Thursday, April 30, 2020

Spiritual communion or not. . .

Spiritual communion is something we do not hear about as much as in the past but the current situation with the corona virus has brought back this concept.  In 2003, Pope John Paul II encouraged the practice of spiritual communion, “which has been a wonderful part of Catholic life for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life.”  This act of “spiritual communion” is the means by which the faithful unite themselves to God or celebrate this union through prayer and meditation as opposed to the actual communion of eating Christ's body and drinking His blood. It is said to be a profound expression of the desire of the faithful to be united with Christ precisely when they cannot complete that union by their reception of Holy Communion.

Obviously, this is something that is very much a part of Roman Catholic theology and piety.  It was certainly a vivid expression of the piety of the laity in the medieval times when actual reception was not as frequent as it is today and when adoration of the host outside of the Mass as well as within the Mass was a credible substitute to the sacramental participating by receiving the Sacrament.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, spiritual communion is “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most holy sacrament and lovingly embrace him” when the individual circumstance or the condition of the times make it impossible to receive sacramental Communion. The Catechism of the Council of Trent spent a considerable amount of its attention and included a special section on spiritual communion in the late 16th century.  Whereas the past may have focused more upon individual conditions to require spiritual instead of sacramental communion, the corona virus has created a more universal situation for it.  This ocular communion has been renewed in a time when most Roman Catholic dioceses have prevented the reception of the Sacrament in the churches.

Individual circumstances range from Roman Catholics whose marital status is not recognized as well as family conditions and illness may preclude it.  They are often reminded that they are not prohibited from receiving this spiritual Communion and enjoying the grace of the sacrament during a time when physical reception is not possible.

Spiritual communion is then a disposition of the heart and accords with the Roman Catholic practice of eucharistic adoration in which time is spent before the Host in meditation and prayer without actually receiving it by mouth.  In medieval times, the laity not only regarded the devout adoration of  the consecrated Host during Mass as a substitute for sacramental reception, it was often the only communion they received.  This may seem odd in a day when the frequency of reception by mouth is high and even stranger how this "spiritual communion" might replace sacramental reception.  The medieval devotion to the Host was thought to be the equivalent of tasting and consuming it.

In speaking of excommunication, being deprived of the reception of the Sacrament, Luther does speak of two kinds of communion.  One is inner and spiritual and  has to do with the participation of the faithful in one faith, one hope, and one love and the second is external and is the participation in the Sacrament.  Only God can give entrance to the spiritual communion but the person may choose to depart from it.  This is mainly a comfort to those unable to participate in the Sacrament and not a real case for spiritual communion.  Lutheran theology affirms that the Word is a efficacious gift from God that comes to God's people through public reading of Scripture and proclamation of the gospel.  Yet as important as the efficacy and sufficiency of the Word are to the Church and to the life of the Christian, Luther does not extend support to the idea of a spiritual communion apart from the physical act of receiving Christ's flesh and blood.  Rather, Luther would argue that instead of such virtual communions, the Word is efficacious and sufficient in times when such physical reception is precluded because of individual circumstance or a common burden upon many.   For Luther, the spiritual communion is not necessary in times when actual communion upon Christ's body and blood are not possible for the Word is both efficacious AND sufficient for Christ works through His Word. 

Lutherans should not spend their time wondering about spiritual communions either and should avail themselves of the gift of the Word and the Spirit working in that Word.  Lutherans may have a good and healthy argument for whether or not emergency conditions actually preclude the offering of the Sacrament to be eaten and drunk but they would better to avoid the idea of a spiritual communion which conveys some or most of the same blessings without eating and drinking (with faith to receive them).  While one may and should pray in hunger for that day when Christ's body and blood may be received, in times when the Sacrament is not accessible our hope and comfort should not be directed to a virtual substitute but to the Word of God. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A very different world. . .

Forty years ago when they called my name and I walked forward to receive the information on Resurrection Lutheran Church, Cairo, NY, it was a vastly different world and the future looked very different than it will for those receiving vicarage assignment and first calls this year.  I am not jealous for them but register some fears about the future they are about to embrace.

When I entered it was a hopeful time and the Seminary graduating classes were big and the calls were many.  Now we are sending fewer forth and the calls are not in abundance as they once were.  When I entered technology was not driving things the way it is now and most of the contacts were face to face or through dial telephones.  Now our newest pastors will communicate more through media and email -- especially in the context of a world attempting to restore some sense of normalcy in the wake of a viral pandemic.  My early sermons were not all that memorable but many, if not most, of these fellows will begin life live streaming or with video or audio records of their first regular words from a pulpit.  When I went out into my first parish, the church was for many and perhaps most of our people the center of their lives.  Now we live in a fragmented world most recently accustomed to social isolation and a closed church.

I have every confidence that we as a church body have prepared them as best we can to be faithful preachers and teachers and presiders but none of us could have envisioned the shaped of the world they would be entering four years ago when their seminary days began.  They will need extra gifts of wisdom, discernment, and courage and they deserve our prayerful support and vocal encouragement along the way.  They will make mistakes -- many of them -- and will shine in ways few of us could predict.  They will be tasked in ways I was not to lead people beyond their fears and into that peace that passes understanding and from uncertainty into the comfort of God's grace.  They will have no special tools or resources -- only those which pastors have had from the beginning, the Word and the Sacraments.  I know these will be enough for the people of God and for those new pastors who will serve them in God's name.

The state of Lutheranism is even more precarious than it was yesterday.  Our identity as Lutherans is divided and our life together as a Synod fractured by dispute.  They will go forth into a world in which our confessional identity may be at odds with the worship life practiced throughout the church and maybe in the parishes to which they have been assigned.  They will meet a Christianity sorely tested by the theology of glory and cursed by celebrity pastors who know more about marketing their brand than they do about the Gospel.  They will work amid people whose faith and piety may be informed by things unknown to and outside the domain of the pastors who will care for them as shepherds under Christ.  It is a world whose Christian underpinnings are held in disdain like no other modern time and who may consider the apostolic and catholic Gospel to be hate speech.

I do not envy those who are heading out for their first calls even though I am nearer the end of my ministry than its beginning.  But the Lord does not depend upon our resourcefulness.  He has not left His Church up to us to do with as we please.  There was never a Christian era to be recovered and the Church is always the Church Militant this side of glory.  We have all we need.  We have the Word and the Sacraments.  We have a faithful legacy of servants through whom God has worked and this group of men heading out from the safe confines of the Seminary can be assured that if they are faithful, God will be with them.  Even more, if they are faithful, He will do the rest.  Though we may be arrogant enough to believe that the Church depends on us, God knows that the Church lives by His gracious favor alone.  God has too much invested in the work of His kingdom to sit idly by while we screw it all up.  We simply do what we are called to us and it will be enough.

Just a month or so ago, under the emergency conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, I presided over the ordination of my friend and now colleague in the ministry.  We were barely able to slip it all in before the restrictions closed it all down and, despite the constrains upon us, God's will was done, a pastor was made, and a congregation was given access to the means of grace by their own shepherd under Christ.  This is still an emergency time and conditions are not optimal but the grace of God bestowed upon us through His Word and Sacraments are more than up to the challenge.  Today I pray that we will be as well -- especially those who will soon join us in the Office of Pastor.  God help them.  God help us all.

Glory in Suffering. . .

Sermon for Easter 3A, preached on Sunday, April 26, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
    We don’t like to suffer, and we don’t like looking at it either.  Suffering is weakness.  We want strength and glory.  Sure, athletes repeat the mantra “No pain, no gain” during tough workouts, but the suffering in training isn’t the point.  Winning the game is the point.  Glory in victory is the point.  But for Christ, His suffering is the point.  Jesus’ suffering IS HIS GLORY.  This is hard for us to accept.  We have a hard time looking at the cross and saying that is glory, but it is. 
    The Emmaus disciples had a hard time looking at the cross.  They hoped and believed that Jesus was going to be the Savior of Israel.  Based on all His mighty deeds and teachings, they were certain He was the Messiah.  Like Moses who led Israel out of slavery, Jesus would be the one who’d free them from Rome.  He was supposed to be a national hero.  But the cross changed that.  Jesus’ death shattered their hopes.  How could He be the Savior?  He died.  How could He free us from suffering, when He suffered?  Jesus’ suffering and death kept the Emmaus disciples from recognizing Him as the Redeemer.  They couldn’t see His glory through His suffering.   
    We also can’t see glory in suffering.  We think of suffering as a bad thing.  We say it’s better not to live at all than to live a life of suffering.  We’ll do just about anything to avoid suffering.  But we can’t escape it.  All of us suffer, because suffering is the result of sin. 
Sometimes, it’s a direct result of our own sinful behavior.  There are serious and painful consequences to our sin.  Gossip damages relationships.  Adultery destroys families.   Coveting leaves us unsatisfied, always wanting more.
But not all suffering is a direct consequence of our own sins.  Sometimes our suffering is just a result of the damage sin has caused in the world.  People who suffer from cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, COVID-19, or any other disease, aren’t suffering because they’re being punished for specific sins.  They’re suffering because sin has brought illness and death into the world.  Sin has turned the paradise of God’s creation into an abyss full of pain and in-escapable suffering.  But Jesus’ suffering changes that.   
    On the Emmaus road, Jesus rebuked His disciples.  He said, “O foolish ones…!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:25-26).  This answer to this rhetorical question is, “Yes.”  It was necessary for Jesus to suffer these things because in His suffering He was entering His glory. 
Christ’s glory is His suffering on the cross, because by it He redeems us, not from some foreign rule, but from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  On the cross Jesus took the sin of the world, He took your sin, upon Himself, and there He suffered the just consequence for it.  There, He redeemed you, He purchased and won you, not with silver and gold, but with His precious blood (1 Pt 1:18-19).
Jesus’ glory is His suffering.  What appeared to be defeat is His great victory.  The Emmaus disciples should’ve known this.  They knew what Scripture said about the promised Messiah.  They witnessed Jesus’ miracles and heard His teachings, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies.  But when Jesus suffered and died, they abandoned their belief because they didn’t believe ALL of what the prophets said.
Scripture doesn’t only prophesy about Jesus’ mighty deeds, but also His suffering.  In Genesis 3:15, the very first proclamation of the Gospel, God cursed the serpent Satan saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15, NIV).  In this promise, God said the Savior would defeat Satan; but, this victory wouldn’t come without suffering.  The prophet Isaiah, centuries before Christ’s birth, prophesied saying, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5).  And not only did God verbally declare that the Savior had to suffer and die, but He also showed it.  The whole sacrificial system pointed to the sacrifice of the Perfect Lamb who’d pay for all sins.  John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, declaring Him to be that Lamb (Jn 1:29).
    Jesus helped the Emmaus disciples recognize His suffering was His glory.    As Jesus bless and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized their risen Lord.  They understood it was necessary for Christ to suffer for their salvation.  And the sadness they felt was replaced with happiness and joy.  They quickly went back to Jerusalem to tell rest of Jesus’ disciples.
Likewise, we don’t just stay inside these walls and keep the message of Jesus’ cross and glory to ourselves.  We go out and share it with family and friends, and sometimes even total strangers, because it is the source of our hope. 
The cross was necessary and its purpose is the glory and joy to Jesus.  Jesus joyfully endured the shame and suffering of the cross to win you life and salvation. The glory of the cross is the payment for your sins so that you’d receive life in Christ.  This is the message we take comfort in when we suffer.  We recognize suffering is the just consequence of our sin, and when we suffer, we repent.  We turn to Christ, to His suffering, to His cross, to His glory, because through the cross, we have salvation and eternal life in the glories of heaven. 
Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

What does a pandmic mean

In the past, even long after the Biblical record, plagues, pestilence, and pandemics would be seen as either sent by God or allowed by Him for a purpose.  In a general sense, the affliction would be a call to repentance.  In a specific sense, it may have meaning for courses of action that might need to be changed -- wars that need to be ended or cultural excesses that need to be reined in.  Not so much today.  We are people of science and reason and try our hardest to remove God from life.  Plagues, pestilence, and pandemics have causes that can be explained.  God is not in the equation.  As Andrew Cuomo famously put it, “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus. . . The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Fate did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.”  But that does not answer the question of who started it?  Perhaps Cuomo would be as willing to admit that we started it as well.  You will have to ask him.

The prayers of old were not so reticent to admit that plagues, pestilence, and pandemics had meaning.  They understood that even in God's permissive will there was a divine component when affliction was visited upon the earth.  We have, perhaps, softened those prayers of old because our ears are not so tuned to calls of repentance occasioned by suffering and pain.  Listen to prayers of another time.  Can we learn to pray them again?  Can we hear the call to repentance and rejoice in the God who loves us and seeks not our death but our eternal life?  Can we look for meaning instead of blame and survey our lives in time of threat -- all to be drawn even closer into the arms of Him who suffered that we might be delivered?  These times test our faith as Christians and call us to remember first what we learned first about God -- Jesus loves us, this we know.  I am no sage to divide space and time to find hidden meanings but one does not have to be wise beyond his years to see that when it appears everything is changing, we must cling to the arms of Him whose love does not change.  Can we learn to pray the old prayers again and sing the great hymns of comfort?  Can we say Thy will be done without resignation and confidence that God's will is good and gracious?

O gracious God, merciful Lord, You have turned away from us in Your furious anger over our sins and threatened and exceedingly afflicted us all our life with anguish and sorrow, hell and eternal death.  Now therefore, dear Father, relent, turn to us again, listen to our plea, and be gracious to Your servants!  Satisfy us early with Your grace, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.  Amen.

Almighty, everlasting God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth: we poor, miserable sinners must confess that we have most dreadfully angered You, O God, with our sinful life and being, wherefore You justly pour out Your wrath upon us and attack us with various plagues, epidemics, and diseases.  What then should we do?  Should we despair?  Far be it!  We know that we deserve not only the epidemic which now rages as a punishment for our manifold sins, but even greater and more heinous plagues than this.  Where then shall we flee, and where shall we turn, that we may be safe from this and other plagues and pandemics?  To You alone, Lord Jesus Christ.  We have no other comfort either in heaven or on earth except You, who have redeemed us.  Surely You will not cast off Your creation; therefore we humbly call, sigh, and cry out to You with our whole heart, saying, "God be merciful unto us and blot out all our sins according to Your exceeding great grace, goodness, and mercy!"  Case from Your displeasure, wrath, and indignation toward us.  Show us again You grace, and spare us from the epidemic and abominable sickness which now rages.  Listen to our pleas, O Lord; listen to our please and spare us.  Kindly protect and shelter us, that this epidemic may not hurt or come near us nor seize or take us away.  But if it be Your divine will that we should end our life in this epidemic and depart this world, Your gracious will be done, for it is always the best.  Hereupon we commend ourselves, our body and soul, wife and child, and all our household, into Your divine grace and fatherly hand, humbly beseeching from our heart that, if we should meet our final hour unexpectedly, and even now approach the time when our body and soul must be separate, You would mercifully preserve our faculty of reason, that we may be able with a clear mind to commend our soul to You.  And grant us further a blessed end, that we, passing through temporal death, which is the end of all sorrow and misery and opens to us the door of eternal life, may the more speedily enter into the same eternal life and come to our Redeemer and Savior, and with all the elect of God in heaven eternally rejoice.  Amen.

Or sing some of the great hymn stanzas of old.

1 What God ordains is always good:
    His will is just and holy.
As He directs my life for me,
    I follow meek and lowly.
        My God indeed
        In ev’ry need
Knows well how He will shield me;
To Him, then, I will yield me.

2 What God ordains is always good:
    He never will deceive me;
He leads me in His righteous way,
    And never will He leave me.
        I take content
        What He has sent;
His hand that sends me sadness
Will turn my tears to gladness.

3 What God ordains is always good:
    His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
    That my physician sends me.
        My God is true;
        Each morning new
I trust His grace unending,
My life to Him commending.

4 What God ordains is always good:
    He is my friend and Father;
He suffers naught to do me harm
    Though many storms may gather.
        Now I may know
        Both joy and woe;
Someday I shall see clearly
That He has loved me dearly.

5 What God ordains is always good:
    Though I the cup am drinking
Which savors now of bitterness,
    I take it without shrinking.
        For after grief
        God gives relief,
My heart with comfort filling
And all my sorrow stilling.

6 What God ordains is always good:
    This truth remains unshaken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
    I shall not be forsaken.
        I fear no harm,
        For with His arm
He shall embrace and shield me;
So to my God I yield me.


1 Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near With His cheer;
Never will He leave me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That God's Son For my own
To my faith hath given?

2 Though a heavy cross I'm bearing
And my heart Feels the smart,
Shall I be despairing?
God, my Helper, who doth send it,
Well doth know All my woe
And how best to end it.

3 God oft gives me days of gladness;
Shall I grieve If He give
Seasons, too, of sadness?
God is good and tempers ever
All my ill, And He will
Wholly leave me never.

4 Hopeful, cheerful, and undaunted
Ev'rywhere They appear
Who in Christ are planted.
Death itself cannot appal them,
They rejoice When the voice
Of their Lord doth call them.

5 Death cannot destroy forever;
From our fears, Cares, and tears
It will us deliver.
It will close life's mournful story,
Make a way That we may
Enter heavenly glory.

6 What is all this life possesses?
But a hand Full of sand
That the heart distresses.
Noble gifts that pall me never
Christ, our Lord, Will accord
To His saints forever.

7 Lord, my Shepherd, take me to Thee.
Thou art mine; I was Thine,
Even e'er I knew Thee.
I am Thine, for Thou hast bought me;
Lost I stood, But Thy blood
Free salvation brought me.

8 Thou art mine; I love and own Thee.
Light of Joy, Ne'er shall I
From my heart dethrone Thee.
Savior, let me soon behold Thee
Face to face - May Thy grace
Evermore enfold me!


1 Lord, it belongs not to my care
    Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
    And this Thy grace must give.

2 If life be long, I will be glad
    That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
    To soar to endless day?

3 Christ leads me through no darker rooms
    Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
    Must enter by this door.

4 Come, Lord, when grace has made me meet
    Thy blessèd face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet,
    What will Thy glory be!

5 Then shall I end my sad complaints
    And weary, sinful days
And join with the triumphant saints
    Who sing my Savior’s praise.

6 My knowledge of that life is small,
    The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
    And I shall be with Him.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Tragedy or triumph. . .

Sermon for Easter 3A, preached on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

    The news is filled with tragedies.  Every day we hear new stories of sadness, of senseless crimes, of natural disasters, and of manmade troubles.  They barely linger in our memories before the newest stories of calamities crowd out the old.  The news cycle may be shorter in our time but news has always come and gone.  The most recent catastrophe is the one people talk about.  And if it hits close to home, as this virus has, we continue to talk about it from the wounds of our own sorrow, loss, and disappointment.  If we were walking on the way to Emmaus, we would have been talking about the corona virus.

    As it was, some travelers were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus a few days after the crucifixion.  They were talking about everything that had happened. A stranger walked with them, listening but knowing nothing of the tragedy that was the object of their conversation.  One of them, Cleopus, was adamant: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that happened there in these days?”  How could anyone not know!  Would it be any different if someone said to us corona what?

    This was not simply about a news story.  These travelers had a stake in it all.  They did not know Jesus from reputation but heard Him preach and teach.  They had listened to Him with their hearts as well as their minds.  They were convinced that He had been a prophet, a mighty prophet of God, but in the senseless tragedy of His death came the end to the beginning of their hope.  Three days later and all they had were rumors.  But they seemed to agree that Jesus’ death had been a terrible waste, a sad tragedy, and disappointing end.

    When Jesus was ready to reveal Himself to these travelers, He led them through Moses and the Prophets.  He showed them that His death was not a tragedy.  This was not the sad end of a great beginning but the very plan of God laid before the foundation of the world.  The Christ must suffer these things and die this terrible death not as an accident of fate but the divine drama through which a sinful and fallen world would be rescued and redeemed.  As with Thomas a week ago, Jesus did not announce His victory with signs and wonders but with the scars of His suffering and the Word of the Lord which gave context for this suffering, death, and resurrection.

    They thought their hopes had been shattered by the reality of Christ’s death and by the uncertainty of what happened next. But Jesus insists His death is not a shame or a sham but the mighty means through which sin is answered, guilt is taken away, the devil is defeated, and death is brought to an end.  These disciples on the road to Emmaus were converted not by smoke and mirrors or mighty signs and wonders but the Word of God enfleshed and fulfilled in Christ.
    What happens next ought to surprise you as well.  These travelers did not erupt in spontaneous praise, by dancing a victory dance, or by some ecstatic frenzy of joy.  No, indeed.  They continued to where they were going and begged Jesus to stay with them.  They did not go off on their own but sought to be near Jesus whom death could not contain and in whom life everlasting was to be found.

    They sat at table and Jesus took bread, blessed, and broke it and gave it to them.  And in this Communion their eyes were opened and their hearts burned.  From the Law and the Prophets which testified to Jesus, they moved to the meal where Christ is known in the bread of His flesh and the wine of His blood.  And this would be how they would be near Jesus all the rest of their lives before they saw Him face to face in heaven. They would meet Jesus where Jesus is to be found – in the Word of Scripture and in the bread and wine of His Holy Supper.  There is Christ.  There is the context so that His death is no tragedy but the divine and saving plan of God to save us.  There is Christ’s grace to forgive them still.  There is Christ’s hope to speak to the suffering.  There is Christ’s life to rescue them from death.  It is there in the Word preached and the Sacrament of His body and blood eaten and drunk in His name.

    We live in a world where even Christian folks will exchange the Word for a hint of glory, for festive parties, for miracles that defy explanations, and for endless hallelujahs. But that is not where we live.  We live on the road, in the journey of this mortal life, from its beginning to its end.  The miracle is not that our lives take a different turn away from the ordinary but that Christ is there IN the ordinary – with us in the journey, with us in the struggles, with us in our fears, with us when our hearts burn with fervor and when they are cold and empty, with us in the guilt and shame of sins that need forgiving, with us in the sorrow and tears of death.  And how is He here?  He is here in His Word, the living voice of the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and His sheep know Him.  He is here in His Sacraments, the means by which we die in baptism and are raised to new and everlasting life AND the means by which we are fed and nourished upon the heavenly food of Christ’s flesh and blood.  You are not alone.  Christ’s death was no tragedy.  His resurrection is no myth and His life is no dream.

    Easter is as much about the death of Jesus as His life.  For in Easter we discover that this was no tragic death but the determined death of the Savior who was willing to sacrifices Himself on the cross to save us.  In order for Him to be raised, He had to die. And His death had meaning and has power.  It was all there in the Scriptures and it is all here in the Sacrament of His crucified and risen flesh and blood.  And for all who believe it, this is the best good news and the greatest event of all time.  Those disciples were headed home to nurse their disappointments but Jesus sent them back to Jerusalem.  They had been headed west to Emmaus but turned around and headed East to Jerusalem, because the Son rises in the East!

    Now my friends, I have no clue where you are in your journey of life.  Some of you are further along than others.  Some of you are just beginning.  But this I can say to you.  This is YOUR Jerusalem.  This is where the cross moves from tragedy to triumph.  This is where Jesus still takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to His people.  This is where hearts burn and eyes are opened.  This is where we recognize the Jesus who is not up there somewhere or hidden inside our hearts but with us in the voice that speaks into our ears, in the splash of baptismal water, and in the taste of bread and wine.

    He died no random death but the death that gives us life.  He lives not to put this back to the way they were but to impart a new identity to us and to register a new destination for our journey of life.  He is here not in our imagination or our feelings but in the concrete of His Word which was always about how He must die to save us and rise to give us everlasting life.  His scars are no longer the marks of His suffering but the holy marks of His victory.  So it will be for you.  What you endure today will become the marks of your glory tomorrow when you endure in faith by the Holy Spirit.
    While we await the day when we shall shed this mortal clothing to death and rise in Christ in glorious flesh and blood like His own, He is with us.  The devil cannot accuse us anymore, the world cannot steal our hopes away anymore, and death cannot end our lives anymore.  This is YOUR Emmaus Road and Christ is here, opening up the Scriptures to us so that we see how He was appointed to die that we might live and opening up our eyes to see Him in this bread which is His body and this wine which is His blood.  This is our fellowship with Christ and through Him our fellowship with one another.  Here in this breaking of the bread, you see the crucified and risen Lord.  Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.  Amen.

Feelings. . .

We have learned to enshrine our feelings with much the same weight as facts.  We have spent weeks and months doing what we feel comfortable with -- at least with respect to interacting with others, going where we want to go, and doing what we want to do.  We do not feel the same.  Some of us feel safe enough to go about without mask or gloves and others do not feel safe enough to leave the refuge of their homes.  We say it is about the CDC and its determination of what is reasonably safe or the governmental and political edicts that define what we ought to do and what we ought not to do.  But I guess there is more to it than that.  A people who have learned to panic will not learn calm quickly or easily.  A people who have sought refuge in their homes in fear for their lives will not venture out because a President or Governor or Mayor says all clear.  Especially since what we think is reasonably safe is not an objective standard but a feeling, emotion, or intuition.

I have heard so called experts insist that until a vaccine is found we will never be safe.  Some of them suggest the restrictions placed upon us may last well into the end of the year and perhaps into the beginning of the next.  Some say we will need to carry immunization cards to be allowed to return to our former freedoms.  Others say life will never go back to the way things were.  It is no wonder that we are panicked.

For the Hollywood types and captains of industry who have retreated to yachts or mansions or rose petaled baths, staying at home is not so bad.  They have all the food, entertainment, and money they need to weather the storm.  The rest of us are struggling.  Some have to work (delivery personnel, retail workers, service workers, health workers, etc...) and do not have the luxury of retiring to a safe, personal domain stocked with all that one might desire.  Others depend upon public transportation to get to jobs they no longer have and to shop at stores whose empty shelves have made the last weeks and month so miserable.  Not everyone is equipped to home school and some are tired of the whole family being cooped in close quarters with even parks and other cheap distractions unavailable.  The viral threat has only heightened class distinctions and the great economic divide.  This has surely affected our emotional well being also.

For those in the Church it has been difficult to deal with facts that take second place to feelings.  Love has become attraction, marriage has become slavery, children have become an option, and work has been saddled with the job of making us happy as well as paying the bills.  Faith has become spirituality and even more a spiritual life that may or may not include a god.  Religion has become less about what you believe and more about what feels good to you.  The job of faith has come to be to justify, excuse, and support a person's appetites and desires.  Forbidding words like sin and guilt and shame have been replaced by affirmation, support, and acceptance.  Scripture has become one voice among many, competing chiefly with the voice of your own desires even more than other claims of authority.

In this Easter season all about death that died and life stronger than death in the One who was crucified and is now alive, never to die again, the accounts of witnesses seem to mean little.  Rather, how you feel about it is what counts.  Is it meaningful to you?  A curious question for a people who have been living in fear of death for so long!  It does not help when pastors dress up as Easter bunnies or churches act as if candy and happy thoughts are the sacraments of life and worship.  No wonder people outside the church are confused by it all.  Even those of us within the household of faith are shocked and saddened by what seems to pass as Christianity today.

We need to recapture the message.  Easter is not about how you feel.  It is about Christ whose death has paid sin's price to redeem you from guilt and shame and about His rising to life again that offers hope and the promise of your own joyful resurrection.  We apprehend this by faith, under the power of the Spirit, but that faith is not a good feeling about this.  Faith is not like a hunch you get at the race track.  Witnesses count.  Claims matter.  What Jesus said and did is not incidental but the foundation on which we believe, live, and die.  The sooner the leaders of Christianity and those in the pews remember this, the easier it will be for us to make inroads in a culture of comfort and what makes me feel comfortable.  We will not be rescued by programs or slick media or an appeal to what people want or like.  Our hope lies on the Word made flesh, planted in death and raised in hope.  Preach this Word and teach it well and we will recover.  If we don't, there is nothing worth restoring to the tarnished gem that was once Christianity.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Absolutely shocking. . .

What ought to shock is not that the police were called or the church got hate messages but that in a city of about 500,000 people, one small Lutheran congregation was the only church to hold worship services.  Now that will probably go unnoticed but it is what I found most shocking in the story.

You read it for yourself here.

How did we get from there to here. . .

A while ago, in a Bible study on the Augsburg Confession, Article XV, I asked how many among the 70 or so in the room had heard of the word adiaphora. Only a few hands were raised. Even though not many know the word, they have been living in its glow for most of their lives. In the end only a couple ventured to define the term. Most of them echoed the modern explanation. Adiaphora means anything goes and nothing matters.

Lutherans are sometimes like liturgical children who fight rubrics, rituals, and rules like a 6 year old trying to avoid bedtime or the vegetables on his or her plate. We have become a church of no rules, where rubrics are more pink than red, and where rituals are automatically suspect. Even established liturgical congregations where ancient church usages have been restored must continually fight the battle of those who turn up their nose at what their Lutheran founders would have found entirely ordinary and usual.

Article XV: Of Ecclesiastical Usages.
Of Usages in the Church they teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquillity and good order in the Church, as particular holy days, festivals, and the like. Nevertheless, concerning such things men are admonished that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation. They are admonished also that human traditions instituted to propitiate God, to merit grace, and to make satisfaction for sins, are opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith. Wherefore vows and traditions concerning meats and days, etc., instituted to merit grace and to make satisfaction for sins, are useless and contrary to the Gospel.
Church usages is not a term we ordinarily use. It really includes church customs, traditions, rubrics, and ceremonies. The point to note is that in the Augsburg Confession these are not tainted with the negative view that is the default for many Lutherans today. Lutherans today tend to be instinctively liturgical minimalists. Lutherans today seem to have a Danish Modern or Mid-Century Modern approach to ritual, ceremony, and the rubrics of the service. Less is more. More is usually suspect. To some, it is excluded as being catholic -- note that this objection is not necessarily Roman Catholic but catholic.  Others are simply juvenile.  If we don't have to, we won't.

Our justification for all of this is that pesky word, adiaphora. It don't matter. But that is not at all what our Confession states. It does matter and the onus is on why something would be rejected and not why it would be kept. Everything without sin, profitable, in good order should be observed. Apparently this was still unsettled by the time of the Forumla of Concord. There the Lutherans felt it necessary to address the topic again. In the Formula of Concord the criteria for introducing or making changes in church usages or customs is further addressed.

“We further believe, teach, and confess that the church of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances, as long as it does so without frivolity and offense, but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edification of the church” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article X, §9).

Note what this does. It removes from the individual pastor or the people in the pew the right to make these changes. This is not seen within the realm of personal preference of what somebody might find meaningful or not. Rather, this is an act of the church. Here it is not the church usages which might offend but the change, reduction, or addition of church ceremonies, rituals, rubrics, and liturgical rules (further note that addition does not mean restoration but the addition of those things NOT within the ordinary experience of the Church at the time (only a couple of generations after the death of Luther).

So what is my point? Adiaphora, whether you know the term or not, has become the cover for doing whatever you please on Sunday morning -- on both sides of the altar rail. Preference has been enshrined where it never was confessionally. And that is how we got where we are from where we began. Missouri is even more to blame for this with the way we have practiced congregationalism (though in reality our theology and constitution would insist that a congregation restricts its rights when it joins Synod by its promise to use only doctrinally pure hymnals and agendas AND thereby the rubrics of those books that govern our liturgical life). In the end, it is not a pretty sight when people open up a door to a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation on Sunday morning and have no idea what they will find there.  Maybe when we get back to normal, we can reflect upon what we are getting back to and shaping that blessed reunion of the assembly not on how little we can do to get by but what is the fullness of our confessionally directed and liturgically oriented faith.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The strangeness of it all. . .

Part of the reason that there is so much conflict over what the Church should be doing or should not be doing has to do with the inequities and oddities over what has been deemed essential and non-essential by the wisdom of those making the rules.

Where is the reason behind the decision to make liquor stores, marijuana stores, abortion clinics, and the like essential business that may legally remain open while the Church is treated as a mere social gathering whose restriction is of little import?  We might be able to agree that supermarkets should be open but if Christians can agree that we need food for our natural bodies, why would we not also need the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation to nurture us to eternal life?  We can purchase all manner of foods and drink and drugs not especially healthful and some downright harmful but we cannot assemble in the Lord's House to receive the medicine of immortality?

For the Church, and here I am excluding those traditions without sacraments since without sacraments it is much harder to justify the gathering together on the Lord's Day, virtual sacraments do not suffice and videoed services are not the equivalent of being together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Baptismal water cannot bestow its promise through the screen.  Absolution is more than difficult when it becomes at home over the impersonal of a virtual connection.  We have no assurance that we are eating and drinking what the Lord promises when bread and wine at home are connected digitally to a pastor and a voice somewhere out there.

No one is saying that when one cannot receive that the Christian is without the comfort of the Word and no one is saying that the Word is not efficacious or insufficient to nurture our lives.  The issue here is not whether the Sacrament of the Altar is absolutely necessary or just necessary to the Christian life.  This is not a circumstance in which there are no churches or pastors but one in which the political arm has determined that they are non-essential and must be closed while other things are deemed essential and must be allowed to remain open.  This is not a theological curiosity such as the inevitable desert island alone and what to do under exceptional circumstance but the very practical issue of the government refusing to give the Church the chance to act with prudence and caution to keep the doors open for those who desire to come.

The Church is not expecting to be treated differently (though some have made the case that the right of religious expression might allow this) but of the Church being treated the same as Home Depot and Kroger and Wal-Mart.  No police watch to see if the numbers of folk entering these stores are limited to the rules or abiding by the social distance requirements or masked or hosed down with sanitizer and yet in too many places the police were charged with watching church buildings to make sure no one was there and, if there was somebody there, to take down the license plate number.

I am sure that there are some pastors (there always are) who are boasting about what they have done to flaunt the regulations in one way or another.  I do not countenance such boasting and no one will get a merit badge at the end of the day because they were bold or stupid.  This is not about me or anyone else not in a position of ecclesiastical supervision deciding who has been faithful and who has not.  This is about an inequity of the grandest scale and of the way the Church and many Christians have acquiesced to it all.  The Church must be non-essential and digital worship must be the equivalent of being there in person since so many churches have tacitly agreed to it -- if not in words then by silence and by shuttering their doors for the duration.

My point is to plead with us to reconsider this all and to be prepared the next time to do something more than pull out the dusty video camera when an epidemic comes along.  The next threat we face will start out with the decision that the Church is not only not essential but the first group to be restricted and the last group to be released from those restrictions when the danger has passed.  Remember that this happened under a somewhat libertarian Republican president.  If the next pandemic comes during the term of a progressive occupant of the White House, it may bode even worse for us.  In the end, what is needed are not necessarily heroes or martyrs but faithful pastors and priests who will simply do their duty faithfully, quietly, and prudently for the sake of the baptized in their charge and for the cause of a good witness before the world.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Where the heart is. . .

Students set to graduate from high school and college were deprived of more than the final semester of classes.  High school students were left with the uncertainty of the weight of that diploma, the loss of sports related scholarships for some, and the great big question mark about how this all would translate into their start of college.  College students were left with a closed job market as well as the loss of a final semester of classes.  Some of them lost the graduation ceremony.  Some, but not others.  At least at one self-proclaimed Lutheran college.

Commencement exercises at the prestigious ELCA related St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.  The school's official notice suggested the graduation will be "rescheduled for a date in late May/early June of 2021," according to the school's website.   But from the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion at the school came the announcement of three virtual graduation ceremonies (Campus Reform reported) for a special group of St. Olaf graduates.  These virtual graduation ceremonies are exclusively for "self-identified domestic students of color, international students, and LGBTQIA+ students" and will occur at the end of this school year.  All other students must wait until 2021 for their pomp and circumstance.  "This event acknowledges the value and uniqueness of students' experience and serves to commemorate and highlight the accomplishments of individuals within their familial and cultural context," the email said, according to the outlet.

Campus Reform added that the three ceremonies will be called the multicultural, international, and lavender graduations and are intended for students of color, international students, and LGBTQ students, respectively.  So what are we to think?  Which students are at the heart of this college's identity -- one they insist is 
"nourished by Lutheran tradition"

Repost for your listening pleasure. . .

Having fallen asleep in the flesh as a mortal man, O King and Lord, Thou didst rise on the third day, raising Adam from corruption, and destroying death: O Pascha of incorruption, the Salvation of the world!

Плотїю oуснув, яко мертвъ, Царю и Господи, тридневенъ воскреслъ еси, Адама воздвигъ от тли, и oупразднивъ смерть: Пасха нетлѣнїѧ, мира спасенїе.

What might have been. . .

I wonder how things might have been different if the governmental and health officials had requested the cooperation of churches instead of mostly lumping them into the category of social gatherings strongly discouraged and absolutely prohibited in numbers more than 10.  I wonder how things might have been different if the President, Governors, Mayors, etc., had reached out to churches as partners in pursuing the larger goals of dealing with the coronavirus threat. 

To be sure, there would always been crazies on both sides of the aisle who would have tried to poison the well of good will.  Nobody is going to restrain some governors and mayors from their chance to try to control the religious folks in their domains and nobody is going to get cooperation from those who view the government as the great satan.  But.  Many, and I believe most, churches and religious leaders would have welcomed the chance to try and figure out a path to preserve our religious liberty, aid and abet the goal of public health, and fulfill the essential goals and purposes of our various churches, synagogues, and mosques.  But we did not get the chance and no one ever approached us as partners.  It was an adversarial relationship from the beginning.

In another way this was already a somewhat impossible partnership.  Liberals have long ago forsworn vengeance against religious groups that refuse their goals with respect to a more socialistic economic system, social justice for oppressed sexual minorities, support for the right of abortion, climate change, and a global government and economy to enforce and encourage these positions.  Our world has changed and perhaps this is a great sign of that change.  There seem to be few political repercussions in demonizing the other side and some churches exploit the idea of inherent conflict.  So I might be living in a dream world where reasonable people might have worked things out without threat of fines, quarantines, and the confiscation of property.  But it cannot stop me from wondering if churches had been consulted and treated as partners in the beginning if things might have been better.  Instead, I have felt like the churches have been viewed by the politicians as roadblocks in their way and churches have treated government edicts as tablets of stone sent from God to be obeyed or the eruptions of hell to be flaunted.

Could it be that Peggy Noonan was correct and panic is the only policy against pandemic?  I fear that we will never know.  As soon as we have breathing room to try and figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, the viral threat will recede into the background as we try to figure out how to get our economy up and running again and repair the institutions left broken and wounded in the wake of the virus and our response to it.  We will work to place blame rather than learn anything.  We will not remember that models are not reality and that calm and confident leadership is always better for a fearful people than hysteria.  Leading the charge to forget anything we might have learned will be the media -- onto the next breaking news and stirring the pot of crazy because it makes for good headlines and great soundbites. 

What I worry about most of all is that this will have moved the ball into the court of those who believe that there is a right to worship (individually more than corporately) and not what the words say about Congress making no law  "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  Look up in your search bar the freedom of religion and you will see how many times it is equated with a freedom to worship or not to worship.  What I also worry about is the reticence of our religious leaders to ask for, much less demand, a place at the table as decisions are made.  Isn't this why we have ended up with open abortion clinics and hundreds in essential stores but closed churches and less than ten spread out in buildings seating hundreds?  What I worry about is that the next public health threat that comes along will start where this one left off and we will squeeze people and our rights even further in pursuit of health.  Maybe I think too much.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Tested but Guarded

Sermon preached for Easter 2A by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, April 19, 2020.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  He’s risen indeed!  Alleluia!
               Easter Sunday has come.  Christ is risen.  Death is defeated.  That means everything should be great, right?   Nothing left to fear, no test or trial to grieve us  ...  But there is, isn’t there?  We still fear.  We still suffer tests of faith.  And we will continue to endure testing until the outcome of our faith is complete, until our salvation is fully revealed.  But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope; because even in the midst of tests and trials our faith is being guarded, we are being guarded, kept for salvation. 
               The faith of the Disciples’ was tested right away.  The women saw the empty tomb, heard the angels’ message, and ran to tell Jesus’ disciples.  Peter and John ran to the tomb and saw for themselves that it was empty.  But even with these eyewitness testimonies of the resurrection, they weren’t free from tests of faith.  That evening the disciples gathered together in a room, with the doors locked, because they were afraid.  They were afraid they’d be arrested.  And this wasn’t the only test the disciples would face.  For the rest of their lives they would suffer for the name of Jesus. 
               They suffered social pressure and physical persecution.  The high priest and other religious authorities tried to stop the disciples from proclaiming Christ.  The apostles were arrested and beaten.  This persecution eventually led to the martyrdom of the apostles.  If these aren’t tests of faith, I don’t know what is.  Christ’s disciples suffered mightily for His name.  They feared for their lives and gave up their lives because of their faith, and we still suffer the same today. 
We aren’t free from trials and tribulations.  Christ doesn’t promise us an easy life.  Our faith is tested every day.  We’re experiencing that right now as the Coronavirus is turning our lives upside down.  It’s preventing us from living normal lives; keeping us from work and shopping and socializing.  But more than that, it’s keeping us away from our normal life of faith.  We can’t gather as we usually do around God’s Word and Supper.  Again, if this isn’t a test to our faith, I don’t know what is.
All over the world, just like the apostles, many suffer the threat of death.  Thanks be to God that’s not a threat we fear here today.  But that doesn’t mean our faith isn’t tested by fear.  We still fear cancer diagnoses, loss of jobs, and the death of loved ones.  And it always seems that these faith testing things happen all at once.  They leave us questioning.  Like Thomas and the rest, we doubt.  We don’t see the salvation Jesus won for us.  All we see is trials, fear, and uncertainty.  But the Lord doesn’t leave you alone in this.  He doesn’t leave you isolated in a locked room.  He comes to you with His Word of peace.  He comes to you with His Body and Blood.  He comes to you with the life giving Word.  And through all of it, He is guarding your faith, guarding you, keeping you for salvation.
               None of us like testing.  We don’t like to struggle.  That’s why I’m not a fan of hard exercise.  It’s uncomfortable.  But just like our muscles need testing to be strengthened, so does our faith.  St. Peter, who endured great testing, encourages us in this.  “In this rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith--more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire--may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 1:6-7).  Just as gold is refined by fire, our faith is refined and strengthened by trials.   The more we endure, the stronger our faith becomes. 
And this isn’t our own doing.  Our own personal strength doesn’t withstand trials.  It’s all God.  Again, St. Paul who suffered for the faith encourages us:  “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).   On our own there’s no way we could endure tests and trials.  But you're not on your own.  The Lord is with you.  He is keeping you.  It is by God’s power, by the Holy Spirit working through the Word and Sacraments that you stand.  He keeps your faith.  He keeps you for salvation, and nothing will take that away. 
It’s a fact of life, your faith will be tested.  But it’s also a fact of life that the Lord is guarding your faith and you.  Nothing can steal away your life in Christ.  Christ is risen.  Death is defeated.   So rejoice in tests and trials.  Lean on Christ and know that He will bring you through with stronger faith, obtaining the outcome of your faith, your everlasting salvation. 
Alleluia! Christ is risen!  He’s risen indeed!  Alleluia!