Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Who decides who is a minister?

Once again the SCOTUS is facing several cases which will affect who is considered a minister of religion and what rights both teachers and church schools have with respect to employment.  The two cases hinge on what defines the constitutional status of a “minister” at a religious school and  who decides the qualifications of a minister: churches and religious schools, or the federal courts.   The cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.

In Hosanna-Tabor (2012), a teacher at a Lutheran elementary school was diagnosed and subsequently fired for having narcolepsy. Suing under the Americans With Disability Act, she claimed that the school had illegally discriminated against her on account of her condition. When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) upheld her suit, she appealed. The school claimed a Free Exercise “ministerial exemption” from employment laws, and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the school. The fourth-grade teacher was a trained and certified instructor of religion, which she taught everyday in addition to academic subjects.

In that decision the SCOTUS recognized for the first time a ministerial exception (though lower federal courts had previously done so). This ruling sat side by side the 1990  Employment Division v. Smith decision regarding the use of peyote.  This decision came even though the Obama Administration Justice Department (DOJ) argued against the school and maintained that the Free Exercise of religion did not even apply. Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous Court, reprimanded DOJ for its “extreme position” that “the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”  This decision was, by the way, unanimous.

The details on these pending cases are different though similar.  Two fired teachers in Roman Catholic schools in the same LA Archdiocese have claimed discrimination. In the Guadalupe case, the Roman Catholic elementary school fired a trained and certified catechist and who had taught fifth grade religion for several years.  She filed an age-discrimination complaint with the EEOC and brought suit in federal district court in December 2016. The district court ruled against her citing the Hosanna-Tabor precedent but the Ninth Circuit ruled in her favor.

In the St. James School case, another Roman Catholic school fired a newly hired 5th grade teacher who was also a trained and certified as teacher of the faith.  She was let go for poor management of the classroom and filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging discrimination for her disability (breast cancer). The Obama EEOC sided with the teacher, the federal district court cited Hosanna-Tabor and ruled against her in January 2017 and again was overturned by the Ninth Circuit.

The questions at issue are how much of a minister do you have to be and who decides if you are a minister.  Though Hosanna-Tabor had provided more detail to support their claim, the cases will clarify the precedent and decide if churches and their schools are the ones who decide who is defined as a minister or not and by what criteria such claims can credibly be made.  Stay tuned for more as oral arguments have already been made.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Great Divide. . .

Where other things were once the great divisions among us, it seems that now we have added another reason to increase the distance between us.  That is our response to COVID 19.  As if it were not enough that we continue to try to bridge gaps created by race, ethnicity, economic status, marital status, education, and religion,  now we must add to this "do you wear a mask or don't you?"

It was probably inevitable that this would become a cause for division with churches already poised to divide their people.  We are segregated by race, musical preference, time slot, and so many other things -- even within the same congregation! -- that was sure to make COVID 19 and our response another cause for dispute and offense.

I have heard from people who were offended that we did not require masks of everyone who worshiped and those who insisted they would never come to church if a mask were required.  I have watched as people took offense that some folks sat too close to them and others were offended that we were so spread out among the pews.  I have had emails from folks over everything from the use of the chalice vs individual cups to masks to singing to, well, you name it.  Some folks are offended that the folks do not love their neighbor enough to wear a mask for the sake of that neighbor and others are offended that a mask might be the price of entry into the House of God.

Satan has certainly hijacked the issue and turned us against each other.  We have been offended by everything else, why not who wears a mask and who does not or where people sit in relationship to us.  It all reminds me of a Sunday when I was a child and somebody had the nerve to sit in my great Aunt Anna's pew.  She walked into the nave and stood staring at the poor unwitting soul who had inadvertently sat where she had been sitting for a gazillion years.  Eventually she found another seat and after church spent the ride home with us complaining about how she got nothing out of the service because of where she had to sit.  So some folks might get up in a huff and march out of the church because somebody had the nerve to sit too close instead of simply finding another seat (of which there are always plenty in most churches!).  And somebody might stop coming to church because they think not wearing a mask is lunacy.  And another refused to come when we had a sign up going because they had never had to sign up to go to worship before.  And others were angry that we keep harping on hand washing, sanitizers, and appropriate distance.

Well, let me challenge this whole idea of offense.  You are not offended.  You are angry.  You think that your way is the best way and if the pastor was smart he would heed your advice.  In reality, your pastor is trying to follow as many reasonable precautions as possible while knowing that whatever he does or says, somebody will be angry about it.  Part of me wants to tell folks to grow up but that is not the solution either.  However, maybe the key here is how Luther put it. 

Luther defines the 8th commandment (You shall not bear false witness) by saying, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way” (Small Catechism). So if you are one of those who is ready to quit the Church because of masks or no masks, physical distancing or no physical distancing, having services or not having services, singing or not singing, or whatever, listen to Luther.  The big line in Luther is to “explain everything in the kindest way,” or better understood, “put the best construction on everything.”  Repent of your judgment and repent of your insistence that you know better or that folks who may disagree are lunatics, fools, or, worse, a threat to you.  The corona virus does not release you from the 8th commandment.

And while we are at it, who are those folks you love to dispute with and get so angry with?  They are not strangers but your brothers and sisters.  Nearly every Lutheran congregation I know is filled with folks who already know each other.  While it might be somewhat understandable to presume the neighbor who is a stranger to you might be a threat, why would you presume the folks who shared the pews with you before the virus pandemic are now a mortal threat to you?  Show some patience. . . and compassion. . . and repent.  And while you are at it, try to be a little kinder to your pastor and church leaders who are trying to balance a whole ton of concerns while at the same time making sure that the doors will remain open and the Church continues through it all.  They are not your enemies either.  Satan is having a field day with us and we just need to stop it. 

Sometimes I imagine God saying what my mom used to say to my brother and I in the back seat of the 1950 Chevy, Don't make me come back there!  Thanks be to God that He is not like us because that would cook our goose in a minute.  He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Maybe we could try that a bit. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The future of liturgical music. . .

Liturgical music is not performance music but music in service to the Word, literally in service to the Divine Service.  It had and has a supporting role that is not at all insignificant but a solemn reminder that this music is not for entertainment defined by preference but for the glory of God and for the extension of His work.

Liturgical music is under fire like never before.  First of all are the numbers of once stalwart liturgical churches experimenting with or choosing contemporary Christian music (so-called worship and praise music) over hymn, chant, choir, organ, etc...  The reason organists are in short supply has less to do with the organists than it does the prospect of gainful employment.  Second is the fact that music has been unhitched from its role as servant of the Word and become its own thing.  The liturgical musician is less likely to think of himself or the congregation to think of his or her role apart from the Divine Service.  Other music used in worship is just the opposite.  It has a life outside of church and is used in worship as a secondary place for music that is already marketable and self-supporting due to the CCM play lists so popular among evangelicals.  On top of that technology seems to render parish musicians obsolete with promises of digital music without need for a person or his or her talent.   Finally there is the slow decline in congregations who think they can afford an organist or who have the people resources for even a small choir.  Liturgical music has been hit hard even before the corona virus but it is now far worse.

How many churches have been closed since mid-March and how many of them have continued to support their parish musicians?  If you can only have 10 people in a worship service, why would you give up one precious slot for a parish musician?  The pot has been stirred about whether or not singing is a real means of transmission and you have raised questions about the very purpose of having a parish musician.  Add to that the uncertainty about the future of churches post-COVID 19 and you see the challenges that face liturgical music and liturgical musicians.

Not long ago I took to task an Anglican turned Roman Catholic who seemed to be positively giddy about the prospect of robust congregational singing disappearing.  In part it is because the Latin Mass has no place for congregational song and hymn and the Novus Ordo tolerates it but it is in part because he mistakenly believes that hymns (and bad ones at that) are the glue holding liberal Protestantism together.  He is wrong.  The good and faithful hymns of the past and some of those in the present are the only orthodoxy left in some of these churches.  The hymnody of the church has been a very faithful means of keeping even a remnant of the real Gospel alive in churches that have sold out to culture, sentiment, and individual truth.

Now is the time we need our liturgical musicians and the music they provide more than ever.  We need the hymns of hope and comfort to a people still living in fear and uncertainty about this pandemic.  We need the hymns of orthodox confession to sing into us the faith of our fathers born of Scripture.  We need the hymns of praise to rally our voices when around us the world seems to be falling apart.  We need the certain sound of trumpet and cantor to capture our attention and focus it back upon the Word and promises of God.

I appeal to you not to consider your parish musician and liturgical music a non-essential.  It is not – at least for Lutherans!  When we have to forego music and singing it is a great sacrifice and it should not be left from our Sunday mornings for long. I for one am most grateful that our parish musicians have been with us through our long journey to keep the doors open.  We carefully chose hymns that would echo the comfort of God’s Word into the hearts and words of God’s people (Abide with Me, The King of Love, I Know that My Redeemer Lives, etc...).  Small ensembles sang to us Mendelssohn and Tallis.  Solo voices sang Mozart, Dvorak, and Handel.  I am grateful for their willingness to work through the fear, panic, and uncertainty to help the Church be the Church – at a time when many were saying shut down is the only option.  They deserve not only our respect but a decent wage for their work to God’s glory is of profound benefit to both sides of the altar rail!  God bless you – liturgical musicians – and your cause – liturgical music in service to the Word! 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Its only a matter of time. . .

By now you have heard and probably forgotten the initial voice of one suggesting that much, well, most all sacred art is racist, white supremacist propaganda.  It should not surprise anyone.  Considering the way some have moved to remake the public square and remove any statues or monuments that could be deemed objectionable, it was only a matter of time before the demand would be made of churches.

Now the truth is that some are poised and ready to discard some of what is the greatest art and statuary every produced by man.  That is because they have decided that art is not art but a medium with an agenda and a point of view and a political edge to it.  Art cannot exist apart from its context nor can art be viewed apart from the ever changing circumstances of opinion.  It does not matter whose art it is.  It only matters if people find it objectionable.

The reality is that much of this art is explicitly Western and, well, white.  These are not the only depictions of Christ.  In the East the icons of Christ have an Eastern appearance.  Look at figures and crucifixes in African churches and they reflect the features of the people who look to those crosses in faith.  It happens in Asia as well.  It should happen everywhere.  When we look to the crucifix we ought to see a figure of Christ that does not try to imagine what He might have looked like but looks back at us with the face of those for whom He has suffered and died.  That is not simply okay.  That is the point.

But there is more.  No matter if Christ is portrayed as a Black man or Asian man or white man or any other race or ethnicity, that is not what makes Him objectionable.  That is merely an irritant to people who have decided to sanitize history and erase those with flaws in their character and their past.  What makes Christ objectionable is that He suffers and dies for sinners -- even for those sinners who refuse to confess their sin or admit them.  He died for all even though not all believe in Him or receive the fruits and benefits of His obedient suffering and life-giving death.  What makes the crucifix and most religious art objectionable is not how Christ is portrayed but rather that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that this Savior must be the Son of God in human flesh and that the sins He has come for are so terrible that they can only be forgiven by His own perfect sacrificial offering on the cross.  In other words, what makes Christ most objectionable is that He has come for sinners who have no hope of redemption without His self-offering.  Everything else is just on the surface.

I will do everything in my power to prevent those who object to the color of the Christ in art and crucifix in the Church but I long for the day when these will be found objectionable on the basis of what they stand for -- the sin that has brought death, guilt, shame, and confusion to humanity and the Savior who wore our flesh so that He might suffer in our place for our sin, pay with His death to rescue us from its punishment and the consequences of God's wrath, and rise to deliver us back into the Father's arms as His own, created, redeemed, and restored by grace.  That is the problem we must face.  The iconography of the Church is not art for art's sake but the Gospel for the eye.  As Luther once reminded us, this is not art and not merely a crucifix but a means of grace:
“Furthermore the Gospel is such a means of grace in every form in which it reaches men, whether it be preached {Mark 16.15-16; Luke 24.47), or printed (John 20.31; 1 John 1.3-4)…or pictured in symbols or types (John 3.14-15)…” He then gives an example: “by a crucifix or some picture. Luther often recalls that ... many, when in the throes of death, were reminded of Christ’s substitutionary satisfaction by means of a crucifix held before their eyes and thus died a blessed death." St. L. XIII:2575: [vol. 3, pg. 106]
Unless the objection is to the Word that is being communicated by art, fresco, stained glass, statue, and crucifix, that objection is weak and meaningless.  But if that objection is to what is being communicated, then the Word is doing what it promised.  For the cross is a scandal to those who do not believe and every depiction of Scripture in churchly art is an offense to those who reject this Gospel.  But to those who believe, it is the power of God unto salvation -- even these Words for the eye.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Substitutionary Atonement

What a surprise when someone sent me a link to an article promoting Anselm's substitutionary atonement as the most appropriate and appealing model for speaking of Christ's work today.  That was unexpected.

Bartlomiej Staniszewski is a philosophy student interested in history, theology, and economics. Born in Poland and raised in London, he is Roman Catholic.   His introduction states:

In this essay, I will argue that the most viable model of atonement today is what Aulén calls the Latin model, proposed by Saint Anselm, in which atonement (reconciliation between God, humanity, and the world) is achieved by Jesus Christ taking on and satisfying man’s debt towards God. I will argue that Anselm’s view, under the correct reading of Anselm, 1) is an appropriate development of the view held by the Early Church, as opposed to in particular the Moral view and 2) is the only view that guarantees the full reconciliation of man and God, as well as the full victory of Christ over death, hence making it the most viable model of atonement.
In his conclusion he states:
. . . only Anselm’s view provides a full Atonement. Anselm’s view is an appropriate development of the view held by the Early Church and guarantees the full reconciliation of man and God as well as the full victory of Christ over the devil, and so is the most viable model of Atonement today.
The Satisfaction view of the atonement was formulated by the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his book, Cur Deus Homo. In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the obedient sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ.  Anslem did not believe man could render to God the honor due Him and therefore God had to intervene and make satisfaction himself. Yet this satisfaction could benefit man only if it was made by man.  Thus the incarnation is central to this view that only the God-man [Jesus Christ] could satisfy God and give to Him the honor due Him.

It is distinguished from the Penal Substitution view in which Christ bore the penalty for sin, in place of sinners and benefiting those united to Him by faith. In this view Christ's death is substitutionary in that He pays the honor instead of us but not penal in that His death does not satisfy the penalty of our sin. The Reformation saw not only the offense but the justice of God at work. God's righteousness demands punishment for man's sin but in His grace God not only satisfies the punishment and supplies the sacrificial victim to bear it.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) more fully developed  Anselm’s view into one that included the concept of a “treasury of merit” which became the general understanding of the atonement in Roman Catholicism to this day. 

The Reformation rightly emphasized that Scripture is replete with references, Old and New Testament, to support the extension of Anselm's view.  God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ; Christ, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve for our sins. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied not only the righteousness of God but also the wrath over and against sin. Only then could God forgive sinners without compromising His own holiness and righteousness. The language is forensic and, while it does not preclude the other models or descriptions of Christ's atoning work, it is certainly preeminent.  That said, it is refreshing to find that people are still talking about atonement at all in an age in which sin has been largely banished from the vocabulary of much of Christian preaching and teaching.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Sacred or secular. . . which is it?

Most of what passes for Christian music today is unsuitable for worship, at least for Lutheran worship.  While contemporary Christian music is certainly popular with some, popularity is not the criteria that should be used in choosing hymns or songs for the Divine Service.  The problem lies in a number of areas – both content and style are important but also the role of music and its appeal.

A few years ago Gallup found out that nearly half of all Protestants consider music and musical style as a factor in choosing a church.  The same poll said only 29% of Roman Catholics considered music and musical style when choosing which Mass to attend.  The reality is that some Lutherans might be closer to Protestants in thinking and other Lutherans might be closer to Roman Catholics.  As is typical, Lutherans tend to be all over the page.

The issue here is the music is not just music.  It is not generic or the same.  Sacred music is defined not simply by content (and then by more than the mere mention of God) but its role and place within the Divine Service.  It is first and foremost liturgical music.  Much of praise and worship music is designed to be performed and it is tuned for an emotional response.  In contrast to this, sacred music is, as Luther described, the servant of the Word.  It is distinctive because of its role and purpose uplifting but in a supportive role the Word of God.

In contrast to this, contemporary Christian music has a beat and a feel and an identity that is stolen right from pop music.  There is a seamless transition between the pop music that you hear on the secular play list to the contemporary Christian music you hear on a Christian play list.  While the words are certainly different, the words are part of an overall appeal that is larger than the message and have to do with the beat and sound of the music.

In addition, like all pop music, contemporary Christian music has a definite shelf life and the industry itself thrives on the production of new music more than the repetition of old music.  In some respects, we might even say that all contemporary music is tied to a moment in time and, in this respect, is meant to be disposable.  In contrast to this, sacred music is designed to transcend the moment and convey the eternal Gospel.

Contemporary Christian music is designed for the musician (player or singer) and exists to showcase the sound of the group.  It is performance music in which the music is performed by people for the benefit of others.  Of course, it is not only possible that people can and will sing along but they are singing along with the leaders and not in place of them.  In contrast to sacred music, the performers here tend to the background so that the voice is prominent and the voices that are prominent are the voices of the people and the Word of God. 

Because the instruments normally used to support contemporary Christian song are rhythmic and percussive and the instruments used for congregational song are melodic, the groups that lead the praise and worship music tend to be up-front and very visible while the organist and liturgical choirs tend to be behind the congregation.  It is entirely possible to never know what your organist or choir members look like and still to appreciate their leadership of hymn and chant while it is difficult to conceive of a praise band whose faces you do not see or the singer you do not know.

Some bands and worship leaders often speak of the ministry of music but this is largely a ministry of self-expression.  I do believe that music does have a ministry or service to the Word of God but it is not as self-expression (either as leaders or as people in the pew).  It is the servant of the Word whether it is in the hands of the organist or the mouths of the choir or the lips of the congregation.

Lutherans were once leaders in the area of church music.  All the big names of the past were Lutherans (from Luther to Pachelbel to Walther to Bach to Schütz and on and on and on).  Lately, however, Lutherans have been followers.  We are behind but trying to catch up with the cutting edge of things when it comes to worship and contemporary Christian music in worship is one of those areas where we have become borrowers of others instead of leaders in our own right.  This is a tragedy.  How is it that Lutherans may be more familiar with Chris Tomlin or Hillsong or Don Moen or Kari Jobe or a hundred other personalities in the contemporary Christian music industry than they are of their own tradition of sacred music from Bach to Manz?  Could it be that we have confused our people by forgetting that music supports the Word and by presuming that music either does not matter or that it matters mostly because of our preference?  If you don’t believe this is a problem, put a thousand Lutherans in one room and try to find one hymn that they know all the words to – and Amazing Grace does not count!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Organ competition. . .

Independent Lens and PBS put out this documentary about a Canadian Organ Competition that is worth your time to watch.  But as you watch it, remember to give thanks for your own faithful parish organist. If you do not have one, then work at find one or raising up one by paying for lessons in exchange for service playing.  If you want to preserve the King of Instruments in service to the praise of our Mighty God, which is both what the organ is best suited for and what best can accompany the sound of many voices in song, then don't be cheap about the musician or the instrument and do your part.  We need organists, good organists, and good organs.  It is not for them, but for us.  The pipe organ is at its best in worship and we are the beneficiaries.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Acknowledge Christ without Fear

Sermon for Pentecost 3, Proper 7A, preached on Sunday, June 21, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich. 

It’s coming.  It’s already here.  It’s inevitable.  Christ said it was going to happen.  You’re going to suffer persecution for what you believe.  You’re going to suffer for your faith.  You’ll be mocked.  You’ll be ridiculed.  You’ll be hated.  And so what?  What does that matter?  …  It doesn’t.  
When Jesus sent out the Twelve, He told them persecution would come their way.  Last week we heard it’s Christ warn them saying they’d be delivered over to the courts and flogged in the synagogues.  This physical persecution happened shortly after Christ’s ascension.  In Acts 5 we see the disciples arrested and beaten because they were proclaiming salvation in Christ, they were speaking the Word of the Lord.  
This persecution is nothing new.  The prophets of the Lord have always been persecuted for speaking His Word.  We heard Jeremiah’s words today in the OT reading, words that he spoke after he was arrested and put in stocks, arrested and put in stocks because he spoke the Word of the Lord, and a chief officer of the temple didn’t like what he said.  This was a physical persecution, but it was also social persecution.  The whole point of stocks was to be a form of public punishment, for people to look upon the person locked up there and mock them.  We’ve all seen it portrayed in the movies, people throwing rotten vegetables at the person, unable to escape the jeers and taunts.  Jeremiah admits he became a laughing stock and everyone mocked him (Jer 20:7).  Social persecution is very effective.
We fear persecution; we fear social persecution, maybe even more the physical persecution.  We fear being looked down upon for confessing Christ’s name.  We hear Jesus promise suffering and we do everything we can to avoid it.  We don’t want to suffer for Jesus’ name, especially if that means being a social outcast.  
If there’s one time in our lives that we never want to relive, it’s Jr High.  For many of us, these few years in school were difficult.  They weren’t hard because of the subjects we were learning, but because the social landscape of those hallways and cafeterias was an ever changing minefield.  At that time we were constantly concerned with doing the right thing, saying the right thing, wearing the right thing, the right thing being the popular thing, all with the hopes of socially fitting in.  We had to keep up with the latest fad, otherwise we were left out.  And not only were we left out, we were mocked for being left out.  Our only hope was that as we got older, all of this would go away...but it hasn’t.
Our society and culture is just like the hallways of Jr High.  We live our lives according to the rule of what is culturally popular, what is socially determined to be correct … and our faith has been labeled incorrect.  If you don’t believe it, just look at your TV.  How are faithful Christians portrayed in TV shows and in movies?  They’re characterized as being backward, uneducated, even crazy and weird.  See how people label the Biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman as hateful.  See how the Biblical value of life in the womb is called oppressive to women.  See how the Gospel message of salvation in Christ who died for the sins of all people is called discrimination.  And see how fiercely and loudly the Word of God is attacked.  
We fear this type of persecution.  We fear being labeled as such.  None of us want to be labeled as backward or weird.  None of us want to be called a bigot or hateful.  None of us want to be seen as judgmental.  None of us was to be called un-inclusive.  We want to avoid this negative press.  We want to avoid the possibility of losing our reputation, of becoming a social outcast.  And so, to avoid all of it, we stay quiet.  We keep our faith to ourselves.  We hide the name Christian behind silence, if not outright denial.  If we don’t say anything, then we’ll be safe, right?  But what does Jesus say? “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:32-33).   We can’t deny our Lord.  We can’t hide our faith.  There are eternal consequences to this.  We need to acknowledge our Savior.  We need to confess Him, even if it brings about social persecution, because in the end, this persecution can do nothing to us.  Even physical persecution can do nothing to us.  
I must admit, if I was welcomed into my first seminary class with these words of Jesus, promising me that I would have to endure hatred and persecution, I probably would’ve thought twice about continuing.  The threat of persecution isn’t appealing.  No one wants to suffer.  But what can this persecution really do?  Yes, it can make life uncomfortable.  Yes, it can make it difficult to live in society.  Yes, it can take our body.  But what is all of that compared to the everlasting life we have in Christ?  
Jesus doesn’t leave us alone with the fear of persecution.  He didn’t tell the disciples they were going to suffer and then say “Good-luck.”  No, He promised them salvation.  He promised that those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).  He reminded them how precious they were to God.  “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt 10:28-31).  
Persecution is difficult for sure.  It’s hard to endure.  They idea of being socially hated, the threat of physical harm because of the faith; these are heavy to bear.  But the truth is, none of it can take away our everlasting life.  Even if we’re killed, it has no lasting effect.  Our life is everlasting.  Our life is sure and certain because of Christ.  
Our Lord keeps you for salvation.  You’re not alone in persecution.  God is with you.  He is protecting you, guarding you in the faith, keeping you in the faith.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, calling you by the Gospel, enlightening you with His gifts, sanctifying and keeping you in the true faith.  Through the Word proclaimed, the Absolution spoken, and the Supper eaten, God strengthens your faith, enabling you to endure.  He brings you to your salvation He prepared by Christ’s death and resurrection.  
In the midst of his persecution, Jeremiah praised the Lord (Jer 20:13).  After being beaten, the disciples rejoiced because they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus’ name (Act 5:41).  And even in the midst of the persecution and hatred we suffer, we have joy because of the salvation we have in Him.  The Lord has delivered our life and saved us from all sin and death.  
What can man's persecution do to us?  Nothing.  Like Luther sings, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life they wrenched away, they cannot win the day.  The kingdom’s ours forever!”  It isn’t easy to endure persecution, but we don’t stand alone.  And with faith, we don’t fear it.  Christ stands for us, acknowledging us before the Father.  Everlasting life is yours, certain and sure.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

The creedal function of the liturgy. . .

The ordinary, those rather unchangeable parts of the Divine Service, are not simply texts but intricately connected parts of a whole -- a whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.  That said, it is thoroughly possible to look at, discuss, and consider each part individually as long as we do not isolate the parts as if they were spots to be filled instead of texts brought together over time to honor the Lord and confess the faith.  Yes, that last part is vitally important.  If you want to know what it is that we believe, you need not limit yourself to the creed.  Look at the liturgy.

In particular, the Gloria in Excelsis is a profound text.  Who wrote it or from whence it comes we are not quite sure.  It must have been around already in the late second or early third century because by the end of the fourth century it is literally everywhere.  It is a text with an economy of words that speaks, or should I say sings, an eloquent and orthodox confession that, even without the creed, anchors the Church and the faithful in doctrine of the Trinity and in Biblical Christology.

As I grew up singing:
Glory be to God on high: and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.
We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee,
we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee, for Thy great glory.
O Lord God, heav’nly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sin of the world, receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.
For Thou only art [the] holy [One]; Thou only art the Lord.
Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost,
art [the] most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

However, there are definite defects in this text which have been corrected in Divine Service One and Two.  In the third last line, the definite article is missing the holy and to make it more sensible in English One.  Then in the last line should be added the simple word the.  Though the Latin does not have the article (or any articles, per se) the correct rendering of this line in English requires the article.  Christ is not simply holy but the Holy One and He is not simply most high but The Most High God.  Modern liturgical leadership has corrected what is missing here only to take something away (but I will get to that).

There is also one line that has been vastly misunderstood.  The goodwill toward men is not conditioned as some have it to men of goodwill nor does it describe anything that we have done.  The peace and goodwill are not sentiment but flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ -- the full manifestation of the Father's goodwill and gift of peace.  The angel host proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  This peace and good will are not a cessation of violence among the nations or a setting aside of personal animosities but God forging peace with the gift of His Son and the good will is from God to His people -- the love that has accomplished salvation for us through the forgiveness of our sins and the victory over death and the grave. 

The text reminds us of the liturgical use of Scripture which is not incidental but essential.  As the sainted Martin Franzmann wrote theology must sing.  Doctrine does not exist as philosophical statements to which the assent of the mind is required but reveals for the purpose of inviting faith that sings, prays, and gives thanks.  Surely that is evident in the Gloria with its beginning rooted in the Incarnation and the quaint details of St. Luke that prove to be the very cross hairs of the central message of God's revelation.  The Son of God brings to man the face of God and the heart of God and apart from Him we know only vague and cloudy estimates of who God is and what He has done.

These are words that an Arian or Unitarian or modalist cannot sing.  It is the shibboleth by which even those who try to look orthodox are tested.  Of course, it is possible to sing without thinking, understanding, or agreeing with the words but even then the words remain as anchors of orthodoxy for the present and the future.  These are words the unfold from the Manger the full epiphany of God and place our voices in response with praise, blessing, worship, glory, and thanksgiving for the gift of the Father in His Son and the Holy Spirit who makes Him known.  Indeed, this is the ancient text that has, unfortunately, been rendered merely an option for a particular point in the liturgy by modern liturgical guidance and practice and deprived of its primary place as faith confessed. 

The Hymn of Praise is not a placeholder for whatever text or tune you wish to put there.  The Gloria is the Hymn of Praise.  I love This is the Feast and delight in how the ancient Dignus est Agnus has been restored to use after being relegated to the forgotten pages of previous hymnals.  What I cannot countenance is how this has become for so many the preferred Hymn of Praise.  Or how some have reasoned that this is what you sing when you celebrate the full Divine Service and the Gloria becomes the also ran for the half mass or dry mass without the actual Sacrament.  The people need to know this and learn to love it as the first and primary creed of the Divine Service.  It is where the faith is placed upon our lips as song of praise to God but as creedal confession before the world.  If This is the Feast replaces the Gloria it must be only for the shortest of term, perhaps in the time of Easter, but not regularly.  The Gloria  remains the primary canticle of the Church's liturgy.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Coming in Advent 2021

WELS Connection - February 2020 from WELS on Vimeo.

You have to admire the effort even if the verdict on the book will have to wait.  After all, the Wisconsin Synod is a small fraction of the size of the Missouri Synod and they have been plugging along not simply for a new hymnal but for 17 volumes to be released in Advent of 2021.  I continue to be amazed by the ambitious project they have underway and the fact that they appear to be on schedule.  It points to the many companion volumes slated for Lutheran Service Book that have not yet been been begun, much less completed, and our hymnal is not 14 years old this Fall.  I only wish that we had the same drive and were willing to expend the same dollars to finish our hymnal project before the next one is begun.  This is not the first time we have been slow.  Lutheran Worship: History and Practice was slated to come out with Lutheran Worship in the early 1980s and it took a decade before it showed up.  Late enough for people to have already formed an opinion about LW before they even got a detailed background into the book!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A novel idea. . .

On this day we honor dads, lets step it up a bit.  Dads can celebrate by taking their families to church, the first of what will become a regular habit for those without a history and a renewed commitment for those with the custom of being in our Father's House every week.  Dads can show forth the most essential and foremost role of fatherhood -- not great grilling tricks or fixit skills or a big chair or claim to the TV on game day or even going to work (there may be nothing wrong with these but that is not what fatherhood is about).  Dads can show their character and how well they understand their vocation by being a faithful Christian husband to their wives and a faithful Christian leader of the home for their children.  Dads can demonstrate a self-less and servant heart for their wives and children, neighbors and friends, and even the stranger on the street.  Dads can teach their children to pray and make sure their children know the story of the Scriptures -- from patriarch and prophet and promise to the Savior who kept their word and by His obedient life and life-giving death and might resurrection rescued us from sin, death, and the devil.  Dads can show reverence for the things of God and especially for the duty of the Christian to be around the Lord's Word and Table on the Lord's Day.

And those who want to honor their dads will do this.  They will go with their dad to church, taking up the new found discipline of weekly worship or continuing the familiar pattern in their own lives.  They will honor their dads not with a sappy card but with an acknowledgement of the gift of a witness to the faith and a promise to be the a witness in their own homes.  They will by loving their own spouses faithfully and raising their children in the faith.  They will pray with their dads on Father's Day and keep on praying for dad and for those God has placed in their care all year long.  They will honor the Lord with words that confess Jesus Christ and with works that show forth the light of His saving work to those around them.

Yes, we can grill and laugh and enjoy a beer.  Hopefully not just on Father's Day.  But underneath it all we cannot forget that the primary role of the father is to teach the Heavenly Father to their children, bringing the love of Christ into the home, and bring those in the home to know their Father's House as they know their own.  Maybe I am dreaming.  I hope I am not.  Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

What you read here. . .

It has been a while since you read the little paragraph explaining this blog or I have bothered to write something about it, so it is time.  This is a blog.  It is not a place where I publish scholarly articles or well researched or thought out opinion pieces.  It is thoughts.  My thoughts.  My meandering thoughts.  My meandering thoughts as a pastor of some 40 years.  So do not visit expecting to find thoughts that are without error or opinions that have covered all the bases or my final conclusions on the matter.  My mind changes and I react.  It is helpful to my mental health to write things down and some have found these meandering thoughts interesting.  Some even helpful.  Some wrong.  I am happy to have you read them but read them for what they are, not for what they are not.

I often condemn social media and I do understanding that blogging is social media, albeit an ancient form and quite different from Twitter or Instagram or even Facebook.  I do understand that social media might have a place and a purpose but both of those get buried in a sea of sentiment, stupidity, and spurious content. For myself, I do not spend a huge amount of time on these posts.  They are written rather quickly and do not mean to be hit pieces but are an attempt to invite or add to an on-going conversation. I am under no illusions.  These things could have been better thought out, better written, and better edited.  I have not the time or energy or, frankly, the desire to do that.  So what you see is what you get.

What I will say is this.  Read.  Read books.  Read scholarly journals.  Read the news.  Read thoughtful commentators.  Read sermons.  Read.  And think.  Think about what you have read and what was missing in what you read.  Because the sad truth is that a large number of pastors do not do much reading nor do they do much thinking.  This is not good.  This is why such strange and kooky things get said and done in the name of orthodox Christianity.  If you have a stray thought, send it out to your peers.  Discuss it.  Believe you me, I get plenty of feedback on my many half-baked ideas and it is a good thing.  Sometimes you need to toss into the garbage your ill-conceived thoughts.  Sometimes good people can help you figure out which are the bad apples in your orchard of thoughts and ideas.  But none of it happens without reading, thinking, and reflection. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Wait for it. . . wait for it. . . oops, nothing to wait for. . .

Once upon a time Lutherans came together to form two fraternals, Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood.  They formed these organizations to provide insurance, financial services, and to further their goals and purposes as Lutheran Christians in their communities.  Then Lutherans got greedy.  AAL and LB merged and became Thrivent -- purposefully turning the focus away from the reasons for their existence.  Sure, for Lutherans was in the fine print but not in the business plan.  Then a bogus vote which promoted the idea that Lutheran products were too good for Lutherans only made it Thrivent Financial for all Christians.  Then the logo itself got in the way of the business model.  A heart and a cross.  Something had to go.  Not the heart.  But the cross.  Now it is only thrivent (lower case with a little heart sitting on the "t" (tee and not a symbol of a cross!).  The little heart is a good symbol because there is little heart left in this organization.  The local chapters or branches are all gone.  No local money to distribute to focus on Lutheran works in the larger community.  Thrivent Choice dollars still exist but they ask you a couple of times if you really want your dollars to go where you want them.  And there is a prepaid card to be used to promote your favorite charity -- IF it meets Thrivent's requirements. 

I regret that I am old enough and with a history that makes divesting from thrivent a costly endeavor -- especially at this time of economic crisis.  But I am not sure I would recommend this as anything more than a financial services company.  It is not special anymore.  Not just because it is not Lutheran but because it does not connect through a common faith or values -- only the common goal to make money.  I am not sure why or how it is still possible for thrivent to still be a fraternal.  It probably should be what it is -- a financial services company little different from Fidelity or Mass Mutual or a hundred other companies.  It is big.  Too big in my book.  It does not care if you have a faith as long as you have money.  And so that is where it all led.  I said this would be the end a long time ago.  The new logo only confirms it -- thrivent a very small and cold heart.

In their own words. . .
We are transforming the way we do business, including our brand, to ensure we’re continuing to put our clients at the center of everything we do, and that the experiences you have with Thrivent are better than ever before – from a redesigned website, to new digital tools and streamlined processes that will make things easier for you.

Our new brand reflects our fundamental purpose as an organization: we believe humanity thrives when people make the most of all they’ve been given. We’ve also refined our promise to you: we’re here to help you achieve financial clarity, enabling lives full of meaning and gratitude.

Our purpose and promise have guided our new brand expression, including an updated look and feel, a modernized digital experience, and an improved way of showing up for you today and in the future.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Upside down. . .

In the Virgin Islands, the US Governor has said no to communion, yes to masks, six feet of distance even within families who live in the same home, and no more than 50 in attendance no matter the size of the structure and no matter if all the other restrictions could be met.  This ban hits sacramental churches hardest.

Germany has told the Orthodox that they may not offer or receive Holy Communion because the method of communion is conducive to the read of corona virus and endangers public health.  This ban covers largely the Greek community of over 400,000 migrants living in Germany.

In San Francisco the Catholic Charities organization is promoting pride month with genital shaped cookies and is tweeting tributes to Harvey Milk and ways to celebrate Pride at home.  This is Catholic Charities, mind you, an agency of the Roman Catholic Church.  The issues here are not simply the stands taken but the poor taste and vulgarity in the way they are taken.

In Florence, one of the homes to the flourishing of the arts in the time of the Renaissance, a museum director is suggesting that religious art has no place in a museum and, since it is devotional art, it should hand in a religious setting.  Perhaps this is a grand gesture to restore art that was often taken from churches over the centuries.  Or perhaps it is a sign that the public square is to be stripped of its religious symbols just as it is even now being stripped of statues of those whose views are no longer tolerated.

Mayor De Blasio insists that churches be limited to 10 while allowing the protesters unlimited numbers in their protests and then tells a Hebrew language newspaper that the reason is the 400 years of racism that has been endured – as of Jews know nothing of racism, prejudice, and persecution.

Does it seem to you as if we are seeing a world turned on end?  Does it seem to lack reason and thought?  Does it seem like the intent here is simply to draw lines, tear down, and control?  I am all for finding paths to reduce prejudice, to ensure equal protection under the law, to teach the flaws and the flawed leaders of our past, to be safe and deliberate in what we do (as churches as well as individuals in the age of COVID 19), and to be sensitive to the diversity of the public square (without sacrificing our identity as Christians), but I am not at all sure that is the overall plan here.  Perhaps there is no plan.  Perhaps it is all about reacting without reason or acting without thought.  It does seem to place often conflicting and impossible burdens upon the fabric of our society and it also seems that Christianity is either unfairly blamed or unjustly singled out amid it all.  Strange because the Church was and remains an agent responsible in great part for the flowering of the arts and science, medicine and social work, individual rights, challenges to oppression, racism, and prejudice, and the care of those without voices or power.  Yet somehow that seems to have been forgotten.  Be careful when you erase history.  What you choose to write in its place may not be any more truthful or helpful than what you took out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How shall we be seen. . .

Hot spots are developing all over the US.  Whether due to more testing or spreading due to the opening or whatever, it may well be that the view of our political and medical leaders will go back to the churches and the wisdom of their assembling together on the Lord's Day.  Those who read this blog will already know that I am not ready to accept either new restrictions on the churches or to concede to political and governmental authority the right to tell the constitutionally protected churches what to do.  Nevertheless, if there is ever a time to make sure that we as churches are acting responsibly, now is that time.  Be calm, patient, responsible, and move deliberately. 

What does this mean?  It means taking every reasonable precaution that does not preclude who we are in liturgical form and sacramental life.  So you will not hear from me any suggestion that we should abandon the physical distancing that has become the norm everywhere nor will you hear from me the suggestion that it is time to toss the hand sanitizers and go back to life pre-COVID 19.  But neither do we need to retreat from our gathering together in the Lord's House to some virtual assembly which is anything but real.  Now is our time to show forth our discretion, our discernment, and our diligence.  We can do this without being labeled by or accused of fostering an unsafe community or encouraging risky habits.  We can do this without going back to many services of few attendees and we can do this without withholding the Sacrament and we can do this without giving up congregational song.  But we must school our people and exercise responsible care of our people so that we are acting both with liturgical integrity and concern for those around us.

We will be watched -- not only by those in politics, medicine, and government but also by those who are venturing out of the refuge of their homes for the first visits to God's House.  We will be judged -- not only by those who seek to restrain our rights or restrict our assembly but also by those who want to be present but who have been gripped in the fear of this pandemic for months.  We will be watched and judged by God -- not only for our faithfulness to Him but also our love for our neighbor (especially the weak and fragile ones).  So while we maintain our insistence that the people have a right to assemble that cannot be abridged, we will act responsibly and compassionately and faithfully without using that right as license to act with callous disregard toward those around us.  Which, if the government had asked for our cooperation instead of treating us as a non-essential gathering of people doing non-essential things, is what we would have done in the first place.  Sure, there will be kooks and fools who will grandstand in their rights to do whatever they please but, I pray, that is not who we are or how we shall respond to the concerns for a spike.

We need to show those around us that we are not indifferent to their concerns and that we can gather God's people around His Word and Sacrament while honoring those concerns and being faithful to the command of God to worship Him.  We do not need to resort to gimmicks or virtual reality shows or the like.  To be faithful to God, to be faithful in our pastoral care of God's people, and to be faithful to our relationship to our neighbors need not compete or conflict.  That is part of what I have been saying all along and it is no less true now as the formal restrictions are being lifted but the numbers do not seem to be declining. . . yet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The mission is Gods. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 2, Proper 6A, preached on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

    One of the great dangers to the Church and to faithful pastors and faithful Christian people is the temptation to believe that the mission of God is ours.  It is our job to direct, to fund, to staff, and to make it successful.  We like it because it makes us managers with authority to decide where to go, what to do, and how to do it.  But the scary part of this is that God will hold us responsible when it does not work, that is when the churches do not grow and it does not seem people are brought to faith.

    But the mission is not ours.  It was and remains Christ’s mission.  We are not the managers of His mission but its servants.  We do not direct this mission but simply do what God has called us to do, where He has called us to do it, and the results and rewards remain His own domain.  It is enough for us to be faithful – faithful in attending the worship services of God’s house where His Word is proclaimed and Sacraments administered, faithful in the proclamation of the Gospel within our homes and to our families – especially to the children in our care, faithful in living out this faith before our neighbors near and far, and faithful in supporting the work of the Kingdom as the Lord has blessed us, and faithful in times of pandemic and panic.  This may seem over whelming but it this is the ordinary vocation of Christ’s people in response to His extraordinary grace and mercy.

    For too long we have allowed the illusion that we are in charge, that success is the result of our efforts and that failure means we need to work harder.  If that were the case, then it would give us great power, indeed.  The reality is that we are called to and held accountable for doing what God has called us to do but the rest is in His hands.

    Jesus had compassion on the aimless crowds wandering around in need of hope.  He is that hope.  You are not and I am not.  We are laborers, in different venues to be sure but laborers for Christ who have been called to make known the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  The world does not need saviors, only Christ the one and only Savior.  But the world does need us to rejoice in and to live out our faith.

    Now Christ has a warning for us.  We are warned that enemies of the Kingdom and therefore our enemies will persecute you, threaten you, ridicule you, and undermine your confidence in God doing what He has promised to do.  This is perhaps the most dangerous – to lack confidence that God will work where and how He has promised to work, to lack confidence in the means of grace.  Notice, Jesus does not say IF this will happen but WHEN it happens.  No one is saved from the callous rejection of the world – not even Jesus!  Yet we are not to dwell on this rejection.  It is not merely a matter of working harder or smarter or being more effective evangelists but trusting in the Word of God to do what God has promised.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.

    If and when disappointment will come, we are not to fixate on it or shred our hopes upon the sharp edges of our defeats.  No, indeed.  Shake off the dust and head on to those who will hear the Word of the Lord from our lips.  Were you listening?  We worry about too many things.  Is our church friendly enough, are we nice enough, do we have enough programs, is our worship comfortable to the stranger, and will our people like the liturgy or the beat of our music?  We change too many things in pursuit of that magical mix of things that will appeal to people and cause them to come.  What is wrong with us?  We are not the magnets that attract people but the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit works through the means of grace.

    People do not come because we are nice but because the Holy Spirit works in them through the preaching of the Word.  Churches are not successful because they have inventive, creative, and effective programs but because they are faithful to the Word and Sacraments – at least successful in God’s eyes.  People do not come because they are in love with or in awe of the pastors but because God has called them through His Gospel, gathered them under His name, enlightened them by His Spirit, and sanctified them by His Word.  The mission is not ours but Christ’s and we are but day laborers through whose voices He speaks and by whose hands He serves.  The key is the Word of God.

    The sending of the twelve with authority over unclean spirits, diseases, and afflictions is like our time but still unique.  The Gospel had not yet been written into words nor had Christ yet fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets with His obedient life, life-giving death, and mighty resurrection.  Pastors are successors to the apostles but not replacements for them.  Pastors serve under the Good Shepherd so that God’s people may fulfill their God-given vocations as Christian people, Christian husbands and wives, Christian parents and children, Christian employers and workers, and Christian neighbors. 

    Rather than dwell on what is not ours to do, it is good that we consider what God HAS called us to do.  At the end of the Gospel reading it is made plain.  Do not be anxious about what to say or how to speak, for the Lord will give you His Word.  This is not some promise of spontaneous and immediate revelation but a reference to the Word written in the Gospels.  That is why we are to know Scripture well.  For this is the Word that speaks and people are brought to faith and repentance, to baptism and into the Kingdom of God.  We are the mouths but His is the voice.  And we should not be so concerned about statistics for God is the scorekeeper.  Only God sees the heart; we see only the lens of the a brief moment in time.  God sees and knows it all.  To those who believe and are baptized, He gives freely the salvation for which Christ paid with His life on the cross.  And to those who do not, “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah” than for those who reject His gift. Be careful about what is ours to know and do and what is not.

    Is it possible that we have become overwhelmed with the grand scheme of things so that we forget what is our role and purpose?  I think that is exactly the case.  We worry about the news, about the direction of the culture, about being rejected by the world, about being liked, about our track record.  What we ought to be worrying about is how to be a good husband to our wife and a good wife to our husband, how to be a good parent to our child and a good child to our parents, how to be a good neighbor to those around us, and how to be good citizens in this land.  What we ought to be worrying about is not whether we will be successful but whether we will be faithful.  What we ought to be worrying about is whether we have believed, worshiped, and served the Lord where we are at and before those around us.  If this sounds like the Table of Duties in the Catechism, it should.

    However, the Lord has keyed in one particular aspect of this.  The recruitment of church workers, in particular pastors.  We need to be praying for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest but we dare not stop there.  We should be encouraging the young men in our congregation to consider the pastoral ministry, to prayerfully discern the Lord’s call to be a pastor, and to support them as they hear and heed that call.  The truth is that our church is woefully short of pastors.  Too few are entering seminary and too few are graduating.  Too many congregations are without pastors and that is and should be our concern.  When Pastor Ulrich graduated there were about 50 in his class; now there are in the 30s.  When I graduated there were 150 in my class and a few generations before me there were 300 graduating from Seminary.  We need to pray and encourage men to consider the pastoral office and we ought to put our money where our mouths are.

    As true as this is for pastors, it is also true of the other offices of the church – from parochial school teachers to Directors of Christian Education and parish musicians. This also includes short term and long term missionaries on the mission field.  We  need to pray the Lord to raise up men and women to serve in these capacities, pray for those raised up, and support them in the work of the Kingdom which they do in our name, nearby and across the world.  Where and when this happens, then we can sing the praise of God with a clear conscience and know that we have done what God has called us to do.  Until then, this cause ought to be as urgent to the Church as paying the bills and getting people to serve on church council.

    With this comes the admonition from St. Paul – how then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  This is how the Pentecost miracle continues to unfold among us today – the faithful fulfilling their baptismal vocation and the Church equipped with ministers to preach and teach Christ’s Word.  Amen.

Drop the mic. . .

I was moving some old journals and magazines and, typically, a copy fell open and I stopped what I was doing to read it (never actually getting back to what I began).  Kevin White, “Drop the Mic,” First Things 228 (December 2012) was the article.
"Microphones were occasionally used at Mass prior to the 1960s, but they have since become standard equipment. A rationale for their introduction would seem to have been that they gave the priest a voice equal in volume to that of the congregation, with whom he could therefore be in dialogue. But microphones also opened up new possibilities for participation by members of the congregation, who began to read, make announcements, and lead others in prayer and song. Rare is the Mass today at which there is not more than one microphone and more than one amplified voice."
White is picking up from something written by Marshall McLuhan.
“… one can see the matter in parallel form in the discovery by the preacher that the microphone is incompatible with vehement exhortation or stern admonition. To a public that is electronically participant in a completely acoustic situation, loudspeakers bring the sounds of the preacher from several directions at once. The structure of our churches is obsolesced by the multi-directional media speaker system, and the older distance between speaker and audience is gone. The audience is now in immediate relation with the speaker, a factor which also turns the celebrant around to face the congregation. These major aspects of liturgical change were unforeseen and unplanned and remain unacknowledged by the users of the microphone system in our churches.”  

Where the use of a public address system once was justified so that what is said might be heard, today it has changed so that what is heard might receive the consent (or even the rebuttal) of the hearer.  It also relieves the hearer of knowing or following along with the printed text.  In the days of Latin in the Mass, those who attended did not have to hear every word to know what was being said.  The text barely changed.  It was the same (except for the pericopes).  Most had it memorized.  They knew their responses and when to respond.  They knew the priest's part.  It was not so different for me growing up.  We did not have hymnals in the pews.  People brought The Lutheran Hymnal from home but most had page 5 and 15 (and even page 32) memorized.  They knew their part and they also knew the pastor's part.  They opened the book for the hymns but had the liturgy in their hearts and minds.

Now the PA system and the ever present microphones have erased the need to stick to the text and to know the text.  In other words, the ability to project the voice so that everyone hears has made it possible to deviate from the script and to be spontaneous in the liturgy.  This only works if people can hear.  It is only effective if they are not working from their own memorized script but following the lead of the loudest voice in the room.  In other words, we have used technology for an unintended purpose -- to make it possible for the pastor to write his own script or go off the cuff and for people to follow along.  Since the pastor is not reading from the text and his hearers do not have the text before them, the goal of the public address system is not for them simply to understand but to follow and to agree.  They hear so that they can give their consent.  Their consent is not automatic or expected or even anticipated.  Thus comes the need for people to be able to participate and respond in a public manner -- to show they do agree and they have followed what was said.

Implicit in this is the notion that the Word is not simply heard but that I must cooperate or respond to that Word.  Going to church has come to mean having a part to place in the service and active participation has come to mean having a voice that is heard.  This is not what we thought when we made this technology an essential part of worship but this is surely the result.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Worst ideas in the wake of the pandemic. . .

Remember Salad Shooter?  How about Corpus Christi Shooter?

Or Jesus in cellophane?  Hermetically sealed Jesus?

Or salad communion tongs?  Do you sanitize the tongs between servings?

Or, the old stand by, virtual communion with local means and distant consecration?  AKA Jelly Jar Jesus?

Not compelling. . .

As I have written before, those who presume that video and media can and will replace the live preaching of a pastor facing people in the pews should simply look at the statistics provided by social media.  Few folks listen to the entire video and less than half make it through the typical sermon.  I confess no magic and our statistics are similarly abysmal.  Yet sometimes I wonder why we would expect folks who have the option of fast forward, mute, and delete to stay tuned.  The folks in the pew have to be there and few leave until the benediction but I presume they might have the same complaint as those who are supposed to be listening at home.

Today's sermons are many things but I fear they are not very compelling.  In part this is because sometimes even the preacher could fall asleep during his own sermon.  Sermons are dull.  Not dull in the sense of a lack of excitement but dull from the sense that they make little difference to and therefore little impact upon the listener.  It is as if the information provided had no point or need.  It is just information.

Part of this is the fact that we have been taught that words have little meaning.  The hearers of sermons have grown up at a time in which truth is true only if you want it to be or decide it is.  They have been taught to be passive in the face of words.  These words may offer information but it is largely irrelevant information -- the way we treat information we get from the internet.  Part of the blame falls on hearers accustomed to sound bites and information limited by Twitter rules.  But that is not all.

Part of it is the preacher -- in fact, a good part of the blame falls in the pulpit.  We as preachers do not preach compellingly.  Our sermons are not focused and our manuscripts are not written to persuade but to inform.  We as preachers presume we are good at our craft but we are not as good as we think.  We need to listen to good preachers regularly (most pastors never listen to the sermons of others) and we need to learn how to craft a sermon.  Our skills are not born but are learned and one of the best ways to learn our craft is to listen to those who are good preachers.  I personally feel the fault lies in trying to do too much from the pulpit; instead of accomplishing a clear and compelling and direct sermon, we squander the attention of our hearers with unfocused sermons.  If hearing or not hearing that sermon made little or no difference to the hearer, then we have failed in one of our primary tasks.  This is what I mean by the word "compelling."  Sermons should force the hearer to look inside, to listen to the Word, and to act on behalf of that Word.  Now I am not naive and believe the Word of God works in spite of our flaws and failings but why should we let this comfort lull us into complacency?  Preaching is one of the most important things we do as pastors.  Preaching requires our full attention, expects our full labor, and presumes that the sermon is compelling.  Why would we fail to less than our best for this?

During this pandemic I often preached the same sermon 6-8 times, often 4 times in a row.  I got to know the manuscript a little more intimately than I do most of my sermons.  It is instructive, however, to be forced to preach the same sermon so often for it quickly reveals to you the weaknesses in that sermon.  I suspect that many folks have been in the same boat.  If we pay attention to what we have learned, I hope and pray that our people will benefit from better preaching down the road.

I will admit that I did not have great teachers in Seminary.  They were not bad but they were not great either.  I will also admit that the chapel sermons that were compelling and memorable were few.  It was and is less a problem of failure than lost opportunity.  In a few years my regular preaching opportunities will be less and I will be listening.  But until the day when I am no longer in the pulpit, I promise to try harder to be better.  I ask you, whoever you are as hearer, to make the same promise to be better at listening.  And, while you are at it, don't worry about comments after the sermon unless you mean them.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

What hath Caesar wrought?

What hath Caesar wrought?  The weeks and months of the great shut down are slowly coming to an end and more and more the openings allowed for things religious and secular.  Yet, the aftermath of Caesar's rule over our liturgical life has left much damage in its wake.

Our people have learned to view their neighbors with fear as if the person sitting down the pew from them is a threat to their health and well-being.  Our children have learned the lesson that the Fourth Commandment is more important than the First Commandment in most of our churches.  Our witness to the world is that we have absolute trust in science, in medicine, and in threat prediction software -- as much as in God and His Word.  Our clergy are divided with some offended that services continued and others offended that public services ended.  Our leaders have shown a remarkable reluctance to encourage ways to keep the doors open and most counseled shutting everything down.  Our next steps are as uncertain as first steps as we are as afraid of going back to the old normal as we are fearful of the new normal.

What shall we do?  In the face of this, some have taken personal offense and others have taken disagreement as sin and others have fought out our battles on social media.  It is a mess.  I am personally grieved over it all as are many whom I know.  But in the midst of this I preached at the funeral of one of my closest friends, a pastor newly retired, who died without benefit of the Sacrament for the months prior to his untimely passing. It grieves me that it has all come down to this.  Roman bishops who deferred to science and state more than Scripture and tradition.  Lutheran Presidents who echoed the CDC more than they preached the Gospel.  Evangelicals who decided that their worship did not require any personal presence.  Empty churches that testified to the fact that God and His Word had nothing to say to pandemics.  Kooks who acted as if nothing had changed and kept on keeping on to disastrous result.  It is a shame.  A friend whose wise counsel and challenge was met with a sacramental ban.  Hmmmmm.  We have surrendered more than I thought and we are still bleeding even as the doors are opening more and more.

Yes, I have been adamant that Caesar had not right to abridge our constitutional rights as Americans.  Yes, I have been insistent that there were options other than closing up shop and leaving our people to virtual sermons, devotions, and sacraments.  Yes, I have been disappointed that our leaders were unwilling to champion the creative ways to keep the doors open and acquiesced too quickly to the will and demand of politician and physician.  But it was not meant personally -- though I grant it could have been taken personally.  Get over it.  We have bigger fish to fry than to place a brother under the ban because he dared to disagree.  We have more urgent issues than personal offense.  I am not naming names but calling upon all parties to step back and take a breath.  Are we in the Church subject to the same thin skins that are normal for social media?  Is is always about me?

Caesar has won a great battle.  He has exposed the soft underbelly of Christendom and shown how we act when folks disagree with us.  This may be one of the lasting legacies of the great interdict of 2020 (as a friend has named it).  Long after the corona virus is over and gone, we will still remember how divided we were before the threat and how easy it was for our pride to be the downfall of our unity and confession.  What will we remember about corona virus 2020?  How about how easy it was to divide and conquer Christian pastors and theologians and bishops!  How about how quickly we were more concerned with personal offenses then we were public witness?  How about how we ended up believing with the government that we were pretty much non-essential groups doing non-essential activities.  And we played right into satan's hand.