Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 6

23 July 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 5:17-26 (Ex 20:1-17; Rom 6:1-11) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Well, if you like controversy, you picked a good Sunday to come to church. Of course, every Sunday is a good Sunday to worship our blessed Lord and receive his gifts, but today we address the Ten Commandments – something that is the source of fierce debate in our body politic and public life as citizens of our republic.

And to put fuel on the fire, Jesus is going to make sure we know just how demanding the commandments are, and St. Paul is going to make sure we don’t abuse the gift of grace we enjoy by seeing that grace as a license to break the commandments.

There’s surely enough controversy here to upset and challenge everyone in the sanctuary. God’s Word is certainly not dull, and it commands our attention twenty centuries after its writing.

Of course, the Ten Commandments were written long before that time – some 17 centuries, in fact. They were written by the very finger of God on tablets of stone. They lay down a foundation for civilized society, the oldest formula of law and order – but there is so much more to them.

Both sides in the current debate about the public display of the Ten Commandments miss the point. On the one hand, there are those who treat the Ten Commandments as though they are pornographic, somehow unfit for public display, something shameful and dirty that ought to be wheeled behind closed doors. And then the other side, which sees their display as somehow necessary, that if they are not displayed, God is going to get even with America. Of course, the commandments against murder, theft, breaking the marriage contract, and perjury are basic laws that are common to all people – and the Ten Commandments should be recognized for their role in the history of jurisprudence. But on the other hand, laws against idolatry, abusing God’s name, Sabbath-breaking, and coveting are really not the business of the Federal and State governments – even if such things were enforceable.

So what do we make of these commandments? Do we join lawsuits and demonstrations for their display? Or do we join the anti-Christian forces who seek to remove them from public view? Must we do one or the other?

Jesus tells us Christians that the Ten Commandments are God’s Law. Nothing has made them obsolete – for Jesus did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the law. The Ten Commandments remain a basic staple of our catechism. We require children and adults to be able to recite them before being able to take communion. We encourage Christians to meditate on the Ten Commandments. Indeed, this law is written on our hearts.

The Law of God is more than words on a monument that people are fighting over. The Commandments convict all of us of our sins. When the Law reads: “You shall not murder,” we dare not breathe a sigh of relief since we have never carried out the physical act of slaying a person. Indeed, Jesus warns us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes who used this kind of logic to pat themselves on the back. No, indeed, we must ask ourselves: have we called anyone a name, wished violence against anyone in our hearts, have we, in our anger, hurt another person’s feelings? We all know the answer. We are all murderers. And this kind of murder is so common to each of us, and we commit such murders many times a day with no remorse. Neither the State nor the Federal governments can truly enforce this law. There is a tribunal higher than the Supreme Court before which we will stand.

In fact, in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we have all broken every commandment, and do so often. Our adversary, the devil, accuses us. And on this count, Satan is right. He tells the truth when he accuses us of breaking the Law. And though he tells the truth, he does not tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth.” For our Lord Jesus tells us to agree with our adversary quickly. We are to say the same thing, that is, to confess. The devil and the Law both point the accusing finger at us, and we are guilty. But we have an advocate who is also the judge. Though we deserve the guilty verdict, we are declared righteous. That, dear friends, is a truth the devil will not say to you. You can only hear this from Jesus, from his Word, as testified to you in the court of the sanctuary of the Church.

We can settle with our adversary because our advocate has done so. Jesus has outwitted the prosecution by defeating him. We have been vindicated and declared “not guilty” at the cross – and that declaration of innocence is read every time we poor miserable sinners darken the door of the Church, every time we hear the Good News of the verdict we don’t deserve read by the Judge’s servants.

And so we are free. The handcuffs are removed. The door of our cell is opened. We are set at liberty, as our debt has been paid in full. We are pardoned, with no restrictions.

And so, dear Christians, we are free from the law as Paul tells us. We are free from the prosecutorial finger of the devil. And so, we can do anything we want, right? Jesus has paid for all of our sins, so we ought to sin even more so we receive even more grace, doesn’t that make sense? Having been sprung from prison, we can now commit even greater sins, revel in their filth, and have no fear of punishment. What does Paul say in our epistle lesson?

“What shall we say then, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you know that as many of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul goes on to point out that by baptism, we share in Christ’s death and his resurrection. We have been recreated, made anew, born again by water and the Spirit. Hence, we are different than we were before baptism.

And so, being freed from sin’s penalty isn’t license to commit more sins, rather it is the opposite. For as our blessed Lord preaches, not one dot of an “i” or cross of a “t” has been, or ever will be, removed from the Law. For Jesus fulfills it all, and he does so for us. Therefore, instead of being freed for evil, freed to explore the basest and most vile elements of our fallen flesh, we are freed from evil, freed in order to do good works. We have been freed to identify our own sins, freed to confess those sins, freed to be forgiven of them, and freed to struggle against sin as we live out the Christian life.

Freedom from the law isn’t freedom to be evil – for being evil has nothing to do with being free. In fact, our sinfulness is a form of bondage, we were enslaved in our sins until Jesus freed us from the shackles. We have been freed from sin, freed from trying to use good works to bribe God. Now that we realize that our sins have been paid for, that our good works don’t earn our salvation, we are freed to do good works out of love, without counting the cost, without the ulterior motive of trying to save ourselves from punishment.

You, dear children of God, are heirs of the Kingdom. God has given everything to you – not only his Son for the forgiveness of sins, but his own righteousness, his own victory over sin, death, and the devil, his own divine nature, his own perfection, his own eternal life. It’s all yours. Your works do not count – so you’re free to not count them, but rather to do them in thanksgiving and joy, flowing out of the New Adam, with no reason to ask “what’s in it for me.”

For if you could obey the Ten Commandments, you would need no savior. And if your eternal life depended on your keeping of the commandments, you would have no hope. Let us thank God for his commandments that show us our inability to keep them – which drives us to the cross. Let us praise God for sending his Son to keep the commandments for us and on our behalf, and let us honor God by offering him our good works – not only as a thank offering, but as a means by which He works though us to give this gift of life to others.

“Death no longer has dominion over him,” nor over you, brothers and sisters. “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Post-Katrina Post

I received a nice e-mail from "Father Hollywood" reader Rev. Rob Franck of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn. In this note, he called to mind that I hadn't posted anything in my blog regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This reminded me that I did write an article for Lutheran Church Charities that was published on their online newsletter. So, I posted it to Father Hollywood and backdated it to October, 2005. You can get to it here, just scroll down to October 10, and look for the post entitled "Kyrie After Katrina."

Pastor Franck's son and daughter are coming to NOLA in a couple weeks to help with relief work, which incidently, is ongoing. There is still a lot of work to be done, and churches are still sending volunteer crews to help. They have been wonderful, and we are so very grateful beyond anything you can imagine for all of the help you have provided, and continue to provide!

By the way, if you don't read my Lutheran Church Charities article, let me take a moment to tell you what a blessing they have been, and continue to be. They are the real deal. If you or your church are looking for a genuine charity to support, I can recommend LCC without reservation. They cut through red tape like you wouldn't believe, and soared above all the usual synodical politics to make sure that people who needed help in the immediate aftermath of Katrina got it - without regard to the political leanings of the parish or pastor. They simply help people in need, Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike, all over the country. They get the job done. While FEMA was floundering, while the Post Office and FedEx were crippled, and while even the Red Cross seemed to be in a state of confusion, LCC was in full communication with those of us in NOLA and getting supplies to us in an almost miraculous fashion. I can't tell you how many refugees who had nothing but the clothing on their backs were helped by LCC and its generous supporters.

LCC's president, Tim Hetzner, was helpful beyond measure to our post-Katrina work.

I know a lot of you are probably weary of hearing about Hurricane Katrina, but it still dominates our lives here in the Big Easy. This was the worst natural disaster to hit the U.S. in modern times, and I'm humbled by the dedication and hard work of so many Lutheran pastors and laymen in the aftermath of the storm.

But anyway, in case any of you would like to read my scribblings of our work after the storm, there they are - along with links to articles in the New York Times and the Times of London who covered some of the work made possible by Lutheran Church Charities.

Please keep New Orleans and her brave and determined people in your prayers. Come visit us! We love tourists, and if your church is looking for some volunteer work to do, there is plenty here. If you've never been to New Orleans, you are in for a treat! It's like no other city in America.

Though I've only lived here a couple years, I could not imagine myself anywhere else. Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Orthodox Christianity is Hated

From time to time, I clip (in the figurative sense) articles from the mainline and electronic media that deal with Christianity and culture. Sometimes I blog them, sometimes they just sit around for a few weeks until I delete them. But sometimes there are a few tidbits that I can tie together into a theme. This is one of those times.

What I notice time and again is that we are like Alice in Wonderland, living in a culture and in times in which up is down, left is right, good is evil, and evil is good. At the center of most of the hatred and bile of our culture is Christ's Church. Although the kinds of things we seem to read every other day make no logical sense, they should come as no surprise.

The sixteenth century reformer and theologian Martin Luther identified "the cross" as one of the marks of the Christian Church. In other words, if you want to identify whether a group of people are truly members of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, there are "marks" that tell us whether they are the true church or not. One of those marks, the cross, is the fact that where the true faith is, there will be persecution.

Our Lord told us as much when he said:

"If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.... They will also persecute you.... Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me." (John 15:18 - 16:2)

It has been a long time since the days of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, when the faithful were crucified, tortured in the arena, and martyred for refusing to bend the knee to the false god Caesar. But the time of ease for the Church is at an end, and in fact, it is long since past in many places of the world where the Church is under physical duress. Christians are still arrested, tortured, and martyred in places like Sudan and China.

But in "civilized" countries, we see the hostility against the Church take a different tack. It is what our suffering brethren in Sweden call a "gray martyrdom." No-one is being sent to the arena or burned at the stake in Scandinavia for preaching the Christian faith - but we do see a marginalization of Christians, a social and political apartheid, and even charges of "hate speech" for proclaiming Christian truth as revealed in Scripture that conflicts with the Official Party Line of the Government.

Once again, the Christians are told to burn just a wee bit of incense before the false god of Government. Be patriotic. Be good citizens.

In the U.S., we don't even have the "gray martyrdom" of Sweden - not yet. What we have instead is an Orwellian redefinition of right and wrong, a reordering of morality that conflicts with the built-in sense of propriety that has been shared by civilized people for centuries.

Here is a news account of a private business owner who runs a skating rink. He is being charged with a violation by the Human Rights Division of the State of New York and is under investigation. What is his alleged crime? He plays Christian music on Sunday afternoons at his skating rink. It seems that this is a violation of the human rights of non-Christians.

Think about this for a moment: a "human rights violation." This is the language of the gulag, of concentration camps, of barbed wire. What has this man done? He played Christian music for people who skate after church. Now, I'm no fan of "contemporary Christian music" - much of its theology is weak and its style is unfit for Lutheran worship services. But having said that, this is America, and why should anyone - be they Jehovah's Winesses, Jews, Moslems, or Christians have their music criminalized - especially on private property? There is only one explanation for what is behind something so contrary to cherished American freedom. This is diabolical. It is a Satanic assault on Christ and His Bride.

Or how about this remarkable story of a judge that criminalized prayer at a graduation ceremony. What makes this otherwise commonplace happening unique is the reaction of the students. During the graduation ceremony, some 200 students defied the judge's order by defiantly reciting the Lord's Prayer contrary to the sanitized official program. The overwhelmingly Christian audience joined in.

I'm not militant about school prayer. In fact, I have no problem with public school events being completely secular. However, having said that, people do have freedom of speech. Public schools that have overwhelming populations of, say Orthodox Jews, Moslems, Evangelical Christians, or Roman Catholics can hardly expect that this cultural reality will simply be swept under the rug and hid under a bushel. Why is it only Christianity that is placed under a gag order of this nature? No-one was being forced to participate. Once again, where are the champions of free speech? Or is freedom only defended for people who think along approved lines? Is this "free speech" Castro-style?

So, what will now happen to these people? Will there be an investigation? Will there be fines? How about jail time for violating a judge's order? Can you imagine the outrage if any other type of free speech were banned at a graduation? And consider these "lawbreaking" kids. Were they spraying their school with graffiti? Were they roaming around with automatic weapons? Dealing drugs? Committing theft, rape, threats? No, these awful kids were praying. Oh, how dastardly! Maybe we need to build more prisons...

Consider this little window into our culture. A small indy film produced by Baptists that is utterly spic-and-span - no profanity, no violence, no nudity, no glorification of crime, no sexual innuendo, no drug references, etc. - a squeaky-clean family film - has been given a PG rating by the Motion Picture Association. Why? Because one of the characters talks about Jesus. Jesus. Not Hitler, not Pol Pot, but Jesus. A character in the film talks about Jesus Christ! Hence, "Parental Guidance" is suggested! First of all, Father Hollywood is not prudish when it comes to movies, nor is he a big fan of evangelism by asking people to "accept Jesus" or "make a decision for Christ" - but having said this: when I was growing up, a PG rating meant a movie had some element that made parents of small children consider whether or not to see the movie, maybe some bad language or adult plot themes. These days, the f-word, nudity, and violence can lurk under a PG rating. But a Baptist character talking to somebody about Jesus? Wow. That's crude stuff. Better not let the kiddies see something like that - it might warp them for life. Better send them to the sex and violence in the next screen at the multiplex. Are you getting the picture?

This approach to good and evil, right and wrong, reminds me of pop-star George Michael's outburst against a rendition of the Lord's Prayer by rock musician Cliff Richard a few years back. Michael called it "vile." "Vile" is a word that we used to use for people who torture animals, or those who hurt children, or those who harm innocent people in order to get ahead. "Vile" is a very strong word to describe something evil - er, like the Lord's Prayer. Indeed. George Michael ought to know the word "vile" - this is the same fellow who was arrested for indecent exposure and deviant sexual behavior with total strangers in public toilets on the highway. You know, the rest areas where you bring your children to go to the bathroom. But the Lord's Prayer is "vile." Got it.

So what happens culturally when people are constantly told good is evil and evil is good, where Christians are vilified, and attacking them becomes the routine job of government agencies and cultural gatekeepers?

Well, how about this lad? He desecrates Christian graves with paint and Satanic symbols and lacks all remorse. But why should he feel sorry? Isn't he just striking back at those evil Christians who are so bitterly opposed by our culture? He seems to expect to get a medal or something. In a few years, maybe he will.

And what other things happen when evil is called good, and good evil? In a culture where children are routinely sexualized and sexual deviance enjoys legimized status in many countries and states - a British pastor is fired from teaching school for giving a 10-year old girl, one of his students, a congratulatory peck on the cheek. Notice that the vicar did this completely in the open during an emotional moment. He did not jam his tongue down her throat or try to undress her. What kind of a culture do we live in where this sort of thing can be confused with pedophilia? There is absolutely nothing off-color or shady here - a priest gave a struggling student an innocent and fatherly kiss on the cheek after presenting her with an award. He was proud of this little girl who worked so hard. What a cad! Throw away the key!

My goodness! My little son is routinely smooched by parishioners of both sexes after church. Maybe it's the Francophone influence here in New Orleans, but people kiss one another all the time. St. Paul was always imploring Christian brothers and sisters to greet one another with a kiss. How can anything so spontaneous, tender, and innocent be dragged in the mud and made to seem "dirty"? It's because the waters themselves have been muddied. Thanks to perverted pop-stars and deviant members of the clergy who molest children - we now live in a culture where we are forced to treat one another like we have the bubonic plague - or risk lawsuits and firings. How said. But let's not forget: the Lord's Prayer is "vile."

I have no idea what this vicar's stand on women's ordination is, but this distortion of the roles of the sexes is also a symptom of our confused morality in which evil is called good, and good evil. About a hundred priests of the Church of England who oppose women's ordination were given assurances when women were first being ordained that they would not have to run afoul of their consciences and be forced to work with, or acknowledge women clergy. But now, as women are being considered for consecration as bishops by the Church of England, those promises are being broken. Conscience now counts for nothing, promises are now null and void, and those who stand up for orthodoxy are portrayed as evil.

This should come as no surprise, for the same scenario unfolded over the last 40 years in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. Opponents of women's ordination were allowed to opt out of participating with women priests and bishops by virtue of a "conscience clause." Gradually, as the culture began to shift, the conscience clause was grandfathered out. Now, a man must, as a test, accept communion from the hands of a woman pastor before he is permitted to attend seminary. He may well deny the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, the atonement, the resurrection, etc. and he is permitted to hold these opinions and still study for the ministry. But he may not oppose women's ordination. There is only one explanation for this topsy-turvy turn of events - it is nothing short of diabolical.

We now live in a culture where Disney endorses special events for homosexuals while the Boy Scouts are treated as an amoral pariah. Morning talk radio hosts routinely use profanity and carry on at length about their genitalia while Baptists who make movies with Christian characters are slapped with "parental guidance" warnings due to content. Mel Gibson's record-breaking movie "The Passion of the Christ" was locked out of the Oscars, while a song entitled "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" is recognized for its esthetic and artistic virtuousity and given an Academy Award.

Do you feel like Alice yet?

Let's keep things in perspective, however. Our Lord told us this was coming:

"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt 5:11-12).

Amen! And come quickly Lord Jesus!

Sermon: Trinity 5

16 July 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 5:1-11 (1 Kings 19:11-21; 1 Cor 1:18-25) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

God is always acting in ways that surprise us. And this makes a lot of sense considering that our sinful nature often pictures God as something other than he is.

Simon the fisherman had no idea when he rose early in the morning to go to work at Lake Genneseret that he would be meeting God face to face that day, that he would be quitting his job and starting a whole new life. Certainly, he would never have imagined that a meeting with God would include the sign of a miraculous catch of fish.

As miracles go, this one is pretty low key. No blind men can see, no lepers are healed, no demons cast out, no dead men walking around in grave clothes. All Jesus did was fill Simon’s net with fish. And yet this quiet miracle was enough to reveal who Jesus is. And Simon reacts as everyone else in Scripture does when confronted with the presence of God: he feels sinful, unworthy, small, and in expectation of punishment. But once again, God defies expectation – for instead of condemnation and wrath, Simon finds an invitation to a new life and a call into Jesus’ ministry. Jesus uses the fish miracle as an object lesson to tell Simon Peter just what God’s will for him would be. And the second miracle of this lesson is Simon’s faith – his obedience to God in spite of his sinful self. The uneducated, impulsive, sinful Simon was to miraculously become Peter, the rock-man, whose confession of Jesus and whose apostolic ministry would become the rock upon which the Church was to be built.

No great storyteller: not O Henry nor Stephen King, not Shakespeare nor Dan Brown could have dreamed up a tale of fiction with such a surprise twist in the plot.

God is always doing the last thing we can imagine – which goes to show how little we really know him.

Notice in our Old Testament lesson how the Lord appears to Elijah in such an unexpected way. A wind gusts up that is so powerful that hunks of rock were peeled from the mountainside – and yet, the Lord was not present in this great and mighty wind. After this comes an earthquake, and though the ground shook and the plates beneath the surface of the earth scraped violently together in a frightening display of raw power – the Lord was not present in this earthquake. Next came a fire – and again, the Lord was not present in this attention-getting display of might. And then came a “still small voice.”

Who would ever expect the everlasting almighty King of the universe to be present in a whisper? But this is how God chooses to be present. For a whisper can do something that winds, earthquakes, and fire cannot do. A whisper puts forth a word – the very Word of God. For the power of God is not in the loud, the boisterous, the swaggering – but rather in the true. For when it is the Word of God, one little word, no matter how weakly uttered, is more powerful than the atomic blast of the sun or of all the military might of the worlds empires put together.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” St. John testifies. And that Word took flesh and lived among us. And the Word of God as recorded by Moses tells us that in the beginning, God created all things by speaking them into existence by that very same Word. This is the same Word that quietly calls Elijah and commissions him to preach the truth, the politically-incorrect truth, the truth that is getting prophets killed all over Israel. This is the very same Word that fills Simon’s empty net with fish in such a way as to reveal that this Man standing before Simon is none other than God himself.

The Word of God as found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in our epistle lesson also testifies to this unexpected way in which God works through his Word. St. Paul proclaims: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

In the original Greek, it isn’t the “message” of the cross, but rather the “word of the cross.” Like that “still small voice” that speaks to Elijah, like the Word of Jesus who instructs Simon to cast his net, this proclamation of the cross is powerful - not by virtue of being loud, bombastic, or boisterous – but rather because it is the Word of God – whether amplified through a loudspeaker, or barely audible in a whisper.

The world observes the Word of God, the proclamation of the cross, and laughs. You Christians are foolish not only to non-believers, but also to other Christians. You gather here in this boxy little sanctuary and listen to a pastor in a pulpit. The pastor doesn’t wipe his brow, dance, scream, speak in words of gibberish, or walk around the sanctuary with a microphone. A preacher in silly old-fashioned robes stands in a pulpit and talks about the cross.

Instead of singing high-powered rock music with emotion-tugging choruses about how on fire we are for the Lord, you sing old-fashioned hymns that talk about the cross. Instead of seeing people get up out of wheelchairs, instead of dramatic direct revelations from God, instead of crowds of thousands of people – here you are reading a liturgy out of a book, making the sign of the cross, listening to Bible passages being read, and eating some bread and drinking some wine on your knees in front of a cross on an altar.

We are the laughingstocks of the world, even of the Christian world. We put our trust in an unimpressive ritual like baptism and are willing to tell our sins to a pastor so he can whisper words over us and sign us with the cross. And look around! There are only a few dozen folks here. We don’t have a state of the art TV studio, we don’t have thousands of people crowding into our church. Our congregation isn’t loaded with money, and your pastors aren’t flying back and forth on private jets visiting their numerous mansions. Politicians don’t get their pictures taken with us. Your pastors have no seven-step program for you to be healthy, wealthy, and living the good life.

But keep this firmly in mind, dear brothers and sisters – God’s presence does not depend on glamour and winsomeness, on wealth and a slick marketing package. Just because thousands of people will pack a stadium or a mega-church doesn’t mean God is there. For in all of the bombast Elijah witnessed, God was not there, but was rather to be found in the “still small voice.” God is present in his Word – which includes his sacraments. It is there, and there alone, that you will find God, hear him, and experience his presence. God has a track record of not working through great and mighty means, but rather simple and humble means – things that are ridiculed in this world. For as our epistle testifies: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Thousands of people are led astray by false prophets who use every means of technology and psychology to deceive and take advantage of the gullible. But you, dear children of God, have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit at your baptism to draw you to the true Word of God and to repulse you from the charlatan. God has given you Holy Scripture to arm you against these servants of the devil. The Good Shepherd has given to you minister-shepherds, to teach you, to feed and water you, to pray for you, and to defend you against the Satanic lion and greedy wolf, to lead you to the still waters of baptism and the green pastures of eternal life.

And even to this day, people seek signs and wisdom. People want to see showy miracles and they want to hear clever philosophy. The unsophisticated are taken in by the TV preacher’s vulgar displays of showmanship, and the sophisticated fall for the diabolical lies of so-called scholarship and conspiracy theories that deny the supernatural and seek to turn man into a god unto himself. “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumblingblock” (literally, a scandal), “and to the Greeks foolishness. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

For the incarnate Word of God is the ultimate surprise. For almighty God to be born of a human women, a poor, unmarried virgin, and to be completely helpless and vulnerable, to be a baby – is unthinkable. And for this God to suffer on a cross, to be tortured and put to death, to allow sinful men to bring him to shame – is likewise unfathomable. The very notion of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dying as a criminal on a cross at the hands of an angry Jewish mob and under the brutality of a godless Roman tyrant is the very definition of foolishness by those who claim to have wisdom and sophistication.

And yet, this word of the cross is still proclaimed. Eternal life is still given out. The Gospel is still preached. The sacraments are still administered. And to us who are being saved, the word of the cross is the power of God. And so, “where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has God not made foolish the wisdom of this world?”

Thanks be to our crucified Lord, the one who speaks softly (and yet powerfully) to us the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. For we know that in Christ what appears to be weak is strong. We testify that what appears foolish is in fact wise. And we confess that in this foolishness and weakness, the sinful are made righteous, the mortal put on immortality, and the humble are exalted.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 14, 2006

True Diversity in Worship

As a postscript to my last essay about diversity in worship, I was pondering how so-called "diversity" in non-traditional worship practices is elitist and actually fosters the opposite of diversity.

What is typically considered "diversity" in worship is actually very uniform: a large screen, "praise" songs with a "praise" band (usually reflecting a pop or soft rock musical style), and an ethos of informality. This tends to attract a certain "attractive" demographic - younger adults, perhaps those with young children - a demographic that typically has money and is not afraid to spend it. Furthermore, music is very culturally and racially divisive. A church that makes use of R&B and hip-hop is going to draw an overwhelmingly black "audience," whereas those that focus on sentimental pop ballads and rock and roll are likely to attract whites.

Even the ubiquitous advertisements I receive in the mail for the latest "relevant" new churches with carefully designed layouts typically feature a stereotypical family of well-groomed smiling white people with perfect teeth and model hair. They often have a couple of perfect-looking children dressed immaculately in Oshkosh or L.L.Bean. Of course, there will be an occasional token non-white, but as long as they look the part and behave themselves, I'm sure they can get in.

There is a disturbing artificial and sterile "gated-community" feel to these marketing campaigns - and keep in mind that nothing, absolutely nothing, in marketing is accidental or coincidental.

And so all of this lip-service to "diversity" is really nothing of the sort. Peel away the layers of hypocrisy and you'll find a desire to go after a demographic of growth - both in numbers and in money. College students are transient and broke - so they don't go after them. The elderly are on fixed incomes and are not procreating (and besides, they are a drain on resources when they require the pastor's time visiting them at the hospital) - so why show the elderly in marketing materials? Do they really want poor people in their churches? Besides, people want to be around good-looking, attractive people, so why not hire models to pose for their oversized postcards?

My own congregation is the bane of many local congregations and pastors who can't believe we still cling to tradition. Some folks outside of my congregation have complained behind my back (never to my face) because I wear a cassock to and from Divine Services. Our congregation is considered backward and a stick in the mud because we don't have contemporary worship and don't participate in the Ablaze!(tm) "initiative," "movement," or whatever is the au courant politically-correct term for this slick marketing campaign. Area traditionalist pastors are sometimes maligned as "blackshirts."

But let's consider diversity - real diversity, not the artificial lip-service kind.

On any given Sunday (or Wednesday), I will preach to my beloved flock and hand out the body and blood of our dear blessed Lord to all sorts of people. In no particular order at the communion rail, I commune Cajuns, Germans, blacks, whites, former Roman Catholics, former Baptists, high school girls and boys, elderly men and women, people suffering with degenerative diseases, people who are in the prime of their athletic lives, wealthy business owners, people on welfare, white collar workers, blue collar workers, fat people, skinny people, Democrats, Republicans, those who can read Latin and Greek, and those who can barely read English. Babies of every shape and size are broght to the rail to be blessed. I have communed the tattooed, those with studs in their tongues, those with spiked hair - as well as those clad in three-piece suits and ankle-length skirts.

Those who come to Salem for Word and Sacrament include intact families, widows and wiodowers, divorced and remarried people, children who have been adopted, people who have lost all of their worldly possessions in Hurricane Katrina, mixed-race people, people who are overweight, people who are tall, folks who have cancer, and those who never get sick.

As we confess in our liturgy itself, we are also in the presence of persons unseen, the Church Triumphant who now worship eternally in the throneroom of the Lamb, the angels and archangels who are always present before the Lord, the glorious company of the apostles, the white robed army of martyrs, the Church of all times and places that join us in the Divine Service. The advocates of contemporary worship and pop music in the church seem to forget that these people are also present, and their opinions ought to matter as much as ours. Chesterton spoke of tradition as a "democracy of the dead." If we truly believe those who have died in the faith are still with us, we ought not foist "our" music on them, but lean in the direction of tradition. If you think about it this way, tradition is a confession of the resurrection as well as the transcendence of the church beyond the culture of the present moment with its fickle tastes and ever-mutable styles.

Furthermore, our parishioners listen to all sorts of music: country, rap, heavy metal, easy listening, hip hop, pop, rock and roll, jazz, classical, and everything in between. Some are baseball fans, fishermen, cooks, competitive runners, those who cheer for the Saints, and those who don't. Some are into cars, boats, motorcycles, bicycles, and some like to walk everywhere. There is an endless array of personalities in our parish: the gregarious and friendly, the cranky and sullen, those equipped with beaming smiles, as well as those who appear to be always in a state of melancholy. Some are gifted musically, and others cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Some carry oxygen tanks, some hobble along on canes and walkers, and others must be communed in the pew due to their convalescence.

And yet in spite of this true diversity, we come together as the Body of Christ. We confess our sins and are absolved. We sing the praises to God together - not in opera or rap, not in soft-rock or heavy metal - but in the same way the Church has always worship, a style and culture that unites rather than divides, that transcends earthly styles instead of choosing one over the other:in traditional hymns and chants. We take the Lord's Supper together whether we eat Chinese food, soul food, Cajun food, or junk food at home. And we pray for one another - old, young, rich, poor, black, white, in sickness and in health.

I could not imagine how boring it would be to minister in a "biker church" or a "cowboy church" or a "contemporary worship church" rooted in conformity and uniformity that denies the true diversity and catholicity of the Body of Christ! Adopting themes or styles rooted in hobbies or the pop culture talks the talk of diversity, but doesn't walk the walk. In the end, the Church Growth Movement and those who see the Gospel as a product to be sold like underarm deodorant or dish soap miss out on the true diversity that comes with an adherence to churchly tradition.

In their zeal to scientifically pinpoint the most advantageous demographic group for the betterment of their "growing organization," they squeeze all the array of spontaneous humanity out of the body of Christ. There is a true joy to see sinner/saints from every walk of life, age, and ethnic background unite around the Word and Sacraments. In fact, it is a foretaste of the great wedding banquet described in the Book of Revelation in which St. John writes:

"I looked and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Diversity in Lutheran Worship

I attended the convention of the Southern District of our church body this past week. I could write a tome about it, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. However, I do want to address an interesting debate about worship. For my non-Lutheran friends, we Lutherans disagree with each other pretty vehemently about what should go on Sunday morning in our churches. Here's a brief overview of the controversy.

Traditionalists vs. Non-Traditionalists

Traditionalists advocate a liturgical form of worship that is nearly identical to the Roman Catholic Mass. In fact, many traditional Lutherans maintain practices that the Roman Church has abandoned since the 1960s (such as the altar that faces the wall and a kneeling rail for Holy Communion). Traditionalists do not approve of things like guitars, drums, dramas, dancers, casual attire, themed services (such as polka and cowboy services), big screens, etc. They see worship as very orderly, with pastors wearing Catholic vestments, an altar with candles, with music consisting of hymns, chants, and chorales, typically accompanied by an organ. Some traditionalists even use incense. Traditionalists typically adhere to the liturgy as found in one of our synodically-approved hymnals. Traditionalist preaching is anchored in an assigned Scripture reading for the day and is done from a pulpit.

Non-traditionalists, on the other hand, have a diversity of worship practices. Some retain the litugical form, while incorporating what is known as contemporary Christian music (CCM). Others take a more radical approach, using large screens instead of hymn books, and having no liturgical order at all. Some use clowns, dramas, dancers, puppets, and rock music. Instead of wooden pews, one may find theater seats with cup holders. Instead of chorales and chants, one will find syncopated upbeat modern music that tends to be repetative. Pastors typically avoid vestments in favor of casual garb, and instead of standing in a pulpit, may stroll around the audience with a microphone.

Worship in Today's Missouri Synod

In the modern Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), one can find both extremes. There is a church in Detroit, for example, that looks like it came right out of the middle ages, with votive candles surrounding statues of Jesus and Mary, in which women cover their heads with veils, the pastor is addressed as "Father," the service is called "Holy Mass," and incense, chanting, and genuflecting are part and parcel of the Sunday service. There are also LCMS churches (many in the South) that have pulsing rock music, a pastor clad in khakis (who is addressed by his first name), in which women are dressed in low-slung midriff-baring jeans, people spontaneously give their testimony, hands are waved around in the air, and dancers interpret biblical texts.

There are obviously different understandings of worship competing here.

Needless to say, those who are comfortable with Gregorian chant don't approve of hip-hop and heavy metal in the church. They find this distasteful and undignified - more entertainment than worship of the living God in our midst. On the other hand, non-traditionalists accuse the traditionalists of being narrow-minded and unconcerned with bringing new people into the church by being more concerned with staid tradition than reaching out to the lost in their own culture.

This is, our worship war, in a nutshell.

The Lutheran Confessions on Worship

One might be tempted to say: "Why not just let everyone do what is right in his own eyes?" This is the 21st century American way, after all. Give the consumer what he wants, and don't criticize what others are doing. Above all, don't be divisive. Can't we all just get along?

Part of the problem is that we Lutherans have all pledged to abide by a set of documents contained in a book called the Book of Concord. "Concord" means harmony. This mutual confession assures that we Lutherans all believe the same thing - and that belief is expressed in our worship.

So what do these Lutheran confessions in the Book of Concord say about worship? This brings me back to last week's Southern District Convention debate.

One proposed resolution quoted a passage from our Lutheran confessions:

"among us nothing in doctrine or ceremonies has been accepted that would contradict either Holy Scripture or the universal Christian Church" and that "no novelty has been introduced that did not exist in the Church in the days of old (for) no noticeable change has occurred in the public liturgy of the Mass" (Augsburg Confession XXIV).

The reason this passage appears in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 is that the Lutheran reformers were being lumped in with many different, more radical reformers. The Lutherans are making the argument that one of the reasons our churches are orthodox is that our worship is traditional. We avoid "novelty" and retain biblical and Catholic "doctrine and ceremonies." In other words, Lutheran worship is, by definition, liturgical and traditional.

Keep in mind that every Lutheran pastor has sworn that all of his preaching and teaching would reflect these confessions - not merely for the sake of convenience or unity - but because they are a correct exposition of Scripture.

A local pastor objected to this resolution, and quoted another part of the Book of Concord to make his point:

"We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances." (Formula of Concord [Solid Declaration] X)

Wow. You can see where the traditionalists would rally 'round the Augsburg Confession, while the non-traditionalists would hoist the banner of the Formula of Concord. What's a good Lutheran to do? Is this a contradiction? The Augsburg Confession says (in 1530) that we Lutherans are orthodox because we have retained the Catholic Mass and all its ceremonies. The Formula of Concord (in 1580) says that any church anywhere has the right to change the cermonies according to its needs.

Solving the Paradox

There are a couple of ways to look at this paradox.

1) Maybe the Formula of Concord takes precedence because it was written fifty years later. In this case, Lutherans are free to increase or decrease, alter, or abolish ceremonies per its circumstances. If High Mass and "smells and bells" works in the midwest, fine. But if blue jeans, clapping, and "Shine, Jesus, Shine" works in the South, that's fine too. This interpretation seems to preserve the peace, allows for diversity, and avoids the problem of making our church leaders decide that some are right and others are wrong. It seems to be a win-win situation.

And yet, there is another viewpoint...

2) Maybe both statements have to be accepted together - that there is room for variation in cermony from congregation to congregation, and at different times and places - and yet, that variation is limited to traditional and ancient churchly rites. This interpretation is borne out in history, as the Church has always had diversity within a traditional framework. For centuries, the Church has had Eastern liturgies (St. James, St. John Chrysostom, etc.) alongside of various Western liturgies (Roman, Sarum, Gallican, etc.). And yet, these are all traditional liturgical forms that have a great deal in common with each other. Nothing in the ancient worship of the Church resembles today's "contemporary services" as seen in much of mainline Protestantism.

I believe that the only way to accept the Book of Concord in its entirety - without cherry-picking the parts we like and ignoring those that seem to speak against what we like - is to accept the latter interpretation. Variation is fitting and proper - but within traditional limitations. The Formula of Concord is in no way a license to do anything we want (puppets, dancing girls, plays, rock concerts, etc.) within the Sunday worship service. These things truly violate the spirit of the Augsburg Confession - in which faithful Lutheran laymen were making the point to the emperor that they were not radicals, but rather conservative, faithful Catholics who sought badly-needed reforms. These brave princes stuck their necks out and invited the emperor to cut off their heads before they would take back what was written in that confession. Do we dare dishonor their memory (not to mention the faith we have sworn to uphold) by simply ridding ourselves of the confession they made? Can we ignore the Augsburg Confession, or strive to override it by making one confession appear to undermine another?

Unfortunately, the hierarchy of our church (as well as the democratic process of the convention) overwhelmingly supports ignoring the Augsburg Confession's clear statement that Lutheran worship is, by definition, traditional and liturgical. They are taking the broad road that affirms everyone, instead of the narrow road that may upset those who no longer see the confessions as binding.

Just in case you're still not convinced, let me give you a few more words from the Formula of Concord, Article X, that makes the point. While it indeed reads:

"We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances,"

The very next words read:

"as long as it does so without frivolity and offense, but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edificiation of the church." [emphasis added]


The advocates of "contemporary worship" always seem to stop short of this part. While advocating Christian liberty in matters of worship, this confession also realizes the necessity of being very conservative in using that freedom. In other words, the Formula affirms the traditionalism of the Augsburg Confession - it does not contradict or override it.

Let me ask those of you Lutherans who advocate non-traditional worship a question. Do these things: entertainment-based pop music, dancing girls, puppet shows, chancel dramas, balloons, wise-cracking walkabout preachers, blue jeans, bare midriffs, and Starbuck's Coffee fit with concepts like: "without frivolity or offense," orderly, appropriate, salutary, order, discipline, and decorum? Can you honestly stand with the Lutheran laymen at Augsburg who bared their necks before the emperor and swore that Lutheran worship is that which has been received (via tradition) from Scripture and the universal (Catholic) Church, that it is not rooted in novelty, and in fact, no major change has been made from the medieval Catholic Mass?

I fully acknowledge that there are faithful Christians who worship without the liturgy. They just aren't Lutherans. Those who are pushing the envelope away from traditional and liturgical forms cannot be committed to our mutual Lutheran confession. The honest thing for them to do would be to leave our communion and stop promising a vow that they have no intention of keeping. Those in our synodical and district offices should cease holding their moist fingers to the wind in a desire to be popular, but rather repent, and join our fathers in the faith in baring their necks before the emperor of public opinion, holding to our confession of the evangelical Catholic faith without regard to popularity or coziness with the secular culture.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 3

2 July 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 15:1-10 (Mic 7:18-20; 1 Pet 5:6-11) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Being lost is frightening and disorienting. Maybe you can recall a time in childhood when you somehow wandered away from your parents, and then realized in horror that you were “lost.” To a child, the word “lost” is apocalyptic. Being lost is as if the world were ending. Perhaps this is why our Lord says we must become as children to enter the Kingdom of heaven. They understand the power of the word “lost.”

Not only children, but also animals understand the terror of being lost. A flocking animal, like a sheep, certainly understands, at least instinctively, the danger of being lost. A wandering sheep is a ready-to-eat meal for a predator. A lost sheep is as good as gone – unless somebody intervenes.

What started Jesus talking about lost things – which ultimately ends up in the famous parable of the lost, or prodigal, son – is the fact that Jesus keeps company with sinners – people who have lost their way from the path of righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees don’t approve of our Lord being in the presence of such people. They are implying that our Lord is one of them. It is a classic case of guilt by association.

The scribes and Pharisees are so loveless that they would rather allow these people to remain lost than to risk dirtying their hands by offering them help. But our Lord is not loveless, in fact, he is the incarnation of Love himself, and the Good Shepherd cares about the lost sheep. And so he explains to the loveless and self-righteous (which means you and me) why it is that he eats and drinks with sinners (which means you and me).

And notice that the ministry of Jesus is the same as that of God in the Old Testament. A lot of folks believe the myth, the lie, that the Old Testament God was a God of wrath and law, while the New Testament God is the God of mercy and gospel. But look at our Old Testament lesson: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage. He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in mercy.” The prophet tells us God is compassionate, that he will drown our sins into the sea, that he is the giver of truth and mercy.

And this compassion, truth, mercy, and forgiveness find their legs in the fleshly Jesus, the very living God who is not too good to eat with tax collectors and drink with sinners. In fact, the Pharisees complain that he not only eats with sinners, but “receives” them. Jesus accepts us as his personally redeemed sinners. Jesus invites us into his heart. Jesus has made his decision for us sinners.

And notice that there are two reactions to the Lord: anger and joy. The scribes and Pharisees are scandalized and outraged, they are angry, and they do not approve. But the angels, our Lord tells us, rejoice in heaven over each and every sinner who repents. Even a little coin that was lost causes the owner to leap with joy and call her friends when she recovers it. Even a single little lamb out of a flock of a hundred sheep is the cause of jubilation and triumph when it is found, rescued, and restored to the flock. And the sour, scowling, sneering hypocrites are overwhelmed by the trumpets of Paradise, the lauding and magnifying of the Lord’s holy name by angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.

And the most joyful of all is the one who was lost but who has been found and restored. What other response can there be but gratitude when one has been saved from the wolf, when one has been reunited to ones mates, when one has been snatched from the jaws of death and given a new lease on life? Ironically, the ever-so-perfect Pharisee and the oh-so-religious scribe wallow in anger and indignation, while the tax collector, prostitute, thief, leper, gentile, member of Salem Lutheran Church, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church, and so on, are able to rejoice, to praise God, to know the elation of a child reunited to his parents after being lost, of a wandering lamb who is thrown over the shoulder of his protective Shepherd, of a little lost coin that has rolled between the cracks of the floor and is powerless to save itself, but is found by its owner and master.

For not only are we redeemed from being eternally lost from being eaten, from being cast out into the outer darkness forever, we are re-created into something new and glorious. St. Peter tells us in our epistle text that he will “exalt you in due time.” And so we should cast our cares upon him, why? Because “he cares for you.” God does indeed love you, even when you were yet a sinner, even before you were baptized, even when you were God’s enemy, even when you were claimed by Satan – God loved you, cared for you, had plans to exalt you, and had rescued you like a penny that had rolled away, or like a lamb that had wandered from the herd.

And Peter warns us of someone who cares nothing for us, who seeks to exalt himself and grind us into the dust, whom he describes as our “adversary, the devil” who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” This is why we must not get lost. For there is a very real enemy who wants to destroy us, and feed on our carcass. This is why we need a Benefactor to sweep the floor looking for us, a Shepherd who will go out into the wilderness to find us. We don’t realize the danger we are in when we are lost. Perhaps we adults have a false sense of security about being lost – given that we now have GPS, maps, cellphones, and all kinds of well-lit road signs to help us navigate. Maybe our lack of fear of being lost translates into spiritual overconfidence in ourselves, our technology, our willpower. Dear friends, the only thing standing between Satan and you, the only barrier between your body and the fires of hell, the only defense you have keeping you from certain destruction is our Lord Jesus Christ, the very one who will eat and drink with you over the objections of the self-righteous.

For Jesus still receives sinners and eats with them. In fact, he goes one step better. He not only eats with us, but provides his sacrificial body as bread for the life of the world. He provides the wine of his blood for the forgiveness of sins. He not only bears the scorn of the Pharisee and scribe for loving us, but also bears their stripes, their spear, and he bears a cross. He eats with you, he dies for you, and he rises to “exalt you in due time.” He protects you from the lion, and seeks you when you stray. He drowns your sins, and pulls you up out of the water as a found and redeemed person who now has the right to thank and praise him for eternity.

And dear brothers and sisters, we are in eternity. We celebrate the victory of the promised Seed of the woman whose heel crushes the lying head of the evil one. This is why we come to this place week after week, joining the angels in celebration, gathering with other formerly lost coins and sheep, congregating with the rest of the prodigal sons, joining Jesus at the table to eat and drink with him for the forgiveness of sins and to the mockery of the self-righteous. It is in this spirit of joy and gratitude that we can raise our voices to chant:

Sing praise to God the highest good,
The author of creation,
The God of love who understood
Our need for his salvation.
With healing balm our souls he fills
And every faithless murmur stills.
To God all praise and glory!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.