Thursday, June 30, 2022

The way we operate. . .

I have a little experience with things like bylaws and constitutions.  But, to be frank, I do not think rules can be used to change things.  Rules follow us; they don't lead us.  I do believe that if we have rules, we ought to follow them and if we don't like them, we ought to change them.  It is very disappointing to me that we have so many rules that we do not follow and everyone seems to be good with not following them.  Why do we keep them if we don't follow them?  If we don't want to follow them, would it not be better to change them to rules we do want to follow?

Unlike some folks, I do not believe that the structures we have chosen to govern ourselves as churches are absolutes, written on stone by God, and brought down the mountain by a prophet.  We decide most of them.  No, we cannot forego pastors but having teachers or DCEs or one of the other commissioned offices we have decided to have is a choice we make -- not an edict from God.  While I think that having  bishops is more Biblical than not, I do not find the kind of definition we commonly attach to bishop today laid out in Scripture.  It is probably more true that every pastor of every congregation is closer to a bishop in the way the New Testament ordered things than a regional administrator like bishops are today.  I have read plenty of arguments to dispute this where the writer insists upon a different charism for bishop and priest.  Today, maybe but not in the parlance of Scripture or the common order of the early church.  

Districts or not, dioceses or not, well, this is plainly up to us.  What is not up to us is the business of ecclesiastical supervision of doctrine and practice.  The rest is something we decide and if we all agree, we make into the rules that govern us.  Matters of jurisdiction are more choice and tradition (in the sense that is the way we have always done it) than Biblical mandate.  But folks can get pretty caught up in it all and love to make rules about it that presume they have their origin in God.  The rules that govern us have power because we agree to be governed by them.

One example is the idea that what happens in worship ought to reflect doctrinally pure orders.  I believe that this is certainly true but nobody seems to know how to apply it.  In my church body it has a constitutional and bylaw expression but that seems to have little affect upon what a local congregation decides to do.  That is my issue.  If we don't believe it is true, change it.  But don't leave it there for everyone to see and then ignore it with a wink and a nod.  We love to do just that.  When you sub in a parish somewhere and they tell you we just follow the hymnal but then you get a couple of pages single spaced showing how they deviate from the hymnal and its rubrics, well, then you know.  We think we are following the rules but we don't follow the rules we don't like.

I wish we talked about doctrine as much as we talked about rules.  It does not seem to matter if you are called a District President in the LCMS or a bishop in the Episcopal Church or a pope in Rome, we are quick to throw rules at a problem that is really theological more than it is procedural.  Maybe we just might hear the last of some of the embarrassing or scandalous things we do if approached a doctrinal problem doctrinally.  Maybe if we talked doctrinally more often, we would not have such embarrassing lapses as apple juice in communion cups or online sacraments.  But, it doesn't seem like we will abandon our penchant for making rules and then ignoring them.  Sadly, we have doctrines that are well attested in Scripture and heralded in tradition and we don't pay full attention to them either.  If Adam and Eve had operated as we do, they would have merely told God that the rules don't apply to them.  Perhaps, that is exactly the problem of Eden and of Christianity today.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

To fear, love, and trust. . .

Although I was guilty of it early on, I have come to detest those who would suggest that fear disappears for the faithful.  The passage perfect love casts out all fear has been used too often to dismiss the holy fear that proceeds not from the guilty heart that does not want to be exposed or punished for what is hidden but rather from the heart that kneels in humble awe of God's mercy.  The truth is that we do not stand with God but before Him and the posture of faith is not to stand as equals but to kneel in submission.   This proceeds not from the worry that God may squash us (and rightfully so) but from the surprise of grace that lifts the humble and forgives the sins of the guilty penitent.  Too many of us want faith to be a don't worry, be happy mentality; this is not faith.

The pandemic proved our hearts are prone to fear but to fear the wrong things.  Jesus insists that we are not to fear those who can kill the body but the One who can kill body and soul.  He does not suggest that fear has no place in faith but faith is fear rightly placed -- the holy fear that never forgets God is God and we are not and cannot begin to fathom what would move such a God to redeem such a guilty, insolent, and shameful people.  In the pandemic we were quick to give up everything to fear -- from the place where we worship to the places where we shopped, ate, and even worked.  God is not at work in such a fear.  It is a fear that is first of all misplaced and a fear that cripples instead of a rightly placed fear that sets free.

As so many others have said, if we fear God and kneel before Him we need fear no one and nothing and can stand before everything.  If the Lord is our focus, we have no crippling fear that the good things of this life might be stolen from us or we might endure suffering before entering into glory or we might have to pay a cost for bearing the name of Christ in a world at odds with Him and His purpose.  In Christ we no longer fear the threats of this world and its evil masters nor do we fear the judgment of God.  Such a servile fear is cast out by love.  But instead we have a filial fear -- the fear of being cut off from Him who loved us even to death and the fear of that which offends such redemptive love.  It is holy because it does not drive us away from God but into His loving arms.  It is not opposed to faith but the rightful fruit of faith inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We do not fear God as an unknown but because we know the Lord we meet Him in the holy fear of faith.  The Spirit has not given us a fear as a slave to his master but the holy fear of a son or daughter to their loving Father (Romans 8:15).  Ours is a fear that comes from an appreciation of the divinely bestowed gifts of grace unearned and unmerited.  What wondrous love is this?  I am not worthy, Lord, to enter Your House or for You to enter mine.  In this familiar hymn and in this communion prayer we meet this holy fear -- not so much defined as expressed.

We seem inclined to reduce God to the status of a buddy or pal when the rightful posture of faith never forgets that God is God and we are not.  Just as we do not aspire to be Him, neither do we presume He is like us.  It is this posture that faith teaches and we learn.  We are not the children born of right but the adopted children born of grace.  We are not the impatient awaiting an inheritance we presume was ours all along but we live in joyful anticipation of the largess of His grace bequeathed to those without any right except what He has given.  Nowhere is this more clear than when we reduce worship to an event designed either to amuse us or entertain God.  It is neither.  We do not worship for the entertainment of our souls and we do not worship God to appease Him or prove to Him that He made a worthy choice to redeem us.  We worship Him to receive His gifts.  Christ and His gifts are what bids us come into His presence, what we are given not as our due but His generosity, what moves our praise, and what we have to proclaim to the world.

Luther got it exactly right in the first words of the explanation of every commandment.  We are to fear, love, and trust in God.  Everyone of those words fits and each fits together to define what faith is.  Does God wants us to call Him Daddy and curl up in His lap or approach Him on the holy ground that admits we have no right to be there except the Lord bids us come?   Where this holy fear does not live, faith does not live either.  Because we know God's mercy beyond our worth and His sufficient grace beyond all reason, “we have the confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:19-23).  Having an awareness of what Christ accomplished for us, we dare never be casual about such a God or such a love as God has revealed in His Son's death and resurrection.  God will not be our toy but He never ceases to be our God and our Savior.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Not alone in Christ's Church...

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich, his last sermon as Associate Pastor, Sunday, June 26, 2022.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.
    There’s an ironic phenomenon in our highly technological and digital age.  Now more than ever, we have the ability to be connected with just about anyone.  Within mere seconds and with very little effort, we can be talking to someone on the opposite side of the world.  Space is no longer a hindrance.   We can see our family and friends anytime we want with video chats.  But even with this constant and immediate contact, it seems more and more people are feeling isolated and alone.  This can even be felt in the Church.  We can be sitting right next to family and friends in a full sanctuary and still feel alone.  But no matter what you’re feeling, you’re never alone in Christ’s Church.  Your Lord, He is always present; preserving you and His Church through His Word and in Sacraments.  And you, you’re always connected to your brothers and sisters in Christ, even when you’re apart. 
    We often get the idea that since we’re part of God’s Church that everything is going to be fine and dandy for us: we’ll never suffer need, we’ll always get along with everyone, life will simply be wonderful.  But this kind of prosperity gospel isn’t proclaimed anywhere in Scripture.  In fact, what our Lord says about following Him is completely different.  There’s a cost of discipleship.  There’s a cost to following Him.  And in the Gospel reading today, we hear Jesus talk about that cost. 
   One man came up to Jesus and said he’d follow Him wherever He went.  But our Lord revealed that this man wasn’t ready for that cost of discipleship, because it’d mean giving up the security of an earthly home, not even having a hole or nest to live in like the animals.  Jesus is very clear here.  If you think material blessings and prosperity will come your way because of the faith, then you’re greatly mistaken.  If our Lord had nothing, what makes us think then that His followers will have more?  Faith in Christ is no guarantee of earthly riches.  And in some cases, faith in Christ leads to a loss of riches.
    But it’s not just the material things that we’re devoted to that we might have to give up for the Lord.  Sometimes the cost is our relationships.  When Jesus called the second and third men to follow Him, they said they’d go, but first they had to go back home to bury their father and say goodbye to their family and friends respectively.  Neither of these things were bad in and of themselves.  In fact, honoring parents, including caring for their burial, that’s something Jesus encourages in the Gospel.  And of course, there’s nothing wrong with saying goodbye to family and friends.  So Jesus isn’t saying that we shouldn’t do these things.  What He’s addressing though is that following the Lord isn’t based on our own terms.  These men tried to set their own conditions for following Christ, but that’s not how it works. We don’t get to set our own terms.  We don’t get to decide for the faith.  Our Lord calls, and we follow.
    Following the Lord can come at a cost, and that cost may even be our relationships.  We all know of times when divisions arise between friends and family because of the faith.  And yet, at the same time, when we follow the Lord, relationships aren’t just lost, they’re gained; new relationships based on the everlasting life of Christ.  One of those relationships the Lord graciously gives is that between His people and pastors.  
    I’ve been greatly blessed by the Lord since He called me to be the Associate Pastor here 7 years ago.  When I was deciding to go to the seminary, Katie and I knew there'd be the chance that I could be placed anywhere in the country.   And so, part of the decision to go to Fort Wayne was so that we could be closer to family a little bit longer.  After that call night, when Grace Clarksville, TN was announced, we knew we wouldn’t be able to see our family as much as we had in the past.  That was the cost of following the Lord’s call.  But He knew what He was doing.  He was bringing me here to you, creating new relationships based on the love of Christ.  And since day one, you’ve all welcomed us into God’s family here.  
    We’ve been able to celebrate life’s joys together: births and Baptisms, including those of my girls; graduations and weddings; new jobs; the list could go on and on.  And we’ve been together through the sorrows of life too, praying for each other and supporting each other.  This is part of God’s plan for us, to live in relationship with one another.  In the Garden, He said it wasn’t good for man to be alone, so He created Eve, He created family.  That family He is established in His Son, and it will never be broken.  
   The reason why total strangers can come into the church and be treated as family right away is because of the love of Christ.  They say blood is thicker than water, but the blood of Christ, shed on the cross for your forgiveness and the water of Baptism that gives you new life, that is thicker still.  God brings you into His holy family.  He unites us all into one.  And He will forever keep you and this family secure, even when you feel alone; just as He did for Elijah.
   Elijah thought he was all alone.  He thought he was the only one left who trusted in the Lord.  And in that loneliness he despaired and had no hope.  But he wasn’t alone.  The Lord was there with him, and the Lord was preserving His Church; 7,000 others in Israel who still followed Him alone.  
The Lord continues to preserve you and His Church today.  Through His Word and Sacrament; through the Gospel of Christ, His very death and resurrection for you and your salvation, the Lord preserves His Church.  He gathers you together into the family of Christ, and in this family, you’re never alone.  
    It’s hard to deal with feelings of loneliness.  It’s hard to say goodbye to family and friends.  It’s hard when the cost of following Christ is personal relationships.  But in Christ you have an everlasting relationship with your Lord and with your Brothers and Sisters in Christ.  You’re never alone in Christ’s Church.  He’s always with you.  His saints are always with you.  And together we celebrate His forgiveness, life, and salvation; even when we’re separated by space and time.  In Jesus’ name…Amen. 

Ecumenism may be dead. . .

As we all know the Lutherans who united in 1988 have since divided and the number of those who bled off the church body outnumber those who are now counted by the ELCA or the two bodies made up of those who left.  The United Methodists are now working on disuniting -- just a matter of who gets the assets and how to deal with the kids.  The Reformed are also dividing up the spoils and set to go their own way.  As we all know the Anglicans are fighting more over real estate than doctrine or faith both in the remnant of the Episcopal Church and the ACNA.  Now the Germans have come up with Der Synodal Weg as a means of making Rome more local and less international -- just under a hundred bishops have written a fraternal letter begging to disagree.

Some may continue to harbor hopes and dreams of a vast ecumenical enterprise but most of us see that the dream is dead -- long live the dream.  It was surely flawed from the get go but what really killed it was the lack of doctrine.  Without a strong consensus on what is believed in a specific and positive sense, there is little urgency to get together or stay together.  Replacing dogma with morality and tilting that toward the liberal or progressive side only muddied the water even more -- forcing those who wanted to swim out of the pool.  It is hard to be sad about it all and I fear that the ecumenical movement may have inadvertantly or overtly contributed toward the fracture of Christianity that is the new normal.

Ecumenism was never our job.  Faithfulness was.  As I have often opined, the job of the Lutheran is to be the best Lutheran you can be, the Methodist to be the best Methodist, the best Roman Catholic to be the best Roman Catholic....  Because if what we say is true, that means reflecting in doctrine believed, in faith confessed, and in practice lived the fullest and most faithful witness to the Scriptures possible.  Every church body says they listen to Scripture and reflect its voice as best they can.  But if we did, there would be a whole lot more unity and a whole lot less division.  So it helps no one, certainly not Christ, to sit down and negotiate away the faith as if a little give and take here and there can effect what the Holy Spirit cannot.  What fools we are!

The most important unity is one we already have.  Born of baptismal water, we are adopted not into many but one family.  We are born anew by the one Spirit.  One Lord, one faith, one baptism -- I think I read that somewhere.  It may not be reflected in an organizational unity that has a common address for our joint headquarters building but it counts for more than that.  It is this divinely appointed unity that unites not simply the diverse who live now but the voices of the past who echo in our hearts as we would echo into the ear of those yet to come.  The rest of the unity that we should have is a unity we should work for but not as a compromise.  Rather it is the fruit of a constant and urgent effort to hearken to the voice of God's Word and to reflect that Word as fully as is possible in the present, so as to stand in the long line of witnesses before us and to pass on as faithfully as possible what was delivered to us.  Perhaps the best the negotiation table can do is to force us to remember who we are and to reflect that identity by finding ourselves in God's Word.  If it does that, all well and good.  But we are holding out a false hope that people will find a perfect compromise that enables the fractures to melt into a semblance of unity.

I certainly do not regret the passing of the once vibrant but essentially flawed ecumenical vision.  I do not think this justifies ignoring those with whom we share a common confession or discussions with those with whom we do not.  But our primary enterprise was and always will be to proclaim the Gospel, in season and out, that those who hear may believe and believing may have eternal life in Christ.

Monday, June 27, 2022

What does accreditation really mean?

The accreditation of schools from preschool through seminary has been both blessing and curse to those schools.  The purpose of accreditation is a certain level of uniformity of standards to give integrity to the degrees granted by those institutions.  Accreditation is the recognition from an accrediting agency that an institution maintains a certain level of educational standards.  It is not required and purely voluntary -- at least on the surface.  The reality is that accreditation bestows access to federal and state funding, establishes a certain level of confidence in the institution within the private sector and among peer schools, and makes transferring credits from one institution to another much easier.  In this respect it is hard to say that it is entirely voluntary since it could mean that a degree cannot be financed and will not be recognized without accreditation.

There are three usual types of accreditation: national, regional, and specialized accreditation that apply to academic programs.  Here this process involves non-governmental entities (accrediting organizations) as well as federal and state government agencies (together these three entities are formally known as the Triad).  The accrediting agencies look at much more than curriculum.  These include: mission, goals and objectives; faculty; curriculum and instruction; students; research; extension and community involvement; library; physical facilities' labs; and administration.  It is supposed to be quality assurance but it ends up being much more than this.  In the end, accreditation also involves the shaping of the curriculum, values, and practices of the institutions it accredits.  It also dictates who may enter and who may not.  Nowhere is this more true than with the seminaries; where once we had the freedom to choose, now accreditation means that a baccalaureate degree is a minimum standard and few may enter a seminary without it.

Accrediting agencies do not simply attest to the standards of excellence of the academic and practical aspects of a particular school, they also apply the commonly held standards of other institutions and current values and patterns in educational thinking as they accredit those institutions.  In other words, they do not simply make a judgment about the academic standing of a school but also have something to say about how that school operates, who its faculty might be, and what policies might govern that institution's life.

The current situation among the Concordias of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has something to do with accreditation.  The woke values that are currently in vogue among the elite universities of America are also being thrust upon our small schools and the threat that forces some of this is accreditation, access to money, and the adjusted value of their degrees.  Long before there was a woke idea or culture, there was a push to drive our schools that came not from the LCMS or even from the students there but from an educational culture with values applied by accrediting agencies.  Our two year system of junior colleges soon was replaced with a four year college that resulted in the closing of two schools (Winfield, KS and Concordia, MO) and contributed to the disruption and closing of our system of preparing pastors (and the closing of Concordia Senior College).  The decisions to enroll non-synodically trained students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and to compete for students from among the synodically trained pool of the Concordia colleges at Concordia Theological Seminary (then Springfield) radically reshaped how we train, judge, certify, and even recruit pastors for the church.

We did this somewhat naively thinking that this was in our best interest as a church body as well as in the best interest of our students and the mission of the Concordias to train church workers.  But was it in the best interests of all of these?  We cannot turn back the clock but we can learn some lessons from our past.  Right now our universities are competing for students on a grand scale and not simply for Lutheran young men and women, trying to stay alive amid the cut throat business of student recruitment, mission definition, raising of money, and recruitment of faculty.  We left them pretty much on their own because we thought we could trust their leaders, we did not have the time or money to manage them more closely, and we did not realize how much they would change when church worker preparation no longer dominated those campuses -- AND we did not anticipate the influence accreditation would have on their very identity.

While this history cannot be undone, we ought to learn that there are tradeoffs along the way.  Even the seminaries are not without the influence of the accrediting agencies -- although there it is easier to counter that pressure.  There is no easy path -- not ever -- to the careful management of God's resources for His purpose.  I hope we have learned our lesson and, as a former president said, trust but verify is the only credible path forward.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Luther wasn't a real pastor. . . back by popular demand

The things that a pastor must endure today are things that many clergy and especially those of a previous era did not have to deal with.  Can you imagine what Luther would have said to a family upset with him or the fact that he did not have a praise band or screens or that the coffee was cold and the pews were hard?  Can you imagine what Luther might have said in response to a family withholding their tithes and offerings until the changes they want were introduced?  Can you imagine how Luther might have responded to the threat that they were heading down the street to a big box evangelical church that had a better youth sports program or better technology for online viewing?  Can you imagine the things Luther would have said to a family who was going to vote to reduce your salary or take away health insurance because it was costing the church too much?  Can you imagine what the result might be if Luther had been told soon after his call to a congregation that's not the way we do things around here... we have our own liturgy, our own creed, our own etc....?

Luther was not a real pastor in the sense that we pastors are today who must function within the confines of congregations that want to vote more on the Word of God and the faithful practice of our Confession than they do the important things that are within their realm of vocation.  Luther was not a real pastor in the sense that we pastors are today who must take a deep breath and think how we are going to respond to people accustomed to getting their own way by the strategic use of their offerings and the never spoken but ever present threat to leave and head down the street to a more flexible church and confession.  Yet the reality is that we deal with these things on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.  Far from the pandemic being the chief stressor to burn out the clergy, it is more often the daily demands of a calling that has suffered more under the presence of a social media than it has gained -- all balanced with the responsibilities to wife and family.  

Let me say this.  Most congregations are wonderful and supportive and understanding and encouraging.  I am privileged to have counted on that from the parishes I have served (though it is a relationship which is not automatic, must be cultivated, and also depends upon the pastor being faithful).  But the reality is that the squeeze of dollars, patience, pressures, preference, and choice have made the calling of pastor much more difficult in many ways.  I am glad that I am not serving when horse and buggy were the height of technology and the median mode of travel but I also believe that the pace and expectations of the people and of pastors were different.  I cannot imagine Luther having to put up with some of what the times have dumped upon us -- at least not without a fight.  But these are the times in which we live.  

God never promised that the way would be easy -- only that HIS burden would be light.  He never pledged to us a scenic journey along a broad boulevard -- only that Christ would cut the narrow path and be with us every step toward eternity.  We long ago bought into the satanic lie that the work would be satisfying, rewarding, and easy and it would come with tangible victories that saw progress in the battle for geography.  But it was never a battle for territory and always for the soul.  We long ago began to think that the Word of God was not sufficient and it had to be supplemented with programs (that had only a marginal association with the Word) -- so now we should complain that people bought into the lie we told them?  We long ago decided that statistics would define our success and not faithfulness and so we adopted business methods to go along with our business expectations.  We long ago began to think of people more as consumers of religious goods and programs more than the faithful, born of baptismal miracle, gathered by the Word, absolved in the stead of Christ, and fed and nourished to eternal life with Christ the true manna.

Luther had a different battlefield but it was the same battle.  Ours is, too.  We need to let go as much of our false dreams and expectations as we let go the complaints and demands that come to us.  It was and is always about Christ, His faithfulness to count on and our faithfulness to return.  It is the same on both sides of the altar rail.  Yes, we all love to complain but we cannot complain that God has let us down.  He is faithful.  He will do it.  It is from this that faith and our vocations proceed.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it -- on this Anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession!

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Before we celebrate. . .

It is a good thing and one for whom many prayers have been prayed but the overturning of Roe v. Wade has not and will not end abortion.  Each state will now decide and different states will decide differently, this is true.  But abortion has never only been a battle over an invented right.  It has always been a battle for the cause of life -- not only the unborn but every life.  It has always been a battle to make sure that we do not make certain lives the scapegoats we punish because we find their lives inconvenient or burdensome.  It has always been a battle for hearts that seem to crumple all moral supports in the face of desire and to live the lie that sex has always been mostly about pleasure and only incidentally about children.  We would do well that a court can give and take away such rights and that this battle is far from over.  Instead of being haughty, we should be modest in celebrating this victory.  Our work is not done and the cause has not yet been one.  If even one child dies in order to clean up a mess in the life of a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, it is one life too many.

Some have suggested that this is less about babies than about trying to control a woman's body.  There is no denying that every law that protects the vulnerable from the whims of the strong is an attempt to control or restrain those who would without a second thought end a life to make their life easier.  But what is too often forgotten is that the control that abortion seeks to put in place is a control that both the woman and the man overrode in order to succumb to their desires.  Desire cannot be the basis of law or right or we are all at risk.  None of us is so strong that we could not or would not be victims of those more powerful than we are.

Some have said that if we put as much effort into aiding the mother in her often solitary responsibility for the child conceived outside of marriage as we have fighting Roe, we might not need an abortion law at all.  How foolish.  Would anyone presume that the pregnancy centers all around that do offer counseling, material, and emotional support to the mother considering a way out of her pregnancy all receive government support?  Of course, the same churches and church members who march for life are the ones who pull out their wallets to make sure that this is not simply about a baby but a life, from beginning to end, acknowledged as sacred and a gift from God and supported into eternal life.  At one point in time churches covered every aspect of a child born outside of marriage -- not without error or evil to be sure -- but today the government has made it impossible to maintain the honest confession and abide by the rules set down from on high.

My own parish expects to send in excess of $5,000 to our local Pregnancy Center -- and this for one fundraising effort.  Our people volunteer there and we support a whole host of parachurch aid and relief organizations to make sure tit is not simply a vocal but shallow support of those who have no place to turn.  And we will continue to be there working, by the grace of God, to deal with the need as well as the outcome of our attention to the sacred task of caring for all life in our Savior's name.

Choice. . .

We are all about choice.  It is more important that we get to choose than even what we choose.   We cannot be held accountable for things in which we had no choice, can we?  Or can we!  Think about this and how the ability to choose has become the very heart of what it means to be free.  On the other hand, think about how any constraint on our choices has become the very definition of what it means to be in bondage or to live in an unjust world.  But is it that simple?

In the wake of a Supreme Court opinion that most certainly only adds to the great divide we have as a nation and people on the subject of abortion, choice is what is seen at the crux of the matter.  Can a court or states take away our right to choose?  In the midst of a world of gender fluidity, neither DNA nor biology can speak to the gender that is our choice today.  Does anyone have the right to challenge or question how we feel in this moment?  In the debate over marriage and cohabitation or a hook up culture, the society no longer is able or wants to place values upon the choices and so nothing is right or wrong until the person making the choice renders the judgment of an individual upon a choice in the moment.  I could go on and on.  Freedom is the highest value of all and it manifests itself mostly in the arena of choice -- my choice.

In the Church this question has made it hard for us to say anything with any certainty.  Jesus is your choice and with that choice comes the right to choose the Jesus who fits your mold.  The Church itself is a choice -- whether to belong or attend or what happens in it.  Scripture becomes a choice of what appeals to you or you find relevant to your preference or context.  It is as if the only thing that matters is the freedom to choose -- not even the actual choices you make but only your right and autonomy to choose for you -- a choice that everyone is expected to honor, respect, and condone.  But that is the point, isn't it?

For freedom Christ has set you free -- sounds great.  But what does it mean?  Are we free to choose to belong or not, to attend or not, to pray or not, etc...?  Are there any limits on the freedom for which we have been set free?  If you look at Scripture, you see that we are not free do do what we please or to do nothing at all but free to live as God's own, according to His Word and will, doing the good works we have been set free to do, so that we may display now the eternity that is ours in Christ.  Does Scripture ever use freedom within the context to do as we please along with the presumption that everything is good and right and equal?  Unless there are no letters of St. Paul in your Bible, you cannot possibly arrive at this conclusion.  Freedom is not an ultimate value at all but only a means to a greater end -- to live as the servants of Him who served us even to death upon a cross.

A while back I inadvertently fired up a storm of controversy by suggestion that God wants us to go to Church.  It is hardly something I would have thought controversial but it turned out people thought Jesus did not care who we were are or what we say or do except and insofar as it makes us feel good.  So freedom is the ultimate value and anything that might constrain that freedom to choose is inherently wrong.  So let me stir the pot some more.  Does God give us the freedom to choose not to be holy or loving?  Are these not the expectations and fruits of the freedom Christ has given us at the cost of His own blood?

My body, my choice is hardly a Christian statement.  We are not our own.  We have been bought with a price.  We belong to the Lord.  The life we live is not our own but Christ living in us and through us.  We are given marriage and family as a gift -- not as a puzzle to design to fit our preferences.  Marriage and family are not merely options available to us by choice but the essential order reflected in our creation by God and renewed in His redemption.  A child is not a choice.  A child is a gift of God, a sacred duty and responsibility.  To discard what is God's gift is to choose freedom over the choice and to artificially label and determine that every choice is an equal one and every one autonomous to choose what is right in his or her own eyes.  But that is defined as the arrogance of sin -- everyone did what was right in their own eyes was neither freedom nor nobility but the worst captivity and the ultimate surrender of our noble lives to that which is not only common but demeaning.

Don't believe the lie that freedom means choice and choice is the most important component of freedom.  Jesus tells us that there is a value higher than freedom -- the surrender of godly right for loving purpose in His own life as one who came not to be served but to serve and give His light as a ransom for many.  The most we focus on freedom and choice, the worse the chafing of the chains of sin wears into our flesh and souls to make low what God has worked so hard to renew and make great.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Wanting the Demonic, Fearing the Godly. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7C, preached on Sunday, June 19, 2022, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  
    The Gospel reading for today is probably one of Christ’s most famous exorcisms.  Of all the people Jesus freed from unclean spirits, we remember this one the most because of all the shocking details.  There’s a naked man who lives among the tombs and is strong enough to break chains.  There’s not just one unclean spirit, but a legion of demons; and when Christ calls them out, they enter into a herd of pigs that then rush down a steep hill and drown in a lake.  This is something out of a modern day horror movie that we watch for fearful enjoyment.  But the people who witnessed it all happening, they didn’t get enjoyment from it.  They were afraid, truly afraid. 
    If I were a citizen of that town and I saw that man running around the tombs naked, I’d be afraid.  If I saw that herd of pigs out of nowhere all run to a watery death, you’d bet I’d be afraid; and you’d be too.  But that wasn’t what the townspeople were afraid of.  They were afraid of Jesus!  Luke tells us that when the townspeople heard and saw what happened, when they “found that man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid” (Lk 8:35).  They were so afraid that they asked Jesus to leave.  Does that mean they weren’t afraid before when the man was possessed by demons, running around naked, breaking chains?  Apparently not.  They must’ve gotten comfortable with that sight.  And seeing this, the townspeople’s comfort with the demons, we need to ask ourselves, “Do we get so comfortable with the demonic and ungodly that the holy things of God frighten us?” 
    When we think of the demonic, we picture the things of horror movies.  Scenes from The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, and all the Saw films come to our minds.  Even if we haven’t seen these movies personally, we all still know about them.  And since that is what we associate with the demonic, we limit the demonic to these things: gratuitous and senseless violence, things of the occult and black magic, Satan worship.
These are certainly demonic and should be avoided.  But the demonic isn’t just limited to these kinds of things.  In fact, the demonic can appear quite harmless, even praised in our culture and society.  For example, in the hymn we just sang (LSB 541:4), pride and greed are called demonic; but our world praises them as good.  We think greed is a motivating thing that drives us to succeed.  But greed comes from covetous desires, and covetousness is idolatry, it’s false worship (Col 3:5).  It leads us away from God, and therefore it’s demonic.  For something to be demonic then, that means it’s from Satan and it’s goal is to lead us away from the Lord and His life.  
    Our world, it is so filled with sin and the demonic, that we get used to it; we get comfortable with it.  And at times, we even desire it.  And because we get used to it, comfortable with our sin, we fear the holy things of God. 
We fear repentance.  We fear coming before our Lord to confess our sins.  But why?  Why are we afraid of God’s forgiveness and the freedom He gives?  …  We’re afraid because if we need God’s forgiveness, that means we’re not sufficient in ourselves.  We’re afraid because we know we deserve the judgment of death.  We’re afraid because if the pastor or anyone else finds out about our sin, what we do when no one is looking, what we think quietly in our heads, well then, people will look at us differently.  We’re afraid because we doubt God’s promised forgiveness.  And so, instead of confessing our sin, we choose to ignore it.  We self-justify.  We convince ourselves that our sin isn’t all that bad, especially when we compare it to others.  But this is demonic.  This is from Satan.  This is what He wants.  He wants you to be afraid of repentance.  He wants you to fear confessing your sins.  He wants you to feel unworthy.  And he wants you to self-justify, because when you do that, you stay away from God.  But God wants you to come to Him with repentance.  He wants you to confess your sins, so that you’ll receive His forgiveness and be set free.  
With faith, there’s no terror to stand before God and say “I am a poor miserable sinner.”  With faith, there’s no terror to confess your sins comitted in thought, word, and deed, because you have God’s promised love and forgiveness, sealed in the blood of Chrsit, shed on the cross.  
Christ’s crucifixion, that’s something from a horror movie.  Our Lord was sadistically beaten, nailed to the cross, and tortured for hours.  That isn’t something that’s easy to think about.  I’ve only seen The Passion of Christ movie once because of how hard it is to watch those scenes.  But Christ willingly suffered all of that for you.  He willingly endured all of that for you to set you free from your demonic sin that possesses you.  Just as He freed that Gerasene man, He’s freed you.  He’s freed you for a life that isn’t controlled by sin and death.  He’s freed you for a life that isn’t controlled by terror and fear.  He’s freed you for a life that is everlasting, a life that is lived in His righteousness.
    Before Jesus left that town, the man whom He freed of that legion of demons, he came to Jesus and begged to follow Him.  Freed of the demonic, He wanted the godly.  He wanted to go with the Lord.  But Jesus sent him back to the town instead.  He said, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Lk 8:39).  Jesus sent that man back home so that he could live the free and godly life that Christ gave to him.  And he did.  He went throughout the city telling everyone what Jesus had done.  And the Lord calls us to do the same. 
    In our following of the Lord, He tells us to go and declare how much God has done for us.  He tells us to live the free godly life that He’s given to us, to live out His righteousness that you’re clothed in.  But there are times we’re afraid to do this.  We fear living the godly lives He’s called us to live.  We fear sharing all that Jesus has done for us. 
    We’re afraid to do this because that means we’ll be out of step with the world around us.  We’re afraid to do this because of what people might say and think about us.  Satan and our world don’t want you to live a godly life.  Satan and our world don’t want you to live in Christ’s righteousness.  Satan and our world don’t want you to proclaim everything God has done.  And so they’ll oppress God’s people in any way they can.  They’ll continue to declare sin good and righteousness evil.  They’ll continue to label God’s people with hateful names.  They’ll continue to celebrate sin and vice, pride and greed and even death, until we get so comfortable with it that we don’t think about it anymore.  But we must think about it.  We need to see it for what it really is: demonic oppression that leads away from the life of our Lord.  
We let our sinful nature control us.  We may not be possessed by a legion of demons like the Gerasene man, but we let the demonic forces in the world tempt and influence us so much that we get used to it.  We get comfortable with sin, and like the townspeople in the Gospel, we fear the godly and holy things of God.  But there’s no fear and terror in Christ.  He didn’t come to condemn you, but to save you.  He came to set you free from the demonic and sin.  He came so that you’d have life.  Don’t get comfortable with sin.  Don’t get comfortable with the unholy that Christ’s holiness frightens you.  Repent of your sin.  Live in the righteousness of Christ.  Praise His saving name.  Tell how much Jesus has done for you and for your everlasting life.  In His name…Amen.   

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript of great historical significance first to Ireland but also to Christianity as a whole.  Believed to have been written around 800 AD, this work is by the pen of Columban monks, a community originally located at Iona Abbey, on a small island off the Western coast of Scotland.  After a Viking attack laid waste to Iona Abbey leaving nearly 70 monks dead, They were, however, the community moved to Kells, Ireland.   While there is still debate as to where the Book of Kells was written, it is generally agreed that at least some of it was written in Iona and the manuscript  completed in Kells.  It is a national treasure and tourist attraction in Ireland but now it has been digitized and is available for our perusal for free online here.  Here is more for your viewing pleasure.  The artwork within the Book of Kells includes one of the oldest European depictions of the Madonna and Childand the Chi Rho page is considered to be the most famous page of Medieval art. Other images feature the symbols of the Four Evangelists, an early portrait of Christ, and even some of the earliest depictions of Gospel Narratives. These focus on the Passion, showing the arrest of Christ and His temptation by the Devil.   Enjoy!!

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The not so common good. . .

Often in the Prayer of the Church we pray for the common good.  Usually this is part of the petition for our nation, those who govern, and society.  But the common good is not some utilitarian phrase or some communal notion of what fits best, works best for, and will benefit the most.  This is not like trying to schedule some large committee meeting or family gathering while people offer up what might work for them and what won't.  We are not asking God to pick and choose between outcomes and, in general, to pick one that benefits the most people (while always benefiting us!).  No, that is not what common good means.

Common good does not mean something evil or immoral.  It does not mean the end justifies the means.  It does not make relative what God has made absolute.  It does not compromise the Ten Commandments or the Gospel.  We do not asking God for short cuts that lead around what is good, right, true, holy, pure, and beautiful.  We are not asking God for ignoble ends that, while utilitarian, are unworthy of our prayers or of the name of Jesus with which we end them.  The stuff of our prayers does not prosper what is against God's will and purpose but exactly for His will to be done.

Common good does not mean ordinary or plain.  It does not mean everyone having some bread while no one having any meat.  It does not reduce the goal to something achievable or within our grasp as if everyone having moderate health is better than good health for all.  We are not constraining God by this prayer but asking for the fullness of His grace and power to intervene for the good of all to benefit their holiness of life here and their eternal salvation in Christ Jesus.  So this is first of all a prayer that the many may come to faith and be able with us to articulate this faith in the prayer:  Thy will be done.

Common good does not mean exception.  My goodness, how we love to live by exception to every rule and cause!  We would rather have exceptions than rules -- so we even wonder who do we not have to forgive rather than hearing the call to forgive as Christ has forgiven us!  Yes, by all means, exceptions are the rule.  Except here.  Even when the good is not good enough, it does not allow us the exception to do evil.  How many and how great are the abominations that slip in under the wire “as an exception!”  Abortion is a good example.  We make relative the gift of life in pursuit of the larger good a life well lived (by our standards, anyway).  So common good means that it would be better to end the life in the womb than have them enter such a perverse world or cause mom or dad a responsibility they neither want or are ready to assume or find life without a perfect home where they receive perfect love.  

Justice is the common good -- even when it cuts us to the heart.  Mercy is the common good -- precisely when it is not rational or justified.  Life is the common good -- when it is messy, problematic, and hard. Holiness is the common good -- indeed, THE good the Law expects for holiness is perfect love!  These are the worthy petitions of a people who know God's extravagant grace in Christ -- something so uncommon it is a mystery.  Human dignity is not a commodity we possess that others must honor but the generous love of a God who loves the unlovable and saves those who cannot save themselves.  Common good lives in the arena of this uncommon grace and the Spirit who warms our cold and dead hearts to faith.  Think about this the next time you hear that phrase.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Grace and a yawn. . .

Sin has distorted us in so many ways but none so spectacular as the way we receive the wondrous gifts of God's grace with a yawn.  Why is it that we are so accustomed to grace that it fails to shock and surprise us?  I wish I knew.  Grace is the singularly most profound gift of God and it cost the Lord nothing less than the obedience of His Son into death on a cross so that we might receive this gift freely.  But it does not seem to have captured our imagination all that much.  God has redeemed us through the blood of His innocent Son for the sins of the guilty and ended death's tyranny with the promise of the resurrection and the life which is eternal.  That's nice.  

On the other hand, we find ourselves constantly surprised by and fixated on the presence of evil in our world and suffering in our lives.  The Lord predicts that the world is spinning further and further out of the orbit of its creation and to a certain future destruction but we seem surprised by this and shocked by it.  The Lord is painfully blunt in saying that as the world treated Him, so we would be treated who live in Christ by baptism and faith.  Did we skip that part?  Our litany of complaints seems to begin and end with the shock and surprise that life is not easy, that sin still tries to claim us, and that we might have to work for something that is good, right, and salutary.  We continually talk about warring nations and warring powers who settle disputes with the sword.  Why are we surprised by this?  Did none of us see this coming -- because we were warned by Christ?

God's grace seems powerless to get much more than a yawn from us but any suffering or sacrifice shocks us every time.  Really?  Is that all we got from Scripture?  If that is all we read, we are reading very selectively but then again what's new there?  We are scandalized by the fact that the world is not just or equitable and insist that the job of the Christian ought to be to correct that flaw.  But we are not scandalized by the cross, by sin that requires such sacrificial suffering, and by a love strong enough to suffer.  It is as if we find God's grace rather ordinary but the inequities of the world exceptional.  Is that what we read in Scripture?

The poor you will always have with you but the day of salvation will come to an end.  The Lord embraces the flesh that has become our burden since the Fall and the advent of death.  Our failure to reform our hearts and learn to love the things of God and hate the things of the devil and the world is testament to all that is wrong with Christianity.  We have made our peace with death so that we can get on with the busyness of living but the lives we live are only occasionally lived in the shadow of His grace and favor.  

We have made Christianity easy, made its gifts and graces routine and ordinary, but cannot fathom why and how the world could be so evil.  That is why the faith is so hard.  The things of God are perfectly mundane to us but the things of the world attract us like bugs to a light.  Then we complain that the Lord has done something wrong.  Really?  

It ought to be perfectly obvious that the same God who can deliver eternity to us and us to eternity ought to be trusted to help us through this mortal life.  But it is not.  We treat the Christian life as if it were an adventure following a map to a treasure when the treasure is right in our midst and He who is the way, the truth, and the life is open to the point of being obvious.  I know it.  I am the same way.  But there is something wrong with this.  The things of God are ordinary and the things we love are extraordinary.  The Lord's House and all that goes on there is dull, mundane, and boring but our houses and the houses that are home to our pleasures and whims are the things that occupy our hearts and minds and lives.  The food of His flesh and the drink of His blood cannot even make us hungry much less satisfy that hunger but the food for the body and the drink that makes us glad we cannot shake from our minds.  The life that is eternal is not such a big deal but the things of this life consume us.  O my goodness.  Sin has gotten us bad, my friends.  Oh, how we have it backwards!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A study in contrasts. . .

I like it when you stumble upon contrasts in Scripture.  For example, when Christ is born, there is no room available to the Virgin Mother and her soon to be born Son.  A small village is filled with an unexpected population boon due to the census.  So the Mother, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are consigned to the stable normally set aside for the animals.  But when Jesus makes His promise to us, it is a pledge of His Father's House in which there are many rooms.  Rooms enough for you and for me and for all who love His appearing.  From a world in which there was no welcome and no place, we find the surprise of God's welcome (Well done, good and faithful servant... enter into the joy of your Master) and rooms within His House where we are all with Him now and forever.   

Now with Holy Week and Easter in the rear view mirror, it occurs to me the same contrast with the word kiss.  The Psalmist says “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (ESV).  The phrase kiss the son  in the Psalm has different elements of meaning.  While it generally refers to affection, here it reflects an act or attitude of submission or obedience.  This is inline with other references, for example, 1 Samuel 10:1 where Samuel anoints Saul as king: “Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the LORD anointed you leader over his inheritance?’” Also it occurs in 1 Kings 19:18 God tells Elijah, “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.” In both verses, kissing implies affection but is more a sign of allegiance or submission.

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine" is what we read in Song of Solomon 1:2.  This is the distinct reflection of both affection and commitment born by the deepest of love.  "Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you." says St. Paul in Romans 16:16 and echoed by St. Peter (1 Peter 5:14).  This combines the affection with faith and the reconciliation accomplished by Christ's blood and lived out within the fellowship of His Church.  

Then there is this.  Jesus and the sinful woman in Luke 7 gives us the marriage of the affection of faith and its obedience and submission also in faith.

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

This is in contrast to the most famous of kisses in Scripture.  This year we heard it in the Gospel according to St. Luke but you can also read it in Matthew 26:47–56; Mark 14:43–52; John 18:1–14.

While He was still speaking, a crowd arrived, led by the man called Judas, one of the Twelve. He approached Jesus to kiss Him. 48But Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

Those around Jesus saw what was about to happen and said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And He touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Then Jesus said to the chief priests, temple officers, and elders who had come for Him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against an outlaw? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on Me. But this hour belongs to you and to the power of darkness.”

The contrast between the kiss of the woman who anointed Jesus and Judas is meant to stand out.  And it should for us, as well.  The worst kisses of all are those feigned -- an act without faith or affection but betrayal.  Now that is something for us to ponder in our age.  I hear so many people and read their signatures that say Jesus first but Jesus is somehow hidden underneath mounds of affection for other things.  Sure, it is true of us all but it is especially true of those who absent themselves from the Lord's House and who seem to live quite comfortably without the gathering of the Lord's own around His Word and Table.  What does it mean to love Jesus and not love His House?

Monday, June 20, 2022

To warn or to explain. . .

The reality of evil, of organized evil, and of the evil one seems to be one of the casualties of our estimation of ourselves as erudite, educated, and urbane people.  Oh, sure, we invoke the usual condemnations of evil upon the causes du jour -- injustice, unwokeness, and inequality.  But that does not mean we think much of evil the way Scripture or Christianity in its earlier years judged it.  Even Lutherans are somewhat embarrassed by the ranting and raving of Luther in his cell against the devil and his works and ways.  

We tend to play with evil rather than take it seriously.  Take, for example, how Salem has catapulted its once shameful past with witches into a money making industry that brings tourists and dollars to the city.  Far from hiding this past, it is celebrated -- even in temples dedicated to witchcraft and such.  And Christians line up to visit the sites and entertain themselves with something that ought not to be so amusing.

For the modern imagination, “Satan” and “satanic” are merely heightened metaphors for evil.  When we say "Hitler was satanic” we do not actually mean that the devil and his forces worked in him and through him but merely to describe the depth of his personal depravity.  For this reason the toys of the dark arts have been rendered harmless -- less harmless, in fact, than the forces of Christianity against Islam in the Crusades or the oppression of homosexuality.  The old evil is imagined, in the mind of modernity, and the new evil labeled according to the prejudice of the moment is real.

It does not help when Christians try to explain the evils of history or of the moment by conjuring up conspiracy theories from the great abyss.  Of course, the devil is working in our world but this is no mere competition for dominance.  The goal of Satan is not a world but the person.  What better way to accomplish this than to diminish the idea of a personal evil -- for then one does not need a personal God.  

We see evidence of evil and the evil one all around us but an appeal to Satan is not necessary to explain everything.  The evil and evil one have only the power over us we surrender to him -- whether in ignorance or deliberately.  Vladimir Putin has become the new Hitler for what was done in Ukraine.  But the evil one does his best not by the obvious.  Rather, his power lies in the shadows rather than center stage and in the subtlety of the moment rather than the obvious.  And that is precisely where we are most vulnerable and where the Great Tempter has the advantage.  Our world has no trouble insisting that the evidence and explanation of evil is found in the savagery of barbaric military assaults on the innocent or in the kidnapping, enslavement, and sex trafficking of children or in the oppression of those whose desires are not deemed normal or the minorities who live with a gender other than the one reflected in their bodies.  But we have the harder task of calling attention to evil not to explain but to warn and to call to repentance.  And that is consistent with Jesus.

The people wanted to explain the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, for example, but Jesus refused to simply explain why this happen and instead used it to call them to repentance.  This is what will happen to you if you do not repent.  The problem is that even Christians are fascinated with evil and preoccupied with evil as an explanation rather than its presence to warn and call to repentance.  We are like the child who knows the hot stove will burn but who is drawn to touch it anyway.  Those who serve us in God's name call out evil not to explain so that we might comprehend how the devil and his works and ways operate but rather to warn and call us to repentance for failing to take evil seriously, for playing with evil as if it were a benign toy for our amusement, and for its power to dominate our ears with the whispers of desire instead of the blunt and clear voice of the Gospel.  Horns and hooves and pointy tails are not the problem.  We are.  He has only the power we concede to him but, as Luther well reminded, one little word can fell him.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Fathers or leaders. . .

Leadership in the home is the work of fathers.  They are those who act to protect, provide, and preserve the family by emulating the love they have learned from God, and, prayerfully, through their own fathers.  We do not elect leaders of a household nor does such come from right or demand.  That is why the father is so important in the home.  He leads by example.  He demonstrates to his best ability the values and path of the Kingdom in a life of devotion to his family, sacrifice for their well-being, and faith anchored in God's Word and Sacraments.  

The structure of the congregation mirrors the family.  It is not, as many have posited, a business or institution or agency or association but a family.  We do not affiliate as much as we are are born into the Church and have our place in that Church within the family of a particular congregation.  Although the role and office of pastor has many perspectives -- in the person of Christ or His icon to the people among them and as shepherd to the flock under the Good Shepherd -- not in the least of which is that role as father to the faithful.  This is much in the way St. Paul saw his relationship to St. Timothy.

It occurs to me that the best example for a new pastor at the start of his ministry is a good and faithful and pious father (or father figure) growing up.  This role is the more apt role to describe what a pastor is, what a pastor does, and how a pastor relates to his people.  It is not surprising then that Father is the term most Christians use in addressing their pastor.  Even among Lutherans that term has remained (especially in Scandinavia).

So when we train up men to be pastors, are we training them to be leaders of the flock or fathers to the flock.  Maybe this is part of the tension that exists between seminaries and some of the slack being taken up by parachurch organizations.  The institutional structure of the Church would like leaders -- visionaries who see the future and organizers who help to make it happen.  We have had our fair share of those in history and perhaps some see this moment as a time of need for leadership.  But I am not sure.  I think the pastors we need are fathers to the faithful, fathers in the way the father was once universally known in the home.  We live in precarious times for orthodox Christianity and a period of decline that tempts us to despair and fear.  We need fathers anchoring the homes of our people and we need such father figures in our churches anchoring our people to God's House.  At least part of the seminary role needs to be figuring out how to communicate this need and how to teach men to be this kind of parish servant to the people of God.

Though the numbers of fathers in the home is not as robust as it once was and there are too many children being raised without this kind of father in the home or father figure to turn to, that does not mean it is not urgently needed.  The same is true of the parish.  Leadership is good but if it comes at the expense of being the father to God's people in the example of our Heavenly Father, something is lost that will only hasten the decline and tax the strength of the congregation even more.

Fathers, you are not only needed but essential to the family and the life of the children.  Your example is not simply optional but part of the very core of what it means to be a family.  Your role as spiritual father within the home by word and example is equally profound.  God bless you as you work to fulfill that role and for those who serve as surrogates to those without such a blessing.  God bless you pastors and your role as spiritual fathers to the flock of Christ.  If I had to choose, I would willingly sacrifice leadership (in the professional sense) for a strong fatherly figure at the altar and font and in the pulpit.  These are the times in which such a role and relationship are essential to the Church and the future.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

A few thoughts. . .

I truly dislike it when, in the aftermath of a school shooting or mass murder, the media is filled with commentary only to be forgotten in the next news cycle.  For what you think them worth, I have a few thoughts.

Although the typical context of the comments ends up being about guns, I wonder if all the existing laws are really being enforced?  It seems that there are many laws on the books already and that such laws do not prevent such events from occurring even in states that have some of the most restrictive laws regulating firearms.  Before we rush to enact new laws, we ought to at least find out if the current laws are being enforced and, if not, why not.

I know first hand the issues related to mental illness and unhealthy emotions.  It seems that the isolation created by a society that lives by screens and a pandemic that put fear in our hearts toward others have only increased the urgency and the incidence of individuals with mental illness and the inability to deal with fear, rage, anger, and suspicion.  The need to diagnose is more related to the insurance industry which lives and dies by medical encoding than it is to the health and well-being of those troubled.  Growing up in a small town (700 people), I know we had individuals who would be diagnosed with autism, depression, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorders today.  They probably lived their whole lives without a diagnosis but they did enjoy the support system of a small community in which they lived relatively free and productive lives -- under the healthful gaze and with the encouragement and boundaries placed for them by a whole town of family members (though not many by blood).  

The loss of neighborhood and community and the isolation that has accompanied our technological advances have ripped the support systems and boundaries from these people and left them alone to deal with their issues.  A medical community in love with pills has medicated these folks instead of dealing with them and their needs through therapy and a system of support.  I would suggest that the increasing demand for rights and the decreasing willingness of those demanding rights to live responsibility with each other, accountable to each other, and within the sphere of shared values and a common morality makes it more likely that such events will not soon end -- gun laws or not.

The other issue in this has to do with those 18 or younger.  I fear that families are not providing enough supervision of their children or acting to properly store firearms in the home and this gives access to weapons by those who do not have the moral fabric or the experience to second guess impulse or hold in check their anger and rage.  While it is not my intent to blame the family, we have all seen and lamented the decline of the family, the many stresses upon the home when both parents are out earning a living, or when a single parent must should the full weight of the financial welfare, household duties, and parenting responsibilities.  Again, isolation from extended family by a mobile society and the decline of neighborhoods and communities is working against rather than for such troubled families and stressed households.

I also am deeply troubled by the graphic violence a typical child sees growing up.  Whether this comes from so-called reality programming or video games or or movies or other sources, it is impossible to survey the violent acts that are routinely a part of entertainment, amusement, and news and then say it has had no impact.  It is incredible to me that some of those responsible for the most violent movies produced in Hollywood complain about the gun laws but refuse to consider their own contribution to the violent society in which we now live.  We have robbed our children of a carefree childhood and squandered technology away in the unsocial conversations that have solidified the division, fear, and antagonism that marks life in America today.  What will the future hold for a nation that refuses to admit that there is right and wrong?  What can we expect when we have surrendered the imagination of our children to graphic images of sex and violence that enjoy the protection of our bill of rights while poisoning the minds and hearts of our kids?

While we are at it, if you think the health care system in America is broke, try working within the mental health systems of our nation, states, communities, and locales.  The lack of hospitals, residential treatment centers, and urgent care providers for mental health emergencies is shocking for our land of plenty.  Furthermore, it is a joke what happens to someone who is brought into an emergency room for a mental health issue.  An overworked and under trained staff member will ordinarily work to get the mental health emergency stabilized for now and a contract agreed to in which the individual promises not to harm himself or herself or anyone else and then they go home.  Maybe they get a prescription in hand (but not always a means to pay for the medication) and there may not exist any family support to make sure the individual takes the medication as prescribed.  The whole thing ends up being an exercise in NIMER -- not in my emergency room!  We shove the problem onto police who are already overworked and given far too many jobs not quite related to law enforcement but it is just what we have done and seem inclined to continue to do.  Finally, we do not pay our mental health workers the way we compensate physicians and other medical professionals and so they end up being over worked, burned out, and frustrated by their lonely job and limited resources.

Before we rush to talk about gun laws, let us have a real discussion about the decline of the family, neighborhood, and community; about the violence that our children are exposed to from their earliest days; about the broken mental health care system; and of our refusal to accept the responsibilities that accompany our liberties.  While such acts of violence should come as no surprise to a society in which children in the womb must live under the tyranny of adult whims, it does not excuse us from our culpability in the loss of innocence that has become normative in the name of progress today.   So far I am still waiting to hear that conversation begin....  In the meantime, our hearts go out to those who loss their loved ones in such tragedies -- at least until the next news cycle distracts us with something else.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Mickey Mouse leading the charge. . .

Of course no one really knows if Mickey is gay, transgender, or cisgender.  He does have Minnie but their relationship is not exactly explained in detail.  No one need be in the dark, however, about Disney.  The corporate parent of Mickey and Minnie is determined to move the ball forward on behalf of all sexual preferences and gender identities.  It is using the powerhouse of its arsenal of children's programming and characters as well as its adult entertainment to promote the goal and it makes no secret of this offensive maneuver.  

Disney corporate president Karey Burke says, "as the mother [of] one transgender child and one pansexual child," she supports having "many, many, many LGBTQIA characters in our stories" and wants a minimum of 50 percent of characters to be LGBTQIA and racial minorities.

 Disney diversity and inclusion manager Vivian Ware says the company has eliminated all mentions of "ladies," "gentlemen," "boys," and "girls" in its theme parks in order to create "that magical moment" for children who do not identify with traditional gender roles.

You can listen here to some of Disney plans -- "adding queerness" to children's programming.  In other words, this is not simply about a more inclusive representation of characters but the promotion of the GLBTQ+ agenda and the encouragement of even small children to question their identity and to experiment in their choices until they decide for themselves the gender with which they identify.

Now, no one should be surprised by this.  This is hardly a covert operation.  Disney is very publicly behind this decision and seems poised to go forward no matter the cost.  This is one example of corporate entities adopting an agenda and promoting a cause -- the shape of a cause directed capitalism which is not simply there to make money but to influence its markets for a particular cause.  Disney is not alone and other media, tech, and commercial giants have already indicated that they are not shy about using their muscle for this and other causes of a more liberal and progressive nature.

It was once said that corporate America was Republican to the core.  I think this tells us that the money and the moneymakers are shifting sides and we are seeing them not only move to the left but become leaders in the pursuit of these progressive goals.  Those pursuing these causes often like to portray themselves as underdogs and to suggest that the real power lies with those who advocate for a traditional view of sex, marriage, family, and gender.  But the real power lies with those who control the media and they are firmly entrenched in the liberal and progressive views that contract Scripture and the moral teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Circle of life, indeed!

Things do change, my friends. This is not your grandfather’s Walt Disney nor is it the Disney you watched with your father. We can no longer all ourselves to be fooled by the mythology.  The company that was formed as the product of one man’s passion, one man’s creative force , and one man’s vision has betrayed its vision.  Entertainment is no longer its goal.  In the past we did not expect or demand that Disney would reflect Christian values but neither did we ever imagine that it would become an opposition force to reshape American culture and society and, in the process, send up the proverbial middle finger to the Christians who dared to complain.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Our best for His glory. . .

When we were building an addition to our facility about 20 years ago, we ended up having to move into the new Sanctuary because of an air conditioning problem in the old one.  We had no pews or wooden chairs -- only the standard model metal folding chairs.  We had no altar or pulpit or lectern since they had not yet arrived from the woodworker.  They were not late -- we were early.  We had no cross other than the old processional cross we had from the now chapel.  But we soldiered on.

The altar was a slab wooden door on sawhorses with a full Jacobean frontal made of newly purchased fabric.  The nice makeshift parament did not betray the humble underpinings.  For a pulpit, we purchased a used one for a few bucks locally that fit the bill.  The lectern was an ordinary lectern from one of the classrooms.  Both had makeshift but workable falls to adorn what was rather humble.  With the processional cross behind the altar, candlesticks from the now chapel, and a couple of very large banners on stands behind the altar, it looked pretty good for a people who had to make a quick decision on a Thursday to be in the new Church on Sunday.

Every pastor planting a mission congregation or renting facilities in a multipurpose setting or holding services in another community or hotel ballroom or the like has had to make do.  We all understand it.  It is what must be done under the circumstances.  In every case, the intention is to do something better, more permanent, and more fitting of the Lord and His glory.  It is not that these things do not matter but they matter so much that we are embarrassed when we cannot do better and will work to improve what is a temporary situation.

What is shocking, however, is when the Church contents herself with things that are unworthy of the Lord because they are not our best for His glory but spectacles that mean to draw attention to ourselves rather than to Him.  When the things we offer the Lord are our best for His glory, it does not matter if they fall short in aesthetics.  But when we substitute for that which befits Him, His Word and Sacraments, those things that are experimental, purposefully pushing the edge of integrity, and reflections more of us than vessels for His purpose, something is wrong.

In the photo above, Roman Catholic Cardinal Schönborn has consecrated what some have called an “IKEA” Altar in a Dominican Church in Vienna.  If you look around the monstrosity that is passing for an altar, you see an ornate and elaborate church building that only draws even more attention to this modern thing that has been placed there precisely to become the center of everyone's attention -- and not for what happens on it.  Worse is the color -- the color of urine -- whether on purpose making the association or an accident.  I am not saying that something of this material could not have been used.  It could have been possible to craft something of lucite (which it seems or glass?) that would have fit its surroundings.  I would still not like it or approve but it could have been done.  Yet it was not.

Before we Lutherans laugh and rush to judge, we have our own shameful attempts at being cute or shocking in which the focus fails to emphasize glory, permanence, and significance and instead simply makes an artistic statement most of us wish we had never heard.  Wherever it happens, it is shameful.  Churches are not canvases for our own self-expression.  We make them for God, for what God does in them, and to draw our attention to Him and His gifts and not away from them.  Building, adornments, preacher, sermon, presiding, vestments, and everything else that screams look at me violates the first and most important principle of church architecture and art -- the focus is on Christ and His gifts.  When we forget that, it is downhill all the way.  I don't care of the architect or artist has a name recognized all over the world, when the church has become the canvas for that artisans self-expression, we suffer even more than God.