Monday, October 31, 2022

Authority was and is the question. . .

Although too often the Reformation is made out to be a conflict between personalities or practices or even about the justification of the sinner before God, it was not and is not primarily about these.  There was no Luther against the Pope that drove the Reformation.  It was, instead, a quest for authority and the question that had dogged Luther became the central issue for that which is rightly called the Great Reformation.  If you get this question wrong, it does not matter how right or wrong the answers to the other questions of the Reformation.

Where is the truth of God?  Where can one turn to the one authority that does not lie or change but is eternal?  What is the one foundation upon which you can build your faith, hope, and life?  All of these are wrapped up into the hit of the hammer that was heard around the world.  Is our faith built upon the Church?  Does it rest upon councils that do not err?  Is it guaranteed by popes (or bishops) immune from error?  What is tradition and it is dependable?  These were the burning questions that gave birth to the Reformation and with these truths the Lutheran fathers wrestled within themselves and before the Roman and civil authorities bent on preserving the status quo.

You cannot get to justification by grace through faith without the Scriptures speaking with authoritative voice.  Neither can you get to a treasury of merits or purgatory or indulgences or an infallible papacy if you begin with Scripture.  The challenge of that day, like our own, is less a question of where you end up but where you begin.  That is why the Reformation is not mere history.  For our own age has gone well past trying to posit the authority in tradition, council, or office (pope) and left us with so many authorities that there is but chaos and confusion left.  Reason has given way to experience and experience has become so individual and personal that it cannot speak beyond the realm of self.  Scripture has become a pawn in the hands of those who get to decide what it says to them and no one can issue any challenge to this deception.

But the answer is not quite as simple as inerrancy that some trumpet.  For we are not in possession of a book without error that simply witnesses to what was.  The authority of Scripture is not merely in its infallibility but in its efficacy.  The Word still speaks and is not only a record of what was once spoken.  Here the genius of the Lutheran confession is that Scripture is not merely a fence post to reign in error but the voice accomplishing that which it says and doing that which it promises -- right now among us!  The issue remains authority and the answer is not simply a book that cannot lie but a God who speaks through this changeless Word the eternal and life-giving Gospel.  While some are in search of a book or an authority that will tell others they are wrong and others are in search of a book or an authority that will allow their personal truth to stand, what we get in Scripture is a voice and a power by the Spirit to call forth faith, bring the heart to repentance, and build a new life and identity now and for everlasting life.  It remains this that is the challenge for our time -- authority and what that authority is.

Our debates of sex and gender, race and injustice, climate and peace so often remain debates about narrow issues instead of the wider and larger worldview that comes to us from the Word of God.  We are searching for proof texts to support our position while God is speaking the Word that seeks the lost and rescues the sinner and redeems the unworthy.  We have succumbed to the foible of talking about Scripture as if it were merely a record of the past or a suggestion for the future and not the voice of God accomplishing His purpose.  Luther was searching not simply for a word but a sacramental Word to trust in the face of a world and a personal life of disappointment, failure, and anxiety.  He was not alone.  Jesus is met not in our imagination or our feelings but in the places of His promise -- the Word that leads us into all truth, calls forth faith, and guides us as a lamp to our feet and the Sacraments of new birth, restoration of the fallen, and the food of heaven.

It was not for justification that Luther sought Scripture but in seeking Scripture he found the ageless truth of justification, hidden in the church of his day except where that Word simply spoke.  So where the radical Reformers insisted that too much error, falsehood, and deception had entered the Church that one must begin again and anew, Luther insisted that where the Word of God spoke and the Sacraments of Christ were administered, the Church continued to live -- even with error codified and confirmed at the highest levels of its structures.  It was for this that Luther emphasized the congregational -- not to detract from the obvious that the congregations together with their ministerium were also church but because what preserved the faith in darkest age was precisely the Word spoken and the Sacraments administered where the faithful gathered.  The trunk of the tree was and is not the highest offices but the lowly places where the Word is read and preached and the Sacraments administered.  The congregations are not the individual leaves but the higher offices of earthly structures.  For Luther, the authority of the Word was what gave growth to the congregations and the congregations flourished where this efficacious Word accomplished God's purpose and gave limb and branch and leaf to the rest of the expression of the Church.

The question then and now is authority -- whom do we trust?  The answer then and now is not council or office but the Word of God that endures forever.  We encounter that Word not in some ethereal plane of imagination and spirit but in the concrete of Word and Sacrament.  So that authoritative Word is primarily a liturgical one -- we meet that Word addressing us with law to bring us to repentance and with Gospel to raise us up as the justified and then to lead us as those being sanctified first and foremost on Sunday morning around font, pulpit, and altar.  This was the genius of the Reformation then and now.  If we are willing, we may find that this eternal truth will be the foundation not merely for survival but for the flourishing of God's planting that is His Church.

Who had believed in Him...


Sermon preached on Reformation Observed, Sunday, October 30, 2022.

There are a few surprises in the Gospel for today and also a little confusion.  As we heard, Jesus was speaking to the Jews who believed in Him.  Most of us were under the impression that no Jews believed in Jesus, that they were all always His enemies.  It certainly sounds like that when you read through the Gospels.  It seems like everyone was against Jesus and sometimes it seems like even His disciples did not get it right or believed in Jesus.  

We would be wrong.  There were many who went out when John the Baptist took up the call to repent and be forgiven of your sins.  All Jerusalem and all the country side was abuzz with the news of Jesus.  The people had heard the voice of John and wanted to be near Jesus.  We are not talking about the religious leaders but even there you could find a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimethea.  There were thousands who ate the bread mysteriously multiplied and thousands who listened to Him preach and teach.

Most modern translations, however, give us another false impression.  When they say these were the Jews who had believed in Him, it gives the idea that they may have once believed but they fell away.  Scripture certainly tells of many who did fall away from Jesus and our Lord even asks the twelve if they are ready to give up but the real problem here is how to translate the perfect tense of that verb.  We think of had as meaning they once did but no longer.  Instead it means just the opposite.  It means they did indeed believe in Jesus and they still believed in Him – they had been and continued to believe in Jesus.

That does not mean that believing is easy.  They struggled as you and I struggle. They wrestled with faith and life amid all the challenges, enemies, trials, and troubles of this mortal life.  But they had not departed from Jesus.  So our Lord encourages them in the faith.  Abide in My Word and you will be set free from challenge, fear of enemies, trials, and troubles.  You will be free.  But what does that mean, they wonder?  After all, they have a heritage and history as the people of God and they carried this history with pride.  But Jesus points them away from their history and to Him.  He is the Son of the Father and He can set you truly free.

On Reformation Sunday we remember our own legacy in the people and faith God used to reform His moribund Church.  We as Lutherans love to claim what we had.  The problem is the tense of this verb.  Ours is not a legacy or a heritage.  Ours is not a faith that lives in the past.  Ours is a confession and a faith born in a moment but living still and will live until Christ returns or it is nothing worth having.  Yet this only happens by being in the Word of God, remembering the water of God that gave us birth, and rejoicing in the Bread of God that sustains us through the pace of change, the busy-ness of life and brings us to the goal of being ready for Christ when He comes.

On Reformation we confirm youth sort of in the middle of things.  They are not quite children anymore but they are not yet adults.  But they are baptized and they believe.  We know where things began with them, but if we are honest, we do not know where things will end.  It is not a question with Christ.  He insists that if we abide in Him, He will abide in us.  We will be free if we live in Him by faith and in the grace of forgiveness for all the sins that bind us.  Today we bid those confirmed with equal vigor for those at a much different stage of their lives to find in Jesus the same place.  Abide in Me and in My Word and you will be free.

The genius of the perfect tense is that reminder that what was begun is continued and will not end until Christ brings it to its perfect consummation.  It is like marriage.  It begins at a point in time but it does not end until death.  It is like being a parent – it begins with a child placed in your arms but it does not end when they move out to live on their own.  You remain a parent until you die or until they die.  That is the shape of Christian vocation.  It begins and does not end until God ends it.  

The Jews who had believed in Jesus still believed.  They had questions and worries and doubts and fears.  Of course, they did.  But that did not steal their faith away or kill it dead.  As long as that faith is on the vine of Christ and nourished by His Word, that faith will live.  We Christians do not simply have a past; we have a future.  The future that we have flows from Christ.

This year our church body celebrates 175 years – not much in comparison to the beginning of the world but a whole lot more than those fly by night churches that flower like the grass and wither and die in the heat.  We are a church body in search of that perfect tense – a beginning that continues and does not end until our Lord brings it to its perfect consummation.  Our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is like the Jews of old who believed and you and me and those confirmed today.  The point is this:  it is not enough to have a heritage, to live in celebration of something once begun.  We are to continue to live in Christ.  We live in Him amid trials and troubles, through sorrows and struggles, in doubt and fear.  We believed once, by the power of the Spirit, but the Spirit is at work in us right now continuing that which He began in us.

In our confession, the pastor ends the rite by saying “May He who began this work within you, bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Jesus is talking to you and all who believe in Him. He is also issuing you and all believers a warning. It is possible to fall away.  In fact, there are many forces working against your faith.  You can too easily become enamored with the world and be rules by the desires of your flesh and to neglect the Lord’s Word until it becomes an alien voice.  There are many who once believed but do not anymore.  It could be the biggest church of all – those who used to believe.  But His disciples are those who weather the storm, who are called to repentance, and who are restored in Christ’s Word.  For a church body, a past is no consolation but neither is only a past a comfort for us now.  We live in His Word and His Word sets us free but we are only free as long as we are in His Word.

It is our prayer that you live in the perfect tense – that what Christ began in You by baptism and faith, continues in you.  We know this when you gather around His word and when remember your baptism and when you kneel to receive the Eucharist.  We know this by a life of prayer and the fruit of the Spirit in the good works you do.  We know this by the witness you give to those near and far – within your home and even among strangers.  

Abide in Christ and in His Word.  Only then are you free from ends to live the beginning that God has made possible.  This was the cause that the marshaled the Reformation into being.  This is the cause that gathers middle schoolers in a class room teaching them the catechism.  This is the cause that brings them forward to be confirmed today.  This is the cause that fills the pews to celebrate our history while working to keep what was once begun with the vigor of the Spirit through the means of grace.  Happy Reformation, people of God.  Abide in Christ and you will be free.  Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Is simple worship worship of the simple?

How odd we are as people!  I had a conversation with someone in which the individual admitted that they do not like liturgical worship.  They prefer the simple.  They believe God is honored more by the simple than by the elaborate.  What I suspect they are saying is less about God than about their own particular preferences.  Simplicity may be a virtue in some things but I hardly think it applies to God nor is it reflective of how we come to Him and He bestows His gifts to us.  It is curious, however, that we seem to laud simplicity as a virtue in worship -- even Lutherans!  Lutherans who are not and should not be iconoclasts or enemies of ceremony!

We tend to find life itself less than simple and seek out people with more than a simple education to help us chart the way through illness, finances, advancement, travel, auto repairs, home improvements, and food.  Who prefers a physician who is a simple doctor doing simple things when you have a heart issue or cancer or any other illness?  Who goes to a financial counselor because of a recommendation that the individual is simple?  Who visits a mechanic who tells you he prefers the simple repairs without benefit of computer or diagnostic aids that have become typical of the auto repair shop as well as the health clinic?  Do you get my drift?  Even simple food is not quite simple when you go to prepare it -- the people have to know what they are doing to get me a nice, rare, and seasoned steak on my plate.

Somehow, however, when it comes to God we think the simpler the better.  Yet how do we reconcile our preference for simplicity with the elaborate and orchestrated construction and liturgies of the Ark of the Covenant, the Tent of Meeting, or the Temple rituals?  Even in the New Testament, it would seem that St. Paul is challenging the Corinthians for having desecrated the Sacrament in part because they merged the simple and secular eating with the eating of faith that meets God in the sacred of bread and wine set apart by His Word.  In good order, says St. Paul, not to describe where something comes on an outline but rather a reverent and mannered Divine Service that is managed according to God's Word and His intent.  Peak into Revelation and you find a heavenly liturgy that is hardly simple or simplistic -- not only what happens but where it happens is beyond imagination (at least according to St. Paul).

So how is it that when it comes to the Divine Service on Sunday morning, we tell God thanks but no thanks and shoot for what is simple?  We are the liturgical Amish -- the plain people, at least on Sunday morning.  What an oddity it is!  We are on holy ground, handling holy things, meeting the Lord where He has promised to be.  There is nothing simple or simplistic about that.  In fact, it could be a mark of blasphemy to make the complex simple so that preference rules over reverence and awe and the things of God are treated as if they were nothing special.

I will make a grand assertion.  I believe that the pursuit of simple worship ends up being the worship of the simple over the praise of God.  I think it true that when the minimalistic goal triumphs in the domain of the Divine Service, that is more front and center than the fuller rituals and ceremonies Lutherans were once accustomed to and fought against giving up.  Along with that, we learned that the Sacrament could be quarterly or monthly and we were still good -- perhaps even better than having it too often so that might become normal in our gatherings at the Lord's biddings.  This was never a hallmark of the Reformation even though it might have been the ideas of a few of the Reformers.  

I will admit that it is cheaper, easier, and requires less of us to do little rather than more on Sunday morning.  If that is part of the attraction of the simple, then we are in deeper trouble than I thought.  Our utmost for His glory remains the truth of worship whether it takes place on a desert island among a couple of washed up survivors or in an eye-catching cathedral with plenty of musicians, assisting ministers, and ceremonies.  We do our best and our highest for His glory because He has done nothing short of that for us.  There is nothing simple in our redemption.  A child can meet it the same place the educated adult meets this glorious truth -- in faith -- but a child learns and an adult practices with rituals that reflect the words and ceremonies that teach the truth.  If you are one of those who insist simple is better, shed your jewelry, your techno toys, your comfortable homes, your travel plans, your fine automobiles, and your medical resources and sit at home on a hard chair eating hard tack and water while reading one good book (I think you know which one).  If simple is good enough for God, it ought to be good enough for YOU.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The Last Lambeth and other endings. . .

Usually every ten years since 1867, the bishops of the “Anglican Communion” gathered for a kind of convention.  It's origins came from the great missionary expansion that literally planted Anglican churches planted around the globe -- though mainly in countries of the Commonwealth better known as the former colonies.  It was said that they met to consult and express visually the fellowship of the Anglican Communion.  In the end, it often did much more.  It became a sort of high council whose resolutions were seen as significant expressions of truth and their life together.  For a while it prospered the unity of the Anglicans of various places.  In the end, it has been more or less a joke.  By the end of the 1990s, the  Lambeth Conference nearly imploded over the issues of sex, mainly homosexuality, and the West became the enemy of the missionary quarters intent upon retaining the traditional and Scriptural view of sex and marriage.  It was also sandbagged by the American deterioration that spent more money and energy on buildings than it had on the faith for a long time.  The last Lambeth Conference may indeed be the last but not many will miss what it had become -- a symbol of all that had gone wrong in Anglicanism.  Poor Archbishop Welby had to beg, borrow, and steal to get those who attended to go and then it all came to a climax as they saw their irreconcilable differences and seemed to agree to all go their own ways.  It became the communion not in communion.

On the heels of the Anglicans, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seemed intent upon using its own Churchwide Assembly to ditch the last vestiges of their former selves and to finish the job of being nearly everything but Lutheran.  Supposedly it is not about sex but it began that way.  When the dust cleared, Ohio left the ELCA without much need to honor bound conscience, to tolerate traditional beliefs among the candidates for the pastoral office, to retain on the payroll professors who disagree with the party line, to feign the idea that a congregation could reject a LGBTQIA+ pastor, or for such a traditional pastor to find a new call other than the one he (or she) is in (traditional being a somewhat relative term here).  Watching a presiding bishop apologize for insensitivity to a marginal congregation in the wake of many questionable decisions by the first trans bishop made it painfully obvious that the ELCA would apologize for anything except deviating from Scripture, the Confessions, and traditional and orthodox Christianity.  You can practice some sort of native spiritism along side Christian rituals but you cannot be pro-life in this church body.  You are called to embody the Word but apparently you can do that without believing it.  Who knows how many pastors and professors and bishops actually believe the words of the creed anymore?  It will not hurt your advancement in this church body not to believe them but it is nice to say them anyway.  The Last Lambeth may soon be followed by the Law Churchwide Assembly at the rate the ELCA is bleeding off members.

My point is simple.  Churches that got on the bandwagon of culture in order to stay relevant are dying and their unity is a fragile concoction of papered over woke phrases and not the solid voices of we believe, we teach, and we confess.  I thought that making yourself more like your surroundings would make you more attractive to the folks in the world.  What really happened is that making yourself look more like the landscape around you has camouflaged you so that nobody notices you anymore.  We are surrounded with the Titanics of church bodies who have been brought down by a small crack (at least in the beginning) and who chose to stay the course rather than repair the breech.  Perhaps there was nothing anyone could do but there were plenty of voices warning of what was to come.  Those not quite there yet ought to pay attention.  There is no quicker path to irrelevance than to abandon the Scriptures and the living tradition of faith for a faint echo of yesterday's news.  And that is where Lambeth and Ohio were this year.  Yesterday's pitiful news.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Formers of culture. . .

I am not sure when we forgot that the Gospel was a former of culture and not that which culture forms.  But forget it we did.  It has become normal for much of Protestantism and not a small part of Roman Catholicism, as well as for much of Lutheranism, to believe that opinion, culture, society, and modernity are the formative factors for the faith -- if not greater, at least as influential as Scripture itself.

It is less troubling to me that people do not believe Scripture is the Word of God than it is that many Christians do not even care if it is, it does not impact the bottom line of what they believe.  At least when people reject the Scripture, they are being honest.  There is little intellectual honesty among those who have replaced Scripture with reason and culture as those things that define and give boundary to what they believe and confess.  It is as if they keep enough of the ambiance of the Bible to look Christian while not believing what the words say or giving them formative place in creating, sustaining, and directing faith.

It is hard to find a place, except the so-called Third World, where Christianity is a profound influence upon the lives, morality, and beliefs of people -- even those claiming to be in the church.  Truth has been replaced with sentiment and feelings govern nearly everything in our lives.  Whether God said or not has become peripheral to our faith as Christians and it has left us unable to respond to the world with anything more than faint praise and the echo of their own voices.

The quest for holiness was never a personal and individual goal to be perfect.  It was always from the nature of God's people as a people set apart for His purpose and for His glory.  The whole idea of being set apart, of being in but not of the world, and being a transformative means by which God addresses the world has largely been lost.  What kind of prophet takes a poll and then mimics what has been reported?  What kind of prophet listens to the voices of the people and then adds Thus saith the Lord to their words?  If we are not set out and set apart, we will be incorporated in the world and become largely indistinguishable from the world, culture, and society.  For most of cultural, progressive, and liberal Christianity, this is already the case.

Furthermore, we have presumed that the political is the realm whereby we can influence and transform and so we have forgotten our place among the poor, needy, oppressed, orphaned, and widowed.  We no longer identify with them but have presumed instead to become their voices through advocacy.  We exchanged the food pantries, lunch programs, thrift stores, orphanages, hospitals, and old folks homes for the office of lobbyists and the halls of power.  The problem is that we have become like those we lobby.  We have become the political mechanisms we once disdained in pursuit of a way to influence more and offend less.  In the end, the cost for such legitimacy was fidelity to and the proclamation of the very Gospel itself.  Even when we do good, it is often on the government's dime with restrictions of what we can teach and confess to those whom we serve.  What kind of witness is that?

The culture has always moved like a weather vane, turning which ever way the wind blows at the moment.  The Church was an anchor for the Christian and through the Christian for the world in the midst of such changes and chances.  Now Christianity seems to content itself with playing catch-up with the newest and strangest things to pop up out of modern culture.  Even morality has been surrendered to the individual and the moment so that nothing is really ever wrong except the refusal to go along and get along with the culture.

We have become mere curiosity to some and like the comfort food filled with carbs and fat that you eat to feel good and then repent of when you visit your doctor.  What good is salt that has lost its savor?  That is the haunting question of Jesus for our modern day Christianity content to be defined by and to serve as a faint echo of the voices of the world.  Perhaps the times are doing us a favor.  Perhaps it is God who is sifting us and not simply the world.  Perhaps the outcome will be a Church determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified, intent to serve the world with radical faithfulness to this Gospel of the cross and empty tomb, and resolved to live as those whom God has set apart as His own, for His glory, and to serve His purpose.  I hope that this is the case and that we are more than the latest milk made of anything and everything but a cow that proudly says "moo."  If we are formed by our culture, we have surrendered the right to be called the people of God and God will exile us to our own wills and desires while raising up authentic prophets to call us to repentance.  For the penitent there is always grace but for those who reject the Lord's Word, there is only condemnation.  That is the two edged sword we are playing with.  If you play with this sword, you will bleed.

In the end it does not matter whether the world or the generations of those who follow us find us faithful.  It matters only if God judges us so.  When we learn that, we find a freedom not available to those who live in the prison of the moment and captive to the current fad of sex, gender, race, climate, justice, or other cause.  That is the freedom for which we have been set free.  Without it we are the slaves who tell a world filled with slaves that if they only listen to their hearts and swallow what culture says, they are free as birds. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Risk being wrong. . .

In order to be right, you must also risk being wrong.  Perhaps you think that an odd thing for me to say.  But my point is that the Church is suffering less from the errorists who own up to their screwy opinions but those, especially leaders, who seem unable to let their yes be yes and their no be no.  We do not stand but equivocate.  It showed up when the pandemic lead some of us to do questionable things from online communions to drive-bys in the parking lot but that was not the start of it.  When our Synod knew that there was something afoot at the St. Louis seminary, the voices that warned them were made the villains and it took an outside to stir things up enough to get something done.  But to do it, he had to risk being wrong.  It does not seem like many are willing to do that today.  We live in a culture in which there are convenient and easy ways to be faithful without being too specific or personal in calling out wrong -- when few will risk being unpopular in order to be faithful.

Even in the face of such things as abortion, we were more comfortable when we were complainers on the outside than when the Supreme Court upturned the decision making it legal and returned it back to the states and to the opinions of people.  Now what?  Before we could preach against bureaucrats but now we might have to speak up against neighbors and friends who harbor anti-life opinions.  

Is it any different with the LGBTQ+ agenda?  It is easy to pass resolutions at church conventions but do we preach and teach our people what the issues are and how to address them in the home with children, family, and friends?  Or are we too cowardly to take up the cause and make a stand that might be rejected?  I worry less about the people who own their error than those who find it hard to say anything against it, the lukewarm of Revelation who will be chewed up and spit out, and the world which finds equivocation to be consent.

We laugh about how our Synod once was suspicious of life insurance and dancing.  In retrospect, it might seem curious at best and embarrassing at worst.  But they took at stand when it was not quite popular.  They risked being wrong in order to be right.  Sometimes we do get it wrong -- but that is when we make Scripture say something it does not and not when we hold to the truth once delivered to the saints.  Life insurance and dancing seem downright trivial in the face of all the threats against biological sex, the threats to the family, the distortion of our very identity as individuals and a people, and the rights of the few to trample upon the rights of the many -- even those enshrined in our Bill of Rights!  It is not an easy time to be Christian -- at least an orthodox one.  We must be willing to risk being judged wrong by the world to stand with the right of God and His Word.

We need people who will risk being wrong in order to be right -- that means standing with the Scriptures and creed and confessions when it is not popular or easy or tolerated.  That means calling out the error that would undo what God has done and prevent a people from knowing the love of God that is strong enough to forgive sin instead of weak enough to tolerate it.  We need people who will not simply call out the generic error but call the erring to repentance, who will insist upon unity in doctrine, who will risk the wrath of peers and the world in order to stand with creed and confession upon the truth of Scripture, and who will by example lead us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

A bookstore. . .

We have in our parish a mighty fine little bookstore run by a dedicated and knowledgeable woman who keeps us well stocked with good and orthodox books, hymnals, crucifixes, children's literature, and even an array of cards all that reflect and support the faith.  Every parish should be so blessed!  We know how good it is because when we have had seminary or college singing groups here, they often go home with less money in the wallets and more pounds in the luggage.

One of the problems is that it is sometimes difficult to get the folks in our pews to pay attention to and shop at our bookstore.  It is not hidden (fairly obvious, by the way) and the prices are exceptionally reasonable but for whatever reason, it is not utilized as it could be and should be.  I am in hopes that this will change and it will continue to flourish and serve us with good books and resources to support the faith.

That brings up the whole idea of books.  Close to the Reformation anniversary, it is hard to imagine what we would have to celebrate without the printing press and the many books and pamphlets and later missals and hymnals and catechisms that would read the faith into the hearts and minds of the people.  We, more than any other, were dependent upon books for our own particular history.  What is even more impressive is that these books were not meant for the erudite and educated but written for the ordinary lay folk to read and understand.  That remains one of the hallmarks of our Concordia Publishing House today -- the access to great books which themselves are easily readable and accessible to lay folk.

The internet is a great thing but it cannot always help you distinguish between that which is faithful and that which is not.  So many resources are available and yet not all of them are worthy of your time or money.  Don't depend upon Amazon's recommendations or ratings.  Make sure that you are reading good and salutary authors and books.  Did I mention the new liturgical theology volume Lutheran Service Book:  Companion to the Services?  You cannot get that on Amazon.    

When it first came out I sent my father a copy of the Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions.  He literally could not put it down.  It became a joke (real to my mom) that this book caused his pastor no small amount of grief as my father read what we confessed and then took a look at his own congregation (where he had been a member since his new birth in baptism as an infant).  He was not trying to make trouble but figured that if we wrote those words, we meant them; if we meant them then, we mean them still; and if we mean them still, we ought to live by them and practice them.  That book drove him into the Scriptures even more.  It all began with a book.

My suggestion is this.  Take an obvious but unoccupied corner of your parish narthex, set up a bookcase or display of some sort, spend $1,000 on the good books of our faith (CPH will gladly help you set up a larger Lutheran library of resources for sale), and then tell the folks in the pews about it.  Leave the CPH catalog and other good Lutheran sources out there for people to peruse and offer to purchase the resources for them and make a buck here or there so that this might be a self-sustaining effort.  It can work and will and it will reap many benefits.

So, thank you, Jan, for your work now and to Ginny, who went before her, for your good efforts.  To the rest of us, take a look and see what wonderful resources are available in that bookstore.  We all benefit by a well read and informed laity, who know the Scriptures, creeds, and confessions, and who know the liturgical resources of our faith (hymnal and catechism).  And, who remember that even a crucifix can be a sacramental tool to bring the faith before us without words.  Hats off to you for the work you do for us at Grace and for bookstores in parishes everywhere.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Cartooning our way into the future. . .

As an advocate for the old cartoons of pure play and classical or operatic music as a soundtrack, I have little interest or encouragement for the animated pleasures of today's children's offerings.  But more than taste, this is about the propaganda that is hidden in what are meant to be amusements with a bit of a social conscience.  That is dangerous -- if only because those choosing the lessons to be learned are appointed by none of us and have taken it upon themselves to awaken our children to things we as parents may not wish them to be burdened with at a young age.

Maybe some of you have introduced your own kids to the animated children’s series Peppa Pig.  It is hard not to like the cute, chatty pink pig.  There are all sorts of Peppa Pig stories in the books by the same name as the animated series.  It might seem that everything is all about the stuff that our toddlers and preschoolers deal with all day long -- new babies, mommies, daddies, and life at home.  Then an episode that already aired in Britain introduced Penny the Polar Bear and her two “mummies” — all within the requisite theme of family -- you know, just like every other family.  It should not surprise us after Pixar wrote in a homosexual relationship to the beloved Toy Story franchise but Peppa Pig is aimed at an even younger audience.  On the one hand, you have to commend the franchise for introducing a character with disabilities, Mandy Mouse, three years ago. Such stories teach true charity and stick to the intent of cartoons: sweet stories to captivate young hearts.  But the woke stories have a larger concern -- to make the children comfortable with the LGBTQ+ agenda before they have a chance to think for themselves and maybe even before their parents realize what their kids are watching.  What is next?  Peppa Pig has a visit from a drag queen?  Coming to a library near you soon.... I am afraid.

I guess that the innocence of our children is only the concern of the parents and so this is a call to wake up, Christian America, and take notice of what your children are watching.  What we think is a child's imagination has become the garden of the woke tenders who make sure that our children learn what they want them to learn.  By the time most of us wake up, it just might be too late.  No one expects such cartoons to be Veggie Tales or Sunday school lessons but if those series would not think to use their platform for religious conversion, neither should then be allowed to use their bully pulpits for the socialization of our kids into the woke generation of the future.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Without honor but not without love. . .

Sermon for St. James of Jerusalem, preached on Sunday, October 23, 2022.

Jesus’ words are hardly novel.  Everyone knows that familiarity breeds contempt. Every prophet is without honor in his own home and in his own hometown.  Do you think that Zipporah was impressed with the glow of Moses’ face when he came home after meeting the Lord on Sinai? Do you think that the apostles were given a hero’s welcome when they came back from their mission trips?  Do you think that a pastor’s wife and family waits upon the pastor’s every word and adores him as a man of God when he gets home at night?  My dad enjoyed another expression.  The cobbler’s children go barefoot.  When you get home, you take off your work clothes and you are just you and your family knows you, warts and all.

So is that what Jesus is saying?  Because the folks in His family and hometown watched Him grow up into the man He gets no respect?  Jesus is not the usual example of a rebel child who finds God and grows up to be somebody.  He has no past except obedience and goodness.  They have no stories of His bad behavior to tell.  He is not Moses or Elijah or Abraham or Daniel or Larry.  His life and His words match up always, from a youth in the Temple about His Father’s business to the Savior who sets His face like flint for the cross to redeem a sinful world.

Jesus has no secrets.  That does not mean we get everything about Him but it does mean that He speaks plainly of who He is and what He has come to do.  So plainly, in fact, that the disciples wish He had not told them everything.  Nobody wanted to hear Him say He would be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, die on a cross and on the third day rise again.  Not even Peter was ready for those words.  Jesus is not rejected because people fear He is not being honest with them or hiding something.  Jesus is rejected because He tells the truth and is painfully clear about who He is and what He has come to accomplish.

We want to think that people reject Jesus because they do not know Him but they reject Him because they do know Him and get Him.  What is most shocking about Jesus is that He is the Son of God in human flesh, that He is perfect in a world of excuses for sin, that He is single-minded in purpose to redeem us, and that He alone can save us.  And so they must invent lies and lay false charges against our Lord because the truth is on His side.  Since Jesus eats with sinners, He must be hiding some sin.  Since Jesus does miracles, He must be a charlatan or using the devil’s power.  Since Jesus is a man, He must only be a man and not God.

The reason Jesus is a stumbling block or an offense or a scandal is not because of what Jesus says but because of who He is.   Those who reject Him are rejecting Him as perfect man and perfect God and perfect Savior.  The rejection is not about what Jesus says or does but who He is.  God does not comes to sinners.  Sinners must find a way to come to God.  God does not become incarnate.  Man becomes God.  Sins are not a big thing but minor problems you can fix with words and a token sacrifice.  Death is not the final enemy but something you can make your peace with by putting it off as long as possible.  Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the God who Jesus is and the saving purpose for which Jesus has come.

James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas did not have secret knowledge that would have disqualified Jesus or embarrassed or discredited Him.  They did not have the right knowledge of Him that would have caused them to believe in Him and follow Him.  After His resurrection, our Lord appeared to James and forgave him.  In the light of the resurrection, He saw what He had refused to see before.  Jesus is who He claims to be and has accomplished what He said He would.  James then saw that the Old Testament revealed Christ and laid out the plain of His salvation by which James and all sinners would be redeemed from sin and raised from death.

Jesus did more than forgive James.  Jesus made James a bishop.  So when it came that the Church was divided about what to do with Gentiles, James the Just would sit in the honored seat at the council of Jerusalem.  In the end, the word and will of Christ would be affirmed and the Old Covenant was fulfilled in Christ and the New Covenant of His cross extended to all sinners.  James, the unjust James who had first rejected Jesus, is now James the Just because of the forgiveness shown to him and the righteousness of Christ that covers him.  That is who Jesus is and what Jesus does.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of James and the world, of you and of me.  That is His new covenant that reaches even one who said no to God’s yes and was forgiven and who then affirms that God’s yes is even for Gentiles.

The strange thing is that Zipporah knew Moses was a sinner and still loved him.  That the families of the apostles loved these men even though they were sinners and ordinary sinners at that.  That a pastor’s wife and children love him knowing all his faults and failings better than any.  That God loves us even though we are dead in trespasses and sin.  God’s familiarity with us does not breed contempt for us but mercy.  He forgives us all our sins and we forgive one another.
The more we know forgiveness, the greater the awe we have of God.  The more we know Jesus, the more we are in awe that God would come in flesh and blood to be our Savior, a Savior who though innocent and holy would become sin for us, and forgiveness that we not conditional on something we must do but full and free.

We all have things to hide and secrets to bury.  God pulls out the hidden and reveals our secrets and sees us as we are.  Sinners without any redeeming qualities and without any worth or value.  What James found out from the Risen Lord, is what we find out.  Though we have no redeeming qualities and are not worth the cost that God expended to make us His own, that is exactly what He has done.  That is the glory we have in Jesus.  It is the only glory worth having.  Not pride in who we think we are but the light that exposes all our secret sins and shines the cross onto every one of them.

In the end, it was not the Lord who turned away from the unbelievers in Nazareth. They turned their backs on Him.  But He did not turn His back on them.  He bore on His back the weight of their sins as much as ours.  In the end St. James rejoiced that Jesus died and rose for him.  He was honored by the Lord to call Him brother, and to share in the Fatherhood of God within the fellowship of the redeemed.  And that is why we rejoice today and confess Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior.  That is why we are honored to call Jesus our brother and to share in the fellowship of the water that gives us new birth and the table where we are eat the foretaste of the eternal.  In Jesus name.  Amen

Searching for self and God. . .

The old heresies are the best -- they keep returning and the Church keeps addressing them but they do not go away.  So it is with Gnosticism.  It is the gift that keeps on giving and has not retreated or demurred from its place as one of the first of the great apostasies and a perennial one at that.  Now it shows up in the grand delusion that gender and biological sex are unrelated and may, indeed, be enemies.  How foolish it is.  But there it is.

The Gnostic is unhappy with his (or whatever pronoun suits you) situation.  The problem is not sin but a badly organized world (which you might call "sin").  Salvation is possible but it means being redeemed from the world.  And for salvation to occur, the order of being must be changed and this happens through an ordered historical process of redefinition.

Of course, the Gnostic accepts as a basic tenet of faith that this salvation can and can only be achieved through man’s own efforts.  In the end, the Gnostic task and vocation is to discover the right means to accomplish such a change -- to separate the flesh and the spirit -- and to purely pursue the  knowledge – gnosis – that will alter being and then impose this revelation upon society -- if not willingly then forcibly for their own good.

In order to swallow the deception that is gender identity, one must believe that the true self is the unembodied self.  That the true self is the imagination of the individual, distinct from and apart from the flesh and blood of the body.  This is, whether religious or not, surely built upon the tenuous tenets of the Gnostic unreality of spirit and flesh in which spirit transcends the flesh and must define it.

There is only one problem.  We are embodied beings and it is impossible for us to experience the world in a disembodied form or to exist disembodied (apart from the sleep of death that awaits the resurrection of the body and the life that is everlasting).  

While it is being paraded as science to describe our bodies as a people separate from that body, it is the worst possible science of all.  No one can tell us what it is like to actually be a disembodied person because everyone is an embodied being.  Even the categories of maleness and femaleness do not exist in the absence of the other.  They are and have always been relational terms.  Male is male not in some imagined sense but in relation to the female and the other way around.  This is the created order from which no one can escape -- not even the one who presumes the body to be opposed to the idea of his or her gender.  St. Paul acknowledges this when he writes:  Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.  (1 Corinthians 11:11–12)

The Gnostic rejects the relational as well as the physical.  It is no secret that we have a genderless Jesus and to have a Savior without being male or female, he must seek and save those who are like Him.  It is therefore the goal of this construct to relieve the Church of biological sex and to replace it with the genderless form that is neither male nor female (hopelessly confusing what St. Paul says to the Galatians).  What do we do with Jesus if He is not male flesh?  What do we do with His mother if she is not female flesh?  And what do we do with priestly service that is male only?  We can have only one choice -- to reject it and reconstruct it out of the Biblical framework of God's own revelation until it fits with our own disordered and chaotic experience -- and then call it science!  It is Gnosticism at its best and worst all at one time.

There was no problem with male and female in Scripture or in the Church until Gnosticism led us down a path with no outcome but heresy.  The problem of male and female in the life of the world and in the life of the Church is a problem of modern construction -- not because it is modern but because it has already rejected the wisdom and order of God in which everything that is exists and replaced it with an imaginary reality perceived spiritually and living alone within sentiment, feeling, and false perception.  Gnosticism remains a threat not simply to the Gospel but to our very human dignity and identity. 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

What happens on Sunday morning?

What happens on Sunday morning is not simply for Sunday morning.  However, it is the shape and outline of what God is doing in us, among us, and through us.  It is fount and source of our lives in Christ and it is that which we return to again and again and again -- to know who we are and whose we are in a world that has trouble with things like identity.

The liturgy calls you to your own story.  With its preparation in confession and absolution, the liturgy reminds you who you are.  You have a history before you were born that has contributed to who you are now.  We call that sin -- original sin.  It is the birthmark of our humanity that we did not choose but was chosen for us and under which we live and die.  But it does not end there.  It also answers our story with God's story of redemption and forgiveness and new birth and eternal life.

The liturgy also connects us -- one to another.  We confess as a people united by our common humanity of sin and its death but also united in Christ through the solitary act of God in our redemption and our incorporation into that redemptive act by baptism.  In a world of so many individuals and where "I" is the favorite pronoun, God teaches us to be the "we" of a people who were once no people but now are His people.

The liturgy confronts us with what God has done and bestows upon us, the unworthy and undeserving, the gifts Christ labored in life and death to bestow and which none of us contributed anything nor could we offer anything to add to what He has done.  It is God's story but we are called into that story -- not simply as a people who listen but who hear and hearing believe and believing receive what His Word promises.

Through the liturgy faith is incarnated in us by the power of the Spirit and with that faith comes the capacity to respond with prayers, praise, and thanksgiving.  Apart from this work of the Spirit and the grace of God to engender this faith in us, we would have no response but now, in Christ, we sing and give thanks and offer the sacrifice of praise and bring to Him the tithes and offerings of our grateful hearts and the petitions of a people confident He hears, listens, and acts for our best interest.

The liturgy sends us forth in the world with a purpose.  Though we no longer reflect the world (being in but not of it), we are still here with a purpose and a calling and a vocation in which we live out the new lives Christ has given us in our baptism.  We do not mimic the actions of the pastor on Sunday morning but extend what we have received by bringing the gifts of God to those who do not yet know Him.  We do this with words that make known Christ the Word made flesh.  We do this with acts of mercy that reflect the mercy God has shown to us.  We do this by forgiving the unworthy and undeserving and calling them to repentance.  We do this by showing them where the gifts of God are to be encountered, according to the Lord's own design and institution.

What happens on Sunday morning is more profound than we tend to give credit to it.  It is not about what we do or what we like or what we think God wants us to do or like.  It is about meeting the Lord where He has promised to be found -- in the rich exchange of sinners who meet a gracious God in the means of grace that sign what they do and symbolize what they bestow.  Think about that on your way to Church this morning...

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Tainted by Protestantism. . .

This phrase came to me via a post by a Roman Catholic commenting upon the great English composers (the three T's of Taverner, Tallis, and Tye).  I am pretty certain it probably is descriptive of the way he would approach all the great English composers after the Reformation.  How interesting.  According to this author, the primary consideration of these composers seems to hinge on whether or not they were Roman Catholic and not so much on the music itself.  Tainted implies that at minimum the quality is impinged by the circumstances of the world around them -- even when their subject matter was universal or even Biblical!  What a strange way of viewing a composer's work!

It would seem that his views do not limit themselves to the composers of the English Reformation but also to those who are born of the Great Reformation.  By his own admission some composers—such as J.S. Bach—whom I’ve studied for hours each week going back to the 1990s, yet many of Bach’s compositions still remain a closed book to me (pardon the pun).  How utterly strange it is to me that the obscure often celebrated by such purists ranks above the obvious genius of someone like Bach -- whose music was used to portray the eloquence and erudition of humanity on a spacecraft designed to engage other life forms that might be out there somewhere.

I will admit a great affection for the three T's even though I have little patience for the English Reformation.  Indeed, one can hardly admit to knowing church music without having an acquaintance and an appreciation for the greats (of whom the three T's are but the tip of the mountain of treasures).  Furthermore, the English tradition of Psalm singing remains so profound that it encapsulates the marriage of text and form so well that neither detracts from the other -- think here Luther's dictum of music being the second highest in importance after the Word of God.   For that matter, I have great affection for the great Roman Catholic composers and their output in service to the Church for the glory of the Lord and yet, as this blog clearly shows, am not so affectionate for Roman Catholicism.  Genius is genius no matter where it is found and when the text and music serve the greater purpose of the adoration of God and the singing of His Holy Word, how is there room to criticize the composers and their output as tainted.  Really?

Furthermore, this is by a Roman Catholic who is, in some ways, criticizing the way we used to say: the pot calling the kettle black.  The state of music used in Roman Catholic worship is dismal on the parish level -- better on the cathedral or monastic level but pretty sad for the average Roman Catholic parishioner.  The banal, trite, trivial, and downright suspect texts are matched perfectly by the music of modern Roman Catholic composers -- music drawn from cartoon style and TV commercials.  It is played by praise bands made up of people who had a garage band in the 1960s and 1970s that never took off and this is their last claim to fame.  It is presided over by aging priests who delight in making personal by sentiment what is personal by the more profound nature of sin and redemption, confession and forgiveness, and the unworthy who receive God's gift of favor without cost.  Whenever I think things are bleak in Missouri, I just spend some time on the internet viewing the latest train wreck of a mass and suddenly I feel a little better. 

In the end it is pretty sad when a musicologist finds some of the greatest treasures of choral music and music for the Church tainted by Protestantism or the Reformation when they are expressing with the most reverential awe and dignity the very Word and truth of Scripture.  In the end, this is the only real definition of catholic composers that matters and the three T's and Bach epitomize this genius given for the sake of Christ and for the prospering of His Word among us -- with help from hundreds and hundreds of others in every generation since who do the same!

Friday, October 21, 2022

Not everything is equal. . .

There is a great temptation on the left to make all things equal.  The progressives judge everything from the rights of the various sexual persuasions to climate change to racism to income inequity to gun control the same.  Even some Christians have fallen victim to the equation of just about everything as the same -- the same morality, the same urgency, and the same priority.  On the other hand, there are those on the right who insist that while some things might be laudable and good causes in and of themselves, they are not all equal.  Other things are not salutary at all but simply a reflection of an indulgent world in which nothing is wrong except constraints upon desire.  There are, on the other hand, those things that define everything else -- they are not simply causes but the critical questions that either honor our humanity or betray it.

Abortion is that issue -- the defining issue -- that cannot simply be listed with other causes or equated as the same.  It is not, it cannot, and it will not be one among many ills and it does not matter if one is right on all the other things, to be wrong here is to be wrong on everything.  This is what Rome has forgotten in its public dalliance with politicians with whom Rome presumes come access and influence while overlooking the betrayal of abortion.  Sadly, most Roman Catholic bishops do not have the courage of the one Archbishop who said no. Most have remained silent and some of outright contradicted the bishop who drew the line in the sand.  Archbishop Cordileone deserves credit for finally speaking the truth to power and doing the only right thing in preventing Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving the Sacrament at home.

Those Roman Catholic politicians who have equated abortion with all kinds of other social ills they judge unacceptable have lived on the edge of a seamless tapestry of delusion created by some of the princes of the Roman Catholic Church.  It is and will be a test of backbone of Rome just as it has been a test of the backbone for liberal Lutherans, progressive evangelicals, and declining mainlines.  Most of them failed miserably.  They have found refuge in the lie of equating every evil as the same and the comfort that you only need to be on the right side of most of them.  That is the problem.  You can be on the right side of all of them and still fail simply by being wrong on the one single issue -- the issue of life.  

Those who stand on the right side of life must begin with the uncoupling of other things that may also be good (and other things parading as good) with the cause of life, the supreme good.  Some things are not simply good but that which balances all good.  Abortion is that cause.  But it will not be fought in the sacred halls of justice or in mighty legislative chambers.  It is battled in the hearts and minds of people.  As good and right as it could be to have a court decide that there is no legal right to murder the unborn, it is only a rule that has changed and rules can be changed again.  What Christians must show the world is that this is not simply one issue but the defining issue that either ennobles humanity or betrays it with finality so that no other good matters.  When that begins to happen, then the tide will change as people learn to have no stomach for being on the right side of any good when you are on the wrong side of the which defines good.   

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Pushing the limits. . .

A while ago there were some pictures and videos doing the rounds.  One showed a female minister of the United Methodist Church participating fully in an LCMS installation of a pastor.  The other showed a deaconess preaching and presiding at a confirmation.  They are not the first nor the only examples of practices that push the limits and test the boundaries of our confession and of our fellowship as a church.  I will not go into them here.  They are old news but, unfortunately, not rare examples of those who chafe at both our confession and our confessional practice.

Strangely, some in our Synod equate those with a fuller liturgical practice in the same vein as those who would veer in the opposite direction of faith and practice -- evangelical style services or mainline Protestant identity.  How odd it is that we find it so easy to put together those who are so very different and yet who, in their own ways, push at the boundaries of our faith and piety.  One is distinctly minimalist -- using adiaphora in a way that was never intended to justify not different ceremonies but a different church and a different faith.  Although they presume that style and substance are not the same, they also posit the strange idea that style can contradict and betray substance without the faith being harmed.  Indeed, they seem some health in this.  The other seeks no betrayal nor contradiction at all but merely to restore what had been lost to time, a lack of interest, or perhaps even some embarrassment over old practices that were once typical.  I really do not get it.

It is time for us to stop playing the game that would suggest it is an equal violation of our fellowship to add what had been subtracted over time to the abandonment of our confession entirely.  How can they be seen as even remotely the same?  There is an answer to that question.  The reality is that some among us are actually more comfortable exchanging Lutheranism with generic Protestantism than being Lutheran.  There is a significant portion of our church that would rather see us sin on the side of evangelicalism rather than risk a hint of things Roman.  Of course, most of the things that are seen to be Roman here are hardly ever practiced in the Rome of today but nearly all the things evangelical and Protestant are found somewhere in the great diverse universe of that is not Roman but Christian in America today.  Funny how chanting is called Roman but the Romans who chant are few and far between.  That is but one example.  I could cite more.

Let me just say this.  Confessional Lutheranism has more in common with the elaborate ceremonies we are obliged to call adiaphora than it does withe modern evangelicalism or the current incarnation of liberal Protestantism.  We had a new bishop (oh, excuse me, District President) installed and some wags are complaining about three copes -- as if there must be a limit to how many copes there can or should be.  But we are more than comfortable with polos and khakis or tees and raggedy jeans than a cope or three?  Really?  Or that complaint a while back from some District Presidents (whom I will not call bishops) who were shocked at genuflection at the consecration and creed.  Really, we will not complain about those Lutherans who no longer follow any recognizable liturgy as legitimately Lutheran but dump on the guy who genuflects as a little to Roman for his own good?

There is a definite difference between pushing the limits to restore part of our past that has fallen out of favor today than pushing the limits to flaunt what is not Lutheran and never will be Lutheran and was not ever envisioned by Lutherans in the greater Reformation era.  Hymnals by their nature restore what has fallen out of common usage.  They are never expressions of a maximum but of a minimum expected of those who share our confession.  Yet we conveniently ignore the constitutional requirement of doctrinally pure hymnals, agendas, etc... and suddenly wake up when something from our ancient past is restored to usage.  There is no real explanation for the way we equate both groups pushing the limits -- except that it seems some Lutherans are more comfortable with nothing rather than risk getting accustomed to something.  Not that I have put it that way, it ought to be even more embarrassing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Hearing the many voices. . .

The old ways of the higher critic are not dead -- the one who sees Scripture as just another book, to be viewed and unpacked as one would any book, but perhaps with more suspicion than other books.  For these, there is no story in the Bible but many stories, no theme or purpose but many themes and purposes, and no single author but many perspectives and different contributors.  Scripture has become an anthology of authors, voices, and stories and inspiration less gift than a burden -- if these have divine truth, we must dig through them to find that truth as best we are able.  So much for the Spirit who guides us into all truth, this view mines the Scripture sifting through the worthless in search of the ore to be made precious by the wisdom of the exegete.

So, not long ago, Walter Brueggemann (incidental fact, he was born just down the road from where I was born!) has applied this idea to the Scriptures to find out what the Bible really says about gay, lesbian, trans, and the whole gamut of genders and desires.  It should surprise no one where he comes out.

Well, start with the awareness that the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic. Inspired by God as it is, all sorts of persons have a say in the complexity of Scripture, and we are under mandate to listen, as best we can, to all of its voices. 

Even clear Scripture passages must give way to other passages, not quite so clear, that just might give some room to, say, approve of what is disapproved?

On the question of gender equity and inclusiveness, consider the following to be set alongside the most frequently cited texts. We may designate these texts as texts of welcome. Thus, the Bible permits very different voices to speak that seem to contradict those texts cited above. Therefore, the prophetic poetry of Isaiah 56:3-8 has been taken to be an exact refutation of the prohibition in Deuteronomy 23:1:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Is. 56:3-8).

This text issues a grand welcome to those who have been excluded, so that all are gathered in by this generous gathering God. The temple is for “all peoples,” not just the ones who have kept the purity codes.

The welcome contradicts the exclusion -- even without the specificity accorded the exclusionary texts so that Gospel triumphs and even erases and negates the Law.  Gospel reductionism is the term that comes to mind even without it being specifically mentioned.  After parading through the usual suspects of texts that might be used to welcome those who were once excluded (unless repentant, of course), Brueggemann makes this point:

Finally, among the texts I will cite is the remarkable narrative of Acts of the Apostles 10. The Apostle Peter has raised objections to eating food that, according to the purity codes, is unclean; thus, he adheres to the rigor of the priestly codes, not unlike the ones we have seen in Leviticus. His objection, however, is countered by “a voice” that he takes to be the voice of the Lord. Three times that voice came to Peter amid his vigorous objection:

What God has made clean, you must not call profane (Acts 10:15). 

The voice contradicts the old purity codes! From this, Peter is able to enter into new associations in the church. He declares:

You yourselves know that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean (Acts 10:28).

And from this Peter further deduces:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (v. 34).

This is a remarkable moment in the life of Peter and in the life of the church, for it makes clear that the social ordering governed by Christ is beyond the bounds of the rigors of the old exclusivism.

In case you are wondering, yes, this sounds exactly like the reasoning that led to the ordination of women in the mid to late twentieth century after nearly two millenia of believing Scripture and tradition said an unequivocal no.

You can read him yourself here.  I am only quoting here enough so that you can see how exegesis in this way can allow the interpreter to rule the text and decide what it says even when the explicit text says something different.  By this methodology, nothing is true in a permanent sense but every truth evolves or at least is subject to the mind and experience of the interpreter and every truth is equal since there is no one voice but many, all of which must be heard with equal weight and attention.

However, my favorite is this:

The Gospel is not to be confused with or identified with the Bible. The Bible contains all sorts of voices that are inimical to the good news of God’s love, mercy and justice. Thus, “biblicism” is a dangerous threat to the faith of the church, because it allows into our thinking claims that are contradictory to the news of the Gospel. The Gospel, unlike the Bible, is unambiguous about God’s deep love for all peoples. And where the Bible contradicts that news, as in the texts of rigor, these texts are to be seen as “beyond the pale” of gospel attentiveness.

Gospel reductionism.  Explicit.  Pitting the Bible against the Gospel as if they were two different stories (at least two).  It is this kind of stuff that was in vogue when I was in college and seminary and it is the reason today the commentary shelf in my library is the smallest section out of some 10,000 books.  The ultimate danger of the exegete is that he or she drinks the kool-aid of their own poison and attempts to pass around the cup to the rest of us.  I am not buying it and neither should you.  However, it would seem some folks in Rome have perked up their ears to what the likes of Brueggemann is saying....

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Can you find a ceremony less Roman?

Some Lutherans, ignorant of Luther, find the sign of the cross a little to Roman.  Which is curious because it is something hardly Roman at all.  We cannot pinpoint the exact moment when some Christian made the first sign of the cross, but it was long before Rome dominated Christendom and the papacy had control over the life of the Church.

St. John Chrysostom, 4th century Bishop of Constantinople, recognized the biblical nature of the sign of the cross. He encouraged his flock, “When, therefore, you sign yourself, think of the purpose of the cross, and quench any anger and all other passions. Consider the price that has been paid for you.”  Tertullian in the 3rd century wrote of the universality of this custom, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.”  St. Basil (writing also in the 4th century) reported that the Sign of the Cross originated in apostolic times, taught that the sign of the cross was a tradition the originated with the apostles, “who taught us to mark with the sign of the cross those who put their hope in the name of the Lord.” Athanasius, the great 4th century Bishop of Alexandria who almost single-handedly stood for Christian orthodoxy against the powerful Arian heresy, taught his flock that “by the sign of the cross…all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from Earth to heaven.”  Again in the 4th century, Cyril of Jerusalem echoed Tertullian as he encouraged the Church: “Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let the cross, as our seal, be boldly made with our fingers upon our brow and on all occasions over the bread we eat, over the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings, before sleep, on lying down and rising up, when we are on the way and when we are still.”

How foolish for Lutherans to reject this practice as Roman!  Perhaps we are grasping at straws to justify our own uneasiness for things Lutheran?  Based on early descriptions we can infer that the gesture was first made with one finger tracing a T or an X on the forehead.  Possibly, the early Christians took their cue from Genesis 4:15, Ezekiel 9:4, and Revelation 14:1 and 22:4.  Then the gesture took on more elaborate forms with two fingers used to indicate the two natures of Christ or three fingers to indicate faith in the Trinity. While the origin of the sign of the cross is obscure, it is evident that the early Christians saw it as an orthodox ceremony, fitting piety, and a good and blessed practice.  The sign of the cross is more than a ritual gesture -- it is faith in motion.  It was not Luther who objected to the sign of the cross but John Calvin and the radical reformers who regarded it as superstition (like just about every ceremony or ritual used in piety and practice). 

Monday, October 17, 2022

Preach the Word. . .

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 16, 2022.

If you watch a boulder fall from a cliff of stone into a stream, it might seem that the small stream is no match for the strength of the rock, its weight, and its sharp edges.  But the water will continue to wash over and wash by the boulder and over time it will round the sharp edges and wear down the boulder.  The small stream seems to be nothing in comparison to the strength of the rock but even the stone cannot withstand the persistent passage of water in even a small stream.  

How easy it is to give up!  Surely Jacob knew he was no match for the Lord and yet he wrestled with the mysterious stranger even with the pain of a hip out of joint.  Would you have kept going or given up?  We live in an age in which pain is always the enemy.  Look at the opioid crisis or scan the number of painkillers in the drug store or count up the number of pain management clinics in town.  They used to say when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  But the reality is that we give up when we face resistance or when it hurts to continue.

St. Paul warns the young pastor Timothy to keep on preaching whether people welcome his message or not, in spite of their itching ears and temptation to turn away from the truth.  The old apostle tells young Timothy to endure suffering and keep on fulfilling the ministry committed to him.  It may surprise the pastor that anyone shows up on Sunday morning but it ought to surprise you that any pastor shows up.  Great are the temptations to give it up when people would rather listen to the TV preachers who tell them what they want to hear. Or the minds that prefer the latest meme on Facebook or cute video on YouTube or funny thing on Tik Tok to the hard words of Jesus.  How hard it is for pastors to preach to empty pews and to people who do not want to listen.  The call of the apostle is to preach faithfully God’s Word – when people welcome it or when they reject it.

And then Jesus speaks of prayer with a story that begs us not to lose heart but to persist in our conversations with God – even when it seems God is not listening or will not give us what we want.  We would love to pray if we could count on God to give us what we pray for.  Window shopping is great but it is better if you have money in your pocket and you are going to come home with something.  So it is with prayer.  So many of our prayers are like window shopping.  We end up empty handed.  Either God is not listening or God does not want us to have the desire of our hearts or God seems to be playing a joke on us that we do not get.    

But it is no joke.  Jesus is dead serious.  Will He find faith on earth when the Son of Man comes in His glory?  I will admit it does not look good.  Churches have exchanged the Gospel of Jesus crucified and risen for a quick path to getting what we want from life, from our spouse, from our children, from our jobs, and from the stranger on the street.  Pastors have done a great job altering the Gospel so that it has no power to offend us and approves of our desires – whatever they may be.  But still the churches are empty and when a pandemic comes, too many do not miss it at all.  

If it would depend upon us, there would be hope.  But our hope is not built upon us or our wills or our intentions.  It is built upon Christ, the power of His cross to cancel sin and the power of His resurrection to end the reign of death.  Christ has done the heavy lifting.  And all that His labor of obedience unto death on a cross has done, now has been given to us freely as a gift.  His righteousness we wear by baptism, His Gospel lives in us by the power of His Spirit sent to us, and His life is nourished in us by the food we do not provide but He gives – His flesh in bread and His blood in wine.

What God has called us to is a faith that does give up on the promise written in the Word in the blood of Jesus and the endurance that will not surrender this promise no matter what comes our way.  To us it seems a terrible burden.  To control our itching ears and focus upon the Word of the Lord seems more than we can do.  To rein in the desire of our hearts in the face of temptation, seems too hard to do.  To hold on when lives come crashing down, when the world’s fragile foundations are exposed, and when our own lives seem tenuous is a heavy burden.  At least it would be if the Lord were not on our side, if He did not provide for the rescue of absolution to reclaim us from our sin, and if He did not remind us continually of all that He has done that we might be His own and live under Him now and forever.

That is why we are here today and every Sunday.  We are the widows crying out to the Lord for mercy.  We are Jacob wrestling with God to hold onto His promise even when it hurts.  We are Timothy clinging to the Word that is not popular or welcome but it is the only Word that has eternal life.  We are the people whom the Lord has called to be His own, watched in the blood of the Lamb, and set apart to be His own possession.  We are also the people who daily and on Sundays cry out to the Lord to remember us, remember what He has done to save us, remember the mercy He has promised us, and remember what we need to endure in faith.

The truth is that we have made a stinking mess of the Church.  Worship and prayer are low priorities in the urgencies of this life.  The support of the work of God is never as urgent as our wants.  The pews are empty and most of us would rather mind our own business than call the lapsed to account.  We cringe at the call to repent and wonder when it will be worth while to belong to the household of faith. Will the Son of Man find faith when He comes again?  Our mess indicates that is pretty iffy.  But thanks be to God what Jesus has done and continues to do on our behalf.  He will never let go of us, He will forgive our sins, He will restore us when we fall, He will seek us out when we wander, and He will give us strength for all that we must endure.  But endure we must.

There is only one thing you can count on in pain, only one Word that gives you life, and only God who hears and answers prayers.  My brothers and sisters in Christ, persist in Him.  Endure in faith.  Do not give up.  Do not lose hope.  Do not surrender to your fears.  Do not abandon the Lord or His House.  Do not let your itching ears make you deaf to our Good Shepherd’s voice.  Do not let the desires of your heart rule over you.  You belong to the Lord.  You were bought with a price. You are not your own.  You are His.  You are His now no matter how hard it gets to be His child and live in this world so unfriendly to Christ.  You are His when He comes in His glory.  Fulfill your calling as the children of God.  And your pastors will endeavor to fulfill their ministry on your behalf.  Even as together we count not on us but upon Christ, upon the power of His cross to cancel sin and upon the power of His resurrection to raise us to everlasting life.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Inconvenient voices. . .

My mother and her family were part of the Evangelical Covenant Church (then called the Mission Covenant Church).  It was and remains a very small denomination of now less then 130K members in well under 1K congregations.  The Evangelical Covenant Church was born out of Pietism and has its roots within Lutheranism.  Begun in 1885, it has generally remained conservative.  That is saying something for a denomination without a formal doctrinal statement.  They claim to be “non-confessional, non-creedal and non-doctrinaire,” value the Apostles’ Creed, promote the study of the Scripture, are Trinitarian, and teach salvation by grace through faith, apart from works. The ECC describes itself as “Evangelical, but not exclusive; Biblical, but not doctrinaire; Traditional, but not rigid; Congregational, but not independent.”  Clear as mud, right?

To my ancestors coming to America from Sweden in the earliest days of the 20th century, this sounded like home to them -- especially the Swedish language and culture which the Swedish Lutheran congregation in town had begun to outgrow.  Though they hold to two sacraments: baptism and the communion and traditionally practice infant baptism, they are not doctrinaire about who gets baptized or when or what it means.  The same for Holy Communion.  In 1996 they officially said at their Covenant Annual Meeting that "Resolution on Human Sexuality" represented the ongoing consensus position of the ECC. The resolution upholds all the traditional words "celibacy, the state of abstaining (outside of marriage) in singleness, and heterosexual relations as the Christian standard".  In Omaha in 2019, the Evangelical Covenant Church voted to expel the First Covenant Church, a prominent and historic Minneapolis congregation, for being "out of harmony on human sexuality."  While the ECC is traditional and conservative, they do wish that less attention was drawn to LGBTQ issues.

In May 2021, North Park University (an official school of the ECC) discontinued its Christian Studies Department (CSD) citing low enrollment and then dismissed four tenured faculty, including Dr. Bradley Nassif, an ethnic Lebanese Christian of the Orthodox Church.  When this was challenged, an investigation by a neutral outside organization demonstrated that the CSD was in fact in a strong financial position and so the university rehired three of the four professors they had dismissed.  That is all but Dr. Nassif, who was a prominent, reasoned, and orthodox voice on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. He was the only faculty member in CSD who went on record in support of the ECC’s views of marriage and sexuality, and who said this position should be reflected in the curriculum and classroom.  It seems that  certain members of the faculty and administration found this objectionable and responded to his perspective with hostility.

My point in this is that Dr. Hassif and all those who hold to orthodox Christian views on the volatile issues of sex, gender, and marriage are inconvenient voices for nearly every Christian (and, I might add, Lutheran) university.  These institutions have to deal with federal regulations on so many levels and donor support and student recruitment and faculty recruitment and happiness -- all more urgent than vocally holding to the positions of their sponsoring church bodies which may not be supported by any of these.  These inconvenient voices are threatening what has become a balancing act worthy of any circus performers.  How do you mollify the church body and its official doctrines and procedures while still looking reasonable and normal to those who certify your programs, pay the bills, and send their woke kids to school there?  Indeed!  That is the question.  If it is difficult for a very small church body like the Evangelical Covenant Church, it is nigh onto impossible for the LCMS with its larger and more numerous campuses to manage and direct.  It could be completely without the realm of possibility for colleges and universities affiliated with Rome.  While those of us on the outside of these institutions of higher education cheer on the inconvenient voices, the administrations and boards of regents and recruiters find themselves wincing every time these voices hit the news.

It appears to me that either we find a funding model to make it possible for those schools to turn up their noses at the government and to ignore the impossibility of competing against other schools dependent upon the federal dollar OR perhaps it has come time to simply let them go.  Private universities without a prominent pedigree and endowment will find it hard to compete in the educational marketplace of the future.  If it is hard now, how will they find their way around government paid college tuition at state and local universities?  I am sad in my conclusion that we may simply be prolonging an inevitable choice -- pay up so that the schools are released from the constraints of government and general university culture or else let them go to fare for themselves in the vast sea of American colleges and universities.  I wish there was another option.  I am pretty sure there is not.  Until we figure it out, there will be more inconvenient voices from among those schools who think that religious orthodoxy should be an ordinary expectation from the denominations that founded and fund them (if not directly then with legacy dollars from the folks in the pews).