August 3, 2014 is Pentecost 8A

Isaiah 55:1-5
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (16)
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Romans 9:1-5
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.


Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in Deutero-Isaiah. Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39, being pre-exilic; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55, exilic; and Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66, post exilic. In the late 20th century there has been some forays into understanding Isaiah in two parts: 1-33 and 34-66.  You can read Marvin Sweeney’s rationale, but I cling to the former understanding as articulated by Fred Gaiser. (By the way, “Enter the Bible” is a great resource.)

Walter BrueggemannI think the most profound and troubling words come in the second verse of the pericope, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Walter Brueggemann’s article, “Counterscript“, speaks to them in 19 theses.  Three of the more pointedly germane theses:

  1. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

* I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

* I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.

* I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities. 

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated. 

  1. This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy.Therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism pervades our public life and promises us security and immunity from every threat. And if we shall be safe, then we shall be happy, for who could watch the ads for cars and beers and deodorants and give thought to such matters as the trade deficit or homelessness or the residue of anger and insanity left by the war or by destruction of the environment? This script, with its illusion of safety and happiness, invites life in a bubble that is absent of critical reflection. 
  1. That script has failed. I know this is not the conclusion that all would draw. It is, however, a lesson that is learned by the nations over and over again. It is clear to all but the right-wing radio talk people and the sponsoring neoconservatives that the reach of the American military in global ambition has served only to destabilize and to produce new and deep threats to our society. The charade of a national security state has left us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked. A by-product of such attempts at security, moreover, has served in astonishing ways to evoke acrimony in the body politic that makes our democratic decision-making processes nearly unworkable. [Article written in 2005; increasingly true today!] 

We are not safe, and we are not happy. The script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness. And in response to new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness, a greater resolve arises to close the deal according to the script, which produces ever new waves and new depths.

One of the best songs based on this text (IMHO) is John Foley’s “Come to the Water” – original arrangement and contemporary arrangement. Download the sheet music and MP3 arrangement samples.


BranchIn chapters 1-8, Paul wrestled rhetorically with the unity shared by Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews); a unity they shared in and through Christ. In chapters 9-11, Paul now addresses the unity shared by Jews and Christians. (Chapters 12-16 will concern the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.)

Of the Jews he says straight out, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”

One should read through chapters 9-11 in one fell swoop to get a sense of what Paul is after rhetorically. I think that 11:25ff is one of the high points,

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,

‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
   he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’ 
 ‘And this is my covenant with them,
   when I take away their sins.’

In other words, don’t think that you are wise enough to determine who ought be “in” and who ought be “out”.  God is up to the business of inclusion, not exclusion; centripetal force, not centrifugal. Do you think that is “just” or “unjust”?

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

 ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
        Or who has been his counselor?’
 ‘Or who has given a gift to him,
        to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.  

Once again, a song by John Foley “Who Has Known” would be a great contemplative piece during communion – words and sheet music.


A second article by Walter Brueggemann, “Myth of Scarcity”, is also a helpful read prior to preaching. Brueggemann refers to Mark’s account, but it works for Matthew’s as well.

The feeding of the multitudes, recorded in Mark’s Gospel, is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed ,broke and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality. 

The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane–life consists of buying and selling, weighing, measuring and trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents and entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. 

Five thousand are fed and 12 baskets of food are left over–one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread comes Sunday abundance. In this and in the following account of a miraculous feeding in Mark, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the juices of heaven multiply the bread of earth. Jesus reaffirms Genesis 1.

GalileeThe feeding of the 5000 – or some version of a feeding miracle; 5000 or 4000 – shows up six times in the gospels.  John Dominic Crossan points out that loaves and fish are an allusion to Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee. Sepphoris, a very Romanized city, was the center for grain; the breadbasket of Galilee. Tiberias, built in honor of Tiberius Caesar, was a very Romanized city that was the center of the fishing trade. Both built to feed and sustain the empire.

[Herod] Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris, and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias-for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counterstory tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes- for the kingdom of God. (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 126) 

As we have had parable about the kingdom of heaven for the past few weeks, this story then is also about the kingdom of heaven vis-à-vis the kingdom of Caesar. Where is nourishment to be found? Where is abundance to be found? To go back to Isaiah, where and what are the things that truly satisfy?

A final Brueggemann article, “Enough is Enough“.

And so, I too say, “Until next week, enough!”

Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson

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July 27, 2014 is Pentecost 7A

1 Kings 3:5-12
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?

Psalm 119:129-136
Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.

Romans 8:26-39
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

1 Kings

Midnight in the Garden of Eden“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is a non-fiction work by John Berendt published in 1994. It was made into a movie in 1997, directed by Clint Eastwood. (I think a small group reflecting on the cinematic theology of Clint Eastwood would be fascinating.)  In the storyline, a male hustler is murdered in the home of a world renowned antiques dealer.  Four trials over 8 years – the last one moved from the Savannah jury pool – resulted in a final acquittal. Bottom line: it took a long time to discern the good from the evil.

The prayer from 1 Kings is the one in which Solomon prays for wisdom instead of wealth, power, or glory. God is pleased with the prayer.  “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right…”  (I wonder why there hasn’t been a bestselling book entitled “The Prayer of Solomon”? “The Prayer of Jabez” did so well!  Ah, wealth sells! Wisdom? Not so much.)

I am reminded of some of Paul’s words,

” ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)  “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

It often requires real discernment to distinguish between what is helpful and what is hurtful, between what is really beneficial and not just legal or ideologically appealing.

The current dilemma being faced with the Central American children crossing the United States’ southern border is a case in point. (Estimates are now that 90,000 unaccompanied minors could cross the border by the end of the fiscal year.)

I heard one “talking head” on TV say, “It’s immoral to allow these young people into the country!” Well, one can argue about legalities and how the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 is affecting the flow of refugees (?) – but even then one ought realize that morality is an entirely different question from legality. So, let’s at least be clear what we are trying to discern.

It will take more than political ideology from either the Right or the Left to deal compassionately, justly (distributive, not retributive), and authoritatively with this issue – and many others.  Gamesmanship is not wisdom.  As I said in the post for July 13,

“The power of sin is a centrifugal force; it separates things.  The power of the gospel is a centripetal force; it pulls things together.  As a voice crying in the polarized wilderness of MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and Rush Limbaugh, what shall we say? What shall we be about? How can we bring gospel hope and healing in Jesus name?”

WisdomIn the meantime, continue to pray.

(If I had my druthers, I think that Psalm 111 is a better match for today’s first lesson and Gospel reading  than Psalm 119.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But, yet again, I was not consulted.)


As 1 Corinthians 13 is to weddings, so this section of Romans 8 is to funerals.  And just as Paul wasn’t talking about marital bliss in Corinthians….  This is the end of the first section in Paul’s letter, a section in which he addresses the unity of Gentiles and Jews. He then goes on to the unity of Jews and Christians beginning with chapter 9, and the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians beginning with chapter 12.

I remember a sermon on this text preached by Dr. Paul Sponheim.  He opened by asking, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (pregnant pause in delivery)  He then continued, “Well, it seems to me that any number of people and things can be and are against us!”  That’s pretty much all I remember, but it was a great hook. I think he went on to say something about “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.” And I’m pretty sure he ended up by saying that, with God for us (in our favor) nothing can prevail against us; which isn’t to say that there won’t be some battles along the way.

And that is Paul’s final word on the unity of Gentiles and Jews. Yes, we will have our struggles with one another but God gave his Son for all of us, Jesus intercedes for all of us, and so nothing will be able to separate any of us from that love of God in Christ Jesus. And if nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord, then neither can anything in all of creation separate us from one another. (If it smacks of universalism, so be it.)Incarnational Living

This has some serious traction in a world that is filled with centrifugal forces trying their best to separate everything. Sometimes that force can be the church itself! I was struck by a blog post  Ten Reasons Churches Are Not Reaching Millennials. (Although I wonder at how it’s usually exactly 10, 7, or some other “perfect” number.)  Reason #8:

“Millennials are tired of the church viewing the culture as the enemy. Separatist churches who value creating “safe” places for their members and moving away from all the evil in the city are highly unlikely to attract the next generation. The next generation is trying to find ways to engage the culture for the glory of God. 

Millennials are increasingly optimistic about the surrounding culture because they see Jesus loving all types of people, loving cities, and engaging culture. They also know the church does not stand at the center of culture anymore, and reaching people only comes through engaging culture. In generations past, preachers could stand in the pulpit and talk about the evils of the surrounding culture because the church shaped culture at large. Today, this is not true. The church needs to stop believing the goal of Christian living is to escape the evils of culture and finish life unharmed and untainted. To reach people in 2014, the church must be immersed in the community for the glory of God.”



All these similes. How do we connect the dots? I think the key is found at the end.


“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

The kingdom of heaven is like

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

  • HEAR: The reign of God looks small when compared to the kingdom of Caesar, but it will offer shelter and hope to many.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 

  • HEAR: The reign of God looks small when compared to the task at hand, but it will change the whole world.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

  • HEAR: For the above to be true, those that stumble across the hope of God’s reign will give up much for its realization.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

  • HEAR: For the above to be true, those that search for and find the hope of God’s reign will give up much for its realization.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

  • HEAR: The reign of God will require keeping what is good and throwing out what is bad; keeping what can be useful and discarding what is not.

The people (scribes) in the kingdom of God will know what to keep and what to throw away. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees Jesus condemns in Matthew 23, the true scribes of the kingdom will not “strain out the gnat but swallow a camel”. Scribes of the kingdom – followers of Jesus – will forget about tithing spices and focus on justice, mercy, and faith. This was huge in Matthew’s gospel where (IMHO) the intra-Jewish argument was, “If Jesus is messiah, then what about the law? What do we keep? What do we throw away?”


Jesus is the new Moses. He is reinterpreting the law of Moses.  He is creating a new Torah for Jewish Christians, creating a righteousness (a justice) “that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.”  “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…”


It goes back to what Paul said, ” ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)  “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23) Scribes that have been trained for the kingdom will be able to “sort things out.”


In our personal lives, for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven – the reign of God – what do we keep and what do we sell and give up? As congregations, for the sake of being “outposts” of the kingdom of heaven – the reign of God – what do we keep? And, maybe more importantly, what must we throw away?

Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson

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July 20, 2014 is Pentecost 6A

Isaiah 44:6-8
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

Psalm 86:11-17
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Romans 8:12-25
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”


Norse mythologyIn Norse mythology there is a series of events called  Ragnarok; which can be loosely translated as “the fate of the gods” and the events result in the death of a number of the Norse gods.  I suppose there is  sense in which all Teutonic mythology is linked, and so we can probably jump to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the last opera in his “ring” series, Der Ring des Nibelungen. At its conclusion, all of the old gods are consumed by fire.

To be sure, Second Isaiah (sometime after 586 and before 536 BCE) was extant long before either of those mythological portrayals; however, it does perhaps signal the death throes of polytheism for the Jewish people.  The first commandment of the Decalogue – whether in Exodus or Deuteronomy – alludes to polytheism. To paraphrase: “Yes, there are many gods, but I – Yahweh – am your God.” But there came a time when Yahweh moved from being understood as the tribal God of the Jewish people vis-à-vis the gods of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Canaan and came to be understood as the only God. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (“I am the first and I am the last” being a circumlocution for “I am everything”.)

PantheonTrue, the polytheistic world rolled on for quite some time; the Greek and Roman pantheons were yet to come. (Picture is of the Pantheon in Rome.) But eventually the twilight descended upon those gods as well.  In Paul’s day, many of the “God-fearers” – those Gentile people that existed on the fringe of synagogue – were people that had become disillusioned with the increasingly complex pantheon as Rome usurped the gods of conquered lands and peoples.

In his book Cities of God, Rodney Stark suggests the rising disenchantment with the old gods helped fuel an interest in monotheism and that Isiacism (worship of the “imported” Egyptian goddess Isis) made strong monotheistic inroads in Rome. In  Apuleius’ work Metamorphosis, Lucius prays to Isis and in her response you can sense the coalescing of the pantheon.

I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the ocean, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are… Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names … the Egyptians call me by my true name… Queen Isis.

Stark writes,

Not only does monotheism require an exclusive commitment; only monotheism generates missionizing activities on the part of its ordinary followers-and monotheism is a matter of doctrine. Because it is based on acceptance of One True God, monotheism generates strong, competitive organizations of people prepared to act on behalf of their faith, unlike those attached to a multitude of gods, or even those attached to one god from among a pantheon.

Stark, Rodney (2009-03-17). Cities of God (pp. 113-114). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Of course, “competitive organizations of people prepared to act on behalf of their faith” can have a good side and a side that’s not quite so good. Perverse monotheism – monotheism that remains or becomes tribal – results in sectarianism, demagoguery, and exclusivity; which (IMHO) is why the face and character of God as seen and revealed in Jesus is so important.


There is that great scene from “The Graduate” where Mr. Maguire says, “Just one word: plastics!”  And so, one word about this section of Romans: Participation!  To reiterate some Pauline vocabulary from the Pentecost 3A, June 29th post.

  • Sin (not sins) = The sway of the empire and the normalizing influence of the world to bend and shape life according to power, privilege, and segregation.
  • Righteousness (δικαιοσύνη; justice) = Is about distribution, not retribution.
  • Justification (being made just) = is about real life transformation, not imputation.
  • Life in Christ (always life together) = is about participation with Christ, not substitution.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

All Creation WattsIn other words, in and through Christ we are co-creators with God.  The New Creation, begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, continues to be realized as we participate in Christ’s suffering and glorification.  The “glory about to be revealed” is not pie in the sky by and by, it is here and now. It must be now. All of creation is longing for the children of God to reveal themselves; to step up to the plate and make a difference in the life of the world for Jesus’ sake.  It’s about real life transformation, not imputation; participation, not substitution! As my mentor used to say, “There is nothing you have to do. Now the only question is, ‘What are you going to do?'”  When in doubt, do something! Sin boldly and do something! Creation is waiting for us to act; to act out and enable creation to share in the freedom of our glory.


RoundupThis is the second Sunday of Matthew 13; the parable (allegory?) of the wheat and the weeds.  I have a tough time weeding my flower beds, garden path, and driveway joints. The solution (literally and figuratively): Roundup! But, truth is, my spraying of weeds has also resulted in some significant “patches of death” in my lawn. Sometimes I kill what I don’t want to kill when trying to kill the weeds. As a wise man once said, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” And as a disciple of a wise man once said, “I do not do the good that I want to do…”

In Matthew, Jesus is “the new Moses”; always reinterpreting the law and spinning it anew. It is a “new Torah” for Jewish followers of Jesus. If the old Pharisaic practices were about anything they were about “sorting things out”; keeping kosher; separating the clean and the unclean. Things should not be confused or confusing: like planting different seeds (wheat and weeds?) in the same field. (See Leviticus 19:19 – “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.”) Or, the more germane concern: not mixing Jews with Gentiles. (Germane: from the 14th century English, “having the same parents”, which probably brings us back to germinate; seeds.)

Some sections of the Torah are filled with lists of things which were considered “clean” and “unclean”.  Everything was deemed “clean” or “unclean” right down to people.  Jews = clean.  Gentiles = unclean.

“Clean” and “unclean” weren’t moral groupings.  Something “unclean” wasn’t intrinsically evil; something “clean” wasn’t “morally” proper.  “Clean” things were things which fit their understanding of order.  “Unclean” things were things which they didn’t understand and thus led to disorder.  These groupings helped them order the world.  They were a “world view” – a way of seeing things.  Like all world views it was a way of categorizing everything so that it could be “controlled”.

GrassThat’s what “world views” do.  From the mythology of ancient Greece to the ideologies of the political Left and Right, every world view is an attempt to get our minds around everything so that we can “make sense” of it and control it.  It’s how we cope.  We organize and categorize everything and then tell ourselves that we’re in charge. We know what goes where, and God help anything or anyone that doesn’t fit our categories.

We even do it in our own homes. We try to keep our “little worlds” as clean and well ordered as possible as a way of assuring ourselves that life is under control.  We straighten and we dust.  We don’t like dust.  Even if we neglect it, that doesn’t mean we like to have it around.  What is it about dust?

The tightest homes have dust.  The more people, the more dust.  Part of the problem is that there are more people to bring in dirt.  But the real problem is that most household dust is made up of our own skin – from the millions of dead skin cells we slough off each day.  It’s no wonder we don’t like it.  We want to be in control.  We end up wiping ourselves off the coffee table and vacuuming ourselves out of the carpet.

So, be careful. This creation, this world, our individual lives, the Church, the Kingdom of Heaven itself right now – this is the time of the “wheat and the weeds”, and in this time it cannot be all sorted out. And if we try, we will sort according to our own need to control; and the damage will be to the wheat and the weeds – whichever are which.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson

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Build a Well

Dear family, friends and followers, (all others may ignore this), please, no gifts for my birthday this week. I have too much stuff already. What I would really like is to provide fresh drinking water for an African village through Water To Thrive. Give to this well:
My friend Lizzie Kovach has gotten half way there. Another $2500 will get us there. This would be a super birthday gift – the best I could receive.




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Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough. Alister McGrath


Alister McGrath’s 2011 update of his 1985 book is really about the evolution of Luther’s thought in light of Late Medieval theology. If you want to learn about the theology of the cross, jump to chapter 8, the final chapter. Everything else leads up to that point.

McGrath shows how Luther’s theology up to 1515 is typical of Late Medieval theology north of the Alps. He shows that there is nothing revolutionary about Luther’s 95 theses. The Pope’s authority is not challenged. There is no new theology. He simply posted a typical notice for debate.

In fact, another professor, Andreas Bodenstein (Von Karlstadt) posted 151 theses on the same topic, to the Castle Church door six months earlier. The theology faculty at the University of Paris drew up a critique of the theology of indulgences in May 1518. There were no accusations of heresy. 

McGrath defines the three strains that influence Luther’s theology: humanism, nominalism and the Augustinian movement. He also makes a strong case that Luther was educated according to the Via Moderna.

The author spends time discussing the four ways of interpreting scripture, common to the Via Moderna, and employed by Luther. Literal meaning was always first, but allegorical interpretation was also important, per Augustine, who felt everything should deify. So when Augustine comes upon Exodus 23:18, “You shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk,” he doesn’t find it edifying, so, interprets it: “Christ should not himself perish in the slaughter of the innocents.”

A third manner of interpretation is tropological (or moral). Finally there is the anagogical, which was for elevation to the eternal felicity of the saints. These four methods of biblical interpretation make up what is known as the quadriga (after the Roman chariot drawn by four horses).

Following Augustine, Luther interpreted the Old Testament Christologically, as can be seen in his Dictata Super-psalterium, the glosses (comments in the margins) and scholia (extended commentary) Luther makes in the wide-margined version of the Psalms he uses for lecturing.

The quadriga is a characteristic of late medieval Biblical exegesis, and Luther employs it magnificently. It dominates Luther’s exposition of the Psalter. 

Luther’s early theology of justification is from the Via Moderna, with a heavy influence of Augustinian theology. Luther finds the prevailing theology of the day Pelagian (a denial of original sin such that humans have the capacity to choose good without divine aid). Salvation is by faith, which Luther interprets as humility in his early theology. We become worthy of Grace by acknowledging our sin, recognizing our need of God, and humbling ourselves.

The rest of McGrath’s book focuses on determining when Luther made the shift from the theology of justification from the Via Moderna, to the rejection that humans can do any good works, quod in se est. When did Luther have his breakthrough to a theology of pure grace, where even faith is a gift of God such that he concludes, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him…”

This breakthrough hinges on Luther’s understanding of the “righteousness of God.” Early understandings of this were based on Aristotlean thought, and Cicero’s concept of justice, as giving to each person their due. If the righteousness of God means giving each sinful person what was coming to him or her, where was the good news in this?

When was the breakthrough? Luther says, “When I became a doctor I did not yet know that we cannot make satisfaction for our sins.” There is no reason to doubt Luther here. Luther became a doctor of divinity on October 19, 1512, and began expounding upon the Psalms the year after. So the breakthrough is after 1512.

In a 1545 Table Talk entry, Luther reflects on his early career and on the theological problem that had been troubling him for some considerable period of time: this idea of the righteousness of God. Luther reflects that in 1519 he returned to the study of the Psalter, after lecturing on Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. “The righteousness of God is revealed in it [the gospel].” By meditating day and night on these words: “the righteousness of God is revealed in it,” and “the righteous shall live by faith,” Luther says he came to understand the righteousness of God as a free gift of grace. This opened for him the gates of paradise and made the phrase which he had hated so much now beloved words of hope. He then read Augustine, and realized to his surprise that he interpreted the righteousness of God in the same way, as that which God bestows upon us, by which we are justified. And so He went back and began to interpret the Psalter for a second time.

Table Talk sayings are second hand, and so not as reliable as writings from Luther’s own hand. And the aging Luther may be compressing a longer process of discovery. So the breakthrough happened in 1519 or before.

The author sees in Luther’s lectures a shift taking place around 1515.

Luther at some point concludes that the problem is in scholastic theology, which traps theology in Aristotelian categories. Luther: “In Anselm it simply is not possible to explain iusticia (righteousness) in Ciceronian terms.”

He had been taught according to the Via Moderna: that God gives grace to anyone who does Facere Quod in se est, which literally means “do what lies within you.” Then God will bestow grace. “Do you best and God will do the rest.” Quod in se est was an impossible and unverifiable standard. Luther thought sought to answer the question, “Have I been saved?” 

Once Luther came to his new understanding of “the righteousness of God,” which he then discovered in Augustine, this prepared the way for the theology of the cross.

In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther presided over the opening of the disputation of the chapter of the Augustinian order at Heidelberg. This disputation concerned series of theses that Luther had drawn up at the invitation of his superior Johannes Von Staupitz.

Thesis 19 said, “Anyone who observes the invisible things of God understood as those things that are created, does not deserve to be called a theologian.”

Thesis 20 said, “But anyone who understand the visible, rearward things of God as observed in the suffering of the cross does deserve to be called a theologian.”

McGrath think the translation of thesis 20 in the English version (manifest things of God) is a flagrant mistranslation. 

Just as Moses is denied a full frontal view of the glory of God, only getting a fleeting glimpse of God from behind, so we only get a glimpse of the Deus Absconditus (hidden God). This is revelation: a fleeting glimpse of God.  We can only see God from the rear, the Posteriora Dei. 

Luther goes on to distinguish a theologian of glory with a theologian of the cross (who observes what is seen). For Luther, the cross is the normative verbal and iconic centering of Christian thought. Christian theology is based on the crucified God, rather than rational, Aristotelian thought as a secular starting place.

Aristotelian thought forces the cross into an alien frame of meaning, which it is not allowed to critique. Something else becomes the ultimate criterion of theology, through which the cross is interpreted. 

The cross mounts a full-scale assault on human preconceptions of God. A theology of glory prioritizes the rational, what the human mind can cope with. The theology of the cross instead observes what is seen and deals with those realities. “Only experience makes a theologian.”

The cross reveals the truth about the world. A theology of the cross stands against any kind of intellectual speculation about the nature of things. The cross reveals how a Christian is to live in the dark wastelands of this fallen world. We must allow its pain suffering in silence to impact us.

“We simply cannot be allowed to sanitize or domesticate the brutality and horror of the cross in our headlong rush to extract some abstract, sanitized theological principles from the historical carnage and brutality of Good Friday.”

McGrath points out the theology of the cross is not an atonement theology. It is a compass rather than a map. 

The reality of the situation is that human beings are simultaneously both sinners and justified. The cross of Christ, God’s wrath and God’s mercy are revealed simultaneously. That may be rationally implausible, and theologically messy, but that is the truth of the situation.

God’s self-disclosure is in the suffering and death of the cross rather than in human moral activity. This knowledge of God, hidden in his revelation, is a matter of faith. Faith alone recognizes the self-disclosure of the Posteriora Dei.  Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father, which makes him a theologian of glory according to Luther. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a hidden God.”

God is particularly known through suffering. This was current Augustinian theology. 

All of this is consistent with Paul’s teaching about the foolishness of the cross. The unbeliever looks upon the cross and sees only the helplessness and hopelessness of an abandoned man dying on the cross. The theologian of the cross recognizes the veiled but real activity of the hidden God.

The theology of the cross is a radical critique of the analogy of human justice with divine Justice, human righteousness and human righteousness. This parallels the emerging dialectical theology of the early 20th century. Any attempt to see God outside the cross of Christ is idle speculation. God’s strength is revealed weakness. God’s wisdom through folly.

There are a lot of books out on Luther studies these days, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 1517. Add this work of detailed scholarship by an Oxford University professor to your list.

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Radio Interview: Unaccompanied Minors

Today’s radio interview on Unaccompanied Minors.

It’s at 7:30-22:00 of:

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United Nations Human Rights Council condemns Israeli/Palesinian violence.

The UN Council:
Condemned violence against civilians by both sides
Expressed deep concern for the treatment of Palestinian detainees by Israeli authorities
Expressed grave concern about violence of illegal Israeli settlers against Palestinians.
Called for the end of Israeli military assaults in occupied territories.

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