so few Lutherans are familiar with the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord.  Oh, to be sure, most know the story from the Gospel according to St. Luke.  But that this story is the Gospel appointed for a feast day is usually a surprise to most Lutherans.  Even Lutheran pastors seem ignorant of this feast day.  In particular, they are in the dark about its importance to the calendar.

This is a principal feast day.  What that means, according to the rubrics of Lutheran Service Book, is that this feast day is normally observed when it falls on a Sunday -- even when that is a Sunday in Lent.  Therein lies the rub.  Most Lutherans presume that nothing interferes with the Sundays in Lent.  Few Lutherans would expect to observe the Feast of the Annunciation if they went to their church on a Sunday in Lent that happened to be March 25.

Now it is true that normally this feast day defers to Holy Week or Easter.  But outside of that exception, when March 25 falls on a Sunday, Lutherans should expect to observe the Annunciation.  According to the rubric found on page 960 of Lutheran Service Book:  Altar Book"It is appropriate to observe this feast day in all its fullness during Lent.  However, according to historical precedent, when the Annunciation falls during Holy Week or on Easter Day (or also on the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the one-year series), it should not be observed at those times but may be transferred to a weekday following the Second Sunday of Easter." 

So those who follow the Three-Year lectionary should expect to observe the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 and simply omit the fifth Sunday in Lent.  The older one year lectionary, however, is already into Passion-tide upon the fifth Sunday in Lent and therefore the Annunciation would be transferred and would not replace Judica. Since the majority of our parishes are in the Three Year Lectionary and do not observe the Historic or One Year Lectionary, most of us should expect that if Sunday falls on March 25, the pericopes would follow those ordered for the Annunciation.

As I wrote some years ago:

The Annunciation of Our Lord is by all accounts one of the most ancient and venerable feasts on the Church's calendar yet, because it falls during Lent, it is seldom even acknowledged.  And why do we keep this feast?  Because it relates to one of the most significant and grandest mysteries of the faith -- the Incarnation of our Lord.  You cannot have a baby without a conception and that is why, nine months before Christmas, we have a conception through the Word of the Lord, by the power of the Spirit, with an Archangel bearing the consequential news.  Interestingly, the date of the Annunciation may well have set the date of Christmas -- and not the other way around.  But that is for another post...  Suffice it to say that Lutherans should not forget this important feast whether it is transferred to another day or observed on its Sunday.  It is very important to our confession of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ...

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

I do not need the media to be my parent. . .

One of my greatest frustrations in this time of pandemic is the way that the media, in particular, and others have become parental figures, telling us what we should think, how we should act, and what to believe.  Frankly, I do not watch the news to hear the voice of a parent who presumes to be the educated, informed, and authoritative voice to my ignorance, cluelessness, and lawlessness.  What I expect from the media is information without commentary.  And that is hard to find, especially in these days of panic and hysteria.  As a nation we are enthralled by the idea of breaking news, of conspiracy theories, and assigning blame (especially for things none of us knows how to fix).  This is the fodder of the 24 hour news cycle in which old news is repeated as if it were new, opinion is offered in place of news, and blame instead of facts.  I do not know about the rest of you, but I am tired of it all and do not need the news media to be my nanny or parent and feed me what I am supposed to know, think, or feel.  If you are old enough, I hearken back to the words of Sargent Joe Friday.  Just the facts. . . just the facts.

So far my rant against the nanny state and the media presuming to serve in that role. . .

One of my other frustrations is the extreme lack of common sense.  When it has come down to educating people on the value of washing their hands or counting how many warm bodies are in any one place at one time, Houston, we have a problem.  What ever happened to common sense?  The shortages in the supermarkets and store shelves have less to do with a real scarcity than they do a people who lack common sense and who are acting in panic.  Calm down, people.  Think this through.  Don't let your panic write checks your reason cannot cash (to redo an old expression my grandmother said).  This will be a whole lot easier on all of us if we simply use some common sense.  Go to the store when you have to and buy what you need but do not hoard things for the apocalypse.  Go to the doctor when you are symptomatic.  Follow the medical advice you receive.  Do not over think this.  And, for God's sake, watch a movie (not Contagion), a good movie, a comedy (Princess Bride) where there is a happily ever after.  You need something to balance out the bad news that you are being fed.

And pray.  Do I need to say that again?  Pray.  Pray for others before yourself, for your enemies before your friends, for the political leaders who make hard decisions, for the medical personnel who care for the sick (and are in the most danger!), and for your church (and maybe your pastors, too!). 

And read the Scriptures.  There are countless Bible passages of hope and comfort for ever circumstance.  Read them.  Read them over again.  Keep reading them over again.  If you cannot find them, Google "Bible Passages of Comfort."

And confess the Creed and read the Catechism.  Think about this, if you confess the creed every time you wash your hands and it would help with more than just memorizing the text!

So far my rant against the lack of common sense that makes us vulnerable to panic and fear. . .  

The lie. . .

It seems that just about everywhere we look voices are encouraging people to define themselves by their appetites or desires.  But this is nothing more than a great lie -- the lie that sexual inclination or orientation is, of itself, an identity.  For the Christian this lie is especially insidious.  It is nothing less than sin which defines our identity as the sum of our desires.  This is precisely what God has intervened to address with the gift of His Son.  For the Christian, it is not possible for us to allow our identities (as the world defines them) to be born of the desires in us -- whether noble or notorious.  We are not who we were, says St. Paul.  We are the people God has declared us to be.  And that, according to St. John, is the children of God.  Beloved, that is who we are.  That is our identity.

Appetite is a dangerous thing to define who we are.  It is not simply a problem with sexual desire but with any desire.  We live in an age of rampant consumerism in which the customer is always right.  We are in love with the gods of our technology that seemingly promise us everything and deliver much less (though we are loathe to admit it).  We have defined nature in its rawest form as the great good which is defiled by man's mere presence as well as mankind's plundering ways.  Our appetites change and evolve and cannot be the certain ground on which to build an understanding of who we are or what we are here to do.  That is the hidden lie that the Law exposes.  It does not merely convict of us the things we have done but of the lies we have told and continue to tell ourselves about who we are and why we are here.  The gift of the Gospel is not simply an external forgiveness but the gift of a radical new identity borne of Christ and His redeeming work and shaped not by our desires but God's desire to redeem His lost creation.

The Church needs to be especially careful because we are so tempted to use the language of the world, especially when it comes to speaking to and with youth.  We cannot succumb to the vocabulary of the world for it will lead inevitably to the lie that the Christian Gospel has come to replace.  No one can look inside himself or herself to find an answer to longing or hope that endures.  No one can look inside to find a solid ground on which to build a future.  No one can look inside to find an enduring reality (other than guilt and shame or the fragile lie that cannot endure).  We must look beyond the self and into the realm of God.  What is a worthy foundation for our lives and a solid future on which to build is not how we see ourselves but how God sees us and what His redemptive love has accomplished to save and redeem us from ourselves as much as from sin, death, and the devil.

It is for freedom Christ has set us free and not to exchange one hopeless captivity for the next bondage to despair.  What God has done in Christ is not a liberty we decide how to use but the only true freedom there is -- the freedom to know God as He is and to know ourselves according to His own self-revelation of love and grace and mercy.  Without God's direction, we are consigned to live out our lives in the constant pursuit of desire, the worst prison there is.  In the end it will leave us with nothing that is true or dependable beyond the moment.  This, in contrast with eternity, shows us that God's gift is more than external salvation but the gift of a new internal identity which finds its fulfillment in the everlasting life that we know now by faith but will know soon face to face.  We are not who we think we are but who God thinks we are.  The sooner we learn this, the quicker we will give up the dead ends and detours offered by the world and the culture of self that trades our future upon the currency of lies and deception.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Blind but now I see. . .

Sermon for Lent 4A, adapted, preached on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

     It sounds so very foolish to us.  “Who sinned?”  We don’t think in those terms, do we?  Sins are just mistakes, intentions left undone, opportunities not taken, and simple misunderstandings.  Sins are not real.  Sins are when things that go wrong.  You can fix them, after all.  An apology or doing something nice makes up for mistakes.  And for sins, right?

    Funny.  Here we are in the midst of a worldwide panic and pandemic.  And guess what we want to know?  “Who sinned?”  In other words, who can we blame?  China, Trump, the media?  But that is the problem.  Blame does not fix what is wrong and blame is most important when you can do nothing quickly or easily to fix it.  We are heirs of the apostles, after all.  They thought in terms of sin because they did not know how to fix it and so the most important thing was who to blame.  Okay, there is a man born blind.  So, who sinned?  Did he sin or did his parents?

    The reality is that we all sinned.  We are all to blame.  But that is as far as it gets because alone with this sin comes blindness.  We are all blind from birth.  There are no exceptions or immunities to this blindness.  It is not because we have an eye problem, we have a vision problem.  We cannot see God.  God must reveal Himself to us or we cannot see Him.  He must open the eyes of the blind and show Himself and this is exactly what God is doing in Christ.  Our Lord Jesus Christ has entered into the darkness and blindness of our sin-filled world.  The first thing that His light does is expose our blindness.  He shows us what we cannot see.  We are sinners, all that is wrong is wrong because of sin, and that this sin has so pervaded our identity that don’t even know it.

    You have added to this darkness of sin but you did not cause it.  Your parents added to sin’s darkness as well but neither did they cause it.  You have to go all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden to find where sin and its blindness begins.  It is there where God became a mystery to us, where faith surrendered to fear, and where the heart of man became so corrupt that wrong became right and right became wrong.  Blindness to God and to His purpose and to His will is the fruit of sin that began long ago and far away in a garden.  There trust was traded away for knowledge of sin, where innocence was exchanged for guilt and shame, and where life was surrendered for death.

    Because of what happened in that Garden, we do the works we were trained by sin to do.  Sinners sin.  The blind do not see.  The deaf do not hear.  The lame do not walk.  The fearful do not hope.  The dead do not live.  We are all blind because we cannot see God.  But thanks be to God that He was determined to be seen. 

He came in flesh like us to open the eyes of the blind.  God wants us to know Him and the power of His love.  So the curse of sin we once chose for ourselves, He has chosen to bear on the cross and the death that came with our bargain has become Christ’s death to die for us. 

    In the pool of Siloam, the man born blind has his blindness washed away.  In the pool of baptism, you, who were born blind, have had this blindness washed away.  The Spirit has worked to open your mind to know, your heart to believe, and your faith to see God.  The blind man in our text did not know how it happened but He saw.  You do not know how baptismal water works, but you know whom You have believed.  The blind man saw Jesus and knew God.  And in baptismal water you have seen Jesus and know God.  His was an imperfect faith that had to be catechized and so you need to hear the Word of God preached and taught.  His was a halting faith that must be strengthened and so you are here to have your faith strengthened.  His was a faith planted by the Spirit and fed and nourished by the means of grace and you are here to be fed and nourished upon the Word of the Lord and the body and blood of Jesus.

    The man born blind sees but those around him are still blind.  Their blindness is their refusal of God’s grace and their rejection of Jesus.  Theirs is a blindness chosen because they have rejected the Spirit who opens their hearts, minds, and eyes to see Jesus.  They have all the excuses and reasons why they will not believe.  There are none so blind as those who will not see.

    It is an amazing story.  While it is certainly incredible that God can give sight to the blind, the greater revelation is how deep the blindness is and how dark life is and how death rules because of sin.  We marvel at great doctors who can give sight to eyes that do not work.  Why we do not marvel at the God who makes Himself known to us so that we might see Jesus?  Perhaps that is exactly what is revealed by times like these.  We cower in fear of epidemics out of control but we forget the mercy God has shown us.  We worry about tomorrow but forget the eternity God has given us.  We panic and forget that whether we life or die, we belong to the Lord.  There is no shortage of blindness still.

    To know God and see Him by faith is not some nice little side benefit to an already good life.  It is the power that rescues people from fears that overcome them, from  temptations that seize on their weakness, and from a focus on the moment that masks the eternity which is theirs in Christ.  This life is passing away.  Ask anyone who is old how fast their life passed by. What God is giving us is not some band-aid for the moment but the life so real death cannot kill it and a future so long no clock can measure it.
All of this is His gift to us in Christ, our Light and our life.  He covers our sin with His righteousness, rescues our mortal bodies for eternal life, and He is with us when we are sure we are all alone.  This is exactly what a people prone to blindness need to see and know and trust.  And that is why Christ has come.  To open the eyes of the blind and to convict those who refuse to see.

    We assume we see things very clearly on our own.  That is what Christ exposes in His light.  We do not see things clearly.  We see a blur that is life from beginning until its end.  We see a blur of change that comes at us so quickly we can hardly breathe.  We see a blur of wrongs that suddenly are called right and rights that are called wrong.  We see a blur of illnesses we never heard of yesterday that become the scourges to us today.  We see a blur of things that were once considered valuable and are not deemed to be cheap and things that were once called bargains that now cost us everything.  We see nothing until we see Christ and in Him we see all things clearly.

    This is the message of the Gospel.  When you see Christ, you not only see God, you see who you are, why you are here, and what you are to be about.  For the light of Christ not only exposes sin and death but reveals the power of His life to end sin’s reign of fear and to raise the dead to everlasting life.  That is good news to a people swallowed up by bad news, frozen in fear by our powerlessness, and panicked into hoarding what is of little value while forgetting the value of the eternal.  That is the blindness Christ has come to confront and that is the gift given us when we see Christ by faith.

    Today God calls us to repentance.  Do not be like those who said they see but were blind as bats.  Come as the blind who now see because of Christ and who see Christ.  Come as the fearful who rejoice that God is with you.  Come as the hungry to be fed upon the body and blood of Christ.  Come as the despairing who have learned hope is stronger than the circumstances around them.  Come as the weak whom God can make strong.  Come as the doubting who are persuaded by truth.  Come as the dying to whom God has given eternal life.

    Now more than ever, we need the Lord’s light.  We have been blinded by our fears and have forgotten to hope.  We have judged the threat to this life greater than the promise of eternal life.  We have panicked instead of trusted and given into hysteria instead of living in the peace that passes understanding.  This too shall pass, my friends, but God’s grace will remain forever.  Christ is ours and we are His.  Once you were in darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord.  Walk as the children of Light.  Do not let fear steal your hope.  Do not let panic reign where God has given faith a home.  God has opened your eyes and hearts..  Trust in His Word and rejoice in His food.  For in Christ is no darkness at all –  only light and life forever.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

Back together again. . .

All twelve tapestries done by Raphael are now back together again in the Sistene Chapel (at least for a while).  They have been undergoing restoration work at the Vatican.  You can watch a Twitter video here.  Another blog has it here.  Commissioned by none other than the Luther nemesis Pope Leo X, these tapestries were never seen completed by Raphael who died four months after the first seven were hung  in the chapel on St Stephen’s day, December 26, 1519. Raphael was probably there to see them before he died at the age of 37. The others were finished after his death.  “The last record that we have of all of them being hung in the Sistine is from the late 1500s,” Alessandra Rodolfo, the curator of the exhibition, told Reuters.  Previous exhibitions, some of which lasted only a few hours or a day, included only the 10 larger tapestries, some measuring about six by five meters. Two of the 12 are narrow and hung vertically as borders.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The real blindness. . .

Sermon for Lent 4A, preached on Saturday evening, March 21, 2020.

   The great temptation is always to trivialize sin.  Sins are mistakes, intentions left undone, opportunities not taken, and misunderstandings.  Sins are not real.  Sins are simply things that end up wrong.  Sins can sometimes be fixed – by apologies or by making up for the mistake.  But sin is never something that holds us all captive, never something that covers us in blindness and darkness, and never something that stains us right down to the soul.  Even the disciples were not immune from trivializing sin and making it small.  Okay, there is a man born blind.  So, who sinned?  Did he sin or did his parents?

    The reality is that everyone is blind and blind from birth.  There are no exceptions or immunities to this blindness.  It is not because the eyes don’t work but because the eyes cannot see God.  God must reveal Himself.  He must open the eyes of the blind and show Himself and this is exactly what He does in Christ.  Our Lord Jesus Christ enters into the dark and blind world of sin and shines with the one true light.  The darkness cannot stop His light nor can the darkness cover His light.  Not even a man born blind is immune to the power of this light to enable the man to see – to see beyond himself or his surroundings and into the face of God.

    You added to this darkness of sin but you did not cause it.  Your parents added to sin’s darkness as well but neither did they cause it.  You must go back to Adam in the Garden to find where blindness begins, where God becomes a mystery, where faith turns into fear, and where the heart of man becomes corrupt.  Blindness to God and to His purpose and to His will is the creeping effect of sin that began long ago and far away in a garden where trust was traded away for knowledge, where innocence was exchanged for guilt and shame, and where life was surrendered for death. Because of this we do the works we were trained to do.  Sinners sin.  The blind do not see.  The deaf do not hear.  The lame do not walk.  The fearful do not hope.  The dead do not live.

    We are all blind because we cannot see God.  Yet God is determined to be seen.  Even if it means He must open the eyes of the blind, God wills Himself to be seen and known.  The curse once proudly taken upon ourselves in earth that must be worked and will eventually claim us, is now undone by earth into which Jesus spits and eyes that are packed with this mud.  In the pool of Siloam the mud is washed away and the curse of Adam is replaced with the grace of God. 
The blind man sees God because He has seen Jesus.  It is imperfect faith that must be catechized and it is halting faith that must be strengthened but it is faith, planted by the Spirit, working through the Word of the Lord and the healing mud pack and the cleansing water.  Lord, I believe.  Lord, I see.

    The man born blind sees but the others around him are still blind.  “He cannot be from God,” they say, “because he does not keep the Sabbath.”  His parents were still blind.  “Yes, he is our sin, he was blind, but how he sees we do not know and who made him to see we do not know.  Leave us alone and ask him.”  And the blind leading the blind go back to the man who sees.  “He must be a sinner, tell us who he is and what he has done.”  The man who sees catechizes the blind.  “He must be from God because God does not listen to sinners and God listens to Him and never before in the history of the world has a man born blind been given the grace to see so He must be from God.”  The blind continue in their blindness.  “Who do you think you are to teach us?”

    It is an amazing story.  What is so incredible is not that God can give sight to the blind but how deep the blindness is and how dark the darkness is and how dead the death is because of sin.  That is what is amazing.  We marvel at those who can give sight to eyes that do not work and we do not marvel at the God who makes Himself known to us so that we might see His mercy, rejoice in His love, trust in His salvation, and be granted eternal life.  There are no people more blind than those who will not see.

    To know God and to see Him by faith is not some little added benefit to an already good life but that which transforms life from a brief day that turns into an eternal night to a brief night that becomes an eternal day.  No matter how great this life, it is but a brief moment from birth to death.  Ask anyone who is old how fast their life passed by. What God has done in giving us the sight of faith is to give us perspective on this life and the gift of eternal life.  It comes from seeing Christ, the Lord who fulfills all righteousness for you and who dies upon the cross that you might live forevermore.  It comes from seeing Christ, the God who has come as one of us that we might dwell with Him eternally.  It comes from seeing Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, your sin and mine.

    We presume that we see things very clearly on our own.  That is the blindness Jesus came to confront.  We do not see things clearly. 
We see a blur that is life from beginning until its end.  We see a blur of change that comes at us so quickly we can hardly breathe.  We see a blur of fear that make us panic.  We see a blur of wrongs that suddenly are called right and rights that are called wrong.  We see a blur of illnesses we never heard of yesterday that become the scourges to us today.  We see a blur of things that were once considered valuable and are not deemed to be cheap and things that were once called bargains that now cost us everything.  We see nothing until we see Christ and in Him we see all things clearly.

    This is the message of the Gospel: when you see Christ, you not only see God, you see who you are, where your life fits, what your purpose is and where your destiny leads.  For the light of Christ not only shows us what is good and right and true but what is evil and wrong and a lie.  The Light of Christ exposes what only darkness can hide – foolishness that parades as wisdom, falsehoods that parade as truth, death that parades as life.  The works of darkness are exposed in Christ just as the works of God are revealed in Christ.  That is the blindness Christ has come to confront and that is the gift given us when we see Christ by faith.

    Today God calls us to repentance.  Do not be like those who said they see but are blind.  Come as the blind rejoicing in the work of God that opens your heart to faith and opens your life to hope.  Come as the blind who rejoice to know the Word of God and be taught that Word.  Come as the blind who rejoice to see Christ for in Christ all things worth seeing are seen and all that is not worthy of us is revealed.  Come as the blind who fearful who plead to God to make them strong.  Come as the doubting who plead to God to give them faith.  Come as the dying who plead to God to give them the one life death cannot steal away.  Come as the despairing who plead to God for hope.  For this God whom we know in Christ will never disappoint us.  He will give us sight that we may see Him as Savior and Redeemer and through Him all things worth our attention.  And He will give us sight to see the emptiness of a world apart from Him and all those things unworthy of our attention.

    Now more than ever, we need the Lord’s light.  We have been blinded by our fears and have forgotten to hope.  We have judged the threat to this life greater than the threat to eternal life.  We have panicked instead of trusted and given into hysteria instead of living in the peace that passes understanding.  This too shall pass. 

    Once you were in darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord.  Walk as the children of Light.  Do not let fear steal your hope.  Do not let panic reign where God has given faith a home.  Give attention to His Word and rejoice in the Sacraments that deliver His kingdom to us.  Live in the day of His grace now, refusing evil and rejoicing in what is good, showing forth the good works of Him who called you from darkness into His marvelous light.  Walk in the light of Christ for in Him is no darkness at all.    Amen.

Curious. . .

I was reading an article on what makes for a good hymn.  It was written by a Roman Catholic referring to another Roman Catholic author from a much earlier time.  Okay.  But in making a point about a great hymn tune, Von Himmel Hoch, the writer refused to acknowledge the composer, Martin Luther, nor to give any reference which might suggest that this tune was written by a non-Roman Catholic.  Furthermore, the author suggested that it once had a connection to Christmas which has been lost over time.  Really.  I did not know that.  I wondered if my information was wrong and could find no one ascribing the tune to anyone but Luther and published first in the hymnal Geist­liche Lied­er, by Val­en­tin Schu­mann (Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny: 1539).  So the first curiosity of the day is that a Roman Catholic musician deciding what constitutes a good hymn ignores the guy who did more to restore hymnody to Christianity than most, perhaps than anyone else.

Ultimately these studies are about the musicality of the hymn-tune more than the overall success of the hymn itself.  Great composers are known less for their hymn tunes than for their harmonizations of tunes written by others.  Bach is a prime example but include with him are Handel, Hayden, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven -- none of whom are remembered for hymn composition.  Undoubtedly, lesser talents have produced the majority of great hymn tunes.  Imagine that the next time you open a hymnal to sing a hymn.

Finally, although the musicality of the tune is important.  It is not the only thing that is important.  In fact, it is not the primary thing.  What the hymn says is of primary importance since the function of the hymn is to sing the faith.  What it sings is not a small matter at all.  Though many would disagree with me, neither sentiment nor your ability to dance to its rhythm contribute anything to the success of a hymn but plenty to its failure.  It is content, content, content.

Even the best content, however, does not work when it must compete with the melody.  The most successful hymns are those where the words and the tune are working in parallel.  The best is where they actually merge so that the text and tune sing as one together.  If you think about it, there are plenty of examples of such wonderful marriages of text and tune where in the individual parts become more when married together.  The tune is not just the vehicle for the words but the fitting counterpart of the text in musical setting.

Hymns are things whose value is not automatically apparent and whose success is not immediately known.  Over time we learn from what has been sung, what to sing.  So before we can learn to write or sing hymns in our own time, we had better learn the great and sturdy hymns of old and then, just maybe, we will learn enough to put together the magic of a profound text to a tune that unpacks the text and enlarges it.  And that, my friends, is a thing of sheer beauty!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The trusting church. . .

Writing as one who has worked to prevent cancelling services and darkening the church in this time of crisis, I have endured questions and challenges from other pastors who insist that I am playing God, or indifferent to the vulnerable, or daring to be the one who causes someone else to be infected.  I do not believe I am being irresponsible and I believe I am very cognizant of and respectful toward the threat and the danger to my people.  I am not challenging their decision to do what they believe is right in the face of this scourge but I guess I am fair game from those who disagree with me.

That said, I will admit to being shocked at how quickly and easily churches and church leaders have acquiesced to the political leadership and without much complaint have abandoned face to face worship.  I have heard from authorities that those who do not shut down will not have any legal cover since the churches themselves are not being singled out or treated differently than other social institutions.  I guess that is part of the rub.  I do not consider the church a social institution or the Divine Service to be a social gathering.  Furthermore, I do not see how a sacramental church accepts the fact that for weeks or months, perhaps even more, our people will be without the benefit of communing upon the body and blood of our Lord.  Yes, I know that it is not absolutely necessary for our people to receive the Sacrament every week but neither is it acceptable that we would willingly give up the Sacrament for an unknown amount of time.

Live streaming is great.  We are doing it.  But live streaming is not an adequate substitute for the Divine Service -- especially over the longer term.  My people have been catechized that faithful worship includes the Word preached, sins absolved, and Christ's body and blood received.  They hunger for this.  Yes, they may be able to forego it for a time but it will not be without a sacrifice and a cost.  For some congregations, this is already the second week that the doors have been closed and God's people have had to forego the weekly assembling of God's people in the Lord's House.

Around me churches have responded differently.  The Roman Catholic Bishop of Little Rock effectively cancelled Easter.  Others have closed their churches until early April.  All in all, I have been amazed at how docile the religious leaders have been before the political authorities who have ordered an end to public worship.  Among Lutherans, the typical response has been to close down with only a few trying to find ways to continue worship and honor the medical advice about public assemblies.  It has not taken long for our church leaders to tell us to abandon the chalice, shutter the doors to our churches, and accept the reality of a virtual church for the uncertain future.  I am not faulting them for trying to do what is best but still am amazed at how quickly and easily the churches have agreed to do whatever the government has said.

We hear much about the economic cost of sheltering in place.  We hear of the hysteria that has hoarded everything from hand sanitizer (understandable) to toilet paper (really???).  We hear much of the benefit such self-isolation will reap in slowing the spread of the virus.  But little or nothing is said about how this reduces deaths but may actually prolong the time in which we will have to deal with this pandemic.  Hardly anything is said about the social cost of such self-isolation.  Nothing is said about the cost of shutting our church doors to our long term future or the faith and spiritual well-being of our people.  Why are we not talking about this?  We may not be medical experts but we are surely experts about the spiritual needs of our people and the costs to the churches of long term closure.  If we are not qualified to discuss this cost, then we have a problem.

Other bloggers have pointed out that in wartime children continued to attend school (even in Germany and in Britain) and that Scouts met during the Spanish Flu and that, while churches did curtail many of their activities, they remained open during the Spanish Flu.  I wonder what unforeseen consequences our surrender to the political authority will have -- not simply for the health of an institution but for the health and life of the faithful whose hunger for God's Word and the food of His altar only increases in times such as these.  If we end up burning down the village and the church to save the people, what have we gained?

Okay, many of you will undoubtedly disagree with me and some of you will attack me for evening bringing the holy thing up.  But that is how my thoughts meander.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The red thread. . .

Recently there was a Facebook conversation about the pastor's self-communion and it was, well, animated.  I have already spoken on the subject so I will not repeat myself.  What I will say is that so often, even among those who identify as confessionals or conservatives, personal preference is still the go to rule for things that should not have anything to do with personal preference.  Now there are legitimately things for which a pastor's personal preference may apply but in this case, as in so many others, we have red letter words to guide us.  Rubrics tell us what the practice of the Church was and is and we should be hard pressed to justify a deviation from that practice.  No, they are not the Law handed down from Sinai but these may be even more compelling (since Christ kept that Law fully) since these represent our covenant of love and our concordia and walk together as a Synod.

Luther is our example.  In this particular debate, Luther's words and practice are in the form of rubrics for the Formula Missae.  Luther’s rubric from the Formula Missae, 1523. He writes, “Then, while the Agnus Dei is sung, let him [the pastor] communicate, first himself and then the people.” (AE 53.29) Luther’s Deutche Messe, 1526, makes no change in this order at all.” 

Lutheran Service Book is also clear.  The Pastor and those who assist him receive the body and blood of Christ first, the presiding minister communing himself and his assistants.  Then they distribute the body and blood to those who come to receive.  (Altar Book, p. 168)

My complaint is not simply about this particular issue but about the way too many pastors live in ignorant bliss about the rubrics and teach their parishioners that it is really about personal preference and since they are pastors, their personal preference rules.  It makes the people into ping pong balls bounced from practice to practice as pastors come and go until finally the ordinary becomes the exceptional and the exceptional is not to be tolerated.  Come on, pastors.  Do you duty.  Know the rubrics.  Follow them.  If you must deviate from them, you had better have a good reason.

This is not simply about one issue but about so many.  We live by the rules we have set for ourselves so that our people are protected (Luther's chief concern that worked against any radical deviation from the ordinary liturgical practice the people had known).  Rubrics are not Mosaic Law and they did not roll down from the mighty mountain on tablets of stone but these are the rules we have agreed to follow (like the use of only doctrinally pure hymnals and agendas!).  If they need to be changed, let us all change them together but let us not become islands in which pastors rule as chiefs and impose personal preference upon people as if this was the way it should be.

Congregations are shocked by chanting because they don't know the rubrics and their pastors have explained their practice as "what works for them."  Congregations do not know what to do with the reliquae because they have not been taught the rubrics and and pastors each have their own practices.  Congregations do not know the Church Year because they have not been taught the rubrics and their pastors preach on free texts and ignore the lectionary.  I could go on and on.  It does not have to be this way.  The people deserve better from us as pastors.  We are duty bound by our ordination to give it to them.  Personal preference is not the rule.  Follow the red thread.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

What we will NOT do. . .

There have been reports among some in Lutheranism and even from the ACNA of live streaming a priest/pastor speaking the Words of Institution while families are huddled around their own bread and wine, communing in the moment together but distant physically and geographically from the priest/pastor and the rest of the congregation.  Such a move is not now nor would it ever be part of the plan of the parish I serve and I would strongly discourage anyone from considering it.  We are not ready to tinker with the gifts God has given us for such experimentation will inevitably lead to the loss of confidence in the means of grace.

There will be times in which we will be forced to adapt (I prefer adding service times to accommodate the people of God within parameters that keep them safe rather than cancelling them entirely or relying on video --virtual congregations) but we must keep our heads.

We must also consider what we are doing in this urgency and how it may impact the future of what we do normally.  If we give into the fear and abandon the chalice entirely, how will we restore it when we have encouraged people not to have confidence in the cup?  If we teach our people that the Church can function all well and good within a digital framework, without face to face gatherings around the Word and Table of the Lord, how will break the new habit after 3 or 6 or 10 weeks and suddenly take away these screen versions of the Divine Service?  If over time our people become satisfied with the minimal direct participation in favor of the virtual church services through media, how will we rekindle the hunger within them for what God intended?

We have learned to our shame that exceptions quickly become norms and these norms become the routines against which the old normal must be argued.  This may seem like a trivial concern in a world hyped with threat, fear, and panic but we have already seen how quickly new ideas become the present routines.  The face pace of technological change means that our normal is constantly changing and adapting.  We may not like it but that is how things work today.

For the sake of the people and not for the sake of the Church and her institutional structures, we must do everything we can as shepherds of the flock to adapt and maintain the ordinary of people gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord -- even during times of test, trial, and trouble.  It is for the sake of those within our care that we as pastors and priests will be called upon to work harder and be even more faithful as this unfolds.  For the warning bells of those who try to look into the future suggest that this will not be a short term problem but might well extend through the next several months.  We have children to baptize, the faith to teach, the dead to bury, the sick to comfort, and the people of God to nourish with the Word of the Lord and Christ's body and blood.  All of these must continue to go forward even though we will have to work very hard to accomplish the pastoral task amid the uncertainties of the unknown future and the ever changing rules from government and medical authority.