Category Archives: grace

Thoughts on a Papal Visit

And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. – Luke. 12:11-12

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me – Acts 26:25-29

It might be slightly odd for a Lutheran pledged to the Lutheran Confessions, which call the Papacy the antichrist, to be interested in what a Pope says or does. Well, there is always a fascination with the anti-anything, but that is not all the confessions have to say. The same confessions that would call the Pope the antichrist are clear that it isn’t the office as Bishop of Rome that is the problem, but its claims. Bishops are fine human offices, it is when they claim authority beyond what is common to all pastoral offices and do so by claiming the divine name that they function as anti-Christ. (Catechism note 2nd commandment: “we should fear and love God such that we do not…lie or deceive by His name.” The claims of divine authority are a deception through the use of God’s name.) Specifically the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope had three objections: 1) The Pope’s claim by divine right to be above all other bishops and pastors in the church, 2) The Pope’s claim to possess authority in the realms of both Church and state and 3) The Pope’s demands that people acknowledge this authority as a requirement for salvation. The years since Luther have not been humanly kind to that office. Kings and Presidents no longer seek the confirmation of the Pope for their position upon coronation or inauguration, and the Papal States are a single hill in Rome. And the Roman Catechism itself acknowledges that while Luther might be damned as a schismatic, “one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who are born into these communities…the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. (p818)” But the papal claim of being the Vicar of Christ, holding the Keys by divine right, is still front and center. Melanchthon’s short treatise – The Power and Primacy of the Pope – still has some amazing relevance as do many of the Confessional documents with a little thought.

But the real reason I’m thinking about the Pope is his recent trip to our shores. The Pope is probably the only Christian witness that would be invited to address a joint session of Congress after having an audience with the President. When Paul got his dime in front of Caesar, he didn’t waste time. He didn’t argue about Caesar’s tax plan or the Roman welfare system (bread and circuses!). Paul did two things. He proclaimed Christ risen, and he encouraged Caesar to respect his own laws and eyes. Whether it is Peter or Paul or later martyrs (witnesses!) this is a familiar pattern. Both Jesus is Lord and we Christians are your best citizens calling you to respect what is best among you.

The Pope’s recent address to Congress was interesting in that I believe it was effective at the second portion of that pattern. The Pope cited four Americans: Lincoln, MLK, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He used well each of those examples well. And each you could say fit well within this current Pope’s frame of mind of social justice. He wished at the beginning, through Congress, to enter into dialog (which seems to be a favorite word) with all Americans. And through that dialog to spur us to live up to the best of us.

Then I searched through the entire speech. Not one mention of Jesus. The word Christ is never used. The Pope opened with Moses, flattering the assembled legislators that they too are engaged in Moses’ task. But I want to quote that section in full.

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

In one sense it was very appropriate. In a speech to lawmakers, it was all law. The unity of the people depends upon just legislation. Moses leads directly to God which is merely a stand in for the transcendent dignity of the human being. Right there you have the religion of rational man which knows nothing of Christ and faith. If our hopes for unity are in the law, we have none. If our hope for dignity rests upon Congress protecting us by the law, we are already stripped and in bondage.

I longed for Paul’s plain witness to the gospel of Jesus. Moses does not point to God directly other than the hidden God who never answers. The law tells us our need for something beyond it, something truly transcendent. We always fail the law and it never stops accusing. But that failure tells us our need for Jesus. And Jesus has won. Our dignity is not based in being human. Our human dignity is because Jesus took our humanity into God. That humanity is transcendent not by itself but because of the work of Jesus confirmed in the resurrection. Our image of God is cracked by sin, but God restores it in Christ, in baptism and through the indwelling of the Spirit.

Can you imagine a Pope, speaking to the gathered legislators not about a general human spirit, but The Spirit of Christ? An address that called on them to fulfill their vocations as lawmakers in the best American tradition, but also to trust in the grace of Jesus and to empower the body of Christ, the church, to be that grace, instead of shrinking it to a freedom to worship? An address that would make Chuck Schumer run for the nearest camera and say “Did the Pope really think he could so easily convert a NY Jew?”

That is what we are here for. Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me. Whether dialog or road to Damascus, would that you would hear Christ and believe. You are my witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria and the US Congress. Don’t worry, the Holy Spirit has a few good words, and they begin with the name Jesus.

Kids, Sports and Grace

This article got me on edge. Here is a quick quote:

While neighborhood games become increasingly scarce, year-round travel teams have never been more prevalent. The U.S. Specialty Sports Association, the dominant organizing body for travel baseball, said it has around 1.3 million players spread across 80,000 teams, more than double what it had 10 years ago. The company’s website includes national rankings for teams in age groups that begin at “4 and under.”

Ismael Gonzalez, who manages the Miami-based 9-and-under team MVP Juniors Elite, said his team travels throughout the Southeast, playing more than 100 games a year and practicing two or three days a week. “These kids work like machines,” he said. “This is not just for fun. This is their lifestyle.”

That is child abuse. I don’t remember playing organized sports other than baseball before 7th grade. In High School I played a sport each season. I loved Basketball, but the thought of playing nothing but would drive me crazy. This is the hard saying nobody wants to hear. If your kid is going to make the big leagues in any sport, the level of innate physical talent, usually speed, is such that they will make it dedicating themselves to it starting in High School or later. If they aren’t going to make it, it doesn’t matter how early they specialize, they aren’t going to make it.

The problem with many rec leagues is that the zealots have taken over. The casual league is managed and run with the express purpose of giving travel teams free reign and developing a star player. That is not the purpose of rec leagues or rec facilities. The purpose is to give the average kid something to do for a few hours other than play x-box. To learn the love of being part of a team. To learn that just playing, win or lose, is valued and important. (Not that winning isn’t more fun.)

There are a couple of interesting theological ideas playing out here. The first is the freedom that the idea of election actually gives. Theologically election might be expressed in the biblical phrase, “those that have more will be given, those that have not even what they have will be taken away (Matt 25:29).” Knowing that God gets what God wants or that “my sheep hear my voice” takes the burden off our effort and allows for grace. Baseball wise, little league is not going to make or break a future big leaguer. When you reject election, it is all on you. When it is all on you, life gets out of whack and grace disappears. The second is that the law always accuses. When grace has been abandoned for the law alone, baseball wise when leagues are run for producing the future hall of famer, all who don’t measure up to that level are condemned. The law is unyielding. What grace does is not take away the chance to be a hall of famer, we still have saints. What it does is say is play it for love.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Metaphysics

This is an article by a former High School classmate of mine and it addresses in a calm clear way the reality of AI. And it treads, without knowing it, on a pet theory of mine. That pet theory is that most of what causes us angst and trouble today is simply that we have un-learned basic metaphysics. Big word, I know, but it shouldn’t be scary because we all have a metaphysic. Metaphysics is simply what we believe about being, consciousness and purpose or will. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we think, and why do we seem to share the same world? Are we pointed toward something, or just random cause and effect chains governed by butterflies in China?

None of those questions are directly about the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Lutheran terms they are all about the law. The first use of the law we usually teach catechism students is a curb or the civil use. This is one of the places I like using a sports metaphor. The basic law is the out-of-bounds lines. The game takes place within these lines. The first table or the first three commandments really cover this ground in a specific way from revelation. Why is there something rather than nothing? You shall have no other gods before me. God made it. Why are we conscious and seem to share an existence? This might be the biggest stretch, but the second commandment is about the name of God. Don’t misuse it. The name of God is taken as shorthand for his essence and attributes which in Christ he shares with us. We think because we were thought. In Him, we live and move and have our being. Don’t abuse this image of God given to you by grace. Are we pointed toward something? Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Yes, we are pointed toward the joy of God, that day of the perfection of all creation.

Now specifically the short post is about AI and the fears of it. The fears could be summed up in one word, Skynet. (Or maybe today I have to use Ultron. I’m getting old.) The problem with this, and the entire “singularity” movement, of which I take the pinnacle to be the “uploading” of your consciousness to a non-organic based body, is that they confuse intelligence with consciousness and purpose. We encounter this problem all the time with the law. We can know what the law says, but that doesn’t mean we live it. Intelligence is not either consciousness or will. Watson can beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy, but Watson’s will is still directed by those programmers. Watson doesn’t have any self-conception of itself. Of these three first things: being, consciousness and bliss/purpose, we humans have zero power to make any of them. We come the closest with being. We can create new things out of the stuff that already exists. We can fashion artificial intelligence, even AI that might pass a strong Turing test. But these are always going to be things made in our image. To steal a title, they are children of a lessor god. Or tapping into the zeitgeist, I bet we can make zombies, but zombies don’t have consciousness or will.

I’m not afraid of Skynet. I’m more afraid of the distilled consciousness and will of the programmers of these AIs. That these intelligences would behave more like our crooked timber than we would like. And they wouldn’t do it because they chose to. They would do it because we told them to. That we don’t know what we are doing. But that is not a new problem. That is the same problem we’ve always had, except the nails in the boards are getting bigger. The load on the cross is beyond our comprehension.

(Note: I’m a theist. Hard core philosophical materialists have answers to being, consciousness and bliss/purpose. I just find them severely lacking. Good thinking on First Things is like a coarse adjustment. It gets you in the right ballpark so you aren’t playing football on a baseball field.)

The Keys of Grace

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Biblical Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Full Sermon Draft

Jesus’ predictions of His passion each elicit responses by the disciples. Those response are often quite telling. They highlight some false idea which the disciples are clinging to. But there is something else that swirls around the first two – Jesus offering what the church calls the Keys. What you bind is bound and what you loose is loosed. The first offer of the Keys leads to the passion prediction which Peter responds roughly “not going to happen”. In this second passion prediction Peter doesn’t directly confront Jesus, but in this sermon’s conceit starts succession planning. The sermon of Jesus that follows talks about what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like which is nothing to start succession planning over. Instead of leading with the offer, Jesus ends with the offer of the Keys. His followers will be humble or childlike or little enough to not demand the law or their due with each other. The church instead is based on confession and absolution. The church is based on offering and receiving grace.

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.

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This is a test.  You know that time when you accidentally move your main directory because of fat fingers on the touch pad?  Yeah, well.  Hopefully this w

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Daily Lectionary Podcast – Ezekiel 33:1-20 and Romans 3:1-18

Ezekiel 33:1-20
Romans 3:1-18
Second Use of the Law, A Low Anthropology

A Political Act

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Biblical Text: Matt 21:1-11
Full Sermon Text

The text for the first Sunday in Advent always seems a little off. There is an alternate to the Palm Sunday Triumphant entry, so I had to check if that was because this was a change in the appointed readings that went along with changing Palm Sunday proper to Sunday of the Passion. But that is not the case. I guess someone else just had the same odd feeling that you don’t expect to show up in Advent and hear Palm Sunday.

But the text actually establishes the time. Jesus is committing a political act declaring himself a king. But not like any King the world would recognize. Neither the Galileans marching him in, nor the residents of Jerusalem, as Matthew makes clear, understand. Both want a messiah of their own making. Not this messiah who comes humbly. Not this messiah who stops to give sight to the blind. Not this messiah who is willing to suffer violence instead of inflicting it.

Nothing has really changed. We still want Jesus in our image. But thankfully we don’t get that. We get a King who comes right now in grace. To those with eyes that have been opened, this kingdom calls us to be its witnesses and its hands. One day this Kingdom will come in glory, but right now, it comes humbly. Through flesh and blood, through word and sacrament.

Happy Thanksgiving

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Here is the message from last night’s service – Collecting the Broken Pieces.

Text: Mark 8:1-9
Introduction

As I looked at the forecast on Monday, one of our staple prayers – “for seasonable weather” – came to mind. And it struck me being a very Christian prayer. It is not for Florida weather in New York, or for Fall weather to continue through Winter. It is for God’s good creation to continue to be good. Lord, for seasonable weather…for things to be as you made them to be.

Trouble in the World

Living in a fallen World – if we aren’t in denial about that fact, if we are at all sensitive to those daily and hourly cracks in creation where it is not as God made it – can sometimes pull us into a spiritual ditch. We can look at the accumulation of cracks in creation and say what a mess. How can God let this continue?
Trouble in the Text

And I think that is part of what the disciples are experiencing in the text we chose. In Mark, there are two mass feeding stories. Jesus has already fed the 5000, not too long ago. Our reading is the second, the feeding of the 4000. The audience is different. The 5000 was a Jewish context. This one is gentile with probably some Samaritans layered in.

To good Jewish boys, like the disciples, they had to be wondering – what is our messiah doing out here. Out here is the problem. Out here is nothing. “How can one feed these people, with bread, here in this desolate place?”
Looking at the cracked world can make one imaging our God is a God of scarcity. It can make us forget the abundance of good that this world, even cracked, still maintains.

Gospel in the Text

But Jesus sets them straight in two ways. First, he gives thanks. Seven loaves…he took them and gave thanks…a few small fish…he blessed them. There is a spiritual resonance…he took, and broke and gave it to them…the very word for thanks is eucharist…but he also fed from what was present.

As Luther wrote, “He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink…and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”

The creation, even cracked, continues with the Father’s goodness and providence…which we rightly give thanks for.
The second way that Jesus sets them straight is in the abundance. The providence and goodness of the Father are not available in small doses parceled out to specific people. The providence and goodness of God the Father is placed freely before all peoples. “He gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they set them before the crowd…and they ate and were satisfied.”

Again spiritual overtones…God is super abundant in his means of grace. But also something very real. The church comes from all tribes and peoples and languages. The disciples daily set Christ before the nations.
The church daily picks up the pieces of this cracked world. And marvels at the abundance of grace in such broken pieces.

Conclusion

Thanksgiving invites us to see the fundamental goodness of God’s providence that cracks can’t fully obscure, and marvel at how his grace redeems the broken pieces. For things as they are, we give thanks. Amen.

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.