Three Points and a Poem

The old, by today very old, cliché about preaching was: three points and a poem.  I haven’t researched it, I’m too lazy to really establish it, but having read a lot of old sermons it strikes me as gaining its form in the late 19th century – a time when poets were still an important part of life.  And not just to egg-heads like me or emo-theater-kids, but the Psalms from the King James, and the Romantics (Byron and Shelley), and the occasional line from Virgil or Homer (or if you were more naughty from Martial’s epigrams) would be part of the common man’s existence.  They didn’t have TV to distract or the NFL to take away the day the church used to own. Those 19th Century divines, mostly Anglican, the Lutherans were still in German which I can’t read, would preach for an hour and wrap it up with a poem.  The form became the cliché in the mid-20th century.  By which time the preachers no longer had as much poetry memorized at their predecessors nor did they have a willing hour in the pulpit.  That and the demands of the parish itself were changing. Even if they were given an hour, the study necessary for that was no longer available.  The reasons are numerous, and we live after the deluge.

Personally I can’t imagine trying to create three points. As a homiletics prof said in an unguarded moment, “all we can handle is one.” And my stock of poetry is even less than my mid-century peers. I was only forced to memorize two poems in all my schooling plus the scattered verse I’ve assinged myself.  But I do have this stack of poems that I’ve saved along the way.  Saved dreaming of putting together a collection. But making no claim to being from a wide choice.  Most poetry, like most creative works, has meaning to you, your mother and maybe your wife. Editors of lit mags have favorites and favors to repay and sinecures to grasp hold of.  And my taste and desires are decidedly not the current lit mag editor’s taste. But a Dana Gioia, or a Mary Karr, or especially an A. E. Stallings occasionally passes through the filter simply on the power of their verse. 

And what is that power?  I’d say the same as the power of Scripture, capital T Truth.  Luther in his Heidelberg theses posits, “A Theologian of the Cross says what a thing is.”  He contrasts that theologian of the cross with a “theologian of glory” and the defining trait of the theologian of glory is to “call the bad good and the good bad.”  Why did poets fade from importance?  I’d say the same reason as pastoral theologians.  They stopped being vessels of truth.  They became masters of a colloquial phrase: polishing a…oops, I almost didn’t receive the call over things like that.  They put forward very pretty lies, because their faith in the Cross, and their faith in their audience to hear it, wavered.

A cry of the reformation was “Ad Fontes” – to the sources. To Luther and the boys that meant scripture and the original languages which they felt had been obscured by the pretty words of Philosophers and Scholastics and Prelates more concerned with paying for St. Peter’s than preaching the gospel.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to say pondering what we’d say stands in our modern way.  What pretty lies do we tell ourselves?  And are we willing to grasp our cross, and call a thing what it is?  Or does the recently departed Christine McVie still have the anthem of the age, “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”  Or as an old poet said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Why?

Biblical Text: Habakkuk 1:1-2:4

We are ask “Why?” occasionally. The honest answer from the bible is that God just doesn’t answer “why” that often, at least not in words. He does provide an answer in the cross. But the Old Testament text for the Day from the prophet Habakkuk is one of the places where God stoops to give an answer to “Why?” This sermon is a proclamation of both the question and God’s answer. It might not satisfy all, but I find it a deep well.

Counting the Cost

Biblical Text: Luke 14: 25-35

In the text we have one of the notices of “great crowds”. The fame of Jesus’ ministry can be gaged by the modifier to the crowds. And when they get to “great” he always says something like he says in the text today. It’s always a warning about discipleship. Discipleship isn’t about numbers. It’s about the heart. The disciple of Jesus has to know that The Way is The Way of the Cross. And they have to reckon that way the way of life. Also a way that we have no ability to follow in and of ourselves. This sermon is about how the way of grace is absolutely free and terribly costly.

The Beginning of God’s Story

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Biblical Text: Mark 1:1-8
draft 1.0

You could say it is one of my pet theories of the bible – the order of seeing and believing. Most moderns would emphatically say that sight leads to correct belief. (And hence the high priests of modernity sneer at Christ.) I think the reality is that faith or believing comes first. What we believe about the world influences what we see. And let me extend that further, I think that having a solid ground (i.e. Christ/God) is very important to having a good grip on truth overall. Without Christ we are much more likely to see all kinds of non-truth as truth. (I get that from Romans 1 FYI.)

I don’t expound on it often because: a) the culture believes just the opposite so b) it is hard to get solid accepted examples for such a mystical point. But this sermon is an attempt at just that because the immediate past has three examples of belief influencing sight, some very poorly.

The core of the problem is that false belief is always an attempt to justify ourselves (and demonize the other). The secure ground is what John the Baptist proclaimed as the beginning of the good news – a baptism of repentance. God’s story refuses to divide us; we are all sinners. God’s story refuses to divide us; we are all saved not by our acts or the law but by the acts of God. God’s story isn’t pretty or immediately believable. It just happens to be true good news.

Fake and Real

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Biblical Text: Matthew 11:25-30, Romans 7:14-25
Full Sermon Draft

I guess this is the cliche/classic “what I did on my vacation” sermon. It centers around the contrast between father and son and the son’s surprising statement that re-centers the entire experience between fake and real, between (pseudo-) law and grace.

What Temptation Tells Us About the Good Life

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Biblical Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Full Draft of Sermon

We had a technical mishap, so I’ll re-record the sermon probably tomorrow.

Sermon Uploaded, although no hymn or biblical text preceding, so you might want to read the biblical text on the temptation of Christ.

I’m not sure there is a bigger divide between the orthodox faith and modernity than on the direction of the good life. Modernity in its many forms points you inward to finding your best and authentic self. In this sermon I pick on Maslow’s hierarchy and the idea of self-actualization, but there are other theories that say similar things. The faith has always said roughly three things: 1) your natural self is deceived or blind and couldn’t know what the good life is, 2) the good life revealed in Jesus is directed not toward self-actualization but toward God and neighbor, and 3) we are given eyes to see through the work of Jesus and the Spirit primarily through the revelation of the Word. The temptation of Jesus, as this sermon will proclaim, is part of the defeat of the devil for us, and a revelation of the road we also must face and walk.

Seeing the Vision – Transfiguration Sunday

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Biblical Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the transfiguration which is described as a vision. But it is a vision that ends with a strange warning – “say nothing until the Son of Man is risen from the dead”. The full vision is that God is present both in the glory and the cross. You can’t see it if you are only looking at on. Embedded in the sermon is a homily written by friend and fellow Pastor David Hess currently in hospice. Through his reflections and witness we get invite to “see” the vision.

Christ the King whose Throne is the Cross

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Biblical Text: Luke 23:27-43
Full Draft of Sermon

The last Sunday of the Church year (today) is often called Christ the King Sunday. The appointed reading from Luke is the crucifixion. I usually dodge preaching directly on this text. For those who have been around Holy Week at St. Mark’s, Good Friday has been our collective reading of the passion text. We let the gospel preach itself in our midst. If you can’t be moved by the text itself…what am I going to say. I couldn’t dodge it today, but today compared to Good Friday the purpose is slightly different. Good Friday is more about the lens of atonement – the cross as what buys our salvation. Christ the King is about the revelation of the God. When we say Jesus is Lord, what kind of King or Lord do we have. It is that word – King – that the text can tell us about. “There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’”. It is here, at the place of the skull, we are to see most clearly, to learn the type of King we have.

This sermon looks at the text and application to our knowledge and lives through looking at three pictures that are concluded by memorable phrases of the gospel.
1) For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry.
2) The mocking contrasted with the criminal’s – “remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
3) And Jesus’ words from the cross – “today, you will be with me in paradise.”
So, what what this sermon does is invite you to ponder three pictures or three phrases.

Reformation Day – Hero or Human?

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Biblical Texts: Rev 14:6-7, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Full Sermon Draft

Reformation Day to me is always a tough day to preach. For all my formative years and if any of the examples that I sampled this week are representative, the general approach to Reformation Day is full on Triumphalism and spiking of the football. And it is not that I can’t or won’t defend my side. I think Luther in particular and the reformers in general were right on a lot more than they were wrong. But if there is one thing that the gospel doesn’t really accept it is heroes. We have heroes of the faith, usually called saints, but ask why they are saints. Many of them are martyrs with a subset dying gruesomely. The next batch are those dedicated to outcasts – like the priests in leper colonies or Mother Teresa among the untouchables. There are the scholars and teachers and theologians. They often avoided the deaths, but the exchange seems to be that the society around them was passing away (c/r Augustine). Usually the equivalent of the Chinese toast, “may you live in interesting times”. What gets you on the list of the Saints is not usually someone confused with “winning”. The more we make a Hero out of Luther or the Reformers, the less they actually have to instruct us. The more we make them great men and women, the less we allow them to influence us.

Not an argument to tear them down or deconstruct them or even psycho-analyze them (although I suppose I do a little of that). The argument is to see them in context – fully human. When we do that, it is not bringing them down to our level, because according to the law we are already all on the same level – in deep trouble. But when we allow them to human, we are set free. We can admit the flaws (repent) and accept the grace. Both for them, and for us; both for their impossible circumstances, and for ours. We can hope to mend what was broken instead of building monuments. One of Luther’s most famous lines for theologians is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” It is the harder road, but you don’t get real glory without walking through Calvary.

Walking to Jerusalem/Marching to Zion

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Luke 13:22-30
Full Draft of Sermon

I received more comments about this sermon than almost any in 5 years. The pessimist in me is saying “and you are going to pay for each one of those comments.”

In the worship service as a whole there was an interweaving of hymns and songs including one of my favorites, I Walk in Danger all the Way, Some of the VBS kids shared with us a couple of the songs from the week including “Stand Strong” and the one I reference in the Sermon Marching to Zion. But you don’t need that thicker worship setting to get the sermon.

The gospel point, the core of the text, is that it is Jesus alone who is walking to Jerusalem. And that walk ends outside the city walls. At the place of the skull. We can’t march into the city of God. We only enter through the narrow door, at the foot of the cross, through repentance. There is no “we” marching to Zion. The question is are you walking there? Is your walk with Jesus all the way?

The audio will be added later. Our guy who volunteers to convert the files (and has the stuff to actually do it) took a much deserved break. His son did the recording (thank you!), but the digital conversion is coming.