Tag Archives: Theology of the Cross

Paragraph to Ponder; Lament and Studying the Psalms

We’ve been studying the Psalms and one of the things that you can’t avoid is lament in both directions. There is the lament of the faithful calling on God to be faithful like Psalm 27:7-10. There is lament of God for his people like Psalm 81:11-16. It is from reflection on passages like these and the way that primarily OT characters sometimes go after God that my spiritual advice has often been “God’s a big guy, he can take it”. That was usually quickly followed by something like “just be ready to be silenced from the whirlwind” (Job 40:6). Following Bonhoeffer’s little book on the Psalms we’ve been presenting the Psalms as two things: 1) the prayers of Christ himself and 2) the Lord’s Prayer in different form. It is that second category that is meaningful here. For what is the Lord’s prayer if not a study in Lament. Your kingdom come (because we certainly don’t see it much now). Your will be done (because the bad guys seem to have free reign). Lead us not into temptation (because it certainly feels like you are a capricious God). Deliver us from evil (because our enemies surround us to devour our flesh). Like the psalms, lament leads the way to two things: 1) reaffirming the Lordship of God and 2) our faith in his promises. Psalm 27 referenced earlier ends with such a raw declaration of resurrection and faith, Psalm 27:13-14. When God laments he closes with reiteration of his promises, Psalm 81:16.

Wesley Hill, quoting a review by Lauren Winner, touches on some of these points in the paragraph to ponder…

An important theme in Rittgers’ account is the intensely biblical nature of Lutheran suffering. Protestants, far from assuming that suffering was always a direct divine punishment for sin, offered a range of explanations for suffering. (The recognition that suffering ultimately emerges from sin, Rittgers notes, is not the same as the claim that every instance of suffering is a punishment for a person’s individual sinful act.) Protestants could articulate many different explanations for suffering because the Bible “contains … explanations for suffering that have nothing to do with punishment.” Job imagines suffering as a test of one’s devotion to God; the Psalms, Proverbs, and other texts explore suffering’s capacity to refine one’s faith; the New Testament suggests that suffering can be a means of identifying with Christ. Laypeople heard these themes expounded in the pulpit and encountered them in books about proper Christian suffering; they also copied down or memorized consoling words of Scripture, so that in a time of trial they would have biblical words to help them persevere.

Yet one important biblical response to suffering did not find a place among Luther’s heirs: lament. The psalms, in particular, contain illustration after illustration of God’s faithful people calling God to account because their suffering defied not just explanation but indeed God’s covenantal promises. This tradition did not find a place in a “premodern consolation literature” that consistently advised men and women to “accept their suffering patiently and make no protest against the workings of divine providence.” Rittgers intriguingly suggests that this loss of lament may have had profound consequences, among them contributing to the “gradual disenchantment of the world …. Perhaps in the (very) long run, the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.”

In one sense I understand the point being made. Protestants, learning the theology of the cross, were often preached to skip right to the consolation. The Gospel is consolation. But taken so easily as the review suggests was done, is missing the core of Luther’s insight. Law and Gospel is a tension. We can take consolation in the promises of God now. We can even take consolation in the visible sacraments and those brief moments – like the transfiguration – when the glory breaks through the veil. But, all things are not yet brought to completion. The devil, is still the power and principality of this realm. We are still burdened by our frail flesh which works against us. The theology of the cross is a learning to bear it and learning where that strength comes from. The reformation might have made an intellectual jump, but the emotional learning lags behind. Or maybe better is that we each come to our own understanding of the one truth. Lament, in its biblical forms points the way. The feelings are true. The Psalmist does not deny them. Jesus tells us to pray them. Instead of the the effect that the review highlights, “the gradual disenchantment of the world”, the way of the cross is toward trust in the promises. Lament’s resolution is not in immediate divine action, nor is it in abandonment of the expectation of divine action in favor of our own action. The purpose of lament is to stir belief. My God, why have you forsaken me to be met with the response into your hands I commit my spirit. Belief that God has acted ultimately. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13). And belief that allows us to walk the way here. To love our enemies.

What Lies Past Calvary’s Hill

21013wordle

Biblical Text: Luke 9:28-36
Full Sermon Draft

This is the end of the season of Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. So, it is also the end of the series of sermons that have been looking at two questions: How do we see God and the derivative How do we know we’ve seen God?

The witness of the Bible and the church to that first question is really easy: we see God first in Christ but since we were not alive at the time of the incarnation we see God in the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We also see God in the Word, the words of absolution, the proclaimed word and the written word. But as we move from sacrament to word we start activating a second sense, and we start dealing just as much with that second question.

In the transfiguration, a visual miracle if there ever was one, the emphasis is not really on the eyes. Everything is about the Word and the ears. The voice says “listen to him”. Moses and Elijah are talking with him. In Luke the entire visual episode takes place “as he was praying” or as Jesus was talking to God. The visual fades while the Word is what provides both the content and the proof. It might take a visual miracle to get our attention, but that miracle is not the point. Seeing God is not the point. Trusting God’s Word is the point.

And that Word has two points. First, Christ has done all that is necessary. Second, the glory is not long here, but lies past Calvary’s Hill.

Side Note, one of the best Hymns I’ve been introduced to in a long time is for Transfiguration Sunday. It is #416 in the Lutheran Service Book, Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory. The title here is just crassly stolen from the hymn. LSB has beautifully matched it with a lilting and melancholy-ish tune called Love’s Light. I know I’ve said to other people that I should just stop preaching on Transfiguration and just sing this hymn twice. The lyrics follow…

Swiftly pass the clouds of glory, Heaven’s voice the dazzling light;
Moses and Elijah vanish; Christ alone commands the height!
Peter, James and John fall silent, Turning from the summit’s rise
Downward toward the shadowed valley Where their Lord has fixed His eyes.

Glimpsed and gone the revelation, They shall gain and keep its truth,
Not by building on the mountain any shrine or sacred booth,
But by following the savior through the valley to the cross
And by testing faith’s resilience through betrayal, pain and loss.

Lord, transfigure our perception with the purest light that shines,
And recast our life’s intention To the shape of Your designs
Till we seek no other glory that what lies past Calv’ry’s hill
And out living and our dying and our rising by Your will.

Unionism & Syncretism Follow-up #2

President Harrison and the District President have both issued new pastoral letters.

Now I am feeling much better for three reasons.
1) President Harrison, instead of his first letter asserting a definition of worship as prayer and readings and holding the pastor guilty, has admitted that we as a synod are conflicted about that definition.

As the nation struggles with increasing violence and tragedy, we as a church body have struggled and continue to struggle with how to respond to civic/religious services in the midst of such events and to do so in a way that is in accord with our core convictions about the uniqueness of Christ. There are strong differences of opinion on this issue within the Missouri Synod, and that is because we all take our commitments to the Bible and to serving the neighbor very seriously.

2) President Harrison has made it clear that Pastor Morris’ apology was not over that difference, but as his initial letter held he apologized where offense was taken. The apology was not over core differences which are still present, but was an acknowledgement of differences.

I naively thought an apology for offense in the church would allow us to move quickly beyond internal controversy and toward a less emotional process of working through our differences, well out of the public spotlight. That plan failed miserably. Pastor Morris graciously apologized where offense was taken as a humble act to help maintain our often fragile unity in the church (1 Corinthians 8).

3) The joint statement of unity is big to me. This may be taking it too far, but what I take that as is President Harrison who sympathizes with a tighter definition, and the pastor who sympathizes with a looser definition, acknowledge that this is not, at this time, a communion dividing difference. There are no anathemas to be declared. That is the purpose behind the announcement of reconciliation and peace in my hearing.

If there is one thing that I am for it is clear definitions even if those definitions are just of the status of the controversy. At the time of the Reformation it literally took two generations to work through differences and come to concord captured in the Formula of Concord. The first part of that work is always a definition of the controversy. The first set of letters in my mind dodged clarity and asserted unity where there was none. These are clear and call a thing what it is. That is a holy tension we carry.

Weekend Reading

Richard Beck calls it being a Winter Christian. Here is Rod Dreher talking about some of the same things and in some ways the same things I was trying to express at the end of my last post. I’m pretty sure (I better be, I took an oath to it) that true orthodoxy, doctrine wise, looks an awful lot like the Lutheran confessions. The closer you try to live those the better. But I also know how big a sinner I am. So we sin boldly.

I prefer the evangelism and works of mercy those Christian brothers and sisters do to the evangelism and works of mercy that I do not do. And I know that I need to do something about that. Like, repent.

That’s a difference the Scandal made in me. Again, it’s not that orthodoxy, as many liberal Christians would say, can and should be tossed aside. It’s only that it must be understood from a broader perspective. Life is a shipwreck, and we’re all staggering around on the beach, trying to help each other make sense of it all, and get through this catastrophe and find our way back home.

Here is Wesley Hill, who wrote the best book on Homosexuality that I’ve read, Talking about how he describes himself (other than a Duke Divinity Professor). He has a deep theology of the cross at work as he writes…

Claiming the label “celibate gay Christian” means, for me, recognizing my homosexual orientation as a kind of “thorn in the flesh.” When the apostle Paul used that phrase in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, he made clear that his “thorn” was indeed an unwelcome source of pain (2 Corinthians 12:7). But he also made clear that it had become the very occasion for his experience of the power of the risen Christ and, therefore, a paradoxical site of grace (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul, I think, would have had no qualms about labeling himself a “thorn-pricked Christian”—not because he recognized his thorn as a good thing, in and of itself, but because it had become for him the means by which he encountered the power of Christ. Likewise, living with an unchanged homosexual orientation may be for many of us the means by which we discover new depths of grace, as well as new vocations of service to others.

Something that if you’ve heard me in bible study I’ve had a feeling about for a while. I’m usually quoting Ecclesiastes and saying we want is to be a time to gather, but it seems to be a time to cast away. Peter Leithart at First Things reflection on “not peace, but a sword”.

And here is Cardinal Dolan setting out an important vision for a core asset, the Catholic School. Encouraging in the fact that: a) he sees it as a necessary asset, b) he’s not lying to himself about the size of the task and c) he’s sketching out something bold.

Don’t Want to Start a Fight, but…

This was an interesting article on the start of a “Contemporary” Worship service.

Here was the line that caught me (after absorbing the fact that this church invested 2.1 Million (yes million)) in bringing this off.

“The UMC’s problem is that we have great substance but no style so we come across as irrelevant,” Mr. Nixon said. Churches touting prosperity gospels typically offer plenty of style, but no substance. “But when you put style and substance together . . . you have an amazing power to communicate to people in a profound way.”

Three questions/thoughts:
1) Does anyone take McLuhan seriously that “the medium is the message”? I’m not saying that you can’t do substance with style, but can you really preach the gospel including the cross surrounded by the medium of $2.1M of audio-visual equipment that becomes obsolete overnight?
2) When Jesus talks about the narrow way, or we quote in advent Isaiah saying “there was nothing that attracted us to him” (Isa 53:2), or he talks about 3/4th of seed falling on ground that eventually despises it, are we to make the decision that the gospel appears relevant?
3) The UMC has substance? Ok, that was an undeserved crack. Real question, if you spend $2.1M dollars and 840 people show up over-night, where did they come from? What percentage came from other congregations? If 50% came from other congregation, 30% from the “slipping-away” group and 20% came from the no-church, is that acceptable? Is it possible to have a gospel arms race, or have you lost the gospel?

Just asking…

Lead us not into temptation…

Biblical Text: Mark 9:38-50
Complete Draft

I would be hard pressed to think of a message more contra the advice of every “grow your church” consultant than this one. Dependence upon a translation of a Greek word? Check. Pointing out sin and struggles with it? Check. Attempting to say that what feels like failure might be the greatest spiritual good? Check. Resting that spiritual good squarely on faith as proof without an immediate here and now reward? Check.

So why the heck would I do that? What I’d like to be able to say is Truth. Our current culture or environment would scorn this statement, but that is what the pulpit is about, proclaiming truth. And it is truth that suffering and failure are part of this life. Our Lord was crucified and betrayed. It is harder to find a more pure case of losing. Either we deal with that, we include space for less than the power and the glory, or we’ve created a false religion that will ultimately lead to despair.

The thing is: 1) truth isn’t popular. We’d rather have the pretty lie as long as we can believe it. 2) We aren’t actually that good at discerning truth. Archbishop Cranmer’s formulation holds, “what the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies”. We want a lot of things to be true. I’m sure that many an atheist could say, yeah, like your sky god stuff. But here is the thing, through 3000 years recorded in the Bible, the prophets that are recognized are usually like Jeremiah or Elijah or Jesus – “Father, take this cup from me.” They didn’t want the world as it was, yet that was the truth. And they served truth. They served the Word. Mankind has never wanted to believe that they aren’t God or the measure of everything. Goes all the way back to Eve.

So, Jesus says in today’s text that we will all be salted with fire. Do we watch and prepare, or do hold onto the lie a little longer? Does the watchman proclaim it, or keep silent?

A Cruciform Life

Biblical Text: Mark 8:27-38
Full Text

I remember looking at these texts and thinking – ugh. There are subjects which the church’s teaching may not be in complete harmony with the culture, but it heading the same general direction. You can think probably anything to do with charity. Church people tend to think charity is a good thing. Likewise anything that pronounces the blessing of God on his people. And then there is the cross or suffering. Our culture – most cultures – have a definition of success that is high on material goods and the pursuit of happiness. Does this make me look better – if yes its success, if no its a failure. What disciples of Jesus have to understand is that God’s definition of success has nothing in common with that. The height of success to God is found at the foot of the cross. Hence the life of a disciple takes on a cruciform shape. As Paul would write in the Epistle lesson – we rejoice in our sufferings. Even Jesus dumbfounded his disciples on that one. Peter rebuked him for saying that the cross was in the future. It never left him, but Luther would talk less the theology of the cross and more the freedom of a christian the older he got. What is a simple parson, and largely a fat, dumb and happy one, to do with “pick up your cross and follow me”?

But there it is. We all will bear our cross. The successful life to God is one of faithfulness – regardless of the call and what it looks like. And the crux is to understand that while suffering – we rejoice in our sufferings.

I ended with a small coda, a poem that I think carried some of the strangeness of this to us. For a while it was possible in the US to life a life of discipleship after the apostle John. I fear we are heading more toward the Peter’s and the Paul. When the archbishop of Chicago says things like – “I’ll die in my bed, my successor will die in prison, and his a martyr in the public square” – the cross sounds more real and less spiritual.

The Christ must include the Cross – Mountain to Mountain

Biblical Text: Mark 9:1-10
Full Text of Sermon

We create fancy ways of talking about the reality of suffering – like the theology of the cross. If you think words are a bloodless way, there are less attractive ways. Like gated communities, or social darwinism or government programs that can make us feel like we are doing something but really just make us feel better and insulate us from suffering. But those fancy ways of talking at least confront reality.

But at the end of the day, the best teacher is an example. Christ is the ultimate example. He left the mountain of transfiguration for mount Calvary. You don’t get the Christ without the cross. Even more important to recognize those we know personally who have lived the theology of the cross. This sermon tries to point that out. We at St. Mark’s had an example in our midst. Our organist who we memorialized Saturday. This sermon attempts to make concrete what the theology of cross looks like.

Slight Momentary Diversions

Our organist, Dennis Hein, passed away this week from cancer. He was 64. The service is Saturday at 11 AM.

I’ve always had trouble turning off my brain. It is a cliche now, but a computer keeps cycling those giga-hertz even when 99% of them are spent running a screen saver and idling. When there are those things that come along that say “I’m going to take 100% of your cycles” and you can’t think of anything else, from hard experience that is where I tend to crash. Making sure there are slight momentary diversions is what re-introduces you to life. The daily routine prevents the crash.

This David Brooks article was fascinating. He might not like this, but Brooks is a top flight public theologian. I have a tough time thinking of anyone else who applies theology as deeply and as simply. From the article on the problem of Jeremy Lin:

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

Not to dispute that Rabbi Soloveitchik is a great teacher (he is), but those ideas are a little older than that. (I’m wondering if David Brooks is playing to his audience in the NYT?) St. Paul stated those thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:47 and elsewhere. The Gospel according to Luke is at great pains to portray Jesus as the second Adam. And Luther’s Heidelberg disputation talks about the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. The morality of the athlete is that of glory. The morality that saves is that of the cross. The life of the disciple is running the race under the cross.

Its been a bad 72 hours…

Penelope Trunk – a business/social trends speaker – always held before the truth became apparent that it was Gen X that were the true radicals. Her reasoning was that they didn’t have anything to lose anyway. The bank account had been emptied and the all the families’ assets were mortgaged. Good luck with the remains junior.

I just want to run through a list of events coming to light in the last 48-72 hours: Penn State linebacker-U coach rapes 9 year olds, former Boston diocese Cardinal Law overseer of clerical abuse throws swanky Roman birthday party, Hermann Cain frontrunner in GOP primaries seems to have no problem exchanging business favors for sexual favors, Greece the birthplace of democracy cancels referendum voting on nation’s future at insistence and blackmail of the G20, that the people of Greece might be so decadent that was the correct decision, how much money and time and air time was spent prosecuting the concierge doctor of a walking dead pop-star Michael Jackson while real crime gets overlooked every day. I could keep listing. I don’t want to. 72 hours.

I get questions and usually hostility all the time by people “up the ladder”. It is usually in two forms: a) you are being immature or b) you are assuming bad things where you have no right to assume them. Look at that list of just the last 48-72 hours. That has been the incessant drip, drip, drip of my entire life. All the while the authorities and institutions saying “not us” or “who knew” or “trust me” or “fall in line”. There isn’t an institution, authority or power that hasn’t been badly corrupted in my lifetime. And I’m the one being immature. I’m the one who has no right to assume corruption. I say have you opened your eyes? You don’t know how many times since I heard of all things a Matchbox-20 song “Real World” that the chorus resonated – “Please don’t break, the only thing that seems to work at all is you.”

Well you reach a point and you just have to say “this far and no farther.” My guess is that the only point this generation can be successful at is the local congregation or very local political institution. There is a massive job of teaching and rebuilding to create a people who will see these things, not accept them and take action. If you want to be part of the solution, live an intensely local life building a community for refugees from the larger mess.
I don’t really want to hear all kinds of rationalizations or theologizing. I don’t want to hear about duly appointed or legitimately elected offices. I don’t want to hear about separating the two kingdoms and you can’t expect better. That is useful stuff after the fact. Things you tell yourself to get up off the matt and rebuild. True stuff to remind us we life in a fallen world. But we can and we must expect better.

What I want to hear is a dedication to transparency in leadership. You can’t rebuild trust and retake ground without being radically open. Those in leadership need to slow way down and explain every step they take. You can’t assume trust. You have to build it. What I want to hear from the Christians is an acknowledgement of failures past and a commitment to holiness. More than hear I want to see it. This is a desert fathers and mothers type of spirituality. From secular things I want to see commitment to equal treatment under the law. (FYI, it could start with prosecuting Corzine – former governor and senator from NJ). And you don’t get equal treatment unless the laws are simple. I just no longer care about what you say you believe or hold dear. Even less do I want to see you legislating for others on that basis. Confession is easy; living is hard. I want to see it. If I don’t see it, it’s time for someone else.