Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Who controls the narrative. . .

In the months and weeks gone by we have seen political news, social commentary, and even what passes for religious reporting defined less by facts or truth than ideology.  While this is nothing new, the rarity of news that is given without commentary or slant is harder and harder to find and even more difficult to trust -- given the skepticism of our times.  The charge is laid against propaganda that masquerades as news and ideology that passes itself off as truth.  Where did we learn this?

There was a time in which the bias of media was well known and understood.  Even medium sized cities had two strong newspapers and media outlets so that the bias of one was offset by the bias of the other.  Even then, it is was less likely to bury the facts under commentary as much as it might be how the facts were treated.  When did that change?  Was it the loss of the newspapers as a powerful source of news and commentary?  Was it the invention of the news media?  Could it have been the government?  

Christopher Daly chronicles the government involvement in propaganda that substitutes as news or fact in the Smithsonian.  You can read it all there but in summary it tells the story of how President Woodrow Wilson's administration sought to control one of the pillars of democracy by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history.  The freedom of the press is lauded as one of the most important pillars on which democracy rests but following the lead of the Germans and British, Wilson's administration used propaganda and censorship to effectively control what Americans heard and what they thought.  It ended up being an all-out war against the freedom of the press entered into because of a world war.  There have been plenty of recent articles on how ideology and governmental policy have constrained the opposition or challenge to the party line as well as become an effective wall to prevent certain truths or subjects from being openly discussed in the media.  You can read all about it but my concern is how the control of the narrative cedes this control to those who oppose you and how it affects the faith.

Christianity has done a pretty good job surrendering the narrative to those who oppose Biblical, creedal, and confessional doctrine and practice.  The only press space given to religious stories both in the public media and in social media is that which supports or extends the generally liberal or progressive view of things overall.  Consider the debate over Christian nationalism and how the media has chosen to portray not simply that subject but to define who fits under that umbrella.  Long ago the conservative Christian theological and moral position became a pariah on university campuses and among the intellectual elite in culture and politics.  It is not simply a matter of what is told but how it is told.  Consider how the Alabama Supreme Court ruling on the status of fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses created by reproductive technology has been covered.  Again, it is not simply a matter of whether we hear the story but the lens through which the story is told.

I realize that to many Christians this is a messy thing and they do not want to get their hands dirty.  Neither do I.  But I also realize that unless we reclaim the narrative and learn how to separate the ideology from the truth, we may end up not simply persona non grata but people without access to the public square at all.  Surely this is what is trying to happen in Finland with its persecution of MP Paivi Rasanen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola.  It is not enough to be acquitted when charged.  We must learn how to express ourselves and speak forth the truth in an age increasingly unfriendly to and without access to this Biblical truth and moral perspective.  By no means should we be mean or resentful.  We must be reasoned but no less passionate than the ideological enemies of the truth of God's Word against whom we are fighting.  We must proceed in full awareness that the media no longer guarantee a fair hearing to our cause and that they have become ideologically biased against the true Gospel and its practice.  But we must not surrender the narrative to their distortions or to the slant given them by the progressive worldview that underlies such opposition.  Perhaps this is exactly what Jesus meant in saying that the sons of darkness are shrewer than the children of Light or we must be wise as serpents while still as innocent as doves.  The time has long ago passed when we can could on any news outlet or social media to present the objective truth on just about anything and this also includes the objective truth of God's Word.

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Lord is my Shepherd...

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (B), preached on Sunday, April 21, 2024.

There is hardly an image more precious to us than to call the Lord our Good Shepherd.  There are perhaps a dozen overt references to God as our Shepherd but there are another 50 or so indirect mentions that imply or infer the same. Can you imagine a funeral without the 23rd Psalm?  Or Sunday school children not singing “I am Jesus little lamb?”  No, we are pretty wedded to the Lord as our Good Shepherd but yet with that comes some difficult things for us to swallow.

In the world to call someone a sheep is to insult them.  It accuses them of not being individuals but herd animals who cannot think or act on their own.  It presumes that we are spoon fed people who cannot chew upon the real facts.  We are crowd people who find the safest place to be in the anonymous middle of a large group.  We accuse our enemies of being sheep.  We insist the people who belong to a different party or vote for a different candidate are sheep.  You name it.  Our enemies are always sheep but we are not.  We are independent thinkers and we are fully prepared to go it alone.  Hogwash.

How arrogant we are!  Look at the cars we drive and the clothing we wear and the movies we see and the food we eat.  None of us is unmoved by peer pressure.  We all like what the crowds like and think what the crowd thinks.  We are all sheep.  We take our cues from others.  Our enemies cannot help themselves but we are not that gullible or foolish or stupid.  We think we are God’s helpers, His sheep dogs, but not sheep.  Look at your sins.  We are sheeple.  We sin like sheeple.  We are not heros or guardians of virtue.  We are driven by lust and power.  We are gossips and hypocrites.  We are skeptics of truth and consumers of lies.  So the first truth of calling Jesus our Good Shepherd is admitting we are sheep and heeding His call to repent.  Stop trying to act like you are not who you are.

We love the image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd but we presume that this means long, slow walks in comfortable meadows with a lot of scratches behind our ears and hugs.  That is not the kind of Shepherd Jesus is.  It is not because He has no emotions or cannot show them.  It is because He shows them by dying for His sheep.  Greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his sheep.  Who does that?  Only Jesus.  Jesus does not call us sheep to put us down – our sins have already done that.  Jesus calls us sheep because it is sheep for whom He has come to die.  He calls us sheep out of love.  Out of love the Shepherd dies for His sheep.   So if you are not a sheep, Jesus is not your Good Shepherd; He has nothing for you
This sheep and shepherd business is not the romantic stuff of idyllic images.  The most pastorale setting we are given is a cross and a Shepherd who dies for stupid, selfish, herd animals like you and me.  To call Jesus our Good Shepherd is to admit we are sheep and that shepherding is not nice and easy but hard and costly – even to death upon a cross.  But if this is what the Good Shepherd will do so that you might belong to Him, then cry out a Thanks Be To God for the world has never seen such love before.  

This Good Shepherd not only dies for you but lives for you.  The grave could not contain Him and now He lives so that you and I will be shepherded into the presence of God.  He is still your shepherd.  He will watch over you the whole of your life.  He will protect you from all your enemies and sometimes that means even protecting you from yourself.  He will guide you to the rich and verdant pastures of His Word, through the still quiet waters of baptism, and set His table for you in the presence of all your enemies.  The shepherd’s job is not simply to guard the sheep but to bring them through the valley of the shadow and into the mountain of God’s presence where they will dwell in safety forever.  This is what Jesus does for you.

We all know, however, that just as there are false teachings about the Good Shepherd, there are also false shepherds teaching people lies for truth and stealing away those for whom Christ died.  You are sheep.  Don’t be stupid sheep.  Do not be blindly led to destruction because you do not know God’s Word well enough to separate the false from the true.  Do not be a stranger to God’s House so what it always feels like your first time here.  Do not forget what Jesus teaches you and remember whatever the world is ranting about or selling in this moment.  The Good Shepherd deals only in truth because only truth saves.

You are what you eat.  Feed on Christ and you will grow up into Christ, beginning to look like Him in the thoughts you think, the words you say, and the works you do.  God has not come to feed your fragile egos and tell you that you are just fine the way you are.  That is the lie.  The truth is that you are dead without your Good Shepherd and your truth and your feelings will betray you to destruction.  God has called you to be kind but do you know what kindness looks like?  It looks like Jesus.  It sounds like Jesus.  Forgive as you have been forgiven.  That is as kind as it gets.  If the Spirit has led you to green pasture, lead others also in Christ’s presence.  Kindness is not about being soft but about truth.  That is also Christ.

Have you ever noticed that lambs know who has the milk?  Why is it that we don’t?  We are sheep but we need to be wise and discerning sheep.  We need to long for the true spiritual milk of God’s Word and know where that food is found.  We need to grow up into Christ who is our head, imitating the godly as they imitate Christ but refusing to imitate sin.  We cannot remain children who are susceptible to lies and deception but wise to the ways of the world so that we may avoid them and recognize what is of Christ and what is not.

We may like the image of Jesus as Good Shepherd and the romance of little lambs but the reality is better than the imagination.  Jesus does not love us with words or little acts of kindness.  He loves us to the cross.  He has put Himself between us and our enemies.  He allows Himself to be ravaged in the pain of death so that we might be kept to everlasting life.  Yes, we are sheep and herd animals but let us at least know which herd is the right one, where God’s Word is preached in truth and purity and where Christ’s table is set in accordance with His Word and will.

The Lord is my shepherd.  And we are His sheep.  Each of us a lamb of His own redeeming, for whom He died and in whom we now live.  The Lord is my shepherd.  And we are His sheep.  His presence and His voice and His table is set among us beckoning us to come to Him and never depart.  The Lord is my shepherd.  Ans we are His sheep.  Now in the hills and valleys of this mortal life and in the hillside of His eternal grace on high, where death and darkness can no more confuse or destroy us.  Thanks be to God!  Christ is risen.

The Jesus we want. . .

I have read any number of attempts to define how Jesus was as a child.  Some would insist that He is the righteous and dutiful Son of Mary even as He is the righteous and dutiful Son of God.  Others like to speculate that there might have been a little bit of naughtiness in Jesus -- well, if not naughtiness then youthful indiscretion and playful spirit.  The point that people try to make is that we do not know.  Scripture says little to shed real light on the nature of Jesus' childhood or childish fantasy.  Or does it?

It would seem that we know all we need to.  He was subject to His parents (Luke 2:51), about His Father's business (Luke 2:49), grew in stature and knowledge (Luke 2:40), and even in stature before men (Luke 2:52).  Are these not enough to suggest that though our Lord's divinity remained hidden, it was not absent nor was it so hidden that it was not noticed?  We want to believe that Jesus was a boy like every other boy in large measure because that covers us from all sorts of boyish foolishness and error.  But the reality is that Jesus was not a boy like every other boy precisely because there was no boy like Him.  Even if we were not fully conscious of this from the beginning, He was.  Mary pondered all these things in her heart and as Mother of our Lord taught Him through her example and her pondering to know all that surrounded His conception and birth.  In this, she is no different than any other mother even if Jesus is not exactly the same as every other boy.

We also want to believe that Jesus was a snap at carpentry -- having learned from master carpenter Joseph and having the adeptness of a natural being the Son of God.  But as the earthly carpenter is concerned with earthly dwellings, our Lord was born to build a heavenly dwelling place, a mansion with many rooms, to be filled with all those who love His appearing.  He goes there to prepare a place for us that we may be where He is and He with us forever.  Jesus building is not for Habitat for Humanity -- as noble and laudable as their work might be.  No, He is come to build a new heavens and a new earth and not to fix the errors or tinker with the limitations of this one.  He tabernacles in the womb of Mary and in the dust of the earth so that we might tabernacle with Him as sons and daughters of the Most High and tabernacle not in a grave but in the resurrection of the body for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

We are always trying to make Jesus more like us.  Odd.  Jesus is always working by the Spirit to make us more like Him.  While Christianity has certainly been successful in trying to hide Jesus in the earthly clothing not only of His flesh but our image, He will prevail to make us into Him, wearing the image of our Savior placed upon us in Baptism to shine like the stars of heaven forevermore.  

Sunday, April 21, 2024

But you won't what?

I read a great deal and write notes and then cannot recall where the little phrases which I wrote down actually came from.  Today is one of those days.  It is a great line for those who find worship boring.  Apparently the context was someone who was gung ho on Jesus but found most worship boring and so had stopped attending church.  In spite of this he insisted that he would gladly die for Jesus -- so deep was his faith and commitment.  But the responder asked why he would be willing to die for Jesus but refused to be bored for Him.  Yup.  Worth a laugh there but it is the kind of nervous laugh that hits you where you live.

We love action.  We love to be engaged in doing things.  We love to be the judges of what is true, relevant, and important.  What we do not love is waiting.  We do not want to wait on anyone and not even the Lord.  Going through Acts with a Bible study we were struck at the length of Paul's preaching -- well into the night.  That would never work here.  Sunday fits a schedule block.  It cannot go past its borders or it will infringe upon something else on our schedules.  Certainly those with small children could not have been expected to stay because responsible parenting means you get your kids home and tucked into bed at a reasonable hour.  But the real issue is that it would take an exceptional communicator to hold our attention for that long and either Paul was one and pastors today are not or they had nothing better to do.  In any case, it would not work here.

I get that from time to time and I expect every pastor does.  Our worship services are seldom less than 75 minutes and we do not have cup holders in the pew for a caffeine fix along the way.  My sermons are generally about 15 minutes and some longer.  Worship is an investment.  It is an investment of your time, of your attention, of your energy, and of your commitment.  Worship can seem boring in comparison to an action movie or a video game or even something that we find interesting but the rest of the world does not.  The problem is not making worship interesting.  The problem is working on the self-control to pay attention to what is taking place.

We have endeavored to make worship as painless as possible -- you can pick and choose a style that fits you, watch it at home in your pajamas, drink coffee or soda, exit for bathroom breaks, mute the sound, and surf the options like every other entertainment choice.  What these choices have not done is increased the numbers of the faithful or worship attendance overall.  For those who are quick to protest my judgement, I would suggest you look at the statistics and find out just how long your online viewers are actually watching.  My guess is that only a small percentage watch it all, about a third watch a significant chunk, and the rest are there for a few minutes and then gone.  We love Jesus but apparently we do not love Him enough to be bored. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

A shell game. . .

The Church of England, like many established sects, is waning. By Its own statistics it has revealed that in 2022 the “worshipping community” was less than one million, with weekly attendance at 654,000.  Could it be that the Church of England is actually smaller than the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod?  Well, at least their endowment is bigger!

Statistics tell you little about why things are happening but only what is happening.  In the case of the good ole C of E, the decades of secularization, the waning influence of Scripture, and the lack of any doctrinal consensus have taken their toll.  They are a bare echo of their former self.  As true as this is, it is not always easy to digest.  An Anglophile like me imagines that grand cathedrals and city churches along with the rural chapels are all full.  They are full of nothing, least of all people.  Some have suggested that this is a bad thing -- even for those who never were or desired to be Anglican or even mainline Christian.  I suppose it is.  But the time to reverse the trend of ailing Christianity in Europe has come and gone.  For now, there may not always be a C of E anymore.

There are those who say that the decline of Protestantism was inevitable.  There are those who claim that it is still not too late to revive the dying churches of American Protestantism.  If so, it is about time to wake up and, shall I say it, smell the roses!  I do not know.  But this I do know, that the effectiveness of offering a church that does not stand for much of anything and does not demand it at all is going down the tubes.

Honestly, I just do not get it.  Forget the theology for now.  How has the vast liberalization of the theology and practice of Christians helped to fill the pews?  Yeah, you get it.  It has not.  It has not even staved off the impending disaster.  It has hastened it.  So why on earth would we want to emulate churches who fail to call anyone to repentance and who seem to delight in having fun poking pot shots at the message of Scripture?  Could it be that for all of us the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is that we feel better about ourselves for having failed to speak any courageous truth to anyone?  If people think you might be benign, why jump the gun and prove it to them as to remove all doubt?

While I take no joy in any Christian churches being emptied or closed because they offer a half-baked version of what people already believe, I take even less joy over those who look at conservative churches and say we are too rigid or too doctrinaire or too narrow-minded.  There is only one thing confessional churches have to learn from the likes of the CoE -- don't do what they have done.  Do not surrender the Gospel to your truth or the hope within us to feelings or the historicity of the faith to myth and legend.  Do not give up the liturgy for what feels good or seems right in the moment or presume that if you keep the form without the substance or presume that you can keep the substance without the form of the liturgy.  Do not depend upon bishops instead of the Word of God or keep the Word but forget to endow certain of the clergy with the responsibility for supervision of doctrine and practice.  We need all of these working together to sustain us and equip us to speak forth what we believe in a world where death has become normal.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Attendance or Adherence?

Reading some of the critics of current political office holders, the current President being one of them, in which the complaint is that going to mass substitutes for believing in the doctrine of Rome.  Indeed, the particular issue was put thusly:  [Roman] Catholicism is treated as an inherited identity, and devotion is measured by attendance, not adherence.  Now there is an oddity.  Usually the complaint is that those who claim to adhere but do not attend are the problems.  Now it is those who attend but who do not adhere.  I am at a loss to know what to say to this.  Jesus gives no cover for either.  I guess I will start with Him.

Jesus takes to task the religious authorities of the day precisely because they separated faith in the heart (shall we call this adherence) from the outward observance (shall we call this attendance).  Whether to the Pharisees (white washed tombs) or the Sermon on the Mount (and its piety for the approval of men), Jesus insists that you do not choose between either adherence or attendance.  It was His custom to attend -- a back handed way of saying it ought to be ours as well.  But that attendance was no mere habit (as good as the good habit of worship attendance is).  It was also adherence and the confession of nothing less than the whole counsel of God's Word (as we used to say).  Jesus is not about to choose between attendance or adherence and He will not let you or me off the hook either.  It is not and never was a choice between going or believing.  It should not be for us, either.

To attend is not some individual activity but expects and gives witness to your support for what is believe, taught, and confessed in that mass (or Divine Service).  It is a modern invention to presume that being there has nothing whatsoever to do with confessing what happens there as your own.  But it works conveniently to undermine the whole idea of close(d) communion and it makes legitimate the idea that you go where you feel at home no matter what that church stands for.  I hear it all the time.  Lutherans who insist that they are attending the Baptist mega church or big box evangelical for the sake of their children, a sports program, or because that is where their friends go -- but, they insist, that does not mean they have abandoned their Lutheran faith.  That usually lasts until it becomes uncomfortable not to be baptized as their church defines it and then that baby is thrown out with the baptismal water.  For whatever reason, they find it easier to hide behind the idea that Christ is somehow present in some sort of way in the Sacrament even in a Baptist or evangelical church.  Where you worship has nothing whatsoever to do with what you believe is a modern invention by those who invented the style vs substance idea.  Of course, it is a lie.  Everyone knows that -- eventually.  Then comes the comfort that at least they are attending.  The Word of God is generally present somewhere in Christian churches and it is not without effect.  We all admit that.  But the Word is often a still small voice in comparison to the shouted refusal to believe, confess, or teach the creedal or confessional faith of their own tradition -- much less the catholic faith of the Scriptures and tradition.  Or perhaps the loudest voice is the voice of self-improvement justified by some little tidbit of Scripture.  Not so much comfort left now, is there.

The point is this.  It matters where you go and it matters that you go.  Go where the Scriptures are preached and where the worship is a clear and honest reflection of that Word of God.  Go where worship is not a man centered work either for us or for God but God's service to us of His Word and Sacraments so that we might respond with praise from our lips, obedience from our hearts, understanding from our minds, and good works of our hands.  Go not as a person looking for a church home that fits you to a tee but go where the Word of God is proclaimed so that it makes you uncomfortable and where the worship is informed by the catholic and apostolic forms in service to that Word.  Go because you believe and because you want faith to grow and your life to grow (in holiness).  But go and pay attention to what happens there.  It seems that this is often lost on us today.  We go when we feel it and we pay little attention to what happens unless it entertains or amuses us.  Perhaps that is the modern problem.  We neither adhere nor attend.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

What does this mean?

By now you should have already heard about the controversy surrounding the funeral for Cecilia Gentili at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  I should not need to remind you but just in case you have forgotten the details, Gentili was a transgender prostitute, an atheist, and a misogynist whose life epitomized everything that the Roman Catholic Church is against.  Yet somehow or other she was given a Church funeral in one of the most prominent Roman Catholic sanctuaries in America.  As if that were not problem enough, the service as not quite by the book and featured prayers for transgender rights and a eulogy that praised Gentili as “Saint Cecilia, the mother of all whores.”  Before you get upset, remember that the priest in charge already apologized and by explanation said he had no idea of what was to transpire in the service. I am sure we are all sighing with relief right now.  It is done.  Move on, right?

Except for this issue.  The same thing will inevitably happen again.  That is what happens at all kinds of funerals, including those in churches.  Families and friends take over the service in order to make it personal, relevant to the individual, and a statement of some kind or another.  In its more benign forms it may be an ode to a favorite sports team or hobby.  Its more troubled form may be the substitution of sentiment for faith, storytelling for the Gospel, and secular music for songs of the faith.  Its worst forms are when the church is merely the venue and faith is conspicuously absent from eulogy, liturgy, and homily.  You do not have to be a dead trans prostitute for this to happen.  It happens everyday in funeral homes and in churches.  We have lost control of what happens in the celebrations of life that masquerade as modern day rites of death.  We have lost the narrative and are no longer even in charge.  Clergy and churches have become mere venues, familiar places, and rental spaces for the grieving to do what they think will make them feel better.  I understand why this happens in the funeral home since the family is paying the bill but nobody has the right to make a fool of God or God's servants.  We have to do more than apologize for things getting out of control.  We need to be the people in charge -- even if this means saying no and risking some bad publicity or an offended family member.

Funerals are not opportunities for self-expression -- either of the dead or the living.  They are the places where God's story is told because that is the only story that offers any hope or answer to the elephant in the room in the form of the dead body (or ashes).  St. Patrick's should not be allowed to get off the hook by saying they did not know what was about to happen.  Of course they did.  We all know what will happen if the pastor and parish musician are not there to say this is what the funeral is and this is what it is not.  Worse than merely desecrating the sacred space, this offends against the very faith itself and makes us and the God whom we worship fools before the world.  As sinners, we already do enough of this.  We do not need to help out our critics by giving them opportunity to mock the cross and empty tomb while we sit in vestments and watch it all unfold before us.  Have you gone to a typical funeral lately -- pardon me, celebration of life?  I watched with horror not long ago as a mic was passed around at the invitation of the presiding clergy so that the folks could tell their funniest story at the expense of the deceased.  I got up and left.  You should to.  This is not what it means to be friendly to those outside the faith.   

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

But can they read?

Luther famously championed public education for children but not for the generic purpose of education itself.  His desire was for people to be able to read the Scriptures.  Now, it would seem that education is for nearly every purpose except that.  But in our penchant for making schools responsible for so many other things, it just might be that reading itself has gone wanting as a skill and ability.

Some blame the politicization of schools and it is certainly true that our schools have become a politicized environment.  While this is not true strictly in the sense of Republican or Democrat, it is true that we as a nation have begun to use the school system as a social incubator in which to try our new ideas about everything.  This includes the subjects of ordinary instruction (new math) but it increasingly also includes the implementation of controversial social engineering such as the alphabet soup of sexual desire and gender orientation.  There may have been a time when it was about which books were suggested or required reading and which books were banned.  We all remember the games played by political groups to get things on or off of reading lists.  The unfortunate outcome of all of this is that this has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in the reading skills of our youth and our adults.

Some of this is not surprising.  Surely every generation has felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket!  Hasn't it been the common complaint of teachers at every level that their students are simply not as prepared as previous generations?  Even Socrates complained about this and with him every teacher since. That does not mean they were wrong or the stereotype of the modern student ill-equipped to handle anything without a screen is wrong.  Despite No Child Left Behind or Common Core, every generation thinks the younger generation is failing to make the grade or cut as they did.  I once compared the requirements for graduation in the early 1900s in Minnesota to the present day curriculum and expectations.  You already know how we fared today.  It was not even a horse race.

There are reasons for this.  The age of children were raised with ubiquitous screens is now college age.  It is no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, has has less than salutary effects on our ability to read and our endurance at reading.  This book is often tossed aside in favor of the dopamine hit they get from their omnipresent screens.  In contrast, the pleasures of the page are much more subtle.  COVID-19 gets blamed. The necessity of those measures put in place during the pandemic is still up for debate but not the learning loss of those who were in school at the time.  Across every level of education we find a profound impact that will continue to be felt for the next decade or more. In any case, it should be no surprise that online is not the same as inclass.  Don't forget the hate the phonics folks who insisted upon ditching what had been used for generations.  And there are those standardized tests, perhaps a distraction but now consuming a very important part of a child's whole educational experience.  Reading and writing are not what they used to be yet this is not mere nostalgia but a growing awareness that while we concerned about what our kids were reading, they did not learn to read at all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Love those collects. . .

On Easter 3 in the Lutheran Service Book we prayed:

O God, through the humiliation of Your Son You raised up the fallen world. Grant to Your faithful people, rescued from the peril of everlasting death, perpetual gladness and eternal joys; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

It is a wonderful collect with a long history and a particular favorite of mine.  In the Latin it is:

Deus, qui Filii tui humilitate iacentem mundum erexisti: fidelibus tuis sanctam concede laetitiam; ut, quos perpetuae mortis eripuisti casibus, gaudiis facias perfrui sempiternis.  Amen.

The 1962 Latin is but a word or word form off from the Gelasian Sacramentary for the Sunday after the Octave of Easter, which fell April 14 this year. Deus, qui in filii tui humilitatem iacentem mundum erexisti, laetitiam concede <fidelibus tuis>, ut quos perpetuae <mortis> eripuisti casibus, gaudiis facias sempiternis perfruere.  So it is pretty close.  Collects are remarkably consistent over time.

Two different words in the prayer are used for the English joy: gaudium and laetitia. While you could spend your time trying to mark the distinctions within each term, it might be rabbit hole.  Suffice it to say that most Latin dictionaries would suggest that gaudium is interior joy while laetitia a more outward expression of joy.  You did note that guadium is plural -- many joys!  I do not know the background behind the translation used in LSB except that it is familiar to us from The Lutheran Hymnal.  It is a poetic but faithful translation of the Latin and shows us the elegance of words that do not simply give a literal expression of the original but place it in the best English.  This also is typical of the collects of the Church Year -- another reason to pray them daily following the Sunday for which these were appointed.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Shown in the eating. . .

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (B), preached on Sunday, April 14, 2024.

The old story is told of a convert to Lutheranism.  The pastor taught him that the bread of this Sacrament was not just bread but the Body of Christ.  After a very long explanation, the pastor paused and asked the man if he believed the bread to be Christ’s Body.  “Oh yes,” he said.  “If that is the Bible says I believe it.  The only problem I have is believing that this little quarter sized piece of something is really bread.”  We are all looking for easy proofs to avoid the hard part of trusting. Unfortunately, God does not give us easy proofs.  He gives us what He gives us.  That is supposed to be enough.  

To a group of startled and frightened disciples, Jesus’ presence was no comfort.  They thought they had seen a ghost and were only interested in getting as far from this spooky spirit as possible.  Jesus insisted that He was real, real flesh and real blood and not a ghost at all.  In order to prove to them He was real, He offered them the scars of His hands and His feet.  It was, after all, enough for the ten who first met Jesus on Easter evening in the Upper Room and again for Thomas the week following.  Surely it would be enough for these disciples.  But it wasn’t.

They wanted to believe.  Scripture makes that clear.  They disbelieved for joy and marveled at who stood before them.  But doubt and fear was too strong.  Jesus had invited them to touch Him and see but the power of their fear was great and their faith was weak and shaky.  So Jesus must prove to them another way that He is who He is, has done what He has done, and is present now to bestow upon them His grace and favor.  He asks for something to eat.  Ghosts do not eat.  Jesus did.  He ate the broiled fish.  Then their hearts were opened and they believed Him and in Him.

Now here we are.  We have come from long and hard weeks.  Some of us are still transfixed by the hurts and pain of the days just passed.  Others are wrapped up in distractions so much more tempting than Church on Sunday morning.  Still others are carrying a heavy load of guilt and shame behind our scrubbed and smiling faces.  Not a few of us are worried about being found out for the hypocrites we are and the sinners who have made high art out of doing what God forbids.  Then the voice of Christ arose from His Word and bid us to be at peace.  Who is this Jesus to tell us what to do?  Does He think that words can make our upsets disappear or set our hearts at rest?  Is Jesus even real – could not He be simply myth and legend passed down through the ages?

The answer to our doubts lies in the wounds of Jesus.  We look to the crucifix and to the risen Christ hoping for an aha! moment.  Like the disciples in the Upper Room or Thomas, we long for a break through moment when our faith will be found solid and secure and our doubts and troubles will leave us alone.  We still disbelieve for joy.  We want to believe.  We want to believe that our sins are truly forgiven but they seem so big.  We want to believe that God knows our names and is paying attention to our lives but He seems so distant sometimes.  We want to believe that our pain and suffering are for something and not for nothing but mostly we just want that pain and suffering to go away.  We want to believe that death is not the end and that the life that awaits us will be worth all the crap we had to endure so far.  We want to believe it all but it seems so farfetched and so odd.  Can it be true?  Is Jesus God’s Son and our Savior – and does He love even me?

The proof is in the eating.  That is how it was so long ago and how it remains today.  It is not proof in the sense of incontrovertible evidence to sway a judge and jury but in the Lord who bids us eat and drink and believe.  Taste and see the goodness of the Lord or so the Psalmist says.  Touch and see or so Jesus invites.  It is not fish but flesh and not wine but blood.  This is where we touch Jesus and Jesus touches us.  This is were we bring our doubts and fears and sins and death.  Here is where Jesus opens His wounds to swallow up our anxiety and cleanse us from our sins and heal us from our death.  It is here.  Eat, drink, and believe.

Once Jesus showed He was real and no ghost by eating in front of the doubtful disciples.  Now He shows Himself real by our eating of this bread which is His body and this wine which is His blood.  It is the proof that is engendered by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He takes this taste of heaven and uses it to bind up our broken hearts, calm our fears, take away our sin, and give us the foretaste of eternity.  Holy Communion is not everything He gives but He gives us everything in this Holy Communion.

God’s Word is not all we need for our daily lives and growth in faith or God would not have given us this Sacrament.  This Sacrament is not sufficient for our daily lives and growth in faith or God would not have given us His Word.  Together they are the fuel and energy of our lives of faith and good works.  Hearing the Word our faith is born and directed to the good that He purposes for us and in us.  Eating and drinking at this altar gives strength to the body and soul so that we may endure whatever comes our way and be found ready and faith when Christ returns again.

We keep looking for light bulb moments when at last all the darkness of doubt and fear and guilt will be gone.  The light points us to Him who is the light, Jesus Christ.  In faith there is no fear – only love.  But there is another way of looking at this.  We do not eat one meal and find that enough.  We eat many meals, over and over again.  Our bodies do not need a miracle meal once to consume and never again to eat.  They need a regular and faithful diet of the best food and the best foods for us.  Is it any different for our faith?

We want a moment – a moment of decision or clarity in which faith becomes easy and understandable.  That will not come.  But what will is a meal, set in the presence of our enemies, with food that alone bestows what it signs.  What we get is a meal we eat and drink often for the forgiveness of our sins.  What we get is an invitation to touch Jesus and see Jesus – with the eyes of faith that behold this bread to be His body and this cup His blood.  What we get is a regular and daily diet of Word to transform the mind and of the food of heaven to feed our faith until the day when both shall be perfectly fulfilled by the Risen Lord who returns to claim what is His.

Is it hard to believe these words are God’s Word?  Is it hard to believe that this bread and cup are His flesh and blood?  Is it hard to believe that every battle of our lives has already been fought on the cross?  Is it hard to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who is come to be our Savior and Redeemer?  Sure it is hard.  But it is harder when God’s Word is an alien voice and when we have been absent from His table so long that we don’t remember where to sit.  Come.  Touch.  See.  Listen.  Eat.  Drink.  See.  And give witness to all of this wherever you go and to whomever you meet.  Christ is Risen!

Is woke good for business?

Automakers are finally realizing that electric cars are not selling and many, if not most, have scaled back production goals to reflect the flagging consumer demand.  It may be good politics in Washington right now but it make not be economically feasible.  Do we want our corporations to be the leaders of change and risk the pension funds, IRA money, and all the other economic institutions owning stock in such companies?  Do we want them to gamble with our future when the public is pulling back from electric cars and trucks as the solution for all our problems?

Now it appears that a giant player in the game of promoting free sexual desire and fluid gender identity is also suffering.  Uncle Walt Disney's legacy is awash in failures tied directly to its embrace of the alphabet soup side of the woke agenda.  Once Hollywood’s most successful film studio, Disney lost $1Billion on its last four pictures and Universal has taken over the top spot.  The reason for all this red ink is that Disney bet the farm on public approval and support for its woke positions reflected in its entertainment line up.  Last year they admitted they had bet wrong.  There was a growing ‘misalignment’ between Disney’s output and ‘public and consumer tastes and preferences for entertainment’. ‘Consumers’ perceptions of our position on matters of public interest’, it said, are affecting the company’s bottom line. People are weary of storylines with political messaging and stories manipulated to fit the progressive political and social narrative.  Entertainment is not cheap for the consumer and they are not going to pay premium prices to be lectured to.  Even the Marvel spin offs will not rescue Disney from its own version of foot in mouth disease.  When Gina Carono, one of the stars of the successful Mandalorian series shared an Instagram story in which she compared being a Republican in 21st-century America to being Jewish during the Holocaust, she was fired almost immediately for ‘denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities’.  Oddly enough, the public is firing Disney for pretty much the same reason.

Eventually the woke leaders of corporate America, along with their counterparts in education, will have to admit that the social experiment has been a failure.  Americans will then have to decide if it is worth it to waste corporate resources on a failing strategy and to squander education on the altar of woke ideology.  Bud Light appears to have permanently lost the battle but has Anheuser-Bush and its corporate parent learned the lesson?  The woke agenda is not beyond the comprehension of middle America but is known to be what it is -- the stance of a political and economic elite who seem not to care what the rest of America thinks and who love to paint those who disagree as gun toting, red neck, religious bigots.  Turns out the pronoun toting mostly elite necks who despise religion are themselves the real bigots.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The loss of the prayer offices. . .

Rome basically has relegated the evening prayer office (Vespers to most) to a spoken duty and obligation of the priest in his daily prayer.  Hardly any Roman Catholics are even aware of the prayer offices -- morning or evening.  Oddly enough, the liberal Episopalians have preserved Evensong and the East has kept Vespers as part of the ordinary expression of the church's life at worship.  For Lutherans, Vespers (or Evening Prayer) have become the stuff of Advent and Lenten devotions less than any real or normal part of their daily life of prayer.  Matins was once robustly sung but it has become a casualty of the success of the weekly Eucharist and is no longer uniformly sung or known among Lutherans.

All of this is greeted with some measure of sadness by me.  I recall when nearly every Lutheran knew and knew by heart the familiar words and songs of the two chief prayer offices of morning and evening.  Indeed, we have lost to our memory the once profound songs such as the Venite or the Benedictus.  Worse, the greatest of our hymns, the Te Deum, has become a forgotten song.  We did it to ourselves with improvements incorporated into new hymnals until its once rather uniform melody is mixed up with different melodies and hymn paraphrases in a confusing mess of words and musical notes.  How sad it is to have lost this!  While I have nothing to do with the loss and nothing to do with the restoration of such prayer offices to Rome, I lament that I have not done what I should to keep the great canticles of the morning and evening prayer offices alive in the hearts, minds, and voices of God's people.  Mea culpa!

It is probably more likely that folks know Amazing Grace than the Te Deum or Venite, or Benedictus.  The Nunc Dimittis has survived largely through its use in the Divine Service as Post-Communion Canticle.  The rest have become for today what the forgotten and ignored canticles and Psalms of The Lutheran Hymnal, 661-668.  How said for us!

What we might not be able to do within the larger congregation, let us at least do individually and in our family devotions.  Let us restore to our usage these canticles and songs of the prayer offices at least through what we pray in our solitary devotions and in our homes.  We have ample opportunities to find musical accompaniments to support the singing at home or in our private devotions.  What version we might use is less important than becoming familiar again with what were once cherished songs of the faith and of the faithful.

For my part, the Healy Willan setting of the Te Deum still stirs my soul.  I listen to it far more often than I do the paraphrases typically more well known among most -- Holy God We Praise Thy Name or, the newer setting by Starke, We Praise You and Acknowledge You (sung to the inspiring Holst tune Thaxted).  Alas, I hear it more as echoes of my past than as decisive song of the present.  So permit me this lament this morning and take the time to rediscover these gems of many generations which should be esteemed in our own.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Just as good. . .

In February of this year, a UK (United Kingdom) university hospital has claimed that milk produced by trans-women “is as good for babies” as biological women’s breast milk.  The Telegraph reported that a University of Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust’s (USHT) “letter to campaigners” noted that “after a combination of drugs,” trans-women’s milk is “comparable to that produced following the birth of a baby.”  Remember, these are trans-women — biological men — who must take the hormone progestin in order to develop milk-producing glands. Drugs such as domperidone (which can be prescribed for biological women who have difficulty breastfeeding) are then needed for lactation to begin.  Even the manufacturer of domperidone warns it “was not intended for this” and can cause heart issues in newborns. The obligatory drug leaflet warns domperidone “should be used during breastfeeding only if your physician considers this clearly necessary.”  In any case, the USHT believes domperidone is safe for trans-women, but says staff should, nonetheless, advise those using it of possible complications so they may weigh this against the benefits. 

Just as good.  Hmmmm.  I used to use the same phrase to offer my kids the store brand cereal, the dollar store chocolate, and the not designer label clothing.  They did not buy it then and I think the buyer ought to beware here.  What is behind this is not the quality of the milk but the satisfaction of a political agenda.  Over and over again the culturally elite and politically progressive are trying to convince you of that which you know is wrong.  Every version of marriage is just as good as traditional.  Every sexual orientation is just as good as the binary form of creation.  Every gender is just as good as the ones God created.  Every trans is just as good as the gender they are not.  Oddly enough, the same group is now replacing breast fed and breast milk with chest fed and chest milk.  Do you wonder why?  But no matter, what is best for the trans is good for the babies.  Or just as good, anyway.  Imagine this.  We are told to buy this line by the same people who say infants are not ready for cow's milk.  Talk about GMOs -- is there anything more artificial than a man's breast producing milk?  But that is the problem.  Any truth that serves the purpose of the LGBTQ+ agenda is truth enough to be called science.  Oh, and did I say it yet?  Follow the science.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Joint or Separate. . .

There have been instances in which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have shared a building but had separate congregations.  There have been instances in which Lutherans and Roman Catholics even shared clergy.  Some would laud this as a great ecumenical achievement.  I fear it is far less and abounds in confusion.  I suspect the very few remaining instances of such joint congregations or ministries have been curtailed.  Missouri is no longer interested and the ELCA presents its own set of encumbrances for Rome and the other way around.  Ecumenism is not well served by official instances of churches not taking themselves seriously so that they can take each other seriously.

The same could be said for joint ELCA and LCMS congregations or ministries.  They were a rash experiment in the heady days of ecumenical euphoria but they are not normal.  They are also exceptional in the worst kind of way.  They are neither one nor the other or they are an abdication of one to the other.  That is not quite the best of ecumenism.  Perhaps the last remaining vestiges of these occur on campuses with joint collegiate ministries.  Though I do not know much about where they might exist, Valparaiso is probably the last great beachhead of such joint ministries.  I know there is an LCMS man and an ELCA woman as official chaplains of the so-called joint Lutheran university.  The reality is that Valpo is hardly Lutheran in anything anymore and the collegiate chaplains exist not as some grand exercise of ecumenism but in the more practical vein of serving the students of their respective church bodies.  That is really all it should be anymore.

Ecumenism is far too serious a business to be advanced by odd undings like a joint congregation or ministry.  Worse they are misunderstood.  The presumption is that if the normal things that divide can be suspended there in the unique circumstances of such an exception that they might be suspended everywhere.  The end result is not ecumenism but a dilution of doctrine and a confusion of practice.  If we think that Jesus is somehow pleased with this, we have no idea what He was praying for when He asked the Father that we might be one as He and the Father are one.  The best ecumenism does not hide or mask the differences but confronts them on the basis of God's Word and the catholic tradition.  Indeed, Lutherans once insisted that we looked pretty good in such a comparison.  Perhaps we fear that we do not look quite so good today and so some among us are ready to settle for the saddest bit of ecumenism in place of a real dialog with real conclusions.

In any case I am happy that there are few of these oddities left.  Better that they all go away.  It is surely possible to cooperate in externals and this is the best ecumenism can hope for today.  If we stand with Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in the cause of life and against the devaluing movements set to diminish life's meaning and value, God bless us.  But we certainly do not need to stand at an altar to do that.  If we can work together for the good of the poor and the victims of injustice, maybe we can and should figure out how to do this without the need for praying hands and shared pulpits.  The problem here is that we do not even define advocacy for the poor or help for the victims of injustice in the same way so it already precludes our ability to do much together.  In disaster relief we have one of the last remaining areas of real cooperation but here, too, the role is to serve as an NGO more than an agency of the churches anyway.

In the end, none of us ought to be sad about the demise of the once great ecumenical hopes of a uniting world intent upon the minimization of Scripture and doctrine in order to give an appearance of unity.  It was not what Christ prayed for and it should not be what we are willing to settle for.  The ecumenism that matters is when church bodies are true to their confesssion by being true to the Scriptures.  There is the only possibility for a real progress on the ecumenical front.  Maybe it is high time for a realignment within Christianity in which the old labels were put away so that at least the people who listen to Scripture and pay attention to the catholic tradition could move a bit closer and those who don't could leave us alone (and we them).  I guess I am cynical enough to say this is the kind of ecumenism worth having.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Is there a Lutheran liturgic?

Every now and then and sometimes in comments on this blog people will lament that this or that liturgical practice is not Lutheran.  These range from crossing oneself to genuflecting to elevation to chasubles to kneeling to incense to reservation to ashes and so on.  I suppose you could make a case that some practices were indeed common or not rare at the time of the Reformation or shortly thereafter and some did not endure but the charge about something not being Lutheran is a confusing one.  Is there such a thing?  Do our Confessions presume or promote a Lutheran liturgical theology or practice?  I thought that we insisted upon no novelty, no innovation, and no deviation -- only the preservation of faithful catholic doctrine and practice.  I thought that we insisted Rome was the innovator whose novelty threatened catholic doctrine and practice.  I thought our liturgical issue with Rome was precisely insisting upon those doctrines and practices which were not catholic?

I hear people of a certain age (because they are the only ones who can remember them) wax longingly for the time when Lutherans were minimalists ceremonially, their clergy wore the black gown, when the clergy attire was suit and tie, and their principle was less is more in everything except beer and brats.  That is the poorest excuse for a Lutheran liturgic possible.  To reach back into a certain period of Lutheranism and hold it up as the best practice is to defy the catholic principle claimed in the Augustana.  The problem here is not even going back into a catholic practice but setting a boundary date of 1517 (or a century or so later for the real Lutheran purists) and saying this is the time period that defines the height of Lutheran doctrinal and liturgical achievement.  Really?  And then there are those who would insist that somehow this period was devoid of the influence of Rationalism, Pietism, and Protestantism.  

A month or so ago we heard on social media from those who quote a line from Chemnitz and then drone on about hands of blessing or some other point in order to repudiate the practice of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Okay.  I get it.  You don't like the practice.  So, the Lutheran genius is you don't have to do it or you don't have to head down the aisle to receive them.  No biggie.  But to discredit those who use ashes as somehow not really Lutheran is a joke.  Lutherans insisted they did not have a Lutheran liturgic except the catholic practices that could be observed without sin.  For those who say that wearing ashes is like displaying your works righteousness and your trust in your own efforts to be saved, you have set up a convenient straw man that exists no where except in your own mind.  I could write a similar paragraph for every liturgical practice that the Lutheran minimalists (the Amish of Lutherans) object to but I won't.  Let me just say this.  If you do not like it, don't do it.  It would be wrong of you as a pastor to go to a parish which has such history and practice and dismantle what is there but nothing is forcing you to introduce such practices where you are either.  Why is such ire and upset reserved for those who advocate for a richer Lutheran ceremonial within the tradition of the Augustana while those who jettison every liturgical practice and form are given a pass?  Is a clerical collar responsible for the demise of Lutheranism or is it those who just plain don't want to be Lutheran in the mold of the Augsburg Confession?

Then there are those who make this what the Reformation was about.  Really, Luther was ready to split the Church in the West over a few liturgical practices?  Pretty arrogant, don't you think?  The difference between the papists and the Augsburgers was not was about what you wear or if you bow or genuflect or ashes and the like.  It was about authority.  Either Scripture is the authority or the words of man (whether they are in the mouth of pope, council, or teaching magisterium).  If you want to be a real Lutheran, don't pick petty liturgical battles.  Instead, look at the issue of authority.  The only reason why anyone but a jerk or a fool might divide the Church is over the legitimate issue of this authority.  To steal it away from Scripture and place it in the likes of a guy named Francis is what the Reformation was really about.  Except in the minds of those who don't like liturgical things.  They confuse being anti-papist with being anti-catholic.  By the way, Lutherans then might have said that Rome was not catholic.  It was not merely a matter of labeling but of insisting that Rome had violated the rules of catholicity in order to be Roman.  Maybe some Eastern Christians might agree with that as well.  As for me I want nothing to do with a faith that has its establishment date as either 1517 or 1847.  Either it is the catholic and apostolic faith or none.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Reverence is relevance. . .

Typically we presume that to be casual is to be real and to be formal is contrived or artificial.  This has been the charge for a very long time.  Most Christians have bought into this line of reasoning and even those who know better find it hard to respond to the charge or debate the argument.  In fact, those who advocate for reverence seem sometimes to be defensive -- having to defend reverence as the exception rather than the rule.  

All of this, of course, has happened across Christianity very quickly.  Every Protestant congregation had a formal religious tradition -- even if it was not quite liturgical.  Until more recent times, nearly every Christian tradition had a formal and reverent atmosphere in worship.  Now, the tide of Protestantism has shifted and it is exceptional to find a congregation with a more reverent and formal worship service.  If you do find them, they are offered as one choice among the smorgasbord of worship services, worship flavors, and worship styles.

The truth is that reverence is not merely our attitude toward God but reflects God's attitude toward us.  He is the One who dictated the formal liturgical tradition of the Temple.  Jesus Himself knew the formal setting of the synagogue as normative.  St. Paul's admonition that everything must be done decently and in good order is more about reverence and liturgy than about anything else.  God is not a God of chaos but a God of order.  In pleading for this, the apostle constantly places the life of the Christian within the context of reverence and humility.  Do not think more highly of yourself is not simply a plea for internal humility but is itself expressed in the community through liturgical, formal, and reverent worship.

Relevance is never simply the judgment of the moment but over time.  It is the formation of what is new on the tradition passed down and received by the heirs of those who went before.  In nearly everything we do there is this understanding of reverence as the most relevant expression of life.  Whether in sports or civic events, military or government, patriotism or religion, casual is decidedly irreverent and so irrelevant.  We all know this.  Respect is shown first and foremost in deference and love by not insisting upon your own self-satisfying way.  So it is a false choice between relevance and reverence.  Reverence is relevance.  To be relevant is to be reverent.  Anything else is simply arrogance.

This is true of worship but it is also true of marriage, family,  and life.  Reverence for marriage and for the family marriage creates is the most relevant way to make sure your spouse is happy and you are happy.  Reverence for life is the most relevant way to honor the lives of others and to make sure your life will also be honored.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Depends upon the reasons. . .

Many Christians are upset by the divisions within Christianity.  I get it.  It would be nice if everyone were the kind of Lutheran I am.  Okay.  Stop laughing now.  The truth is that I am not so upset about the divisions of Christendom if they are divisions of substance.  If we are divided on the basis of doctrine, then those divisions are not small or petty.  The answer to such divisions is for everyone to appeal to God's Word and to the catholic doctrine confessed down through the ages.  For this reason, I think it is better for Lutherans and Baptists to be divided upon the Word of truth rightly divided than for Methodists and Presbyterians to be divided over history and their personal traditions.  I think it is better for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to be divided over matters of substance in the faith confessed than to paper over such divisions with an artificial unity in which truth matters little.

While God certainly laments the divisions within Christianity, He most certainly laments even more when we fail to take seriously His Word or invent our own interpretations of that Word to accommodate our abdication to the views of culture and society in the moment.  God can countenance division over truth and even commands it.  To mark our divisions is not to note them but to make sure that they are over matters of substance, matters of the Truth of His Word.  While it is nice that the sex issues of the last decades have been met with Christian defections from the liberal and progressive church bodies, I wonder why it took the decisions to approve same sex marriage, have whatever gendered clergy, and adopt the profusion of genders and pronouns to get there.  There was already plenty in the ELCA, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc., which should have qualified for reasons to divide.  Somehow or other, these were not urgent until the sex issues of 15 to 20 years ago.

You can be sad over the divisions within Christendom but if they are divisions which guard the truth that does not change, these are not as lamentable.  Frankly, I am not sure what is left to divide those churches who confess a God of many names and genders and salvation which the fruit of our own work or sincerity.  In fact, if you can adopt all or part of this strange ecumenism, you should be able to get along with anyone and everyone.  The ugly truth, however, is that the only ones you cannot abide are those who refuse to share your heresy or apostasy.  So the ELCA can be in communion with just about anyone and everyone but confessional Lutherans who refuse to play the sex and gender game.  From the confessional side of things, this division is understandable.  From the progressive side of things, this is what we know it to be -- bigotry.

I suspect that God is not as concerned as we are about such divisions -- so long as they are divisions of substance regarding the truth of His Word.  I know it bothers me less and less although this is perhaps due to the difficulty in being surprised or outraged anymore by what has come to pass as Christian faith.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Looking for peace. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, preached on Sunday, April 7, 2024.

We are an impatient people.  We have unreal expectations of others and of ourselves.  We fear that if things do not change quickly, they will not change at all. We presume that if change does not happen quickly, the folks trying to change are not trying hard enough.  It becomes a convenient way for us to give up when the change becomes difficult or to surrender when we feel too many defeats and too few victories.  How vain we are for presuming that change has to happen overnight!

The disciples were gathered in the Upper Room, behind a locked door lest some of those who came for Jesus might be coming for them.  Into their prison of fear and trembling, Jesus enters.  Not by way of a door but as if He had no more boundaries or could be constrained by any more limits.  All of a sudden He was there.  There with the scars of His cross still on His body even though it had been glorified.

To the assembled disciples minus Thomas, He showed them His hands, feet, and side.  He breathed on them the Holy Spirit.  He ordained them into the office which holds the keys of the Kingdom.  Whatsoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven and whatsoever sins you do not forgive, they are retained.  In one fell swoop they had seen the risen Lord enter the room through a locked door, show them the scars He now wore as marks of His victory, and been ordained to be His servants bringing the Word and Sacraments to a world still in darkness and death.

Now it is a week later.  No matter what Jesus had said and done last week, they were still hiding behind a locked door.  This time Thomas was not absent but brought his doubts and fears to dump at the feet of Jesus.  Again, our Lord thrusts out His hands and invites him to touch His side.  He is not a ghost.  His death was not a trick.  Neither is His resurrection.  “My Lord and my God,” says Thomas while the whole room bobbed their heads up and down in agreement.

Now do you suppose that the same group that had run away from the crucifixion of Jesus and hid behind locked doors after the resurrection was suddenly different?  Do you believe that their fears dissipated and their hesitation was overcome in a moment?  Did their doubts disappear and they suddenly stood up with a steely countenance to all the threats and powers against them?  You would be wrong.  Theirs was no sudden transformation.  It happened over time with missteps and backtracks and the Holy Spirit rescuing them from their fears over and over again. 

So why do you think it should be different for you?  Why do you think that the sins which have been your friends for so long should be easy to end and righteousness easy to learn?  Why do you think that the doubts that have so long inhabited you should suddenly give way to an assurance and confidence that cannot be shaken?  Why do you think that the courage which is so hard for you to muster should become easy in testifying to your faith or applying your faith to the troubles life hands you?  Why do you think that your life should be transformed from the daily struggle against the devil, the flesh, and the world into some downhill slide that no longer requires much effort on your part?

The disciples never reached any plateau in their growth in the Lord.  Their lives had steps backward as well as forward.  They learned anew what they had already learned but forgotten in the face of challenge or fear or worry or anxiety or disappointment.  It is the same for you.  You are not super heroes.  You are sinners.  You will always been sinners – at least until Christ comes to finish what He began in you.  You will always struggle to believe as much as you struggle to live the new lives God has declared for you in baptism.

The key here is this.  The more distant you are from the Word of God and the fellowship of His table, the harder it will be for you to endure against your doubts, your fears, your worries, your anxieties, and your disappointments.  Christians are not immune from the hard things in life.  We are strong only because we are in Christ.  We endure only because we are in Christ.  Christ abides in us as long as we abide in Him and in the means of grace where He bestows His gifts and grace.

Like Thomas, we are creatures of doubt.  Like the disciples we are creatures of fear.  The Lord does not once address those doubts and fears never to address them again.  Instead He constantly lives among our doubts and fears with His Word and Supper and the Holy Spirit working through those means of grace.  He does not still one storm but every storm that arises from the seas of our sins, our doubts, our fears, and our disappointments.  He is constantly rescuing us not simply from others out there but from the person inside.              

We look for locked doors to feed our sense of security but the only security we have is Christ.  Whether we live or die we belong to Him.  We look for plans and scapegoats to make us feel better about making what we want to happen and keeping what we don’t want from happening. But Christ is our plan, our only plan.

We think anxiety can be medicated away but Christ is our peace and our only peace.  This is what a room of disciples began to learn when Jesus walked into their panic room on Easter evening and a week later.  This is what Thomas began to learn having tried to answer doubts with proofs to replace faith.  This is what you begin to learn.  A trip to Church is not a vaccine against the woes of this mortal life.  No, the trip to Church is the healing medicine we must live on day in and day out until Christ brings the whole enterprise to its final consummation.

These things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.  The greatest sign and wonder is the crucified One who lives and who gathers to Himself disciples without backbones and doubters who refuse to believe anything but what they can touch.  Well, here He is.  The risen Lord is among you.  He speaks through the voice of His Word.  He works through baptismal water to give us the new birth to everlasting life.  He works through the Eucharistic bread and wine to sustain us through our disappointment and doubts, amid fear and trepidation, so that His claim on us will be stronger than any other claim on us.

There is no security stronger than the One whom the grave could not hold.  There is no longer stronger than the One willing to sacrifice all for your sake and mine.  There is no peace stronger than the One who stills our skeptical minds and doubting hearts by inviting us to touch His wounds and be healed.  All of us are named Thomas and imprisoned by our doubts.  All of us are like the disciples hidden behind the locked doors of our fears.  But the good news is this.  Jesus has come to set us free.

Christ is risen!