I thought hard about preaching on the Epistle Lesson this week – Romans 13. The core of that work ended up as the Meditation in the Bulletin (post below). But I decided two things: 1) Paul’s plain words were clear enough in this time. And give the response of the congregation just to the reading of it, I was right here. 2) Those who need to hear that one are largely not in my pews. So I went ahead with the gospel lesson.
The fundamental structure is between the values of the Kingdom and those of Satan, The World and our Sinful nature. And one of the places this constantly is made real is in the GOAT (Greatest of all time) discussions. We all want our recognition. We want others to recognize us. The call of the Kingdom, the way of the cross, is to humble ourselves to serve God and our neighbor. This sermon works on how that plays out both in time and in eternity for the Sons and Daughters of the Kingdom.
I’m sure that in many pulpits today, in attempts to be edgy and with the zeitgeist of the world, preachers will use this text to promote blasphemy. Which is terrible, because when you allow yourself to hear it, it is the most beautiful witness. If you ask “What is repentance?”, or compare this woman to Peter – the “little faith” one – you see a great witness of faith. That is what this sermon attempts to do. Put this episode in its context and allow us to understand better both faith and how repentance is the ongoing act of faith.
The curse and blessing of a liturgical church. When everybody else has already moved on to Christmas, maybe they’ve been on it for a month, we are still in Advent. The day is often given over to Mary and the magnificat. There is a great recording of our choir singing one of those here. But I’ve been spending time with the minor prophets this season. We’ve been taking them in bible class, and I felt I had to bring one into the pulpit. One more day of blue and purple. One more day of the penitential and the hopeful. Grant me 15 minutes of Advent on this 4 Sunday of the season. We’ve got a bakers dozen for Christmas starting tomorrow.
Advent 2 is John the Baptist week. (Advent 3 would be as well, but that week typically gets taken up by the Children’s program.) And I think that both the Baptist and his message are a little tough for us to understand, although I think we are probably approaching the time and place where they shouldn’t be. They used to require imagination, but the sermon will attempt such imagination is becoming reality. My opening question for you would be: What might make you listen to a street preacher? For I think that is akin to what John is, except that he is wildly popular. That is the space you have to get into to understand the Baptist – where a street preacher is popular. This sermon attempts to paint that picture. It also attempts help us grasp that it isn’t the street preacher antics that make John unique, but the place and the message. Come ponder just what it might the way straight, to raise up the valleys and level the hills, to do so from the desert, to do so with a Word.
Recording Note: The Choice sounded great this morning and I got a good recording, so their piece is in the recording between the OT lesson and the Epistle.
What is the good shepherd? Can we understand it alone, or only is comparison to other things? The Good Shepherd is Jesus himself, but does it have more than romantic meaning for us today?
This sermon obviously answers yes. But it does so through the contrasts that Jesus develops. The Good Shepherd is contrasted both with The Hired Hand and with the Wolves. The contrast with the hired hand is something that Jesus alone fulfills. Christ’s alone are the sheep. The contrast with the wolves is where we have more skin in the game if you would. The wolves do two things: seize and separate. The Good shepherd: lays down his life and gathers. We can give in to the wolves plan, or we can follow the shepherd.
And when we follow the shepherd, we are incorporated into the shepherd. We put down our lives, to take them up for eternity.
Ash Wednesday is one of the occasional services of the church year. I alter up the text a bit, because I think the assigned texts don’t reflect our actual practice. It is not that the historic practices are bad, just that we don’t do them. I think we might consider them in the right light if we understood the section of the sermon on the mount right after them. And by understood what I really mean is feel cut to the heart by it. That is what this attempts.
Given the events of Las Vegas, it was a week of horrors. This biblical text is the parable of the wicked tenants which turns on the horrors perpetrated by those tenants. This sermon is a meditation on what we as Christians should discern in horrors. Also what is a Christian response to such horrors. In a search for “why?” that so often ends unsatisfactorily, or ends in too easy answer, the Christian is able to focus on the justice of God. And this justice is good news. I’ve pondered three forms of that justice. 1) Those wicked men will come to a horrible end. We might not be used to this as a good news proclamation, but it is. God is just. 2) That phrase should inspire a holy fear in us, and the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That wisdom should lead us to repentance and a return to the Lord who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 3) The vineyard will be fruitful. The horrors that we might witness are the groaning’s of the world longing for the revelation of the son’s of God. They are the rage of Satan and those aligned. But the Justice of God will replace them, and the vineyard will produce its fruit.
I have left in our final hymn, LSB 753, All for Christ I Have Forsaken. The melody is the Southern Harmony Restoration which has an interesting minor key feel (give it a listen and you’ll know what I mean). The lyrics are From Calvin Chao, a mid-20th Century Chinese Christian, the chair of the Chinese InterVasity in the WW2 years. He had quite the life as a missionary. Here is an old article on his wife I unearthed. You can get the feel for the source of the powerful words.
The text is the Canaanite woman’s request. In a week of Nazis and violence it would have been harder to pick a better text. The sermon explores the relationship between Christ and Tribe or between Christ and all the various things that we base our identity on. The text, with its blunt sayings, allows us to work in two direction. The woman’s repeated title of choice is “Lord”. Jesus’ responses to the disciples and then the woman allow us to understand just who this Lord is. He is not OUR lord, the Lord of created to back up our preferred identities, but He is THE Lord. The Lord is also the Son of David. Salvation comes from the Jews. It is that joint truth that is a God large enough to save, but particular enough to be human. I believe that in such a week this sermon offers both truth and hope.
I don’t address it in the sermon, because it is a speculative or allegorical reading, but it is a reading that captures this religious imagination. This anonymous woman has been called the mother of the gentile church. The woman’s request is for the healing or exorcism of the her daughter. The woman herself as a Canaanite from Tyre and Sidon stands in for the entirety of the Gentiles. In the OT time period the nations were given over to the idols. The woman’s request is to drive the demons or those idols from her daughter – the church growing. At that allegorical level where characters are not just themselves but stand for larger entities or truths, the request is to make the gentile church clean. Even more so, admitting being “dogs”, being outside the old covenant, to still share in the new. Does the Christian have to become a Jew first, the question of Acts 15, is addressed allegorically here. The Canaanite woman’s faith in the abundance of the Lord Son of David, that the lost sheep of Israel includes Canaanites, spurs Jesus to grant the request. Hence the mother of the gentile church. Not provable in a modern way, but it rings a lot of poetic images.
When you spend a lifetime reading the bible, there are always parts of it that are intriguing but make absolutely no sense, until they do. There is a thread in the Old Testament, rooted in the Torah, mentioned in the prophets (Hosea 5:10), and echoed in the writings (Proverbs 22:28), that has intrigued me since I first fell upon it as a child. I was the goofy, bookish, slightly macabre child that found cemeteries fascinating. If you ask me why, I think it was just the mystery. The biggest hill in town that nobody talked about. Markers stretching back to “times before”. In the closest cemetery, that “before” would simply have been before IL was a state, but in the big town, before the US was a country. This was an actual weight of time, combined with all the epitaphs people used on stones. My pious favorite, “In the hope of the resurrection”. The touching “beloved mother”. The cryptic masonic and other odd symbols. Proud obelisks, and the sentimental despair of weeping angels or cloak draped urns. So when I ran across this:
“You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord you God is giving you to possess.” – Deuteronomy 19:14.
It peaked the imagination. Why would God or Moses give such a commandment? Why did God seem to care about stones? And why are they connected with that important biblical word neighbor? Just who is my neighbor?
In our modern formatted texts, that verse is probably set apart like its own little sense bubble having nothing to do with what came before or after. I think it would be a mistake to treat it as such. The first piece of context is Deuteronomy itself. These are the commands given right before Israel takes the promised land. Israel is going to take the land, expel the Canaanites (or they are supposed to do so), and parcel it out. They will be making new boundary lines. God isn’t telling Israel to not make new boundaries, but they don’t get to remove the old owner’s boundaries. Strange. The second piece of context is the law immediately before it which concerns sanctuary cities. These sanctuary cities are to be established to protect those guilty of accidental manslaughter from revenge killing. They do not protect the murderer, they simply create a neutral court to determine the motive. “If anyone hates his neighbor” the lex talionis is in full effect. The third piece of context is the law immediately after which regulates witnesses. A single witness shall not suffice. Also, a malicious witness (i.e. a false one) shall fall under the punishment he tried to procure for his brother. Again the lex talionis is invoked. Again, neighbor and brother.
Landmarks are part of discerning judgment and refuge. Landmarks give a dual witness. They judge and the give refuge, and it is up to us to understand both from the witness of those not present. And that witness moves in both directions. They witness to us their judgments, but they also elicit from us our judgments. They witness where they found refuge, and ask where we find ours. If we are righteous we enact justice in our own day. We provide to the living refuge and judgement. That is the point of the invocations of the lex talionis. Moses knows that there will be many times we don’t wish to do so, but in both cases, the murderer and the false witness, he says “your eye shall not pity”. Landmarks often become what Jesus chides the Pharisees over. “Woe to you! You build the tombs of the prophets your father’s killed (Luke 11:47).” Landmarks can be witness to the times we did not do justice. The landmarks of a people no longer in the land, like the Canaanites, can be a witness to the fragility of our hold of it. “God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones (Luke 3:8).” Landmarks can be a refuge in a troubled time. This is the toughest to maintain in a sinful world, but I think it is the point of Jesus’ cry “My house was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17).” If a place is consecrated to the worship of the Father in spirit and truth, it should remain so, for all nations. If they don’t, they witness against us. If those consecrated places do, we find the peace of Christ resting on them. But even the grandest Cathedral is but a temporary refuge, a landmark which points to our eternal refuge.
If we go about in spasms of iconoclasm moving landmarks, it is not that that their witness it no longer true, but that we can no longer discern its voice. “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing (Luke 11:44).” We become even more unclean, because we have removed that which would have witnessed to someone who might have heard, and understood, and repented. We ourselves are cursed, and our actions curse others.
I wish I could take down every statue of Robert E. Lee. I wish I could remove the markers of a racist past. I wish that I didn’t know now what I didn’t then about Sally Hemmings. I wish that I could return to the graveyard of my childhood awash in mystery. But when we become men, we put away childish things. The most childish of those things is believing that anything straight was ever made from the crooked timber of humanity. It is such a tempting fantasy that we can remake the world in our image. That by moving a few landmarks we can make the land new. That by taking the body off the cross, we can return to divine impassibility. That by taking the crucifix off the altar we can have our best life now. That by whitewashing the tombs everything will be beautiful.
But the Lord says, “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark.” Why? Because the Canaanites, the racists, the slaveowners, the crucifiers, these are my neighbors and my brothers. If they can’t be saved, neither can I. But Christ came for sinners. Even the stones cry out. Every landmark gives a witness – some soft and some brash, some welcome and others a scandal. This land we held, which is yours now, is fleeting. This land is not the promised land. Don’t wait, don’t hold on to it. Do justice now, love righteousness now, walk humbly with God now, that you might enter into eternal dwellings.
This is typically the Thomas Sunday, but the first lesson from Acts just struck my imagination too well this year. Gamaliel’s tolerance and wisdom typically gets pride of place, but I think that discounts Saul in the background. The sermon attempts to tell both the foreground story of Peter preaching repentance to the High Priests who a month ago crucified Jesus and the background story of Saul (soon to be Paul) who wouldn’t listen to his teacher’s advice. The point of preaching, of Peter’s and of ours, is repentance and salvation. It is not justice or balancing the scales. It is not getting back at anyone. It is simply repent and believe. That repentance is a gift. It is part of faith. Caiaphas or Annas, the High Priest, heard the preaching and knew what was going on, but they did not repent. Saul, did not repent, yet. The call of those who have repented is to be witnesses to Easter. Pray for the repentance of the unbeliever while bearing the cross for those who won’t, yet. In this we witness to Easter and the Great Easter to come in the resurrection of all flesh.