A Note on A Passing – Rev. David Hess

The following are a quick remembrance of Pastor David Hess, the Pastor at West Henrietta Baptist, the place across the street from St. Mark’s:

There are some ways in which you can’t get further apart than a Baptist and a Lutheran. The occasional joshing that David and I would get into highlighted those difference. I might mention a baptism coming up and David would scold me for child abuse of that poor baby who didn’t even know what was going on. I could return the favor to a smiling face about how heartless he was to let all those children go without the comfort of knowing God had claimed them in baptism. And we could do that chiding because our differences were swallowed up in something bigger.

David Hess could talk about difficult things, could live with the tensions, without collapsing his faith or threatening yours. It was an inviting and attractive faith

And we were blessed to see the living core of that faith in the past month – that something bigger that swallowed up the hard stuff. David was unafraid to talk about Jesus, and all the more about the resurrection. When the natural reaction would be to cry about the wrong-ness, David reminded us that life is the gift of its source, Jesus. And when the desired reaction is fear, because there is still one of our great enemies – death – that has not been fully put under Jesus’ feet…when we would fear, David would remind us to stop. I believe in the resurrection.

Even death has been swallowed up in something bigger. The life and the resurrection of Jesus. And connected as we are by our baptisms – believers or otherwise – we are heirs along with David of that fulfillment. Thank you David for your witness.

Why Calvin and not Luther?

This is required reading. The first paragraph…

Why is Calvinism so influential among American Evangelicals while Lutheranism is not? We might describe the statistically modal convert to Calvinism—that is, the most frequently observed kind of convert—as a person like this: A young adult, usually male. Raised in a broad though indistinct Evangelical (and sometimes nominally Catholic) home. Bright. A reader. Searching for better intellectual answers to questions about God, Jesus and the Bible. Is open to becoming a pastor. Why does this young man so much more often become a Calvinist instead a Lutheran?

This first paragraph is something I bang my head on a daily when I interact with American Evangelicals or read descriptions of American Christianity. It is like Lutherans and Lutheranism is the invisible man. Evangelicals who know “something is missing” will experiment with Episcopal (even though they think they are heretics) or Rome (even though they don’t get the whole Mary thing) but Luther isn’t even on the radar. And even when they do come in the door the place “feels different”. This article gets it exactly right.

I’d emphasize one thing that came up in Bible Class Sunday. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 Paul talks about the various factions of the church at Corinth. I think these factions are highly identifiable to anyone who has spent time in the church. Paul = those who knew the founder, Apollos = those who are more intelligent and learned, Peter = those who are the simple members and wish Paul and Apollos would get off their high horses and “I follow Christ” = those who just want everyone to get along (while recognizing us as being more spiritual for saying so). If you are having fights in a church, those are the camps to this day. The advanced cases of church fights are when those camps have become identities such that you can’t imagine sharing fellowship with a Paulite or a Peterine.

So what does that have to do with Calvin and Luther? Well…Peter = Rome (here comes everybody), “I follow Christ” = Pentecostals, Paul = Luther and Apollos = Calvin. Paul/Apollos, Luther/Calvin, have a natural antipathy. And that antipathy is grounded in the fact the while Luther was first he didn’t change enough and really reform the church. Luther kept the sacraments in what any “learned modern Apollos” would see as medieval superstition.

So, that is my ecumenism is short. I think our “denominations” might be fine if they were like Augustinians and Franciscans and Dominican and Jesuits and so forth. One of the great tests is Gamaliel’s: leave them alone and if it is not from God it will go away (Acts 5:34ff). By this time 500 years later not even Zwingli has gone away, so in some way God is present in all of these. We would be much better off focusing on what unites and get over claiming an identity. And as much as I think Luther gets it right, and wish that American Evangelicals would give him a listen, our baptisms unite us and we are fellow pilgrims under the power of the cross (1 Cor 1:17).

Wrestling with the Promise


Biblical Text: Genesis 32:22-30
Full Draft of Sermon

This text is one of the strangest in the Bible, but I think it might be one of the most important for churches that baptize babies to understand.

The sermon is a character study on Jacob. You can read the entire story yourself starting in Genesis 25:19ff, but the core of my take away is that Jacob came into the world a child of promise and proceeds to attempt to earn it or escape from it. And he continues in conflict…until he can’t. Alone, in the night, scared he’s losing it all…Jacob prays. And then Jacob wrestles through the night..until he gets his blessing.

The blessing once taken from a blind Father by trickery is granted face to face. The blessing once traded for is accepted freely. The blessing that once came by grasping…is gained by letting go. And the name is changed. Not that those blessings were not true, they just were not claimed. They were not believed. But now, walking with a limp, no longer running. Israel no longer strives in conflict, but rests on the promise.

We baptized a child today. In baptism that child is made an heir of the promise – Just like Jacob. The promise is true. It doesn’t matter what we do because baptism doesn’t depend upon us. But why this text is important, is because we can turn our back on that gift. To learn the lesson of Jacob is wrestle with the promise. To hold onto God and not let go until we have made the grace and the hope ours. The christian life, lived with a Lutheran accent, is about those wrestling matches where we receive as ours what God has already given. Where we learn to live by grace in hope, instead of conflict.

A Poem for a Beautiful New York Day

The poet is Dana Gioia (page, poem source). Now I know that my continuing interest in poetry places me in about 0.1% of the American population, please forgive my oddness. Take a second on this gorgeous New England October day, to read this…

California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Now most of that poem could be just about seeing landscape with different eyes. My Midwestern raised eyes used to staring at the unending distances, had to get used to the hills of the East. In the Midwest you stared at sky just by staring at the horizon. It was impossibly far away, but always present. In the east, the ground right in front of you often lifts your eyes. You don’t see that far away meeting, but instead jump from the top of the hill right into the blue.

It would be a nice poem if just about that, but read that last line of the third stanza. Our eyes often miss the reality. Whether that is because they are dim and clouded, or because we don’t want to see what is before us, our foreign eyes “are unable to conceive that these…were alive.” We have been placed where we are; to live, we should see. But that seeing requires work.

And the poet takes it a step deeper in the last stanza. You can be born or be placed somewhere and never see anything else. And this is just what life is. If you’ve never known the monsoon, or even the gentle rain, the sparse landscape just is. You might never now, just how dry it is. Or how deep the dirt “wishes for water”.

Think he is talking just about the landscape?

Fire, Baptism, Peace and Division


Text: Luke 12:49-53
Full Sermon Draft

You don’t get much more raw than this text. This is the Jesus that tends to get submerged. This is the Jesus of a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22). So much of Christianity and church has been scrubbed and sanitized, domesticated and made safe…and then you read passages like this. And if you are going to be apostolic and orthodox, you have to make room for them. You have to talk about fire and division. And you have to see them as good news, because it is passages like this that are at the core of the Christian proclamation. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here. Settle before you are thrown in debtors prison until the last penny. (Luke 12:58ff)

Biblical Baptisms – John of Damascus

John of Damascus IconThis excerpt struck me in sermon prep this week. From John of Damascus. An interesting coincidence as St. John of Damascus is also known as the Doctor of the Assumption, the Assumption of Mary, which was on the calendar this week. Not something that Lutherans typically mark, anyway, John on Peace, Division and Baptism…

A first baptism was by the flood for the cutting away of sin. A second baptism was by the sea and the cloud, because the cloud is a symbol of the Spirit, while the sea is a symbol of the water. A third baptism is that of the law, because every unclean person washed himself with water and also washed his garments and then entered the camp. A fourth baptism is that of John, which was an introductory baptism leading those thus baptized into repentance so that they might believe in Christ. “I indeed”, he says, “baptize you in water, but he that will come after me, he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.” John purified with water in advance to prepare for the Spirit. A fifth baptism is the Lord’s baptism with which He was baptized. He was not baptized because he needed purification. He was baptized so that so that by making my purification his own, he might “crush the heads of the dragons in the waters” (Psalm 74:13), wash away the sin and bury all of the old Adam in the water, sanctify the baptizer, fulfill the law, reveal the mystery of the Trinity and become for us a model and example for the reception of baptism. We also are baptize with the perfect baptism of the Lord, which is by water and the Spirit. It is sad that Christ baptized in fire because he poured out the grace of the Spirit on the holy Apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The Lord says, “John indeed baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, not many days from now (Acts 1:5).” It may also be that he is said to baptize with fire because of the chastening baptism of the fire to come. A sixth baptism is that which is by repentance and tears, which is truly painful. A seventh baptism is that which is by blood and martyrdom. Christ was also baptized with this for our sake. This baptism is exceedingly sublime and blessed because second stains do not pollute it. An eighth baptism, which is the last, is not saving. While being destructive of evil, since evil and sin no longer hold power, it chastises endlessly.

It is nice to see someone beside Luther and the reformers point to repentance as baptism. Even though he mentions it earlier as the chastening baptism of the fire to come, that is what I take the “eighth baptism” to be – the final fire where the current heaven on earth pass away with all not washed by the earlier baptisms. A great bit of biblical theology and reading of the divine plan of salvation.

When you can bear it…(The work and means of the Spirit)


Biblical Text: John 16:12-22, Acts 11:1-18
Full Sermon Draft

We had a little malfunction with our audio equipment this week, so the recording portion of the sermon is a recreated reading. The hymn and lessons of the day are from Sunday. It is interesting, just one of those coincidences, that the sound system chose this week to “pop”. I say that because with most of my sermons, later in the day or on Monday when I write this posting, I have the general feeling of: this phrase would have worked better, I missed that fertile preaching ground completely, nobody got that allusion, and the list goes on. This sermon, after struggling with the text most of the week, in between trying to put the right words together for a funeral I dearly wanted to honor, didn’t have many of those criticisms. If you were asking me to pick out pieces for the portfolio, this one would go in there. And the system just fails. One of those thin spaces where you might actually believe we are not fighting flesh and blood, but something darker.

The wordle picture above is all scrambled this way and that. I thought that is highly representative of how the Holy Spirit is taught. We are big on the Spirit blowing when and where he wills. There is definitely a mystery in how the Spirit acts, but there is an underlying solidity as part of the promise of Christ. And that is what I think this sermon presents solidly. The Spirit has a role and typical means. In Luther’s words the Spirit, “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies”. The Spirit prepares us to bear the Word. The Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. And until we are ready, when we can’t bear it, Christ does. It is not that the Spirit says something new, but that the Spirit enables us to hear the old old story where we are. And the Spirit acts through the same old old ways – Word, Sacrament (baptism), Repentance and Holy Living. Those are the means of the work of the Spirit. Not sexy, just true. When the Spirit comes, He will lead you into all truth.

Baptized with the Spirit and with Fire…


Biblical Text: Luke 3:15-22
Full Sermon Draft

On the Christian calendar, this 1st Sunday after Epiphany is given over the Baptism of Jesus by John. We are reading from the Gospel of Luke this year, and Luke’s account is unique. First, the actual baptism is short, just two verses. Second, what captures the attention and imagination is John the Baptist’s phrase – “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. It seems pretty clear from the text that John was thinking of fire in terms of judgment. And that is a valid scriptural use or allusion of fire. But, there is a second use as well, that of the refiner’s fire. (Mal 3:2) And given Luke’s use of the Spirit and fire in Acts at Pentecost (Acts 2:3), it is that second usage that Jesus’ baptism points toward – a purification that does not consume.

Jesus, standing in those Jordan waters, stood with us and for us. He underwent the baptism of the Spirit and fire in the first sense. On the cross Christ received the fire of the wrath at sin for us. As a consequence, when we receive His baptism, we are not consumed but purified. The Spirit is placed within us which then kindles our hearts with faith and reforms our wills to follow the will of God best expressed in His law. Jesus’ baptism, Christian baptism, is full of power.

Now our adversary will try his best to deny that and get us to think it not so, but this is the thing about baptism. It is a promise of God – Father, Son and Spirit – all present at Jesus’ baptism where he set out on this course of standing for us. God’s promises are true. We just need to grab them with faith. The same faith that is kindled by the Spirit. It might not be an exciting emotional experience. We might not even remember it. But baptism is God’s promise. Our faith rests not our anything in us, but on what God is pleased with. God is please with His son, who underwent and commanded baptism.

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.


Bible Text: Ephesians 4:1-16 (background Gen 25:25-34, Luke 15:11-32, baptisms)
Full Draft

The US has a famous list of birthrights: all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This sermon is not about those, but we as a people might talk about rights, but we rarely talk about either where they came from or how. The most precious ones are grants. And even more precious are the ones backed by the divine account. Governments may say that we have certain rights, but if the government gives it can also take away. Hence even Jefferson – extreme deist at best – rooting life, liberty and pursuit in a creator.

But turn from the political realm for a second. Salvation has come to us as a birthright. Baptism now saves you (1 Pet 3:21). The Christian has been born of water and the spirit (John 3:5). There is one body and One Spirit, one lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Eph 4:5-6). That is the good news. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Salvation, forgiveness of sins, is our birthright in Christ. And nothing external, not even the devil himself, can take it from us. The sermon recounts two biblical stories: Jacob and Esau and the Prodigal Son. Two stories of Fathers and Sons. Two stories of despising the birthright. That is the only way we lose our inheritance – to despise it.

The American Founders were wise people. They understood this also. They lived in a society that was schooled by the church’s teaching. Even the deists and Harvard Unitarians quoted and studied scripture. Asked of Franklin: What kind of government have we? A republic, if you can keep it. Also Jefferson’s quotes about the tree of liberty and blood. Our tendency is to despise things that we have been granted. They knew it in the political realm. How much greater in the spiritual?

So Paul starts with an exhortation – “I a prisoner of the Lord urge you to walk in a manner worthy of your calling (Eph 4:1).” Don’t despise your birthright.