Friday, June 30, 2023

If you go to a Lutheran Church today. . .

There is much that happens in a Lutheran Church on a Sunday morning.  Some of it is old, forgotten by the generations that have passed but restored so that we are walking together with our fathers in the faith.  Some of it is new, a disconnect with our past in favor of an embrace of the now we see and hear all around us.  Some of it is a mix of old and new things designed to fit preferences, tastes, and likes of as many as can be satisfied.  Some of it is worse.  Some of it is the betrayal of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith and the abandonment of any resemblance to the Church that Jesus Christ established by His blood.  The burden is upon you to make sure you know what is going on in the Lutheran Church where you attend.   Does this congregation preach and teach the whole counsel of God's Word?  Does it reflect the Confessions that are its official doctrinal standard?  Does it confess the creeds that identify with the orthodox confession of who God is and what He has done?  Does the music of that liturgy reflect what is believed in these confessions and this creed?

We are so tempted to judge a church by the warmth of the welcome we receive or the amenities in the building or the location of convenient parking or the lack of boredom in the worship life.  We must stop paying attention to these things and focus on the one thing needful.  If you do not recognize the God who is being worshiped or do not hear faithfulness to Scripture and Confession in the preaching and teaching, walk away and find a Lutheran Church that is faithful.  If you encounter some of the craziness that has its source in culture and society in place of the Word of the Lord that endures forever, run and do not walk to the nearest Lutheran Church which has not been infected with the spirit of this age in place of the Spirit of God.  

Sometimes you can make a judgment on the basis of that congregation's identity.  Everyone in the world knows that the ELCA is a different kind of Lutheran than Missouri or Wisconsin.  Even that, however, does not guarantee that the faith is orthodox and the congregation trustworthy.  Do diligence and scratch below the surface.  Make sure that you know what you are getting into, whose care you are trusting your children, and if there is any gospel at all to comfort your guilty conscience or promise you life stronger than death.  A couple of these videos have been making the rounds.  Look at them.  Listen to them.  This is not the Lutheran Church of any recognizable Lutheran Confessions.  This is not the faith once delivered to the saints that is being preached or taught.  This is not the Divine Service in which God is center and God is delivered His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation to His people.  You may think that people like me are just stirring up trouble or that the differences between us as Lutherans are not that great.  Think again.  There is everyday and, in particular, every Sunday, a battle for the heart and souls of God's people and the combatants are those who hold to the faith yesterday, today, and forever the same and those who have Sparkle Creeds and woke moments of self-expression.  Mark the difference.  If you love your family and value the truth that sets you free, mark these divisions among us for those you care about and for the stranger who just might presume this is the legitimate face of Lutheranism.  And just remember this.  The people in the videos below are proud and happy with what goes on there and so are the ones who might be down the street from where you live.


Thursday, June 29, 2023

That which requires unity. . .

Calling himself a progressive Lutheran pastor in the South, Clint Schnekloth is an ELCA Pastor in Arkansas who is media savvy and often an eloquent voice for his perspective.  First by blog and now mostly on Substack, Schnekloth caught my eye because that last name is well known where I hailed from in Northeastern Nebraska.  I still do not know if he is related to the folks I know but they are surely not cut from the same cloth.

Schnekloth believes he is a Lutheran, the best kind of Lutheran, not one who hails from a movement but one who is on the forefront of the movement -- where Lutheranism ought to be going.  Nowhere is this more true than with the issues that ultimately split the ELCA after its 2009 embrace of all things LGBTQ+.  He is finished with patience and no longer wishes to wait while others catch up to where he and other progressive/liberal voices in the ELCA are now and where they are going in the future.  This is the issue over which a schism is not acceptable but laudable.  The time has come, in his eyes, to force the final card.  You are either with us or against us -- don't sit on the fence or dawdle.  You either need to catch up or hit the door.

On the wrong side of history, inattentive to the weightier matters of justice, frustratingly out of touch with how the church might actually love their neighbors.

We are no longer in a moment when we can in good faith say that we are simply of differing minds but one in Christ. We are no longer in a moment when we can say people just need time to adjust.

Our nation, our culture, the majority of Americans, all have recognized we got this one wrong. It’s time for the church to catch up, and also ask itself why it hasn’t been leading.

It’s time to stop celebrating mealy-mouthed unity and call it what it is: stubborn commitment to bigotry under the guise of religiosity.

Let me say that I do agree with him on one point -- this is church dividing and the faithful ought to be headed out the door with their pastors leading them.  Some have.  Not enough.  According to Schnekloth, you dare not be on the wrong side of history.  But that is the curious and dangerous idea.  It is wrong and unacceptable and church dividing to be on the wrong side of history, but not on the wrong side of God.  In other words, you can depart from Scripture, Creed, and Confession with impunity and you are good but if you depart from the accepted social norm for diversity, justice, equity, sex, and gender, that is simply unacceptable.

According to Schnekloth, I’d just like to make very clear: I know where I stand, and who I stand with. I stand with the queer community.  Did you see any mention of standing with Christ or upon the clear word of Scripture?  Yeah, neither did I.  Because that is the point.  Support for this cause must be invented because it cannot be found in the Word of God or the moral tradition that has proceeded from the Word throughout the Judea-Christian era -- at least until the last couple of generations or so.  We know better than God, know better than Christ, and know better than the orthodox teachers who went before us that rock upon which the Church stands or falls.  Who knew?  It was never about sin or
forgiveness, never about death or life, but simply about desire without constraint or judgment.  Gosh, what a wasted effort over the centuries!  We did not need to convert Rome, we could just embrace Rome.  

These issues are church dividing and rightly so.  They are not on the fringes but cut to the heart and core of who we listen to and what we hear.  I agree.  If you are in a church that has substituted this alphabet soup of sex and gender as your gospel, then by all means leave don't let the door hit you on the way out or if you are in a church that does not embrace this inclusive identity over Scripture and you disagree, don't let the door slam on your way out.  It is time for the sifting to begin and for those who think the job of the church is to echo culture and those who think the job of the church is to proclaim Christ crucified and risen to part ways. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Hungry for theology that meets current challenges?

Henkel Conference
2nd Annual – August 7-8, 2023
Ascension Lutheran Church

The second annual Henkel Conference, devoted to Christian theology and cultural engagement will be held August 7-8, 2023 at Ascension Lutheran Church, Madison, TN.

The forum provides the best theological and cultural speakers within the Christian faith in order to educate and encourage in the midst of the present assaults on God’s eternal truth. This is conference welcomes everyone, clergy and laity.

If you are looking for meaty material that confronts threats to the faith from some of the great thinkers of our moment, put it on your calendar and plan to attend.  To register, click HENKEL CONFERENCE.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Killing kids with screens. . .

When I grew up the cigarettes competed to advertise how many doctors smoked their brand (Camels, it seemed) and how the L&M filter cigarette was “Just what the doctor ordered!"  It seems foolish now after years of dealing with lung cancer and a host of other cancers connected to those cigarettes the doctors puffed on right along with the rest of us.  At some point, we realized the obvious.  Smoking was dangerous to your health and even second hand smoke.  So dangerous, in fact, that we had to shield children from them.  Remember that there was a time when young people were prominently figured in cigarette advertising.  My mother smoked and drank all during her pregnancies and no one thought anything of it -- then.  But now we know better.

We are still harping on the dangers of smoking for teens although now we have vaping to contend with.  We are still restricting access to things considered dangerous -- everything from alcohol to sitting in a car without a child restraint (car seat).  These things are so dangerous they come with warning labels and with laws requiring even those who disagree or do not care to comply.  A generation or two after the fact, we look back on our history and wonder what we were thinking -- at least with respect to cigarettes, drugs, vaping, drinking, etc...  Will the day come when we decide that the heady days of the internet were the tip of the iceberg?

The U.S. Surgeon General issued a major warning this year about an “epidemic of loneliness.”  Now the same office has now issued a warning about young people and social media.  Suicide and depression rates among young people are skyrocketing.  Fifty years ago we were just beginning to see the need to warn our young people about the serious threats to their physical health.  Now it is commonplace to hear these health warnings about everything from smoking to vaping to sexually transmitted diseases to obesity -- all with the powerful voice of the Surgeon General to give credibility to such warnings.  

Now it is not merely the physical threats to the health and well-being of our youth that we need to be concerned about.  There is a major threat to their mental and emotional health and it comes with  screen.  Christians will recognize this as a threat not simply to mental and emotional health but to the very souls of our youth and the prospect ought to be terrifying to us as parents, grandparents, educators, and mental health professionals.  As the Surgeon General's warning was sent out about these threats, we ought to be encouraged but it is still quite a ways away from admitting the role the internet has played in these ills.  Our children's mental and spiritual health is profoundly threatened by their unrestricted and unsupervised use of social media and apps which have been proven to be at least part of the source of the threats so far identified.  When will we do something about this?  I am not so much talking about the Surgeon General here as much as I am addressing parents.  Do not give your child a smart phone and expect that the use of this screen will not affect their spiritual and mental health.  Do not presume that a smart phone is benign and that third party apps and parental controls are a substitute for knowing what your child does on the internet and with whom.  We live in a world in which plenty of voices are raised against their use of tobacco or in support of gun control or against vaping or alcohol.  When will the same folks awaken to the dangers posed to our children by their unfettered access to the internet and their unsupervised use of social media platforms?  

Monday, June 26, 2023

Here WE stand. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 4, Proper 7A, and the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, preached on Sunday, June 25, 2023.

It is amazing how ignorant we are of our own history.  As Lutherans this is particularly true.  Reformation Day falls on October 31, commemorating the day when Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  We would be wrong, however, if we thought this was really the start of Lutheranism.  In the world of 1517 many things were going on and the nails Luther pounded in were quickly lost in political intrigue, Vatican machinations, Muslim invaders, and ordinary life.  It took Charles V four years to convene in Wartburg and another nine years before he had an opening on his calendar to deal with the Lutherans.  In January of 1530 he called a diet or conference to meet in Augsburg in April to discuss the Lutherans.  Luther was still an outlaw so layman Philip Melanchthon wrote the final draft of the Lutheran position.  On June 25, 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V relented and heard the Augsburg Confession but he was not interested in the theologians.  Seven Lutheran princes and the representatives of two imperial free cities stood by this confession.  This is the true Reformation Day.  Then fifty years later, this confession was affirmed by the Formula of Concord.

Before Augsburg, this could have been characterized as a little theological tiff among members of a very small monastic group in a backwater town in Germany. When the men with titles stood up before the Emperor, it became a credible movement for the reform of the Church and the restoration of the catholic faith.  
We know all about Luther but not so much about those who were willing to put their lives on the line to stand for the Gospel.  On this day of June 25, we not only thank and praise God for the example of the fearless confessors of Augsburg (who, by the way, were all laymen), but also ask Him to preserve us in that same confession of faith and to pass on this saving faith to future generations. This we do mindful of our Lord’s own words: “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven”

My friends, we live in troubled times.  It is a world literally turned upside down in which our public confession before the world is even more urgent than it was 493 years ago.  We need today as we had then, faithful and fearless laymen and women to give witness to the truth of Scriptures not only about salvation but about His creation of male and female, His establishment of marriage and family, the sacred character of life from natural beginning to end, and the truth that endures forever.
Last year about this time we began a Bible study on a Christian worldview in a world that seems to have no room for God and His eternal truth.  Then as now, it is important not simply to remember what is at stake but whose voices must be raised to confess Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  This is not a day for the Church to depend solely upon pastors and theologians but a day for every baptized Christian to become thoroughly familiar with God’s Word and stand up to give witness to the truth of that Word in Christ our Savior.

A couple of weeks ago we celebrate the Commemoration of St. Barnabas, Pastor, and focused on the need for us to raise up and form young men for the pastoral office and men and women for all the church vocations.  Last week we were reminded that God has not surrendered the Church to our care but has promised to work through us to grow His Church and how we were called to harvest the fruits of God’s work of planting, tending, and caring for the seeds of faith He has placed in hearts and minds by the agency of His Word and Sacrament.

Now today comes the promise that our faithful witness will not be forgotten nor will it fail to accomplish God’s purpose.  Whoever confesses Me before men, I will confess before My Father in heaven.  That is our Lord’s promise.  Its words are not meant for seminary only but for husbands and wives who honor the Lord by living faithfully the covenant of marriage according to the Lord’s own design and direction.  These words are meant for parents who are given not only the responsibility for but the duty to raise their children up in the faith, bring them to the waters of baptism, and bring them to the worship services of God’s House, that they too may kneel with us all at the rail and feast upon Christ’s body and blood.  These words are meant for neighbors and workers who lives their lives not hidden but displayed before those around them – testifying to what God has spoken, to virtue and goodness, and to the renouncing of evil’s words and works.

If the Reformation fails now, the responsibility for that failure will lie on both sides of the altar rail.  If we believe that God worked in time to recall and restore His Church to the clear voice of the Gospel then, we must also be ready and willing to take up that same cause in our own age and generation.  We have a duty to perform in preserving the preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments of Christ among us but we also have a promise.  The Lord Jesus watches over us, works in us, and works through us so that our bold confession of Christ here will be remembered and celebrated in heaven as well.     

But we also have a warning.  If we fail to confess Him here and now, He cannot confess us as His own before the Father.  This is not a dire warning for our age but the solemn and sober words of Christ for every age and generation.  Faith is not a private thing that lives so deep down within us that no one knows what we believe.  Faith is by nature public.  What we believe and confess will always shape our words and actions.  This is not new but the urgency of this moment in time should not be lost to us.  We are called to be transparent Christians – a people whose faith living in hearts is the same as the faith living in our words and deeds.

We have a wonderful congregation.  We sit in the pews with wonderful people of faith.  What happens here every Sunday is nothing short of amazing.  God’s Word is the beating heart of our life together as a church.  The Sacraments of Christ are administered with great faithfulness and reverence.  The song of faith raised within this house of God is clear and confident.  What we are being called to do is to take what is the hallmark of our life together right here, and to make that Word, witness, and prayer the hallmark of our homes as well.  What we are being called to do is to let Christ shine through us to those around us even as Christ shines right here in every Divine Service, in every Sunday school room, and in every Bible study.  It is the call to a seamless life in which who we are here, is the same as who we are at home, in the neighborhood, in the workplace, were we shop, and in our leisure.  The power and outcome always rests in God’s hands.  But let us demonstrate that belief with courage and confidence as live in Christ our Savior and serve Him in words and works.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen

Look up!

Ceilings are often very ordinary affairs -- popcorn and acoustical tile.  We have little reason to look up and nothing to behold if and when we do.  But that was not the case with churches.  Once there was not only a reason but a blessing in looking up.  The mere fact that modern church ceilings are more often nothing to see only echoes the attention we give almost exclusively to ourselves.  Looking up means looking away from us, from the things of this life, and, in simple gesture, beholding the things of God.  I wish that we thought about this more and gave our people something to see.

Stenciling and stained glass both draw the eye away from the person and to the God of their salvation.  It might seem an extravagant expense but it is certainly cost worthy if our people have their attention lifted from the things that would consume to the God who gives us life.

The world is always looking down, into yourself, your feelings, your aspirations, your wants.  It points you down to the base desires as the things that are the most authentic you.  It insists upon the cover of honesty to bring you down with all that is brutal, hard, vulgar, and real in this life.  It has replaced the permanent with the temporary, the digital work of the imagination with the real work of hands, and truth with lies.  Stop looking down.  Look up.  Look to the steadfast and enduring love of God that made all things even when He knew that it would go bad, rescued and redeemed His fallen creation not with silver or gold but with the sufferings and death of His Son, the righteous for the unrighteous, and preserves us within the grace of forgiveness by the means of grace.  This Word and Sacraments urge us to look up with joy to the God of our salvation and hope amid despair, darkness, and even death.  

It is time that we paid attention to the ceilings or they will become merely a roof to keep things out instead of a means of drawing our attention through every barrier and to eternal life through Christ our Lord.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

The True Reformation Day. . .

After the shot heard round the world with the posting of the 95 Theses, the Holy Roman Empire began a time of questioning, challenge, and even turmoil.  Though only 19 when he assumed the throne. Charles V was not spared a deep and profound challenge to that throne in the rise of the  Lutheran Reformation.  His desire to end the revolt was hampered by the relative balance of authority between the princes and himself.  In addition he had his own agenda that required their consent and, even more, their cooperation and finances.  Distracted by wars with the Ottoman Turks and the League of Cognac, little was done to prevent the spread of the Reformation throughout the 1520s..

By 1530 there was enough pause on the fronts to allow Charles the freedom to focus on the religious division that had arisen in Germany since the Diet of Worms in 1521.  Better late than never, Charles called an imperial Diet for Augsburg in April of 1530 to confront Luther and his agitators.

The Lutherans went to work to present their teachings.  Desiring a unified confession before the Emperor, Luther, Melanchthon, and a few other Wittenbergers had met at Torgau a month before to draft a confession now known as the “Torgau Articles.”  Luther was hamstrung by his outlaw status and was unable to travel to present this confession to Charles V so Philipp Melanchthon, a lay theologian from Wittenberg and ally of Luther went on his behalf to present their confession.  But  Melanchthon did not present the "Torgau Articles" as written.  Instead he revised them as part of a political strategy as well as a theological one.  Completed on June 23, this is what became the  “Augsburg Confession.”  Luther was on board but Charles initially refused to hear the confession.  Finally, he relented and Melanchthon read this confession before the Emperor on June 25, 1530.

Though October 31, 1517, might be the start of the Reformation, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession is the more formal date for coalescence of individual voices into one confessional movement that gradually became known as the Lutheran Church.

With some 28 articles, the Augsburg Confession is a very positive document.  In fact, 21 of the articles were largely accepted by Rome as catholic and orthodox with only the final 7 addressing issues and calling for reforms.  So Melancthon worked with Luther and others not only to address what the reformers found to be a distortion of Scripture but also to identify this reforming work as a catholic movement, borne of the Church and living from the Church to renew what had been corrupted or distorted.  Melanchthon's many quotes and references to the Church Fathers and Church Councils from the ancient Church are meant to demonstrate Lutheran continuity and consistency with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith down through the ages and to imply that it was Rome who deviated from this Scriptural and confessional truth -- not the Lutherans.

Lutherans insisted that catholicity implied not only consistency with the faith down through the ages but faithfulness to the Scriptures.  Nowhere is this more profoundly shown than in the Augsburg Confession.  The Lutherans also insisted that the issues they identified and the challenges they raised showed that it was precisely a medieval distortion to this catholic faith and practice that was at fault (specifically the sweeping changes adopted in the eleventh century during the papacy of Gregory VII, sometimes referred to as the “Gregorian Revolution”).

The Lutheran contention remains.  We are not a sect.  We are not schismatics.  We are not out to begin a new church.  We are not radicals (except in the sense of adhering to Scripture and Tradition).  We are orthodox.  We are catholic.  We are renewers of the faith and not destroyers.  Perhaps if the times had allowed a real debate over these claims, thing might have been different.  But there was little desire to show the same conciliatory spirit from Charles V or the Pope.  And in the end, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession brought no unity except to those who insisted the fidelity to Scripture is more important than fidelity to Popes and Councils.  It was a good beginning and on this day we remember with thanksgiving those who stood so boldly and yet positively for the faith as well as against error.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

How odd. . .

I said it before when the first glass window was put in the Chapel at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  These are more like coloring book images than stained glass.  The are modern -- I will give you that.  But they are hardly stained glass and not up to the standards of the original.  You judge for yourself.  You can seem them all here.  In my mind, Jesus looks a little two generic and transparent -- not to mention without any marks of the suffering He endured for us and our salvation.  Or look at a few of the images below. 

Mark me as not a fan....

Friday, June 23, 2023

So many wonderful hymns. . .

Matthew Carver is a gift and treasure to the wider church, to be sure, but especially to the LCMS.  He is a talented translator and skilled poet who has rendered in English hymns that were before inaccessible to us.  In so doing, he has reminded us that what we have in our hymnals is but the barest smattering of the great and blessed heritage of hymnody we could be enjoying.  So, as summer unfolds around you, do yourself a favor and check him out --  There you will find favorites which you never knew before.

MY Jesus shall my comfort be,
My Savior, now and ever,
Who loveth and redeemeth me;
No might our bond shall sever:
With all my will I hold Him still,
In faith on Him relying,
Whate’er I feel, both woe and weal,
In living and in dying.

2 With my dear Jesus I will stand;
My heart in Him remaineth.
Let grief and pain on every hand
Arise as God ordaineth.
Though devil, death, and sin in wrath
To do their worst endeavor,
With Jesus here, my Savior dear,
I am delivered ever.

3 With my dear Jesus next to me,
I’ll stand in judgment surely,
Defying every enemy;
My soul shall dwell securely
And enter in to life with Him
And see with greatest pleasure
The Savior fair, whom here I share
Now by faith’s precious treasure.


Thursday, June 22, 2023

Remember and confess. . .

It is curious that in the Proclamation of Christ within Divine Service 1 and 2, we are called to remember and confess things that are all in the past save one -- His coming again.  Since we use both Divine Service 1 and 2 often, these words have become common to my ears and to the ears of my people.  Yet, they are not common words at all.


Proclamation of Christ

P As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

C Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.


P O Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, in giving us Your body and blood to eat and to drink, You lead us to remember and confess Your holy cross and passion, Your blessed death, Your rest in the tomb, Your resurrection from the dead, Your ascension into heaven, and Your coming for the final judgment. So remember us in Your kingdom and teach us to pray: [The Our Father]

It is as if we the Second Coming is being referenced in the past tense -- as an event that has already taken place -- just as everything else in that section has. This is not some confused statement nor is it an attempt to include some rather strange doctrine of our Lord's return in glory as King and Judge of all.  It is instead the recognition that within the Divine Service the people of God and their Pastor stand at the very juncture of time and eternity --  the mystical place of already but not yet for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom without end.  Perhaps this is the better reason to call the Eucharist the Last Supper.  For it is that transcendent meal in which we enjoy a foretaste now but the fullness at the ripe moment which God Himself has appointed.


Within the seed is the tree.  The seed is already the tree but not yet its fullness.  So it is with the Nuptial Feast of the Lamb.  What shall be forever hidden in the here and now in the taste of the flesh of Christ in bread and of the blood of Christ in wine.   Jesus Christ the same “yesterday, today and forever” so Scripture and the Church proclaims.  This is the content of the living tradition passed to us and it is the living faith we pass on.  The words become sacramental forms that bestow the fruits of the past and the promise of the future in one eating and drinking.

What we say of the truth is that it is rooted in history and event to bestow eternally the fruits of that work and not simply in the present but also in the age to come.  Of course, what God is manifesting now in time can only be seen by faith yet, by faith, we behold the mystery of the ages now.  It is this that we confess -- not simply the events but nothing less than those events of His saving work and the eternal that is delivered to us within this moment of time. 

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)  He is the end of all things as well as the beginning.  He is not simply the Crucified who is present according to His promise but also the Risen and Glorious Lord.  We taste and see the goodness of the Lord by remembering and proclaiming and receiving the life-giving fruits of that event once in time here in this moment and in this communion receive the foretaste of the future and eternal.  Honestly, can it get any better than that?


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Once envied, now bleeding. . .

There was a time when the Southern Baptist Convention was the envy of nearly every other denomination.  The doctrine was not the envy but the uniformity in what was believed was.  The politics was not the object of this envy but the growth was.  While other denominations struggled to add members, the SBC seemed to increase its membership magically and without much effort.  Of course, that was not quite true, but nearly every other Christian communion was jealous of the way these Baptists grew -- even to the point of trying to emulate their programs and ideals.  No more.

The decline of the SBC is occurring at a rate and on a scale that no one had expected and no other Protestant denomination has experienced in American history.  According to one statistical survey, the SBC had a pattern of adding a million new members (decisions and baptisms) every five years from 1946-1981.  Then it took 8 years to add the next million and 11 years to add the last million before the decline began.  The number crunchers reported 16.3 million members in 2006.  Five years later it had dropped to about 14 million.  As of the 2022 report, it has dropped to 13,196,979 -- the same size the SBC was in 1978.

In 2012, there were 3 baptisms for every member lost.  In 2022, there were 2.7 members lost for every baptism.

Now for the surprise.  The states with the most baptisms per current member are not in the South but in strange places like Montana, Iowa, the Dakotas, and New England -- even New York.

Covid?  Yes, perhaps.  But there is something far more here than just the lingering effects of the pandemic.  The SBC is bleeding off people by the thousands of members to nondenominational evangelical churches.

It could be said that the biggest threat to denominations like the SBC are not other denominations or the politics or the doctrine of their churches but the nones and the nons -- in other words the very same things that are affecting all Christian denominations.

While some are spending their time focusing on the statistics, it might be worth noting that amid all these stories of decline and the loss of a once Christian Europe, for example, there are converts who are not interested in the statistics of the past or the comfort in numbers that Christianity once used to console itself but in real answers and real transcendence.  They were not raised in the faith but were drawn to Christianity while looking for a source of authority, for a sense of real community, and a sense of hope. 


Tuesday, June 20, 2023

From seminaries to districts?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a denomination that has become a federation of affiliated synods (or districts as Missouri might say).  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way the ELCA deals with candidacy for the ministerial roster.  An applicant completes a Candidacy Application Form, writes an Entrance Essay, participates in a psychological evaluation, undergoes a background check, and then is interviewed by the Synod candidacy committee.  The process also requires a Personal Health Assessment, a financial worksheet, and copies of all post-secondary education transcripts and continuing education certificates.  The applicant will select a an ELCA seminary, apply or may already have applied, and may attend a non-ELCA seminary but must affiliate with an ELCA seminary as well.  In a process of collaboration between a Candidacy Committee and the appropriate seminary faculty, the Candidacy Committee grants endorsement, affirms each candidate’s readiness to complete the candidacy process within the appropriate roster of the ELCAThen comes the final approval from the Candidacy Committee acknowledging that a candidate is qualified and competent to serve under call in a specific rostered ministry.  The bishop or designated staff person of each synod in the region and the Candidacy and Leadership Manger of the region to wrap up the details and figure out the particular Synod in which the candidate will be placed.  In this whole process, the seminary (or seminaries, in the case of one who attends a non-ELCA affiliated seminary) plays only a supporting role.

In contrast to this, the Missouri Synod has left the faculties of the two seminaries to not only provide the academic training and oversee the internship (called vicarage) but to certify the candidates for ministry in the Missouri Synod.  While I have often complained about this process and believe there needs to be a stronger role for the District President and the District in this process, some in Missouri seem to be eyeing the ELCA process with envy.  In an effort to reduce the role and influence of the current seminaries, some are looking at some sort of candidacy committee to deal with those who attend a non-Missouri seminary (currently it is not possible to be placed in a first call without attending an LCMS seminary or completion of one of the eleven (yes, 11) alternate routes through one of those same seminaries.  It seems that some of our Districts (mainly those District Presidents in those Districts) would like to localize this process and hobble together some sort of mechanism to bypass the seminaries.  We already have one route that sort of bypasses the seminaries (a joint program of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and Concordia University, Irvine).  Something like this model or one that effectively removes one of the Missouri seminaries from any real role is, apparently, an attractive model for those who do not like their students to go to a Missouri Synod seminary and come out Lutheran (or, at least, a different kind of Lutheran than some of those in those districts might envision).

It is a dangerous plan.  There is not much chance Missouri will approve of it now but in an age of fewer residential seminarians than are needed each year, it could be sold as a plan to beef up the lagging numbers at the seminaries.  It is this that will be used to sell such a plan to a church body frustrated by the lack of pastors.  It is this that will effectively transform Missouri into a mere federation of semi-autonomous districts and the image of what has happened in the ELCA already.  Missourians who are concerned for bolstering the number of pastors prepared each year should not be deceived.  This is not simply about the number of pastors but also the kind of pastors produced and presented to the congregations.  Missouri has a great temptation to decide to do one thing only to have what we decide to do be used for other purposes (remember the lay deacons and then the Specific Ministry Pastor program).  This is not simply a move to open up another alternate source of pastors for the LCMS but could become that which transforms not only the clergy but the core unity of the Synod with respect to those who serve her congregations as pastors (whether specific or general).  It might not be an interesting idea and perhaps sounds rather boring but Missouri needs to pay attention to the consequences of such a change.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Always the back door. . .

In February 2023, the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA)1 convened its Twentieth Convention of General Synod in Melbourne, Victoria, and approved a motion that could allow for women’s ordination as early as 2024. An update of information from one in the know suggests that this motion, while not changing the 2/3 majority required to change the constitution and adopt the practice of women's ordination, confuses the whole issue by appearing to approve this change.  The resolution that passed expressed the expectation of such ordination.  Under a “one doctrine, two practices” construct, some districts would ordain men and women to the pastoral ministry, while other districts would ordain only men. In response, over 500 clergy and laity in Australia signed a “Letter of Confession” on April 18, 2023, the 502nd anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Here I Stand” speech at Worms, Germany, in 1521. The letter states:

This vision of an LCA with two, not just different, but mutually contradictory teachings and practices on the office of the ministry will result in the breaking of fellowship around altar and pulpit, striking at the very heart of the church’s true unity. ... We reject any attempt to bring about a false sense of “church unity” by imposing upon the LCA two mutually contradictory doctrines and practices of ministry by political and procedural means, when we are called by God and our own confessions to judge all teachings in the church by the standard of the Scriptures, ... the “only infallible source and norm for all matters of faith, doctrine and life” (Article 2 of the [LCA] constitution). ... The question of who is permitted to fill the office of public ministry is a doctrinal matter according to the Lutheran confessions. Those in the LCA who have been promoting the ordination of women have not been able to offer a clear and convincing Scriptural argument for the practice that would override the biblical foundations (1 COR. 14:34–35; 1 TIM. 2:11–14) for a male-only pastorate in the LCA.

No matter what side of the debate you are on with respect to the ordination of women, the sad truth is that the choice of end justifies the means is a betrayal of the integrity of any church body.  The LCA is not alone in finding such changes through the back door.  We struggle with such practices entering the life of the church in the Missouri Synod.  If there is going to be a change, let it be upfront and honest and not through the back door as the pro-ordination of women group in the LCA seeks to do it.  But heresy and unfaithfulness always tends to like the back door and the departure from orthodox teaching, church tradition, and the voice of Scripture seldom happens in the living room in full view of everyone.  It generally always happens in the kitchen by the back door.  Shame on those who propose this change in the LCA.  If you think yourselves people of integrity, then stop trying to sneak in what you purport to be good and salutary. 

The strategy of those who are in favor of the change has been dialogue.  That is code for talk about and keep on voting on it until it passes.  When they grew weary of dialogue, they decided that there could be two voices within one church body, two jurisdictions with contradictory practice, and two confessions within one.  It is untenable and they know it.  But they count on the fact that people are slow to act and even slower to depart from their historic home.  They presume that as long as some say "not in my back yard" and it appears that will be true for a while, they will not vote with their feet.  I hope our brothers and sisters among the orthodox confessors in Australia will continue to put up the fight and, if they lose, to depart with their feet.  The back door is where those who cannot gain approval foist their changes upon an unsuspecting church.  Let us commend those who stood up and said "no."


Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6A, preached on Sunday, June 18, 2023.

I guess those who find errors in the Bible must be correct.  After all, Jesus must have miss spoke in the Gospel for today.  He told us to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.  Now He must be wrong because what we need are church planters, not church harvesters.  We need people to fix our broken churches and turn them around so that they will grow.  We need mission planters and developers and not mission harvesters and reapers. Surely Jesus miss spoke.  He meant to say, “Pray the Lord of the field for planters and tenders to sow, weed, and water the kingdom.”  Yes, that must be it.  Either Jesus miss spoke or it got translated wrong, right?

Yes, that was sarcasm.  Jesus did not get it wrong.  We got it wrong and get it wrong.  We think far too much of what we do in growing the Kingdom and for too little of what God does.  That is why we are always taking credit for what we did not do.  We did not and do not bring people to faith in Jesus.  We did not and do not decide when and where to sow the seed and what fields are worth sowing and what are not.  We are not marketers of God’s brand but the people of His Word, who believe it for ourselves and who speak forth that Word so that God may accomplish His purpose in the sending of it.

It is a good thing to have some folks with a good head for business to make sure we do not squander God’s resources but none of us dare presume that the kingdom of God comes through our expertise.  It comes now as it came then and as it came to us – by speaking the Gospel.  You can call it preaching but for now lets stick with speaking the Gospel.  What this means is that the story is not our story.  The witness which we have for the world is not about us or how happy we are to know Jesus or what great people we are or how Jesus has rewarded our faithfulness, even how good Jesus makes us feel.  The story we have to tell is Christ’s story  – it is the Gospel of His suffering, death, and resurrection.

Christ’s was the body planted into the earth like a seed.  We are here to reap for the Lord the fruits that proceed from His life once offered, from His body lain in the dust of the earth, and from His resurrection never to die again.  We are here to speak forth what this Gospel means in the forgiveness of our sins, the redemption of our lost lives and the resurrection of our dead bodies to everlasting life.

The Gospel of the Kingdom is not that you need to find Jesus or come to Him but that Jesus has come to you.  He came to where you were, wore your flesh and blood, was tempted as you are tempted, suffered more than you will ever suffer, and endured the rejection of people more than have ever rejected you.  But in so doing, our Lord built hope where there was only despair, restoration where there was only judgement, forgiveness where there was only condemnation, healing where there was only pain, peace where there was only upset, and life where there was only death.  This is what we have to say, the hope we should be always ready to speak when we are questioned.

Our great temptation is to be enamored with our intelligence or inspired by our feels.  We are so smart we think this marvelous world and our complex bodies were an accident of nature without the hand of God to make them.  We are so smart that we cannot even define a man or a woman even though any child can.  We are so smart that we think because we can prevent pregnancy, babies are not important.  We think because we know what life is worth living and what is not, we can flush a baby out of the womb, ease the aged out of their suffering, and check ourselves out when we think life is not what we want anymore.  We are so smart that we think God is a crutch for the weak and an answer for the ignorant and that technology and science will give us all the answers we need.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Is it any different today?  All around us our world is filled with people inside and outside the Church who are harassed by the troubles and trials of the day, bounced around by the changes and chances of this mortal life, and helpless to fix anything and everything.  We are still like sheep without a shepherd – everyone going his or her own way, oblivious to the dangers around us, content to feed our faces on what we like or consume entertainment and amuse ourselves into thinking this is happiness.

Ours is a world ripe for the Kingdom of God.  The Gospel is not less relevant than it ever was but even more necessary than we realize.  Our problem is that we think people come to faith or leave the faith is about us.  How foolish we are.  Jesus puts is clearly.  We harvest where God plants and raises up the seed of faith.  We cannot make anything grow – not even ourselves.  But the Lord has given us a purpose and a calling to harvest what He has planted by His Word and Sacrament, tended by His means of grace, and brought to new and everlasting life in Christ.

Jesus is still the speaker of His Word whether it is spoken by the pastor or the parent or the people in the pew.  Jesus is still the speak of the Gospel to the stranger near or the one half a world away.  We offer Him our voices but it is always His Word speaking and His Spirit working through that Word.  But let us not become distracted by the cares of this world or all that glitters around us.  The answers we need are solely in the Word of God.  God is working through that Word and it will not return to Him empty but will always accomplish His purpose in sending it.  That is His promise to us.  His Word, His Seed, His Work.  His fruit.

So what do we do?  We harvest what God has planted.  We bring the budding faith to the House of God where God works to bring to completion what He began.  We encourage one another not with pious sentiment but with the Word of Truth.  We care for our spouses, our children, and our neighbors with the compassion and forgiveness God has shown to us.  We become a people of mercy in a world of indifference because mercy is how God has dealt with us.  While the world surely needs us to speak out God’s Word it does not need or want us to sit in God’s seat and judge them.  Neither is that our place.  We are not a silent witness but our witness is God’s Word and we are not an indivisible people but a people active in mercy.  The glory of fatherhood is to make this Word the center of our homes and the witness of our lives.  This is the fatherhood that reflects God our Father.

And, as I said last week, that means encouraging boys to become men, men to become pastors, girls to become women, women to become church workers.  The harvesters go where God sends them and do what God bids them.  He does not need our advice but He delights in using our voices, our hearts, and our hands.  For that we are grateful beyond measure.  Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The crisis of identity. . .

If you do not know the name of Richard Rex, you ought to.  He is currently professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Making of Martin Luther, among other books.  He is a provocative thinker and worth the read even if you may not always agree with what he says.  In this case, I think he is spot on.

 It is beyond question that the Roman Catholic Church is currently in the throes of one of the greatest crises in its two-millennium history. In human terms, its future might be said to be in doubt for the first time since the Reformation. The broad contours of the present crisis are the onward march of secularization in Europe and North America, the purging of Christians from the ancient heartlands of the Middle East, and the erosion of South American Catholicism by the missions of the Protestant and prosperity gospels. More specifically, the horrific and continuing revelations of the sexual and physical abuse of the vulnerable by the clergy, and of the failure of the institutional Church to identify and address the issue, have in some places turned a Catholic retreat into a rout. The dramatic and utterly unforeseen collapse of Catholicism in Ireland in little more than a generation, for example, harks back to the tectonic religious shifts of the early sixteenth century. Only in Africa is there much by way of good news, and it is not always clear how good that news is.

It is a book review that offers much more than a mere review of the work cited.  Rex would have us see what is unfolding for Rome -- but not only for Rome -- the third great crisis of identity.  George Weigel seems to think his analysis is pretty important and we ought to give it a look as confessional Lutherans.

The thesis posited is that the first crisis of Christianity was the pointed and bitter conflict over the question “What is God?”  Eventually that question required an ecumenical council to answer and the solution was the Nicene Creed (First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 and the Council of Chalcedon 451). In that creed that has become the staple of every worship service of liturgical churches, we have a definitive statement both of the Trinity and Jesus Christ, true God and true man.  At Nicaea the Church confronted the heretics by affirming that Scripture clearly taught Jesus is truly God and the second person of the Trinity.  At Chalcedon the intricacies of the the incarnation and His divine and human union in the one person of Jesus Christ were explored and set as the standard of orthodox Christology.  Whether we believe it or not, this answer has served as the standard of any orthodox Christian confession ever since.

The second thesis is that the question of the Reformation and of other movements before the sixteenth century movement spearheaded by Martin Luther was the question "What is the Church?"  This was not resolved but ended up resulting in the second great schism of the Church (after 1054 and the break with Orthodoxy which was itself, at least in part, due to a Christological and Trinitarian issue). While Trent was the official response of Rome, it did not stave off the questions and it might be said that the whole Synodality issue in Rome today is the present fruit of the postponed conflict.  It might also be said that neither Wittenberg nor Geneva manifestly answered the question either and ecclesiology has been the Achilles' heel of Protestantism as well. It is at best a smoldering question with paper answers that have been effectively challenged by practice ever since.

Now the third thesis of Rex.  We are in the midst of an ongoing conflict around the question of "What is man?"  The Church seems to have lost its primacy in answering this question and many, especially Protestant but not only so, have deferred to the wisdom of culture and society.  In effect, the Church has lost her voice in a sea of letters and issues from abortion to gender, marriage to family, reproductive technology to euthanasia, contraception to assisted suicide.  Rex maintains that this crisis in secular society has been adopted by the Church and will be, in part, a defining moment of truth.  What was begun as a secular movement of thought has found a home within too many churches and voices even within those who officially repudiate the error of these positions according to Scripture and tradition.

All along the questions have had an underlying issue of truth.  How can the Church have been wrong in the cardinal issues of God, Church, and man?  If the Church has been wrong, how can she be right about anything else?  We are facing the deep abyss of truth and identity that will define not only for our time but for the future if we stand on the side of God, His revelation, and the faithful voices who have contended for the faith over the centuries or we stand on the uncertain ground of changing opinion.  If only we had another Nicea and Chalcedon to effectively give answer for all time according to the unchanging witness of God's Word and legitimate tradition!  Without that mechanism to affirm the truth that does not change, we are left floating on the sea of opinion without a mooring solid enough on which to offer the world anything but opinions.  Before we get there, we can only pray the Lord to come quickly and bring to an end our foolishness.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Reducing life to an algorithm. . .

The curiosity toward artificial intelligence is, in part, due to the lack of virtue left in work.  Our noblest work is to find a way to get out of it.  So we invent a technology that allows us to escape the drudgery of assembly lines and tedious repetitive tasks.  And for what?  So that we can spend more time on social media or Tik Tok?  How curious it is that we create machines to free us up to spend more time in front of, well, machines?

Are we proud of our efforts to reduce life to an algorithm?  It would seem we are.  The once noble jobs of the manufacturing industry provided America with a solid middle class and defined us as people who produced and made things.  The vast divide between the rich and those not so rich has grown in part because of the absence of those jobs.  Our switch to a service economy has ended up replacing the assembly line with cars marked by lights to indicate they have the big job of delivering our eats to our door before the hot food cools and before the cold food warms up.  Is this really the shape of progress?

Artificial intelligence is not really intelligence at all.  The learning curve of the machines is still rudimentary and defined by and controlled, at least at this point, by people.  Those telling the machines what and how to learn are those skilled at writing the algorithms and computer codes.  From self-driving cars to the miles of smart conveyors that send packages to the right vehicles to get them to your door, these individuals have their hands on the pulse of our future.  We should be concerned.

As beneficial as these efforts seem, the soft underbelly of it all is the great temptation to reduce life to an algorithm.  We will become the machines we invent to make our lives easier, do the work for us, and then clean up afterward.  That is the greater concern.  What of man?  What of man who starts out the inventor of the machines to improve life only to subject his life to those same machines?  It is not quite the technology that is the problem but that is certainly part of it.  What it does to us is the real issue.  When life becomes the domain of reproductive technology in which man is but the donor of the ingredients of life, is that an improvement or does it render our lives more vulnerable?  When medicine becomes a product sold and administered through the screens, does that help or will that hurt us in the end?  When death becomes an off switch on a machine or the inevitable pulling of the plug will we have elevated the mystery of life or turned the whole thing into something common and, perhaps, even vulgar?

In place of an algorithm, the Church offers the story.  It began at the beginning and has delivered to us the blunt and hard reality that no one wants to hear.  It calls us to repentance and by the power of the Word calls faith forth from the emptiness within.  It leads us to the cross where the reality we would hide is brought into the daylight of suffering and death.  It offers us hope stronger than the imagination and real enough to destroy the illusion.  Life is not an algorithm.  Life is from God, redeemed by God, with purpose only in communion with God.  Once we thought that life would be surrendered to sin but now we realize that even bigger than sin is our quest for a myth in which we can hide.  Truly St. John was speaking of us when he wrote that we loved darkness more than light.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Too many saviors. . .

As the churches decline and face mounting problems, the prospective saviors of the church increase and offer a dizzying amount of solutions. The talking heads across many denominations have done us the great disservice of trying to figure out what is new and different or old and familiar to save the remnant of a once and vibrant church.  It is no different anywhere you go.  Sometimes I might be accused of trying to offer the saving grace to undo the damage.  I hope that has been an inclination acted upon fewer more than many times.  Yet, I will plead guilty of the temptation to armchair God into fixing things according to my blueprint.  Yet it is good to remember at times what ought to be obvious.

Alexander Schmemman is said to have remarked to his students, It is the Church’s job to save you; not your job to save the Church  Wow, you might have thought that the Orthodox Church would not have to deal with the same messy stuff everyone else must manage but there you have it.  We have endless internet talking heads telling us what must be done to save the Church and a limitless supply of armchair quarterbacks telling God what He must do to save the Church.  Of course, some of the things being offered are not solutions but the things the Church should be doing and the things God has expected of His Church for a very long time.  Calling the Church back to her roots and core identity is not necessarily the same thing as those who advocate for changing doctrine or practice to accommodate the peculiarities of the moment.

Perhaps the Church would not need saving if we looked upon the Church as our mother, the mother with the womb of baptism that gave us birth, with discipline of the household in confession and absolution to restore us when we fall before temptation, and with the dinner table set with the body and blood of Jesus hidden in bread and wine.  Perhaps the Church would not need saving if we were attentive to the Word that spoke the Church into being and the Spirit who keeps us holy and blameless in Christ by the means of grace.  But like all rebellious children, we are ready to cast off the constraints of belonging too soon for our own good and too slow to realize the wisdom of the Word and tradition that has passed down to us the testimony of the ages and the witness of the saints.  Like all those raised in a good and solid home by parents who love them and do their best for them, we disdain God's grace as boring and His mercy as not enough of what we desire and too much of what God decides we need.  Like all the fallen who have surrendered to temptation, we are more comfortable sharing the story of our fall than God's redemption and restoration.  Like the smart and self-confident folks we are, we think the better part of wisdom to listen to the voice of our desire instead of paying attention to the voice of the moment that delivers to us everlasting life.

I hope and pray that many will join me in tiring of the many saviors who think they know what God has done and is doing wrong.  I hope and pray that we will surrender our egress to the God who alone knows where we should weather the storm and say on the course that leads to everlasting life.  I hope and pray that we will tire of the constant need to reinvent the Church to save her and will learn the value of the changeless Christ and His changeless Word for an age and generation that sees only change.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Knowing the mind and hearts of your people. . .

Though we all know that the confessional was designed to be a place for private confession and absolution, it also yielded another benefit.  The priest sitting on the other side listened to the concerns of the hearts and minds of his people.  It was not quite about gathering information but knowing that which occupied the worries, fears, desires, and wants of his people.  I think we all know that.  I do not think we all know exactly how effective it was as a vehicle for the priest to know the spiritual condition of his people.

For Lutherans the box may not have survived but private confession did.  In the days of Bach it took many deacons (then ordained assisting pastors) to hear all the confessions of the overwhelming number of people who presented themselves for examination, confession, and absolution.  Of course, those days are largely gone and merely a memory, even an unpleasant one to some.  Private confession is talked about more than it has been in many generations -- even centuries -- but it is not typical and more often exceptional.  This is certainly true of the folks in the pew but it is also true of those on the other side of the chancel.

The revival of private confession is certainly no panacea to fix all the problems we face but it is key to knowing what is on the hearts and minds of God's people and even, perhaps, to improved preaching and teaching.  I will admit that when I was in seminary, the pastoral practice course and even some of the homiletics classes were hopelessly out of date.  The professors had not been in a parish for a very long time and so the things that they recalled were in the forefront of God's people had changed.  I was, for example, told that the lodge was a key issue.  In 43 years of being a pastor, the lodge has seldom come up except occasionally at funerals when someone who had not been active for many, many years suddenly showed up in a coffin with a little apron.  But no one at the seminary prepared me for such things as how to deal with those who have same sex desires.  Clearly, this issue has become a huge issue not simply for those in the pews but for their families and friends and how Christians respond to such things.  I wonder if we would not see such things arise on the horizon of church life more clearly if our people were prone to more frequent private confession.  I wonder if problems faced by burn out, disillusionment, conflict, etc., among the clergy would not be proactively handled in part by our pastors exercising the opportunity to have and meet frequently with a father confessor.

The boxes that once inhabited the narthex or nave of many congregations may be gone or seldom used but it is to our detriment both as a people who confess and are absolved and those who hear our confession and absolve us.  This is an essential means of pastoral care that ought to be revived.  If you are a pastor who does not practice it, start now.  Preach and teach about it in your parish.  Encourage your people to avail themselves of the gift and blessing of private confession.  It will also, as a side benefit, help you to know what is going on in their hearts and minds and help you better to bring God's Word to bear upon those concerns.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The location of truth. . .

Of all the damage done by modernism, the worst just might be the location of truth.  Where nearly everyone agreed that truth was objective, it was objective because it was not conditioned by nor dependent upon the self believing or accepting or rejecting it.  In other words, truth was located outside of the self and the encounter with truth was both the subject of and the direction of education.  For religion, this was also the case.  Truth was not captive to or located in the self but in the revelation that comes from outside of self.  Now that is not the case.

Modernism has located the truth precisely within the self and so the pursuit of truth is the process of knowing the self.  An illustration of this is the selfie and the preoccupation not with moments to be remembered or sites to be seen but with the self.M  We are, in Augustine's words, curved in on our self -- which is how we have classically defined the mark of sin yet in modernism it is good and salutary to glorify the self, the feelings of the self, and to define reality by the self.

The gift of Christianity to modernism is the challenge to this presumption that truth is located within the self and more particularly within feelings.  Indeed, orthodox Christianity claims that truth must be revealed -- not simply the truth about God but the truth about the self.  The gift of sin is how the self has become disordered, that is, disconnected from the truth outside its self to the point where the truth within not only overshadows but prevents the revelation of God from being known at all.  When St. Paul says that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, he is not addressing simply the words that are said but truth itself.  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life yet He cannot be known apart from the person and work of the Spirit.  Sin has left us blind to the dead end of truth that is located within the self.

We have refused the cardinal truth of creation -- that God is creator and we are creatures.  We have refused the cardinal truth of redemption --  that we cannot save ourselves either by changing our will and desire or by atoning for our sin.  We have refused the cardinal truth of sanctification -- that the good that we do is not our doing but Christ in us.  Instead, we have reversed creation and made ourselves not only the guardians of creation but the authorities who define what good is and what our relationship to creation is.  We have reversed redemption and turned Jesus into a coach who helps us do for ourselves or an example of what we too may do if we only try hard enough.  We have turned sanctification into the correction of behavior to a standard we define instead of the pursuit of holiness, learning to desire what is holy and right and good, and being led by the law of God to know what this holy, right, and good is.

Modernism is of no help to us because it does not offer us any guidance except to encourage us to trust our selves.  How foolish it is for us to locate truth within us and to make ourselves the arbiters of what that truth is!  Yet not only the world but liberal Christianity presumes this foolishness to be wisdom.  Modernism has held captive the liberal and progressive Christianity to the point where the only real and objective truth, the Scriptures, have become strange and alien to us.  In other words, modern Christianity has taught us to believe that being true to self is a higher truth than to know the truth which is Christ.  In the end, the lie has triumphed and we have been deceived by that life to think it wise. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Monday, June 12, 2023

Pastor Barnabas. . .

Sermon for the Commemoration of St. Barnabas, Apostle, preached on Sunday, June 11, 2023.

St. Barnabas was a Hellenized Jew who joined the Jerusalem church sometime soon after Christ's crucifixion.  We are told still suspicious  that he sold his property and gave the proceeds to the community (Acts 4:36–37). He was one of the Cypriots who founded (Acts 11:19–20) the church in Antioch, where he would later preach.    St. Barnabas comes as close as anyone outside the Twelve to being a full-fledged apostle.  He was closely associated with Saint Paul—in fact, he introduced Paul to Peter and the other apostles.  He served as a kind of mediator between the Paul the former persecutor and Jewish Christians still unsure about Paul.  According to Acts 13, Barnabas was set apart, or as we would say today, ordained, to serve the Lord as a pastor.

The Office of Pastor has had its ups and downs.  There was a time not terribly long ago when seminaries were filled and the Church was recruiting the brightest and best to be shepherds of God’s people.  Now is not that time.  The seminaries are relatively empty and fewer pastors are coming out than are retiring.  I should know a little something about that.   Now it is more likely that a young man wants to be a pastor but parents and friends talk him out of it.  The shine has gone off the office and we no longer esteem the office as high as we did once.  And it shows.

Instead of encouragement we hear words of caution.  Perhaps that is wise.  We live in a time of uncertainty, when congregations are more likely to diminish in size than grow, and when conflict and turmoil is outside and inside the Church of God.  It is not simply the times.  Jesus told the blunt truth.  “Behold I am sending you out as a sheep among wolves. Go, and be hated. Be destroyed.”  Even if Jesus did say it, we are probably not going to put it on any recruitment posters.   You cannot build a Church by being hated or destroyed.  Right?  But that is the offense of Jesus.  He built His Church on the rejection of religious leaders, the scandal of undeserved suffering, and a death that was not His to die.

St. Barnabas was set apart – I don’t know why translators refuse to use the word ordained –  to preach the foolishness of the Gospel to Gentiles.  In short order, he found himself in the midst of controversy, trouble, trial, and threat.  But St. Paul was hard to turn down and no one could deny the need was great.  So Barnabas took up the cause of pure doctrine, the preaching of the Gospel, the instruction in the faith for those who knew none of it, and served the Lord where He was placed.
Soon Barnabas headed over to Jerusalem for the first of many such church gatherings to decide if circumcision saved or Christ saved.  Everyone says pastors should not be political but this was politics in the biggest way.  Paul was there and Peter.  So much was hanging on the outcome of the council.  

It was not long after that one was settled that there was a falling out between Barnabas and Paul.  It was over another, John Mark.  St. Paul was not about to give a second chance to the guy who had left him alone in Pamphylia but Barnabas was inclined to forgive him.  Later the mighty St. Paul repented and they reconciled again.  That is how the Gospel works.  While we are always dividing, the mercy of God is bringing us back together by the blood of Christ.

It is still that way.  Friends part and enemies unite.  The pews are filled with folks who were once besties and fell out.  Unlike the world, however, there is one who can reverse the unfriending by His blood.  That is the stuff of the Gospel and the work of the Pastor.  You hear it here every Sunday – first thing before anything else.  Thought, word, and deed.  The evils done and the good not done.  Begging the Lord to forgive is one step past an apology.  We ask the Lord to do what He has promised and so He does.  The pastor stands and forgives us in Christ’s name.

In a world of Amazons and Googles, it does not seem to be such a big deal.  But the work of the pastor endures when the mighty retail giants have fallen – can any one remember Kmart or Sears?  The work of the kingdom is always foolishness done by those whom the world deems insignificant.  No one should desire to be a pastor because you want to make a difference in this world.  Get an MBA if you want to do that.  But if you want to be a part of something that will endure when the structures of this world pass away, the ministry is still looking for a few good men.  If you want to be part of something bigger than sales figures or profits, the ministry is still looking for a few good men.  If you want to be part of something that offers forgiveness to the guilty, salvation to the undeserving, and life to the dead, the ministry is still looking for a few good men.

So what does this have to do with the rest of us?  Esteem this office highly, honor your pastors, and encourage young men to consider it.  Pray for those preparing for the pastoral office and for those who stand before you with the gifts of God every week.  Do not belittle the Word of God or the need to true and pure doctrine but honor the Word by reading it and doctrine by confessing the truth with conviction.
Offer yourselves to God’s service where you are.  Build up your home with God’s Word and prayer.  Forgive one another as God has forgiven you.  Extend to the new faces the welcome of God into this house of prayer.  Open your books and your mouths to sing with joy for all He has done.  Do not absent yourselves from the Lord’s House and don’t make your pastor come looking for you because you failed to show up.  Share the news of Christ crucified and risen with those around you.  Open up your wallet and give generously and joyfully to the Church as the highest priority.  Open up your calendar and serve the Lord with your time and your talents – God knows we have plenty of places and needs.  Do not be quick to judge your pastor as unworthy and be patient with him as he juggles family at home and God’s family here.  Give him your attention more than fancy compliments and take to heart what he preaches and teaches.  Listen to him as he advises you.  While you are at it, even as you support this congregation with your tithes and offerings, find another mission and help others near or far in the work of the kingdom beyond your neighborhood.  Our congregation is collecting for the Lutheran Church in England which is struggling now.  Tell them you are their brothers and sisters with generous gifts for the English Lutheran Church.  You get my drift.

The boys among us will see what you do, realize how important this work is, and join to serve with Barnabas and the pastors across the ages right down to this one here now.  You will reap the fruits of your efforts when there are men to serve you in Christ’s name when this one standing in front of you is long forgotten.  And on the last day, the Lord will recount the record of what you have done along with the good work of pastors and church workers of all kinds, giving you the privilege of having the good works you have forgotten recalled and rewarded.  It sounds kind of foolish in a world looking for profits but it makes perfect sense in the economy of the Kingdom of God.