Saturday, July 31, 2021

For the unity of the Church. . .

The Lutheran Confessions stress that it is enough for unity that there be agreement in the Gospel and all its articles and allow that uniformity of ceremonies does not violate this unity.  This satis est has not exactly been easy on us.  In an ideal world, it meant that we did agree on matters of doctrine even if we did not agree on ceremonies.  What has happened, of course, is that Lutherans no longer have unity of doctrine any more than they have unity of liturgy and ceremony.  Oh, to be sure, there are pockets and small groups with more unity of faith and more unanimity of life but one look at the broad diversity of what passes for Lutheranism shows that the ideal of the Confessions has not worked in practice.  

Even in relatively unified Lutheran synods like Missouri or Wisconsin, there are those who do not hold with the group.  In Missouri we feel the sniping of those who disagree with who should be communed and what liturgy should be used and how Communion should be offered and what it means to call Scripture infallible.  We have official groups in protest against our lack of specificity or strict enforcement of the boundaries.  I expect that there are issues in Wisconsin as well.  I just read where some of that unified group have chosen to leave for the CLC, one of the Lutheran micro synods.  I suspect this was over something more than how you take your coffee.

Across Lutheranism you have groups that barely qualify as Lutheran (like the ELCA) and groups that cannot find more than a few other pastors and congregations to agree with their narrowed definition of what Lutheranism confesses.  Yet the same word supposedly defines us all.  At least that is what the world around us thinks of things Lutheran.  If only they knew.  We are known by the same name but under that name exists a diversity that mocks our Confessions.

Yet as sad as this is, we in Missouri are in somewhat better shape than most. The Anglicans are agreed in ceremony more or less but under those words there is nothing much to bind them together.  They are the best dressed and most practiced in piety of all Christian groups but the nice words they say do not translate into belief.  What you wear and how you comport yourself in the liturgy is more important that whether the words reflect any real faith.

Protestant groups and dividing all the time anymore.  Methodists are no longer United and seem to be of a mind to divvy up the assets like in any divorce.  Presbyterians have a whole variety of choices under the brand name.   It seems like everyone worships like an evangelical anymore but few know how to define what it means to be an evangelical -- at least in terms of doctrine and practice.

Rome is in somewhat worse shape.  There is an official unity that accords all who acknowledge the same man as the heir of St. Peter and Pope.  Underneath that umbrella there is a remarkable diversity of faith and a schism threatens in Germany.  Bishops cannot agree on who should commune.  The politicians are the obvious examples but under that there are many who cannot even agree that Christ is present in the Sacrament in any meaningful way.  I will admit that once I thought that Rome had a unity I yearned so to see in my own Synod but the more I looked, the more I saw that this unity was merely a veneer.

I suspect that Orthodoxy fares somewhat better.  As far as I can read, Orthodoxy seems to fight less over the faith than over jurisdictional matters.  That said, as much as I admire things in Orthodoxy, my piety is thoroughly Western.  If I cannot find a way to ditch the great hymns of the faith for the Roman view of them as extraneous to the Mass, I surely am not going to find my way to abandoning a Western piety of liturgy, hymnody, and prayer.  Yet I suspect that once you dig under the surface, even in Orthodoxy there is less broad unity than there is within the various jurisdictions.  

So what am I left with?  I believe that contending for the faith where I am is my only choice.  I refuse to accept the fractured unity of Lutherans without fighting on behalf of the faith once confessed and believed with such a vigorous and largely common voice.  The Lutheran Confessions offer us a real unity in which doctrine binds and liturgical differences can be tolerated.  I suspect that there are many like me.  We lament what we have become but realize that these weaknesses are weaknesses more of men than of our Confession.  I could long for a realignment of Lutheranism in which Lutherans of a common stripe actually joined together, choosing to elevate doctrine over personal history.  I did not see that happen when the ELCA made its infamous choice to abandon Christianity's order in 2009 and I do not expect to see it anytime soon.

Relativism and the reign of personal preference have turned nearly every church into a cafeteria of choices for what is believed, how God is worshiped, and how the faith is lived out.  That is the burden placed upon us by lives of relative ease and prosperity.  It may have been tested by the pandemic but it has been the shapes of things for years.  The answer will not come from the top.  It will not come from leaders or bishops or national structures.  It will happen one parish and one pastor at a time.  That has been the case for as long as I have been a pastor and I do not see it changing soon.  Yet this is the way unity is built.  It is built not by grand gestures but by pockets of people who take seriously the Scriptures as God's infallible and efficacious Word.  It is the fruit of people who in reverence and devotion meet the Lord where He has chosen -- in the baptismal water that gives life and the bread and wine that are His body and blood.  It is a unity which is fought for over and over again.  It is never an achievement which can be celebrated but is always a work in progress.

As much as I wish that unity could be easy, I accept that it is a constant work and labor for its fruit as long as I am able.  There will be disappointments, to be sure, and moments of defeat.  But it is a cause worth fighting for -- the faith once delivered to the saints and now passed on to us.  It is a sacred trust that we at least will do it no harm and will in fact pursue it with our best efforts.  Unity is the result of a bottom up process.  The saints of God and their pastors determined to reflect the fullness of the faith in doctrine and practice and not minimums -- this is the best and most profound unity and one which does not go unnoticed.  As much as associations and groups might bless and benefit the cause of the faith, we live it out first and foremost on the local level.  It is not that I feel alone -- I know that there are many others like me -- but I have learned not to depend upon leaders and bishops and councils and the larger structures of churches.  If it does not begin with me and where I am, it will never find its way anywhere else.

It is enough that we are united in doctrine and practice and that there is a certain level of ceremonial difference but I have found that when there is unity of doctrine, unity of practice is much easier.  And where there is unity of doctrine and concern for unity of practice, there is also a desire more for unity of ceremony than for diversity.  I will not say I am content with Lutheranism as a whole or the individual jurisdictions but where I will be allowed to be as catholic as I might be in doctrine and practice, there will be my home.

Friday, July 30, 2021

It's sooooo hard. . .

Roman Catholic bishops continue to fight amongst themselves over what to do with pro-abortion Roman Catholic politicians.   Then the Vatican gets involved and suggests everybody slow down.  So the debate goes on.  But while the church leaders jockey for their positions, hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands of unborn children are killed.  The call to go slow seems to forget what is at stake.  Who can explain why some bishops are willing to be patient in this and the Vatican wants to take its time?

Of course, everyone knows that the abortion issues is not the only issue facing the Church.  Homelessness, poverty, injustice, racism, and many other issues are legitimate social concerns for the Church.  But last time I checked hundreds of thousands of homeless, racial minorities, victims of discrimination, and the poor were not dying but the children in the womb are dying at exactly that rate.  Even more than the biggest COVID numbers!  They say that abortion is health care -- except that the result of this health care is the death of the patient!

The Church has tried convincing pro-abortion Christian politicians but that has not made much progress.  Even the typical caveat of Mario Cuomo is no longer in fashion.  Personal opposition is not enough for political survival in this day and age.  The woke culture insists you must not only approve of abortion and the full range of reproductive and sex/gender issues but you must militantly defend the liberal/progressive view.  President Biden and Speaker Pelosi have not bothered to say they find abortion personally concerning but they have insisted that no court must be allowed to constrain the free access to abortions at no charge and that legislation must be enacted to prevent such judicial back pedaling on what has become the issue of the day.

So what will happen?  More dawdling and more deaths.  But before non-Roman Catholics are smug about this, this issue has equal opportunity offenders of all faiths.  Jews defend the memory of the holocaust while approving abortion without cost and with free access by all women and children.  Evangelicals have had a mixed record but most of their politicians try to accommodate both voters without being too precise about their own stance.  Lutherans also hold a variety of opinions with most Lutherans in America approving a woman's rite to an abortion no matter what their church body says.  Liberal Protestantism has long ago cast its lot with the pro-choice position.

And more will die.. . . They say about the same number of people as live in Memphis, TN, died of COVID so far.  Well, more than the combined populations of Memphis and Knoxville died (just to use a local Tennessee example).  But still the deaths seem incapable of arousing churches to do much more than shrug a shoulder about it all..  It is complicated, after all.  It is a difficult situation.  There are too many shades of gray on this issue to make an unequivocal stand like some want.  Not to mention the intense pressures upon these politicians.  It is sooooo hard.  Well, tell that to the hundreds of thousands of babies n the womb who are never given a choice.  

I have little sympathy with these politicians who disagree with their church's stance.  I have compassion on the women who feel that they have no other choice although I do not agree with that conclusion.  But I have no soft spot for the politico who wants to do the right thing but does not think that he could win an election without supporting choice and abortion.  I agree that it the unpopular thing to do to tell the politician "no" but as out of step as this act might be, it is and remains the right thing to do.  Lives are at stake.  Enough lives, at least since 1973, to be the equivalent of South Africa or Tanzania or Italy or France.  What would we think if the population of an entire nation that size would suddenly disappear?  Well, that is exactly what happened in America (not to mention the abortions in other nations throughout the world).  So do something and say something.  Lives depend on it.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

How to kill a church. . .

It is not new and it is a fairly common Facebook meme but that does not make it any less true.

Churches die all the time -- not because God's Word has failed or because of persecution from the enemies of God but simply because the people don't care.  They don't care enough to welcome new families with the Gospel.  They don't care about how negatively they speak of their congregation and their leaders.  They don't care enough to attend regularly (or, perhaps I should have written often!).  They don't care enough to give of their time or their abilities to make sure the work of the Lord is done.  They don't care enough to pass on the faith to their children, grandchildren, or any children.  They love to complain and hate to encourage or speak well of their congregation, their pastor, their parish leaders, or their faith.  They don't care what the Bible says -- especially when it contradicts what they love to think or say or do.  They don't care about eternity as much as they care about today and being happy in the moment.

We close a lot of congregations.  Some of them close because the people have left.  Rural areas are filled with ghost towns as big farms replace family farms and the age of the average farmer continues to climb.  Some of them close because the neighborhood changes faster than the congregation can adjust and the people in the pews are no longer local to the parish.  But more of them close because they were aided into death by fights between pastors and people, among the folks in the pews, or with their denominations.  More of them close because the people just stopped coming and who is interested in a church whose members have lost interest?  More of them close because the cost of keeping them open became too great -- not simply money but time and energy.  More of them close because the programs detracted from the central purpose of worship and worship became a secondary activity instead of the core purpose for which the parish existed.

God may close congregations.  But we are doing such a good job of it, why would He need to?  Maybe it is time for us to stop closing them and start fighting to keep them open.  Maybe it is time for us to take more seriously what we believe, teach, and confess and hold to that faith when it costs us everything that we value most of all.  Maybe it is time for us to pay attention to the core values and purpose of the Church -- something often overlooked in our quest to look busy and active.  

I don't know if the congregations that close have no choice but to close.  I am sure some of them have no choice but I am also sure that other congregations could survive if we worked as hard to keep them open as we are working to close them.  I am not talking about new ideas or new strategies or new paradigms or anything like that.  We have killed as many churches with change as much as they have died because we did not change.  What we need is faithfulness more than invention, endurance more than innovation, and loyalty more than creativity.  God's Word has not failed us.  But we may have failed it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

When did our expectations change?

Almost to a person we expect our lives to relatively pain free.  Suffering is bad.  Not suffering is good.  Happy is better.  From the aches in our bodies to the angst in our souls, we have worked harder and harder to relieve ourselves of suffering.  The past year has seen remarkable strides in our pursuit of personal safety and personal happiness.  COVID only hastened what was already in progress.  In fact, we have extended this idea of not suffering to include not having to deal with ideas or thoughts or views we find offensive (another overused word for unpleasant, hence, no suffering).  From universities to the public square, we are to be protected against things we find unpleasant or offensive.  Anything that causes us to be uncomfortable is nothing less than hate speech or hateful ideas.  And they are not to be tolerated in a society dedicated to the end of pain and suffering.  If they won't, we will sue for, yeah, you got it, pain and suffering.


Christians have been swallowed up by all of this and fed and nourished by preachers and teachers who have told us, on good authority, that God wants us to be relieved of suffering, to avoid pain, and to be happy.  In fact, it is His job.  What good is a God who won't do what you want and keep you happy -- and insulated from pain and suffering?  The lie of the gospel of happiness has displaced the real Gospel of the cross in too many places and Christians are being fed a load of you know what -- thinking that this is the truth!  Even in denominations more prone to orthodox teaching and preaching, the mention of sin, pain, and suffering is all too rare and with it the word repent.  It seems the ailment of self-absorption is more common and universal than one had thought.


We have diagnoses for our depression, our stress, and our fear and treat them medically more than with the real medicine of hope.  Religion over all has been co-opted into this therapeutic deism in which worship is more like a session and the throne of God into our recliner as we listen to those who can tell us how to deal with our stress, how to answer our depression, how to overcome our fears, and how to reach the ever illusive goal of personal happiness, personal safety, and personal peace.


In fact, suffering is not an enemy of our well-being.  The goal of happiness will most certainly lead to disappointment and disillusionment with God and with life.  However, we have a God who cares enough about us not to be preoccupied by the fickle feeling of happiness.  God designed us in such a way that our contentment, peace, and real joy comes only through Him.  Faith is not a remedy for pain or suffering but faith teaches us that these drive us into that one place where true joy is to be found -- the arms of our merciful and beneficent God.  The devil and the world are always telling us that we can buy our way into happiness or satisfy it with technology or find a person to make us happy or indulge ourselves in our desires to make us happy.  God is there to strip away the lies.  As blessed Augustine once revealed from his own pursuit of happiness,  “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 


From His goodness, the Lord made us and when sin threatened the goodness of His creation, the Lord delivered us at the cost of His own Son.  Our restless souls will be tempted by all kinds of empty promises but only the sure promise of the Lord will offer us refuge.  Even then, there can be no end to pain and suffering until the Lord delivers us from the veil of tears and into His presence forevermore.  Until then suffering makes us totally dependent upon the Lord, His mercy and His grace.

The Good Shepherd is good not because He successfully avoided pain and suffering but because He endured it for us.  He lays down His life for us -- no one takes it from Him.  We live in the world but we are not of it.  The Lord sustains us by His grace in this time of trouble and sorrow.  In our weakness, His strength is revealed and His grace is sufficient for all our needs.  He tells us this upfront.  We will suffer because He suffered and the same world which rejected Him will reject those who stand with Him by faith.  It is a privilege of the faith that we suffer on account of His name and those sufferings will give way to eternal relief.  We seem to have forgotten that.  We have worn Christ's name too casually and shrunk from any cost of wearing that name.  It is not suffering which is our enemy but the evil foe who offers us the tempting illusion of life without pain, burden, or disappointment.  Until we learn that suffering goes with this life, we will always be putty in the hands of the devil.  Once we realize this and fighter harder to endure through it in Christ rather than avoid it, we will have learned what it means to believe.


853 How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord


1 How clear is our vocation, Lord,
    When once we heed Your call:
To live according to Your Word
And daily learn, refreshed, restored,
    That You are Lord of all
    And will not let us fall.


2 But if, forgetful, we should find
    Your yoke is hard to bear;
If worldly pressures fray the mind,
And love itself cannot unwind
    Its tangled skein of care:
    Our inward life repair.


3 We marvel how Your saints become
    In hindrances more sure;
Whose joyful virtues put to shame
The casual way we wear Your name
    And by our faults obscure
    Your pow’r to cleanse and cure.


4 In what You give us, Lord, to do,
    Together or alone,
In old routines or ventures new,
May we not cease to look to You,
    The cross You hung upon—
    All You endeavored done.


Tuesday, July 27, 2021

For whose good?

Sermon for the Festival of St. James the Elder, preached on Sunday, July 25, 2021.

    I have a plaque in my office that says “Jesus loves you but I am His favorite.”  I cannot recall where I got it.  Perhaps I bought it at the estate sale of St. James the Elder.  I am sure his brother John had his own version.  Don’t we all?  We all expect that God has favorites and we hope that we are God’s favorites.  But with that favoritism comes a hidden cost.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?  Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized? 

    James and John did not know what they were asking when they came to the Lord.  But the other ten did.  At least they thought they did and they did not like it. They thought James and John had beaten them to the punch and gotten something special from the Lord.  In the end Jesus treated the audacious request of the Sons of Zebedee with more respect that we would have.  Although He could not promise that they would get the coveted places at His right and His left, He could promise that they would, indeed, drink of His cup and be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized.  And we know the rest of that story. 

    James died as the first of the apostles to be martyred.  John died in exile away from the people in his care, at the end of a long life in which he saw many of the flock persecuted and martyred for the sake of the faith.  You need to be careful what you ask of God.  For what you had in mind and how things end up are not always the same thing.  Only a year ago we were coming off a pandemic in which we did everything we knew how to stop the flow of a virus.  Now, more than a year later, the cost of that virus is more clear to us than it was then.
    But there is a promise.  We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  All things. For good.  For those called by the Lord.  Sounds straight forward enough but there is still a problem.  Whose good?  Is it the good that we envision and plan and desire or is it some other good – a good we cannot define or control.  And how did it work together for good that James the Elder was cut down in the prime of his life by the unrighteous sword of Herod Agrippa only a dozen or so years after Jesus died on the cross?  If that is what happens to favorites, who wants to be the favorite?  If that is the best good we can expect from a God who makes all things work together for good, then who wants it?  So what does this promise mean and what blessing is there in such a promise?

    The blessing lies not in being promised you will get what you want but that the One who delivers on that promise knows you best and has your best interest at heart.  The blessing lies not in being assured of your best life now but knowing that however good or bad today is, it cannot compare with the wonderful future God has prepared for you in Jesus Christ.  The blessing lies not in the promise that you will never suffer, never be persecuted, or never fear but that your sufferings cannot compare to the suffering Christ endured for you, that your persecution is the mark of faithfulness not judgment, and that however big your fears, the peace that passes understanding is bigger.  The stark image of Christ's body on the cross shows to what end God has gone to save us.  Do we fear His good will for the things of this body and life or does the cross move us to trust Him with these also?

    The good that God makes every work for is the eternal good.  It is the new and glorious body to replace the body that aches in pain today.  It is the new and eternal life that death and tears cannot touch that replaces a life too short on happiness and too long on trouble.  It is the heart and mind filled with the peace and joy of God’s presence to replace the loneliness and hurts we bear inside this side of glory.  This is the good that we struggle to understand, that we struggle to see, and that we pray to know but this good is known only by the faith that prays confidently, “Thy will be done!”

    James died young at the hands of God’s enemy.  John died old and alone while God’s enemy gloated.  But the sons of Zebedee did not lose anything that was not worth losing and they gained more than they every expected.  What do we say in the face of all the bad stuff that happens to us?  Faith says “If God be for us, who can be against us!”  What do we say when it seems that in spite of our faith we are paying a high price for belonging to God?  Faith says “He who did not spare His only Son but gave Him up for us all, will He now also graciously give us all things in Him?  What do we say when we do not see the future clearly and when it seems the future we do see is not one we would have chosen?  Faith says “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Tribulation?  Distress?  Persecution?  Famine? Nakedness?  Sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

    I have no illusions about your life and trials and troubles.  I hope you have no illusions about mine.  We have all nursed broken hearts, salved hurt feelings, paid a high cost for being faithful, lost friends, felt alone, and watched others seemingly prosper while we lived in want.  But none of these things can kill our faith and none of these things are worth giving up the faith.  

    No, I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in this creation and life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  This good end is waiting for you and waiting for me and waiting for all the baptized who believe in Christ’s promise.  That challenge before us is not to figure out how to make the good we want be the good that God has promised.  No, the challenge before us is to believe that the good God has promised is enough to sustain us through these days.

    Everyone of us comes to Jesus with a list of what we want.  At the top of most of those lists is an easy, full, and blessed life.  Probably at the bottom is the gift of eternal life in heaven.  It is usually the last thing we want but it is always the first thing we need.  Today we ask the Lord for faith, enough faith not to give up when what is at the top of our list does not come and enough faith to recognize that what is at the bottom is really the best thing of all. 

    Because the truth is I AM Jesus’ favorite.  And so is James.  And so is John.  And so are YOU.  He will not pick between us but promises us both that everything will work together for our eternal good.  Do you believe it?  Holy Spirit, help me to say “Yes, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Amen.

Among those who tried to kill the faith by killing the faithful. . .

Think about some of those who tried to snuff out the faith at is beginning.  They are gone and probably forgotten but not Christianity.  Check out this list of Roman Emperors.

1. Nero (37-68)

Nero comes up on top simply because he was able to continue the atrocities of those he followed and improve upon them.  He began a persecution of Christians that is legendary and, although he was a builder, he found time off to murder Christians in inventive and gruesome ways.

2. Vespasian (69-79)

This was the emperor who not only continued killing Christians and persecuting the faith but also managed to demolish the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Perhaps we might forgive him a bit since he managed to put soldiers in both Bavaria and Britain -- foreshadowing their future conversion.  He was a grand manipulator who worked to build a dynasty of carnage, including Domitian.

3. Domitian (81-96).

This tyrant managed to rule longer than most but he was without conscience.  St. John,  Apostle and Evangelist, would testify to this -- having been immersed by Domitian's order into a tub of boiling oil (95 AD) that did not manage to kill him and might have helped him.  So he ordered the St. John the Beloved to the isle of Patmos, where, by the way, he wrote the Book of Revelation under the inspiration of the Spirit.

4. Trajan (98-117)

Though some call him one of the "Good Caesars", he was hardly better than his predecessors and continued persecuting Christians.  On the upside, he managed to expand the Roman Empire more than any other ruler since Caesar Augustus and this military conquest ended up helping in the spread of the Gospel (without his knowledge). He was a big fan of the gladiator games and the atrocities of the arena.

5. Hadrian (117-138)

Like Trajan, he was a Spaniard, and kept up the pressure on Christians.  He did not hunt them down and drag them out of their homes but he did not give them any breaks either.  In the end, Britain's wall, Africa, and the eradication of Palestinian Jews was enough to keep him busy. 

6. Marcus Aurelius (161-180)

We remember him more for the mythology of the silver screen than anything else.  Gladiator was the movie title.  Persecutions were his bane.  His time saw a less organized and more local persecution of Christians though he did not seem to be interested in stopping what happened outside of Rome.

7. Maximinus the Thracian (235-238)

With Maximinus Thrace, the killing of Christians did become more organized and throughout the Roman Empire, including Rome.  We get this from Eusebius  who wrote in his privotal history of the early Church that in 235 Maximinus sent Sts. Hippolytus and Pope St. Pontian into exile.  Perhaps without this they might not have been reconciled and died together on the Isle of Sardinia.

8. Decius (249-251)

Like his similarly named successor, Decius put choked the life from Christian believers. In 250 AD, he ruled that all Christians had to pay homage to the Roman gods or be killed.  He was true to his word and this was known as “The Decian Persecution.”   He killed Pope St. Fabian and then prohibited Christian worship anywhere in the empire.  Happily to Christians, he died before this edict lasted even a year!

 9. Valerian (253-260)

Valerian upped the game and persecution went out of control.  He continued killing Christians, including such famous figures and saints as Lawrence the Deacon, Denis of Paris, Cyprian and Pope Sixtus II.  You might think he would be distracted by his continued war with Persia but it did not go so well and he died in their captivity -- one more sign the great Roman Empire might not have a long future

10. Diocletian (284-305)

Diocletian proved to be even worse than Decius and took Rome's angst upon Christians, bringing about the “Great Persecution” which ramped up the killing machine against Christians throughout the Roman Empire.  Maybe he saw the writing on the wall because he actually ended up retiring (instead of dying) but the damage was done and Christians bore the brunt of it.

 11. Constantius and Galerius (early 4th century)

Though they are two, they ruled in different part of the empire and they both continued the reign of terror upon Christians, destroying church buildings newly built.  Christian history remembers Constantius because he was married to St. Helena, who found the True Cross in the Holy Land, and he fathered the first Christian emperor,  Constantine the Great (272-337), whose Edict of Milan in 313 made Christianity legal.  According to reports, Constantine was baptized by St. Eusebius of Nicomedia. Constantius, his father, however, left no evidence of faith or all that much sympathy with Christians and Galerius made up for Constantius’ with his own all out persecutions of the faith and faithful.

My point being, better men than our current detractors have tried to kill Christianity and threaten Christians but the faith not only survived -- it flourished!  Perhaps we need the persecutors to come out of the closet of the appearance of decency in order to revitalize Christianity again.  But be careful what you pray for!!!


Monday, July 26, 2021

Wasted money?

The sad reality is that beauty has become something appreciated only by those who can afford it.  Look at the great churches with impressive addresses.  They are wonderful places to lift the eye to the Lord as well as the heart.  But the equal assumption is that the poor need more utilitarian structures, simpler places that reflect more their surroundings.  The opposite is true.  Beauty is not a luxury for those who can afford it but something every Christian should know.  Church buildings should not reflect the humility of our surroundings but the grandeur of the heavenly vision.  We know from reading the Book of Revelation that heaven does not subscribe to the idea that form follows function.  St John provides us a rich and elaborate description of the place where God's glory dwells and where we shall dwell with Him forevermore.  Yet somehow we seem too content for that vision to await the other world and to live with a more utilitarian view of God's House on earth.

Some presume the piety of Judas whose outrage at the expensive ointment wasted on Jesus received a rebuke from none other than Jesus and a promise that what she had done will never be forgotten.  Do the people who complain about paying too much for beauty actually support the poor?  So those who lament that too much money is spent on beauty and buildings have little ground on which to stand.  There ought to be a sense of the world to come when we enter into God's House here on earth -- it is, after all, an outpost of heaven planted here so that we might yearn for the fuller vision.  Yet we continue to put up buildings that are a blank canvas and then wonder why our people treat sacred space as an extension of their family rooms.  Our only nod to beauty seems to be the ever present screens and the images we select from stock albums to illustrate the occasion.  It is a sentimental beauty put in service to a message, more like an advertising image than art and more about us than God.

Good architecture and good art in service to the Lord is not a luxury for the few but an urgent need of the middle class and the poor.  Beauty in service to the Word inspires the faithful as well as teaching them the truth of Scripture.  Surroundings are not insignificant to the purpose for which the faithful gather.  Warehouses are functional and worship spaces should also be functional -- that is, they should serve the purpose of the highest and noblest calling, the worship of God.  But they should not look the same because different things are happening in each space.  What does it mean when the buildings are brutalist in style or in disrepair?  What does that say about us and the way we view God or what we value?

One last thought, while the art of the Church need not be Norman Rockwell in style, abstract and modernist architecture and art do not communicate wonder or inspire or encourage the faithful to behold the Lord in the beauty of holiness.  But the center of all that art is not man but God, the God who has willingly given to us His only Son in flesh and blood, whose obedient life bears the fruit of righteousness for the unrighteous, whose life-giving death pays the price of sin, whose mighty resurrection sets us free from our captivity to death, and whose ascension prepares the place where we shall be also.  It is not art for art's sake or beauty for the sake of beauty but all for the sake of Christ, for the service of the Gospel, and for the encouragement of the faithful.  

There are a few examples for Lutheranism here in the US.  Historic Trinity in Detroit.  Or a more recent example Our Savior in Houston.  But there are not enough.  My own parish has had a reasonable budget and worked hard within that budget to do something noble.  Stained glass, liturgical painting, decent paraments, and the like.  People often compliment us on how beautiful our building is but every Lutheran building should be a testament to the beauty of the faith, the wonder of such a surprising mercy, the presence of a bit of heaven on earth, and the shadows of the heavenly liturgy among us.  It is not a matter of taste but of the mystery of Christ's presence for us and our salvation.  We can do better.  We should do better.  Don't you think?

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Why not just drop Ascension and Epiphany?

Although the practices during the pandemic should not determine what is normative for the Church, it has certainly not helped our practices for those major holy days which have the nerve to fall on a day other than Sunday.  Ascension has been in decline for years.  Some have simply given up and moved it to Sunday.  Epiphany has also been in decline for years although its move to a Sunday is complicated.  With the Baptism of Our Lord on the Sunday following, the calendar simply cannot be stretched enough to fit everything in.  Watch what happens next year!

Why can't we just drop Ascension and Epiphany?  After all, what do they really contribute to the Church Year or our understanding and appreciation of the miracle of Christ.  Sadly, not very many of the faithful would have a clue about answering that question.  The truth is that for most Christians today neither the Ascension nor the Epiphany means anything at all.  Except, perhaps, confusion.

CS Lewis took on this question with reference to the Ascension in his book Miracles:

Can we then simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere—something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a ‘vision’ or ‘ghost’ whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.

When I preached this past Ascension Day, I tried to connect the dots between Jesus departure and His filling of all things (from the Epistle).  Without the Ascension, we are left with a spirit or ghost and in His absence with things that are not real but merely spiritual.  No matter how much we value spiritual things in our culture, we know the difference between that which is real and that which is not.  We need a Christ who has power to fill all things but especially the Word so that it may do what it says and the water of baptism that has the power to bestow new life and bread and wine that are filled with Christ's flesh and blood.

With respect to the Epiphany, we are reminded that as Gentiles we should feel a kinship to the Gentiles who came almost out of nowhere to worship Him who is born King of the Jews.  But somehow we have cast our lot for Christmas and only then for the eve or the day and then we are ready to give up all our decorations and get back to work.  We have lost our sense of wonder or at least satisfied it all with a quick trip to church on Christmas Eve, a wave of a candle and a verse or two of Silent Night.  Epiphany tells us that Christmas was not for the few but for the many, not only for those with pedigree but for anonymous strangers who are led by the light of the Word.  Epiphany tells us that in addition to the song of the angels, the Child born of Mary is worthy of gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- gifts that befit who is He and what He has come to accomplish.  But most of all, Epiphany tells that there is a place at the manger for folks like us.  So why do we shrug our shoulders at Epiphany on whatever day January 6 happens to fall?  Could it be that we have only room for one brief story with all the details thrown in?  In other words, we are too busy with ourselves to find time to worship Him with the Magi.

So, we have a half a year or so to figure it out?  What will we do?  My bet is that we will do nothing.  We will let Ascension and Epiphany slide into oblivion.  And some of us will think it terrible.  But most of us will do nothing to challenge its decline.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The blessing of daily prayer. . .

Though we all know the blessing of prayer, too often we pray only when we face emergencies outside our control.  Then the urgent prayer of the faithful petitions the God who sits upon His throne of grace in pursuit not only of an answer but also for peace to the anxious soul and troubled heart and mind.  But the daily prayer offices do just that.  They direct us to the comfort of God's presence, His power against the evil one, and His promise to deliver us to everlasting life.  No matter what urgency we bring before the Lord, those needs were probably already addressed in the daily prayer offices and directed to the Lord.

Take Compline, for example.  The office begins with words that direct you to the point of it all.

Opening Versicles

The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and peace at the last.
It is good to give thanks to the Lord, 
to sing praises to Your name, O Most High;
to herald Your love in the morning,
Your truth at the close of the day.

Then directly to confession.  There is no peace for the soul unless we have been set right with God through confession and there is no peace on earth until we are reconciled to our brothers and sisters.

Confession of Sins

I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.
The almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, forgiveness, and remission of all your sins. Amen.

I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

The almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, forgiveness, and remission of all your sins.

Then comes the Word of the Lord with Psalm and reading (best appointed from the daily lectionary or perhaps a lectio continua that leads you through entire books).  What word gives peace to the soul more than the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  And then the Responsory -- the repeated response hitting us over and over and over again.  Do you get it yet?


Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Into Your hands I commend my spirit.
You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.
Into Your hands I commend my spirit.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. 
Into Your hands I commend my spirit.

And the prayers. Is that not why we are here? What may seem trite (apple of Your eye) is Scripture.  God's Word.

Is there a better prayer than to pray Scripture? We pray back to God in faith what He has given us as promise.


Hear my prayer, O Lord;
listen to my cry.
Keep me as the apple of Your eye;
hide me in the shadow of Your wings.
In righteousness I shall see You;
when I awake, Your presence will give me joy.

Adding a traditional collect for Compline puts the focus where it needs to be.  Abide with us, in our homes, and drive away the evil one and all his taunts, temptations, and lies.  Instead place the angels with us to preserve us by Your mighty power in the perfect peace that passes understanding.

Visit our dwellings, O Lord, and drive from them all the snares of the enemy; let Your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let Your blessing be on us always; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

And then the night song of the Church -- the words the Holy Spirit taught us through Simeon.  Is there a better song to sing in the night hours as we prepare ourselves for the little death of sleep and from little death that must give way to Christ's power and raise us to be with Him where He has prepared the place forevermore?

Nunc Dimittis

Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping
that awake we may watch with Christ
and sleep we may rest in peace.
Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which You have prepared in the sight of ev’ry people:
a light to reveal You to the nations
and the glory of Your people Israel.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be forever. Amen.
Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping
that awake we may watch with Christ
and asleep we may rest in peace.

And just in case you did not hear it first,, the antiphon that introduces the Nunc Dimittis is put in your own mouth and you sing it.  Personally, I cannot imagine words more concise and comfortable to the soul that this little prayer that introduces and ends the Song of Simeon.

And what is left?  Then go joyfully to your rest, in the assurance that God is with you and nothing can separate you from the power of His love that has already redeemed you, restored you through forgiveness, and raised you in baptism to be His own and to live under Him in His kingdom now and forever.

I'm already nodding off. . . . .