This is the Wednesday Lenten Mid-Week. My general theme this year is “The Word.” We will be walking through the first three parts of the Small Catechism, giving the most time to the Creed, taking each article of the creed individually. But, the catechism starts with the 10 commandments, otherwise known as the law. And all the commandments are captured in the first commandment to have not other Gods. The question really is “What does it mean to have a God?” Luther’s answer is deep, because it is existential. Whatever you fear, love and trust about all things is your God. This homily examines two things about the law and that answer. First how one can have an external keeping of the law – driven by fear or by wisdom – that is not necessarily bad, but not sufficient. The keeping of the law due to love is a true keeping. The second examination is how we so easily give our love away to things other than God. And it is in those realizations that the law has done it’s work which is pointing out that the law cannot save us. We need a perfect source of love.
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.
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.
Biblical Text: Job 38:4-18
There are two amazing things about Job. The first one is that it unapologetically holds that God owes us nothing. You can go so far as to hold with Job himself, “the LORD gives and the LORD takes, blessed be the name of the LORD.” If it comes from God, we owe him praise, whatever it is. The second amazing thing is that God allows himself to be called as a witness. He is not mute in his glory. This sermon is a pondering of a God who offers a justification for himself without ever abandoning the fact that He owes us nothing.
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.)
The first three groupings of questions asked the who, what, when, where and how type questions. The stuff that can be mostly intellectual. These questions ask the why? What motivates Jesus/You? Why? For me this is probably the center of any self-examination. There are all kinds of reasons. But the only valid one is love. But even within the realm of love one has to question is love properly aimed. Lots of things are done for the love of money. These questions help us both understand the proper aim of love – The Father – and how The Father’s love encompasses us through the Son.
Biblical Text: John 3:1-17
The Gospel text is the full text in which “the gospel in a nutshell” is found. Which usually means a springboard into some gaseous ramble about love. Now I’m crazy. The less concrete a word is, the more I hate it. And you don’t get less concrete today than love. This sermon is about say “What is love.” Which is pointing at the cross. You want to know love, look at the cross. That is a concrete as it gets. God works in his way – “The Spirit blows where it wills” – and “the son lifted up is His way.”
“Love sought is good, but given unsought better.” – Olivia, Act 3, Scene 1, Twelfth Night
That line is from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, otherwise known as Epiphany. You might have been forced to read it usually as a sophomore. The play has two themes that play on Epiphany. The first is wisdom and foolishness, or what is wise and what is foolish. The second – like most of Shakespeare’s comedies – is about the true nature of love. Olivia thinks she is being wise playing a “courtly love” game which ends with her foolishness of falling in love with a woman dressed as a man. And it is all played as a farce. Shakespeare’s comedies have all kinds of troubles today.
I guess I blame Reformed Protestantism. If you followed Calvin or Zwingli, they more or less ditched the church year. Every Sunday was the Lord’s Day. Elevating any day as a Holy Day was Judaizing (using Paul’s term from Galatians.) And while they have a point, every Sunday is a little Easter, life is not quite that flat. Romans 14: 5-6 should have solved that. But the United States was largely a Reformed Protestant project, so we get Christmas Day and grudgingly Easter (although that is disappearing into Spring Breaks not always around Holy Week), but we’ve lost the seasons.
The season of Christmas is twelve days, Dec 25th – Jan 5th. The carol The Twelve Days of Christmas is an echo of that. It might also be a Roman Catholic crypto-polemic against the Reformed erasing. And the entire 12 days were often something of boozy hazy time ending with a big party on Twelfth Night when gifts were exchanged. After all, it was the coming of the Magi that brought the gifts. Hispanic Cultures still maintain a bit of this as Tres Reyes. The Protestant Work ethic couldn’t imagine 12 boozy days, so we pack up the tree the day after.
But that’s enough dissembling, or maybe I’m just in a Christmas Season mood and can’t think straight. Olivia’s middle of the play statement captures something about the Christ child and the love of God. It is good that we love God. For God has sought our love. But the better is that he has loved us unsought. When we were lost in darkness, God sent His light. Whether that light is the fuller light of prophetic revelation, like “out of Egypt I have called my son” which ties the entire story of Israel to this Israel reduced to one, or a light given in a star to a bunch of foolish astrologers, God sought us out wise and foolish, while were all in the dark. He gave us His love unsought. When we were still sinners, Christ loved us.
The church built in a season, and then a fuller Epiphany season, to absorb the immensity of that truth. She can proclaim the reality in an hour. Your head can hear the message. But the heart doesn’t always work on the same timetable. And lots of wisdom and foolishness happens as love moves from head to heart.
Biblical Text: Hebrews 1:1-12
The assigned reading for Christmas Day from Hebrews is an interesting one. It is the start of an argument why Jesus is greater than the angels. The background of the argument is that angels took on an outsized role in the popular piety of the intertestamental period. You could almost say that the angels had been turned into idols. The writer of Hebrews was concerned to make an argument to compare the surpassing worth of the Son to the angels. It is an argument for the right ordering of our loves and right worship. The sermon attempts to get us to contemplate what we have placed where the 1st century Jews had placed angels. And how we worship aright.
Biblical Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20
The third week of Advent is often labeled Gaudete, Latin for Rejoice! It’s a command word. But commanding someone to rejoice is a non-starter. True Joy is pulled out of us. It is the natural reaction of the loved seeing the lover. This sermon reflects on these themes and how God coming from outside of us brings for that Rejoicing.