Sunday, July 31, 2022

The things that take away our humanity. . .

It has been said already by many others that the peculiar thing about some mass murders is that the perpetrator does not have any connection to or reason to kill those who have been targeted.  They are, in fact, not really people at all.  They are targets.  This is not simply a disorder in the mind of the killer but a reflection of how dehumanized our world has become.

Several years ago I recall a story from one of our older members who talked about World War II and his fathers and uncles who were drafted into the Army to kill Nazis (the propaganda line).  But the way their mother put it was different.  The mother of her sons sent overseas to fight said her boys were heading across the ocean to kill their uncles and cousins.  Her family was German and the product of fairly recent immigration to the US.  She was not imagining things.  She was telling the truth.  She had many relatives in Germany and her sons were heading over to meet their uncles and cousins on the battlefield.  Her sons knew this and they knew also that they were battling for freedom against people with whom they had much in common in heritage and culture but not in ideology.  

Today it is hard for us to see such connections even with our neighbors down the street.  We do not know their names or have any idea who they really are and so they are not the same as us.  It is a rather benign but still potent example of this dehumanization.  It happens when we view other people as strangers -- people who were once somewhat neutral in our esteem but through the fear of crime and covid and the politics of division have become enemies.  Every stranger is now a potential enemy.  The way we have divided up our politics has created the impression that if we disagree, we cannot get along.  So the idea that elections have consequences has come to mean that votes give us the moral authority to stick it to those who ran against us and those who voted for them.  Certainly this was behind Hillary Clinton's famous like about the despicables and the outrage against Donald Trump that hobbled his presidency and now dogs him personally two years out of office.

If there are those who say this is only a liberal phenomenon, one need only look at the fragmentation of conservatives against the willingness of progressives to find common cause and allies with people at every stage of their cause.  Tolerance does not require agreement (at least it does not in the dictionary) but disagreement seems to demand intolerance.  Such is the state of affairs in America today and throughout the world.  The conservatives view as enemies those who do not agree with them right down the line but liberals find partners in those who disagree on much of the agenda but who can help advance the cause in other ways.

Abortion is not simply about protecting the unborn.  It is about protecting us from ourselves.  When the child in the womb -- in some states right up until the moment of birth -- will not be regarded as or given the legal protections to their humanity, it is not only the baby who suffers.  We all do.  If we can ignore the face of the child in the womb and turn that child into an it, something related to health care or choice, we have not simply robbed the child in the womb of his or her humanity, we have diminished our own.  The same thing can be said about legal, assisted suicide or euthanizing the aged and infirm.  As soon as we see life as a personal possession to be discarded when no longer wanted or needed, we have successfully dehumanized the troubled and the elderly.  

The whole cause of the Gospel is to reinforce the face of people.  Jesus did not become human.  He became man, with a mother, a family, a name.  He was born to a line of people.  The salvation that He accomplishes is our rescue from oblivion and anonymity, from being nameless and faceless people to a people called by name. This is surely what St. Peter means when he says once we were no people but now we are God's people.  Left to ourselves, it was always a dehumanizing path -- from the Tower of Babel to the waters of the flood to the dark, coldness of death and the grave.  Our Lord gives us no fragile identity which we must flesh out and choose but an identity rooted outside ourselves and in Him.  It is not something we must pursue or discover (as if life were a treasure hunt to find ourselves) but a gift given by the God who esteemed us more worthy than His Son and whose Son loved us even more than Himself.  We could never discover this on our own so this same God sent forth His Spirit to bring us to this wondrous realization.  Now the Church proclaims that the rescue of our humanity is born of baptismal water and the Word through which the Spirit enters the heart and transforms the mind.  The Gospel takes nothing away from us except sin and its death and it bestows to us what we squandered away in Eden in hopes of being gods -- our very human and personal identity as God's own, created anew in Christ Jesus for the good works that was our purpose from before the foundation of the world and for the life that no one and nothing can ever take from us or we surrender again.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

A thought. . .

It appears that more than 4 Million folks have perused the pages of this blog since I began it about a dozen years ago -- well, I guess a few more than that.  Readership on this site hovers at about 60K-70K separate individuals per month -- depending on how outlandish my comments or how much I have shaken up the pot of crazy.  It is not a big blog but it has done okay.  I have no idea how many folks read on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, by email feed, or by people passing things on themselves.  I have only a rudimentary tracker that ticks off different IP addresses.  Before that, I had an even cruder version that gave only page hits.  So I presume that my numbers are conservative rather than optimistic.

Anyway, I see now that Gene Veith over at Cranach has gone to a pay site for his blog -- you will have to subscribe and pay a monthly subscription fee to see what is percolating on his mind.  I really do not want this to come to that.  As long as Blogger lets me do my thing, I am pretty content not getting any money for it and I despise ads.  That said, from time to time I do like to ask if you think this blog is still a place you want to go and my meandering pastoral thoughts still something you are curious about.  So this is that time.

Either comment or send me an email and let me know if you think this is worth continuing.  I am not asking so much because I am thinking of shutting it down as much as I am curious about whether you value what you read here -- for good or ill.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Another installment. . .

 If we Lutherans were half as smart as we think we are, we would have done a series like this on the Divine Service and maybe slowed the pace of those who think that worship is a casual personal preference for entertainment, amusement, or inspiration....

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Pray for the authorities. . .

The prayers we pray for our nation and those who lead us are not political prayers.  We are not praying for a point of view or an agenda.  We are praying for God's will to be done.  Thy will be done is not simply for us as individual people but for His will and purpose to done in and among the nations as well.  Perhaps our political opinions and our politics are not in accord with God's will and purpose.  In that case, we are praying for God to change us as much as for Him to change the politics and people of our nation.

We are not praying for the Christianization of our nation or our leaders.  That prayer is covered when we pray for all who hear the Word of God to believe that Word by the power of the Spirit.  We are praying for the nation and for the government and the leaders of our nation to be governed and guided by the voice of God primarily speaking through the Law or Commandments.  The government is not the Church and the Church is not the government but each has their own calling and purpose from God and in God's merciful will.  It is not the job of the government and the leaders of our country to encourage faith but neither should they threaten the faith or the faithful.

Neither are we praying for America against all other nations.  Rather we are praying for peace and for justice and for our nation to live in peace and justice with all nations and peoples and them with us as Americans.  We do not pray our country right or wrong but for our nation and for all nations to know and live in accord with God's merciful will so that the poor will not be oppressed, the weak will not be trampled upon, life will be respected as God's gift and our responsibility to preserve, and war and violence may not threaten.  This is not unpatriotic but the most honest and godly patriotism of all.

We are not praying for our nation to be Christian.  Can a nation be Christian?  Or is Christianity for people?  It is enough that our nation and others preserve the freedom to worship without fear, without persecution, without establishing religion but also neither constraining it, and without either Church or State presuming to be the other.  We are to pray for all people to know the truth that sets them free but we dare not muddy the waters by praying for or presuming ours is a righteous or Christian country.

We certainly have a duty to pray for godly causes which our government might threaten with policies or laws that conflict with what is godly, right, and true.  Abortion is a good example.  Abortion is not a political cause although it certainly is affected by and affects the politics of our lands.  Abortion is the cause of life which deserves not only our commentary but also our prayers.  To pray for what is good and right and true is to pray that His good and gracious will be done.  It is to pray also that we be good citizens -- people who honor those in authority over us, use our freedom to love one another, and participate in an educated way in the political process.  It is to pray that the government make it possible for us to be those good citizens.

Consider here the Table of Duties in Luther's Small Catechism.

 Of Civil Government

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong-doer. Rom. 13:1–4

Of Citizens

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Matt. 22:21

It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Rom. 13:5–7

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior. 1 Tim. 2:1–3

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good. Titus 3:1

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 1 Peter 2:13–14

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

A few thoughts about grief. . .

Grief comes in all shapes and sizes.  It comes in the form of friendships and relationships that end, in the shape of life's forced transitions, and in the lament of things taken from away from you.  We grieve over words that should never have been spoken and actions that can never be undone.  We grieve over thoughts that pass through our minds without our will but which leave behind shame. For most of us grief looks like death.  We grieve and mourn not only the loss of those whom we love but the fact that death is there at all.  From the sudden deaths that come like a thief in the night to the long, drawn out deaths that steal a life away minutes at a time, to the death that seems to dally when age, frailty of body, and fragility of mind were ready to surrender long ago -- we grieve.  

God did not create our hearts to know grief.  Grief from sin and loss and death are all the poisoned fruits of sin -- of our wills intent upon going our own way and becoming the gods who would rule instead of the creatures who adore their Creator.  It occurs to me that no one would know grief -- not even God -- if sin had not entered the world (and death through sin).  I am in awe of the fact that the first to know grief was not Adam and Even and their regret but God.  Before the first word was sent forth to create anything, God know the end and felt the grief and loss over what was made by Him, for Him to love, and would be taken from Him in pride, hubris, and willful lust and rebellion.  It began in heaven before it was known on earth.  The devil and his minions who rose up against the reign and purpose of God and it spread to the pristine creation and man created in His likeness.  Now we all know it.  And hate it.  And run from it.  And struggle to get over it.

God answered grief by taking it fully upon Himself.  His one and only Son was born in flesh to die for those in flesh.  Our Lord was born to know grief.  He grieved the ignorance of the disciples and the fickle will of the crowds and the rejection of the religious authorities and the death of those whom He loved.  Grief can be shared but never healed -- at least until Christ know the fullness of grief as the incarnate Savior.  Then grief could be answered.  He answered it not with a word but with blood spilled in death and the coldness of the grave stealing warmth from a body.  He rose not so that death could never be felt again -- sin had already made the deterioration of the flesh a fact of life.  He rose so that death could not have the last word and grieve rule the silence.  

Now we grieve not as a people without hope but as those who know Christ and the power of His resurrection.  We know it not simply as a word and promise but as the womb of the font gave birth to us, uniting us with Christ in His death and raising us by the power of His own resurrection.  We know it as the absolution that answers sin with forgiveness and cleanses our sin with the blood that alone can end sin's rule and reign.  We know it as the Holy Eucharist -- the fulfillment of the Passover, the remembrance of His death still proclaimed, and the foretaste of the eternal feast to come.  We know grief but not as the world knows it.  We know enough not to explain it away or tell the grieving they will get over it or that time heals all wounds or some other empty sentiment.  We know it to confess it for the ugly thing it is and to confess what is beauty and loveliness in Christ who died never to die again and who brings with Him all who died and rose in Him.  We know it as the pain and loss that has at the end a blest reunion and an eternity beyond imagination.

Permit me a few thoughts of grief as I remember a vibrant woman in our parish whose death came too soon, a four year old who had been through more than a lifetime of pain and treatment before death could not be medicined away, and my own mother who had died at the end of a long life, perhaps too long for her as she wished to be with Jesus.  Permit me a few thoughts of grief as a pastor who is wounded by every death among his sheep, a son who has buried now both his parents, and a man who knows that death is nearer to me today than it was yesterday.  I am not being morbid -- only honest.  We must be honest about death or else all that God has done is rendered trivial and worthless.  You cannot sugarcoat death and still kneel before the cross and empty tomb.  Let us at least be honest.  No sentimental ideas about a circle of life or freed spirit or earning wings.  Nope.  Let us at least be honest.  For only in the honestly of what death is and the tears of grief are can we find our way out of grief to hope.  We grieve.  St. Paul does not tell us not to grieve.  But we grieve with hope.

The dead in Christ will rise.  We have not seen the last of them.  Their broken bodies will shine like stars with the glorious flesh Christ already wears. The dust of the earth will have to give up their dead who rest there and the seas will give up those who went down in the waters and the grave stones will all be broken.  That is how we deal with grief -- not by minimizing it but by answering grief with the only thing stronger -- the cross and empty tomb.  I pity those who are left to sentimentalize their sorrows or reconcile death with some fake notion of life's circle or who simply ignore it all.  I know the riches of the depths of the wisdom of God most profoundly when grief hears the answer that is Christ.  I am looking for the grand and eternal reunion -- saints and angels and all those whom we love who have departed this life in faith.  I will be consoled by nothing less than the fullness of this promise.  Neither should you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Confusing size with grandeur. . .

It is no secret that the grand scale of some spaces is itself a part of their grandeur.  We all know that.  Size does say something.  But it does not say everything.  It seems that the modern penchant for minimalism in architecture, especially for churches, has presumed that size equals grandeur.  A survey of some of the modernist spaces that pass for churches shows that size and scale are, in some cases, rather good.  What is missing, however, is any sense of what that space is used for.  The spaces are undeniably large and impressively so but absent any adornment, they could be used for anything and do not admit to being for the particular purpose of the liturgy.  That is their strength, at least according the advocates of the stark and empty canvas of such architects, but it is exactly their weakness and their failure when it comes to their sacred use for the liturgy.  

It is not simply the applicability of space to a sacred purpose that counts towards its success but that it works for the liturgy -- for a specific purpose and not simply as a blank canvas waiting for something to be written upon it.  The problem with the images listed above is that the only adornment for these buildings is the liturgy -- a sacred purpose in a neutral or even unfriendly environment.  Everything in a building designed for worship should support its holy purpose and function in concert with the Word and the Sacraments.  The people are not the images that honor a space with its purpose but the preaching of the Word, the baptizing with water, and the feeding with the Eucharist.  In support of this holy purpose, art is employed and has been employed from earliest Christianity.  It is not accidental or inconsequential but defines the space for its role and purpose and places the people within a certain context.  It is not matter of a particular style but of architecture which is not merely friendly toward the liturgy but working in concert with the liturgy for its divinely appointed purpose.

Size may contribute to this but it does not equate to this.  Small scales can be equally unfriendly to the Divine Service as grand ones but when a grand space fails, it is a greater loss in resources.  Sometimes the only failure is the error of art that is missing and color that is not employed.  An unadorned canvas is not a piece of art and neither is a building erected for sacred purpose but lacking the visual cues that
would define that space as God's.  The second picture is a space that could work well for the liturgy but it is unfinished, incomplete, and awaits the artwork that would help focus the space upon Christ and His gifts for His people.  

Bland spaces can be neutral or they can be unfriendly to the very purpose for which they were created.  This has been and continues to be the Achilles' heel of modern church architecture.  The buildings work well to showcase the architect but they say nothing of the liturgy which goes on within that space or the God who is the focus of the space.  Elaborate spaces need not be gaudy or distracting.  Look at the space below and how well it functions to define what happens there and to whom the space as well as the people are directed.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Teach us to pray. . .

Sermon prepared for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12C, appointed for Sunday, July 24, 2022 (but not preached due to the death of my mother).

The disciples showed the wisdom of Solomon when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.  But there was also a great deal of faith in that request. We do not know how to pray.  No son or daughter of Eden knows how to pray.  What once came natural to us, was, by sin, rendered strange, alien, and foreign to our hearts.  It is a fool’s notion to think that prayer is innate or that it is easy to learn.  To learn to pray is one of the most difficult things we can do.  So to recognize that we need a guide and a teacher is to acknowledge what sin has done to build a wall of doubt and fear where trust once lived.  It is this that Jesus address and the Spirit aids.  

Still it is the most common question.  We know we ought to pray but we struggle with prayer.  What do we say and how do we say it so that God will listen and give us what we ask?  How do we make ourselves pray when our hearts or minds are just not in it?  Is there a formula to prayer or some secret wisdom?  Why do we bother to pray if we have no confidence that we will get that for which we pray? It is the wise who survey their hearts and recognize that they need help with prayer.  

The Lord needs no instruction.  The language of the Trinity is prayer.  It is the most natural thing of all for Jesus to address the Father with bowed head on bended knee.  He is the perfect teacher for an imperfect and sinful people.  If we are wise like the apostles were, we will still come to Jesus with the same request:  Lord, teach us to pray.”

Some might presume that once you become a Christian, the new person that springs forth from the baptismal womb will know what the old person of sin did not.  It is a foolish thing to think you should know instinctively how to pray.  In fact, it can be a terrible curse to frame our lives in this way.  To begin any sentence with “If you were really a Christian, then you would...” is not simply foolish but demonic.  The old Adam may be marked for death but there is enough life in him to trouble the Christian heart and soul.  The new person created in Christ Jesus ought to be smart enough to know this and to recognize that while we are not who we were, we are not yet who we shall be

If you will, permit me this observation.  The whole idea of an old Adam and a new person in Christ is more for the textbook than for the Christian dealing with the realities of life.  You are your life are not neatly divided into old and new.
The things of the flesh still tempt and taunt and the things of the Spirit are still new and strange.  That is why we need to be in Church, in the Word and at the Table of the Lord.  Yes, you are the new person created in Christ Jesus but the old person in you has not yet given up the fight.  So the answer is to be where Jesus is, to hear the Word of the Lord, and to receive His body and blood.  That is how the old grows weak and the new becomes strong.

Instead of trying to figure out why you don’t want to pray or why it is so hard to pray or how to get prayer to work like we want it, what we ought to do what Jesus told us to do. The apostles who asked Jesus the question were people who struggled with the flesh, who were not who they were but were not yet who they shall be – just like you and me.  The answer our Lord gave them and us is meant for people who still struggle with the flesh – for whom the perfect does not come as easily as temptation. What Jesus says is for people like you and me, believers still tainted by sin, still tempted by wrong, and still learning the ways of righteousness.  The apostles were just like us – they were people of faith who endured doubt, worry, and fear.  To them and to us Jesus answers the question with a prayer.  How should we pray?  Say, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .’

Pray that prayer over and over again.  Pray it from memory, by rote, and as if you had never heard it before.  When words come hard to the tongue and the mind is not in the mood to pray, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  When you pray with your spouse, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  When you teach your children to pray, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  When you are pastor in a hospital room or funeral home or facing broken and bleeding Christians in confession or in counseling, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  When you are alone in your prayer closet or together as a mighty congregation, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  

We do not pray because we are good and we want to be holy.  We pray because God is good and He has promised to hear our prayers, because He has planted His Spirit in us to teach us not only the words but the desire to pray, and because when we pray, faith is spoken.  So just do as Jesus says.  When you pray, it. Pray say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  Even when you don’t feel like prayer and even when you are not sure you even believe in God or prayer, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  When your mouth has plenty of words for God and when you barely must a deep sigh, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”  

And if the Our Father is not enough, look into your hymnal or a good prayer book and listen to the voices of the great pray-ers of the Bible and Christian history.  Listen to their words not because they have figured out the magic but rather because they did not give up praying, did not look at things with rose colored glasses and did not pray because they enjoyed but because this is what Jesus told us to do.

Jesus abhors a religious act that ends up saying nothing and only showcasing what is unhealthy.  He is not come to be a spectacle or oddity.  He has come that you might be His brother, share with Him in eternity, and wear His righteousness toward that day when God says, “Well done, Good and faithful servant.  Come and enter into the joy of your master.”

With the leper who was cleansed, the parents who pleaded for their dying children, the wounded who longed to be whole, the adulters whose secret was revealed, or just disciples of the Lord trying to do what we think we ought, say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”   That is enough.  The Lord will keep His Word. He will provide for all your needs of body and soul. He will forgive the sins great and small.  He will give you the future that will finally erase the past.  The Lord will deliver you.  So, in the name of the Lord, let it be enough for you and for me to say “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .” .

In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Whose fault?

Youth in our culture today are subject to so much more pressure, temptation, and trouble than I was many years ago.  This has resulted in more depression, anxiety, despair, and suicide than is ever reported to those who keep the statistics.  It has been compounded by the effects of the loneliness, isolation, and disruption of the routines of their lives due to the Covid restrictions but they have only hastened what has been happening for some time.

Many years ago the promise of the sexual revolution and cultural change was to relieve the youth of the problems foisted upon them by a generation of prudes who did not know how to have fun and simply let things go.  Well, we have let things go for a very long time now and the mental and emotional pressures upon our youth have not been relieved but made worse.  Children have had the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to invent themselves over and over again throughout their lives and the result has not been healthier or more well-adjusted or less troubled children but just the opposite.

Of course there were youth in the past who did not like or seem to fit into the structures of sexual identity, marriage, and family that were the normative boundaries of the past.  Some had been homes and parenting and others did not.  It always was and will be the case.  Structures are not in themselves restrictive but can actually be constructive.  Exploration can be helpful to development but it can also distract from that development when it consumes the individual.  But with the freedom to explore has come also the burden of defining for yourself such things.  What in the past were clear answers are now open questions and the bar seems to keep moving as the answers are laid down by this generation or that.

I believe that the fault for the precarious mental and emotional state of youth has more to do with the breakdown of the home and family and its replacement of certainty with unpredictability, thus rendering the lives of the youth (and the adults) even more precarious and susceptible to the relentless change, doubt, and fear in the moment.  When we offer to children adult choices and thrust upon them adult decisions, we only make their lives worse.  When we deprive them of boundaries, of routines, and of play, we also deprive them of the very foundation and support that true exploration requires.  When we force them to make choices about such things as sexual desire or gender, we steal from them the ordinary choices that belong to play and childhood development.

The use of screens as babysitting has also robbed our children of the play through which they begin to learn their roles and identities as men, women, husbands, wives, parents, children, and productive members of society.  Role playing games and other such things may be interesting but they often are also addictive and distracting from the ordinary and routine circumstances of life.  This play was, in the past, one of the profound ways in which children were socialized and began from a young age to practice and rehearse what would become their roles and identities in earnest when they grew up.  Studies tell us today that fewer and fewer children plan to marry or have children.  Did these children come to this conclusion on their own or did they learn it by failing to learn these roles through play and by failing to see them lived out in the homes in which they grew up.

Sadly, what passes for play today has an agenda that burdens youth with adult sized issues -- from the so-called constructive play of television programs that might be deemed educational to the promotion of values currently in vogue with society.  Children play less with their imaginations than with the imaginations of the writers and developers of the programs or games.  This is the problem.  Imagination is the arena in which children begin to see themselves as adults, playing out and practicing for adulthood.  Far from pigeonholing the children into ill-fitting roles that would constrain them, such play helps them explore how they fit into the world around them, rehearsing in play for the shape of their future lives.

Liberation comes with a down side and I am convinced that the down side our children are suffering is the angst, anxiety, depression, and despair of having their childhood stolen from them by adults who wish they were children.  You cannot blame this on traditional values, on constrictive family structures or on religious oppression.  The fault lies squarely with those who thought less was more when it came to parenting and the solution does not lie with more medication.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Ordering the disorder. . .

The chaos that sin introduced into the world was a spiral of destruction and decay that ended in death itself.  The remedy is not a do over but a redemption and it is for this that Christ became incarnate, lived in righteousness, suffered in our place, dying to set us free, and rising to bestow upon us life everlasting.  The shape of the Christian life is order -- not a chaotic freedom in which everyone does what seems right to them (the very definition of sin in the Old Testament) but an ordered freedom in which liberty begins with right relationship.

Since Eden mankind has tried to make its peace with the disorder.  Even when God issued promises, it was tempting to man to hasten those promises by their own actions.  Abraham and Sarah's impatience with God's plan to order not only their lives but humanity is a good example.  But the intervention of man only causes great disorder, hastens the decay, and contributes to the deterioration of the remnants of God's purpose still manifest, though in a distorted way, in creation.

The pace of the disorder has been quick at times and slow at others.  The time prior to the flood was, like our own day, a fast movement to a disorder that threatened even greater harm.  In mercy God slowed down man's arrogant pride and will until His work of salvation could be fulfilled.  God has always acted in the ripe moment, the fullness of time, when His saving purpose fills not only the moment but the future with His redemptive mercy.

Christ is then not an agent of change in the way sin continues to unravel us and the world around us.  Instead He is the ground of our new and eternal being, the solid rock of truth in whom alone a life, identity, and fellowship can be built.  We encounter this certainly through the preaching of His Word but its rhythm beckons us and orders our lives through the liturgy.  The Divine Service is many things, to be sure, but it is mostly a means of ordering what is disordered both for the individual believer and for the community of the faithful.  That is always how God has manifested His life among us.

Israel was not free to worship God as seemed right or pleasing in their own eyes.  No, God ordered worship down to the detail of vestment and building design so that Christ would be manifested in the worship of the Old Covenant -- even before they were able to recognize He was its center and life.  The point of Christ that the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings testify of Him was always accompanied by the fact that the Temple was His house, His father's in which He was at home.  This was no rebuke to Blessed Mary and faithful Joseph but a revelation of the larger scale of His redemptive work.

Neither is the Christian free to worship God as seems right or pleasing in our eyes.  Jesus opened the Scriptures so that His disciples might preach the Gospel and catechize those who heard.  He did not leave them with the Old Testament sacramental signs that pointed to Him but fulfilled them bestowed upon the Church the true sacraments wherein He was Lord of water, Word, bread, and wine -- the mighty Lord who works in these as means to bestow His grace and favor.  Not in the least here is the reordering of what was disordered.

Baptism orders our identity.  We are not our own; bought with the price, we are Christ's.  The old man dies and the new man created in Christ Jesus rises forth to live before the Lord now and in eternity.  The Word that is preached is the Father's Word, mediated through Christ, the Word made flesh, and put into the mouth of the preacher so that it might be powerful and efficacious -- accomplishing His purpose.  The absolution is no mere forgetting of the sin but the confronting of the sin with the only grace strong enough to take it away.  So the apostles become pastors when Christ breathes on them the Holy Spirit and gives them the authority to forgive and retain sin under their new orders as His bishops.  In the Holy Supper is the fulfillment of the Passover and the promise of the future.  The Church is not left to make its own sacraments but Christ pointedly orders the Church with the order of this Eucharist:  Do this in remembrance of Me.  What happens among us is not merely the fulfillment of all that went before as promise but the glimpse of the eternal in the foretaste of the feast to come.  The liturgy is rooted in heaven but revealed here as pattern and shape for our whole life with God.

As the world pulls us from the order of Christ, we are pulled back into that order through the weekly reclamation of the baptized to Christ.  From this our lives of prayer, devotion, good works, acts of mercy, and forgiveness for others flow.  So as the liturgy orders our lives toward God, so it orders our lives in but not of the world, living in relationship to those in our care and our neighbors in need.  In this even our sense of time is ordered -- from the chaos of a time that merely moves to a time that is in God's hand, moving toward His destiny and bringing us with Him to the house of many rooms and the place where sin and evil cannot dwell.  The liturgy orders our lives.  Prayer orders our day.  Good works order our labor.  Tithing orders our things.  Absolution orders our relationships.  It is from the Eucharist and to the Eucharist everything flows until it is only the Eucharist, the marriage feast of the Lamb without end, that remains.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Liquid or solid. . .

In our fluid modern life, there is nothing that is permanent.  In fact, the fruits of modernity have been to strip away anything that has any roots and replace it with that which blows in the wind.  From sex to marriage to gender to life itself, there is only the now.  The past serves only to point us to the source of our present day problems and the future cannot be told so there is only today -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Perhaps more than any other, this is one of the reasons why the Church and traditional worship are so out of step with the world.  We speak of rootedness where the world speaks of freedom and flexibility.  We speak of a future where the world can offer only the moment.  We are sure that what is to come will come and that it will be infinitely better than what we have today and the world is intent upon improving the present by casting off both history and any sense of accountability.  Without permanent bonds, anything and everything that identifies and occupies us must be held loosely, ready for redefinition or change, the labor of which has become the only noble work of an ignoble world.

There is little hope of catching up to the constant pace of change that has become normative in our world -- much less of competing in its arena for a different set of values.  Instead, the call to faithfulness requires us to manifest even more profoundly how different our focus is and our goals are.  We do not simply have different ideas -- we look at the world and ourselves so very differently that it is hard even to have a real conversation.  We are struggling to be the people of the Way on the Way while the world seems to care little for anything that might suggest we are transient in this world and that there is a judgment to be rendered upon us in the world which is to come.  That is the great divide between orthodox Christianity and the watered down version that too often passes for Christian truth, identity, and witness today.  It is not merely a matter of degree but of orientation -- whether to heaven or to the world.

The perspective of the faith is built upon an objective reality -- the incarnation, redemptive suffering, atoning death, and life-giving resurrection of the Son of God.  Everything is seen through the eyes of this historic but transcendent fact.  On the other hand, the perspective of modernity is built upon the reality of change -- the only permanence is literally change.  There is no end goal or outcome except the constant change, evolution, and movement of life -- a liquid reality that characterizes all of liberalism and progressivism today.  In days gone by this was characterized by such debates as the gulf between original construction and the living constitution.  As foreign as each side was to the other then, so is the perspective of modernity as alien to the perspective of Scripture.  There can be no reconciliation.  Everything in life is plastic or liquid and its reality is in its flexibility, changing nature, and evolution.  It is as if life itself were like a storm whose movement is governed by many different factors toward a goal that may be posited as a guess but not predicted.  The outcome is less important than the change.  On the other hand, Christianity sees everything moving toward a future which we know by faith and which lies in the hands of God.  Christ is the agent of this change and transformation as well as its goal. 

The world does a pretty good job of trying to confuse us by using terms that should have a constant and consistent meaning but in their hands they are words invested only with the meaning we choose to give them and not apart from the assignment of meaning we bestow.  On the other hand, faith means learning a vocabulary from God and discovering the meaning which is assigned to it both in time and in eternity -- along with all of that the presumption that our life in Christ has a goal, a purpose, and an outcome.  That we know this by faith does not diminish its reality for truth does not depend upon our agreement to be true.  Perhaps it is time for us to abandon the world's terminology and to stick as much as possible to the Scriptures.  At least then we will not be so easily confused when people use terminology that we understand but mean something far different.

Friday, July 22, 2022

The sad end of parochial schools. . .

Luther promoted public education of boys and girls -- not for some egalitarian ideal but for the practical stuff of reading and knowing catechism, hymnal, and Bible.  Lutherans in the Missouri Synod, and some others, took up the cause of religious education with a fervor that surprised the world around them.  The mission of congregation and school were seen to be one mission.  

Roman Catholics had the same idea.  The school and the parish were one in the same for many years and the work of the school was not simply education but the support of the baptismal new life and the equipping of that youth to live out his or her faith in the world.  

Look around you and it would seem that the Lutheran school and the Roman Catholic school is meeting pretty much the same fate.  Over the years, schools listened to the experts and now their curriculum is largely an imitation of the public school -- with the addition of a religion class.  The schools looked around them at the changes in the moral and ethical fabric of our nation and tried to accommodate them as best they could.  They worked to provide a private school with religious nuance that was really a public school with a religious nuance.  When that happened, the parochial school lost its soul and its very reason for being.

Now those once vibrant places of faith and learning have entered into a spiral of decline.  Costly and losing students to other options, parishes are facing the inevitable as more and more parochial schools close.  It cannot be said that we gave it our best and it was not good enough.  It might be said that we did not give it our best at all.  We lost our focus and the mission of congregation and school went in separate directions.  Instead of a robust faith identity and flavor, the classroom as well as the chapel because a mirror of the casual Christianity of the worst in evangelicalism.  We told ourselves we had to do this because we had so many non-Lutheran students but it was a convenient lie.  We could have tried to be more Lutheran instead of less and to maintain an identity in which the mission of both congregation and school were the same.  

Sure, there is some life.  Where public schools are still failing miserably, some parochial schools are surviving.  Where classical schools have been born, a new and exciting chapter is being written on what it means to be a Lutheran school.  Where home school cooperatives and micro schools bring people together, there is still the possibility of a mission.  Where the academy is replacing the parochial school, some future is created.  All of it depends upon recalling our first mission.  We are not here to educate or socialize or inspire or equip but to connect the faith to daily life.  It was and is the first mission of the parochial or parish school to equip the baptized to live out their vocation in the world.  This includes confronting them with the calling of pastor and other church workers now in such desperate need.  This means that the beating heart of the school is not in its mascot or its parent-teacher organization or its financial balance or even in its classroom but in the chapel.  The Word is not simply an addition to the school but its reason for being and its focus.   In the Chapel the children are catechized through the liturgy as well as the more intentional preaching and teaching.  Music is a central part of this -- the great hymns of the faith, the chanting of Psalms, the canticles, and the sung offices.

There was a time when most any Lutheran (or Roman Catholic) could give a decent rationale for having a parish school.  I fear that time has come and gone and now the school is suffering because we are not at all sure why we have them in the first place.  It was not the school's fault but the inattention of our parish leaders and pastors to what is going on in the world, in public education, and to the job of reminding us from generation to generation why the Lutheran school is important.  In the wake of our failures, we have the trappings of a Lutheran school without its real intention.  That is a sure recipe for more closings and the death of a once vaunted institution that went hand in hand with the church.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

My life so far. . .

One of the hardest truths to realize is that you are not that important and neither are you the main character in your life's story.  It is not a hard truth because it is devastating to you -- quite the opposite, it is immensely freeing to acknowledge this truth.  It is hard because the world around you and the old man in you, as well as the powers of evil, are constantly trying to convince you that you are the most important person and what you feel is the most important thing of all and that you are the star of your story and that you are meant to shine in that story.  It is hard because it is a constant battle to put down the myth of your importance.

Every time we get the idea that we have things the way we want them, something disrupts our plans and we are tempted by the illusion of our own self-importance to cry out at the injustice of it all and to claim our place as victims of oppression.  The sad reality is that the things that disrupt our plans and spoil the happy endings to our lives have become increasingly trivial and trite.  They are hardly the great burdens that the people of old lived with and more often the rather pathetic lament of feelings that are either hurt or not honored or ignored.  How sad it is when we retreat into the myth of our self-importance and waste our time with the endless complaints of our bruised egos or wounded spirits at not getting what we want!

The message of Scripture counters this with profound truth.  Joseph's trouble with his brothers which seem to end with his being sold into slavery ends up with this amazing conclusion.  What was meant for harm, God used for good.  In other words, it was not about me.  It was about something far bigger than me.  In the end Joseph could not even muster up hate for his brothers and welcomed them into the realization that this whole torrid event in their lives was being used by God for the good of many.  That did not diminish Joseph in any way but ended up ennobling his life and setting him free from his pain, his anger, his bitterness, his resentment, and his pursuit of justice (otherwise known as revenge).  Read it again in Genesis 37-50.  It is a long story because it has a powerful truth to tell.

Jesus says the same thing -- the Son of God insists that the Father has plans of which He is not privy and though He is God in flesh, He does not strive for the equality that is His given.  Instead He lays aside that right in pursuit of submission for the saving will and work of the Father.  His words are not His but the Father's and His works are not His but the Father's.  Jesus is not afraid of this nor does He hesitate to place Himself in the servant's form and place for the higher good of our salvation.  It is the great mystery of humility that is content not to be the star of the story, to have every good line in the script, and to make all the action about Himself.  In the end, it is this that the Father celebrates in giving Him the name above all names.  Read the Gospels and see how this is characteristic of our Lord.

In the Book of Acts, read throughout the Easter season, we hear this over and over again.  Pentecost and the thousands who come to faith through the one sermon of St. Peter gives way to several chapters of growth in which the apostles find it impossible to do it all and set apart deacons to aid them in the work God has given them to do.  One of them is a shining star, Stephen, whose zeal for the Lord is not without notice amongst the enemies of the Church as well as those who placed him in office.  In the midst of it all is another enemy shrewd enough to stand aside when the dirty work was being done and who then, in the miracle of grace, becomes a shining star to finish the work of Jesus in preaching the Gospel first from Judea to Samaria to the Gentile ends of the earth.

Philip heads to Samaria in fulfillment of Jesus promise but the work there must be completed with the requisite signs that connect this mission to Pentecost and the same will have to happen before the Gentiles are also sealed in the greater plan and purpose of God.  But it happens amidst persecution, ethnic division, martyrdom, and conflict.  Why would the Lord put thorns in the side of the Body of Christ with such things?  Could it be even the Church needs to know we are not the stars of the story or the main characters in God's unfolding plan?  Could it be that when it is about us, the same problems the world encounters become the mainstay of our life within the Church?

The main problem of the liberal and progressive Gospel and the evangelical focus on self-improvement or reaching your goals and getting what you want out of this life is that these feed the lie that we are the stars and the main characters in our stories.  We do not need to be told that our feelings matter -- that is the default that sin has placed in us that must constantly be countered with the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  We do not need to be told that we are the central and main characters in our lives -- that is the whispered prompt from Satan telling us that it is our story, that we matter most of all, and that we have to have the most lines and the best plots in that story.  But the work of God is to daily confront this lie with the truth.  We do not matter.  Our lives do not matter.  Christ matters and His life in us is what matters.  

It ought to be the lesson of the pandemic as well as the fruit of our Christian experience in the faith.  But too many have distorted and even hijacked God's narrative to substitute our stories.  It is the great deception and probably the reason Satan's workload has been eased.  We are so caught up in our own inhumanity that we have routinely accepted the lies that killing the life in the womb is health care, that feelings define gender, that desire is all equally good and valid, that the path to justice is different injustice, that science is the only truth that matters, that technology is always good and improves life, and so many more.

He who endures to the end shall be saved.  In the end, we do not triumph.  Christ does.  Faith acknowledges that His triumph is our only victory.  So what matters most of all is abiding in Him so that He may abide in us.  We do this through our life together around and in His Word and Sacraments.  By these means of grace our vision is turned to see Jesus when our feelings and reason see only defeat and obstacle and pain.  The goal of the Spirit in our lives is to bring us to where Joseph was -- to the wisdom of faith that says ah, yes, now I get it; what was meant for harm God used for good.  That is the most important chapter that gets written in your life or my life so far -- not what we think or have experienced or feel but God's mighty act of deliverance in Christ.  Some of us get there sooner than others.  I fear I am a late bloomer to this but it is my greatest comfort and I hope yours.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Christian name. . .

I was asked recently why we use only first names in the Prayer of the Church, even for the President, Governor.  When we pray for those who lead us in Synod and District, we call them by first names (not nicknames, either).  Why?  To this person it seemed somewhat disrespectful to speak of our political and religious leaders with only first names and confusing to name the people whom we lift before the Lord by first name only (which Lois is sick and what is wrong with her?).

Sadly, my answer was too brief and probably even more confusing.  So if you are reading, here is a better one.  There was a time when the people had no name before God until baptism.  I particularly dislike the question in the current baptismal rite that asks How is this child named?  It sounds like the pastor forgot who he was baptizing and needs a prompt.  The older question is far different.  How shall this child be named?  It is as if the person has no name until that name is sealed upon him or her -- along with the Triune name of God -- and only then has a name and an existence.  But that is precisely what the situation is!  We are nobody until God's call, washing, new birth, and name gives us an identity as His own.  

The name by which God knows you is the name placed upon you when you were born of water and the Spirit and clothed with Christ's righteousness and named as God's own.   That is why we name them at the altar by their given name.  The surname is the family name.  It is from the family and belongs to the family and signifies an earthly relationship.  The first name is the name of the person.  It is not a perfect system -- some of us hate our given names or use middle names or nick names and resist being found out that our first name is Eudora or Hieronymus.   How foolish to be ashamed or embarrassed by a name -- perhaps that is a good reason for our parents to have second thoughts about the unique spelling of a common name or a word not a name which a delirious parent chose in the euphoria of childbirth.  

So if you hear us name Joseph our President or William our Governor or Matthew presiding in Synod or Roger our bishop, we are not being rude but deeply affectionate (and, if they are not children of God we are commending them by their name to God to hasten the day when they will be!).  When we name the sick, the suffering, the dying, and the families of the dead, the first name is the name by which God knows them.... and we know them.... and our prayers arise like incense before His throne of grace.

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.  Isaiah 43

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

My complaints about exegetes. . .

The historic divisions of theology into exegetical (what the Bible says), historical (how the faith has been practiced), systematic (how we organize it), and practical (worship, preaching, etc.) once dominated the landscape of seminaries.  They did when I was in seminary.  Most seminarians were enthralled by the exegetes.  They wanted to know what the Bible says.  They gravitated to the idea that there were principles of Biblical interpretation and methodologies to explain every hidden text and make it plain.  For a very brief time, it was my preoccupation as well.  Now, well, not so much.

The reality is that I don't pay a whole lot of attention to exegetes or exegetical theology or commentaries.  I have given most of my commentaries and exegetical texts away and could not for the life of me come up with principles of Biblical interpretation.  The real reason is that little of this seemed to matter when it came to preaching -- to actually writing a sermon and delivering it to the people of God.  There is not a shortage of information but there is something lacking in focus.  While the exegete insists upon context, it is a more local context than I am comfortable with.  What is missing so often is the greater context.

There is only ONE story in Scripture.  Only one.  Not many or even a few.  Only one.  The story of the Bible is that God made us for Himself, the people in which He took His great pleasure, until we were lost to Him by our own willfulness, marked for death, and unable to do anything about it.  So God determined to make us His own again, His Son willingly offered to go and bring us back home -- though it cost Him suffering and death to accomplish it.  Now God delivers this life to us, releasing us from sin's captivity and death's domain, that we might be His own, live under Him in His Kingdom now and eternally.  This is the reason why we have every book in the Bible, every chapter in every book, and ever verse in every chapter. 

Instead, even conservative and well-meaning exegetes often get lost in the weeds and fail to see the forest for the trees.  That is certainly what went wrong in a very large way in the advent of the higher critical movement that seems preoccupied with details and ignorant of the real story of the Scriptures.  But it is no less true of what often passes for Bible study.  We are not here for the curious, the odd, the hidden, and the interesting details but for Christ.  It is His story and we have been made a part of His story by baptism and faith for the purpose of living as His own now until we are His eternally in the great consummation.  Everything until that grand day of Christ in glory, judgment, and heavenly places is but rehearsal.  Every Sunday is but a rehearsal for the eternal.  Every sermon puts us back into the story after the world has worked to dislodge this story are replace with somebody else's story or even our own presumed story.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.  Ephesians 2:1-10

I fear that some exegetes can explain everything except what the Bible's big story really is.  If that is the case, they have failed us and rendered to the Church the cruelest gift of all -- the Word without its author and speaker and power.

Monday, July 18, 2022

One thing needful. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 11C, preached on Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Context is everything.  Social media has not learned this and even the news media rips words from their context and they say something different than what is meant. Jesus is on the road.  He is heading toward His final destination – to Jerusalem and the cross.  The village of Bethany was about two miles east of Jerusalem.  It is clear that Jesus is taking His time to get there.  Unlike the Samaritan village in chapter 9 that rejected Jesus, Bethany welcomed Him.  Mary and Martha were followers of Jesus.  Martha invited their house to Jesus and, as any good host, was seeing to the needs of her guests by preparing a meal.

Mary was sitting at the feet of the Lord Jesus.  She was focused upon His word. Her posture is not accidental.  It is the stance of those who learn in submission to their teacher.  Martha wanted to pay attention to the word of the Lord but she was distracted.  It was her house.  These were her guests.  There was much to be done. She had a meal to prepare and no freezer to draw from or microwave to make it easy.  Perhaps an animal had to be slaughtered, a fire prepared, meat roasted, and bread made.  It was not a small deal.  Martha was a generous soul.  In Luke 8 we are told that she gave the disciples from her supplies all they needed.  Martha was bearing this burden alone and she was upset by it.

She interrupted Jesus and asked Him to admonish Mary for not helping her sister. “Lord, you surely care that my sister has left me alone to serve so tell her to help me!”  She expected Jesus to say that He did care and He would tell Mary to help.  She had no conception that Jesus would respond otherwise.  She was shocked by how Jesus responded.  Now be careful here.  Jesus does not rebuke her.  This is the  same Jesus who just spoke about the Good Samaritan and He is not about to suggest that anyone should be indifferent to the needs of others.  So gently, our Lord addresses her.  “Martha, Martha!  You are anxious and troubled by many things but of only one thing is there need.”

Mary has chosen the good portion – food for the body has to be made and eaten day after day after day until you die and several times a day.  But the food for the soul that Mary has chosen cannot ever be taken from her and will be with her to everlasting life.  Mary is not better than Martha.  Mary did see what Martha, consumed by all her busyness, did not see.  Now Jesus invites Martha to see and choose with Mary the better portion.  To have now that which is eternal.

There are many Marthas in our world today and perhaps many in our congregation and probably many who used to be here and are no longer.  The world is filled with stress and anxiety, with fear and worry, with uncertainty and despair.  Anyone who has lived through the last year and has not found themselves overcome and overwhelmed by the things we have endured is a better person than I am.  Our lives are a mess of obligations and duties and of troubles and trials.  So often the only thing we long for is time alone without having to think of what is on the news or trending on Facebook or tweeting on Twitter.  We don’t want the phone to ring or people to come to our doors.  We may not be Mary or Martha but Jonah who wants to hide from God and everybody.

The world around us presses us with the insistence that if we are not happy, there is something wrong.  The drug companies insist that if we are not pain free, something is wrong.  The financial gurus tells us that if we are not socking away money for dream vacations and retirement, something is wrong.  In the end, we fear we are wrong.  We are like children who pin our happiness to a new toy or like whiners who cry about every hangnail or the jealous who wish we could go to where the Facebook friends have gone and post the pictures of our leisure.  Perhaps we are like Martha but fretting not about food but about life and all its busyness.  Then comes the Church with all its activities and it seems like the Church is pressing us and making demands of us just like every other group.  What can we do?

Jesus had already chosen the one thing needful.  He was headed to Jerusalem and the cross.  He stopped along the way but He would not be moved from the future that waited for Him in betrayal, suffering, and death.  Because He knew that in this obedience unto death would come forgiveness and life for the Mary’s of this world and the Martha’s and everyone in between.  Mary caught a glimpse of this and knew that her future lie being near the Word of God.  What seemed indifference to the things of the household and the world was not.  It was the wisdom of faith that recognized where her future and life were to be found.  In Jesus alone.

This story is not about Bible study but about Jesus.  He is the story of the Bible, its author and its plot.  We do not study the Bible to find out things but to know Him of whom the law and the prophets and the writings testify.  We read, learn, and inwardly digest this Word not as a book to be learned but as the Savior to know, to trust, and to love.  He is the focus.  He is the Word.  He is the story in the Word.
His is the obedient life that has been counted as your righteous clothing.  His is the death of your sin once for all.  His is the life that opens the grave and gives hope and promise to us in the constraints of our mortality.  His is the future prepared for you and for all who love His appearing.  Because He lives, you live.  Because He loves you, you love Him and love one another.  Because He forgives, you are reconciled to God and reconcile yourselves to one another.  He is the one thing needful.  And we know Him through the voice of His Word.

Like all of us who get caught up in the affairs of the moment, Martha wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus.  But she felt she could not.  She had too much on her plate.  Our Lord loved Martha and refused to rebuke her generosity in opening her home and giving herself and her things to Jesus.  But He also loved her enough to point her to the one thing needful that served her and will serve us everlasting life.  It is the Lord, speaking through His Word and feeding in His Holy Supper.  He is the Word that accomplishes salvation for us and He is the bread that satisfies our hunger and need forevermore.

Sunday morning is not simply one more thing on your busy schedule.  It is the only thing needful in a world of extraneous things that have no lasting value.  He is the Word who speaks life and hope and forgiveness into your ears.  He is the Bread who feeds you everlasting life.  There is nothing more important or urgent that Christ and His grace sufficient for all your needs of body and soul here and sufficient to deliver you to everlasting life.  

This is not a story about priorities.  God knows we might need a good lesson in making better choices about the priorities in our lives.  Jesus is not one thing among many but the only thing needful.  You were His focus in life, in the suffering of the cross, and in the glory of the resurrection.  For you, for the joy of your salvation, He endured it all, set His face to Jerusalem, and was determined to do all that was necessary that you might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom forevermore.  As a people so loved, can we love Him any less?  Amen.

Liturgically small. . .

How odd it is that some folks (even Lutheran ones) presume vestments, chanting, and liturgical ceremonies only emphasize the pastor!  If anything, the posture, vesture, and demeanor of the pastor in the fuller ceremonial of the Divine Service makes the pastor, well, liturgically small.  The things that would point to the pastor as a person and individual are diminished and the pastor becomes an instrument of the things that are to be emphasized -- the Christ who is still priest and victim, Word and voice, actor and audience all at the same time.  It is literally all about Jesus -- from the vestments that are worn to the liturgical that gives script to the voice to the ceremonies that symbolize what is really happening.

How odd it is that some folks (even Lutheran ones) presume that an empty chancel (except for the ever present drum set and screens) and a pastor in casual apparel alone on the stage is more befitting the God of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and evangelists?  What kind of strangeness is at work when we honor the rules of worship God Himself set down in the Old Testament and marvel at the heavenly worship previewed in Revelation and then sit down in our padded seats with cup holders for our Starbucks to be entertained by music, inspirational jargon, and some humor -- thinking this is what God desires!  In warehouses that offer none of the beauty and nobility of God's House but everything of the creature comforts we have come to expect, we worship God according to the dictates of money and personal preference.  Then we assure ourselves and everyone else that if it is good for us, it will be good for God, too.

How odd it is that we take the requirements of the temple worship of the Old Covenant literally and then take Revelation symbolically as if it were but imagery to describe an otherworldly version of a big box evangelical style worship space we have on earth.  Lutherans take note.  In Revelation we encounter not an abstract painting for the imagination but the practical stuff of worship.  There we learn which elements of Old Covenant worship should be retained in the New Covenant, since the heavenly liturgy we anticipate on earth both concludes and includes the old.  We learn from Revelation that the Church is not simply allowed but encouraged to buildings, ministers, candlesticks, chalices, incense, and vestments -- the worship of the Church is both derived from and directed to Jesus Christ.  Jesus was every bit the center, though hidden, in the worship of the Temple.  Indeed, He is the perfection of all that was -- whose symbols pointed to Him who would fulfill them.  In the worship of the New Covenant, they are no less symbols even though they now deliver what they sign.  What was symbol in the Old Covenant worship, has now become sacrament, not simply pointing to the salvation won on the cross but deliver its gift and grace.  The faithful enter into God's presence at His bidding, receive what He promises, and respond with praise and thanksgiving.  This is the heavenly glory, still imperfect and not yet complete as it will be but every bit the reality glimpsed and received as foretaste of all that is to come.

Trading the past for some casual interlude before entering into the formal liturgy of heaven is the strangest of all conclusions a Christian and a Lutheran might make.  Not only is the pastor liturgically small as a person and individual, but so are the faithful -- in the midst of and before the divine majesty of our Savior and Redeemer.  We are liturgically small so that Christ may be large, the all in all of Scripture already present but not yet in its fullness.  Far from being offended by this smallness, it is our greatest privilege to be the served by the God who serves us with His gifts, grace, and gracious welcome.  We learn, by the Spirit, to live contented within this framework of hope fulfilled and hope to come.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

It has come to this. . .

A while back a publication of Lutheran church musicians drew attention to the Marty Haugen hymn, All Are Welcome [ELW 641].  I admit to having only a passing acquaintance with this text and, not being all that favorable to Haugen in general, I did not pay much heed to it.  Then I read it.

You can Google it or listen to a recording below.  I draw attention to the final stanza:

Let us build a house where all are named,their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter.
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. 
There are so many things wrong with this hymn, things symptomatic of what is wrong with the Church today.  It is built on heady hubris that we are building the house where love can dwell, where prophets speak, where hands reach out, where all are named.  It is built upon the arrogance of humanity that has learning nothing from Eden and still believes that we are the center of everything, where Christ is facilitator of our own progress and where God is but the divine blessing upon our whole enterprise.

Yes, all are welcome.  Not as volunteers to God's service or people who make themselves by decision or works members of His Body, the Church, but through the baptismal water where all identities are replaced with Christ's alone.  Yes, all are welcome to come as they are but, by God's power and design, they will not remain who they were.  His favor is not simple blessing upon who we think we are (whether the sum of feelings, experiences, or values) but the transformational power to erase what was and build it new until we can claim nothing for ourselves and of ourselves -- Christ only.

Welcome, diversity, equality, and inclusion have so permeated the vocabulary of the Church that these have replaced the Biblical language of call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and, yes, elect and chosen.  The cross is not symbol but the place where death died, sin was paid, and entrance to God created.  Our freedom was not free and we are not free to ignore His bidding (third use of the Law) or to do as we please or to do nothing.  We were created anew for the good works in which He shows Himself in us and extends love's bidding to the world.  The major work of the Church is not service but witness and it is from witness that service flows -- not the other way around.

How sad it is that the once great chorales that distinguished Lutheran hymnody have been replaced with songs from a Roman Catholic writer (now in disgrace) who directs us away from the one story to our own stories of individualized truths, sentiment over fact, and cultural bywords over Biblical vocabulary.  It is no wonder we are a stranger to the voice of God, our pews are emptying, and our pulpits without anything to say except platitudes and opinion.  The Reformation was once sung into the hearts, minds, and lives of people.  I fear that today the same Reformation is being sung away as we replace the Gospel of God's making for the good news of our own accomplishments, desires, and preferences.

Friday, July 15, 2022

What makes something satanic. . .

Although we typically look at the outcomes as much as intentions, could it be that there is another measure to tell us what is demonic?  Could it be that what makes something evil and satanic is how much of our attention it extracts from us?  The reality is that the devil does not have to make us evil to get his job done.  He merely has to turn our eyes away from Jesus and the things of God and onto other things.  They might be terrible things, immoral and perverse in every way.  Or, maybe they are not.  Maybe they are things that could be good or could be bad -- it all depends on what we do with them and how much we invest of ourselves in them.

A number of people, not just religious ones, have suggested that some of the things we thought we such blessings have become demonic.  Among them is the screen.  Whether it is a 95 inch diagonal curved home theater screen or a tiny screen we hold in the palm of our hand or anything in between, the screens consume us.  It is not simply that the screens hold more pornography than was ever printed on paper.  It is that the screen occupies our attention and consumes the time that could be spent working on behalf of those in our care, acting in love for the benefit of our neighbor, or doing the works of God while it is day.  Perhaps some of you are wondering why a blogger might be warning you about reading a blog on a screen -- sort of the pot calling the kettle black, right?  Except that I do not spend much time on my screens except to do what is my calling and a little recreational pastoral meandering blogging.  

Technology has become a deity in itself.  Some people spend their whole day on their devices and yet have no time to talk to somebody on the phone.  Could it be that their pursuit of things on the internet is as much their addiction as the things themselves?  That is where I am afraid.  It was not quality family time when the whole group of us planted ourselves in front of a black and white TV to watch Bonanza on Sunday nights but at least we were together watching something that was neither hate speech or porn.  Get rid of both of these and you have trouble finding something to watch today.

Technology is not the only thing to distract you from Jesus.  Pleasure and amusement work hand in hand with that technology.  Happiness is itself an unending quest that consumes more than rewards.  Experiences can also become the idols of our lives (living and doing and going places).  Sorrows and struggles can also distract us from and alienate us from our Lord.  We live in a world of depression and despair and these things can also occupy our waking moments and become our nightmares as well.  Things we purchase or own are not far behind.  When Jesus takes a backseat to anything in our lives, that thing that consumes us becomes something less than salutary.

People who complain that they do not see Jesus are often not looking for Him either.  Like Thomas, we complain to Jesus that His figurative speech and parables are not helping us to know where He is going much less to know the way.  Like Philip we are often exasperated with Jesus when all we want is THE sign -- Show us the Father!  Could it be that Jesus is as exasperated with us as He certainly was with Thomas and Philip?  How long have you been with me and still you do not get it?  It is not that we do not get it, we are not looking at Jesus.  For the disciples this revealed itself while they were arguing about who was greatest and Jesus was talking about the cross.  Not to mention when they slept away the time while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane -- prayed for THEM.  We are as much a distraction from Jesus as our things.  But our Lord is ever telling us to look at Him.  Look at Him and see the Father by the power of the Spirit.

Maybe the battle is not simply with the bad stuff out there but hearts so easily distracted that we do not see Jesus or even bother to look for Him or at Him anymore.  No wonder faith is dead.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Wish I had said it. . .

The first clue, I did not say it although I wish I had.  Who said it is a bonus but if you can figure out the era in which it was first said, then you are worthy of more than a gold star.  Here is the quote:

“The glorification of man, and of human relationships, has had a profound effect upon the doctrine and liturgy.  This heresy flourished in the days of Renaissance and of Rationalsim, and has reached its zenith in our day.  This shifting of stress from Christ-centered to man-centered worship is the father of all modern heresies. 

This glorification of man puts human reason not the Lord, upon the throne.  It causes men to deny those parts of the Scripture which they cannot understand, and makes them picks and choosers of doctrine.  It prompts them to deny the mysteries of the Virgin Birth, Baptismal Regeneration, the Atonement, The Real Presence and the Resurrection, for these are beyond human understanding.  The spirit of glorification of man denies sin, for sin dims the glory of man.  It denies sola gratia and universalis gratia, and finds in man a cause of his own salvation.  It stresses salvation by works.  It makes the outward performance of a ritual, or the hearing of a sermon, or the receiving of a Sacrament, a work of merit.  It thinks of the Eucharist as a gift which man offers to God rather than a gift of God to man.  It exalts the words which man speaks above the words which God speaks, hence it regards prayer as more important that the Word and Sacraments.  It is the basis of all unionistic worship.  It ignores the Church Year with its press upon the Savior, and sets up a church year entered upon man and his achievements.  It sets aside the preaching of sin and grace, and stressed the preaching of human relationships.  It believes in salvation by slogans.  It gives publicity to men rather than to the Gospel.  It is the foundation of the social gospel heresy, for it would save the political and social fabric, which has no soul, and ignore the individual, who has a soul.

This glorification of man, so characteristic of liberal theology, has had its effect upon the liturgy.  The liberlist is ritualistic, but he selects a ritual which places man in the foreground rather than God.  It causes men to prefer hymns that speak of men’s thoughts and feelings rather than hymns of praise to the Savior.  It substitutes exhibition anthems and solos for congregational prayer and praise.  It glorifies its Good Friday cantata and its Easter musical program, rather than the doctrinal significance of these things… Unless we drive out this most malignant of all heresies, it is useless to think of doctrinal or liturgical purity.”

The author was Frederick Roth Webber, the book was Studies in the Liturgy (Erie, Pennsylvania: Ashby Printing Company, 1938. 173-174).  So while Herr Hitler was stirring things up in Europe and Neville was flying off to buy time and a brief piece with the author of the second world war, Pastor Webber was talking about something that was and is bigger even than WWII.  Yes, you read me right.  The rupture of worship and faith that Webber is referencing was and is bigger even than the devastation of a world war and the death of millions.  Or do we not believe the words of Jesus not to fear the one who can kill body only but the One who can kill body and soul?

The reason we are so concerned for the integrity of worship, the content of the liturgy, and the manner with which these things are lived out in the life of the Church has nothing to do with being fussy over details but everything over concern for the Gospel itself.  Remember this, that the most destructive liturgical change is when worship no longer is the prayed shape of doctrine and, therefore, when the focus of that worship moves from God to us.  We cannot maintain the kerygma while what we do on Sunday morning moves us in an opposite direction.  All of this is about salvation.  Salvation matters most of all.