Ascension Troubles

It was last Thursday (or today if you are reading this electronically). What was Thursday? Ascension Day. It is something of the forgotten feast day of the Life of Christ.  Why is that?  The easy answer is that it is on a Thursday – 40 days after Easter.  And while Epiphany can be forced by a Pastor as a nice late ending to the Christmas season.  It doesn’t hurt that everyone loves the story of the Wise Men and the star connected to Epiphany.  And Holy Week seems appropriate piety.  By the time you get to 40 days after Easter, Summer is starting. It is one thing to be in church when it is cold and dark.  It is another thing to sacrifice sun and good weather. Less joking, more serious, Ascension I think hits on all the modern church’s hangups.

What do I mean by that?  Well, among respectable educated folk, there is a tendency to spiritualize the more miraculous events of the life of Jesus. Not that the bible allows this, it is just that we are all educated as de facto materialists (i.e. there is nothing but matter). So anything that borders on the woo-woo must be a metaphor. The first step in much of mainline Protestantism’s losing the faith was spiritualizing Easter.  The resurrection is a metaphor for new beginnings.  If it’s just a metaphor, to hell with it.  I want to thrust my hand into the side with Thomas. 

Because then I know that my six foot slumber is temporary. If it’s a metaphor, there is no new beginning from that, unless you count being mulch a new beginning. What does Ascension say? That Jesus Christ was bodily taken up into heaven (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11, Matthew 28:16-20).  And that in heaven he has been seated at the right hand of God the Father (Creed, Revelation 4-5). Ascension says that Jesus Christ is reigning right now.  And that is not some metaphor. The King is on his throne.  And it is not some King in Parliament scheme.  “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders and every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them fell down and worshipped (Revelation 5:13-14).” This King is the judge of the quick and the dead.  Good luck turning that into a metaphor.

The second reason is what the Royal decree of Ascencion Day is – evangelism. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).”  Luke’s version is “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8).” Having been clothed with power from on high, the Holy Spirit, the disciples are to make more disciples. Again, really hard to make a metaphor.  That’s a concrete mission.  The Gospel of John doesn’t have an explicit Ascension story, but it has an implied one that explains it a bit further.  From John 16:7-8, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.” Ascension Day, for it’s woo-woo happening, is very concrete. It is about sin and righteousness and judgement.

Ascension Day is this forgotten day, probably because we don’t always like the message.  Jesus reigns. And He has given us a Royal quest. It is not the myth of Camelot or some far away story, but it has come very close to you.  That Helper abides in you. Do we say Christ is Lord? And if so, do we mean it…by following his commandments? By being his witnesses? It is an uneasy message in these later days.

Changes in Thinking.

An inside joke in the Brown house is going “Spatula City, Spatula City (fade out)…” anytime someone asks for the spatula.  If you know, you might already be chuckling, if not, I’ll ruin the joke by explaining it. It’s a line from the 1989 Weird Al movie UHF. And even the name of the movie has to be explained these days.  As I sit watching TV alone most nights, everyone else in their own private sphere doing their own thing, I remember what 1989 (my Junior year) was like. We did not have cable.  That meant that we got 4 channels on VHF (low numbers on the “top dial” – 2, 5, 8, and 13 for us representing CBS/NBC/ABC/PBS). You also occasionally, if the weather and the antenna were just right, got a couple on the UHF (high numbers on the “bottom dial”.) We got WGN on 53 on a repeater out of Chicago and something like 26 which was pure Weird Al UHF local. Full of game shows like “Wheel of Fish” sponsored by the local fish market and recasts of the area High School Football games captured by one stationary camera at the top of bleachers. And that might be what people agreed to watch at 9PM because you had to negotiate, unless Dad just said “I’m watching 8.” It’s a lost world that was occasionally very funny.  Something Weird Al captured perfectly and lovingly.  And it is completely lost on my kids although not the wife.

Sharing that memory is part narcissism, but not completely. In those days the topics of general discussion were set by that limited number of outlets along with the big city daily newspapers. There might be highbrow, midbrow and lowbrow takes, but the subject was the same. Whatever was on the front page of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times would be the day’s subjects.  Time Magazine (or Newsweek or US News) would come along end of the week with the solid midbrow summary. And then there were fortnightly and monthly magazines that would do the highbrow thinking.  The idea that today you could get everyone in the country talking about the same thing is a dream.  Even the Superbowl only gets about 1/3rd of TVs, something that a normal episode of MASH used to pull. Today, everything is narrow cast. Just by the outlet you know who people are trying to talk to.

Which is why a couple of things have caught my eye recently.  Stories in places that would signal a change in thinking. The recent regrets of one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist apocalypse, Richard Dawkins, kicked it off. He proclaimed himself a Cultural Christian. Looking at the direction of the civilization that is downstream of him, he somewhat realized himself in the cartoon posted nearby.  But it was an article in The Atlantic that nailed it.  The Atlantic is something aimed at aspiring-highbrow-money-to-spend-in-the-know-want-to-be-with-it people. And for The Atlantic to publish “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust” thinking must be changing. And some of that re-thinking is grounded in the reality that those who seem to be managing their way around a cell phone virtual world best, are those who have deep attachments to things like ritual, like liturgy and the Lord’s Supper. Things that make meaning in a world bereft of it.  That give solidity. That touch the real.  Having The Atlantic audience open to such thoughts is something new.

And that kicked off several chats of the form “How much do I have to believe to be a part of your church?”

And that answer comes in layers.  The doors are always open.  Always have been.  Anyone can attend a worship service.  Most things that take place in the church are open to participation. A specific question I got was “I maybe believe in God 30%, but I don’t believe in a divine Jesus.  Would I be welcome.”   My answer was “Yes.  Most of us don’t have Road to Damascus conversions.  But if you hear the Word of God consistently, are baptized, one of these days you’ll find yourself saying the 2nd article of the creed – because that is what churches do – and actually believing it.”  The word of God does not return empty, but accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:11). My answer also included the question, “are your doubts private, or would you intend to demand the pulpit to spread them?” As I explained, private doubts are things people of faith wrestle with all the time.  Although as one matures in faith the wrestling is less about the creedal basics and more about the often unfathomable will of God. But public confrontation would require protection of the flock.  The church contains a multitude of sinners, but it proclaims one message. Jesus Christ is LORD and savior of sinners.

My answer also included the distinction between membership and participation. Membership ultimately includes the willingness to stand up and publicly confess what the church does. Does that mean the end of all doubts.  No. What it does mean is the good faith to struggle and maybe to occasionally accept that 2000 – 4000 years of people interacting with this revealed God know more than one 21st century man.   Finding yourself in that third square of the comic is often the start of repentance.  And Repentance is always the first step of faith.

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.

Things May Not Be This Way

Biblical Text: Matthew 10:21-33

Sometimes you have one of those spooky encounters. This includes mine floating in a pool a few years ago. But the points is about the warning and the blessing of being a follower of Jesus. The warning could cause fear, a little like my story. But it shouldn’t, because the blessing is so much greater.

I also left in a great hymn at the end that captures everything. LSB 836

Tools for the Work

Biblical Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8

The essence of the text is a list, a list of names. Sermonic suicide, right?

I think the list, when you add the stuff around it is more meaningful than that. And it goes right at our problems with evangelism. We grumble, we come up with all kinds of excuses why we can’t, why things are going good. We look at this text and say, “if you gave me those powers.” But that is simply a surface reading. Give is a good read. List out what the tools for the work of mission actually are. And then ask yourselves, are you willing to pick up these tools? That is what the sermon does.

All Found

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Biblical Text: Luke 15:1-32
Full Sermon Draft

The assigned lectionary text for today was the parable of the Prodigal Son, but one of the things that I found out in preparation is that the church fathers never really treated the prodigal separately from the two parables preceeding it. And when you do the translation, they do seem to roll together with specific roles for a point. So, this sermon attempts to address these parables as the church fathers did.

We’ve focused on the theme of division in Lent so far, but Luke 15 turns that focus around. It assumes the division, and starts portraying reunion. THe question these parables focus on to the church fathers was not evangelism or restoring a wandering brother. That is a valid moral lesson. We are the body of Christ and have those responsibilities. But instead, these parables were about God’s action on behalf of his elect. The perfect number will not be broken. There will not be 99 sheep, or 9 coins, or 1 brother. God will gather all of the elect no matter where they find themselves and through whatever troubles.

And how God does this is first through the good shepherd who has carried us on his shoulders on that cross. Then he calls, gathers and enlightens us through the church – the woman with a lamp looking for that coin with the image of the King. And the purpose of this is to reunite us with the Father. All that the Father has is ours. That doesn’t change regardless of our actions. He has chosen to give us the Kingdom. It is just necessary that we come in and rejoice.

Brotherhood of Man?

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Biblical Text: Mark 3:20-35
Full Sermon Draft

The biblical text has two stories turned in to one of Mark’s famous sandwiches. Jesus’ natural family are the outside and the Scribes from Jerusalem are the inside. What this structure invites us to do is compare and contrast. It invites us to learn the lesson at the core or in the meat of the sandwich and apply it to the outside. Part of that core is a three step argument with the somewhat shocking image of Jesus as a thief. The work and words of Jesus are Binding the Strong Man, Satan. His family may think he’s crazy putting them on the outside right now, but the Scribes are saying that Jesus’ work and words are the work and words of Satan. Jesus’ words to them are a judgment. The only unforgivable sin is calling the Spirit a liar. The deliberate rejection of the word of God and antagonism toward those who hold to it, is a dire place to be. All sins and blasphemies can be forgiven, except calling the Spirit a liar. Even thinking Jesus is nuts. The difference is the one who is far off or outside can still be called near and take their appointed place as brother or sister or mother, while the one who says God’s work is Satan’s has chosen the side which is being bound. And what is bound is thrown into the fire.

The sermon looks at these themes in the text and pulls out three applications to our lives. The hymn of the day included in the recording and reflected at places in the sermon is Luther’s A Mighty Fortress with its themes of spiritual warfare against the strong man and what Christ has already done to bring us near. The title here is the biggest challenge application and the one I leave to conscience. The world teaches the brotherhood of man, or attempts to, and it can be a tempting vision. But that is not what Christ teaches. The brotherhood of man would be under the bondage of Satan. The true brotherhood is in Christ alone.

Three Comparisons

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Biblical Text: Mark 1:14-20
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the emergence of Jesus after the arrest of John the Baptist and his calling of disciples. This sermon looks at three sets of comparisons encouraged in the text by their juxtaposition: Jesus and John the Baptist, Andrew/Peter and James/John, and Jesus and his disciples. Each comparison increases our knowledge of God and the path of discipleship. The sermon explores those especially the role of courage in the life of discipleship.

A note on the recording: I’ve included a couple of musical pieces. Our Choir sang an infectious newer hymn, LSB 833 Listen, God is Calling. It has a dramatic African Call/Response structure. I’ve been looking for about three years for a chance to get it into the service. It is just not something that a congregation can take on cold, but the choir sounded great. The second hymn is LSB 856 O Christ, Who Called the Twelve. It also is a newer hymn with some amazing depth paired with probably a familiar tune, Terra Beata formally, but I know it as This is Our Father’s World. (And I am still convinced that the theme song running throughout the Lord of the Rings movies is inspired by this hymn tune. At every moment of near despair, Frodo or Sam remember the shire and this theme plays in the background.) Both of these hymns are great additions to a Lutheran Congregation’s Hymnbook.

Fevers

Sermon Text: Mark 1:4-11
Full Text of Sermon

The flu knocked me out for a considerable amount of time this week. And when you are chilling and sweating some different lines come into you head. And I’m sure I didn’t get to refine this one enough. And I feel like I am way out there on a limb. I doubt you find too many preachers willing to base a sermon on first part of Mark 1:5. Maybe the second part, but not the first. But just the parallels and the humanity of that verse struck me, with deep echoes of Jesus as well – “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). A people straying from the Rock Solid Temple to some hippie in the desert…why?

That hippie in the desert offered them Jesus. Yes the temple rituals were the best and were effective and all the other things. But so much must have been in the way or come between the word of God and those people going out to John. All John did was say wait until you see the next guy. All I’ve got is this water to prepare…but that coming one, he’ll bring the Spirit. And it was enough. Because He gave them Jesus.

Have you heard the message?…What you going to do about it?

Full Text

The Bible un-apologetically holds that God is Sovereign and that we are responsible. Paul hits that wall over and over in Romans 9 and 10. Romans 9 concludes that it is all in God’s election. Romans 10 says we better get busy spreading the word. I’d be lying if I thought there was really a solution to that. It is the same way that Bible holds that God is unchangeable, and yet he answers prayer.

Romans 10 talks about believing with our heart and confessing with our mouth. Christians actively do that, yet both of those are passively worked in us through the word that has drawn near. Hearts of stone turned into flesh. Halting words made to sing. And its the full person. Not a dry confession without the heart. Not the heart without some content. God takes heart and mind and makes them new.

What you can say is that the Christian can put God against God. The terrible unknowable eternal decrees can be place against the promises and the demonstration of love in Christ. God, you said he did it for all. That includes me. I’ll take that.