Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – Luke 2:41-52 - Christmas I

Read the text here: Luke 2:41-52
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We do not have much information about Jesus’ childhood.  In fact the Gospel lesson for the 1st Sunday after Christmas – Luke 2:41-52 – is about all.  Of course we would be curious about what Jesus was like and what kinds of experiences he might have had when he was a child.  This natural curiosity prompted the creation of a book called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the 3rd or 4th centuries.  The book pretends to have been written by the disciple Thomas, but is a rather fantastic set of stories that make Jesus sound more like the pre-Hogwarts Harry Potter who didn’t know how to use his power and ended up causing all kinds of havoc as a result.  As fun as this book is to read, we can glean nothing about Jesus from it.  So we really only know two things about Jesus’ childhood for certain.  The first is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth that at that time was a small village.  Nearby, within sight, since Nazareth is on a hill, you can see the city of Sepphoris.  Between the time of Jesus’ birth and age 5 to 8, Sepphoris was involved in a rebellion against Rome.  As was usual, the Romans swept into the city, leveled it and crucified thousands.  All of this would have been visible from Nazareth.  It is interesting to wonder how the young and impressionable Jesus and his family reacted to the sight of the formerly prosperous city burning, men being crucified and refugees pouring into Nazareth being pursued by the Romans.
The other event we know of from Jesus’ childhood would be the story from Luke that is our Gospel text for today.  Jesus goes with his extended family to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Jesus gets separated from the family and ends up in the temple listening to and questioning the teachers of the law (scribes and Pharisees).  Eventually, after three days, Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is not with the family and, like any parent, they are scared and frantic.  They rush back to Jerusalem and look all over until they finally find him sitting with the elders, who are kind of amazed at how sharp this child is.  Mary chides Jesus for not staying with the family and Jesus responds with a statement wondering why his parents had such a hard time finding him, after all, where else would he be, but in the temple!
There are three important points to be made about this story.  First, it is important to make note of the parallels with the Passion narrative.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the temple – the same temple from which he will chase out the money-changers in 20 or so years.  He is in discussion with scribes and Pharisees about the Law of Moses; just like during the Passion week where Jesus spends most of the week in bitter discussions about the meaning of the law with scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus is in Jerusalem at the age of 12 for the celebration of the Passover; 20 years later he will be back again to celebrate the Passover.  And Mary and Joseph search for him for three days before he is found; ultimately the resurrection of Jesus will take place on the third day.  All of this points to the importance of the Temple, not only in the life of the people of Israel, but also to Jesus and his family.  Jesus has been coming to Jerusalem with Joseph and family since he was a child.  This is not a strange place for him.  He knows it inside and out.  The idea that the Temple in Jerusalem is not important to Jesus is called into question with this story.  Read this then next to the story about Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem for the Passion and recall how at one point Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and the temple (Luke 19:41ff – pew bibles NT p. 63).  This story puts that later incident in clearer focus.
A second issue that this story raises is the question of Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the Law of Moses.  Throughout all of the Gospels Jesus is constantly being challenged and criticized regarding the issue of his authority.  The church has always proclaimed that we believe that Jesus was without sin.  But the scribes and Pharisees would not have agreed.  To them Jesus was the worst of sinners as he did not seem to take seriously parts of the law regarding keeping the Sabbath and taking God’s name in vain – as they defined and understood those commandments.  By placing this story at the conclusion of the birth accounts and right before Jesus begins his ministry, Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the law is established even before he formally begins his ministry.  Jesus knows the law inside and out, even better than the official teachers of the law and Jesus honors the Temple. 
The third and last important point to be made about this story is that it calls into question exactly who makes up Jesus’ family.  Jesus’ extended family – probably uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth – all travel together to Jerusalem.  But Jesus doesn’t stay with them.  Mary and Joseph try to bring Jesus back into the small family circle when they find him, but Jesus rejects this: “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” Mary and Joseph don’t understand this comment, but we recognize that the Temple is not just Joseph’s house, it belongs to Jesus’ heavenly Father, who is also Father of the people of Israel.  Jesus is enlarging the boundaries of his own family here at the age of 12.  This he will continue to do not only throughout the Gospel, but even into the book of Acts when the Apostle Paul begins to reach out to those outside of Judaism and bring Gentiles into God’s family as well. 
We humans tend to be very selective and exclusive.  But even here in this pre-ministry story Jesus has started to redefine what it means to be a part of God’s family and the answer is an all-inclusive embrace.  And when you set that side by side with Mary’s song – “…lifting up the lowly… filling the hungry with good things…” we begin to get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as being a place where God brings all of creation together in peace/shalom/well-being – which takes us right back to the song of the angels (“… and on earth peace/shalom/well-being among those whom God favors.”) This is the promise which accompanies Jesus’ birth and which is already being fulfilled in amazing ways that we did not expect.  And this is only the beginning – so stay tuned!
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1319) - "Christ Among the Doctors"

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Eve – 2012 - Luke 2:1-20

Read the text here: Luke 2:1-20
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Holy Time
“In those days…” begins the Gospel story.  “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus”  Luke is very specific about those days.  Which days are those days?  They are days marked by those who hold absolute power – Caesar Augustus and Quirinius the Roman Governor in Syria.  “In those days…” daily life is lived – both at the time of Jesus and in our own time.  “Those days…” are marked with successes and failures, joy and sorrow, loss and grief and most of all fear.  “Do not be afraid” says the angel first to Zechariah then to Mary and now to the Shepherds.  “Do not be afraid!”  Why is it that every proclamation of the angels in the story that takes the first two chapters of Luke is prefaced with these words – “Do not be afraid”?  Because fear defines and governs “those days.”  Fear is what prompts decisions and shapes relationships.  And this is true for us as well, isn’t it?  Fear continues to shape us in ways we may not realize; fear continues to govern and define us.  It doesn’t matter whether is it the fear of the emperor or the Romans or whether it is fear of terrorists, or of violence or of strangers, or pain, or loss or death.  Fear continues to shape us, our actions, our decision and our priorities, just as it shaped those who were a part of this first Christmas story in Luke so long ago – Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds.
“In those days…”  are our days…  So what fears and struggles did you bring with you tonight into this place?  Fear of loss, of violence – fear of financial instability, the fiscal cliff – job fears, job struggles – relationship struggles and conflicts – frustrations – anger - addictions – grief and sorrow - – worry and fear about children or grandchildren or family – worry and fear about health concerns - loneliness? 
The angel speaks: “Do not be afraid, for see – open your eyes – I am bringing you good news of great joy which will be for all people of every time and every place including all of you here assembled tonight in this place. - For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord!  This day! This day bursts into those days and dispels the darkness and the fear.  This day is a new day – that holds all that I just listed that makes up those days – for this day brings with it hope and light and promise.
Do you see? Luke is proclaiming to us that time is transformed in the birth of Christ.  “Those days” are, in Greek, the Chronos, or chronological time that rules our daily lives.  Chronos Time is time that passes by quickly – seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years all fly by and too often they are governed by fear and failure and loss and darkness and death.  But “this day in Greek, the Kairos time or holy time is time that is pregnant and filled with the promises of God: time that is filled with hope and God’s love and God’s grace.  Kairos time, or Holy time, according the angels, is time that is governed and defined by peace or shalom – that is complete well-being.  The peace that the angels sing about is not just the absence of conflict – even Caesar Augustus could accomplish that!  No, the peace the angels sing of is a peace that “surpasses human comprehension” – for it is being at one, it is being in unity with God and with others. 
It is this gift that God holds out to us – “this day.”  “In those days…” dark with fear and violence and trouble a poor pregnant teenage girl and her equally poor and struggling husband make an unwanted and harsh trip by foot to a place which was far from their home.  The girl then goes into labor.  In the harsh environment and darkness of “those days” the husband can only find a dark smelly cave where animals are kept from the cold overnight.  In that very unwelcoming place this girl gives birth to a boy.  And this boy is none other the very incarnation of God, come into those days.  With this birth, this day bursts into “those days” and scatters the fear and darkness with hope and promise and light.  And the angels appear to the most outcast of outcasts of those days.  Shepherds who had been excluded from the temple, excluded from cities and villages, who were mistrusted, who were hated, it is to them the angels sing – “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”  That is: Glory in the heavens comes about when Peace or complete well-being takes over those days on earth.
“Unto you this day” has burst into those days for us as well.  We come into this place on this dark and cold night and we have all brought with us fears and struggles.  But on this day we can offer those  up to God, and hear the proclamation again that a child is born- God incarnate – Immanuel – God with us.  And we can give those days over to God asking God to replace fear with hope; asking and expecting to feel God’s presence; knowing that we all rest in God’s grace.  And here this day we can experience – even if just for a moment – a foretaste of the feast to come – a moment of shalom, of peace.  This is why we worship on this day! This is why come together to re-tell and remember and re-experience the story, so that the story of God’s incarnation can become our story.  This is why in this darkness we sing carols, say prayers, share bread and wine and sit in reverent silence – so that the hopes and fears of all the years of those days will be met in tonight on this day in Jesus, who is our savior and Lord.
An audio recording of this sermon, preached on Christmas Eve 12/24/12, can be found at wartburgparish.com

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent IV - The Magnificat - Luke 1:46-55

Read the text here: Luke 1:39-56
Singing of the Promises
In many ways the opening two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is a lot like a great musical.  Every time you turn around someone is bursting into song.  There are a total of 4 songs within the first two chapters.  It is as if the joy is too great to be conveyed in words and the various characters have to resort to song:
1.     Mary’s Song - The Magnificat, 1:46-55; (Sermon for Advent 4)
2.     Zechariah’s Song – The Benedictus, 1:68-79 (Sermon from Advent 2)
3.     The Angel’s Song – Gloria in excelsis, 2:14 (Sermon for Christmas)
4.     The Song of Simeon – Nunc Dimitus, 2:29-32 (Sermon for New Year’s Eve)
We begin with the elderly priestly couple Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Elizabeth is barren, but hopes for a child. Zechariah is visited by an angel who declares that he and Elizabeth will have a child – John – who will be a prophet and prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed.  Zechariah is skeptical and is rendered mute for his lack of trust.  Next the Archangel Gabriel visits a poor, teenage girl named Mary.  Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but he will not actually enter the story until chapter two.  Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah.  She gently questions the Angel, but then accepts the word of the Angel – Let it be unto me according to your word.  In the next scene Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and when the two women come together the missions and identities of the two unborn babies are confirmed and celebrated.  Elizabeth, the older and more established woman praises and defers to the younger unmarried Mary; and full of the Holy Spirit both she and her unborn baby John react to being in the presence of Jesus, even though he is also still unborn.  Luke has confirmed for us that not only John is a prophet, but so is Elizabeth.  In fact, she is more trusting and more faithful than her own husband, the priest Zechariah.
Mary responds then with the first song – known as the Magnificat in Latin for the first words that Mary sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior!  Actually a literal translation of this first line would look more like this:  “My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit – the essence of my very being – rejoices in God, my savior.”  Mary has opened herself completely to the Holy Spirit and is a true servant of God.  (In fact she admits as much in the next line where she thanks God for the fact that He has looked in favor upon his the lowliness of his serving-girl.)  In this way she is the model disciple – and a model for all believers who would take up the cross to follow Jesus throughout the ages.  At the conclusion of the song, in verse 54, she actually says as much – God has helped Israel (the people of God – now expanded to include the followers of Jesus) his serving-boy, in order (for them) to remember (make a present reality) his mercy, steadfast love, grace.  This passage is amazing.  Verse 54 completes the circle by bringing us into the song as part of God’s people.  Like Mary, then we are called to open ourselves completely to God’s steadfast love and grace so that in word and deed, in life and in spirit every part of our being would magnify the God who saves us and who calls us to remember, to make this grace and steadfast love a present reality in our lives that others would also experience through us.
The next section of the song is the difficult and controversial part.  When Luther translated the New Testament into German he actually left Mary’s song in Latin in fear of offending his Prince who might not like the line about casting the mighty from their thrones.  And in our own time it was not so long ago that there was a law in El Salvador which banned the reading, singing and preaching on this text because it was considered offensive to those who were rich enough to be sent away empty.  There is no way around this – we cannot spiritualize these words or ignore them, since they are just the first presentation of a theme that Luke will stay with throughout the Gospel and Acts.  And that is: God is on the side of those who are on the margins, the poor and those who are suffering and struggling; and God opposes those who take, cheat, hoard, who use and abuse others, who resort to violence to enforce their way, who amass power and wealth and use it to put others down.  But there are two points to be made to clarify exactly what this means.  First,  God casts down and sends away empty in the hope that they will open themselves to the Holy Spirit and also repent, turn around and become disciples, willing to giving of themselves completely to God; and secondly: The opening and closing – discussed in the above paragraph – make it clear that this is a song of promise, and those who are distracted by wealth, who are filled with self-importance and power, who use and abuse others, who hoard wealth and natural resources in order to enrich themselves and their own are simply excluding themselves from the promise; they are putting themselves outside of God’s grace / steadfast love.  This section of the song uses economic language, and there is an economic dimension to this to be sure.  But there is much more to it than that.  Greed and self-centeredness can place all of us, regardless of our economic standing, outside of God’s salvation – not because God puts us there, but because we put ourselves there by the choices we make and the way we are in relationship.
Finally a word about salvation: we tend to think of salvation as a future oriented thing.  Salvation is something that will happen when we die, or when Jesus comes again – something that happens in the future.  Well, not for Luke.  Salvation is NOW!  That is one of the points of the song.  Mary refers to God her savior.  She is not talking about God who will save her down the road sometime in the distant future.  God has already saved her!  She is experiencing salvation now!  And the question to be answered then is – how should she (we) respond?  For we too have already been saved.  Our salvation is now as well.  We respond by emptying ourselves of all that would separate us from God and others, opening ourselves to God’s grace, picking up the cross and following Jesus in the way of service – and this is what it means to remember God’s mercy, steadfast love and grace – to live inside the covenant that God has made with our fathers and mothers of the faith: Abraham & Sarah and on and on…
What is God calling you to in this text?  What are some of the ways you are called to remember?  In what ways can you Magnify the Lord with your life and spirit?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent III - "Rejoice?"

On Saturday I completely re-wrote my sermon for Advent III in light of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, CT.  The sermon attempts to address this shooting in the context of Advent III and the lessons appointed for the day: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-8.
You can listen to a recording from the Saturday evening service here:

The sermon makes mention of an Altarpiece from the 15th century artist Matthais Grünewald - 1475-1528.  Here is a digital copy of that beautiful artwork - please note how John the Baptist is pointing his finger towards the cross.

Here is a link to an article that I found very helpful for answering the question about how to relate to those who are experiencing this kind of pain and grief:

Finally - let us pray....
"When aimless violence takes those we love,
When random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
When wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
We know, O God, You leave us not alone.

Through long grief-darkened days help us, dear Lord,
To trust Your grace for courage to endure,

To rest our souls in Your supporting love,
And find our hope within Your mercy sure." Hymn #764 - LSB

“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) O God, whose own dear Son did gather children in his arms and bless them, we pray that you shower divine mercy on the pains of all your children. Give us grace to entrust these victims of unthinkable violence to your never-failing love and care. Have compassion upon those who now must bear unbearable grief. Deliver all from despair. And awaken us to the day when sin and sorrow will be no more, where you live and reign one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – world without end. Amen.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Reflections on the Song of Zechariah – Luke 1:68-79

Read the text here: Luke 1:68-79

Promises – Ancient & Modern
On this 2nd weekend in Advent we receive two gifts: 1. We are introduced to John the Baptist in the first of two weekends devoted to him during Advent; and 2. We get to sing the song which John’s father Zechariah sang when John is presented in the temple.  The song, the 2nd of 4 beautiful songs that appear in the first two chapters of Luke, is known as The Benedictus, after the first word – Blessed (be the Lord God of Israel) – and has been a part of Christian worship since the early church.  The song focuses on promise.  In fact, one could almost make the case that the entire opening of Luke’s gospel focuses on promise – the promise given by God to God’s people and the promise brought to fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
What is this promise?  For the answer to that question we need to turn to the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis.  Right in the very first few verses of the entire adventure of this couple God lays out the promise – Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (It is repeated at intervals throughout the story)
What unfolds is a story of how God is faithful to the promise despite the unfaithfulness and undermining of this promise by Abraham and Sarah themselves.  Finally, two angels (messengers) appear to bring the news that Sarah would give birth to a son (Genesis 18).  The response to the message is, to put it nicely, skepticism.  Sarah laughs at the news.  It is, perhaps, a testament to her and Abraham’s sense of humor that they name the child Isaac – “Laughter!”
The story of Zechariah is very similar.  Gabriel appears to the old priest Zechariah with news that his equally elderly wife, Elizabeth, would finally give birth to a child.  Zechariah is skeptical.  And since it appears that neither Gabriel nor Zechariah seem to have any sense of humor at all in this story Gabriel punishes Zechariah for his skepticism.  He is struck mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy (some think he is struck both deaf and mute).  But when the child is finally born and presented in the temple for the naming, God releases Zechariah’s tongue and he bursts forth with this amazing song.
For my part I can sympathize with poor Zechariah.  The fulfillment of the promise and the announcement of a child to be born to this elderly couple is so far fetched.  Things just don’t happen that way in real life.  Older couples like Sarah & Abraham and Elizabeth & Zechariah don’t have babies.  Now, if Gabriel had announced that God was going to fulfill the promise in a spectacular, miraculous or supernatural way then perhaps Zechariah would have been able to accept it.  In fact, Zechariah would have probably been thrilled.  As it is his response to the news is, at best, grumpy, skeptical and disappointed.  It is as though he is saying to Gabriel – “can’t God come up with anything more exciting than this?”  We are like Zechariah in this I think.  We too often look for God to act in a miraculous, spectacular way.  But the news that God is going to work through the natural order, through human beings and human processes is not only hard to accept, but kind of disappointing.  Human birth is so messy, wouldn’t it be easier and more special if there were an element of supernatural in all of this.  Then no one could question it.  It would be obvious, right?  No, it would not be obvious, we would probably still dismiss it and besides this is not how God works.  This is the foundational issue for the entire opening of Luke = God is faithful to God’s promises and God fulfills them in an ordinary way using flawed human beings and flawed human processes.  It is called Incarnation - and it works.  Nevertheless we continue to be like Zechariah: grumpy and skeptical.  We want God to work in ways that are miraculous and spectacular and supernatural, and we are quick to dismiss God’s intervention and God’s presence when it comes through others like our family, friends, a doctor or even a stranger.   
In the story of the Ascension (the pivot story between Luke and Acts) the angels tell the disciples to stop looking into the sky and to look around them if they want to see God in action!  This is the message of this story as well to Zechariah and to us – stop looking up into the sky for God, lower your gaze and see that God is there, at work beside you.  
The song of Zechariah thus becomes our song.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has favorably looked on his people and redeemed them… that would be us.  As we go through this song the first section (verses 68 through 75) restate the promise itself: God has raised up a mighty savior… saved us from our enemies… shown mercy to our ancestors… remembered his holy covenant.  And then there is a shift to part 2 at verse 76 – You my child will be called a prophet of the most high… - Zechariah the father is now tenderly singing to his infant son John.  And John’s calling will be to continue in the line of the prophets to give people knowledge of salvation… to proclaim the forgiveness of sins… and remind the people of the tender mercy of God… Preparing the people of God for the dawn from on high.. which is Jesus who is the one who will bring light to those who sit in darkness… and guide our feet into the way of peace (Shalom).
Ultimately this song proclaims to us that we are included in the people of the promise.  We are the ones to whom John continues to call to repent and prepare; we are the ones to whom Jesus brings light into the midst of the darkness that at times threatens to overwhelm us;  we are the ones to whom the Christ has promised to bring Shalom – Peace – perfect well-being and unity with God and others.
Click here to listen and watch a beautiful setting from the Middle Ages with a slide show of art along with the words of the text: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_FS67Lc8HQ
Zecharias and the Angel by William Blake

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – Luke 21:25-36

Read the text here:Luke 21:25-36

Hope: Waiting and Watching
Patience!  How are you with patience? Do you mind waiting for things that you want and enjoy?  How long can you wait?  It seems as though we Americans in particular do not deal well with waiting.  We are an instant gratification people.  We want what we want now!  So for some of us waiting in line at a store or at the movies, or waiting at the doctor’s office, or sitting in traffic can be a very, very stressful experience.  We want to get on with it already! We want to get into the future, and consequently many of us are very impatient with the present. The result of this is that we end up missing the present.  We live in the future, never the present.  The present becomes then only a path to the future that is always in the process of becoming, but we never quite get there.  As we wait impatiently and anxiously for the future, we completely miss the present.
This tendency to live in the future is not only a 21st century, American issue.  It is perhaps exacerbated by the advanced technology that we possess, but this is really a human condition.  Human beings have the ability to anticipate the future, and this leads us all to think ahead, to plan and to worry and fret about what is to come and what is unknown or unknowable.  Jesus is addressing this very issue in our Gospel text today.  Earlier in chapter 21 (verse 7 – pew bibles NT p. 65) the disciples ask Jesus about the last days – “When will this be and what will be the signs.”  And Jesus goes into a rather lengthy answer that takes up the rest of chapter 21.  So what exactly does Jesus say then about the future, the 2nd coming, the final destruction and all of that?
First let me briefly set the context – Israel was ruled with a heavy hand by the Roman Empire.  The people of Israel chaffed under this domination and were anxiously looking for a Messiah who God would send to organize and lead them in a violent overthrow of the Romans.  Many of the disciples believed this was who Jesus was and were always on edge expecting that Jesus would show his true nature and take on the mantel of victorious liberator.  Reading the Gospels with this in mind you can get a real sense of impatience on the part of both the crowd that follows Jesus and the disciples as Jesus engages in teachings and healings and feedings and meals with sinners and outcasts.  At times this impatience spills over into comments that are made to Jesus, who then promptly puts the complainers in their place.  So, by chapter 21 we are in Jerusalem; Jesus has already entered the city in triumph on Palm Sunday; Jesus has already cleared the money-changers from the temple.  The impatience on the part of the disciples is very obvious.  “Come on Jesus, let’s get on with it!” you can almost hear them saying.  This impatience will transform itself into betrayal and rejection by the end of the week, by the way! 
So into the midst of this highly charged context of intense anticipation Jesus states that it will not be long before the Temple is destroyed and the disciples then ask Jesus anxiously when this is to take place.  Jesus’ answer to this question centers around these main points:
1.     We live in a fallen world.  It will always seem as though the end of the world is around the corner.  There will always be wars, rumors of wars, natural disasters, misery, and suffering.  This is a part of the human condition – this is a part of the fallen nature of creation. Within this context there are going to be some (even some who claim to speak in Jesus’ name) who will use these events to stir up fear and attempt to manipulate others.  Do not pay any attention to them.
2.     Only God knows when the Day will come. Do not assume it is come, and do not fret about it, do not rush off to the hills, do not set dates.  Instead – (and this is my favorite line in the text) – stand up and raise your heads for your redemption is coming near!  In other words, keep doing what you’re called to do – keep being faithful!  Live as though Jesus is coming tomorrow in terms of how you relate to others and how you set your priorities.  And Luke has already made clear that people, human beings are God’s priority – they need to be our priority as well!
3.     Do not fear.  Jesus says - stand up and raise your heads for your redemption is coming near!  Jesus is not saying “stand up, raise your heads, because God is going to fish you out of this mess!”  Jesus is saying “stand up,” be confident in the Lord, “raise your heads,” be responsible and be faithful.
In other words – Wait patiently and Keep Awake!  The world is not going to end on December 21st or any other date that some person has come up with; the world is not going to end in fear and destruction despite the popular expectation.  There is in fact nothing to be afraid of – those who are called by Christ are beloved of God and God will never abandon God’s people! God’s love for us – for you – is indestructible and beyond question!  Bearing this in mind then how should we live our lives?  Being fearful and fretful, anxiously always looking towards the unknown future?  No! Absolutely not!  We as disciples of Christ are called to do one thing and one thing only: Be faithful! Live lives that reflect the love, the hope, the grace and the peace that is ours through Christ!
“The good news of Advent is not simply that Christ is coming, but that his coming means that we can hope, despite all that is falling apart in our lives, our communities, and the world around us.  Just as the leaves on the fig tree offer hope in late winter that summer is coming again, so God’s word, in Jesus, promises us new life.  Advent offers us expectation and hope for something new.1” Jesus says: Stand up and raise your heads for your redemption is coming near! … Be alert at all times!  May our experience of Advent this year enable us all to prepare for the breaking forth of God’s Kingdom among us; and may we be strengthened and renewed in our faith and commitment to follow Jesus, our Lord and Savior, with hope and patience no matter where he leads us.
1. Article by Pastor Kathy Beach-Vermey, “Feasting on the Word,” Year C, Volume 1, page 25.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reflections on the texts for Reign of Christ


Read the text here:Revelation 1:4-8
Read the Gospel text here: St. John 18 & 19
Who is Lord?
In many ways our festival today – The Reign of Christ the King – is a little antiquated.  There was an intense discussion on the ELCA clergy Facebook page about whether or not we ought to even continue to celebrate this festival, as for most of us the whole idea of Kingship is something from the deep historical past and not really a part of our experience.  Quite frankly, even if you look around the world at the various Kings and Queens who continue to rule in some way, none of them holds the kind of absolute power which was held by (for example) the Roman Emperor during the time of Jesus.  When Pilate says to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and power to crucify you,” this was true according to the political structure at the time.  Pilate acted on behalf of the Emperor and his word was consequently absolute, and since Jesus was not a Roman citizen he had no right of appeal.  The Emperor was absolute; the Emperor was Lord; the Emperor was a god!  And those who questioned this “truth” ended up nailed to a cross!
But yet, Christians continued to proclaim the Lordship of Christ.  “Jesus is Lord!”  This was a popular confession in the early church and appears especially in the letters of Paul (see especially Philippians 2:11).  What they were saying was this: “Jesus is Lord and the Emperor is not!”  Jesus is Lord and I affirm all that Jesus stands for: justice that champions the needs of the neighbor, the needs of the stranger and the poor; self-giving love that reaches out to all who are in need; turning away from greed and acquiring things; living lives that reflect the grace and love of Christ.  Theses are some of the basic things we affirm when we confess that Jesus is Lord.  But at the same time in this confession we are also rejecting the priorities and values of the Empire: a life focused on money, power, success and self-fulfillment, especially at the expense of others – these are categorically rejected. 
The community for whom John of Patmos’ wrote the Apocalypse or Revelation knew first hand both the joys and suffering that came from such a confession.  They had become followers of Christ, and they struggled to live grace-filled lives in a world that rejected their faith and values and persecuted them as a result.  In this passage Jesus is given a number of names that reflect different dimensions of the Lordship of Christ.  Let me list them:
1.           “The faithful witness” (the word witness is, in Greek, the word martyr – Jesus reflects the radical love and grace of God even to the point of giving up his life);
2.           “the firstborn from the dead” (In Jesus the powers of death are destroyed once and for all, death, sorrow, pain, suffering and persecution do not have the last word - in Christ we are a new creation called to live resurrection lives);
3.           “the ruler of the Kings of the earth,” (Christ is above all temporal powers; and the priorities of the empire – which lifts up power and wealth above all at the expense of human beings – these have been defeated and will be ultimately destroyed.)
4.           “The Alpha and the Omega” (The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – the metaphor here is a confession that Christ is at the very beginning and at the very end, and everywhere in between.  There is nothing before, there is nothing after and in between everything is Christ!)
5.           “Lord God” (Jesus is God incarnate.  Jesus is Lord and God; the Emperor is neither!)
6.           “who is, who was and who is to come” (see #4 above)
7.           “The Almighty” (a word which in the Old Testament is used only for God.  So in no uncertain terms this is a proclamation of the Incarnation!
And in the middle of this passage we, Jesus’ followers and disciples are described as those who are loved and freed, who have been made a Kingdom (citizens of the Kingdom of God) and priests – that is those through whom God reaches out to this beloved but hurting and fallen world, and through whom God’s love and grace flows.
Our texts today, especially the passage from Revelation, calls for us to join the chorus and confess that Jesus is Lord and accept the implications of this confession, and begin to work on living lives that reflect the priorities that this confession implies.
I began with Pilate – let me end with Pilate.  It is very interesting to note that during the trial in John (18:28 through 19:16) Jesus opens up to Pilate in ways that seem as though Jesus is actually inviting Pilate to become a follower.  And what does Pilate do?  He waffles – he actually goes back and forth between Jesus and the Temple authorities a total of 5 times trying to decide what to do.  He simply can’t make up his mind.  He catches a glimpse the “abundant life” which Jesus is offering, but the power and pull of the empire are too strong and ultimately he cannot resist this and gives in to it. 
What about you?  What about us as a community?  Are we able to stand up and confess the Lordship of Christ, and accept all that this confession brings with it?  Are we ready to stand up and say NO to the powers of wealth, greed, power, accumulating stuff and self-centeredness?  Are you ready to accept the Reign of Christ in your lives? 
 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reflections from the Pastor – Mark 13: “The Little Apocalypse”

The the text of the Gospel here: Mark 13:1-8

God’s Revelation: Jesus
When you think of the 2nd coming of Jesus – “The Apocalypse” – what imagines come to mind?  Are they images of death, and terror and destruction?  Does thinking about this provoke fear, or confidence?  Or do you just try not to think about it?  The prevailing popular attitude about the “last days” or Jesus 2nd coming seems to be death and complete destruction.  Just think of any number of movies or books which have the end of the world as its setting – “Cloud Atlas,” “The Book of Eli,” even “WALL-E.”  Death, destruction, terror, fear, suffering – these are all the impression many of us have of the coming apocalypse.  And to this we add (taken out of context from the book of Revelation) images of judgment and the (completely unbiblical, but yet very popular) belief in a “rapture” and what we end up with is something that is indeed very terrifying.  But the central question that all of this raises is this: How does this then relate to the Gospel of God’s love and grace shown forth in the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Jesus?  The difficulty with all of this popular fear-mongering is that the apocalyptic emphasis too often crowds out the grace of God and replaces it with judgment and destruction.
This weekend’s Gospel text from Mark 13 is a section of the Gospel that is called “The Little Apocalypse.”  And as we begin to look at this chapter for an answer to our central question I want to start by defining the word “apocalypse.”  The word is a Greek word that means “Revelation.”   The title of the last book of the Bible is actually “The Apocalypse of John;” that is, “The Revelation of John.”  So it is not an event – it is a revelation, an unveiling or uncovering; it is a casting into the light that which is unknown and in darkness.” So what then is the revelation of God through Jesus?
Let’s turn next to the context of this teaching: Jesus preaching in the Temple during Holy Week.  Jesus has already entered into Jerusalem.  He has already cleared the money-changers out the temple.  He has been going to the temple to teach every day since and his teachings include (in chapter 12) the parable of the wicked tenants, the answer to the question about paying taxes to Caesar, the Great Commandment and last week’s pointing to the old woman who puts her whole life into the treasury.  And following chapter 13 we move into the story of the passion itself.  And as always, following Luther’s teaching, we must read this passage not only within the immediate context of the text but also within the context of the Gospel itself.  
Now, the temple in Jerusalem was huge and it was grand. The dome was covered with plate gold so that in the sun it was so bright that people could not even look at it. Not only that but the belief was that the Temple was the place where God dwelled.  If you wanted to be close to God, or to experience the presence of God, you would go to the temple.  “Wow,” says the awe-inspired disciples, “this place is amazing!”  And Jesus says, “this temple is going to be destroyed and these magnificent stones are all going to be cast down!”  And why, because you have placed too much importance and confidence in these stones; because God will not be confined to one place; God’s love and grace knows no boundaries.
But as usual the disciples (and Jesus other listeners) cannot connect the dots. They are shocked by the idea that the great Temple could be destroyed.  Surely that can’t happen because that is where God is!  So Peter, Andrew and John question Jesus further about it, “When will this be?  How can this happen?”  And Jesus’ answer is really instructive.  He basically tells them – “Those are the wrong questions.”  All you need to do is to “Keep awake!”  The time and place of the last days along with how it will occur are really not your concern.  You have other things to do, you have others to care for, you have a calling to follow!
This is the word for us as well.  “Keep Awake!”  Do not get distracted by those who would use fear to manipulate you, who try to distract you from your call by focusing too much on “last days” and “rapture.”  Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms not to pay any attention to their lies and nonsense.  Instead to bear these things in mind:  1.) We live in a fallen world where there is pain and suffering; 2.) God’s love for God’s creation is overwhelming; 3.) God’s love is shown forth in Jesus whose passion and resurrection demonstrate God’s commitment and love and grace; 4.) And Jesus is here with us in the midst of our struggles in the form of the disciples whom he has called to be his hands and feet in the midst of this hurting world.
The amazing and unexpected “apocalypse” or revelation of God is that God’s love is so wide and deep that God continues to involved with the creation reaching out in love to all.  Our popular imagination logically comes up with destruction and terror – but God’s apocalypse is love and grace; so many expect last days to be a time of judgment and death – but God’s apocalypse in Jesus is forgiveness and life affirming!  God’s apocalypse/revelation is not death and destruction – it is life and peace!  God’s apocalypse is Jesus!
So, our Gospel for today calls for us to continue our pilgrimage, being responsible and devoted disciples of Jesus; doing the ministry God has called on us to do.  Recognizing that God is calling us to continue to Baptize disciples, to feed the saints with bread and wine, and to extend the hand of peace and fellowship to all whom we encounter; God calls us to “take up our cross and follow!”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reflections from the Pastor on Ruth – Part II:


How Big Is A Corner?
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God…  Ruth 1:16
And with these words Ruth commits herself to her mother-in-law as they travel, poor and destitute to Bethlehem, leaving the loss, sorrow and misery they experienced in Moab behind.  Naomi is bitter but her young former daughter-in-law is determined.  And finally Naomi gives up trying to send Ruth away and they travel together to Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is Naomi’s former home, the home where Naomi grew up, where her family lives, where she has old friends.  But for Ruth, Bethlehem is a foreign place in a foreign country.  Bethlehem is even a potentially hostile place for Ruth, after all Israelites and Moabites don’t like each other very much and the Old Testament recounts much animosity and violence between them.  Nevertheless Ruth is committed to Naomi and she is resolved.
But after arriving the first order of business is something basic – food.  These widows have nothing, even in Naomi’s ancestral home they are still poor and hungry.  But it so happens that the law of Moses makes provision for widows such as Ruth and Naomi.  Farmers were expected to leave the edges and corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor could come into the fields and glean whatever they could find of what was left over, missed or fallen.  (Find this in Leviticus19:9-10 or Deuteronomy 24:19-22).  The problem was that there was no authority who would check up on these landowners – they were expected to perform this duty on their honor.  So some farmers were very generous in defining how big a corner should be and how wide to designate as the edges; and others defined it as narrowly as possible and went out of their way to discourage gleaners.  Not only that but the environment for gleaners was very harsh.  Not only was the work itself backbreaking and physically demanding, but the experience of dealing with the other gleaners could be very difficult.  The strongest, the most aggressive would be the ones who collected the most grain.  Gleaners would push and jostle for position; they would intimidate others as well.  There would be violence at times and an unattached young woman would have been especially vulnerable to harassment and assault.  But the word has gotten out that one landowner, Boaz, is a particularly devout and generous man.  He is gracious and allows the gleaners to have more than they can get at other fields.  Not only that but he seems to take issues of honor and safety seriously and as a part of his own responsibility and he specifically instructs his foreman to make sure this one vulnerable young woman in particular is treated honorably and fairly. 
So Ruth gleans and is successful.  She also is not shy.  She actually goes to Boaz and makes an outrageous request: she asks to be allowed to go where gleaners are never permitted to go – to work besides the field hands!  In other words she asks to be allowed to collect grain right out of the field itself.  What nerve!  Gleaners always came last and they were usually only permitted into the fields once the hired workers were done.  Gleaners always got the leftovers!  But Ruth asks for more, Ruth asks to be allowed to take of the first fruits!  And she does this, not for herself – but for her mother-in-law Naomi!  And Boaz agrees!  Boaz gives of his first fruits to a poor widow women who he does not know! And why? Out of a sense of responsibility.  And not only that but he does it cheerfully!
There is a lot going on in the story on a whole of levels, but I want to focus on this particular point today:  Boaz gives of his first fruits – he defines a corner as large as possible – he does not give his leftovers!  On this weekend when we focus on our own giving, Boaz becomes a model for us.  How often do we simply give to God and the work of Christ’s church the leftovers in terms of both money and time?  I am going here, I have this activity and that, but I have a little tiny bit of time on….. (you can fill in the rest).  Or - I like to spend my money on this activity and that gadget and those things, and I have this little bit left over, so I’ll put that in my envelope.  Are we guilty of that?  Yes, we all are.
God calls for us to follow the model of Boaz and give of our first fruits – which means 10% right off the top; God calls for us to define the corners of our lives much broader than we might be inclined and to put participating and contributing to the ministry of Christ as a high priority.  The Gospel in this wonderful story of Ruth for this day is a challenge to us to give back to God out of our abundance, willingly and gratefully – both in terms of time and financial support.  Recognizing that the gifts that God has given to us cannot even be defines, and in gratitude for this we give back willingly and gratefully. 
And so, this is the challenge of our text today: how big as a corner?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vote for Biblical Values!


Within the last two weeks I, like many others, have been inundated with calls from “pastors” and others urging me to encourage my congregation to “vote Biblical Values!.”  I have seen posts on social media and even people wearing buttons that say “Vote the Bible” or “Vote for Biblical Values!” And so I would like to say first, that I will be voting biblical values!  And not only that but I encourage all Christians to also keep the values we are taught from scripture in mind as you consider your vote on Tuesday.  But the next question, of course is what does that mean? Exactly what values are we supposed to be voting for?  So, in this little article I will simply lay out I consider to be the most important biblical values which we should consider and for this I am going to the Gospels – in fact I am going to start with the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10: Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  And then Jesus launches into the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  So what is the foundational biblical value we can glean from this parable – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And this is not just Luke 10 – this principal shows up again and again in the Old and New Testaments.  As Christians we are called to place the needs of our neighbor above our own needs.
And what are these values interpreted to our own day and time?  Reading through the Gospel of Luke from beginning to end these are really quite clear:
1.                    Care for others is at the top of the list.  No matter what, the first priority is to make sure that our neighbor has all of their basic needs.  This means – food, shelter, health care.  This means to me that as a citizen I then have a responsibility to cast my vote for the candidate whose positions most encompass care for the other, care for the poor and care for those on the margins.
2.                    Care for creation! We are placed as stewards over creation to care for and cherish it.  This means taking care of our natural resources. So, therefore the candidate whose positions on taking care of our resources, finding alternatives to fossil fuels and working hard to curb green house gas emissions is the one who will get my vote.
3.                    Care for the aged.  Our elders have given much and now as they enter into the autumn of their lives they need to have the support systems that they have been counting on and paying into for their entire lives maintained and functional – that is Social Security and Medicaid.
4.                    Care for the stranger.  For a Christian Jesus made it quite clear that there were no such things as strangers, only brothers and sisters.  So, it is important that we are welcoming and work to be fair and equitable to those who come to us from outside the country.  A fair and just immigration policy that is compassionate and cares for the needs to those who are our guests needs to be a priority.
5.                    Justice as a priority! Beginning with the prophets and moving into the Gospel of Luke the just and fair distribution of resources and wealth is a priority for the bible.  In fact, the Old Testament even mandated a special Jubilee Year for the express purpose of making sure that in the realm of economics the system was fair.  This means that tax laws that are unjust and which allow some to amass great untaxed wealth while the rest of us have to shoulder the tax burden is simply not in keeping with biblical values.
6.                    I could go on – opposition to racism, support of women’s equality, justice and equal status under the law for ALL Americans and opposition to any law that singles out some American’s for special treatment – positive or negative – these are also a part of an overall understanding of Biblical values.
Voting Biblical values means that I take my neighbor’s needs into consideration.  And I must ask myself this question – “is my neighbor better off” under this party’s policies or the other.
Finally, I have to make another statement.  There is one candidate that until recently made it quite clear that he was quite proud to be a disciple of the mid-20th century philosopher Ayn Rand.  Her philosophy has actually become quite popular in libertarian circles, which is not surprising as it lifts up selfishness and greed as virtues; condemns the poor as leeches and denigrates compassion as being akin with weakness.  The philosophy of Ayn Rand is completely and totally antithetical to biblical values.  The bible says that to be a follower of Jesus one must give up everything they have, make reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised a priority, and to recognize that compassion is an important emotion that humanizes us and is a gift from God that leads us away from a self-centered focus to enable us to see the needs of others.  The philosophy of Ayn Rand is not Christian, it is (I believe) an insidious evil.  I will personally not vote for anyone who is a disciple of this philosophy for it runs contrary not only to everything I believe as a Christian – that is it runs contrary to biblical values – but it also undermines the very framework upon which this nation was founded and will lead to nothing but misery and destruction. 
So in closing.  I intend to vote Biblical Values and those values are to make the needs of other human beings the number one priority.  Allow me to close with the words to what is perhaps the most beautiful song in the New Testament and a song which clearly outlines God’s priorities as manifested in Jesus: The Song of Mary, from Luke 2:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”