Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Not a refuge but a promise. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (A), preached on Sunday, January 29, 2023.

One of the most appealing lines of Luther’s mighty fortress hymn is that idea that God is our refuge, our hiding place, our bulwark, our safe place.  The truth is that this is what we want most of all.  We want a place where we can go to escape the slings and arrows of misfortune or a world against us to a life that is bounced too hard by the changes and chances of this world.  That is why certain beatitudes appeal to us.

We think of ourselves as poor or humble in spirit and so we want to look forward to heaven as a the justice to raise up our humility.  We think of ourselves as a people who grieve so many losses and so we are pretty sure we are owed a little comfort.  I could go you.  You get the point.  We can own all of these words of Jesus as long as with those words comes the prospect of a little balance, something to make up for that which we have lost and something to balance our what we have suffered.  The problem with this way of thinking is that Jesus counts the blessings in future tense.  They will be and shall be but not firm delivery date is given.

On the other hand, the suffering part of these beatitudes are all in the present tense. The persecution, reviling, slander, and such are not in the future but they are now.  It is as if Jesus is saying that the devil roaring about seeking whom he may devour will get his way and consume us.  No wonder we want to find a safe house whose address the devil does not know nor the world even suspect.  No wonder we want to believe that there is a safe place for the people of God where bad things can be kept at bay.

But what does Jesus really say?  There will be persecution.  The world will hold you in  contempt.  There will be rejection.  There will be lies said about you and falsehoods said about you.  It is not if but when these things happen.  They happen not because you screwed up or you did not find the refuge God had promised.  They happen precisely because you belong to Christ.  As the world treated Him, so will it treat you.  In fact, if you are not being persecuted or lied about or slandered because you belong to Christ, maybe it is not all that obvious to the world to whom you do belong?

You do not get a safe place where you will suffer no slings and arrows defaming you or causing you harm.  What you do get is Christ.  “I am with you.” He says.
He does not watch as the world attacks us but stands with us.  He is our captain and our cause but He is with us in the trenches and suffers with us and for us all that the world can dish out.  We are not above our Teacher but neither is our Teacher above us.  We are blessed not because our lives are immune from the real costs of being the people of God.  Neither are we blessed because we are suffering.  We are blessed because we know Christ – He is our blessedness and He will guard us as His own treasured possession.

These beatitudes are not slogans for the kingdom nor are they meant to inspire us to work harder.  No, they are the description of the burden already born for us by Christ and the shape of the lives of all who live in Christ.  It is not that we are sheep among wolves because the days are particularly bad.  We are always sheep among wolves.  The Gospel here is not that trials and tribulations will not come but that Christ is with us.  He will not surrender us to the wolves.  He will not allow us to be devoured by our enemy.

The promise in these words is this – yours is the Kingdom of God.  That is no small promise.  Yours is the Kingdom of God when the world is ganging up on you, when you are being lied about because of Christ, when you are being targeted because you live in Christ, when you are threatened because you belong to the Lord.  Yours is the Kingdom of God.  This is not some consolation prize because God could not give you the good stuff.  This is the good that endures long after the persecution, slander, and condemnation are forgotten.

We sing “Have good cheer, little flock, have good cheer, little flock; for the Father has chosen to give you the kingdom, have good cheer little flock.”  That is the promise.  Your cheer and comfort and consolation are not found in the temporary reprieves you sometimes have from the world and the work of the enemy Satan – your cheer and comfort and consolation come from the fact that God has given you the kingdom and no one can take it from you.

Of course, there are times when God gives us a breather from the steady pass of persecution and threat.  We Christians have our moments and maybe even a short season of peace and rest.  But the nature of our Christian lives is that we are living in a world in conflict with Christ and His kingdom.  So every day we live here, there will be struggle and sorrow and pain and suffering.  Even yet, the Kingdom of God is still ours and nothing we endure here can steal it away from us.

There would be no suffering for God’s people if we would surrender the kingdom to the world, give up the Lord for a few moments of reprieve here and now.  Truly that is the temptation.  And that is what some Christians have done – deciding that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  But if you are convinced that your best life is now and that it is your goal to keep this life as easy and painless as possible, you have already been lost to the Kingdom of God.  For now, the Kingdom of God will always be hidden in poverty and want, mourning and meekness, hunger and pain.  But even here, Christ is still present.

St. Peter reminds us that gold is a pretty precious metal and yet it is refined by heat, burning the imperfections out of it so that what remains is pure.  Gold is not nearly as precious as you are to God and yet sin is still the inclination of your heart because of the fall and the devil knows all your weak points.  So God is even now using this time to purify your faith.  Indeed, it is happening to the whole Church.  The more she is pure, the more the Church suffers in a world at odds with Christ and His saving purpose.  The Church, we, can end this suffering by giving up the faith but we gain the moment only to lose eternity.  Every day is a battle about who you are and whose you are.  But through it all, the Kingdom of God is YOURS and no one can take it from you.  A hiding place is not what you need but endurance.  For he who endures to the end shall be saved.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.


How curious it is!  The question raised was Is forced treatment for the mentally ill ever humane? It came up because of plans in urban areas to deal with the homeless who are mentally ill, taking them off the streets and placing them into places of refuge and treatment -- even involuntarily.  At no surprise to anyone, the plans are from saltwater cities and states.  

Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York City, instructed police and first responders to hospitalize people with severe mental illness who are incapable of looking after themselves. Mr Adams’s plan is a reinterpretation of existing rules. Law-enforcement and outreach workers can already remove people from public places if they present a danger to themselves or others. But now, the mayor stressed, people can be hospitalized if they seem merely unable to care for themselves. “It is not acceptable for us to see someone who clearly needs help and walk past them,” Mr Adams proclaimed.

At the urging of Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, the state legislature passed the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (care) Act in September , creating a new civil-court system aimed at directing the mentally ill and homeless to treatment and housing. Patients can be referred to care court by police, outreach workers, doctors or family members, among others. Acceptance into the system means court-ordered treatment for up to two years, after which patients can “graduate” or, potentially, be subjected to more restrictive care, such as a conservatorship.

What is so strange is that along with these plans grows the inevitable chorus of those who suggest that involuntary treatment is never humane.  Except, of course, when it is the killing of the unborn who have no say in the matter or the assisted suicide of people who cannot decide for themselves that their lives are not worth living or the mandate of vaccines as condition of freedom or the treatment prior to puberty of gender dysphoria.  We can have a debate about the wisdom and benefit of caring for homeless with psychotic disorders but not about the free choice of a woman to kill the child in her womb or the family (or state) to put an early end to a life, or what some have decided is a life-saving mandate of health care (even though its proof or track record remains to be seen) or what is the appropriate response to possible prepubescent gender questions.

The joke here is inhumane.  We live in a culture which has decided it IS humane to kill the child in the womb right up to the moment of delivery for whatever reason the mother chooses to give.  We live in a culture in which the majority think it is humane to let the feelings of the moment or the judgment of others decide when to painlessly end a life not worth living.  We live in a culture in which it is humane to prevent the onset of puberty or to surgically alter the bodies of children before they have reached any sort of emotional or mental maturity.  Inhumane?  We cannot even define inhumanity.  Why are we so worried about the forced care of those with psychological disorders and homelessness but not about these other things?  Nope, the inhumanity of the whole business is a reflection of our fallen natures gone mad with power and self-imposed importance to the point where there is no sensibility left.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Self care -- Jesus approved!!!

So I got an email with that title in the subject line.  It began with a description of the typical motivational posters in every office or cubicle, assuring me that they too found it kind of kitschy.  But still, motivation is key to productivity.   I was warned of the wrong kind of motivational direction (1 Tim. 6:9–10).   Even though Christ promises peace, I was warned about how peace can become my idol as well.  Of course, I was encouraged not to find my motivation in the praise of people -- either peers or those I serve -- because I don't want to end up a Pharisee and hypocrite.  Finally, I was warned against seeking a legacy.  This is something I am sensitive to because my time as Senior Pastor will come to a close sooner rather than later.  Better to be moved for eternal reward than earthly recognition or glory.  Sounds Biblical, doesn't it?  If we really believe that our treasure is in heaven, then our work, productivity, and the motivation that fuels us should reflect that truth, shouldn't it?

In the end it was another example of the pablum that comes from trying to mirror secular motivational programs and encourage pastors for the heavenly well done to replace money, fame, honor, and glory on earth.  I get them all the time.  In this particular instance, what caught me was that line in the subject of the email.  Jesus approved self care.  I am not sure what that means -- Jesus approved self care.  I fear it means doing everything the secular world does to be successful, productive, and fruitful but not for the material gain this world offers -- only for the heavenly glory of basking in the glow of Jesus on high.  In the end it came off rather hollow and empty.  Do we do what we do as pastors for any kind of reward or do we do this because this is our calling?  It occurs to me that the only self-care that matters is to be at home in His Word, faithful within the fellowship of the baptized, and regular at receiving the means of grace in absolution and Eucharist.  

Honestly, I have no idea what kind of reward awaits me.  I am pretty sure that if it comes, it will be a surprise (Matthew 25) and that I will be shocked that God remembered what the world and I forgot.  But we did not forget it because we wanted to or worked hard not to remember the works of faith done in the Spirit.  No, we forget them because the focus is on Christ.  Not the Christ who gives out the goody bags in the victory lane of heaven but the Christ who daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers, sustaining me in the faith that I would surely have surrendered had Christ not promised to abide in me so I might abide in Him.  

Finally, the reward is not for productivity.  Heaven is not a rewards program to provide bonuses for those who work especially hard or whose work is especially fruitful.  Heaven remains always a gift and a treasure bestowed upon the unworthy and undeserving.  The reward that God promises is for faithfulness, for endurance, and for finishing the race (without worrying about where you place).  We have fought the good fight and now there is laid up for us the crown of righteousness in Christ.  God will not say to us on that day when time ends and eternity begins, you did it and I am proud of you.  He will say what He has said to us already -- come you broken, wounded, bleeding, sorrowful, heavy laden, sinner marked for death and I will give you light and life!  All the accomplishments that here feed into our idea of productivity will then give way to the rush of the Father to clothe us with righteousness, ring our finger, sit us at the feast, and rejoice over us -- all before glowing words of success or humble admissions of failure come tumbling out of our mouths or disrupt the reign of pure and only grace.

Those who want to heal weary pastors need to give up talk of productivity and the secular cues of leadership and motivational theory and simply remind us that Christ is here -- in the greatest of our momentary joys and in the worst of our brief sorrows.  And the Christ whom we know as the One on whom we cast our cares because He cares for us will be the same Christ who presents us before the Father as His own redeemed people, washed in His blood, and named in the Book of Life.  I have been disappointed in the seats I have purchased in arenas or stadiums on earth but even those in the nosebleed sections of heaven will not be disappointed.  Thanks be to God!  Unlike James and John who sought the honored places, simply being there is its own glory and victory.  It is all because of Christ's doing.  Thanks be to God!  Motivate me with this and give up your leadership gobblygook and then those emails might actually be useful. 

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Thoughts of Light. . .

In an unforgettable ad for Motel 6, the tag line said by Tom Bodette was "We'll leave the light on for you."  Bodette had an NPR career before becoming the one and only voice of the motel chain known for sparse and low cost lodging.  It is said that Bodette ad libbed the line which became the close of every commercial for over 25 years.  It was included in the top 100 advertising campaign list.  The motels have, at best, a mixed reputation but Bodette was sheer genius.

I wish that we could be so clear as Christians and so consistent in our media presence.  We seem to delight in constantly re-inventing ourselves, as if tacitly admitting that people easily grow tired and bored of us.  Perhaps they do.  But the remedy to being ignored is hardly to keep changing your identity.  For a very long time my own church was known for saying A Changeless Christ in a Changing World.  It was first brought forth by The Lutheran Hour and all sorts of other Lutheran organizations copied the slogan.  Now we have either a complicated but elegant seal or a tri-color cross as our corporate logo.  Words have been replaced by the visual cue that is said to be more memorable and relevant to a people who have become largely visual learners -- whatever that means.

The circles of seasons in the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany) have as a common theme the idea of light.  This is not simply a visual clue to the revelation but the very revelation itself.  For Advent, the wonderful hymns, especially the Swedish ones, focus on light, on the need to keep the lamps trimmed, the lights burning brightly, and to wait in joyful expectation for its fullness.  

From the wonderful promise that the long dark night of sin will soon be ending to the Judge on clouds of light to the King who comes when morning dawns to the Morning Star and Radiant Sun to the call to let your lights appear to the fifth of the O Antiphons (Dayspring and splendor of light), Advent calls us to awaken to the light and points us to the dawn of the Sun.  From the Son of God, love's pure light, to the Child appealing, Light revealing, to Thy light and grace to Hail! O ever blessed morn to out of darkness we have light to break forth, O beauteous heavenly light to born this happy morning to Sun of righteousness with light and life, the Christmas hymns sing of light.  From Christ the lightening to O Morning Star to night surrendering to day to a heavenly country that needs no created light to brightest and best of the stars of the morning to Jesus light of light to I want to walk as a child of the light to the people living in darkness a glorious light have seen to shining face and bright array, Epiphany builds upon that simple theme of light.  Not to mention the glorious Service of Light and the marvelous and ancient hymn Phos Hilaron -- wow!!!

God has placed the Church in the midst of the world's darkness to shine with the borrowed light of Christ.  It is not our greatness or eloquence or newness or accomplishment that makes us shine but only Christ, the one true light, in whom we live and who lives in us.  The world is filled with darkness -- not the literal darkness of a world lacking in light bulbs but a world in which the darkness is sin and sin is the darkness.  The shadows threaten to engulf us and overwhelm the light until we are blind but God has intervened in the darkness with His true and unfading light.  Christ is that light.  He shines and the darkness has not overcome it.  We may choose the shadows and darkness but Christ will not surrender us to its curse of brokenness, death, and despair.  It occurs to me that we ought to keep with a theme or tag line long enough so that the people know us as well by those words as they do anything else.

Some have tried.  Wise men still follow the Light.  One local congregation says simply "The Light Still Shines" but without obvious reference to Christ.  In some respects, Tom Bodette stole our line.  "We'll leave the light on for you" is the slogan of Christendom.  God is leaving the light on so that the darkness may not swallow up Christians or imprison the sinner without relief of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ.  God leaves the light on.  And if we are faithful, we will shine with that light, undiluted and changed, the true Light which is Christ.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Did we forget?

The Church has always had illusions of power.  After Rome's demise, it was Christendom that resurrected the imperial structure that had ruled the known world for centuries.  The Church did not waste time taking on a political identity, presuming that the hands that placed the crown were more powerful than the head that wore it.  While that left Christendom and its leadership preoccupied with worldly concerns, by the time of Luther it was clear that these concerns had almost consumed the once vaunted institutions of clergy, magisterium, and papacy.  But hidden in all of this triumphalism is the reality that God never promised the Church to be a majority, a power to dominate the civitas.  Instead, the more familiar pattern of a remnant in Israel's history is the norm for the Church.  Our Lord is pointed in Luke 12:32 (“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”).  Little flock?  We refuse His words and insist that is not what is meant.  We cling to images of power more defined by worldliness than spiritual humility.

I belong to a church body that keeps acting and insisting upon a reality that is not.  We are not the numbers we define in statistics.  We are a shadow of those once mighty numbers, at least on Sunday morning.  But we continue to act as if we were the size we were at our statistical peak and we continue to get in trouble because it is exhausting for us to keep up the impression that no longer is reflected in reality.  Once other Lutherans accused us of triumphalism.  Perhaps that was accurate and may still be among some but every Lutheran body, just like every Christian group, has a big ego.  We as Lutherans forgot that we were preserving not a jurisdiction with a headquarters but a living congregation connected to other living congregations gathered around the same doctrine confessed and the same Sacraments administered.  We rejected the Lord's talk of a little flock and insisted that we were nothing but big (at least in our own minds).

I will admit that I fell victim to the same false and empty dream.  For a long time I was as busy as some still are preserving the image of a large and powerful church.  Now I have come to think of membership statistics as a thorn in the flesh.  They tend to trouble us more than benefit us for they point out how many of our people are not regular or actively joined to the living voice of God's Word and the fellowship of His Table on Sunday morning and they give us the false impression that we are a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.  In reality we are a small church.  That is all we ever were but it is even more true now.

That said, a small church in numbers is not without the mighty work of God's Spirit and the riches of His gifts in Word and Sacrament.  This is our greatness -- not in statistics or rosters but in the means of grace.  They have always been our greatness except when we have been tempted to believe our PR.  Missouri is a small body.  Missouri does not need to be a large body to do the Lord's bidding according to His will and purpose.  So it is time we stopped acting like we are something we are not and began realizing that our smallness does not prevent or preclude God doing His amazing work in us and through us. 

Rome is a shadow of its statistical self.  Look at the numbers who show up for the Mass.  Orthodoxy is as well.  Nearly every denomination that counts money or people is in the same boat.  At best, these are markers of our failings rather than our progress -- now more than ever.   Christians suffer the common malady of thinking we must be big to be God's own and to accomplish His own purpose.  The reality is that all we have to be is faithful.  God will figure out the rest.  If only we could divert all the energy it takes for us to keep up the illusion of earthly greatness to the pursuit of faithfulness!  Then we might learn not to take our pulse every couple of minutes or take a poll every time something big comes along or keeping up appearances.  I fear that we Christians have become the Hyacinth Bucket's of the day -- putting on airs that make us weary and force us to live the illusion of ourselves instead of the reality of God.  It makes for good comedy but a terrible burden which we must carry.

It is time that we said it.  We are a church body of some 900,000 people on a given Sunday morning.  Who they are may change from Sunday to Sunday but our overall size suffers from the rear view mirror syndrome -- objects in the mirror may appear larger than they are.  But you cannot go forward while looking in the rear view mirror.  Maybe it is time to shed some of our agencies and universities and the treasured parachurch organizations we set up when we wanted to look and act like the big players.  They were never the work of the kingdom.  People called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace always were and remain the work of the kingdom.  It is okay, Missouri.  We can let go of the image in order to focus on what is real.  Fortunately for us, that which is most real is that which endures forever -- the Word of the Lord!  To that all we need to add is this:  Thanks be to God!

Friday, January 27, 2023

But he might have said it. . .

The current pope has a track record of speaking off the cuff to questions that deserve reasoned and nuanced answers.  We have all heard the reports of his use of vulgarity, of his waffling about same sex marriage and homosexual attraction, of his disdain for nearly anything and everything that went before him, and now there is more.  Now there are reports that the pope does not consider masturbation a big deal.  Of course, it is satire and not yet fact but that is the point -- we all imagine that he could say it, that he might have said it, and that he probably will say it.  Such is the danger of loose lips.  The problem is not merely of what was said but what we all might imagine him saying.

Last I checked we Lutherans did not have a pope nor do we countenance much of what this pope says.  It is not a problem for us in particular but, given the nature of the pope's visibility and access to the media, it is a problem for us and all orthodox Christians in general.  No one knows what he might have said and no one is quite ready to put limits on what he will say.  Lacking the wisdom to know when to shut up and when to speak, this pope has set the stage for our imagination to go wild on just what he might have said or probably coulda, woulda, shoulda said.

As much as we might like to snicker, we Lutherans have our own problems in this regard.  We do not know what some of our number might say, have said, or will eventually say.  We cannot cringe at anything but, like those in Rome, can imagined those among us to say just about anything anymore.  On the one hand, this is true of simple vulgarity.  I have sat with a call committee in which a report about a name on a call list was accompanied by a parental warning -- he has a potty mouth.  Of course, in our age this is deemed to be edgy and can be a mark of someone who has their fingers on the pulse of the ages.  How sad are the lengths we go to keep us from saying that something is either inappropriate or wrong!  I myself have turned off a podcast when the f-bombs exploded the conversation of a pastor being edgy.  It is a true but pathetic wisdom that when you don't have anything to say, you shout.  There is no better way to shout than to use words the past deemed inappropriate for polite company.

Some of the edgy ones are big names -- Nadia Bolz-Weber is known for her, well, edginess.  It is hardly a virtue but some think it fits within the bounds of propriety.  I do not.  If you cannot resort to words without an expletive deleted thrown in, you don't know much about words.  If that is true for actors and folks on social media, it is even more truth for those who claim to be serving the Word made flesh.  It is not edgy to use profanity or to be vulgar -- it is just plain sinful.  It is high time that Christians call out their brothers and sisters for thinking that it is edgy to be crude and contemporary to speak like a gutter.  Once pastors earn a reputation for being edgy, it is hard not to imagine what might or could or eventually will come out of his mouth.  How sad.

It is less a reflection on the times than it is an indictment for the casual way we wear His name, the words that grace our lips, and our desire more for acceptance from those who reject the Gospel than from the Gospel Lord Himself.  By the way, congregations looking for pastors peruse those podcasts and survey the social media and scour the surface for what a candidate might have, did, or will say.  Most of the time it does not end well for the candidate.  While that is true, it is a shame we cannot agree that being vulgar and profane is unseemly for a pastor of the Church. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

A learning curve. . .

I must begin by saying I still do not quite know what to make of the kerfuffle over the recently published annotated Large Catechism by CPH, the publishing arm of the LCMS.  For the interest of full disclosure, I have not read the book and probably will not.  My first comments, therefore, are not to the content but to the bonfire of the vanities that erupted after its publication.

Some have taken this to be the tombstone on the rather stellar record and life of Concordia Publishing House.  The death of CPH has been greatly exaggerated.  For clarity's sake, it must be noted here that CPH did not publish this book on its own but at the direction of Synod so CPH can hardly be held solely or even primarily responsible for what happened.  I surely hope that those who are tempted to overkill will not sullen the good reputation of CPH for its profound and scholarly contributions to Lutheran theology and its popular and very well received work meant for and accessible to all (think here Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions).   Some have taken to the airwaves of social media in a feeding frenzy against CPH and it is simply unfounded and untrue.

Some of the fiercest critics of this are those from outside the circles of Missouri.  Some are smug and vehement critics who delight more in Missouri's stumbles than in the cause of truth.  Indeed, I read one outrageous comment by someone in the peanut gallery that condemned all of Missouri's leaders in the most vulgar terms.  Really?  Some are folks in Missouri who remain convinced that we are only minutes away from becoming just like the ELCA.  They have decided that if something can be read wrongly, it must be read wrongly.  Like the folks on the left in Missouri, they pounce on everything that can be taken wrongly as evidence to support their condemnation.  Sometimes both resort to pulling quotes out of context and insist that what they did not quote is even worse.  Conservatives delight in tearing down each other as much as they engage the real enemies of the faith.  Frankly, I have never understood this.  Progressives will find one thing in common against a dozen areas of disagreement and will cooperate but conservatives have a religious and political bent on narrowing the boundaries of acceptability so that even though there is agreement on a dozen things, one area of disagreement will prevent any and all cooperation.  Unless we believe that our cause is an ever diminishing circle of orthodoxy, this cannot and will not serve God's cause well.  Surely some of those who entered this debate are snickering at the stumble out of sheer joy to see Missouri squirm.  How godly is that?

While some would insist that we can occupy no ground with those who are not us, this surely betrays the very history of Missouri in engaging those outside our formal borders and finding commonality where we may -- even as we mark necessary divisions for the sake of truth.  Of late, Missouri seems to be reawakening to this idea after the mess of the 1970s soured us on any entrance to those outside our Synod.  Of course, that problem was not necessarily with those who were not us -- that was a conflict borne of our own internal divisions.  Unity is never an achievement but always a cause, a process, and a pursuit -- whether within a church body or between denominations and confessions.  If the furor over this book causes us to retreat from engaging those with whom we might have an area of agreement, it will have done greater damage than the words on the pages alone.

Surely there are those who are especially happy for this problem to arise just as Synod prepares to gear up for our Convention and the elections that take place before and during that gathering.  There are those who will try to use this as if it were a mark of the ineptitude of those responsible for publication.  For that matter, I am not suggesting that there were not mistakes that were made.  Though we would like to believe that words have only one meaning, we all know that it is possible for people to read things differently.  I am confident that it was never the intent of anyone involved with this project to do anything but the best even as I am confident that our best can always be improved.

While some think this was a debacle, I would turn it around.  The process worked.  No, it did not work to produce a book that no one could find fault with but it did work in that what was produced was held up to theological scrutiny, peer review, and the concerns of this review were heard.  While some wonder how something like this could happen in the first place, I am amazed at how responsive our Synod was and how quickly that response came.  Where does this happen outside of Missouri?  Rome takes forever to hold even pedophiles and heretics responsible, accountable, and subject to discipline.  The ELCA's flagship magazine reports [in October] that the president of one of their seminaries "[led] prayer to the Four Directions" and there was nary a whimper of dispute or argument for such apostasy.  Every week the bulk of mainline and evangelical churches in America talk about anything and everything from their pulpits but Christ crucified and risen and no one seems to complain.  The Christian world is filled with doubters of Scripture's fact and record, those who insist that it could not mean what it says, and those who insist that reason is more accurate than revelation.  But not in Missouri.  In the space of a week or so a book that was filled with good and salutary things and maybe also had some less than clear and orthodox parts was held up to scrutiny, withdrawn for review, and we are not satisfied?????  Isn't that how the whole thing is supposed to work?  We have our problems.  They are not few.  But where in the world is there a jurisdiction that acts as quickly and as clearly as just happened here?

Again, I have not read the book and I refuse to comment on the published quotes because I did not read them in context.  I am not yet convinced the book is as bad as some say or that it is merely a witch hunt.  The truth lies probably in the middle.  Some things were probably not said as some would have wished and other things were said as some found objectionable.  Whether that translates into a solid rationale for withdrawing the book or changing its content, we shall see.  At this point I am willing to give the editors and those whose names are on the cover the benefit of the doubt.  A review will not hurt anything that is good and it might be improved.  This is not the time to burn at the stake the editors and authors nor is it time to jump on the bandwagon of criticism.  In the meantime, it is high time to dial down the rhetoric and pause before jumping on the bandwagon of criticism.  Let the process work without the benefit of jeers and taunts from the peanut gallery of social media.

One more thing while I am at it.  This is a vindication of the residential route of pastoral formation that produces not techs but parish theologians as well as pastors -- men who are able to read and think and judge well on behalf of their flocks and the wider church.  This is exactly why we cannot devolve into an online preparation for men who do functions without the necessary theological acumen and training to point out when things are not quite right.  Why on earth would we think of reducing the amount of training for our pastors when knowing theological nuance, meeting cultural challenge, and calling out  heresy are so essential and urgent to the task of shepherding the flock of God?  Some folks are all upset over this and the voices of chicken little are telling us the sky is falling on Missouri.  A bit premature, I think, and not a little blind to what has been done.  So it was prudent for President Harrison to have this book reviewed again.  Orthodoxy does not fear scrutiny and catholicity is not afraid of challenge.  It has always been this way.  We hold each other accountable.  That is all well and good.  Let us be sure that we are judging fairly, not beating the air at gnats but engaging real things of real and serious theological import and our common confession.  Slow down.  Take a breath.  The process worked.  Even if the book is restored exactly as it is, it will be because a wider review has found it solid.  If it returns edited and corrected, a book with many acknowledged good parts will be found even better and improved.  For those who find this a problem or an embarrassment, I suggest looking around you.  Where else would these concerns been taken seriously, been handled so clearly, and our confession upheld?  You can judge some things from how we handle success or accomplishment but you can discern even more by how we recover from seems like a stumble. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Education Consumers. . .

Many years ago after the Missouri Synod closed Concordia Senior College and the faculty dispersed, I heard the story of how one of those faculty had gotten a teaching gig in an ELCA school but ended up being denied tenure because the students also got a vote in who stays and who leaves.  In this case the rumor was that the LCMS guy required too much and the students did not appreciate the extra work.  It could be apocryphal but it seems credible to me.  Universities and even special schools like seminaries have become retail purveyors of an education experience more than they are places of teaching and learning.  Our education consumers have become not simply arrogant but savvy to the whole process.  They know that the numbers are on their side -- there will be fewer and fewer 18 year olds heading out in search of a baccalaureate degree over the next years.  Some schools will fare better than others in recruiting their share of the pot and others will end up losing out and probably closing their doors.  The student is in the driver's seat today and schools pay rapt attention to what the education consumer is looking for.  Armed with student loans likely to be forgiven, they are calling the shots.

Students come to university armed with their own information and objectives.  Instead of depending upon teachers, they let the schools know what it is they want and it is certainly not anything that would challenge the worldview, political perspective, and moral stance they came to school with.  They are not looking for someone to open doors and windows but to close them and provide them with safe spaces where their points of view are respected and certainly not debated.  It is not that the schools are going woke as much as they are simply conforming to the expectations of the work students headed their way.  They are desperate to impress the student with how accommodating they are to their point of view and to their wants and needs.  Success has less to do with teaching someone to think or arming someone with various arguments or points of view on a subject than treating the educational endeavor like any other survey defined success story any and every business would be proud to have received.

The challenge to religious schools is less that the ideology of that school is changing from the top down than the school has no real values except pleasing the student and hanging on to the tuition dollar that, at least for baccalaureate students, is an ever decreasing commodity.  In this respect it might be that the loss of religion in religious universities is as much due to the dimwitted pursuit of student happiness scores as it is a deep and abiding affection for the ideology.  For my mind, this is even more dangerous than an ideologically driven faculty and administration.  It is, in many respects, no different than the patient telling the doctor what ails him and what drug he saw on TV that will fix it.  Retail medicine, like retail education, may be highly successful but it will always fail in its core mission and purpose.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

A noisy church...

Though I have for all my ministry tried to promote a time of quiet reverence before worship in order to allow people time for prayer, that silence competes with other laudable virtues -- such as friendship and the ordinary greetings that extend in love and affection in Christ.  It is a tradeoff.  There are churches where no conversation happens because the worshipers are strangers to each other.  There are churches where no children fidget in the pews or whisper to their parents or add their voices to the song.  In these churches there is too much silence.

It was once said that "A noisy Church is a growing Church!"  There is some truth to that.  Friendly conversation and the presence of children gives a positive signal.  Once when our family was visiting a congregation on Sunday morning, we noticed that ours were the only children in the nave.  On top of that, we noticed that there was no real word of welcome or friendship extended.  The congregation was cool, perhaps even cold.  There were plenty of people but the people who were there seemed to have nothing to connect them except that they were there in the same place at the same time.  Perhaps I read too much into it but it is hard to imagine a heavenly fellowship that does not include an earthly dimension.

When we came to the congregation I have served now for 30 years, some complained that it was too much like a social club.  My family and I did not experience it that way.  We came from a parish that was a family, filled with people of all ages and plenty of children.  Here the social connection depended upon who you were.  It was something I was determined to change.  Over the course of years the welcoming spirit was born in this congregation.  We became known as a welcoming church.  The visitors began to stay.  The congregation grew.  It remains one of our signature characteristics -- we are a welcoming congregation.  Of course, none of this replaces or even comes close to matching solid Biblical preaching and teaching and faithful and reverent worship.  But it is not meant to compete with the content -- it is meant to reflect it!

We sing Blest be the ties that bind but those ties need to encouraged and fostered by an intentional and deliberate effort.  Children need to know that they are welcome in the Lord's House and that means figuring out a way to deal with their voices and wiggles.  The folks who sit together in the pew are meant to be more than shares of a seat; they are meant to be a family of faith, bound not by common interest but the blood of Christ which cleanses them and the waters of baptism where they find new birth.  It is also true that the welcome needs to be ever directed to the newest faces and visitors so that it does not end up becoming a closed fellowship circle.

I still try to encourage at least a few minutes of quiet before the bell rings and we turn our attention to worship.  I still believe that the time we spend in prayer before we begin the liturgy but I have learned the value of seeing children in the pew and people manifesting the marks of friendship.  They must coexist for the benefit of each other and for the good of the whole.


Monday, January 23, 2023

Repent. . .

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (A), preached on Sunday, January 22, 2023.

I grew up with a small town doctor who was a great physician but who spoke very bluntly.  On one occasion a very large woman in town came in to complain about her ills when Doc Tollefson told her “you are too darn fat.”  How dare the good doctor address her like that!  But was he wrong?  No, she was fat, very fat.  What was surprising is that so was he.  He could have and probably was also speaking to himself as well as this woman.  You are too darn fat.

When St. John issued the call to repentance, he spoke as one who was under the same need to renounce sin and serve righteousness.  John was looking not for a Savior who would redeem others but also for His own Savior and Redeemer.  We know this because John encouraged his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the One to come or should they wait for another.  John was fat with sin just like the people to whom he preached.  He was also looking for the Christ who would save him.

So what does it mean then when Jesus comes along and takes up the same call to repent that John had once spoken?  Jesus is like us in every way but one.  He is without sin.  He wears our flesh and blood with all their limitations including death itself but He is not a sinner.  He is the Savior who is come to bring that which John said was coming.  John preached repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

When I was in seminary it would have been seen as rude to call God’s people to repentance.  After all, who am I but a sinner like you and like John.  And, as we all know, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.  So was invented the idea that the preacher must not address the congregation as you but always include himself – we need to repent.  The fallacy in that is that no preacher stands before you as your moral superior – he stands before you and preaches to you in the person of Christ – addressing you with the Word of Christ and not his own.

I am glad we decided that the preaching of repentance is not being rude or impertinent.  It is being Christ-like.  Jesus preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  And those who would stand before you in Christ’s name dare not preach anything less.  Repentance is not something we do once to prove ourselves either ready or worthy of being Christ’s own people.  It is, as Luther’s 95 theses put it, the very shape of our everyday Christian lives.  
We cannot call people who do not know God to repentance.  Repentance is not a work we do.  Repentance is the fruit of the Spirit working in us that which is well pleasing to God.  The call to repent cannot be silenced until the Kingdom of heaven is fully come and sin is no more.  Until that day, the call to repentance should be heard in every sermon.  

So what does it mean to repent?  It means to turn around.  It means to make a 180 degree turn from walking in the way of death to walking in the way of life.  Of course, it does not mean that we will never sin again.  We have this gift in earthen vessels and we must regularly and even weekly return to the Lord for His forgiveness and to be restored because have fallen.  But neither can we claim to be children of light and remain in the dark.

Jesus tells us what this repentance is.  While walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers and said to them:  “Follow Me.”  They needed to turn away from the ways of the law that presumed you could earn your place in the heavenly kingdom and to turn away from the self-righteousness that presumed you were doing just that.  They needed to turn away from any idea that they were doing okay on their own.  They needed to turn around and follow Jesus and Jesus only.

Repentance is the shape of Christian life.  We pray this in the liturgy.  We pray to meet the Lord in the Holy Sacrament of His body and blood with repentant joy. In other words, to come to the Lord’s table not trusting in our own righteousness but in Christ’s righteousness alone.  That communion on the first day of the week, the day of our Lord’s resurrection, is lived out over and over again throughout the week as the Spirit works repentance in us, teaching us to renounce sin and all ungodliness and to live the new lives given to us in the waters of our baptism, becoming the people God has declared us to be.

This is not the fearful repentance of a people who dread the Kingdom.  The doctor did not say lose weight or die.  This is the repentance of a people who have learned to hate sin the way God hates sin – the sin in ourselves every bit as much and more than the sins we see in others.  This is the repentance of a people who do not fear God’s judgment on us will change but who count on God’s judgment in Christ being the same forevermore.  This is the child who heeds the call to go to bed early because he does not want to miss tomorrow and not the kid who is sent to bed early because he is being punished.

Repentance usually boils down to behavior – give up the bad things and try to talk yourself into doing the good things.  But repentance is not a diet to shed a few pounds of sin.  Repentance is about who you follow, whose voice is most important in your ears, whose food you receive with repentant joy, and whose future can rescue you and keep you safe.  Following Jesus is not a matter of avoiding sins like they were pot holes on a highway but where the road leads.  Jesus calls us to repentance and faith because that road leads to heaven.  He walks that road with us to guard against temptation, to restore us when we fall, to lead the way when we are lost, and to support us when our strength disappears.  That is also what it means to repent.

My friends, I am just as fat with sin as you are.  We all need to repent.  But I am not here to give you the false comfort that because your pastor is also a sinner you should not feel so bad about yourself.  I am here to give you the true comfort that God has not simply called us to repentance but works that repentance in us.  I am here to call you to repentance because Christ has died for your sins and been raised for your justification.  I am here to call you to repentance because the way you are going leads to death and there is another way in which to walk that leads to life.  That is the call.  Repent.  Believe.  Walk in the way.

The word repent has gotten a bad name.  The doctor did not tell his patient she was too darn fat because he did not like her.  Out of care for her he told her the blunt truth.  God does not call you to repentance because He does not like you.  He calls you to repentance because He loves you enough to die for you.  He calls you to repentance because it is His will and purpose that you walk not in the way of death but in the way of life and of life everlasting and Christ is that way.  For that to happen, Christ needs to be YOUR way, truth, and light.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

The NT writers would flunk seminary. . .

Recently on another forum the question of prophecy and fulfillment was brought up.  In particular with respect to Matthew 1 and 2.  Within two chapters, the evangelist St. Matthew lists five OT quotes fulfilled in Christ. The passages from the prophets and their fulfillment specified in the Gospel are not quite the fruit of logical or reasoned conclusion but the revelation of God in Scripture.  The prophets may or may not have foreseen the future God was preparing but they trusted that what they were speaking would have its meaning in God and His saving work.  But you take a look at these prophecies and how St. Matthew used them:

  1. Isaiah 7:14 quoted in Matthew 1:23; 
  2. Micah 5:2 is quoted in Matthew 2:6; 
  3. Hosea 11:1 is quoted in Matthew 2:15b; 
  4. Jeremiah 31:15-17 [38:15-17 in LXX] is quoted in Matthew 2:17-18;  
  5. In Matthew 2:23 an unspecified verse is quoted.

For some exegetes this presents a problem.  The context of these verses seems to be of less consequence than the fulfillment to the Gospel writer St. Matthew.  Some have suggested that the NT authors in particular would not pass seminary with the way they quote prophecy and note its fulfillment.  Today, it is said, such reference would not stand up to scrutiny.  Of course, this is a problem especially for those who do a scientific exegesis of the texts.  If the issue is primarily one of logical connection, then perhaps it is true that to the human eye the Gospel writer fails in his use of prophecy and fulfillment.  Then there is the issue of rectilinear prophecy -- the assertion that there is only one fulfillment of a prophecy and that this fulfillment is Christological.  We could literally spend hours on this topic as some have done.  But that is not my point.

My point is this.  The problem of prophecy becomes a problem precisely when God as author of Scripture through the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and evangelists is not posited at the beginning of the discussion.  If, indeed, the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, then the New Testament texts tell us what the Old Testament texts meant when they were given and what they mean now and forever.  While this may be rectilinear in some cases, it is not always.  For example, in Isaiah 7:14, was there another virgin that conceived and bore a son?

When we approach the Scriptures outside the context of Christ as its message and the Holy Spirit as the author, we will always end up with more questions and few answers.  That is the nature of the beast.  Skepticism at the beginning will, undoubtedly, lead to skepticism at the end.  The Scripture is not a book to be unpacked or decoded but to be heard, God the author by the power of the Spirit and Christ the message.  The result or fruit of this hearing is faith, according to St. Paul.  But that is the problem.  When we begin by presuming a text has no merit or legitimacy except the one we give it, we will end up with a text that either says what we think it says or says nothing at all.  That is the dead end of personal Biblical interpretation -- whether it takes a form critical or higher critical or any other means.  The answer to Scripture is not the right set of principles for Biblical interpretation but Christ.  Even with a good and salutary set of principles to guide us, we can stumble across the text without meeting Christ -- who is the center and goal of the Scriptures.  We meet Him not on the ground of understanding or intellectual assent but faith that trusts this Word.

The pivotal Biblical perspective in this is summarized in Hebrews but found in different forms elsewhere in the New and Old Testament:  Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:1-3)  This Christ is the Word made flesh (John 1) and the Messiah long promised (John 1) and the Savior of the world (John 4; 1 John 4).  He is our lens into the Old Testament and He is the object of the New Testament.

When we argue about Biblical interpretation, we are not disputing arcane and useless points but who is God, how has God made Himself known, and what has God made known to us.  This is the ground of faith and the foundation of our being as Christians.  Old Testament prophecy as it is quoted in the New Testament as fulfilled in Christ is not quite a matter of interpretation as it is revelation.  God makes the Scripture known and makes known the Scriptures.  Apart from this, the Bible is just a book and what it says no deeper than the individual who reads it and no more profound than the esteem the reader chooses to posit in it.  If we think the NT writers would flunk exegesis or seminary by the way they reference the prophecies fulfilled in Christ, maybe it is we who should have flunked seminary.  This is, my friends, the tip of the iceberg in the great divide between those who take the Scriptures apart and those who find in them the whole of God's revelation in the person and work of His Son for our salvation.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old, but now He speaks Christ to us -- the fulfillment of all that was promised and more than was promised.  But the vantage point of such affirmation is faith.  Faith reads the Scriptures as well as being the fruit of Scriptures read.  If we cannot get this right, we don't have much to say to the world.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Tired of children?

On this anniversary of the decision to legalize abortion under the umbrella of constitutional right, we cannot forget that this comes at a time when as a culture we have grown tired of children.  We are over them.  Look at how many affairs are adult only.  I went to a wedding last fall where no children were allowed -- at least at the reception anyway.  It is a common idea.  Kids spoil everything.  It happens in church as well.  They expand their voices when everyone is straining to hear one voice and fidget when people are supposed to be sitting still.  When the come to the rail, they talk to the Pastor and extend their own hand to participate in the sacrament of eating and drinking.  They don't know their place and they intrude upon adult places.  All of this was going on before and during and after the court invented the right to kill babies in the womb.

I wonder why we are tired of children but not tired of acting like them?  Adulting has become a term of art for eschewing the responsibilities of a maturing life.  Who wants that?  We are tired of children because they are competing with us for the role of being the spoiled, self-indulgent, arrogant, and demanding youth we refuse to give up.  We don't want children because they consume resources we want to save for our own whim and fancy.  We don't want children because they intrude upon our orderless lives in which we eat when we feel like eating, work when we feel like working, sleep when we feel like sleeping, and indulge ourselves when we feel like indulging ourselves.  We don't want children because they compete for time on our screens but to shut them up we will either turn over the screen to them or give them their own adult toy to distract them and make them disappear.

Some years ago a woman in my parish caught me at the door after the Divine Service and insisted that she got nothing out of the service or sermon because a family had the nerve to sit in front of her and their kids were being kids.  I asked her who the adult was and why she did not move or look away.  That was the wrong response.  She stayed away from church for a month or two because she was angry at me.  I was not even taking the family's side in this but simply reminding her that as an adult she had a choice to move her seat (which was in the back and could have been closer to the front where empty spots are always available) or choose to look away.  She did not want to be an adult.  She wanted me to be the adult to tell the offending party to stay away or ditch their kids in the nursery (they were already too old for our nursery during worship -- for kids 4 and under).  She was 80 some years old but she did not want to be an adult about this.  For what it is worth, I did speak with the family and suggested that if they sat closer to the front their kids would have something to watch and if they helped them follow along in the liturgy they would have something to do and it would make their lives so much easier.  Which, God bless them, they did.

Funny though how God addresses us always as children.  Though you can find passages that urge us to grow up, to move from the mother's milk to solid food, and to mature lives in Christ, we are confronted with so many more passages in which God simply says the obvious.  You are children.  More importantly you are My children.  Perhaps we are tired of children because we want to take their place but it could also be that we want all our adult choices without any adult responsibilities and so we don't want to be called children even when we act like spoiled brats.  The claims of those about my body and my choice and the endless rants about men deciding for women and the relentless search for control of everything (including life) is pretty solid evidence of our childishness.  

We will always be God's children but we do not always have to childish.  St. Paul put away childish things.  It is time for us to put them away as well.  Refusing responsibility for the choice we made to have sex and then acting surprised when it results in a pregnancy is pretty childish.  It is whining to the limit about something we thought we and our generation were experts at -- things erotic!  Grow up.  Control your desires and your bodies and there is no need for abortion.  Stop trying to live as children when your youthful years are long past.  Grow up.  Adulting is not a curse but a blessing.  It does not mean becoming gods but it can mean becoming godly.  Grow up.  If you want to take charge of your body, you can start with taking charge of your sexual libido (and, by the way, this includes pornography).  Grow up.  Don't act like cohabitation is like marriage because if it really were you would not object to marriage.  Grow up.  Do not throw away marriage and children as if they were whims; they come with responsibility and that is their genius by God's design.  You will always be looked upon by God as His children (even when you run from Him and refuse Him) but you do not have to be childish. 

Abortion rights is about the most childish demand of all.  It is no different that kids fighting over the same toy in the sandbox.  Except here one of those kids has the power to kill the other with a pill, a procedure, or a regret. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

On the offense of truth. . .

So many Christian leaders try to get the pulse on the times in which we live to define how to approach people and the world that it has become, well, normal.  We poll our way into everything else, why not into doctrine and truth and worship and life in Christ?  As our politicians pander to the self-interest groups in search of votes, our religious leaders seem to pander to the same in search of legitimacy and relevancy.  The end result of such a pursuit trying to avoid the offense of truth is to end up with no truth at all.  Thus does Christian Lite lead inexorably to no Christian at all.  Every Christian tradition has its naysayers against doctrine and practice as if people were being kept away from God by these things.  Therefore the path forward is always, in the minds of the progressive, openness, diversity of opinion, co-existence of competing claims and truths, and a less is more strategy on just about everything.  Give people less to be offended by and they will not be offended.  Yeah, right.

While we are fearful of making people uncomfortable by strong truth, God is concerned about their eternal salvation.  While we are afraid of what people might think of us, we seem to be somewhat unconcerned about what God thinks.  While we are worried about being cast aside by a world marching to its own end, God is lamenting how easily we cast aside the facts of Scripture for the imagination of myth and legend tuned to our emotions instead of facts.

Why do we buy into the lie that people love God but can't stand the Church?  The offense is not the sins of the religion or the religious but always Christ.  The world is not put off by the idea that there is truth or doctrine or a deity.  The offense is always about sin, about the glorification of a life that ends in death, and about the idea that we are not in charge of our destiny.  The offense is always about the choice of victimhood over responsibility and the demand for rights over the willingness to serve.  The offense is always about the unwillingness to be shamed by what is evil and the willingness to glory in what can only end in death.  The center of this all is Christ.  He comes not to befriend us but to save us -- thus defining friendship in a radical and abrupt way.  He comes not to comfort us in our sins but to strip them away from us so that we might be holy.  He comes not to make this life richer but to expose its mortal flaw so that we might share in the riches of His life forever.  Christ is always the offense and He knows it and has said it yet we think the problem is us.  How self-centered are we?  How self-important can we get?

Of course, the folks outside the Church love to pick at those inside and inflate their egos to believe they are the cause either for them becoming Christian or the reason why they are not.  The problem is not a Christ who is appealing to the masses but a Church that has messed it up so bad that people won't join it.  The problem is always Christ -- not the failings of the Christians even though they are many.  Christ is the offense, the stumbling stone.  He says so Himself.  The prophets said it before Him.  So why do we keep crawling into the same pothole of self-importance presuming that our goodness makes people believe and become part of the community of faith or if they don't we must have done something wrong?  This is, by the way, the presumption of half the parachurch organizations out there who want to help us fix ourselves so that we will grow.

Luther said it.  Scripture teaches it.  Do we believe it?  Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.  I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts...  Truth is always a double edged sword, a stumbling block, and Christ IS the truth (as well as the way and the light!).  It is about time that we Lutherans admit that faith is God's gift, given by the Spirit working through the means of grace.  We cannot speak for other traditions but it is pretty clear that however great our virtues or however great our faults, Christ is the Word doing the work by the Spirit.  He is the cornerstone for those who believe and the stumbling stone for those who do not.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Subjective Objective Justification. . .

The problem with objective justification is not Scripture.  The problem of objective justification is how does it get from the cross to the person.  That we apprehend it by faith is certain but how is it grasped?  Is faith the good work of works through which we reach out to Christ's atoning work and make it ours?  Are we fighting a war of mere words with those who have posited everything on a decision or choice?  That seems to be one of the distinct problems of Lutheranism that is so often ignored.  Faith is reduced to an intellectual assent to a series of doctrinal truths or an emotional experience of the holy or a choice between competing truths or experiences but it is ultimately still a work and one primarily of the will and imagination.  Though we confess that we cannot confess Christ as Lord or come to Him except by the Holy Spirit, in all practicality it is difficult for most Lutherans not to see faith as their work, choice, experience, or decision.  Belief and unbelief become a moment, a position, and less a state of faith than a constant decision and choice having to be made over and over again in order to remain in a state of grace.

Without the means of grace or a faith rooted in the means of grace, there is little objective left of objective justification and it becomes merely subjective, only subjective.  Left adrift without its anchor within the means of grace, justification by grace merely limps along the path of choice and decision, assent and consent.  It cannot become anything except subjective, limited to the perception, judgment, and commitment of the individual.  It ends up being more a psychological state than the powerful reconciliation of God to man by men able to transform the dead to life.  I know because I know -- and the because can be my feeling or emotion, my experience or conviction, or my decision or choice.  The Word and the Sacraments make the intangible tangible, point us away from ourselves and to Christ, and deliver to us the actual fruits and effects of His atoning work so that we live not an imagined life but the most real life of all.

When I complain that we have a Word centered piety instead of one centered in the means of grace, in particular in the Sacraments with the Word, it is not a piety issue at all but one that is distinctly related to the truth on which the Church stands or falls -- it is a justification issue.  Without an anchor in the Sacraments, the Word too easily fills the imagination and becomes the servant of our will.  Left without its divinely intended mooring in the Sacraments, justification is left to live in the imagination and becomes merely a subjective, psychological state instead of something concrete and real.  Our certainty becomes a subjective captivity in which we are ever bouncing from belief to unbelief and back again -- as if today I believe and tomorrow I don't.  This strange circle of doubt and conviction leave the mightiest work up to us and the work of Christ becomes a mere facilitation of our own choice, feeling, or decision.  

Our regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church is then essential to maintaining our faith and pulling us ever back from our preoccupation with ourselves and into the realm of grace.  Our life of faith is maintained not by our religious experience or our decision or our imagination but by the concrete participation in the sacramental life of the Church.  Lutherans are not Protestants with a peculiar style of worship and a high view of symbolic sacraments and the Word of God.  We are catholic people and a catholic church with our lives flowing from and back to the Holy Eucharist.  We are the baptized who are washed and cleansed and given the new birth for our participation in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the foretaste of which is given to us here and now.  We are the absolved who know the grace of forgiveness not as the divine response to any work we have done or choice we have made or regret we feel, but as the state of our lives, the prodigals restored by the loving Father, the clothing restored -- all for the feast.  This is how justification remains objective and yet we grasp hold of it through the work of God continually known and lived out through the means of grace.  Rome has turned this into something mechanical and still rooted in our performance or the performance of the priest on our behalf.  Orthodoxy has turned this into something mystical.  Protestantism has turned this into something either cerebral or emotional, but in either case subjective reality or not real at all.  It is Lutheranism that has restored not simply the justification by grace to its place but how that grace is made tangible and how we live in it as well as because of it.  

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Dull. . .

There is a time when it was typical and ordinary to give your attention to something that today would be considered long, boring, dull.  Movies ran for three hours.  Operas took hours from beginning to end.  Oratorios had choir, soloists, and orchestra play for two to three hours.  Now we find ourselves struggling to get through an hour TV show.  The only thing that seems to have kept our attention are video games.  Other than the extended length video games, we prefer the brief YouTube or TikTok video, the snippet of information of Twitter to the novel, the soundbite to an in depth news broadcast, something visual to something you must read.  Even the songs on the radio or our playlists lack the extended RIFF of the 1970s.  Over all, our means of information and entertainment seem to be getting shorter -- which some say is the response of industry to our ever decreasing attention spans.

Surely the modern technology which has brought us into this so-called Information Age has borne more fruit than to decrease the amount of things we can or are able to comprehend or appreciate!  Imagine, that with an internet connection on our smartphone we have access to an almost limitless amount of information and what do we do with it?  We entertain ourselves with momentary illusions.  It is not that our attention spans are growing shorter and shorter as we are growing ever impatient with what we have.  It is the ultimate gift of sin that we not only ended up with shorter lives but with the an inability or unwillingness to pay attention to the short life we have.  With all the knowledge that we have at our fingertips, we have come to lack both wisdom and common sense.  We choose boredom over interest.

We think that the opposite of knowledge is stupidity but it is really ignorance or, rather, the choice to be ignorant.  The world says ignorance is bliss but that is not the message of Scripture.  Scripture offers no suggestion that ignorance imposed or chosen is a better state than knowledge.  Scripture goes so far as to name the Messiah as Holy Wisdom and to describe salvation as being made wise.  This is not the pleasant awakening to amusement or distraction but the painful awakening of truth -- the blunt and hard truth of sin and death.  This revelation is designed not to make us sorrowful but to drive us into the arms of His mercy where this wisdom finds its fulfillment.  Christ, the wisdom of God, is both the ground of our being and the Savior who delivers us from our pain.   He is also more than this.  He is our focus now and our future.  He is the wisdom who destroys the wisdom of the wise of this world and what we would deem foolish and an escape from reality, is the only reality that is and will ever be.

Worship is ever the victim of our quest for amusement, entertainment, and escape.  It has become a mere tool in our hands to reflect both our interests and the things in which we have no interest.  It took a good long time but we have managed well to take the wisdom of Christ and make it into a tool for our purpose.  Our foolishness has taught us to begrudge the time spent in God's House, decrying what takes place there as boring, and longing to return our imagined wisdom of diversion.  We say that this is our best life and we truly have come to believe it.  Death is no longer the worst that could befall us but a life without amusement or one that includes any amount of pain and suffering.  With all the knowledge at our fingertips, we remain foolish.  Wisdom is off putting to us and learning wisdom is hard. The beauty of worship fails before our dull eyes and the eloquence of music sings in a language that is alien to us. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A little blue. . .

There has been much ink (and digital ink) spilled over the debate of the color of the season of Advent.  Some insist that the historic color is purple, or actually violet, and that this is the holy grail of true confessional and liturgical authenticity.  Others have adopted blue without much fuss.  Some don't care.  Some complain about the cost of paraments no matter what their color and dislike vestments as well.  So what to do.

First of all it might be good to review a little bit about the season and the difference between Lent and Advent even if the color remains the same.  There are more than a few nuances to consider here.  On the surface it might appear to the naked eye that Advent and Lent are the same kind of liturgical seasons, both expressed by the color violet, and both serving as a time of preparation for one of the Church's major feasts.  According to Saint Gregory of Tours, the formal celebration of Advent began sometime about the year 480 AD when the Bishop Perpetuus directed that starting with the St. Martin's Day on 11 November until Christmas, one would fast three times per week.  For this reason it was sometimes called the "Lent of St. Martin."  No one can fully know if this really established a new custom or if it merely encoded into liturgical law an already existing practice.  The force of this law began to be relaxed and the forty days from St. Martin's day to Christmas were reduced to four weeks about the ninth century (the time as we now know it).   Over time the fast was obligated only to monks and priests and then only to monks but other regions required it of all the faithful.  There was no uniformity to the practices at that time.

The Greek Church still continues to observe the fast of Advent, though with much less rigor than that of Lent. It consists of forty days, beginning with November 14, the day on which this Church keeps the feast of the apostle St. Philip. 

In the West, in the Gregorian sacramentary, these Advent Masses numbered five -- counted inversely, that is, the nearest to Christmas was called the first Sunday, and so on with the rest.   The present practices of the observance of Advent have then lasted a thousand years or so, at least as far as the Church of Rome is concerned.  

As far as the color of the season, it might surprise folks to know that the colors are not ancient nor uniform (especially comparing West to East).  The use of color to differentiate liturgical seasons began about the fourth century. At first, usages varied considerably by availability and local custom but by the 12th century Pope Innocent III had systematized the use of five colors: Violet, White, Black, Red and Green.  However blue was also an ancient color that continued to exist in certain regions long after the 12th century (in Spain and in Sarum usage, among others).  Rose was used for the third Sunday in Advent and fourth Sunday in Lent.  Gold was also used for Easter and Christmas.  In some places, the best color the parish had was the color for the highest feasts and in other places Lent was observed with an off white or unbleached linen or other rough homespun fabric (the penitence of depriving the eye of color).   In other words, uniformity of color was slow to come.

Rome does not list Advent as a penitential period, although it has always had a penitential character.  Advent is a time of waiting. It entails penance because the object of expectation is not present yet and there is a longing for it that prepares the way like John the Baptist. We turn away from other desires and focus our attention on the coming of Jesus.  Advent endures hardship as a pregnant woman suffers the natural trials of pregnancy in anticipation of the joy of the birth.  Advent then keeps the goal of Christmas in mind: the expectation of Israel, the preparation of John the Baptist, and the prophecy fulfilled by the visits to Mary and Joseph from the Annunciation to the Visitation and finally to Bethlehem.  It is a sort of pilgrimage.

That is why I think Advent deserves its own color.  It does not bother me that the color of blue has traditionally been associated with the Virgin Mary -- she is pretty pivotal in the Advent and Christmas story after all.  We use an indigo blue -- deep and rich that is both subdued and elegant.  I know many will think ill of me but I think it is better to distinguish Advent from Lent in this way.  So, you now have a whole year to complain about blue and about my defense of it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

A mortal wound. . .

From Christopher Ruddy comes the pithy statement: “A Church that lives from tradition cannot reject its past without mortally wounding itself.”  It is the obvious that has become new because it was so obvious that it was easily forgotten.  Let me say that again.  It was so obvious that it was easily forgotten.  We tend not to forget the strange, unusual, or weird things we read or see but the ordinary things escape us.  So it is that this obvious truth has become scarce in a world so filled with affection for that which is new.  It is certainly true of many things but it is especially true of religion.

Ruddy is speaking from the perspective of a Roman Catholic and yet as a Lutheran I find his voice compelling for my own denomination and in these uncertain times.  Our greatest danger is not simply rejecting the legacy of those who went before for forgetting it.  We do not have to renounce our forefathers to render them antiques worthy more of curiosity than attention.  Surely this is exactly what G. K. Chesterton was talking about:  “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Of course, we usually get the quote and get it backwards.  He goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  It is also echoed in Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

There was a time when a slogan went around my own jurisdiction.  Not your grandfather's church, it was said (taking a cue from an Oldsmobile commercial so many years ago).  It was a time when we enjoyed trashing our own history and those who made it.  Now, to be sure, neither Ruddy or Chesterton or Pelikan means that tradition is given veto but it must be given voice.  I have oft mentioned that the 1940s and 1950s were not pristine years in Missouri Synod history or practice but I must affirm that it was in this church where I was brought to the waters of baptism to become a child of God, taught to pray at the hands of my mother and father, brought to the worship services of God's House, prepared to receive the Holy Sacrament, taught the faith through the Catechism, and prepared for service as a pastor.  For all the things I might find lacking, I cannot and will not condemn the living legacy of the faith and the faithful ones who planted me in the faith through the Word and Sacraments and nurtured that faith.  My parents were not perfect but they were godly people who knew to give me what would serve me to eternal life.  If for this reason only, I must be charitable in their failings.  I only hope to be remembered with the deep appreciation and affection I daily remember them, now sainted, and give thanks to God for their part in the tradition passed down to me.

It is not that the past is a straight jacket which we must wear but it is surely the first set of clothing we put on before we seek to alter our wardrobe.  As we wear it, we discern its strengths and its weaknesses so that we may improve upon it and not destroy it or make it unrecognizable.  That is the sacred deposit given to us.  We may add the best of what we have today but we dare not let go of the best we have received.  While this is true of doctrine, it is also true of liturgy.  While this is true of liturgy, it is also true of piety.  While this is true of piety, it is also true of virtuous and godly living.  If we cannot add anything better or more faithful, then at least we can pass on without impugning the blessed tradition, the living faith of the dead.  I daily give thanks to those who have gone before me -- the pastors who taught me the faith, the teachers of the faithful in generations past, the lineage of faithful that mark my own family legacy, and the those who built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone.  If I have anything to leave to those who come after me, it must be at least what I was given.  If we thought about this more, just might be better parents, better church members, better church workers, and better salt and light for Christ in the world.

Without the living faith of the dead, the Church is mortally wounded.  The hermeneutic of discontinuity that has come to define modern Christianity will certainly kill it and if there is a future it must come from those who remember, reflect, and rejoice to pass on what came before.  The beating heart of that tradition is not the opinion of men but the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  But thanks be to God that this is not a theoretical Word that lives only in our imagination or only in the moment.  It is and has been the might God moving through history to fulfill His saving will and purpose in Christ.  St. Paul insists that He passed down what was given to him -- faithfully.  He calls upon us to be equally solemn and faithful in what we pass down to those who follow us.  This is not for the sake of show but for the life of the world and for our lives.  God help us.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Lamb of God. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (A), preached on Sunday, January 15, 2023.

I fear that miss the import of the words of St. John, hearing that Jesus is like the Lamb of God but that is not what John said.  “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is already the familiar and common refrain of the hymn we sing as Christ inhabits the bread and the wine with His flesh and blood.  It is rather flat for us – a single dimensional view of what it means to be the Lamb of God.  But it is no surprise since we are neither Jews nor are we acquainted with the full meaning of that name given to Christ as were those who heard those words first from the voice of the Forerunner and in the whispered reports of what St. John had said.

When St. John gave the name “Lamb of God” to the Jesus whom He had baptized, he was giving to the people who would hear him the full impact and import of Jesus.  The people might have mistaken Jesus for another prophet, much like Elisha replaced Elijah.  But John came along to disavow this mistake and to give Jesus His rightful and unique place as the prophet to end all prophecies and the priest to end all temple priestly service.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He is not only the only One who matters but the very One to whom all things look and who fulfills all things for us and our salvation.

Jesus is the Lamb of God, the real lamb whose flesh and blood can pay sin’s price and release the sinner from his or her captivity to sin and its death.  God had counted the sacrifices of old as righteous not because there was something in the animal that made it worthy or something in the sacrifice that made it special.  The people were bringing their sacrificial animals in faith, keeping the Word God had said and trusting that God would keep His Word as He had promised.

But now the real Lamb is here.  This is the lamb to whom all the lambs slaughtered upon the altar had looked and the one who would end their sacrificial blood from flowing for sin.  Jesus is the THE Lamb of God, whose sacrifice upon the cross was no annual ritual but a sacrifice once for all.  He does not die over and over again because we continue to sin.  His death is once for all – all the sins that had come before His suffering upon the cross and all the sins that would come after it.

This profound truth is echoed every week in the liturgy.  The Pastor prays on behalf of all who will receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of the Lamb’s body and blood on the cross.  English might better write it “the one all sufficient sacrifice.”  That is what the Lamb has come to do.  That is not some of His work but the center of His work for us and for our salvation.  He is the Lamb who redeems those who are washed in His blood.  He is the Lamb to end the sacrifices that God counted as righteous because the Righteous One has come to suffer, die, and rise for you and for me.  He is the Lamb of God who flesh and blood once in time offered still feeds and nourishes a Passover people longing for the new Jerusalem of a life without sin, without tears, without sorrows, without pain, and without death.

Redemption was not something thought about only once a year among the Jews.  It was not simply the Day of Atonement to which redemption was on the forefront of heart and mind.  The daily sacrifices offered in the Temple to fulfill all righteousness for the sinner who sought to stand before God were a daily and regular reminder that sin was not a self-help proposition – no one redeems himself.

Think how this worked out in the idea of the kinsman redeemer.  Though it seems hopelessly outdated in our modern view of things, it was a tradition of love and devotion.  According to the Levirate law, a brother could be called upon to redeem his dead brother’s life from dustbin of lost memories so his widow and property  live on.  He would do this by marrying his dead brother’s wife.  If he refused, his brother’s memory was erased as if he had never lived.  You saw this when, in the story of Ruth, Boaz had to get her dead husband’s kin to release his responsibility before marrying Ruth.  The whole thing was done not only with words but with the loosing of the sandal of the living brother, a symbol of mourning for the dead man.

Surely this was also in the back of St. John the Baptist’s mind when he said he was not able to unloose the sandal of the coming One.  St. John was admitting that he was no redeemer.  Only the Lamb of God could redeem us from having our names erased from memory and our lives extinguished in death.  Jesus is that Lamb of God.  He is our kinsman redeemer.  He gives life where death was, hope where despair was, and peace where turmoil was.  This is what the ears heard when Jesus was called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

The Lord has become YOUR Lord, YOUR Savior, YOUR Redeemer.  That is what it means to call Jesus the Lamb of God.  He pays the cost of your redemption in full with His own flesh in suffering and His blood shed upon the cross.  He dies not for an idea but for you, for your captivity to sin and for your prison of death.

He dies to set YOU free that your life is not and can never be simply a memory.  You live because your kinsman redeemer has accepted the role and cause of the Lamb of God in order to save you.  He does this not because there is something in it for Him – something more than your sins forgiven and your life rescued from eternal death.  No, He is the Lamb of God in love – the steadfast and enduring love that only God has and that we see Him display in His sacrificial death for sinners like you and me.

We sing this every time we approach the Lord’s Table.  “O Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on me.”  It is the constant reminder and confession that we cannot redeem ourselves or rescue our lives from death and ignominy.  That is why it is so foolish to think of the funeral as a celebration of life.  Our lives are a breath – here and gone in a moment.  We have no abiding city or identity except that which is given to us by others.  But the sad reality is that none of us is remembered past one generation.  Thanks be to God that the Lamb of God has come, exchanged His life for ours, written our names in the Book of Life, taken in Himself our death so that we might be inhabited with His life, and fed and nourished in this hope until we see Him face to face.

To confess Jesus as the Lamb of God is to admit we need a Redeemer, we need a Lamb whose blood can cleanse and whose flesh can feed.  We need the rescue of an eternal God for a people self-condemned to a brief moment of existence because of sin.  But that is what John points us to and to which we point in the Divine Service.  It is our amazing joy to call Jesus Lamb and to hear at the rail, His body and blood given for you.  In the holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.