Monthly Archives: October 2009

Rich Young Man – revisited

As a congregation we spent two Sundays on Mark 10:17-22 and then Mark 10:23-31 – the Rich Young Ruler and the aftermath explanations. [The LCMS three year lectionary cycle very closely follows the one used in most churches, but this is one of the places where it was modified. Instead of treating all that material in one week, and then reading the following request of James and John, we spend two weeks on the story itself and Jesus’ explanation.] The impression that is given at the end of the story is that the Rich Young Man did not follow Jesus – or that is the traditional take either being the example of seed falling among thorns (Mark 4:7) or just his walking away sad.

This link has a slight expansion using later parts of Mark to say that things might not have ended so sad for the rich young man. For some good counter arguments read the comment by Kim Fabricius in the chain.

Both are good close readings of the text.

Reformation Day Sermon – Law & Gospel: Living in the Tension

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One of the things ministers (at least Lutheran ministers) talk about all the time is what do you lead with. What I mean by that is this. The proclamation of the Lutheran is Law and Gospel. The law, in all its fierceness, says repent you poor miserable sinner. The Gospel announces the grace of God on all who do repent. The problem with that is followed to its human logical conclusion means being the human sandwhich-board walking down main street with ‘Repent-The Kingdom of God is Near’ painted on it. That may be the reductio ad absurdam of the the law proclamation, but it is rarely effective. It is my impression today, to get someone to hear the law rightly, that you almost have to sneak up on them. I think the culture assumes that the Gospel applies to them universally – we are all universalists when it comes to heaven. Jesus was anything but a universalist (Matt 7:13-14) and the entry gate on that narrow way is repentance. Stealing a line from a fellow circuit minister – “people know about Jesus, they don’t know Jesus.” Where is Martin Luther’s day the public perception about Jesus was a cruel tyrant (I think Luther actual used that term to descibe Him in Martin’s days in the cloister), and hence the society was ready to hear the gospel as it was already cowering under the law, today the public perception is one of the ever accepting Jesus – so accepting that he’s ok if you worship him under anygiven name, as long as you are true to yourself. Fostering a true encounter with Jesus means getting people to have a healthy fear of God first.

After lives…

This is from a review of a new book called after lives…

Augustine won out in his battle against two early Christian thinkers, Origen and Pelagius, who were declared heretics for suggesting that moral self-help could co-exist with divine grace as a means of gaining salvation. Mr. Casey notes an irony: The Vatican has never formally repudiated predestination, but the church “now in practice allows the faithful to be as cheerfully and unconsciously Pelagian as everyone else.” And “everyone else” is just about right when it comes to the U.S. A recent Gallup survey reported that 71% of Americans believe in heaven and that 93% of them think they have an excellent, good or fair chance of getting there.

I’m not sure if there is a better definition of what is wrong with religion and specifically Christianity in America. Last week we read Jesus in the Gospel of mark telling the disciples “how hard it is to enter the reign of God” (Mark 10:24) and that it is only possible with God (Mark 10:27). 93% of America has accepted the cheery notion of an easy heaven. They have accepted the Gospel without feeling the weight of the law. Matt 7:21 might be instructive to those thinking of a warm-fuzzy Jesus.

And you get the quip that we are all Pelagians now, which goes hand in hand with the above. If you think you can save yourself thorugh moral improvement, the natural consquence is a watering down of the the level of moral improvement needed until the general notion of I’m a good person, after all I’m not Charles Manson, is the required bar. What I’d really like to know is why those 7% didn’t think they had a good chance at heaven. Probably the 3.5% hard core atheists who object to the question and the 3.5% that have read the gospels.

A question of authority…

Text: 1 Cor 9:1-15

In the wake of Pope Benedict’s appeal to Anglicans, a reading on Apostolic authority comes up in the 2 yr reading cycle.

Paul was always defending his apostleship. People were always questioning his right to authority. His responses could be read as whining in the best Jewish mother sort of way. “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you…” Can you not hear the guilt trip? But later Paul gets more onto the grounds of his apostleship. “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ…I have made no us of these rights (to call for financial support), nor am I writing to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have any one deprive me of my ground for boasting.”

Who looks more like an authority – Pope Benedict or the Archbishop of Canturbury? Is the Pope giving up his claim to authority – his ground for boasting? But has he asked for anything from the Anglicans who could keep their married ministers, liturgy and even seminary houses? From a Pope who is well schooled in Paul, this is a very Pauline move…and a man very confident of his authority to do it as he trampled on his own Cardinals, moved the body (they call them congregations) that issued the order away from the ecumenical talkers to the doctine congregation and surprised AB Rowan Williams. From a leadership standpoint, it is inspiring…not that I’d swim the tiber.

Scriptures & simple reason…

That title was Luther at Worms. He would not recant (what he as being commanded to do) unless someone could show him from the Scriptures and simple reason why he was wrong or where he had made error.

The thought comes up as Reformation Day is coming up and I was reading something out of the normal way by C. S. Lewis from Christian Reflections.

The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion. My reason, showing me the apparently isoluable difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers far more of the fact with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again. My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have meade to live the spiritual life…forbid me again.

A mid-20th century Oxford Don well schooled in logic and reason concludes that reason has shown him “the isoluable difficulties of materialism” and employs Occam’s Razor to rule in a spiritual world. How different than today!

His central argument is that our fight, the struggle of the Christian life, is not between faith and reason, but between faith and sight.

When once passion take part in the game, human reason, unassisted by Grace, has about as much chance of retaining its hold on truths already gains as a snowflake has of retaining its consistency in the mouth of a blast furnace.

Reason has its starting points. It is always a minister and never the master. The question moves to what do you see as real. Are the passions or dis-passions of this world what are real, or the revelation of Jesus Christ. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb 11:1) We do not get reasoned out of faith. We get scared by what it means if our religion is actually real – if we saw the reality in all its glory.

Sermon – “Who can be saved?” – Mark 10:23-31

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The gospel texts are sparse. What I mean by that is they relate just enough information to tell the story and expect you the reader to fill in the gaps from your knowledge and experience. We do this type of stuff everyday of our lives. The closer the person is to us, the sparser our communication can be. Husbands and wives often fall into this trap thinking that one fills in the gap correctly when they don’t. I’ll let you fill in the gap of the example. In the process of fleshing out the story, a peril for a preacher is preaching on the gaps. To preach or pull the main lesson for the text from what the reader has filled in is usually bad. At its best it is an orthodox sermon because the person in the pulpit has the Spirit and the gap filling in pious, but even then it usually has the effect of being distracting as the fill-in does not naturally fit the text. At its worst, the gaps are filled with stuff that contradicts the plain text and lessens or overrides its teaching. The sermon on the gaps becomes a sermon straight from probably the worst places of the preacher.

This sermon has one fill-in that in my studies for the week I could not find another who took it this way. That would usually mean that I would not use it to try and avoid preaching on a gap. I struggled with this because Peter’s reply to Jesus in the text – “look, we’ve left everything…” just did not make sense within the text as it is normally read. The typical reading is to see this as Peter comparing himself to the Rich Young Man and expecting that he will come out looking better. Jesus says is it hard to enter the Kingdom. We’ve already given up everything, so we must have merited entry. Here is why that makes no sense to me. First, if it was really Peter expressing a claim to merit, Jesus would have immediately struck it down. One does not merit the Kingdom. That is a doctrinal point, but one so basic that if you find your reading of a text going against it you’ve got a wrong reading. Second, Jesus has just said that with man it is impossible. Would Peter really respond to with man it is impossible with an assertion of his own work? Third, Jesus’ response is a blessing and a very confusing one as it gives a whole bunch in this time. Eternal life is an afterthought. Something else is going on here.

I leaned on Matthew to fill in the gap a little. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all follow a similar outline. (If you want more on that ask me.) Often you can look at the others to get a clearer view of what is happening. Matthew also records the encounter with the Rich Young Man and right after it records the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. My filling in the gaps to make sense of Peter’s response and Jesus’ response to that in this sermon was:
1) The disciples ask who can be saved
2) Jesus says everyone – because God is doing it, with man it is impossible
3) Peter’s response is that’s not fair (The NLT has a good translation from Matthew – We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?)
4) Jesus promises stuff here in this life – the stuff he promises is a new community the church
5) In Matthew Jesus follows this teaching up with the parable of the workers in the vineyard which ends with the saying ‘the first are last and last first’ that Mark just tacks onto the end of Jesus’ response
I filled in the gaps I think in a way that makes more sense than the typical Peter trying to justify himself reading, but since I went out on a limb so to speak and it does play a role in the general outline of the sermon I add wanted to point out from where and why I filled in the gaps.

Fear, Love and Trust…

Text: 2 Kings 9:17-37

In confirmation class last night we were covering the 10 commandments and Sinai in Exodus. The opening question was – what does it mean to have a God? Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism to the first commandment is that ‘we should fear, love and trust God above all things.’ If you say that having a God is that thing that you fear, love and trust above everything else, it is impossible to not have one. All you can say is that you are following better or worse ‘gods’. The most common ‘god’ is probably our belly. Our appetites drive us from one thing to another. Some might deify their mind. Some might deify the nation-state, ancestors or other family members. All of those things have an element of fear in them. The state holds the sword, family members exert all kinds of psychological influence. In between running from one idol to the next, we stop and think about the loving arms of Jesus. We trust that he will always be there. And there is truth in that. But that view is a very domesticated view of Jesus. Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia, is a wild lion. The Jesus of Gospels says things like ‘go and sin no more’ and ‘be holy as you Father is holy’.

And then you get to our text. God said through Elijah that Jezebel would be eaten by dogs. Later God through Elisha annoints a new King for Israel. A King who kills the the old one and throws Jezebel, the queen mother, out the window and then sits down for a meal. When they get around to cleaning up the mess – to bury the body – Jezebel has been carried away by dogs.

Luther’s definition of God includes fear. Is the God you serve a nice domesticated lion, or is he wild enough to say things like ‘I am about to spit you out (Rev 3:16)’ or ‘follow me, let the dead bury their own dead (Matt 8:22)’ or ‘You are badly mistaken (Mark 12:27)”?

Question to Ponder – Church and Culture

Jesus interacted with a bunch of people, but primarly two groups – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees it could be said shared a basic understanding and worldview with Jesus. They believed in the Scriptures, and God and the comming messiah. Jesus argued and castigated them for their blindness to their sin and called them to repent. He did that with passion you can read in the gospels. The Sadducees we don’t know as much about, but the general construction is rich and powerful religious/political elites who didn’t believe in much beyond their power. The story in Mark 12:18-27 records an exchange. I can’t read it without reading disdain dripping from the Sadducees. The were not so much asking Jesus a question or entering into debate with him as mocking him and his understanding. Jesus’ answer to them lacks the passion of the Pharisees. He mocks back in a way and simply claims – “You are badly mistaken.”

In the past the church would interact with the culture and cultural leaders as if they were Pharisees. It would be very heated. It would call for repentance and even engage with it. The Christian left would trumpet the social gospel and the christian right would try to build the Kingdom or the Shining City. Maybe both errors in their way, but passionate engagements with the larger culture that shared a belief in at least scriptural morality. Has not our culture turned into the Sadducees? The church no longer shares a common worldview or set of presuppositions as the culture. Will not church and culture interaction turn more toward the cooler – “you are badly mistaken” forms of interaction? Of course the Sadducees ceased to be in AD70. Sadducee parties have a tendency to cease to be. Good news for the church, but bad news for the West?

Being a church

Text: 1 Cor 5:9 – 6:11

The text is about how people get along with each other and about making judgments. Underlying it is a much different and healthier view of what the church is. For most of the 20th century in the West the church was thought of by its people as an institution, and one of those institutions freely joined or left. That placed the individual in the position of judge or magistrate. One could freely choose which church to be a part of or freely choose to not be a part.

Paul has a much different thought. The church is those people called by God to follow Jesus Christ exemplified by sanctified lives together. In that western institutional church the goal is numbers alone. If someone is living immorally, but claiming to be part of the church, the institutional church turns a blind eye. Or it might go so far as justifying and supporting the behavior. You don’t chase away numbers. In Paul’s church, the church drives them out, and leaves them to God’s judgment. The purpose is not numbers, but in helping people live sanctified lives. Which one is showing love, the one that enables immorality or the one calling you back into relationship with Jesus Christ?

Living sanctified lives together as the people of God. Do we always get it right immediately? No way. Does that body take a painful amount of time to see the right? Often. If you act like the church is a called people in a world that treats it as a come and go institution are you going to be taken advantage of? Yep. So, do we complain about that. Not according to Paul. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? Being church is not an easy calling.

Good Things – Mark 10:17-22

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Text: Mark 10:17-22

As one congregant said – “reading a little Plato were you?” The presenting question was what do I do to inherit eternal life. In our culture today I don’t think that is even a question people ask. Eternal and the man’s address of Jesus as Good Teacher imply something that our culture denies. That concept of the good which is the intuitive way we are drawn to things that are true or that are beautiful and not in our culture’s highest goods of utility or aesthetic pleasingness, is what is denied. There are no eternal or good things in our culture. We have so much and settle for so little.

In a Lutheran law and gospel structure the man’s question is one of a second use of the law. It shows us our sin or a mirror to our soul. But it also implies a first use of the law – a simple description of the way things were made. We were made with eternity in mind. There are things that are beautiful – even though they may not be aesthetically pleasing or pass the culture poobah’s 5 star ratings. There are things that are true, even if you don’t believe them. In many ways talking to our culture is more like talking to the Sadducees than the Pharisees. The pharisees inhabited the same mental world as Jesus. When Jesus talked to the Sadducees he would say things like “you are badly mistaken.” (Mark 12:27) With Pharisees Jesus called them to see that they couldn’t carry the law. He was so visibly upset with them because they were close to the kingdom. He looked at them and loved them. With the Sadducees it was a call to something more fundamental, a call to examine presuppositions about the world.

Don’t settle for happiness – or the things that wealth can buy temporarily. Seek the Kingdom, the good things, the things eternal. Then you will have treasure in heaven.