Quiet and Peaceable Life

We received in our mailboxes this week our mail-in primary ballot. That is still a bit strange.  In NY voting by mail was not really a thing.  Everyone trudged to the polls on a Tuesday if they wanted to vote.  But that brought to mind one of the petitions that is consistently in the Prayers of the Church.  The picture above is the generic form from the Bidding Prayer. The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2 bids us to pray for a variety of people.  That is the scriptural format of the bidding prayer or the prayers of the church.  And one of his bids is “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim. 2:2).” In our Sunday morning prayers this generic form takes on different specific forms at different times. There are many parts of that generic prayer that can get emphasized.  But there is a specific path of meditation I want to follow here.

The prayer is for a quiet and peaceable life.  Such a life depends upon those in authority. We might ask why that is.  Why doesn’t God just do it?  The primary answer in all things in the temporal kingdom is that God works through means. He has revealed his law.  And he has ordained those whose job it is to carry it out. As the prayer above puts it, “You have ordained for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do well all the powers that exist.”  The first use of the law, the civil use or the curb, is to punish evildoers and to praise the good (Romans 13:3-4). The establishment of good order is so that we are able to live quiet and peaceable lives. And our consistent prayer is that this would be granted to us.

But there are times it is not granted.  The worst of those times are when “I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. (Isaiah 3:4).” The longer passage – Isa 3:1-4 (5-8 ff) – is worth pondering.  How is this done?  The LORD takes away the support and supply of the following in order: mighty man and soldier, judge and prophet, diviner and elder, captain of 50 and man of rank, skillful magician and expert in charms.  That list I believe has an intentional order.

The mighty man and soldier are those who can both establish and keep order. They have both natural ability and official office. The judge and the prophet are those who can keep order already established and who can point in the way to keep it.  They also have a learned ability and an office. The next step down is the diviner and elder.  These are those with natural ability, but no office.  They are the judge and prophet in the wild. Following those are their opposites, those who have an office, but probably lack ability – the captain of 50  and man of rank.  In our world they have the credentials, but lack true aptitude. And last on the list are the Wizards of Oz.  Those who can fake it for a while.  They have neither office nor aptitude, but by some dark art can keep the machine working for a bit.  Or at least give the appearance of order.

How do you get Children?  The supply and support for these are removed. What does it mean to be ruled by children? It means those who lack the ability to create and maintain order. They praise the evildoer and punish the one who does good. They refuse to maintain proper curbs.  They tear down fences without wisdom as to why they were there. They point people away from God and toward themselves.

The prayer is that “those who make, administer and judge our laws, bear it according to the Word.”  That the curbs are put up in proper places.  That within them we might lead quiet and peaceable lives in godliness and honesty. God ultimately controls the supply, but we are the support. When you get that ballot I hope these are thoughts and prayers before checking your support.

What’s in a Name?

Biblical Text: Mark 8:27-38

The text is what includes the confession of Peter, but in the lectionary context what I think it asks us to contemplate isn’t that confession, but what is in the name of Christ? The Old testament has “God Almighty” what the Patriarchs knew God by changing Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah. Names in the Bible mean things. Moses would learn THE NAME. Eventually it is revealed as Jesus the Christ, and Father, Son and Spirit. But what Jesus wants to know is “Who do you say that I am?” When you confess the Christ, does your Christ match the Christ who is? If you Christ can’t include suffering, cross and death, then you do not have the Christ. But also if your Christ is not the one who rose, you do not have the Christ. The answers that the disciples give Jesus aren’t wrong so much as coming up short. Which might be forgiven, because nobody had seen a resurrection. But we have heard and seen. The Christ is the one who works by death and resurrection. And he bids that we walk in the same way. Is this your Christ?

Fathers, Sons, Reconciliation and Peace

There are so few stories of universal resonance.  I’ll save my “what’s in a name” Romeo and Juliet soliloquy for bible study.  Our Old Testament reading this week (Genesis 17:1-17,15-16) backs up last week’s Sacrifice of Isaac which we looked at in detail in Bible Study.  God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.  The meaning of the new names makes all the stranger the request of the sacrifice.  When I say universal resonance I’m not downgrading any of our personal experiences. Those are all very meaningful to us, but most of us don’t live universal lives.

Shakespeare runs through my mind all the time because he had an uncanny gift for tapping into the emotion of those universal stories.  Romeo and Juliet is of course about that impossibly deep teenage swooning, but also about terrible adult reactions. The vampire nostalgia of those like the nurse and the friar living off the emotion and enabling it, but also the hardened hearts of the family heads who demand the undemandable. Telling teens to choose more carefully, by last name, who they love.  Rewatching HBO’s Rome, dodging the no longer softcore porn involved, for a story about Fathers and Sons, I was amazed at how much they missed it all.  The real story wouldn’t have needed the porn to keep attention. Billy Shakes captures it all in “Et Tu, Brute?” Julius Caesar had a bunch of “sons”. His miliary son, Mark Antony.  His foreign son by Cleopatra, Caesarion. His adopted relative Roman son, Octavian nee Augustus. But it was the illegitimate son, Brutus, from his real love, Servillia, who had been sacrificed to his ambition. “You also Son want me dead?” And all of those “sons” would tear the Republic apart after fighting for what the Father could never give them.  It’s a reminder of how blessed Americans are to have a world unique man, George Washington, as the Father of our country.

But of all of those universal lives and their stories, even George Washington’s, there is nothing quite like Jesus Christ.  “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6).”  It is the story of a Father and a Son.  But not one of a Father who only gave love through usefulness, which is not love at all. It is also the story of an impossibly deep love.   “God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8).”  It is ultimately the story that contains all of them. As Pilate would say, “Behold, The Man (John 19:5).” Here is the true man.  Not the man gone wrong like Adam and all us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  But the true man who has come into the world to redeem the world.  Who has reconciled us to Our Father by his blood.  Who willingly put down his life out of love for the Father and His creation.  We are included in that story as the recipients of such a love.

Which is the only explanation for why Paul can make such an audacious boast, “we rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3).”  Absolute foolishness, even to stoics.  The stoic might endure, but they do not rejoice. We rejoice in our sufferings because they are an inclusion in the story.  They are as Paul would say elsewhere a fulling up of the afflictions of Christ (1 Colossians 1:24).  But the afflictions are not the thing itself.  The sufferings produce endurance.  But unlike the stoics, endurance is not the point.  Endurance produces character.  But unlike the virtue ethicists of every age, even character is not the point.  Character produces hope.   Hope that does not put us to shame.  Hope that we are included in this greatest story ever told.  Hope that the love of God has been poured into our hearts.  Hope that all sad stories have once more verse. That we are reconciled to God and have peace.

The Law – Fear, Love and Trust

This is the Wednesday Lenten Mid-Week. My general theme this year is “The Word.” We will be walking through the first three parts of the Small Catechism, giving the most time to the Creed, taking each article of the creed individually. But, the catechism starts with the 10 commandments, otherwise known as the law. And all the commandments are captured in the first commandment to have not other Gods. The question really is “What does it mean to have a God?” Luther’s answer is deep, because it is existential. Whatever you fear, love and trust about all things is your God. This homily examines two things about the law and that answer. First how one can have an external keeping of the law – driven by fear or by wisdom – that is not necessarily bad, but not sufficient. The keeping of the law due to love is a true keeping. The second examination is how we so easily give our love away to things other than God. And it is in those realizations that the law has done it’s work which is pointing out that the law cannot save us. We need a perfect source of love.

Wild Animals

Biblical Text: Mark 1:9-15

The text is the Temptation of Jesus in the gospel of Mark which is different than the others. The introduction to the sermon runs down some of those differences. And this sermon then in very specifically framed around the what those unique parts of Mark’s telling are. I know that the others Matthew/Luke often get told as a “how-to manual” for temptation and testing. Which I think is completely wrong. One, we are not Jesus. Two, Satan is so much smarter than us. Getting into a bible quoting contest with Satan means we most likely lose absent the Spirit giving us the words. No, it is Mark’s account that I believe is a picture of the Christian in testing or temptation. Your God has to be big enough for the Spirit to lead you out into the wilderness. That testing or temptation is like walking with the Wild Animals. The sermon elaborates a bit here. But we also walk with angels all the way. The Kingdom of God is always near. Even in the midst of testing. The Spirit does not desert us in the desert. The angels are ministering. Repent and believe.

Different Audiences (Ash Wednesday)

I didn’t capture the recording, but here is Ash Wednesday’s Sermon with a little reflection about a recent commercial embedded…

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

I’m often stumped on Ash Wednesday or in the season of Lent itself.  Here is my general thinking why. Lent is supposed to be this penitential season. And Ash Wednesday has this extremely heavy call to repentance.  “Remember that dust you are.”  And maybe my history or understanding is off, but in the days of Christendom, the days with a name – like Ash Wednesday – were days of Holy Obligation. Everybody showed up for services.  So the Christendom preacher actually got the chance to proclaim to those far off, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”  And the beginning or the renewal of Faith is always repentance.  A holding before sinners the cross of Christ.  “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

But today, the preacher rarely gets such a chance. Today, those who show up for Ash Wednesday, or a midweek service, are most like those who already keenly feel their poverty of spirit.  The law has already done its work.  Proclaiming “repent” again feels like whipping the defeated.  It risks turning the deadly serious into play acting.

This is the tragedy of the “He Gets Us” Superbowl add, but reversed. It is not exactly that the ad’s message is wrong, but it misses its audience.  I can take that ad and proclaim it here tonight completely.  “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Today is the favorable time.  All those failures that have brought us here with our cry to God.  Today He has listened to you.  What those later Ashes represent – our death due to our sin, “now is the day of salvation.” Christ has become sin, that we might have his righteousness.  He had washed your feet already in those waters of baptism.  He washes your feet every time we receive the absolution. Don’t receive the grace in vain – but believe it. God has heard you and has saved you.  Let that mighty work of God strengthen your faith.  There is nothing that Satan or the World can do that shall take the Grace of God away from you.  Not afflictions, or hardships or calamities, beating or imprisonments. Honors or dishonors, slanders or praise.  There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the grace of God – from the absolution of all our sin by that cross. Receive the grace of God for you – today.

But broadcasting that message to those who have not repented is proclaiming acceptance, not absolution.  And that also makes vain the grace of God, just as much as not believing it.  If God just accepts there is no need for sacrifice, there is no purpose in the cross.  God wishes to absolve us, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.  God does not say “poor child, I know that you will never be different” and leave us in that sorrowful state.  For that is ultimately what acceptance would do, leave us in our sins.  It would not really be a listening and certainly not a day of salvation. But the grace of God has come to us and creates a clean heart and renews the Holy Spirit within us.  And does this so that we might become righteous.  To the extent “He Gets Us” is proclaimed to the unrepentant, it confirms us in self-righteousness.  Not the righteousness of Christ.  It says don’t worry about repentance or holiness or receiving the Grace of God, because you are just fine.  It makes the cross vain.

An old saying from the world of salesmen, “stop selling when you get to yes.”  Stop preaching the law when people are desperate enough to show up mid-week. Today, you are reconciled to God.  The Father has heard and sent Jesus.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The one through whom all things were made, who will gather our ashes and remake us on the day of salvation.  Amen.

Concupiscence

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15

Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost. – Augsburg Confession 2

Most of Christianity up until the 20th century has a focus on sin as a personal thing.  The biggest change in vocabulary which picked up velocity in the late 20th century was the movement of sin away from the individual heart and toward systemic things. The Augsburg Confession article 2 uses a big but useful word – concupiscence – which is the tendency to sin.  This is what James is talking about when he says each person is tempted by his own desire. Sin lives in our members (Romans 7:5, 23).  They are constantly proposing things for us to think and then do.  And the Reformers considered this concupiscence itself to be sin. We are bound to sin.  It is the intervention of God through Baptism and the Holy Ghost that can free us or give us some control over that desire.  For the first time we can mortify it (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5). 

Contrary to that individual story of sin, the modern story tells us something much different. I think the modern story tells us that we ourselves are neutral, maybe even good.  It is evil systems that ensnare us.  Sin is not the result of us giving in to our own desires but participating in evil structures.  It is not that the bible denies such systemic evil.  It would call that the devil and the world, the powers and principalities of this dark realm (Ephesians 6:12). The big difference being that Christ is victorious over the powers and on the last day will condemn them to the pit.  Until that day, we walk in danger all the way.  We might be complicit with these powers, but they are not responsible for our sin. If you took natural us and placed us in the New Jerusalem with perfect systems, we would still desire to sin. Adam and Eve did, and they were not fallen.  They just had the potential to fall.  Our natural selves are bound.  And ultimately, when we have learned to remain steadfast under trial, those systemic structures would fall themselves.  When Satan and the World can no longer sway me, their structures blow away and are nothing.

I rehearse that for this reason.  If our sins are due to what is outside of us, the problem abides with God who placed us in bad places.  Yet James is explicit that “God tempts no one.” God desires to lead in green pastures and still waters. It is we who desire to push and shove the other sheep and make the green grass a mud hole. And God never changes in this desire. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above. (James 1:17).” And the real problem of a lifetime of sin is that we become defined by our pet sins. We are our sins. So when Christ offers his salvation, which is the exchange of our sin for his righteousness, it can literally feel like we are giving up ourselves. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is magical at this depiction.  The various souls on vacation from hell are all bound in some way to a representation of their sin.  And almost all of them refuse to give them up.  Their sin is ultimately too precious to themselves. And Pharaoh hardened his heart.

The one who will receive the crown of life recognizes that the concupiscence might be from within me, but it is not me.  Not in the good way God desired to make us.  And we must hand it over to Christ at the foot of the cross. My sin is no longer mine, but it is held for all of us by the crucified, where all sin dies.  That work of handing over what feels like our very life is the daily gritty struggle of faith.

Out of Time

Biblical Text: Mark 9:2-9

The normal way the Peter’s words at the top of the Mount of Transfiguration are taken is comic relief or babbling. But if you take what he suggests (tents) in the context of what Jesus has just been predicting (his passion), what he is discussing with Moses and Elijah (per Luke His Exodus), and the glorious appearance, then it isn’t so much dumb as just out of time. This sermon reminds of the sequence and meaning of the three great Jewish pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Those feast are a structure of the Christian life in time. Peter’s suggestion understands what he is seeing, but it just out of time. And Jesus’ suggestion is the same for us as it is for Peter. Will you walk down the mountain, in time, in the proper order, with Christ?

Epiphany to Lent; Head to Heart

The season of Epiphany, of which today is the final Sunday, takes you on a journey from the Magi at the cradle to the top of mountain shimmering in light.  It is supposed to be a season of growing understanding and awareness.  Or from the divine perspective a season of greater and greater self-revelation. What was first revealed through nature, a star rising in the east, and then by messengers, the angels, and then prophets like Simeon and Anna and The Baptist, and then by the Son in private like at Cana, is at last revealed in public.  Jesus performs the works of the messiah, proclaiming the Kingdom in every town healing their sick and casting out demons.  What was whispered, and dreamed about, and promised, is now proclaimed, and in the flesh, and fulfilled.  And we have seen it.

I don’t exactly know why, but I’ve been in a stewing mood recently.  And I wish I was talking about it being cooler and looking forward to a nice beef broth. No, just lots of things worming around. Things you know about.  Things you can see coming around the corner.  Things you can’t do anything about but walk through them. We always walk through the valley of the shadow.  Something that is tough to remember in the Valley of the Sun.  As I said to my mother before moving here, “how could anyone remain down for long living in this” while sitting poolside soaking in the strong rays. Maybe the Lenten journey will bring some insights that Epiphany doesn’t.  You can know something in your head, but while in the head it remains something of a theory.  Ideas and thoughts are a bit like ghosts in that way.  They only have as much reality as you let them.  It takes something like a Lent to move head knowledge into flesh knowledge.

Our Epistle lesson for today (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6) feels a little like Paul stewing on some things.  Things he has stewed on before (Romans 9).  His fellow Jews have not heard him.  Paul has seen the glory, that dazzling light on the Damascus road.  He knows. It is interesting to me that the Lord when telling Ananias to receive Paul also tells him, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9:16).” Paul has seen the vision, and knows in the head, but he’s got a long lent in front of him. And we might say that this Lent is the recitation of the sufferings that Paul gives elsewhere. “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Cor. 11:25-27).”  But none of that is what Paul stews over.  It’s the veil that is over the heart of his people.  And the one thing that can remove that veil, the thing Paul knows, is the one thing they won’t accept – Christ.

Our Epistle lesson cuts off before what is to me the greatest statement of a post Lenten faith in the bible, a faith that has moved from the head to the heart.  “We hold this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul is always throwing himself at that wall hoping “for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Romans 9:3).” A head only knowledge might trick us into believing that almost anything is within our power.  That we can remold this clay as easily as we refashion ideas. That we can make our ghosts real. But it is the mature faith that will still do all those acts – that will walk through the valley, but understands that they are not testimonies to our strength. That we cannot remold the clay.  That we ourselves are but weak vessels.  But in our weakness, the light might shine. “Let the light shine out of darkness (2 Corinthians 4:6).”  It is on the far side of the stewing, after the valley, that we know the glory.

Public and Private

Biblical Text: Mark 1:29-39

In any religious life one has to make some type of decision if it is primarily a private thing or a public thing. In fact I’d go so far as to say the world wants to force you to choose. In the Pagan world all religion was public. You could believe anything you wanted, so long as you did the correct public rites. Today, the state would grant you freedom of worship, by which they mean you can do anything you want privately, but it better not affect your public life which must be lived as if you were an atheist. This sermon ponders that split through the how Mark depicts the ministry of Jesus leading up to an emphatic statement as to why Jesus has come out. We are obviously not Jesus, but this still has meaning as we sort our own religious lives out in private and in public.