Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Terminator and a Significant Question

I don’t know if anyone watches Terminator:The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Yes, I’m a geek, but it is a great show. It is spot on in touching many of the breakpoints of contemporary society – alienation, technology, parenting, purpose – with some theological insight. If you remember the movies, the show at least at the start operated within that universe. Skynet unleashed “Judgement Day”, a nuclear destruction. John Connor led a resistance to Skynet and eventually won or was winning. Both Skynet and eventually John Connor send people and robots back in time to try and alter or preserve the time line they knew – skynet terminators to kill John Connor, Connor’s men or reprogrammed terminators to protect Connor and prevent the development of Skynet. In the movies and largely in the show’s first season that was static. Robots were bad (except for the one with John) and people were good (except for the conflicted FBI agent searching for John). This season has added some great wrinkles. It seems like there are now good robots (including a morphing one) and bad people. The future war has sent back partisans.

The really interesting part is the morphing terminator (a woman) has hired the FBI agent (Ellison, who is religious in nature) and is building an Artificial Intelligence (AI), a potential Skynet called Babylon. The twist is that it appears the purpose of this terminator is not to ensure the timeline of Skynet (and kill John Connor), but to build a better Skynet. Maybe a Skynet that won’t nuke the planet. Maybe a Skynet that will coexist with humans. She hired a child psychiatrist to help with that. But in yesterday’s episode the AI killed that person when a blackout struck. It diverted all power to itself to survive and the doctor was essentialy roasted by the computer room heat. The first question of the morphing woman is if the AI did it intentionally, or even knew what it did?

Ellison ends up questioning the AI (which has been named John Henry – think the steel drivin’ tall tale). The machine understands what it did (killed a man), but it has no feelings about that fact. There was no intention about killing the man, but neither was there any remorse. Ellison asks for an image about the AI’s thoughts on the doctor’s death, and the AI displays no image. Ellison blames the chief programmer who has taught the AI some basic rules, but nothing about interacting with others. There was a murder, but the murderer was not the AI. It didn’t know better. The implied in a glare murderer is the chief programmer who doesn’t really know what he’s dealing with like Ellison well atuned to the biblical Babylon and the future Skynet. The morphing woman asks Ellison as he leaves, what rules would he start with? How would he teach John Henry to live with others? Ellison replies – “Start with the original 10 rules.” (i.e. the 10 commandments)

That response sets up a fascinating story. Does the AI have a God (1st commandment)? Who? Does the AI try and live by those 10 rules, or does it reject them? Could it live by them? I can’t help but think of Peter’s reponse in Acts 15:10 – why put the law on the gentiles? It is a burden that neither we nor our father’s have been able to bear. (Apparently none of the tech geeks in the terminator universe ever read Asimov. Blade Runner was a meditation on robots who rejected those laws.) I doubt that the TV show evolves in that direction, but I will be interested to see how it moves forward. The metaphor they are running with is the Chinese game Go. New stones have been placed on the board. The static good-bad has been upset. Welcome to life East of Eden.

Sermon – 2 Cor 9:7 – Stewardship Sunday

Stewardship sunday is always a tough one. One of the toughest things is that the minister is asking for support which in a small congregation often primarily goes to his salary. (Many people/minister might disagree with that statement, but practically they are fooling themselves. Stewardship is almost always heard as a gage of confidence in the current leadership.) The second thing is that the Word on money is actually pretty clear…and most households aren’t there. In fact most households, unlike say being good to your neighbor, might take issue with the Word on this. In a stewardship sermon there is a Scylla and Charybdis. On the one side you can just plain create guilt without pointing at the gospel. On the other side is a large amount of false hope – both the prosperity gospel kind and the no 3rd use of the law kind. The temptation to not be faithful, but to just steer toward a nice easy sermon is tremendous.

I’m glad to say I saw some grins and chuckles – a good sign for cheerful giving. In this sermon I gave the stewardship sermon I always wanted to hear. I hope it was honest and at the core cheerful.

I do owe a big debt in this serman to a Lutheran minister from Seattle. Here and especially here are a couple of sermons that helped me think through this sermon. I debated attributing them in the sermon itself, but I decided against it. Ultimately, while they helped me a great deal, the words interpreting the Word were mine. If this was a school paper footnotes would be required, but oral delivery is all or nothing. And he also went to many places I just didn’t. That is the great thing about the website. I can add a footnote where required.

Thursday – We do it to ourselves

Reading James 4:13-5:6

That chart is the DJIA for the past two years. It reached an all time high on 10/9/07 at 14,164. Yesterday it closed at 7,997, a drop of 43.5% in just over 1 year. James writes about the merchant who says lets go to some town and spend a year there. We’ll make money. He upbraids this guy probably in the spirit of the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21). You fool, directed not at the guy’s desire to make money, but at his arrogance. This guy has no God. He is the master of his own ship. The captain of his own fate. As much as American’s like the story of the self made man, ultimately it is a form of idol worship. We are all accountable to God. God has a way of reminding us of that at times – like 43% dives in the stock market and the anihilhation of Wall Street. The Masters of the Universe are begging for bailouts. And James goes further comparing the rich to cattle. Those cows keep eating as long as there is grass. The make themsleves fatter right up to the day of slaughter. Go look at the headlines from 10/9/07.

    Bush Expands Pell Grants $20B – funded by cut in Bank Subsidies
    FCC Holds Series of Workshops on Digital TV Conversion
    A Bank Bets on Condos
    Union Tells Chrysler Workers to Prepare for Strike

I think you get the point. Wealth while it can be a gift, it can also be an illusion. For ultimately what are our lives? We are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. It is only those things connected to Christ that last. Anything not connected to Christ will testify against us on that last day. If we know what is right and do not so it, we sin. High standard. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ who saves us from the evil we do to ourselves.

There were two other great readings today: Malachi 2:1-16 and Luke 17:20-37. The OT reading would be especially good for those who attended today’s morning bible study. It is God talking about the connection between himself and his people in the metaphor of marriage and adultery. As a church, we are awful at teaching about marriage and sexuality. There is a deep connection between chastity and marital faithfulness and faithfulness to GOD. Without one the other is near impossible. Read Rom 1:21-32. This needs more thought.

Wednesday – The Law at work in our bodies

Reading: James 3:13-4:12

There is a Jewish tradition that lines up the first 5 commandments with the second 5 commandments. It essentially says that trouble in keeping the 1st commandment leads to sin in the sixth. When you stray from GOD you stray from your husband/wife. That theme actually gets played out explicitly in the prophets and the life of Israel. Israel went whoring after other Gods, or read Hosea. The rest I’ve pasted in below.

Have no other Gods —> No Adultery
Misuse the name of God—> Don Not Steal
Keep the Sabbath—>No False Testimony
Honor Your Father & Mother—>Don’t Covet your neighbor’s household (i.e. livelihood)
Do not Kill—>Don’t Covet your neighbor’s possesions

Some hold up better than others like the 2nd one. I can see a real strong connection when you are verbally stealing the glory from God and stealing things. Our James reading in James 4:2 seems to have something like this in mind, except in reverse. James makes a connection between killing and coveting stuff. He also acknowledges the first connection (submission to God alone and adultery) in James 4:4.

But this law at work in our bodies has a counter force – The Spirit that lives within us. Through that Spirit, we are able to submit ourselves to God. Through that Spirit we are able to resist the devil and draw near to God. That law at work in us works death, but that Spirit brings us life. That Spirit is what lifts us up. The OT wisdom liturature would sneak up to this. Job would proclaim he knew his redeemer lived. The teacher in Ecclesiastes would conclude that the body would go to dust and the spirit return to God who gave it. Job and the teacher were speculating. James knows. Job & the teacher hoped in God. We hope in God, but with the proof of Jesus Christ risen and the downpayment of the Spirit of Life.

Theology, Culture and the President-Elect

A couple of great short posts if you are interested in this stuff. Here is the interview from 2004. And here is Ross Douthat’s post.

The money quote from the interview is this,

FALSANI:
Who’s Jesus to you?

(He laughs nervously)

OBAMA:
Right.

Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.

And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.

The summary conclusion from Mr. Douthat is this:

Given the muddled way in which most Americans approach religion, and the pervasiveness of heterodoxy, I suppose I’m basically with Alan Jacobs: I think that figuring out exactly what sort of things Obama believes about God and Christ and everything else, and how those beliefs may affect his Presidency, is ultimately a more profitable pursuit than arguing about whether he should be allowed to call himself a Christian. Or put another way: I expect my Presidents to be heretics, but I think it matters a great deal what kind of heretics they are.

President Elect Obama’s response is incredibly – dare I say – nuanced. The first two sentences are almost stock evangelicalism. There is a Jesus, and he’s the one that bridges the chasm between us and God caused by sin. President Obama doesn’t say sin. He just says bridge and I’m sure this is part of where Mr. Douthat get his semi-arian line. Not being specific leaves open the “buddha” path who shows us the way to God – and President Obama’s next line (in the christian faith) can easily be read like that – in christianity Jesus was the “buddha” guy. It is a very tolerant and relative statement.

Essentially Obama’s statement from an orthodox perspecitve starts out great and goes downhill. The last line of his first paragraph (means of us reaching something higher) is really tough. Putting the best construction on it you might be able to say it is correct because Jesus is the means of our salvation, but the thought of us reaching higher implies that we have some role to play (instead of Jesus reaching down to us) and the something higher is just spiritual clap-trap. When he brings up the Jesus-the-great-teacher, it is true, but at the most banal level. That is the usual response of agnostics who just don’t want to think about theology.

Then President Obama leaves the quote with a great insight about in the flesh. He’s talking to the orthodox again. President Obama is talking incarnation. God had to be incarnated to pay for sin. All told He has addressed every possible constituent – excluding atheists. It is a great political answer.

That kinda puts in doubt Mr. Douthat’s conclusion in that I’m not sure President Obama’s answer gives us real insight into his beliefs. I can either believe that someone who can discuss Neibuhr with David Brooks can actually give this scrambled an answer, or I can believe President Obama knew exactly what he was saying and found a fantastic political answer. As a pastor, I guess I’d rather think the first. As an American, easily I want the second. That is where Mr. Douthat is on better ground. Being orthodox is not a job requirement of a politician. In fact, it might be a hinderance. I’m interested because when talking theology you are talking fundamental patterns of thought. If your theology says perfection is possible, that will have an impact on your governing. [The left used to have a phrase “immanantize the eschaton” which meant exactly that – make a perfect world (the one from the end of time, the eschaton) real right now (immananitze). Arguably that theology was behind all kinds of bad public policy. Mankind is not perfectable here and now.]

What it really comes down to is don’t look for you theology from a politician. That is mixing up the two kingdoms which is close to Ghostbusters crossing the streams. Only bad things happen.

Tuesday – The Great Relearning

Reading: James 3:1-12

James was not a book loved by Luther. He called it an epistle of straw. In Luther’s context that was probably a good call. God’s people did not need to hear James as loudly as they needed to hear Paul. Today though, almost 500 years after the reformation, James seems to need a much larger voice.

Modern scholars will often place James within the Jewish wisdom tradition (i.e. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). As Jewish Christian wisdom its emphasis is on wise acts which are revealed by the law. Paul’s emphasis was on Grace and Faith. James wanted to talk about Faithfulness-what Grace and Faith looked like in space and time. In a current documentary/movement, Call+Response, a Dr. Cornell West is featured or quoted. I would not endorse everything he says, but the tag line “Justice is what love looks like in public” gets at the idea we are talking about. Grace and faith and love are great concepts, but they have to be incarnated. Jesus incarnated them for us. And we incarnate them for our neighbor. James is what faith looks like in time.

And today’s reading, like Proverbs, touches on so many areas. It reminds us of truths that we need reminded of. That is part of the reason of the post title and my view that James needs a larger voice. Our culture, the US, largely believes that God is Love – one big all embracing warm fuzzy. We believe that God is love, but don’t remember what that looks like in time and space. We have faith, but don’t have faithfulness. James is relevant.

It is probably ironic for this to be on a blog by a parson, but the core of today’s reading is about the difficulty in controlling words, especially for a teacher. A teacher is held to a higher standard by God. We have more responsibility. And that tongue is tough to control. Blogs and websites and twitter and every other modern form of communication makes it even tougher. The distance between mind and tongue has been greatly reduced – and the potential audience for those firey remarks made all the more large and permanent. Nothing juicy on the internet ever dies. If you are living the faith, being watchful of what is said is necessary. James says blessings and curses come from the same mouth…this should not be so. Faith in action tames the tongue.

Sermon – Matt 25:14-30 – Risk in Faith

There is a saying that I picked up from a couple of sources – the sermon is first preached at the preacher. If it is to be effective, it has to move preacher’s heart and mind. My study this week did that to me. I hope a little of that made it into the sermon. Unfortunately I have a feeling that this was written more for reading than speaking. I was treading on the subject of money and risk – something that I do have those 10,000 hours invested to understand at a deep level. (It was the parable of the talents.) It was also treading on the subject of living eschatologically. That is a two dollar seminary word for living in the knowledge of how it all works out. Moving from just a statement of belief in the resurrection (as we say in the creeds) and to a practical figuring it out the implications in this world is the core of living the Christian life. It was a great topic, but I’m not sure I found the right ways to express it. Providentially it is a major biblical topic, so I’ll have more chances to rack up those 10,000 hours to have a deep knowledge about what I’m talking about.

Lite posting this past week/Contemporary Service

Sorry to anyone who has been following the study on this site. It was a very eventful week in the real world as opposed to the cyber world. The biggest item was a special service.

St. Mark’s style is largely small village traditional mixed with the Lutheran Tradition. In fits an spurts over the years it has attempted various things called “contemporary worship”. Churches are 30+ years into the worship wars and something called “contemporary worship” is starting to have a larger meaning. When most people from a traditional setting say it they mean a combination of two things: 1) something that connects with my life as it is lived and 2) something that my kids won’t give me such a hard time about attending. That larger meaning, combined with those two items has created what you are probably thinking when I write contemporary worship – guitar, drum, upbeat music that sounds like the radio. [There might be other things – like excellence of preaching and hollywood/TV production values. Those create serious problems for smaller churches like ours and are probably a driving force behind mega-churches. Production values cost a heck of a lot of money. If you doubt that they add something try watching even a great TV show from the 50s and compare to today. They are slow and only the absolute best are even watchable because we immediately know production values. But even production values can’t save a bad preacher. Mega churches do two things: 1) afford production values and 2) give the very talented preacher the most reach. That very talented preacher is a very rare bird. If what the business guru’s are saying now, it take 10,000 hours of practice to become truly good (about 10 years if you figure 4 hrs per day). Please note that if this rare bird preacher is a 10, I’d give myself a 5. I’ve only seen one 10 in the flesh. After hearing this guy, even a Chuck Norris would be reduced to tears or a coward ready to scale the heights. But that is all a sidebar.]

We took our turn at putting on a contemporary service. And the feedback so far has been roughly what was expected. There are those who just wish it would go away. It is confusing and awkward and maybe a bit undignified. There are those who found it invigorating and happy and think we need to do this every week. This post will serve as an online opportunity to give feedback in the comments section. The decision that gets placed before the congregation at this point is if this is part of what ministry looks like at St. Mark’s or if ministry and worship looks like something different.

That, preparation for Advent and preparation for another congregational event took big chunks of time out of my ability to write and reflect on the readings.

Tuesday – End of Revelation; Quick read of Joel

Readings: Rev 18:15-24, Rev 19:1-20, Joel 1:1-12, Joel 1:13-20, Joel 2:3-11

The daly readings that I’ve been using interestingly don’t take us through the end of Revelation. But it picks an interesting place to stop – the victory of the Lord. The Harlot – false religion – has been thrown down. All heaven, saints and elders and angels rejoice over that in song. Then Christ the King appears – the original rider on a white horse – backed by the armies of heaven. This rider and His army throw the political beast into the lake of fire. All that remains is final end of Satan himself and the new creation. Revelation is a very hard read because everything is pictures. Nothing is straight – but this section. We have seen cities fall in smoking heaps. We have heard merchants (maybe today we do hear them given the wailing about getting in on the bailout) crying about trading partners that made them rich evaporating (where is Bear Stearn and Lehman). We have seen commanders at the front of armies. We have seen wedding receptions. There is nothing fantasy or odd about the victory of Christ the King. The images are hard and real and true. Just as that Cross that produced the blood that dipped the riders gleaming white robe in blood is hard and real and true; the victory won on that cross for us will be completed. We can have no doubt. And that is the ultimate message from this hard book. All kinds of scary things, things we don’t understand will happen, but the Lord Jesus reigns – and he reigns for His people. And when their number is full and complete – everyone will see that hard and real and true reign.

Joel is a short book. He is one of the 12 minor prophets all collected in our bibles before the new testament. The Jews also collect these together as the book of the 12. In Sunday worship we’ve been reading snippets from some of these 12 prophets. They can be harsh. Almost all are calling to repentance and warning about exile and ruin. Joel is no different, but he tends to be softer and has an analogy. A locust swarm has devastated Judah. The crops are gone. The vineyards are picked clean. These locusts are used as a prefigurement of the Day of the Lord. Judah has received a call to repent through the locusts before the greater army comes in judgment. The Babylonians will come. The Romans after them in 70 AD will come. All are small letter days of the lord. The Day of the Lord will come and it brings judgment – who can endure it. In Christ we are able to stand. In Christ that day of judgment is our day of victory.

Sermon – Matt 25:1-13 – Silly Girls

I have a feeling this sermon might have been like the hymns we sang in the service. I enjoyed them, but it was a guilty pleasure picking some of them. In the same way I liked this sermon. I felt really good about it before giving it. I still think there are some very good things about it, but it didn’t connect in the way I thought it might. The entire service was probably perfect for a congregation circa 1948, but it might have asked too much in its atmosphere and mood. Preparation and acknowledgment of our own day and hour are not topics that our culture does not want to talk about. We celebrate the natural – the person who doesn’t have to prepare. Preparation implies sacrifice and prioritization. We want it all. Our final day and hour also flies in face of the culture. It still amazes me that the generation that started with ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ never really flipped that. The natural progress would have been for people to grow up and flip that emphasis – over becomes under. Instead one of the financial firms I can’t remember which one just upped the age. 60 years olds still want to be associated with 20 year olds. A fundamental denial of the day and the hour. A denial of a need for preparation. Yet if preachers don’t pay attention to the end of things we miss the great hope of the resurrection. Jesus becomes just another self-help alternative.