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: ). 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.

Her Warfare is Over

Biblical Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

The jump from Isaiah 39 to Isaiah 40 is one of the big discontinuities of the Bible. With Hezekiah’s cynicism Isaiah turns to a far future generation. That got me thinking this week about some of my mystery verses. What I mean by that is verses that make simple sense, but that simple sense doesn’t make theological sense. At least not easy theological sense. This sermon is an attempt, through John the Baptist promised by Isaiah, to understand what might be called generational sin. When the weight of sin long neglected catches up with us, what do we do?

Starting from Nothing?

Biblical Text: Mathew 25:14-30

I’m endlessly fascinated with the parable of the talents. It puts forward some obvious truths, that our society rejects, in passing. It’s main comparison – the one the entire judgement is based upon – is something that we miss because we take it as obvious, but then don’t observe how we act. A couple of those obvious truths: 1) God is not about fairness. “He gave to the servants according to their ability.” 2) With what it given to us we have absolute discretion. God is much freer in how he entrusts than we ever are. 3) What God entrusts is never a small amount. Even the least servant got a full talent, a stupendous sum. I think those three truths might form our typically brief against God. He’s not fair; He’s not present to help; He hasn’t given us enough to work with.

And that brief against God, when you get people being honest, is what leads to the parable’s real comparison. The first two have faith in their master’s judgement. The last servant views his master as a hard man and stingy. It isn’t really the performance of the first two measured in money that gets praised. The master doesn’t take any of it back and in fact says “you’ve been faithful in little, I will set you over much.” In the sermon I take this roughly as “you’ve been faithful in this short sinful life, I will give you eternal life.” It’s the faith in the judgement displayed in their actions, not the absolute return. The last servant thinks what has been given – this life – is a complete set up. That the master is out to get him no matter what. The picture of God is of an ogre. When of course the revelation of God is Christ, on the cross, for us.

Real pagans I think tended to be much more honest. They did their sacrifices more to keep the gods far away from them. Running into a pagan god never went well for the human. They were ogres. (And well according to Paul they were demons, so…). I think our society has that view, but you have to scratch off the veneer. The veneer we have is that “of course God is good.” Of course we define good as nice. The first time we think God is unfair or doesn’t show up, the brief against God comes out. In some ways the modern church in what it teaches forms people into the servant with 1 talent. When what Jesus wants us to see is the stupendous nature of the grace that has been given. You have life. You have this life right now. You have the promise of eternal life. “The joy of your master.” God is the lover of mankind. He has set you up to succeed. Yes, not is the way we often define success, but in the way God does – the following of Christ, his son.

Anyway, this is getting as long as the sermon which is a meditation on these themes of life given to us, and our response.

A Better Story

Biblical Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Pay attention to the stories people tell you over and over. They are telling you about themselves. The stories that we as Americans tell over and over right now are toxic. They have erased the old stories. Their only fruits are division, death and lethargy. This sermon is about a better story. It is a story that Jesus tells about the Kingdom, which of course is a story about himself – God. And it is a story full of mischievous life. There is always work in the Kingdom. The pay is unfair, but always right, and better than we deserve. Go work in the vineyard. You won’t regret it. You won’t regret an identity built on this story.

Seventy times Seven

Biblical Text: Matthew 18:21-35

Most of the parables tell us more about God – Father, Son or Spirit – than they do about us. The stuff they tell us about ourselves we already know, like that we are prone to insane double standards. Like, I never have to pay my debts, but you, pay it right now. What the parable of the unmerciful servant tells us is that staggering amount we have been forgiven by God, and how God did that while we were still trying the play the con on him.

The difficult thing that this sermon attempts however briefly to think about is what is demanded of disciples in this world. The radical forgiveness of Jesus is required of us for those within the church. That is Jesus’ answer to Peter, “seventy times seven”. That is the moral lesson of the parable. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?” To fellow disciples we must practice forgiveness. The question then extends to the world? And this is where you cross into the imitation of Christ. We are not the messiah. On the one hand radical forgiveness of the world is not required and may not be wise. On the other this is the model of Christ and it is an open and costly road. Such forgiveness as Christ is an act of faith that the Father repays.

Treasures Old and New

Biblical Text: Matthew 13:44-52

Recording Note: This recording is done after the fact. Our equipment glitched on us this morning.

This sermon is the completion of Jesus’ Parable sermon. It is a string of parables of the Kingdom. And I think we often miss the gospel in these. The way we immediately try and understanding them betrays the “Yes” that the disciples give to Jesus when he asks if they understand. Because we almost always take ourselves as the main character, when the main character is God. This sermon attempts to preach the good news of that before how it relates to the Christian Life.

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.)

Christmas Eve 2022 (Light of Grace)

The service itself was a very traditional lessons and carols. This sermon didn’t really focus on any one of those texts but upon the themes they present as what the light could mean. The sermon speaks for itself I think more than any summary I could give it here.

Thanksgiving Grace

Biblical Text: Deuteronomy 8:1-10

A short homily for a thanksgiving sermon that asks what are we giving thanks for? Certainly, for our daily bread which in this land we have an abundance, but also for “every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” We give thanks for this body and life, which should lead to thanks for the much greater grace we have been given in Jesus.

The Keys of Grace


Biblical Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Full Sermon Draft

Jesus’ predictions of His passion each elicit responses by the disciples. Those response are often quite telling. They highlight some false idea which the disciples are clinging to. But there is something else that swirls around the first two – Jesus offering what the church calls the Keys. What you bind is bound and what you loose is loosed. The first offer of the Keys leads to the passion prediction which Peter responds roughly “not going to happen”. In this second passion prediction Peter doesn’t directly confront Jesus, but in this sermon’s conceit starts succession planning. The sermon of Jesus that follows talks about what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like which is nothing to start succession planning over. Instead of leading with the offer, Jesus ends with the offer of the Keys. His followers will be humble or childlike or little enough to not demand the law or their due with each other. The church instead is based on confession and absolution. The church is based on offering and receiving grace.