Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gerhardt, the Cross, and the Art of the Hymn

The past two weeks, we have sung glorious hymns written by the Blessed Rev. Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), whose works are filled with unmuted Christian joy in spite of his horrific experiences and life in this fallen world.

Gerhardt understood the Theology of the Cross, not through theoretical considerations, but in profound and relentless suffering of the effects of the fallen world: war, plague, and persecution.  And yet, his corpus of hymns are always upbeat and confident, bursting at the seams with hope and faith, with trust and delight in Christ.

In his 2004 recapitulation of the Rev. C.F.W. Walther's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel called Handling the Word of Truth (p.49), the Rev. Prof. John T. Pless quotes the Rev. Dr. Oswald Beyer:
"In his last will and testament Paul Gerhardt reminds his only son, still living after his other children had died: 'Do good to people, even if they cannot pay you back because...'  The reader expects that the sentence will continue with: 'God will repay you.' However, Paul Gerhardt frustrates that expectation by continuing: '...because for what human beings cannot repay, the Creator of heaven and earth has already repaid long ago when he created you, when he gave you his only Son, and when he accepted and received you in holy baptism as his child and heir.'" (Oswald Beyer, "Justification as Basis and Boundary for Theology").
Also, here are some reflections from 2007 by the Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch.

Finally, here is a well-researched biography of Paul Gerhardt presented in 2008 by the Rev. Michael Berg:

What a treasure we have in our tradition of hymnody, centered on the cross and grounded in the real world in which we live and struggle and ultimately overcome by virtue of Christ, His cross, His grace, and the Gospel that is proclaimed in sermon and in song!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Anti-Christian Propaganda in Kid's Movies

We enjoyed seeing the children's movie "Turbo" - an unlikely tale of a snail in the Indianapolis 500.  It was a fun movie that did not try to compromise the innocence of childhood.

However, above is the trailer we saw as soon as the lights in the theater full of children dimmed. Within a few seconds of the first preview ("Boxtrolls"), there is a quick, though not-so-subtle swipe at Christian doctrine and traditional morality.

Although it is fun to make an occasional outing to see a film on the big screen, the overtly anti-biblical, anti-Christian sexual propaganda deliberately aimed at our children and increasingly being jammed down our throats - openly attempting to pry our children from our religious tenets - makes the trip to the theater less and less inviting to Christian people.  In their preachy calls for tolerance, the Hollywood elite is increasingly becoming intolerant of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who accept natural law and biological common sense with regard to the ancient human institutions.  The irony is that the message of "Boxtrolls" is supposedly one of openness to all kinds of people, when in reality it is promoting a kind of hatred and marginalization of the world's billions of people who accept traditional marriage as a religious doctrine.

It's getting to the point where we need not only to home-school but also to home-movie.

At least with Netflix, we can opt out of the propaganda.

Sermon: Trinity 11 – 2013

11 August 2013 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.

Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”

That about sums up the problem.  That is the problem with every sinner, with all of us, with natural man and natural religion that naturally relies on man to be naturally righteous.

We’re not.  And the minute we think we are, we look as ridiculous as the Pharisee in our Lord’s parable.  From our standpoint, it looks very clear.  We know that the proud self-righteous Pharisee is the bad guy, and we know that the humble and contrite tax collector is the good guy.

But how often are we willing to say: “I am that Pharisee, and I need to repent”?

For we are a proud people.  We put bumper stickers on our cars that say we’re proud: proud of our country, proud of our honor students, proud of our golden retriever that is smarter than your honor student, proud of our college, proud of our professional sports team, proud of ourselves for being this or doing that.  Proud, proud, proud.

How often we forget that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  

Of course, there is nothing wrong in taking pleasure in the accomplishments of our children, in expressing a preference for the home team, or in honoring one’s school.  And maybe “pride” isn’t exactly the right word.  But if it goes to our heads, or as Jesus puts it: if we treat “others with contempt” or we trust in ourselves that we are righteous, we have become the Pharisee in the story, and we are in desperate need of repentance.

The Pharisee is not simply being rude, nor does he need an attitude adjustment.  Dear friends, the Lord Jesus says that this Pharisee is bound for hell unless he repents.  This isn’t just a quirky personality trait, this is unrepentant sin, a rejection of Christ and His gospel, a worship of the self above God.  And he is also misusing God’s name, rather than calling on God in genuine prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, the Pharisee is taking the Lord’s name in vain, making a mockery of prayer, praising himself, and perverting thankfulness into self-worship.

And notice that the Pharisee has a lot of good works that he boasts about: he is not an extortioner or adulterer, he fasts and gives alms.  But, dear friends, he also puts his faith in his works.  He never thanks God for His mercy, or for His forgiveness, for our proud Pharisee doesn’t think he needs to.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are we Pharisees?  Do we have misplaced pride?  Do we think that our offerings, our being in church, our morals, our good works, make us in any way more worthy of eternal life?  Do we take pride in being Christian?  In being Lutheran?  In being LCMS?  In being Salem members?  Do we think God counts us worthy of everlasting life because of our denominational affiliation or worship practices?  If so, we need to repent.

And this reading is truly the Gospel, dear friends, for it is a story.  And it is a tale with a happy ending.  For there is another character in our Lord’s parable: a lowly tax collector.  This man is a sinner.  He is likewise a fallen child of Adam, a man who likewise broke the commandments, a man who bears the scars of pride and mockery of God – but he has something else by God’s grace: a broken and contrite heart.  For “he would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’”  The tax collector joins us in our liturgy.  He prays with us: “I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities.”  He sings with us: “Lord, have mercy upon us.”  And with us he hears these words: “I forgive you all your sins.”  For Jesus has these glorious words for him and for us: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.”

Though his actions do not merit it, though his sins deserve death, though his righteousness is as filthy rags before the holy God – the Father in His infinite mercy, for the sake of His beloved Son, through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit – the most holy Triune God has justified this man by grace alone.

And the Lord Jesus gives us even more good news: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Dear friends, in our humility, the Lord elevates us.  In acknowledging our sinfulness, the Lord makes us righteous.  In our contrition, the Lord forgives us.  He hears our prayers for mercy.  He answers our pleas for forgiveness.  He reaches out to us in our lowly estate.  There is truly nothing in ourselves that is righteous.  We have nothing in which to boast – except in Christ and His cross, in what He has done for us, and how, in spite of how much we do not deserve it, the Lord Himself, in His mercy and pity, has justified us, made us righteous, forgiven our sins, and has even taken away the sting of death itself from us!

The Lord’s mercy answers the blood of Abel crying out from the ground.  The Lord’s mercy even extends to Cain who killed him.  The Lord’s mercy answers the prideful Pharisee with a call to repent according to the law.  The Lord’s mercy even extends to tax collectors and poor miserable sinners who pray: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us” with the declaration of the gospel.

And with St. Paul, who like Cain, had innocent blood on his hands and yet was shown mercy by the Lord, we can truly say: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”

For when we fast and give alms and attend divine services and study the Bible and uphold biblical teaching and Christian morality, let us never be prideful, arrogant, or boastful.  For it is not we who are responsible for these works.  Again, we can say with St. Paul, even when we are working hard, that “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” that accomplishes these deeds for the kingdom.

Dear friends, instead of thanking God that we are not sinners, let us rather thank God that we are sinners who have been forgiven.  Instead of taking credit for our own justification, let us give the Lord Jesus all praise and glory for purchasing our justification at the cross, paying it in full by His suffering and death, sealing it by His blood, and delivering it to us by His Word and holy sacraments.  Instead of pride, let us display humility.  For we are beggars who come to God with empty hands, but we are beggars whose hands are filled with good things by a gracious and merciful God, whose blessings never cease, whose blood always avails for us, whose Word always endures, whose grace knows no limit, whose love is everlasting, and whose mercy endureth forever.  Amen.


on the sickness of sinto the next - and d w liars and sons of the devil, tament, a bloodye people on In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Short Video about St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna

St. Polycarp (69-155) was one of the church's greatest heroes who was part of the first wave of bishops ("the apostolic fathers") after the holy apostles.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Shocking Alternative

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: "Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?" The better stuff a creature is made of—the cleverer and stronger and freer it is—then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best—or worst—of all.

~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Enemy-Occupied Territory

Enemy-occupied territory - that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.  When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.  He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery.  I know someone will ask me, "Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil - hoofs and horns and all?"  Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know.  And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns.  But in other respects my answer is "Yes, I do."  I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance.  If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person, "Don't worry.  If you really want to, you will.  Whether you'll like it when you do is another question."

~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Moleskine vs. Leuchtturm

Moleskine quality is in a tailspin - which is a shame because I was very pleased with my first couple Moleys. This is a strong consensus among users - and I have to concur.  I got a free replacement for my last one that fell apart, and this one is only slightly better.

The local Scriptura store was out of the highly recommended French Rhodia pocket sized notebooks, but I was told they are all hardcover (I prefer the softcover). I was also intrigued by the Guildhall notebooks, but they do not seem to be available.  However, I ran across some very good reviews recently of Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks - so I've ordered a couple (good price, and readily available online).

Then I ran across this video review comparing the two notebooks by British author Joe Craig. So, we shall see!

Here is an interesting blog dedicated to all things notebook.

Sermon: Trinity 10 – 2013

4 August 2013 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 19:41-48

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Jeremiah had a reputation of being unhappy.  He was not a grouch, or a curmudgeon.  He was not a pessimist or a Debbie Downer.  He was a genuinely sad preacher, heartbroken because of the Word he was sent to proclaim to his flock.  Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet.”

Our Lord Jesus is also greatly distressed at the spiritual condition of the people to whom He was sent to proclaim the Word of God.  Our Lord is making His way to Jerusalem, the City of Peace.  And He is going there to make peace: peace between God and man, and peace between men, peace unto all of creation.  But the people want no part of it.  They reject Him.  They reject God.  They reject His Word.  They reject peace.

Our Lord laments in tears: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

There were multitudes of people who followed Jesus who were not interested in peace, but wanted Jesus to provoke war with Rome.  They expected a blitzkrieg into Jerusalem on a gallant steed, a blast of the trumpet, and then the battle cry and bloodshed.  The first century Jews hated the Romans, but they loved the Roman version of peace – which was really instilling fear into one’s enemies, domination, revenge, killing, and self-righteous rage.

And that about sums up how we see peace, dear friends.  We are a bloodthirsty people.  We love vengeance, victory, valor, and shock and awe.  We love to see people “get what they deserve.”  We love to see our enemies exploded in shrapnel and under a mushroom cloud.  As General Patton pointed out, we love a winner and hate a loser, and we love the sting of battle.  As General Lee pointed out, it is a good thing war is so terrible because we would grow too fond of it otherwise.  We civilians love wars especially because we don’t fight in them.  Politicians love wars because they send other people’s children to fight them.  But beyond all of that, we love war because we are sinners, and that part of us, the sinful flesh, is at war, at enmity with God, in a state of war against the very Prince of Peace Himself.  

We, whose church bears the name “Salem” – the part of the name “Jerusalem” that means peace – likewise love war and hate peace.  We think peace is for losers and suckers.  We want to win, and win at any cost.  Our congregational history, even in the 1800s, is one of upheaval and rival factions.  Even the early name of our congregation placed the name of our proud dominant ethnicity before the name of our church’s confession.

And in that, we are like every other congregation comprised of poor miserable sinners the world over.  We are no better and no worse than every other people in need of repentance.

Jesus weeps.  He cries in frustration, acknowledging how we squander the treasure He has given us purely as a gift of grace.  A free gift that was paid for in His infinitely valuable and precious blood.  Jesus gives us His life, and we treat this salvation He has won for us as though it were worthless.  We take it for granted.  We place a very low value on anything spiritual because the Old Adam still clings to us.

Just as Jeremiah the prophet warned the Old Testament Jews of the consequences of their idolatry and unbelief, Jesus warns the New Testament Jews of the consequences of their own idolatry and unbelief.  They didn’t worship statues in the New Testament, but they rejected the Prince of Peace because the only blood He was willing to shed was His own.  But, dear friends, don’t get too comfortable, for the Holy Spirit did not cause this account of our Lord to be written down for us to feel superior to first-century Jews.  No indeed!  For we too bear the flesh of the Old Adam, and we are eager to declare war against the Prince of Peace.  We may not worship statues or deny the divinity of Christ, but we reject the Prince of Peace with each and every sin, with every instance of our own clever idolatry, when we choose to invest our time and affections in other gods, be it the false gods Mammon, Entertainment, Caesar, or simply the god of Self.

Jesus is not weeping for Himself, even though He is headed to the worst suffering ever experienced by a human being.  He weeps for us, dear friends, we lovers of war and haters of men, we worshipers of self, and despisers of God.  And if we do not repent, our “enemies will set up a barricade,” we will be surrounded and torn down, even our children – all because we “did not know the time of [our] visitation.”

Jesus is here, dear friends!  He has visited us!  He brings us peace – for He is peace.  He offers us a celebratory banquet that declares this peace with God that passes all understanding, this meal of armistice, this table of joy, this Holy Eucharist thanksgiving for the peace that Jesus is and that He gives to us.

This is why just before you come to the table, as we sing to the Lamb of God (that takest away the sin of the world), the pastor holds aloft the Lord’s very body and His very blood, and speaks to you on behalf of Him who wept over Jerusalem: “The peace of the Lord be with you always!” to which you sing in replay, “Amen!” – that is to say, “It is so!”  Peace, dear friends!  This is what the Lord delivers to us in His battle-scarred hands, feet, and side!  This is the war He won when He proclaimed “It is finished!” from the cross.  

Dear brothers and sisters, let us lay down our arms!  The war is over!  We have won, because Jesus has won!  Jesus defeated all of our foes: sin, death, and the devil; the world and our sinful flesh – and He rides into Jerusalem as the King triumphant, and He dies on the cross as the King heroic, not as a despotic ruler who taxes us and sends us to battle, but as the King benevolent who comes to us as the suffering servant, who gives everything to us and goes to battle on our behalf, the Prince of Peace!

He pleads with us to recognize this visitation, when He bids you to hear Him absolve your sins, and when He invites you to gaze upon His body and blood even as you are given a place at the banquet table and then invited to eat and drink unto the forgiveness of all of your sins!  Jesus is visiting us, teaching us, forgiving us, and blessing us with His most mighty Word that proclaims the peace with the same authority that created the universe.  And even though He weeps over our sins, He rejoices in us as His beloved bride, His forgiven people, for whom He has won the war and secured the peace.

Peace be with you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, peace that passes all understanding, peace that has arrived with the Lord’s visitation, secured at the cross, and delivered to each one of us anew right here and right now.  Peace, dear friends!  Peace be with you!  Amen.


on the sickness of sinto the next - and d w liars and sons of the devil, tament, a bloodye people on In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Tenth Anniversary as a Deacon!

Today is my tenth anniversary as a deacon.

I was consecrated as a deacon when I was installed as a vicar at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina by the Rev. Carl Voges on Auguest 3, 2003.  (Incidentally, the current pastor is a classmate of mine, a faithful shepherd and a dear friend, the Rev. Christopher Burger).

Consecrating vicars to the diaconal order is not the standard practice in the LCMS, but I think we should make some reforms and have both deacons transitioning to pastoral ministry (perhaps as vicars) as well as "permanent" deacons  - for several reasons.

First, it could solve the sticky problem of having vicars preaching - which is reserved for ordained ministers according to our confessional symbols.  We currently "get around" this by resorting to the legal fiction that the vicar is not actually preaching, but rather he is "reading" the sermon that has been vetted by his (ordained) supervisor.  I've never really been too satisfied by this sleight-of-hand.  If we were to ordain men into deaconal ministry, and restrict them from consecrating the elements of the Lord's Supper (as is done in many of the LCMS's partner church bodies), we would not have to play three-card-monte with Article XIV.

Second, to be a pastor is to be a deacon - especially when we consider the meaning of diakonia.  In the LCMS, we typically think of diakonia as "women's ministry" as we have a recognized synodical diaconate made up of women, whose work is officially to perform works of mercy.  There is no scriptural basis to deny the diaconate and its works of mercy to male practitioners and thus define diakonia in exclusively feminine terms.  I think consecrating vicars as deacons would help solidify diakonia as part and parcel of the pastoral ministry and not something forbidden (by implication) to men by synodical custom.  In fact, mercy is a huge part of what it means to be a pastor - as it should be.  While not all deacons are pastors, all pastors should consider themselves deacons.  We should liturgically recognize this during the course of a man's training for pastoral ministry by a consecration and recognition by diaconal vestments.

Third, there are men who may not have a pastoral vocation, but who are blessed vocationally with the gifts and opportunity to assist the pastor liturgically and in his work.  Our current commonly-used nomenclature "elders" comes close to this role, but the term is confusing.  Biblically speaking, "elder" (presbuteros, presbyter) is an ordained man, a pastor.  However, the vast majority of our "elders" are laymen, whose duties and vesture at the altar vary from congregation to congregation.  This confusion (originating in terminology borrowed from the Reformed churches) has manifested itself liturgically in some LCMS congregations where boards of elders "lay hands" on men who are being ordained into the pastoral ministry.  The Pastoral Care Companion actually has to have a footnote in the rite for "Visiting the Sick and Distressed" on page 34, in which the pastor reads James 5:14-16.  The text speaks of "elders of the church" praying and anointing the sick person with oil.  The footnote reads: "The Greek word for "elders," presbyteroi, in the reading from James refers to pastors and not lay elders."

In fact, some lay elders in the LCMS (who have never been consecrated as deacons) actually wear albs and deacon's stoles when assisting at the altar.  Moreover, some deaconesses likewise vest in alb and stole and assist the pastor at the altar.  I believe this latter practice presents confusion as to what the role of the deaconess is - not to mention the role of men and women in general. Ironically, we may have members of LCMS congregations that have only seen the deacon's stole worn by women.

Fourth, many of our partner church bodies, such as the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church, require men to serve as deacons (in the case of SELC, it is typically five years) before being ordained to the priesthood.  This is a very traditional structure, and allows a lot of time and observation - as well as actual parochial service - before turning a man loose to serve as a parish pastor.  There is a lot of wisdom in this kind of maturation process.

Of course, this is one of those issues that people really get worked up over (I don't really know why!); one LCMS pastor angrily denied that there were any LCMS deacons (said to me while I was serving as one). Consequently, the discussion typically just gets kicked like the proverbial can down the road in the interest of peace and harmony.

At any rate, I was consecrated a deacon ten years ago (while my hair was still brown), and I still consider myself a deacon (with my well-earned locks of gray).

While I was a seminarian, I attended the diaconal ordination of a friend in the ACC (Anglican Catholic Church).  The preacher spoke to the ordinand and reminded him that even if he were later ordained to the priesthood (which he was), even if he were to become a bishop, even if he were to become the archbishop - he would always remain a deacon.  It is not something you lose when you become a pastor.  His words stuck with me, especially since I was formally consecrated as a deacon later on myself.  And to me, this is a humbling reminder that a deacon is a servant, a minister, one who is dedicated to a life of mercy.  And that is certainly part of the pastoral vocation.

I am grateful to Pastor Voges and to the people of Holy Trinity for the year I served them as what one of my classmates called in a tongue-in-cheek way a "male deaconess."