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.

Your Servant Hears

Biblical Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

The text is the calling of Samuel, but this sermon I think focuses a bit more on Eli. And theme is How to Hear the Word of God. Eli himself is a stunning negative example of how not to hear the Word and the effects of that. But in this text even Eli is prodded into being a good teacher for your Samuel. This sermon both examines that negative example of how we lose the ability to hear the Word and then lose the vision itself, and then it examines how Eli’s Words to Samuel are the foundation of any ability to Hear the Word. The Light of Christ, even in the darkness of Eli, never goes out. And God uses Eli to set Samuel on a good path to Hearing the Word. In those examples we also find our way to hearing the Word of God.

Theological Ghosts

I’m sorry, don’t know why I’ve had ghost stories on my mind. But, I ran across an essay that talked about the differences between US or Western ghost stories and Japanese. (Here is the link, although it is really geeky.  The summary is to say that US ghost stories tend to reward the virtuous and punish the evil.  That essay calls this providential, although that is a terrible definition of providence, which biblically is “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  The providence of God is not that he’s the galactic scorekeeper, but that he is gracious and merciful, not visiting upon sinners their due rewards.  Japanese ghost stories have a different morality that can be shocking to Westerners.  In the Western sense, complete innocents can die. People who do nothing to help but heed warnings can live.  Victory, if you want to call it that, can simply be diverting the ghost out of your house somewhere else.

I find ghost stories and maybe horror stories in general interesting because they are almost always theological.  They reveal more clearly than almost anything else what we actually believe about “God, the universe and everything.” I also think that is why the horror genre is a niche.  Most people don’t actually want to think about theology. Which makes the pastoral job interesting.  Because part of the job is not just getting people to think about such things, but to maybe make corrections to their thinking.  And maybe even make changes in their lives to bring them into closer alignment with good theology.  And it is part of the job not because any pastors really want to be the morality police.  We don’t.  It is part of the job because it is part of equipping the saints.  We all enter the crucible.  You don’t want to be putting on the armor while you are already being tested.  You want to have it girded prior. So part of the job is Pastor as haunting ghost to get you to think about these things.

The Western ghost story, with its embedded works righteousness, is a fable of the law.  And that law has three purposes: 1) The Curb, 2) The Mirror and 3) The rule.  Watching a US ghost story where the evil and promiscuous die functions as a curb in that the innocent viewer might see where punishment is given and not follow that path. It functions as a mirror in that we might see what is due to us in certain characters.  It functions as a rule in that it holds up – via the hero and heroine – a still more excellent way.  The biggest problem with that fable is that it also lies.  It holds out hope that by following the hero’s path we might live.  By the law, we all die.

This is where I think the Japanese ghost story is a nice correction. It is a world of at best disinterested spirits, and at worst malevolent spirits. The disinterested do their jobs with varying levels of competence.  It is interesting to me pondering a hurricane as the result of the weather power taking a day off.  And I don’t think that is far off the biblical picture of “the powers that be.” (Luke 21:26, Romans 8:38, Eph 6:12, 1 Pet 3:22). And of course “Satan prowls like a roaring lion.” Stealing from Sci Fi/Fantasy, we live in a dark forest. Oh, we think we know everything because of our recent mastery of matter.  But maybe we don’t have the mastery we think we do. We think we have clear cut the forest, but have we?

The secret to many Japanese ghost stories is “the wise old man or woman.” This character is usually a minor one, but they haunt the story. They show up usually after some deaths when the main characters are desperate.  They tell the characters what is happening.  And they tell the characters how to avoid it. And then they leave.  What happens in the Japanese film is not about personal holiness.  Did you follow the law? What happens is did you hear and take heed?  The characters that are open to wisdom’s word are saved.  Those who have ears to hear are not always those we think deserve it.

This is the advent of the gospel.  The star has appeared.  The light shines in the darkness. Are we willing to set aside worldly wisdom and follow the star?  Or do we insist upon our own knowledge unto salvation?  At least in the Japanese ghost story, the one who listens to the Word makes it out of the dark forest and lives.

I, I Myself Will Rescue

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 (Matthew 25:31-46)

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.

Matthew 18 for Dummies

Biblical Text: Matthew 18:1-20, (Ezekiel 33:7-9)

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.

A Sower went out to Sow

Biblical Text: Matthew 13:1-23

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.

Them Bones

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

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.

Seeing the Risen Christ


Biblical Text: Luke 24:13-35
Full Sermon Draft

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.)

Learning to Read in Submission to the Word


Full Sermon Draft

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.


footwashingiconI was invited to guest this morning on KFUO’s morning program, “His Time”. KFUO is the St. Louis and internet radio of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

The text was John 13:1-20 which is Jesus washing the disciple’s feet.

Here is the bible study.

Here is the short homily.

Head on over the KFUO to listen in at your convenience. It was a great experience and fun. I hope that my phone running out of juice toward the end wasn’t too loud.