Monday, December 22, 2014

The favor of the Lord is upon you. . .

Sermon preached for Advent IV B on Sunday, December 21, 2014.

    The giggling girls and boys of middle school whisper to one another “he likes you” or “she likes you”.  “The boss likes you,” says the seasoned veteran to the new employee.  See how many Facebook friends I have, we preen.   “He loves you,” says the friend to the woman blushing with desire.  “She wants you,” pushes the voice to his shy friend.  We spend our lives in pursuit of love, of like, of the favor of others.  We want to be known, to be respected, to be admired, but most of all loved.  Now, the last Sunday in Advent, we hear words of God’s gracious favor but these are not like the love we tend to seek after.
    The words, spoken through an angel, a messenger, whom the Lord sent, were the message to transform history.  God’s messenger speaks to calm doubting and fearful hearts today -- just as He spoke once to the Virgin long ago.  This is the communication not of the affection of a moment but love that is eternal.  It was first spoken to Mary by an angel entrusted with God’s Word but in Christ it is the Word for the world, for you and me.
    The Blessed Virgin was not chosen because of her perfection or her holiness, but the Lord did have high regard for her faith.  That is the same plane on which God meets us.  It is faith that counts us righteous before the Lord according to Romans.  Faith in God.  Faith in God’s promise.  Faith in God’s mercy.  Faith in God’s purpose.  Faith in God’s plan.
    The curse of Eve whose desire brought the bitter taste of sin and death for all her descendants, now is undone by the she who trusts in the Word and plan of the Lord to save us.  The old creation, once lost to sin and evil by the rebellious act of Adam and Eve in the Garden, is now undone by the consent of the Virgin to the saving will and purpose of God.  And with this act of consent, a whole new creation is born that death can’t touch and sin cannot stain.
    It was a Word spoken once to Blessed Mary, but it is also a word spoken to you and to me.  WE also have found favor in the sight of God – not because we are special or holy or righteous or good.  We are none of these things.  But we heard and saw God’s Word in His Son, we believe in the Savior whom God has sent, and we have confidence that the Word of the Lord will deliver to us what it says.  We live in God’s favor by living out our baptismal faith as the children of God.
    In our confession we admitted that we are the children of Eve, we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone.  But we are the children of Mary as much as we are the children of Eve.  We are the children of Mary who ponder, trust, and consent to the saving will of God just as Mary did in order that a whole world might be saved.  She has taught us what faith is.  It is not keen intellect.  It is not pure virtue.  It is not deep understanding.  It is not mighty initiative.  It is trust.  Childlike trust in the will of our Heavenly Father revealed through His one and only Son.
    We are the humble who have been raised from our low estates, the hungry who have been fed, those who have seen the strength of His arm stretched out in suffering on the cross, who has remembered His mercy but forgiven and forgotten our sins, and who has declared us blessed as the verdict of pure grace.
    Favor is not the verdict rendered upon the inspection of our hearts and lives found pure but the declaration of the God whose Word makes happen what it declares.  You have found favor with God.  In your guilt, God has made you clean.  In your death, God has given you eternal life.  In your good works, God has declared them holy.  In your believing, God has judged you righteous.
    Mary said, “let it be to me as God has said. . .”  This is what we say today as we gather in the name of the Lord.  This is what we struggle to believe amid the upsets, disappointments, and dead ends of this mortal life.  This is what we cling to when our feelings dry up, our hearts bleed, and life seems too hard to go on.  “Let it be to me as God has said...”  We meet the Lord not on the ground of our goodness but on the ground of His promise. 
    It is enough...  You do not have to understand God’s ways or agree with them...  You do not have to act as if your life is perfect...  You do not have to give up your tears of longing  and loss.  God is present and His favor rests upon us even when things go wrong...  Just trust in Him, in His timing, and in His purpose. “Let it be to me as God has said...”
    This favor is not the stuff of adolescent fancy or adult lust but the love willing to suffer to save us, to exchange righteousness for sin, to die that we might live, and to live to bring us with Him eternally.  This is the favor of God that we celebrate today.
    The favor of the Lord rests upon you.  Do not be afraid.  Do not give up.  Do not grow weary.  God has done the impossible.  He has come to us as our Savior.  He has been born of the Virgin’s womb to suffer and die upon our cross.  That is enough.  It is enough to carry us through, to sustain us, to enable us to endure...  And this we trust when nothing else is left.  The favor of the Lord rests upon you.  All that is left is to rejoice in faith's answer:  Let it be to me as God has said.  And it will be enough. . . for today. . . for tomorrow. . . and for eternal life.  Amen.

Pay the tax and you can live like you please. . .

Reading from LifeSiteNews:

Germany’s Catholic Church, the second-largest employer in the country, may be set to remove the requirement that its employees order their private lives according to the Church’s moral teachings, a rule that currently officially bars active homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics. The German bishops were scheduled to vote yesterday on a proposal to allow those in homosexual or adulterous relationships to work for the Church, but have put it off until April amid criticism.

The decision comes in the wake of a German Constitutional Court ruling upholding the firing of a doctor from a Catholic hospital in Düsseldorf who had entered a second, civil marriage.

Writing for Breitbart, Vatican journalist Edward Pentin said that “a majority” of the German bishops, including the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who also serves on Pope Francis’ “cabinet” of nine cardinals, was set to vote in favour of the measure, with only a small number of “conservative” bishops against it. Pentin notes that the change has “been devised in secret” by the German bishops and that many “homosexuals and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are already working for the Church.”

Pentin quotes an unnamed German Catholic Church source, saying that the bishops believe it is “simply enough to pay the [Church] tax. … They feel there’s no need to scrutinize people’s private lives.” The source said that some faithful Catholics fear that the change could lead to those who uphold the Church’s teaching being dismissed from their employment for being “too Catholic” and thereby creating a “negative atmosphere.”

In other words, brought to you by the same folks who tried to get the recent Extraordinary Synod in Rome to approve welcome for gay and lesbian Roman Catholics and change the rules regarding divorced Roman Catholics...  While this is not my church speaking, it is illustrative of the typical thinking that is subverting churches of all kinds.  Who are we to judge?  What does it matter what goes on in the private lives of people?  Why not just get with the times?  What harm can we do by looking the other way on some of these, well, sensitive issues?

Again, my point is that the same kind of voices can be found in nearly every Christian church today.  Change the Word to fit the circumstance...  The Gospel and the love of Christ requires us to suspend all judgment against sins... We risk becoming irrelevant if we do not get with the times and catch up to where our people are at...

The other issue in all of this?  Preserving the economic status quo!  Better to have a prosperous Wal_Mart style Christianity in which we keep people happy and giving than to stand up for truth and risk offending people with the words and teaching of Jesus.

Let me say it again, there is no love, no compassion, and no kindness shown to anyone if truth is ignored for the sake of personal preference.  I am in no way suggesting that we should be Pharisees or hypocrites and presume we are sinless when we hold up the truth of Scripture but we must, as St. Paul counsels, speak the truth in love.  Anything less betrays our identity as the baptized people of God and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On bended knee. . .

I have often written her appreciatively of the writing Anthony Esolen and he has not disappointed me once again.  Writing of the callous way we deal with the sacred and holy, how we trivialize what is awe-full, and how we create environments that betray their purpose, I can only suggest that you read what he wrote...  it is good stuff!

You can read him here:  Liturgy:  On Bended Knee. 

Okay, if you can't wait, let me reprint a paragraph or two to whet your appetite. . .

“Unless you accept the kingdom of God as a little child,” says Jesus, “you shall not enter.” The lintel to that kingdom is low. We must be emptied of ourselves to be filled with God.

The language of our bodies is not wholly arbitrary. We cannot say, “We’ll stand on one foot and hold a forefinger to the nose, and that will signify that we long for the fragrance of grace.” No one will understand that. We ourselves will not believe it. We cannot say, “We will adore God by slouching in the pew, arms and legs spread-eagled.” It can’t work.

We cannot say, “We will emphasize the holiness of the Eucharist we are about to receive, by milling about the aisles to pass small talk with friends.” Our bodies will contradict our purported intention. The “emphasis” will be at best notional. We will not feel it in our pulses.

READ it. . . 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Are you the One?

Sermon for Advent 3B, preached on Sunday, December 14, 2014

    In the stir occasioned by the startling appearance of John the Forerunner, the question everyone wanted to ask was “Who are you?”  This had nothing to do with John’s parentage but everything to do with what his coming signaled.  “Are you the One?”  In other words, we have been waiting a long time, are you the One whom we have awaited for so long?
    It is our question, too.  Like those long ago, we have found ourselves disappointed so often.  We are almost afraid to hope. From political leaders to religious leaders, we have raised our hopes only to see them dashed upon the rock of disappointment.  We are afraid to trust, afraid to believe, and afraid to hope. 
    So the question that came to John so long ago still fits.  “Are you the One?  Are you the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?  Can we trust you not to disappoint us?  Will you fill our empty hearts?  Will you repair our broken lives?  Will you comfort our sorrows?  Will you heal our sick and dying bodies?   
    We can relate.  Too many have played with our hopes and dreams and left us cold and empty inside.  We want to believe but we have been disappointed so often, it is hard to believe.
John does not shrink from the hard truth.  I am not the One but the One whom you seek is coming.  You will know Him not merely by His words and promises but by the way He keeps His promises and delivers what His words speak.
    The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me. . . These are the words Jesus fulfills.  He comes not as a wannabe but as One who was sent.  Sent to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken, and to free the captives.  Later when some of John’s followers have second thoughts, Jesus does not convince them with words or arguments but the prophetic word fulfilled.  What do you see and hear? 
    Like the crowds of old, we want to know if Jesus can do it.  Can He deliver upon all our needs and do for us what God has promised?  The mark of Jesus and His answer is not words or promices but the actions of righteousness and redemption.  This we know not by uncertain evidence but clear truth.  Just as John was not sent with only his opinion to share, neither are we subject to mere opinions or hunches.  What does Jesus say and do?  What do you see and hear in Him?
    Christ is not some distant deity whom we must find but the Savior whom the Father has sent.  He stands among us hidden in the clothing of flesh and blood, born of the Spirit and the Virgin.  If our eyes might miss Him, faith does not.     Christ is the incarnate Word of God who does what He says. This performative Word does just what it says.  It is powerful enough to speak and bring forth all creation and it is powerful enough to speak and rend our hearts to believe in Christ.
    Christ is the incarnate Word who lives in baptismal water and makes it deliver to the dying who are brought to the font the fullness of Christ’s life and forgiveness.  Baptism is not a symbol.  In fact, as a symbol it offers us little of value.  But it is water and Word, churning with the grace and mercy of God.  It kills what the Law has already declared dead in trespasses and sin and it bestows eternal life so that death cannot overcome us.
    Christ is the incarnate Word whose voice calls to bread and it becomes the very flesh of Christ for the life of the world.  He is the incarnate Word whose voice speaks to wine and it flows red as blood.  We meet a God who acts, who delivers, who transforms...  And there is forgiveness for sins too many to name, righteousness to cover the darkest guilt and shame, and life strong enough to withstand all the forces of evil and death.
    It is strange that the things most certain in our lives are not those seen with eyes or touched with fingers but that which we know, confess, and believe by faith.  We hard the words of those who saw the glory of the manger and journeys half a world to meet Him who is born Savior of the world. 
We heard the reports of those who heard the voice from heaven when Jesus came up out of the baptismal water.  We heard from those who saw Him suffer and watched Him die on the cross.  We heard from those who saw the body laid in the grave with all its coldness and death.  We heard from those who went to the grave and found Christ risen never to die again.
    In Advent we come – asking, begging, and pleading... “Are You the One, Jesus?”  We want to know if He can do for us what we want and need.  We want to know if He has stuck with us even when all we ever did was screw it up.  We want to know that nothing and no one can drive Him away or cause Him to give up on us and our broken lives.
    That is Advent’s promise.  He is still there.  He has not abandoned us or written us off or forgotten us.  He has come to us with great power and He still wields that power to redeem and save us.  He who calls you, He is faithful and He will do it. There are few things in life that are sure – death, taxes. . . and Jesus, even more sure.  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!

An impressive report. . .

Lisa Ling has a new series on CNN called This Is Life.  On November 16 she reported on a story of religious renewal, priestly vocations, and faith passed down from parents to children.  It was entitled Called to the Collar.  It was a very inspirational story.  I urge you to watch it.

What impressed me most was the delight of parents whose sons had chosen to become priests.  They clearly honored their sons and their faith with the greatest of joy and reverence for those whom the Lord calls.  Some may call it old fashioned.  I think it is inspiring.  So also the stories of these young men were inspirational moments that spoke well to the very Lutheran understanding of vocation or calling.

What troubles me is that while this chronicled the ascendency of seminarians and new priests in a church body that has heard too much bad news, we Lutherans are finding the numbers of seminarians down, along with the numbers of those preparing for pastoral vocations (at least at Synodical colleges and universities).  This is indeed troubling.  Enrollment to the residential programs at both Fort Wayne and Saint Louis are down (though the drop is somewhat countered by the growth of the non-residential SMP program).  I am greatly troubled that we as a church are not urging the brightest and best to consider church work vocations (especially men to the pastorate), that parents are neither as thrilled by their children's choice of church work vocations nor as supportive as they once were, and that the church has further dampened the enthusiasm by foisting more and more of the total cost of education upon seminarians and those in undergrad programs of church work.

Maybe we need to watch more stories like this one by Lisa Ling.  I know that I was inspired by figures in the media in my era (going back almost to Bing Crosby and the Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's along with Shoes of a Fisherman, The Cardinal, etc.).  Church work, and specifically the pastoral vocation, are noble callings and we need to encourage all our children (especially our best and brightest) to consider the calling.  The support of the family is key to anyone's consideration of the pastoral ministry or other church work vocations.  I know it was a major help to me.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Fundamentalists with a liturgy. . .

check out cartoons here: http://www.cartoonchurch.com/
I read where one convert to Rome complained that longtime RC folk look suspiciously upon converts, especially Protestants who desire to become RC priests, as arch conservatives bent on taking back all the progress of Vatican II.  Another term was much more poignant and descriptive:  fundamentalists with incense!  I am not sure about the accuracy of the terminology but I do know that few converts left for Rome because they were looking for a Vatican II church and most were attracted by something distinctly different.

It all served to jog my memory about a conversation with someone in the South who did not have a clue who Lutherans were.  After describing briefly what Lutherans believed, confessed, and taught, the Southerner replaced his knurled brow with half a smile.  Oh, he said, you are fundamentalists with a liturgy.  So that is who we are.  I am glad somebody finally clued me in.  But seriously, that was the response.  Either I did not do a credible job of describing who Lutherans were (are) or else it is so odd as to defy understanding and to require a simple caricature to define us to the Southern world of religion and faith.  I am not sure which is more accurate.

I fear that this is exactly how many within Lutheranism see themselves -- at least those on the conservative side of things.  They see us as Bible Baptists when it comes to Scripture, Reformed when it comes to identity, Methodists when it comes to piety, and semi-Roman Catholics when it comes to worship.  In other words, they do not see consistency between the faith confessed and the faith lived out on Sunday morning.  That is troubling.

Lutherans were, at least when I grew up, an odd lot of people who were duller than dull on Sunday morning (slavishly following the page numbers), led by a preacher in a black robe, subjected to 40 minute sermons on texts other than the lessons read for that morning, and a people with a high view of the sacraments yet somewhat distant since baptisms often took place other than Sunday morning and the Sacrament of the Altar was more absent than present in the life of most parishes.  If you liked this kind of church, well, each to his own, I guess.  What got me going was not the experience of being Lutheran on Sunday morning but the theology that defined us (often fairly distant from Lutheran Sunday mornings of the 1950s and 1960s).

Lutherans are not the same -- at least the confessional kind!  We are more and more insistent that if we believe it, confess it in our Concordia, we ought to live it on Sunday morning.  That is unsettling to the folks who were comfortable with the Lutheran split personality of the past but I think it is a good thing for Lutherans facing the world around us.  We will not succeed being a country club or social group or Lutheran lite version of ourselves in a world expecting and even demanding authenticity.  So we must be who we are.

This means reaching back beyond pleasant memory, reaching back even beyond institutional identity (LCMS), and reinvigorating ourselves and our life together around the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions.  When this happens, we will outgrow the misnomer of fundamentalists with a liturgy and just maybe grow into the identity we claim for ourselves in the Confessions:  evangelical catholics!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Do you see what I see?

check out cartoons here: http://www.cartoonchurch.com/
While sitting around in an airport or a hotel lobby, I have noticed how hard we work to avoid noticing other people or paying attention to them and what goes on around us.  We try very hard to insulate and isolate ourselves from those around us.  We listen to our own music through the privacy of our ear buds and I-pods.  If a stranger tries to pick up a conversation with us, we often let them know pretty quickly we do not wish to be bothered.  We attend to our own creature comforts but find it too hard to pay attention to the comforts of others.

On one recent full flight the airline had to bribe the passengers with free booze to exchange seats so a mother could sit with her young daughter.  What is in it for me to be kind.  On another flight where we were warned over and over again there would be no free seats, the early birds on the plane insisted upon getting the aisle seats and making it nearly impossible for people to get into the empty inside seats.  In fact, the delay in getting people into their seats and carry-ons stowed caused us to take off late.

We don't pay much attention to others -- except to complain -- and are not very tolerant of others.  For example, on Sunday morning a new family slipped in and out without being greeting but they did sit next to regular members.  When I asked the regular members if they saw or met or even passed the friendship register to them to sign in, the response was "No, we did not see or notice them."  In many respects we work very hard NOT to see or deal with strangers.  Perhaps this is a reflection of our culture but it is a problem in churches.

At the same time we are avoiding contact with strangers, we also complain loudly that churches are not friendly enough, that we are all so lonely, and that nobody seems to know us or pay attention to us.  So often we live within this seeming paradox rather than take the effort to get to know so that we are known.  There is something rather sad about this.  We want to be known and noticed by others but we do not want to take the initiative to know them.

I do not think it is simply meanness or rudeness -- at least not intentionally.  But I do think we have allowed the culture of fear to enter the nave and that we have grown as a culture and as Christians too complacent about the ordinary routines of friendliness.  Now, to be sure, some folks do not want to be noticed and prefer anonymity.  I understand that.  But most of us crave personal attention.  I like the bank branch where they know me by name and call me by name.  I don't think we are all so different here.  I think those who desire anonymity are a minority.  Most of us yearn for others to know us -- even though we tend to be naturally suspicious of strangers.  Most of the time all we need is a little encouragement -- not so much from the pulpit as from our friends and neighbors in the pews.

Most of the time I am a talker -- too much of a talker for most in my family who wish I was quieter in public.  I got in naturally -- both my mom and dad are outgoing folks.  This is a helpful trait if you are a Pastor.  I would encourage you to think of it as helpful to those who are not Pastors but folks in the pew.  Open your mouth, say hello, introduce yourself, begin a conversation, and get to know the folks around you in church (whether old timers or new folks).  This is a personal campaign to end the criticism that churches are unfriendly (which is really to say that Christians are not friendly).