Tag Archives: love

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.

Ash Wednesday Meditation


Text: Matthew 6:19-34

The assigned Ash Wednesday gospel would have included the lines on prayer, fasting and almsgiving that we read a couple of Sunday’s ago, and stopped with the aphorism “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

All of those items are a build-ups. The payoff comes after the “therefore”. “Therefore I tell you…” That is the introduction to a summary point based on what came before.

The piety practices aren’t because we need to eat our veggies. Just think for a second what each of those practices force us to do. Prayer forces our attention, our meditation, away from this world and toward the Kingdom of God. Fasting forces us to think about our hungers – physical and spiritual – and how they are satisfied. What is true food. Almsgiving forces us to give away what is probably our biggest rival idols, money and what we spend it on – ourselves. We give our own in support of someone else. The practices move us out of ourselves and toward God and others. Augustine would call sin the “incuvatus in se” the turning inward on ourselves. The practices, straighten us out.

Why? Why should we not care about old #1?

Jesus answer, listening to the ‘therefore’ is twofold. You are going to die, and your Father knows this.

Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? Peter Theil thinks he can, or at least he’s throwing hundreds of millions at it, but Jesus didn’t expect and answer. Instead Jesus makes two comparisons to things whose lifespans are shorter than ours. The lilies of the field which are here today and tomorrow thrown into the fire. Not even Solomon could rival their dress. God showers a day or a short season with his finest – you think he doesn’t see you? Take the sparrow. It flits from here to there. It doesn’t have the flashy red of the cardinal. It doesn’t’ have song of the best songbird. It doesn’t have the size of the ostrich. It is a sparrow. Two a penny. Yet Matthew would say just a bit later that not a single one falls without your Father’s knowing. They neither sow nor reap, yet they eat. You think you Father doesn’t notice you?

Like Sparrows, like lilies, we are going to die. Instead of turning inward and attempting to horde what we can in an effort to avoid that, we should do what we were made to do.

Don’t lay up treasures in this world, but love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind and strength and spirit. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be. Don’t be devoted to ourselves, or money or our status. The gentiles do all these things. The gentiles love those that love them. Instead love your neighbor as yourself. Like the lilly was made to give beauty to all, we were made to Love God and our neighbor.

Ash Wednesday has the most direct memento mori – “dust you are and to dust you shall return”. Sometimes we are so sick it takes such a shock. But don’t be anxious about tomorrow. Your Father knows. Seek first the Kingdom, and all these things will be added. God work through death and resurrection. Amen.

The Threshing Floor

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Biblical Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Full Sermon Draft

The season, Advent to be specific but you could say the extended Christmas season, begins for me when I hear “On Jordan’s Bank”. That was our opening hymn – LSB 344. The funny thing is that hymn reflects some of the theological turns that obscure the Baptist’s message. It turns from the direct and present cry of John on the Banks of the Jordan toward a spiritualized understanding. “The Lord is Nigh” becomes “and let us all our hearts prepare For Christ to come and enter there.” Charles Coffin, the hymn writer, was a French Jansenist. What that means is a Catholic Calvinist. The Jansenists eventually were repressed and died out within the Catholic church, but in Coffin and Pascal they remain in the Church Universal. His Jansenism dominates verses 2 and 3, but he returns is verse four to the Baptist’s message which is not a retreat to a spiritual realm, but the coming down of the Lord.

The sermon attempts to get us to hear John the Baptist. True religion is not a matter of choice – something those Jansenists would understand. True religion in the reign of Christ. Today that is the reign of grace. Christ has taken our deserved baptism of fire and given us his baptism. This time the people of God don’t cross into the promised land across that Jordan on dry ground with swords for conquest. This time we cross by water and by our absolute repentance which is our acknowledgement that before the Lord we’ve got nothing. Coming right behind, is the final baptism. The Holy Spirit which we have as the down payment will be set free to recreate everything. Those sealed in the living water shall live, those without perish in the refining fire.

The final hymn – LSB 345 – Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding is a old Latin hymn that captures well that progression. Hear the Baptist; hear the solemn warning. Today see “the lamb of God with pardon. Let us haste with tears of sorrow, one and all to be forgiven”. Tomorrow, “when next he comes in glory, the world is wrapped in fear, He will shield us with his mercy, and with words of love draw near”. The Lord has treated us with love and solidarity. We have nothing to fear in his drawing near. Come Lord Jesus.

The Arrival of Love

arrival-posterI joked with Ellen that I wished Hollywood could learn to space out movies as I’ve gone a year with going to the theatre, but there are five that are tempting now. I enjoy movies, but films promising enough to get me to go to the theatre are few. There are a couple a year that I would see, but they don’t make the multiplex. I’d have to go to The Little (the local art film place) on the specific day they are shown. Easier to pre-order the DVD, and most of these don’t depend upon a huge screen anyway. There are the big budget spectaculars like Doctor Strange. The huge screen would be a plus, but going to those would have to be a family thing and dropping $50 plus snacks (if I actually want to watch it instead of listening to the whining about no snacks) on Doctor Strange just isn’t appealing. Again, wait for the DVD. Those are some of the economic reasons that “films for Mark” don’t get made. That, and the fact that “films for Mark”, once you screen out the completely mindless CGI extravaganzas which are just cool, tend to cause thinking. Thinking is an activity most people don’t enjoy, especially mixed in their entertainment. All of that is what makes Arrival such a unique film. It slips though all of those problems and still works on many levels.

The basic premise is all there in the title – Arrival. Aliens arrive on planet earth, and simplistically the plot is about how we collectively react. Close Encounters and Contact are closest to that simple plot, but Arrival, regardless of its containing aliens, isn’t really about the aliens. Although it does work at that level. I suppose because they would be afraid of giving something away, the love story isn’t part of the advertising. Calling it a love story might be a stretch, but love is at the core of the story. Love is also what makes Arrival a film you can’t stop thinking about.

I personally am not concerned with spoilers because if a movie is ruined by knowing about it, it wasn’t much of a movie to begin with, but this is your warning. Stop reading and go see it. What follows will be spoilers.

Arrival is about two questions. The military-state structures want to know “What is your purpose?” The question that over-rides that for the main character is “if you knew, would you live it anyway?” In the movie these are expressed as a contemplation of time. As a Christian what Arrival captures better than anything I’ve ever seen or read is the doctrine of election.

The main character, Louise, played by Amy Adams is a linguist. She is called in by the government to help in establishing communications. The trouble in this is that the Alien language is not phonetic like all human language, but it is ideograms. All of their ideograms are circular. This is never explained, but in the course of the film it should make sense. The aliens do not have a linear sense of the time. The past is not the past, and the future is not the future. Past and future are points on the circle. The circle could be shrunk down to a single point – everything at once, the eternal now, but it can also be expanded to be experienced intimately. No point on that circle is disconnected from any other, but it has its unique being. What that opens up to someone thinking in linear time is future causality. Events in the linear future can seem to cause events in the linear past. In the eternal now or on that circle there is no past or future, just a seamless thread. And if one understands time as such, and has the necessary technology, one can jump to any portion of that thread when needed.

This is the biggest spoiler. The movie starts with a montage of moments of Louise with her daughter Hannah. We see them at birth and at a few moments in life, but we are also introduced to Louise crying over the deceased 16 year old Hannah. You are lead to believe that this is backstory, in the linear past. Louise’s work with the Aliens and Physicist Ian played by Jeremy Renner as her contact partner comes after the daughter’s death. They are scrambling after the answer to “What is your purpose?” to prevent China and a few other states from attacking the aliens. But their work together, which does not include any gratuitous sex or even stray romance moments, grows into a work of love. Their strings are tied together. The big twist is that what we think is the past is actually the future. And it is a future that Louise is becoming cognizant of in the past. The question becomes, “knowing this, would you live it?”

That is the question of election. We are all part of God’s great tapestry. All of our circles are known to him and have been woven into his design. This includes Jesus who submitted to the cross. Knowing that creation includes the cross, would you do it? God answered yes. And he answered it for two reasons. Creation, even one including the cross, is an increase in love. It is a revelation of the God who calls himself love. It is also a revelation of his nature as gracious. Divine simplicity is not found in the point, but in the circle. It is found in how His grace sustains all the moments we are given to experience. The only question we are given is yes or no? Knowing that this is God’s design, knowing that is our circular thread, would we live it? The moments of pain and suffering as well as the moments of triumph. Yes is a submission, an acceptance of God’s election. No is the complete removal from the design.

In the film the two aliens that Louise and Ian interact with they call Abbot and Costello. Their names are ideograms without phonetic content, so the assigning of sounds is a moment of levity. But that moment of levity has a turn. Some of the military personnel they are working with decide that attacking the aliens is a necessity and smuggle a bomb onto the ship with the equipment Louise and Ian are using. The aliens are able to partially stop it, but a touching scene is Louise expressing sorrow when Abbot tells her Costello is dying. By this time, you should know enough to realize “it’s about time”. When you know that, you must realize that Costello took this trip knowing he would die in that blast. The purpose of the trip which the aliens had also revealed is that the aliens would need humanity’s help in 3000 years, so they are providing assistance to humanity now. Costello’s sacrifice was for aliens and people 3000 years hence. Knowing this, would you live it?

Which becomes the personal question to Louise. Ian is her future husband and father of Hannah. All the moments, including the child’s death, are in the future. Knowing this, would she live it? Is the increase in love correct? Is the grace enough to sustain it? Arrival is a love story, just not a decadent one, but one full of grace.

There’s a Sky! And it’s Blue!

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Biblical Text: Luke 11:11-13

Full Sermon Draft

I hope this sermon is meaningful. There is a lot of thinking that has gone into it not just this past week, but for quite a while. In one way it is my attempt to address Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That is not a book for everyone, but I think he is correct in being trapped in an immanent frame. The Chesterton quote I think captures the problem with this. And part of the reason this is so hard to escape from is because I think our situation is the opposite of the scriptures. And for that matter the opposite of the Reformation. Both of those ages feared a Holy God, but had trouble understanding his love. As such they were lacking on wonder. Our age has no problem thinking about the love of God, primarily because we have either substituted ourselves for God, or we’ve domesticated God. But we’ve lost the fear, or neither of those conceptions of God all for a holy fear. Wonder is that combination of love and fear. And that is what we’ve lost. This sermon, reflecting on the Lord’s prayer and Abraham’s experience, attempts to make real both the fear and the love. It attempts to break us out of our wonderless cage, to live before the God of wonder.

Recording note: This is a re-recording after the fact. We had some trouble with the mic’s this morning. Guess I haven’t chased down that ghost yet. So, because of that, I don’t have a hymn with it. Just hum What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

Assuming God’s Love

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Biblical Text: Luke 7:36-8:3
Full Sermon Draft

The texts are following along in Luke’s gospel. What is unfolding is the divide between people who are answering Jesus is “a great prophet” and “God has visited his people”. And what I think Luke is attempting to show is how just answering “a great prophet” is necessary but not sufficient. A “great prophet” faith will fail, and it will often fail before it has even started. That is Simon. He thinks he is sitting in judgment of the prophet, but he has failed to treat Jesus even as a prophet.

I’m not sure I completely got there, but this I think is something the modern church often does. It thinks it is inviting Jesus over, but when it does, it sits in judgment of Jesus. It assumes like Simon that they owe nothing, that God owes them. And consequently it presumes to question the love of God. That is a place where any “great prophet” can go. We ourselves are our own best prophets. And the less the great prophet conforms to our desires, the less He looks like a prophet. We think we are sitting in judgment. The woman on the other hand knew her sins, but she also assumed the love of God. This love is not a complete assumption because she has witnessed Jesus. It is not a compete assumption for us also, because we have seen the cross. The picture as it develops to me is that we should always presume on the love of God. Especially when we don’t understand what is happening or we are undergoing trial. In those times we might question God’s love, but his revelation of self is that whatever we are experiencing will be brought about for our benefit. Such is God’s love.

A Wise Son

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Biblical Text: Proverbs 8
Full Sermon Draft

This was Trinity Sunday. Traditionally it is the Sunday we bring out the Athanasian Creed. The creeds in general but that creed in particular are statements of doctrine. Also, Trinity or Triune is not a word found in the scriptures, but a church word, a doctrinal word. For that reason, Trinity Sunday is a day to talk a bit about doctrine. We live in a time where the most successful churches, judged by the criteria of numbers, tend to eschew doctrine if not run fleeing from the word. “Deeds, not creeds” is a phrase for a purpose. But historically, and by historically I mean for 1,950 years, the church was a doctrinal body. Doctrine united. It produced creeds and confessions. It argued and debated and sometimes went further over doctrine. You can’t read Paul’s letters or even the Sermon on the Mount and not understand the deeds of Christ and the apostles driven by their creeds.

What this sermon attempts to do is correct the false understanding of doctrine that I think drives much of it becoming a pejorative word. When you picture doctrine and the voice of Mother church, as the voice of Lady Wisdom calling, you get a better idea. It is not a club to end seeking. Doctrine is an invitation to faith. It is an invitation to seek understanding. Armed with that understanding, the wise son when Mom says “because I said so” responds not with sullen anger but “what am I missing?” The person who loves you most is asking “walk with me, even if you don’t quite understand.” The wise son walks with and seeks that understanding.

Letters from the Father

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Biblical Text: John 16:23-33, Acts 16:9-15
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I was trying for something a little different here. In my simple reading of the text I found two themes: 1) Prayer and 2) Jesus overcomes the world. It is the juxtapostion of those two things that was interesting to me because prayer seems to be the weakest thing in the world. From a purely materialist standpoint, and we are all de facto materialists, it does nothing. Yet this is what enables us to overcome the world.

What I latched onto was a comparison to the letter. I attempted to mine an old emotional connection and reflect on changes and what has been lost. How losing personal letters makes prayer that much more difficult to understand. The core of the comparison has two points. Every letter (at least good ones) was an act of love and an invitation into that persons life. Every letter was also a plea or a promise to come, we will not always be separated. We will see each other in the flesh. Prayer is the same. It is God’s Spirit present with us, and it is the promise that we will not always be so separated.

I wish I could have carried it off better. But…

THe hymn of the day left in the recording was LSB 779 Come My Soul with Every Care. I think the hymn in its verses recognizes this movement of prayer. At first it is a law – Jesus bids us pray. Then it is petitions of a King – just big stuff. But then there is a breakthrough, the big stuff is the sin and guilt that separate. This is the gospel recognition. The fourth verse moves prayer from this real to that personal love. “Lord, thy rest to me impart, take possesion of my heart.” Your kingdom has come, let it come to me also. The final two verses capture what it points toward. “While I am a pilgrim here, :et they love my spirit cheer.” Pilgrims eventually reunite at home. But verse six is the recognition that I as a pilgrim have a duty. “Show me what is mine to do.” The prayer has started simply as law and ends as pure gospel. Because of love, because of the beloved and His presence in prayer, I seek what I should do. Not out of compulsion, but love.

Earnest Desire – Maundy Thursday

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Biblical Text: Luke 22:7-20
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This reflection on Maundy Thursday and communion expands on the emotion expressed by Jesus in “earnestly desired” to celebrate the Passover with the disciples. The trouble is never the passion, but how it is directed. Jesus teaches us the proper direction and gives us a gift to help.

Atonement

“The image of a sweet, gentle Savior, like the thought of an all-loving God, is wonderful, but it is only a small part of the picture. It insulates us from the real power of his touch. Christ comforts and heals, saves and forgives – we know that; but we must not forget that he judges too. If we truly love him, we will love everything in him; not only his compassion and mercy, but his sharpness too. It is his sharpness that prunes and purifies.

There is something in modern thinking which rebels against the Atonement. Perhaps our idea of an all-loving God keeps us from wanting to face judgement. We think that love and forgiveness is all that is needed, yet that is not the whole Gospel – it makes God too human.

Christ’s love is not the soft love of human emotion, but a burning fire that cleanses and sears…” J. Heinrich Arnold

I might change the metaphor slightly. The judgement of Christ is like a skilled surgeon offering to cut out the growing cancer and set the broken bones. These will make us better. Allow us to live lives as we were made to. Yet we cling to our cancer and broken bones. Fearful of the snap into place, or worrying about life without that lump and the near tissue that goes with it.