Something to Eat

Biblical Text: Mark 6:30-44

The feeding of the 5000 is one of the few episodes that is in all 4 gospels. And I think each one of them has their own theological understanding of the event. Mark’s to me emphasizes the providence of Jesus in the Spiritual Life. We all tend to think we can do it ourselves. And then we end up hungry in a desolate place. This sermon walks through both how we find ourselves in those places, and how Jesus restores to us life by giving himself.

Everybody

There are two “everybody” statements that I firmly believe in, but it has been my experience most people reject.  They might even get mad when I say them.  First, everybody worships.  Second, everybody has a liturgy of worship. 

The first one: everybody worships is easier to prove.  Luther’s explanation of the first commandment is that “we should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” He expands on that in the large catechism explaining that whatever we fear, love or trust in above anything else is our God. The number of idols is almost endless, but Luther in his jokey way, I think correctly recognizes that most people have their own stomach as their God. Whatever the gut wants is where they are lead to worship.  Although there are several other common gods: money, power, fame are the usually the negatives, but you could also add family, land or tradition as normal positive things that can become idols.  And if you don’t believe me on those, listen to Jesus in Matthew 10:37 or Matthew 15:3.  Most of his arguments with the Pharisees were over idolatry of good things. The righteousness of the Pharisees wasn’t slight, see Matthew 5:20. It was just nowhere close to the perfection required for salvation.   The purpose of “everybody worships” is a reminder to be conscious of who or what you worship.  Most people slip through life not knowing.  Hence Luther’s being led around by their belly. But The One God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. You can worship him.

The second “everybody” is something of the answer to: Well, how do I worship?  And even more than people not realizing who their God is, the vast majority do not understand how they worship. And in not understanding they don’t realize the power of everyday liturgies. What is a liturgy? A liturgy is formalized order of worship that incarnates belief. Now that worship and belief doesn’t have to be of ultimate importance. There is a liturgy of going to a football game. You enter through the tailgate. Everyone rises and lines up.  The colors are presented. Sometimes a prayer is said – like at my son’s Valley Lutheran Games, but always the National Anthem is sung.  On High Holy Days, like a championship game, you will have an airplane flyover.  On the highest of holy days you get a Stealth Bomber. The Kick-off lines up.  Everyone chants “seven nation army” or whatever the kickoff song is.  And then the liturgy is over when the ball flies.  What does that liturgy worship?  Basically everything America and American.  And when you break liturgies, like by kneeling for the anthem, people get upset. There are liturgies big and small that fill our days. The purpose of “everybody has a liturgy of worship” is knowing what yours are.  Because those liturgies tell you what you actually believe; what you believe deep enough to make real in time and space.

I want to occasionally highlight elements of our liturgy. Today I want to take a minute to look at the Introit.  What the heck is an Introit?  It is simply the Latin word for entry.  Now we usually staple on in front of it a hymn and corporate confession.  We’ll leave that for another day. But the original start of the worship of Father, Son and Spirit was the invocation of the God being worshipped.  Christianity is clear.  The idols usually try and hide that part. But you started with the invocation and some entry words about what we are going to be making real in time and space. Those words change week to week as the meditation of the church upon Christ focuses on different things He has done for us.  Those words are typically taken from the psalms, the prayer book of the bible. So what we have in the Introit, which we at Mt. Zion recite responsively, is the theme of our worship for the day in the words that God has given us.

Today, the words of the Introit give us the theme of God providence (Psalm 147:7-11, Psalm 145:16).  “He makes the grass grow on the hills.” But that material providence that falls on the just and the unjust alike points at God’s greater providence. “You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” And what is that desire?  To rest secure in the love of your creator. “The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” You who join in this liturgy, in making real in time and space our beliefs, shall see that steadfast love of God for you.  That love of God that forgives sins, provides us our daily bread, and most importantly promises us that we shall dwell securely in his land (Jeremiah 23:5-6).

Which Kingdom?

Biblical Text: Mark 6:14-29 (Amos 7:7-15)

It is a difficult text and a difficult day. I am always amazed at the synchronicity of the lectionary. Honestly you start writing the next sermon in your head by Sunday afternoon. You translate it. Make sure you understand the words. You read what a few solid commentators have said through the ages. But by Wednesday, Thursday at the latest, the general theme is locked down. In this case the text was the story of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod. And the general theme I had decided upon what a contrast of the Kingdoms. The Kingdoms of this World represented by Herod and the The Kingdom of Heaven represented by Jesus and John. The general thrust coming from the best prayer ever written by Thomas Cranmer (which is saying a lot) – may we pass through things temporal without losing things eternal. As the people of God we are citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet today the Kingdoms of this World and the Kingdom of Heaven exist side by side. Each exerting some authority over the other. How do we live in that overlap? And then Saturday evening someone tries to shoot a major Presidential Candidate. Someone was overtaken by things temporal and lost things eternal. And all of us, and entire nation, seems to be walking that same line. The propaganda assault we live in daily puts eternal weight (“The Republic Will Be Lost”) on temporal things. And it is not that those temporal things are not important. They are. It is that the Christian must not lose sight of the eternal. The Kingdoms of this world might listen and respect and protect us. We should pray for that. Herod did that for John, for a while. But they ultimately have a different master and work by different rules. They turn into beasts and chop off heads. The promise of the Kingdom of Heaven is not temporal rule or health and wealth. The promise of the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal life under the one true King, Jesus Christ. And if that means a temporal pit, so be it. The Kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord in his good time. And we shall be there to receive them.

Plumb Lines

“Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” – Amos 7:8

I’m always hesitant to bring up things that originate from the larger Christian world that I consider bad ideas.  There used to be a never ending stream of dumb ideas floating over from Evangelicalism.  Even that term I don’t exactly like because it doesn’t really describe that movement or the churches that they form.  There really is no consistent theology believed, taught or confessed. It varies church to church and pastor to pastor although most of it is vaguely Baptist. I like the historian Miles Smith’s term, Folk Religion.  There is a core of general doctrine, but more important are the feelings and practices.  And those practices are ever changing and morphing as the folk themselves change. That is both the power and the danger.  American Evangelicalism is often able to meet the moment and a folk practice can spread rapidly, but it can also spread terrible ideas just as fast.

One of those ideas goes by the name “Faith Deconstruction.”  The general idea behind it I believe is a healthy one. Over the last 50 years in this folk religion evangelicalism there have been lots of practices and beliefs that have attached themselves and even moved into central identity roles. The original faith deconstructionists undertook to examine some of those practices and beliefs and be more discriminating if they deserved a central place.  I’d take that general idea has something of what Paul would mean by “examine yourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5)” or “work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).”  We should take note of our faith and practice. Satan is tricky and our hearts are idol factories.  But folk religion is and was a terrible basis to do that from.  Being concerned primarily with personal feelings and practices, it had no “plumb line”.  Or the only plumb line was the individual heart. And so faith deconstruction, which has spawned an entire genre of memoirs about it, became not a healthy spiritual practice, but a method often to ditch the faith all together, or to re-craft the faith into exactly what our sinful hearts desire.

This is exactly where folk religion/evangelicalism needs its confessional spine like the Lutheran Church. In our Old Testament Reading for the day (Amos 7:7-15), God tells the prophet Amos what he is doing with the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel (Amos 7:8).”  And what is the purpose of a plumb line? It is to see if the wall constructed is straight.  Is what has been built, built square, built to last?  Or is it crooked and destined to fall? In Israel’s case it is all destined to be taken down. “The high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste (Amos 7:9).” What the folk religion of Israel had built was crooked and needed to be deconstructed in a radical way. But the question for us is: What is the plumb line?

The answer is first the scriptures. If someone says search your heart in spiritual matters, that is bad advice. In spiritual things, in the things of God, you start with the Word of God.  “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you (Micah 6:8).”  Resting under the authority of Scripture the church through the ages has found certain expressions of the faith to be wholly consistent with the scriptures. The creeds which we confess and the Small Catechism fall into that category.  We believe, teach and confess them because they are a right understanding.  To faith deconstruct one needs a plumb line.  And we have been given one.  Although we often disdain it. Just as Amaziah the priest and Jeroboam the King said to Amos when he held up the plumb line of God.  “Seer, go, flee to Judah, and eat there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the King’s sanctuary and it is a temple of the Kingdom (Amos 7:12).”  We often prefer our sanctuary and our temple, the King’s sanctuary and temple, our folk religion over the religion of Jesus.

But we don’t get rid of God and his plumb line so easily.  Amos’ reply to the High Priest and King, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15)”  The word of God, that plumb line, has a way of sticking around.  And God is not embarrassed to have his humble witnesses. Amos might never get a book contract for his memoir, but he has a plumb line.  And what is not straight shall come down.

Scandal of Particularity

Biblical Text: Mark 6:1-13

This sermon starts out with that theological phrase, the Scandal of Particularity. I think it is much more common that we admit. Primarily because we don’t really know what to call it when it happens. It is more than just envy. And it has some logic behind it. But if we can identify it, I think it is also what hangs around at the most intimate invitations from God to know Him better.

The Prophetic Voice

(A note that I’m writing this to be printed June 27th, and our popular definition of a prophet (being able to see into the future) is not something I claim. But I do think this is evergreen truth.)

 It has always interested me how certain strains within the church have claimed to be “speaking prophetically.”  I always think they must never have read the actual bible. Because when you actually read the bible you get confronted with what the prophetic voice actually means.  Our modern day prophets seem to think it means “I get to change things and I win.”  But when you read the bible you get confronted with calls like Isaiah who was to say “keep on hearing, but do not understand…and though a tenth remain in it, burn it again (Isa 6:9,13).” Or you get our Old Testament lesson today, “And whether they hear or refuse to hear, they will know that a prophet has been among them (Ezekiel 2:5).” In the Old Testament the prophetic voice was the simply the voice of truth.  The only prophet who “won” was Jonah, and he didn’t want to.  And lest you think the prophetic calling in the New Testament is dramatically better, please remember Paul’s “thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7).”  The power and truth of God speaks more powerfully through that left hand of weakness. Even Jesus in his prophetic office is thrown out of his hometown. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown…and he marveled because of their unbelief (Mark 6:4-6).”  The prophetic call of Jesus leads directly to the cross.

The main point of Ezekiel’s call is that the people of Israel are a nation of rebels, impudent and stubborn. And this is simply the way of the World.  Satan, the ruler of this age, has been in rebellion since the beginning.  And this age, or this world, is his.  This world groans at that.  There are remnants.  God created is so good, much of it continues.  But when the powers that be are focused, the world is on their side. And that rebellion against the creator is as deep as our own flesh. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Ps. 51:5 KJV).”  The prophetic voice is that voice which speaks truth to this situation. If the voice claiming to be a prophet is making peace with the devil, the world or our flesh, it is a false one.

But the promise of the gospel is present both in those Old Testament calls and even more in the word’s of Christ.  Isaiah’s words may have burned Israel to a stump, yet “the holy seed is its stump (Isa 6:13).”  Our Old Testament lesson cuts off for some reason, but it continues that “you (Ezekiel) be not afraid of them (Eze 2:6).”  The Lord shall put flesh on the field of bones and breathe life into his people.  Paul boasts in his weaknesses because that is the power of Christ in this world (2 Cor 12:9).  And Jesus – rejected by his hometown – sends out the apostles two-by-two.  And the demons flee and sickness is healed.

That prophetic voice is the voice of the Good Shepherd for all who hear it. It is the voice that calls us to repent of our wayward ways.  It is the voice that reminds us that this age is the age of the cross. We fight not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. And if we are living the word, we are living behind enemy lines. But they know their time is short.  This age is drawing to a close. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. When you hear that, you know you have heard a prophet.

Soul Meets God

Biblical Text: Mark 5:21-43

The text is one of Mark’s famous “sandwiches.” He puts one story on the inside of a story interrupted. I think the reason is that we are meant to compare and contrast the inner and the outer stories. They illuminate each other. And these two stories are stories of desperation and faith. They are stories of the soul. In the inner one a story of how the soul meets God. In the outer one all the lies that Satan might throw in our way. This sermon is a little more experimental than what I normally do. And by experimental I probably mean spiritual experiential.

A Note on the Tithe

But as you excel in everything– in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you– see that you excel in this act of grace also– 2 Corinthians. 8:7

The “act of grace” that Paul is extolling here in our Epistle reading for the day (2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15) is the financial support for the needs of the church. Money issues tend to be the third rail of congregational life. Everyone knows that they are important.  The one vote you know you will take every year will be the vote on the budget. It is a truism that the Bible talks more about money and our use of it than it does about a whole host of other topics. Yet we tend not to be clear about financial support of congregations. We vote on what we agree to spend, but then often fail to consider our support.

When Paul places financial support for the needs of the church in the category of “act of grace” he is placing it in the realm of the gospel which is a meaningful decision.  If he wanted to place such support in the realm of the law he could have done so. There are numerous tithes stated and discussed in the Old Testament and the law of Moses. The purpose of the tithe was for the support of the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel. “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, (Num. 18:21)” Those Levites from their tithes were to also take care of the widow, the fatherless and the sojourner (Deut. 26:12). And the law of God is good and wise. When we are talking about things we’d rather not, we are quick to dismiss the law and claim our Christian freedom. Sometimes falling into the error of pitting the gospel against the law. Christ did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). We are freed from the penalties of the law, but the good will of God expressed in the law is something we seek to fulfill.

One of the oldest stories in the Bible centers upon the disposition of the heart towards God in material blessings.  Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground.  Abel brought the first born of his flock and its fat portion (Genesis 4:3-4). The LORD had regard for Abel’s, but not for Cain’s. And it is this distinction that leads to the first murder. This distinction is also the difference between the legalistic tithe and Paul’s “act of grace.” God had provided for both Cain and Abel.  It was Abel’s trust that the providence of the LORD would continue and continue to be enough, it was his faith in the grace of God, that brought forth his offering of the firstborn and their fat portion. Fear always lurks. Fear that the LORD is not as good as his promises.

Paul continues in 2 Corinthians to make the distinction between an extraction and an “act of grace.” It would certainly be possible to extract an offering from the Corinthians, but such an extraction wouldn’t do anyone any good.  It might even be like Cain leading to a hardening of the heart. Instead Paul has “arranged in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it will be ready as a willing gift, not as an extraction (2 Cor 9:5).” Paul’s encouragement is for the Corinthians to understand and act upon the economics of the Kingdom of God. First is that “He (meaning God) has distributed freely, he has given to the poor, his righteousness endures forever (2 Cor 9:9).” The grace of God has been given to us poor sinners in Jesus Christ.  And the righteousness of Christ endures forever. We need never fear a lack, for God has made his grace abound.  The promise of God here is much like the promise of God given in Malachi 3:10, “bring the full tithe in…put me to the test says the LORD, and I will pour down blessing.”  “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor 9:10).” The economics of the Kingdom of God are of abundance.  It starts as a mustard seed.  It starts as 5 loaves and feeds 5000. The grace of God multiplies that given in faith.

And what does it mean to give in faith?  “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:7).” Reflect on the will of God expressed in the law that he wishes to see brought to completion.  Reflect upon the God’s providence of temporal goods and of his grace in Christ.  The “act of grace” is that portion freely given seeking the good of the Kingdom of God that grace might be increased.  The will of God will certainly be done, but here is our chance to see it done amongst us and to participate in that grace.

I’m sure there is someone out there who tithed and regrets.  But I honestly have never met that man or woman. There are lots of spiritual reasons.  “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also (Matt 6:21).” “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward (Matt. 10:42).”  And there are many other such verses. But not least of the reasons is probably something that Paul says here. “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully (2 Cor 9:6).”  Those who “excel in this act of grace” usually have the best eyes to see the return.

So my encouragement here is for your Spiritual good. Take the time. Decide in your heart cheerfully.  And support the Kingdom of God with your gifts. As you excel in everything, see that you excel in this act of grace also.   

Not Today’s Tom Sawyer

Biblical Text: Mark 4:35-41, Job 38:1-11

This is the “free will” or bondage of the will sermon. The texts of the day, at least to me, set it up perfectly. The effect of the law in our day I believe is felt most acutely when we are talking about knowledge or technique. We all have a sense that something is wrong, but natural man today believes everything could be solved simply with more knowledge or better technique. Enter the God of the whirlwind from Job. “Who is this who darkens my council with words without knowledge?” That doesn’t prevent us from holding onto that. Our situation is so ruined and dire – we have no free will in spiritual things – that even omniscience wouldn’t do us any good. We need a savior. We need someone to change the rules. And the that is what Jesus does. He fulfills the law. He has perfect knowledge and technique. And to our broken want-ers what he offers is grace. Have faith. God loves you and will see you through.

Weapons of Righteousness

With the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left2 Corinthians 6:7

Flavor Flav turned 65 this year. I wonder if he ever found out what time it was? Or if it is just time to start collecting social security. Yes, that is pure corn, and you probably don’t remember Flav. He was one of the early rappers in pivotal group Public Enemy. His shtick to this day is wearing a giant clock and interjecting, “Do you know what time it is?” Which if you’ve got an apocalyptic sweet tooth is impossible not to like.  Because we all should be asked if we know what time it is more often.  The hour is later than you think.

But the good news of any apocalyptic is that Christ is both the Alpha and the Omega.  Christ can operate with both the right hand and the left. Moses had placed “good and evil” before the gathered Israelites (Deuteronomy 30:15ff) and urged them to “choose life.”  Of course Moses was talking about the law which is good and wise. Our problem is choosing it. Knowing what time it is by Moses isn’t a good thing.  But Paul has a different proclamation. “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain…look, now is the favorable time, look, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).” What time is it? It is the day of grace.  If you are still in the flesh and reading this, now is the time that grace has come to you.  Now Christ helps us.

How does Christ help us?  With weapons of righteousness for the right and for the left.

What the heck does that mean? I think the base picture is the ancient warrior who held an offensive weapon, a sword, in the right, and a defensive weapon, a shield, in the left. The right is the instrument of power.  The left is the tricky one.  It is tricky for a few reasons, but the greatest is the fact that the greatest strength of the warrior comes not from skill with the right, but from savvy formation with the left. My shield in formation protects not just me but the man to my left. The army that lost was almost always that one that broke ranks first and no longer fought as a unit.  And they would do this because they trusted their own might and not their fellow’s shield.

The apostle leading up to that summary has a couple of lists.  Weapons of the left: “endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).”  The Apostle Paul held formation through all of those things. He proclaimed Christ and our eternal life in Christ thought all of those things.  He kept the faith. And paradoxically it is those weapons of the left that are much more meaningful. The grace of Christ which is seen most clearly in the cross is centered in our endurance of what this temporal world has for us.  But that does not exclude weapons of the right: “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, the power of God (2 Corinthians 6:6-7).” All of those are active things.  You could call those the Sanctified life. The Saints also have weapons of righteousness that demand use and skill, not just endurance.  The endurance weapons of the left are typically better, but there are times that demand action, that demand holiness and truthful speech.

Flavor Flav’s question, the apocalyptic question, is always meaningful.  “Do you know what time it is?” Now is the favorable time.  God acts with his grace both through the left and the right.  But do you know which is called for in your life?  As Luther would say, “sin boldly.” Choose your weapon, but have faith in the grace of Christ to make now the day of salvation regardless the choice.