A Minute to Learn; A Lifetime to Master

Biblical Text: Matthew 5:36-6:18 (Lectionary reading was Matthew 5:36-48, I extended it to take in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount as next week is Transfiguration and lent leaving the Sermon behind.)

Full Sermon Draft

We’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount for most of the Epiphany season. The beatitudes as the entry; salt, light and a city on a hill as the purpose; you have heard, but I say as the doctrinal basis of the Kingdom. We’ve said that the Sermon functioned as a catechism for the early church. The one thing that Luther’s catechism could be faulted for – even recognized by the earliest Lutherans who attached the table of duties – is that is almost completely an expression of the faith which is believed (fides quae creditur) and ignores the practices of the faith which believes (fides qua). Jesus doesn’t neglect that in his sermon. That is why I extended the lectionary reading. Following his authoritative teaching of the 10 commandments, Jesus takes up charity/almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are piety practices. Using Jesus words, how we practice righteousness.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ teaching is how free it is. He doesn’t mandate or limit piety practices. He assumes that we will have them and that they are necessary, but that we will live our own faith. What he is concerned about is that our piety practices are done with the correct heart. He is concerned that we do them to be connected to the Father instead of desiring the reaction of our neighbors. This is the difference between true piety and virtue signaling. Develop the first and you Father who sees in secret will reward; do the latter and you have received your reward.

The last movement of the sermon is to examine how the phrase that ends the doctrinal section “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” is fulfilled in Christ, and grows in us. The doctrine of the church can be summarized in a few minutes, the living of it takes a lifetime to master. And even then it is not us, but God who brings it to completion.

Worship Note: I have left in the recording two musical pieces. First between the OT and the Epistle readings our Choir sings a gorgeous piece. (I really need to get a better mic aimed there instead of simply ambient. I did raise the volume level slightly to compensate.) Then I left in our closing hymn, LSB 848, Lord, Whose Love through Humble Service which captures well I believe the force of the text. If we capture the vision of the doctrine taught, it empowers our lives. It also has one of the great tunes in the hymnal which is almost pure Americana from The Sacred Harp. If the American church adds nothing to the eschatological choir beyond these tunes, it will still have added something worthy.

A Great and Mighty Wonder

Biblical Text: John 1:1-14
Key Hymn: A Great and Mighty Wonder, LSB 383
Full Sermon Text

Maybe it is just getting older, but two things I experience daily that a younger man wouldn’t think could happen together. It could just be becoming set in my ways, but that isn’t how I experience it. Daily I am more convinced both of basic Christian doctrine and also with specific Lutheran doctrine. I’m a contrarian by nature. It is the last thing I would have expected. At the same time as becoming more sure of that doctrine, I’m becoming less militant. What I mean by that is while I can’t imagine something that forces a rethink on Augsburg Confession doctrine, I’m also much more willing to say with Paul “and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil 3:15-16)” We are all straining toward a goal we have not attained. I save my militancy for those situations where I see people deliberatively leaving the narrow way, and those tempting them off it.

A Great and Mighty Wonder is my favorite Christmas hymn. It helps that it is set to Es IST Ein Ros (Lo, How a Rose is Blooming), but that isn’t everything. When you understand a little of the life of the writer it becomes all the more powerful. This sermon hopefully proclaims the savior’s birth, reflected through St. Germanus, while living in the eschatological hope. Germanus’ life is a life that is incomprehensible outside of doctrine. It is also one that understands how that doctrine itself can deny the hope that is only Christ. His hymn is a moving meditation moving to the great hope when all idols – seen and unseen – shall perish and satan’s lying cease. And Christ shall raise his scepter, decreeing endless peace.

A Wise Son


Biblical Text: Proverbs 8
Full Sermon Draft

This was Trinity Sunday. Traditionally it is the Sunday we bring out the Athanasian Creed. The creeds in general but that creed in particular are statements of doctrine. Also, Trinity or Triune is not a word found in the scriptures, but a church word, a doctrinal word. For that reason, Trinity Sunday is a day to talk a bit about doctrine. We live in a time where the most successful churches, judged by the criteria of numbers, tend to eschew doctrine if not run fleeing from the word. “Deeds, not creeds” is a phrase for a purpose. But historically, and by historically I mean for 1,950 years, the church was a doctrinal body. Doctrine united. It produced creeds and confessions. It argued and debated and sometimes went further over doctrine. You can’t read Paul’s letters or even the Sermon on the Mount and not understand the deeds of Christ and the apostles driven by their creeds.

What this sermon attempts to do is correct the false understanding of doctrine that I think drives much of it becoming a pejorative word. When you picture doctrine and the voice of Mother church, as the voice of Lady Wisdom calling, you get a better idea. It is not a club to end seeking. Doctrine is an invitation to faith. It is an invitation to seek understanding. Armed with that understanding, the wise son when Mom says “because I said so” responds not with sullen anger but “what am I missing?” The person who loves you most is asking “walk with me, even if you don’t quite understand.” The wise son walks with and seeks that understanding.

He Preached the Good News…


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

The day on the Church calendar was the Baptism of Christ and the text recognizes that. I think in the sermon there is recognition of baptism. If not, all the hymns of the day picked up on it as their connecting theme. But as I was preparing the sermon verse 18 (“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people”) combined with a comment by Origin (2nd Century Teacher quoted in the sermon) made me look at John the Baptist himself. What was the gospel, the good news, that John preached?

As he would say, “Christ must increase, I must decrease”, so as a preacher the core of that Good News was simply the bridegroom has come – Jesus. That is the core of any preaching. But John’s good news, just from this brief snippet (Luke 3:1-22), is expansive. And Luke’s version of John has a striking and touching emphasis. After pointing out the bridegroom – the kinsman redeemer of Israel, John preaches against a false in everyway redeemer, Herod. Jesus & Israel are the bridegroom and sanctified bride. Herod and Herodias are the mocking of that redemption. John calls him out, and pays with his freedom and life. John’s preaching of good news, includes the role of suffering.

I didn’t make the connection in the sermon because the sermon itself is more breadth than depth. Pulling together all the threads of levirate marriage that this text relies on would have been explaining too much for a sermon. Better suited for a study. But marriage as the symbol of what God does for his people, and the mocking of marriage made by the state, and John’s suffering caused by that confrontation, seems applicable.

Recording Note: I have left in our opening hymn Lutheran Service Book 405 To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord. The congregation sounded great, and that hymn really captures the core message of the festival – “This man is Christ our substitute!” Also, they sang it post the OT reading, but I’ve moved it after the sermon here. These recordings can’t really capture the full service. We don’t really have the recording equipment for that, so the focus is really on the spoken parts (i.e. texts and sermon). But, I included our Choir singing a wonderful Epiphany piece. I included such things as markers to the full live experience. Worship really is about being there.

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Nehemiah 7:1-4, 8:1-18 and 1 Timothy 5:1-18

Nehemiah 7:1-4, 8:1-18
1 Timothy 5:1-18
A Short thought on canon (Law, prophets and writings)
How the writings are both inspired but are better treated as general wisdom vs. doctrinal seeds

What are You Seeking?


Biblical Text: John 1:29-42
Full Sermon Draft

That title was Jesus’ first question of two would-be disciples. It still stands for all would-be disciples. What are you seeking? At the level of first things there are only two answers. This sermon looks is about that question, those answers and what they mean for us.

Translation Issues

ak47crossMaybe it is just how the name rolls off the tongue – Kalashnikov. Or it is the engineer/tinkerer in me. His famous AK-47 was the classic necessity is the mother of invention. And to this day, unlike American arms which are high maintenance, the AK-47 just works. Which is of course why every terrorist group and no-good-nik in the world carries the curved magazine rifle. I don’t know if it is true. I’ve never owned a gun in my life. But I once read or was told that it can even handle a wide variety of ammunition. And this makes sense because it was designed quickly for the under-supplied in everything but bodies Red Army. If you are defending Stalingrad and your orders are “not one step back” you might need to be able to fire any rounds you find.
Rod Dreher points at the man’s recent death and some of his final thoughts.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable…I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” he asked.
“The longer I live,” he continued, “the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

On the one hand it is easy to say that such a reaction is a hyper-active conscience. And that would not be wrong. Comrade Kalashnikov is not responsible for all the uses of his terribly marvelous piece of tinkering. On the other hand his response is deeply Christian in two regards. The first is the universal recognition of sin and the groaning of the world. The best of us is corrupt. As the confessional liturgy says, “by what we have done and by what we have left undone”. I’ve often thought that a better line would be “by what I recognize and by what I’m too blind have seen.” That spiritual pain is the recognition of a world groaning waiting for its deliverance (Romans 8:22). The second way this is deeply Christian is that it is this response that allows the gospel proclamation. For this, Christ came. For all of this Christ died. It shall be remembered no more. Sin wishes to hide itself and take no blame for its actions. If we deny our responsibility we are still under the law. It is only accepting our sinfulness that frees us.

Our Sunday bible class got tossed sideways for a bit reflecting on then tense of the verbs in Isaiah 42:1-9 which is the first servant song. I think I’ve mentioned before that there are at least 6 active bible translations within this small congregation (ESV, NIV, NKJV, RSV/NRSV, CEV/Good News, NLT). And each one can approach things differently and not at all internally consistently. For example the ESV typically is the most literal by which I mean the ESV often mechanically translates tense, voice and mood and uses the same word for the same word. It is the type of translation, at least on first pass, that something like Google Translate would do. But there are occasions where the ESV, due to how it came about from the KJV through the RSV/NRSV, maintains a translation that has become established church English but is not very literal. For example in Luke 2:49 the ESV has “in my Father’s House”. The old KJV has “be about my Father’s business” which the NKJV maintains, but the RSV had changed is to “in my Father’s House”. Business is a better translation. Even better would just be a generic “things of my Father”. The ESV strayed from literal I’m assuming to maintain a poetic interpretive translation affected by the location of the scene in the temple.

The point of this is not to hopelessly cloud things. In that example above the general sense is the same. Jesus must do the will of his Father. The biggest difference I would say is that by leaving it generic it invites further reading and meditation about just what are “the things of the father”. The more modern translations, by putting in house and focusing on the scene, narrow the things probably unduly. The things of the Father, as the sermon held a couple of weeks ago, are not really religious practice things which the temple might lead you to conclude. The point is one of revelation leading to knowledge of sin leading to justification. Comrade Kalashnikov’ story is exactly the things of the Father. The revelation might have dawned late, but late is better than never.

Now here is why I started writing. You start out reading the Word, but at the same time the Word is reading you. What I mean by that is God’s Word starts moving you. There are some things, like the extent of sin, where when you spend enough time in the Word, you get moved to where Comrade Kalashnikov was at. I imagine this is what over the ages has driven many to monasteries. You can also get driven to fundamentalist like certitude about certain bedrock doctrines like the 10 Commandments and the creed. We naturally think these things are lite trifles, but spend enough time with the Word and you see the effects that might not have been so clear. You start to see the punishments to the third and the fourth generations. There are other things that I have become much less certain of, or maybe a better way of putting it would be that there are a lot more things which come under gospel freedom. Jesus reiterates the 10 commandments and “turns the knob to 11” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17ff) . This same Jesus is the one who “eats with tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11) and breaks the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2) and pays attention to gentiles and women (Matthew 15:21-28). That pattern is meaningful.

It is not that we don’t have traditions, but that we hold them lightly meaning only when they are secondary. If you find yourself excluding someone because they are not saying the right shibboleth at the right time, you’ve made a mistake. Likewise, if you find yourself ignoring the sacraments or treating them with disrespect, or making excuse for sin instead of repenting, you’ve made a mistake. And in a world as full of spiritual pain as Kalashnikov came to see it, rightly hearing the Word probably leads to where it always did – the cross. Anything to kill the pain.

Which is what the cross does. Because it is only there the foot that we see. Both the depth of the wrong, and the deeper love of God.

Unknown Unknowns

Don Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and CEO of a few corporations, was a fountain of aphorisms. He collected some of them in a book called Rumsfeld’s Rules. Without commenting on the ego it takes to essentially cast yourself as Solomon, the rules can capture snippets of wisdom – sometimes true and others just conventional. One of the aphorisms Sec. Rumsfeld used to use is best captured in a two by two.

Known Knowns = Data/Facts
Unknown Knowns = Deep assumptions that happen to be true
Known Unknowns = The questions that you are consciously aware of
Unknown Unknowns = Oh Sh*t, or things that you might have in the first category falsely

Part of the homespun wisdom constantly refining that last category: by good questions moving unknown unknowns into known unknowns, by identifying assumptions and making unknown unknowns into unknown knowns, and by confirming what you believe are facts.

This pops into my mind typically when I am forced to pay attention to that last refinement, the checking of facts. This happens for me in two big situations: first when reading accounts of arguments between long vanished “sides” and second when reading stridently LCMS writers. Jesus interacting with Pharisees and Sadducees is an example of the first, or reading Bultmann. You know that these conflicts or personages were deeply important – the Red vs. Blue of the day – but you struggle sometimes to see what the conflict was about. With Jesus it is usually easier because the gospel writers usually tell you like “the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection (Luke 20:27)”. But with Bultmann, who is perfectly capable of preaching the gospel and has deep exegetical insight, all of sudden he throws out a line like “The mythical eschatology is untenable for the simple reason that the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected.” And hence launches his entire program of “demythologization” which seeks to save the Christ of faith from the Christ of myth and the Christ of history. Without rehashing the entire early 20th century, one is tempted to say, “um, well, not that big a deal, some of our unknown knowns turned out to be a little too unknown and we need to refine them or make them more conscious, not throw out the entire New Testament”. But throwing out the New Testament is what many did and we live with that action today. Given Bultmann’s intelligence and general level-ness elsewhere, there must have been something more earth shaking. Likewise I get queasy when I read some of the the pious exactitude of fellow LCMS’ers. Not that I think they are wrong, but their approach to theology, like Bultmann’s certainty that the New Testament had to be completely sifted, puts me in mind of unknown unknowns. I start asking questions like which doctrine or teaching that I currently would assent to is most likely to be wrong?

Let me just say I’m not talking about anything that gets close to a creed or anything that would be included in “mere orthodoxy”. I’m talking more about differences between major trunks of the church. Today, serious Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics can all look at each other and acknowledge separated brethren. That listing is more or less on a sacramental scale. Somewhere between the m and the e of Reformed you cross over to Christ being real in the sacrament from it just being a nice memorial meal. You could list them Baptist, Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran and Calvinist (splitting the Reformed) and that would roughly be the spectrum of teaching in regards to election and free will with the split coming somewhere between the h and the e of Lutheran. And you could continue this exercise say with ecclesiology: Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, Catholic. This takes some explaining. Lutherans have no official doctrine of church politics. Some of us are congregational while others have archbishops. Moving along that spectrum the more sure each tradition is of its ecclesiology. Notice that none of those things actually touch the apostle’s creed yet they separate us.

So, if you were asking me where am I most likely wrong – I’d answer somewhere in my ecclesiology. For 500 years post the reformation we have elevated all kinds of doctrines over church unity. The older I get, or the more thought I put into it, the less reason I come to for separation beyond the historic creeds. Does that mean these things are unimportant? No. What it means is that I’m more inclined to put the best construction on people’s beliefs. My fellow strident LCMS’ers would say that difference in these things would betray a difference in the gospel. I’d say that we see through a glass darkly. I’d also add that there are ways to be less wrong, ways that we can refine our unknown unknowns. Cutting off the sacramental presence of Christ is a greater wrong. You are breathing with one lung. But you are still breathing. And we can still confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We could still confess that the Holy Spirit spoke by the Prophets and Christ rose according to the Scriptures. We could still confess the basis of our unity – Jesus Christ is Lord. Call me a less wrong theologian, part of a pilgrim band all on the road to being much less wrong when Christ returns and in a twinkle of an eye there are no more unknowns. (That’s assuming my justification by grace in the blood of Christ received by faith is a known known – which it is. I have a sure hope.)

What does the data say?

There is something called the GSS, the General Social Survey. It is a large sample survey of the US population regarding several interesting data-sets like religious identity. It starts roughly in the 1970’s and has continued through today. Here is wikipedia on the GSS.

Here is a post by much better social scientists than I, looking at protestant affiliation across time through the GSS. Their point is the dramatic decline of denominations. And this is true, but I also think it covers up something else. What I think it is covering up is actually a great sorting out. Inside each one of those grouping that they have put together is a constant core. What you are seeing is the collapse of a specific type of American Christianity and a sorting out along the way.

A note on the methodology. The list of denominations that the GSS records might be called “pre-schism”. Lutherans are pretty easy as we schism-ed early and often. What I’ve done is taken the ELCA bodies and the “Lutheran don’t know specifics” and put them in the same bucket. I’ve put the LCMS and the other specific bodies together. My assumption is that if you know enough to answer a specific denomination you have some tie to its theology. If you don’t there is an accomodationist grouping that doesn’t care about doctrine in any serious way. What I’m trying to construct is what I call a “proto-denomination”. The Episcopal Church, the PC-USA, the ELCA and the United Methodists are all in pulpit sharing arrangements with each other. What that means is that a minister who is ordained from one of those bodies is able to take a call or be a pastor of a congregation in any of those bodies. They have declared that any doctrinal divisions do not stand in the way of spiritually leading a congregation. So while church politics might keep them separate, and by church politics I mean that bishops in each body don’t want to risk losing a chair as long as the money holds out, those bodies are effectively one denomination or moving that way. I’ve kept all Baptists together. There are portions of presbyterians (PCA), Episcopal (Anglicans) and United Methodist that I’d have loved to split out, but this is the pre-schism problem. The GSS just doesn’t have those bodies. But when you look at the graph, I don’t think you need to see that to get the point. I’ve included the historically black denominations in the other line. And the last methodology note is that for the graph I’ve taken a 5 sample moving average to smooth the graph. What that means is that any one survey tends to jump around. For example, from 1986 survey to 1987 survey the Baptists went from 32% to 41% of the sample. That is the nature of a sample. Averaging over 5 years, each point having the preceding 5 survey points, helps to smooth such single survey effects.

This is the resulting graph:

GSS Prot Aff 5yrMA

Here is what I see – 3 flat lines and 2 converging lines. Baptists moving around 32% of protestants with little movement 80’s – today. Other/non-denom’s hovering around 23%. Lutherans hovering around 5%. The accomodationist proto-denomination hovering around 30% until roughly 2000 where it entered a steep decline. Around exactly the same inflection point “none” goes from 7% on a steep upward slope.

So, what does this mean? Well, other than nothing because I messed up the data which is a possibility, this is what I think. First, none of this says anything about how these groups do in comparison to the population. If the share of the population that gets lumped none-none (i.e. atheist/agnostic) is growing (and other surveys say it is) that is a separate point. This is within the religious world. Second, those groups that maintain differentiation are holding their own. Maybe not in reported membership. The LCMS has been declining in reported membership, but in survey response which is more akin to attendance than membership, it holds its own. Likewise with baptists and non-denoms. There might be an argument that just wait, the kink down is coming, but the fact that there are denominational groups that haven’t would seem to say not all denominations are the same. Third, the decline and growth is really a story of the accomodationist grouping. The great sort is happening or has happened. If you “believe, teach and confess” a specific doctrinal body you probably know it and find it significant enough to maintain. You might have troubles keeping some congregations going because the “don’t knows” have drifted away, but it should be possible given some political grace to stand. (What I mean by that is some congregational consolidation is probably necessary, and that might mean driving a little further for some, but the results should be larger and more vibrant/healthy congregations.) But the accomodationist grouping doesn’t have that core body of doctrine. They are not a theological group but a sociological grouping. And looking at the data, sociology is not enough to maintain them. There is a remnant in there – a portion of the UM, the PCA, the ACNA. My guess is that if we could split them out, the accomodationist group would look worse.

Spiritually, what I would say is what Christ says to the church of Philadelphia in Rev 3:10-11. “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”

My Spreadsheet

Dogmatic shouldn’t always be a bad word, becasue this catholic faith saves…

Text: John 3:1-17, Athanasian Creed
Full Draft of Sermon

This was Trinity Sunday which is the traditional day for the Athanasian Creed to be recited. (I’m not sure how old the tradition is actually, but I remember it as a little kid.) Within the Lutheran Book of Concord there are the three historic creeds of the Western Church – Nicene, Apostle’s and Athanasian. The Athanasian is the longest and in many ways strongest in its wording.

The gauge of its strength might be in the last line which it leaves ringing in your ears: “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

You don’t get much more dogmatic than that. But in this case that dogmatism is a very good thing. And you are fooling yourself if you think Jesus wasn’t at times dogmatic. The text is Nicodemus coming to talk with Jesus. And while John 3:16 gets all the press, there are three elements that help us with our unease at clear doctrine. First, and for me the most memorable of Jesus’ lines, is his replay to Nicodemus – “You are the teacher of Israel?” (John 3:10) Its a sarcastic lament at the lack of spiritual understanding. Within the same text Jesus says three times, “truly, truly, I say to you”. In other word, pay attention to this, its important. And that phrase tells us what the third point of dogmatism is, Jesus was dogmatic about one very specific thing, himself. Even in John 3:16. God loved the word and sent his son so that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. John 3:15-17 repeats the “in him” three times. Not that the rest is unimportant, but salvation is in Jesus.

The doctrines of the church are there for a reason. They point to Christ. The are mileposts or guide markers on the narrow way. Is it possible that we turn them into a law that steals life? Yes. But that is not their intention. Clear doctrine helps us to stop lying to ourselves, repent and believe in Christ. Stuff as central as the Athanasian Creed should be strident.