Learning to Laugh from Luther

This little essay first appeared as the 2nd place essay in the 2016 Gritsch Writing Contest: http://www.ericwgritsch.org/archives/archive_2016_essay_2nd_place

In a sense, crisis consumes every moment in the life of those who belong to the Christian church.  Between Jesus Christ’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, our Lord continually calls us and we must respond.  But, we also live within the World and within history, and so, different moments in history present unique opportunities for us as church people to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  As church demographics dance and politics continue to divide, we who reside in the United States find ourselves at a crisis point.  And while many potential points lie before us, all of the paths involve the same basic decision: will we take ourselves seriously or will we live with humor?

     The path of taking ourselves seriously and of getting down to the hard work of living out the gospel is a well-trod path.  It is a path that church people in the United States have trod for much of our history.  On this path, we must hear the words of the Gospel and renounce!  We must discard our possessions, work for our neighbor and bring about the kingdom of God.  When we take ourselves seriously, we work for our neighbor to “help and befriend him in every bodily need”1  and to “help him improve and protect his property and business.”2  This well-trod path of the American church is a path of great results. It is the path of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching on Washington, Desmond Tutu resisting Apartheid.  However, it is also a dangerous path.  It is a dangerous path because taking ourselves seriously can quickly become taking ourselves too seriously.  If we walk the well-trod path without a keen knowledge of our pride and sin, we will walk straight past the narrow gate.  Distracted by our burdens, we may forget why we walk and for whom we walk.

          Path number two, on the other hand, is a path that few in the United States have dared to wander down, because it is not a serious, hard-working path. Path number two is the path of humor and irony. It is a path that grabs hold of “the biblical sense of life as a mean meantime before the Last Day.”Even more, it Is a path that realizes that “a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”If we church people wander down this path, we will, perhaps for the first time, be able to look at the works of our hands and laugh. We will laugh because we realize that all of our hard work, all of our striving has been at cross-purposes both with God and with ourselves. We will laugh because we will realize how ridiculous it is that Jesus Christ saved us miserable sinners. We will laugh because we will realize that when we thought we were striding triumphantly forward, we were hopping the wrong way with our shoes tied together.  The humorous path is the path of the church people who understand the irony that when the church thinks it is doing its best work, it often forgets its Lord.

     The humorous path is a path of humility, of joy, but it’s also a frightening path. It’s a frightening path because when you walk on it, you look at yourself and realize that your life and work does not look holy. You realize that your life and your work looks comical and normal, and you worry that God will not accept it. 

However,  as faithful Christians on this path, we can “smile about adversaries”And “laugh at them because the anticipated joy of a future without sin, evil, and Death outweighs all earthly anxiety.”5  In short, the paths that stand before the Churches are the paths that stand before each individual Christian.  As church people wandering in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live our days in tension. It is the tension of walking in the light of the cross and in the humor of the human condition.  Above all, it is the freedom of walking as a redeemed child of God.5


Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”, on Book Of Concord: The Confessions Of The Lutheran Church accessed 10/9/2016
Ibid
3 Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit Of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress 2006), 77.
4 Martin Luther, Lectures On Galatians 1535: Chapters 1-4 (Saint Louis:: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 232.
 5 Gritsch, 77.

The Parable of the Fisheries Manager

There was once a young fisheries manager in charge of a pristine trout stream high in the Sierra Nevada. Well, almost pristine. You see, the stream, though pretty in appearance, contained nothing but stunted, invasive brook trout. And so, the fishery manager decided to improve things. He obtained a batch of native California golden trout and dumped them in the stream. Later in the year, when he surveyed the fish population, not a single golden trout remained. The stunted brook trout had out-competed and starved them all to death. He tried again, this time with more fish, planted in multiple locations. Again, the stunted brook trout ate them out of house and home. He tried a third time. This time, he embarked on a comprehensive program of habitat improvement beforehand and selected the finest golden trout he could find. But once again, the brook trout out-competed them and the golden trout didn’t survive.

Camping 070

At his wit’s end, he called the senior fisheries manager from two drainages over. “You silly goose,” said the senior fisheries manager. “You forgot to kill the stunted brook trout first. It’s rule number one of good preaching.”

“Good preaching, sir?” the young fisheries manager replied.

“Did I say preaching? Excuse me, I meant good native trout restoration. Now go get some rotenone and remove the idolatrous misconceptions of those stunted brook trout.”

The young fisheries manager decided not to question the idolatry of brook trout and went out to do as he was told. Let the one who has ears to hear, listen! The End.

A Gonzo Preaching Mini-Manifesto

During my time as an undergraduate at St. Olaf College, while I struggled to figure out Lutheran preaching, I had a friend refer to Law/Gospel sermons as “Gonzo Preaching.” Now that I am older and more wise to the ways of the world, I realize that he was probably making a reference to Hunter S. Thompson and his concept of subjective, gonzo journalism. At the time, though, I thought it was reference to Gonzo, the Muppet.

Gonzo-and-camilla-the-chicken2

Though I confess that Gonzo confuses me (what is he? a weevil?), I find him an apt patron saint for Law/Gospel preaching. What you may ask, could a species-confused Muppet have to do with Christian preaching?

Well, he’s ridiculous. And so is Law/Gospel preaching. It is not sensible; as St. Paul once put it, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles. To paraphrase the late Gil Scott Heron, “Gonzo preaching does not go better with coke. Gonzo preaching does not fight the germs that cause bad breath.” In a world obsessed with action, Gonzo preaching maintains that God in Jesus Christ does all the work.

Against the trumpet calling all culture and social justice warriors to battle, Gonzo preaching says hang on a moment. Within even the most noble goal can lie the snare of self-justification. God’s work, our hands and our work, our hands resemble one another too closely for this preacher’s comfort. Rather, the mantra of the Gonzo preacher is “Christ’s work, Christ’s nail scarred hands, Christ’s body and blood for you.”

He’s an peculiar mascot, this blue Muppet. But he’s a fitting mascot for the peculiar job to which God has called his preachers.

 

The Most Neglected Verse

This started as last week’s Friday Facts, but then got to the point where an independent treatment seemed more fitting.

Now one could argue that the most neglected verse in the Bible lies somewhere midway through Chronicles or at the beginning of Jude, but for my money, those verses fall into the “undiscovered” category. To be neglected, a verse needs to be obviously located. And so, my vote for most neglected verse falls at the end of John 3. In fact, it comes two verses after perhaps the most cited verse in Bible, John 3.16. The verse I have in mind is John 3.18: But then again, its siblings 3.19, 3.20, and 3.21 probably have just as much right to the title. And I’d hate to contribute to the problem by leaving them out. So perhaps I’ll revise and say this: John 3.18-21 are the most neglected verses in the entire Bible, and since they’re so neglected, I’ll cite them here for reference:

18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Then again, as I think about it, perhaps neglected isn’t the right word. As a point of fact, the thought for this post sprang to mind at the curious decision of the Revised Common Lectionary to assign John 3.1-17 as the gospel for the second Sunday in Lent. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in of itself is not a strange choice. The strange choice comes in cutting off Jesus’ sermon four verses early. Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that Jesus hadn’t yet finished when he said “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Once the truncated nature of the selection comes to light, the question becomes, why? While, I have no special revelation as to the inner workings of the RCL committee, my guess is that the reason isn’t the 18 verse cap that they’ve put on Gospel readings. At face value, the clipping of the text comes at too theologically rich a point to assume it came about arbitrarily.

By removing the final four verses of Jesus’ sermon, the RCL removes all references in the text to judgement and to darkness of the world. The framers of the RCL have “improved” Jesus’ sermon by making sure that it ends on an upbeat note, on a verse that everyone knows and loves.

The irony of their choice is that as it stands, the text for the second Sunday in Lent is a perfect example of John 3.18: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” To “love darkness” and to hate the light is to prefer not to see human weakness and sin. To hate the light is to refuse to see the monstrosity that is unbelief. To hate the light is to interrupt Jesus before he can speak the truth about you!

We need John 3.18. We need John 3.18 because refusing to hear it is refusing to acknowledge the evil and the terror of this world. If we cannot face up to the terrors that we cause for one another, we are like Nicodemus, who could not understand earthly things, and like Nicodemus, we will never understand heavenly things.

We need John 3.18 because it shines the light on us and reveals the absurdity of the human situation. To be an unbelieving human is as absurd as to be a light hidden under a basket or unsalty salt. And as we read earlier this year in Matthew, by all rights, unsalty people should simply be thrown out on the path to be trampled upon. Instead, God so loved the world that He sent His only son to save those unsalty, unbelieving absurdities that we call human beings.

We live in a topsy-turvy world, a world where unbelief seems more natural than belief, a world full of lamps hidden under bushel baskets, and so we need these four neglected verses. We need them because we need the light that shows our weaknesses, the light that shows our flaws, the light that shows that our only hope lies in hearing the words of a crucified Messiah. Sometimes those words are not what we want to hear. But they are always what we need.

 

 

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – First Sunday in Lent

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 4.1

Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the spirit in order to be tempted by the devil.

Today’s reading offers a good opportunity to talk about the difference between a concordance and a synoptic word study.

A concordance word study, as I’ve done several times in Paul’s epistles (see here or here), is a study that takes a particular word and looks at its use over a body of text. That body can be as small as a single book, e.g. studying the use of the word υδωρ [water] in the gospel of John. Or it can be slightly larger, e.g. studying the use of the word πιστις [faith] in the epistles of Paul. Or it can extend to an entire testament, or with a little translational work, it could encompass the entire Bible. The goal of a concordance study is to examine how a word is used over a variety of different circumstances in order to draw out its meaning.

On the other hand, a synoptic study does the opposite. Rather than looking for parallels or contradictions in usage of a particular word, a synoptic study looks at the different ways in which different authors talk about the same story. Because a synoptic study requires authors to report on the same story, the opportunity to conduct them is much more limited than for concordance studies. In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles provide one such opportunity. In the New Testament, the first three gospels provide the same opportunity, and because of that have earned the collective title of Synoptics.

But how exactly does a Synoptic study work? Matthew 4.1 provides a good example. The Greek word πειρασθῆναι, often translated “tempted,” can also mean “tested” or “tried.” And in the context of Jesus’ contest with the devil, either seems appropriate. But a synoptic study looking at the parallel passage in Mark helps to weight the translation of Matthew towards “tempted.”

Looking at the parallel passage, we see that Mark describes Jesus as being ἐκβαλλει [thrown out] into the wilderness, a word often associated in Mark with demonic exorcism. Mark’s uses of the word sets up Jesus’ encounter with the devil as a contest like the other exorcisms, and so translators are justified in rendering πειραζόμενος as tested. However, in Matthew, the word is not ἐκβαλλει. It is ἀνήχθη, a much more sedate verb choice. It means to “to lead,” and the thus sets up a less confrontational, but perhaps more tempting encounter between Jesus and the devil. Thus, by comparing the two passages, we can mark that Matthew sees the event in a different light than his fellow evangelist, and we can choose “tempt” as our translation for πειρασθῆναι.

Building the Perfect Pastor: Thoughts from Capon III

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Though it may come as a surprise to some who know me, the two authors that have made the greatest contribution to my identity as a pastor are not, denomination-wise, Lutherans. They are an Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, and a Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson. In this new (infrequently) recurring feature, I will lay out some of the insights that I’ve learned from the two of them, as I endeavor to build the perfect pastor, or at least the perfect job description. You can find the first two installments here and here.

When last we visited the topic of the role of the pastor, we heard about Capon’s first two criteria: pastors are to be faithful and wise. Last, and certainly not least, said pastors must also be stewards. And what does it mean to be a steward? It means that the pastor is in charge of making sure that everybody gets fed their square meal of the gospel.

Instead of calling for celebrity chefs, Jesus sets his stewards up to be “faithful household cooks,” to “provide [the rest of the servants] with food at the proper time.” Pastors are called to serve their congregations the meat, potatoes, and green leafy vegetables of the Law and the Gospel. The world will provide your congregation with all of the sugary indulgences of ego and the cheap liquor of idolatry that they can stomach. As a preacher, you need to make sure that they eat healthy at least once a week.

And so, when you prepare your sermons, throw away the piping bag full of icing. Stash the hip chili sauce of moral exhortation (Sriracha, I’m looking at you). Don’t worry about prepping an appetizer plate full of light and airy jokes. It’s like being an army cook. Get them fed. Fed on the hearty food of the Law and the Gospel. Fed on the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Fed so that they can go out into the world and not faint for lack of nutritional value.

For those interested in reading Capon’s thoughts in their original context, you can find them in: Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002, 243-245.

Next time: Thoughts from Eugene Peterson that have nothing to do with the Message.

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

1 Corinthians 3.18-20

18 Let no one cheat himself. If anyone among you seems to be full of worldly wisdom, let them become a fool, in order that they may become truly wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolish to God. For it is written “He catches the wise in their craftiness” 20 and again “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are useless.”

If you read through the letters of Paul, you’ll find that Paul loves contrasts. He loves to pit things against each other in order to illustrate his point. For those of us who are Lutheran, it’s important to know that Martin Luther plucked our favorite contrasts (Law/Gospel, saint/sinner, etc.) straight out of Paul’s epistles. But one contrast that doesn’t get as much airtime, but is no less important for Paul is wisdom and foolishness. You see, Paul lived in an ancient world that was obsessed with wisdom. Religious wisdom, ethical wisdom, scientific wisdom, you name it, they were interested in learning as much as they could. Paul himself was no slouch, quoting Greek poets in his letters and arguing the finer points of the Law in good Rabbinic style. But, just as Paul builds up the Law only to show its futility, he proclaims that all of the wisdom he had accumulated was foolishness in the eyes of God. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”

At the heart of Paul’s contrast is the knowledge that human wisdom is nothing but another leg in our self-salvation project. Through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Paul understands that more than any failure, it is our triumphs: our wisdom, our religiosity, or our moral good behavior that stand between us and our Lord. Before the crucified Lord of glory, all of our wisdom becomes foolishness. And the foolishness of a God who died and rose again from the grave becomes a wisdom which passes all understanding. Because he bears the yoke of Jesus Christ, Paul lives in a topsy-turvy world. A world where saints are sinners, and sinners are saints. A world where wisdom is foolishness, and foolishness is wisdom. A world where God loves sinners and died to saved them.