Category Archives: Word

10 Theses on Prayer


10 Theses on Prayer after Teaching 1 Kings 8 and The Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer

1. All true prayer is placing before God his own words and promises
2. This is even more the case when our words are inappropriate
3. We pray that what is certainly true with God would also be true with us, now
4. Thanksgiving is appropriate for when we are given eyes to see what God has done
5. Sometimes the answer is no
6. Maybe worse are when the answer is yes, but we didn’t mean that petition, not really
7. Prayer is the language of the exile who was given a promise
8. Not all exiles have promise, learn to discern holy exile from discontent
9. The prayer of the exile is two-fold. First, sustain a remnant for your name
10. Second, be present with me, here in exile, such that you might bring me home.

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.

On the Radio (KFUO)

In case anybody would like to hear a bible study. I was on KFUO-AM this past Tuesday with the morning homily and bible study. We looked at Matt 14:1-21. Here is the link http://www.kfuoam.org/2016/10/18/ht-2016-10-18/

Remembrance (October Newsletter)

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. – Isaiah. 44:21

I’ve never been a specific date person. If you asked me how old I am, I’d have to calculate it. Probably after looking at my driver’s license to check the date. And I recognize that there are people who get offended when you forget specific dates, but such things to me have usually been abstractions. It is real hard for me to fix emotion to an abstract calendar. There are concrete things that make me recall past events. For example walking around Darien Lake this summer one of the things that is unmissable is the strollers and little kids being carried on shoulders. Ethan is now past riding on shoulders. But that concrete experience brought to mind the three-year-old we might have been carrying around. Another one would be an upcoming happy event. By the end of the year we will have the car paid off and be back to no car payments. Seeing as the car I drive is almost 14 years old and well over 100,000 miles that might mean it’s my turn. I haven’t driven a new-ish car since the one I leased in 1998 when I got my job at IBM and kids were still just a thought. But I’m in no hurry to lose the Santa Fe. A practical reason is I’m cheap, let’s say frugal to be nice. But that car was my brother’s. He had just finished paying it off when he passed away seven years ago already. Time like an ever rolling stream, soon bears us all away.

Remembrance is a tricky thing. The young are unburdened by it. The old can wallow in nostalgia over things that never actually were. The constant drumbeat of crack church consultants is relevance. Stay in the now looking to the near future. But that has never been the way the people of God have operated. The proclamation of the Kingdom – OT and NT – has always started with the call repent, and repentance is an act of remembrance. It is a remembrance of whose we are – “remember these things, O Jacob…I formed you.” It is a remembrance of His words and His ways – “you are my servant”. Repentance is always an act of memory.

But if that was all it was about, to hell with it. My remembering ends the day I do, maybe earlier. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may as the poet says. But when the bible talks remembrance it may start with repentance, but it always points to something bigger. “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD (Psalm. 25:7)!” “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke. 23:42).” Our remembrance ultimately fails. As much as I might be willing to fix the Santa Fe, eventually I won’t be able to, as Jerry’s experience with a model year newer recently reminded me. What the Psalmist begs for is not his ability to remember, but that God would remember him according to his steadfast love. Like the thief on the cross asking the innocent lamb, “remember me”. That is the promise. “Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.”

The church’s remembrance is not a false nostalgia, neither is it focused on a myopic short term relevance. It is sustained in the now, by looking far. By looking to the fulfillment of that promise that all Israel shall be remembered. By looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Rally Day

decalogue-windowThe second use of the law is as the mirror. It shows us our sins. One of the old Rabbi’s ways of using the Decalogue was to line up one through five on the first side and six through ten on the other and use it as a diagnostic. (Sorry any reformed/evangelical readers, Calvin and Zwingli messed up your order because two commandments on coveting offended their reason and they needed to bolster their iconoclasm. The numbering used is the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran.) If your community or society was engaged in rampant adultery (sixth commandment), the deep problem was idolatry (1st Commandment). That particular insight is often found in the prophets where Israel is compared to the harlot. Likewise if your culture is driven by coveting stuff (“ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor”, 10 Commandment), the deeper problem is with the 5th (don’t murder). The presenting problem may be late stage capitalism, but we are willing to make commodities of everything because we have already made commodities of each other. We can see this in cases big and small, the over 1 million aborted a year to the Chicago murder rate. And if you take Jesus in the Sermon in the mount at his word that hating your neighbor is murder, well our every 4 year festival of hatred where the people wearing the other color are compared to Hitler and real friends are sacrificed should be troubling.

A particular outgrowth of that media cycle that I find almost like cat-nip is the attributing of the worst possible meaning to whatever the red/blue flag bearer said yesterday. Charity assumes that what was said has some reason behind it, that there is some way in which it captures truth, until the pure malevolence of the speaker is proven. I may not understand it, but it is my moral obligation to attempt to or at the least assume there is one. This is the 8th commandment’s territory. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor which Luther glossed with a positive force of “defend him, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything.” Not being a Pollyanna type, more specifically being a hyper-analytical person who likes winning, I have too often put those traits not in the service of charity but destruction, of figuring out the worst possible meaning and imputing that to the speaker. It has been a conscious effort and struggle of mine to control that impulse. It is depressing how often I fail.

That might be the sin that lives in my members, the battle against the flesh, but if I look at the parallel commandment, the 3rd (Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy), I think I am staring at what the world is attacking. When asking what does this mean Luther wrote that “we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” That Sabbath commandment to Luther is about our handling of the Word of God. As Jesus would say “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Word of God is given to us for our good. If I am willing to intentionally distort my neighbor’s words, that stems first from my willingness to impugn God’s word. When God’s Word is not taken as sacred, it is real easy to treat my neighbor’s word as trash.
We can lament that the world does not take the Word seriously as Alan Jacob’s article in Harper’s a few weeks ago did, but we really should have no expectation of the world doing so. That was part of my response a couple of weeks ago which I posted here. It is another thing when the church neglects the Word. This interview with Kenneth Briggs, the “godbeat” editor for many years at places like the New York Times, talks about what he has seen. His pungent phrase is that the Bible has “become a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.” Until the church is willing to reform its house back into what Luther called “God’s mouth-house”, the place where the Word forms us deeply, we will find it tough living with our neighbors. The church is the salt of the earth. If we can’t treat each other with charity, how will the world know?

I occasionally get asked why I insist on or put so much effort behind things like VBS, Sunday School, Bible Class and confirmation when the numbers are few. My response is usually something like “that is the call”. If the Pastor doesn’t put the Word first, then who will. Do I worry, especially around budget season, that someday that focus will leave me without a paycheck? I’d be lying if I said no. Another thing to repent from – “each day has enough trouble of its own, don’t fret”. So I turn back to the call, to call out all to repentance for the Kingdom of God is near, and to proclaim that now, in your hearing, is the year of the Lord’s mercy. Or taking that out of the high Biblical register, it’s Rally Day. Sunday School and Bible classes are starting again. I’d invite you to set aside a Sabbath to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn that Word.

A Humble Parson’s Response to Alan Jacobs

I tend not to preach on them because in the fifteen minutes a week I get for proclamation of Jesus I start with the gospels. But in my personal study I spend an inordinate amount of time in the twelve minor prophets. I feel drawn to them in a deep way because of the end of the age society they see. They are sent to prophesy, but their conviction is like Amos. “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman. But the Lord took me from following the flock.” They prophesy because the Lord told them to, and they do so with a passionate intensity, but what they do not prophesy with is an expectation that they will be heard. When a herdsman approaches a King, he knows that a seat at the table is probably not on offer. Joel cries, “who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…”, but when the Lord has pity it is tied to the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. Hosea is told to marry a prostitute as a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness, and his two kids receive the worst unique names in history. Habakkuk, tired of his prophesy, takes his complaint to the Lord. “How Lorg shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry ‘violence’ and you will not save…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth.” These prophets have words that cut my heart, and promises that I claim in Christ, but they stand to me as an awful warning for my brothers of the flesh.

I am thinking about the twelve after reading Alan Jacobs’ article in Harper’s Magazine. A strain in that article is a lament that Christian Intellectuals abandoned the liberal public square. His rebuke in these regards is not a heavy one. Mr. Jacobs understands that it was partly a two-way street. Richard John Neuhaus developed his own vehicle because when he talked about abortion he was no longer welcome at the liberal table as he had been over the Vietnam War. Likewise Mr. Jacobs does take Christians such as Marilynne Robinson to task for a witness to the liberal table that in my more harsh twelve inspired thoughts would be “peace, peace”. She is the house prophet saying all is well while Jeremiah is in rags. Another strain that Mr. Jacobs picks up but then abandons is Stanley Fish’s thoughts in First Things about just this desire to be a Christian Intellectual at the liberal table. “The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.” It is this strain that I wish he would have developed more for his audience in Harpers.

Being a Lutheran, we think in terms of Law and Gospel. The law is simply the demands of God. It can be summarized as the 10 commandments or probably better Jesus’ summary, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and your neighbor as yourself.” The bitter truth of the law is that we can’t keep it. It is good and wise, but beyond our fallen ability to actually live. That causes all sorts of strategies. You can restrict the demands of the law. “Who is my neighbor?” or “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are classic attempts to limit it. You can also replace it. Arguably this was the Pharisee strategy in tithing mint and cumin. They substituted certain holy looking ceremonial practices for the demands of the law. Likewise, this is start of Luther’s reformation calling out indulgences, pilgrimages, relics and other pious acts that were replacing the actual law and gospel. Our modern liberal society also has gutted and replaced the law. It does not have ears to hear even the basics of natural law such as marriage and children let alone the tougher strains of the temptations of the devil, this world and the flesh. In Lutheran parlance not only will it not look in the mirror of the law to recognize its sins, it has also jumped the curb of the natural law meant to be shared and keep us all safe in God’s providence.

In Lutheran Law and Gospel thinking, one cannot be raised by the gospel – the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – until we have been killed by the law. When ears are closed and hearts are hard, that is the time of the prophets, of the twelve. What that looks like is confrontation. What that looks like is crazy, right up until the moment everyone is carried away. Into oblivion for the 10 Northern tribes, into exile for Judah. That is the wrong message for my congregation. For them the message is more eschatological – “comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord”. Today we might be like the grass of the field, but we are forever safe in the Lord’s hands. But for those outside Christ I can only hint at that. Tease like the parables into contemplation. There are two choices for those outside. There is the kinder and gentler law proclamation, like Corinthians 13 on love. It is heard at every wedding, and it is a ridiculous call. I can’t do that sacrificial love on my own. That takes the indwelling of the Spirit. One can be temporally kind and hope that in the moment of the first fight or the first night he’s home way late, the newlyweds will contemplate how they have trespassed that love they said they wanted. Then there is the proclamation of the twelve. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” That is about as effective as you might think. But as Mr. Jacobs quotes Rorty, “of course the theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” Such prophecy as the twelve is nor really prophecy for listening, but prophecy for witness. It is the Lord putting down a marker for future generations.

Mr. Jacobs ends with the lament that the liberal table lost the ability to hear religious responses “at least in part because we Christian Intellectuals ceased to play it for them.” That might be true, but as a humble preacher I would have to add a caveat. We ceased to play it for them because the Word God was sending us wasn’t peace, but repent. As much as Cornel West and a steady stream of mainline preachers liked to claim being a prophetic Christian witness, the dreams they dreamed very often did not line up with the Word. We have had a plague of prophets, but an absence of the Word.

Concord Cast

I’ve added something to the front page. Stepping my way back into something like the daily lectionary podcast. I’ve volunteered to help in a lectio continua daily reading of the Book of Concord. It is hosted and run over at Pseudepigraphus. My squeaky voice I think makes an appearance roughly twice a month along with many other Lutheran Pastors and Laypeople. I’ve put the feed in the “Concord Cast” widget just under the calendar. If you want to add it in a different way here is the feed link.

Seeing the Risen Christ

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Biblical Text: Luke 24:13-35
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the Road to Emmaus. It is one of those stories that pop out. Other than Jesus, the main characters are all but anonymous. Cleopas and his unnamed companion and a road between two cities. You get the feeling that Luke heard Cleopas tell the story and said to himself, “I’ve got to include this one.” This is one of the serious faults of the three year lectionary as the story only gets read on a Sunday once every three years. It is too reactive and psychologically rich a story to only meditate on together once every three years.

Just off the top of my head I could think of four strands of biblical theology that Emmaus puts a capstone on: table fellowship (i.e. God eating with sinful men), the road or the journey, Seeing and not-seeing God, The City of God vs. the City of Man. In other words, in five minutes I could outline at least five good sermons from the text that each would have a different doctrinal point and gospel message. The one that I worked with here is the power and place of word and sacrament. No theme operates exclusive to the others. Seeing and not-seeing plays a key motif when you talk word and sacrament, but it is still a supporting roll.

When you strip the church to its core, when our personal and often misguided desires fall away from the church, what remains? Word and Sacrament. How do we see or recognize the risen Christ in our lives? Through Word and Sacrament. What is the correct order? What is the individual’s role in faith? How do these things function in the life of the believer? What is the tragedy and triumph of Word and Sacrament? These are some of the questions that this sermon contemplates as it attempts to apply both law and gospel.

(I wanted to make one stray comment. John, the man who does our recording, usually includes at least a couple of verses from the hymn of the day. Lutheran Service Book #476 – Who are You Who Walk in Sorrow was this service’s hymn. It is a modern text (copyright 2000) paired with a haunting american hymn tune (Jefferson). The text is a powerful one made more so combined with the minor key and lilting tone of the tune. Here is a link to someone who has typed it out. You can find a reflection on many of those biblical themes in the hymn as well as another one from the Easter Season of death and Resurrection. That is a powerful and meaty modern hymn.)

For St. Patrick’s Day

Translation Issues

ak47crossMaybe it is just how the name rolls off the tongue – Kalashnikov. Or it is the engineer/tinkerer in me. His famous AK-47 was the classic necessity is the mother of invention. And to this day, unlike American arms which are high maintenance, the AK-47 just works. Which is of course why every terrorist group and no-good-nik in the world carries the curved magazine rifle. I don’t know if it is true. I’ve never owned a gun in my life. But I once read or was told that it can even handle a wide variety of ammunition. And this makes sense because it was designed quickly for the under-supplied in everything but bodies Red Army. If you are defending Stalingrad and your orders are “not one step back” you might need to be able to fire any rounds you find.
Rod Dreher points at the man’s recent death and some of his final thoughts.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable…I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” he asked.
“The longer I live,” he continued, “the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

On the one hand it is easy to say that such a reaction is a hyper-active conscience. And that would not be wrong. Comrade Kalashnikov is not responsible for all the uses of his terribly marvelous piece of tinkering. On the other hand his response is deeply Christian in two regards. The first is the universal recognition of sin and the groaning of the world. The best of us is corrupt. As the confessional liturgy says, “by what we have done and by what we have left undone”. I’ve often thought that a better line would be “by what I recognize and by what I’m too blind have seen.” That spiritual pain is the recognition of a world groaning waiting for its deliverance (Romans 8:22). The second way this is deeply Christian is that it is this response that allows the gospel proclamation. For this, Christ came. For all of this Christ died. It shall be remembered no more. Sin wishes to hide itself and take no blame for its actions. If we deny our responsibility we are still under the law. It is only accepting our sinfulness that frees us.

Our Sunday bible class got tossed sideways for a bit reflecting on then tense of the verbs in Isaiah 42:1-9 which is the first servant song. I think I’ve mentioned before that there are at least 6 active bible translations within this small congregation (ESV, NIV, NKJV, RSV/NRSV, CEV/Good News, NLT). And each one can approach things differently and not at all internally consistently. For example the ESV typically is the most literal by which I mean the ESV often mechanically translates tense, voice and mood and uses the same word for the same word. It is the type of translation, at least on first pass, that something like Google Translate would do. But there are occasions where the ESV, due to how it came about from the KJV through the RSV/NRSV, maintains a translation that has become established church English but is not very literal. For example in Luke 2:49 the ESV has “in my Father’s House”. The old KJV has “be about my Father’s business” which the NKJV maintains, but the RSV had changed is to “in my Father’s House”. Business is a better translation. Even better would just be a generic “things of my Father”. The ESV strayed from literal I’m assuming to maintain a poetic interpretive translation affected by the location of the scene in the temple.

The point of this is not to hopelessly cloud things. In that example above the general sense is the same. Jesus must do the will of his Father. The biggest difference I would say is that by leaving it generic it invites further reading and meditation about just what are “the things of the father”. The more modern translations, by putting in house and focusing on the scene, narrow the things probably unduly. The things of the Father, as the sermon held a couple of weeks ago, are not really religious practice things which the temple might lead you to conclude. The point is one of revelation leading to knowledge of sin leading to justification. Comrade Kalashnikov’ story is exactly the things of the Father. The revelation might have dawned late, but late is better than never.

Now here is why I started writing. You start out reading the Word, but at the same time the Word is reading you. What I mean by that is God’s Word starts moving you. There are some things, like the extent of sin, where when you spend enough time in the Word, you get moved to where Comrade Kalashnikov was at. I imagine this is what over the ages has driven many to monasteries. You can also get driven to fundamentalist like certitude about certain bedrock doctrines like the 10 Commandments and the creed. We naturally think these things are lite trifles, but spend enough time with the Word and you see the effects that might not have been so clear. You start to see the punishments to the third and the fourth generations. There are other things that I have become much less certain of, or maybe a better way of putting it would be that there are a lot more things which come under gospel freedom. Jesus reiterates the 10 commandments and “turns the knob to 11” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17ff) . This same Jesus is the one who “eats with tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11) and breaks the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2) and pays attention to gentiles and women (Matthew 15:21-28). That pattern is meaningful.

It is not that we don’t have traditions, but that we hold them lightly meaning only when they are secondary. If you find yourself excluding someone because they are not saying the right shibboleth at the right time, you’ve made a mistake. Likewise, if you find yourself ignoring the sacraments or treating them with disrespect, or making excuse for sin instead of repenting, you’ve made a mistake. And in a world as full of spiritual pain as Kalashnikov came to see it, rightly hearing the Word probably leads to where it always did – the cross. Anything to kill the pain.

Which is what the cross does. Because it is only there the foot that we see. Both the depth of the wrong, and the deeper love of God.