Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A great day. . .

I say from time to time that the good life is good not because our life is good but because God is good.  In other words, the good times are not defined by the circumstances around you but the God who has addressed you with His greatest treasure -  His only Son.  We sometimes forget this.  God is always good and we do not have to see it with our eyes or experience it in an easy and comfortable life to rejoice in the goodness of this life because we have a good God.

Looking around us at a world crumbling under the weight of its own unbelief, we Christians and especially pastors often appear angry, frustrated, and ready to despair.  And sometimes we are.  But the reality is that we have not the burden of God laid upon us to Christianize the culture or rescue and redeem the society.  Thanks be to God!  Ours is the call to speak the Word of Life to people walking in the shadow of death.  And in one respect, this is a great day to be the Church.  For all around us are the ruins of our culture, the tattered remains of hope, and the shadow of death.  Yes, it is a challenging world and one that tries our souls as servants of the Servant of God who has redeemed us.  Yes, it is a frustrating dilemma that we find ourselves in as parents and children, employers and employees, neighbors and friends.  But we cannot afford to forget that the cause of our joy lies not in how things are going but in the God whose mercy has loved the unlovable and redeemed those unworthy of the cost of His redemption.

This is surely what it means when St. Paul tells us that he has learned contentment in all things.  He is not saying that poverty is good or want is pleasant.  There is no contentment in our money or our things -- no matter how much or how little.  Our contentment lies always in Christ.  I find this sometimes hard to forget as I lament the way of the things around us as a community, culture, and nation.  I want the world to get better -- who doesn't?  But I want it to get better largely because I want my life to be easier.  Perhaps you are in the same boat.  We wish for a more godly culture and life because we expect it will be easier and better.  It may be.  But St. Paul also acknowledged that his knowledge of sin increased because of the faith.  It could be that we see the problems of the world around us more acutely because we are in Christ.  I suspect that I expect more from the folks in the pews and myself precisely because we claim to be in Christ by baptism and faith.  So at the same time I look for a reason for hope and contentment, I see ever more clearly the disappointing picture of what sin has done to me and to those around me and the world in which we all live.  Yet our hope never lay in an improving world but in the God who loves us with a redeeming love we neither deserve nor expect.  This is the surprise of  joy.

I do not believe that it is God's purpose or promise to make us happy.  Happiness is a fickle thing and fleeting.  Some of the things that I thought made me happy now I think infuriate me.  If God's plan and promise are to make us happy, He has a bigger job carved out for Him than our redemption.  But that does not mean we are without joy.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.  I read that somewhere.  It is not a meme or a trivial statement to be written on canvas and hung on the wall.  It is God's Word.  Jesus is our joy and treasure.  He is our strength.  He is our hope.  I love that hymn and believe it should be sung far more than it is.

1    Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal,
    Alpha, Omega, Beginning and End;
Godhead, humanity, union supernal,
    O great Redeemer, You come as our friend!
Heaven and earth, now proclaim this great wonder:
Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal!

2    Jesus has come! Now see bonds rent asunder!
    Fetters of death now dissolve, disappear.
See Him burst through with a voice as of thunder!
    He sets us free from our guilt and our fear,
Lifts us from shame to the place of His honor.
Jesus has come! Hear the roll of God’s thunder!

3    Jesus has come as the mighty Redeemer.
    See now the threatening strong one disarmed!
Jesus breaks down all the walls of death’s fortress,
    Brings forth the pris’ners triumphant, unharmed.
Satan, you wicked one, own now your master!
Jesus has come! He, the mighty Redeemer!

4    Jesus has come as the King of all glory!
    Heaven and earth, O declare His great pow’r,
Capturing hearts with the heavenly story;
    Welcome Him now in this fast-fleeting hour!
Ponder His love! Take the crown He has for you!
Jesus has come! He, the King of all glory!

This is a hymn for our times and it points us to that which is true joy and pleasure in a world filled with fake joys and false treasures.  


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Deny or Confess. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (B), preached on Sunday, February 28, 2021.

    It must have been hard for Peter.  He had given up everything to follow Jesus. He had risked irritating and alienating His own people.  But Jesus did not seem to care about all he had given up and Jesus seemed intent upon riling up the very people who were threatening Jesus.  Then as they wound their way through Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks them “Who do people say I am?”  It was an innocent question and it cost the disciples nothing to report on what others thought.  But Jesus made it more pointed.  Who do YOU say I am?  This was a different matter.  There was risk involved to answer this question.  Nobody spoke up but Peter.  And Peter spoke well. You are the Christ!

    Strangely enough there was no patting Peter on the back for his bold confession. Instead, Jesus charged them to keep silent.  If Peter had done well and confessed rightly who Jesus was and is, why must Peter remain silent about it?  As if that were not enough, Jesus began to teach them what it meant to be the Christ.  And the picture was not what Peter or any of the disciples wanted to hear.  The Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected, and must be killed.  I suspect neither Peter nor the rest of the disciples heard much from that point on.  What they did hear was how openly Jesus spoke of the cross and His death. And they wondered what it meant since Peter and all the rest had pinned their lives and hopes and dreams on this Jesus.

    It is no wonder that Peter found this betrayal, suffering, and death a hard pill to swallow.  Mark records that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Jesus for speaking in this way about suffering and death.  All the disciples were watching and listening when Jesus rebuked Peter publicly with the worst condemnation that could be said:  Get behind me, Satan!  Who would not be stung by such a rebuke!  But the reality is that there is nothing more satanic that interfering with or trying to prevent God from completing His redeeming work.  Jesus is plain about this.  There cannot be anything which would get in the way of God’s redemptive work by the cross, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ.

    As if this were not shocking enough, Jesus cross shaped life is the cross shaped life of those who would follow Jesus.  Deny yourself, take up cross, follow Jesus, lose your life, and gain it for eternity.  All around Peter and the disciples the world was dying and men were being consumed by evil.  In the best of people and the best of lives lived the secret sins of thought, word, and deed.  Those sins reigned down death and destruction upon every sinner.  And there was is no way out.  Jesus is blunt, alright.  The only hope is the cross. If Peter is not ready for this, he knows where the door is.

    It is just as shocking to you and me.  We want a Savior who will fix our problems and clean up our messes and help us when we need help and know when to make Himself scarce.  We want a Savior who will insulate us from the costs of discipleship, not call us to follow Him in a life of cross bearing.  We want a Savior who will make sense out of a senseless world of COVID 19 and uncertainties and fears.  But the Savior whom we need is the Savior who will take on our biggest need, who will suffer in our place for our sin, die in our place the death that was ours to die, and rise up so that we might have a new life to live.  This new life we live is not a new or improved version of the old life of sin we once lived. It is a radical new life, the shape of the life we see in Christ – where cross is center, forgiveness reigns, and we gladly suffer for His name.

    The Gospel is not safe or easy.  It is dangerous.  The enemies of Christ and His kingdom are clever.  Like Caiaphas they see the wisdom of one life sacrificed for many.  But they refuse to endow this life with the power to redeem.  On the other hand, there are many Christians who are sincere but completely confused about what the Gospel really is.  They presume that sincerity and good intentions  and the desire to fix the world will count for something.  Only faith matters and in faith only a life in which the people of God are unafraid of this dangerous Gospel.  When Jesus began to speak of why it was necessary for Him to suffer, die, and rise again, the disciples were shocked. When what Jesus said played out before their eyes, they were afraid.  Even the resurrection did not silence all their fears.  They met Jesus behind locked doors.  It would take the Holy Spirit to open their mouths to speak this Gospel before the world.

    St. Peter did not forget this rebuke.  On Pentecost he spoke boldly.  When he wavered, St. Paul would rebuke him.  You cannot make the Gospel inoffensive or palatable. It is always dangerous and radical and shocking.  You and I will suffer the same rebuke when we would try to make the Gospel harmless, make it all sound reasonable, and take the cross from Jesus or the cross from discipleship.  You win nothing if you gain the world and lose your soul.  Though we have nothing here, if we have Christ we have everything.  If we are ashamed of these words and draw back from the cross-shaped life of those who follow Jesus, we have nothing left.  But if confess Christ openly and live without fear the cross shaped life of self-denial, trusting in the Lord, we have everything worth having.

    The generations have not changed.  We live in an adulterous and sinful generation. Things are not improving.  Virtue is called evil and evil is called good.  An example is the so-called Equality Act now before the Senate.  When we no longer know male from female and are willing to sacrifice religious freedom on the altar of gender confusion, we face a grave threat to the very Gospel itself.   Of all our proud attempts to improve upon God’s work, nothing here will endure.  It is shocking to us but it is not news.  The prophets proclaimed it long before Jesus came to suffer for it.  The Gospel is still scandalous and the cross is still a stumbling block.  The answer does not lie in trying to repair what is ruined but to repent and rejoice in the answer that is Jesus, in the power of His cross to redeem our sinful world and release us from the curse of sin, and to proclaim and live this Gospel without fear before the nations.  Only what is in Christ shall endure.

We do not need religious wolves in sheep’s clothing to tell us how to wind our way through this sinful world and find as much happiness as we can here.  We do not need religious charlatans to tell us that evil is good and good is evil.  We do not need spiritual distractions which give us the impression of new life without the cross that makes that new life possible.  We need truth and truth tellers.  We need people willing to suffer the rebuke of truth when they are in error and people to repent of their sinful words and ways.  We need pastors with backbones willing to tell us that falsehoods are not truth and the truth is not negotiable.  

We need nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffering and dying upon a cross that was made by us and for us, and rising to deliver to us grace and mercy none of us deserve.  We need parents who will teach and pray this Gospel into the hearts of their children and teachers who will impart this Gospel to Sunday school and catechism classes.  We need a Church in which this Gospel is the center of our life and worship and not a sideline to programs that appeal to our wants and desires.  

Whoever is ashamed of Me, says Jesus, or of My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His glory at the last day.  There is no sugar coating this word of warning but neither can we afford to miss the promise.  If we confess Him, He will confess us.  Jesus will know us and commend us to the Father and open the door to the place He has prepared where all the struggles, sorrows, sin and death of this life will not even be a memory.  Amen.

Sin is God's problem. . .

One of the biggest differences between our times and other times, even Biblical times, is that sin is no longer our problem but has become God's.  I do not mean that it is God's in the sense that He must redeem us because we cannot save ourselves but in the sense that we no longer feel guilt and shame over sin the way we once did.  We may not feel as guilty or feel as much shame as we did a long time ago but we are angry over sin.  Mostly we are angry because we see ourselves as victims -- victims of the sins of others, victims of the sins of our society, victims of the sin of our government and leaders, and even victims of God. 

Some weeks ago I was waiting to check out and a conversation was going on around me.  A man was pouring out his soul at the loss of two of his children and his own health difficulties.  At one point he said that when he died and went to heaven, he and God were going to have to have a conversation.  In other words, God is responsible for the bad things that have happened to me and He will have to explain Himself to me.  It was certainly understandable that this man would feel angry, wounded, and hurt by the circumstances he had endured in life but he had turned this around so that neither he nor his sons were responsible for these circumstances.  But God was.

I suspect that he spoke for many today who wonder about God.  The old movie, O God, John Denver faces God, played by George Burns, and asks why God would allow terrible things to happen to people.  God, in the voice of comedian George Burns, responds, Why do you?  I do not think that answer would suffice for many folks today.  We give ourselves credit for the good that comes our way but we blame others and God for all that is not good.  The man I mentioned above was angry with God and the people listening to him understood his anger and sympathized.  He had a right to be angry with God because life was not fair to him.  Such is the typical frame of confession and absolution today.

Absolution has become the default position.  Of course, God will forgive you whatever measly sin you might have (not that you should have many) but that is His job.  God's job is to forgive and make things right and our job is to give Him something to forgive and present Him with the things that need to be made right.  We don't feel personally responsible or accountable to God or to anyone.  But we do expect others and God to be accountable to us.  Our shame is that we feel no shame, no guilt, and that God has more to be responsible for than we do.

There can be no good absolution without the binding.  We forgive the sins of the guilty, those who know their shame, and who are penitent believers, but we bind the sins of those who feel no guilt, who know no shame, and who are impenitent.  Except that this seldom happens anymore.  The old absolutions that accompanied exhortations to communicants in early Lutheran history included this binding along with the loosing.  Today we have only the loosing and therefore, without the binding, we have no loosing either.  Because we are so adept at excusing and justifying our wrongs and so good at seeing, remembering, and holding the wrongs of others against them, we are not so good at confession and therefore not so happy over absolution.  

This is a problem for a Christianity where the central problem is sin and the central gift of God is forgiveness of those sins.  Without guilt, shame, repentance, and confession, there is no gift to be believed and no blessing to be enjoyed.  So it is not a small problem for us.  Without personal responsibility and repentance, then it is truly God's problem and not ours.  And to this hardness of heart, there can be no absolution. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

The promise of technology. . .

I remember thinking to myself while typing a stencil and readying the mighty Gestetner mimeograph, "i f only St. Paul had a set up like this we might have had a dozen letters from St. Paul to the folks at Corinth."  Looking back, the technology was old, difficult, and messy.  But it did work -- most of the time.  Yet these were the days before technology meant cell phones, email, social media, copiers, and the like.  When I began as a pastor, we were using improved forms of ancient technology -- like the IBM Selectric we purchased (to my delight and at my urging!).  The revolution in technology could surely have meant even more to blessed St. Paul and his cohort of New Testament authors.  But for all its promise, it has not come without problems.

Perhaps none of the cost has been as high as censorship.  The pipeline of information and communication may be wonderful until it is shut down to those who vary from the party line.  And that is the point.  Once we might have thought that media and technology were rather neutral vehicles that might allow ideas to be debated, philosophies discussed, politics argued, and faith witnessed.  But I am not so sure that this will happen.  We have witnessed a thought police arise to review what is posted, to oversee what is discussed, and to decide what is tolerated and what is not.  

The day will come at some point when orthodox Christianity will find itself a silenced minority.  It is already surveyed with a stricter eye than is applied to others and the tolerance for diversity apparently no longer applies to a faith that contradicts the ideas of the day.  Even more, we will have to decide whether we are content to be one of the cacophony of voices arguing and shouting or if it may be better of us to leave some of those convenient social media platforms and their supervision.  I do not know if that day will come sooner or later but I suspect many of us in the Church already see the handwriting on the wall.  When that day comes, I hope we have the courage of our convictions and actually follow through with our resolve.

For now I have a fairly free hand at blogging.  Yes, there are folks who threaten me and report me to the thought police (especially for comments made on this blog).  I would be more than happy to give up moderating comments if a few folks would try advocating their ideas rather than smearing someone with a label.  But the hand that gives can take away -- as we have we have all seen on Facebook and Twitter.  I still think that St. Paul and the Biblical authors might have well used the opportunities our everyday technology affords us but I am confident they would not have compromised or surrendered the faith in order to have access.  In this we should all follow the lead of integrity and faithfulness over cooperation and acceptance. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Inequality Act. . .

Rainbow Equality Act

As you have heard by now, the House has passed Pelosi and Biden's so-called Equality Act which is little more than a gutting of previous legislation (going back to the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the sacrifice of religious freedom for the sake of the LGBTQ+ crowd.  I cannot for the life of me understand why feminists are willing to sacrifice female athletes and parents ready to sacrifice children upon the flimsy science of gender dysphoria.  I cannot understand why someone who considers himself a devout Roman Catholic would support such a catastrophic assault on religious freedom -- a constitutional right, by the way, in case anyone has forgotten.

Though the bill claims its purpose is to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes,” the "other purposes" means the restriction of the free exercise of religion protected by the Bill of Rights.  Second, the rest of the bill makes clear that this act really means to end all discussion about gender identity, to prohibit any disagreement on this topic and to outlaw those who would retain the traditional biological distinctions and categories of male and female.

The Act presumes to redefine any use of the term sex (gender) to exclude biology and place it squarely in the realm of individual feeling or preference.  Further, the Act expands the scope of  “public accommodation” to include anywhere people gather outside a private residence.  Finally, the Act precludes any right of religious freedom and any protection to religious liberty with respect to these categories and definitions.  Why does this matter to churches?  By defining public accommodation as any  “place of or establishment that provides exhibition, entertainment, recreation, exercise, amusement, public gathering, or public display”; and “any establishment that provides a good, service, or program, including a . . . food bank, service or care center, [or] shelter,” parishes hosting community groups, religious primary and secondary schools, and every other religiously affiliated institution is liable to be sued or compelled against their constitutional religious liberty to conform to the provisions of this Act.

Those who thought that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) provided religious exemption and cover for religious institution should be warned that this Act specifically provides that RFRA “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under” it.  If it becomes law, the future of religious liberty will be permanently constrained and the danger to churches and their affiliated agencies cannot be over stated.

So write your senator and take up your pen to write against this not Equality Act.

Christ the center. . .

One of the great struggles is how a culture seemingly Christocentric, at least on the surface, could so quickly devolve into a secularistic mess in which the most basic values of gender, marriage, family, and life itself could become questions.  Although there are perhaps countless reasons, one worth looking at is the decline in worship -- not simply in how many attend worship services but the very content and nature of what passes for worship and liturgy today.

For most of its history, America was overtly religious, that is, overtly Christian.  Communities did not merely tolerate religion but welcomed churches, believing them to be salutary and beneficial for the entire community and not simply for the congregants.  Political candidates lauded their religious affiliation and worked hard to establish an image of faith and piety.  Most of that has passed.  Now the fact that a president went to Mass prior to his inauguration is something newsworthy and noteworthy.

Our culture has witnessed the decline of its Christocentric from at least the 1960s.  At the same time, we have witnessed the further individualization of our culture and every aspect of our lives.  From the music of our individual playlists to the very nature of religion itself, individualism has taken charge.  With that has come the increasing reliance upon and confidence in technology.  All of these things have conspired to make our nation more secular now than at any other time.  At the same time, we have seen religion and worship, in particular, transformed to reflect less and less the transcendent culture of God and more and more the immanent culture of our lives and our times.  There is less sacred in sacred liturgy than ever before.  Is this a coincidence or is this connected?

Liturgy and culture are related.  How may not be quite so easy to figure out and some may insist that they merely parallel each other but I am not so sure.  When the forms of the liturgy were deemed too complex and too focused on the transcendent, the work of the 1960s was to minimize mystery and emphasize reason and understanding.  While on the surface this may not be a bad thing, it undermines that which is at the core and center of sacred liturgy -- God's mystery experienced in earthly elements. The once commonly accepted hermeneutic of continuity that lived from the rich tradition of the Church's life and worship gave way to experimentation and a desire for something new -- not just a new form but something new every Sunday morning!  Tradition began to be viewed as a prison and the job a liturgical renewal the release from captivity to the past.  From Vatican II through the various forms of liturgical renewal among other churches, Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc..., the pressure was on to reinvent who we are as a Church and what we looked like on Sunday morning.  Whether this merely followed the radical rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s or encouraged that protest, the end result was that the melodies and texts that had served the Church for so long suddenly disappeared and with them a generation or two of people.

Protestants of a non-liturgical stripe had preserved an order that framed what happened on Sunday morning.  Soon, however, their format gave way to new and invented forms that tended to mirror more the Pentecostal and Charismatic.  What had been a predictable rhythm from Sunday to Wednesday to Sunday was influenced more and more by the growing Evangelical shape of entertainment worship in which music was performed and the focus more on emotional engagement rather than Biblical teaching.  This was not without influence on liturgical churches attracted to the form and content less by conviction than by the desire to mirror the statistics of its success.  I well remember the equal disappointment when a Roman Catholic went to Mass only to find the words similar to what the Lutherans had been saying for years and the Lutherans that they were not quite as unique as they thought they were.  In the end, it became the occasion for another division and the so-called worship wars became a fight over who the Church was and what she believed.  While all of this was happening, the culture of the nation was moving away from religion, the numbers of nones growing faster than anyone might have believed a generation before, and the numbers in worship dropping all the way around.  Was it a coincidence?

Where the liturgy was once the encounter of an incarnational God who visited His people with sacramental grace hidden in the appearance of the ordinary, now the mystery was gone and those in charge seemed to be happy to focus on mankind rather than on the things of God.  The language of worship changed from the eloquent and the lofty to the political and mundane.  At one point an experimental liturgy in my own church body began with the words we are here because we are men.  Worship has become big business with music and media creating superstars and an entrepreneur's dream.  Culture is hungry but not for Scripture or for the traditional forms of doctrine and liturgy.  Instead it is hungry for preference, individualism, and feelings which have triumphed over truth.  Religion has become a mere choice or preference to be chosen the way one shapes the screens that dominate our technological lives.   Some may be yearning for what was lost but overall the liturgy and culture have both found their way to an individualistic view of truth, morality, and hope.

Just as God had to reinvent His people by the mighty acts of His deliverance, so will we need to rediscover what it means for God to be God, for us to be men, and for hope born of a death that ends death and a life strong enough to endure forever.  The preaching and teaching must be drawn again from Scripture and not from experience or desire.  We must learn again the vocabulary of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.  We must realize that what we have in common with those who went before us and those around us is suffering and that we proclaim a God who is strong enough to suffer for us and in our place.  From God's long suffering saving will and purpose we learn to be patient and to endure in hope, trusting not in ourselves but in the God who died that we might live.  Key to this is to re-establish the separation of the profane from the sacred, the worldly from the churchly.  This must happen not only in what happens on Sunday morning but in where it happens.  Reverence is what is missing from much of modern worship and it is reverence that is needed before the Church is subsumed fully into secular culture.  Music is part of this transcendent ideal and the Church will need to stop mirroring the sounds of popular culture in the sanctuary if she is to be distinct and set apart for God and His glory.  The future of a revitalized Christianity and the nation that will be profoundly affected by this renewed Church does not lie with accommodation or inculturation but with a distinct culture, identity, language, music, and art.  When we realize this we may be half way on our way to the future God intends.