This was the Last Sunday of the church year. In the wordle picture over the last few weeks I’ve been making the green (the color of the season) darker and starting to bleed in the blues and purples of Advent. The Last Sunday is given over to the contemplation of Christ the King and more specifically the judgement. That is the Gospel lesson. But in this sermon I wanted to jump off of the Old Testament text from Ezekiel. The gospel message is clearer. God himself sets out to save. The picture in Ezekiel is the sheep of God – the people of Israel – who have been abused in every way possible by their leadership of every stripe such that they have been scattered. God himself promises to be the Shepherd and retrieve them from everywhere they have been driven. The sermon meditates on how this has been fulfilled and what remains by faith.
I started using the word clouds a long time ago for the image. Originally I thought it was artistic cute: a Word cloud for preaching the Word. But, as I made them I started to realize they did have something to say, and what they had to say too seeing a few. There was always the simple surface fact of the most commonly used words. Like above – Luther and Jesus. I learned and adapted over the years that if “God” was the biggest word, the sermon was probably too generic. I looked for Father or Jesus or Spirit to show up. But there are a variety of shapes that show up. The clouds that are dominated by 2-3 big words and everything else is small are usually the simplest. They tend to be more about proclamation. At the other end are ones like the above. There are lots of words that are large enough to be read, but none that really just pop. Those tend to be less pure proclamation and more teaching or invitation to ponder. The every Sunday preacher has to have a bigger repertoire than the occasional. The lectionary preacher even more so, if he wants to preach the text and not just what is on his mind that week.
Matthew 18 is a deeper text than we normally treat it. Depending upon if our preference is for Young Luther or Old Luther (listen to the sermon), we tend to reduce it to “The Process” for solving disputes in the church, or reduce it to the ridiculousness of even thinking about the law parallel to Jesus’ hyperbole about cutting off body parts. We aren’t going to do that and the Father would not want that, so thinking in sin counting terms must be just wrong. I hope that this sermon was an invitation to think beyond those simplistic reductions. The Christian Life has a simplicity to it, but those are caricatures. That simplicity is the one found on the other side of a complexity.
The text is the Parable of the Sower and the Soils. You probably know it. To me the two poles of any sermon are proclamation and catechesis. Proclamation is proclaiming something true for you like: Jesus died and rose for you. The rhetoric of proclamation calls forth faith because it is primarily asserted to be true instead of proven. Catechesis is teaching. That is where the faith itself is explained, defended and given examples. Typically proclamation is received as more dynamic while catechesis can be the boring exposition in a movie. You need to know it for the action to make sense, but at least in movies good directors show it; they don’t tell it. Although in preaching there has to be a balance, at least for the every Sunday preacher. This sermon tips a little further to the catechetical than I typically do. And I think that is justified by the purpose of the parables themselves according to Jesus. They are invitations to deeper knowledge and understanding of the kingdom for those who have ears to hear. The sermon ends on the note of proclamation – that you, in your hearing, are those who have been given the secrets of the Kingdom.
The text is one of the most famous in all of scripture – Ezekiel’s Dry Bones. It’s famous, because of how it works on the heart if you allow it. If this field of scattered bones is the whole house of Israel, if the chosen people can come to this, what about us? And you’ve got to think about it because the Spirit takes you there and places you in the middle of it. And God asks you the question, “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel has a reply, not an answer. The answer is God’s. But it is not the easy triumphalism we want. Nor is it a counsel of despair. It is a promise. It’s the Word proclaimed. This sermon hopefully opens the heart and lets that work on it.
The text is the Road to Emmaus. It is one of those stories that pop out. Other than Jesus, the main characters are all but anonymous. Cleopas and his unnamed companion and a road between two cities. You get the feeling that Luke heard Cleopas tell the story and said to himself, “I’ve got to include this one.” This is one of the serious faults of the three year lectionary as the story only gets read on a Sunday once every three years. It is too reactive and psychologically rich a story to only meditate on together once every three years.
Just off the top of my head I could think of four strands of biblical theology that Emmaus puts a capstone on: table fellowship (i.e. God eating with sinful men), the road or the journey, Seeing and not-seeing God, The City of God vs. the City of Man. In other words, in five minutes I could outline at least five good sermons from the text that each would have a different doctrinal point and gospel message. The one that I worked with here is the power and place of word and sacrament. No theme operates exclusive to the others. Seeing and not-seeing plays a key motif when you talk word and sacrament, but it is still a supporting roll.
When you strip the church to its core, when our personal and often misguided desires fall away from the church, what remains? Word and Sacrament. How do we see or recognize the risen Christ in our lives? Through Word and Sacrament. What is the correct order? What is the individual’s role in faith? How do these things function in the life of the believer? What is the tragedy and triumph of Word and Sacrament? These are some of the questions that this sermon contemplates as it attempts to apply both law and gospel.
(I wanted to make one stray comment. John, the man who does our recording, usually includes at least a couple of verses from the hymn of the day. Lutheran Service Book #476 – Who are You Who Walk in Sorrow was this service’s hymn. It is a modern text (copyright 2000) paired with a haunting american hymn tune (Jefferson). The text is a powerful one made more so combined with the minor key and lilting tone of the tune. Here is a link to someone who has typed it out. You can find a reflection on many of those biblical themes in the hymn as well as another one from the Easter Season of death and Resurrection. That is a powerful and meaty modern hymn.)
This is my attempt to read or make sense of what might be the hardest batch of text in the lectionary. The three texts for the Day were Amos 8:4-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-15 and Luke 16:1-15. It is days like today that a lectionary is actually built for and why you follow it. There is no way and sane preacher would choose these texts to preach from today. And in all truthfulness you would probably not even read two out of three from the lectern because just reading them raised blood pressure.
The sustained argument throughout this sermon is that what raises blood pressure (or just baffles) is not the texts themselves, but what we import into the texts in reading. The problem is that we have trouble reading the Bible. Not that we can’t read, but we have not developed the habits of mind and heart that go to understanding. The foremost of those habits is reading the word in submission to the word. That means a bunch of different things, but I primarily think about it on two lines. First, scripture interprets scripture; second, we give the word the benefit of the doubt. We assume that it is right and can be made clear if we are willing to understand. Part of making it clear is understanding the context of the writing, social context and the larger purpose of the book.
So, as I started with, this is my attempt to publicly read, or interpret for modern ears. To come at these hard texts with proper habits of mind and heart.
This week was the 2nd week after Pentecost otherwise known as the first week of ordinary time or the first of many Sundays with green altar cloths. The lectionary during these times is something called a lectio continua or a continuous reading of two books. The gospel reading, which is normally the sermon text is from Luke this year. But for the next six weeks we are reading Galatians from the pulpit for the Epistle lesson. I’ll be preaching through Galatians for that time. This sermon starts that series.
In my reading of Galatians there are three main themes. Those themes are being an Apostle, the Gospel of grace and our delivery from this present evil age. Paul’s opening words, Gal 1:1-5, touch on all three.
What this sermon concentrates on is “Christ and…”. The devil is always trying to pervert the Gospel by sneaking in one small word, and. Galatians is all about pushing back on the and, in all possible ways. Pushing back such that it is clear that “there is no other gospel other than Christ alone”. False teachers may come and trouble the church, but the sure answer is always the apostolic word which is nothing less than the Word of God.
Sometimes data visualizations just get it. The word tree above gets its. We are in the middle of lent which is a penitential season, a season for repentance. Now there are some really good questions that we might ask about that. What is repentance? What does it include? How do we do it? Why? Who?
This text is at its core about answering those questions.
Why? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Because the assumptions that we have been taught by the world are not what the Word of God tells us. Hear the Word.
What does that Word assume? No one is good. The word itself accuses us (the law), but that same word is our salvation (gospel).
What does repentance include? A change of assumptions from the world’s to the Word’s. A fruitful living according to the Word.
Where do I go to understand fruit? Look it up in the Word.
The text is the cleansing of the Temple. It is an episode that is in all four gospel. Words from it end up at the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus. In Matt/Mark it is the proximate cause or fig leaf for convicting Jesus. In John it is moved to the front – the first action by Jesus of his public ministry – for theological reasons. All that is to say that the Scriptures view this as important. The indictment of Jesus is that the people have turned His Father’s house into a marketplace. It was easier to make God a transaction.
I have to say that much of American church life can feel like that at times. That sometimes it is just easier to pay the temple tax than to carry the cross.
Where does renewal start? “The disciples remembered…and they believed the scriptures and the word that Jesus had spoken.” The disciples remember. The sheep hear his voice. The new temple is a temple of living stones. A temple cleansed in the blood of Jesus. A temple where the sacrifices are the broken and contrite heart. The renewal…the life starts by being deep in that word.