Tag Archives: gospel

Means and Extremes

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Biblical Text: Luke 17:1-10
Full Sermon Draft

Actually hearing Jesus is tough. What I mean by that isn’t that listening is tough, but that what he is attempting to teach is just so foreign to both our natural ways of thinking and our learned ways. The text today in the context of the the Gospel according to Luke is actually a non-confrontational part. Things should be low key, but Jesus’ teaching might be at its most extreme. And that is part of the mystery of faith and its danger. Wisdom rightly would tell us to avoid the extremes, except when the extreme is what is true. That is the mystery of Jesus. He is extreme, but he is true.

This sermon develops that theme. It suggests that this mystery is grounded in the two natures of Christ. And it suggests that our experience of of being bound either to sin or to Christ is also an expression of this mystery. We so want to be in the middle, in the mean, but truth is at the edges. If you listen I hope it inspires some good contemplation, a hearing of Jesus. And at hearing an attempt not to settle for the mean, but to live the tension of Christian extreme.

I did not include any of the hymns today primarily because the recording quality wasn’t quite there. Hymns are so much better live. (Sermons too for that matter.) So please, take this as an invite to come next Sunday. Blessings.

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.

The Consolation of Israel

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Biblical Text: Luke 2:22-40
Full Draft

This sermon in the third in a week, and the last, so instead of the polish of a story, it is more intensely on the text itself. The good thing, I think, is that the text lends itself to such a homiletic study. I would be helpful to have the text in front of you while listening. You can double check my referents that way and see how the text is constructed. I’m not going to tell you the main purpose right here, because I think that would betray the purpose of the text and sermon which is understanding. And understanding takes some marveling.

Beware the Scribes

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Biblical Text: Mark 12:38-44
Full Sermon Draft

This sermon includes an larger explanation section than I normally try to enter. There are two things that need to be understood to grasp the text. Just what is a scribe in the time of Jesus, and the role of polemic in the ministry of Jesus. And neither of those things are immediately clear to us today. This sermon attempts to alert us. And then it attempts to translate to a more likely modern analogy. More likely than what our simple “religious bad guys” definition would mean. Part of that is drawing some distinctions between scribes and two other groups, Pharisees and Chief Priests, that they are often connect with. As with any speech where you are explaining, you are losing. One thing in hindsight that I would have added might be an elaboration on the “lay holiness movement”. The holiness part includes a code or an imbedded polemic. Every such movement thinks there is something in the society that is drastically wrong. We only call people Pharisees today whose code is obnoxious to us. And we do that because of the success of Jesus’ polemic.

But what this passage really attacks is corruption. Because of the fallen nature of the world, that corruption is inevitable. Even holiness movements are corrupted. The gospel focus is two fold. That corruption will be judged and dealt with. We believe in the life of the world to come. The second part is that we have been freed to make our own choice. We can be complicit in the corruption, or we can live lives of simple faith and charity. Because God sees the widow putting in her mites. Yes, the institution is corrupt. But her heart is not.

Loaded Camels

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Biblical Text: Mark 10:23-31
Full Sermon Draft

This sermon is the continuation of last week’s gospel lesson (Mark 10:17-22). The focus in the text is on the difference, the astonishing reversal of the values of the Kingdom of God. That reversal gets everyone’s attention, but that reversal is put to sharp use. The full weight of the law is brought to bear in the saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.” What wealth really does, as the lesson for the day from Ecclesiastes knows, is increase our responsibilities. The weight of the law becomes greater. The camel gets its full load. At the same time we become convinced that we are good at this, after all look at all we have. Jesus call out the huge mistake in that thinking. But he then tells us what the eye of the needle is. It is his promise. All things are possible for God. You will have treasure in heaven. You will be paid back 100-fold. Not in a prosperity gospel way. In this appointed time that comes with persecutions, but in the age to come eternal life. We enter life because God is good, and he has made salvation available by faith. Trusting in the work of Jesus and not our work. He is so good that he has extended to us the change to participate in that gospel. And that participation is part of our proof, part of the return.

Program Note: This is a re-recording. I messed up the original. So you don’t get any of the great hymns we sang. My guess is that you wouldn’t hear these at most American congregations. They are gems of the faith, but supposedly not what is “relevant”. Although given the text the are spot on. We opened with Lutheran Service Book 730 – What is the World to Me. The hymn of the day, was Lutheran Service Book 753 – All for Christ I have Forsaken. That link is not a informative because it is a newer hymn. But here is another congregation singing this haunting hymn from you tube.

The Deceitfulness of Wealth/Jesus Loved Him

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Biblical Text: Mark 10:17-22
Full Sermon Draft

This sermon explores two items wrapped by a question. The two items are: 1) the biblical view or warnings about wealth and 2) What it means that Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. Neither of these two things are as popular sentiment would have. This sermon attempts to instruct or correct that sentiment. What those two subjects are wrapped in is the question of the good. Not really what actions are good, because that is known defined by the law. The question is one of recognition, do we see Jesus as good? And do we recognize that God alone is good. The offer to the man to sell everything might sound like a law, but it is pure gospel. It is the offer of joining Jesus on his walk. Yes, the walk right now is toward the cross, but it is also heavenward, toward treasure in heaven. Our use of wealth is one way we are invited to participate in the kingdom now.

This text is also only half of a full section. The gospel assigned for next week continues in a similar vein but focusing less on our call and more on God’s action.

Musical notes: 1) The recording includes our choir’s first piece of the Season. 2) I’ve included the hymn after the sermon Lutheran Service Book 694 – Thee Will I Love My Strength My Tower.

Grace was Never Practical

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Biblical Text: Mark 10:2-26
Full Sermon Draft

This sermon is a little longer than my typical one. The subject from the gospel text is marriage and divorce. Because the contextual density of the topic and because of its high profile in our general culture this sermon takes its time and spells out all the steps. I believe I arrive at the proclamation of the gospel, but it might not be the gospel we always want to hear.

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.

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Psalm 94:8-14, Luke 22:24-46

Psalm 94:8-14
Luke 22:24-46
The Law as Blessing
Christ as the blessed one