Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Heroic Christian Pastor in Iran Faces Execution

More Christians face persecution around the world than in the days of the Roman Empire.

Worldwide news reports (such as this article in International Business Times that was linked to the Drudge Report) are carrying the latest about the Rev. Youcef Nadarkhani - a Christian pastor in Iran.  He and his wife were both arrested for the faith.  His wife managed to secure an overturning of her life sentence.  Youcef's initial verdict was also overturned, but he was re-tried and given a death sentence that is reportedly expected to be carried out by Friday.  There is an entry on him in Wikipedia as well.

He could be the first Christian martyr in Iran in twenty years.  There is a large outcry from all over the world, even as Christian prayers for this hero of the faith rise to the heavens like incense.

You can read more about this heroic Christian pastor and his faithful wife here in this prisoner alert from Voice of the Martyrs.

Please keep our dear brother in Christ, his family, his parishioners, and all of our persecuted brethren around the world in your prayers!  Let us pray that his captors repent and find their true life in Christ, show mercy to our brother, and please God by stopping the persecutions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

New SLMS Newsletter!

Click here for all the Siberian Lutheran goodness in Volume 10.2, September 2011.  FH has an article on page 3.

Praise the Lord with Stringed Instruments (Psalm 150:4)

The Hollywood family recently had the honor of hosting our pastor, the Rev. Dr. Fred "Fritz" Baue, whom we have known and loved for some 15 years.  He is the one who first suggested that I consider attending seminary.

Dr. Baue is not only a faithful Lutheran pastor (recently retired), he is a profound theologian who authored "A Lutheran Manifesto," has published several books (including his latest on biblical creationism), edited for Concordia Publishing House, been on Issues, etc. just last year, lectured in 2007 as part of the faculty (under the one and only Rev. Dr. John Warwick Montgomery) of the International Academy of Apologetics and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, holds a Ph.D. in English literature, is a storyteller/bard/bon-vivant/raconteur, is a smoker of pipes and cigars and a drinker of "Lutheran beverages" - as well as being a devoted husband and father.

He's also a musician.

That is an understatement!  He is a composer of church hymnody, classical guitar pieces, and modern American jazz/folk/blues or whatever you might call it.  He is a singer and performer on guitar, violin, penny-whistle, and harmonica, and has cut some CDs - two of which are available on Amazon.  He took up the violin/fiddle only recently and now enters contests.  He has been known to jam with LCMS president Rev. Matthew Harrison.  And Dr. Baue has been nagging me for a long, long time to pick up my violin and play it again.  I have been resisting.

During his sojourn with us (in which he performed for a Wednesday night Bible class and accompanied our organist during the Divine Service), he found my two instruments, uncased them, examined them, tuned up the strings, and started plucking and bowing them.  He pointed out the work that needed to be done on them.

One of them is my old 3/4 size Roth violin made in Cleveland, Ohio, that my dad bought for me (on installments) back in 1974, when I was ten.  I took lessons for three years (grades 4 to 6) in school and I excelled at it.  I enjoyed playing.  I did not continue to study after sixth grade due to the expense of private instruction.  I played in our Junior High orchestra through 8th grade.  At my high school, we had no orchestra, so I learned saxophone and played the tenor and bari sax until 11th grade.  Other than a rare occasion, my fiddle remained entombed like a mummy in its case since since about 1978.  Besides, it had become too small to accommodate my fingers.

In the 1990s, I did buy an adult-sized violin from a friend in Philadelphia who dabbled in fiddle music.  I played a little - but did not find a teacher, an orchestra, a band, or a quartet to play with.  Since that time, my musical interest has been limited to chanting in church and singing in the seminary choirs. I had the privilege to sing two years with the Concordia Theological Seminary Kantorei - a 16 man, 4-part touring choir that sang services in churches (rather than concerts).  The Kantorei has been around for more than 30 years now, and is still going strong - having recorded several CDs.

But now, thanks to Dr. Baue's visit, I decided to look up a violin repair shop.  An inquiry at our local music store led me to call Sal Giardina.  When I looked him up on the web, I was blown away.  There was a wonderful article about him from 2004 in the Times-Picayune about him and his shop.  Under the circumstances, I figured that 1) he would not give me the time of day not being a "real" musician, or 2) he would charge so much as to make my repair work prohibitive.

My full sized violin needed something done to account for the slippage in the e-string.  I thought maybe the peg needed re-seated or replaced - hopefully nothing more than that.  My child's violin needed more work.  There was a crack to be glued, some additional glue work needed on the fingerboard (which was coming apart from the neck), and a new bridge.  I called Sal and he was friendly and gregarious.  He told me to bring the violins to his shop the next day.  We piled into the van and drove through the sheets of rain and parked in the flooded parking spot in front of the shop in Old Metairie.  The window of the shop looks right out of the 18th century.  We went in.  A truck was delivering a stand-up bass.  It was so crowded inside that there was barely a place to stand.

Sal came in off the truck, shook our hands, introduced himself, and apologized for the "mess."  The shop is enthralling and inviting - while seemingly chaotic to those of us who do not work there.  We had an absolutely delightful, unhurried conversation.  I found out that he is a practicing Roman Catholic and a church musician.  His website includes the reference and citation of Psalm 150:4 ("Praise the Lord with stringed instruments").  He spoke with great reverence about the Italian pioneers of violin-making, such as the Amati family and Antonio Stradivari - especially their devotion to God and to the faith - as well as their innovation and blend of science and art to create perfect instruments.  Sal just beams when he speaks about violins and violin-making.  Here is rare thing in this day and age: a true craftsman who loves his work and finds unbridled joy in his calling.  He understands that it is a holy vocation - and he obviously sees his vocation to be just as much interaction with people as it is working with instruments.

I showed him the fiddles.  Like an expert medical doctor, he efficiently and yet thoroughly examined both instruments and knew just what needed to be done.  He gave me a quote of about $35 and said he would have them for me in a couple days (Saturday).  I was floored.

On Saturday, Sal had a lot of things come up, and he called very apologetically.  I told him it was no problem and offered to pick them up another day.  Sal insisted on finishing the job as he promised.  Leo and I drove to Sal's together as he was closing up the shop.  On the way over, Leo quipped that as hard as it must be to play the violin, it must be a lot harder to fix and make them.  He wanted to know if Sal used an instruction book.

We arrived to find Sal with my violins ready to go.  He surprised me by changing the price.  Free.  He would not take my money.  My pegs were actually okay - he just loosened and re-tightened them.  He threw in a cake of rosin, replaced a broken string, and was able to replace the bridge with one he had lying around.  I asked for one more favor - which Sal readily granted: we took a couple pictures.

He also recommended a violin teacher in Gretna for me.  I visited the studio, and I would like to give it a shot.  I've been playing the hymns in the hymnal to knock the rust and cobwebs off.  My fingers still have the muscle memory of when I was 12 years old.  Only problem is that my fingers are now 47 years old, bigger, and not as limber.  But I am getting there!  Mrs. H. (who is learning to play the piano along with Leo) and I were playing a bit together today.  It was good fun.

So, a double "thank you" is due to two extraordinary musicians and men: Dr. Fred Baue and Mr. Sal Giardina.  I am honored and humbled and privileged to know both of you!  Indeed, let us "praise the Lord with stringed instruments."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sermon: Trinity 14 – 2011

25 September 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 17:11-19 (Prov 4:10-23, Gal 5:16-24)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our fallen world, the word “flesh” means “rotting meat.” In the Scriptures, the word flesh is described by St. Paul when he recounts the “desires of the flesh” which are “against the Spirit.” The “works of the flesh are evident,” St. Paul preaches to us, and they are: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

In other words, our flesh is sinful. God did not create our flesh to be this way, but we have made it this way, dear friends, dear fellow sinners, dear brothers and sisters headed for the grave.

“For the wages of sin is death.” Rotting meat.

The disease called “leprosy” is mentioned quite often in both Old and New Testaments. Leprosy causes one’s flesh to die and rot while still attached to the body. It is a horrifying disease. It causes disfiguration and fear. It causes its victims to be put in colonies where they are considered “unclean.” It is a living death.

But the flesh was not always corrupted with sin, disease, and death. Our flesh was created perfect and clean by our perfect and clean Creator. It is only our sin that makes the flesh what it is to us.

The author of the Proverbs, likely the ancestor of Jesus, King Solomon, wrote: “Be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.”

Dear friends, God’s Word is the cure to the disease! The Word of God is the antidote to death that brings life! The Word Made Flesh is indeed “healing to [our] flesh!” “Be attentive” to the healing Word, dear brothers and sisters! “Incline your ear” to the Word, dear friends!

Jesus rolls back the curse that made our flesh rotting meat. Jesus defeats the father of lies who desires nothing more than the corruption of our flesh even unto death. Jesus confronts the sin-rotting flesh that sticks to us like leprous tissue, and He replaces it with living flesh that sticks to Jesus for all eternity! And He does this by means of His Word preached and His Word given in the Sacraments.

“For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.”

Our blessed Lord proved this in His encounter with the Ten Lepers. They knew they were leprous, that their flesh was as good as dead, that they were unclean, and that their dying flesh would one day kill them. And they pleaded with Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And we pray with them: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”

Our Lord Jesus cures them with His will and His Word. Jesus, God made flesh, restores their flesh to what God created it to be: cleansed, wholesome, a protector of life instead of a bringer of death. He commanded them to go and be declared clean by the priests. “And as they went, they were cleansed.” They saw in their flesh the result of Christ’s healing Word. The Ten were instantly and completely cured – by the Word of the Word Made Flesh.

Dear friends, this is a beautiful picture of God’s kingdom. We poor miserable sinners join the church of every time and place to plead: “Lord, have mercy!” And by means of His Word, spoken by His ministers, declared to His holy people: our leprous flesh is restored as Jesus removes our sins and the ugly results of them. He takes away our shame and reproach, makes us whole, and gives us life.

No more rotting meat!

Instead, by the Lord’s grace and mercy, by the Spirit’s regenerating power, in the place of dying leprous flesh we see in us a living work in progress, “the fruit of the Spirit” that is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” For as the apostle reminds us: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

By virtue of His crucified flesh, by His passion, and by His desire, He calls us to repent, puts to death our Old Flesh by drowning us in baptismal waters, from which we emerge cleansed and reborn, with fleshly bodies that will rise again on the last day, never more to suffer, never more to die.

This is why we Christians are a thankful people. We do not come to worship to prove to God how holy we are; we know better. We do not come to earn points toward our salvation; we cannot do anything of the sort. We do not come to congratulate ourselves; we know we are leprous and dying and in urgent need of the healing Word of God.

But rather, dear friends, we come like the Tenth Leper. We come in our fleshly mortality seeking God’s mercy and the healing Word of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we receive it! And like the Tenth Leper, it is our joy to “turn back” again and again to the house of the Lord, “praising God with a loud voice.” It is our privilege to run here week after week, to fall on our faces before Jesus “giving Him thanks.”

We thank Him for calling us out of death to life. We thank Him for His grace. We thank Him for the gift of faith. We thank Him for His Word and Sacraments. We thank Him for taking away our sinful flesh, our guilt, our reproach, our shame, and our mortality. We thank Him for the “fruit of the Spirit,” for justifying us, making us saints, giving us a new heart and a new life, for giving us life in eternity even as He has won it by His own death in time. We thank Him that we have a new flesh to look forward to: a flesh resurrected by the One to whom we cry out for mercy, the One who has mercy, who heals and restores, and who breathes new life into us. In fact, our whole lives are a thanksgiving – every hour of every day: for we are lepers no more, dear brothers and sisters! We are cleansed!

In gratitude and humility, we bow and kneel, we fold our hands, we remind ourselves of the sign of His cross, we lower our heads and close our eyes in prayer. We fall to our knees to take His flesh and His blood to restore our flesh and our blood.

We thank Him that He speaks life-giving Words to us as we bow and kneel before Him. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our Savior, the Word Made Flesh, has uttered no sweeter words to our flesh than these:

“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Amen.

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When Bureaucrats Attack - a few thoughts on ULC and the Real Mission of the Church

University Lutheran Chapel - soon to be a parking lot?

"Developing missional leaders in congregations and schools."
   - the mission statement of the Minnesota South District

The shocking and appalling behavior of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's Minnesota South District in selling the campus of a vibrant church in a naked land- and money-grab should serve as a reminder of what the Church's purpose is.  It should also reiterate what our priority is as the Body of Christ.  It should also serve as a warning to each and every congregation of the LCMS of the nature of bureaucracy and the dangers it holds to the Real Mission of the Church as a whole and of individual parishes.

The purpose of the Church, carried out in individual churches, is to deliver the forgiveness of sins won for the world by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through His chosen means: word and sacrament.

In so doing, we have communion with one another and communion with God.  And we Christians can then live out our lives as forgiven sinners by working together - preachers and hearers - to serve the mission of bringing this good news to our neighbors.  To be truly "missional" is to invite the world to join us in being "sacramental."  It is done by the Lord's chosen means, not by the world's entertainments.

In any such endeavor, there will always be a certain amount of necessary paperwork and bureaucracy.  Coordinating efforts in training pastors and supporting missionaries has created a need for a structure that binds together congregations - and all structures require management.  Traditionally, church management has been run by churchmen - ordained pastors who continue to serve at altars and pulpits in the ordained ministry while exercising what scripture calls "episkope" - oversight.

And as Lutherans, we have learned from our own original history as a distinct communion and confession what happens when a church body's leadership loses touch with the ministry of word and sacrament, and has its head turned by the lure of power and money.  Power corrupts, and in the Church, it takes the focus off the Gospel and puts that focus on preserving, or even enriching, the bureaucracy.

Left unchecked, such church bureaucracies become antichrist - existing not for the sake of the Gospel but for the sake of money and power itself - and in some cases, setting itself up over and against the Gospel.  This is why there is such a thing as Lutheran Christianity at all.

This shift in priority is a danger to Lutherans as much as to any communion within the church catholic.  Lutherans who hold power in church bodies are sinners as much as any medieval Roman pope.  This is why it is an act of mercy to oversee the overseers lest they lose touch with what the Church is supposed to be doing.

We need to constantly remember why the Church exists and what her purpose is.  The bureaucracy of the Church exists to serve the congregations - not vice versa.  We need to remind ourselves - and our district offices - of this reality.  And any church bureaucrat who dismisses such concerns need only be told three words: University. Lutheran. Chapel.

What is happening in Minnesota can happen anywhere.  Granted, the financial arrangement of University Lutheran Chapel is not typical of congregations in the LCMS.  However, in our polity, there are times when district presidents (and their staffs) exercise a great deal of power - over congregations, pastors, and lay church workers.

There is a tendency in the nature of bureaucracy - whether in the secular or ecclesiastical world - to seek to preserve the bureaucracy.  When this impulse is at odds with the larger overall mission of the Church (word and sacrament ministry), we see such abominations as the betrayal of University Lutheran Chapel.  At its best, church bureaucracy is at a bare minimum, existing with frugality, to actually help local congregations and their leadership (lay and clergy) to be about their Father's business.  But when the bureaucracy becomes "too big for its britches" and when individual bureaucrats are more concerned about their own jobs and preserving their own office buildings instead of parochial ministries and buildings, when they become the guardians of cubicles and parking spaces instead of the stewards of altars and pulpits - that is when we see bureaucrats acting like mobster land-sharks instead of servants of the servants of the Word.

What does this do to the faith of individuals?  We Lutherans teach that the church is a "sanctuary" - a sacred space made holy by the very Presence of Christ in our midst - especially at our altars where Christ is miraculously and physically present for us.  And bureaucrats in our own church body are proposing to bulldoze this holy space into something befitting the world: a parking lot, strip mall, or apartment complex, to desecrate a holy altar - for money.  And not to mention, so that their own jobs are preserved.  What kind of a faith is that?  In all of the bureaucratic ink: resolutions, task forces, meeting minutes, etc. is there any language ministering to people whose faith will no doubt be shaken by this?  What kind of a faith do we proclaim when the powerful and mighty in positions of leadership circle like vultures over the exposed bodies of the Body of Christ?

Left unchecked, such monstrous bureaucracies - acting like parasites - will suck the lifeblood out of the host and eventually destroy themselves.  They are like a cancer that will eventually kill the person and itself in its selfish recklessness.

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has recently voted to restructure itself.  Maybe this is a good first step.  Perhaps we need to remind our synodical and district officials why they have jobs - to support, not to destroy - the local congregations and pastors who together engage in the Real Mission of the Church: to deliver the forgiveness of sins won for the world by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through His chosen means: word and sacrament.

Maybe that should be the district's mission statement.

In any case, the Minnesota South District has made a mockery of its own mission statement - such as it is.  The real mission statement of any unchecked bureaucracy is to support, sustain, and expand the bureaucracy.  In that light, the Minnesota South District is doing a fabulous job.

In the larger context, what has become of the purpose of the synodical structures to support missionaries and seminaries when overseas missionaries must actually raise their own salaries and when seminaries must fund nearly every dollar themselves?  Did our forbears create a synodical apparatus simply for the sake of synodical bureaucracy?  I believe the actions of the Minnesota South District is a barometer of just how badly we have lost our way as a synod.

Please keep the Rev. David Kind, his faithful congregation, and their fruitful cross-centered outreach ministry in your prayers.  Maybe a miracle will happen.  Maybe someone will admit to the grave sin of putting greenbacks ahead of the Gospel, and maybe there will be an internal change of heart and an external change in policy.  Or maybe a lesser miracle will happen and the congregation will be able to pay the district's "protection money."  But lest the parasite destroy its host, let us pray to the real Host upon whose body all sinners feed, seeking protection against our sinful nature's shocking ability to cannibalize on itself.  Let us find a way to rein in the power of those who wield it recklessly, and let us pray that the ministry of word and sacrament may go out unhindered by our own church bureaucracies

Let us pray that the congregations may be secure in their work of proclaiming the Gospel and administering the sacraments - which is, after all, the Real Mission of the Church.

There's a word for this...

You can read more here.  Lord, have mercy!

Is this a waste of time?

I don't know much about the above congregations other than these facts: 1) They are Lutheran, 2) They are in Africa, 3) They speak French.

After one Sunday service in my own congregation (perhaps a year ago or more), I announced that the offerings placed into our mission box would be used to send funds to purchase hymnals for Africa.  A parishioner (who is no longer a member of our congregation) loudly fussed and fumed and declared to anyone who would listen that this was "a waste of time."

She never did clarify what she meant by that.

But to the above three facts, I can also add this: it is never a waste of time (or money) to support our brothers and sisters around the world.  Our Lord did charge us to make disciples of all nations, after all.  And while Christianity is on the decline in the United States and in the west in general - where entertainment is the new religion - the genuine faith is growing in Africa, where suffering and the cross are truly a mark of the church.  By way of example, there are more Lutherans in Madagascar than in North America.

These videos also shatter the myth that the traditional liturgy and hymns are not "missional."  Of course, the word "missional" is a hackneyed overused "hipster" word often employed by those who wish to drive a wedge between Lutheran doctrine and Lutheran practice - often among the professional bureaucratic and political class within North American Lutheranism.  Maybe a better way of thinking of traditional Lutheran worship as it relates to the mission field is that it reflects faith - faith in something bigger and more profound than the shallow American Idol of our own entertainment.  There is no "me-ology" in the ancient hymnody of the church and in the reverent worship that attends genuine belief in a transcendent God who nevertheless deigns to join us (and rescue us) incarnate in our fallen word.

These African saints get it.  I expect their grandchildren will be trying to evangelize our increasingly-dark continent the way the heroic Kenyan Archbishop Walter Obare brought the biblical faith back to Sweden where faithful Lutherans had been held hostage by a diabolical bureaucracy that can only be described as antichrist.

And notice the transcultural nature of traditional Lutheran hymnody and worship.  Even in a simple structure in which to worship, God is there in Word and Sacrament - and He is also adored by people who truly believe in the gifts given by the Lord.  They are obviously not looking for entertainment.

No, indeed, this is no waste of time!  Let us pray for our brethren and financially support them as we are able!  This should not only be our obligation and duty, but our privilege and our joy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 15 - July 11, 2011

Begin: Novosibirsk
Drive to: Yurga, Tomsk
Drive back to: Novosibirsk

Dan and I have breakfast of leftover sausages from yesterday’s picnic, as well as some cheese, bread, and tea.

I get packed for our trip to Tomsk. We leave in the bishop’s Jeep about 10:00 am, accompanied by Natasha. Vsevolod is a good driver – sufficiently aggressive for Siberian roads. The lines on the road are more of a suggestion than anything else. It’s great fun!

The bishop needs to gas up the car, but we are not having much luck. One station was out of gas. The roads are choppy and inconsistent. Some are better than others.

After a couple hours of driving, we stop for a break. The first order of business is the toilet. We park at a stop – the local version of the rest area. We park the car and have to cross the highway in a human version of Frogger. There are many cars parked, as well as a couple tour buses. The public toilet has a small crowded entrance. It costs 10 rubles to use the facilities – about 30 cents U.S. There is a subway-like turn-style that only accepts the old-style 10-ruble coin.

People bustle in – especially given the arrival of the tour bus outside. We hurriedly put our coins in the turn-style and pass through the tripod of metal arms that swivel around while people hurriedly exit through the same narrow space. It is a mass of confusion. Men go to the left and women to the right – not that it matters a great deal as the doors are wide open. Since the line to the women’s room is long, several women decide to come into the crowded men’s room. At least the stalls have doors that go all the way to the floor. Many of the men, however, stand with their backs to the open doors.

A tired-looking washerwoman mops the floor – or more accurately, slops dirty water around the floor in a futile attempt to clean.

I enter the stall. The toilets themselves are porcelain holes in the floor. There are a few small rolls of brown industrial toilet paper (so-called) strewn around the stall. I exit and wash my hands. I have trouble finding a hand-dryer that works, and so I dry my hands on the paper towels – which seem to be identical with the toilet paper.

There is a great contrast between the smartly-dressed high-heeled fashion-conscious women and these unfashionable and uninviting bathrooms. I can’t imagine the status quo won’t change as Russian women travel abroad. If nothing else, as McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants spread across Russia (which is probably inevitable), the expectations of public restrooms will likely be raised. Or maybe not! I’m speculating.

We leave the public toilet, emerge into the daylight, and we cross the busy highway to go to the little diner. It is run (like the public toilet) by Armenians. The diner offers traditional Russian fare. I enjoy a shashlik and a nice bowl of plov (плов) – an Asian dish of rice and meat.

I’m offered a blini (pancake) with meat. I only want one, but end up with two – with sour cream (сметана). I’m not a fan of sour cream, but the Russians put it on (and in) just about everything! Admittedly, it tastes different than its American cousin. I also take a small piece of obviously homemade bread, and an instant coffee. It is a wonderful meal. The bishop pays for all of us.

We sit at a round table down the hall – Dan, Natasha, the bishop, and I. In spite of the bustle of people coming and going, we do not feel rushed. We enjoy our lunch and lunchtime conversation.

Afterward, Dan and I go back to the counter on our own. Father Daniel buys an ice cream and I buy a Coke. I really need the caffeine as well as the bubbles for my stomach. The bishop also buys a Coke and scolds me teasingly for me for being “a bad American influence.” I smile and apologize. I get real Coke (not Diet) – as the real Coke has real sugar (unlike the American version sweetened with high fructose corn syrup). The Diet Coke in Russia does not taste good to me. I think it still has saccharine.

We get back on the road as the bishop drives us to Yurga.

The SELC has a parish there, though it is in transition and we won’t be visiting it. The congregation formerly met in a flat in an apartment building that was torn down by the government. They gave the church a different flat – a nicer one than the old one. The new flat is on a nice building, but is on the ninth floor. The church is meeting there temporarily until they can sell the flat and buy a different one on the first floor.

At one point, we have to wait for a herd of horses to cross the street. At least one of them is a very young colt.

Yurga is the site of a concentration camp where Russians of German ethnicity were deported under Stalin’s reign of terror. Most of these deportees were Lutherans. There is a plot of ground in Yurga that is a mass grave from the days of the concentration camp. The bishop explains how horrific the place was. Some people were even buried alive there – rather than receive treatment for illnesses. At the end of Stalin’s regime, the camp was closed – and most of the records were destroyed. People began to build dachas on the site. Many of the camp inmates continued to live there after they were freed. Their freedom, however, was limited by the fact that they could not get passports until the 1970s. In Soviet times, even internal travel required a passport.

After the fall of Communism, relatives of the victims petitioned the Yurga government for a small plot of ground to build a memorial. Today, this park is filled with crosses, stones engraved with names, and a large cross with a wind chime built into it that calls to mind the ringing of church bells. Many of the inscriptions are in German.

Bishop Vsevolod had consecrated the the plot at the invitation of the local government. There is also a small garden area with flowers in the shape of a cross.

The Lutheran Church as invited to build a chapel on the site – but they have no money to do so. How different from the situation with the Russian Orthodox Church, with new and elaborate – and even opulent – churches springing up like gilded mushrooms across the country – paid for by government money.

It is a long haul down the expressway to Tomsk. Some roads are, of course, better than others. It begins to rain heavily.

As he navigates the puddles with his windshield wipers doing yeoman’s work, the bishop puts on an eclectic mix of guitar music. One tune was a haunting anthem by Mark Knopfler (formerly of Dire Straits) with the poignant refrain “We will remember them.” It is called “Remembrance Day" (listen here).  After just visiting the memorial at Yurga, this was providentially appropriate.

I have the opportunity to interview the bishop about Lutheranism in Siberia. It seems that the last Lutheran priest in Siberia (until post-Soviet times) died in prison in the 1940s. He had been arrested and sent to a labor camp, but escaped and heroically returned to his parish to continue his pastoral work. He was re-arrested and shot.

The history of post-Soviet Lutheranism is complicated. In fact, many of the answers to my questions addressed to our Siberian brethren concerning their history and existence in the current culture begin with, “It’s complicated.”

One such complication involves two Russian Lutheran church bodies born of the same mother church. Both the Ingrian and Siberian churches were established as missionary endeavors of the Estonian (Lutheran) Church. The Ingrian Church (centered in St. Petersburg) does not “ordain” women, but sometimes allows female “priests” from the Church of Finland (with whom they share fellowship) to serve in their parishes. The LCMS is also in full communion with this church body.

It’s complicated.

The Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church is also a daughter jurisdiction of Estonia. Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin is the first bishop of the autonomous Siberian Church.  While the SELC is in communion with its mother church, it does not recognize the validity of "ordained" women (nor their "sacramental" acts) in any church body, nor will it participate in any churchly acts with "ordained" women.

After a long ride, we arrive in Tomsk. It is a big, old (by western standards), university city. The old Lutheran congregation, St. Mary’s, was torn down by Stalin as part of his purge. It was maliciously replaced by a circus – with the ferris wheel (which stands there to this day) being erected on the site of the church's altar. The Russian word for “ferris wheel” is “devil’s wheel.” You can read more about it here.

The pastor, Rev. Ivan Lokkenberg, was imprisoned and died after a few years. There is still a street in Tomsk called Lutheran Street. The pastor lived near the church, and was courageous throughout the persecution.

The bishop explains that before the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) about 10% of Russians were Lutheran. 60% were Orthodox. The number of Lutherans was significant.

About six years ago, under a post-Communist law, a Lutheran church was built to replace St. Mary’s building that had been destroyed. So, SELC restarted St. Mary’s in this beautiful rustic building that we have just entered. It is utterly remarkable! There is a pipe organ in the loft (Natasha gladly plays as we gladly listen). There is also a small antique pump organ on the main floor. The bishop took video of me playing a scale.

We meet the congregation’s two pastors: Father Daniel Burlikov and Father Alexander Hahn. They also rotate service in Yurga.  I meet Father Daniel first. He speaks very good English having served a vicarage in the United States. He is also Olga Netaeva’s brother. Father Alexander also speaks English, and is actually the only SELC clergyman who was raised in the Christian faith. Both men are kindly, soft-spoken, and devout in their faith. Father Daniel presents me with a beautiful gilded coffee mug illustrating the city of Tomsk. It has since become my vessel of choice for tea drinking (the one on the right). Father Alexander is gregarious and loves to talk. English not being his native tongue is no obstacle!

What a great privilege to count these honorable brothers in Christ as fellow servants of the Lord and brothers in arms in service of the His Bride the Church!

We all climb the narrow ladder to the bell tower for an excellent view and wonderful conversation with the two pastors.

Father Daniel explains to us the complex situation regarding St. Mary’s and SELC's relationship with ELKRAS - a more liberal Lutheran church body.  SELC owns the building, but they are supposed to allow the local ELKRAS congregation to also use the building.  ELKRAS is threatening to send a woman "pastor" to lead services.

After our tour of St. Mary's and a drive around town to see the interesting architecture - we go out for coffee and dinner.  Fr. Alexander says goodbye to us.  We visit a nice little a la carte style restaurant.  I get a cappuccino, potato pancake , and a piece of Vienna cake.

The rain has cleared up, and so we head downtown for a walk.  Tomsk is a gorgeous city - very European looking.  We walk to the Lenin statue and take funny pictures of the anachronistically triumphal dictator being dwarfed by the Orthodox Church that he tried so hard to extinguish.  We stroll around the downtown area.  We visit the Tomsk History Museum and walk up the observation tower to take pictures of the city.  We stroll along the Ob River, and visit the whimsical statue of Anton Chekov, the writer who "praised Tomsk’s food, criticized its women, and ultimately recommended that the city wasn’t worth visiting."

The city's square is beautiful and has statues representing periods in Tomsk history.  The Orthodox church prepares for Vespers as a clergyman stands in the belfry and rings the bells in a hypnotic melody.  We walk back to the bishop's car, say our goodbyes to Father Daniel, and pile in for the four hour return drive.

Again, I have the privilege to sit in the front passenger seat to converse with Bishop Vsevolod about church history, polity, the diaconate, and the history of Lutheranism in Russia.

The ride back never seems to end.  We do stop at the same туалет (toilet) and shashlik joint.  This time the Russians eat heartily - me, not so much.  I ate more than they did on the way up.

We drop off Natasha and head back to the seminary.  I believe it is about 1:00 am when we made it back.

Here is a link to all of my pictures of Day Fifteen (and Sixteen).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 14 - July 10, 2011

Visit: Novosibirsk, Berdsk

I woke up very early this morning - about 5:30.  It gets daylight here very early.  I have a bit of an upset stomach.  I have also scratched open a small patch of eczema on my ankle.  Not wanting to learn about treating infections in Russia on an American health insurance plan, I err on the side of caution and cover the small wound with Neosporin and bandage it up.  It heals amazingly fast.

I take advantage of the matinal peace and quiet to transfer a few journal notes, to pray and meditate, and to reflect on my parish and parishioners back home.  I head to the shower about 8:00 am.  Afterwards, I meet Dan for a little breakfast and tea, and do some IM (instant message) with Grace followed by a short video session.  Our separation is very hard, but would be much worse without the technology that we enjoy.  Of course, the 12-hour time difference is something that constantly has to be dealt with.

I am the preacher at Mass this morning, and so I head to the church to get ready.  I meet Deacon Alexey Shillin - who greets me in fluent English.  Father Pavel (Khramov) will be the celebrant, and Father Alexey will be my translator and will assist with distribution.  Deacon Alexey will serve as the deacon and will be censing the altar.

Pavel helps me to get vested.  I borrow an alb, a cincture, a stole, and a pectoral cross.  It's always awkward when I have to wear vestments that are not my own.  I feel a little like a kid struggling to tie a Windsor knot.  We say a prayer in the small vestry that is located in the sacristy that doubles as a chapel.  Father Pavel then quickly goes over the service with me - especially the rubrics.  The service begins a few minutes late.

I am seated in the chancel with the clergy.  There is a good turnout in the pews.  Natasha is playing the organ. I do my best to pray and sing in Russian.  The pattern of the liturgy is, of course, familiar - while I don't understand very many of the individual words.

Father Alexey and I head to the pulpit.  From my perspective, we seem to have a good rhythm - although it might be a different story from Alexey's point of view!  Alexey is looking over my shoulder as I preach from my manuscript.  My text is the Prodigal Son.  Father Alexey has come up with a good word to translate the word "prodigal" - a similarly quaint and rarely used Russian word that means the same thing.

I took Holy Communion and remained standing outside of the chancel off to the side as the Russian clergy reverently distributed the Lord's body and blood.

After the service, we take some pictures.  Father Daniel pointed out that I may have been the first American to preach here following the formal declaration of fellowship between the LCMS and the SELC.  Actually, from the Russian perspective, we have always been in fellowship.  In an ironic twist, it is actually the American church body whose bureaucracy held up full altar and pulpit fellowship for many years.  It was a happy day in December when the new LCMS president, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, declared our two church bodies to be in full communion.  Years of bureaucratic wrangling and foot-dragging were swept away in a moment.

After taking pictures, we retire back to the small altar in the sacristy where I help the priests and the deacon consume the reliquiae, that is, the remaining elements of the Holy Sacrament.  St. Andrew's has a tabernacle in the sacristy so that the reliquiae may be stored for later consumption by the sick in the parish.  However, the bishop believes that the parish's current tabernacle is not a fit receptacle and is hoping to get a nicer one at a later date.  In the meantime, the reliquiae are consumed by the clergy.

It was not that many years ago that such a thing would have been unthinkable - Americans and Russians partaking of Holy Communion together in a public Lutheran worship service in Siberia.  Daria Lytkin, the bishop's wife, was so kind as to drop by the sacristy to thank me for the small gift I presented to her through the bishop: a silk scarf decorated with the fleur-de-lis - the symbol of Louisiana and of New Orleans.  She was very gracious, and obviously understood the symbolism.

We make our way to the parish hall for tea.  I found Natasha before she left, and with the help of Father Alexey, presented her with a different design of the fleur-de-lis scarf.  I also presented a small gift to Olga Netaeva - a fleur-de-lis decorated business card case.  I expressed my gratitude once again for Olga's and Natasha's hospitality.  Gifts are an important part of Russian culture, and my gratitude is heartfelt.

Olga thanked me for the sermon.  I asked her if she liked it.  She said that she did.  I replied that this is because Father Alexey mistranslated it.  That got a laugh.  She assured me that he translated it well, and that she enjoyed hearing it twice.

After tea and a light lunch (soup, meat dish), I went up to the lecture hall to hear Father Daniel conclude his treatment of Psalm 23.  Since I was the preacher, I was not on the docket for the rest of the day.  After the lecture, I went back to my room (which is how I now refer to Father Pavel's office...) to rest.  But there is a crowd outside my window.  Deacon Alexey is grilling sausages over a charcoal flame.

The aroma is absolutely divine, and I follow my nose outside.  I enjoy outstanding conversation with Father Pavel and Kevin Walker.  Kevin is in Russia working on some translations from German to Russian.  He is a student here in Russia, and is thus on a student visa.  It complicates things when one is a foreigner.  There is a good crowd outside mingling, eating, and enjoying the picture-perfect weather.

After the meal, Dan, the two Olgas, and I decide to take a walk to the shopping center.  Akademgorodok is really becoming comfortable for me to stroll around in.  There is a brick walkway lined by large anthills.  I am on a mission to buy Grace a birthday present (her birthday is exactly a week away).  I would like to find her a traditional Russian scarf - a gift that is not only a souvenir, but something she will actually use and enjoy.  And since the nights are on the cool side, I'd like to get myself a sweatshirt - hopefully something unusual an Russian.  Dan is interested in buying a map.

Olga Suhinina loves to talk about lingusitics - every manner of grammatical and syntactical minutia.  She does most of the talking, and I enjoy a free lecture in language.  Fascinating stuff, and she has a lot of great insights - delivered with a dry and keen sense of humor.  Here is an article in the SLMS newsletter about Olga and her invaluable work at the seminary in Novosibirsk (see page one).

We drop into the Traveler's Coffee for cappuccinos and latte.  It is lively, and the nice weather has brought out a lot of people.  We are seated in an outdoor covered patio in a roomy and comfortable booth.  The young people all around us look like young people from everywhere - phones, ipods, laptops, etc.  They are dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and carrying backpacks.  Dan and I are told that this is a recent phenomenon here.  Dan asks if it is obvious by our looks and mannerisms that we are Americans, and the Olgas laugh.  And laugh.  And laugh.  I guess it's pretty obvious.

I buy my friends coffee using my Visa card.  We take pictures, exchange stories, and relax.

Post-caffeination, we head to the shopping center.  Olga Suhinina takes charge, directing me from one store to another in search of the object of my quest: a traditional Russian scarf.  I find a beautiful wool scarf, large and just the right shade of mauve.  It is a little on the expensive side, but well-made.  I bring the scarf to the counter and present my Visa - which is declined.  Dan offers that it is probably a safety mechanism since I had just used it at Traveler's.  So I pay in rubles.

The Olgas lead me all over the shopping center in search of my elusive sweater.  I almost buy a nice plain hooded sweatshirt, but it's kind of expensive, and I figure I could buy such a thing back home.  After visiting several stores, I call off the search.  The Olgas find that funny.

The Olgas are a lot of fun to hang out with.  They are quite different from one another in personality - but they get along well and genuinely seem to like each other.  Both are very kind.  At one point, the Olgas were chatting in Russian.  Russians sound (at least to me) to be so emphatic when they speak to one another - at times, almost like they are fighting.  After one such intense conversation, Olga Netaeva turns to me and says matter of factly: "We like you."  Maybe the jury was out until that point!  Somehow, I must have passed muster with the Olgas.

We walk past a street vendor who is selling fruit.  Olga Suhinina asks Dan and me if we have ever had one of the melons on display.  We had not.  It turns out that the fruit comes from Uzbekistan and is known by the name "collective farmer."  Olga insists on buying us one.  She pays and places the large melon in her backpack.  She refuses my offer to carry it for her.  It is about the size of a cantaloupe.  Olga loves to walk, and by this time, we have been strolling for several miles.  Rather than head home (which is close by), Olga wishes to continue walking with us to the seminary, and then walk back again to return home.  Olga Netaeva has to work in the morning, and so she decides not to walk with us back to the sem.

Meanwhile, Dan has just received a text message from Natasha inviting us to a pyrotechnic show in Berdsk this evening at 9:30 pm.  Berdsk is Natasha's hometown just outside Novosibirsk - where she was skating.

Before heading back, Dan would like a beer.  So he and Olga Suhinina go into a grovery store to buy some, while Olga (Netaeva) and I wait at an outdoor table.  They return, and Olga N. says "goodbye" and walks to the bus station.  It starts to rain a bit, and Dan, Olga S., and I start walking to the seminary.

Once there, we head to the little parish hall where we had tea earlier in the day, and Olga brings the melon to the sink and washes it up for us.  She is a very health-conscious and fastidious person.  Olga had scolded me earlier for walking on the grass out of concern that I might be bitten by a tick.  We cut open the collective farmer, and Dan slices it into wedges.  It is very sweet!

Olga takes her leave.  Since it is raining, she reluctantly decides to take the bus.  She really prefers to walk.  Dan and I wait for Natasha to arrive.  She is picking us up to bring us to Berdsk.  She arrives shortly.

We join a good sized crowd on the main square of the park.  There is a stage set up.  The show begins shortly after we arrive.  It is spectacular!  It features music, lasers, and a kind-of dance troupe/circus of fire-spitters and fire-jugglers.  Because of the language barrier, Natasha and I are wielding phrasebooks, and Dan has his cellphone poised to contact Olga Netaeva should the need for a translation arrive.

We have a great time, and Natasha drives us back to the seminary.  Dan and I retire to the bishop's office, and we drink the two beers he had bought.  His is a dark beer, and mine is a lager - Baltika 7.  We wind down by listening to a recording of the British actor Hugh Laurie singing and playing American blues tunes.

Here is a link to all of my pictures of Day Fourteen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sermon: Trinity 13 – 2011

18 September 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 10:23-37

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

A lawyer comes to ask Jesus a question. But when lawyers ask questions, quite often they aren’t really questions at all, but rather arguments. Whether this lawyer is genuinely seeking the truth regarding eternal life or if he has some other motive isn’t really known – at least not from his initial question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

But his question is odd. It’s a weird question. For the two verbs: “do” and “inherit” don’t really go together. To inherit something is an act of grace. It is the act of receiving a gift from someone who has died. The question “what shall I do?” just doesn’t fit. It implies that one can control the dead. The question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” presumes that you can earn God’s grace.

Our Lord sees through the question – and He baits the lawyer with a question of his own – actually two questions: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Jesus asks the lawyer a factual question and asks for his own spin on it.

And what lawyer is going to refuse such a softball? He winds up and gets ready to hit it out of the park. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He cites the chapter and verse of the law. But the lawyer neglects to explain it how he “reads” it. Of course, if he really understood it, he would not be asking the Teacher for the explanation.

And notice our Lord’s answer: “Yeah, you’re right. Just keep the law perfectly.” Jesus has out-lawyered the lawyer. He has painted his opponent into a corner. The only way out of this corner would be for the lawyer to say: “But I cannot! I cannot by my own power or strength keep the law!” He could have said: “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess all my sins and iniquities.” He could have at least said: “I don’t understand, please explain.”

But he doesn’t.

“But he, desiring to justify himself,” posed another question. And this time, the question is no question at all: it is definitely an argument. For he was “desiring to justify himself.”

Dear brothers and sisters, when confronted with the law, when called to repentance for our sins, when forced to confront the impossible reality of “do this, and you will live,” we have two choices: either confess and receive the mercy of the Lord, or seek justification from somewhere else: from our reason, from our delusion that we are good people, or from a watering down of the law. Our lawyer knew what the law said, but he did not know how to read it! Perhaps more accurately, he did not know how to read himself, his sinful heart, his corrupted nature: the part of him that was is rebellion against God and refused to admit it.

“Desiring to justify himself.”

As sinners who fall short of the law’s demands, there is only One who can, and does, justify us: and it is not ourselves. Rather, it is Christ. It is Christ who comes to us in the flesh; Christ who teaches us both the law and the gospel; Christ who dies as a ransom for our sins, Christ who rises for our justification; Christ who ordains the apostles and establishes the Holy Sacraments and the preaching of the Holy Word.

It is Christ and Christ alone who justifies us.

To make this point, our Lord tells a story. It is a familiar story called The Good Samaritan. In this parable, the hero is a man who is despised by his neighbors and brothers, and yet, the hero does what is right, motivated by love, and does not think about how it affects himself.

It is the story of the Truly Good Samaritan, Jesus, despised by His neighbors and brothers to the point of being nailed to a cross. And even knowing this, He obeys His Father’s will and does what is right and just and salutary, carrying out the self-sacrifice that pays for our sins, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves: loving the Lord His God with all His heart and with all His soul and with all His strength and with all His mind, and His neighbor as Himself.”

He does this, and dies. And yet, He also rises. He lives. And He gives this life to us, dear friends!

The Samaritan in the story does for us half-dead victims of this fallen world what all the priests and Levites won’t, and can’t, do. The Truly Good Samaritan rescues us. He binds up our wounds. He applies the wine and oil. He takes us to the hospitality of His Father. He pays for us. And He promises us do even more for us according to our needs. And He vows to come back for us.

In short, He justifies us so that we do not have to even try to justify ourselves!

He saves us out of love, and He implores us to “go and do likewise” – not to justify ourselves (as if we could ever do that), but rather to show love and mercy to our neighbors, who are likewise battered and beaten up by the ups and downs of this fallen world.

Instead of the lie of self-justification, our lawyer heard the truth of divine mercy.

Jesus is our Good Samaritan, dear friends! Jesus is our rescue, our life, our justification! He forgives us, heals us, takes us home, and continues to watch over us – even until His promised return.

Yes, indeed, our Lord out-lawyers the lawyers because He keeps the law for us outlaws. Let us confess! Let us receive Him who receives us in our wounded condition. Let us inherit eternal life! Let us be justified by the Justifier and saved by the Savior. Amen.

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

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Need a Vulgate?

Just in case any FH readers need a Vulgate (Clementine Edition) in pdf form, your wait is over! Here it is.  And here is the same text in two column format that saves a lot of pages.  And here is a link to have it professionally printed and shipped to you.

This is courtesy of Michael Tweedale and the fine folks at Vulsearch, which has links to many helpful tools (all free!) and formats to read the Holy Bible in Latin.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon: Trinity 12 – 2011

11 September 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Mark 7:31-37

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.


At some point, everyone has made a journey to a store, a restaurant, a bank, a repair shop, or some other business, only to see the word “closed.” At first, we may not believe it. We may squint at the sign with the store hours, pull on the door a couple times, or even knock in vain on the window, peering helplessly into a dark and empty room.

We are left with disappointment and disruption, with lost time and a failed mission. We have to make other plans, or simply acknowledge that we will have to live with the consequences of not being able to conduct the transaction.

When the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life were closed by God, sealed off to our sinful ancestors Adam and Eve, guarded by an angel bearing a flaming sword – our lives of disappointment of being closed out began.

When Noah was commanded to make an ark in order to be saved from the coming doom, one can only imagine how he was mocked. But when the door was closed, there was no salvation for those on the outside.

Our Lord told a parable about the five foolish virgins who were unprepared for the Bridegoom’s return, and were closed out of the banquet, and heard this from behind the closed door: “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.”

Our sins, our stubbornness, our foolishness, and our lack of priority for God’s kingdom shuts the door of His mercy to us. And when the enemies of our Lord crucified Him, they thought they had shut His mouth the way they silenced John the Baptist, even as their ancestors had closed the mouths of the prophets of old whom they murdered.

The deaf-mute from the region of the Decapolis was also shut behind a wall of silence because of his disability. His ears were shut to sound – to music, to kind words, to the gracious Word of God, to the simple conversation of friends. He was shut into a hopeless world of silence. And he was also mute, his tongue being imprisoned behind the same wall of silence, his thoughts shut in, whether the need to cry out in pain or to laugh with joy.

And so a group of people begged Jesus for help for this man. They knew that there was only One who could open the door, who could unplug the man’s sin-stopped ears and unstop his sin-laden lips.

In the beginning, God did not create a world of closed doors, of closed ears, closed lips, closed eyes, closed minds, closed relationships, and closed lives. The Lord came into our flesh to tear open the temple veil that closed us off from our Creator, to fling open the gates of heaven for all who believe, to open the way to peace, to open the path to righteousness, to open the long-closed gate to Paradise. To reopen our communion with the Tree of Life.

We see a little glimpse of this opening in one glorious word spoken by our merciful and blessed Lord: “Ephphatha!” This Aramaic word means “be opened.” In fact, the Greek translation supplied by St. Mark is even better and more forceful: “Be completely and utterly opened!”

For Jesus has not come to merely crack the door open a little, but rather to blast it off its hinges once and for all. Jesus does not just offer a little help, he irrevocably completes the job. “It is finished!” He will say in the aftermath of His total victory over sin, death, the devil, our flesh, and over every impediment and every infirmity.

Our Lord places His fleshly fingers into the deaf man’s ears, opening his eardrums and the pathway to his brain, opening the closure made by sin and its collective guilt, opening the way for the Word of God to sink in and make this afflicted man whole and healthy as he was created to be.

Our Lord uses His fleshly spit and touches the mute man’s tongue, opening his lips and the pathway to his throat, opening the closure that prevented him from asking for forgiveness, opening the way to pray, praise, and give thanks, opening the impediment for God’s Word to ever be on his tongue: to sing and to confess, to shout with joy.

“Be opened!” says our Lord. And it is opened.

“And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

Dear friends, the Lord Jesus continues to open our ears and mouths, even as he opens our minds, opens our faith, opens our way to heaven and communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He opens our ears with His Word, His divine “ephphatha!” that continues to resound in the Scriptures proclaimed and taught, in the Word that forgives us, heals us, and opens the way to everlasting life.

He opens our mouths to receive the miraculous gift of Holy Communion, the Bread of Life, the very miraculous presence of His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. And we respond to this fleshly ephphatha with a fleshly “Amen!”

No matter what may yet remain closed to us in this fallen world – no matter what disappointments and struggles we may have, no matter our own infirmities and sicknesses – even our own mortality – we know that our Blessed Lord is the One who has opened heaven to us by opening his own veins on the cross, opening the communion rail for us to take part, opening churches around the world – even in places where churches were once closed by the devil’s evil compulsion in trying to close heaven to us. To that we say: “Ephphatha!”

Indeed, we worship a God whose door is always open to those whose hearts are open to His Word. Let us indeed open our mouths in praise of Him who opened heaven to us! Let us continually pray: “O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will declare Your praise.” Amen.

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

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Worship Attire

An interesting article regarding the trend toward casual clothes in worship:  "No Hooters shirts in Mass, please."

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 13 - July 9, 2011

Visit: Novosibirsk

I slept well and woke up a little late.

Father Pavel came to his office.  He made us coffee - not instant.  He has a real coffee maker in his office.  We had a delightful conversation laden with jokes and humorous observations about life.  We discussed the American fascination with superlatives - how we are fixated on being the best, the fastest, the richest, the biggest - in everything.  We had a laugh about American "humility."

We went to Matins in the church, and headed back to the auditorium for more lectures.  Father Alexey jumped right into his lecture at 10:30 am without English translation.  I have no clue what he is saying.  But he is relaxed in his delivery, confident, fielding questions well.  He has a professorial air about him - not arrogant in the least, and yet authoritative.

The audience is not large, but they listen intently.  Many of them are women.  The seminarians are away for the summer.

The leaders of the SELC are truly pioneers of post-Communist Russian Christianity.  They are young and will likely be around for decades, guiding the church in a solidly confessional direction in the face of intense pressure to yield to outside influences.  They have a sense of Lutheran and catholic identity that is both Biblical and comfortable in their own culture.  They have resisted attempts from outsiders to impose either American or European models of church culture upon them.  They avoid both American-style polity and European-style theological liberalism.

Alexey told me yesterday that he has never conducted a funeral.  At St. Andrew's, there are more baptisms and confirmations.  There are some older members, but by far, most of the parishioners are young.

Although these summer seminars have been greatly scaled back as the economy has impacted financial support from abroad, the are still financially strapped.  They are waiting on $15,000 of pledged funds to become available - money that is paying for our expenses - such as our meals, train transportation, and hotel lodging.  Dan and I paid for our own airline tickets to and from Russia as well as our air travel within the Russian Federation.  The funds should have been here by now but have not arrived.  Although our hosts do not want us to be worried about it, we can tell they are concerned.  They are moving budget moneys here and there to cover the shortfall.  I wish I could help somehow.

Father Pavel is hoping to bring us to his mother's dacha.  She grows vegetables there.  He would like to have a little picnic and grill up some shashlik.  Father Pavel is very kind and is a gracious host.  It depends on our weather and on our schedule.  It is rainy and gloomy today - which is unusual so far for this trip.

Siberians are not "morning people" - at least in my experience.  They tend to schedule and start activities rather late by American standards.  And like Southerners - especially New Orleanians - they are not sticklers for time.  They typically get things underway a little late - which makes me feel right at home.  I am also not a "morning person" myself.

Kevin Walker is here.  We have a few mutual friends - and he is highly respected.  I do remember seeing him at seminary, although I don't think I ever met him.  He has an M.Div. degree from Fort Wayne, but didn't take a call.  He is from Milwaukee but has lived in Russia for several years now.  he is adept at languages and is working on some projects to translate German theological works into Russian.  He is very personable, though of quiet temperament.  I very much enjoy speaking with him.

Dan lectured first, and I lectured after lunch, from 2:00 - 3:00 pm.  I'm more comfortable speaking with a translator.  Fr. Alexey is in a good rhythm.  I finished my historical overview and covered articles 1 to 8 and 14 before my time ran out.  I may or may not have another hour tomorrow.  If so, I'll probably quickly cover articles 9 to 11, and maybe 15, 21, or possibly a look at 22-28.

Lunch was typical and brought to us in small plastic containers.  It consisted of a salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, and spices), a soup (okroshka), rice or potatoes, and a meat dish - a small piece of chicken or pork, mildly spiced - and of course tea.

After Pavel's afternoon lecture on the new (but not really improved) Russian Bible translation, we break for Vespers in the church.

Father Pavel had asked me earlier about Luther's reaction to the variata (which were Philip Melanchthon's unauthorized amendments to the Augsburg Confession), and I found something for him in Bente's historical introduction found in the Concordia Triglotta.  It seems that the records on this topic are scant.

During the break, Dan presented Olga (Netaeva) with her gift of peanut butter (actually, a peanut butter and jelly combo that is unavailable in Novosibirsk).  I gave Olga the little card holder with the fleur-de-lis.  She seemed to enjoy receiving our gifts.

We reconvene in the auditorium for a final opportunity for questions.  Dan updated everyone about his family (whom many in the audience had met) and I was asked questions about our parish, New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina.

Father Daniel, Father Alexey, Olga (Suhinina) and I chat for a while.  Then Dan and I meet up with the bishop and spend some time chatting.  Dan and I then go on a walk to buy some ice cream.  The local kiosk is closed, so we head to the supermarket.

I buy batteries and a Coke.  In a rare display of unfriendliness, the clerk is surely and impatient.  She is offended when I try to hand her coins in payment - as this is not the custom.  Money is to be placed on a small plastic tray - not handed to the clerk.

We walk back to the seminary, dodging the puddles in the pocked-up sidewalk.  We have a good discussion about pastoral practice.  Back at the sem, I do some journalling and wind down for bed.

Here is a link to all of my pictures of Day Thirteen.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sermon: Trinity 11 – 2011

4 September 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, 1 Cor 15:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

We live in a “Cain and Abel” world, a world of envy and murder, of insincere sacrifices and false worship. We live in a world where God’s perfect creation has been so corrupted by our sin and by our rebellion against His perfect will, that we consider the shockingly abnormal to be boringly normal.

Of course, we are still shocked to read accounts of brothers killing brothers, but we hardly blink to read about murders happening in our own cities. We think it is normal to lock our doors at night. We do not find it odd that there are doctors and pharmacies and judges and jails. We even refer to destructive storms as “natural disasters” – or worse yet, “acts of God.” We are so used to the absurdities of our sinful existence that we consider such things normal, like Alice who went down the rabbit hole and experienced things out of nightmares, or Neo in the Matrix experiencing the unreal as if it were real. In our sin, we can’t tell what is real, and we certainly can’t see things as they really are.

The kingdom of God is so far removed from our experience of life in this fallen world that our Lord resorts to teaching us about this kingdom – which is our destiny, our hope, and our promise – teaching us in the form of stories. Our Lord’s stories, His parables, are more profound than Aesop and more shocking than anything on “Night Gallery” or in a Stephen King novel. Our Lord in His storytelling glory loves an ironic twist, something that does not seem to make sense. But it isn’t the kingdom that doesn’t make sense – but rather our fallen world of sin, sickness, and death.

In “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” our Lord sets up a comparison and contrast between two characters, two polar opposites: “one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The Pharisees were the upper crust of society: pious, devout, image-conscious, learned, and expert in the law. They give alms, pray, and worship regularly. They are the guys who wear the white hats. The tax collectors, by contrast, were the bottom-feeders: dishonest, sneaky, collaborators with the Roman military occupation, traitors and thieves. They are the guys who wear the black hats.

And like the Master Storyteller that He is, Jesus sets up the plot. The “two men went up into the temple to pray.” And here is where things get interesting. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I think you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee is self-sufficient, “standing by himself,” filled with confidence, if not hubris. He continues his prayer which is really a boast: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” These are the things the world admires. These are the things we think God admires. And Jesus is about to shock us with the truth of what God’s kingdom is truly like, as opposed to our delusional Alice-in-Wonderland world of buying, selling, wheeling, and dealing.

For here is where the tax collector makes his entry into the tale, “standing far off” with a sense of unworthiness that would not allow him to “lift up his eyes to heaven.”

And as would please our own sense of justice, we see him, the crook, the cheat, the bureaucrat who takes the food from the mouths of our children and spends it on himself, beating his breast in shame. Unlike the boastful Pharisee, the tax collector comes to God’s presence empty handed and without claim: “saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

His prayer is so different than that of the Pharisee. He offers no boast, no excuse, no comparison to others, rather, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The world would end the story here, rejoicing with the strong and contemptuous of the weak, gazing with admiration on the guy with the white hat who is larger than life, and cheering that the ugly villain is getting what he deserves. The credits roll, the crowd cheers, justice is served. So goes it in our fallen world.

But here is where Jesus throws in the twist in the plot, where the credits are interrupted amid the cheering and the story abruptly continues in a new direction. Here is where He teaches us how different God’s kingdom is, where He shows us that the guy who wears the white hat is really the villain and the guy wearing the black hat is really the hero. For in God’s kingdom, it is not enough to be “righteous” in the sense of the Pharisee: proud, arrogant, self-sufficient, eager for praise, contemptuous of others, and good on the outside according to appearance. Indeed, our Lord tells us that if we want a part in the kingdom, our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. And this is where our humble and repentant tax collector comes in. This is where we learn that he is really the hero.

He is a sinner – and he knows it. The reality is that the Pharisee is also a sinner – but he is so deluded, living in the Matrix of his own web of lies and self-delusion, that he does not know it. The tax collector not only sees reality as it is, he confesses his sin and seeks the Lord’s pardon, help, forgiveness, and mercy. Unlike the deluded Pharisee who chooses to invent a beautiful fantasy of his own ugly self, the tax collector honestly confronts the ugly truth of his own sinful corruption.

He knows this is not what he was made to be. And he knows where to go to find redemption and reformation, forgiveness and mercy, a second chance and a new life.

“Be merciful to me, a sinner!” he prays, he pleads, he bows, he begs. “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no greater and more heroic prayer than this: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And in this surprise ending we learn about the kingdom: “I tell you” says our Narrator who is also our God: “this man,” the humble tax collector, “went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This is opposite of the conventional wisdom of this world. And it is not the kingdom of God that is strange, but our own “Cain and Abel” world that is absurd. Just because death is common does not make it normal. Just because sickness is all around us does not make it proper. Just because there are disasters everywhere does not make them natural.

Dear friends, in God’s kingdom, we do not earn his favor by delusionally confessing our good works. In God’s kingdom, we truly confess our sins. In God’s kingdom, we have no grounds for boasting. In God’s kingdom, we acknowledge our wretchedness and receive His grace, going down to our houses justified in our humility, seeing ourselves as we truly are, pleading with God for his mercy.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, hear the Word of the Lord that shows us our sins and saves us from them! Celebrate your humble baptism that has given you the pledge of the kingdom! Eat and drink of the feast that Jesus offers of Himself to repentant sinners of every time and place. Rejoice in the kingdom where eternal life is not absurd, but simply what God has created us to enjoy through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose greatest story of all is the very real story of our redemption in the kingdom of heaven and our life that will never end!


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