No Kentucky in This Bracket


Biblical Text: Mark 10:32-45
Full Sermon Draft

It is March Madness. It is also deep lent. The text is from right before Holy Week on the march to Jerusalem. This sermon connects all those 10 seeds or less, all those good teams that draw Duke, to our Spiritual reality. Yeah, we are going to lose. That dance is going to end. We will drink the cup Jesus drinks in the fact that we die, but that cup now contains our salvation. His baptism now saves us. Do we play these minutes with The Spirit, or do we stumble through them like the walking dead?

Two recording notes: 1) I think I’ve solved some of the quality problems by knocking down the line level before the recording and 2) I included our opening hymn – Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain (LSB 435) – which contains many of the themes in the sermon and service. I wish I could have included our choir piece, but not being directly mic’ed, knocking down the line live made the start just a little too quiet.

Zero to One – An Ash Wednesday Sermon

LSB Ash Wednesday Icon

The following is the text of the sermon delivered today…

Text: Joel 2:12-19
Peter Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal and one of the first investor in Facebook. But unlike most highly successful businessmen, he has a philosophical disposition. He attempts to distill his experience not into phrases that are clichés the minute they are uttered meaning nothing, but some of surprising depth. His recent book title is the example I want to steal for a second – Zero to One.

At a simple business level what he throws out of his venture capital office is any business pitching 1 to 2 or 1 to any number. If the presentation can be reduced to “I want to be the next Facebook”, Mr. Thiel isn’t interested. He wants to invest is businesses that are going from zero to one. If you want investment, come up with an idea that nobody is really doing.

But then start asking questions about how you do that. Going from 1 to 2 can be a process – picking a somewhat useful cliché – it can be a process of continuous improvement. Microsoft might be the example of the ultimate 1 to 2 company. Xerox PARC did all the 0 to 1, Microsoft just made it better, and sold it better, faster. They used to be famous, and in some ways still are, for getting is right on the third try. The surface 3 is getting raves. Going from zero to one is not a process. What is half of a new idea? half a vision? You either have one, or you don’t. Like Louis Armstrong said about Jazz, “Man, if you gotta ask…”

Now how does this apply to on Ash Wednesday?

There are lots of religions and even lots of Christian churches that are about 1 to 2. And by that I mean they are preaching a gospel of self-improvement. Do this, do that, have your best life now, the power of positive thinking, and every other cliché. You never get THE ONE in that method.
Clinging to the zero, The ONE is given by grace.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. You don’t get much more zero than that. I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart, O God. No continuous improvement there, but creation. You only get God, the ONE, when there are no others before Him – not even yourself, maybe especially ourselves. Hence on Ash Wednesday the ashes, a clear expression of our personal spiritual zero.

And when we remove the other Gods, when we cling to the zero, God is pleased to take up residence with us. To restore to us the joy of His salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. To take us from the last seat at the banquet to a seat of honor. To give to the prodigal the coat and the ring and the fattened calf.

The reading from Joel is interesting in this way. Israel had been hit by a plague of locusts. It wasn’t just any plague, but everything had been eaten and destroyed. So much so that the elements of the sin offerings – grain and wine and oil – had be removed. It was a very literal demonstration of Israel’s zero. There outward circumstance reflected the state of their hearts. Would they embrace the truth, or continue in pride? “Rend you hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, for he is gracious…abounding in steadfast love…who knows…he might relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering.” In other words the Lord might leave the sin offering for them.

And that is exactly what He did in Jesus Christ. For all who cling to their zero, he’s given THE ONE, our sin offering. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Grace and truth go together. The ONE, God is found in the weak places – contrite hearts and crosses. Amen.

Celebrity Jesus


Biblical Text: Mark 1:21-28
Full Sermon Draft

The text is Jesus’ exorcism of a unclean spirit in the midst of the synagogue. But the tension in the early part of the gospel of mark is between the reality of the messiah and the fame. Every time after Jesus expels a demon or does some work of power his fame spreads. This sermon playfully looks at this exorcism at a meeting of celebrity. It then juxtaposes our fame mentality against the reality that Jesus chose – the cross. That fame mentality seeps into our lives deeper than we think. And the freedom of the cross is more real and costly than we imagine.

Recording note: I have left in two hymns. The first is the introduction hymn which if you are asking what the real “Reformation Hymn” was I have to put up Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice (LSB 556). A Mighty Fortress is what we think of, but Dear Christians reads like Luther’s testament. Listen for all the demonic/Satan/spiritual evil language which seemed appropriate for a lesson with an exorcism. The Listen for Luther’s proclamation of the gospel. The second hymn is our children’s choir with an Epiphany Hymn Come Thou Bright and Morning Star. Within the sermon there is a play on words with Star (Celebrity), Morning Star (Lucifer) and Morning Star (Jesus). Come our real morning star.

Walking to Jerusalem/Marching to Zion


Luke 13:22-30
Full Draft of Sermon

I received more comments about this sermon than almost any in 5 years. The pessimist in me is saying “and you are going to pay for each one of those comments.”

In the worship service as a whole there was an interweaving of hymns and songs including one of my favorites, I Walk in Danger all the Way, Some of the VBS kids shared with us a couple of the songs from the week including “Stand Strong” and the one I reference in the Sermon Marching to Zion. But you don’t need that thicker worship setting to get the sermon.

The gospel point, the core of the text, is that it is Jesus alone who is walking to Jerusalem. And that walk ends outside the city walls. At the place of the skull. We can’t march into the city of God. We only enter through the narrow door, at the foot of the cross, through repentance. There is no “we” marching to Zion. The question is are you walking there? Is your walk with Jesus all the way?

The audio will be added later. Our guy who volunteers to convert the files (and has the stuff to actually do it) took a much deserved break. His son did the recording (thank you!), but the digital conversion is coming.

The Terms of Unity


Biblical Text: John 17:20-26
Full Sermon Draft

…But Jesus prayer for unity continues and we might say gets tougher in verses 22 and 23. The basis of the unity in these verses is the glory. The glory that you have given me, I have given to them…that they may be one.

Now we’d love to see glory, because we think we know what it looks like. And our thoughts are glory are not completely false, just out of order. I say that because I’m assuming that most of our definitions of glory would probably be gleaming surfaces, gold streets, never ending crops, basically what John sees in the reading from revelation. But bringing that definition in at this point is out of order. That is the glory of the world to come.

The glory of this world is the cross.

If you want to see how you get from that to Mother’s Day (or at least an attempt) read/listen to the whole…

On Good Friday the Spears were Real

The great English-American poet W. H. Auden once heard a lecture in which, as Edward Mendelson recounts the scene, the speaker said that, “Jesus and Buddha were the same in effect: they were both attacked by spears, but in the Buddha’s case, the spears turned into flowers.” Auden bristled at this, shouting from the back of the lecture hall, “ON GOOD FRIDAY THE SPEARS WERE REAL.”

I knew I liked Auden. Source, Wesley Hill. The rest i worth reading, painful, but real.

The Return of Rob Bell

Rob Bell, what do you say, I suppose something along the lines of “when your entire persona is built around being the innovative cool guy…”. It is hard to express how much I appreciated this guy, and how much I respected his biblical knowledge and insightful probing. Even with Love Wins I’d defend him. His take on Hell in that book is not Augustine/Aquinas/Luther mainstream orthodoxy, but it was an ancient small branch that orthodoxy never really did away with or declared heretical. Even someone like Richard John Neuhaus held it privately. He would say he hoped with a small h that it was right, but he would admit that he could not capital H Hope as it was not a revealed theological truth. But Rob has a new book to sell. The first one without the hindrances and claims of leading a flock. This is the trailer…

So the God of the Nicene Creed (c. 381 AD) and the Apostles Creed (c. 200 AD) that the catholic church has been proclaiming for 2000 years, that Israel proclaimed for 2000 years before that, who outlived the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the medieval dynasties, the early modern empires, the colonial era and the colonists transmission…that God is an Oldsmobile complete with 8 track. If He doesn’t catch up with Rob Bell he’s going to just go away. And all you haters who hold on to creeds and confessions, don’t you see the hate and harm you are spreading.

And what does God need to catch up with Rob on? Love, baby. I’m ok, you are ok, we are all ohhh-kayyy. God loves us just as we are. He’s with us and for us and around us…and he’s okay with us. Now that is a neat little phrase stealing Paul stealing the Greek poets, “in whom we live and move and have our being”, but that was not exclusively Jesus’ message. There is this thing called the cross. We called to pick ours up and follow. Forgive me if giving in to the culture and getting glowing things said about you in the New Yorker doesn’t look like the path to Calvary.

We’ve heard this all before. This guy does a good job of running down the references from the smoldering heap of oldline protestantism. He forgets that Rob Bell doesn’t do footnotes. He’s “not really writing theological treatises, just pointing out questions” is the shtick. Rob is out in California now. He’s got some great surfing pictures now and then. While he’s applying for the seat of this guy he should probably take a look at the end of that road. As well as the history of that God who’s been called an Oldsmobile before.

Matters of Indifference

Oconnor Library of America“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” -Flannery O’Connor

Last night, in our Elder’s discussion, article X of the Formula of Concord came up. This article gets brought up mostly around changing music in worship and is used to defend the introduction of new things. But I don’t think that is actually the point of Article X. Flannery O’Connor gets closer to the point of article X with the quote above.

We are free in Christ to establish ceremonies and practices of piety. I might question the aesthetic judgments or even the pragmatic judgments of many “contemporary” ceremonies of the church, but we are free to establish them. The problem is that according to article X you must ask yourself why you are making the change. Are you truly making a change due to your own freedom, or are you changing based on felt pressure? Point 4 of article X reads, “We believe, teach and confess that during a time of persecution, when a plain and steadfast confession is required of us, we should not yield to the enemies in such matters of adiaphora (indifference).”

I’m going to use two examples that are constantly in the news regarding Rome: priestly celibacy and women priests. Rome has stated that the two are different things. John Paul 2 said that the church has no authority to ordain women. That is a matter of doctrine. Priestly celibacy is a long standing practice or ceremony of the church. That could be changed. And if you look at this poll, even when you put it at weekly mass attenders which is a better gauge of Catholic thought, 61% think that priests should be allowed to marry. Of course 57% also say women should be allowed. Now the Catholic church is not and never will be a democracy. In fact THE CHURCH is not and never will be a democracy. We have ONE LORD who actually rules. But this gets to the point of article X and the question a believer must ask. Let’s take Rome’s viewpoint for a second. In Christian Freedom they could decide to allow Priests to marry, but at this moment in time is it possible to really make that decision in freedom, or is such a decision inevitably going to be a caving in to persecution or pressure? Or even tougher, does upholding an ancient rite of celibacy at this very moment push back against the culture as hard as it is pushing? If Rome were to wholesale open the priesthood to marriage, would the request stop there, or would the next request be to that 57% on women’s ordination, swelled further by one victory, but which is something Rome has said is doctrine and unchangeable? And none of that even gets into the ongoing cultural purge and redefinition of marriage. Even matters of indifference that we adopt become paths to the cross.

The devil, the world and our sinful nature are constantly pushing against the church looking for ways to shake free those safe in the ark. And they operate like an old wall street saying, “if you can go down half, you can lose it all”. This is a lie in regards to the church as Christ has said the gates of hell won’t succeed. Even in our own flesh there is no temptation that God does not allow a way out from. But the christian should not fool themselves. If they find themselves arguing for a glorious future in this world if the church just opens the windows to my favorite cause, or that the church should get with the times, or become more relevant, or they find themselves in glowing reports in the NY Times, they don’t understand how the church works in the here and now. Faith isn’t about being comfortably right in the here and now. It is about the cross. It is about putting on the armor of God and standing. It is about pushing back, even on matters of indifference, when the enemy is just trying to start a log-roll.

History and Divine Necessity


Biblical Text: Luke 13:22-35
Full Sermon Draft

A lot of people these days claim “history” on their side. We are urged to “be on the right side of history”. I’m convinced this is actually derived from a Martin Luther King quote.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

I first heard this quote modified about 15 years ago to drop the moral universe and replace it with history (Here is an example of that substitution). In fact I was surprised (and delighted) when I looked up the actual quote and its context to find moral universe. When you look at the context, which this sermon does, King’s moral universe is very defined. Where history, especially when it is claimed as a moral imperative, is always relative to the speaker, a moral universe is rooted in a larger context. King’s larger context, as the larger quote displays, is the bible, the faith and the Words of the Lord.

And that is the bedrock of the text. The only person who history is relative to is Jesus Christ. To understand the moral universe we much decide who we say Christ is. It is necessary, it is a divine necessity that Jesus continue his course. That fox Herod has no authority to stop it. Now there are a whole lot of things that we might think the divine necessity applies to or should apply to, but none of those are what God says it does. God applies that necessity to the cross. The one who had actual complete freedom chose the cross. The action is why King’s statement is true. The entire moral universe is defined by the love of God. A love that desires to gather his children under a crucified wing.

We sang a hymn new to the hymnbook and modern this morning that captures this mystery. It is paired with a pretty melancholy tune in the Lutheran Service Book, but no one would say that the combination is anything other than a tough contemplative song. For a people who might be more used to the modern praise song with snappy riffs, happy cords and simple refrains, In Silent Pain the Eternal Son (LSB 432), might just be the antithesis. What is really captured by it is the fact that the most glorious sight in the universe is a set of scars…that a body derelict and still on a cross is the definition of necessity and love.

1. In silent pain the_eternal Son
Hangs derelict and still;
In darkened day His work is done,
Fulfilled, His Father’s will.
Uplifted for the world to see
He hangs in strangest victory,
For in His body on the tree
He carries all our ill.

2. He died that we might die to sin
And live for righteousness;
The earth is stained to make us clean
And bring us into peace.
For peace He came and met its cost;
He gave Himself to save the lost;
He loved us to the uttermost
And paid for our release.

3. For strife He came, to bring a sword,
The truth to end all lies;
To rule in us, our patient Lord,
Until all evil dies:
For in His hand He holds the stars,
His voice shall speak to end our wars,
And those who love Him see His scars
And look into His eyes.