Reformation Day – Why We Observe It

I wish I could say I made those cookies, but I stole the picture from instagram. Now there is a hard-core Lutheran.

Full Draft of Sermon

Baby Linley mentioned in the sermon is the grand-daughter of my A/V support, so the podcast version might be a little later. There is something deeply fitting about having a baptism on Reformation Day. Baptism is of course shared by the entire church, but each tradition chooses to emphasize a different understanding. And that actually gets to the core of this sermon. I hoped to present a uniquely Lutheran understanding of the Gospel. And to truly do that you need to consider baptism.

Objectively in baptism God has made you part of the family. Its His baptism. Its his word and promise and work. Through his work you belong. Subjectively it comes by faith. It’s true, but you need to make it your own. You have to believe it. And then you become it. As Luther says about baptism in the catechism, “the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned…and the new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God”. We daily live out our baptism. We are daily becoming more like Christ. A Lutheran understanding of the gospel is a meditation on baptism.

For me the fullness of the gospel is best expressed by the Lutheran understanding. Everything else either adds something (Jesus and ______) or subtracts something (Sacraments just signs or just spiritual). That is why Reformation Day gets its observation. It is a yearly call to live our Christian Freedom bestowed in baptism. A call not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by Christ.

God just usually doesn’t answer the “why” questions…

What we are talking about is theodicy. Milton would famously set out to “explain the ways of God to man” and ended up with an attractive Satan. Theodicy happens anytime you try and harmonize: all powerful god, good god, existence of evil. When I worked finance I used to joke that all the executives demanded was: Revenue growth, unit sales growth and profit margin growth. Every conversation was an explanation which of the three they were not going to get that quarter. In a logical world you can pick two of the three in both cases. But unlike economics which is almost always rational, the ways of God are not so. Deal with it. The two ways to deal are: a) this is a bunch of junk or b) where can I go, you have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). That is the faith question. And since a god who is not all powerful is not god, and the existence of evil is provable, the faith question is if God is good. God’s proof of that to us is Jesus Christ. Can you look at the life of Jesus including the cross and say, “you know God, it might not be something I can understand right now, but I’m going to trust you.”

That is what a Senate candidate recently stumbled into, and a clueless national media refused to understand. The senate candidate tried to explain his reasoning behind being against abortion even in the case of rape. And his reasoning is exactly that of faith. A child as the product of rape certainly doesn’t look good. Would a good God allow such a thing to happen? His answer in its core was: I don’t get it but I’ll take it on faith. The national media decided to declare the candidate “pro-rape” and certain predictable republicans quivered about being turned into “the party of rape” and used it as an opportunity to “ooga-booga” religious members of his party. (I’m not adding that link just because it infuriates me how a neo-con war drummer can fret about social conservatives in such a gross way and yet they have never had to pay one red cent in accountability for Iraq/Afghanistan and every other war they’d like to start. Sorry, rant mode off.)

Leaving the world of partisan politics, what this does expose is just how much Christians are the “away team” in this current cultural moment. The “home team” gets all the calls. The refs whistles are always a little bit faster for the home team, and that home team player always gets that extra half step on the way to the bucket. Christians need to get used to identifying trap questions and need to so understand their own beliefs such that they can explain them sympathetically to “away team” refs. The away team doesn’t decide not to show up. Christians don’t withdraw, but we need to be smarter and more practiced to win. If you can’t turn the why questions back to Jesus, then the next best strategy is probably to emulate God and just not answer theodicy’s “whys”. They aren’t answerable outside of Christ.

Here are a few other’s on the same subject: Douthat, fellow LCMS’er Molly Hemingway, and the parallel universe of questions that would be asked if Christian’s were the home team.


Just a little SAT prep for you. That little word analogy is something that I’ve been pondering. This article captures something that I think is true, but I’m not sure I’m as sanguine about it.

A parish is a geographical area. Instead of counties the state of LA, French Catholic in origin, has parishes. The catholic church has parishes. My moniker here is Parson Brown. Besides recalling the Christmas song and a cagy mystery solver, the parson is the parish minister. The church in America, even without an established religion, has always acted like a parish. The assumption was that everyone was a member by reason of living in the geography. Some were closer to ideal and some further, but members. Hence at baptism, marriages and funerals, it didn’t matter, the church was sought out. And the church, unless you were a sect, performed the function. A parish fulfills a cultural spot. It might and in most cases is built around a “cult” which I’m defining as a set of shared beliefs, but the secret of the “cult” is that it is never actually questioned. The culture is that which goes without questioning or justification.

A congregation is a gathering of believers. A congregation gathers around a confession – “we believe, teach and confess…” The joke Q: How do you get rid of the bats in the steeple A: You confirm them, is a confessional joke. The confessional can’t understand why you would confirm something and then be completely absent. To the cultural, it is just something you do as a shared experience. To the confessional, life is a reflection on and a spring welling up from a set of shared beliefs. We believe is God the Father Almighty…We believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord…We believe in the Holy Spirit. Those beliefs are the the foundation you build on and the target you shoot for. Jesus is a the alpha and the omega. And the confessional is driven to those end-poles.

A confessional grouping can’t help but create its own culture through the shaping of beliefs. And sometimes, if it gets big enough, that culture drifts and forgets its end-point moorings. We just do this, well, why do we do this? No, that can’t be why? Sometimes it can be called back. Sometimes not.

What that article is very sanguine about is saying that now is a time that it can’t. The drift has been too long, too far and too sustained. In fact, like most confessionals, the article might be positively giddy thinking about the “vibrant congregations in an increasing secular environment. That’s the future.” Oh, I can see that. I can understand that. But I also wonder, as “Christians continue to lose what some have called a home-field advantage” what things we don’t think about now come into question. Do you really think that the charitable contribution tax break withstands the budget pressures? What does that do to congregations? How many congregational members are up to making a positive confession by which I mean that making the confession will cost them something. The biblical examples of that are not encouraging (John 6:60-66, Mark 14:32-50).

The clock is swinging toward the confessional and the congregational. That is a good thing. But I wouldn’t seek to hasten the swing. Everything in its season. Making clear confessions, necessary. Forcing confessional confrontations with “those who are not against us” (Luke 9:50) is probably avoidable.

Curving Inward vs. Emptying Out

Biblical Texts: Mark 10:23-31 and Ecclesiastes 5:10-20
Full Draft of Sermon

The deeper theological term that this sermon circles around is kenosis. This contrast used as a summary refrain: The city of man seeks God to add to itself, The City of God seeks God to empty itself, is the kenosis statement. Every path of discipleship involves some emptying of the self. I’ve applied this here in a stewardship frame; it was budget preparation day. The first step in a robust spirituality is often a turning back to God, an emptying from ourselves, of a determined percentage of income. (The traditional response is the tithe, but the important point is putting kingdom values first.) The American church from what I’ve experienced has a problem right here. It is just not willing to turn over finances in a serious way to God. The reasons are legion and many are legitimate. But those reasons pale in comparison to the distrust that is built by not surrendering a portion to God.

But I think this applies in a much larger way to today. There is a much reported phenomenon of spiritual but not religious or the new “nones” in reply to religious beliefs. And I’ve got a big problem with most of that. And yes my current livelihood depends upon the religious aspect, so I am a partisan. But the call of Jesus is to turn our gaze away from our navels (stop being curved in on ourselves) and in this age to turn toward the cross which is the ultimate emptying of self. And Jesus’ vision in not a personal spirituality, or at least not exclusively. I can’t be like the rich young ruler looking to add spirituality to everything I’ve already got. Jesus’ vision is incarnational. The church is that incarnation. The church is the place where a true spirituality is created. The church is that 100 fold return of brothers and sisters…and persecutions. If it is not, it isn’t fulfilling its purpose.


That is a big Latin based word that basically means clear. Within Christianity coming from the Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist), it is a doctrine – the perspicuity or the clarity of scripture. Wikipedia actually does a decent job here. I’m going to get out the old “Big Book of Doctrine” in the LCMS, Pieper’s Dogmatics. “According to scripture, the perspicuity of Scripture consists in this, that it presents, in language that can be understood by all, whatever men must know to be saved.” 2 Tim 3:15-17 forms the backbone of this definition. “You have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Note what that doesn’t say. That doesn’t say that everything in scripture is immediately understood. What is necessary is clear – Jesus Christ. Everything else is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training – i.e. its progressive, you will come to know the truth if you remain in the word.

Pieper is also interesting as he lists a few reasons why even clear scripture might remain obscure:
1) The language is unknown. “Like with any other book, we must penetrate into the Bible by reading it diligently”.
2) Hearts are hostile to its message.(Matt 11:25, 2 Cor 4:3-4) If you think you know better and won’t be instructed, it won’t make sense. (Big terms: a ministerial use of reason vs. a magisterial use of reason. Is reason your servant or the master.)
3) Prejudice against certain doctrines. “They paste over the words of Scripture a human interpretation.”

The main point is that scripture is a “lamp unto my feet and the light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). Scripture illumines if we let it.

The reason I bring that up is because of a few links:
1) Strange Herring talking about Rachel Held Evans a noted female evangelical blogger. Ms. Held Evans tries to “live biblically” for a year. Her definition of living biblically seems to amount to taking strange passages from the OT that we don’t follow as law anymore. Her point in her book is inerrancy. Paraphrasing the argument: we choose which parts of the bible to lift up and which to let go, so we should use a more reasonable method of doing that. The problem for Ms. Held Evans is not really inerrancy but perspicuity. In some ways her heart is not open to its message. She want to take a magisterial approach to the bible. She is pasting her thoughts over the bible and refusing to take a serious “in the language” approach to the scriptures. What she ends up doing is mocking them. Which is exactly what a true outsider, as Strange Herring starts with, can see.

2) The comic posted is from Scot McKnight’s place. And it is a humorous attempt to capture what we are talking about. What he talks about in that post is a mature example of being in the language of the word and using reason in a ministerial way. Using reason to say, lets look at comparative literature of the time period and them come back to the bible is reasonable in a helping way to understand its meaning and our own dark spots. The metaphor detecting device is just scripture itself in its context. Become familiar with the language of scripture and it becomes clear.

3) And then Brian McLaren, who has been put in a situation I hope and pray I never am. As a leader in christian thought circles, he’s been forced to choose between family and the Word of God. Jesus warned about such things. (Matt 10:34-36) His answer has clearly become pasting over those areas of scripture that are uncomfortable. For all his talk of “the other”, he’s making Christians who won’t confirm his pasting as truth into the other.

It is not that McLaren and Held Evans are outside of grace. But they are outside of reading scripture clearly and in a dangerous place. You are always in a dangerous place when you have ceased to take scripture as the lamp and instead placed your reason and experience as a better source of light.

An Appalling Stat

Dr. Beck on the crossing of a milestone – 1 out of every 100 people in the US is in prison. (One of the reasons we have that petition ‘for all those in prison’ every week.)

The really horrible part:

This is an incarceration rate higher than what is found in repressive regimes such as China and Iran.

It is hard to have moral authority with stats like that.

I’m not as convinced about the “New Jim Crow” label given. Jim Crow was on purpose and codified directly as law. This is the result of our current laws and the system that polices them. And I don’t think anyone sat down and said how do we recreate Jim Crow. I’d be more concerned about how byzantine our laws are such that you probably commit what could be charged as “Three Felonies a Day“. The old saw that ignorance in not an excuse worked when the civil law reflected natural law (i.e. the 10 commandments), with today’s law, not so much. Combine that fact with this, for profit prisons, And you’ve created what the novelist Scott Turow calls the “chow line”. The prison system is built to chew you up.

But that is the case with all legal systems. The only way out is grace.

The Walking Dead

Enough philosophy, hurts my head being all serious, my favorite theological TV show came back on this Sunday. And it looks to be back in form: More zombies, more horror, less talk.

As I’ve said before, zombies can bring up all kinds of theological questions. We have zombie congregations around here. We are St. Mark’s Lutheran in West Henrietta, but there are three congregations with that same name roughly local. The Lutheran congregation in Mendon, NY is St. Mark’s, and there was a St. Mark’s in Rochester, NY proper that closed its doors some 15 years ago. It (somewhat) merged with another local congregation. I received a phone call yesterday. Someone appeared to be dying. The social worker was calling looking for a pastor to come pray with the man. The man had claimed he was a member of St. Mark’s Lutheran. I’ll get a call something like that about once a month. The sadness in those calls is that my first reaction is to dig out old directories and see if the name existed here. Zombie members. (One of the reasons I give little credence to membership. You show me your membership without attendance and I’ll show you my church on Sunday some of whom might not technically be members.) I’ve been here just over 4 years, but there are still people who I will not recognize the name, who the congregation has not seen in years stretching to decades, who will answer on their death bed to being members of St. Mark’s. If I don’t find the name in one of our old directories, the second reaction is to attempt to call the other two congregations to see if that name is in one of theirs. At that point it is more about notification because if someone is truly on their deathbed I run out even if it is with some angst at what I will probably see.

In this particular case the man was a member of St. Mark’s in Rochester proper. The sister arrived about 30 mins after I did which is slightly different. In these cases I rarely get to find out what spurred the statement of St. Mark’s. Most often the person is alone in the world. Here the sister and her husband entered and the first question was “who are you”? I introduced myself, and the husband excused himself almost immediately. After exchanging pleasantries I inquired about what St. Mark’s he might have meant? Should I follow-up with one of the other congregations? “No need.” The man had never moved his membership to the merged congregation. He was a member of the congregation that had closed its doors over 15 years ago – a zombie congregation. It is in some ways a double zombie membership. He’s a member of a congregation that doesn’t exist, yet that congregation has a zombie like existence in the merged entity. From what I understand it continues to meet somewhat separately there and occasionally gets called by the old name.

I understand why the social worker would call and try to find a pastor. But the truth is that churches and pastors are not in the zombie business. There is no magic I can bring to the deathbed. All a pastor brings is the same thing he brings every Sunday – the Word: words of absolution, words of promise, words of grace. If at the absolution you are mumbling “its too late, I’ve done too much”, all I can do is say “no, now is the time”. But if you’ve absented yourself for decades, if it wasn’t meaningful or important earlier, why would you believe me now? It is still true, but why would you believe that proclamation? Take it from me, deathbed conversions are a rare grace. The patterns of life are the patterns of death. To the one who has, more will be given. To the one who lacks, even what he has will be taken away. (Mark 4:25)

The season opening of The Walking Dead had one scene that strikes me as a metaphor for church work in 21st century America. Herschel, the old veterinarian from the farm, gets bitten trying to secure a new home. That would typically lead to death and becoming a zombie. We will see what happens, but Rick, the main character, grabs a hatchet and immediately cuts off the limb. If your foot causes you to become a zombie, cut it off, it’s better to live footless, than stumble around zombified with both. Jesus once said let the dead bury their dead. (Luke 9:60) In our culture of The Walking Dead, the church is about proclaiming life, even if it requires a hatchet.