Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Silent Wednesday. . .

Holy week... The most important seven days in the history of man... Although the exact sequence of events is not always clear to us, we can discern, even now, the straight lines of divine order... Sunday: The garments in the dust - the Hosannahs as the prelude to the "Crucify."... Monday: Sermons with the urgent note of finality - the withered fig tree - Caesar's coin... Tuesday: The terrifying wrath of the Lamb over institutionalized and personal sin among the Scribes and Pharisees - the fire and color of His last sermon to the city and the world - the sureness of justice and the coming of judgment... Night and prayer in the light of the Easter moon on the Mount of Olives...

Wednesday is silent... If anything happened, the holy writers have drawn the veil... Everything that God could say before the Upper Room had been said... It was man's turn now... Perhaps there were quiet words in a corner of the Garden, both to His children who would flee and to His Father who would stay... Wednesday was His... The heart of that mad, crowded Holy Week was quiet... Tomorrow the soliders would come, and Friday there would be God's great signature in the sky... Thursday and Friday would belong to time and eternity, but Wednesday was of heaven alone...

Silent Wednesday... If our Lord needed it, how much more we whose life is the story of the Hosanna and the Crucify... Time for prayer, for adoration... Time to call the soul into the inner court and the Garden... In our crowded world we are lonely because we are never alone... No time to go where prayer is the only sound and God is the only light... We need more silent Wednesdays... In the glory of the Cross above our dust our silence can become purging and peace... God speaks most clearly to the heart that is silent before Him... 

 [from the devotional writings of O. P Kretzmann, published in The Pilgrim, pp. 27, 28]

I have always enjoyed the biting irony in St. Paul's words that it is hard enough to find someone to die for a righteous cause and a good man, much less for the unrighteous.  But that is the miracle and mystery of this week.  We herald the love that came for the loveless, the righteous for the unrighteous, and the holy who comes for the unholy.  It is not simply a matter of Christ being our Savior but that He should not have been our Savior.  There was no compelling reason for His incarnation, obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection except such love as no one has ever seen or known apart from Him.  

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . .  while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. . .  Who would die for the sinner, the enemy of God and His purposes, except the Son of God?  This is a great mystery beyond comprehension and one that we can approach only by faith.  It is an unreasonable love that becomes sin and stands alone to face God on behalf of us and the whole world.  None of us would do such a thing.  But God has willingly embraced our cause, delivered up His only Son, and He has won salvation for us -- the unworthy, the undeserving, the sinner, and the enemy of God and His purposes.  

There is no justification that would make what God has done reasonable; there is no explanation that would make His love understandable.  There is only the cross, a scandal bigger than any other scandal the world has known.  It is a mystery that one can only accept by faith.  And it is an offense to those who would think of God as pure logic.  As St. Paul acknowledges -- it fails as both reason and as a sign for those looking for either.  So the Holy Spirit must lead us where reason and understanding refuse to go.  But God has given us the Spirit to do just that.  Thanks be to God!

And so we pray:  Merciful and everlasting God, You did not spare Your only Son but delivered Him up for us all to bear our sins on the cross. Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in Him that we fear not the power of sin, death, and the devil; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Too little a thing. . .

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  Isaiah 49:6

The Church rehearses the salvation story before the world every year.  It is not simply that we do this for the benefit of those already of the Kingdom of God that we may be reminded but that we do this on behalf of the whole world.  That Jesus died for us is a great and wonderful thing and one we too often forget or fail to appreciate for its gift.  But the events of Holy Week stand as a confession before the world that Christ is the Light for the nations and we proclaim this Gospel so that His salvation may, indeed, reach to the end of the earth. 

The numbers are not many on the Compline services of Holy Week in which the Passion story is read but we are not simply doing this for the benefit of those who are there.  This is no re-enactment or reprisal of the once for all event of Calvary.  No, it is the remembrance of every detail and moment of that mighty act of our deliverance when Christ suffered for us and in our place to rescue and redeem us from sin and its death.  We remember it so that we may be renewed in the grace of such wondrous love but we also recall it and proclaim it on behalf of those not yet of the Kingdom. 

It is too little a thing that God would rescue only His people.  Christ and His perfect obedience unto death stands as beacon and lighthouse of God's love to the world.  He has wanted to gather us in as a hen gathers her checks.  He has paid the price of sin for us and for the whole world.  He has redeemed us with the blood strong enough to redeem the whole world.  There is no way by which we take more seriously what He has accomplished than to spread the good news of His deliverance to those who have not heard, to those who have heard and have not yet believed, and to those who heard, believed, and fallen away.  This too is part of the drama of Holy Week and the liturgies in which the center of it all is the Passion of Christ. 

They all forsook Him and fled. . .

Sermon preached for Palm/Passion Sunday, March 28, 2021.

    With four accounts of the crucifixion of our Lord, there is no shortage of details to satisfy all our curiosity.  In the case of the Gospel according to St. Mark, the most prominent detail included here and nowhere else involves the curious account of a young man who was watching from afar, of soldiers who went to grab him, and of his escape naked into the night.  Nearly everyone assumes that this was Mark himself, a detail inserted because only he knew it.  Some have suggested he might have lived in the house where Jesus gathered His disciples in the Upper Room.  Perhaps.  In any case, he spied what unfolded as Jesus went to the altar of the cross to suffer and die, offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the whole world.  The only ones who would have known this are the man and any one he might have told.  So it might be that Mark is making his own personal confession here.  For immediately before he tells us of his naked escape, there is this line:  They all left Him and fled.  Mark with them.

    So they all left.  The sons of Thunder with all bravado, asking for a place at the right and left hand of Jesus in His glory.  Andrew the first to follow Jesus and tell his brother of the Savior.  And all the rest.  Most especially Peter who insisted that though they all deny Jesus, he would not.  The rooster crowed and in shame the man with the big mouth retreated to the shadows to sulk in his guilt and shame.  If Mark’s Gospel is the memoirs of Peter, it could be that Mark included this little detail as a bit of comfort to Peter.  We all know that misery loves company and Peter had to live with his denial just as we all live with our denials, our rejection, our false promises, and our failed intentions.  I suppose there is a bit of consolation in knowing that Peter was not alone but sin has many friends and it does not make those friendships any better.

    We certainly try to console ourselves with the idea that as bad as we are, we are not the worst and whatever sins we have done are sins everyone  has done.  It may ease the burden we bear a bit but it does not take sin go away.  If everyone is dying it does not make it any easier to accept our own death or the death of those whom we love.  The sad truth is that we are perfectly ordinary sinners.  We are not unique or special in any way.  Our sin is the sin of all humanity and yet it remains our own sin.  That is the accusation of the Law.  You may not be worse but you are no better than every sinner.  If you can find comfort in this, good on you, I suppose.  But I find nothing there to give me peace, no hope to answer my despair, and no redemption for my many failures to God and to everyone else.  We are all poor miserable sinners. 

    But that is why all of this took place.  For us.  For the sin into which we were all born and for all the sins that we have committed since.  We are not only complicit  in His death.  We are the beneficiaries of His sacrifice.  Confession is good for the soul but the answer to sin lies in the one who has the power to pay sin’s price and absolve us of our sins.  We may feel alone in our guilt but this is nothing compared to the loneliness of our Savior crying out in His pain, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

    When they fled, they may have been trying to escape greater guilt and shame but in running away they also ran from the answer to their longing.  Christ had not come to accuse them but to rescue them, to redeem them at the cost of His own suffering and death.  Strangely, because the disciples were gone, the only one who saw what was happening and realized what it meant was a Roman soldier who had the unfortunate luck of pulling guard duty before one more dying criminal.  But when this centurion saw how Jesus died, he came to the only conclusion possible:  “Truly this man was the Son of God.” 

    My friends, the cross is hard to view.  Sins are hard to admit.  Guilt is hard to confess.  And shame is hard to confront.  But in this cross is the only answer for the guilty, the only atonement for sin, and the only answer for our own death.  Perhaps St. Mark inserted this detail of his own fleeing into the night to comfort St. Peter.  Or just maybe the escape of a naked young man was St. Mark’s own confession so that in this confession he might claim by faith the fruits of Christ’s redeeming work.  You and I can watch from a distance the events of Christ’s suffering and death or we can draw near and find forgiveness in His blood.  We can seek consolation in the guilt of all people or we can find real hope in the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all our sins.  We can listen to the story of Jesus’ obedience unto death on a cross or we can plead the merits of His death and God will not only forgive us but rescue our lost lives from death forevermore.

    When the disciples fled into the safety of their homes, they took with them the guilt that was their torment.  So Jesus had to seek them out after His resurrection in order that they might find the peace He had come to bestow.  At the empty tomb, an angel would direct those who peered into its emptiness to go and tell Peter that Christ had risen.  Mark tells us that detail too.  It was absolution for Peter and restoration.  And in the empty tomb was a linen cloth lying in a heap.  Perhaps that detail was for Mark.  The boy who had left his linen cloth behind and run.  Here was absolution for the boy who had, like the disciples, forsaken Christ and run away.  

The cross is that detail for you and for me.  I saw a picture of a utility pole.  It had held thousands upon thousands of fliers for lost pets or lost children or babysitting services or items for sale or landscaping offered.  The fliers were all gone and all that was left were staples -- rusty staples that covered the pole until you could not see the wood anymore.  That is His cross.  It is covered with our sins.  The wood is covered with your sin and mind.  Under every nail the record of our faults and failings and the rebellion of our hearts.  And now it is gone.  The sins are gone.  The sins are forgiven.  Christ has borne it all.  Come to the cross and do not flee.  Christ came for you.  He died for you.  He lives for you.  Repent and believe this Gospel.  And there is no more fleeing into the night, only home in arms of our Savior. Amen.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Reliving the past. . .

In every congregation there were (or perhaps are now) glory years in which the pews were full (or fuller), perhaps a school existed (or was full), there were loads of confirmands, lots of new members, and more than enough money to pay the bills (even to build new buildings).  But for most, these are a memory and may not even be a memory experienced -- a memory learned from others.  We want to live in these memories and try to relive our glory years.  It is easy to make those not necessarily golden times into golden memories, to glorify the times beyond what they were.  All of this often results in depression and despair as one surveys the world around us -- a world we are called to serve (not our memories).

There were those during and after the Reformation who sought a golden era to re-create.  Some leaders feared the church was so corrupt that it could not reformed and should be buried and something new created.  Usually that something new was an attempt to recreate a pristine moment from the past.  Often that moment was the early Church.  Who would not want to relive the experience of the early Church?  After all, it is vividly described in the Acts of the Apostles as a people and leadership flaming with the fire of the Spirit and burning with a passion for mission. They had eyes on Jesus and on His death and on His resurrection or they lived with those who had seen and heard.  The “good news” of Jesus death and resurrection seemed poised to turn the world upside down.  There seemed to be no questions of the reliability of the witness or the apostolic record and, more importantly, no conflict within the Church over who she was and what she was to be about.  Or is this idealized picture of the early Church accurate?

How convenient it is to forget that this dream was only a dream.  In the reality of Jesus' death and resurrection, there were moments of great glory.  But St. Paul writes of conflict and itching ears for other gospels and St. Luke tells us a church convention severely divided between personalities and positions.  The grand experiment of things held in common is not heard of again and deacons are invented because of fights over how the widows were being served.  Not to mention the fact that apostles were martyred, exiled, and dismissed.  This replicated itself pretty well all the way to Nicea and the end of the early Church with the Council that produced a creed to end all conflicts.

We are pretty good as idealizing moments and forgetting the struggle.  This week is all about conflict.  Conflict between Jewish leaders and Jesus.  Conflict between Jewish leaders and the Roman governor.  Conflict among the disciples.  Conflict that ended with a cross.  Conflict is the fruit of sin and there is no peace except for the peace that comes from forgiveness.  But until this world is passed and the new heaven and earth are come, conflict will confront us, along with the temptation to seek out some idealized moment in history and want to replicate it today.  There is one moment which can never be replicated but which is pivotal for the conflict within us and among us.  That is the cross.  Today we are one day closer to the day when we commemorate how Christ had to be raised up in order to draw all people to Himself.  Lord, have mercy on us.  Grant us peace.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palmarum. . .

When I grew up Jesus did not ride in on Palm Sunday, the confirmands did.  We did not receive palms or think much of all about the position of this Sunday as the end of Lent and the start of Holy Week.  Back then there was no Passion Reading so in it was a Sunday not necessarily at all about Jesus.  Imagine my surprise when I encountered a Palm Sunday without confirmation.  It was a shock.  Then when people shoved a wiggly palm branch into my hand, I was not at all sure what was up.  In the end, I have come to appreciate Palm Sunday and its balance with Passion Sunday more and more.  Sure, there are still those who long for the old days and who are not big on palms or on the reading of the Passion but I think it is growing on us now (after more than a generation!).

Palm Sunday, as the final Sunday of Lent, brings to a close the Lenten season and delivers us on our journey to the cross right in Jerusalem as Jesus enters to make His way to Calvary.  As the beginning of Holy Week it points us even more profoundly toward the destiny our Lord has chosen.

Although we know it as Palm Sunday because of the distribution of palm fronds (or palm crosses) to the faithful, this is not a reenactment.  We are not doing a religious play.  I admit I am not that much a fan of the reading of the Passion in which parts are doled out to other voices and the faithful speak as the crowd.  This is a commemoration but not a reenactment of the events from our Lord's arrival on the bad of a young donkey, accompanied by the praises of the townspeople, on a pathway of clothes and palm branches, and with shouts of Hosanna. This was a customary practice to show respect for those who entered the city and not an exclusive or unique act for Jesus alone.  Palms symbolize victory and the peace that follows a victory.  The donkey represents humility -- as one who has come to serve not to be served.  But the end of the ride is not a throne but a cross, not to reign in power but from the cross, not to live but to die, not for Himself but for the whole world.

This event is recorded in all four Gospels.  It is not a small detail.  But it is not victory lap taken after a successful run of a three year public ministry.  The victory is not in the palms but in Jesus who comes willingly to suffer as the innocent for the guilty.  It is not about pyrrhic victory but a cost which was exactly that which was needed to secure life for a people marked for death and to reconcile the sinners who were God's enemies that they might be friends again -- even family!  Jesus predicted this several times in the Gospels, to various reactions, but now His death will scatter the disciples until they are reunited by His resurrection.  There is much to this story.

Holy Week came together in the fourth century led by the practices of the church at Jerusalem. There, in the days leading up to Easter, the Palestinian Christians Palestine congregated at the actual sites where the events took place, from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection -- offering prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings at stations along the way.  As pilgrims from other parts of the world visiting Jerusalem at that time carried home the customs they observed, Holy Week gradually became a more universal.  Now we are heirs to this great tradition as it leads and guides our hearts to walk to the cross in reverence and awe and rejoice at the empty tomb -- where Jesus won for us our salvation.  Blessed Palm Sunday!

1 Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hark! All the tribes hosanna cry.
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,
With palms and scattered garments strowed.

2 Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.

3 Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The angel armies of the sky
Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes
To see the_approaching sacrifice.

4 Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh.
The Father on His sapphire throne
Awaits His own anointed Son.

5 Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Closed for worship but open for ministry. . .

I read in February of the controversy between a writer to The Sunday Times and the Church of England.  It was interesting to read.  On the one hand, there is general agreement that the Church of England is going to have to change.  Declining attendance, increasing costs, and diminishing income have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic leaving great questions about what kind of future there will be.  On the one hand, the folks who look to their local parishes, many of whom remain rather vibrant, fear that the attendance and income blight will force them to share clergy with many other parishes or face closures in rural areas.  On the other hand, diocesan administrators find it hard to know how to maintain the status quo as their resources and people decline.  You can read for yourself if you are interested.  One line, however, jumped out at me.

However, whilst we have been closed for congregational worship, our churches have never been busier providing pastoral, spiritual and practical support to those in need in our communities.

I suspect that might be much agreement with that statement -- across the broad spectrum of denominations and congregations facing limitations on their assemblies for worship due to the pandemic.  It sounds noble.  But is such a statement viable?  Can the Church live without the in person gathering of God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord?  If so, for how long before the cracks in the foundation of the Church cause it to weaken or die?

We all know from this pandemic that short-term temporary adjustments had to be made.  While they might differ in severity from place to place, every congregation and every church body has had to wrestle with this reality.  However, the idea that after one long year the Church must continue to forego or cycle through periods in which public worship must be sacrificed for a greater good or to satisfy government regulation remains an open question.  In the US churches have sued for the same rights to operate as Wal-Mart, liquor stores, etc... and been rather successful in turning back the threats by the state to close their doors or suffer the consequences.  Apparently in Britain this has either not been tried or had less beneficial returns.

The challenge remains.  How long can the Church be closed for congregational worship and continue to provide pastoral spiritual, and practical support to their communities?  How long can the faithful go with distance worship and learning, without the benefit of people receiving the Sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood and hearing in person the Word preached?  It has been a year.  In some parts of the US congregations remain under more severe restrictions than others -- some limited to but 25% of capacity.  In spite of the fact that churches have proven to be careful, generally safer than other public areas, and intentional in their work to provide in person worship while respecting guidelines and regulations as much as possible, churches still are seen in a negative light by governmental leaders and rule makers.

At some point we will have to assert both to the authorities and to our people that worship IS our central ministry and that one cannot do ministry apart from worship without having worship as the beating heart of the Church's life and the people's faith.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Voices in my head. . .

How often don't we wish to hear a personal voice from God, a sign or direction to guide us when the path is uncertain, comfort us when our hearts are troubled, and give us confidence when our courage is tested!  There is not one of us who has not longed for such manifestations from God.  So what about the voices in our heads?  Are they the voice of God, the whispers of the devil, or simply our own desires addressing our hearts and minds?  

I well recall the quip that if you want to hear God speak to you, read the Scriptures out loud!  It is a joke but not -- for the sure word we have received from God is His Word.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets but now He has spoken to us through His Son says Hebrews.  And the Son is all about the Word, the Old Testament that testifies to Him in Law, Prophet, and writings, and the New Testament that testifies to the promise fulfilled in the flesh and blood of our Savior.  All through the Scriptures we hear how God's voice is not simply a voice but His Word and promise, from the beginning written and passed down and guarded as the sacred deposit.  

If we want to know what God has said and what He still speaks through the living voice of His Word, the Scriptures are the place to go.  They are not simply a record of the past or a description of events or an answer to questions, the Word of God is living and active, the very voice of the Good Shepherd still calling His sheep.  Even more, the Word of God is accompanied by the Spirit who works faith where there was none, who sustains the weary (with a Word!), who guides us on the path of righteousness, and who strengthens both our bodies and souls in Christ our Savior.  Though we long for a voice in our minds or hearts, we dare not diminish or detract from what God has given to us in His Word.  Longing for more than what God has given is not without its own problems and consequences -- not simply for God but for those to whom God has spoken through His Word.  Often our desire for more is because we are less familiar with that Word than we should be!

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.  Deut. 13:1-3

Sometimes the voices in our minds and in our ears are a test -- to which voice are we tuned to hear.  If we know the voice of God, we will neither be distracted or deceived from the truth.  But if we do not know the voice of God, every voice will entice our hearts and minds to unbelief, heresy, or apostasy.  God has given no guarantees of extra-Biblical revelation but has promised that His Word is enough -- the Word of the Father delivered us by His Son, in whose name the Spirit was sent to bring all things to the remembrance of the apostles so that they might pass it on in voice and writing to those who came after them.  The center of authentic tradition is this Word, the yesterday, today, and forever the same Word of God.  Authentic tradition does not compete with this Word or sit above it but serves the Word as a faithful servant, always pointing to Christ in whom the Law, the Prophets, and the writings find their fulfillment.  Those who speak in God's name not only have their words normed by THE Word but draw their voice from that which God has said.  In worship, we speak back to Him this Word and so signal our faith in what He has made known.  God cannot tell you something that contradicts what He has said in His Word.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Greetings, O highly favored ones. . .

Today the Lord greets each of us with the same greeting Mary received from the angel: “Greetings, O highly favored ones, the Lord is with you.” Because of the Virgin Mary and her consent to the Lord's will and the fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ, who accomplished salvation for us, we are the highly favored of the Lord.

Today is the feast day of Annunciation, the day when the angel spoke to the Blessed Virgin.  She did not understand how this could be.  Blessed Mary knew herself -- she was neither stupid or foolish and knew that she, a virgin, could not conceive a child in her womb.  But Gabriel told her how this would take place: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God.”

Although there is great symbolism here -- the Virgin Mary being the new Eve who redeems the moment with her consent to God's will just as Eve cursed humanity with her consent to the serpent's wiles -- this is not about symbolism.  She will not become pregnant with an idea but with the flesh and blood of a Son whom God has revealed as His own.

Blessed Mary is now become the Mother of God, giving her own body to be a temple for the Lord's dwelling.  The Church honors this blessed Virgin not in isolation from what God has said and done in her and through her.  In the Magnificat she herself insists that it is not her but the Lord -- He has seen her low estate and raised her up by His grace and favor. Though the Church has through the ages been tempted to honor the Virgin beyond what her own words describe, we humbly bow to her wisdom of faith to call her blessed not because of her own person, but rather because of her calling and task as the God-bearer.

We rejoice, as St. Augustine noted, that the miracle is not only the Son of God in her womb but that Christ lived in her heart.  She was a woman of faith, well acquainted with the voice of the Law, the Prophets, and the writings.  She knew the synagogue and Temple as a believer who trusted God to do what He has said and to deliver upon His promise.

From the Gospel of Luke comes all that we know of her Annunciation and the richer details of how the Christ was born and manifested as the Son of God in flesh to shepherds and Magi.  But it begins with this day and this story, with the promise of the power of the most high overwhelming her doubt and fear.  This same power clothed the disciples on Pentecost and still clothes us as the Word speaks not simply into our ears but into our hearts that we might believe.  Like the Blessed Virgin, we are Christ-bearers, bringing His gospel and His saving presence to all nations through the proclamation of the Gospel.

We also become the living stones of the living temple God builds as His Word is preached and His Holy Sacraments administered to  us.  We are both carriers of Christ to others and those whom Christ carries through the twists and turns of this life and to eternal life.  So the greeting once given to Blessed Mary is now given to each of us -- the baptized who confess our faith, who live by the grace of absolution, the preaching of the Word, and the food of His body and blood in the Eucharist.  And the Spirit works in us the voice to say and the heart to believe in God's promise and make the good confession before the Lord and the world: Lord, let it be to me according to Your Word. 

Lord, make it so.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The pagan church. . .

“The appearance of the church in the modern era shows that in a completely new way it has become a church of pagans, and increasingly so: no longer, as it once was, a church made up of pagans who have become Christians, but a church of pagans, who still call themselves Christian, but have really become pagans.  Paganism is entrenched today in the church itself. That is the mark both of the church of our time and also of the new paganism. This paganism is actually in the church and a church in whose heart paganism lives.” — Joseph Ratzinger (Hochland, October 1958)

Imagine that.  Joseph Ratzinger wrote those words more than 60 years ago.  Long before any Christians promoted the acceptance of homosexuality, agitated for the redefinition of marriage and family, advocated a liberal sexual morality, adopted the new categories of gender identity, or welcomed the freedom of choice in which babies might be killed in the womb.  Long before it became commonplace for any Christian to publicly disagree with what the Bible says, the creeds confess, or the liturgy prays and still be a member in good standing.  Long before poll and survey meant more about what any church believed or taught than its formal confessional documents.

Ratzinger had his finger on it.  It is not a simple matter of liberalizing or modernizing the faith as much as it is the wholesale adoption of positions and beliefs that once would be considered pagan.  It is probably not very popular for positions and leaders of the Church to be labelled as such but the word fits -- we live at a time in which pagans who publicly disavow the faith live side by side with the faithful -- seemingly without challenge or consequence.

The English have a way of satire which makes you both laugh and wince at the same time.  


The line there that jumps out to me is that politicians want to speak on moral issues while bishops want to speak on political issues.  When we justify politics in the name of religion, we often tend to distort and betray the very truth we seek to protect.  The other line that is worth pondering is what happens when God is an optional extra to the Church's life and work?

How many books have been written by those who present themselves as the voice of the Church only to contradict the clear teaching of Scripture, violate the sacred tradition handed down over the years, and empty the Church of any conviction except social or political?  How many of those entrusted with the solemn offices that oversee doctrine and practice stand down or join in those who proudly reject the Christian faith when that faith is unpopular, misunderstood, or rejected by the public square?  Is there such a thing as being too faithful?  Because there seems to be no consequence for being less than faithful.  If that was true already in 1958, it has not become less true in 2021.

The call of God is not for us to understand Him or to speak where He has not spoken or even to consent to His will and ways.  The call of God is for us to be faithful -- faithful to His Word, faithful to the sacred deposit once delivered to the saint, faithful in confession and witness -- for such faithfulness is ultimately not to a thing or an idea but to Christ Himself.  The byword of our era is diversity and yet such a word implies and even compels diminishing the exclusive revelation and truth of Jesus Christ and allowing the Word of God to become merely another unfounded idea among a sea of unfounded ideas.  The profound challenge before us lies in the great temptation to turn Christianity into another farce of a diversity that stands for everything and therefore for nothing, a pagan religion which accepts as equal the truths of competing religions, the feelings of the heart, and the judgement of reason.  The replacement of Christianity with a faith that is unsure of its truth, uncertain of its doctrine, and unwilling to risk bucking the political and social orders of the day is exactly what we face.  Radical faithfulness is no longer an option, it is our only means of survival in the midst of a pagan culture than has sadly found a home within the Church of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The shape of glory. . .

Sermon for Lent 5B, preached on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

     From their nickname “Sons of Thunder,” what we heard read in the Gospel for today might not have surprised Jesus.  Perhaps this was a term applied to them by Simon and Andrew, their fishing partners, who had seen their ill temper on rough days on the sea.  Or maybe Jesus applied this to them when they wanted Him to call down fire upon a Samaritan village unresponsive to the Gospel.  Whether it was something predictable or not, it was certainly out of place.  Jesus had just spoken to them of His impending death after being betrayed by His own, delivered into the hands of His enemies, condemned by Gentile judgment, mocked, spit, flogged, and then killed.  And then He will rise again.  It was as if your father had told you he had terminal cancer and you said, “Gee, can I have your car?”  If typical of these two, it was still shockingly out of place.

    “Teacher, master, rabbi, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.”  Now before you shake your head at the audacity of this request, how different are the prayers we pray where ask not for God’s will to be done but for God to do what we want?  Certainly before the other ten disciples got around to judging James and John, they wished that they had thought to go there first and thereby assure their place in the glory to come.  It was only because James and John had beaten them to the punch that they were offended. “Give us the glory of sitting at Your right and left in Your kingdom.”  And in one fell swoop we had two arrogant disciples and ten jealous ones.

    Though Jesus insists that they have no idea what they are asking, they are sure they do know and do understand all the consequences of their request.  Jesus proves them wrong.  “Can you drink My cup of suffering?” asks Jesus.  “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  “Yes we are,” they proudly exclaim.  Be careful for the things you pray for; you may get them.  Though Jesus cannot promise the place at His right or left in glory, He does promise them that they will drink His cup and be baptized with His baptism.  And they thought they had something wonderful!

    In the end, James was done in by Herod Agrippa I about 10 years after Jesus, run through with a sword becoming the first of the martyrs of Jesus, according to Acts 12.  John was ripped from his home and his church and sent into exile as an old man, there to die apart from those whom he was called to serve.  Maybe if the ten had known what the future held, they would have gladly ceded to James and John their places.  But whatever the ill will born of this conversation, it did provide a place for Jesus to speak of the nature of the Kingdom, of life in the Kingdom, and of His role as the servant of all, even to the giving up of His life as a ransom for many.  This was Jesus’ true glory and this was the glory that James, John, and all the rest missed over and over and over again.

    God’s kingdom is not some utopian ideal in which everyone is the same.  The Lord does not set us free to be who we want to be.  No, the paradise which Jesus creates by His suffering, death, and resurrection is one where we become the people God makes us to be.  We begin, finally, to live up to the promise of baptism and behold the glory of God without confusion about what that glory is and how it looks.  This is the great joy that is hidden here in Jesus words.  We are not all the same pieces of a puzzle to fit in the same spots.  God meets us on the ground of our differences and our different callings and unites us as one people in Christ to serve in different places for the same purpose and Kingdom.  But in all of those callings and places, we are not despots or rulers but servants.  For in Christ the first shall be last and the last first – James the first of those who followed Jesus to die sits with John the last to breathe his last.

    This is not about some egalitarianism in which we delight in being exactly equal. Neither is this about some clever socialism in which we all share equally whatever we have.  We have been there and done that and found dictators and despots rule just as effectively in every form of government.  Who can forget the turn of Orwell’s phrase in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal, but some animals are MORE equal than others.”  Jesus is not holding out the hope that the Church will rescue the world from the haves and have nots, from the oppressors and the oppressed.  What Jesus is addressing is how the disciple is not above the master, how the followers follow by living out in their own lives the pattern of Christ in humility and service.

    In Christ’s kingdom, the King is a slave and a servant of all.  This is not about avoiding love for neighbor or service to those around you but the freedom to let go of self and take up your cross and follow Jesus.  We would do well to take heed.  The servant is not above his master.  The business of the master is the business of the servant.  We are not here to steal from others or to convince God to hear our prayers but not the prayers of others.  Grace is not in short supply.  Mercy is not in limited quantity. Last year we saw people hoarding toilet paper and store shelves empty.  There is nothing Christian about such selfishness.  Jesus taught us that if we meet a man with no coat, we give him one of ours.  In other words, if God is gracious with us, then we are gracious to one another.

    Strangely enough Jesus was not angry with James and John for asking for the moon.  He knows our hearts.  He knows what lives there.  He has not come to judge or condemn but to save and to redeem.  He has not come to rescue our old lives but to give us new birth in His kingdom and to establish our new lives in the pattern of His own self-emptying life.  We do not earn salvation for it but because He has paid salvation’s price, we are free to give, to love, and to serve as Christ has served us.
    Christian kindness is not some virtue inherent in our character but Christ living in us.  We forgive because He has forgiven us.  We carry the burdens of others because He has borne our burden into suffering and death on the cross.  The servant serves not for the prospect of reward but because he is a servant.  We have only done that which was our duty.  When we love others in Christ’s name, forgive them in His name, and serve them in His name.  

    In the end, James was ready to die for Christ.  To die is gain.  The James who either put his mom up to asking or who asked of his own free will was not the same James who died a martyr’s death for the sake of Christ.  This fool for Christ became wise by faith and when the moment of trial came, James endured to eternal life.  The John who asked for the same glory as his brother was not the same John who wrote the Gospel, the letters, and Revelation, serving God’s people as faithful pastor until he drew his last breath.  

    You are not the same people you were before you were born again into the Kingdom of God.  When I was a child, I thought like a child and spoke like a child.  But now in Christ I have grown up into Him who is my head.  You may not see it or feel it but God is living in Your now, transforming your mind, and establishing your new heart to love the Lord, the things of God, shaping the desires of your heart, and helping you to take up your cross and follow Christ.  There are rocky roads to follow, epic fails and  baby steps forward but Christ is working in You that which is pleasing in His sight.

    I cannot help but point out that Jesus did not get angry with James and John.  He did not send them away for their foolishness.  He forgave them.  And He forgives us you. Today is the day to learn and grow and become the people God has declared you to be.  For you were baptized into His baptism.  And you will drink of His cup today.  And through the nourishment of His Word and Sacrament, you will learn to delight in serving Him by serving others in His name.  Amen.

Sanctifying time. . .

Luther gave simple instructions for the sanctifying of time.  It involved the simple remembrance of your baptism, the sign of the cross, and two texts that have become synonymous with Christian faith and life -- the Apostles' Creed and the Our Father.  Though Luther is more often known for the morning and evening prayers he authored, and they are wonderful, I think this basic instruction on how to begin and end each day is perhaps his most profound gift to the faithful.  It might not be all that inventive since nothing here broke or breaks new ground but that, perhaps, is its genius.  And how quickly we forget such genius!

In the morning, when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

Beginning and ending each day in the same way, we sanctify the waking moments to the Lord, confident that His grace and mercy will provide sufficient help to live each day in His faith and favor.  In the same way, we commend to Him the night hours when our work is done and we are left to rest and dream.  In this way God touches both ends of the day -- the morning hours in which we arise to serve Him and the nighttime hours in which we commend to Him the good we have done and our sins so that our bodies and minds might find refreshment in the quiet hours.

Devotional lives take on many forms.  Some choose the complex patterns that require books and aids while others forego all forms in order to speak to God extemporaneously.  Luther's counsel lies in the middle.  It is not exactly an elaborate form but neither does it leave it up to the spirit of the man or woman to figure it out.  Even better, it is a form and practice that commends itself to the child and to the aged -- both of whom may struggle with memory.  Though some might find it simplistic, it is not at all and neither is it designed for the simplest minds.  It accords itself for every station of life and for those who find themselves there.

Missing from above are two directions.

Then go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.

Then go to sleep at once and in good cheer.

Then go joyfully to your work.  Ah, there is the reminder that man was created for work that had been created for man.  Work is not some intolerable burden but the domain in which we exercise our vocation to the Lord.  Whatever that vocation is, we serve the Lord where we are, doing what is good and right according to His Word and commands, and fulfilling the responsibilities that belong to us. 

Then go to sleep at once and in good cheer.  So many of us wish it were that easy.  We toss and turn with the weight of today's troubles and tomorrow's fears stealing from us the rest we need so.  It is the consequence of a people who have not surrendered to the Lord their sins and failings or their works and accomplishments.  Holding onto both of these interrupts the night and our sleep.  But the good cheer of a clear conscience and a firm conviction that the future is in the hands of the same God who has so graciously given us new birth in baptismal water and forgiven us all our sins will surely help the rest to come.

If that is not enough, feel free to add on Luther's humble prayers.  If you choose, you may also say this little prayer:

I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen. 

I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.

 Good advice, Dr. Luther.  And counsel I commend to you.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Public and private. . .

Everyone from media celebrities to elected officials maintain the distinction between their public personas and their private lives.  The supermarket tabloids once fed the curiosity of those who wanted to see behind the public mask into the shadows and darkness of the lives of the rich and the famous.  Now social media serves as the investigators revealing the secrets.  It would not survive except for our curiosity to know how different these people are in private from their public face.  We are suspicious about those who appear to have no difference between them.  We assume there are secrets and we want to know them.

Everyone from the Bart Ehrmans of this world to the folks in the pew have come to believe that the Church has a public face and a private identity, that the Church trades in secrets behind closed doors, and that there is much hidden from view that would color what people think.  Ehrman suggested that the Bible is a homogenized version of reality orchestrated by folks in power (including Constantine).  Before him came those who suggested that the Christ of the Scriptures was not the same as the Jesus of history.  It has become the stock and trade of Christianity's critics to suggest that the Gospel is not made up of facts but of myths, promulgated and sustained for nefarious purpose (to fleece the flock and control the faithful).  It has become a distinct problem as the ordinary Christian has come to view with suspicion what their Pastor says, what is written in Scripture, what is confessed in the creeds, and what is believed as doctrine.

While there are some things that remain held in confidence (like the content of people's private confession), the reality is that the Church could and should be more transparent.  This does involve such things as financial accountability but it also involves how decisions are made and what is behind those decisions.  What works against this transparency is that we live in such a litigious culture that what we say in public and what we say in private ends up being different.  I dislike that we are in this position.  While my mind may understand it, my heart does not accept it.  We should be more open about the faults and failings of the Church just as we should be more open about our work.

Sometimes people will come to me and ask about certain things in the parish.  I am happy to refer them to the published reports and minutes -- we have nothing to hide.  There are a few things about which we are circumspect -- those which impinge upon pastoral care, especially the seal of the confessional, for example.  But the rest of what we do, we do openly and with complete accountability.  This is how it should be.  There may be a few areas where such openness cannot be given but those who lead the Church should be careful about overextending the reach of secrecy.  

What agitates against the integrity of the Church is when the Church appears to be something different on the outside than on the inside -- especially when the leaders and the faithful represent the faith to the world.  It helps no one when those who claim to be devout or belong openly contradict the most basic and consistent tenets of the faith.  It helps no one when pastors suggest to our people that what we say we believe, teach, and confess is different than what we really believe.  It helps no one when those who represent the Church stand unequally yoked with unbelievers -- giving the world the idea that there is no real truth, only personal conviction.   It helps no one when the public face of the Church does not accord with the private.

History has not been kind to those who attempted to show the world one face of Christianity while having another face behind closed doors.  They have become the storied characters of mini-series and movies but instead of advancing the cause of Christ they have confirmed the unbelief of those who were suspicious from the beginning.  Anyone who has watched The Borgias knows that the salacious details of a dark story may make for a compelling drama but they do not help the cause of the Gospel.  The exposé of Jim and Tammi Faye Baker and other televangelists have only confirmed the doubts of those who saw Christianity as a sham promoted by a charlatan.  The terrible story of clergy sexual abuse have not only harmed their victims, they have hurt those who have been faithful servants of the Lord and worked against the Gospel.  In many cases, those on the inside knew what was being done and did not hold the offenders accountable.  Their failures were born of a desire to protect Christ and His Church but they did just the opposite.

As best we are able, the cause of Christ and His Gospel is best served by honesty -- honest confessions of what was and is the faith of Scripture and the living tradition that has always surrounded it and the candid admission that every member of Christ's Church and those who lead her are sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ.  Some of the failings of the Church's leaders should and ought disqualify them from their leadership roles but this standard dare not be applied unevenly or the duplicity of the injustice will itself come back to haunt us.  Accountability is the gold standard of the faith, transparency in the Church's finances and operations, and integrity which means who we are in public is the same as who we are in private are some of what has been lost but needs to be found.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Liturgical impiety. . .

One of the great dangers to liturgical churches is the fear that people will misunderstand or get the wrong idea about who we are and what we do.  We have learned to be embarrassed by our liturgy, our ceremonial, our piety, and our theology.  So our temptation is to make what we do somehow casual or ordinary or no big deal.  There are those who temper the solemnity of the Divine Service with jokes and other forms of humor to lighten things up -- as if the things of God were by nature too heavy.  There are those who treat the liturgy and our ceremonial as if these were formal clothing to be worn casually just to make sure that people do not take them too seriously.  There are those who impress their personality upon every aspect of the liturgy and preaching -- falsely claiming that the rubrics focus too much on the person presiding and, in fact, making themselves more the center of what happens on Sunday morning rather than less.  Such liturgical impiety is the plague of liturgical churches and it is also a problem for us as Lutherans.

We snip away at the liturgy with a scissors designed to make it easier, less foreign to visitors, more accessible to everyone, and, especially, to shorten the time we spend in God's presence.  We bow to everyone's preferences by making choices according to what we think people want and will like -- from the hymns we select to the methods of distribution that will calm their fears to the perfunctory awkwardness we feign in the chancel (so people will not believe we like wearing vestments or are comfortable with the solemnity of God's presence).  We insert humor to lighten moments that are intentionally solemn -- from the way some treat confession and absolution to the way we pray on behalf of God's people and all people as they have need.  Such liturgical impiety will be our undoing because it implies that what we are doing is not serious and that there is no holy ground of God's presence.

If God's Word is efficacious and delivers what it promises and does that of which it speaks, why would we not reverence that Word?  The use of a Gospel book (or lectionary) and lifting that book when we say "The Word of the Lord" is not simply ritual but flows from what we are saying -- this IS Gods' Word, His living voice, and the means to impart and sustain our faith by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in that Word.  When we bow (or genuflect) we are not bowing to ritual but honoring the Lord's presence in His flesh and blood in this blessed Communion.  We are not adding anything but responding to what God has done in entering our time and space with the once for all sacrifice of Calvary and giving these to us as gifts and blessings.  Liturgical impiety is directed not at the ceremony or the reverence but to the things of God which are neither valued nor appreciated for what they are.

We do not need to light up the serious things of God but adjust our own attitude to what the Lord is doing among us through His means of grace.  We are not making things more accessible but distancing our people from the very things that God has descended to us to bestow.   By making casual the extraordinary things of God's Word and Sacraments, we are being discouraged from the true and salutary response of the faithful to God and His gracious favor.  God uses common things but in using them they are no longer common.  The common water is, by the Word and Spirit of God, made into the uncommon womb by which sinners marked for death are born again through forgiveness to everlasting life.  The common bread and wine are made into the uncommon meal by which the penitent sinners feast upon the foretaste of the eternal, receiving the forgiveness of their sins, and are fed in body and soul with grace sufficient for all their needs.  When we make ordinary what God is doing as extraordinary gift and blessing, our liturgical impiety gets in the way of God and His saving work.

Speaking particularly as a Lutheran, I fear that the genie is out of the bottle and it will be very difficult for us to rein in what has become normal among us.  We live in a time of unparalleled liturgical diversity which has but one thing in common -- our liturgical abuses have arisen from and in opposition to the idea of the holy and our response of reverence to the things of God.  In fact,  such liturgical impiety has become so commonplace that the liturgy is often barely recognizable in too many congregations claiming to be Lutheran.  It is as if Lutheran has become a theoretical idea without practical shape or form on Sunday morning.  This is the mark of trouble for our future and a recognition that we face a serious crisis.  We have no brand, no brand loyalty, and no brand identity -- except that whatever happens in any Lutheran congregation on Sunday morning is claimed to be Lutheran, justified by adiaphora, and commended to the faithful as God pleasing and good.

I have heard pastors and people both suggest that "we are not that fancy" or "we are not that fussy" -- as if those who took seriously God's presence and who responded with solemn reverence were merely fancy or fussy people.  But just as the ritual and reverence are directed not to man or the things of man but to God, so the chaotic form of Sunday morning and our lack of reverence are directed not to man or the things of man but to God.  That is the principle we seem to have forgotten.  I am certainly not suggesting that the ceremonies be exactly the same everywhere (as we acknowledge in our Confessions) but I am saying that our rejection of reverence is contributing to our decline and to our difficulty in offering those not of the Kingdom something they cannot easily dismiss.  Liturgical impiety has become more normal than reverence for too many of us. We are laughing and entertaining our way right out of God's presence and seem to find no regret in it at all.  

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Throwaway culture

One of the great casualties of the pandemic have been the trees.  We are drowning in the paper and cardboard packaging of all the meals to go and Amazon deliveries -- literally.  I am ashamed of the mountain of trash and recyclable items that flow from my meager household of two people.  But it is hard to avoid.  Some things were only available online and not in the stores and the COVID gurus were telling us not to shop in stores or visit restaurants but to have it all delivered.  I worry about our new found habit of click and ship.  It was always there but now we have gone a year getting accustomed to shopping for everything online and we have made Jeff Bezos and others rich in the process.  But this not simply a post about trash but about the culture of throwaway things.

It is hard to live in the new reality of shopping for everything online and having our meals delivered to the door and not have that influence other aspects of our lives.  For a long time clothes were in style and out (though most of you who have seen me know that is not something I pay much attention to).  Furniture and decorator items went in style and out of style -- making sure that yard sales, flea markets and thrift stores have plenty to sell.  But what are the ongoing lessons we have learned from all of this throwaway culture?

Can we make a comparison between the way we shop and live to the fast pace of social change among us?  I believe that they are comparable and one has influenced the other.  As quickly as we spend our money to have what is new in technology and style, so quickly do we cast off what we once used and thought wonderful.  Does this not also influence the ease at which we embrace new definitions of marriage and family?  Gender and sexuality?  Life from its conception to its natural end?  I fear that the pandemic has reinforced the idea that not only are our things discardable but our values are subject to constant change and our doctrines adjusted to fit the times -- and these are the part of the new normal along with social distancing and masks.  This is definitely an issue for the churches to face and to consider.

Certainly the throwaway culture has influenced worship.  From the liturgies created for a moment in time to the hymns written for the day, we have indoctrinated ourselves into the idea that change is not only inevitable but we should embrace it and jump on the train before it is too late.  The fear that our worship or our doctrine is out of step with the people or may be deemed irrelevant is a strong temptation to cast aside what has survived the test of truth and time in favor of something new.  What we fail to see, however, is that our press for that which is new comes at a cost.  How many folks have lost confidence in the Church precisely because the Church offers no anchor but is simply adrift on the sea of culture and change?

Although I hesitate to mention this, I fear that the practices we have learned from the pandemic may also contribute to the incorporation of the throwaway culture into the life of the Church.  For example, learning that we can purchase, use, and then discard the bread and wine that come in neat little plastic containers (even little plastic chalices) will not easily be forgotten as the threat of COVID disappears and we return to the normal now made new.  But what of the remains of Christ's flesh and blood that are cast into the garbage along with their containers?  What does that say of our faith?

When it comes to life itself, our throwaway culture has led us to judge no life as sacred unless we decide it is worthwhile.  The child in the womb is but a choice until birth (and some say that immediately after birth the mother should still have a choice whether the baby lives or dies).  The aged and infirm in the nursing home are a choice and, if our culture deems their life not worth living, a growing number of folks think somebody should have the ability to end that life.  Those who deem their lives too full of suffering (however you might define it) are also seen by a growing number of people as having a right to end their lives without pain at the moment they choose -- and with the help of those whose calling is to do no harm.

So what will happen?  I have no crystal ball.  But I know the consequences of judging the things of God as temporary or tomorrow's trash will not be pretty.  We seem to be adept at gutting our faith of the very things that serve as a moat around the eternal -- reverence, awe, and respect -- and disdaining the bridges to the eternal God has provided -- His Word and Sacraments.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Finding fun where there is none. . .

What we do in the Divine Service and what we do in our own devotions and prayer are meant to be solemn -- not somber but sober.  This is serious business.  Yes, it is.  It is not without joy -- not at all!  But humor, jokes, and giggles are not the same as joy.  The Divine Service brings a smile to my face not because I found something funny in it but because it is the greatest occasion of joy when God bids me enter into the holy place of His presence, clothes me with the righteousness of absolution, speaks to me with His shepherding voice, and feeds me the food of heaven in simple bread and wine.

The texts of the Divine Service, from the ordinary to the propers, provide a grounding of our lives in the gracious Word of the Lord, the efficacious Word of our Lord.  This is weighty stuff.  It deals with those things that have become normal since the Fall but are anything but normal in the eyes of God.  From the fear and suspicion with which we see God or miss Him altogether since since colored that relationship to the guilt and shame worn as the clothing of sin that will not wash clean, we have learned to be serious before the Lord.  When the Lord in His mercy opens the door for us to come into His presence, we do so with thanksgiving and when the Lord washes clean what sin has stained, we rejoice.  This is especially true when it comes to death, in the hands of the Lord this end becomes the door to a beginning that none of us could have made possible but Christ gives to us freely in Easter glory.  

The prayers we pray are weighty prayers dealing less with simple irritants than the heavy things of fear, doubt, anxiety, guilt, shame, suffering, sin, and death.  We pray to God first for those things that lay upon our hearts and minds with the burdens none can overcome without divine intervention.  We pray in view of what God has already provided to us in Christ Jesus and with the confidence of a people who know His mercy and count upon His grace.  We pray as a people who acknowledge that we do not know best for us but the Lord does and faith begs Him to do what is good and right and salutary -- even when it is not what we desire and when it will require something of us to accept.  Prayer is not a frivolous activity both because its subjects are serious and the mercy of God is not without cost to Him.  To pray in Jesus' name is to acknowledge the cost of this access and of this grace in which we stand.

It is not at all helpful to us or to God's purposes that we have confused humor with joy, that we have presumed jokes can replace the Gospel in making light of what troubles us, or that worship is some sort of divine comedy designed to entertain us.  But we live in an era in which we are told to lighten up.  We are surrounded by worship designed solely to entertain and not convict with regard to sin or forgive with the blood of Jesus.  We sing happy songs of a dreamy life instead of the solid hymns of truth and redemption.  We strive to be happy when God has given us something more -- joy which is sustained even when circumstances trouble us.

If you have read this blog, you know where I stand on the stories and comedy that is supposed to be a sermon.  You know already that singing of Jesus as best friend or lover is not worthy of congregational song.  Now you know that I harbor the gravest suspicions of the kind of worship which entertains with levity and the kind of prayers which treat lightly the things God has treated so seriously.  I say this in part against what passes for funeral sermons in those ridiculous celebrations of life but also for the way worship is treated on Sunday morning.  These are joyful celebrations not because the circumstances are so happy but because where Jesus is, there is our joy, our treasure, the delight of our hearts, and the answer to all our needs.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Odd statistics. . .

So the Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina of the Anglican Church in North America is planning to retire this year.  No news there.  He has led them in a successful fight against the Episcopal Church's over reach to claim the Diocese and the buildings of the parishes there.  As far as such parishes go, the parishes of this Diocese are much more orthodox than the typical Episcopal parish in the USA.  That said, the Diocese of South Carolina, like the ACNA with which it is affiliated, is more like the Episcopal Church minus the decision to embrace same sex marriage and the ordination of those along the LBGTQ+ spectrum than it is a roll back to the Episcopal Church that published the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  It still ordains women, for example.  Anyway, I digress.

When I happened upon a link to documents relating to the nomination of a Bishop to succeed Bishop Lawrence, I found these statistics:

     36 Congregations    18 Missions    3 New Plants

   114 Active Priests     19 Retired     30 Active Deacons

Wbat you see is a small diocese with roughly three times the number of active priests in comparison to the number of parishes though it must be admitted that the diocese has planted 6 new parishes since 2012 and now currently has 3 new plants in process.  Okay, I get this.  But the next statistic is the surprise.  The Diocese has 13 staff in addition to the Bishop.  That is heavy overhead, indeed, for a small number of parishes to support:  one staff for every 2.6 congregations.  It does not say if these are part-time or full-time staff but in either case it is a heavy load of staff per parish.

Although I have no idea exactly what these staff do or do not do, I wonder if this is not a hold over to another era in which diocesan or district staff directed most everything.  I cannot believe that it is sustainable.  It is, in many respects, the very issue we face in the LCMS.  COVID may have hastened the issue but it has been brewing for a long time.  With declining support for District and Synod from congregations, how much can a regional jurisdiction expect and how many staff are necessary in this age of downsizing?  How can such a small number of congregations be expected to support such a top heavy organization?

Although we might expect, given the stereotype, that this Diocese tends more toward the upper middle to lower upper class in economic status, this still raises an honest question about why so many and how it is affordable.  I think that the LCMS is probably ahead of the game, so to speak, in assessing the number of staff a District requires and can afford.  In most of our Districts these numbers have been going down for a long time.  Except for a few Districts who have large numbers of parishes (Michigan and Texas, to name but two), the rest of us have seen the writing on the wall.  We will be learning to get by with less or to find some other means of support other than the parish offering plate.

While there is no absolute right or wrong here, the primary and core function of the District revolve around two things -- supervision of doctrine and practice of the members of the District (clergy and congregation) and the maintenance of the clergy roster.  Apart from these any District can do as much or as little as its congregations and clergy desire -- and are willing to pay for!  The days when District offices were large hubs of activity are probably over.  Parishes have fewer resources they are willing to share and are harder to convince.  The trajectory is moving toward smaller, leaner jurisdictions -- not the other way around, and this is true for national offices as well.  At some point we will find out how small we can go and things will come to a grinding halt.  But we are not quite at that point.

Some lament this.  Indeed, some are convinced this is a mark of doom.  I am not so sure.  The reason the District got into the game of planting congregations was largely because growth was fast and the congregations struggled to handle this by themselves.  Now it will surely move in the other direction.  Districts will get out of the game of planning, locating, and supporting mission plants and congregations or groups of congregation will get back into it.  That is not a bad thing.  The congregations may need some help but they probably know better than most what, where, and how to plant a new congregation near their location.  Perhaps the same thing will happen at the national level.  Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the national office will have to concentrate on the things that are essential to their level -- foreign missions, publishing, seminaries, among them.  I fear the greater danger is trying to do too much rather than focusing on what is essential.  At any rate, I doubt you would find that many district staff among so few congregations as the Diocese of South Carolina boasts.  I am not sure, however, that it is a boast worth trying to best.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

You cannot hide from death. . .

Unless your experience is very different, I think the majority of those still staying away from in person worship tend to be more the younger families than the aged and infirm.  Those who regularly deal with their own mortality have about had it with masking, unsocial distancing, and hibernating at home.  They may not have much life left in them even without COVID and they are not going to live that life without the service of God and the gifts of His Word and Sacrament.  But many of the younger families are not so sure that being in person in Church is worth the risk.

While those with health conditions and comorbidities have decided that death is a part of life since the Fall and they have to deal with it, I wonder if it cannot be said that others are still trying to hide from death or outlive the threat because they don't want to deal with it.  It is easier to deal with those who know death is real than to minister to those who are trying to hide from it and unsure about how much to risk it.  Those who deal with their own mortality are ripe for the Gospel, for the promise of life with the presence of God and death that is but a gate and door to everlasting life.  They yearn for the resurrection of the dead, for the renewal of their old bodies like unto Jesus' own glorious body, and for the promise that this brief life is neither the sum total or even a glint of the eternal which Christ Himself has promised.  On the other hand, those who are trying to hide from death or reduce the risk of it need more than comfort.  They need to hear the hard truth that death is real -- or else Christ's life will not be real to them.

It sounds downright cruel but those who are either trying to hide from death or fear risking death to be together with God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord may not need comfort at all.  What they may need more than consolation is the blunt truth that death is real, that it is no friend, that there is no place to hide from it, and that only Christ has something to give to a people who live in darkness of fear and in the shadow of death.  As pastors, we don't want to say this to our people -- it goes against our desire to be loved but it is the most loving thing we can say to them.  They cannot hide from death but in order to live the life God gives them here they must confront death in Christ.  Either that or they will live in hiding until death cannot be hidden anymore.

Being away from the assembly, being absent from the Lord's Word preached and His Holy Supper administered, and being captive to fear is bound to weaken the faith.  Its first sign is that we become accustomed to not getting up and dressed and headed to Church on Sunday morning.  The loss of a good habit is a real loss.  The second sign is that we don't miss it -- our hearts no longer hunger for our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord and we are content either with digital connections or no connections to the Church at all.  The last sign is that we begin to wonder why we ever went in the first place -- the temptation to doubt and fear effectively kills the faith and we surrender our hope to the reality we face or to an imaginary reality in which sin, guilt, and death no longer live.

The great challenge for the Pastor is to know what to say to which people.  And perhaps to know how to contact those who have checked out of the Church on Sunday morning.  I know these are things that trouble my soul and I suspect that they trouble the souls of many pastors.  We pray for the wisdom and discernment of the Spirit that we may speak the right Word at the right time to the right person -- even when that may not be received well.  Otherwise, why are we pastors at all?????

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Many Problems, One Solution

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, preached on Sunday, March 14, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

[Jesus said] As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (Jn 3:14-15)

                Take a quick moment and think about all the problems in your lives; all the problems that plague our society and culture; all the problems that cause suffering throughout the world.  It doesn’t take long to start naming things off because there are so many problems.  Our lives are consumed with trying to find solutions to these problems.  But behind every single one, behind every problem in our lives is our problem of sin, and the only solution for sin is Christ’s cross.

                The problems in life are many.  There’s physical problems; like hunger and thirst.  It’s saddening to think that for some children here in the US, the only meals they get are school lunches.  They have no food at home, so FUEL bags filled with a few healthy snacks are sent home with them to keep them somewhat fed on Saturdays and Sundays.  And then think about all those children throughout the world who are in the same situation, but who don’t have school lunches to rely on.  Homelessness and poverty are seen throughout the globe.  Diseases of all kinds plague are bodies, some that know how to deal with and heal, but many we don’t. 

                And now add to these kinds of physical problems all the social problems.  Racism still divides.  There’s socio-economic conflict between those who have and those who have not.  Political strife is all over the news.  Deep seeded animosity and enmity between fellow citizens is lived out.  There’s the culture war that’s being fought in boardrooms and college lecture halls and in the classrooms of our children.  And then there’s the effects all of this has on us as individuals.  We suffer mental illness and depression and anxiety and fear.  I could go on, but I don’t have to, because we all can see these problems with our very own eyes. 

These problems consume us.  They’re all we think about.  And we think all of it is new.  We think that what we’re going through today in the 21st century is completely different from all of the centuries that came before, but it’s not.  The problems we’re facing today are the same sorts of problems people have been dealing with for millennia.  For example, Israel faced the hunger and thirst…at least they thought they did.

Throughout their time of wandering in the wilderness after their exodus out of slavery in Egypt, there were times when Israel found itself without food and water.  This first happened shortly after they crossed the Red Sea on dry ground.  They grumbled and complained about it.  But the Lord was gracious to them, and He provided them with bread from heaven and water whenever they needed it.  God solved their problem. 

In the OT reading today, the Israelites were once again low on food, at least that’s what they thought.  Even though the Lord had shown that He’d provide for them, they still grumbled and complained.  At first, they said they had no food and water, but that wasn’t true.  The Lord was still providing them with mana.  But that wasn’t good enough for them.  They loathed and despised that miraculous food, calling it worthless.  So, in response to their sinful ingratitude, the Lord sent venomous serpents among the people that attacked the people, and many died.  Now Israel truly had problem on their hand.

Israel thought their hunger and thirst was their problem, but it wasn’t.  They had food and water from the Lord.  Their true problem was their ingratitude.  It was ignoring and despising of the good gifts of God.  It was their sinful flesh that was directed by their passions and desires.  Their problem wasn’t the lack of anything, it was their sin and the death came from it.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

We are problems are too many to count, but the truth is, all those problems are only a symptom of our main problem of sin and death.  Everything we suffer today is because of sin.  Sometimes it’s a direct result and consequence of our sinful actions, and words, and thoughts.  Most of the personal conflict we experience in our lives is a result of these specific sins.  But other problems we face are simply the consequence of living in a world that is ruined by sin.  But no matter what the problem is, the root cause is sin, and there’s nothing we can do to fix it, even though we try to.

                We’ve come up with countless solutions to try to fix all the problems.  Laws are passed, social programs are implemented, medicines are developed and therapies practiced, different types of technologies are invented, all with the hope of being the solution we need.  But none of it works because none of it fixes sin and death.  No law stops sin.  No medicine or technology permanently overcomes death.  Just as Israel couldn’t get rid of the snakes, we can’t get rid of our sin.  We need to be saved. 

                Suffering from the fiery bites of the serpents, Israel realized their sin.  They confessed it before the Lord.  They’d spoken against God.  And the Lord was once again gracious to them.  He solved their problem, not by taking away the snakes, but by giving them a sign of salvation, a sign of their problem overcome.  God told Moses to make a bronze snake and place it on a pole; and then He promised that whoever was bitten and looked upon that snake on a pole, they would live.  This sign wasn’t just about Israel momentary salvation though.  It was a sign that pointed forward to the only solution for sin.  It was a sign that pointed to Christ’s cross.

                Just before Christ spoke those words we call “the Gospel in a nutshell,” He pointed us back to that snake on a pole.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). 

Christ on the cross is the answer to your sin and death.  In the wilderness, the snake on the pole was the image of Israel’s sin and death, and when they looked upon it, the Lord saved them.  So too, Christ on the cross is the image of your sin and death; more than that, He is your sin and death.  God made Him to be sin who knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21).  The image of Christ beaten, blooded, and bruised; that is your death.  That is what you and I deserve, because like Israel, we have spoken against the Lord: spoken against Him with hateful words said to our neighbors; spoken against Him with deeds that only seek personal satisfaction; spoken against Him with uncharitable thoughts toward others.  Because of that, we deserve to suffer the death of the cross.

And yet, because of God’s love for you, He sent His Son to die that death for you, to solve your problem of sin and death, so that you might be forgiven.  And with that He gives you the promise that when you look upon your Savior lifted up on the pole of the cross, trusting with faith, believing in His salvation, you will have eternal life.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  This is the only answer to your problem of sin and death.  This is the only answer to all your problems.  In the cross of Christ you find the healing you need in the promised eternal healing of the resurrection.  In the cross of Christ you find the forgiveness that overcomes your sin and the sins of those who trespass against you.  In the cross of Christ you find God’s love that you get to share with others as you help them in their needs.  The cross of Christ is the solution. 

We see so many problems in life, but the one true problem we have is our sin and death.  And the only solution is the cross of Christ.  So look to your Savior who was lifted up.  Look to your Savior who rose from the grave, defeating death.  Look to your Savior, the only begotten Son of God, and believe, and just as God has promised, you will be saved.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.