Everybody Worships

I suppose graduation season has passed.  In NY my kids would still have two weeks of school left in the year, so I’m still adjusting a bit. But graduation season brings up maybe my one brush with greatness. David Foster Wallace, the essayist and author, was in residence as a teacher at Illinois State University in 1993.  Supposedly that was when he wrote Infinite Jest, his most famous work that vies for a place in the canon. That also happened to overlap with some of the time I spent there on full scholarship, while also in “He went to Paris, searching for answers” mode. I happened to bump into him at a church service at our little student mission. I’m not sure anyone else knew who he was.

You have probably not read Infinite Jest and that is not me being a pompous ass. I’m the weird one here.  I once attempted to get my mother to read some of his essays which are my favorites.  Because he was an Illinois boy who through his parents’ connections and his own precociousness had gained access to a rarified world.  There was a bit of biographical overlap, and from my reading his love and fundamental goodness was clear.  She of course was offended.  Read where I saw love as scorn. (It was the Illinois State Fair essay if anyone has read him.) But, you might have heard his graduation address at Kenyon College. He gave it in 2005.  And to this day it takes me right back to that church service, because I swear he must have been reading Luther. It usually goes by “This is Water,” and it does have the strong advice to know what you are swimming in.  But for me the stronger portion is when he says, “Everybody Worships.” That is actually the meat of his advice to the graduates.  You are going to worship something.  And all the default deities are terrible. “They will eat you alive.”

That is almost directly from Luther’s Large Catechism on the first commandment. “Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your God.” And Luther runs down roughly the same default Gods: money, power, skill, favor, family, friendship.  Even good things will eat your alive if placed as the ultimate source. 

Luther’s words in that catechism explanation amount to the same thing as what DFW says. “The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”  Make sure you know what you are worshipping. Understand the water you swim in.

DFW got the law right.  The great difference was in the gospel. For DFW it was your work alone to daily keep the truth before you.  It was your work alone to continue to choose who to worship. Toward the end of his address he’d say, “That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think…the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness…your education really IS the job of a lifetime.”  If you live under the law, you better choose the right god and have no other God’s before him.  And if that is all on you, it will crush you.  DFW took his own life in 2008. Luther would put it differently. “We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” We will never understand the water we swim in without the pure gift of the Holy Spirit.

The law is still good and wise.  We need to recognize the water we worship.  And we are all too dismissive of that.  Too easily swept along by the strong currents of default. But it is the Spirit who ultimately “keeps us in the true faith.” Today his mercy calls us, again.

What Can We Do?

Biblical Texts: Genesis 1, Acts 2:22-36

The Sunday was Trinity Sunday. The day we recite the Athanasian Creed (which happens to be my favorite. I find myself looking at it almost weekly.) It is a day where doctrine really takes the lead. So this sermon is a little different. It focuses on the first two doctrines of the church: the Doctrine of God within which is creation and the doctrine of original sin. It is the position that these two doctrines place us in that brings forth the good news of Christ. This particular sermon illustrates this position with a current cultural argument and a personal reflection. It is a sermon that ends with proclamation, but early on it makes an argument. It is an attempt at persuasion. So it is something a little different and maybe not perfect.


Having lived most of my life east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line, when you talked about nature you were talking about two things: the color green and the gentle rolling hills. That can be and is beautiful, but it is all on a human scale.  Even in Pittsburgh, at the confluence of two mighty rivers and the foothills of the Appalachians, Mt. Washington is scaled by the mechanical inclines which used to ferry workers daily to the mills before they became merely for tourists. Around 1100 feet is the highest elevation. The contrast with Arizona or the West is part of this meditation. I’m sure you eventually get used to it and it recedes into the background, but beautiful is not the word I’d use.  I’d use adoration. The mountains are not on human scale.  Unless you became a hermit like St. Anthony, you would not live at the top of the mountains. As we drove to Las Vegas earlier this year I had a hard time keeping my jaw up.  Around every turn was a staggering view.  A lonely trail of asphalt with a few ants crawling along it dwarfed by the immensity of nature, untamed and unbothered by the speck speeding through it. Likewise for about 10 mins every morning and 10 mins in the evening something strange happens in the valley. The light has not fully gone away or come up.  The sun hides behind the mountains casting their shadow over the entire valley.  In the east there was always “the gloaming”, but this is different. The browns all move a shade or two darker yet still radiate.

The Trinity is a doctrine that we confess. And as with all doctrines it is important. As the Athanasian creed we will confess this week will say, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith…and the catholic faith is this.” But there are doctrines which can be understood.  For example I’d argue that the Providence of God can be understood. “God has given me my clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home…and still takes care of them.”  Even the pagans had some inkling of this calling Odin the All-Father or maybe more modern the Life of Julia with the government always present to supply. (Although I might argue that Odin was probably a healthier expectation of providence.) These doctrines are like those Eastern scenes.  They are on a human scale.  So much that we occasionally think humans can take God’s place entirely.  But the doctrine of the Trinity is not something to be understood.  It is something to be adored.

The second the human starts throwing around words like infinite, eternal, uncreated, almighty the only comparison we have are the mountains.  Who if they even notice us would do so merely in humor. Oh, we can reduce one or two with strip mines, but not the Rockies.  Not even the foothills. Pondering them is thinking about eternity and how it moves.  Scientists will tell us at one time they were flat.  The tectonic plates rammed into each other and threw them up.  Ok, if you say so. But in all of recorded history, they’ve moved nary a centimeter.

Some doctrines can only be adored. We see them and stagger. The fullness of the Trinity is beyond us.  Yet they have chosen to dwell with us, Father, Son and Spirit.  They have chosen to share their eternal life with us, whatever that really means. I simply believe it and adore.

Out of the Heart…

Biblical Texts: John 7:37-39, Proverbs 2:6-7, Romans 1:16, Psalm 103:17-18

The day was the Feast of Pentecost. That is supposedly the feast that Jesus is speaking out at in the John text. And the first part of this sermon addresses that. The day here at Mt. Zion was also Confirmation. Confirmation is the completion of typically a two year cycle of study of the Luther’s Small Catechism. We throw in a few practical bits as well, like a “how to build a prayer life” and “comparative world religions,” but most of it is knowing the basics of the faith as taught in the Catechism. It ends with a confirmation of the faith of their baptism. One of the traditions of confirmation is usually a specific confirmation verse. It is chosen in a variety of ways by different congregations, but I’m a tyrant. I choose it for all of them. I also try and through it to give them the blessing of a Spiritual Father. The second part of this sermon is those blessings.

(A personal note. I’ve now confirmed my three living children. I went back through my files and gave my older two the verses chosen for them and gave them that personal blessing again. Something like that is the purpose of this. It is something that can be revisited multiple times.)

Confirming What?

I love the juxtaposition of the Feast of Pentecost with confirmation. Pentecost is the day of tongues of fire, people who had been hiding for fear busting out in front of everyone, and 3000 souls added that day.  It also lines up with a secular season of graduations which are those celebrations of something being completed, but something new, that we might not quite yet have defined, starting.  A confirmation is probably the first opportunity for people who have been sequestered in a classroom to make a public confession of faith. It is the end of a tutelage. The parents and sponsors at baptism promised to “support them in their ongoing instruction and nurture in the Christian faith and encourage them toward the faithful reception of the Lord’s Supper.” Confirmation is the end of the largest burden of that promise. (Everyone knows a parent can’t teach a teenager anything until dad suddenly gets real smart again around 24. Just kidding, kinda.)  But unlike the joke about how you get rid of the pests that have taken residence in the church (“confirm them”), a proper understanding of confirmation is the start of personal responsibility in the life of faith.

Now we Lutherans inherited confirmation as a sacrament from the Old Western Church. The Eastern church confirms (they call it chrismation which is anointing with oil) at the same time as someone is baptized in a “double sacrament.” But the oldest tradition of confirmation was that the Bishop – the person responsible for teaching the faith – did the confirmation. As the number of Christians and confirmations grew, getting that one guy around became tougher. The Eastern Churches created the bishop’s oil for the chrismation to maintain some place for the bishop, but the pastors took on the job. The Western churches separated baptism and confirmation to get the bishop to all of them and thus put more of an emphasis on continuity of that teaching. Rome today will confirm around 3rd grade for those baptized as infants. And to be fair, the Roman biblical argument stems from Acts 8:14-17, which other than missing the institution of Christ himself, is a stronger basis than this confessional Lutheran might have naively thought. The churches of the Reformation have done their own things with this rite. Most of them insist upon the unity of the pastoral office (i.e. a pastor is a bishop, a bishop is a pastor) so that worry is out the window. Most of them really liked teaching, and they rejected any biblical institution of a sacrament of confirmation that conferred a unique grace, so the age of confirmation was often moved back.

Even the Roman catechism portrays their sacrament as “a perfection/completion of baptismal grace. (CCC 1304, 1316).” At the extreme Protestant end you have the Baptists, which I would argue have turned Baptism – which they only confer upon believer who can profess the name – into confirmation. Confirmation is always connected to the grace of baptism. One confirms their baptism. All this history leads me to two arguments. The first argument is that the sacraments which are means of grace have never really changed form. Baptism has always been and remains water and the Word of God, that word being the Name applied to the baptized to mark him or her as one redeemed by Christ. The Lord’s Supper has always been and remains bread and wine and the Word of God which makes them the very body and blood of Christ. They are God’s sacraments and he has preserved them. The fact that confirmation has had so many forms gives me strong reason to doubt any unique means of grace in it. God loves us too much for that.

The second argument is that this does not make a ritual like confirmation less meaningful. Baptism is complete in itself.  What confirmation does is offer the opportunity to confess before others that this grace is mine. What was objectively true in baptism takes on subjective meaning.  And what I might argue is that we have made it more restrictive than it needs to be. This might be what the Baptists get right. There are times in our lives of faith where we come to a more mature or deeper-seated faith in Christ. And uniquely, 14 years old might be a terrible time to think you have found that.  For them it might be more like that day of graduation. I don’t really know what is happening next. Mom & Dad you are not completely off the hook.  But I could imagine a church that held multiple rites of confirmation, that offered a public chance to confess that God has brought me this far by faith and today I recommit to that faith with a better understanding of the grace I have been given.

The questions we ask the 14 year olds are tough.  Kinda like marriage vows, you have no real idea what you are committing to when you say “I do, by the grace of God.” Imagine for a second the witness of someone who knows a little more making the same confession. Both have a virtue of their own. The first a pure faith, the second a witness to the hope that does not disappoint.      

Dating the Reign

Biblical Text: Acts 1:1-11

We observed Ascension Day this Sunday. So I swapped out the first reading for the Ascension Day one. The recent coronation of the English King had me thinking about some things in regards to the Kingdom of God, the phrase Jesus consistently used. I guess the two questions would be: a) when does that reign start? and b) how does it manifest itself? Ascension Day is one of the logical times to date it from. (There are some nice theological arguments to be had about this, but the Kingdom in its full recognition starts here.) Our problem with this is the first royal decrees are not what we would do. “Are you now going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” That was the disciples’ question. Because it is payback time. It is time to get ours. That is not what The King does. This sermon looks at the first royal decrees upon Ascension, and how they direct us today.

Bother Me

I had intended to write a bit about Ascension Day.  It’s something of a forgotten day.  If you lived in Europe you’d have the day off thanks to the remains of Christendom.  But in the USA it’s the only festival of the life of Christ – right there in the creed! – that gets shuffled off.  I suppose that’s its own fault for not falling on a Sunday.

But I got a call midweek that changed my intended topic, because as important as Ascension Day is, this seemed more so.  Dad called and let me know that a cousin of my had committed suicide.  I share this not in searching for sympathy.  As with many family ties these days, it had been years since we had talked, more specifically played Euchre while eating on Thanksgiving or Christmas. He was significantly older than I was, but at a time in life when I was playing sports, he had just embarked on a coaching career in the Texas High Schools.  And in remembering Mike I started to remember too many others.  The hometown friend.  The high school roommate and friend who I had just reconnected with not long before he took his life.  The HS basketball teammate.  Two college hallmates and study partners.  And it struck me that six people with whom I had been close at least for longer stretches seems like a lot.  Although these days I’m not sure. As another correspondence friend said, “there seems to be a unique despair in the air these days.”

Now I don’t have any great insights.  Maybe I was just a lousy friend for losing contact over the years.  In many of those, opioids were involved. Another correspondent brought up marriage.  I replied that 3 had never been married, but two were still married and 1 was in the midst of divorce.  The social scientists that track these things have all kinds of correlations, but they are quick to say correlation is not causation. My intuition is that everyone is fighting their own private battles. And ranking misery is always a losing game.

The only thing I really have to say is, if you find yourself at that point, please give me a call first.  Don’t call the church line.  That is only watched Tuesdays and Thursdays.  If you don’t have my cell number, it is on the outgoing message there.  It is in the bulletin every week not far from here.  Take this home and program it into your phone today. If you find yourself there, bother me. I’m not going to solve your misery, as much as I might like to.  I’ve read the book of Job too much and been in this office too long to think I have that power.  But the one common thread of all of those is they were alone. If you are there, trouble me. I can make sure you are not alone at that point.

The Ark of Baptism

Biblical Text: 1 Peter 3:13-22

This sermon is a bit about the sacraments in general, a bit about the sacramental life which includes sufferings, and a whole lot about the well-spring of both which is baptism. Everything that is given and promised and attempted to be lived in the sacraments and the life they inspire, is already yours in baptism. God has placed you in his Ark. You are going to make it.

Paul in Athens

I should have something good about mothers. But instead I’ll just pass along what they’d want me to say.  God says give your mother a call.  Honest, it is in the Bible somewhere. Ok, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Talk to your mother today. Tell her you love her.

Our first reading for this Sunday from Acts 17 has had its share of acclaim recently.  There was a boomlet of taking Paul in Athens as the model for evangelism in the modern world.  In some ways it was rehashing part of Richard Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture.  That mid-20th-century work, when the culture at large would still listen to a theologian, examined various ways the church could interact with society.  Christ against Culture (the culture war crusaders), Christ of Culture (Christendom) and three versions of Christ above culture (those who opt out like the Amish, two kingdoms overlapping, or a transformation.)  As Lutherans, we tend to find a sweet spot in that two kingdoms approach.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is Gods. The call of the Kingdom of God is above the culture without denying that culture has its place.  And its role can be good or bad.   The Paul in Athens boomlet was very much transformational.  Find the best in the culture, claim it for Christ, and demonstrate how it points to the fulfillment of Jesus.

The Athens of Paul’s time was long past its glory days, although they would regale you with plenty of boring stories. That was the main vocation of the Aeropagas. Imagining themselves as the heirs of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus and debating the ideas of the day. Rich people would send their kids to Athens for a year or two like we would send our bright young things to Boston.  Various Philosophers would compete for the tuition dollars and think deep thoughts. Those heirs stumble across Paul reasoning in the Synagogue and preaching in the marketplace and bring him to the Aeropagus to understand what he is teaching. Now that description I’ve given is a little rough, but I think it captures Luke’s feeling when he summarizes, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Paul’s approach is classic Christ Transforms Culture. He ID’s something he finds good.  “Men of Athens I see that in every way you are very religious, you even worship an unknown god.” He claims this good for Christ.  “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”  Along the way he claims a couple of their poets. “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring.” If you really want to find the fulfillment of what those poets spoke of you need to understand Christ.

This is the method of every evangelical youth pastor.  But saying that you can see how easy it is to mock. Instead of claiming the good, the true and the beautiful, we claim the latest Pixar film.  “See Nemo/Elsa/Anna/Riley really is a Christ figure.” (And yes, I can point you to every one of those essays.  And they aren’t all completely dumb.) Take something your audience already knows and ask them to see something more. It becomes a rhetorical trick.  Not something of real transformational value.

Not transformational like the preaching of the resurrection. Paul’s entire rhetorical strategy is a wind up to “an of this he has given assurance to all by raising Jesus from the dead.” Of course our lectionary cuts it out there, because Paul the great Apostle walks off triumphant converting the entire Aeropagus, right?  Not right.  Continuing past the lectionary end, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, some said we will hear of this again, but some men joined and believed, Dionysisus and woman named Damaris.” A far cry from the 3000 that were converted at Peter’s simple proclamation on Pentecost.

After Athens, Paul goes to Corinth.  And it is at Corinth that Paul tells us “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:2,4 ESV).”  A complete change of even rhetorical strategy.

The church for decades I think has been trying to be winsome for evangelism.  And I’m not saying it is time to be a jerk for Christ. But when we talk about evangelism, I’d turn less to Paul in Athens, and more to Paul in Corinth.  We preach Christ crucified.  To some this will be a stumbling block.  To some foolishness.  But the lambs who hear, the power of God. The world is the world.  Evangelism is calling the lambs of the sheepfold out of the world to follow the good shepherd who has given his life for the sheep.  They will hear his voice.

Anxious Hearts

Biblical Text: John 14:1-14

What do we really want? Another way of saying that might be what are we aimed at? The fancy term here is teleology. What completes us? Such questions typically fascinated most peoples. We are strange in that we’ve ruled out thinking about ends/goals in anything other than temporal and vague ways. And it is that refusal to think seriously about such things that I think puts all kinds of anxiety on our hearts. Jesus’ words in this gospel passage are a direct balm. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Why? Believe. The rest is in the sermon.