Sunday, May 31, 2020

The war between Luther's heirs. . .

Scripture is replete with battles between siblings.  Whether on the larger scale of heirs in the Messianic line or simply sibling rivalry, it is a common story that exists everywhere.  Some have even characterized the problems in the Middle East as the sibling war between sons of Abraham (heirs of Isaac and Ishmael).  It transcends churches as well.  In Rome there is a modern battle between the rightful heirs to Vatican II -- one that began even as the Council itself was in session and has continued to this day.  So it is no wonder that in Lutheranism there is a war between the heirs of Luther over which heirs have him right and which Lutherans are worthy of his legacy.

The problem for Lutherans is that nearly everyone can claim Luther for one point of view or another.  Luther often played one side against the other.  On one hand Luther could insist that there is no baptism but which every Christian can administer (and down the line) and on the other hand he could characterize those who act like pastors but are not ordained as monkeys mimicking people.  It would be great fun pitting Luther against Luther but the fun soon wears thin when we realize that the state of the churches hangs in balance.  I must admit that I enjoyed the parlay as a student but now forty years later I am over it. 

As bad as it is when try to pit Luther against Luther, it is worse when we try to pit the Lutheran Symbols against the Lutheran Symbols.  After all, as good or bad as Luther can be, we are bound to few of his writings but we as Lutherans are certainly abound to our Confessions.  This ceases to be a game when we throw articles at each other as if there was nothing cohesive or cogent in the Lutheran confessional identity.  But that is where we are at today.  On one hand, we have pastors who have decided to read the Confessions only to find the places where differences can be permitted under the grand rubric of adiaphora in which nothing is wrong and everything is permitted.  On the other hand, we have those who read the Confessions from the vantage point of their own theological and liturgical perspective.

The cohesive thread throughout the Lutheran Symbols is laid down at the end of the Augsburg Confession.  The reformers are claiming that they are true evangelical catholics who have invented nothing novel or new but restored content to old forms and renewed old forms by removing more recent additions.  This is the lens through which all of the Lutheran Confessions must be read or they become incoherent and inconclusive.  Yet this is what Lutherans have struggled with most of all.  Whether by instinct or intent, Lutherans have tried to cast off the mantle of evangelical catholicism for a long time.  It is not a recent foible but a well traveled rut in our history and present life.  Nothing is more true to the difficulties we Lutherans find ourselves in than our penchant for deviating from the evangelical catholic norm and pursuing our own identity independent of our catholic claim or without the true evangel of justification by grace. 

Conclusion to the Augsburg Confession:

1] These are the chief articles which seem to be in controversy. For although we might have spoken of more abuses, yet, to avoid undue length, we have set forth the chief points, from which the rest may be readily judged. 2] There have been great complaints concerning indulgences, pilgrimages, and the abuse of excommunications. The parishes have been vexed in many ways by the dealers in indulgences. There were endless contentions between the pastors and the monks concerning the parochial right, confessions, burials, sermons on extraordinary occasions, and 3] innumerable other things. Issues of this sort we have passed over so that the chief points in this matter, having been briefly set forth, might be the more readily understood. 4] Nor has anything been here said or adduced to the reproach of any one. 5] Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches.
Luther's true heirs are not those who follow Luther or who pit Luther against Luther or who prefer Luther over the Symbols.  No, indeed, Luther's true heirs are those who adhere to this principle laid out in the conclusion to the Augustana.  If we got this right, the endless battles between the progressives who prefer culture over Scripture and feelings over truth as well as the worship wars might be over.  But it is perhaps too much for us to remember the claim that marked this reform over others --  in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The black badge of courage. . .

Some years ago I was pumping gas, minding my own business, but wearing a clerical collar.  The fellow across from me glared at me like he knew me and I had offended him.  I smiled and kept on pumping my gas.  Then he spat on the ground in front of me and muttered that I was a blood sucking leech.  I mumbled something back like I was sorry he felt that way and then both of us were done and we got into our vehicles and left.  Being identified as a pastor or priest is not necessarily a good thing.

A few years before that, I was at a gas station during one of the price bumps and was filling up the third car in our household only to realize that I was spending $200 on gas that day!  I was not smiling.  A couple in their late 20s or early 30s came over and said, "Hey, Father.  We are short and cannot afford to fill up our tank.  Can you give us $50?"  I responded that our congregation did not provide gas funds and I was personally cashed out.  Their response, "In other words, you are a worthless piece of s__!"  "God bless you," I said.

When I fill out my taxes and find that I owe more than most workers (except others considered self-employed), I cringe at the cost of the vocation.  When somebody hangs up on me because I cannot or will not give them the money they want and expect, I feel like a worthless piece of s___.  Those who presume that pastors are uniformly admired or respected or treated especially nice have not spent time in a clerical collar in the South.  Sometimes I am happy to be ignored.  It could be worse.  Yet I continue to wear the collar and point to the fact that I am a pastor (or priest).

I salute those who wear the black badge of courage in places where it does not offer them any real benefit and may incur a cost.  It is not easy to stand for the Church -- with all the news of sexual predators, financial scandals, and the charge of hate speech.  But it is a small price to pay to give symbolic presence to the Church in places where people may not expect it.  You may have to bear a burden for it but it goes with the territory.

If you are one of those who has chosen not to be publicly identified as clergy, that is your choice.  It is an easier choice than to wear the black badge.  But I would urge you to reconsider.  The presence of the Church in the public square is in grave danger of being restricted and this is one way that we can make a statement without even opening the mouth.  God sees the heart but man judges by the outward look.  So wear the clerical and act the part.  There is more riding on it than you might imagine.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Why not in my parish?

On blogs and in Facebook discussions there are often questions raised about the videos of some parishes with choral programs and a rich ceremonial life.  Unlike those who want to know "why bother,"  most want to know "why not in my parish?"  No where is this more true that in times of fear and uncertainty such as those we are experiencing now.  Why not in my parish?

The experience of the Divine Service is fully sensory -- not simply what is heard in the ear but the engagement of all the senses.  This has especially to do with the cause of beauty and its effect as accompaniment to the Word.  Beauty is not an end but a means and it works with the means of grace to support this full sensory experience of the Divine Service.

I have said repeatedly that it does not matter what other things are being done, if the worship life of the congregation is not the core, center, and driving force of these other things, the church is failing.  If the Divine Service is not the font and source as well as summit and end of our lives together as the people of God and our individual vocations as the baptized people of God, there is something gravely wrong.

Although no parish is perfect, every parish can strive for excellence and fullness and this yearning and energy is directed first and foremost at the Divine Service -- the beating heart of our life together.  In the physical setting, in the music of the liturgy, in the vestments, in the reverence of those serving, and in the preaching, excellence is evident as the goal and it is equally evident when it is not a primary or even significant concern.  How do we expect God's people to take seriously what is happening in the Divine Service when we do not treat it seriously, with the respect and awe that is due the Lord who is present with us in His Word and Sacrament.

You do not have to be high church (a term I do not use but many do) to value and strive for this over all sense of beauty, majesty, reverence, and awe as we come into the holy ground of God's presence.  What has happened over the course of this pandemic is that we have seen more and more video examples of what happens in many of our congregations.  Without singling out any for review, a good question for us to ask as we survey these services online is what does this tell us about the Church?  In addition, what does this tell us about how this parish sees God and their place before Him?

When the most prominent symbols before God's people assembled in His presence are a drum set or the technological paraphernalia of an elaborate audio or video system, what does that say about how we view the holy ground of God's presence?  When the Word speaks from a bar stool or other casual seating, what does that say about the way we view that Word?  When the musicians are more prominent than the music and the people are spectators before those who entertain them, what does that say about the very medium Luther called the handmaiden of the Word?

Nobody has to replicate a vision of the past in order to pursue excellence, to honor beauty, and to help our people connect the faith believed to the way we act.  This is not about big budgets or artistic snobbery.  Yet we would do well to remember how the generations before sacrificed so that the house of God would be a place of beauty -- as much as possible a place worthy of what was happening inside!  My point is not to shame but to encourage.  To the poor in their need, to the sick in their suffering, to the troubled in their fears, and to the ordinary life in its routine, the need for beauty and excellence in the Divine Service is great, indeed.  We who would lead God's people in the Divine Service should take this to heart.  Whatever we can do, we should do and what we should do, we should not delay in the pursuit of our best for His glory.  It is never enough but it is a place to begin and this is the time to work toward this goal.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Jesus prays for you.

Sermon for Easter 7A, preached on Sunday, May 24, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia! He is risen, ascended, and glorified.  Amen. 
    When you step back and look at what happens on Sunday morning in the Divine Service, you’ll notice a few things.  First, we sing a lot.  From the beginning worship to the end, we’re joyfully singing God’s praises.  Second, the Word of the Lord is everywhere.  Scripture isn’t just confined to the assigned readings.  God’s Word is the source of everything that is said and sung.  Just look in the hymnal and see; everything comes from Scripture.  And third, you’ll notice we devote a lot of time to prayer.
    We begin with a prayer of confession, repenting of our sin; asking God’s forgiveness.  We sing a prayer of Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy.”  We pray the Collect of the Day, that historical prayer assigned for each Sunday, the same prayer that’s prayed by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  After the sermon we kneel, praying for the Church.  During the Sacrament, before and after the Supper, we pray a prayer of thanksgiving.  And of course, as God’s children, we boldly pray the Our Father, the prayer our Lord has taught us.  On Sunday morning we pray a lot.  But what about the rest of the week?
    God invites us to pray to Him every day.  St. Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).  And in our prayers, we keep the Second Commandment.  We rightly use and honor God’s name when we call upon Him in prayer.  But we must admit that many times we fail at this. 
Too often do we fail to go to God in prayer.  We know we should pray.  We know it’s good for our faith, taking our concerns to the Lord and leaving them with Him, trusting He has everything in hand.  We know we should thank Him for all that He’s given to us.  But instead of praying right away, we decide to put it off for when we have more free time, but of course that never comes.   Our days get busy and full.  And so we find ourselves going the whole week without prayer. 
Sinfully, prayer isn’t a spiritual discipline and daily Christian habit that we practice.  I know I’m guilty of this.   But when we encounter trials and troubles, that’s when our knees hit the floor.  Attacked by the fiery temptations of the devil, overcome by the brokenness of the world, suffering the sickness and disease of death; that’s when we come to God.  We ask Him to protect us, to spare us, to heal us.  And this is good.  We should look to the Lord for salvation at these times.  But what about the other times?  Why wait?  And why must our prayers always first be about us?  Why do we only pray when we want and need something?  Why don’t we readily pray for God’s will to be done beyond the Lord’s Prayer?  And why don’t we pray first for others and then ourselves?  It’s because of our sin.  Even our prayers are tainted with our sin.  Even in our prayers we’re all about “me first, then others.”
But this isn’t how Christ prays.  None of Jesus’ prayers were focused on Himself.  His prayers were always about the Father and His will.  His prayers were always about you and for you. 
The Gospel reading for today is Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  He prayed this on Maundy Thursday, right before His betrayal and crucifixion.  Jesus knew what was coming.  He knew the suffering of the cross was at hand, so you’d think His prayer would be asking God to spare Him; after all, that’s what we’d pray for.  But not Jesus.  His prayer was about fulfilling the Father’s will and glorifying Him through the cross.
God the Father is glorified in the cross.  Christ is glorified in the cross.  Glory isn’t something we usually think about when we think about Jesus’ crucifixion, but it is, because the cross accomplished the will of the Father.  On the cross, God’s grace and mercy were enacted.  On the cross, Christ paid the price of your sin.  On the cross He died your death, and He won eternal life for you.
The will of the Father is your eternal and everlasting life.  His glory is your eternal life.  That’s what He’s all about.  That’s what Christ is all about.  And that’s what Christ prays for.   
Jesus prays for you.  He prays that the Father will keep you.  And that’s exactly what He does.  God keeps you in His name.  He keeps you for salvation because you are His.
    You are the Father’s child, baptized in His name.  You’re redeemed from sin, death, and the devil, purchased by Christ’s blood.  And He will keep you for Himself and for your salvation, even in the midst of the fiery temptations of the devil, even in the midst of the brokenness of the world, even in the midst of sickness, even in the midst of death.
    None of this can steal you away from the Lord.  None of it can snatch you from His hand.  None of it can overcome your eternal life.  Yes, it is hard to endure these as they are happening.  It’s difficult to be constantly bombarded by Satan’s temptations.   It’s exhausting to live surrounded by the conflict of the world.  And it’s unbearable suffering all the sickness and disease that plagues our bodies.  But as Peter says, this suffering is just for a little while.  It can’t compare to the eternal glory in Christ that God has prepared for you.  And if God has prepared this glory for you, He will keep you for it. 
This is Jesus’ prayer for you, the very prayer the Father answers.  You’re kept for salvation.  You receive the promise of this every time we gather here in worship.  You literally receive it in God’s Word of forgiveness and Christ's Supper eaten.  And so it is with this promised salvation that we come to the Lord in prayer, entrusting others and ourselves to Him.  We gladly pray every day for the Father’s will, just as our Savior does, because with faith we know what that will is, our secured and eternal life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 
Alleluia! Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia! He is risen, ascended, and glorified.  Amen. 

Office or Function. . .

Over at First Things some weeks ago (yes I know I am behind in my reading but Lent and Easter and COVID 19 and all), George Weigel was commenting on Pope Francis post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia [Dear Amazonia].  A phrase from his comments stuck out at me. If the priesthood is in crisis throughout the world, it is because priesthood is too often reduced to a set of functions.  Now there is something which ought to speak to Lutheran issues as well.  We Lutherans are struggling with declining numbers of seminarians, the promotion of online alternatives to residential seminary training, the whole issue of what is pastoral formation, and congregations and Synod on the decline.  While none of these is caused only by our own tendency to reduce the pastoral ministry merely to a set of functions, all of them are touched by it.  It is not a new thing to us but its effects are many.

We toss around the term lay ministry as if it had real meaning.  We are still cleaning up the mess created by the 1989 Wichita blurring of the Augustana and what the pastoral office is.  We have trouble making a case for the pastoral office in congregations whose numbers and finances have led them to make do solutions.  We have a two class system of pastors (SMP and General) though we treat them mostly the same.  We still have disputes over who should preach and preside at the Lord's Table regularly and the satis est to do this.  In the end, these problems are more rooted in our temptation to reduce the office to the functions than anything else.  Our conversations about these topics fails to appreciate the reason for the order and the theological understanding of the office that is both Biblical and Confessional.  So we have one District President suggesting that we might need to start up another Synod free from some of the constraints set up about the office of pastor.  So what we need is less a debate about how to make things work better than what the pastoral office is.

Conrad Bergendoff famously suggested that Lutheranism still has no settled doctrine when it comes to church and ministry.  What Lutheranism lacks is a clear and convincing theological rationale for its actual practice of embedding the congregation in a regional body, which is also called "church." The temptations of congregationalism and the understanding of regional structures as merely sociological necessity have recurred within Lutheran history.  (Doctrine of the Church in American Lutheranism)  Maybe it is time to address this and prove him wrong, if it can be done.  In any case, we will not help the cause by reducing the office to its functions and then assigning those functions to whomever we choose and then justifying it under the cover of congregational autonomy.  That is what has gotten us where we are today.  And, lest some think this is Missouri's problem, the ELCA began with an unsettled question of church and ministry and it has yet to fully address these issues, choosing instead to answer the problem with rules instead of theology.  Missouri's penchant for treating doctrinal conflicts with bylaw changes is already well known.  Again, it is high time that we came together for a theological convocation to resolve the ambiguities rather than trying to patch together rationales from what people have done in the past.  Exceptions make terrible rules but even worse theology.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Make them one. . .

Sermon for Easter 7A, preached on Sunday, May 24, 2020.

    In the high priestly prayer that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, He prays Himself and for you and for me and for everyone who believes in Him.  For Himself His prayer is the simple acknowledgment that the hour has come for the glory of the cross.  He is ready and willing to undertake this glory even though it comes at the cost of His own suffering and death because of the larger goal of eternal life for all those who believe in Him.  His earthly works are now not simply finished but complete and they have culminated in this moment, when He will mount the altar of the cross not as reluctant victim but as willing sacrifice. 

    His prayer summarizes that earthly work.  He has manifested the Name of the Father to believers.  He has kept those whom the Father has given Him in the fellowship of His Word.  He has spoken to them what the Father has willed, the words of the Law, the prophets, and the Psalms and how they testify to Jesus.  He celebrates the fruitfulness of this Word in delivering to Hi the faithful who have come to know the truth of Jesus, that He is the everlasting Son of the Father, the Son of God in flesh and blood.  He rejoices in the faith that the Spirit has planted in their hearts and acknowledges that believers no longer belong to the devil, the world, or even themselves — they belong to the Father.  Jesus will walk to the cross and arise from the empty tomb and ascend to the right hand of the Father all so that the disciples, the faithful through the generations, and you and I will be saved.

    But Jesus will not remain in the world – at least not as He was.  He will not be hidden from the world in the means of grace, in the Word and Sacraments.  He will continue His saving work among His people but that work will be through the voices of those who speak His Word and deliver His grace to His people and those whose witness before the world will continue to draw the elect unto Himself.  But the people of God will not be alone.  The Father will guard them, the Lord will feed them, and the Holy Spirit will keep them amid doubt, fear, trouble, trial, sorrow, and struggle.

    And on top of this they will be one.  This unity for which Jesus prays is not some paper unity in which people agree to disagree or set aside their differences or minimize them.  This unity for which Jesus prays is not some organizational unity expressed in a common business structure or mailing address.  This unity for which Jesus prays is not a common building in which everyone will gather or a common leader to which everyone will follow.  As important as each of these things are, they are not the unity Jesus is concerned with.  The unity which Jesus addresses is the same unity the Father has with the Son and the Son with the Father.

    In this unity, absolute trust exists.  Jesus does not wrestle with doubts but has absolute confidence in the Word of the Father.  Jesus speaks this Word as His own and is that Word in flesh, our servant in suffering that we might be saved.  Jesus lives by that Word, whether alone in the wilderness coming to terms with His future or fighting the temptations of the devil or working His way around the plans and presumptions of people who wish to prevent Him from fulfilling His purpose.  Jesus is praying that our faith may be like His own faith.  Now there is a big prayer.  We daily wrestle with doubts and we are driven by so many fears and we spend our time hiding our sins and we still harbor the belief that our job in life is to get to the head of the line, accomplish all our hopes and dreams, and then, if there is room left, be holy and righteous.

    Jesus prays that we will be perfectly united with the Father as He is.  That means being of one will and purpose.  Here on earth we mark differences and celebrate diversity and treat everything as if it existed to be customized and personalized.  But Jesus prays instead that our wills will submit to the will of our Father in heaven, that we will not work to forge our own path but walk in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Jesus prays that we will find perfect fulfillment not in our own ways but loving God above all things and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus prays for our unity not as a choice but as an identity, the way we might say blood is thicker than water in describing our families.

    This means that Jesus is praying not only for our salvation but for our sanctification, not simply that we be justified in Christ before the Father but that we learn from Him to love holiness, to seek righteousness, to walk in the justice that is His Law and to show mercy as He has been merciful to us.  For this is the way of life that flows from the Father to us in Christ.  It is the fruit of saving faith and it is the mark of true Christian identity and unity.  Doctrine does not exist in limbo but doctrine is given that we might know the truth and walk in it by faith.  The goal of doctrine, like the goal of faith, like the goal of good works, is to glorify the God who has saved us not because we deserved it but because of His grace.

    We have heard and seen a lot in this pandemic.  Much of it we wish to have never heard or seen and pray that we might forget.  Some have said that one of the things we have learned is that we really do not need to be together around the Word and Table of the Lord to be the Church.  We can do good and pray at home and watch services on line and this is enough.  But that is the lie of necessity.  When we cannot do any more, we settle for the less we can do.

    Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Church is the Church first of all when we as the people of God by baptism and faith are gathered where His Word is preached and where His Sacraments are administered.  We cannot be without this intimate assembly and this personal gathering.  If we can and must, we will find ways to survive until this can happen again.  But we are sustained and guarded and guided by nothing less than the Word of the Lord and the Sacraments of Christ.  It is from these that faith is born and it is in these that faith is sustained.  It is here that we are united with Christ and to the Father by the power of the Spirit.  It is from here that we learn to do the will of the Father in the works of the Law as the delight of our hearts and the goal of our lives.

    The Church kept from being together around the Word and Table of the Lord is the Church under duress.  Thanks be to God that are very near that day when the constraints that bound us can be set aside for the freedom to gather in His name and receive His gifts and serve Him in willing obedience.  Such unity is not weak or fragile but the strongest force of all.  Whether under persecution by our enemies or facing threat by a pandemic, our unity with Christ to the Father and through Christ to one another is not a matter of choice but of God’s will.  Jesus prayed for that unity and we pray for it still.  And may the Lord deliver us to such unity, as we hear the voice of God and are fed from the Table of the Lord for unity today and for our eternal unity in heaven.  In Christ, Amen.

Studied contrasts

I saw that at the same time Roman Catholic and LCMS church leaders were insisting to MN Governor Walz that they would wait no longer and were going to open their churches to worship, President Trump came along and insisted that it was now past time to consider churches essential and that if the governors did not act to allow them to open, he would.  In the midst of all of this, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA responded by tweeting that the President's call was reckless, divisive, and dangerous.  So I am assuming that she would say the same to the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod leaders who petitioned for opening of churches.

What is shocking here, is that the very folks who have political opinions on every subject (like the ELCA and its Presiding Bishop) believe that the Church must be subject to those governing authorities.  Strange, I did not hear any such words from Bishop Eaton supporting more conservative protocols with respect to illegal immigrants and their rights or the closure of the borders and GLBTQ rights.  Indeed, some might suggest that the Bishop herself is simply pandering to her own base.  But that is the point.  Liberal Protestantism, even when it is all dressed up, is more about the influence they can bear upon the world than about the preaching and teaching of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Even more so, Liberal Protestantism is thrilled with symbols but uncertain about what to do with realities like the presence of Christ in His body given for us to eat and His blood for us to drink.  Rainbow flags are all over the place but solemn devotion to the command of God to worship Him where He has promised to be, in the Word and Sacraments seems to be less urgent.

The Body of Christ is connected, of course, not by our own paltry human endeavors but by the design and act of God.  The Body of Christ is certainly conducting private devotions but these are no substitute for the Divine Service.  They are the best we can do when we can do nothing more but the move and direction is and has always been to restore the gathering of God's people as soon as possible and within the reasonable constraints of appropriate physical distance, sanitizing, and cleanliness.  We cannot wait until every possible threat is gone.  The Church is not safe but is, at least to the world, the exact opposite.  She is a radical threat to individual values and self-centered interest and she calls not to freedom but the freedom to submit to Christ the head of the Body.  We gather not for entertainment or inspiration but for the cleansing of absolution, for the living voice of the Word that speaks by the power of the Spirit, and for the feeding of our bodies and souls with the very Body and Blood of Christ.  This is the identity and vocation of the baptized -- the service of God that equips us for our service in response, directed to our neighbor for His glory and purpose.

Christianity will always face threats from the outside but, as always, the most dangerous are the threats from within.  Like those who presume faith is a private and individual matter and the worship of God's people around Word and Altar is less than essential to the people of God or our manifestation of His grace before the world.  Or, like those who confuse worship with the vocation of service to their neighbor.  We do not worship God by serving our neighbor -- this is who we are and what we do.  As Jesus has reminded us, when we do our duty it is not some extraordinary sacrifice for which we should expect anything in return or any reward.  The fruits of the Law's guidance of those justified by grace is to love as we have been loved.  This does not diminish our good works but places them where they belong.  The Divine Service is about the God who serves us with His gifts and thus enables us to respond with praise and thanksgiving -- not about what we do to honor Him or earn His favor. Everything flows from this and without this the Church and each individual Christian is in jeopardy. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The desire to thrive. . .

Though it should not be great wisdom, it probably is.  What I am speaking about is how our desire to succeed and thrive can come at a great cost to our identity and integrity.  In business it is not unknown that a great idea and a small company soon can give way to bad business and a large but lost corporate structure.  Who has not watched a movie about just that?  The Social Network, whether factual or imagined, chronicles the story of an idea that soon betrays friendships and ideals to become a behemoth that wants to control the media and not simply create a platform for digital social relations.  But it happens in other places also.

In education the desire to succeed on a larger scale often comes at the cost of the very things that made it work.  Packing the classrooms and trying to become all things to all people soon sinks the school -- from preschool to university.  Harvard University has become such a bully that it has tacitly approved an article suggesting that home schooling is too dangerous to be allowed and that only trained professionals should be allowed to teach our children.  This is ironic coming from a school with a $40+ billion dollar endowment that once began by training clergy.  About 5% of those who apply get in and the school is small -- 6800 undergraduate students (though with 14,000 graduate students).  Now Harvard is a recognized voice of the elite, the rich, and the progressive thinkers of our time.

Perhaps it was the desire to succeed and thrive that put our own church body into such a conundrum.  We had a small system of high schools and junior colleges set up largely to train church workers.  They were fed by a large system of local, congregational schools.  It was modeled after a German style educational structure.  It was actually quite successful.  Then things began going south.  Part of it was due to the fact that the world around us had changed.  Part of it was due to internal struggles.  Part of it was the desire to gain acceptance and prominence in the educational world.  In a series of rather quick decisions, we single handedly transformed our system to look more American than German.  Gone were the high schools and junior colleges and the small church campuses suddenly became colleges welcoming all kinds of students with many programs unrelated to their former core mission.  With this change came the desire to see the colleges succeed in the marketplace of universities and thrive.  Could it be that where we are now is in part due to our desire to thrive and succeed outside the Church?  Why else would we begin to pay vendors to help us reach markets unrelated to our narrower mission?  Why else would it be that began to make our mission large enough to justify such ventures -- at a time when the smallest of percentages of those students are either Lutheran or Missouri Synod Lutheran?  Not to mention the fact that the numbers of 18 year olds looking for a college is less than before while the competition for that scarce student is more than ever before.  We won't even go into the question of whether or not our colleges and universities are fulfilling their original mandate of preparing church workers.

The desire to succeed and thrive is not without its problems with respect to the congregation itself.  Trying to be all things to all people creates a busy calendar and the appearance of relevance but if it comes at the cost of our core mission to preach the Gospel, maintain our confession and doctrine, and faithfully serve the baptized people of God, what have we gained?  The pressure is on small congregations is to mirror what happens in large congregations.  This is too often not only unsustainable but wears out those who must constantly switch hats to keep the cluttered calendar going and leaves them with few signs of success to justify their labors.  We in the church have developed an envy of successful (meaning large in number) secular programs and we think that this is what we must do in order to please God.  The reality is that it is always a fight simply to survive and has always been that way.  More than we would care to admit, success as the world gauges it and faithfulness pleasing to God are in competition or conflict.  Could it be that this is one thing that has so quickly given those outside as well as some inside the impression that worship is a social gathering and church is a non-essential activity?

I have been a pastor of a very small congregation, vicared at a very large congregation, and watched the parish I serve grow into a mid-size church from a smaller one.  Along the way I have come to realize how easy it is for me to substitute my dreams for God's desires and, I suspect, this is the case among many of us.  Being large is not a fault unless the greater size comes at the cost of our very identity.  As I look at some of the largest congregations in our church body, it is clear that they do not look or act or sound much like the rest of us on Sunday morning -- or the rest of the week for that matter.  They believe that smaller congregations are not being faithful and we believe that they are not being faithful.  In the end we have yet to talk about whether or not success and faithfulness can exist together without one or the other suffering.  I wish it were not so but if our desire to succeed and thrive causes us to drift away from our Confession in faith and practice, perhaps our desires are the problem.

Monday, May 25, 2020

In Memoriam

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

If it is not safe now, is it ever?

Throughout all of this pandemic, one of the common refrains has been the idea that the chalice must be withheld from people.  From Rome to Wittenberg to Canterbury warnings have been issued or commands laid down that the chalice is not a good idea or cannot be used safely.  I understand the concern, believe me, but I am not sure the approach taken by most is without its consequences.

If the chalice is not safe now (and I am not willing to grant that as fact), the issue before us is not what we do during a pandemic but what we do when it is winding down or over.  If the chalice is not safe and it must be removed from use in favor of individual cups because of this viral threat, what about other viral threats that are less sensational and more, shall we say, normal.  If the chalice is not safe for COVID-19, are we sure it is safe for the ordinary or unusual influenza seasons that happen every year?  The issue of withholding the chalice now cannot be seen in isolation from its use at other times.  What about the common cold (which can be especially dangerous for those with health conditions that put them at greater risk for the corona virus)?

If the chalice has to be made safe by the addition of special procedures (Everclear soaks purificators, for example), then what does it say about the chalice at other times?  If the dry purificator is not effective for this virus threat, is it effective for any viral threat?  My point here is that as soon as we grant that the chalice is not safe to use at some point, we automatically open up the question about whether it is ever safe to use.  And if we pastors presume people are not thinking this way, we will have a rude awakening.  I personally have had a half dozen emails or conversations from folks who insist that now is not simply the time to remove the chalice from use because of the pandemic, now is the time to remove it permanently.  Their conclusion, scientific or not, is that it is not safe or at least less safe than individual cups.  They do not believe that the Church should offer the chalice at all and should not leave it to the discretion of the communicant but this choice must be permanently removed.

In the two parishes I have served (including this one), the chalice was not in regular use prior to my arrival.  In one I introduced it where it had never been used and in this one I reintroduced it where it had been put away or used symbolically at the altar but not for distribution.  In both parishes it took a great deal of patient teaching to start up the ancient practice and it was largely because of my example and the example of my family and a few others that it caught on.  I believe the chalice is safe (though I also believe that it and the individual cups can be used unsafely by negligence).  I have been the first and last to receive from the chalice for forty years at multiple services each week and have never missed a Sunday due to illness.  That is not a brag but a testament to the Lord's promise and to gift of the Sacrament which does not harm but offers extraordinary benefit and blessing to those who commune.  I know it is a matter of fear for some and personal distaste for others but I keep insisting that the proper use of either the chalice or individual cups should not cause the communicant anxiety or be a reason not to commune.  And then this pandemic comes along and everywhere you look (from governmental information and edict to guidance from church leaders) you are given the unmistakable suggestion that the chalice is not safe and should not be used.  At least now.

I am not going to sit in judgment over those who decided to put away the chalice.  Neither should they judge me for keeping the use of the chalice throughout the pandemic (we did not shut the doors but many multiple services on Sundays and throughout the week).  That said, we must have this conversation about the chalice at some point because the question will not disappear when the doors are open and limitations removed from worship.  Strangely, I have never encountered one adamant about removing the individual cups because they are modern or unBiblical but I have heard from many over the years that the chalice should be removed because it is unsanitary.  Those who use the chalice do not seem to be militant about imposing their will on others but those who use individual cups seem more likely to want to make the choice for everyone.  So folks, we will have to have this conversation as a church body, with our leaders, and in our congregations, with our people, or the chalice may well be one more casualty of corona.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

At some point we need to talk. . .

Not now, as things are beginning their long journey to recovery of what we once considered normal, but at some point we will need to talk about a few things.  I fear that this conversation will never be had or will be had only in so far as we can attached blame.  But it would be a helpful conversation because circumstances like this will come along again -- it is not a matter of if but when.

  • We need to talk about whether you can effectively make policy simply on the basis of models or whether public policy requires something more than an imagination of how things might go.  Models initially predicted millions of deaths here in the US; now we are looking at numbers closer to a typical flu epidemic.  In epidemiology, there is no objective truth or facts until the numbers are written by rates of infection, hospitalization, and death.  If we are willing to put everything we know at risk, we will at least need better models or more prudent leaders.
  • We need to talk about the role of the media in hyping the threat and danger to the point of stirring up panic and hysteria.  Wasn't there something in the courts about no right to call out "Fire!" in a crowded room when there was none?  The media have been relentless in their coverage, repeating false information, treating the so-called experts as deities, using the pandemic in their fight against Trump, and encouraging hoarding of everything from toilet paper to hand sanitizer.
  • We need to talk about the speed with which we have suspended personal liberty, disrupted commerce, closed churches, and restricted access to public property.  Even more we need to talk about the unwillingness to talk about the cost of these freedoms lost for a time and the precedent that they can be suspended at will by our political leaders.
  • We need to talk about the way churches have been arbitrarily designated non-essential and worship labeled social gathering.  We need to talk about the reticence of the churches and their leaders to resist the such characterizations of the church and worship and the way the churches have acquiesced to the will of our political leaders.  We need to talk about the cost not only of this disruption but of the shifting of America's chancels to YouTube and Facebook and what will happen in the wake of it all.
  • We need to talk about the inventive but unfaithful ways churches attempted to replace the face to face gatherings of God's people around His Word and Table.  We need to talk about drive by communions and video consecrations and live streaming services and virtual worship.  We need to talk about the efficacy of these in place of the real assemblies of the people of God around His Word and Altar.
  • We need to talk about what lengths we should go to protect the most vulnerable in our population and whether a nation must be treated the same way as hot spots and urban settings.  We need to talk about the values of a nation which works to save everyone diagnosed with COVID 19 yet considers abortion legal and essential and attaches few rights to the most vulnerable -- the unborn.
  • We need to talk about whether the disruption of our health care system was necessary in order to treat those who never showed up in hospitals and intensive care units (except in a very few areas and cities of our nation).  We need to talk about the average age of the nurses who provide the bedside care of our people and the conditions in which they work even when there is no epidemic.  We need to talk about economic models that make every decision in hospitals and nursing homes.
  • We need to talk the way we spend ourselves out of emergencies and the money that has nothing to do with a health crisis but is attached to spending plans designed to rescue the economy and relieve the burden upon those most affected by the ripple effects of a pandemic.  We need to talk about the accumulated debt we are bequeathing to the fewer and fewer grandchildren and great-grandchildren down the pike.
  • We need to talk about the failed promises of globalism, about brands that apply to parts assembled from low bidders, about the lack of manufacturing here and our dependence upon a supply chain largely from China and Asian providers. . .  We need to talk about American jobs in service industries which can never support the broader middle class like good manufacturing jobs once did.
I do not have the answers.  Maybe no one does.  Who will know unless we talk about these things?  We need to have these conversations but I fear we will not.  We will look for someone to blame or perhaps simply agree to put it all in the past and move on in the hope of restoring some semblance of the day before corona virus.  But the weaknesses that made us targets for all that went wrong during this pandemic will live on, waiting for the next crisis.  And the strengths that we did not realize we had will lie forgotten when we need to address the next big challenge.  And the churches will likely do whatever we are told without much more that some grumbling under our breath.

Friday, May 22, 2020

After the eating and the drinking. . .

One of the ways in which justification can be abused is when justification is the end of it or the only thing.  Justification necessarily leads to and makes possible sanctification.  But too often we do not hear much about the latter.  Some Lutherans are of the opinion that you do not need to say anything about it or work toward it since sanctification is automatic.  It just happens.  Those folks would also demur to the idea of the so-called third use of the Law.  Others have taken up the cause of a more deliberate and vigorous preaching of sanctification and the role of the Law as guide.  Some of that you have heard here and if you google third use you will find no shortage of materials to occupy your time.

That said, one of the great weaknesses revealed by the corona virus and its role in limiting or even shutting down the churches has been the fact that for our all work in restoring the weekly Eucharist in practice, we have not been so successful in restoring it in piety.  In other words, the Eucharist has been treated like a medicine you take in order to relieve you of the responsibility to change your lifestyle.  If you have cholesterol, you take pill and continue your unhealthy diet.  So the lack of the Eucharist has been for some the deprivation of the pill that makes them spiritually healthy and exposed the lack of a piety other than the Eucharist.

The Sacrament has come into focus in part because of the pandemic.  Virtual communions, consecrations by video, and drive by communions have all been offered as a means to keep people receiving something though outside not only the context of the Divine Service but also outside the intent.  For the eating and drinking are not part of some individual relationship to God in isolation nor is the eating and drinking the end of it all.  It is certainly a good thing that we are receiving the Sacrament more frequently than in the past and it seems that this is in part because those who commune are convinced that they are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ (though the manner of that reception remains an unsettled question for some).  The down side in all of this is that the discussion seems to stop with the eating and drinking.  The miraculous pill has been received and now it is time to go home.  Or it could mean to go back to the sinful lives that caused the need for the medicine in the first place.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!  In these few words we are reminded that as we depart from the House of the Lord, we leave not to return to sinful ways with a clear conscience but to love and serve the Lord.  The Eucharist is not the pill we take to avoid changing our lives but the very means by which those lives are changed.  We cannot and do not cooperate with the justification but we can and should cooperate with the sanctification that flows from the forgiveness of our sins and our communion upon Christ's flesh and blood.

Though Lutherans are loathe to speak this way, it is the Eucharist that manifests us as the Church -- the body of Christ receiving the Body of Christ.  And it is the Eucharist enables us to become what we are.  Now before somebody suggests that I have forgotten the Word, the Eucharist does not exist apart from the Word of Christ for it is the Word and the element that make the Sacrament and the liturgy of the Divine Service is itself Scripture said and sung -- from beginning to end.  So I am not pitting one against the other but looking at the fullness of our life together around the Word and the Altar of the Lord.  The point, however, is that neither the voice of the Word nor our participation/fellowship in the Body and Blood of Christ are the end but the means by which we are becoming what God has declared us to be.  We cannot effect the declaration of grace but we can cooperate with the Spirit in becoming what God has declared us to be.  No, we do not take credit for it (Christ in us) but that does not let us off the hook.  We are not here to receive a God pill so that we can live in the ruts of our old lives without any guilt feelings.  Christ lives in us that we may become ever more like Him.

Receiving the Sacrament does not make up for a lack of piety nor does it excuse or justify a lack of effort or desire to be sanctified.  That is an abuse of the Sacrament.  As some have noted, the emergency conditions of this past few months may have revealed the shallowness of our Eucharistic theology and practice and the emptiness of our devotional life rooted in the Word of the Lord and manifested in prayer.  It may have also exposed the fact that our tendency to turn God's grace into something cheap and easy has kept us from using these means to strengthen us for the fight against evil and emboldening us to live new, holy, upright, and godly lives.  The mode of the Church on earth is, until the last day, always militant.  The mode of our lives in Christ is also militant, always fighting and always battling the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh in order to that grace may abound in us and we may grow up in Christ to maturing of faith and life as the baptized.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

True Wisdom. . .

Sermon for Easter 6A, preached on Sunday, May 17, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

              We live in an information saturated world.  There’s almost no limit to what we can know.  Within minutes we can find out what’s happening across the world.  If we have a question, we don’t have to spend hours sifting through books and encyclopedias at the library, all we have to say is “Hey Google.”  We’re constantly getting notifications on our phones and our watches.  From the time we get up to the time we go to bed, information is all around us.  We know a lot about a lot.  Some of this information is good and useful, some of it’s not.  Some of it’s fact, and some of it’s opinion.  And we think, the world thinks, that since we have this vast amount of knowledge that makes us wise.  But does simply knowing stuff make us wise?
               Head knowledge and wisdom aren’t the same thing.  You can know a lot of information, but if you don’t understand how to use it, are you truly wise?  With all the research and data that we have about the human body, today we can’t decide who’s a man and who’s a woman.  With everything we know about reproduction, people still can’t say a baby in the womb is a person.  This is the wisdom of the world.  For the world, wisdom it isn’t based on facts that can be known.  For the world, wisdom is all about feelings.  Feelings are made the most sure and certain thing, even though they change day to day, even hour by hour.  The world’s wisdom says truth is relative, that it’s all a matter of personal opinion.  But if that’s the case, is there any truth at all?  Is there any true wisdom at all? 
               They say history repeats itself, and in many ways, that’s true.  You can always find similarities between cultures and societies today to those in the past.  Today we think we’re wise because of everything we know, just as the Greeks of Paul’s day thought they were wise. 
The Greeks were known to be philosophers.  They thought about things and spent their time discussing new ideas.  And they integrated this knowledge into their lives, into their religion.  As Paul walked the streets of Athens, he saw all sorts of altars set up for worship of different gods.  He even saw an altar built for the “unknown” god.  In the Athenians’’ wisdom, they set up this altar just in case they forgot one.  Best to hedge you’re bets you know.  This seems prudent and wise, but it was false wisdom.  But Paul used this to reveal true wisdom to the Greeks.  
True wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord (Prov 9:10).  True wisdom comes from knowing the God of creation, the One who made the heavens and the earth, and everything in it, including us.  True wisdom is knowing the God who sent His Son to die on the cross and rise from the grave to save us from our sin and death so that we might rise, so that we’d have everlasting life.  True wisdom is knowing Christ our Savior.  But this wisdom it isn’t a matter of head knowledge, it’s a matter of knowing by faith. 
   We can know all the facts about Christ Jesus.  We can know all about His miracles.  We can know everything He taught.  We can know the details of His Passion.  We can know all of that and more, and still not have the true wisdom of faith.  Satan knows the details of Christ.  His demons know about Jesus’ miracles.  Atheist professors who teach Christianity courses at universities know the Bible, and yet they don’t have true wisdom.  True wisdom isn’t just knowing about Jesus, it’s trusting in Him.  It’s trusting in Him for forgiveness.  It’s trusting in His death and resurrection for your life.
You have this true wisdom because it’s been given to you.  You have faith in your Lord because He’s given you His Spirit of truth who dwells within you (Jn 14:17).  He creates your faith and trust.  The Holy Spirit makes your Savior known to you.  He enables you to look to Christ alone for salvation.  And He keeps you in this faith. 
               The wisdom of the world is all around us.  We see it on the TV and in the movies, we read it on the internet.  And too often, we begin to follow this wisdom.  We become accustomed to it.  We believe it.  We even embrace it.  It’s just easier to go along with this falsity then to be ridiculed and called ignorant for holding on to the truth.  But isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?  Aren’t we supposed to give a defense?  Aren’t we supposed to speak the truth of Christ that we know?  Yes we are, even if that means suffering for it.
We often mistakenly think that simply because we’re Christians we won’t have any troubles.  But the truth is just the opposite.  As God’s people we have more troubles.  We suffer everything that everyone else suffers, the normal troubles of life.  But we also suffer the conflict that exists between our sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world and our faith.  This isn’t an easy conflict to bear, and yet we do because we’re not alone. 
Christ hasn’t left you alone to be an orphan.  He’s given you the Spirit of truth who gives you the wisdom of faith.  And it’s with this wisdom that you stand.  It’s with this wisdom that you live and honor your Lord.  You honor Him by speaking His truth with gentleness and respect.  You honor and praise His name as you live according to this truth, as you follow His commandments, showing your love for Him.  All of this may seem ignorant and backward to the world around you, but the world will never understand because it can’t receive the Spirit of truth.
But you have received the Holy Spirit.  You’ve received true wisdom, wisdom that knows your Savior and His life.  By the strength of the Spirit, holdfast to this wisdom in the face of the false wisdom of the world.  Know your Savior, and know the certain hope life that is yours in Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.