It’s Not Fair

Biblical Text: John 9:1-41

This is one of the rare sermons where I think in the preaching I added a bit compared to the draft. 16 years in, I’ve got a hand of oral writing, so the drafts are usually pretty clean compared to the preaching. That and I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist about what I take into the pulpit. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d like a really good idea of what I’m saying if it is supposed to be the Word of God for those people on that day. But in composing this sermon I had a rough time. First there were too many different themes or ideas jostling to be expressed. Then the one that I thought I was going to go with, when I started typing – when I actually started preaching to my keyboard and myself – isn’t the theme I was thinking of. What comes out of this text for me, every three years as it comes back around, is the strangeness of God. How little we understand Him. And in that strangeness how Good he is and yet that goodness can appear monstrous to us. The Revelation of God to us, which is the revelation of His Grace, sets us on one of two paths. And right now is the season of light. Right now is the season work can be done. Right now is when to invitation to know God in his grace is yours.

What’s a Member?

Membership is an interesting term these days.  What does it really mean?

There is a Lutheran theological idea that goes by the name Two Kingdoms. If you read about the Two Kingdoms, you will hear the terms Kingdom of the Left and Kingdom of the Right. Those terms depend upon an old understanding of left-handedness and right-handedness. Right, being the majority, is the direct and straight and powerful.  The Kingdom of the Right is the Kingdom where God rules directly.  The left, being the sinister (the latin word for left), is the sneaky and winding and weaker.  The Kingdom of the Left is still ruled by God, but it is ruled by means.  It is ruled through other, sometimes fallen and sinful, things. 

Most things we come across in this life are part of the Kingdom of the Left.  The church is said to be part of the Kingdom of the Right, but even then I’m quick to say we have to be careful of what do we mean by church.  Jesus would remind us that the wheat and tares are sown together. The Augsburg Confession picks up on this in Article 8.  “Strictly speaking, the church is the congregation on saints and true believers.  However, because many hypocrites and evil person are mingled in this life, it is lawful to use the sacraments administered by evil men…Both the Sacraments and Word are effective because of Christ’s institution and command, even if they are administered by evil men.”  The Kingdom of the Right is found there in the Word and Sacraments. These are the things that Christ rules directly. The Word goes out and does not return empty.  Christ is present in the bread and wine whether you believe it or not.  Which is why we are warned to discern it. These are how God works in this world.  Yet, the church is not purely of the Kingdom of the Right. It must exist in this world.  And existing in this world means all kinds of troubles: politics, arguments, decisions, financial worries, human traditions, the list could go on.  And most of these things are not necessarily troubles, they are simply the tasks delegated to the Kingdom of the Left. They are the things still under God’s providence, but that he has left to us.  The Augsburg Confession also teaches that “the church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are administered correctly.” When Jesus says go and make disciples of all nations he follows it with the means: baptizing them and teaching – word and sacrament.  This is the mission of the church in this world.   

So what is membership? In the Kingdom of the Left, which is a necessary thing, it is things like keeping a roster, tracking attendance, seeking people to serve.  Soon we are going to need a Treasurer – notoriously one of the tougher roles in the Lefthand Kingdom to fill.  The negative side of all of this is when people come to think that because my name is in somebody’s spreadsheet in the church office, I am saved.  Just because the Kingdom of the Left recognizes your membership, doesn’t mean The King does.  “Many will say Lord, Lord, we ate at your table…Go away, I do not know you.”  The real meaning of membership is found in that Righthand Kingdom. The questions that are asked in the Reception of members are many of the same questions asked in the Baptismal liturgy – “Do you believe in God: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”.  They are the same questions asked of confirmands – “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?” They are sometimes hard questions – “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away?” Membership in the Kingdom of the Right is about faith.  It is about being part of the saints and true believers.

The church operates in both Kingdoms.  But at all times we need to remember that the Kingdom of the Left exists and operates at the command and purpose of the Kingdom of the Right. Having all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted, but lacking faith is not the church. But likewise we can’t go bury our talent expecting God to prosper it.  We must at least give it to the bankers to receive it back with interest. The talents, God’s providence, is given to us to use.

What is membership?  It is the saints putting the talents given to work.

Remembrance and Proclamation

Text: Catechism Christian Questions and Answers 13-16

This is the 4th Lenten Midweek service. We have been working our way through the Christian Questions and their answer from the Small Catechism. These Questions and Answers are a model of “fitting preparation” to receive the Lord’s Supper. To me they run in expanding cycles. The first cycle is the simple proclamation of sin and salvation. The second cycle expands on that from the creed. This third cycle is very Lutheran. It always goes back to faith, but it also is not afraid to ask the question “why should or do I believe this?” The Lutheran understanding of the faith has an answer. That answer might not be satisfactory to all, but it has the advantage of being how the Bible talks about the origins of faith. And it has the advantage of being grounded in the cross. We remember and proclaim the cross as the ground of our faith. This sermon meditates on that.

Revealed Desire

Biblical Text: John 4:4-26

John 4 is a New Testament example of a “well scene”. It’s a stock backdrop that comes with some expectations for what is going to happen. John plays with these expectation is playful and revealing ways. If we are willing to hear, I think it reveals our desires that we often chase in all kinds of places – appropriate and inappropriate.

Filling the Void

Today is a tongue in cheek day in the office. Somehow Annessa and I both will root for Duke.  As I say to my boys when they ask incredulously “how can you root for Duke?” Sons, you’ve got to respect greatness. But today Duke is playing the University of Pittsburgh, an institution I am an alumnus of and have been a cheering fan of ever since.  It isn’t the Alma Mater, but Grove City is not in the ACC, so there are no loyalty pangs.  When I was attending the school Basketball was the thing.  The football team was mediocre and had been losing to Syracuse and West Virginia, the real rivalries. The Basketball team had even climbed to a number 1 ranking a few times. But since that coach (Jaime Dixon) left, the team has been on the slide.  But someone got smart, hired a former Duke player (Jeff Capel) and the team got better.  And it really got better this year when Coach Capel finally realized that Pitt was never going to be Duke and started using the transfer portal to bring in talent.  Predicted to finish last, they ended up in what was a 5 way tie for the top. Which places pastor and secretary on opposite sides today.

That is all fine and good, but this is pastor’s corner, aren’t you supposed to say something at least vaguely spiritual if not downright theological? Yes, yes I am.  So here is the connection.  If you have been part of our mid-week bible studies, this past week was the Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah story.  And I only somewhat tongue in cheek held up that competition as a scoreboard. If you know the story the rivalry was between sisters married to the same man.  The scoreboard was number of sons.  It is a story of competition and longing and attempting to fill that gnawing void.

Any athlete, other than Michael Jordan who is still attempting to crush his enemies and friends, will eventually tell you that winning is great, but what they miss when they can no longer play is being part of the team. That’s why many hang around too long.  They know they can’t do it anymore, but they need that team.  The smarter of them will move to coaching, the smartest to the front office.  The dumb but really good will eat forever on faded glory. When you see one of these in their 60’s you realize your crumbs of adulation mean more to them to fill that void than they mean to you as a curiosity. It is the rare athlete that figures out how to fill that void in other ways. Roger Staubach never had that void being the Navy man. Barry Sanders didn’t need it and even left early while he could still walk. Philip Rivers for me was always a fascinating case. Our sports press is terrible around religion.  They are a bunch of atheists covering usually a group of believers and so don’t get it.  Rivers never won a Super Bowl.  Those Chargers teams with Ladanian Tomlinson and Junio Seau and a bunch of other names were great.  They should have won 2, maybe 3. Most athletes the never-was would eat up.  Seau died early. Rivers is accepting.  I’ve only seen one reporter ask him this question. And Rivers points at his wife and 9 kids and his faith.  That void is more than filled.

That is the place where Leah eventually gets to.  She will have a relapse or two.  Sin is tough, we all do.  But after her 4th son Leah says, “This time I will praise the LORD.”  That child was Judah who would be the heir of the promise.  Leah had been trying to fill the void with a competition she would never win.  And even if she did – and you can argue that she did – it still wouldn’t or didn’t fill the void. Augustine’s famous quote is that we are restless until we find our rest in thee. His confessions are one long tale of competition that never fills the void.  Of stealing pears because he could, but not even eating them. But then finding what fills it.

Finding God, as Leah found out, doesn’t necessarily end the competition. We might even get pulled back into sinful ways of competition.  But when that void is full, we can be happy warriors. The victory is ours. Whether today we win or lose, that distant triumph song steals on the ear.  And hearts are brave and arms are strong.  Hail to Pitt, today at least!

Who is Christ?

Text: Catechism Self Exam Questions 7-12

This midweek service sermon picks up from last week. The apostle Paul says we are to examine ourselves before receiving communion. The Catechism gives us a series of questions and answers that are a model of that self examination. This midweek series is walking through them and meditating on what they encourage us to think and live. This second grouping is what I’d call creedal stuff. (Stuff, a highly technical term there.) Part of a good self examination is some solid understanding of the God we are worhsipping as He has revealed himself. That is what these questions and this sermon meditate on.

What is Love?

Biblical Text: John 3:1-17

The Gospel text is the full text in which “the gospel in a nutshell” is found. Which usually means a springboard into some gaseous ramble about love. Now I’m crazy. The less concrete a word is, the more I hate it. And you don’t get less concrete today than love. This sermon is about say “What is love.” Which is pointing at the cross. You want to know love, look at the cross. That is a concrete as it gets. God works in his way – “The Spirit blows where it wills” – and “the son lifted up is His way.”

Apocalypse Now?

As a kid I always loved looking at the pictures that you often could find in the back of bibles.  There would be the maps, but there would also often be representations of things like the Ancient Temple.  Encoded into space (architecture) would be a certain meaning. The entire place was to be holy, a place for prayer, so when the Jews made the court of the gentiles into a marketplace, Jesus gets properly mad.  Because right in that architecture was the idea that the gentiles were not to be excluded, even if they were not priests. All Israel was a nation of priests.  That nation itself would have divisions.  There would be the court of the women which also contained the place the Levites – the priestly tribe – sang as the gateway into the court of the Israelites which included the Altar.  The sacrifices were a public thing.  Then you had the temple proper with a court of priests – Levites and Aaronic.  The Holy Place – only Aaronic priesthood – with the table for the showbread, the lampstands and the altar of incense. And finally the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest would go containing the Ark of the Covenant. The encoded meaning wasn’t that each group was holier than the rest.  The encoded meaning was that we all need a mediator with the Holy God.  The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  And upon the cross, when the veil of the temple was torn, we found our mediator in Jesus Christ. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? (Ps. 24:3 ESV)” The incarnate son.

Most churches still keep some of that old architecture.  Even modernist sanctuaries like ours have their nods.  The pulpit, lectern, and table are all a step up. The nave or ark of the church is separated from the narthex or the courtyards by doors.  The reason I’m thinking about these things is two-fold. The first is they help me make some distinctions. There are things I would write in this corner that I would probably not bring into a Bible Study.  And there are things that I’d bring into a bible study to ponder that I would not bring into the pulpit. There are appropriate places for business and rank speculation. The second is a bit of speculation from personal mediation that feels impossibly old.

We often say that our enemies are the devil, the world and our sinful nature.  And we have plenty of problem with these.  But if you read the Old Testament or study the BC world it feels like something else is different. I’d posit that the “something else” is what Jesus says in Mark 3:27 where the strong-man is bound, or in Luke 10:18 where Satan falls like lightning.  Apocalyptic Revelation talks about Satan bound with his only power being deception (Rev 12:13ff). Paul would say our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities (Eph 6:12), but those dark forces have been hampered for a long time.  The history of Israel and the ancient world shows us what happens when those forces are unbound. Paul reminds us in Romans 1 that the wrath of God revealed is when “God gave them up.”  When we exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship the creature instead of the creator.

The three “gods” – the unholy trinity if you will – were Baal, Molech and Asherah.  The ancient world was syncretistic, so those names would morph, but the symbols and offerings would often remain. Baal being the worship of pure power. Molech being the worship of destruction and death.  And Asherah being better know as Venus or Aphrodite, the worship of eros. When you see things like the statue recently installed over the Appellate Court building in NYC (I’m not putting that image here) something has changed.  When alongside Moses, Maimonides and other law givers is installed a golden image with horns and tentacles, something new-old is being worshipped.  Architecture and public art tell you how those in charge of a society would organize it.  For a long time we were organized on Christian principles.  What comes in when we turn our backs on those is not John Lennon’s Imagine.  What comes back are the spirits once cast out (Matthew 12:45).

But such things are the very purpose of books like Revelation or Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 24.  “See, I have told you beforehand.”  Christ is already victorious.  Your life is already hidden away with Christ.  Whatever comes we have no reason to fear.  Those old powers can do nothing but flail impotently against that. They are judged, the deed is done. We only await the final word that sends them away forever.

Self Examination pt1

Text: Small Catechism Q&A 1-6

In preparation for the Sacrament Paul tells us to examine ourselves. The Small Catechism provides a section of Christian Questions and their Answers that is given as a fitting examination. The Lenten Mid-Week services this year are going to be looking as these as our fitting preparation for Easter.

Testing or Temptation

Biblical Text: Matt 4:1-11

The primary text is traditionally called the Temptation of Jesus. It takes place right after his baptism and continues the theme of Israel reduced to one. When Israel fails in the wilderness, Christ succeeds. But, this sermon is about something I think is an important distinction that often gets lost in the modern church. It was important to me to figure out because Luther makes a statement in the Small Catechism that always seemed to fly in the face of reality to me, at least reality if you take the scriptures and the universal experience of the faith as witnesses. And you wish to take ordination vows seriously. Luther says “God tempts no one.” And that honestly felt like this polyanna-ish statement completely foreign to the great man who was always “calling a thing what it is.” So, this sermon attempts to talk about the difference between temptation and testing. And how we can affirm that God tempts no one, even if the answer to that 6th petition of the Lord’s prayer isn’t always positive in the short term. But the will of God is not for this moment alone, but to give you the eternal victory in Christ.