Thursday, September 30, 2021

The flawed premise of diversity. . .

When Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of a future in which race would not determine how a person is judged, he offered to us the promise of a tomorrow in which character, work, and ability would be rewarded no matter the race or ethnicity of the person.  It is still the dream of equal opportunity and equal justice.  But some have decided that the pace is too slow.  They have imagined a diversity in which the marketplace, school, workplace, and halls of justice must discriminate in order to make up for the sins of the past.  It is certainly logical and it appeals to the corporate guilt of a nation that knows its shining star has been tarnished by injustice, discrimination, and inequality.  But is it okay to use the wrong of discrimination to right the wrong of discrimination.

Diversity tells us that some voices must be silent so that other voices might be heard, that some must be pushed back so that others might move forward, that character and ability must be second to the need and goal of politics, business, education, recreation, and life to reflect the difference of color, language, and culture.  Diversity tells us that our identity is forever tied to the color of our skin or the desires of our hearts or the experience of our history.  That is not freedom but a prison, not hope but despair, and not a future but a sentence.

The Church offers the world a radical answer to the problems of injustice and inequality -- that is our common identity as the children of God.  "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are"  (1 John 3:1)  Our identity comes not even from our sinful nature held in common among all but transcends this with the Gospel of redemption and restoration through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We receive this identity in the font where we are born anew not of flesh but of the Spirit and in which we are given the new name as a child of God.  Here we have a new future bestowed upon us where there was none.  This is not a little thing.  It is the most important thing of all.

Equality is not the achievement of man but the gift of God -- a common salvation that gives a common life in God as His saints, His people, with a common future.  Because of this equality, we can address the inequalities of this mortal life with something more than inequality.  Apart from this we will be left with the false devices of discrimination in service to equality and from an identity which lies in the transient and not the eternal.  We will suffer the captivity of a diverse world in which liberty is both precious and in short quantity and people must compete for it.  So when the Church resorts to the very tools of the secular world in pursuit of justice, we surrender the Gospel for the Law and give to the transient a status greater than God will give it.  The true diversity is reflected not in the accepting or glorifying or using the divisions that resulted from the Fall but in proclaiming the one Lord, one Faith, and One Baptism in which God makes accessible to anyone and everyone forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Woke diversity is no savior but only a tool of the devil to further the division, competition, inequality, and injustice of a world already suffering these things.  When the Church takes up this cause, she exchanges the gift of the Gospel for an evil tool.  When quotas or identity politics become the criteria for choosing her leaders, the Church is merely a faint echo of the sinful world and not the outpost of the eternal God has planted here in time.  We do not have inherent dignity as people but only the dignity given to us by the God who made us, the God who loved us when we loved Him not, and the God who in love redeemed us at the highest of all costs -- His Son.  Any dignity and identity we hope to have as people is the gift and fruit of God's redeeming work, rescuing His fallen creation from themselves as much as from anyone or anything else.

Diversity is flawed from the get go.  But the world will not see it anymore than, apart from the Spirit, the world will see that the answer to our broken world is Christ and His mercy.  The Church's job and calling is to proclaim this Gospel.  All the divisions and conflicts we now have we will certainly have until Christ comes in His glory but that does not prevent us from loving our neighbor and working against injustice and inequality when and where we can.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Interesting. . .


Currently-Married Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Used Artificial Contraception in the Past 12 Months NOT Including Male Partners with Condoms and/or Vasectomies, by Religious Affiliation, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family Growth

Survey says that among currently married women, those with no religious affiliation used birth control at a virtually the same rate as Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, Black Protestant, and Mainline Protestant women without children. 

That is a statistic that ought to stand out.  Across the board, Christian women affiliated with Catholic, conservative, evangelical, and mainline (more progressive) churches report using birth control at a rate statistically no different from those with no religious affiliation.  I am not sure when this statistic came about but it came even when Roman Catholics officially condemned all means of family planning and birth control except natural family planning.  

The common judgment of nearly every Christian denomination prior to 1930, even those now considered more liberal or progressive, was that birth control was condemned.  While Roman Catholics might point to Pope Paul VI and the 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae as the point when this issue hit the forefront for them, Paul VI was consistent with the dogmatic position of Rome and plowed no new ground with his encyclical.  By 1968, however, the situation outside churches had changed.  The birth control pill was beginning its promise of safe sex without the complication of pregnancy.  Some Roman Catholics thought the spirit of Vatican II would prevail in accepting these changes but even Paul VI could see that birth control was about more than family planning.

Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Have Ever Had Sexual Intercourse and Have Ever Used the “Morning After” Pill, by Religious Affiliation, Overall and Never Married, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family 

Furthermore, the statistics show that the use of the morning after pill is likewise not significantly different across the religious spectrums and in comparison with those women with no religious affiliation.  Again, one might have thought that there would be a more profound difference between women of faith and those without any religious affiliation.

It is clear that there is a greater difference when it comes to abortion.  The graph below shows that across all religious affiliations, Christian women are less likely to have an abortion than their religiously unaffiliated counterparts.

Women Ages 15 to 44 Who Have Ever Had Sexual Intercourse and Have Ever Had an Abortion, by Religious Affiliation, Overall and Never Married, Combining the Last Three Survey Cycles 2013–2019 of the National Survey of Family

So what is my point?  The influences upon our values are not simply our faith but even more significantly the cultural and societal acceptance of things even formally opposed by the faith and by the churches where we belong.  I am not trying to pick on women here.  In other statistics I am sure that the disparity between what you believe and how you live as Christian and what your church believes and teaches is the same or even greater among men.  This area of concern affects some of the most central tenets of the faith regarding the sanctity of life and the morality of sexual behaviors that were once clear and unequivocal.  We find ourselves at a point where the strongest influences upon the values of our people is not Scripture or the doctrinal standards of their churches but what is expedient, convenient, and accords with how they live their lives.

More to come. . .

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Encourage Faith, Not Sin

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B, preached on Sunday, September 26, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

                Jesus spoke some pretty serious words in our Gospel reading today.  It’s one of those readings that’s odd to say “This is the Gospel of the Lord,” afterwards.  Tying a millstone around someone’s neck and then throwing them into the sea to drown doesn’t sound like Gospel.  Cutting off hands and feet, tearing out eyes, that’s not good news.  These are heavy and serious words because Jesus is talking about a heavy and serious thing: sin. 

Sin is no small thing.   We must guard ourselves from it.  We must watch out so that we don’t fall into temptation, and we must watch out so that we don’t lead others into temptation as well, especially our littlest brothers and sisters in Christ. 

                Sin is no joke.  It’s no laughing matter.  Sin isn’t something that we should treat lightly or casually, and yet, that’s exactly what we do every day.  We treat sin casually.  What’s the first thing we say when someone has wronged us and apologizes for their sin?  What do we say?  “That’s okay.  No big deal.  Don’t worry about it.” But that’s the opposite of what we should say.  Sin isn’t okay.   It is a big deal.  And we should worry about it.   But when we respond to confessions of sin in that way, we don’t treat it as such.  We treat sin as if it doesn’t have any real consequence; as if it’s no different from accidentally mispronouncing someone’s name. 

                I wish I could say that we only mistreat sin by treating it casually.  But reality is so much worse; because we don’t just brush sin off as if it was no big deal, we actually celebrate it.  We celebrate sin.

At one time we celebrated virtue: humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence.  We worked to cultivate these and live by them.  But now we celebrate pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.  If you don’t believe me, just turn on the TV.  There’s very little humility in the professional athletes and celebrities that we admire and look up to.  We’ve dedicated the whole month of June to pride, pride associated with living by our lustful desires, whatever they may be.  Greed is praised as a good thing, motivated by our envy and jealousy, because it drives us to get what we want, even if that means ignoring the needs of others.  Our wrath is heard when we yell at each other and punish those whose views are different from ours.  We take joy in seeing people getting canceled, getting what they deserve, wishing we could be the ones delivering that final blow.  Sex sells, and because of our lust, the most popular TV shows are filled pornographic scenes and lewd jokes and innuendos.  Instead of valuing work, we become gluttonous and slothful and lazy, always wanting instead to be entertained.  These are the things that we value and celebrate.   

But don’t think this celebration is just outside of the church, because it’s not.  How many churches have adopted the LGBTQ movement?  How many preach a prosperity Gospel that satisfies our greedy wants and desires?  And how do we, individuals, sitting in these pews this morning, how do you celebrate and casually treated your sin?  Are you worried about that gossip you’ve helped to spread?   Do those rude and quarrelsome words that you’ve spoken concern you?  And what about those envious thoughts, wishing you had what your neighbor had?  Or your laziness, or lustful desires, your self-righteous pride, or your unwillingness to forgive?  For these, and for all of your sin, you need to repent.  I need to repent. 

Unrepentant sin that is celebrated and treated casually is dangerous.  It leads us away from faith and God to everlasting death.  The wages of sin is death.  That’s why Jesus’ words are so serious.  When we become comfortable with sin, thinking it’s no big deal, that it’s okay and that we don’t have to worry about it, we turn away from God.  We ignore His life giving words and we begin to walk that wide path to unbelief and hell.  When we treat sin casually we’re saying we don’t need Jesus and His forgiveness.  But that’s exactly what you need.

When someone apologizes and confesses their sin to us, what we should say is “I forgive you,” because forgiveness is the only thing that treats sin seriously. God didn’t say “That’s okay.  No big deal. Don’t worry about it.” to your sin.  He answered the seriousness of your sin with the seriousness of His Son's death.  If sin wasn’t a big deal, then Christ wouldn’t have had to die on the cross; but He did.  He did for you.  Jesus gave up His life so that you’d be forgiven, so that you wouldn’t suffer the eternal death of hell but receive His everlasting life of heaven.  And because of that we can’t mess around with sin.

                Jesus was speaking hyperbole when He said to cut off your hands and feet and tear out your eyes, but His message is clear.  If something leads you into temptation and causes you to sin, don’t go near it; because the more you’re near it, the more comfortable you get with it, and the more comfortable you get with it, the less serious you take it. 

We all know what our pet sins are and we all know the temptations that lead us to them.  So stay away.  Don’t go near them.  Physically remove those temptations from your life.  If you gossip when you're around certain people, don’t hang out with them.  If you become jealous watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” turn off the TV.  If your phone is a cause of temptation, a distraction that leads to laziness and sloth, a catalyst for your wrath as you read comments, or a means by which you satisfy your lustful thoughts, put it away.  Lock it in a drawer.  It’s better to enter heaven without your phone than to enter hell scrolling through Facebook and Twitter.  Do all that you can to remove temptation; and do all that you can not to be a temptation for others.

Strive to be an encouragement in the faith.  Point people to Jesus and His forgiveness.  Be an example to your brothers and sisters in Christ and to those outside this family.  Your whole life is a witness to your Savior.  What kind of witness are you giving then when you treat sin casually; when you celebrate it?  Instead, live the faith by treating sin seriously.  Repent of it.  Confess it.  Literally ask for forgiveness from those whom you’ve sinned against.  And if they say “That’s okay.  No big deal. Don’t worry about it.”, say, “No it isn’t okay.  It is a big deal.  And I am worried about it.  I need forgiveness, because forgiveness is the only thing that takes the guilt of sin away.”  That’s why Jesus died, for the forgiveness of sins. 

We can’t mess around with sin.  Sin is a life and death matter.  We need to avoid temptation to sin.  And when we do sin, we need to repent and confess it, seeking Christ’s forgiveness and salvation.  And we need to encourage others to do the same.  Jesus didn’t treat sin casually.  He died on the cross so that you might be forgiven.  So come and receive the forgiveness that you need.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

We need someone to put on the brakes. . .

Most pastors probably wish God would work more quickly.  I know that most Christians feel that way.  It is especially true in prayer but also in work.  We want God to work faster and deliver to us the answers to our prayers and the fulfillment of His promises more quickly.  Certainly that is what Israel wanted.  They grew so tired of waiting for God that over and over again they acted on their own.  From Abraham and Hagar to Israel and the Golden Calf to Jesus and the Pharisees willing to kill the Son of God rather than surrender their vision of what ought to be, that is our common affliction.  We think God needs to hit the gas pedal and move things along.

In the Church this is our great temptation.  The preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments seems rather slow and deliberate and we want the Church to explode.  So in worship we presume to help God along but updating the Divine Service with things contemporary and relevant.  We are hitting the gas pedal to speed it up and fill the pews and prove to God that we know what we are doing.  In music we tire of the old songs and hymns sung by the generations before us and so we offer a new lyric and a new beat in which we drive the verbs.  We hid the gas pedal to speed up what seems to us too slow on God's part.  We read the Scriptures and compare what those outside the Church say about history and figure that God was speaking metaphorically instead of literally -- surely the history in the Bible is symbolic and not factual and the condemnations of our pet sins not real.  We have been reading God wrongly.  We hit the gas to speed along the change so that the message of Scripture fits the mood of the times.  You can go on and on.

The great fallacy of the Reformation was that Luther was hitting the gas.  In reality, the focus of our Confessions is backward.  Luther, unlike the radical reformers of his day, was more interested in recapturing what was lost than building the Church anew.  All faithful reform movements are interested not in making things new but in restoring what has been lost or distorted by accretion and addition.  It is not the pursuit of some pristine era to recreate but the cleansing of the Temple that restores its holy and God-given purpose.  In reality, Luther was hitting the brakes.  He was working to slow the Romanization of the Church and stop its drift from Scripture.  While it would have been grand if Rome had listened, Rome did not.  Instead Trent only solidified the errors of the recent past and embedded them into the very fabric of Rome's identity.  Vatican II attempted to open the Church to the past and this was the stated public goal of its reforms.  However, what happened was that Rome hit the gas pedal and sped past into the future.  If not in the Council, at least in the aftermath, Rome sped so quickly away from its own past that it left many of its people behind as well.  This is what the ELCA did when it made a great disconnect with the moral compass of sex, marriage, and family.  It sped past the Scripture and the catholic tradition and the end result was a church body now little more than half its original size.  This is what nearly every Protestant group has done in conveniently forgetting their past to remake themselves in the face of challenge from feminism, homosexuality, marriage, abortion, the historicity of Scripture, racism, gender issues, etc...  Since God was not changing, they were. 

We are always hitting the gas pedal.  God is always hitting the brakes.  We are always in a mood to remodel and God is always preserving the one holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.  It is the great tension of our days.  We think we are helping.  In the end, we are only making another mess God has to clean up.  Patience and forbearance are never in great supply on either side of the rail.  But it is patience and forbearance that are needed most of all.  God is clear.  He is steadfast -- yesterday, today, and forever the same.  He is not moody or distracted but focused and consistent.  He has appeased His wrath with His own love at work in Christ.  We would do well to think about this and work to be more like Him than the ADD kind of Christians we have become.  The awkwardness we face is a Church impatient and unwilling to wait upon the Lord and a God who refuses to be sped up and will do all things in their proper time.

God does not need visionaries who will unhook His Church from her past.  God does not need great thinkers who can discern what the Church should look like tomorrow.  God does not need a Church that must be reinvented for every generation (or even more often!).  God is always at work slowing down our egos, our impatient wills, and our petulant desires.  God is not slow but patient, not disengaged but present, not creating new things but creating all things new.  It is high time that we learned to trust Him more and presume less.  I wish I could say that I had high hopes this would happen but I don't.  I know my own heart and can only confess my own short-circuiting of God's design because I was not willing to wait.  Pray the Lord to be true to His ripe and right timing and pray with me to be patient and trusting in His wisdom and His will.  The cross ought to teach us that waiting on the Lord is not pointless but a pregnant posture in which God will always do what He has promised.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Totalitarianism is our savior. . .

What have we learned in the past years?  Well, we learned that people cannot be trusted to do the right thing (mask, distance, and vaccinate) and that stronger threats are needed to force the unwilling to do what is deemed in their best interest.  We learned that a free marketplace is either unwilling or too slow to adopt the changes that will reduce our carbon imprint and that a country like China can force people to do what is in their best interest but not their desire.  We learned that freedoms may be and should be abrogated to provide an insular and safe society -- free from the threat of those who disagree with same sex marriage, abortion, the incorporation of all sexual preferences into the norm, and the changing shape of gender identity.  We learned that putting people out of work is sometimes in the best interest of society and that rewarding those who were rendered unemployed is the duty of those who continued to work and pay taxes.  We learned that the freedom of religion is a private right and that the government may not prevent belief but it can and should prevent its practice when that government deems it in the best interest of the whole.  We learned that the second amendment is also a right that can be abridged by the larger goal of protecting people but those who protect us (police) can be reduced in size and their numbers in scope if we decide this will also serve a larger good.  We learned that we are hopelessly and impossibly a racist nation, with racist institutions, governed by racist laws, and that the government might need to use inequality to bring about more equality.  We learned that eating meat has to stop and if it doesn't the government may have to act to force us to eat differently.

While you can debate the individual points, it is clear that to many in America democracy and freedom are impediments to the creation of a society and its institutions and laws that would better serve the goals and purposes of the visionaries who know best what is in our self-interest.  It is also clear that many Americans seem poised and willing to surrender their democracy and freedoms in pursuit of a safer, more protected, more just, and more equitable America.  America was once a revolution from the bottom up but the shape of the future may be from top down.  We are increasingly being instructed by an educational and scientific elite that has captured not only the halls of government but the boardrooms of some American companies.  With this comes the increasing difficulty to retain the right to disagree or to publicly express that disagreement.  These forces are adept at using shame to silence opposition and to make sure that only one message, the approved message gets out.  What is even more concerning is how the media are playing a part in this.  Whether you like or hate Trump, do you think that Facebook is right to censor anyone who disagrees with the political mood of the moment?  In the end this is not even about Trump but about the free exchange of ideas that was once the hallmark of American society.  Will there come a day when rigorous controls are either imposed or voluntarily placed upon social media and the public media the way they are routinely done in China and other societies with no guarantees of liberty?  Will WE be the ones who willingly surrender our rights for the privileges of an insular and protected life?

In the middle of all of this is the Church.  For those who have abandoned the Gospel in favor of doctrine and witness that merely echoes what our culture says and polls prove, this is not a problem.  But for those who seek to be faithful to Scripture, to creed, to confession, and to liturgy, this will be a problem.  In fact, it is a problem.  The world has shifted its hope and trust away from any religion and onto a scientific vision of what is in our best interest -- even when that may not be popular.  Here and throughout the world there are forces working to restrain freedom -- including the freedom of religion -- in order to achieve what they believe is a better world.  Christians, tempted to trade a better future for the moment for an eternal one, are often swept up in the pressure.  Pastors who fail to preach that our hope is not a better or safer tomorrow but an eternal one by God's design and brought about by God's hand, contribute to this temptation.  When the Gospel ends up being equated with social justice or cast aside in the pursuit of science for a greater good, sinners are left in their sinful condition and hope dies -- the real hope that will outlast today and eternal.  The totalitarianism that we need to address is not simply one of a political nature but the fears for which we are willing to surrender rights and privileges that were earned over years by the sacrifices of many.  Totalitarianism is certainly efficient but not at saving anyone or anything.  Instead the only real savior is the One whose blood was shed upon a cross, whose body lay in the tomb, and whose resurrection triumph gives us a future and not simply a past or a present.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

You have no style. . .

I overheard a conversation in which one pastor said to another with reference to vestments, "That's not my style."  I get it.  He had not grown up with a pastor vested for the Divine Service and he was uncomfortable about it for himself.  Maybe it is not his style, or the style he grew up with.  We have all been there.  I grew up a pastor in black academic dress and was the one who came home wide eyed after seeing my first surplice and stole.  But is style the primary reason for vestments or liturgical practice?

Some would say that a pastor ought to do what is natural to him because it is not good for him to be uncomfortable with vestments or liturgical practice that is foreign to him.  Some would insist that the pastor needs to be free to wear and do what is authentic to him -- that it is never good for a pastor to have to preside or preach in a way that is not authentic or natural or comfortable to him.  Actually, every pastor ought to be uncomfortable leading the Divine Service -- at the very least early on in their ministry.  That discomfort is a salutary thing because it reminds the pastor it is not about him but about the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  We are on holy ground here and what we do and how we do it is not simply directed to the people who are being served but to the God who works through these means of grace.  The pastor's primary concern ought not to be what is natural or authentic to him or his style but what serves the means of grace and reflects our confession.  Comfort at the altar and in the pulpit come not from being who you are but from practice -- from doing what God has called you to do through His Church.  You do not bring authenticity or naturalness or comfort to the altar or pulpit, the altar and pulpit are what is most authentic and natural to the Lord and our comfort and peace.

It is a very different perspective from the pulpit and altar than it is from the pews.  You face a role and a responsibility that you only realize as you are placed in the position of leading God's people in prayer and praise and serving them with His gifts.  But the idea that things are not your style is not a good one.  When you lead the Divine Service, you have no style.  Let me say that again.  Pastors have NO personal style.  It is the liturgy that has style -- not the pastor.  That said, I am not saying that everyone has to look like me on Sunday morning but there is no room for what is done or how it is done to be determined by preference or comfort level or what feels natural.  We owe it to God and to the people of God NOT to act according to our style when leading them in worship.  It is not natural to be in the presence of God but gift and blessing -- we are always standing on the holy ground and reminded that this is not our natural place but a place of alien grace and extraordinary blessing.  It is called reverence.

It is the liturgy that has the style.  It is our Confession that informs that.  Adiaphora was never meant to reflect the personal taste of the pastor or localized custom of the individual congregation.  It simply meant that custom, ceremony, and ritual could not bind the conscience with a Word of God that God had not spoken.  It did not mean that what was called adiaphora was unimportant.  In fact our Confessions say repeatedly that we value, preserve, and encourage ceremony, ritual, church usages, and tradition and will not abandon these for any reason less than doctrine but neither will we require them as condition of unity.  In fact, at the time of these words liturgical uniformity was a given within a jursidiction and did not differ by congregation but only between jurisdictions.  It was not then nor was it ever intended to be as local as an individual pastor or congregation.  Lutheranism did not see itself as congregational in that sense.  But that is what we have come to define adiaphora as and now we find ourselves at a point where the decision of what to do and how to do it upon the shallow and flimsy rationale of style or preference -- either the pastor or the people.

Pastors have no style in worship.  They lead God's people with a focus not on them or their own preference or style but upon the Lord, His Word, His sacramental gifts, and the reverence due being in the presence of the Most High God.  For a pastor to suggest that he does this or does not do that because that is not who he is would be the height of arrogance.  Pastors wear vestments to dilute their personal identity and focus the people on their offices and the gifts and graces God bestows upon the people of God through those good offices.  There had better be a more important reason than personal style or preference for the choices any pastor makes on what is done and how it is done on Sunday morning.  Either we as pastors reflect the fullness of the liturgical tradition that Confessions presume, or we need to have a better reason than "that's just not my style."  If that is our reason for the vestments we wear or do not, the liturgical practices we follow or do not, and the reverence we show or do not, then we are subjecting our people at the tyranny of our own preferences and justifying their own use of preference over doctrine and truth to determine what church fits them.

For people in the pew, the goal is not to find a church that fits them but a congregation where the Word of God is preached and taught purely and faithfully and where the Sacraments of Christ are administered faithfully and rightly.  Choosing a church home is not shopping for lounge wear or a comfortable pair of knock around shoes.  Pastors have the same duty and obligation not to bow to preference or comfort -- even their own.  Christ is the guarantor of authenticity and not our style.  The pastor models the fullness of the rite so that people see the riches of the liturgical and ceremonial tradition that is our heritage and confession.  The Augsburg Confession clearly preserves both rite and ritual in the face of those who would have ditched both.  What could not be done then to preserve our confessional identity dare not become our excuse or justification today.  We had better be on more solid ground than comfort, style, authenticity, or preference in deciding what to wear or what to do in the Divine Service (and this includes those who have decided to abandon the liturgy altogether!).  

Pastor, you do not have a style that needs or should be reflected in your preaching or presiding.  You are a servant of the Word and Sacrament and an instrument of God within the Divine Service (itself mostly Scripture said and sung).  People, you do not seek out a church that is a good fit for you but one where the Gospel is rightly preached, where the Scriptures are the norm of is believed and confessed, and where the Sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ's own institution.  Lutherans do not disdain tradition or the liturgical heritage before us or the reverence due the honor of His name -- quite the opposite.  Scripture and liturgy are our style on both sides of the altar rail.  Ceremonies teach and confess.  What we do, as well as what we say, teaches and confesses.  Whether within the Divine Service to those assembled or before the watching world, we owe the Lord more than to raise up preference, style, comfort, or personal authenticity as that which defines who we are and what we do on Sunday morning. 


Saturday, September 25, 2021

To tithe or not. . .

When Cain and Abel's offering in Genesis 4 is spoken of, there is no explicit explanation as to why the offering was being made.  It might be worth noting, however, that this wasn't the first offering Scripture speaks of.  And the first offering was not from man to God. The very first offering made was when God killed His creation to make clothes of animal skin for Adam and Eve, a gift to cover their nakedness. In one small way, this animal sacrifice was the first blood caused by sin and foreshadowed Christ’s own self-offering, whose righteousness covers our sin (Romans 4:3-8).  Blood was shed and this becomes the foundation for the shedding of blood that is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22).

“Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram […]. Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20).  When the prophet Abram (later Abraham) was making his way home bearing the spoils of war and the riches of victory, he was met by a high priest in the order of God. This priest was Melchizedek.  As soon as Abraham saw Melchizedek, the wisdom of his heart recognized he was in the presence of one who was with God.  It appears that Abraham knew intuitively that he was to give a tithe of all that he had to this priest of God.  Though it was not the first offering given to the Lord, this became a spiritual covenant was set up for our time, whereby God's people were to give a tenth of its increase (what a person receives that is his or hers) back to God.  God met Jacob at Bethel and promised him covenant blessings; the patriarch promised God a tenth of everything granted him (Gen. 28:22).

The tithe gift is referenced in more detail in Numbers 18:21–26.  According to this, a tenth of the produce was to be presented to a Levite who then gave a tenth of the first tithe to a kohen (Numbers 18:26). Tithing was seen as performing a mitzvah done in joyful obedience to God.  This tithe became part of an Old Testament system that provided upkeep for the Jerusalem Temple and supplying the priests working there, who had no other livelihood and were given no land.  

To these were added the Burnt Offering, the Grain Offering, the Peace Offering, the Purification Offering, and the Reparation Offering.  The instructions for the Burnt Offering are given in Leviticus 1:3-17; for grain offerings are given in Leviticus 2; for the shelem, or Peace Offering in Leviticus 3  [including Thanksgiving Offerings (Lev 7:12), Freewill Offerings (7:16), and Wave Offerings (7:30)]; the Sin or Purification Offering in Leviticus 4; and the asham, or Guilt Offering, in Leviticus 5.

The question has always been whether or not tithing is part of the old covenant which is superceeded in Christ or whether tithing has a place in Christianity.  For those who think the tithe is abrogated, the New Testament attitude prevails: "give freely because you have freely received" (Matthew 10:8) and "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).  Also, for those not in favor of tithing, Hebrews 8:13 is cited as proof the old covenant is fulfilled and no longer applies to Christians: "In speaking of 'a new covenant,' he (God) has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear." 

Some groups have adopted the tithe in a rigorous and legalistic way (think here the Mormons or LDS, where the failure to give 10% can prevent the person's participation in temple rites).  Some speak of the tithe as a goal and good practice to be held in honor but not as a rule.  Some do not speak of the tithe at all.  What is the Christian supposed to think? 

COVID and the drop off of attendance, the shift to more digital platforms for worship and instruction, and the overall distaste by many for paid clergy present even more challenges to the idea of tithing and to the overall support of the Church.  Some are hostile to the very idea of buildings, paid clergy, and administrative costs -- viewing them as the very antithesis of the Christian mission to share the Gospel and serve the Lord.  One Christian commenter, himself a member of a house church presumably without paid staff, went so far as to suggest that there were very good reasons for the Christian to stop tithing 10% every week.

So what about the tithe?  I, for one, have come to be very suspicious about the disconnect between Old and New Testament seen by some.  From worship to morality to tithing, many believe that the Old Testament has largely been abrogated and set aside so that it speaks merely as witness without reference to the present.  In worship this view means that the God who once carefully and specifically set out detailed instructions for worship now cares only that worship be meaningful, relevant, and satisfying for the worshiper.  In the same way, this view presumes that once clear prohibitions are now cast off as legalistic in the face of the new principle of love which accepts, tolerates, condones, and even welcomes change (consider the way GLBTQ+++ has found wholehearted acceptance among many Christians when such behavior was clearly condemned in the Old Testament).  In the context of tithing, this view suggests that God would not want anyone to give what they did not want to give, freely and willingly.  But is is that simple?  Does fulfilling the old mean casting it into the trash bin of history as mere footnote?  Or is it that the fulfillment of the old in Christ now means that the same thing becomes something new and different for those who live in Christ by baptism and faith?

Does God disdain buildings and paid clergy and all the accoutrements of church life?  If He did, why would He allow for all the creature comforts that have become normative (from heat and air conditioning to comfortable seats to coffee bars)?  The tithe was never simply a God tax.  Even Jesus honors tithing, even if he said it was less important than other things (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42).  It was and is an offering of faith for the work of the Kingdom.  Specifically, it is for the support of those whose vocation is to serve God's people with His gifts.  No less than St. Paul points out this equivalence between the way priests in the Old Testament made a living and how pastors in the New Testament made a living. “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).

The tithe is not the end all and, indeed, only the beginning of the return of God's gift as an act of worship and thanksgiving to the Lord who is the source of all good gifts.  The work of the Kingdom is hindered by a lack of laborers for the harvest and resources to fund their work.  When the Lord sends forth His disciples out, He tells them not to pack extra things or money for the journey or for the work but to depend upon the households of God's people and their generous support.  That remains the pattern today.  But to suggest that the God who once expected 10% from all is now content with the ordinary 2% of Christians today (given willingly and joyfully) is to presume God both naive and shallow.  At a time when the work of the Lord is even more urgent and the enemies of that work so strong, we have been more urgent cause to reconsider the tithe and rejoice in the privilege of giving.  No law can detract from or displace what God has done in Christ but surely the Christian's heart can be moved at least as much as was seen as minimal in the Old Testament.  Or, perhaps, that is the real problem with tithing.  We are not as committed to the work of God as say with our words.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Even death. . .

Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?
    I do, by the grace of God.
Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
    I do, by the grace of God.

With these words, the Church asks and the youthful confirmand makes the most solemn promises anyone can make.  Perhaps it is foolish of us to presume that a youth between 10 and 14 would be in a position to make such bold statement in front of all those in the pews.  If that is true, then it is even more presumptuous for us to ask them to make such a pledge before God. Yet, that is exactly what we do.  And it is what we have done for about as long as there has been the Rite of Confirmation.

My point is not to debate the wisdom of asking youth to make such promises but to ask if we as adults have offered to our youth a good example of what it means to value the Kingdom of God above all things and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from this Kingdom and faith.

When we make worship optional and do not lead our families by example in being in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we leave our Bibles to gather dust and tuck our children in without praying with them, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we mirror the values of the world around us instead of the values of the Kingdom, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we search in our wallets for the smaller bill to place in the offering plate or skip the tithes and offerings altogether, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.  When we allow ourselves to be captive to fear under the threat of a pandemic, we teach our children that other things can come ahead of faith and its practice.

For too long we have stood on the sidelines while puffing out our chests while our children follow their ancestors in making saying these bold words.  But this was not a photo op nor was it merely a symbolic act.  This was and is a solemn and vow and promise.  If we ask our youth to make these pledges, the least we can do is to support and encourage them by keeping the promises ourselves.  If no one believes that these promises are worth taking seriously, why do we bother with them at all?  

We have made our way almost through a pandemic in which we operated more on fear than faith.  Our willingness to close the doors to the churches and to rush to replace our in person meeting with online substitutes only reinforced to our children and to those outside the faith that this faith is not worth risking your personal safety or your life for.  And that, my friends, is the exact opposite of what those Confirmation promises say.


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Isolation. . .

Jesus often spoke of friendship and of the greater love His friendship with us has given and its fruits of redemption.  He does not diminish friendship by suggesting that it is something incidental to life but elevates the gift and blessing of this relationship to its highest level.  Yet the reality is that friendship is one thing we struggle with today.  Despite all our technology and social media, Americans appear to be rather lonely and isolated.  Most Americans cannot name more than a couple of friends and those friendships are being stretched thin by the many things that pull us apart and divide us.  What impacts us as a nation and as a people will certainly impact us as a church and Christians.

According to the Survey Center on American Life:

Many Americans do not have a large number of close friends. Close to half (49 percent) of Americans report having three or fewer. More than one-third (36 percent) of Americans report having several close friends—between four and nine. Thirteen percent of Americans say they have 10 or more close friends, which is roughly the same proportion of the public that has no close friends (12 percent).

The Church not only presumes but fosters friendship at its most profound level -- our common life together at the altar rail.  We are baptized as individuals but through that baptism connected not only to Christ the head but to the whole body, the Church.  We meet together not as individuals but as an assembly of those whom the Lord has called and gathered by the Spirit through the Word.  We pray not as solitary petitioners but as a people whose voices are one, saying Our Father who art in heaven.  We come not as strangers to the Table of the Lord but as a family united by the blood of Christ beyond preference or interest.  We live this life of faith not as lone rangers but as a people who bear one another's burdens, who share from abundance to need, and who walk toward a future and a destiny prepared for us by Christ.  Friendship and fellowship are important elements of our mission to the world.

It was sin that turned man against woman until they could not even look at each other without guilt and shame.  It was sin that built distrust between people and between the Lord and all He had made.  It was sin tarnished love with fear and self-interest.  It was sin that fragmented the world and left us not merely foreigners to each other but competitors and enemies.  To restore friendship with God and to build anew the friendship between people took nothing less than the incarnation of our Lord and the sacrifice of His very life on the cross to restore what sin had stolen from us.

Even our very progress has become the enemy of this friendship.  We are mobile people whose roots are shallow and weak in the cities and communities where we live.  It affects also the congregations and parishes where we gather.  The online presence we thought was so important is also a tool in the isolation that leaves us lonely and alone.  The screen has become the substitute for the touch of a hand, the voice in the ear, and the taste of bread.  Technology was born with such promise for our benefit but it has also extracted a cost to the kind of relationships that mark us a human and the fellowship in Christ that reflects our lives together as the people of God.

The Old Testament and the wisdom of the Apocrypha are replete with references both to the need and blessing of friendship:

  1. Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).
  2. Let your acquaintances be many, but your advisers one in a thousand (Sirach 6:5-6).
  3. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure. A faithful friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his worth. A faithful friend is the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one. Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends, for as a man is, so is his friend (Sirach 6:14-17).
  4. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Prov 27:6)
  5. A true friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity (Prov 17:17).
  6. A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).
  7. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away (Prov 27:10).
  8. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
  9. For it is not an enemy who taunts me— then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God's house we walked in the throng.(Psalm 55:12)

But this is not simply a pithy saying from sage sources.  Friendship is key to the encouragement of the faithful, the support of the troubled, and spurring on to good works.  Friendship with the world is poison but friendship with God is the sweetest fruit of life.  Our Lord Jesus has come to manifest this friendship to us and to extend to us the right hand of fellowship that rescues us from sin and delivers us from death.  He continues to do this through the voice of His Word, the reconciliation that flows from His absolution of the sinner, and the call to come to our appointed place in the blessed fellowship of His Table.  We tend to trivialize friendship or diminish it -- equating it with a Facebook connection.  Jesus does just the opposite.  He strengthens our life together and builds us up as one body the Church.  The world is doing a very good job of isolating us but part of the work of the Church is to reconnect us and this is, at its most profound nature, what the sharing of peace is.  God help us in this effort and may our lives together be strengthened in the bonds of fellowship and friendship that Christ has made possible.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."  John 15:12-15