Tuesday, April 20, 2021

If. . .

If you can go to a grocery store, you can go to Church.

If you can go to the pharmacy, you can go to Church.

If you can go to the doctor's office, you can go to Church.

If you can go to Wal-Mart, you can go to Church.

If you can go to a restaurant, you can go to Church.

I am not saying this to guilt you into going to Church, but to challenge your presumption that somehow going to Church is inherently less safe than anything else.  The media may have done an exceptional job of making folks believe that going to Church is risky, but the facts do not bear them out.  Outside of a few crackpot pastors in crazy churches that no one should be going to in the first place, every congregation has roped off pews, had masks, put hand sanitizers every fifteen feet, and adjusted their normal activities in some way to ensure the safety of our people.

A survey of three dozen Roman Catholic bishops predicted that worship attendance would remain 25-40% below its pre-COVID numbers.  Many, if not all, Protestant churches have witnessed similar statistics.  Our own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Grace Lutheran Church is concerned that the numbers are not rebounding.  Part of the problem is not that people most at risk are staying home -- just the opposite!  Those who some think should not be in worship are the ones who have been in Church since pandemic began.  

In our own case, a handful of people over the course of March 2020 through March 2021 have unknowingly been infected and went to Church and we can trace 1-2 folks who got their COVID from someone in the pew.  This is despite the fact that we have never stopped having worship services and have had VBS, a congregational picnic, a yard sale, and music concerts all the way through that same time!  I am confident that neither Kroger nor Wal-Mart can attest to such a good record!

So if you have been staying away out of fear that Church is a dangerous place, let me challenge you to take another look.  The more you miss Church, the less you will miss it.  The longer you go without being in the Lord's House, the more likely it is that you will not return.  Nobody cares about statistics but your pastors and fellow members of the Body of Christ are most concerned about the state of your soul, about the means of grace to nourish and sustain your faith in such times of trial, and about the personal connections that reflect our unity in Christ.  YOU need the Church way more than the Church needs you.

Look at what you are doing, how you are providing for essential needs, and ask yourself why you have not returned to Church.  For despite what the government has tried to tell you, the Church is essential and what you receive here, you receive nowhere else.  Think about it.

Monday, April 19, 2021

The changing face of membership. . .

Sitting around with pastors complaining about the pandemic and what it has done to our congregations is something that does little to fix the problem but the venting is not without its own benefit.  It was during one of those conversations that an idea popped into my head -- though I am sure I am not alone in thinking this.  It began with glowing reports of how many people were watching services online from one parish.  The pastor jokingly suggested that they had more people in church online than they had ever had in church in person ever before.  The number was in the thousands. So, the joke went, maybe it would be better if they never had in person worship.  Of course, this kind of gallows humor is stock and trade during the stresses of this pandemic.

It got me thinking, however, that there might be a market for an online only congregation.  It would be just the kind of congregation most people want -- cheap and easy to fund, one you can shut off and tune in again without anyone making some snide comment about missing you, one you can sleep through without having anyone notice, and one that asks hardly anything of you.  Who would not want to join such a congregation?  And that is the point.  How long before our congregations end up with an online presence that is larger and perhaps more significant than their in person operation?  How long before people in one state or country watching online will request to become official members of their online congregation?  Is it possible to have a congregation with a mostly online membership?

I think you already know what I think of such an endeavor.  So I will not repeat to you the bitter words I have for people who right now might be salivating at the prospect of such a church.  But I will suggest to you that the day is coming and perhaps already is when such congregations will exist -- even within denominations formally opposed to such virtual parishes.  It is an inevitable outcome of some of the poor choices we have made and the awful judgments rendered by and upon the churches during this pandemic.  Worship is not essential, online is the same as in person, sacraments may be handled remotely and virtually, and hits are the most important barometer of parish success.

Just think about it.  We could sell off all those properties expensive to maintain and run and have a church for the cost of some decent bandwidth.  We could get rid of all those in person programs and their volunteers and leave it to people to Facebook message or text each other for fellowship, zoom for instruction, and download for information.  It would be truly a virtual church!  The only people needed are the social media people and a few spare hours of some pastor's time.  We have the technology.  We could do it.

Remember what St. Paul said about the possible not being the beneficial?  I wonder how long it will be before the folks at the head of our churches either suggest what I have said or insist it should not be done.  How long will we want?  Some congregations and districts are fairly close to the whole idea of virtual parishes and virtual ministries.  And if we can do it, why would we not?  Therein lies the rub.  We would be pounding nails into our own coffins.  

The whole definition of a virtual church is that such a church is not real.  Real churches have real pastors, people, water for baptism, bread and wine for the Eucharist, and fellowship that flows from this though the assembly and out into the world.  Oh well, I will be retired by the time this really catches on and maybe I can supplement my retirement income with some side gigs online.  I can work at my leisure and don't even have to wear pants.  The camera only needs a head shot, after all, and that is what the digital media is good at -- making real people into talking heads.  Perhaps the only one disappointed by this would be Jesus.  But we can outvote Him. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Time to clean up a mess. . .

Lately I have been seeing more frequent commercials for those companies that clean up messes -- burst pipes, roof leaks, etc.  It seems that in the wake of Texas and a cold winter that there have been messes to clean up.  Not to mention the messes created by protests and riots.  Lots of messes!

To those outside the Church, that is what religion is for.  The job of churches is to clean up messes.  When people need money, the job of churches is to give them the money they need.  When people need food, the job of the churches is to give them food.  When people need shelter for the night, the job of the churches is to give them shelter (or pay for a place for them to shelter in).  When people are oppressed, the job of the churches is to advocate for them and protest against their oppressors.

There was a time when the job of the churches was to take care of the widowed and orphan, to care for the mentally ill, to run hospitals and sanitariums for the sick and chronically ill, to care for the aged who cannot care for themselves, and to bury the dead.  Things have changed.  Now government rules and laws have radically altered the playing field.  Most of these things are now done by other agencies and, it seems, by businesses.  After all, if the government is paying the bill, there must be a profit to be made.  So nursing homes, child welfare agencies, psychiatric hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, funeral homes, and cemeteries are now for profit vehicles to provide a service and make a profit on the side.

But the idea still exists among those who were Christians or who never were that the only good church is one that cleans up societies messes.  If they don't, they ought to be taxed.  Where did they get this idea?  Could it be from Christians who presumed that it was not enough to bring eternal good to the wounded soul and that in order to justify their existence, the churches must make a difference for those who need help?  An eternal difference seems not to matter much in the face of a world filled with messes and few real solutions and eyes that look on churches as cash cows who play upon the fears and weaknesses of the simple and the frail.  At least that is the perception.

There are people who have left my congregation because we were not doing enough in the community.  Well, what does that mean?  It is not enough to provide forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of Christ's Sacraments.  It is not enough to teach our children the faith, teach those new to the faith, teach those who have forgotten what we believe, teach, and confess.  It is not enough to bring eternal comfort to moments in time of suffering, fear, worry, doubt, and pain.  It is not enough to raise the hopes of the hopeless for something more than a better day tomorrow.  It is not enough to actually be at work in the community in mental health centers, soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, cash assistance programs, etc...  What exactly were we not doing?

The point is this.  To those who do not know the comfort and joy of sins forgiven, of lives reborn in
baptismal water, of the direction of the Word to light their way, and of the food for body and soul in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar, there is no justification for the Church.  Except to clean up their messes.  Sadly, sometimes the people in the pews and the pastors in the pulpits presume that this is our job as well.  If we are not making things better in our community, then what good is eternal salvation (say some folks in the pews)?  If I cannot help make a difference to a person in need, then what good is preaching the Gospel (say some pastors about the ministerial offices they hold)?  Apparently we are not reading the Scriptures.  We have fallen into the trap that says the eternal only matters of the temporal is made better in the process.  Square that with Jesus' prediction of persecution, suffering, and even death for the sake of Him and His Gospel?

Let me say this.  Loving your neighbor is not the job of the Church as an institution but the vocation of the baptized in that Church.  Doing justice and showing mercy are not the job of the Church but the vocation of God's people as they live out the kingdom in and before the world.  Jesus does not speak much about institutional roles but He has much to say about the role of the Christian in society.  Could it be that we love to blame the Church for not cleaning up our messes because it relieves us of any personal responsibility to hear and heed the command to love one another as I, the Lord, have loved you?   The Church is not Servpro.  The Church is not God's fixit company to clean up our messes and then disappear from our lives until we screw up again.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

What we want. . . what we need. . .

What we want to believe is that marriage is marriage no matter who it is getting married.  What we want to believe is that a parent is a parent, whether mom or dad or two moms or two dads or people whose gender may be fluid.  What we want to believe is that difference can be celebrated and fostered without affecting unity and fellowship.  What we want to believe is that democracy brings consensus.  What we want to believe is that everyone's voice is of equal weight and value.  But, of course, none of these things have proven true.  

The marriage of husband and wife is not the same as a same sex couple and the changes to marriage brought by same sex couples have not simply been about the same sex couple but have significantly affected all marriages -- not necessarily for the good.  The family of mom and dad and their children is not simply an ideal but the best and divinely appointed structure and that none of the variations are as salutary for the family and the children as the traditional one.  Diversity may be a reality but it cannot supplant the power of common values and common expectations in the building of consensus and a common social and political life.  Democracy does not necessarily bring consensus and may provide a means for deep divisions to continue as elections and leaders reflect the differing goals and purposes of those who cast a ballot for them.  Everyone may have a voice but not every voice is wise nor is every voice is worth our attention (and, it might be said, the loudest voice is not necessarily the voice we need to hear!).  

All of these things are truths that we have witnessed in the fragmentation of our national identity and the hardening of differences both political and social.  So far, the most we have been able to do is to lay blame at one side or another for the mess we are in.  As satisfying as it is to level charges against those we would hold responsible, it is not effective in the building of a national consensus or the repair of what is wrong with our culture and fixing what is broken in our common life.  All of which has left us wondering where we go from here.  I wish I knew.  Neither political side can dismiss the other and no unity will be formed by prosecuting opponents.  In the same way, the penchant for diversity is stretching the very fabric of our national identity to the point that our union is frozen by those different views.  It is almost comedic how we swing back and forth, doing and undoing by executive order what our constitutive assemblies cannot do or undo.

As if this is not a bad thing for our nation, the same factors have been incorporated into the Church's life.  We have no real or solid Christian identity or common orthodoxy that gives weight and substance to Christendom.  We are divided by opinions that cannot live together in the same communion and we have no voice weighted with enough power to address our divisions -- not even the voice of Scripture.  While I can only speak as a Christian in America, it seems that we have imported the worst of our political and social ills into the life of the Church while exporting none of the blessings of God's Word and an ecclesiastical community built upon something larger than self-interest.

Is this new?  Certainly not.  As one student of Augustine has taught us:

The local Catholic Church in Africa had come to a standstill: divided by schism, exposed to the Manichaean heresy, its bishops had settled down as local dignitaries with limited gifts and ambitions. They were content to secure official privileges and seemed capable of displaying energy only in litigation. (For Augustine, at Thagaste, the life of a bishop seemed to consist merely of business-trips; and the duties of a priest seemed roughly those of a legal agent.) In church, they would be content to celebrate the Liturgy; outside it, they would arbitrate lawsuits.  Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 1967

Wow.  That is scarily familiar.  Yet this is a record of church life more than seventeen centuries removed from where we are today.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  Yet the burning question for us today is whether we are working to change this state of affairs or whether we have accepted that it is the new normal for our times.  Sadly, I have yet to see anyone in politics or society do more than agitate for their positions and I wait, hopefully not in vain, for voices within the Church to go beyond their bunkers.  Ideally, this would be the realm of bishops -- those with a teaching office and with a charism for leadership that advances God's Word and purpose over our own.

Rome has all the structure to do this but they have a pope who, in the words of an anonymous bishop, seems to gain great delight in poking people in the eye.  The bishops have authority but we have witnessed the use of this authority more to cover their own butts than to be a cause for renewal and integrity.  Sure, there are good guys out there but they seem woefully overshadowed by the loud voices of discontent.  It does not help that corruption and cover given to immorality has not yet ceased to be standard operating procedure.

Lutheranism has none of the structure but they once had an integrity built upon a written confession that normed faith and practice.  Now confessional fealty means what we want it to mean and we find every cover for promoting everything but the cause of the Gospel and the life of God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Yes, we have some very good leaders but we live in a time when it appears not only are all politics local, so is the Church.  In the meantime, Sunday morning seems to showcase differences more than our common liturgy and life.

COVID has made the fact that things are not working even more apparent.  It may not be the cause but it is the agent that has hastened our awareness of our weaknesses and failings.   I have no doubt but that the faith will endure but it would be nice if we did not have to rebuild the structures of the Church over and over again.  Is it too much to hope for that Christianity is a leavening agent within the world?  Or is it even too much to hope for that the Church will coalesce around a creedal, liturgical, and confessional orthodoxy that will help to rescue us from ourselves?

Friday, April 16, 2021

What we once fought for and now fight against. . .

According to Joseph Herl's Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation and Three Centuries of Conflict, the narrative often accepted today is not the record of history. Whether you are talking about some miraculous movement from being silent in the Mass to singing like Baptists or about the ceremonies of worship cast off with glee as yesterdays shackles, the story I thought I knew is not the story that accords with reality. Herl is one voice but not the only one. Bodo Nischan's record of Brandenburg is another (Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg). A Roman Catholic voice is another, Ernst Zeedon, Faith and Act -- The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation. Though some would insist that the retention of a fuller liturgical life was the exception rather than the rule, the record seems to indicate other wise. An example of the resistance on the part of the lay people to the removal of images, the elimination of the ancient ceremonies, is in the way Johann Georg, Margrave of the the Silesian duchy of J√•gerndorf had attempted in 1616 to reform Lutheranism. He insisted upon the removal of such things as:

All images are to be removed from the church and sent to the court.
The stone altar is to be ripped from the ground and replaced with a wood table covered with a black cloth.
When the Lord’s Supper is held, a white cloth covers the table.
All altars, panels, crucifixes and paintings are to be completely abolished, as they are idolatrous and stem from the papacy.
Instead of the host, bread is to be used and baked into broad loaves, cut into strips and placed in a dish, from which people receive it in their hands; likewise the chalice [in their hands].
The words of the supper are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
The golden globlets are to be replaced with wooden ones.
The prayer in place of the collect is to be spoken, not sung.
Mass vestments and other finery are no longer to be used.
No lamps or candles are to be placed on the altar.
The houseling cloth is not to be held in front of the communicants.
The people are not to bow as if Christ were present.
The communicants shall no longer kneel.
The sign of the cross after the benediction is to be discontinued.
The priest is no longer to stand with his back to the people.
The collect and Epistle are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
Individuals are no longer to go to confession before communing, but rather register with the priest in writing.
The people are no longer to bow when the name of Jesus is mentioned, nor are they to remove their hats.
The Our Father is no longer to be prayed aloud before the sermon.
Communion is not to be taken to the sick, as it is dangerous, especially in times of pestilence.
The stone baptismal font is to be removed and a basin substituted.
Epitaphs and crucifixes are no longer to be tolerated in the church.
The Holy Trinity is not to be depicted in any visual form.
The words of the sacrament are to be altered and considered symbolic.
The historic Epistles and Gospels are no longer to be used, but rather a section of the Bible [selected by the minister] read without commentary. (Herl, Worship Wars, p. 111)

Read through the list. Lutherans once fought to retain such things and to resist the move to cleanse the Divine Service and finish the job in some Reformed manner. Yet today, even though much progress has been made to recover such things, there are Lutherans who gladly give up such things and who insist that those who would retain them are not real Lutherans. Both pastors in the chancel and people in the pews are deeply suspicious of what we once fought to retain. If a liturgical legacy can be so quickly and easily dismissed, it stands to reason that the doctrinal heritage behind it can also be surrendered in the face of changing tastes and values.

I maintain that you cannot separate the liturgical legacy from the doctrinal heritage -- that both go together and neither survives apart from the other. Together they form a strong bond and support each other but on their own both are more vulnerable. The Anglican history has shown us that the form without the content is no guarantee of anything more than a stylish heresy. The Reformed have shown us that without the structure of the liturgy and sacramental vitality, doctrine easily gives way to an evangelical entertainment hour.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Course he isn't safe. . .

Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. ... I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."  Most Christians will recognize the lines from the iconic C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Though they are used in a variety of ways, Lewis is reminding that God is not tame but wild, that He is not simply nice but dangerous, and that He can bring terror as quickly as He can give comfort.  Though this sounds auspicious, the reality is that modern Christianity has done a pretty good job of turning Aslan (God) into a toothless lion.  We do not talk that much about sin and death and we certainly avoid speaking about God's wrath.  It is no wonder, then, that forgiveness is not esteemed as a great gift and the resurrection is not preached much anymore (even at funerals, or, pardon me, celebrations of life).

What is worse, is that modern Christianity has played right into the hands of the devil, mimicking the world, and offering the worst bondage of all to a people who think they are free.  By making normal what is sin, the cross is made out to be irrelevant at best and a joke at worst.  By defining love without the mention of the cross, a weak and fragile emotion replaces the strong and sturdy love of God that was incarnate in the womb, righteous in life, obedient in death, and triumphant in resurrection.  Now God is left to play the role of divine life coach who can but cheer us on from the sidelines as we search inside of us for who we are and search through experience for why we are.  This shallow gospel is certainly safe but it is powerless to deal with what ails us and woefully short of the kind of real comfort and consolation a wounded and dying people need.

Now that God has been neutered and tamed, the Church is now also safe.  The Church is safe because there is no judgment, no right or wrong (except as the individual in a moment might decide), and no life except the one we have now and the one we will do, as we have learned from the pandemic, anything and everything to preserve.  So in one fell swoop God and His Church have moved from front and center into the sidelines and background and man is right there where man has always wanted to be -- the god of his own destiny.  And this works for a while.  As long as nothing comes along to expose our house of cards, it looks like we are kings and lords, able to make our lives become what we want them to be.  Our desires become like our sacraments in which we live out the experience of what we want, without any pesky commandments to rain on our parade.  They are our means not of grace but of pleasure, of a life without risk or danger, and a life with sufficient guarantees so that if anything bad does happen, it is certainly not our fault.

There are, of course, churches who have not quite succumbed to the influence of modern Christianity.  But it is a fight, an unpleasant fight, and a struggle.  We see to be our own best enemies, sometimes.  Worrying about how people see us more than how God sees us, we try to find the elusive line to follow in which we do not offend people and feel like we satisfy God.  God does us the service of providing us opportunities to shine and we do a credible job of make a mess of those gifts.  The world is a dark place in which fear reigns, intolerance is not tolerated, and we are free to rewrite our story, redefine our gender, and reject life from its beginning to the end we determine for it.  Yet this darkness is wallpapered over by those who control the images we see, the words we read, and the lives we lead.  It is significant, after all, that the elites in our society have deigned to inform us that we had marriage all wrong, we did not get family, we did not want a life they deemed not worth living, and we did not know whether we were male or female.

The truth is we have the Gospel.  We hear the voice of the Good Shepherd speak through His Word.  We absolve in God's name and sins are forgiven.  We wash with water endowed with the power of His Word and Spirit to give new and everlasting life.  We feed at the Lord's Table upon the flesh that is life and the blood that cleanses us from all our sins.  We stand at the grave and insist the end is not the end and the real life has just begun.  We have a clear conscience to face each day because we are forgiven and we have peace in the night because the Lord is with us.  We think we are weak but a strong God has claimed us as His own, given us new birth, and set us apart to be His own, to do His bidding, and to live under Him the new life now that death cannot end.  We should not be timid but courageous.  We do not see tomorrow but we see the real future, the end and promise that God moved time and eternity to make known.  We live in the assurance that our human structures and institutions may come and go but the Church will endure forever and hell itself cannot prevail against the forces of God.  We have all of this.  Why are we so shy?  Why do we act as if our God is weak?  Why do we not take on the enemies of God with the sword of His Word?  Yes, we will suffer but we will not suffer beyond our ability to endure.  Yes, we fight against principalities and powers and not simply flesh and blood but it is God's fight before it is ours and He has the one little word that can fell the devil's armies and the world's warriors.  Yes, we will be persecuted but this will end and heaven will not -- the mount of God on which the veil is lifted and the well marbled meat and wine twice refined will never run out.

My friends, our future lies with a God who is dangerous but good, who is not safe but merciful, who is not easy but loving.  Tame Him and He does not suffer but we do.  Neuter Him and He is not changed but we are.  Domesticate Him and He is not affected but we are.  That is the lesson we must learn before modern Christianity becomes the only Christianity the world knows.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Who needs whom?

Often we presume that Jesus needs us or needs something from us.  It is, perhaps, because that is how things work in this world.  We presume that how this world works is how the Kingdom of God works.  But it is just the opposite.  Jesus does not need us but He wants us -- wants us so much that He is willing to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, born as a child when He is the creative Word, live in obedience to His own law, suffer for that which He did not do, and, though He is the Lord of life, to die in disgrace upon a cross.  On the other hand, we need Jesus but we do not want Him.  The Holy Spirit has to teach us to want what we need, who we need.  The Spirit has to teach us to give up all notions of sin as a minor problem, of making peace with death, of God being our enemy, of self-sufficiency, of independence, and of pride itself.  Only then, through the humility of confession, do we begin to desire Him whom we need.

Jesus does not call us to follow Him because He wants or needs followers.  In fact, He wants us to be saved and knows that only by hearing and heeding His saving voice can we be saved.  Jesus is not interested in numbers or statistics.  What He is going for is YOU and me.  He saves us one soul at a time, not by mass conversion but by the Holy Spirit working through the Word spoken into the ear and then into the heart so that faith may sprout and grow.  Jesus does not get anything out of this salvation business except YOU and me.  And that is exactly how He wants it to be.

When Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow Him, to deny ourselves and follow Him, to a cross-shaped life of suffering following Him, it is not because His cross is not enough or His suffering is not complete.  It is because in order to follow Him we walk in His path, in but not of the world, against the enemies of sin, death, and the devil He faced.  Indeed, by being close to Jesus we will not and cannot avoid the suffering, persecution, and threats He faced and He warned we, too, would face.  

Sin has so corrupted our thinking and our desires that we presume we have something God wants or needs and therefore salvation is a sort of bargain or barter in which we exchange with God the things He desires for the things we need.  We make God a beggar or at least a businessman who exchanges one thing of value for another.  It is reasonable and logical to us but that does not make it true or accurate.  We want God to be like us, to act like us, and to want the things we want, so that He is understandable and approachable.  But God lives on holy ground, with glory we dare not see unless He makes it possible, and He acts in ways that contradict all reason and human expectation.  Who would give up his only son to save strangers who were enemies and guilty, undeserving sinners?  No one, of course, except God.  He does not need us but we need Him.  Salvation is no transaction but surrender -- surrender of our self-imagined value for the reality of what sin has made of us for the value God in the great surprise of His mercy has placed upon us.  Not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious body in suffering and His blood shed.  He does not need us but He wants us and though we do not want Him, we need Him most of all.  Faith is the Holy Spirit teaching us to want what we need.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The power to end fear. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, preached on Sunday, April 11, 2021.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!   He is risen, Indeed.  Alleluia.

    Frank Herbert’s great scifi thriller Dune includes this prescient phrase:  “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”  The phrase is set in the context of a test.  The hero puts his right hand into a device that creates pain in his mind.  It was a test of his humanity.  Intuitively we run from fear but it is possible to overcome our fear.

    Fear was the mind-killer for Jesus’ disciples.  It choked their memory and clouded their reason.  They should not have been surprised by His resurrection from the dead.  Jesus had told them as often as He prophesied His suffering and death that He would rise from the dead.  He had told them to head to Galilee where He would wait for them.  But in their ears and minds they did not hear.  They did not believe.  They were transfixed by their fear.  The women who went to the tomb on Easter ran back home in fear.  Peter and John who ran to the tomb to find out what happened were caught up in fear.  Now it found them behind locked doors waiting.  Jesus had already come once in the night and through the locked doors.  They had seen the risen Savior once but a week later they were still behind locked doors.  Fear is a killer of faith.

    It has been a year now since we lock up our doors, hid behind our masks, shut down our economy, and waited for a virus to go away.  Fear kept our nation captive and we are still afraid.  It will not take much to shut down our schools again, to furlough workers from their jobs, to empty the stores, bars, and restaurants, and close churches.  Fear is the mind-killer.  It is the little death that kills our hope and steals our confidence and holds us captive.  I am speaking here to Christians who should know better.  We confess a Gospel of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting but, if given a choice, too many of us will choose being safe today over any risk that may come to us in God’s house, gathered with other sinners around His means of grace.

    When Thomas missed out on Jesus’ coming and rejected the witness of the disciples who had seen the Lord, Jesus showed up to call him to repentance and to faith.  It is time for truth telling now.  We need to repent.  We need to repent of our faith held captive by our fears.  We need to repent of believing the Gospel but not enough to risk living life with this hope – especially in the face of a pandemic.  We need to repent as a church body for the way we closed doors and left the people of God to fend for them selves with videos instead of the body and blood on the tongue and the Word in the ear.
Pastors like me need to repent of trying to calm fears instead of preaching repentance. Fear is not a crises to be managed.  God does not manage the crises of our lives but confronts them with the power of the resurrection.  H calls His people to believe, to trust, and to live prudently, to be sure, but to live faithfully.  We all have enough to repent of and none of us is without blame or shame.  But look at how Jesus deals with the fearful.

    Jesus does not try to tell Thomas or the rest of the disciples that their fears were not real or legitimate.  Instead, He points them to the one thing more powerful than fear. He shows them the signs of the Kingdom in the scars of His suffering and the marks of His death.  He confronts Thomas with the death that killed death and the life that death cannot overcome.  The only way out of fear is the Gospel, spoken through the mouth of the preacher by the voice of the Savior, felt in the splash of baptismal water that has the power to give new life, and tasted in the bread that is His flesh and the wine that is His blood.  Jesus calls Thomas to repentance and to faith.  Jesus does not shame Thomas into believing but neither does He let Thomas off the hook.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.  Fear is the mind-killer and the little death that can only be answer by the Word and Sacraments which deliver Jesus to us behind the locked doors of fear in our hearts.  That is why the doors of the Church cannot close.

    What happens when we neglect the Word of God, the House of the Lord, the Table of our Savior, and a life of prayer?  Fear will gain the upper hand and it will not be long until fear turns into bitterness and anger.  Unless I see and touch the marks in His hand and side I will never believe.  What happens when we absent ourselves from the means of grace?  Well, look around you.  A year of pandemic and threat and our numbers are smaller, those who assemble in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s day has been reduced by the power of fear.  Some may return but others are lost.  The fear that held them captive has killed off their faith and without the voice of God preached into them and the baptismal water to remind them and the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood to feed them, they have surrendered their faith to their fears.

    When pastors harp on going to church it is not because they like big numbers or because it makes them feel better to see full pews over empty ones.  Of course these things are true and they appeal to the vanity of every preacher, me included!  But when pastor preach against skipping church, forgetting Bible study, putting off prayer. . . it is because this is the surest way to lose your faith.  The second largest church in the world is the church of those who used to be Christians.  Imagine that.  Larger than any real  Lutheran church body is one called Used to Be Lutheran.  It is true of every church.  The lapsed in every age outnumber those present on any given Sunday.  But the loss is not to the Church – it is the loss of faith to the people whom God loves and to whom God speaks peace and an end to the reign of fear.

    American Christianity has staked its claim to having an individual relationship with Jesus and we have bought into the lie that the Church is optional to this relationship.  We have a cowboy mentality – me and Jesus against the world!  We mock the Church and criticize pastors and ridicule doctrine and when threats come, we deem the Church non-essential.  We presume an online sermon or virtual sacrament is enough. Is it no wonder the pews are empty and the children do not take the faith seriously?  If we have not surrendered to our fears, we have surrendered to our pride – we don’t need God or at least we don’t need Him right now.  St. Thomas tempted God and we as a culture tempt Him all the time.  But we are so foolish that we do not realize that we are the losers, not the Lord.

    Jesus comes to the locked rooms of our hearts and lives over and over again.   He comes with the
wounds that bring healing, with the scars of His victory, with the fruits of His faithfulness, with the redemption paid for by His blood, and with hope that answers the power of fear.  The spirit is willing and the flesh is always weak but too often the spirit is also weak and that means the flesh is dead.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, dear people loved by God, do not surrender to your fears.  Fear will hold you captive, it will choke off your faith, and it will leave you alone in your sins and death.

    The Lord calls us forth from the prison of our fears, from the arrogance of our pride, from the destiny of death.  On our own we are weak and we are vulnerable but standing together in Christ we are strong enough to meet every enemy of Christ, every deception, and every fear.  On our own we will wither and die but connected to God’s Word and truth, hearing that Word preached into our ears and minds and hearts, and being fed and nourished upon the flesh and blood of Christ, we will be sustained in our baptismal hope and in the promise of everlasting life made to us in that water.  And the life that matters will own us and we will own it in Christ and it will never end.

    So come, sons and daughters of Adam, brothers and sisters of Thomas, come and hear, come and receive, come and believe.  For the Lord who has brought you out of this body of death and sin has come here to this Upper Room.  He has walked through the locked doors of your hearts and your fears.  He has spoken peace to you once more, preached that peace into you, and now feeds you at His table of peace, where the reconciliation grace of God becomes our food for everlasting life.  Come.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be ashamed.  Christ is here.  With forgiveness, with life, and with salvation.

    Alleluia!  Christ is risen!   He is risen, Indeed.  Alleluia.  Amen.

Extremism and Orthodoxy

The world has been turned upside down.  Perhaps it always was that heresy and apostasy were more popular than orthodoxy, I cannot say for sure.  But I do remember a time when Christians would unite across denominations to condemn unorthodox and heretical assertions.  It is a modern phenomenon that those who challenge the factual basis of the faith and the dogmatic assertions of the creed can count on the cover of support from the pews and silence from the chancel.  One need only look to the way things have changed since the 1800s and the question of difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Scripture, between God's creative work in bringing all things into being as they are and evolution, and between the institutions of marriage and family and the changing tastes of people.  Now, it often seems, that orthodoxy is the exception and those positions once in the fringes now rule the day.

It seems shocking that we must say it but say it we must:  Orthodoxy is not extremism.  While abortion may have focused the debate, it is not the whole issue.  In every way, modernity has managed to coax from the shadows and fringes every form of strange thinking, every challenge to truth, and every skepticism over what the Scriptures say.  Of course, it is not simply about abortion.  The pro-life causes  extends the protection of life to those born as well as those not yet unborn, to men as well as women, to the poor as well as the rich, to the infirm as well as the healthy, to the without education as well as the highly educated.  While such orthodoxy could be simply humanitarian, it is only Christianity that has stood up to fight for those most vulnerable.  It is the exercise of power by the powerful that gives to the woman the right to kill the child in the womb, to the state to ease the aged and frail into death, and to the troubled in mind the right to decide to end the life they find at the moment to be not worth living.

The same could be said about every article of the creed.  We do not preserve some form of quaint antiquity when we assert that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God in flesh and that He was raised from the dead on the third day.  The very mention of Pontius Pilate plants this faith in historical fact and not in the opines of the intellectual or the superstitions of the ignorant.  We confess the faith, we confess the Gospel, we confess the Church.  We do so as a people who live in the long line of the faithful who before us stood where we stand -- on the Word of the Lord that endures forever. Such orthodoxy is not extreme or exceptional but ordinary.  Anything else is exceptional and hypocrisy.  Why would we say words we do not mean or change their ordinary meaning to fit the shibboleths of modernity?  The only honest thing for those who disagree, if they have such integrity, is to abandon the use of the creeds, of the confessions, of the catechisms, and of the liturgy they cannot pray as a people who believe those words.  It is this very hypocrisy that has become the major challenge to the orthodox Christian faith -- not from government or culture or academia but from within the Church by those who confess its words without believing what they say.

Finally, this same truth can and must be expressed to the liturgy.  It is not extreme to believe what we pray, to confess what we sing, and to live under the discipline of this piety.  This is what it means to be orthodox.  So when the pastor genuflects at the consecration or the bells are rung, this is not about a ceremony but about faith in and the confession of the Real Presence.  Christ is here as His own word and testament promise.  And when the the pastor genuflects or bows at the homo factus est in the creed it is not a quaint ritual but the belief in and the confession of Christ's incarnation.  If we would bow before the Lord standing before us in flesh and blood, why would it seem exceptional to bow or genuflect before Him as we confess that incarnation?  Or when the pastor bows his head at the name of Jesus or crosses himself at the appropriate moments in the Divine Service, is this simply a show or is it not an expression of the faith in and the witness of the meaning and power and efficacy of what has been said, sung, and prayed?  So also, when the faithful in pews mirror these ceremonies, they are not simply mimicking what the pastor does unknowingly but adding their own amen of action and piety to the same faith and making the same confession before their neighbors in the pews and the world watching.

No, my friends, orthodoxy is not extreme.  It is the norm against which every heresy, false doctrine, apostasy, impiety, and carnality challenges -- as an outsider to the inside, as a rogue to the solemn assembly, and as an alien to the homeland of the faithful.  In the Church we need to stop acting as if we are somehow the extremist, the exception, or the oddity.  One cannot be devout and flaunt what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Those reprehensible Boomers. . .

Let it be known that I am a Boomer.  It is not something I have to advertise.  Most folks can judge it from my appearance.  That said, it is not something I say with a great deal of pride, either.  Now, it seems, the negative view of the Boomers has occasioned another book.  Helen Andrews, an Eastern Orthodox writer serving as senior editor at The American Conservative, is the author of a brand new book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (January 2021).  She has a worthy biography, including a B.A. in religious studies from Yale University, a stint as managing editor of the Washington Examiner magazine, one as an associate editor at National Review, and time as a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow in 2017-2018.  While she credits Boomers for the restoration of folk music, she condemns them for the loss of everything else, from high culture to folk culture.  Most of all, she characterizes Boomers as the destroyers of institutions.  Her book is not a tirade against ideas but the chronicle of six prominent and famous American Boomers -- names most of us would recognize.

Steve Jobs she sees as a capitalist of genius proportions but he is responsible for our worst vice -- our addition to those screens that have all but destroyed any other form of communication and made us slaves to this technology.  I cannot quite digest her view of Aaron Sorkin whose legacy is largely forgotten by most.  But she credits him for the modern version of The West Wing practiced by the Biden White House.  Honestly, I had to Google Jeffrey Sachs to figure out her charge against him.  Sachs is considered by many to be one of the world's leading experts on sustainable development, economic development, and the fight to eliminate poverty.  Like too many, he has great gifts but the ultimate hubris to presume to know better than Jesus who said the poor you will always have with you.  Not a few lines of ink and not a few billions have been spent in pursuit of his promised goal.

Camille Paglia, someone who described herself as a “Catholic pagan,” is one person I did not know that much about but Andrews holds her responsible for many wrongs including the rape culture and how it is understood in America.  Strangely enough, she views Al Sharpton positively.  She believes Al Sharpton is doing something that needs doing.  Though he is polarizing and a scoundrel, his voice is one that needs hearing.  If we don't like him, Andrews says, find somebody better to do the same thing.  Odd, and shocking for me, having lived in NY and seen how Sharpton has promoted himself by following everything he can turn into a scandal.  She considers U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Catholic who dissents from church teaching on life issues, a victim who does not know she is a victim.

She finds Millenials both living in the shadow of their Boomer parents and yet with the possibility to finally turn back the Boomer curse.  In the end, she hopes that Boomers will retire into obscurity and die and with them all that they learned from the 1960s and all their anger toward the institutions we need -- even with their flaws.  Andrews sees as the essence of Boomerness: they tried to liberate us but instead of freedom they left behind only chaos.

As one of those who regrets much of what Boomers are known for, I found her critique engaging and witty but not as helpful as it might be.  Boomers have taught the world to find fault with, protest against, and tear down what other generations bequeathed to us and, it is true, they have not repaired the institutions they love to hate.  But the bigger failing is that we produced a generation endowed with all of our failings.  We taught them to be skeptical and they are.  They trust technology more than history, their feelings more than truth, preferences more than morality, and religion almost not at all.  For this we Boomers ought to pray mea culpa.  Maybe I hoped for too much but she did not deliver what I had hoped.



 



Sunday, April 11, 2021

Dealing with demons. . .

Lutherans are not exactly the kind of folks who are accustomed to talking about the devil or the demonic.  Most Lutherans would insist that exorcisms are not even Lutheran.  But I have been thinking even more about the demonic influence in our cancel culture, diversity programs, redefinitions of marriage and family, gender confusion, and such.  I am not off my rocker but taking more seriously than I have before the words of St. Paul about warring against principalities and powers, demons and devils, and spiritual forces aligned together against the Lord and His kingdom.

There was a time when exorcisms were not so uncommon.  In fact, I perform a dozen or more a year.  Shocked are you?  Well then you are not paying attention to baptisms.  We add back in something from Luther.  While Luther’s original revision of the baptismal order (1523) might seem a little foreign to Lutherans of today, it is a part of our tradition and identity -- including the several exorcisms and references to the work of the devil.

In Luther's rite, the priest began by blowing three times under the child’s eyes (an act called the “exsufflation”) and saying, “Depart thou unclean spirit and give room to the Holy Spirit” (LW 53:96; or check the “Alternate Form of Holy Baptism” found in the Lutheran Service Book Agenda, p. 13). The opening prayer implores the Lord to “break all the snares of the devil with which he is bound.”   After Luther’s Flood Prayer, a more extended exorcism of the child, concludes with the words, “I adjure thee, thou unclean spirit, by the name of the + Father and of the + Son and of the + Holy Ghost that thou come out and depart from this servant of God, (Name), for he commands thee, thou miserable one, he who walked upon the sea and stretched forth his hand to sinking Peter.”  Luther emphasizes the seriousness of the exorcisms, writing in the preface: “Remember, therefore, that it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy. Remember too that it is very necessary to aid the poor child with all your heart and strong faith, earnestly to intercede for him that God, in accordance with this prayer, would not only free him from the power of the devil, but also strengthen him, so that he may nobly resist the devil in life and death.”

Sadly, the Rite of Baptism printed in the pew editions of Lutheran Service Book fail to include Luther's exorcisms -- making it odd to use them as opposed to the customary rite in which the reference to the devil is limited to the three renunciations -- of the devil, his works, and his ways.  We should have been smarter than to overlook the wise and pastoral need to include these in the baptismal rite.  Luther revised the medieval rite he knew but that rite preserved aspects of these exorcisms in continuous use since the fourth century (in one form or another).  Most Lutherans retained the exorcism from the 1526 rite although Southern Germans tended to omit it.  Strangely, the Reformed, including Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin, all removed baptismal exorcism -- considering it a papal holdover.

In Luther’s world the devil was real and not simply a superstition retained from earlier days. Luther believed Christ and the Devil were equally real -- one the Redeemer who continues to plead His blood on behalf of sinners and the other who seeks to undo what Christ has done and wrest the sinner from the grasp of His grace.  Luther did not see his belief in the Devil as something to grow out of.  In fact, Luther saw this fight intensify and become personal as he fought for the renewal of the Church and the voice of the Gospel.  For Luther the monastery offered not refuge from the taunts of the devil and the only escape from the ever present threat of the devil was the Word of God.

At minimum every pastor ought to give serious consideration to the restoration of the baptismal exorcism.  If for no other reason that to remind the people of God that we all fall under the lordship of sin, evil, and demonic powers and  to warn us against being witting or unwitting partners in the devil's battle against Christ.  But merely restoring the exorcism is not enough.  Preaching that includes an honest awareness of evil and the forces of the devil reminds us that we are not waging war against flesh and blood, as St. Paul reminds. Restoring the exorcism and talking more openly about the battle waged against the devil reminds us that there are spiritual forces at work in our world.  All our education and erudition has not erased the devil from the world or turned aside his work to wrest the kingdom from us.  It is also helpful to include the baptismal exorcism so that the whole life of the catechumen might remember that they were under the devil and his power until Christ claimed them as His own and this awareness would help them in their work of growing in Christ through the means of grace.  This would not only remind them of the devil's power but drive them into the arms of Christ, into the armor of His Word, and into the need and benefit of being together with the faithful in the Lord's House.  It might even remind us of how beneficial and what a blessing private confession is!

We are not pretending here.  The devil is real.  He was banished from heaven and sent to the earth and Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross to overcome the devil's grasp on God's creation -- on you and me.   The Lord Jesus spoke openly and often about the “Prince of this world” (John 12:12; 14:30; 16:11).  To be faithful to Christ we need to consider His words and heed them.  We are not powerless and weak in the face of the devil or his taunts but the power is Christ's and we are only strong when we stand in Christ.  Perhaps it is about time for us to talk about this more openly and somberly as the world around us proves it is not God's domain but still under the thumb of the prince of darkness and lies.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The cult of personal safety

Will there ever be a time when masks and vaccines and social distancing will cease to be part of our conversation?  Will there ever be a time when we will not be offended by competing ideas and require them to be silenced from the public square?  Will there ever be a time when we will not be offended by history and rewrite our past to expunge what we dislike?  I am not sure that such a time will come, at least not soon.  

We as a people have become followers of a new and powerful idol.  Like the children of Israel, it is not a god imposed upon us but one of our own creation.  We have worshiped this god to the exclusion of reason, prudence, economic security, and real science.  We have pursued this idol with all the forces of power -- media, politics, and personality.  We have silenced every other religion in pursuit of this new deity and laid up restrictions on freedom that in any other time would have been resisted with all our efforts.  Instead of faith, this new religion is fueled by fear and by our relentless pursuit of our own personal safety and security.  Even family is not immune from the piety of a religion in which the protection of me is most important.

Now it appears that our movements and our whereabouts will be not only be tracked but limited by such things as vaccine passports.  We will be told where and when we may come and go.  From air travel to concerts to colleges to churches, it is not too far fetched to see the day when religious access will not only be monitored but controlled.  Yes, the right to worship privately will be maintained with some sort of accommodation but the churches will find themselves persona non grata unless they agree to bow down to the god of safety and acknowledge the legitimacy of those who will tell us what we are to do and when we are to do it, what we are to believe and how we shall practice that belief.

It is easy to write these words on this page.  It will be a far more difficult to combat the tenets of this religion and restore what has been lost to its slavish devotion.  Churches are still making their decisions more on the basis of what will make people safe rather than what should and ought to be done in accord with the faith.  Communities have used law enforcement to keep people away from those churches and to cast doubt and aspersions upon those who would violate rules of assembly.  Politicians have used the bully pulpit to exploit our fears so that we would turn against the very things that once gave us the most profound comfort, hope, and peace.  The media has become the voice of this religion, the prophets and sages who teach us what will keep us safe, what will give us hope, and what is a risk too great to take.  

What are left are churches who have refused to give in.  They have kept their doors open, found ways around the rules to make sure that God's people received the real hope of the Word preached and the body and blood of Jesus.  They have not been arrogant but humble, working outside of the limelight to do what God has given His Church to do in persecution and pandemic and in disaster and death.  And if you are blessed, you have been served by such a quiet and yet courageous congregation and pastor.  For the reality is that the most of our judicatories and the leaders of our various jurisdictions have not been leaders to find ways to bring people to God and bring the things of God to the people.  They have warned us against acting recklessly and have encouraged online versions of what was once thought to be possible only in person.

Preaching has become a media event and the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood profaned by the idea that a digital voice can supply the means to commune at home, in the safety and security of your own abode without the threat of other people around you.  The chalice has given way to the hermetically sealed plastic cups containing juice or perhaps wine and a cracker crumb.  Piety under the pandemic has become solely internal, fed and nourished apart from the external means of grace.  People have been led not by the truth or the wisdom of the faithful but by fear to do what in every other time would be laughed at or ridiculed.  People work from home, eat at home (with food supplied by various services), shop at home, go to school at home, so why not worship at home?

The reality is we do not wear masks or distance or vaccinate to protect others -- we do it to protect ourselves.  There is also another reality at work here.  We have decided that we will do whatever is necessary to protect our lives and in so doing have decided that the treasure of this life is greater than the treasure of the life won by Jesus' death and resurrection.  What did St. Paul mean when he asked if it was better to die and be with Jesus or to live and do the Lord's work?  Are we ready to die, to give up this temporary life for eternal life, whenever it happens?  Do we believe the greater treasure is the life the grave cannot contain or the life that death looms over like a shadow until we die?  At some point we must realize that Jesus did not come into flesh, suffer, and die to provide a safety net of protection for this mortal life.  He did this to provide for us the life that death cannot overcome.  Yes, our Lord healed many but not all and raised some of those who died but not all.  Was it that He did not care about us and our lives or because He knew that the only life He could give us that would not be fragile is the life that His dying would win and His resurrection would bestow?

It has been more than a year.  Even those vaccinated are told to wear a mask or two and social distance and warned that they could still get the virus or spread it.  If we think that we will wake up one day and everything will be back to normal at home or in the marketplace or at church, we are delusional.  It will not happen suddenly nor will it happen at all as long as the god of personal safety and security is trusted more than the God who embraced death to give us life death cannot overcome. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Control of the narrative. . .

I am old enough to remember when press conferences were not scripted, when questions were not submitted in advance, and when you could see when the right question put the person in the limelight uncomfortably on the spot.  That is a memory which most folks will probably never have.  We have long ago moved into the era when the press are not watchdogs holding leaders accountable but vehicles for the story to get out -- the story crafted and directed by those leaders.  Now we are moving into a new era in which the press are not only the means by which the story is spread but cooperate in development of the narrative which will be published to America.

This was certainly true of Trump.  He had all the access to the media but he never controlled the narrative.  For all his tweeting, he became the story that would work against his goals and the media checked his progress in disseminating his story and even called out his story to the point where the persona overrode the content.  This was certainly true of his presidency and of his first impeachment but it is even more true of the events of January 6 and his second impeachment.  The opponents of Trump control the narrative.  Protests that turned into riots over the summer were never called an insurrection and were treated sympathetically by the press and many pols.  A one day event that did far less physical damage by few people has been compared by some to the Twin Towers terrorist attack and perpetuated lies like the one AOC promoted about fearing for her life in the wake of the protest.  Some have even likened the people who marched to the Capitol to the Islamic terrorists in Syria.  Those who challenge this narrative are being labelled as co-conspirators and there seems to be little political room to disagree with the narrative the Democrats, the media, and social media have decided is the only story that should be told.

You can disagree with my statements above and I do not intend to make this simply a political post but follow me along for a while.  There was a time when Christians controlled their own narrative.  Whether because they had influence in the political sphere or a sympathetic audience among the populace or some other reason, the churches controlled their story and how it was told.  At some point in time, orthodox Christianity lost control of the narrative.  We no longer defined the content or packaged the presentation.  Now we live in an era when our opponents, our detractors, and those who claim devotion but digress from the doctrine and practice of the faith control the narrative.  I think this, more than anything else, is what it means to live in a post-Christian era.

We do not like in an era like the early church when pagans had not heard the Gospel and encountered the message of Jesus Christ for the first time.  Modern day pagans are sure they already know what the Gospel is (even though what they know bears little resemblance to the Scriptures or tradition).  They may be rejecting a false characterization of the Gospel but they think they are rejecting the true Gospel.  Since we do not control the narrative anymore, we struggle to challenge their claim.  Since the media and social media have control of the narrative of Christianity, we are told that the Church is hopelessly misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-science, and a host of other things untrue.  This narrative is so powerful that some churches, perhaps many, have decided that their only future is to accept what this false narrative says, condemn the Scriptures and tradition for their sins, and fashion a new gospel that is in keeping with the socially and theologically correct and woke perspective of the day.  The rest of Christianity is portrayed as a leadership hopelessly out of touch with the people, promoting an oppressive lie that should not be tolerated, and motivated by the desire for money and power.

Some are trying to go along with the media in the hope that they can offer an alternative story -- sort of like the Republicans who never liked Trump but are not ready to impeach him again either.  It is a tenuous position more fraught with problems than success.  Since our access to media is limited and our brand is already tainted, I am not at all sure that this is a viable option.  The media is fully adept at exploiting every crack and weakness -- look at how they manipulate Rome and have fashioned Francis in their image against those who simply think doctrine matters.  If Rome, with all its size and deep pockets finds itself a pawn in the hands of those who control the narrative, I am not sure that a small Lutheran body has much of a chance.  Think of its concordat with China in which the Vatican gives up the faith to preserve the church.  Is that the win we hope to achieve?

So what do we do?  The long bantered about Benedict Option addresses this.  It does not advocate hiding from the world but it does call us to abandon our attempts to compete on their turf with those who have wrested control of the narrative from us.  Our battles are better fought locally as Christian people who confess rightly and live holy lives -- this being the primary domain of our witness.  We will not win over societies or change cultures but we will transform the world one soul at a time.  This is exactly the time to trust in the promise of the Lord who insists His Word will not return to Him empty handed and His purpose will not be thwarted by devil, principality, or earthly power.  This is exactly the time to deal with less angst about the picture of the world as a whole and to be God's man or woman in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, etc...  Who knows if the world will pause to notice how much they love one another but that is God's problem and not ours.  Even though we cannot reclaim the narrative from the media and our enemies on the larger forum we can restore the truth on a local level -- the truth proclaimed from pulpit, lived out in confession, rejoicing before the altar, and confessed in word and works from the Church into every aspect of our daily lives.

The lesson of Trump is that it really does not matter what you say or do not say if those who control the narrative have decided you are the enemy.  We in the Church are not in a political game but neither are we going to make much headway in the drumbeat toward secularism in which the only good Christ is the Christ who stands for nothing more but permission to do as you please and in good conscience.  No, it is time for us to stop fighting for control of the narrative on a national scene and working to regain control of our story on the local level.  That is the primary place we are called to serve anyway.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Interesting. . .

The lessons we teach are not always the lessons we intend.  I was talking to a young family the other day -- a family at that point hunkered down and not going to church, doing online school for their children, working from home, etc... for a year.  I asked them when they might think about coming back to church (which they never missed prior to COVID).  They were unwilling to come without everyone being masked and a dozen feet away and no Holy Communion or Sunday school.  They insisted that they were protecting their small children, wanting to keep them from harm (every parent's wish) so that they could grow up and experience life and make choices and do things -- as they did.  It is the familiar mantra of parenting.  Our job is to get our kids safely through childhood and into adulthood where we let them screw it all up, right?  Well, maybe not quite that crassly phrased.

Anyway, I mentioned that they were depriving their children of one choice.  They looked at me with shocked eyes.  What choice?  By choosing not to attend church and avail themselves and their children of the Church's educational ministries as well, they had already made a choice to raise their children to see these things as alien or foreign to their lives and identities.  A year is a long time.  The first time back (if that time comes), would be like the first time ever for a small child whose memory is not deep.  In fact, that is precisely the problem with the hunker down option.  For adults it is relearning an old habit again.  For small children it is learning something brand new -- for the first time.

One of the inadvertent consequences of hunkering down during the COVID time has been depriving our children of a significant portion of their lives, specifically the flourishing of their faith through their hearing of the Lord's Word and the experience of their place within the great assembly.  The Church may lose more than we expected as over the past year and continuing in this new year some of our people think they are doing their best parental duties by shielding their children from a virus -- no matter the consequences in other aspects of their lives.

I would love to believe that these children are still enjoying lessons from the Scriptures, their parents are still teaching them to pray and praying with them, and they are practicing the songs of the liturgy and great hymns of the faith.  I would love to believe it but this parent admitted their record has been spotty.  Working from home, watching over small children at the same time, and trying to care for the household do not leave much time and energy for teaching the faith.  Especially when the world around you has conditioned you to believe that the most urgent threat is protecting their lives and everything else is either non-essential or it can wait.

While I still long for the day to see them return, I have learned that many of them will not be back.  Their catechesis and faith have been tested against the backdrop of mortal fear over a year and it is hard to find time or room for Jesus who has purchased and won them eternal life when you are trying to get them through the next 24 hours safely. . .

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

One God or God. . .

Apparently I have been asleep at the wheel, so to speak, because I missed the change that occurred on Ash Wednesday when Roman Catholic missals and breviaries began omitting the now customary one before God in the longer ending of the collects.  So through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever,  becomes through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, now and forever.

The difficulty lies in that older translation (at least since Vatican II) does not accurately reflect the Latin text.  The Latin does not mention “one” and “Deus” in the Latin text refers to Christ, not to the Trinity. So the change was undertaken to protect the Christological truth of Christ as God in the face of religious pluralism today.  At least that is the official line.  At some point the ICEL (International Consultation on English Language [Texts]) alerted the congregation (department) in Rome charged with this responsibility but they chose to overlook it. . . until now.

I guess I have been reading it wrong.  Or perhaps I have been so inculturated in the wake of Vatican II and the changes of the liturgical movement that I never recalled the Latin distinction.  That said, I wonder if the distinction will actually work to protect the Christological truth since it is such a minor change and one that would not ordinarily be noticed if one were not familiar with the Latin.  To most folks, the  one God, now and forever ending affirms the unity of the Holy Trinity.  This is certainly a truth as important as the one the change in the new ending to the collects is designed to protect.

Not being Roman and not have a horse in this race, as the old expression goes, it does point out that liturgical texts do have meaning and importance.  Ad libing on Sunday morning needs to be done carefully because small nuances of change and the failure to make things clear have consequences.  There is something to be said about the fact that those charged with editing and publishing new hymnals and agendas have thoughtfully considered such things and have rendered us texts that are not only orthodox but speak well of the faith being confessed into the ears of the hearers.  Having heard innumerable prayers in which I withheld an Amen because I was not at all sure what was being prayed for, I know the truth of this and hope the rest of us do as well.  God is not a grammar Nazi but He surely does care for how we confess His truth in worship, prayer, and witness.  It always accords well to have this in mind when we open our mouths to lead God's people and especially when we lead them in the house of God from the steps of the altar, from the lectern, and from the pulpit.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

When you pass through fire you shall not be burned. . .

Daniel 3:8–28

8At that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. 9They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! 10You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image. 11And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. 12There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

13Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. 14Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

19Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. 20And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.

24Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

26Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. 28Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.”

 


It is political. . .

So Bishop Eaton of the ELCA tweeted out the other day "No human institution decides who is human, who is visible, who is valued.  Human sexuality and gender identity are a beautiful mystery.  Trans people, like all people, are beloved by God."

But if she really meant those words, the ELCA would not support abortion or pay for abortions in their health insurance plan or stand silent before the legal genocide of millions since 1973.  But since the ELCA does support a woman's right to choose, pays the bill for abortions without hesitation, and has no voice on behalf of the unborn, it is clear that these are not just words, these words do not mean what they say, and they are not theological.  These are political words.  The issue is political and so a theological approach to this issue will not suffice.  Neither will it compromise the political stance since the words could and should also apply across the board (including the unborn) if they meant something at all.  But they have no theological or moral meaning except to show solidarity with a political stand.

A human institution has decided who is human.  The SCOTUS and a body of law since its landmark decision in 1973 have done exactly that.  The current US President has insisted that this must be protected with legislation to safeguard the woman's right of choice should perhaps the courts reconsider the decision.  By this decision, the court has decided that the unborn are invisible before the law and have neither voice nor standing.  Further, they have decided to value the mother and her choice over the life of the child in her womb.  This is a value judgment not only at odds with the Bishop's tweet but also in consistent with other laws (particularly the laws that would charge one with murder for the killing of the child in the womb).  It is not theology.  It is not science.  But it is politics.

Quite apart from the rightness or wrongness of the stance itself, the idea that a church body would choose politics over theology is itself an issue worth a conversation.  Of course, the ELCA is not the first nor will it be the last to do so but it has, of late, been a pretty reliable and consistent voice for the politics of sexual preference and gender identity.  When the 2009 CWA chose to ignore Scripture and Lutheran confessional stand on same sex marriage, it did acknowledge that this was a breach of continuity and that this was a new path.  Yet what it did not acknowledge or admit was that this was a political stance and a political stance in conflict with the whole history of the Church's beliefs and teaching through the ages.

Such a statement by a church body and its leader only illustrates the moral bankruptcy of churches who have chosen the politics over the truth.  Furthermore, they have done so by raising up a straw man.  No one says that the trans are not loved by God or that God does not also seek their redemption as He does any sinner.  No one has suggested that trans or any other be stripped of their rights to live and work and own property but this church body and those who share this political view find no conflict in stripping the unborn of their right to life, of their own future of work as members of society, and of their right to establish a home.  The inconsistency here is not theological and never was.  It was and is political.  The sooner this is admitted, the sooner these churches can give up the illusion of theological and moral integrity.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Still on the road. . .

Luke 24:13–49

13That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

My friends,

We are on the road as well.  When we think we are alone, our Lord is still with us.  He is still known in the breaking of the bread, still heard in the voice of His Word, still absolving the repentant of their sins, still hearing the prayers of His people, still inspiring praise, still guiding the lost, still making our hearts burn in His presence, and still delivering us from all our enemies.  So, do not be afraid or lose heart.  The Risen Lord is among us still and will not abandon those for whom He shed His blood.  Trust in the Lord and you will not be disappointed.