Archive for June, 2010

Iraenaus, the Lutheran Confessions and McDonald’s

June 29, 2010 Leave a comment

In Art XXVI of the Augsburg Confession we read:

We on our part also retain many ceremonies and traditions (such as the liturgy of the Mass and various canticles, festivals, and the like) which serve to preserve order in the church.
41 At the same time, however, the people are instructed that such outward forms of service do not make us righteous before God and that they are to be observed without burdening consciences, which is to say that it is not a sin to omit them if this is done without causing scandal.
42 The ancient Fathers maintained such liberty with respect to outward ceremonies,
43 for in the East they kept Easter at a time different from that in Rome. When some regarded this difference a divisive of the church, they were admonished by others that it was not necessary to maintain uniformity in such customs.
44 Irenaeus said, “Disagreement in fasting does not destroy unity in faith,” and there is a statement in Dist. 12 that such disagreement in human ordinances is not in conflict with the unity of Christendom.
45 Moreover, the Tripartite History, Book 9, gathers many examples of dissimilar church usages and adds the profitable Christian observation, “It was not the intention of the apostles to institute holy days but to teach faith and love.”
( Tappert,  69–70).

And in Article X of the Formula of Concord, one of our Lutheran Confessions, we read:

5. We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because it has fewer or more external ceremonies not commanded by God, as long as there is mutual agreement in doctrine and in all its articles as well as in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the familiar axiom, “Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith.”
(Tappert, 493–494).

Those two portions of the Lutheran Confessions have been pulled like saltwater taffy by American Lutherans seeking to sanction as “confessional” their many and varied methods of worship.

Pastor Will Weedon, in the latest Lutheran Forum, Summer 2010, wrote a piece on the 1881 Church Liturgy of the Synod – an English liturgy that precedes the Common Service and its publication by some seven years.  It was essentially, a English version of the Saxon Church Order.  Now this is striking.  As new immigrants with all the freedoms of America around every corner, they went back to the “old ways.”  Sure it was in English, but is was the Saxon Church Order in English.  They were identifying with where they had come from not with where they had landed.  Our identity as Christians is tied up in how we pray and how we communicate the faith.

Back in the day, when a man was ordained, he subscribed to the Lutheran Confessions, of course, but he also pledged to use the Kirchenordnung of his land (state) like the Saxon Church Order.  There was no playing around with the liturgy.  The differences in ceremonies and rites were between lands like Saxony and Franconia not between churches in the same land.  And those differences were slight and mostly were about calendars for celebration of local saints, not the order of the Mass.

Today in the Lutheran Church, no two parishes celebrate the Mass alike.  Even within smaller groups like synods, or Districts in the LCMS, no two are alike.

And now I’ve come to my comparison with the hamburger chain McDonald’s.  When you walk into a McDonald’s, you know what to expect.  You know what’s on the menu.  But imagine, walking in to a McDonald’s one day and all they’re selling is sushi?  Not what you expected.  No, when you go into a McDonald’s you know what to expect.  Oh, in the south they might have the McRib for a short time in the summer, or if you go overseas, the menu board is in French or German and the items may be called something different.  Quarter Pounder doesn’t hold as much cache in metric countries.  Ordering a 120 grammer doesn’t sound nearly as appealing so you get a Hamburger Royale.  But you know they are selling hamburgers.

What if Lutheran Churches actually took the idea of franchise seriously.  When people saw the sign or the name Lutheran, they actually had some idea of what to expect when they walked in the door.  What if all our prima dona Lutheran pastors actually submitted themselves to the authority of the book and actually just “said the black and did the red” in the hymnal?  I think it would be a good thing and for this reason, brand identity.

Many people today prefer the mom and pop places and as a matter of course, I do too.  And when life is slow and I have the time, I can live with quirks and idiosyncrasies.  I’m not saying we need to dehumanize our churches, by no means.  I’m saying we need to think more carefully about what we do.  We need to submit a bit more to the collective in this because in exercising what we have taken to be our freedom, we may just be running people off.

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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

June 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 27th, 2010

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62

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Note: I was asked to contribute this sermon to the archive at  Göttinger Predigten, a sermon depository originally conceived by Professor Ulrich Nembach, who teaches homiletics at the University of Göttingen, Germany.  I was asked by the editors to become a member of the community of authors for this year.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is from the Gospel for today.  Luke chapter 9, verses 51-62.

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (ESV)

(The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. 2001 (Lk 9:50). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

This is our text.

Jesus begins his journey toward Jerusalem.  We know what will happen when he reaches Jerusalem.  He knows now already what will happen to him there.  Jesus is not a victim of circumstance; he went to Jerusalem on purpose.  Here in chapter 9, he begins his journey to the cross.

Jesus meets a number of people on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Luke takes care to tell us every time who Jesus is talking to.  To the crowds, Jesus issues words of warning and calls to conversion such as the warning to beware the leaven of the Pharisees (12:1-3).  To those who convert and begin to follow him, he gives positive instructions on the way of discipleship and its great cost, such as the brief parable about salt and saltiness (Lk. 14:25-35).  And to those who reject him, he tells parables of rejection like that of the wedding banquet (Lk. 14:16-24).  The connection between Jesus’ rejection here and Elijah’s rejection in the OT lesson for today is clear.  Jesus is the new and greater Elijah, sent by God to be anointed as king over Israel except this time, the king is anointed in blood and on the cross.

The first group of folks he meets are here in this Samaritan village.  The Samaritan folks in this village did not want to host a traveling Jewish prophet and teacher.  When James and John see how Jesus is rejected, they ask whether they should call down fire from heaven to burn the place up.  I don’t think this is an idle threat on their part.  Jesus has already sent out the Twelve to preach the kingdom of God and heal.  They know the protocol.  “‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. 4 And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. 5 And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.’ (Lk 9:3-5)  Not only have they been rejected, but the teacher has.  It’s time for judgment.  And yet, it is not quite that time.  Jesus rebuked them and they moved on.

They meet three would-be disciples along the way.  Ever moving toward Jerusalem, Jesus meets each one.  Taken together, they are a stark picture of Jesus’ radical call to discipleship, this is the way of the cross, the way of rejection.  This is not the wide, easy way.  This is the narrow, hard way.  The goal of the journey is the cross where Jesus will be lifted up, to death and burial with Jesus and to Easter Sunday morning and the resurrection and finally the ascension where Jesus will be lifted to the right hand of the Father in glory.  The goal is finally affirmation and eternal life but the path is the one of self-denial and death.  To travel on this path we must not hesitate to break all ties that bind, even those of family obligation.  The family that matters is the family of God.  “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  These are hard sayings because the way of discipleship is hard.

Luke does not record the responses of any of these three would-be disciples.  The question of whether they followed Jesus is not nearly as important as whether you will hear the call of Jesus and follow him or whether you will persevere by faith in Jesus along the journey you have started.

At the beginning of the month, the Associated Press reported “Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church has chosen a woman to head the diocese of Helsinki who will be the country’s first female bishop.” [1] Left out of that report is the sad news that she doesn’t even believe the Nicene Creed to be true.[2] Oh, she’ll follow Jesus wherever he goes.  She wants to be a bishop in the church.  But this is the worst kind of self-seeking; she will not even bow her confession to that of her Lord.  This is just a sign of the times.

A short time ago, it used to be that children followed their parents in the faith.  Parents brought their children to the font, and Sunday School and when the time came, confirmation class.  Sometimes, a cry was heard, “Dad, when are you going to stop making me go to church?”  And the good Dad would say, “When you stop asking the question.”  But something changed.  It wasn’t long before the sports practices on Sunday weren’t just optional but had somehow become games.  Coinciding with that came the idea that children be allowed to grow up and make a choice about the faith for themselves.  This is a case of wanton neglect in the Lord’s book but that idea is prevalent among us even in the Church.  No, we are quickly leaving the age when children followed their parents on the path of pilgrimage.  We pray that sometime the children will be hear the invitation to follow our Lord and they will, but we can no longer rely on the parents to do their God-given job of bringing up their children in the way they should go.  It is these children, these new disciples who will hear the voice of the one who preaches the kingdom of God who will be forced to reject mother and father, sister and brother.

Our ancient fathers in the faith preached like this.  Cyril of Alexandria said that the first would-be disciple who claims to be willing to follow Jesus anywhere is presumptuous, attempting to grab for himself apostolic honor without realizing that to follow Jesus means to take up his cross.  Basil the Great noted that disciples of Jesus must learn that God’s way takes precedence over our way and that human obligations cannot stand in the way of Christian discipleship.  Father Cyprian is puzzled that anyone who had escaped the world filled with the devil would want to return to it.  Why is it, that in the early church, these sayings, while hard, contained the essence of the faith, and in our day, they are seem as extremist or if useful at all, they are hyperbolic rhetoric from Jesus which we must attempt to soften or explain away altogether?

Fellow pilgrims and disciples, Jesus words are clear.  “Follow me.”  We know the path.  It is not easy.  We know the end of the journey.  It is the Jerusalem of our Lord for us.  We know there is no other way that leads to life except to follow him.  We follow him who goes before us and leads us through suffering and death to resurrection and life everlasting.  “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the word of eternal life.”  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.



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Sounds strangely familliar

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Pastor Paul McCain over at Cyberbrethren had a wonderful post from the great Lutheran teacher Martin Chemnitz recently. I commend you to it.

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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2010

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel reading for today.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I fear that we forget we were just like the demoniac.  The details of this miracle sound strange to our ears–lonely desert places, nakedness, chains, madness, the abyss, casting the demons into a herd of pigs, the destruction of herd over the cliff and into the lake.  If we do think of ourselves this way, it seems to have little influence on how we act and on what we place importance.  Today is, of course, Father’s Day. And unlike Mother’s Day which has become something of a high festival in many churches with attendance rivaling only Easter and Christmas, on Fathers’ Day there is no rush to the churches.  What does that tell us about the Scripture’s message of repentance and forgiveness?  I fear we don’t think of ourselves in terms like these, chained, naked, outcast and alone, in a nightmare on earth which is just a prelude to hell. But this is the proof, strange though it may be to our ears that God is present in the world and is working already now His mighty acts of salvation.

Our reading this morning is from Luke’s Gospel and as we have heard consistently all year from Luke the Evangelist, God is breaking into the work through His Son Jesus to set the world right.  Remember all the way back to the time before Christmas when we heard God’s promises to Mary and she sang out that great hymn of praise to God we call the Magnificat, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” “He has lifted up the lowly”  “He has come to the help of His servant Israel, He has remembered His promises of mercy, the promises he made to Abraham and His children forever.”  And Zechariah’s song shortly thereafter when John was born.  There is direct linear fulfillment of prophecy here but it’s even better than that.  This message of the mercy of God and the mighty works of God is not just for the children of Abraham, but for unclean Gentiles in the area around Gerasa.  God is mighty.  He is breaking in heal his people and reset the world.

The demoniac receives healing and salvation at the Word of Jesus.  Through it, Jesus makes him a disciple.  The former demoniac, a demon-possessed Gentile, is now a part of the new Israel Jesus is making.  The man who was once condemned to the most miserable of experiences in the place of death is an example of the mighty work Jesus is doing.  He is calling people away from false worship to the true worship of the true God.  Just look at the change Jesus worked in this man.  Once condemned to a hellish existence among the tombs, he now is a follower of the One who rescued him, the uncleanest of the unclean.  He is healed.  He is saved, all by the Word of Jesus.

What kind of new master is this for this man?  Jesus shows the mercy of God, even to demons and if to demons, how much more to us!  Jesus takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and certainly not in the premature torture of the wicked who are headed to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).  Even though these demons are beyond redemption, Jesus shows them mercy by granting their request to be cast into the herd of pigs.  The meanings here just pile up.  The unclean spirits get cast into unclean animals.  The fate of the unclean spirits now cast into these pigs is a suicidal run off the cliff and into the lake, an unclean death.  This is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Last Judgement when the devil and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire.  On that day the destruction will be a result of the righteous anger of God.  Today, the destruction is suicidal spite of the mercy of Jesus.  Jesus shows mercy to demons, will he not show us even greater mercy?

I want to go back to the formerly demon-possessed man.  What happens to him in the end?  Luke records, “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Yes, I fear we forget all too easily we were in the same place.  This story is definitely strange and fantastic.  To us in our modern medical age, this man is not possessed, but maybe mentally ill with a rare form of mental illness called multiple personality disorder.  Years ago the book and then the movie, Sybil captivated the attention and brought multiple personality disorder into the light of the popular consciousness.  Sadly, it happens.  Sybil was based on a true story.  But this man is not some first century Sybil.  His name is Legion, for there are many demons in him.  A legion was the largest Roman military unit with between 4,000 and 6,000 men including calvary.  He is not mentally ill.  He is possessed by the powers of death and hell.  I fear we forget all too easily that every sin we commit threatens to pull us away from the presence of the One who rescued us from a fate like this man.  I fear we forget too often the state of need we remain in throughout this earthly life.

Not just this story, but throughout the Bible, the Lord intervenes to help the truly lost, the folks for whom there is no human hope of recovery.  Many of us, baptized as infants and brought up in the church don’t know of life any differently than that.  Something similar has happened in our day.  How many of you lived through the Great Depression?  To you much of the hype about the great recession is just that, hype.  How did you get through it?  Best way you could, right.  Didn’t throw anything away.  A garden was essential to survival.  Canning was the way to preserve the harvest and eat through the winter.  I and everyone in my generation have never known a time when the shelves in the supermarket weren’t full to bursting and have never really known a time when we couldn’t buy what we needed to get buy.  Gardens are recreational activities for most people in my generation, not really depended upon for the basics of food into the winter.  The comparison is this: I think there are folks in the church who grew up in the church and really don’t know what it is to go without.  They are like those who garden for recreation.  Church is a nice hobby for them.  They see themselves as generally nice people who have a few imperfections but not really damnable sins.  Church is an ongoing collection of understanding the rights from the wrongs, preachers jokes and potluck supper evenings.  For them, church is a social thing, more akin to the Lion’s Club.  The liturgy is more like Roberts Rules of Order.  There were believers like this in Jesus day.  They were called Pharisees.  Jesus couldn’t saved them, but they didn’t realize they were drowning.  The Lord intervenes to help the truly lost.

The modern Pharisees fail because they fail to hear.  The modern Pharisees haven’t been failed by the Church.  No.  The church has taught us to speak, “I, a poor, miserable sinner.”  The voice of our Lord speaks through the Churches mouth, so that we hear, “I forgive you all your sins.”  When the Church speaks the ancient language of sin and repentance and healing and salvation, the Church speaks the language of salvation from the Scriptures themselves.  But that language is as lost today on the modern Pharisee as the language of saving for a rainy day is lost on most of my generation.  We must learn to listen again.  We must learn to speak truth.  We must learn to be fluent in the language of the Scriptures, the living Word of God.

To that end, we must take every idea we have about our life with God and run it past the Scriptures to see if it checks out.  “I feel like I can worship God more intimately on my own,” we say.  Scripture says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (1 Cor 12)  “Faith is a personal thing; it’s not my job to be evangelizing people,” we say too often.  Scripture says, “‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Our brothers and sisters in the early church knew what it was to go and tell and bring others back to hear the teaching of the apostles.  In Acts chapter 2, Luke records some of the fire of the earliest believers in the risen Lord.  “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

They had not yet forgotten.  The Lord give us ears to hear and minds to remember with thanksgiving that we have been called out of death and isolation into the family of His Church.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep out hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment
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Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

June 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2010

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel reading for today, the account of Jesus raising the widow of Nain’s son.

The reading begins, “Soon afterward…”  If you’re anything like me at all, you’re wondering soon after what?  So we go back to the beginning of chapter 7 which we didn’t have last week because it was Holy Trinity Sunday, and what was Jesus doing there.  He healed the centurion’s servant.  You remember the story.  A Roman centurion hears about this Jesus who can heal and sends for Jesus.  When he hears Jesus is on the way over, he sends word to Jesus not to come to his house but only say the word and the servant will be healed.  Jesus is astonished.  The Roman centurion, gets it.  The Jews he has been talking to for months don’t get it.

So soon after that, Jesus is on his way into Nain with a big crowd following him.  On his way into town, he meets a big funeral procession coming out of town.  The two big crowds meet and Jesus does something extraordinary, he touches the stretcher carrying the man and the man comes back to life.  Jesus touches the stretcher and risks becoming unclean but instead of being polluted by death, Jesus works it the other way around and the dead one comes back to life.  He has the power of life in him, power over death.  And both large crowds are there to see it.  The man was clearly dead one moment and not dead the next.  Combined with the healing of the centurion’s servant, this is a most unique person.

I think I’ve said before that Jesus is not some first century Palestinian magic healer.  He doesn’t use any of the formulas or the incantations.  He simply speaks and the person is healed.  Some Christians believe that Jesus is able to heal because the people he heals have faith in what he says.  Jesus even says things like, “Go, your faith has healed you…”  and the like.  Except that faith here is usually misunderstood by these Christians.  A person is not healed because of their faith, but rather because of the power of Jesus.  Let’s look at this healing through this lens.  That’s what this raising a man from the dead is, an extraordinary healing.  The man is dead.  It is not his faith that has brought him back from the dead but rather the power of the word of the Son of God.  Period.  This should be the way to understand those more ordinary healings.  The sick are not healed because of their faith, that is, because of their ability to grasp the gift, but rather on account of the gift.  Their faith has healed them in the sense that their faith now grasps and understands where the healing has come from.  Only in that sense has their faith played any role in their healing.

The raising of the widow of Nain’s son comes at an important point in Jesus’ Galilean ministry.  Up to this point, he has taught profoundly, the truths of the kingdom of God, he has healed in unique and amazing ways, including a man with a shriveled hand, a paralyzed man and a leper.  He has even cast out demons by this point.  A resurrection is the only miracle he hans’t done yet.  By doing it, he was stating emphatically that he is indeed the One, the Messiah, the long promised of old, now come.  And so when He reads Isa. 61: 1-2 in his hometown the synagogue, he implies that not only will the captives be freed but even those captive to death itself.  In the the very next lines after our reading today, John’s disciples arrive and ask Jesus if he is the one.  Jesus’ answer to them is… well, Luke records it this way, chapter seven beginning at verse 21, “In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  In other words, and in words, John the Baptist would surely understand, yes, Jesus is the one.  This is why the super size double crowd shouts out, “A great prophet has arisen among us!”  Jesus is, at the very least, a prophet on a par with Elijah, who raised a widow’s son.  The people recognize that Jesus is fulfilling OT prophecies.  “God is visiting his people.”

This was good news for the widow of Nain.  It was good news for the super double crowd.  It was good news that John’s disciples reported back to him on death row in Herod’s prison.  But is this the Good News for you today?  It is Good News that death is defeated, or would you rather have something more in this world?  See here’s the thing about death in our society.  We don’t do death well.  We call it a natural end and we clean it up so that it doesn’t stink and it doesn’t rot.  We sissify death in order to tame it and take the sting out of it.  We don’t even have bare dirt at grave sites; our funeral directors cover it up with astroturf.  Death is peaceful we say.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, death is not peaceful.  Death is your enemy.  Death will swallow you up as quick as he can were it not for Jesus and his authority over death.  Death really is, or at least was, our biggest problem, but thanks be to God, death has been swallowed up in Christ forever.  Jesus showed he had the power over death several times.  He raised the widow of Nain’s son.  He had probably died that day but he was sure enough dead.  He raised Jairus’ daughter.  She too had just died but Jesus raised her from the dead.  Still, some might doubt.  Shortly before his own death, Jesus raised a man who had been in the tomb for four days.  He raised Lazarus from the dead.  And Jesus himself was raised from the dead after being in the tomb for three days.  Jesus has power over death.  This is good news to you because if the same Jesus who raised the widow’s son, and Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus and himself, will certainly raise you.

I would imagine that this man, this son of his mother, who woke up again in this world would have been quite a celebrity in Nain and in Galilee.  I would imagine that for the rest of his days, this man knew what awaited him, having already died once and been raised.  I would think that the experience would have radically altered the way he lived out the rest of his new life.  We hear the stories of those who have come close to death, those who have had near death experiences or those who have watched another person breath their last.  And they get it.  They understand how our culture whitewashes death, that one day, it will be them and it changes them.  It effects everything they do.  What about you?  Don’t you know you’ve already died once.  All of you, who were baptized have died and been raised with Christ.  You need not fear death because death cannot hold you.  In fact, you’ve already died once and been raised just to prove to you that you will be raised again.  I’m sure for the widow’s son, it took him a lifetime to understand the profundity of what happened to him that day.  Understanding what happened to us in the waters of the font is our lifelong calling.  It changes us.  It should.  We’re talking about life and death here.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Connect. Grow. Serve.

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Okay.  I confess, I did it.  I read one of those books.  It wasn’t  about church growth, because that’s not cool any more.  No, this book was on “making mature disciples.”  The book was Simple Church.  I’ve read church growth books before and I admit, I get excited about them.  I want to make mature disciples.  I’m a gardener.  I like watching my garden grow and celebrating the fruits of it.  I also like doing the same thing with my sheep.  But because I’m human and  I get frustrated sometimes as a pastor, I want so much more for my sheep than to watch them sit there, stuck in a rut, sometimes for years.

Now hear me out, this is not just me ranting, (at least I’m intending it to be more than a rant) this is more of a righteous rant.  I fear that sometimes what passes for Christian faith, at least in conservative Missouri quarters is a personal acceptance of some vague notion of some doctrinal tenants about God and then sporatic attendance at church events.  It manifests itself by attending “the pastor’s class” when joining a church but never attending a Bible class after that.  Oh, you’ll make your kid go to class to get confirmed but that’s as far as it gets.  I’m certainly not talking about anyone in my parish.  I’m generalizing.  I’m even including kids I went to confirmation class with in 1984.

I fear that in the 20th century when “everyone” was in church, we payed very little attention to why we were there.  It was part of the social construct and so folks went to church.  We took it for granted that they would be there.  Americans go to church.  Commies don’t.  But wow, there are just simply more entertaining alternatives.  It has already started and it will continue, I’m afraid.  People will stop attending churches when they don’t know why they’re there.  Thus, Simple Church.  The premise is to make mature disciples, that is, give folks an opportunity to connect with God, grow in God, and serve God.  I get it, and here’s the rub, (I know, sorry for the long set up) it just doesn’t work with how I see what Sunday morning is for the life of a believer.

Oh, in non-demoninational churches which have the Lord’s Supper four times a year whether they need it or not, this model works perfectly.  It’s slick.  It gets people connected and growing and serving others.  It works for them.  People get connected by coming to a “weekend service.”  There is no concept of the church year in these churches even to the point of playing down Christmas when it doesn’t fall on a weekend.  More on that below.  They grow by attending a small group during the week.  They serve others by serving on a ministry team.  I don’t exactly know what that means but it sounds really good.  I think it could mean anything from ushering to serving on the “worship team” to working at the soup kitchen.  All in all, great stuff, for them.  I see how it works for them.

But Lutherans are not them.  We are not plain vanilla evangelical protestant Christians.  We are a church that is deeply sacramental and liturgical and historical.  The center of a believer’s life is the Sunday Morning Divine Service and I mean with the Lord’s Supper.  Everything we do and say and are throughout the week stems from participation in the reality of the Eucharistic feast having gone out into the world.  We are the body of Christ because he put his body and blood into us.  Cut yourself off from the body and blood of Christ for too long  and you risk cutting yourself off from the body of Christ.  So for us Lutherans, where is the connect point?  And I ask that question in all seriousness.  To what weekly event do we invite our unchurched neighbor?  Because for us, the connect point CANNOT be the Divine Service.  It could be for fellow Lutherans and perhaps even fellow Christians, at least those people who have some notion of what goes on inside a pointy building on Sunday morning.  But what about the unbelievers?  Remember them?  They’re the ones we’re supposed to be concerned about to the point of even not serving our own.  Parable of the Lost Sheep.  What is the connect point for them?  I would even strongly encourage the non-denom churches, even the ones with Lutheran in their name, who use this kind of discipleship pattern to get serious about worship (Jn 4: 24) and see that it is not the place for unbelievers to connect with God.  I argue, it cannot be the Lutheran Divine Service for at least three reasons.

1.  Unbelievers  don’t belong at the Divine Service, or if they do, they certainly don’t belong there for the celebration of the sacrament of the altar.  The worship of God is the activity of his saints.  Ordinary Israelites were not allowed into the holy place or the most holy place of the tabernacle and the temple–only the priests.  Now, through Christ, the baptized are a holy nation and a royal priesthood and offer appropriate sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise because it is theirs to do.  It is not the place for unbelievers.  If it is, then why are we there?  If the regular service must be the connect point, I offer a time-tested solution.  We should reinstate a dismissal after the prayers of the church to allow for the unbelievers (and catechumens and all the rest who are not in fellowship with us) to leave, comfortably with as little awkwardness as possible.  There is a nice break in the liturgy there.  The pastor could make announcements and give a blessing, not the Aaronic benediction (cf. Lev 9-21-23) and then, “The doors, the doors!”  And then the holy things for the holy ones may commence.

2.  unbelievers don’t belong there because they don’t know what’s going on.  We are liturgical Christians not as an end to itself but because the liturgy is the highest expression of the saints.  And let’s face it, the liturgy as we have it, is for the initiated. The closest comparison I can make, having worked at the St. Louis Symphony while at seminary, is that the liturgy is a lot like classical music.  It is at its best when it is understood but explaining it while it’s happening ruins it.  The liturgy should be like breathing for God’s people.  We shouldn’t have to stop and listen to the lecture about which elements we just inhaled will be of benefit to our health and which were simply inert gasses.  Now, what some churches do, is they just dump the liturgy and go with the liturgy pops.  It’s very popular these days but I fear that for the uninitiated it’s a little like listening to Wagner and watching Buggs Bunny.

3.  I would argue they don’t belong there because they know they don’t belong there.  They have questions about how we can even be sure God exists and we’re asking them to “join with as we confess together the Nicene Creed” or some other meta-narrative that the “worship leader” is employing to move things along.  In many congregations, of course, they just don’t bother to confess the Trinity, preferring something Pastor Philintheblank wrote this week while working from his laptop sitting in the coffee shop.  Will the gates of hell hold against that onslaught?

For the non-denoms, the connect point should be the small group.  I know, I know.  That’t the closest thing they have to koinonia, but that is the proper place to invite the unbeliever, not worship (Cf. John 4:24).  What I really wish I could do is invite unbelievers to just the coffee and donuts after the service.  I’m serious.  That makes more sense and it’s friendly but impractical.  So what is the “connect” point for Lutherans?  Where should we connect with those who do not understand us and do not understand why they would be better off for all eternity believing in Jesus Christ?  I would argue, and I’m not alone in this, that it’s supposed to be your house and your workplace and your school and all those places where you, dear Christian, intersect with unbelievers.  There, they should know you by your love, by your love, they should know you are Christian by your love.

So why is that not working?  More to the point, why is the Christian home a place where even the people who live there have little or no encounter with Jesus?  What have our homes become?  Luther wanted to shut down the monasteries because each Christian home should be a place of prayer.  Are our homes too big now?  Dad has his man cave.  Mom has her spa.  The kids each have their own nooks to text and IM to their hearts delight and their GPA’s demise.  Until the Christian home is restored and we actually invite people to come over again, should the congregation provide surrogate dens and living rooms or kitchen tables where the ones with questions can come and feel free to ask, “What’s up with ya’ll drinking blood?”  Etc, etc.

If we provide a surrogate living room, how would we go about it?  How would we do it on a regular, even weekly basis?  If we got someone interested about what goes on in the pointy building on Sunday, then, they could come and we would sit with them and explain a little as the service goes along and help them find their place in the hymnal and Bible.  Then if they wanted to ask any even mildly serious questions, they could come to the informal inquiry group that meets right after the friendly dismissal.  “We’ll be out in 20 minutes.  Save some coffee and donuts for us.”  Then, if they were serious about wanting to be a formal inquirer, they could meet with the pastor and announce as such.  If they decided that they actually wanted to get serious about going to the next step, they could become a resounder, an echoer of God’s word, aka a catechumen.  If they wanted to go further and join the Christian church, they could prepare for baptism.  There’s a whole process for this called the catechumenate.  Maybe we need groovier, hipper names for all this but in this way we could meet folks where they are at and actually foster growth in understanding without dumbing down the worship of the saints because that is, quite frankly, quiet self-destruction.

What would it look like?  “Curious?  Questioning?  Echoing?  Baptized?”  I don’t know.  Should we emphasize the passive nature of the believer in all this?  “Caught.  Fed. Spoken.  Baptized.”  I’m pretty sure the ambiguity of the doer of the verbs in the title of this piece, is intentional.  (BTW, if you want to see what I’m talking about just put that in Google.)   I’ll save that for a marketing class in the future.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get some comments on this post and we can foster some discussion on this.  Because I desperately want to reach unchurched people.  I also want to make sure that the lifeboat we pull them into doesn’t have holes in it.