Friday, April 30, 2021

Ancient and Ever New. . .

We are told that the content of the faith must not change but the liturgy must.  At least that was the mantra of the liturgical movement.  While some may acknowledge some slow and incremental changes over many years, the liturgical movement fomented abrupt change over very few years.  Literally, the faithful went to church on Sunday morning one week as generations had done before them and then the next week they found themselves in great disconnect with the saints who went before.  While this is most profoundly true of the Roman Catholic Church and the great shift that took place between the Tridentine Mass in Latin and the Novus Ordo in relatively common English (or other vernacular) the next, it is also true of Lutherans.  While some of those changes were important and had to happen, the fact that they happened as abruptly as they did vitiated against the very good things that were being introduced.

In the end, however, the most profound change to the liturgical churches has been the fact that the liturgy has been treated more and more as if it were a rough draft of options to be sorted out and implemented locally.  Again, this is true of Rome but, in many cases, even more true of Lutherans.  It is not simply that our liturgical identity has changed as a group but has given birth to changes so local as to defy branding Sunday morning with Lutheranism.  What is done and how it is done has become so diverse as to undermine the very unity of the faith.  In this, I am not thinking of the additions to the Divine Service but the omissions.  It is not simply what is added but what is subtracted from Sunday morning -- for the sake of relevance or brevity or taste.  

Further, the justification for these changes is said to be missional.  The goal of making disciples is a more lofty goal and more noble purpose than maintaining the liturgical traditions of our Confession.  Even among more confessional souls, the by-word of our times is adiaphora -- anything goes since nothing is required.  The conflict of mission and piety, outreach and worship, has been coming for a while but now it is so entrenched that I wonder if it has not become part of the sacred but oral tradition that we hand down -- and one more powerful that the written ones (like rubrics).

It must be wondered how many empty pews are due to the abandonment of the liturgy and the loss of the mystery of God's presence replaced with toe tapping music and a down home casual attitude toward the presence of God.  I well know that liturgical formality has been the scapegoat of several of the last generations and in an effort to loosen things up the liturgical was blamed instead of the people in the chancel or in the pews.  How foolish it was and is to blame the form for the sins of those using it!  We have embraced the idea that diversity is good and local option is better than national identity to the point where we may never recover a sense of who we are or ought to be on Sunday morning.  The genie is out of the bottle and technology has allowed us to go where we never went before.  What we are lacking is any sense that what we can do is not what we should, that what is possible may not be beneficial.  I read that somewhere.

The pandemic has contributed its share of liturgical anomalies to modern views of worship and liturgy and they will not be quickly forgotten.  The further deterioration of our liturgical identity as confessional Lutheran people will come as the bad or merely expedient things we learn from COVID 19 are woven into the fabric of our already locally optioned version of the worship book.  What we will have lost is the perspective of what is ancient and yet ever new -- the witness of the saints who went before us and our unity with those who passed onto us the sacred deposit.  As Dr. Nagel put it in the old hymnal, we are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition.  Unfortunately and to punish those who come after us, we have disregarded that tradition in favor of things no older than our last thought and no more relevant that the previous whim we dropped everything to follow.  The saints may wince and Jesus may cry but the real suffering is foisted on those who hear and believe and are simply looking for a place where what they heard about is lived out.  That is the goal and purpose of the local congregation -- to give the faithful (young or old) the place where the inheritance of the saints meets the confession and excitement of the moment to extend what was first given us and more may receive it still.

We all know what happened with New Coke or any other new and improved brand that has sacrificed its identity and integrity for the chance to call itself nothing like it was before.  We can only pray that the very name does not become tainted with the worst we invent to replace the best of what went before.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Who will we follow now?

Becoming a pastor in 1980, I saw the fascination with Evangelicalism first hand.  We began to listen to church growth gurus who promised revitalization and growth to a stalled and stagnant church body.  We learned a new vocabulary and began to speak like people who did not share our confession.  We watched how evangelicals worshiped and learned to skip parts of the liturgy or abandon it entirely.  We turned the sermon into therapeutic words designed to help people reach the goals they set for their lives.  We silenced the mighty organ and replaced it with a band that played with a beat much like the songs we listened to in our homes.  We practiced new songs that sang less Christ and what He did to save us and more about how we felt about Him.  We saw that the evangelicals were the rising stars in American Christianity and wanted to join them in their journey to popularity, power, and influence.  Encouraged by district officials and even Synod programs that mirrored the evangelicals and their church growth methods, we began the process of remaking our churches to be what we thought the people around them wanted to be.

We were not alone.  Lutherans were not the only ones watching and learning.  Much of American Protestantism joined the movement to dress up their churches in the borrowed clothing of evangelicalism.  Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and even Episcopalians all started to look eerily similar.  We all agreed that though this was not who we were in confession, it was who we needed to be to jump on the growth train to rescue us from oblivion.  As the stagnation became decline, the numbers pushed us to desperation.  It was our duty to do whatever was necessary to make the church grow.  The cause of Jesus was, after all, more important than creed, confession, liturgy, and piety.  It began to seem shallow and self-serving to choose faithfulness over outreach.  Those who did were painted with the harshest judgment of all -- maintenance workers.  Jokes were rendered about who would turn out the lights and lock the door when the last old man or old lady still clinging to their hymnal died.  Books were written to make light of our dullness -- how many Lutherans does it take to change a burned our light bulb?  None, we never change anything.

But now, it seems, America is no longer in love with the evangelicals or their wannabes.  The election has cast a shadow over evangelicals because of their overwhelming support for Trump.  It did not help that prominent stars in the evangelical spotlight have had their reputations tarnished for financial or sexual improprieties.  It did not help that evangelicals were divided over abortion and the cause of life.  It did not help that evangelicals have been slow to join the woke culture and adopt the full LGBTQ+ agenda.  It did not help that the growth of the nones has diluted the prestige of the evangelicals as a social force or voting block.  It did not help that the evangelicals found themselves a less exclusive group when more and more Protestants and even Roman Catholics began to mimic their style.  But the end reality is that most Christians no longer have evangelicals as a group to emulate in the hopes of rescuing themselves and their denominational structures.  The shine is off their star.  So who will we follow now?

I cannot guarantee what jurisdictions and leaders will do but I would suggest that now might be a good time to be who we are.  The lie of separating style and substance has never served us well and many who sought hope in evangelicalism were half-hearted enthusiasts at best.  We all knew that this is not who we really were.  So how about trying to be who we actually are.  In worship, in creed, in confession, and in identity, let us be the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  Let us stop apologizing for who we are.  If who we are is not Biblical, if it deviates from the catholic faith (as Augustana insists), let us reform the reform so that it is in accord with Scripture and the great tradition.  But if we read our confessions, confess our creeds, and pray our liturgy because they are faithful, let us not be embarrassed by this.  This is not our crutch but our foundation, not our weakness but our strength.  The Church that grows by lies and deception is not the Church established by Christ.  The truth still sets us free.  So let us cast off every constraint of fear over what those outside the faith might think of us or a path devoid of crosses and work and follow Christ, being the Church in its fullness.  The world cannot overcome and the devil cannot stop the work of the Spirit acting through the means of grace.  If that Word and Sacraments are the beating heart of who we are, whatever God chooses will endure and we will be just fine.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Science does not lead. . .

Follow the science!  At least that is the mantra of those who speak to us of mask wearing, social distancing, vaccinations, sexual preference, and gender as a fluid concept.  The science, they say, is the objective voice.  But that is the problem.  Science does not live in a vacuum.  Science is affected by the cultural norms of a particular group at a particular moment just like everything else is affected by them.

In the 1980s AIDS came on the scene.  It was a disease that was easily preventable but it got caught up in the movement for gay pride and it was not treated as a treatable disease.  The science told us that this was a disease that could be stopped but because it was largely confined to a gay community in search of social legitimacy and enjoying the support of media, the disease was treated differently than COVID 19 was treated.  The science had to follow the culturally accepted norms of the day.  It took longer for AIDS to be dealt with largely because of a movement looking for a moment.

Jump ahead forty years and we see the same thing happening.  The science does not yet speak with a uniform voice about much of anything.  In fact, some of the basic questions raised in the beginning remain unanswered.  Everything from how long immunity lasts for those who have recovered from COVID 19 to whether vaccines still allow someone to pass an infection to others are still questions with a variety of answers depending upon the source.  This post is not about these questions but about the fact that while we want science to speak with one voice and definitively, science does not.  In fact, science is all over the page and the voices we hear are those which accord with the culturally accepted norms of the moment.

The same is true of a host of questions.  With respect to abortion, we do not follow science.  Abortion once hinged on viability but the fetal viability has changed since 1973 and the law has nothing to do with the medical science anymore.  Furthermore, generally the science has always been that the child in the womb is a child and the SCOTUS did not listen to the science in this matter.   We could mention gender dysphoria which is a disorder but no one is listening to the science on this either.  Cultural considerations outweigh the science on both matters.

There is only one objective truth that does not change -- the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  But cultural considerations often render its voice silent because it will not be manipulated by the mood of the moment or because it has the nerve to condemn what our wills desire.  Science does not lead us.  It follows the culture and the only science allowed to speak is the science that we approve.  In this, the culture treats everyone the same.  Speak only if what you say conforms to the thought and speech police enforcing the point of view currently in vogue.  Follow the science -- political science!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

How quick we were to go ditigal. . .

When microphones were first offered for worship, many were not so sure it was a good thing.  On the one hand, a mic gives the speaker an excuse not to project.  On the other hand, it treats the things of God as if they were only beneficial if broadcast out to every pew.  Plus, it gave people a reason why to sit in the back.  When cameras first were used to photograph or video worship services, there were not a few who had reservations.  After all, the camera is sort of like a spy glass that make voyeurs of all of us, peering into something meant to be private and intimate.  I guess we have gotten over our angst since we rather quickly have moved to video of the Divine Service and without much thought about it.  The pandemic made us think we did not have much choice.

My point here is not to attack anyone.  Lord knows our people were in desperate need to have some form of church and when government and fear kept the churches closed, video was about the only way to reach them.  That said, I am not convinced that what was expedient in an unusual time should become normative in regular times.  And, in fact, the fears that were expressed when media were first employed by the churches are not that far off.

The concern is legitimate.  It has become sort of liturgical porn.  We have taken the sacred and put it on the screen in a way that has not preserved its sacred character and has made it somewhat profane.  The head bowed down in prayer, the host placed upon the tongue, the silence that hides the fervent prayers of God's people for their most urgent needs -- all of these things are personal and rather intimate.  Yet we have braved ahead to shine the cameras on everything and to allow what takes place within the sacred to live in whatever environment the people find themselves when they watch.

I am not at all suggesting that those who have used media during this pandemic are bad pastors or thoughtless clergy -- some are but most are simply trying to make the best of a terrible situation.  However, we dare not forget that everything that happens on Sunday morning is understood to be for those present, before the altar and pulpit.  There is an essential difference between what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears within the great assembly and that which we watch on a screen.  I am not saying that media cannot be useful for some things but no social media or video can extend the wonder of the mystery directly into the life of the Christian living.  It is by nature distant and artificial.  Again, that does not mean that media is unsuitable for every application but it is particularly lacking when it comes to replacing the experience of the Divine Service in person.

Please listen to what I am not saying.  I am not saying that the internet is evil (even though for all its promise it has served evil more than the good of God).  Because of the timing or weather concerns, I have participated in telehealth conferences with my physician.  I have attending far too many hours of zoom meetings.  I have written thousands of blog posts.  All that said, however, there are things the screen can do and many things it cannot.  The sooner we admit to this the better we will be equipped to use it well and not to use its gift poorly.  At the heart of this is the realization that we are not spectators at the Divine Service but recipients of God's gifts and responders in the corporate song of praise.  What may be possible with preaching and teaching is impossible for the reception of the Sacrament and the singing together of the liturgical song of the Church.  At the best, our digital realities should make us even more hungry to be together in person, receiving His gifts and responding with praise and thanksgiving. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Strong Good Shepherd. . .

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter 4B, preached on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

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

    This Sunday suffers from too much sentiment and not enough truth.  The Good Shepherd has become a cartoon figure and lambs a sweet image without meaning.  It is a comforting image and we love comfort which costs us and the comforter nothing.  Yet that is the point.  The Good Shepherd insists that in order for Him to be the Good Shepherd it will cost Him everything.  I am the Good Shepherd because I lay down my life for the sheep.  He cannot comfort unless He first offers Himself into our enemy death for the purpose of forgiving our sins.  He alone is the Good Shepherd because He alone dies for His sheep.

    Jesus is no victim of a mob out for blood or some puppet ruler on the throne of Israel or some Roman governor placed in this forgotten corner of the empire.  Jesus is not a victim of the power or will of others.  Jesus has authority.  The Father loves Him and has granted to Him this authority over all things and Jesus uses this authority to save sheep not worth saving.  He has authority to lay down His life and He has authority to take it up again.  He is the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd has authority.  He manifests His authority not to demand from us the price that will pay for our sin but He uses His authority to lay down His life for us, to pay for our sins not with silver or gold but with His own precious body and blood on the cross.

    The Good Shepherd is not nice or merely kind.  He is strong; He has power.  The sheep depend upon Him to stand between them and those who would prey upon them.  The sheep depend upon Him to find the lush, green pastures where they can feed until they hunger no more.  The sheep depend upon Him to lead them to the still quiet waters that give life to the dying and refresh the weary.  The sheep depend upon Him to stay focused upon them while they are distracted and to hold up His rod and staff so that they know where He is at all times.  The sheep depend upon Him to pour on their wounds the healing balm that restores their dying flesh.  The sheep depend upon Him to overflow the cup that continually is drained in frustration and disappointment, struggle and sorrow in this life.  The sheep depend upon the Good Shepherd to bring them into the House of the Lord where they dwell forever.  The last thing we need is a nice Shepherd.  We need a strong shepherd with authority.

    Today, when we laud the Good Shepherd, we confess that He is good because He is strong, because He has authority.  We need a shepherd stronger than our enemies, strong enough to sustain us in want, and strong enough to take us where we need to go.
This kind of shepherd looks out on the world and sees the chaos, the power of fear, the anarchy of personal desire, and the failed attempts of humanity to find a way through it to protect the weak, to provide justice for the oppressed, and to make the world’s resources supply what everyone needs.  He is strong enough to confront us with the law; we cannot repair the institutions soiled by sin or find political leaders who are not flawed individuals or to resolve every dispute so that all are happy.  It cannot be done --  not because we don’t want to do it but because we can’t.  Sin has stolen our ability to solve our problems and restore Eden.  We will and we must work to make the best of our lives lived in this world of sin and death but we dare not believe this world can be fixed.

    Our Good Shepherd has not come to band-aid our world but to replace it, to lead us to a new pasture, and to deliver us once for all from our sins of thought, word, and deed, of evil done and good left undone.  Our Good Shepherd has come to build a new heavens and a new earth to replace that which is passing away.  He is not simply a refuge in the storm but the builder of a new kingdom not of this world, for us, His sheep, who are in this world.  He has authority.  We do not need a shepherd who will tell us everything is going to be okay.  We need a shepherd who is strong enough to make it okay.  To carve a path for us through the decay and death and bring us to the place where sin cannot rule and death cannot reign.  That is why He is good..

    Over the past months a new term has come to describe us as people.  We are called sheeple.  It is meant to be a derogatory term.  It means we will believe anything and follow anyone and do anything.  It means we cannot think for ourselves or do for ourselves or discern the difference between fake news and truth, between voodoo medicine and real medicine.  Well, guess what.  It is true.  We are not wise or strong or thoughtful.  There is an arrogance among us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, to presume science offers a uniform and unassailable truth, and to judge religious truth less true.  If we could rise above sin or think our way out of all the dilemmas we face, we would not need a Good Shepherd.  We are simply people, men and women of unclean minds, hearts, and lips.  The miracle is that God still has loved us with the powerful love that has rescued us from sin, death, and from ourselves!

    We think we need more time or better choices or better leaders.  God has supplied us with exactly what we need.  He has given us His Son as our Good Shepherd.  And He has given this Son authority to speak for Him, to act for Him, and to do what He wills.  This is our Good Shepherd.  He sends His Spirit into our hearts so that we hear His voice and recognize that He is the truth so that we might follow in His way.  He lays down His life not for the worthy or the deserving but for poor, miserable sinners, who abandoned Him once and will again unless He stands guard over them.
To call Him the Good Shepherd is not to think of Him as being better than others but to acknowledge His strength and authority, to admit He alone has this authority, and tp confess He has used this authority to make you His, to protect you, to guide you, to  provide for you, and to present you at last to His Father as His most precious possession.

    When Jesus says He has other sheep not of this flock, He is not suggesting that there are other paths to God or other religions of truth.  How foolish!  No, Jesus is telling us that through time and throughout the world others will and are being called into the Kingdom of God by the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments.  The Holy Spirit is at work every the means of grace are brought to bear.  These different flocks are still His flock, still under the authority of His Gospel, and still fed and nourished upon His Word and Sacraments.  But one day, the Good Shepherd will stand upon the earth to address them not with the voice of salvation but with the voice of Judgment – to distinguish between sheep and goats.  Then He will take the sheep into His heavenly kingdom and will banish those who are not sheep to hell.

    If you would be saved, you must be sheep.  Sheeple.  This is not a derogatory term but who we are.  He is not insulting us when He calls us sheep.  At the same time this is a confession of our sin, our weakness, our lost condition, and our death, it is also a confession of the power of Christ’s life to rescue us and redeem us.  He is our Good Shepherd and it is His charge from the Father to save us, to sustain us in this world and in this life, and to deliver us to everlasting life.  He does not appeal to our feelings or desires but to our needs and to His grace sufficient for them all.

    We work our best to be good neighbors in this world, to be faithful witnesses of God’s mercy in Christ, and to be instruments of goodness and virtue.  And we should. But we must never mistake the eternal Kingdom for that which is passing away or the Gospel that saves us to eternal life for fixing what is wrong with this world.  Neither can we afford to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, lest we wander from the Good Shepherd’s care, from the one authority of His Word that forgives our sins, the one power that fills water with everlasting life, and the one food that tastes eternity in the bread and wine that is His body and blood.  Jesus is this Good Shepherd.

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

The Lord be with you, wherever you are. . .

Let me begin by admitting that this post has no scholarly value and is simply my opinion.  So it does not matter if you have all the weight of liturgical scholarship on your side, this is simply what I think and I am probably too old to change my mind at this point.

It began with a question posed for a Roman Catholic blog on why the priest remained turned to the altar (ad orientem) even when the dialog of the preface was clearly focused upon the folks in the pews.  I was curious about this as well.  The answer he was given was:

I think the answer lies in the fact that the whole of the Preface, including the dialogue is considered an integral part of the Roman Canon (read: anaphora, actio, Eucharistic Prayer).  Once that mighty prayer begins, the priest remains properly oriented at the altar.   In ancient manuscripts for saying Mass, there was a notation just before the beginning of the short “dialogue” “Incipit canon actionis… the Canon of the sacrificial action begins”.  So the Preface that followed was perceived as part of the anaphora.

Let me put this in terms that libs will get in a possible new English translation that will be imposed once that last remnants of the JP2/B16 crew are finally extirpated.

The priest summons the community with a strong imperative statement: HEARTS UPWARD!  Sursum corda!  The people respond: OKAY, WE DID THAT (“We have them now presented to God… habemus ad Dominum.”  The priest commands: “LET US GIVE THANKS TO… YOU KNOW… THE THING!” and the people reply, “GREAT IDEA, WE’LL DO THAT TOO! (“It is right and just… dignum et iustum est.)”   And the priest picks up that phrase and runs with it into the Preface: “YEAH, IT’S A GREAT IDEA… vere dignum et iustum est“.  At the end of the Preface comes, seamlessly, the Sanctus… sorry…   santo  santo  santo .  When the maracas and tambourines die down, in the Roman Canon the priest continues with “THEREFORE… igitur…”.  The Canon is a seamless continuation of what has preceded.

It is “right and just”, therefore, for the priest to maintain his sacerdotal position at the altar for the entirety, not turning about this time to say, “Dominus vobiscum” at the introduction to the Canon.

I get the answer.  And the paragraph that begins with the imperative HEARTS UPWARD! is absolutely spot on.  I love it.  Hearts upward!  Let us give thanks!  Yes we will!  I only wish our people heard it that way and our pastors knew that this is what was happening.  But I still do not know why it has to be facing the altar -- especially for Dominus vobiscum.  I understand the practice but sometimes the practice is at odds with the logic of what is being done.  Those words are not directed to the Lord but to the people.  I would think that ad orientem would be easier to explain and to encourage by having the priest turn to the people for the words directed to them and to God for the words directed to Him.  I wonder if this is not one of those instances in which practice moved in a direction that contradicted the words.  I am not a history scholar and have no access to early missals to find out why but I cannot believe that this was the way it was in the beginning.  The point is that such contradiction between what the words say and where the priest is facing only invites departure from the rubrics and that is one thing nearly every liturgical communion struggles to prevent.

Lutherans have had no such question, at least in my experience.  Nearly every Lutheran pastor with an altar against the wall turns to the congregation for the Preface and turns back to the altar for the Proper Preface.  I will admit that those with an altar against the wall (ad orientem) frequently do a half turn for the Words of Institution so that the people can see what is going on.  This despite the rubrics telling him to remain facing the altar.  I will never for the life of me figure that one out.  If they are so desperate for people to see what is going on, pull the altar away from the wall and use it versus populum.  That is one of those strange liturgical innovations that nobody knows where it came from or why but it has persisted despite the rubrics.  I suppose there are many.  The rubrics tend to reflect our theology and to follow them is to practice consistent with that theology.

As far as it goes, I do not have so much a preference as I do a consistent practice.  The altar in my parish is free standing and the ordinary practice is versus populum but what I do is little changed from what it would be if it were ad orientem.  I do not acknowledge the people or look at them except for the Preface.  Everything else is directed where it should be -- to the altar and what the Lord is doing there -- just like their own attention should be.  I do have a small crucifix between me and the people so that I am facing that crucifix even though I am also facing the people.  I hope the day comes when I can find a double sided crucifix that is not too large so that we are both facing Christ for this part of the Divine Service but it is not so urgent.  The point is when we address the people, we ought to face them but when we address the Lord, whether the people are in our view or not, our attention is not on them.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Easter's surprise. . .

There are very few folks I have known who expect life to really end in death.  Most people, regardless of faith or not, believe that some kind of existence continues after death.  For some it is a kind of grand reunion with nature to be made one with all that lives.  For others it is a life constantly reborn in new and different times and lives.  For others it is a spiritual life without the constraint of flesh and blood.  

Even Christians fall into the trap of believing the Titanic truth -- life will go on.  So Easter is more of an assurance of something that is presumed to exist rather than the surprise of something new or radical.  Easter joy is that what we hoped for and expected is true -- some part of us will live on after death has claimed us.

This is not, however, the message of Jesus.  He has not come to assure us of a vague and spiritualized future.  Rather, He has risen from the dead to reveal the shape of the things to come.  The life He offers is not some sanitized version of a movie script or pious version of the hope that nearly everyone has for a life beyond death.  He has risen from the dead to show us that the life that death cannot overcome is a real life, a life of new and glorious flesh.  He eats and yet walks through locked doors.  He is here and can be touched and then is gone.  He is seen but not recognized and then is known.  We know not what to make of it but we don't have to.  He has not come to explain Himself to us but to prove that He has done what He said, that He is trustworthy and true, and that He is the first born of many to follow.

Jesus is not a disembodied spirit who has left flesh behind but wears the glorious flesh and blood and bone of a real man (“. . . handle me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 23:39).  When Thomas' approaches Him, He extends His hands so that His wounds may be seen and invites him to touch His side.  This is one time when sentiment does not live up to reality.

Our sappy dreams of growing wings or living free from the constraints of flesh and blood or seers who look down on us from on high (laughing at us and with us) are unworthy of Easter.  Christ is risen.  He is risen just as He said.  He is risen in flesh, the glorious new flesh of One who died but over whom death has no more power.   As He is, we shall be.  

As Christians we bear a solemn responsibility.  We who have received the good news of this Easter surprise, cannot give into the vain and sentimental notions of a good life or better life or a spiritual life that violates the revelation Christ has made known.  We dare not consent to be comforted by anything less than the full and true reality of Christ's resurrection.  It is the witness of Christ and now it is our witness to the world.  While this has to do with such things as funerals, it has as much to do with the way we speak of the things of Christ and of His resurrection in daily life.  What we say to our children, what we share with our loved ones, and what we pray in our own times of sorrow and loss must accord with the full and rich witness of our Risen Lord.  As dangerous as Easter bunnies and analogies to springtime are, they are not as dangerous to the faith as Christians who are willing to be contented with angel wings and disembodied spirits instead of the glorious promise witnessed in Jesus glorious body and His profound words at His resurrection!  

The surprise was not the empty tomb or an angel in the grave where the body was supposed to be.  The surprise was a bodily resurrection.  And the people of God have confessed this over the centuries:  I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting! 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Diversity. . . some thoughts

We live in a time in which diversity has become the byword, the pulse of our lives, and the penultimate goal of our evolution.  I hear it everywhere.  I read it everywhere.  From the political banter that precedes elections to the thoughts of those who govern to the shape of laws passed or executive orders signed, diversity remains front and center in the thoughts of those who lead us and many of those who are led.

Nowhere is this more true than in education and, in particular, the university.  From curriculum to content to the face of administration and faculty to the events sanctioned by the schools, diversity is never far from the minds and hearts of those who run and fund our educational system.  Even a church preschool gets questions about the diversity of the students or teachers or what is taught.  From literature to political theory to history, diversity commands the attention of those who teach and those who learn -- whether we like it or not.

Churches are not unaffected by it.  There remain the complaints that churches on Sunday mornings remain the most segregated times in America -- strange because church compels no one to attend nor do very many congregations prevent anyone from being there.  National jurisdictions worry that their demographics do not reflect the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity of America as a whole and it is presumed that churches need to be a microcosm of the greater nation in direct proportion to that nation.  Local congregations feel the same angst.  Though the reality is that most congregations are not struggling because they are monocultural as much as they are aging -- unless you consider graying its own culture.

But the reality is that diversity is not as freeing as we might think.  In fact, diversity pigeonholes and divides people.  It is like the meme that shows VP Kamala Harris claiming to be the first black, female VP except that she belongs to a party in which gender does not matter.  Diversity says it does -- everything matters.  Diversity is, in the words of one commenter, ideologically intoxicated.  Diversity requires categorizing and defining people and forcing people to be defined if not by race, ethnicity, language, economic status, or culture, then by sexual desire, gender identity, or some other criteria that is left to the individual to define.  Diversity is about requiring that those elected mirror all the diversity of those who are being represented.  Diversity is about requiring the literature, art, and music have categories that fit all the various categories by which people divide themselves and their preferences and to have these represented at least in proportion to the population.  We may have thought we were moving toward a future in which differences did not matter but we have ended up in a place where those differences matter most of all.

The Church should have something to say about this.  We should be able to address the dignity that comes not from within the person but from the God who gave up His precious Son into our death that we might live.  We should be able to turn people's search for self-worth from the fanciful of feelings or recognition to the God who has loved us and saved us apart from any value or worth we might have to Him.  We should be able to offer to every person the welcome of God's grace over sinners who have lost their way but been found by the Savior who came to seek and to save.  Tragically, too many churches have begun merely mirroring what the world around us says and does about diversity.  So it does matter the color of the skin, the sexual preference, and the gender identity of our pastors and bishops.  What we do on Sunday morning must at least acknowledge this diversity if not celebrate it, giving each a place in the spotlight or else it is offensive.  The Gospel we preach must, before any thought of eternity, address the inequities felt by those who are here now.  Except, of course, that this may mean sacrificing God for the sake of making us feel better.  And that is the saddest fruit of our relentless pursuit of diversity.

Friday, April 23, 2021

What is essential. . .

While reading another blog a while back, a Roman Catholic included this in part of his statement:  the will of the Savior about a necessary element for His Church: the Petrine Ministry.  Then the obvious hit:  because Rome sees the papacy as a necessary element for Christ's Church, there is no church not in communion with the pope.  The only reconciliation in Christendom is one way -- to Rome or not at all.  We play nice in public but Rome is absolutely immovable on this point.  In one sense, the Petrine Ministry IS the core and center of the division because it matters little how much agreement might be made in ecumenical discussion -- the primary of the pope is the only thing that matters.

While Lutherans would affirm that the office of the public ministry (for us the pastoral office) is a necessary element for Christ's Church, having or not having a pope is another matter entirely.  It might be that a papacy by agreement and not by divine right would be beneficial but it could be that such a papacy would be harmful.  One might go no further than the current Pope to illustrate the point.  It is becoming harder and harder for the stalwart Roman Catholics to abide this Pope and more difficult than ever to put up with his inconsistencies, his autocratic rule, his tendency to blame everyone but himself, and his failure to communicate anything bordering on cohesive for the church he leads.  

As a Lutheran, this is not my problem but does affect me and all Lutherans.  Rome is the elephant in the Christian room and when Rome stumbles we all end up with a bit of a bloody nose.  Yet this Pope essentially gives the reason why we Lutherans do not have one.  When popes are good, things are great and when popes are bad, things are terrible.  So much is deposited upon the weight of this one man and this one office.

As Lutherans we have our own problems.  Someone has quipped that Lutherans don't have one pope, they have thousands.  To our harm, just as every parish delights in operating on its own except when it needs something a synod or national or regional jurisdiction can offer, so do our pastors delight in being independent in less than helpful ways to the cause of the Church as a whole.  If for this reason only it would be nice to have a pope who could tell those on the fringes of Lutheran faith and practice to move into the mainstream of our confession and liturgy or depart from us.  But Rome has a pope and it seems almost impossible for this or any pope to rein in the extremes in Rome.  If the essence of the Petrine ministry is unity of faith and practice, then I am not sure this ministry is working, or if it is, if it is worth anything.  Now to be sure, I am confident that Roman Catholics would insist that there is much more to the Petrine Ministry than this, but this is perhaps the most urgently need sign and neither Benedict nor Francis have made much headway on this.  In fact, not even John Paul II for all his tenure in the office did.

The result of our independent ways is that the world is often simply confused.  What does it mean to be Christian?  What is the Church and why is she?  Christianity as a whole has no clear answer to these questions and even within the individual jurisdictions, there is little unanimity.  It is not because the Scriptures are a muddle or the Gospel is veiled.  Christ is the center of God's Word -- its speaker and the One of whom it speaks.  The Gospel is defined over and over again by our Lord.  That the Christ must be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, die on the cross and on the third day rise.  So God is not our problem we are -- a problem not even a Petrine ministry and a pope can fix.  So for a Lutheran who sighs at the ambiguities within his tradition, who looks upon the shallow and broad river that is Protestantism, and who sees the same mess in Rome but magnified by its size, there is little confidence in the Petrine Ministry -- especially when the one who exercises that ministry now is himself a big part of the problem.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Radically relevant. . .

I miss a lot of things and a lot of things are worth missing.  This is a curious one.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been bleeding off members for decades.  Once with 5.2M members, the numbers continue the decline to 3M and below.  Several hundred thousand formed the North American Lutheran Church and less formed Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.  Most have simply stopped coming and nobody knows if they are going to any church.  Anyway, it seems that the ELCA has begun to notice the drop (probably because the financial numbers also reflect the decline in the numbers in the pews).  They have done some thinking about this and have implemented a Future Church design for their denomination that acknowledges the regional and local expressions of the ELCA but is centered on a One Church identity.  With such a redesign comes, inevitably, new mission statements, a reduction in staff, and new departments for the national office.  They think this will help them stem the bloodletting, stabilize the denomination, and even grow their church body.

The three goals of this new design are:

  • A welcoming church that engages new, young, and diverse people. . . 
  • A thriving church rooted in tradition but radically relevant. . . 
  • A connected, sustainable church that shares a common purpose and direction. . .   

The grayest and whitest of the Lutheran bodies has decided that their future lies with new, young, and diverse people.  With a nod to tradition (could this mean Lutheranism?), they intend to focus on what is relevant (as decided by those who are, well, not ELCA?).  This is a green church, a climate change church, in which being sustainable is as important to them as to the environmental movement.  They intend to have a common purpose and direction and, to an outsider, that suggests they will not abide disputes with their chosen future.  That is my snarky take on all of this.

The leaders of the ELCA have mapped this out more fully.  They want to find a way to activate people to invite more people into the way of Jesus so that they may find community, justice, and love.  That is the way of Jesus.  They want to use doctrines of grace and justification to bring freedom and to make sure that theirs is the authentic voice of Christianity.  They believe they are drilling down like Luther to the core of the Gospel message -- holding true to a few core principles and innovating everything else.  They believe in vocation and that when people become the body of Christ and live more fully into that collective, all things are possible.  

They get that people are not going to church so they are going to them.  They are sad that they are so monocultural in a multicultural world.  They hope to embrace other cultures.  They want to be a more vigorous online community because that is where community is at now.  They want to reflect more the diverse makeup of Gen Z.  They believe this is not simply their design for the future but the one the early church had as well.

The leaders believe that 1 in 50 Americans is touched by a Lutheran organization and these are entry points into the goal of 1M more.  Because they see belonging preceding believing, they need to be better at engaging people and being changed by the grace of God.  An innovation department and lab will help this.  They intend to be much more collaborative -- not as a program but as a way of being.   They are on a mission from God to melt away the barriers that once the people already in the pews get a taste of it all they will embrace the future church.

What they do not talk about is salvation.  There was not one mention of the cross.  There were very few references to Jesus at all.  There was barely a mention of Scripture and prayer.  There was no mention of creed or confession.  The only doctrines mentioned were justification and grace (but without context).  Tradition is a legacy but innovation, change, and radical relevance were deemed to be the road ahead -- and this from a church body that is already on the cusp of social, cultural, and gender change.  In the end, it sounds like they are doubling down on the path made crystal clear in 2009 at their church wide assembly.  They believe their church body needs to change not only their clothing but their very understanding of Christianity -- something that has been apparent to outsiders watching them for a long time.  I am sure it will help them to think of themselves as hipsters and rock stars in the church of their imagination but whether it will stem the blood flow or interest people who are getting all of this not from church, well, time will tell.

Let me say that I do not speak from the vantage point of a church body that has it all buttoned up and is doing swimmingly well.  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is not.  We have our own problems and they are many.  What I have said to Missouri, I say to the ELCA.  There is no future for a Lutheran lite style of church, for a church that abandons Scripture and its design and purpose, for a church that minimizes doctrine, creed, and confession, or for a church that waters down the faith for the sake of warm bodies in the pews (or on the screen).  The only Lutheranism that matters is the one that our confessors proclaimed -- catholic in doctrine and practice and renewed by the Word and Spirit of God to reclaim the once, today, and forever Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen and the free gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that God bestows because of this saving work.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Growth through repitition. . .

Sermon for Easter 3B, preached on Sunday, April 18, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    There’s a common saying that we all know and most likely we all agree with.  They say variety is the spice of life.  This proverb tells us that new and different experiences are what make life more interesting and exciting.  Repetition is boring.  Repetition is bland.  Repetition is a killjoy.  What we want, what we need is spontaneity; to experience new and different things.  We think variety is more meaningful and authentic.  But, then there’s also this truth, that we’re creatures of habit.  Given the chance for variety and spontaneity over routine and repetition, more often than not, we choose repetition, we choose our routines...and that isn’t a bad thing. 
We think repetition is harmful.  We think repetition is a stumbling block to growth and understanding, but in reality, especially when it comes to growing in our faith, repetition is key.  We need to hear God’s Word constantly.  We need to hear over and over and over again about Christ’s death and resurrection for us.  We need to hear the Gospel repeated, because we so easily forget it. …And we aren’t the only ones.  Jesus’disciples forgot what He said.  They forgot what He said about His death and resurrection.
I.     There were at least three different times that Jesus told His disciples what was going to happen to Him.  On three different occasions, throughout the length of His ministry, Jesus bluntly said He would be killed and on the third day rise again.  “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”(Lk 9:21-22, cf Lk 9:43-45 and 18:31-34).  When the crowd came for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples shouldn’t have been surprised; Jesus said that would happen.  When Christ was beaten and crucified, they shouldn’t have been surprised; Jesus said that would happen.  Our Lord explained all of this to them, and witnessing it, they should’ve known how it was all going to end.  Jesus was going to rise on the third day.  Now, does that mean it would be easy for them to see Jesus betrayed and killed?  No.  Even knowing the end, even knowing that Christ was going to rise victoriously, it was still difficult.  But remembering the promise of the resurrection, their fear would be quieted with expectant hope.  But they forgot what Jesus said.  They didn’t remember His Passion predictions, and so it all was a surprise, even Jesus’resurrection.
    As the disciples were together that first Easter evening, after they heard the report about the empty tomb from the women, while they were talking with the two disciples whom Jesus appeared to on the road to Emmaus, Jesus came to them, and it scared them.  The disciples weren’t expecting to see the risen Lord.  At first, they thought He was a ghost, an evil spirit.  But Christ was patient with them.  He spoke peace to them and invited them to touch His wounds, proof that it was Him, proof that He wasn’t a ghost, but bodily risen from the dead.
    Seeing the Lord standing before them, there should’ve been no doubt in their mind, no question whatsoever.  But Luke tells us that even then there was still disbelief.  The disciples disbelieved for joy.  It was too good to be true.  There’s no way this could be happening.  There’s no way Jesus could be alive. 
    We can understand this kind of disbelief.  There are times in our lives when we hear things that just seem too good to be true.  We disbelieve for joy when the doctor calls and tells us that the cancer is gone.  Husbands and wives who’ve long for a child disbelieve for joy when they discover they’re expecting.  After long periods of unemployment, people disbelieve for joy when they finally get hired.  This is what the disciples were going through.  They were growing in their faith, moving from unbelief and doubt to a sure and confident faith.  And this growth of faith came from hearing the Good News again.
II.    Jesus didn’t only prove His resurrection by showing up and eating some fish, He showed from the Scripture, from the books of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms, that everything that happened to Him was foretold.  All of the Bible is about Him, all of it points to His death and His resurrection.  Just as He did for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Christ repeated God’s Word to the disciples that night, and He opened their minds to understand. 
    The disciples had heard these words before.  Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, they were all read and sung in the synagogue.  The words of Scripture were familiar to them.  And yet, they still needed Jesus to repeat it one more time.  They needed Jesus to focus their attention and show them how it was all connected, all pointing to Him.  And hearing the Word again, they grew in faith; going from disbelieving for joy to believing with joy.
    One of the great temptations of repetition is that we can fall into the trap of thinking we get it.  Since we’ve heard the same thing over and over again we think we understand it.  We can repeat the words, and therefore we know it all; we’ve heard it enough, we’ve become masters of it, and now we can move on to other things.  But that isn’t the case when it comes to our faith and the hearing of God’s Word.  How many of us are bold enough to say that we’re masters of Scripture? 
We aren’t masters of Scripture.  We don’t know everything.  Just think about it; how many times do we read and re-read the same portions of Scripture, and yet every time something new is revealed, some new aspect of the faith comes to light?  How many times do we read and re-read the same portion of Scripture and we see something we’ve never seen before?  It happens all the time.  Therefore, we need to read and hear God’s Word over and over again.  We need to hear the Gospel of Jesus’death and resurrection for us over and over again...not just to gain head knowledge so we can win Bible Trivia, but because it is the very power of our salvation.
Scripture doesn’t just tell you who Jesus is and what He’s done, but it gives you Jesus and the benefits of what He’s done.  Through the Word God gives you the forgiveness of sin.  Through the word God gives you life.  Through the Word He gives you salvation.  St. Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).  You receive Christ when the Gospel is preached to you.  You receive Christ when you read and study God’s Word.  You receive Christ when Pastor Peters and I pronounce His Absolution.  And this happens all the time.  There’s no limit.  And you’re never beyond needing it.  
We need to continually hear the Gospel repeated.  We need to hear Jesus’death on the cross and resurrection for us repeated, because we are in constant need of His forgiveness.  We need to hear so that we can grow in our faith, so that we can believe with joy, so that we can receive our Lord.  
The disciples grew in their faith.  They went from disbelieving for joy to believing with joy.  The Lord is risen, and we have forgiveness in His name.  We need to hear this Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection over and over and over again.  This Gospel can never be proclaimed enough.  We can never hear it too much.  We can never become a master of it.  At all times we need to hear His call to repentance.  We need to listen and confess our sins.  And then we need to hear the words of His absolving forgiveness.  And in this repetition, your faith will grow.  In this repetition you will receive your Savior.  In this repetition you will have everlasting life.   

Demons or not?

For a long time now diagnosis has replaced an understanding of demonic power with respect to mental illness.  In fact, the reality is that we have diagnoses for nearly everything -- every symptom and circumstance.  Part of this is, of course, driven by insurance and the need to code the illness to pay the claim.  Part of this is also, however, due to our desire to have a name for what ails us.  Even those things that were once considered made up afflictions now have a diagnosis and a medical code that renders them legitimate.  Perhaps they are.  How would I know?  I am not a medical doctor.  But does a diagnosis and a medical code preclude demonic power and influence over those with some mental illness?

In an article called ‘Schizophrenia or possession?’ published nearly a decade ago in the Journal of Religion and Health , M. Kemal Irmak admited that it is difficult to make sense of the auditory hallucinations that accompany schizophrenia.  So he invited us to consider that there may be something more -- "the possibility of a demonic world" (p. 775).  He believed that demons are both intelligent and yet hidden forces that can and do affect the minds of people -- people often diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.  Read the quote:

As seen above, there exist similarities between the clinical symptoms of schizophrenia and demonic possession. Common symptoms in schizophrenia and demonic possession such as hallucinations and delusions may be a result of the fact that demons in the vicinity of the brain may form the symptoms of schizophrenia. Delusions of schizophrenia such as “My feelings and movements are controlled by others in a certain way” and “They put thoughts in my head that are not mine” may be thoughts that stem from the effects of demons on the brain. In schizophrenia, the hallucination may be an auditory input also derived from demons, and the patient may hear these inputs not audible to the observer. The hallucination in schizophrenia may therefore be an illusion—a false interpretation of a real sensory image formed by demons. This input seems to be construed by the patient as “bad things,” reflecting the operation of the nervous system on the poorly structured sensory input to form an acceptable percept. On the other hand, auditory hallucinations expressed as voices arguing with one another and talking to the patient in the third person may be a result of the presence of more than one demon in the body. (p. 776)

Now before we go any further, let me state categorically that such a suggestion does not in any way legitimize any stigma attached to such illness for the individual.  No one is or should seek to round up those with such disorders and lock them away in medieval prisons or worse and thus replicate the sins of the past in dealing with those afflicted with mental illness or psychological disorder.  Could it be that he is wondering about the similarity between the mental illness and its symptoms and demon possession?  The reality is that the science has not afforded us much to predict, diagnose, and treat some of these psychotic illnesses, especially those who hear voices calling them to do illogical and harmful things (to themselves or to others).

Many will find this suggestion offensive and shocking.  I am not at all sure what to do with it either.  But I do understand the conundrum.  We face people with ills that defy explanation and with treatment options that often work only to deaden the whole life of the individual.  We live in a time in which symptoms are treated mainly with drugs but the source of the psychological illnesses are left untreated.   We are also confronted with a seemingly inexplicable increase in syndromes, conditions, and ills both are hard to diagnose and categorize.  What we seek more than anything else are explanations.  Why did this happen?  What does it mean?  How do you fix it?  The medical community has not been greatly successful in giving us satisfactory answers.  Is it time to pursue an answer that does not come from medicine but from theology?  

For Christians, the demonic is not some antiquated concept of an ignorant and unscientific age but a real and present threat and danger.  There is nothing medieval or against science in admitting that we face spiritual enemies who might manifest themselves in physical and psychological ways.  I have many questions.  I do not have many answers.  But I am neither ready to label all those with mental illness demonic nor am I prepared to dismiss the demonic as an explanation for some.  I suspect that some of you may well be in the same place.  The article that occasioned this post was new to me but not recent.  The whole subject may have hit a nerve among us as we seek to find our way through a world in which things clearly at odds with God and His Word become more frequent, more powerful, and more normal among us.  It is only natural to ask why and it would be foolish to dismiss the role of the demonic in some of these things -- foolish at least for those who read the Scriptures and believe what they say.

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.