Sermon for Good Friday

We finally get to the death of our Lord. We heard again the words of horror and comfort: It is finished. Our Lord goes into death, taking our sins with him where they are swallowed up totally, never to be returned.

On the day of greatest sorrow, we hear John’s account. And John, right from the beginning, has Jesus in charge. Even the people coming to arrest him fall down before him. Jesus only gets arrested because he allows them to arrest him. Caiaphas – under the control of Satan as he seeks to kill the Son of God, manages to prophecy about Jesus work. “He will die for the people.” Jesus even uses his own enemies to glorify himself. And this is the moment of Glory. Jesus prays to his Father and declares it the hour of his glory. The hour of Jesus death is his hour. It is why he came. He must face all the powers of hell, and he must do it alone. But it is not, as many would say, that Jesus got too big and it all spiraled out of his control. Look at how John records the events of this day. Pilate thinks he is in charge of all Judea. Jesus belittles him. “You would have no authority over me if it were not given you from above.” He doesn’t mean the emperor in Rome who sent him to Judea. Even the emperor is in office only because Jesus Father allowed it and placed him into office. Jesus is tied into powers Pilate can’t even comprehend. Pilate thinks in terms of the powers and authorities of this world. The might of Rome and her armies. Jesus dismisses it with a word. My kingdom is not of this world. The world is concerned with many cares and troubles. But they are of no concern to Jesus. The political games people play, The power struggles – it all means nothing to him. He has greater work – he will destroy death. That’s what Jesus is about. Let the people play their politics. All the striving of Babylon, and Greece and Rome over the centuries, it’s all there to bring about what needs to happen in this moment: The greatest work that ever will be, Jesus on the cross for the salvation of the world. For your salvation. The cross – that ancient symbol of shame – becomes his throne. He is lifted up – exalted Jesus says. This isn’t what we would consider exaltation. But it is how Jesus sees things. Because he sees them not through sin-darkened eyes. He sees things as they truly are.

John records the people choosing Caesar over God. “We have no king but Caesar they say.” The people threaten him, and make clear that Pilate must also choose between Jesus – the pitiful fool from Galilee – and Caesar – the ruler of the known world. Pilate chooses the lesser. He chooses Caesar. Jesus is crucified.

Jesus does his work, declares it finished, and gives his spirit over to his Father. He declares the work finished. He decides the moment of death. And even in death, Jesus is controlling things – they don’t break his bones, to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet. Who gave that word? Who is the Word of God? The word made flesh now hangs lifeless. But not powerless. Even in death his word still controls, still reigns. And the Romans think they are running this show. But Jesus was sent by His Father for this moment. To go into death in just this way, at this place, in this time.

Jesus is the pulling all the strings. Today when our emotions are at their peak, is it any wonder that we hear the most powerful and comforting of the Gospel accounts. The one that has Jesus leading the soldiers from place to place. That has him directing Pilate, that has him choosing the moment of his death.

Today, our grief at the death of our Lord is too great to hear  the word recorded in Matthew or Mark “My God My God why have you forsaken me.” Because today we face the terrible reality. Our sins put him there. No way around it. We are guilty, he was innocent. And yet, on this day, we are comforted even with the word recording his death, because that word shows Jesus in control from start to finish. He is no crazed pitiful fool. He is the Almighty Son of the Eternal Father, who has laid aside His power and glory to become the sacrifice for you to save you.

And this is the true glory of God. This is the real exaltation of the Son. That he shows love and mercy even to the point of death, yes, even death on the cross. This is not a defeat. We do not leave here cowed by the world as the disciples were on the first Good Friday. We hear the word of salvation. We weep and shed tears over our own sin, and over the suffering that Jesus endured for us. But we know that he did it in great love for us. And we know that the cross ends in an empty tomb. That’s why we dare to preach Christ Crucified. The two thieves were crucified as well. We don’t preach them. They are still in their tombs. Many victims of this torture suffered and died over the centuries. They are mostly forgotten, turned to dust and ashes.

But Jesus – we preach his crucifixion, we dare to bow our heads not in fear, but in reverence at the instrument of death, because it is the throne on which Jesus was exalted. It is the instrument of our salvation. And our Lord is no longer dead. He now reigns. The exaltation of Jesus begins at the moment of greatest humility. It begins with him raised up in mercy to save you. And that mercy is without end. No matter how great your sins, no matter how great your unbelief, no matter how great your idolatry, your rejection of him, today look and see that his love is greater. His mercy is greater. His forgiveness is greater.

A byproduct of our sin is regret. Pangs of conscience for hurts inflicted, for loved ones we have hurt, for wrongs that can never be made right in this world. We relive them in our dark moments Satan parades them before us so that we doubt the forgiveness of the Lord, so that we despair and abandon our salvation. Our regret over sin can never be undone. Our conscience betrays us because of our sins, and we are filled with a longing that can never be filled. In Jesus and his death, we have death undone. We have sin taken away. We have our conscience cleansed. And we are given the promise of life instead of death. His death undoes all the sadness, all the weeping and the tears. And in the end, we will rejoin those who have fallen asleep in the faith, and the regrets will melt away like snow on a summer day. They will be gone, and will be remembered no more. Our conscience will not only be finally and completely cleansed, it will be healed, without scars.

We weep today, We weep because our sins killed Jesus. But we do not weep as those who have no hope. Jesus death will be undone. And it is only the first of many death to be undone. Eventually, even your own death will be undone in the resurrection. Look on the cross – look on your salvation. Look at your sins swallowed by him and taken away never to return. We glory in the cross. Because our Lord was glorified on the cross.


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Secular Endgame

We knew it was coming back in 2015. Justice Scalia saw the writing on the wall in Obergefell. He wasn’t able to stop it – and probably knew he couldn’t. But he asked the question, and warned the church what was coming. Those who do not bow to the new secularist gnosticism of genderism will be disfavored by the government. He sounded the alarm – tax exempt status was on the line. The churches clucked like a bunch of ladies listening to the warnings from Harold Hill about pool tables. But they did little else. There was some organizing efforts on the lobbying front, like the disciples proud of their two swords against Rome. But it amounted to fundraising tactics, and little more.

Now, there is a class action lawsuit targeting the federal funding of colleges that do not celebrate gender dysphoria. An article at the Volokh Conspiracy lays it out in detail. But the basic outline is this: They file a lawsuit, the federal government adopts a consent decree. The courts refuse to allow anyone else to intervene. Colleges may choose to either bow the knee to the idol, or be put to death. Places like Notre Dame have already chosen – they will not die. Our own Concordias have managed to clear the decks of the most rank unfaithfulness. Portland and Bronxville managed to be both unfaithful and incompetent. They are no more. The rest are built on a model of federal funding. They won’t make it. Oh, they’ll struggle on for a while. But without those sweet federal dollars, they have little financial health. And thanks to increasing secularization they don’t even have Lutheran faculty in many departments – and in many cases the Lutheran faculty don’t exist. We don’t have enough Lutherans with PhD’s in Chemistry and Physics and Psychology and etc to staff even the Concordias that remain. Those non-Lutheran faculty aren’t going to work for room and board. They’ll want paychecks. Even the Lutheran faculty will need some sort of compensation. Without federal funds, we could support (Hillsdale style) maybe one or two schools. Not 7. Not even close. With the Concordias gone, the Synod’s health plan (which is really what has bound us together the last 50 years) will not be viable.

And here’s the real kicker. Scalia wasn’t asking about Title IX funding. He was asking about tax exempt status. Trump did the church a solid in his tax plan – he reduced the reliance on tax deductions for charitable donations. That’s been good for us, because soon there may be zero tax deduction. But that’s not the worst part. Without IRS tax exempt status, you are subject to property taxes. This can vary from state to state. But does anyone think places like California, New York, Illinois will be leaving potential money on the table to help out a bunch of federally designated hate organizations? This isn’t about the colleges. This is the congregations. We can’t afford property taxes in the cities, and in many cases, not even the suburbs. Our rural congregations might struggle along for a while. Some might make it. But I live in a rural setting. Not exactly a lot of growth opportunities. Christians aren’t flocking to small towns. And in the small towns, they aren’t flocking to attend the churches.

“Let them have our buildings! We’ll meet in homes!” No, you won’t. Zoning laws. The government’s already figured this one out. Pastors and congregants have been arrested for it in the past. Yup, that’s right, they’ll be dragging Christians out of their house-churches, like it’s the first century again. Of course, the churches with treasures can sell them to pay the taxes for a time. Gold and Silver fetch a good price at the markets. I won’t even tell you what incident that reminds me of, but scroll through the comments of any discussion, and someone will mention them.

The secularist endgame is that churches be extinguished from the face of the earth. And, legally, they are right on track to do it. It need not be a fear-fueled panic (like in The Crucible). It can just as easily – and almost certainly will be a logical and legally precise horror (like in Saint Joan). But the endgame of the endgame is this: It won’t work. House churches will quickly figure out how to move from place to place to avoid zoning enforcement. Pastors will become cleverer about things. The church will go underground. The remnant will continue. Even crazed anti-religious zealotry like we saw in Soviet times failed to destroy the church. The church is alive and well in Mother Russia. I promise, today’s secularists are neither as clever nor as efficiently brutal as that regime.

It will be hard for our people. Losing the buildings will be a blow. Pastors will be even harder-pressed to support their families. Christians will be increasingly pressured to bow down and worship the golden image. And, we’ve seen this past year how quickly and easily Christians will give up the assembling of themselves together if it’s for “The Greater Good.”

But despite all these clouds on the horizon, I am still optimistic. Because our Lord said his word would NEVER be overcome. And in 2000 years, it hasn’t been. The enemies of the church triumph and triumph and triumph, until finally there is nothing left for them to do but fade away. Rome, Arianism, The Reformation. It doesn’t matter the circumstances. You can go back even farther. Gideon wasn’t allowed to fight with a reasonably sized (though still vastly outnumbered) force. He had to fight with less than a skeleton crew. Let God do the victorying. Same with Pharaoh at the Red Sea.

And, especially on this night, we must remember our Lord. Satan was the one who entered Judas and the priests and guided the events that led to him being crushed by Jesus on the cross. Even though he knew the outcome, he couldn’t resist bringing about his own destruction.

And then there’s Jesus: He allowed his Divine self to be abused. He allowed them to strike, spit upon, mock, and finally crucify him. There’s wisdom to be drawn from this. Let them abuse Christ’s body on earth, the church. Let them mock and persecute us. Our task is to be faithful, whatever the circumstance. And it looks like we may have a circumstance in which we may be found faithful. I pray we are up to the challenge.

The news on the legal front is very bad. But it doesn’t much matter in the great big scheme of things. Let the nations rage, and the peoples imagine a vain thing. Today, we have much more important matters: The institution of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. It remains to eternal life. And all the kings horses, and all Obegefell’s men, can not overcome it.

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Priest without Absolution

In the passion account according to Saint Matthew there is a detail not recorded elsewhere. Judas tries to the return the money to the chief priests. The priests are set apart by God to intercede for the people. Their job is to stand between the wrath of God and the sins of the people. Moses does it quite literally. Aaron and his sons are set apart to do this in perpetuity until the true sacrifice arrives. And the priests of Jesus day are supposed to do it as well.

But they do not. In response to Judas confession “I have sinned”, they do not respond with “Your sin is taken away, your guilt atoned for.” They do not respond with “Me absolve te…” or any similar formula. They leave Judas in his sin. “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” They are no longer priests. They may wear the garb and have the nameplate on the door. But a priest who will not absolve is no priest. In the Large Catechism we confess, “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here.”

Pastors are not given to just summarize the Word of God, and proclaim in the abstract that sins in general are forgiven. They are to stand in the stead of Christ, and actually give forgiveness. Arrogant, I know. And if there were not the explicit command of Christ to do just this thing, we would be the most arrogant and blasphemous of men to do so.

But having been commanded by Christ to loose and bind sins, we are actually arrogant and blasphemous if we do not do this thing. And a priest or pastor who refuses to do so to any penitent is no longer serving as a priest and pastor in the stead of Christ. They are now serving in the stead of another biblical example. It doesn’t matter the fine legal reasoning they may use. We see the same sort of hair-splitting in Scripture. The money – recently come from the treasury – can not be returned there because now it is blood money. So they buy a potters field with it.

In this week when repentance reaches its most acute level of the entire year, it would be well for our church to remember this, and the make sure we have no places, no land or buildings, where forgiveness is not offered, no pastors who are forbidden to absolve. Because if we do, we no longer function as church, but as high priests of another god, serving that god in our potters fields.

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Of Rice Cakes and Worship

This article is going in the local newspaper this week. So I thought I’d share it here as well.

Christmas this year gave me an amazing gift: The chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

As a pastor, I’m never in a congregation without a pastor. Vacant congregations only happen when I’m not there. Each week I can receive the sacrament, can pray, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in my heart toward God.

In the past, even when I was sick, I would show up for church. I was many feet away from everyone. In seminary we learned, “You only skip a preaching assignment if you are in the hospital or dead.” It was the rule. If you were sick in seminary on a day you were scheduled to preach, you brought your manuscript and a bucket. But you showed up. So also in my first 22 years.

COVID changed that. Locked into my own house, I was unable to attend Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or even the Sundays after Christmas. Instead, I went online and watched services on my computer. For years, shut ins have been telling me, “Pastor I miss going to church. I wish I could be there.” I feel a bit of that pain now. I always misunderstood what they meant when they said “I listen to the Lutheran Hour.” or “I watch worship for shut-ins on TV.” I thought they were letting me know how faithful they were trying to be. Having watched online church the last two weeks – including all the special services for Christmas, I know better. They weren’t talking about themselves. They were talking about rice cakes. Let me explain.

Plain rice cakes are for people who want to lose weight, who are trying to literally have less of themselves. They provide a sort of sustenance, but not an enjoyable one. They are basically starvation rations. No one wants them, they have little substance, they are not real food in any meaningful way. Rice cakes = suffering for the eater. (If you like rice cakes, I intend nothing personal. Enjoy them! But most people don’t find them pleasurable.)

I watched some fantastic services with great sermons. These are men I’ve respected for a lot of years. In some cases, I’ve been to their churches, communed at their altars, enjoyed the fellowship of the saints with them and their people. They are excellent preachers, and they preached excellent sermons.

But watching them on the computer is like eating a rice cake version of the Divine Service. Oh, it will do in a pinch, if that’s all that’s on the shelf. But video services are starvation rations for the Christian. The substance of gathering together to hear and learn the Word, to proclaim the death of the Lord by receiving the sacrament: It’s all missing. The flavor is not there, the enjoyment is not there, the fellowship, the sense of being a part of something greater is all missing.

Since then, I’ve been blessed to be back at work, back at the pulpit and altar, once again serving as a steward of the mysteries of God among Christ’s flock. But I’m a little more aware of those who aren’t in attendance. I’ll pray a little more fervently for them. And when I visit them, I do it with a little more empathy.

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Sermon for Palm Sunday

Here is my Palm Sunday Sermon, even though we’re already two complete Lectionary readings beyond it. Things move pretty quickly during Holy Week. Anointing Jesus, Mark’s Passion… But here is what I had to say all the way back on Sunday:

We move from the triumphal entry, to the passion, all in one service. We skip all of Holy Week. Pastors have preached whole sermons on each phrase of our Gospel readings We have two and a half chapters to cover. That’s a lot of material for one service. Makes you wonder what they were thinking when they planned it.

The Triumphal entry is obvious – today is Palm Sunday. Adding the passion might seem a bit much. We will hear Mark’s account tomorrow at noon. Then John’s account on Friday. Why add Matthew’s Passion on top of the Triumphal entry? Today is the only chance we have to hear the account of the death of our Lord on the Lord’s Day. The rest of the church year has its own themes. And this week, we are focused on the death of Jesus all week long. So, Matthew’s account is heard. And remember, even when the Gospel reading isn’t the death of our Lord, “We preach Christ crucified.” It’s all we have. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the center and substance of our Life. Healing the lame, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear: Point to his death, where he takes our infirmity on himself. Preaching to the people? Jesus Explains the significance of his death, in which we find our life. Even Jesus birth is a foreshadowing of his death. The angels sing the song of praise to God who shows his mercy in the birth of His Son, because his son has come among us to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Even John the Baptist has the death of Jesus in the background: We are Baptized into His death, and now it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us.

We overload the themes today. Lots to do, lots to cover. And yet it is all focused, as it always is, on the work of our Lord Jesus Christ for us. The triumphal entry is leading to Passover and the death of Jesus. The passion is the center of our life. It’s all Jesus and his death, all the time. So any split in focus is really just us moving quickly around the death of our Lord, looking at it from many angles all in the same day, rather than the usual practice of looking at it from this angle this day, and a slightly different angle another day.

We never get over or move beyond the death of our Lord. It’s all we do. “We learned this last year”. We learn it again, because we never learn it well enough. That’s an important lesson for us to learn. Keep learning. Those who have been members for 90 years continue learning, just as those who have been members for 1 year. We can never learn well enough the love and mercy of God. It is without end. That means no matter how we study it, there is always more to study. No matter how we learn it, there is always more to learn. And it isn’t just academic book learning. We don’t learn the goodness of the Lord at a desk. We learn the goodness of the Lord each time we are fed in this world – he provides the daily bread. And we learn the goodness of the Lord each time we are absolved of our sins. He forgives you. And we learn and continue learning because God uses your life in this world to continue teaching you how gracious and merciful he is.

We heard about the death of our Lord. And we hear more about it throughout the week. But the triumphal entry only gets today. The people coming to Jesus and shouting “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is what we sing at the Holy Communion. It’s the second half of the Sanctus. “Blessed is he. Blessed is he. Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest.” We sing this right before hearing the Words of Jesus himself, “This is my body, this is the blood of the new covenant.” Right before Jesus is present, distributed, and received by us in his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The song that the people shouted at Jesus as he entered the city, we sing that. Why?

Because Jesus enters this place in the Sacrament of the Altar. He comes to us victorious – he has triumphed over death, but he comes humbly, under the bread and wine. It’s so simple it’s almost comic. If we didn’t have the express command of Jesus “This is my body, this is my blood”, who could believe it? There are many who do not believe it. Who doubt this is really the body and blood for Christians to eat and drink. They want to make the words symbolic, or spiritual. Because it’s not believable. It looks, tastes like bread and wine. Can it really be the body and blood of Jesus – the eternal Son of God? But we don’t need symbolic forgiveness, or spiritual forgiveness. We need real forgiveness for real sins we commit in our bodies in this world. And so Jesus comes into this world in his flesh and blood. And he sacrifices that flesh and blood on the cross. And he now gives the same flesh and blood at the altar for us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins.

The leaders of the people had doubts on Palm Sunday – can THIS man be the eternal Son of God? Surrounded by all that rabble from Galilee? Sitting not on a mighty charger surrounded by legions of angels, but on a donkey of all things? Can he be God? Can God be contained in the flesh of such a common looking person? Can he really be the one who will upend our entire way of living and dying? Surely not. Their unbelief quickly becomes plotting to kill. “Look, we are gaining nothing the world has gone after him.” They say. The verses right before our Gospel reading say that the leaders decided to kill Jesus AND LAZARUS, because they people saw Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and so they were following Jesus.

You can imagine how popular someone would be who can undo death. Especially in our current climate you know how desperately people want assurance of life over death. Jesus has a walking talking witness to his power: He can raise people from the dead. Lazarus will describe for you in detail what Jesus did for him. How he died, how he was revived in his grave, and walked out and rejoined the living in this world. The leaders decide the proper response is to kill them both. Get rid of all evidence that God is visiting his people. Of course, they didn’t think about it in those terms. They never realized they were tools of Satan, that Satan had entered their hearts and hardened them so they could not believe.

And we are tempted to shout at them even across the centuries, “NO! Stop what you’re doing! Don’t you know who he is!” And yet, if we were to prevent the death of Jesus, we would be in league with Satan. Those who would prevent his scandalous death are as much tools of Satan as those who cause it.

There is no escape. Jesus must die for the sins of the world. We must watch again, in weeping and wailing. But it is the only way we can be saved. Today we have a moment of joy, and triumph. The people praise him. Hosanna! And we take up their song, because we know that we are joined to him and his death through the gift of his body and blood. Every time we prepare our hearts to approach the altar, we sing with them, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” And as surely as God is present before the people in the person of Jesus Christ, so also he comes even now in his body and blood wherever his words are spoken and whenever we take eat and drink according to his command.

This is the great gift of salvation he gives to his people. That we are a part of the everlasting feast of victory given to us so that we would receive healing for our infirmities, forgiveness for our sins, and life in place of death. So that, instead of going fearfully, or stoically into death, we go joyfully into death. Not because of how great death is, but because of how great the salvation from death is in Jesus Christ. Because of how great a resurrection we have been promised. Because of how strong this medicine of immortality is. How powerful this food is to sustain us in the true faith unto life everlasting. We have been given riches beyond any worldly imagining. And it is all given freely, to those who approach the altar in faith, and receive the body and blood in humility, not doubting that your sins are forgiven by this, but holding on to the word and promise and command of Jesus Christ. And in so doing, making the promise your own.

That’s what Jesus means by “in remembrance of me.” That we would remember and proclaim his death – not as a thought process in our brains. But that we would grab on to the salvation he promises in the supper, and hold God to that promise. That’s what he wants us to do. It is the true worship of God to hear his word and believe the promise and so receive the blessings contained in the promise.

Do not doubt the promise. Jesus is present here for you. And His gift of salvation is given freely to all who believe the promise. This is why we gather, and continue to gather. Because the promised salvation is given in this place. And Jesus is here for you. Not in spite of his brutal death on the cross. But because of it. This year we learn again, ever more deeply, of the sacrifice of the Son of God, the great love that drove him to it. The unbelievable salvation that he gives. And we pray that God would send his spirit to melt our hearts of stone so that we would not be faithless, but believe. That the Lord would overcome our unbelief, and that we, and all our loved ones, would receive the promised salvation.

In Jesus name.


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Soft Hymnal: Palm Sunday Edition

I actually really like LSB. There is much to commend it – the richest sacramental theology ever seen in an English Lutheran hymnal, a return to the historic 1 year lectionary option, restored hymns (eg “Thousand, Thousand thanks are due…” Yeesh).

But, as I’ve noted, it was made in a time of great fatness, and is a hymnal for comfortable middle class, middle aged folks who spend their days on the theological couch, looking more and more like theological potatoes.

One of the blessings of the last year is that many are waking up to this reality. I recently had a district president lament to me the softness of the hymnal! I would never have guessed such a thing was possible. He was noting that the prayers have taken out the rugged contours of the Jacobean translations and flattened them. So, instead of collects that help us lift up our eyes to the hills, from whence cometh our help, we have many collects that take us on a hike through Kansas – geologically flatter than a pancake.

There is another little thing that I noticed today – it only took me 16 years, and no one else seems to have publicly noted it, so I may be the first. The Palm Sunday procession skips straight to the collect of the day, omitting the Kyrie. The Kyrie is a prayer straight out of the Scriptures themselves. As Liturgical Ordinary, it is the the oldest prayer in the church besides the Prayer our Lord himself taught us. It dates from no later than 200 AD, and comes from Africa. It is the church’s prayer before the Lord Jesus, over and over again. It is the basis of the Litany: A prayer used for great needs or in distress since time out of mind. And, as we begin the commemoration of Jesus death, it is omitted. Shocking, once you realize what we have done.

But the truth is, it took 16 years for me to notice. And looking through the LSB committee minutes, no mention is made of the change. I wasn’t in on the discussion, but I know with about 90% certainty what happened. Because I had the same problem this morning, when I put it back.

You have the procession. This isn’t in the hymnal, so you have to have a printout. Then you have a hymn: the people turn to 443. Then you have the Introit, another printout. The Kyrie comes next, page 186. But it’s at the bottom of the page, the Gloria Patri having been omitted the previous week. And the salutation and collect are NOT page 187. (The Greater Gloria is omitted.) So you turn back to find the bottom of the page for a single line and then skip ahead. Too much flipping. Too much confusion. Just move to the collect, pick up there. Problem solved.

And for 16 years, it never even occurred to me that omitting the Kyrie was a bad thing. I knew it was a new thing. But it took the last year to get me off the couch on this one and realize what we had done. Another bit of softness expunged in my congregations. Another bit of prayer restored.

How I fixed it.

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Prudery and Licentiousness

I’ve seen a lot of people shocked this past week that a few children’s books have been deemed too offensive to be sold, while the “song of the year” is one whose title is so explicit I will not repeat it here.

This should not surprise. Humanity was created to be a certain way. God made us to be the pinnacle of creation – to use and guard and watch over the creation. This is a truth, not a fact. Fact is the realm of science, and it is based on observation. Facts can change. Outer space is not filled with ether. Gravity seems to break down at the quantum level. The shape of the skull tells us nothing about the character of the person. And gender is not a construct to be changed at will.

Truths are immutable. For example, mankind is not made to kill other humans. People can shoot moose or buffalo all the livelong day, can slaughter chickens and cows for food by the millions and still sleep well at night. But put a person on the other end of the gun – even in a just war – and you have a man with PTSD, someone who will never discuss the horrors of war. The killing may have been justified. But we aren’t designed to do it. Ask me some time about a hunting exposition, and I will buy the beer to tell you about it. Ask a man about his time in war, and you will likely get only silence in response.

Every society that ever was has had rules about marriage. They may not stick to the “one man, one woman joined together until death parts them” rule. Polygamy is often the norm. Divorce might be made too easy to acquire. People have even begun messing around with the male and female bit. But marriage is an important institution. That so much effort is expended by Satan to twist and corrupt it only shows how important it is. When I was growing up, many movies were trying to convince us that marriage was “only a piece of paper.” It was usually spouted by a deep thinking character, the philosopher of the movie, whose wisdom was beyond question. But it was a lie, and everyone knew it was a lie. No one makes that much fuss about paper. If it really were only paper, no one would have to so much as say it out loud. It was a lie on its face. Today, no one claims it, and everyone – even the woman who fell in love with a dolphin – wants a part of it. Because marriage is a truth.

There is another truth related to the sixth commandment. Humans are not made to mate in the streets like dogs or cats. And yet, for some reason, our society has decided that we will just cancel the sixth commandment in this matter. Oh, we’ll have marriage, but only after many oats are sown, and probably open and who knows what strange being or thing you will marry. But this all goes against who we are as human beings. There is a cost to such lies. And living according to a lie does damage to our bodies and souls.

And one of the consequences of living outside of the truth is that you can not live outside of the truth. If you deny one part of the truth, it will come out some other place. Like a game of wack-a-mole, or a leaky faucet. Plug the leak here, it will erupt elsewhere. And elsewhere it will likely make a mess. So, ignore the sixth commandment, and your conscience, reeling from the blow, will find some other place to erupt. It won’t necessarily make sense. But you will insist on some other morality – and this one will be unyielding. It will be a prudery in this new area unlike anything the Puritans or Victorians ever insisted on in matters of chastity.

So, we have people who will die before throwing a bottle into the trash – even though we now know that “recycled” plastic most likely ends up in rivers of third world countries, instead of well-regulated landfills. We have people who will cancel the dead, tearing down their statues, and scrubbing their names from all remembrance, making even in the Roman practice of “Damnant Memoria” seem tame by comparison. And yet, these same people will rage against any attempt to redirect the lusts of our youth. They will even recommend drugging and mutilating children to suit their ends of cancelling the sixth commandment’s prohibition on unchaste behavior. And then they will gleefully ban straws or paper bags, or plastic bags, or whatever the latest target is, and then take out half a dozen children’s books before breakfast.

None of this is actually a surprise. It’s the long-established pattern in the world. Reject one of the Ten Commandments, and then make up six other nonsensical ones to replace it. But instead of either justice or mercy, they new ones are driven by madness. Even noted popular Philosopher Jordan Petersen has written 24 rules to live by. (12 in the first book, 12 more in the sequel). I’ve never taught more than ten. I think ten is easier to remember. And, the ten I have in mind are more effective at ordering society.

But I don’t expect anyone to pay much attention to them, or to me. The church has always been that way. Unloved, attacked, with nothing really to defend itself, except that it preaches truth. And eventually, after the insanity once again subsides, truth will out.

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Dr. Faustus Recidivus

Perhaps it is just that, like Don Quioxote, I have read too many books, and my mind is turned into mush. But, in the tradition of Dr. Faustus, I wonder what it would look like if someone made a pact with the devil to gain power in this world. It isn’t really Faustus that is the model for my musings. It is the genie from the old Arabian Nights tales – he gives exactly what you ask for, and amuses himself at your misery. In a sense, it’s a combination of the two. A promise of power but at a great cost – one that is still paid because the person making it (like the cynic Faust, rather than the unwitting victims of the genie) is aware of the penalty, but makes the deal anyway.

For example, “You will be given wealth enough to buy your son the throne. But he will be struck down. His son will die young with no heir. One of his brothers will also be struck down. The other will kill a woman, yet remain in office to his dying day. And the cost for this is the mind of your daughter. You must order it removed.” It sounds entirely like a deal that Satan would write and offer to some poor sap. But who would have a hard enough heart to accept such a deal?

Or perhaps, “You can do whatever you want your entire life. Lie, cheat, steal, abuse women, etc. and yet you will be given power at the end. But you will be mocked the entire way because you really will just be so obviously ordinary. And once you achieve power, your mind will be too addled to even recognize it. It will cost you the life of one son, and the soul of another.” Would anyone sign on the dotted line? And yet, we’re seeing it play out right now.

I really do wonder sometimes about these things. We only see the physical in the world. What is going on behind the scenes? Not in dark, smoke filled rooms, but with the powers of darkness and light. A Christian author wrote some books about that years ago. But they were riddled with unscriptural doctrines, and were, in the end, not all that imaginative. Good concept, thrilling writing style, but overall, a story with no depth to back it up. (Unlike Marlowe’s Faustus, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, which manage to endure over centuries because it speaks to greater truths, and provokes in ways that modern fiction doesn’t.)

I don’t expect to see books on the topic. I think the concept has been well enough done already that we don’t need new books on it.

But I do wonder. What bargains may have been offered? What was agreed to? Or do the people involved not even yet understand the costs of power, the corruption, and ultimately death that follows. I was watching once again the “Let us sit upon the ground” speech with my daughter. These ideas have been discussed by philosophers, and put into dramatic performance by theatricians for centuries. And yet, those in power seem unwilling to learn the obvious lessons. In this, perhaps they are more like the unwitting victims of the genie. And so the question, do we fear their power, revile their debauchery, or pity there foolish ignorance?

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Church as Private Club

It isn’t such a crazy idea. In the early days, churches would often organize a “funeral societies”. Those were legal, churches were not. They were private societies in which the members agreed to care for each other’s graves after death. And they were a normal part of life in Rome. But they weren’t public. Only members would go to meetings.

In the Apostolic Traditions (c. 200) we have detailed description of church life. The part that interests me is this:

Those who are newly brought forward to hear the Word shall first be brought before the teachers at the house, before all the people enter. Then they will be questioned concerning the reason that they have come forward to the faith. Those who bring them will bear witness concerning them as to whether they are able to hear.

Just because you wanted to attend church didn’t mean you would be admitted. If no one could speak for you – your character and manner of life – you would not be allowed in. In times of persecution, this is what the church does. She continues, but quietly and oftentimes privately. The amazing thing about it is that in such times the church often finds great growth. In China today, the church is growing. (Actual statistics are hard to come by, obviously). In ancient Rome the church grew as well – slowly, but consistently for nearly three centuries.

If in a few weeks time we find ourselves in a nation where it is a crime to declare “God created them male and female”, we may be forced into a similar circumstance as the early church. Not that we meet in fear. But we behave prudently, taking precautions before allowing people to come into the church and hear what we teach.

I’ve been telling my children for years that it is a great privilege to hear and learn the Word of God. It isn’t that we have to go to church, it’s that we get to go. That may soon be a reality.

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Quo Vadis Post Rona

I’m starting to see articles, essays, etc. about what the church needs to do as the COVID-19 panic subsides. The home office for the LCMS is offering grants to purchase AV equipment to broadcast the services, just as the faithful congregations I know of are starting to wind-down that phase of their life. Others are warning about the dangers of ongoing virtual church. Some congregations have increased the number of attendees. Most have decreased. Much seems uncertain.

Except it really isn’t uncertain at all. What will the church do post-Rona? The same thing the church did pre-Rona. Those who wanted to import unfaithful practice (eg. “Video consecration.”) before the pandemic arrived used it as opportunity to push their unfaithful thought into practice.

Those who were faithful in worship before, served faithfully during, and will continue to serve faithfully after this moves into the past.

What will the church look like? It will look like a rag-tag group gathering to hear and receive the promises of God through His Holy Word, and proclaim the Lord’s death in the Holy Supper. Which is what it looked like in 2019, or or 1519, or even 119 AD. It’s what the church does. And what the church will continue to do. The things that may change are the outward arrangements. Conventions were pushed back by a year. Home offices were closed, and many are wondering what value they ever served. I suspect the long-term effect will be to make those even less relevant than they were. The conferences they planned were all cancelled, and the church doesn’t seem any the worse for it. Perhaps it will even hasten a return to our confession of faith, which requires that bishops actually serve as pastors.

For me, there is a greater struggle to get into hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions. But that will subside.

Congregational life itself looks pretty much like it did 1 year ago, or 2 years ago. We gather, we hear the Word, we take eat and take drink, and we respond in prayer, praise and thanksgiving. That hasn’t changed. It won’t change. It’s what we do. In times of war or peace, in times of plenty or need, in times of sickness and health. Because it is what God has given us to do. And now, we have a greater appreciation for those things, because we realize how quickly they can be taken away by fear, and how quickly we can be turned into outlaws for the radical belief that God calls us together to worship Him.

How has the pandemic effected Christ’s church? Not too much.

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