Monday, November 30, 2020

St. Andrew's Day. . .

On this day we remember blessed Andrew, first of the Apostles.  While the name Andrew (meaning manhood or valor), was a common Greek names among the Jews at the time, St. Andrew was anything but ordinary.  The son of Jonah, or John (Matthew 16:17; John 1:42), he was born in Bethsaida of Galilee (John 1:44), brother of Simon (Peter) (Matthew 10:2; John 1:40).  This was a family of fishermen (Matthew 4:18; Mark 1:16).  It appears they lived in the same house at Capharnaum (Mark 1:21, 29).

In the fourth Gospel we learn that Andrew was a follower of St. John the Baptist.  It was this testimony of the prophet that first led him and St. John the Evangelist to follow Jesus (John 1:35-40).  It was Andrew who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah, rushing to introduce our Lord to his brother, Peter, (John 1:41). The two brothers both became disciples of Christ, leaving all things behind to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11; Matthew 4:19-20; Mark 1:17-18).

St. Andrew is listed in the various lists of the 12 Apostles given in the New Testament (Matthew 10:2-4); Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13) but always numbered among the first four names on that list.  In Mark 13:3 it is said he joined with Peter, James and John in putting the question that led to the Lord's great eschatological discourse.  St. Andrew has the distinction of offering to Jesus the little boy's lunch for the feeding of the five thousand, saying: "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes: but what are these among so many?" (John 6:8-9).  Just days before our Lord's crucifixion, when certain Greeks asked Philip that they might see Jesus, Philip referred the matter to Andrew as to one of greater authority, and then both told Christ (John 12:20-22). Like the majority of the Twelve, Andrew is not named in the Acts except in the list of the Apostles, where the order of the first four is Peter, John, James, Andrew.  There are no other direct mentions of him in the rest of the New Testament.

When the Apostles went forth to preach to the Nations, it appears that St. Andrew took an important part. Eusebius (Church History III.1), apparently relying upon Origen, tells us that Scythia was St. Andrew's mission field. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 33) mentions Epirus and St. Jerome (Ep. ad Marcell.) Achaia, and Theodoret (on Ps. cxvi) Hellas.  Nicephorus (H.E. II:39) says St. Andrew preached in Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia, in the land of the anthropophagi and the Scythian deserts, then in Byzantium itself (appointing Stachys as its first bishop), and finally in Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Achaia.  Most sources agree that he was crucified by order of the Roman Governor, Aegeas or Aegeates, at Patrae in Achaia.  Bound, not nailed, to the cross so as to prolong his sufferings, it is said St. Andrew asked not to be crucified in the manner of Jesus.  So it is thought that the cross on which he suffered was a decussate cross (now generally known as St. Andrew's Cross).  This evidence is not conclusive although the church year believed his martyrdom took place during the reign of Nero, on 30 November, A.D. 60).  November 30 is his feast day.

It might be said that without St. Andrew's rush to tell his brother about Jesus, the whole Gospel might have been written very differently.  In our age where we are quick to tell others about our every thought, whim, preference, or desire EXCEPT faith, St. Andrew stands out as one who was true from beginning to end.  Perhaps we need to be more like him in this regard, less apologetic about the faith and more of a promoter of what it is that we believe, teach, and confess.  In any case, St. Andrew's boldness was honest and forthright, true to his faith in Christ, and confident that this Savior had come not for him only.  As I write this, I note that in so many of our families anymore, the faith is not shared and it places a considerable burden upon the faithful when spouse and family are at odds with the faith and belief of the Christian. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

How can it be that this Gospel is not true?

On this first day of Advent as the story begins anew, there are those who would insist that this faith is a guess, built upon myth and legend, and that it requires the suspension of all reason and fact to believe.  While not to doubt the role of the Holy Spirit in breaking down the barriers to belief that sin has placed in the heart, there are things to be asked about how such a faith would come to be without God's work and without truth behind every assertion.

St. John Chrysostom confronted such skepticism and offered a response that does not diminish the role of the Holy Spirit but also acknowledges that this could not be a fabricated lie:

How could twelve uneducated men, who lived on lakes and rivers and wastelands, get the idea for such an immense enterprise [of spreading the Gospel worldwide]? How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed, he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, they fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!

How then account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime could not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, now set forth to do battle with the whole world if Christ was dead – if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “What is this? He could not save himself but now he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?

It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much (Hom. 4,3.4: PG 61,34-36).

What we begin every Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day is a rehearsal of the facts of an incredible story but it is a story that begs not simply to be told but to be challenged.  I have often said to skeptics that better men than you have doubted God and the Gospel survived.  So we must say again to those so sure that it could not be true, better men than you have doubted, discounted, and rejected the Word of the Lord but not only has the Gospel survived, it has flourished.

This is a Gospel told not by stories handed down through the telling over the ages but a story, one single story, seen across the ages by eyewitnesses who wrote what they saw.  From burning bushes that were not consumed to a sea parted to a prophet coughed up by a great fish to men in a burning circle untouched by the flames.  It was not a lie or an imagination at work or a delusion promulgated to deceive or a hope to replace misery.  It was the promise handed down through the ages by the prophets made flesh and blood in the incarnation of the Son of God..  They wrote what they saw not as the educated or aloof but as a common people united in an uncommon Gospel that was pledged through the ages and manifested in fact in the man among men whose Father is God.  The heroic force of these tellers is matched by the tenacity of the people gripped by their vision and by the Spirit to keep going what God had begun.  The fact that this faith transformed the story of mankind even without stilling every doubt or silencing every critic is made even more incredible by the fact that still people gather to hear its voice and respond with faith, repentance, and hope.

Join us, we pray, as Christians from throughout the world begin a new Church Year, the telling of the ancient story, and the celebration of the promise of God fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Almighty Lord God, who hast by Thy grace this day permitted us to enter a new church year, we beseech Thee, grant unto Thy Church Thy Holy Spirit and the wisdom which cometh down from above, that Thy Word, as becometh it, may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve Thee, and in the confession of Thy name abide unto the end; through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.

Stir up, we beseech You, Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins, and be saved by Your mighty deliverance; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen. (Collect for Advent 1) 

Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank You, we bless and praise You forever, that You sent Your Son to rule over us poor sinners, who for our transgressions justly deserved to remain in the bondage of sin and Satan, and that in Him You gave us a meek and righteous King, who by His death became our Savior from sin and eternal death. We beseech You so to enlighten, govern and direct us by Your Holy Spirit, that we may ever remain faithful to this righteous King and Savior, and not, after the manner of the world, be offended by His humble form and despised Word, but, firmly believing in Him, obtain eternal salvation; through the same, Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen. (Collect for the Gospel, Advent 1) 


Saturday, November 28, 2020

When pastors downplay their role as pastors. . .

It has been my experience that the Church faces greater danger from those who foster an aw shucks mentality toward the pastoral office than those who use it as justification for acting as despots and dictators.  The age of despots and dictators in the Church has passed (except for non-denominational and personality centered so-called churches of the media).  Popes even seem powerless to make Roman Catholics march in step with respect to doctrine or practice so who in their right mind thinks that an ordinary parish pastor can act like a king without challenge?

I assume there was a time when pastors were in danger of acting like demigods.  The dreaded herr Pastor of another era who stood on a pedestal and was aloof, inapproachable, and ruled the roost has been long gone.  Before antifa and protests tore down the statues, these pedestals were pulled out from underneath the pastors who insisted upon their own way.  The folks in the pew learned to vote with their pocketbooks or simply to move to another parish and the kingdoms of these would be rulers became small and smaller.  Oh, you still hear about them -- but mostly from those who want to treat their pastors like hired hands and who lord it over them as if they were despots and dictators who must be minded and obeyed.  Some of the curmudgeons of the internet still harp on clergy privilege and authority as if we still lived in the age when pastors were given swords as well as staffs when they were ordained and installed.

Rather, the real danger facing the churches (not just Lutheran) are those pastors who refuse to be pastors or who have crafted an idea of ministry which mirrors life coaching more than it does the pastoral office.  They think by never using the term you from the pulpit they are being humble and including themselves in their condemnations and inspirations.  They think that by treating the office as if it were nothing special, like everyone has it or could, they are being egalitarian.  They think that vestments or clerical collars draw undue attention to pastors while torn jeans, scraggly khakis, a worn polo, or a faded tee shirt (like the rest of the guys in the pews) makes them accessible and ordinary.  Well, it does make them ordinary but in the worst way and certainly works against their purpose and office as icons of Christ and instruments through which He works on behalf of His people.

Truth is that the office and the ministry is continually being reinvented in the wrong way.  Pastors should not downplay their role for effect but rather need to live up to the role and purpose of the office that they bear for the sake of the ministry of Christ.  No one is suggesting that pastors are sinless or even less sinful than lay or that they are above lay in some hierarchy of godliness but the character of the office is that they are stewards of the mysteries, instruments through whom God works to bestow His grace in His gifts to His people.  This should not diminish the office or the men who fill it but ennoble it and encourage them to strive even more toward fulfilling that office and its responsibilities more faithfully.

There may have been a time when God's people were in danger of pastors on their high horse but today the greater danger is from pastors who find nothing special in the ministry or strive for being leaders of men instead of agents of God.  And that, my friends, is all around us.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The ultimate inhumanity. . .

I was getting my hair cut when my barber was talking to me about a report he saw that attempted to explain how algorithms in social media work (which I still do not get).  But the conversation got me thinking.  Have we been reduced to an algorithm?  Is that who we are?  Who I am?

Apparently the first time you hit enter and head out into the unknown called the internet you begin to lose your privacy.  At that time you begin your journey on becoming a digital reality and your humanity begins to slip away.  Truth becomes preference and who you are and the truth you believe is adjusted by the algorithm that pays attention to your every keystroke.  Even when it might seem that two people are Googling the same products, sites, and interests, the algorithms have become so sophisticated that everything is tailored to that one person and no two people are alike.

Goofy me, I thought it was my own lack of tech savvy that I could not locate a meme I saw moments ago or why others looked at me with a blank stare because they never saw that meme or factoid or whatever.  In reality that is how the whole social network enterprise works.  It may have been rudimentary in the beginning but it is refined and sophisticated today.  Preference, interest, and individual bias have been honed so that what you see only you see and even though others might seem to mirror your own profile, everyone is sifted so that the outcomes are different.

It is no wonder then that worship would be person specific, that Christian music would become your own personal playlist, that religious truth would be no wider or deeper than the individual espousing that truth, and that morality would mirror the same shallow depth and moment of time limited to belief.  It does begin to frame the context that makes online worship so appealing for so many and why many who were once in person will be virtual participants in the future (even long after COVID is a faded memory).  

I can understand why folks over 55 might find this concerning or even threatening or perhaps worse.  What I cannot understand is why those under 55 seem to have made their peace with it all.  Could it be that one of the residual effects of the pandemic will be to further the divide between those for whom an encounter with God is real against those whose encounter with God is virtual (at best),  

You are not fearfully or wonderfully made but merely the sum of your preferences.  Your life is not some amazing and divine construct but merely the whims of the moment borne of temporary desire.  Redemption is not about sin and death and God and forgiveness but about your particular and unique identity, self-defined and digitally refined until it is only you.  Eden has been reborn and we needed no serpent to lead us into temptation -- unless you consider that social media is just that -- our digital serpent whose only interest is to steal us from God and therefore from our genuine humanity.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Rest In Peace Servant of God

Our Lord Jesus has called to Himself our brother and fellow servant in Christ, Rev. Paul Timothy McCain (Feb. 12, 1962 - Nov. 25, 2020) to await the blessed resurrection unto life everlasting. Paul served as a pastor in Iowa, senior assistant to LCMS President A.L. Barry, and was serving as the Publisher at our Concordia Publishing House. Funeral arrangements are pending. The Lord blessed Paul with a passionate zeal for the Gospel as taught in the Scriptures and confessed in the Book of Concord. Join us in prayer for Paul’s wife and children, and his CPH family. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Paul was a friend of several decades, a gifted and accomplished theologian, and a tireless worker who helped turn CPH into the premier publisher of Lutheran materials in the world. We will miss him mightily. Prayers ascend for his family at his sudden passing.  

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace according to the mercies of God. Amen. 

It is hard to be thankful when. . .

It is so hard to be thankful this year.  We order out the bird for the oven (either to cook or reheat if we chose the precooked option).  We gather virtually with our families on screens (or maybe we will put out on the dining chairs the cut outs of the people we want to be with).  We will pray to God that He?She?It will deliver us from the shortages of toilet paper and meat that have taught us hoarding is good (or maybe we will pray in thanksgiving that we found the stuff to hoard!).  We will ask the Lord to speed up the vaccines and the willingness of people to be vaccinated but not so much that we feel safe (and we will permit the anti-vaxers their point of view as green and natural).

Or maybe we will sit down to an impossible turkey burger made of recycled vegan content and be content to sit before our screens thankful that we are not like others.

Friends, there is nothing so cold and unattractive about humanity as the failure to be grateful, the unwillingness to recognize where blessing is even in the midst of pandemic, and the secret contentment to be alone.

Say it and pray it and maybe a God will melt our stone cold hearts and build in us a temple of contentment as we survey His gracious favor.

O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:

The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:

The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.

10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:

11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:

12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.

13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:

14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.

16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.

17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:

20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:

21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:

22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.

23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:

24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.

25 Who giveth food to all flesh: for his mercy endureth for ever.

26 O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for his mercy endureth for ever.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Not safe. . .

Catching up on my reading (I am always behind), I encountered the interesting article from the FIRST THINGS blog called, Morbid Safetyism

You can read the whole thing but I must admit that I was captivated by the title and loved the final two paragraphs:

. . .how much “life” we are willing to give up for the sake of secondary goods. These secondary goods, like health and safety, undoubtedly make life better, but certainly don’t define it, not even in the abstract. A good life isn’t just an additive bundle of all the secondary goods. It isn’t worth more if we are healthy, or able-bodied. And anything truly great requires real risks.

A morbid obsession with safety jettisons life in order to preserve life. (As I have six sons, this is a lesson I have to learn over and over again!) I hope that the political realignments of our time will include serious pushback against the notion that policy and class preferences for eliminating risk have moved us closer to the good life, or even to the good society. A sanitized life is no way to live.
Interesting questions.  When did the safety of life begin to be at odds with such things as having a child or going to work or, shall I say it, going to church?  Health and safety make our lives better -- who can argue with that -- but they are not ends in and of themselves.  At least they were not until COVID 19 came along and people began to look at anyone and everything as a threat.

I do recall Dr. Fauci, ever present voice of the corona virus pandemic, who said that he did not expect to see or hold a new grandchild or shake hands or spend holidays with the larger family.  In other words, he was willing to change his life and give up some of the things that were once prime indicators of what a good life well lived was about (children, meeting people, making friends, and celebrating occasions) in order to prevent getting that dreaded virus.  But what kind of life is a sanitized life in which we peer into the nursing home through an exterior window to see loved ones isolated there or content ourselves with Facetime with the grandkids or keep our distance from those who might prove to be our best friends or to give up church (and its foretaste of eternal life) for a safer life now (not better though it might be safer)?

A bubble wrapped existence is not life -- real life has hardship, risk, threat, and blessing that must be held in tension.  No one is suggesting that we flaunt every safeguard but to give up what were once the very marks of a rich life for a sanitized one leaves us poor and alone.  Maybe you are willing to live such a life.  I am not.  And I do not believe a Christian can live such a life either.  The sanitized life would have left Jesus distant from the lepers, the needs of people, and the sinner's shame.  There can be no Good Samaritan in a sanitized life (or one who merely thinks good thoughts as he passes by on the other side).  St. Paul's analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ implies that we are connected in more than a mental or spiritual way.  The bread broken and cup shared exemplify this unity in time that we confess exists also beyond the reach of clock or calendar.  

This sanitized life is the same sort of screwed up stuff that comes from those who insist you must love yourself first or you cannot love your neighbor.  This sanitized life sees faith as a solitary endeavor, a life lived outside the pale of human connection, and without incurring any cost or risk.  That life may be what folks want but it is not the life that Jesus lived or the life that He calls us to -- take up the cross and follow Me (especially when that cross may be the morbid concern for safety that threatens our community in Christ and our own faith.

One last look at the Church Year past . . .


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Architecture that shows where we are headed and not where we are. . .

The problem with newer church buildings generally is that they focus on where we are and not where we are headed.  Even the ubiquitous A-frame of the 1950s and 1960s had a definite peak pointed beyond those gathered in its aisles.  It may not have been all that pretty and it was certainly cheap to build but its intention was still to point us to that which was to come.  The buildings formed from industrial materials with warehouse or retail style focus fail miserably in this regard.  Some of them have black painted ceilings to hide the exposed mechanicals and to keep the eye focused on the stage.  Some buildings have such low roofs as to make the room seem like folks are squeezed into a shoe box -- no matter how large the physical size -- and the end result is an uncomfortable closeness with those around you without the intentional discomfort of your smallness before the Mighty God.

I suppose the architecture only follows the focus of what happens inside and when the focus from the stage or lectern is on improving the present moment, that is what the room will echo.  That is, of course, the modern foible.  Too many churches seem intent upon helping people find happiness or success in the present moment but seem unprepared or unwilling to be ready for what is to come -- much less anticipate that awesome fulfillment.  We were well on our way toward this goal of focusing almost exclusively on the present before COVID came along and helped to steal our attention on the preservation of this life rather than the preparation for the life to come.  But modern Christianity has gone even further in this direction and is now even more distant from the themes of Jesus' preaching.

Architecture of old was an aid to keeping the attention of God's people and those who serve them where that attention belongs.  Repentance, readiness, and rejoicing in the promise being fulfilled as we speak.  There is less talk of repentance today perhaps because of less talk of sin.  There is less talk of readiness for the kingdom of God perhaps because we either no longer care about it or are so sure of it (cheap grace) that it does not matter to us all that much.  And there is less rejoicing in the promise because we have so much to rejoice in now -- our vast technology, our entertainment culture, our preoccupation with feelings, and our abundance of free time.

The architecture of old intended to make us seem small.  Because we are.  We are not demigods nor are we gods.  We are sinful people, marked for death, and without hope in ourselves.  That message is not popular but it is the only way that the cross makes sense.  Without an acknowledgement of our sinful smallness, the cross ends up being some ill-conceived attempt to inspire selflessness.  All well and good if Jesus dies but not so good if we are the ones dying!  As St. Paul reminds us, it is hard enough to find folks to die for a good cause much less for an uncertain or less than noble one.  Sitting in church is meant to remind us that God is great, mighty, and a force to be reckoned with.  It is meant to confront us with the unpleasant prospect of meeting this God alone.  It is also to point us to where this God has met us -- in the promise laid down from the beginning of the ages, fulfilled in Christ's flesh and blood, revealed in His suffering and death, and triumphant in the resurrection from the dead.  The building was both the place where we met the stark reminded of what sin did and our helplessness to repair it and what God has done and the hope of a future far beyond this present reality.

What happens in worship is the same.  We begin with the general confession which is sort of a hit in the gut before we ever approach God.  But God's response is to absolve the penitent and give us a place in His presence.  The liturgy rehearses the works of God in saving us and delivers to us the fruits of that redeeming work in the Word that gives life and the Body and Blood of Christ that feeds us this life as the foretaste of the eternal which is to come.  We leave having had our focus turned from the present and all of its evil and disappointment to the future and all of its promise.  Hope restored, we walk forth into the world as agents of this future destiny, doing the good works that display in a moment in time the eternal love that has redeemed us and paid for the sin of the whole world.  Architecture can either aid in this task or fight against it.  It is never neutral.  Just like the music in the Divine Service, it either complements the Gospel or contradicts or conflicts with it.

So I would gladly prefer an old A-frame to the metal skinned warehouses or low roof living rooms that too often are what passes as space for worship.  It is not preference but it is about that which echoes the Gospel in turning us from ourselves to Him in whom we have forgiveness, life, salvation, and an eternal future.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sheep and goats

Sermon for Pentecost Last, the reign of Christ the King, preached on Sunday, November 22, 2020.

     Reading through this parable of judgment, it occurred to me that the Lord has it all backwards.  He should have begun not with the sheep but with the goats.  Apparently our Lord did not attend a sermon class at a Lutheran seminary or He would have known the Law comes before the Gospel, not after it.  But alas, He is the Lord and so He violates all the good little rules we have established to box God in and to define who God is and what He says.  That said, this is only a hint of the surprise we find in this story of judgment.  Part of it rests with who are the sheep and who are the goats.

    Although Jesus does not follow the Lutheran rules, we do so let us begin with the goats, with the Law.  It is our common presumption that these are terrible people.  They do not put cans of corn in bags for the food pantry or take care of their yards.  They are not good parents and their children end up good for nothing kids without education or employment.  Of course, the big sinners are numbered here – everyone from Hitler to terrorists to mass shooters.  But with them we tend to lump all the people we do not like.  From neighbor to co-worker to stranger across the globe, the goats are bad people and the sheep are good people.  But that is not what Jesus said.

    The goats probably were good people in the eyes of the world.  They were not druggies or irresponsible or poor parents or on the welfare rolls.  I suspect that they were Christians who went to Church and gave money to the poor and dropped off clothes to Good Will and took care of neighbors in distress and made sure their kids when to the good colleges and got good jobs.  For what is contrasted here are not works but faith.  That is why Jesus puts the sheep first.  He is commending faith.  From Hebrews we know that without faith it is impossible to please God.  Jesus is not in conflict with the author of Hebrews.  It is the same message.  The central point in it all is faith.  What marks the difference between sheep and goats is faith, faith, and only faith.

    When the sheep are confronted with the works of faith, they do not see them.  When did we do these, Lord?  They do not see because faith focuses not on our works but on the saving work of God in Christ.  Faith is fixed upon the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is all faith sees and it is the only thing that matters.  Their surprise to the notice of the Lord is because they cannot count their good works.  They can only count the great good work of God who sent His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  They are not surprised that they are sheep.  They know they are and believe they are.  That is because they see the cross and believe in His saving death and cleansing blood.  They believe in their baptism.  They believe in the Word preached and the creed confessed.  They believe in Communion.

    The goats have all the outward marks to show the world they are good people but the one thing that they lack is faith.  “When did we see you, Jesus?”  They did not see Jesus but they did see what they did or did not do that they thought was worthy of notice.  They saw how hard they tried to be good people but they did not see their great need to be saved.  They saw every opportunity to do the right thing but they did not see what Jesus did to be the only thing by which they were saved.  They did everything right but they did not have faith.  They did not see Jesus.  Not in baptismal water giving them a life they did not deserve, not in the voice of absolution forgiving them of sins worthy of death, not in the Word of God speaking eternal truth, and not in the bread and wine that is His flesh and blood.  The sheep see only Jesus but the goats do not see Him at all.

    This is not a parable about works at all.  This is a parable about faith.  The sheep ask when DID we do these works of faith, Lord.  They do not count their works to earn them anything nor do they expect their works to be noticed or rewarded.  But the goats see only their works.  When did we NOT see you or NOT do these things?  You may have read this parable for years and presumed that Jesus was telling you the bottom line of judgment is works but what Jesus is pointing to is the bottom line of faith.  The great difference between the sheep and the goats is not what they did or did not do but faith.  How they saw themselves and how they saw Jesus was the mark of distinction that Jesus is pointing us to see.

    By the way, this is not a parable of judgment but rather a sentencing hearing.  The judgment has already been rendered.  This judgment does not take place at the last day but on the day when our Lord mounted the altar of the cross, when He paid the price for your sin and mine, when He died to deliver us from Satan and from the destiny of Satan and his ilk, and when the Father accepted this sacrifice and counted it on behalf of you and me and all the elect.  That was judgment day – Good Friday.  What Jesus is talking about is sentencing day.  When Good Friday is applied.

    At sentencing day, the verdict of the judgment already rendered is put into force, for all eternity.  The sheep hear the sentence they will suffer for all eternity.  “Come, ye blessed of My Father,” says Jesus.  “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”  Nobody earns a kingdom or an inheritance.  It is yours only by gift.  That is the judgment we shall suffer.  “Come, and get all that I have prepared for YOU.”  Who would live in fear of such a sentence?  The sentence is not a surprise to us for this is the very promise of Jesus.  This is why He was incarnate into the womb of Blessed Mary, why He was born in flesh, why He lived a holy and righteous life of perfect obedience, why He manifested the Kingdom in words and works, why He willingly offered Himself to the cross, why He suffered and died there, and why He rose on the third day never to die again.

    But the goats will be surprised.  They were watching themselves and looking for God to watch them as well.  They thought they were doing okay.  They loved Jesus not as Savior or Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world but as Rabbi and teacher and example to follow.  They saw love not as a gift in the cross but as a command to be fulfilled.  They will be shocked when the sentence comes down.  Enter straight away to eternal punishment.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  Only punishment!

    The goats thought works were essential and sincerity mattered but faith was flexible.  The sheep knew that faith was essential and works and sincerity mattered only because of faith.  Without faith it is impossible to please God.  That is what they knew so they did not bother to keep track on a spreadsheet all their tiny good works but kept their focus on the great work of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  They rejoiced to be relieved of the burden of works to live in joy of grace, gift, and mercy.  They willing surrendered their good works to be forgotten so that they might remember only Jesus and what He did to deliver them from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation.

    Friends, we keep trying to make religion about works.  This is not a small problem but the greatest problem of all.  The works we take seriously only belong to Christ.  Our works may help our neighbor but they cannot advance our cause with God.  God has already rendered the judgment that counts.  He counted Jesus guilty so that we might be counted just.  He put all of our sins on Jesus so that we might be forgiven.  He gave to us the reward that Jesus earned for His holy living and life-giving death and now we look forward not to limbo or uncertainty but eternal life in the presence of God, with all the saints, and the fullness of joy that knows no end.

    You are the sheep.  Don’t act like goats.  This is even more important in times like these when you are tested by uncertainty and tried by fear.  Faith first.  That is your highest priority.  Faith first in your time and talent and treasure – being in God’s House, receiving His gifts, and responding with voices in praise and prayer, and lives of sacrifice and service to His glory.  That is all that matters.  Not the troubles you endure or the works of your hands but only Christ and only what He has done to save and only faith to trust in Him.  Everything else will pass away and only what is in Christ will endure.  You are in Christ.  Live in this faith.  Amen.

Some clarity and hope for a Lutheran university. . .

As we all know, the Lutheran university is facing a host of challenges -- indeed the very idea of a Christian university is under assault.  We are facing the demise of such schools due to their indistinguishable identity from secular institutions, the press of culture to define what is taught, learned, tolerated, and approved on our campuses, and the financial cost of such schools.  I have written often about this challenge.  I point you to one refreshing bit of candor from the new President of Concordia University Chicago and some hope for the goal of recapturing the whole idea of a Lutheran university.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Where are we getting it?

According to the Wall Street Journal, German authorities say they don’t know where 75% of people who currently test positive for the coronavirus got it. In Austria, the figure stands at 77%. In Spain, the health ministry said that it was able to identify the origin of only 7% of infections registered in the last week of October. In France and Italy, only some 20% of new cases have been linked to people who previously tested positive.  Lest we presume this is due to European ineptness,  “The vast majority of the remainder [of the new cases in NYC] —somewhere probably around 50% or more—we don’t have a way to directly attribute their source of infection,” Mr. Varma [Senior Advisor for Public Health for the Mayor's Office]  said. “And that’s a concern.”

Because we do not know where the infections are coming from, the blame game is up again.  In Europe it is pointed toward restaurants.  Researchers from Stanford University and Northwestern University have used the mobile-phone data of 98 million Americans to model how the virus spread during the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring.  The study, published in journal Nature this past week, showed that restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes and religious organizations carried the biggest risk of spreading infections.  This is because the virus tends to spread fastest in closed, poorly ventilated and crowded spaces.  Apparently these researches have not been in any churches over the past six to eight months!

Churches are a convenient scapegoat for the increasing uncertainty about where people are getting this pernicious virus.  They are convenient because churches tend to be independent and to lack the financial resources and media access to combat the charges laid against them.  They are a scapegoat because religion is no longer the paragon of virtue and the necessity to life it once was.  In fact, most Americans tend to believe that the best adherents are those who are skeptical about the religious claims of their faith and who pick and choose from doctrine the way people once made their way through a buffet line (before they became passe).  The reality is this.  Churches, at least most of them, have neither been full or poorly ventilated for a very long time.  About the last thing people will economize on is their comfort that this applies to churches (most generally very well cooled and heated and cleaned).  They are closed in one sense -- they have doors -- but they are not closed in.  Most churches have high ceilings and a great volume and quantity of space per worshiper present -- more so than just about anywhere!  You are more likely to be distant from folks in a church building than you are at Wal-Mart and yet people have not stopped shopping!

My complaint here is that this is shoddy reporting and shallow research.  Instead of relying upon anecdotal evidence, they need to show up on a Sunday morning and see.  Our building has every other pew roped off, individual seats spread out, and people are in close proximity to each other for barely a few moments during the worship time.  We have four HVAC units going constantly in a building with a 37 foot high ceiling, wider than it is deep, and with 40% or more of our people wearing masks.  If everyplace Americans went was as socially distant, clean, and well-ventilated as our church building, perhaps we would not be seeing such spikes.  Outside of a few crackpot pastors and odd congregations here and there, everyone I know is doing everything possible to keep their members safe while they are in church on Sunday morning.  Given the shrinking size of most congregations, I don't know of one pastor who is willing to write off any regular worshiper for the sake of making some kind of political statement.  Not to mention the shortage of good givers!

Plus, how many people have been in church lately?  A quick survey of the blogosphere shows that most Protestant congregations have a significant number of their people worshiping online.  Those who have primarily inperson worship have had reduced numbers in the building.  Lets be honest here.  Churches are easy targets for explaining the unknown of COVID infections.  But easy and convenient may not be accurate. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Have we become wimps?

A few weeks ago I looked across the church, spread out because of every other pew roped off, and was even more conscious of the people who were not there than those who were.  I suppose it is a shepherd's habit to notice more the ones missing than the ones present.  But in this case it was not a simple matter of counting noses.  It was a growing sense that perhaps those absent now will remain absent in the days to come -- that there might be nothing I can do or anyone can to get them back (except the Lord, of course).  It made me think.

I thought of the old advice -- a home going pastor makes for a church going people.  I wish that were true.  Well, no, I don't.  Of all the things I dislike about being a pastor, one of them I detest most is the idea that my job is to be the conscience of God's people and that I am responsible for their failure to hear and heed the call of God.  I do go after folks and remind them of their place around the Word and Table of the Lord -- with the rest of God's people in this place.  When people see me and they have not been in church for a while, I hear excuse after excuse as it I were the one they needed to mollify with their good and legitimate reasons for missing.  But it is not me to whom they must answer.  I will preach pointedly and bluntly the Word of the Lord and will admonish the erring from their ways but it is the Lord's Church and the people of God are accountable to HIM.  Pastors sometimes forget this.  People, too.

It occurs to me that we have it so much easier than those who went before us.  Too easy?  We have too many distractions, too many things competing for our time and interest, and too many choices.  I grew up in one of those homes where I knew that unless my parents encountered a cold dead body in the bed on Sunday morning, I knew where I would be.  My brother knew it as well.  It was in the DNA.  We went when the pavement was icy, when snow blew across the gravel road, when it seemed like the rain would wash us away, and when we were holding back the sniffles of a coming cold.  But we had it easier than those who went before us.  They encountered a cold church and waiting for heat in the winter and put up with noisy fans circulating the heat in the summer.  All while wearing suits and ties and dresses considered worthy of God's House!  

The pandemic has given us an excuse to give into our fears, to be sure, but it has also allowed us to surrender to a whole lot of other things.  If we can watch church on TV in our pjs and sip coffee along with listening to the hymns and sermons of online services, we have the ultimate choice.  The appeal of the virtual church will not soon go away because we are ever more susceptible to our weaknesses.  We have become wimps.  We will not put up with much to go to church on Sunday morning.  We won't tolerate inconvenience, we will not turn down a more interesting or pleasurable alternative, and we won't allow ourselves to be bored.  If the pastor is not on his game, we will find something else to do.  If the facilities are not up to snuff, we will find some place better.  If the coffee does not suit us, we will hold it against God.  Our expectations are greater than ever and our patience has worn ever so thin.  We are not simply picky.  We are wimps.

Prosperity is a tool of the devil because it makes us soft.  We live in a world of choice and preference and high definition life.  We will not long tolerate a church that does not live up to expectations.  It is not because we are erudite and educated.  We are soft.  We have become accustomed to people, business, and religion than panders to us.  The devil must be laughing at how easy it is to use our abundance against us.  And it must grieve the Lord that He has given us so much and we are not willing to give up anything or risk anything or put ourselves out for anything in return.

Suffering is not in our vocabulary anymore.  Your body hurts, take a pill.  Your life is not what you want it to be, make it over.  Your marriage is not giving you what you think you deserve, end it and find somebody better.  We unfriend, block, and report everyone and everything that does not live up to our picky expectations and God gets treated like everything and everyone else.  What do we have in common with Christians who lived under constant threat and uncertainty?  What do we have in common with churches suffering persecution simply for believing and worshiping according to Scripture?  We are wimps.

We would rather pray for God to deliver us from unpleasantness than to endure troubles, trials, or temptations.  We would rather find a way around the mountains in our path than climb over them.  But Scripture reminds us that those who endure to the end will be saved.  God is our hiding place and He is our refuge but in His wisdom He will not deliver us from every little thing and even some very big ones we are sure we would be better off without.  We all have thorns in the flesh that are meant to drive us into the arms of Christ, to stand in the strength of Christ, and to depend less upon our own strength, wisdom, or cleverness and more upon the steadfast love of the Lord.  We are wimps.  

Pray that God will make us more than weak and cowardly people.  Pray that He will enable us to endure to the day of His coming and find in Him grace sufficient for each day's trouble and mercy new every morning.  Pray that the cross will shine forth to us as well as through us so that we know the cost of our salvation and can bear our daily crosses without complaint.  The world is not improving.  Things are not getting better and better.  With every technological advance comes untold consequences not so delightful.  And we find it harder to trust in the Lord.  But as dark as it can get, as prone as we might be to despair, as short as our tempers may grow, God will grant us all we need to endure.  And he who endures to the end will be saved.  God will make something of us yet.  If we only let Him.

Friday, November 20, 2020

God ordains men; be one. . .

I have seen it around the blogosphere and I am sure you have as well.  “God ordains men; be one,” urged the sainted Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby to us pastors.  It is interesting that some of the folks who have quoted Korby did not know the man.  More importantly, they did not know the opposition faced by this man and the times in which he issued that famous call.  The problem is not simply that pastors have no backbones and they constantly check the pulse of their popularity or the will and desire of the people they serve.  Yes, this is a problem.  But even more so is the problem in the pews.  Pastors were not castrated at their behest.  They were forced to it.  They were pressured by congregations who wanted a pastor who would do what the people wanted, by district presidents who wanted pastors to do what people wanted (and what would make the congregation happy), by statistics which constantly measured the success of a pastor and the parish solely in terms of attendance and money, and by a world which believed and still believes that the best religions are those that are flexible and the best religious people are those who don't pay all that much attention to the orthodoxy of doctrine and practice.

You may have forgotten that Korby was not a district president, was not a voice sought out by the leaders of our church, and was not a theologian recognized or welcomed by his own church.  He was not a lone voice but he was among the lonely who advocated for such things as eucharistic integrity in the life of the Church, private confession, and, yes, pastoral integrity.  His gravely voice agitated at a time when the Lutheran Church was fighting battles on many fronts and did not want or think it needed another cause.  He was absolutely correct in his estimation of what was wrong among us but we as a church were not willing to hear or heed his voice in correcting that wrong.  

Kenneth Frederick Korby was ordained on the Feast of St. James the Elder in 1948 at Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn., where he served as Assistant Pastor under another notorious name in Missouri, Herbert Lindemann.  He grew up during the Great Depression, living a simple life on a farm where the simple piety of Bible, catechism, and hymnal instilled in him a frame for his faith that never left him.  He carried this with him to Medford, Oregon -- hardly the rich ground of Lutheranism even then, and then went to Valpo (yes, that pariah of schools among LCMSers) where he stayed from 1958-1980.  He was the first celebrant in the magnificent chapel that dominates the skyline of the campus.  He spent 9 years at Chatham Fields Lutheran Church, a largely African-American congregation on the southside of Chicago.   His degrees were from Concordia Seminary, Yale, and Seminex (yes, Seminex).  Dr. Korby led no charmed life.  Those who would heed his words must also prepare to live something less than a charmed life.

I knew Dr. Korby, listened to him speak, and revered him as a prophet and pastor -- but the picture of a pastor and the shape of the kind of ministry encouraged by this sainted pastor both attracted and frightened me.  It should.  We should all want to be the kind of man Pastor Kenneth Korby was but we should do so with no illusions.  Our congregations do not want a man who holds forth the witness of our Confessions as the holy ground on which we stand and that which shapes our doctrine and practice.  It is a dangerous road for those whose weakness is wanting to be liked and loved.  We have lived too long in a culture of go along and get along.  To be a man, as Dr. Korby calls us, is to risk comfort in order to be faithful.  You may opine at length about the state of things in our Synod and the treatment of pastors by congregations and DPs who prefer those moderate in faith and practice but you must also look at the ranks of those who have battle scars and checkered resumes to evidence the cost of faithfulness.

It is not just that pastors need to be men but congregations need to want and welcome and listen to them.  The Church cannot survive against the pressures of the devil and the world and give into the darker voices in us that demand a relative truth, a flexible faith, and a compromised practice.  The LCMS is not the ELCA but we are not without those who wish we were closer to them than to the kind of Lutherans who say what they mean and mean what they say.  Pastors need to be there for the long haul to make a difference and willing to put up with a great many things to lead a congregation to become more Lutheran in identity as well as in confession and practice.

I have served two parishes (not much experience there!) but neither parish was confessional in faith nor did either parish have a history or strong identity in the Divine Service, catechism, and creed.  One did not even use a Lutheran hymnal and the other had lay people doing most of the liturgy so that the pastor was there only for essentials.  Both places took time to begin to make a difference.  I made so many mistakes that it is a wonder anything good came of it all.  Both parishes still have those who would rather appeal to broad minimums of practice and belief and both parishes are but a half of a generation from bowing the pressure to root faith in feelings, worship in what is fun and meaningful, and parish life in what will appeal to outsiders.  Private confession is still a practice in its infancy here but it is growing up slowly.  There are naysayers who always challenge with "that is not how I was taught" or "that is not what I like" and there will always be.  COVID has exposed all the cracks in our foundation and threatens to make us all smaller unless we are willing to grant a digital church legitimacy.

So, quote Korby, by all means, but quote him knowing that the path he lived and his legacy is not without challenge.  In the end you will be tested and tried.  It may not be so much how manly you are as how much you are willing to put up with and for how long before the churches we speak of in theory become close to the churches we have in fact.  But faithfulness is not about what you judge to be worth the fight.  It is always about what God calls, what our heroes in the faith have stood for, and whether we will follow in their train.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Old devotional books. . .

Old devotional books and prayerbooks were more blunt in their assessment of the need and even more blunt in their calls to repentance and faith.  I wonder if we are too soft.  A while ago we used a prayer from Starck's Prayerbook for epidemic and pandemic.  It included lines that called us to remember that we are not innocent victims of wrong but, due to sin, its willing participants.  It called us to repent and to trust in God's gracious will.  It prayed for God to cast aside the terrible affliction, not because we deserved it but because God is merciful.

Some folks did not like that prayer.  It offended them.  They had done nothing to invite the terrible curse of COVID 19 and they wanted it known that they were victims.  Sin always has victims but seldom has sinners behind the sin.  We do not want answers from God; we want comfort and that comfort begins by telling us we did nothing to bring upon ourselves the pain we are suffering.  We do not want explanations from God; we want God to take away the pain and promise never to allow it again.  We do not want God's presence; either God acts to insulate us from affliction or else He can go back to where He came from.  

I was looking up something else and came across these words written 70 years ago.  The author was Bishop Fulton Scheen.  He could have been one of a thousand authors from times before when the goal of the devotion or prayer was not therapeutic but to call us to repentance and faith.  I remember his TV program from my youth and could well imagine him saying those words he wrote long before he was a media personality.  Read them, if you desire, but they will not be easy.  We do not need understanding when our hearts have succumbed to fear and we live panicked lives.  We need voices to tell us the score, to call us to repentance, and to invite us to trust in the Lord.  Seen or not, God is still there.

Written in 1950 but appropriate to the present:  Millions of men and women today lead what has been called “lives of quiet desperation.” They are panicky, worried, neurotic, fearful, and, above all, frustrated souls. 

When Job suffered, he posed questions to God: why was he born, and why was he suffering? God appeared to him, but instead of answering Job’s questions, He began to ask Job to answer some of the larger questions about the universe. When the Creator had finished pouring queries into the head of the creature, Job realized that the questions of God were wiser than the answers of men. Because God’s ways are not our ways—because the salvation of a soul is more important than all material values – because Divine Wisdom can draw good out of evil—the human mind must develop acceptance of the Now, no matter how hard it may be for us to understand its freight of pain. We do not walk out of a theater because the hero is shot in the first act; we give the dramatist credit for having a plot in his mind; so the soul does not walk out on the first act of God’s drama of salvation—it is the last act that is to crown the play. The things that happen to us are not always susceptible to our minds’ comprehension or wills’ conquering; but they are always within the capacity of our Faith to accept and of our wills’ submission.
And, another. . .
It is the modern pagan who is the victim of circumstance, and not its master. Such a man, having no practical knowledge of God, no trust in His Providence, no assurance of His Love, lacks the shock absorber of Faith and Hope and Love when difficult days come to him. His mind is caught within the pincers of a past he regrets or resents and a future he is afraid he cannot control. Being thus squeezed, his nature is in pain. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The hegemony of China. . .

Frankly, I do not get why China gets such a pass when it comes to religion.  It is as if the news media and the whole of the rest of the world has amnesia or conveniently has chosen to forget the terrible treatment of the pious in China (of all religions).   Where is the media?  Where are the voices of politicians and jurists?  Where is the outrage?  There are plenty of examples for every religion.

Where has been the outcry against China's brutal suppression of the 12 million Uyghurs.  Officially they are recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China but that has not stopped China from taking children from families, sending people into detention camps for re-education, and preventing these Muslim people from living out their faith or passing it on to their children.  Where has the media been in the campaign of China against the Mongols and the preservation of their culture and religion?  Recently the Chinese government decided to limit the use of their native language in schools.  Supposedly, this is an autonomous region -- the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region -- but that has not stopped the Chinese from working very hard to relocate Chinese into the region and devalue the Mongol language and culture.

Where is the outcry against the strange and complicit relationship between the Vatican and China -- one that effectively places Roman Catholic Christians and their faith under the control of the Chinese government?  There are some 12 million Roman Catholics in China and the Pope sold them out for an agreement the persecuted hierarchy of that Roman Catholic Church protested as not in the best interest of the people or the church.  Even Cardinal Zen has protested but it seems that his standing is not enough to convince the Pope that the recent accord is not in the best interest of their congregants or the Vatican.

Where is the outcry against the government controlled Protestant Christian Church in China?  Though supposedly protected by China, these state run congregations have suffered the loss of buildings and property that effectively prevents them from worshiping together.  Where have you heard about this?  Who will tell the story of Christians where whole congregations have been threatened with arrest for standing in the way of the government?  What about the crackdown on the house churches in China?  Does anyone really know what is happening there?

Google the stories.  They are there.  But nobody in the mainstream media is telling the terrible tale.  The government rewrites the Bibles that are allowed, controls the freedom to worship, and threatens Christians (and other religions) routinely.  Oh, I guess I know the reason why.  Because as long as people can privately believe what they want, religion is protected.  And, in case you are wondering, this is exactly where things are headed in America.  

No longer is there a freedom to assemble for worship but a freedom of private belief -- emphasis on private.  Biden's own campaign people decry the official positions of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Judaism, and Muslims.  Despite his claim to be a practicing Roman Catholic, he vowed to pursue the Little Sisters of the Poor.  During the Obama administration effort was given to reduce the freedoms accorded churches and their affiliated agencies, especially with regard to health care coverage.  The mantra of the present age is about private faith absent from the public square.  Perhaps that is why we have not heard all that much about what is happening in China.  It could portend the governmental control of religion in places where the free exercise of religion is supposed to be a guaranteed right.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Cost of Covid. . .

I am sure I am not alone.  Every pastor has a similar story.  A parishioner is in a nursing home, gets Covid, and ends up in hospice care.  The person is dying.  But the nursing home has a strict policy against visitors.  So the spouse cannot visit.  The spouse can wave at the outside window to a patient lying in bed who cannot see the window.  And of course the pastor cannot visit either.  Maybe when the patient is actively dying -- whatever in the world that means!  So after 27 phone calls on behalf of the spouse and pastor, the best we get is that somebody will get back to us.  Nevermind that the pastor has visited patients in isolation before, gowned up, wore a mask, hair cover, shoe covers, gloves, etc... that is not good enough.  Covid has its own protocols. There won't be any exceptions.  So, at this point the patient is dying alone when the patient might have had a visit or two from the spouse, received the Sacrament, and been given the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins.

That is what Covid has taken from us -- not simply the symptoms or the complications but our very humanity.  Perhaps we have contributed to this by acting foolishly, recklessly, and carelessly.  Perhaps more masks might have helped or will help in slowing things down.  But we were and are so quick to surrender our humanity to our fears that it just might be time to ask ourselves what kind of lives we are saving and what cost we are willing to pay for those lives.

This is one pastor who is not giving up but who does not have much hope of prevailing so that a nursing home working by the book might actually look into the face of this dying person and show a little compassion.  After all, the spouse and pastor would follow all the precautions the people follow who are caring for this dear soul.  If they had the chance.

Of course, people have died without spouses near or pastors visiting before.  And still.  But they do not have to die alone.  At least not now and not this time. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

When the prophetic conflicts with the pastoral. . .

Over at the GetReligion web site I read a piece on the disappearing mainline Protestant churches of America.  In the article, the author referred to a 1969 book by Jeffery Hadden (The Gathering Storm in the Churches) among others.  I found it most interesting.  He was drawing on old data that showed the decline among the mainline churches was not simply the erosion of doctrinal truth and confidence in the facts of the Scriptures (as espoused by the clergy) but also the conflict between the prophetic voices of those preachers and the desire of the people to be comforted and encouraged in their faith.

If you recall, this was an era in which many of those mainline churches had pulpits that were talking more about Viet Nam and civil rights than about the death and resurrection of Jesus (though, for example, only 49% of Methodist clergy then believed that Jesus' resurrection was an objective, historical fact).

Clergy revisionism on doctrine was strongly associated with devotion to liberal politics, but not so with lay members. Clergy did not mostly suffer hostility from members over their liberal views as such, Hadden explained. Rather, the problem was that the typical lay member “seeks comfort and escape from the world in the sanctuary of God” and doesn’t understand why ministers do not focus concern on their own congregations.

The author, Richard Ostling, maintains that the clergy of these mainline churches were on a collision course with the wants and needs of their people.  The doubts raised about the facts of their faith were accompanied by a different view of the Church -- one that saw the primary purpose of the Church and preaching to shape society rather than call people to faith and repentance of their sins, comfort and encourage them with the forgiveness made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and direct them to the future and eternal life promised to them by their risen Savior. 

In other words, people were coming to their church homes to find refuge from the turmoil and upset in the news and instead found themselves either berated or their country condemned for the failure to promote world peace, confront world hunger, eliminate poverty, end racism, and create a more egalitarian society.  The world of the mainline churches then was shaped by a liberal social activism and crowding out what Christianity was really about, what Christians were looking for and desired from their congregations and clergy.

Today we find ourselves at a similar juncture.  I know of people who have drifted away from mainline churches because they have tired of the constant drumbeat of the liberal and progressive social agenda replacing the call to faith, the call to repentance, the comfort of the absolution, and the grace of Word and Sacrament to grow our faith and equip us to endure to the day of Christ's coming.  So the mainline churches continue their decline for many of the same reasons.

Could it be, however, that conservative churches might also suffer the same outcome when and if the core of the preaching and teaching moves from Christ to the ills and dangers of a liberal and progressive culture?  Could it be that conservative churches which grew while mainline were bleeding off people are themselves in danger by becoming so immersed in political and social activism that they fail to provide the comfort, grace, and encouragement of Christ and Him crucified to their people?  That is the warning of another book from generations ago, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (1972) by the Rev. Dean M. Kelley.  I think it would be wise to pay attention to his warning.

Being prophetic toward a society drifting from traditional moral norms and values or trying to create a better society can conflict with the primary and pastoral purpose of the Church -- preaching and teaching Jesus Christ and bring the fruits of His redeeming work to the people of God through the means of grace.  It happened to the social activists on the liberal side.  It could happen to more conservative churches as well if we forget why the Church exists and why people come inside its walls.  Just a few thoughts. . .

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Jesus the Tweeter. . .

As I was listening to the radio while driving to the Church, there came the unusual religion story in the news.  This was about the 30% and more of those who have not returned to in person worship and who, it looks like, maybe never will.  There were obligatory quotes from pastors about the resulting consequences of losing such a large chunk of people.  But there was also this.  One pastor of a very large Baptist congregation said that this was, as I am tired of hearing, the new normal and maybe it is also a good thing.  He went on to talk about engaging people digitally, welcoming people who would never darken the door to a church building, and all the usual hoopla about technology that either supplements or even replaces the brick and mortar church.

All of this is well and good, I suppose, but only to a point.  What would Jesus do with technology?  I could only imagine and so could you but the reality is that hardly anything Jesus said and did would be translatable to a screen, would fit the limitations of digital engagement, or would be replaced with virtual meetings.  Indeed, Jesus did everything in His power to engage people personally.  The miracles of food for thousands, of healing for the sick, of freedom for those captive to demons, and of life to the dead cannot and would not have taken place on the screen.  The Sermon on the Mount cannot be made to fit the parameters of Twitter, the teachings of Jesus do not convey on Instagram, nor does the presence of Christ transfer to Facebook (or, for that matter, following Christ!).  

I am not saying that the Church should abandon the platforms by which we reach out to people digitally.  We have a robust presence on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Vimeo.  What I am saying is that we must recognize the limitations of these social media.  What they provide does not at all replace in person worship, preaching, and teaching.  They may be an effective way to meet people where they are at but, as we know from Jesus, it does not serve them or the Church to leave them where they are.  They must be engaged to bring them out from the isolation of self, screen, and social media and brought into the rich presence of the God who meets them in the living voice of His Word and the Sacraments that deliver what they sign.

Can you imagine Jesus tweeting?  or Instagramming?   Or Facebooking?  Or Zooming His teaching time with His disciples?  I can't.  I have no doubt that St. Paul might have had more use for technology than Jesus but I also have no doubt that St. Paul might have written a third or fourth letter to any Corinthians who were replacing the meeting together around the Word and Table of the Lord for an online connection to the Body of Christ.  It would not have been a pleasant piece of correspondence.  So I think the good pastor was mistaken.  COVID did not teach the Church a good lesson in utilizing social media to replace in person worship.  It created a tempting lie that too many have bought into -- hook, line, and sinker.  And with that lie will come the emptying not only of the building but the Church of any real faith, worship, and discipleship.  We are not being freed from our bondage to a building but simply trading one sort of captivity for another.  The difference being that in the building we are at least personally engaged, not simply individuals in front of our screens in our comfortable chair and comfortable clothes, but a gathered people around the gathering Word and gifting Sacraments by which the Spirit works, yes, here it comes, personally.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Some theological problems. . .

For much of Christianity, theology does not pay all that much attention to Scripture.  In fact, there are many so-called theologians who are almost strangers to the Word of God.  When the Scriptures are used, their words become mere proof-texts for the support of a theological stance or system. Many a modern  theologian would be offended at the idea of having to write a commentary on a book of the Bible and many a commentator has turned their commentary into an exploration of just about anything but what the Biblical writer wrote. For too much of Christianity and for too many theologians, real exegesis is simply ignored or rejected. Even worse, what too often passes for commentaries fails to aid in the primary task of the Scriptures -- preaching!  If it won't preach, then it cannot be faithful and good commentary.

It is sad that many journals involved in the pursuit of the Biblical literature treat the Bible as they would any book or, worse, they subject the Scriptures to scrutiny and skepticism they place against few other works.  They treat the text as if its origins were more important than its message and they presume that the history of the books and authors themselves as well as the message have been colored by others, distorted from their original words and meaning, and conflated with myth and legend to the point of being almost undecipherable.  It could be said that for many of these journals and their authors, what is said is not as important as reconstructing the original context and thereby they give birth to their own set of myths, legends, and postulates that end up being more important than the text and replacing what has been written and past down through the ages.

Scripture has become a riddle and the modern exegetes riddlers who seek to unravel the mystery.  Perhaps we inherited some of this from the layers of rabbinical teaching that accompanied the Old Testament through the ages but the science of Scripture has become the tail that wags the dog, so to speak.  There are not many commentaries that I would suggest to the preacher.  Some of the finer commentaries that actually aid in the teaching of the Bible and the preaching of the Kingdom are those produced by the Concordia Commentary series.  I must confess that I found it easy to read Tom Winger's Ephesians and John Kleinig's Hebrews from beginning to end instead of as a reference work (the way I usually read through a commentary).  The most profound commentaries will point us to Christ who is the Word in the word, whose voice speaks through every speaker, whose blood permeates through every page, and whose power is at work in every sentence accomplishing His purpose.

Pope Francis published last month a tribute to St. Jerome, the patron saint of the Scriptures.  Often called one of the most important doctors of the Church, Jerome's focus was primarily on the Word of God.  However, Francis suggested that Scripture is a dark and murky mystery without the aid of scholars to enlighten us.  

Many, even among practising Christians, say openly that they are not able to read it (cf. Is 29:12), not because of illiteracy, but because they are unprepared for the biblical language, its modes of expression and its ancient cultural traditions. As a result the biblical text becomes indecipherable, as if it were written in an unknown alphabet and an esoteric tongue.

Coming from one of the few church bodies where the Biblical languages still are required of those in Seminary, I hesitate to challenge the idea that mastery of the Biblical languages is not essential.  However, Francis has given us a false impression of the Scriptures.  The text is not indecipherable and our Lord Himself suggested that the child can see and know the Word of God and meet Christ on its page.  He is not at all suggesting that the Scriptures are simplistic but that the primary requirement of any interpreter is faith.  And this is exactly what seems to be missing from the pens of those who produce many of the commentaries published today.  It would seem they know everything about the Scriptures except Jesus Christ, its author.  

St. Jerome would remind us that the primary job of the pastor or priest is to bring the Scriptures to the people through preaching and teaching.  He would have harsh things to say to those who succeed in every task but these.

“. . . the word of the priest must be flavoured by the reading of Scripture. I do not wish that you be a disclaimer or charlatan of many words, but one who understands the sacred doctrine (mysterii) and knows deeply the teachings (sacramentorum) of your God. It is typical of the ignorant to play around with words and to garner the admiration of inexpert people by speaking quickly. Those who are shameless often explain that which they do not know and pretend to be a great expert only because they succeed in persuading others”.

And that is where I would end this little meandering thought.  The Scriptures are meant to be preached.  Commentaries have as their primary function to aid the preacher in his task.  To that end, let us treat the Scriptures as the voice of God and make our own mouths accessible to Him so that the Word of God may be proclaimed into the ears, minds, and hearts of the hearer and the Spirit bring forth the response of faith. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Supplement to ELW. . .

I have posted before on the progress of the WELS on their new hymnal.  Now I found that the ELCA publishing house has put together a supplement to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, published in 2006.  As if 564 hymns and 10 settings of Holy Communion and several daily offices were not enough, this book adds another 200 hymns and songs, 2 more settings of Holy Communion, a Word and Prayer service and 75 new prayers and liturgical formulations.  Hymns, liturgies, and prayers all follow the now established pattern of ELCA worship materials in de-emphasizing male pronouns (also with reference to God) and offer some bilingual help (Spanish) for services.  Two-thirds of the hymn texts and half of the tunes are new to the ELCA, at least officially.  The emphasis is clearly on what has happened since ELW was published.  The official date of release is November 17 of this year for those itching to purchase.

A quick look at the accompaniments suggests that this resource is targeted for non-organ instrumentation, probably for piano and praise bands.  That is not surprising.  The claim is that All Creation Sings brings together "a wide range of cultural, ethnic, generational, and theological perspectives, all faithfully Lutheran -- of course -- though I am sure some might disagree.  The hymns and songs are more likely to be short, ritual songs -- now more in vogue than the longer stanzas typical of older hymns.  There are many hymns and songs from Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions.  You find some familiar names among the authors and composers but also many new ones.  Even a Luther hymn is included as new -- well, at least new to those using ELW -- In the Midst of Early Life.  Marty Haugen is well represented.  Diversity is clearly one of the operating rules for this resource, as it is for nearly all of the ELCA.  

While I think supplements can be very good, I worry about those which only include new hymns and fail to restore to the use of the congregation faithful old hymns which were not included in hymnals (whether because of a shortage of space or preferences for new resources).  That is certainly a direction I wish the LCMS would pursue and make available many of the hymns from TLH and LW which were not included in LSB.  For example, I have a fondness for Henry Letterman's The Lord's My Shepherd Leading Me and Martin Franzmann's O Kingly Love.  We should have these hymns even if some choose not to use them and a supplement is the best place.  At least they could be added to the electronic resource, Lutheran Service Builder.

A new supplement is often a prelude to work on a new hymnal (With One Voice and Hymnal Supplement 98 both served this purpose).  But I wonder if there is much interest in or stomach for a new hymnal.  We will wait and see.  Some have already decided that the hymnal is an antiquated resource in our digital world.  I have grave reservations about that conclusion.  You may decide to purchase a copy but after reviewing the PR I am thinking this is one hymn volume that will probably not find its way to my shelves.  So I am not promoting this book but wondering whether or not it will lead to another hymnal project down the road.  Time will tell. . .