For Clear Statements

Politicians in general want to smooth over differences and round off corners. National ones are trying to assemble 50% of a nation of 300 million people. I think that is why the modern gaffe is any comment that actually says something. Saying something kicks people out of your tent. The problem with that is there is no mandate or consensus for anything other than – “your guy sucks and our guy is great”.

There is an analogy in religion. Why is modern worship so insipid? Most of it says nothing. Either it is all head in which case the faith has been reduced to a law – believe these five things and you will be ok. Or it is all heart which makes the faith into a Lladro figurine – ever so precious and lightweight it just floats away. Why does it say nothing? Because we’ve sold our birthright of the Word of God for a mess of things to keep people entertained. When you don’t have THE WORD, you better tap dance well enough to keep a crowd week after week. Hence you give’em what they want, the worship equivalent of a souffle or a pound cake.

Ross Douthat is for clear statements.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

Want to know who else was for clear statements? The Reformers, especially the writers of the Formula of Concord. The ringing phrase is “we believe, teach and confess…” We believe it intellectually. We teach it as truth. And we confess it – we order our hearts and lives around it. We are for clear statements.

Hope abides in The Foolish Things…like the Cross

Sermon Text: Ephesians 3:14-21
Full Draft of Sermon

It was interesting last night watching swimmer Ryan Lochte after taking 4th in his event. Just a couple of night before he had been riding high after beating his nemesis Phelps who had take a similar 4th. This was his Olympics. The vignette before with John McEnroe has driven home the amount of work he has put into it (with the unstated but implied loafing of Phelps this time around). Now two days later his work had put him in 4th and he was left trying to say why that was OK. He had put his hopes in the power of preparation, and they didn’t get him on the podium. The same guy who had passed him in the relay passed him in the individual. He had a plan and had executed it. Just like Phelps who had had a plan and executed it and who said after that 400 IM, “I guess our plan wasn’t that good.”

We have lots of plans. They might even be to “swim all the way to London” as the commercial has it. But what they don’t tell us it that at some point, there is always someone faster. Jesus Christ frees us from putting our capital H Hope in our efforts, because he has already secured the victory and gives it freely. And it comes in the foolish things: like prayer and faith and the love. That frees us to live lives more like that teenager who is winning gold medals and putting them in her pocket. We get to do things for love, joy, peace, kindness and the whole list, because Christ has secured our hope.

Denominations, Congregations and Christendom

I feel like I have to explain that last one, Christendom. That is simply the word that described a time from roughly Constantine to circa 1965. What it meant was that anywhere you went in the west two things were roughly true: 1) Christianity even if of various shades or just nominal was a shared foundation which meant that biblical stories were a shared vocabulary and 2) The church had a teaching role to play in the larger society. Even if you didn’t accept the gospel, the church’s law was the curb or the minimum basis of civil law.

There were two articles stumbled across that have spurred the following reflection. Here is Sara Hinlicky, an ELCA pastor living the ex-pat life in France writing about church life in the reaches and how it can be very different. Here is another ELCA pastor mulling over that amorphous group know as “young clergy” and what they would tell you after three beers. (The Seminary limit is two, so if you see Pastor on his third its either that he’s put on enough weight to handle three, or something is eating him.) I think both of these articles are talking about the same thing.

It is only 10 AM – echoing St. Peter at Pentecost- and writing some of this is more likely to send me to drinking that third beer, but what the hey.

1) Christendom as described above is dead. In the USA, where freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution, mayors are telling Chicken sandwich places they can’t build (Chick-fil-a) over the owner’s Christian beliefs, and national laws are being written that force Roman Catholic organizations to do what they think is anathema. The church’s teaching role is no longer acknowledged and that was the core of Christendom.
2) A corollary to the death of Christendom is the slower death of denominations.
3) The collapse of denominations is not the same thing as the collapse of the church.
4) The church is found where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered rightly. (AC7) That transcends our little law boxes known as denominations that we build to protect it, but most importantly the church is found fully in the local congregation.
4a) It is a confusion of law and gospel to find the church in the larger structures that we build de jure humano (by the law of man). That is not an excuse for anarchy. [The Confessions’ Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, especially starting at paragraph 60, is magnificent on this.]
5) The calling of this generation is to train and equip (Eph 4:12) – to restore to the first love(Rev 2:4) – many congregations that are actually wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). You find the church in the congregations; you also find the rot there.
6) That is the shared calling of every generation, just some are more deeply felt. Human structures fall faster when the foundation is rotten. In the final flowering of Christendom and its teaching of the law, we forgot to preach the gospel.
7) Christendom’s rules included a “career path” for ministers. A career path and calls were about location mobility. Which if we are being honest led to the abuse of the small and weak and a chasing after the winners when the gospel is rightly about the cross and identifying with the losers (Matt 25:31-46). Career paths are replaced by the more biblically relevant overseer or elder found in 1 Tim 3:1-13, which are fulfilled by someone from the local community.
8) Worldly success (i.e. numbers, budgets, is not guaranteed by being faithful to the gospel. If fact the opposite might be true (paradox of the cross). But, Jesus says to pray, and what you ask will be granted (Luke 11:9). We pray weekly (daily!) your kingdom come. If even we evil ones know how to give good gifts, what about our Father in heaven? (Luke 11:5-13) In His grace, through the means of prayer, God’s Kingdom certainly comes. And what Luther describes is that we pray it come to us. In whatever form it takes, may we recognize your Kingdom.

In summary, many of the concerns by the “young clergy” article, as much as it intellectually admits the death of one model, to me come across as a lament or a clinging to it. It is only when you are willing to die to what you’ve known (Bishops and Synods and Chairs and Budgets and Calls) that you find the Gospel power of resurrection. It is still the church, just a resurrection body, not that mortal one. We don’t force the change. God accomplishes that all on his own. You can cling to the vestiges of the life that is passing away, or in prayer grasp the already given resurrection. Hinlicky’s article strikes closer to the surprising truth of the Gospel.

The 9 yr Old is an Arian (oh no!)

Walking the 9 year old through the catechism. We got caught on a discussion about God.

Me: God promises salvation
Daughter: Where
Me: Jesus says so right here
Daughter: But that is Jesus not God
Me: Jesus is true God – we say it weekly in the creed
Daughter: But he’s a man, that doesn’t make sense
Me: That is what Christmas is about.
Daughter: How can there be two things that are both God
Me: There aren’t two things, there are three persons in one God called the Trinity
Daughter: That’s confusing
Me: That the mystery of the Trinity
Daughter: But Jesus born, how can he be God.
Me: Heretic! – My daughter’s an Arian; of all things an Arian
Daughter: Grrr!
Me: Will you trust me (and the creed for now)?
Daughter: Well, ok.

Stories of Flesh and Blood

Text: Ephesians: 2:11-22
Full Draft of Sermon

Had one of the best comments possible I think – a 4 year old at McDonald’s after service commented on the sermon.

The stories in the world today – especially in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting – are stories of alienation and loss. They are stories of searching. Sometimes finding. Sometimes not and remaining lost. Those stories play with a deep truth. Sin alienates. It is the cause and the manifestation of our lostness. The artists and the church actually agree on the diagnosis, but they disagree on the prescription. The church actually has an answer. It is found in the incarnation…in the flesh and blood of Christ.

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

The modern world has bought into Rousseau’s noble savage. We tend to think we are pretty good by nature. That the bad we do is the exception. But that is not what the Christian Church teaches.

Here is Luther in the Smalcald Articles (Part 3 Article 1).

1] Here we must confess, as Paul says in Rom. 5:12, that sin originated [and entered the world] from one man Adam, by whose disobedience all men were made sinners, [and] subject to death and the devil. This is called original or capital sin.

2] The fruits of this sin are afterwards the evil deeds which are forbidden in the Ten Commandments, such as [distrust] unbelief, false faith, idolatry, to be without the fear of God, presumption [recklessness], despair, blindness [or complete loss of sight], and, in short not to know or regard God; furthermore to lie, to swear by [to abuse] God’s name [to swear falsely], not to pray, not to call upon God, not to regard [to despise or neglect] God’s Word, to be disobedient to parents, to murder, to be unchaste, to steal, to deceive, etc.

3] This hereditary sin is so deep [and horrible] a corruption of nature that no reason can understand it, but it must be [learned and] believed from the revelation of Scriptures, Ps. 51:5; Rom. 6:12ff ; Ex. 33:3; Gen. 3:7ff

If we accept the teaching of the church on human nature, what separates us from James Holmes, or Dylan Kliebold or any of the ever growing list (the Anchoress has an example from 1928) is much less than what separates us from what we like to think we are.

Luther captured it doctrinally, but one of the great 20th century artists captured is poetically…

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

This does not excuse or justify the sinner. The law is good and right and should be upheld. The primary purpose of the state is to exact that and protect us from ourselves. (Rom 13:3-5) But, none of that saves. It just places us all into the hands of death…where Christ placed himself for us. That work of Christ, trusting the Father’s justice, does justify us and creates in us a clean heart. Only when we are ready to destroy our heart, and have it replaced with the heart of Christ, can we be justified.

The confusion of Law & Gospel

Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter…
Preparing for a “Basic Lutheran Teachings” class and the foundation to Lutheran understanding is called Law and Gospel. CFW Walther, LCMS founding light, would write that “if you wish to be an orthodox teacher, you must present all the articles of the faith in accordance with Scripture, yet you must also rightly distinguish Law and Gospel”. What he meant by that was that applying scripture to life is more art than science. What we are experts at doing is applying the law when the gospel is called for, or reaching for the gospel when the law is appropriate. Or, even more likely, we apply a squishy gooey mess of law-gospel or gospel-law. We confuse the law and the gospel. We fail to distinguish.

Because it is easier to pick the nit out of my brother’s eye, the easiest one for me to distinguish is when folks confuse the two by trying to use legal means to effect the gospel. The logical flow would be this. Jesus said to take care of the poor. Doing so requires time and money. So we should raise taxes and have the government hire people to take care of the poor. Taking care of the poor is definitely a gospel element. The confusion comes when we decide to use legal means, the government, to achieve a gospel end. The gospel, the kingdom of heaven, does not come through our efforts. We cannot hasten it. It grows like a seed or like the leaven. You can read the history of the United States from Prohibition to the ACA as attempts to realize the gospel through legal means. And what you get is a big gooey mess.

But let me turn to the log in my own eye. We in the church are enamored of the the law. We think we know exactly how people should live. We say we proclaim the gospel. But too often all we do is use the gospel to further our legalist agenda. We dangle the gospel and forgiveness out to get people to straighten-up and fly right. (We might even be right is some circumstances. The law is good and wise if we have God’s law and not our own desires disguised as God’s law.) We act as if the gospel is a hot house flower that without the legal protections of the green house we built around it, it wouldn’t survive, instead of being the weed like mustard seed or the seeds that are thrown everywhere and immediately they grow. The second we say Jesus and…we have used the gospel to advance the law. What the church is about is Jesus. It proclaims the cross and the resurrection. Your old life? Crucified every day. Drowned every day in the waters of baptism. Can’t stop sinning? I’ve got good news. Jesus died to accounting. God is no longer counting. That staggering pile of debt that keeps on growing? Written off. You are free. The King forgave it and knows it no more. He died to that pile. But what about being heartily sorry for our sins? What about people who will abuse it? What about cheap grace? What about all my favorite hobby-horses? We all know the law. It is written on our hearts. Just don’t confuse the gift of the gospel with that legal agenda.

Law, Gospel, Families and Dealing with the ’60s or Love among the Ruins

I grew up in Fulton, Il, which you can see is at least an hour away from anything resembling population. We would joke around that something that hit the culture took about 20 years to come to Fulton. When people in Chicago were doing the electric slide, Fulton was doing the Hustle. Hence as a child growing up in the late 70’s and 80’s the vast majority of my classmates were from what is now quaintly called traditional homes – mom & dad were present. Although in an interesting twist my best friend from those years was not. The ’60’s would eventually come to Fulton as well. And while I’m sure there was a short lived liberating thrill, the hippies and the hope were gone by the time it came to Fulton. The only thing it brought was the sudden revelation that what had been solid ground no longer was. Marriages, covenants, became just a piece of paper.

In going through seminary I inherited parts of the libraries of some pastors. It was always interesting going through the old books. Some of them were timeless treasures that are now on my shelves, a couple pulled down almost weekly. Others were “of their time”. One of the pastors I inherited from had retired from the ministry a little early. He went into real estate. Looking through some of the books I think I got a deeper sense why. He was a deeply good and honest man. And societal changes had just hit him like a tsunami wave. He wasn’t trained either to be a counselor or to deal with a flock that didn’t respect the Bible. The books were either deep theology or hastily written how-to’s: How to deal with divorce, How to deal with unruly children, etc. Being good and honest, he rebuilt his life instead of trying to fake it when he no longer felt he could handle the “how-to’s”.

I’m writing on this because of a couple of articles. This is a heartfelt and poignant piece. I’m sure the author will have pictures with goats appear soon because he gets too close to an argument that might cause reflection. And if there is one thing our society won’t allow is a real reflection upon the sexual revolution. This is a New York Times Pulitzer trolling long article that spurred the first as well as some backlash.

All those How-To’s and the initial response of society to the sexual revolution were the law. That law – which I’m speaking now about God’s law, things like the 10 Commandments – is clear and bright. Do not commit adultery. (Exo 20:14) Which Luther would explain succinctly: “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.” The calling of all Christians is to chastity, some within the bonds of marriage. If Moses wasn’t enough there are all kinds of New Testament places: Mark 10:2-12, 1 Cor 7:7-17, 1 Pet 1:14-16, Eph 4:17-20 are just a few. The law convicts. But what the law doesn’t do is save. The law is powerless.

So why did we turn to the law? Is the truth because we had either forgotten the gospel or just no longer believed its power? It is not that the church’s reaction was not correct. The law is good and wise. It is always appropriate to read, study, learn and inwardly digest as the prayer this week has it. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov 1:7) It is just that the church’s reaction was impotent. In the face of law we can choose to be fools. In fact we might prefer it. We are a rebellious and stiff necked people – and darn proud of it too – an almost chosen nation. But the law will exact its own payment. It visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the third and fourth generations (Exo 20:5). Social Security trust funds empty, medicare unfordable without bankrupting the country, the emergence of “two classes” as per the NYT article, and any number of other problems, the fruits of trespassing the law.

But the church has this mustard seed. Actually the church doesn’t have it. The seed has already been planted. The leaven is already mixed in the dough. (Matt 13) The church has been given the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the mouth to proclaim. While we were trespassers, while we were sinners, Christ died for us. You have a free pass. It requires absolutely nothing. I guarantee that whoever you are, when you are placed before the throne, Jesus will try and give you a wedding garment. You will all have a resurrection body. How many of us will demand that no, I want to judged by the law. And if I can’t get my kingdom, than I don’t want any kingdom. Fine, to the outer darkness. Did we lose that? Do we believe it today? That is the powerful stuff.

The law is still good and wise. We can learn from it. There are definitely times when we should just do it, even though we might not want to. But if it really takes the law, there is something missing at the core. As Jesus said to the woman at the well who had 5 husbands, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth (Joh 4:23 ESV)” The law is part of that truth, but the Spirit testifies to THE TRUTH – Jesus Christ is sufficient. Anything good that will stand is built on that foundation and cornerstone. So we who live among the ruins build on that love, His love for us which was faithful to the cross. That is not just a piece of paper. That is a marriage covenant.

Every Spiritual Blessing in the heavenly realms

Text: Ephesians 1:3-14
Full Draft

The textual basis for this sermon is one long sentence. The English translations break it up because that is good English. But what it does is miss the catechism like effect as the clauses build up. The core sentence is short and clear – God be Praised. The rest of the text reads like Paul starts asking questions and answering them in phrases and clauses attached to that simple sentence.

Which God? The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. A Very specific one. One that you know.

Why praise? Because he has already blessed or praised us with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING.

What are these blessings? You were chosen to be Holy and Unblemished before the foundation. And not just that but you have been adopted into the family of God. You are part of the Royal ruling family.

How was this done (after all I don’t think I did anything)? You didn’t. It was through and in and because of Christ. First by his blood. Redeemed by the blood. Second you have been enlightened with the wisdom and insight of his grace to know the mystery.

What is the mystery? The cross primarily, but also the resurrection and the ascension (i.e. the Lordship). These things which have been hidden in plain sight.

How do I know this? You have been sealed with the Spirit which is the down payment. Outside of the revelation of Christ and the illumination of the Spirit the mystery would remain. But you have it right now.

Why has He done this? For the Praise of the glory of his grace. We are that praise. Our lives, our walks, our confessions and our worship. God be praised.

A collection of reactions

1) This is the President of Union Theological Seminary answering Why Seminary?

…How do we discern a truth that can grasp us fully, and what is demanded of our lives when we stand, humbly, before this truth? A seminary education centers on thinking about the “why” of existence, and making it come alive in a vision for both what the world is, and could be…

Now I’m not sure that its the place of a humble parson to squawk back to such an august position, but if you are going to seminary to ask “Why?”, all you will get is what Job got. (Job 38:4) Her first question is the better one. You’ll have to read the rest of the article to realize that she is talking to two audiences. The problem is that for all her talk of standing before truth, I have a sinking suspicion that when she talks about “making church life more pertinent” she’s never actually heard the gospel. The most pertinent thing about church life is the proclamation of Christ for sinners. That is making us stand before truth, before The Truth as Jesus would call himself.

2) 10 Signs you should not be getting married in a Church. Are we getting to a place in society where it is acceptable to say such things? Green Shoots.

3) It has been in interesting week in “by heresies distressed” news. The Episcopal church was meeting in convention. The Onion couldn’t write some of their resolutions. The WSJ with an even tempered reflection. Basically the body is lost. There is no use shouting. The faithful remaining need to give serious consideration that it is time to find a new home as the heresiarchs consolidate what is left.

4) Not a counterpoint, but a decent reflection and something for those of us tempted to pride looking at the Episcopal church. The fact of the matter is that circa 1965, when all this stuff reaching its end point now really got going, “getting right with the culture” looked like a good and appropriate thing to do. Even the Vatican caught wind of it in Vatican 2 with aggiornamento. Discerning what are good and appropriate ways of being the church from ways that are heretical is not easy. And the truth is that we are sinners who see poorly. We hold these eternal truths in jars of clay. Which vessels are noble and which are made to break is a tough call.

5) Last snippet, David Brooks on “Why our Elites Stink”. Will the guy stop hinting around all worried about his NYT street cred already and just get on that soap box pulpit and say it – “What this group needs is conversion”. Ok, I’m not holding my breath for that, but that is really what the problem boils down to. The older leadership generation had its own sins (all the -isms that we rightly decry), but they also had a well grounded theology of human nature. If they themselves didn’t have faith itself, they still listened to what The Faith taught. That is not true anymore to all of our detriment.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.