Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Songs from another generation. . .

While cleaning out some bookshelves, a couple of paper back song books produced by the Youth Ministry arm of the LCMS fell on the flood.  They were brown with age and were never printed on good paper to begin with.  It was that time in the life of the Church when things were a changin,  The songs were folk music set to guitar and it took the world by storm.  For Rome on the cusp of change through the Second Vatican Council, this music was in start contrast to the Latin and chant that had dominated the Latin Mass.  For a Missouri Synod Lutheran, this was very different than the setting from the then 25-30 year old hymnal.

The man whose name were attached to some of the more popular melodies was Ray Repp, a Roman Catholic musician whose music was so shocking to some dioceses that the music was banned.  I can understand and many in the LCMS were not too fond of it either.  Allelu, I Am the Resurrection, and many others were the first experiments of what would later flourish into an industry.  Repp died in 2020 after being lauded and condemned for his work.   Repp’s Mass for Young Americans, published by FEL (Friends of the English Liturgy) in 1966, became a best seller, literally.  Repp was certainly the father of the guitar mass and one of the first voices for the folk style that affected many in my Boomer Generation.

When I came to the parish I have now served for over 30 years, some asked when we were going to sing "Sons of God."  I wondered where they got this piece of music then already a generation old and it turned out that it had been pasted inside the front cover (but not mine since I brought my hymnal with me!).  It left with the last of the LWs in 2006.  In the end it was a good thing that these little song books were printed so quickly and cheaply because they did no good service to the Church except create the expectation that the songs heard on the radio must dictate what is heard and sung on Sunday morning.  The big hits of this era are now considered quaint and just as out of style with the modern ear as chant.  That was the other things this genre of music introduced -- an expiration date.  There was a reason why these worship songs were printed on cheap paper in booklets designed to be thrown away -- what was in them had a shelf life of several years (except in the minds and hearts of boomers).  This was also the day when new and different were the prime criteria for what happened in worship at least when it involved youth.  The lesson was not lost on the boomers -- they remembered and it has been the bane of music in the Church ever since. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Great Day. . .

Sermon for the Day of Pentecost, preached on Sunday, May 28, 2023.

The Feast of Tabernacles was one of the pilgrim festivals that could only be celebrated in Jerusalem.  It was a feast of thanksgiving which concluded the time of harvest.  It was observed over a week – the first day with a holy convocation on which no work was done, like the Sabbath.  On the last day, called the Great Day, another holy convocation took place without work but with an offering by fire.  It is characterized by booths or tents in which the pilgrims lived throughout the feast, commemorating their sojourn in the wilderness as nomads heading from slavery to the land of God’s promise.

Solomon’s temple was built during the Feast of Tabernacles.  It was the destination to which the tents or booths had looked as they journeyed toward their home.  The activities were dependent upon rain – without it there was no planting or harvest.  Solomon explained that the absence of rain was God’s judgment against sin.  The gift of rain the sign of God’s favor and forgiveness.  So a major feature of this feast was the drawing of water – an act associated with great joy for the favor of God was upon His people and their future in His hands.

Isaiah captured this thought.  With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation (Is 12:3).  But Jesus brings all of these motifs together in the Gospel for today.  The Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation, the water that flowed from the rock when Moses struck it, and the rain signifying God’s favor.  Jesus pulls these all together in Himself.  He, the crucified and risen One, is the source of the living waters.  He is the One from whose side flow blood and water.  It is the unmistakable sign of baptism and of the the Eucharist now united with the Spirit whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name.

Though we associate the Spirit with the wind that blows when and where it wills, our Lord has tied the work of the Spirit not to your mind or to your heart but to the means of grace.  The water that turns the desert heart of unbelief into the wellspring of living water is the Spirit working in the baptismal miracle.  He turns the font into a womb in which the dead go down into the water and are brought forth alive – with the life of Christ stronger than death.  He turns the font into a bath that washes once forever the dirt of sin away and bestows forgiveness bigger than every sin.  He brings forth the sinner from the prison of guilt and shame with the cover of His righteousness.  Now He promises the Spirit to believe this grace.
Jesus was speaking on the Great Day, the holy convocation of God’s pilgrim people now rooted and planted around the temple where God forgave sin, where He heard their prayers, and where He brought to their remembrance the mighty acts by which they have been saved.  When Jesus was speaking it was prophecy.  He had not yet been betrayed into the hands of sinners, marked by Pilate for death, punished by the whip, nailed to the cross, shed His blood, or breathed His last.  The cross was the key to the promise becoming reality.  The gift of the Spirit could come only when the Lamb of God had been sacrificed once for all.  But what we see here in unmistakable terms is the unity between the cross and the Spirit, between the cross to which we have been joined in baptism and the Spirit that raises us to new life by faith, and between the cross and the fruits of His redeeming work which we now eat and drink in His flesh in bread and His blood in wine.

Where the cross is, there is the Spirit.  Where the means of grace are, there is the Spirit.  Where the Spirit is, there the dead are raised, the sinners forgiven, and the mortal given immortality.  Where the Spirit is, there is faith to behold, believe, and rejoice in this unimaginable gift of grace.  On the Great Day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus sees the future that none of us can see until He fulfills it, until He is crucified for us, until He is raised to life stronger than death, until He commands baptism in the name of the Triune God, and until He sets His table among us and calls us to do this as His remembrance, the holy participation in that Passover fulfilled and the promise of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb to come.

If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  That is His invitation.  He is standing here among us just as He promised.  He has fulfilled all things for us and our salvation.  He has bestowed upon us His Spirit that we might believe and believing might see, and seeing might live forevermore.  This is that Great Day – not the day of promise but of promise fulfilled, not the prophecy of what will come but the declaration of what has come.  This is your feast and mine.  We have been bidden by the voice of God to come, to eat, and to drink.  We have been assured that in this hearing, washing, eating and drinking the Spirit is at work in us the harvest of souls to everlasting life.  We have been pledged that Spirit to bring forth in us a wellspring of living water so that we might give witness to all that our Lord has accomplished for our salvation and for the salvation of the whole world.

Are you thirsty?  Sure, we are thirsty – we live in an age of incessant water bottles and drink cups and designer coffees.  We are always thirsty.  But for what?  It is a sad and painful truth that many of us desire the things of this life more than eternal life, that we yearn more for the fulfillment of our wants than God’s saving will, and that we are more interested in holding God accountable than in being held accountable.  Look around you.  Empty pews.  Easter they were full.  Christmas too.  Like Israel of old, we grumble that the Lord expects too much of us.  We have lost the joy of remembering all that God has done for us and too many of us remain in the prison of our self-centered hearts.  Instead of a wellspring of living water, what proceeds from our hearts is a litany of complaints and an endless list of wants directed to God.

The promise to you is Christ, the crucified, who alone delivers to you the water of life, the bread of hope, and the cup of salvation.  The promise to you is the Spirit who is always where Christ has said He would be, doing what Christ has promised He would do, and bestowing all that Christ said He would give.  Are you thirsty?  Are you thirsty for the things of God that are His joy to give and our joy to receive?  Are you thirsty for the holy life of God’s own, delighting in His Word and the gift of a clear conscience?  Are you thirsty for the eternal life which this world cannot even imagine?  Our Lord is more anxious to bestow than you are to want.  That is the dilemma of Pentecost.  The traveler has found a home, the sojourner not a tent but a mansion with many rooms, the guilty a pardon, the lost a place where we belong, and the dead have been given eternal life.  Come.  Drink.  And out of you will flow rivers of living water.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen 

*with special debt to Dr. Bill Weinrich and the recent second volume of his commentary on John published by Concordia Publishing House.

I will have to send a sympathy card. . .

The Lutheran gave way to the Living Lutheran and now this.  Like many periodicals, those changes have affected the ELCA’s magazine. Rising print costs—for paper, ink and postage—have resulted in changes in paper quality and distribution frequency. We started with 18 issues in 1988—in 2023 we will have six, though we continue to have a robust online presence here at Technology also has changed, and we are moving along with the way people want to receive information.  In other words, the last issue will be November/December 2023.  The denomination will pull the plug on their flagship journal.  Maybe I should send a sympathy card.

I am not at all sure that whatever remains after December of 2023 will be robust in any way shape or form.  The magazine has been on life support for a while.  Though part of its troubles can be laid at print costs and the way people get information, the real problem is the content.  It has seem to focus more on the living part than the Lutheran one.  In fact, the articles have grown away from the official faith and confessions of the ELCA and into a journal that celebrates the unholy trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  In the strange new reality of this church, the presiding bishop apologized for offending a community but cannot seem to even acknowledge that they tolerate churches and pastors who blaspheme the Scriptural name of God.  Apparently not even the potty-mouthed, tattooed, edgy clergy celebrated in social media can get the moribund ELCA excited, much less God.

The ELCA has been bleeding off members for a very long time. Everyone knows that.  It has done everything right according to the polls.  It keeps a semblance of liturgy though empties it of any substantive Christian content and seems happy to be a faint echo of culture rather than a bold voice for the God Scripture reveals.  Not even a good show and wide open arms for any faith and every faith (except of course a traditional one) has slowed the long slow death of this denomination.  Sadly, the numbers missing from the count since it began in 1988 have not headed to either of the break off denominations nor have they joined other churches.  They have just left.

As odd as this is, the greater absurdity is that there are sill folk in this denomination who say their faith has not changed.  Either they were radically ahead of the atheism curve or they are blind or they are old enough that they just keep driving to the same address every Sunday morning.  I cannot figure it out at all.  Some of them are my family members.  The seminaries have been selling off property as fast as they can find a buyer.  What happened to the ELCA has become a sad joke.  The joke was chronicled on the pages of their monthly journal.  But nobody is laughing.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Honoring the fallen. . .

One of the most poignant patriotic moments I have ever observed happened at my father-in-law's funeral.  As the casket lay in the front of the church, a slow line of aged veterans came down the aisle.  Each one stopped before the casket, gave the salute, and solemnly made the way out.  It was a very slow procession as many had trouble walking.  This was about duty and respect and they took is so very seriously that is was impossible not to watch them without being humbled by their devotion.

We as a nation stand in debt to those who gave their lives in service to the cause of liberty.  I am not sure there is a family in American that cannot look back on a relative who never came home from the battlefront or who came home in a casket.  Living so near Ft. Campbell, this is still a point of awe as I look out on many active duty men and women on Sunday morning.  Having served here for more than 30 years, I have known many who paid the highest price for their devotion to God and country.  How can we sit unmoved by this witness as we sit down to our hamburgers and hotdogs this Memorial Day? 

The sad truth is that today we expect more from our service men and women than ever before.  They must be ready at a moment's notice to go wherever they are sent.  They do not serve for the money but out of devotion to their nation and to protect the precious liberties so many have died to obtain and preserve.  We have treated the military as an experimental focus group for social engineering fad and trend.  We have brought them back from deployments broken and then discharged them when they were no longer useful to us.  We have put more of our funding into weapons than into the support of these noble men and women.  As we look at the rows of white tombstones and crosses that dot the landscape at home and throughout the world, it might be a good time for us to reflect upon those currently serving and how we treat those who are put in harm's way on our behalf.  It would be a good time for us to consider how we use this precious gift of liberty and to challenge both the self-centered nature of our exercise of freedom and our willingness to surrender that freedom without a fight to government or culture.  It would be a proper time for us to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and how our lives reflect an honest appreciation both for the freedoms we enjoy and those who daily stand guard to protect them.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Under and over estimating. . .

As we celebrate another Pentecost, it certainly seems true that we have thoroughly underestimated the grace of God, the promises of God, and the Spirit of God.  It is true on all fronts.  When it comes to doctrine, we think the Scriptures too hard to be believed and so underestimate the power of the Spirit to bring us to faith and confidence in that Word of God.  When it comes to piety, we think the liturgy too hard to understand or follow or judge it irrelevant and so underestimate the power of the Spirit to work through the liturgy (really nothing less than Scripture said and sung) to bring us to faith and confidence in the prayers we pray and the praises we sing.   When it comes to sacraments, we think the baptism, the Holy Eucharist, and absolution too hard to be believed and too ordinary to convey what they sign so underestimate the power of the Spirit to bring us to faith and confidence that the water with the Word does what the Lord says, that the bread and wine is what He says it is, and that the voice of the absolution through an ordinary pastor effects anything.  When it comes to sexuality and gender, we think the God given order in creation too hard on desire and too distant from what we feel to be true and so underestimate the power of the Spirit to bring our lives into God's order through repentance and faith.   I could go on but you get my drift.

We have tried to gimmick people into faith and going to Church and giving because we are either too impatient to wait upon God's time and power or because we have completely lost confidence in that power to effect in time what He desires.  We guilt people into the good works of love that are supposed to be the fruit of the Spirit.  We cater to the whims of those who are more sure than creed and confession that they know what God wants us to know and believe about Him.  We surrender the objective truth built upon the concrete of fact and history to the imagined truth of feeling or whim.  It is because we think God's way too hard, too slow, too weak, and too out of step with the times -- we have and continue to underestimate the power of the Spirit -- even in the light of what happened on Pentecost to bring courage, boldness, and power to a group of disciples who weeks before hid behind locked doors afraid of their own shadows.

If we underestimate the Spirit, we overestimate everything else but especially science, observation, experience, feelings, desire, and reason.  All of these are good and salutary gifts of God but in the wrong hands, they become instruments of tyranny imposing upon us a prison in life that will become our prison in death.  We create our own dead end by elevating these above the Scriptures and by devaluing the power and work of the Spirit working in those Scriptures to work faith in our reluctant hearts.  We do not allow God to transform anything in us -- not our mind to appreciate and celebrate what He has accomplished for our salvation and not our desires that we refuse to see as sinful and insist are the most trustworthy things this side of glory.  We overestimate what we do or think we can do or think we should be able to do to knock God down to size so that He is no bigger than our imagination and almost our equal in every way.

As we celebrate Pentecost this year, let us remember to trust more the work and power of the Spirit and trust less our works and powers.  The Church will certainly be better off trying to be faithful than to be successful and each of us will have cause to rejoice as well.  

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Rearranging people. . .

Garrison Keillor famously told the story of 25 Lutheran pastors who were guests on a pontoon boat.  If you have not heard it, take a few moments to click on the video.  There is a rather important principle in this story, though hardly one Keillor intended.  In the story there is a problem that happens when all the Lutheran pastors head for the same side.

We have all heard the stories of population shifts taking place right now.  There seems to be an exodus from saltwater states (blue ones) into such places as Florida, Texas, Tennessee -- among others.  New York and California seem to be those losing the most.  During the pandemic, South Carolina was one of the fastest-growing states in the nation enjoying those leaving closed down states for one more open. That was entirely due to people moving in from other places, new census estimates show.  The sad reality is that South Carolina was at the same time having a negative birth rate.  That remains the big problem.  We are seeing people move around but many states are in the same predicament as South Carolina -- they have a negative birth rate.  The shocking reality is that every state would be in this same pontoon boat is immigrants and the birth rate of the immigrants were removed from the equation.

We are moving people around but not growing.  Sort of like the growth in evangelical churches that was supposed to be from the unchurched but looks pretty much like Christians moving from one non-denominational church to another -- rearranging people but not really growing.  If you will, the birth rate did not grow but some congregations showed increases while others showed decreases.  It will not work for America any better than it did for churches.  Rearranging people is not the same as growing.  But that is the bill of goods we have been sold.  We do not need babies because we have too many people already.  That does not help the nation and it will not help churches either.  

The other side of the coin is that the population is aging.  Moving people around may help some states but it is not going to help the nation.  We will have to confront the negative birth rate both as a nation and as churches. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Americans are really nice people. . .

“Americans are the nicest, most generous, and sentimental people on earth,” Walker Percy once observed.  He is correct.  If there is a disaster some where or a crying need, Americans send their money to relief agencies and go fund me pages more than any other people.  Americans are sentimental -- we are the only ones in the world to keep so many greeting card companies busy with invented holidays and saccharine sayings to fit them all.  Americans are nice and smile their way through many things that would deserve at least a frown.

“Yet Americans have killed more unborn children than any nation in history, so observed the same Walker Percy.”  While that was written at a time when abortion was barely a generation old as a right protected by the constitution (so said the Supreme Court), it is still true.  Abortion is no longer a federally guaranteed right found in the constitution but it is still legal in more states than not and it still offends many that it is restricted anywhere.

How to figure out the contrast?  I wish I knew.  I have found the same thing related to other issues.  In the Midwest of my youth, there are plenty of nice Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians who are conservative in values but too nice to argue with those who are not.  Many of those are Lutherans who remain with a Lutheran body that long ago departed from Lutheran values.  They are too nice.  I know that is hardly possible but it is true.  They are too nice.  Sometimes we just do not know when to stand up and say "no" to the things that are just plain wrong.  

Yes, we risk offending people and alienating friends but it is not nice to confuse our children with invented genders.  Yes, we risk offending people and alienating friends but it is not nice to confuse our children with overt sexuality and put them in adult positions, making adult decisions, when they are only kids.  Yes, we risk offending people and alienating friends but it is not nice to confuse our children with invented virtues while we trash the old ones all in the name of new gods of modernity.  Yes, we risk offending people and alienating friends but it is not nice to confuse our children with the idea that God's Word is only partly His Word and we get to decide which is and which is not.  Yes, we risk offending people and alienating friends but it is not nice to confuse our children by saying God is good with whatever makes us happy -- in life and in worship.  By the way, it is not just the children that end up being confused.  The nice folks do as well and in that confusion they end up surrendering that which they once held sacred because it certainly is not nice to offend.  

We went fifty years flushing away the children in the womb in the name of what seemed right in the moment.  We are just beginning the accelerated conflict over marriage, gender, and sexuality that will certainly be as divisive as abortion was and is.  Nice should not be cover for doing what we all know is wrong.  When you are that nice, you are too nice.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The liturgy is not a toy. . .

It is a well-known phenomenon that Evangelicals are attracted to liturgy and the traditional liturgical ceremonies as a means of attracting younger folks who seem to like things liturgical and traditional -- in worship anyway.  The problem with this is that the liturgy is not simply a set of clothes you can wear or a role you can play or a way of decorating.  The liturgy is not a tool.  It is the form that mirrors in worship what is catholic in doctrine.  

The liturgy is not a toy.  Sadly, the liberals who like to play church but who refuse to believe the doctrine of the faith have turned it into just that -- a plaything.  It is the saddest thing of all for these folks to be so solemn and serious about liturgical things but who refuse to let the words define what is believed and confessed.  The liturgy is literally just Scripture said and sung and when it is done by people who refuse or refute what Scripture says it is the highest form of hypocrisy.

The other side of this is on the side of those who say they believe what Scripture says and then treat how they worship as if it were merely a preference.  Evangelicals and Protestants who originally cast aside everything from Lent to liturgy are now adopting the Church Year and things liturgical and using these as gimmicks to attract folks no longer won over by a worship diva, a professional praise band, and repackaged secular entertainment.

The preaching and teaching is a sure place to see the conflict between what is proclaimed and what is practiced in worship.  You resurrect ancient forms and practices only to reject what they confess.  In this respect, those who seem to be more conservative on the Evangelical side of the equation end up using the liturgy without the integrity of what is believed and taught just like those on the liberal side of things.  It is a trend or fad that will just as soon be dropped in favor of something else that seems to work better.  Unfortunately, the progressives seem intent upon holding on to the forms while emptying it of anything close to what it confesses -- both in words and in deeds.  Even worse, they eat away at the historic words and ceremonies by inserting within the liturgy little bits and pieces of modernity.  One example is the name of God and how the Son of God is addressed liturgically but that is not the only one.

It ought to be a selling point for us that we combine both the confession and the liturgy as one seamless reality of doctrine and practice.  They are consistent and faithful at the same time.  Even Rome cannot claim this unequivocally since Rome seems to accept most of modern higher criticism that begins with skepticism over what Scriptures say and who wrote them.  If the younger generation is looking for authenticity of form and content, then conservative Lutherans fill the bill.  Episcopalians may have more expensive accoutrements and are better rehearsed but they are empty doctrinally.  Rome is all over the page with some masses worse than Protestant excesses and others as close to Trent as possible -- with differing levels of success.  Missouri Lutherans need to step up and claim the ground.  We have the form but we also have the content.  We have the historic ceremonial (if we are willing to do it) and we trust the words to mean what they say.  Our Achilles' heel is that we seem reluctant to practice as we believe.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The power of the phobes. . .

The media is awash with stories of the bravery of those who come out to family and friends, risking all for the sake of being true to who they are.  On the other hand, the cruel oppressors (namely conservative Christians) are the brutes who want them kept in the closet and banished from the public square.  Everyone who even raises a question about anything LGBTQ+ is immediately branded a phobe -- homophobe, transphobe, whatever.  Not long ago there were whispers of an uprising against the phobes -- even perhaps a violent one that would use the presumed methods of the phobes against them.

The truth is that this is not an accurate portrayal of the world today.  There is not much power left in the phobes.  The phobes do not control the media -- any of the media -- nor do they have political support.  The phobes do not control the marketplace or hiring or anything of the like.  The stark truth is that the power clearly lies with the LGBTQ+ crowd and they pay little price for coming out.  Coming out may actually improve your chances of getting into an exclusive college, getting the job of your dreams, working in government, getting a following on social media, and finding your fifteen minutes of fame.  No one can deny that there might be family members who have a problem with your coming out but the chances of being disowned or turned out of the house or excluded from anything in your family or circle of friends is slight.  In short, there is not much bravery required to come out.

There is, however, a great deal of courage needed to oppose the LGBTQ+ movement or to raise any questions about it.  Politicians have had their careers cut short, educators have been dismissed, churches have been burned, pastors roasted, and the economic futures of people made uncertain for merely refusing to support the LGBTQ+ cause.  It is true in nearly every Western country.  Who can forget the trial in Finland for simply publishing what the Scriptures say on such matters.  In the terrible shooting in Nashville, the fact that the shooter was trans was so delicately treated in the media that it was as if this had no bearing on the violent act at all.  Maybe it didn't.  But the media was certainly not going to raise the specter of a shooter who was anti-Christian or who was reacting against the phobes.  If it had been the other way around, such angles on the motivation of the violence would have and, in the past were, sensationalized.

Let me state for the record I do not believe in violence against anyone for their political, social, economic, sexual, or any other views.  Even though I am a pastor in a denomination that might be accused of having such a phobia, I know of no one in my church who advocates anything of the kind.  My point here is not to say that violence is ever acceptable and to affirm that those who perpetrate such violence should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  But my point remains.  The society in which we live is thoroughly on board with nearly ever expression of the LGBTQ+ movement but has deep reservations and problems with those who are not onboard.  To be pro-LGBTQ+ and to be a pro-LGBTQ+ Christian today is to be right in line with the politics, the culture, the society, the law, the media, and the government.  If there are folks who need a dose of courage, it would those who hear and heed the clear words of Scripture and who would dare to speak out against what those Scriptures condemn.  This is not something new and has been this way for much of history.  Take a look at what happens when you dare to say something against the government or popular opinion; read in First Kings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

A decline in intelligence. . .

IQ scores have decreased in the US for the first time in decades, new research from scientists at Northwestern University and the University of Oregon suggests.  The study, which was published in the journal Intelligence in March, indicated that IQ levels had lowered, across age and economic levels.  According to some studies, the average rate of decline has been around three IQ points a decade, amounting to the loss of about 13.5 percent in average intelligence between 1975 and 2020. Other studies point out a particular decline beginning with the start of the 21st century.  Results from separate studies carried out in seven different countries describe a general loss of intelligence.  In other words, as our machines advance, we are declining.  That could be both a cause for expanding AI or it could be a warning -- it depends on who you are, I guess. 

IQ scores increased substantially from 1932 through the 20th century, with differences ranging from three to five IQ points per decade -- the phenomenon is known as the “Flynn effect.”  Scores of verbal reasoning (logic, vocabulary), matrix reasoning (visual problem solving, analogies), and letter and number series (computational/mathematical) dropped during the study period with only 3D rotation (spatial reasoning) scores increasing over the same period.

So why is this happening?  Is it a physical problem (chemicals, pollution, diet, contaminants, etc.) or is a reflection of technology (letting our tech devices think for us and being content instead to amuse ourselves)?  Is it familial and reflective of the overall decline of the family itself?  Is it that we are less adept at tests than previous ages?  A shift in perceived values in society could affect test scores.  Another factor could be due to a decline in motivation -- remember all those stories about quiet quitting and boredom with work and school?  Did the pandemic affect scores?  Does it mean that our ability is declining or simply that we do not apply ourselves or educate ourselves for the same answers of a previous age?  Is it a reflection of the increasing complexity, stress, and pressures of our modern lives?  The Dr. Flynn of the Flynn Effect suggested that it could be “due to youth culture having “stagnated” or even dumbed down.”  Interesting that test scores are not mirroring the IQ decline.  Call it grade inflation.   

Whatever the reason, it ought to be a cause for concern.  It is no secret that our educational institutions are burdened with non-educational and social engineering tasks.  It is no secret that the state of the family is a real problem across economic, racial, and geographical lines.  It is no secret that we are dependent upon technology not only to do things for us but increasingly to think for us.  It is no secret that our lives are deeply affected by the chemicals in the water and food chain.  It is no secret that motivation is a serious problem (ever try to hire people for a job?).  It is also no secret that the world has been in a decline for a long time -- reflected in the rise of mental illness, violence, hate, and conflict everywhere in our modern culture.  It is also no secret that this comes as moral values, virtue, and faith are at their weakest.  Regardless of what you think are some of the causes, we ought to be concerned.


Monday, May 22, 2023

Praying for YOU. . .

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (A), the Sunday after the Ascension, preached on Sunday, May 21, 2023.

Beloved, says St. Peter.  He is speaking of us.  We are the beloved of the Father by the Son.  So listen up, St. Peter is talking to you.  Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But that is exactly what we think.  Something must be wrong if my life is not happy and if things are not going well.  Could St. Peter be saying fiery trials are the default of the Christian life?

The he tells us that we are to rejoice as we share Christ’s sufferings.  That does not compute.  We will do almost anything to avoid such sufferings and presume that they are a sign something is wrong.  Yet St. Peter tells us to rejoice when we suffer as Christ suffered or because we belong to Christ.  Indeed, we should be glad that we have been counted worthy to suffer on behalf of our Savior.

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, says St. Peter.  There is no blessing if we suffer because screwed up and did wrong or evil but if we suffer as a Christian for being a Christian, we should not be ashamed.  We glorify God in our sufferings and not because we have been spared them.  Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. . . .

These words are almost incomprehensible to us.  When you go to the doctor he asks how much pain are you in and writes a prescription to relieve that pain.  When we go to the counselor, he helps us work through our troubles so that they go away.  It is no wonder that we think relieving suffering is the most important thing anyone and everyone can do for us.  So why would St. Peter suggest that suffering is not only inevitable but our glory and privilege in Christ?

The answer is hard.  The world is not our friend.  The world is set against God and the things of God and that will not change until a new heaven and earth replace what is now.  So you and I are automatically set in the cross hairs of the world’s contempt.  That is because we do not belong to the world.  The world can smell us out pretty quick and knows when we belong to Christ and not to the world.  Likewise the devil knows who is on his side and who is not.

In the garden of prayer on Maundy Thursday Jesus prayed for us and for moments like these.  He prayed because we belong to Him and we are not of the world.  
We may be in the world but we are not of it.  We are made of different stuff and that stuff is the creation of the Spirit by water and the Word.  Even though we may not remember this, Jesus cannot forget it.  And He cannot forget you and me.

What does Jesus do for us?  He prays for us.  I already here a sigh in you.  So what.  We are not sure that prayer makes any difference.  We all have a litany of prayers prayed where the answers did not turn out like we wanted.  So what good is it that we are in danger in the world, marked by the world as an enemy, and all Jesus is doing for us is praying?  That is our problem.  We do not esteem prayer so highly but thanks be to God our Lord does.

On the night of His betrayal and arrest, just before He will be marched to Calvary and crucified, we would think the Lord would be praying for Himself and all He was going to suffer for us.  But that is the miracle.  It was all for us and His focus on us never wavered.  Jesus prays for what will happen to us after He has done all He came to do.  He prays for us not with good words or nice words but pleading the blood of His sacrifice before the Father.  He prays for us not with noble intention but in agonizing moments just before a friend betrays Him and the cross will claim Him.  We may not be convinced of the power of prayer but Jesus is.

We tell brothers and sisters in Christ our troubles and they tell us they will pray for us.  We shrug our shoulders.  Okay, but how will that help pay the bills when the wallet is empty or feed the family when the cupboard is bare or heal the body broken with cancer.  We are not sold on the power of prayer and find it rather weak and passive.  We would like more than prayer.  Plus, we are never sure that the people who said they would, actually will pray for us.  We wonder because we have promised to pray for countless people and forgotten or fallen asleep in the midst of those prayers before we ever got to their names.  We wonder because we do not even pay that much attention on Sunday morning when prayers are prayed so do we really think God is paying attention or our brothers and sisters are paying attention to us?

We might be right about our prayers.  We doze, we zone out, and forget to pray because in the back of our minds we wonder if it even matters that we pray – even as we say the Amen.  Our Lord prays for you not with the power of words alone but by the blood of His suffering.  He pleads His blood before the Father all day long and all night long. He pleads for you, for all your needs, for your weakness.
He prays for you that your hearts may be united in Him and together in unity, that your faith may be confessed as one voice and your life lived from the grace sufficient for every need.  

You should be concerned about the trials ahead of you because you belong to Christ.  You should take seriously the challenges of what it means to belong to the Lord in a world unfriendly to His purpose.  Maybe it is impossible not to take the promises of your brothers and sisters to pray for you as good intention without being sure they will follow through.  But do not discount the Lord’s prayers for you as He lifts you in the cover of His blood before the Father and sends forth the Holy Spirit to keep you in faith.  Do not diminish the power of Christ’s prayers that have the urgency of His blood and the power of His cross lifting them to the Father in His name.  Christ is right now praying for you.  Praying that you be kept in His grace through His Word preached and through the Sacrament of His body and blood.  Praying that you be brought to repentance, forgiven and restored every time you sin.  Praying that you be kept holy and blameless in the cover of His righteousness until that day when He stands again upon the earth to finish His new creation.  

Christ’s prayers for you will never stop.  His prayers will work through you and turn your groans and sighs into words.  His Spirit is even now forming words upon your lips and faith in your hearts so that you may pray as He taught you.... Our Father, who art in heaven.  Even if you do not know the outcome of your prayers, Jesus knows the outcome of His and that outcome is your salvation.  

In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Why are we in love with AI

I hear all sorts of folks gushing about AI (Artificial Intelligence).  There are sermon writers and term paper authors who are using the programs now available to do the heavy lifting for their needs and they edit out the stuff when it sounds too intelligent or stilted.  And some folks think this is the most interesting thing to come along since sliced bread!  Have you read any of the stories about the success so far with self-driving cars?  As old-fashioned as it seems, I would rather have a human idiot behind the wheel than a robotic mechanism designed by a human idiot.  The truth is that many folks find this whole idea fascinating.  Not me.  I am still looking for signs of intelligent human life and have neither the time nor the inclination to cast my search elsewhere as long as this is still relevant.

Somewhere I read that there might only be a 10% chance that this AI business could go wrong.  10%?  A little low, I would guess, but we will stick with it.  So there is only a 10% chance the machines could turn on us and work for our mass destruction?  Well, that is comforting.  Even if there was no chance, wasn't the prescient thought process supposed to be that which was the mark of our humanity?  Self-awareness and autonomous thought might be a little further down the pike but at the rate of our technological progress we will probably get there sooner rather than later.  How is this different than the Tower of Babble?  Will the technology bubble burst on its own or will God come down to do it for us?  Or will He simply allow the tools of our own invention to cause our end?

The real problem seems to be less about AI than about the quest for human intelligence in the wake of some boneheaded decisions made by us or for us.  Here I am referring to the rapid changes that have brought us such egregious things as gender which conflicts with reproductive organs, DNA, and genes or the pills to kill the baby in the womb or pharmaceuticals that can help us check out of life painlessly but someone cannot be relied upon to do the same for those marked for capital punishment.  Where is the consistent intelligence there?  Or the string of missteps that fell under the COVID umbrella (from its source now thought to be a research facility to the treatments which did not treat or the vaccine which did not prevent getting the illness).  Or the idea that smoking tobacco is bad for your health but smoking marijuana is medicinal?  I think you get my drift.  We are still searching for signs of intelligent human life and maybe this ought to be a higher priority than the pursuit of artificial intelligence -- at least if we are willing to delay what can be done until we are sure it is what should be done.

Siri cannot figure out what I am saying into my phone and Alexa cannot even give me a good joke.  Do I really want more complex versions of these diagnosing what is wrong with my car or my body, making financial decisions on my behalf, or writing the words I read anywhere?  Do I want my pastor using AI to write his sermons or prepare his Bible studies?  Do I want AI to write my obituary or form the creed I confess on Sunday mornings?  I am over it before it even started.  What about you?

Sunday, May 21, 2023

“We have no king but Caesar.”

When the enemies of Jesus insisted that because He claimed to be King, He was an enemy of Caesar, they actually went a step further and proudly insisted that “We have no king but Caesar.”  It remains a shocking assertion for the Jew -- always out of step with the gods of the day and with a history of being set apart for a kingdom greater than the world.  It would be a shocking assertion for Christians.  Oh, wait, that is exactly what some Christians already insist.  

By eschewing the claims of Scripture and its facts and casting their sympathies with the higher critics of Scripture, that is exactly what the modernists have done.  But they have gone well past the authorship or historicity of Scripture and rejected God's creative order to affirm a modern, progressive, and liberal view of sex, gender, marriage, and family that has its source in culture.  Further, by rejecting the definition of the Gospel given by Christ (Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins as the testimony of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings), they have substituted any and every cause of the moment to be the Gospel (especially diversity, equity, and inclusiveness).

“We have no king but Caesar.”  So what is really being said is that God is not the King of modernity but its servant.  His Truth does not endure forever but must be adjusted for the times.  His Word is not forever the same but speaks differently to our age than it did to another.  The end result is that modern liberal Christian is rejecting Christ as King and substituting the cause and cause celebre' as that which rules the church and the only legitimate loyalty binding upon the Christian.  How ironic!  Really, in this way our current generation of Christians is no different than the past.  We take what we like or want and elect Jesus to sanction it all or make it happen.  

Here on earth Christians admit to having many kings or political rulers but only one Lord.  It is not that a king is bad -- they can be and a quick survey of how many of Israel and Judah's kings were eminently forgettable is a good and faithful warning against making too much out of kings.  Even good kings, however, are captive to a specific time and moment in history.  Remember how Churchill was deemed a great wartime prime minister only to be thrust into retirement by a party that had decided he was not up to the non-wartime tasks ahead.  To call Jesus King, however, is to acknowledge that he wears the crown and sits on His father David's throne not for a moment but for all eternity.  Because of that, He is not like Caesar or any Caesars.  We do not judge Him but He judges us.  It seems that this is a fact and truth that is perennially forgotten.  The Church calls us to a different allegiance.  We honor kings and laws except wen they conflict with God's Word and then the only KING that matters is Jesus.

Progressive Christians have decided that Jesus is not worth having as King and that the only king that matters is one whose doctrine evolves, whose truth changes, and who is content to give us a faint echo of our own words and desires and call it good.  Why else would we have departed so far and so quickly from the things of God to put words in His mouth?  If you can make your king say and do what you want, you have a great puppet but a lousy king and an even worse God.  For expedience they were willing to forget that fact long ago but we ought not to do likewise today. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Boundaries. . .

I must confess that boundaries are not something I am good at.  Perhaps it is a vocational weakness or just my own character flaw but, in any case, I have always had a problem separating my profession from my person.  While that affects mostly me, the other side of that equation is what a terrible job I have done over the years giving my wife and family the priority they are due.  Every pastor knows how unpredictable life is -- people have a habit of having a crisis or of dying on the days I am supposed to be off or we had plans.  Although I have promised to make up for those times when you could not get away, I have not done a very good job.  The truth is that the congregation has enjoyed much of the free time I was supposed to take off for my family or myself.  I am sure that I am not alone but that does not give my family much consolation nor does it leave me off the hook.

It would be worse but God gave me someone who constantly holds me accountable.  That gift is a wife who is better at boundaries than I am and who guards my boundaries for me.  She is a gift and a blessing to me for being jealous of my time and of my mental and physical health.  The reality is that the is about the only one who has the perspective and who knows what is going on and who can take on that task for me.  I may be the provider but she is the protector of me, of my reputation, of my health and well-being, and of my inability to say no to just about anything related to the work of the Church.  At times, I have put her in the awkward position of competing with God, as it were, for my full attention and calendar.  That is how it seems, anyway.  And who can say no to God?  

Amy has been more than I deserve and I was better off than she has been in this thing called marriage.   I make this public statement because I hope and pray that other pastors will do a better job than I fear I have done in keeping the boundaries of the home and the time for those within the marriage and family.  I also write this in the hope and prayer that every pastor has such a loving and faithful wife who keeps tabs on them and calls them to account when their boundaries are broken.  She has sat beside me on the precious few days away we have enjoyed while I was on the phone, consoling a family or planning a funeral.  She has put up with the unpredictable hours that were once a not so funny joke:  I will be home in a few hours....-- yeah, right.  She knows better and even I do but I hate to admit it.

Since February 12 when I fractured my ankle, she has been there in spades for me.  I am a terrible patient and patience is not my strong suit but by the time you read this I hope she will be relieved of some of her responsibilities as driver, lugging around the knee scooter, watching the wound heal, taking me to a more doctor's appointments and physical therapy sessions that I have ever been before, and doing everything to make sure that, despite my impatience and frustration, it all heals up.

We are celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary today.  She is more than my wife -- she is my best friend.  She knows my faults and loves me still.  She has forgiven more than her share of broken promises and watched as too much of her life ended up revolving around mine and the congregations I have served.  What can I say but Thank you, my love!  Thank God you came into my life and God bless you for all I have put you through.  Everyone says C. S. Lewis said it and if he did not, he should have.  Love is never wasted for its value does not rest upon reciprocity.  What that means is this -- the love you give that never gets returned is not lost or wasted or foolish.  That love is the most profound love of all.  Thank you, Amy, for your love.  I will have to go a long way to be as loving and faithful as you have been and are to me. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Not what changes but what remains the same...

Sermon for Ascension Thursday (AM) preached on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Though Ascension often focuses on what changes in our Lord’s Ascension to the right hand of the Father, it is even more important to remember what remains the same.  Scripture is more focused on what remains the same than what is new or what changes.  You and I are transfixed by new things.  In our age of rapid change it is easy for us to look at Scripture with the same baited breathe for what is new and yet the message of God’s Word is yesterday, today, and forever the same.

Our Lord is still the Incarnate One.  He does not ascend to some vague spiritual place to inhabit some vague spiritual presence.  He is the same Lord, born of the Virgin yet without a human father.  He is the same Lord who grew and matured into a man among men.  He is the same Lord who carried out His public ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God in our midst because He is here.  He is the same Lord who suffered for our sin and died our death.  He is the same Lord who rose on the third day and was seen by more than 500 witnesses.

Why is that important?  Because Christ seals our relationship with the Father by His incarnation, holy life, life-giving death, and mighty resurrection.  There are no surprises in store for Him or for us.  It is not the unknown we face but the future He has prepared that we might be with Him and He with us forever.  There will be no fruit basket upset on judgment day.  He is the same Christ who will present us to the Father clothed in His righteousness and washed clean in His blood.  

He wears the same scars of Calvary but no longer as marks of suffering.  Now they are the marks of victory because of what that suffering has accomplished.  He has the glorified flesh of the one who can no longer die.  We find comfort in this because it means that our scars and wounds are likewise no longer the marks of our defeat or loss but in Christ become the marks of glory when we shall dwell with Him, having finished the race, fought the good fight, and endured to the end.

He is still with us.  To be sure, the mode of His presence has changed but not the presence itself.  He is still with us in flesh and blood – now the flesh and blood of the Holy Eucharist.  He is still with us speaking the kingdom into our ears but now through the voice of His Word.  He is still giving us the living water but now in the font where we are born again to everlasting life.  He is still silencing the devil, forgiving sins, and making the wounded whole – now through the means of grace.

None of that changes – not who Christ is or what He has accomplished for us or what He gives to us.  The mode by which He is present and imparts the blessings of the cross to us has changed but not the Christ who is with us always to the end of the world or the fruits of His redeeming work imparted now through the Word of God and the Sacraments.

That is why the disciples are told to stop staring into the sky.  The Lord had already given them the promise of the Spirit and they were to go back into the city and await the fulfillment of the promise.  Jesus was not up there somewhere.  He was still with them as they would soon witness with tongues of fire and languages spoken without learning them.  They were reassured by this and returned to the city not with the downcast hearts of sorrow but with joy, even great joy.  And Luke tells us that where they went.  They went to Church.  They were in the Temple praising God day after day.  Do you see the connection between what we do?  Here in this place, Christ is among us still, doing all that He has promised to do, bestowing the gifts of His grace, and sealing us in the Spirit.

What is new then?  Jesus had promised that the day would come when they would be His witnesses, first from Jerusalem, then to Judea, then to Samaria, and finally to the ends of the world.  This is what is new.  But this cannot be fulfilled until the Spirit whom the Father will send in Christ’s name has come among them.  On Pentecost we will remember just that – the gift of the Spirit that equipped them for their new calling as witnesses – telling all the world what Jesus said and did.

All that the Lord is remains the same after His Ascension.  He is still the Savior come to redeem and not yet to judge, still the incarnate One of the Virgin by the Spirit, still the Son of Man like us in every way except sin.  All that we need from the Lord remains the same even after the Ascension when His visual image is replaced by the sacramental mediums of Word, water, absolution, and bread and wine. What changed were the disciples.  While the Spirit had not yet been given, we saw them head back to Jerusalem without fear or lament but in great joy.  The same men who had hidden behind locked doors were out in public in the Temple, praising God whom they knew in Christ.  Pentecost will change them more but it was already begun.  So it is for us.  What remains the same gives us the courage to be who God says we are and to what He has called us to do.   Christ is with us, working through us, with joy in our hearts, with confidence in our minds, because Christ is forever the same even as He calls us to step up and out in His Name.

What they knew and could not have known...

Sermon for the Ascension of Our Lord (B) preached on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Those who went out with Jesus to Bethany were not the same people who Jesus had called to follow Him.  At the time of His call, they had no idea what was before them.  Only the Holy Spirit could have calmed their uncertain hearts so that they answered Jesus’ call by leaving everything of their lives behind to follow Him.  By the time when our Lord heads out into the countryside with the same disciples in tow, they had literally been around the world a couple of times.

What did they know?  They knew Jesus, the One who was incarnate of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.  They knew Jesus, the One John had named in the waters of the Jordan with confirmation by presence of the Spirit and the voice of the Father.  They knew Jesus, called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  They knew Jesus, the multiplier of lunch to feed thousands, the healer who took away the afflictions sin had caused, the tamer of demons who called them out of their helpless victims, and the one who raised the dead back to life.

What did they know?  They knew Jesus as the servant Lord who came not to receive service but to serve undeserving and unworthy sinners even to death upon the cross.  They knew Jesus as the Mighty One who suffered for those of no degree and the sinless One who died for the sins of others.  They knew Jesus as the Lord who refused to run away suffering even though they did.  They knew Jesus as the risen Savior whom the grave could not contain and who wears the glorious flesh of those who died never to die again.  

What they could not have known was their profound effect their role as His witnesses would have far beyond the familiar places of Nazareth or Galilee or even Jerusalem.  What they would not have known that is the many who would attend to their words written so that those who did not see Jesus might believe.  What they could not have known were the mighty buildings that would make the glorious Temple of Jerusalem pale in comparison – places where Christians would gather to praise the name of Jesus and receive His sacramental gifts.  What they could not have known is that their names would adorn those cathedrals and parish churches, schools and seminaries, colleges and campuses, hospitals and nursing homes, and all kinds of places and programs of the Church.  What they could not have known were the little boys and girls who would be inspired to Christian service by the story of their service on behalf of Christ to the world.
What they could not have known is the profound fruits of their preaching and teaching to change the course of human history.  What they could not have known are the artists and musicians who would give image and sound to the glory of Christ crucified and risen. What they could not have known is that most of them would die the violent death of martyrs who drank of Christ’s cup and who were baptized into His suffering.  They were content to swell with the joy of Christ in them and dwell in the Temple courts praising the Christ who ascended to His place of glory at the right hand of the Father.  And that was enough.

Pastor Oesch had no idea that the baby he baptized would grow up to be pastor.  Pastor Durdell had no idea that the youth he confirmed with preach the Gospel in a pulpit.  I had no idea that church work would be in my future, or that I would serve on Long Island or halfway between Albany and New York City or spend more than 30 years in Clarksville, TN.  Just as I did not know my future, you do not know yours.  You have one way vision.  You only see the past.  But together we see the past that we need to see.  We see Jesus, promised by the prophets, born of the Virgin, lived in obedience to die in the place of sinners, rose never to die again and ascended to go to prepare a place for us.  That is all we need to know to make it through today, to know where we are going.  If we know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we know all we need to get there and be with Him.

And one thing more.  You do not know whose lives you will touch with the Gospel either.  Sure, you might expect that family members will see and hear Christ in you but they are not all whose lives you will touch.  You do not need to know.  Like the disciples of all, it is enough to know Jesus, to confess Him in the creed, to speak His Word to those you encounter and those closest to you, and God will do the rest.  Jesus said that they would be His witnesses, first from Judea, into Samaria, and to the ends of the world.  They did not put together a program or a committee or try to figure out how to organize this.  They simply spoke as God gave them voice and opportunity and the Lord did all the rest.

We have turned the Church into an organization when Christ created His Church to be an organism.  We live because we are connected to Christ’s life.  That life is present with us even though Jesus’ visual image has departed.  The Word of God and the Sacraments of Christ are dynamos and powerhouses of God’s grace and mercy – not only for us but so that God might work through us.  Our joy is not to come from results which we may never see but from the Christ whom we know.

We worry about the things we do not know and will never know in advance of their happening.  Where we will live or how we will die.  None of that matters.  What matters is that Christ lives in us and in Him death has no more power over us.  What matters is that Christ died and rose again and that we have forgiveness, life, and salvation because of that death and resurrection.  What matters is that what He has given us to do, He will also supply the Spirit and the gifts needed to accomplish that purpose.  What matters is that we are regularly in the Lord’s House around His Word and Table.  What matters is not the stuff we cannot know but what God has already told us in His Word.  If we know this, we know all that matters, the one thing needful, and the Word that endures forever.

So let us not despair of the future but fulfill our baptism calling with confidence.  Let us not fear the powers against us but rejoice that Christ is for us.  Let us not fret about the things to come that we cannot know and focus on what God has revealed to us in His Son.  Let us not gaze into the heavens to find a Jesus who is not there, but meet Him here in His Church, in His Word and Sacraments, as He has promised.  Let us not take for granted our life as His children but rejoice to call others into His kingdom that they may be with us, living under Him in His kingdom today and forevermore.  Christ has not abandoned us or left us but is now filling all things.  This is our great joy and this is why we praise His holy name.  Amen

Parental abuse. . .

Though the issue of puberty blockers and surgical treatments on minor children is largely directed to the physicians and those who provide the so-called medical treatment to a psychological disease, the real culprits in this are the parents.  Parents are abusing their children just as significantly by adopting these experimental and detrimental treatments for their children as if they had beaten or raped them.  Let us be honest here.  There are supposed to be adults in the room when children are receiving medical care and dealing with psychological issues.  Apparently there are none.  The doctors and therapists who sanction such dysphoria and encourage such radical treatments at a young age are only part of it.  At the root of it all is the failure of the parents to be parents.

Perhaps none is as big a failure as the boy who was encouraged by his mother and supported by his family to be trans from age five.  You can all listen to the dysfunction in the family and the clear psychosis of the mother on the TLC show on Jennings’ life, I Am Jazz The show, now in its eighth season, has chronicled the life of a supposed success story, Jazz Jennings.  Instead, the show reveals the missteps and mistakes that have left the star with even more psychological ills to match the physique of botched treatment, surgeries, and trama.  Sure, the mom has gained fame and fortune from the program but the child, now an adult, is left with surgical scars that can never be repaired and the depression to go with it.  On top of it all, the poster child for trans treatments now has gained over 100 pounds -- another symptom of the psychological scars that have accompanied the transition.

Why is this program still on TV?  Why haven't the parents been arrested or held accountable for their terrible failures?  Why does the media still hype the trans phenomenon as if it were a string of success stories instead of multitude of very public failures?  A now famous clip from the TLC series has mom  Jeanette twisting Jazz's arm so that he will dilate his “neovagina” -- something that has to  be done every day for the rest of his life!  Men who undergo a penile inversion vaginoplasty must dilate the open wound  two hours a day up to two years following the surgery and then for less time every day for the rest of their lives or the wound will close and the opening shrink. 

The trauma from the puberty blockers and surgery and lifetime of dealing with it all is not the only trauma involved. A 25-year-old male United flight attendant who identified as a woman and then was featured in the airlines trans friendly ads took his own life recently.   “As I take my final breaths and exit this living earth, I would like to apologize to everyone I let down. I am so sorry I could not be better,” wrote “Kayleigh” Scott in an early morning social media post Monday.  This trans individual was as driven by fear of failing those who had championed the cause -- just like Jazz and his mother's push to promote the trans identity of her son brings with it feelings of guilt when it all goes bad.

When will we wake up and realize that this is the worst kind of parental failure, the worst kind of parental abuse, and the worst excuse for loving your child?  When will we make this kind of abuse criminal -- not only for the medical professionals who do it but for the parents whose approval is necessary before these abusive treatments are allowed for their children?

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Don't let the day pass into obscurity. . .

The Ascension of our Lord is part of our confession and creed and yet, liturgically, it has largely dropped from the radar and piety of the church.  There are more people in church on Thanksgiving or an average Wednesday in Advent and Lent.  This is a scandal to the full meaning of the Easter season and our confession of Christ.  We cannot afford to let the Ascension of our Lord slip into obscurity.  There was a time when the people treasured this feast right up there with all the major feasts and showed this by voting with their feet to be present.  Now it would seem that Ascension has to compete with graduations, weddings, the end of the school year, and a month already busy with secular days (from Mother's Day to Memorial Day).  What is our witness if the day is confessed in the creed but forgotten at the altar and in the pew?

What can we do?

  1. Lay people can insist upon the restoration of this holy day where it has been dropped from the local liturgical calendar.
  2. Pastors can re-introduce this feast into the liturgical life of the parish whether or not many folks will actually attend  (try scheduling a baptism or confirmation for this evening to draw attention to it).
  3. Congregations that do not believe they can do this alone can band together for a circuit wide observance of the Ascension.
  4. The Church can begin teaching the importance of the Ascension both as feast and as fact -- for the sake of our witness and our catechesis.
  5. If the congregation and pastor will not schedule the service, the faithful can at least ask and expect the church to be open for prayer and this to be announced.  Perhaps the faithful can shame us into pious practice.

For my part, we will have two Ascension services -- one spoken liturgy with hymn at 11 am and one full sung liturgy with choir at 7 pm.  The Eucharist will be at both.  Let us not pass over the holy day to the Sunday that follows nor give in to the temptation that thinks it is too much work for too few people.  Now let us begin the work of restoring the Ascension of our Lord to the liturgical calendar of the parish and the piety of the people.  Let it begin! 



Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The digital lies we crave. . .

A lie does not have to be all false -- only slanted enough or lacking enough context or facts to hide or distort the truth.  Sin loves lies.  Eve loved the lie that the serpent whispered in her wanting ear.  Adam loved the lie that told him to eat because Eve ate.  It is no different now.  Though I am hardly on any social media, the occasional glimpse are filled with lies -- from the sources that purport to tell you the real story behind the English royal family, the political intrigue of Trump and Biden and their minions, the sordid details of the lives of the famous in Hollywood and sports, and just about anyone and anything else is in the news.  We feed on such lies.  Conflict feeds on such lies.  Suspicion feeds on such lies.  Division feeds on such lies.  You name them -- all the ills we love to hate are all fed by a stream of lies.

The media has become the yellow journalism warned about in the past.  Neither left nor right are content to speak facts but instead take up a cause that often misstates or negates the real facts.  Sadly, we do not want facts anymore.  We have become as a society so deeply suspicious of anyone and everyone that we would rather live in the echo chamber of our own bias and beliefs than to live in a world where truth engages openly and with love the falsehoods of the world.  So they pander to us and we pander to them.  It is despicable.  On top of that is the huge lie that if you disagree you are a hater and must be cast of the circle of friends, the conversation of the public square, and the neighborhood.  The left and right are complicit in this and we have allowed them to take over our minds and steal our reason.  Worst of all, we seem incapable of turning them off or holding them accountable.

The internet is close to the the gates of hell.  It allows the anonymous and the cowards to spin their lies or their version of the truth unchecked and unchallenged.  They do not need to prove anything since innuendo and insinuation are the tools in trade of those who tweet and post allegations as truth and presumption as fact.  I am ashamed that this blog lives in the same sphere as the stuff of the internet.  Believe you me, I have thought long and hard about giving this whole enterprise up.  My use of the social media is for one purpose -- for the preaching of the Word, for the calling of the faithful to know that Word, and for the occasional benign humor at no one's expense but my own.  I once thought porn was the biggest danger of the internet but it is being chased by the demon of opinion that poses as information and attack that poses as remedy to the things that ail our society. 

The worst of it all is how Christians fall victim to the same kind of abhorrent stuff in the name of Christ.  On the one hand you have Christians who advertise that they neither know nor heed and apparently do not even care about what God's Word says and the Church through the ages have believed.  The Gospel has become a rainbow meme devoid of any mention of sin, the cross, or the empty tomb.  The Law has become a toothless lion who roars while we who say we are Christian yawn.  What a sham it is!  On the opposite extreme are the righteousness police who make the Pharisees look like amateurs.  They troll for any information that they can use to divide, destroy, and spread despair.  God has an answer for sin but not these people.  Once condemned, always condemned.  They are the only godly ones they know and they have become a parody of what it means to call your brother or sister to repentance.  When they are called out, they revile back worse than they got and distance themselves from the Lord who forgave those who crucified Him.  Their goal seems less to be truth than influence and power and so they have been corrupted by the same idols as the world -- the only difference is they do it in God's name.

Get off the screens and into the Word.  Be discerning about what you read or hear instead of deceived.  The internet corrupts everything because we let it -- it appeals to our basest desires and the things that should not live at all now live openly only because we let it.  Vulgarity has become normal and are we better for it?  Truth is now captive to the individual but are we better for it?  Perception has become the real reality and are we better for it?  Tearing down has become the goal and are we better for it?  Satan is laughing as he gathers our souls as the harvest of lies and we have surrendered to Him what belongs only to God.  Do not give you kids a smart phone and if you cannot control your use of it, you should get rid of yours. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

What does Christianity have to do with the Church?

There was a time when the answer to that question would have been rather obvious.  Perhaps it is a sign of the times that such a time is no more.  The distance between the Christianity of Scripture, creed, and confession and churches has been growing wider for a very long time.  That said, I am not sure that anyone would have looked to the day we have today.

Rome under Roche now insists that the theology did change when the Mass changed -- something everyone else has insisted as not the case.  If it is the case, it raises the obvious question about which theology is the correct one -- the one of Rome for four hundred or more years prior to the Council or the one that has evolved after the Council.  In fact, it is becoming an embarrassment that the Roman Pontiff now seems to imply that baptism does not matter much, that gay marriage is not such a big deal, that celibacy may be changed, and that traditionalists are the equivalent of liturgical Nazis.  Go ahead, tell us what you really think, Frank.

The Anglicans have long been divided between those who think the Scriptures matter and those who cringe at what the Bible says.  That has become a geographical divide as well as a theological one with African and Asian Anglicans refusing the join the fray abandoning anything and everything traditionally Christian.  The coronation of Charles will test what it means for there to be a Church of England since he envisions himself less the supreme governor of the Church than an advocate for faith (which faith is not specified and all faiths are implied).

Lutheranism suffers its own great divide between those who think of Scripture and the 16th Century Confessions more as grand suggestions to be taken with a grain of salt and those who think that what they say matters.  The gulf between the ELCA and the LCMS, for example, is less about the history and trajectory of those bodies than it is what truth is and what does it matter.  The pages of their flagship publications give plain testimony to the differences between them and of the unlikelihood of there being any rapprochement of the two bodies.

Protestantism has different camps -- the progressive and liberal groups that care more what the latest survey says than what God says and the evangelicals who also care more about the people are thinking than what God is thinking -- though both groups poll with completely different questions.  It is interesting that the big box evangelicals are giving up their more traditional positions on women, homosexuality, and a host of other hot button issues faster and faster as time goes along. 

In the end, the church may become passe anyway.  The spiritual but not religious crowd is gaining and right behind them are the nones.  Those who actually pay attention to and proclaim what the Scriptures say, what creeds confess, and what confessions once state unequivocally are becoming an ever smaller slice of the pie once called Christian.  A while back a Lutheran online forum could not even agree that Unitarians were not Christian -- despite the Unitarians refusing to call Christ God.  When it gets to that point where Google answers your question and AI writes your sermons, we might as well admit that the glory days of the faith are long gone.

That said, we would be wrong to jump ship now.  Christianity as the faith of the Church and the Church confessing Christianity are not quite over.  God will certainly have something to say about it.  If not now, then on judgment day, to be sure.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Not orphans. . .

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (A), preached on Sunday, May 14, 2023.

Growing up I thought very little about the gift of family.  I had grandparents, a great-grandfather, many aunts and uncles, and a host of cousins.  I had no conception of what it means to be alone.  Now at the other side of my life, I am an orphan.  My father died over eight years ago and I am coming up on the first anniversary of my mom’s death.  There is no generation in my family older than I am and the generations younger are dispersed throughout the nation and not as close as they were when I was a child.  I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere and more of my family is here than anywhere else.

We live in different times.  There are not many families like the one in which I grew up.  We are cast to the winds.  While this is certainly true of military families, it is also true of almost all of us.  We depend upon screens to connect us because of the distance between us.  We have lived long enough to learn what it means to be alone.  It is not a pleasant feeling and for some of us it is our worst fear.

On this day when our society honors our moms and reminds us of the gift of family, our Lord has made us a promise.  I will not abandon you or forsake you.  I will not leave you as orphans.  This is a profound and amazing promise.  In a world of broken promises, our Lord insists that He will be with us always, even to the end of the age.  We ought to spend a moment thinking about that.

This is not an empty promise.  You know how it is when illness or death strikes and people say to us, “Let me know what you need.  You can count on me.”  Jesus is not giving us pious platitudes.  He is making an absolute promise.  I will not leave you or forsake you.  You will never be alone, never be orphaned in a world unfriendly to you because of Me.  The promise is easy enough for us to understand but how does our Lord keep it?

First of all, this promise is not something attached to our death or to the life of the world to come.  He makes this promise to us right now – in this life and in this age.  He has warned us that the world appears friendly enough but as the world hated Him, the same world will hate us.  We will find persecution and trials not because of anything we did but only because we belong to Him.  Our Lord does not sit on the sidelines of our lives to see how we handle these things.  He is with us, present among us by His Word and Sacraments so that we will not be overcome.

Being here in God’s House, around the Word and Table of the Lord, is not some benefit or blessing for God to enjoy.  We are here because Christ is here.  The same Lord who was born in our flesh, who suffered for our sin, and who died our death is here right now.  He comes to us as the glorious Easter Savior who is no longer bound by time or geography.  He comes to us through the locked doors of all that this world counts as real to bestow upon us a greater reality than anyone has ever seen before.  Part of that is hidden in baptism.  Do you recall the banner we give out to those baptized?  On it are words from Isaiah 43.  “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

He promises the Spirit whom the Father will send in His name.  The Spirit is come so that we may abide in Christ and Christ in us.  The Spirit bestows the faith that sees Jesus and believes in Him.  The Spirit is at work to keep us one in Christ until that day when the earthly reality fully and finally submits to His heavenly glory.  The Spirit has but one job.  He works through the means of grace to impart faith to our stubborn and fearful hearts and to keep that faith living and active until He presents us to the Father clothed in the righteousness of Christ.  

Our weekly gathering around the Word and Table of the Lord is not some random accident but it is by God’s design and for His purpose.  Here He is in our midst, the God of salvation who has saved us by the blood of Christ, is right now saving us by His grace, and will on the last day save us to everlasting life.  He does this through the Holy Spirit.  It is an amazing grace that God so deeply and profoundly loves us and is working in us, through us, and for us, that we may be His own now and to everlasting life.  This is a great comfort but this a profound blessing.

If this is indeed what the Lord will do for us, what do we need to do so that all that He has promised, we may know.  It is interesting that our Lord points us here to His commandments.  If you love Me, keep my commandments.  The great temptation is to believe that this is about behavior.  If you loved Me, you would shape up your lives and keep the commandments.  But His life among us and in us is not conditioned upon what we do.  It is at work through His Word preached and read and through His sacraments of life and worship.   Here the commandments are not the conditions of His presence among us but the fruits.  Our love for God is not a feeling or an emotion but the desire of new hearts bestowed upon us in baptism, hearts that love and seek the will of the Father before all other things.  If we love Him, then His love will dwell in us and in what we value and desire.

Christ will not abandon us and now He calls on us not to forsake Him.  The Church is our mother in Christ, the place where we received the new birth of water and the Spirit and constant voice of God saying and doing what is good, right, and true .  Let us live like our Mother, walking in the ways of our Savior even we rejoice in His good and gracious gifts for us and our salvation.  Christ has established the Church to be our mother, the womb of the font whereby we are born again, and the table where He feeds us heaven’s food.

Having a mother is a great gift.  She is not simply the one who gives us birth but who sustains our lives.  God bless those who show us a mother’s love.  But it is exactly this love that our Lord shows us through His Church and the means of grace that are the beating heart and life of that Church.  He has done everything so that we might never be alone.  Now He calls us to do everything so that we will not orphan ourselves by disdaining His Word that is the lamp to our feet and the light to our paths and by forgetting the baptismal gift of new birth and by forgetting to stop by His Table where He has set us a place and feeds us still.  If you would have Christ as your brother, you must have the Church as your mother for therein is the work of Christ done that reborn by baptism you may be sustained to everlasting life.

Our Lord will never leave or forsake us but we leave and forsake Him all the time. We take His name in vain instead of calling on it in prayer and praise.  We do not honor His Word with our full attention.  We do not honor the gift of family as God made us and still sustains us.  We live in lies instead of the truth of His Word and we kill one another instead of honoring our relationship and life together as fellow members of the body of Christ.  We dishonor the body of Christ the Church as if our lives in Christ were less important than our individual life in Him.

Let us rejoice that Christ who has kept His promise, has given us new birth of water and the Spirit, leads us by His voice in Scripture, and daily and richly feeds us His food for life in this blest Communion.  Let us rejoice in the earthly institution of the family and order it rightly according to His Word and intent.  Let us live within the unity of His Church where He keeps us close to Him.  Let us rejoice to love Him who loved us more than death and loves us enough to grant us eternal life.  Let us pray by the Spirit that the words of our mouths and the actions we take are for Him, reflective of His love, and serve His glory.  Let us keep the faith and be faithful to Him who died that we might live. In the holy name of Jesus.