Saturday, October 31, 2020

Does being Lutheran still matter?

A repeat from the past written by Paul McCain now almost 20 years ago.

The movie “Luther” [2003] sparked renewed interest in the life and work of Martin Luther. The fact that Concordia Publishing House’s movie companion book, Luther: Biography of a Reformer was received so enthusiastically indicates that, if only given a chance, people are eager to learn about Martin Luther and what it means to be and remain genuinely Lutheran. There seem to be three types of responses to the question, “Does being Lutheran matter?” One is, “Are you kidding me? You better believe that it matters! Let me tell you why!” Another response is a sort of “mental shrug” to the question, “Well, of course we want to be and remain Lutheran, that goes without saying, there’s no real need to talk much about it though.” And then, sadly, there is this response, “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is being a Christian. We need to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.” As I watch and analyze events and trends in Christianity and Lutheranism, both in this country and around the world, I am more convinced than ever before of two things. First, being and remaining genuinely Lutheran matters more then ever, and second, the reasons why this is so are unclear at best to many people. 

To be Lutheran is to be a person who says, “This is what God’s Word, the Bible, teaches. This and nothing else is true and correct. This understanding and teaching and confession of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most accurate and most faithful to God’s Word. This and none other. Nothing more, and nothing less, will do, for this is the truth.” In our day and age these sorts of bold assertions are often met with angry responses, such as, “How dare you insist that Lutheranism is actually the true teaching of God’s Word. How can you think you have the truth? All that matters is if a person is sincere about their faith in God.” We live in a time when truth is viewed as something relative, impossible to know for sure. The attitude common today is reflected when we hear things like this, “I have my truth. You have your truth. As long as we respect our differences, that is all that matters.” It seems today that the most important “truth” for many people is their profound doubt that truth can be known, and equally strong conviction that those who claim to know the truth are wrong. 

Before we go further we need to clear up a common misconception. While insisting on the truth of Lutheranism, we can never allow ourselves to do so in an arrogant, haughty or self-righteous manner. People who are passionate about the truth of Biblical Lutheranism know that the Bible teaches often and clearly that we are all sinful human beings in need of God’s constant mercy, which He so lavishly gives in Christ. To be truly Lutheran is to receive the gifts of God with humility, repentantly recognizing our great need. It is tempting for Lutherans to be proud and arrogant of their great heritage, but this is a terrible evil! To be Lutheran is to be always mindful of our great sin and our great need for a Savior. To be a Lutheran is to be a sinner calling out to fellow sinners, “Come and see!” Furthermore, we would never want anyone to think that we Lutherans are saying, “We, and we alone, are the only ones who will be in heaven. In fact, you can’t be a Christian unless you are a Lutheran.” Not so! Not at all. We realize that the Word of God is powerful and active, wherever and whenever it is heard, read or meditated on. There are many Christians in other denominations and churches. They are not Christians because of the errors in their churches, but in spite of those errors. Let’s then have none say, “You Lutherans think you alone are Christians.” We have never said that, we have never believed it, and we never will. The reason we insist on Lutheranism for everyone who will listen is we believe so passionately that it truly is the most correct and most accurate understanding of the Word of God. 

Another point that confuses many people is the fact that there are so many different churches to choose from. It is an awful mess, so it seems. Yes, it can be confusing, but it really is not as complicated as some would think, or want to maintain. Up until the year 1054 there was basically one unified Christian church, distinct from a number of non-Christian or anti-Christian heretical groups. In 1054 the church divided into Eastern and Western Christianity. So, you have to decide if the Western tradition was correct, or the Eastern tradition. By the time of the late Middle Ages the Western Church, which had come to be known as the Roman Catholic Church, had reached a point of deep corruption, most importantly in what it believed, but also in the morals and life of the clergy and church leadership. In 1517 there began what we know today as the Reformation, when Martin Luther, a professor and monk in Wittenberg, Germany posted a series of “talking points” on the practice of selling “indulgences” by which people were led to believe they could buy forgiveness of sins, for their dead relatives in purgatory. A person has to decide if the Lutheran view of Christianity is correct, or the Roman Catholic view is correct. After the Reformation, many groups developed from the teachings of persons other than Martin Luther, most notably, two men: Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who did much of his work in Geneva. These two men and their writings gave rise to many churches that can be traced back to and grouped under the general category of “Reformed” churches. In America in the 19th and 20th century there arose many splinter groups from Reformed churches, these would include “Charismatic” and “Pentecostal” groups, along with groups that rejected all denominations and became, in effect, a denomination of their own, the so-called “non-denominational” churches. And so the question then becomes, “Is Lutheran theology correct, or Reformed theology correct?” So, is it Rome or Wittenberg. If Wittenberg, then is it Geneva or Wittenberg?” Once those decisions are made, the myriad of denominations today makes a lot more sense. 

But there is an additional challenge unique to our century and more so the past half-century. Today, despite all their denominational differences and historic confessions, the vast majority of Christian churches in Protestantism have been nearly overwhelmed by the rise of liberal Christianity. This unites them more so than any other feature of their confession of faith. Historic differences are no longer regarded as divisive since these divisions were based on one group’s understanding of the Biblical text as opposed to another group’s understanding of the Bible. For example, the difference between Lutheran and Reformed views of the Lord’s Supper are very important and based on very serious and clear differences in how the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper are understood. Liberalism however regards the words of Jesus in the Bible as unreliable. It teaches that we can not be sure that what is recorded in the Bible is true and accurate, therefore, there is no point in being “dogmatic” about much of anything having to do with the Bible. Modern liberalism has swept through all Christian denominations, Lutheran Reformed, Protestant and Roman Catholic. 

This impacts our question, “Does being Lutheran matter?” for we have to realize that there are many churches in the world today that claim to be Lutheran but have been nearly entirely overcome by liberal views of the Bible. Therefore, they have compromised away the distinct doctrinal position of Lutheranism. They are, in other words, Lutheran really in name only, more by way of tradition than by any real living doctrinal distinctiveness. They may still be fond of historic Lutheranism, but no longer insist that it, and it alone, is true and that other views of the Bible are in error. When we ask the question, “Does being Lutheran matter?” It is a question that must be asked first of those who still use the name Lutheran, but no longer insist on the exclusive truth claims of historic, genuine, authentic Lutheranism. Let’s examine the world’s largest Lutheran organization, the Lutheran World Federation. Clear-headed analysis of what is happening in world Lutheranism reveals that the greatest threat to being and remaining genuinely Lutheran comes from groups that call themselves Lutheran! Let’s think about the Lutheran World Federation, for instance. No organization in the world has done more in the past fifty years to deconstruct genuine Lutheranism than the Lutheran World Federation. 

It has tolerated, even encouraged, a loose and unfaithful understanding of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, all the while ostensibly claiming a certain identity with them. The predecessor bodies that formed the Lutheran World Federation would not reject and throw out false teachers such as Rudolph Bultmann who worked to “demythologize” the New Testament, casting doubt on the words and deeds of Jesus. To this day the Lutheran World Federation pays mere lip service to the ancient Christian creeds, but tolerates in its midst churches whose pastors and theologians doubt, and even very brazenly and openly deny the most fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, casting doubt on the miracles of Jesus, His virgin birth, His bodily resurrection, and so forth! LWF member organizations have embraced the anti-Apostolic and anti-Scriptural practice of the ordination of women, abortion. The large Lutheran state churches are offering same-sex marriages. The LWF, despite its claim that it is Lutheran, does not even insist on absolutely faithfulness to the most basic of all the Lutheran confessions, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. The LWF, and most of its member churches, compromised and walked away from the Lutheran insistence on the Lord’s Supper when it entered into all manners of “full communion” with Reformed churches that continue to this day to deny that the bread and wine in the Holy Communion are in fact the body and blood of Christ. The LWF leadership structure has embraced a compromise of the very heart of the Gospel itself with Rome, when it accepted the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” in which it allowed Rome to continue its formal anathema of the Biblical doctrine that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from any works. 

In our own country, we have seen the devastating consequences of this compromising view of Lutheranism in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is in full communion fellowship with the most outrageously liberal of one of the most outrageously liberal protestant churches in the world, the United Church of Christ. The UCC does not even insist that its member pastors confess the Holy Trinity! The disaster taking place in the Episcopalian Church in this nation merely is a portend for what the ELCA faces, which only recently had a prominent woman theologian officiate at a homosexual “wedding” service with two women and then shortly after a pastor in their midst do the same for a male couple. Because of the “Concordat” of full communion the ELCA has with the Episcopalian Church USA the newly consecrated homosexual bishop is now, de facto, also a bishop received and recognized by the ELCA. Within our own Synod there is the constant temptation on the part of some to bury their head in the sand and hope and pretend these situations are not taking place or that somehow, perhaps by magic, they will just all go away or that we can ignore these realities and go on with business as usual. These pressures and theological trends also are at work in our own Synod. 

Does being Lutheran matter? Many would suggest that to insist on being and remaining Lutheran is to insist on what divides us from other Christians rather than on what unites us with them. “I’m more interested in people being Christian, rather than Lutheran” is a comment one actually hears these days quite often, sadly and tragically, even from Lutheran pastors. Clearly this is a false alternative that we must be on our guard to avoid. Being Lutheran is not a matter of culture, tradition or habit, at least is should not be simply that. No, being Lutheran is about being passionate about the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth as revealed by God in Holy Scripture. As much as we care about the truth of God’s Holy Word and the proclamation of a pure and unadulterated exposition of the Scriptures, being Lutheran matters. Martin Luther was concerned that people would be using his name, but then he realized that using the name “Lutheran” was a way to identify with what he stood for, to identify with his confession of the Gospel, in other words, to clearly identify oneself as a person who holds to a specific confession of Christ and none other. There are so many competing points of view of what Christianity is. Being Lutheran therefore is a way to distinguish and teach and confess and bear witness to the Christian faith in a very specific and faithful way. 

Being and remaining truly Lutheran takes courage and determination. It is not easy. Faithfulness to the Word of God is never easy, or convenient, or popular. This places unique demands on our pastors and congregations and our church body, since we are determined to be and remain truly Lutheran. Dr. C.F.W. Walther, the first president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, offers important insight in his masterful study of Lutheranism titled The True Visible Church on Earth. Contrary to our detractors, the Lutheran Church has never claimed to be the only church outside of which there is no salvation. No, not at all. We do believe that the teachings of the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Book of Concord of 1580, are in fact the pure, divine truth, because they agree with the written Word of God on all points. It is for this reason that the Lutheran church, and consequently our Synod, demands of all members, especially of our ministers, that they acknowledge the Lutheran Confessions without reservation and show their willingness to be obligated to them. And it is precisely because we so value and honor the purity of the Gospel given as a gift to us that we stand with Scripture (1 Cor. 1:10; Rom. 16:17) and our Confessions (AC VII; FC SD X) in rejecting every fraternal and ecclesiastical fellowship that rejects the truth of the Lutheran Confessions, either in whole or in part. 

This is why we say that being and remaining Lutheran does matter. We Lutherans therefore have no choice but to sound the call for true, orthodox, confessional Lutheranism. We want no poor imitations, but the real thing. We will continue to call for complete faithfulness to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, recognizing the blessing that such faithfulness has been since the time of the Lutheran Reformation. Our desire is always to be maximally faithful, not merely minimally so.With this call for faithfulness comes the Lord’s call for outreach. In no way must we ever permit ourselves to pit faithfulness against outreach. Faithfulness to the Word results in outreach with the Gospel. 

Faithful outreach is based entirely on a faithful proclamation of the Word. The constant hallmark of a genuinely Lutheran Synod, and a genuinely Lutheran congregation, is this two-fold emphasis: faithfulness to Scripture and the Confessions, and outreach with the Gospel. God forbid that we would ever apologize for wanting to be, and remain, a truly Lutheran church, or that we would ever hesitate clearly to speak up when we notice others walking away from the truths of the Word and the Lutheran Confessions for the sake of unity, which is no unity at all, since it is not based on agreement in the teachings of the Word, but only on an agreement to disagree! Thus, we pray that the Lord would continue to strengthen and embolden us to be a true, faithful and courageous Lutheran church body, to the glory of His holy name and the extension of His kingdom. 

It is particularly interesting to me how many younger are keenly interested in Lutheranism. They want substance in worship and in Bible study and in every aspect of their church life. They want “authenticity,” not the showy and manipulative “hype and hoopla” that their parents and maybe now even grandparents found so alluring in past several decades. They have been raised in a culture that at every turn is trying to manipulate them into buying something. They have had enough of that. They see how shallow it is and they want instead substance and content and rich depth of meaning. This is where Lutheranism excels, for we rejoice in the depths of God’s truths, not resting content with simply “once over lightly.” 

We wonder why, when people have a choice, they leave the Lutheran church. Why bother to remain Lutheran if there is nothing anything worth remaining for? If the differences that distinguish Lutheran from any other option in Christendom are never mentioned, or made to appear no more important than picking amongst various ice cream flavors, is it any wonder why people leave our congregations to find “greener pastures” in other churches? That is why the constant challenge we face is gently, pastorally, warmly and winsomely to be working hard at reinforcing good understandings and encouraging careful thinking and reflection, helping our people to see the issues of our day, and thereby recognizing and appreciating the fact that Lutheranism is the best option for anyone who wants to remain genuinely faithful to God’s Word. 

So, how does one remain Lutheran? Fond hopes, fervent wishes, pious prayer. Yes, all that, but more. The old Benedictine motto: “Ora et labora” applies! Pray and work and then, pray and work some more. Teaching is key. We must disciple people into the truth. This involves long, hard work. Passion, energy, excitement, dedication, enthusiastic desire to pass along the truth-these are key to being and remaining Lutheran. Nothing is more exciting than the truth, and if that is so, shouldn’t our attitude toward it be equally one of excitement and energy and conviction? If Lutheranism appears to be dreary, dull and plodding whose fault is that but ours? High-quality intensive teaching is the key to the future of Lutheranism. We sing, “Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word” and then we work to make it so among us, for our sake and for the sake of those who will come after us. 

 Does being Lutheran matter? Yes, it matters. It matters as much as being and remaining true to Christ and His Word and Sacraments matters, as outreach with the Gospel matters, and as loving our neighbor matters. Our great privilege is helping all those whom we can, be and remain genuinely Lutheran, for that is to be nothing more, and nothing less, than true to Christ and His Gospel. To that end, may God bless our efforts, and may He guide our work together in this high calling and noble task-being and remaining Lutheran.

Friday, October 30, 2020

You are what you do. . .

I read where J. D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), announced that his congregation, The Summit Church, will from now on describe itself as a “Great Commission Baptist” congregation and not a congregation of the Southern Baptist Convention. Apparently in 2012 the Southern Baptists okayed a dba as Great Commission Baptist.  Indeed, the theme of next year’s annual Baptist convention will be We are Great Commission Baptists. Some former SBC presidents -- James Merritt, Ronnie Floyd, and Jimmy Draper — agreed and others have also given their support to the “Great Commission Baptist” nomenclature. 

It reminds me of the many who not only would like to change their name but drop the whole idea of church.  The Southern Baptists have never been a real church body anyway.  With strict congregationalism in what is believed, how it is lived out, and how it is governed, the SBC has always been on the fringe of any definition of a church.  Now they appear to join those who not only eschew denominational identification but also the whole concept of church.  They are fellowships, communities, and whatever else will substitute for the dreaded word church.  We have them all over our community.  I expect you know them where you live.

Part of me thinks it is about time.  They are not churches.  Without creeds, confessions, liturgies, sacraments, and a ministerium, they are nowhere near what most folks think of when they think church.  You can be a Baptist and disdain creeds, ignore confessions, do what you want on Sunday morning, practice ordinances (occasionally except baptism and then within strict parameters) and accept nearly anyone who wants to be called a pastor to serve as your minister.  Come to think of it, there are probably groups within every denominational family like this.  Even Lutherans have a version of this with the LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission to Christ).  It is less about being a church than it is about cooperating in some areas while maintaining a strict congregational independence and identity.

Could it be that some of these groups have decided what they are good at and used this as their reason for being?  Baptists, particularly Southern Baptists, have always been seen as professionals when it comes to eliciting the sinner's prayer, a profession of faith, and a desire to be immersed in baptism.  It is what you do after that which is not always clear.  But for Lutherans conversion is never for conversion sake but always for the sake of life within a church where creeds, confession, liturgy, and a ministerium are at least as important as the folks in the pews.  

Interestingly, the LCMS sited statistics that showed it took fewer LCMS Lutherans to create a Christian than it did Southern Baptists to make one.  I am not at all sure the benefit of such statistics but it would seem to me that planting the seed and even watching it grow is far easier than tending it and making sure it desires tending.  But it is the tending through Word and Sacrament that sustain the growth and enable the fruit bearing.  So if you are going to be good at something, I guess I would prefer being good at keeping and growing the Christian through the means of grace than tallying up the numbers of those who gave their lives to Jesus because of me.  I guess I am being a little snarky but it does seem that the title Great Commission Baptists is almost an admission that they are their to win people for Jesus but not necessarily to nurture those won with the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  And it is that latter part that is more about being church.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Who sowed weeds among the wheat?

The direction of the influence is supposed to be from the Church to the world -- not the other way around.  When the disciples asked Jesus where the weeds/tares came from, Jesus said the devil sowed them.  Could it be that the devil is working with churches in sowing seeds against the Gospel, against the sacred that is from God, and against the Kingdom that is in but not of the world?  Well, you look and listen and let me know.  

Again, before those who are not Roman smugly laugh at this travesty, there are innumerable travesties that could be posted to reflect the goofiness and worse that happens in churches all the time (outside of Rome!). It is no wonder the Kingdom of God lags when the enemies of the Kingdom are sometimes those who were charged with nurturing that Kingdom by the administration of the means of grace.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Sure to create some smoke. . .and even some fire. . .

Warning Label:  Before you fire up your keyboard to post a comment, the Lutheran Church and your own Lutheran congregation are under little if any danger of even mentioning incense, much less being inundated by the smoke and smell of incense used in worship.  So do us all a favor and stop the tired and worn out warnings against incense, how you are allergic to it, and how ceremonies are free things among Lutherans.  Just give it a rest and read what this post says.  Since comments are moderated now, I may choose to ignore all of them.

The point of my post is to suggest that contrary to those who start coughing as soon as they even think about incense, science has proven certain health benefits.  Could it be that God in His knowledge of all things has provided us with a practice that has a certain salutary effect?  It is not only God-pleasing but good for us.

Borrowed from another website:

The catholic Church has used incense during religious services for millennia. Even before Christianity, Israelites used incense in worship, as the Psalmist records, “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering” (Psalm 141:2).

Incense became a central part of the Church’s liturgy, not only because of its symbolism, but also on account of medicinal benefits.

For example, in the famous Spanish church of Santiago de Compostela, medieval Christians created a large incense burner called the “Botafumeiro.” According to Atlas Obscura, “the incense … served to mask the smell of tired and unwashed pilgrims who crowded into the pews. It was also believed to have a preventative effect against [the] plague.”

Recently various scientific studies have confirmed the surprisingly purifying effects of frankincense.

One such study aimed to “test the effectiveness of their in situ application to cleanse microbially-contaminated air within the ambient of an investigated 17th-century church.”

The results of the study explained that, “The antimicrobial properties of essential oil derived from frankincense, a compound with well-known traditional use, showed that it possesses a clear potential as a natural antimicrobial agent. Moreover, the results suggest possible application of B. carteri EO vapor and incense fume as occasional air purifiers in sacral ambients, apart from daily church rituals.”

An article on the website Healthline claims “that burning myrrh and frankincense incense reduced airborne bacterial counts by 68%.”

Another study looked at frankincense essential oil and how it has anti-inflammation and anticancer effects.

Furthermore, it has been proven that burning frankincense even has the power to decrease depression. According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, “Burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Truth that Truly Sets Free. . .

Sermon for Reformation Day (Observed) preached on Sunday, October 25, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    Jesus’ words are often heard as cliché.  “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).  How often have you heard that?  These are common words spoken by parents to children; therapists to patients; teachers to students. We say it all the time, but what do we mean when we say it?  Usually we’re talking about the emotional relief that comes from not having to keep a lie going or a secret hidden anymore.  And this is true.  There is a sense of relief that comes from confessing a lie, from revealing a secret.  But this isn’t the freedom that Jesus talks about.  The freedom of the Truth is so much more than temporary emotional relief. 
    Today we live in a postmodern world that says individuals get to define their own personal truth.  The motto is “Your truth may be different from my truth and that’s okay...unless your truth says mine is wrong.”  But that’s not how truth works.  There can only be one true truth, and that’s the truth of God, the truth of Christ revealed in God’s Word. 
Jesus spoke this truth to some Jews saying, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-33).  The people who heard this were offended.  How could Jesus say that, implying they were slaves?  They were descendants of Abraham, a free man, and so were they.  They must’ve conveniently forgotten their Jewish history and enslavement to the Egyptians, or how they were currently under Roman rule.  They believed they’d always been free.  That was their truth, but it was false.
But Jesus wasn’t speaking of an earthly enslavement to a foreign power.  He was speaking of enslavement to sin.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34).  The truth is, they were slaves to sin...and so are we.
We’re sinners, all of us, everyone in the world, each and every one of us sitting here today, we are sinners.  That’s the truth, whether we want to believe it or not.  But we know this is truth when we compare our works and words and thoughts and desires against God’s Law.  
This isn’t something that’s easy to do, at least, to do faithfully and right.  Yes, we will generally admit that we’re sinners.  Nobody is perfect.  But to sit down and actually measure our lives against the rule of God’s Law that’s hard because we need to understand the fullness and depth of God’s Law and Commandments.  
The 9th and 10th commandments aren’t just about desiring something you don’t have, but being thankful for what the Lord has given you.  The 8th commandment doesn’t just include gossip and lies about others, but how we interpret their thoughts and motives.  The 7th commandment doesn’t just forbid taking things that don’t belong to you, but also being lazy on the job.  The 6th commandment isn’t just about sleeping with someone who isn’t your spouse, but about how we view marriage and children and what we choose to look at and think about.  The 5th isn’t just about physically taking another person’s life, but not supporting their physical needs.  The 4th isn’t just about mom and dad, but about all authority God has placed over us.  The 3rd isn’t just about one specific day of the week devoted to God and worship, but how we worship our Lord all day every day.  The 2nd isn’t just about taking God’s name in vain but also about how we pray.  And the 1st isn’t just about bowing down to an idol, but what and who we trust in.  
Knowing this fullness reveals just how great of sinners we truly are, how deep our wretchedness goes.  There’s not one commandment we haven’t broken, not one we haven’t shred to pieces.  This is hard to admit, that we’re deplorable sinners deserving nothing but the full condemnation of God.  And yet, this truth is essential to know and believe, because without it, the truth of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for you is useless.  
     Jesus didn’t leave those Jews with only half of the truth.  “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36).  Yes, they were sinners.  Yes, you are a sinner.  But Christ Jesus, the Son of God, has come to set you free from your sin, to set you free from condemnation, death, and hell.
Jesus is the propitiation for your sin.  His blood is the payment for your sin.  Christ came for you.  The Father sent the Son for you.  Jesus was born to die, to die on the cross, so that you’d be forgiven, so that you’d be free from your sin and God’s judgment upon it.  The truth is the Son of God became your substitute. He took your place, so that you could be a child of God, so that you could be baptized in His name, and have life in His name.  And the most amazing thing about all of this is it’s free, it’s all by grace.
We didn’t earn the love of God, we can’t earn the love of God.  We didn’t earn Christ’s sacrificial death.  God didn’t look at us a say, “There’s a bunch of people who are perfect.  I think I’ll send my Son to die for them.”  No, God looked at us and saw sinner slaves in need of redemption.  And because of His never ending love for you, He gave His Son.  This is the truth that was proclaimed and enacted in your Baptism.  This is the truth that is proclaimed and enacted in the Words of Absolution.  This is the truth that is proclaimed and enacted in the Lord’s Supper.  And this is the truth that we hold onto by faith.
    We hold fast to this truth of God’s love and redemption in Christ.  We hold it dear.  We hold it tight and we boast in it, just as Luther and the other Reformers did. 
    We not only live in a world that believes truth is relativistic, we live in a world that boasts in the individual.  The world has stopped revolving around the sun and it now revolves around each and every one of us.  Nothing is more important than “me,” my wants, my opinions, my desires, my achievements.  It’s all about me.  But this worldview is false.  Far from leading to the life that we want, it leads to everlasting death.  There’s only one life giving truth, and that is Christ our Lord.
Today, there are 6 youth who will be confirmed in the faith.  For the past few years they’ve spent intentional time learning the truth of their Savior, the truth of God’s Word, and the truth of the everlasting life and freedom from sin and death that Christ gives to them in His Word and Sacraments.  In the years to come, that truth will be challenged, just as it’s challenged in all our lives.  It’s my prayer and encouragement to them, and to all of you, that you will hold tightly to the truth of our Lord, knowing by faith that He will fulfill all His promise to you: His promise of forgiveness and His promise of matter what.  
Jesus’ words are more than a cliché.  They have substance.  The truth of Christ does set us free.  It sets us free from sin and death.  It sets us free from trying to earn salvation.  It sets us free to be children of God.  The truth of Christ is the only truth that does this.  Hold on to that truth of Christ.  Rejoice in that truth of Christ.  Boast in that truth of Christ, because that truth of Christ sets you free.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

Some more thoughts on single issue voting. . .

After doing some more thinking on this matter, I am even more convinced that for the orthodox Christian, abortion is that single issue that must override all other concerns in the ballot box.  And to be consistent, if slavery were on the ballot, that would be THE issue.  But it is not.  Slavery is not only not on the ballot, it is illegal.  Many other moral issues are also NOT on the ballot -- not because they are not wrong or immoral but because the law has already come down on the correct side of the issue.  Prejudice in employment is illegal.  Racism is illegal.  These might be single issues that could determine an outcome for the voter but they are not on the ballot.  Abortion clearly is.  

The candidates have made it clear that they have staked out unalterable positions on this matter.  Biden will enforce the immoral law that made it legal, will for the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for it, will strip the exemptions against it from everyone except the congregations, and will work to make sure that public funds pay for it.  To his credit, he has made this perfectly clear.  Trump has also made his stand clear.  He is opposed to abortion, desires the law to be ruled unconstitutional, and is working to place pro-life people on the courts.  We have a clear choice here.  

If the same conditions existed for slavery, I would promote the one who was opposed to slavery -- no matter how legal it had been held to be.  But slavery has already been decided.  That, of course, does not mean it does not exist.  Making something illegal cannot make it disappear.  But it removes the sanction of the law, the cover or civic righteousness, and the ability of those to hide their personal accountability behind it.  That is why abortion is SO important today.

For all the attention given to LBGTQ+ issues, they are not now on the ballot.  Moreover, these issues have a strong and powerful ally in the media, are well bankrolled, and have many popular and public voices on their side (from politics and entertainment, just to name two areas).  If you are on the side of LBGTQ+, there is not much for your to fight for -- except changing people's minds -- because the law covers you.  

We could go down the list of seamless garment issues that are supposedly the same or equal to abortion and you would find that either they are not on the ballot or they already have the law on their side.  But the life issues are right now not only on the ballot but live under the threat of an immoral law.  That is why we cannot allow Biden a pass for being personally opposed but publicly supportive of the legal right (which I do not even think is a fair characterization of his position).  That is also why, no matter how immoral you may find Trump, he does come down on the correct side of this issue.  So I cannot give cover to people who want to equate all kinds of issues and decide that abortion cannot be treated differently.  It can and it must.

Monday, October 26, 2020

But not for this. . .

The notion of sacred space has long been tested against the idea of multipurpose facilities that are used for a variety of purposes -- something about as far from their intention as you might imagine.  Some of those uses for sacred space are benign.  For example, we use our nave for such things as preschool graduations and the occasional concert or recital.  The children of the Sunday school put on their telling of the Christmas story in that space.  But there are limits.  Some possible uses would not simply detract from the sacred space but conflict with its purpose and its message.  Yes, message.  The stained glass, painting, altar, font, pulpit, paraments, banners, and crucifix all proclaim a message -- of who we are and what God has done to make us His own and of our life together around His Word and Sacrament.  So when a blog reader pointed me to this picture, it epitomized all that is wrong with trying to use sacred space for not so sacred purposes.

Whether this is stretching or exercise of yoga, you can see how it confuses the space with a purpose that this space was neither intended nor designed to support.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a purpose less in keeping with its reason for being than this (unless it was something designed to profane the very notion of sacred space).  For one thing, this takes place in the chancel -- literally behind the altar!  

Of course, you can see that this is a Roman Catholic Church but Lutheran readers should not be smug about this.  Our own churches have suffered the same confusion of purpose when the space where the Word is preached, absolution is given, baptism imparts new life, and the very Body and Blood of our Lord are given and received is rendered ordinary and simple square footage to be used as need would have it.

Hidden in this is another issue.  How many of the things churches do (like the picture above) not only affect the sacred space but the sacred purpose of the Church?  In other words, how much of this kind of stuff does it take before the unique and divinely established purpose and identity of the Church is lost, when worship becomes merely a program, and when spreading the Gospel begins to mean doing what people want us to do for them.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

United not absorbed. . .

So long ago that few can remember, there was a dream of an ecumenical consensus that would result in one church -- a single church hierarchy, a single headquarters, a single structure, and a single liturgy.  The unified doctrine part of it all was rather fuzzy -- enough vague language to create harmony without necessarily being, well, doctrinaire?  But COCU (Consultation on Church Union in 1962) did not do what was envisioned.  A 1970 plan of union went nowhere.   It became Churches Uniting in Christ (2002).  From the original list, a much smaller group was left to sort it all out before the gas ran out.

  • African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Episcopal Church
  • Evangelical United Brethren Church
  • Methodist Church
  • Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
  • United Church of Christ
  • United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

In the end, a few of those participating negotiated smaller mergers and the most profound accomplishment was fellowship between the many groups (including now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).  So intercommunion replaced a common church name, structure, ministry, and identity.

Some in Rome perhaps thought that it would be good for them to unite the various Reformation groups with the mom on the Tiber with whom the groups had previously departed.  But Rome has engaged this unity a little differently.  Perhaps it began with Benedictine Lambert Beauduin, who in 1925 had the ream of unity between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church but a unity in which the Anglican identity was not necessarily lost or surrendered.  Pope Benedict XVI was the one who turned the switch onto a full unity that preserved Anglican identity through an ordinariate.  It was an identity in which the groups were united under a papacy but the Anglicans were not absorbed into Rome.  They maintained their identity through their own liturgical tradition and a separate episcopal structure. 

Could it be that this is the model of ecumenism today?  While it might work for some, I have doubts that confessional Lutherans could accept such a model.  I could conceive of some Lutherans accepting it in theory as long as Rome would be amenable to the social stances they have taken as well as allowing the doctrinal deviation they are accustomed to already.  But in the end, what kind of unity is this?

I have wondered for a long time why anyone would be Orthodox and use a Western liturgy.  I cannot imagine why someone would desire unity with Rome and retain a separate identity.  While this might work for Byzantine Rite Roman Catholic congregations, the churches of the West have a Western liturgy -- like Rome.  The preservation of this liturgical identity when the Western liturgical tradition is so strong seems odd at best.  Rome long ago gave up the various distinctive rites in favor of the Roman Rite but, when Benedict re-established the Extraordinary Form, it led to two competing liturgical traditions in Rome -- one that perhaps would not find a problem with rites so long as Rome got to decide what stayed and what was left behind and everyone agreed with papal unity.  Nonetheless, this Lutheran is not so enamored. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

When the Pope betrays the faith. . .

The kind of liberal and progressive views that undermine the faith are in evidence from Pope Francis.  He was and is a radical whose approach to the social issues vexing the faithful cuts the legs out from under them and makes orthodoxy appear exceptional and foreign to Christianity.

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis endorsed same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope while being interviewed for the feature-length documentary “Francesco,” which had its premiere at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday.  The papal thumbs up came midway through the film that delves into issues he cares about most, including the environment, poverty, migration, racial and income inequality, and the people most affected by discrimination.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said in one of his sit-down interviews for the film. “What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”  While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favor of civil unions as pope.

Rome has for a long time had trouble admitting serious problems.  Rome is full of paper hangers who put new wallpaper over the cracks and presume that everything is okay.  We saw that with the child abuse scandals and we have seen it doctrinally with those who refuse to let the words mean what they say and who believe that the future of Christianity lies with accommodation.  Francis has been a problem for a long time and just when everyone seems to raise up their hands in despair, he backs away from the cliffs.  Yet the damage done by every foray into liberal and progressive Christianity undermines and weakens orthodoxy.  Politically this means that Justice Amy Coney Barrett becomes the exception among Roman Catholics for actually believing and attempting to live her faith and Joseph Biden becomes the rule -- a cafeteria Christian who picks and chooses what he believes, supports, and accepts.

Confessional Lutherans have long looked to Rome as an ally in preserving the faith against the inroads of culture and relativism but they have been an unreliable ally.  Nowhere is that more apparent that Pope Francis giving cover to the idea that same sex marriage (or civil unions) and the desire of such couples to know family life with children is not so bad.  Advancing such normalcy to such relationships is not seen by this Pope as having any collateral damage to the preservation of marriage between one man and one woman and the traditional shape of the family.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It seems that perhaps the loneliest place in Christianity is reserved for those who believe the Scriptures, who confess the creeds, and who adhere to the unchanging truth of doctrine and truth.  If Pope Francis will not stand up and be counted on this front, he has abdicated his moral authority and any claim he makes to be guarantor and preserver of the sacred deposit.

The Pope is less a buffoon than he is a conniving and crafty adversary of the faith, of the witness of the Scriptures, and of the catholic tradition and creeds that have been confessed down through the ages.  He is in league with those who have been working to change the face of Roman Catholicism in the same way that liberal and progressives have changed the face of Lutheranism.  We are in a battle for the soul of the faith and the life of the Church and nothing less than an unwavering commitment to orthodoxy will suffice.  While we may have been able to coast along in the past, we must now swim ever harder against the stream of relativism, individualism, and liberal progressivism.    Who am I to judge?  Well, when it comes to doctrine and dogma, you might have thought that was the Pope's job (the most essential episcopal role to supervise doctrine and practice). 

How true it was and is that the real dangers facing Christianity come from within, from those who have been charged with maintaining our witness to the truth!  No one on the outside of Christendom can do as much damage as somebody like Francis who sits on a throne and advocates against what the Scripture and tradition have held through the ages.  While we do not despair because it is the Lord's Church and that Church has His promise attached to her survival, we must not become complacent or grow weary of the struggles before us.  Jesus promised of the fight to come and He has given us every weapon and tool we need to fight against those enemies of the faith and of the Church.  It is time to wield that two edged sword against those who would rot the structure from the inside and not just pontificate against those outside the faith.

No pope can expect to be followed when he departs from the faith and the Word of God and no pastor can expect to be followed when he departs.  That is why it is so important for God's people to be well catechized in the faith, to know the Word as the familiar voice of the Good Shepherd, and to be able to recognize when the voice coming from a papal apartment or a local pulpit is wrong.  We are not talking about hearing things we do not like or want to agree with but those things that contradict the faith once and still confessed.  We are not talking about reason that sits upon the throne above the Word of God but about what is heard and how it squares with that Word yesterday, today, and forever the same.

Friday, October 23, 2020

How rich. . .

How rich was that moment in the debate when Joe Biden insisted that the only thing he had to do was mention the 230,000 people who have died a COVID related death since March.  According to Biden, this is all the indictment needed to charge Trump as an incompetent and flawed President.  While I am no fan of Trump the man, Trump the President has done more to bring the real scandal into the forefront and perhaps give us a chance to reconsider the decision to sanction the deaths of the unborn.  For what it is worth, it only takes 100 days for the aborted children in America to equal that number of deaths.  Sadly, three to four times the number of COVID deaths happen every day, as they did when Biden was VP, without notice -- the legal killing of millions upon millions of Americans!  Abortion is not just another issue and this killing machine must be stopped.  Think about that when you go to the polls.  While it is nice to hope for a President who will secure our wallets, keep our streets safe, prevent foreign entanglements, control pandemics, promote equal justice, and preserve our environment, what does all of that matter when on the side the killing continues.  Joe Biden is the kind of Roman Catholic and modern day Christian who presumes that you can be a moral, good, and pious man -- even nation -- and let this offense against God and the babies go on without challenge.  Shocking!

50 Years of Clouded History. . .

Now 50 years ago the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, the predecessors of the 1988 merger into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) ordained the first Lutheran women in the USA.  The Rev. Elizabeth A. Platz, was ordained Nov. 22, 1970, by the Lutheran Church in America, following the approval of the LCA in June of that year.  Within a month the American Lutheran Church had ordained the Rev. Barbara Andrews, having given approval to women's ordination in as recently as October.  Although this was not a rash action -- it had been debated and discussed for some time and in official publications of those church bodies -- it was not given clear theological justification.  The theology fell in line because for those church bodies the time had come and culture was pressing upon them to act.  In neither church was there a theological study to given cover the decision but in both bodies there were voices of the emerging feminist movement as well as the actions of European bodies which had acted as early as two decades before the Americans.  These were followed 10 years later by the ordination of the first women of color and then 40 years later by the ordination of the first transgender people as pastors.

Now well over a third of the active clergy in the ELCA are women and nearly half of all candidates for ordination were female in the last year for which statistics are available.  But women clergy are said to lag behind men in pay and in acceptance in the parish.  This dispute the fact that there are a significant number of women bishops in the ELCA.  At least 17 of the ELCA's 65 synod bishops are female but women still lag behind mind in holding the title of senior pastor.  So for many in the ELCA the struggle is not over.  But for others, women pastors remain controversial at best and a scandal at worst.  I knew two female LCA pastors who have a long fight to justify their ordination theologically, renounced their ordination and were received as lay members of the Roman Catholic Church.  For them, this failure to justify their ordination became a shadow that would not go away.  One might wonder if there will ever be a theological justification for the breech in history and theology with even our recent Lutheran past.  Or perhaps it is either too late or not necessary to give theological cover for a decision which is now seen as a done deal.  After all, when the NALC and LCMC left the ELCA, both continued the practice of women's ordination.  It has become a non-negotiable.  The same is true for the Episcopalians who left to form the Anglican Church in North America.

For the ELCA, the decision to ordain women eventually led to decisions to accept homosexuality and transgender clergy.  While it is not necessary to link the two or to judge the ordination to be the causal event for this choice, it is impossible to deny that the other would not have happened if women had not been ordained.  So the anniversary will be celebrated with great fanfare among those who favor this decision but it cannot be denied that it is an lex still in search of a ratio.  That would seem to have put a damper on the 50th anniversary but it does not look like anyone still cares.  Just a few thoughts as we approach the 50th anniversary of the ordination of an ALC woman while that body was technically in fellowship with the LCMS.  Now isn't that ironic!!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Vote for life. . .

Though there are many who are attempting to provide cover for those who do not like Trump but are also against abortion so that they may vote for Biden, this is no small matter.  No one has the authority to give you permission to vote for one candidate or another.  There is no moral authority who can grant any voter the permission to cast their vote one way or another.  YOU must make the choice.  This year it may be a choice you do not desire to make, but it is a choice you must make.  And for the Christian, the cause of life is no small matter.

It is imperative that we remember that a Christian should not cast a vote which would support the pro-choice stance.  It is also imperative to remember that not to vote at all is to fail to support the cause of life. Some have looked at Libertarian candidates as one option but if that Libertarian point of view leaves abortion legal and the choice up to the individual, that is not a choice we can in good conscience countenance.  IF there is candidate who can be counted upon to stand for life and against the politics of death, we should cast our vote for the cause of life.  While this is certainly true in the Presidential Election, it is no less true in state and local elections.

There is no righteous candidate out there whom we can support on every level or on every issue.  We have candidates before us who are all flawed on many levels.  But this is not a theoretical choice.  It is a choice that will affect the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of babies routinely aborted each and every year.  Millions and millions since abortion was legalized in 1973.  And this is not simply about abortion.  It is about the protection of the aged, the frail, and those whom society has decided are not living lives worth living.  It is about the choice of people to end their lives at will with the help of physician and medicine to make that choice a painless death.  It is about at least these and more.

Though some have tried to make abortion smaller, as merely one of many causes in the seamless garment of life issues, abortion is the center of the cause and the beating heart of the pro-life cause.  I will not tell you who to vote for.  I cannot and should not.  But I will tell you as a Christian, you should vote for the cause of life wherever the option is available to you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Another dive. . .

So the word is that former editor of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, has become a Roman Catholic (he was a Presbyterian).  While it is no surprise, the Evangelical House has not been in very good order for some time and the choices for orthodoxy have become increasingly narrowed throughout Protestantism, what is sad for me is that Lutheranism got barely a second look from Galli.

Even though it’s clear in retrospect that this moment was key, I still wandered, looking for something that my evangelical faith could not supply. So I dabbled in Christian mysticism for a while, then Eastern Orthodoxy, and then a theology of radical grace as expressed in certain Lutheran writers and the theologian Karl Barth.

It’s interesting now to see how Catholicism in many ways was the fulfillment of each of these paths. Certainly the tradition of Catholic mysticism is most impressive, especially as seen in St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, among many others. And the importance of the Church tradition and being organically tied to the early Apostles—that’s not just in Eastern Orthodoxy but also Roman Catholicism. And despite the feelings of many Protestants that Roman Catholicism is a version of works righteousness, I discovered that Roman Catholics believe in a grace that is even more radical than the radical Lutherans profess. So these so-called detours were actually preparing me to enter into the fullness that is the Roman Catholic Church.

I am not at all sure who the radical Lutherans or certain Lutheran writers are, but it is a troubling thought to me that Lutheranism did not fare better in this man's search for a church home.  On the one hand, I can understand why Lutheran churches are not attractive.  They are a mess.  You have a choice of size (ELCA) at the cost of orthodoxy and at the risk of heresy.  You have the choice of a very small body (WELS) which is inconsistent.  You have the choice of micro Lutheran groups that are so small as to be almost invisible.  And then you have Missouri which has so much promise and yet struggles in the execution of faithful, vibrant, and effective confessional Lutheranism in faith and practice.  Never mind the Lutherans of Europe.  But Lutheranism ought to fare better for someone like Galli.  Could it be that Lutheran groups have so colored the image of Lutheranism that people shopping for a more orthodox, sacramental, and historic faith cannot see the promise of the Confessions for the broken promises of the Lutheran bodies before them?

Being confessional and orthodox in faith and practice is not only for the faithful, it is our witness to the world.  It is not only those already in this church who suffer when pastors and parishes go off the reservation.  We compromise our confession before the world.  And people who are searching for roots, serious theology, Biblical integrity, vibrant sacramentality, traditional liturgy, wonderful music, and an alternative to the emptiness of Protestantism, dismiss the choice of Lutheranism because of the Lutherans.  We cannot be more than we are but we should not be less than we are.  And the first step to regaining Lutheran witness before the world is to be Lutheran in doctrine and practice.  Something worth considering on our way to Reformation Day this year. . .

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Is there nothing more than the Word?

Sermon for the Festival of St. Luke, preached on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

   What a terrible job it is to be a pastor!  Though many of us complain about our jobs and terrible pay and awful working conditions and the terrible people we work for and work with, pastors have it the worst.  I cannot honestly think why anyone would voluntarily choose to be a pastor without the call of God through the Church to seal the deal.  But it is not the pay or the working conditions or even the people to whom we are sent that makes this job the worst.  It is that God strips away everything we think we should have in order to be safe and secure in this job and then He gives us nothing more than His Word as our only tool and weapon.  How can that be enough?

    If I could, I would do anything else but be a pastor.  But God has called me and so here I am.  At first glance it seems so inspiring.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Like the old Marine slogan, all God wants are a few good men.  Or so it would seem.  Slick talkers, gladhanders, men who can inspire, warriors to do battle, soldiers to march even to the gates of hell with the sword of the Word of God.  Men to go where the Lord will send to act as instruments of His redemption in a world filled with people in need of saving.  Then the reality sets in.

    “Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.”  That can’t be what God means.  Lambs among wolves?  No stash of cash or debit card.  No extra clothes or another pair of good walking shoes?  No small talk on the road?  That is not what I signed up for.  I expected God to give me the secrets to make it all work.  I thought the ministry would provide an easy and comfortable life.  I thought that I would have plenty of time for my family and for me.  I thought that God would see how hard I was trying and how much I was doing and throw a little extra rewards my way.  I thought at least the people would follow me into hell and back if that was want God wanted.  But that is not what I got.

    I got a ministry without any real power or authority, a vocation of service and sacrifice, a choice between disappointing spouse and family or church family, phone calls of disease and death in the night, weeks without days off, years with vacations interrupted by church emergencies, and people who complained constantly to me and about me.  There I was with only the Word of God.  Stripped bare of all that I thought I needed, God gave me one thing and one thing only – His Word.  He gave me no rose colored glasses to view this calling but warned me that doors would slam in my face and people would get angry with me and I was to reply only on Him.

    But there is comfort.  Even fools shall not go astray as long as the Word of the Lord lives in them and even foolish pastors shall not fail in all that God has appointed as long as His Word is spoken from their lips.  You see, that is the comfort.  The success or failure depends not upon the messenger but the message, not upon the preacher but the Word of God preached, and not on the gifts of the pastor but the gifts of God the pastor bestows through the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  No pastor thinks that God has given them enough to do what needs to be done and every pastor has every thing needful in the Word alone.  Oh, to be sure, you need to learn not to detract from that Word or get in its way but the Word of the Lord is enough.  It is enough for the 72 the Lord sent out.  It is enough for Luke, the healing evangelist whose medical arts gave way to the Word that heals the sick with sin and raises those dead in trespasses.  It is enough for pastors in Clarksville whom the Lord has called to serve you in His name.

    But wait.  This is not simply about pastors.  This is also about you.  This is about you whom the Lord has called to be His own children by the power of the Spirit working in the Word, whom He has washed clean in the waters of baptism, whom He has absolved of your sins, and whom He has fed and nourished upon the body and blood of Christ.  If you have the Word of the Lord, you have all you need to face the wounds and worries of this mortal life.  If you have faith in that Word of the Lord, you will endure to life everlasting.  If you endure in that Word of the Lord despite the troubles and trials of this ever changing life, you will be anchored in every storm.  You are sure you do not have enough but God knows your needs, your weakness, your pain, your afflictions, your challenges, and His grace is sufficient for them all. 

    Nearly all our prayers are about the stuff we think we must have in order to be the people we need to be or do the tasks God’s wisdom has assigned us.  We worry about money and fear giving to the Lord or to those in need lest we be left empty.  We worry about every ache and pain and what illness they might portend.  We worry about where we will live, what we will eat, and whether our life will have the rich experiences that satisfy our desires.  But if we have the Word of the Lord, we have enough.  That is the ultimate test of faith.  From both sides of the pulpit, that is the constant and daily test of faith.  Is God’s grace sufficient for me?  Is His Word enough to guide my way?  Is His mercy enough to supply me?  Is His future where I want to go?

    Beloved St. Luke was no duffus.  Like those with MD behind their names today, St. Luke was educated and respected as someone a cut above the rest.  But in all his training and education, St. Luke had to learn what you have to learn.  The Word of the Lord is sufficient to grasp you into the Kingdom and to keep you in the arms of Your heavenly Father.  In the end, his healing vocation was a shadow of his call in Christ.  This is beloved St. Luke whose account of Christ is orderly and erudite, who gives us the story we long to hear while we hold our Christmas candles and who alone tells us the mystery of Christ’s ascension glory and whose account of the history of the early Church in the book of Acts reveals how this small band of misfits might become the mighty Church of Jesus Christ.

    Pastors must learn what St. Luke did.  The ministry is no dream vocation but a calling amid the messes of a messy life and a messy world.  Though every pastor prays for more, every pastor has what God has supplied him – the Word and Sacraments.  This is enough.  The Word of the Lord will not return to God empty but will fulfill His purpose in sending it.  In the end, that is all any pastor ever has.  And it is always enough no matter how much that pastor worries or complains.

    You, the people loved by God, must learn the same truth.  Your Christian life is no dream life but it is lived out amid the dirt and darkness of a real world as a real sinner whose only glory is God’s grace and favor.  You will pray to God for all that you are confident you need but God has already supplied you with everything when He gave you new life in baptismal water, spoken His Word into your ears so that it might be planted in your heart, and fed you upon the flesh and blood of Christ.  In the end it is all any Christian has.  And it is always enough – no matter how much you worry or complain to God that you need more.  The Word is enough for pastors, for God's people, and for the Church.

    You have the cross marked upon you, you have the seal of His promise as your hope, you have His life in you as your new identity, and you have the future He has prepared – to walk through death to the life that is beyond imagination in the wonders God has prepared for you.  Do not fear.  Do not be distracted.  Do not abandon the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Do not disdain His baptismal gift of new birth.  Do not absent yourself from His table.  Do not give up on His sufficient grace.  All things are yours because you are His.  Amen.

Like children but in the wrong way. . .

Perhaps the worst legacy of the Enlightenment is the flower of individualism that has become rampant in church and state.  We are to be like children but not childish.  Yet the unmistakable fact is that our religious and secular leaders and many of those who are led by them have taken up acting like children -- in the worst way.  They think only of themselves.  They act more out of fear than confidence.  They throw temper tantrums when they don't get their way.  And they won't play (pay) unless things go their way.

In the Church we have raised at least a generation of such children who won't go to church unless they get what they want there and so churches and pastors have ended up trying to placate competing tastes and preferences or the folks will vacate the pews.  So from the music to the preaching, things have been tailored to the whims of the individual sitting in the seats, looking up at the chancel, altar, and pulpit.  The pandemic only magnified this to the point where some will not come if you won't distance and wear a mask and others won't come if you ask them to wear a mast and distance.  Others have decided that the risks of venturing out are too great and you can have your cake and eat it too in front of a screen on Sunday morning.  

Our church leaders rolled over and played dead when the call went out from the CDC or state capitals or city mayor's offices.  No, our people do not need church and, yes, whatever church they do need can be delivered via social media.  Locally some parishes and pastors worked to keep the doors open and to serve God's people with Word and Sacrament safely and effectively but the hierarchies of most jurisdictions did not even given lip service in support to those efforts.  So the faithful learned that even our church leaders are not sure that worship is essential, at least not in person worship.  Like children afraid of standing up and being counted, the sound of silence was overwhelming from most denominational headquarters -- except to direct us to the appropriate orders and how to obtain a PPP loan.  

But the church leaders were being bullied by secular leaders who trampled upon our first amendment rights as if it were no big deal.  Like children, they behaved as if the rules were for others but not for themselves (visiting barbers, hair dressers, and taking vacations while telling everyone else to cut their own hair and stay at home).  The bickering between parties was astonishing while the nation looked for a united front of leaders to help us make it through the threat.  Blame was more common than the acceptance of any responsibility and the array of confusing thoughts, plans, and orders issued only made it harder for us to believe what we were being told and follow their direction.

The pandemic did not cause this.  We did.  Our stubborn individualism has become our Achilles' heel and this wound will not heal.  It would seem that there are not many adults left in the room of politics and government anymore.  What the pandemic did, however, was to highlight just how bad things are for us as a nation, states, and community.  We cannot just disagree; we must punish.  We cannot agitate for a cause; we must loot and burn.  We cannot a good greater than what is in it for me.  We cannot conceive of something beyond the moment.  It is not a matter that either party can fix because the political figures are only manifesting the inherent divisions and suspicion we have as a nation and people.

The world needs the truth of God more than ever and yet the world is even more deaf to the voice of God than ever before.  We will not tolerate the Word of God unless it justifies what we think, say, and do.  If it was once difficult for the Church to speak truth in a world of lies and deception, it has become even more difficult since the truth many churches choose to speak is little more than an echo of what our culture and society hold dear (for the moment).  As much as we would despair, this is not a time for second thoughts.  The Gospel is needed more today than yesterday and the people of God need the voices of those who will not fear speaking this Word of life -- both to expose the wrong and point to the right who is Christ.  If freedom has come to be something so shallow and trivial that it gives us license to self-indulge, we have lost all freedom and live in bondage unawares.  If the only thing freedom means is that we can dress as we want and do what we please, how can we complain when it becomes the cover for choosing gender or defining ourselves by what we feel in the moment?

Individualism is wrecking marriage for us and us for marriage.  It is stealing away the things that make us noble and giving us nothing in exchange for what it is made off.  Just as individualism has made us small and our causes small, so it has turned doctrine and the faith into something one person wide and deep. Finally, the Church itself becomes something only for the imagination and exists in one size, big enough for one, when the individual becomes the arbiter of anything and everything.  Such a church does not need to be in person since it always is in person where the individual is and the individual decides what feeds his soul (whether body and blood or a snack before a screen!).  Individual conscience and preference have been enlarged over everything else and are stealing away the gifts of marriage, family, truth, doctrine, and church community.  We prefer being only children of a God who gives all His attention to us, at least when we seek it, and we delight in a Church that exists for us and because of us.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Malpractice insurance. . .

After another inevitable insurance review of our parish's coverage and needs, we were told again of the importance of pastoral malpractice insurance.  Who knows who might take something wrongly that was said in counseling or misinterpret a touch?  Who knows if a teacher or youth worker or pastor may actually have become physically or sexually abusive of someone in the parish or school?  We will need to be covered, of course, to protect the church's assets against those who might sue.  Yes, we all know that.

There is, however, another kind of malpractice for which no insurance is offered.  I am speaking of the malpractice of pastors who come to a solidly Lutheran parish and lead them to institute evangelical style worship in place of the Divine Service.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who replace the sturdy hymns of old for the current beat of contemporary Christian music.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who put in place another book besides the catechism to teach the children and those new to Lutheranism.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who hand out hermetically sealed bits of juice and cracker and have the folks place them in front of their screens at home to take communion.  Or of the pastoral malpractice of those who no longer preach sin and forgiveness, law and Gospel, but instead preach self-fulfillment, paths to happiness, and ways to success.

They offer plenty of coverage for those who abuse children and adults in other ways but none for those who abuse the Church and her people with every latest fad or whim in place of the truth that endures forever.  But isn't that why we have bishops (or district presidents)?  Are they not supposed to be our providers of pastoral malpractice insurance?  After all, they are the ones charged with the supervision of doctrine and practice, are they not?  Funny how we talk of electing episcopoi who are good administrators or good leaders but we do not think how they will do to make sure that the Gospel is preserved in an age of decay or hold the pastors accountable to their ordination vows and promises.

The weakness of congregationalists is that they are islands unto themselves.  Some among us seem to delight in telling that nobody can tell them what to do or not to do.  They flaunt the boundaries of faithful preaching, teaching, and pastoral practice -- preferring to live on the fringes of the church's life.  They refuse everything from hymnals to vestments, liturgy to catechism, in order to re-invent a faith.  They are pathfinders and pointes who have shed not merely the name Lutheran but the confession.  They work at leadership and snicker at the faithful pastors of smaller parishes who still use the liturgy and sing the faithful hymns of old.  They are the first to embrace technology and they conference with like-minded folks who have put their trust in change more than the changeless Christ.  They disdain religion and glory in relationship and prefer to pack people in rather than teach them a Gospel which will surely offend their modern sensibilities.

But let me call it what it is.  It is malpractice.  The people of God and the parishes of the Church suffer under the weight of those who would rather be leaders than pastors.  They would rather cast visions and invent new paradigms while looking askance at those who keep their ordination vows.  We need real leaders who will serve as malpractice insurers for the Synod for this oversight of doctrine and practice is the only thing keeping the church from becoming a sect or a cult of personality.  I appeal to those so elected and charged with this supervision responsibility -- tend the flock and the shepherds and hold them accountable.  You are either the strength of the anchor to or the weakest link in the chain of succession from the apostles and prophets.  Hire someone to be a manger but you alone are responsible to the wider church and to the individual congregations and pastors to hold us accountable to the faith once confessed.  We need you even more desperately now than ever.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The world I was trained for. . .

By now it is old news.  We live in a changing world and face a changing culture.  The changes are coming faster than ever.  And just as predictable?  The world I was trained for is gone.  What am I going to do now?

If you are a computer programmer who cut his teeth on Fortran, Cobol, or C++ or the like and have not moved on, you are in trouble.  If you are an auto mechanic who has never used the computer in the vehicle to find out what is wrong and right with the car, you are probably in trouble.  If you are an oncologist who is still using the drugs and treatment regimens for cancer routinely used in the 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s, your patients are in trouble.  But if you are a musician who plays an instrument, the techniques are pretty much the same and much of the music is from long before you were born.  And if you are a pastor, the world may have changed but the problems of sin and death remain the same problems since Eden and the solution of the cross has remained the same for 2,000 years.

Every time I read a pastor who laments that he was not trained for the world in which he finds himself, I wonder who trained him or what kind of ministry he has in mind.  We are not and should not be trained for the moment but steeped in Christian theology, history, liturgy, and preaching.  While there have certainly been changes, they have been incremental -- unless you start our by ignoring or rejecting everything of the past!  The ministry has not changed.  People sin, the Word calls them to repentance, the Spirit engenders faith, and the heart made new rejoices in the forgiveness, life, and salvation that comes through the Gospel.  That has not changed -- except for those churches who no longer call sins sin or who have made their peace with death or who have adopted the therapeutic gospel of self-affirmation.  For those, the Gospel has not changed but they have surely rejected the one eternal Gospel of Revelation.

I am not a complete idiot.  I know the world has changed.  I know culture has changed.  But our job is not to keep up.  Our job is to proclaim the unchanging Christ to a changing world.  That was once our slogan.  Now, some believe it is our failing.  We are told all the time that the church is dying and unless we change, the church will be buried on our watch.  I agree some churches are in trouble but those in most trouble are the ones who have changed to keep up with the pace of the world and the shifts of culture.  These churches have not stayed the course but have zigzagged across the page in pursuit of relevance judged by those who do not believe.  Their buildings are as empty as their theology!  

So I challenge you as pastors and the people in your care.  Do not lament that you are not keeping up.  Pursue faithfulness and God will never judge you irrelevant.  Proclaim the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen and that preaching will call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify a new generation of people for the Kingdom.  Call the sinners to the cleansing waters of baptism where they are united with Christ into His death and raised with Him to new life and the future will not be dim.  Speak forth the absolution to the baptized who come shamed with failure and overwhelmed with guilt and they will not be lost.  Feed the hungry and give the thirsty to drink of the body and blood of Christ and their strength will not waver nor will they grow weary.

The best way to empty the pews is to empty the Gospel, distracting people with inspiration aims that promise happiness or success or fulfillment.  The best way to render the Church non-essential is to believe that the Gospel of Christ crucified is out of date and must be freshened up for a new generation.  The best way to kill what God is doing is to individualize the truth and glorify the whim of passion, desire, or feeling.  For every good program that might offer a little help to you, there are a million who will only confuse and confound you and the people of God.  It is not about you.  It is about Jesus.  It is about the means of grace.  It is about the efficacious Word.  It is about the promise forged in blood on the cross.

I was sitting in a catechism class and behind the kids was a stack of old phones being replaced by our new phone system.  A couple of the kids were laughing at the phones in comparison to their smart phone.  I asked them how often they actually called someone on their phone.  They seldom spoke to anyone on that phone.  They used it as a screen and as an internet device.  I reminded them that the phones behind them still worked.  They made calls and accepted calls.  You picked up and you heard a voice.  No, you did not go to social media or play games or watch videos on them.  They did something even better.  They connected you to a real person.  Our technology and our fascination with the changing world around us has made us forget that what is most real is the voice -- the voice of God speaking and preaching, absolving and baptizing, feeding and equipping His people with grace sufficient to wipe away their sin and answer the threat of death.  The Gospel may seem as old fashioned as those phones but it works.  The problem is not with the Gospel but with the changing world which wants to play a game more than it wants to hear the voice of life. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Late but still interesting. . .

Reading up on some things I had bookmarked, I came across this discussion of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.  Normally on the church calendar we observe deaths, not births.  Except of course for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and, as we all know, the Nativity of Our Lord.  It was one of those things I knew about but had never thought about.  The blog fills in a few gaps:

The Byzantine tradition distinguishes twelve feasts, eight of Our Lord and four of Our Lady, as “Great Feasts”, with Easter in a category of its own as the Feast of Feasts. Whether by design or coincidence, the first of these in the liturgical year is also the first chronologically, the Nativity of the Virgin on September 8th. This event does not of course occur in the Bible, but is first mentioned in the popular apocryphal work known as the Protoevangelium of James. The precise origin of the feast is a matter of speculation, and the reason for the choice of date is unknown. It was celebrated at Constantinople by the 530s, when St Romanus the Melodist composed a hymn for it; by the seventh century, it had passed to the West, and Pope St Sergius I (687-701) decreed that it be should celebrated with a procession from the church of St Adrian (who shares his feast day with the Birth of the Virgin) to St Mary Major. It would seem, however, that it was rather slower to be accepted than the other early Marian feasts, the Purification, Annunciation and Assumption, since it is not mentioned in some important early liturgical books. Thus we find it included in the oldest manuscript of the Gelasian Sacramentary in roughly 750 A.D., but missing from the calendar in some later books.

The Protoevanglium of James is, of course, the source for the names of the Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna.  This caused one pope to suppress the feast and one of his successors to restore it because of its popularity. 

Even more curious is how a papal conclave added to the feast. It is said that at the Papal conclave of 1241, where cardinals were locked in a dilapidated building by one attempting to direct them to elect his candidate, the cardinals promised to honor the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity by granting it an octave, if She might intervene to guide their election.  The man elected, Celestine IV, died after a reign of two-and-a-half weeks.  A great hint of irony upon the papacy and this feast day.

Ah, you say, of what does this have to do with us Lutherans.  Therein lies the point.  We hint at apocryphal details in various ways, perhaps even giving a tentative nod to the name of the Blessed Virgin's parents.  But here we refuse to go beyond Scripture.  No, there is no date given in the Bible for the birthday of Jesus or of St. John the Forerunner but Scripture is replete about the details of their births.  Not in the case of Blessed Mary.  Why is it so tempting to go beyond Scripture and invent details that would justify what we want to do?  For this is not about commemorations on a church calendar at all but the stark reality that this is what we attempt to do all day long about so many things.  I have probably said it and I know I have heard it said often, if it isn't in the Bible, it should be.  And what is so different from the invention of a holy day to be commemorated from presuming upon Scripture what has not been said in Scripture?

The point of tradition is not to add to Scripture or fill in details about which Scripture is silent.  The tradition that counts is the tradition into which Scripture speaks its life-giving voice and ears hear and believe.  Tradition's most important role is to reflect what Scripture says and how it has been heard and heeded in the life of the faithful.  But for some that is not enough.  Scripture is good enough for what it says but when it does not say enough, other sources of doctrine must be found to fill in the details.  But there is no end to the details we clamor to know and, if allowed, these would overshadow what Scripture speaks as the center of God's self-revelation.

It is probably no big deal if some want to remember the birthday of Blessed Mary.  She certainly deserves it.  But she herself has focused the attention not upon herself but upon the Father who chose her to be the mother of His only Son and of the Son that is her Redeemer and ours.  For this all generations shall call her blessed.  She would choose to be remembered not apart from her Son but in His shadow as one of the faithful, pondering in her heart what the angel said and what happened along the way to the cross.  The most faithful honor of this blessed woman of faith is to follow the Bearer of the Eternal Word in praise of Him who has highly regarded our low degree and saved us by His grace and favor.  This is enough.  But to do less or to ignore her role is our own poverty of fear and pride.

Of course, Luther kept until death as his pious opinion but not doctrine the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  In 1544, Luther said: 'God has formed the soul and body of the Virgin Mary full of the Holy Spirit, so that she is without all sins, for she has conceived and borne the Lord Jesus.'  Elsewhere, "All seed except Mary was vitiated [by original sin]." When concentrating specifically on Mary herself as the Mother of God, Luther acknowledges God's singular action in bringing her into the world, but in making general comments about the universality of human sinfulness, he includes her among all the rest of humanity.

Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person."  (WA, 39, II:107; and Sermons of Luther, Ed. Lenker, 1996)

But I have found no evidence that the Nativity was kept by Luther or later Lutherans.