Thursday, March 31, 2022

I do not think you know what that word means. . .

I admit that I thought this was photo shopped when I first saw it.  Then I googled it.  Turns out Disney is not alone.  Everyone has an Easter Advent calendar for sale.  Like its a thing -- a real thing -- when it is what happens when marketers think they know something and reveal their ignorance.  It is a bargain at any price; a steal at $29.99.

How many can I order for you????

Christianity and therapy. . .

Another gem from Dr. Kenneth Korby.  Christianity is a way of life and counseling is problem solving.  But we have made counseling a way of life and Christianity into problem solving. 

He smacked that one right on the head.  Christianity has become a therapeutic religion of the self, of perceived problems, and of solutions to bring about happiness.  That is not who Christ is or what Christianity is.  But pastors enjoy solving problems and people like the fact that pastors don't charge for their services so it is an easy pitfall to encounter.  In the end it distorts the faith and consumes the pastor.

Christianity is a way of life -- it is liturgical by nature and not simply about what is moral but what rescues us from our immorality.  It is a way of life -- prayed more than practiced and lived out under the cross and not to impress Him who died on that cross.  How easy it is for us to forget this!  So we turn a way of life into a means of getting what it is we want.  We have learned nothing from Eden whatsoever.  We still work at our playthings and play with the things of God -- falsely believing that what we play at will make us happy and what God offers us is hardly more than a stern "no" to all the desires of our hearts.  How foolish we are!  It is precisely the desires of our hearts that we dare not trust and the Word of the Lord that endures forever that we can trust.

Pastoral care has become a term for anything the pastor wants to do and anything the people want him to do.  Pastors want to feel important and nothing makes you feel better than somebody telling you that you have helped them solve a vexing problem and nothing makes people appreciate the minister more than when he helps them out of a bad situation.  Strangely enough, pastoral care has become a term completely divorced from the means of grace and from the work of catechesis.  

Dr. Korby asks us a pointed question.  How much of our pastoral care (counseling) is the result of a failure to catechize our people properly in the Word of God?  When we fail to teach people to be men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, then we will be left to problem solve them out of their unwillingness and refusal to be men or women or married or family.  No wonder we have accepted as normal the situation in which people do not know if they are men or women, no longer need or want marriage, and find children an unwelcome drain and distraction on our self-centered lives.  And that is but one area of life in which our failure to catechize has created the need for a counselor.

What we are given is the calling and the tools to diagnose the soul.  What we would rather do as pastors and our people would rather have us to is to problem solve.  The problem is that problem solving seldom requires the Word of God and the Word of God can impede our goal for efficient, effective, and effusively happy lives.  Is this not the reason why sin has become an absent word in our preaching, teaching, and conversation?  The point here, of course, is not to diminish good counselors or good counseling but when the pastor and the church become consumed by this, who is left to speak of God and for God?

The care of the soul which is the focus and responsibility of the pastoral office has everything to do with the means of grace and the Word of God.  The goal is simply to keep the person in a state of grace, believing God's Word and promise and rejoicing to receive the gifts of God for the people of God.  Instead of this, the goal of the ministry both from ministers and those they serve has become to make a better quality of life here.  It is no wonder why our Lord asks if faith will be found when He comes again in His glory.  God help us to restore the rightful focus of who we are and what we do on God's behalf to and for His people.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Ego te absolvo. . .

Confession begins with the truth.  The truth that the sinner can speak is to admit and confess his sin.  When we confess our sins we are speaking the full and unadulterated truth.  God already knows this but we must learn this truth.  That is why this repentance and confession is always the work of the Spirit in us and not our work apart from the Spirit within us.  Ours is a God of truth who loves truth in the inward being of His people.

But we need to be careful about this truth. It is an easy thing to confess that we are sinners.  After all, everyone is in the same boat -- whether they believe it or not.  It is the objective truth of the fall that has poisoned every person sent forth from Eden in the loins of our first parents.  To confess original sin is an important confession.  Are we sinners because we sin or do we sin because we are sinners?  Of course, the only true answer is that we sin because we are sinners.

It is a very different thing, however, to confess our sins.  It is distinctly different thing to admit and confess and regret that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone -- and to name those sins before God.  This is the confession we work to avoid but this is the true confession of sinners before God.  This is also why the general confession on Sunday morning is not a fair or a fit substitute for the individual confession of the sinner before the Pastor.

The general confession on Sunday morning is very good at admitting that of which we are all guilty.  We are sinners.  We have sinned in the thoughts of our minds, in the desires of our hearts, and in the words that come from our mouths.  We have sinned in the evils we have done and in the good we have not done.  We are not only guilty but we deserve punishment.  All of this is true but as long as the me is hidden in the we, it is an easy and too easily a superficial confession.

How very different it is when I confess my thoughts and name them, when I confess my words and own them, and when I confess my deeds and claim them -- when I name them out loud and not simply to myself and God and when another set of ears hears them.  How very different it is when the cover of a common malady no longer keeps me from saying in particular what I feel better confessing in the general. 

The sad reality is that just as the general confession can generally confess little or nothing, so can the general confession leave what is unspoken and unsaid within us, carried back out the door and into our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, families, friendships, and lives.  He who wants to be a sinner holds onto his sin and lets go of God.  But he who wants to belong to God lets go of his sin and holds onto God.  One of the greatest blessings of private confession is not simply that we are forced to say out loud what sins we have thought, said, and done but that we cannot take back the words once said and heard by another.  By saying them out loud, we surrender them to another.  This means we cannot own them anymore.  They belong to Him who has bidden our confession, promised us mercy, and forgiven them by His blood.  They are God's now.  And without them to trouble our conscience and afflict our souls, God has set us free to be His.

Let this be your Lenten thoughts on the way to the cross.  And while you are walking on the way, make an appointment with your pastor and make your good confession -- even if for the first time.  You will not regret it.  Alas, if you fear your pastor will know something of you which you do not want known, remember this.  He hears many confessions and knows many things of many people but, like you, he leaves them at the cross as well.  And when he dies, he takes them to his grave -- so great is the seal of the confessional and the grace of absolution.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The dead live and the lost are found. . .

Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 27, 2022.

Luke 15 is filled with stories in response to what was meant as a rebuke: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus was not at all shamed by their remark and by these parables says that they have it exactly right.  Jesus receives sinners and eats with them but He does not leave them in their sins.  At the end of the chapter is the theme for all the parables.  The dead live and the lost are found.  For this Jesus came into the world and because of this all the prodigals find welcome here in the Lord’s House and at the Lord’s Table.

The first parable talks about the foolish shepherd who leaves the 99 in order to seek the one lost sheep.  The second talks about the foolish woman who turns her house upside down for one lost coin only to spend it celebrating with her friends.  Both of these parables were directed at the grumbling Pharisees who said exactly what the Gospel is but refused to believe it.  Jesus has come for lost sheep and lost coins and for prodigal sons and embittered ones.  He comes to where they are in their lost condition, dirty with the stink of sin, and marked for death.  He receive sinners and He eats with them, as He will do here with you and me in a few moments.  

Luke gives us these three parables of Jesus but the best is the Prodigal Son, better named the waiting Father.  As with any parable, it is good to find ourselves in this story.  None of us will admit to being the rebellious son.  We are Lutherans.  We never do anything exciting.  The last thing we would ever do is to bully our parents into giving us what is theirs, waste it all on wild living, and then come back stinking like pigs.  No, we are not that kind of son.  Or are we?

The Lutheran in this story has to be the older son, the dutiful son who did all the right things for all the wrong reasons.  After all, we are here, right now, aren’t we?  Maybe we don’t’ want to be here but we know we should be.  So we come.  We have done what we thought we were supposed to do.  We were baptized, went through catechism class, were confirmed – heck, even go to Bible study.  It is not because we love these things.  These are our duty.  And we have been brought up to believe that those who do their duty will finally be rewarded.  Until our kid brother got a wild hair, took the money and ran while we had to stay and work.  The cry of Lutherans is always we did our duty, we did the right thing, so why do bad things still happen to us?

The person nobody can understand is the waiting father.  He gives the unworthy son what he asks and still loves him when he piddles it all away on nothing worth anything.  He lives with the tension of a dutiful son who is not there for the duty but for the end – for the inheritance he feels he is due and he thinks he has been promised.  Who in their right mind would act like this?  Who would welcome the son who took you for all you had back into the family?  And who would love a son who resents his father and acts only out of duty and not love?  Who indeed?  Could it be the one who receives sinners and eats with them?

The only currency that counts in heaven is mercy – not good works and not even sins but only mercy.  That is the shock of Jesus.  The Pharisees are like you and me.  They thought that it was only fair that they have a little better life than the scum of the earth who gave into their sinful desires and squandered their legacy from God.  They thought that going to church, praying, and doing good works ought to be worth something when it came time to barter the kingdom from God.  But Jesus lumps them in with the worthless sinners who may feel bad but they still screwed up.  That is because God did not come for the righteous, the well, the holy, the upright, or the good but for sinners.  

God does not pretend like we do.  He does not pretend we are not sinners or that our sins are not bad or that He does not notice those sins.  Jesus receives sinners but He does not join them in sin or condone their sin or excuse it.  No, indeed.  Jesus eats with sinners but He does not accept their sins as normal or justify the wrongs they do.  He receives them to forgive them.  He eats with them not to celebrate their shame but to feed them the flesh of the Lamb, His flesh, for the life of the world.

My friends Jesus is not here to pat you on the back and say you are okay.  He has come to where you are in order to bring you to where He is.  For that, He had to suffer and die and rise again.  His goal is not to win your approval but to rescue your lost lives.  God knows we are not worthy.  He waits for us to realize it.  And then the focus is no longer on our unworthiness but upon His grace and favor, goodness and mercy.  There is the source of our new birth, our absolution, our ears that hear with faith, and our lips that taste the flesh and blood of Christ.  Mercy!

Jesus comes to you, where you are.  But He does not leave you there.  He brings you that you may be where He is.  No apology can make us worthy of what He has suffered to redeem us.  No good works can fix our sin.  No intentions of the heart can excuse or justify the mess we have made of our lives, our souls, and our world.  Nobody works their ways into God’s good graces.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  We seem to rather adept at insulting Jesus with our half baked righteousness.

But Jesus refuses to be offended.  Instead He pleads with us, wins us over to Him the way man might woo and win the woman of his dreams.  We run and He runs after us.  We are lost and He finds us.  We are dirty and He washes us.  We are hungry and He feeds us.  We are guilty and He takes our shame on Himself.  We are dead and He gives us life.  You bet!  Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.  What the Pharisees saw as an insult, Jesus wears as a badge of honor.  But the fruit of His love comes only to the repentant, to those who plead only Christ and His blood, and to those who by the Spirit’s guidance want nothing more than to be the obedient sons and daughters the Father desires.  With us it is impossible but with the Holy Spirit working in us that which is well-pleasing in His sight, there is hope.  Love is obedience and obedience is love.  Don’t forget that.

So come you rebellious children.  Come you grumbling Pharisees.  Come you resentful elders.  Come and meet the Shepherd who will not rest until He finds you. Come, and meet the woman who will do whatever it takes to make the lost her own.  Come and meet Jesus, still receiving sinners and eating with them until they are no longer just sinners but the sons and daughters of God.  The dead live.  The lost are found.  In Jesus’ name.

God give us our rights. . .

It seems that French President Emmanuel Macron has called for abortion to be added to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.  Speaking to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Jan. 19, Macron said that the rights charter needed to be revised.

“We must update this charter to be more explicit on the recognition of the right to abortion or on the protection of the environment,” he said.  He added: “Let us open up this debate freely with our fellow citizens ... to breathe new life into the pillar of law that forges this Europe of strong values.”

Macron may be reacting to what has happened in the US where the court decision establishing abortion has come under increasing attack and its point has been honed down by exception to Roe.  Or he could be acting to divert attention from the way COVID has been handled and the questions about the choices and decisions made in the management of the pandemic -- always a good political tool.  Or he could be sensing a moment with the prosecution of the Bible in Finland's trial for the words that dare not be spoken by God or anyone.  Perhaps none of these.  He could just be a true believer in the reproductive rights of women that allow a murder to protect an imagined sense of well-being.  Who knows?

What we do know is this.  The drive to protect abortion comes at a time in which Europe as a whole has been devastated by a low birthrate and the lack of young people to provide services, work in factories, and, dare I say it, take care of the aging populace.  The right to abortion has almost become a secondary issue to the predominant point of view that does not see either marriage or children as beneficial and certainly not essential.  You know the old expression.  When Europe gets an upset stomach, America gets gas.  So this discussion is not far from home for those who live on this side of the pond.  We have the same challenge.

Instead of serving a common cause, we claim individual rights, privileges, and benefits.  Instead of a social order, we seek places of refuge where we are insulated from harm, fear, threat, and challenge -- even by ideas.  Instead of a debate over issues, we find ourselves unable to speak without personal attack, ad hominem arguments, and straw men.  In the midst of all of this, the home and family has suffered greatly.  Marriage is no longer esteemed highly.  The majority of our children were not raised with both parents in their homes or in their lives.  Sex has become an amusement, relationships casual, and our most comfortable moments with our personal screens and ear buds.  I say this not to diminish the urgency with which we must address the drive to protect abortion rights but to warn against a larger battle over the heart and soul of our very humanity.  When we demand the right to murder the child in the womb on a whim and equate climate change with this cause, we have already made man an enemy to the creation God made for man, over which man was to exercise dominion.  Everyone with half a wit will admit that we have done nothing very well -- from the stewardship of the most precious gift of life to the management of God's good earth.  But that does not justify the right to extinguish ourselves to a footnote in the vast imagery of life nor does it excuse a rampant individualism that may turn society itself into an antiquated term.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Agism in the Church. . .

My 91 year old mother is a nursing home resident.  Several falls and memory issues created the need for her to have more care than could be supplied in the home where she lived for 51 years.  I fully regret the choice although I know of no other option available to my brother and me.  Her frail condition was made worse when she fell and broke her femur -- barely after a month there.  Her memory has deteriorated even more without the familiar surroundings and routine of her home and phone.  Although I have visited two different weeks and my brother is there to visit sometimes 2-3 times a week, we have been forced to schedule those visits and limit them due to COVID protocols and short-staffing.  Her sister-in-law was told to come back later -- after driving an hour to visit -- because my mother is napping.  Mom is 91 and does not have many days left.  I fear those days are being hastened and her life diminished by the was we treat the elderly and infirm.

It is no secret that nursing homes have become a dumping ground for people we no longer want to deal with -- not with their physical or mental frailty anyway.  Long before COVID turned them into incubators of death, nursing homes seldom improved the quality of the lives of our aged and inform parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  But we live in a world which values independence more than any other blessing and so we did what we thought was necessary for us, even if it proved to be less than salutary for our family members.  We told ourselves we were doing this for them.  Funny, if my mom fell at home (as she had a time or two before), she got a bruise or a bump.  On the hard surface of a nursing home dining hall, she broke the largest bone in her body.  Some have said we are killing our aged and infirm with kindness -- literally!

Though we structured assisting living facilities and nursing homes to benefit those frail in body or mind, we were the main beneficiaries.  They could be forgotten and we could be consoled in forgetting them because we were assured that they were being well cared for.  Now I am wondering if we are the ones who are suffering for the segregation of the aged into their homes with paid care-givers, assisting living centers, and skilled nursing facilities.  The loss of the older members of society to closed doors or institutions has left us without the voice and wisdom of many and, even more pointedly, left us with a false impression of what love is.  Love means being burdened and without a burden, it is arguable if there is truly love.

So what has the growing isolation of the aged done to the rest of us?  For one thing, it has deprived us of what it means to be family.  The nuclear family is a modern creation made possible by improved economics, medicine, and services designed for the child and the aged.  Just as we have shuffled off our children to day care where strangers raise our children, so we have packed up our aged and given their care over to people we do not know.  Without the children or the elderly around us, we thought they and we were better off.  Instead, such isolation and insulation has proven the poverty of programs designed to segregate people by age.  It is not simply that children and the aged need us, we NEED them.  

Could it be that the reason so many young people are questioning the need or value of marriage, children, and family is that they are the first fruits of a generation in which we were isolated in our homes, in our leisure hours, and even in Church?  Children and their growing fears and anxieties are proof positive that they need the voices, the touch, the wisdom, and the experience of those who have weathered the storms of life and still smile, laugh, hope, and pray.  The aged left to the sounds and smells of nursing home staffed with a minimum wage staff have taught us that memories and lives do not improve in such environments.  Now it is time for us to realize and affirm we are suffering from this self-imposed isolation.

If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you already know my feelings about Children's Church and the desire of some, even Lutherans, to segregate people according to age in worship, Sunday school, and Bible study.  The dangers of such segregation usually spoken with regard to failure to teach our children the liturgy -- a pedagogical fault.  But there are many other dimensions to the assignment of people according to age.  We already have built in dividers -- from time to preference.  The healthy Church, like a healthy family and community is multi-generational -- problems and all, of course, but also the benefit of wisdom, experience, and differing perspectives to all ages!

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The sacramental Word. . .

Lutherans are almost unique among the liturgical churches in confessing the sacramental character of Scripture.  At least I thought we were.  That is, until someone pointed me to the writings of Pavel Florensky who articulates the orthodox understanding of Scripture similarly to the Lutherans.

The apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel are often considered books. The Holy Gospel and the holy apostolic letters are not “books,” but rather moments of liturgical action, deriving from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edifying meaning, but one even more important — precisely an active, sacramental meaning.

Frankly, I grow weary of the conservative Protestant view of Scripture which guards the truth as if it were a thing but not a living one.  My problem is not with inerrancy -- Lutherans are adamant that Scripture is infallible and not simply in matters relating to salvation.  My problem is what we are left with.  The conservative Protestants believe in an inerrant Word that does nothing -- it is merely a fact or words on a page.  No Lutheran can be comfortable with such a view.  Inerrancy is not a judgment we make about Scripture but rather the character of the God whose words the Word is.  This God cannot lie.  Just as Satan cannot tell the truth and in telling the truth uses it to deceive or lie, neither can God deceive or lie or use the truth in any way except according to His own nature.  So for us the infallibility of the Word is not simply about Scripture but about the God who speaks Scripture.

On the other hand, liberal and progressive Protestants view Scripture as a principle, distinct from its actual words.  So that Scripture can say one thing in words and mean another.  As an example, the passages that address homosexual behavior may say one thing but their meaning must be played out against the context of love -- love that refuses to condemn and is truest when the person is true to self.  It is a game without a winner.  No one can know any truth except the momentary truth defined by the person.  To say Scripture is infallible here is to speak of something distinct from and aloof over the actual words themselves -- a principle of love.  Truth is unrelated to history, fact, or event -- even the Christ event of the cross is merely an example of love and not the actual love that redeems by His blood the sinner captive to sin and its death.  No wonder why liberal and progressive Protestants have abandoned the infallibility of Scripture since it has nothing really to do with the actual words on the page whatsoever.

Rome says many of the right things about Scripture but Rome treats Scripture as a possession exercised by an office and a church above Scripture, that defines what Scripture is, and that determines what Scripture says.  The sacramentality of the Word is not all that important in a church body in which an office and the holder of that office sit above the Word.  How important is a Word that does what it says when that Word is tethered to a man?  The other thing about Rome is its wholehearted embrace of higher criticism that creates a wedge between the Word as we know it and that Word as history, fact, and truth.  Rome has cozied up to the Protestants who have built a wall between the Jesus of Scripture and the Jesus of history for too long to trust what Rome says about the Word.  Yes, Benedict XVI has more faithfully expounded the role and character of Scripture than many of his recent predecessors but Rome has long ignored and conveniently forgotten what popes have said -- good and bad.  No, Lutherans are not immune from the failure to confess we were wrong but Rome is filled with contradictory teachers and teachings that make it hard to believe what Rome says about the Word even when what they are saying sounds good.  Not to mention the abysmal state of preaching within Roman Catholicism!

The confessional Lutheran stands almost alone and nearly unique in addressing Scripture not simply as words on a page in a book but as the living voice of God who does what He says through His speaking.  It is a sacramental Word, an efficacious Word, and a Spirit filled Word that holds us captive and brings forth faith in us.  That is why the liturgical context is primary for us -- we hear God in our ears and from that hearing faith is formed, nurtured, and nourished.  That Word is spoken over water to become baptism, addressed the penitent to absolve, and spoken to bread and wine that they might become the very flesh and blood of our Savior.  When we confess such a high view of preaching, we are not speaking of the preacher here but of the very character of that spoken Word -- it does what it says and delivers that of which it speaks.  Preaching is held in the highest regard among us and we tend to refer to the pastoral office as the preaching office precisely because this Word is sacramental.  No Lutheran in his right mind pits Word against Sacrament but every Lutheran worth his salt confesses the sacramental nature of the Word.  We value preaching not because of the quality of the information or inspiration being conveyed to the hearer but because that preached Word is Christ preaching and the preached Word conveys Christ.  Our Lutheran problem is not that we value preaching too highly but we have forgotten why we value it so -- preaching is a means of grace because the Word is and we preach the Word (Christ).  

All Western traditions have as their Achilles' heel the tendency to make the Word programmatic -- that is to see the Word in terms of the outcome and to define and structure preaching toward an outcome.  The same has been done for the Sacraments and the liturgy as well.  But worship, liturgy, preaching, and the Sacraments are not programs or programmatic.  They are sacramental -- we meet at the beckoning of the Lord who calls through His Word and gathers us in His presence (the Sacraments) so that we might see Him and know Him through these means of grace.  Perhaps that is why some of our people have come to content themselves with digital churches and screen worship and preaching -- because they neither expect nor receive Jesus through these means of grace.  And we have fed this misunderstanding by presuming the preaching has more to do with the preacher than with Christ and by presuming that the meaningfulness of what happens in the Divine Service is our judgment and not Christ and His gift.  By the way, this is the same problem with Bible studies that attempt to impart knowledge apart from Christ -- for apart from Christ it is merely curiosity about words and ideas that are powerless to affect us unless and until we decide they have meaning.

I will admit that I have not read anything by Florensky but that quote but I think he is getting at the problem that is endemic not simply to Protestantism but to most Western Christianity.  I only pray that we Lutherans are smart enough to realize that this fallacy of this inerrant and ultimately impotent Word is not who we are.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Praying Eucharistically. . .

Praying Eucharistically has come to be a discussion about a Eucharistic Prayer.  While they are truly and essentially related, they are not the same.  In fact, part of the problem lies with the fact that many Eucharistic Prayers belie the name and are not praying Eucharistically.  They are, like most of our prayers, requests for God to do something more than a remembrance or rehearsal of what God has done -- with the rejoicing and thanksgiving that are the Spirit driven response to what God has done.  I maintain that the problem with the Roman Canon as Luther knew it was that it was not all that Eucharistic.  It was, instead, filled with all kinds of language and petitions that vitiated against thanksgiving.  The priest was pleading with God to accept the sacrifice offered but God's people were not being bidden to be thankful for the sacramental grace of Christ and receive it with faith, eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.  The whole structure of the canon, even without the Roman form excised by Luther, is itself a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  It does not begin when people presume, when the Pastor begins to prayer, but rather begins with the preface.  It is the great call to give thanks and then the reason for this thanksgiving.  


P The Lord be with you.

C And also with you.


P Lift up your hearts.

C We lift them to the Lord.


P Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

C It is right to give Him thanks and praise.

The Lord be with you is the standard greeting of pastor to people and people back to pastor. We remember this from Ruth and David and the maidservant and Amos and Joshua and Paul (and others).  These are not preliminary or perfunctory words.  They are the beginning of the thanksgiving.  Then hearts up to the Lord.  And the call becomes more pointed:  Let us give thanks!  It is always right to give thanks -- because the Lord has always been gracious, merciful, giving, and forgiving.

Proper Preface

It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that, where death arose, there life also might rise again and that the serpent who overcame by the tree of the garden might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome. Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising You and saying:


Ah, now we have something to give thanks for -- Jesus Christ, who accomplished our salvation.  And how did He do it?  He who by a tree once overcame was by a tree overcome.  Wow.  The living tree of the Garden that become the tree of death meets its match in the dead wood of the cross (also a tree) which gives life -- life now and forever!  That is praying Eucharistically!  

At that, we sing.  We sing with thanksgiving.  Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might (Sabaoth).  Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.  That is Eucharistic song that even the heavenly voices cannot resist.  But we have barely begun.  Pray on!

P Blessed are You, Lord of heaven and earth, for You have had mercy on those whom You created and sent Your only-begotten Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. With repentant joy we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of His body and His blood on the cross.

Is there anything more profound to prompt our prayer or define it than Christ's one, all-sufficient sacrifice of His flesh and blood on the cross?  Can anything be added to this?  Of course not!  This is the height of the thanksgiving mountain.  And, if you will bear with me, this IS the place for the Words of Christ with which He instituted the Sacrament of His body and blood and by which His body and blood are present for us to be received with thanksgiving and in faith.


Then we hear the words of St. Paul:  For as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.  These Eucharistic words of the moment are the constant refrain of the people of God and the Church until He comes again.  Amen!  Come, Lord Jesus!  So here in this moment we echo the urgent prayer of the ages:  Maranatha!

P Gathered in the name and the remembrance of Jesus, we beg You, O Lord, to forgive, renew, and strengthen us with Your Word and Spirit. Grant us faithfully to eat His body and drink His blood as He bids us do in His own testament. Gather us together, we pray, from the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. Graciously receive our prayers; deliver and preserve us. To You alone, O Father, be all glory, honor, and worship, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


We are still praying Eucharistically.  We are praying that the body and blood of the Lord Jesus may have its way with us -- forgiving, renewing, and strengthening!  We pray that nothing will prevent His gift and grace from having its way with us.  We pray that what here we receive as foretaste will be our eternal food at that day of the Lord when the Church on earth and the Church in heaven are no longer separated by time and space but one and one forever with the Lord.  And, bear with me again, we give thanks to Him who makes this possible:  Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory are Yours, almighty Father, now and forever.  Amen!


There is only one thing left to do.  To rehearse again the acts by which God has delivered us.  And this the Pastor does while bidding us to pray as Jesus taught us:


P O Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, in giving us Your body and blood to eat and to drink, You lead us to remember and confess Your holy cross and passion, Your blessed death, Your rest in the tomb, Your resurrection from the dead, Your ascension into heaven, and Your coming for the final judgment. So remember us in Your kingdom and teach us to pray: 


C Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on  earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

There is the Eucharistic Prayer so feared by some and that is praying Eucharistically.  Would that we learn how to do this and I am confident the whole issue would be laid to rest for Lutherans.  Luther did not ever address such an evangelical Eucharistic Prayer nor did any of our Reformers over history (except the present day) and I am confident that no one could find fault with such a prayer in which Christ was so center and the Gospel so centrally proclaimed.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Let it be to me as You have said. . .

Blessed Mary, the virgin esteemed by the Father and called full of grace, contributed nothing to her salvation.  As she herself notes in the Magnificat, her soul and spirit rejoice in God her Savior.  She offers nothing to Him nor does she claim to be worthy or deserve His grace.  Rather, she admits her low degree and all the while affirming the goodness of the Lord whose gracious mercy is her hope and confidence.  As such she beckons to all who would follow her to join their voices with hers in praise of the God who saves His people.  She was not, however, an unbeliever or some kind of fence sitter prior to the encounter with the archangel.  She believed the Lord and lived as a child of the covenant of mercy He had established with His people.  She lived within the promise of the Lord to be the God of His people and of His people to know only this God.  The Law of the Lord was her delight, her joy, and her lamp to lighten the way of faith.  But when the angel spoke those words, the Blessed Mary became the model Christian and the model for all Christians.

Her question How can this be was less a query to the Lord to explain Himself then it was an admission that she had nothing to offer Him to make His Word true -- everything depended upon the Lord and His power to overshadow what she could not and make the impossible possible.  In that respect, her words teach us today in our own prayers not to demand from God explanations but to plead the poverty of our efforts and our understanding.  That is always the perspective of faith.  Faith acknowledges what we lack and pleads nothing but His mercy.  From Blessed Mary we learn the posture of faith and how to pray this posture before the Lord -- trusting, confessing, and pleading His mercy alone.

Though Blessed Mary contributed nothing to her salvation, she did offer to the Lord what she had for Him to complete His saving will and purpose.  She offered the Lord her consent and her body.  And this was enough for God to fulfill His words to her and to bring forth from her womb Him who would be her Savior and the Savior of the whole world.  In this respect, she cooperated with the Lord, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  And therein lies the second way Blessed Mary is a model Christian and a model for all Christians.

Like her we offer nothing to nor can we add to what God has done to save us.  It is His credit alone that we are saved and it is His deliverance that has broken the chains of sin and released us from its death.  No, it is a vain and futile endeavor to presume that we cooperate or contribute to our salvation.  But as the redeemed in whom the Holy Spirit has brought forth faith, we do cooperate with the Lord in our sanctification and in the works that glorify Him.  What we offer Him is nothing more than our consent and our bodies but it is also nothing less.  The amen of faith is not some small thing to be discounted but the very fruit of the Spirit's labor to bring forth within us the new people of His baptismal promise.  It is a word, to be sure, but not only one.  It is also the will surrendered to His own and the new desire of new hearts to belong to Him and for Him to work in us and through us according to His will and purpose.

So Blessed Mary teaches us to confess before the Father only Christ as Savior, to consent to His saving will and purpose under the guidance and power of the Spirit, and to offer Him all that we are and all that we have for His glory and all that we do for His benefit and glory.  For all that God has done and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, let us echo her words today and everyday:  Let it be to me as You have said.....

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Can I hear an Amen?

I think everyone loves a good collect.  I know I do.  There is one with good lineage, kept by the Reformers, rendered into eloquent English by Thomas Cranmer, and now shows up three times on our calendars in Lutheran Service Book.

Set originally for Trinity 7, it shows up now as the Collect for Trinity 6, for Proper 4A, and for Proper 8C.  A great prayer finds multiple uses, to be sure.  Well, a little history.  It comes to us from the Gelasian Sacramentary.  The book exists in several manuscripts, the oldest of which is an 8th-century manuscript in the Vatican Library, acquired from the library of Queen Christina of Sweden (thus MS Reginensis 316); in German scholarship this is referred to as the Altgelasianum, and is considered the sacramentary used by Saint Boniface in his mid-8th century mission on the European continent. This is the most important surviving Merovingian illuminated manuscript, and shows a synthesis of Late Antique conventions with "barbarian" migration period art motifs comparable to the better known insular art of Britain and Ireland. 

 In Latin, it prays:

Deus virtutum, cuius est totum quod est optimum, insere pectoribus nostris tui nominis amorem, et praesta, ut in nobis, religionis augmento, quae sunt bona nutrias, ac, vigilanti studio, quae nutrita custodias.

Literally it is rendered:

O mighty God of hosts, of whom is the entirety of what is perfect (best?), graft into our hearts the love of Your Name, and grant, that by means of an increase of the virtue of religion, You may nourish in us the things which are good, and, by means of vigilant zeal, guard the things which have been nourished.

Secretly I love this Collect in part for all of those who turn up their noses at the idea of religion.  Here we are praying for the true religion.  In any case, it is a wonderful prayer and reminds us always of the goal and fruit of the faith that lives in us today and forever.  Zeal for the things of the Lord and His house are the mark of good piety and the flowering of the Spirit at work in us from baptismal grace.  The faith we confess is not merely internal inclination but also creates external adornment in that which is good, right, true, beautiful, just, and right -- in accord with the Lord's own revelation of goodness in His commands.

 So we pray in Lutheran Service Book:

Lord of all power and might, author and giver of all good things, graft (sow or plant?) into our hearts the love of Your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of Your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The real . . .

It is increasingly difficult, dare I say impossible, for the world to distinguish truth from lies.  We live at a time in which deception is so regularly and effectively practiced that many have some to believe nothing of what they hear and very little of that which they see.  What is truth, as Pilate asked of Jesus, has become What is real?  The world has become to us a grand green screen on which we project what we like and then call that true and real.   We all look at, hear, and experience the same things but we see nothing, hear nothing, and experience nothing beyond our own judgment and preference.  Nothing is until we say it is and so reality has become merely a construct.

Our food is not real but manufactured for us.  We live not by our experience of reality but from the screens tuned to what we want or like.  The world has become a stage on which all of life is acted out as a production.  We are all claiming our moment in the spotlight and we are all imagining what we desire, value, and fear and then calling that our reality.  It was once said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but now there is no reality except that defined by and given existence by the beholder.

In this plastic reality, there is no Jesus except my Jesus.  There is no Bible except the word that I choose to hear and believe.  There is no morality except that which I judge.  There is no God except the one I define into existence.  Far from liberating anyone, this is the cruelest bondage of all.  It is no wonder that our children are filled with depression, despair, and desperation. We have handed them a canvas and told them to paint their own reality and they are at least smart enough to know that it is merely a painting and not real.  Worship has been emptied of its meaning and power because it conveys nothing real and its leaves us with nothing real -- except our feelings.

The end result in this is that Roman Catholics have decided that it is just bread and a ceremony that has no meaning or power or purpose except that which you assign to it.  So much for the real presence.  But lest any Lutherans laugh, we are right there.  When we closed our churches, we manufactured a sacrament of hermetically sealed drips of juice and bits of cracker, handed them out with sanitized hands, and told the people Jesus was in there somewhere.  In their desperation, they took these online sacraments, homemade means of grace, and priority mailed packages and prayed something was in them.  That is why even a sacramental church body is loathe to admit that this was a farce and a sham -- we said it was as real as it could get given the circumstances and now we don't want to admit we were wrong.

We are in a crisis of reality.  We no longer confess our sins but merely that we are sinners.  In this way nothing we think or say or do has to come under the scrutiny of the Law.  Instead we are happy to admit that we are under original sin and we feel no shame in it because nobody else has it any better.  Without real sins, there is no real Savior.  Jesus becomes a life coach and motivational guru helping us make the best of things but we have already sold out the cross by failing to admit sin and sold out the resurrection by making our peace with death.  We honestly cannot come up with any compelling reason why anyone would risk anything to believe or worship outside the safe zone of our feelings and preferences.  That is why we have so many who have not returned to in person worship, why so many drop out the back door of our churches, and simply fade their faith away without noticing.  We are in a crisis of reality.

If you want to be radical, why not confess the reality of water that has become a grave coughing up the dead or a womb delivering the dead to new and everlasting life?  Why not confess that sin is not only a condition we share but what we have thought, said, and done wrong and, owning those sins, mourn the death they have caused enough to repent and seek absolution?  Why not treat the Word of God as God's Word and not the words we put in the mouth of God to suit our own prejudices and preconceived ideas?  Why not bow down before the God who incarnates Himself in bread that is His flesh and wine that is His blood -- cleansing us from sin, imparting to us the medicine of immortality, and feeding us the foretaste of the eternal?  

Sin has turned everything into a fake, a lie, a deception, and a sham -- even our very humanity.  But a real God became real flesh to rescue us with a reality stronger than sin and not subject to the captivity of death.  The only reality the world can know is that reality God speaks, bestows, and delivers.  And the Church is the means of the means of grace -- giving reality to a people who have none.  Once the Church begins to address the world in this way, we might find a few more enemies and a few more friends.  Until this happens, we are irrelevant to a world which has decided the Gospel is fake news not worth bothering.  We are not simply going through the motions.  God is here!  The Church offers the world something more than a green screen on which we might project what we want or desire or fear.  The Church offers the world the only reality that is real.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A fond memory. . .

I want to take a moment to pay tribute to a dear and esteemed colleague and friend.  He is a man of many accomplishments.  He is a lawyer who established his own practice, who was elected commonwealth attorney, and served as a federal judge.  And while all of this was happening, he was husband to one wife and father of two daughters.  Though no spring chicken, he did not quite believe that God was finished with him.  He went to seminary and learned Greek and got his masters.  This man of many honors served an ordinary vicarage in a small parish and I was privileged to be his bishop.  Then when plans for his ordination were compromised by COVID, I got to be literally his bishop -- ordaining him to what we often call the highest of all offices -- Pastor.  He was ordained on this day in 2020 and installed as Pastor of his first parish.  Who would begin their ministry as the shadow of a pandemic was cast over a world, a nation, a state, and a congregation.  He did.  During those terrible weeks and months when we did not know if we or the parishes in our charge would survive, this man saw the opportunity to build and not merely to preserve.  The parish survived a governor who wanted to shut down everything and a people constantly bombarded by fear.  It is by no small measure the accomplishment of this man whom I am privileged to know and love.  When illness brought this call to an end and forced a move he had not anticipated, this many cheerfully accepted what must be done and sought to serve the Lord and care for his family.  It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to preach at his ordination, to lay hands on him, to place upon him the stole and chasuble of the office, and to assist him as he celebrated the Holy Eucharist for the first time.  Whatever the future will bring, I know he will serve the Lord's will willingly.  He is one of my favorite people and I cannot tell you how much I have learned from him.

Happy Ordination Anniversary Pastor Richard Neely Owen