Thursday, August 31, 2023

Hey, pastors, parish musicians, and laity....

After a seven year hiatus, we are back! Building on a wonderful foundation of our Lutheran identity rooted in the liturgy, preaching, and church music, the LCMS is planning to resume the Institutes with Songs of Deliverance -- Psalms in the Great Congregation in 2024.

Unlike before, we are working to make this more of a ground up experience. We have suggested topics and we would love to hear about topics close to your heart and life within the congregation so we are asking YOU to tell us not only what you would like to hear about but what YOU can lead as a partner in this great task.

The DEADLINE for you is Sept. 15. Click on the links below and get ready for a great summer in Nebraska at Concordia (with a brand new music building!).  

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod will host the 2024 Institute on Liturgy, Preaching and Church Music on July 9-12, 2024, at Concordia University, Nebraska (CUNE) in Seward, Neb.


The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod will host the 2024 Institute on Liturgy, Preaching and Church Music on July 9-12, 2024, at Concordia University, Nebraska (CUNE) in Seward, Neb.

The institute returns under the theme, “Songs of Deliverance: Psalms in the Great Congregation.” With the Psalter as its focal point, this conference will feature fresh and perennial topics on music, leadership, preaching, pastoral care, art and spiritual growth in Lutheran worship.

Participants will be able to choose from a variety of instructive and interactive sessions addressing practical topics of interest to musicians, pastors, teachers, interested laypersons and many others. We’ll also take up a challenge together: pray all 150 psalms.

More information, including how to register, will be available on this page when details are finalized.

Select from a sample list of presentation topics, or use it as inspiration for your own idea. The submission deadline is Sept. 15, 2023.

 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The uniqueness of America. . .

Though it is not popular to say, there is a profound sense to what has become American Exceptionalism.  It does not lie necessarily in moral virtue or economic progress or equal justice or any of the other things that are certainly part of it.  Our exceptionalism is that our nation is a nation of principles that bind and not a nation united by ethnicity or race or birth.  We do not look alike nor sound alike nor do we like the same things but our nation has worked because despite this diversity we were united in the principles that defined our nation once and still.

This is quite unlike other nations and their identities.  We say we believe in America.  People do not say they believe in England or Italy or China or India.  These are nations whose formative history is built around other uniting principles.  Even though it is now a rather impotent monarchy, England is formed around the King.  France has a formative history as well -- one that repudiated the monarchy and instilled a people's government.  China has become synonymous with communism and its vaunted history has taken second place to its political ideology.  India only recently cast off its once colonial identity in favor of a new nation formed by a majority even though there are significant minorities of its resident population.  America shares in few of these marks of history and identity.  We have always been a nation of immigrant peoples leaving homelands for various purposes to find new life in a nation whose principles were not simply a guarantee but a pledge of its identity and reason for existence.

At least part of the reason we find ourselves so divided culturally and politically is that the very principles that we believed in and that once beckoned the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse, and the homeless, tempest-tossed to come.  Diversity of political beliefs has not in and of itself created the great divide but rather reflects it.  We are no longer quite sure what we believe in when we say we believe in America.  Our sense of duty and responsibility are even now being replaced by a sense of entitlement and the role of government to provide for us as well as protect us.  Our sense of right and wrong is threatened by a greater lack of faith in police and the justice system as a whole than we could have ever imagined.  One survey says that fewer Americans trust our current FBI than did Hoover's FBI.  Our sense of the values that unite us is being undone by our inability to honor marriage and family and children in favor of the individual's desires as preeminent.  Our pursuit of amusement and entertainment over invention and accomplishment might well undo our place among the nations.  Our unwillingness to give honor and value to every life and to treat certain lives as unworthy of legal protection and esteem has turned us into a nation more concerned about the humane treatment of pets than people in the womb or at the end of life.  Our commitment to education has been replaced by the use of our schools to indoctrinate our children to the prevailing opinions of the woke instead of equipping them with the essential skills of success.

The recovery of these principles is hindered by the fact that we no longer as a nation value religion.  We have a jurist considered for a federal judgeship whose convoluted opinions on the freedom of religion were deemed untenable by the Supreme Court.  The religious freedom and the freedom of speech that were once considered the bulwarks of our unity and strength are under threat by the thought police who can dismiss Scripture and political opinion as hate speech -- with impunity!  Faith is not the problem in America but the lack of faith is showing the cracks in our identity and unity and may well be our undoing.  What was once a willingness to favor no religion over another has become an intolerance of the faith that had been part of our essential unity and character.  America is unique because we were united by principles more than ethnicity or race or common heritage.  It worked.  Not perfectly but it worked.  At least until we decided that the principles that were who we are needed to be repudiated by the modern ideas of sex, gender, individualism, victimhood, secularization, and judgment.  Could it be that those who love to pick at the wounds of our failures as a nation and society are trying to make us bleed to death? 

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Brilliant. . .

 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Knowledge is not faith. . .

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A, preached on Sunday, August 27, 2023.

As school has begun again, we are reminded of the great esteem we give to knowledge.  We spend a great deal of money building facilities that we say are temples of knowledge and we spend a great deal of our lives studying in and learning from such institutions.  Underneath it all, however, is a fallacy.  Knowledge itself is not the same as wisdom.  There are plenty of people who know many things but who are not wise, not the sages we would turn to for the most important answers, and not the leaders we would follow in troubled times.  As much as this is true for education, it is no less true for religion.  Knowledge is not faith.  There are plenty of people who know Bible passages and theological words but who do not believe what they know nor do they confess as faith the words they speak.  We all know this.  

Satan is the prime example of one who knows God’s Word inside and out but who cannot and will not believe what he knows nor confess it as his faith and reason for being.  I wish he were the only example.  All the demons knew who Jesus was better than those who watched Jesus cast them out.  Even Pilate who condemned Jesus and the soldiers who crucified Him knew who Jesus was.  We are surrounded by those who presume knowledge is faith.  There are those who believe that children cannot be baptized until they can know the faith and confess it with their own lips.  There are many who are satisfied more with knowledge than with faith – thinking that what you know is more important that what you trust.  Today we find in Peter the dichotomy between knowledge and faith.

Knowledge does not need the Spirit but faith does.  Jesus says so.  Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, Peter, but only the Holy Spirit.  Luther picks this up in his explanation to the Third Article of the creed.  I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him except by the Holy Spirit.  Knowing and believing are not the same things.  It is believing that saves – not knowing.  Faith comes from hearing the Word of God and the work of the Spirit in that Word.  Faith is not the fruit of a reasoned intellectual pursuit of facts or truth but the work of the Spirit alone working in the Word.  

When Pilate asks Jesus if He is the king, Jesus asks Pilate if this is what he knows or what he is confessing.  Pilate balks.  When Jesus insists His kingdom is not of this world, Pilate jumps on it.  “So you are a king?”  Jesus wants to know if Pilate is merely repeating knowledge or whether he is giving witness to his faith.  Pilate will not go there.  So comes the rhetorical question: “What is truth?”  Indeed, what is it?

We live at a time in which we have vast knowledge but little truth.  Most of that knowledge is irrelevant knowledge – it does not have much to do with our daily lives nor does it have to do with life after death.  It is knowledge that is barely more than feelings or aspirations or desires.  So we find ourselves bullied into silence by such obvious questions as what is woman or a man?  Our knowledge has failed us.  We do not know the important things of life but we know a great deal about the least important things of life.  Even worse, we are not ready to pin everything on what we think we know.  We hedge our bets because our truth is fragile and our knowledge cannot eke out a confession of our convictions that would cost us anything.

Peter calls Jesus the Son of the Living God but that faith that forms Peter’s confession has to come from outside Peter.  It comes from the Holy Spirit.  No man can Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.  On this day admit that knowledge is not faith and though knowledge is a preliminary step, the heaving lifting is done by the Holy Spirit to make what we know into the conviction for which we are prepared to die and the truth upon which we insist upon living.  The same lips that once so boldly confessed Jesus would soon deny Him not once, not twice, but three times.  Faith requires the Holy Spirit not only to create faith but to sustain it.  And, is that not why we are here today in God’s House?

You also know that Jesus is the Christ.  But such knowledge is not faith.  Faith has no voice until the Holy Spirit gives that faith voice and that voice lives in confession.  We are here because we know enough to know how knowledge has failed us.  We knew better but still were silent before the family and friends to whom we could have shared this Gospel.  We are here because we know enough to know how influential the world has been in what we think and say.  We are here because we know that not ever church is the same and that any church will do if the time comes when you need one.  We are here because we have not objected to false doctrine being called truth and truth being labeled as false doctrine.  How many times has our knowledge let us down and we have ended up in the shadows with Peter, refusing to own the truth by faith and warming our cold hearts with the fires tended by unbelievers?

Thanks be to God that our Lord is merciful and compassionate.  Thanks be to God that our Lord does not condemn us because our knowledge has failed us.  No, as with Peter, the Lord forgives and restores.  He has not come into the world to condemn it but to save it – even the sinner who glories at what he thinks he knows but is too fearful to own that knowledge by confessing it before the world.  That is the connection between the Church and the world.  Here in God’s house we are so much like Peter – making the bold confession about who Jesus is and insisting we will never deny that Lord.  But once we step out those doors, we are too quick to say we do not know Him and to retreat into the shadows of what the world approves.

Peter is no rock.  He is a mere pebble.  He admits it.  To whom shall we go, O Lord?  Who has the word of eternal life?  But the faith in Peter knows that the certain foundation on which we build is not a pile of pebbles but Christ the rock.  It is not the work for which we can claim credit but the work of the Spirit alone that we believe and confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  It is not what we think we know but who we know that leads us to salvation.  Who we know leads to confession – the confession of our sins and the confession of our Savior.

Knowledge is not faith.  It is preliminary to faith but faith comes only by the Holy Spirit.  Without the Spirit, it is only Simon bar Jonah.  By the power of the Spirit, Peter the pebble becomes Peter the rock.  The Church is not built upon any one man but upon the God-man Jesus Christ, not upon the knowledge of the mind but the conviction of the heart by the power of the Spirit, and not upon what is easy to know but what is hard to confess.  Yet that is what we do here week after week.  We confess.  We confess sins to be forgiven.  We confess the Word of God to be the voice of life.  We confess the work of God in our baptism to still be in effect.  We confess the goodness of the Lord not simply as a matter for the mind but also for the taste of goodness upon the lips in this Sacrament.  For this reason the Church is not touting to the world what we know but whom we confess and for whom we are willing to die because He is the power of forgiveness and the truth that saves.

The liturgy is our catechist. . .

My little tirade on putting too much in the Small Catechism and putting too much on the catechumens got some interesting responses -- not the online ones but conversational with pastors and with people in the pews.  The gist of those against my thought asked why wouldn't we want to give and expect the most from the youth and adults being catechized?   After all, this is a big commitment.  Of course it is.  It says so right there in the Rite of Confirmation and in the Reception of New Members.  A commitment to suffer all even death to walk away from this confession and church.  Enough said.  My point is not what we expect to join but what we expect to remain within the good graces of the fellowship.

Catechesis is not like education.  You do not pass tests or proceed to the next grade or graduate.  Catechesis is a lifelong pattern of growth in faith, growth in holiness, and growth in life in Christ.  Most of this does not happen in the Bible study room or the Sunday school class or the catechism instruction.  It happens in the liturgy.  It happens on Sunday morning in the Lord's House, on the Lord's day, around the Lord's Word and the Lord's Table.  This is where our lives grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We do not learn interesting details and minutiae about God but learn who God is by what He has done and does and who we are are because of what He has done and does and why we exist because of what He has done and does.

The liturgy is the primary catechist in the Church -- not pastor or priest or teacher but the Divine Service.  Complete with the cycle of appointed readings for each day and Sunday and reaching its twin peaks within the Word preached and the Body and Blood of Christ eaten and drunk, the liturgy is our teacher and catechist.  If only we would listen and pay attention!  I am tired of the constant need to program what ought to be inherent within our participation (fellowship, koinonia) within the life of the Church.  We do a disservice to God by presuming that what happens in the classroom is better than what happens within the liturgy.

When I first got to this community, a neighboring Baptist congregation had put on their signboard the milestone of 1,500 in Sunday school.  They were rightly proud.  When I inquired of the pastor how many were in the pews on Sunday morning, it turned out to be less than 1,000.  He did not see the conflict between those two numbers.  I thought it would have been obvious.  The presumption on most of those not in worship was that Sunday school was an apt substitute for worship.  We Lutherans may not be so quick to fall into that trap but what happens when we schedule Sunday school during a worship hour or when we borrow the whole idea of children's church to segregate our kids away from us so that we can worship without distraction?  Are we not giving a similar witness?  Our children need the liturgy more than they need Sunday school.  They need to be in worship with their families and within the greater family of faith that is the congregation.  They need to see us model and witness what it means to reverence the Lord and His gifts, receive them with faith and thanksgiving, and return to Him the praise that is His due and our duty.

Another blog posted what I had intended for its occasion in the Lutheran Treasury of Daily Prayer on June 15.  But it is too good not to repeat so here it is again.

The Sundays during the Pentecost cycle develop three great themes. The first is Baptism and its graces. We are baptized and grounded in the graces of Baptism. Every Sunday is a reminder of Baptism and a small Easter. The second theme is preparation for the second advent of the Lord. It is treated in detail on the final Sundays of the season. The remaining theme, the burden of the Sundays midway after Pentecost, may be summarized as the conflict between the two camps. Although we are placed in the kingdom of God, we remain surrounded by the kingdom of the world. Our souls are laboring under Adam’s wretched legacy and waver continually to and fro between two allegiances.

By these three great themes the liturgy covers the whole range of Christian life. In Baptism the precious treasure of the Spirit was conferred. Through it we are God’s children and may call God Father. Through it we have become temples of the Holy Spirit, heirs and brothers of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism has not translated us to a paradise without toil or trouble. Rather we are sent into a troubled world to work and struggle. We must guard the holy land of our souls against costly attack. We must learn to know and conquer the enemy, and such is the task that will continue until we have taken our final breaths.

The Church serves as both the heroine, who teaches us the art of warfare, and our strong fortress and shield in the conflict. Through Holy Communion, she bestows aid that repeatedly frees the soul from the entanglements of temptation. How does she do this? Courage and strength and perseverance flow from the Word of God in the Service of the Word, and they flow in even fuller measure from Holy Communion. Of ourselves we are helpless creatures, wholly unable to withstand the attack, but in Holy Communion, another battles for us. The Mightier, Christ, vanquishes the mighty. By means of Holy Communion, we are enrolled in our Captain’s forces. And thus Christ’s battle becomes our battle and His triumph our triumph, and His wondrous strength renders us invincible.
— *The Church's Year of Grace* (1964), pp. 94-95 cited by *Treasury of Daily Prayer*

Sunday, August 27, 2023

All of me. . . all of you. . .

I must admit that I have had about enough of the goofy songs we write to praise God.  It is bad enough that we teach these little ditties to our kids instead of the sturdy hymns that will become their lifelong song.  We entertain our own aloof and arrogant desires by singing them as adults.  We presume that God likes what we like and we like the stuff that tugs at the heart but dulls the mind.  There are those who get all up in a tiff about a couple of those hymns/songs chosen for Lutheran Service Book but we are relatively insulated from the worst of it all -- at least in our official worship books.  Rome has surrendered their all to God and some of the things that pass for worship songs in their congregations hardly sound any different than John Legend singing All of Me.  The sappy syrupy sentiment of these love songs used in worship would be laughable if we were not so pathetic.  

Nearly everything that is wrong with these worship songs is that they get the verbs wrong, as Nagel might put it.  They put us in the driver's seat and God in the passenger seat.  The emotional claptrap is not nearly as destructive as this switching of places in the front seat.  The whole idea that the Church is ours has terrible consequences.  It is, as I have oft complained, the whole idea that God came up with the idea and it is up to us to franchise our way to success in His name.  For the faithful, it turns the attention off of the work once for all accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ and onto the work we do ever fresh, ever new, ever hopeful, ever possible -- as we build upon the foundation of what Christ has done.  The problem is that every foundation lies buried in the ground and is unseen to the eye and out of mind -- except when it crumbles.  And crumble it has.  We have built upon no foundation at all when we build upon our feelings, our desires, our hopes, our dreams, our gifts, and our abilities.  Do you suppose this is what our Lord meant with that little story of a house built upon sand versus that build upon Christ the rock?

A song I recall is in its death throes not because of its terrible theology but for one thing it got right.  Amid all the puff and stuff that passes for noble truth, there is a grain of truth hidden in this song now thirty years old that will not pass muster today.  male and female in God's image, male and female, God's delight.  That should sink this song's boat soon enough in our world of people as a many gendered thing.  How odd that one of the things this song got right will be the reason why it is left by the wayside in the pursuit of worse things to sing in worship!

Summoned by the God who made us rich in our diversity,
gathered in the name of Jesus, richer still in unity.

    Refrain: Let us bring the gifts that differ and, in splendid, varied ways,
                 
sing a new church into being, one in faith and love and praise.

Radiant risen from the water, robed in holiness and light,
male and female in God's image, male and female, God's delight.

Trust the goodness of creation; trust the Spirit strong within.
Dare to dream the vision promised, sprung from seed of what has been.

Bring the hopes of every nation; bring the art of every race.
Weave a song of peace and justice; let it sound through time and space.

Draw together at one table, all the human family;
shape a circle ever wider and a people ever free.

© 1993 Jeffrey Honore/Dolores Dufner/ OCP Publications

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Your reason for being. . .

Both who you are and your reason for being are, according to current culture, all tied in together with your feelings and particularly with your happiness.  Happiness has for a very long time been the goal and purpose of many lives but the fruits of this search have not exactly been positive.  We live in a time in which we have more material goods, more financial means, and more leisure time in which to enjoy it.  All around us we are confronted with the marks of progress and technology offers the promise of relieving us of the more mundane parts of our existence.  Still, depression and despair are rampant.  The fix for our many anxieties and fears will not come from navel gazing.  We cannot look inside and be inspired.  Our raison d'etre and our identity have to come from something other than getting in touch with our feelings or pursuing amusement and entertainment.

Lutheran theologian Gustaf Wingren points us to vocation and in particular to the First Article of the Creed before jumping to the Second.  Indeed, our baptismal identity is God's gift the fills out the identity already given to us in His creation.  In fact, vocation is God's gift of a reason for our being.  It is pretty hard to find meaning where everything is a choice or preference.  It is like a question being answered by another question -- an endless circle that leads nowhere.

Typically we have framed vocation in terms of birth (family), community (neighbor), work (formal and informal jobs), and church.  It is a slight expansion of Luther's own three states -- home, state, and church.  In Luther's division, work is part of the domain of the home and is included with the family.  State is both government and citizenship.  Church is both pastor and people.

Wingren warns us Lutherans against our rush to the Second Article of the Creed.  Indeed, Wingren calls the whole idea that creation does not matter because it is passing away a myth and falsehood.  From Romans 8 he reminds us that Christ came to restore creation and that the passing away of heaven and earth are replaced with a new heaven and a new earth.  Creation suffers under the weight of sin just as we do but just as God has not abandoned who He has made in flesh and blood, neither has He written off the world that is also the fruit of His creative power and love.  Our reason for being and vocation is framed within this creation and this world.  Our work defines us -- as it did from the beginning in Eden and still does, though not without sin having corrupted this work.  We are wired for work.  This is the work in the home and family and the work outside the home.  Sin has taught us to complain about it but it is like complaining about who we are and why we are here.

The topic of vocation is a particularly Lutheran one though we do not talk about it nearly enough.  It might be why we struggle to get a handle on and get out ahead of the culture and its fascination with self-expression as the sine qua non of human existence and progress.  We cannot win the philosophical battle by setting different boundaries on legitimate self-expression.  It has to be more than this far and no further.  It has to begin somewhere completely different than where culture begins.  For the Christian this begins not with redemption but with creation and with the vocation that gives meaning and purpose to who we are and why we are here as well as what we about.  The law is surely our guide in this -- both the formal law of commandment and the natural law that under girds the order of this world.  Of course, the law cannot change the desire of our heart but it illuminates the path.  For Lutherans this also means spending more time on such things as the Table of Duties in the Catechism.  

Enough for now... but this is one topic to continue.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Not my Jesus but the Jesus. . .

The witness of the New Testament and particularly of the apostles is not that Jesus is risen but that the Jesus who was crucified and buried is risen.  It might seem a nuance but the kerygma is clear in the proclamation.  Think of the first sermons recorded in Acts.  This Jesus whom you crucified, God raised...  The identity here is not incidental but essential.  The Jesus who is risen is the crucified Jesus who suffered upon the cross, died, and was buried.  Those who had followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to the eve of his Paschal death give specific and not a general public witness -- the Jesus whom you crucified is the same Jesus who is risen (Jn 15:27). 

This is profound because it connects the resurrection to the incarnation, to the obedient life, and the life-giving death of our Lord.  It is, after all, not different works but one saving work which our Lord accomplishes for us and our salvation by taking on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin, living in obedience to the Law, dying in our place upon the cross, paying for our sins with the agony of His suffering and death, and visiting hell to announce the triumph even before the world knows Christ is risen.  You cannot have one part of His work without the other.  It is, if you will, one package given to us by God.

The resurrection is not some release to a different plane but the resurrection of the body to the life that is without end.  Christ did not rise as spirit or ghost or in the imagination of the faithful but as a body -- the same body marked with the scars of His suffering and death.  The witness of the apostles was not to their Jesus but the crucified Lord who rose on the third day.  They were confessing a fact to which there were not only witnesses who saw the same thing but who saw and recognized Jesus as the same Jesus whom they watched suffer and die upon the cross.

Even though we are not witnesses in the same way as those who were with Jesus from the beginning and were witnesses with us, as the apostles put it when filling the place of Judas the betrayer, ours is not a witness to our Jesus but the one Jesus identified in Scripture as the incarnate Word, the righteous Lord, the suffering Savior, the dead Redeemer, and the risen Christ.  We do little good in telling people about our Jesus unless that Jesus is the Lord of Scripture, the crucified One, and the same One whom the Father raised on the third day.

Sadly, the resurrection has become a nebulous concept in our world of spiritual without being religious, in which the idea of the Savior is chosen over the fact of Him given shape in the Scriptures.  We dare not fall into the same trap.  The Christian kerygma cannot thus be separated or treated in abstraction apart from the incarnation, crucifixion, and death.  For the witness of the faith given by the Twelve and Paul is not a witness to their reception of Jesus but to His revelation, in fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, as the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord Jesus.  "Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  Acts 2:36  In so confessing, the apostles unite the complete saving work of Jesus under the witness of His resurrection that attests that this Jesus is who He claims to be.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

To clarify and not to confuse. . .

When Pope Francis named Archbishop Victor Manuel Fern├índez to be Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, he put someone into authority who represents exactly what is his own weakness.  He does not clarify the faith but confuses it every time he opens his mouth.  While this is certainly true of official speech and writings, it is even more true of his off hand comments and interviews.  Now, one of his own ghostwriters who put into practice Francis' own muddy thinking in Amoris Laetitia, will have his own bully pulpit and an official title to back up the foggy thinking that is typical of Rome today.  More than this, he has been given a red hat ticket to vote on the successor of Francis.  Muddy thinking is in vogue in Rome.  But he is not alone, I am sad to say.

The whole function of teaching in the Church is to clarify and not to confound or confuse with muddled thinking or explanations or expressions of what we believe, teach, and confess.  If you cannot do that, the official voices of the faith should simply be silent.  That is as true for the Roman expression of Christianity as it is any other.  As a Lutheran, it is a problem in the liberal jurisdictions and among the theologians who purport to speak for the faith -- especially when they teach at odds with the clear word of Scripture.  We cannot, however, blame only those progressive Lutherans (and Romans) who are speaking to change what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses.  Sometimes it is the problem of those who think they are bringing clarity to the orthodox faith.

If there is anything I would say against some of the things we have put forward today, it is that they have not spoken as clearly and plainly as should be said about the issues before us.  When online communion became a thing, it could have been answered simply.  No, it is not possible and cannot and should not be done so cease and desist.  Instead the "no" was cloaked in verbiage that at times almost sounded sympathetic to those who thought this was the answer to communion in a pandemic or in a variety of other situations that might preclude personal presence at the Divine Service.  Say it clearly and plainly.

The handling of the controversy over the Large Catechism volume is, at least in part, a result of the failure to speak plainly.  I admit that I have not read the volume but when I read that people I respect and whose judgment I esteem highly differ on what they read and what they believe the text says, my conclusion is that what is being said may not be wrong but it is not clearly right and that is as much a problem for the witness to the faith today and for the work of catechesis to young and old as error.  This is precisely the problem.  The faith compels us not only to speak courageously but clearly in the witness to those within the faith and to those outside the faith.  Of course, it is true that what is clear from within the household of God's people is not going to be clear to those outside.  Will Weedon did a fine job of using the analogy of the stained glass from inside the church as opposed to those outside the church to explain this very thing.  But we dare not settle for it being unnecessarily muddy to those who are outside the faith now but either interested in or listening to the voice of the Church in the public square.  It is our duty to be both faithful and clear in our witness for the sake of those being catechized in the faith and those not yet of the kingdom.

Sometimes we needlessly complicate things because we are afraid of causing offense.  This is certainly true of the issue of closed communion and may be also true of the way we affirm God's order of gender and marriage and family while trying not to offend the prevailing alphabet soup of desire and felt identity so prevalent in the world.  It does more harm than good by being obtuse when the witness needs to be clear.  Of course, there are complexities that cannot be simplified without harming the truth but this is certainly not universally true of what we believe, teach, and confess.  Muddying the waters by confused thinking and writing harms not only our witness but detracts from our faithfulness.  Rome, as it is now under Pope Francis, seems to be elevating this confusion over clarity and consistency.  It is a model we cannot afford to emulate.  For the sake of those outside the faith, we ought to hope that Rome comes to its senses and that we clean up our own act.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Bach to the future. . .

Although Johann Sebastian Bach's musical genius was great, the impact of that genius on those who followed him was astounding.  What is even more remarkable is that this musical genius lived a relatively obscure life, was not well traveled, and that he lived a rather conventional life -- at least for his time.  Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was in many ways rather unexceptional.  His life was not immune from sorrow and even though he sometimes ran in influential circles (as a court musician, for example), his life was neither dramatic or laden with recognition and reward.  For the vast majority of his life, he worked as a church musician and often for ministers who did not appreciate his musical genius and who found him hard to get along with.  He occupied an important position in Leipzig but was more well known as a performer than composer. 

Bach was rather conventional and not in any way a radical -- even in his music.  He was a prolific composer and yet some of his music has been lost because his fame did not last longer than his life.  He was forgotten for a time and had to be rediscovered a hundred years later.  If there was anything that distinguished Bach from his contemporaries, it was not his religion (Lutheran) but it was his devotion to that religion.  He studied his Bible, was thoroughly at home with the great Lutheran chorales, and his music was organized around the Church Year.  Words were not his domain but music was and he was demanding of his instrumentalists and of his choir.  He could be grumpy and harsh to those unprepared for their lessons or for their performance.  He was hard working and expected the same from those who worked with him.  If you met him socially, you probably would find him somewhat somber and distant.  But he transformed the world in the wake of his genius and all of music might benefit from a division from BB (before Bach) and AB (after Bach).  Nearly every musical style and genius who followed him -- from concert to folk, jazz to bebop, early pop to hard rock -- found admirers of Bach  If there are musicians in the past 300 years who were not impacted by his musical genius, they are the exception and may just be wrong.  His music is complex but accessible across generations.  Perhaps the most important contribution of Bach is that he gave the faith a soundtrack.

Many would call him the Fifth Evangelist and his detractors in Rome often found themselves frustrated by the profound influence of Bach -- one that may be the equal of Luther himself. Strangely, Bach is not as appreciated by Lutherans with whom he shared a great and profound devotion as much as by others who may not even care about his faith and devotion.  In fact, it might be that Lutherans are more familiar with the latest pop Gospel composer and performer than they are with Lutheran giants of sacred music and Bach the chief example.  This is the saddest legacy of Bach.  He is almost a stranger to the Lutheran churches, choirs, hymn singers, and keyboardists.  It is not for Bach that we Lutherans need to be reintroduced to this musical genius.  It is for us. We need to rediscover and encounter the deep devotion and profound faith manifested in the Passions Bach wrote and the choral music meant not to dominate as a performance but integrate as threads woven into the great fabric of the Church's faith, life, and worship.  We are the poorer for our loss of a sense of this man and for our ignorance of his devotion and knowledge of the faith.  So before the summer is over, meet up with this guy and his legacy of faith and music.  He gives to us a soundtrack for the faith we believe and confess in a way that no other composer has.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

What manhood looks like. . .

The sad truth is that manhood is in peril.  While the obvious enemies of masculinity are the fluid gender bending that parades as truth and the rainbows of sexual desire that impose themselves upon God's order, the threat is no less from the far right.  I do not need to rehearse on this page the many things written about the threats to boys becoming men from the lunatic left, it seems I must also list the threats to the same from those who confuse the virtue of manhood with self-indulgence, violence, and adolescence.  

The shape of manhood is formed not from beer guzzling or cigar smoking or guns blazing or fists raised but a strong and orthodox faith and spiritual life rooted and planted in God's Word.  Sure, you can drink your craft beer and puff on your cigars and that is fine but the essence of manhood is knowing who you are from knowing who God is.  I enjoy a single malt and a fine gin and am adamant about the right to bear arms but neither of these is a reflection of masculinity's virtue.  Within the Christian revelation of God's Word, manhood finds its nobility in the affirmation that God has a face and a name and is a person.  It is from our Lord's own incarnation that we understand what it means to be human (for us all) and what it means to be a man (for males).  Our Lord's masculinity is not incidental to who He is or why He has come nor is it peripheral to us as a people and to those who are the sons of the Father through Him.  As the baptized sons of God, we learn from Him what it means to live and what is our place in this world because we have a place and belong to the world to come.

If you want to be a man, learn this truth and practice it.  Be in God's House every Lord's Day.  Bow your head in prayer devoutly believing the promise of God to hear and answer.  Genuflect before the blessed food of Christ's flesh for the life of the world.  Depart from this blessed encounter intent upon serving as Christ has served you.  The first mark of the virtue of masculinity is faith, piety, and sacrificial service.  It does not matter how many tattoos or guns you have or how well you can hold your liquor, without this spiritual life you are a child and a little boy.  Lets be honest about this.  It is the strongest of men who can bow the knee to the Lord, knowing their sinful frame and His goodness and rejoicing in His mercy.  Religion is not a crutch but the crucible in which true manhood is formed.

The second pillar upholding masculinity is self-control.  The real man does not have to say everything that pops into his mind.  The real man does not have to indulge his every desire.  The real man does not bully others with a false bravado that masks his weakness and prevents real strength.  The real man does not do what he wants but wants what God wills -- that, the fruit of the Spirit's work in him through his life of worship, prayer, and service.  In a world of indulgent children, we long for the strong who can say no to self and yes to others.  What would things look in our nation and in our world if men truly manifested the fruits of self-control in devotion to their wives, children, homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces?  Instead, we live at a time when those who think they are men would rather amuse themselves to death than build up the home by loving their wives, children, and neighbors as God has loved them.  Where there is a man who invests himself into his church, family, home, community, and honest lab, there is something noble and honorable -- the strongest of the strong.

The third mark of manhood is responsibility.  It begins with boys who learn to take responsibility for themselves, for their spaces, for their relationships, for their things, and for their place within the community.  Godly men do not plead excuse or spout justifications for their refusal to act with duty.  They accept the responsibilities that accompany their place as men and as grownups in this world of children.  It is ridiculous how we have made a joke out of adulting.  It is not a joke.  The joke is living on your screen entertaining yourselves while your spirits wither and die within you.  The joke is living off of somebody else's internet or content to find the next payment for your digital toys.  The joke is surrendering your integrity for the sake of expediency in life, work, and pleasure.  Grow up.  Man up.  Accept responsibility even for those things that are not necessarily yours.  Live to fulfill what is your duty and pray that this duty becomes your delight.

Ambrose said it this way:  "A man is rightly called a king who makes his own body an obedient subject and by governing himself with suitable rigor refuses to let his passions breed rebellion in his soul." Augustine said it this way:  "Love God and do whatever you please, for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the one who is beloved."  Luther found marriage as essential to masculinity and its virtue as to the children nurtured within its structure.  It is about time that Christians re-framed what godly manhood looks like and it is about time that we formed boys into such men and held up this masculinity to the world.  Without this witness, it will surely be swallowed up by the rainbows of the left who cannot find anything but a toxic masculinity and those on the left will indulge their adolescence with adult toys presuming that this macho image is what it means to be a real man.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Knavish imbecility. . .

Hilaire Belloc

“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine – but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight”     Hilaire Belloc

While you might laugh at the quote, it is surely true. What God established by the blood of Christ and the fire of the Spirit has been ruthlessly attacked from within as well as without. Yet age to age the faith has endured. The institution of the Church has endured not by juridical edict but by the power of the Spirit working through the Word who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies it into being and sustains it by the signs that actually deliver what they sign in the Sacraments. We do not have the office of pastor because it works so well but because this is how God has chosen to order His Church. We do not have a law to order our life together but the pure and precious Gospel that does not compel but woos and wins the heart. It is our great temptation to invest the future of the Church in the people on either side of the altar rail or to turn that Gospel into a system of commands and rules. God is forever trying to fix what we screw up. Popes are nice until they get you in trouble. Bishops are wonderful until they forget who they are and what they are to be and to do. You can continue the line right down to the smallest office to which any is set apart within the Church. Add to this councils and teaching magisterium that are the bane of the faith as much as a blessing. We have not even begun to talk about the enemies without.

How on earth would a human institution have survived through the ages? Nations have arisen and fallen. Societies have emerged and faded away. The Word of the Lord endures forever and with it those who are called to faith, gathered around this Word and Sacrament, enlightened from the darkness of sin and its death, and sanctified from unrighteousness to holiness. Everyday you go to bed at night, give thanks to God who is at work to repair what we destroy and to restore what we have "improved." It is the singular truth of our time that the Church would have been a footnote in history if left to us alone. Thanks be to God she is not.

A faith worthy of praise. . .

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15A, preached on Sunday, August 20, 2023.

Our daily prayers are generally consumed with things that will not be remembered in eternity.  We pray for money because secretly we do believe that money is all that matters.  We pray for recognition because we all secretly lament that people do not really know how wonderful we are or what wonderful things we do – and they should.  We pray for healing because we secretly believe that really this is the only real life and the only life that really matters.  We pray for success because we secretly believe that failure can teach us nothing and is unworthy of us.  We pray for happiness because we secretly believe that happiness is the only way you know God loves your or the only reason God is worth having.  We pray for strength because secretly we wish we had the courage to really say what is on our minds or do the desires that live in our hearts.  We pray for God to explain Himself because secretly we think God owes us a reason for the bad that befalls us or why the good does not come.

What you will seldom find in our prayers is a prayer for faith – for the faith to endure to the end and finally be saved.  What you will seldom find in our prayers is a prayer for us to be holy as God is holy.  What you will seldom find in our prayers is a prayer for God to do what is right even when it is not what we want.  We are not alone.  It has been this way among God’s people for a very long time.  In fact, you will not find an abundance of people who are singled out for their faith in the Scriptures.  Our Lord Jesus does not dish out many compliments for the faith of those around Him and the few to whom He has said something are not the folks we expect.  Jesus does not single out the disciples for their faith.  Instead He says of the apostles “O you of little faith.”  So when we come to someone whose faith is called out by Jesus, we ought to pay attention.

There are two that stand out.  One is the centurion who comes to Jesus for the healing of his servant.  He is a soldier who lives by words that you can trust and by authority.  He comes to Jesus as the man of authority and as a man whose word will accomplish the purpose for which he says it.  His response to Jesus has become the familiar and ancient prayer of the faithful as they kneel before the altar.  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter but only say the word and my soul shall be made whole.”  This prayer Jesus lauds and insists He has not found such faith in Israel.  This man is a man of faith, not an Israelite from whom such faith could be expected but the surprising faith of a Gentile whom Jesus commends.

The other one whose faith is lauded is the Canaanite woman in the Gospel for today.  Jesus says of her, “Great is your faith!”  And she is the same woman whom He had called a dog only moments before.

We are conditioned by politeness to think this woman should have been offended by how Jesus treated her and what He said to her.  But this is not about her abuse at the hands of the disciples or of Jesus.  Our Lord is not rejecting her but urging on the faith He knows lives within her.  After all she comes not for herself but for her daughter who is oppressed by a demon.  In the back and forth of the words of this conversation, she displays a remarkable faith that Jesus uses to instruct the disciples then and you and me now.

The woman calls Jesus “Lord.”  She does not address Him as Rabbi or teacher as so many did.  Perhaps the reason why the disciples want to get rid of her is because it is obvious that this is a woman of faith, faith that has yet to be displayed in them. In any case, this unlikely character shows us those disciples and shows us what it means to believe.  She is not a theologian or even a student of the Word but she is a woman with faith.  That faith will not give up nor will it be sent packing by offensive words that call her a dog.  That faith persists when it appears God is not on your side and that faith trusts what is neither obvious nor clear.

Jesus says “I did not come for you.”  She swallows the rejection and comes back with the simplest and yet most profound of prayers, “Lord, help me.”  It is no longer about proving her case but simply about who Jesus is and for what purpose Jesus has come.  Jesus says she is not worthy of a seat at the children’s table nor of the bread that is for the children of God.  But she comes back by insisting that she does not want to take someone else’s place nor is she trying to take the bread that belongs to others.  She is content to be a dog in the Lord’s House and she is confident that the crumbs of mercy which fall from the Lord’s table are sufficient for all her needs.  When had the disciples ever prayed like this?

When have you ever prayed like that?  When have I?  Why do we not pray like this?  This praiseworthy faith acknowledges things that we find hard to admit or believe.  This person shows us that there is only one thing that is important and that is salvation.  Everything else comes and goes.  The occasion for her prayer was not an improvement in her daughter’s well being but freedom from the demon that would steal her daughter away eternally.  
The stakes of her cause were not a better life or a happier one or a richer one but the only life that matters – salvation.  For that she does not care about the seeming offense at being called a dog and she is not trying to compete with others for mercy which should not be hers.  She has absolute confidence in the Lord Jesus and she believes that the crumbs of His mercy were sufficient to give her and her daughter the only life that matters – eternal life.

That is the problem.  Most of us are not convinced that the only life that matters is eternal life.  It shows not only in the prayers we pray for ourselves but the prayers we pray for our children.  We are more interested in them getting ahead in this life than in possessing eternal life by faith.  We are more interested in them finding happiness than the perfect fulfillment of everlasting life.  We are more interested in the quality of this life in them and in us than we are enduring in faith to the end and being saved.  The reason why church seems irrelevant or boring or we give up trying to force our kids to go to church is that secretly we are not convinced eternal life is worth the battle or worth giving up anything in this present life that we want to do.  The reason why we find vulgarity amusing and violence entertaining is because we secretly do believe that a little bit of evil is not so bad.  

The Lord knows this and loves us still.  The exemplary faith of the centurion and this Canaanite woman are not lauded because they are the only ones who will be saved but to help us realize what great mercy is ours in Christ.  We are not left to be dogs but made children by baptism.  We are not refused by the Lord but welcomed as His own sons and daughters.  We are not given mere crumbs of His mercy but a place at the table and the food of everlasting life right here.  Let us learn from such great faith to rejoice in what we have been given and to pray ever more earnestly for the only thing that matters – our salvation.  That is the prayer that God always answers just as we pray Him to – and such a prayer that defines our lives is the mark of a truly great faith.  Pray the Lord to make it so in us today.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Hunger. . .

As I have said many times on these pages, I grew up when Holy Communion was typically offered four times a year and communicants often did not commune every time it was offered.  It was a Word alone piety that betrayed our Lutheran identity.  Of course, the faithful had a high regard for the Holy Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood but not much hunger for it.  They honored the Sacrament with great reverence and esteem but they did not see the Sacrament as essential or even vital to their piety.  Wherever this came from, it did not come from Luther or the Confessions.

Perhaps they esteemed the Sacrament too highly.  Perhaps there was too much made of the idea of being worthy to receive it until it became something almost unapproachable except for the rarest of occasions.  In this regard, perhaps Lutherans were not so far from medieval Roman Catholic practice as they thought.  Again, I am not sure this has much of anything to do with Luther or the Confessions.  Luther insists that worthiness is defined not by outward righteousness but faith, not by behavior that conforms to the Law but repentance and trust in Christ our Savior.  That is, perhaps, a thought for another day.

My thoughts today go to hunger.  Though we have the Sacrament much more frequently today (more parishes are offering it weekly than have ever been in the US anyway), are we hungry for what Christ offers and we receive there?  Do we commune with less preparation and reverence than the past but with the same lack of hunger as did our ancestors to whom the Sacrament was offered but occasionally?  It is the hunger that concerns me.  

It is an amazing thing to consider that our gracious God was not content only to give us His only Son once for all, willing Him to take flesh in the womb of the Virgin, to live in perfect obedience to His will, to suffer and die for us on the Cross, and to be raised that we too might live eternally.  No, this was not enough.  Our gracious God willed that His beloved Son might remain with us forever -- and not in the imagination of our minds or the feelings of our hearts but in the concrete of the Eucharist.  God has perpetuated the real presence of Christ and made the fruits of His one all sufficient sacrifice present and accessible to us in the Eucharist.  He does not simply offer it but bids us come and eat, come and drink, for the forgiveness of our sins, for the assurance of our presence within the Body of Christ, the Church, and for the pledge of eternal life.  Are we hungry for this presence, for the fruits of His redeeming work to be adored in the elevation and tasted upon our lips in the communion?

It seems that we might be too comfortable with the idea that Jesus is not with us unless we call upon Him and that His presence in prayer is primary over the efficacious Word and the Sacrament that offers what it signs.  Are we so comfortable with the idea that our Lord is now only in heaven at the right hand of the Father, having departed from us in His Ascension that we either enjoy or have reconciled ourselves to this distance?  The Eucharist makes the presence of Jesus with us both a real one and a permanent one -- at least until He no longer dwells with us and we will dwell with Him.  Where is the hunger for this presence?  Surely the casual way we dress for worship and approach what happens in worship betrays the lack of this hunger and the presumption that Christ depends upon us to invoke Him and that when we do it is primarily a presence in mind and heart and not in bread and wine.

At the behest of His Father on high, Jesus gives himself to us in the Eucharist as the true spiritual and essential nourishment of our redeemed souls and body. Having traversed the great divide between us through the bridge of His obedient life and life-giving death, our Lord desires to abide with us and we with Him now, in the Eucharist, and then in eternal life at the heavenly feast He has promised -- without end.  By eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we become united to the person of Christ through his humanity. "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (Jn 6:56).  In this communion we participate in and fellowship in Christ (I Corinthians 10:16-17).  The fruit of the Spirit is surely hunger for what God offers and Christ bestows and where this hunger is lacking, something is askew.  We hunger and thirst for the things of God not because we have reasoned our way or felt our way into this but because the Spirit is at work in us building into us such hunger and thirst -- to abide in Christ and to abide in Christ as Christ has made possible in the Eucharist.  It is this hunger that we need to work on both as pastors who preach and teach and people who hear and receive.

Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior

1    Thee we adore, O hidden Savior, Thee,
Who in Thy Sacrament art pleased to be;
Both flesh and spirit in Thy presence fail,
Yet here Thy presence we devoutly hail.

2    In this memorial of Thy death, O Lord,
Thou dost Thy body and Thy blood afford:
Oh, may our souls forever feed on Thee,
And Thou, O Christ, forever precious be.

3    Thou, like the pelican to feed her brood,
Didst pierce Thyself to give us living food;
Thy blood, O Lord, one drop has pow’r to win
Forgiveness for our world and all its sin.

4    Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God:
Cleanse us, unclean, with Thy most cleansing blood;
Increase our faith and love, that we may know
The hope and peace which from Thy presence flow.

5    O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see,
May what we thirst for soon our portion be:
To gaze on Thee unveiled and see Thy face,
The vision of Thy glory, and Thy grace.  Amen.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Neither compel nor forbid. . .

The Supremes have ruled that just as the government cannot forbid religious conviction and speech, neither can it compel any kind of speech which would violate this religious freedom.  This is not a new nor a novel idea but one with a strong though not universally appreciated history.  For Americans, it had its most profound moment when the Court found that even the Pledge of Allegiance could not be compelled of those who found this in conflict with their religious conviction.  In our age of taking the knee at the National Anthem, this may not seem such a big deal but it was and is.  But for Christians it is one more important milestone in a history of resistance against compelled speech.

When the Christians were facing threat, persecution, and death over the simple issue of a perfunctory nod to the Roman caesar as a deity or an occasional snack at the pagan pulled pork suppers, they did not see this as a casual matter.  They refused such indulgence at great peril to their lives and families.  It was not simply about being allowed to worship God but about being exempt from the compelled religious acts of a government which had mixed up citizenship and religion.  In America, it has long be lauded that the non-religious were exempt from religion.  You can hold to any or no belief without peril to your standing before the law or in the marketplace.  Christians who want to turn America into a Christian nation have long been stifled in their pursuit of a righteous society by this protection.

Now, however, the same people who love to hide behind this curtain of protection have decided that Christians are not quite as worthy of the same.  Instead of religious speech, what is being compelled of Christians is agreement or accommodation with the rainbow of sexual desires and felt genders and the appropriate pronouns that go along with them.  For the Court to say no is not a small nor a perfunctory matter but goes to the heart and core of the religious protections we seek and we need.  Were it not for the makeup of the current court, it could have turned out very differently.  While no Court can prevent the subtle and even overt pressure from media and the woke to intimidate Christians into compliance, the Court has placed the protection of the Constitution over Christians before the Law.  

We must pay attention to this.  For the battles before us will not only be fought on the basis of the protection of our right to speak but also our right to remain silent while the society around us adopts positions that violate what God says and we are bound as Christians to confess without diluting or diminishing its truth.  It may never be that we are forbidden to believe or practice the faith within certain bounds, but it is highly likely that the legalists will try to use the force of law to compel us to get in line with their positions on sex, gender, marriage, family, and a host of other issues in the lens of the woke movement. 

Friday, August 18, 2023

Push back. . .

According to a Religious News Service report, the U.S. Department of Education has accepted Baylor University’s request for exemption from Title IX’s sexual harassment provision after the private Baptist school asked to dismiss discrimination complaints filed by LGBTQ+ students that the university said were “inconsistent” with the institution’s religious values.  

“For the first time in Title IX’s history, a federally-funded university has been given special permission, by the Biden Administration no less, to allow its LGBTQIA+ students to be sexually harassed,” wrote Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, in a statement.  In 2021, the nonprofit filed a Title IX complaint on behalf of former student Veronica Bonifacio Penales, in which she accused the university of tolerating sexual harassment after the school failed to address the "homophobic slurs" she claims to have received from other students on campus and social media.

Religious universities have been under increasing pressure to compromise their religious beliefs in the wake of evolving positions in culture that have become the standards adopted by the rules of accrediting agencies and government regulations such as Title IX dispositions.  Through this request, the private Christian university obtained the guarantee “that the belief in or practice of its religious tenets by the University or its students would not constitute unwelcome conduct,” as it is characterized in Title IX’s definition of sexual harassment. 

This is important news as our own Synod wrestles with the rules of the government (state and federal) as well as the requirement of accreditation agencies that put stress upon our religious convictions and our identity as a church body operating colleges and universities in a way that is consistent with our faith.  Some will pit this as one freedom against another but the reality is that the religious schools are not the exclusive providers of college and university educations but do so as agencies, indeed, missions of their sponsoring church bodies.  There will certainly be more to come but this stands as a reminder that we can push back against those who insist the religious right is secondary to the rights of the students.  Baylor is no small player in this arena and should give pause to those boards of regents and administrators who are ready to capitulate in order to survive.  The end has not yet been written for our schools and we are not without recourse as the government and accreditation agencies seek to promote their rules and regulations against what we believe, teach, and confess based on God's Word.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Who is primitive. . .

Before they were organized into a systematic theology, natural theology or natural law provided a common basis for truth and life.  There was a time when the mark of civilization was order, an order provided in no small way by the common truth and common morality that defined far more than right and wrong.  It was the basis of their common life and it transcended culture and even religion.  Sure, there were nuances of difference but, by and large, the things shared were far more significant and abundant.  Though we categorize the ancients as primitive, it might be the judges who have become primitive.

There was a time when being male and female, when fact and truth, when order and morality were largely unquestioned -- even when they were uncomfortable.  We just assumed these rules.  We did not vote on them or approve of them -- they simply were.  Now, under the guise of progress, we live in a time when there are no rules and even no definitions.  We cannot even define the basic binary shape of humanity as once was ordinary and routine.  What is a woman?  What is a man?  We cannot even agree on what is fact and truth.  Facts are felt rather than heard or read or told.  Truth is in the eye of the beholder -- and only the beholder.  Truth is one person wide and one person deep unless others choose to hold the same thing.  There is no such thing anymore as objective truth that orders all -- we get to decide what will order us.  I guess politically that is what happens when you win votes.  Order was once a given -- boys were to become men who became husbands and fathers and girls were to become women who became wives and mothers.  The job of the parents and homes, indeed all of the institutions of society, were to prepare them for these roles.  Everything revolved around this primary order.  Not today.  Everything, including gender, has become a choice and optional.  Like gender and sexual desire, marriage and family have become mere options on a plane of other equally valid and right options.

The mark of progress was once order -- order that was just but order that preserved the sacred shape of our common life.  The lack of this shape or order calls into question our progress.  It could be said that we have regressed.  We have become primitive for whom nothing is sacred or ordered unless we feel it or choose it to be.  This is a war not simply against the family or marriage but against humanity and, therefore, against the God who made us in His image and for His pleasure.  It is a war against God and religion.  It arouses the most primitive parts of our selves -- self-pleasure, sexual desire, and selfish choice.  These have become the currency of our advancement but in reality are the signs of our decay and our death.  In South Korea, there is not only a war against marriage and children (birth rate .78 children per fertile female) but there is an order which routinely discriminates against men and those over 40 or so -- in addition to children.  The child free, men free, old free zones of South Korea are the logical outcome of what is now unfolding among us.  Even Europe is not so sure that this is wise or salutary for humanity but in America we have boldly gone where our ancestors (meaning every society and person up to the last generation) refused to go.  It is now progress or liberality but regress and the fascism of the individual and the individual's desires and wants.  The joke is not so funny.  We are the neanderthals of today.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Problems of the professional class. . .

One of the terms I despise is the professional church worker.  It is a terrible way to describe a pastor or teacher or one of the other names invented to designate a church worker.  In fact, I lament the whole idea of a profession who is a professional when it comes to the Church.  Maybe the term once had a salutary meaning but it has become symptomatic of what has gone wrong among us and the way we unwittingly were complicit in what has happened to church, school, and the faith itself.

The rise of the professional class came with all the perks -- a wonderful MDiv degree from an accredited school with an office to go along with the office.  But the soft underbelly of it all was the role all of this played in undermining the parental responsibility of raising their children in the faith and the role of the home in forming children of faith.  The professionals always know better than the amateurs and at some point along the way, parents were amateur catechists and the church workers were the professionals and the result has not been great.

We borrowed the Sunday school from American Protestantism and forgot that it was created not for the children of Christian parents but for those who had no family and home to raise them up in the faith.  The Sunday school became the excuse for and the reason why parents did not have to teach their children the great stories of the Bible so that they might know the one story of that Scripture.  It was not meant to displace the home but it did.  The Sunday school became the education hour in the Church and it did not take parents long to figure out that they did not have to do it if the professionals in the parish had it under control.

We used the parochial school to further centralize the education of Christian children.  It was the successful model of the dynamic congregation.  Professional teachers taught our children everything and the presumption was that faith was formed in the classroom simply because these were church professionals doing the teaching.  Where there was a school, the congregation ended up with two separate and distinct classes of catechumens.  The lucky ones had the school to teach them the faith and so they did not need the remedial instruction given to those who did not attend the parish school.  The unlucky ones who did not attend the school were still taught by a professional class.  The parents trusted the Church to know what to do and how best to do it and their role in forming the faith of their children was farmed out to professionals -- either in the parochial school or in the catechism classes on Wednesday nights.

We learned in the Church to teach the children and placate the parents.  Their meaningful work in all of this was to chauffeur their kids to the school or catechism class or Sunday school and pick them up at the end and, well, of course to pay for it all.  We should have been at least as concerned about teaching the parents as their children but we were not.  In either case, education in the Church was more about imparting content than forming faith.  In the classrooms of the parish school and in the catechism classes in the evening or on Saturday morning, it was about learning the stuff -- memorizing or even perhaps understanding and applying the stuff but was it really about growing in the faith?  I wish I could say it was.  Now, I am not at all knocking knowing the content but growing the faith is not simply imparting knowledge.  Memorizing the catechism is vitally important but if you cannot pray those words what good is the rote knowledge of the text itself?  It is no wonder that people presumed (both parents and children) that you graduated from Church at some point, put on a gown and got a party to let the world know you passed.  But what did that have to do with the continual, lifelong growth in faith and life?  Not as much as we want to believe.

We imparted information and worked to make sure that the people of God understood it as much as they could but we did not quite grow their faith.  That surely was revealed in the vast numbers of parents who dropped out after their children were confirmed and the vast numbers of children whose last communion was their first communion.  We did not impart a Christian worldview and we did not help them see their place within that worldview with God as their center.  We left them with neat, convenient, but false divide of sacred and secular and with the idea that faith was more a feeling than a living trust.  We left them on their own to pray and when they stopped that also meant their children never learned.  We did not have the God conversations that should erupt in daily life as we live in but not of the world, children of God whose home is heaven but whose lives are lived out in the here and now.  

I think the newest catechism put out by our Synod is well meaning but too much.  How much knowledge do you need to receive the Sacrament?  Is this knowledge better obtained by instruction and tests and such or is it best imparted within the framework of family prayer, devotions, hymn singing, and Bible reading?  For my part, I would suggest that no kid instructed in the classroom about the Lord's Supper is as well prepared as the one who has the benefit of a faith lived out within their eyes and ears in the home.  It cannot simply be solved by earlier communion or more comprehensive catechesis by the professionals.  The home cannot and should never have been bypassed or made to be secondary in the process of forming the faith of the child.  That is the chief problem and poisoned fruit of our professional class of church workers who see their professional work mostly as content.  

Youth groups and entertainment became the means of keeping the kids in the Church but did they keep them in the faith?  We spent hours trying to convince them not to have sex before marriage but did not teach them the godly order and shape of this union.  We spent our energy on trying to keep them off drugs and in school so they could live the American dream but I do not think we spent enough energy building up the parents and encouraging them in their roles as teachers of the faith so that they might share eternal life with their children and their children with them.  They did not want to hear us telling them what to do because they had learned too well from us that what was right in their own eyes was surely right before God, if they were even concerned about God.  It is not that anyone was bad but we corrupted a system God had created and now that the liberals and government has learned so well from us, they are using the same system to steal the hearts and minds of our children from the faith and we have given neither parents nor children any reason not to believe them.

I am not a professional pastor.  I am still an amateur -- and one so old that I have little time left to do better.  If I could, I would have spent less time teaching the children and more time teaching the parents.  I would have worked harder to strengthen the devotional center of the home and less time trying to make up for the things I thought the parents had skipped or overlooked or forgotten.  I would spent more time on Luther's words in the catechism and less time on the expanded questions and answers and their proof texts.  I would teach the parents and their children how to pray the catechism as well as learn it.  I would encourage hymn singing in the home and Bible reading together and an ordered prayer life.  I would have required the hymnal as well as the Scriptures to be the essential books in the hands of parents and children alike.  I would have ditched the Sunday school, Vacation Bible school, and catechism classes and started up the catechetical services where both parents and children heard the Word of God together, listened together as they were instructed in the doctrines of the faith, and stopped worrying so much about what the knew and spent more time on what they believed.  My time may be short but yours is probably not.   Learn these lessons sooner than I did.  God bless you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Her falling alseep day. . .

It was a quip.  It was meant as a joke -- well, sort of.  "If the Lord really valued Mary, He would have made her an Apostle!"  People laughed.  But why?

The Blessed Virgin is in no confusion about this.  As the Magnificat sings she sees the privilege of Theotokos (Mother of God) as deep and profound grace for which she is completely unworthy.  But we are no longer so sure.  Motherhood is not the virtuous choice it once was.  Neither is betrothal.  Neither is virginity.  In fact, our age considers children pretty much burdens (at worst) and a choice (at best).  Hardly gifts from God that would make us desire a quiver full of them, eh?!

What do we call those who serve us as maids, cooks, housekeepers, etc...?  Domestics.  It is a term largely of derision today.  It expects that those on the lowest ladder of immigrant status (legal or illegal) will take up these jobs (they are, in our modern parlance, almost unworthy of being called vocations).  Furthermore, we will pay them no more than minimum wage and an occasional buck in tip here and there.

The Blessed Virgin is delighted to be a domestic, to serve as mother to the Son of God, wife of Joseph, and the example of servant love for her family.  That is both why she is so confusing to us as well as so virtuous.  We are modern people.  We live in a modern world.  Women can do so much more.... More than give birth to and mother the Son of the Most High God????  Many Christians would not hesitate to say "of course."  And therein lies our confusion on this Day of Blessed Mary, Mother of our Lord.  If we would honor her, we must honor her vocation as mother, woman of the house, and wife of her husband.  All of this was her vocation for which she was delighted and in which she found God's mercy and grace.

The West (at least in Rome) has decided she was unworthy of death and so preserved from decay (like Enoch and Elijah).  She was assumed.  The East may have opinions about this but calls this her Dormition (her falling asleep day).  We Lutherans are so skittish about the Blessed Virgin that it is the most we can stomach to call her Mary, Mother of our Lord.  Mary, Virgin Mother and whom the generations shall forever call Blessed, is honored (and rightly so) for her faith, her faithfulness, her consent to the Lord's will, her delight in that will, and her stalwart devotion to the Son who was born also her Savior.

The more we denigrate the noble vocation of mother and the more we find marriage an unnecessary option, the harder it will be for us to know what to do with this woman.  Honored by the Lord with the blessed vocation as mother of His Son, she is revered above all other saints.  Yet some still grouse that such is not honor enough.  Better it would be to have been named an apostle or a bishop or a priest.  What foolishness!  Truth to be told, if any man is worth his salt he is quietly jealous of Mary, blessed Virgin.  For she was given what none other has been.  It is her great humility in seeing this honor for what it was and for trusting in the Word of the Lord when it all seemed completely impossible that makes her the mother of all the faithful.  For in consenting to and in becoming the Mother of our Lord, she has become the mother of all Christians.  May we learn to honor her vocation, to delight in her faith, and to follow her as she followed Christ.

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded: the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
 

 

 

Monday, August 14, 2023

Lord, I am drowning. . .


Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, preached on Sunday, August 13, 2023.

It is the common complaint.  Though it may not be in water, we find ourselves drowning in a thousand things.  We live with disappointments that consume us and poison our relationships.  We live with anger that spurns resentment and fills us with bitterness.  We live with fears that steal away our peace.  We live with anxiety that undermines our confidence and courage.  We live with suspicion that turns everything into a personal threat.  We live with a digital reality that promises everything but delivers little of its promise.  We are drowning.  We are suffocating.  We are dying.  And then some Pastor is going to tell you to keep your eyes on Jesus and it will all go away.  We are drowning precisely because the things we thought would help, failed us.  And now we wonder what Jesus can do.

The Gospel for today is often summarized to “keep your eyes on Jesus and you will be okay.”  It is not quite that simple.  When Peter stepped out on the water to walk to Jesus, the water did not turn to stone.  It remained water.  Worse than that, it remained stormy water, stirred up by wind and storm, and filled with threat.  Jesus did not ask Peter to trade the uncertain waters of the storm for the safety of the harbor or shore.  Instead He called Peter to put His trust in what He could not see and would not know until He stepped out of the boat.  The miracle was not that Peter looked down and succumbed to his fear.  That was expected.  It happens to all of us every day.  The miracle was that as long as Peter focused his faith and trust in Jesus, he actually stood in the midst of the storm.

Our great temptation is to believe that the only way we can stand is if the storm goes away.  So we pray the Lord to take the storms of our lives away, to calm the troubled waters of our days, and to take away the turmoil in our hearts.  How often do we pray the Lord to stand in the midst of the storms, to stand in the troubled waters of our daily lives, and to stand even when our hearts are filled with turmoil and upset?  It is great when the storms go away but we all know that as soon as one storm passes, another one will come along.  We see that in the weather.  Take along an umbrella.  Take a coat just in case.  We live with the unpredictable every time we look to the skies but when it comes to our lives, we want the unpredictable to go away and we want a predictable peace.  

That would be great but the reality is that it is not going to happen.  We live in a sinful world out there and with sinful hearts in here.  Our peace is daily threatened.  The devil roars about like a lion seeking whom he may devour.  He is no toothless lion but a real threat.  The world is not some passive or neutral place but is set against the things of God and the people of God.  It is not simply that there is evil out there.  It is that the good things in this world can prove as harmful to us as the bad.  When the good deceives us so that we are satisfied with it and yearn for nothing more, the good has stolen our souls just like the evil can.  The people in our lives are not good at heart with a thin veneer of sin but, like us, sinful and unclean.  Our great expectations of others are traps and threats as well.           

Nothing is as much a threat to our peace as our own hearts.  St. Paul said best.  The good that we would, we do not an the sin that we would not, we do over and over again.  Our desires infect our thoughts and poison our words and consume our minds until even the Christian can feel like he or she is drowning.  We go to church and we read our Bibles and we pray but we still feel the storm around us and the churning waves under us.  All we want is for it to go away – if not forever then just long enough so that we can breathe and rest.

Jesus does not offer us such a respite.  He does not say your enemies will disappear or the storms of life inside or outside of you will cease or that the ground on which you walk will become solid and sure.  What He does promise is that none of these has claim on you like He has claim on you.  They can threaten but He will hold on to you.  They can distract you but He will not hide Himself from you.  They can stir up your feelings until you do not know which way is up or which is down but He always knows and He has hold of you.  Strangely, we are always glancing away, wondering if the storm is gone so that we can let go of Jesus.  But the storms remain so that we might never let go of Him who will never let go of us.

Peter could see Jesus.  The Lord was right in front of him.  The same Lord who told him to get out of the boat and walk to Him was right there before Peter’s eyes. It is not that the Lord abandons us to even is distant from us.  He is right here.  In His Word He still speaks.  In baptismal water He still raised the dead.  In absolution He still sets prisoners free.  In the Eucharist He still feeds the hungry.  He heals us with His grace now in the moment and to everlasting life.  Peter did not see Jesus because the only things Peter allowed into his heart and mind were his fears, his anxiety, his disappointment, his disillusionment, his sorrow, and his weakness.  Jesus did not let Peter down.  Peter never gave Jesus a chance.  Peter was too busy looking for calm so that he would not need Jesus - until the next time.

Scripture is blunt, perhaps too blunt.  The Good Shepherd sets His table in the presence of our enemies – not in some utopian place hidden from our enemies.  The Lord of the cross who paid once for all for our sin calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.  Jesus warns that in this life you will have sorrow and pain before the perfect release of eternal life steals them away.  Jesus insists that we will be persecuted but insists this is not a sign we have been abandoned but the mark of those in whom Christ lives and who live in Him.

This is the promise.  The storms are around you, the surging waves are beneath you, but Christ is in you.  This is your focus.  This is your faith.  This is your hope. This is your courage.  The same Lord who endured suffering that the price of your sin might be paid and who died the death for sin that you might be free and who rose so that you might know you have a life death cannot overcome is in you.  By His Spirit, your cold dead hearts have been given new life from above.                   

Peter looked down and saw that the threats were still there and he could not look back upon Jesus.  You are always looking down and around at the things that are not right, not as they should be, and not as you hope they were – whether in you or in the world around you or even in the Church.  Because of that you cannot turn away from your disappointment and see that Jesus is still here, with you always, even to the end of the age, bestowing the fruits of His redeeming work upon you.  You are never worthy of such grace but it is His joy to bestow upon what you could never earn or merit.  Look to Him.  Look for Him where He has promised to be.  Look at Him when life out there and life in here threatens.  He is your rescue, your redemption, you savior, your salvation, your life, and your peace.