Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Sunday affairs. . .

There was a time when Sunday was only to be a day of worship.  Now it would seem that Sunday is the only day to worship -- God lets you have every other day to do as you please.  Of course, if I were to be more precise, it is not Sunday the day but an hour or two in the morning, sufficiently late so that you do not have get up early and bother your sleep schedule and sufficiently early so that you still have plenty of time in the day to do as you please.  It must seem ironic that this complaint comes from a fellow who most folks think works only one day a week and has plenty of time for himself.  Nevertheless, the direction of time seems to be Sundays only (even for feast days) except when one of the principals falls on a Sunday and, like I saw in the South, the Sunday of Christmas Day saw churches close so that folks could spend the holiday with their families.  Ah, the irony of it all.

The truth is that even the only on Sunday idea has changed to only on some Sundays and not all that often either.  Our devotion to God apparently can be satisfactorily reduced to one Sunday out of the month.  The new normal for regular attendance seems to be moving rather significantly in that direction.  In the congregation I serve, the total Sunday attendance is divided up three ways.  First, there are those folks who are always there and if they miss you know something is wrong.  They are often on the older side but not always.  We have such families in the 20s and 30s who exhibit the same profound devotion to being in the Lord's House on he Lord's Day.  The next third are those who come twice a month at least and sometimes three times.  It is not the same crowd on each Sunday but represents those whose hour has come on that particular Sunday.  Again, this segment is made up of a variety of age groups.  The last group is made up of those who attend once a month or less.  This section of the attendees looks very different every Sunday.  In fact, you cannot predict who these folks will be.  It is always a surprise.

If you accounted for those too ill to attend, the homebound, and those who travel for work or pleasure and are out of town, we could certainly fill up nearly every seat in the nave and be forced to add another service or even two to accommodate the crowd.  That is, if everyone attended every Sunday as their normal habit we would have to add services.  But it is highly unlikely that will happen.  In fact, the larger the congregation is, the more likely to see a big gap between membership and attendance.  I had the occasion to look up a rather large parish of our church body and it listed the official numbers of some 3,000 members and an average Sunday attendance of a little more than 300.  Ouch.  On the other hand, it often holds true that small congregations have a higher percentage of their members in worship on a typical Sunday.

I guess what I am saying is that the future of both the frequency of attendance of those who belong and the percentage of those who belong who attend is headed in the same direction and it is not good.  Though we live in a time when we have more personal and leisure time than at any other point in history, Sunday is the only day for worship but not only for worship and not even primarily so -- remember, I am talking about Christian people who belong to a church!  Rome has holy days of obligation and yet its percentage of members in worship is hardly better and typically worse than most Lutheran congregations (though not quite as bad, perhaps, as the congregation I named above!).  It is not a rule that needs to be fixed but hearts so that they may desire being in God's house, receiving His gifts, and responding with thanks and praise.  Apparently we are not all or always glad when they said to me, I will go to the House of the Lord.  Again, this is not a complaint about a statistic but the spiritual health and welfare of those who by their own claim insist that they belong to the Lord.  

Monday, February 27, 2023

I hate. . .

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (A), preached on Sunday, February 26, 2023.

The devil always tempts by presuming to offer us something better than what God would give.  It has been that way since Eden.  The serpent came to Eve appealing not to some sick joy of being bad and getting away with evil but with the ultimate good.  What did God say?  Eve, weren’t you listening?  God did not say what you think He said.  God really said that you will be like God.  So the best way to obey God is to disobey Him.

In the same way the devil meets Jesus in the wilderness.  Jesus knows what He is called by God to do and it will involve miraculous bread for hungry people.  So the devil asks the hungry Jesus simply to do for Himself what He will do for others.  Command the stones to be bread and eat your fill.  You will feel better.

The devil brings Jesus to the height of the pinnacle of the Temple and tells Him to dive off trusting that God will send His angels to save Him.  You know the cross lies ahead; don’t you want to know that God will be with you there?  So try it out here.  Jump off and God will save you.  He said He would.  Won’t you feel better knowing that God will catch you when you fall?

Finally the devil makes it easy.  Get down on your knees in private before me and I will give you every public part of this world and its glory.  Jesus, it costs you nothing to give into me in secret and you gain everything for this one small price.  The end justifies the means.  Won’t you feel better having won the world and all things without suffering the agony of the cross or dying the death of a sinner?

By now we are all wondering why Jesus did not simply give in.  After all, we do. We give into evil by doing for ourselves what we do for others.  You have to love yourself before you can love anybody else, right?  We ask God for signs all the time – little hints to know that He is with us and on our side.  Is it too much to ask for a sign even though we gather before the cross, the greatest sign of all?  We are the kings and queens of shortcuts and ends justifying the means.  It started as a quick and easy good but it has progressed to a quick and easy righteousness.  As long as we are on God’s side for the big things, it will not matter if we succumb to the little temptations, right?  No reasonable person could disagree.  The way the devil frames temptation it seems like the right thing to do to follow the devil’s path instead of God’s – the devil seems more reasonable than God.

Three times in your life with your voice or the voice of your family, you have said just the opposite.  When you were baptized, your family and parish spoke with you and for you.  I renounce the devil.  I renounce his works.  I renounce his ways.  You said it again when you were confirmed and when you joined the Church – so three times you have renounced the devil, his works, and his ways.

Sometimes we are embarrassed by talk of the devil.  Sometimes we treat the devil as if his problem were merely being misunderstood.  Maybe your mom or dad or Sunday school teacher told you it is always wrong to hate.  But they are wrong.  For you are not simply saying the devil is bad.  Each of those three times you are confessing before your fellow believers and before the world:  I HATE THE DEVIL.... I HATE EVIL....

Let’s put it bluntly.  This is what each of us confesses:  I hate the devil.  I hate his lying ways.  I hate his lying words. I hate his lying works.  I hate the devil and I hate evil.  I hate all the pleasures he promises that make me feel worse.  I hate the short cuts that end up being dead  ends.  I hate the desires that well up in me and seem impossible to stop or end.  I hate the thoughts I cannot control but make me relieved no one can read my mind. I hate them all.  Because I love Jesus.

The hate you have for the devil and for evil is not manifested in words of rejection but in the refusal to walk in the ways of evil – to lie, to cheat, to murder, to gossip, to commit adultery, to fornicate, to separate sex from love and love from sex, to speak with vulgar words as if they enhanced your character, and to dishonor those whom God has set as watchers at your gate and in your lives.  The devil will try to make it seem like disobedience is obedience, like evil is righteousness, and like sin is faithfulness.  You know better.  Renounce them.  Hate them.  Refuse to have nothing to do with the works of the flesh, the sinful desires of the heart, the affections of men rather than God, and what works in the moment but not forever.

Proverbs says:  “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.”  The Psalmist says:  “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!”  Jesus says:   “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We cannot treat the devil or evil as if it were myth or legend or a joke.  We cannot treat the evils of this world as if they could be enjoyed without a cost to your soul.  We cannot say we love God without at the same time hating all that is not of God.

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us...

Temptation is not what God will do to us.  His goal is never to distance us from His grace or raise doubts in our minds or fear in our hearts.  That is always the devil’s doing.  But the devil is a great scammer – using the words of God to deceive and packing up evil to look good.  My friends, you cannot love God and be indifferent to evil.  Hate evil.  Hate the devil.  Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, body, and mind.  The devil cannot save but can only extend his misery to you but God saves by taking on the full misery of your sin and its death so that you might be forgiven and live forevermore.  In the midst of temptation there is only one refuge, the Word of God, and the Word of God teaches us to hate evil and love good.  God help us to do just that.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Dealing with the age. . .

There is a charge often laid at the feet of conservatives.  The claim is that conservatives have a closed mind, offering up yesterday's answers to the questions of today and tomorrow.  As with any stereotype, there is some truth in it but seldom the truth that the detractor means.  The answers held up from yesterday are not simply answers but values and a framework in which to see the challenges of the present and the future within the veil of what gives us nobility and identity.  If this is true in politics, it is even more true of Christianity.  For the answers we offer to the issues and conflicts of the day and the days following are not merely our answers but God's answers.  They arise from the Word of the Lord that endures forever and the faithful witness of those who have believed and confessed this truth before us.  They represent our voices with theirs in an unending chorus of faith, witness, and hope before a world which is in love with all things new.  Finally, they are not simply a conclusion from the past but the redemption that happened once in time for all time.  

So our detractors would insist that the Church not be wedded to any doctrine but freedom which may acknowledge the past or the Scriptures but is not wedded to them and certainly allows the Christian to define and decide upon his or her own truth.  They would let Christians deal openly with the questions of the age and leave them to their own conclusions in a liberty which allows every voice except the past and God's voice to have a say.  But this is a failure to acknowledge the most basic truth of Scripture and the most basic confession of God.  We are bound to the moment but He is not.  We live a life defined by years but His is eternity.  We know what we experience or have been taught but He knows all.  We judge by our self-interest and His is the love that comes to serve and to save.  In the end, the voice of the Church is the only thing keeping man from irrelevance and from being so captive to the spirit of the moment that his life is only a wisp of wind and a breath that disappears as soon as it is born.

This is the meaning of the Word of God and all the characterizations of grass that withers and flowers that fade against the backdrop the steadfast love of the Lord that is manifest in time but timeless.  What a shame it is that so many churches have decided that they must listen to the voices of the age and move their sails to captive the wind of the moment.  It will surely move them along but ever closer to that which is here and gone and ever further from that once for all redemptive death and life-giving resurrection that bestows eternity upon the temporary.  What we offer the world is not our opinion or our feelings or our experience but that which is not ours at all -- but God's way, truth, and life.  The world may not listen but it is the only voice that redeems and bestows the eternal upon any and all who confess the holy name of Jesus by the Spirit's prompting.  In the end, the Word of God and the voice of catholic tradition can never keep us from dealing openly with the questions of the age but are the only way to meet those questions with anything more than a "what if."  We are all the blind poking around life as if we thought we saw clearly but Christ is the only one who opens our eyes and gives us to see with His own vision what is true, what is good, what is righteous, what is beautiful, and what is eternal.  If this is captivity, I would trade it any day of the week for an unfettered freedom that can nothing for sure and everything only in part.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

What kind of barque?

In the congregation that I serve, the Church is portrayed as a ship in one of the clerestory windows.  It is not a novelty.  Ships have been featured in Christian art since the very beginning, appearing first in the catacombs. It was a favorite image of the Church Fathers, who saw the ship as a symbol of the Church.  The ship (bark or barque, barchetta) of the Church is tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution sailing toward the safe harbor of eternity with its cargo of human souls. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah's family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21).  In the 4th century document known as the Apostolic Constitutions, we read:

When you call an assembly of the Church as one that is the commander of a great ship, appoint the assemblies to be made with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the brethren as for passengers, with all due care and decency. And first, let the building be long, with its head to the east, with its vestries on both sides at the east end, and so it will be like a ship. In the middle let the bishop’s throne be placed, and on each side of him let the presbytery sit down; and let the deacons stand near at hand, in close and small girt garments, for they are like the mariners and managers of the ship.

Indeed, the part of every church where the people sit is called a nave. This word comes from the Latin navis, or ship, and symbolized the Church as a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world.

But what kind of ship?  Is the Church a pleasure craft for our amusement or to distract us, a cruise ship to entertain her passengers, a battleship carrying warriors to the battlefield, a submarine to hide from danger, a cargo ship carrying people like those that cart our stuff from one port to another, or is it a hospital ship sent by God to bring healing to the wounded and comfort to the dying?  That seems to be the sticking point.  We are rather disagreed on this.  American Protestantism seems to liken the Church to an individual craft on its own journey with its own truth blowing wind into its sails.  Evangelicalism seems to see the Church as a cruise ship to entertain people and make their journey fun and even inspirational.  Fundamentalism seems to like the warrior imagery and the Church as a ship of war against evil.  Sometimes it seems that Rome sees the Church as a cargo ship carrying people as God's shipping agent toward their eternal destination.  Perhaps the social gospel folks see the Church as a hospital ship doing good in the world more than directed to the world to come.  Given the way the world is, the image of a submarine hiding from the danger is appealing to many Christians of all stripes.

Perhaps there are elements of most of these images that fit with the whole.  I see the Church more as a hospital ship but the good we are doing is less oriented toward simply band-aids and respite than it is the full healing agents of God's Word and Sacraments.  This healing is both present and powerful in the rescue of the sinner, the comfort of the tormented soul, the presence of God to encourage, the mercy of God to forgive, and the power of God not merely to stave off death but overcome it and bestow a new flesh that will not suffer or die anymore.  We are sort of like the MASH units of God's purpose placed in the midst of things bringing the healing of forgiveness for now and preparing them for the fulfillment to come in the perfect healing of the resurrection.  We are not simply doing good in the hopes of making progress against the ills of the world but manifesting the steadfast love of the Lord now and directing the heart of the wounded to what that love has prepared for them.  We are not simply an urgent care clinic but the place where the mind finds its transformation and the heart its rebirth by the grace of God so that God's people may endure and those not yet of the Kingdom may be given the new birth of water and the Word.  

We do not chart the rescues as statistics for pride but simply mark everything we do with faithfulness knowing that God is at work in and through us and that the only work that endures is the work He is doing in us and through us.  It is not like God has handed off the mission to us but that He chooses to do His work through us, both a comfort when faced with all we think impossible and a solemn responsibility when we would rather manage than serve.

In some respects that is especially true of the parish I serve.  We are in a highly mobile community and more often the people of this congregation are here for a short term and then move away.  We do our best to serve them with God's Word and Sacraments so that they leave stronger and better prepared for their lives here and eternally but we know that many of them, perhaps most of them, will not end their journey as Christ's own here, in this congregation.  That is even more true of the last few years as I find myself burying more and more of those who were here when I came and looking out on Sunday morning at more and more faces of those who came after I did.  It is an encouragement to me but also a struggle.  My hope and my time here are fulfilled not in personal accomplishment but in the gift and promise of the Word that does what it says and the Sacraments that bestow what they sign.  In this respect, the Church is also efficacious -- not because her boundaries are marked by her own design but because she ministers not with the tools of the world but the means of grace of the Kingdom of God.  Her work may not be fully seen or appreciated but we have the promise of God that nothing sent forth by Him through us shall return to Him empty but will accomplish all that He purposes.  That is the wind in my sails and the power that moves the Church as God's ship doing His bidding.  And it is enough.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Improvement. . .

On social media there are a host of memes and jokes about water into wine.  One that comes to mind is the priest who is pulled over by the cop who smelled alcohol on his breath and asked if he had been drinking.  "Just water," says the priest but the cop says it smelled like wine.  The priest looks at the cup and says, "Good Lord, He has done it again!"  Nobody in their right mind would do the opposite, would he?

It would seem that our time is particularly prone to taking what was received and discarding it as out of date, irrelevant, or, the most damning curse of moderns, boring.  In the attempt to improve upon what was received, the end result is generally less than illuminating and almost always banal.  It is as if we had not paid any attention to what was received and had a mind only for what we thought or wanted or decided.

This is most certainly true with theology.  I shudder to think back to college and seminary and the names of those who were thought to be groundbreaking in their improvement over what went before.  Thankfully, most of them will survive as mere footnotes in history and some of them even less.  I wonder what we were thinking in the 1960s and 1970s as we replaced the giants of the past with gnats like Tillich and Moltmann and a host of others whose shine has dimmed over time.  Influence is a precious commodity and much of the influence of modern theologians was novelty to a time less than impressed with tradition or things traditional.  When you marry the spirit of the age, you become a widow in the next.  So said William Ralph Inge.  But we did not want to hear it then and it seems we do not want to hear it now. 

Our attempt to crack the Scriptures as if they were a book of riddles or to explain God as if He were a puzzle to be solved have not helped us win others to the faith nor have they aided in the preservation of that faith.  Instead, we have presided over the grand unchaining of truth from fact -- most especially Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Where God gave us something real and concrete, we have responded with feelings and sentiment on one hand and reasoned disdain on the other.  Convinced that God needed our permission to speak and our consent to be true, we took the facts that we were given and turned them into mere whims and opinions.  The mighty God became a casual deity and a toy to be played with rather than a force to be reckoned with.  

Many years ago I read then Josef Ratzinger after Vatican II was complete and marveled at his critique of those who used it as a jumping off point from the past and a vain attempt to pull their church into the twentieth century.  His quip was “they changed wine into water and called it ‘aggiornamento [an update or improvement].’”  We cannot turn water into wine -- the Lord must do that -- but we seem rather adept at turning the wine into water. We take His miracles and turn them into myths, we take His prophecies and turn them into picture language, and we take His sacraments and turn them into mere symbols.  We talk as if the only thing that mattered was how meaningful it was to us -- not whether it was true or not.  We don't care if Adam and Eve were fictional characters or great events were staged drama or details were exaggerated or words did not mean what they said, truth is not nearly as important as how we feel about it.  Wine into water.  That is what we are good at.

The pandemic of our age is not Covid but the way we take God's profound and make it a simple amusement, how we turn His truth into legend, and how we explain away or downright reject what He says that does not fit us or the times.  Wine into water.  That is the legacy of Eden.  It is not simply that we sin but our biggest sin is making us the gods who decide if God is real and then decide what this God might have said or what we insist it could not mean.  All the while we have emptied the pews, disillusioned the faithful, and turned faith into something trivial and cute -- sort of like the memes about kittens we fritter our time away watching.   It is mindless but at least it does not threaten -- and Jesus, if anything, is a stone of stumbling who hurts our feelings.  Wine into water.  More damage has been done by the presumption that the preacher does not believe or finds as boring as we do what he says than the out and out proclamation of heresy.  More damage has been done to the liturgy by those who focused on who was doing it than what was being done -- assuring us that justice requires democracy on the steps of the altar and everyone their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.  More damage has been done to prayer by those who insisted that spontaneity and creativity are better than learning the prayers of the great pray-ers of old.  More damage has been done to good works by those trying to make sure that the workers of those works found meaning and reward in their service equal to the benefit the neighbor was receiving.  Wine into water.

Maybe it has just been a bad day. . . or maybe Ratzinger was spot on.  We have taken the Lord's wine meant to gladden our hearts and turned it into water. 

Friday, February 24, 2023

Thoughts about Bach

Beginning on June 11, 1724, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a brand-new cantata for every Sunday and feast day -- it was a creative period that lasted some nine months.  Some have called it his “chorale cantata cycle.”  Though Bach has composed cantatas before, this was his second cycle of cantatas while in Leipzig, for the 1724/1725 season.  For many of us, this is the most important legacy of Bach and it would seem that he believed for himself that these cantatas were the most important parts of his work worth surviving him. As is usual, there were Sundays and feast days that did not occur in that cycle -- twelve Sundays and feast days to be specific.  Later in life, Bach would composed a cantata to fill in the gaps of this period and complete his legacy. 

Bach was a Lutheran -- not simply one who gave nod to the church of his upbringing but as a passionate believer and servant of the Church. Typically Bach used one of the great Lutheran chorales or hymns within his cantatas, thus signifying the great esteem with which he held the liturgical tradition of his faith.  Many times Bach used one of Luther’s original hymns as the basis for a chorale cantata -- generally placing the hymn as an opening chorus, generally in the form of a motet, using a composition style learned from the Renaissance period.  Though it would have been considered rather old fashioned already in his day, Bach would take this musical form and explore every aspect of its to make it profound and worthy of the text which is being sung. 

Sadly, such pieces have become museum works -- performed in secular concert settings in which the text is less significant than its musical setting.  This would be something Bach abhorred and it is an offense we as Lutherans should take to heart.  But then again, we have done it to ourselves.  You are much more likely to hear a spiritual or pop gospel style choral work in a Lutheran parish than the music of Bach, our resident creative genius!  More than 200 cantatas survive Bach and, while not complete, they are testament not simply to his musical prowess but to the vitality of his Lutheran faith.  Around three quarters of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas have survived.  With them we have perhaps three full cycles of the liturgical year.  The message is clear.  Both the composer and his preachers saw life as a grand rehearsal for death -- not a hopeless death but of the death that is a door and gate to everlasting life. The people in Leipzig’s main churches were regularly reminded of their mortality and of the weightiness of their sin and this is certainly reflected in Bach's cantatas as well.  Lest we think these were depressing and sober warnings of impending doom, Bach also offered the faithful a musical foretaste of the eternal feast to come and a treasure of comfort and joy and peace.

I wish that we Lutherans had the same urgency and profound conviction as we see evidenced in the musical life of Leipzig and manifest in the music of J. S. Bach.  I cannot watch Glenn Gould perform Bach (especially the Goldberg variations) without getting caught up with him in the sheer uninhibited joy that is manifest in the sounds that come from his piano under the guidance of the master.  Academic performances of Bach's cantatas certainly get the notes right but they so often miss the exuberant joy that is driven by Bach's faith described in the words that are sung.  The decline of Lutheranism just might be halted if we could capture in our own time the unrestrained joy that results from God's forgiveness and His rescue from death -- the things that make the Bach cantatas sing!  I recall someone who said that he knew he deserved to be punished for his sins but he wished that this punishment would not take place in church on Sunday mornings!  Bach is a remedy for those who put a period after sin and its grudging confession.  The mercy and grace of God are always the center and joy of Bach's church compositions and no where is this more true than the cantatas.

How odd it is that Bach is more well known for the Brandenburg Concertii than for any other musical composition!   Listen to any classical radio station and they will cycle through one or more of the Brandenburgs as their only offering to Bach and that period in history.  Even stranger is the fact that it does not seem that these were ever performed during Bach’s lifetime or that the Margrave whose name is attached to them every paid the bill for their composition!  So this is my call to Lutherans to rise up and make sure that the world hears this evangelist speak the Gospel in the marvel of his liturgical output now largely unheard.  If we don't do it, who will?????

Thursday, February 23, 2023

More about a touchy subject. . .

As I approach the day when my full-time service will come to its close, I find myself in good company.  The age group I fit in is one of the biggest pieces of the clergy pie for nearly every denomination.  While some are not sure the declining church will need as many pastors, I am like the barking dog no one wants to hear saying we are facing a clergy crisis.  

In 2017, well before the COVID-19 pandemic, a Barna Group report also showed how the average age of Protestant pastors in the United States had increased by a decade over the previous 25 years, putting it just six years below the current minimum retirement age of 62.  Only a fool would think that this has improved in the six years since that was recorded.  In fact, in the LCMS we are told that some 40% of our clergy are at or past retirement age right now.   Yet at this moment, we have fewer men in seminary than ever before.  More than this, we have come to depend upon aging pastors to keep working at least part-time to keep the church doors open in places that once would have been ordinary places for a candidate to begin his service.  Some of this is due to a shortage of financial resources but more of it has to do with a willingness to settle for what is easy and a short term fix for what is a long term problem.

Lutherans are not alone in this.  Rome has priests serving well into their late 70s and 80s because they are facing an even more critical shortage.  The ELCA is also facing its own clergy crisis.  Rome has responded by making it harder to become a priest -- lengthening the time of seminary preparation by postponing diaconal ordination to after the completion of the seminary studies rather than in the final year of seminary training.  The ELCA has been shutting down and merging seminaries largely due to declining enrollment until some of the programs are more houses of study within larger academic institutions rather than stand alone seminaries.  Some have sold off their campuses to reduce their footprint due to a shift to online study that at least accompanies if not replaces residential seminary.  The LCMS has tried both with a second class clergy that completes an online program with limited seminary training on site along with the primary residential programs -- but enrollment in both is not increasing and the demand is greater than the supply of seminarians.  Clearly a streamlined approach is not the solution to all our problems.  It is a vocational crisis.

In the LCMS, this has been met with a national emphasis and program to recruit pastors and other full-time church workers.  It is not a bad program and you can look at it in detail here.  The problem is that it is not the job of the national church or the seminary to recruit pastors and other church workers.  It is the job of the family, the home, the pastor, and the congregation.  We will not solve this problem until we truly believe at the level of home and family, pastor and congregation, that the highest calling is the pastoral office and the noble character of such auxiliary offices as are found necessary.  We must do a better job of acting out what we say in words -- the importance of those who serve us in Christ's stead.  We must encourage every young man early in his life to consider the pastoral office and every young man and woman early in their lives to consider other offices for full-time church work.  This is not a luxury or option but an essential need and urgent necessity.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Ashes and dust. . .

We live in a time that loves youth.  We work so hard to prolong the effects of age.  From botox to facelifts to face creams, we resist the march of time and its destiny.  I once buried a fellow who joked he would be the best looking body in the coffin.  He had it right.  Though we spend energy and money to postpone death and we run from any admission of our culpability to its cause, sin and death cannot be ignored.  Sin and its death are the worst kept secret of all.  On this day we admit what we are so tempted to deny.  We are mortal.  We are sinners. We cannot save ourselves.

Though we assume that admitting this obvious fact will cause us to suffer, Ash Wednesday reminds us that confession and repentance have a good and holy outcome -- forgiveness, restoration, and renewal.  On our botoxed and lifted foreheads and on the seemingly innocent foreheads of our children and grandchildren, a cross will be marked in ashes.  It is the public sign of our inward repentance.  It is the most poorly kept secret that we finally admit.  God, be merciful to me a sinner.

Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.  God breathed into dust and Adam came into being.  Adam's sin reminded him of his dust and all the sons and daughters of Adam have struggled to admit that the dust of their beginning will be the dust of their ending.  Even though we try to preserve the body and place it into a vault to seal it from the forces of decay, we do not stop the death cast upon us children of dust.  I wonder if, in some way, we have not made it even more obvious.  For all the time, energy, and money we expend upon the pursuit of youth testifies as much to its loss and to the reign of death as it does any success we have had in slowing its progress.

On Ash Wednesday we come in sackcloth and ashes, the traditional clothing of repentance.  Running no more, we admit.  We are the walking dead, marked with sin to die, and helpless to save ourselves unless God Himself saves us.  But that is the other side of Ash Wednesday.  We come not in despair but in hope.  The ashes are marked in the sign of the cross.  There is life even in ashes - not the first life given us in our human birth but the new and everlasting life of Christ into which we were baptized.

On Ash Wednesday we admit that we know who we are.  Far from the final act of despair by a people without hope, this is a confession made within the context of mercy.  It is no play acting for show but the outward display of our inward faith.  God has given life to those marked by sin for death.  We are from dust and will return to dust but God has planted life in this dust and now the grave must surrender us to Him who owns even death!  Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, we come not only confessing who we were but admitting who we are.  Grant us the destiny written in Your blood and in the future prepared for us when You were planted like a seed into the earth and rose with the hope of eternity for us and all believers. 

Scripture speaks often of ashes:

  • … daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes… (Jer 6:26).
  • … and shout aloud over you and cry out bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes;… (Eze 27:30).
  • The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes… (Jonah 3:6).
  • Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Mt 11:21).
Though we hear the caution of Jesus against pride in our piety (And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” Mt 6:16-17), Jesus is not at all suggesting that ashes or acts of penitence be dispensed with.  Not at all.  Jesus does just the opposite.  He reminds us that external acts cannot make up for an empty heart and that genuine repentance is more than deeds.  It is a salutary warning.  We heed it not by internalizing everything but by making sure that our external acts and words flow from the repentance of the Spirit working in us to confess our sins and believe in the forgiveness Christ alone gives.  For those so concerned, our unfailing glorification and pursuit of youth is far more dangerous than this pious and faithful mark of confession.

So come.  Confess.  Repent.  Believe. Christ has hidden hope even in ashes and death.  You know this.  You are the baptized.  Live this faith.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Eyes for Jesus only. . .

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (A), preached on Sunday, February 19, 2023.

In the romance novels and movies, lovers have eyes only for each other.  At least until they somebody else who catches their fancy.  That is the problem with eyes since the fall.  We do not see what we want to see but we see all kinds of things we should not see at all.  David looked out upon his kingdom but they were drawn most of all to Bathsheba who was modestly washing herself behind the walls of her own home.  Peter was walking on water until he looked down and doubts and fears began to replace Jesus in his heart and mind.

The disciples had been witnesses to Jesus’ glory many times.  They had stood with Him as water became wine, a lunch fed thousands, healed the sick, and raised the dead.  At times that glory was rather hidden but at other times it was obvious to everyone – even those not among the twelve.  But now, as Peter, James, and John go with Him up on a mountain, the demonstration of His glory on others is replaced with the visible glory on Jesus.

Jesus reveals what had been hidden to them or reflected from Him onto other things or other people.  His face shone like the sun – a bright and shocking light that they could not look upon directly.  The light spread to His clothing which shone as they were also lights.  With Jesus were Elijah the prophet who had rode the chariot of fire into God’s presence and the law-giver Moses who had seen the Lord and his own face shone with the brightness of the one true light.  What you might imagine was awesome, Peter and the rest of them found awful.  

Awkwardly, because Peter had just assumed that seeing the glory of God was supposed to be wonderful, he babbled on about setting up camp on the mountain.  It is like the stilted conversations we have when no one knows what to say but everyone presumes something must be said.  While Peter was still talking, God intervened with a voice that would shut everyone up.  This is My Son whom I love and with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”  

In terror, they buried their faces in the dust hoping it would all go away.  And everything did go away – everything except Jesus.  In fact, Jesus was the only one left.  Knowing their fears and the terror of what they had witnessed, Jesus told them to rise and have no fear.  They did not see Elijah the mighty prophet of the last days nor did they see Moses the law-giver and the patriarch of Israel anymore.  They saw no one save Jesus only.  

Note where this takes place in Matthew’s Gospel.  It is shortly after Jesus foretells His death and resurrection and then calls His disciples to deny themselves, and follow Him.  It is a couple of chapters before Jesus enters Jerusalem on His way to the cross amid the palms and hosannas of a great parade.  Prior to this the disciples were sometimes confused, sometimes confounded, and sometimes complaining about Jesus.  But now Jesus insists that they must have eyes for Him only.  They cannot afford to be distracted.  They cannot afford to be tempted.  They cannot afford to let anything disrupt their vision of Jesus.

My friends, we live in hard times.  The world has the memory of the pandemic, the reality of political division, war and violence, cultural conflict, and a host of things to distract them and capture their attention.  Christians are equally tempted to shift their vision away from the one thing needful to other things – some interesting, some upsetting, some distracting, some consuming, and some corrupting.  We seem to have eyes for anything and everyone except Jesus.  In fact, Jesus struggles to keep our attention because the ordinary chores of life and the exceptional days of difference would have all of us but in doing so would destroy us forever.

Part of the purpose of the Church is to give us eyes for Jesus only and to restore the vision we give to other things and people that would take His place.  Here in God’s House, we cultivate our eyes for Jesus only no matter if the distraction entices or repulses.  It is what might be described as the development of a Christian world view.  This world view is to see ourselves and the world and our place in the world through the eyes of Jesus and only through the eyes of Jesus.

For the disciples this vision was crucial.  Up to this point, they had seen Jesus demonstrate glory and it was compelling.  Now, on the mount of transfiguration, our Lord reveals that glory.  Why now?  Because soon they must descend with Him down the mountain and back to the path that was to end at the cross and empty tomb.  They were given this glimpse of glory not as reward but because they needed to see what that glory is and what it is for.  Christ’s glory is not hidden by the cross but revealed in it.  Elijah was the prophet whose presence would announce that latter days in which God fulfilled all His promises.  Moses was there as law giver to point to Him who keeps the law and all righteousness for us and all believers – fulfilling His promise in full.
My friends, we live in critical times for the continuation of the faith and even for this congregation.  It is not that you and I have to decide how to confront and over come the all the enemies of Jesus and of the faith but that you and I need to keep our eyes on Jesus.  In this moment, God is looking for us to have eyes only for Jesus.  It is for our survival against any and all enemies of the kingdom and those whose goal and purpose it is to deny us the Kingdom.  That is why we have eyes for Jesus only.  It is for our calling of a pastor that we need to set aside feelings and opinions in order to have eyes for Jesus only in this process.

We have presumed that God’s primary concern is our happiness when His real concern is our holiness, that is bringing us from sin to righteousness, from death to life, from a world passing to the eternal dwelling place He is preparing for us.  None of us are mere onlookers as Jesus enters into His suffering and dies for us. Jesus insists that we will walk where He has walked.  We have no freedom to indulge ourselves but live in a constant state of self-denial, taking up the cross and not avoiding it, making the sacrifices required not to save us but to keep us as the saved.  For that we must have eyes for Jesus only.

Look at John’s Gospel and right after Jesus’ triumphal entry amid palms and hosannas some Greeks who were Godfearers come to Philip and make a request:  “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  My friends, is not that why you are here today?  It is the call of every pastor to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments so that you see Jesus.  Show us Jesus is the prayer of every Christ as they enter God’s House and that is the sole reason for the pastoral office.  He shows you the glory of the cross and empty tomb, of water that gives new birth, of absolution that forgives my sin, of the Word that preaches life into your ears and faith into your hearts, and of the bread that is Christ’s body and the cup that is His blood.  In the end, it is the only this I or any Pastor have to give you.  These means of grace are not signs of His glory but they are His glory, His saving glory to make you His own that you may live under Him in His kingdom here and now and forever.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Real lay leaders. . .

There are not a few voices who complain about a clergy dominated church.  The history of the LCMS can be traced to a fear of such an unbalanced tilt and learned from the American experience of democracy to find a way out of it.  How curious it is that there is such a fear of clergy and the want of some mechanism to control the influence of the pastor.  For Missouri it might be traced to a bad experience with a bishop but for many it is the presumption that the clergy have some ulterior motive that must be checked by strong lay leadership.

The real lay leaders of the Church are not those elected to offices or councils or boards but husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.  The vocation of marriage and family is the primary locus of such leadership and perhaps the problems of lay leadership are due to the decline of marriage and family in the culture around us.  How odd it is that we keep struggling to look for ways to give nobility to and enhance the nobility of the laity and then shrug our shoulders at what happens within the home.  The many problems of the congregation would surely be solved at least in part if not in whole by a strengthened marriage and family within the order of God's own creation.  Perhaps because we find it hard to resist much less go against the fading glory of marriage and family in culture, we focus our energy on the relationship between clergy and lay.

What stresses the congregation is not simply finding and recruiting and training strong lay leaders for the congregation but the pressures and deterioration of marriage and family within the Church as well as in the world out there.  Divorce has become as normal in the congregation as in society.  Cohabitation has become as routine for those within the congregation as for those outside the faith.  Children are seen as optional extras by many couples within the congregation just as they are by the culture as a whole.  

Recently Anthony Esolen noted this among Roman Catholics.  In 1970, there were more than 426,300 Catholic marriages in a the U.S., then a country of 205.1 million. In 2021, there were 97,200 Catholic marriages, in a country of 329.5 million people. Put those two statistics together and you have a collapse of 86 percent. It is surely no different for Missouri Synod Lutherans.  Our decline in the numbers marrying, the baptism and confirmation of their children, and the graying of our church body all have to do with the decline of marriage and family overall.  Many of the programs of the congregation are designed to reflect that decline and to attempt to make up in some way for it.  Yet the real lay leadership the Church requires is not an office or a vote but the strength of the home where husband and wife live out their love and faithfulness within the boundaries of Christ's love and where that love is manifested in the appreciation and yearning for children as a blessing from the Lord.  Yes, of course, there are those who cannot conceive but this is a far different thing than those who choose not to have a family.  This is not about marginalizing those who do not live up to the perfect ideal but to strive for that ideal nonetheless.  Instead, we seem more content to offer minimal effort when sacrifice is required and to demand great reward as a condition of marriage and family.  It is no wonder that our pews are empty.  

Clearly the more profound leadership of the lay lies within the domain of the home, where husbands die for their wives and children and their wives and children act in equal dedication to the submission and service that is the fruit of love -- of Christ's love in us.  We do not have a lay leadership problem in the congregation or church at large but we clearly have a problem valuing and esteeming the vocation of marriage and family as noble, godly, and true.  Our energy and effort needs to be better spent when the urgency is -- that is teaching and training our boys to be godly men and our girls to be godly women -- people of faith, love, forgiveness, and service.  Nothing is more counter the culture of the day than to manifest in the love between husband and wife and parent and child the very love of Christ that St. Paul addresses in Ephesians 5.  This is and has always been the true lay leadership that is both the need and requirement for the strengthening of the congregation and its success.  

The sad reality is that it is easy to try and postulate some conflict between people and their pastor and say this is the problem in the church today when the reality is far deeper and far more difficult to repair.  In short, we have let the world teach us that to be important in the church everyone must be free to do what the pastor does instead of honoring and valuing rightly the divine orders of marriage and family.  This is where our attention ought to go.  We are raising up children who are more influenced by the culture around them than by their home lives and the congregation and the result is that they are delaying or not choosing marriage and children just like the rest of society.  Real lay leaders are most urgently needed not to balance the clergy influence in the congregation or church body but to raise up the home and manifest their a clear witness and example of Christ's own servant love toward spouse and children.  When that happens, the congregation and church body will inevitably be stronger.


Monday, February 20, 2023

For your own good. . .

Of people seeking to make me or where I live better, there is no end.  A while ago I succumbed to the ordinary affliction of bronchitis and a sinus infection.  Alas, I could not visit my own doctor.  There were no appointments.  A walk in clinic sufficed and, as you can read, I did recover.  My doctor is so busy that appointments are usually booked months in advance and, except for the occasional cancellation, it is not all that easy to visit him when you need him.  But he is always there when I do not need him.  He is full of advice about vaccinations and insurance covered preventative tests and screens.  I appreciate that but this is not why I have a doctor.  I have a doctor, at least I thought I did, for those times when I was ill.  The walk in clinic has become my default primary care simply because they are always there when I need them.  My official primary care has become the medical life coach trying to preempt the onset of other problems.  Of course, he reminds me that I am old and fat from time to time and my insurance company has loads of programs to enroll me so that my lifestyle might be improved.  Ain't it grand!

The government is the same sort of nanny.  They want to make sure I get a paycheck, have a retirement income, and take advantage of every appropriate program to improve my life -- all whether I want them to do this or not.  They tell families with children how to raise their kids.  They provide endless free aid to those who do not want families but like to practice at it and they want to provide a way out if the burden of a conception takes place and nobody wants the child.  They tell me all the time how wonderful it is to have a big brother in Washington deciding what I need and what in me needs fixing.  The only problem is that I am not at all sure they have read or care to read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  They certainly are of a different spirits than those who pursued liberty at the cost of real blood.  Maybe it would have been better to have a benevolent monarch from time to time than a government of people who assure me they know best.  Ain't it grand!

The progressives in culture and society have the same goal.  They know what would improve me and my life and they are full of advice and rules to put into place when I do not need that advice.  They see the school as the incubator of the vast new society they envision and sometimes complain that parents get in the way.  They have mastered social media so that their message gets across under the aegis of free speech that is, well, not always so free or equal access.  They want cameras to record my movements just in case a crime is being committed.  They want my phone and computer to inform on me -- for my own good, of course, and for the overall good of all.  They know best and are working like dogs to convince me of it.  Ain't it grand!

It all reminds me of a C. S. Lewis quote.  

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some time be satisfied; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own consciences."  God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

I realize that we live in a world where some, perhaps many, want a nanny to decide what is best for them, to relieve them of their responsibility and allow them to wallow in victimhood, to prevent any needless ideas of freedom and accountability to mess up what is clearly for my own good.  But that is not me.  I want the freedom to screw up and be held accountable for my screw ups and then to beg forgiveness from those I have wronged and from God for all things wrong the absolution of His promise.  It may be quaint but that is how I was raised and that is the nature of the Christian faith.  The rescue I yearn for is not the tyranny of those who know what is best for me but the God who has demonstrated His steadfast love so that I may in peace pray Thy will be done.  But sometimes I fear that there is no peace left for me in a world full of do-gooders who are relentless in their insistence that they, the experts, the government, and the creators of a better world know better than God what is in my own good and they will not sleep until it comes to fruition.  Lord,  have mercy.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

A beacon. . .

It is no secret that things are changing and that the changes reflect a deterioration of the values that we once held dear and which united us beyond the things that divided us.  The culture around is rapidly distancing itself from all that went before and in so doing has created both uncertainty and conflict deeper than just about anything that went before.  We are suffering this not only because of the dispute over the values and direction of our future.  Those who resist are themselves uncertain about what it is that they resist and what to do about it.

Though several options have been spoken of by various churches, the one option that cannot be chosen is for the Church to become invisible.  Though this is the tempting choice for survival, survival is not ours to choose.  God has already promised that the survival of the faith and the Church are His business.  He has not given us the assurance that Christianity will be mighty and evidence from the Old Testament suggests that the faithful are always and ever will be a remnant.  Yet, again, that is not our business.  We cannot ensure the survival of the faith and the Church but God can and will.  Of this, Scripture is clear.  Yet even while persecuted and threatened, the faith and the Church must engage the world.

If, indeed, the lights are going out in the West, the Church must shine ever more brightly as God's lighthouse in the encroaching darkness of despair and its culture of death.  The words of our Lord are clear on this.

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  (Matthew 5:13-16)

We shine with the brightness of the one true light and that light was never meant to be protected or shielded but given free course.  The world cannot and will not know that it lives in darkness unless the light shines and shines brightly.  The Church is that lighthouse and Christ is the light that we mirror to the world.  The Church is not the source of the light or that light.  We shine with borrowed light, much as the moon shines with the reflected light of the sun.  That does not diminish us or our vocation.  In fact, it is what gives us stature and purpose.  It is more urgent now than it has been in some time. 

Saturday, February 18, 2023

A reflection. . .

The leaders of every church, like the leader of every congregation, carries the dual role of pastor and teacher.  Some would try to make him also a CEO, an administrator running the business of the church as well.  Some would try to make him a visionary, a man with a plan which looks past the present into the future.  Sadly, these are on the rise and the necessity of the leader being pastor and teacher seems on the decline.  We are suffering precisely because of that.

To look at Benedict XVI and Francis is to see a study in contrasts.  Francis thinks he has a grand plan but has proven himself rather inept at the apparatus of power except in the crudest sense of that term.  Benedict had an understanding of his church and his place within that church and exercised that confidence carefully and thoughtfully.  Rome thought that theologian too distant and wanted someone to be a pastor.  Instead, Francis is hardly pastoral and certainly not theological.  The problems under Francis have multiplied and the confusion created by his lack of either pastoral or theological sensitivity are increased by his failings as an administrator.

Looking at our own church and its leaders, we have benefited from solid pastors and teachers and now is certainly not the time to choose between them or to opt for an administrator or visionary sort.  That is not to say that all of our national leaders have exercised the full scope of that pastoral and theological role to help make our identity and our witness clear.  In fact, there has been among some of those national leaders a certain reticence about getting ahead of the church.  Certainly, the tumultuous years of the 1970s were a test of both the theological and pastoral skills of our leadership and yet when it came to acting, then President J. A. O. Preus chose to wait until he had the authority from the convention to remove district presidents who were clearly acting outside their authority.  In more recent times leaders have found it easier to speak out than act upon the challenges.  An example that tested the theological and pastoral skills of district and synodical leadership was the rather tepid response to online sacraments and the less than salutary creativity of some in the face of the pandemic.

Within the congregation, the pastor finds himself put on the spot often.  Everything from who communes to the offense clear preaching of the church's doctrine and faith present the pastor with a dilemma.  Some, perhaps even many, have chosen to step back from exercising such authority and compromise where compromise creates more problems.  In the end, every church body and congregation finds a tension between the call to faithfulness and the desire to loved (or at least liked).  In the end the avoidance of clarity is as much a problem for the church body and the congregation as those who are clear but uncaring and lacking in the most basic pastoral skills.  We should not have to choose between a pastor and teacher and the essential office of pastor and teacher of the church should not give way to administrative or inspirational skills.

Congregations issuing calls and church bodies selecting leaders should be clear.  We will not settle for any less than a pastor who is an apt teacher and we will not choose administrative or visionary leadership skills as an appropriate substitute.  We need pastors who are leaders because they are faithful pastors and teachers.  That is certainly true on every level of the church and the agencies that live within the umbrella of the church.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Signs of progress. . .

Of all the things we struggle with most of all, the Christian longs to see some sign of progress.  Part of that is the progress we yearn to see in us as individuals, a growth in holiness we expected.  Part of that is the progress we would see in the Church, a growth in numbers and influence.  Of course, part of that is also progress in building a better world and a better life -- something we share in common with the secular culture and its own desire to see the world improve.  But none of those are things we see.  There are no signs of progress but the conflict between our hopes and dreams and state of things inside us and around us.  So grows the despair and doubts of a people who thought they would see something with their eyes of the promise they hold onto by faith.

Our growth in holiness and righteous as a Christian is not something we are meant to see in ourselves.  We might be able to see it in others but not in the mirror.  Though we hope that such progress takes place, and it is by the Spirit's promise and power, that progress would be our undoing if we saw it with our own eyes.  It is ever so easy to turn away from the merits of Christ and the mediation of His own blood for our cleansing and to believe in the false promise of our own self-sustaining righteousness.  Could it be that for our own good God deprives us of any visible evidence of our improvement so that we depend solely upon the merits of Christ and nothing of our own?

The progress of the Church has always been illusive.  When Christian structures mirrored more the shape of the imperial model instead of the home and family, there was a trade off.  The goals changed and became more of a conquering force than an evangelical witness and suddenly Christ was a general and his disciples soldiers. Then statistics became the gauge of success and faithfulness gave way to expediency.  This was surely the disappointment of Luther, along with the corruption.  For ten years into Luther's adulthood 'The Warrior Pope' was one of the most powerful rulers of his age.  It would take until almost World War II before the trappings of earthly power were surrendered and even then the dream of influence and power remains.  The mega church is the Protestant version of the worship of progress and its metric of attendance and income.

Of all the images of progress that we yearn to see, the most difficult is a better world and a better life.  It is the instinctive goal of any parent for their children -- a present sacrifice for a future blessing.  Though the Scriptures are replete with warnings of the deterioration and decay that is to come, even Christians are loathe to admit that this is the shape of the future.  What was chosen in Eden was the undoing of any plan or vision of improvement and instead brought upon all of God's creation the hope of decline to which God must offer a real promise and a real hope.  Nearly every modern government aspires to repair what lies broken in the world.  From capitalism to communism the cause of improvement has been the promise of an economic system and political structure, offering up a substitute to the religious hope that delivers an eternal future to a people who would have been content for an improved present.  The love of neighbor is often misunderstood as an attempt to make things better when it is not about improving the world but simply showing to those around us what God has shown to us -- love, compassion, and mercy.  

The Christian has the promise and lives by faith and not by sight.  But with that promise and faith the ever present question that haunts us is if it is enough. 

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Punished with a baby. . .

It hardly seems worth mentioning today but in 2008 Barack Obama created the phrase that has become normative.  Why should I be punished with a baby?   What was once an issue of abortion rights has been translated into the way people generally view any baby.  It is a punishment to have a child, to raise a child, to care for a child...

When the FDA approved the Pill, the average American household had 3.55 children per family.  That meant a healthy growth for the population of America.  Now, some 60 years later, that same birth rate has fallen to an unsustainable 1.6 children per household.  What was responsible for this change?  Not simply abortion but the whole normalization of contraception.  We have bought into the lie that the best sex for anyone is safe sex -- without the threat of disease or the punishment of a child to spoil the consensual pleasure.  

In 1968, Pope Paul stunned the world with Humanae Vitae and looked into the future to see the fruits of this contraceptive culture in the West: (1)a general moral decline; (2)a loss of respect for women; (3)the abuse of power by the state; and (4)the emergence of man’s belief that he had total dominion over his own body.  His prophecy was spot on except for one thing.  He failed to see the day when children would become the equivalent of a disease and be labeled as a punishment.  Yet that is where we are today.  Children are generally seen by Christians and non-Christians alike as a punishment or unfair burden for a mistake.  They petition for a do over in which a morning after pill or abortion fixes the mistake.

Until the early part of the 20th century, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike were united in their understanding that marriage existed for the procreation of children first and foremost.  But at some point in time, the children that were once the fruit became an unwanted fruit, an unintended result of sexual pleasure, and something our technology would, could, and should fix.  At that point in time, contraception was the only issue but only fifty years later would abortion become the invented right that had long lay hidden in the constitution.  When sanity prevailed at the court level this past year, the insanity among the populace did not.  Voters united to restrain the legal code to prevent abortion and instead worked harder than ever on the state level to enshrine the legal right the Supreme Court denied them.  This was not accomplished without the general support of all ideologies and the many religious who insisted that children were only a blessing under the narrowest of definitions and outside of this were a unwelcome and unfair punishment for a few moments of pleasure.

Oddly enough, it seems like the Amish alone stand against contraception and even conservative bodies like the LCMS have no official position on the matter (never mind that Luther and nearly every body and theologian prior to the twentieth century was opposed to contraception because children were a gift, blessing, and heritage from the Lord.  In the end, the silence is a tacit endorsement that the practice is up to the people involved to determine its morality or immorality.  We have learned only too well that children are costly and demanding and some of us are not sure they are worth the sacrifice.  But this could be and has also been said about marriage itself.  If we don't want to be punished with a child, we probably don't want to be punished by a binding legal relationship like marriage either.  

Fifteen years have passed and abortion is no longer a federal right guaranteed by the constitution but it may be too late.  Long before the Court re-entered the debate, the people had already spoken.  Marry if you want but skip the kids -- they are just not worth the time or the effort!  And we think that we have progressed as a people and a culture.  Wow....

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Shouldn't we be doing it too?

I had the occasion, as I often do, of helping a young altar server learn his role and duties.  As acolyte, assistant at the altar, and with a role in the distribution of the Eucharist, it is a busy boy who undertakes such work.  It also affords the youth a perspective on what happens at the altar that is not often noticed from the vantage point of the pew.

In this particular instance, the young man had never noticed me genuflect during the creed or at the distribution.  His eyes were wide with surprise when he saw me.  After the service he grilled me concerning what I did, why I did it, and, the good Lutheran question, what does this mean?  It was a long conversation but we talked it through.  After listening to me wax on about the incarnation and our response to God coming into our midst, he asked me another question.  I understand why you are doing it but what I don't get is why the rest of us are not?  Ah, the lad had it down pat.  He got it.  

A while ago in a sermon I mentioned that Noah was not saved by a symbolic ark and neither were we saved by a symbolic baptism.  It went on from there to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It ended with the affirmation that beloved St. Paul was not simply eloquent as symbolism when he wrote that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and tongue proclaim Him Lord.  Though the pastor often acts as representative of the whole congregation, the boy's question begs that distinction.  Why shouldn't  we all genuflect or bow?  Was God speaking in flowerly language through St. Paul or did God mean for us to take this seriously -- as something real.

It seems to me that one of the problems Christians have is that we take symbolicly and casually the things that God means to be real and serious and we take serious as real the things He means symbolically.  While not a hard and fast rule, it does seem to have roots in us Christians.  No where is this more true than the way we approach the Sacraments.  Even well meaning Christians who with their words confess rightly seem prone to treat things wrongly in practice.  So if the Pastor drops a consecrated host on the floor, what is dropped?  Is it the body of Christ, could it be, or is it mere bread?  Ask that question and you find that the reality of the real presence is taken symbolically.  We want it to be symbolic because it makes our lives easier.  It is just a whole lot less complicated to treat as symbols the means of grace.  If it were not a symbol and were as real as real gets, then we would have to change the way we treat it, believe it, and live it out.  That is what this young boy understood.  Without prompting, he got it just right.  If it is real, then shouldn't we all be down on bended knee?  From the mouths of children and infants.....

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Who was he?

The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, the Saint Valentine of Rome, is but one of a dozen or more individuals named Valentine in the annals of Christendom.  The name derives from “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful.  It was a popular name through the eighth century and several martyrs from the 2nd - 8th centuries bore that name. The official Roman Catholic roster of saints lists a dozen or so Valetines including St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Spaniard of the Dominican order who was a bishop in Vietnam until his beheading in 1861. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988 (so obviously the day is not named after him). History records a Pope Valentine who served a mere 40 days around 827 AD (so most likely it was not him either).  A flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. It came from an excavation of a catacomb near Rome in the 1800s.  This led to bits and pieces of those remains being distributed throughout Europe and the UK.

The day was not observed until the fourteenth century.  Medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer seems to invented the day in his work “Parliament of Foules.”  The poem references to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This is probably the start of the day, though not of the saint.  St. Valentine is thought to have been a real person who died around 270 AD but that is not without some controversy.  In 496 by Pope Gelasius I described the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God.” Later accounts (from the 1400s) identify him as a temple priest beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II, allegedly for assisting Christian couples to marry.  Or he could have been Bishop of Terni, also martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome.  You can see why they are thought to have been the same person.  The confusion, however, led Rome to banish him from the calendar in 1969 even though he remains on the list of officially recognized saints.

Anyway, it took the shift from agape to eros to put this day on our calendars and turn it into a booming commercial success, at least for the florists, chocolatiers, and jewelers.  Alas, no one seems to care about the faith of the saint anymore.  The only thing that is on the minds of most folks is love -- the kind that arouses rather than inspires.  So perhaps it is better no Valentine lays claim to the day or what it turned into and we cannot accurately assess its origin either.  And you may have thought that Christmas was stolen from the Church!  The images of chubby little cherubs and arrows shot through the heart have little value as symbols of the faith but they have done remarkably well to turn an obscure day into one that is forgotten at your own peril.  Happy St. Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Charles in Charge. . .

While few would admit to welcoming the day when Charles would sit upon the throne, it was inevitable.  What his reign will mean for England and the Commonwealth remains to be seen.  His role as defender of the faith is under more scrutiny and consideration than ever before.  The sovereign is, among other things, the defender of the faith.  Charles has great curiosity for many religions and has chosen to see himself more as defender of the idea of believing than the what of that which is believed.  At some point, however, he will have to decide if he is the defender of the faith or not. There is no such role as defender of faiths or of the idea of believing in something.  Who needs something like that?  What would that look like?  Christianity is not compatible with other faiths but demands a choice between believing what is Christian or not.  Charles may aspire to such a role but that is not his choice -- he is either Christian and the defender of Christianity or he is nothing at all and would probably better serve in an entirely secular role (which, unfortunately, is not the role of the faith in this -- not at all.

Few things flourish or succeed by muddying up the message or the identity.  Certainly not the monarchy.  When the identity of that institution is no longer clear, there is little need for the institution.  Charles is a product of that goofy age of ecumenism in which all religions play nice and act like they are compatible and complement each other. Why would Charles presume that what has not worked and, indeed, contributed to the decline of churches would somehow be a way of expanding and making more relevant the role of the crown?  It can only be that Charles, like the liberal and progressive churches around him, have bought into the flawed and failed idea that faiths coexisting will flourish each faith individually.  While liberal Christianity has swallowed that lie hook, line, and sinker, it is entirely unclear how welcoming the more restrictive faiths that represent the mix of religions in England either want or will tolerate living under the umbrella of Charles defendership.  It all sounds good on paper but in reality it is a fool's mission.  Maybe Charles likes to think of himself as the keeper of the circle of life and faiths but that is not the role assigned to him.  His own religious curiosity may result in a hobbled together religion that fits him but Christianity is neither compatible to that kind of religion nor is it willing to go along and get along.  The only faith that works with Charles self-chosen title of defender of faith in general is one that is itself general and reflective of no revelation, book, or doctrine.  The Church of England did not fare well even when it had a Queen who was an articulate spokes person for the faith but how do you think this tradition will survive with a King who prefers a watered down version of everything and sees himself as the defender of it all?

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Circular reasoning. . .

There are those who complain that sola Scriptura is circular reasoning.  It presumes an authority in Scripture which is established and normed by that very Scripture.  To a certain extent, there is truth to this.  Scripture is its own authority and we do not grant to the Word of God authority.  If we did, Scripture's authority would be derived either from the Church or another circular source like Tradition or from the individual who reads and decides what it says.  Except, however, for the catholic principle.  Scripture is not a book of many truths but of one truth that is Christ.  Christ is the Word that spoke Scripture and He is both the object and end of its speaking.  Not to mention that Scripture itself insists that it does not speak one thing at one time and another at another time.  Just as Christ is yesterday, today, and forever the same, so His Word remains a changeless revelation amid a changing world.

That, however, is not quite my point.  When reading a Roman Catholic blogger, I was told We know the Church is infallible by faith.  Now there is a statement.  We know it and accept it by faith -- in other words it is just as circular as sola Scriptura is claimed to be.  In fact, it is even more convoluted.  The books of Scripture are pretty solid and have been since the earliest of days.  The canon of the Old Testament was received from the Jews and the New Testament consolidated before there was a council or pope to decide its content.  As far as the Apocrypha is concerned, the Lutherans rightly esteem highly these books without granting them equal status with the Old and New Testaments.  It seems we get it pretty solid with such figures as Jerome and others who, in the earlier centuries of Christianity, were already dealing with the status of the Apocrypha.  The Church, on the other hand, is not so clearly defined.  What is meant by the Church is the first question even before you get to infallibility.

Is the Church the sum of the councils and, if so, which?  Is the Church the papacy and, if so, how can Orthodoxy be anything but apostate?  Is the Church the teaching magisterium and, if so, which teachers and who?  It would seem that this statement would have to be taken by faith since there is no uniform or united understanding of the teachings and the teachers anymore than there is a clear definition of who is meant here by the Church.  The problem with Rome is that this issue has gotten increasingly complex after Vatican I and its apparent declaration of an imperial papacy, at least in regard to doctrine and practice.  The collegiate nature of the episcopacy has been eroded both by the differences among the bishops and the strong arm of the papacy, in particular and most recently, the central control of Francis over every aspect of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Lutherans have always posited Scripture as the norming norm of everything in the Church -- from the doctrine confessed to the practices that flow from that doctrine.  Lutherans have never placed Scripture into a bubble, a naked Scripture detached from the body of believers and faithful teachers.  If we do not have a third leg for Tradition, we at least have tradition viewed as an authority though not equal to Scripture.  Of course, we have our problems.  Look at the mess among Lutherans today.  But that is more because Lutherans have increasingly distanced themselves both from their Confessions and their identity and not because Lutherans have pushed their formal principle to the limit only to see it fragment and fall apart.  We are inconsistent even if our Confessions are not.

If you ask me, it comes down to a real question.  Is the Church the infallible authority or the Scriptures?  When I look at things historically and when I view the state of affairs among the churches today, it seems pretty clear to me that the most faithful option is to have the Scriptures be infallible and not the Church or a church or an office or a history of councils (some not universally recognized and some clearly at odds with the orthodox faith).  Maybe they are both somewhat circular but if you are going to circle around something, the Scriptures are the thing to circle and not the papacy or a jurisdiction or a manufactured history.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The smaller Protestant congregation. . .

Certainly the reality many small congregations are facing in the post-pandemic times is that they are growing smaller.  Indeed, average attendances suggest that the numbers are half they were in 2000. 

The drop is from 137 to 65, as charted by by the Hartford Institute for Religion.  While there is no direct correlation between Lutherans and generic Protestantism, it would be surprising if there were much difference.  While the average congregation is small — fewer than 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of that averages about 400 people.

The difference is that where there was once a pattern distribution among the various sizes, congregations today tend to be either mega size or mini size with not so many in between.  The other difference is that the smaller the congregation the more likely the pastor does not depend upon the congregation for his living.  In fact, it is typical that such clergy are often employed in several other places and the congregation shares the pastor with work demands and the demands of family and home -- something that was unusual fifty years ago.  While the smallness of these congregations is their blessing, it is also their curse.  Relationships are front and center is such smaller worshipping communities but those relationships are often the reason why the congregation remains small.  The pandemic has introduced an online presence to congregations of all sizes that may be counted for something but cannot equate to the in person attendance that we are measuring and certainly cannot be depended upon to make up for what lacks in the attendance in the pews.

While I wish there was an easy answer to the dilemma, there is none.  There is no one size fits all solution.  Congregations in close proximity to other congregations of the same denomination may find that merger is the answer, no matter how long or how hard you try to postpone that solution.  Congregations without others in close proximity will not have this as an option.  Clearly there are people to serve but how they can best be served with the allocation of resources and people remains a topic of debate.  In the end, each congregation will have to decide what the cut off number is when that congregation will have to close (number both in terms of people and finances).  While growing the church is the best solution, some of these congregations are in areas that are losing significant numbers of the population, especially those with children or those of childbearing age.