Friday, July 31, 2020

Unsettled settled law. . .

The history of Supreme Court decisions on the issue of racial discrimination and slavery has evolved over time.  In the three biggest name cases, we see how things moved over the course of a hundred years and there are still new challenges and new decisions.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) People of African descent that are slaves or were slaves and subsequently freed, along with their descendants, cannot be United States citizens. Consequently, they cannot sue in federal court. Additionally, slavery cannot be prohibited in U.S. territories before they are admitted to the Union as doing so would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. After the Civil War, this decision was voided by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) Segregated facilities for blacks and whites are constitutional under the doctrine of separate but equal, which holds for close to 60 years (overruled by Brown v. Board of Education (1954)).

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) Segregated schools in the states are unconstitutional because they violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court found that the separate but equal doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) "has no place in the field of public education".
If stare decisis (Latin for “to stand by things decided”) were to determine where we are with respect to race, we would still be living in the shadow of the Dred Scott decision.  This legal deference to precedent has become one of the sacred doctrines of law.  Courts cite to stare decisis when an issue has already been decided by the court and the court stands by its ruling. According to the Supreme Court, stare decisis “promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.”  The Supreme Court itself usually defers to its own previously rendered  decisions --  even if the soundness of the decision is in doubt.  The justification for this is that the benefit of this rigidity or continuity means that we are relieved of continuously reevaluating the legal underpinnings of past decisions and what have become accepted doctrines. Proponents  of stare decisis argue that the predictability afforded by this legal doctrine helps clarify constitutional rights for the public.

So a few weeks ago, the SCOTUS rendered a decision on a Louisiana abortion law and the decision had less to do with the law itself than it did to the issue of stare decisis.  The Chief Justice, on the losing side when the SCOTUS ruled on a similar Texas law, said simply:  The Louisiana law imposes a burden on access to abortion just as severe as that imposed by the Texas law, for the same reasons. Therefore Louisiana’s law cannot stand under our precedents.

In other words, we made a wrong decision then but it was the decision we made so now we must stick to it.  Why would that not work in the cause of ending racial discrimination but remains the final hurdle in the Court reversing its most flawed and inventive decision in Roe v Wade?  I wish I had an answer to that question.  I hope and pray that eventually (will we have to wait 100 years!) the Court will figure out that Roe v Wade was wrong decision in 1973 and has been wrong ever since.  Until then, as did the Dred Scott decision, our nation will live with the dispute, conflict, and division that has characterized religion, politics, and society ever since.  At some point in time we hope and pray that there will be people with enough to courage to admit this wrong decision and to admit that stare decisis has caused only more blood and bitterness across America in the wake of that wrong decision.  How can we fight for the rights of a few while tens of millions were and are routinely killed in the wake of a misguided and invented ruling that bypassed all political processes and turned the court into a legislative body?  I wish I knew.  But things are not improving on this front.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The cherubim still block the way back to the garden. . .

Read through Genesis 3.  It is the story of great disappointment, grave consequences, and grand delusions.  Remember also that God knew it would go this way before He laid down the pillars on which all creation stands, before He made the world and all that is in it, and before He breathed life into the dust to make us in His image.  Still, He persevered to finish His creation knowing the cost of redeeming what would be lost to Him in a moment of doubt, delusion, and denial.  Knowing the cross would be the cost of love, love did not hesitate to act.

Yet there is one more thing, too often missed.  Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

For our own protection, the Lord stationed the mighty cherubim and a flaming sward to keep us from re-entering Eden and trying to restore things as they were by our own wisdom and might.  Redemption would come at the Lord's own bidding, in the Lord's own time, and by the Lord's own sacrificial redemption.  Until that day, there was only one thing on the Father's agenda.  He must protect His creation.  He had already filled their emptiness with hope of a Savior born of the woman. He would send forth His law as a fence to rein in the evil in the heart of man.  He had set in place the plan of salvation.  But there was no turning back.  So the road to Eden was blocked and man must live with himself until redemption was complete.

There are too many who have an agenda and who have hijacked the faith in order to promote their agenda.  They want to save the world, save the children, save the aged, save the poor, and save creation.  It is the melancholy refrain of a people who know what it wrong and who just want to fix it or at least be a part of the movement to repair what is broken.  Sadly, some of these people are more wedded to their cause than to the Lord whose redemption is our only hope and salvation.  Even so-called Christians turn their energies more on the deliverance of the day than the new heaven and earth which the Lord has promised.  Even self-proclaimed Christians have given into the idea that the rescue of the day is more important than being rescued for eternity.

The Church has been used as a spring board for so many causes -- good and not so good.  But the Church is not a launching pad for initiatives to redeem the present.  The Church certainly does impart the compassion to relieve the suffering around her but not as substitute for preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified and for proclaiming the kingdom in which sin no longer destroys and death no longer reigns.  From the beginning there have been temptations that would distract God's Church from her goal and purpose.  The things held in common in Acts 2 became a distraction and a drag upon the Church's primary role and the waiting of tables in Acts 6 soon became a conflict of inequities and wounded feelings that could not be ignored.

There are some Christians and many outside the Church who feel poised to begin America anew and to restore an Eden against the backdrop of our own scarred history and painful divisions.  They have heady dreams of a world without prejudice, where resources are fully equal, where inequities no longer exist, when the individual is fully free to be whoever and whatever they desire, and when there are no more oppressors or oppressed.  But the cherubim still block the way back to Eden and sin still infects the heart, tempts the mind, corrupts the soul, and defeats noble intent.  What those revolutionaries have failed to see is that the only way to Eden is through Jesus Christ.  He is the Lord of the angels and He alone has the hands strong enough to wave off the flaming sword of judgment.  We can and we are commanded in the Law of God to act justly and to show mercy and not to be agents of evil but instruments for good in this mortal life.  But this is fruit of the larger reason for the establishment of the Church and the great commission -- to proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  There is no lasting good apart from Him and there is no redemption but through the power of His blood.  The cherubim still block the way to Eden except to Him who has the power to restore the good conscience through forgiveness, direct the lost back into the fold of God's mercy, rescue the lonely through the koinonia of the blood, and make alive the dead so that they live forever.

Christians would do well to make sure we are doing everything in our power to be good neighbors who love the family member and the stranger as Christ has loved us but this cannot come at the cost of our core mission to proclaim the Kingdom ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Ours is not the cause to bring a revolution and a new beginning for America or any nation.  Christ's Kingdom is in but not of the world, not political but of faith.  It may be tempting to forget this and get caught up in it all but if it does not profit a man to gain the world at the cost of his soul, what does it profit the Church to succeed in the moment but to fail for eternity?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

How much love. . .

Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Paul A. Leigeber to Faith Lutheran Church, Union City, TN, and Trinity Lutheran Church, Dyersburg, TN.  Based on John 21:15-17.

Seven chapters before the portion of St. John’s Gospel read today, Jesus says, If you love me, keep my commandments.  None of us wants to hear those words because none of us wants to keep His commandments.  We would rather go our own way and do our own thing.  We don’t like being told what to do.  Lutherans in particular are adverse to rules and have found any number of creative ways to justify doing that which breaks the rules.  In fact, it has gotten to the point where often it is difficult to know if you are in a Lutheran congregation or not.  We will do anything for love, sang Meat Loaf, but we won’t do that.  But that is exactly what the Holy Spirit will do – he teaches us to obey.

To Timothy St. Paul promises the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge will give on the last day – and not to Paul only but to all who love His appearing.  This love is a little better.  It sounds like the promise of a reward and we love rewards.  We participate in all those rewards programs at the stores and have all the apps on our phones because we love free stuff.  While you cannot exactly take the crown of righteousness to the bank and deposit it, it is still something good.  What sinner does not want to be declared righteous and have somebody else pay the debt of your sins?  With St. Paul, we think this reward is well and good in the springtime of our lives but when you approach winter, when you realize that most of this mortal life is now in the rear view mirror, the idea of a reward at the end of your days is rather appealing.  And all you have to do to get it is to love Jesus!  Which ought to be easy because Jesus has loved you enough to suffer for your sins, to die in your place on the cross, and to rise to bestow upon you all the fruits of His obedient life and life-giving death.

But the Gospel for today is not directed at you – the folks in the pews.  It is directed at the successors of St. Peter and the apostles whom we would call pastor.  These are the men who serve us in the pulpit and at the altar.  Do you love me? Jesus asks.  So most of us can sigh with relief because Jesus is not talking to most of us but He is talking to Pastor Leigeber and to those other pastors gathered here today for his installation as pastor of Faith and Trinity congregations. Now we all want our pastor to love Jesus.  Who wouldn’t?  But we also want him to be friendly and agreeable, a good guy who does a good job, and somebody who will be able to repair our congregation and help us grow and be successful.  It would not hurt if were good at fund raising and was good in the community.  And we would not object if he were humble and a workaholic.  In fact, we would forgive him if he loved those in the pews even more than Jesus!

This love is first of all about faith.  For a pastor’s love for Jesus is not about how he feels about Him but whether this Lord and His goodness lives in him by faith. 
It is the work of the Spirit and not the work of man’s will to fill the heart with the desire for God and His Word.  To love the Lord is to rejoice in the incarnation of God’s Son in human flesh and blood.  To love the Lord is to believe in the words and deeds of the Savior who revealed the Father to us by His word and works.  To love the Lord is to trust in the promise of salvation sealed in His blood and not in our own good works or good intentions.  To love the Lord is to heed the promise of baptismal water that kills what is dead and raises new life from that death.  To love the Lord is to confess your sins and wait for the voice that absolves you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  To love the Lord is to hunger and thirst for the bread that is His flesh and the wine that is His blood. 

While it is Jesus’ question, we want to know the answers.  Does your pastor rejoice at the coming of Christ, confess rightly the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation and birth, and preach faithfully Christ’s death upon the cross and His triumphant resurrection?  And in just a few moments, Pastor Leigeber will answer questions about just that – what he believes, teaches, and confesses.

This love is not theoretical.  The love that Jesus asks from St. Peter is not some curious question.  After all, this is the same Peter who had been called Satan and rebuked by Jesus to get behind Him.  This is the same Peter who walked a few faltering steps upon the water before sinking into his doubts and fears.  This is the same Peter who denied Christ over and over again as the rooster crowed.  This is the same Peter who was locked in the upper room with the rest of the disciples, fearful of anyone and everything after Jesus is buried and His tomb found empty.  No, Jesus was not asking because of intellectual curiosity.  This was personal.  Jesus was not only restoring Peter from his failings but was placing him into a position of great trust.  Jesus was entrusting into St. Peter’s care the health and life of His sheep – Jesus most precious possession.

This is what we are doing today.  Paul Leigeber is not a perfect man; he is a sinner – just like every pastor who ever was and who ever will be.  This is not about a man’s character as if any man was worthy of this calling.  Jesus is asking the pastor to look beyond himself and learn from Jesus to hold as most precious the sheep of God’s flock.  Jesus is not asking Pastor Leigeber to be a skilled entrepreneur and run the church like a business but to be a shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep.  This is not a puzzle for Pastor Leigeber to figure out.  How this love looks and how to care for the sheep – Jesus answers and supplies the resources of His Word and Sacraments.  Jesus is not asking if Pastor Leigeber will lay down his life for the Lord but whether he will lay down his life for the Lord’s sheep.  You should be pretty interested in the answer to that question.  I know I am and I expect that President Paavola is as well.

If you love Me, feed My lambs, tend and feed My sheep.  Did you notice how irritated St. Peter was by the question?  Maybe because of his past his loyalty is a sensitive issue.  This is not about making Peter feel bad.  Jesus is preparing His apostles to be pastors as well as apostles.  They are not simply being sent as messengers of the kingdom who preach and disappear only to show up somewhere else.  St. Peter and those with him are not vagabond preachers but shepherds and pastors.  Their concern is not to preach and go but to tend, feed, and care for the sheep of God.

It was easy enough to get ministers to show up here and preach on Sunday morning.  To find a pastor to live among you and serve you beyond Sunday morning was different.  Pastor Leigeber is here to tend to you as the sheep and lambs of God’s flock and to feed you with the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  Jesus loves you enough to provide someone to live among you and Jesus will love and care for you through this man.  It is not enough that this pastor loves Jesus.  He is asked to love YOU in Jesus’ name.  That is a unique and special vocation and one that is given to few rather than to many.  If you love Jesus and love the care that Jesus is providing you through this man, show him.  Pray for him.  Follow him as he follows Jesus.  Listen to him when he must correct you.  Rejoice when through His voice Jesus absolves you.  Delight in the Word of God he preaches to you.  Come prepared by repentance to kneel and receive the Lord’s body and blood.  This will make it easier for him to love Jesus and to love the flock of God Jesus over which Jesus has made him bishop. 

And whatever the future brings, even through pandemic and pandemonium,  you will enjoy the faithful service of a shepherd who comes to you in Jesus’ name and with the means of grace Jesus has given His Church.  And when he looks into the mirror of his soul and sees all the reasons why he is unworthy of such a sacred trust, he will find the trust, prayers, and forgiveness of God’s flock as encouragement to carry on when the road is hard and the cost of this ministry is great.  And in the end, he will deliver Jesus to you and you to Jesus for everlasting life, when you will share with him and all the faithful, the reward of your faithfulness, the crown of righteousness and the gift of everlasting life.  Amen.

Life is not so sacred. . .

Although it has never been that life was universally recognized as sacred and having value worth preservation, it has generally been presumed that most Americans would agree to the special gift and protections afforded life.  There has been great dispute over abortion but those in favor have always argued that the life in the womb is not the same as life outside the womb, trying to distinguish them and generally holding that, once born, life is precious.   Yet even this has not prevented the move toward assisted suicide and the allowance that the individual can decide when that life is not precious and no longer worth living.

Now, according to new research from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, the numbers of those who believe that life is precious has dropped ever closer to only a third of our people.  In this study, only 39 percent of Americans today view human life as “sacred,” precious, or as having unconditional, intrinsic worth. It is notable that among those who still hold to this view of life, the strong majority are those who have a Biblical worldview (93 percent); those who attend an evangelical church (60 percent); those who classify themselves as born-again Christians (60 percent); those who identify as politically conservative (57 percent); the population 50 or older (53 percent); and those who call themselves Republicans (53 percent).  Some religious groups, including those with many adherents, had only a minority who viewed life as sacred (Pentecostals at 46 percent, mainline Protestants at 45 percent, and Roman Catholics at 43 percent). In a stronger shift, Evangelicals were more likely (60 percent) to say that life is sacred, while the numbers of Roman Catholics (with a strong pro-life culture), continues to decline.  Of little surprise, those who classify themselves as religious skeptics were the least likely (13 percent) to hold a high view of life.

So what does that mean?  It certainly translates well into the patterns and themes of the day and the unfolding future:  fewer young adults marrying and having children, the growing individualization of both morality and faith, and the increasing threat to the unborn, the aged, and those with psychological and emotional ills.  In other words, without a strong and unified consensus on the sacred character of life, there is less momentum to restore protections to life first lost in the legalization of abortion and then weakened by the continuing acceptance of assisted suicide as a legal and moral choice.

One this is for sure, we live in a culture of paradoxes.  On the one hand, we say we will do anything to protect us from illness (as we witnessed in the pandemic) but on the other hand we seem to be perfectly willing to allow those who wish to end the life of the unborn and to make it possible to provide a painless end for those who deem their life no longer worth living.  And that is the issue.  There is no moral or logical consistency to it.  Everyone is doing what seems right in their own eyes and even those who view life as sacred desire allowances for those who don't.  It is becoming a culture in which there is no rudder to steer us through the manifold choices of the age and no captain at the wheel to guide us.  We are more and more a nation of people in our own boats, mostly headed in the same direction but each getting there at our own speed.  The dark cloud of our future is that the children and youth of those who view life as sacred are profoundly influenced both by education and the social media to accept abortion, the choice to end your own life, and the decisions to end those lives deemed no longer worthy living.  If you are part of those churches who challenge this direction, you have your work cut out for you.  And it starts at home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

An impossible goal. . .

Is it safe?  Is it safe to come to church?  Is it safe to sing?  Is it safe to receive Holy Communion?  Is it safe to have a cup of coffee?  Is it safe for children to come to Sunday school or VBS?  Is it safe to wear masks or not to wear them? 

The search for safety is an impossible pursuit.  Life is not safe.  It is not safe to live.  Sin robbed us of every safety and now life itself is filled with constant risk.  Perhaps the strangest thing about the pandemic is the way we responded to it.  We sought to find a path to safety that would relieve us of the burden of risk.   Maybe it was predictable but I did not see it coming.  Did you?

Other eras with other pandemics found a different response.  From polio to influenza, people expected that life came with risk and they accepted that risk.  When a vaccine was developed, they lined up to receive it.  But they did not put their lives on hold while they waiting for such a vaccine.  They lived with the risk -- the risk of death.  It does not appear that we are ready to live with this kind of risk.

As a culture, we are prepared to surrender life under our terms but we are unwilling to accept the risk that life is fragile and that death is real.  We will kill the babies in the womb or fight to preserve the right of someone to decide when they no longer want to live and we will make sure that when they no longer wish to live, they have a safe and painless way to die.  But we will stop everything in the face of a pandemic until we are assured that it is safe to resume our previous lives.  How odd?

Personal responsibility was once the hallmark of our nation.  Even in the face of injustice and before mountains of prejudice, we took responsibility for our decisions and choices.  But things have changed.  Not only are we unwilling to accept any level of risk, we seem to delight in being victims.  It is always somebody else's fault and someone else's responsibility.  The pandemic only highlighted this surrender of personal responsibility and how comfortable we were with our victimhood.

The problem is that this is incompatible with Christianity.  Christianity expects and even requires that we accept responsibility for our part in the wrong of the world.  We cannot blame it all on Adam and Eve nor can we blame it on others.  In the baptismal rite this is unmistakable.  Borrowing Luther's Flood Prayer, we pray:
Almighty and eternal God, according to Your strict judgment You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, yet according to Your great mercy You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all. You drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led Your people Israel through the water on dry ground, foreshadowing this washing of Your Holy Baptism. Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.

We pray that You would behold [name(s)] according to Your boundless mercy and bless [him/her/them] with true faith by the Holy Spirit, that through this saving flood all sin in [him/her/them], which has been inherited from Adam and which [he himself / she herself / they themselves] [has/have] committed since, would be drowned and die. Grant that [he/she/they] be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving Your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise, [he/she/they] would be declared worthy of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Think about what we are praying.  There is mom and dad with the little baby in their arms and sponsors in tow and here we are praying that by baptism the Father would behold this child according to His mercy, bless the child with true faith, and by this baptism forgive the inherited sin of their first parents and, here it comes, the sin this baby has committed since.  Not even the infant in the hands of his or her parents is immune from sin and we admit this personal responsibility.

Therein lies the difference with the past.  We no longer accept the life is dangerous and death is always near and we no longer admit any personal culpability for this death and the danger we face.  That is at least one reason why we have applied to the corona virus a standard our forefathers did not apply to other pandemics.  They lived with death and they accepted personal responsibility for the choices they made in life.  We do not want to admit either.  We prefer to live in the Pollyanna world of imagined truths rather than the real world of terrible truths.  So in this world we will do whatever is necessary to pursue the goal of safety while deferring matters of worship, religion, and faith as non-essential to daily life.  In this world we will gladly exchange the illusion of safety for the reality of what it means to live in a world of sin.  And so the Gospel is less urgent than putting on a mask and keeping six feet of distance and altering our lives in response to a threat none of us can even see.

So what will this mean for our future?  Can we guarantee enough personal safety to satisfy those who are fearful?  Can we bypass personal responsibility for sin in order to keep from offending those who do not believe they are sinners?  Can we preach a Gospel which will not offend this personal immunity from blame?  The world wants us to tell them that everything will be okay.  But it won't.  Even if a vaccine for the corona virus is found and we never face its threat again, everything will not be okay.  Not tomorrow and not ever.  At least not apart from the rescue and redemption of Jesus Christ who fixes the mess of our sin with His own blood and dies to give us the power of His life.

Near the beginning of this pandemic I had a discussion with parish leaders, most of whom were not attending and had little desire to attend given the threat of COVID 19.  I asked them what it would take for them to feel safe so they could return to Church.  None of them had an answer.  In other words, this was a moving goalpost and one that lived largely in the realm of their feelings.  Some of it depended the assurances of science but most of it was the illusive emotion of safety and security.  This is a standard and goal impossible to reach for any congregation and for any community of faith.  So we are still waiting for some folks to return.  Maybe they will never return.  Unless we can guarantee them safety in the moment, they are not willing to hear of the safety of eternal life.  This problem, my friends, will not go away.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Hidden pearls. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 12A, preached on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

    You don’t have to be a Christian or a fan of Jesus to appreciate the great wisdom of the parables.  In fact, the world loves these homespun stories and treats them as if they were Aesop’s fables – entertaining stories with a moral or clincher at the end.  I am not at all sure that Jesus ever intended for His parables to become such popular tales of life – without His intended reference to faith and life in the Kingdom of God.  But that is the states of things.  So we have hospitals named Good Samaritan as if it were merely a story of compassion without Christ being the Good Samaritan and His own self-offering being the center of this story of redemption.  So it is with these three short parables recorded by St. Matthew.

    Our great temptation is to read them as Law or command.  God is telling us what we can and what we should do to become like the heroic characters in the parables.  That is how the world reads them.  They are instructional – they tell YOU what YOU should do.  The world fails to see Christ in them.  But that, of course, can only be seen from the vantage point of faith.  Without faith, the parables remain like a “to do” list of what we must go and likewise do to earn God’s favor or show our greatness.

    These parables are not Law or command.  They are Gospel.  They are Gospel not because I say so but because Christ is in them – Christ and all that God has, in His mercy, done to save us sinners.  But for you to see this, you need to admit and confess that you are a sinner, you are the broken victim in need of help, the needy who cannot provide for yourself, and the lost who must be found.  In other words, to see Jesus in these stories and to recognize what He is saying, faith is the lens to see Him.

    Jesus is certainly not telling you that heaven is so precious that you must give up all things to own it, that you must purchase it with all that you have to possess it, and that you must or can do something, anything, in order to have it.  It’s just the opposite.  The treasure is you.  The treasure is in you.  Because you are in Christ, Christ is in you.  The treasure is not out there somewhere for you to find, dig up, purchase, and then hide away inside you.  The treasure is in you.  By baptism and faith, Christ lives in YOU.

    The Kingdom of Heaven is not in the future but now for which you must wait but it lives in you now and you live in it by baptism and faith.  The saints are not those who cracked the secret code to possess the hidden treasure but those who surrendered their wisdom for faith and gave up their works for the saving work of Christ on the cross.  They did not earn God’s favor but believed God’s favor rested on them in Christ.  Now we join them as a people who rejoice that God has called us His own treasure.

    If you ever watch the Antique’s Roadshow you know the surprise of two things. On the one hand are those who are sure they have a great treasure only to be told that their treasure is fake and worthless.  On the other are those who keep their valuable treasure in the garage only to find out that what they thought was worthless was almost priceless.  That is how it is for God’s people.  We do not find a treasure at a bargain price and then sell all we have to own only it and then go home smug and proud that we got a steal of a deal.  The kicker is this.  We are the treasure for whom God has given His all, stolen us away from Satan, and to keep as His own both now and forevermore.

    God went out digging in a field and came up with the bones of Adam and of all Adam’s children.  What should have been abhorrent to God, God saw as the treasure worth His everything.  Hidden in the field of a world Satan called his own, God bought the field at the cost of Jesus’ life of obedience and death upon the cross.  God went out looking for a pearl and found one, esteemed it to be of greatest value, and then paid for it with the precious blood of His only Son.  God went fishing and cast His net into the sea and sorted out the evil ones to keep only those He chose to be good.  These parables are not about you or what you could or should do in order to own or keep the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are about what God has done to value you greater than your worth, purchase you from Satan, sin, and death, and keep you as His own, even through death, to everlasting life.

    Think about this.  What do you find hidden in the dirt?  You find that which has been discarded, that which lays rotting away, and that which has been forgotten through time.  You are that trash, decaying, and forgotten whom the Lord has chosen.  He has placed value on you that you do not merit or deserve.  He purchased and won you with the suffering and death of His only begotten Son.  And He will cover you with a righteousness not your own, sustain you from all that is passing away in this mortal life, and deliver you into His eternal presence.  This is the Gospel hidden in the stories people read as if they were simply kernels of wisdom to tell you what to do.

    So then, what shall you do having heard this great good news of God’s love?  Jesus tells us.  You are a scribe, a student of the Word who hears and believes it.  You are the sinner who looks into the mirror of God’s grace and sees a saint.  You are the dead who live forever.  You are the unworthy and undeserving whom God has purchased and won not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood of His Son.  You have been pulled from the field of death and planted in the kingdom of life.  You swim together with evil fish but when the catch is completed and judgement is done, you will not be tossed aside and burned as worthless.  No, indeed, you will be delivered into the joy of Your Master and into His presence forevermore.

    The world comes proudly into God’s presence and shows Jesus what they have done and how they got what He was saying and why they should be His favorites.  The faithful come covered by the stink of their sin, with the humility of repentance, pleading only the merits of Christ, and with all the excuses of why they deserve nothing from God.  And the miracle is this.  We who know we are nothing are declared by God to be treasure of great value.  We are the people whom He has washed clean in baptism, whose ears ring with the sound of our Shepherd’s voice, and whose lips have tasted Christ’s flesh and blood as food and drink.  We are those whose self-esteem comes not from within but from the cross and whose hearts rejoice because the God who should have passed us by rescued us, nurtured our wounds, and gave us new life.

    Today the Kingdom of Heaven remains hidden.  For Christians, it is hidden in suffering and defeat as we struggle to live faithful in an unfaithful world.  To the world the Kingdom is hidden where they refuse to go – on bended knee of confession, in water that washes clean inside and out, and under a cross where love triumphs in the appearance of defeat.  So do not lose heart.  Do not grow weary in well doing.  Do not lose you way.  Do not become hardened by the injustice of the world and reject the mystery of the Kingdom.  God’s Kingdom is not far off.  It is near.  As near as Christ in His Word and Sacraments.  As near as your own mind and heart where Christ lives by baptism and faith.  The parables tell a story of radical grace and that grace is visited not upon the wise or the worthy but upon sinners like you.

    Rejoice and be glad.  For the day is coming when parables will no longer preach the future.  They will give way to the reality which all will finally see and when judgment cannot be denied.  The people of God who seemed powerless will triumph eternally because of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Until that day, do not forget what God has done to find you, to make you His own, to live in you that you may live in Him, and to keep you to the day of judgement and the verdict of everlasting life and light.  And it is all God’s doing.  Amen.

Exception or the rule. . .

No one, including me, would dispute the fact that most Lutheran congregations are but moderately liturgical.  Most of the large congregations are barely liturgical and some intentionally anti-liturgical.  Even the ordinary and typical congregation that uses the hymnal and follows the liturgy (mostly) is not necessarily liturgical in that the liturgy is not the beating heart and lively soul of the parish or its people.  I will freely admit that the parish I serve is more than rare.  Ask any member who moves away and they will tell you the difficulty they have in finding something even close.

So does that mean that the rule of Lutheranism is to tolerate the liturgy without being shaped by it?  Does it mean that the norm of Lutheranism is a liturgical minimalism to varying degree and those who follow the book and the rubrics and the historical ceremonial are the oddities of our Lutheran identity?

Well, that depends.  It depends on whether you would read the modern ambivalence to things liturgical into the texts of our Lutheran Symbols or whether you read the Lutheran Symbols from within the liturgical life from which they were born.  It depends on whether or not you view the Liturgy of the Word as normative with the Liturgy of the Sacrament as an occasional add on or whether or not you understand the Divine Service to be ONLY Word AND Sacrament.  It depends on whether you think that only those things explicitly approved and commanded in the documents of our Lutheran identity need to be taken seriously or that the Confessions merely describe current practices without attaching any expectation that these continue in the life of those who subscribe to those Confessions.

The arguments will continue but it is my belief that Lutheranism which is lived out in the fullest liturgical and ceremonial life that can be used without compromising the Gospel IS the rule, the norm, the expectation of the documents that confess who we are.  Lutheranism never viewed any aspect of the faith confessed or lived out liturgically as matters indifferent or preferences to be determined by the congregation.  Lutheranism never viewed a lite version of the doctrine or life of the Church to be a legitimate or authentic expression of its own self-understanding and identity.

Funny, however, how quickly we Lutherans sit in judgment over others based on what happens on Sunday morning but we somehow presume that style (Sunday morning) can be separated from substance (Confessions) and that neither presumes the other.  So liberals can be as liturgical as possible and creedal without expecting that they should or need to believe the words they say or ritual and piety they live out within the liturgical life of the parish.  They can love carrying a Gospel Book around without believing what the words literally say.  In the same way, conservatives can fight like cats and dogs over every word on the page of Scripture but turn up their nose to the idea of carrying a Gospel Book in procession or bowing the head to it as it passes by.  That is sheer goofiness and we deserve to be called out for it whether it happens among the high church liberals who shrink from the reality of the words they speak or the low church conservatives who believe all that fuss is not only unnecessary but unhelpful to the true worship of faith.

Lest we think we are alone, Rome is in the same conundrum.  The solemnity of the Extraordinary Form stands in stark contrast to the out of tune praise bands and Marty Haugen tunes of the typical parish.  Apparently the folks in Novus Ordo have read the rubrics of EF because they do not speak the responses, chant the ordinary, or sing the hymns and, in too many parishes, they talk through the Mass as if nothing important were happening before them.  I could go on but I think you get my drift.

So what are we to do?  Shall we normalize the median or average parish?  Or should we work within our ability to bring every place up to the high goals of the full Divine Service?  Do we expect folks within even liturgical communions to choose a parish on the basis of personal preference or do we work to make personal preference as absent as possible from the liturgical life of all churches of the same confession?  Is the fuller liturgical life the exception or the rule?  Is the minimal liturgical life or none at all the exception or the rule?  Do our Confessions expect something on Sunday morning or do they inform little of what we do or how we do it in the Sunday service?

Sunday, July 26, 2020

When worship becomes a real sacrifice. . .

If you want to know what burns out pastors fast, it is trying to please people to make sure they will show up on Sunday morning.  Pastors are forever trying to figure out what it will take to get somebody into worship and keep them there -- in part because it is fairly easy to tick people off and drive them away.  Pastors are, after all, sinner, too.  I think, however, that even the worst pastors want their congregation to thrive, people to come and hear the Word of God and believe, and for believers to love holiness and righteousness.  We may be sinful and unclean shepherds of God's people but there are not many of us who want to see this whole thing fail or who desire to be the cause of that failure.  While it is certainly true that pastors and their egos and foibles get in the way of things sometimes (okay, often), it is also true that the religious marketplace has reinforced the idea of the person in the pew being a savvy consumer whose desire is to get what he or she wants.

Since most appeals to churches have to do with facilities, entertainment value, musical preference, location, and programs, it is easy to see why Christians see themselves in a buyers market.  There are plenty of choices out there and plenty of empty seats and plenty of churches competing for the same folks.  It is no wonder that some feel like they are doing the pastor or the rest of the congregation or even God a favor just by showing up.  But when worship becomes a sacrifice -- something we do not want or like doing but feel we ought to do -- trouble begins.  When appealing music and relevant programs and winsome welcomes and entertaining preaching/teaching become the assessment criteria for those church shopping or figuring out whether to stay, things are bound to turn out bad.  When the subjective idea of what is meaningful tops what is true or faithful, everything is bound to suffer.

Yet worship is supposed to be a sacrifice -- not the kind where the person in the pew shows up and dares the Church to entertain, inspire, uplift, and prove her relevance and meaningfulness but a real sacrifice.  Scripture does not encourage us to believe we are doing God a favor by showing up but they do encourage us to see worship as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  God has, after all, done something to prove Himself worthy of such praise and thanksgiving.  That is why the cross is so prominent in the art of the building, in the preaching from the pulpit, in the prayers from the prie dieu, and in the food imparted according to Christ's Word and command.  

Every Sunday we sing:

      What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?
       I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord.
       I will take the cup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord.
       I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people,
          in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

Throughout the Psalms you encounter that same call to sacrificial praise and thanksgiving (119:17-19; 76:11; 54:6-7; 50:14).  Hebrews, with its consummate focus on the worship of the New Covenant, also calls on the same sacrifice in response to what God has done to deliver us (13:15).  We respond to what God has done and that response is no special favor on our part but the duty and delight of a people who rejoice in the salvation His mercy has accomplished in Christ, our Lord.

When worship becomes the real sacrifice, praise and thanksgiving, then the focus moves from us to the God whose love has redeemed us and we no longer have to search for meaning and relevance in the Divine Service.  It is there -- seen by faith and recognized under the guidance of the Spirit.  God is wise enough not to leave this sacrifice to our own discretion.  It is not like we are shopping for a thank you gift.  God provides the cause and reason for our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and God sets this within the framework of the Divine Service.  In the focus upon the Word and then upon the Table of the Lord, we are confronted with His unmistakable goodness and led from the forest to see the trees.  

There is a strong attitude today that God and His servants (pastors) have to prove themselves to the worshiper -- as if we have to justify the time they spend, the attention they give, and the work they put into the Divine Service.  Nothing can burn up a pastor faster than living with that kind of burden on his shoulders and nothing can turn worship into some dreary and distant than the idea that we are there to be entertained or inspired.  But what God does is to serve us with His gifts -- including His gift of the Holy Spirit -- so that we may respond faithfully to His merciful deliverance with a real sacrifice -- the sacrifice of faith that trusts in His promise and rejoices in His salvation.  

Pastors and people need to learn that the key is not in pleasing the folks in the pews but pleasing God with faith and rejoicing in what His Word bestows and His Sacraments deliver.  If we are faithful in this way, on both sides of the altar rail, worship will be a thing of beauty to us and to God. 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Mad at the Church. . .

I have often wondered if some people, perhaps many of them, who drop out of Church are not so much agnostics or atheists as they are Christians who are angry at God.  Sometimes this anger if directed exclusively at God but sometimes, perhaps even often, this anger is directed at the Church or those who they presume are the Church.

People are not always that precise when they complain about the Church and anger does not encourage specificity.  So when people talk about the Church, they may mean the hierarchy (bishops, district presidents, superintendents, or synod presidents).  They presume that those with responsibility also have authority -- something not necessarily true.  Often they complain about the leaders under the guise of saying the Church has failed or at least failed them.

Others speak more personally and so when they complain about the Church, they are really complaining about the people nearest to them -- not bishops but priests and pastors.  These are the people they interact with more personally and the ones more likely to have failed to keep a promise or sense what had not been told them or answer them as they wanted.  Every pastor knows this.

Sometimes, though less often, when folks complain about the Church they mean the people in the Church.  They have been wounded by things said or left unsaid, or they have expected something of the folks in the pews and been disappointed.

Now it is all true and right that our larger leader will and do disappoint us.  It is also true that the people nearest us in the ministry will and do disappoint us.  It is certainly true that the people in the pews will and do disappoint us.  This is, of course, because all of them are sinners.  Jesus gets painted with the broad brush of the sins of church leaders, pastors, and the people in the pews.  It is not fair but the justice of it all seldom matters much when we are wounded by disappointment or angered by those from whom we expected more.

It is, however, rather childish and foolish to decide you are not going to Church anymore because a national leader or local pastor or even the folks in the pews disappointed you.  Of course they did.  And if they did not yet, they will.  They are sinners.  But how foolish it is to try and punish God by leaving the very places where God delivers the fruits of His redeeming love and work to His people.

There is, however, another disappointment which happens quite regularly.  The Church gets the blame for the disappointment we have in ourselves.  We cannot live with anger that gets directed at the person in the mirror so this anger or disappointment is transferred to others.  This is because our own sinfulness can be even harder to admit than the sinfulness of those who serve us in Christ's name.

I do not discount the failings of the Church nor do I dismiss my contributions to those failings and to the disappointment of many.  I am responsible for me.  But those pointing their fingers are also responsible. And therein lies the problem.  It is easier to play the victim and point the finger at somebody, usually unnamed, than it is to admit our corporate guilt and respond with repentance.

When people are angry because the pastor did not call to inquire about them, they need to ask themselves why they did not call and ask the pastor to visit.  When people are angry because the leaders (local, regional, and national) have disappointed them, they need to ask why they have left so much to the leaders instead of being informed and active (look at the numbers who come to a congregational meeting, for example).  When people are angry because somebody in the pew forgot them or their birthday or their struggle with illness, grief, or some other loss, they need to look in the mirror and ask when they called, when they acknowledged a significant life event, or when they bore their neighbor's burden.

However, when the pastor or church leader or the folks in the pew with you disappoint you, it is not God who let you down.  Don't give up on God because He works through flawed, failed, and sinful people.  The people side of the Church will disappoint you but God will not.  Rather than lament the fact that God works in and through sinners, this ought to be a cause for rejoicing.  You are also that sinner in whom God works and through whom He works.  If God is willing to work through you and those like you who are sinners, then you, as a forgiven sinner, need to learn to forgive your pastor when he lets you down and forgive your church leaders when they disappoint you and forgive the folks who sit in the pew with you when they do not live up to your expectations.  Get over it.  Stop getting angry.  Start forgiving.  And praying for.  And encouraging those who let you down.  Do this not for them but for YOU.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The ever present "but"

As a child complaining to my parents about having to go to school or eat lima beans or practice the piano or go to the dentist, my parents did not give into my ever present need to but their every reason why these things were salutary.  In the end, they stopped talking and then I succumbed to their will knowing that silence meant I had lost.  I had not lost but they, in their wisdom and experience, had chosen the better for me and in this I had, indeed, won.  Though it was hard to admit this with the taste of lima beans on my tongue or my lip swollen and numb from a visit to Dr. Death.

Silence in the Christian conversation does not mean we have lost.  It means God has won.  That is the thing we learn over time.  It does not present itself well to the impatient so full of himself or herself and expecting fireworks and profundity every moment.  But it is the lesson learned over time.  Silence means that God has won and if God has won, we have won.  We may not like the taste of it in our mouths or the sound of it in our ears or the feel of it in the bruising battles with the devil, the world, and our flesh yet that does not diminish the truth of it one bit.  God has won.

Worship is too full of words in part because we don't want to allow the silence.  We are still too full of ourselves and the belief that we have something to say, sing, pray, or do that will impress the Most High.  We are still uneasy about silence because we would rather have a God who works at our call that to call on the God to work in mysterious ways we may not see or understand.  We are uncomfortable with silence because we still find the instinct (because of sin) to see every approach to God as a competition in which we might lose unless we fight hard to overcome.

As a youth I read poetry (do they read poetry anymore?) and remember the poignant lines from Robert Browning's Pippa's Song, (Act I: Morning):

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven –
All’s right with the world!

My parents often borrowed the last two lines, sometimes adding their own variation (the sun is in the sky, the stars and moon shine bright, etc.).  Strangely enough I doubt ever saying that to my children, although some of them anime affectionados will undoubtedly recognize the lines "God's in his Heaven / All's right with the world" from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, where they are used as the slogan of the secretive government organization NERV. It also appears in a blurred graffiti in the anime No Guns Life. Imagine that!

God is in His heaven – all's right with the world.  Perhaps Browning had read Habakkuk.  For that is exactly the idea in 2:20, although here the word heaven is replaced with temple.  I like that.  God is in His Temple.  The world can stop cussing and complaining, whining and moaning, stewing and fretting. . .  We can keep silence before Him.  Like when the parent's voice prevails and the child is quiet, trusting that mom or dad knows best.  Or when the Christian heart, so easily churned up by the cares and troubles of this life, finds peace in knowing God is where He has promised to be, doing what He has pledged to do, and, whether we understand it or not, this is the best there can be.  In other words, we have faith.  We trust.  We are quieted not by His over-powering force but by the Spirit prompted Amen to what we do not see but cannot help but to believe.

"But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”  Habakkuk 2:20.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Liturgical Legos. . .

Some of us have a Lego version of the Chapel at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne.  I have posted other pictures of Lego creations of churche and the faith here before.  Now someone has sent to me a website called Liturgical Legos.  You can head there and check it out.

Now I would never presume to suggest that Legos are only for children.  I still get a kick out of putting together the colored tiles and forming them into something from my imagination.  I know that my grown sons still love Legos.  I also know my Associate has a love for Legos.  So they are beyond confining to a gender or a age.  Yet there is something to be said about the kind of toys which connect us to life AND allow us to explore our imaginations.

I did not have Legos growing up (had to be satisfied with blocks, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, etc.).   But my brother and I did break off bushes to plant as trees and used our hands to make roads in the dirt of our play area as we created villages and towns.  We put on our cowboy and army outfits and played out the fantasies of our favorite TV shows (black and white).  We also played church.  I pulled out The Lutheran Hymnal and buried neighborhood pets and birds and squirrels we had found.  We set up chairs in rows and an altar and re-enacted what we experienced on Sunday morning.  I did not intend to be a pastor but I am confident that not only the actual experience of weekly worship but also the liturgical play that mirrored what I had seen and heard on Sunday morning were responsible for the surprise of going to Winfield and Ft. Wayne.

Creative play that mirrors the real experience of the child's life is an effective means of reinforcing what the child experiences.  What kid has not played with pots and pans or toy cars or building blocks (of one form or another)!  What kid has not driven pedal cars or wagons or scooters or trikes or bikes and practiced driving on the road!  So why not liturgical play?  Why not play that re-enacts what the child sees and hears on Sunday morning?  I strongly encourage this kind of play.  Now I did not have vestments or any elaborately created sets for my playing the part of a pastor.  Only my imagination and a hymnal.  Some kids have more detailed sets for their play.  Whatever they have to work with, it is a good thing to encourage this kind of play that resembles Sunday morning.  This is not only practice for the real thing but the subtle encouragement of church work vocations.  So, parents, encourage this and play along and help your children practice their piety in this kind of liturgical play.  It is a good and salutary thing!

Liturgical Legos?  Good for all ages and for both boys and girls.  The more we think about and reflect upon what happens on Sunday morning the better. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Works of distinction. . .

Most books today are rather pedestrian.  They are made to be cheap and too often look as cheap and last as well as they look.  I understand.  Their job is not to entertain the eye but educate the mind.  Yet there are works that deserve something more.  Editions of Scripture, liturgical books for use in the Divine Service, and special commemoratives, for example.  So when I find some works that illustrate this commitment to something more, I cannot help but be attracted.

The same can be said of certificates for baptism, confirmation, ordination, etc.  They cry out to be something more than a mere document but an extravagant node to the importance of such an occasion.

I plead for such worthy art, especially in the life of the Church.  These are the things that give weight to the testimony not simply to a fact and a date but to one with ongoing significance and effect.  Baptism, after all, is not merely the actual event but the fruits of that union with Christ's death and resurrection that are lived out in Him, under Him in His Kingdom, and, indeed, for all eternity.

So from books to certificates, I love it when an artist has gone beyond the minimum and endowed the page with illustrations that befit the page.

I do not know Andrew Steward Jamieson but you can check out his work on Facebook and at his website.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Lord's Harvest. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 11A, preached on Sunday, July 18, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    We want the Lord to establish heaven on earth.  We want Him to do away with all the sin and evil in our world.  We want Him to get rid of the “weeds.”  And more than just wanting it, we expect it, we demand it.  We expect God to get rid of the “weeds,” not only in the world but in His Church.  That’s how it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?  Isn’t the Church supposed to be the one place we don’t find sin?  Isn’t the Church supposed to help do away with sin?  But Jesus’ parable today paints a different picture for us. 
    A master sowed good seed in his field.  He planted the right stuff that would produce the best crop of wheat.  But while he was sleeping after a long day of farming, his enemy snuck into his field, unnoticed, and planted weeds.  These weeds grew alongside the wheat, indistinguishable until the wheat started to bear its grain.  Confused, astonished, surprised, maybe even a little appalled, the servants went to their master.  “Didn’t you sow good seed?  ...  Do you want us to go out and gather them up, to weed the field for you?” 
Just like us amateur gardeners who quickly get rid of the weeds in our gardens, the servants thought it best to get rid of that false wheat.  They wanted to get rid of the bad.  After all, you don’t want that bad stuff affecting the good.  But the master said no.  He told the servants to let the weeds be.  If they zealously went out into the field pulling up the weeds, they’d also pull up the wheat, and the master wouldn’t risk any of his crop.  It was best to wait till harvest time.  Then the reapers would be able to deal appropriately with the weeds.  Then the weeds would be burned and the wheat brought into the barn. 
When we listen to Jesus’ parables we put ourselves in them.  We try to figure out who we are.  And in this Parable of the Weeds, we can quickly want to identify ourselves with the servants.  We want to be faithful servants of our Master, helping the Lord get rid of the weeds in the Church and in the world.  We look around us and easily identify sin and evil and we zealously want to get rid of least the sin and evil that we see in others.
How easy is it for us to look around and identify the “weedy” sin in other people’s lives?  How easy is it for us to find the speck that’s in our neighbor’s eye?  How easy is it for us to point out all the faults of our spouse and children and co-workers and friends and pastors and our brothers and sisters in Christ?  It’s very easy.  Unlike those weeds that were indistinguishable from the wheat, we have an easy time distinguishing the sin of others.  And we take it upon ourselves to get rid of it.  We give ourselves the job of reaping, separating the good from the bad, deciding who’s a wheat and who’s a weed.  But that isn’t our job, just like it wasn’t the servants’ job.
Jesus explains what this parable is about, and it’s not about how we’re to seek out weeds.  No, it’s about how OUR LORD PATIENTLY ENDURES THE “WEEDS” UNTIL THE END.  It’s about His harvest.  It’s about us being good seed that produces fruit.  It’s about us being sons and daughters of the kingdom.  It’s about us being brought into God’s kingdom at the end of the age. 
It’s not our job to weed the field.  It’s not our job to get rid of the sin that we see in the Church and in the world.  It’s not our job to decide who enters heaven and who doesn’t.  Our job is to be wheat, to grow in faith and to bear the fruit of that faith.  Our job is to recognize the “weeds” that we have, the sin and evil that resides in our hearts.  Our job is to repent of this sin and to seek out the life transforming and life-giving forgiveness of Christ and His cross.  Our job is to patiently endure “weeds” just as our Master mercifully and graciously endures them, just as He has mercifully and graciously endured our sin.  Our job is to forgive those who’ve sinned against us.  Our job is to reconcile with one another.  Our job is to bear with one another.  Our job is to faithfully endure the suffering and brokenness that sin has brought into the world.   Our job is to confidently hold on to the hope of everlasting life that Christ has won with His resurrection and that He has promised to us in our Baptism. 
Does that mean we don’t speak up when we see sin and evil in the world?  Does that mean we don’t speak the truth of God’s Word when we hear the lies of the evil one proclaimed?  No.  We do speak at these times.  We do speak God’s truth in the face of lies.  We call sin a sin…but we do it with love and compassion.  We do it not with the goal of “burning weeds,” but with the prayer that the Lord will work through His Word to transform weeds into wheat, just as we’ve been transformed.  We pray that they too would repent and seek the Lord and be brought into the kingdom at harvest time.
    The master in Jesus’ parable wouldn’t risk his crop.  He wouldn’t let the servants pull the wheat up with the weeds.  He did everything to preserve the wheat.  And the same is true for our Lord of the harvest.
You are God’s crop.  You are God’s people.  You are the sons and daughters of His kingdom and He will not abandon you.  He’s promised to bring you into His kingdom and He won’t let the “weeds” of this world, He won’t let Satan and his demons root you up.  He’ll preserve you until the end.  He’ll continue to nourish the seed of faith that’s been planted within you.  With His Word proclaimed, with His absolution spoken, with His Holy Supper eaten, He makes that seed of faith grow.  And this faith holds tightly to your Savior.  Rooted in His death and resurrection, rooted in His promised salvation, you endure all the suffering and brokenness in our world and you will endure until that end of the age when He will faithfully bring you into the glories of heaven. 
    Our Lord has sown good seed, but Satan has brought sin and temptation into the world.  His weeds and sin are everywhere, in the Church, even in ourselves.  We think we can get rid of it, but in the process of weeding we destroy what God has planted.  It’s not our job to weed out sin.  It’s our job to bear fruit.  The Lord patiently endures weeds until the end; and when that harvest time comes, we have the promise that He’ll bring us and all the faithful into His barn, into His kingdom forever.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.

Jesus in a to go bag. . .

While this has been shut down by the diocese, it goes to prove that Lutherans are not the only ones with loony pastors and goofy ideas.  Pray that among us such travesties are as quickly ended as this one was.  But the video will live on as a warning to us all.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The closing of the open door. . .

The stereotype of conservatism is that it is filled with old, white, curmudgeonly kinds of guys who are rigid in their views of everything.  And the general impression of conservatism is that these feisty fellows are out to steal away our freedom and lock down our minds and mouths.  On the other hand, the stereotype of liberalism is that it is filled with diversity and people who are open to just about anything.  And the general impression of liberalism is that these semi-hippy types are out to create a fully open society in which everyone is free to speak their own minds.  Perhaps it is all backwards.

Conservatives are fighting to hold on to the best of our past while, it seems, liberals and progressives are trying to erase most all of history except its victims.  Conservatives are engaging the mind while liberals and progressives refuse to consider any truth but their own.  Conservatives are open to a great conversation while liberals and progressives refuse to allow any voice in the public square but their own.

A while ago I had a Facebook conversation with a Trump antagonist and, although I am hardly a big fan of Trump, I had the nerve to suggest that the accusations being made against Trump were simply not true.  In short order I was bombarded in this war of words and smeared as an unthinking Trumper, a racist, blind to the needs of the poor, and selfish in my white privilege.  The conversation is typical, I believe, of many public conversations which conservatives and liberals have.  In the end it was not a conversation.  My friend did not allow me the privilege of a point of view other than the one he, a bona fide liberal, espoused.  I did not challenge his right to have an opinion or to speak but he effectively shut me out of the conversation.  I did not want to fight it out over social media, so then the conversation was over.

It has been my experience that conservatism loves to debate ideas but liberals tend to paint people  with labels.  There seems to be no desire to debate the idea but rather to control the conversation and the easiest way to do that is to paint your opponent with a label.  Of course, liberals have no corner on this tactic and Trump, who was never a conservative in the classical sense of that term, loves to label his opponents.  But in conversation after conversation on social media, it is the progressive who refuses to tolerate any other idea but the prevailing liberal consensus about gender, sexual orientation, abortion, race, prejudice, social justice, etc...  So in this conversation, it is not possible for someone to be against the SCOTUS opinion, for example, and not be a homophobe or a bigot.  In this conversation, it is not possible for someone to be against rioting and protests designed to tear down and defund and not be a racist.  As I was told, white silence is white complicity.  These are great slogans but they do not advance a cause.  They chart out battle lines but they do not move the fight.  Too many on both sides have effectively done this but the reality is that a liberal society presents a false image of openness.  In reality, there is little tolerance for a different opinion.  Conservatism holds more than anything else the right of every voice in the conversation.  Some have not lived up to this but that is the nature of the cause.  It should be the core value of liberalism as well.  But we will see.  So far I am not optimistic.

And, by the way, what is true of the public square is also true of churchly conversations.  We have found those least tolerant are those who have traded theological orthodoxy for the prevailing mood of culture.  That is its own problem and deserves its own post.  Suffice it to say that there is little mood among the more liberal and progressive voices in Christianity to hear the voice of the Fathers or even give a listen to tradition.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

If only the Lord knew what we know. . .

One of the stranger things that this pandemic has brought to light is our tendency to judge God according to the standard of today's science and to suggest that the Lord has suffered from a lack of wisdom and knowledge that we routinely enjoy today.

Individual cups are largely the result of fears that the risk of transmitting disease or something less harmful but equally distasteful.  The chalice has to go because it is unclean or at least less sanitary than individual cups.  If only the Lord had known what we know with all our science and studies and testing, He would surely have begun where we have ended up and there would be no chalice at all.  While there were many who harbored such an opinion before COVID 19, that number has surely increased and the unqualified wisdom of science is pitted against the institution of our Lord with the suggestion that we know more than Jesus knew in the Upper Room.

The dangers of gluten have brought many to the conclusion that wheat in the bread of the Lord's Supper is untenable and unkind to the many with gluten allergies.  No matter that the issue of gluten allergies is inflated by those who simply follow fads and trends and in those fads and trends gluten has become a bad things today.  However, the real danger here is not gluten but the idea that the Lord was deficient in His knowledge and if He had only known what we know, He would have used some other bread for His supper.

And of course that brings us to the whole issue of alcohol.  Wine is simply unsuitable for a Sacrament (or ordinance) in which children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, recovering alcoholics, folks on certain medicines, and those who simply do not like the smell or taste of wine are being asked to take and drink.  If only the Lord had known what a danger alcohol is and how many prefer something else, He would surely have ditched the wine and turned Cana's jugs into Gatorade or smart water or something else that was healthy and tasty.

Don't even start me on incense!  Why would God have commanded the use of incense when smoke is a danger to the lungs and so many are allergic to it!  Why, indeed!  If only the Lord had known what we know, He would have commanded the use of those Glade scents that only gently linger in the air and offer a variety of scents that would appeal to the broader population than incense.  No, let us all agree that the Lord was simply naive or ignorant in His choice of incense.

I think you get my drift.  But that is the problem.  Is the Lord so ignorant and naive that He did not know better than to choose or use things that we would come to find as harmful or dangerous?  Or could there be another problem here?  Could it be that we have come to believe in science more than even God's Word?  Could it be that this is another way in which we have placed our reason above God's Truth?  Could it be that we have decided that preference is the same as science and elevated our own desires above the saving will and purpose of God?

Everyone of us knows that life post-COVID 19 will be different.  Some of those differences will be temporary, lasting only as long as our memory of the virus is fresh and its threat more recent.  Others will last longer as we have adjusted ourselves to the changed landscape of a virus and our fears.  I expect most households will keep a bit more toilet paper on hand, not to mention masks and hand sanitizer!  I expect that we will be more reluctant to extend the hand to shake, especially with strangers.  I expect that some folks who have switched to individual cups because of the corona virus will make their temporary choice permanent.  I expect that some of the goofy things we did in a time of emergency will become more permanent and we have not heard the last of Facebook live streamed services and Zoom meetings.  I expect that the needle for many folks will have been advanced a bit more toward caution and suspicion of the historic practices of the Church.  Some of these we will tolerate but we dare not make our peace with the idea that if Jesus had known better He would have done things differently.  There is no hope for salvation in a Savior whose wisdom and vision is as limited as ours.  There is no promise of deliverance in a Lord who was a mere creature of His era and could not have foreseen a world as we know it.  There is no Gospel left in a Savior and His sacrifice that have been rendered quaint by the passage of time and our own inflated wisdom and scientific ways.  We will have to deal with this -- not simply as a national church issuing a position paper but as pastors who daily deal with a people who are tempted by what passes as science to believe that we know more than the Son of God knew.  So be warned, my friends, for the days are coming when the itching ears of our people will hear the voice of the world more clearly than they hear the voice of God in His Word.

760 What God Ordains Is Always Good

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

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

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

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

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

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