Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Lord's Prayer, Ablaze!(tm)

There is a new translation of the Bible out there called The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language.

Oh boy.

Anyway, the leadership of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod will be happy to learn that in this translation, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself uses the word "ablaze" in the Oratio Dominica, (albeit without italics, exclamation point, and the little letters "tm" to indicate that this is a registered trademark of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and all unauthoritzed reproduction and use of the Ablaze!(tm) logo without the express written consent of the LCMS, the NFL, and this station are...

(let's all say it together...)

"strictly prohibited." Ay-man!

Anyway, at the risk of breaking some copyright laws (and at the bigger risk of taking part in a degradation of the Lord's Prayer), here it is, for your perusal, from page 1775 of the 2003 edition


Our Father in Heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what's best -
as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You're in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You're ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.
(The Message)

I put "The Message" at the end, because at the beginning of the book, the following disclaimer appears:

"When quotations from THE MESSAGE text are used in nonsaleable media, such as church bulletins, orders of service [no, I'm not kidding, it says: "order of service"], posters, transparencies, or similar media, a complete copyright notice is not required, but "The Message" must appear at the end of each quotation."

Lex semper accusat, n'est-ce pas?

Is it any wonder that along with the Pharisees and Scribes, the other group that gave Jesus the most grief were the lawyers? But at least when he used the word "ablaze" in the Sermon on the Mount it was not yet property of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

"Thanks be to God."

Oops, I think that's in the LCMS's hymnals. Let me rephrase that in a way that (I think) I will be immune to charges of copyright violation: "Deo gratias." That's the secret. Almost everything in Latin is not protected by copyright.

So, what is the best way to say "Ablaze!(tm)" in Latin, anyway?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sermon: Festival of the Reformation (Transferred)

29 October 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 8:31-36 (Romans 3:21-28) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

“We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone.”

This is one of those statements that would have made a lesser man than our blessed Lord just look at the speaker in a stupor, with mouth agape, unable to find words to use in reply.

For we all know the story. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been in bondage for 400 years in Egypt. Even non-religious Jews know this part of their history, as Moses is the central figure in the Old Testament, as he is the Christ-like liberator of his enslaved countrymen. The word “slavery” is right in the prologue to the Ten Commandments, and even after being set free from Egypt, the entire history of Israel focuses on the nation being held captive by some empire or other: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and at the time of Jesus, the Romans.

“We have never been in bondage…”

That statement shows just how far gone in bondage they had become. So unable to see beyond their own shackles, they have deluded themselves into believing the Orwellian sentiment that “slavery is freedom.” Indeed, it calls to mind the cruel ironic (and demonic) sign over the Auschwitz death camp that said: “Work makes freedom.”

For Jesus is not only talking about bondage to sin that refers to our constant falling into sinful attitudes and behaviors. Jesus is referring to something much more pathological and diabolical, a manifestation of sin that not only makes us break the Ten Commandments, but even short-circuits our ability to think rationally, to perceive what is real.

For sin causes blindness to simple reality (which is why Jesus so often cured the blind). Sin robs us of the ability to think clearly (which is why the demonically possessed act as though mad). Sin deludes us into thinking we can create our own reality just by thinking and speaking what we wish it to be (when, in fact, only God can create by the mere power of the Word). We call this superstition “postmodernism” today, but indeed, it’s as old as sinful man himself. Perhaps it should be renamed as “pre-primitivism.”

This explains how gifted scientists of our day can actually believe the superstition that things suddenly appeared apart from a Creator, and purely by accident, order and harmony in the universe just sprang into being out of nothing. It’s pure madness and delusion. No-one could look at a complex skyscraper and conclude it just got there by accident, and yet these most learned people think that things infinitely more complex – even the simplest of life-forms – did just that. Sin blinds intelligent people from plain, self-evident reality, and turns them into fools who cling to cleverly devised myths and outright falsehoods over and against the obvious.

Similarly, there is simply no other explanation for this remarkable claim: “we have never been in bondage to anyone.” It is demon-speak. These words are pathetic examples of a troubled soul in denial, of a man on his deathbed who claims he is getting stronger by the minute (even as death wraps him up like a boa constrictor). This is an example of what our Lord calls “the blind leading the blind.”

And this, dear brothers and sisters, is the worst form of bondage of all. This is the kind of slavery that only be overcome by a Liberator with a capital “L”.

For when Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage, he himself was led by the Word of God, the Word which became flesh and tabernacled among us, the Word of God that took the form of a Rock, and when struck, produced streams of living and saving water.

Every prophet from Moses down to John the Baptist spoke as called and ordained servants of the Word. They all acted as liberators, with a small “L”, speaking on behalf of, and empowered by, the Liberator who is God incarnate, the One who has the authority to free all flesh from the bondage to sin and the chains of death.

The apostles acted as liberators, just as has every faithful minister of Christ, just as every doctor of the church, just as every unworthy preacher who ascends the steps of the pulpit in fear, fighting back against what his own flesh and the devil are telling him.

It is against this backdrop of stating the obvious in the face of diabolical delusion that the reformers of the movement that would come to be mocked by the name “Lutheranism” spoke to those held in bondage of their own day.

When Martin Luther, after his own intense struggles against the devil and his own feelings of unworthiness and fear of God, began to study the Scriptures, he heard the voice of Jesus telling him: “The Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Father Martin, the doctor of sacred scripture, the preacher, the theologian, did nothing but state the obvious, the simple words of St. Paul in the Book of Romans that were written nearly two millennia ago, and read here just a few minutes ago. The “righteousness of God” is “apart from the law.” We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… by faith.” God has “passed over the sins that were previously committed” – just as the freed Israelite slaves were passed over by the angel of death. God is the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

And if all of this is true, dear Christians, what do we have to brag about? That we’re Lutherans? We did nothing to deserve the grace, the free gift of the Gospel. It has been handed to us on a silver platter – not one bearing the head of the Baptist, but one bearing the Body and Blood of the Lord Himself! “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”

The simple teaching of these comfortable words, words inspired by God himself, is the Good News. Not just any good news, but Good News, with a capital “G” and a capital “N”. This Good News is the Gospel, and it is the very lifeblood of the Christian, for it is the very Blood of our Lord Jesus shed for us, for the forgiveness of sins.

And the Christian Church has always repeated St. Paul’s proclamation. Preachers of the Church Catholic have always preached this Gospel, even unto death. For Jesus bridges the gap between God and man, by being God and Man; and he brings life out of death by rising to life from death; and by defeating the devil on our behalf, we too are more than conquerors. This Good News is the very essence of the catholic faith itself.

For listen to these words preached a thousand years before Luther by St. John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople:

“All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. But those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King’s loving-kindness because they are striving to gain salvation by their own efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law because by the works of the Law no flesh will find justification.”

And let us drink from the well of the preaching of Pope St. Clement, the fourth Bishop of Rome, who died around the year 100 AD:

“We also, being called through God’s will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves, neither through our own wisdom or understanding, or piety, or works which we have done in holiness or heart, but through faith.”

And hear the sanctified proclamation of St. Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna who was martyred for the sake of the Gospel in his old age:

“I know that through grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God, through Jesus Christ.”

And listen to the grace-filled preaching on Holy Baptism by the fourth century Bishop of Jerusalem, St. Cyril:

“Bearing your sins, you go down into the water; but the calling down of grace seals your soul and does not permit that you afterwards be swallowed up by the fearsome dragon. You go down dead in your sins, and you come up made alive in righteousness.”

And a preacher from the same period, St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, proclaims the Gospel to us anew in these stirring evangelical words:

“For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption.”

And so it was inconceivable to Dr. Luther that saying the same thing that the Church has been saying since day one, the same Gospel preached a thousand years before, would be considered heresy by the Church leaders of his own day. He and his fellow reformers and scholars from the University of Wittenberg stand in the long train of preachers of the Gospel from the time of our Lord, of St. Paul and the apostles, of the apostolic fathers, and of the earliest popes, doctors, councils, and canons of the Church. They are all simply stating the obvious as found in the Bible. For any Christian to deny the Gospel preached by Luther is as remarkable and hard to fathom as the descendants of the Exodus looking Jesus right in the eye and denying that they have ever been slaves.

And just as sin blinded these Jews (these believing Jews), from their own history, so also sin blinded the medieval Church (these believing Christians), from their own history, and from the Gospel that the Church is charged to preach.

For lest we get on our high horses about the reception Luther got from his own church leaders in the sixteenth century, let’s not forget the reception he continues to get from our own leaders in the twenty-first century who are equally scandalized by this Gospel. And before we judge them too harshly, let us remember our own sinful flesh that rebels against the Gospel, the flesh that drives us to sin, and constantly lusts for credit for our deeds over and against the free gift of grace.

We are all guilty, and all of us children of Abraham have been slaves to sin. And thanks be to God that we have a Savior, a bearer of Good News, a Liberator. May the Church continue in this proclamation, and may the Lord continue to raise faithful evangelical ministers, preachers of the Gospel, whether they serve as popes or patriarchs, bishops or priests, pastors or professors. And when our sinfulness gets the best of us to where we forget this Gospel, whether now or a thousand years from now, let us continually pray that the Lord will raise courageous reformers, who will not only remind us of our bondage, but who will also call to mind our freedom from that bondage – which is only by the grace and mercy of God through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sermon: Feast of St. Luke

18 October 2006
at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 10:1-9 (2 Tim 4:5-18)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today is the feast day of St. Luke. Most of us know him only as the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Some know that he was a medical doctor, and perhaps very few know that according to tradition, Luke was also the very first iconographer of our Lord. In other words, St. Luke drew the first portrait of our Lord that has become a model for artists right down to our own day. It’s also probably not widely known among Christians that St. Luke was martyred for preaching the Christian faith at the age of 84.

According to today’s Gospel text, written by the hand of Luke himself, the Lord commissioned 70 preachers to proclaim the Gospel in advance of the Lord’s coming. It is believed universally in the Church that Luke was one of these preachers.

And even though St. Luke was a highly educated man, a doctor, an artist, a researcher who could hold his own against any other ancient historian from the Greco-Roman world, and a magnificent writer, whose poetic pictures with words spellbind us to this day as his prose is read aloud, especially at Christmastime, note the humility with which he preaches.

He is sent as a lamb among wolves, carrying neither wallet nor shoes, walking along the road speaking to no-one, a man seemingly of no great importance treading along the filthy road like a beggar. He has no entourage, no celebrity status, no perks of being a member of the intelligentsia or of the medical profession. He is proclaiming the coming of one far greater than the greatest of the world’s wealthy and powerful men.

Some people greet these preachers in peace, in which case the Lord, speaking through the preacher, blesses that home with his peace. He is to heal the sick, and to make an announcement to those who welcome him, and those who welcome him not: “The kingdom of God has come near you.”

To those who receive the peace from the preacher, this announcement is good news, but to those who will be judged by the Word of God, the preacher’s words are ominous and frightful.

This is the ministry to which this doctor - this healer of the body, this historian, this artist, this writer of the Gospel narrative – has been called.

It is the same ministry to which St. Timothy is called by the same Apostle who takes Luke under his wing: St. Paul. Paul commissions Timothy to “Do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Part of Timothy’s work is to preach on the holy Gospel that St. Luke has written, to proclaim this good news to those who gladly hear and learn it, as well as to those who mock and scoff.

This is the same commission given to every preacher from the time of the apostles.

And just as Paul’s life is “being poured out as a drink offering,” so too would St. Luke be beaten to death in the future by a mob of those who would reject the good news. And yet, Luke’s simple, but eloquent and thorough proclamation of the Gospel continues to this day, as his words are read from lecterns and pulpits in every Christian church in the world, in every language, and on every continent. Luke’s words (which are really God’s Word) ring out, and have rung out, every day around the globe for nearly two thousand years without interruption – though tyrants and dictators have tried to snuff them out. Our father in Christ St. Luke continues to join with us even here at Salem as we gather around our blessed Lord in his Gospel and in his Supper with all the angels, archangels, and every saint in heaven.

St. Luke began his work as a medical doctor with the calling of easing pain, of stopping issues of blood, of grasping life itself from the jaws of death – but even in that noble vocation, death always eventually claims the patient. However, the Lord Jesus transforms Luke into a new kind of doctor, who eases the pain of guilty consciences, who gives out the life-giving blood of the Lord, who rescues from death and the grave to give life that never ends. He is called to do the work of the Great Physician himself.

In the course of this work, the sainted doctor would find himself, like our Lord, being tortured with agonizing pain, with his own lifeblood being spilled as a drink offering, and the seeping out of his life in this fallen world as he was made a martyr for the faith. But in this dying, he is given life. And once more the iconographer of our Lord becomes an image of Christ in his own suffering and death.

Dear friends, St. Luke continues to preach and proclaim today. Even though the devil has temporarily silenced his tongue, his hand and pen still cry out: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Even though Satan has, for the time being, stopped the hands of the artist, his life and proclamation of Christ continue to be an icon of Jesus and his saving work. Though Luke’s blood was spilled, it was blood mingled by the blood of Jesus in holy communion, blood that has watered the earth only to nourish and cause new seeds of faith to sprout, blood which courses through the body of Christ, the Church, bringing eternal life to every little cell and member in that body to this very day.

And as much affection we have for our dear sainted father Luke, our brother in the faith, the doctor of souls, the painter of icons, the writer of the very Word of God – he is but a humble instrument. He stands today before the throne of God, with shoes removed (for that is holy ground), with no wallet (for he shares in eternal riches), eating and drinking of the glories set before him. But there is one important difference: St. Luke is no longer in the company of sinners in need of repentance. His work there is done, in the church triumphant. But here, in the church militant, this intellectual giant who was to become a humble preacher, continues to ease suffering, to offer the blood of the Lamb to patients in need of a spiritual transfusion, to spread life around to any and all who receive the prescription.

There is a good reason why the Church has always celebrated October 18 as the feast of St. Luke. He is not only an inspiration and holy example to every preacher, but also to every Christian. For Luke’s entire life was a humble offering to the Lord. One need not be a preacher to be a witness. In fact, the vast majority of Christian martyrs, whose witness of Jesus cost them their very lives, have been men and women who serve the church and give testimony of our Lord as members of the laity.

St. Luke has not only left us portraits of Jesus and poetic accounts of the narrative of his life, St. Luke was and is a tool through which our blessed Lord has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem the universe.

And that redemption is yours, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. It is all yours. Every inspired word in St. Luke’s Gospel is there for your healing, for your life, and for your salvation.

And as another preacher, St. Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome, preached on this very day some fourteen centuries ago, “Pray indeed the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. And pray for us that we may be able to serve you as you deserve, that our tongue may never grow tired of exhorting you, lest having undertaken this office of preaching, our silence condemn us in the sight of our just judge.”

With St. Luke and St. Gregory and every Christian preacher of every time, I proclaim this truth to you, dear saints of Salem: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Amen.

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

LCMS apartheid?

I received a copy of the newspaper of one of the districts of the LCMS. It contained coverage of the Black Ministry Convocation in Selma, AL. The front page story summed up a series of six unanimously adopted resolutions by this body, one of which was:

"Encourage the Synod's Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology - an 'alternate route' for training immigrants for pastoral ministry - to accept African American students."

I'm dubious of any "alternate routes" to the ministry as it is, but I do understand the possible need for some special program for immigrants. It's hard enough to read Pieper's Dogmatics and follow intricate theological lectures in one's mother tongue, I can only imagine what it must be like for students who are barely literate in English. Obviously, immigrants have lingusitic challenges, and thus it does make sense that some immigrants may need another way to study for the holy ministry than to sit through classes in English at Fort Wayne or St. Louis. Fair enough.

But even in conceding this point, in my time at the seminary, we had immigrants and international students who did manage to study in English: students from Africa, former Soviet republics, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, Japan, Germany, Latin America, and Haiti took their places in classes with American students - and for the most part, held their own, if not excelled and put many of the native Anglophones to shame with their diligence and acumen. I think the seminary was a better place for having the international students.

For the sake of argument, I'll concede the need for an immigrant institute for theological studies.

But this resolution is asking to send people who are fluent in English, people who are not immigrants, people whose ancestors have likely been in this country for more generations than the average white Lutheran - to receive a special dispensation from traditional seminary training.

Look at the message this sends. It either promotes the stereotype that black students are not academically up to snuff, or the condescending attitude that black congregations can get by with pastors who have not been as rigorously trained.

Furthermore, if large numbers of black students were to adopt this alternative and not attend our seminaries, that means our seminaries would be whiter institutions. While I would imagine this is an unintended consequence of the Black Ministry Convocation, it would only serve to drive a wedge between black and white clergy in the long run, a sort-of pastoral apartheid, for it would rob black and white seminarians from contact with one another and deny the bonding that comes with going through seminary together.

I'm just not seeing the plus side to this, and to be honest, I think it reflects a very low self-image of the delegates at this meeting. It also shows a great lack of faith in the faculties of our seminaries, implying that they are not capable of teaching and training black men for the holy office.

I had the privilege to get to know many of the professors at CTSFW. I can honestly say I never witnessed, or even heard of, any animosity to anyone based on ethnic factors. Such a thing would have been simply inconceivable. In fact, several of the professors there have extensive experience in teaching at seminaries around the world, instructing Lutheran seminarians of every race, language, and culture. I see no reason why St. Louis would be any less facile in teaching men of different cultures or ethnic backgrounds than Fort Wayne.

What good could possibly come by removing black men from the brotherhood of students who endure the crucible of seminary training together, being forged into pastors by study and worship together?

I believe this convocation should have greater faith in their own men, and in the Lord to train these men whom He has called to follow Him. I also think the time has come to disband this, and other ethnic based separatist institutions in our synod. If we're not going to have separate drinking fountains and restrooms, why have special conventions and convocations based on race? And why should those separatist institutions be memorializing our synod for further racial splintering?

I believe it's time we come to grips with Gal 3:28, and end this synodical segregation.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 18

15 October 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 22:34-46 (Deut 10:12-21, 1 Cor 1:1-9) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is another one of those that looks at first blush like the evangelist is sticking two unrelated themes together, and the fathers of the church decided to give preachers throughout history a choice of two completely different things to preach about on this 18th Sunday of Trinity: either 1) love as the great commandment, or 2) a confession of who Jesus is.

But the reality is this: St. Matthew, writing by the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the holy fathers of the Church, who lived and breathed the Scriptures in their lives and preaching, understand that these two themes are really one.

The Gospel text opens with Jesus having just silenced the Sadducees (who were the theological liberals of that day). And so, their opponents, the Pharisees (the theological conservatives of that day), decide to take their shot at Jesus. They pick a lawyer from among themselves to pose a question. Now there are two kinds of “questioning.” There’s asking a question, and then there’s “questioning” in the sense of a lawyer who is also a Pharisee. That latter kind of questioning is not really asking anything at all, but rather using a question as a kind of trap or trick, a way to try to outsmart one’s opponent. We see this again and again in the Gospels, as Jesus’ opponents beat their heads against the wall trying to outsmart God.

Nevertheless, Jesus answers the Pharisee’s question: “What is the greatest commandment?” He quotes Scripture and ties the law to love. If you love, you will keep the law. If you love God, you will keep the first table of the law, and if you love your fellow man, you will keep the second. Love knows no loopholes. You can’t get a clever lawyer to find a technicality in matters of love. This is not the answer the Pharisee was looking for.

And then, rather than wait for the Pharisees to regroup and try another trick, Jesus starts asking the questions. In this sense, the Pharisees are like a lot of today’s politicians. They don’t like being asked direct questions. Jesus traps the trappers by appealing to their knowledge of Scripture (something the Pharisees take great pride in). “Whose Son is the Christ? Who does Scripture say the Messiah is descended from?” “From David,” they answer. And then Jesus delivers the same kind of silencing blow that shut the mouths of the Sadducees: “Then how does David call his unborn descendant ‘Lord’ (which is a sort-of Hebrew code word that means ‘God’)?

And like the Sadducees, the Pharisees find their mouths shut once again by Jesus’ questions. For if they were to honestly answer his question, they would have to admit that Scripture is promising that God would become man. They don’t want to go there, for they’d have to admit some things about Jesus that they’d rather not. So they say nothing more. Jesus has won this battle.

But this is about more than simply winning an argument, Jesus makes a three-way link between obedience to the commandments, love, and a confession of who Jesus is. These three are intertwined and inseparable, like the Triune God himself.

For the Pharisees believed they kept the law because of technicalities, because of pompous shows of self-esteem, because they believed the law was all about rules, bylaws, and constitutions – which can often be repealed, amended, and interpreted to say about anything. But the real test of keeping the law is inside ourselves. It’s about love. Jesus elsewhere points out that the greatest example of love is to die for someone else, to sacrifice the self for the sake of the beloved. If one is willing to do such a thing in an extreme circumstance, this is what it means to keep the law. And this is precisely what God does for us. It’s also where we are so deficient.

For as Jesus’ beloved apostle St. John proclaims, “God is love.” God takes on flesh, humiliates himself, and dies for his beloved. Just as St. Paul calls upon faithful husbands to love their wives to the point of being willing to die for them, the Bridegroom himself dies for his beloved bride, the Church. But the unconditional love of this Bridegroom extends even further than his own wife, for as John the Baptist proclaims with us in the liturgy today: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the cosmos (which we translate ‘world’).” As our Old Testament lesson points out: he “loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”

Jesus is no Pharisee looking for loopholes to keep the law. Jesus keeps the law as the physical embodiment of love. And in love, he not only keeps the law for himself, but for the sake of his beloved. In confessing Jesus as Christ, in recognizing him as the Lord prophesied in Scripture, in looking upon this Man with the eyes of faith, we see the Lamb who not only dies, but who lives. We surround his throne with shouts of victory. For he has not only silenced his enemies and made them his footstool, he has silenced the Enemy, our old Satanic foe, the serpent, the dragon whose rebellion against God’s created order has dragged us into his loveless lair of lies and death. For Satan himself has become the footstool of the Lord, whose heel comes crashing down upon his head. And just as Satan has become Jesus’ footstool, he has become ours as well. One of the petitions of the ancient litany of the Church is: “To beat down Satan under our feet.” Jesus did this for us at the cross, and enables us to do this as we live under the cross.

This conquest was not by the sword, not with armies, not by virtue of firepower, but rather by love. This love fulfills the law, this love pays the cosmic penalty for our sins, and this love gives eternal life to those who confess Jesus as Christ, as Lord, as God, and as the one who takes away the sin of the cosmos and gives eternal life to those who believe and are baptized into his name.

So why doesn’t the cosmos accept this love, why are there Sadducees and Pharisees who seek to silence Jesus, who twist the law into a loveless rulebook, who reject the love of God enfleshed standing before them? Why is the world filled with unbelievers? Why are there those in our own families who reject the free gift of the salutary love of God?

This is a great mystery. But in the case of the Sadducees and Pharisees, it wasn’t because they didn’t know who Jesus is. They knew, all right. This is why they refused to ask more questions. Like every good lawyer knows, don’t ever ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. And if you do know the answer, don’t ask it unless you like the answer. They know who Jesus is, but their own sense of pride stands in the way of confessing him, of surrendering to the will of God. To admit who Jesus is means admitting why he is here. It is to admit our sinfulness, and to confess our unworthiness. And such submission to one greater than ourselves means a fundamental change in our priorities. Most people want nothing to do with living a life of love and sacrifice. Our sinful flesh prefers a life of self-love, of material possessions, of having no bonds of love to God and others that can be seen as shackles. I believe most people reject Jesus because they simply want to sin without having to come to grips with what sin really is.

For in confessing Christ, we are confessing our own weakness. If we rely on the love of God as embodied in the cosmic work of Jesus to keep the law on our behalf, we are then allowing ourselves to be a submissive bride to our loving husband who lays down his life for us. That’s not something our culture sees as desirable. Furthermore, we can’t take credit, we don’t get the praise of the world, we don’t get to puff ourselves up with pride in what we have done. In fact, the Christian life is all about admitting this weakness, submitting to the one who has the power to beat Satan under his feet, the one whose love is (unlike our own) perfect. The Christian life is about fearing the Lord, and serving him – which is manifested in loving others and serving them. It’s about loving the stranger even as the Lord loved us as strangers. It’s about a circumcision that cuts to the heart, not merely a ritual for the sake of appearances.

For the non-believer is simply being stubborn. Rather than accept reality for what it is, he’d rather bury his head in the sand and play “make believe.” He will pretend that he can keep the law, that the law is about rules and bylaws and constitutions (instead of being about love). He is uncircumcised of heart and stiff of neck. He believes the Lord can be bribed by a few loveless acts that may technically conform to the law. Rather than submit and serve, he demands submission and service. Rather than praise before men what God has done for him, he seeks the praise of men for what he has done for God.

Dear brothers and sisters, God is love. He takes away the sins of his beloved. He has crushed Satan under his blood-stained feet. He has poured out his life-blood for his bride. He has kept the law for you, and continues to sustain you in faith by pouring his Gospel upon you and feeding you with his very body and blood. He continues to love us beyond all measure.

Being a Christian is to confess. We confess our own sins (our wretched inability to obey the law and our shameful lack of love toward God and others). And we also confess Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God, the Lamb who takes away our sins. In this confession, we are “enriched in everything by him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ… that you may be blameless.” Amen.

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

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Non-Lutheran on Vocation

Sometimes we Lutherans like to think we're the only Christians who have a good understanding of the doctrine of vocation. It's just not true. Check out the following counter-cultural article by a non-Lutheran Christian.

A related piece which takes the approach of culture, sociology, and philosophy (which is really "natural law" rather than biblical theology, strictly speaking - but in this case, gets to the same place by virtue of the order of creation).

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Luther and the Pope on the Latin Mass

Sometimes the headlines get it exactly wrong. The title of the following article:

Pope set to bring back Latin Mass that divided the Church

is exactly the opposite of the reality.

The use of Latin in church services didn't divide the Western Church at all - in fact, it was a source of unity among Western Christians for many centuries prior to the Reformation, as well as a continued flag to rally round for Roman Catholics until the divisive 1960s. One could wander into a Catholic church anywhere in the world - Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Australia, or Africa, and follow the service even if one wasn't fluent in the local vernacular. There was a standard set of rubrics followed by all - without local displays of culture and individual flourishes. It was easy to fit in and to take part. The Latin Mass served to undo the curse of Babel and confessed a bond that held Christians together that transcended language, race, class, and culture. There is something to be said for this kind of universal standardization.

There is also the continuity from antiquity to consider. If something has been done a certain way for 1,500 years, it testifies to the timelessness of the practice and confesses a comforting sense of stability - unlike our modern culture in which one pop-idol is replaced by the next one in a matter of days, in which our state-of-the-art electronics become doorstops in a couple years.

So, the press gets it wrong to claim the Latin Mass "divided" the church.

Far from it. The division happened when Latin was abandoned by the Roman hierarchy in the 1960s. Of course, it wasn't merely abandoned, it was proscribed, outlawed, shunned like a leper, banned as though it were a sinister method of artificial birth control or the Arian heresy. That sudden and heavy-handed revocation of something dear to Christians was what in fact "divided the church" and led to Archbishop Lefebvre to form a schismatic organization of Catholics outside the jurisdiction of the pope.

But today, Pope Benedict is reportedly trying to heal the rift and the hurt caused by the ecclesiastical bullying of the 1960s, by allowing local congregations discretion to freely use either the newer Mass in the vernacular language or to celebrate the old Tridentine Mass. There is a refreshing liberty of the Gospel and pastoral sensitivity being displayed by this Bishop of Rome who is so often maligned as a kind of archlegalist fascist with hatred in his eyes and blood dripping from his mouth. (How often are we reminded of his membership in Hitler Youth and the fact that he was a WW2 era German soldier by the anti-Christian media, when we're not told the whole story that he was compelled in both cases, and that furthermore, he actually deserted the Nazi army?).

Pope Benedict's actions are a form of reconciliation between those who felt their church turned their backs on them for doing nothing other than what the church has always done, for standing up to the whims of the Godless culture of modernity. The pope is not commanding those accustomed to the New Mass to adopt Latin. Rather he is allowing a diversity of practice in the interest of pastoral care. He is striving to right a wrong by restoring that which was lost.

Interestingly, the first truly public confessional document for Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, points out that the Lutherans (then reform-minded Roman Catholics) had introduced some elements of the Mass in the vernacular language (which was, of course, German) in addition to the Latin that was being used in the Mass at the time. Four years before this time, Martin Luther translated a German version of the Mass that replaced many of the Latin chants with more indiginous German hymns that better fit linguistically with the German language. Some people assume that the Lutherans instantly stopped using Latin and insisted that the chuch services all be in the vernacular language - but this simply wasn't the case. In fact, Latin Masses were said and sung in Lutheran churches as late as the 18th century.

In the American Edition of Luther's Works, volume 53 (Liturgy and Hymns), page 53 (the introduction to "The German Mass and Order of Service"), we find the story of Luther's famous 1526 translation of the Mass into the vernacular German. He actually dragged his feet quite a bit, and mainly offered this Deutsche Messe out of fear of the many German Masses appearing on the scene, and the lack of standardization ("confusion") they would create. In fact, Luther "objected to the legalism of those who meant to abolish the Latin mass completely and acted as though the reformation of the church depended on the exclusive use of the German language" (AE 53:53).

Look how similar this "abolish Latin" legalism by some reformers of Luther's day was repeated by Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church four centuries later! The spirit of the post-conciliar liturgical reform was not to offer the opportunity to worship in the vernacular, rather it took the form of a legalistic prohibition to ban Latin. Both Luther and Pope Benedict take a more evangelical approach - let the Mass be said in the vernacular, but don't ban the traditional liturgy in Latin.

It was never Luther's intention that his German Mass would replace the Latin Mass. He says: "For in no wise would I want to discontinue the service in the Latin language, because the young are my chief concern. And if I could bring it to pass, and Greek and Hebrew were as familiar to us as as the Latin... we would hold mass, sing, and read on successive Sundays in all four languages, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I do not at all agree with those who cling to one language and despise all others." He goes on to point out the necessity of linguistic training for evangelism (AE 53:63).

Though educators and theologians tried their best to render Latin a dead language in the 1960s, the fact is, that it lives on. In Roman Catholic circles, traditionalists have succeeded in bringing back Latin, both in elements of the New (novus ordo) Mass, as well as the restoration of the Tridentine Mass in many places. The current pope seems to be facilitating Latin along both of these lines. Latin lives on in the titles of the ordinaries of the Mass in Lutheran hymnals, such as the newly published Lutheran Service Book (LSB). In this 21st century English language missal, we find many ancient Latin liturgical terms such as: Benedicamus, Benedictus, Gloria in Excelsis, Gloria Patri, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, Pax Domini, Sanctus, Te Deum, and Venite. Even schools today are bring Latin roaring back into the classroom.

While Lutherans have no recent history of the celebration of the Latin Mass (they have not been celebrated in our churches since the 18th century), we do see a revival of Latin in the form of the interest in classical education in Lutheran schools. As Latif Gaba points out in a recent blog entry, Latin prayer services are offered in Lutheran schools that teach Latin (as an aside, you might also want to see this related offering from Latif as well). As a pastor and teacher at a Lutheran school that is not (at least for the time being) operating under the classical model, I lead all of my students in grades 6 through 8 in prayers in Latin to open class. My students pray the table prayer (Benedic Domine), the Lord's Prayer (Pater noster), and the Apostles Creed (Credo in Deum). I'm looking forward to teaching them a few Latin hymns as Christmas approaches.

The removal of Latin from school curricula in the late 20th century was a huge mistake. It severs young people culturally from what came before (leaving a vaccuum to be filled only by rap music and flash-in-the-pan celebrities), further setting them adrift from their own western history, and robbing them of the copious lingustic benefits of studying the root of all modern Romance languages and the source of more than half of the vocabulary in the English language (not to mention the benefits of logical thinking and grammatical precision that comes with the discipline of Latin study).

Like many other social experiments of the 1960s, this one was a failure. The pope knows it, just as another German priest knew that it would be - nearly five centuries ago. Much to the dismay of the social revolutionaries of forty years ago, not all "progress" is good. Some changes simply have to be rolled back for the good of society and for the individual.

I agree with Benedict and Luther that Latin is good not only for society and the individual, but also for the Church, and that stifling Latin is nothing more than legalism that at its foundation is antithetical to the Gospel.

Besides, as Ovid wrote two thousand years ago: "Rident stolidi verba Latina" ("Fools laugh at the Latin language"). Say what you want about Martin Luther and Benedict XVI, neither man is a fool.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

This is the day...

that the Lord hath made...

What a great and glorious day, thanks be to God!

I woke up and had a wonderful breakfast of eggs and cheese, and a mug of Gevalia coffee (cinnamon). Sublime beyond description!

Today, being Sunday, off to our beloved parish, Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, we went. I had the unmerited pleasure of singing not one, but two Masses, of hearing, not once, but twice, an excellent proclamation of the Gospel by my colleague the Reverend Father Keith Brda. In between the two Divine Services, I taught a class on the Augsburg Confession (Article 22 on receiving Holy Communion in both kinds). [Yes, this is an actual parish, I'm not making this up, and I'm not dreaming - I know, because I pinched myself].

Following the second service, we adjourned to the parish hall for a jambalaya dinner put on by our youth group to raise funds for next year's Higher Things Youth Gathering to be held in Asheville, North Carolina. If you have never had homemade jambalaya in New Orleans, put it on the list of things to do before you die. But if you should die before checking this one off, don't worry. It will be waiting for you in heaven.

After the repast, I was graced with the privilege to teach our youth confirmation class on the 5th commandment out of the Small Catechism.

It was a beautiful day today, in the eighties with a bright blue sky overhead. After leaving church, we headed across the Mississippi River to Angelo Brocato's Italian Ice Cream & Italian Desserts (see the following article), the century old ice cream parlor on Carrollton Avenue that reopened last week for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. Carrollton Avenue is a main drag in New Orleans, lined by ancient palm trees that look like giant inverted pineapples. The dark green streetcars still whoosh by the front of Brocato's, which stands out joyfully with its bright green and white awning, painted letters on the glass front, and a line of patrons out the door.

After a brief wait, we stepped through the threshold, and departed the year 2006. A century-old photo of the founder, Anthony Brocato, stares benevolently down over his domain. The shop was recently restored to its grandeur, and you would never know it was flooded with five feet of toxic sludge and destroyed beyond recognition in August 2005.

But we have been transported back well beyond the apocalyptic 2005. It might be the 1930s. It might be the 1950s. The ceiling fans spin with joy and the glorious old-world espresso machine roars with delight, bellowing out steam, and celebrating life. The pastries are arrayed proudly like soldiers on parade, and the gelato, the old-fashioned rich Italian ice cream, glistens decadently as it beckons the customers hypnotically, imploring them to partake of its cold, creamy confectionary.

We relaxed to coffee and cappuccino, and feasted on the gelato, - which is simply impossible to describe. It is very close to sacrimental. Had gelato been around in Germany at the time of the Reformation, it may have even made the cut. It's creamier than American ice cream, and of course, is freshly made, lacking the industrial aftertaste or freezer flavor that sometimes drags down the ice cream experience. Grace ordered baci (Italian kiss) - which is chocolate and hazelnut. I opted for praline flavor, a New Orleans staple (which in N'awlins, is pronounced "PRAW-leen," dawlin'). The gelato is so creamy, rich, and filling that even ordering small sizes, there was no room at all for the to-die-for cannolis. Here are some pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/larrybeane/sets/72157594318629847/

You cannot imagine so many happy people in one place. Customers of all ages chatted and scooped, sipped and laughed. No-one seemed to find it odd that a man in a cassock was walking around with a little boy (who looks just like him) calling him "Daddy" flanked by the pretty woman with the crucifix that the the little boy calls "Mommy" (New Orleans is a very Roman Catholic city). Folks just greeted me with a "How ya doin', Fawtha" and rolled with it (unlike some other places where a few people do the old "double take"). I think it has something to do with the gelato and cannolis. Maybe they're laced with prozac. Whatever it is, this is a happy place!

We left the shop and were transported back to the twenty-first century (well, sort-of, being among the anachronistic streetcars). We decided to take the long way home, and drove down Beauregard, named, of course, for Louisiana's native son, one of the first generals in the Confederate army. A majestic equestrian statue of the hometown hero continues to make sure the Yankees mind their manners. We turned from P.G.T. Beauregard onto Robert E. Lee, named, of course, for one of the last generals in the Confederate Army.

By the way, General Lee's monument is not on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, but rather in Lee Circle, in what is today known as the Central Business District. He faces North, likewise doing his best to fend off an invasion from that direction. Of course, under the circumstances, we might want to face the good general toward the Gulf of Mexico to try and keep other invaders away from our city. General Lee did serve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers long before they began cutting corners on their work and putting citizens at risk. I think we could put a man of Lee's integrity to work in New Orleans!

Anyway, we meandered our way home, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery - with the exception of our drive through City Park and the Lakeview neighborhood. City Park has sadly returned to a near fallow state. As we crossed into Lakeview, we saw an even sadder state of affairs. Time has stopped in that place as well - but not in a nice way. The sign in front of the abandoned BP station still reads $2.19 - the price of gas on August 29 of last year. Aside from no longer being under 8 feet of water, parts of it still looks like it did back then. As we drove on, signs of life returned. Though some areas continue to look like a ghost town, there are quite a few houses that have been completely rebuilt, as intrepid residents beautify their property. Lakeview still has a long way to go.

But life came roaring back in spades as we crossed into Jefferson Parish, and made our way back home in Kenner. An exhausted Mrs. Hollywood collapsed into bed, as Lionboy brought me one book after another to read. He is a really bright little lad. I look forward to him helping me with my Latin very soon.

Well, Mrs. Hollywood has awoken, and perhaps now I will partake of the sacred Sunday afternoon nap - which is also very close to being a sacrament, especially for the clergy.

What a great day!

...let us rejoice and be glad in it." Psalm 118:24

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ellen Goodman and the Devil

A columnist for the Boston Globe named Ellen Goodman wrote a wickedly satirical syndicated column in which she points out that much of our public discourse has become a lot of name-calling, especially invoking Satan.

Obviously, if you want to demonize your opponent, why mess around with a novice like Wormwood, or even a balding middle management hellion like Screwtape - when you can just go right to the top (or the bottom, as it were) and just call your opponent Beelzebub?

I think she does have a point. We're very quick to toss about the term "evil" and the name of "Satan" in a casual way, almost in a way as to make him seem symbolic, or as a literary figure, along the lines of the argument of the author Miss Goodman quotes in her piece, Elaine Pagels. Dr. Pagels is an extreme left-wing theologian that hardly anyone could conclude represents the mainstream of biblical scholarship. Pagels believes Satan is imaginary, a social construction whose purpose is for us to drag down our enemies.

Miss Goodman is unabashedly leftist in her politics, and makes no bones about her lack of endorsement of orthodox Christianity. Her article is very funny and tongue in cheek (she even quips that Pope Benedict XV "channeled" the Byzantine emperor, whose quote got him into trouble with some Muslims).

But of course, her humor is a "channel" of its own, a conduit to make a serious political and philosophical point. She argues that there really is no good and evil, that the world is really much more nuanced than orthodox Christians who believe in absolutes (not to mention the real person of Satan) believe. In fact, she concludes with the finger-wagging Bostonian school-marm judgmentalism that: "When we resort to nonnegotiable language, we've entered the world of absolutes. And when we fall into the clash of cultures at home and civilizations abroad, all hell breaks loose." Nanny-no-no meets prophet of postmodernism!

Problem is: I suspect she too is just as "absolutist" and "nonnegotiable" as the pope, as Jerry Falwell, and as Hitler when it comes to issues she feels are important. In other words, when orthodox Christians pronounce that homosexuality and abortion are sinful, that these things are "wrong" and "immoral" - she would scold us for being "dogmatic" and "absolute." But let's turn the tables...

What about those who want to outlaw abortion, are they "evil"? What about gay-bashers? What about racists? What about Nazis? What about wife-beaters? The proponents of apartheid? The advocates of segregation? Those who defend capitalism at the expense of the poor? Those who destroy the environment? Those who abuse animals? Those who shoot up schools? Those who commit genocide? Rapists? Arsonists?

I would find it hard to believe that a person even of Miss Goodman's sophistication and nuanced view of the world would really oppose calling such people and things "evil." Surely, she would not try to argue that Pol Pot is not evil, but rather just "misunderstood" nor would she defend the fascists based on their skill at running trains. I would think there are times when even Miss Goodman would become "nonnegotiable" and use the word "evil" - even if she thinks "evil" is nothing more than a "social construction."

Of course, her theology and anthropology about evil are entirely and absolutely wrong. There really is evil. All we need to do is open our eyes and look around. The evil that plagues this planet can't be fixed with counselling, with trendy programs, with prozac, with social programs and engineering, with education, with left- (or right-) wing politics, or even with destroying Christianity and others who believe in absolute truth. Mankind is disordered and warped, and every last person-jack (note my inclusiveness and sensitivity!) suffers from the fatal disease.

There is a solution - but it involves the eradication of the very evil that she denies exists, and it has been accomplished by the only Man to walk the earth who was not infected and infested with evil. Contrary to the author's family name, man is not "good." He has been corrupted, and the name we give this corruption is "evil."

Miss Goodman has identified the problem to an extent by pointing out man's folly, but she is in denial when it comes to what the root of the folly is, and how it has been fixed, is being fixed, and will be fixed, now and unto eternity.

Satan must be very pleased with her colomn, indeed. He likes nothing more than to read that he doesn't exist. I would imagine the Boston Globe is in the diabolical favorites on the browser (which, if Bill Gates really is the antichrist, must be Explorer).


The reinsurance industry has just calculated Hurricane Katrina to be an 800-year storm (think about that, 800 years ago it was the 1206 AD, 11 years before Magna Carta!). Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that New Orleans has recovered as well as she has. We have learned to savor (sometimes literally) small victories: a new roof here, a reopened business there.

The re-opening of the Superdome was of huge symbolic value to the City of New Orleans - and the fact that the Saints won big at the premier event on a Monday Night game that was as festive as the Super Bowl was like getting the Baby Jesus in the king cake, or a coconut from the Zulu float (let the New Orleanian reader understand).

If you want to get a flavor (pun intended) for just how local people rally around their neighborhoods, traditions, and communities in New Orleans, have a look at this very fun article about the re-opening of Brocato's ice cream parlor, a New Orleans icon for over a hundred years. Everybody loves a comeback story, and this one even has to do with ice cream!

While I'm not a native New Orleanian, it's hard not to be converted, to appreciate the utter cultural uniqueness of the people here, and the sense of "home" that has been lost in many areas of the country. Surviving Katrina (by the grace and mercy of God) and working through all the hassles of rebuilding has made us a tougher and more resilient people than before.

Grace and I are looking forward to a visit to Brocato's. I'll post pictures.

This is one more small but joyful step toward our recovery, our renaissance! One more example of the esprit and the joie de vivre of the habitants de la Lousiane.

Laissez les bons temps rouler encore!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Congregational Health and Vitality

Several of us in our congregation (and I would presume, our district) received the following survey (shown in its entirety below in maroon) from our District office. It asks for the "3-5 Best Indicators of Congregational Health and Vitality."

If this is to be a true dialogue within our district and church body, I think this could be a very helpful exercise. I do believe there are indicators of a parish's vitality (from the Latin "vita" meaning "life"). The life (vitality) of a congregation flows from the living Lord Jesus and the gifts of life He distributes freely by the Gospel. I fear that many of our well-intentioned, but misguided, congregations have lost sight of this fact as they pursue every manner of secular solution to what may not even be a problem in the first place.

We have become so enamored of the nostrum "bigger is better" that members of our church hierarchy sometimes sound like marketing consultants instead of churchmen. In reality, the Church is not called to "increase market share" or "improve the bottom line," but rather to be faithful, to preach the Word in and out of season [2 Tim 4:2], to make disciples by having pastors teach and baptize [Matt 28:19-20], and by the faithful receiving those gifts in faith [Rom 3:25]. The Spirit blows where He wills [John 3:8], and our vocation is to cast the seeds upon all kinds of earth, not merely demographically and financially attractive ground in the manner of secular marketing experts [Matt 13:1-9]. While not as sexy as Ablaze!(tm), the old-fashioned paradigm is rooted in God's Word and has preserved and grown the Church through periods of intense persecution, through doctrinal controversies and widespread heresies, through reformation, through modernism and postmodernism, and will serve God's people unto eternity.

God calls us to a radically counter-cultural and counter-intuitive method for growing the Church. I think many in our synod have lost sight of this.

Anyway, here is my answer...

1) A weekly celebration of the Mass in accordance with Scripture, the Lutheran confessions, and the historical practice of the Church.

Many of our churches continue in the pietistic delusion that Holy Communion is unimportant (and must be "made important" by infrequent celebration). Some argue that the Sacrament of the Altar exists in competition with the Word, and that the weekly celebration of the Mass is "too catholic." Thus, our people have been deprived of the fullness of the wonderful blessings of the Holy Supper for generations. Satan is certainly pleased every time the Holy Eucharist is shunned in the weekly services of our churches. Such a wedge between our Lord and His Bride is unhealthy.

Our own confessions' definition of Lutheranism includes, and assumes, the weekly celebration of the Mass, and denounces bitterly the false rumor that we have abandoned the Mass [AC 24:1, Ap 24:1].

Along these lines, the distribution of the Holy Sacrament to those outside of our fellowship is an indication of a diseased congregation [AC 24:6]. In our desire to be "friendly," we have become doctrinally sloppy and irreverent in the way in which we treat the Body and Blood of our Lord, as though we were handing out mere symbolic elements rather than the true Body and Blood of Christ [SC 6:2].

Along these lines is the issue of how the elements themselves are treated. Is the Blood distributed respectfully in a chalice, or doled out out Tijuana-slopshoot style in plastic jiggers only to be tossed into the garbage? Is the pastor working toward a restoration of proper eucharistic piety and practice with regard to Holy Communion (if this, in fact, needed in the congregation) through patient, pastoral catechesis, or is he content to coast with the unhealthy status quo?

2) The exclusive use of traditional liturgy and hymnody.

Our Lord Himself worshiped according to the liturgy of Word and Sacrament in His earthly ministry [Luke 4:16-22; Matt 26:26-28], and continues to do so today (as we confess in the liturgy) among "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" [Rev 7:9-12]. The early Christians received this tradition by establishing liturgical worship focused on Word and Sacrament, a lively dialogue between bishop and people. Our Lutheran tradition includes a strong presence of rigorous, doctrinally sound, evangelical hymnody that is respectful, introspective, dignified, rooted in the cross, and Christocentric - as opposed to the general American Protestant "praise song" that is banal, redundant, doctrinally indifferent, and quite often rooted in a Gnostic and/or Arminian understanding of Christianity.

Our confessions presume the use of traditional worship [AC 15:1; 24:2] condemn innovation [AC:Articles in Dispute:4], and emphasize the notions of reverence, piety, received tradition, decorum, and dignity [AC:Articles Corrected:6; SD 10:7,9]. Healthy congregations will observe the traditions and cermonies of the Church that have been retained: the sign of the cross, full eucharistic vestments, reverence at the altar in manner and gesture, respectfulness by parishioners in dress, gesture, and conduct in the sanctuary, etc. [AC15:1; 24:2]. Pastors should work toward elevating the dignity of services, while unhealthy congregations seek to replace the biblical liturgy with words of men, to replace dignity and sanctity with familiarity and casuality, to abolish ancient chorale and chant in favor of ever-changing pop music, and will turn to non-Lutheran sources for entertaining musical styles over and against sound doctrine and proclamation of the Gospel.

Unhealthy congregations will make use of instrumentation not condusive to leading congregational singing (e.g. drums and guitars), will turn from congregational liturgical music in favor of "performances" (such as having musical ensembles "perform" from the front), and will often shun hymn books in favor of TV-like big screens.

Other unhealthy worship practices include: dancing girls, skits, and pastors who stroll around during the sermon. All of these innovations are antithetical to the Lutheran confessions and are indicative of a congregation desperate for numbers - which indicates congregational malaise.

This is why the LCMS (at least theoretically) requires member congregations to use doctrinally pure hymnbooks, service books, and agendas. In our synod and district, we have a most unhealthy diversity of doctrine and practice.

3) Private pastoral care centered in confession and absolution.

Too many of our pastors adopt the unhealthy persona of cheerleader or CEO instead of shepherd [Jer 3:15; 1 Pet 5:2] and steward of the mysteries [1 Cor 4:1]. Pastors of healthy congregations will visit the sick and shut ins, bringing not only well-wishes, but also bearing the Word of God and the holy sacraments - including the Sacrament of Holy Absolution [John 20:22-23; SC 5]. Healthy congregations will have pastors available to hear confessions, may even have regular posted times, and parishioners will avail themselves of this tradition that is rigorously defended in the Lutheran confessions [AC 11].

Unhealthy congregations will shun private confession, and unhealthy pastors will only absolve parishioners in the general confession on Sundays - if that is even done at all. Unhealthy congregations will have laymen such as elders, lay deacons, lay "ministers", Stephen "ministers", or deaconesses performing the function of the ordained pastorate in giving private pastoral care to parishioners.

Healthy congregations have a respect for the office of the holy ministry as confessed in the Book of Concord [AC 5; 14]. Unhealthy congregations lord over their pastor, or the pastor lords over the congregation. Unhealthy congregations treat the pastor as a hireling [John 10:12-13], and may pay him an unworthy salary [1 Tim 5:18].

4) Evangelical preaching rooted in biblical texts.

Having men ordained into the preaching office [AC 5; 14] who proclaim the Gospel is a hallmark of a healthy congregation. Lay preachers are a sign of a sick congregation. Healthy preaching is rooted in the lectionary text (as opposed to "free-form" preaching that allows the preacher to skirt the discipline of being a servant of the texts, but rather their master). Healthy preaching is not cute, trite, or designed to entertain. Healthy preaching absolves sins [John 20:21; Luke 10:16] and proclaims Christ crucified [1 Cor 1:23]. A traditional pulpit makes a statement about the sacramental nature of the sermon [Ap 7/8:28]. A wandering, joke-cracking pastor with a wireless mike is a sad symptom of ecclesiastical decay.

Childrens' sermons (often done by women and typically executed sitting in the chancel with back to the altar) are indicative of desperation, of a confession that says the traditional homiletics of the past two millennia do not work. Such innovations that are contrary to the Lutheran confessions indicate poor congregational health and vitality.

5) A rejection of secular models and techniques for "success."

It seems simple, but most things that are true are simple. The only reason to leave the traditional churchly model of church and ministry is a perceived sense of failure. If one doubts the efficacy of traditional Word and Sacrament ministry, one is going to look elsewhere for "success" - as well as looking elsewhere for benchmarks of "success." It is a problem of faith, of belief, that the Lord works in the way He promises.

I believe a healthy congregation simply supports the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments - not getting caught up in numbers, programs, gimmicks, marketing schemes, mission statements, and slick campaigns that typify 21st century corporate America, but are actually radical innovations when it comes to the one holy catholic and apostolic church of antiquity and eternity.

By contrast, an unhealthy congregation looks away from the Holy Spirit and the means through which God works to forgive sinners [AC 5]. A sick congregation is a bean-counting congregation. Pastors and other church leaders who can quote chapter and verse of constitutions, bylaws, mission statements, and synodical programs are not as healthy as those pastors and laymen who dedicate their mental resources to praying the Psalms, committing Scripture and catechism to memory, studying the Lutheran confessions and the history of the Church catholic.

In short, an unhealthy congregation looks to itself and to the gimmicks of the secular world to carry out its ministry, whereas a healthy congregation fixes its eyes on Jesus [Heb 12:2] and simply delivers the Word of God, that is Jesus, to sinners - whether they are receptive or not, regardless of numbers, regardless of money, regardless of the praise and approval of men [Acts 5:29].

Greetings to you in the name of Jesus, our Savior and Lord!

Much emphasis today in the LCMS is being focused on the revitalization of current congregations. It is a goal that a minimum of 1/3 of congregations be revitalized in the next decade. Efforts to assist with revitalization of congregations is a top priority for Parish Services. While some congregations live in denial about their health and vitality, what do you believe are the 3-5 best indicators of church health/vitality and what needs to be addressed?

I would appreciate your response and thank you for your time. Your responses can be brief but try to be as specific as possible. Your responses will help us in Parish Services as we seek to be responsive to partnering with congregations toward the goal of health and revitalization.

Your Response:

Name 3-5 Best Indicators of Congregational Health and Vitality:

What Needs to be addressed to help congregations grow in health and vitality?

Blessings and thanks for your response!

In His Service,

Gene Menzel

Executive Assistant for Parish Services
Southern District - LCMS

An Amazing Sermon

Click here for a sermon that will stun and amaze you. It is an audio file, so turn up the sound and give it a little time to load.

This sermon was preached by Rev. Don Little of Atonement Lutheran Church in Metairie, LA. This is a prominent, high-profile LCMS congregation in the New Orleans area. Pastor Little, as a member of the CCM, is one of the most powerful theologians in The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. After listening to this sermon, you'll know why.

You will be stunned...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sermon: Trinity 16

1 October 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 7:11-17 (1 Kings 17:17-24, Eph 3:13-21) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Of the many miracles of Jesus recorded in Scripture, the ones that are the most remarkable, the ones that create the most impact, are those few occasions when our Lord restores life to the dead.

The reason is obvious: death is always looming over us. It eventually claims all of us. It may cut us down suddenly in the prime of life, or it may come after many decades of agony and suffering. It may be a result of our own behavior, or it may come out of nowhere with no logical reason.

And when it happens, there is a finality about it. We leave behind grieving families, friends, and loved ones who have the burden of placing our lifeless corpses into boxes and watch as they are entombed in the earth or in a vault probably never to be opened again until the end of time itself. It can’t be reversed with a scientific breakthrough. It can’t be cured with a shot. It doesn’t just go away like a common cold.

The unbelieving world deals with death in contradictory ways. Those who believe only in the childish superstition that there is nothing beyond what they can see and measure treat death as the bitter end. There is nothing beyond the grave but eternal nothingness. No resurrection, no hope, no future. This is why St. Paul tells us that the heathens grieve very differently than do Christians.

But the world also adopts a very brave front when it comes to death, a sort of “stiff upper lip” that shrugs off the ugliness of death, trying to recast it as normal, natural, and even beautiful, a solution to perceived problems. How many times have we heard: “Death is just a part of life.” But consider how silly this is! It’s like saying: “Darkness is part of light” or “Good is part of evil.” Life and death are opposites. Death isn’t a stage, rather it is the cessation of life. It is not dignified, beautiful, or natural. It is hideous, ugly, and horrific. It is unnatural, and is the result of our rebellion against God and his order.

Against this backdrop, our Old Testament reading shows the power of God when he works through his Word, proclaimed by a prophet, and received in faith. The widow receives the Prophet Elijah, and using his very own body, Elijah is the instrument of the impossible. The corpse of the widow’s son revives. This is indisputable evidence that Elijah is a prophet, that the Lord of life and death himself works and speaks through this chosen instrument.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus happens upon a funeral procession. The dead man is the only son of a widow. Our Lord has compassion for her, and using his very own body, he is likewise the instrument of the impossible. By his divine power and his human touch, he uses his word, the Word of God, to command the corpse to revive. To the witnesses, this is indisputable evidence that Jesus is a Prophet. It is no accident that Luke records their words: “A great prophet has risen up among us.” This word “risen up” is the very same word that describes our Lord’s resurrection. When they say: “God has visited his people,” they are confessing that God is near them, in their midst, in an even greater way than when Elijah raised a widow’s son centuries before.

For Elijah was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Elijah looked forward to the Prophet who was himself God, the very Author of life himself, the One whose Word creates reality, the one whose prayers are themselves the powerful Word of God. Jesus is the fulfillment of Elijah.

Jesus is also the fulfillment of the very miracle he performs. The widow’s son, whose raising up causes the people to point to Jesus as one who has also “risen up” also points forward to a greater reality, the resurrection of all resurrections, the raising up of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus rose also as “the only Son of his mother; and she was [also] a widow” according to tradition.

Our Lord’s compassion for a suffering mother and for those who have died is not in the abstract. For he too would die, and would die a humiliating and public death. His mother too would suffer, as St. Luke records Simeon’s prophecy only five chapters before today’s reading: “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” And yet, the grieving widowed mother would see her only son alive again. Death does not have the final say.

Dear brothers and sisters, unlike the heathen, we know why death happens. We know the reason for the chaos and destruction, for heartache and disappointment, for disease and death. We choose death when we choose sin, when we choose false gods, when we choose to place ourselves over and above the God who gives us life, sustains us, restores us, loves us, and redeems us from our sins. Death is not just a part of life. It is the most unnatural thing in the world. It is not peaceful or comforting. It is not the solution to inconvenient pregnancies or unwanted elderly people in nursing homes. Death is the enemy. Death is the wages of sin. Death is the venue of Satan.

But death does not have the final say!

The last line in the Creed is “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

The very same flesh and blood Man, the very same Prophet, the very same God who raises this poor widow’s only son also promises to raise all of us. For when Jesus himself died, he conquered death. When Jesus himself rose again, he has made good on his promise to raise us as well. For indeed, “the wages of sin is death,” but as the rest of St. Paul’s verse continues, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s all about the free gift. Just as Elijah gave the gift of life to the widow and to her son, and just as Jesus gives the gift of life to another widow and to her son, so too does our resurrected Lord give us the gift of life, eternal life, never-ending life, a life free from disease, a life unsullied by sin and untouched by unhappiness.

And this new life is what is natural. It is as God has intended it to be. It is a free gift, and it is ours, dear brothers and sisters.

It comes to us in the same way as it comes to the two resurrected sons of widows in our texts today. It comes through God’s Word proclaimed by an instrument of the impossible. It comes to us through the very own body of the One who raises us, through the same body borne by Mary, the same body that was laid in the tomb, the same body that rose again, and the same body given to us in Holy Communion. It comes to us through the same blood that coursed through the veins of him who raised the widow’s son, the same blood shed on the cross, and the same blood that is to be poured into your mouth at this rail in a few minutes.

For you were baptized into Christ Jesus. And as Paul asks: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

And so, our Lord says anew to us today: “I say to you, arise!”

“Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

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