Asking for the Judgment of God

There are many wonderful things about life in the church. Dealing with corrupt teaching is not one of them. It compromises and corrupts even those who try to faithfully teach God’s Word, until they often can no longer even see the corruption. It’s as if a beggar got so used to eating moldy bread, that they can no longer enjoy fresh baked bread from the oven. And it happens. People – members, pastors, synod officials – get so jaded about corruption of doctrine that they can not even see it when it is in front of them.

I recently had a discussion about the SET form. It is the “Self Evaluation Tool” which every pastor must fill out before ordination, and then update from time to time. (If you don’t update, your old answers stay there, so you are never without answers. Every pastor has one.) It was designed to help district presidents know what sort of pastor and man a candidate was, so they could match him to a local congregation. If a pastor absolutely refuses to do children’s sermons, and you have a congregation where the pastor has historically offered vibrant and lively children’s sermons, you might like to know that before issuing a call. If there is a specific health concern that a pastor has that limits where he can serve, or if the pastor has special training or skills that might fit well in a specific situation, that is good to know. You wouldn’t want to send a pastor that thinks closed communion is bad idea to a congregation that faithfully practices it, would you? Wait, what? Doesn’t scripture teach closed communion? Yes. Yes it does. And the SET inquires about it:

Describe your preferred communion practice in view of Res. 3-08 (Indianapolis, 1986) “Resolved, That the pastors and congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod continue to abide by the practice of close communion, which includes the necessity of exercising responsible pastoral care in extraordinary situations and circumstances.”

You may have noted that the question never mentions Holy Scripture, which teaches “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (ESV) It never asks how a pastor understands the small catechism, which explains “that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’… the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” It doesn’t ask how the pastor goes about teaching the precious doctrine of closed communion in his parish, and how he works with his officers (elders, ushers, etc.) to gently and pastorally implement it on a Sunday morning. Imagine if it did! Imagine if, instead of this procedural policy question, a pastor got to answer this “How do you patiently instruct your congregation in the proper teaching and practice of closed communion?” and then got to follow up by answering this question, “If an unknown visitor comes to your church on a Sunday morning, what happens?” Oh, the glory of such questions! An opportunity to confess the truth and beauty of God’s word, and to speak about how that word works itself out in the life of the church! I long for a church where those questions are asked of pastoral candidates!

Instead, and this shocks me every time I read it:

IT ASKS HIM WHAT HE PREFERS ABOUT A TEACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD!!!!

Of course, in one sense, that’s something we do need to know. Do you teach what the word of God teaches? But “what is your preference…” is a weak and weaselly way to ask that. And here’s where corruption – like rust or leaven – spreads: This is sent to calling congregations so they can see how pastors answer the questions. Members see this while they are literally “sheep without a shepherd.” They learn that closed communion is a preference. And then a new pastor comes in – this has happened – and they immediately try to talk the pastor into abandoning closed communion. After all, the district thinks its ok. It’s only just a preference and a policy and a resolution of synod. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual words that came from the mouth of Jesus on the night he was betrayed? If it were that important, surely the district would not ask about preferences. It’s just some silly policy the LCMS has. If it were more, surely the district would have quoted the Word of God.

Members have left the church over this. I don’t mean over closed communion itself – although people have left over that. But over the synod’s treating it like a preference. And people have been mislead by this corruption to think that closed communion is really just a hang up the pastor himself has – and if he has the hang up, my local *insert local community church that isn’t LCMS here* church doesn’t have that hang up. So I’ll just start going there. Maybe I stay on the roles here until they remove me, maybe I see if this guy sticks around. Maybe I let key members know that if he leaves, I come back.

These are not hypotheticals. I have seen them happen, and not just in the congregations where I have served. Districts that attempt to be faithful to the Word of God regarding closed communion are corrupting the very congregations they are trying to keep faithful. It is diabolical, in the truest sense – it originates with demons who can only lie about our Lord and his Word.

Closed communion isn’t the only time the SET form asks about preferences for things which are clearly taught in the Word of God. Those questions are, to me, the clearest sign that our synod is not united in doctrine. The proper word for that – and one that synod officials get the vapors if you use about the LCMS – is heterodoxy. Those questions are a blight for faithful pastors and congregations. They cause division and corruption even among the faithful, and the questions continue to be asked year after year, continue to be answered year after year, continue to be sent to sheep who are led astray – not by the answer, but by the questions themselves – year after year.

That’s why I say we are asking for God’s judgment in this. Jesus had a few choice words in John about those who teach and promote lies in His name. We should probably heed those words and repent. And, just as a matter of timing, it’s better to do that sooner, rather than later.

 

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What Does the Bible Say?

There is a post making the social media rounds, titled “Yes, the Bible Forbids ____”.*

The problem is, at no point does the article give evidence that the Bible actually forbids it. That’s sort of a problem. Claiming “The Bible Forbids” is to say “The Lord forbids X, Thus Sayeth the Lord.” No more discussion can be had. We are not to murder. We are not to commit adultery. We are not to steal. They are forbidden by explicit command. So, if an article by a Lutheran claims that something is forbidden by Holy Scripture, we are done talking. No dialogue needed. Conversation ended. Don’t do it.

The article does say that the church has taught against X for it’s entire history. And that scripture encourages the opposite of X. Both are weighty arguments. Both are worthy of being said publicly. There are valid reasons that the church speaks against certain things as an extension of the 10 commandments, even if a certain thing is not specifically forbidden of itself. There are reasons the church praises things, or scripture encourages things but stops short of forbidding or requiring. Such reasoning can not be easily dismissed, and it is a good – even necessary – conversation to have. It’s one that usually results in a greater appreciation for the Word of God, which we are commanded to hold sacred and to gladly hear and learn.

But none of that is the same as “Scripture forbids.” That’s not just a high standard. It’s the highest. And it is pretty much reserved for 8 specific things (Two of the commandments are written positively as commands to do something. The other 8 forbid things).

So, tell me the Bible forbids stealing. Tell me the Bible forbids coveting. But if you say the Bible forbids something else, then I get immediately squeamish if you don’t follow it up with evidence of actually being forbidden. Because when we say “Scripture forbids” but scripture doesn’t actually forbid – or at least you don’t show where scripture forbids – now you are or (at least appear to be) teaching as doctrines of God the opinions of man. And that we are forbidden from doing (2nd & 3rd commandment). And even if it’s just sloppiness – maybe scripture does forbid it and you forgot to show how – it still opens us to the charge of speaking opinions, rather than the Word of God. The church can not do that. If something is forbidden in the bible, show clearly where THE BIBLE FORBIDS IT. But if you make the claim, you must provide the evidence. Otherwise, we are just people with an opinion, who throw scripture around to sound more authoritative than we are.

So, let’s speak clearly the Word of God. Let’s call sin, sin. Let’s forbid what God forbids. Let’s command what God commands. And let’s lay out in all it’s fullness the promises of God. But let’s not go beyond what God has actually said. And let’s not claim more than we can show in the only writing which is by definition without error – the infallible, unchanging, and holy Word of God.

*NOTE: I’ve left out what the article claims, because I want this to be about method, not the topic itself, and it’s kind of a hot topic these days.

 

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Sermon for Trinity 12

We started our prayer today with a strange comment – “Almighty and merciful God, by Your gift alone, your people render true and laudable service…” It is God’s gift that we serve him faithfully. That means any works we do are a gift from God. They are no credit to us. The Gospel reading shows that this is true. So let us consider this word which God caused to be written for our instruction and benefit.

Jesus has been hanging out just outside of Israel. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities. Jesus comes from them, over to the sea of Galilee – the region where he grew up – and then heads farther east to another Gentile area – the Decapolis. It means the ten cities. Everywhere Jesus goes in Israel – Judea, Samaria, Galilee, he is followed by crowds, and the people bring him the sick, lame, blind, demon possessed so that he can heal them. Now, he’s going outside of Israel, and still he is surrounded by people who need healing. This time, it’s a man who had never heard of Jesus. He’s never heard anything. He is deaf, and so can not talk either. Grunts and crude gestures were all he knew. He knew nothing of Jesus. His friends did. They must have heard about him somehow. And when they knew he was coming through, they took their friend, and brought him to Jesus.

We talk about faith and love. Here we see faith, and we see it in action. The men had faith in Jesus to heal. And so they come to him, they bring their friend, they ask Jesus to heal him. Faith moves into action. We’ve seen that this year. The initial fear over sickness turning into a hunger and thirst for the word and promise of God, for his holy sacrament. And so, back to the source we come. Back to the church, the place where we are given life.

Our inner thoughts and desires play out in our actions. Those who know that Jesus is the only source of life, that he is the truth in a world that is one lie after another – they will find a way to hear and receive that word of life from the lips of Jesus.

In China, churches are being bulldozed, Christians taken to prison, where they disappear for years or for ever. And yet the Christians are memorizing scripture as quickly as they can – if buildings and books are taken, they will still have the word and promise of Christ on their lips and in their hearts, engraved in their thoughts. Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned in Phillipi, and yet they sang songs of praise. Even prison can not stop the songs and hymns and psalms of the Christian. Even persecution can not stop the church from gathering to hear and receive the gifts of Jesus given through the water, through the absolution, through the body and blood.

When we say that only by God’s gift can we render him service, we have in mind that Psalm: “O Lord open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” We must wait for the Lord to open our ears to hear, our minds to understand, our hearts to believe, and then our lips to sing his praise. Otherwise, we are like that deaf mute. We can hear and receive nothing of God’s gift. Jesus has to give that man even the ability to hear the name of Jesus. His friends in faith bring him to Jesus, just as we come before God in faith to hear and receive his gifts.

That is faith.

And then, we see love in action as well – the love of Jesus who heals the man of his deafness and gives his tongue the ability to speak. Love is an active word, not mere feeling. It is showing kindness to others. We see love most clearly in Jesus death and resurrection. Today’s Gospel points us to that tremendous event in salvation history – Jesus is undoing the curse of sin that causes sickness and death, that causes a man to be born without working ears, and without a tongue that can speak. All of Jesus miracles are just arrows pointing to the salvation he will earn on the cross. And it also shows that God saves more than our souls. He saves our bodies as well. The false teachers of today say that the body is of no account. That we can do what we want to it and it’s none of God’s business. The deaf man shows how much of a lie that is. He could hear nothing. If he self-identified as a hearer, it would not have changed who he was. He needed Jesus to open his ears. The same Jesus that was in the beginning with God when man was created. That formed man from the dust of the ground gave him a body in this world, and then breathed into him the breath of life. We are more than mere matter and dust. But that does not mean we are no longer matter and dust. The body matters. What we do matters. Our sins effect our bodies in ways we do not even know or understand. We speak of being weighed down with sin. If you’ve ever had a guilty conscience about something – a friend that you betrayed, a lie that you told, a wicked deed you did, you know what it is to be weighed down. You can physically feel the weight of your sin, pressing on your shoulders, pressing on your heart. To be relieved of that burden is a great relief. To have someone take that away is a wonderful gift. If your friend forgives, or you make right the wrong you have done, you feel lighter, you bounce a little when you walk. Sin and guilt oppress us. And ignoring the conscience, dulling it so it no longer weighs down and cuts at our heart doesn’t relieve us of the guilt. It just places the burden elsewhere in our heart. We need forgiveness. Not that we forgive ourselves. Not that we find peace within ourselves. That is a false forgiveness and a false peace. It won’t work. The sin the guilt is still there, festering like a wound that you try to ignore, but that gets worse and worse. Only the word of forgiveness from God can heal the wound, can take the burden, can lighten the load. Forgiveness from God – spoken by Jesus through his ministers – that is the wonderful gift which he gives so that we can serve him, and render him true and laudable service. The sinner can not serve God, or even come into his presence. That’s why forgiveness is such a tremendous gift. Because it takes away the burden, it heals, it gives us the ability to once again hear and receive the promise of God through Jesus Christ. To raise our voices in song and praise him for his wondrous deeds.

Back to the miracle recorded in our Gospel. The man is brought to Jesus, who takes him aside from the crowds. How else will he know who heals him. He can not be told. Jesus touches his ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue. I will heal your ears, loosen your tongue he says  in a way that the man understands.

The idea of Jesus spitting and touching the man’s tongue perhaps makes us a bit squeamish in our germ-phobic world. We can’t even breathe or speak without protection now. Jesus makes a physical connection between his mouth – the word that he speaks – and this man’s mouth which is mute. Jesus will release his mouth, and the man will sing praises. And those praises will spread to all around him. But it begins with this simple and humble gesture between God and this deaf mute.

The early church was accused of cannibalism. That’s pretty easy to see why “This is my body, this is my blood.” We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus when we gather. When the early church had to defend itself, it could have said “It just represents him. It isn’t really his body and blood. It’s only really bread and wine.” They never said that. It would have been the easy way out. Instead they said, “We don’t kill anyone. It starts as bread and wine, but is the body and blood of God that we eat and drink.” Why would they say this – it only confuses and makes them look guilty and gives their enemies more ammunition. But they could not deny Jesus. They could not deny his word. And they knew and confessed, as Justin Martyr says, “as Jesus Christ, our Savior, having been made flesh and blood by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise … the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word and from which our flesh and blood… are nourished, is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.”

How much easier it would have been for them had they just denied the truth. But we can not deny our Lord and his word. And early on in the current crisis, President Hill went to go to the governor and explained what communion was, and what we confessed, and what we did – and they were astonished at what President Hill and Pastor Maas told them. By the grace of God, they relented with their decrees which would have denied us the sacrament. But even had they kept those decrees in place, we would have gathered and received the gifts of God anyway. Because here in Christ’s church is offered something that we can not get anywhere else, that can not be bought with gold, or refined in a factory or a lab, or injected in a clinic – we get the remedy for death. We are given the life of God himself – a life that can not be overcome by death, and we know this because he went through death for us, and overcame death so that we would overcome death.

That is why our Lord Jesus touches this man in such a strange and to our ears kind of disgusting way. Because he is God in the flesh. And even his spittle is greater than the finest and most precious medicine. Do not doubt. But believe this word of God. And if his spit has such power, how much greater the power of his blood which was shed for you and which is now given to you with his body, for you to eat and to drink, so that you would be saved not only from your sin, but from death itself, from the grave that looms at the end of every life in this world, to save you from the gates of hell, the bars of that eternal prison which ends in a lake of fire.

We aren’t dealing in worldly things here, although we are in the world. We aren’t giving out things that pass away, although we ourselves will pass away to this world. We are not just talking about spiritual mental images. We are handing out the holy things of God. And the world laughs. It mocks us, and calls us unimportant, and turns its attention to the kingdoms of this earth, and the wisdom and learning of this earth. But those will pass away. The word of the Lord will never pass away.

And the song of the people sung so many years ago “He does all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” That song will be sung by angels and archangels and all the saints who have gone before us and who will come after, when we are taken to be with Jesus in His kingdom, we will join in these songs of praise to the Lamb who was slain, and now reigns above all things. For from him and through Him and to him are all things. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us a new birth of water and the spirit that we might praise him forever and ever. He gives us his gifts, so that we might render true and laudable service to him. He does all things well. Amen.

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Not Being Honest

The synod has never taken a survey about pastoral trust levels of their own District Presidents. It would be an interesting survey. Even more interesting would be a survey about trust of the COP as a whole. I have a feeling it would make congressional approval ratings look very high.

Now, that’s not a very nice thing for me to say. But it’s kind of hard to trust a group that so consistently talks out of both sides of its mouth. Now, that’s not only not very nice, it’s a pretty serious charge. If I’m going to make it, I should have evidence.

Why would pastors not trust the COP and think it is two-faced and dishonest?

Well, here is what they tell pastors about their Self-Evaluation Tool (A form pastors fill out about what they believe and teach in the church.):

 

The key part is: “The Lutheran pastor is always ready to state forthrightly what he believes, teaches, confesses, and practices in the congregation…”

And then there is this, which is what they tell congregations:

The key part is this: SETs… are confidential… intended solely for  use during the call process. Please shred/destroy…

So which is it? Are SETs a public statement of what we believe, teach, confess, and practice in the congregation? Or are they confidential? Pick one and go with it. Don’t tell us we must be open about what we do, when you are hiding under a veil of confidentiality about the very same document.

Sunlight makes an excellent disinfectant. The COP should try some.

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Addendum: A Chance for Humanity

Pastors, if you are having trouble visiting your members at the nursing home, recognize that the person you are talking to has no authority. And even if you talk to the nursing home administrator, they likely have no authority.

You are trying to get through a wall, and it is quite solid. But there may be a door. Small, hard to open, and perhaps also locked tight. But, you might find that someone forgot and left it unlocked.

Ask for the phone number of the attending physician for the nursing home. Try to talk to them. In the few cases where pastors have been able to talk to actual medical folks, they can see the damage that isolation is doing. They may be willing to try and find a loophole for you to visit. It may not work. But I’ve had some success with it. You might as well.

Blessings as you try to minister to your flock.

 

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Inhumane Treatment of the Elderly

We are now in month seven of “two weeks to flatten the curve”. In that time, nursing homes have been essentially shut down. The people – human beings – who live there (if you can call that living) are being treated more as inmates than residents. Seven months with no visitors in many cases. Seven months without hearing from their pastor the Word of God, without tasting the salvation of the Lord who comes to us in his body and blood.

I was at a conference yesterday, and heard heartbreaking stories of faithful dear saints who have died of loneliness. No family, no pastor, nothing. What began as precautionary has vaulted past inhumane and is now an unconscionable abuse of our most vulnerable. It is yet another crime which cries out to the heavens for relief.

And do not be mistaken: God hears the cries of the vulnerable and weak and powerless. And he will avenge.

We are not only material beings. Yes, we are formed from the dust of the ground. But “It is not good for man to be alone.” We need others around us. We need our family. I have seen members take care of a sick spouse, dutifully working hard each day, keeping their health and their stamina. Once the spouse died, their bodies shut down. In a matter of months – and sometimes weeks, they just stopped. The body is more than food, the mind more than neurons. We are given souls, and those souls must be fed. If they are fed only a steady diet of lies (materialism, evolutionary theory, the latest Malthusian planetary catastrophe, etc.) they become hardened and callous. Riots are the result. We have sown the wind, and now reap the whirlwind for encouraging fatherless homes, saying that our lives are worth no more than the matter it takes to build a body. Now our medics try to lock away the elderly from any threat, as if that were ever possible. Their minds are slipping. Their spirits crushed. Their souls in danger. And pastors are told time and again “Not yet, be patient. It’s our policy.” These policies are despicable. They are wicked. And God will judge us for them – if he is not already doing so. Our cities, with their towers that reach into the heavens, are burning one after another.

We can not continue on this path. Eventually, if nothing else stops it, we will run out of things to burn. We will run out of people to kill. We will lose our humanity, and become like the beasts of the field. God has given that judgment before. He can do it again.

The time has come to stop panicking about saving lives, and start considering the damage we are doing to souls – not only the elderly, but our own. What is our inhumanity to them costing us? It is a price that, I promise, we are not able to pay.

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Sermon for Trinity 10

If you couldn’t make it to church, here’s the sermon for today. If you could make it, and want to review it, GREAT! If you could make it, but didn’t go – read it anyway. Next week, see you there.

Jesus weeps over the city. This past week marks the 1950th anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem. August 10, 70 AD. The Romans took the city, the temple was be destroyed, so that not one stone remained on another, and it has not been rebuilt to this very day. Today, an idolatrous shrine to Allah stands on the site. God is not mocked. The people did not know the time of their visitation – Jesus the Son of God came into the world, he was dwelling among them, and they tried to destroy him by nailing him to a cross.

Back when Jesus spoke his words of prophecy and warning, they would have seemed absurd. The temple was 150 feet of gleaming carved rock. You could see it for miles. It was an engineering marvel. Israel – for all their complaining about Rome, was really doing quite well. The general peace over the land meant that travel was easy, tourist dollars were flowing in, God had preserved them 200 years earlier from an attempt to exterminate the Jews. The Maccabees miraculously were able to gain independence. Herod the great switched his allegiance from Greek to Roman and then from one Roman General to another at just the right moment so that no war was fought over Israel. They were blessed, protected from all evil. And they were the most religious they had ever been – the most zealous for the law in all their history. God must be pleased with them. He must have been impressed with their faithfulness. Certainly there was no danger of destruction.

Less than 40 years later, it all lay in ruins. They did not know the time of their visitation. Jesus came, and they rejected him. There are warning signs already in our Gospel – they were not as faithful as they thought. The temple was to be a house of prayer – they had turned the outer courts from prayer to sales. Money was flowing in. Times were good. Until Jesus comes along and flips tables, makes a whip from ropes and shoos the animals out. Prayer to God, not profits. What was really happening was hidden from them – God visiting his people. All they saw was a troublemaker – how to arrest him without angering the crowds so they could get back to all the important things they were doing. They were so caught up in their own works, their own righteousness that they couldn’t see what was really happening – Jesus had come to pay the penalty for sin. For them to acknowledge that, they would have to admit they were sinners. That wasn’t really possible – they were so prosperous. Things were going so well. How could they possibly be sinners?

That’s a question we might well ask – our nation is the wealthiest in all human history. We have medical technology that would be envied by previous generations. We can – so it seems – do anything. Independence Rock – to the west – used to mark the spot where you had to be by July 4th, to avoid dying in the mountains further west. You could go see it and be back home in a day. Make it to the sawtooths and back before the week is out. Even better – Fly half-way around the world in a day. Call a stranger in a foreign country. Look up live pictures of their city online

We had made death a problem only for the very old. Science could cure all manner of diseases. The Average lifespan doubled in a century. Certainly it would double again. We heard rumors of 150 years for the average lifespan. And then duddenly, our technology in which we trusted was taken from us. A single disease might wipe us all out – we didn’t know. Fear replaced arrogance.

Our amusements disappeared overnight. TV? No new shows. Sports? Still out of commission. Suddenly the things we distracted ourselves with were gone. Oh well, we could bounce back. After all, we are a nation of mighty cities. We have towers the top of which reach into the heavens. Certainly we are not going to be brought down by something so simple. We are practically invulnerable. And now our cities burn. Violent crime is through the roof, record numbers of murders in New York, Chicago, Minnesota, Portland, Los Angeles, Denver. On and on.

And still we wait – surely Science will not let us down. A vaccine is on the way. We hope. We hope it arrives, we hope it is effective, we hope it has no terrible side effects.

Our gods in which we trusted have been thrown down one after another. And yet, attendance at many churches is still far below normal. No one turns to the Lord in prayer and supplication. Instead our nation has doubled down on idolatry. Forbidding worship of the true God. Churches closed in many places. Where it isn’t attendance is not up. Church is unnecessary, sacrifice of the unborn and elderly are essential. Those who put their trust in princes have seen those princes powerless and ineffective.

And like the prophets of Baal, dancing around the altar, screaming and cutting themselves trying to get Baals attention, our nation goes from one idol to another, and there no answer, No response. Not even a word.

It used to be in times of trouble, we would have a day of Humiliation and prayer. We would humble ourselves before the Lord God, repent of our sin, and ask him to turn away from his anger. Even the wicked city of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes when Jonah brought the word of warning to them. We don’t do that. Rather, like the Pharaoh and the plagues, the heart of our nation is hardened. Is this moment the judgment – or is more to come? Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. Is that the case for us? Does our nation worship the Lord God – Father Son and Holy Spirit and serve him only?

We can’t force someone to acknowledge the Lord God. We can pray for the people around us – this we must do – that they repent, return to the Lord, and that the Lord turn away from his fierce anger against us. That he not destroy the righteous with the wicked. Let our prayers continually ascend like incense before his throne.

A visitation from the Lord – that’s what Jesus is talking about. That visitation continues to this very day – through his Holy Church, where Jesus word is preached and His sacraments are given. Where his message of salvation is proclaimed and his absolution is declared to all those who repent of their sin.

The church can not be a little bit of Jesus-spice for our lives, like salt on our evening meal – as if we just sprinkle a little bit here and there to make our lives – which were already pretty good – into something amazing.

The truth is, we face death. We are dying. We need Jesus. He is the only one who can save. The people did not know the time of their visitation. But the sick, the lame, those oppressed by demons – they knew. They cried out with all their might Lord Have mercy. They would not be turned away from him. They are an example to us of faith and prayer. We need Jesus each and every day. We need forgiveness from the moment we wake up, to the moment we go back to sleep. As Saint Paul says – Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.

We must be constant in prayer, faithful in study of the Word, not let our hearts turn cold to his promises, but always treasure them as the precious gift they are – our only way to salvation.

We dare not look at the church – the place where God has promised to come to us in his body and blood, and we say “Not today Jesus. I’ve had enough Jesus for now. Maybe later I’ll have some Jesus.” He promises to be hear to save us from our sins. To deliver us from hell. Let’s not shortchange him by turning away from the gifts he offers, as if we just don’t need them. Luther says if we understood what is really given here, we would run to it every day. Let’s not neglect the visitation of our Lord at his table, with his meal to feed us.

Now is the time of grace – the time when the Word of God is proclaimed, and all those who turn from their sin and repent and look to him for salvation are brought into the kingdom of His love and mercy. But the time of Grace will end. Our Lord will return to judge the quick and the dead as we confess in the creed. John the Baptist cried out with  urgency “prepare the way of the Lord. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” So also today the church calls out repent. And that doesn’t mean just one-time turning away from sin. Luther explains Baptism this way – Baptizing with water indicates that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and again a new man daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Repentance is the every day activity of the Christian. Forgiveness is the everyday clothing we wear in Christ, according to our Baptism.

We constantly return to the Lord, and are fed by him at His altar.That is why he wants to feed us each week with his body and blood. So that we would be strengthened, so that we would not begin to despise his promise.

We repent of our sins. We receive the absolution. That’s why God gave his church to the world – so that we would have a place to go to receive his gift of forgiveness. And where there is forgiveness there is life and salvation. Because God does not want to destroy. He wants to save. He wants to forgive. That’s why, as we heard last week – there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. It’s why he warns against the things of this world – so we don’t get entangled in them. So, when our last our comes, we fall asleep in the blessed assurance of eternal life through Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, all those who die will live, and all those who live and believe in him will never die. That is the promise, it is our hope. That salvation is the gift Jesus gives to all who those who acknowledge the visitation of our Lord Jesus Christ into the world. Come Lord Jesus – return and bring us to be with you. Amen.

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Sermon for Trinity 9

There are so many clear and uplifting Gospel readings throughout the year, which speak beautifully of the gift of salvation, and the promise of forgiveness to all those who repent of their sins and believe on the name of Jesus. There are some Gospel readings that serve as stern warnings against sin, and against thinking our works somehow earn us something before God. There is one Gospel reading that is obscure, hard to understand. It is today’s. Looking through the fathers of the church, most of the time you find a pretty good consensus about the meaning of any Gospel reading. And then there’s today’s reading. No consensus. Each explanation seems less likely than the last. This raises two questions. The first – why, among all the other possible Gospel readings in the church year, did this one get included in the lectionary? What were the fathers of the church thinking? And second, why did our Lord speak these words in the first place? God is not a God of confusion, but of order. The Law and the Gospel are not uncertain, they are the more sure testimony of God, given in the person of Jesus Christ, and recorded by the apostles who were witnesses of his glory, and who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who gave them the very words they were to write – each word absolutely correct in every way. The goal of the Scriptures is to lay out salvation history for us in clear terms. And then we have today’s Gospel. What is going on?

The first question – why did this get included in the lectionary – is actually a mystery. The lectionary – the series of readings over the course of the year – actually predates committee meeting minutes. We have no record of how or why the historic lectionary was formed. We know it goes back past Luther by almost 1,000 years, and that it developed over many centuries. Changes occur slowly. In Luther’s Say, transfiguration was in August – this week actually. Now, it’s moved to the end of Epiphany usually in February. Today’s readings go back before records about why. We can only speculate – perhaps so pastors have to get up once a year and admit they are stumped. It’s a good thing for pastors to remain humble. And this is a humbling Gospel reading. Because a close reading of the text is puzzling. Looking at the sermons of the great preachers throughout history, you don’t get solid answers. So what do you do? You could say “It must be this new thing that I’ve discovered”. That’s pretty arrogant – claiming that Luther, Augustine, Chrysostom, Walther were all lesser theologians who got it wrong.

But the bigger question – why did God speak these words in the first place? What was he doing? A servant who is dishonest, yet commended by the master? Obviously Jesus isn’t recommending dishonesty and theft. So what do we have here? There are some common themes that come up in various sermons on this reading throughout the history of the church – some basic truths that we can find in the details, that can guide us through. That’s unusual – most of the time you look at a parable and find the main point, and then look at the details to see how they fit in. This time we have to look at the details and try to work through that to the main point.

The first thing to understand is this – God is smarter than we are. Have you ever had a little child – 3 or maybe 4 – ask how something works. “Why do we put things in the oven?” Now is not the time for detailed discussions of how heat and chemistry work together, with charts and graphs about the chemical compositions of carbon and hydrogen. “To cook it” is sufficient. “How does the car go?” You don’t need compression ratios and valve timing. “The gas goes in the engine, and the engine goes.” They may follow up with more questions. But you won’t be having conversations about different fuel mixtures. You keep it simple, to match the person asking the question.

God created the heavens and the earth. He created physics – made it so planets go in orbits around the sun, so time and space and gravity work together in this world, he created chemistry, the elements that make up the world around us, and their various parts. He created the rules for oxygen – how we need it to breathe, and fires need it to burn – he did that thousands of years before it was discovered. How much more does he know, that we have not yet discovered – and perhaps never will? His understanding is so far beyond ours. He condescends to teach us. He gives his Word to us, in simple thoughts that we can understand. It isn’t a mistake that we have this strange parable, as if God forgot we wouldn’t quite get it. He gave it to us intentionally, knowing we wouldn’t get it. And that’s ok. The Blessed Reformer Martin Luther said that if there is a passage of scripture you don’t understand, don’t trouble yourself over it. Give thanks to God, and move on. He is smarter than you. That’s a good thing. He’s got the whole world in the palm of his hand. The hairs on your head are numbered – you don’t even know that much about yourself. And nothing gets by him. So, if he gave us this parable and we don’t understand it, it does not need to become a stumbling block for us. We give thanks to him, we get what we can from it, and we move on.

Today, Jesus is finishing up a series of parables. We heard the first two a few weeks back – the lost sheep and lost coin. Then there was the prodigal Son. And now this. Lost sheep & Coin and the Prodigal Son are all about forgiveness for sinners – it is given freely by God who loves us, and rejoices when one sinner repents of his sins. “My son who was lost is now found, he was dead but is now alive!” The prodigal son ends with Jesus talking about the faithful son, who was angry about the prodigal son getting a feast. He wasn’t happy that the sinner had repented of his sin. And he thought the Father was wasting that feast. Just as the Pharisees did when they saw Jesus hanging out with sinners.

This is the final parable in that series. And Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees because they are about status and the things of this world. They are endlessly looking to see who is in front, how can they get there? Are they good enough? Have they done enough? One of the ways they would try and see if God was pleased with them was this – am I doing well in the world? Do people respect me? Is my bank account doing well? Is my retirement plan in order? Now, these were the leaders of the people, so most of them qualified. Others – those who weren’t Pharisees – didn’t do so well. Which they took as proof that they were pleasing God with all of their works, and others were not.

Jesus has made clear that their works get them nothing. God is happier about a single sinner that repents than about 99 who don’t need to repent. Of course – if we look at the 10 commandments honestly, we all need to repent. The Pharisees were sheep who needed to repent, but didn’t because they thought their works earned them something. God forgives freely for Jesus sake. We don’t earn it. And now, having made that point crystal clear, He gives them a parable about how they should use their works. Not to cheat their employer. That’s not the point. But look at what Jesus says at the end – “Make for yourselves friends by unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into eternal dwellings.”

We’ve been talking a lot about showing love to neighbor – that’s what the Christian does with his time when he isn’t worshipping God. Jesus here says – use that wealth you’ve been given for other people’s good. When he says unrighteous mammon, he doesn’t mean ill gotten gains. Those you must return to the one you stole it from. He means riches in this world. Because this world’s riches are not righteous. Riches in this world are not a sign God is pleased with you. They can be a blessing – but they can also be a curse, leading to greed and ambition. Instead, we are to use all the things God gives us in this world for those around us in need. That’s what he says over and over. It doesn’t earn you anything. The dishonest manager is relying on charity – the charity and kindness of his master, that he won’t be put in prison over this, and the charity of those he helped once upon a time. They don’t owe him. They aren’t in debt to him because of what he did with their bill. But he trusts that they will respond with kindness.

The master is very just – he honors the word of his disgraced steward. He doesn’t try to weasel out. “That’s not how debt reduction works!” He honors the word of the steward, even though everyone pretty much knows it’s a fraud. That’s how honest and righteous he is. So our Lord will hold himself to his promises. And he promises grace and every blessing to those who love him and keep his commandments. He promises forgiveness to those who go astray and repent of their sin, turning to Jesus and his work on their behalf.

Jesus is basically saying, “Don’t think that possessions are anything, or lack of them are anything. Love your neighbor, as God has given you to do, whether you have much or little. Don’t get caught up with the mammon of unrighteousness.”

Right after our reading, we’re told that the Pharisees understood that all of these parables were about them – that Jesus was speaking against them. So we know that he is speaking against the Pharisees. They understood exactly what he was saying to them – even if we maybe get confused on the way. They know that he was calling them out for hypocrisy for their lack of love, for their lack of faith in God to save them. Those are recurring themes throughout the scriptures, and despite differing interpretations of this parable, all the interpretations revolve around those things – Jesus saving us and forgiving us in love without any work on our part, and we respond with love to our neighbor. Those are the themes of this parable because that is what is spoken of everywhere else, and we know that this parable fits in, however strangely, with the word given elsewhere.

Jesus reminds us – in ways that make us uncomfortable – of our responsibility toward God and our neighbor. We are to use our treasures in this world to help proclaim the Gospel, to help our neighbor in his need. That’s our task. We do that whether times are good or bad, whether we have a boom or a bust, health or pandemic. We continue to do the things of God.

That’s another thing about this parable. The steward was a wasteful thief. And when he was called on it, he just got more wasteful, and more thievey. The master was righteous, and when the time came, he was even more righteous. Those who are about the things of this world, when the time comes, will turn to the things of this world. Those who are about their own works, when the time comes, will turn to their own works to try to save themselves – a great tragedy, because your works will fail you, and if you trust them, you will be condemned.

But those who look to Christ in good times, when times of trouble come will look even harder and more intently at him. Those who, in love toward God show love to their neighbor, in times of trouble in times of strife, they will love their neighbor even more. And Jesus, who came into the world to save sinners, will be about his Father’s business – even shedding his blood for them, and giving himself to us in the Holy Sacraments, reassuring us of salvation through Baptism and the Supper. And in faith, we turn to those things even more in times of trouble.

The Lord will not forsake us. Let us cling to him. And then, let us cling even more, to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

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Collapsing Two Ways

The great Economist(?) Ernest Hemingway said that bankruptcy happens two ways: First gradually, then suddenly. I think Colleges are going to be taking a whirlwind tour of those two phases in the next couple of years.

I saw a headline that 20% of Harvard admittees this year are deferring. I think gap years are going to be very popular. Those who do go will face stupidity on a level that would shame a drunken fratboy, and conditions that would not be tolerated in our prisons. An example: My local university is only allowing one person per dorm room, and no visitors between rooms. That’s stupid on its face. The rule won’t be followed, unless North-Korea levels of surveillance are enacted. Colleges are cancelling their sportsball seasons left and right. College is about to become very austere, very expensive, and entirely useless. (I think you can get away with two of those at a time. Austere and Expensive must be useful, expensive and useless must be wild and crazy, austere and useless must be cheap.) College used to be a good value, and academically rigorous. Now it is neither of those things. Even parents who recommend it to their children, say “you need the college experience”. It isn’t the learning that’s important. It’s the experience. The wild and crazy fun time before entering adulthood. Anything you learn is really incidental to that. Oh, the Marxist indoctrination and struggle sessions are rampant – that must be also be endured. But any learning that is useful is incidental to those things.

People are realizing they are paying exorbitant prices for leftist indoctrination under conditions that are banned by the Geneva conventions as human rights abuse. It won’t last. Those who defer “for a year” will eagerly greet their friends at Christmastime, only to discover that their friends have nothing good to report. High School seniors will similarly get reports from friends and siblings at the holidays. And then?

Well, so far, we’ve been through different phases of this:

Winter/Spring: Let’s just get through this. We’re all in it together!
Spring/Early Summer: We’ll regroup for next year! It will be find in the fall!
Summer: Ummm….
Now: Don’t worry! We’ll do something! It won’t be as bad as you think! Also, it will probably be cancelled almost immediately.  You’ll still pay 30K for online classes, right?

So, here’s my prediction. Those who are waiting on the sidelines, or not yet in the game will decide that they don’t want it – probably about Christmastime – and will look for other ways to find their fortune in the world. (Skilled trades, military service, etc.) College enrollments – already teetering on the brink – will go into free fall for the 2021-2022 year. Aside from schools like Harvard (which has an endowment large enough that they don’t actually need students to remain financially viable) many/most schools are already financially unhealthy.

Now, my interest in leftist state institutions is pretty minimal. But as a member in good standing of the Lutheran Church – Missourah Synod, and a graduate of four different LCMS schools over the years, I have a sort of vested interest that LCMS schools not totally collapse. Our schools are definitely NOT in a position to weather prolonged reliance on endowment funds. We’ve lost two schools already. Another took a seven million dollar loan to cover operating expenses – and that was before The RONA hit. (They also have one of those shrewd online-schooling contracts with the folks who bankrupted Portland. Talk about wise as a box of rocks, yeesh!)

Here is my advice: The Concordias are going to need to consolidate. This isn’t opinion. With two closed and one on the brink even Baghdad Bob would admit things look grim. We need to plan for it ahead of time – and there is very little time left – so we don’t get hit with multi-million dollar lawsuits. That way we can use the consolidation to strengthen our position, rather than just writing off one valuable property after another, and then spending money we don’t have in litigation for the next decade. Any solution will require selflessness on the part of all, and a spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of the church. I’m not sure our Concordias have that in them, but if they still do, here’s what we need to do.

  1. Call a meeting of all our Presidents and Board of Regent Chairmen, with the Presidium of Synod and the CUS Board. Zoom if necessary, but in person as much as possible. Have everyone frankly lay on the table any adverse contracts, outstanding obligations, and long term debts, as well as any long-term benefits, assets, etc. This is not the time to hide problems. Make clear that any school that hides a problem, when (NOT IF) it is discovered, will be on the chopping block immediately.
  2. Immediately suspend any golden parachutes to outgoing presidents. Any deals that presidents make to pillage institutions on the way out will be publicized. The sweetheart deal that the president of Portland got as he left could serve as an example of what not to do. This gives Presidents skin in the game.
  3. Contact any contract holders of large contracts/liabilities – let them know that the contract needs to be renegotiated. Show them the articles about Portland, let them know they will end up without a dime, and looking like jerks. If you want to run an online platform for a college, it’s a hard sell when you kill/bankrupt multiple colleges and then sue them to try to pick over the bones. That’s not a good look long term.
  4. Reduce expenses. I don’t mean “We’re going to cut janitorial by 10%. Departments will have to empty their own garbage cans.” I mean “The LCMS is not going to support a school with programs inimical to our doctrine. No funds. No loans. No help.” If you want to survive, you need Lutheran faculty teaching Lutheran doctrine. Entire departments need to go – mostly in the soft sciences. They’ve always been hotbeds of Marxism. Time to cut the dead weight. The Concordias need to refocus on who they are – Lutheran institutions of higher learning. The local non-Christian students that have been carrying us for the last few decades are going to be gone anyway. Who needs a masters in underwater Marxist basket weaving when the local government has closed all waterparks? So plan for that to happen. Cut now, before the departments become a drag.
  5. Figure out how many schools we could realistically support from Lutheran students. Then expend the scope. If we make the institutions specifically Christian and Lutheran with high-quality education (Hillsdale style) we can enter a niche that is looking for more entrants. Hillsdale entry requirements are now so strict that they accept only the best and brightest from among the best and brightest. I know of several people who have been denied admission, despite stellar credentials. There is a market for this. But we need to get off the Marxist-leftist bandwagon, and fast. And coordinate between schools more so we don’t end up with duplicated programs that don’t need to be duplicated. We don’t need three different Deaconess programs. (I’m bringing the seminaries into this, but the principle holds. Take a close look at some of these small programs and figure out to run them out of one (or at most two) schools.
  6. How many schools could we run with this model? Maybe 4. You may say, “But that’s no good! We would be sacrificing four more schools!” Yes. But 3 or 4 high-quality schools that survive is better than 8 slowly bleeding to death on their own. In that scenario, maybe 2 make it through, and then only limply. Look into shared governance – The Mequon/Ann Arbor model might work for some. (Churches call this the Hub-and-spoke or Cathedral model. ) Perhaps re-open a closed campus as extension schools of the Hub school. This could save on administration.
  7. We don’t need diversity officers. We can probably do without a lot of officials at our schools. It isn’t the whole solution, but we need a top – down look at administration/funding, etc. Look at schools that have lower overhead than we do (Lutheran or otherwise) – call them exemplar schools. Investigate how they do it. Bring what could work into our schools.
  8. Portland has proven that their’s no money to be had from closing a school. Closing costs and lawsuits eat up any profits from the sale of property. So if any schools aren’t on board, or would otherwise be closed, offer them a one-time deal: They can walk away with their school, take all their obligations with them, as long as they don’t use the name Concordia anymore. Clean break. It sucks. It would be nice to sell the land and pocket the dough. But that won’t happen. And we need to move forward.
  9. Rededicate ourselves to actually living up to the promo videos. I see a bunch of stuff about quality Lutheran education. And then I see what questions get asked in “meet the potential new president candidate forums” by the local faculty. These are marginally Lutheran administratively at the top. But beyond that, the faculty is hostile to Lutheran theology. That can’t continue. A house divided, and all that. Faculty that aren’t on board with being distinctively Lutheran should be given a glowing recommendation, and shown the door. For those who want to stick it out and fight, show them the salary scale in use at Concordia Portland this year. Offer to give them a tour of the Faculty offices at our University in Selma. It’s time be actively, unapologetically Lutheran.
  10. Yes, this will be painful. But I recall hearing an academic advisor telling a student, “You can take theology classes at Local Catholic school. Since you aren’t a church work student, they’ll transfer over, they’re cheaper, and they’re much easier.” That was in 1991. This has been a problem for a looooong time. We have a last chance to fix it before the judgment arrives. But only just.
  11. Plan to consolidate. I don’t know the ins and outs of college admin. But I know what it means to run out of cash and have to consolidate. I serve three congregations – until I serve a fourth. I know of a five-point parish. And I’ve seen what happens when the response is “We’ll just keep doing what we were doing until we run out of money. Then we’ll do it without money!” Those congregations close. We’ve lost two pretty much independent Universities. Another would have closed – it survived because a sister institution looked outside itself and offered to help. Our Universities are incredibly complex organizations. This will take time. We don’t have much left. If we dither now, we will lose much more. If we plan ahead, make hard choices, and be who we are, we can weather this storm, and come out the other side stronger – even if that means 2-4 uniquely Lutheran Universities instead of 8 sort-of-Lutheran universities.
  12. Marxism is either coming to its end, or it will burn everything in its path. If the former, it’s as good a time as any to get off the bandwagon. If the latter, it won’t matter, so there’s nothing to lose that we wouldn’t have lost anyway.

This was a longer post than I intended. But I think this is important. Not that I expect anyone will listen. But maybe, once it’s all over, someone will look at this – and writings from smarter people than I who have advocated similar things – and say “Wow. Some people did fight. If only someone had listened. Maybe we could try and rebuild according to this model.” If so, it was worth my time.

 

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Funeral Societies

Our Lord instructs us to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Sometimes, I think people misinterpret this to mean we are to be credulous as Charlie Brown running toward the football, and stuck in an ivory tower pondering deep mysteries of the universe. That’s precisely not what Jesus is saying. He is saying the opposite. An example from history will show us what he really meant.

In the days of the early church, Christianity was illegal. But for the most part the church was left alone. Oh, there were exception – gruesome ones. But between 65 AD and 314 AD, the church spent most of her time just being the church. Every decade or so there would be some local persecution. There were a couple of empire-wide persecutions. And Christians were generally looked down on. But they were mostly left alone. They worshipped, studied the word of God, and did the normal things churches do. How? They found a loophole.

Churches were not allowed. Those were dangerous, subversive, worked against the health and wellbeing of the empire, etc. So, in many places, there were no Christian churches. But, In ancient Rome, if you wanted a nice burial in a grave tended after you died, you would join a funeral society. There were dues to cover upkeep. There were meetings where graves would be tended, final wishes would be discussed. Oftentimes as the people grew to know each other they would discuss philosophy, events of the day, meet for social occasions, etc. These were legal, beneficial, a fine and upstanding part of public life. So, even thought there were no Christians churches in many towns, there  the funeral societies that held strange superstitions about some criminal in a third world country who was crucified. They would meet once a week – usually on a Sunday morning before heading off to work – to tend graves, talk about what would happen after they died, listen to lectures about end of life issues, sing some good ol’ funeral songs they knew in honor of loved ones who had died, and have a light snack before they headed out. And no one batted an eye most of the time.

Nowadays, churches are dangerous gatherings – harmful to the health and wellbeing of our people and our nation. Protests, on the other hand, are a useful and essential part of our life together. Mayor Lori “Police raids on churches” Lightfoot of Chicago even publicly stated, “Hundreds took to the streets yesterday to express their First Amendment right to protest. I unequivocally support and will always fight for the rights of individuals to peacefully protest on any issue.” Some churches have already taken the mayor up on her offer. Christians have a deep and abiding interest in authorities unjustly murdering an innocent man. We could totally meet to protest such things. We could made signs or artwork depicting the horrors of this injustice. We could march down the street singing our protest songs, and then gather somewhere (out of doors if necessary) to hear readings from great justice-thinkers of the past, to sing songs of solidarity with other like-minded protesters, and to hear speeches by movement leaders about the implications of an innocent man being put to death by government officials. We can totally do that. We may have to meet outside. We may have walk around as we do it. But we are good citizens, we Christians. If that’s what it takes to exercise our first amendment right to worship (oops) protest, then that is what we will do.

The church is innocent as a dove. We want to follow the duly enacted laws of those whom God has placed in positions of authority over us, while we also worship the Triune God who made, redeemed, and sanctified us. And we will do so by any means necessary.

 

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