Sunday, March 31, 2024

Christ is Risen!!!















Almighty God the Father, through Your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, You have overcome death and opened the gate of everlasting life to us. Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of our Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by Your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands

1 Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands
    For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand He stands
    And brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us joyful be
And sing to God right thankfully
    Loud songs of alleluia!

2 No son of man could conquer death,
    Such ruin sin had wrought us.
No innocence was found on earth,
    And therefore death had brought us
Into bondage from of old
And ever grew more strong and bold
    And held us as its captive.

3 Christ Jesus, God’s own Son, came down,
    His people to deliver;
Destroying sin, He took the crown
    From death’s pale brow forever:
Stripped of pow’r, no more it reigns;
An empty form alone remains;
    Its sting is lost forever.

4 It was a strange and dreadful strife
    When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
    The reign of death was ended.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
    Its sting is lost forever.

5 Here our true Paschal Lamb we see,
    Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
    So strong His love—to save us.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o’er,
    And Satan cannot harm us.

6 So let us keep the festival
    To which the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all,
    The sun that warms and lights us.
Now His grace to us imparts
Eternal sunshine to our hearts;
    The night of sin is ended.

7 Then let us feast this Easter Day
    On Christ, the bread of heaven;
The Word of grace has purged away
    The old and evil leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed;
He is our meat and drink indeed;
    Faith lives upon no other!

LSB 458

O God, for our redemption You gave Your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross and by His glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of the enemy. Grant that all our sin may be drowned through daily repentance and that day by day we may arise to live before You in righteousness and purity forever; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.


Saturday, March 30, 2024

Who is left to accuse?

Sermon for the Good Friday Evening Service, preached on Good Friday, March 29, 2024.

It may be tempting to think of Good Friday as the day of Jesus’ funeral.  It might be the case but there was no funeral, no rites at the burial – just a rushed job of some burial spices and linens to wrap the body and the intention to do a better job tomorrow.  Ah, yes, tomorrow.  We all live in the tomorrow of what we would do if we could do it all over, what we would not do if we had know how it would all turn out, and what we should do but we don’t have the time.  No, this is not a funeral day for Jesus, just the dying day.

When Jesus uttered His last and final word from the cross, it was as He said: “It is finished.”  The false witnesses had all gone home.  The enemies who lived in the backrooms of the Temple had long ago retreated to leave the messy business to the soldiers.  The disciples who had followed Jesus for three years had run and were hiding in the shadows wondering if they were to be next or what the future was going to look like without Jesus.  Only a few women and John, the blessed apostle, were left with the soldiers to witness the final breath and hear the final word.

It was finished.  There would be no more pain.  The suffering had ended – not because His enemies had given up.  No, because Jesus had borne in His body all that they do to Him and He had done it faithfully.  It was finished.  The whole spectacle of the week that had all of Jerusalem talking was done and people had gone back to their lives.  The guards would be posted so that they could ensure that Jesus was dead and He stayed dead.  But it seemed to most that this was the last that would ever be heard of Jesus.

Of course, we know that they were wrong.  It was finished and Jesus had died but it was not over.  When intention would be fulfilled and the women return to the grave to finish preparing the body, they would find it empty.  Weeping Mary would confused Jesus with the gardener until she could no longer deny that it was Him – His voice, His body, and His life.  The disciples would hide behind closed doors, nursing their bruised egos and putting some distance between an act of betrayal, words of denial, and sheep scattered when the shepherd was struck.  At least until someone would walk through that locked door as the only one whom death could not keep prisoner.

But there is something else that is finished.  That is why we are here tonight. There is no one left to accuse us, either.  The voices against us are strangely silent.  The Law that no one could keep now had no more to say against a people who could not keep it.  The commandments could no longer accuse the people who had failed so often and so well at keeping them.  The Law was silenced by the final act of Jesus obedience – by the cross.  There He bore your sin and mine, to be sure, but there His righteousness became as big as a tent so that it might cover us all.  

The Temple curtain was torn in two – from top to bottom.  The holy place as exposed for all to see.  The sound of bleating goats and sheep was no more.  The bulls no longer cried out for their blood was no longer required.  The sacrifices that God had commanded as the only means to a clear conscience were now ended by the one sacrifice offered for all on the cross.  No more would the sellers of animals for sacrifice and the business of the Temple go on unabated.  Soon every stone upon stone would be cast down and the very building would be no more.  The Temple was both the voice of the Law demanding sacrifice for sin and the voice of the Gospel in the sacrifices that worked this forgiveness.   But now only one voice would be heard.  Christ had ended the accusation of the Law and offered the only perfect sacrifice to end all offerings for sin – once for all.  Now the altar would no longer receive sacrifice but dispense the gift of redemption.

It is finished.  The plan of God that was laid down before the world was brought into being had now reached its climax.  The sin that had marked man for death since Eden could no longer mark us anymore.  But Christ will mark us for life, letting the Father and the whole world know that we belong to Him.  We are forgiven by His blood.  We are restored as heirs.  We are destined to a new and glorious future that none of us could ever imagine except the mind of God who formed it for us and us for it.  

Death is done.  Jesus killed it by surrendering Himself into the death that was ours to die.  He went to war with death and ended the battle once for all by giving Himself into our death so that we might be raised into His life.  It is not death to die, at least any longer.  Though our bodies may be laid back into the dust of the earth from whence they came, we belong to Christ and on the day appointed He will raise up our bodies and replace them with glorious flesh.  Death is already undone but the full effect of it all must wait for the day the Father has appointed.  And on that day we will learn what Christ’s death has done to death.  For now we grieve not as the ignorant but as those who have gathered on Good Friday to wait not for death but for the life death could not overcome.

It is finished but Christ is not.  It is finished but you who live in Christ are not.  In the silence of this night and in the waiting of the next day, we will gather with anticipation.  For what has ended is what we feared most of all and what will begin is what we dared not even dream.  That what happens on Good Friday.  

The sacrifices have ended because of His one all sufficient sacrifice.  The sacrifices had ceased but now the gifts come. Sins are forgiven. Death is undone. The Temple veil is split. The grave that was sealed lies open. The devil’s skull lies crushed at the foot of the cross and the One with the bruised Heel now wears the beautiful feet of those who bring good news from God.  His enemies have been overcome and those who once threatened are now under threat.

And for you and me, the demands of the Law have been met. There is no one left to accuse us.  So let us draw near with clean hearts and confess our sins confident that forgiveness is ours.  Let us hold fast to the promise made to us in baptismal water that we belong to the Lord.  We are redeemed, saved, rescued from death and Hell. Once we were no people, now we are God’s people.  Once we had the chains of our past and the brief moment of the present but now we have an eternal future.  No, this is not a funeral.  But neither is it a celebration of life.  Instead it is something even better.  Today is the day of salvation.

Holy Saturday. . .


Holy Saturday meditation, according to [St.] Epiphanius of Cyprus

Something strange is happening ... there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: "My Lord be with you all." Christ answered him: "And with your spirit." He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, "Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light."

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendents I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, become your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Not an object lesson. . .

Sermon for the Divine Service on Maundy (Holy) Thursday, with the Stripping of the Altar, preached on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Some Christians like the foot-washing scene better than just about any other in the life of Jesus.  They like the humility of it all and presume the problem with religion lies mostly with its pride and arrogance.  Some even presume that no one can really know what to believe and the best we can do is to serve.  They are not so much enamored with the Sacrament of the Altar.  They think it should be left to each person to decide what it means and what they receive in Holy Communion.

The problem is this.  Jesus washes feet as an object lesson.  He makes it clear that He has shown an example to them.  They are not given words to say or even a specific action they were to do.  This is clear not simply in what Jesus says but also in what He does not say.  He asks them if they understand what He has done.  He never commands them to do exactly what He has done often and in remembrance of Him.  Foot-washing is an object lesson that illustrates a principle.  Holy Communion is a gift that bestows what it signs.

Jesus never calls the Sacrament of His body and blood an example.  He does not ask the disciples if they understand what He has done.  The Lord’s Supper is not a ceremony even though ceremonies accompany the Lord’s Supper.  The Sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood is not an object lesson.  It is gift and blessing, the heavenly food we cannot provide for ourselves, the medicine of immortality, and our participation in the body and blood of Christ.  But it is also one thing more.  It is proclamation.

As often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.  This is not said of foot washing.  This is said only of that blessed Sacrament which He instituted on the night of His betrayal as He was about to enter into the obedient suffering that would win salvation for you, me, and the whole world.  The Sacrament of the Altar is the beating heart of the Christian Church and the manifest proclamation of the cross.  It is the Sacrament by which we as individuals are fed, nourished, live, and grow but it is also the heart of our proclamation of Christ.  It is not simply what we say.  It is what we do.

This is why even in a pandemic we could not shut the doors or close the rail.  The Sacrament of the Altar is not an option or extra but the center of our very lives in Christ and the center of the Church’s witness to the world.  To shutter the doors of the Church not merely deprives you of what Christ offers in His flesh and blood.  To cease the Sacrament is to silence our witness to the world and to admit that there is a life more important than the life of Christ we receive here and a body more important than the bodies nourished here.  This fellowship of eating and drinking cannot be replaced by online Sacraments or by people gathered privately in their homes.  Yes, if you are alone on a desert island your faith must survive without benefit of this Sacrament.  But none of us are alone on a desert island.  Exceptions make terrible rules.

Yes, foot washing means something.  Acts of love always mean something.  But to the loved, the act must be explained or no one can will understand what it means.  The Sacrament of the Altar does not mean anything.  Do you have to explain the food you put in your mouths?  The Sacrament of the Altar does not mean anything different than it is, than the words and promises of Christ declare: This is My body; This is My blood.  We do not explain the Sacrament.  Christ does not explain the Sacrament.  The Sacrament is not for explaining.  It is for the baptized to eat and drink in faith for the forgiveness of their sins, for the foretaste of the eternal, and for their faith to be strengthened.  The Sacrament of the Altar is not symbolic of anything.  It simply is what Christ said it is.

It is by this Holy Sacrament that the Church lives, that you and I live in Christ.  It is by this Holy Sacrament that the proclamation of the cross continues until He comes at the end of the days to bring it to completion.  It is not Larry Peters who says this but Christ and His Word.  You are not given this Sacrament to agree with or to render an opinion over or to understand.  This Sacrament is given to you and to the whole Church so that we might eat the body of Christ and drink His blood and thereby receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation AND by our kneeling at this rail and receiving this body and blood of Christ, His death is proclaimed to the whole world.  For this reason, this Sacrament is not optional but the beating heart and center of our life together and our witness to the world.

Foot washing has a point.  Serve your neighbor.  Not by washing his feet but by doing what the Lord commends in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger.  Do this to your neighbor whom you know or the stranger you do not and you are doing it to Christ.  The Sacrament of the Altar does not have a point.  It is what it is.  We eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood in bread and wine and by this eating and drinking we are forgiven and strengthened and the cross proclaimed.  Period.

My friends, Christians should not have to be encouraged to be here to receive the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  This is what we need in our war against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  We cannot be sustained in the battle for the faith with object lessons or ceremonies.  We need the food that is what it promises – Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all our sin.  So come.  Come now.  Come every Lord’s Day.  Come on Thursdays.  Come and eat and live.  Come and eat and proclaim the death that gives us life and the food of heaven that satisfies every hunger and thirst.

God gets into us by means of our ears as we hear His Word and by means of our mouths as we receive His body and blood.  We are united from all that would divide us because the same Word is spoken into every ear and the same food is set before every mouth.  We win this war not because our soldiers are stronger but because they are directed by God’s Word and fed and nourished by His body and blood.  This is our only advantage.  Let us not forsake hearing the Word or eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood.  To do so is already to surrender.  Amen

Put a cross on it. . .

“Put a cross in it please”, said the pastor who recently asked for our studio to design a new logo for his church. I believe he’s wrong, so I challenged the notion. He said he wasn’t sure but the committee he reports to requested it... A logo needs to differentiate your church from other churches. If every church required a cross, a dove, an angel, or similar, then all church logos would start looking the same. Then it’s impossible to set yourself apart from all the other houses of worship and ultimately you don’t have a brand. 

Put a cross in it, please....  I am sure that those who advise churches on such things as logos and marketing are well meaning folks.  They do want their clients to succeed.  I am not sure that God has in mind the same definition of success.  Putting a cross in it is probably not a great marketing decision for those who want to appeal across the grand spectrum of the masses but the Church is not accountable to the world.  The Church is accountable to God.  We put a cross in it because He did.

In the midst of sin and its death, when reason would have said to wash your hands of it all (like Pilate) and walk away... God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  Before the world and all its inhabitants had even awoken to the reality of sin, to the unnatural corruption of nature that is death, or to their own culpability in confession, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  Not for the righteous or the just or those with potential or even in view of the future and those who would come to faith, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  Not as reward for good intention or as second chance for them to get it right on their own, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  Not as inspiration for what people might do for themselves or on their own but to redeem the poor, miserable sinner unable to help himself, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

On this Friday we call Good, God stuck a cross into the ground and we hoisted up His own Son, killing the heir to gain the vineyard, glad to put an end Him who ended our hopes of self-righteousness, and as punishment for Him who ate and drank with sinners.  But hidden behind our own acts of rebellion and pride, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  It was a drama whose script we thought we were writing but it was the plan laid down before the foundation of the world when God would in Christ reconcile the world to Himself.

The cross is not a symbol nor a logo.  It is the center of our preaching, our teaching, and our worship.  We preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified because there is salvation in no other.  We teach Him who is the way, the truth, and the salvation -- the way that led through suffering, cross, and death... the truth of Him who exchanged His righteousness for our sin and bore it all up obedient to the cross... the salvation that is in Christ alone by the proclamation of the Word made flesh, who suffered in our place for our sin, and died our death upon the cross.

His blood be on us... cried out the people when shown Christ their King.  And so it was.  The blood of Christ is on us -- not as guilt and shame but as the redemptive power of God to cleanse us sinners from the stain of sin and mark us for the life that death cannot overcome.  A blessed Good Friday to you as we contemplate the mystery of the cross where He who knew no sin became sin for us and by His death redeemed us and the whole world.  Let us come to this cross, bidden by the Spirit, and confess Him as Lord and Savior.  And thus confessing, let us rejoice in the love who arms outstretched in suffering have redeemed us.  Put a cross in it.  That is what God did.  For you.  For  me.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  Thanks be to God!


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Foretaste of the eternal... now

The heavenly banquet feast offers many rich images in Scripture but sometimes we forget the focus is not all to what was.  It is also what will be.  What is the food?  What is it that we will eat now and what will we eat eternally?  As we come to Holy Thursday, the answer is there before us.  We will gather in the Lord's name to recall the Upper Room and the Lord's institution of this Blessed Sacrament.  We will remember the Passover context for this Supper.  And will we do more?  Will we look at the future which is glimpsed already?  Will we consider what it is that we shall eat when the Marriage Feast of the Lamb is eaten in His kingdom without end?  This supper points not only to the past and what was but to the future and what will be.

Today, just as we do when we gather every Sunday, the food which we eat is the mystery of Christ's flesh in bread and Christ's blood in wine.  Though we are tempted to explain it, this mystery simply begs to be believed, adored, eaten and drunk.  We have His Word and Testament.  This is My body.  This is My blood.  The Blood of the new and eternal covenant.  But this meal is also transitional.  It is not the whole meal but the foretaste, the appetizer, of the full and eternal banquet to come.  It is not that the meal changes but its context certainly does. 

What we eat today is food that does not merely look back to the Passover within the context of Calvary but it looks forward to the eternal.  We are caught in that tension of the already but not yet.  Christ sets His table among us in the presence of our enemies and gives Himself to us.  He is priest of the sacrifice and its victim, host of the meal and its food.  But this communion also anticipates and even longs for the fulfillment and finish.  What now we eat as foretaste, we shall in the Lord's time eat as full meal.  But the food is not new or different.  It is His flesh and His blood -- the only food that can deliver to us what it promises, answering the hunger within and satisfying the thirst once and for all.

Come, you blessed of the Heavenly Father, enter into the delight of our God, into the holy place where Christ has set His table, bringing to fulfillment the promise of Passover and giving us the first taste of the eternal to come.  For as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.  And then, when He has come as He has promised, the promise of His death will be consummated with the life that death cannot overcome.  But the food will remain the same -- His flesh and His blood given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.

O Lord, in this wondrous Sacrament You have left us a remembrance of Your passion. Grant that we may so receive the sacred mystery of Your body and blood that the fruits of Your redemption may continually be manifest in us; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

By all means, work to make sure you are in attendance on Maundy Thursday.  But if you cannot attend, perhaps this prayer may accompany your Holy Thursday devotions:

Heavenly Father, Your Son instituted the most blessed Sacrament for us Christians to eat and to drink, that what is promised in His Testament may be truly received by those He calls friends and heirs through baptism. Have mercy on all who are kept from Your table in these extraordinary circumstances and prevent them from being kept from Your Supper longer than must be. Let the Words of Christ’s Testament echo in their ears and hearts and, in true faith, and strengthen their faith in these Words, trusting that they receive spiritually in faith that which Your Son has both won and declared: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Stir up in us the longing for Your Table that when we are able to commune with our fellow Christians on Your Son's true Body and Blood we may receive its gift with renewed faith and rejoice with even greater joy in the unity of His altar.  Until that is possible, build within us the anticipation for this blest communion and greater appreciation for the heavenly food of this Eucharist, Christ's flesh in bread and His blood in wine.  Strengthen our faith through our devotional life in Your Word and give to our prayers renewed fervor and blessing; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Silent Wednesday. . .

Holy week... The most important seven days in the history of man... Although the exact sequence of events is not always clear to us, we can discern, even now, the straight lines of divine order... Sunday: The garments in the dust - the Hosannas as the prelude to the "Crucify."... Monday: Sermons with the urgent note of finality - the withered fig tree - Caesar's coin... Tuesday: The terrifying wrath of the Lamb over institutionalized and personal sin among the Scribes and Pharisees - the fire and color of His last sermon to the city and the world - the sureness of justice and the coming of judgment... Night and prayer in the light of the Easter moon on the Mount of Olives...

Wednesday is silent... If anything happened, the holy writers have drawn the veil... Everything that God could say before the Upper Room had been said... It was man's turn now... Perhaps there were quiet words in a corner of the Garden, both to His children who would flee and to His Father who would stay... Wednesday was His... The heart of that mad, crowded Holy Week was quiet... Tomorrow the soliders would come, and Friday there would be God's great signature in the sky... Thursday and Friday would belong to time and eternity, but Wednesday was of heaven alone...

Silent Wednesday... If our Lord needed it, how much more we whose life is the story of the Hosanna and the Crucify... Time for prayer, for adoration... Time to call the soul into the inner court and the Garden... In our crowded world we are lonely because we are never alone... No time to go where prayer is the only sound and God is the only light... We need more silent Wednesdays... In the glory of the Cross above our dust our silence can become purging and peace... God speaks most clearly to the heart that is silent before Him...

 [from the devotional writings of O. P Kretzmann, published in The Pilgrim, pp. 27, 28] 

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

No false witness condemned Him. . .

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday in Lent, the Sunday of the Passion (B), also called Palm Sunday, preached on Sunday, March 24, 2024.

The character of Jesus has never been in question.  That is something in our world of wiggle words and common words we cannot even define.  Not Jesus.  From the moment He was with the temple authorities as a 12 year old youth and throughout His public ministry, our Lord’s teaching was clear and straightforward.  He taught with an authority the people had never before encountered.  Our Lord acted with the utmost compassion upon those in need and truth was the nature of His preaching and teaching – albeit the unpleasant truth of sin revealed and sinners called to repentance.

So when Jesus appeared before the High Priest, they could not even find false witnesses who agreed in their attempt to slander our Lord.  This was not a spur of the moment thing for they had long planned for the day when Jesus and His teaching would be on trial.  Mark tells us that many bore false witness but their testimony did not agree.  Even when Jesus had spoken clearly, they got it wrong.  “Destroy this temple made with hands and in three days I will build another not made with hands.”  But of course, this was not a lie.  Jesus had said it.  Even more importantly, Jesus had made this promise.  The people who heard Him thought it was a bold claim to be able to build in stone what it had taken 46 years to build.  But after the resurrection the disciples, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, finally understood that Jesus was speaking of the temple of His body.

Lies would not condemn Jesus, only the truth.  In our age of slanted words, innuendo without fact to bear it up, and words that have no meaning, this is an incredible statement.  Jesus would be condemned not by lies or slander but by the truth.  Jesus spoke clearly about what was to happen to Him – betrayed into the hands of sinners, crucified upon a cross, suffering for sins not His own, dying a death that was not His to die, and rising on the third day.  Jesus did not protest even the injustice of the trials that were designed not to hear the evidence but to condemn Him.  Jesus was crucified just as He said but not simply because He had enemies.  He would suffer and die because He loved sinners, even Peter who denied Him and the nameless soldiers who pounded the nails into His hands and side.  What condemned Jesus was not the lies of those who would lie to make Him die or those who could not agree on what they remembered Him saying.  What condemned Jesus to the cross was His love for you and for me.  The events of our Lord’s suffering and death are no tragic story of lies and liars but of the truth that must prevail so that the lost might be found and the dead raised.

In the end, the truth that could not be found in the mouths of Jesus accusers nor in the mouths of those who presumed to sit in judgement over Him, was said by a centurion: “Truly this man was the Son of Man!”

The world remains filled with lies and liars, especially when it comes to Jesus.  The false witnesses abound and yet they still fail to agree.  Christianity is a muddy water of people’s false opinions, half truths, and lies.  The only truth is the cross, the Savior who hung there in suffering to relieve from suffering those who believe in Him, and who died there that the dead may live.  In the end it does not matter what people say about Jesus but only what Scripture reveals.  We who intend to benefit from His obedient suffering and life-giving death will not be asked what we think about Jesus or to render verdict over Him but simply this: Do you believe that Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and your sin?

The false witnesses feared Jesus had come to tear down a building precious in their sight.  But our Lord had come to do much more than that.  He had come to end the religion of works which presumes we can do enough to earn our salvation and to replace it with pure grace.  He came not to tear down stones but to tear down what had taken place in that building.  The altar that endures is not the one where sacrifices for sin must still be offered but the one where sin’s once for all sacrifice is given as food to the hungry and repentant.  In 70 AD the temple was destroyed but its heart had long ago been stripped away from it.  Christ came as priest to offer the sacrifice for sin and as Lamb to be the sacrifice for sin.  What was once offered on the cross is now the food of life offered to you and to me in this Holy Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

We make much about the things we feel and think.  But our Lord has built His life and integrity in delivering to us only the truth.  There is salvation in the name of Jesus and in no other.  Peter and the disciples who had been with Jesus from the beginning of His public ministry did not know what to say or do when He was lifted up on that cross.  Instead, a centurion said the truth that they and all of us are called to say: “Truly this was the Son of God.”  May the Lord give us hearts of integrity who will surrender all to the one truth that saves, who will live and abide in that truth all our days, and who die for the sake of that truth.  You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.  Nowhere is that statement made more clear in the cross and the lonely figure of our Savior’s body limp in death for you.

Holy Week or Weak. . .

It is Tuesday in Holy Week, toward the destination of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Sadly, for most Lutherans, it is just another week.  We have services every evening and a morning and afternoon through this week but the pews will hardly be full.  This year we compete not only against work and school but against school break and the line of cars headed out of town for recreational venues or visits with family.  Perhaps it is foolish to think that people are thinking of the events of this week of weeks or that they should be keeping time with the sacred time of the church year and its calendar of services.  If they would, they would hear the Passion from all the Gospels as well as the familiar events of the Upper Room and Calvary.  But Holy Week has become holy weak, a shadow of its former self.

When I was in public school in a small town in Nebraska, the school teachers shepherded the school children across the street to the Augustana Lutheran Church building and each day during Holy Week one of the pastors in town preached to the students.  Illegal now and probably not necessarily the best of ideas but it showed the devotion in this week that extended past denominational barriers to unite a Christian people in recalling and being renewed in the story of Jesus and His love expressed in the events spanning from Palm Sunday to Easter.

We have a few faithful folks who try to get to as many services as they can but most of our folks tend to pick one or perhaps two services of Holy Week.  I guess that some think I have become rather cranky and sound like an old man trying to recreate his youth.  That is really not it at all.  I wish only that at least once in their lives, Christians might find the time for the full complement of services and experience the riches of the liturgical offerings by which we make our way slowly and deliberately to the cross and empty tomb.

Everywhere I have gone the full schedule of Holy Week services has been added and that includes the Easter Vigil.  In the 44 years I have been a pastor, only a couple of times have there been no baptisms at the Vigil and it has often been the occasion for adult baptisms.  So, if you have not spent much time in church during Holy Week, here is the encouragement to make time, at least once, to be there for all the services and to experience the riches of the church's liturgical offerings as Holy Week makes its way from Hosannas to Alleluias.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Hail, Full of Grace. . .

On this day, the first day of Holy Week to follow our Lord's Palm Sunday entrance, the Church Calendar recalls how the angel came to Mary.  “Hail, full of grace!  The Lord is with you.”  Behind that greeting was the Word of the Lord.  As that Word spoke to the shocked Mary, her womb became home to the Son of God in human flesh and blood.  Quite a lot for a young virgin to take in...  Quite a lot for us, as well!

The Church has called the Blessed Virgin “Theotokos.”  It means birth giver of God or Mother of God.  While we might be tempted to wait until Christmas to think of Mary in this way, that title is true of this day, nine months before she delivered her first born Son and laid Him in swaddling cloths in a manger.

Later, visiting Elizabeth, this was further testified by the baby John in Elizabeth’s womb.  In Greek he “eskiptasin” – yeah, you got it.  He skipped in his mother’s womb, recognizing Jesus in Mary’s own womb.

The Blessed Virgin consented to the Lord's Word.  "Let it be to me as you have said."  The gift was given to be received.  On this day we rejoice in the God who became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, who was made man, in the womb of the Virgin.  On this day we rejoice in the Virgin who saw this gift and consented to the Lord as an act of faith and trust.  On this day our attention draws nine months forward to Christmas and to the birth forever blessed, when the Virgin full of grace, delivered up the Savior of all mankind.  In Lent.  In Holy Week.  A hint of Christmas.  As it should be. . .  For the child conceived in Mary's womb was not meant for the hopes and dreams of parents for a son but of a world for a Savior and of a Heavenly Father who was not content to lose His creation to sin and its death.  Curiously, the artist has captured this future in the Easter Lily the angel has in his hand.  There is a future for this Son of God enfleshed in Mary's womb. 

As we take a moment to offer to God thanks and praise for Him who did not disdain the Virgin's womb, but, for us and for our salvation, took flesh from her, can we do anything less than commit ourselves to the cause of those whom the Lord gives flesh and blood in wombs still and guard the treasure of this gift for the Lord, as a trust from Him?  I hope not. . .   

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Ride On!

When I grew up Jesus did not ride in on Palm Sunday, the confirmands did.  We did not receive palms or think much of all about the position of this Sunday as the end of Lent and the start of Holy Week.  Back then there was no Passion Reading so in it was a Sunday not necessarily at all about Jesus.  Imagine my surprise when I encountered a Palm Sunday without confirmation.  It was a shock.  Then when people shoved a wiggly palm branch into my hand, I was not at all sure what was up.  In the end, I have come to appreciate Palm Sunday and its balance with Passion Sunday more and more.  Sure, there are still those who long for the old days and who are not big on palms or on the reading of the Passion but I think it is growing on us now (after more than a generation!).

Palm Sunday, as the final Sunday of Lent, brings to a close the Lenten season and delivers us on our journey to the cross right in Jerusalem as Jesus enters to make His way to Calvary.  As the beginning of Holy Week it points us even more profoundly toward the destiny our Lord has chosen.

Although we know it as Palm Sunday because of the distribution of palm fronds (or palm crosses) to the faithful, this is not a reenactment.  We are not doing a religious play.  I admit I am not that much a fan of the reading of the Passion in which parts are doled out to other voices and the faithful speak as the crowd.  This is a commemoration but not a reenactment of the events from our Lord's arrival on the bad of a young donkey, accompanied by the praises of the townspeople, on a pathway of clothes and palm branches, and with shouts of Hosanna. This was a customary practice to show respect for those who entered the city and not an exclusive or unique act for Jesus alone.  Palms symbolize victory and the peace that follows a victory.  The donkey represents humility -- as one who has come to serve not to be served.  But the end of the ride is not a throne but a cross, not to reign in power but from the cross, not to live but to die, not for Himself but for the whole world.

This event is recorded in all four Gospels.  It is not a small detail.  But it is not victory lap taken after a successful run of a three year public ministry.  The victory is not in the palms but in Jesus who comes willingly to suffer as the innocent for the guilty.  It is not about pyrrhic victory but a cost which was exactly that which was needed to secure life for a people marked for death and to reconcile the sinners who were God's enemies that they might be friends again -- even family!  Jesus predicted this several times in the Gospels, to various reactions, but now His death will scatter the disciples until they are reunited by His resurrection.  There is much to this story.

Holy Week came together in the fourth century led by the practices of the church at Jerusalem. There, in the days leading up to Easter, the Palestinian Christians Palestine congregated at the actual sites where the events took place, from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection -- offering prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings at stations along the way.  As pilgrims from other parts of the world visiting Jerusalem at that time carried home the customs they observed, Holy Week gradually became a more universal.  Now we are heirs to this great tradition as it leads and guides our hearts to walk to the cross in reverence and awe and rejoice at the empty tomb -- where Jesus won for us our salvation.  Blessed Palm Sunday!

1    Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hark! All the tribes hosanna cry.
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,
With palms and scattered garments strowed.

2    Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.

3    Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The angel armies of the sky
Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes
To see the_approaching sacrifice.

4    Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh.
The Father on His sapphire throne
Awaits His own anointed Son.

5    Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.  

Saturday, March 23, 2024

A great concept but. . .

Have you noticed how everyone thinks forgiveness is a wonderful concept even though we all seem to struggle with the practice of it?  I can think of nothing more practical or understandable than Jesus' request for clarification from Jesus:  How often must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Indeed, we are ripe with excuses why forgiveness, as good as it is as an idea, it is not what we should do in this instance.  We can find every extenuating circumstance why Jesus' words do not apply to us and do not apply to the issue we are working through.  Even more, we can convince ourselves (even if we cannot convince Jesus) that forgiveness is exactly what we should not do for the person whom we have deemed impenitent because we see little evidence of sincerity or sign they will stop offending.  As Lewis put is it, Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until have something to forgive.  The truth is that Jesus sets the bar for forgiveness too low for nearly all of us.  Sure, we are worthy of such kindness but we are not quite sure that our neighbor or spouse or child or parent or the stranger whose name we do not know deserves it as much as we do.

Bitterness is bad business not simply for those whom we have chosen not to forgive but for each of us who have decided it is better to remember the sin and hate the sinner.  The gift of a long memory becomes a curse when it cannot surrender the memory of hurt or slight or pain even to the healing love of Christ.  I venture to say that it is not simply impenitence that is the problem within Christianity today but also and even more so the refusal to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us.  Truly these have become, if we take them seriously, the most fearful words of the Our Father.  Who wants to think that the measure by which we forgive one another will be the measure by which we are forgiven?

Congregations are so quickly and easily broken and divided by the refusal to forgive or by the choice to remember the wrong and allow it to stew and fret away God's precious gift of welcome, friendship, and unity.  Somehow we find the prospect of forgiving the angry parishioner or the insensitive pastor too much for God to expect of us even as we routinely dump at the foot of the cross the sins we are not ready to give up -- all so that we might go home with a clear conscience.  It is a clear conscience that comes at the cost of real repentance because it is without the intention to fight with all our might to give up the sin that comes so easily to us.  Because we treat God's forgiveness as His duty to us, we can treat our forgiveness of others as a choice and neither the expectation nor the norm of our lives together under the cross.

The refusal to forgive is at least as responsible for the break up of marriage and home as the impenitence of those who sin against their spouse and family members.  God has provide the glue to enable our fragile love to endure and it is the gift of forgiveness.  Without this third strand in our cord of two, we are weak and vulnerable.  But where forgiveness lives and we meet each other precisely where Christ has met us, our marriages and families have the potential to endure almost any wound.

We all agree that forgiveness is a great concept but we also agree that its application is messy and costly.  In the end it is not our work but the Spirit working in us the miracle of Christ.  Amazingly, the more we are aware of and appreciate God's costly act of forgiveness toward us, the more we find it easier to forgive others.  May the Lord bestow upon us the riches of His generous heart that we may learn how to forgive and how to forget and so manifest here on earth the strong bonds of heaven and eternity.


Friday, March 22, 2024

Do you still follow?

It is not uncommon for the sheep to wake up one day and wonder where are the promised still quiet waters and rich green pastures.  After all, it seems like winter all the time.  Lives of Christians and non-Christians alike struggle with the cold and bleak landscapes of our world.  Nobody really believes things are getting better and most of us fear the future with foreboding.  Especially for the Christian, the hope is that around the bend the sun is shining, the brook babbling, and the pasture in full summer clothing.  The reality, however, is that Christians are wondering where the idyllic and pastoral scenes of the 23rd Psalm are for most of our lives.  In place of such romantic images, we end up with youth stolen from our children, schools on lockdown, kids captive to screens, loneliness, and fear.  Where is the Good Shepherd leading us, anyway?

In the midst of the winter of our discontent, it is tempting to stop following the Good Shepherd until we get some sort of explanation or answers.  Where is the world going?  Where is the Church going?  Where is my life headed?  I would suggest that it is precisely in the bleak view of winter that we need to trust the Good Shepherd even more.  In our wintry states of mind where it is so easy to focus on what is wrong and to be captive to this disappointment, we need to follow the only one who knows us, who knows what we need, and, most importantly, knows where we are going.  In the world of today, we cannot afford the luxury of abandoning the Good Shepherd.  Now more than at times of ease and plenty, we need to stick close to the Good Shepherd and not to stray too far from the staff of His Word or the provisions of His grace.

The temperature is decidedly cold out there.  We have turned truth into mystery and vice into virtue.  We cannot answer basic questions about who is a woman or a man but we are confident that our technology will enable us to fix all that is wrong.  We have more confidence in artificial intelligence than in human wisdom and we have surrendered what is real for the domain of our screens.  We are more disconnected and isolated than ever before -- even when we are sitting at the same table or living under the same roof.  But we have read the wrong thing into our Shepherd's words of promise.  He is good and His path is the good way -- not because we will realize any sort of utopia here but because He has bridged the gap between sinner and redeemed, between darkness and light, between death and life.  He will lead us to the rich green pastures of our heavenly home and He will bring us to the still quiet waters there.  It is just that to get there means traveling through winter and keeping our eye on the only One who can find His way for us to get home.

The Lord is still our Good Shepherd.  He knows us by name.  He knows our needs.  He knows the way.  Do not wander off and make sure that you stick close to the Good Shepherd.  His Word and Sacraments and our communion within the means of grace should not be taken for granted.  We must be deliberate and resolute.  Goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  It does not look like that now but the winter will give way to God's spring.  Just make sure you have not lost your way in the meantime.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

An old word. . . but a good one

Honestly, I cannot recall that last time I read or heard this word.  Pusillanimous.  I know that I have probably never typed this word before and have said it a few precious times.  Last I can recall, Spiro T. Agnew used the word.  That was at least 50 years ago.  This adjective's earliest known use is in the Middle English period (1150—1500).  It comes from Latin pusillus, meaning "very small" and animus, meaning "spirit".  It is one of those great words that should be used and there is not single English equivalent in our modern vocabulary.  I guess small-minded might fit.  Or petty.  According to the dictionary, pusillanimous means:

  1. Lacking courage; cowardly.
  2. Destitute of a manly or courageous strength and firmness of mind; of weak spirit; mean-spirited; spiritless; cowardly; 
  3. Evincing, or characterized by, weakness of mind, and want of courage; feeble.

So to be pusillanimous means to lack courage, to be faint of heart, weak, and immature, unable to respond generously to the gifts you have been given or strongly to the challenges in your path.  This is the vice that makes strong men weak and smart men foolish.  We live in a world filled with pusillanimous people, even leaders, especially political.  But this is also true of the Church and her leaders.  Yet, it is most problematic among men who seem to stand for little and to back down over less.

There is in many ways a crisis of masculinity that vexes both culture and religion.  It is a vice now seen as a virtue -- pusillanimous men.  Intent upon navel gazing and introspection, they have forgotten who they are, what they stand for, and how to stand at all.  The men of today are more content to retreat than advance either cause or view.  It shows up in the leadership that has largely been taken over by women.  From the honors of valedictorian to salutatorian to the numbers who complete degree programs to the folks who step up to serve civic and religious organizations as leaders, men are surrendering their manly courage and firm minds to become or act weak willed and cowardly.  While this is pathetic in the political sphere, it is a crisis in the home and in the Church.

We need men.  We need men who will lead.  We need men of firm conviction.  I am not speaking here of brutes but of those with courage to take risks and to lead by example.  Indeed, without such spine and spirit, men have become meaner and more cruel.  Deferring to women is not simply a choice but an abdication of their place and purpose in creation.  When we began to insist that the gender roles of male and female were not so different or not so typically ordered, we ended up not simply with a cookie cutter mentality but with men who are rather useless.  According to surveys they seem fearful of commitment and content to watch from the sidelines (or rather watch their screens) instead of participating in the political, domestic, and religious communities and the inherent debates over such things as truth and identity.

Go into the average home in America and a woman bears the greater burden for the well-being of the children and for providing for those in the family -- all the while juggling the usual domestic roles that women have never quite been able to ditch.  Go into the average church in America and you find yourself in a predominantly female setting in which the men have learned to either hide or bury their masculinity.  Where are the men?  Recruiters for the military and even for the ministry are telling us it is hard to get men to step up -- though this is in part because we do not want them to serve as men, only as pusillanimous men who have confessed their masculinity as shame and vowed not to exercise it. Again, we are not talking about justifying bigotry or brutishness but the strength of resolute hearts and minds, endowed with courage and confidence, and willing to sacrifice the cost of such singlemindedness.  I, for one, miss them.


Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Wisconsin liberals. . .

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on March 14 (beware the Ides) ruled that the activities of a major Roman Catholic charity group were not “primarily” religious under state law, therefore upholding the stripping of the tax break and status of the group.  The group was then required to pay into the state unemployment system.  Catholic Charities Bureau (CCB) last year argued that the state had improperly removed its designation as a religious organization.  In response, the charity filed a lawsuit after the state said it did not qualify to be considered as an organization “operated primarily for religious purposes.”  It was that order which prevented the charity from using a their own unemployment system and forced it to contribute money to the state-run unemployment system.  In its divided 4-3 ruling, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin agreed with the judgment of the state, upheld a lower court ruling and found that Catholic Charities Bureau and its subgroups “offer services that would be the same regardless of the motivation of the provider,” and therefore group does not “operate primarily for religious purposes.” 

I know not the merits of this particular case but I suspect that it is the wave of the future.  As the days move along, the once almost automatic religious exemptions will be increasingly challenged.  In some cases it is because the state and localities need tax dollars and churches and their agencies are sitting on land and property which could be taxed.  In other cases it is because the conflict between the interests of the state and the Church are in conflict (here think in terms of abortion, GLBTQ+ rights, gender identity, etc.).  In other cases, support for religious agencies and organizations is deemed to be not quite a religious purpose and therefore not worth the exemption (as, perhaps, in this case).  The point of this is to say that as time goes forward we will see an increasingly adversarial role between the government (on various levels) and the Church and the work deemed religious and consistent with the faith by churches but not quite by the government.  In this case, Wisconsin is a bit a head of the pack but not by too far.  We have already seen tests of this in the areas of higher education and the placement of foster children and children eligible for adoption.  At this point all I can say is to be forewarned is to be forearmed.  We must be authentic, consistent, and careful in what we do as churches in order for us to have integrity in our position before the laws and courts of our states and nation.  But we must also be diligent not to compromise our values and the faith.  It is becoming a rather narrower field in which we work given the unfriendliness of those who were once neutral or perhaps even friendly but now are decidedly the opposite.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Marriage is in trouble. . .

In 2021, the annual marriage rate in America declined to an all-time low of only 28 per 1,000 unmarried people.  This is compared to the rate of 76.5 per 1,000 in 1965.  Looking at just one section of that population, Roman Catholics, the number of marriages among Roman Catholics in the U.S. has decreased by nearly 70%, even though the Catholic population increased by almost 20 million in that same period.  It would be hard to find any religious group with an improving statistic and certainly not among Lutherans.  The statistics are decidedly worse among those who claim no religion.

Statistics are notoriously manipulable.  Given the right question you can make the numbers tell you whatever you want them to say.  It would be hard, however, to find a silver lining in the numbers above.  While the focus is on non-traditional folks and non-traditional relationships, the reality is that society is suffering because marriage is in such bleak shape as a whole.  The value of marriage is hard to deny.  Healthy marriages remain the bedrock of a flourishing society and healthy community. On average, women and men who are married are healthier, live longer, and are better off economically than those not marriage.  Children raised within stable marriages fare significantly better across the whole range of sociological categories.  We not only need marriage; we need healthy and stable marriages.

Instead of keeping the attention on same sex couples or other versions of marriage which make up a very small percentage of the whole, the situation today is crying out for a renewed emphasis upon marriage and a profound encouragement of our children and youth to marry.  The role of the home in promoting the very institution of marriage cannot be denied.  The churches also contribute to the norming of this relationship in the face of a culture which seems preoccupied with exceptions over the rule.  Together we need both to model for and to enlist the desire for marriage among our youth who are being discouraged both by the struggles of marriage and a culture which diminishes its value in the first place.

One of the subtle changes we have made is to pray for those married and pray for the family and the home more often and more deliberately than in the past.  I would encourage our people to do so explicitly within the family prayers of the home and individually.  As important as this is, it is essential that we raise up marriage and its place within our Creator's purpose and plan.  Man was made for woman every bit as much as woman for man because this is the primary shape, the most basic level, of community.  When our Lord said "It is not good for man to be alone," He was not suggesting that what He had made was not good but that the fullness of that creation required a helpmeet for the man, someone comparable to him.  Adam's task of naming all that God had made was literally an exercise in self-awareness -- the solemn realization that there was no one like him.  From this observation came the ripe moment for God to do what He knew He would do -- to create from man the woman who was always intended to complete him.

In addition, we also need to emphasize the gift of forgiveness to husband and wife as the godly provision of a glue which binds up sinful men and woman and restores the relationships broken by sin.  Forgiveness is not simply the gift of a clear conscience for the individual but the very blessing by which a husband becomes Christ to his wife and she to her husband.  While the culture insists that marriage is too costly to enter and requires too much of a sacrifice to justify its cost, forgiveness answers the charge with most urgent and central relationship in which to ask forgiveness and be forgiven.

The secular culture should be expected to support and partner with churches in the encouragement of those married and those not to marry.  The problem here is not the value of marriage to the society at every level.  The problem is ideological.  It may have begun formally with feminism but it has been present throughout the ages.  The ideology that conflicts with marriage is he aggrandizement of the individual, the glorification of the autonomous self, and the pursuit of amusement, entertainment, and pleasure as the highest good.  Ideology will not allow the culture to admit what we all know.  Without marriage everything else within the human community will be weak, fragile, or broken.

Now is the time not to talk up marriage but to talk about it, to present marriage and family as the normative pattern of our human existence, and to help the single realize the essential value of this relationship to them and to their future as well as the whole community.  It may seem old fashioned but it is the most cutting edge position of all to make the case for marriage and to prepare our children for their own lives as husbands to their wives and wives to their husbands.  A nation is only as strong as its weakest marriages and families.  What is true for the country is also true of the city.  It is also the bedrock truth for the Church.  If marriage is in trouble, everything is in trouble.

By the way, check your calendar.  On this day we commemorate St. Joseph, Guardian of our Lord and Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In other words, on this day we remember how God invested in marriage and family His only-begotten Son and the well-being of all humanity.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Jealousy does not become you. . .

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (B), preached on Sunday, March 17, 2024.

The king is not even crowned before people are vying for position.  James and John live up to their nickname, the Sons of Thunder.  Jesus is talking about the crown He will wear – not a crown of gold adorned with jewels but one of twisted thorns but no one is listening.  They hear king and kingdom and crown and they think only of grasping a share of the glory for themselves.  They do not get the King who is come not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  Are we any different?

We take the ways of the world and incorporate them into the way we think God works.  So like the parents who fight teachers so their children can get ahead without doing the work, we are jealous for our place in the kingdom and our portion of the glory pie.  Who cares if you are on the right or left hand of Jesus or in the nose bleed seats of heaven.  If you are there, is that not enough?  But, sadly, it is not enough. We try to work God the way we work the system here on earth and to figure out the easiest way to glory.  It sounds terrible, doesn’t it?  None of us would ever admit to having those kind of jealous feelings but that does not mean we do not have them.

Maybe it is too much to expect a people so rooted and planted in this world and in the ways of this world to think and behave differently when it comes to the Kingdom of God.  Maybe it is too much for fishermen with smelly and calloused hands to think past how to get ahead of your competitors in the marketplace and get the ways of Jesus.  Maybe it is too much for us to leave behind the well worn ruts in the path of getting ahead at the expense of others to presume that we get the cross or understand what God’s love is.  Maybe we are too wedded to right to recall that love is gift and not the reward for merit.

If we were Jesus we would have smacked them down hard.  But Jesus does not.  He is shockingly kind to them and patient beyond all expectation.  They could not have known what the were really asking but that does not mean they were so far off either.  They believed the Lord had a kingdom even if they failed to see His crown had thorns.  But they would drink from His cup and be baptized with His baptism of suffering.  Maybe they did not realize what they were asking but that would not prevent them from sharing in what Jesus would drink and be baptized.  James was first and John the last.  One died quickly in martyrdom at the hand of Caesar and the other slowly, watching his brothers in the faith give up their lives for the Lord.
In the economy of God’s kingdom, the king ends up the slave of all, the slave ends up the heir, the strong become weak, the weak become strong, the first are last, the last are first, the confident doubt, the doubter believe, the victors lose, the losers win, the masters serve, and the dead live.  It is no wonder that James and John did not get it.  None of us do.  We are daily blessed with mercies new that we do not deserve and once for all with salvation unearned by those who benefit from it.

The Lord is not angry with James and John for their arrogance.  He is a good Lord and a generous Savior.  His mercy endures forever so it can endure a moment of bald greed from disciples who should have known better.  Jesus even forgives the rest of the disciples who are offended that James and John thought to ask what they had all wanted for themselves.  They all wanted what we want still – our place in the Kingdom, our moment in God’s Son, our fifteen minutes of fame, and a little glory to make up for all the crap life shoves your way.  They did not know what they were asking for or how to ask for it but at least they asked.        

We live in a world which no longer wants to be with Jesus or share in His glory.  In our world, the glory is being the doubter or the skeptic.  Whatever the weaknesses and shortcomings of James and John, in their heart of hearts they wanted to be with Jesus through difficulty and in glory.  Give them that, at least. What of you and me?  Will we drink of Jesus’ cup or turn up our noses at the prospect of serving God and others in His name?  Will we embrace the baptism of suffering or will we choose an easier and less painful path to glory?  The answer to these questions you and I are now writing by what we believe, how we live out that faith, and what values accompany us into the Kingdom of God.

Maybe James and John were fools but they continued to serve the Lord, preaching and teaching right up until their death.  Maybe James and John were filled with thoughts of pride and ambition but the glory they sought included Jesus and did not exclude Him.  What about you and me?  Do we serve without counting the cost or do we count the cost of serving too high?  Are we faithful or does our faithfulness wear out as soon as it begins to cost us something?  Are we fools for Christ or just fools?  

Let James and John be an example to us.  Their bravado and their foolishness was not hidden behind a pious exterior.  They were glad to be fools for Christ.  Christ died for them.  He rose for them.  He forgave them.  He worked through them.  They waited upon the Lord even when it was made clear to them that at the end of their waiting no seats of glory on the right or left were Jesus to give.  They were happy to have whatever the Father ended up giving them.  The glory of salvation was all the glory they needed.  This little incident only reminded them of that.

We are fools for Christ with them.  We look at water and see in the font the womb that gives us birth to everlasting life.  We hear a pastor stand in front us and say “You are forgiven” and we believe it.  We hold up a book in gold plating believing that it speaks God’s Word to us.  We open our mouths to receive bread that is Christ’s flesh and the cup of His blood.  We pray trusting that God will give us the right answer even it is it not the one we want.  We open our wallets to surrender the money to the Lord.  We walk out the door with the blessing of God on us and believe that will carry us through week and right back here.

Jesus comes for sinners and if you are one, He is your Savior.  That is what shocks us most of all.  God loves us not with the tenuous love that will give up as soon as we screw up but with the enduring love that forgives and restores us as often as we need it.  You know what would be great?  If when we open our eyes in heaven and see that James and John are on the right and left of Jesus – not because they asked but because the Father willed it.  For then we would know why we were there.

Bet you have never heard this. . .

Typically Lutherans are sensitive about ceremonies.  Though Lutherans are much more comfortable on the whole with the recovery of ceremonies lost over time, it is still not uncommon for Lutherans to complain that this or that is too Catholic.  I get it.  I am old.  I grew up in a Lutheran congregation that was particularly sensitive in this regard.  They did not apply the label to the tolling of the church bell during the Our Father or the Verba Christi and would have been highly offended if someone had said it but they definitely wanted to make sure that people did not mistake them for what they were not.

The old joke is that if identical twin boys, one a Roman Catholic priest and the other a Lutheran pastor, walked down the street in clericals, any Lutheran worth his salt could tell them apart and knew which was his guy and which was not.  I have not seen much evidence of the truth of this but I take it at face value.  Lutherans can smell a Roman without too much trouble.  At least they think they can.

Oddly enough, however, when have you ever heard a Lutheran turn up his or her nose at something and dismiss it by saying That is too Protestant?  Of course not.  You have never heard this.  While it does not take much to violate the smell test against those things too Catholic, no Lutheran I know would ever complain that something was too Protestant.  Lutherans are quick to accuse Reformation era practices and the very words of Luther himself as being suspect.  Luther, after all, must have had a bad day when he said we ought to make the sign of the cross.  He surely did not mean to tell us we should do this.  Maybe we could if we really wanted to but most Lutherans know they don't want to, right?

So that is my point.  The complaining style Lutherans are always on the hunt for things too Catholic but they have yet to find something too Protestant.  If you don't believe me, look at how hard it is to convince folks that adding back into the rubrics the catholic practice of our past and throughout the ages is legitimate and authentic.  But we Lutherans will accept every liturgical free for all borrowed from the Baptists and the non-denominationals and gladly affirm that this practice is thoroughly legit.  It just might be that we really do not know who we are....

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Curious. . .

While I am in no way desiring to challenge the significance of the Common Service for American Lutheranism, the reality is that this does not represent one stream within Lutheranism but a conglomeration of several, perhaps many streams of liturgical tradition and practice.  It is certainly an improvement over what went before among the Lutherans in America and it is a laudable achievement no matter what.  Yet, it is, to a certain extent, an invention.  It was created at a time when Lutheran congregations in America had degenerated into a liturgical identity that was alien to our Confession and more reflective of the religious culture around them.  Except for the Missouri Synod and its German liturgical norm, American Lutheranism looked more American than Lutheran.  We should all be grateful for the accomplishment of a norm that was and remains distinctly Lutheran.  It lives on not simply in the Common Service of 1888 but in the forms produced by the Lutheran version of the liturgical movement.  To deny the kinship is to be blind to the relation between what was produced in the 1960s and 1970s and what went before it.  Nevertheless, the Common Service tradition is less than 150 years old and strives more to a consensus of the various versions than a reflection of what ought to be normative.  The failing of the liturgical movement within Lutheranism was its refusal to fully unpack what went before and to be more influenced by the liturgical movement of Rome.

In any case, what I find curious is that those so adamant that the Common Service tradition is the most authentic liturgical face of Lutheranism are also those who insist that the one year historic lectionary is the only authentic pericopal system for Lutheranism.  The odd thing here is that the historic lectionary is decidedly older than the Common Service.  It could even be said that the Common Service tradition is a baby in comparison to the age and breadth of the historic lectionary.  Neither, however, were dropped down on tablets from on high and both represent a particular choice or decision for what we will use.  I might add that the version of the historic lectionary most used is that from the Lutheran Service Book and that in and of itself is neither pristine nor without editorial change.  Perhaps the work of the Lutheran Missal Project represents the most comprehensive view of Lutheran history and practice when it comes to the historic lectionary.  It will be interesting to see the finished product and to see how this impacts both the present and the future going forward.

What I find most interesting is that both the Common Service and the historic one year series of readings appointed for the Church Year seem to be most concerned with Lutheran versions and practice.  I suppose that there is no avoiding our own concern for our own history.  Yet the concern for the Confessions is not quite so narrowly applied.  The Augustana claims no less than the catholic consensus of doctrine and practice (which includes church usages such as the liturgical form and the lectionary).  If we applied the same rationale for choosing the historic lectionary with its antiquity well prior to 1517 to the Divine Service, we would surely find some things in the Divine Service a challenge or a problem.  Not in the least here is the issue of the canon of the mass.  Here I would mention two things.  One is the placement of the Our Father prior to the Words of Institution.  The other is the distinct lack of any formal thanksgiving or Eucharistic Prayer.  Indeed, one of the things that is most confusing about switching services in a hymnal such as Lutheran Service Book is exactly that -- the change within the canon.  Divine Service 3 has the Our Father and then the Verba Christi without any formal thanksgiving (except the Proper Preface).  Divine Services 1, 2, and, to a certain extent 4, have prayers in which thanksgiving for the saving work of Christ takes prominent place.  Divine Service 3 is clearly out of sync with the liturgical forms and practices before Luther and Divine Services 1, 2, and 4 show a more organic development with the liturgical tradition prior to the Reformation.  I will not go into a discussion of ad orientem but it could be part of this debate as well.

In the end this is probably not a burning question in the minds of most.  We have surrendered to the idea of diversity to the point where many see no issue here.  I am certainly the odd man out in bringing this up.  What I would suggest is that those who insist upon the antiquity of the historic one year lectionary should reflect a bit more on the disconnect in the canon between the Common Service and what went before and what has come after.  I would also suggest that if antiquity is a prime consideration in favor of the historic one year lectionary, the same should encourage us Lutherans to revisit the issue of the Eucharistic Prayer (which does not have to be the Roman Canon with the objectionable parts Luther removed).  The reality is that Lutheranism has not formally addressed the topic of why there cannot or should not be a Eucharistic Prayer in the canon -- only why some of the words of the Roman Canon were found unfaithful.  Therein end my rambling thoughts for today. . .

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Behind the veil. . .

The practice of veiling images and crucifixes is sometimes viewed as a way of hiding them from view.  In reality, the opposite ends up happening.  Veiling crucifixes, statues, and images tends to draw the eye to what is there.  The veils are thin and do not quite hide anything.  In fact, the veiling tends to heighten our senses to the presence of the crucifix, statue, or image and to make us more aware of them.  

In the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, the images of crosses and saints were also covered from the start of Lent. The custom of Lenten veiling was common by the tenth century in England (e.g., Aelfric of Eynesham, the Regularis Concordia), and mirrored the practice of Europe dating from at least the ninth century. In the 1600s, Rome limited the veiling to Passiontide (from Palm Sunday on). Some associate it with the Gospel text for Passion Sunday, which speaks of Jesus hiding himself from the people (John 8:59).  

Since Lent is an unfolding of the journey to the cross, I find it more logical to veil at the beginning of Lent, from Ash Wednesday onward, and then to remove the veil on Good Friday.  Perhaps we might explain the veiling as a means of training us to perceive the glory of the Cross a glory not obvious to us except by faith. It then makes it even more profound when we view the unveiled crucifix on Good Friday and hear, “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the salvation of the world.”  In another sense, the glory of the cross is not overcome by but rather made clearer in the light of the Resurrection.

Of course, some readers will get their dander up and insist we do not have to veil anything.  Who says we do?  But it is a very helpful custom.  The cross is veiled to the disciples and Jesus unveils it step by step until Good Friday when it is fully exposed.  In this small way, the veiling in the churches mirrors what is happening in the appointed readings and draws even more attention to the death by which life is come into the world.  Something to think about during Lent...