Seeing the Vision – Transfiguration Sunday

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Biblical Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the transfiguration which is described as a vision. But it is a vision that ends with a strange warning – “say nothing until the Son of Man is risen from the dead”. The full vision is that God is present both in the glory and the cross. You can’t see it if you are only looking at on. Embedded in the sermon is a homily written by friend and fellow Pastor David Hess currently in hospice. Through his reflections and witness we get invite to “see” the vision.

Sermon on the Mount – part 3

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Biblical Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Full Sermon Draft

In this sermon we continued to look at how Jesus delivers the authoritative interpretation of the law. But the last two examples take a dramatic turn from the first four. Jesus fully spells out the way of the cross which is the way of love. A way which he alone in this life fulfills. We, until the resurrection, are called to follow, to grow in love and all good works.

The Law of Love – Sermon on the Mount pt1

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Biblical Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Full Sermon Draft

In the text Jesus gives the call, initial vision and the foundation for his new covenant people. The entire sermon is about how his people should live and how they should look at what came before. He gives the basics for interpretation of scripture and the living of it. We will be reading good portions of this sermon over the coming weeks. This sermon lays down the conceptual framework and attempts to give protestant ears a different way to hear it. The center-piece is a switch from thinking about sin causing death, but the fact of death leading to sin. It points toward the basic biblical case (which is Eastern Orthodox in its core) and where you can find it in Luther’s preaching against the “Unholy Trinity” of Sin, Death and the Devil. This is a both and case, but for reading the sermon on the mount and coming to grips with what Jesus says about abounding righteousness, we Lutherans (and protestants in general) need some way to think about this without setting off works righteousness alarms. I think this is a good way.

On a personal note, I think this is one of the best things I’ve written. If you are going to be in church in the next few weeks, but you weren’t here, please take 20 minutes and give this a listen or a read.

Epiphany Homily

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Biblical Text: Matt: 2:1-12
Trouble in the World
Where we end up so often is just a function of where we start. Being born in the United States, at least materially, has long been winning the lottery of starting positions. Today, being born with two parents in an intact marriage is the best predictor, without a second factor even in the running, for success (defined materially) in life. The same thing happens intellectually. If you tell me a couple of your pre-suppositions, I can probably guess what you position would be on the scare-quote “issues”. In my experience the answer to the question: Is man fundamentally good or fundamentally flawed establishes the rest. And I’d like to say that that question does not have to be religious. Immanuel Kant would talk of the crooked timber of humanity and his contemporary enlightenment deists who helped found this country built in all kinds of checks and balances against our human foibles.

So what we end up with typically is an arms race to teach the again scare quotes “correct” starting point. Proverbs isn’t wrong, “train someone in the way, and they won’t depart from it”.

The problem with all the various cultural militias is that the entire process of teaching and formation begins with our reason and senses, and it is our work through and through.

Gospel in the World

The good news is that God doesn’t start with our work or our reason. God reveals himself. God makes himself known where we are at.

Where were the magi? Probably in Persia studying star charts and making astrological predictions for the court wealthy. Why did they head off? Probably because they saw the chance to get in on the ground floor of a great king. There stars told them to go. Not the most promising starting point.

And the first place they go is to Jerusalem. The most likely place for the new king is the home of the old king. But they probably realized that this was going sideways when Herod didn’t bring out his heir. Herod calls out everybody who should know – not by an astrological sign, but the Jewish starting point of the law – and send them on their way to find “the new king”.

And here is the Epiphany. They’ve been sent to Bethlehem, but Jesus is probably back in Nazareth. A place where nobody would look for “the King of the Jews”.

But Matthew tells us to look, “behold”…something important follows…”behold, the star went before them until it came to rest over the place the child was…when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…”
This is not an ordinary star. And you’ve heard all the naturalistic explanations. But this isn’t something natural, this is revelation. This is God coming down and revealing himself. We can’t find our way to God, but God reveals himself…God comes to where we are. Even if that is stuck between astrological star charts and a murderous king. Peter describes Jesus as the bright morning star. He talks of the “morning star rising in your hearts.” And that morning star confirming the prophetic word which is a lamp shining in a dark place.
The magi, completely without the Word, were given a star, an angel to guide them to the child. We, as Peter says, have the prophetic Word. We have the morning star rising in our hearts. We have Christ come to abide with us.
And when guided by the morning star – the revelation of Jesus Christ – all the natural certainties go out the window. Because God delights in making a new thing and sending us back to our own countries to be lights in the midst of the nations. Amen.

Innocents and The Nazarene

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Biblical Text: Matt 2:13-23
Full Sermon Draft

Reading the Gospel of Matthew, especially these early infancy chapters, is a small study in how to read scripture. Matthew’s story and his argument is scriptural. It is also historical based in the life of Israel, but more scriptural because the true meaning of Israel’s history is captured in scripture. The purpose of Matthew’s gospel is to reveal Jesus as the fulfillment of history. And to ponder the strangeness of this revelation that He will be called a Nazarene.

So the opening here is slightly more didactic or teaching in purpose than normal. I think the text invites that, and the context of modern America with all kinds of “Bad Scripture Reading” being paraded as wisdom also calls for it. I hope that the teaching bit helps with the proclamation of the fulfillment passages. My prayer is that being willing to take scripture on its own terms, will open up the grace of God in the midst of horror. And how The Nazarene helps us to receive it.

The Violent Bear it Away (A Meditation on Matthew 11 and some current events)

JB headThe appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.

It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.

Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?

The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…

The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)

But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)

God is No Repsecter of Shame

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Biblical Text: Matt 1:18-25
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I’ve just start reading this book, only just past the theses declarations, but I’m somewhat amazed at them. The book is supposed to be the culmination of a generations scholarship on sexuality in the ancient world. And that culmination is supposed to be the upsetting of prior or simplistic thinking. This is what is startling to me: his theses are more or less what I have been taught my entire benighted life in the church and that horrible bastion of it called the LCMS. My guess at what that means is that scholarship is now distant enough from the church that it can “discover” the church’s understanding and roughly agree with it without really knowing.

How does that intersect with a small parish sermon. Well, the text is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Our kids program is next week, so instead of doing John the Baptist, The Return we took Advent 4’s texts on Advent 3.) And Matthew’s account is really about the virgin birth. Coming off of the genealogy, Matthew had something to explain and an Old Testament prophecy to link in (Isaiah 7:14). In the ancient world (which the modern world is growing ever closer to) shame was the regulatory principle. Actions were governed less by any personal sense of a cosmic right and wrong but more by a social agreement upon what is honorable and what brings dis-honor or shame. The gospel disrupts all of that. It is a proclamation of freedom. Freedom from shame and freedom for right action. The core of the shame system was slavery. A slave could not have honor, so it didn’t matter how they were treated. And many were treated as sex slaves. It was an everyday occurrence. So, sexuality would be a defining sphere of shame. Caesar’s wife had to be beyond repute because Caesar was at the top of the honor pyramid and less than that would bring shame. And you can fill in the rest from slave to Caesar and all the forms of human sexuality.

Now the Jews had a much better grasp of sin or personal adherence to a cosmic code, but they were always fighting the honor system. Think of every time Jesus goes to a meal with the Pharisees and takes note of how they are sitting(Luke 14:7) or mocks those who like to parade around in fancy clothes (Mark 12:38-40). Pure honor/shame status clubs. Hence why Jesus calls the woman giving two mites better because she is much closer to the cosmic standard of justice.

Then comes the story of Joseph and pregnant Mary. This is pure shame vs. sin. Mary is sinless. The child is from the Holy Spirit. This is how God has chosen to act. How God has chosen to act, if Joseph goes along with it will bring him great shame. His village was still calling Jesus “Mary’s Child” at the start of his ministry (Mark 6:3). Honor/shame called for stoning. God said this is how I am going to save my people. Honor/shame says that God couldn’t be associated with anything that is shameful or lowering of status. God is born as a baby from a humble virgin. God is Immanuel in the midst of his people. In the midst of their shame. And he brings grace. And grace itself is shameful, because you can’t pay it back, because you are not in control.

God is no respecter of shame. He does care about sin and the law, but he also has given the remedy. Jesus, who saves His people from their sins.

The Reign of God has Drawn Near to You

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

I attempted something in this sermon through a couple of methods that I think most people would say don’t. John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure. He was a huge deal to those in Jesus’ time. The whole “there is not one greater born of woman” phrase that Jesus employs. John had disciples that lasted long in to the first century. The apostles in Acts run into them as “ones who’ve had the baptism of John” but didn’t know about Jesus. Even in secular literature John gets more time. Josephus records the extent of the Baptist’s following which was enough to cause Herod to come after him. But in our day and for most of Christian history John is just an almost forgotten per-cursor. He would have liked that. “He must become greater, I must become less.” But preaching from John to me has renewed vitality. My intention was to create the picture of how we and those people streaming out to John are very close, probably closer than we have been for at least 500 years if not 2000. Want to hear more of that take a listen.

The pay-off is that the proclamation of John can be the direct proclamation to the people of God today. Not that it couldn’t have been 50 or 100 years ago, but I think, if I was successful with the first part, then the second part becomes one of those “ah-ha” type experiences. That is what was so powerful, combined with oh, and it applies to me in some very specific way.

So, my guess is this either “works” or you wonder what the heck I’m talking about. Either I was successful in casting “in those days” over today, or the proclamation falls on deaf ears.

A Political Act

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Biblical Text: Matt 21:1-11
Full Sermon Text

The text for the first Sunday in Advent always seems a little off. There is an alternate to the Palm Sunday Triumphant entry, so I had to check if that was because this was a change in the appointed readings that went along with changing Palm Sunday proper to Sunday of the Passion. But that is not the case. I guess someone else just had the same odd feeling that you don’t expect to show up in Advent and hear Palm Sunday.

But the text actually establishes the time. Jesus is committing a political act declaring himself a king. But not like any King the world would recognize. Neither the Galileans marching him in, nor the residents of Jerusalem, as Matthew makes clear, understand. Both want a messiah of their own making. Not this messiah who comes humbly. Not this messiah who stops to give sight to the blind. Not this messiah who is willing to suffer violence instead of inflicting it.

Nothing has really changed. We still want Jesus in our image. But thankfully we don’t get that. We get a King who comes right now in grace. To those with eyes that have been opened, this kingdom calls us to be its witnesses and its hands. One day this Kingdom will come in glory, but right now, it comes humbly. Through flesh and blood, through word and sacrament.

Epiphany and Finding God?

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Biblical Text: Matt 2:1-12 (Isaiah 60:1)
Full Draft of Sermon

There are five week of Epiphany this year. Epiphany is a season on the church’s calendar that stretches from the end of the Christmas Season (Jan 6th, the 12 days of Christmas) until the beginning of Lent. The older purpose of Epiphany was the slowly dawning realization of the divinity of Jesus. Not only was this Christmas Child true man born of the Virgin Mary, but also true God made of the same substance as the Father. The traditional reading for the last week of Epiphany was Transfiguration. It is a season constructed around a theology from below – starting with what we know, Jesus, and moving toward a full epiphany of the Christ.

And Christology, the understanding of the person and nature of Jesus, is always a good thing. If you’ve got your Christology off, everything else goes strange. But Christology is not what afflicts us today. It is easy to look at the creeds and sort out true doctrine from false. Our afflictions today are down in that 3rd article of the creed. And they swirl around a question and its derivatives: How do we find God?

The 5 week epiphany season is a short one this year, but the lessons we will be reading all lend themselves to reminding ourselves a couple of key truths. We might be asking How do we find God, and the magi I’m sure were thinking they were on a quest to find the child, but as the story makes clear, we tend to be hopelessly lost and mess things up. In this world the Word finds you. And How does the Word find you? Word and Sacrament and the people created by those promised things. The Epiphany I’m preaching toward this season is the one that Jacob had – “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it (Gen 28:16).” The Lord is present, we can meet the Lord, in some very specific ways instituted by God himself that continue to carry His promises for us. They always have carried His promises, even when we didn’t know it. Next week’s text? The Baptism of Jesus.