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.

 

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.

 

Building the Perfect Pastor: Thoughts from Capon II

dog-capon-obit-blog427Though 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 (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 installment here.

While not as punny as his first pastoral criteria, Capon’s second musing on the requirements for pastoral ministry is no less topsy-turvy. He writes that, in addition to being faithful, the pastor must be wise. But, despite Capon’s credentials as a professor of New Testament Greek, he binds no intellectual or experiential requirements to the wisdom of pastorhood. Instead, like Paul, he points out that true pastoral wisdom is realizing the paradox that your hands are empty and full at the same time. The wise pastor is the pastor who realizes that “the world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts.” The wise pastor’s hands lie empty because the wise pastor refuses to carry any of the self-help and character improvement that burdens the wisdom of the world. And yet, though empty of wordly wisdom, God has filled the wise pastor’s hands with foolishness, the folly of the cross that is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor 1.25). “Preachers are to come honestly emptyhanded to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma -of the preaching of the word of the cross” has completely missed the boat. The paradox of pastoral ministry is that it relies not on worldy wisdom, power, or social adeptness, but on the stumbling-block foolishness of a crucified, carpenter King.

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. Check back soon for part 3.

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 3

Friday Facts is a new 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. 

Isaiah 35.1-10

1 The wilderness and the desert will rejoice and the dry steppe will shout in exultation and they will blossom like the crocus. 2 They will blossom continuously and, indeed, they will rejoice continuously and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon will be given to them. They will see the glory of YHWH, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the hands of the weak and make firm stumbling knees. 4 Say to those with a fickle heart “Be strong, be not afraid! Behold your God. Vengeance is coming. The retribution of God will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be restored. 6 Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because water will break forth in the wilderness and torrents on the dry steppe. 7 The parched ground will become a reed encircled pool and the thirsty ground will become a spring. The jackals’ den will become a swamp and the dry grass will become reeds and rushes. 8 There will be a path there and it will be called the Holy Way. The unclean will not walk on it. It will be for God’s people. No traveler, not even fools, will get lost on it. 9 There will be no lion there, and predators will not be found there. The redeemed will walk there. 10 And the ransomed of YHWH will return, and come to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy will be on their heads; they will attain joy and gladness. Sorrow and sighing will flee.

For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in southern California, a land of dry scrub and chaparral. Every year, I went camping with my father and brother in the White Mountains, a mountain range in the desert that straddles Nevada and California. We camped next to a creek, less than three feet wide in most stretches, but large enough to transform the landscape. On the banks of the creek, green grass and willows flourished. Trout swam in it and voles scurried through the meadows that it watered. But walk 100 feet away, and you’d wander into a wilderness of sage brush and cactus and scrubby pine trees.

This passage from Isaiah makes me think back to those mountain camping trips, but even more so, it makes me reflect on the topography in Minnesota, where I live now. Here in Minnesota, I have to take care not to trip, otherwise I’ll end up in a lake or a river or some other body of water. It presents a question to the translator: where does translation end and interpretation begin? For instance, should I adapt Isaiah 35:6-7 for my Minnesota readers and render it: “Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because the sun will break forth on the prairie and summer on the frozen hills. The frozen pond will become a swimming hole and the dead grass will become a flowery meadow.” It may get the point across, but it definitely changes the metaphor. It’s a slippery slope that I’m not sure that I want to walk down. But as a preacher, I think it’s important to keep your climate in mind. If your congregants have never been to the desert, you may have to think about whether “jackals’ dens” becoming “swamps” is translating for them.

This is a slippery question, and one that I’ll continue to reflect upon throughout this feature. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take a look at my earlier post on a similar desert problem, translating the Hebrew word nachal (incidentally, the word nachal appears in Isaiah 35:6, where I’ve translated it ‘torrents’).

A Note on Humility and Diligence

As an academic with a short attention span, I have the tendency to bounce from subject to subject. Yesterday, I studied the Norwegian-American church, today I study New Testament. Yesterday, I read a book about the history of China, today I’m reading a book about geology. With that in mind, this devotional from Martin Luther struck me, and reminded me that no matter how many degrees I pile up, I have to return to some things over and over again.

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Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. – 1 Timothy 4.13

I am often aware of my temptation, and even to this day can scarcely guard myself sufficiently against it. This I confess openly as an example to any who are interested, although I am an old doctor and preacher and am so much more versed in the Scriptures, or at least ought to be, than all those wise ones who attack me; I must still grow daily, like a child, saying aloud every morning the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and such precious psalms and sayings as I choose, just as the children are now being taught to do, although I have daily to study the Scriptures and to fight the devil. I may not say in my heart: You know the Lord’s Prayer, you know the Ten Commandments, you know the Creed by heart, etc. No, I must go on learning every day and remain a pupil of the Catechism. I feel how noticeably it helps me, and I find by experience that the Word of God can never be exhausted, but that it is really true as Psalm 147 says: “His understanding is infinite.”

-From Day by Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Meditation’s from Luther’s Writings, ed. Margarete Steiner and Percy Scott (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 348.

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.