Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Living with a mess. . .

One of the common fruits of the Reformation is the acknowledgment that the Church was a mess, is a mess, but should not be a mess.  There were heady days at the beginning of the Reformation thinking that this was at last a chance to cleanse and restore the new car shine to the Church which had suffered much through the ages.  Whether in Wittenberg or Zurich or Rome, there was a heart felt desire to clean up the Church's errors, faults, failings, and failures.  Would that it could be so!  We have learned hard lessons since then.  One of those hard lessons is that the Reformers created their own set of problems and that Rome seems to be stuck reforming her own reforms.  A cynic might suggest that we are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  

I will agree the Church is a mess.  Evangelicalism seems to have turned religion into an amusing self-help exercise with a pop soundtrack.  Protestantism seems to have turned the faith into a piece of clay to be molded by every generation into their own golden calf of self-interest and self-awareness.  Rome seems to have developed a schizophrenia in which one personality is Novus and the other Vetus but it has to do with a great deal more than mere form of the liturgy.  Anglicanism has put the best ceremonial and vestments on the way you would put lipstick on a pig and call it beautiful.  Lutheranism has beaten the drum of all its sacred mottoes and slogans so long that most Lutherans are not even sure what they mean anymore (justification by grace, Law and Gospel, Word and Sacraments, means of grace, etc.).

Let me add my two cents worth.  I say give up cleaning up the mess.  It is not your Church but the Lord's.  It is not your mess but His.  Instead, concentrate your efforts on not adding to the mess or making it worse.  If you would do that, you would help the Lord mightily.  The Church does not need a savior; she has one already and far better than any of us would or could do.  Instead of trying to do Christ's work for Him or treating the Church as your own possession to do with as you please, why not do something novel -- why not concentrate on not adding anything to the mess.

The evangelical brand names have either imploded or abandoned the faith -- everyone from the Hillsong crowd to Saddleback has decided that the church needs to be remade in the image of man and the results are not pretty.  The Protestants have money but no people and certainly no kids so they keep putting the rainbow on everything and presuming this is God's work and the cross was but a footnote in history.  Pope Francis has succeeded in cementing the divisions that were once informal and being the most authoritarian man of the people anyone could ever imagine.  Anglicans have kept the pomp but they have forgotten what it stands for and blame the Africans for raining on their parade by paying any real attention to what Scripture says.  Lutherans seem to relish their Reformation history but most of them are embarrassed by how conservative and catholic it was and some of the others presume the Reformation began with a guy named Walther whom they really do not know well.

Things are bad but they would not have been so bad if everyone had decided not to make a worse mess of things.  Honestly, that is my only goal.  It ought to be the goal of every pastor and every person in the pew.  Go to church every Sunday.  Read the Scriptures.  Stop trying to figure God out and simply listen to His Word and believe it.  Pray.  Go to confession at least quarterly.  Volunteer to do at least one thing to help your congregation and do it faithfully.  Give generously and stop worrying about how your hard earned dollars are being spent.  Stop settling for finding a likely suspect to blame for the mess.  Stop using the mess as your excuse for not worshiping or giving or serving.  Love your Lord and your neighbor in His name.  Do it where you are at toward the people around you now.  At the end of the day, rest your sins upon Jesus and in the gift of a clear conscience sleep the night away knowing the Lord is on duty and His angels watch with Him.  Wake up in the morning to do it all over again.  It is really not rocket science.  It takes a willing spirit (under the Holy Spirit's guidance) and depends upon a forgiving God.  That's all.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Singing our way into unbelief. . .

The loss of hymnal and hymnody is not something minor.  It is a profound loss.  One where the repercussions are already being felt but which will come back to haunt us in the next generations as we forget our soundtrack in favor of generic, contemporary Christian music or a purely secular one.  I have been at any number of Christian, even Lutheran, events when it was spontaneously announced to sing a common hymn only to find that the assembly of Christians (and Lutherans) could not even recall the full words of the first stanza.  And the hymns we were asked to sing were as blandly Protestant as Amazing Grace or Lutheran as A Mighty Fortress.

This is not simply a loss in progress but a loss already felt among the faithful.  Even Pastors do not know or memorize hymns to the point where they are not dependent upon the hymnalSure, I will admit that a few of the wording changes going from TLH to LW to LSB cause we to stutter once in a while but the kernel of hymns that has been our core identity through all three hymnals remains solidly in my memory.  Growing up singing I Come, O Savior, to Thy Table all the way through and then repeated if necessary due to many communicants means I can even make my way through the many stanzas of that long hymn.  I do not say this out of pride.  My memory of these hymns was not created purely by intent but simply by the repeated singing of those hymns 3-5 times a week in the Divine Services and evening services of the regular Church Year (plus funerals).  Participation provides its own fruits with the learning of what you sing until it becomes a part of you.

We give out a hymnal to our confirmands, along with their Catechism and Bible.  These are the essential library of books that every Christian and every home is not to be without.  Sadly, the Catechism seems to be optional (I routinely purchase Small Catechisms at used book sites so that I have plenty to give out to prospective members and most of them look as if they have never been opened!).  The hymnal is largely missing in the mix either because we no longer have that playlist in our hearts or that we grew up in one of those congregations without hymnals (either projected on the screen or only contemporary Christian music was used).  This is a detriment to the faith.  Our Lutheran hymns are treasures not simply of devotional character but as teachers of the faith and of the doctrine we say we confess.  It is a package deal -- Bible, Catechism, and Hymnal.  They work hand in hand to make sure the faith we say we confess is believed, confessed, and taught among us.

After reading these on another blog, I decided to give testimony here.  Listen to these words from A. W. Tozer, hardly a Lutheran, but still fully aware of how what we sing connects with what we believe.  Though he might not agree with what hymns we sing, he knows what Luther and the Reformers knew and we used to practice:

The hymnal connects us with our Christian heritage, a legacy that should not be denied to this generation of Christians.

"My heart aches to see [the Christian hymnal] increasingly being neglected by congregations. The Christian hymnal is one of the great depositories of the Christian life and experiences…. Pushing the hymnal aside… is to forfeit one of the great spiritual treasures of the Christian church."


"Show me the condition of your Bible and your hymnal and I will accurately predict the condition of your soul. Our souls need to be nurtured and cultivated, and nothing does that better than the Christian hymnal. Hardly a morning passes when I don’t kneel down with an open Bible and a hymnal and sing comfortably off-key the great hymns of the church…. I often counsel young Christians after they have their Bible and their Bible reading established, to get a hymnal."

An eternal Gospel to make an eternal people. . .


Sermon for Reformation Day (Observed), preached on Sunday, October 29, 2023.

The first reading from Revelation was thought by some to be a prophetic reference to Martin Luther.  They said that Luther was the “ angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth.”  It sounds good but I am not convinced that Scripture prophesied Martin Luther.  That is how this little text got appointed for Reformation but the text itself is an important one for a Reformation Church to consider as honor the events of 500 years ago while confronting the challenges to the faith in our own age.

The first point is that this is an eternal Gospel.  The Word of Christ crucified and risen and of the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life that are the fruits of His redeeming work are not a subject for another time but for all time.  It is to say that there is no Gospel except the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  While that was important in the 1500s, it is even more important for the 2020s.  The challenges those youth confirmed and the rest of us face are not small or insignificant but go to the core of what the Gospel is.  The threat against us is not from the alphabet soup of gender and sexual desire or the wokism and its focus on race, justice, and ecology but the confusion of self-fulfillment with the Gospel.

We live at a time when Christian people have come to proclaim self-fulfillment as the replacement for the cross and empty tomb.  The radical nature of this threat is that it presumes what we think is good for us is okay or good for God.  That is how the trouble began and it cannot end the reign of sin and death that flowed from a moment of self-expression and self-fulfillment in Eden.  We do not need a God to tell us how to get in touch with or better express what we feel inside.  We need a God to do just the opposite – a God to end the reign of terror that our feelings imposed upon us and the death caused by choosing self-expression over God.

The Gospel, the true Gospel, is eternal.  This Gospel does not have its source in us but in God alone.  It is the Gospel spoken first to the destruction sin brought upon man and Eden, turning us into enemies of God and of each other.  In Genesis 3:15 the Lord first spoke the promise of one to crush the head of Satan and deal the death blow to death itself.  The promise was kept alive through the prophets until the day God had appointed for His one and only Son to be incarnate in the womb of Mary the Virgin and to be born in flesh as the Savior of all.  Though God’s ways and timing are often hidden, the prophets revealed God’s plan long ago.

The evening into which Christ was born was filled with self-important people intent upon self-awareness and self-expression.  They were so caught up in the status quo that they did not even recognize what God was doing until some Gentile Wise Men showed up asking where the Messiah was to be born.  Now we are threatened by the same ignorance and the same darkness by making the Gospel captive to us and to our whims.  The Gospel of Christ crucified and risen is the only eternal word that has the power to rescue a people condemned to death.  It is the only power to rescue sinners from their sins and give them the new birth of water and the Word.  It is the only future possible to a people caught in time but born to eternity and fed here and now the foretaste of the eternal.

We don’t need more opportunities to explore our desires or look inside ourselves for feelings.  We don’t need to be brought to a higher level of self-awareness.  We need a Savior who can set free a people captive to sin and its death once for all.  We need an eternal Gospel to set free a people imprisoned to death, whose future is ashes to ashes and dust to dust unless God intervenes.  We need an eternal Gospel to raise a temporal and mortal people from death to everlasting life – to make us an eternal people by connecting us to Christ’s death and resurrection.  That is the Gospel Luther contended for against radical Protestants on one side and Rome on the other.  His goal was never a new church but a renewed Church, raised from sin’s death with the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen for you and for me.  If all his legacy can be reduced to a moment in time or an address for a church head-quarters, then we too traded the eternal for a moment, betraying the Reformation.

But, if it is an eternal Gospel for which we contend, then we might just live up to Luther’s example.  If we are battling for the one true and everlasting Gospel in our own age of change and decay, then we just might have something to offer a dead and dying world around us – some thing to raise them from death, restore them through forgiveness, and reform them to be the people God has called them to be.  We will have to decide.  Will the Church end up being a delayed echo of the world or the sound of the trumpet signaling God’s new creation?  What Church are we?

The youth confirmed today are being asked to step out and step up, to confess not a word in time but the eternal Gospel.  They are not alone.  Those who went before them and we who witness their confession are being asked to do the same thing.  To step out and step up.  Our cause is not to slow down the wokism of our age or preserve the dying institutions of this world.  Our cause is much larger and greater.

We who confess Jesus Christ are standing with the apostles and evangelists, the  patriarchs and prophets, the missionaries and martyrs who pledged their fealty not to an idea but a flesh and blood Savior, not to the hope of their fulfillment but to the fulfillment of God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth, not to a freedom which gives permission to be what they want to be but the power to become the children of God.  

Typically we set our sights too low.  We would be content with a better life but God is determined to give us a new and everlasting life.  We would be content to feel good and feel better about ourselves and the things around us but God is determined to make us uncomfortable enough with this world that we will yearn for the world to come and dissatisfied enough with our progress in righteousness that we will trust only in Christ’s righteousness.  We would be content with a moment of happiness but God is determined to give us more than we deserve or dare to dream.  

When we contend for the one true catholic and apostolic faith, we are holding onto the one and true eternal Gospel and insisting that only this Gospel proclaimed to the nations can rescue the captive, forgive the sinner, and redeem the dead from the grave.  Though we might think that Reformation Day is about being Lutheran, it is really about the one eternal Gospel that can give light, hope, and life to a world in darkness and death.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Biblical worldview. . .

You must live under a rock if you are a Christian and have never heard of pollster and researcher George Barna.  His group literally surveys just about every aspect of Christianity today.  It is both fascinating and scary.  Now Barna is saying that less than 2% of parents with children under the age of 13 have a “biblical worldview,” at least according to his new book Raising Spiritual Champions: Nurturing Your Child’s Heart, Mind and Soul.   The overwhelming number of parents reporting a “hodge-podge mixture of competing and often conflicting worldviews.” 

Barna defines “biblical worldview” as “believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.”

In particular, Barna's concern is for "uncommitted church-going Christian parents" who have no plans or will to catechize their children.  For Barna, this will (if it not already has) result in a “catastrophic decline in biblical worldview in America.”  Why worry?  A Biblical worldview is the foundation on which such things as marriage, family, children, and society exist for the Christian.  Furthermore, it is impossible to hold to Scripture's teaching without such a worldview shaped by that teaching.  It is like a theoretical Christianity which does not affect daily life at all.  The Christians become invisible to the world and God and even to themselves.  Chew a while on the following quotes:

"Most parents, even born-again parents, do not really think the spiritual component of their child’s life is a big deal — at least not as big a deal as doing well in school, sports, or relationships. And even if they are focused on building their child’s biblical worldview, very few parents today — only 2 percent — possess a biblical worldview. They can’t give what they don’t have — and this creates a gaping spiritual vacuum as today’s parents are raising their children.”

“A majority of the youngest teens (61%) either believe Jesus Christ sinned while He was on Earth or hold open the possibility He did. Not even half (45%) believe that God created the universe. And an overwhelming majority believe that there are no absolute, objective truths.”

The problem for Christians (and Lutherans) here is that the faith is literally eroding right in front of us and we are helpless to do much about it as long as the Scriptures, Catechism, and Hymnody that reinforce the faith are also distant from our daily lives.  It amazes me how we have turned from a Christianity (and Lutheranism) in which people knew the faith into one in which what we know of Scripture is likely shaped more by a meme than by any catechetical or Bible study.  It is peripheral knowledge without base in our lives and without the power to shape what we think, speak, or do.  And this is something that affects church going folks and not just the Christmas and Easter crowd.

It describes not simply a failing on the part of the people in the pews but in the pulpits as well.  We have learned to give our people an anecdotal view of Scripture and they are happy to receive it in sound bytes that arouse sentiment but cannot and do not inform the mind or transform it.  While this was once supported by strong local family systems, the mobile and dispersed character of modern life has put pressure on our faith and exposed the vulnerabilities.  Belief in certain things without that belief affecting or having the primary affect upon personal views and behavior leaves the door open for the belief to change before the heart and mind.  In part, it is the result of a lack of doctrinal preaching and teaching that reinforces what is believed, taught, and confessed and why.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

We have a benevolent Father. . .

A little book was given to me and I had not paid attention to it for some time.  Then I opened the book and began to read.   The book is He Sent Leanness—A book of prayers for the natural man, by David Head (published in 1959). There is much in this book, some wisdom, some humor, not a little irony, sarcasm, and so much more.  Perhaps one of my favorites is this confession (calm down, it is sarcasm):

“Benevolent and easy-going Father: we have occasionally been guilty of errors of judgement. We have lived under the deprivations of heredity and the disadvantages of environment. We have sometimes failed to act in accordance with common sense. We have done the best we could in the circumstances; And have been careful not to ignore the common standards of decency; And we are glad to think that we are fairly normal. Do thou, O Lord, deal lightly with our infrequent lapses. Be thy own sweet Self with those who admit they are not perfect; According to the unlimited tolerance which we have a right to expect from thee. And grant as an indulgent Parent that we may hereafter continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect.”
In it he writes the confession of sins we would like to make -- instead of the one that is printed out in the book.  He compares it to another confession (both, by the way, modeled after actual Calvinist forms):
“Almighty Judge: we have lived far from thy ways like wild goats. We have on all occasions rebelliously followed our own inclinations. We have deliberately and shamelessly broken thy holy laws. We have never done anything we ought to have done; And we are utterly depraved. We desperately miserable offenders can only expect thy harsh judgement. We live obsessed with the unrelieved knowledge of our guilt. The thought of Jesus Christ does nothing except increase the depth of our shame. We have no right to expect anything hereafter except the intolerable burden of our unrighteousness, and the hell of our eternal disgrace.”
Confession and ancestral sin in particular are sore subjects for us today.  We think that sin is out there, something avoidable, or something unavoidable, and, therefore, we are not culpable for it.  Sin and guilt have been dealt with in our age but not by confession and absolution.  We have rendered all kinds of sin normal and therefore good -- from the juicy sins of sex and prurient interest to the ordinary of theft and jealousy.  Others we have removed by insisting that they cannot be avoided and therefore cannot be all that bad. 

It seems abhorrent to us that we should be held responsible for the sins of our ancestors and yet we insist upon fighting again and again their age old battles.  Why do we continue to wrestle over such ancient wars and prejudices and yet insist that original sin is an outrage?  Add to that the fact that we have made our peace with death and decided to rehabilitate hell and it is no wonder that our confessions have become rather weak and shallow.  So even though we may have retained the firmer words of confession that are uncomfortable in our mouths, our hearts have surrendered them in favor of the kinder and gentler admission that we could have been better if we had only known better and, in any case, the guilt is only temporary.

What we forget is that by diluting the confession, we make the cross obsolete and render the supreme act of Jesus' suffering and death both unnecessary and downright foolish.  In the end we are the fools.  We are the fools who deny sin and its consequences upon us and the world in which we live and the fools who try to find something to talk about instead of Jesus' death and resurrection.  The end result is a weak morality, a love that accepts and rejoices in anything and everything, and a God who largely unwanted and unneeded in our modern day lives.  But the answer to this is to relearn the age old confessions and the renewed awareness that we are, indeed, poor, miserable sinners.


Friday, October 27, 2023

A "severe mercy"

It happens so often.  Someone goes in for a minor medical issue only to find they are terminal with cancer or some other major illness.  Someone who seemed in fine health is suddenly in hospice.  Treatment that we thought was working is suddenly no longer helping and disease is without cure.  We find ourselves so conflicted with death is a surprise and when the only life is the long wait for that death to come.  What do we do?  How do we respond?  Is it right to pray that death come quickly so those whom we love are spared suffering?  Or do we pray only for healing that we know must be a miracle?

C.S. Lewis called such a death that ends suffering “a severe mercy.”  It is mercy to relieve the suffering of their pain but no death is really a mercy.  C. S. Lewis has it about right.  It is a severe mercy.  There ought to be great comfort in the fact that God knows not only the weakness that causes our death but the suffering that accompanies that death.  Our Lord knows it not as spectator to our suffering but as the One whose suffering has borne the weight of all that sin and its death have inflicted upon creation.  When Scripture tells us that precious in the Lord's sight is the death of His saints, that is not a sentiment but a profound description of the love that is wounded with us, that suffers our suffering, and that has provided for an eternal release from suffering.  We ought to gain some comfort from this.

The answer to death is not the prolonging of the life that will still die.  The answer, of course, is to overcome death with the life that death can no more reach.  Our lives are hidden in Christ and the futures a mystery to us until we live them.  But our outcome is known.  We shall not die but live.  That is Job's witness.  Though this body be destroyed, we hope for more than a memory but a real life -- so real, indeed, that death itself dies and only the life we have in Christ remains.  Glorious flesh, a new heaven, a new earth, the grand reunion with the faithful who have gone before, and our gift of seeing God face to face are all part of that life we have in Christ.

But there are moments when we find ourselves somewhat in the position of the disciples -- between Good Friday and Easter.  We are waiting for the fullness of the promise to be seen and holding onto it by faith.  I find it amazing how some Christians can treat death as if it were no big deal.  I have heard people actually say that there were worse things in life than death.  Though some may try, I cannot smile my way through such loss.  Tears flow, hearts ache, and sorrows come -- not as the ignorant who have no hope but as the hopeful who yearn for the fullness of that hope to be realized.  Yet, sometimes, death is merciful, a severe mercy, permitted by God when disease and suffering threaten to swallow up the faithful whom we love and whom God loves.  In those moments, we are both sorrowful and comforted that God can love us in this deep and profound way. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

How did we get here?

It does not take much for folks of all ages and persuasions to look around the world and wonder "How did we get here?"  Look at violence on a scale not quite seen since the last world war or the meltdown of progress that was supposed to our savior or such radical change that happened so quickly all because of a virus and the list goes on.   It was not supposed to be this way.  Things were supposed to get better.  Who can recall the horror of the first school shooting that has been followed now by so many mass murders that they are almost routine on the news?  Who can recall the first prominent gay TV character or series only to wake up to a world in which you cannot have any story or history without a prominent gay character?  Once the trust placed in the Church and her ministers was matched by no one and now Christianity and the clergy have become the ordinary butt of jokes more for hate than for fun.  Once the school's concern was education not social engineering and the repair of the ills society has foisted upon our youth.  Can you remember when the concerns of teachers was the ordinary curriculum of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic?  What happened to make impeachment as routine as an election?  The sums of our current deficits were not so long ago our whole gross national product and the mind boggling debt we carry today as a nation seems to be the concern of no one.  I could go on.  For your sake and mine, I will not.

We are seeing the triumph of Modernity -- a Modernity fueled by mass migration, by the creation of a mobile life, and by the view of family which has deemed the family optional at best.  Modernity has made other things more sacred than life and life the domain of feelings more than any other reality.  Modernity has given greater promises than even religion but has provided less in return for the investment of faith in the progress of man.  Modernity has been made easier by a technology which feeds on conflict and fuels distrust and enjoys the provocative more than the truth.  Modernity has stripped from nearly everything except the usual subjects any inherent right or wrong and left the moral up to the individual so long as it did not intrude upon the sacred cows of bodily autonomy, diversity, and justice.  Modernity has left the Church in the shadows and on the sidelines and seems adept at making even the most confident Christian self-conscious about its book and it savior.  

There might have been a time in which we thought that conservative political parties and political figures were an alternative but it is pretty clear that the end goal is not so different for conservatives or for liberals.  The conservatives want quiet, managed, and slow change.  The liberals look at history as if it were a parade of drag queens on pride day and that was all there was -- something designed to shock and in the moments of shock and awe to move the bar faster and further than anyone thought could be done.  Trump has proved as disappointing to people who want to know how we got here as Biden has proven embarrassing.  Is this the best we can do?  The pace of change is certainly different but who can actually say that where we end up will be different depending on who is in charge?  When we get there, yes, but not where we are going.

This is not really about blaming anyone but admitting the obvious.  This life is not improving and this world is not getting better and people are not become more virtuous.  The sterile life of modernity is built not upon stronger community but stronger individualism (although this is less of the noble and rugged pioneer type than the one which sees everything in terms of self-interest).  In the end, religion might not offer much help in slowing the change down further or reversing its direction.  What Christ has come for is not the repair of the world but its redemption.  He has come not to make this world better or more fair or more equitable or more open but to build a new heaven and earth and to call forth from the world a people for His own possession.  In the end, I do not believe you are giving up anything by taking back the idea that you can help make a difference or improve even slightly a hard and harsh world.  What you can do is this.  Love God above all things and love your neighbor as Christ has loved you.  This you can do because Christ has already done it.  Now, in the wake of His light and salvation, we walk not according to the flesh but the Spirit.  We do not win if the world improves but by being saved from what could not and will not ever be redeemed.  God saves people.  He does not save nations or cultures or societies.  He saves us not because of who we are but in spite of it.  He saves us not with earthly powers but with the power of blood shed upon a cross where the Son of God bowed low His head and breathed His last, commending Himself to His heavenly Father so that we might as well.  In the end, the battle of faith is if this is enough for you.  I have gotten to that point in life where it is not only enough, it is more than enough.  I am relieved.  It was never about me.  It was always about Him. He is the end to my past, the power of my present, and the promise of my future.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

It must be true. . .

In 2021 the news media rushed to judgment indicting the charitable work of Roman Catholic boarding schools, largely for indigenous children.  The narrative of the media was that these Roman and, to some extent other religious schools —officially called Residential Schools—had buried hundreds of children in unmarked “mass graves” over decades.  The schools were judged to be terrible places of torture, harsh discipline, and offensive conduct by the religious who ran them.  It began with the the alleged discovery of human skeletons under the ground on Native Land where these schools once operated.  The scandal grew until a pope and bishops were falling all over themselves to apologize and atone for their sins.  In the end, however, what were thought to be skeletons ended up not to be and the remains and unmarked mass graves were a fabrication.  Because of the way those who operated these schools were viewed today, it was readily believed and even if evidence could not be found, some decided it must be true.

While in some cases there was nothing, in other cases what was “discovered” were simply community cemeteries which had once been under the care of towns or parishes but had since become the property of the Native Reserves. If they were unmarked, it was because the Native Reserves had not replaced the wooden crosses that had deteriorated and disappeared over time.  Then, it was discovered that there were archive records and nothing was really unmarked or unknown.  Within the last 20 years or so, these Residential Schools were no longer viewed as they had been -- heroic institutions staffed by selfless people who offered native Canadians entrance into the official life of a nation, educated in the official language of Canada.  Now they were seen through the eyes of Western and Christian offenders against the cultural diversity.  Again, it must be true that their motive was just as evil as their execution.

The point is this.  Culture has come to view everything the Church is and does with suspicion.  All around us the most evil of motives are assigned as well as the worst possible construction on all the Church is and does.  The reason for this is that if it could be true, it must be true -- despite the evidence or lack thereof.  This is true in countless ways, fueled by the admitted failings of some (most vividly in our memory the priest sexual abuse scandals).  The Church cannot possible do good -- except when the Church listens to and echos the prevailing viewpoints of the world.  There is no room in this equation for giving the Church the benefit of the doubt or taking them at their word or viewing objectively the evidence.  So by this view, if the Church does not accept and even celebrate the gender explosion of late, they must be haters and phobes of one kind or another.  If the Church says anything pro-life, it must also be at the same time that they have a nefarious purpose in controlling the bodies of women.  You can go on and on.  However you may possible cast the Church and the faith in a negative light, that is how the media will portray the Church.  All the terrible things people think or fear of the Church no longer have to be met by any preponderance of evidence.  It must be true.  It has to be true.  It should be true.  That is what evangelization is up against in our world.  At least the pagan world of St. Paul was curious about and open to listening to the claims of early Christianity.  I am pretty sure most of the world has moved long past even that.


Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Laws don't change minds. . . or hearts

Last month the NY TIMES reported that the decline in abortions predicted was but a wisp of home that changing the law would change minds and hearts.  After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year, it was predicted that the number of abortions would soon plummet across the country and many were rallied to political action within states to keep abortion available. But now new estimates show that whaat was both feared and hoped has not happened. The number of legal abortions nationwide has held steady, may even increased a bit since 2020.  How can this be?  New data from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit specializing in reproductive health, seems to suggest that people are traveling across state lines or using telemedicine to get abortions, including the increased use of abortion pills. The increase in use of those options has at least offset the decrease in abortions resulting from any bans and the SCOTUS overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Laws may change behavior but that behavior will just as likely be more creative ways to do what the heart wants and the mind wills than to accept the alternative.  The work to undo what Roe created must appeal less to the law and more to the mind and heart.  It is intimately connected to the very way our culture has deemed marriage optional, procreation an unpleasant choice, and desire without responsibility to be the things we value most.  Even in churches that have historically opposed Roe and fought for the cause of life, you seldom hear any vocal challenge to the idea that sex is normal and marriage optional, to the practice of cohabitation, to birth control being the norm and conception being the option, and to the use of pills to do what procedures once required.  

Oddly enough, the mantra of the progressives was that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.  Now it is the conservatives who are calling for the same.  The progressives have moved on.  Safe, legal, free, and normal have replaced the Clinton era phrase.  It would seem that no matter how many lives have been lost to abortion can raise an ounce of guilt or shame among the population of America.  Self-interest is perhaps the most powerful motivator and self-interest certainly does not lend itself to the idea of having or keeping a child you were not planning to have.  Long ago I suggested that conservativism as a political movement is less a choice of different outcomes than the speed to achieve those outcomes.  Liberals move fast.  Conservatives move slowly.  But both will eventually end up at the same place -- just a different times.  This is exactly what has happened to abortion.  When one generation becomes accustomed to abortion being safe, legal, free, and normal it is hard to change the minds and hearts of those who have grown up with such an expectation.  

Christians need to concentrate on changing the mind and the heart to affect a real change in the numbers of children flushed from womb on the grounds that nobody wants them.  We cannot depend upon a change in the law to do for us what only a change in heart can do.  Within the churches must come a more deliberate and faithful teaching of a Christian worldview, an appreciation and confidence in God's creative order of marriage, children, family, and home, and a renewed value upon life -- not because we value life but because God valued life so much that He gave His only begotten Son....

Monday, October 23, 2023

Whose image do YOU bear?

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24A, preached on Sunday, October 22, 2023.

Lutherans have made much of the two kingdoms – the kingdom of the left that is the world and its governance and the kingdom of the right that is the Church.  I fear we have made too much of it all.  Covid found us caught in the crux of a dilemma.  The government was issuing rules about everything from masks to vaccines and we were afraid for our lives trying to find a way through it all.  In the end, most churches complied and therefore admitted that the liquor store was more important to this life than worship.  In so doing we ordered an allegiance to the government and this life even more than obtaining eternal life.

More than a few pointed to this passage as the authority.  Jesus is telling you to render under Caesar what is Caesars.  Well, that is what Jesus said.  But what belongs to Caesar?  Not you.  Not your soul.  Not your life.  Not your time.  Not your abilities.  In the end, the only things that belongs to Caesar are your money and the laws that do not conflict with His.  It is not that much.  We are born without money and will die without it.  That is true not only for money but for property.  The only laws that have binding authority upon us are God’s and the rest must defer to His commands.  This is the great contrast between the eternal which belongs to God and the things of this life that are temporary. But you are not temporary.  Jesus is pointing to the passing loyalties of this world against the eternal claim of God upon you.   

What that means to say is this.  The shocking claim of Jesus is not that you owe something to the government.  Everyone knew and knows that.  You pay or you lose your property or end up in jail.  The Pharisees had played this game and they knew the score as well.  So the point of Jesus is not about paying taxes or living in two kingdoms.  It is about what belongs to God.  And what does not belong to the Lord?  Maybe we could say that evil does not belong to God but He even claimed our sins upon the cross so that they are no longer ours but His.  All things are God’s.  That is the shocking thing that Jesus says.

You belong to the Lord.  He has bought you with a price.  You are not your own.  You belong to Him.  He did not pay for you with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood and sufferings of our Lord upon the cross.  You are His.  That is the shocking part of Jesus’ words.  You are God’s and everything is God’s.  Even the government and those elected or appointed to govern belong to the Lord.
Jesus is not trying to get us to be obedient citizens.  Jesus is confronting us with the raw fact that we belong to Him.  We were born according to His creative will and purpose, rescued and redeemed by His steadfast love, and raised from death to life forever with Him.  Who cares about the cost of taxes when we see what our Lord was willing to endure, to pay, and to suffer in order that you and I might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom without end?  We have made a sport out of trying to deny the government as much of our money as we can but the real game in town is the way we deny ourselves to God when He has bought and paid for us all.

What Jesus is not talking about is the image on the coin but the image on YOU.  It is not about surrendering to God some of the money this world finds so valuable.  It is about surrendering to the Lord all you are and think and say and do because you bear His image in baptism and have been grafted into His vine by faith.  The government wants only a part of you but God wants all of you – every bit of you.  And not only the good things but He wants your sins so that He might take them as far from you as the east if from the west.  He wants your death so that you will not die.  He wants your life so that He might preserve it to eternity.  No claim by Uncle Sam is as shocking as God’s claim on you.

Sometimes we need a powerful reminder of all of this.  When we spend more time dreaming about what money can buy us than what Christ has purchased and won. When we worry about how long church is or if there might be something better to do that worship.  When we let Scripture sit gathering dust while we complain that God seems distant to us.  When we look at the offering plate and wonder why we should give money when we don’t necessarily know where it is all going.  When we refuse to give our time for the work of God’s Church but gladly let others do what is our duty as well.  

The Pharisees were better than we are at keeping the law.  They gladly tithed and gave even more than 10%.  They read the Scriptures until they knew them by heart.  They were in the temple every time the door was opened.  But what they found hard to surrender were their hearts.  They lacked faith.  We are different.  We will gladly give God faith but we won’t give Him much else.  We are so free from the Lord that we feel no guilt about doing evil and no shame about our failure to do good.  The Lord’s response is this:  Render to God what is God’s.  This does not mean money first but hearts.  If God has your heart, the money will come too.

Render unto God is not about changing what you do but seeing who and whose you are.  It is not about money but about identity.  Do you see yourself as the child of God whom the Lord rescued by emptying Himself upon the cross and then claimed in the baptismal water as His most precious possession?  Because it does not matter what you do unless this is the beating heart of your identity as a child of God and your life as a child of God by faith.

In case you are wondering what God’s will and purpose are, we call that the Law, the Commandments, the Third Use.  If you really do not know what God wants of you or wants for you, you have forgotten the commandments.  Love Him with all your body, soul, mind, and heart and love your neighbor as yourself.  It won’t earn you salvation but it will mark you as God’s own in a world that refuses His ownership.  

Strangely enough, when those selfsame Pharisees delivered up Jesus to the High Priest and the Ruling Council of the Jews, they were giving God what belongs to Him.  They thought it was the end of everything but God knew it was the beginning.  You have been bought with a price.  You belong to the Lord.  So don’t bellyache about what belongs to Caesar.  Instead begin to rejoice in what belongs to the Lord.  YOU belong to Him.  When we get that one right, the paltry stuff that the government demands will no longer cause us pain and the littlest things of this mortal life will cause us great joy.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Mere social constructs. . .

While it is often claimed that gender is a social construct and not a reflection of biology or DNA, the truth is that nearly everything in Christianity presumes gender is anything but a social construct or feeling.    From the first moments of creation, male and female have been the binary shape of all that God made.  When, in the final moments of His creative work He made Adam, Eve was presumed while Adam was still alone.  

From that act of God in creation, our whole lives are shaped by the gender of male and female.  It is the most fundamental level of who we are and how we relate.  We are created male and female and from that moment we are named male or female.  The stereotypical colors of blue and pink impose nothing upon us but reflect how we are known to creation and creation to us.  Of course, all of our mortal lives are shaped by some dysfunction (we call it sin) but that is not a problem of gender identity as much as it is a problem of how we live in this world.  It is a distortion that has corrupted our nature to deprive us of the most basic truths of who we are and what is our place in the world.  God has not left to us the answers of these questions but His revelation guides us to know who we are and what our place in the world is.  The problem of culture is that it has normalized the distortion and adopted the confusion as a basic task left to every person and thus has omitted God from the whole process.

The story of our creation as told by Scripture is intent less upon the how than that what.  What and who God made.  All the concerns of this modern moment are absent from that narrative but the essential concerns as defined by God are not omitted.  Though it is confusing to the modern mind, God spent little time on the male and female shape of His creation except to presume that this is simply how it is. 

All the way through the Scriptures, this binary shape of gender is presumed -- from Eden's beginning to Revelation's consummation.  Jesus Christ is not simply a person but the Second Adam and Mary the “Second Eve.” Through Adam sin entered the world and death through sin and through Christ is come the redemption and forgiveness of the sinner and the life that death cannot steal.  As Eve was the “Mother of all living,” so has Mary become the Mother of the Redeemed, the prototype of the faithful who believe in the Word of the Lord.  This is not an elevation of Mary but a reflection of who she is within the witness of Scripture.  The shape is male and female.

Even within the home, this shape is essential.  We do not have impersonal parents but mothers and fathers.  We do not relate to these mothers and fathers impersonally but as their sons and daughters.  While modern culture would insist this is a constraint, Scripture would remind us that it is simply the shape of God's order.  Anything else is an invention.  Modern woman has been made to compete not only with man but with an sexualized version of herself and modern man has been left to define masculinity apart from the woman as if were merely an idea rather than the truth of our creation.  Whereas Scripture frames the relationship between male and female without the constant burden of sexualization, modernity has refused to see identity apart from this sexualization.  

The fact that some do not feel at home within God's created order should come as no surprise.  It is not because of a lack of enlightenment among the faith and the faithful but sin.  Sin made creation an enemy so that Adam's work would be to fight the weeds and weather and animals for the food to feed himself and his family.  Sin has turned us against God, against our neighbor, and, ultimately, against ourselves.  We rebel not simply against the Lord but against our own natures.  Sin showed up first in the context of the sexualization of self and relationship to the point where nudity became synonymous with lustful, sinful desire.  Covering it up did not work and using a scalpel or drugs to do the same cannot fix what is essentially a spiritual problem.  Neither did running away or blaming others.  Christ has come not simply to save us individually from our sins but to restore the creative order that is a gift from God and that order is binary -- male and female. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

When the liturgy gets it right. . .

When Lutherans were faced with the prospect of translating our German orders into English, we borrowed heavily from the Anglicans.  It was a good decision.  Who can find fault with the eloquent collects of Thomas Cranmer?  Although we did not borrow this, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has a very beautiful and faithful summary of the purpose of marriage:

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

What is important here is not simply the content but the order.  First for the procreation of children and for the bringing up of those children in the fear and admonition of the Lord to the end that with faith they may praise the name of the Lord in words and works.  First.  The problem today is not simply that we have rearranged the order here but are actively working to omit the first in this order entirely.  If not by contraception or abortion then by the desire to marry at all, we deny God's first and essential purpose in marriage.

Second is that marriage is given to prevent sin.  St. Paul says that the body was not created for immorality.  St. Paul also states that it is better to marry than to burn so the unmarried who are burning with passion for each other should marry, so that their desire will not lead them to sin.  In an age in which pre-marital and extra-marital sex has become normal, it is shocking for us to be reminded of exactly how St. Paul addresses sex outside of marriage.  Marriage is God’s plan for the fulfillment of sexual desire and any sexual expression outside of marriage is sin. (Hebrews 13:4)  Marriage is not only necessary but salutary.

Then, Third, for comfort, help, companionship, and mutual care in need and plenty.  In the end, this is the only reason for marriage that our culture accepts.  It is the only one that can be used to justify the expansion of marriage beyond male and female.  Marriage orders desire and is the answer to disordered desire.  Marriage is for children and those married have the capacity and desire for children.  Except those who marry for other desires only.  Indeed, the problem here is not only for the expansion of those who might be married but the limitation of marriage to when we find it helpful and comfortable and when we do not, marriage can easily be broken.  

The rite got it right and we got it wrong.  This is what what happens on Sunday mornings, in baptismal liturgies, in marriage rites, and in funeral orders matter.  We are our rites and our rites define us.  In this case, we would have all been better off listening to the rite and letting it instruct us in the order and design of marriage for mankind.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Open Altar. . .

While the presumption is that Rome cares about who steps up to receive the Sacrament in a Roman Catholic Church, the shocking reality is that the rail in Rome may be as open as the typical Protestant y'all come.  Consider this.  A Roman Catholic Archbishop gave communion to a Muslim sheikh at a mass on August 28 in Brazil.  While it might not quite raise an eyebrow in Rome if a conservative Protestant or Lutheran were communed, what is the justification for communing a Muslim?  According to the video of the service, Sheikh Mahairi was not seen partaking of the Sacrament placed in his hand but what did he do with it?  It took an inquiry before it was found that the Muslim, concerned about disrespecting the Roman Catholic faith, Sheikh Mahairi explained that he went back to his pew, sat down, and consumed the host.  There are many times when a pastor does not recognize the faces of those who come to the rail but in this case the Sheikh was pretty obvious by dress and was well known as an invited ecumenical guest at the mass.  

All of this matters because fewer and fewer churches are respecting the rail and the orthodox, catholic, and Lutheran practice of close(d) communion is more and more seen as the refusal of simple hospitality and rudeness without understanding what is given, who is to receive what is given by the Lord, and why.  Apparently some in Rome are quick to agree with the critics.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Eye opening. . .

When nearly half of all pastors have considered quitting their vocation, there is something worth our attention.  When Barna surveyed pastors and found, as of March 2022, 42% of pastors considered quitting, there were many reasons cited but Barna found the top 5 to be:

  1.  The immense stress of the job: 56%
  2.  The feeling of loneliness and isolation: 43%  
  3.  The current political divisions in the nation mirrored in the congregation: 38%
  4.  The difficulty of balancing the pastoral role and the family role -- with the family usually losing out: 29%
  5.  The negative shape of the future for religion and the future of their congregation: 29%

If you are pastor, this comes as little surprise.  It is a tremendously rewarding vocation but the costs attached to your service and the pressures added of late have made it difficult to find peace in what you do.  In particular, there are a number of added stressors that have come along with the the times, including: maintaining an internet presence, the always diverging views and opinions of those in the pew (on every subject), the lack of clear doctrinal agreement and unity (across jurisdictions and in the congregation), the evolving antagonistic relationship between church and state, and the over-scheduled lives of people who will give you money before they will give you time.  We all know that.  Every congregation feels it.  Ask the parish leaders, the choir director, and the nominating committee as well as the pastor.  On top of that is the expectation that the pastor and the congregation must be all things to all people (boy, do I wish St. Paul had not written that line or at least clarified what it means!).

If you are up to it, you may want to read and listen to the videos in this post.  It tells the sad story of a Presbyterian minister who decided to quit his congregation and his office as pastor and gives in detail his own struggles.  Some of them may be particular to him alone but others will find pastors across the denominations nodding in agreement.  The one thing that resonated with me is how easy it is to turn the church into a market, the gospel into a product, and consumer satisfaction the sign of success.  I know nothing about the author but I know the challenges facing pastors these days.  One thing definitely not in short supply are those who will gladly tell you what you ought to be doing or to kindly point out to you what you did not do.  It is usually a one way street.

Everyone is a critic these days and we are all thin skinned when it comes to just about everything.  If I had a dime for every time somebody in the congregation said to me, "somebody should. . . " I would be as rich as Rockefeller (or to update that phrase, as Bezos).  Behind it all has come the presumption that the Church's job is to serve so that their leaders and pastor are to serve the people.  We in the Church have fed that ego trip by trying to cater to everyone's wants and felt needs -- from comfortable seating to cupholders in the Sanctuary to services times that work around everyone's schedule to music that fits a personal taste to paid staff and volunteers to do everything (from child care to picking up the coffee you spilled on the floor).  Add to that the sense of security we now expect and the building on Sundays becomes a fortress designed to protect the people inside but at the cost of reaching out to those outside. When in the New Testament was being a Christian ever described as a safe path?  The demands upon the office and the man are ever increasing.  It is too much.  We will need to figure out sooner rather than later what the Church and pastors can do and cannot and we will need to be okay with the things he is not doing.  Things are not going well in the typical pastor's office.  Some of the stresses are obvious and others are hidden but you do not have to dig too deep to find the discontent.  Recruitment for church work vocations shows it.  The extra demands on the office are unreasonable expectations and with them comes superficial appreciation (pastor we love you and everything you do) that disappears like the fog in the sunlight as soon as the pastor misses something or offends in some way.  

Let me speak in broad and general terms.  People always think that pastors get their way about everything when the reality is they are trying to please everyone even when they think what folks want is probably not the best idea.  People presume that pastors spend too much time in the office but have never invited the pastor to visit them or his family to have a meal with theirs.  People tend to think pastors know when everyone is hospitalized or ill or in trouble but do not let the pastor know soon enough to actually visit in time of crisis.  People People think you spend your time preparing sermons and Bible studies but the vast majority of your time is spent with people in crisis.  Pastors see and get to know their people most when things are falling apart with their marriage, their family, their job, their health, and their faith.  Even on the supposed upside of the things you do, you are there to work and not as guests like the other people at a wedding, to list but one example.  How many pastors are the first ones there and the last ones to leave the building on Sunday morning?  How many meetings are scheduled for the convenience of the laity no matter how busy the pastor's schedule (like Sundays that end up running from early morning until late afternoon or evening)?  How many people ever stand up to say we need to pay our pastor more when the budget is discussed?  How many people send him a gift card to his favorite restaurant just to let him know he can take time off and go out to eat like everyone else?  How many times is the pastor told to go home early and the people there will turn out the lights, lock up, and finish the event?  How many people will share the mistakes their pastors have made but do not share his faithfulness and when he is spot on?   I am not whining about myself.  My time in this office is nearing the end so it is not about me.  I am writing on behalf of those just starting out as pastors and on behalf of the guys who will follow me.  Even more, I am writing on behalf of those who will serve your grandchildren and mine.

If you want another perspective on the article I cited, you can read here.  I know that such things are true even as I know the great temptations of our people on how they view their pastors and what they expect from them and the conflict that can create -- all added stress.  I do not believe that good, orthodox, and faithful Lutheran pastors are immune from those pressures or the conflict they cause.

Cut your pastor some slack.  Shrug off the unrealistic expectations.  Forgive the disappointments you have in him.  Step up to the plate to serve along side him.  Speak well of him.  Pray for him.  These things may well be some of the most important things you do to encourage church work vocations.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Are we really losing our youth?

The data is showing that youth are increasingly losing their religion all through their elementary school years through high school and that by age 22 many have opted out completely -- not simply of church but of faith.  I guess that I don't quite believe the data.  In order to assume the conclusion, you must believe the premise.  The premise is that they had religion.  The premise is that the church had them.  I am not sure that those whom the church had and those who had been catechized and raised in the faith are dropping out with any increased frequency.  But I am pretty sure that those we counted in statistics but never were really catechized and were not raised in the faith in the hope are jumping to the conclusion and jettisoning any semblance of faith and association with the church.  

The so-called secularization of youth began in the home and was nurtured in the church.  In the end it may be a matter of semantics but the problem involves many things the family and church have done wrong but it also includes a whole lot of things the family and church have failed to do right.  Much of it belongs to the idea that catechesis is indoctrination and it is bad whether done in the home or in the church.  Parents began to feel guilty about making choices for their children -- from infant baptisms to making them go to church.  Parents were lax in raising their children in the faith -- presuming that faith was mainly a private and individual thing and if kids wanted religion they would seek it out.  Parents believed the lie that many things were essential to raising their children but the faith and the church were not among those essential things.  We are reaping the fruits of our own terrible planting.

You can blame the family and the church for trying to do what they have always done in the past (Who Moved the Cheese), but it is not quite true.  The parents in the 1980s and 1990s may have thought they were doing the same as their parents but they were not.  The parents of the 1980s and 1990s were divorcing at significantly higher rates than their parents.  They surrendered to the screens more than their parents did.  They did not counter the increasingly secularized education being given to their children in the public school system.  They did not object when the sacred times (Sundays and Wednesday evenings) were claimed by sports leagues and school activities.  They scheduled their children for more extracurricular activities and went with them to suggest that these were more important than faith and the church.  They began to see the teacher in the classroom and the pastor and youth leaders in the church as ineffectual and even an enemy and their child as the victim.  They did not take their children with them to church weekly and when their children showed disinterest in the worship of the congregation, they blamed the church.  They had fewer children and spent more money giving the children what they wanted instead of instilling discipline over desire and sacrifice.  It is a myth that we did the same things our parents did and they did not work.  We did not do what our parents did.

The secularization of youth was actually encouraged in the church.  Churches with a formal liturgy sponsored youth events in which the formal was replaced with the casual.  What was sung and what was done was remarkably the same as evangelicalism and remarkably different from their church's confession.  It happened even among conservatives like Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod youth programming.  With a wink and a nod to making kids feel at home and things more youth oriented, we varied the soundtrack from Sunday morning to the sound of playlists and favorite musical styles.  We thought we could alter the style without affecting the substance but it did not go as planned.  We made confirmation relational rather than instruction both in the doctrine and piety of the faith.  We thought that if kids had a relationship with Jesus instead of a faith, it would stop the losses.  We lied to them about church being fun as if having a good time were the most important criteria for judging anything and everything.  We made youth events more about recreation and less about re-creation and God became a stranger to much of what was called youth programming during that time.  We tried all of this over a generation or two or three and now we are reaping the fruits of a failed experiment.  

Neither can the church quite claim that we did what the church of a previous time did and it did not work.  The church was experimenting with all sorts of things as our confidence in catechesis and liturgy waned.  Take a look at the evolution of catechetical materials and Sunday school curriculums over the last 40-50 years.  The church presumed that what was happening in the home was the same and failed to admit or react to the disintegration of marriage and the family and the impact of this on catechesis.  With two parents working and the rise of the single parent home within the congregation, we failed to pay attention to the increasing influence of media, society, and the secular bent of public education -- much less respond to it.  The reality is that the last 30-40 years have seen a dramatic diminution of not only of parental influence in general but church influence in particular as kids spend more of their life in child care settings, at school, and online.  Consider the parallels between the decline of religious vocations and the decreasing visibility of church and church workers in the lives of our youth.  

Consider this from Lyman Stone:

There is virtually no change in religiosity across cohorts for individuals born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s: modest differences in given periods are generally not very significant or durable. For the 1980s birth cohort, there was some decline between early adulthood and ages 28 to 30, but not a great deal. But for the cohort born in the 1990s, they began as adults with a minority confident belief in God. Kids born in the 1990s didn’t lose their faith as adults; they had already lost it in childhood. There is little to no change in belief in God for 1990s kids between ages 18-20 and 28-30. In other words, the decline in religiosity we’ve seen across America in the 2000s and 2010s, and especially among young people, isn’t driven by a loss of faith among adults in that period. It appears to be driven by a failure by parents to pass on the faith in the 1990s and 2000s.

What Lyman Stone said about the family and the home is mirrored in the congregation.   The end result is that you cannot lose those you did not have.  The take away from this is that what parents do in the home matters and that complacency will work against the faith where we fail to work for it.  The take away from this is that catechesis does matter and what happens on Sunday morning matters in the lives of children and their adult family members.  Maybe we could improve things if we just started doing what our parents and our churches did.  It could not make it worse.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

To know Scripture you must know Christ. . .

Teaching a study on St. Paul I found a case study on the difference between knowing the Scriptures and knowing them through the lens of Christ.  Saul knew the Word of God but he didn't.  He knew the Word of God wrongly.  So wrongly, in fact, that he was completely blind to the One who spoke that Word into the minds of the writers and fulfilled that Word (both the promise of the prophets and the righteousness of the law).  The scales had to drop from his eyes and this happened only after an encounter with Jesus.  Then and only then did Saul become St. Paul know the Scriptures.  He admits this over and over again in his epistles.

The Bible is the most unknown book in the world.  Those outside the faith, presume that they know what Christianity is and what the Scriptures say.  They insist they know and have judged the Word according to their reason and experience and decided it is not for them or it is false.  They do not know what they are judging because Scripture can only be rightly known through Christ.  St. Paul knew the Scriptures differently when He knew Christ by faith.  What is true for St. Paul is true for all of us.  Yet the Scriptures might also be a stranger to the folks in the pew if we read them outside Christ.  As Luther once put it, the Scriptures cradle Christ -- Old Testament as well as New.  Apart from this, we are not reading the rightly and will miss what it means.  The great temptation for Christians is to read Scripture as if it were Aesop's fables -- stories with a moral to them.  In the end, the moral almost always is about being moral and so it always ends up being about changing your behavior and mostly the voice of law.  Sort of like when you know an exercise nut who ends up dying and his exercise equipment gets sold at a yard sale --  so the moral of the story is don't exercise and you will live longer.  Not exactly.  The parables of Jesus particularly suffer from this.  Not to mention how we read the book of Proverbs as if these were little Ben Franklin style witticisms that are good to know but don't have much to do with Jesus.

Too much Bible study today is concerned with knowing details of the Scripture without knowing the central message of the Word and how it points to Christ and makes Him known.  The fascination with the things about which we are curious is not quite matched with our desire to know Christ and to make Him known.  The reality is that these curious details are marvelously entertaining and certainly interesting but do they really contribute to knowing Christ and walking in His way?  Could we be as blind to the Christ of Scripture as St. Paul -- knowing the Word without knowing its author?  That is a question worth our attention as we plan out Bible studies that will interest folks and pack them in.  It is also a question worth our attention as we read God's Word devotionally. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Monday, October 16, 2023

He is still King. . .

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23A, preached on Sunday, October 15, 2023.

There are nice parables and there are parables that are not so nice.  This one begins nice enough with the invitation to come and eat and celebrate.  But it goes down hill fast.  The tables are empty and the people invited gave some lame excuse why they could not come.  We live in a casual world of people who are always saying someday we ought to get together but when that day comes, they have other things to do.  We shrug His shoulders and get on with it.  God does not. He does not suffer well the rejection of those whom He has bidden.  He is still King.

The invitation is pulled.  Those invited will not be allowed to come.  The places will be taken by others.  Like the charge laid against Jesus, this crowd is not the righteous but the sinners called from the midst of their sin to come and rejoice in the mercy of the King.  Here it seems like the parable gets nice again.  We all love a story of the downtrodden rejected by the world who find success.  But that is not what is happening.  You see that all too quickly when one is called out for not wearing the robes of righteousness the king provided his guests.  You do not come to God on your terms.  Nobody does.  We meet God on the ground of God’s will and purpose.  The Lord sticks to His Word even when we do not.  The man without the right clothing is sent away to the place of darkness and the gnashing of teeth.  He is still King, mind you.

Many are called but few are chosen.  Sadly, we will not all get to heaven by our own path.  We come to God only on the path that is Christ and we come to Christ only through the means of grace.  Your decision about God is not all that important but God’s decision about you is.  Why do we struggle so to learn this?  Why do we come to the Lord’s House and treat it like it is ours?  Why do play like we are the King and God is our servant?  Why do insist upon coming on our own timetable and on our own terms?  Why do we presume that our comfort level is what makes it right and God will just have to live with it all?  The Lord is still King and you are not.

The parable is not all that nice but that does not mean we should be dismayed.  To be warned by God is not a bad thing.  We would give thanks to the person who warned us about a scam we were interested in or a pot hole in our path or an enemy who was working against us.  We would welcome this warning as a gift and a blessing.  Today the Lord blesses us and gifts us with such a warning.
Repent.  Believe.  Obey.  To us they are almost fighting words.  Even now our hearts bristle.  Who does that pastor think he is calling us to repentance?  He is not perfect.  I will not listen to him.  Why is preaching always about faith?  When we will go to church and hear some practical words to help us get what we want out of this world and this life?  Unless the pastor tells me something I want to hear, I will not listen to him.  Why is the church always talking about obedience?  Don’t we determine our own rules and decide on our own paths?  Are we not free?  Let the pastor obey me.  I will not listen to him.

Your pastor speaks to you not on his own authority but under the yoke of Christ and by the authority of His Word.  He calls you to repentance because this is God’s call and desire.  It is the only means by which we may be saved.  He calls you to faith because you cannot work your way into God’s good side.  Salvation is always by grace and through faith and not of yourself.  Otherwise the cross is a cruel joke and Jesus is the fool.  Obedience is not about rules you have to keep but hearts learning to delight in the goodness of the Lord, in the things of God and His house, and in the lives of righteousness that reflect God’s goodness back to Him and to our neighbors in need.

The Lord is still King.  He is powerful.  But He uses His power chiefly in showing mercy.  He warns us out of love and calls us to repentance out of love.  Rejoice that God loves you enough to hear your grumbling, to call you apart from any worth or merit on your part, and to rescue you from all your sin by suffering in your place all that you deserved.  The Lord is still King but He is King of mercy.  At least for now.  The day will come when mercy will give way to judgment but now is not yet that day.  So hear and come and sit and feast at the King’s banquet.

To enter into the Church you must come out from the world.  That is the price of our redemption.  We do not suffer for our sins.  Christ did that.  We do not pay the price of our atonement.  Christ paid that with His blood.  We do not earn our salvation or merit His favor.  Christ won us for the Father and the Father for us as mediator on the cross.  But the salvation that is free to us does not come without some cost.  That cost is to step out of the world, out of the shadows, and fully into the light of Christ.

We cannot enter the feast with regret, with hearts that wish to be somewhere else.  Neither can we come in our casual clothing of indifference into God’s presence.  God provides us with the attire of salvation.  It is the holiness of Christ placed on us in our baptism and which we wear every day by faith.  We cannot live with one leg in the world, holding to its values and living in its truth and have the other leg in God’s kingdom – when it is convenient or appealing to us.  We are called to be fully the Lord’s.  His jealousy will not share us with anything or anyone else.  He is still King.

This is not a nice parable.  It is a hard word calling us to repentance and faith.  Yet  the hard word is borne not of malice toward us but love for us – the saving and redeeming love of the Father who has given us His only begotten Son and the Spirit so that we might repent, believe, and obey.  He is still King.  But He is King of mercy.  The day of salvation will one day close and the day of judgment will begin.  You cannot prevent it and neither can I.  But faith recognizes that this day, today, is still the day of mercy.  It is not hard to see the signs of unbelief and rejection all around us but we are the bidden, who have been given place at His table, who are called to repentance, and who are called to faith.  For us, this is the day the Lord has made and we rejoice in it.  To know with joy this day of the Lord, let us not regret the call to come out and depart from the world to which we do not belong in order to sit at the Table of the Lord wearing the white robes of Christ’s righteousness because this IS where we belong.

In the holy name of Jesus.   Amen.

Better off in school?

Education is important.  It is nearly a universal statement of truth.  So it follows that the sooner a child starts school, the better off that child will be.  Sadly, with both parents working, there is passive support for that idea even when the overarching goals of education may be in dispute.  Parents need childcare and school is free childcare.  Both of these are working to begin the educational process in the lives of our kids far earlier than it was when I was a child.

Universal preschool is becoming a thing both because we have bought into the idea that if our kids read at an earlier age it is better but also because paid preschool is more free childcare.  Now you might think that since our congregation has a preschool, we might think along the same lines.  Ours, however, is a traditional preschool, emphasizing the developmental growth of the child through play.  This is even more a need today because our children spend so little time with other children, including in the homes where they are more likely to be single children without siblings.  Such a developmental approach works not on the mastery of subjects like reading or arithmetic but upon the life skills that were once learned in the family but now may not be.  

The skills and the learning once measured by kindergarten has become the domain of the preschool.  But some preschools are pushing to go further and teach a child to read and do simple math.  While these skills are good, if they come at the cost of the ordinary developmental skills once almost universally taught in the home, where will the children learn these things?

The image is from the 1950s, when kindergarten was just becoming a thing.  I wonder how many of these things are even noted much less taught.  Remember the book All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten?  In this book of short essays by American minister and author Robert Fulghum promoted life lessons that were profound but not necessarily the cutting edge for schools.  Though it was first published in 1986, its wisdom endures. 

It is for these things that our Church has a preschool.  It is sad to say that the life lessons that apply to all of life are now lacking, replaced by more important educational concerns like mastering subjects or social engineering.  The child is suffering because of all of this.  I am not at all sure that children are better off in school or that mastery of subjects or government imposed mandates often unrelated to the curriculum are more important than learning to skip, put your things away, to work together with others, and to follow directions.  In my mind, the world just might be better off if we paid attention to these more -- both at home and in school.