Wednesday, November 30, 2022

People look East. . .

"For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” — Matthew 24:27

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
by Eleanor Farjeon; stanza one

It is St. Andrew's Day, the day that triggers the start of Advent.  Advent, if it is anything, is an eastward facing season.  There have been a lot of opinions rendered about facing East.  We have all heard the real estate mantra, Location, Location, Location!  Well, what about where the altar is located and how the people face?

Traditionally, churches should face east.  We all know some of the reasoning -- East is the direction of prayer and Christ will come from the East when He comes in His glory.  Well, there are others but those depend upon where you are Eden's Paradise was believed to be in the east and Jerusalem lies in the east.  So it was natural that Christians would face both East and Christ as they faced the Altar.  Before I launch into this, it should be noted that the term ad orientem itself means to the east.  So the orienting of the church building to the east become the very word for how a building is sited or oriented.  The goal in this orienting is to see the sun rise through the windows during the mass.

However, the earliest Christian churches in the Holy Land did not face east but Jerusalem, the city of the Messiah and where He was crucified and rose.  When blessed Saint Helena made her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land and talked her son Constantine into building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the building did not face east but the apse and the anastasis, the chapel with the empty tomb, was in the west the very same orientation as the Temple of Solomon whose front door faced east.  Maybe there was some intended symbolism here the Christian altar seen as the fulfillment of the ark of the covenant in the west part of the Temple.

Move to Rome and the four of the most ancient and most important basilicas of Rome, Saint John Lateran (AD 324), Saint Peter’s (AD 330), Saint Sebastian’s (AD 330), and Saint Mary Major (AD 432), are not east facing but have their altars in the west. These were built by some impressive figures Constantine and the popes.  Did they build them backwards?  Or think of the great churches of Florence, arranged not to face east but in a circle around the great Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in the city center.

The orientation of the church building, no matter what direction it faces, is always east liturgical east.  Just as the direction the people face is always east — liturgical east.  Advent reminds us of this.  It is not a geographical point that east makes but a theological one.  In an ideal world they might always be the same but every church structure must be conceived of in reference to the site and other buildings around it.  The lesson here is not good geography but good theology where we face is defined not but bricks and mortar on the ground but the direction of our hope.  Perhaps we might remember this more often as we find Christianity failing not because our buildings are backwards or whatever but because our theology no longer flows from Christ or leads to Christ which is the point of it, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Not nostalgia. . .

Much of what passes for argument in what should or should not be done in worship is accused of being nostalgic for another age -- older folks who can remember TLH and the liturgical and doctrinal uniformity imagined in the 1950s and before.  Of course, this is foolish.  The only nostalgic folks in this are those who grew up as rock and roll unfolded into full bloom and who think that they should hear the sounds of soft rock in church on Sunday morning -- the ballads of the folk side of this genre or the music with a beat that you can dance to.  In either case, it is the nostalgia for a time in which truth began to surrender to feeling, morality to what feels good in the moment, and faith to feelings.  It was probably inevitable that in this view, Jesus would become a boyfriend or BFF rather than the mighty Word that spoken creation into being now incarnate and certainly rather than the Savior who pays for the sins of the world.

Strangely, those who are not old enough to have lived when TLH was in its prime are the ones who seem most nostalgic for its heyday.  I have written before that because they did not grow up or live as adults in the era when TLH was the hymnal for our Synod and the Common Service more common among all Lutherans, they do not realize the inadequacies and lacking of that era.  Clearly, however, the push to recover a common liturgy and common doctrine is not nostalgia -- the boomers who can recall these days tend, as a group, to be moving in an opposite direction.  Neither is it quite nostalgia among those who cannot recall the origins but who can appreciate the blessings of unity in liturgy and dogma.  What might be more appropriate is a deep sense of reverence, even awe, for the presence of God and the things of God.

Admittedly, it does not quite work to make TLH casual.  Forms had to be invented to supplant that book if a casual, God my buddy style of worship and music was desired.  Unfortunately, all the sins of this perspective get blamed upon the modern liturgical movement.  That is not quite true, either.  While it is fair to say that diversity and an embrace of local culture and the domain of preference left the door open for the worship band and diva and the love songs that imagine Jesus who is no longer present sacramentally, neither Vatican II nor the modern liturgical movement that attracted Lutheranism was about abandoning reverence.  It was more about making the forms more accessible, to be sure, and more united (all in one book for Lutherans), but it was also about restoring a profound sense of baptismal life and identity, a hunger and yearning for a Sacrament that then was celebrated monthly or less, and the rediscovery of the sacrament of absolution within the life and piety of the people and their pastors.  The problem for Rome was that Vatican II's direction was replaced by the personal goals of Annibale Bugnini and a distracted Pope Paul VI who rubber stamped his radical reforms.  The problem for Lutherans was far different.  The work of the liturgical movement and a common hymnal got hijacked by the radical cultural shift within America, the battle for the Bible, and the maturation of a thoroughly American form of Lutheranism more at ease with itself than it had ever been.  Put that all together and it is rather remarkable that the worship reforms of the mass were as tame as they ended up being -- certainly more moderate than some of Missouri's own experimenting in Worship Supplement (1969) and the first editions of the ILCW trial offerings.  In fact, looking at ELW and what happens among the evangelical wannabes of Lutheranism, even LBW seems thoroughly serviceable in hindsight.  But when they appeared and later LW, the break with our past dominated and, at least for Missouri, created a window for TLH to live on in practice but most of all in our dream of a more pristine and ordered past.

What those under 40 are looking for is radically different than their parents and grandparents imagined from the liturgical reforms of the 1960s-1970s.  They are not nostalgic as much as they are panicked by a piety that seems plastic and worship that is self-serving and self-referenced.  They are looking not for something from the past but something in a continuum with that past, a deliberate reform that marked a hermeneutic of continuity that has made even more attractive the Latin Mass among Romans and the Divine Service out of the Common Service tradition among Lutherans.  They are searching for authenticity, reverence, transcendence, and, most of all, integrity among the preaching and the liturgy.  You cannot blame them for nostalgia but you can blame those who used the moment of reform to introduce an alien spirit into the Divine Service, stripping it of all that had made worship distinctive and therefore God's work.  The nostalgia of those for folk rock and soft rock has taught their children and grandchildren to look for something different than their families desired and this has led them to look all the way back to 1941 in Lutheranism and the 1950s in Rome.  

Monday, November 28, 2022

Hosanna! He comes!

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (A), preached on Sunday, November 27, 2022.

It is but the First Sunday in Advent and already we are tired of Christmas.  While the Church ushers in a slow and deliberate unfolding of God’s promise, the world has already rushed already to the end.  We will today put up and set out the hallmarks of our hope in the hanging of the greens, the creche, the wreaths, and soon the tree with its white ornaments of faith.  The world has already broken the plastic trinkets and cheap knickknacks that were purchased in August.  What a beginning!

We think we know everything but it is clear that if we did know it, we have forgotten it.  More likely, we never knew it but were merely faking it.  It is no wonder that we are approaching a season of great loneliness, dissatisfaction, conflict, and disappointment.  We think a plastic holiday will suffice but the Church calls forth the voice of repentance and heralds the world to prepare the way for the Lord and shout “Hosanna” to the One who comes.

The reality is that our world is changing much too quickly.  We are more vulnerable now than in the past.  We struggle to keep up with it all.  Life is not getting easier or better and, since Covid, is shorter than it once was.  My friends, we need a real Savior now more than ever.  We are a people captive to our fears, our inner turmoil, our uncertainty, and our hurts.  We need a real Savior now more than ever.  We are a people who cannot bear to watch the terrible things that are called news but we cannot stop ourselves from screening through things important and trivial in our search for a distraction.  We need a real Savior now more than ever.

And so the Church calls out to us and calls us out.  We are coaxed from our homes and our convenient lives to take stock of ourselves and the world.  We are warned against the rose colored glasses of false hopes and dreams to survey the only real hope and honest dream there is.  We are warned against becoming too comfortable with death and taking too casually our sin.  We are bidden to repent and acknowledge that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves.  We are confronted with a Savior who came not because we called but because He loved us more than life itself.  We are comforted not by human progress but by the God who meets us in our failures with forgiveness and restores us when we fall.
The modern world has not helped us.  We have grown soft on the good lives that demand little from us except acquiescence.  Where other generations fought wars, we surrender our freedom any time it might cost us something.  Where other ages endured hardship and suffering as routine, we refuse to accept any pain or to deny ourselves any happiness.  Where has that gotten us?  As a people we wrestle daily with depression in our minds, despair in our hearts, and comorbities in our bodies.  We live unhealthy lives and we delight in unhealthy pursuits.  None of this can be fixed by merely by developing more self-control or self-discipline.  All of this requires a Savior to do the heavy lifting for us.

That is why we cry out today “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  Ours is not a hope of what might happen but the hope built upon what did happen.  God made Himself one of us that we might be made one with Him.  In Bethlehem a Virgin gave birth.  In Nazareth the Son of God grew up.  In Jerusalem the Savior died upon a cross.  And from Judea to the ends of the world, the message of our crucified and risen Savior has brought real hope to a plastic world and a people who might have been satisfied with mere sentiment over real truth and real history.

We are not trying to re-enact the life of Christ in the Church Year.  We are trying to remember the life He lived, the life He surrendered upon the cross, the life that could not be held captive in the grave, and the life that means you and I have a future and not just a past.  We begin Advent not as if Jesus had never lived but because He did live, as one of us in flesh and blood yet without sin.  We begin Advent not as if Jesus life were a mystery but because His life is the Gospel of hope to a people longing for hope.  We begin Advent not to make it to the manger but to make it to the cross where life overcome death, righteousness overcame sin, and peace still passes understanding.

The Word of God calls us to look and see Jesus.  The Spirit of God teaches us to cry out “Hosanna.”  The Word of God tells us Jesus is the long promised Savior who will redeem us lost and condemned sinners.  The Spirit of God teaches us to say “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  The Word of God says this is His body give for you and this is His blood shed for you.  The Spirit of God teaches us to sing “Hosanna in the Highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  And as we eat and drink in faith, the Spirit teaches us to say Amen.

The Psalmist is painfully correct.  Put not your trust in earthly rulers or kingdoms.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes is sadly on target.  All is vanity.  But the promise of Advent is still true and this hope will not disappoint.  God is here.  Not to judge but to save.  Not to condemn but to heal.  Not to placate but to satisfy.  Not to distract but to transform.  Not to surrender to despair but to overcome that despair with Christ’s once for all victory.

We are not optimists.  We know our enemies.  We know our trials.  We know the obstacles before us.  We know the temptations all around us.  But we know something more.  We know that Jesus was born of the Virgin by the power of the Spirit, that He suffered in our place the death of sin, that He rose for us that we might live no more in death’s shadow, and that love won so that love might win now in your life and in mine.

The world puts all sorts of doubt and fears before us, taunting us with our sins and dampening our hopes with the worst of news.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says marriage and family and children cost you too much and better to take care of yourself instead of your husband or wife or babies or teens.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says facts cannot save you and feelings are all that matter.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says make your best life now and than make your peace with death.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  The world says a plastic holiday is the best you can expect.  And what do we say?  Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  

A blessed Advent to you, my brothers and sisters.  God is with us now and the future is better than any of us could envision or dare expect – not because things are getting better but because Christ has come.  In the holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Not just knowing something but doing it. . .

We have watched as faith has turned into something personal but also private.  It has become largely a matter of what you know and of your consent to that knowledge to make it your own.  There is dispute about what informs what you know (is it feelings or experience or reason or revelation) and although faith has become a more experience or emotion centered reality, it is the reality you know or choose or perceive or have manifested.  Faith has also become a domain in which what you know is also personal -- less objective than subjective and truth that is the defined by the individual.  Truth itself is not a common possession but an individual determination.  It has come to the point where the things we once argued were not true for me have become the dominant expression of everything we consider real.  It is only true it if is true for me (facts become an invention of the individual and not the domain of community, history, or society).

But faith is not merely a matter of what we know.  It is also what we do.  Piety is not an enemy of the faith but its expression.  At some point of time we forgot it.  We got so angry with the pietist that we tarred and feathered piety.  The problem is that in making faith merely a matter of what you know, we have distorted what it means to have faith.  The pietist was wrong in making the experience the only realm of faith but in our pendulum move against pietism we erred in making knowledge the only domain of faith.  Walther once famously complained upon surveying the state of Lutheran Christianity and Protestant Christianity as a whole that it had exchanged the church or temple for the lecture hall.  He was quick to defend the ceremonial of the old Lutherans who had come to a new land.  Today we struggle to know what to do with piety because for some a doctrine light piety is the only religion.

That is clearly expressed in those (even Roman Catholics and Lutherans among them) who do not believe you need church to be a good Christian.  This is a confusion both of those who make reason the domain of faith and those who make emotion its home.  How did we get the idea that faith does not need church or worship?  How did we end up with the idea that believing does not mean praying or reading the Scriptures or serving the neighbor?  How did we get the idea that ritual or ceremonies are fine for the odd ones who like them but almost alien and foreign to the whole idea of believing?  How did we get the idea that watching worship as spectators without opening our mouths to speak or sing is what it means to praise the Lord?  How did we get the idea that Bible study primarily imparts knowledge instead of growing our faith so that we might live it out in our daily lives?  How did we get the idea that sacraments were meant for te individual and could be handled in some form online or at home?

Christianity is not simply about what is believed but what is confessed in actions and lived out in daily life.  You cannot say that you hold the Holy Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood in high regard and not hunger to receive it every time it is offered (even when conscience might preclude such communion).  You cannot say that you hold the Scriptures to be the Word of God and be more concerned about protecting its infallibility than receiving its efficacious power to do what it speaks.  You cannot say that you hold the office of the pastor in high regard and treat him like a hired hand, a budgetary expense, or a functionary who does what every can (and maybe should) do.  You cannot say that you love God and fail to love your brother in need (whether that need is to be forgiven and restored or food or clothing or shelter or job, etc.).  I think I might have read that last one somewhere -- oh, yeah, the Bible??!!  It is the whole deal.  It is discipleship and not membership, doctrine and practice, faith and piety, belief and life.  God does not redeem parts but the whole of us -- our full embodied selves and how that self lives even as what that self believes.

The great legacy of the information and internet age is that we treat information as personal and we are passive before it.  We hear it when it interests us or we have a personal need but most of the time we just squirrel it away in an information vault.  Because of that, we still treat God's house as not our own home, the things of God as His things more than ours, and the work of the Kingdom for those who want to do it or are paid to do it. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent Hymns Are the Best

I clicked on a list of the best Advent hymns and that list included only Christmas carols and a few old Christmas hymns.  The reality is that the world does not seem to know or care much about Advent.  This is surely shown by the fact that, outside of Lutheranism, few can even name an Advent hymn.  How sad!  Advent hymns are the best!  I will admit to a certain fondness for the Scandinavian texts and tunes of Advent -- perhaps the long dark winter caused them to produce some of the brightest and best of the poets and melodies of the entire church year.  Who could be said in the dark of winter while singing "Rejoice, Rejoice Believers?" 

Many years ago a follower of this blog who converted to Orthodoxy say that he missed the loss of Advent and the beautiful Lutheran Advent hymns most of all.  While I am not sure I would have put it quite like that, I get it.  In his own words:   What I miss most about Lutheranism are the Advent hymns, esp. Wachtet auf [Wake Awake, for Night Is Flying], Macht hoch die Tuer [Lift Up Your Heads or Fling Wide the Gates], and Nun kommt der Heiden Heiland {Savior of the Nations, Come] (among others) and a magnificent pipe organ to sing them with.

Let me add to his list of those wonderful Advent hymns:

Once He Came in Blessing
O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee
O Bride of Christ, Rejoice
The Night Will Soon Be Ending
Prepare the Royal Highway
On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry
When All the World Was Cursed
Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People
Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come
Let the Earth Now Praise the Lord
Arise, O Christian People
O Savior, Rend the Heavens' Wide
Rejoice, Rejoice Believers and Let Your Lights Appear

While the world is singing “You better watch out!  You better not cry. You better not doubt, I’m telling you why…”  we are singing "O Lord, How Shall I Meet You."

O Lord, how shall I meet You,

    How welcome You aright?
Your people long to greet You,
    My hope, my heart’s delight!
O kindle, Lord most holy,
    Your lamp within my breast
To do in spirit lowly
    All that may please You best.
Your Zion strews before You
    Green boughs and fairest palms;
And I too will adore You
    With joyous songs and psalms.
My heart shall bloom forever
    For You with praises new
And from Your name shall never
    Withhold the honor due.
I lay in fetters, groaning;
    You came to set me free.
I stood, my shame bemoaning;
    You came to honor me.
A glorious crown You give me,
    A treasure safe on high
That will not fail or leave me
    As earthly riches fly.
Love caused Your incarnation;
    Love brought You down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation
    Procured my liberty.
Oh, love beyond all telling,
    That led You to embrace
In love, all love excelling,
    Our lost and fallen race.
Sin’s debt, that fearful burden,
    Cannot His love erase;
Your guilt the Lord will pardon
    And cover by His grace.
He comes, for you procuring
    The peace of sin forgiv’n,
His children thus securing
    Eternal life in heav’n.
He comes to judge the nations,
    A terror to His foes,
A light of consolations
    And blessèd hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
    O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Your beams so cheering,
    And guide us safely home.

It is no sacrifice to withhold the Christmas hymns and carols until the Eve or the Nativity of our Lord and its twelve days.  In fact, some of the most noble text and tunes in our hymnal are reserved for one of the shortest seasons of the Church year.  Some of those beloved Christmas carols cannot hold a candle to these mighty Advent texts and tunes!  Have a blessed Advent singing them!

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The face of God. . .

Though we typically think of other body parts are those most intimate, nothing about us is as intimate as the face.  The Islamic custom of veiling the face of women is misunderstood by the West because we do not have much modesty and we do not think of any part of the body as revealing or revealed.  Nudity is ordinary today.  The face is considered by these at least as intimate as the private parts.  Just because we do not get it, does not mean that we do not practice this same understanding.  We know people by their face.  The face is what populates our social media and the face is where we express ourselves -- whether we want to or by accident.  The face is the window to who we are and how we are known and know others. It is the face where we look to discover what others are thinking, what they are feeling, or simply to find out who they are. 

It is on our face we express our joy.  Who among us has not been drawn in by the hint of a smile or the sparkle in the eyes when something wonderful has happened to them or their family?  Who among us has not turned away when grief or sorrow or pain made it impossible for us to look at others and who have not watched as people turn their faces away because they did not wish to be seen?  An example of this is something far too uncommon today -- the face of shame.  Among us, the emotion most associated with hiding the face is shame. You see this even among infants and small children -- long before they learn why, they have the deep instinct to hide or cover the face in shame. They cover their faces with their hands or quickly tuck their face into the chest of a parent.  That represents the unbearable aspect of shame and how it is expressed in the face, or the hiding of the face.

God's countenance or face is associated both with His blessing and His anger.  When He looks upon us, His face means blessing but when He turns away from us, the lack of His face is associated with the anger of God over our disobedience and the shame we ought to bear for that sin.  Face to face is not the norm for God but the mark of His mercy and the expression of His gracious favor.  Nothing expresses this more than the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6.  Our expectation of heaven is that it is always and only face to face.  Nothing will prevent it -- no more sin, no more death, no more shame, and no more pain. 

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Co 3:12-6 NKJ)

As St. John says, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jo 3:2 NKJ).   Because of sin, the gates of hell are written on our faces – to be sure.  But because of our baptism into Christ, the gates of paradise are also written on our faces. Face to face is where we behold and confront the mystery of our true self – the one that was marked by the rebellion of our first parents and the one that was and now is being re-created in the image of Christ through the means of grace.  Our sacramental life means precisely behold the Lord face to face --  seeing His mercy in the face of His Son and seeing in His Son our own redemption and new and everlasting life. God reveals Himself to us, the face of His mercy and grace, and bids us to see ourselves in His face.  This is the prelude and promise of what is to come and what we know now in part, but then shall know fully -- face to face.

Moses saw it fleetingly, the back and the shadow, just as Elijah saw before His glorious assumption.  The icon is an image not in the sense of Norman Rockwell or VanGogh but in the face.  Have you looked at the face on the icon -- it is out of proportion with the body.  The icon is primarily an image of the face.  It is a particular religious work of art that puts into practice this theology of the face.  Soon we will enter into a time in which this image is no longer painted but incarnate.  Tomorrow Advent begins.  It is the season of hope and expectation in which we remember the longing of Israel to see the face of God and it is the season of revelation and incarnation as we acknowledge how this longing was fulfilled in the Son of Mary.  In His face, we saw the face of God and still see that face.  It is not the face of condemnation or judgment but of mercy and redemption, seeking not to punish but to save.  Peering into the Manger we see what we see in the Cross -- the face of God who loves us and whose love to look upon our faces moved Him to become our Savior.


Friday, November 25, 2022

More incense is needed. . .

וְעָשִׂיתָ מִזְבֵּחַ מִקְטַר קְטֹרֶת עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ׃

You shall make a mizbayach for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.

Exodus 30:1

After giving instructions to the Children of Israel about the priestly garments or vestments to be worn by those who minister in His temple, the Lord God proceeds with instructions and a description of the golden altar for offering incense. Incense was an essential element of the Temple service -- a sacrificial offering burned twice daily. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would insert a pan of burning incense into the Holy of Holies before entering, waiting until the area was full of fragrant smoke.  Though the incense had the practical use of covering or distracting from the overpowering smell of death and burning flesh so pervasive in the Tabernacle with its sacrificial offerings, it also symbolized the prayers ascending to the throne of God (Psalm 141).   This is surely reflected in the New Testament, especially in the heavenly vision.  There John saw that the elders around the throne “were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 5:8; cf. 8:3). As Zechariah the priest was offering incense in the temple in Luke 1:10, “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.”

The incense with its exclusive recipe of 11 ingredients was offered morning and evening on its own special golden altar in the Holy Place, in front of the veil.  At first this was the special vocation of the High Priest alone.  By the Second Temple, the lesser priests also offered the incense, chosen daily by lot for the office, as was Zachariah the father of John Baptist. This incense burned not as ritual satisfaction of command but as the expression of the inward faith.  When Israel maintained the temple rites but was disobedient to God and their hearts empty of faith, God said through the prophet, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me” (Isaiah 1:13).   It is not the burning of incense per se or the discipline of its timing but the accompaniment of this practice with faith that delighted in the Word and will of God, walking in His ways, and expected His mercy that marked this and every ritual practice commanded by God.

There is another aspect to this.  To the Temple sacrifice is added the perpetual intercession of Christ.  The altar of incense can also be seen as a picture of the intercession of Christ -- the perpetual intercession of Christ on behalf of His Church. Just as the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard was a type of Christ’s death on our behalf, so the altar of incense in the Holy Place was a type of Christ’s mediation on our behalf — part of Christ’s work on earth that continues in heaven. The altar of incense was situated before the mercy-seat of the Ark—a picture of Christ our Advocate, standing in the presence of the Father (Hebrews 7:25; 9:24). raising up His petitions on high as He did on earth.  The incense was to be burning continually on the altar of incense, displaying the perpetual nature of Christ’s mediation. Christ’s intercession on our behalf is a sweet-smelling savor to God., as the Great Angel of the Covenant, Christ, offers up His petition amidst the smoke which rises from off the altar of gold.  Again, look at Revelation for this heavenly vision so profoundly described.

My point is this.  As Israel saw the smoke arising from the Temple and was comforted in travail and humbled in triumph, so it is important for us to pray and to count on the prayers of our Great High Priest, interceding for us with His blood, as the world around us wallows in its confusion of the obvious, its uncertainty of the truth, and its lies that replace the Word that endures forever.  Do not think your prayers are too little or not enough.  For Christ's own intercession is no small thing but one of the most profound and powerful works of His ascended and glorified position at the right hand of the Father.  He has given us this privilege and it has become our duty and delight to offer up prayers and petitions, supplications and thanksgivings, not here and there but continuously, without end, in the confidence that they not only rise but are heard in mercy and answered with grace to sort us out and sort out our times within the hand and will of God.  If for this reason only, incense ought to be burned in the churches of those who believe this still (although I am sure some readers will disagree).  If the world does not need to see the smoke, we do.  We all do.  So that we know as Israel once did that our prayers ascend to His throne of grace and that Christ brings those prayers with His own to the Father.  This is of great comfort but it is also great assurance in a world without much these days.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving

“Great and merciful God and Father, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, on this day of our national thanksgiving, I appear before Thee with gratitude in my heart and praise upon my lips. I extol Thee who hast opened Thy hands to supply our needs and Thy heart to forgive us our many sins. Thou hast permitted our fields to be tilled, the seed to be sown, the grain to ripen, the harvest to be gathered, gardens and orchards to give their yield. Thou hast prospered industries and business. Thou hast blessed the labors of our hands. Thou has preserved peace within our borders and spared our country from the horrors of war. Thou hast mercifully permitted the nation to pursue its course under the protection of our Constitution, granting us liberty of conscience and worship, freedom of speech and movement. I confess that we are unworthy of all these many blessings and undeserving of Thy love. Forgive us our many transgressions, and draw us closer to the heart of Christ, our Redeemer, who has atoned for all our iniquities. Continue Thy blessings on our beloved land; grant us an enduring peace and continued prosperity; graciously provide employment for all breadwinners. Let Thy Gospel be preached throughout the length and breadth of the nation for the salvation of many souls. Hear me for the sake of Thy Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. (1951 Lutheran Book of Prayer)


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Catechesis needs community. . .

One of my many failings as a parent is that I believed that if I only explained myself better, my children would see that I was right, do it my way (the right way), and life would be oh so better.  Perhaps at some point I applied it to the Gospel and the world.  If only we explained the Gospel better, the people would get it, believe it, and live it.  At least, I thought that is how it could work.

Now I am beginning to wonder if people act on the basis of what they know at all.  Certainly our behavior does not reflect what we know to be true.  We do not eat what we know are good foods and we do not avoid the foods we know are not good and we are wrestling as a nation with the consequences (obesity, diabetes, and such).  Could it be true that there is this disconnect in faith as well?  How else do you explain people who believe rightly and then choose as their favorite hymn "In the Garden" or some other little ditty at odds with orthodox faith.  Could it be that people's behavior and choices are driven not exclusively or even primarily by what they know and believe but by what they love or want or imagine to be good?  I am not saying doctrine does not matter or that beliefs are unimportant but only that they may take a back seat to what what they love, desire, and imagine as good. If this is true, then catechesis are not the only thing that is needed but we also need to affect and transform the worldview of people.  Do we need to engage our people more or do we need to transform what they love, desire, and imagine?  

It is possible for Christians to give consent to all the orthodox doctrines but to live as practical atheists in terms of what they desire, want, and love?  I fear it is.  I fear that people can believe somewhat orthodox doctrines of God and live in conflict with what they believe.  Their faith is not rooted in them and they are not anchored to that faith so that their worldview and lives are shaped by these beliefs.  We are constantly told that parents—not catechists, parishes, or schools—are the most important factor for passing on the faith and they do this not simply by instruction but by developing the habitas of the faith in the lives of their children.  It is for this reason that instruction may take place and the faith may be formed in words in the home but without the requisite regular and enduring attendance in worship, faith is detached from how one lives and what one does.  It cannot therefore be merely a matter of teaching the faith but forming the Christian.

Our young people and even our adults are not  leaving the Church in droves because they have first been swayed by bad arguments or changed their beliefs or reject the doctrines of the faith, they are leaving because the truth, beauty, and goodness of the faith were never really imprinted on their imagination in the first place. They mouthed the right words but their hearts did not find source and summit in the Word of God and the absolution and the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood and in the liturgy that is home to this preaching, reconciliation, and communion.  It is not the mind which altered the faith once taught to them but the imagination which remained aloof from and unaffected by the faith -- insisting that they believe as they always have but finding themselves more at home in the world than in the House of God.

Culture and community are as essential to the endurance of the Christian in the faith and in their practice of the faith in daily life as faithful catechesis is.  Modern religion rejects the doctrine in favor of the practice and the old religion presumes the primacy of doctrine over piety but both liberal and progressive religion and conservative doctrine lose for the failure to connect both catechesis and culture/community.  We dare not stop teaching doctrine but neither can we presume that the classroom forms the faith.  We dare not defer to the liturgy alone to form piety but neither can we presume that liturgy is not an effective part of the whole.

This is part of what I mean when I say restoring a weekly celebration of Holy Communion to Lutheranism is not the same as nurturing a Eucharistic piety.  Having a weekly general confession and absolution does not itself nourish a life in which mercy is the center.  Hearing a sermon and attending a Bible study every week do not equate to the profound and lively understanding of the Word as an efficacious voice that actually does what it says and delivers what it promises.  We must do more to connect what is believed with how it is lived and we must do more to connect how we live to how and what we believe.  All of this happens less within the isolation of a me and Jesus framework to faith an more in the community of the saints gathered at God's bidding in His name.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Classical music is racist. . .

So somebody forwarded me a link to a post entitled It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die.  Okay, there you have it.  The classical music that has survived poverty and war, Nazis and culture clashes, now must be euthanized because it is inherently racist.  What is amazing about this is that classical music is already on life support -- not because it is racist but because people no longer hear or value it.  In my own neck of the woods, Music City (Nashville for those who do not know it) has no classical music station anymore -- NPR long ago ditched classical music in favor of talk and alternative music (whatever that means).  They did so because they thought the edge was in the new things and they wanted exposure for their liberal politics and culture views and they thought they could shutter classical without it costing them much money.  Maybe it did not cost them money but it is missing from our radio dial not because there is something wrong with it but because we no longer teach it or value it.

The blogger has some other interesting things to say.  My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.  The writer equates the love of classical music with the affection the abused has with their abuser -- sick, distorted, and wrong.  It is America so you can have whatever opinion you want to have no matter how stupid or silly.  Strangely enough, some of the featured performers at the Nashville Symphony are people of color -- not white old men but people of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities who love one thing -- the genre and its wonderful music.  Which, by the way, were often composed by people on the fringes who did not have power or access to power but had to find a way to get sponsorship so that the music could be put on paper and played in the concert hall.  Genius is seldom appreciated by the powers that be.  Have you ever watched Amadeus?

Then there is this: Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. This is an absurd statement that stands only because people are afraid to challenge it -- fearful of being called racists themselves.  Where is the grand defense of Western art music against these charges. The silence is deafening. The champions and proponents of Western civilization, from museum directors, humanities professors, or symphony directors, are quiet before this CRT charge against classical music.  In the wake of the BLM protests, the League of American Orchestras issued a statement confessing that, for decades, it had “tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country.” The League pledged itself to confronting and 'dismantling” its “role in perpetuating the systems of inequity that continue to oppress Black people” and expected its member orchestras to respond in kind.  The Juilliard School’s president, Damian Woetzel, and Juilliard’s Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Initiatives pledged that the school would become a “community that not only rejects racism, but that is actively anti-racist, working to tear down systemic racism and injustice.”  The practice of concealing the musician through most, if not all, stages of an orchestral audition to prevent favoritism or bias (a process known as a “blind audition”) is challenged because colorblindness is now regarded as discriminatory, since it favors merit over race.  An announcer for American Public Media, told a Composers Forum roundtable in June 2020: “You are complicit in racism every time you listen to Handel’s Messiah” (because Handel held stock in a slave-trading company).

The threat to classical music comes at a time when, post-pandemic, orchestras and opera companies are hurting financially and by the empty seats in the audience.  Everyone knows this.  As one person put it:  “Two key sources for classical music exposure—circumambient culture and music education—have dried up.”  The "mob mentality" of those crying racism cares little for facts.  To equate tonal hierarchies with racial hierarchies is lunatic, as everyone knows, but that does not stop the advance of a Critical Race Theory movement out to kill and divide without offering any real effective solution.  The biggest victim of the racial attack on classical music is the music itself -- music that has little to do with racism at all and yet suffers because its defenders fear the wrath of those who control the microphone in this debate.  Before the lies accumulating about classical music, it seems that few if any conductors, soloists, or concertmasters will rebut those falsehoods or defend the music.  The petty self and the narcissism which is the single most profound characteristic of our time are shrinking our cultural inheritance until they will succeed in what the Nazis failed and make the music suffer for our own ignorance and corruption.  Those paid to serve as the keepers of our tradition know that classical music is a priceless inheritance but they are paralyzed by fear and are quietly watching as that legacy goes down.  Without the will to stand up and fight back against this race war and defend our classical music inheritance, we will end up with more than just a culture cancelled and lose that which has given hope and comfort to so many throughout the ages and which has marked the nobility of humanity even amid its most inhuman excesses.

Monday, November 21, 2022

The glory of the Cross. . .

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes called Christ the King, on Sunday, November 20, 2022.

The Church Year begins on an odd note – so unlike the pregnancy announcements of our day or the gender reveal parties.  Instead, Advent begins with the Palm Sunday crowd, with palms and hosannas, and Jesus entering into Jerusalem to make His way to the cross.  The Church Year ends on an equally odd note – so different than we want it to end.  Jesus is on the cross, warning the women to lament for themselves as much as for Him, forgiving those who crucified Him, facing the taunts of His enemies, and telling a criminal who called out to Him that this guilty sinner would enter into paradise through Christ’s death.  No wonder why some wonder how this might be called Christ the King Sunday!

It seems that Jesus cannot get away from the cross and that we cannot look at Jesus without remembering the cross – the cross that lay before Him when He was born and the cross that we are called to proclaim in His death and resurrection.  This is the shape of Jesus’ glory – it is the glory of the cross and He knows no other glory than the glory He reveals when He is mounted to the cross to draw all people unto Himself.  And we are reminded of this when our thoughts are headed to Thanksgiving and Black Friday and decorating for Christmas.

The problem we have is that we tend to judge Jesus and His glory in the light of earthly kings and kingdoms.  Just months a queen who had celebrated 70 years on the throne died.  Nobody do a ceremony like the English but the marvel of it all is that the British throne is symbolic – it is ONLY ceremony.  The crown is regal in its appearance but it holds no real power to govern or wage war or legislate law.  In earthly terms there is great glory here but it is all superficial.  That is not the case of Jesus.

Even though the glory of Jesus is real, it is a glory that is always wanting for us.  Where we want warriors and victory, Jesus offers us suffering and death.  Where we want triumph and domination, Jesus offers us life that is a struggle in this world and service that puts others before self just as He has done for us.  It is not the glory we would choose but it is the only glory worth having.  It is either the cross or it is nothing.  That is not simply true of Jesus, it is true for us.  Our hope lies not in dreams of mythic glory but the real glory of the cross where sin was answered and death destroyed.

When we were building this sanctuary, there was a big disagreement over that cross.  I was pushing for a very large crucifix.  Some insisted that Lutherans don’t even have crucifixes – we have only empty crosses.  They said that Jesus is risen and the cross is done.  The compromise was the triumphant Jesus whose wounds are not obvious, who is not in agony or suffering but with arms raised up in victory and blessing, and the cross is behind Him as if it were in the past.  Honestly, I wish I had pushed harder for a giant crucifix and the suffering Savior.  In the aftermath of it all, we added crucifixes all over our building.  The cross is Jesus’ glory.

Maybe you cringe at all of those suffering bodies of our Savior.  Maybe you don’t even notice them.  You should.  The majority of words in the New Testament are either the record of what took place on that cross or the call to preach without embarrassment or compromise Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Jesus says as much about money as He does about love or forgiveness or prayer or healing.  But He says most about what it is that is the center of the Gospel and how that good news is revealed in the work of suffering for a world that deserved nothing of it.

Now, here we are at the end of the Church Year.  And just as we began with the story of the Palm Sunday welcome as Jesus entered Jerusalem for the sole purpose of suffering and dying on the cross, that is how we end.  At the cross.  The challenge is not for us to like it.  The challenge is to see the glory of Christ in it.  We know Jesus as King only because we know Him as the Suffering Savior.  To know Him as Suffering Savior is to meet the King in all His glory and to enter into  His Kingdom forevermore.  That is where we stand today.  We look up to the cross, we trace the lines of His suffering, we acknowledge His death that gives us life, and here we learn what it means to call Him King.

In an interesting detail, some have suggested that Jesus’ absolution of those who crucified Him was not some general forgiveness offered to the many but a specific word for the Roman centurion who came to Jesus in Capernaum, who asked the Lord on behalf of his suffering servant.  This the same centurion who found himself with duty at the crucifixion of three condemned for death.  He recognized Jesus and was reluctant to participate in what he knew to be wrong.  Jesus forgives him because Jesus knows that His suffering and death are not accident or tragedy but salvation.  This same centurion stands in awe at Jesus’ death, “Truly this was the Son of God!”  And just maybe it was this centurion who is named Cornelius in the book of Acts and declared by Peter to be a righteous and God-fearing man.

Maybe that detail is exactly true or maybe not.  I do not know.  But the words from the cross are nothing but deliberate.  From the warning to the women who wail to the absolution from the cross to the promise given to the criminal who repents, all of these words are carefully chosen for you and for me as well as the Gospels.

To all who see the cross terrible tragedy, Jesus says “Do not weep for me but for yourselves and your children.”  Shed the tears of repentance and not of regret.  If we carry the guilt and the same of sins of omission in which hiding our Christian faith was easier than displaying it, Jesus would say, “Father, forgive them.”  If we would tremble in the face of death, Jesus would say, “Today, with Me in Paradise.”  That is what flows from the cross.  Blood?  Yes, but the blood that cleanses us from sin.  Suffering?  Yes, but the suffering that paid the price of our redemption.  Death?  Yes, but the death that gives us life.  That is why Jesus is King and that is the shape of His kingship and the path of our lives in His kingdom.

We glory in Christ and Him crucified.  We preach Christ and Him crucified.  We hold up Christ and Him crucified in the troubles of this world and as our pass to enter into the joy of our Master and the blessing of eternal life.  There is only one Jesus.  We know Him as the crucified who death gives us life and as the risen who will draw all people unto Himself.  That is the only glory of His kingdom and that is the only glory of Christ the King.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Let the dead bury the dead. . .

Of all the things that would mark humanity in distinction from the rest of God's creation, one practice stands out among all other things.  That is the way we treat the dead.  Though there are countless stories of dogs who wait at the graves of their owners or animals who are loathe to leave a dying mother or offspring, only human beings bury their dead.  At least that was once true.  Now, I am not so sure.

No matter the religion, there have always been burial rites associated with our dead.  From the common of a pauper's grave to the mighty mausoleum of the wealthy to the ordinary of simple plot of ground with a marker, we have tended with devotion to the bodies of those whom we love.  Even among those who have historically burned the remains on a funeral pyre, there is a rite and a process and an end to the remains of the dead.  While we might argue about the wisdom or faithfulness of various methods, what is in common is our attention to and our insistence upon reverence for the body and its disposition upon death.

Now there are reports of a more green alternative.  Human bodies can be composted.  It seems that there are human composting facilities that offer the choice for another way of disposing of the dead.  The state of Washington was first in 2019 and California the latest in 2022 to make such composting fully legal.  It is the perfect circle of life -- from dust to dust, with a little assistance along the way.  Or is it?  There is something rather odd and off putting about treating the human body in the same way you deal with banana peels and lettuce gone bad and potatoes with that peculiar odor of decay.  It is the ultimate disdain for the flesh and the triumph of the spiritual for the essence that remains unembodied gloats over the demise of the flesh with all of its weakness, frailty, and death.  But is it Christian?

I must admit that the current funeral practices do not offer us a clear Christian alternative.  It is not Christian to dress up the body as if it were not dead and show it off while suggesting the body looks better in the coffin than it did at the kitchen table.  It is not Christian to surround the body with sports memorabilia, favorite foods, trinkets from their collections, and photos of the family without even a cross to mark this body as one created by God and sanctified by baptism to be the dwelling of God in the Spirit.  It is not Christian to cremate and then make a shrine of the ashes in the home or to forget them in the closet or to sprinkle a little bit of your loved one over the many places special to them in life.  It is certainly not Christian to send the body to a facility to be turned into mulch for the garden.  Why do we do such stupid things?  Why do we think we are being wise and faithful by doing such things to the bodies of those whom we love?

There was a time when it was generally and genuinely believed by all of us that humans were unique in nature, unlike any other creature, created by God as life distinct from and elevated over all other life -- and therefore worthy of our respect. We all knew and it was the common thread of all our morality that when we crippled or diminished that life, we did evil. When we killed that life and discarded such life, we did the worst of all wrongs.  We had a common respect for and fascination about the mystery of life.  So that when we served the living, we believe we were doing good and when we served the bodies of those who died, we were according to them the dignity deserved of humanity. But that was then. I am not sure when it changed but it did.  Now, it would seem, that we find the body nothing but an expensive bother and a problem in our green world -- one solved by composting the dead while thinking that we are treating faithfully the dust that will return to dust anyway.

C. S. Lewis imagined it all in The Abolition of Man.   In Lewis’s words, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.” Perhaps this is the logical end to a view in which the most God has done is create some parts and the rest was merely an accident of chance.  All that we can hope is that one day we will remember that God did not merely created bits and pieces but things -- complete in their life and identity even though marred by sin.  If that day comes,  we just might have to change our burial practices.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Sin obsessed. . .

In my cursory perusing of some blogs, I came across one where the complaint was made against proponents of the Latin Mass that, among other things, they are sin-obsessed.  Curious.  That is certainly not something that would be said about the typical Novus Ordo.  It seems, if not in words then in practice, to be obsessed with making common what is extraordinary and rendering casual what is solemn and formal.  The reality is that there is really very little talk about sin anywhere anymore -- not in Roman parishes, certainly not in Anglican ones, and hardly at all in Protestant Churches.  In fact, you just might have to visit a congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to hear some sin-obsessed talk from the pulpit.  Indeed, that is often the complaint I get from those visitors who come from liberal and progressive congregations (whatever stripe they might be).  There is too much talk about sin and forgiveness.  Oh, well.

It would seem that you could turn the Scriptures into a small pocket booklet simply by removing all references to sin and forgiveness.  You may or may not be happy with the content you had left after such a editorial task but it is clear God would not be happy.  He was the One who put all that talk about sin and forgiveness into His Word -- unless you subscribe to the notion that the holy men of God wrote their own material, from their own perspectives, and did not write any Spirit breathed content into the Scriptures.  Some do, oddly enough.  But if you are going to ignore all the talk about sin and forgiveness in the Scriptures, you may just as well remove all that talk about inspiration as well.

The strange thing is not that Scripture speaks so often about sin and forgiveness or that the only way the cross is anything but a tragedy of an innocent dying for no reason is sin and forgiveness -- the strange thing is that it is so easy for some to overlook, skip over, edit out, and silence.  How odd that we would spend so much energy and time into editing out what God has written so clearly!  But that is what we do.  The Christian uncomfortable with all that the Bible says about sin and forgiveness will certainly be just as unhappy with the classic mass or Divine Service.  It begins with sin and forgiveness and the only reason it has anything to offer is because the gift of the Word and the Body and Blood is sin forgiven.  

No, if it offends your sensibilities to talk about sin and forgiveness (except corporate sin or the sin of failing to be true to self), then Christianity has little to offer.  It positively stinks as a self-help religion of how to be good.  That pesky law keeps pointing out flaws in our character and failings in our discipline until either the law goes or we do.  It seems that for most, the law has disappeared and with it all that cranky old content about original and actual sin and personal accountability and culpability and the God who became His people's Savior -- even at the cost of His own body in suffering on the cross and laying dead in the tomb.  No, try as you like, it is a religious failure to try and carve out a Christianity without the cross, without sin, and without forgiveness.  But that's okay, you can keep trying.  I wish I could say God is laughing but He has no sense of humor when it comes to sin and its consequences.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The imaginary good old days. . .

Ever since the 1960s there have been Christians longing for the good old days.  You know, the good old days when there was no rigid doctrinal confession, when the communion table was open and welcoming to all, when people were more forgiving of diversity, when worship was casual, when there was no real priestly or sacramental ministry, when the Word was fluid, oral, and spontaneous...  I could go on but it is making me sick -- literally.  The good old days that some have been thinking about are imagined and not real.  It is not the medieval church that complicated what was simple, easy, free, and fun.  The early church was itself the paragon of doctrinal controversy, rules for who may or may not commune, insistent upon uniformity of doctrine and practice (if not quite in the words of the liturgy), reverencing the office and the liturgy, when the sacramental life of the Church was paramount for the Church and all the faithful, and when the Word of the Lord was unequivocally seen as the words of the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and evangelists (in other words, the Old and New Testament as we have them).  There was much less room for a conversation and preference than there is routinely today -- even among the most stringent of Christian traditions.

Read the discourses between the apostles and Jesus throughout the Gospels.  Read through the Didache.  Read through the sermons of the early fathers (pre and post Nicene).  Read the proceedings and findings of the great councils (including one in Jerusalem reported in Acts).  Open your eyes, people.  You who long for the simple and easy days of yesterday will not find them in any era of the Church.  That is because the Church is made up of sinners (redeemed sinners but sinners still) and the leaders of the Church have always been sinners (some publicly worse or better than others).  This is because Satan is always near our churches (remember the old saw about Satan building a chapel where we build every church?).  This is because the world which did not welcome Jesus will not welcome or approve or accept or tolerate those who believe in Him, confess Him, and walk in His ways. 

The Church has not necessarily complicated what once was simple as much as the Church has faced the limitations of her sinful leaders and members and been caught in the waning crossfire of the battle between God and Satan.  Instead of spending our time longing for a day that never was, let us let go of the imagined pristine day and focus our attention on remaining faithful now before the challenges before us.  Frankly, I am wearing of pleading the imaginary good old days when such nostalgia does little more than increase our misery and may contribute to our difficulty in finding a way forward amid the challenges thrust upon us today.

What I will say is this.  The Church of the past endured not because she found a compromise or a path around the obstacles placed in the road ahead.  She endured because she was faithful.  I wish that things were not so complicated all the time but, as my grandma said, if wishers were horses, beggars would ride.  We cannot wish our way out of the complicated present or the cloudy future but if we are faithful and willing to pay the cost of faithfulness and risk being unpopular or rejected by our enemies, we will endure and we shall be saved and we shall be found worthy when Christ comes again in His glory.  In the end, that is really all that matters.  We can make things easier on us by compromising and acquiescing to the tenor of the times but God will hold us accountable and in the end it is only His judgment that matters.  Good old days?  Maybe.  More complicated and demanding than we remember, probably.  One more thing, some day somebody will think of this moment and long for it as if it were the good old days when life was simple, faith was easy, and truth was certain.

Friday, November 18, 2022

The shape of things to come. . .

A while ago a Catholic diocese in the Netherlands announced that 60% of its churches must close in the next five years due to dwindling churchgoers, volunteers, and income.  99 out of the current 164 Catholic churches would have to close in five years. Of the remaining 65 churches, 37 could continue for five to 10 years as “support churches,” leaving just 28 “central churches” considered viable in the long term.  According to the bishop, " the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the process of shrinkage we were already in: faithful churchgoers of an advanced age have grown even older and have sometimes stopped attending church; others have become accustomed to a different format for Sunday mornings, volunteers have dropped out, choirs have stopped.”   In the 1950s around 80% of the Roman Catholics in the Netherlands attended Mass, compared to around 3% of 425,000 baptized.  That would make it roughly one central church for every 13-15,000 baptized Roman Catholics.  Clearly the problem is not simply evangelization and reaching new people but keeping the ones you have and convincing them there is a reason and a need to be together around the Word and Table of the Lord.

But that is exactly the problem, isn't it?  Every Christian tradition is struggling not simply with outreach but with retaining those who belong and convincing them that there is a need, a reason, and a purpose to be together around the Word and Table of the Lord every week.  We struggle with the new norm of once a month regularity and the competition provided by the things that keep us nestled in at our homes and that draw us out but away from worship.  We live in a time when people overwhelmingly think themselves spiritual and even Christian but shy away from the idea of religion.  It is surely the fruit of failed catechesis and an inconsistent practice from their home life growing up.  The Church will need to repent of some sins, the clergy will have to own up to their failures, and parents will need to admit that they depended upon others to do what was their role as spiritual leaders of the home.

No solution begins by simply closing the doors and shuttering up buildings.  Maybe some of them will have to close and maybe the clergy will have to serve various locations to serve the faithful but the answer to the great problem before us is solidly with catechesis,, with the expectation of weekly participation in the sacramental life of the Church, with the renewal that comes from knowing and hearing God's Word,, and from the anchor of this faith in the home.  There will be no impact upon the wider culture if we fail in these things and there will be no headway made against the growing irreligion of culture and society unless we take up the creed and confession and give it voice and witness in our own homes and in our own generation.

We are always interested in short cuts, always tempted by magical new ways around the deliberate, tried, and true path of solid catechesis and Biblical preaching and teaching, without the necessity of faithful, weekly gatherings together around the Lord's Word and Table.  This is our weakness and our temptation and its poisoned fruits have been born in our age, just as they were manifest every time those who went before us sought a shortcut.  But the warnings of church closings ought to be wake up calls for the Church today that effective witness must be accompanied by faithful catechesis and this must be sustained by the unwavering call to be in the Lord's Word and around the Lord's Table every week.  I well recall when I came to my first and also to my present parish the laughter than erupted when I was asked what were my goals and the answer was every member in worship and Bible study every Sunday and living this faith out every week.   We are not guarding buildings but the souls who gather therein.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Not in the margins. . .

Typically, modern Christians approach the Scriptures as a book that does not say anything until you say it says something.  What that means is that Scripture depends upon someone to believe it for it to be true.  It is not that modern Christians dispute or reject everything, they reject what does not accord with their own worldview and judgment and leave the rest -- the rest which varies depending upon the person.

They believe that unity is about the core and center of what Scripture says -- a gospel reductionism which finds facts less compelling than the call to love.  Indeed, as Norman Nagel pointed out, love is both the summary of the Gospel and the Law.  It is hard to know which love modern Christianity is referencing in its summary -- whether Law or Gospel.  But it is clear that everything else is negotiable -- only love is essential.

The problem is this.  When you reject the parts you find objectionable or negotiable, you are probably also rejecting the very Word of God itself.  It is official in most Christian traditions that no one has the power to change the truth of God's own self-disclosure or to reject it in part or in whole -- without also rejecting Christ.  Indeed, somewhere in our official statements, all Christian traditions insist that both ministers and the faithful are no more and no less than servants and defenders of the apostolic Word and the prophetic promise.  In reality, however, the practice has been to affirm words but to allow wide diversity in what those words are deemed to mean and to say.  Some traditions are more able to hold the line than others but every Christian tradition suffers from a fear and reticence to condemn anything but the most egregious examples of heresy and apostasy.  Holding to the core is enough while allowing diversity about the fringe.

The problem is this.  Rejecting what some consider to be the fringe is actually attacking the core and degrading what Scripture says about that core because it raises questions about those fringes (even when Scripture speaks clearly and offends the modern view of things).  Looking at the creed it is easy to see that rejecting God's deliberate creation of all that exists requires rejecting the truthfulness of the Word of God.  Rejecting such things as the Virgin Birth or the physical resurrection of Jesus will inevitably lead to rejecting Jesus and all that has been said about Him and He has affirmed within the Scriptures.

We are not rejecting doctrinal formulations of men or of churches nor are we rejecting parts not essential to the whole.  The modern confession has rejected the very Word of God itself, that which was entrusted to the apostles and the sacred deposit to be believed and treasured and witnessed.  We do not know better than the Lord Himself.  What we have concluded on the basis of observation and the conclusion of reason lies beneath God's Word and not above it.  The divine revelation, as we know it in Scripture, is given to us to believe and therefore we submit to that Word and obey it.  We stand under the Word of God and not above it.  

What the Church has wisely considered open questions are those things where the mystery remains untouched by human wisdom and speculation so that nothing can be said dogmatically.  They are on the fringes and are open not because we have decided they do not matter but because God has not disclosed them definitively.  Unlike modernity which presumes that most of Scripture is unclear, we affirm that what is unclear is not simply little but the little which does not affect our faith and salvation.  In this way we are not putting doubt on what God has said but refusing to put an explanation point where God has not placed one.  Neither have we rejected what God has said in His Word in favor of another voice and another word that fits our moon in the moment.  As soon as modern Christianity begins to omit from the faith the Scriptures that it finds uncomfortable or consigning those to the fringes where disagreement is not only tolerated but celebrated, the core and center of Scripture and the Christian faith is weakened and faith itself is at risk.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Micro or mini. . .

No, this is not about skirts or cars but about dioceses (districts, synods, or whatever you name the geographical divisions of a church body).  With the decline in numbers of members has come an even more precipitous decline in the numbers of those actually active -- in church on Sunday.  The actual proportion of members who attend has diminished regularly over the years and even more so in the wake of the pandemic.  Even before Covid, it was becoming harder and harder to justify the layers of management in church bodies.  As congregations decline in size and as resources are used locally more and more to simply stay alive, the pressures upon the structures of regional and national jurisdictions will have to change.  One obvious change would be to make larger dioceses.

Rome may not quite be there yet but the Episcopal Church long ago passed the point of viability for some of its smaller dioceses.  In contrast to the growing areas of Anglicanism in the Global South, western bishops more often lead "micro-dioceses" where the total attendance of the parishes in those diocese numbers less than 5,000 and often less than 1,000.  While it looks nice to have so many bishops in a procession, the cost of maintaining those many bishops is rapidly approaching the point where nobody will be able to afford the pageantry.  Where Africa may routinely boast 75% of their membership in worship on a Sunday, the western jurisdictions often hover around 10%.

Lutherans are not far behind.  Although the LCMS has a leaner structure than the ELCA, we are also at a point where the contrast between large districts of 150-175,000 people and the smallest districts (New England and New Jersey) of 10-15,000 people is harder than ever to explain economically.  Neither of these take into account the actual numbers of folks in church in those districts -- typically 20-30% of the actual number of baptized members.  In the ELCA the smallest synod has 30 congregations and the largest 300.  I have not been able to locate actual numbers of members for the ELCA synods but I am sure the numbers are bleaker than what is typically thought.

At some point these churches will have to decide.  Either the solution lies in merging smaller jurisdictions with larger and continuing the same overhead spread over more people or keeping these divisions small and instead serving them with a part-time bishop/district president.  I am an advocate for smaller groups with at best a full-time administrative assistant and part-time bishop/district president with the programs and resources for specific areas (like schools) functioning regionally.  There are really only a couple of essential duties for the episcopal office (no matter the nomenclature), roster and ecclesiastical supervision.  The supervision is, in part, already shared with deans or circuit visitors so I find no reason why this would not work.  But it probably will never be given a chance because perceptions drive what we do even more than facts.  The larger geographic units will not want to dilute their influence by dividing up into 5-6 smaller units and the smaller units want to keep up with the Joneses.  So the real future probably lies in continuing the structures we already have until we border on bankruptcy.  That is a sad justification for the use of resources that could better be used where they might actually do some good.

While I am writing this as Missouri Synod Lutheran, you can apply my comments to the state of most non-Roman Catholic jurisdictions in America.  Remember, mileage may vary.  In any case, membership not in worship regularly may not be the best value to use when deciding on the right structure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The real agenda of synodality. . .

It would seem that graphics say what some will not say with words -- the real agenda of the Synodality movement.  Look at the graphic.  There is front and center the gay/transgender figure, with ethnic diversity on either side, a woman in a chasuble, and, seemingly, a young man on the right.  As if we did not already know, the path to reform and renewal in nearly every church, this one Rome, is through the path of justice in which everyone is given place and voice along with God.  It is clear that the Germans, who are leaders in the Roman movement for synodality, have a particular agenda in mind and it echoes the diversity, inclusion, justice, sexual liberty, gender identity, and the global climate movement heard so clearly from the liberal and progressive voices in society everywhere.

Some of my readers are wondering why I bother with this but this is not something isolated to Rome.  It has already happened among Lutherans.  The rainbow is almost as recognizable as the Luther Rose as a symbol for many Lutheran congregations, jurisdictions, and agencies.  That marker is laid down not as goal but as the starting point for what is considered Lutheran by those groups.  Gone are the days when justification was the chief article on which the church stands or falls and here are the days when the litmus test of Lutheran identity has become a social construct.  While this is less true among some Lutheran groups, the big names of the West have all caved into this political ideal to replace the cross and empty tomb.  The Gospel has become love without bounds, without judgment, and without direction.  It has become a pathetic shoulder pat or side hug from God who cares little about who we are and what we do -- as long as we are true to ourselves (whatever we think those selves to be).

The agenda of synodality begins with the call for a voice from those considered on the margins of the churches.  It began so among Lutherans when the ordination of woman was pressed as a justice issue instead of a theological one.  One of the earlier Lutheran women ordained in the LCA renounced her ordination and headed for Rome in part because she felt that she had been given an office without a theological underpinning to that decision to depart from Scripture and tradition.  I am countenancing her choice to head to Rome but only pointing out what happens when you invent a lex in search of a ratio.  It was only natural to extend beyond women to others (LGBTQ and more) the laying on of hands without bother for a rationale.  The Gospel was only creative and had become little more than an allowance to do what is right in our own eyes.  We have seen such justification in everything from morality to what happens in worship and the end result is to gut the meaning of the very word Lutheran -- perhaps what the Germans and their allies are seeking to do with Rome -- and let everyone decide for themselves what the words mean.

It is the inherent danger of democracy as the guiding principle in organizing and governing the Church.  We think that we need to mirror political strategies in bringing as many people as possible to the table and giving them equal voice and vote to decide what is good and right in their eyes -- presuming then that it is good and right with God as well.  There may have been a day when churches could distinguish between voting on the Word of God and voting on other matters but today that distinction has become so blurred that the only caveat we give is that to overturn Scripture and tradition you must have at least a two-thirds majority vote.  The sacred deposit and the living voice of God's Word are no longer the singular authorities in the minds and hearts of many Christians (including Lutheran ones) and so they are no longer the rule and norm for what the Church believes and lives out before the world.  The democracy has become a tool in the hands of those who would undo what Scripture says because it is either unpopular or deemed irrelevant.   There is only one group routinely excluded from the table today and that is the faithful who went before.  As Chesterton so put it:  "Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."

We have deemed leadership to follow where the world, the culture, society, and the minds of the people are headed and gone are the days when leaders of stature could say "no" to these influences.  It is a struggle and a fight to hold onto God's Word and live in the pattern of the faithful throughout the generations who went before us.  It has become a challenge to pass on without diluting or changing the faith once delivered to the saints.  But this is precisely where we must be and what we must do.  We cannot claim to be the Church and betray the Word of God to meet somebody's ideal of diversity or satisfy someone's desire for equity or fulfill everyone's desire to have equal voice with the Word of God.  Indeed, that is where we relinquish our right and claim to be the Church and become the dead stones on which nothing can and will be built that endures.

What we think about the things of God cannot be allowed to edit or obscure the things of God.  This happens every bit as much when we lead the people by poll or opinion sampling as it does when we lead God's people with our own agendas superimposed upon the Lord's.  That is not a danger simply to Rome and the Germans but to every Christian congregation and jurisdiction.  In the end, the test ought to be the fruits.  The fruits are poison and our experiment with relevancy and inclusion have not led to more people in worship but fewer and fewer.  

The evangelicals pass around their people to the newest and latest thing to hit town.  The Romans strum their guitars and sway with their aging priests in an effort to make casual what is serious and to make ordinary what is mystical.  The Anglicans keep the words and do it all in fine style but the words are empty and underneath it all is a surrender to modern morality and values under the image of fine ceremonial.  The Protestants in their own ways have tried to follow the world, jettisoning their more conservative voices, so they can sing with one voice the song of the moment, couched in the vocabulary of the eternal.  And we Lutherans are just as much a mess.  We are silent while the largest of our congregations practice like the evangelicals or offer a smorgasbord of services to fit every taste and then nitpick at those who insist that we did not ditch our catholicity in the name of reform.  We are all growing smaller and facing the increasing temptation to keep the doors open and the lights on until the last one leaves or dies.  This is how we have surrendered not only God's Word and truth but the hope that is in us.  For these we will all be held accountable on the day of judgment -- have we rightly handled the Word of truth and faithfully served the cause of Christ no matter which side the pew we find a seat.