Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Fed or fed up?

One thing I really despise is how we have become accustomed to speaking about worship as being fed.  I grew up on the farm and I am not at all sure that the symbolic connection between cattle being called to the feedbunk and the farmer filling the trough with corn or hay is the image we ought to have when thinking about Holy Communion.  Neither am I convinced that a family meal around a table with people passing the food and conversing or filling up as fast as possible before heading out on their own ways are good images of Holy Communion either.  I am fed up with the term fed.

By this terminology, it is obvious that far too many folks people have come to think of what happens in worship in purely egocentric terms -- it is about me, what I like, what I want, and what I think I get. So they speak of their time in worship as “being fed.” What they mean by this may vary but it usually means that they enjoyed a bang up job at the pulpit with the preacher entertaining them and giving them something to think about or uplifting for their dreary day.  They give such worship the highest compliment -- it was meaningful or relevant.  Maybe they appreciated the beat of the music or the skill of the musicians or just maybe they really got into it with their ever present cup of Starbucks or bottled vitamin water as they watched things happen on the stage.  But seldom do we use these terms to suggest that we have been in the presence of the Most High God and that this God has deigned to bestow upon us forgiveness we did not deserve and to nourish our bodies and souls on the heavenly food of His Son's body and blood and that this holy ground was the vantage point for the eternity prepared for us but only glimpsed until we are brought to everlasting life.  Oh, yeah, that, too.

It is out duty and delight to show up on Sunday.  I really do not understand why anyone would have a problem with the idea that worship is our obligatory duty?!  But, of course, it not only duty.  It is  delight.  To worship God, to give Him the thanks and adoration He is due simply for being God, the almighty and eternal God who made, sustains, and directs all things and before whom all must give account.  Worship is obedience and it is the obedience not simply to command but the obedience of faith.  We do not simply owe God praise, gratitude and adoration but we need what He offers and what He has promised to bestow where He has placed that promise.  Yes, the Lord is the source of every blessing, grace, and mercy new every morning.  But more than this, God has accomplished our salvation for us and paid for it with the most precious blood of His Son, and, for this, we not only owe Him our duty of worship and our faith obligation of obedience but we depend upon Him for the grace in which we stand. What did Jesus command when He said “Do this is remembrance of me?”   

We think of worship as feeding time when we can get what we want, what will uplift us, what will satisfy us, and what will be meaningful and relevant to our daily lives.  But we have set our sighs too low.  God gives us so much more.  He does not merely feed us what we want or prefer but feeds us eternity in the body and blood of Christ, clothes us for everlasting life in the righteousness placed upon us in our baptism, forgives us by the voice of absolution so that no sin may stand between us, and addresses us as His own people with the living voice of His Word.  Which might all be missed except that in all of these the Spirit is at work bringing us to faith, to the remembrance of the things He has done, transforming our minds to know Him in His Word, and transforming our hearts to that we might desire the things He has offered and be equipped to live as His own, under Him, in His Kingdom now and forevermore.

Our Lord's teaching was as hard and offensive to those who saw Him with their eyes as it is for those who know Him by faith.  Many who came to Jesus departed because His teaching was too hard (they were not being fed!).  Even His own did not stay with Him because they understood all things.  They knew, as hard as Jesus' teaching was, they had little alternative.  Every Sunday we are being asked anew, Do you also want to leave me? (Jn 6:67)  Every Sunday we lay aside the egocentric desires and wants to address Him who gives us what we need and then works so that we may learn to want what He gives:  “The Body of Christ given for you... the Blood of Christ shed for you.” Receiving this awesome mystery filled with grace upon grace beyond our comprehension, we respond with the Amen of faith and say with St. Peter, “Lord, to whom [else] shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

The reality of what is there is too great for us to comprehend in total.  We glimpse it by faith, seeing it in small bites.  We do not judge it -- how offensive is it to God for us to turn up our noses at what He offers because we don't like it or want it!  God lays out the table that bestows not only forgiveness for now but the foretaste of the eternal and we would depart disappointed because we were not fed?  Really?  The response of faith is more "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."  Only something of such transcendent reality can cause us harm as well as blessing -- a harm greater than our dismissal of God's offering as not enough but an actual condemnation and judgment against us from only repentance can rescue us.   

Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face
Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
    Here would I touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand the_eternal grace,
    And all my weariness upon Thee lean.
Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
    Here drink with Thee the royal wine of heav’n;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
    Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiv’n.
This is the hour of banquet and of song;
    This is the heav’nly table spread for me;
Here let me feast and, feasting, still prolong
    The brief bright hour of fellowship with Thee.
I have no help but Thine; nor do I need
    Another arm but Thine to lean upon.
It is enough, my Lord, enough indeed;
    My strength is in Thy might, Thy might alone.
Mine is the sin, but Thine the righteousness;
    Mine is the guilt, but Thine the cleansing blood;
Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace:
    Thy blood, Thy righteousness, O Lord my God.
Too soon we rise; the vessels disappear;
    The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but Thou art here;
    Nearer than ever; still my shield and sun.
Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
    Yet, passing, points to that glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
    The Lamb’s great marriage feast of bliss and love.


Monday, August 30, 2021

He can harm us none. . .

Sermon for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, preached on Sunday, August 29, 2021.

    If you give the devil an inch, he will take a mile.  Herod the Tetrarch was a weak and vain man who thought much too highly of himself.  But he was also a man with a conscience.  He knew his sins and he had some fear of God and this fear of God kept him from silencing his chief accuser, John the Baptist.  His tolerance of God’s man was not an act of faith but of fear.  For a long time Herod’s fear of God kept John from death.  That is, until he gave the devil an opening and the devil used it to unravel the soul of Herod.

    His marriage to Herodius was incestuous, a marriage built not upon love or the fear of God but upon perversion, lust, and a common quest for power.  In a vain moment in which he sought to impress others with his wife, his step-daughter, and his virility, he promised anything, up to half of his kingdom, for the erotic and vulgar dance of a child playing upon the disgusting lewdness of this evil man.  He backed himself into a corner and willingly exchanged the wrath of God for the false image of power before birthday guests who knew it was all a sham.  Then, as if he had ever been known as a man of his word, he keeps this awful promise and kills the prophet of God to please the prostitute parading as his own wife.

    The world did not welcome the voice of John anymore than the world welcomed the voices of Zechariah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, or any of the prophets who went before him.  You do not welcome the truth either.  None of us does.  We prefer to live in our illusions rather than look ourselves square in the mirror of God’s Law.  We love to pretend to be respectable:  It lasts until a loose thought or a thoughtless word or a word become deed backs us into the same corner as Herod.  We presume we are better than the worst even if we might admit we are not as good as the best.  We console ourselves with being mediocre sinners, unwilling or unwitting sinners.  But we refuse to admit that our hearts are dark or evil.

    So when the voice of the prophet calls us to repent, we are offended.  Who is that pastor to call us to account?  What about his own sins?  We are the ones in church, for Pete’s sake.  The worst of the sins are not those we boldly do but the lukewarm sins we commit without conviction because we are cowards.  The sad truth is that we would all exchange a moment sharing the limelight with the famous over the anonymity of a back pew in the house of God.  We would all sacrifice truth for feelings and choose to be inspired by lies rather than convicted by truth.  Herod is us and we are Herod.

    I suppose we should not feel to bad for John.  He had completed his mission and done the Lord’s bidding.  His voice had leveled the heights and valleys and made straight the path to Jesus – right up to the Jordan and the Baptism of our Lord.  From then on, Jesus was center stage.  Not John.  So perhaps it was a merciful end for John to exchange this world and its vain glories for the true glory of God’s presence.  He who jumped in his mother’s womb now dances before the Lamb of God on high.  But maybe we can learn something from this.

    The devil does not have to chew you up and spit you out to win.  He does not have to destroy your life or steal away everything that you value to bring you and your faith to your knees.  All he needs is a small entrance, a sinful thought, a word too quickly across the lips, and an action taken because you were sure you had no choice.  And there he is.  He takes us down not as public show but in the privacy of our guilt and shame and where faith once lived, despair now reigns.  If you give the devil an inch, he will take a mile.  Worse, he will take all of you.

    That is why we are so close to the Lord’s house.  That is why we are here when the Word is preached.  That is why we confess our sins.  That is why we eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord.  We have given the devil too many inches and, although we can do nothing on our own to stall his advance, the Lord can.  One little word can fell him.  Or so we sing in “A Mighty Fortress.”  We are here because only God can close the gaps our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds have created.  Only God can steal us into the refuge of His grace where the devil can harm us none.  Only God can still the whisper of the devil’s lies or turn away his pointy finger of guilt.  Only God can deliver us from this body of sin and its death, from this world set against God and His kingdom, and our own rebellious wills and flesh.  And this God does through the means of grace in which the Spirit does the bidding of Jesus and makes our weak faith strong.

    So the world hates us.  It hated Jesus.  What do you expect?  So the world would mock our meager righteousness.  It mocked Jesus.  What do you expect?  So the world threatens to take our lives, goods, fame, child, and wife?  Let these all be gone and they still have nothing won.  The kingdom ours remaineth.  Our trust does not lie in earthly rulers or institutions or powers but in the cross, in the grace of God that rescues guilty sinners and in the mercy of God that clears our guilty consciences and in the hope of God planted in death to give us everlasting life.  Forgiven people know they have nothing to lose.  They do not fear because they are fearless but because they fear God most of all.
Do not fear him who can take your body.  Fear Him who destroy both soul and body.  Jesus said that.  John believed it.  And when faced with a long imprisonment and an ignominious death at the plot and plan of a weak pseudo king and a woman without virtue, John was ready for death.  Herod, Herodias, and Salome had given an inch and the devil had taken a mile.  Their sin has gone down in the annals of history and they cannot escape their shame.  But you, my friends, can.  You can with John through repentance and faith.

    Repent.  Believe in the Lord Jesus.  Trust in the mercy of the cross.  Live in the promise of life stronger than death.  Stay close to the place where this grace is made accessible to you in the absolution of your sins, the preaching of this Gospel, the remembrance of your baptism, and the feast of Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses you from all your sin.    May our eyes be fixed on Jesus, where true joys are to be found.  May the Lord provide faithful voices who recall us to this Gospel when our eyes, hearts, and minds wander.  And when the injustice and unrighteousness of the world threatens us, may we have the strength of John’s conviction, the courage of his steadfast faith, and  the comfort of his message to deliver us into the arms of God’s mercy once, for all, clear and clean, forevermore.  Amen.

How to get there from here. . .

If you paid any attention to the internet worship wars in the Roman Catholic Church, you might think that the barest hint of Latin and an ad Orientem altar stirs up the worst in priests and parishes alike.  Certainly Pope Francis presumes this to be the case.  He is nothing but urgent in his condemnation of priests (and parishes, we expect) who are traditional -- he calls them rigid.  But the reality is that whether you like the Latin Mass or not, the Extraordinary Form is more likely to manifest a vibrant and stable parish.  Maybe the bishop is not so fond of their politics but you can hardly fault their devotion or their support of the faith and traditional worship.

Oddly enough, the same was once fairly common in Missouri.  It was routine to go to district meetings or church conventions or pastoral conferences and hear your ecclesiastical supervisors rail against rigid congregations and pastors wedding to the hymnal, the catechism, and the Confessions.  Of course, they were careful enough not to smear the hymnal or catechism or Confessions directly but I can recall being told that no congregation will grow with the hymnal, that there is no success which does not cater to the diverse worship preferences, and that doctrinal preaching offends or bores people.  There was a time when it was presumed that the most successful LCMS franchises were those who experimented with anything and everything in pursuit of consumer satisfaction.  

Pope Francis may not get it but after a while many DPs in Missouri understood that the best approach was any one that worked to fill the pews and the coffers.  So they also learned to laud what worked -- no matter what that was that worked.  If liturgy, so be it.  If evangelical style seeker worship, that is fine.  The goal is results and the means to results is not so important.  Missional and traditional wars over everything from liturgy to small groups to the use of technology have died down a bit.  As long as it works.  And as long as there are no conflicts in the parish over it.  Perhaps the Roman bishops will learn the same lesson someday.  Who knows?  One might wish that instead of looking only at results we might be also willing to judge how faithful the means to get them.

Whatever works, however, is its own Pandora's box.  Ends justifies the means has never been good for the Gospel.  The most obvious take on this was the threat of death to encourage baptism and the follow through with death after baptism -- as a merciful act to prevent the baptized from taking back his consent to God and the Church.  The more subtle forms of this parade under the banner of adiaphora -- as if the word mean it does not matter as long as it produces results.  It is this kind of hands off results oriented view of things that has promoted the move to online as the equivalent of in person and virtual Communion as if it was just the same as real.  It is this kind of focus that has created the climate where seminaries and the pastoral formation they provide is suspect, expensive, and optional and the better and more economical choice is online education.  I fear that we are being consumed by the idea of being efficient and effective -- both domains of God and not us.  The call of God is to be faithful.  But faithfulness cannot be counted on producing results as quickly as doing what works.  In the end, we may be very effective at building an organization but abject failures as being the Church.  

In the end, Rome may have something else going on under the guise of worship wars and Lutherans may still be fighting them in other ways.  I have never been fond of the characterization of some as missional and some as not and fear that this is a smokescreen.  What endures, however, is not what we build or what we prefer but what is faithful and true -- what God says and does.  If we ever learn this lesson, a lot of ink or digital ink might be saved and we might find more time and energy to focus on what the Lord has said and done.  We can only hope. . .

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Who are we?

Internet communion has been a vexing issue for some time.  Long before COVID ever showed up, Lutheran congregations experimented with communion at home with a voice over a DVD.  The advance in technology has allowed live streaming of that voice so that it can even contemporaneous with a worship service in which people might be gathered in person.  In other congregations, Jesus has been packaged up in hermetically sealed containers and sent through the US Postal Service to people unable or unwilling to venture out to their own congregations (which may or may not have been open for in person worship).

Our church body has been uniform in its insistence that internet or any other version of home communions without the pastor present do not conform to the expectations of Scripture or to the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  

  1. CTCR Statement
  2. Addendum
  3. Additional Statement
  4. Previous CTCR Statement
  5. DVD Consecration Opinion

Almost immediately, a chorus of opinions arose against the official decision of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  An example of one is here.  The opinion of the church body through the official sources does not seem to have made much difference to those who insist that they are doing the Lord's bidding by offering the Sacrament through technology.  Some have taken it upon themselves to expand their own parish boundaries by offering their own versions of internet communion to any and all who want to use it as well as sending Jesus through the mail to those who belong to other parishes.  I fear the genie is out of the bottle.  It appears that many of our District Presidents are offering either back door support or open advocacy of practices to which our church body has said "no."  

A good example of this is a Bible Study at the official convention of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  The District President invited a robust conversation and, apparently, that included the subject of internet communion.  The author, Rev. Zach McIntosh, is one of the pastors on staff of a prominent Texas District congregation.  Concordia Lutheran Church, San Antonio, Texas, is and has been for a very long time one of the largest congregations in the Texas District and, indeed, the whole of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  It openly offers "At Home Communion Instructions" on their website.  As others have noticed, it is curious that a congregation that offers the Sacrament only 12 times per year would go to such great lengths to offer it at home -- even thwarting the good judgment of their theological peers.  The LCMS is not alone in dealing with this.  An example from the ELCA is given here.  It seems that Lutherans are finding themselves hard pressed to respond to such things with any real unity.  

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.  I am sure that such may be true in many cases but not in this.  In emergency the greatest temptation is to jettison what we hold dearest for the sake of a higher goal -- doctrinal integrity gives way to the more urgent necessity of making our way through a pandemic.  As a pastor of a congregation that did not shut down at all during the COVID pandemic, I well understand being creative while being safe and following rules imposed by the government.  No one is suggesting that we do everything as we have always done when things prevent the old routine.  But neither can we use necessity or even urgency as an excuse for violating our very confession or ignoring the very intent of Scripture.  At some point in time, we must come face to face with things that were done with good intention but not in keeping with the integrity of the faith.  If we need to confess what we have done wrong, then let us confess.  But let us not continue to do what is wrong after being counseled by Scripture and the Confessions and the wisdom of our peers.  Nor should we invent excuse and justification for what was done with good intent but clearly against our Confession.  

In the Church we seem hell bent upon making things new.  What we have received from those who went before, is not a mere suggestion but the living faith of the dead.  To dismiss the witness of the past because the world is not the same can be the first step into irrelevance.  It was the fear of irrelevance that became one of the reasons for adjusting the age old teaching of Scripture and the Church on same sex marriage, gender identity, and cohabitation to be more in line with popular opinion.  Such might be an extreme circumstance in comparison to what seems to some a benign debate over how to administer Holy Communion, but the comparison may be more apt than some think.  How we handle this may well be the measure of our fidelity to Scripture, creed, and confession overall.  For what is expedient in time of necessity or urgency will only become what is the norm in normal times.  Well, listen to the Bible study and tell me what you think.  If you want another side, you might want to listen here.  You might also want to read this.  

Now to be fair, although the author of the Bible Study suggests that the only concern being expressed is the Sacrament part of the Word and Sacrament worship; I am not ready yet to grant this.  While no one but an idiot would suggest that the efficacy of the Word can be reduced to a narrow circumstance, to suggest that people watching a sermon at home is the same as or the equivalent to being together in the Lord's House, around the Word and Table of the Lord is not something I am willing to grant.  Instead, the real issue here is not only home communion via technology of one sort or another, it is the whole idea that digital worship is an equivalent of and replacement for the in person Divine Service.  The challenge before us is whether what was done in pandemic time under emergency conditions will become routine and one of the norms for the Church post-pandemic and when there is no longer a pressing emergency?  In other words, will the in person service times come to regularly be supplemented by and communicants counted from online platforms?  Some are suggesting that this is exactly the shape of the future.  Others are not so sure.  Some, like me, warn against necessity becoming the norm for tomorrow. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

What is real?

The common fallacy of gender theory, critical race theory, and sexual preference theory is that your feelings and experiences are the most real things of all.  So for gender theory, biology must always take second place to the perception or feelings of the person in that body -- even when they are at odds.  And for critical race theory, the perception of racism and how one perceives their own experiences become the unassailable truth that cannot be questioned.  Then sexual preference takes the same road in making preference the highest truth of all and that desire which dare not be denied.  You can add into this many of the common issues today -- from climate change to the way we view history.  Facts don't matter.  What is the most and ultimate reality is how we experience and feel something.

We live in a culture held captive by our feelings.  Yet we cannot do much about the feelings of others.  To deny them or challenge them is an ism of some kind or another -- and one not to be tolerated.  Facts have little impact on our feelings especially when feelings and perception are granted a higher value.  There is nothing that can challenge or question our feelings or the way we interpret or see our experiences.  But we lie to our feelings and our feelings lie to us all the time.  We claim that we are offended when the reality is that we look for ways to justify our anger, bitterness, and upset -- and give us the opportunity and the reason to injure others in response.

Christians are not immune from this tyranny of feelings and the lens of our experiences.  When faced with the choice between what God says and we want, we will choose what we want all the time.  So Christians avoid talking about sin and redemption and instead talk about the God who inspires and affords us the dreams to which we aspire.  The fact that Christians overall divorce at a rate close to non-Christian couples tells us something about the role of feelings and how we interpret our experiences.  Our feelings win out every time over loyalty and commitment -- and the goal of our feelings is happiness.  If our spouse or our children of our job or anything else stands in the way of feelings of happiness, they are the first of our realities to go.  We have taken literally Shakespeare's to thine own self be true.  I am not sure we understand what that means but it is a popular ideal that true to self, to feelings, to the way we view our experiences, and to our happiness is the most important truth of all.

The Christian, however, understands that there is a judge of feelings, there are values higher than happiness, and there is a reality more real than the way we view and interpret our experiences.  We stand under the conviction of the Law which knows our hearts better than we do and under the hope of the Gospel in which our hearts are reborn for the freedom of obedience to the Lord.  In confession we admit that it is not simply the things outside of us that are wrong but the desires and wills and feelings within.  They too stand under the bar of God's judgment and His justice.  But God gives us not what we deserve.  He gives us the blessing of mercy and forgiveness.  We must do more than apologize for our feelings, we must confess them and deliver them over to the mercy of God to see what is more real than our feelings and more profound than our personal experience.

Our prayer is not that our feelings may win or we trust our experiences most of all but that both come under God's judgment and His grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think of how this is expressed in the Collect for Easter 5:

O God, You make the minds of Your faithful to be of one will. Grant that we may love what You have commanded and desire what You promise, that among the many changes of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
Our feelings are neither the domain of our joy nor are they the reliable conveyors of that joy.  Only the Lord and only the grace of God can rescue us from the tyranny of our feelings and the blindness of experience.  The most real things of all are not within us or even around us.  This world is a reality that is passing away.  We are dust and unto dust we shall return.  But God is preparing a new heavens and a new earth and raising us up from the dust of death that we may dwell in Him and with Him without the impediment of sin, evil, death, and change to corrupt us again.  Our prayer is not to satisfy our feelings but to love what God has commanded and to desire what He has promised for here is the true joy that our longing hearts desire and here alone.

The feelings that entrap us are hardly more than sentiment.  The love that God has revealed through His Son is not sentiment but the love that rescues the unworthy and undeserving at the greatest of cost and yet willing to bear it all -- for you and for me. 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Minister of Public Witness

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber was installed this weekend as the first pastor of public witness for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Bolz-Weber, who is a controversial figure and often a lightening rod for the ELCA, is most well known for her New York Times bestselling books, including “Shameless: A Sexual Reformation” and “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint,” a sort of  prayer/profanity-filled memoir of her personal journey from alcoholic stand-up comic to Lutheran pastor -- and now public theologian.

The role of Pastor of Public Witness is a new position for the ELCA.  It is a self-supported position with a title and an air of legitimacy but not compensation.  Bolz-Weber will have a pulpit or a venue to speak for the ELCA and to the ELCA but she has seemed to thrive on living on the edge so this position, while new, is not necessarily new to her.  She has always lived on the edge with a message laced in threat and vulgarity that has both startled and offended traditional Lutherans.  She openly speaks of sex outside of marriage and of the blessing of homosexuality and all the other genders and attractions de rigueur among edgy Christians.  

“The motivation comes from having a pastoral concern and wanting to have a broader reach than a single congregation,” said Bolz-Weber to the Religion News Service.  And that is exactly what she has -- a broad reach.  She has been a featured speaker all over the ELCA -- from youth gatherings to women's groups to church wide assemblies.  But the problem lies in that her appeal is as much because she is provocative as anything else.  She literally pokes her finger in the eyes of everything traditional and makes jokes about the Biblical model of marriage, the context of sexual intimacy within marriage, and Scriptural roles of male and female.  She does so with a vocabulary that might make the proverbial sailor blush and now her church body has given her mission of shock and awe an official name and sanction.  The reality is that even when Bolz-Weber is spot on, she makes you wince.  If you are a church body wanting to leave behind its Scriptural and Confessional roots, she is exactly the persona for this job of public witness but it is also one more reason to be concerned about the Lutheran-ness of a body that claims to be Lutheran.  Or perhaps it is Lutheran in heritage only?


An inconvenient truth. . .

The New York Times
had a major page-one story on May 23 that featured this headline: "Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications."  In it we find out that fertility rates are falling just about everywhere with some of the lowest birth rates per fertile female ever recorded (Africa south of the Sahara Desert excluded).  In other words, the naysayers who suggested an ice age and population overload 40-60 years ago are waking up to the first population decline in world history -- all by the end of this century.  Of course, we need to be wary of predictions.  We do not live in a freezer and the oceans have not drowned out the coastlines and major cities.  But that said, the article should put us on notice.  This is not an anomaly but a consistent trend now for many years.

While this ought to please those who see man as an enemy of a pristine natural world, the reality is that this is a grave threat to the way things are.  With some predicting that all but a dozen or so nations will experience population decline, we will see a vastly different world.  With the graying of the populations and schools transformed into nursing homes, we will have to figure out what to do without a ready supply of workers to pay for such retirement incomes and health care as well as provide services to the aging and aged.  Even the normally climate change friendly Pope Francis has warned against Italy's "demographic winter."

What is an inconvenient truth under all of this is that there is one single reason for such a decline -- one explanation for the decline and one way forward to reverse it?  That is abortion.  Last year some 10 million plus children were killed in the womb -- the single largest cause of death throughout the world even in a COVID year.  Quite literally, every year, a city the size of Jakarta disappears.  Just in case that is too far removed from the reality of my readers, think of a New York City and a Houston disappearing every year!  Just in the US alone, since 1973, the total number of aborted children is 50 million plus -- and counting.  So in the nearly 50 years, a nation the size of South Korea or Colombia has disappeared from the face of the earth -- and that is just in the US!

But the New York Times and none of the other mainstream media will tell you the relationship between abortion and population decline.  Why not?  Abortion has become the third rail of politics -- nearly everywhere.  It is the untouchable subject.  With Roman Catholics among the majority of US politicians and a Roman Catholic President and Speaker of the House, abortion is still the sacred cow that must not be disturbed.  Pelosi and Biden have pledged to make a legislative safety net if the Supremes decide to hear this case and threaten to rule against the holy right of a woman to kill the child in her womb.  We call it health care because we cannot stomach calling it for what it is -- death, legalized murder, and the most profound disregard for the value of life.  But it is a political hot potato that will not be addressed even when we are left with nations of people old and gray and schools and playgrounds empty and silent.

I don't know what to think about the projections.  They are only guesses.  But the trends are significant and abortion real.  It reveals the worst in us and our refusal to acknowledge our complicity -- even when the consequences may threaten the shape of our modern day lives.  Pray, my friends, for the lies we tell ourselves and the convenient ways we avoid the inconvenient truths that would accuse us are a pit of evil that threatens to consume us.  Abortion is not simply an issue -- it is the defining issue of our time.  What value can we give to other things that we would refuse to give to life?

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Know where you are going. . .

I was reminded the other day of a phrase I believe came from Benedict XVI:  it is not enough to move onwards, one must also see where one is going!  I do not recall the context but that sentence might well apply to the situation we find today.  Change is coming fast and furious.  In a very short period of time we found the laws of the land changed to include same sex marriage, the laws that once prevented discrimination against women and racial minorities applied now to transgendered as well as homosexuals, and the liberty people die for willingly surrendered to the government in pursuit of personal safety.  And that is but the start of it all.  Things have not slowed down.  Even the political enemies of the liberal and progressive agenda finds it powerless even to slow the pace of this change.  No one can predict what will come next or where this is all headed.  We will only find out when it is too late to do anything about it.

The role of Christians in society has been hotly debated during and after the COVID lockdowns.  There are those who insist that Christians are there to make sure the change is fair and just.  There are those who argue the role of Christianity is to oppose such change.  It makes the whole argument political and it places Christians on the uncertain ground of politics and policy.  Or is there something else we have to offer the world besides a cheering section or a booing stand?  Could it be that we know where things are going?  Could it be that we are the only ones who have the future before us and who are able to speak to the present in the context of this future?

We know the future.  The world is not to be preserved but is passing away.  It will not matter what we do or do not do, its fate was sealed in Eden.  It must be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth.  We know the future.  Everyone will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give account of their works.  We just confessed this in the Athanasian Creed -- in words that are almost exactly the words of Jesus in Matthew 25!  Judgment is coming.  Excuses will not do.  Best efforts will not suffice.  Noble intentions will change nothing.  Only faith in Christ has something to say before the throne of God.  We have already been judged and redeemed on the cross.  We live in a state of grace through confession and absolution.  We are guided by the voice of Christ in His Word.  We are fed by Christ upon His own flesh and blood.  We are ready for that judgment but those outside of Christ are not.  We are here not to judge in Christ's place but to proclaim the Gospel so that others will be prepared as we are.  We know the future.  We are not disembodied spirits who live in some vague fairy tale existence but people destined for a new and glorious body like unto Christ's own body after the Resurrection.  From the grave this old body awaits its replacement.  We are not the dead with only a past nor are we the present with only today.  We have a future God has prepared for those who love His appearing.

What we have to offer the world most of all is this knowledge of the future -- WHERE we are going.  We alone have the vision of faith to set what happens today in the context of this future.  We are placed here to announce this future -- in the same way the messengers of old announced to the world the coming of Christ in the flesh:  Prepare the way of the Lord!

I fear sometimes we are either bewildered by the events and changes around us or disappointed by them or moved by fear to hide from them.  None of these is an appropriate response.  We live out now more boldly than ever the hope that is within us.  We live as a people who have convictions and a story, vision and a hope, truth and a morality.  We are a people who know where we are going in a world that has no idea of its future.  Neither those who wish to build a heaven of their own making on earth or those who wish to exploit the present for their own happiness have an idea of what is to come.  This is why God has placed us here and this is the message that we have for the world around us -- those who vainly think that they are building a new tomorrow without the help of God and those who vainly think that no tomorrow matters.  

We have got to stop acting like we are being buffeted along by every wind of change and chance or as a people who have nothing to say but no.  We have a real and sturdy hope, a future prepared for us from before the foundation of the world, a life stronger than death, and an answer to give to the God who will survey our hearts and our works.  The world may not want to hear of sin and death but they know the need of a real future and of those who can discern it.  Perhaps by heralding this future we may prepare the hearts convicted by sin and open the minds to be convinced by the Spirit that yesterday and today will give way to the eternal tomorrow God has prepared.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Which Jesus. . .

A letter to the editor in a recent Living Lutheran, official periodical of the ELCA, made the assertion that "we don't worship and pray to the historical Jesus; rather, we worship the resurrected, universal Christ..."  There was no clarification or correction from the editor.  So, we can presume that this accords with official ELCA teaching.  On an ecumenical Lutheran forum, an ELCA pastor asserted this:  "Millions of Christians believe Christ was crucified and rose from the dead. There's no evidence whatsoever that it actually happened."   

Everyone probably already knows how this business of the Jesus of history and the Christ became an issue, the presumption being that we cannot know much at all, if anything, about the Jesus of history because what we have in Scripture is a cleansed, idealized, and politicized Christ.  That is old news.  It sounds like some kind of arcane theoretical statement.  It may seem like this is the dry debate stuff of academics pondering things that have little affect on the folks in the pew.  But read this again.

A layman, presumedly since he did not identify himself as a pastor, now insists that the historical Jesus has no relation to the Christ whom we worship and to whom we pray.  A pastor of the ELCA, presumedly in good standing on their roster, has publicly stated that Christian belief exists without evidence.  In other words, both sides of the pew are saying that history, fact, and event are divorced from belief and faith.  It may be true, though we have no evidence, yet we worship and pray to what we believe is true.  This is the emptiness of modernity and its separation of faith from history, truth from fact, and belief from reality.  Is it no wonder that such churches are as empty as their Gospel -- or should be!  When the Word made flesh is divorced from the Word that is written, both are less than what they claim and we have nothing but imagined truth.

What is most distressing is when you see that the debates of academics has filtered down into the pew and become the ground, or lack of foundation, for the faith of the faithful.  Sadly, academia has become the realm of the specialist who is an expert in some small matter and who then sees everything through the lens of that small matter but who fails to see the whole.  Pastors are not specialists and should never become such.  We are not given the privilege of wondering about things but instead are called to ponder the mystery of the faith:  Christ was born, Christ lived, Christ died, Christ rose again, and Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father.  All of this for us and our salvation.  

We ponder this not as some intellectual curiosity but as the message given to us to proclaim -- not as a belief divorced from history but as that event that all history looked toward and by which all history has been transformed.  It is the cosmic message that is bigger than all of us but the personal message that rescues, redeems, and restores the lost one soul at a time.  It is the Word that delivers the guilty from sin, the dying from death, and the lost to a destiny of hope.  This is not imagined by the mind but planted in history that it might be planted in us by the Spirit.  It is not a faith divorced from fact but built upon the facts fully attested by witnesses.  Those who are enlivened by this Spirit to the life that Christ won and bestows become witnesses -- not to the event but to the Word.

What appeal does a belief divorced from history have?  Duh, we live in a world which has disowned its own past and invented its own history.  Of course this appeals to a world in which belief is merely personal feeling and conviction and truth is one person wide and deep.  But this can never become the same as the faith of the fathers, built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles and evangelists, and delivered to us as the truth that is true whether we believe it or not and efficacious -- delivering to us that which it speaks.  Lutherans beware!  This is not the faith the Reformers stood for.  Do not settle for such a groundless truth.  This is not our legacy and this is not our confession.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Marriage is God's tradition. . .

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16B, preached on Sunday, August 22, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

Many in our world today bemoan the fact that traditions are quickly being forgotten.  With every generation, it seems as if traditions are lost.  There are some who speak out against traditions, saying we don’t need them.  That’s become a very popular view.  But it’s an uninformed one, because in reality we still have traditions...they’re just traditions of men.

Jesus addressed man’s traditions when some Pharisees and scribes questioned Him.  They saw Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands, and they wanted to know why.  Why didn’t Jesus’ disciples follow the traditions of the elders?  And there you see what their true concern was.  The Pharisees weren’t concerned with the disciples’ hygiene.  Their concern was following the traditional ritual washings in order to purify oneself from uncleanliness, uncleanliness that came from inevitably coming into contact with something impure at the marketplace, like a Gentile. 

Back in Exodus 30 and Leviticus 22, God gave commands for ritual washings to the priests.  The priests had to wash before entering into God’s presence to offer the sacrifices.  These washings weren’t commanded of the people though, just the priests.  Therefore, the Pharisees were adding to God’s command.  They were requiring a man-made tradition as if God had commanded it.  But Jesus wouldn’t let them get away with this.  He knew what was in their heart.  He knew their hypocrisy.  

The Pharisees who questioned Jesus wanted to honor God in their own way.  They wanted to go above and beyond, even to the point of elevating they’re traditions over God’s commands, implying their way was better.  Such is man’s attempt to please God.  

Man-made traditions are ultimately self-serving.  They’re all about us, what we desire, and what we want to do.  That’s what was behind the Pharisees’ questioning of Jesus.  But before we simply go and point fingers at the Pharisees for this, we need to look at our lives as well, because we too have set up traditions that are contrary to God’s...and there’s no better example of this than our tradition of marriage.   

Marriage is God’s tradition.  It’s the very first tradition actually, established by God in Creation, even before our Fall into sin.  God made man, Adam.  And then He said it wasn’t good for man to be alone, so He made a helper fit for him.  He made woman, Eve.  And then He gave them the command to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth and to have dominion over all creation.  That having dominion means caring for God’s creation.  That includes caring and loving, serving and honoring spouse and family.  That’s marriage.  That’s God’s design for marriage, one husband and one wife, united in one flesh until death parts them, loving and serving and honoring each other.  But we’ve turned marriage into something different.  We’ve made it our own tradition.

God’s design for marriage is submission and service.  These two words have become four-letter words when it comes to our tradition of marriage though.  I’ve been to weddings where Ephesians 5 has been read and there is audible disapproval when the pastor reads “Wives, submit to your husbands.”  And then when he gets to the verses reading “Husbands, love your wives,” you can see men jump in their seats because their wife just elbowed them in the ribs.  These reactions are a result of us turning marriage into a selfish thing.  

We’ve made marriage a selfish thing.  We’ve want marriage to be about us and that’s why we don’t like to talk about “submission” and “service,” because submission and service aren’t about us, it’s about others.  Submission and service requires putting others first.  Submission and service looks outside of oneself.  Submission and service gives up self for the benefit of another.  But that’s not the focus of our man-made tradition of marriage.  

Just think about it.  How is marriage portrayed in the movies?  If it’s portrayed at all, marriage is about having our wants met. Romance movies are about the guy or girl finding that right person, the person who will satisfy all their desires: both emotionally and physically.  We watch those stories and buy into that narrative.  We pursue relationships with the sole goal of satisfying ourselves.  Take a quick inventory of your married life this past week.  How many times did you get frustrated because your spouse didn’t do what you wanted?  Or how many times were your thoughts and actions first about yourself and not your spouse or children?  I can’t count high enough for all the times that’s been true for me.  

And then you have the TV shows that portray family life in a negative way.  The husband and father is always a bumbling idiot and the wife and mom is always a controlling nag.  There’s no submission or service.  Again, we buy into these narratives and begin to view our marriages through these lenses.  We look at our husband as if he’s an idiot who can’t do anything right and we look at our wife as if she’s a nag who’s never satisfied.  

And what’s the result?  Unhappy marriages, divorce, broken homes.  We don’t get what we want so we leave.  We leave the other half of our flesh, the one whom we said we’d have and to hold, whom we’d love and cherish until death parted us; the one whom we pledged our faithfulness to.  And don’t think this is just an outside the church thing.  Don’t think it’s just unbelievers who’ve replaced God’s good tradition of marriage for a man-made one, because it’s not.  We see it among ourselves as well.  We look at our spouses with selfish eyes instead of submission and service.  

Submission and service aren’t bad things.  Wives, submitting to your husbands isn’t about becoming a slave to him.  It isn’t about being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.  It isn’t about your husband lording over you.  It’s about helping your husband, being that helper fit for him as he fulfills his duties and responsibilities as head of the house.  It’s about following his headship as he loves and serves you; as he cares for you, because that’s what God has given him to do.  So husbands do that.  Love your wives.  Serve them.  Live for them.  Give up your life to care for hers.  That’s true masculinity, and that’s why God has given you a wife.  God has given you a wife not to rule and lord over, but to love and to serve, just as Christ has loved and served you.

That’s what God’s tradition of marriage is about.  It’s about Christ’s love for you.  When God created man and wife in the Garden, He had Christ and His cross in mind.  When St. Paul said “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church,” (Eph 5:32) he isn’t saying that Christ and His love for you are a picture of our marriages, but that our marriages are a reflection of His love.  To understand God’s tradition of marriage, you need to know what Christ has done for you.  You need to know His love that drove Him to the cross to serve you in the ultimate way, dying for you, giving Himself up for you, so that you’d be saved from your sin and death.  Christ has given all to have you.  He’s washed you with water and the Word.  He’s sanctified you and made you a spotless bride, so that you’d have a new and everlasting life with Him.  

This life isn’t just a future thing.  It’s a present reality for today.  Today you stand sanctified and cleansed before your Bridegroom who gave up His life for you.  And today, you reflect that love and submission and service to the husband and wife God has given you.  No, you won’t be the perfect spouse.  You’ll follow man’s tradition of marriage again, serving yourself first.  But with repentance, seek out Christ’s forgiveness, and share that forgiveness in your homes.  With faith, look not to yourself, but to your spouse.  See them for the gift they are.  Submit and serve, because that’s God’s tradition, and there’s no better tradition for marriage than that.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

Corrective love. . .

We don't hear much about tough love anymore.  As far as it goes, tough love was not an apt description of the discipline of the Lord's Table anyhow.  Lutherans are not alone in this problem.  Rome is fighting even now over what it means to commune those who hold positions antithetical to official church teaching.  But for Lutherans the issue has generally been less about the Lutherans communing than others who wish to commune at Lutheran altars.  

It was never an easy sell but given the shape of our new culture and its equation of love with approval and acceptance of anything and everything, the discipline of the Table has become even more difficult.  Plus the fact that many folks don't take the faith seriously -- much less who communes -- and you have a recipe for a bitter taste that will not go away.  Pastors feel guilty for communing those who they know should not be communed and they feel they are in a no win situation if they refuse one who should not commune.  

Book after book has been written to explain what is hard to explain and even harder to accept.  The love that manifests itself in the discipline of the Table is a corrective love that few welcome. Even more distressing is that the entrance to the altar rail has become a perfunctory function of membership -- holding out the magic card that says you are good to go.  If you are a member of the right club, you have an in.  Except that this is never what Lutherans have understood to be the discipline of the Table.  In our Confessions we insist that we commune only those who have been examined and absolved.  We say nothing about membership in the great club.  Yet this is precisely the problem.  We do not practice examination and absolution like we ought and so in the absence of this aspect of pastoral care, we are left with an outstretched hand and a membership card.

In his book on the discipline of the Lord's Table, Thomas Oden reflects upon Corrective Love:

“Protestants at one time were confident that their free form of confession was a vast improvement upon Catholic private confession to a priest because it is voluntary, demystified, and not routinized. But amid the acids of modernity it has volunteered itself right out of existence. Demystification has dwindled into desacralization. The escape from routinization has become a convenient cover for the demise of repentance. The postmodern pastor is trying to learn anew to listen to the deeper range of feelings of others, without forgetfulness of the Word of God.”  

That is the problem.  We have volunteered it right out of existence but we are still left with the burden of who communes and no mechanism left but the gold card.  In this case, we have jettisoned the corrective with the love and are left with only feelings.  It is no wonder our people have no real idea why anyone and everyone is not welcome to join us at the altar rail.  There is no rationale for communion discipline absent the means by which this corrective love is applied.  Our Confessions got it exactly right.  What makes us worthy is not simply belonging to an organization or having a name on a membership list but what Augsburg XXV says:  Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved. 

But, of course, we do.  It has become usual to give the body of the Lord not simply to those we do not know, much less have examined and absolved, but since the practice of confession and absolution have become so rare, those who regularly are part of our Divine Service have come to expect that the normal or routine way to approach the Lord's Table is to do so having handled this on your own -- and the pastor is a bystander to the process and not a part of it.  It is no wonder, then, that the corrective discipline of love has left the altar rail to stand or fall on its own -- without the structural support Augustana XXV supports.  The pastor is then placed in the terrible position of being a gate keeper when the Confession see him as being a pastor, a shepherd, and a father in Christ to God's people.

Who communes has come down to whether or not one is a member of a fellowship in good standing (whatever that might mean) and no longer has all that much to do with the pastoral relationship that communicant has with that altar and the pastor who stands in persona Christi there.  I fear that the genie is out of the bottle and it may be impossible to recover what we have lost.  Will we content ourselves to be bouncers checking IDs at the rail?   That is not simply a question for Lutherans but for all sacramental Christians who believe that there is something there in the Sacrament which may not only be taken to your benefit but also your harm.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Knowledge and understanding are overrated. . .

All of us grew up in a culture in which knowledge and understanding were prized above all.  We learned information in school that was meant to help us understand and therefore become wise.  As you look around you, you can see that the fruits of this system have been mixed at best.  

I had a discussion about math with a college math teacher in my parish who was convinced that if people understood math, they would be better at it.  Obviously, the way I learned math was not keyed into understanding.  It was not even concerned all that much with knowledge.  I memorized the multiplication tables and simply stuck numbers into formulas.  I did not have a clue as to how I arrived at the answer but I did not care all that much about it either.  Then I learned from my parents and a grocer, for whom I worked staring at age 12, some short cuts to adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.  I can count but I am a failure at math.  At least according to the expert.  I did take comfort from the fact, however, that the math professor could not count out change if his life depended on it.  Oh, well. . . 

My brother suffered under the introduction of new math.  I assume that new math is now old math but I expect it is the same confused and futile effort to make students understand what they were doing and to give them knowledge to make math transparent.  My brother hated it.  When my kids brought home their math homework, I hated it as well.   I watched them muddle through an arcane process of multiplying numbers while I had finished with the answer a long time ago.  Their teachers did not like my interference and they were penalized even when they got the answer right -- because they did not show their work.  Really?  And if they showed their work but got the wrong answer in the end, they still got partial credit.  What?  But that is the way of an education that imparts knowledge to build understanding.

Switch now to catechism class.  In the Church we still practice memorization and value this memorization over knowledge that bears the fruit of understanding.  Sure, some congregations and pastors have abandoned the catechism and memorization and instead pursue a catechetical model that values knowledge, understanding, and feeling more than anything else.  I don't have figures but my instinct is that those who catechized by memorization have fared better -- more orthodox and more faithful than those who spent time learning to love Jesus and figure Him out.  I did not understand all that much of what my pastor taught me but it found its home in my mind and heart.  It was not that he was all that effective as a teacher but it is the nature of the Word of God to find its way into us -- that is the agency of the Spirit, after all.  

Knowledge and understanding are overrated.  Remember the Lord's conversation with Nicodemus?  Nicodemus wanted answers.  Jesus was not giving any.  Jesus even mocked Nicodemus (you, a big time teacher of the Jews and you do not get it?).  Jesus called Nicodemus to faith -- to trust in what he did not understand and what he did not know (at least in the sense of knowing how it worked).  And then there is the way Jesus treated Thomas' request for a sign or something to bolster his faith and relieve him of some of the risk inherent to faith.  Again, Jesus does not seem to accommodate Thomas without also turning it back on him (Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe).  Seeing is not believing and neither is knowing believing or understanding believing.  I am not saying knowing the Scriptures and understanding it as best you can are bad things but we dare not equate knowledge and understanding with faith.  After all, the devil certainly knows the Scriptures better than we do and I assume he understands them pretty well but that has not led him to faith.  Faith is the Spirit given response to the Word preached and the Sacrament of Baptism administered.  

Truth be told, I still think that memorizing the Catechism, hymns, liturgy, and prayers are among the most valuable disciplines to strengthen the faith.  And these bear fruit in virtue -- seeking to be the best you are.  For the Christian this is not some humanistic pursuit of righteousness we can claim credit for but Christ living in us and working in us by the Holy Spirit to bear the fruit He has always intended to bear in our lives.  Abide in Christ and He will abide in you and you will bear the good fruit that endures.  In the end, is that not what the Lord (and we) are seeking -- faithful Christians who believe the Word, who trust in what they have not seen and do not comprehend???  Are we hoping that in our catechism classes is another St. Thomas Aquinas or are we hoping for solid, faithful, serious Christians who seek to become the people God has declared them to be in baptism?  Are we looking for great thinkers or virtuous people (in the best sense of that term)???

. . . once the people have learned the text well, then teach them to understand it, too, so that they know what it means. Take up again the form offered in these charts or some other short form that you may prefer. Then adhere to it without changing a single syllable, just as stated above regarding the text.—SC Preface 14. 

You do not need knowledge and understanding to benefit from the Divine Service.  You can follow along without knowing the history or having full comprehension of the mystery that is witnessed and manifested in the efficacious Word and the life-giving food of the Eucharist.  Again, my point is not to suggest that knowledge and understanding are bad but neither are they the ultimate goal of our life in Christ, gathered around His Word and Table.  Nor are knowledge and understanding the prerequisites of virtue -- of God bearing good fruit in the lives of His baptized and believing children.  Hate me for saying it but sometimes knowledge and understanding are overrated.  But faith and repentance are underrated.  A little something for you to chew on today.  Don't hate me for it.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Being good is not the same as being holy. . .

It has been too easy for mankind to presume that holiness is primarily goodness -- that is being good, good behavior.  That is the foible of original sin that we misunderstand not only who God is but what God desires from us.  This is not to minimize the value of good behavior (unless it is merely restrained behavior which prevents bad thoughts and words from turning into action).  Even then, good behavior that proceeds from good thoughts and is reflected in good words is not what we think it is.  It is not simply the repression of the bad for then our focus would be entirely consumed with the things we have thought and said and done wrong.  It is the flowering of the good -- of God in us.  It is this good that shapes the thoughts of our minds and what words pass over our lips and what actions we take or do not take.  Holiness is what begets goodness.

The curse of judgment day is not the revelation of past misdeeds or shameful thoughts or hateful words but the disclosure of the impiety, unholiness, and evil that has poisoned the heart, held captive the mind, and unloosed the tongue.  That is why we need the cover of Christ's righteousness and the blood that cleanses us from all sin.  We cannot abide this opening of the hidden and it will not only condemn us but curse us for eternity.  The blessing of judgment day is that our sins have already been judged on the cross, our feeble efforts at holiness completed in Christ, and our few and paltry good works given reward greater than their worth -- just as we have been given blessing greater than our worth in Christ!

Nowhere is this confusion made more obvious than in worship.  Our age has come to disdain the reverence that always accompanies holiness.  Instead we feign some sort of casual sentimental triviality that wants to call God Daddy and ply Him the way we do earthly fathers to get what we want.  The modern Christian wants to sing the music that sounds like what they listen to on their playlist, to tap to an upbeat song that reflects what is going on inside his or her feelings, and to engage in a happy fest of sentiment, aspiration, and assurance.  This is as foreign to the Old Testament as anything can be.  Even in their unfaithfulness, the Israelites did not presume to think of God as anything but holy.  In fact, it was precisely that holiness that drove them to try and escape His eye and do what they wanted.  Today we want God to watch us satisfy ourselves and then, when we have thoroughly debauched ourselves, we want His smile of approval to tell us everything is okay.

The great divide between the worship of the Old Testament and the New has become the exchange of happiness for holiness, casualness for reverence, and me for God.  We pick at passages to justify this excess.  The Abba Father God becomes Daddy, do for us what we want.  The decently and in good order of Corinthians becomes do what you want but not chaotically.  The sing a new song has become sing what is meaningful to you and what has never been sung before.  The prayer that once reverenced the Holy and mighty God has become Gee whiz, Daddy, we just love You so much that we know You will give us what we want.  Is it no wonder that the Christians who gravitate to this have no anchor for the storms of life or faith to hold them when all the pillars of this moment give way?  Is it no wonder that our churches are either passing around people in love with the newest and latest or empty of people?  Is it no wonder that the world has learned that you can bully these churches and pressure them to go along and get along without fear of any recrimination from their impotent God?

Such casual and shallow worship is filled with images that portray something that is not here rather than sacraments that give us what is present but hidden in earthly form.  Such music cannot stick to the ribs when age and affliction take their told like the sturdy hymns of old whose singing recounts the story of Christ and His manifold blessing to us.  Such pastors can offer us little more than hope we will get achieve our dreams and stave off death long enough to do everything we want to do but they cannot give us the God who forgives our sins, restores us to His presence, feeds and nourishes us with the foretaste of the feast to come, and calls us by name through the voice of His Word to follow Him to everlasting life.  The vast warehouses that somehow pass for the temples of God tell us that our leisure is worth everything but God is worth little to us and their lack of beauty tells us that God is not noble virtue but pale sentiment who dwells primarily in feelings that must be constantly re-energized. 

If you are going to offer people such a vapid experience of worship, then by all means abandon any semblance of the Divine Service, of the liturgy that has endured through the ages from the earliest years of the Church, lest you confuse them even more.  If you are going to preach one-liners and tell stories in place of Law and Gospel, then by all means remove your vestments and stay away from the pulpit lest you create even more uncertainty among the people.  Let there be a clear dividing line between those who seek and who offer a goodness that is little more than personal happiness and those who beckon the faithful onto the holy ground of God's presence.  Let there be a marked distinction between those who come to receive the assurance that they are okay and will soon see their dreams come true and those who enter on bended knee to receive there in earthly word and element the manifest heavenly gift (that, for now anyway, is prefigured, but will once be known face to face).

Don't be a fool.  There is a line between the worship of the Temple and synagogue and the chapel and the cathedral and the heavenly vision glimpsed in Revelation.  There is no radical disconnect but the ultimate hermeneutic of continuity.  What was left unfilled has been completed in Christ and we enter into this wondrous mystery on earth through the Divine Service until in heaven we meet this glorious reality with the veil lifted and God showing His full glory to us -- and then inviting us to enter into it!

1 Thessalonians 3:13, KJV: "To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints."


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Curious. . .

I have refrained from commenting much on the COVID vaccines themselves.  It is not that I do not have an opinion -- I do -- but I have regarded this as a personal decision and choice.  It is one that I do not have the place to urge or discourage.  But I have found curious the fact that as much if not the most resistance to the vaccine has come not from the usual suspects, Trumpers, anti-establishment types, conspiracy theorists, and religious extremists, but from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Those who claim no religion, Blacks and Hispanics, and working class whites are all behind the curve in getting vaccinated.  Those with Masters and above, especially doctorates, and others in the educational elite seem to be the most hesitant of all to take the vaccine.  Age seems the much more reliable picture of acceptance with those over 65 nearly universally vaccinated while the young adults demur.

As a pastor I have dealt with people who find that their continued employment is contingent upon them being vaccinated.  I suspect that this issue will grow rather than decline.  Few churches have taken a public position either way.  Individual jurisdictions are, especially among Roman Catholics where some bishops are insisting there is no cover for those who refuse.  The LA diocese flatly refused to provide any support for those who do not want the vaccine but the bishops of Colorado have a template letter acknowledging personal choice and those with conscientious objections.   Of course, some will use the issue of fetal tissue to justify concerns completely unrelated to that point but I know of people whose deeply felt convictions are at cross hairs with the vaccines.  I know of religious leaders who insist that no concerns are valid reasons for not being vaccinated and those who share the same concerns of those hesitant to be vaccinated. 

The media are not helping -- especially with the temptation of media to color the people who resist as foolish or ignorant.  There is an information overload when it comes to this subject and I fear that because it is nearly all we hear, we hear it no more.  On top of that we are facing the very real prospect of additional dosages being required.  The debate has gotten out of hand -- illustrated by the VP insisting as a candidate she would never get that Trump vaccine and to now the administration ready to sanction those who don't.  This should not be about politics.  While I do not wish to impugn the motives of anyone I do call upon all sides to lower the volume.  There is a passage that comes to mind, Come let us reason together. (Is 1:18)  Of course, theologically it does NOT have anything to do with this issue but that should not stop us from heeding the call.

In the end, we may find that as dividing as COVID was as a virus, the vaccine will continue to divide us and, it appears, the whole thing is not going away quietly or quickly.  Judging from the tone of social media with respect to the vaccine, it also seems a foregone conclusion that the current fighting over COVID and the vaccines will continue to be at least as rancorous as it ever was.  Not a good thing for an already divided, suspicious, angry, and bitter nation and people. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Inspiring future pastors. . .

Rome is an enigma to me.  Rome has a Pope Emeritas, whatever than means, who has championed orthodox belief and practice, opening the door to the Extraordinary Form after years of its suppression.  Rome also has a current Pope Francis who seems to relish every opportunity to poke at orthodoxy and castigate the orthodox as rigid or unpastoral.  Under it all, Rome is a divided community with bishops on all sides.

One thing that seems hard to ignore is the fact that the Francis party in Rome has done little to encourage priestly vocations (or any vocations, it seems).  The seminaries of the more progressive or liberal wing of which Francis is king are largely empty.  I read where one survey of bishops could not name one seminarian who was inspired by Francis to choose the priesthood.  Given the declining numbers of priests and monks and nuns, it would seem that inspiring future pastors would be central.  Everyone has read with shock over the number parishes because of the lack of priests -- literally hundreds of churches closed in diocese after diocese.  Add to that the declining numbers in the pews and it would seem Rome would figure out what works and go with it.  But they have not and seem not to have read the signals very well.

Of course, if Rome is in the dark, so is most of Christendom.  Evangelicalism with its focus on the person -- what they feel, what they want, and how to achieve their goals -- has tu rned Christianity into a highly successful business but it does not seem to have succeeded in promoting orthodox faith and belief.  God is less an object of evangelicals than the evangelicals themselves.  Mainline Protestantism has watched as their buildings empty and their seminaries fill with those who come from the fringes or the churches -- both in terms of sexuality, gender, belief, and practice.  They may reflect well on the diversity of those communities but they do not seem effective at bolstering the flagging numbers.  Conservatives (like the Southern Baptists) are almost embarrassed by their past as fundamentalists.  While not ready to give up the official statement of faith, they plant missions without the Baptist name and the folks in the pulpits do not bear much resemblance to their fire and brimstone preachers of old.

I wish Lutherans fared better.  We seem intent upon mirroring what is the worst in other denominations -- some worshiping like evangelicals and others believing like Baptists and others like mainlines all dressed up in liturgical words they do not believe.  Among us, the same problem exists.  Being everything but Lutheran has not encouraged a wave of seminarians and, in fact, has done just the opposite.Yet the reality is that confessional in theology and traditional in practice seems to do a better job of inspiring future pastors and establishing a solid community of faith.  We need to be careful to make sure we are for more than we are against but, giving that temptation, people who believe and teach the faith without fear seem to raise up more to follow them as pastors.

If you ask me, casting all other things aside, genuine orthodoxy does a better job of raising up future pastors and keeping the pews from emptying than anything else.  But Rome will probably keep on demonizing those orthodox in faith and practice.  Evangelicalism will keep on ignoring God except when they can will try to learn from Him how to get what they want.  The mainlines will choose cultural priorities over the things of God, except when they need help achieving them. Baptists will continue to manifest a s somewhat split personality, hiding who they are in favor of trying to become what people think they want.  And for Lutherans the gulf between orthodox faith and practice will widen but it will not bring about unanimity within the Lutheran groups much less between them.  We are not quick learners, none of us.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Getting rich off of Jesus. . .

There are those who love to point out that Joel Osteen does not take a salary from his congregation.  Sometimes people tell me I need to be more like him.  But of course, what need does he of salary when his publishing empire pulls in millions -- largely from the sale of recycled sermons!  He is not the only one to go without formal compensation but he is unusual in the fact that most evangelical preachers do receive a salary from their congregations/ministries -- and a pretty hefty one at that!

Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus?  I am not talking about a middle class living but the kind of lucrative compensation which enables these mega preachers of mega churches to wear designer clothes designed to look casual and sneakers that cost thousands.  Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus?  I am not the first to raise this question.  Probably closer to the end of the line than its beginning as we face the entrepreneurial preachers who turn their ministries into fortunes.

I guess the first thing I would say about these preachers is that they are not really pastors.  They do not visit the sick or stay through the night with the grieving or teach catechism classes to youth and those new to the faith.  They do not baptize or preside at and distribute the Holy Supper of our Lord's body and blood.  Most of them have a job description that better fits a CEO, motivational speaker, author, or leadership guru.  And as for preaching, well, I would hardly consider what many of them say "preaching".  They are generally terrible exegetes and contort the Scripture to fit what they want it to say and they preach a message that sells more than one that convicts sinners or rescues them with the sweet word of forgiveness.  Their preaching is designed to enhance their identity as powerhouses, prosperous people of God, and examples of what the faithful should expect in their own lives of success and ease.  There are few real preachers among them -- not that this suggests they are not good at their task of communication.  They are excellent at this aspect of their lives.  Too good, perhaps.

The majority of pastors, especially Lutheran ones, are middle class folks.  More of them are lower middle class than upper.  Yet the presumption on the part of some is that they are rich, do not work very hard, and get rich off preaching about Jesus.  Frankly, I do not understand it.  When I began, I earned $800 a month and got a house.  People then thought I was on top of the world since I did not have a mortgage.  But unlike most of those in the pews, I did not purchase my first home until I was nearly 40 (and I still live in it).  Yes, my compensation has improved greatly over 41 years.  Whose has not?  But I am near the end of my peak earning years.  Even the average Roman Catholic priest has seen his earnings increase to $45,600.  The average LCMS pastor earns $67,000 (with a family to support).  If you think that is getting rich off preaching about Jesus, perhaps you should do a little more digging.

I do worry about those who come after me.  We live in a world in which folks in the pew are likely to see the cost of health insurance and retirement as extravagant.  People still live in the mythology that pastors are exempt from taxes (when, if they participate in social security, they pay more than an employee does, as well as paying on the value of the housing provided or the housing allowance).  In an age of shrinking congregations and shrinking church budgets, people are likely to see the pastor as an expensive ornament more than an essential office worthy of our esteem and our financial support.

Some complain about the extravagant salaries of Synod and District leaders.  I don't begrudge them what they earn.  One year my DP spent less than 70 nights in his own home.  He was on the road that much in a district that spans 1,000 miles from end to end.  Look at how we nitpick at our leaders, especially Synod President, and tell me that what we pay him is too much.  You could not pay me enough to put me in the cross hairs of every complaining pastor or layperson.  Plus, the presumption is that you are the all powerful wizard when you have little real power and lots of room to make enemies who will turn off the vital pipeline of funds to everything (including missions) to punish you.

Should you get rich off preaching about Jesus?  No.  Should you expect a decent living wage so that you can devote your time and attention where it belongs?  Yes.   While this is an issue for mega pastors and mega churches, it is probably not even worth a discussion for the average parish pastor and parish.  Nobody is getting rich off preaching about Jesus here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

When we on that final journey go. . .

There was once a section of hymns in the hymnal for funerals or death and burial.   In The Lutheran Hymnal that included hymns for death and burial, resurrection, judgment, and life everlasting.  Some 36 hymns were included.  Some are well known but apply to various times of the Church Year as well (Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying).  Some are still well known and appreciated (Jerusalem, the Golden).  But most of those from that section of that hymnal are long ago forgotten and seldom sung.  It is not because they are bad or even particularly difficult.  It is that they speak of death in a way that we do not always speak today and so they have slipped out of style.


By the time Lutheran Book of Worship came along, the section was replaced by hymns of hope and a few of judgment.  Lutheran Worship echoed that precedent, with most hymns of hope and life everlasting.  In Lutheran Service Book there is a list of hymns from various parts of the hymnal appropriate to the occasion of death and burial but the section itself is called Hope and Comfort.  


I would offend my Swedish ancestors if I forgot some of the staples of Scandinavian hymnody sung at funerals (In Heaven Above, Thy Holy Wings, How Great Thou Art, and Children of the Heavenly Father).  In those hymnbooks there were not so many hymns directly appointed for death and burial but hymns familiar and filled with comfort.  I find that this is the primary source of hymns chosen for hymnals today.  When I sit to help people plan their own funerals or with families planning the funeral of their loved one, we often have to pare down the many choices that they would love to sing -- songs of praise and hope and comfort each of them knew as well as the ones they knew together as a family.


Honestly, I hope people plan to stay a while and sing because if they follow my wishes, there are many hymns I would love to have sung at my funeral.  Often I add to the list simply because we sang that hymn and I found it so profound.  Such was the case when we sang again the hymn often chosen as the recessional hymn for Pentecost.  It is a wonderful hymn from the pen of the prolific hymn writer, Nicolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig.  The son of a pastor, this Dane was born in 1783 took the long route to the ministry, becoming assistant to his father in a parish in Jutland in 1810.  His first sermon  was "Why has the Lord's word disappeared from His house."  Needless to say it attracted some attention.  After his father's death in 1813, Grundtvig returned to Copenhagen to study literature. attracted much attention, which is rarely the case with "probationers'" sermons. On his father's death, in 1813, he returned to Copenhagen, and for eight years devoted himself mainly to literature.  In 1821 King Frederik vi. appointed him to be pastor again, ending up at St. Saviour's Church.  He opposed the  Rationalism and Erastianism of the day.  Grandtvig quickly got into trouble and his songs and hymns were forbidden to be sung.  Grundtvig finally returned to preaching at a German parish where he preached for 8 years and published his hymnbook, Sang-Vdrk til den Danske Kirkce ("Song-work for the Danish Church").   In 1839 his suspension was ended.  The death of King Frederik vi allowed him some measure of popularity and respect and he was made an honorary bishop in 1839 (whatever that means).  Grundtvig is spoken of as the poet of Pentecost.  Yeah, you guessed it -- it is that final stanza that moves this into the realm of a great funeral hymn.

503 O Day Full of Grace

1 O day full of grace that now we see
    Appearing on earth’s horizon,
Bring light from our God that we may be
    Replete in His joy this season.
God, shine for us now in this dark place;
    Your name on our hearts emblazon.

2 O day full of grace, O bless├Ęd time,
    Our Lord on the earth arriving;
Then came to the world that light sublime,
    Great joy for us all retrieving;
For Jesus all mortals did embrace,
    All darkness and shame removing.

3 For Christ bore our sins, and not His own,
    When He on the cross was hanging;
And then He arose and moved the stone
    That we, unto Him belonging,
Might join with angelic hosts to raise
    Our voices in endless singing.

4 God came to us then at Pentecost,
    His Spirit new life revealing,
That we might no more from Him be lost,
    All darkness for us dispelling.
His flame will the mark of sin efface
    And bring to us all His healing.

 5 When we on that final journey go
    That Christ is for us preparing,
We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow,
    All joy of the heavens sharing,
And walk in the light of God’s own place,
    With angels His name adoring.