Thursday, February 29, 2024

The hidden losses. . .

According to reports the once United Methodist Church has lost about 25% of its congregations and members since 2019.  While it is easier to trace where the congregations ended up, it is more difficult to sort out what happened to the people in them.  Here is the graph of the congregations:

You can see that, predictably, the highest number of congregations leaving is in the South.  All of this is interesting, perhaps most interesting is that the disafilliating congregations have a 5% higher median worship attendance.  This should be enough to refute the idea that those leaving are mostly small congregations.

Hidden in the stats is the rather alarming realization that people are also leaving and many of them not for another Christian congregation.  This is what happened when the the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America all adopted more aggressively liberal and intolerant social postures -- especially with regard to the LGBTQ+ agenda.  The numbers of congregations that broke away was smaller than expected but the numbers within the congregations that stayed and those that left diminished.  In fact, just looking at the ELCA alone, you have witnessed the numbers drop from a reported high of 5.2M members down to less than 3.5M members yet you find that the actual numbers reported by the LCMC or NALC denominations formed by those departing cannot account for much more than 500K of those.  So what happened?

The dropouts from American churches probably outnumber those who show up.  While Missouri certainly felt the loss of some 120K folks who established the AELC (which later merged into the ELCA), those numbers did not really show up for years.  Once they did, they were accompanied by an even larger contingent of people who simply stopped coming.  The gulf between those who claim membership and those who attend has widened in Missouri just as it has within the more liberal denominations bleeding off members and people (though not quite as dramatic).

The reality is that we are not doing a very good job of keeping the folks we have.  Or, might it be that we really did not have them in the first place?  Certainly this is true of youth.  Those who were counted but whose family attendance was spotty found it easier to drop out than those whose attendance was vigorous.  That is the other side of things.  Have we lost faithful members or fringe members?  We should be sad about both but it might help us stave off the losses if we discern the difference here.  The reality is that those who are fully onboard with the church's confession and teaching and actively and regularly participate in the life of the congregation assembled around Word and Sacrament and who are involved in the congregation's life of catechesis and service are so much less likely to drop out than those who are not.  Rigorous catechesis is important but so is regular encouragement to faithful weekly worship and to participation in some avenue of the Church's life beyond Sunday morning.

The problem of hidden losses is not unique to the progressive side of Christianity even though it is more likely to be manifest to those who have lowered their standards of membership and who do not regularly review who are members.  In this we all need to repent of our failures to keep tabs of those who once were faithful -- both pastors and parish leaders, to be sure, but especially their brothers and sisters in the pew.  Back door losses are the bane of Christianity (and that includes all flavors!).  If we receive new people without addresses such losses, we are not being faithful.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A word no one uses. . .

In the Scriptures using older translations you might encounter the word withered to describe a crop or a plant or a limb or a spirit or even a life.   Some 50+ times the Bible uses a variation of the word wither.  We have outgrown that usage and replace it with what we consider to be kinder and more sympathetic terms.  I wish we would go back.

According to the dictionary, wither means to become dry and sapless, as in to shrivel from or as if from loss of bodily moisture OR to lose vitality, force, or freshness as in the public support for the bill is withering.  It is from the Middle English widren; perhaps akin to Middle English weder weather.  It is not the oldest of words but it is freighted with context that is helpful to us and our understanding.

Sin has caused us and our lives to wither.  We have become dry.  We have lost the vitality of life and now live in the shadow of death.  Our lives are not fresh but have an expiration date on them.  We are like the plant that withers without moisture and so we are from birth drying up until only the dust from which we came will remain.  In Mark's Gospel, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  The hand becomes the mark of evil or sin.  Having such a withered hand would disqualify the man from certain vocations (especially that of a priest).  Jesus acts then in mercy not merely restoring the hand but the life of the man and thus removes the mark of evil from him.  It is a miracle of restoration.  What happens outwardly to the hand, happens also inwardly to the heart as faith replaces unbelief and trust overcomes suspicion and doubt.  This was no accidental encounter but the revelation of the Kingdom and of who are Lord is and why He has come.

In so many ways we live in a time when things have withered even more.  The dry and shriveled lives we live despite our vast technology are increasingly obvious.  We are isolated and alone.  We have knowledge but without real understanding.  We have potential but more often it is wasted or abused in evil.  Think here of the stain of pornography, vulgarity, and hate that almost consumes the internet.  We have become content to manage symptoms without ever considering that there might be something more.  Witness the way we medicate ourselves instead of rooting out the causes of depression or mental illness.  It is a therapeutic process which allows us the false idea that managing the symptoms is the same as healing.  A pain killer may indeed dull the pain but it does not end the cause of it.  So the end result of our withered lives is that we content ourselves with distraction that would make us forget our disability or entertainment which would give us some laughs to balance out the loss or we make withered the norm and wholeness the exception.
As we make our way through Lent, one of the things we need to confront is this ability to become comfortable with our misery and thus embrace what is withered as the best we can expect and all for which we dare hope.  It is easy to forget that Jesus has come for all that has been withered by sin.  He has come to restore what has been left dry and empty.  He has come to restore that which is no longer vital or powerful or fresh.  We do not need to settle for accepting sin as the default or defining away our pet sins as normal and even virtuous.  Christ has come to reach out and touch what is withered and dying.  He has come with grace sufficient and mercy abundant.  No one in their right mind would hide their withered hand or limb from the One who had the power to make it whole.  So we do not hide our sins but admit and confess them.  We own them all so that He can restore us through the grace of absolution.  But it all begins with the admission that we are withered, dry, dying, and dead in trespasses and sin.  Lent is not about getting by or finding a way through but bringing our withered bodies, minds, and spirits out into the open where Christ is.  We cannot surprise Him.  For such withered people and their lives He has come.  But He can surprise us.  We extend to Him withered souls and bodies robbed of the vitality God intended and marked for death and He does the unthinkable.  He gives them back to us whole and with them a future without end.  If we would think like this, perhaps we would not find Lent such a somber season after all.  For hidden in the confession is the affirmation of faith that knows what God does with our sins.  He forgives them and restores to us a clean and clear conscience that we might fulfill His purpose and bidding.  This is why for Christians, such repentance and forgiveness is not merely a season of forty days but the daily cycle of our Christian lives.  God is good.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

No shortage of hubris. . .

There seems to be no shortage of and no end to the hubris that presumes we are so much smarter and well-informed today that we cannot possible hold to what those who went before us thought and believed about the world, where we came from, and what is true.  In this context, these things are no longer anchors but boats moving to and fro on a current of change.  In another conversation the statement was made by one Lutheran to another that the strides made linguistically, culturally, and historically within the last couple of centuries require us to change our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and what is true.  While this is especially true with regard to the Bible, it is no less true of just about anything and everything else.

Of course, we are not alone in such arrogance and pride.  It is the failure of every generation to defer to the past any authority and to insist that newer is better, that we are more educated and erudite than our forbearers.  While it is certainly true that our knowledge has expanded, the implicit conclusion of such hubris is to believe that this expansion negates and omits what went before.  Among some this could be applied to arguments in which some would insist that you believe the science while at the same time positing the science to a momentary postulation and ignoring the weight of evidence of history.  Among others it is the constant attention to exception and the substitute of exception for the rule or norm of a time or position.  Among Christians, it is the common fallacy that we know more about God's Word than those who went before us and therefore cannot be bothered by the statements of Scripture except, perhaps, those directly related to matters of salvation.  Neatly dividing the Word of Truth is no longer then about Law or Gospel but about sorting out the myth, legend, poetry, and falsehoods from the one truth.  But that is the point, isn't it.  Who gets to decide which are the myths, legends, poetry, falsehoods, and truth in the Scriptures?  Who decides which words belong to God and which belong to man?

The goal and end result is then not to better understand or know the Scriptures but to be able to omit or erase or diminish portions of those Scriptures that offend against modern sensibility or individual conscience or conviction.  Thus the goal of such hubris all around is to elevate the individual, the reason of the individual, the feelings of the individual, and the moment of the individual above anything and everything else.  And how is that working for us?  Well, look around.  With churches arguing over which words we ought to pay attention to and which words do not belong in the mouth of God, Scripture is left with little authority and even less power.  It is what we make it to be.  The same can be said for history, science, and every other division of human knowledge and culture.  Nothing is what it is -- everything is what we make it to be.  And if we do not make it to be anything, then it is nothing.  The only problem with this is that eventually it comes right back to us.  And the nothing ends up being me. 

Monday, February 26, 2024

Get behind me, Satan

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (B), preached on Sunday, Februar7 25, 2024.

The famous Peter principle is that everyone will rise to the level of their incompetence.  It is a terrible truth that admits that when we are at our glory, we are also the most vulnerable.  For this reason then, the failure of Peter and the occasion for the Lord’s most biting condemnation is very bit as important as what Peter got right by claiming Jesus is the Son of the Living God.

Jesus warned Peter and His disciples of this before.  You have your minds on the things of men and not on the things of God.  That describes Peter to a T.  Maybe even everyone in this room.  The things of man are the things on which we plan and connive.  The things of man are the things that well up inside of us and begin to define who we are despite our good words about belonging to the Lord.  The things of man are the things the world also values just as the world does not leave much room for the things of God so our hearts have small space for the things of God and plenty of room for our wants and desires.

Peter is no fool.  He heard the Lord.  The Son of Man shall suffer many things, be rejected, crucified, die, and on the third day rise again.  Peter knew that what was the future for Jesus was probably his own future as well.  Who wants that?  But before you condemn Peter, look into the mirror of your own soul.  You don’t want that either.  No student is above His teacher.  Peter could read the writing on the wall.  He may have thought he was protecting Jesus but he was also protecting himself and his life from the pain and suffering that Jesus seemed entirely too comfortable with.  Set up a tent on the mountain top but do not venture in the valley of the shadow.  Is there anyone here who does not get this?  Of course not.

Peter is looking for an easier way.  So are you.  So am I.  None of us wants pain or suffering or sacrifice.  None of us is good with loss.  We are really good at pretend – at playing the game of life more with the what ifs than what is.  We are really good at playing at happiness.  The purpose driven lives we live are driven purposefully at avoiding what happened to Jesus happening to you and me.  That is why the Christian life is hard.  We value our happiness more than holiness.  We want pleasure more than faithfulness.  We want a God who understands even more than a God who forgives.  We want to hold onto our bitterness and anger rather than forgive.  We want to increase the distance between our enemies rather than forgive them as God has forgiven us.  We want the bird in the hand of a good life now even more than we want a perfect eternal life.

We think that the purpose of this life is to get what we want.  Like Peter, we are not quite ready to risk all trusting Jesus.  Meanwhile the Holy Spirit is working in us to see the cross as the path for our own lives, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, to repent of our sin and to forgive as we have been forgiven, and, most of all, to live in fellowship with our Father through His Son.

Jesus’ life is no tragic opera.  He does not lose anything.  Instead He gains everything.  The Gospel is not some fairy tale but the love of God exposed for the world to see and the call for the loved by God to love God as He has loved us.  In the end, Peter would drink the cup of suffering and be baptized into a painful death.  What Peter did not see was that God would raise him up to everlasting life and that the moment of suffering would give way to an eternity of peace.

Jesus is happy to go to the cross not because He likes suffering but because He loves you and me.  Having been given faith by the Spirit working through the Word and baptized into Christ, He gives to each of us the opportunity to know and to return such love.  To love Him back with all our mind, body, soul, and all that we have.  Don’t be afraid.  The Lord is committed to us no matter what the cost.  Let us rejoice in this but let us also learn to be steadfast in Him, fearing not what the world can take from us but trusting in what only God can give to us.

Peter is not such a bad guy.  Neither are you.  We are human.  More than that, we are sinners.  But God loves sinners.  He loves them not with the weak love that would do anything to preserve Himself but with the strong love that would pay any price and do any work that would save you and me and deliver us to everlasting life.  He will not betray us even though we betray Him over and over again.  Sometimes that means even calling us Satan and telling us to get behind Him.  But you can be sure of this.  The Lord is not acting out of spite but purely out of love when He calls us to surrender our attachment to the moment in order to hold on to eternity by faith.

When Jesus recounted how He was to be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, die, and on the third day rise again, He was not speaking a lament.  Instead if was the most profound love story of all.  The God who inhabits our flesh in order to die for our sins, who cleanses the temple so that it might cleanse sinners, and to lay Himself upon the altar of the cross without any thought of a ram to rescue Him.  This God fulfills all that was demanded of us so we might be declared holy.

Satan’s problem with Jesus is not that He is the Son of God or righteous or  incarnate or willing to die on the cross.  His problem is that Jesus does all of these things out of pure love for sinners.  The very same sinners the devil had counted on as his own.  Jesus problem with Peter is that Peter was not willing to be saved if saving him meant the suffering and death of Jesus.  But without this suffering and death, Peter would belong to Satan.

In the end we are in the same dilemma.  Part of us is embarrassed by a Gospel that is born of suffering and death and yet without it we would not be saved.  What ties all of this together is this.  Those who are ashamed of Christ and of His Word in this life will find that Jesus is ashamed to call them His in the life to come.  So, what will it be?

Like Peter, we are tempted to believe that sin is not so bad that it would require a Savior to die but Jesus insists it is either a Savior who dies or we have no Savior at all.  The world is evil and dying and so are you.  Jesus refuses to mince words over a bruised ego.  We need to be just as resolute.  The cross is the most profound statement of God’s love for sinners.  In order to benefit from that cross, we must admit we are sinners.  Without the cross, there is nothing and we still belong to Satan. Which Christ do you confess?  

To cease to be Protestant. . .

There is a line penned by St. John Henry Newman which is often quoted against Protestants: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”  It might seem a no brainer.  After all who wants to belong to a church that is not deep in history but invented sometime much later along the way?  I don't.  Therein lies the fallacies that make this quote less than a deal breaker.

The first fallacy is the presumption that the Roman Catholic Church has existed continuously in time since the first days of the Church.  Indeed, it is the conflation of the Roman Church with the Catholic Church that is both the contention of Rome but the refusal of Lutheranism.  Only a fool would insist that the Roman Church as we know it now and have known it since the Council of Trent is exactly the same Church as the Church in Rome of the early Church era or even well into early medieval times.  Certainly the Eastern Church refuses this arrogant presumption that Rome today is the Catholic Church.  Lutherans are also those who refuse and refute this erroneous claim.  In fact, the claim of the Lutheran Confessions is that those who subscribe are holding to the Catholic doctrine and practice which, except you believe, teach, and confess, you will not be saved.  Rome claims to be the Catholic Church as an institution and this is an unprovable claim but Lutheranism claims to be the Catholic Church in doctrine and practice which is provable.  Every claim of Lutheranism against Rome refers to later practices and doctrines which developed and were insisted upon later in time and not early in the history of the Church.

The second fallacy is the term Protestant itself.  The Lutherans are not Protestants in the sense that this term is used by Newman and most others.  We may have once been labeled as such but the label no longer fits.  Protestants are of the insistence that they were established and begun at a moment in time corresponding to the Reformation or some time in the wake of that pivotal movement.  That is not the Lutheran claim.  Protestant has become synonymous with a time or origin in the 16th century of later but Lutheranism refuses this date.  We do so because it was never the intent nor the outcome to depart from that which has always been believed and always been practiced but to challenge those things which had been written back in time from a later era to distort the clear teaching of Scripture and the plain witness of the apostles.

I will certainly agree with Newman.  Protestants do not and cannot make the claim that Lutheranism does.  They are shallow in history and happy to do so.  Think of it this way.  To the Protestants which do not baptize infants and children, when was the first credible challenge to the catholic practice and theology of baptism?  After the Reformation is when these churches began.  To the Protestants who receive only a sip of juice and a piece of cracker as they piously recall Jesus, when was the first credible challenge to the words of Jesus and their plain meaning?  After the Reformation is when these churches began.  I could go on but two significant examples are enough for now.  All I am saying is this.  Newman did not either know of or pay any attention to the claims of Lutheranism when he wrote his famous words and, if he had, he would have had to clarify what the word Protestant means because it does not mean Lutheran.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bored with the sublime. . .

It is Sunday morning.  All across America and throughout the homes of Christians there is a stirring to decide if today will be the day the folks will get up, wash up, and dress up to go to church.  Increasingly, the answer is probably not today.  It would seem that we are either not convinced that God will be present and delivering up His gifts in Word and Sacrament or we are bored with His gifts and would rather stay at home snoozing or on our screens.  Either case is sad and scary at the same time.

God never fails to be where His Word is read and preached.  We do fail.  We are becoming more and more comfortable with a faith that has little power to get us out of our comfort zones and into the place where the Gospel is read and preached and the Supper administered according to Christ's institution.  This is the most concerning thing to me -- even more than the watering down of the faith to a mere imagined good feeling.  I can get why it is hard to rise up from our slumber and our fetish for entertainment to go to a church which allows us to continue to sleep and confuses amusement with worship.  But what about congregations like mine where the Gospel is preached rightly and enthusiastically and where the Sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood is celebrated every week at both services?  Every week heaven opens and the angels ascended and descend upon the ladder who is Christ to deliver a bit of heaven on earth in the Gospel preached and the Supper administered.  Apparently, the most that this can elicit from our people is a yawn.  We are so bored.

Ours is not the only such place where reverent worship is the norm and faithful teaching and preaching is usual.  Indeed, I would hope that is more routine among us than not.  Yet the reality is that not only are the numbers of our people growing smaller but the numbers of our people in worship every week is growing fewer by the year.  To tell the truth, the Church has contributed to her own demise in this regard.  Our people were listening when we admitted that liquor stores are more essential than the places where God's people gather around God's Word and Table every week.  They were listening when we said that watching the screen was the same as being there and when we suggested that they could and perhaps should stay home in their footie pajamas and cup of coffee to watch others worship.  You see, you do not have to actually despise the means of grace to empty the Church and strike a blow for Satan.  All you really need to do is agree that by and large what happens in worship is boring and non-essential.

You don't need to stir up conflict or make terrible coffee or be unfriendly to kill the Church.  All you need to do is meet God in the sublime place where He is and upon the holy ground of His presence in Word and Sacrament and then yawn it all away as nothing special.  The Battle of the Bible thought that doubt about God's Word was killing the Church.  It was but it was not the only thing killing her.  The confusing array of genders and sexual preferences thought that a lack of freedom was killing the Church.  It was but not at all the way they presumed.  The devil thought he was killing the Church and he was and is but not without our own cooperation.  In the end, the easiest way to kill the Church is to stop going or to go less and less frequently until it is never certain if and when you will ever go again.  The easiest way to kill the Church is to judge what God's presence is and is doing as nothing special.  The easiest way to kill the Church is to meet before the sublime of God's grace and mercy within the mystery of the means of grace and then ask if that is all there is.  For God's sake and your own, go to Church.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

A schizophrenic church. . .

As you have read here before, the ongoing battle over the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church of Australia is a profound example of the proponents refusing to let a no vote be a no vote.  So it has been brought up over and over again without success.  So, because they cannot reach the required voting threshold to adopt the ordination of women and because they are impatient or fear the tide may go more against than for this move, the novelty has arisen that one church body can have two doctrines of the ministry.  Here is the resolution:

RESOLVED: That General Synod direct the LCANZ General Church Board and the College of Bishops to:

a) Work through the theological, constitutional, and governance requirements to operate as one church with two different practices of ordination and establish a detailed framework through which this could be accomplished, such as one or more existing LCANZ Districts becoming Districts that teach and practice the ordination of both women and men to the office of the public ministry or by establishing a non-geographical LCANZ ‘District’ that does so.

b) Submit the fruit of this work in the form of a proposal that should be discussed by the LCANZ General Pastors Conference for Convention of General Synod 2024.

c) It is the expectation of this General Convention of Synod that both women and men will be ordained in a District of the LCANZ during the 2024-2027 synodical period.

Of course, they are not alone in this fantasy.  The German union church (EKD) has tried to formalize the oddity of both Reformed and Lutheran confession living within the same household.  As everyone can see, this did nothing to help the cause of confessional Lutheranism and has turned the German union church into a church with no real confession -- at least as any Lutheran would recognize.  So the Australians seem intent upon inventing themselves as a schizophrenic church with two minds when it comes to the ministry.  One non-geographical district would not ordain (or would) and the rest the opposite.  How can a church be of two minds when it comes to such a basic thing as the doctrine of the ministry?  Well, it can't.  Eventually those who oppose women's ordination will find their place within that church body untenable or will simply abdicate as long as it is not in their own back yard.  This will last for perhaps a generation and then the uneasy truce will end.  If culture influences, everyone will ordain women.  Either way, the end result is a weaker church, with a weaker confession, and with even less clear witness to the Gospel (unless you believe the Gospel is the triumph of cultural change or trend!).

The LCA has been treated as if it were in fellowship with Missouri (even though it never was -- though one of its predecessor bodies was).  Now Missouri will have to figure out this special relationship.  Perhaps it is time to dust off the older model of LCMS districts outside the US.  Perhaps a very small church body can give birth to an even smaller one in fellowship with Missouri.  In any case, the saddest thing of all is that this home to such historic greats as Herman Sasse and now to John Kleinig (among others) is on the verge of collapse.  I guess if you want something bad enough, it is worth killing a church to get it but it is surely a hollow victory for women to gain ordination at the expense of a church body.  Nevertheless, I am sure some among them are giddy with glee at the prospect.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Curious. . .

By now you probably have forgotten that Pope Francis is on record hoping (and perhaps even praying) that hell is empty.  He is certainly not the first to echo that wish and will not be the last.  Of course, such a hope is in conflict with the words of Jesus who warns of that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (and not virtual tears or anguish either).  Yes, I get it.  No Christian except the most heartless and hardened brute relishes the thought of such suffering as hell promises.  Certainly I don't.  But the wishes and hopes and prayers that hell will be empty tend to emanate from people who are, shall we say, less than vigorous in their work of evangelization.  That is the curious oddity that is on my meandering mind today.

The same folks who hope hell has no residents (save the devil and his minions, of course) are likely to presume that everyone will eventually end up in heaven, no truth has the claim to exclusive truth, and the job of religion is to encourage self-expression, self-fulfillment, and self-awareness.  You seldom hear a serious call to repentance from the likes of these folks nor do you encounter the call to enter by the narrow gate and to get there via the narrow way.  No, indeed.  Those who want hell to be a vast but empty chamber of horrors are the one who seem pretty comfortable with your truth.  Without a real and objective Word of God, it hardly seems necessary or convenient to bother well-meaning people with something as trivial as faith, confession, and belief in a righteous but merciful God who takes sin a seriously as death.  Or does it?

No church more worried about offending people more than God is doing much of anything to make the pious wish of an empty hell a reality.  Indeed, the mercy of God is hardly a whim or a benevolent notion but the plan of salvation formed before the foundation of the world for the innocent Son to bear the full weight of the guilt for all sinners.  Therefore, to wish hell's occupants into heaven is to render the atoning work of Christ either a great big mistake or an unnecessary suffering that redeems no one.  In either case, if there was a chance of hell being empty, likely Jesus would have wanted to know before suffering once for all for the sin of all.

If you warm up to the hope that hell is empty, you would think that would energize you to call the world to repentance, to preach nothing but the cross and empty tomb, and to make sure that every heard and everyone believed the Word of the Cross.  Alas, that is not the case.  From liberal Protestantism and its uneasiness for any doctrine to the current Pope and his penchant for substituting his will and purpose for God's, evangelization is hardly a top goal.  Sadly, most of these churches make it almost impossible to need to be converted in order to be saved from sin that is not really all that sinful for a life that might not be better than the one you now have.  

I shudder at the prospect of suffering hell without the covering of Christ over you.  You should, too.  We all should -- especially those are being saved!  But if we shudder, then we should not shrink from proclaiming the Gospel loud and long for it is only by way of this Gospel that any will be saved.  Of course, we hang with the disciples and hearers of Jesus wishing that the number of those who will be saved shall be many -- as close to everyone as can be.  But the only way that they will be saved is if they know of Jesus and Him crucified and risen, if they are nurtured and sustained in this faith by the Word preached and the Sacraments administered, and if they are willing to surrender their own broken righteousness for the perfect righteousness of Christ He gives as gift and blessing.  Maybe Pope Francis should stick to the things he knows since he clearly does not know Scripture at this juncture.  Maybe we should all stick to Christ and Him crucified and be determined to know nothing more or nothing less.   

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Hebrew Bible reading. . .

Only recently I have heard it not once but a dozen times.  The Old Testament reference was spoken of as a reading from the Hebrew Bible.  Curious?  Were the New Testament readings from the Greek Bible?  What is the source of this distinction and what is its meaning? 

Hebrew terms such as miqra (“scripture”) or kitve haqqodesh (“sacred texts”) are common words for the Bible (what Christians ordinarily call the Old Testament). Its tripartite division into the Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) eventually produced the term Tanakh. The division into “Old Testament” and “New Testament” for Christians was not immediate but emerged over time.  The Greek term diathéke (testamentum in Latin) was used in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) to translate the term berit, covenant.

The first use of “Old Testament” (or “Old Covenant”) referring to the Hebrew Bible occurs in a letter (c.170) of Melito, the bishop of Sardes, a town in Asia Minor.  Eusebius of Caesarea refers to that letter in his History of the Church.  Therein is a list of the books of the Old Testament which corresponds in large measure to the ordinary list found later in the works of Origen of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Athanasius.  These include: the five books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the four books of Kings (Samuel and Kings), the books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the book of the 12 Minor Prophets, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Ezra.  Nehemiah was counted along with Ezra as a single book.  The book of Esther was not routinely included in the lists of biblical books until the fourth century, such as those anamed by by Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus. Melito’s list, like other Christian lists from the early period of Christian history excludes the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books.  The term “New Testament” first occurs in the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, around the end of the second century.  Though some believe the term can be traced back to 140 through the works of Marcion of Sinope, his works do not survive except through reference in Tertullian.  Around the end of the second century, the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” shifted from terms referencing two covenants to designating to the collections of Scriptures.

The term Old Testament did not seem to be controversial until the late 20th century when some thought it should be dropped in favor of a less "pejorative" term like “First Testament.”  It did not catch on.  So are we to think that the reference by a Christian (even Lutheran) to the Hebrew Bible or Scriptures is also fearful of offense.  Or could it be a means of distancing themselves from the things in the Old Testament that they do not like?  In any case, we seem to love inventing ways to disagree.  Even something as simple as the term Old Testament can be distorted into some sort of offense or problem.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

If only God had known. . .

On another Lutheran forum the argument continues.  The passages in Scripture that speak of a man not having sex with another man as with a woman were descriptive of forced sex, rape.  The Scriptures did not know anything like what we know of today -- a committed, caring, loving, and married relationship between two men or two women.  So Scripture is really therefore silent on the matter of a committed, caring, loving, and married relationship between two people of the same sex.  Yeah.  Right.

Quite apart from the arguments over the texts themselves is the presumption that God did not know and could not have known of what today we know -- committed, caring, loving, and married same sex couples.  What kind of God do you end up with if His Word, which claims to be eternal, is conditioned by and therefore limited to circumstances even God could not foresee?  What kind omniscience can be attributed to a God who could not foresee and address committed, caring, loving, and married relationships between same sex couples?  Such a God is far less than the holy and almighty God of the Scriptures and ends up being a very different God than we claim Him to be because of His Word.

The only possible way you can come to the conclusion that Scripture did not know of such relationships and therefore the admonitions against homosexual relations do not apply to the situation today is if you also claim that Scripture is a human book with some divine words in it but not the Word of God.  That is the only caveat that saves portions of that Word while dismissing other parts of that Word.  So this is not simply an argument over what the words say in the Scriptures (themselves being rather unambiguous) but over what Scripture is.  This is the crux of the argument between orthodox and conservative Christianity and progressive and liberal Christianity.  It always goes back to the Word of God.

What we are left with is a God who speaks relative words, mixed up with human words that cannot be claimed as His own, and an audience which must decide which words are His and which words are just the authors and what those words mean.  This is not simply a problem, this is a crisis of authority and one which makes the Reformation question pale in comparison.  It signals the dawn of a day in which there is no truth that can ever be claimed as God's own -- even the words applying to salvation must be scrutinized and conditioned by the context in which they were spoken and the context in which they are now heard.  Such is the legacy of modern Biblical hermeneutics in which the Jesus of history and the Christ of Scripture do not meet and the words of God and man are likewise a complex and twisted mess of invention, legend, myth, and truth.  In the modern era it all fits.  After all, the individual is the supreme arbiter of what real as well as what is true -- even though that judgment is never more than one person wide or one moment deep.  Such is the logic behind those who find accommodation between what Scripture clearly condemns and modern cultural values and judgments.  God seems to be the loser in this but, the sad reality is, we are the poorer for it.  We are the losers -- all of us and the cause of the Gospel itself.  Mess with the Word of God and you mess with salvation.  Period.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Don't you love open questions?

In our imagined understanding of Christianity, there are few real fundamental doctrines which must be believed and the rest are all open questions.  It does not matter how you answer them, if you have the core convictions correct.  In this modern day view of things, even the Trinity is not quite essential.  We have long ago gravitated more to the idea of a single God with three persons being a confusing muddle which we attach to His unity out of deference to those who went before.  Some Christians call this unitarian God Father, others Jesus, and still others the Spirit.  Perhaps at best we are modalists overall.

So it also goes with the incarnation.  Virgin, well, maybe.  Or maybe a Joseph and Mary who got a little frisky before it was appropriate.  Strangely, modern Christianity resents the whole idea of virginity as if it were an asset wasted -- even when it comes to Blessed Mary.  Talk to clergy about the ever virginity of Mary some get offended at the idea that Mary and Joseph did not have at least a 47 shades of gray sex life.  The hypostatic union?  Who can even pronounce it and who cares?   

Even the cross is not without its detractors.  The old vicarious atonement seems too medieval for modern ideas.  We love Christus Victor with Jesus the underdog -- we all love to cheer on the underdog.  But the idea that our sin is so bad it requires blood, suffering, and death is seldom heard from Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or even Lutheran pulpits.  It would seem that Jesus died so that we can have our best life now -- how to grab hold of your goals and achieve them at every cost.  The resurrection is a great idea but too much of it is lost on a life that is vague, sketchy, spiritual, and not all that real.  Reincarnation has more appeal to us than the resurrection of the body.

Jump down to other things and you see our fascination with open questions.  Same sex marriage?  Trans identity?  Divorce?  The ordination of women?  Abortion?  Birth control?  Euthanasia?  Assisted suicide?  There is a sad but real truth that churches in America have decided that none of these is important enough to be dogmatic about -- except to be dogmatic that you cannot say no to any of them. 

Monday, February 19, 2024

When temptation comes. . .

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (B), preached on Sunday, February 18, 2024.

When it comes to the temptation of our Lord, Mark is entirely too simple for our taste.  We get nothing of the back and forth between Satan and Jesus, nothing of the hunger building within the fasting Jesus, and nothing of the response of Jesus from the Word of God.  This is what we get.  “He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.”  

Part of our dissatisfaction with Mark’s account is that we want to believe that temptation is complicated.  We like complicated things.  The more complicated they are, the easier it is for us to find short cuts around the things we do not like or do not want to admit.  Mark gives us nothing of that because in Mark’s account, temptation is straightforward and simple.  Where we are looking for extenuating circumstances, Mark presents us with the bare facts and only the bare facts.

It does not matter how we are tempted, the battle always takes place within our minds.  It is a battle of what ifs that we play against our own desires as much as the devil’s wiles.  It is a battle of images played out not on the screens outside us but on the screen of our own imagination.  It is a battle of words said to make sin appear not to be sin and to make giving into temptation noble rather than evil.  Temptation will not go away if you never hear another vulgar word or if you never see another erotic image or if you never have the chance to cheat or steal what does not belong to you.  Temptation is not about out there but always about inside of us.

Some churches have renumbered the Ten Commandments to add in the prohibition against graven images as a separate command and then end up lumping the two commands not to covet as one.  How foolish that is.  For the temptation to sin always begins with covetousness.  The will is broken on the altar of desire for that which does not belong to you.  If we have a will that is separate from our Father in heaven, we will always be vulnerable.  Jesus does not overcome temptation because He is God’s Son or because He has the answers down pat to Satan’s lies.  No, our Lord overcomes temptation because His will and the will of the Father are one.  There is no daylight between them.

Let me say this clearly.  Arguing with the devil is disaster.  It is futile.  He knows the Bible better than you and He is more committed to his long term goal than you are to God’s.  Adam and Eve had already lost in the Garden as soon as they got into a conversation with the serpent.  At that point the devil already had them.
As soon as you argue with the devil, you grant to the devil a status he does not deserve and you give him a place at your table.  Jesus did not argue with the devil.  He answered the devil not simply with the Word of God but also with His confidence in that Word.  The devil said one passage and Jesus responded with another.  Jesus is not simply speaking to the devil but also to Himself and to His own will.  For in this conflict of the will, Jesus knows that the battle is not with Satan but with Himself.

The devil constantly tries to shift the conversation away from God’s Word and back onto Jesus Himself.  The Lord Jesus speaks the Word of God to insist that the conversation remain about the Word of the Lord and not Him.  Do you see now why we find ourselves so weak in the face of temptation?  We gladly make it about ourselves and so we give into the devil and he has the edge over us.  We face the Word of God with our own doubts and fears and so there is always distance between God’s will and ours.  We pray “Thy will be done” but under those good and pious words lurks a heart and mind that wants to shape God’s will more than be shaped by His will, to make God pay attention to us rather than we pay attention to Him.

None of us will ever convince the devil he is wrong but all of us can believe that God is right.  The Word of the Lord will not silence the devil from twisting that Word or betraying it for his own evil purpose and intent.  But the Word of the Lord will comfort us sinners, strength us weak, forgive our sins, and restore us to Himself.  It is not a matter of picking which Bible passage will shut the devil up but knowing the Word of the Lord well enough that we listen to its voice and follow where it leads, knowing that His Word will not ever fail us.

If you ever go to court over some contract dispute, the evidence that counts is not what you say or what you think you heard or what you felt but the fact of what the contract actually says.  The words count most of all.  God does not need the Word to be written because He is the writer.  The devil fears the written Word of God because it is concrete and not imagined.  We are the ones who need the written Word of God.  We forget what we read and once knew.  We imagine things in our minds one way only to find out we remembered them wrong.  We feel things differently and cannot trust our emotions.  We need a written Word.  We need the Word of God to be objectively true.  We need the written Word of God to be yesterday, today, and forever the same, the Word that endures forever.

Temptations are not the same from person to person or from time to time.  The devil has the luxury of making things up as he goes along.  We do not.  We need the Word that endures forever, the Word that will not fail us like our memories do and our intentions have.  Like Job of old, we cry out “Oh that the Words of God were written!”  For if they are written, we have something to read, something to hear, something to hold onto – something that is not fragile or frail but profound and eternal.

Temptation befalls all people.  You cannot run and hide.  You can not outrun it.  You cannot argue it away. You cannot win because in this battle of wits you are the halfwit.  But Jesus shows us what will not fail us.  The Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Know this Word and you will be strong.  Believe in this Word and you will resist.  Live in this Word and you will not lose your way.  The Word of God will prevail and so will you.  If you resist, you will be kept in the grasp of grace.  If you succumb, you will be rescued through forgiveness.  When the Psalmist tells us to trust not in earthly rulers or kingdoms, he is also telling not to trust yourself.  But the one who trusts the Word of the Lord will not fail.  So let your will be captive to God’s will, trust in what you cannot understand and are not even sure you want, and pray daily “Thy will be done.”  This is the only strategy that prevails against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  Amen.

The business of death. . .

You know how those surveys keep popping into your email box or up on the screen after a purchase?  How did we do?  Are you happy with us?  How can we improve?  Will you recommend us to others?  Who gets the surveys sent out by the funeral home industry?  Not the dead.  They have no say in the matter.  Even those who leave detailed instructions on their funerals can be overruled by family and their last wishes left unfulfilled.  No, the living decide about funeral arrangements and then decide if those arrangements are satisfying and meaningful.  This translates again into the power of the almighty dollar.  Money talks in funeral homes as much as in retailers across America or online.  So what has money said?

On the one hand, when money is not the object, death is lavish.  Even better than life!  The dead are all dressed up in their finest (even new or rented clothing).  The make up is applied to make them look as undead as possible.  The coffins are better crafted furniture than the stuff in the homes they plopped down on in front of the TV.  They are laid upon soft cushions appreciated more by the mourners than the bodies laid upon them.  They are lauded better in death then they were in life by those who seldom said the same kind words to them while they lived.  They are laid in cement or steel or bronze vaults designed to prevent the inevitable from occurring -- at least as much as it is possible for man to do.  The mourners feast and laugh -- usually at the expense of the dead.  Death is a consumer driven industry with every available option to those who can afford them.

On the other hand, when money is the object or convenience, death can be cheap.  The last year it was reported, some 56  percent of Americans were cremated with the trend indicating that will increase to 80% in 15-20 years.  Cremation is certainly easier, it allows the arrangements to be more flexible with respect to time and place, less expensive, and, it might seem, a better fit for our use of green space and other resources consumed by caskets, vaults, and cemeteries.  Here again, the consumer is king.  You want the ashes to take with you like fast food?  They come in a bag and a box (as well as more expensive urns).  You want them fashioned into jewelry?  You can wear the dead around your neck.  You want them scattered in all the old familiar sentimental places?  Road trip!  And I could go on and on and on.  

The Church once used funeral practices as a line of demarcation between the pagan and the faithful.  While that might be true in some places, it is no longer true within the American industry of death.  Faith or no faith, which faith or none, seems to matter little to the choices made with how to deal with the dead.  Older folks are still more partial to coffins and graves but that is also changing.  In fact, as a pastor I find myself hard-pressed to advocate for contending for traditional burial practices against the price points being extracted by the funeral home industry, the cost of perpetual care, and the fact that graves are gone and forgotten with the dead.  Some may argue that the old distinction still stands but I struggle to find evidence of it.  Instead, the whole scene is confusing -- driven more by convenience and cost than anything else.  Add to that the practice of relics and you have some Christians refusing to let the buried be buried and the dead be dead.  But that is another blog post.

In the end, Christians as well as those without any faith or hope for the resurrection of the body seem to feel the need to steal the sting of death by what they do and not by what Christ has done.  That is where the bigger problem lies.  Even Christians have adopted the whole circle of life idea, the conviction that a spiritualized life is both the least and the best we can hope for, and that the material ends up being a prison for the real person from which they need to be set free.  What we Christians will have to decide is if we think death a disposal of some part of us that is non-essential and maybe even a burden or if death is where we come face to face both with what sin has wrought and Christ has overcome.  St. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of the body and not merely of the dead is one of the key and essential truths of Christ without which there is no real Christian faith at all.  In the end what we do in death should be more about Christ than it is about the dead or the living -- at least for the baptized!  What we do in death ought to be a confession just like what we do in life is a confession of what we believe, teach, and confess.  I will not solve this dilemma but I will leave you with this.  The problem with funeral practices (especially for Christians) may be complicated by the fact that we no longer believe in or yearn for the resurrection of the body.  We may, instead, be content to join with nature and the life force of others in some grand but empty chaos that is no real life at all.  If that is true, we have more problems than simply with how we style the business of death.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Is your home a holy place?

Though some will immediately equate this title with behavior, I refuse to fall into that trap.  This is not about improving your personal righteousness so that you need Christ's less.  Holiness is never a matter of mere behavior and is always the one thing that will change even stubborn behavioral traits.  Holiness is where God is.  Where God is, there is holiness.  The sacred was never a matter of the space itself but who inhabits that space, what happens there, and from whom the direction of that space comes.  The church is a holy place not because it has been consecrated but because it is used for what it was intended, erected, and consecrated for -- God's service to us of His gifts by those who are appointed to distribute them and our response to His gracious favor.

As true as that is for a church building, it is no less true for the home.  The home is holy not because of the quality or quantity of devotions and prayers that rise up from that dwelling but because it is inhabited by those who are holly -- the baptized saints of God -- fulfilling their vocation as the Lord's own.  So husbands acting husbandly and wives acting wifely and fathers acting fatherly and mothers acting motherly and children acting childrenly is what we are talking about.  We serve the Lord where we are.  We serve the Lord by doing what He has called us to do and being the people He has called us to be.  The power of this engine is certainly not us but the Spirit of the Most High who dwells among us and in us through the means of grace.  We are not simply the baptized people of God at church.  We are His people by baptism and faith at home (and everywhere else we go).

Make your home a holy place.  Strive to serve your wife as worthy husband and not to make your wife worthy of you as husband.  Strive to serve your husband as worthy wife and not to make your husband worthy of you as wife.  Strive to be to your children the heavenly Father God is to us and not to mold them into what you want them to be.  Strive to bring your children into their spiritual mother, the church, by bring them to baptism, bringing them to the worship services of God's house, and catechizing them in the faith (and not leaving that up to others).  Make your home a holy place.  Strive less for a shining personal righteousness than to live in Christ the new life Christ has given you.  Nowhere is this life more profoundly manifest than in the essential vocations that belong to our lives and the character of our lives at home.  Underneath it all is this.  Forgive.  Forgive as you have been forgiven.  Forgive without counting the number of times or the cost.  Forgive because the cross ever stands as the cost paid to set you free from sin's curse and now you get to apply the fruits of that cross to others in His name.  Where forgiveness lives, surely Christ lives also.  Make your home a holy place.


Saturday, February 17, 2024

The end goal. . .

Over the years my patience has worn thin on the typical argument between conservative and liberal (or progressive).  The reality is that while conservative was once a fairly defined position, it is less so today.  Whether politics or religion, culture or society, conservatives seem incapable of partnership or cooperation.  It is the perfect and not the good they will accept.  Such an all or nothing approach has led to the practical impotence of their noble argument because they are more interested in tearing down others than they are working for a particular cause or outcome.  We all know this though it is seldom admitted in public.  Conservatives are not simply wedded to gaining on their positions but to the positions themselves and the end result is that we argue as much about the failings of those who ought to be our allies as we do the real enemies on the battlefield of truth, morality, and liberty.  Worse, conservatives are the ones who are generally seen as intolerant and dogmatic. 

As we have seen more and more, it is not the conservative who is narrow minded and intolerant.  Those who lean to the left have become more and more insistent upon the limitation of the freedoms of those who have the nerve to disagree with them.  They have used and quite successfully, I might add, the resources of media, government, and even religion to advance their causes.  Because they have their mind on improvement without being encumbered with the full weight of the perfect, they form allies and partnerships with unlikely people to see advancement in one issue -- even with those with whom they disagree on everything else.  Consider, for example, the odd alliance of the liberals with Hamas who, it has been revealed, was exceptionally brutal against women.

While conservatism may have a point of view that varies on what is conserved, liberalism is not quite a point of view at all.  Instead, it is far more dangerous.  Liberalism, or progressivism, is less a well articulated position with a goal than it is a tactic or a strategy.  It is as radical as they come.  It is also as fierce as they come.  Fundamentalists are pink with envy at the way liberalism (or progressivism) has marshaled its resources to promote everything that is against what was once universally believed and held.  This is true about the sacredness of life, marriage and family, the value of work, and individual responsibility but also about a great deal more.  It seems less an idea or an ideal than it is a rebellion without considering the consequences.  For example, the feminist movement now finds itself boxed in by the trans movement and its inability to even say for sure what a woman is.

All of this is true of religion as well.  The only good religion is one that does not hold to an objective truth but whose values and positions correspond to the mood of culture and the accepted opinion of society as a whole.  Words no longer have any meaning except the ones the hearer assigns to them.  Truth is no longer something factual or objective but is as fragile as opinion and as extensive as one mind.  Morality is not simply in the eye of the beholder but as narrow and individual as anything else.  All of this is jealously guarded against historic and catholic dogma and certainly against Scripture.  The truth of this is revealed in the fact that Jesus would be put on trial today for saying the most innocuous things about marriage!  Religion no longer accepts Scripture as anything but one opinion and not even the weight of God Himself counts for any more than the most unreasonable opinion of someone who has researched nothing.  Liberalism does not have a goal nor does progressivism have a truth except the next thing it decides must be the standard to which everyone and every thing is now to be held.

Friday, February 16, 2024

The sacrament of orgasm. . .

Not everything is about sex.  At least that is what some are trying to say.  But it appears that the Vatican today is more about sex then less.  A newly minted cardinal who has jurisdiction over the content of what is believed and confessed by Rome apparently is also the author of a controversial book on “spirituality and sensuality” which was, surprise! surprise!, omitted from his biography and resume.  Cardinal Víctor Fernández seems to have forgotten than nothing is really hidden or forgotten.  The 1998 book published in Mexico has reappeared.  Look for his work under the title The Mystical Passion. Spirituality and sensuality.    This is a second book, a somewhat pornographic sequel to "The Art of Kissing” and   Chapters 7-9 are too explicit even to quote here.  As some pundits have said, is this Tucho's version of Fifty Shades of Gray?  It is said that Victor Manuel Cardinal Fernández compares how the “particularities of men and women in orgasm also occur in some way in the mystical relationship with God.”  Of course, the book also has little to say about the immorality of homosexual behavior.  “God loves man’s happiness; therefore, it is also an act of worship to God to experience a moment of happiness,” wrote Fernández.

The point is this.  How can anyone, even his supporters, take seriously his role as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith?  Is this a joke?  That is how the world sees it and the reality is that is how it is intended to be.  Pope Francis has repeatedly indulged in the same kind of deafness to the way his words are taken and his supposed role in propagating and safeguarding the faith.  While some enemies of Rome are gleeful about this, we should all be sad -- sad that this is what it has all come down to.  Blessings of same sex couples that are not really blessings and talk of our spiritual union with God as a kind of orgasm.  The world out there does not notice the nuance that Pope Francis is not the leader of all Christians nor does the world pay attention to the finer distinctions even within his or his minion's words.  This is, in the end, more dangerous than out and out heresy.  Apostasy can be addressed but when those who are supposed to represent the faithful before the world speak without carefully choosing their words and paying attention to how they will be heard, the faith is damaged for all of Christianity.  Confusion is as much a tool of the devil as out and out error.  And this pope and those who serve him have proven themselves to be adept at living on the edge of truth and morality when they should be representing its vital center in Christ.

When will you wake up and decide enough is enough?  That is what I was told by Roman Catholics in the past every time some Protestant voice ended up embarrassing the faith and not simply himself.  When will Methodists awaken to the formal takeover of their church by the LGBTQ+ faction?  Or those in the ELCA awaken to the fact that there is no more Lutheran in that church body?  Or Presbyterians awaken to the fact that theirs is a church which is no longer true to its roots?  How can you possibly have a serious ecumenical conversation when people no longer believe what they stood for and confessed?  This ought to be a similar wake up to those church bodies attempting to hold the line but also unwilling to break communion over such egregious error?  If there was ever a time when Christianity deserved a solid realignment, now is that time.  Before it is too late.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

No words to avoid death except Christ. . .

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (B), preached on Wednesday, February 14, 2024.

There are many words used to describe death.  Most of them are words we invent in order not to say the word.  Dead.  Scripture has words used in place of death also.  But these are not euphemisms.  These words speak the truth clearly and bluntly.

Tonight we come to Church only to see black where color once reigned.  The crosses are covered drawing even more attention to what lies behind the veils. And we came to the altar rail to hear the words no one wants to hear:  “Remember, O man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”  Dust is not a euphemism for death.  It is the truth.  We came from dust.  Into dust God breathed the breath of life and man became a living being.  And then sin stole that life and put an expiration date upon us.  Dust is not only our beginning.  It is our end.  And in between we are still dust.  The human body, as miraculous as it is, can be summarized as water and dust.  The Lord says this not to put us down but so that we may not live in lies but in the truth as He is truth.

The miracle here is not that death is not death.  The miracle is that here, in the midst of death, God still reigns in His mercy and love.  The ashes upon our foreheads are in the shape of a cross.  Dust we are but now but not merely dust.  In Christ we are the dwelling place of God.  Because of Christ, we shall not return to dust.  God will raise up our bodies from the dust of the earth and breath into those bodies the breath of everlasting life.  So what we do here tonight is not merely an act of repentance but a statement of faith.

Apart from Christ we have nothing to hope for and everything to lose.  All the nice euphemisms for death will fail us when the breath leaves our bodies and Christ is not there to raise us up from the grave or the Spirit to breath in us the breath of life.  We can soften the blow all we want by talking about passing away or gone or, my favorite, expired... like a cheap coupon no longer worth anything.  This is what sin has done and only a Savior who is the Son of God in our flesh can rescue us from the dust that was our beginning and the dust that will be our end.

Even worse than admitting the fact that we are dust, is the presumption that we can fix what is wrong with us if given only the time or opportunity.  This is what our Lord attacks in the Gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday.  You can give until you are poor and the whole world notices but it will count for nothing unless Christ lives in you by faith.  You can pray until the cows come home but unless you pray in Christ’s name, pleading His merits and begging for the mercy He has promised to give, they are hollow words that echo through eternity without any ears to hear them.  You can keep the Law as best it can be kept in your own eyes but without the righteousness of Christ to cover you, the Law can only accuse and only condemn.

So what Ash Wednesday is about is sin and death.  The wages of sin is death.  Yet even in this day about sin and death there is an answer.  The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ.  We do not wear these ashes to earn anything from God but as an outward mark that we get it.  We know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God not by an inch but by a mile.  We know that death is what our sins have earned us and the debt they have incurred is beyond our capacity to repay.  We wear these ashes for the sake of the world.  We may be here in God’s house, the redeemed of the Lord, but we live in a world in which most people live in the darkness of sin and its death.  So these ashes are a witness to the world of what repentance must admit.  But these ashes are also a sign of hope.  Christ is here to bear for us the curse of sin and its death and to answer its power with the greater power of forgiveness and life.

There is one more thing.  The world may not be impressed by our feeble piety and acts of charity but God sees.  Just as God sees us for the sinners we are and still He loves us, so does He see the paltry works we do and still He rewards us.  Salvation is already ours but the favor of God remains His to give us, if not now then at the last when we shall enter into the joy of our master.  So though our good works can do nothing to add to Christ’s saving work nor can they commend us to God beyond the baptismal mark of Christ upon us, God who sees in secret will reward our secret acts of mercy, charity, and love.  

So be encouraged.  Christ has done all things to rescue you from sin and its death and to breath eternal life into your dust.  But the Father has done us the great kindness of also noticing and rewarding the simple acts of piety and charity we do apart from the stage lights of the world and a desire to be recognized.  This gives meaning and encouragement to the alms we give to our neighbor and to the tithes and offerings we bring to the Lord and to the time the world says we waste when we spend it in daily devotion and prayer.   You are dust but not only dust.   

Our worthless God. . .

Growing up on a farm there was a certain expression about mammary glands on a male pig.  Maybe you have heard it.  It was the universal statement against those things that had no use or purpose that we could ascertain.  It was one of the worst possible judgments you could make against stuff but even worse when applied to a person.  I wonder how much we apply this judgment to things without which our lives would be rather dull.  I wonder if we don't also apply it to God.  You tell me if I am correct.

Much of what makes our lives rich is rather useless and worthless.  It has an artificial value.  We love grandma's china because of the sentiment and memories attached to the meals we ate off it at her house but go to sell it and you find out its real value.  The same could be said about most of our stuff.  It has the value we assign to it but in reality it has no value at all unless and until someone puts a value on it by purchasing it.  Think of the new car and how its value declines precipitously once you drive it off the showroom floor.

The same could be said for all our experiences and the untaken photos that fill our minds and the memories themselves.  What are they really worth?  The truth is that they have little if any real value except to us.  We love them and cherish them but they have no transferable value nor would people be willing to pay what we think they are worth.  They are worthless and without use except to us.

Art and music are much the same.  They belong to an industry in which their value is assigned in the moment, may not endure, and may not be equally valued by others.  Art that appears to be scribbles in color on a page has fetched millions.  It must have value, right?  Unless future generations no longer highly esteem that artist or the work of that artist.  There are plenty of collectibles that are no longer being collected.  Even the music of the world's greatest musical genius was not valued during his life and his compositions provided wrappers for the fish monger.  Bach had to be rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn because the world had forgotten him and moved on.  It happens all the time.  Beauty is a largely worthless and useless commodity but who wants to live without it?

Is God useless?  He must seem to be to those who have figured out a way to live their days outside of His love and mercy.  Perhaps His value to us is not seen until we uncover the fragility and weakness of the things we think are valuable and useful.  Maybe eternal life is not highly valued and deemed useless to those whose present is filled with all the good things they can imagine.  But life is like a train wreck -- you do not see it come and after it comes nothing is the same.  Eternity becomes a very high value to those who hear the dreaded diagnosis from the doctor or who wake up to see that most of their lives have already been lived and yet they are not satisfied.

In the same way, forgiveness is not all that urgent, important, or valuable to a world that does not acknowledge sin.  If we figure a way around sin that does not require a Savior, God becomes largely irrelevant to us.  Except for this.  When those around us refuse to grant us a pass on our pet sins, we are still left to deal with them ourselves.  When guilt carried around inside of us refuses to be consoled by those who think it not such a big deal, we are left to our own devices to figure out a way to feel good about our failures and failings.  Then the worthless gift of forgiveness just might turn out to be of greater value to us than we thought.

Sometimes the law is not simply necessary but valuable to us as we weigh the Lord and His gifts.  That same law points us to a need we did not know and then the Spirit awakens us to the real value of a gift we did not esteem.  Until then.  God uses the law to point out to us what is of greater value by laying bare all our attempts to ignore our need of that mercy.  Then what was once useless to us turns out to be the most precious worthless gift of all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

I like the idea of ashes, but. . . .

Lutherans are a curious lot.  Some of us like the idea of things traditional except when they lead us beyond the comfort zone of our own historic practice.  I do not quite mean Lutheran historic practice here but our own personal experience.  We like that Scripture says, for example, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.  We do not like the idea that this might mean we should go down on our knees.  So it is with Ash Wednesday.  We like the idea of repentance and confession but we are not quite ready as Lutherans in the 21st century to say that we all should be marking people with the cross in palm ash.  

You can do your own study of Scripture to see how often outward acts accompany inward attitudes of repentance.  Only a fool would say that ashes as an external mark of repentance is absent in Scripture.  Furthermore, Jesus is not saying anything about ashes when He warns against those who wear their piety on the exterior without faith in the heart.  In fact, Jesus is not suggesting that fasting or almsgiving or even ashes are wrong but only warning against an external piety in every form and fashion that has no internal parallel in the heart.  Fasting is not a bad thing unless it is an outward act without the piety of the heart forming and giving the act a context.  Jesus would surely say the same about the opposite.  There is nothing good about a piety which is only internal and never moves the person to actually fast or give to the poor or outwardly repent and live according to the voice of the Word.  Christ does not want to be buried so deep down in our hearts that He does not live in us through our words and works, or does He countenance such an invisible faith?

The historic Christian usage of ashes is spoken of by Tertullian(c. 160 – c. 225). In his On Repentance Ch. 11 Tertullian complains about those who claim repentance but do not want to demean themselves with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.  Is he talking about us Lutherans?  Eusebius (c. 260- c. 340) also records the liturgical use of ashes as a sign of public repentancel (Church History Bk5, Ch 28, par. 12).  While not quite a uniform practice in the entire Church, already by the late 7th and early 8th century there is pretty strong evidence the practice was uniform in Western Europe.  The Venerable Bede (672-735) preached  sermons on Ash Wednesday; for example: Homily 37 “in die Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:349); Homily 38 “in fiera quinta post Cinerum” (Minge PL 94:350), etc.  The 8th century Gelasian Sacramentary speaks of Lent's beginning and ashes.  Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010), an English abbot, preached upon Ash Wednesday -- Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, ed. p. 23):

“On the Wednesday, throughout the whole world, the priests bless, even as it is appointed, clean ashes in church, and afterward lay them upon men’s heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and shall again return to dust, even as the Almighty God spake to Adam, after he had sinned against God’s command….

“Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads,"

The Council of Benevento in AD 1090 records Pope Urban II making standard the use ashes on Ash Wednesday rendering the practice the uniform beginning of the Lenten Fast. (Nilles, 1897 Kalendarium Manuale vol II, p. 94.)  What went wrong with Lutherans?   It is the few rather than the many who would find some way to object to the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Furthermore, all the cautions that are offered by those who reject the practice are directed at straw men who never promote the abuse at all.  At some point in time we Lutherans have to get it together.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The world keeps getting stranger. . . .

In what is clearly about semantics and not about truth, it appears that some marketers of tampons are widening their reach to include not just women.  Ah, but you say, what men would be interested in tampons?  Those who identify as men but who have female reproductive organs or those who are not quite sure what they identify as but have female reproductive organs.  The advertising battle is about money and if accepting the confusion over gender is a ploy for sales, then it appears some manufacturers are not above marketing to the quirks and curiosities of the current gender confusion.

“Periods aren’t just an issue for women, as trans men and non-binary people may also have a womb and periods," says a Finnish maker of tampons.  They have come up with “Tampons for Men,” sold in a navy blue box that says “For Men” and “Struation” wrapped around another side, reading “For Menstruation.”  The company wants to “raise the issue of genderedness of hygiene products and anxiety related to menstruation in trans men” because “for trans men menstrual pain is not just physical pain,” stating that “93 percent of trans men have experienced menstrual-related gender dysphoria.”  I would suggest that 100% of trans men have experienced gender dysphoria.

Tampax, an American company, campaigned on this several years ago “Fact: Not all women have periods. Also a fact: Not all people with periods are women. Let’s celebrate the diversity of all people who bleed!” Project Untaboo shared on Instagram that “Period equity means standing for all people who bleed.”  Callaly, a British company, has a campaign called “Tell the Whole Bloody Truth” to highlight the narratives of “people with periods” who represent a range of disabilities and gender identities.  The companies have no real interest in the dysphoria but if they can find a profit in it, they will accept whatever lies work in the marketplace. 

We live in an age in which the truth hurts.  The truth is that all of those who are interested in these products have female reproductive organs.  Until very recently, that alone was enough to classify them as women.  Only now in our so-called age of enlightenment have we passed over the obvious to accept as truth the odd, the strange, and the invented.  A sideline of all of this is that it further confuses those who are already confused.  No man uses a tampon.  Only women.  But the blunt truth of this will soon be lost as advertisers accept the imagined over the reality and jump on the bandwagon of profit with a willingness to call people whatever they want to be called so long as they purchase their products.  Such pandering is not uncommon or unusual to the marketplace but things are definitely getting stranger and stranger.  If you don't think this is happening, goggle tampons for men.  You will soon be able to get them at Amazon.  They deliver free if you have prime.