Sunday, January 31, 2021

A good shoe is one you don't notice. . .

Once C.S. Lewis said: “A service . . . . works ‘best”– when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing, but only leaning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. . . . The perfect church service [liturgy] would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God.”

While there are certainly applications here that would encourage us to less liturgical change rather than more, the more common application of Lewis' wisdom is frequent participation.  Nothing makes something more familiar than frequent use.  No new shoe feels old when you first put it on.  Sadly, at least when it comes to shoes, when the shoe is most comfortable and least noticeable, it might be on its last legs as a shoe.  That is not the case when it comes to the liturgy.  The more familiar we are with the liturgy, the better that liturgy is at directing us toward the God at its heart and center.

Anyone who has raised a small child knows that children learn best by repetition. It is certainly not a good thing to teach a child where to look for information but it cannot replace the information that must become instinctive and routine to life and focus of the child.  When that happens, the focus moves away from the awkward learning to use the tool and toward the purpose for which the tool exists.

Sadly, we often do not wait long enough for things to become instinctive and second nature.  We are so tuned to immediate results that we have become impatient at the task of learning the larger things that bring greater rewards.  I am speaking, of course, of the often tedious and time consuming task of memorization.  The liturgy itself is not so difficult to memorize but with the liturgy comes the helpful work of memorizing other texts associated with the liturgy -- including the great hymns of the faith well represented among the choices for hymns of the day appointed for the Divine Service.  In the old days, catechism class included not only the memorization of the parts of Luther's Small Catechism but also hymn stanzas (especially of the catechetical hymns associated with the catechism).

For some folks, the liturgy will always feel like a new pair of shoes -- stiff and uncomfortable.  However, the charge should not be laid against the liturgy itself but against the person who is unwilling or unaware of the need to become intimate with the form and familiar with its rhythm becomes the pace and direction of the heart.  In this respect, one of the most tasks of the Christian parent is to teach the liturgy and to impart the weekly rhythm of worship on the Lord's Day in the Lord's House.  Children will go through many pair of shoes as they grow but one pair has the ability to remain their familiar and comfortable shoes -- the Divine Service, hymnal, and catechism.  May God bless every parent who undertakes this cause for the blessing and benefit of their children after having learned its value for themselves.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

When did we lose our sense of wonder. . .

One evening near the end of January, my wife and I were heading out to a funeral home visitation and then to supper out when we stopped in awe of the moon.  It was large and hung low over the night sky.  The first full moon of January that shone that last Thursday of the month is called the wolf moon.  It reached its fullest at 7.16 pm -- just as we were driving.  They say it is called the wolf moon because of the howling of the wolves in winter's scarcity, looking for food.  It is not the first time we have run to the window to look at the colors of the sunset or the eerie fog surrounding the moon or the so-called Jesus star.  But that is not all.  We spend our time in the Smokeys looking at the scenery and watching for bears.  When we lived on Long Island, we spent most of our time in Manhattan looking at the architectural wonders of church and cathedral, skyscraper and park, museum and library.  Most of the time was spent simply looking with awe upon the beauty of nature or the eloquence of man when nature's beauty inspires him.

I have to admit that while I am curious about them, the vast windmill farms of Iowa or Missouri or Minnesota offer no beauty -- only strange form in exaggerated size.  While modern skyscrapers are marvels of technology, most of them are flat and ordinary -- slabs of concrete decorated by mirrored glass.  Even modern architecture seems to render homes in utilitarian terms with ovens and fridges intruding upon the formal living spaces as if snacks and screens were the sum total of the arts.  Churches have too often followed this path of form follows function in which heavenly liturgy lives in contrast to the stark skeleton of a metal building also used as a warehouse.  

The day after we wondered after the moon that shone into the night sky, I read this essay by Anthony Esolen.  He well describes what I lament.  We no longer enjoy the poetry of the world around us nor do we marvel at the elegance of God's rich creation.  Read his words and tell me you do not agree.  Perhaps it is our slavery to technology and the imagined reality of the screens that has kept us from looking around us or expecting more than brutal shapes and rough surfaces in the buildings we construct and in which we live and work.  Anyway, it made me sad to read his words and it made me fear for a world and a people who miss the beauty God has placed around us and forget to stand in awe before His majesty.  Only to think, as good as this is, it is nothing compared to the heavenly glory our Lord has prepared for us.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Another sad closure. . .

As I have written before, the state of smaller church owned colleges and universities has been precarious for some time.  The press of the politically correct to require the appropriate social justice positions with regard to gender, sexuality, and abortion has been relentless.  Around us the landscape has been changing as more and more states provide reduced cost or even free tuition for community colleges and universities.  On top of this, the number of students in church work programs in these schools continues to shrink raising questions about the core mission of these schools and how this evolution of purpose reflects the tremendous risk and financial cost of running these schools.  

Our own church body has seen the closure of six schools since the 1970s.  Concordia Senior College,  St. Paul's College, St. John's College, Concordia Selma, Concordia Portland, and, now, Concordia Bronxville have closed or are closing.  Concordia Ann Arbor did not close but became a satellite campus of Concordia Mequon.  Though the circumstances of eachwas are different, all of them suffered under the weight of increasing costs, difficult competition for students, and financial problems.  All of them received investment from the Synod and loans from Synod entities.  All of them had energetic administrators who tried just about anything and everything to save the schools from closing.  None of them could be justified on the basis of the purpose for which the Synod began those schools -- the training of church workers.  They might not be the last of the schools closed.

I spent more than 13 years in the Atlantic District and countless hours on the campus of Concordia Bronxville.  I attended meetings, district conventions, convocations, musical events, ate in the dining hall, studied in the library, and so many other things over those years there -- all held on the campus of Concordia.  The district office moved there while I was in the district -- occupying a portion of a college building and sharing conference space.  I knew faculty and administration over those years and since.  They did their best for the sake of the college and for the sake of the Synod over the years.  It was not for lack of trying that Bronxville ended up deciding to close at the end of this school year.  I particularly believe that John Nunes was perhaps their last and best hope of preventing this end to a history that is larger than life.  Many of the players in Missouri's history matriculated from Bronxville -- people on both sides of the theological spectrum!  But those days have come and gone.  Those there during my years in the district whom I knew best included Dean Green, Edgar Aufdemberge, Ralph, Dorothy and Timothy Schultz, Gerry Coleman, Tom Sluberski, Dick Heschke, among others. . . (not including a couple of Senior College profs who ended up at Bronxville).

Indeed, that is the problem.  The whole system of Synod colleges was designed primarily for one purpose -- to train up church workers for the Synod.  Most were two year schools and it was not until the early 1980s that they became four year schools or were closed.  Things were already changing then though no one could have foreseen how few Lutherans would be on our campuses, much less the dearth of church work students preparing for church vocations.  The transitions were hopeful but barely a generation out it was apparent that not all schools were flourishing and some might not make it.  For some, risky decisions were undertaken that, if successful, would have been lauded but when they were not, those who made them were seen to be short-sighted or downright foolish.  I wish that it were not the case but the reality is that we are seeing the end of a system of colleges we proudly called our own.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

How very medieval. . .

Some have noticed that at times Luther and others of the Reformation era sound rather medieval.  In particular, the focus on Scripture is very medieval.  I have read that the way Luther approached God's Word, and his captivity to that Word, are very medieval.  His unwillingness to go beyond the fact that Christ's flesh and blood is present in the bread and wine and the design of his liturgical edits are also sometimes seen as a bow to medieval influence.  I am sure that many may disagree but I wonder if there is not something to this.

I read another blogger who said Dom Gregory Dix loved to explain, the Reformers, in their endearing desire to be 'biblical', often revealed themselves as Very Medieval Men!  In particular, he was referring to the way Cranmer approached the Circumcision of Our Lord.  Cranmer's collect for that feast is prayed almost exactly as he rendered it so long ago.  It certainly owes its origins to the Scriptures that speak of circumcision -- both the circumcision of the foreskin from the Old Testament and the spiritual circumcision spoken of by St. Paul.

Almyghtie God, whiche madeste thy blessed sonne to be circumcised and obedyente to the law for man; graunt us the true circumcision of thy spirite, that our hertes, and al our membres, being mortifyed from al worldy and carnal lustes, may in al thinges obey thy blessed wil; through the same ...

Lord God, You made Your beloved Son, our Savior, subject to the Law and caused Him to shed His blood on our behalf. Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit that our hearts may be made pure from all sins; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The issue of the medieval character of the Reformation might have another explanation.  The things posited by the Reformers are not only medieval but they are also reflective of the Early Christian era.  In fact, I believe the Reformation was not really a reformation at all but a recovery of a perspective and shape of the faith that has its roots in the first thousand years of Christian history but had become obscured over time.  By the birth of the 1500s the Church's once vibrant faith in the infallibility of Scripture and the grant mystery of our encounter with that Word made flesh in the Eucharist had been mostly lost or hidden.  Read the sermons of the fathers and you see what I mean.

Sometimes it is almost an embarrassment to Lutherans that our Confession quote so often and so authoritatively the fathers of the Church.  Of course, they reference their position not only with the witness of those who went before but in the Word of God and yet the authors see this as a continuum.  I fear that this is something we have lost today.  Although there are those among us who continue to remind us that the faith once delivered to the saints has been lived in faith and practiced in worship before us (thank you, Will Weedon, among others), many Lutherans today have become extreme Biblicists who neither welcome or affirm this continuum.  That is certainly to our poverty.  For the main point of the Reformation was not that catholic was wrong or bad but that the church of the day was no longer catholic.  Indeed, the very people who were accused of introducing novelty had as their main charge against the Roman Church and its papacy that it not only introduced novelty but lived on the basis of that novelty.  That which could not be found in the earlier church except in the form of vague quotes that had to be interpreted from the view of the day had made the church Luther saw as one less catholic than her past and less Biblical.

Now I know that many (most?) Lutherans and Roman Catholics will challenge this assertion.  But the very affirmation that the Reformation was to make the Church more Catholic instead of less is at the heart of the Reformer's zeal.  Sure, Luther exaggerated and made it personal in a way that we find uncomfortable today but the impetus of the Reformation was not to turn the faith into a buffet in which you could pick and choose what you wanted.  No, indeed, the goal of the Reformation was to restore the feast -- the sumptuous feast of the living voice of God in the Scriptures, the baptismal shape and vocation of the life of God's people, the joyous announcement of absolution to the imprisoned conscience of the sinner, and the awe of being invited to some up to the Table of the Lord to eat the flesh of Christ and drink His blood hidden in earthly form.  It was this that was lost to Luther's own tormented soul and it was this Luther and his cohorts expected and even demanded from the Church.  The fact that the Pope and institutional structures of the Roman Church not only rejected this but insisted upon silencing their voices was proof enough to them and to us that their cause, no matter how regretful, was right.  And it still is.  

Sadly enough, too many Lutherans have surrendered this Reformation cause of recovery and renewal around the sacraments of life and worship and the efficacious Word to become evangelical wannabes or mirrors of the empty heart and soul of Protestantism.  I fear that it is not Rome or Constantinople that attracts those who leave us but our own unwillingness to life in the embrace of our own Confessional life and vitality that disappoints and turns them to look for another home.  When I say that we have not been Lutheran enough, it is not an appeal to sectarianism but to the very catholicity that the Confessions themselves celebrate and affirm not only for the days in which they were written but for the time to come.  In that respect we are not medieval enough nor are we even close to the early Church in our thinking and perspective -- but Luther was.  It is my hope and prayer that we will end this drift into foreign circles of thought and life and live anew the vision of a reformed, renewed, and recaptured Church -- catholic, apostolic, evangelical (in the right sense of that term), Biblical, creedal, and confessional.  I hope my voice is not alone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Do you know what you have?

One of the great frustrations as a pastor of a confessional and liturgical Lutheran parish is that so often the folks there week after week fail to realize the gift and blessing they have in this parish.  Families who move and try to find another Lutheran parish with the same richness of music, liturgy, preaching, and teaching ask me over and over again where is there another Grace Lutheran Church.  In some cases I have been able to direct them to a parish but in many other cases I have nothing to offer -- where they happen to live there are only evangelical wannabe Lutherans or Lutherans who follow the book because that is what Lutherans do but not because that is who Lutherans are.  I am happy to report that the situation is improving but not as quickly as it might.  Again, the issue is not that my parish is so unique as much as it is Lutherans can be all over the page and it can be a confusing search to find Lutherans who know what they have in their theology and worship.

I well recall a young man who began attending many years ago.  He did not give us his name nor did he seek out information or conversation.  He just kept coming, usually just before the Divine Service began, and left rather anonymously.  Finally the opportunity came and he was ready to talk.  He was raised Baptist and knew from his Baptist upbringing that he did not belong in a Lutheran parish but he could not stop himself from coming.  He was overwhelmed by what he experienced in the hymnody, the liturgy, the preaching, and the reverence.  He saw how seriously the faith was taken -- something taught to him by the genuflection in the creed at the words “and came down from heaven . . . ,” through the words “and was crucified for us . . . .”  He got it without much help.  Oh, sure, there was a lot to be taught and he went through new member instruction several times because he wanted to know more and more.  

When I relayed his story to other Lutherans (the lifelong kind), many of them were incredulous.  They did not understand what it was that was so different here.  Perhaps they thought everybody else also did what we did on Sunday morning or perhaps they thought what we did was so peculiar nobody would be interested in it but a lifelong Lutheran.  This young man asked me why the folks around him in church did not seem to have any idea of what they had in the Divine Service and in the preaching and teaching that went on in it and from it.  This young man recognized that here in a Lutheran setting he heard many times the amount of Scripture that was heard where he previously attended.  The creed, which had been one of those warning signs that he was not in the right church, became a profound rehearsal of the most central truths of God's Word confessed with the voices of the faithful generations removed from this setting.  The hymns were more difficult to sing (he said because he was unfamiliar with them) but they read like Scripture itself and literally wrapped up the Divine Service in the Word of the Lord.  Even more, this man saw that the point of it all was not to change behavior or motivate or equip the hearer to the success or future he or she imagined but to meet the Lord where He promised to be, receiving there the great treasures of His grace in forgiveness, a clear conscience, an identity rooted and shaped by the new birth of baptism, and lived out before the Lord now and in the Lord eternally.

So sadly, it was old hat to most of the folks around him.  And so it is today.  We forget because we are so often comfortable in the presence of God that His presence is itself a gift and a blessing.  We do not see the profound character of what happens in the reverence and awe of a people gathered around the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  We have gotten sloppy or lazy or casual about it all.  Folks who come to us from other places or from no place at all see what we do not see.  It is a shame.  I pray that we will learn before it is too late that the most important resources God has given us to grow His Church are not in programs or activities or "ministries" where we think we are making a difference but in His call beckoning us onto the holy ground of His presence in the Word that speaks and accomplishes what it says and the Sacraments that deliver what they sign.  Certainly Lutherans do not have to practice the richer ceremonial that is our heritage in order to manifest this awareness of what God is doing among us but the richer ceremonial does not hurt and it does not detract from God's work.  We can all do this -- no matter how large or small our Lutheran congregation or how many resources we have.  It is all right there in this Divine Service -- in which beauty, music, our best efforts and energies in preaching and hearing what is preached, and the Word and Table of the Lord as source and summit of it all. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Fishing with a net. . .

Sermon for Epiphany 4B, preached on Sunday, January 24, 2021.

     Net fishing is not sport fishing.  Those who fish with a net are in the business of fishing.  They have contracts to keep and quotas to fill and food to deliver to the fish mongers and dinner tables of people around the world.  These fishermen do not fish because they enjoy it.  I imagine that they hate their jobs just as much as the people who pick up our garbage or harvest under the hot sun or clean our clothes are tired of their daily dirge.  They are not after one fish or even a single great fish.  They fish for the numbers, for filet’o’fishes at McDonald and Gortons fish sticks as well as the lemon sole or Chilean sea bass of better restaurants.

    In the same way, the Church does not fish for men for the sport of it.  We do not fish because we love the fishing.  It is our business.  It is our job.  We fish because we have been made fishers of men.  It is what we do.  It is not romantic or exciting and even when you manage a good haul in the net, there are too many bad ones that get thrown back or swim back on their own.  It is the job we love to hate but we have our evangelism committees and our greeters and we share the Gospel with those around us because this is what God has given us to do.

    We don’t fish with bait.  We are net fishermen.  We extend the great net of the Gospel preached and God hauls up the catch.  We don’t bait a hook to trick a fish into biting.  We don’t deceive them with the promise of a meal only to hook them in the mouth and pull them from their watery home for the fun of it all.  When Jesus says, “You will be fishers of men,” our Lord has in mind the great boat of the Church extending the net of the Gospel through its faithful preaching.  Not a pole, a baited hook, and someone on the other end excited about the prospect of reeling one in.

    We drop the net not because the fishing is good but because the net will accomplish its purpose.  It is a good net.  And the Lord is the power behind it all.  We don’t use fish finders but simply drop the net – we preach the Gospel where we are.  In the end, it is disappointing because with the occasional good fish, you also end up with too much that must be thrown back or swims away on its it.  We have good fish, bad fish, big fish, small fish, and a host of other debris along with all kinds of bottom feeders who just hitch a ride in the net.  We extend the net of the Gospel and we pull in the net when God commands.  And God sorts through the catch.  We don’t.  God does.  We extend the net.  God sorts through what the net of the Gospel gathers up.  It is not our job to decide what is good and worth keeping.  That is God’s.  We throw out the net in faithful preaching and teaching of Christ crucified and risen and God does all the rest.  And the catch lives side by side in the Church till judgement day.  
Our call is not the catching but the fishing – what ends up in the net is God’s business.

    How easy it is to forget this!  How tempting it is to believe that we must bait the hook with something to entice the unsuspecting to give us a second look.  How quick we are to think we are the ones who sort through the net to decide who is a keeper and who gets thrown back.  But the Church will not grow with a bait and switch mentality, when we use tactics to engage people that are odds with who we are as Christ’s holy church or we attempt to be different on the outside than what we believe, teach, and confess.  Yet this is exactly what churches do, even Lutheran churches.  We try to program success, to win people for the Kingdom instead of casting the net of God’s Word and trusting Him.

    At the root of this is a lack of faith.  Andrew and Peter knew everything about fishing.  They were not sportsmen who went for a day of fun on the water but businessmen whose livelihoods were built upon figuring out where the fish were and who know how to cast out their nets and get the fish into the boat.  But they knew nothing of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus did not need to teach them much about fishing for fish, but Jesus had to teach them everything about being fishers of men.  So it is for us.  We do not need to be taught how to run a business but we know nothing of how to bring people into the Kingdom of God.  The Church is God’s domain and our business is the business not of marketing a product to unwitting consumers but of casting the net of the Gospel into the world and trusting that God will do what God has promised to do.

    God does not consulted with us on how to grow and build a church.  God has called us to speak the Gospel and show forth this Gospel in works before the world.  God will grow and God will build His Church and He does not need us to tell Him how to do it or what will bring fish into His net.  What God calls us to, what Jesus called Peter to, was a life of faith.  Peter and Andrew, James and John, were fishermen.  Jesus called them to a live of faith where they left behind what they knew for trust in what Jesus knows.  The shock of it all is that they did.  They left behind their nets, their boats, and the catches of fish that fishermen live to tell about, in order to live by faith and trust in what they did not know or see or understand.

    God brings His elect into the ark of the Church by the Gospel.  St. Paul says how it works – faith comes by hearing the Word of God.  We know this but find it hard to believe.  We fear the Gospel is not enough and the Lord needs us to tell Him what to do to grow His Church.  We think you can argue people into the Kingdom or make the Gospel palatable or make it easier to believe or no one will.  We think that people are brought into the Kingdom and kept there by a warm welcome, a friendly atmosphere, comfortable amenities, the latest technology, hip music, relevant preaching, and the like.  But the way of the Kingdom is faith.  They hear the voice of the Word and believe it.  The Spirit is at work in this hearing and believing.

    Nobody enters the Kingdom of God by their own reason or strength.  The Gospel is not a product to be sold and the Church is not an idea people must be convinced of.  The problem here is faith.  We do not trust God to do what He has promised.  We fear the Word is not enough.  We think every age or generation must reinvent the wheel and figure out what this generation of people needs and if we do this, the Church will grow and Jesus will be happy with us.  It is a crisis of faith.  Jesus calls us to believe His Word, to keep it in faithful hearts, and when to do what He has called us to do, promising to do all the rest.

    My friends, the Lord is still calling to leave behind our entrepreneurial ways and to repent of turning the Church into a store and the Gospel into a product.  The Lord calls us to live by faith.  He is calls us to leave behind our nets and all the homespun wisdom of an earthly kingdom for the spiritual witness of a heavenly kingdom, in which God is at work doing what He has promised to do.  I am not sure if the times now are more difficult than the days of St. Peter and the fishermen turned disciples who were with him.  I do not know if it is harder to address the world around us with the Gospel than it was in other generations.  But this I do know.  The Lord keeps His promises and does what He has said He will do.  I know that the lives God still calls us to are lives we live not by sight but by faith.

    You are not here of your own decision or choice.  The Lord has called you by the Gospel, gathered you by the Spirit into His Church, enlightened you by that Spirit with faith, and is now at work in you sanctifying you – making you holy and righteous. What is true of YOU, is true of those yet to be called, gathered, enlighten and sanctified.  This is not a dog eat dog business we are in but an endeavor of faith.  We will do God’s bidding and God will find His success by trusting the Lord and doing what He has promised.  This is what St. Peter found out when the Lord called him to be fishers of men.  Though he might have looked back from time to time and wondered if it would not be easier to remain with a job that he knew and knew how to do, in the end St. Peter admitted he had no where else to go – only Jesus has the words of eternal life.

    From time to time we get a little weary, when the day is hard and the future is uncertain.  We might wish for an easier life with results easier to predict.  But the life of faith is the only life at all.  In the end, we echo this in the words of St. Peter that we sing in the Alleluia Verse:  Lord, to whom shall I go?  You have the words of eternal life.  Friends this is the good life not because this life is good but because the Lord is good. 

I read only what I like. . .

I dare say that if I read only the things I liked or was in agreement with, I might never read at all.  I find some of the best quotes in books and articles with which I vehemently disagree.  I sometimes I am so disappointed to find that nothing really sticks in my mind from authors with whom I identify.  Indeed, reading people who challenge me often helps me form my own opinion whereas if I read only folks whose opinions mirrored mine I might never learn anything at all.

It seems to me that one of the great dangers of safe zones on college campuses and social media in general or network news whose bias resembles our own is that never learn anything.  When we read or listen only to those with whom we agree, we never learn why we agree or how to defend our position.  It is entirely too safe and at the same time too risky to limit what we read to people with whom we resonate.  I fear that the availability of social media forums that appeal to our narrow opinions and the ability to limit our intake of opinion to those whose opinions reflect our own thinking contributes not simply to the closing of the American mind but the dumbing down of that mind.

As much as this is a problem in the nation and our unraveling society, it is also a danger to the Church.  We who wear the mantle of preacher theologians must be able to speak to those outside the faith as well as those comfortably situated in the pews.  The Gospel was never meant to be spoken in an echo chamber alone.  I am not suggesting that what happens on Sunday morning need to appeal to or resonate with the unchurched.  It is not possible to worship God at all without faith.  But not everything the Church does is within the confines of the Divine Service.  This does not simply mean learning the vocabulary and perspectives of the unchurched but teaching those who consider themselves outside the Kingdom of God what that Kingdom is about.

When we fail to engage those outside the household of the faith, we only confirm their unbelief and their false assumptions about what the Church is and what the Gospel says.  It is not only that they lose, but we lose.  Iron sharpens iron says the Scriptures.  It is a good thing to engage those with whom we disagree.  Surely the Nicene Creed is a prime example of what was born of a conflict over what the words mean and what words are orthodox and true to the faith of the Scriptures and what words are not.  The Nicene Creed was not some committee approach to a statement which meant anything to anyone reading it but an attempt to clarify and sharpen what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses.  That Creed still does that.  Just like the Apostles' and the Athanasian.  

I am not at all saying that we should grant legitimacy to every one and every screwy belief but the Church is the strongest and the work of the Kingdom most successful when we engage people with the Gospel (even if we have to begin the conversation with a vocabulary imposed upon and not necessarily drawn from the Scriptures or the great tradition.  St. Paul is a pretty reliable example of exactly what I am talking about.  Luther debated anyone and everyone (and himself half the time).  We will not have a chance of success without taking the risk and the risk is worth it.  Be clear about who you are, what you believe, and what the truth is that endures forever and you can engage anyone and everyone.  We do not have to water down the faith or make it more palatable.  We simply need to confess it faithfully and, from time to time, learn some new words as language changes.

I wish I could remember where I read it, but I think it was none other than Karl Barth the Church gathered around the altar, font, and pulpit always speaks the peculiar language of the faith but when she ventures out in the world she must be prepared to speak in the language of everyman.  Not a bad quote!

Monday, January 25, 2021

A convenient warning. . .

Lutherans tend to be a little too comfortable with the warning of Jesus against acts of piety that are only public.  We are not known as a people whose piety is worn on our sleeve and sometimes people wonder if Lutherans even have a piety.  But for all the convenience of the warning not to parade your good works or your fasting in public, Jesus actually commends the practices.

Jesus does not say if you fast, but when you fast.  In other words, our Lord presumes that fasting will not disappear in the liberty of choice or the fog of adiaphora but will continue among His people.  When you fast means just that -- you will fast and when you do make sure you do not draw attention to yourself for your fasting.  The same could be said about almsgiving and good works.  Jesus never says that these practices of piety should cease but that the drawing of attention to them is unseemly and renders its own reward.  We need to take care with what Jesus actually says and what He does not say.

I say this because Ash Wednesday will soon be on our minds and the Gospel for Ash Wednesday includes the warning against a piety only public and without the humility of faith in the heart.  So I think it might be a good time for us to consider the other holy day coming up -- Candlemas (the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary).

In the Gospel for the latter, we hear of faithful Anna.  Anna’s piety seems rather odd to us today but she is commended for that piety.  Such a piety does not go out of style or get replaced by the freedom of the Gospel to do as we would please.  So we read of Anna that “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”  Never mind the part about worshiping night and day -- we have long ago given up that idea to 59 1/2 minutes on Sunday morning a couple of times a month.  And, of course, there are those who might suggest that being a widow she had nothing better to do with her time.  I am sure the Lord appreciates your sentiment there.

But let us not forget that she is commended for her piety -- for the very things we have deemed non-essential and optional to the faith.  We look in vain for any mention of how she loved the Lord deep, deep down in her heart but we are given to believe this precisely because she never leaves the temple but worships night and day, fasting and praying?

How many of us might suggest to a widow that there are better things for her to do with her time than worship in the temple night and day?  How many of us might instead direct her piety toward the poor or sewing for a good cause or making coffee cakes to go with the Sunday coffee hour or some other worthy endeavor?  But the Scriptures commend her for fasting and praying and do not suggest that she might have had a wiser or more effective use for her time.

Some of us might wish that the Lord Jesus had been older in this encounter so that He might have warned her against praying in public or fasting.  Some of us Lutherans might warn her against doing what she did precisely on the basis of the words of Matthew 6.  But we just might be missing the point.  What Anna does is not singled out for censure or warning but for commendation.  She is doing exactly what she is supposed to be doing.

Maybe she needs a good Lutheran pastor to warn her against thinking her good works will merit her salvation or that her piety is a means of paying for the Kingdom of God that comes only by gift or earning her way into God's good grace.  Anna, don't you know?!

Is it possible to fast too much or pray too much?  We Lutherans might think so -- simply upon instinct.  But it would be good for us to ask if it is possible to pray too little, to fast to seldom, and to visit the Lord's House too infrequently?  Today we have a screwy idea that such a piety is too old fashioned, too old covenant, and too extreme to be commended.  Was Anna wrong or are we?  Would we benefit from more Anna style folks?  Or would we view their piety as dangerous?  Do we have a tendency to view any piety as too much?  Sort of like the way we view incense, you could but your shouldn't, we have grown into a comfortable piety which bears little resemblance to the piety of Anna or the Lord in whom she rejoices -- whose custom it was always to be in the Temple and synagogue. 

I am not at all sure that there are many Annas left and if that is the case, we are all the poorer.  Their example reminds us how easy it is to get on with the things of life and forget to fast, pray, and be in the Lord's House.  Perhaps there is a correlation between the lack of Annas and the empty church pews across our land?  I will leave it to you to think about. . . as you begin to plan out the shape of a season of piety focused upon additional times of devotion, prayer, self-denial, and almsgiving.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

What I missed at Christmas. . .

Although we love to hate the folks who seem to show up only at Christmas or Easter (the so-called Chreasters), I missed them this year.  As with most, our total attendance was lower than usual.  We had about 340 in 5 services -- down from about 550 in a typical year.  We had a few guests but we missed most of those who come only on the high and holy days.  Some pastors might be relieved because they have become bitter about these folks and angry that they come so seldom.  I sometimes feel that way.  But even the Mongrel hoardes need to hear the Gospel.  Lord knows, they did not make it to Easter last  year and they may not even make it to Easter this year so for more than a year these folks have gone without hearing of the good news the cried out into the night sky in Bethlehem or the Gospel that was revealed in a body hanging on a tree of a cross or the surprise of victory hidden in an empty cave.  I worry about that.  I an anxious that the times and events of the last year or more have conspired to bring even more distance between the occasional church goer and the eternal Gospel.  If we really believe that the Spirit works through the Word to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify Christ's Church, we all ought to be concerned about this.

What happened this last year is symptomatic of a growing gulf between those who attend regularly and those who don't.  It is certainly true of the fearful who have decided that until the church is safe they will stay at home.  It is also true of those who will outgrow the habit of even occasional attendance.  What this means is that a certain segment of the population is in danger of never darkening the door of God's House.  Yes, I know, you do not have to fire up your keyboard to comment.  The Gospel needs to be brought to them.  But this was a group that could have been counted upon to hear at least part of the story of God's love and now they will not even hear that.  Add to this how hard it is to get into the homes and lives of people hidden behind screens and locked doors and we all ought to be thinking more about this.

The folks who did not come are not exactly strangers to the Church.  Nearly all of them were baptized and most of their confirmed in the faith.  While some are quick to number them with the tares, that is the Lord's domain and not mine.  But if they came at Easter or at Christmas or both, it was one more profound opportunity to speak to them and address them with the Law and Gospel.  Without their presence at either, there is nothing left to recall them back from their detour away from the Church and the place where God's Word is preached, His absolution is spoken, and His body and blood given to be our true food of eternal life.  There may be a little of the Old Testament and its remnant theology at work in my mind here but even in Israel the people of God were the people of God at least on the high and holy days.  The keepers of the temple may resent the extra work from these less than regular folk but I doubt whether God is bothered.  Perhaps He is happy to see them -- maybe happier than His under-shepherds!

Our nation has enough divisions without expanding the gulf between those who attend and those who don't.  Christmas was one opportunity to bridge the gap.  So what will it mean for the future?  I wish I knew.  But if some of them decide to visit again, even for a brief stay, I will be happy to welcome them home.

A giant of a figure and a humble servant of the Lord. . .

Dr. Carl Schalk HS '48, BS '52, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music and 2018 Spiritus Christi honoree, died early this morning Sunday, January 24. A global influence in church music, Dr. Schalk had throughout recent months continued to compose music, write articles and books as well conduct research and host webinars on worship and music from home. 

This report comes to me with great sadness.  I knew him for many years as a most gracious and humble man, a giant among us.  Now he joins his beloved wife Noël in God's nearer presence, having bequeathed to us hundreds of pieces of music and books and articles.  His  

Carl Schalk was a teacher, musicologist, composer, and author, Distinguished Professor of Music Emeritus at Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois, where he was called in 1965 and where he taught graduate and undergraduate courses in church music until his retirement in 1994. While at Concordia, Schalk was instrumental in beginning the Master of Church Music program, which produced some one hundred and forty graduates serving throughout the church.

Dr. Schalk served as lecturer and clinician at numerous church music workshops and pastoral conferences. He was the editor of Church Music (1966-80) and served as a member of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, Hymn Music Committee, which prepared the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). He was a Fellow of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada and was made an Honorary Life Member of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.

Dr. Schalk held degrees from Concordia University, River Forest; Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York; and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. His numerous choral compositions have been published by a wide array of publishers.  He wrote over eighty hymn tunes and carols and his collaborations with Jaroslav J. Vajda and Herbert Brokering in particular, received wide acclaim.



Saturday, January 23, 2021

The shape of our devotional lives. . .

Every quarter I put out the latest edition of Portals of Prayer, the devotional booklet published by Concordia.  Most of the time the copies disappear rather quickly.  They are a good and reliable, albeit brief, devotional resource.  They are easy to read.  I have no qualms about putting them into the hands of my people.  But I am anxious about the prospect of this being the sum total of the devotional lives of my people.  It is not because this resource is not good, it is good.  It is just not complete or as full as the devotional life could and should be.

COVID 19 left so many folks on their own.  Some were either locked out or deferred to their fears to stay away from the Divine Service over the many months of 2020.  Most parishes, like mine, tried to provide some sort of resources online to fill in the gap.  These ranged from the full fledged Divine Service videoed for all the world to see to weekly or even daily devotional videos from the pastors and other parish staff.  Everything considered, it was an emergency time and we provided emergency resources to fill in the gaps.  Some were very good, some were fine, and others only revealed how hard it is to become a media sensation at the drop of a hat.

I hope we have learned some lessons from all of this.  I hope and pray that we have learned how important individual and family devotional time is.  I hope and pray that we have discovered that a good resource, like Portals of Prayer, should not end up being the sum total of our devotional time.  Yes, we are busy.  Yes, we have the technology to rely on others.  But that is not the best practice for something that has proven to be a very important part of our daily lives.  We need the discipline and the rhythm of a familiar routine -- a format and a plan.

While The Treasury produced by CPH is a credible devotional resource, it is also large, heavy, and more complicated than it needs to be.  The app version is easier but I am suspicious of dependence upon technology alone.  There are many other resources available (from Herb Lindemann's Daily Office to ALPB's For All the Saints).  Or, there is the most basic resource.  The hymnal.  Lutheran Service Book offers two forms for morning prayer -- Matins and, well, Morning Prayer.  The same for evening prayer.  Plus Compline.  And the Suffrages (now called Responsive Prayer).  Pick one or two and use them daily.  Wear them like comfortable shoes.  Memorize them and still follow along in the book.  Sing the hymns appointed.  Follow a lectionary (there is a perfectly suitable daily lectionary in LSB).  Just do it.

Do not allow yourself to become dependent upon social media to provide for your devotional life and do not let yourself be satisfied with the short couple of paragraphs in Portals of Prayer.  Mix them together.  Let the daily devotional from Portals become part of your daily routine with Matins or Morning Prayer and Vespers or Evening Prayer.  Just do it.  Learn from the pandemic what not to be without.  It just might be one of the best lessons of 2020.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Commemoration of St. Timothy

Sermon preached on the Commemoration of St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor, observed on Thursday, January 21, 2021.

When St. Paul urged young Timothy to fight the good fight, he was not primarily talking about battles in congregations or with obstinate members or even with the powers of the world around us.  Not that there would not be battles of this kind.  There were and there are.  No congregation is without its conflicts and no parish is without those who resist the voice of Scripture and no church is without those difficult members who make it harder to love your brother than to love your enemy.  Of course, these battles were and are and will continue to afflict the church until Christ comes again in His glory.  But the fight St. Paul refers to is personal.

The good fight is that which takes place within you.  St. Paul knows this only too well.  He was a persecutor of the Church before he was ever an apostle to the Gentiles.  He held the coats of the people in whom he had aroused the tempting scent of murder.  He was still a difficult person to get along with.  Ask only Silas, Barnabas, Luke, and, yes, Timothy.  They all felt the barbs of St. Paul’s words and actions when something went wrong.  St. Paul daily fought against the powers of anger and discontent and pride and arrogance.  Some days, he lost that fight and the power of ego lived larger in him than the power of Christ.

We would like to believe that our pastors are like Nathanael or Bartholomew – people of such single-minded hearts that it could be said of us as it was of him that there was no guile of deceit in him.  We would like to believe that our pastors are holy all the time, that they wear this holiness like the rest of us wear clothing.  We would like to believe that temptation is easy for the men of cloth – perhaps we want to believe this because we find it so hard to resist the advances of the devil, the deceitful words of evil, and the tempting, well worn paths of sin.  Just maybe if our pastor has learned not to have such a problem with sin, we too might learn how to be holy.

Pastors would like to believe the same thing.  They would like to believe that for the pastor marriage and family are not difficult relationships, that for the pastor there is never any temptation to want or steal or lash out in anger or speak lies instead of truth or lust in the shadows of the heart while appearing so decent on the outside.  Pastors would love to think that sin was no longer a problem, that they had dealt with the dark side enough to know how to resist and fight off its influence.  But every day proves that every pastor is a sinner like every Christian.

The faith is a fight.  The life of the faithful is a fight.  It is not a lost cause.  No, we do not fight with human weapons but with the whole armor of God.  With the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the feet shod with peace, the shield of faith held up with the hand, the helmet of salvation to guard the mind, and the sword of the Spirit to wield against our enemies, we fight.  Even when the enemy is within us, we fight with the same weapons and are guarded by the same armor.

Yes, we fight, but no, we do not fight alone.  Christ is fighting in us and through us the great enemies of the faith that capture our hearts with that which has no value and deceive us from the true treasure with cheap trinkets of the moment.  Christ is fighting in us and through us those who whine and moan and complain about how hard it is to live by faith and how difficult it is to resist temptation.  Christ is fighting in us and through us the complacency that would put off the things of God and the laziness that would surrender every virtue every time it seemed that we might have to work to keep what God freely gave.

As pastors and people, St. Paul bids us fight – waging war against the old Adam and its voice of defeat and against the world and the devil working all around us to steal our hearts away from God.  But fight is what we do.  With weapons of the Spirit we fight against haughty pride and learn humility.  With the training of the Spirit we fight against the sins that stain our consciences and confess them to the Lord.  With the wisdom of the Spirit we fight against the rush to judge or speak and learn to put the best construction on everything.  With the vision of the Spirit we fight against the disappointment of eyes that see only wrong and learn to see with the eyes of faith the promises of God that will not let us down.  With the truth of the Spirit we fight against hearts that know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, especially life given by God.  With the heart of the Spirit we fight against in the safe space in which the hurts of others are theirs and never ours – unlike the mercy of God which bore the weight of sins and sorrows which were never God’s but are always ours.

Though devils all the world should fill and hearts too quickly surrender to the old Adam and his ways, we will not give in and we will not give up.  None other than Christ Himself fights for us.  Every day He works to reclaim us as His own people and restore us by the power of His grace.  Every day He speaks with the voice of His Word to make us wise unto salvation and every day He washes us with the once and forever baptismal water.  Every day He feeds us the taste of heaven in His body broken for us and His blood poured out for us.  Every day He sends us back home minus the sins we came here with and with a strong hope to replace our fading strength.  My friends, there is no rest for us but only the battle for our lives that takes place in us every bit as much as it takes place outside of us in the world.  But do not lose heart, we fight as victors to keep what Christ has won.  

Do not lose heart, the devil and our own sinful flesh and the world around us cannot win without our own surrender of the good and precious mercy that first made us Christ’s own and still keeps us as His own.  That was the comfort to St. Timothy.  That is the comfort of those who dare to pastor as he once did.  That is the comfort of those who hear the Word and receive its sacramental grace in water, bread, and wine.  It is a fight, but we do not fight alone.  It is a fight against enemies outside of us but they are already defeated.  It is a fight inside our hearts and minds but the Spirit is working to transform our minds and make our hearts His temple.  It is a fight, but it is the good fight of the redeemed to lay hold of the redemption which is ours in Christ Jesus.  May God fill us with boldness, equip us with courage, strengthen our faith, and support our hope, until that day when at last we shall surrender the weapons and rejoice to live in the victory of Christ forevermore.  Amen.

Funny how we just realized death was real. . .

It seems that COVID has awakened the national conscience to the reality of death.  But did death just suddenly appear?  Are we just now realizing that people die?  Did we not pay attention to this sooner?

Why was death not an issue for the nearly 50 years of legal killing of the unborn?  Why does the death of someone diagnosed with COVID 19 (either as primary or a secondary cause of death) suddenly warrant shutting down the nation, closing businesses, masking everyone, and keeping distant?  It would take a couple of three COVID 19 years of death to equal one year's worth of killed babies and yet abortion is deemed a social issue?

Why was death not an issue for the elderly or infirm or those who simply decide life is not worth living?  We work to preserve life at great cost all the while making it legal for people to decide for themselves or others when they can check out with the aid of drugs that guarantee a painless death (for everyone except those on death row, it would seem)?  So abortion is merely a health care decision but the corona virus is an existential threat?  

I am not being insensitive to those who died during this pandemic.  I am wondering why we suddenly have decided that their deaths are worth so much more than the death of the unborn, the aged, the infirm, or those who just want to die?

Either death is real and bad for all or it is for none.  Death is, after all, no respecter of persons.  It kills every age, every race, every economic status, and every person deemed worthy or not.  Why is it okay to kill some and have the government pay the cost of this death and why is it okay to spend untold trillions and change our lives to protect others?  Why do we think we are morally superior to those who before us endorsed slavery when we routinely kill thousands of babies each and every day (and call it a protected right)?

I wish someone would explain this to me. . . and to folks who presume it is entirely logical to work so hard to protect some life and not to bat an eye at taking others.  Perhaps the Supreme Court could venture to explain what they began with their legalization of this murder.  It cannot be about the rights of one set of people against another unless we are willing to grant that some lives matter more than others.

These are the things I think about on a day like this when the anniversary of a SCOTUS decision hangs in the air like the stink of death.  I can only hope it causes other to ask the same questions.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The depth of misunderstanding. . .

There are those who are insisting that the children of Trump supporters be sent to re-education camps or that the Congressmen and Senators who objected to the electoral vote be censured or worse or that the Trump voters be somehow prevented from voting again.  It is bizarre.  Biden talks unity but speaks with a forked tongue.  The enemies of Trump who have objected to his presidency from the very beginning have four years of pent up anger which they are now unleashing.  But along with this vindictive bent is something even more disconcerting.  These supporters of Biden and his liberal agenda seem to have little real understanding of the great issues that divide our nation.  They cannot conceive of what would move any thinking individual to support Trump.  The Trump voters are, in the words of Hillary Clinton, the deplorables who must be rejected, punished, and prevented from power.

Those who supported Trump had other things in mind other than the flawed man himself.  They were fighting for things that progressives had long ago given up.  If they were like me, they did not love Trump but they feared those who would cast aside the valued treasures of morality and liberty and believed (in most cases rightly so) that Trump would protect them.  Here I am speaking of great issues that have divided our land for some time and will continue to be the source of conflict among us.  Issues such as abortion and the cause of life cut deep into our national identity.  Euthanasia and assisted suicide are other sides of the same pro-life positions openly attacked and mocked by Biden and his supporters but held sacred and precious by most of those who elected Trump once and voted for him again.

The pro-life issue is pivotal but it is not the only area of difference.  Privacy is also a profound issue of disagreement.  Some would gladly surrender any personal liberty and privacy for the sake of a better sense of security but many, if not most, of those who supported Trump are deeply concerned for the loss of personal liberty and privacy that has accelerated in the years sin 9-11.  While we joke about Siri or Alexa listening in or the cloud mining of personal information that has become normal, this is one of the great divides among us.  Perhaps half our nation is willing to surrender privacy and personal liberty for convenience or security, the rest of us are fearful of the technological big brother that watches what we do and listens in to our conversations.

Another area of division revolves around personal responsibility.  Many today have surrendered personal responsibility and accountability for victimhood in which your wrongs are caused by others and you bear little consequence for your actions.  In this culture of rights, the privilege being sought is right not be at fault for anything.  Along with personal liberty and privacy, those who seek a government solution for every problem seek a nanny state in which we are treated like children.  Some of us find it impossible to reconcile the gift of liberty for the pursuit of a victim culture.  Guaranteed income, relief from debt, free education, and government provided health care all relieve the person of any responsibility but at what cost?  Biden and his followers stand for the unfettered expansion of government and the restriction of personal liberty and privacy.

Freedom is not just a word.  The shocking shut down of free speech by social media platforms who claim to exist to foster conversation and the free exchange of ideas will not quickly be forgotten.  When an industry bills itself as the primary conduit of information and dialog, defends itself against those who want free speech moderated, and then, sensing a change of public opinion, silences that debate, we see the true colors of progressivism.  Some of us know that when their ideas can no longer be credibly defended, the response is to silence their opponents.  That is exactly what we have seen happen.  Biden and his liberal supporters are welcome to debate ideas but debate is not what is happening.  Instead they are shutting down venues of honest debate.  It is no wonder that some have become advocates of a vast conspiracy theory.

Freedom of religious expression is not merely the right to private belief or even private worship but the right for that faith to inform the conscience, influence politics, and address the public arena.  Without this guarantee, such freedom is shallow and empty.  Nobody gains from the religious whose belief is hidden deep down inside and kept from influencing public speech and public action.  What good is it for Biden to promote his Roman Catholic affiliation if he insists that his faith either does not influence his public policy or he disagrees with the basic tenets of that faith?    Religious conservatives expect that those who wear the name confess the truth.  Even more so, religious conservatives expect that this truth is deeper and wider than the individual and the moment.  Biden and his administration have already signaled their objection to a religious order maintaining their beliefs against insurance regulations and this is but the start of a concerted effort to allow free access only to those churches willing to change their doctrine.

Education does not flourish in the protected environment that the university has become.  Instead of challenging ideas and providing a venue for debate, conversation, and dialog, the university has become intolerant of any ideas except those sanctioned by that university.  A university which refuses to allow a diversity of ideas is no university at all.  The politically correct have taken hold of most of the colleges and universities in America and especially the graduate schools.  By shutting down debate before it begins, the great universities have surrendered themselves to the power of fear and to the dominance of the moment.  Trump's disdain for the liberal elite universities tapped into psyche of many Americans who have been ridiculed by those elite as hillbillies or hicks for a very long time.

I could go on.  The change in presidents is more than the difference between men.  It is the start of an effort to radically reshape America.  From personal freedom to access to free speech forums to religious freedom to abortion to liberal education to victimhood to governmental intrusions into every aspect of our lives, we find ourselves at a crossroads.  It could be that the men are less significant than what they stand for or stand against.  Those who voted for Biden voted for this radical change and those who voted for Trump were voting against it.  In the end it may not have that much to do with Democrats and Republicans as it does with these competing visions of what our national identity is to be about.  In this some of Trump's supporters fear that the old party designations no longer apply and that both parties are securely in the hands of progressivism -- their only difference is in degree and pace.  

Although not a supporter of Trump the man, many found him to be less threatening to America's future than those who believe we must radically re-invent ourselves and make a clear break with our past.  That is one profound area which most of the pundits have either dismissed outright or refused to discuss at all.  What happened January 6 was shocking to us all.  There is no justification for such violence.  Indeed, the violence stole the thunder from any debate that might have been held.  It may have made it more difficult for any real conversation to begin.  Whether we were talking rioting in Kenosha or Minneapolis or Portland or Seattle or Washington, DC, these distract us from something we need to talk about openly and honestly before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Simple Word, Great Revelation

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany B, on Sunday, January 17, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich. 

    It’s our habit as modern people to question simple things.  Our world has gotten so complex that we overlook simple things, we don’t think too much about them.  Simple things are unremarkable.  Instead, we want and trust in elaborate and sophisticated things.  It’s the amazing and even the miraculous that we want.  Simple just doesn’t cut it, and yet, there’s that old saying: Keep It Simple Stupid. We question the simple, but it’s exactly through the simple Word of God that He reveals Himself to you and gives you salvation.
    The Lord always revealed Himself through His Word, His Word spoken and written.  We see this in the call of Samuel.  Young Samuel, lying in bed, heard the voice of God calling to him.  Hearing his name from a distant voice, he got up and ran to the priest Eli, thinking he was the one calling.  Even in the middle of the night,  Samuel was ready to serve when called. 
    Finally, Eli figured out what was going on.  He realized it was the voice of God that Samuel heard, and he told him what to do.  And just as Samuel was willing to serve Eli at all times, he was willing to serve the Lord.  Hearing God call again, Samuel said, “Speak, LORD, your servant hears” (1 Sam 3:10). 
   At that time, Scripture says Samuel didn’t know the Lord, that is, he didn’t know the Lord’s voice.  He never heard God audibly speak to him before.  But Samuel surely knew God.  He knew Him by faith.  Serving in the temple, he heard the words of Scripture.  Through simple words written and proclaimed by Eli and other teachers, Samuel knew God, even before he heard God’s voice.  Through simple words written in Scripture, Samuel was given faith...and so are you.  You know the Lord because He’s revealed Himself to you in His Word written by the prophets and evangelists.  
   We live in a similar time as young Samuel.  The Bible says that at that time the word of the LORD was rare; that there was no vision.  God wasn’t directly revealing Himself and His Word to any prophet.  And that’s how it is today, and it will continue to be until Christ comes again.  
   Ever since Christ, there’s been no prophet like the prophets of old.  The writer of Hebrews says, “In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 1:1-2).  The time of direct revelation is over.  Now we know the Lord through the Word of Scripture.  But many of us still desire to have the miracle experience of direct revelation.  
   We want to audibly hear the voice of God.  We want to feel Him talking to us in our hearts.  We want this because we think our belief will be stronger because of that experience, that we can know for sure that God’s there, caring for us, loving us.  We want this because we’re sinners that don’t trust the simple Word of God, just as Nathanael didn’t trust the simple.
    After John the Baptist pointed to Christ and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), and after Jesus had called Andrew and Peter to be His disciples, He went to Galilee and told Philip to follow Him.  Hearing Jesus’ simple words, Philip followed, and then he went and told his brother, Nathanael.  He said, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45).  But instead of hearing that the Messiah had come, Nathanael only heard the Nazareth.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).  Can anything good come from a small, insignificant town nowhere mentioned in the Scriptures?  Can anything good come from a place that’s simply a wide spot in the road?  Nathanael doubted the Good News his brother shared because Nazareth was so simple and unremarkable. 
    But, giving in, Nathanael followed, and as he was approaching Jesus, Christ identified him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit” (Jn 1:47).  Nathanael was taken aback.  How did Jesus know him?  And then Christ revealed who He was in a miraculous way, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (Jn 1:48).  Jesus displayed His omniscience.  He revealed something that only Nathanael would know, and hearing this, Nathanael believed.  He confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Israel. 
    Nathanael wanted the remarkable.  The simplicity of Nazareth was a stumbling block for him, just as the simplicity of God’s written and preached Word can be a stumbling block for us.  We want to see the miraculous.  And yet, the miracle Christ performed for Nathanael was nothing compared to what he would see.  He would see all the prophecies of old fulfilled, the Son of God walking among His people.  He would see salvation won in an unlikely way with Jesus’ death on the cross.  He would see the risen Lord ascend into heaven.  And he would see thousands upon thousands of people come to faith through the simple Word of Christ proclaimed.  
     Nathanael relied on the miracle, but Jesus was revealed long before that through the simple words of Scripture.  Philip said they’d found the Christ that Moses and the prophets wrote about.  And Jesus, after His resurrection showed His disciples that truth.  It’s all there, in black and white.  It’s all there in the simple Words of Scripture: Christ revealed, His saving work revealed.  It’s all revealed and given to you.  
    We may not think too much about God’s Word written and proclaimed.  We might think too much about the simplicity of water and bread and wine.  These simple things don’t impress us.  We want to hear and see greater things.  We want to audibly hear the voice of God like Samuel did.  We want to witness miracles like Nathanael did.  But in the simple Word we hear and see greater things.  We see new life given in the waters of baptism.  We see sins removed by the word of God’s forgiveness.  We see our Savior among us as He feeding us His body and blood.  We may not think too much about these simple things, but it’s exactly through the simple Word of our Lord that we receive the not so simple: forgiveness, life, and salvation.  So hear the simple Word of God, and with faith, respond like Nathanael, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, the King of Israel,” respond like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.”  Hear the Word, know your Savior, and have everlasting life in Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

An uneasy peace. . . or not

It is common for Christians and those outside the faith to believe that the world is a neutral place, a place receptive to ideas and religion if proclaimed in winsomely.  Christians often are confused because they assume that there is something wrong with the message (out of date or irrelevant to modern society) and it needs adjusting or wrong with the medium (preaching is old fashioned and worship needs to be updated) to explain the empty pews.  Even at the worst, those inside and outside the Church have figured upon an uneasy peace between the world and the faith -- albeit one occasionally breached by crazies on one side or another.  After all, we live in America don't we?

However, the uneasy peace, if it ever was, has long ago given way to a conflicted relationship.  It is not because the Church has become more rigid (in fact, the Christmas message has become almost unrecognizably broad and open among many Christians).  It is because mankind, the very jewel of God’s work of creation, is at war with God its Creator.  Though we are loathe to admit this or to say it publicly, this is the condition we live in -- even in America!  The Church is caught in the cross hairs of a world at odds with its Creator, rejecting that Creator now every bit as much as in Eden, and therefore rejecting the Church -- her message and her people.

I grew up in a time when it was easy to forget this, when it was almost presumed that Church and society were partners working toward common goals of morality, harmony, virtue, goodness, generosity, compassion, and excellence.  But it was never the easy relationship that is often presumed.  In fact, to believe in the 1950s was to believe in a church that did not even exist -- except in the imagination.  There was no unanimity, no common community and life, and no formal compact to frame out goals and purposes of either or of both.  Perhaps the 1960s came along as the imagined cooperation was coming undone.  In any case, by the 1970s it was clear that things were not what we thought.

Jump ahead 40-50 years and you see the reality no longer hidden by artificial structures of obscured by manufactured images.  The words of Christ are now must easier to understand.  As the world hated Me, so it will hate you.  You will be delivered over to persecutor, judge, and death for My sake.  No more can we get by with an assumption of either an easy peace or an uneasy one.  There is war against creedal and confessional Christianity -- except in those churches that have abandoned creed and confession for accommodation to the prevailing mood and surrender of all ideas to the social constructs deemed good, right, and salutary in this moment.

Surely this will become clearer as we see political leaders readily and with impunity rejecting the doctrinal and moral stands of their own churches.  In this new world, what God thinks is not nearly as important or relevant as what we think -- or more importantly -- what we feel.  It is no secret that the Roman Catholics who are the most visible and prominent political leaders present a problem for Rome.  They have long ago rejected the most sacred tenets of the faith in favor of a humanistic religion of preference and individual conscience.  Abortion is the most public of the many stands violated by these individuals but it is not nearly the only one.  It is but the most prominent tip of a large iceberg.  And Rome is not alone in having folks who wear the colors of their churches while picking and choosing what they believe on the basis of political expediency.

It is better for us to admit the tension and to deal openly with the heightened conflict between orthodox Christianity and the world around us -- not quite so far advanced as Europe or even Canada but still very real.  We all know that to be acceptable in modern society any Christian must reject most of what orthodox Christianity confesses and Scripture teaches.  So if the Church must grow smaller in order to be more faithful, we must be willing to accept this.  But we accept this with regret, lamenting that the enmity between the world and the Church has too long gone hidden or unnoticed.  We were always in the world but not of it.  Perhaps the world knew this but we did not.  Now it cannot escape our notice.  And it will be upon us to choose to whom we will be faithful.  It should not be as difficult a choice as it will be and the pain will not last only a moment.  To surrender the idea that we are all kind of in this together, though coming at it from different sides, is a cost many are not yet willing to pay.  But pay we must if we are to be true to Christ, to His Word, and to the orthodox tradition of belief and life in Christ.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

When shepherds won't shepherd. . .

Already some folks have nodded their head at the headline.  Yes, we know of shepherds like that.  The presumption is that the shepherds who will not shepherd are those who are not friendly, winsome, welcoming, and gabby -- the kind who seem to do everything well except glad hand the masses.  As annoying as it might be when your pastor is more of an introvert or not adept at mingling with folks, this is not the big problem.  The big problem is when shepherd's don't shepherd -- not when they fail to make the small talk with their sheep and strangers.  That is not shepherding -- as nice as it is when a pastor is able to and feels comfortable doing the casual conversations with folks known and unknown.  Shepherding is preaching the whole counsel of God's Word, baptizing and then catechizing the baptized, hearing confession and speaking absolution to the penitent, presiding at the Lord's Table, visiting the sick and housebound, addressing the erring with God's Word, burying the dead, and consoling the grieving with the hope that is in Christ.  This is shepherding.  The other stuff, as much as you like it and as helpful as it might be to winning over the hearts of the sheep, is not the essential work of the shepherd.

The truth is that there are pastors (shepherds) who are stars at the small talk, friendly with strangers, and gifted with the gift of gab.  But if they are not preaching faithfully Law and Gospel, baptizing, teaching, absolving, presiding at the Eucharist, calling the fallen to repentance, burying the dead, and giving the grieving the real hope of a blest reunion with all who have died in the faith, he is not shepherding.  We have become too willing to accept lapses in the essential duties of the shepherd in Christ because the man may be popular and loved for the other stuff.  Now we should not have to choose between the qualities of our pastors (shepherds) but at minimum we should expect faithfulness to the real tasks and purposes of the ministry.  If I have said it once, I have said it a hundred times to people who complain to me about their pastors.  If they preach faithfully the Word of God and administer the Sacraments faithfully, teach the faith to young and old, visit the sick, bury the dead, etc..., then you have a good pastor.  Strangely enough, I hardly ever get a complaint from people that their pastors fail to do these essential things but I heard complaints all the time about the other stuff when the shepherd is not adept at these things.  Are we satisfied for our shepherd to be friendly even if his sermons are empty of the Truth that endures forever?  Is it okay to have a shepherd who does not preach and teach so the the hunger for the Lord's body and blood is not awakened?  Is it okay to have a shepherd who does not proclaim baptism and catechize the baptized so that they know truth from error?  You get my drift.

The reason Lutheranism is in decline is not because our shepherds have been too faithful in preaching and teaching the faith, too encouraging to the baptized to receive absolution or the heavenly food of Christ's Table, too faithful in calling the erring to repentance, and too faithful in providing the pastoral care of God's Word to the sick, suffering, grieving, and dying.  Lutheranism is in decline because we have too many shepherds who do not do these things.  Friendliness is no substitute for faithfulness.  The shepherd is is good at everything but actually being a shepherd is doing no service to the people in his charge, the congregation in his care, and the faith that is supposed to be his primary domain.  As we begin a new year, it might not be a bad time to think on these things.

Monday, January 18, 2021

New life for blogs?

I got into blogging after many others and most who once blogged have stopped.  Every now and then I make my way through the blog roll I keep for personal use and find more and more of those addresses are no longer active.  I understand.  I am kind of a dinosaur.  But I tend to stick with things and so I have stuck with this forum.  Over time some changes have been made, though not many.  One is the switch to moderated comments.  It a pain for me; the comments awaiting moderation do not get looked over regularly or often and sometimes I just plain forget to publish them.  But the numbers of robo commenters increases as people try to ply their wares masquerading as commenters.  On top of that, those who comment with the same predictable comments on the same predictable topics -- less to comment on what was posted than to promote their own idiosyncrasies -- have become very tiresome.  Sadly the number of comments and commenters has dropped precipitously since the comments are now moderated.  I regret that since some strings of comments were very informative.

All that said, I wonder if maybe the dinosaurs may again roam the interwebs.  With Facebook becoming more and more persnickety about what is put on their platform and the ubiquitous fact checkers looking over everything, people maybe looking for another venue for commentary.  I am not all that sure about Parler and what its future might be and it is still in its infancy anyhow.  It seems that whatever platforms there are, the same problems will surface.  We seem to have rather thin skins and do not tolerate a vigorous discussion.  We live in a world of echo chambers and we each love the sound of our own voice most of all.  I am certainly no different.  

There was a time when blogs were the forums for opinion and for discussion.  This meager blog still gets more than its fair amount of attention -- usually some 60,000 folks a month venture over to see what thoughts are meandering from my brain.  Some come for the sermons (God bless you) and others to see if the old man is still cooking.  I suggest that blogs could see a resurgence but I have no way of knowing.  At least in the blogger end of things, something other than the party line might be allowed and, if people are polite and spammers do not bother too much, we might enjoy a decent debate.

Earlier this month the ALPB Forum banned anonymous posters and has undertaken a few other measures to try and pour a little oil on the troubled waters.  That forum was once much more vigorous and is now an argument that can be had without even the arguers being present.  I come and go from it but have become rather picky about the threads I will survey.

So we will see if 2021 sees the blog format and perhaps this blogger decline a bit or if the whole form sees a bit of a second wind.  In any case, I guess you will have me here, for good or for ill, until I find I have nothing to say.  Ask my family and the folks in my parish, that might be a long time!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Today we receive new members. . .

Just when we thought our life under COVID would diminish the prospect of new faces in the old crowd, we are receiving new members.  Some of them went through instruction (not an easy thing to traverse in a pandemic) and some are transferring from other LCMS parishes, but the end result is that some 30 new people are becoming a part of the Grace Lutheran family of faith.

I am especially happy to see among the number not only new faces but young ones!  In one case, the couple moved into our city on a Wednesday and found their way to our congregation on Sunday.  Now that is dedication and loyalty.  The way things looked last March and April when the shut-down hit everyone hard, I would not have predicted so many folks and so many new folks.  God bless you!

We are told so often that Lutheranism is dying (and perhaps the jurisdictional structures are not so healthy) but the places where the baptized still gather around the Word and Table of the Lord are healthy.  They are in good shape not because of the programs or because of the pastors or people in those parishes.  No, they are in good shaped because Christ lives in their midst.  He is still hearing the confession and absolving the sinner.  He is still speaking through the voice of His Word.  He is still preaching from the pulpit through the mouth of the pastor.  And He is still setting His Table in the presence of our enemies and delivering to us His own flesh for food and His own blood for drink.  People bidden by the Lord's Word and gathered by the Spirit still confess the creed in steadfastness with the faithful who went before and in bold witness before the world.  Voices are still raised in speech and song, saying back to God what He has first spoken to us.  Where this is happening, Lutheranism is anything but dying.  We forget this.

I believe that structures may evolve and die but the faith confessed once and still from Augsburg throughout the world will not die.  Unless we are willing to admit that we are a sect and that our faith is but a sectarian confession, we are not strictly a human institution at all.  God is the builder and we are now being built into His temple, the living stones fit together by God's design and at God's direction.  Unless the words of the Augustana are hyperbole or a joke, we are still evangelical catholics, in solidarity with the faithful who went before us and living out in our own time the faith once delivered to the saints of old.  The whole of the Reformation was to make the Church more catholic, not less.  We may be and have been distracted from that goal but the Lord seems to raise up the right people to remind us who we are and what we confess.

So we will celebrate today that amid viral threats and virtual church, there are still people being called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Word of the Lord.  Even in our broken and divided world, folks are still coming together at the beck and call of the Spirit to be the Church, the body of Christ.  Though all around us there are fake churches preaching fake gospels, there are also faithful folks who have heard the truth and who intend, by the grace of God, to live in the way of that truth.  We have weathered many storms and there are many storms to weather, but thanks be to God that the seed is still being sown and faithful plants be set in the good soil of the Gospel to bear the fruit God has appointed.

Welcome to Grace Lutheran Church.  We have been waiting for you.