Category Archives: Witness

Shoeboxes Packed

Our Women’s Group finished packing their boxes this morning. Had to wait for the last minute arrival of the playing cards and erasers. Although the big thing is the soccer balls and pumps. I hope the kids don’t mind playing with “USA” emblazoned “futballs”. 51 boxes plus the wider congregation has already dropped some others off plus some will come in Sunday. I’d like to thank everyone in the congregation who contributed to our box drive. I’d also like to thank everyone who has helped with being a collection site this year. Our hallway is filling up with boxes with the big days to go.

The Love You Had at First

The Apostle Paul acknowledges something of a split personality. He was weighty and strong in his letters, but his bodily presence weak and his speech of no account (2 Cor 10:10). I understand this tendency. Our modes of communication, such as texting, can blur the boundary, but in person one is often not willing to be quite as strong as with a pen. The reality of a physical person stirs empathy and fellow feeling where writing quickens the blood toward polemic and argument. That is definitely one of the reasons I write my sermons prior. If I didn’t have the text, I might not have the nerve to say some things that are necessary.

I haven’t written much recently not for lack of topics or subjects, but more because of that distinction. So much of what I want to write ends up falling into the “why” bucket. Nobody has ears to hear. It will just cause divisions. Those who show up on Sunday morning are different in that I am the called Pastor here at St. Mark’s. Newsletters have the same functions. Musings and speculations I’m not as sure they have any real worth other than as grist for what eventually is preached. This one I think does.

Rob Foote, the Pastor over in Ithaca, is a great preacher. It comforts me that a preacher as good as he is feels the same struggles over numbers that I do. That is no excuse and might be a sin in itself, but if the man with five talents is breaking even, the man with three talents has some space. Pastor Foote in what was essentially a homiletical footnote (it was that good a sermon that I could ponder of footnote for a week) made a comment about the Letter to the Church at Ephesus. If you don’t know it, it is the first of the seven letters of Jesus in the book of Revelation, specifically Revelation 2:1-7. The seven letters depict seven churches is various states of health. There are different schemas, but most people recognize a decline. Ephesus being the most healthy to Laodicea barely being a church. All the letters have roughly the same outline. Jesus praises them for something, but then he rebukes them for something, finally he leaves them with a promise. Ephesus is praised for: its works, its toil, its endurance, its testing and wisdom in doctrine, its bearing of the name. If you were trying to put metrics on discipleship, Ephesus is taking it to 11. But then Jesus notes “I have this against you, you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Being about love it is obviously very important to the God who defines Himself as love. But what does that mean, especially in the context of endurance they are praised for?

Pastor’s Foote’s speculation hinges on what comes next. Ephesus is correctly called out for “hating the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus hates.” The juxtaposition of love and hate is enticing. Who were the Nicolaitans? Clement (1st Century) is quoted by Eusebius (4th century) in his work Church History as saying that the Nicolaitans were: a) a heretical group led by Nicolaus, one of the first seven deacons chosen (Acts 6:4) and b) a heretical group given to “unrestrained promiscuity among the members”. A story is related that Nicolaus, “had a beautiful young wife, after being commanded to ‘treat the flesh with contempt’, he brought her forward and said that anyone who wished could have her.” The result of originally perusing such asceticism was eventually a rejection of the law. The works of the Nicolaitans were gross immorality and rejection of the law. These Jesus rightly hates. But Pastor’s Foote’s speculation was the falling from their first love was a giving into hate of the people. Instead of sincerely desiring and working for their repentance, which is the act of love, the Ephesians cast them out without a moments regard.

The first love of Christ was for sinners. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” “While we were still sinful, Christ died for us.” We are not far removed from the passion story. What those disciples wanted, what we often want, is exactly what the Chief Priests were hurling at Jesus. “If you are the Christ, come down from that cross.” The implied action is to come down and kick some butt. Kill those who nailed you to the tree. Deliver your people, Israel. Restore the Kingdom. Man up. In a time where the church is the butt of many jokes, is pushed the edge of respectable society and feeling the pressure within to capitulate to gross immorality by changing the law, that feeling is recognizable.

Let me share a more personal example. Recently there have been rumors of a second Supreme Court Justice retiring. As someone who thinks the Roe vs. Wade stands as the most inhumane and evil rulings in Unites States history (and yes that includes slavery, how can you compare the death of 1 million babies a year and turning mothers against children to anything else), that is welcome news. But my thoughts quickly went past simply replacing say Justice Kennedy. They flew to the thought, wouldn’t it be great if Ginsburg were to die tomorrow. My hate of her works is justified. My hate of her is a sin. The proper thought is a prayer. “Lord, forgive her, she does not know what she does. Convert her to the truth.”

The first love of Christ was willing to endure humiliation and death to save sinners. We have fallen from our first love when we can no longer witness to the truth even if it is tough. We have fallen from our first love when we give in to hatred not of the works, but of the person. In reality, that is a fine line. It calls for being as strong in person as in letter. Something that even Paul struggled with. Christ ends the letter of the Ephesians with this promise, “to the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life.” In Christ we are right now more than conquerors. He has already given us the victory. Our life is hidden with Him. We should live like it. Not being given to hate, but to love. Not to love in a weak way as in “I love you man”, but love in a strong way, a way that endures the cross.

Our Shoebox Effort

29 Shoeboxes delivered. Thanks to all who took part this year!
2015 Shoeboxes (2)

A Thought on Kim Davis, Citizen

Someone on Quora asked me to answer this question: Is Kim Davis morally responsible for the marriage licenses that she certifies?

I answered in the following manner.

That is actually a quite involved question. The writers of the NT were writing to people who were largely powerless. Having a government position just wasn’t on the radar. The first people to start addressing it are later, and then the most comparable questions I would say would be: can a Christian be a soldier? There has always been a strain of Christianity that has said no to that question, although the large majority have said yes. Their reasoning was that the citizen had both a moral duty to the government and the moral duty to the law of God not to kill. These moral duties were in conflict in the vocation of a soldier who was often a conscript. The mainstream of Christian theology absolved – note that this is absolution or forgiveness, not just saying it is not wrong – they were absolved of killing because the greater moral weight would rest upon the commanders and leaders who put them in that position. They too could be absolved under the “just war” conditions. In both cases they were still morally accountable for the killing, but that accountability was not the grave sin it would normally have been due to other duties. This situation is what Luther would quip “sin boldly” about. Whatever we do, we are sinners, so admit that and trust in the greater amount of God’s mercy. That is the same Luther who at Worms in 1521, being told to recant or otherwise follow the law, said he could not because it was against his conscience.

Now to Kim Davis. If she was just a hired person, her moral responsibility I think would be akin to that basic soldier, but she is not a hired person. She holds office. She is elected, so she, however low on the totem pole, is more akin to the commanders. Being a mere clerk her accountability is not great, but it is not nothing. Nuremberg understood this very well. The clerk that affixed his name and handled all the paperwork for the gas chambers was held morally responsible. He could not just say I followed the law. Kim Davis’ request is a reasonable one for a clerk. She is not saying change the law on my account, she is just saying come up with a way that I as a simple clerk do not have my name or the office I run on this. As long as it is her name or her office that issues the certificates, she bears a moral responsibility for them. A higher authority that bears more responsibility has given her an order to do this, but it is still her office, so she is not without moral accountability.

The question then would become what do you do. The easiest way is what many people have said, resign. But the problem there is that the Christian faith has always held that we are placed into circumstances and drug before magistrates often not for our own desires but simply to witness to the truth. A Christian who simply resigned is understandable as Amos would write “the prudent keep silent at such a time, because the times are evil (Amos 5:13).” The Christian who resigns is practicing prudence over courage, both of which are virtues. They might not be the one with the calling to witness. But eventually, all virtues require courage. Someplace the courage to stand will be called for. That is the point of conscience. Like Luther being asked to recant and saying he could not, Kim Davis found that point in herself. Now the question is what do those who have more moral standing do. They can impeach her which would establish a religious test for that office. They can accept the moral responsibility of what they are telling her to do by changing whose name or office issues and making her office more akin to general soldier. They could join her in witness and tell those even higher up (i.e. justice Kennedy) that he has missed the truth. But in any case, Ms. Davis has stood. Right now, even if she was in jail, she might be the most free person in America. A true citizen and not just a subject.

LC-MS Sightings (and a LINC post)

First Things publishes an article about the Texas district of the LC-MS mission strategy. That strategy is more or less incubated and first tested in LINC-Houston which I went to observe. That is the strategy that we’ve imported and are using with LINC-Rochester. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Some Pictures

Religion and Truth in a Pluralistic Culture

This short write up is well worth the 3 mins on Pope Benedict’s conception of interfaith or ecumenical interaction. Its starting point in an event that just took place in Assisi. 25 years ago the previous pope was at the same place involved in prayer with “Buddhists chant[ing] to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, Zoroastrians tend[ing] a sacred fire, and an American Indian medicine man in traditional headdress smok[ing] a peace pipe and call[ing] down the blessings of the “Great Spirit.” Benedict has a different view, even if the picture nearby might not say speak that.

The great religious question of our age is inclusivity vs. exclusivity. Were all those people praying to the same God, or was it an example of syncretistic worship on the level of ancient Israel’s “high places”? (1 Kings 12:27-32) Do all roads go up the same mountain, or is Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life? (John 14:6) Let’s make it real clear. We read it in worship a couple of Sundays ago. Isaiah 45:5 – “I am the Lord, there is no other, beside me there is no other.” If the bible counts as your scripture, you can’t hold the “all roads view”. And holding worship services with people chanting, tending and smoking to other dieties hopelessly confuses things. It is no wonder people might just assume that there is no truth in any of them. Then Cardinal Ratzinger said as much:

The cardinal later wrote that “multireligious prayer” of the kind offered there “almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith.”

Such prayer should occur only rarely, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, and to “make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts” but in the substance of what different religions claim.

It is the now Pope Benedict’s next step that is almost uniquely Lutheran.

As he told a European ambassador last week, social justice is based on norms accessible to all, derived not from divine revelation but from “reason and nature”—that is, from “universally applicable principles that are as real as the physical elements of the natural environment.”

He is using Catholic natural law language there. A Lutheran would appeal to two concepts: a theology of two kingdoms and the fundamental law and gospel distinction. We are able to work together in social justice areas because social justice is part of the law or part of the kingdom of the law. The law is universally written on all hearts. (Romans 2:14-15) And the law is good and wise. There is a righteousness that comes from the law – a civil righteousness. But the civil righteousness is not the saving truth of the gospel. In worship – we are separate. Because all roads don’t lead to the same place. Because we proclaim Christ crucified, risen and ascended as Lord. He is Lord, there is no other. Confusing law and gospel only leads to loss of faith.

Where God Acts


Full Text

Text: Luke 17:10-19

We are on the three year lectionary. What that means is that the scripture texts we read each week are on a three year cycle. What the three year cycle does really well is allow you as a congregation to read through entire books. There are other lectionary schemes. A not small number in the LCMS uses a 1 year lectionary. And this is a gross simplification, but the 1 year lends itself to a dogmatic approach. You’ve got these teachings of the church. You want to remind/teach people every year on them. You build your readings around those teachings. The 3 year lends itself to an exegetical approach. That is a 10 dollar would for deep reading. Deep in that word exegetical is a root word meaning turning the soil. The 3 year continuous reading turns the soil of the gospel because each year has a primary gospel text. Since Advent 2009 we’ve been in the Gospel according to Luke. If it takes me say 15 hours to prepare a sermon (roughly 1 hour for each minute talking), in a year you will spend around 600 hours (the gospel of John gets read occasionally) with one gospel. You get to know it well.

The text for this sermon pulled me up short. In 9 perfectly artful verses, Luke asks the eternal questions. It puts the question to its readers – where is God acting? And if you know that, are you ready to go there? Even if it means putting yourself between Samaria and Galilee, being the peacemaker and healer? Even if it means walking toward Jerusalem, toward the cross? That is the path of being made whole.

Sanctification or Becoming Civilized

Having two of my own this article on raising boys who read struck a nerve, and yes I have to admit that I fail the Wii test. We have one. The eldest boy plays all the time, and youngest boy watches eldest boy. And yes, there is no way a book will ever compete with the Wii. (Although I will give us credit, we did make them take the summer off of Wii).

The larger argument is one of how do we produce civilized people. Up until Freud, everybody everywhere realized that being and raising the people we’d like to be was tough and necessary. Socrates – “virtue is its own reward”; Aristotle – “We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good.”; Confucius – “The gentleman understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable.” Proverbs – “Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just and fair.” Sometime after Freud all this instruction in virtue was barbaric repression.

Freud was partially right, it is a repression. Luther would call it the “daily drowning of the old Adam such that the new man might come forth” in his small catechism explanation to baptism. The entire world is not wrong. Virtue, otherwise known as the law, is good and right. Which society would you rather live in? One where all boys grow up on Grand Theft Auto X or grow up on Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson? Which one would be more just? The process of civilization is tough. Especially for many of this generation who are themselves little more than barbarians having not been instructed in virtue as a child.

The world (outside of Freud) is not wrong on virtue, but it only has half the story. The struggle of virtue is not one we can win on our own. The Christian understanding is called sanctification. God has placed His Holy Spirit in us to will and to do that which is good (Phil 2:13). As we grow in faith, as we grow as free humans no longer bound to sin and satan, we practice virtue. Sanctification is the process of becoming what God intend – of becoming a fully free human being.

It would be nice if the larger culture would at least return to the secular notion of virtue. But my guess is that is too hard to fill 500 TV stations with content. But the culture’s abandonment of virtue, doesn’t give us leave to abandon our duty. It does mean we have to be more intentional about it. It does mean making choices that will mark us and our children out from the barbarian hoard.

The Advice Generation Gap

There are a lot of religious ghosts in this article.

The article is a short cute story about “kids these days” and how they don’t value the oldsters advice like they used to. The 4th commandment (5th if you go by the Reformed count) is Honor your Father and Mother. Luther’s explanation, like all his explanations, enlarges the domain. Father and Mother are the stand-ins for any authority figure. The trick is of course what does honor mean? Do exactly and everything they say? Or do the Democrats of four years ago with “protest is the highest form of patriotism” have a claim to honor? In either case a certain respect for experience would seem to be needed. And the church, that entity that likens itself to a mother, is in many ways the real oldster on the block. Some of its advice goes back 4000 years.

Now read this clip…

“Age is no longer the qualifier for being the go-to person for advice,” says Jason Dorsey, 32, a cross-generational consultant who helps companies understand Generation Y. “Yes, if I go into a hardware store, I want advice from someone over age 60, because he could build my house with a screwdriver. But if I walk into an Apple store, I want the young person with blue hair and stretched earlobes, because he can talk to my computer.”

In short, “if we want to learn how to tie a tie, change a diaper, mix a drink, or cook a lobster, we can go on YouTube and find a video,” says Mr. Dorsey. “We don’t call mom and dad.” …Now an actuarial analyst in Atlanta, Mr. Borg says he often challenges advice he receives from older people. For instance, they’ve counseled him to buy a house because prices are low. “Older people think renting is throwing away money,” he says. “But I think owning a home is throwing away financial freedom. I couldn’t pick up and move to a new city. I couldn’t go back to Japan to see my old friends. I’d be tied to the house.”

What do Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Borg both have in common? They’ve both replaced mom and dad or lets just say family with something more nebulous or distributed. YouTube and financial freedom. Is that form of freedom really the way to thrive? The church says no, honor your father and mother. And that is the only commandment with a promise – that is will go well with you and you will live a long life.

The advice of the church runs smack into the conceits of 20 – 30 year olds. Now that is always the case. The church is always confronting sin and stubborness. But, this is a generation that does not take advice. Just because the church has been around 2000 years, its teachings have born out time and again, and your parents say its good for you does not mean that the kids will listen. The mode of teaching has to be more experimental. The church does not put down its claim to authority, but it probably needs to wear it very lightly, and make arguments for it where it didn’t in the past testing its own virtue of patience and hope.