Thanksgiving 2012

21. November 2012
Thanksgiving Eve

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Thanksgiving. Thanks and giving put together. Word order matters. It should be Givingthanks. First you are given and then you receive with thanks. That’s how it works. You say thanks only after receipt. We teach this to our children. First say please, then receive, and then say thanks.

Thanksgiving presumes we have received something and something worth giving thanks for. Everyone takes time before their big buffet tomorrow to say thanks to someone for their food. We say thanks to Mom or Grandma for slaving over the hot stove. Dad cooked the turkey and he gets a thanks. Our friends or family arrive and we say thanks for coming. These are good gifts—food, friends, and family. No doubt they are worth their thanks.

These are gifts given by God. God gives us homes, family, friends, food, and everything we have because He loves us in Christ. Thanksgiving is really about giving. God’s giving. Gift. Free. Generous. Bountiful. Loving. You’re here to receive. You’re here for the blessings. Free, underserved, and generous as God gives. God the Father gives you Jesus Christ. He forgives you, washes you clean, feeds you holy food, cares for your body and souls through bread in the ears. You receive everything needed from God.

No one wants to be dependent on another. Only reluctantly will someone resort on food stamps. Only out of complete desperation will they ask family, friend, or stranger for cash. To be a beggar is to be inhuman or so we were raised to think. Not with God. There is no more taking credit for your life. You know better. You are beggars and this is good. God made everything. The earth is full of His creatures. He makes the grass grow for the livestock and plants to grow for man to harvest. God gives us food from the earth and wine to gladden our hearts. (Psalm 104)

The pagans worship the god of their stomach and Football. They give thanks to the gods of hard work, fortune, and luck. They have been blessed by God but something is missing. The gifts of the Spirit—forgiveness, life, and salvation in His holy church—are notably absent. They feed their body and their eyes but pay no attention to their souls and their future death.

The pagans get the God part wrong. They also give the thanks part wrong. Throughout the Holy Scriptures, Jesus teaches us that thanksgiving is not a merely word but it is a giving. Word order matters. God gives and we return thanks by giving. It’s the divine “pay it forward” scheme. Thus, when you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground… and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there… You shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.

There it is. Thanksgiving. Giving an offering of the first of the fruit in thanks. An offering is given not out of obligation, or duty, or even necessity, but in thanks. How many of us can lay our offerings before the LORD and then rejoice in all the good that the Lord [our] God has given to [us] and to [our] house[s]?  Too few. We hold the purse strings too tight. We love our wealth too much. Jesus says: take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

You are completely dependent on your God. He gives even without your asking. He gives you daily bread and gives you faith to realize this is from Him. There’s the rub. God gives and faith receives. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Giver is ignored or dismissed. You’re here today not for turkey, smashed potatoes, or sweets. You’re here to receive bread from heaven, the Word that gives faith. And in receiving you realize God’s blessing and receive everything with thanksgiving. You receive and give thanks to the Giver of every good gift.

The thanks only come after the giving. If there is no gift, then there is no thanks. Christian worship is all about the gift: Word preached, absolution declared, water and word washed, body and blood of Jesus fed, blessing given. Such great gifts received and what happens? Anything? Wake up! The glory of God is revealed in His gifts. The Lord rejoices to give and gives that you receive. Receiving God’s gifts changes you. He gives you blessings that make you whole again through forgiveness of wrong. They are seals of a promise to be with you until the end of time. They give the inheritance of heaven from His last will and testament.

To the one who keeps the Lord’s treasures for himself, God calls a fool. It is foolish for you to receive and never give. It is foolish reap bountifully and then store in barns. It is foolish to give thanks and withhold charity.  It is foolish to receive the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament only to horde this bounty for yourself. God gives, we receive, and we give thanks, not merely in word but in deed and truth. Lord, grant us the humility to receive with thankfulness and share with those in need.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

The Abomination of Desolation – Matthew 24:15-28

06. November 2011
Trinity 25
Matthew 24:15-28

The tabernacle and temple of old was the dwelling place of God. In the holy of holies sat the Ark of the Covenant, where the Lord himself was enthroned between the cherubim dispensing mercy to the people. Each year the chief priest would sprinkle the blood of a bull upon the seat for the sins of the people. This sprinkling of blood annually atoned for the sins of the people. Forgiveness rendered by the shedding of blood.

The holy place for you is this sanctuary. Your Lord sits enthroned here upon the altar, still dispensing mercy as He did for the people of old. Not the blood of bulls but the blood of the only begotten Son of God atones for the sins of the whole world. The sacrifice is not made yearly for the people but is given freely from the cross until He comes again. Blood is not only sprinkled on you in the font but is given to you to drink. Forgiveness of sins still rendered by the blood. This blood is a life giving flood and the medicine of immortality.

Imagine a great horror would occur to this place just as it did to the temple of old, something so terrible that we shrink at the thought. Imagine this place of forgiveness was desecrated with foreign idols. Imagine the insignia of a false god placed over it. What if this place was turned into a marketplace? What if we charged for services rendered, dispensing mock forgiveness only when a coin is placed in the plate? What if we capitulated to society, ignoring the Word of God? Gay marriage performed. Abortions blessed. Divorces endorsed. Greed encouraged. The neighbors good interests ignored.

Jesus warns in today’s Gospel of the “Abomination of Desolation” to the Temple as foretold by the prophet Daniel. He was specifically speaking of the holy of holies within the temple, Daniel said:  They shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. The temple will be made unclean and then laid waste by lies and deceit. This prophecy was fulfilled in the temple in AD 70. It also applies to the churches of this world and even to your heart.

In the of desolation day, a great idol will sit upon the throne reserved for Christ in the Holy Place. He will speak, claiming Christ’s Word. He will command, claiming Christ’s authority. He will promise, claiming Christ’s mercy. From this idolatrous throne, he will perform great signs and wonders, trying to lead even the elect of God astray.

Such idols exist in our day, claiming to speak from Christ’s authority or in His stead, but instead speaking lies contrary to Christ’s own Word. In many places, what was once holy is made desolate by the abomination of idolatry. There are those within the church that will abandon the faith and lead you astray by betrayal, falsehood, hatred, and lawlessness. They will lead you into a rebellion against God and His truth. The abomination foretold by Daniel and by Christ himself is the rejection of the Word of God. He is warning us of the exchange of lies for the truth. This is an abomination for it ultimately destroys faith and thus salvation, leaving you desolate.

St. Paul warned the church of Thessalonica about these: Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4)

Such abominations obviously happen in Islam or Mormonism when they blatantly add and mix the Word of God with falsehood. Jesus has in mind not only them but also those who would are more clever in their deceit. Some would tell you that our faith is about being good Christian people. Some suggest that Christianity is defined by what it is not—not gay, not aborting, not Democrat. Some suggest salvation by works, acts of charity, living according to God’s law. Others fly flags out front that identify them as gay-friendly. Others talk about how they are for the hip and cool. Some talk about being family-friendly. No matter what, we want a church that is accepting of us, that lets us be just who we want to be, even if God disagrees.

Do not think you are immune from this prophecy. The old Adam is strong, sin remains tempting, and the Devil’s lies still are whispered in your ear. He wants nothing more than for you to capitulate to culture, satisfy your sinful cravings, and ignore the Word. He would have the pastors of the church ignore sin, gloss over immorality, and endorse idolatry. He would have you seek a church that is accepting, inclusive, and open to every whim and fancy of the fallen flesh.

Our faith is not defined by our targeted demographic or who we are not. It is defined solely by who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus. Remember that you are part of the body of Christ. Your own heart is the dwelling place of God, like the mercy seat of old. Yet, while in this body of death your fallen will still desires to dethrone Christ from your heart. You would rather place other idols to rule and govern your thoughts and deeds.

Perhaps you are consumed with the material of this world that you worship your “stuff” more than Christ. Thus, you horde God’s gifts for yourself and do not use them to His glory. Perhaps you have made your family and idol, giving your spouse and children priority over daily prayer and divine worship. Thus, you have cast Christ off his throne and replaced Him with other fallen creatures. You worship your family more than the one who saved you. Perhaps you have put your trust in princes, blindly following messianic politicians, who claim they can solve this country’s problems. They claim to put more money in your pocket, food on the table, and an addition on the house. You have dethroned your savior who is the sole provider for your every need of body and soul.

When these powerful enemies pursue your heart, heed the prophet’s warning. Flee to the mountains. Leap from your place of rest and run from the field. Pray that you will not be held back by cares for family. Pray that it not be winter or the Sabbath. Run fast and never turn back. That is, repent. Confess your sin and your desire to be god. He is merciful and forgives you. He suffers your idolatry and works in you a clean heart.

Do not look for solace in the false Christ’s of this world. There are those who would lead you astray. There are those who would convince you to worship them and forget Jesus. There are those who will try to lead you to believe you can “have your best life now,” that you “are not a poor, miserable sinner,” or worse yet, mix error with truth. Anyone or anything that claims to save you apart from or in addition to Jesus is against him.

They are the anti-Christ, the false prophet. They will tell you a great many things which sound good and true and may even be verified by great success. Their churches may grow by leaps and bounds. Yet, they are synagogues of Satan, abominations of desolation. This devil is a great deceiver and ruler of this world. He can convince sinful heart and mind to believe and see that which it wants.

It is only God’s Word that gives what we truly need. It is only the testimony of the Spirit in the church that brings you Jesus Christ crucified. It is only the Son of God’s atoning blood, his body sacrificed, his death, and his glorious resurrection that must be enthroned in your heart. No thoughts of self-righteousness, no looking to your wealth or prosperity, no beautiful family, nor any growing congregation will clean the temple of your heart. Only the strong man can loose the bonds, break the fetters, and release the chains that have bound you. Only your victor king Jesus can conquer and rule you in His grace and mercy.

The Lord has rescued you. The Lord has established his holy habitation in you. He has named you His child, anointed you, and set you apart for sacred worship. You and he are forever joined, bonded inseparably as the bride of Christ and the bridegroom. Within the one flesh union of the Son of God, you are purified of your evil. Christ himself has conquered your enemies, the ones who set up abominations in your heart where love alone should dwell. He has run out the idolatry of sin and reclaimed you as iconic temples to Him. Thus, as Christians, sweet prayers arise like incense from your lips, you serve as living sacrifices, and Christ sits with mercy for you in your flesh upon the ark of His Word.

Despite your sin and your future death, you need not fear. Jesus has died for you. He has redeemed you. He has rescued you from the unholy trinity of sin, death, and the devil. We are temples to God, forever purified in the blood of Christ. This is the wonderful promise of the Gospel. He has promised to show mercy to his humble servants. You trust not in our own merit, our sinful desires, or our self righteousness. Nor do you receive the severity of our just desserts. Instead you are blessed in Christ with grace and mercy. The abomination of desolation has been dethroned and Christ is restored in you.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

What’s Wrong with LCMS Congregations?

Pastor Martin Noland helpfully answers the question that is on the mind of our congregation.

Steadfast Lutherans » What’s Wrong with LCMS Congregations?.

Nothing is “wrong” with 99% of the congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod! That means one of out of a hundred might have a significant problem.Nothing is “wrong” with 98% of the pastors that serve this church! That means one out of fifty pastors might have a significant problem. These are my observations after nearly thirty years in the LCMS pastoral ministry. Those are actually pretty good percentages, compared to any other industry or institution. Yet ever since I have been in the ministry, we have been led to believe by some synodical “leaders” that something is “wrong” withnearly all of our congregations, because most aren’t “growing.”

When the laymen in LCMS congregations hear these synodical leaders, or the recommended consultants, and then do some “navel-gazing,” they conclude it can’t be their fault, so it must be their pastor—and out he goes! I have witnessed far too many situations like this. And the results are predictable. The next pastor either proves to be just like the previous, which is no “improvement—and out he goes. Or the new guy “turns over all the apple carts” and scares away the best and the brightest laymen in his congregation, with the net result being real decline—and out he goes too, soon enough.

More and more LCMS congregations are seeing “revolving door ministries,” i.e., pastors who only stay a year or two because they don’t “grow their church,” which only aggravates the decline in membership. The Lutheran way of being the church requires pastors with long tenure in the parish, since the chief pastoral function of privatseelsorge requires years of getting to know people and earning their trust. The bad counsel of some synodical “leaders” is, in fact,accelerating the numerical decline of our congregations and is the direct cause of bad morale all around.

What, then, is the true story about numerical decline and what’s “wrong” with LCMS congregations?

The June 2012 issue of Christianity Today has a short article titled “Mainline Conservative’s Dilemma” (see page 7). It reports on a study conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study proves that in the matter of growth “it’s the denomination’s theology that tends to matter, not the congregation’s. Churches in evangelical [i.e., conservative] denominations are more than twice as likely to grow as churches in mainline [i.e., liberal] denominations, but within those denominations theological orientation doesn’t have much effect.” This presents a dilemma for conservative congregations and conservative pastors who are members of liberal denominations; but is encouraging news for churches like the LCMS. It also confirms the results of the 1970′s study by Dean M. Kelly titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is a conservative denomination and is defined by many as an “evangelical” one. Why, then, as Gerald Kieschnick argued, has it “experienced a slow but steady decline in numbers of members of our 6,160 congregations” (Gerald Kieschnick, Waking the Sleeping Giant: The Birth, Growth, Decline, and Rebirth of an American Church [St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009], 16)? The causes are complex, and cannot be reduced to one or two factors. But, let me say up front, there is nothing “wrong” with 99% of our LCMS congregations, in spite of what our so-called “church growth” experts tell us. Those “experts” are simply wrong and/or incompetent.

LCMS “church growth” experts will typically point to the change in baptized membership in the LCMS from 1971 to the present (latest statistics are from 2010). In 1971 we had 2,886,207 baptized, the highest number for that statistic on record, and in 2010 we had 2,278,586 baptized. That is a loss of 607,621 members in about 40 years. It is a loss of 21% of the members we had in 1971; or a loss of about half of one percent per year. That is a significant figure, but numbers don’t give explanations for why these things happen. Let me give just four factors that explain this decline; admitting that there are many more that could be considered.

The first, and most obvious, explanation for this statistic is that LCMS membership peaked in 1971, because that was the last year of the United States’ demographic “baby boom.” One way of explaining LCMS growth from 1944 (1,567,453 members) to 1971 (2,886,207 members) was that it was caused by the abnormal “baby boom.” Once the “baby boom” stopped, the denomination started shrinking back to its “normal size,” due to normal and unavoidable factors of attrition.

The second, and usually unmentioned, explanation for the 1971-2010 decline statistic is that the LCMS was hurt significantly by the “Seminex” walkout and the resulting exit of congregations and pastors into the AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches) in the late 1970s. The AELC consisted of 680 pastors, 279 congregations, and 112,169 baptized members. Although that membership loss is only 18% of the 1971-2010 decline statistic, it also included a disproportionate number of young and middle-aged adults in child-bearing years. The AELC also had a disproportionate number of large and wealthy urban and suburban congregations. Over the years, the LCMS had invested much of its resources into these large and wealthy congregations, so that their transfer into the AELC was more of a blow to the LCMS than mere numbers can tell.

The third, and never mentioned, explanation for the 1971-2010 decline statistic is that the LCMS’ outreach to youth and young adults was dealt a mortal blow by the controversies in the 1960s and 1970s. The Junior Walther League (for high school students), the Senior Walther League (for college age people), the Gamma Delta Fraternity (for college and graduate students), as well as full-time and part-time campus ministries were a BIG part of LCMS mission and ministry, until it all came to a screeching halt. The Walther League was banned by most congregations, because of its political activism in the 1960s. Nothing of significant size or impact replaced it at the local congregational level. Campus ministry went “on the back burner” of priorities in districts and is still there, as witnessed by the recent case of the Minnesota South Board of Directors’ actions against University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis.

All this down-sizing of youth and young adult ministry in the LCMS happened at the same time that the evangelical and conservative churches were up-sizing their youth and young adult ministries. Thomas E. Berger in his “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity” Christianity Today 56 #6 (June 2012):18-24, rightly credits the youth ministries of the Evangelicals for some of the growth of Evangelical churches in the last forty years. He states “Some of the growth of conservative churches over the subsequent decades [post-1960s] would come from this expertise in recruiting and retaining young people. . . . The white evangelical churches that are growing the fastest in America are the ones that look most like the successful youth ministries of the 1950s and 1960s” (pp. 22-23). The purpose of Berger’s article is to point out how this success has resulted in spiritual immaturity in those Evangelical churches; nevertheless, they are the churches that everyone points to as examples of “success.”

I am not saying or even implying that the LCMS should imitate these Evangelical churches by providing an “informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat music.” (Berger, p. 23). Certainly not! Berger doesn’t recommend that approach either. I am saying that the lack of effective, local youth ministry in LCMS congregations led many LCMS youth to leave the Lutheran church in the period in question. This has had a double or triple impact on membership statistics, since the same young people who left soon had children, and now some of them have grandchildren. Youth ministry and campus ministry of a Lutheran sort needs to get back on the front burner of priorities, folks, and it needs to come back at the local and congregational level, not just the national or regional level!

Finally, the LCMS decline has been partially due to national demographic shifts, because the LCMS is not equally distributed across the United States. Something like 85% of the baptized membership of the LCMS is located in an area bounded on the west by the 105th parallel, on the north by the Canadian border, on the east by the 80th parallel, and on the south by the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers. This same area is designated, with slightly different boundaries, the “Midlands” by Colin Woodard in his recent book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Viking, 2011). The “Midlands,” where Germans, Scandinavians, and Central Europeans once settled, are the one region in the US that has seen significant population decline in the last forty years. And that region may not see a recovery in population, for a variety of reasons, for many years.

Where people live and settle is determined by where they can make a living. LCMS leaders can’t change that. What they can do is look at demographic studies, both locally and nationally, and plant new congregations where the population growth is happening. No great rocket science there and the LCMS leaders are doing that! But if the LCMS leaders are smart, they will also study the “Regional Cultures” described by Woodard (read his book, guys!). It will help them understand the regional history and cultures of the areas they are trying to serve. Dividing the LCMS into five regions was, perhaps, a good idea, but it is only half-baked. The resulting boundaries don’t match the American cultural boundaries, because the regional division was done for political purposes, not for mission and evangelism purposes.

In closing, there is nothing “wrong” with LCMS congregations. Let’s get over the “guilt trip” and “fear” that “leaders” use to exploit us and our pocketbooks. Instead let’s work on improving what we have in our local congregations. There’s always room for improvement, enough to keep us busy until our Lord calls us home.