95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Reformations – A Rejoinder

Don’t take my word for it – read the original. And the original of the original.

95 Theses for the 21st Century Church

Disputation of Doctor Clint Schnekloth on the Power and Efficacy of Reformations (2014)

Rejoinder by The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, STS, M.Div.

(Original theses in regular type – rejoinders in bold italics.)

Martin Luther famously posted 95 theses for consideration and discussion (though there is some debate as to where he posted them, and whether they were as singularly nailed to a blank door as is often depicted). Although the following theses make no claim to the same cohesion and rigor as Luther’s 95, they do riff on them.

 

These are indeed not as good as Luther’s. However, they are better than Matthew Fox’s.

1. Jesus Christ, when he said, “Repent,” willed that our whole lives should be lives of repentance.

The Ninety-Five Theses, or the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences indeed are not truly about indulgences, but about repentance.

 

2. Although penitential disciplines are infrequently exercised in the contemporary religious landscape, they are still the starting point for life.
3. This stands in tension with the dominant faith of North America, moralistic therapeutic deism, which emphasizes that God exists, helps me live a good life, and is there for me in my needs.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the dominant faith of Americans, excludes true repentance, because repentance involves a God who stands against us in judgment, the very antithesis of the God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

 

4. Because moralistic therapeutic deism is the dominant faith of most people in our culture, regardless of actual religious tradition, true repentance will be misunderstood by many.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism misunderstands repentance as turning to the true self and self-actualization. The purchase of self-help methods is the practical mode of repentance in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

5. When it is misunderstood, it will also not be practiced, and instead practices will arise to take its place–especially self-sufficiency, partisanship, and closed confessionalism.

Where closed confessionalism is present, the judgment which is God’s will be abrogated to those who are office-holders in closed confessionalism, without the assent or understanding of the community.

 

However, true confessionalism, if, when, and where it is practiced, will exercise God’s judgment within the confessional community. It will also invite others outside the community to stand within the community and therefore under God’s judgment as comprehended by the community.

 

I await enlightenment as to whether a true confessionalism is possible, and if not, if there is an alternative.

6. Glory and success will become the markers of communities that forget repentance; the weakness and suffering of God (and the human) will in those places be denigrated.

As the preaching of indulgences led to a neglect of true repentance, so the preaching of the indulgence of the self has also led to a neglect of true repentance. Both theologies are and were theologies of glory.
7. In large part, although secularism is not to blame for this shift, it is the rise of secularities that has created the conditions for this type of religiosity to take hold in our context(s).

If the preaching of indulgences granted by the Pope was the product of a religious society, one wonders if the preaching of indulgence granted by ‘secular’ society can be seen as the product of an similarly religious society, dedicated not to the authority of the Pope, but to the authority of the will-ing self.
8. We have before us the condition where the religious and non-religious can equally disregard repentance because selves have become buffered.

The differentiation between the religious and secular should not be seen as the opposition of religion to secularism, but instead as the opposition of the religion of the individual will-ing self, to religions in which individuals find themselves within communities within space and time.
9. This rampant individualism, each buffered self doing its own thing, is actually a shift in the culture away from rather than towards true freedom.

“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” 
― 
John Calvin
10. We find ourselves each doing our own thing, which amounts to the same thing, so we live under the hegemony of experiencing bondage as freedom.

The fiction of ‘doing one’s own thing’ is experienced in much the same way as the fiction of a bought plenary indulgence. It keeps one in the slavery of experiencing oneself as an agent unbounded by God, and it is preached to the ruin of souls for the financial profit of the few.
10. True freedom arises in recognizing our common humanity, our common createdness, and in so doing letting down the barriers to our individual selves.

To experience one as a created being is to accept the limit of both our death-bound selves and the limit of the other. But an individual self, like a confession, must have semi-permeable barriers, without which there are no distinct selves which may encounter others and be encountered as others by others. Only dead things have impermeable barriers or no barriers. This is true physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
11. This, or something like it, is an aspect of repentance; being open to the other in order for the other to free us from who we have caged ourselves into being.

The first ‘other’ to whom we are to be open is Christ. We are not to encounter others except through the medium of Christ Jesus, who stands both among us and between us (Bonhoeffer)
12. One of those others to which we are open is Scripture. We are open to the possibility that the Scripture might tell us who we are.

The Scripture’s primary revelation is the revelation of God. The witness of Moses, the prophets and the apostles was to God first of all and his revelation through Christ. The self is experienced in relation to God, the ‘wholly Other’ (Barth). When one is open to the ‘possibility’ of Scripture, one needs to beware of being open also only to the ‘possibility’ of the God whom Scripture proclaims.

 

13. However, we also read Scripture against Scripture, because the past errors of our reading have read themselves into Scripture itself.

Great care must be taken when one reads Scripture against Scripture. One wonders how a way of reading Scripture which takes as its hermeneutic principle reading Scripture against Scripture does not fulfill the rule of reading itself (and quite probably its own errors) into Scripture itself.
14. So we read Scripture against Scripture in order to repair gender inequality, address racism, overcome heterosexism, break down the stratification of classes.

A dominant hermeneutic always runs the risk of reading the Scripture through the lens of the hermeneutic rather than the hermeneutic under the lens of Scripture. This is the error of Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, but it is not exclusive to them. Scripture indeed must be interpreted, but in being interpreted must retain its function of expressing God’s judgment rather than human judgment. A sense of humility under the Scripture is an indispensable part of reading the Scripture. So is reading Scripture with the Church throughout time and space.
15. “The secular is not the taken-for-granted opposite of religion but a set of conditions in which modern ideas of religion are constructed.” (Varieties of Secularism, 25)

Indeed, secularism becomes its own religion, or as with therapeutic moralistic deism, a parasitic religion which attaches itself to other religions.
16. The fragilizing of our options, secular or sacred, is another instance of the centrality of repentance, of mutual repentance, in order to honor the conditions of our mutual fragility.

‘For the unity of the Church, it is not necessary…’ etc.
17. In this way, new communities can exist in place of the old.

As long as these communities maintain their continuity with the ‘old,’ which of course were not ‘old,’ but appropriate to their time and situation, and took as their constituting rationale the deposit of faith, however uncritically examined.
18. Where there was the parish, hierarchical and centered in the church, now there are new parishes, patterned networks of mutual reciprocity that share geographical space and exist for the good of the neighborhood.

Both hierarchy and reciprocity are necessary for the old and new parishes; hierarchy, for the sake of the identification with Christ of the parish within the community and not simply as an extension or reflection of the community; and mutual reciprocity, so that the parish does not exist simply for the sake of the hierarchy.
19. It is not good to live above place.

Seeing as I cannot fly, I agree with this statement.

Living-in-place has become nearly impossible in a highly mobile, virtual world. Even those who ‘live-in-place’ do so by choice, which makes one think that it is not truly ‘living-in-place.’
20. In a quantum world, the idea of being localized to a place, though not relativized, has been radicalized.

The idea of place has become another consumer product – something which can be entered into and out of for the sake of a new experience, even one of habituation, but never a given in the sense of the ‘places’ in which humans were once born, lived, and died.
21. So the new parish is both local and in one place, but also networked to all the places where there are places.

22. We know that the secular is truly present not when the new parish has lost its sacredness, but rather when the blend of secularities within a place is held sacred in its mutual indwelling.
23. Everywhere secularities happen, cuius regio, eius religio becomes true again but differently.
24. The whose of whose region (cuius) becomes the network itself rather than the governor.

Non-governed networks sound awfully nice. Let me know when the first one works. The first thing every online forum needs is a team of moderators. I’ve seen what happens when this doesn’t happen.
25./The network in the new parish becomes the new parish when it recognizes itself.
26. The first mark of this network is repentance, repentance to living above place, setting up dividing walls, living inattentively.

The need for dividing walls (permeable membranes) is a non-negotiable feature of the current structure of reality. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, but people have skin and bones, and communities need structure and boundaries.
27. Repentance is paying attention.

‘The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them.’ – Bonhoeffer, Life Together
28. Repentance is laughing again.

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.’ Philippians 4

‘Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy.’ –Psalm 126

 

29. Repentance laughs at itself, and its inattentions.

30. The buffered self lacks humor because its only posture can be ironic, but ironic in the sense of you standing there, being seriously ironic.
31. A mark of repentance is laughing at things others find funny.

This is true unless the laughter is irredeemably ironic. For example, I do not find Chelsea Handler funny. Ironically, I find her sad.

32. Communities arise and take shape when they can be humorously human together.

The current Pope has this down pat.
33. Reformation is formation, and formation is neurological. Reformation includes reforming the brain.

34. But the brain isn’t everything, even if consciousness has been an obsession of theologians and philosophers since Schliermacher through Husserl.

What involves the brain necessarily involves the body, since brain is body. We are not Gnostics. (Does that mean we’re a-gnostics?)

35. Reformation includes the the formation of all things, tending towards the grain of the universe and the future of God.

Now you’re starting to sound too much like Matthew Fox. J
36. This formation requires repetition.

Catechesis is central to all religions, including secular and moralistic therapeutic deistic religions. Those who refuse to accept this don’t deserve a break today and cannot live their best life now.
37. Repetition is central to identity in an age of distraction (Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Pickstock)

Distraction is itself a repetition which de-links itself from culture which is learned or formed by repetition. In this way, the repetitive experience of distraction immerses us in a culture in which our identity is not fixed in a community, but is permanently fluid, endlessly morphing as it attaches itself to various ephemeral experiences and opinions which it tries on for size and then discards as last season’s fashions.

38. The future of the faith is linked to our best approaches to non-identical, or complex, repetition.
39. Repetition of some kind is integral to repentance properly understood, repentance not as grief over wrong-doing, or shame at failure, but turning and moving in a different direction.

In this sense, the theology and practices of penance can be revitalized, as Luther desired them to be, shorn of the doctrines of ‘satisfaction.’ Repentance must also include confession or return to baptism, a regular repetition of the experience of knowing oneself both as sinner under the judgment of God and beloved prodigal welcomed to the Father’s house.
40. The new direction to which we are to turn is the one promised to us, and given to us, in Christ.

I would only say that the direction in which we are to turn is toward Christ and to follow after Him. (This may be saying the same thing in different words.)
41. The age of distraction attempts to cloud the articulation of promise, and hide the gift.

The age of distraction is a denial of gift itself. It denies the gift of vocation and negates the possibility of ‘a long obedience in the same direction (Nietzsche, quoted by Eugene Peterson)’
42. Christians are to be taught again and again to enter into solidarity with the poor.
43. Christians are to learn again and again to think of themselves based on what they have been given, not what they earn.
44. Christians are to understand their whole lives as non-identical repetition of Christ’s own life in them.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God; who loved me and gave his life for me. (Galatians 2)
45. Christians are to be taught this means they are completely open to the other, and the discovery of faith in the other as the rediscovery of their own.

46. Christians are to be taught this includes the religious other, perhaps especially the very other.

Christians are to be taught to respect the faith of the religious other precisely as an-other faith.

 

Christians are to be taught not to co-opt and domesticate an-other faith as the same as or similar to their own for the sake of easing their own consciences, silencing their own questions, and quieting their own witness.

 

Christians are to be taught not to judge others into heaven, just as they are taught not to judge others into hell.

47. Christians are to be taught that their very identity rests not in bounded identity, but open solidarity.

Christians are to be taught that their very identity rests in Christ. Their identity is bound to Christ, and as he was open to the other, so they are to be made open to suffering the other for the sake of Christ. Such an identity will not infringe upon the identities of others, but it will invite them to identify with Christ, even at the cost of discipleship. Christians are to be taught that such an invitation is not to be ruled out prima facie as an exercise of naked power.

 

Christians to be taught that solidarity with others does not extend to an unqualified ‘yes’ to their expressed wants, needs and desires. Christians are to be taught that solidarity with others might involve speaking truth to them. Christians are to be taught that solidarity with others gets messy. Christians are to be taught that God may have his own purposes (Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural).

 

48. Christians are to be taught they will discover this identity again and again in the Eucharist.
49. Christians are to be taught they are washed into this identity in baptism.
50. Christians are to be taught that this identity is sustained in Scripture, but never at the expense of the other or the community.

Christians are to be taught that the community which stands under Scripture must discern how it together will stand under Scripture. Members of a community must be bound to each other in truth and unity. Let Euodia and Syntyche be of the same mind in the Lord. (Philippians 4).

 

Those Christians who rewrite Scripture out of desire to love others as Christ has loved them ought to first listen to the experiences of those who experience themselves as other and yet consider themselves bound by Christ to the plain sense of Scripture. (See the blog http://spiritualfriendship.org/ to hear some of these voices.)
51. Christians are to be taught again and again to confess their faith, but hold it light.

I am afraid that this says everything and nothing.

52. Those fully committed to secularism are still haunted by the transcendent. Immanence is too full for itself.

This is true, as some of the most ardent converts are those who were without God and who were convinced not by rational argument, but by beauty.
53. Those convicted in faith are still haunted by secularism, for the transcendent is ever-receding in greater and greater immanence.

The immanence of God is a starting point for witness in the world, but witness to God is never content with pointing to God’s immanence.

54. Part of the continuing reformation is recognizing that not everyone is haunted by secularization, and so not everyone is haunted like we are.

We must try and understand them, as they must try to understand us.

55. All institutions who have entered into full communion agreements in the late modern era who have agreed about communion but have not yet joined up their institutions have not actually entered into full communion.

Even those in full communion who have joined up their institutions (in 1988, for instance) may have never entered into full communion. Full communion this side of paradise may, like ‘free will,’ be nothing but a word (see Luther, Heidelberg Disputation XIII). And yet, the unity of the Church must be sought, and it will only be received in the continuing experience of its lack.
56. The speck in the eye is the best magnifying glass. (Adorno)

Ouch.
57. To magnify our sin, perhaps God has hardened our hearts so as to remain in the institutions we deserve.

Amen.
58. Yet just deserts are not at the heart of repentance. True repentance leads to dessert.

A feast of fat things, indeed.

59. That there are food deserts gives indication we have not yet accomplished Christian unity.
60. The failure of each religion is entwined in the success of the others, and the hunger of the poor.

The success of religion should be seen in the ways in which the hungry have been fed, the naked have been clothed, etc. The hungry who have been fed rarely make the twenty-four hour news cycle. This is not to ignore the fact that there are those who go without.
61.No direct correlation between the disunity of the church and the hunger of the poor has been established, but unity and an end to hunger both should be tried.
62. There is one church.
63. The church is holy.
64. The church is catholic.
65. The church is apostolic.
66. No one knows what these terms mean in a divided church in a secular age.

Has anyone ever known what these terms meant?
67. If it means anything it means unity in diversity.

How much unity? How much diversity?
68. If holy, then holy precisely in lowliness.

Now you’re talking.
69. If catholic, then whole only in part.

Amen, brother.
70. If apostolic, then apostolic arising from the grass rather than handed down by the hands of the apostles.

And you were going so well, too.
71. If the 20th century was the century of the Luther Renaissance, the ecumenical movement, and Vatican II, then the 21st century will be the century of the Nietzschean Renaissance, the ecological movement, and Vatican III.

Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.
72. Which is to say, Reformation will include the atheist, the earth, and Rome.

73. It remains to be see whether this new conversation will include the Holy Spirit.

It will. It will also include the Zeitgeist. The task of the theologian is to distinguish between the two.
74. If it does, the task of this century will be to properly think through the work of the Spirit in penitential reform.
75. The further task of this century will be to reconsider architecture and faith, architecture once again wedded to the suffering of the world.
76. The worship wars will end, and those who worship may simply go home.

And yet, those who worship will seek community, if only in the home or in the virtual world, and those communities will desire liturgy of every kind, catholic or otherwise, in order to worship.
77. The economic forces of late modernity will send most clergy home as well, blending once again what has too long been put asunder… the laity and clergy.

The so-called ‘conservatives’ are probably way ahead of the curve here.
78. But all prognostications, all future theorizing, will be proven wrong, sometimes by being proven right.

Everything and nothing is true.
79. The end will not happen, because it already has.
80. The end will not happen, because it is on the way.
81. The end will not happen, because it is happening.

Please, Lord, bring us to the end! 🙂
82. To wit: Even if a unity of faith is not possible, a unity of love is. (Hans Urs von Balthasar)

And yet there must be an approximate unity of faith; at least enough to posit the desirability of love and a limited mutual understanding of what living in love might entail. Those who doubt this are asked whether they would like to spend some time talking religion with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
83. Again: We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Lutheran pastors are to be taught that those who quote Bonhoeffer, including this respondent, must beware lest they become like the historical Jesus-questers who were skewered so neatly by Schweitzer.
84. Again: Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. (Stanley Hauerwas)

Is the Church a success? And yet God wills it.  
85. Again: To sing about freedom and to pray for its coming is not enough. Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed peoples who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it. (James Cone)

Christians of both leftist and rightist persuasions are to be taught that actualizing freedom in history is dangerous business which usually if not always leads to unintended consequences. Christians are to be taught humility in the presence of the God of history. Christians who desire the actualization of freedom in history ought to be wary lest they be ‘the first up against the wall when the revolution comes.’ (Douglas Adams)
86. Again: “And so I ask God to rid me of God,” Meister Eckhart says. The God who is known and familiar is too small for him.” (Dorothee Soelle)

Christians are to be taught that the apophatic and the cataphatic cannot be exclusionary, but they belong together. Christians are to be taught that the fullness of God is revealed in Jesus Christ, and that this Christ, who will be fully known in the eschaton, can be known, in time, by Scriptures and Sacraments in the Church. A truly apophatic theology is only able to preach no-God, and the apophatic theologians had to start cataphatically.

87. Again: “Once one understands that the evolving community of life on Earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of ecojustice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life.” (Elizabeth Johnson)

One does not need to be a feminist theologian to believe this.

88: Again: This is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the linchpin of any understanding of original sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of original sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenial involvement with death. The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death.” (James Alison)

And yet this un-necessity of death is not accessible to us now except through the Christ proclaimed in the Scriptures.

89. In the midst of all this thinking and reforming, we are called to remember that it is music that will carry us forward. Reformation is sung.

Luther said it first.
90. Too many reformations have been iconoclastic, to the detriment of art. Reformations grounded in repentance will honor the icons of the saints.

In refusing to destroy visual art, let us also be merciful to faithful icons/saints, who while living the faith imperfectly, sought to live it within the culturally bound strictures of the parishes of America in the mid-to-late twentieth century; for we are their spiritual heirs. Let us also not forget to minister to them with faithfulness, as they await the fulfillment of the promises made to them by Christ, and not to wantonly cast them aside as relics who have had their day.
91. Additionally, many reformations have been too static, too focused on stability, whereas the mark of true Reformation is agility. Reformation dances.

Does Reformation speak in tongues? I think St Paul had a few things to say about order and stability, for the very sake of agility and freedom.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
94. The Reformation is dead.
95. Long live the Reformation.

Christians are to be taught that ‘Reformation’ is not an eternal principle, but rather a non-repeatable historical event or set of historical events which was given the moniker ‘Reformation.’ This is especially important for Christian theologians.

 

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October 22, 2014 at 11:39 am 2 comments

Jesus and the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31)

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS
Pentecost 20 (Proper 23B)
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
14 October 2012

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This Gospel story is filled with temptations for the preacher.
On the one hand, it has been used as a stewardship sermon text.
Simply unburden yourself of some excess wealth by giving it to the church,
and you will be saved.
On another, preachers are tempted to immediately engage the question,
‘Are we being asked to give away all of our money?’
and to explain how the answer is, miraculously, ‘No’
when by all accounts it ought to be ‘Yes.’
Very few preachers will simply answer ‘Yes.’
Very few employed preachers, that is.

The pressure that this Word of God exerts on us,
especially upon us of the twenty-first century Western world,
can be simply fantastic, if we do not keep it at arm’s length,
If we actually allow it into our souls and spirits,
who knows what it might do.
No wonder the preacher is tempted
to relieve the pressure,
to refuse to allow this story about Jesus
to either engage him or his hearers,
but to concoct an immediate application,
something that we can do to get around Jesus’ words,
to save ourselves from the seemingly implications.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem,
presumably to the people, he is headed there to try and become king.
The disciples know, but do not accept or understand,
that he is headed there to his death.
But as he is setting out on his day’s journey,
there comes a man, presumably in a great rush,
who needs to ask the great Teacher a very important question before he leaves.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’

It is an honest question.
If it were a dishonest question,
Jesus would not speak with him in love,
as our text says,
but give him a ‘Get behind me, Satan,’
and be on his way.
But he does not.

Jesus questions him about the commandments of God.
Again, we need not trouble ourselves
with accusing the man of secret sin,
but must take at face value his confession,
‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’
Leave aside for the moment our understanding,
which is true, that we cannot save ourselves by keeping the Law.
This man earnestly strives to know and keep God’s commandments.

What does Jesus do next?
He says, ‘You lack one thing.’
After hearing this story so many times,
we ought to know what that one thing is, don’t we?
This man is too rich.
He has been trampling on the poor all his life.
He has lied to himself, he has told himself that he has kept the law, \
that he has been good,
but in reality he is evil – sitting fat and happy amidst so much wealth
that he can’t see beyond the money
to those are in desperate need.
He’s just like those people that the Prophet Amos rails on about;
those who turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground.
The one thing he has to do is give the money away and he will truly be good, and be blessed.
He has to give up his sin in order to be saved.
Am I right?

That’s very interesting.
Where does it say that in the text?
I think that the editors of the lectionary were wrong
to pair the reading from the prophet Amos with this Gospel text.
Perhaps it would go better with the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus does not chastise this man for being too rich.
He does not bring out an accusation that he has dishonored the poor,
he does not point out how evil he has been,
how he has been living a lie all of his life
What Jesus says for the man to do is this: ‘Come, follow me.’

‘But wait, Pastor, you forgot about the part where he says about selling all that he has,
and giving it to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven.’
Oh, yes, that is there.
If Jesus had just said,
‘Come, follow me,’
it wouldn’t make sense, would it?
So he has to make clear what has to occur before the man can follow him,
before he can be with Jesus,
the one thing he lacks.
He has to get rid of what is keeping him away from the one thing needful.
To whom better should he give the proceeds of this moving sale
than the poor, who truly do need them?
It’s a win-win.

It’s quite easy for us to assume that the one thing that the man lacked
was charity, was humility, was a sense of balance in his life.
Instead, we come face-to-face with the idea that what he lacked was Jesus.
Jesus wanted this man with him,
not to be one of the twelve apostles
but to join the great throng of disciples.
Because Jesus loved him,
Jesus was calling him to follow him,
and the thing that was in his way of this particular man was this man’s possessions.

‘But, Pastor, what about his wife and children?
Should he have just left them behind?’
we protest in vain.
Funny. I don’t see in the text
that says anything about him having a wife and children.
Perhaps if he had brought his wife and children,
Jesus would have said something different to him.
I’m not in a position to know.

Jesus does not call this man evil,
but neither does he pronounce him ‘good.’
‘No one is good but God alone,’ he says.
We come to this story saying, ‘How can we be good,’
and expect an answer of what we need to do in order to be good.
Instead, we hear that what we need is not to be good or to do good,
but to be with God, revealed in his Son Jesus.

If I were to end the sermon here,
some of you might go home thinking,
‘Pastor said that it doesn’t matter what we do with our money.’
God forbid!
It matters because our money does not belong to us, but to God,
who entrusted it to us for our sustenance and for the doing of his will.
It matters because Jesus said to his disciples,
‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’
Again, not because those who have money
are more evil than others,
but because money so quickly becomes our god,
our good without which we cannot do,
it becomes our snare, our stumbling block,
our touchstone for whatever we do.
We’re constantly thinking about it and worrying about it
– do we have enough? Will we have enough?
Can I spare this or that?
Money prevented the man of the story, who sought to love God, from following Jesus.
It kept him from the one thing he lacked.
What could it do to us?
How hard it is for us who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
We are called to be with Jesus,
and so however much or little we have,
Jesus calls us to orient our lives so that our wealth
becomes the tool for serving God
instead of the thing that keeps us away from God.
This is made harder by the fact
that the way we follow Jesus is usually a stationary following –
we don’t follow a man on the move.
We gather in the presence of the community,
in the presence of the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments administered,
and here we encounter Jesus.
Maybe that’s a good place to start.
What is keeping us from weekly Sunday worship with the community?
What is keeping us from delving into the Word,
from time in prayer, from fellowship with our fellow sinners called to be saints?
What keeps us from being with Jesus in the place where he calls us to be?
Are we willing to give that up in order to be with Jesus?

Then, as the man in the story would have undoubtedly found,
we will find that those who would follow Jesus
are soon sent in Jesus’ name to others who need him.
Are we willing – and able – to be sent in Jesus’ name?
To our co-workers? To our neighbors? To our family members?
To those in need of the Gospel?
For one day, for three days, for a year?
What gets in the way of being sent in Jesus’ name?
Are there others that we could send in our stead,
those who we could support to preach the Gospel that saves us?
Will it cost too much? What would we have to risk, or give up?
I have a feeling that when we as individuals and when we as a congregation
start asking this question –
Are we willing and able to be sent to others in Jesus’ name
and send others in Jesus’ name? –
our life together as a congregation will change.
It might be a little less comfortable, but it certainly will be even more exciting.

In a way what Jesus asks us to do – be with him and depend upon him –
is just as difficult as what he asked the man in the story to do.
It would be much more clear-cut should he ask us to sell all that we have and give to the poor.
And yet we have his help.
We have his word that nothing shall be impossible with him,
even our own salvation.
We have his word that we will never lack for what is important,
that we will have in this life the things we need,
and even joys we never thought we’d have,
with the persecutions that come with being a follower of Jesus.
Finally, in the age to come we will have eternal life in him.
He is all that we need and in the end he is all that we will have.

October 14, 2012 at 7:53 am Leave a comment

Joseph Forgives his Brothers

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS
Narrative Lectionary Week 3 – Joseph Forgives His Brothers
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh PA
22 September 2012
 
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
 
The story of the Bible is a story of a God who calls and promises.
In Genesis 12, God called Abraham to go to the land which he would show him,
and promised him the land, a family that would outnumber the very stars of heaven,
and through him all the nations of the world would be blessed.
Abraham trusted that God would keep his promises.
And Abraham and Sarah did have a son, and that son Isaac had two twin sons, Jacob and Esau,
and those sons didn’t get along too well.
Jacob was the one who inherited his father Isaac’s blessing,
even though he had to do some pretty shady stuff
in order to get it.
(It was all his mom Rebekah’s idea.)
 
Ever notice that the heroes in the Bible really aren’t all that heroic?
In Sunday School we were taught to be like Jacob –
except for the lying to his dad part.
We were taught to be like King David –
except for the murder and adultery part.
We were taught to be wise like King Solomon –
except for the worshiping other gods part.
We were taught to be like the apostle Peter –
except for the denying our Lord when it came to crunch time part.
We were taught to be like St Paul –
except for the persecuting Christians part.
 
In fact, there is only one hero of the Bible.
That hero is God –
God who keeps calling his lost people
and promising them rescue from their enemies,
and in the end comes among them in Jesus Christ
to accomplish his every Word.
 
But if there are no heroes in the Bible,
Joseph comes close.
Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob,
the one whose multi-colored coat got the other boys so jealous,
and the one whose dreams of greatness just drove them over the edge.
 
Now all the very modern commentaries on this passage rightly point out
that Jacob’s family was a dysfunctional family.
Jacob loved Joseph’s mother Rachel much more than his other wife Leah
or either of their handmaids whom he also took as sexual partners.
(Ever notice how not only are there no heroes in the Bible,
there’s more sex than you’d expect there to be?)
Anyhow, the first son born to Rachel was loved more than the other mother’s sons,
and lavished with all sorts of attention,
and so of course it was perfectly natural that the other boys
would became so enraged with jealousy
that they would plan to get rid of him completely.
 
Here’s where the commentaries begin to break down.
So what?
It doesn’t matter how much favoritism Jacob showed to Joseph.
It doesn’t justify first thinking of murder and then selling Joseph into slavery,
which amounts to about the same thing,
since who knows what’s going to happen to Joseph once he’s gone.
In fact, it doesn’t even matter that Reuben plots to save him
because he fears his father’s wrath more than he hates Joseph.
 
What matters is that the God-called response to injustice is not hatred.
It is not ‘natural’ for jealousy to result in blind rage and murder.
Jealousy itself is not ‘natural.’
It is was not ‘natural’ for Adam and Eve to be jealous of God.
That is part of the unnatural nature of our sin.
The fact that we live against our nature, that we live in sin,
is the only reason we say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see how a couple of dreams
justify throwing your younger brother into a pit.’
 
I don’t care how dysfunctional Jacob was as a parent.
I’m not blaming Jacob for the actions of the sons,
which were treacherous and murderous and full of hatred.
When you are wronged, as you most certainly will be in this life,
you have no God-given right to hate the person who wronged you.
That is a deeper slavery than any that the brothers had planned for Joseph.
 
We human beings are called by God to a life of bearing each other’s burdens.
You cannot bear the burden of someone else while you hate them.
The call to forgiveness is the call to love – to love the one whom ordinarily you would hate –
because God’s call and promise is community.
God intends for human community to be restored through Jesus Christ,
and those who live in Jesus Christ are called to be restorers of community
by bearing the burdens of those who wrong them.
 
Ten sons of Jacob break the community of Abraham’s family in their hatred.
The community of the family whom God had chosen to bring light to the world
is now divided, as so many families and communities are
because of jealousy, because of hatred, because of the desire to be first.
The reading for tomorrow morning will talk of our unnatural desire to be first in everything –
most important, most respected, most well-known,
and Jesus will speak of greatness as being last and servant of all.
It doesn’t happen here.
 
Except in one person.
The person who the story leaves thrown into the pit, begging for mercy,
and then is sold into slavery.
Joseph rises, and falls, and rises again and falls again,
and ends up number two-man in the kingdom of Egypt,
guiding them through a famine with Solomon-like wisdom.
When his brothers come, begging for bread,
Joseph gives it to them, even before he knows that his father lives.
But when his father dies,
the consciences of the ten brothers afflict them.
Or is it their conscience?
Is it not fear that Joseph only spared them
because he loved his father more than he loved them?
Now that Jacob is no more,
what is to stop him from showing no mercy,
as they showed no mercy to him?
 
The call and promise of God is to community –
community with God and with others in God.
And so when Joseph’s brothers come and ask, beyond hope, for his mercy,
Joseph himself restores the community that has been broken.
The debtors, the brothers, cannot restore it,
because no action could ever undo what they had done to Joseph.
It is Joseph himself, the one who was wronged, that must restore the community,
and restore it he can, and restore it he does,
because he trusts that the goodness of God is greater than any evil done to him
and that the God who made promises to Abraham
can bring even good out of evil.
 
Do the brothers have a part to play?
Absolutely!
In recognizing and confessing the wrong they have done
and receiving the forgiveness offered.
That is our role as well,
for we too have been jealous that we must have a Lord,
one greater than us who will rule over us.
And we have cast him into the pit, sentenced him to death,
but beyond our greatest fear – and our greatest hope –
he is risen and lives with his Father in heaven.
What can we do but recognize what we do,
when we hate those of whom we are jealous,
when we return evil for evil
and do not live in the community God offers?
What else can we do but turn to God-in-Christ,
our brother, our reconciler,
and ask for mercy, for forgiveness?
What else can we do but live in the forgiveness which is offered,
the forgiveness which comes from God’s own hand?
 
There is one hero in the Bible,
and that is God,
the God who enfleshes himself in Jesus Christ.
But in Joseph, the Old Testament
gives us perhaps the clearest type, or pattern,
of the one who was to come
to fulfill all the promises made to Abraham.
In Joseph, who was dead and was raised to life,
and who himself wiped away the wrongs done by his brothers,
we see an image of the one who wipes away our wrongs.
 
Let us then go forward in imitation of the One, who like Joseph of old,
pleaded for mercy for his despisers
and despised no one.
Let us live in Christ’s love.
It is a love which ‘keeps no record of wrongs,’
as the words of 1st Corinthians, read to so many couples
beginning their marriages, reminds us.
Let us be the ones to offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
When we ourselves are in the wrong, let us ask for forgiveness,
from God and from others.
Let us not shrink from examining our own hearts.
And when there are people who refuse to live in relationship,
who will not accept forgiveness because they will not admit their part,
when we are caught in desperate circumstances
and cannot see the possibility of restoration,
let us pray to the God who can bring good from evil
and for whom all things are possible.
 
But most of all let us trust in him who will accomplish all things through us
by the power of his Holy Spirit –
who wipes away our wrongdoing
and welcomes us back into full community with him:
Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
 
Amen
 
The peace of God, that passes all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

September 24, 2012 at 10:14 am Leave a comment

Getting in the Way of Greatness

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

Pentecost 18 (Proper 23)

St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh PA

September 23, 2012

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

 

We live in a society that has a very deeply schizophrenic attitude towards children.

On the one hand,

children are to be protected.

We no longer live in a society where child labor is legal.

Every child should and must be protected from abuse of any kind.

And billions of dollars are spent each year on the education, health, and welfare of children.

 

On the other hand, from the moment they are born,

children are treated as consumers by business and targeted for advertising.

They will recognize the symbol for McDonalds

by the time they are two years old,

and know the brands of clothes and food that are sold to them

better than they know the history of their country.

A whole market has sprung up around the buying habits and attitudes of teenagers,

a demographic virtually unknown just sixty years ago,

and they are told in advance by the media in which they are immersed

what is real and what is not,

what faded clothes and prematurely jaded attitudes are ‘in’ and which are ‘out.’

They will be taught that people will pay attention to them

in proportion to what they can offer to them,

whether entertainment or work-value or intelligence.

 

While we have severe penalties for those who are caught abusing children,

they are fast initiated into a world

where explicitly violent and explicitly sexual entertainment is the norm,

and they somehow are to differentiate between what is ‘appropriate’ and what is ‘inappropriate.’

And there is of course the vast worldwide illegal traffic in children,

taking children across national borders as slaves.

These are things we don’t hear about every day.

 

Children are often treated as political footballs,

as sources of profit,

and as substitutes for the failed dreams of their legal guardians

for stardom, for accomplishment, for success.

We haven’t come so far in our treatment of children

that we can say we have listened to what Jesus says about them.

 

Of course, Jesus is not addressing society.

He is addressing his disciples.

And what he says goes beyond children.

The disciples are arguing amongst themselves

as to who is the greatest.

A childish pursuit, as opposed to an child-like pursuit,

but one in which we often engage

as a way to justify our own belonging to the group we’re part of

or even our existence on the planet.

This is of course after Jesus has told the disciples for the second time

that he is headed to his death.

One wonders at the tone-deafness of the disciples.

But of course they are no different from us.

 

From childhood on, we are taught to differentiate ourselves one from another,

to grade ourselves and others based on a certain set of criteria.

We are supposed to ‘make the grade,’ somehow,

to be above and below others.

Such an attitude inserts itself deeply into our vision of reality.

Those below are to serve those above.

Those above are the ‘haves,’ those below are the ‘have-nots.’

 

If Jesus were of this world,

he would have intervened to judge once and for all

who was the greatest among the disciples.

He would have chosen based on criteria –

who is the most religious, who has the most gifts to share,

who could do the most for the Church when he dies and rises and ascends to heaven.

Jesus is not of this world,

this world that evaluates constantly what is worthy and what is not

and who gets to be top dog and who gets to be underdog.

For his is not a mission to ‘have,’

but ‘not to have.’

 

Why does he choose to use a child as an object lesson?

Not because children are cute.

Children better be cute – it’s a survival tool.

If I had a nickel for every time Annette said to one of our children,

‘It’s a good thing you’re cute.’

It’s not because children are innocent, either.

It’s because they’re needy.

They are the neediest creatures around,

and they remind us of who we are.

 

From the moment they are born, a child is dependent.

This grates on Americans, who would prefer that children be independent

at least by the third trimester.

A child is dependent on its mother for nourishment,

upon adults for love,

upon the society for protection.

The child cannot survive without us.

A child can be given food, but if no one talks to the child,

no one interacts with the child, no one loves the child,

the child will ‘fail to thrive,’

the child will never learn to speak, to laugh, to love,

the child will die just as surely as if starved to death.

In orphanages, there are people who volunteer

simply to touch unwanted babies,

to hold them, to speak to them,

for this very fact –

that a child is hungry for this touch and this love.

It goes on from there.

 

Why is this relevant?

Because children and those like them –

the unborn, sick, the aged,

those unable to care for themselves,

those with physical and mental challenges,

those who have never outgrown some childish ways –

these get in the way of the supposed great achieving their great desires.

If people are constantly meeting the needs of others,

how can they be great?

How can they accomplish all the great things they’re destined for?

How can they have all the great things they were born to have?

To care for a have-not, a disciple of Jesus must become a have-not.

They must renounce what they can be.

in order to become what they are called to be.

 

We are called to become like our Lord,

who became a have-not for us.

He gave away all that he had for us, poor and needy as we are,

and became last of all and servant of all.

We Christians sometimes act as if Jesus’ death

was just Good Friday,

as if walking to the cross was some sort of picnic journey,

going from Galilee to Jerusalem was a pleasure tour.

We forget that Jesus had to take his resurrection on faith, just as we do.

For him, as for us, death was the only certainty and his daily companion.

And he chose to spend his life on such people as the disciples.

He chose to spend his life on such people as us.

 

The early Christians did crazy things.

They found people that the ancient world had discarded,

orphans and widows,

people who were in desperate need,

and provided for them.

They would go into the woods and the hillsides

and find the aborted children of the ancient world –

the infants who after they were born were simply left out to die

by desperate people or those who didn’t want to be bothered.

As time went on, the members of the Christian Church

founded hospitals, schools,

so that the needy would not be forgotten,

nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

They did so because they worshiped a living Lord who said,

‘Whoever welcomes such a one in my name welcomes me.’

 

We too have our role to play in this drama.

It is before you.

You need not go far to find your calling.

This is where our imagination kicks in.

For even the one who thinks he or she is the greatest

is at bottom that needy child he or she was at the beginning.

We are not so self-sufficient as we think we are.

 

The one who needs welcome to our neighborhood or fellowship,

the one who thinks he has everything,

the one who has lost a spouse or a parent,

the one who has lost a job,

the one who has hit bottom,

the one who has not heard the Gospel of Jesus

is Jesus in disguise,

is the one to whom you are sent.

You may do so because Jesus has come for you.

Jesus has died for you and lives for you

and gave you witnesses and servants to welcome you into the world and the Church

so that you might find your calling as least of all and servant of all,

to welcome others in his name.

 

Amen

September 23, 2012 at 7:48 am Leave a comment

The God Who Seeks Us

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

2:4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that theLord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

 

Today marks the beginning of our nine-month chronological journey through the Bible.

As with any journey, we begin at the beginning.

And yet, Christians are those who live from the end of the story.

God’s ending of the story is this:

we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ,

‘who died for our sins and was raised for our justification,’

we are being made holy by his Holy Spirit,

we will be perfectly holy when his kingdom is fully revealed at the end of all things.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his lectures on Genesis:

‘The church of Holy Scripture lives from the end.

Therefore it reads the whole of Holy Scripture as the book of the end,

of the new, of Christ…’

‘In the church, therefore, the story of creation must be read in a way that begins with Christ

and moves on toward him as its goal;

indeed one can read it as a book that moves toward Christ

only when one knows that Christ is the beginning, the new, the end of our own world.’1

 

The first human beings were created for the purpose of relationship with God.

God created human beings to be in communion with him.

We are part of God’s creation – adam is taken from the dust, adamah.

We are dust, but dust into which has been breathed spirit –

we may address God and be addressed by God.

We are in relationship with the rest of God’s creation.

St Francis of Assisi speaks of ‘brother sun, sister moon and our sister mother earth,’

addressing with reverence the whole creation as that marked with the stamp of God.2

 

The Bible talks about ‘creation.’

But according to a purely philosophical theory of evolution, there is no ‘creation.’

Creation implies intent and purpose,

but for the person totally committed to a theory of philosophical evolution,

our ancestors had no original purpose.

Instead, we create ourselves, based on what is best for our species’ survival and advancement.

There is no qualitative difference between us and any other species;

we simply happen to have evolved to a certain point.

The relationship between human beings and other animals,

or indeed between human beings and other human beings,

must of necessity be a competition for scarce resources.

According to this theory, we are simply another animal –

with only ourselves to thank or curse

for our ability to accomplish and destroy.

And we must create our own purpose and our own destiny.

 

But Genesis speaks a different reality,

not a reality that we create but a given reality.

The uniqueness of Genesis

is not that things happened in a certain order or time-frame,

but that humankind was put on earth for a certain purpose and with a certain destiny –

to be in relationship with God and with the creation.

God gives the human being a task,

and God speaks with the human being,

addressing him with his Word.

 

The Word speaks of the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Simply as information, the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

has no effect on the human being.

The prohibition is not the cause of the fall of the human being

until desire for that which is denied can be awakened.

That is the story of the serpent,

who engages the woman in the first theological conversation.

Before this, human beings had only spoken with God –

now, the serpent and the woman speak about God,

as if he is not present, as if God is not the subjective reality of all existence

but simply another object in the creation,

on a par with the serpent and the woman and the man.

 

The serpent casts doubt upon God’s Word,

sows mistrust between the human beings and God,

and awakens desire in the human beings –

desire to be like the serpent, who takes and does not merely receive,

desire to be like God, who apparently has more knowledge than they,

desire to be like each other in asserting their own will.

If to live by faith is to believe and to trust in the Word that God has spoken,

then to live without faith is to put the trust in the word of another or in one’s own imagination.

‘We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things;’

that is how Martin Luther explains the first commandment –

‘You shall have no other gods.’

And yet here are the man and the woman,

casting aside fear of God’s warning,

trading love of God as subjects for the desire to be like God as an equal,

and losing their trust in the promises that God has given.

 

The result?

They no longer live in ‘filial fear,’ the confident awe and respect for God

that a child has for a parent,

but live in ‘servile fear,’ the fear of a servant who has trangressed

and must now face the master’s just judgment.

‘You shall not die,’ the serpent promised,

and indeed they live, but they live knowing that they shall die,

knowing themselves under a death sentence –

and trying to wrest life from death they hide themselves from each other

and they hide from God.

 

Now it is important for us to realize that this story is not given us

as a primer on what to avoid, so that we might make a better choice than Adam and Eve.

These stories in Genesis, and the rest of the stories of the Bible,

tell us who we are, and whose we are.

‘We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves;’

these are not merely pious words, but the truth of our situation.

Sin, having entered the world, has ensnared all in its net.

The choice of Adam and Eve is not a choice for us,

but without God’s grace, it is now the destiny of every human being,

to live life under the death sentence,

to live in servile fear of just judgment of transgression,

to desire what we cannot have and seek to wrest life from the jaws of death,

to hide who we truly are from ourselves, from others, and from God.

This state of being, this constantly needing to hide, is our state of being as well.

 

This is true in a particularly nefarious way for the young generation,

blessed and cursed at the same time with the technological capability

to extend our words and images worldwide.

In our world, drenched with social media,

we always want to put our best face forward to the world –

on Facebook, on Twitter, on our blogs.

We have to hold the right opinions, the right attitudes,

we have to be noticed, to be ‘liked.’

And yet the same technology that allows us to put our best face forward

is technology that allows us to control what image we present to the world.

‘Virtual reality’ is just that; virtually real: we are constantly hiding our true selves

and creating a public persona which is designed to win us the coveted ‘thumbs-up.’

In this world, to go unnoticed is simply not to exist.

So people become what they are not in order to be.

Is this not ‘living toward death?’

 

Of course, this is nothing new.

One thinks of the fictional character Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman,

hiding his true lonely, angry, bitter, lost self

behind self-righteous bluster, platitudes, wishful thinking, and outright lies.

One thinks of the real-life tragedy of Jerry Sandusky,

who created himself as a hero and a savior

while preying upon those he was supposed to be helping,

hiding his needy, desiring self behind the self-sufficient, serving self.

One thinks of countless ways ordinary people hide big and little truth,

even from themselves.

An evolutionary scientist might say we hide the truth because it helps us to survive,

to live with ourselves.

On that score that Bible and the evolutionary scientist are not so far apart;

we hide because to be found and and to be found out is to die.

 

And yet God seeks us.

The last verse we are given today seems to be anticlimactic,

but it speaks to our greatest fear

and our greatest hope.

God seeks us out and we are moved to hide,

but after the human beings hide, God calls out to them,

because God created us for relationship and God is satisfied with nothing but.

God seeks us out and we cannot hide from him,

no subterfuge or camouflage can keep us from his gaze.

Our only hope is that he seeks us out not as enemies to be annihilated

but as lost children to be rescued.

 

‘The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost,’

Jesus says after finding Zacchaeus hiding in the tree,

and calling him into the light (Luke 19:1-10).

This same Jesus tells us to ask his Father with confidence to ‘forgive us our debts,

as we forgive those who are indebted to us.’

As Adam and Eve were called out of hiding, they were called back to trust –

trust that though everything had changed, nothing had changed,

that God was still for them,

that he would still work with them,

that they were still made for relationship,

for community with God, with the creation, and with each other.

 

1Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, 23.

2Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/wosf/wosf22.htm

September 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm Leave a comment

The Power and Wisdom of God

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

Holy Cross Sunday (transferred from Sept. 14)

Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

St Stephen Lutheran Church

9 September 2012

 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

Poor St Paul!

Of course, we know the story –

This guy, who used to be named Saul,

thought Christians were a threat to true religion and had to be stopped.

At the stoning of Stephen, for whom our little parish church is named,

those who murdered Stephen laid their coats at his feet.

All this was before the risen Jesus had a little chit-chat with him on the road to Damascus.

From then on, you couldn’t get Paul to stop talking about Jesus.

He would talk to Jews.

He would talk to Gentiles.

He would go from city to city in the Roman Empire,

making tents during the weekdays and preaching at night and in the synagogues.

Whenever he’d get a few people to listen to him,

they’d form a group, he’d teach them everything he knew about Christ,

and then he’d be off to wherever God was calling him next.

It’s not the settled life to which most of us aspire.

Even we pastors prefer a little bit more permanence.

 

The problem was that once Paul had left,

the people would naturally start looking for another leader.

Some groups would get a guy who thought that what Paul said was fine,

he just left out the part about the Gentile males becoming circumcised

and observing the Torah, the law of Moses.

Some groups would get a guy who thought that what Paul said was fine,

he just left out the part about Jesus coming to teach people

how to obtain secret, spiritual, divine wisdom and knowledge.

And so Paul had to write back to these congregations he had founded,

reminding them in no uncertain terms that, no, he had not left anything out.

Had the Spirit not come upon them when he preached Christ crucified for them?

Had they not been baptized in the name of Christ,

and not in the name of Paul, or Peter, or anyone else?

Wasn’t Jesus enough for them anymore?

 

In Corinth, a group of wisdom-preachers had followed Paul,

trumpeting their superior spiritual knowledge.

According to them, Paul’s message about the cross was foolish.

But ‘foolish’ really doesn’t capture what these people had to say.

In Greek, the word that is used is moria,

from which we get our word ‘moron.’

You see, said these wisdom-preachers,

Paul is an earnest enough guy,

but he’s a little bit of a moron,

going on and on about the cross.

God’s a little bit more sophisticated than that.

We will tell you what’s really going on, what God has planned for you.

 

Now Paul is a pretty smart guy.

He learned at the feet of Gamaliel,

one of the top rabbis around,

and he was a rising star

before God decided there were more important things for him to be doing.

But according to these people, Paul is a moron.

He’s not going to take this lying down.

But it’s not because his reputation’s at stake –

what God has done is at stake.

 

The message about the cross, writes Paul, is indeed moronic –

to those who are perishing, that is.

To us who are being saved, it is dynamite –

dunamis Theou, the power of God.

 

A religion that seeks after a special, secret knowledge to elevate the self

will necessarily find the message that God gave himself on the cross for all people

to be a stumbling block, a scandal, something that must be moved past

in order for religion to really work.

The cross puts all people on the same level before God.

The cross puts to death every human striving, every secret wisdom,

every attempt of the human to elevate themselves to a spiritual superiority.

 

The cross tells it how it is with us –

this is what we do to each other and to God.

It also tells us how it is with God.

this is what God does for us, what he endures for us, how much he loves us –

here, on the cross, is the God in whom we may put our trust.

This is why this cross is called ‘holy’ –

on the cross, God himself in Jesus Christ bears the weight of our folly and our pride.

He takes what is ours and gives us what is his.

 

Now one might wonder what this has to do with our world.

Ever since Christ walked the earth,

the cross has been under attack,

because it is the enemy’s destruction.

It is under attack because it spells doom to the self.

And that is what the enemy wants us to focus on, ourselves.

 

Last night, the Saturday service read from chapters two and three of Genesis.

We heard how God created humankind for relationship with him,

and how the serpent awakened desire in Adam and Eve.

Desire to be God’s equal rather than his creation.

Desire to ‘make something of themselves,’

desire to be wise in the eyes of the serpent and of each other.

Down to today and tomorrow,

the hallmarks of a religion that is about the self

are seeking after miraculous signs to prove God’s faithfulness

and the desire for a wisdom that will elevate us above others to God’s presence.

 

This religion can be as outlandish as Scientology,

which prescribes a technological cleansing of the evil spirits

so that one can finally be at peace with oneself and be oneself,

ascending the ladder to true wisdom.

Of course, this technological cleansing costs a fortune,

and only the very-rich among the Hollywood set can attain to it.

Which only makes it more desirable.

 

Or this religion can live hidden as a parasite upon Christianity itself,

as a religion that would go beyond the cross.

It gathers the faithful in churches that are built upon the cross

and tells those faithful that St Paul was kind of a moron.

That in order to be truly spiritual

we must cast aside the dusty old religion of the past.

That the most important thing is not what Jesus did for you

but what you can do for Jesus.

Some good news!

 

Some people promise that if you just believe (and send money)

God will show you great signs

and give you your best life now.

This year is going to be the year!

Many of the big churches that bring in thousands of people a Sunday

are built without the cross – it is too depressing.

We want to make people feel good when they come to church, it is said,

We don’t want them to feel like they’ve been to church at all.

Truly, that’s what some people have said.

 

And then there is the constant drumbeat that the young people hear.

It is what your children and my children will hear non-stop from their teachers

and from actors and from musicians and from comedians

and from anyone who doesn’t want to look like a moron

from the time they enter high school through college and beyond.

They will be told and shown, in ways spoken and unspoken,

that anyone who says anything definitive about God is a moron.

You cannot know anything for sure about God, if there is a God.

Sin is not the problem, blind faith is the problem.

Intolerance and religion is the cause of all the war and discrimination in history.

If you insist that God has more in mind for us than to just be ourselves

and become what we want to be

then you are narrow-minded, a hypocrite, someone to be attacked and vilified.

You’re kind of a moron.

 

To this we cannot and must not say anything but,

“We preach Christ crucified!”

It is a stumbling block to those who demand God prove himself to us.

It is moronic to those who believe that true religion, or a true philosophy,

demands an elevation above the common herd.

To us who are being saved,

it is the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

 

By grace this will continue to be

the message we heed and the message we proclaim

in this vain world that God so loves.

For God indeed does love this vain world.

He created us for relationship with him,

for communion with him.

And when we rebelled against him,

he loved us so much that he gave us himself;

the Son was lifted high upon the cross

so that we could indeed look upon him and live at peace with God.

This is true holiness, true wisdom, the sign of God’s glory and power.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

September 9, 2012 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Of Grumbling and Grace

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS
Proper 14 (Pentecost 11) Year B
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
12 August 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The word ‘complain’ in our Gospel today
can also be translated as ‘grumble.’
I like that translation a lot better.
That’s an onomatopaeia,
a word that sounds like what it’s trying to describe.
Grumble – you can almost hear the rumbling noise a group of grumblers make
when they hear something they don’t like.
‘Murmur’ is another onomatopaeia and might be another way to translate that word.
Complain, murmur, grumble –
it is never a good thing when you hear that word in Scripture.
Last week we heard about the Israelites grumbling in the desert
about the lack of meat in the desert –
Apparently it was not enough for God to bring them out of slavery in Egypt –
God had to become a short-order cook as well.
Jesus’ opponents often murmur or grumble against him
when he does something that defies their expectation of him.
And here Jesus’ opponents grumble about his saying,
‘I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven.’

One would think that after seeing what they had seen,
thousands of people fed in the wilderness,
they might be a little bit more likely to take Jesus’ words at face value.
But seeing a miracle very rarely creates faith.
Even in the cases where a seemingly miraculous occurrence sparks a person’s faith,
the well of unexplainable occurrences quickly runs dry,
because a faith that sails on the sea on the miraculous
must quickly run aground on the shoals of cold, hard reality.
A hunger goes unsatiated,
an evil spirit goes unexorcised,
a child dies and stays dead,
and faith must be based upon more than what can be seen with the eyes
or understood with the mind.

The story of Elijah is instructive in this regard.
In the first lesson, set hundreds of years before Jesus’ time,
the prophet Elijah accomplishes a great victory over the prophets of Ba’al,
a rival god to the God of Israel.
However, in doing so, he runs afoul of Queen Jezebel,
who is a worshiper of Ba’al,
who threatens to do to him what he did to her god’s prophets.
When we meet him, in the middle of this story, Elijah is on the run for his life.
Perhaps (and this is only a perhaps)
Elijah thought that his great victory, his miraculous victory,
would convert the entire people of Israel,
King Ahab would stop listening to the wife that did not worship the true God,
and finally pure religion would be restored.
But instead his victory seemingly has served only to stir the ire of the Queen,
and his support melts away like the morning dew.
Despondent, he asks God, the God who has brought him this far,
the God who made the water-soaked altar burst into flame,
to take away his life.
His faith, based upon what can be seen, runs aground
upon the shoals of the hard, cold reality of sin, death, and evil.
And yet God is not done with him.
God draws him, God calls him, God sustains him on a journey to God’s holy mountain,
where he will encounter God and receive a new mission.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus says, ‘I am the bread that comes down from heaven,’
and Jesus’ opponents’ faith runs aground on the stone-cold shores of reality.
They respond in a literal fashion –
‘We know this person’s parents, we understand who this person is,
and he cannot be who he says he is.’
Sounds an awful lot like what we heard earlier this summer,
about Jesus’ reception in Nazareth.
There he could do no miracles because of their unbelief.
Here their limited understanding of reality
becomes the stumbling block to an understanding of who Jesus is.

This question, ‘Who is Jesus?’
is the question throughout the sixth chapter of John,
indeed throughout the Gospel of John and the other Gospels.
Is he the son of Mary and Joseph,
who has brothers and sisters,
and lived and died long ago,
or is he that and more;
the one who came from God his Father
to show us God his Father?
No miraculous sign will convince us one way or the other;
even if thousands today were to be fed with a few loaves and fishes,
a hundred different interpretations would instantly arise,
and we’d soon get tired of loaves and fishes anyhow
and begin to grumble,
and ask Jesus to prove himself to us yet again.
After all, imagine what anyone who could do such things with loaves and fishes
might be able to provide in the way of a great cut of beef and good wine.
And why would he hold out on us, if that’s what we really really wanted?

No, God the Father himself must lead us to this understanding of Jesus,
that he is living water, light of the world, and bread of life.
If this seems to be a cop-out,
that there is no certain proof of Jesus’ divinity and meaning for our lives,
we must take into account our predilection to grumble.
If Elijah would or could not accept the sign of the fire from heaven,
if Jesus’ contemporaries would or could not accept the sign of the bread that fed multitudes,
what sign would we accept?
Jesus gives us the one great sign,
his flesh given on the cross for our sake,
and in the resurrection gives us a glimpse of our future,
when he will raise us to fully share his divine life.

Until then, we live as those being drawn, being called, by the Father,
who speaks to us in his Word,
through his Son calling us to believe in Him,
the One who we cannot see but whom Jesus sees.
He calls us to know the Son who knows him,
through him receiving the ability to believe.
For if seeing a miracle rarely creates faith,
being given faith and trust brings with it the ability to see miracles,
the ability to see on the horizon the day when all evil must give way
to the God who gives himself as bread from heaven
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

August 13, 2012 at 9:24 am Leave a comment

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