An Open Letter to All Who Took Garrison Keillor’s Op-Ed Seriously

Some of you may have read Garrison Keillor’s recent Washington Post Op-Ed on his search for a new religion in the aftermath of the election. If not, you can find it here.  The Op-Ed is meant humorously, hence his arrival at “Confusionism” as his religion of choice, but that said, it touches on a sentiment that many have expressed post election and that I feels need to be addressed.

To Whom it May Concern,

Let it be said that I actually like Garrison Keillor. Over the years, I’ve found his humor to be a) funny and b) sensitive to the absurdity of being a Scandinavian-American. But, in his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Times, he propped up a view of the Christian church that though a) constantly recurring and b) typically American, needs to be addressed.

Just about 1500 years ago, in North Africa, Christians did bad things. Cowardly things. Under pressure from the Roman government, they did not stand up for themselves or others, instead handing over their Bibles and hoping that the government would be nice to them. Among these Christians were even bishops and priests. In righteous indignation, a man named Donatus ascended to the office of bishop and declared that confessions, baptisms, and communion administered by those traitorous priests were invalid. For his trouble, Donatus got a heresy named after him. He was opposed, you see, by another bishop from the town of Hippo, a man by the name of Augustine. Augustine’s position, was simply this: the sacraments are an act of God, not the people who perform them. In the end, Augustine won out, and Donatus got Donatism named after him.

Despite the acceptance of Augustine’s position as orthodoxy, Donatism has not gone away. In fact, I would argure that it’s the most prevalent heresy in the modern United States; it’s just changed its outward garb. Within the Catholic-sacramental system in North Africa in the 4th century, the issue was whether unholy priests could administer holy sacraments. In the Arminian-moralist system in the United States in the 21st century, the issue is whether unholy people can make up a holy church.

In the United States, we are obsessed with good people and likewise we are horrified when the people who sit in our church pews don’t act in the way that we consider upright and holy. To paraphrase Eugene Peterson, we are shocked to learn that not only are congregations full of sinners, but they generally have pastors for sinners, too. And yet, despite the fact that this should be plainly clear to us, whenever congregations show off their sinfulness, we run out looking for a new church or even a new religion.

But Augustine’s point remains the same and remains just as valid today as 1600 years ago. The preaching and the sacraments that constitute the Christian church are an act of God, and they do not require holy people to perform them. In fact, if they required holy people, there would be no church. It was this conviction that caused the framers of the Augsburg Confession to declare in Article 7 that the church is found wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. To put it in another way, the people who come into a church on Sunday (or Saturday or Tuesday) do not constitute the church. God’s action through the preached Word and Jesus Christ’s promise to be present in the bread and the wine constitute the church.

And this is important because even when Christians seem to be behaving, even when Christians are voting for the right candidate and being nice to each other, congregations are still full of sinners and they still have sinners for pastors. Sometimes the ways in which we sin are more obvious than others, but they are never absent. Christian churches are not the place where good people get together to do good things for others. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to save the lost, and so until he comes again in glory, churches will be full of nothing but wretched sinners. Selfish sinners, angry sinners, confused sinners, nothing but sinners. For goodness sake, Peter, the rock on whom Christ would be build his church, the rock against whom the gates of Hell would not prevail, that same Peter was a bumbling fool who cut off a man’s ear with a sword, made shameful excuses for not eating with people, and denied his Lord three times. Dearly beloved, if Peter himself was a sinner and a fool, you and I have no chance.

And so, if you walk into church on Sunday, and you suddenly realize that your church is full of loathsome sinners, don’t start shopping for a new one. Remember, he was called Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, not friend of nice people. And though I probably don’t know you (and if I do know you, I can say this with absolute confidence), I know you’re in the right place. Because you, too, are a sinner. And so, you go to church, not to rub shoulders with other good people, but to be convicted of sin, to hear words of forgiveness, and to be fed with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s a nonsensical deal, I know, but we’d all be lost without it.

Sincerely,

Kristofer Coffman

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – The Third 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. 

Matthew 4.12-23

12 Having heard that John was arrested, he went up to Galilee. 13 And leaving behind Nazareth, he settled by the sea in Capernaum, in the region of Zebulon and Naphtali 14 in order to fulfill the saying of Isaiah, the prophet 15 “Land of Zebulon and land of Naphtali, way by the sea, on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 16 The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light and light shines on those who sit in a dark land of death.”

17 From then, Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven draws near!”

18 Walking along the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon the one called Peter and Andrew, his brother, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 20 And, leaving behind their nets, they immediately followed him. 21 Going forth from there, he saw two other brothers, Jacob the son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. And he called them. 22 And, leaving behind the boat and their father, they immediately followed him.

23 And he wandered in the countryside of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing all disease and all sickness among the people.

Rather than present the text all in one block, I’ve chosen to divide it up today, in order to illustrate an important principle of exegesis. Namely, that the first task of interpreting a lectionary text is to figure out whether you agree with the way that the editors have cut up the text. In this case, I think that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have lumped together four separate stories. From top to bottom, they’ve lumped 1) Jesus’ move to Capernaum, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2) the beginning of Jesus’ preaching and his first public sermon 3) the calling of Jesus’ first disciples, four fishermen 4) the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Get four other students of the New Testament in the room and they’ll give you four other ways of dividing this text. All this is to point out that it’s important to remember that lectionary selections, titles of sections, even chapter and verse numbers are not Holy Writ. It’s good to be cognizant that organization of a text is itself an act of interpretation. Not only that, but I’ve found that thinking about the organization of the text is a helpful way to focus my own sermon preparation.

For example, in organizing the text as I’ve done, I’ve noticed something: leaving aside the last clause of verse 23 (which in my opinion properly belongs with verse 24 and 25), Matthew sets up the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as involving two things: moving and speaking: Jesus goes up to Galilee, leaves behind Nazareth, settles in Capernaum, walks by the seashore, and walks further by the seashore. When he’s not walking, Jesus preaches, talks, and calls. And it’s in the walking and the talking that the church begins. Jesus calls the first four disciples before he ever does a miracle. He selects the rocks that he builds his church on before he even the sermon on the mount. The disciples who carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth follow him when all that he’s said is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven draws near” and “Follow me.” And if you plaster verse 23 on to the end of this section, you might miss that.

 

 

Who Makes the First Move? Hallesby on John 4

Though it’s been a while since my last effort, I try, every now and then, to feature translations from the Scandinavians languages here on Trout and Cast Iron. Today’s comes from one of my favorites, Ole Hallesby. 

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If you recognized God’s gift and if you knew who it is that says to you: Give me a drink!, then you would have prayed to him, and he would have given you living water.  – John 4.10

This is how Jesus saves us all:

He begins, not us. He seeks us out and he begins the conversation with us. We have not desired any conversation with him and we certainly seek to twist ourselves out of it, just as the woman at the well did. But he won’t let us slip out.

He talks with us in the silence of the night. He talks with us in church, although we did not go there to meet Jesus. And it is our salvation that Jesus tells us about, and he doesn’t ask our permission to bring it up.

But, there are some who won’t listen to Jesus. They twist themselves out, just as the woman at the well did in the beginning. Is there anyone in our little circle today who’s acted in the same way? Jesus has a little word for you, before we end our little devotion today: If you recognized God’s gift and if you knew who it is that says to you: Give me a drink!, then you would have prayed to him, and he would have given you living water.

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 23.

 

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – The Second 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 1.1-9

1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God and Sosthenes, his brother [in Christ] 2 to the church of God, the one in Corinth, to the ones sanctified by Jesus, to the ones called holy, with everyone who calls upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, in all places, both there and here among us. 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always concerning you, on account of God’s grace given to you in Christ Jesus 5 because in him you have grown rich in everything, in every word and all knowledge. 6 Thus, the witness of Christ in confirmed in you, 7 so that you do not lack any gift , having received the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who also sustains you, without fault, until the end, the day of our Lord Jesus. 9 God, through whom you were called into the community of His son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, is faithful.

We have here the greeting from another ancient letter, and it resembles the greeting from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which I reflected upon a few weeks ago. Paul employs a similar vocabulary to describe himself and the church at Corinth as in Romans 1.1-7, and if you’re interested in either his word choice or the genre of ancient letters, I’d refer you back to that post, which you can find here.

In dealing with the Corinthians, I’d like to take a little time to talk about Paul’s greeting in context of his entire first letter. Paul paints the Corinthians in glowing terms. According to him, they are “sanctified by Jesus,” “holy,” “rich in everything,” “without fault,” etc. If the letter ended here, you’d think that the Corinthians have the whole church thing figured out. Taken in isolation, you might even think that Paul’s praise indicates that the Corinthians present the perfect model for modern Christians to emulate.

Then comes the rest of the letter. According to Paul, among other things, the people of the Corinthian church are split by factions (1.10-11), “filled with self importance” (4.18), sexually immoral (5.1), suing each other in court (6.1), and defrauding each other (6.8).  Paul even goes so far as to say that the Corinthians’ church service “do more harm than good” (11.17)! So, what gives? How can Paul open his letter with glowing tones and then go on to list the manifest faults of the Corinthians? I believe that this contrast presents a perfect opportunity to talk about Forensic versus Transformative Justification. To vastly oversimplify: in the transformative view, justification changes a person’s inner being. Once that being has been changed, the person then goes on to do good things. In the forensic view, justification happens by declaration. God declares the sinner to be righteous, without any change in their essential being.

It is quite obvious from this passage, that the Corinthians have not been transformed much at all by the gospel of Jesus Christ. They continue to squabble, cheat, and sin. And yet, Paul is confident that God has called them “holy.” To use Martin Luther’s terminology, we have here an example of people who are simul iustus et peccator. Justified by God’s word, sinners by their own action. In other words, it will take something other than the Corinthians good behavior to bring them “without fault” to the last day.

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – The Baptism of our Lord

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. 

Acts 10.34-43

34 And having opened his mouth, Peter said, “Truly, I realize that God is not someone who shows partiality, 35 but in all nations, the one who fears Him and does righteousness is acceptable to Him. 36 This is the word that He sent to the children of Israel, proclaiming peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know the things that happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee with baptism that John proclaimed, 38 when God anointed Jesus from Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, who went throughout the land, doing good works and healing everyone who was dominated by the devil, because God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of everything which he did in the Judean countryside and Jerusalem, he, whom they murdered, having him hung on a cross. 40 This man, God raised on the third day and allowed him to become visible, 41 not to all people, but to the witnesses who were hand-picked by God, us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to proclaim to the people and to witness that he is the one who God appointed to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets witness to this man, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

In the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, before the spotlight turns to Paul, Peter preaches a handful of sermons, of which this is the next to last. This particular sermon, preached by Peter to the household of Cornelius, contains a number of potential starting points. For example, the Apostles Creed echoes several verses in Peter’s sermon. Peter’s use of the word “witness,” which in Greek is the same word as “martyr,” also deserves further study. But tonight, the most interest for me lies the word at the end of verse 39. In describing the Jesus’ death, Peter reminds Cornelius’ household that he died having been “hung on a cross.” The word in Greek is ξύλον and it holds a double meaning. On the on hand, as I’ve translated it, it can refer to the cross on which the Romans crucified criminals. On the other hand, it’s basic semantic sense is simply “tree.” And by choosing to talk about a tree, Peter draws together the entire story of redemption. You see, Peter could have chosen the other Koine Greek word for cross, σταυρός, as used in the Gospels. But, instead, by choosing ξύλον, Peter ties the crucifixion of Jesus to the beginning and the end of human history. At the beginning of the Bible, in the Greek translation of Genesis chapter three, the serpent entices the man and woman to eat from a tree (ξύλον). In the very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, the tree (ξύλον) of life stands in the middle of the New Jerusalem, and the “leaves of the tree (ξύλον) are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22.2). At the beginning, at the end, and in the middle stands of human history stands a ξύλον. And that ξύλον is the cross of Jesus Christ that takes away the sins of the world.

Reading the Bible in the New Year

Perhaps you’ve read through the Bible many times. Perhaps you’ve never opened one before. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what actually happens in 2nd Chronicles. Perhaps you want to challenge yourself to actually read the whole Bible and not just the parts that you keep coming back to. Perhaps you have a small group or a congregation that would like to read the Bible on the same schedule. Perhaps that was too many sentence in a row that started with perhaps.

Whatever your situation, I’ve been working on a schedule for Bible reading. The schedule has two goals. One, make Bible reading an everyday habit. Two, introduce the entirety of the Biblical text. It will take you through the entire Bible in one calendar year, in small chunks of 3-5 chapters at a time. Warning though, the schedule has no bells and whistles. It starts at Genesis 1.1 and chugs along to Revelation 22.21. As 2017 rolls around, and as we make all sorts of resolutions, I think you could do worse than adding ten minutes of reading to go with your morning coffee or your afternoon beer. It won’t help you lose weight. It won’t make you more productive. It definitely won’t make you a holier person. But, it may give you a greater appreciation for the wisdom, the poignancy, and the absurdity of the book we call the Bible.

If you’re interested in coming along for the journey, you’ll find a PDF with days 1-90 below. Feel free to download and print off as many copies as you’d like. At the end of March, I’ll post 91-180, etc. If you’d prefer your schedule in a more tech-savvy way, I’ll be posting each day’s readings every morning on Twitter: @RevDocTrout

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

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Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Christmas 1

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 2.13-15

13 After they [the Magi] had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up, take the child and its mother and flee into Egypt and stay there until I speak to you. For Herod intends to seek the child in order to kill it.” 14 And getting up, he took the child and its mother and went away by night into Egypt, 15 and he was there until the death of Herod. This was in order to fulfill the utterance of the Lord through the prophet, which says “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Why into Egypt? Why not Syria or Asia Minor? Of course, first there are the religious reasons. As the quotation from the prophet Hosea (1.11) points out, the very core of God’s peoples identity is caught up in the exodus from Egypt. And so, Jesus, as the fulfillment of his people’s religious hopes was also brought up out of Egypt. There is an interesting resonance here with Luke’s account of the transfiguration. In Luke 9.31, Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about his “exodus” to Jerusalem to die on the cross.

In addition, it is important to remember that Joseph was not taking his family and fleeing into the unknown. In fact, the Jews had a long history of settlement in Egypt, beginning with the destruction of Judea in 597 BC (narrated in 2 Kings 25:22-24). According to tradition, the prophet Jeremiah was among those who fled. After Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in the 4th century BC, it became the center of Jewish civilization outside of Judea. It was there that Jewish scribes translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, the book that we now know as the Septuagint. And so, when Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus set out for Egypt, they set out for a community of fellow ex-pats, so to speak. They probably didn’t camp out in a tent in the desert for several years, but lived among a people familiar  to them. It took a round about way to get that Jewish community into Egypt in the first place, but the upshot of this history is the knowledge that God provided familiar faces for Jesus and his family in their flight from danger.