Category Archives: cross

What Temptation Tells Us About the Good Life

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Biblical Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Full Draft of Sermon

We had a technical mishap, so I’ll re-record the sermon probably tomorrow.

Sermon Uploaded, although no hymn or biblical text preceding, so you might want to read the biblical text on the temptation of Christ.

I’m not sure there is a bigger divide between the orthodox faith and modernity than on the direction of the good life. Modernity in its many forms points you inward to finding your best and authentic self. In this sermon I pick on Maslow’s hierarchy and the idea of self-actualization, but there are other theories that say similar things. The faith has always said roughly three things: 1) your natural self is deceived or blind and couldn’t know what the good life is, 2) the good life revealed in Jesus is directed not toward self-actualization but toward God and neighbor, and 3) we are given eyes to see through the work of Jesus and the Spirit primarily through the revelation of the Word. The temptation of Jesus, as this sermon will proclaim, is part of the defeat of the devil for us, and a revelation of the road we also must face and walk.

Seeing the Vision – Transfiguration Sunday

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Biblical Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the transfiguration which is described as a vision. But it is a vision that ends with a strange warning – “say nothing until the Son of Man is risen from the dead”. The full vision is that God is present both in the glory and the cross. You can’t see it if you are only looking at on. Embedded in the sermon is a homily written by friend and fellow Pastor David Hess currently in hospice. Through his reflections and witness we get invite to “see” the vision.

“The creation and sustenance of communities in which virtue can be practiced and taught”

That title phrase is stolen from this Rod Dreher post. Rod likes to talk about the Benedict option, which refers to St. Benedict the founder of western monasticism. When he talks about the Benedict option or a new Benedict, which he took from Philosopher Alastair MacIntyre, he is not talking about physical retreat so much as cultural retreat for the purpose of the title. The larger culture does not practice or value virtue. Things that orthodox Christianity would teach as virtues, such as chastity, are almost vices to the world. Hence the need for Benedict.

Here is where this crosses with 1 Corinthians 5:1ff which we have been studying in Bible Class, and how it crosses a generation gap and causes great angst. Paul, three times in that chapter, tells the Corinthian church to regulate itself by throwing the immoral brother out. The church is a community that practices and teaches virtue. By disregarding it, by allowing public vice, that community is destroyed. If the person repents and changes their life, the community is not destroyed, because that is the nature of practice in a fallen world. But if the person persists in such activity, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”.

In order to create and sustain such a community, that community must be able to publicly say this person by their actions has placed themselves outside the community, and they have refused to repent. We have no judgment over those outside. God judges. But those inside are under the authority of the church. For a long time this was all very theoretical stuff. The church and the larger society were roughly overlapping circles, or that was the fiction at any rate. We were part of Christendom. The only people it didn’t apply to were those who had publicly opted out like Jews or the village atheist. So any suggestion that someone who wasn’t one of those two is outside the church gets taken as raving lunacy. It shouldn’t be, because we no longer live in the time of Christendom. The orthodox church is a much smaller circle within a neo-pagan society which includes entities that claim to be church but are not. In other words we are much closer to the Apostle Paul’s Corinth than we are to the American church of 1950. Continuing to practice the conventional wisdom of the church of that era today always ends in grief.

Christ the King whose Throne is the Cross

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Biblical Text: Luke 23:27-43
Full Draft of Sermon

The last Sunday of the Church year (today) is often called Christ the King Sunday. The appointed reading from Luke is the crucifixion. I usually dodge preaching directly on this text. For those who have been around Holy Week at St. Mark’s, Good Friday has been our collective reading of the passion text. We let the gospel preach itself in our midst. If you can’t be moved by the text itself…what am I going to say. I couldn’t dodge it today, but today compared to Good Friday the purpose is slightly different. Good Friday is more about the lens of atonement – the cross as what buys our salvation. Christ the King is about the revelation of the God. When we say Jesus is Lord, what kind of King or Lord do we have. It is that word – King – that the text can tell us about. “There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’”. It is here, at the place of the skull, we are to see most clearly, to learn the type of King we have.

This sermon looks at the text and application to our knowledge and lives through looking at three pictures that are concluded by memorable phrases of the gospel.
1) For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.
2) The mocking contrasted with the criminal’s – “remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
3) And Jesus’ words from the cross – “today, you will be with me in paradise.”
So, what what this sermon does is invite you to ponder three pictures or three phrases.

Ruminations

I usually try and write something at least every other day, but this week it just didn’t really make it to print.

Things tended to come as short intuitive blips, but of the sort that even investing 2000 words, you knew you could illustrate the point, but it wouldn’t make a difference.

For example, take the Casino amendment I commented on prior to the election. Predictably it passed although I was heartened that(just)over 50% of the people in our voting vicinity realized the problem. The libertine wave in America is just too strong. I quickly wrote my underlying intuition as: the libertine wave in America is all about bondage, but not in the way you are thinking. American liberty was traditionally about life and the pursuit of happiness which was tightly bound to the virtuous life. As late as Mr. Smith goes to Washington or almost any Jimmy Stuart movie, it is about the happiness that comes from being a moral or virtuous person, even when the virtue leads to apparent worldly loss. Yes, Hollywood would tack on happy endings mitigating the message, but those happy endings were reflections of the Christian afterlife. The Hollywood equivalent of paying your kid 10% a month interest on their bank account to encourage savings. But gambling, pot, abortion and any of the other “liberties” that we are consistently creating or voting ourselves are not about the life of virtue. They are about hiding from the hard path. They are about wallowing in our propensity to messing things up. We are demanding the liberty to engage in vice and not be called on it. And vice is always about slavery. Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). We as a nation still have money to spend. We are not yet looking at pig’s food thinking that looks good. And our “friends” (i.e. our government) is busy enabling our squalor.

Likewise, Mollie Hemingway captured what I think is a defining number. The GOP VA governor candidate Ken Cuccinelli won married women by 8 pts, but lost unmarried by 42 pts. He actually did better with married women than married men. You can either have a culture that encourages virtue, which will have a high number of those married women and their husbands, or you will have a culture that enables vice. You have a culture of liberty, or you have a libertine culture. A libertine culture need two things: 1) someone to help pay for the effects of such a lifestyle and 2) someone to tell you it is ok to keep the party going and quiet dissenting voices.

It isn’t the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation that regardless of your success or failure at pursuing virtue, Jesus Christ has granted you the victory. You don’t earn it, you receive it. But virtue is still important. And the toughest part is that as a Christian you are called to it, even when the world around is going in the opposite direction. You are salt and light. You are light even when the world prefers darkness.

Book Review – Angry Conversations with God by Susan Issacs

Some of you might know, I have a minor hobby of writing book reviews on Amazon.  Hobby is stretching it, because my filter for writing reviews is rather thick.  The first filter is simply how many reviews have already been written and can I add anything.  I’m pompous enough to think I can write a very good review, but if there are already 100′s to 1000′s, why?   In the same way, if it isn’t in a subject from my expertise, why would I comment?  The second layer of that filter is I really only review books where I can in good conscience give five stars or give one star.  I prefer calling out excellent books.  And that doesn’t mean books that I always agree with.  What it means is books that are worth the investment of time.  If I happen to stumble across a book that makes me say “I want that 10 hours of my life back”, I will also write that review.  The last niche is, I guess, because I’ve written enough quality reviews I’ve been included on the Amazon Vine.  If Amazon sends me something for free, I review it.  It is part of the deal.

Susan Issacs BookI don’t always post my reviews here.  Sometimes, like with Pastrix, the review here is a longer or more personal form.  This one is just straight up.

This had been on my radar for a while, and then it popped up on sale for the kindle for $2.99.  As of this writing, it is still at that price, link here.  What follows is my review which I gave a hardy 5 stars.

Susan Isaacs has written a very good book.  It is both an entertaining read and surprisingly deep.  The reviewer’s question is how to describe that.

First the author is primarily an actress or even more narrowly a sketch comedic actress with serious improv skills.  That background is the ground of why this book is so entertaining.  It is not a traditional narrative nor does it have unduly long and introspective sections.  The author’s command of what is the core emotional point, where is the heart-rending funny and quick pacing keep the book moving and entertaining.

The surprising depth comes from two points.  The first is that the author, like any great comedian, is unflinching when going for the jugular.  What makes that amazing is the she is going after God’s jugular and her own.  In mythical language this is a modern day Jacob wrestling with God through the night.  The second depth is that even though this is the tale of “middle-class white girl problems” as the author calls it, they are her problems and they force what Christianity would call a dark night of the soul.  The humor of that juxtaposition is not lost on the author, but she tells her story with such vim and pathos that you recognize the universal condition.  At one point she summarizes her problem as “the man who’s stuck in the desert because God put him there looks exactly like the man who’s stuck in the desert because he’s lost.  And I don’t know which one I am.  I don’t know if I’m here to find friendship with God, or if I’ve been left to die (loc 2924).”

What starts as a potential cliché of marriage counseling with God becomes a lively and deeply honest wrestling.  Does this faith that the author has carried since childhood as a gift from her mother die, or is it cleansed, renewed and blessed?  What emerges from the book is both a picture of a mature and maturing faith and a highly personal and living faith.  And that is hidden in, with and under the form of a funny read.

Reformation Day – Hero or Human?

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Biblical Texts: Rev 14:6-7, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Full Sermon Draft

Reformation Day to me is always a tough day to preach. For all my formative years and if any of the examples that I sampled this week are representative, the general approach to Reformation Day is full on Triumphalism and spiking of the football. And it is not that I can’t or won’t defend my side. I think Luther in particular and the reformers in general were right on a lot more than they were wrong. But if there is one thing that the gospel doesn’t really accept it is heroes. We have heroes of the faith, usually called saints, but ask why they are saints. Many of them are martyrs with a subset dying gruesomely. The next batch are those dedicated to outcasts – like the priests in leper colonies or Mother Teresa among the untouchables. There are the scholars and teachers and theologians. They often avoided the deaths, but the exchange seems to be that the society around them was passing away (c/r Augustine). Usually the equivalent of the Chinese toast, “may you live in interesting times”. What gets you on the list of the Saints is not usually someone confused with “winning”. The more we make a Hero out of Luther or the Reformers, the less they actually have to instruct us. The more we make them great men and women, the less we allow them to influence us.

Not an argument to tear them down or deconstruct them or even psycho-analyze them (although I suppose I do a little of that). The argument is to see them in context – fully human. When we do that, it is not bringing them down to our level, because according to the law we are already all on the same level – in deep trouble. But when we allow them to human, we are set free. We can admit the flaws (repent) and accept the grace. Both for them, and for us; both for their impossible circumstances, and for ours. We can hope to mend what was broken instead of building monuments. One of Luther’s most famous lines for theologians is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” It is the harder road, but you don’t get real glory without walking through Calvary.

John Calvin, Baseball Fan

interference

We have a natural tendency to mess things up. We can’t help it. Even when we think we are doing good we very likely are in the midst of mortal sin, or at least the next royal mess. Everything from bringing democracy to the middle east to expanding healthcare, from trying to comfort a friend to advising daughters on boyfriends. Intentions are rarely bad. And we can imagine a universe where this goes well. We just don’t happen to live in that universe. We don’t get to make clean choices and pick between good and evil. We don’t see that well. Most of our choices are actually between bad and worse. Welcome to the triage center known as a fallen world. And just because we didn’t intend to, doesn’t let us off the hook. We are morally culpable – sometimes to the third and forth generations.

Sometimes two great plays lead to a limp off loss in the World Series.

But unlike Boston, whose only recourse is game 4, we have Hope. The law is not the final word. The righteousness of God is by Grace.

Two Great Business Metaphors for the Law and the Gospel

Without Pants.I’m only about 100 pages into it, but This is a Great Story. It is about the company and the coders behind WordPress. If you don’t know what WordPress is they might even take that as a compliment. Right now, something like 20% of the internet, including this website, functions on WordPress. The program or content management system is GPL which means it is free and anyone can look at and use the code. Usually you get what you pay for, but WordPress is different. (I’ve been playing with it since they were calling releases by great jazz musicians. Once upon a time I had some skills to mess with the code. Alas, no longer.)

Anyway, two great quotes in the first 100 pages. One, the author is doing the George Plimpton (Paper Lion), and actually working a job at the company. The company starts everyone for a month in customer service working on bugs. Everything done is captured. Tickets worked, posts made, hours spent and it all turns into one great leader board (or loser board) if you are at the low end. This is a great description of the theological law at work…

It actually felt great, for the first week, when I helped someone. It was like unblocking a little stream so the happy little fish could swim on. Every closed ticket gave me the sense that things were a little more right in the world. But as weeks wore on, my resentment grew. Even with tickets that required ingenuity to figure out or to explain, it bothered me that only one person would benefit from my effort. And when that person succeeded because of my work, he or she would throw it away and never look at it again. There was no motivation for me to do great work, only good work….writing tickets was the opposite proposition of effort, and with each day, my morale declined.

We can’t keep the law. When everything we do it tracked and always before us, even the good we do becomes negative. We turn from doing the work to figuring out how to game the work good enough or lower the expectation. WordPress as a company seems to get around that problem of the law by two ways. One is the sense of mission which the gospel quote will capture. The second is the company culture embodies transparency as the anti-witch hunt. We are all guilty and have fallen short. That would be apparent looking at everybody’s stats which are available from everyone from new hire to CEO. “At least at Automatic, the rules were clear and fair, everyone, not just executives, had access.” Everything that is hidden will be revealed in the age to come (Matt 10:26).

The gospel according to WordPress:

In August 2005 he asked three well-known volunteer programmers from the WordPress community to quit their jobs and join Mullenweg’s bootstrapped new company. He was completely honest: he told them there was no venture capital firm behind them and fully admitted that at age twenty-one, he had no experience doing any of what he was about to do. He also reminded them that the core philosophy of this corporation would be open source, which made it all sound even crazier, as it would mean they’d use a GPL license on all the code for everything they made. They said yes, and work began.

Hey, this is a path to the cross, come along and die. Ok, sign me up. We’ll figure it out on the way to Jerusalem.

End of an Age – Couple of Stray Thoughts & Elder Discussions

lot-leavingI’m just back from one of the best pastor’s conferences I’ve been too and I’m still thinking on some of those items. The most amazing thing is that for the first time I actually heard back some of what I’ve been seeing and experiencing. The pastors, at least the presenters, have taken a decidedly theological turn. If in the past I’ve felt that much of these conferences have been about forms of therapy, the sense of trouble has risen to the point we are talking about serious things in a serious way. I don’t want to bash therapy too much, but if you take Jesse on Breaking Bad as the current culture, therapy is about acceptance. There are things you accept, and there are things that your don’t. As Jesse breaks down in “Problem Dog”, “do you accept that?” The whispered answer is no. Sin is not acceptable, but it is forgivable. The church is in the absolution business, not the acceptance business. We’ve been hiding that for too long. And of course absolution only works if you believe that Jesus Christ has the power to forgive sins. That is the deep difference. Therapy can be broader. You can make people without any faith feel better for a time with therapy. Real freedom and joy requires faith.

The LCMS likes to say that we are a confessional church. Yes, there are the ultra-confessionals for whom nobody is confessional enough. But even they serve a purpose. They are the first to spot things that we should consider. They are standing on a wall issuing warnings and taking the flack for making us uncomfortable. But at its core, to be a confessional church means what each portion of the Formula of Concord starts out with – “we believe teach and confess…”. Our experience of the risen savior Jesus Christ and our wrestling with his word, sometimes all the long night, have lead us to say these things are true. Building your life on these things is building your life on the Rock. When tides or tempest rise these things are a solid foundation that will not be moved. Getting back to Jesus, what confessing the confession means here is that we believe not just in a name Jesus, but a person who lived among us, taught us and sent apostles. The revelation of God is a thick one and not a thin veneer. And we were made to find it out (Prov 25:2).

While away, Rod Dreher had a couple of thoughts in the same vein. The release of an every 10 year study of American Jews was the source point. These are the two posts: post 1, post 2. I wanted to quote a couple of things. The first from his reflection of practicing the faith.

I’m seeing the seeds of this within the Orthodox Christianity we practice. Our pastor says that if we don’t come to vespers on Saturday night, we are not to present ourselves for communion on Sunday morning. The idea is that you should prepare yourself spiritually for the central event of your week. It’s hard to do, in the sense that from 6pm until about 7:10 every Saturday night, you are in church for evening prayer. I had to leave watching the LSU-Georgia game last weekend in the fourth quarter to make it to vespers on time. This was not fun! I did not want to do this! But it shows one’s children, and oneself, what it is to make church a priority. I’m by no means totally consistent on this, but I’m better than I was, and God willing, will be more faithful next year. The point is that it’s a practice that sets one’s community apart…Now, do I think fasting and vespers are essential to one’s salvation? No, not directly. As our priest reminds us about fasting, “This is medicine.” That is, it’s meant not as a punishment, but as an aid to holiness. Learning to deny oneself is part of acquiring salvation, certainly, and preparing oneself property for Holy Communion is as well. The point I’m trying to make here is that I don’t believe that God is not especially interested in us following specific rules. What He is interested in is our faithfulness to Him. Over time, I’ve come to see how these practices bring us closer to Him by reinforcing in us the fact — or what must become a fact — that He is our God and we are His people. It doesn’t really matter that you can’t eat a steak on Friday night, or go to the ball game on Saturday evening. What matters about that is that you have made obedience to God such a priority in your life that you are willing to sacrifice those good things for His sake. If you are part of a family and a community that practices these sorts of things, it seems to me that they really will move you closer to a conversion of the heart. After all, as a minority faith within American culture, you have to really believe this stuff in order to fast as the Orthodox church requires you to fast (and many Orthodox do not, let me be clear).

The second is the reflection that leads to some of the Elder Board discussions we have had and what I would credit the renewed seriousness of the pastors meetings to.

To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if you don’t push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you, you are going to find yourself shoved to the margins. In the future, Jews will be Orthodox, or they won’t be at all. In the future, Christians will be some form of small-o orthodoxy — Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — or they won’t be either. The pressures to assimilate are just too strong for a go-along-to-get-along faith.

Nobody wants to hear that, but it’s hard to argue with the trajectory of religious belief and identity across generations.

The great commission (Matt 28:18-20) is to make disciples. We make disciples by baptizing and teaching. And in something that I’d say is characteristic of Jesus, we are given the tools and told to go use them. We are not given exact ways to do this. Go wrestle with it. A big part of my experience in the last five years is that the culture wants us to 100% baptize and 0% teach. They want the rite of passage, but they don’t really want to hear or understand much less live what it is about. I’ve argued, at a much more lenient place than Mr. Dreher’s Orthodox Priest about Saturday prayer in preparation for Sunday Communion, that preparation for the sacrament of baptism is appropriate. I’ve argued that we need to push back against the culture a little harder. Does that preparation ensure anything, especially the efficacy of baptism – no. The Spirit does what he wants. But this side of baptism we co-operate with the Spirit in living the Christian life. We can oppose the Spirit – despising His gifts of Word and Sacrament. Or we can put to death the flesh and our sinful nature so that the new man would arise. And that is the Spiritual truth behind Rod’s conclusions. Only things that die get to rise. Only when you’ve lost your life are you given a new one (Matt 16:25). Or said another way – those who have, more will be given, those who have not, even what they have will be taken away (Luke 19:16). Go-along-to-get-along faith, vast swaths of American Christianity, don’t want to experience that death. They are afraid of it. Let us hold on to a little of this life. Let us turn our heads for one last look at Sodom. They offer therapy. A confessional church, a confessional people, are about absolution…are about living into the Kingdom of God