Monthly Archives: April 2012

Bad Religion

Biblical Text: John 20:19-31
Full Text of Sermon

The 2nd commandment (3 commandment if you are Reformed) is about respecting the name of God. The 1st petition of the Lord’s prayer is that the name for God would be holy. The 1 article of the Augsburg Confession is “On God”. The first thing the church post the apostles wrestled with was the creeds which are verbal ways of nailing down just who this God is – Father, Son and Spirit. The church seems flooded with bad religion. And bad religion starts with a poor conception of God. Usually a conception warped by our reason. Either reason twisting revelation to its design, or reason using a great filter to only let in what it desires.

And that Bad Religion is tragic because we always filter out the gospel. The God we worship – Father, Son and Spirit – comes to us, reveals himself, abides with us, and won’t let go. The revealed God, revealed most fully in Jesus Christ, is the one who brings peace. Its those things we lose when we go looking for a God to take His place.

Your Mental Matrix

In Thursday Bible Study we started looking at the Book of Ephesians. One of the things that I told that group was that Ephesians is probably my interpretive lens on Scripture. And I fumbled around trying to explain that. What I mean by that is when any big question comes up, or any piece of scripture I can’t understand, or probably more likely the words that I reach for to help me explain life, the universe and everything the words and the book that I find myself in is Ephesians. The only other book in the running would be Hebrews. Those two things would probably explain a lot about me. I’m pretty sure most of the Protestant world operates from Romans. The Roman Catholic world in my experience seems to operate from the Gospel of John So, teaching Ephesians in a group will be exciting to me because it will be core stuff that I will have to unfold instead of just accepting and it will be open for challenge.

While the Bible is inspired and you can spend a life pondering, there are a bunch of other works that might be part of the mental matrix. Dr. McKnight listed his top 5 and asked about his readers. My top five books outside of scripture that have influenced me –

1. Odyssey/Iliad – Homer
2. Freedom of a Christian – Luther
3. Epitome of the Formula of Concord
4. Crime & Punishment – Dostoevsky (Or Fathers & Sons – Turgenev)
5. Romeo & Juliet – And yes, I’ll turn in my man card

Now there are a couple of big ones like: A Random Walk Down Wall Street or Pythagorean Geometry that are important but end up being utilitarian. Freedom of a Christian moves me, efficient markets I use, even if it deeply influences how I view the world it is about this world only. Faith, Hope and love remain, the greatest is love. Faith and hope are this world only, love transcends.

It also leaves off poetry. Sigh, no W. H. Auden. Truth and Beauty. The list seems to ask for truth over beauty.

What about you? What is in your top five?

Two Congregations

While watching my Penguins blow a 3 goal lead (argh!?!), I was reflecting on the congregation at Easter service, the congregation on a “normal” Sunday, and the differences in preaching.

I’m going to use statistics just from Jan 1 through April 1 and then look at Easter. I could expand that basis, but that gives me 14 Sundays for a population baseline which does not include any major holiday. Also I am looking primarily at people on the “membership” list. There are visitors, but they get a special category.

So, the first thing I did was take a look for each member how often they attend. Simply # of Sundays attended divided by 14. If you understand baseball think of that as the batting average, or better yet the on base percentage. There is variance; a young player gets better and the older player gets worse. But, a player’s batting average during the heart of his career could probably be taken as a set number. There are .300 hitters, .250 hitters and hitters who struggle to stay above the Mendoza line.

Using those individual batting averages and assuming that they don’t change much, I looked at each Sunday and calculated the “average batting average”. If you were present your batting average became part of the formula. Simple example, 3 members, all attend one Sunday: 1 – 25% of Sundays, 2 – 50%, 3 – 75%. The average attendance average would be 50%. For St.Mark, when I look at each Sunday for that congregational average, it is amazingly consistent. For the first 14 Sundays of the year the the highest average was 82% and the lowest 71%. Interpreting that, the average person in the congregation for those first 14 Sundays attends service 3 out of 4 Sundays. In fact that is what I did next. I calculated the “average batting average” for all of those first 14 Sundays – 77.2%. The standard deviation of that was 23%. So, looking at the typical Sunday service I could expect that the typical person has attended 3 out of 4 Sundays. I can expect that 95% of the congregation has attended 2 out of 3 Sundays. So, what all those numbers mean is that preaching to the typical Sunday crowd means you have the opportunity to teach and build on a base. If I’m thinking of Heb 5:12-14, that should be a congregation that gets meat or weighty words about the Christian life.

Now what about the Easter congregation? The average of its attendance averages was 56% with a standard deviation of 36%. That is a different congregation. The typical person attended 1 less Sunday and the variance is much greater. A substantial portion of that congregation is attending less that once a month. If you experience something once a month or less, how much does it sink in? That is probably a group that you are retelling the basics of the faith and challenging them to commit to living it. Not that you don’t do that the other weeks, but that Easter congregation is going to hear the list in Heb 6:1-2. Since it is Easter focusing on what the resurrection of the dead means. Deny the resurrection and you are still a slave to death. Believe and you are a slave to Christ.

So, paradoxically attending on the High Holy Days of the Christian faith mean you will probably hear “that old, old story” told very simply with what might sound very close to an altar call for a Lutheran. If you are to be challenged in your faith the best Sunday to attend is probably, oh lets say, the 3rd or 4th Sunday of Easter which looks to be the post holiday low spot. That is probably the day to ponder say the doctrine of election or a teaching of the church that is being broken by everyone.

Bad Religion – The Confusion of Law and Gospel edition

Our news cycle is so compressed these days. And that might be part of the problem, because real theological thinking takes some time. It is hard work primarily because as Dr. Haidt would say: we are elephants with a rider. What he means by that is that our intuitive systems (what the classic writers would call the passions) are the elephant. Presented with some happening, we intuitively make a decision to learn toward it (this is good!) or away from it (the is bad!). The intuitive systems have a rider, namely reason. What the rider normally does is justify the elephant’s lean and probably encourage a harder charge. Dr. Haidt would hold that the rider has some ability to push the other way but quite limited. It is nice to see academic writing getting to where Luther was 500 years ago – i.e. ‘Reason is a whore’. What little theological reasoning we can do is because the Spirit lives within us. It sure isn’t natural. Maybe by Confucius’ 80 years of formation we can do the will of heaven without effort.

Why I bring this up is that I’m convinced that the basic problem underlying so much of our modern problem is bad theology. Most of what goes by the title of theology is little more than the rider justifying the elephant’s lean. A good job for a lawyer or PR-person, but not for a theologian.

I saw one real clear example starting with Andrew Sullivan (for those not familiar a Gay Roman Catholic British Tory) who wrote the Newsweek annual Easter takedown of the church. (Ok, if I’m being more fair his article doesn’t deserve the cover title – Forget the Church Follow Jesus – but lets be honest. Would Newsweek (or Time or the New York Times) ever publish something with a headline – Forget the Heretics, Follow the Body of Christ. Didn’t think so.) But that article isn’t what I want to bring up. Mr. Sullivan, especially on grace, is a capable theologian. But he is a good example of the elephant and the rider when it gets close to himself. He is gay. I think even he would say that is a defining trait. So he links to things like this. The person recommending is Dan Savage who is also gay and a widely read advice columnist. The elephant is picking up steam. The comments on that last link are instructive although they are not for innocent eyes. Eventually you get to this and this. What you have is a 21 year old gay male with the brains to attend Harvard, a Christian upbringing and the honesty to recognize a conflict and try to address it.

I’m not sure how Mr. Vines financed it, but the student took a couple of years off of school to answer his conflict. It is a perfect example of two things: 1) the elephant is in complete control. The student is gay and Christian. He must reconcile these things. But the intuition has already ruled. These thing must be completely ok together. (“And for some reason, a lot of people have a big problem with anyone who believes in God and is gay.”) The two years of research and reasoning were not for attempting to be a good theologian and placing himself under the Word of God, but they were two years for the rider to construct arguments for the way the intuition was already leaning. 2) Bad theology is driving the debates in the country.

You name the argument there is bad theology at the root: Health care, sexuality/marriage, and even economic regulation. Our collective elephants are leaning one direction and our riders are pushing further that way constructing bad arguments as it goes.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I understood the intuitive lean of the collective elephant in the direction of homosexuality. I get the liberty and caring arguments for gay marriage. My elephant says, “hey, gay marriage makes perfect sense.” My rider could even chime in with St. Paul, “in Christ there is no make or female.” The problem is that is very bad theology. First, what St. Paul describes in Gal 3:28 is an eschatological reality. When the kingdom comes in its fullness there is neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female. As Jesus says elsewhere, in the Kingdom we will not marry or be given in marriage (Mark 12:25). There are parts of that eschatological reality that have been grasped, but even those are often tenuous in this world. We think that slavery has been done away with, but just start with a google search for human trafficking or modern slavery. For theology to approach truth, it must start out describing reality. Paul’s statement is a reality as far as the gospel, as far as our relationship with Christ depends on nothing that we bring. The Gospel is pure grace. But we live in an overlapping of the ages. The Kingdom has been inaugurated, but this world is still passing away. The law still has a place in this world.

Mr. Vines attempts to address this when he discusses Lev 18:22 and the OT in general. In what I take as his core summary statement, Mr. Vines dismisses the law.

But after the Council of Jerusalem’s ruling, even those central parts of Israelite identity and culture no longer applied to Christians. Although it’s a common argument today, there is no reason to think that these two verses from the Old Law in Leviticus would somehow have remained applicable to Christians even when other, much more central parts of the Law did not.

He will acknowledge that, “the Old Law does contain some rules that Christians have continued to observe – the Ten Commandments, for example.” But not that any of the prohibitions against homosexual activity have anything to do with the Ten Commandments. What he holds is that, “Christ’s death on the cross liberated Christians from what Paul called the “yoke of slavery.” We are not subject to the Old Law.” It is right here that Mr. Vines has confused law and gospel or that he has not understood both have a continuing roll in our existence. Mr. Vines has taken the freedom of the Gospel as the excuse to go and sin as we please (Rom 6:1). He is right that we are free from the law in regards to our salvation and maybe more importantly our identity. We find our identity in Christ. Christ found his identity in doing the will of His Father. His Father, who we are instructed to call our Father, revealed his general will in the commandments. They no longer have their sting – death has been defeated, but they still remain to instruct and guide. Until the final revelation of the Kingdom, the law has a place, and even there I would speculate that since they are the Word of God they will not pass away but just be a true dead letter as we will be a new creation without the sinful nature.

What I would point Mr. Vines toward is how Jesus interprets the commandment on adultery in the sermon on the mount, Matt 5:27-32 and also pay attention to all discussions on divorce especially Matt 19:1-12. Yes, Romans 1 is important, but that is not the heart of Christian sexual teaching. The heart of Christian sexual teaching is that anything outside of the one-flesh bond of marriage between one man and one woman is a breaking of the commandment against adultery. Is this a tough teaching? Hell yes. That is probably why Jesus goes hyperbolic with the cutting off of hands and gouging out of eyes. He’s serious. The law is serious stuff. There is probably no better place than sexual morality for today’s culture to feel the hopelessness of the law and hopefully the sweetness of the gospel. Our intuitions, our elephants are charging toward sexual openness because we desperately want love. We want to feel that connectedness. We want to find our identities in relationship. But as our divorce statistics and rate of marriage counseling might tell us, this is not the primary identity. The relationship between Christ and the church, the bridegroom and the bride, is not the primary identity. Christ’s first identity is loyal son. Our first identity is as a child of God. Within that identity God has purpose for us. It might include a call to marriage. It might not. There are eunuchs for the kingdom. (Matt 19:12) To a great many, God might leave this as a free choice. To others, not. If we attempt to satisfy our identity and purpose through sin, it can’t but come to naught. But even when we’ve made a complete wreck of things, Christ forgives, God welcomes home.

Again, is that a very tough teaching? Yes. Would I expect lots of failure trying to keep it? Yep. Probably about the same amount of trouble as unmarried, good looking, rich, 21 year old straight guys have being chaste. Probably about as tough as a rich man finding his primary identity in Christ and not in his own work and possessions. (Mark 10:17-31) Probably about as tough as a learned man admitting that he is a fool. (1 Cor 1:20) Probably about as tough as being told to pick up the cross. (Matt 16:24) “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed…therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet 4:12-13, 19) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom. (Matt 5:3). That is the entry door. Good theology starts in recognizing our own poverty of spirit, in letting The Spirit be the rider and form our Elephant.

An Existential Easter

Biblical Text: Mark 16:1-8
Full Text of Sermon

Of all the things to proclaim from a pulpit, the resurrection is both the most important and the toughest. It is the most important because there is no Christianity without it. If Christ be not raised we are most to be pitied is what St. Paul said. I just don’t get any form of Christianity that doesn’t take the resurrection as a historical fact. It is the toughest because its happened once. Most of us have no direct experience of it. The risen Christ just doesn’t appear to the vast majority of us. Believing the resurrection, and putting all of you metaphysical chips on it, is a big wager.

That is actually one of the reasons I love the Gospel according to Mark excluding the tacked on summary endings. (If you want to know more on that, leave a comment.) The gospel ends with the strongest believers in its entire story – the women who follow and support – running from the tomb scared. They had not seen the risen Christ either at that point. All they had was the witness – “He is risen!” The Gospel of Mark ends right where most Christians throughout time are placed. They have a witness telling them – “He’s risen!” And they have to answer that existential question – do I believe this? If I believe it what does it mean that dead people rise, this specific dead person rose?

Existential questions can cause flight. Are you running, or answering?

Kings, Crosses and the (un)random universe

Biblical Text: Mark 11:1-11, Mark 15:1-5, 15, 25-26
Full Draft of Sermon

The framing in the world was a massive lottery jackpot. This is not a railing against the lottery, but let me just say the things we surround ourselves with and allow say something about us. The massive growth of lotteries, casinos and “gaming” over my lifetime might tell us something about what we actually worship or at least how we view the world. A step away from despair is to see the world as random, nothing more that lottery balls bouncing through the world.

There are many things we can take from Palm Sunday or the Pilate Readings. But one theme would be that the world has a King. This world is anything but random. If we are tempted to think that nothing matters – like the world weary Pilate – the passion says no. Everything is full of meaning. And the most meaningful things are rarely dressed like Kings but can be found in the humblest places.