So I hear the Superbowl is next week. It is also becoming inescapable that the line on the game is Chiefs +2 (spread) or +110 (moneyline). And if you don’t know what those mean, you can probably disregard the rest of this.  Because I want to talk about gambling.

Old school Baptists would rail against drink, dancing and gambling. Old school Lutherans would make fun of this because none of those things are directly forbidden in the bible. “Those Baptists, getting all legalistic again.”  Of course that stale argument was missing the ministerial context.  Why were the Baptist’s railing against these things?  Usually because their congregations were having families and lives torn up by people abusing them.  Why were the Lutherans so nonchalant about these things? These were not the preferred abuses of the Northern European immigrants who made up Lutheran congregations of the time.

But you might be shocked at what I wrote that gambling is not directly forbidden in the bible.  Go ahead, take a minute and look up gambling or betting in your bible index. Look up wager for good measure.  You won’t find the first two.  The single mention of wager is the same incident recorded in two places (2 Kings 18:23, Isaiah 36:8) of an Assyrian ambassador making fun of the Judean king. “C’mon, bet me” as a taunt. The bible does not directly forbid gambling. That doesn’t mean the bible has nothing to say about it.

It is useful first turning the law.  Why might one be betting?  The lottery probably offers the simple reason, I’d like to be rich, really really rich. Why is that? Because at a base level I am coveting my neighbor’s business (9th commandment) or just his stuff (10th commandment).  And why does it cross from a wholesome desire into coveting?  Why is gambling particularly troublesome here?  Because I don’t want to work for them.  I want to get rich quick at the expense of my neighbor.  So the first question about any betting might be, am I doing this because I am coveting a life that is not my own?  The paradox here might be that the lottery is more harmful in this than putting $20 on the Chiefs (because let’s be honest, you get Mahomes and points, c’mon?) A $20 on the Chiefs is not changing your life.  The reason you buy a lottery ticket is that is most definitely will change it, overnight.

What else might the bible have to say about gambling?  It is inarguable that gambling is something that people can get hooked on. There is the simple adrenaline rush of luck. There is the desire to feel like you are part of “the smart money.” It can come with bragging rights. And maybe you are able to manage those things, but maybe your brother can’t. Last week’s lesson on the weaker brother (1 Corinthians 8) might be meaningful. Do you want to be the one who introduces destruction to your brother without even thinking?  Yes, you have the right to place a bet, but is it loving in your context?

The last consideration I’d like to mention here is that somehow our governments have become partners in the rapid proliferation of gambling. What started out long ago as state lotteries partly to provide legal outlet to run numbers racket mobsters out of business, has turned into the regulation and promotion of online casinos that are never more than a click away on your phones. The purpose of the government is to provide order and promote the public good (Romans 13). Today, I’d argue that gambling has become the stupid tax.  The number of people who slot machine away Social Security checks, or who are encouraged by the state toward greed and destitution is disturbing.

The one biblical mention that gets close is “cast or casting lots”.  The Apostle’s themselves cast lots to fill the place of Judas.  Aaron is commanded to cast lots over two goats on the day of Atonement. In each case the casting of lots is a seeking after the will of God.  The other example comes from the foot of the cross.  The soldiers, oblivious to the man dying for their sins, cast lots for his clothes.  Most other uses fall in this second category.  Like Job chastising his friends that they would “cast lots over the fatherless and bargain over your friend (Job 6:27).”  Or the LORD lamenting people standing aloof while enemies “cast lots over my people. (Joel 3:3, Obadiah 1:11)”  Is the gambling, which necessarily ties us into the vanity of this world, making us blind to the things of God? 

So, sure, place $20 on the Chiefs this weekend. Or on the 49ers if for some reason you want to bet against Mahomes. It isn’t forbidden.  Neither is the NCAA tourney pool or any of the other minor pastimes.  But, also stop to ask, am I missing something other than the over/under.

Be Silent

Biblical Text: Mark 1:21-28

The text is specifically an exorcism text. And if I am being honest, these texts are outside of the philosophy and experience of many people. If you’ve had an experience of spiritual evil, you’ve been forced to change your philosophy and these texts are strong comfort. “Even the Spirit’s obey Him.” If you grew up early accepting Spiritual reality, then the Biblical accounts are formative on your philosophy of them. But if you are part of the great sweep of de-mythologized WEIRD de facto atheists, exorcisms and real spiritual evil are embarrassing stories. The purpose of this sermon is not exactly to defend the idea of personal evil. Let’s just say I know that it is a fact. The purpose of this sermon is two-fold. First to proclaim the gospel which is that Christ has freed us from anything such uncleanness can throw at us. Yes, the unclean spirit is partially correct. We initially have more in common with them than we do with Jesus “the Holy One”. But Christ has taken mankind into himself. We now have a place and our sin is cast out; even if it leaves kicking and screaming, it is forgiven. The second purpose is to think about a way that might give even a sceptic second thoughts.

Two Ditches

Luther in his commentary on Galatians used the image of a narrow path between two ditches for the Christian life. The narrow path is justification by faith through the grace of Jesus.  The left ditch is legalism which is believing that my salvation depends to some extent upon my keeping of the law.  That law could be the divine law like the 10 commandments.  That law could be human laws, like the laws of the Papacy at the time of the Reformation around indulgences, pilgrimages, relics and other “religious works”.  To the extent that you think any of these merit anything before God, we have fallen into the left ditch.  The right ditch is antinomianism.  Big word which is probably best understood as lawlessness. Captured in the ditty, “state of grace, oh happy condition, sin as I please, and still have remission.”  We are in the right hand ditch if we think Christ freed us from sin to go sin more or to deny that sin exists.

It is my anecdotal feeling that people within the church have more trouble with that left ditch.  We tend to be “older brothers” in the prodigal parable. But people who are lightly connected to the church today get themselves in the right ditch.  As a fellow pastor friend said, “you can directly read a very simple passage of scripture, and they will reply ‘it doesn’t say that.’”  But there is a flip side of this.  There are things that are neither commanded nor forbidden. For example, the number of candles in the sanctuary.  It is rather easy to find someone within the church who will give you an exact answer. (A common one would be “two, one representing the law and the other the gospel.”) And if that exact answer is not followed, well, the place is going to hell. Someone lightly connected might simply say, “however many look pretty.”

In the back part of 1 Corinthians – our Epistle reading for this week is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – Paul is responding to questions relayed to him from the Corinthians in a letter we don’t have.  And I take most of his answers as sanctified wisdom.  There may be times it doesn’t apply, but the principles are solid and can be applied in a variety of situations.  A big problem in Corinth was that the butcher shop was the local pagan temple.  If you wanted meat, it had most likely been sacrificed to idols.  Can a Christian eat such meat?  Paul’s answer might be a little surprising. Basically, “Yes, you are buying meat, you are not supporting the sacrifice.” “We know that an idol has no real existence.” Hence buying meat that was offered to “nothing” is not tainted.  There is no lingering voodoo magic or anything else associated with that meat.

However.  Paul continues that “not all possess this knowledge.” We all know people that would fear lingering magic.  We all know people who have very settled ideas on things that in truth are neither commanded nor forbidden. And if my eating that meat, or putting in another candle, or some other such thing is going to cause my fellow believer to question their faith, out of love I will refrain from doing this.  Yes, I might have superior knowledge, but love trumps knowledge.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

But there is an immediate problem with this which is rampant in our day. Call it the Tyranny of the Weaker Brother. Weaker brother is how Paul refers to the one whose conscience would be wracked over something that in truth is neither commanded nor forbidden. When people realize that they can get their way by such a claim, these claims multiply.  Because in Christian love the stronger brother has given in.  But within Paul’s saying – “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” – is an answer.  The love of the stronger brother is not to leave the weaker in ignorance. Such love would not build up.  Love would seek to free the weaker brother from unnecessary stumbling blocks.  There are enough things that are commanded and forbidden that we do not need to create greater burdens.

Christian love is the path between the ditches. It is a life together keeping each other on the narrow way.

Discipleship 101

Biblical Text: Mark 1:14-20

The text is Jesus’ calling of the first disciples – Andrew and Peter, James and John. But prior to that there is a one sentence summary of the preaching of Jesus. “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Making disciples in the mission of the church. Jesus gave that to the church in the great commission. But what does it mean to be a disciple? That is the question of this sermon. Because the first think you have to confront is does it mean for everyone what it meant for those first 4? They left their nets and the father and followed. This sermon ponders that a bit. And it does so in the light of that summary of Jesus’ preaching. A summary of preaching which I think serves rather well as the basics of discipleship shared by all from Apostles to the present age.

Time Grown Short

The problem with having three readings in church is that two of them usually get neglected.  You can always stay for Bible Study on Sunday! We usually pick up at least one of them in its larger context. But not everyone does that. The Old Testament Reading usually supports the Gospel reading, but that support is often not exactly obvious or only a word or two.  Like this week, how does Jonah support the Gospel? The implied answer is in the preaching.  Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh, “You guys are toast.”  And they surprisingly repented to Jonah chagrin.  Jesus starts his ministry with “The time is fulfilled…repent and believe the gospel.”  But the real problem to me of three readings is the “hard reading.”   Like this week’s Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 7: 2-35) where Paul says, “It’s time to forget you have a wife.”  Nobody wants to preach on that.  The only thing further down the list would be “wives obey your husbands” or last week’s “do not be deceived” passage calling out the sins of the age.

But there it is in Holy Scripture.  And as much as I complain about the lectionary makers leaving out the good parts, they are not completely spineless. You are the watchman and Israel preacher.  If you don’t tell them, their sin is upon you.  So, what they heck does Paul mean by, “let those who have wives live as though they had none?”

First, he absolutely doesn’t mean this is a free pass for a Vegas weekend.  Nor is it an invite to an open marriage, a polycule or any such nonsense as our age would throw out.  Second, recognize that large sections of Paul’s letters are responses to questions or problems brought up to him by the various congregations. In this case the context of our epistle reading is the larger idea of marriage. Paul pronounces some basic principles for marriage earlier in the chapter. And one of the things that every reader of scripture has to realize eventually is that the Apostle Paul in manners pertaining to marriage and sex is the progressive. What he proclaims is how to live in actual freedom, compared to our popular culture’s disdain for Paul.  For example, “likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (1 Cor 7:4).”  Try telling that to any Roman paterfamilias.  Paul’s advice boils down to “you are one flesh, act like it.” And it is in the submission of the self to that truth – the one flesh union – that you find your freedom.  Freedom is always found in some form of submission.

But how do we find that freedom?  Because it certainly doesn’t always feel free. It is in recognizing the parallel truth that we are first slaves to Christ.  We submit to Christ.  We have a ton of vocations: Husband/wife, father/mother, child, brother/sister, employee, citizen, elder, office holder.  And they all overlap.  And there are not enough hours in the day to fulfill the claims of everything.  And that causes anxiety.   “The married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wide, and his interests are divided. (1 Cor 7:33-34).” Paul almost always makes the parallel female point as he does here. The freedom comes from this: “the present form of this world is passing away.” When the anxieties of the age stack up, take a breath and realize that they are all temporal.  They are all passing away.  The only person who we are eternally bound to is Christ.  Serve Him.

And what is the way that Christ wishes to deal with us?  It is not by the law that causes all of our anxiety, because we can never keep it.  Christ wishes to deal with us by his grace. “Believe the gospel.” And in that grace, “all things work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).” We are given the freedom in the gospel to live for Christ.  And when living for Christ it is amazing how many other vocational decisions become easy.  When we live in the light of eternity, our temporal struggles become “light passing things.”  Because brothers, “the appointed time has grown short.” And it is always comparatively short to eternity.  Be free from anxieties, do what is necessary by the light of the Lord, and he will prosper your steps. 

Your Servant Hears

Biblical Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

The text is the calling of Samuel, but this sermon I think focuses a bit more on Eli. And theme is How to Hear the Word of God. Eli himself is a stunning negative example of how not to hear the Word and the effects of that. But in this text even Eli is prodded into being a good teacher for your Samuel. This sermon both examines that negative example of how we lose the ability to hear the Word and then lose the vision itself, and then it examines how Eli’s Words to Samuel are the foundation of any ability to Hear the Word. The Light of Christ, even in the darkness of Eli, never goes out. And God uses Eli to set Samuel on a good path to Hearing the Word. In those examples we also find our way to hearing the Word of God.

In the House or Out?


The pictures somewhere nearby, which in black and white are probably just blobs (sorry), are moral value heat maps.  (Here is the link to the originals and the article in the journal Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12227-0/figures/5 ). What they represent is the moral worth assigned from inner circle being your immediate family to the far outer circle being all things in existence, separated by self-reported political ideology.  There are two somewhat surprising results. The self-reported conservatives assigned lower overall scores everywhere. The darkest red which stretches from immediate family to personal acquaintances is only 12 units. (Explaining the units would take all my space, I’ll point you to the article.) That is verses the darkest red on the liberal chart being 20 units.  So the self-reported liberal in the survey’s measurement places almost the same absolute value on those inner rings.  That leads to the 2nd surprising thing.  The liberal darkest red – highest assigned moral worth – centers not on those closest, but stretches from “all people” to “all things”.  

Essentially those maps and that paper are trying to answer the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29).” And the self-reported liberal’s response is consistent with the parable that Jesus answered with – The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was a neighbor to the man who had been beaten? Someone who would have been in the “all people” ring.  And stretching that response to “all things” is not foreign either, in that the original divine assignment for man (Gen 1:26) was to have dominion – benevolent care – over all things.  You might even say Jesus addresses this directly (Matthew 5:43-48) when he says, “love your enemies.”  Given all that maybe we just condemn the conservative moral assignment as benighted.

But that would ignore a few other biblical passages.  In Mark 7:10-13 Jesus addresses those who would swear off responsibility to mother and father – clearly part of the innermost ring – for a much more nebulous “god”.  And he does this in the context of the 4th commandment – “honor your father and mother.”  Also hear the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5:8, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  Hearing those passages we might turn on the liberal and say “you are just dodging what has actually been placed before you.”

And in the context of a political polarity, what we are attempting to do is justify ourselves. I’m righteous and you are evil.  That is what passes for much of our political discussion these days.  But I’m not counseling quietness or any such dodge.  We have a life together and politics is how these things are sorted out. And being sinful humans, we will probably do it terribly.  But I believe the Lutheran specifically has a good word here.  Anytime you are talking morality or moral worth, we are probably in the realm of the law.  And Jesus’ other summary of the law is in the conclusion to that “love your enemies” passage.  Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Good luck with that.  And anytime we find ourselves involved in a self-justification game, recognize that we have no ability to do that.  We can argue our own righteousness right into hell.  The biblical picture of that moral worth chart would just be all red.  And the Father in his providence does provide for all.

But we are limited creatures. Limited in power, in abilities, in time.  Instead of self-justifying, we really need to look to the one who justifies. Instead of attempting to judge everyone by true, yet impossible, standards, we need a little grace to allow each other “to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).” Because we are not the judges of someone else’s work in these regards.  We will all stand before Christ one day for ourselves. 

That sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 has a lot about the law in it.  But it also has the most amazing reminder of grace.  “Consider the lilies of the field…”. That passage ends with the phrase I think should guide so much of our lives.  “Do no be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Maybe tomorrow places all people and all things before you. When it does and if that is your calling, the providence of God is working through you. And it will be enough.  Most of us will probably spend tomorrow in front a variety of people from family to acquaintances – the troubles of the day. The providence of God is likewise working through you.  And it is no less for being local.  What we need is not another judge, but reminders of the amazing grace of the true judge of all things.  And to grant each other a bit of that grace to work out the day.

Water, Blood and Spirit

Biblical Text: Mark 1:4-11

The text for the Sunday after Epiphany is almost always the Baptism of Jesus. This episode in the bible has always caused me some wonder. It doesn’t immediately make sense for me. And there are multiple ways that I credit things in the Bible as making sense. There is always just historical sense. I have no problem that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. But the bare historical is always the least. What is the theological import, and why was it done this way? You might call these things poetical sense. Things in the bible make poetical sense. Or at least to me they usually do. It had to be that way because that is the only way the story makes sense. That is the only way it rhymes and keeps meter. But the Baptism of Jesus doesn’t immediately strike me that way. And being a pastor, especially a Lutheran pastor, where Baptism is such an important thing, understanding this episode felt necessary. This sermon is my attempt to wrestle with why this baptism is important.

Epiphany Journey

Sometimes in the study you get caught on some paths that might not make complete sense. For Epiphany I was thinking in terms of Jew and Gentile. I had heard someone call the Epiphany “Gentile Christmas” and it got me thinking exactly what was meant by that. And it got me thinking about the classic question “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This is a meditation about how both cities find their place in Christ. And how in the journey of the Magi, you see both reason and revelation at work to bring about praise.

Theological Ghosts

I’m sorry, don’t know why I’ve had ghost stories on my mind. But, I ran across an essay that talked about the differences between US or Western ghost stories and Japanese. (Here is the link, although it is really geeky. http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/the-ghost-did-what-translation-exposing-providentialist-thinking/)  The summary is to say that US ghost stories tend to reward the virtuous and punish the evil.  That essay calls this providential, although that is a terrible definition of providence, which biblically is “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  The providence of God is not that he’s the galactic scorekeeper, but that he is gracious and merciful, not visiting upon sinners their due rewards.  Japanese ghost stories have a different morality that can be shocking to Westerners.  In the Western sense, complete innocents can die. People who do nothing to help but heed warnings can live.  Victory, if you want to call it that, can simply be diverting the ghost out of your house somewhere else.

I find ghost stories and maybe horror stories in general interesting because they are almost always theological.  They reveal more clearly than almost anything else what we actually believe about “God, the universe and everything.” I also think that is why the horror genre is a niche.  Most people don’t actually want to think about theology. Which makes the pastoral job interesting.  Because part of the job is not just getting people to think about such things, but to maybe make corrections to their thinking.  And maybe even make changes in their lives to bring them into closer alignment with good theology.  And it is part of the job not because any pastors really want to be the morality police.  We don’t.  It is part of the job because it is part of equipping the saints.  We all enter the crucible.  You don’t want to be putting on the armor while you are already being tested.  You want to have it girded prior. So part of the job is Pastor as haunting ghost to get you to think about these things.

The Western ghost story, with its embedded works righteousness, is a fable of the law.  And that law has three purposes: 1) The Curb, 2) The Mirror and 3) The rule.  Watching a US ghost story where the evil and promiscuous die functions as a curb in that the innocent viewer might see where punishment is given and not follow that path. It functions as a mirror in that we might see what is due to us in certain characters.  It functions as a rule in that it holds up – via the hero and heroine – a still more excellent way.  The biggest problem with that fable is that it also lies.  It holds out hope that by following the hero’s path we might live.  By the law, we all die.

This is where I think the Japanese ghost story is a nice correction. It is a world of at best disinterested spirits, and at worst malevolent spirits. The disinterested do their jobs with varying levels of competence.  It is interesting to me pondering a hurricane as the result of the weather power taking a day off.  And I don’t think that is far off the biblical picture of “the powers that be.” (Luke 21:26, Romans 8:38, Eph 6:12, 1 Pet 3:22). And of course “Satan prowls like a roaring lion.” Stealing from Sci Fi/Fantasy, we live in a dark forest. Oh, we think we know everything because of our recent mastery of matter.  But maybe we don’t have the mastery we think we do. We think we have clear cut the forest, but have we?

The secret to many Japanese ghost stories is “the wise old man or woman.” This character is usually a minor one, but they haunt the story. They show up usually after some deaths when the main characters are desperate.  They tell the characters what is happening.  And they tell the characters how to avoid it. And then they leave.  What happens in the Japanese film is not about personal holiness.  Did you follow the law? What happens is did you hear and take heed?  The characters that are open to wisdom’s word are saved.  Those who have ears to hear are not always those we think deserve it.

This is the advent of the gospel.  The star has appeared.  The light shines in the darkness. Are we willing to set aside worldly wisdom and follow the star?  Or do we insist upon our own knowledge unto salvation?  At least in the Japanese ghost story, the one who listens to the Word makes it out of the dark forest and lives.