21 November 2022

On the Entrance of the Theotokos to the Temple, 2022

     In his work On the Holy Spirit, St Basil the Great makes the distinction between dogma and kerygma. Kerygma refers to the public preaching of the Church, geared not only to her children but also to the pagans. Dogma refers to those things taught within the precincts of the Church, not intended to be spread abroad in public. Dogmas are the "mystery" concerning which we say in our pre-Communion prayer, "I will not speak of thy mystery to thine enemies; neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas. But like the thief will I confess thee--Remember me in thy Kingdom."

    We all recognise such a distinction, even in our everyday lives. There are stories in our family life that are shared with any who care to listen. There are other matters which are kept within the walls of our homes.

    Most of what the Church teaches about Mary falls on the dogma side of the kerygma/dogma divide. As early as St Ignatios of Antioch we read, "Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world..." The things we teach about Mary provide sense and context to the public preaching, the Church as she faces the pagan world; but they are pondered and cherished in the Church, just as Mary herself pondered and cherished the things of her Son. They are not a matter of public discussion.

    The feast of the entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is clearly a dogmatic matter, not one of kerygma. There is no explicit biblical text to support the feast; indeed, it seems to go against the notion that only the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year. If women were limited to an outer part of the Temple grounds, how is it plausible that a young girl might not only enter the Holy of Holies, but live there for nine years, sustained on food brought by an archangel? Even the liturgical texts for this day tell us that Zachariah, the high priest, was "beside himself" as he led her to the holiest place.

    But history is full of such implausibilities. How is it plausible that Lincoln's box should be left unguarded at Ford's Theatre during a time of war? How is it plausible that an Assyrian army should disappear without a trace in the Sahara? Lee's planned invasion of the North was discovered by two Union soldiers wrapped around three cigars. Not plausible...but it happened, and had huge consequences.

    I preached this homily yesterday at St. George in Grand Rapids. I hope it may be edifying for my Orthodox friends. I have no illusions but that Protestants will find it implausible. So be it. 

            With each of my children, there is some event in their early years that gave us a window into their character. When my older son was 3, for example, he was sitting at the kitchen table staring at a box of Reynolds Wrap. “Mommy,” he told my wife, “if I take the ‘w’ from ‘wrap,’ turn it upside down, and put it between the ‘a’ and ‘p,’ it would spell ‘ramp.’ You won’t be surprised to learn that today he works with computer software.

            Well, today’s feast is that event in the life of the Theotokos. Her parents bring her to the Temple at the age of 3. She follows the virgins in candlelight procession, then enters the Temple for a life of prayer, and contemplation of the light that no darkness can overcome.

Today, for the third and final time, the Ark of the Covenant enters the holy of holies. The first time was when Moses built the tabernacle, the tent of meeting. When all was done, the ark of the covenant was brought into the holy of holies, and the glory of the Lord so filled the tabernacle that even Moses could not enter.

Centuries later, Solomon built a temple for the Lord. The last thing done was to bring the Ark of the Covenant from the tabernacle into the temple. The Lord’s glory so filled the temple that the priests could not minister.

When Judah went into captivity, the Ark of the Covenant disappeared. Josephus tells us that when the Romans entered the holy of holies, they found it empty. Where did it go? We don’t know. But without the Ark in the holy of holies, there could be no glory.

That’s why today’s feast is so important. Today is the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. She herself is the new Ark. She is the capstone of the Old Testament and the foundation of the New. By her, God was made the Son of Man; by her, man is made the son of God. She is the Entrance, she is the Gate through which, without leaving heaven, God the Word humbled himself to our condition. She is the Entrance through which, while still on earth, we are made to share in the divine life. She is the True and final Ark of the Covenant, for she contains him whom the heavens cannot contain.

Tradition tells us that Mary entered the holiest place at age 3, and stayed there till she was 12. And what did she do for those nine years? She heard the Word of God, and kept it. She learned that prayer and reflection that characterised the rest of her life. She came to know God, and to be his dwelling-place, not by deceptive human wisdom but by submitting herself completely and by loving him whose very being is Love. She was filled with the divine glory and grace. God fitted her in every way to become his most-holy Mother, the greatest, truest, and final Ark.

We hear a lot these days about the status of women and their need for empowerment. Paradoxically, we also witness the disappearance of women as unique and distinct. But those things go together: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it.”

Today’s feast is the true exaltation of woman—not only over man, but also over the very angels themselves. By silence, Mary is given grace to bear the Word of God. By prayer, the One to whom all prayer is directed, comes to rest in her. Let us rejoice, therefore, sons and daughters of Mary; and let us keep with joy this great feast, of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.

29 August 2022

More from Florensky, with reflections

 That which claims to answer all questions has no place in Christianity. (Crossroads, p. 6)

1. It was Eunomius, the radical Arian, who claimed to know God as well as God knew himself. Orthodox theology confesses that God dwells in light unapproachable, not merely light unapproached. Hence the importance of the apophatic way in theology: we cannot know God in his essence, but only by his energies--the "back parts" of God, as St. Gregory the Theologian says. The confident Christian apologist who becomes an atheist is, by now, a trope. He has confused his map of the territory for the territory itself. If and when he finds some stubborn fact contradicting his map, he gives up the territory.

2. "Now we know in part," says Paul, and "through a glass darkly." Not only do we not know everything; even the things we know are known murkily, as it were. So the Christian speaks about most things with hesitation, tentatively, with gentleness. Just as the true scientist always has in the background "of course, I may be missing something," so also with Christians on most points. Humility is the watchword.

3. That's not to say we know nothing, or that no questions can be answered. "I determined to know nothing among you--except Jesus Christ and him crucified," says Paul to the Corinthians, the know-it-all community. Christ crucified is surely the heart and soul of all that we know; and if there is any murkiness here, it is not due to the fact, but to our own clouded hearts. We know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we know that Christ is God and man; we know that Mary is Theotokos and the answers to many other questions. 

4. The content of the message shapes the character of the messenger. There's an episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil is prepared to do a fire drill. Neither he nor the guests believe there is actually a fire, and so their attitude is nonchalant. But then a fire does break out in the kitchen. Manuel steps out of the kitchen. His message is the same as Basil's: "Fire!" But his demeanour is altogether different. His hair is disheveled, his gaze is intense, his message is clipped and focused. You can see wisps of smoke coming from his hair and his uniform. (The whole clip may be seen at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IMlhu9fjVI).  So when Paul addresses the Corinthians he says, "And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."

25 August 2022

On the value of husks and of settings

NOTE: I posted this on FB today, but I thought it good to put it on my blog as well, for a record and remembrance.


 "The removal of its historical husk leads to Christianity's destruction, as in the case of Protestantism."--Florensky, "At the crossroads of science and mysticism," p. 5

A husk seems of little value. If we could produce grain without the husk, we would. The same is true of the leaves that surround the ear of corn. They exist for the sake of the fruit.

The same is true of the setting of a ring. It works best when it is unobtrusive, and simply shows off the glory of the gem it holds. Some might say that since a setting necessarily covers a part of the gem, if we are to see the gem in its full beauty we must eliminate the setting.

But the husk and leaves protect the grain and corn, and the setting both allows the jewel to be seen in its intended splendour and protects it from being lost.

At its outset, Protestantism sought to reform the Church. (Here I assume, with the Orthodox, that the Roman pontiff was the first Protestant.) The setting of conciliarity, of sobornost, was peeled away to reveal the power (not just authority) of the Roman pontiff. The "first among equals" became "the first without equal." The Filioque was its first fruit.

Almost immediately the western church fell into schism. Its Babylonian captivity in Avignon, the back-and-forth of the office among various powerful kings and families, and finally the spectrum of three popes reigning concurrently--all of these were the beginning of sorrows. Read the history. It's all there.

A council was called to settle the issue, but because the fruit of the peeling away (the Filioque) was not renounced, the mere use of a council to restore the papacy did not restore the western church. Instead, the same move was made by dissident priests and monks (e.g. Luther) and kings (e.g. Henry VIII) as had been made by the Roman pontiff himself: the One asserted itself against the Many, the intellectual asserted itself against the Tradition, the Part against the Whole.

To take but one example: Protestants rejected the already-narrowed tradition in favour of "Scripture alone." But within a single century, in the Protestant lands (Reimarus taught at Wittenberg; Semler was born in Electoral Saxony), arose the higher criticism that undercut the authority of that text. 

Protestantism is the inevitable result when a first among equals becomes a first without equals. Sobornost is but a husk. But the Church learned painfully--and may we not forget now--how important the husk is!

31 July 2022

Some Closing Thoughts: my announcement to my last Lutheran parish about my becoming Orthodox

    I have been going through some old hard drives on my computer, and came across one of the most important and difficult things I have ever written. The original dates from 17 July, 2005. I called a parish meeting in my Lutheran congregation to announce that I was leaving the Lutheran church and ministerium in order to be chrismated into the Orthodox Church. 

    Reading over the piece tonight, it brought back many memories. I post it on my blog as a remembrance. I am aware of my own mortality, and I thought it expresses clearly and pastorally why I took the decision I did. Perhaps some others will be interested, too.

    I've gone through it, obscuring the names of the parishioners which appear in the text because they are not relevant to the main point.

    May I say, it has been 17 years and 8 days since I became Orthodox. I miss many Lutherans, and those friendships broken by my decision. But I have not missed being Lutheran a single day or hour. I am overwhelmingly grateful to the Church for receiving me. And God has faithfully provided for me and my family from that day till this.





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


When you called me some five and a half years ago, I wrote you a four page letter. In that letter I poured out my heart to you, telling you my vision for myself as a pastor and you as a congregation. I had received many other calls, but I recognized in the Epiphany family a very special group of Christians. It's not that you were perfect; but you were mature in Christ, had a sincere desire, like me, to be Lutheran, and above all, you were not afraid to say "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you" to each other.

At that time I told you, "I want to try an experiment. I want to see if it is still possible to be a Lutheran pastor in a Lutheran church." I have found the answer to my question--an answer which is not at all what I had expected. I will say more about that later.

Who could have imagined five years ago how radically our world would change, especially on a bright crisp September morning in 2001? I will never forget K-- walking into our pastors' meeting to announce that one of the World Trade Center Towers had been hit by an airplane. The pastors had a quick prayer and got back to the meeting when, a few minutes later, K-- came back and said a second plane had struck the other tower. Then came news of the plane hitting the Pentagon, and suddenly the national tragedy came up-close and personal. Our Epiphany family came together around J--- and L-----, just as it has when any member family has suffered loss.

Several weeks later, a memorial service held in Yankee Stadium became the cause of a great controversy in our Synod and in our parish. Dr. David Benke, the Atlantic District President, joined in the serviceCan act which went against the core historic values of the Missouri Synod and violated a promise he himself had made just three years before. I thought his act was wrong, and said so; not all of you agreed, but that's all right. We talked about it together like a family, like a church.

I wanted the pastors of our circuit to talk about it, too. So I begged, pleaded and cajoled to get it on the agenda. Our own circuit, like the parish and the Synod, was strongly divided on the issue. But I persuaded the brethren to adopt a set of rules that would make open discussion possible. No one would speak while someone else was talking. If someone spoke heatedly in response to another, the other had the right to say, "First, please, tell me what you heard me say." And finally, nothing that was said in the meeting would leave the meeting.

In order for you to understand, however, I must bend that final rule. You see, I thought Dr. Benke's act was wrong, but I wasn't so convinced of it as others. But I was convinced that the Synod ought to deal with the issue in a churchly way: through reflection on the Word of God, and prayer, and discussion. As I argued passionately for this, one of the brethren said something which struck me in the heart. "Your problem, Robb, is that you think the Synod is Church. We're not a Church. We're a corporation!" He wasn't attacking me when he said that. I still value him as a brother. But his words opened my eyes at once, and tied together a lot of things I'd struggled with for nearly twenty years.

In the time since that meeting, I have looked again at the Synod: what it is, what it does, and how it lives. It seemed clear to me that the brother was right. But I wanted to be sure. So I managed to get myself elected as a delegate to the Synod's convention. As the Convention approached, I saw how politically oriented the Synod functions. I received mailings from people I'd never met, telling me how to vote on this or that issue. I received videos pushing various candidates for office. I was contacted by organizers who were calculating how to turn out the Synodical President from office. All alike agreed the Synod was in crisis. What was more stunning was that all alike, on both sides, agreed that the solution to the Synod's problems was political: elect the right men to office, pass the right resolutions at Convention. Then came the Convention. Within an hour or two after it began, the truth of the brother's words came home to me. And I knew I could no longer bury my head and just live with it.

In these last five years you have gotten to know me and my pilgrimage through life. I was born a Lutheran of Lutherans: baptized in the ALC and raised in the LCA. When I was a teenager, I left the Lutheran Church because I despised the liturgy, and went to the Presbyterian Church. There I learned the Reformed faith, and saw its strengths and weaknesses. After six months or so, I also began to realize the jewel I had lost. Lutheran preaching was adequate, but not brilliant; many of the people were characters; but above all I realized what a precious treasure the liturgy was. I realized how gospel-centered it is, how it protects people from the whims of preachers. So I snuck back and sat through the service, then went off to the Presbyterian Church.

            I stayed in the Reformed faith for over five years, reading Calvin's Institutes and becoming involved in various subsets of that faith, including the charismatic movement. About two years into my involvement, I had a terrible crisis of faith when I read Jonathan Edwards's sermon Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Private Prayer. I began to question whether I was a Christian. For months I prayed the Psalms, I read C.S. Lewis, and sought help within the Reformed tradition. Some Reformed authors were Arminians, who say we have free will to accept or to reject Christ. They said, "Just believe in your belief." That struck me as a dumb answer—as if I were driving down the highway, felt a tire start to wobble, then drove faster. Other Reformed authors were Calvinist, who say that God has chosen some for heaven and others for hell. I read Jay Adams, a Calvinist counselor, who wrote that when someone is troubled about his salvation and comes for consolation, the counselor cannot tell the troubled man that Christ died for him, because the counselor doesn't know if the man is one of the elect. If the Arminian answer was stupid, the Calvinist answer was terrifying.

Then a professor who now teaches at Calvin unwittingly helped to turn on the light. In one of our classes, he remarked that when Luther was troubled by doubts about salvation, Luther said, "I instantly chase the devil with a fart." That made me laugh, and made me want to read more. So I got Luther's Table Talk and began to read. In his Table TalkLuther says the best thing he ever wrote was his Lectures on Galatians. I bought a copy and read it cover-to-cover like I had never read a book before. Luther taught me the sweetness of the Gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the certainty we find in God's objective words and promises, and above all in the Sacraments. "I have been baptized," was Luther's answer to doubt, "and baptism is not my work but God's. I may be deceived about myself, but God can never deceive or mislead." 

I began to re-examine Lutheranism. I didn't want to make a hasty decision, so I read lots of Luther. I read the Book of Concord. I thought and prayed. When I graduated from college and got married, I took a year off school and read through Pieper's Dogmatics. Midway through volume 2, I said to Cindy "Who am I kidding? I'm a Lutheran."  So we began to look for Lutheran seminaries. My pastors growing up had all gone to Capital Seminary in Columbus Ohio (the Missouri Synod was verboten in my family because many of them were Masons, and the Synod wouldn't accept Masons). I was stunned at what I saw there. The recruiting director said, "The Bible isn't the Word of God; it becomes the Word when the Spirit makes it alive to us." The New Testament professor said, "When I went to Seminary my New Testament professor dropped the Bible on the floor and kicked it across the room and said, 'the Bible is just like any other book.' I won't do that," he went on to say, "but that's how I want you to think about it." I was shocked, and began to consider the Missouri option.

I was impressed that the Synod had stressed the authority of the Bible. So we went to St. Louis to visit. If Columbus struck me as liberal, St. Louis struck me as fundamentalist. One student asked me what I thought of Billy Graham. The classes I visited were more like Bible studies than theology. Fortunately, near the end of our visit someone mentioned the sister seminary at Fort Wayne. We stopped by, then returned for a visit, and I fell in love. Here were professors who combined intellectual challenge with faithfulness to Lutheranism. I took in all I could get, and graduated in 3 1/3 years. When I graduated, I was convinced that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was the true visible Church of God on earth.

That conviction was shaken just a few months after my ordination, when I traveled from Akron to Cleveland to participate in ordaining another man to the Office of the Holy Ministry. I was stunned at what I saw. Laymen participated in the laying-on of hands. A woman who was vested in an alb also participated. I confronted the circuit counselor, and he said, "What was I to do? She came up to me just before the service, and I didn't want to make a scene." I didn't leave the matter rest, but brought it up at the circuit meeting the next week. The man who had been ordained said, "But the circuit counselor and I talked it over a week ago, and he said it would be all right." The counselor blushed, having been caught in a lie. But we discussed the matter anyway. I said that it had never been heard of that laymen should ordain pastors, and that women should participate. They responded, "You're relying on tradition. We believe in sola Scriptura, and the Bible has no commands or prohibitions about ordination, so we're free to do what we want." Once again, I was stunned, for they were using what seemed to be Lutheran arguments to attack the historic Christian practice. We agreed that in future, anyone being ordained or installed who wanted to do odd things would let others know, so they could make a choice about whether to participate.

My faith was shaken. But what could I do? Where else could I go? A few years later, I went to Indiana University for graduate school. One of the 'perks' of being a student was that I could visit other denominations, to see what they did. I treasured the centrality of Christ, the Gospel, and the sacraments in the Lutheran Church. When I visited other denominations, I was struck by how little the Gospel was central, how little the doctrine of Christ was actually taught, how little the Sacraments were valued.

Then, on Good Friday of 1987, I visited two churches. One was an Episcopal church that had a three hour service at noon; a series of pastors from various churches preached. By and large it was good. Later that afternoon, I had heard of a little Orthodox Church holding a Good Friday service. That was one group I hadn't yet visited. So I went.

It was a tiny mission; the church met in a garage converted into a sanctuary. Only about ten people were there, and half of them were clergy of some sort. The service went on for nearly two hours. I remember being impressed by two things. One, there was a little child in a car seat, who was awake the whole time and didn't make a sound. That was because there was constant motion in the service. Doors opened and closed, one of the clergy swung a pot of incense, and the singing was beautiful. The other thing that impressed me—indeed, it hit me like a punch in the gut—was that these people knew the Gospel as much as we Lutherans did. Christ and the Sacraments were central to their teaching and life. They had some strange things, too, especially how much they talked to and about Mary. But though they valued her, you could tell they didn't worship her.

I went home, stunned once again. That experience both shook me and gave me hope. It shook me, because I had thought that the Lutheran Church was the only place the gospel was preached in its truth and purity, and now I knew that wasn't true. It gave me hope, because as I saw the Lutheran Church more and more leave its historic doctrine and practice, just maybe there was a place where the Christian faith was still taught in its truth, purity and fullness.

That day I began an intensive study which I have pursued for the last 18 years. What I found was this: in the central doctrines of the faith, the person and work of Christ, Orthodox and Lutheran teaching is identical. Indeed, only the Lutherans and Orthodox teach identically on Christ. And the Lutheran Confessions, which don't hesitate to criticize Rome and the Reformed, have nothing but good things to say about the Orthodox when they speak of them.

On other teachings the two seemed to differ. At first I was ready to say, "The Orthodox don't believe in justification by faith alone," and in a sense, that's true. I thought, like many, that they were Roman Catholics with funny accents and clothes. But the more I read, the more I realized that wasn't so. It wasn't so much that they disagreed with us; it was more that they were addressing different questions and concerns than we did. It was more like they spoke a different language. And fairness required that I learn that language before I criticized it. So I kept on reading, and still do.

I compared the Western and Eastern expressions of Christianity, reading much that was written not only by Orthodox, but also and especially by westerners and Church historians. One refrain kept coming across again and again. Where the two sides of Christianity differed, almost always the authors would say, "The West changed this; the East kept doing what the ancient Christians did." To cite three examples: at some point the West stopped using leavened bread in the Eucharist and began to use unleavened bread; around the year 800 the West changed the words of the Nicene Creed; and around 1200 the West stopped giving the Eucharist to baptized children. In all these cases, and many others, the West changed but the East stayed the same.

I also noted how different the approach to Christianity was. For the West, the main problem is sin, which leads to death; the solution is forgiveness, but then what? For the East, the main problem is death, which leads to sin; the solution is not only forgiveness, but also the gift of God's life shared in our life. I could go on, but just share this for the purpose of example.

            Fast forward to 2000, and my accepting your call. I saw this call as God's giving me the opportunity to be a faithful Lutheran pastor—faithful, not just to the Lutheranism we received from our fathers, the Lutheranism of the last 50 years, but to the whole 500 year history of our confession. Only when you read the Confessions, and Luther, and the first generation of Lutherans can you realize how far we've fallen, how generically protestant we've become.

From the first day I came to visit, I've paid attention to the children of Epiphany. I remember them walking out to "Children's Church" that first Sunday, and wanting to go along with them. I think of the great privilege it is to bring them into God's Kingdom through Baptism. I'm not so sure about myself, dear friends, but I am rock-solid certain about them that they are truly Christians. And I want to say more about them later.

You have surely noticed, over these last five years, a few things about me. I have tried, as much as possible, to keep my eyes focused on what has been given me to do. So I worked hard to restore the historic Christian and Lutheran practice of weekly communion. I restored Luther's order of baptism. I offered private confession to those who sought it, and encouraged more people to make use of it. I tried to preserve the historic liturgy, while making use of theologically good music written more recently. 

In all of these things, you have been willing to come along. Sometimes you questioned; some folks didn't care for this or that practice; but in the end, when I showed that something or other was the Biblical, historical practice you accepted it. Before I came, I was told to expect that up to 10% of a congregation leaves when a new pastor comes. By the mercy of God and your kindness, nothing like that happened.

Nor did you just "come along for the ride." You embraced these historic practices and made them your own. Like me, many of you hunger for the Lord's body and blood on a weekly basis. Many of you make the sign of the cross. Some of you have found comfort in private confession.

More than that, you have welcomed and embraced me and my family. You opened your hearts and your homes to us. You encouraged us as we worked to adopt Vera and Marina, and you put your money where your mouth is. I have never met such a kind, loving, faithful Lutheran congregation. You have been a paradise, a heaven on earth for me. So, I concluded, it is possible to be a Lutheran pastor in a Lutheran congregation.

At the same time, these past five years have produced a growing awareness in me that the Lutheran Church, as something bigger than the congregation, is dead. I've already shared with you my experience with the Circuit over the Yankee Stadium affair. But other things have come up as well. Let me share them with you, because they concern you as much or more than they do me.

            The Easter 2000 edition of The Lutheran Witness had an article on Christ's descent into hell. The article rejected as a false teaching the idea that part of the reason Christ descended into hell was to free the Old Testament believers who awaited his arrival patiently. What the Lutheran Witness called "false teaching" is in fact the teaching of the entire Christian Church from its earliest days, and the teaching that Dr. Luther himself presupposed in his sermon to which the Formula of Concord makes reference. So I drafted a short letter, calling the editor's attention to this fact. I had ten other LC-MS pastors co-sign the letter with me—some of whom even serve as doctrinal reviewers for the Synod. I received a letter back from David Mahsmann, the editor of the LW, stating that my letter was submitted to doctrinal review and did not pass it. In effect, that response said that I and those ten other pastors teach false doctrine. I don't agree, of course, but in any case nothing was done about it.

I myself became a doctrinal reviewer for the new Lutheran Hymnal project. One of the assignments was for me to review the order of Baptism. Now in reviewing a rite like Baptism, it's helpful to have another rite serve as a template, so that one can check the proposed rite against a standard. I suggested this, and used Luther's own 1526 rite of baptism as the background. This seems perfectly reasonable, since that rite is included in some editions of the Book of Concord itself. My doctrinal review was overturned, and in the context of that overturning it was stated that Luther's baptismal rite carries no authority for determining what a Lutheran baptismal rite should and should not include. 

More and more, too, I became aware of serious aberrations in practice taking place, even in our local area among certain congregations. Some parishes use disposable plastic cups, simply tossing what remains into the trash after their service is over. Other parishes have laymen offering a kind of absolution during the Sunday morning service. I set aside things such as puppets and dancing girls in the Divine Service, let alone the introduction of Reformed-style worship services and abandonment of the historic liturgy. I have asked our elders to go visit other LCMS parishes; they have, and can vouch for the truth of what I'm saying here. What's particularly bad about this is that the liturgy serves to guarantee that even if the pastor is completely foolish, the people of God will still hear God's word of Law and Gospel. A recent discussion with a friend's daughter, going to Concordia/Seward, shows that the pastor in that parish at least is preaching moralizing lectures about what Christians ought to do.

All these things have given me a growing awareness that all I've done, not just here but also in my twenty years of ministry, will be swept completely away in a few short years. Because there is no one over the pastors, each man can do pretty much what he can get away with. Many congregations which were once liturgical have abandoned the liturgy for contemporary worship forms. "So what?" you might say, and I'll tell you. Repeating the same service again and again makes the service accessible to people of all ages, including our young children who can't yet read, and our old folks, who can no longer see.

It's not that I haven't tried to deal with these problems. I have. In all my teaching and preaching and writing I have attacked these issues. Before the last Convention I began to contact the local pastors who permit such things, asking them to stop. I was rebuffed, and this past convention changed the rules of how such matters are pursued. Suffice it to say that for all practical intents and purposes, it is now impossible to pursue pressing charges of false doctrine. The problems we already have, now will not go away; and we have no means of stopping other problems which are coming.

"What about the District Presidents?" you might ask. "Why can't they fix the problems?" The reality is that District Presidents are not churchmen. They serve no altar or pulpit. They are mid-level managers in a national non-profit corporation. Their office exists only by human right, not by divine right. And parishes can, by and large, ignore their district and synodical officials. If they keep sending in contributions, they will be allowed to do, in essence, whatever they want. 

I have spoken, too, to men who are well-known in conservative, confessional circles about the great gaps between the Lutheran Confessions and the life of the churches which call themselves "Lutheran" today. To cite but two of those gaps: the Lutheran Confessions state that Lutherans do not abolish private confession—that no one is admitted to the Lord's table unless he is first examined and absolved. But the Lutheran church today, across the board, has scarcely any private confession. This is plainly a major change.

Again, the Lutheran Confessions state that, by divine right, pastors both absolve and excommunicate, and that congregations are bound to follow them. But the Lutheran Church today says that congregations excommunicate, and pastors are bound to follow them. The roles have been completely reversed.

When I have spoken with well-known confessionals about this situation, I've been told, "We don't do those things any more, and we're not going back again." "Good," some of you might say. But the reality is that if the Lutheran Church is that Church described in the Lutheran Confessions, then the Lutheran Church no longer exists.

I am not alone in saying that the Missouri Synod is broken. Last September Matt Geelhoed and I went to a conference in Chicago. Nearly 500 pastors were there, from all over the Synod. They didn't travel there at their own expense because they think there are little problems. Everyone there recognized that the Synod is broken. Any number of conversations I've had with other pastors come to the same conclusion. The Synod is broken. She cannot be fixed. But where then shall we go? Where, then, shall we go?

You might say, "Nowhere." After all, each congregation in the Missouri Synod is more or less independent. Congregations regularly thumb their noses at the Synod and do what they want. We could just do that here at Epiphany. But consider:

·      Missouri is the source of our pastors. You have no guarantee that the next pastor will not change everything here in a fundamental way from the way it's been. I'm told that the Council has decided to ask for another Confessional Lutheran pastor, and in a way I'm grateful. Yet think about what this means. No longer can you simply say, "Give us a Missouri Lutheran pastor." The fact that you must specify a certain type, and hold interviews, reveals that the Synod is broken.

·      Missouri receives our mission dollars. When we give money to the Synod, we're saying in principle that we agree with what everyone else is doing. That's as it should be, of courseCexcept that others are doing things we shouldn'tagree withClike lay absolution, disposable cups and so on.

·      Missouri receives our transfers and sends them to us. This has been brought home to me recently in the cases of the S------ and Y------. The Y------ have been going to a church that uses disposable plastic cups. They tried to get that practice to change; they settled for a "compromise" in which the Lord's blood is put into two trash bags before it's disposed of. And many of you heard from B------ about him and A--- vainly trying to find a Missouri Synod parish in Minnesota that doesn't use disposable cups.

·      Over time, we will come to resemble every other Missouri congregation. Again, this is as it should be. Looking over the trends of the past 30 years or so, it is plain that most of Missouri is heading in a direction:

o   where alternative worship styles are the norm;

o   where open communion is practiced with disposable plastic individual cups;

o   where instruction in Christian doctrine is reduced to a minimum;

o   where women's roles are continually expanding, with the ordination of women as the only logical stopping-point;

o   where the focus on Law/Gospel preaching and the means of grace as central is replaced with moralistic messages and the de-emphasis of the Sacraments—in other words, to a generic protestant church.


Others might say, "Join another Lutheran body." But every problem Missouri has, the other Lutheran bodies have. Still others might say, "Go independent," or "Start a new denomination." But those acts are called sectarian—they treat the Church as if she is something we make, instead of a gift we receive from God. What, then, shall we do? Where shall we go to keep the pure Gospel of Christ and the right practice of the sacraments? Where, in short, can we find the church?

As the years have gone by, some convictions I have received in the Lutheran Church have grown ever deeper. They have served to guide me on my pilgrimage. They include: that Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and the doctrine of Christ taught by the Lutheran Church is correct—unlike the doctrine of Christ taught either by Rome or the Reformed. A second conviction is that we must properly divide Law and Gospel. Proud sinners need rebuke. Broken sinners need comfort. As I've grown in this conviction, I've also grown in the conviction that Lutherans scarcely ever divide Law and Gospel rightly any more. Luther said that properly dividing Law and Gospel was hard, and that whoever could do it deserved a doctor's hat. But current Lutherans suggest that it's easy. And the Lutheran Church worldwide is plagued by a sickness called "antinomianism." That's a fancy title, but you'll recognize it by the description I draw from my daily life. "It's ok if I sin, because I know that Jesus will forgive me." A third conviction is how central to the faith the Sacraments are. We worship a God made flesh, and he wills to save us through earthly, physical means.

The school of experience has taught me other lessons that have been harder—lessons about problems with the Lutheran Church that make it unable to resist the ever-rushing tides of modernism and unbelief. It is wrong that we do not have bishops, men who by divine right watch over congregations and pastors, guiding them and protecting them. Much of our current dysfunctionality grows and spreads because we lack such men. 

It is wrong that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod views itself not as Church, but as a corporation. Christ did not come to found a corporation. He gave no promises to a corporation. But the entire way the LCMS runs itself, from top to bottom, is precisely as a corporation. To be sure, there is a religious veneer; the Convention had "devotions" every day. But peel away that thin layer, and the corporation lurked just beneath.

It is wrong that the Lutheran Church has allowed itself to become disconnected from the teachings and teachers of the Church throughout the ages. You don't realize how wide and deep this problem is, because I have made a point always of pointing you to the Scriptures through the Fathers. But since the time of John Gerhard, nearly 400 years ago, the Lutheran Church has lived with a distorted view of the Bible, whose effects are only now beginning to become clear. I have written about this in detail for pastors, and can speak more about it if you like.

And, I am convinced—your children have convinced me—it is wrong that we withhold the Lord's true body and blood from those who have been baptized at our font, and are being instructed by parents and/or pastor in the Christian faith. I have watched their eyes as they look at me expectantly, holding out their faithful little hands. I have watched those eyes begin to turn away as I offer them a man-made blessing in place of the heavenly gift God means them to have. 

Many of my brothers in the ministry see the same problems I do. But they have chosen another way. They have chosen to say that there is no true, visible church of God on earth. For them, the true church is invisible. But they are wrong, for the Church is the Body of Christ. It has existed in this world for 2,000 years. When Christ rose, he told his wondering disciples, "Touch me and see that it is me, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I do." Since the Church is Christ's body, it is not a spirit. It can be seen, and pointed out. But where is it?

After 18 years of study and prayer, I have become convinced that the Church Christ founded is to be found in the Orthodox Church. Much about that group seems strange to us, for its history is very different from ours. The Western church has lived a protected existence, by and large, since 312 AD. But the Eastern Church has had to live under Muslim, and later Communist tyranny. They faced different challenges than the west—but more and more those challenges are being faced by us as well, especially the challenge of living the Christian faith in a hostile culture. Outwardly there are many differences. But the core of the faith is the same. And they have a stability that assures laypeople and pastors, their work in Christ will not be in vain, it will not be swept away by the next pastor, and when children grow and move away they can go to a church that prays and believes exactly the same as the parish where the parents worship.

You have seen and heard echoes of that church already. The beautiful mosaic that graces our hall confesses the Bible's message about baptism. Some of the music I have shared with you sings the faith. In all of my preaching, teaching and serving I have relied on the teachings of the Fathers. And as I've gotten to know you, I see deep needs in each of you to which it speaks, as it has to me.

I do not want to stop being your pastor. But I can no longer be a pastor in a body that, as a body, has died. To do so would not be honest, to God or to you. I know that some of you may be thinking, "I told you so." Some of you may be angry with me. You may feel betrayed. I can only appeal to the God who knows the hearts of men that I have tried in every way to be faithful to the Lord and to the Lutheran Confessions. St. Paul says in Romans 7 that a man is bound to his wife as long as she is alive, but when she has died he is free. I did not break my vow to the Lutheran Church. I have been faithful, but now she is dead.

Some of you may share the convictions I've expressed in this letter.  If enough of you do, then if the Lord is willing and the leadership of the Orthodox Church is willing, I am prepared to take on the task of being a mission priest. If that should be God's will, your desire, and the wish of his Church, I will obey. In any case, I am preparing to take myself and my family into poverty, with no certainty at all ahead of me except the kindness and mercy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Let me thank you for all the kindness you have shown to my family and me since the day we met you—up to and including this time which must be so difficult for you. You are the best parish I have ever had. 

Let me also beg forgiveness for all the ways I have failed you and wronged you. I ask your prayers, though I am completely unworthy of them. And I pray that no matter what you do, God would protect you and keep you throughout this life, that we may praise him together in heaven.


Pastor Hogg

July 17, 2005

08 March 2021

Meatfare Sunday 2021

Note: Meatfare Sunday begins the Orthodox Lenten fast. After this Sunday, we eat no meat until Pascha. (Next Sunday, "Cheesefare" Sunday, we bid farewell to eggs, dairy, and fish until Pascha.) It's traditional to hear the Gospel on the Last Judgment from Matthew 25 on this Sunday; here is my homily from yesterday:

            The philosopher Seneca once told his friend Lucilius, “We are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death's hands.” Something similar could be said of the Judgment. We are mistaken when we look forward to it as something a long time from now. For the basis of the Judgment is happening right here and now, day by day.

            Christ in glory says, to those on his right, “I was hungry and you fed me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you visited me.” Those things don’t happen after death, or on Judgment Day. They happen today: here, and now.

            Sometimes when I’m getting off a freeway, I’ll encounter a beggar on the ramp. You know what the signs say: “Homeless.” “Please help.” “Unemployed.” There’ve been some creative ones, too, like “Have a Nice Day” or “Smile.” If the person is in my lane and there’s a red light, I may give him a dollar. But I rarely think of him as he actually is: the one who will judge me on the last day, for now wearing a disguise. If I did, I wouldn’t be so self-congratulatory. I might rather tremble in fear.


            A while back, I got to visit Constantinople. I saw St. Savior in Chora with its famous funeral chapel. Part of the iconography showed the wise thief, carrying his cross, and ushering people into heaven. Part of it showed the rich man in hell, all by himself. I found myself thinking a distressing thought: the rich man looked a lot like me.

            Jean-Paul Sartre once said that “hell is other people.” But the truth is exactly the opposite. Heaven is other people; hell is being by myself. Now, as an older man, I think back to the disciplines my parents used when I was a child. I got my share of spankings. I got grounded. But the worst punishment ever was the time they they told me to stand, facing the wall, and look at it, for thirty minutes. I could hear life going on behind me. But I was cut off, alone. I begged them after a few minutes: “Please just spank me and let me go.” Hell is like that. “Stare at the wall for eternity.” Heaven is the other people around us. 

The people I deal with every day have a hidden majesty—especially the poor and weak and foolish. Enfleshed God hides himself beneath them. “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” And this isn’t just Matthew’s idea. When Christ encountered Paul on the road to Damascus, he said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?


            The people on Christ’s left hand, who went into eternal torment, just didn’t get it. “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” And the King will say, “Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did not do it to me.”  

            Christ can hide himself under these outcasts, because when he saw us in despair he didn’t leave us to ourself. Freely and willingly he took flesh of a pure Virgin, and was made man. Sometimes people will say, “Don’t put God in a box.” By that they mean, “Don’t limit God.” But God has put himself into something much more limiting than a box. He put himself into our humanity. He did that, sheerly out of love for us. He lived our life, and died our death—talk about limiting yourself—what limits more than a grave? But the grave could not hold him. He rose again to save us.

            We need to stop thinking of the incarnation as the great Exception, and begin to see it as God’s way of working. Doesn’t the Old Testament teach us this? God walks in the garden in the cool of the day. He argues with Abraham, and wrestles with Jacob; he appears to Joshua, and Isaiah…and all these before he takes on flesh.

            So if you want to see the Judgment, don’t look forward. Look around at the people you meet—especially the insignificant ones. Find him there, and love him there, and serve him there, and you will find life in his kingdom, to which may we all attain,  through his grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. 

06 March 2021

1 Thessalonians 4:13f--First Soul Saturday 2021

             The saddest two words in the English language are these: “No hope.” A mother can bear the pains of childbirth because she hopes for the delivery of a child. A soldier can endure hunger and pain and even death if he has hope that his cause will ultimately prevail. Once, when I was pursuing Cindy, she wrote me a letter that quoted Paul’s words, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not”—and it encouraged me to keep on trying—and I’m glad that I did.

            Life without hope is no life at all; it’s mere existence, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Is it any wonder that violence, and addiction, and political extremism are on the rise? When despair pierces the heart like a hook pierces a worm, there’s nothing left but to writhe and wriggle until death swallows us whole.


            In today’s epistle, St. Paul encourages us “not to grieve as those who have no hope.” What does he mean? Does he mean that Christians don’t grieve at all the loss of loved ones? By no means!--for when he who is the Resurrection and the Life encountered the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he groaned in spirit. “Jesus wept,” we’re told.

             We grieve. In part, it’s because we think of things we should have said or done differently than we did. In part, it’s because we think of things that might have been, that now can never be. Jesus’ grief at Lazarus was neither of those. But it was this: that he loved Lazarus, and for our sake he was grieved that death’s shadow should obscure the brightness of his love.

            Love led him to stop death in its tracks. He called his friend back from death, and Lazarus’ rising was a foretaste of his own greater resurrection just eight days later. By his death, Christ has destroyed death. He has emptied Hades. He has brought life and immortality to light by his resurrection. Christ’s rising is no exception: it’s a foretaste of what is coming for all those who have died. He is the first-fruits of the resurrection.


            And so we grieve in hope. We live in hope. We love in hope. The Creed’s last words are these: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.” I look for it. I await it. It is coming, as surely as day follows night. 

So it is right for us to remember our loved ones whom we have lost, and to pray for their rest and repose. We do it for them, today. Others will do it for us, before we know it. For as Solomon wisely said, “Love is as strong as death.” 

            Soon, soon, our Lord will return. He has promised. He is faithful. And his promise feeds our hope. It helps us endure the pain, and hardship, and even the death we experience in this life. 

Hope won’t last forever, of course; like faith, it will have an end. One day faith will become sight, and hope will be fulfilled, in the presence of our God, who is love. Till then, we grieve, in hope.

28 February 2021

Sunday of the Prodigal Son 2021

             This past year we lost a great songwriter and singer—John Prine. One of the last songs he wrote is called “Summer’s End”…a song he dedicated to those who have died of drug overdoses. The refrain of that song captures the heart of today’s text; you could hear the waiting Father say this to his wayward son: “Come on home; come on home; you don’t have to live alone; just come on home.”

            Those are the words our heavenly Father addresses to us at the beginning of Great Lent. They imply that we’ve wandered away, and all of us have. “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.”

            Which son are you? Are you the younger son, who took his inheritance and went to a far country and wasted it on worthless things? Have you been starving to death, trying to satisfy that inner hunger with anything—even pods fit for pigs?

            Or are you the older son—close in body, but far in soul from the waiting Father?—the son who worked hard every day, and justified himself to himself—who, like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, said to himself “What a good boy am I!”

            Maybe, like me, you’re a mixture of the two. The worst part of Covid hasn’t been the number of deaths, though they’ve been great. It isn’t the lost jobs, or the crashing economy, though they’ve been hard. No; it’s the way that our hearts have been laid bare like the framework of an old house after a hurricane blows through. 

            If you think about it, both boys in the parable were dead to their dad. When the younger one wished for his inheritance, he was as good as wishing that his dad would die. And when the older boy sulked and complained, he showed his own rebellion—less obvious, but no less deadly.

            And yet the Father is not dead toward them. Every day he waits for the younger son’s return. When the older son sulks and separates himself from brother and father, the father talks to him. To both of them, and to us this day, he has the same theme: “Come on home; come on home; you don’t have to live alone—just come on home.” Or, as Isaiah of old said it: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.”

            And Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; but the Lord has laid on him—Christ—the iniquity of us all.” In other words, the fare for our return trip has been paid. The father in our text killed the fatted calf; but our heavenly Father gave his own Son to bear our curse and taste death for us. The father in our text gives his son a fine robe; but our heavenly Father wraps us in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. The father in our text places a signet ring on his son’s finger; but our heavenly Father seals us with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

            When you get down to it, repentance isn’t about feeling miserable—wallowing in our passions or pridefully claiming that we’re smarter than our heavenly and earthly fathers. Repentance is about turning away from ourselves, and turning toward God and each other. “Come on home; come on home; you don’t have to be alone; just come on home.”