Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The blog is dead! Long live the blog!

As we end 2013 I will pass on what a reader of my blog passed to me:  Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice.  Geez.  I never noticed.  Apparently I should have been tweeting little tidbits of stuff instead of subjecting folks to the antiquated mechanism of a blog and its seemingly out of date longer substance.  You can read it all here.

I guess I will know that my little hobby is dead when no one visits it any longer.  Until then, I will keep on posting the meandering thoughts of this Lutheran Pastor... until it is over and the last one to leave turns outs the lights...

Is anybody there?  Am I a figment of my own imagination?  Would somebody hold up a mirror to my nostrils to see if the breath has left my body?   Ooooooohhhhhhhh I feel like I am falling. . .   and I can't get up. . .

At a loss for words. . .

According to the Pasadena Star News, a pair of homosexual hair stylists will “marry” on the parade route while riding a wedding-cake shaped float sponsored by the AHF.  Danny Leclair, 45, and Aubrey Loots, 42, jointly own the DNA Salons hairstyling chain in Southern California.  According to ABC News, a play on the parade’s 2014 theme “Dreams Come True,” and sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the float will celebrate same-sex marriage and the role it can play in helping to reduce new HIV infections among gay men.

As Pat Buchanan once observed.  The love that once dared not speak its name has become the love that will not shut up...

Must everything become a platform for GLBT causes?  Once again it has proven that the GLBT is no real oppressed minority since it has access to political power, effectively uses all the media (willingly) to promote its agenda, and kills all opposition with charges of being bigoted, a homophobe, or a hatemonger.  GLBT has become establishment but it will  not be satisfied until it becomes a tyrant policing the thoughts, speech, and opinions of all people, institutions, and religions.

My suggestion, turn off the TV when this float comes into view!

Makes me embarrassed about the theme for the 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries float that will be in the parade (with Pres. Harrison on it).  Jesus welcomes all.  Sure to be misconstrued by friends and enemies of the LCMS.

Singing the Creed. . .

I have often described the Gloria in Excelsis as something of a sung creed in the guise of a hymn of praise.  It is one of the earliest of the church's songs but it sings not in the poetry of a typical hymn.  Rather it unfolds in creedal form, blending the Trinity with the Incarnation, and including bits of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei.  Perhaps for this reason I am somewhat ambivalent about the other hymn of praise -- not because I do not like it but because it lacks the creedal character of the Gloria.  I have begun using it not in the place of the hymn of praise but as a distribution hymn where it seems designed to go.  Even folks in the congregation recognize how appropriate it is to sing it there, especially when we sing of the foretaste of the feast to come which we are about to receive in the Blessed Sacrament.

It has led me to discover how much the great hymns of the faith have successfully accomplished the same purpose -- singing them is like singing the Creed.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the wonderful and beloved carols of Christmastide.  Luther ends the versification of the Lukan story with the Gloria, the culmination of both the recounting of the events and the church's prayer in observing them (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come).  This is not atypical but has become the standard for carols which tell of all or even small portions of the traditional Christmas Gospel from St. Luke.

O Come, All Ye Faithful is much more direct, borrowing actual phrases from Nicea in order to shape the song of the faithful. Highest, most holy, Light of Light eternal, born of a virgin, a mortal He comes...  In the original Latin the phrases show their unmistakable source in the creed.  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing puts it a bit more obliquely by leading us to sing:  Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with us to dwell...

Of the Father's Love Begotten preserves, perhaps, a language even earlier than the Nicene Creed as the church sings of Christ "whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord."  Once in Royal David's City speaks of the condescension of the Son of God "who is God and Lord of all."  In the final stanza the carol directs us to Him whom we shall see, not in the manger against, but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high."

These carols weave together the rich language of the creed while framing the incarnation into the larger story of the saving purpose of that birth -- His self-offering for our sin and into our death upon the cross.  The most successful and popular of these carols do not merely speak of our feelings and joy but the doctrinal truth of Christ and His incarnation within the unfolding plan and saving purpose of the Father.

Far from isolating the singing to the season at hand, the carols of Christmas insist upon confronting us with the full revelation of Christ.  The paradox of Christmas is not on the fringes of the carols but form their center: the baby born in such lowly manner at Bethlehem is at the same time truly divine, the Word made flesh. Christina Rossetti's familiar carol expresses this paradox like this: “In the bleak midwinter a stable-place sufficed/the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” The carols of Christmas not only anticipated the suffering and death of Jesus.  They also look backward, all the way to Eden.  Back to creation and the fall, we sing of serpents and death, of bruised heels and crushed heads. 

Finally, we cannot miss the fact that these carols call us to come and worship, to kneel and bow down, to believe and see, and to rejoice.  From the words that pray our hearts to be fitting mangers for the Christ to the calls to be cheered, led, and comforted by the presence of the Emmanuel, keeping in our hearts Christ who is our true treasure.  We adore Him who comes not because of a sweet story but became this is the story of our redemption, of the end of the dark night of the soul, and the dawn of creations new and eternal Light.

Nothing will prevent God from His saving purpose in Christ...

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas A, preached on Sunday, December 29, 2013.

    So here we are, a few days after Christmas, and what we have in the lessons is the tail end of what we will hear next week – the departure of the Magi and the rage of Herod that killed the first born sons of Bethlehem under the age of three.  It is strange on several levels – what we hear is out of chronological order, it is the same as the feast day which was yesterday on our calendar, and it is such a sad and tragic story that seems totally out of place for a people gathered in the afterglow of Christmas.
    But here we are.  We just finished singing “O Jesus, So Sweet, So Mild” and here is a story none of us want to hear but we have all experienced – sadness and loss during the season in which we are supposed to be joyful.  It is a jarring tale of injustice in which a raging tyrant strips the first born sons from their mothers’ breast to kill the King the Magi came to worship.  What seems to be only tragedy is, in reality, the story of the unrelenting love of God that has enemies but will triumph for the sake of all who live in death’s shadow and with the sorrow of grief.
    God's work has enemies.  It has always had enemies.  It will have enemies until the old creation passes away and the new creation is ushered in upon the last day.  That means that we have enemies.  The church has enemies.  Faith has enemies.  Life has enemies.  This comes as no surprise to us but we hate it.
    In the midst of life, we encounter death.  In the midst of joy, our voices are raised in sorrow and despair.  This we know. This is the reality of life after the fall of Adam and Eve.  But what we often miss is that in the midst of death, God reveals His life.  In the midst of our sorrow and despair, He issues His call to joy.
    God's story is always set in death.  It was a world of death into which Christ was born.  Women who died in childbirth, children who died before adulthood, and men who routinely died in what we might call middle age.  Death is not the exception but the rule in our world – at least until Christ was born.  He lives for the sake of the Holy Innocents and for you and me.  He lives to end death’s reign and to kill death once for all.
    Death reigned in Herod.  His heart was filled with death.  His was a brutal reign.  He was a man seemingly without conscience.  In a whim of rage at the betrayal of the Magi, he vainly lashes out to kill the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem but missing Jesus.  It was a terrible act in which somewhere between dozens and perhaps a hundred little boys died because they could have been Jesus.  But it is not unusual.  Not then and not even today.
    Christ was born to do more than die; He was born to overcome death itself.  No raging tyrant will thwart the plan of salvation God laid from the foundation of creation itself.  Christ was born to die but not as an infant victim.  No, He was born to die as the Savior who willingly offers Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and its death.  This is Christmas, too.  This is why we are here!
    Christ is shielded from Herod.  The angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.  The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem could not flee and they became the first martyrs for Christ.  Christ fled not to escape death but so that He might confront death in the fullness of time, the right moment.  He flees not in fear but for the very day of His destiny and choosing, the appointed time – just as in the fullness of time Christ was born, so in the fullness He dies.
    The plan will not be short circuited.  God is acting to fulfill the prophet’s promise.  One step at a time.  He is shielded from one Herod only to meet another, shielded from this death in order to meet death not as a martyr but as our Savior.
    Christmas never takes place in a vacuum.  It does not happen in one of those sealed snow globes we love to shake. Christmas unfolds amid real life with all our enemies, all our troubles, all our sorrows, and all our death.  God’s purpose and plan will not be derailed – not even by His enemies and those who seek to wrest the kingdom from Him and from us.
    The surprise of Christmas is not that death is all around us but that even death cannot prevent God’s purpose from unfolding in Christ.  This is the hope that attracts us like a magnet.  Here, in the midst of sorrow and suffering, in the midst of darkness and death, hope and joy are hidden and we rejoice in the midst of this all because of Christ. 
    Life still wears the face of suffering and death.  Life still wears the masks of grief and despair.  They are not put on hold for the holidays.  This is the time of year we feel most acutely the distance of miles and those missing from our celebrations because of estrangement and death.  But here is Christ.  Here is joy.  Here is hope.  Here is the One who lives to die and whose death gives us life – from the seemingly innocent victims to the guilty sinners who make our skin crawl.  Christ is come for us all but to meet our enemy death on His terms, in the appointed place.
    The voices of Ramah refuse to quiet their grief until death itself is undone.  That is the surprise of Christmas.  The Christ Child will not be Herod’s to kill but lives to die at the appointed time, for us, for the whole world, for sin, and to end death itself.  This is our hope.  This is our peace.  This is our consolation.  This is our comfort in sorrow.  This is the end of all grief.
    We Christians are not immune from sorrow but we are not overcome by it.  We will die but that death has become a tool in the hands of our Savior to lead us to eternal life.  We grieve but not as a people without hope.  So we meet life's darkest moments with the joy that they cannot thwart God from His appointed purpose and from the plan of salvation that brought Christ to us in flesh and blood.   Amen.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Sound of Silence. . .

I have complained often about the lack of silence in the liturgy in most churches.  We move from one part to another part with such rapid progression that it may be hard to keep up yet, at the same time, silence is often seen as an alien intruder into worship.  The lack of sound or motion makes us even more uncomfortable than the busy-ness that assaults our ears, eyes, minds, and hearts.

Today I lament an unwelcome silence -- not one inside the building, although it definitely is no longer heard there very often, but outside the church, throughout the neighborhood and community.  I grew up in a community of steeples built not as decorative adornments but as homes for the church bell.  Growing up, the sound of Sunday morning was the sound of bells ringing to announce the day, the start of services, and even to toll during the Our Father and the consecration.  The later part was especially heard around my home congregation, Golgotha Lutheran Church.  I am told they do not do it anymore.  How sad.

Bells were once heard throughout the community on Sunday morning and at other times.  Once technology made an imitation carillon available to even modest budgets, churches without bells could have a full sound of many bells ringing hymns, sounding the call to worship, and even playing patriotic songs on the occasional holiday.  When one member's family had connections to one of the firms offering such technology, we had one in my first parish -- installed locally with the help of the firm's representatives.  We were a little enamored by the potential and, perhaps, overdid the bells in the beginning.  A few complaints from the largely rural area around the church caused us to scale back the schedule.  That was a new thing.  Complaints.  Complaints about the sound of bells.

At the Senior College and then Concordia Theological Seminary, a bell sounded every day for chapel and reminded the community of its central purpose and calling.  When I return it is one of the most deeply moving sounds I associate with that place -- the sound of the bell calling us to worship!

I now live in a city of some 140,000 people and you seldom hear the sound of any church bell or carillon on Sunday morning or at any other time.  You can hear motorcycles racing on the streets.  You can hear sirens announcing firetrucks, ambulances, police, and other emergency vehicles.  You can hear the sound of diesel engines when the drivers use the engine to brake a heavily loaded truck at a stoplight.  You can hear the sound of those little four cylinder tuner cars with mufflers as big as their tires that muffle nothing and magnify the high revs of their little power plants.  You can hear the occasional sound of tires screeching along road way to a sudden and unplanned stop.  You can hear the ever present bump bump bump of a bass speaker pumping out a rhythm so loud it obscures the melody (if there is one) to the song playing.  You can hear the sound of favorite music wafting from open side windows or open sunroofs.  You can hear the sound of car horns honking at cars, announcing that the doors are locked, or sounding the warning that something is wrong.  But you seldom hear a church bell.

Church bell ringing is part of the Christian liturgical and musical tradition. It has its source in Scripture. It’s not “decorative”, a “nice” thing to have, or part of the "aesthetic".   Bells have historically been one of the first things in a new church and not the last, if budget allows.  But that is no more.  Our bellringing tradition is an important part of liturgical identity and it is time we reclaimed this.  As integral as the sound of the mullah calling Muslims to prayer, the church bell is even more ingrained in Christian history, tradition, and identity.

Bells as we know them are mentioned in the Bible once: small bells were to be attached to Aaron’s vestments, which “shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he does not die” (Exodus 28:33-35). This suggests that the sound of bells is protective, it gave warning to those present when the priest who attended the holiest of holies came out from his ministry. They also announced what was happening in the temple to a people who had no line of sight.  The church bell does exactly the same thing.  The ringing of the bell continues Aaron's practice of announcing what is happening in the Lord's House, of announcing the grace that is our protection and defense, and calling the people to prepare for the holy entrance of God to His people

We are so very close now to getting the old cast iron giant of a bell we have up and running to do its bidding.  My only fear is what kind of reception it will get from the neighbors.  Could it be that we do not hear the sound of bells because they have become an unwelcome intrusion, one our culture can no longer tolerate or condone?  We will wait and see... if someone complains.  Until then I heartily encourage churches of all sizes to recapture the sound of the bell and ring their presence into their neighborhoods and communities.  It is amazingly easy to purchase a good used one on eBay and there are many bell suppliers who specialize in used and refurbished bells (a good thing because there are few making new bells today).  Let the Church ring out with Aaron's bells as sign of the sacrament of Christ's presence, the call to worship and receive His gifts, and the witness that God's people are here...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The changing face of diversity. . .

Unlike the civil rights movement of the 20th century, the movement toward full approval and integration of gays and lesbians involves a very small percentage of the American population.  Unlike the civil rights movement of the 20th century, gays and lesbians are more highly educated, earn more, have full access to political structures, and unfettered access and influence to the media (in all forms).  Unlike the civil rights movement of the 20th century, the requests of gays and lesbians is not for tolerance and equality before the law but for approval from every corner of the American experience.  I believe that it is entirely unfair to equate the movement from the institutional sub-humanity of Black Americans to equal protection and access before the Law with the movement to accept gay and lesbian marriage.

The changing face of diversity in America means that there is no more tolerance.  The new America has become an increasingly intolerant public square that now threatens to enforce its political correctness upon religious speech and private speech in a way that should shock and offend us.  But it does not seem to arouse much anger or upset.  The issue here is not whether a Duck Dynasty character should lose his job for his views but the very labeling of his opinion as hate speech and the insistence that this kind of talk is not to be allowed in America today. 

In but a few years, what is barely different from the position of Pres. Obama prior to a few years ago has suddenly become the words that cannot be tolerated.  In other words, the people who claim that they had to be closeted or lose reputation or job are now claiming that anyone who refuses to approve (note the word approve not tolerate) of them and their lifestyle must be closeted from public speech and punished for their views.  Nearly the whole of America would have unhesitatingly approved what the Duck Dynasty patriarch said thirty years ago, a vast majority fifteen years ago, but today it is impossible to disagree with the politically correct line and not be labeled a bigot, hate monger, and silenced.

Frankly, I really do not care if he keeps or loses his job with A&E.  He does not speak for me, for the Church, or for Christians but I am very concerned that the position of Christians will soon become untenable in the public square, effectively silencing the moral voice of the church and her members UNLESS they approve wholeheartedly with the GLBT position on just about anything.  As far as I know GLBT folks are not at all threatened by those who disapprove of homosexuality.  The GLBT advocacy has full and unfettered access to politicians, the media, money, and prominent people to make their point.  And their points seems to be silencing anyone and everyone who disagrees with them for whatever reason.  Diversity is an illusion in America if disagreement is not tolerated.  When this intolerance impinges upon religious freedom (like this instance), we will find ourselves in a first rate constitutional crisis.  In the end, it will be about far more than a trendy program on a small TV network but about the ability of people of faith to speak faithfully.

An Anglican Conundrum. . . among other things

The November News:

The Church of England's ruling body has voted in favour of proposals which could allow the ordination of women bishops next year.  Members of the general synod passed a motion with a majority of 378 to eight, with 25 abstentions.  It paves the way for endorsement of women bishops alongside a "declaration" by bishops setting out guidance for parishes which reject female ministry.

The Issue:

If you have women priests, where is the problem in having women bishops?  I have heard nothing but complaints from conservative Anglican friends about this action of the C of E and nothing but I told you so from its critics outside.  I am certainly not in favor of women bishops but that is because I am also against breaking with the catholic and apostolic practice of the church and ordaining female priests (presbyters, pastors, you name it).  I do not really have much of a position on women bishops because I cannot get there as long as I remain opposed to the ordination of women to the pastoral office (Lutheran terminology) or to the priesthood (other terminology).

Quite frankly, I think it the ultimate of sexism to ordain women as priests (pastors) and then to refuse to consecrate them bishops.  That is the ultimate expression of not good enough (which has nothing whatsoever to do with why I am opposed to the ordination of women to the priestly/pastoral office).  If ever a woman has a right to feel slighted, it would seem that she should be offended by those who will ordain them deacons and priests but refuse to consecrate them bishops.

There is no sexism involved in the choice not to ordain women to the priestly/pastoral office.  It is not given for the Church to do this.  Period.  We have the example of our Lord with the apostles and the Church in the New Testament (Epistles of St. Paul to Timothy and Titus, among other texts) in which it is not given for a woman to receive the laying on of hands.  She is not called to this office.  Period.  It has nothing to do with her capability or desire but everything to do with the inability of the Church to transcend the word and example of the Church from the apostles down to modern times.  Ordination is not a right.  The Church is not obligated to affirm everyone who feels an inner call.  Indeed, that is why the Church must confirm that inner call with the external call and ordination.

But when it comes to an artificial dividing line between female priests and deacons on the one hand and bishops on the other, I just do not get it.  If you are going to have one, you will have the other... eventually.  Somebody should have seen this coming.  It is an obvious conclusion inherent in the practice of ordaining women as deacons and priests.  So to those who complain, I wonder why now and why not before?  To those who think that this action may be enough to cause you to jettison the good old C of E, I wonder why now and why not before?

As much as I consider myself an anglophile, I cannot for the life of me understand the artificial and arbitrary distinction between ordination and consecration, deacon/priest and bishop???  If you get the first, you will get the other.  It is a no brainer.

Which makes me wonder why some go up to a point but no further... those who will leave the ELCA over homosexual clergy but will overlook every other abdication of catholicity up to that point... those who will live with women priests/pastors but draw the line at female bishops...  It just does not make any sense to me.  Am I the only one who does not see it?

PS... yes I know the picture is from the Episcopal Church... but it is so precious AND yes I know this is late but, frankly, I had other things to think about until now...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Matthew style Christmas story. . .

Sermon for Advent IVA, preached on Sunday, December 22, 2013.

    Last week my family enjoyed the Amy Grant and Vince Gill Christmas at the Schermerhorn.  In the midst of the music, the Christmas story from Luke 2 was recited.  Nearly everyone in the audience was mouthing the familiar words of Quirinius and the census, no room at the inn, angels singing, shepherds visiting...  We know the details of Luke’s story so well, we can repeat the story whether we are religious or not.  But if all we had was Matthew's Christmas story we might be a bit disappointed.  Instead he has a bride-groom disappointed to find his bridge with child, ready to ditch the wedding and quietly dispose of her.  The angels in this story do no singing.  Instead they convince Joseph that God's promise is now kept, the gift of a Savior who will save His people from their sin.
    In comparison to Luke's Christmas story, Matthew's seems less a dream and more like a nightmare.  Matthew has no angels singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" but instead they are dispatched by God to warn Joseph to stay put.  In place of lofty talk of glory, these angels speak of sin and a people captive to that sin so that they need a Savior to set them free.  Instead of inviting angels who speak to shepherds, they warn Joseph of a tyrant whose rage will threaten the child.  Then they steal from the holy family any chance to name the Child and instead tell them what this Child will be named and how He will live up to that name.
    We like the sweet story of Luke but I wonder if Matthew is not the more relevant words a world in darkness and death need to hear.  In Luke it might be easy to miss the point for all the details, especially if that is all you hear, but Matthew insists upon spoiling the fantasy with a heavy dose of reality, with talk of disappointment and doubt, sin and death.
    Matthew's hope lies hidden in the disappointment of a man about to take a woman as his bride, a son to be born not as the glory of his earthly Father but the Son of God in flesh and blood.  Matthew makes it clear that this Christ comes not to receive the adoration of His people but to suffer in their place for sin, to die their death of sin, and to rise to offer hope to a dying and broken world.
    Matthew's hope lies hidden in the prophetic Word which writes history like a script for the saving purpose of God's will.  The many and various ways of God's speaking not come to a head in the flesh and blood of His Son, born of a Virgin.  The plan of salvation written before time began now unfolds within time and history, location and place, to keep the promise and deliver His people once for all by His once for all death.
    Matthew's hope lies hidden in a Savior who is born to die and whose death will fully and finally end sin's curse and release His people from their captivity.  Matthew's hope is dirty and messy, born of real doubt and fear, disappointment and despair.  Matthew's hope pierces the night not with the joyous sound of birth but with a baby's cry that foreshadows the wounds He wears for a wounded people, the suffering He endures to save the suffering, and the sigh of death with which death is swallowed up once and for all.
    Which one do we need to hear?  You can memorize all the wonderful details of Luke’s story but if you miss why this Child was born and what He has come to do, you have nothing left worth remembering.  The Emmanuel is not the Son of God come to visit but the God who stands with His sinful and dying people, to wear their mortal clothing and pay their debt, so that they might be set free through forgiveness to live the new lives of His promise.
    The Church is like Matthew’s Gospel at Christmastime.  The Church is the real presence of the suffering Christ in the world, drawing attention to the reason we call Him Emmanuel and the purpose for which He was born.  We are not here to offer a fantasy get away or a great escape from the harsh reality of our lives lived under the shadow of sin and its death.  No, we are here to speak still of the God who is in our midst, hidden in our suffering, sorrows, and tears.  The God who is with us and whose grace refuses to give up quickly upon the goal of redeeming us and His whole lost world.  So God continues to call us to repentance and faith, to hear the story over and over that we might find in it the surprise of Him who is come for me, for my sins, and for my death.
    Here in Word and Sacrament the same Word of the Lord spoken by Luke is present, delivering the promise of the ages in the flesh and blood of Christ, the voice that lifts the heavy weight of our sins, and the life that death cannot overcome.  It is this Christchild that we come to meet in the manger and no other will suffice.  Give me Jesus or nothing at all.
    Here we come with angels singing and warning at the same time, with the Good News of God that is always set in the midst of the bad news of sin, suffering, pain, and death.  Here we come the broken to be made whole and the dying to be given life and the sinner seeking righteousness and all of these are found in the wood of the manger, the shape of the cross, the mystery of the empty tomb.  It is in this story that we wonder as we wander, pondering by faith in the heart what our ears have heard and learning with stumbling voice to sing the joy that is born for us.
    Here is Emmanuel.  Here is God with us.  Here is salvation full and free.  Here is the prophet's promise kept.  Here is life.  Come and believe, come and repent, come and rejoice!

End of the year loose ends. . .

At the end of a calendar year, one of the things that impresses me most is the list of those who died in the year past.  It always includes individuals whose passing I had not noted at the time of their death.  It seems always to surprise me who departed this life without much fanfare.  It is the end of the year and now I realize that a composer died November 12,  a man whose work I have found always interesting though not always easy.  That would be John Tavener. 

Most of his work is religious in nature and he had a famous conversion to Orthodoxy which he insisted was genuine even though he searched outside its sphere for musical ideas.  That insistence was recorded in an interview only days before his death so I believe it is credible.  It is hard to listen to his work without being drawn into its spiritual depth -- often by its silence as well as its sound.

One such piece is The Protecting Veil.

Another, far more popular due to its use in the funeral of Princess Diana, is the Song for Athene.

But my all time favorite is this version of William Blake's The Lamb for unaccompanied SATB choir.  Here it is sung at King's College at Christmas -- its usual season for usage.


Friday, December 27, 2013

The plan all along. . .

Sermon for the Nativity of our Lord, preached on Christmas Day, 2013.

    If you are like me, you probably grew up thinking God acts like we do.  He has plans and contingency plans and back up plans because nothing goes as you want it to.  In my case I thought Jesus was a last minute substitution into the game of salvation – a game which God has planned to win with the force of the Law and its demands to shape up.  When at the 1 yard line and it was clear the Law could not deliver, God sent in Jesus to bring home the victory.  Jesus who ended up a last minute plan B, an unplanned substitute when things went wrong.
    How wrong I was.  Today we heard John begin Christmas not with an angel's news to Mary or a forced trip to Bethlehem or a child born in a stable.  No, John begins at the very beginning this story of redemption.  Before the foundation of the world was made.  Before prophets and priests, before Law and Sinai, before David and Solomon, before Abraham and Moses, before Noah and Adam.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and was God.
    In the beginning all things were made through this Word and nothing that is did not come through Him.  In Him was life and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  The pre-incarnate Jesus, the Divine Logos, the Word was there from the beginning.  And in that Word was the future lying in wait to be revealed, to be fulfilled, to become flesh and dwell among us strong to save.
    The true Light was coming.  Not as some last minute substitution but the main plan all along.  The whole game hinged upon His coming and from the beginning this is how it was to be.  He came to a world that we made by Him but that recognized Him no more.  So great is sin's power that it stripped us of our memory to leave us fearful and afraid.  So grate is sin's power that it left us unable to recognize the face of our Maker.
    There are folks in my family who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's.  It is terrible curse to see people whom you love having their memories stripped from them until you become a stranger and their faces are left empty.  Perhaps you have family like this.  But that is exactly how we became to God.  When sin stripped away our memory, turned love into fear, God looked on us in love but we could not return that love.  We looked to Him with blank faces, the voice of our Creator became a stranger to us, even the voice of fear and terror.  Yet so great is His love that He loved us when we could not love Him.
    The Word of the prophets was like pieces of a puzzle, hints of this future, that would finally and fully come together when He became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  To all who receive Him, to whom the Spirit breaks through the wall of fear and gives us faith, there is the right and privilege of His name, of His redemption, and of His family.
    We are born not of flesh and blood nor of the will of man but the will of God.  We have seen His glory.  It did not begin with shepherds and angels.  Before angels and shepherds, before full inns and evil Herods, before wise men and gifts, there is the Word that is now flesh to reveal all the glory of God in the grace that saves, redeems, and restores us.  What we lost in Eden and more.  What we surrendered to sin, the serpent, and the suffering of death and more.  More than we hope or dream.
    This glory of God is not accident in flesh but the game plan of God to save us.  The Law was our steward to protect us from ourselves until the Savior would come.  The Law points us to Him who can save a people with broken righteousness.  The Law becomes the delight of those who have met in the manger and the cross the Word made flesh.
    The Word before time has entered time as one of us, wearing our flesh and blood, to reset the clock and bring us from the defeat of our failures to the victory of His death and resurrection.  No, Jesus was no last minute sub but the game plan of God all along.  Have you ever watched a movie that kept you guessing until the end?  Only the God who is love could undertake such a plan and make it work for us and our salvation. 
    That is what we come for today.  For now it is fully and finally revealed.  It was always Jesus.  It was always grace.  It was always mercy.  It was always the plan.  Now the Father has made it plain and clear.  See Jesus and you see everything.  Amen.

Christmas photos... or Christmas memories...

Some startling stats projected for 2014:
  • an estimated that 1.5 billion smartphone cameras will take nearly one trillion photos – that’s three thousand in the time it took to read this... 
  • 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day...
  • every 2 minutes we take as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800’s... 
 We are flooded with photos.  In my own history, we would take a few pictures of our kids when they were small, make several copies, and send them to the grandparents miles away.  We did this every couple of months, especially at holidays and birthdays, etc...  Photos were not cheap but they were easy.  I started with a little square box from Kodak and have had an Instamatic, several 35mm, a 2x2 professional grade unit, a Polaroid, and a host of forgettable cameras in between.  Although we are all digital now, I still keep my last 35mm Nikon in my desk drawer (but I have not used it for a long time).  We have 14 megapixel cameras for good pictures and the rest of the time, like the hoards of other smart phone users, we just turn to the phone to capture the moment.  During my life I watched the giant whose name was synonymous with photography become an also ran on the side of the road (Kodak) and have seen the Japanese moved from center stage by the products of Korea.  What will the future be like?  If I can guess about it at all, the still image will give way to the movie.  Already any decent digital camera and nearly all smart phones can take movies of much better quality than most motion pictures were for the majority of my life.

Just a question, however.  Not to rain on the photo parade but I wonder if the abundance of photos has enhanced or diluted our memories?  Once we gathered around few photos to refresh our memories by the stories told.  Now I fear that our stories are lost and we are left only with photos.  But what do these photos mean without the stories they capture?  How can they tell us anything unless we also remember the stories the images show?  How will we remember the whole story with only a snapshot of the moment left?

There is clearly no turning back and I am not sure I want to give up all the visual images that define our culture, life, and even faith today.  But I do not hesitate to question how valuable these will be to those who come after us unless we also pass on the sacred memory of individual, family, community, and church.  For instance, it is a nice thing to have a video of a wedding, baptism, confirmation, etc.. and to share it with those who cannot attend.  But at what point does the video become the excuse for not attending?  At what point do we surrender our participation in the actual event for the virtual participation of photo or movie?  When do we realize that no video captures the whole but, like the viewpoint of the individual, only one eye upon what is happening?  Indeed, the video can be manipulated and the photo staged to obscure and change what actually happened?  Photoshop has become a verb for the practice of making image and moving image lie.  Who can tell what is truth unless we at least accompany these images with the story?

I am more and more compelled by the details of the authors of the Scriptures.  Once I thought them ancillary to the larger purpose of the main point but now I am inclined to see these details as themselves the main points in the stories they tell.  Many have suggested that the abundance of details does not detract from the historicity of what Scripture says but, just the opposite, enhances the credibility of the story they tell.  Richard Bauckham is among the current crop of authors who draw attention to the details of the eyewitnesses.  They would remind us that the faith is Word centered and story focused.  I wonder if this becomes hard on us living in a digital age of image and movie that dominate our lives?

Christmas is coming and with it how many bazillion photos and movies posted on social media and sent to family members far and near?  The photos and movies are not the story.  They can be tools to enhance the story but the story remains the central focus -- of family life, culture, community, and the faith.  We dare not forget it or the photos will tell us nothing at all.  I plead with families to share their stories while there are still the elders to pass them on and to the Church, custodian of the memory and keeper of the faith, to do the same.  Tell the story.

A while ago we were at an antique store and there were a number of elaborately framed photos from many generations past.  With them books of photos taken about the same time.  Upon closer inspection we found that the faces were common to both -- the heavily and richly carved frames and the obviously expensive family photo albums.  How sad, however, that they meant nothing to us or to anyone there.  These were merely images with no story.  Whether the family had died or simply discarded these relics of the past, the saddest thing of all is the thought of their stories being gone forever.  The photos remained but they meant nothing without the story.  Surely there is wisdom in this and a lesson to be learned.

In 2014 it is estimated that 1.5 billion smartphone cameras will take nearly one trillion photos – that’s hundreds of thousands of photos every minute (three thousand in the time it took to read this sentence). Three hundred million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day capturing every poignant, funny, strange, exotic and dull moment, from our latest meal, to the TV show we are watching, to the item of IKEA furniture that we just assembled. Every two minutes mankind collectively takes as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800’s. While the digital camera of the late 1990’s provided a freedom that was never known with film, the smartphone camera has gone even further making every person with a phone in their pocket a photographer and turning every location (from the bathroom to the ballpark) into a backdrop. - See more at: http://www.ignitumtoday.com/2013/11/17/too-many-photos-too-few-memories/#sthash.2EgFPMQT.dpufIn 2014 it is estimated that 1.5 billion smartphone cameras will take nearly one trillion photos – that’s hundreds of thousands of photos every minute (three thousand in the time it took to read this sentence). Three hundred million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day capturing every poignant, funny, strange, exotic and dull moment, from our latest meal, to the TV show we are watching, to the item of IKEA furniture that we just assembled. Every two minutes mankind collectively takes as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800’s. While the digital camera of the late 1990’s provided a freedom that was never known with film, the smartphone camera has gone even further making every person with a phone in their pocket a photographer and turning every location (from the bathroom to the ballpark) into a backdrop

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A little Christmas Magic or more

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmass Eve, preached on December 24, 2013.

    I overheard some folks talking about the magic of Christmas. We were all standing in line, which is what you do before Christmas.  I was curious, however, because they both admitted they are not religious.  The magic of their Christmas was a fantasy of decorating and parties, gifts and gatherings, of Christmas specials and carols we like because of how they sound more than what they say.  In a sense they were speaking as adults who get to act like children in one brief moment of fantasy and dreams. 
    Like all the Santa movies when the imagination of a child saves stuffy and hard adults from their joyless lives, they were speaking of Christmas magic as an escape, a mental get away, complete with the sound of sleigh bells, the smell of hot chocolate and Christmas pudding, and families that bury the hatchet as we open our dream gifts.
    Sometimes, we Christians think of Christmas as the same magic but with a different story.  Instead of a fat man in a red suit, we substitute a baby lying in a manger.  The sleigh is replaced by a donkey and the ride is to Bethlehem where there is no room at the inn and shepherds come to own the child at the prompting of the angels. 
    We surely love the idea of magic in a world of hard work in which things seem cut and dried, ordinary and routine.  But we have more than a different story.  We have no fantasy or magic.  Instead we meet tonight to hear of hope and truth, of life and light, of a Child born to be a Man, of flesh that hides the face of God, of a Savior born to suffer, die, and redeem His people.
    Christmas is the story of birth and there is little magic in birth.  It is messy and risky.  The mother screams in labor and is followed up by a child's cry as first the poisoned air of death he breathes.  There is no charm in a stable but the stink of dung, disappointment, and death that no baby deserves, the Son of God least of all.
    We have no magical story with a different cast of characters. No, this is more like the island of misfit toy and the polar express of a people who have lost hope and lost faith.  We are here not for some great escape but for the reality of what God did to save us.  We refuse to settle for a momentary distraction even if we are weary of the bad news of financial insecurity, a world not at peace, political gridlock, and illness. 
    The promise of today is a reality strong enough on which to hang our hope.  We need no imaginary god but a real Emmanuel (God with us) to come amid the think and thin of our broken hopes and dreams, bodies and lives.  That is why we are here.
    Tonight we come seeking a birth big enough to carry death, truth to cut through all the lies, and hope strong enough for a people who fear there is not much left to hope for.  We come not as spectators to watch but as those who have a personal stake in this story.  We are here not for a gift exchange but to trade in our sins for forgiveness, our wounds for healing, our hurts for relief, our sadness for joy, and our death for His life.  With stakes that high, fantasy will not do.  We need reality and truth.
    I know you have heard it all a thousand times before, but that does not make it any less true.  Tonight the manger calls to you.  Tonight the Child born invites you to believe.  Tonight the Lord of life who dies our death bids us come to Him.  There is here truth strong enough for us to grasp and we will not be disappointed.  There is here hope enough to secure our doubts and fears for more than a day or a year but for all eternity. 
    We come not for a God who pats us on the head and says it is all good.  We come for a God who sees us as we are and still loves us but who loves us enough to redeem us from broken lives and wash clean the stains of sin in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We come for a God who will not run from us in our need and who will not lie to us about the future.  We need this Christchild, this manger, this Savior, this cross, and this resurrection.  We need more than magic.  Give us Jesus.
    Some may be content with a little magic but I fear for them.  I need no Jesus born in a nativity play.  I need the Savior who is born to a world that refused Him room but saved us still.  I need a child born to a Virgin Mother, born in a stable, lying in a manger, fleeing a tyrant's wrath, who grew up in mystery, until He disclosed Himself as the promise of your redemption and mine.  My sins and my wounds too big for dreams; I need a real Savior strong enough to save me from myself.
    Oh, you may say, Pastor, you are spoiling Christmas with all this depressing talk.  But of course, I am.  Christmas is already spoiled by the reality of our lost lives.  Let us not ignore this but own up to it so that we might find real hope strong enough to save us. 
    We are too old to dress up like shepherds and angels, too wise to believe that a Silent Night sung by candlelight is enough to fix us, too hard to believe that dreams come true.  So leave behind the false and illusive magic for real love, real grace, and real mercy.  There is no magic here in God's house but there is grace to save you.  There is no magic here but mercy for those who lament their sins and long to be clean.  There is no magic here but redemption for the lost and life for the dying, truth powerful enough to save.
    Your believing does not make true anymore than your doubt destroys the truth.  But it is all merely magic unless and until you come with faith to meet Him here in His Word and Table. So come... come to the manger to see the cross and seeing the cross behold your salvation.  For here in the city of David is born the Savior who is Christ the Lord... for you, for me, for all.  Amen.

Mega Death. . .

While catching up on some reading I encountered a piece by William Simon, Jr., published in First Things On the Square blog.  It is an interesting piece and confirms to me that Lutherans are not the only ones who act in desperation and so are gravely tempted to betray their identity in pursuit of earthly success in the parish.  It is not quite the same but the tell tale signs are too familiar to ignore.  The idea that clergy are more often the problem than the solution, the lack of talk about Word and Sacrament, the conversations consumed with what others are doing and how to replicate it, the focus upon laity which sees Pastors more into chief volunteer officers than priestly servants, and the fascination with life on the edge -- of the denomination, hierarchy, structure, and trend.

What amazes me most, however, is that this article (really a speech) seems to skirt the essential question of who we are to focus on what we do.  It is a typical doomsday scenario in which the desolate future of no priests, gigantic parishes, and lay leadership is the only thing the crystal ball can yield.  No matter that the priestly service of Word and Sacrament is the central core and focus of any liturgical community -- be it Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal.  Never mind that priestly vocations are up and a few seminaries are actually nearly full.  No, the business community provides the impetus and the theologians of this movement live in both kingdoms (Peter Drucker) and theology seems to take second place to methodology.  It seems that the solution to every problem in the Church is a systems solution to a systems problem -- at least that seems to be how I read much of the literature and proponents.  Who moved the cheese?  Not what do we believe, confess, and teach...

So at one and the same time I am both comforted and made even more anxious that the Roman Catholics may be drinking the same koolaid as the Lutherans.  It just goes to show you that when you doubt or are distracted from the essential identity of creed and confession, you can and will do just about anything to promote institutional success.

Strangely enough, at the same time I read an article praising Francis Cardinal George of Chicago and his insistence that “the most important conversations on the planet” take place in the confessional and his prediction that instead of institutional and earthly success, the Church of the future will be marked by persecution and a smaller size.  He says prophetically about the implications of radical secularization for America: “I will die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die as a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

I think Cardinal George is far closer to the reality of what is to come than William Simon, Jr.  I also think that the mega church models so trumpeted as our future are more likely to lead to the mega death of the Church than to guarantee its faithful and fruitful future...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ruins. . . that give way to an eternal city. . .

...all our pleasant places have become ruins...so says the prophet Isaiah in 64:11.  It is not simply a call to acknowledge the sorry state of affairs in the broken and fallen reality of what once was.  It is also a call to see in the ruins the former beauty and the present promise of the restoration at the hands of God.  The nature of Advent's call to survey the ruins of our fallen lives is not the lament of the hopeless but the sight of the faithful who see in those very ruins the pattern of what was and what will be again by God's gracious intervention.

Repentance in Advent does not end with the lament of the ruins of our lost lives, the mountains of our sin, and our inability to correct the sinful desire of our hearts.  No, indeed.  The ruins are ruins, to be sure, but they are the visible pointers not only to what was lost but also to what Christ has come to restore.

Walking in the ruins of once noble buildings we are left with two choices.  We can lament their state and grieve over their loss.  But that is not all we can do.  We can imagine their glory within the limitations of human frailty and be encouraged even by those ruins.  So it is with repentance.  We survey the ruins of our lost lives and our world of darkness and death but we can also be encouraged by the promise of Christ and the restoration of what these images point to.  Ours is not the lament of a people who have no hope.  Ours is the repentant heart of a people who see in the images of our fallenness also the promise of what is to come.  What we lost because of Eden's rebellion will be restored to us in Christ.  What was stolen to us by death (the unknown consequence of that rebellion), Christ has come to replace, but with a twist.  Death will no longer threaten us and that which Christ restores will no longer live in tension with the potential for its loss.

Faith trusts not in what is seen but the unseen.  This is not only the hiddenness of God but the promise of what will be.  Faith affirms that despite what we see in the ruins of our world and our lives, God is trustworthy.  He is even now at work in the midst of the broken nature of our lives and our world.  So the Advent cry is not only to look around but to look up, not only to shed the tears of regret that accompany honest repentance, but to weep with joy at the God who gives back what was lost and more.

Advent seamlessly gives way to Christmas when in the midst of the ruins hope is born.  A child's cry stirs the night.  Angel voices and shepherd eyes behold the promise of our tomorrow right in the ruins of the present day.  The shape of our redemption is flesh and blood of the God who has kept His promise and become His people's shepherd and savior.  Christmas seamlessly gives way to Lent and Easter as the promise unfolds.  In the ruins of defeat and suffering, crucifixion and death, God has hidden our hope -- the dawn of the new day of salvation.  Easter confirms that the dead lives so that the dying may live through Him.  And all of this seamlessly unfolds into the waiting of a world living in the in-between of the promise and its unfolding end.  All along the way the Church speaks with the voice of faith.  Maranatha.  Come, Lord Jesus!






And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Comments Widget Down

Sorry folks, Blogger has informed me that the Top Comments widget is down and cannot be used until repaired... I am not moderating or refusing comments, just the little box on the side is down for now...

What you hear and see...

In the week that followed Advent 3, I became more and more interested in what Jesus said in response to the disciples of John asking:  Are you the One who is to come or should we wait for another?  It strikes me that Jesus answer was far more deliberate than we give Him credit.  Go and tell John what you hear and see...

Go and tell John what you hear. . .  This seems to beg the disciples of John to hear the Word of the Lord, to listen to the voice of the prophets, of whom John is greatest.  It is not a request to pass on rumor, guess, or opinion but the one Word that is solid and concrete, the Word that endures forever.  It is as if Jesus were asking them to hear the Word of the Lord in exactly the same way that St. Paul reports Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God...  Jesus does not ask for the to conclude anything but to listen.

Go and tell John what you see. . .  Again, Jesus does not invite them to interpret what they see but to actually see -- to see the Word as a visible Word in the promise kept and the Word that actually does what it says.  Do the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead live, and the poor have the good news preached to them?  This is not a call to interpret the signs of the times but to see with eyes of faith.  In this way the miracles that Jesus refers to are made to be sacraments (visible Word) of the Kingdom.  They are not different from the Word but the Word in action.  Jesus asks them to see with eyes of faith what the Word (He) is doing in their midst.

It is as if Jesus is previewing Word and Sacrament.  The Word that speaks the Kingdom to ears who will hear it (with faith prompted by the Holy Spirit) -- this Word still speaks, still delivers what it promises and still does what it says.  Where that Word speaks, the blind still see, the deaf still hear, the lame walk and dance, the dead are raised never to die again, and the poor hear good news of eternal consequence.  The Sacraments are still the Word in action, hidden in the weakness of earthly form, delivering heavenly grace.  The blind, deaf, lame, dead, and poor come to the waters and they see, heard, walk, live, and rejoice.  The blind, deaf, lame, dead, and poor are seated at the Table of the Lord where their eyes are opened, their ears unstopped, their wounds healed eternally, their lives raised to everlasting life, and the poor delight in the riches of grace that is their gift and blessing!

The witness of the Kingdom remains not what we do or have done but on what God has done in Christ to speak rescue to the lost and freedom to the captive and sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.  We are so jaded by technology and the modern miracles that elicit a yawn from us instead of awe that we miss the sacramental miracles of the Kingdom and treat the extraordinary as if it were routine.  We do not need the miracles that are already being done.  We need the miracles unique to the Kingdom of God and those miracles are still happening in our midst by God's design and power, through the Word and Sacraments.

In so many ways we remain like John's disciples -- we want to believe, we do believe, but we are intimidated by the risk and seek the comfort of a guarantee or assurance that will remove every risk from believing.  Are you the One or should we look for another?  Jesus does not offer philosophical proofs or scientific proofs (though these could be offered) but asks us anew the age old question:  What do you hear and see?  And there is the mystery and sacramental presence of the Lord doing what He has promised to do in the midst of His people every week:  through the means of grace.

I am not disappointed -- again!

Once again Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church has not let me down -- her 2013 Christmas message failed to mention Jesus (following on the heels of her Easter message earlier this year and her history of speaking about the great festivals of Christ without actually mentioning Him).

I wait with baited breath for the Queen's Christmas message because she never fails to be more religious than many of the presiding clergy of the communion to which she belongs...

You can read it and weep:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.    Isaiah 9:6

Isaiah pronounces these words to a people who remember the yoke of slavery laid on their shoulders.  They’ve been waiting for this child, whose birth transforms that yoke into a mantle of authority.  They are promised that this authority will continue to grow as the peaceable commonwealth is established – with justice and righteousness for all, and for ever.

This promise is spoken anew to people in every age, to those who have lived under oppression or in dark depression, to the hungry and ill and imprisoned.  The birth we celebrate offers hope, in Word made flesh, who comes among us to heal and walk this way with us.  The mantle of authority on his shoulders begins in the swaddling clothes of a child born in the humblest of circumstances.  Yet that authority is recognized even by foreigners from far away.  That mantle of authority does continue to grow, through a life offered for others, raised into new life, and passed on to new generations of fleshly God-bearers.  Wherever justice and righteousness is done, that authority is growing, borne on the shoulders of the Prince of Peace.

He comes again, bearing the grace of the One whose image he wears in flesh.  Seek him, sing his new song, declare his glory, and tell out the good news to all the nations:  God reigns, and he is coming bearing righteousness and truth on his shoulders.

May you discover that humble authority born again on the edges of the world’s notice.  May that royal inheritance and authority of the stable be born in you, enliven your heart, and rest on your shoulders.  Bear it abroad in peace, this year and throughout the ages.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Meditations 2013. . .

Here are the Advent sermons for 2013. . .

Advent Sermon One 2013 + I Thessalonians 4:13-18

The two things we know least about are both tied together by St. Paul – death and Jesus’ return in glory.  Imagine that.  We are given precious little information about what happens to the dead when they die, even what happens to the dead in Christ, the faithful who, as Scripture says, have fallen asleep.  We are given precious little information about what will happen when Christ returns in His glory – just enough to let our speculation get us into trouble.  Then at the end of this paragraph in which we are given little more than tidbits about either death or Christ’s coming again, St. Paul says, “comfort one another with these words.”  I guess tonight will be a rather short sermon.  Before we write off what we know and rush to speculate about that which we do not know, let us at least give St. Paul the benefit of the doubt and listen to what he has to say to us.

Do not be uninformed.  It is a kindly translation.  I prefer the blunter word.  Do not be ignorant.  It sounds nicer to say you have been uniformed.  It is much harsher to say you have are ignorant.  Do not be, well, stupid.  St. Paul is not merely offending us here.  Being stupid means ignoring what you know to focus on what you don’t.

About those who have fallen asleep...  St. Paul is not into little euphemisms for death designed to cushion the blow.  Our death is like a sleep.  When you sleep you wake up.  That is the first cause for comfort.  The dead in Christ will awaken.  For this reason alone, we neither grieve like those who know no such thing nor do we grieve without hope.  From our perspective as people on earth living within the boundaries of time and space, death is like a sleep from which we WILL awaken.  Okay, we got that far.

We will awaken but to what?  That is one of the reasons I am not attracted to the idea of freezing my body to be thawed out later.  What kind of world would I face if it were possible to awaken from such a frozen state?  After all, I am old enough to realize that the future does not always bring good.  It can also make us long for and even lament the past which, in comparison, seems better.

We will awaken... as Christ awoke.  There is it.  There is the shape of our hope.  It looks like Jesus!  God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep.  The future of those who die in Christ is not unknown.  It looks like Jesus’ own resurrection.  A glorious new body.  No more death.  No more disease.  And, it seems, you can still eat.  Not bad.

We will awaken as Christ awoke.  How do we know this?  There are some trashy hymns out there and one of them is “I Serve a Risen Savior.”  At the end of the chorus in which you have sung a couple of times “He lives!” comes this question “You ask me how I know He lives?”  And then comes the answer:  “He lives within my heart.”  That is not what St. Paul says.  We know this by something a great deal more certain that a feeling in our hearts or an intuition.  We have the Word of the Lord which endures forever.

So we move from death to the second coming of Christ.  The Lord Himself will descend from heaven but not in the hidden form of a Virgin in Bethlehem.  This coming will be unmistakable.  A cry of command, the voice of an archangel, the sound of the trumpet, and the dead in Christ will raise first before any other business of the Kingdom takes place.  Then, joined with those who have not yet died, they a caught up in the mighty hand of the Lord to meet Him in the air, joined to Him so that they can never more be parted.  We will always be with the Lord.

This is why we celebrate Advent.  We need no preparation for Bethlehem.  Its day has come and gone and now it is only a fact, a moment in history, in which God delivered upon His promise.  But what took place has deep and profound implications for everything that follows.

First of all death is not the end.  It is no destroyer of God’s purpose anymore.  Instead it has become a tool in the hands of God, a gate or door through which we pass to be with Christ, like Christ.  Do not fear death.  Fear life with only death as the end.  Encourage one another with these words.  Death cannot take from you that which Christ has given.  Those who sleep in Christ shall awaken in Christ.

Second, Christ’s coming is not the fearful entrance of the unknown but the coming of the One who finishes what He has begun, delivers to us the fullness of His promise, and does what He has said He will do.  There is in this return of Christ the reunion with those who have gone before, there is the bestowal of the life that death cannot steal, and there is the unlimited future with the Lord that He has made possible by His death and resurrection.

So... We do not grieve as a people without hope.  We grieve as the hopeful, who watch as the future unfolds in preview each Sunday in the unity and communion of the saints with those who gather here.  We do not grieve as a people without hope.  We grieve as the hopeful who want what the future God has promised and who anticipate that future every Sunday in the Holy Communion.

Encourage one another with these words.  The dead are not dead but waiting with us for the finishing of the new creation born of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Christ’s coming will not be to separate us but to unite us in perfect communion with Him and each other for all eternity.  We will be always with the Lord – not left to a better version of today but the radically new tomorrow which eye has not seen, ear not heard, and mind not imagined.  Encourage one another with these words. 

The grieving who lose their perspective on hope... the people who live in fear of Christ’s return... the Christians who wonder every time they turn on the news... Our death is all wrapped in Christ’s return... so that hidden in Him and His glory is our hope.  Encourage one another with these words!

Through Advent our focus tends to be obscured by the preparations for Christmas but its call is basically to remember what Christ’s coming means – for the dead who still live in Christ and for the living waiting in hope and expectation for Jesus to complete His new creation.  Tonight we do just that – we restore the Advent focus and encourage one another with these words...

Advent Sermon Two 2013 + I Thessalonians 5:1-11

The times and seasons – boy, wouldn’t it be great if you could lift the cloud of uncertainty and know exactly what to pay attention to and what to ignore!  But that is exactly the point.  St. Paul says you don’t need any lectures, workshops, booklets, or help there.  Funny, that is exactly the opposite of what I feel inside.  What about you?

As is customary for St. Paul, what he says you already know becomes the very thing that he goes on to teach you.  So he says to us to go with what we know and now what we do not know.  Well, what do we know?  The day of the Lord will come as a surprise, like a thief in the night.  You will not know when it is going to happen but that does not mean you cannot prepare for it.  The time when the thief visits your home is always a surprise but that does not mean you cannot install a dead bolt lock, some security lights, get a big dog, and maybe even a security system to prepare for when that thief comes.  Likewise, we already have the tools to be ready for Christ’s coming.

I grew up in a small town in which doors are not locked, keys are left in the vehicles, and still people feel safe.  In the same small town, a thief opened the unlocked door to my home church and stole the sterling chalice, paten, ciborium, flagon, some cheap flatware, a couple of coffee pots, and even the statue of Jesus on the altar.  They were unprepared.  They thought they had peace and security but they were complacent and naive.  It took a thief to bring to their awareness how vulnerable they were.

There may be those who think they can predict the day of our Lord’s return and to interpret the times and seasons but they are deluding themselves.  St. Paul’s point is clear. Go with what you know.  You know Christ’s coming will be a surprise but you also know that He has given you the tools to prepare for His return.  He has given you the Word and the Sacraments.  As St. Paul says, “You are not in darkness... You are children of Light.” 

Darkness for Paul is choosing to focus on what you do not know, on what is not given to you to know, and ignoring what you have been given.  To be awake and sober is to dwell upon that which God has disclosed to you in His Word and the means of grace through which He delivers to you the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Do not sleep.  Do not sleep through church, doze through His Word, or nod off to the Sacrament.  If you do, you will be left as vulnerable as my home church was to its thief.

Sleeping and drunkenness are typically the things of the night or at least the evening.  They are things associated with darkness.  Sleeping here mean to be unconcerned with or inattentive to the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  Drunkenness here does not simply mean drunk on alcohol or drugged up in some way.  It also means drinking in deeply of the things of this mortal life, the passing treasures of the moment as opposed to the eternal treasure of God’s grace.

To be sure we have a lot of sleepy Christians – a lot of folks who come to church on Sunday morning and are unimpressed with what God has done for us and what He gives to us in the means of grace.  A yawn before the splendid treasures of God’s grace is not an unusual problem in a world in which church has become entertainment and the goal of life happiness and pleasure.

We also have a lot of drunk Christians – those whom the Lord has washed clean in the water of baptism, given new birth by the Spirit, called by the Spirit through the Word, and imparted faith as God’s gift and work within them.  But.  There is always a but, isn’t there.  But their hearts are weak before the glittering tease of the world around us.  They are not terrible people but they want to be comfortable, happy, and satisfied with their lives even more than they want to be righteous, holy, and faithful.  They are not awful people but they value pleasure more highly than the inconvenience of repentance, sacrificial acts, and a life of self-less stewardship.

Don’t fall asleep at the wheel and don’t drive under the influence is the message of Paul.  You belong to the day, to the Light, so live a sober life, a life informed and shaped by the Word and Spirit of God.  Put on the breastplate of faith and love, wear the helmet of hope and salvation.  Not out of fear or terror but because of what you know God has done for you. 

My grandfather often said he did something for fear that and then listed the possible bad consequences he was trying to avoid.  We live in the holy fear which rejoices in the because of the manger, the because of the cross, and the because of the empty tomb.  We live not in terror of a guilty conscience but as the forgiven who rejoice in the mercy they know, in the grace they know, in the gift of salvation they know in Christ.

For God so loved the world... that Christ came not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.  God has destined us not for wrath and judgement and condemnation but for salvation in Christ.  We know this because of His death that gives us life.  We hear this in God’s Word.  We receive it in the sacraments.

And then St. Paul introduces another way of defining sleep.  Awake or asleep, that is living or dead, we belong to Christ, we live in Christ and we have passed with Christ through death to the new destiny of life and glory He has prepared for us.

Finally, we hear a familiar closing statement: “encourage one another with these words...”  The same end as last week’s section of First Thessalonians.  Encourage one another.  Build up one another.  Go with what you know – not what you do not.  You have been doing this or you would not be here on a Wednesday before Christmas when the busy-ness of life seems to reach its summit.  Keep on doing this.

Over and over again we get this same call to us as Christians.  Keep on.  Endure.  Continue.  Do not grow weary.  Be steadfast.  You have the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  These are your guidance in life, your joy in sorrow, your strength in weakness, your hope in despair, your peace in turmoil, your comfort in death.  Sadly we grow complacent with these precious means of grace and we forget what is there, we fail to look for all that God has given us, and we stop expecting the fullness of His gifts which come to us right here in the Word preached, the absolution spoken, the water splashed in the name of the Triune God, and the bread and wine set apart with His Word.

So let me end as St. Paul began us tonight.  But you yourselves are already fully aware of this and you don’t need me to tell you that.  Encourage one another with these words.

Advent Sermon Three 2013 + I Thessalonians 5:12-24

I love what St. Paul says tonight.  Respect those who labor among you, are over you in the Lord, and admonish you... and esteem them highly in love because of their work of ministry...  That’s me.  But St. Paul is not saying to respect the man more than the office.  No, the minister is respected because of the ministry.  Here our Lutheran Confessions get it just right.  That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake.

So I will not spend too much time here.  Respect the Pastor as the delivery system through which the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered according to the Lord’s design and definition.  That is enough to say there.  The hard words are the ones that follow.

Be at peace among yourselves.  But not the artificial or contrived peace in which people keep their lips buttoned up and care too little to practice the hard love that is real love.  No, this peace is the fruit of love... love which admonishes the idle whose hearts have become captive to the inconsequential and meaningless... love which encourages the faint hearted who seem overwhelmed by the burdens they carry and the troubles around them... love which helps the weak and does not push them off or away... love which exercises patience in judgement and patience in presuming to know the person or what is best for them... love which is persistent in prayer.

That is a tall order.  But that is what characterizes our life together as a church.  Love strong enough to admonish the erring.  Love soft enough to encourage the faint of heart.  Love gentle enough to loan our strength to the weak.  Love patient enough to hang in for the long haul with those who need us.  If this happens, and it does for many of us, we will have what we need for those in any kind of trouble to sustain them through the day of their trouble.

That is the Word for the way we relate to others and then St. Paul offers us some somber words about our own hearts.  Do not return evil for evil.  This means control your tongue and reign in the great temptation to return the worst to those who fail to show us our best.  As Luther put in the commandments: put the best construction on all things.  Seek good and seek to do good.  Like Nathaniel or Bartholomew of whom Jesus said there is no guile or deceit in his heart, St. Paul calls on us to be transparent in motive and without evil in our hearts.

That said, St. Paul characterizes our lives not as a people doing what we don’t like and what we think is beneath us or a burden.  Rather, we are to rejoice always and especially in the opportunities for service, even sacrificial service, for so our Lord has served us.  Rejoice always.  Pray always.  Give thanks always.  This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for YOU.

Rejoice always – especially in the midst of troubles and trials.  Then and especially then do we recall what our Lord suffered willingly for us.  Then and especially then do we keep before us not the misery of the day but the joy of the Lord and His gracious gifts.

Pray always – not always on your knees but living so that every thought, word, and deed is prayerful, an expression of our faith and lives directed to the Lord.  Pray always, not one constant mass of words heaped upon each other but a prayerful life in which we offer the Lord all we are to His glory, confident that His will shall carry us through.  We confess our sins of thought, word, and deed, but how often do we think of our lives as being lived to the Lord in thought, word, and deed?

Give thanks always – there is no such thing as happiness and contentment that come from a miserable heart.  Gratitude is the mother of happiness and contentment – not some vague and generic gratitude but the faith that daily and richly remembers what God has done for us, while we yet sinners and enemies.  Grace upon grace.  Mercies new every morning.

This is God’s will.  Joyful of heart, a prayerful life, shaped by a grateful heat.  And then St. Paul gets even more personal.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not close yourself off to the Word and Sacraments.  There it is again.  Do not despise prophecies.  Do not live as though you know all and can do all things but live dependent upon the Lord and His Word guiding you through your life and shaping you for His service.  Test everything – not as the skeptic who refuses faith but as the faithful who love truth, who desire what is good, and who live for the noble character in the high calling of their daily life as Christians.  Hold on to good.  Let go of evil.  That is not hard to understand.  Hold on to the good that is Christ and all that is Christ’s and let go of all that is evil.  I say it this way to catechism students.  Speak as if your grandmother were always in the room.  Do what you would not be ashamed to have grandma find out about.  Maybe I should say “great-grandmother” but I think you get the drift.  If you have nothing to hide, you will not fear exposure.

And finally this wonderful verse that is the epitome of Advent.  Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for He who calls you is faithful and he will keep His promise.

I can only add what we heard the last two weeks.  Encourage one another with these words.  Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for He who calls you is faithful and he will keep His promise.  Encourage one another with these words.

Let God make you holy.  Let Him keep you holy and blameless through confession and forgiveness.  Let Him prepare you for the great and awesome day of Christ’s appearing.  Because even though you are not faithful but fickle, not steadfast but flexible, not confident but prone to doubt... God is not.  He who calls you is faithful, He is steadfast and immovable, and His Word is gold.  He will keep His promise so trust in that promise.  Today. Tomorrow.  Forever.  You will not be disappointed.   Encourage one another with these words.  Amen.