Memorial and Ascension

Biblical Text: 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11
Full Sermon Draft

Memorial Day is always a tough one for the church. Everybody, including the preacher, wants to acknowledge the sacrifice of those slain in the nation’s wars. The problem with that is our memorials are not just about the individual, but they are judgements or statements about the cause. When the church simply baptizes the secular memorials, it does something that it doesn’t have the authority to do. What this sermon attempts to do is make a distinction between worldly glory and the glory of God. When we understand that distinction and their basis, we should be able to be in world, including giving proper recognition to patriots, but not be of the world, which would mean uncritically agreeing with a state’s declarations. Because there are times when the state’s demands are something the church cannot give. In those times we recognize we are Peter’s elect exiles, bearing the little while, for the exaltation to come.

Organ Dedication

Organ Dedication Program
Organ Dedication Homily Text

We dedicated our new organ this Sunday. The full program recording is below. It was wonderful having Mr. Loomer. You won’t get the stereo sound out of our recording, which is why you should have been there. It was a good day.

Athens and Jerusalem?

Biblical Text: Acts 17:16-31,32-34
Full Sermon Draft

The text is Paul in Athens. I could tell you very quickly what the core of the sermon is about, but then you might not listen. If there is one thing that we in the modern world are mistaken about it is the pace of truth. We think it is an intellectual exercise as quick as a download of information. And we expect it to be complete. Run the bit check on that download. Not that truth is more organic and takes time. But when you hear it, and you know you’ve heard it, well. That is what this is about.

Worship Note: I’ve left in our Hymn of the Day LSB 832, Jesus Shall Reign. The words are Isaac Watts’, the best hymn writer in the English language. The tune should be familiar from Easter, Duke Street, which is the common tune of I Know the My Redeemer Lives. It is a great hymn which captures the breadth of Paul in Athens.

10 Theses on Prayer

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

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

The High House and The False House

Biblical Text: 1 Peter 2:2-10
Full Sermon Draft

I think the lectionary makers have stuck us with the end of one devotion and the start of another. I think 2:1-3 complete the chapter 1 thought. Peter then picks up a new thought in 2:4. The first devotion moves from new birth to craving pure spiritual milk. It is a devotion about growing up in Christ. The second devotion moves from that individual and early growth in faith to the communal nature and its maturity. As individuals we are newborns (baptism), babes (milk) and eventually grown up into salvation. As the church we are living stones built into the new temple, the royal priesthood, a holy nation. When we are grown we come into our maturity which is as a people.

This being mother’s day, the childhood analogy works well. The bridge from the childhood to the communal is that the church is the feminine or mother image. God is building his church, and he builds it from the stones that are rejected by the world. We living stones conform to Christ, the rejected cornerstone, with all the rough angles of the cruciform life. In this there are always two building projects: the world’s and God’s, the false house and the high house. Mom, the church, is the means by which we are built as the living stones of the High House. (Note: I’ve stolen those labels from an enchanting work of fantasy (The Evenmere Chronicles by James Stoddard).

Music note: I lost most of the music in the recording, but I think I kept the best piece, although as a congregation we got off to a rough start on it. LSB 645, Built on the Rock, captures the spirit of the text and the sermon quite well.

Recording note: I’m sorry for the overall quality. The volume level was quite low (our line volume ghost came back). I had to re-record the lesson as the early parts were unusable. I’ve normalized the volume levels to the best of my ability, but you will notice the change from a studio sound to the live static.

10 Theses on the Office of the Keys and Today’s Church

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

1. When Bonhoeffer thought about “religionless Christianity” what he meant was a church that did not have the authority to bind.

2. Even into the 20th century, for large numbers of western people the church maintained the ability to discipline which is the ability to bind

3. That ability existed regardless of the state of one’s faith. The unbelieving libertine would face the binding authority of social stigma.

4. The upheavals of the 20th century have left the church not only unable to bind non-believers, but believers as well are unbound.

5. Believers are unbound in that the church is a personal choice. One might bind themselves but nobody is bound to pope or creed without consent.

6. The state and the family remain the only binding authorities, and the family is disintegrating fast.

7. In this religionless Christianity, the church is suffering a state of humiliation as Her Lord suffered.

8. The state of humiliation did not change the fact that Jesus was the eternal son.

9. Likewise the church’s humiliation does not change the eternal facts of the office of the keys. What is bound remains bound.

10. What it will make clear is that the motivations of binding words are love, not power.

Organ Dedication, May 21st @ 3PM, You are Invited

Biography of Guest Organist …

Chase Loomer is a junior at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he studies organ performance with David Higgs. A native of Charlotte, NC, Chase was awarded first prize in the AGO/Quimby Southeast Regional Competition for Young Organists and has been a prizewinner at several other competitions throughout the southeast, including the Columbia and Winston-Salem AGO competitions. Chase was also the winner of the Sarasota-Manatee AGO Chapter Competition. In high school, he was a five time Stigall Scholarship recipient. Chase has served as the interim organist at Centre Presbyterian Church in Mooresville, NC and as a VanDelinder Fellow at Christ Church in Rochester, NY, where he was awarded the inaugural Casparini Prize for excellence in organ performance. Currently, he is the Assistant Organist at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Greece, NY. His previous organ teachers include Dr. Patrick Scott and Dr. Katie Ann McCarty, and he studied piano with Dr. Dylan Savage and the late Dr. Ruskin Cooper. Chase also has an interest in jazz piano and was a member of one of the Eastman jazz ensembles. As a singer, Chase was selected for NC Governor’s School in 2012 and currently sings in the Eastman Repertory Singers and Christ Church Schola Cantorum. He was recently featured in the Rising Star series at the 2016 AGO National Convention in Houston and attended the 2016 OHS Convention as an E. Power Biggs Fellow.

Truly, Truly, I Say to You

Biblical Text: John 10:1-10
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the fascinating precursor to the “good shepherd” passages. In the context, precursor is the wrong word because the first 6 verses of John 10 are the basis. Verses 7 through 10 are an expansion or a change of emphasis. The good shepherd verses are elaborations on these initial “truly, truly” sayings. What this sermon attempts to do is meditate on those sayings. It asks the confirmation question “what does this mean” about the structure. After answering is examines three things: a) how God acts in this world as explained by the parable, b) our duty after “hearing the voice” and c) what Jesus means by abundant life. I think this is a rather thick sermon, but worth a listen

Vanity of Vanities (A Reply to a Note about the LCMS)

Have you ever read or heard a comment and been split between: “better late than never” and “years late and dollars short”? That was my reaction reading this. I am struggling, will struggle and will probably fail as I write to keep my cynicism out of this. So, let me just state my most cynical thought up front. After years of disregarding and exiling anyone who said “you might have a problem”, now that the seminary is having an enrollment problem, we get lines from senior seminary leaders like “maybe we should listen to 20-30 year olds” and “we might need to think about structure”.

Ok, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I do want to write a few vain things in response. I’m going to put on my MBA hat and mix in a certain low cunning. Nothing that I write here is something that I haven’t shared before with others in private conversations. The universal response is bi-polar. In power and over 60 think I’m insane while powerless and under 45 think I’m preaching the gospel.

The first question that must be asked is simply if the LCMS as an institution is one that you would choose for the moonshot Dr. Raabe writes about, or if the better strategy for this institution would be simply to focus on current strengths and realize that size will be smaller in the immediate future. It would be the simple but boring answer to say “years late and dollars short”, focus on strengthening what remains, hold fast what you have. The church of Philadelphia is a real church. Any MBA working through the Harvard case study would say this, but those in power after squandering the last 30 years are going to feel a twitch of guilt, so let’s talk about the moonshot.

First, moonshots are methodical and expensive. Remember the scene from Apollo 13 as they figured out the sequence to get the power below the threshold? The first hard truth that must be digested is that institutions like the LCMS primarily spread along with population migration. That is not going to change. How the LCMS started new congregation, outside of elder fights, was when enough loyal LCMS members moved far enough away and banded together to start a new congregation. That was always reactionary in regards to place. In 1964, peak church, people were loyal enough to denominations to start one of their brand. In the past 30 years that has not been the case. If the LCMS is going to stage a moonshot the first thing it will have to do is learn to forecast population movements and open congregations “on spec”. The SBC and the non-denoms could do this because in that tradition an enterprising young person felt the call, went to where the grass looked green and opened the door. That is not possible in a denomination that requires 8 years of education for ministers. Other groups, like Presbyterians, could do this because they had a middle judiciary (i.e. the Presbytery) that had real access to funds. They didn’t always use it, but some did, and they used it to start churches. You are either trusting freelancers or trusting some form of Bishops with real authority. Our mixed congregational structure is the worst of both worlds for the change we have experienced.

The LINC model (reference Houston) leans toward the non-denom freelancers. The LCMS has fenced it off through ethnic boundaries and then through the SMP. The opposite, a strong bishopric, really hasn’t been attempted. This gets us to the second hard truth. Either of these forms will still take lots of money not currently in evidence. Personally I spent five years working on a LINC model. At the end, the attempt folded for lack of consistent funding. Lutheran congregations are a slow burn or thick environment. In the city it is doubtful that one would ever reach self-sustaining absent a vow of poverty from a missionary pastor probably along with a vow of celibacy. Even in areas where self-sustaining could be reached, it will take time to disciple. It is probably better to think of these new sites in a monastic way. We send people with significant support to start a new place away from the mother-house. We were never good at thin attractional ministries to begin with and the days of gathering “nominal Christians” with attractional gimmicks are over. The new congregation is going to be a place of new evangelization. Whether you choose freelancing or centralized, these new cites are going to have to be supported monetarily as missions for extended time periods. Or we need to be very open about the hardships of the calls.

This is getting long, but I’ve got a couple other hard truths I want to look at quickly. Third hard truth, the LCMS elects leaders defensively and because it is their turn, not because the person has a vision that they would like to lead toward. The result of that institutional bias is stasis, lack of funds and maybe most importantly lack of any real authority to experiment. The LCMS somewhere would need to elect a young-ish person with the mandate to experiment and the vigor and desire to be on the road raising funds one small parish at a time. Fourth hard truth is that many of the congregations that would need to be relied upon need help themselves. I’ll use my place as an example. We have four LCMS congregations within a 10 mile radius. All four are open and living through various special graces of God. We could have two solid places. We could even have one exemplar. Instead we have four Philadelphia’s (Rev 3:7). Fifth hard truth, the LCMS would need to stop eating its young. What do I mean by that? Well, the seminaries spent 2000-2013 taking $60,000 per student and sending them to churches that were often barely operational. Or they didn’t get a call, but the loans were due immediately, along with the reminder that calls are not guaranteed. Or you end up on CRM (some fairly others quite unfairly) and you might as well get a job at selling cars. The entire institution sustained itself by churning through the idealistic offerings of young people. We like to think of the ministry with rose glasses and romanticize the call, but the MBA’s supply and demand has more to do with it than we might like. Right now, those curves meet lower than we like. It will take an external shock (i.e. money or money in the form of time) to move that.

The MBA recommendation in such a case would be a skunkworks. You would need to establish a well-funded wide open experiment zone. The purpose is two-fold. First to protect the experiments from the main system’s immunological reaction to kill it. The second is to fail fast and pivot fast so that you have developed something that works by the time the main institution breaches the walls. The seed is in the stump. As I said at the start I doubt that the LCMS is the institution that one would pick to for this moonshot. My guess is that it needs to be burned again. But that very reference (Isa 6:11-13) would be my hope. God works through death and resurrection. A church full of Philadelphia’s has doors that no one can shut.

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.