Category Archives: cross

The Beginning of God’s Story

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Biblical Text: Mark 1:1-8
draft 1.0

You could say it is one of my pet theories of the bible – the order of seeing and believing. Most moderns would emphatically say that sight leads to correct belief. (And hence the high priests of modernity sneer at Christ.) I think the reality is that faith or believing comes first. What we believe about the world influences what we see. And let me extend that further, I think that having a solid ground (i.e. Christ/God) is very important to having a good grip on truth overall. Without Christ we are much more likely to see all kinds of non-truth as truth. (I get that from Romans 1 FYI.)

I don’t expound on it often because: a) the culture believes just the opposite so b) it is hard to get solid accepted examples for such a mystical point. But this sermon is an attempt at just that because the immediate past has three examples of belief influencing sight, some very poorly.

The core of the problem is that false belief is always an attempt to justify ourselves (and demonize the other). The secure ground is what John the Baptist proclaimed as the beginning of the good news – a baptism of repentance. God’s story refuses to divide us; we are all sinners. God’s story refuses to divide us; we are all saved not by our acts or the law but by the acts of God. God’s story isn’t pretty or immediately believable. It just happens to be true good news.

You say po-tay-toe, I say po-ta-toe

For a long time the various church bodies shared more than they disagreed. The core of this really is the Nicene Creed. The various churches have different sacramental practices and ecclesial structures, but in beliefs, even the non-creedal churches, they believed the ancient creeds. The spillover effect of this in the West was that even if splintered the idea of Christendom was just observable enough to continue granting mutual recognition to each other’s ceremonies and rites. What this meant at a practical level was that one church never questioned the baptism of another church unless that baptism was by a clear cult like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Marriages were universally assumed to be valid. Yes, the argument could be heated and real, but they might have been so because the differences were so small.

Looking at the world today things are not as clear. What the state means by marriage is no longer what the church means by marriage. The church will have to deal with that in some manner. The first step in dealing with it is simply admitting it. Likewise within the church recognizing a baptism is tougher. It is not uncommon to find churches baptizing in the name of the creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Is that the same God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that Christ told his disciples to baptize into? Of course there are the fringe churches within mainline denominations that substitute mother, friend and comforter. In each case the form of the triune God is hinted at, but is that the substance or is a different god and a different gospel at work in those waters?

Two generations ago if a church body expressed something it stood for the body. Today, that might not be the case. We have pretended it still held for a generation, early on it was a “no, they can’t really be doing that” while later it was more a conscious looking away like Sgt. Schulz (“I see nothing”). And that is simply within church bodies. What about the thousands of free standing “non-denoms”? You used to be able to assume they were Baptists, but today many of them are prosperity gospel-ers of various stripes. When the Nicene Creed which testifies to Christ “who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried” is replaced with health and wealth, are sacraments valid? Can they be?

These questions go beyond the ancient questions about sacraments performed by a priest who later caved to Roman persecution. The ancient church held those sacraments valid because their source was clear. The status of the preacher’s faith does not impact them. But what about when the God invoked is Christ, but not any Christ that the church has known for 2000 years?

Again, I think we are just waking up to a world where things that have been assumed can no longer be taken for granted. The first step is admitting the changes that have happened. I wanted to share some of the articles that spur these thoughts.

This is Ross Douthat bringing up the idea that the church could decide that marriage laws in many countries no longer fit the pattern for valid natural marriage.

This isn’t the church, but “What Happens when your Rabbi decides He’s Gay”? The work is a piece of assertion and propaganda attempting to state “this is what all good people will think”, but it places the fundamental question of identity. Do I find my identity in God (Christ), or are there other things that are allowed to take precedent, like my view of my sexuality? What is the place of the law in the life of the believer?

This is the inverse of that situation, a woman who believes in the Catholic teaching of marriage but finds herself outside. Here plea is don’t accept what I am, but continue proclaiming the truth.

The last two are political and religious poles that I think help point the way forward. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post calling marriage amendment backers “snake oil salesmen”. I think she is right. But accepting that means accepting that we the church must change how we act. And this is a call about one of the ways that parishes could be re-organized to address the problem.

The apostle Paul would write that we have no business judging those outside the church, but those inside are our responsibility (1 Cor 5:12-13). I guess I see the current moment as a Joshua moment. You do what you want, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. That starts with subtly and civilly declining to accept and use bad definitions of sacraments. The benefit of the doubt is no longer granted.

Fake and Real

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Biblical Text: Matthew 11:25-30, Romans 7:14-25
Full Sermon Draft

I guess this is the cliche/classic “what I did on my vacation” sermon. It centers around the contrast between father and son and the son’s surprising statement that re-centers the entire experience between fake and real, between (pseudo-) law and grace.

Some thoughts on church meditating on Bonhoeffer…

MysticalChurch

“How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe; only the obedient believe.” …The Cost of Discipleship

This is the hard starting place for this generation. We hear lots of talk and angst and desire for community but rarely find it. We rarely find it because we are rarely obedient. There is a parallel within marriages or should I say our couplings. We withdraw. They can have our bodies, but not our hearts. They can have our presence, but not our attention. They can have our acts, but not our being. We have committed adultery before even opening our eyes. Likewise we are weak in faith and unbelieving because we will not be obedient to the Word. We do not keep the Sabbath, yet expect the Word to be present on demand. We keep a Sabbath mentally, but harden our hearts to our neighbors. Or keep it with our hearts, but stay our hands. We will not have a true husband or wife withdrawing a part of ourselves, likewise we will not have an ecclesia, a church, withdrawing ourselves. Thanksgiving precedes the miracle, obedience precedes the blessing. To those who have more will be given, but to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.

“The community of the saints is not an “ideal” community consisting of perfect and sinless men and women, where there is no need of further repentance. No, it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel of forgiveness by constantly and sincerely proclaiming God’s forgiveness…Sanctification means driving out the world from the Church as well as separating the Church from the world. But the purpose of such discipline is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.” ..The Cost of Discipleship

“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” …Life Together

If the devil cannot convince you to withdraw from the church before ever really being part of her, he will try the opposite course, to push you through to the other side. The quickest way to accomplish this is to convince you that this group of people you have turned yourself over too isn’t worthy of that offering. This works as one of those brilliant almost truths because the church and that specific church in and of itself is not worthy. They are not worthy because those gathered are sinners. The church will break your heart. It might even rip you limb from limb. It might even put you on a cross. That is what it did to the one you follow. The chief priests and the leaders of the people handed him over to be crucified. The lie that resides in the midst of the devil’s truth is that he has stolen the mirror. When you see a bunch of sinners, we should see our own reflection. Our churches have become devoid of the mirror. Which leads many of us to react like Bonhoeffer’s horrified righteous. We remain alone either because we leave that gathering of sinners, or because we become expert at helping our enemy hide the mirror.

The authentic community is a gathering of lepers who have come for the cure. “You sins are forgiven, go and sin no more”. Yes we will sin again. And we return again and hear the same words – 70 x 7. The authentic church gathers to hear both the healing and the charge. In the healing she finds her strength. In the charge she finds her hope. It will not always be this way, because hope will give way to fulfillment. The perishable will put on the imperishable. The corrupt will receive the incorruptible.

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” …Life Together

Bonhoeffer here captures some of the shallow and rocky points to which the devil can drive us where faith can be shipwrecked. We can see four of these shallow points prominent in the American church of today. We are afraid of being alone or of solitude so regardless of confession or creed gather together under “non-denominational” banners. These gatherings often happen to be the largest because we are afraid of solitude. Not that the smaller church is truly solitude, but because we have no firm words to stand up we need the mass of feeling. The feeling provided by amplified music, lightshows, choreography and well-honed rhetoric often devoid of actual substance. That is the typical mood affiliation of the modern right(eous). Likewise there is a mood affiliation of the modern left that also rejects words for the warm fellow feeling of those who truly “love”. Because of being afraid of being alone the definition of “love” is so broad as to encompass those outside of the church as if they were members of the body. There also exist those who afraid of solitude conjure up the communion of saints through words. Not that the words are wrong or that the communion of saints is false, but we are not after the real content of the words, just the fellowship with an entity we invoke with words we do not understand. Those are the three shallows of the modern church, but a fourth exists on its periphery – in the narthex and the site of baptism but not in communion. The forth shallow are those who refuse the fellowship opting for the vanity of personal spirituality. The sole purpose of such an unconnected faith is to substitute the true body of Christ with a body that looks more and more like ourselves every passing day. Such a love affair can go on for a long time, but meets a rude end when on the death bed this body proves unable to save.

These are the shallows we are called to recognize and avoid. The life of the church is one of feast and fast, of fellowship and of solitude. We believe with the heart and confess with the tongue. We do not neglect to gather, yet we also ensure that we have our own oil and examine ourselves.

“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” …Life Together

The last peril is actually believing that such a place deserving of our love exists this side of the Kingdom. Even Ephesus was recalled to their first love. Philadelphia kept the word but had little strength. This is one part of what it means to be Christlike. Seeing the manifold faults of the church that separate her from our dream community, we love her as Christ loved her. As long as we are with-holding ourselves for our dream community we will continue to persecute the church as she actually is. It is only love, which covers a multitude of sins, that knows fully. Christ has fully loved the church and knows her fully. Can we say to the member that Christ has washed “I have no need of you”? There is a still more excellent way that everyday creates and abides forever.

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.