Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Under the Influence

I've begun a study of the LCMS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) with our Sunday morning Bible class.

One of the topics we will be covering is what outside, non-Lutheran influences have affected thinking and practice in our church body. Certainly American culture is a major one. However, another major influence of late has been "Evangelicalism".

Dr. David Adams makes this very case in his assessment of what divides the LCMS today, a view which I find to be very insightful.

Disclaimer: Not everything in Evangelicalism is necessarily bad. We Lutherans do have points of commonality as well as important differences. I'd just like to see an increased awareness of what those are.

Most of us in the LCMS have been influenced, somehow or another, by modern American Evangelicalism. With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, I put together the beginnings of a list... feel free to tack on your own comments. If they're really good I will even include them in the post.



You believe it's important to be “Christian First, Lutheran Second”

You would rather have lunch with James Dobson than C.F.W. Walther

You believe the Great Commission is the central point of Christian teaching

You think that many Lutherans are too concerned about Doctrine

You've ever called someone a pharisee for defending a point of biblical teaching

You think that different Christian teachings needlessly offend people

You prefer to say “close” rather than “closed” communion

Your idea of close communion means that Christians from other denominations are probably “close enough”

You say things like, “we've just gotta get the young people involved at church”

You don't see why an organ is more appropriate in church than a drum set

You prefer Group Publishing to CPH

You prefer Youth Specialties to Higher Things

You prefer Focus on the Family over Issues, Etc.

You think churches that are shrinking in size MUST be doing something very wrong
You think churches that are growing in size MUST be doing something very right

You think Lutherans believe “pretty much the same” as non-Lutherans

You think crucifixes and private confession are “too Catholic”

Your prayers contain the phrase, “Lord, we just...”

You repeat the mantra, “everything happens for a reason”

You think congregations should be “mission outposts” not “maintenance stations”

You believe the “marks of the church” include: stewardship, servanthood, and political activism

You think Confirmation is as important, or almost as important, as Holy Baptism

You believe that Holy Communion is between you and God, but has nothing to do with your neighbor


Feel free to add to my list here...

"Stand Firm" on TCN/Revitalization

One of the more dubious phenomena in the LCMS today is the "Transforming Congregations Network" and its "Revitalization" process. It's a program or approach to church that is growing in our circles, about which many of us have some serious reservations.

Scott over at "Stand Firm" has begun a series of articles taking a closer (and critical) look at TCN and Revitalization. If your congregation is considering participating in something like this, you do well to read Scott's work carefully:

The Transforming Churches Network: Part 1, A Non-Native Invasion

The Transforming Churches Network: Part 2, It's All About Commitment

The Transforming Churches Network: Part 3, Eliminating Regressive Attitudes

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Blogging Wife

Well the Mrs. has entered the blogosphere. She asked me to pass it on to those who might be interested. She take a little different approach than I do, of course, which is good, I'm sure. Check her out at "Speak With Me":

Sermon - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-39

Easter 3, 2009
Luke 24:36-49
“The Assurance of the Risen Christ”

Today we read from Luke's Gospel how Jesus appeared to his disciples after he rose from the dead. Luke tells us how he walked with 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus, taught them and broke bread with them. And now, Jesus appears to the 12, shows his calling-card wounds, and encourages them to believe.

He knows they are superstitious. Back when he walked out to them on the water – they saw him coming and thought he was a ghost! Now too, Jesus knew his disciples might think it was his ghost appearing to them. That he had “come back to haunt them” or something.

But he says, “Peace to you!”. And he calms their doubts and fears. He even proves he has real flesh and blood by eating in their presence, and letting them touch his flesh.

He has much to teach them, and he opens their minds to the scriptures. Then they begin to see that this was always how it had to be. He had to suffer. He had to die. He had to rise again. Just like the scriptures say. Just like he explained to the disciples on the way to Emmaus.

But his plan isn't done yet. It doesn't end when the disciples see him alive. The road doesn't stop at Emmaus, either. Repentance and forgiveness are to be preached to the ends of the earth. In a way, Easter is just the beginning.

What does all this have to do with you and me? Well, we can certainly identify with the disciples and their doubts and fears. We find it difficult, at times, to believe and trust in Jesus and all he says. If they were struggling when he stood before them in the flesh – how much more can we expect to be plagued by doubts and fears. After all, we are sinners – and like our first parents in the garden, Satan tempts us too... “did God really say...?”

But Jesus assures us too. And he comes to us in a meal, as he did to his disciples. He doesn't eat with us, but he is the host and better, he is the very meal. He gives his body and blood to us to forgive sins, yes, but also to strengthen faith. If you want to be closer to Jesus, if you want to be a stronger Christian, if you want your faith to grow – feed it – with the food he gives. The real presence of his body and blood for you. Take and eat and drink, and live, and believe more deeply.

We are like the disciples in other ways too. We need our minds opened to the scriptures. And while Jesus himself isn't going to teach us personally, he doesn't leave us without the means to know his word.

He gives us the written word. Bibles. What a blessing to have so many and inexpensive Bibles to choose from. At no other time in history has God's word been so accessible to so many people. And by the way, this might be a good time to mention the new Lutheran Study Bible which is coming out in October, and if you want a copy you can sign up after church....

But not only do we have the Bible, we have other Christians to help us learn what it teaches. We have pastors and teachers, we have forefathers in the faith to lean on. We can even gain new insight from our peers in the faith. And while we must carefully discern the true from the false teachers (and they are many). Still, we are not left alone to learn God's word on our own. Each of us as been taught, and is taught, by others God places before us.

Our understanding is often clouded by sin, and by the agenda we bring to God's word. Satan would tempt us to ignore or twist God's very word. He would have us read only those parts that suit his purposes. Or he'll turn God's promises into laws or mix things up in confusion. But God's word has power nonetheless, and never returns to him void. Like his many other good gifts, we pray we will use his word faithfully, for it is a precious gift.

Jesus assures the disciples with his presence at a meal, and with an understanding of the scriptures – and he does the same for us. But he also mentions, “The promise of my Father”. And we might wonder what that is.

To these superstitious men who thought they might be seeing a Ghost, Jesus is promising, the Father is promising, the Holy Spirit. The comforter, the counselor, the one who leads us into all truth. He who works through the word, and in the sacraments. The Lord and Giver of Life. The Holy Spirit was soon to come and clothe this ragtag band with “power from on high”. For they had a charge set before them.

Go and preach the Gospel, and baptize the nations. Teach them to observe all things I have commanded you. As the Father sends me, so I send you. Forgive and retain sins, and they are forgiven or retained. You are my ambassadors.

And again, we identify with those disciples. Jesus feeds them, teaches them, and sends them out to do their work. And so he does for us.

As a church, our calling is to do good to all people, especially to those of the family of the faith. Our calling is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners. Our calling is to faithfully administer the sacraments he has given to us.

And each of us has a part in that. Some act publicly. Some support privately. And all of us, in daily life, serve our neighbor and love our neighbor, and we ARE witnesses simply in living out our faith.

A witness simply tells what he sees. When asked, Christians can tell what we see. We see in God's word a power for salvation – the Gospel. That Jesus died for my sins, and the sins of the world. We see in God's word that all have sinned, including me. We see that when we bring those sins before him they are washed away in baptism, and forgiven in the feast. And we show others the love that Christ first showed us, because the comfort of the Gospel overflows in our lives.

In this Easter season, we rejoice with Peter and John, with Mary Magdelene, with Doubting and Believing Thomas, with the Disicples who walked to Emmaus, and with all the other witness of the resurrection – whether they saw him with their eyes, or with the eyes of faith. We take comfort in his meal and in his word and in his Spirit, who clothes us with the power of Jesus death and his life.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Harrison at SWD

South Wisconsin District
Spring Pastors Conference
Welcomed our main speaker, Rev. Matthew Harrison.

I have to say this was one of the best, most theologically adept presentations we've had. Matt has a real heart for people and a solid grounding of doctrine. A rare combination, it seems!

Here's video of his sermon from the conference service, "You Are Accounted".

I think Harrison would make a fine synodical president in 2010, and agree with the growing chorus of his supporters.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sermon - Easter Sunday - 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Easter Sunday 2009
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
“What's the Plan?”

Christ is Risen. (He is risen indeed. Alleluia!)

“What's the plan of the day?”

“Well, it's Easter, so we'll go to church. And I suppose it's best to go to the ______ service. Then maybe we'll go out for brunch or have an easter-egg hunt with the kids. The kids are dying to get into their Easter baskets. We'll pick up some lilies on the way over to visit Grandma. And then it's a big ham dinner – you know we always have ham on Easter....”

What's the plan? We make lots of plans, don't we. Maybe you were planning for retirement and the last year made you change your plans. Maybe you were planning to grow old with your spouse, but it seemed that cancer had other plans. Maybe you had planned to work your way up the ladder at work, and now there's no more ladder and you find yourself falling.... No, this wasn't part of the plan. This wasn't my plan, anyway.

So where is God in all of this? John Stienbeck is famous for writing the line, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. But what about the plans of God? On this Easter Sunday, amid all the celebration, is it fair to ask what God's plan is? What is he up to in the world, or more importantly in my life? Where do I fit in to God's plan?

St. Paul speaks to that in our Epistle from 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, Paul lays out the step-by-step plan that Jesus followed. The plan that was plotted and predicted ahead of time in the scriptures, and by our Lord himself. The same plan he fulfilled with perfection:

“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

Sin was never part of the plan – not God's plan, anyway. But when Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, God was quick with a plan to address it. He promised a savior – an offspring of the woman that would crush the head of the serpent. And Jesus is the fulfillment of that age-old plan.

Jesus died for the sins of the world, as the scriptures said he would. Jesus made this plain to his disciples, and he spoke of it publicly to others: “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days”. He knew he came to die. It was the reason he was born. Jesus is no mere example, no simple teacher, no plain prophet or miracle worker – though he is all those things – but he is the savior of the world. The one sacrifice for sin, who gave his life up on Good Friday in shame and agony. This was, of course, central to the plan.

He was buried, according to the plan. Unusual, perhaps, that someone who was crucified would be buried. Usually crucifixion victims were cremated by the Romans, and not given a proper Jewish burial. But the prophet had spoken the plan, “He was numbered with the transgressors, and assigned a grave with the rich”. So Joseph of Arimathea lends his own new tomb for the burial of Jesus, all according to plan.

But the plan was not for Jesus to stay dead. Even in the Old Testament, the prophet predicted, “You will not let your Holy One see decay, you will not abandon him to the grave”. Just as Jesus had to die, so did Jesus have to rise. This, too, was the plan. And on the third day, to boot, just as Jesus said plainly.

So why were they all so surprised on that first Easter morning? Why didn't they believe it would really happen? Perhaps because God's plan is so unbelievable? Or because we aren't so good at believing?

You see, while our best laid plans go awry, Jesus is the man with the plan, the God with the plan. When we don't know what the future holds, or where it's all going, our Lord does. He is ultimately in control. His will is done.

The trouble is, we don't always know what his will is. We don't know if it's God's will for John to get that job or for Susan to keep hers. We don't know whether Anna will recover from her illness, or if Pete will win the big game. God doesn't always tell us his plans. There's a lot we don't know.

Which makes it all the more precious when he does tell us. And all the more important. We're on a need to know basis. What do we need to know of God's plan? What is essential? This: that Jesus came for you, lived for you, died for you and rose for you. That he reigns on heaven's throne for you and one day will come back for you, for me, and all believers. That we will rise with all the dead, and just as Jesus conquered death, we will live forever in him. That's the plan! The plan of our salvation.

And did you notice that when Paul describes the plan in Corinthians, he doesn't just stop at the resurrection? Jesus, now alive, appeared to people. He came to Cephas (that's St. Peter) and the 12, then to James, and even once to more than 500 disciples at a time! And finally, Paul says, “he appeared also to me”.

We could write our own little postscript to that. That he, Jesus, has come to us, too. Each of us could say, “He has appeared to me!”. Not in visible, bodily form as he did to so many New Testament believers. But he appears to us in his Word. There, as we hear, we also see. And he appears to us, comes to us in water and word – Holy Baptism, and in bread and wine and word – the Body and Blood of his Supper. Here we see, that we too are a part of his plan!

In his word, and in those sacraments, you see, Jesus makes his plan personal. He applies his promises to you and me. He forgives us, makes us his people, gives us faith to trust and to believe the unbelievable. And one day he will complete his plan by bringing us out of the grave to live forever. We too will have our own “little Easter”. It's all written down in the plan. It's all included in the promises of God in Jesus Christ.

The best laid plans of mice and men do go awry – we are sinners living in a sin-filled, broken world. But God's plan is sure and true, and in Jesus Christ it is fulfilled. At the cross, at the empty Easter tomb, and one day in the glorious resurrection to come. Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Amen.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Sermon - Revelation 3:14-22 - Maundy Thursday

Revelation 3:14-22
“Jesus' Letter to Laodicea”

“You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. You're so lukewarm, I am going to spew you out of my mouth!” Some of the harshest words to all of the seven churches are spoken to the pastor and people at Laodicea.

We've been meditating on those seven letters in this Lenten season, and applying Jesus' words to the seven churches of Revelation – applying them to ourselves. After all, Jesus himself concludes each letter, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. These are open letters, meant for us all.

And Jesus' call to repentance throughout has been clear as well. His condemnation of sin and spiritual weakness, his exhortations and admonitions about false doctrine and toleration of sin, lack of love and fear of persecution. All these are warnings we do well to take seriously.

But what a picture of disgust, the idea that we are so wretched and distasteful to him in our sin, that he would spit us, spew us out of his mouth.... if we don't repent. Repentances has been the major theme here, hasn't it. A turning away from our sins, and a turning to God in faith. The call to repentance is related to how we are disciplined as his church, as his people.

It would be a mistake for us to say we were “just fine”. It would be wrong of us to say like the church of Laodicea did, that we are “rich, prosperous and need nothing”. In fact, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.

But we “say we have no sin” all the time, don't we? Is sin an operative concept for us in daily life outside of church? We live most of our lives, it seems without much thought about what we SHOULD do, and much more thought about what we WANT to do. What feels good, what makes us happy. What makes practical sense at the time. Or maybe we even act without much thought. But we certainly don't often think of our actions as sins, or sinful. Until once in a while, maybe once a week or two, when we come to church and, “oh yeah – I guess I am a sinner after all”.

Lent is all about repentance. The Christian faith is all about repentance. Jesus Christ himself is all about it – as he calls us to a life of on-going repentance.
The danger, it seems, is apathy. That we would grow so comfortable that we don't care anymore about our sin – don't even see it. We go through life on auto-pilot, never considering fully the true measure of our sinfulness. We take only a shallow glance at the word, rather than a hard look in the mirror of God's law – an examination of ourselves which would show all the warts and imperfections. It's not comfortable to look there. To see ourselves in all our sinful wretchedness. But we must look there first, and look well. Before we can truly see our savior.

We are sometimes neither hot nor cold. If we were, we might be uncomfortable enough to feel the need for our savior. The heat of God's wrath burning down our necks might make us long for the soul-quenching Gospel. The coldness of our hearts might make us yearn for the warmth of his love in Christ. But lukewarm – room temperature? No need, no bother. No thought or care. Just numbness, deadness, apathy.

Repent, Jesus says. Be zealous and repent! Know the depth of your sin, so you may know the joy of your salvation!

As always, Jesus then makes promises to conclude his letter. He says he's knocking, and if anyone opens the door, he will eat with him. In other words, he's calling for repentance, and if we do, he will surely forgive. And it's interesting that he expresses that forgiveness as “eating with us”. For one of the most powerful ways he expresses his forgiveness to us is in a meal.

This day, Maundy Thursday, we especially consider the meal that Christ has given us. A Holy Supper – unlike any other meal. The food is heavenly – his own body and blood. And its effect is divine – forgiveness, life and salvation. He who would spew unrepentant sinners from his mouth, takes those who repent and feeds us with his own flesh and blood. There is no more intimate fellowship than this. There is no way to be closer to Jesus, than here at his supper – where he touches our lips – where he is present for us, given to us.

Are we apathetic about the sacrament? Are we neither hot nor cold? When Christ our Lord enthrones himself in bread and wine, and invites us to the feast – is it “just another day”? When God himself comes to you, feeds you, forgives you... is it ever NOT a big deal? We repent of our careless and thoughtless reception of your gifts, O Lord. And we than you that through such gifts, you even forgive such carelessness and thoughtlessness.

And finally in this letter to Laodicea, the promise of a throne. Yes, we know Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. We know he reigns and rules over all. But to the one who conquers – there is a promise. To the one who believes, the one who is saved, the one who repents and is forgiven - “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne”. We will share in his reign forever. What a promise. What a blessing. There and then we will truly be rich, and prosper, and need nothing.

But until then – the life of faith continues. A life of repentance, in which he continually knocks, continually feeds us. Be zealous in your repentance, and even more zealous in your faith! For his promises are great, and they are for you. Given and shed for you... for the forgiveness of your sins. For you... unto life everlasting, Amen.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Sermon - Revelation 3:7-13 - Midweek Lent 6

Revelation 3:7-13
“Jesus' Letter to Philadelphia”

“I have set before you an open door.” Jesus says to the Christians of Philadelphia. He who hold the keys to lock and unlock the very gates of heaven, he sets a door before the church. It is an opportunity- to serve, to witness, to proclaim his word.

He doesn't really call out this church for any glaring sin. They have remained faithful; they have endured. But maybe they weren't making the most of their opportunities. They weren't going through the door he was opening.

They were weak. They had “little power”. Weak in numbers? Weak in resources? In influence or community standing? Or maybe all of the above?We don't know how they were weak, but they were. And we can relate to that. How many of us are rich and famous? How many of us are influential? No, most of us struggle to make it day to day – muddling through somehow. Doing what we need to, and what we can, but no more. We are weak. We have little power.

We have little power, especially when it comes to our own sin. How many times have we struggled with sin and failed? How often have we tried, planned, hoped to do better – and find ourselves falling down over and over again. Our weakness is profound. We aren't strong enough to keep from sinning. We aren't even strong enough to believe in Jesus on our own. We confess it this way in our catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength.... believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him”

But the Philadelphian Christians knew the One who has the power. And we know him too. In fact he has all power and authority, all glory and majesty. He rules the heavens and the earth from his throne at his Father's right hand. God has placed everything under his feet. Our God is an awesome God.

But his power is made perfect in weakness. It is by humility and lowliness and service that Jesus accomplishes the greatest things. And in the darkest depths of the darkest day – when he was at his most weakened and helpless and lowest point – hanging, suffering, dying – a public spectacle of shame and grief. Even his own Father had forsaken him. And there, in that weakness, his power and glory are seen most perfectly. And there, in the cross, is our power too.

By his death he destroyed death, and by his resurrection he brought the victory over death and the grave to all his people. He is Jesus Christ, the Lord. The one sure strength and power.

Only in Jesus can we face the enemies, and conquer. The synagogue of Satan – enemies of the faith in those days – even they would be made to bow down. Either as they were converted into faithful believers themselves, or on the day of judgment when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord”. Jesus assures the church that the victory is always his – sooner, or later. He reminds them that he is coming, and coming soon. And though the “hour of trial” is coming – and comes for us all – Jesus carries the day. And he carries us. And he gives us the crown of victory.

He promises us a new name – a new identity, if you will – that we are identified with God himself, and with God's church (his Jerusalem), and with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus also promises that the one who endures to the end will be made a “pillar in the temple of my God”. A picture of the permanent dwelling we will have in God's eternal presence. Like a pillar of the temple – strong and magnificent, but not in ourselves. Only strong in him, but always strong in him.

And that same power of God for salvation – the Gospel – that same power that has saved us, is really the only power we have to make the most of the open doors before us. God's word is the only real tool in our box. We are weak. But God's word is strong.

It accomplishes the purpose for which he sends it. It never returns to him void. It is a sharp two-edged sword. It has the power to cut and kill – as his law condemns sin, and probes the heart and mind, showing us where we have gone wrong, and calling us to repent. But his word of Gospel also has the power to heal and build and even bring life from the dead. It has the power to forgive sins, awaken faith, and sanctify us in its truth. The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ is our only real power, but what a power it is! A weapon of mass destruction for sin and death and the devil and his minions. The very power of God himself.

As our Lenten Wednesdays end, and we stand at the cusp of Holy Week, we become more acutely aware of our own weakness. But in the weakness of Christ and his Cross, we see true power – the power of the Gospel. The power to save us, and the power we are given – as doors are placed before us. As a congregation, and as individuals, may we always enter those doors with faith, relying only on Christ and always on Christ alone – who has opened his heaven to us.