Here is a weekly theological and thematic reflection on the themes of the coming week’s lectionary reading from a Lutheran pastor (hopefully) grounded in the Great Tradition of the Church across time; not thorough exegesis–which can be found from lots of good sources–but help for the process of rendering exegesis into a coherent and memorable message.

These reflections also appear on the Lutheran CORE devotional along with other great material.  Check it out here.

A Good Shepherd and Recalcitrant Sheep

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Acts 2:42-47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

 

Growing up as I did largely outside the church, I have only three distinct memories of church from my childhood: a sunrise Easter service at the high school track field where my feet froze inside my thin dress shoes, the beauty of a candlelight Christmas Eve service from the balcony of the Methodist church near my home, and being transfixed by the stained glass window of Jesus carrying a lamb across His shoulders while attending church with my grandfather one clear spring morning, a morning my grandfather solemnly but joyfully identified as Good Shepherd Sunday.  The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was of supreme importance to my grandfather, and judging by the frequency of its appearance in the windows, iconography, and Sunday school classrooms of other churches I have visited, it is clear he was not alone.

How strange then that while planning worship for my congregation, which uses a mix of traditional and contemporary worship music, that there are very few musical selections that focus on this imagery.  Calvin College’s Hymnary.org notes very few hymns that are shared widely across enough hymnals to be reasonably deemed “ecumenical,” and almost no contemporary worship music focuses on this image of Scripture, so central to the piety of former generations.  Oh, there are tune that make passing reference to it, but in contrast to the visual imagery present in the church, there are few that focus and meditate upon it.  What gives?

Perhaps it is because the image of Jesus as shepherd is distant from our contemporary experience.  Fewer than 10% of Americans are engaged in agrarian vocations anymore.  But that would not explain the lack in traditional hymnody.  I suspect that the reason for the lack of Good Shepherd imagery in the church’s life is a little more spiritual in its origin.  That is to say, once we move beyond a few comforting thoughts about Jesus bringing back those who stray (like that window in my childhood), binding up the injured, and the like, if we are going to fill in several stanzas of metered singing with theologically edifying lyrics, we are left reflecting on the fact that if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are the sheep in need of such care.

It’s not fun to focus on the fact that we are such spiritually impoverished creatures.  It doesn’t feel like living the victorious Christian life to spend significant time singing into our resistant hearts and minds the reality that we are hopelessly stupid and needy.  It’s not flattering to reflect that left to our own devices, we end up in lousy pastures beside turbulent waters, scattered and futile in our efforts, and in the worst case, cornered and devoured by the wolves of our own cunning.  It is important that we never forget that the concentration camps and gulags that consumed the lives of millions—not to mention that eugenics that is becoming intellectually respectable once again—were birthed in the lecture halls and salons of humanity’s best and brightest and championed by politicians and progressive clergy of the day as the surest avenue toward a brighter future for humanity, the way to be on “the right side of history.”

A shepherd doesn’t ask the sheep’s opinions on which pasture they would like to graze, for he knows their opinion is of no consequence compared to his own.  So it is with Jesus.  His self-designation as our Good Shepherd means not just that He seeks us out, binds up our wounds, and leads us to green pastures beside still waters, restoring our souls, it also means that He is the Authority in our lives, handing out commands, directing our lives, and when necessary chastening harshly with His rod and staff.

These are not convenient or comforting truths, but they are necessary for us to remember—often.  We can and must sing to ourselves about the Good Shepherd and remember ourselves as sheep, taking comfort in the harshness of that reality, for that is the way reality tends to be; harsh, not conforming to our wishes or the fond imaginings of our hearts.  The Good Shepherd commands us, corrects us, and leads us… all so that He may in the end restore our souls.

 

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A Weeping God

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Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:1-11

John 11:1-53

 

This week’s readings are dominated by images death; dry bones, not-yet-animate corpses, the stink of decay, and weeping mourners parade before our eyes.  If we have lived any time in this passing away world, these are images with which we are all too familiar and if our grief has been recent or particularly poignant, these passages may be difficult to hear… to evocative for the composure of typically staid Lutheran worshippers in North America.

Even Jesus weeps, and this is perhaps the most arresting image in this series of texts.  Jesus weeps?  Doesn’t He know how the story will turn out?  No, that can’t be true; He tells us in a few verses that He knows His Father “always hears Him,” and He is going to call the dead man forth from the tomb.  Why does He weep?

At the Bible study I lead for high school students, most of the participants are from non-liturgical, Pietistic churches.  As we studied Jesus praying in the Garden of the Gethsemane on the night before His passion in the Gospel of Luke, I was surprised at the strong visceral reaction my comment that Jesus seemed to be afraid evoked from them.  Both youth and their parents objected that for Jesus to fear would have been sin, so He could not have been afraid; fear would have meant that He didn’t trust His Father.

I confess, I don’t see it that way.  I have complete trust that on the last day I will be raised by God, but if I were tasked with charging a machine gun nest on a field of battle, my pulse would still quicken, sweat break out upon my brow, and I would be… afraid.  Sometimes fear does not mean the absence of faith, only a realistic assessment of the pain about to be engaged.

How “truly human” was Jesus?  Could He experience fear?  He could certainly experience grief.  It unclear from the text whether His compassion was for Lazarus (certainly how the crowd interpreted His tears) or those gathered to grieve for the dead man, but in any event, He grieved.  He grieved for real pain, real emotion, and the very real death experienced by people He really loved.

We worship a God who weeps, for His beloved creatures truly suffer.  The resurrection of Jesus portended by His raising of Lazarus does not eliminate suffering, it puts it in perspective.  The Apostle Paul does not exhorts us not to grieve, only not to grieve as others do, who have no hope.

It is some comfort that in Jesus, God weeps too.  It is even more comforting that the God who does not forebear experiencing the same death His creatures are doomed by their own sin to experience rises again.  God does not eliminate death from the human picture (at least, not yet), but He does promise resurrection in the wake of the death we must endure.

How many “little deaths” do we and those we preach to experience on the way to the biological death that will usher us into God’s unmediated presence for judgment?  The path of spiritual growth most often leads not around the conflicts, losses, and afflictions that constitute those “little deaths,” but instead directly into and through them.  The good news is that the God we serve will weep with us in the middle of them and bring resurrection on the other side of them.

Will that preach?

 

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A Whole New World

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Isaiah 42:14-21

Ephesians 5:8–14

John 9:1–41

 

What would it be like to be suddenly gifted with an ability you had never had before?  How many superhero stories begin with someone having powers bestowed on them they could never dream of?  How many ugly ducklings dream of the day they will wake up a swan?  What would the world be like if all sudden it were not the world we know because we were aware of dimensions of it we could never be before?

For someone blind from birth, a great deal of human language is just words with referent; what does it mean to see the sun rise or to have the gloom dispelled by the drawing back of a curtain?  Why is better to be “enlightened” than “in the dark?”  Why is the condition we experience all the time universally referred to with scorn and yes, even fear?

I am an adult convert to the Christian faith from a rather severe form of atheism.  When I was an atheist, I could marvel at the vastness of creation, but live with assurance that no matter how far I traveled, whatever I encountered there would be explainable using the points of reference I already possessed.  No matter how vast the universe was, I could rest assured that it was just “one damn thing after another.”

When I came to faith (or faith came to me?), I became aware of whole other dimensions of existence.  To be sure, I could not penetrate those dimensions by investigation or imagination, but I knew they were there, and suddenly, the world was a much bigger place than even the vastness of “light years” could make it.  The world was not the same because I was not the same.

The blind man in today’s Gospel reading experiences the same thing.  The bestowal of sight upon him results in the reordering of his family life, his relations with his neighbors, and his view of the spiritual realm.  Messiah—the Son of Man—was no longer someone to be awaited with eschatological fervor but someone to be worshipped, for he has been touched by Him.

It is the responsibility of the preacher to preach not sophisticated theological essays (save those for your blog), but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  We are to preach Christ so that our congregation encounters Him as a living reality through our preaching.

Of course, we don’t really have the power to do this—to broker an encounter with God—but we must remember that this is the goal whether we preach to a seminary, a rural congregation, a mega church, or in a downtown storefront.  Fortunately, to our best efforts (however meager) God has promised to add the power of His Holy Spirit.  Praise be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for such a rich blessing of grace!

 

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Lent 3 – Water Welling Up

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Exodus 17:1-7

Romans 5:1-8

John 4:5-26

 

“Water, water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”  I remember my grandmother quoting those lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner more times than I can possibly remember in my youth.  Water dominates today’s readings just as it dominates our world.  What makes our home, “the third stone from the sun” different from every planet?  Water.  As any person who has ever been to a memorial service and seen the urn containing their dearly departed’s cremains knows, most of our body is water.

Second only to breath, water is the center of our lives and what we most need to survive.  The people are ready to stone Moses for lack of water.  Jesus provides water that will forever quench the thirst of the receiver, water that can provide life not just to the body, but to the soul.  In Holy Baptism, water touches the body but claims the whole life—the whole psyche—of the person so touched by God.

Water is an image of promise… but it is also a promising image for the prospective preacher.  Water blesses and is necessary to life, but as anyone who  has been caught by the undertow, seen a wet week erase months of labor in their garden, watched a flash flood wash away part of their town, or watched a family member have to throw away most of their belongings following a hurricane knows, water also wields tremendous power for destruction.  As Jesus’ incisive comments to the woman at the well shows, the Font of living water has similarly destructive capacity.  In Jesus we encounter the demolition of all our rationalizations, our self-justifications, and our evasions.  If we would drink of the water He offers us, it will not only cleanse, but purge us.

But with that cleansing comes also the removal also of the dominion of sin, death, and the devil.  Like the world following the ravages of the Great Flood of Genesis, when we truly encounter the water welling up to eternal life, we are left pristine by the ruthless kindness of God.  It is a severe compassion that, as it did with the woman at the well, loves us enough to receive us as we are, but too much to let us remain that way.  The question for us as we encounter such pitiless mercy is, can we respond to it as John Donne did when he wrote:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

God’s grace, like the water in the Rime is everywhere.  Whatever the cost, will we drink?

 

Lent 2 – Being Made Fit

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Genesis 12:1-9

Romans 4:1-8, 13-17

John 3:1-17

 

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

These are the words that Google generates as the most popular final verse to the famous Christmas carol Away in a Manger.  In fact, the most popular recording of the song by country singer Martina McBride, from which Google generates its default search result, doesn’t even include this last verse; apparently going to heaven (which, of course, means dying) doesn’t sit well with the sweet nineteenth century sentimentality that characterizes the rest of the verses.  But even the words shown above represent a sanitized version of Christian hymnody compared to the version I learned as a child—an unchurched child, I might add.  The final line of the song I learned as a child went, “And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

This original version of the song called on God to act not simply for us, but upon us, changing our character that we might be ready to reside in the presence of the pure and undefiled Jesus profiled for us in the first three stanzas of the song.  It pointed us—gently, to be sure—toward the inescapable reality that we are not fit for that presence yet, that if we had been present at the idyllic scene we have had sketched for us, we would have altered its balance, defacing it fatally.

The recognition that we are not prepared to be even in the infant Jesus’ presence (let alone as he portrayed for us in the Revelation of St. John and the Creeds of the Church as the judge of the living and the dead!), is fundamental to appreciating what is arguably the most famous single line of Scripture, which appears in our readings for today: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

If we are not in need of being made fit for heaven—if we are simply accepted by God as many modernist construals of the gospel would have us be—the cross is not simply a scandal of man’s inhumanity to man, it is the most appalling act of negligence on the part of God; rather than it being the supreme act of sacrifice on God’s part, the cross becomes a moment when God either will not or cannot protect His own Son.

But the Gospel is clear.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  The cross is for our healing; it is the medicine for our sin.  This medicine is given gratis, as a blessing by God, because God so loves the world, not because anyone—not even Abraham, the “father of faith”—has earned this medicine, as Paul makes clear in our second reading.

And those who are so blessed and believe it appear strange to the world.  They seem to be blown hither and thither.  They pack up their things and move on what appears to be a whim.  They go on mission trips.  They sell their things and give to the poor.  They give up prosperity and take vows of poverty and chastity.  They give their time and energy to seemingly hopeless causes.  The world does not know where they come from or where they go.

But they don’t care.  They have more than a new lease on life; they have a truly new life.  They have been born from above— born again —by water and the Spirit.  They have been made fit for heaven as gift from the God who loves them… who loves them so much that He gave His only Son that they should not perish but have eternal life.

 

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Transfiguration Sunday – Mountains and Light

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Exodus 24:8–18

2 Peter 1:16–21

Matthew 17:1–9

 

The most obvious image that strikes us from today’s reading is that of light.  While there have always been those without or with impeded sight, humanity’s normative way of navigating a dangerous world is via their eyes.  Consequently, light in every culture has come represent safety, possibility, the revealing of that which is hidden or obscured by the dark.  The ignorant person—to whom the meaning of the world remains obscured or hidden—is unenlightened or “in the dark” no matter how bright the physical light around them.

The disciples have been in the dark about Jesus’ true identity thus far in the Gospel.  (Indeed, despite the radiance of Jesus and the appearance of two incredibly significant Old Testament figures with Him, they will not be fully enlightened in this regard until the closing lines of this Gospel.)  In the early Church, the newly-baptized were referred to as “the newly illumined,” for they had finally perceived Jesus as not just a bringer of the light of knowledge in the same sense as so many other teachers in the ancient world, they perceive Him as the light.  They know Him as the one from which all knowledge flows and by which all supposed knowledge is judged.  For a moment in today’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed to us as He truly is and as the words of Nicene Creed truly portray Him: God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.

The second dominant image in today’s readings is that of the mountain.  Mountains have always been places of significance for God’s saving activity.  At Sinai not only is the blood of the covenant sprinkled upon the people, but God hands down the Law that will be the very definition of the people’s identity.  Previously Abraham had been called to sacrifice his only son Isaac on a mountain that God Himself might provide all that was needed.  On mountains God provides, and today He provides confirmation of the value of His Son even as Jesus is revealed as He truly is.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to you,” sang Diana Ross a generation ago.  Mountains in Scripture, far from being an obstruction to encounter with God, are typically a place to meet Him… To boot, there is no place better to watch a sunrise, to see the light dispel the darkness.  This morning, the son rises, and the darkness is dispelled.

 

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Epiphany 7 – You Are Christ’s

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Leviticus 19:1-2, [3-8], 9-18

1 Corinthians 3:10-23

Matthew 5: 38-48

 

When you look out at your congregation this Sunday, what will you see?  At the very least, we should see a group of people who have gathered, hoping to hear a word from God.  The craving to hear a message from God that is in some way tailored to us—is a form of personal address—lies deep within the human psyche, and if communion with God is truly the ultimate need of each person (what else is “heaven” or “eternal life” if not this?) this may be the face this deepest need shows to us in day-to-day life.  This desire has led countless people to feed at the troughs of charlatan preachers and self-proclaimed prophets, and in our day has led even more into denying the existence of God so they may avoid too closely examining this most pressing and inescapable of pains.

The categories of Law and Gospel as delineated in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions provide a way for people to hear the profoundly personal word they crave while avoiding the pitfall of peculiarly esoteric (and erroneous) exegesis.

Our Old Testament passage for the day present us with a lot of what Lutheran (and Reformed) theologians refer to as “Law.”  What we mean by this is not “THE Law” in the sense of that given by God in the Old Testament and referred to as such by our Jewish brethren.  What Reformation theologians mean by “Law” is any section of God’s Word that gives us instructions, and hence when—not if—we fail to keep those instructions makes us know our need for God’s mercy.  How do you know if a passage is Law in this sense?  A great formula to remember is, “The Law always accuses.”

This formula is easy to remember and will easily preach, and it must be preached again and again if we hope our people will get it.  Indeed, we must hold it constantly before our own eyes, for the constant temptation of the human heart is not to idolatry in the casually identifiable sense, but to the subtle idolatry of relying upon ourselves rather Christ for our standing in the kingdom.  When the texts for the day are filled with moral instruction, the easy thing for the harried pastor to do is moralize to his or her flock; whether we moralize about caring for the poor, sexual purity, social justice, or Christian humility, it’s still just moralizing, and it leaves our flock with nothing but themselves—their own paltry and inevitably insufficient efforts—to feed upon.

Of course, the Law in a Lutheran sense and “THE Law” in the Jewish sense often overlap, making it extremely pressing for us as preachers to teach this theology in our sermons.  That is the case today with our passage from Leviticus.  Quite apart from the ceremonial requirements of the Law from the optional verses 3-8, without straining by brain I can think of dozens of times that in ways small and large I have failed to “revere” (strong word!) my parents, when I have inadvertently slandered someone or told little lies to ease social or institutional tensions, when I have failed to reason frankly with my neighbors or my contention with another member of the church certainly rose to the level of “hate” against a brother, or by my actions put a stumbling block before the spiritually blind of this world, undoubtedly making them ask the question, “If that is how Christians are, why would I want to be one?”

Jesus words today in the Gospel reading are a perfect example of Law in this Lutheran sense; “Do not resist the one who is evil. … if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. … Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

The more seriously you take Jesus’ words, the more terrifying the prospect is.  As the disciples will finally realize later in this Gospel, Jesus’ demands are not merely radical, they are impossible.  “Who then can be saved?”(Matthew 19:25)  They have finally gotten it; they have made the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual journey we must take our parishioners on every Sunday; a place of despair at the possibilities of our own efforts and realization of how radically dependent on God’s grace we are.

Jesus’ demands are not merely radical, they are impossible.  Impossible for us, that is.  When we finally realize that, we are in a position for Jesus to do what He does with those first disciples.  “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:26)  These words are not present in our Gospel pericope for today, but they are present in the reading from 1 Corinthians; “You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”  Therefore we “do not boast in men”—especially ourselves.   We do not look upon our works to justify us, nor as evidence of our faith, or proof that we are “regenerate” or at least improving.  We do not look at our works at all for we are busy looking at—and listening to—Jesus, who alone can do the work of God within us and the works of God through us.

Faith looks at its object, not itself, and Christian faith looks at Christ alone.  It springs to do the works it is instructed to do and repent when it fails in its weakness to do so.  But always and ever it is fastened upon the One it believes in, for its assurance is that “I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”  The Law is always for our neighbor, for our works are always for our neighbor’s sake. (God doesn’t need them… right?!)  The Gospel alone has the power to be a personal word from God to us, to the hunger that is at the root of our being.

Let us be certain as preachers that every Sunday, as we reiterate the commands of God in both the Old and New Testaments, the focus of our message is the Gospel, what God has done for all of us together and for each of us personally in Jesus Christ; for you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

 

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Epiphany 6 – Severed Hands and Eyeless Faces

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

 

From the time of the heretic Marcion in the 2nd century, “progressive” Christianity—Christianity “for the thinking man,” Christianity that is compatible with the views of culture’s brightest and best—has always been tempted to find an incompatibility between the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament and the dictums of YHWH in the Old.  In the words of that font of universal omniscience, Wikipedia, Marcion considered “the god of the Old Testament … a jealous tribal deity of the Jews, whose law represents legalistic reciprocal justice and who punishes mankind for its sins through suffering and death.”[1]  It is this “jealous tribal deity” who calls “heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”

“Contrastingly, the god that Jesus professed is an altogether different being, a universal god of compassion and love who looks upon humanity with benevolence and mercy.”[2]  Like all such “thinking men”—that is, people whose identity is wrapped up in the power of their own minds—Marcion insisted that Jesus’ message be compatible with the categories of meaning presented to him by the best human learning of his day instead of fundamentally challenging those categories.  He wanted Jesus to be congruent with human wisdom, not an epiphany of wisdom beyond the reach of even the best humanity can produce.  (Ironically, Paul, whom Marcion considered the best interpreter of Jesus’ message, has been warning us against this very thing in the readings from 1 Corinthians we have been hearing in church for the past few weeks!)  Rather than Gnosticism or Neo-Platonism, modern Marcions will try make the message of Jesus comport seamlessly with Darwinism, Marxism, or the latest pronouncements of the American Psychological Association.

Of course, such syncretistic perspectives deliberately ignore the simple fact—undeniable by even the most suspicious historical scholars—that it was the faithful Jew Jesus who introduced the practice of referring to God predominantly as “Father.”  Apparently, Jesus didn’t see any incompatibility between the ethics He proclaimed and the dictums of the God He called “Father.”

It also ignores Jesus’ plain words in passages like today’s from the Gospel of Matthew.  In the Old Testament, YHWH said, “You shall not commit adultery.”  Today Jesus tells us that we may not even look in lust upon someone who is not our spouse or we are guilty of adultery.  The ethics of the Sinai covenant say, “get clean before you worship the Lord.”  Today Jesus tells us that if we are worried about getting dirty, cut off our hand or pluck out our eyes.  YHWH says, be responsible and do not sin.  Jesus tells us that under certain circumstances we can even be responsible for other people’s sins.  (Matthew 5:31-32)

The ethics of the Old Testament are demanding.  The ethics of Jesus are terrifying.  YHWH speaks of losing a land.  Jesus speaks of losing our souls.  YHWH said, “Do this… or do something (like offer a sacrifice) to make up for it.”  Jesus speaks plainly of hell and tells us that we will be liable to its fire.

It is a commonplace for pastors to laugh at the “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” which was the mainstay of nineteenth century piety and produced for us iconic art like “Solomon’s Jesus.”  But the Jesus who therapeutically affirms us because we are (in the words of last week’s Super Bowl halftime performer) “born that way” or who walks hand-in-hand with Marx into a future shining with justice and kindness as defined by today’s cultural elite is just as ridiculous and will be lampooned as such by future generations of Christians.

The Jesus presented to us by today’s Gospel, who has just spoken the beatitudes, exhorts just as did His Father in the Old Testament to “choose life that you may live.”  He continues to press us to “hold fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.”  He insists that we remember that the stakes in this life are far higher than land to be retained, but that our souls are on the line.  He insists on simplicity, stating baldly anything more than saying “yes” or “no” to the proposed path of life comes from evil, and that anything obstructing such a wholehearted response to His message—even our own body and is insistent demands—is to be cut ruthlessly out of our lives.

Severed hands and eyeless faces are grim images that remind me more of The Walking Dead than a pulpit on Sunday morning, but perhaps that is the point.  As I contemplate my own sermon this coming week, I find myself asking, if my preaching is too compatible with the categories of meaning I inherit from our culture, is my preaching is faithful?  Does the Christian disciple need to look deformed or mutilated by the words standards in order to be faithful by God’s?  The wisdom of God will always put to shame the wisdom of humanity.  While the preacher must build a bridge between the thought world of Jesus and that inhabited by his or her congregation, has my preaching become wise by human standards but foolish by God’s?

Jesus’ warning to be “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” is a warning for how disciples must interact with the world, not how they are to speak among themselves.  How bold are we willing to be—how much disruption or dislike are we willing to personally court—to speak the whole counsel of God, Law and Gospel, to those whose souls we are charged with the care of?  Paul reminds us that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”  Am I willing to lose admiration, position, and security for the sake of proclaiming the words of Jesus fully and directly as He originally did so?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcion_of_Sinope

Epiphany 5

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Isaiah 58:3–9

1 Corinthians 2:1–16

Matthew 5:13–20

 

“Why doesn’t God listen to us?  Why doesn’t He respond?”  It is the cry of all who suffer in every generation, and the plaint that begins this day’s reading from Isaiah.  The response of God is hard, even harsh; because those who cry out to Him for deliverance have ears that are deaf to the suffering of others—others whose sufferings they have the power to alleviate.  In fact the situation is worse than that; the pious acts they appeal to as evidence of their faithfulness are in reality but a cover for their iniquitous activity.

Haven’t we seen this in the church?  How about the person who disguises their gossip as upholding community standards, or the one who covers their failure to act in the face of evident evil with witless epithet, “Well… we’re all sinners, aren’t we?”  The moralist and the purveyor of what Bonhoeffer famously referred to as “cheap grace” are united in the condemnation of this passage, for by their piety, they both enable violence.  Bonhoeffer understood faith as that which immediately responds to the voice of Christ with obedience, looking neither at its own righteousness by works nor upon its own righteousness by faith, but attending only to Jesus.  (My thanks to the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Sorum for the clarity on this point of Bonhoeffer’s theology.)

This passage from Isaiah agrees with Bonhoeffer’s assessment, and the image that jumps out is that of nakedness; the Lord’s assessment strips naked the religious pretensions of his interlocutors, and he instructs them to cover the nakedness of those without resource.  For those whose foundational story is that of Eden, the image has resonances of judgment and shame as does the end of 58:7, “[do] not to hide yourself from your own flesh.”  The exhortation is not to hide, as did Adam and Eve, but rather to stand up and be accountable.

And standing up to take responsibility is precisely what God does at the cross.  As He did in the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21), God makes Himself accountable for fulfilling humanity’s half of the eternal covenant; the grace of God is not revealed so much in the resurrection of Jesus as in His crucifixion, which is why Paul decides to know nothing among the Corinthians but “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”  To try to explain the mystery of God by any other aspect of Old or New Testament revelation will inevitably draw the listener to try to understand God from within the fallen human categories of power, reason (wisdom), or glory.  At the cross, God inverts those categories, making clear what last week’s reading said: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

Frustrating our expectations in this regard opens us to what Paul calls today “a secret and hidden wisdom of God.”  This wisdom is not concepts of any sort, but communion with a Person—the Holy Spirit—who alone knows the thoughts of God and can hence impart to us “the mind of Christ.”

Now, that’s an evocative image; the mind of Christ.  How would we see the world, particularly the people in our immediate vicinity?  In his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis exhorts us “to have this mind among us:”

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

It is the gravity and grandeur of such vision that lies behind the words of the Sermon on the Mount in our culminating reading from Scripture, which draws together the earlier themes.  Perhaps here is the source of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of faith, for there seems to be little distinction between faith and obedience in Jesus’ teaching.  In the words used by Lutherans to mark the important Ebenezers of faith, Holy Baptism and Confirmation, the Christian disciple is to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

But if we are to be busy “doing” to prove our faith, how can our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who earnestly failed in the same endeavor?!  If it doesn’t, Jesus assures us that we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  The answer is that we do not focus our attention on our works, we do not focus our attention on our faith (paltry as that is if we stop to scrutinize it), we focus our attention upon Jesus, and the indwelling Spirit of God, to whom we have been united, will produce in us a righteousness we are incapable of producing for ourselves.

When that happens, we will be salty, enhancing the flavor of whatever human endeavor we engage because we will bring to it the unquantifiable savor of holiness.  We will be a city set on a hill, shining a light we do not possess into the surrounding darkness.  Then we will be able to keep the commandments and teach others to do so, not as the means to pleasing God, but because they are fulfilled in Christ, upon whom our attention is fixed.

 

Epiphany 4, 2017

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Micah 6:1–8

1 Corinthians 1:18–31

Matthew 5:1–12

 

As we never tire of reminding parishioners, Epiphany means “manifestation,” and the readings of the season between Christmas and Lent make manifest to us realities about God that we fallen human creatures would never guess apart from a revelation of God.

Take the famous (and in some circles infamous) line, Micah 6:8, “and what does the LORD require of you   but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Every religion has ethical demands: things its god, gods, philosophy, or reason (yes, secularism is a religion!) define as “good” and which they command their adherents to do.  That holy writ should include guidelines for the behaviors of the faithful is not only not an epiphany, it is not even exceptional.

The preacher who uses this text as a platform to give his or her congregation a moral shellacking is missing the point of the text and why for the Christian it appears in Epiphany and is paired with the other texts of this Sunday.  This famous text is not so much an exhortation as a sigh of exasperation from the living and true God.  God has done so much for His people; why are they weary of Him?  Why do they turn to the false gods who never deliver on their promises?  Why do they invest their ultimate hopes in idols, especially in our day idols like power, romantic love, professional achievement, identity politics, a fat bank account, or the paltry consolation of knowing they are “on the right side of history” when the living God has revealed Himself to us in mighty acts of salvation, for Christians, preeminently the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

What is amazing about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is that He does so much for us and what little He requires, He requires as a response for salvation given, not a command for salvation to be earned.  To give into the temptation to preach the faith as any sort of self-improvement program is to betray the Gospel, whether you fall into the conservative temptation of thinking you can preach “too much gospel” so that moral chaos results or the liberal one of construing the demands of justice, kindness, and humility as empty vessels into which we can pour ethical particularities informed by modern values.

Indeed, the inability of human intellect to grasp the values of the true and living God is the focus of this week’s reading from 1 Corinthians.  If we would understand how to please God, God Himself must tell us how, which He does first and foremost in the crucifixion of His only Son.  This word from God—the Word of the cross—confounds our every expectation and inverts our understanding of every passage like the previous one.  How is justice fulfilled?  The cross.  How is the kindness of God known?  The cross.  What does true humility look like?  The cross… and if we would respond to God in faith, we must “pick up our cross and follow Him.”

And it is only the cross of Christ that can make sense of the beatitudes that are the centerpiece of this Sunday’s Gospel reading.  If the cross of Christ is not true, then the beatitudes are patent nonsense.  The word that is translated as blessed, makarios, has not only the denotation of being looked upon favorably by God, but carries with it the connotation of happiness, which the mourning, persecuted, and those hungering and thirsting for righteousness clearly are not in anybody’s experience.  Only if reality is not what it appears to be from the standpoint of our fallen human reason—only if the word of the cross is objectively true—can the beatitudes be anything other than utter nonsense and false consolation.  Only if the word of the cross is true can Christianity be anything other than the slave religion Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx believed it to be.  For if God is anything, He must at least be the ultimate reality, and if what reality requires is “nature red in tooth and claw,” then the ethics of Christianity and by extension its God is false.  Only if the word of the cross is objectively true—will the meek inherit  the earth, do the poor in spirit possess the kingdom of heaven, or will the pure in heart see God.

What do you believe?  We must believe it enough to preach it straight.  God requires so little of us for our salvation—in fact, nothing—precisely so that our response to such grace may be from a truly pure heart, one unsullied by self-interest, that we may in fact see God.