Sunday, October 31, 2021

Why was, is, Luther important?










In a sermon preached on Reformation Day in 1943 in Erlangen, Germany, Hermann Sasse addressed why Luther is so important:

“Why is Luther the greatest in what has been a long line of teachers in the church who have proclaimed the Word of God from generation to generation? It is because none of the others understood the Word of God so profoundly. The Word of God is greater than human words, which have limitations. The time will come when nobody remembers Homer, or Shakespeare or Goethe, but the Word of God will endure forever. Human words can certainly accomplish much – the command of a powerful ruler or of a general can decide the fate of nations, but sooner or later their power ceases to be. No mere human word is almighty. But God’s Word is always living and active because it is the Word of the eternal, almighty God, the Word through which all things were created. It is the Word of the Judge of all who live. It is the Word of forgiveness, the Word of redemption, the Word which no human word can contradict. It is the Word which, as John says, has become flesh in Jesus Christ. He is himself the eternal Word of God; ‘his name’, it is written in Revelation (19:13), ‘is called the Word of God’. To proclaim the Word of God is to proclaim Jesus Christ. ‘To him all of the prophets bear witness’, according to the apostle Peter (Acts 10:43). ‘We preach Christ crucified’ says Paul in regard to the preaching of the apostles (1 Cor 1:23). He, Jesus Christ, is the content of the church’s preaching – that he is the Redeemer and the Lord is the proclamation of the teachers of the church from its very beginning. That is the message which has been handed down from one generation to another. The proclaimers come and go, but the proclamation itself remains the same: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. That and nothing else is the content of the Christian proclamation. Luther again and again reminded the church of this – a church which had forgotten it, and indeed which had almost buried the one Word of God under so many human words of religion and philosophy.

Luther is one of the great Christologists, the great witnesses to Christ in the church. Like the great theologians of the early church – an Irenaeus or an Athanasius – he stood in reverence before the great mystery of God’s revelation: ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14); ‘great is the mystery of godliness, that God was manifest in the flesh (1 Tim 3:16). All of his life Luther stood prayerfully and reverently before the incomprehensible mystery of the person of Jesus Christ, ‘where God and man meet and all fullness appears’. What the Greek fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries acquired by deep study of Holy Scripture with reverent and prayerful meditation, what the ancient church confessed in her ecumenical councils and stated contrary to the reasoning of philosophy – that Jesus Christ is true God, God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, of one being with the Father, and at the same time true man – Luther thought through these powerful truths and took them even further in his theology in connection with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. However, he tried to speak of these things so clearly and simply that even the simplest Christian – yes, even a child – could grasp them. ‘He whom the world could not contain, lies on Mary’s lap. He who upholds all things becomes a little child’. That is the teaching of Nicea. Or we think of how Luther expressed the doctrine of Chalcedon, the teaching of the two natures of Christ, in his catechism – ‘I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord…’ This explanation of the second article of the creed has been called by some the most beautiful sentence in the German language – it is the most beautiful sentence in the German language, but not only because of its structure, which reveals a master of language, but also because of its content. Here we find the eternal Word of God, the eternal Gospel: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Not worth believing. . .

In a class about what we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess, the statement was heard, "We don't really believe that, do we?"  In most cases, such a statement is not referencing an opinion of the teacher but the clear teaching of God's Word.  Like the time somebody came complaining that a Bible study leader has said that those who divorce and remarry make themselves and their wives adulterers.  When I say I did not think that the the Bible study leader said that, the person protested.  "I was there.  I heard him say it."  "No," I responded, "you misunderstand. I did not say that the words did not come out of his mouth.  What I said was that I was pretty sure they were Jesus' words.  Jesus was the one who said it."  Well, that made it worse.  Why would Jesus say something so offensive and so hurtful?

If it is not offensive, it is probably not worth believing.  That is not a hermeneutical principle but it is a solid statement.  The problems of the past might have been taking the Word too seriously or out of context but the problems of the day are not those.  The problems of the present are that we do not take Scripture seriously at all and are not sure we care.  Just because Scripture says it does not impact our belief.  We have to agree and to find it meaningful before we believe it.  The end result is seldom a radical faith but rather an innocuous and inoffensive faith -- one big umbrella in which truth is overruled by feelings and doctrine subject to reason or the emotion of the moment.  

The sad reality is that so much of what passes as a popular idea of Christianity today is not worth believing at all.  It is a strange conflagration of sentiment, whim, fancy, preference, and distance that makes what we believe meaningful but not powerful.  It certainly cannot compel us to restrain our desires or practice self-control over our wants or change our lives.  Its power, most of all, is to confirm us in our preferences, beliefs, and wants.  In the end, we feel better about ourselves -- sins, prejudices, biases, and victimhood.  Oh, sure, we are still subject to the woke ideals that end up having more authority in our lives than any other external influence (certainly much more than the Bible) but even the woke consciousness has power more over our external self than our internal one.  Even so, we get more kicks out of condemning the past than really looking into a mirror.

Jesus words are too often reasoned away or softened so as not to offend.  That is why we have ended up with birth control that is the norm, with children being optional and not necessarily welcome, with abortion on demand (perhaps more moral than having a child), with marriage easily dissolved by no fault laws, with marriage and family subject to the definition of the moment, with privacy that says whatever you do behind closed doors is fine, with sexual desire that defines us, with gender that has nothing to do with genes or biology, and with self-interest as the most important aspect of life.  Jesus is nice enough but what does He know of the things we want or want to believe?  When we need Jesus and have tried everything else first, Jesus is fine.  But the rest of the time we do better with faith in ourselves.  At least that is how it seems.

If it is not offensive to our sinful hearts and minds and lives, it is probably not worth believing.  Repentance is like that.  It calls to account the things we have thought, the words we have said, and the actions we have taken.  Under the lens of the Law, we cannot avoid responsibility or culpability.  Before the mercy seat where the blood of Christ has been shed, we find not condemnation from God but forgiveness full and free.  But with that forgiveness comes the caution.  Go, and sin no more.  The Holy Spirit teaches us through our sin and by God's forgiveness to recognize temptation before we are trapped in its web and to see the devil where he has worked so hard to him himself.  The Law always offends -- not only when it convicts but even when it teaches.  The Gospel does not explain away sin but forgives it at great cost to God (not with silver or gold but with the Lord's holy and precious body and blood) and then turns around and bestows this absolution freely.  And the Holy Spirit is at work in both so that repentance is born of faith and faith rejoices in the God who absolves and helps us amend those sinful ways.  Perhaps the reality is this.  When the faith no longer offends, it is no longer the faith!

Friday, October 29, 2021

Trees over babies. . .

Listening to my car radio some mornings ago, I happened upon the local NPR station with local news.  I listened for the weather and then was distracted until a story came on about rules about trees.  It seems the whole thing came to a more public light when the NFL cut down some 20 cherry trees along Nashville's Broadway to facilitate their draft, then held in Nashville.  The city, sensing a cash cow of sorts, was more than happy to cut down the trees and, it seems, they were replanted after the cameras and parties left.  The nature lovers in Nashville took on the cause of the tree on public lands and ended up with rules about what trees can be cut and when and how they must be replaced.  Property owners are charged with maintaining the public trees in front of their property and the whole canopy of Nashville is under review.  Now, according to the news, they have set their sights on private lands.  It would be illegal to cut down certain trees, especially trees with a diameter of 30 inches or more and it would be required of builders and homeowners to plant and maintain trees to extend the canopy of Nashville into residential areas.  

A disclaimer.  I love trees.  Our house had one tree nearly thirty years ago as we closed on the property and moved into it.  Since then we have planted an abundance of ornamental and shade trees.  We have two towering pines, a towering oak, several towering maples, and a host of smaller and younger trees.  We just put in some six blue spruce along the line of our back yard.  Many of our neighbors have done the same thing.  When a neighbor's very large pecan had been hit by lightening several times and shed some of its bark and the trunk split, we were sad to lose such a mighty tree -- even though it had to go for the safety of the homes.  But on the edge of our property, I planted another tree to make up for the loss -- a young oak now some 25 feet tall.  I love the sentiment.  I do not love the laws.  My issue is not simply private property ownership.  My point is the incongruity between our protections over trees and the continuing murder of the unborn -- legally.

That is the state of morality in America.  We love trees and will protect them (climate change and all especially) but the unborn have no such protections and are routinely and legally killed at the whim of the mother.  If I might be so bold, everyone acknowledges that former Governor Andrew Cuomo's actions related to COVID and nursing homes early on in the pandemic contributed to the death of hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of New York state's elderly and most vulnerable populations.  Yet it was not this decision that forced his resignation but the accusation of inappropriate and unwelcome sexual advances upon women.  That is the state of morality in America.  Governments across the US have literally bribed people to get the COVID vaccines (cash, lotteries, gift cards, etc.) and this is considered good public policy but a goodly number of the populace considers the pregnancy centers that would offer the pregnant mother another option besides abortion and, indeed, offer her financial help with the pregnancy and raising or giving up the child for adoption, are considered unacceptable interference by the progressive point of view.  That is the state of morality in America.  It is public policy and soon public law that the gender you choose determines restroom use, where you compete in sports, and what employment and discrimination laws cover you but it is considered child abuse to withhold hormones from prepubescent youth to prevent their body from normal sexual development (determined by their genes).  That is the state of morality in America.  

Christians, this is not simply a matter for the ballot box.  It is a matter of standing up and standing out in our rejection of what passes for virtue and morality AND what the Christian life should look like.  We can complain all day long but unless we are willing to offer an alternative stronger than a simple no, we are part of the problem.  Jesus said Let your light so shine...  He is not suggesting that we are perfect people for whom sin is a little problem but He is calling us to know His Word and live under it and live it out in the world as best we are able for His sake and the sake of His kingdom.  I sometimes wonder if we as the Church are so fixated on protecting ourselves and our institutions from the government threats that we have forgotten to be lights and to shine.  Love for the unborn must be strong enough to protest on their behalf the killing that continues legally and with society's full sanction but it must also be strong enough to suffer persecution and rebuke for living according to another standard of goodness and virtue.  We do the first well enough but how well have we striven for the second?  Our witness is only words unless we are willing to repent of our own sins and work, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, with every fiber of our being to amend our sinful lives.  Sadly, too often Christians look like everyone else in the world in their daily lives.  This should not be.  We are held to a higher standard and we should be striving more toward that goal of holiness.  Fail we will but let it not be for lack of trying.  Repentance is the shape of our daily lives.  Forgiveness is not an excuse to go back to the ruts of sin in our lives.  As Jesus told the adulterous woman, "Go and sin no more."  God help us.  We need to work harder to walk worthy, as St. Paul reminds.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Imagine. . .

What an odd opening ceremony it was for this odd Summer Olympics!  Without crowds in the stands to play to, it was contrived for camera only.  But then the whole Olympics have become a financial tool sponsored by those who want to use the competition and the athletes for gain and a theater for the ideals of a one world stage without competing loyalties and distractions.  How is that working?  

Then there was the spectacle of the Japanese, a culture so often obscure and closed to Westerners, singing John Lennon's 1971 hit Imagine.  What was even stranger was to actually listen to the words that they were singing.  Written fifty years ago, who could have imagined that they might become reality some day.

Imagine there's no heaven

It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people
Livin' for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin' life in peace

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one...

Though there is evidence that Lennon later disavowed the notions of this song, it is clear the world has caught on -- not only to the melody but to its lyrics.  In fact, look around you.  What we are moving toward with great rapidity is the world Lennon imagined -- a world without faith, religion, Church, Country, piety, patriotism, and free market capitalism -- toward a more socialist view of the world in which freedom is gladly exchanged for security and no offense is tolerated against what is deemed the public good.

In other words, we do not have to imagine it -- we can look around to see the seeds of this godless, immoral, truthless, and loyalty free world.  It is the shape of things to come but already the shape of of things present.  So the real question is this.  Do you believe that a world without God, without faith, without the Church, without external piety, without patriotism and loyalty, and without a market driven economy will provide more happiness, value, worth, and satisfaction to our daily lives?  If it would produce these fruits, would it not also be true that we would begin seeing them?  But we are not happier or more at peace but lonelier and more depressed than ever before.  The surrender of our liberties has not produced safer lives more insulated from threat and danger but lives more at risk than ever.

Though Lennon was smart enough to write off his lyric as a youthful passion, I am not sure we could count him as a great fan of the things the song decries.  I am not sure we are wise enough to see through the imagination to the reality of a world without the things of God, without freedom and liberty, without the industry and initiative of the individual rewarded for them, or a world without solid values.  We seem to be doing a pretty good job of burying ourselves deeper in this imagined world rather than realizing that its cost may be greater than we think. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

God does not have a plan for your life. . .

Often I encounter individuals who are searching for God's plan for their lives.  They are surely sincere but mistaken.  The plan for their lives is not like some hidden treasure map that holds a surprise ending for those smart enough to follow the cues in Word and life that God has planted.  Yet that is exactly how it seems.  The future is a mystery that God has not disclosed but if you are wise enough, patient enough, and follow the clues, you will crack the mystery and figure out what God wants you to do in life, who He wants you to marry, and anything else you want to know.  At least that is how the thought goes.

Sadly, the Word of God is not as important in this scenario as are the clues themselves.  The words of St. Paul ring true today.  Jews demands signs and Greeks seek wisdom.  We, apparently, have embodied both.  We want signs.  We want reason.  We want to know the future so we will not be surprised, so that we can predict tomorrow, and so that we might control the outcome.  And best of all, if it is not to our liking or the plan fails in any way, God is responsible.  We are not.  If the job turns out to be a dead end or the spouse of our dreams turns out to be dud, we are not accountable.  We were only following God's clues toward God's own plan.

The reality is that God's plan is always salvific.  His plan is Christ, the Savior whose saving life, death, and resurrection were laid down even before the foundation of the world.  I am not at all sure God cares all that much what jobs we do as long as the employment is honorable and we glorify Him in all that we do.  I am not at all sure God cares who we would marry as long as our spouse shares the faith, will be faithful, will be a good parent to our children, and is someone we can trust.  Apart from that, what else matters?

I wish I could say that we all cared as much about these things as did the Lord.  We care more about how much we earn and whether we enjoy doing our jobs than whether or not they are honorable and we glorify God in the doing of these jobs.  We care more about the looks of our spouse and whether they make us happy or are sexy than if they share the faith we hold and are people of good character.  I fear that our preoccupation with God's plan is not really a way of pursuing what we want and who we want and getting God's approval when our pursuit is of such things is for, well, less than godly reasons.  

Okay.  Maybe the title is a little overkill.  My purpose is not to divorce God from our choices and the plans we make but to remember that gives work honor is not the job but how we do it and why we do it.  The point of it is not to search the world over for the perfect person who will make us happy, but to learn to be happy loving and sacrificing for another -- as Christ has loved us -- seeking in all we are and do to emulate in our marriage the love betwixt Christ and His Church.  This is the most profound way that our daily lives are connected to Christ -- a people born anew in baptism living out in their daily lives the vocation given us by water and the Spirit.  If we pursued this with at least the vigor with which we pursue the secret plan, just maybe we might find a bit more of the elusive contentment God intends.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Focused on mercy. . .

Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25B, preached on Sunday, October 24, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    This isn’t the first time Jesus has healed a blind man.  But this miracle is still unique, because we get to know the man’s name.  Most of the people Jesus healed remain anonymous to us.  But not this time.  This time we get to know who He healed: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.  And in Bartimaeus, almost ironically, we see a man with faithful focus, even though being blind his eyes couldn’t truly focus on anything.
    We don’t know much about Bartimaeus and his blindness.  We don’t know if he was born blind or if he became blind later on in life.  But we do know that his blindness kept him from being able to work.  So Bartimaeus was left to beg.  He had to rely on people’s generosity.  He had to rely on people’s mercy. 
It happened one day, while he was sitting beside the road, begging for alms, he heard a great crowd walking by that was following.  Hearing that it was Jesus, Bartimaeus couldn't help himself.  He cried out for help, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47).  But people in the crowd scolded Bartimaeus.  They told him to be quiet.  But no matter what they did, Bartimaeus wouldn’t keep quiet.  He continued to cry out to Jesus.  He continued begging for mercy.  
   Scripture doesn’t say why the crowd tried to stop Bartimaeus.  Maybe they thought he wasn’t worthy to speak to Jesus.  His blindness might have been a sign or of his sinfulness.  Or maybe they thought Jesus was too busy for a beggar.  Whatever it was, it’s an interesting thing to think about; after all, you’d think that some in that crowd were following Jesus because they had seen or heard about some of His miracles.  Surely blind Bartimaeus would provide another opportunity to see Jesus at work.  But for whatever reason, they didn’t want Bartimaeus around.  They tried to distract him and his call for mercy.
   We too can often be distracted by other people from Christ and His mercy.  We’re definitely living in a time today when people don’t want to hear about Jesus and His forgiveness.  There’s a movement to get us Christians to stop talking about faith.  No longer is it the freedom of religion people are after.        Now it’s freedom from religion.  There’s two things you don’t talk about, politics and religion, but especially religion. And because most of us don’t like to ruffle feathers, and because we know it’s not right to force faith on others, we listen to those demands to keep quiet.  We do the exact opposite of what Bartimaeus did.  The problem though is that in that quietness we begin to forget about Jesus’ mercy.  We forget that we’re sinners in need of forgiveness.  If we don’t talk about sin, if we don’t hear God’s Law, if we don’t look in the mirror of God’s Word and see that we’ve failed in thought, word, and deed, we’ll begin to think we’re okay and that we don’t need Jesus, at least, we don’t need His mercy.
   We may let our focus be distracted, but not Jesus.  When Jesus heard Bartimaeus’ cries for mercy, He called him to Himself.  At Jesus’ invitation, Bartimaeus came, and again he begged for mercy.  He asked to be healed, and Jesus healed him.  Christ showed Bartimaeus mercy.  But the mercy Christ gave wasn’t just the recovery of sight.  The mercy Christ gives is salvation.  
    Jesus healed Bartimaeus’ eyes and said, “Go, your faith has made you well,” at least that’s how our English translations put it.  What Jesus literally said was “Go, your faith has saved you.”  Jesus isn’t just talking about physical healing here.  He isn’t just commenting on Bartimaeus' eyes that were now opened.  He is talking about the ultimate miracle that all His miracles point to.  He’s talking about salvation.  Salvation given by mercy.  Salvation received through faith. 
    Contextually, this encounter with Bartimaeus is important, because it happened on the road to Jerusalem.  Immediately after this miracle, Mark tells us about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  When Jesus met Bartimaeus, He was making His way to the cross.  Jesus' focus was on the very place where the ultimate miracle would be performed, the very place where salvation would be accomplished.  Jerusalem and the cross were always the focus of Christ.  Luke describes this focus saying Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51).  Nothing could distract Him.  Nothing could prevent Him from making His way to Calvary.  Nothing could stop Him from giving His mercy to you. 
Christ’s focus has always and will always be His mercy for you.  That’s why He went to the cross, to heal you from your sin and death.  There’s no sin He can’t forgive.  There’s no sin so big His atonement can’t cover.  There’s no sin so dirty His blood can’t cleanse.  Christ’s focus is His mercy for you.  That’s why He calls you to Himself, just as He called Bartimaeus.  Jesus invites you to come to Him to receive His mercy.  He calls you in worship where He gives you His mercy through Word and Sacrament.  Christ’s focus is always His mercy for you ... and this should be our focus too.
   With eyes of faith opened by our Lord, our focus should always be on Christ and His cross.  We need to focus on His mercy.  Today it’s easy for us to get distracted.  With so many different versions of Jesus being proclaimed, we can lose focus of the true Jesus.  There’s buddy Jesus who just wants to be your friend.  There’s life coach Jesus who tells you what to do to succeed.  There’s social justice Jesus who promises perfect equality.  There's environmentally friendly Jesus whose goal is ecological utopia.  The list goes on and on.  But we don’t need those kinds of “Jesus.”  We need the Jesus who died on the cross for our sins.  We need Jesus who rose from the dead to defeat our death.  We need the true Jesus and His mercy.      Bartimaeus’ focus was on Jesus and His mercy.  Christ was the only one who could save him.  And with that focused faith, Bartimaeus was saved.  We must also have a focused faith like his.  We need to look to Jesus and His mercy alone.  That’s what Jesus focused on as He made His way to the cross.  As He walked those dusty roads, His focus was solely you and the mercy of God’s forgiveness and salvation.  So don’t get distracted.  Pray for the strong and faithful focus that looks to Christ, His cross, and mercy alone.  And there you’ll see your salvation.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Mere sentiment. . .

Once while meeting with a family and planning a funeral with the children of the deceased, mention was made of a hymn they found so meaningful.  What a term!  Meaningful.  What on earth does it mean?  The dictionary says having meaning, having a serious, important, or useful purpose, or the communication of something not directly expressed.  When did that word becomes so important to things like worship or Bible passages or hymns or symbolism?  The family found a song meaningful -- apparently more meaningful than any of the hymns in the hymnal.  I find it hard to blame them.  The children had been raised nominally in the faith.  Their parents had been marginally more active.  It was no wonder that the most meaningful thing they could imagine was something they had heard on the radio.  In their minds, there was not that much difference between the essential teachings of the faith and what made them feel good or spoke to them in popular media.  The sad reality is that this does not only happen among those on the fringe's of the church's life.  It also happens among those who make regular appearance in God's House.  Meaningful no longer means what the dictionary says but has more to do with sentiment than anything else.  And sentiment has come to be a synonym for faith, feeling for belief.

Is it not strange that we have employed our greatest technological achievements in order to showcase what we are feeling?  The oft spoken of therapeutic self speaks to the individual driven more be subjective emotion than anything else.  The individuals who value most of all and are driven by their subjective emotions have created a world in which emotion is more important than truth and in which sentiment is what drives everything.  In this world, what God says is less important than what we feel about what God says.  Worship is focused on what makes us feel good (even among those who prefer liturgical worship).  Life is more about self-expression than about anything else.  In this world, how we feel defines our gender and our sexual desires define our personality.  We will pay good money to the university only to insist that the same school provide safe places where we do not have to encounter ideas with which we disagree or people who espouse them.  

But the worst we have done by far is the equation of faith and faithfulness with emotion and being true to our feelings.  Technology, for all its promise, has succeeded in the replacement of dogma with the meaningful meme and has taught us that the most important thing we can do is to broadcast what we find offensive or what we find comforting. Among the more curious things we have done with sentiment is either to paint ourselves as helpless victims or to subject ourselves to enough self-loathing to prove we are woke. 

The history of Christianity is not about emotion but about ideas, about doctrine, and about truth.  It is about facts and events and not simply about how we feel about them.  It is about the triumph of these over our emotions. As St. Paul reminds, the will of God is that we live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives according to the Spirit, teaching us to renounce irreligion and to live not true to self but to the God who made us and redeemed us by His mercy in Christ Jesus.  The fact is that just as Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, so the faith remains forever the same.  The shape of our earthly city and the state of our emotions neither negate nor prove the truth of Christ or define His power.  The Christian task likewise endures.  The unchanging Christ for a changing world is ever at work in us and through us.  We manifest not competing emotions nor judgment but hope to a world that has confused feeling with reality and perception with truth.  We offer not the love of kind words or sympathy but the God who forgives our sins and grants us life and salvation.  In a world intent upon parading sin in order to find a clear conscience, we offer the promise of a real clear conscience in the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin.  In th endless pursuit of happiness, we offer the promise of contentment and peace that passes understanding and is not dependent upon current circumstance.  But this Gospel will offer nothing if we succumb to the temptation to equate the mighty deliverance of God with mere sentiment.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The temptation of power. . .

There was a time when the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod was moving from its linguistic and cultural ghetto of German immigrant identity and entering into the American mainstream.  During the 1950s and 1960s the people of the LCMS were themselves moving and we were becoming a more urban and suburban church body.  At the same time, our theological professors were also moving out of the shadow of our own educational circles and were enjoying a prominence and acceptance in the halls of the ivy league as well.  

Rome was also enjoying its own access to power and glory in the vaunted institutions of American government and education.  The phone calls of cardinals and bishops were being taken and Rome was making friends and influencing people all over the place.  For a church body whose membership had once been primarily among the immigrants America accepted but did not welcome, Rome became more than a bit player on the political and educational stage.

The limelight was not without a cost.  The roots of Missouri's unpleasantness were planted not simply in the exposure of our theologians to the doctrinal and hermeneutical influence of others but in our desire to be included at the table and given their respect.  Eventually, Missouri would go through a conflict which was created not only by interest in the heterodox but by the distance this interest created between the teachers of the church and her people.  The end result was not simply the reaffirmation of an infallible Scripture but the embrace of a diversity which insisted evangelical worship was as legitimate a face for Lutheranism than the liturgy.  Our people were now free not only to sample the once forbidden wares of higher criticism but also to feast at the table of the church growth movement.

Rome's own problems were and are similar.  The Cardinal McCarricks of the world are the poisoned fruit of a tree already rotten with desire to be seen as full members of the American industrial, educational, and governmental elite.  Slowly but surely the moral authority of Rome would be compromised with a corrupt hierarchy and a church in love with the spotlight.  It did not take long before doctrine would become fuzzy and virtue would give way to expediency.  The elitism of experts would take the modest reforms of Vatican II and turn it into a wholesale change of piety and belief.  The rupture between the past and the new post-council church would come back to haunt a church body whose leadership were sure that the change or die was their future.

In the end, it is the same thing -- the temptation of power.  We want a church that is feared more than one that is loved and we want access to the powerful even if we do not have that kind of power.  It will be our undoing more than anything else.  Perhaps the grave threat to label the orthodox faith hate speech and the intimidation of a government at ease enforcing its point of view will finally expose our fornication with power and force us to be see the real choices before us.  The world has attacked the sanctity of life since before 1973 and many churches have drunk the kool-aid of progressivism.  The world has challenged the distinctives of Christian morality especially in the area of sexual ethics for some time.  Only now do we see the great divide between those who have silenced the Scripture and ignored Christian tradition and those who are willing to suffer for the sake of the truth.  The world has attacked the historical base of the Scriptures until so many Christian theologians have agreed with the critics that the Bible is myth and legend that we preach a Christ who did not have to die and one who certainly did not rise but none of that makes any difference to the preaching.

There is a part of all orthodox Christianity that ought to welcome the persecution the world seems ready and willing to give.  It may just force us to find the backbone we had and forgot.  It may teach us the wisdom of the Psalmist who warned us against trusting in earthly kingdoms and rulers and flesh and blood and its ways.  I fear that day when churches may well have to live on the fringes of our society but I do not fear that this will be our end.  Our end will come from our own willingness to trade faithfulness to God for respectability in the world.  Who wants to bother with a faith and a church that fears what man can do more than what God can do?  That is more concerned with the passing treasures of the moment than the eternal treasure of Christ's body in suffering and His blood shed to forgive sinners and grant them everlasting life?  That plays with truth to get power instead of speaking truth to power?  Nothing good will come from or to a church embarrassed by the Scriptures or ashamed of its own history, theology, and doctrine.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Evangelical Catholic Parish. . .

As one who lives under the Augsburg Confession, I am bound not to be Lutheran.  Wait a minute.  What does that mean?  What I mean is that there is a thing that has come to be called and identified as Lutheran that bears little resemblance to what our Confessions say we are.  It is remarkable how quickly we have not only begun to talk about Lutheran doctrine, Lutheran liturgy, and Lutheran piety.  It is as if we no longer think of ourselves nor do we claim the faith of the Augustana that we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice.  If that is true, then Lutherans have become the very thing their confessions abhor and are no longer a church at all but merely a sect.  What the Reformation gave birth to was not another church among the many churches born of that period but the essential claim that the Roman Church then (and, I believe, still) has evolved away from and become something different than the catholic church.  It is not simply in a few doctrines (purgatory, sacrifice of the mass, papacy, etc.) but in its presumption that the church defined the Word and has an authority, identity, and power which is different from and above the marks of the Church in the Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered.  The tradition that Lutherans worry about is that tradition in which Scripture is not the center and beating heart but something else.  Our claim in the Reformation and still is that we have not substituted one authority or tradition for another.  Instead, we have held Scripture to be what Scripture is -- the efficacious and living voice of God still doing what the words say.  But if we have invented and put in place of this living tradition our own institutionalized theology and identity, we have learned nothing from the Reformation and forsaken the very legacy bequeathed to us.

What am I talking about?  When Lutherans have their own doctrine which is not the catholic doctrine of the ages, we have become what we complained about in the 16th century.  When Lutherans begin theological history with our own iconic figures (Luther, Chemnitz, Walther, etc.), we create a churchly identity not envisioned by our confessional fathers.  When we do this with liturgy and piety and an institutional structure which we define as Lutheran, we have only extended this rather sectarian view to the whole.  I believe in the Lutheranism of our Confessions but I am concerned by the Lutheranism that we typically think of today.  When we govern our communion with constitutions and bylaws because we no longer have a doctrinal and liturgical unity that flows from Scripture and is testified to in our Confessions, we have become a corporate identity but we have surrendered the character of church.

Politics are not our problem.  Voting lists at conventions are not our problem.  Seminaries are not our problem.  Synod is not our problem.  Financial viability is not our problem.  Even a government increasingly unfriendly to the faith is not our problem.  Our problems lie much deeper.  Do our preachers in the pulpits and presiders at that altar and our people in the pews believe that we are, as the Augsburg Confession claims, the evangelical catholics who have restored what Rome lost and renewed a church life that had lost its way?  Or, do we believe that Lutherans are a church in opposition to the evangelical catholicity of doctrine and practice, a denominational identity and structure with a birthday that marks are beginning as well as the time in which we cast off this catholicity to be something distinct from that catholicity?   I fear that we are creating Lutheran people led by Lutheran pastors who can mark the beginning of their theology, liturgy, and piety to a date in the 16th century or the 19th century and who are content with this.  That is not the faith that was proclaimed at Augsburg in 1530.  It should not be the faith that is proclaimed in 2021.  

I understand that jurisdictions have rules, regulations, and procedures.  Of course they do.  But these are not our identity.  We cannot appeal to constitution and bylaws to solve doctrinal conflict and we cannot issue rules and regulations to solve liturgical disputes (such as, for example, the idea of online Holy Communion).  When we appeal to institutional documents or rules as the governing word in these differences, we are acknowledging the poverty of our theological conversation and the lack of consensus about who we are as a church body and how we live within that body.

The evangelical catholic parish acknowledges with the most profound solemnity and yet with the greatest joy solus Christus, as Luther said, “The cross alone is our theology.”  The evangelical catholic parish has a life and piety that flows from and back to the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments.  The liturgical life of the evangelical catholic parish gladly acknowledges, even though it may not practice locally, the fuller ceremonial and rites of the church through the ages.  The evangelical catholic parish refuses the principle that simpler is better when it comes to ceremony and rite or that our liturgical life is governed by economy rather than fullness.  The evangelical catholic parish understands that Scripture is not simply an infallible book but a living voice -- the efficacious Word of God that works through this Word preached, read, and taught to do what says.  The evangelical catholic parish puts the fullest prominence on the work of God in baptism to bring forth a new person created in Christ Jesus for new and everlasting life, for the good works that show forth this life, and for the Spirit work in the baptized to finish His new creation.  The evangelical catholic parish encourages and calls the people of God to the blessing of private confession in which the conscience is set free, repentance is acknowledged, and the counsel of God's Word is applied to direct the life of the absolved.  The evangelical catholic parish lives for and from the Table of the Lord where we kneel in adoration before and receive with faith the Crucified and Risen Lord who gives us His body in bread and His blood in wine.  The evangelical catholic parish rejoices in the gift of the pastoral office in which men are set aside by Word and prayer and conferred with the authority of the Word and Sacraments within the whole church and in the local congregation -- an ordination which does not create a first class of Christians over and above the rest of the flock but fulfills the Lord's will and mandate to supply from that flock shepherds to feed His sheep.  The evangelical catholic parish is always being formed and reformed by the Spirit working through the Word so that her confession of doctrine and witness before the world are constantly renewed without changing what is believed or confessed.  The evangelical catholic parish takes most seriously who communes so that those communing may be examined and absolved and so thoroughly prepared to acknowledge and receive the Sacrament of the Lord's body and blood to their good and not to their harm.  The evangelical catholic parish celebrates the voices of many teachers but knows the Scripture as that truth that governs all truths and norms the content of what we believe, teach, and confess.  The evangelical catholic parish anticipates the heavenly future God is even now preparing us to receive within this moment of time in which the Spirit gathers us around the Word and Table of the Lord, in but not of the world.  The evangelical catholic parish joyfully acknowledges the saints who have gone before, the martyrs who have washed their robes clean in the blood of the Lamb, and the cloud of witnesses even now surrounding the Church and bidding her to complete the race and rest from her labors.  The evangelical and catholic parish celebrates the vocations supplied by the Lord in which we live together under Him, most especially the baptismal vocation to know the Lord and to live under Him the new life that is His gift, doing the good works that serve our neighbor and glorify Him (but which contribute nothing to the saving work already accomplish for us in Christ).  In doctrine and life, the evangelical catholic parish looks like those of another era and time and bears common resemblance to those who follow, though the world around us is always changing, Christ yesterday, today, and forever the same.  These are the things to which I have committed my ministry and it is this vision which embodies in life the confessional witness that has come to be known as Lutheran.  I do not see Lutheranism as a reforming movement within the Church or the confessions of the various strains of Christianity to have equal weight or merit as expressions of what is catholic but Lutheranism as the voice for the evangelical and catholic faith and its life lived out within the congregation gathered with their shepherd around the Word and Table of the Lord.  This is the genius of Lutheranism that preserved will flourish or forsaken will allow it to die as one more failed sect.  And if that happens, we dare not lay the blame on the Lord but at our own feet.  For we have been given a rich and gracious heritage, a legacy through the ages, that we will have squandered and wasted if we let Lutheranism forget its Confession and become merely a church body.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

It makes me feel bad. . .

So often we describe sins as things that make us feel bad.  And they do, actually, if the Holy Spirit is working in us.  Guilt.  Shame.  Embarrassment.  Pain.  All of these are the things we feel when we carry the burden of sin in us.  That is our personal cost.  But it is not the greater cost of sin or the full magnitude of its problem.

Sin is not simply something that makes us feel bad.  Sin is a grave obstacle between us and God, and between us as people.  It is a barrier to the life God created for us and it is a wall that imprisons us from those around us -- the people we were created to live together with and we both want and need.   Sin does not simply make people feel bad.  It is not primarily about feelings.

When we confess our sins, we also confess how they make us feel.  That is good and well, in and of itself.  But repentance means owning up to the greater reality of what those sins have done and how what they have done cannot be undone -- not by us, not by our will, not by our desire, not by our works, and not even by our regret.  We come as those powerless to do anything but sin -- unless and until the work of the Holy Spirit leads us beyond the feelings and into the concrete of what those sins do to God, to others, and to us.

Though the difference between mortal and venial sin can be helpful, it does not help for us to judge some sins big and other sins small -- small enough to be overlooked?   Yes, Scripture does speak of sins that are “unto death” (I Jn 5:17). Mortal sins are grave matters – sins that betray God’s law and His will.  The  commandments tell us what God's will is and how that will places boundaries and markers for us to judge truth from error and right from wrong.  So when we, knowing that law, choose our own will and act according on our own judgment, we are not simply rejecting the law or the rule but God Himself. Though venial sins may not involve all the conditions of knowledge, law, and willful consent, they do involve some of them.  We treat them as if they were nothing more or less that the inadvertent infractions of a minor rule or the accidental choices we could not avoid or did not know.  But they remain sins.  Their power is to eat away at the conscience until wrong becomes right and right cannot be discerned anymore -- until God's law and Spirit no longer address us.  In any case, these sins do not simply live within the realm of our feelings nor are feelings the only domain of their destruction.  Sin has one currency.  Death.  

It is a good thing that your sins make you feel bad.  It is a bad thing when we can sin with impunity  and feel no sorrow or regret, much less contrition.  But the feelings are not ends in and of themselves -- they are the place where the Spirit works to reveal what we would rather remain hidden.  The full consequence of sin is death.  Only the Spirit working through the voice of the Word can lead us from our dismissal of sin and its consequences simply to the realm of feelings and show us what wages we have earned by those sins.

When we confess them, whether together in the preparation for the Divine Service or individually before the Pastor, we are admitting more than how we feel but what our sins have done -- done to us before God and done to others by us.  It is only in this context that the absolution makes any sense.  Apart from the death that sin has produced in us and through us to others, no absolution is really needed.  Instead, a thoughtful word of encouragement or a reasoned excuse or justification for what we said or did would suffice.  But God has given us something more powerful than that which would dismiss sin.  He has given us the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all our sin.  And this does more than make us feel better or feel good.  It breathes life into our deadness.  It is not therapy but a resuscitation to life.  For this gift and blessing, we can do nothing more than stand in awe.  Such greater love no one has ever seen before.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Church of the Rainbow Flag. . .

Recently I was sent a social media picture of a church with a rainbow steeple and the words underneath were ask me my pronouns.  I am sure that this congregation was not the first or the only church to pin the rainbow to their identity.  But really?  That is what the Church is know for or as?  The rainbow flag is not the Gospel and it dare not replace the cross as the central sign of Christian identity.  But it has.  At least among some.

The rainbow was once good news.  It signified the mercy of God which was ever before the Lord -- even when our sins confronted Him.  No more judgment with water to kill but the promise of water that gives life.  Noah and his family were saved -- eight souls in all.  And in the holy ark of the Church God still saves.  Not by wishing sin away but by paying its terrible price in suffering and dying on behalf of those dead in trespasses and sin.  But the rainbow is no longer God's sign anymore.  We have co-opted the sign and turned it into an apt symbol of the fall in Eden.  We have substituted our judgment for God's and now we insist that our feelings tell us better the reality of who we are than the God who made us and who redeemed us.  What a farce that rainbow has become!  It no longer offers hope and promise but is an affront not only to the God who made us but to reason and nature and truth.  Would that its arrogance applied only to the area of our sexual choices!  But its damage is more in the realm of distracting and avoiding what is truth and what is love.  Where the cross once spoke with an explanation point of God's relentless work to seek and save us, now the rainbow speaks of our glory in us and our feelings.  Love is no longer strong enough to confront with sin and save with mercy.  Love is reduced to patting on the back our choices and affirming us in our feelings no matter what they are.  Worst of all, Jesus is absent in the very place where He is to be present -- the Church!

Not long ago someone was offended by our preaching and insisted that we preach hate and not love.  Of course, this was in the context of homosexuality and gender identity.  Because we do not affirm either, we must be haters.  Yeah, I get it.  But what offense it caused by faithful preachers seems also to be caused by God Himself.  If the faithful word of the Scriptures is proclaimed and judged hateful by those who prefer their truth to real, objective truth, then the God who spoke that word must also be a hater.  And this is where weak willed churches without a backbone have surrendered the cross to a rainbow.  Rather than risk being labeled a hater or phobic of one sort or another, they surrender the cross and the true Gospel that saves.  Rather than allow God to be judged a hater, they recast God away the clear words of truth to an emoticon of passive acceptance and tolerance of whatever feels good in the moment.

How sad that the best the Church can offer the world is a rainbow steeple or rainbow stole or rainbow flag!  No matter how much we want God to say we are perfectly okay as we are, the conscience still haunts us with a truth that cannot be denied.  And to offer a clear conscience is not to wish sin away or justify our desires but to see in the cross the mercy of God who loves us enough to confront what we would deny.

In the First Things online blog I read:  

“Deathwork” is a term used by sociologist Philip Rieff. It refers to the act of using the sacred symbols of a previous era in order to subvert, and then destroy, their original significance and purpose. Rieff uses Andres Serrano’s notorious 1987 picture Piss Christ to illustrate this. The work is a photograph of something considered sacred—in this case a crucifix—submerged in the artist’s own urine. As Rieff puts it, in Serrano's photo the sacramental has been made excremental. Or, to borrow a phrase from Marx— that which was holy has been profaned.

To take God's own sign and turn it into our symbol of something completely foreign to God is to turn this sign of mercy into a deathwork.  It is better to remain silent than to join with the critics of God who, like Eve, knew better what God meant and who, heeding the whisper of the serpent, constantly question and challenge the clear Word of the Lord.  But it seems that too many churches cannot remain silent.  So they offer the world a bastardized symbol without hope or promise in place of one that can deliver on its pledge of grace.  How sad!  How sad also that those who feel such inclinations are willing to be consoled and comforted by words that have no hope or promise!  In the end, we are all poorer because the cross has been judged not enough and the rainbow recycled into Eden's dishonor when it could have been the noble symbol of real hope.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

A few thoughts. . .

Having witnessed many a congregation learn anew the shape of worship when they receive a new pastor, I am not unsympathetic with those in the pews who complain that they are subject to a pastor's own personal preferences -- often the tyranny of those preferences.  Having also lost a couple of dear friends who died while serving and whose parishes had to deal not only with the grief of their loss but with another pastor who changed what was done, I worry about the outcome.  Finally, having pondered a bit the prospect of my retirement and what will or will not happen when another pastor replaces me, I have a few worries myself about the lifespan of my own legacy -- for good or for ill.

A gazillion years ago, an older pastor sat in the pews of a very young pastor in his first parish and observed that I had an Episcopal style.  I was not sure what he meant.  He said he did not mean it in a derogatory fashion but neither did he say it was a positive statement.  Since Episcopal style was not defined either, I was left to ponder what, if anything, this meant.  Perhaps a little background.  My first parish had been divided by the Charismatic Movement.  When I got there, the congregation numbered hundreds on paper but a mere 50-60 were gathered on Sunday morning.  On one side the Bronze Age Missourians sat and on the other the Charismatics.  Both believed that if they called from the seminary, God would ensure they would get somebody like them.  Both of them were disappointed when I showed up.  Neither had foreseen a pastor with Eucharistic vestments chanting the Divine Service (then The Lutheran Hymnal).  Unwittingly I had united them in opposition to me.  Although I did not change what I did (following the rubrics and Arthur Carl Piepkorn and Paul H. D. Lang and the like), I did begin teaching why this was not my preference but the consistent application to the liturgy of what we as Lutherans said we believed in our Confession.  It literally took years.  Even through the introduction of a new hymnal (Lutheran Worship).  Finally at some point it began to click with people.  I was not promoting a personal style that would be replaced by another but leading them as the evangelical catholic our Confessions said we were.  After I left they continued in the same vein.  Even when some suggested that these things might be set aside in favor of making the congregation more church friendly to Protestants or evangelicals, they continued as they had been catechized.

From the time I began as pastor of the parish I have now served almost 30 years, I did the same.  There have been a few changes in the Divine Service but not that many and we have a fuller liturgical and ceremonial Eucharist than many, if not most in Missouri.  But everything we do is born from our tradition and consistent with it.  I am not naive enough to believe that things will go on as they have or that the nearer or late successors to me will not change what happens on Sunday morning.  I hope and pray it is not to reflect their own personal style or comfort level with things liturgical.  I hope and pray that they do not portray what I have done as my own personal style.  I hope and pray that things will continue and a slow but deliberate evolution that befits both the liturgy itself and concern for those in the pew.  I hope and pray that the direction of the evolution is toward the fuller vision of Augustana for catholic doctrine and practice and not a leaner one.

Personally, my style is dark.  I would prefer a dark and musty medieval setting with solemnity that borders on the somber or dour.  I would prefer a whole lot more silence and much fewer words and small talk.  I would prefer people dressed in their Sunday best instead of what was comfortable.  But our building is not dark or damp or medieval.  Our solemnity is much more relaxed dignity or reverence than it is rigid.  It is, for me, sometimes way too casual in attitude and dress.  Our building is bright and cheery -- perhaps much more bright and more cheery than I am.  But then it is not about me.  It should not be about any pastor.  We would do well to offer our people more rather than less of the rich liturgical heritage we claim.  We should model the fuller ceremonial rather than a slimmed down version of what it means to be an evangelical catholic on Sunday morning.  Not because taste matters but because, whether our people cross themselves or kneel or hold their hands a certain way or bow or genuflect or anything else, we need to model these because these are ever bit as much and, I would say, more Lutheran than simplified liturgy and reduced ceremonial.  Nothing in our Confessions suggest that we should remove anything except that which the Gospel cannot allow -- despite our refusal to legislated these practices and that strange word adiaphora (that has come to mean que sera sera).  

If you are a pastor and you say that something is or is not your style, you are not being helpful for your people and are passing on the lie that what we do on Sunday morning is personal preference.  Stop it.  Ceremonies confess and teach -- at least that is what we claim in our Confessions.  You better have a better reason for doing what you do or not doing something than it is not me.  Our job as pastors is not to impose our preferences or prejudice upon our people.  We ought to be modeling the fullest rather than retreating to the least.  What the hymnal offers us is at minimum what ought to be happening on Sunday morning but it is by no means the maximum.  Lutheran liturgical history is fuller rather than leaner and our uniformity ought to be that we eschew personal preference rather than idolize it.  

I disagree with those who say that adding things into the hymnal is the same as taking things away.  Of course it is not.  Lutherans elevated, rang sanctus bells, genuflected, chanted, and did so many other vaunted and faithful catholic practices over the years that to judge any moment in time as what Lutherans ought to be is disingenuous.  Including the 1941 hymnal or the Common Service!  Even C. F. W. Walther worried about the state of Lutheran liturgy when he looked out over the Lutherans already here.  He was and is no fan of liturgical downsizing anymore than he is in favor of liturgical rule making.  There ought to be a solid reason why we do or do not do what is part of that fuller liturgical history -- not simply that we like or don't.  Even more foolish are those who look at Lutheran liturgical practices of the past and treat them as Roman holdovers or Romanizing tendencies.  If you think the Reformation was fought over the elevation or incense, you do not have a clue what was at stake or still is.  My point is this.  What we do on Sunday morning should not be governed by personal preference on either side of the altar rail and should not be shaped by minimalism.  Unless you are Reformed.  Which Lutherans are not.  If we look less like our earlier forbearers and more like Methodists or evangelicals on Sunday morning, maybe there is a problem.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

There is a difference. . .

It is a wonderful and blessed thing that the normal four times per year offered in days gone by have given way to at least twice monthly and, for many parishes, a weekly Eucharist.  This is a most salutary return to the expectation of the Augustana.  Whether the Christian communes as often as the Sacrament is offered is a decidedly different question than whether the congregation should offer the Sacrament at least weekly.  But we are making progress on both fronts.  As a child growing up, there were folks who left after the offering even though the Sacrament of the Altar made at best a quarterly appearance in the life of the congregation at worship.  They did not intend to commune.  Either they had not announced, not been at the Friday evening Confessional Service, or did not feel themselves in great need of the feast of Christ's flesh and blood.  There are, I expect, fewer who walk out before the Sacrament today.  Though I would argue that those who walked out needed to witness what was happening even if they chose not to participate in the actual communion.  There is godly catechesis in the rite that is not without beneficial effect to our faith and piety, though, perhaps, not as much as receiving in repentance and faith the body and blood of our Lord.  Yet for all our gains in frequency of offering and receiving the Eucharist, there remains a haunting question.

Do we simply receive the Sacrament more often (not a bad thing and very good indeed) or have we begun to recover the Eucharistic piety that was certainly manifest in the life of our spiritual forebearers but was lost for a significant part of Lutheran history?  In other words, we may offer the Sacrament more often and receive it more frequently but is our piety born from and shaped by this blessed Communion?  Do we long for the holy ground of God's presence where He has promised to come to us in this Sacrament of our Lord's flesh and blood?  Do we glory in the gracious gift of His invitation to come and be seated in the place of honor no sinner deserves and to be served by our Lord the heavenly bread and cup of salvation that are the foretaste of the heavenly and eternal feast?  Does our joy in the Lord come from this most blessed participation in His flesh and blood through which our sins are forgiven and our lives in Christ given comfort, strength, and hope?

My fear is that while our participation in the Sacrament has greatly increased, it remains a mere add-on to other things that we deem at least as important and formative for our lives in Christ.  For example, is the preoccupation with Contemporary Christian Music by so many Lutherans who find it so meaningful and how it speaks to their soul a more profound experience of their life with God than this Holy Communion upon His flesh and blood?  A host of other things might substitute for CCM.  We live in a culture in which the choices are many and the influences come from all quarters and, to be brutally frank about this, Lutheran pastors do not seem to preach and teach the counterbalance of the true spiritual life rooted and planted in the Word and Supper of our Lord.  The internet has certainly given us choice but at what cost?  I heard from my people and from other Lutherans that the preachers who nourished their faith while they were absent from the Lord's House during the pandemic and I shudder to think that they have equated Lutheran preaching, catechesis, and worship with the offerings of the celebrity figures of mega churches or what is heard on BOTT or Moody or other media.  But I fear they like what they hear and find a kindred spirit in these folk who come out of a decidedly non-sacramental tradition.

For what it is worth, I wonder if the same is true of Baptism.  How else can a Lutheran so quickly surrender the grace of baptism in which we are buried with Christ and rise in Him to the new and everlasting life He has prepared?  How can it be that Lutherans so easily content themselves with a symbol when they were baptized in water filled with the Word and the Spirit so that this water can deliver what it signs?  It is a sure sign that our lives of faith do not flow from the font and do not lead us to the altar or we would find a profound rupture between Lutheranism and evangelicalism and Protestantism.  

My point is this.  The Lutheran pastor needs to ask himself some distinct questions.  Does my preaching presume and depend upon the resurrection of our Lord Jesus or could I preach the same thing had Christ not been raised?  Do I preach every Sunday the faith within the context of how the people received it in the waters of baptism, through the efficacious voice of the Word, by the absolution that delivers a clear conscience to the penitent, and met in the blessed and hallowed ground of God's presence at the table of the Lord where Christ feeds me His flesh and gives me His blood to drink?  Does my teaching point the people from the font to the altar by means of the pulpit or are the means of grace less prominent in my teaching than content, constructs, and individual doctrines?

As we look around us, it is clear that Rome is not our main problem.  Our people are not tuning into Gregorian Chant or listening to EWTN or sneaking into Mass on Saturday afternoons to see what it is like but they are listening to the contemporary Christian soundtrack, popular evangelical and fundamentalist preachers, and longing for a more immanent style of worship than transcendent.  This is where Lutheranism is bleeding off people.  Could it be that they do not see a difference?  If they don't, how did we Lutheran pastors fail them in our preaching and teaching? 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Incomparable Wealth. . .

Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B, preached on Sunday, October 17, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich. 

    “Money can’t buy happiness.”  We all know this saying.  And most of us would agree with it.  But when we look at our lives, at how we treat money and wealth, how we pursue the stuff of this world, we act as if money can buy happiness.  It’s like that country song says, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy me a boat.” 
    We say money can’t buy happiness, but we wish it did.  And we live as if it can.  How many of us have wish lists of things that we want and are saving up for?  Maybe it’s a new kitchen upgrade, or the latest Apple product, or maybe it’s that specific tool needed for that one project that once you’ve finished you’ll never use again.  Or maybe instead of stuff on your list, you’re saving up for a European.  And how many of us have convinced ourselves that once we’ve saved enough and gotten those things on our lists that we’ll be satisfied?  Let me be the first one to raise my hand.  But this is foolishness.  We’ve convinced ourselves of a lie.  The truth is we’ll never be satisfied with any amount of wealth or stuff. 
 The wisdom of Scripture says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Eccl 5:10).  Earthly wealth is vain because it can’t satisfy, it can’t do what we want it to do.  But this wisdom goes completely against everything we believe.  You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d say money is vain.  From the time we’re old enough to understand the concept of buying things, which is pretty young by the way, we’re focused on getting money so we can buy whatever we want.  We look to money as the very source of our satisfaction.  Money buys the things we want, and when we have the things we want, then we’ll be happy.  That’s what we believe.  That’s how we live.  And that’s idolatry.  It’s false worship.  We’ve turned money and wealth into gods.  We fear, love, and trust in it more than God our Father.  
No matter how much money you have in your bank account, no matter how much stuff you have, you’ll always want more.  True life bears this out.  Take the tv show Shark Tank for example.  Those “sharks” have more money than many of us could ever dream of, and you’d think they’d be satisfied.  But what’s the whole point of them being on the show?  It isn’t just to “help” the upstart entrepreneurs.  No, it’s for them to make more money.  And if that example is too far removed from you, simply look at your life.  Don’t you wish you had more money?  Isn’t there always something on your wish list?  Of course this is and of course you want more money.  We all want more, because our sinful selfish greed can never be satisfied.  And what’s more, the money and the stuff we desire, it’s finite, it’s limited, it does us no good when we’re dead.
Again, the wisdom from Scripture says, “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (Eccl 5:15).  Today we say it like this, “You can’t take it with you.”  And again, this is something we say we agree with, but we live contrary to it.  We keep acquiring more and more as if we can take it with us.
The sad reality though is that many times the wealth that is left behind is a source of nasty fighting amongst family members.  At a time when families should be coming together to support each other, they’re divided by sin and greed, not satisfied with what’s been given to them.  And that’s the problem.  Because of our sin, we’re not satisfied with what’s been given to us.  We’re not satisfied with the good gifts our Lord gives.  And I’m not just talking about the material blessings He gives.  I’m talking about the blessing of everlasting life He gives in Christ.  This is the true wealth we should desire.  This is the true wealth that satisfies.  But more often than not, we’d prefer cash.  
    Money and the material stuff of this world, in and of itself isn’t bad or evil.  Money is just an inanimate object, and its value is what we place on it.  And there again lies the problem.  Because of our sin, we value wealth too much, valuing it more than our Lord and the everlasting life that He promises in Christ.  This is why Jesus said to His disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:23, 25).  Wealth can be such a hindrance to our faith because we make it our god.  We put it in God’s place, expecting it to give us life, but it can’t.  For those who put their trust in money, they’ll fail to enter the kingdom.
The context for Jesus’ words today is the Gospel reading from last week.  The rich man had just asked Jesus what he must do to be saved.  Christ answered by reiterating the commandments, and the rich man assured Christ that he had kept all those commands.  So Christ told him what else he should do: sell all his possessions and give it to the poor, and then he’d have treasure in heaven (Mk 10:21).  Do you remember how that rich man responded to Jesus’s words?  He was disheartened and went away sorrowful because he had a lot of stuff.  That man valued his stuff more than the treasure of heaven.  But that heavenly treasure, the gift of everlasting life, it’s more valuable than anything else in the world.  Life in Christ is wealth that is beyond compare.  
    There’s nothing like the life that you have in Christ.  This life is a free life.  It’s free from slavish worship to our false gods of wealth and money.  It’s free, graciously given to you because of God’s love for you and not because you’ve earned it.  It’s free from sin and death because Christ has overcome sin and death. 
Life in Christ is free, but at the same time, it’s costly.  It’s costly not in gold and silver, but in the holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.  The free everlasting life you have in Christ was paid for with His blood, a bill He was willing to pay for you, so that you would enter the kingdom of God.  
    The life you have in Christ is a free life, and it’s a rich life.  But before you get any ideas of a prosperity gospel, thinking Jesus wants you to have all the stuff on your wish list, the rich life in Christ has nothing to do with money. 
    Jesus promised His disciples: “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk 10:30).  Those who have life in Christ are rich.  They’re rich in the kingdom of God, blessed with a heavenly home, blessed with uncountable brothers and sisters in Christ.  Those who have life in Christ are rich in grace, in the forgiveness and love of Christ.  But those who have life in Christ won’t have it easy.  There’ll be persecutions and struggle and strife in this life.  But being rich in Christ with the promise of everlasting life, we endure these times, trusting in our Savior, and not the money in our wallets. 
    We pursue the wealth of this world.  We worship it, believing if we just have the right amount of stuff life will be perfect.  What vanity!  What idolatry!  Let us repent of this.  Let us instead seek life not in the wealth that doesn’t satisfy and the stuff that doesn’t last, but in the very gift of life that we have in Christ, life that is rich in grace and love, life that is rich in forgiveness, life that is freely given.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Foreign policy. . .

The State of California, always one to go its own way, seems to think of itself as a sovereign nation treating the rest of the US states as foreign governments.  It has gone so far as to restrict government funded travel to no less than a third of the 50 US states.  The states of Florida, Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia recently joined Texas, Alabama, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee as places where no California funded state travel would be allowed.  The reason given is that these 17 states are not sufficiently on board with the LGBTQ+++ agenda that has become the litmus test of things in Californialand.  California's Democratic Attorney General, Rob Bonta, took this action unilaterally and explained himself by saying, "Make no mistake, we're in the midst of an unprecedented wave of bigotry and discrimination in this country, and the state of California is not going to support it."  In this Hotel California you can't check in unless you meet certain standards but you can be evicted from your room for violating them. 

There are those who suggest that Christian concerns for the right of religious freedom are overblown and unfounded.  There are those who would tell the Church to get on with churchly things and get out of the social policy business.  In reality, the Christian communities in America are looking only for the tolerance and freedom guaranteed by our governing documents set forth by our founders.  Unless I am mistaken, none of the various churches who are opposed to the LGBTQ+++ agenda on Biblical grounds have done anything against those states like California aggressively pushing this agenda.  Yet a state like California believes it is not only its business but its place to punish states that the Attorney General does not believe live up to this aggressive embrace of these issues.

My point is simple.  Our cause for concern about the constraint of our liberty to believe, worship, and witness to the faith without governmental intrusion or restriction is not imagined.  It is real.  California has taken the lead but the progressive forces in other states and in Washington, DC, are also organizing for action toward the same goal.  The forces of tolerance are exceptionally intolerant of those who disagree.  Abortion, sexual license, gender identity, the redefinition of marriage and family, and the like have become the trumpet calls of those who insist that American society must be radically transformed and those who disagree or stand in the way will be pushed aside.

To the folks in the pews and those praying at home, it may not seem very near.  To those watching how quickly things have changed in America from simple tolerance to these progressive stands being on the forefront of media, government, and education, we are already behind the eight ball.  Add to your prayers this cause:  that the government does not decide to trample freedom of religion in its pursuit of sexual liberty.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Worthy conversation. . .

Silly.  Having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment; absurd and foolish.  A foolish person.  For all the hope and promise of the internet and social media, the outcome has been decidedly silly.  All the silly qualities of people and all kinds of silly people are showcased in the media that were supposed to elevate the conversation and build understanding and trust.  For the life of me, I cannot understand the way we have exploited such opportunity with such trivial outcome.  Where is the worthy conversation that we should be having and why have we decided that a global platform is best used for such inconsequential purpose?

I will admit to giving into the moment and pressing the send or post button before wisdom had its chance to teach me restraint and self-control.  It has always come back to shame me.  The vehicles of our greatest erudition were once printed as words on a page that did not only have an author but also an editor and a publisher to slow us down and think about what we were doing.  Now there seems to be barely a moment between the thought that crosses our minds and the words formed on our lips turn into the digital forever of a comment on a screen.  Thankfully, I have learned a few things from those days when I could not pause my foolishness long enough to retract or restate my words.  I am not wise by any standards but I have learned that the media is anything but social and the conversation we generally have there is anything but worthy.

The promise of technology has delivered to us our most silly and foolish sides..  We live in an era of instant communication but we have squandered its promise by speaking out loud the things we once knew enough to keep within.  Instead of pursuing knowledge or understanding, we spend our days telling the world whatever crosses our minds.  We chronicle our every moment from the feelings we have to the upsets that dominate us.  The events of the world's stage take second place to what we are thinking about ourselves, how we love a meme or video about cats, or what somebody else has said about us.  We magnify the impact of the words by allowing ourselves to be consumed by what tik toks, what tweets, and what image has been liked a zillion times today.  We document our days and spend our work time and night time in front of our screens.  And what is the fruit of all of this barely social media?  We are lonely beyond measure, live and die by the words or comments of others, and throw our words as weapons against friend and stranger alike.  It is no wonder that we are so depressed all the time.

Yes, there are benefits.  We can stay connected to family and friends far away.  We can share photos of wonderful events.  We can find long lost classmates and friends.  We can find encouragement from the stories of hope and promise that have always been around us.  We can listen to music that might never have been heard without this media.  There was and is so much promise.  But too much of what we use social media for is petty and cheap and silly.  It makes us petty and cheap and silly.  We do not need a mirror of this magnitude only to display our flaws -- only to see them so that we might confess them.  And confess we should for we have become addicted to these media and to the sickness of sin they encourage, promote, and make possible.

Now, as many of you have heard, Facebook is interested in using its platform so that we might use it to connect with God.  The company is interested in pursing religious experience in a big way.  By its own admission:  The company is intensifying formal partnerships with faith groups across the United States and shaping the future of religious experience.”  Did you get that?  They are not offering their platform to churches or religious groups.  No, they want to be equal partners in the grand scheme of shaping religious faith and practice.  They see a market here in shaping that religious experience.  Of course, there are conditions to this partnership.  Facebook would collect data from religious communities and their uses in exactly the same way it does from every other user -- in fact that is how they make their money!  But, of course, the whole process is not transparent or public -- nondisclosure agreements would be standard for all partners involved in this venture.  Marshall McLuhan said it long ago.  The medium is the message.  Technology inevitably shapes content and even shapes the viewer.  Not only have we learned that social media gives the spotlight to our less than noble speech and behavior, it also becomes a vehicle in competition with the real Church (vs digital). 

My question for you is this.  Is it worth whatever gain we might have to put the Church on social media and to allow it to be shaped by the platforms the Church uses?  Will the media due for the Gospel what it has done so effectively for us as people -- diminish the nobility of our conversation and expose the worst in us for all the world to see?  We need to be careful.  What we lose, we may not be able to get back.  Technology should come with a warning label -- it may display the worst in us before it delivers any good.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:29–30)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Becoming modern. . .

I have no stake in the particular worship war of the Latin Mass vs the post-Vatican II Mass.  I am not Roman.  There are certain things about the Latin Mass that are so foreign to me that it is an alien environment for a Lutheran.  There are things familiar to me from the post-Vatican II Mass because of the vernacular and because this movement was also one of the driving forces behind the Lutheran liturgical movement of the same era.  What appeals to me about the Latin Mass is not the text or even the chant but the reverence and this is the thing which is so often missing from any experience I have had of the post-Vatican II Mass.  Whether in parish church or cathedral, I have been struck by how the new form is rushed to its ending and how the whole tenor of the service is intruded upon by cantors flashing their arms up and down and praise bands playing peppy music with a beat and a casual attitude toward the holy things of God's Word and Sacrament.  I am not sure whether this was a pent up spirit among some in Rome or this was learned from the Protestants but the vast majority of Roman Catholics go to parish churches where this spirit predominates at most if not all the Masses.  Therefore, my kinship with those crunching under the weight of Pope Francis' obvious disdain not only for the Latin Mass but its devotees is one less of text and form but of reverence and awe.  And this is my cause for Lutherans as well.

In the parish where I grew up there was a stiff formality in a rather low church celebration of the Divine Service (and the half mass that ends before the Preface).  It was formal and rather rigid but it was not quite liturgical.  The formality and rigidity had to do more with the tradition in which they grew up and less to do with the reverence and awe of a people lamenting that they are of unclean lips and yet in the presence of the Most High.  They were not hypocrites and they were certainly serious about worship but I never detected that it flowed from the awesome gift of being according a place before the Most High, on the holy ground of His grace, by His mercy alone, to meet Him where He promised to be.  I do not fault them for anything that might be lacking upon hindsight.  I suspect they were and are typical of the people who gather in many Lutheran congregations on Sunday morning.  But I have learned that this is not what reverence is and this cannot lead to the holy joy of God's presence.  Furthermore, the whole setting was more or less a framework for the important thing -- the sermon.  Too much, then, rested upon the sermon and the ability of the preacher to carry the weight of things that were meant to be shared by the liturgy.

Casual attitudes are, if anything, a gift of modernity.  The take nothing seriously attitude that pervades so much of our lives has made its way and its home in the liturgy.  Pope Francis seems to be a fan of modernity with its embrace of diversity, informality, and active participation.  That is concerning to me.  It ought to be concerning to anyone and everyone for whom reverence and awe are a key to the rich and abundant worship life that befits the setting in which our Lord comes to us in Words that do what they promise, in water that bubbles with eternal life, and in bread and wine that feeds His flesh and the drink of His blood.  To many, this is a decidedly regressive approach to worship.  To some, the full promise of the liturgical movement has not yet been fulfilled.  Again, it seems this is where Pope Francis lives and if polls are correct, many are there with him -- not even sure that Christ is present at all except in our imagination and memory!  

Sadly, too many within my own church body find a kinship with the Pope in this.  They find the traditions of the past constraining and stifling and yearn for something new every Sunday, something that exchanges the divine reality of the means of grace for the digital reality of our technology, and something that is not its own culture but makes its home in our culture, preference, and desire.  I said in an earlier post that perhaps if reverence and awe had been the norm the Latin Mass might not have caught on so.  In my own church body, it the flourishing of the new liturgy and new hymnals had not also been accompanied by the move to ditch both, perhaps the pews would not have emptied so quickly. It is most difficult to fall away from the compelling presence of God and its reverent awe and holy joy among the people so bidden.  It is rather easy to fall away from a liturgy formal or casual and entertainment that passes for worship when we tire of them and something new comes along.  I fear that many who fell away over the last 40-50 years did not so much reject the present Lord as they did the worship that made Him appear absent, impotent, and dated.  We do not have to make God relevant but we dare not let go of the awesome reality of His presence on the holy ground of the liturgy where His Word and His Sacrament are the twin peaks that are both source and summit of our Christian faith and lives this side of glory.