Monthly Archives: September 2012

Lead us not into temptation…

Biblical Text: Mark 9:38-50
Complete Draft

I would be hard pressed to think of a message more contra the advice of every “grow your church” consultant than this one. Dependence upon a translation of a Greek word? Check. Pointing out sin and struggles with it? Check. Attempting to say that what feels like failure might be the greatest spiritual good? Check. Resting that spiritual good squarely on faith as proof without an immediate here and now reward? Check.

So why the heck would I do that? What I’d like to be able to say is Truth. Our current culture or environment would scorn this statement, but that is what the pulpit is about, proclaiming truth. And it is truth that suffering and failure are part of this life. Our Lord was crucified and betrayed. It is harder to find a more pure case of losing. Either we deal with that, we include space for less than the power and the glory, or we’ve created a false religion that will ultimately lead to despair.

The thing is: 1) truth isn’t popular. We’d rather have the pretty lie as long as we can believe it. 2) We aren’t actually that good at discerning truth. Archbishop Cranmer’s formulation holds, “what the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies”. We want a lot of things to be true. I’m sure that many an atheist could say, yeah, like your sky god stuff. But here is the thing, through 3000 years recorded in the Bible, the prophets that are recognized are usually like Jeremiah or Elijah or Jesus – “Father, take this cup from me.” They didn’t want the world as it was, yet that was the truth. And they served truth. They served the Word. Mankind has never wanted to believe that they aren’t God or the measure of everything. Goes all the way back to Eve.

So, Jesus says in today’s text that we will all be salted with fire. Do we watch and prepare, or do hold onto the lie a little longer? Does the watchman proclaim it, or keep silent?

Close to the Bone

One article recently really hit my cranky bone. Way more information than a pastor should be writing.

That article was David Brooks. The truth is that I haven’t felt at home in a political party for most of my voting life. The last guy I felt completely comfortable voting for was G. H. W. Bush (Bush 41) which was also the first ballot I cast. Clinton was an opportunist and the moral example set gave cover to the worst of our natures. Bush (43) I’d liken to Old King Stephen – “a good man who did no justice”. (Less poetic but better the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s verdict – “he took action without judgment”.) And let’s just not talk about Obama. The lawlessness of the current resident of 1600 shocks even me. I recount my “man without a party” narrative because David Brooks laments the loss of “the traditional conservative”. The modern GOP started out as a coalition between people like me best defined by Brooks’ paragraph…

Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

…and so-called economic conservatives which are best thought of as libertarians. And Brooks is right that “The two conservative tendencies lived in tension. But together they embodied a truth that was put into words by the child psychologist John Bowlby, that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base. ” But here is where David Brooks starts misfiring or let’s steal a phrase from getreligion, “there is a religious ghost haunting the story”.

David Brooks complains,

“In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.”

Why does Romney use only market language? Why is shrinking government the organizing principle? Did anybody see what happened to Mike Huckabee in 2008?

The answer or the ghost is that “traditional conservatives” are really religious conservatives. WFB, patron saint and original forger of the coalition, was an every day mass attending Catholic. They have received help from God in ordering lives. And we as a people, we won’t hear talk about God. As a Lutheran what I would say is that we won’t hear the Law. We won’t stand for the traditional teaching of the church. A wall of separation has been erected to prevent anyone from accidentally having their feelings hurt by being implied a sinner and feeling the law. Those people and that language have been run out of polite society as just not acceptable by a corrupt and decadent elite from both parties. We can have plenty of nonsense about God and lots of dressed up language, but direct to the bone Orthodoxy; the type that you say “This is the Word of the Lord” after, none of that stuff allowed.

Brooks again,

“There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels. “

The government has been doling out programs and money for decades and all the illegitimacy rate does is rise. You know what used to work? Its called the 6th commandment – “don’t commit adultery.” Who and what are exactly the programs or people that are excluded from receiving dollars? People that might accidentally say- “Hey, God says don’t screw around”. Who are the people who are declared ineligible for higher office like Huckabee in 2008? The same people who might tax a little and spend a little through government because the seventh commandment that says “don’t steal” includes the positive force of “helping your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income”. (Small Catechism) {Of course being conservative they’d rather see that taking place in city hall or the county seat compared to Washington.}

The fact is that the “traditional conservatives” that Brooks laments are exactly the people that are tarred and feathered the second they are in public life. And that is in both parties. They haven’t gone missing, they’ve just been forced underground.

Now not all the fault is on a secret cabal. The gospel has a consistent external enemy. But it has had an internal enemy as well, recently best described by Brooks co-worker Ross Douthat in Bad Religion. If we don’t take our own religion seriously, why would anyone outside? This takes so many forms its not even funny. Let’s just say when you are willing to change the name of God to something silly, or are willing to ignore clear scripture because of the passions of the day, I wouldn’t take you seriously either.

Law and Gospel, sin and absolution, is serious. You don’t like the thought of Hell, we’ll do away with it and everybody gets a free pass, is not serious. The theology of the cross is serious. Your best life now is not serious.

So, David Brooks, are you willing to say that serious religious people deserve to be heard, or are you lamenting something but not willing to accept the answer?

Gold Bricks, Rotting Corpses and Dead Phone Lines…

Text: Mark 9:30-37
Full Sermon Draft

That title or the graphics might be a little macabre, but just give a listen (or a read). Every now and then you come across a story that has meaning beyond the simple facts. That’s what happened here.

Google, the 8th Commandment and Original Sin…

Tyler Cowen asks the question if Google Autocomplete can be libelous? Not a bad question, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

From Germany:

…for Bettina Wulff it’s a nightmare. The wife of former German President Christian Wulff wants the search engine to cease suggesting terms that she finds defamatory. This has nothing to do with the search results, but rather with the recommendations made by Google’s “Autocomplete” function, a service that is also offered by competitors like Bing and Yahoo. All one has to do is type her first name and the first letter of her last name to get search suggestions such as “Bettina Wulff prostitute,” “Bettina Wulff escort” and “Bettina Wulff red-light district.”

Don’t forget the problem of cascades here:

The Autocomplete function, the usefulness of which Google so guilelessly praises as a means of giving one’s fingers a rest, undeniably helps spread rumors. Assuming that someone unsuspectingly begins to look for information on “Bettina Wulff” and is offered “prostitute,” “Hanover” and “dress” as additional search terms — where, independent of their actual interests, will users most likely click?

The real question is in that last line. If Google autocompletes your search and one of the terms is prostitute or {fill in the blank with unflattering and embarrassing term}, which one would you choose? The 8th commandment says “do not bear false witness against your neighbor”. When he asks what does this mean, Luther adds the positive burden to “put the best construction on everything”. Google might be the greatest facilitator of trespass the world has ever seen. And yet it is darn funny and irresistible.

Christmas Comes Early

{Snark Mode On.} It is an old joke about how Time & Newsweek always save a Dan Brown/Da Vinci Code type story for the Christmas issue. Every year as Christmas comes around what better way to celebrate than to have a good old newsroom laugh fest at the poor believing saps. Virgin Birth, what a hoot!

NPR tends to get in on the act in a more refined way. Step one, get a “new” discovery. Most recent competitors – the James Ossuary and the Gospel of Judas, but there are a hardy perennials that come back every time Dr. Pagels publishes a book. That of course is step two, get a highly refined and well degreed spokesperson to “create a narrative” about the new discovery. Helps in this are: 1. if it is a woman, 2. if she is attractive in a refined way and 3. if her specialty is something that sounds benign. They can’t just get the local Ivy professor of gender studies, but prefer an old Endowed Chair or a professor of antiquities surrounded by carbon dating and spectral imaging machines that give a scientific air to the endeavor. Step three, which can be skipped, is to get a middle-aged white male from a less distinguished pedigree to sound like he is wearing a wife-beater. Ta-Da, Christianity is a hoax. The bible is a lie. Why don’t you troglodytes get with the times. Stand in awe of our new discovery and irrefutable new narrative.

This morning there appeared the most recent issue in this long running series. Did Jesus have a wife? New discovery? Check, you are looking at a picture of the 33 word fragment. Refined female spokesperson? Check. Harvard Divinity Hollis Professor, oldest endowed chair, double check! Male adversary trying to use reason? Check. Poor Dr. Bock, teaching at Dallas Seminary.

OK, I’ll turn off the snark. {Snark off}

First, Dr. Bock does the best he could do. Yes, its an important discovery, he says to try and avoid wearing the wife-beater. But continues, it’s really just an asterisk. And he’s right. These things come up all the time. They are usually forgeries, but even if not, we know when and where they come from. Much later than the gospels (3rd – 4th century vs. 1 century) and from small groups who were trying to merge Greek philosophy with Christian Characters. Just like today, the cross and the resurrection are shameful things. There have always been “more refined” people who have wanted to remove those and just have a nice spiritual philosophy. After all, everything is just symbols, right?

The new narrative that is constantly trying to be created is this: 1) Orthodox Christianity defined by the Creeds was just one of many and maybe not the largest. 2) That group brutally excluded and put down anyone who disagreed eventually using the state to do this. (The question is how did they have time for this in between themselves dodging the Colosseum lions?) 3) Because the past isn’t what we’ve been taught, that mean and nasty Roman church needs to see the light and change the tradition to be more open to the enlightened strains we are recovering. Goal: get the church to cave. Means: claim the moral high ground and undermine history by any means available.

This is a longer but better article. It is less interested in grinding the axe, and more interested in the actual discovery and its value.

The bottom line facts are not that any tradition was silenced. These things didn’t survive because they are not the truth. They are at best what Dr. Bock said, asterisks. Academically interesting fragments of people who lost their way. Warnings to modern heterodox bodies – that way leads to destruction.

Thoughts on messages that connect…

Matthew 13:52 is one of the oddest verses in the bible – And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” My head is stuck thinking of “odd sayings” of the bible after last week’s sermon.

How do we take that? Is it an excuse to change everything and abandon what was done in the past? “I’m just bringing out new treasures”…says every heretic, two bit prophet and over-educated under-excited pastor. That should be an obvious dead-end, although the American church seems to be by heresies greatly distressed without the ears to hear. Well then, is it an excuse to formalistic legalism? (Chair: Say what parson? You lost me there. Me: Ok chair, I’ll rephrase.) Do we take that passage as the warrant to torture everything slightly different until it looks just like what came before? The trained scribe is the one who makes everything old new again. If that was the case, I should be able to dust off “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (look it up, chair) and call a generation back to God and shake them out of their lethargy. (Chair: good luck with that.)

Why did a Monk in a backwater part of Germany nail 95 sentences largely unreadable on door and 4 years later the entire world was aflame? Personally I like money motives, the new burghers and the old aristocracy saw a way to stop sending money to Rome. (Chair: personally I like the freedom message, like when you get your big backside off me. That message got every two bit aristocrat and priest’s backside off of simple Christian. Me: okay, I’ll lose a little, and your reason isn’t bad either, chair.) But there is a shelf full of books on my wall that will swear up and down that justification by faith alone was exciting news.

So what does an over-trained scribe think? (Chair: You mean other than when you can get to 5 Guys next? Me: Ha ha) It’s like translation. The well trained scribe must know in his bones the old without losing touch with the time he actually lives. We have this treasure found in a field, or I prefer held in jars of clay. The jars of each generation break. New generations make new jars. Some generations have shockingly bad taste. But the treasure held remains the same. And the treasure is this: I tell you a mystery, we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable. Because God has given to us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer Paradox

Text: Mark 9:14-29
Full Sermon Draft

This text itself is something of a paradox. It has two of the most memorable phrases from the gospels. “I believe, help my unbelief” which in the story context is this heart rending plea of desperation. And it has Jesus’ summary to the disciples, “This kind only comes out through prayer” which can seem oddly tacked on to the story, seems to add a differentiation to spiritual evil and makes a comment on technique that is wholly absent elsewhere, and added to that is the manuscript tradition adds fasting to prayer. Our two best manuscripts do not have fasting, the first corrector of one of those manuscripts added it, almost all the other manuscripts have fasting. The best textual scholars all say fasting was an early churchly scribal addition, but the evidence of it being original is somewhat staggering for such an easy verdict. The reason that is interesting at all is that driving out spiritual evil by fasting would be a long term thing while just by prayer is an in the moment operation. The disciples did not fast because the bridegroom was with them (Mark 2:18-19). With fasting Jesus’ words would seem to be directly addressed to later hearers after the bridegroom had ascended.

And this is the paradox, with all that interesting stuff to ponder, this episode has been sparsely preached and commented on. Interesting sayings and emotional scenes are usually sermon goldmines. You can here preachers everywhere saying, “That will preach”. Not so much here.

My approach was to struggle with what I think is the central paradox. The father in the story is example. We are the disciples, or they are our entry into devotion. The time that prayer is most necessary, is exactly when you don’t believe in the person you are talking to. When you are thinking – “My God, why have you forsaken me?” is exactly the time you need to say “Into you hands I commit my spirit.” A paradox of prayer.

Less brought out in the sermon, but still something of a paradox is the question of exactly who believes and trusts? Is it our belief and trust that enables miracles? Or is the one who believes really Christ alone? His belief is given to us. His belief helps our unbelief.

Both of those will preach. Both of them point to a deep promise – “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory – Matt 12:20.” At those breaking moments are when we can be most sure of grace.

Who wishes to play the fool?

This is a great reflection on families, faith and maturity.

…Christ calls us to become like children again. Counterintuitively, part of what this might mean is that there comes a time to get over our mocking, knowing, puncturing phase and learn to be true grown-ups. This is the maturity that once again allows us to proclaim truth in all simplicity, to be like children. To say it another way, true grown-ups can parent.

My students are often Christians who are old enough to mock mercilessly the people that gave of their time sacrificially to disciple them when they were young but who are not yet mature enough to be able to disciple others. I often find them quick-off-the-draw-ready with a forceful and sophisticated critique of most any traditional religious belief or practice.

They can be sadly flummoxed, however, by a simple request to explain what is true. If I wonder, “What are some problems with the doctrine of the atonement?” hands fly up all over the room, but if I straightforwardly ask, “What is the gospel?” the room falls strangely silent, and I find myself staring at rows of students quietly avoiding making eye contact.

To sketch what the gospel is would be to risk a rough draft that someone else would get the joy of critiquing; it would be to express a childlike faith; it would be to do the work of parenting…

Opened Ears and Loosened Tongues

Biblical Text: Mark 7:31-37
Full Draft of Sermon

It was rally day at church this week. For those who might not know, that is the day we install the Sunday School teachers for the year and try and “rally” everyone back from the summer’s diversion.

It also turns into something of a mission festival. Rally Day doesn’t just issue a call to return to church, but issues a call to be witnesses. The lesson is the healing of a deaf and mute man. Jesus’ miracles, in John’s gospel called signs, almost always point to something greater. They might be signs of his being the messiah. They might be signs point to his Godhood. They might also be signs of the disciples or our own spiritual state, or our calling. I think that is what is happening with this miracle. It does function as a sign to Jesus being the messiah. That is why the OT Isaiah lesson was matched up with this Gospel text. But in the context – which the sermon proclaims – they are also a sign to the opening of new ears and a call for tongues to the loosened. Rally Day calls for ears to be opened – come back to the sabbath and the Word. Rally Day also calls for tongues to be loosened – teachers installed and witness in the community renewed.

When ears have been opened, not even Jesus could stop tongues from proclaiming the grace received. That is the call to us. Are our ears open? Are our tongues ready to proclaim?

Bible Study Fragment…

Our Thursday morning bible study is a great group. For an idea of the maturity they have, when I said I was doing a small catechism class for new members, they said “why don’t we do that as well”. Paraphrasing Luther, always returning to the basics or the seeds of faith, is fruitful, because we have not mastered even such trifles.

We are on the 10 commandments. We spent the last couple of classes on some basic theology – law & gospel, revelation, scripture (and those tougher words authority and inspiration). The point is to make clear how we read the bible and how we make the claims that we do based upon it. But today we got to the commandments themselves. And Luther’s explanation to the first commandment is a tiny treasure. “We should fear, love and trust God above all things.”

All sins are ultimately a trespass of the first, but Luther in the Larger Catechism expands on his explanation. In that expansion he writes, “the heathen really make their self-invented notions and dreams of God an idol…so it is with all idolatry. For it happens not merely by erecting an image and worshiping it, but rather it happens in the heart. For the heart stands gaping at something else…” We all worship something. We all have something, maybe multiple things, which we fear, love and trust above other things. Even the atheist. The atheist fears the idea of God more than God himself. Our age, as the older song says, “has fallen in love with love” without hearing the next line “is playing the fool.” The list of idols of the heart is endless. Cranmer gets at the same thing when he writes, “what the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

God’s Word succinctly captured in Luther’s simple catechism, is a great tool to knock down those idols. Examine yourself (2 Cor 3:15). What do we fear, love and trust above God? Then look to the cross. Look at Jesus there. Is there anything more precious? The judgement and love and trust of God rolled into one man. Judgement of sin brought our release. Love willing took that judgement while we wandered. Jesus trusted his Father that injustice would not stand, and he was raised first to new life and now to the right hand of God. Fear, Love and trust God above all things.