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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

You Cannot Serve the Lord! A Lutheran Response to Socrates

This is the last in a 3 part series on the relationship of Lutheran theology to Socratic ethics. Part 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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If you can remember back to the last post on Socrates, you’ll know that for Socrates, ethics fundamentally involved a problem of knowledge. People who know the right thing to do will do it. In this post, I’m going to delve into a different way of looking at the problem, a way that involves the peculiarly Lutheran idea of the bound will.

For Lutherans, the fundamental problem of ethics is not that people lack the knowledge necessary for right action. The fundamental problem is that people are not free actors. In their natural state, people can do nothing but the wrong thing. Even with full knowledge of the right and wrong, people will do the wrong thing, because people are captive to sin, death, and the devil. The farewell discourse of Joshua in Joshua 24 illustrates the problem. After Joshua explains the difference between right and wrong to the Israelites for several long chapters, he presents them with a choice: to serve God or to serve false idols. The Israelites respond, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:18). Now, it appears that the Israelites have made the right choice, and the logical thing for Joshua to do is to affirm them and go get buried. Instead, Joshua replies, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God!” (Joshua 24:19). Joshua, you see, understands the bound will. He knows that even when people pay lip service to the right choice, their hearts are in another place. Joshua knows that despite his lecture and despite their answer, the hearts of the Israelites are inclined away from the true God and that they will not serve him.

Lutheran theology acknowledges that the deck is perpetually stacked against humanity. The state of humanity after the fall turns all of humanity’s efforts to do good into pious idolatry. To put it in another way, Lutheran theology recognizes that ethics is not an ethical problem, but a religious one. The turn towards a religious understanding of ethics happens in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Standing beneath the shadow of the crucified Lord, Lutheran theology sees that human distinctions between right and wrong pale in comparison. In the light of the crucifixion, there is no longer right and wrong. One is either in Christ or outside of Christ. Those who are in Christ see that all of the works are laughable attempts at self-justification, regardless of their standing in human eyes.

And so, finally, the Lutheran response to Socrates is to point to Christ and to proclaim that no amount of knowledge can help you to do the right thing, because the definition of right and wrong resides in the person of Christ, not in a set of propositions.