Wednesday, January 31, 2024

 Now is the time to register!

Too much to remember. . .

Watching a documentary of sorts on the Edwardian era and in particular with table settings and manners, the narrator commented that the rules were simply too much to remember.  At that, the authority on such things responded that it was not remembered at all but had become instinctive to everyone sitting at table. While I would have loved to been there as a visitor to Highclere or any of the other great houses of that era, I am sure I would have found the rules too much to remember as well.  I am certain I would have been watching those around me for clues and cues to figure my way through it all.  Those born to it make it look easy.

The same comment came to me when I was explaining the various ceremonies of the liturgy -- from bowing at the name of Jesus to genuflecting at the incarnation in the creed to the elevation to the sign of the cross, etc.  The person thought it was simply too much to remember and it took away from worship to be preoccupied with what to do and when to do it.  But of course, I responded.  That would be true except that it becomes instinctive with practice until you do not think to do it but only notice when it is not done.  I am sure that it did not help.  The point was not how difficult or easy it was to remember the rubrics and observe them.  The point was that the individual did not want to learn them or do them until they did become instinctive.

I have long insisted that the pastor's job is not to model his own preference or a middling example of what many might prefer but to model before the congregation the fullest expression of the liturgical habitus that belongs to the Church Catholic.  Indeed, if people do not see it where they ordinarily worship, it only reinforces the whole ridiculous idea that none of it is important or worthwhile unless and until I decide it benefits me.  The pastor should not be a novice to the faith (or to Lutheranism) and part of the job of pastoral formation at the seminary should be to expose the pastor to a fuller ceremonial than he may have experienced before and to the fullest expression as can be.  This is precisely so that he may model that fuller ceremonial to the congregation so that they know that these things are, indeed, Lutheran, and part of ordinary Lutheran practice (if not now, at one time and if not here, then at other places).

The pastor does these so often that they become instinctive.  Indeed, it nearly killed me to not genuflect when I had a broken leg and was not able to do so.  It was not because I think that this is somehow a make or break practice but that I had become so accustomed to it that not doing it felt odd.  I heard a younger pastor who had not grown up with Eucharistic vestments but wore them regularly say that he felt naked without it.  Of course.  Not because the lesser ceremonial is wrong but because that is the whole benefit of the ritual -- for it to become normal and ordinary so that you do not think about doing it but only think about it when it is not done.

It is not too much to remember any more than any other repeated gesture is too much to remember -- it all becomes a good and salutary habit.  That is what ought to happen with ceremonies.  We learn them so that they become a part of us.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Making death kind. . .

Until modern times hardly anyone would have thought death was kind.  If anything, the portrayal of death was always as a dark and unwelcome visitor, a thief who stole from us life and loved ones.  That view of death is waning as we have made our peace with death.  Indeed, it could be that we have gone much further than simply being friendly with death.  It has become a kindly figure in our lives -- more kindly than we would judge life itself.

The vast majority of people would find it hard to disagree with the statement that there are somethings worse than death.  From this comes the tacit approval of aborting children thought to have some deformity or handicap.  Even some of those opposed to taking the life of the unborn find it understandable to choose to take the life in the womb as a better and more kindly act than allowing a birth to a less than full life.  From this comes the difficulty even some of those opposed to abortion have of telling someone who is suffering in body or spirit that they cannot take their own lives and end their suffering.  From this comes the difficulty of even some of those opposed to abortion to condemn the euthanasia of those who seem to have no memory or cognitive activity or physical mobility.  The old line between offering only palliative care and extraordinary measures has slowly been erased so that even food becomes too much in the minds of some.  Death is kinder than life for many of those who would ordinarily say that abortion is wrong.

The cause of life is not merely an end to abortion.  It is even beyond the protection of life from its natural beginning to its natural end.  It is the view of life as sacred even amid suffering and handicap.  No life is so casual or precarious that we can dispense with it as a life unworthy of life or a life not worth living.  We are not the judges.  We are the guardians of God's precious and sacred gift.  That is all we can be.  Despite our technology and prowess with it, we are not the moral wizards who get to decide which life has value and which does not.  No matter how little you try to embrace this idea, it will lead you down the wrong path until no life has value until we assign it.  That is the beginning of the end.  But that is almost where we are now.

The votes on assisted suicide and abortion rights that have prevailed among us even against the overturning of Roe shows that this is not and never was a simple matter of one procedure.  It is inextricably woven into everything from reproductive technology to birth control, from how we deal with the aged or infirm who cannot produce to the way we view handicap and deformity.  We seem to have less stomach for life than we have for death and so even those who might come down on the right side of abortion are coming down on the wrong side of life.  Death is not kind nor friendly.  God may, in His infinite wisdom, be merciful to us in our suffering but death is never an ally of life nor even indifferent.  You cannot make death into a kindly figure.  Death is and will always be the dark figure without form or face who comes to steal what God has given.  The miracle of God is not to make death more friendly but to end its tyranny over us once for all with the resurrection of our Lord.  God has exposed death for what it is so that the life He offers in Christ may be more than our comfort but our hope.  Nowhere is this more profoundly true than in the midst of the lives of suffering who endue with grace, dignity, faith, and hope.  Sadly, we pity what we ought to be honoring as heroic.

Monday, January 29, 2024

A crisis of authority. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (B), preached on Sunday, January 28, 2024.

Authority the word or concept has lost some of its value of late.  It started long ago in the rebellious years of free love and no war.  It matured into deep suspicion and skepticism of those who claim authority. It ended up with resistence to those who exercise it.  Our world is a political mess and it is not much different here at home.  The real authorities sit in silence as those who claim authority stir up violence and issue threats.  Our schools are locked down and inside it seems like the inmates are running the asylum.  We cry out for law and order but we suspect the police of being bullies and bigots.  Surely it is the wrong time to preach on authority.

Yet authority is exactly what our world is crying out for – not imaginary authority or imagined authority but real authority.  We are not talking about the kind of authority that comes from more money or a bigger gun or more votes or more alphabet salad behind your name.  We are talking about divine authority – authority over life and death.  This is the authority of Jesus.  It is not His because He claims it but because He exercises it.  He demonstrates this authority by forgiving the sins of sinners, by transcending the laws of nature, by healing the sick, by raising of the dead, and by casting out demons.  

All of this was not lost on the crowds of Jerusalem and in the outlying areas even into Capernaum.  They had heard the stories all right.  Even without a newspaper or screens that give us breaking news every second, Jesus had already become a celebrity, a phenomenon.  But the authority of Jesus was not displayed simply in the drama of food multiplied or the sick healed.  In fact, the first place where the people noticed something different in Jesus was in His teaching.  Jesus taught them as one with authority – different from the rabbis and scribes and teachers they had known before and heard from their religious leaders.

The teachers then footnoted their teaching with rabbinical authority.  But Jesus did not quote others.  Jesus spoke the Word.  Even more, He spoke it as one who knew that Word inside and out.  He spoke the Word as its author.  That is the meaning of real authority.  Jesus is the author of the Scriptures, the Word eternally begotten of the Father and now incarnate in the flesh and blood of the Son of Mary.  Jesus was pretty clear about this.  “You heard it said but I say unto you...”  The Pharisees, scribes, and elders tried to fact check Jesus but every time they tried His authority only increased and they backed off.

Furthermore, Jesus did not try to convince them that He was right.  He did not defer to the judgment of His hearers.  There is no democracy to determine what the Word of God is or means.  There is no need to marshal opinions to one side or another.  There is no vote.  Jesus speaks bluntly – too bluntly for our ears but so bluntly that He is unassailable.  Even His opponents note this.  At the end of His ministry they admit that Jesus does not care about the opinions of others and He cannot be swayed.  He is one who is of the Word and who keeps the Word.

The Church has lost this kind of authority.  Some might point to doctrinal conflicts or moral failings of the clergy or the many other options available to people as the reasons for this loss.  I am sure they contribute.  But the real reason why the Church has lost its authority is that we are no longer people of the Word of God.  Unlike Jesus, we do care what people think.  We even change God’s Word on the basis of what people think.  We have turned Bible study into a free for all where everyone gets an opinion and we have made doctrine into a bad word.  As a result, the world looks at Christians and sees a leaf blown through the air, without anchor, purpose, or goal.

Jesus came to manifest the authority of His Word, putting into flesh and blood and deeds what Scripture says.  He came to restore creation, bringing what and who God made back to God.  He came to repair what sin broke, covering our sins with His righteousness and repairing death with the life that cannot die.  He came to deliver the helpless from the devil’s temptation and power and to cast out demons from the people of God.  He came to plant hope where despair or indifference once reigned and build that hope on the promise of a new and everlasting heaven and earth.  He came to bestow the gifts of God upon the undeserving who can offer God little more than their sins which they confess and their trust in His mercy.

This is why the Church exists and what the Church has been given to do.  While it is a good thing to organize food drives for the hungry and financial help for the needy and to sponsor youth programs and events for senior citizens and even musical concerts for everyone.  This is not why we are here.  We exist to proclaim the Word of the Lord that endures forever and to proclaim it without apology or embarrassment or avoiding its sharp edges.  We exist to forgive the sins of the penitent and to teach knowledge of salvation and to serve the people of God with the gifts of God through which they are saved.  We do not have authority because people like or respond to what we do.  We have authority because of His Word.

As we wield the two edged sword of that Word, people are saved, kept in their salvation, and delivered from death to everlasting life.  The miracles of Jesus were not in place of the Word or more profound than His Word.  The miracles of Jesus were in support of the Word so that in words and deeds there was one message, one authority, and one purpose being accomplished.  If we as the Church had the same clarity to what we said and what we did, just maybe the Church would not be in the mess that it is right now.

What the Church does not need are more programs or a better social media presence or more people who think we are doing a good job.  What we do need is as simple and blunt today as it was when Jesus was in the synagogue of Capernaum.  We need to be people of Christ’s Word, under the authority of that Word, and captive to that Word and not to the whims of feelings, opinions, preferences, or wants.  We need pastors who will be the same – teachers of the Word who wield the authority of that Word in order to fulfill Jesus’ own saving purpose.  We need people who will insist that they be given God’s Word in full strength, the whole counsel of that Word, and who will make it the bedrock foundation of their homes and lives.

The Pharisees said that Jesus did not care about the opinions of people but Jesus does care about people.  Jesus does not defer to the authority of others but exercises the real authority of the Word of God because it is the only Word that saves.  When Christianity begins to do the same, the people will once again be astonished by such authority and be drawn to it because it is the only Word that saves.

Authority is not the problem. . .

Though we live in a Christian world in which Christians have become embarrassed by such things as the masculine names for God made known to us in the Scriptures and the kingly nature of the Savior who is born of Mary, authority is not the problem we need to fix.  Though we live in a pseudo-egalitarian world in which everyone is supposed to be equal and count the same, the Son of God is designated King from the promise given before His birth to His birth as King of the Jews to the sign placed by Pilate above the crucified Lord.  This is not a problem for us to fix but an article of faith for us to believe and confess.

It was a sad day when supposedly well-meaning Christians decided that some texts of Scripture and hymns were too militant and that king and kingdom were terms to be avoided.  Some Lutherans continue to do this (reference Clint Schnekloth who is a proud ELCA pastor and who drops the g so the offending word ends up kin-dom).  It seems that we have reversed the mantra of Israel who begged the Lord for a king so that they would be like everyone else.  Now we want nothing of a kingdom nor of a Savior who is a King.  Nope, we want nothing of patriarchy or monarchy of any kind and will reject any Jesus who does not know to be as enlightened as we are.,

That is the problem.  We have rejected a Savior who is born King and rejected the Kingdom He has come to rule.  In so doing, we have ended up with the chaos of diversity in which stupidity is deemed wise and wisdom has gone begging.  In our dream world, there are no sins and no redeemers but there are also no rulers or subjects.  We rule ourselves.  The fruits of Eden are not the choice of the wrong kings but no kings or, better, a kingdom not of priests to serve but of kings who do what they please.  In this world of our dreams, there are no authority figures (at least none we will admit) and freedom has become license to continue Eden's rebellion where and how we please.  Remember here I am not talking about the world out there but those who claim the name Christian and who believe themselves to be true to Jesus.

Congregations want to reshape the Gospel into something the majority can vote on and they want to be able to fire their pastors at will.  Authority even of our Confessions is but lip service to many Lutherans and even Lutherans view the pastor as an employee.  Indeed, the worst thing a pastor can be is to be faithful (which translates into domineering in the minds of many).  The discipline of the congregation has largely been lost.  We find it impossible to hold those in pew accountable for their public sins anymore than we do the pastors for theirs.  We deal with discipline by ignoring the trouble and hoping that it will go away or by talking about anything and everything except sin in the Church.  No kings are allowed to upset that ideal -- not even Jesus!

We presume authority is the right to tell people what to do and then punish them if they don't.  That was never the kind of authority Scripture speaks of nor is it the authority of Christ.  If that is all authority is -- the right to tell others what to do -- it is no wonder that we chafe under it or fight over who exercises it. Christianity transformed the world not with a God strong enough to take down all the other gods of Rome and Athens but with a God strong enough to suffer and die.  Authority for those who would follow Him is not the pursuit of unrestrained license and freedom to do what you please but taking up the cross, following Jesus, loving God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.  The authority refused the sexual indulgence of Rome, the misogyny of a world in which men were better than women, and the false morality of a world in which children, especially the unborn, did not matter.

Christianity did not dismantle one authoritarian regime in order to replace it with another.  We did not exchange one self-serving dictator for another.  We got a King who dies for His subjects and who earns His authority by means of the suffering of the cross and the death to redeem the dead to life.  This is not a King who comes with a list of demands or a new set of rules but of love strong enough to forgive and life strong enough to raise us with Him.  That does not mean that anything goes but that His kingly reign comes not by abandoning all that He was incarnate to do.  Rather it means drawing us into Him and into the shape of His service until to the world the King and His subjects are one.  This authority does not ignore sin or wish it away or shrug it off but confronts it -- all sin, even the pet sins and desires of our hearts we never think to confess.  He brings it out into the open not to condemn us but to save us.  Love does not let the sinner off but applies the currency of Christ's own blood to pay its awful price.  If anything, this is an authority vastly superior and with a higher claim on us than one which comes with demands and commands.  In this Kingdom of Christ we do not live in the chains of His oppression but in the freedom to live as one of His own, under Him in His Kingdom now and even forevermore.  It is high time that we began to act like it and to abandon our foolishness in favor of His eternal wisdom.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Can sola Scriptura save us?

Before you rush to condemn me, I am not at all suggesting that we abandon the idea of Scripture alone or the sufficiency of the Scriptures or that God's Word is infallible or efficacious.  My point is this.  You cannot save Christendom with phrases and bywords of another era that you do not intend to honor in belief and practice.  The Bible in itself -- infallible and inerrant as it is, cannot alone ensure orthodoxy unless the Church affirms, consents, and lives by this Word.  The Church does not make the Scriptures reliable but the reliability of Scripture in providing the message of salvation requires the attention of the Church and her voice to proclaim what God has said.  It is not enough to repeat the old phrases if you do not intend to live by them.  

Every time we gather as churches we tend to repeat what we have said before and to honor the past at least with our lip service.  In my own tradition we do this regularly at every national gathering.  We affirm that Scripture is without error and efficacious, in close(d) communion, weekly Eucharist, the office of the ministry, preaching, catechesis, etc. . .  But no matter how often we affirm what we have always believed and confessed, the reality is that we are not sure what to do with those who repeat the mantra without really meaning what those words say.  In a shrinking church you are not likely to find much support for actions that would shrink that church more anymore than you are want to find people wearied of yesterday's battles who wish to fight more.  We are wearied not simply by the changes and chances of this fast paced life but also by the cost of those changes and chances in the tensions within our relationships on the congregational level and every level above that. 

The reality is that bishops cannot save us from heresy or apostasy but good ones can certainly help.  The liturgy will not preserve us from such heresy or apostasy either but faithful liturgy will help.  Saying that the Scriptures are God's infallible Word and efficacious in bestowing what they say will not alone preserve us but it will help.  Bishops must act like bishops and teach and discipline us in the faith or they are merely eye candy.  The liturgy must be our prayer and our proclamation or it is merely an external form for those who like such things.  Sola Scriptura is a nice slogan but it must be more than a slogan in order for it to matter to us and help us to remain at anchor within God's pale while the rivers of change flow away from Christ and Him crucified and risen.

Honestly, I am weary of the slogans and phrases that we drop to let people know who we are but then do not really mean to keep them.  Why do we still have to say the weekly Eucharist is the norm for us  unless we really do not think it is?  Why do we need to affirm that the Table of the Lord is for the Lord's people (baptized confessors of the faith) unless we really do not think it is?  Why do we need to say sola Scriptura unless we just want to keep the image without having to be bothered by what that Word says?  We do not benefit from holding these things in theory unless we are ready and willing to have them norm our practice as well.  God help us not only to say what we mean but to mean what we say!

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Kill it to make it survive. . .

If you are a person of my age, you cannot help but know the name Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.  He took over Notre Dame University and introduced a whirlwind of changes that, on the surface, seemed to be just the thing the school needed.   Upon the heels of the 1967 Land O'Lakes Statement, Hesburgh had a vision for what a modern Roman Catholic university should look like.  Key to this happening was the need for the school to cast off the constraints of churchly authority and become autonomous.  That is what happened.  With it, his progressive vision gave to Notre Dame an increasingly secular educational setting.  This, of course, meant that ownership of Notre Dame had to be transferred from the Congregation of Holy Cross (a Roman Catholic order) to itself and its governance was now by a board of laymen who brought to the school expertise that would insure not only its survival against competitors (secular schools) but success.  They admitted women into the student body, built up the school’s research role and with it the dependence upon government money -- all the while turning the school into its own form of semi-religious Ivy League identity.  The movie Knute Rockne--All American in 1940 (Ronald Reagan starred) and then Rudy (1993) added to the mystique of the school and enhanced its reputation along with the changes taking place in South Bend.  

Hesburgh's successor, Fr. John Jenkens, was perhaps no match for his charismatic predecessor in some ways but in others excelled at expanding the vision of Notre Dame.  Though he decried higher education’s descent into secularism, acknowledging that many of the “other truly great universities in this country . . . began as religious, faith-inspired institutions, but nearly all have left that founding character behind,” Notre Dame was soon to follow -- despite his haunting question: “If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?”   We all know how that went with Vagina Monologues and drag shows on campus.  In 2012, the university sued the government (HHS) for redress by religious freedom against the mandate to provide contraceptive services. After they won in 2017, Jenkins changed his mind and decided to provide contraceptives after all. You could not make him but he did what the government wanted anyway.  Now Jenkins is retiring and a successor named.  Will that president increase the drift of the university away from Roman Catholic faith and practice?  Do I need to ask that question?

I have not attended Notre Dame and only been once on the campus and that in the 1970s.  But we have a university in the LCMS and a leadership that might have read the playbook.  We are currently in court over one of our schools which cast off the constraints of the church in order to pursue its own vision of what a Lutheran university looked like.  As in the case of Notre Dame, the board voted to make itself and its stewardship over the school begun by the LCMS self-sustaining -- without some denominational meddling.  We will see how this goes.  For what it is worth, Concordia Texas has little chance of becoming a Notre Dame but they have tied their survival to an independence that, like Notre Dame, preserves the ambiance of the church without having to mess with the messy business of doctrine and practice.  In the end, Notre Dame may end up surviving but not as an institution with a Roman Catholic identity.  CU-TX may be in the same boat.  Sadly, some folks are reconciled to the fact that you might have to kill something to keep it alive.  God may be able to do that but I have no confidence in university administrations and regents to do the same.  In the end, would it have been so bad to remain small and faithful?  For Notre Dame we will never know.  For CU-TX we might have the opportunity to find out.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Curious. . .

We all know that Francis did not quite bless same sex couples nor did he grant them the status of marriage.  Of course, all of that is kind of lost in the mix of things.  These are part of that grand category of distinctions without a difference.  This is especially true of how it will appear to those outside and inside the Roman Catholic Church.  Oddly enough, the blessing itself is not to include any of the typical words or forms of prayer common to marriage.  The Vatican document is pretty clear on this.  The blessings cannot “be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding.”  Okay, except for one thing.  Most folks will have trouble remembering what is common or proper to a wedding  sanctioned by Rome and a blessing made up on the spot.  Yes, that is it.  The blessing should be made up, creative, not following the form or phrases common to the marriage rite.  Does that mean they should also be spontaneous?  But, wait.  Isn't that part of what has gotten Rome into trouble before?  Priests not following the forms or rites but making it up as they went along?  But now that is what they are supposed to do?

Ex corde  prayer, prayer from the heart, sounds like it is just the answer but in reality it is often the problem.  The works we make up on the spot may fail to square with what is public teaching.  Indeed, I find myself sometimes hesitant to say "Amen" to such prayers because I am not quite sure what I am giving my assent to and begging the Lord to do.  Surely by skipping the ritual forms of prayer that accord with the rites and doctrines of the faith the pope's call will end up with confusion at best and heresy at worst.  But that has hardly stopped him in the past.  

Think about this.  The pope is fearful of the ordered prayers of the ancient liturgy, the Vetus Ordo as some call it.  He is so fearful of it that he has greatly restricted not only its use but who can consent to its use.  Yet he seems to be somewhat unafraid of what priests might make up while speaking off the cuff to the same sex couple.  Except, of course, that they need to be careful NOT to sound like the rites or the liturgy or anything, well, official.  Yeah, that is something that will not end up coming back to bite you in the end.  

Dare I say the obvious?  Those same pastors will undoubtedly be approached by same sex couples who neither want nor will be satisfied by an ad hoc blessing.  They want something official -- so official, perhaps, that it is hard to distinguish from the wedding rite itself.  And how will they be content with an off the cuff prayer that does not sound churchly in a setting far removed from altar and rail.  Do they not want from Francis the real thing and not a fake imitation -- something in the church, in front of family and friends, with music, with everyone dressed up (including the priest) and a sumptuous reception to follow?  Yeah, this is going to go a long ways to satisfy every one, right?

Thursday, January 25, 2024

The joke is on us. . .

Harvard College, which became Harvard University, was founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, making it the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States.  For centuries, its graduates were counted among the elite of Massachusetts' clerical and civil ranks and, from the 19th century on, among the ranks of national and international figures.  This occurred as a dozen graduate and professional schools were formed around the undergraduate College, including schools of medicine (1782), law (1817) and business (1908) as well as the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (1890).  Since the late 19th century Harvard has become one of the most prestigious universities and graduate schools in the world, boasting a library system and financial endowment larger than those of any other.  Though begun as a Christian school, Charles W. Eliot, president 1869–1909, eliminated the favored position of Christianity from the curriculum.  During the 20th century, Harvard's international reputation grew as a burgeoning endowment and prominent professors expanded the university's scope. Explosive growth in the student population continued with the addition of new graduate schools and the expansion of the undergraduate program. Policies of exclusion were not limited to religious minorities but included sexual minorities as well -- right up into the 1950s.  Mostly, Harvard was known for its rigorous educational standards even while the progressive drift of the university continued unabated to the present day.  Now that is not the case.

Claudine Gay, a black woman, has managed to break the glass ceiling and to ascend to the presidency of perhaps the world’s most prestigious university, without ever publishing a single academic book under her own name.  In addition, her contributions to academic and professional journals and publications has over her entire lifetime been less than President Lawrence Summers (who led Harvard from 2001-2006) published in the space of one year -- 1987!  How many professors would be viewed favorably and receive tenure with so thin a resume?  It is clear that Harvard has chosen to elevate a leader not on the basis of a resume of accomplishment and achievement but because this individual fits the ideological profile the school has set for the job.  The big joke is this.  The most elite university in the world offers something less than scholarship and more about access -- connections to the powerful.  Indeed, Harvard's diploma is more about networking with the elite and commending students with the secret handshake of its persona than it is education and scholarship. Harvard is training people how to gain access to and influence within the halls of power but is not quite about giving them the best education money can buy.

According to the Harvard student newspaper, more than three-quarters of their students are taking anti-depressants.  This, given that at Yale, nearly 80% of grades are As and a similar statistic prevails at Harvard as well.  What is there to be depressed about?  Unless, perhaps, you realize that the joke is also on you?  Now lest we think that ideology drives only the Ivy League schools, consider this.  The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin system refused $800 million from the state legislature when it came with strings that would have stalled the growth of the diversity, equity, and inclusiveness agenda and asked them to stop hiring people for those positions and to give those currently in some of those positions other jobs within the university.  So there you have it.  Ideology has become the most important thing of all -- from Massachusetts to Wisconsin and probably a thousand other educational giants.  No wonder people are asking if it is worth it to go in debt for a degree that may not be worth what you paid for it!

Postscript...  The dust up over the UW at LaCrosse Chancellor who was doing porn on the side only highlights the moral vacuum on the larger university scene!

Postscript 2...  So President Gay is no longer President of Harvard.  Gay announced her resignation on January 2 after the allegations of plagiarism and her embarrassing answers about whether antisemitic comments from students would violate the school's code of conduct made it impossible for her to stay.  Except that is not quite how she has framed it. Of course, racism will be the blame and white people the instruments of her downfall.  How sad it is when people refuse to accept responsibility for their own obvious failings.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

A big fine. . .

Founded in 1949, Grand Canyon University was a nonprofit institution until 2004. In an effort to increase capital for the university to avoid closing, they partnered with private investors in order to obtain capital and grow the university.  While Grand Canyon is not supervised by the LCMS, it has a conservative Missouri Synod man at the helm and its embedded mission is unapologetically Christian, and conservative Christian.   Former-seminary professors from the LCMS teach there.  It's located in and has dramatically improved the economics of an inner-city area of Phoenix. The university returned to being a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt Arizona nonprofit status in 2018 in which they stated was approved by the IRS, Higher Learning Commission, State of Arizona, Arizona Private Postsecondary Board, and NCAA Athletics.  However, the Department of Education rejected its nonprofit request. After failed negotiations on the university's nonprofit status, GCU pushed back with a lawsuit arguing the department's decision was "arbitrary and capricious" in 2021.  All the while the school grew to in excess of 25K students.

In its latest assault on institutions that fail to adhere to its ideological bent, the Biden administration  imposed the largest fine in the history of the U.S. Department of Education on Grand Canyon University (GCU) — a school whose motto is "private, Christian, and affordable."  To put that $37.7 million fine to scale, that is 10 times bigger than that levied against schools who covered up some of the worst sex offenders in U.S. history.  By any measure, the Phoenix-based GCU is a success story.  It has exploded in growth from under 1K students to more than 25K -- offering degrees in every conceivable discipline yet with a tuition increase in over 15 years. It all came to a head in November 2023, when the department assessed a $37.7 million fine against GCU (more than 15x larger than the $2.4 million fine against Penn State University for failing to report the crimes of serial pedophile and football coach Jerry Sandusky and 8 x larger than the $4.5 million fine against Michigan State University when that school refused to address sexual assaults committed by now-disgraced team doctor Larry Nassar.   

Now I do not know that much about GCU nor of its Lutheran connections but it does seem that the fine imposed is a threat not only against that school but against any and all who dare to defy the US Department of Education and its liberal and progressive agenda and rules.  While this may be more of a local issue, the over all picture is how difficult it is and will be in the future for a college or university to extend its independence from the liberal and progressive elite who decide everything from funding to accreditation.  They sky is not falling yet but the foundations are cracked.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Maybe I am too picky. . .

As I was looking at photos posted on social media of Christmas celebrations, I encountered one with a blue altar covering (not quite a parament but more like a blanket complete with yarn fringe just laid upon the altar as if it were a bed after someone had just gotten up).  Then this Roman Catholic photo showed the celebrant with was a very reddish version of purple chasuble and on the two assisting priests in vestments of a bluer purple.  On top of it all were two other priests in white chasubles.  It ended up looking rather comical.  I know.  I am being too picky.  But the end result was that the whole thing looked like it had been hastily thrown together as if you were planning on being alone and some folks showed up at your door expecting a holiday feast.

I guess we should be thankful they were vested and used what might have been the best they had (I am trying to be charitable here).  My point in all of this is that we often dress the holiday tables of our family celebrations with more care and concern than we dress the altar or the clergy.  Of course I am spoiled.  My wife sets a marvelous table.  It is a feast for the eye before the food is even placed upon it.  This is what ought to be happening on Sunday morning.  Before the table is prepared for the Supper of our Lord, the altar should be a feast for the eye.  Honestly, it does not cost that much to put things together well.  What is required more than money is attention.

The chancel should be a feast for the eye with at least the same level of attention given to it as you would a festive celebration in your home.  This means some thought to it all.  Reverence is not making much out of little but showing attention to detail because it is the Lord's altar and the focus of the congregation's attention in prayer and prayer and from it is bestowed the richest gifts known on earth in the body and blood of our Lord.  So take some care when you prepare the altar for Sunday morning.  Pastors, take some care when you vest.  These things are either distractions from what is going on there or they are means to appreciate even more the significance of all that the Lord is doing in our midst through His Word and Sacrament.   While the example is Roman, I could have just as easily picked on Episcopalians or Lutherans.  This whole thing is about things that matter more when you get them wrong than they do when you get them right. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

Follow ME. . . .

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (B), preached on Sunday, January 21, 2024. 

It is a shame that Jesus did not have the advantage of modern selling techniques or He could have had so many more than just 12 disciples.  Consult any expert on how to recruit people to a cause.  You need to have a clear mission statement.  You need to be able to point to a clear goal.  You need to help people adopt your goal as theirs.  You need to help them see how this will benefit them.  You need to offer them a reward for their investment in the cause.  All of this sounds reasonable because this is how many get things done today and some of those folks seem to be very successful.  But that is not how Jesus did it.

Jesus did not explain Himself to those whom He called.  He did not get them onboard the mission or help them understand the purpose.  He did not offer them promises of reward or accomplishment.  He simply said, “Follow Me.”  It should have failed.  Even in Jesus’ day, it was shocking to hear someone call you to follow him and they just did it.  It is positively mind blowing in our day that you could call people to follow and they would.  Why, it is a wonder that Jesus got anything done!

That is the crux of the problem.  The Church is not simply a non-profit organization or a cause.  The Gospel is not a mission statement or a plan.  The service to which our Lord calls us is neither glamorous nor does it offer the promise of great reward (at least on earth).  But we have presumed for too long that the Church is these things and we need to operate like such organizations in order to survive.  The Church is failing today not because we have not listened to the marketers and promotion experts.  No, the Church is failing because we have not listened to Jesus.

“Follow Me.” That is what discipleship is.  That is the whole of Christian faith in one short but profound phrase.  Jesus is not interested in your advice or some pointers.  He is calling you to follow Him.  This call is devoid of the kind of mass marketing tools we are so accustomed to – no slick brochures, no persuasive talks, no promises of reward.  There is simply a verb and an object.  “Follow Me.”  The call went out to Andrew, Peter, James, and John, to Matthew, Zacchaeus, Joseph, Nicodemus, and all the rest.  And so it goes out to YOU; “Follow Me.”  You there in the front pew and you in the back.  You on the side chairs and you off the center aisle.  The young, the middle aged, and the old.  “Follow Me.”
Jesus called them as He calls us to be His disciples.  None of them were looking for a new vocation or had been searching for something new to occupy their time. They did not know Jesus well before He called them – the most they had was a rumor or story.  Without any real preparation, He called them and they followed.

They did not ask where Jesus was going.  Later on He would tell them.  We are going to a cross, to a death waiting in Jerusalem.  They might have been interested in a cup of glory but Jesus had a cup of suffering.  He even warned them that they would be persecuted and die.  He insisted they leave their luggage at home and did not squirrel away a few bucks for emergencies.  He would provide – not all that they wanted but all they needed.  Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John.  Now He calls you.  And through you He will call others.  The call will keep going forth until the day appointed for it to stop.  You won’t know when it is coming but you will know when it has come.  Until then, it is not about knowing.  It is about following.

The Church does not offer the world an explanation to satisfy their curiosity or a vision to inspire them to be better people or a plan for the future or an easy and satisfying tomorrow.  We offer only what Jesus offered.  Him.  The Way, the Truth, and the Life.  And the promise that we will be given a new vocation which the world will not get and we will struggle to fulfill – fishers of men.  By every earthly wisdom and strategy, this should have failed a long time ago.  We are all amateurs and hacks trying to do what none of us knows how to do.  Yet the Christian Church has endured 2,000 years under the provisional leadership of amateurs and hacks.  We have done everything we know how to do in order to screw up what Jesus began but we cannot.  We have been timid where we should have been bold and bold where we should have been timid.  We have forsaken the Word in favor of slick advertising and a smooth presentation.  We have minimized the cost of discipleship and made false promises about the benefits.  But the Church goes on.  

Either Jesus does not have a clue what He is doing or He is the only one who knows what He is doing.  We will have to make a decision.  Either Jesus is right or we are.  There are some who have decided Jesus was wrong.  We miss them in the pews, where they once sat with us.  Sometimes we wonder if they were right to leave and we were wrong to stay.  But the voice of Jesus still speaks through His Word.  “Follow Me.”  And the Holy Spirit is still turning our steps to follow Him.

We have so many questions.  We want to know why about so many things.  We worry constantly about those who have fallen away and we worry about whether we can keep on going.  We fear we have not the strength we need and we fear the world is too powerful.   Jesus keeps telling us not to be afraid when we seem to be afraid about everything.  When we ask for signs to calm our troubled hearts, we get a scarred hand or foot or side and the voice telling us to touch them.  When we think it impossible, Jesus says of course it is impossible – except for God.  When we are sure we have no money or time or abilities left to give, Jesus points us to His grace and insists it is sufficient for all our needs.

Can it really be that easy?  “Follow Me?”  I am not sure easy is the right word but we make it much more complicated than it is.  Listen to Jesus.  Stay close to Jesus.  Follow in the way of Jesus.  We are treading where giants once walked – the mighty of old and those who passed on to us the faith.  Can we do any less than they did?  “Follow Me.”  His yoke is easy.  His burden light.  He does not ask you to be more than you are.  He is calling you to be exactly who you are – His child by baptism and faith.  Amen.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. . .

When the issue of abortion came before the Supreme Court, America was already in the throes of revolution.  It was the best of times and the worst of times.  We were preparing to exit Vietnam and the tumultuous times of race riots, the sexual revolution, and political crisis.  At that moment the SCOTUS was handed a case no one wanted.  Roe v Wade ending up being not merely a stab at morality in morally uncertain times but an attempt to answer the question with science.  We knew where things were headed in a world where the pill was becoming a thing and there was no more stigma attached to other means of birth control.  We wanted the right to practice sex safe from the unwanted burden of pregnancy.  The court was not only going to apply simply a moral judgment but some objective criteria to support its reasoning -- science.  At that very “point in the development of man’s knowledge,” as Justice Harry Blackmun put it in Roe, the science did not fail but those using it did.  Now, looking through the rear view mirror, we realize that we were not quite ready for the bigger questions -- like when was the point at which life began?   So how could you decide if the fetus was a person or that person was really alive or if that person really alive deserved all the legal protection afforded life in the law.  Now we know so much more but we have also become accustomed to -- dare I say addicted to -- the idea that we will decide for ourselves such weighty matters.

As the SCOTUS reconsidered Roe, the science had changed.  Not the politics but the science had.  We were nowhere near a consensus but now we know that the science that once under girded the argument for abortion has changed dramatically .  No, maybe the science cannot address the morality of it all but it surely has informed us of things we did not know then but know now about that life growing in the womb.  The technology of the ultrasound so new to the 1970s has become absolutely normal, reliable, and trustworthy.  With those machines we have discovered that what lies in the womb is not some faceless clump of cells but the image of a child startlingly real to a culture that wanted it to be fake.  Now we take those ultrasound pictures and pass them around with all the photos of childhood.  The fetus has become a child to us -- even to the promoters of abortion -- and it has changed things profoundly.   Viability of the fetus outside the womb has changed dramatically.  The smallest of infants have survived their delivery from the safety of the womb into a world they were not quite ready for.  If the court had the science of today perhaps the abortion decision might have been different.  Who knows?  But the end result of voting on abortion laws has become an oddly unsettling and eerily strange thing.  It the fetus in Ohio not a baby or life deserving of protection but it is in Tennessee? 

Now we are in a new phase of the the thing.  Abortion no longer rests upon science nor does it rest upon morality.  It all boils down to the individual -- both the individual person deciding whether or not to abort and the individual state laws applying to that individual.  We may have won in the court but we are losing in the ballot boxes of America -- largely because there are those who do not want a choice to be determined by science that may not support their position or by morality applied to them without their consent.  If it was hard to undo the Supreme Court decision, it will be even harder to undo the hardness of hearts who refuse to believe in the science or the morality.  That is where we fight now -- for the minds and hearts of adults in America.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Perspective. . .

Much is made about the need to be on the cutting edge of things.  Technology certainly values the edge as it seeks to jump ahead of competitors and bring to fruition the next best thing that the consumer will want to purchase.  Medicine also seems to have jumped upon the bandwagon of first is best.  Walk down the aisles of your market and you will find in big letters new and improved -- as if to say it is not old and the same.  From fashion to entertainment, we are all affected by the press for what is new, edgy, and the coming thing.

Even the Church cannot escape the pressure to be in the forefront on the next wave of things.  From worship to music, the edge has been where most evangelicals and mainline Protestants want to be.  Look at the playlist in the contemporary Christian music sources and you see how quickly a sound track moves from being in to being out.  Catch up is where nobody wants to be.  The whole attraction for many churches is that they are not old -- they were not even there yesterday!  So when a new one opens its doors some folks flock to it to see what is the newest and next best thing in church -- only to depart for the next start up when that appears.  Even the names have the context of new and different.

You might think that Rome was insulated against such a thing but the whole Synodality thing and the state of affairs in Germany indicates that Rome is not immune to the pressures to be new and different either.  Indeed, look at some of the videos of the Novus Ordo online and you see priests who have sought to be in sync with what is new even while trying to track with the order itself.  Music is the typical place where the Vatican II mass embraces what the evangelicalism has already adopted -- better late than ever according to those who think this is where Rome ought to be.

Lutherans have institutionalized the diversity of worship practices.  From ELCA to WELS with LCMS in between, we all have our cutting edge congregations.  Some are on the cutting edge of things to the left of center with sparkle creeds and female titles for God while others insist they are Lutheran in substance even thought the worship form better reflects the big box evangelical style (conservative but hardly confessional).  In most jurisdictions, there has come a rather peaceful co-existence of those on the fringes with those in the middle.  Indeed, among Lutherans it is more highly suspect if you are too traditional rather than less so -- we like flexibility, now, don't we?

The problem is that you cannot always know if the cutting edge is where things should be headed or on the lunatic fringe of what we should not go.  We are only now beginning to see what generations of lax catechesis, praise songs instead of hymns, entertainment worship instead of the Divine Service have produced.  It is not good.  Indeed, if we had to go back to say 1958 again, we might make sure that some of the triggers that have resulted in the loss of tradition, identity, and dogma were not pulled as they were in the heady days of so much cultural and musical change.  We thought we could preserve substance while being a bit more flexible about style but it did not turn out that way at all.  Substance and style may be distinguishable but they cannot be separated.  In the end, being on the cutting edge may be the equivalent of being on the brink of disaster.  Depart from the tradition passed down through the faithful over the ages and you have nothing left to norm or guide the moment but whim, fancy, preference, and newness.  Novelty is not one of the important criterion of the Gospel but faithfulness surely is.  I suspect that in the end we will find out the obvious.  The cutting edge was also the brink of disaster and the loss so quickly surrendered will be hard to restore.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

One more time. . .

So it would seem that Finnish prosecutors are going to get another go at Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola.  They have asked the country’s Supreme Court to hear a “hate speech” case for comments made about Christian teachings related to marriage and homosexuality.  Though the charges brought against member of Finnish Parliament Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola have been rejected twice — once by a lower district court and again by an appellate court  -- prosecutors are advancing their case to Finland’s highest court to fine the two and label their words hate speech.  “After my full exoneration in two courts, I’m not afraid of a hearing before the Supreme Court,” Räsänen said in a statement through her attorneys at the Christian nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).  “Even though I am fully aware that every trial carries risks, an acquittal from the Supreme Court would set an even stronger positive precedent for everyone’s right to free speech and religion,” Räsänen added. “And if the court decided to overturn the lower courts’ acquittals, I am ready to defend freedom of speech and religion as far as the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.”

If you do not know the story, Google it. My point is this.  It is impossible for the so-called enlightened elite of this world to allow Biblical words to stand unchallenged or to let the Scriptures avoid being labeled hate speech.  While this is certainly true in Finland, it is not only true there.  The forces of liberalism will not rest until they can silence the Word of God in public.  We are truly thankful for Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola and for the work of the legal team defending them but the reality is that this never was and never will be satisfied by a legal verdict.  There is no rest for the wicked.  They will use every means of intimidation in an attempt to silence the voice of God's Word no matter where that voice speaks and whose voice God uses to speak it.  This is the shape of the future by those who have proven to be the most intolerant of liberals and who use their progressivism in order to shut down any and all opposition.  Be ready, my friends, for the day is coming when the same tactics will be used here for the same purpose -- to silence the witness of the Truth.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Global is better than Lutheran. . .

The press release I read this morning from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service CEO Krish Vignarajah:
As Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service enters its 85th year, I am excited to share the beginning of an impactful new chapter in the history of our organization. On January 17, 2024, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) is becoming Global Refuge.

Our decision to rebrand is rooted in the massive worldwide need for compassionate support of those seeking safety. With more than 100 million people displaced by war, famine, climate change, and persecution, our mission of providing the "long welcome" is more crucial than ever. Our Board knew we needed to build a bigger table of supporters.

The Global Refuge brand fittingly conveys our mission of providing safety and support to refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants from across the world. As our new identity makes us more accessible to clients, partners, and supporters, it leaves unchanged our core vision: to foster a world of just and welcoming communities, informed by our Lutheran heritage and decades of experience. Our faith-based identity remains integral to our organization, reflecting the spirit of love that shapes our work of welcome and strengthens our relationships with Lutheran communities and congregations, as well as with ecumenical, nondenominational, and interfaith partners.

We cannot overstate our gratitude for your continued support, partnership, and commitment to welcoming immigrants and refugees. As we redouble our commitment to advocating alongside, caring for, and empowering newcomers, we hope you will join us in celebrating this new chapter of transformational service.  
So another NGO has decided that faith based (whatever that means) is better than Christian or Lutheran and that a hip name that sounds bigger than big is better than their historic name that identified who was doing the mercy work.  How sad!  How sad it is that now the Lutheran connection is mere heritage and history and that the Lutheran values and identity of the organization have given way to a faith based identity whose values will be decided by the board of directors and its staff!  How sad that they are driven more by their need (or is it want) of more money and a broader income stream and that they think that Lutheran identity and name hinders that purpose!  Well, they decided long ago that there CEO did not have to reflect a Lutheran faith or identity so I think the handwriting was on the wall than.  I even blogged about it and its impact upon the future of LIRS.  Now we know.  For you Missouri types, this agency has long ago ceased to have a formal relationship with the LCMS (it is not an RSO). 

Lets make for a new tradition. . .

While there is no doubt that people start things with the intention of creating what will become a tradition, tradition by definition is not new but always old.  It is not invented but what is passed on.   Tradition is not judged by those who start it but by the generations of those who observe it until it actually becomes tradition and not simply novelty.

Starting a tradition is not something you or anyone can do.  You can certainly begin something but what you begin will not become a tradition until you cannot recall the time before it was.  That is what is so often missed.  Tradition is tradition because it is anticipated and expected -- it becomes a part of us so much so that if it is missing, we notice the absence and miss it.

While this is true of many things, it is especially true of worship.  The sad reality is that it does not take long to dismantle tradition and once that has happened, the same thing will become novelty.  Lutherans have certainly experienced this with worship.  From vestments to genuflecting to crossing yourself to elevation to the weekly Eucharist, these are traditional things that span our identity and have been passed down to us by many folks over many centuries.  But because they have dropped out of usage in so many places that they are no longer seen as tradition and instead become novelty.  That is the great danger of tradition -- losing it means not simply having to restore what was lost but working to make sure that which was lost becomes again the living tradition that shapes our lives today almost instinctively.

The same is true for catechesis.  Where creeds were once uniformly known by the faithful, even among creedal churches the ancient symbols have slipped from memory.  Listen to how the faithful confess a creed supposedly by memory and cannot even distinguish the Apostles' from the Nicene.  In the same way, it does not take that long before what is tradition passes from the body of tradition until it becomes a stranger to our piety and lives.  Even the Our Father can become lost to us.  Certainly Luther's Catechism, as esteemed as it is in our identity -- that Catechism is no longer within the fabric of our memory.  We may have learned to recite it by memory during our catechetical studies but now in later life they have sounds that echo through our memory but the content itself is almost lost to us.

That is surely the case for hymnody -- just as I have written not so long ago.  We have such a limited repertoire of hymns that we all know -- even within the Lutheran congregation.  Just the other evening I was singing a hymn with the old words of my memory only to find that pesky little abbreviation alt that informs me the words I knew have been garbled enough to make me stumble to sing them without the book.  

So when you read about somebody starting a new tradition, it is time for a smile and a little laughter.  They obviously do not understand what tradition is.  Tradition is not invention.  Tradition is preservation.  We are more fascinated by the all things new of Scripture than we should be and not interested enough in the passing down of the sacred deposit.  Perhaps this is as much a reason for Christianity's decline as anything.  Sometimes I fear in a minute we would trade off the well worn paths of our fathers and mothers in the faith for an uncharted course and be happy.  Sort of correlates with the great book title "amusing ourselves to death."  In any case, we have so confused and muddied the waters that it is possible to speak of tradition as something you create.  You may plant a seed but it takes generations to grow a tradition and only a few years for a venerable tradition to depart from our memory and piety and we become strangers to our own past.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

My life is a mess. . .

There is not a pastor alive who has not heard such a statement.  The folks who pour their hearts out to you are complaining not simply about one thing or several but find it hard to see anything right in their lives.  Literally their whole life is a complete mess -- at least that is how it seems.  I understand.  There have been moments when I was ready to draw this same conclusion.  But is it a fair statement?  Or does it even matter if it is accurate?  Could it be that the whole life is a mess or is such a statement simply an emotional exaggeration?

No pastor is surprised anymore by the troubles and trials laid out by an overwhelmed people.  Perhaps we are even inclined to agree.  When a marriage comes undone, when children have health or psychological or developmental problems, when jobs are filled with stress or the jobs disappear, when family struggles leave you with no real support, when finances go south, and when the day is not long enough to begin to tackle these issues, it does seem like the life is a total mess.  Christianity does not come with guarantees that everything will be easy or good.  Jesus even warns us that standing near Him makes us a target as well.  We can and sometimes do feel like Job wondering out loud to God "why?"

Job also appears to be out of step with us.  Instead of throwing up His hands and joining in a litany of complaints and laments like we do, he seems impossibly stoic.  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Friends and family do not understand him.  “Curse God and die!”  How can we turn to Job when his response is so different from ours and when his story does not seem to offer any real answer to the problem of evil, suffering, and loss?  

Paul does not help either.  Though it appears that sometimes he is hard to deal with, he is also so confident in the future that he seems far removed from where we are also.  And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)  Even Christians have trouble believing that statement without hesitation and with certainty.  But that is exactly what we are to believe and confess in time of trouble when life appears to be a mess.  God is our God.  "If God be for us, who can be against us?"  The God whom we know to be good is the God who called the world into being, even each of us!  He is the God who still preserves the world, who makes it rain on the just and the unjust.  So great is His mercy!  He is still a God of order whose order under girds all things -- especially our lives.  He is a God of providence. Providence is not some theological way out of the abyss of life's messes.  It is also the confession of God's creation, preservation, redemption, and ultimate goal and purpose.  Creation is not simply unwinding into chaos but under it all God's purpose and direction are bringing all things to His appointed end.  That end is ultimately good. The Christian knows this by faith even when the eyes do not see it and the heart does not feel it.

The purpose and providence of God, His careful ordering of us and all things, is not a conclusion you arrive at by the observation of the world.  Sure, the lilies and birds do not work in the same we do but God knows their needs.  They have not learned as we have to fret and worry and lament when life does not go as planned or as we had hoped.  The twists and turns of this mortal life with its changes and chances do not prove God's goodness but the endurance of our lives do.  St. Paul does not affirm God's good purpose because he sees it but because of the cross.  It is precisely because of that cross we know the outcome and end of all things and you and me.  St. Paul was persecuted, stoned as a heretic, run out of town, rejected by the congregations he founded, questioned as if he were a interloper, beaten as a criminal, imprisoned as an enemy, and so much more.  In spite of all this, he knew one thing more.  He knew Christ and Him crucified.  Yes, the world is filled with suffering, violence, injustice, and inequity.  So do we suffer in our daily lives.  But in addition to the jarring dissonance of the world, there is the song of love, the harmony of faith, and the rhythm of life marching not to destruction but to redemption.  For all who love His appearing, this is not some halfhearted consolation. This is our hope.  God's mercy has shown to be greater than all the mess we call this world, this life, and this moment.  That is what it means to confess Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Church Jesus did not found. . .

Those who think religion is bad and relationship is good are quick to say that Jesus did not found a church with a mailing address, office furniture, incorporation papers, a constitution and bylaws, and an IRS 990 form to be filed.  Well, yes.  I suppose in one sense you could say that Jesus did not found this nor establish such things and we have added these things both out of necessity and convenience.  But it is a straw man.  In what sense did Jesus not found the institutional church?  You might be able to make a good case that what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God is a perfect illustration of the tension of a church in but not of the world -- living in accordance with laws and rules but not defined by them.

Let me turn it around.  Jesus did not found a church of me and Jesus, a private relationship and an individual one.  You look in vain anywhere in Scripture or the early Church to find such an idea of this being what Jesus had in mind.  It can be invented just like Rome can read back into passages and history from the present to make Peter the first of the popes and to expand the office into the very essence of what church is.  Or Lutherans can take their current call practices and somehow try to impose them upon what happened when Paul went about appointing elders (pastors!) in the congregations he founded.  That said, one thing Jesus certainly did not do was create the individualistic idea so prevalent among modern Christianity today.  Church is not me and Jesus against the world nor is it optional for those who feel they need that sort of thing.

As far as the relationship business, it is foolishness.  Jesus did not found a religion; He established a relationship.  Okay.  Where exactly IS this Jesus with whom you have such a relationship?  Is He imagined in your mind or felt in your heart or experienced in some sort of mystical yet personal sense?  Or is this Jesus accessible where He has placed Himself?  The Church is the place where the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered, where the ministry (office) Christ established is ordered according to His will and purpose, and where the Spirit is at work (calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying).  If you want to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to have a church.  Or do you presume that the Word and Sacraments are your own domain and you are priest and people all in one?

If Jesus is everywhere, He is nowhere.  I do not need a Jesus who is everywhere or one who nowhere.  I need a Jesus who is somewhere, reliably somewhere.  And not in me -- not captive to my reason or imagination or emotion.  Jesus may not have founded the accoutrements were ordinarily associate with modern corporate structures (even for non-profits) but He certainly did not found a church of the individual in which He is merely a passing thought, a momentary feeling, or an opinion (either well formed or foolish).  The sickness of modern Christianity on all sides is the way we disdain the idea of church in favor of a me and Jesus truth and reality.  Does the Church of Jesus Christ have a zip code?  You betcha.  He has a place and a people and He comes to them not in a shared emotion or thought but in the concrete of the Word preached, the absolution spoken, the water applied in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the bread and wine set apart according to His Word and distributed in His name to those who know what they are receiving.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Wait a minute. . .

In what is surely destined for the Supreme Court, a judge in Maryland has applied the rule of the 501(c)(3) tax exemption to the question of whether or not independent schools are subject to Title IX (and other federal requirements).  In his argument, the tax exemption is itself a federal subsidy.  If you don't pay a tax, you are therefore being subsidized by the government and cannot argue that you do not have to follow the government's rules.  For as long as anyone can remember, refusing government money has been the presumed insulation between Christian or other conservative schools (including colleges and universities) against the overreach of the government.  This is the first crack in that bedrock -- although it remains to be seen if it is upheld. 

Remember here that the idea is that the tax exempt status is the equivalent of a government subsidy.  Again, it was a school of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod that was at the heart of this ruling but it affects many more schools -- including Hillsdale College. In the case Buettner-Hartsoe v. Baltimore Lutheran High School Associationsome graduates of Concordia Preparatory School allege that they while they were students they were sexually harassed and assaulted by other students at the school.  Furthermore, they allege that the school did not follow the Title IX specified requirements for handling such cases -- procedures and requirements mandated by the federal regulation forbidding sex discrimination in schools.

Concordia Prep use the familiar argument that they are not subject to Title IX because they do not receive any federal funding.  This has been the presumption for a very long time.  According to the  Federal Society, “Traditionally, independent schools that do not receive federal financial aid have not been considered to be subject to Title IX’s requirements.”  The Maryland district court listened to this old expectation but ruled that Concordia Prep (and all other 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations) is subject to Title IX simply because it receives a federal tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.  Not paying taxes is the equivalent to actually receiving federal money.  This idea could have far reaching consequences.  Not paying a tax is the same as receiving a taxpayer subsidy.

Of course, Concordia Prep is appealing the case and I am sure it will make it to the Supreme Court where it will likely be overturned.  That, however, has not prevented a similar action against Hillsdale College, a school which has scrupulously refused taxpayer dollars even in the indirect form of student loans or grants.  Two women there have sued Hillsdale for the same reason as Concordia Prep -- not following Title IX in handling their sexual assault complaint against two male students.  Hillsdale insists that they had a more rigorous response than even Title IX would have mandated.

“The proposition that nonprofit tax status should subject private institutions to the regulations applied to government grantees would be a radical departure from longstanding tax and legal principles and would put at risk the fundamental independence of America’s private charitable and educational sectors, to say nothing of its religious institutions.”  (Cato Institute, Walter Olson)

This is not a chicken little cry against those who would avail themselves of every possible means of restricting what happens in religious schools and within religious facilities.  This is a warning shot that those who defy the extent of government overreach will be on notice to be harassed.


Monday, January 15, 2024

Angels ascending and descending. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (B), preached on Sunday, January 14, 2024.

We seem destined to take what is powerful and render it impotent by making it cute and cuddly.  Or we take what is of no consequence, and bestow upon it all power and authority.  Consider angels.  We have rendered these mighty workers of God into the chubby little cherubs who on their worst day can only shoot an arrow of infatuation into a unsuspecting heart.  Meanwhile, we have given demons a holiday and joke about knowing more people and maybe being more comfortable in hell.  Who do we think we are?

Long ago Jacob set out on a journey.  When it got dark, he set up camp.  He laid his head on a stone and slept.  In the dream that tormented his rest, Jacob saw a stair way or ladder reaching all the way from earth to heaven.  It was a busy place. On it the angels of God ascended and descended and the Lord watched from on high.  When Jacob awoke, he realized he had been a fool.  The Lord was in this place and he did not even notice.  His lapse turned to fear.  He would not forget again.  “This is none other than the house of God and this the gate of heaven.”

The dream took on new life when Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree.  The man without deceit in his heart was given a promise.  He would see what Jacob dreamed.  He would behold in life what Jacob saw in a dream.  “You will see heaven open, the angels of God ascend and descend, upon the Son of Man.”  Just in case this was not enough of a miracle, what Jesus promised, Nathanael believed.  He was to behold the house of God and the gate of heaven.  He would see angels ascending and descending.  He would behold the Father in heaven, presiding over this bridge between earth and heaven.  

In Scripture, angels often seem to have something to do with worship.  From the Old Testament to Revelation, the angels serve the Lord.  Even those who do not believe in Jesus seem to believe in angels and heavenly beings.  What God has disclosed to us is the surprise of who they serve and why.  Angels serve God by serving us – you and me!  And they attend to the Son of Man who is Himself the bridge that brings heaven down to where we are.

You would do well to note that neither in Jacob’s dream nor in Jesus’s words of promise are we told that we will walk up the grand staircase to eternity.  The ladder is not give for us to climb up to behold God.  The surprise is this.  God descends the ladder, the angels serving Him, in His purpose of bringing down to us the gift of salvation.  Christ is the one who comes down from heaven as one of us in flesh and blood yet without sin and He is come to bestow upon us the riches of His grace, mercy for our sins, rescue from death and the devil, and life in the presence of God forevermore.  The angels attend Him in His work.

The angels attended Him at His birth with the song of glory, announcing to the shepherds to come and see.  They visited our Lord in the wilderness, binding Him up after His fast and temptation by the devil.  They attended to Him in the garden where He prayed before His betrayal.  Then they turned their attention to you and to me, serving Jesus by serving us and serving us by turning our attention to Jesus.

As the angels were created by God for the heavenly worship, so are we created for the earthly worship that believes His Word and rejoices to receive the salvation He gives.  We began with Jacob’s vision and then with the promise Jesus gave to Nathanael.  Now it turns to you and to me. For the promise is fulfilled in our midst.  We are brought into the House of God and here God reveals to us the gate of heaven.  Here the angels ascend and descend to deliver to us the Gospel God has appointed for our salvation.  Here in the Word of God and in His Sacraments God gives what Christ paid so dearly to win.  Here is salvation full and free.

The House of God is not made sacred by our blessing or even by what we do in it.  It is the House of God and the gate of heaven because God has made this place sacred with His presence in Word and Sacrament and because of what He does in this place – speaking to us with the voice of His Word, washing us clean with baptismal water, restoring us through absolution when we sin, and feeding us the food of heaven in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  God does not win us with argument nor is faith a matter of being convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt.  God comes to where we are and bestows upon us that which we thought we would never know, to see what we could not see without faith, and to live here and now new life and the eternal life in glorious flesh and blood.  This is what overwhelms our fears and gives us delight.

The angels were meant by God to serve Him in the worship of the heavenly places and we were created to serve Him in the worship of earthly places.  When sin prevented this, God took upon Himself the burden of our sin and death.  Through Jesus Christ, we are restored to our purpose and called into His presence.  

By Jesus Christ we are made partners in the Gospel and called forth into the world.  We are no more enamored by the fleeting treasures of the moment and yearn  instead for the eternal treasures of God.  In so doing, we become, like the angels, the messengers of salvation bringing to a lost and darkened world the rescue and light of Christ.  In this way, Jacob is jealous of what Jesus saw in Nathanael and Nathanael saw in Jesus.  It was the Word made flesh, the temple made not with hands but by the Holy Spirit.  But Jacob is also jealous of you and what you see every Sunday.  It is the Word made flesh in water, bread, and wine.  Angels of God ascending and descending, doing the bidding of the Father on our behalf.  If you are here for less than this, you are missing the fullness of God’s gift and blessing.  And if you count it less than the highest privilege to stand upon the holy ground of God’s presence here, you are missing the blessing that the prophets longed to see and that God gave to Nathanael and He has given to you today.  This is the House of God and this the Gate of Heaven.  Amen.