Tuesday, December 31, 2019
Not the end of the decade. . .
That said, every time the calendar changes and a new year begins, decade or not, it is a good time to pause and consider the graciousness of God who has redeemed time for us in Christ so that our days are not lived out in the face of death and with the prospect that our sins will get the last word. Even more so, it is time to rejoice over the God whose mercy remains ever new -- even in the face of the same tired old sins we commit in thought, word, and deed. His is what is new and we present to Him all that is ours -- old, tired, worn out, and weary though it may be. Refreshment comes from Him, from the hope He has planted in us by baptism, and by the faith that lives not by what the eye sees but what His Word promises.
This has been a long year for me and a I am ready to let go of it, at least some parts of it. That is why the secular calendar and God's kairos have a connection. His is the redemption not only of me but of time and by His gracious favor I have a future. That future is written not simply by wrongs but by the forgiveness and restoration of the God who loved us enough to send His Son into our flesh to redeem that flesh and our souls. He does so with the name, the name above all names, that hallows New Year's Eve into the Eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus. Blood shed for the Law begins the new year and the Name of salvation starts off the counting of days again.
Happy New Year!
Christmas Tears. . .
It should come as no surprise that those days that focus on great joy can also be days filled with sorrows and with people who refuse to be consoled. After all, holidays add their own tensions to already tense family situations. They add to our busyness and to our feelings of helplessness. They magnify our loneliness whether that is due to family who cannot be with us or loved ones who are gone. Sometimes, truth to be told, we are relieved when it is all over.
It was that way in Bethlehem. Herod’s anger erupted against Jesus but Jesus was nowhere to be found. The women of Bethlehem suffered when Herod murdered every male child who had not yet reached his third birthday. So a voice was heard in Bethlehem – not the sound of happiness or parties or gifts exchanged but of weeping. The weeping and wailing mothers of Bethlehem refused to be consoled. They found no comfort in the promise that their boys were with God. They blamed God. Why did God not warn their own husbands as He warned Joseph? Why did God not prevent this tragedy? Why must they suffer when it was Jesus Herod sought and not their own sweet boys? Does it sound familiar? And we wonder why God is blamed for every moment of suffering, every tear of loss, and every pain of death? So it is with the daughters of Eve. It is God’s fault.
That is what we learned from our first parents. It is God’s fault. It is always God’s fault. Never mind the good things that God has done and still gives, when we are sad or wounded it is God’s fault. Are we so different from the mothers of Bethlehem? Do we refuse consolation, preferring instead to live with our bitterness and resentment? Do we love to blame anyone and everyone and especially God for all that befalls us? Think how easy it is for us to lay our complaints before God and to forget the good things of His love and mercy. We insist upon being happy and in being given the freedom to define what it is that makes us happy and when it does not come, it must be God’s fault.
Read the history of God’s people. The lives of the saints, both Old Testament and New, are filled with tears and loss. One of the sons of Adam murdered his brother and left Adam and Eve to the broken heart over both. Abraham watches his and Sarah’s bodies age until the hope of a son almost fades away completely. Withered and blind, Jacob blesses the wrong grandson and Joseph is unhappy that God has chosen Ephraim over Manasseh. David buries the son he conceived in sin with Bathsheba. Moses leads the people of God within sight of the Promised Land and dies without entering it. I could go on. I don’t need to – you have your own disappointments to add to the list of the ways God has failed you.
But that is the point. God has not failed you. God is not to blame for all that has wounded you. God is not the cause of evil but Him who rescues us from evil and its end of death. He does so not by the rescue of a moment but by the sacrifice of His only Son. You do not have a God of the dead but of the living. Abraham, Moses, and those little boys of Bethlehem live. So if those moms suffered a lifetime on earth mourning their sons, they have by now enjoyed thousands of years with them in heaven and still more in the eternity God has prepared for those whom He loves. Rachel refuses to be comforted but that is not because God has not brought comfort. That is because God’s comfort was refused in order to preserve anger, bitterness, and hate.
What does the Scripture say? Our present sufferings cannot compare with the weight of glory to be revealed to us. Do you believe that? Jesus did not escape death but was preserved for the death to come. Jesus was not subject to a quick death of soldier’s sword but His life was preserved from this moment so that it might hang for hours on cross, enduring suffering, shame, rejection, and death before the world for whom He died. Jesus escaped nothing but was preserved to meet the future the Father’s love had required and Jesus willingly endured for your sake and mine.
Friends, I know you are sad and wounded. I know some of your homes are empty and your hearts are broken. I know that life has not been kind to you. But God is not the cause of your problems. God is your answer. You may think that forgiveness is not much in the face of the loss of a spouse or child or parent but God’s gift to you IS the means by which that loss is restored in heaven. Forgiveness does not erase all the hurts and complications of this mortal life but it preserves you and those who die in Christ for a life that comes only to the forgiven, who have been washed in Christ’s blood and set upon the path of everlasting life. You may be hurting but you are not without hope.
This is Christmas. God is here in the midst of all the ruins of our lives and the pains and losses we suffer. God is here preserving us even in our pain to deliver to us everlasting life. You belong to Him. All who are baptized have His promise. You are made righteous in Christ. Your past is forgiven and you are granted a new and eternal future in Christ. Your life does not lead to the dead end of death but to the way of life. And this is given you not because you deserve it or because you are worth it but only because of the generosity of our Lord, because of the riches of His grace, and because of the kindness of His mercy. God loves you.
So for now the world will insult you and life will wound you but none of these can take from you what Christ was born and died to give you. For now sin will come easy and holiness will be hard but you are forgiven and declared righteous in Christ.
For now you must wait for that day when the mysteries of God will be revealed but it is by the mystery of this bread that is His body and this wine that is His blood that you are kept and sustained to the day when Christ shall display all that is now hidden. For now you are like the watchman at his lonely post waiting for the morning light to be relieved of his duty. But do not give up. The morning and the day of Christ is coming.
This is Christmas. So do not refuse God’s consolation. Do not reject His comfort. Do not belittle His gift. Do not choose bitterness over hope, anger over peace, and sorrow over joy. Do not stew in your discontent and turn away God’s gift of contentment and peace. That is the struggle of Christmas. It is not about keeping up the charade of perfect families who always get along and fairy tale lives that always have happy endings. It is about grasping hold of the manger while sorrows come, joining your voice to the angels when your heart wants to curse God, and watching and waiting when all you really want to do is give up. This is Christmas.
The boys of Bethlehem were not sacrificed to save Christ but were victims of the world’s hate for all that belongs to God. God did not abandon them but rescued them for a life better than the best life this world can give. They praised God not by living but by dying and what Herod meant for evil, God rescued for heaven, for peace, and for joy. Their moms did not want to accept it but they understood it. So do you. You are like them victims who suffer for the sins of others as others suffer for your sins, who sit in sadness while the world parties away, and who grieve with wounded hearts all the brokenness of this life. But God is with you. Christ the infant was kept from Herod’s anger to die at the hands of Pilate, in the moment ripe with redemption for Bethlehem’s boys and Clarksville’s widows. You are not without hope. Christ was preserved to become your sacrifice for sin on the cross and the first born of the grave to rescue you from death.
So Merry Christmas. God is there in the worst moments of your life. He will break your pride to bring you to repentance. He will empty you in order to fill you with heaven’s grace. He will put to death your sinful life in baptism so that you might be raised to new and everlasting life in Christ. He will lay your body in the grave only to reach in and raise it up glorious on the last day. God does not ignore your pain but wears it all. Do not refuse His comfort or His joy. You will only hurt yourself. For the Lord has already forgiven you your stubborn refusal of His mercy. My friends, you have hope. And this hope will not disappoint you. Amen.
Monday, December 30, 2019
Gifts at Christmas
Sermon for The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Morning, preached on December 25, 2019 by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich
“For from [Christ’s] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:15)
For the past 4 weeks, we’ve been looking forward to this day. We’ve been making preparations. Our focus has been on the celebration of Christ’s birth, celebrating the Incarnation, celebrating our Lord taking on flesh and blood. And what better way to celebrate this day than with gifts?!
We’d be lying to ourselves if we tried to say that gifts weren’t one of the first things we think of when we think about Christmas. From Black Friday until today, we’re consumed with gifts. We made our lists of all the people we needed to shop for and we picked out the perfect presents for them. We made our wish list of things we wanted to open this morning. Boxes and bows have been on our mind. … But we also say that today isn’t about gifts, it’s about love; and this is true. Christmas is about love, but we can’t get past the fact that it’s also about gifts. Christmas is about love and gifts. It’s about love shown in gifts, specifically God’s love shown in the gift of His Son.
Why do we give gifts on Christmas day? Well, partly because it’s a normal social convention. That’s just what we do. That’s the tradition that’s been passed down. But when you stop and think about it, when you stop and think about the people you give gifts to, the reason you give them is because you love those people. We give them gifts not because they’ve earned them, but because we love them.
Gifts are by definition given, not earned. They’re unmerited. It’s all grace. If a gift was earned, it’d cease to be a gift; it would be payment or a reward. But that’s not why we give gifts. Look again at the list of people you gave gifts to. Did they deserve it? Did they earn it? I’m sure they’ve done some nice things, but I’m also sure they’ve done things to hurt you as well.
Our family and friends don’t deserve the gifts we give, and you know it. Being the closest ones to them, you see all their faults and failings. You see their sin, and you’ve felt their sin. They’ve lied to you, they’ve ignored you, they’ve thought and said mean things, they’ve taken advantage of you, and they’ve failed to respond to your love. … And so have you.
You’ve hurt those closest to you. You’ve lied, you’ve ignored, you’ve said mean things, you’ve taken advantage of and you’ve failed to respond to their love, you’ve selfishly thought about yourself. You in no way deserve any good gift from them; and in no way to you deserve any gift from God, especially the gift of His Son; and yet that’s why you’re here today, because God has graciously given you the gift of His Son.
We don’t deserve anything from God. We don’t deserve a gracious gift from Him, but that’s exactly what you receive, because He loves you. God’s love is the only explanation for why He sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Day. God’s love is the only reason why He came to live in our dark sin filled world. God’s love is the only reason why He gave His Son up to die on the cross for you, a sinner. God could’ve easily left you alone in your sin. He could’ve easily written you off to suffer the full consequences of your sin, to suffer damnation and hell, and He’d be just in doing that. But because of His love for you He gave you the gift of His Son to suffer that punishment so you might receive grace upon grace, so that you would receive the gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life.
The gifts we give on Christmas, they’re nice, they’re thoughtful, and some may be very expensive and valuable, but none of them will last. The boxes and paper and bows will be tomorrow’s trash. The toys we just had to have will be at the bottom of the box next week. Those new clothes will wear and fade. And all the tech and gadgets we received will be obsolete in a short time. None of our gifts, although they’re given in love, will last. They’ll break, they’ll become outdated, and they’ll be useless. But that’s not the case for God’s love gift. The gift of Christ will never become outdated and useless. The gift of Christ will never wear out. He’s the eternal Word that gives life. He’s the Light that never goes out. He’s the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
In Christ, you receive grace upon grace, grace that’s never ending, grace that’s always there. The gift of Christ isn’t a one-time gift. Yes, His sacrifice on the cross was a once and for all; one death to pay for all sin: yours, mine, the sin of the whole world. But by this one sacrifice, the gifts of forgiveness and life are always there, continually given by God, continually received in faith by you His children, every day.
The gift of life given through Baptism in Christ’s name is an everyday gift, as you daily live as God’s child. The gift of forgiveness through the words of Absolution is an everyday gift, removing the guilt and shame of your sin. The gift of salvation given in the Body and Blood of our Lord’s supper is an everyday gift, as you’re nourished and strengthened until the time when that salvation is fully revealed in Christ's coming again. The gift of Christ is the one gift that keeps on giving. It’s the only gift that lasts unto everlasting life.
We try to convince ourselves that Christmas isn’t about gifts, but it is. Christmas has to be about gifts, or else it’s no good to us. But it can’t be about the gifts we give. Christmas is about God’s love Gift given to you. It’s about the gift of His Son, the gift of His forgiveness, the gift of His life. These gracious gifts aren’t earned but given out of God’s love. God freely and continually gives them to you. Christ and His gifts will never go away. His forgiveness and life will never fail. God’s Son is everlasting and the life He gives you is everlasting. In Jesus’ name...Amen.
No solo voices in a choir. . .
From the perspective of the Missouri Synod, individual districts see themselves as free to keep or, for all intents and purposes, to ignore the resolutions of the Synod in convention. So we end up with great differences when it comes to the role of lay ministers (deacons), close(d) communion, governance (with many adopting the so-called Carver governance structure), and the like. Some would rather raise up their own people to the office (SMP pastors) than trust the seminaries to form pastors for the church. Even if these are not quite said in such blunt terms, the practice and intent in these matters is unmistakable.
Within Missouri, the congregation as the real manifestation of church has been used to give the congregation autonomy to ignore the covenants that go with synodical membership. So the parish is free to structure itself without the traditional lay participation that is Missouri's history and to use self-perpetuating boards with minimal input from the larger congregation. The parish and pastor are free to abandon Lutheran in their public identity and, in effect, to hide the confessional identity from those whom they would serve. The congregation and pastor can disregard the hymnal and agenda (except, perhaps, in installations of ministers) and adopt a non-liturgical worship style that departs from the liturgical identity of our confession. The pastor can disregard and ignore the lectionary and substitute his choice for the texts that will be heard on Sunday morning. The congregation has even attempted to bypass the Synod when it comes to the sending of foreign missionaries.
While there are certainly attempts to give theological cover to such things, the reality is that both districts and congregations are applying the radical individualism that has taken over our culture. The Synod, however, is not a collection of solo voices but a choir of voices singing together the same melody of witness and praise. We forget this fact to our harm and once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to contain. This is the other side of the individualism that places personal experience and judgment over Scripture, creed, and confession to decide not simply what is meaningful but what is ultimately true at all.
Lest we think we are alone in this struggle, Pope Francis has created the same kind of confusion in Rome with the passive approval to synodality in which it may appear that Rome not only allows but encourages regions, conferences of bishops, countries, and dioceses to act independently of the rest of the Roman Church with respect to things from the the text of the mass to the role of women to the celibate priesthood. Certainly this is what the German bishops have largely bought into and are promoting in the wake of the Amazonia Synod.
Now Lutherans have no pope (other than the voters assembly as some describe it) and we are in a very different position than Rome, but the same individualism is at work in both. In the end, it will result in a weak and shallow church wherever the individual voices drown out the choir. In a choir the older voices mentor the younger but they sing together, the sum of the parts greater than any individual part. Forgetting the voices of the past and in love with our moment in the spotlight, the church will devolve into actors on a stage playing the parts they want to play, without a common script, and with the presumption that God is happy when everyone does what is right in their own mind. But it does not take long to read out that turned out in the past and what it will lead to in the future.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
Forgotten grace. . .
The result of bequeathing marriage to the secular realm is, in effect, admitting that there is distance between God and the choice to marry or not, to have children or not, and to be faithful to your spouse or not. Marriage is left to personal choice -- not only the choice of who to marry but if to marry. This is not Lutheran. Marriage is not simply a choice but the design of God and, though there are those to whom God has given the grace of singleness, the direction of all humanity is to marry, husband to wife and wife to husband. It is not simply a divine command who may marry but it is the direction of all humanity to marry in accordance with the shape of marriage given by God in creation and to which God has attached the promise of blessing. That some long for marriage and have no husband or wife is not God's intention but the manifestation of sin against the very construct that is the shape of human life on earth.
The same holds true of the choice to have a child or children or not. Our people have come to think of this precisely in terms of the world's idea of personal preference and independent decision. Can this be reconciled with the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth? Do we have a choice here or are children the fruit of the love that is planted by God's design in the woman made for man and the name who desires the woman as the flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone? Birth control has become merely a stewardship issue for some Lutherans as if choosing not to have children is as legitimate a choice as having them. How can we justify this except by ceding to the secular realm of choice and preference this most wonderful grace given to husband and wife? In natural family planning at least the abstinent make sacrifice but with artificial means of birth control there is no sacrifice in choosing not to have child. The pleasure is kept but the fruitfulness is emptied and we have left our people thinking that this is a moral choice they are free to make without all that much consideration or concern. God barely enters into any decision here and thus the morality or immorality of the choice is left supremely to the individual or the couple to do what seems right in their own sight.
In the same way, vocation is too easily surrendered to the realm of choice in the same way and thus God barely registers as reason for who we are or what we do. We simply make prudent choices given the circumstances we find ourselves in -- and that is all Christian morality has become? We Lutherans often presume that these subjects can only be reasoned by two choices -- one that leaves people in the secular realm making their own choices as best they are able or the Roman Catholic model of law, rules, and commandments that must be fulfilled to live within a state of grace. Are these really our only two choices?
Sacraments by our definition have visible meals and a promise of the grace of forgiveness attached to them. That is all well and good. But marriage is sacramental. It has God's institution and it is accompanied with His promise of blessing. It is hardly secular. The family exists not simply for the choice and to fulfill the desires of those within that family but for the purposes for which God has established that family. There, where the faith is lived, taught, and passed down, is where we see that family exists for more than to serve as a building block of society and community. It is the primary incubator of the faith. And the children born to that husband and wife are not mere matters of their own choice or desire but God's will. Be fruitful and multiply did not stop with the introduction of sin but continue even with sin's corruption of its perfection. Marriage is the shape of family and family expects children. This is the witness of Scripture and the manifestation of Christian life in the home. It is not up to the individual couple to decide what is best for them alone. This is not simply a matter of what they think works for them for they and their life together flows from God's design, is sustained by His love, and is marked with His hand of blessing. Children are not incidental or optional to this.
While as the heirs of Luther we do not call marriage a sacrament, we joyfully acknowledge its sacramental character both as God’s institution and gift and we confess it to be a high and holy calling (not simply choice or preference). Marriage is given by God in credation. What God gives is holy and good and for our benefit as well as His glory. Though marriage is His gift to man, it still belongs to Him and He defines it and gives it meaning. More than this, He makes its promises possible with the gift of His love and the power of His forgiveness. Husband and wife have a noble vocation and a high and holy calling to live in the world and before the Lord within the estate of marriage. So Luther paraphrases Proverbs 18:22: “Therefore Solomon also says, ‘Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains a blessing from the Lord.’”
Yet we have stopped talking in this way and left our people with the sad conclusion that when it comes to marriage or having a family, they choose just like any couple not Christian, what is right in their eyes and what works for them. Is that all there is to this?
Marriage belongs to God and is His gift to man. In a context where marriage as God’s institution is under assault, Christians do well to study Luther’s words, which are really the Word of God from Holy Scripture. God grant us to repent of our own abuse of marriage and sexuality, our casual acceptance of cultural mores, and our flippancy toward this sacred institution. God grant us also by His grace to live in the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and believe His promises concerning the blessed estate of matrimony. God is pleased with it, and by it He fills and rules the earth. We should honor and revere marriage as God’s holy will, promote it to our children, pray for its sanctity, and model its holiness in our own relationships. To this end, God help us. (copied from The Rev. Jonathon T. Krenz)
Saturday, December 28, 2019
The Problem of Grief. . .
The Christian funeral rite takes us through the valley of the shadow but does not leave us there. It confronts us with death, with the seriousness of death, and with its reign over human flesh. But it moves us to Him who has answered death with His own life, planted in the ground as seed for three days before rising up triumphant. This Jesus Christ has power to draw unto Himself all who die in Him so that death may not keep them -- anymore than it could keep Him. He promises with His resurrection not a virtual life or an eternal memory or even a spiritual existence but a new and glorious flesh like His and a real life that has no end, where no tears are shed, where no illness threatens, where age and frailty can no longer steal strength and vigor, and where hearts know only perfect peace, contentment, and joy.
The great hymns of the faith offer us not simply a remembrance of the musical taste of the dead but the sung refreshment of this faith and hope. With music the words are sung into our ears and out our lips until they can find firmer place within our hearts and minds. And when we cannot find the voice to raise, those around us gladly loan us their hope by lifting up their own voices in song, singing back to the Lord the very hope He has sung to us in His Son, our Savior.
The whole rite takes place within the Lord's House, around the Word and Table of the Lord. There we are reminded not simply of the life of the dead but how that life was nurtured and nourished by the Lord through His Word read, marked, and inwardly digested and His flesh and blood given and shed for us and present in this bread and cup set apart by His Word for His purpose. We look to the familiar colors of stained glass, the images of the faith all around us, the crucifix (and cross) where the death that killed death is constantly before us, and the place where hope was born becomes the place where hope is refreshed in the face of death.
But most especially do we return to the House of the Lord after the funeral so that we may be as near to those whom we love as is possible until the great and grand reunion when Christ dawns His eternal day. For there, right there, in the Divine Service the voices heard around us and the voices of the saints join with angels and archangels until only one sound is heard -- Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth! Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna evermore! There gathered, the church in time with the church no longer bound by its constraints are one. Part of it glimpsing the future and part of it knowing that future even better than mortal flesh can know. Part of it seated at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb without end and part of it happy to feast upon its foretaste. How can we not find comfort here!
So on this Day of the Holy Innocents, recalling the youngest and first martyrs of Christ, we remember that the cries were not without answer. Christ came for them and He has come for us. The grieving and those who mourn find more than the remembrance of the past but are confronted with the future. For those who die in Christ live evermore. They have a future and we have something to look forward to as we await that day when the dusk and twilight finally give way to the eternal day.
Friday, December 27, 2019
No wonder people doubt the justice of the justice system. . .
Adolfo Martinez, 30, of Ames, was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years for the hate crime of arson, as well as a year for the reckless use of explosives or fire, and 30 days for harassment. The sentences are to be served consecutively, Story County court records show. A jury convicted Martinez in November. He was arrested in June. Martinez said he tore down the flag that had been hanging from the United Church of Christ in Ames and burned it because he opposes homosexuality.
Now if he had burned an American flag, it would have been protected free speech. If he had burned a Christian flag, it would have been within his right according to the freedom of religion. But it appears that certain groups and certain rights trump all others. His crime of hate is deserving of only the stiffest of sentences the law allows.
Let me be clear. I do not condone his actions. I never condone violence and burning anything in anger is, well, violent. But what I do not get and what seems entirely disproportionate is the sentence he received for his violent act that, apparently, did not directly threaten anyone.
Both congregations I have served have been broken into and damage done but police cautioned that it was hard to convict, the criminals probably had other arrests and warrants out on them, and we would not recover anything from the criminal anyway so. . . forgive and forget. But it would seem that this church got other advice and did not drop it. I don't wish anyone harm but I wonder about what qualifies as justice in this whole thing. I also wonder how this happened in Iowa, in the heart of the Midwest, once known for its even handed temperament, its willingness to let bygones be bygones, and its conservative values. Perhaps the Missouri River has grown wider and divides more than land since I grew up just west of the great aquatic border in Nebraska.
I did not post this right away because, to be honest, I thought it was fake news.
Thursday, December 26, 2019
Picture perfect. . .
St. Luke's Christmas story is sort of like the Lord’s Prayer – it is so familiar that we don’t want anybody to mess with it. We don’t want a modernized account but the old words of the old story. There is great comfort in this. The words and the story are like an old friend – whether said by the voice of our pastor or a parent or even Linus in Charlie Brown’s Christmas. But hidden in that familiar story maybe a few surprises we might just have missed.
We all know Mary rode on a donkey to Bethlehem but you will not find that in Scripture. They did not go to Bethlehem willingly but obediently – because none other than Caesar Augustus had demanded it. The reason for it all was not pious but money – the Roman treasury depended upon a good count for taxes to be levied. Yes, taxes paid to an oppressive government by a people who were not citizens and had few rights before the law. There was no inn or hotel in which some stranger sent a pregnant mother about to deliver into the cold of night. Mary and Joseph were looking for lodging among family and instead they got to sleep with the animals and laid the newborn Son of God on the straw of the animal’s food bin. Mary was in great peril during childbirth and so was her Son in great danger of not living to see His first birthday. The shepherds were not nice people but lived on the fringes of respectability and watched their flocks by night because theirs was a dangerous life amid real predators who wanted to eat their sheep. The shepherds were not happy to see angels but were terrified by their encounter with God’s glory in this night. As quickly as they could they retreated back to the sheep.
You are not here tonight because you live a picture perfect life or because you live in a picture perfect world. You locked your cars in the parking lot because we live in a world of thieves and even now you are wondering if your house and gifts are safe. You live in a world ruled not by the smartest or the most moral of folks but those who got elected. You pay more taxes than you want and you fear the folks in Washington are wasting your hard earned tax dollars. You live in a world of people who have no place to sleep – whether pregnant or not, where families still turn their back on their own family members, where neighbors are a pain to live with, and where women still die in child birth and babies are killed in the womb because it is not a good time to have a kid.
You are even now sitting in church with people you do not know and are not sure you want to be too close to. You wish you could see the glory of God but that glory would not comfort you and it just might leave you mute like it did old Zechariah when he met the angel. So instead you are left with making the best of what you have. Merry Christmas. Bah, humbug. We wish that Christmas came in a perfect setting when Jesus was born because if it did for Jesus, then we just might have hope for at least one perfect Christmas along the way – one Christmas without an argument with spouse or kids, one Christmas where you are not rushed to get to church and then to get home, one Christmas where the meal takes as long to eat as it took to make, one Christmas where you actually get what you want, one Christmas where people actually are thankful for what you gave them, and one Christmas in which it was not a race to pack up the decorations and get back to work and the normal routine of life.
It did not happen for Jesus. It will not happen for you. But this is not bad news to offend. This is good news. That first Christmas was no picture perfect story book night. It happened in darkness. It happened in danger. It happened because of sin. It happened in the shadow of death. There was nothing quaint or peaceful then anymore than there is something quaint, peaceful, and wonderful today. Christ did not come for good memories or great meals or wonderful evenings. He was born for all that is wrong with us and with our world. He was born for darkness, the Light to enlighten us and He was born for sin, the Savior to redeem us.
God is not interested in making Kodak moments to preserve in our minds. God is interested in redeeming a sinful people from their sins and delivering us from the kingdom of the devil into His kingdom. He is not interested in giving us a feel good moment but in saving us from the inadequacies of our attempts to fix things and from our attempts to mask death’s reality and make it normal. As the carol says, “In the deep midwinter.” That is, Christ was born in a cold and dangerous world for a people who live in a cold and dangerous world. As Shakespeare might have said the Gospel, He came in the winter of our discontent to save and redeem us, poor sinful creatures.
That is what makes this night so great. It is darkness but in the midst of darkness the Light of the World shines. It is cold but in the midst of the coldness, Christ warms us with the fire of His love. It is a world of rejection and danger but Christ has come with the welcome of the Father and the promise of hope. It is a world of lies and legends but Christ is the only reality stronger than death and He is come to steal us back to Himself with the price of His own blood. It is a world of uncaring and ungrateful people but Christ is here to show us the compassion of God for the unworthy and to teach us to give thanks no matter what the circumstance.
Christmas is not an amusement to make us happy or a distraction to make us forget the things that are not good. It is the reality of the God who is there for you when you need Him most, who comes though you deserve nothing of His kindness and grace, who does not wait for you to know enough to ask or to have enough courage to request Him, but because it is His gracious and loving nature to save us. That is what you need to hear tonight. Every Christmas is a disappointment. Absent families, families who fight, the loss of those whom we love, the ingratitude of the receivers and the pride of the givers, the coldness of a crass world where money reigns, the sighs of disappointment over leaders you thought would make a difference but everything is still the same, the darkness that offers everything but rest, the pains of childbirth, the pains of children, the pains of parents. These are the context for every Christmas.
But it is for this context that Christ has come. Not for picture perfect people and lives but for the wreak of our lives in a sinful world. For our Lord was not simply born in our flesh but has come to redeem us from our flesh. He was born to rescue us – not in the least from our selves and our disappointments and our bitterness over all the well planned memories that go wrong. The shepherds had to be told to go to Bethlehem where they would meet the good tidings of great joy in the birth of a Savior and the reign of peace in their hearts while the war rages on around them! Now I am telling you the very same thing.
There will still be darkness, there will still be troubles, there will still be trials, there will still be disappointments, and there will still be pain and loss. But Christ is here. He has not abandoned us even though we have wandered from Him time after time after time. His grace is sufficient for our all our needs. His mercy is bigger than our sin. His hope is strong enough on which to hang all our hopes and dreams. His life is stronger than death. His peace still passes understanding. He will not quit. He will work for us and hold us accountable until that day when finally the dark breaks that no night can overcome and we meet Him face to face.
This is His gift. This is Christmas. Don’t tie up your heart and mind in knots over all the things that wrong. Look at Jesus. We deserve nothing of His kindness and yet He will grant us all things, what eye has not seen or mind has not dreamed or heart has not desired – more than we can ever imagine. All He asks of us is to believe in Him and from this faith will come the answer to our tears, the answer to our fears, the answer to our sins, and the answer to our death. Let us join with holy Mary in pondering this instead of filling our minds and hearts with all that is wrong. And then, with blessed Mary Mother of our Lord and St. Joseph the Guardian of our Lord, we will learn holy peace and joy in the Savior who is born this day in the city of David, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Oddities unworthy. . .
Big Bag Albs -- You know what I mean. These are those tent-like albs that have huge sleeves (big
enough to hide an acolyte in) and yards of fabric designed to do, well, what? Hide girth? Flow freely? Get a decent alb proportioned to your height and weight and add a cincture. Believe you me yards of flowing fabric makes no man look thinner. It is just plain goofy.
High Water Albs -- Did you grow taller since seminary? Then why is your alb mid-calf? Talk about looking goofy. If your wife would not let you out of the house with high water pants, then ditch the old alb and spend a few extra dollars to find one long enough to come to the top of your shoes. By the way, try out the length WITH cincture since that pulls it up a bit.
Acolyte Cotta on Pastors -- If you wear a surplice (and why not!) then wear one what is fit for an adult male. The surplice should ideally be nearly as long as an alb. While some are a fan of the giant horn sleeves, that is personal preference. But leave the waist length surplice to the acolyte to wear as a cotta (or boy choir!).
Unshined Shoes -- Get some shoe polish and shine those shoes. This is God's house and holy ground and show a little attention to where you are. As one lady reminded me, those at the rail look down and see your shoes. Let them see shoes well cared for. They need not be new but they ought to be shined.
Odd Vestment Combos -- So what got into you when you decided to wear your stole on the outside of the chasuble? Not a good look. Or what was the idea of wearing a stole without any other vestments? Did that polo look like it needed an accessory? Not appropriate. Or what got into you to wear a cassock in the color of the season? Not right on so many counts. Or what was the idea of wearing a surplice without cassock? Did you not get the memo? They make albs now. I could go on and on and on but the point is not to be novel or inventive but if you are wearing vestments, follow the informal rules of tradition. They may not be uniform but they are more uniform than not.
Okay, I feel better now. I hope you do, as well. But if you don't perhaps you were hit by my rant. Oops. A little decorum in God's House is a good thing. Oddities are unworthy of our service on behalf of the Lord to His beloved people. You are not the center of it all. So don't make your vestments a fashion choice. If you want to display preference, ditch the vestments and look like any other evangelical wannabe with your faded and ripped jeans and tee or khakis and polo (perhaps dished up with your church's fancy logo!).
Wednesday, December 25, 2019
His first published work, Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion, nine volumes, 1605–1610), the composer has laid out for us 1,244 compositions that explore how the great Lutheran chorale melodies might be set — hymns which were and are the very backbone of Lutheran liturgical life. Though he was an accomplished musician and a sophisticated composer, he wrote that joined the Italian Baroque style to the Lutheran chorale in such a way that the typical parish choir could perform it.
If you know Praetorius at all, you may know him through his 1609 harmonization of the fifteenth-century German folk carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ("Lo how a rose e'er blooming." It is an unsung piece that often gets passed over in favor of more familiar carols but it, along with Praetorius' setting of "Good Christian men, rejoice" provide a glimpse into his gift and greatness.
You can find some rather fine examples of Praetorius' works on CD but as we are in the shadow of Christmas, I would turn your attention to the works recorded under the title Mass for a Christmas morning. Here the genius of Praetorius is set not simply in heavenly choirs in their most glorious and spectacular mode but within a context of a parish mass for Christmas morning. Here is a Lutheran mass as it might have been heard under the baton of Praetorius and with his hands on the keyboard of the mighty pipe organ in an early 17th century Lutheran congregation.
The rather ambitious CD is in reality a liturgical reconstruction of sorts. It begins with an a capella Christum wir sollen loben schon (Luther's translation of a pre-Reformation hymn). This eight-stanza hymn has a date of 1524 but the setting here is from Lutheran pastor and theologian Lucas Osiander (1534–1604).
It is followed by an Introit -- Praetorius's own 1619 setting of Puer natus in Bethlehem ("a Boy is born in Bethlehem"). The Kyrie and Gloria come from another Praetorius' work also published in 1619 -- Missa gantz Teudsch ("Mass, completely in German"). By this you know clearly that the Lutherans retained the mass as they claim in the Augsburg Confession except, in this case, in the vernacular.
You hear the traditional Christmas hymns in this imagined "service" -- Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her ("From heaven above to earth I come"), Quem pastors laudavere ("Shepherds sang their praises o'er him"), and Puer nobis nascitur ("Unto us a boy is born"). You can find them in just about any Lutheran hymnal -- even today!
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
A blessed Nativity of our Lord
O God, who didst send Thy messengers and prophets to prepare the way of Thy Son before Him: Grant that our Lord when He cometh may find in us a dwelling prepared for Himself;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who came to take our nature upon Him
that He might bring many sons unto glory,
and now with Thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth,
ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Monday, December 23, 2019
What's in a name?
Sermon preached for Advent 4A on Sunday, December 22, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
[The angel told Joseph] “‘[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us” (vv 21-23).
Have you ever wondered why your parents gave you the name they did? Were you named after a family member or friend? Does your name have a special meaning? Or did your parents pick it because it was unique and they liked the way it sounded? Naming a child is an important thing because that name will be with them for the rest of their life. They’ll be defined by that name; that’s how people will know them. And this is the same for our Lord. We know our Lord by His name, the name that tells us what He does and who He is.
Most parents spend a lot of time deciding on their child’s name. From the moment they find out they’re having a child, they start thinking. They go through list after list picking out names, crossing some off and then adding some back on, until finally they make their decision. But Mary and Joseph didn’t have that conversation. The angel told Joseph exactly what name to give Mary’s Son.
But at first, Joseph didn’t want to give Mary’s Son a name, because he planned on divorcing her because she was found with child. Matthew tells us he planned on doing this quietly because he was a just man and didn’t want put Mary to shame. But being a just man means that Joseph would’ve been in the right to shame Mary, because all evidence showed her to be an adulterer. But Joseph was going to set aside his “justness” to show Mary mercy.
As Joseph was planning all of this, the angel of the Lord appeared to him and assured him that Mary hadn’t been unfaithful. She hadn’t broken her betrothal vows. The Child inside here was conceived by the Spirit. He was God’s Son, and Joseph was to give Him the name “Jesus.” Jesus’ name was divinely picked to announce what He would do: He would save His people from their sins. But, Mary’s Son wasn’t the only one called “Jesus” at that time.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “the LORD is salvation.” This was a very popular name at that time, and it still is today. In the Old Testament, Joshua was Moses’ successor who finally led God’s people into the Promised Land. Because of this, many boys were named “Joshua,” many were called “Jesus,” but only Mary’s Son would fulfill that name. In Jesus, the LORD God was providing salvation for His people. Jesus’ name and work go together. The very name “Jesus” proclaims why He was born, so God could save His people from their sin.
It’s amazing to think about the fact that God saves us from our sin, because sin is our problem. We’re the cause of it. It’s all our fault. And in our world, if something is your fault, you have to fix it. You have to pay for it. You have to suffer the consequence of it. Everything that happens as a result of sin, we justly deserve. We deserve shame for our sin. We deserve broken relationships. We deserve a hard life. We deserve conflict and strife. We deserve war. We deserve the chaos of the world. We deserve death. But God doesn’t leave us alone to receive these just consequences of our sin. He comes to us being Immanuel to save us.
God saves you, He provides for your salvation by being “God with us.” At Christ’s birth, God physically visited and walked among us. Jesus is the God Man. He’s 100% human. He has the same flesh and blood and bone that you have. He experienced all the normal stages of life that you’ve experienced. He hungered and thirst like you do. He felt physical pain and sorrow and grief like you do. He even felt the temptation of sin like you do, but He never gave in to this temptation, because He was also 100% God.
Jesus is fully man and at the same time fully God. He was born the same way you were born, but He wasn’t conceived in the same way. Just as the angel told Joseph, Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He’s the very Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds. And because of this, He was born without the original sin that infects us, passed down through the generations from our first parents. Because He’s fully God, He was able to resist sin’s temptations. No sinful deed was done by Him. No sinful word came from His mouth. No sinful thought crossed His mind. 100% God, 100% Man, 100% sinless come to save us from our sin.
Jesus had to be “God with us” to save you. He had to be Man so He could know your temptation, but He had to be God to resist that temptation. He had to be Man so He could die on the cross, but He had to be God so that He could defeat death and rise again. This is what makes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross a saving sacrifice. This is why your sins are forgiven and you’re saved, because of who Jesus is.
On the cross a great exchange took place. Jesus, Immanuel, the God Man, exchanged His perfect, sinless life for your sinful one. On the cross, Jesus took the death you rightly deserve and because of that, God the Father forgives you all your sins. The Lord would be just to “divorce” you, to send you away in shame, to send you away into everlasting death, but instead, with great mercy, He sent His Son to be Immanuel...and He continues to be Immanuel.
Jesus continues to be “God with us” as He delivers forgiveness, life, and salvation to you through His Word and Sacrament. Every time the Good News of Jesus is preached, salvation is proclaimed in His name. Every time the pastor speaks Absolution, Jesus is there taking the guilt of your sin away. Every time a person is brought into God’s family through Baptism, Jesus is there, putting His name on them. Every time you come to this altar, Jesus is there, physically there, feeding you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Through these Means of Grace Jesus continues to be what His name proclaims: He continues to be God with us to save you from your sins.
There are many reasons why parents give their children the names they do. Jesus’ name uniquely proclaims what He does and who He is. God gave His Son the name “Jesus” because He would save His people from their sins. Jesus is called Immanuel, because He is “God with us.” When we hear our Lord’s name spoken, we’re reminded of what He’s done for us, and what He continues to do for us. Jesus’ name is the Name, the only name by which we’re saved. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Practice matters. . .
The religion that holds our attention and has sway today does not bind us together -- except in the pursuit of our separateness. It is certainly not Christianity but what it is cannot quite be labeled or named as religious movements of the past were. Part of the reason for that is that Christianity today suffers from a crisis of identity. To so many, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, it has become a vapid and shallow sentimentality in which truth has been sacrificed for the sake of feelings. It is a Christianity without much transcendence and one which exists primarily to promote present wants and accomplish strategies for current desire. In one sense, the religion that has captured us and so many religions is no longer religion in any genuine or historic sense of that term. We are bound not by dogma or creed or even moral truth but our pursuit of meaningfulness. So people who do not believe in Jesus can enjoy a crucifix and those not Roman Catholic can keep a rosary and those who should have a crucifix or rosary can practice yoga and meditation instead.
The religion of today uses the sacrament of the screen whether in pursuit of a binge-watching of series on Netflix or other online source or our addiction to video games so sophisticated that we forget they are but virtual to our consumption of social media in its various forms, to pornography that substitutes for real intimacy to the endless litany of face news or stories enhanced to grab our attention. So God does not hold our attention nor does tradition bind us to practice but what we see or read or do in the moment has become the all in all. This religion is of the imagination and yet this imagination is not free but slavishly pursues the transient object of the screen. There is even a place in this for the deity of advertising and the god of consumer satisfaction (think here of how we consult ratings and report them on what we have seen, watched, done, or purchased).
Why is this winning the hearts even of Christians? Could it be that the practice of the faith has become so distant from its doctrine and its piety so optional that we are grounded in less and bound by little? For if it can be said that the belief of Christianity is wavering, it must be admitted that the practice of the Christian faith, in whatever form, is much rarer today than in the past. Piety has become largely secular and the lines once drawn to connect us have been cast off like the moorings of a ship are cast off so that it can set course for its own destiny. The once powerful mainline Christian churches are either on the verge of extinction or else they are indistinguishable from the culture around them. Even among Roman Catholics where the obligation of the mass is still the rule, mass attendance has become an occasional thing. Congregations spend as much effort just getting people to come as they do giving them the faith. Churches are fading but they are fading in large part because piety is fading and the practice of the faith is fading among those who once lived by the weekly rhythm of worship, whose lives were marked by forms of worship and prayer even in daily life, and who lived by a roadmap of accepted moral absolutes.
People did not stop believing and then give up piety but the abandonment of piety and practice led to a faith without truth and a church without conviction. That is what we are up against. We should not try to reason people back to belief but if we do not model this faith and piety before the world they will have no reason to pause on their journey toward self-awareness. This is why what happens on Sunday morning is not adiaphora or a thing indifferent. This is why the traditions that mark our practice are important to guard and sustain the tradition of doctrine and belief. We stand because Christ is speaking His Word. We baptize because Christ is in the water doing what He has promised. We eat the bread and drink the wine because Christ is giving us His flesh and blood. This is why we bow and genuflect, why we kneel to confess our sins, why we open our lips to sing, and stand in praise.
Sunday, December 22, 2019
Non-binary. . .
It occurs to me that the Gospel whose birth we soon will celebrate at Christmas is precisely framed in binary terms. Man and God, sinner and Savior, death and life. There is no truth that is not binary. Oh, to be sure there are plenty of things that are non-binary but God gives them no credence. The Lord on high who came low into the womb of the Virgin does not come for the sake of good feelings or high esteem or even grand reason. He comes cloaked in mystery to meet sinners in their sins and the dead in their death. His is the truth that is true whether we notice it or give our consent to it. He is that truth. Apart from Him there is no truth -- only illusions, falsehoods, and lies.
What will become of a non-binary Christianity? There is not much of a future in it for the Lord has seen such folly parading of wisdom before and was not moved. But where sinners see the Light dawning in the darkness of sin and its shadow of death, there hope is born to draw shepherds and angels together. Where we will allow God to meet us where He has chosen, there is more than emotion and more than judgment. There is redemption for a people willing to behold it with the eyes of faith and to trust in its promise more than anything else in life.
The Church confesses this truth before the world but she must also judge and condemn error that masquerades as truth. If we confess where God is and what He has done, we must also confess where God is not and what we cannot do. It is not about good will or good feelings but about faithfulness. This truth may well go in and out of style with the times but this is the one truth that endures forever. Apart from this truth and this Christ, there is nothing left worth our attention. It is precisely a battlefield of ideas and loyalties that we find ourselves today. The vagaries of the word smith and the carefully crafted language of diplomacy cannot suffice. This we believe. This we confess. This we teach. Or nothing at all. Think about this when you go to Church on Christmas. And if you get the same gobbledygook Welby offered up a while back, get up and leave and find yourself a Church where the Word reigns and it is the only truth spoken and worth knowing.
Saturday, December 21, 2019
Just for your viewing pleasure
This video shows Dr. Stephane Rene drawing and painting a very large Pantocrator - the Blessing Christ. He is Coptic Orthodox and is an expert and proponent of the neo-Coptic style pioneered by Isaac Fanous. The medium is egg tempera of silicate ground but what is so interesting is how fluidly and easily he paints those perfect smooth parabolic lines! He blogs at copticonography.org
Pantocrator from Daniel Wild Corbett on Vimeo.
Pantocrator from Daniel Wild Corbett on Vimeo.
Friday, December 20, 2019
The time has come. . .
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