Thursday, December 31, 2009
These opening verses of John’s gospel are like an overture of a grand symphony. The themes and images and theology that will make up the twenty-one chapters of John are introduced, the most important being the nature of the Word who was before anything began. My friend, Dr. Bob, calls the Jesus in John the magic Jesus. That’s because John’s Jesus always knows what people are thinking and what’s coming next and makes things happen like magic, especially in the end when he lays down his life and picks it up again all by himself. Of course magic Jesus is just a fun way of saying John has a high Christology which is the point John makes in the beginning. This Word that was before anything was brings light and life into the world by becoming flesh as a Son so that the Father can be revealed. If you have seen the Son you have seen the Father. To tell you the truth I prefer a less magic Jesus like the one in the Gospel of Mark and yet there is something compelling about this Word revealing the mystery of the God beyond knowing. I think it is because this Jesus retains so much of his eternal beginning in his earthly end that he really could have blinked his eyes and legions of angels would have done an Armageddon on those who did Him in. But that would have been darkness overcoming light because given the choice God choosing to die as Jesus is how God so loves the world. That’s the twist the world couldn’t see coming. God’s dying is how we are born into grace and truth, the life of God. And like all good magic tricks the only thing you can do is be surprised and amazed and ask to see it again.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Paul spent a good bit of time in Ephesus but it was not as pleasant as the opening of his letter might lead one to believe. He was imprisoned more than once and faced opposition so far beyond his ability to endure that he despaired of life itself. But he stayed on despite feeling himself under the sentence of death because of the opportunities that persecution presented him. It is in the face of external opposition and inner turmoil that Paul makes these claims that seem to fly in the face of reason. You are holy and blameless and blessed with every spiritual blessing. You were destined from the beginning of time to inherit the riches of God’s grace and sealed by the promised Holy Spirit to live for the praise of God’s glory. These are words of encouragement for Paul as well as the Ephesians to see beyond the temporal into the eternal and so endure even though the whole world conspired to persecute the church to death. While we do not suffer such persecutions we do experience hardships beyond our ability to endure and one does not need to be thrown into prison or face wild beasts in the arena to despair of life itself. The temptation is to believe the temporary will never end because what Paul might call slight and momentary hardships are anything but when you are the one living in them. But that is why faith looks to the past, before the foundation of the world when we were chosen by God and into the future when the inheritance of unfading glory will be fully realized. It does not mean we will not despair of life itself or face hardships beyond our ability to endure. It does mean that all is not lost even if your whole world conspires against you because the present, no matter how long it lasts, is temporary and even if you cannot endure God will. And that is a promise you can count on no matter what.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
There have been times when events at Calvary and the assigned text from the lectionary have been so in sync as to be prophetic but this may be the first time the assigned text predicted the weather. This morning I scraped frost like ashes off my car window and by this afternoon we’re expecting an inch of wool and while it’s not cold enough to make you sit down it is colder than I care for. My guess is that this psalm was written during a blizzard and hunkered down somewhere listening to the wind howl the psalmist thought about God. I remember driving through violent winter storms in the Midwest where I too invoked the name of the Almighty but more as a plea than praise. But maybe that misses the point of the psalm. The description of God hurling down hail and coming in bone chilling cold follows praise for strengthened gates that protect children and peace within borders filled with wheat for it is God’s word that warms the world as well to make waters flow. Maybe plea and praise is the same thing for to call on the Almighty to save is to acknowledge God’s ability to do so. However, even though I am confident in God’s ability to save I want to offer a word of advice to all you native Texans in pick up trucks if you have to drive this afternoon. Don’t.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Ten years ago on Christmas Day someone left a little red hound puppy at the church which is how we got Rudolph (Rudy) the Red Dog. Last year on Christmas Eve Josh found a stray kitten which is how we got a black cat named Evie. On Wednesday Mary Ruth and I went to the Home Depot to get a Christmas tree and came home with a Chihuahua we’ve named Feliz. Lisa says next year, three days before Christmas, no one leaves the house. I say it doesn’t matter because the strays will find us. The lessons for Christmas 1c are about the lost and found. When all was lost because of the sins of Eli’s sons Israel’s hope was found in Hannah’s son Samuel. When we lose our voice for praise because of trying times we find it when we remember praise the Lord is about our being made and not the sound we make. When we clothe ourselves in the wardrobe of Colossians we lose the things that don’t fit those chosen by God, holy and dearly loved, to find the life of love that wears well. And finally the boy that Mary and Joseph feared they had lost and then found in his Father’s house was the One who the Father had sent to find them. That same One comes to find us, whether we know we are lost or not, to provide a future and a hope, which of course is a permanent place in the Father's house. Feliz Navidad!
I’ve taken to writing my blog at Roots Coffeehouse on Grapevine Highway. It’s across from the TCC campus and I pass it after dropping Josh off at Birdville HS. They have organic, free trade coffee and change the Coffee of the Day everyday, unlike another place where the coffee of the day has been Christmas Blend everyday for a month. And the Wi-Fi at Roots is free. None of which has anything to do with the text, it’s just that they’ve been open for nine months and business has been slow and I’d like to keep blogging from my comfy chair. We don’t know what questions Jesus was asking or what insights he was sharing, but as an adult he was always opening the door to his father’s house wider than the door keepers cared to allow for he came to embody Mary’s song. The hungry well fed and the rich sent empty away; the powerful thrown down and the lowly lifted; the door opened to the blind, the lame, the tax collector, the sinner. But of course it will take more than asking questions and insightful answers to “fling wide the doors and unbar the gates.” In the end the curtain will be torn in two and the doors knocked off their hinges when the final lesson is taught and the one who came to open the door commends his spirit into the Father’s hands. God is always giving us opportunities to open the doors a little wider as well. Like in a coffee shop when in response to a Merry Christmas a woman shares her fear and concern for a father in the hospital and a blogger in a comfy chair who happens to be pastored up offers to pray. And for a moment the light shines in the darkness and the door is opened and Roots is the Father’s house.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
During the season of Lent I “Pastor up” as our Youth Director Janelle likes to say which means I wear my cleric everyday. I’ve thought about doing that throughout the year, not because I’m particularly pious or wish to be recognized as a reverend, but because it would simplify my morning ritual question, “What to wear?” And since I’m old school I don’t even have to choose a color. Black pants, black cleric and black suit coat and I’m good to go. Of course the reason I pastor up in Lent is not to simplify but to remember and that is what this fashion advice to the Colossians is all about. Remember you are chosen by God. Remember you are holy and beloved or in other words remember you are a desirable object of God’s affection. So what to wear? Paul’s list should simplify our selection and would if not for closets filled with thoughts and ways of being that don’t fit or have worn out or were never very attractive in the first place. And cleaning out the closet is painful even when helped by loving admonishment. But in the end cleaning our closets and improving our fashion sense is only possible if we are helped by those who bear with us and forgive us and encourage and compliment us. You look good in kindness. I think compassion really sets off the color of your eyes. You make that patience work, girl. So what to wear? While the answer is a little more interesting that black on black it’s just as simple. Remember to put on Christ and everything else will fit perfectly.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I once heard a Psalty Kids Praise CD that said when a cow goes moo it’s praising God. I don’t mean to be a neigh-sayer when it comes to animal praise but I think moo means feed me or milk me or maybe both. Granted the animal praise list of Psalm 148 includes cattle and that might support the moo theory of praise, but then it also has sea monsters and fruit trees and all the weather conditions a Texan can experience in the same day. So this is not the sort of scripture that one takes literally or over thinks. This is a noisy over the top psalm because the very existence of all that is was commanded and established and fixed in place by God, which is how you make it on the praise the Lord list. So praise is not about the sound you make but about you being made. Which means praising the Lord does not require one’s circumstances to be praiseworthy. So I guess I stand corrected. Praise can sound like you are hungry or just need to be milked.
Monday, December 21, 2009
This is just the beginning of Samuel’s story but the beginning of the end for Eli. It is a tragic tale of a father who cannot bring himself to do what must be done. His sons have desecrated the sanctuary and have turned the people’s sacrifice into profit for themselves. Eli hears the reports and confronts his sons with their sin but cannot bring himself to condemn them to death which is what the law demands. And so in the end it will be Eli and all of Israel that will have to pay for the sins of the sons. The good news in the story is that God’s gift to the barren Hannah is Samuel who is and will be everything Eli’s sons were not and through his intercession Israel will be saved. It is a story that repeats itself throughout the scriptures and all of human history. The practice of faith meant for blessing becomes instead a source of priestly power or superficial ritualized religion or worse the justification for hatred and violence. But God is always working to turn the curse back into a blessing which is why Hannah is gifted with Samuel who in turn is a gift to Israel. And of course that is the story of Christmas. We, like Eli’s sons have sinned against the Lord in thought, word and deed and cannot intercede for ourselves. But Jesus is and will be everything we are not. And so the gift to Mary becomes a gift for the world as God works to turn the curse into a blessing. But good news for us will be bad news for Jesus who is born to die for us, instead of us, ahead of us so we do not suffer the consequence our sins deserve. I know it might not be such a pleasant way to begin the week of Christmas but as I said yesterday in one of my sermons our sin is the real reason for the season. And in a strange sort of way that really does make for a Merry Christmas.
Friday, December 18, 2009
How did we get to the fourth Sunday of Advent so quickly? When I was a child it took an eternity of Sundays to light four candles, now it seems those four weeks fly by and with so much still to do and less and less time to do it I could use an Advent 5. But whether it is time that speeds up or we who can’t slow down doesn’t really matter. The day will come and go right on schedule and maybe that’s the point. We’re the ones who fluctuate in both our experience of time and our relationship with the Divine. And so like Micah’s vision we live through times of abandonment, but when God comes we know security and peace. Like the Psalmist we live through times when tears are our bread, but when God comes we are bathed in the light of God’s face and are restored. Like Hebrews we trust we can please God with sacrifices and offerings and are never quite sure we’ve done enough, but when God comes our dependence on law gives way to being embraced by love. And finally the truth of Mary’s song is that we are the proud lost in our own thoughts; we are those who are well fed but always hungry; we are the powerful sitting on thrones of our own design; but when God comes we are blessed for God looks on us with favor. But then God has never left us so this coming and going is really more about our returning, which of course is only possible because God came down.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Mary went with haste to the hill country for good reason. To be unwed and pregnant was not a condition a woman wanted to be found in, especially in a small town where gossip once whispered would grow louder as Mary grew larger. She goes to see Elizabeth, who has had a remarkable conception herself, which may have made her more open to the extraordinary mother and unborn child who greeted her that day. John leaping in her womb prompted an exclamation, which seems to be the proper response to someone leaping in your womb, but this is more than an “Oh my!” Elizabeth knows this is one of those moments when heaven and earth meet and all of history pauses to hold its breath as the Holy and Invisible and Immortal is revealed to flesh and blood. And while she proclaims “Blessed are you… Elizabeth knows that Mary’s blessing is hers as well and one thing leads to another and before you know it there is singing. It is a magnificent song that remembers the promise that God has remembered, to show mercy and strength, to embrace the humble and let the proud be lost in their futile thoughts which is a lonely place to be. Mary sings the powerful brought down and the lowly exalted, the hungry fed and the well fed hungry and in the singing I imagine the two unborn may have done a little leaping. It is a lovely thing to imagine, two pregnant women embracing, dancing, singing because while the whole world just kept spinning as if nothing has happened they know the secret about to be revealed in the birth of the child, God with us. But of course as lovely and magnificent as that moment was the song will not be complete until punctuated by a cry of anguish it is finished. It is in the finishing that our song begins and the only way to sing it is to enter it, to leave our proud thoughts to themselves and see that the hungry are well fed and whenever that happens the song goes back to the beginning, My soul magnifies the Lord.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The book of Hebrews contains some memorable verses like “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” and “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and always” and “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” These verses are not like those. Most of Hebrews is dedicated to carefully constructed and detailed arguments that would make a lawyer’s head spin. These verses are part of the concluding arguments for the case the unnamed writer wants to make, that God has replaced the entire legal system of the law with a new deal. It makes sense then that the new deal would require carefully reasoned arguments for the old one was itself pretty complicated. Even so it must have seemed beyond reason for those first readers of Hebrews for their entire relationship with God fully depended on God being pleased with sacrifices and offerings. Now they were being asked to believe the right relationship with God which had depended on their sacrifices had been replaced by God’s sacrifice. We are not so different for though we confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves we often live as if we believe God only helps those who help themselves. The new deal asks us to trust that nothing we do or say or think is a deal breaker because God’s will is to make us right despite what we do or say or think. And that is beyond reason, which is why faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The lectionary offers the option of using Mary’s song, “My soul magnifies the Lord...” in place of the psalm, but I think the lament of Psalm 80 helps put both the prophetic word of Micah and its fulfillment in Luke into the proper context; God’s response to all that leads one to lament. Lament is the question of the scriptures; “How long, O Lord, will the wicked prosper?” and the cry of the abandoned, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” And so it is for us when in days and nights of questioning, with tears our bread, scorned and derided by life’s circumstance we cry out, how long, O Lord? But there is within lament’s question the anticipation of Mary’s song for “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” believes there will be a day of restoration. And that is what makes Mary’s song magnificent. She and all of Israel have waited for this day not in silence but in complaint and when the silent God who is always present finally speaks through the offspring of Mary’s womb the centuries of lamenting are forgotten in the infant’s cry. And the cry of Mary’s offspring is God’s lament which of course is how we are saved.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Josh and I came out of LA Fitness at 7 AM and got in the car. I opened the console to get my phone but it wasn’t there. Neither was my wallet. Nor was Josh’s bag with his cell phone and his sister’s iPod and the Derrick Jeeter jersey his grandfather bought for him when they went to Yankee Stadium. Gone too was the bank envelope with some cash for Christmas. Once we figured out we were robbed Josh asked, “Isn’t there a commandment about stealing from a pastor?” I said “I thought you went through confirmation, but maybe that was some other son of mine named Josh.” We had a good laugh and then he went to school to explain to his teachers how this time it wasn’t the dog who ate his homework but a thief who took it, while I started making phone calls to cancel cards. All in all not the best way to start the week for us or for the one who profited from our loss. While we are inconvenienced for a time and maybe have to get a little less than we planned, the one or ones who live by dishonesty and deceit have no choice but to live with their dishonesty and deceit. The truth is that judgment is in the sin itself whether one is caught or not. The Good News is that the One from Bethlehem, born of Mary’s labor, came to redeem both those who know that judgment is in the sin itself and those who live as if it doesn’t matter. The difference is that we who know that truth live securely for Jesus is our peace while those who stole from us still live under judgment. And for that I would say Josh and I are the richer and they in their dishonest profit have become poorer.
Friday, December 11, 2009
In the old Red hymnal that preceded the old Green hymnal the Latin name of each Sunday was listed. This Sunday is Gaudete which is Latin for the first word of the second lesson, Rejoice. Long before any of the old hymnals Advent was even more like Lent with a full forty day fast beginning on November 12th. Gaudete Sunday anticipated the end of the fast and so a rose candle was lit to lighten the mood. Zephaniah anticipates a day beyond disaster when renewed by the love of God singing will replace sorrow. Rejoice! Isaiah anticipates a day beyond fear when God will be the strength and song of those who declare; surely it is God who saves me. Rejoice! In the peace that transcends understanding Paul encourages the Philippians to trust God in the midst of anxious times anticipating the Lord who is near. Rejoice! And while it might seem that the Gospel is out of sync with the theme – Rejoice! (You brood of vipers) confession anticipates absolution and fruit bearing repentance is always a cause for Gaudete!
Thursday, December 10, 2009
We don’t hear many “Brood of Vipers” sermons in the Lutheran church. It’s not that we don’t all need and even welcome a stern word now and then it’s just that Lutherans draw the line at being called poisonous reptiles. We’re happy to sing “Chief of Sinners Though I Be” and confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean but call us snakes and we might hiss at you. But with or without the snake reference this may be more of a true word for us than we’d care to admit. While we don’t presume to be children of Abraham we bet on being children of grace and bearing fruits worthy of repentance is a postscript not a priority. Like those who came out to be chastised and challenged by John the end of our confession must be “What then should we do?” Of course the question, as important and necessary as it is, follows God’s answer for Christians of the Lutheran flavor. God’s forgiveness does not depend on our doing; our doing depends on God’s forgiving. True repentance anticipates absolution and in the freedom of forgiveness one cleans out the closet and gives away the extra coat. The good news of John’s exhortation is the end our comfortable relationship with dishonest ways and vain striving after wealth and power. And all of this is made possible by the powerful One who follows, the only anti-venom for a brood of vipers.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
When this lesson came up at our Monday staff meeting our custodian Tammy started to sing “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” It’s a four part round I sang for years at church camp and is one of those songs that has no ending unless you just stop and though not nearly as obnoxious as “It’s a Small World After All” it can get stuck in your head. Maybe that’s the point of these four verses – not the obnoxious part – but a way of living that gets stuck in your head and has no ending unless you choose to stop. Of course sometimes stopping is a choice made for us as anxiety mounts and prayers spoken into the silence of God defy our ability to understand, which is why we sing “Rejoice in the Lord always” as a round. Four parts compelling each other to keep singing and you cannot tell who is leading or who is following and every measure has a Rejoice. It is through prayer prayed and song sung together that the peace of God transcends anxious times to guard hearts and minds and keep the song from stopping. So Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice!
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Isaiah 25:2-6 is the text for The First Song of Isaiah by Jack Noble White. The first time I heard it was some fifteen years ago at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Irving, TX when I presided over a funeral for one of their members. The funeral was for a woman who had courageously battled cancer for more years than her original prognosis predicted possible and while we felt a deep sadness at the loss of one so faithful and beautiful and loved, it was with that peace and joy that would be out of place if not for the truth of this scripture set to song. “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in Him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense and He will be my Savior.” In this scripture set to song the physical and spiritual weakness of human flesh, the fear, the doubt, the overwhelming sorrow is lifted with the melody as our singing is joined and supported and sustained by an invisible cloud of witnesses for whom the song is more true than we can at present imagine. Surely it is God who saves me… It is a song of defiant faith against all that would wither the soul with doubt and fear. Surely it is God who saves me… It is a song of courage for times of trial and comfort for times of sorrow. Surely it is God who saves me… a song for all our days until at last we reach the endless tomorrow. Surely it is God who saves me.
Monday, December 7, 2009
These are the last verses of the short book of Zephaniah. The rest of the book reads more like the first verse of the prophecy. "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the LORD. Zephaniah predicts “a day of distress and anguish, of trouble and ruin, of darkness and gloom,” because Jerusalem has become complacent thinking God will do neither good nor evil and Assyria, that carefree city, is full of pride boasting “I am and there is none like me.” But those who seek humility and righteousness, who accept the Lord’s correction, will sing for joy for they will be renewed in God’s love. The truth of this short book is that spiritual complacency and pride are deadly in the life of the believer. We think that nothing we do really matters because God is like the kindly grandparent who might get a little upset but still has milk and cookies for us at bedtime. Or we are full of our own spiritual prowess and piety thinking that we can overcome sin itself and so judge all others accordingly. The woe that complacency and pride visit upon us is the same as the dreadful judgments of Zephaniah. We forget how to sing the song of the heart’s rejoicing and cannot hear the God who longs to exult over us with loud singing. So accept the Lord’s correction this day. Seek after humility and righteousness and sing a song of rejoicing with the Lord who longs to sing with you.
Friday, December 4, 2009
It seems to me that winter has arrived overnight and I for one do not like it one bit. I had to wear a jacket twice this week! I realize this means I’ve been in Texas so long my blood has thinned because I start shivering around 50 degrees. And if I go even half a day without sunshine I start getting depressed. The only bright spot is that this won’t last more than a few days and the sun will shine and the air warm up to a respectable Texas temperature by Wednesday. The lessons for the second Sunday of Advent are songs and prayers and prophecies of promise to warm the weary soul. The less than the best offerings that do not warm God’s heart will be refined and be pleasing to the Lord as in former days. Help is on the way in the mighty Savior who will rescue the people of God from hands that hate and in the light of tender mercy even the darkness of death will be banished. A prayer for partners in the Gospel will be answered with abounding love and depth of insight so that the Philippians will be blameless until they are bathed in the radiance of Christ’s coming. And from the wilderness a voice will prepare the way for the future where all flesh will see the salvation of God. I feel warmer already or maybe the heat just came on.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Luke names the powers that rule the world because he is writing an orderly account for the most excellent Theophilus and though a physician by training he is an historian at heart. And so he grounds the story of salvation in the names and dates of human history. But Luke the theologian names the powers of the political and religious world to clothe the prophetic word in flesh and blood. The powers of empire and temple cannot hear it yet but the voice that cries in the wilderness will resound throughout the world of Jerusalem and Rome. The mountain of Tiberius and Pilate will be made low. The valley of Herod’s wickedness will be filled. The crooked path of Annas and Caiaphas will be made straight as the rough ways of empire and temple are made smooth. Of course history repeats itself and so we would do well to listen for the voice crying in our time for the salvation that all flesh will see is not clothed in the trappings of empire or church but in acts of justice, peace and mercy. And closer to home the good news is that when we hear the voice and see that salvation for ourselves the mountain of our pride is brought low, the valley of our fear and self loathing is filled, the crooked paths that have become well worn and familiar are made straight and all the rough ways that keep us from loving are made smooth. And that is good news indeed.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
If the Galatians and the Corinthians were like thorns in Paul’s flesh then the Philippians were the healing balm for the pain in Paul’s neck. It’s not that the Philippians don’t have troubles of their own it’s that despite the trials they face they are more than willing to share his. That is the way of partnership in the Gospel. Or as Paul will write to the law bound Galatians, bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Or to the spiritually arrogant Corinthians, you can babble on in whatever language you like but the language of love is the only one that matters. The Philippians understood that from the beginning when they were the only church to support Paul’s efforts in Macedonia. It’s hard to image how their love might overflow more than it already has but that is Paul’s prayer for those who share his joy and his suffering. It is a prayer for the church of every age when in speaking only one language behind the law of doctrine and dogmas ceases to be conversant in the language of love. The church is always in need of a Philippian reformation that the good work begun on the day of our Pentecost might be completed on the day of resurrection. Be a Philippian today!
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The lesson that occupies the place of the psalm this Sunday is Zechariah’s Song and expresses the hopes and dreams of a people who have been waiting forever for their fortunes to change and their ship to come in. Zechariah sings it because he is a new father and his voice which had been taken from him earlier in the chapter has returned and that is reason enough to sing. But it is more than a proud father who has high hopes for his son; no less than a prophet of the Most High! No, it is more than that for in a moment of Holy Spirit joy Zechariah sings the longing of every people oppressed by enemies or hands that hate, all people who yearn for light to shine in the darkness and the shadow cast by death itself. In that sense it is a song for us who are often our own worse enemies. Oppressed by thoughts and deeds that lead us far from God we hear a word of promise that in the mighty Savior floating in Mary’s womb tender mercy will rescue us and guide our hearts and minds in the ways of peace. And that calls for a song.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem have been less than pleasing and have wearied the Lord. Blind, lame and sick animals are substituted for lambs without blemish and the Lord would rather the temple doors be closed and locked than endure the stench of such dishonest offerings. The priests participate and profit from the scheme while the workers are oppressed, widows and orphans are not cared for and the alien is thrust aside. Perhaps it was because God seemed distant and the rules and regulations of the covenant relationship seemed arbitrary and economically oppressive. What’s a blind lamb to an invisible God? And so corners are cut and liberties taken and before you know it the relationship that enriched the people and God has impoverished both. Therefore God will pay a visit to the temple and do some housecleaning. With overturned tables and coins of money changers scattered the refining fire speaks the word of judgment, “It is written, my house will be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers!” Not a week later the fullers’ soap speaks the cleansing word from a hill above the temple, “It is finished.” We who are more like Judah and Jerusalem than we care to admit need to hear the word of the refiner when our offerings are less than the best and corners that count are cut. And like Jerusalem and Judah in the days of old and former years the cleansing word will make our offering pleasing to the Lord.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
So here we go again. Pastors will find people in the pews wondering why we have to sing On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist Cry instead of Christmas carols and for the next four weeks while most people are anticipating Christmas we’re getting ready for the end of the world. And this year the end of world is only one year closer which isn’t all that important if we’ve got a thousand or more to go. But the truth is we don’t know and that might be the best thing about Advent. And maybe recognizing the end might come as a thief is more important to consider when it is closer to home. Not the end of the world as we know it but my end up close and personal. If all I might have is today the Lord is my Righteousness is all my hope for the day that is surely coming. If all I might have is today I need not waste time remembering the sins my Lord has forgotten. If all I might have is today then to trust I will blameless before the Lord Jesus is to live today unburdened by guilt and shame. If all I have is today then the springtime of the future is anticipated not through fear but faith.
So is the future day a Christian version of 2012 or can we get out of this thing with a little less noise? I’m afraid it may just be hard wired into our anxious DNA to believe that the temporal realm, including our own personal stake in it, is not giving up without a fight and rather than going gently into the dark night it will curse and rage until the cows come home. It would also seem to be a part of our nature to divide the world into those who faint from fear at the end of all things and those who stand up and cheer. While there is no question that Jesus used the language of apocalypse to speak of the end of all time, all the Gospels contain such speeches, how can the Crucified One come back to save a few only to crucify the rest with vengeance? The first time around the Kingdom of God contained some unlikely subjects, tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes and people of questionable character why would they be less than welcome in the second? When I think of the end of all things I am not weighed down by the worries of this life but the thought I might not escape what comes next. So I find some comfort that Jesus uses the image of spring to talk about the signs. Despite the roaring of the seas and signs that make one faint it will be like daffodils that pop up through the snow. Despite the signs in the sky it will be like Lady Bird’s legacy of Bluebonnet blanketed Texas highways. Maybe the best way to escape all the things that will take place and stand before the Son of Man is to trust He will look a lot like Jesus did the first time around.
The Thessalonians were worried that the day of the Lord had come and gone and they had been left behind or it hadn’t come and those who had already died had missed the boat. At any rate what was lacking in their faith was a confident hope that despite their present circumstances of wondering when the day would come their future was still secure. Sometimes a face to face is the only way to restore confidence and so Paul prays day and night that he might visit those for whom his love abounds. But he had other congregations that demanded his attention and were not nearly as receptive and presumably not as much fun and so it would take some time for his day and night prayer to be answered. In the meantime he writes what is most likely the first letter of the New Testament. To those in doubt he writes encouraging words for abounding love and strengthened hearts that are a word for us as well. May you believe the unbelievable that despite what you know about yourself you will be blameless before the Lord Jesus and the cloud of witnesses that will accompany his return.
Be mindful of your mercy and your steadfast love but do not remember the sins of my youth, but in the forgetting of my sin don’t forget me. It is the prayer of the thief who recognizes Jesus’ innocence and fully aware of his own guilt asks to be remembered. Jesus, remember me when you reach the place where memory of mercy and forgetfulness of sin matter the most. It does not mean there are no consequences for sins of our youth or middle age for that matter. We are not as forgetful as God and sins of the past and present have a way of accusing us that we are not worthy of God’s forgetting. That is why we lift up our soul to the One who instructs us to forget what has been forgiven and remember the path of what is right which is to remember the consequence of youthful sins long enough so as not to repeat them.
We’ve spent the week of Thanksgiving camping on the Texas gulf coast for years and as our departure grows closer I can practically smell the salt sea air and taste the shrimp and Red fish and oysters. I can hear the surf and I know there’ll be at least one big wave with my name on it. I hesitate to confess that I have stepped into my wet suit once or twice this week and picked up my boogie board while watching surf movies on DVD. Dude!
The days are surely coming is a promise that the time of waiting will one day be over and the long expected Savior of the nations will come. Of course we’ve had a sneak peak at what is coming while the house of Israel and Judah held onto the promise in the dark. We’ve seen and celebrate the Righteous Branch born in a stable, crucified on a cross, raised on the third day.
And so now we wait for something more, when what is old will become new and what is broken will be made whole. Sorrow will turn to joy, wailing into dancing, and death itself will be swallowed up by life that is unending when that day surely comes. In the meantime we anticipate that day best by putting on the future in the present through acts of kindness and mercy and living in love. Sort of like putting on your wet suit to watch Blue Crush. Dude!
Thursday, November 19, 2009
I have been an every Sunday Lutheran since I was baptized and I don’t remember when Christ the King became a Sunday with a name. If you Google it you’ll find it was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1929 and at one point was known as Christ the King of the Universe Sunday which sounds even more impressive in Latin. I don’t know about you but it seems to me that Jesus took pains to be a small k King and that we’re the ones who want to make sure he wears proper shoes. After all the Christ the King of the Universe we worship was born in a stable to an unwed mother, ate with tax collectors and sinners, washed disciples dirty feet and died naked on a cross. Why would we dress up such a king in the purple robes of the world unless we didn’t trust our small k King to be a big G god? So if you should sing Crown Him with Many Crowns this Christ the King Sunday remember the crown we depend on was made of thorns.
“What is it you have done?” It could have been the name calling. You brood of vipers. You white washed tombs. You blind guides. It could have been the consistent breaking of Sabbath laws. It could have been the incident in the temple. Or we could take Caiaphas at his word, “it is better that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish." Fear is a powerful motivator and even a nation under Roman occupation seeks at all costs to hold onto the illusion of being in control. But Jesus is doing something else. If we take him at his word, He lays down his life only to take it up again to draw all people to himself, because the world will perish unless one man dies. Of course we who are on the side of truth often feel more secure in the here and now and for all sorts of practical reasons make Jesus’ kingdom look more like Pilate’s. But the greater truth of this Christ who is the King, handed over to a puppet politician by self righteous religious rulers, is that he dies for them as well. Talk about going rouge. That really is a kingdom from another place.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
The letter that vividly describes a violent and final end for so many begins rather nicely for the seven churches. Of course this good beginning was written to seven churches facing an even more imminent end themselves. That is helpful to remember because I don’t think we can fully comprehend what the word from the One who is and was and is to come meant to the rightful recipients of John’s letter. I think I know what we’ve done with it and even though the best selling series Left Behind was red hot I think God might put it in the lukewarm category for God's sake. So how do we hear a word for us even though it is clearly addressed to them? First of all one does not need to be persecuted or enslaved by temporal powers in order to desire freedom. We are all in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. And while some may face an imminent end all of us face an inevitable one and can find comfort that the first born from the dead opens a way for those who will follow. And finally the promise of Jesus’ coming on the clouds, whether one wails or not, is a promise that the world as we know it will come to an end. And maybe that is the best news of all.
The Lord is more majestic than the waves of the sea. By this time next week I will be sitting on a Texas beach watching the waves or in the surf catching one and the more majestic the better. Granted North Padre is nothing like Pipeline in Hawaii but then Pipeline is nothing compared to the power and strength of the Lord robed in majesty. That is because God exists outside the boundaries of our imagination and is always greater than any image we employ, even rising floods and mighty waters and majestic waves. The psalmist celebrates the awesome power and strength of God and while it is certainly true, more often than not the rising floods and noisy waters and crashing waves of life need a God who is a little closer than established from old and majestic on high. So through a “less than” who is Christ the King, God draws near to us; the floods subside, the thunder of water is quieted, the waves slow to a gentle swell and the Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise inhabits human flesh. That is the sure decree we can trust and the holiness we touch and in the less than I always experience God as greater than.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
“As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me and the visions of my head terrified me.” There is endless commentary and web pages dedicated to the terrifying visions that prompted Daniel’s troubled spirit offering detailed explanation of what will be, although a good deal of it seems dedicated to further troubling and terrifying. If you want to see some interesting art work just do an image search on Daniel 7! But then apocalyptic writings seem to encourage fanciful thinking. Dreams and visions beg for explanation for we are far more curious than the cat, especially if we think some advantage may be gained in the knowing. But the ultimate purpose of this apocalyptic vision is to provide a message of hope. The simple truth of Daniel is this: the four arrogant kingdoms hell bent on devouring will themselves be devoured and those they threaten will endure. For all the hope of the people and nations and languages is in the One presented before the Ancient of Days. Not a talking horn king but the King of Kings who comes not to devour but to bless. This One given dominion and glory and kingship is not arrogant or rude, jealous or boastful, but full of mercy and compassion. Is it necessary then, or even helpful to speculate as to future applications of Daniel’s dream of kingdoms and talking horns? I don’t think so for when we focus on end times imagination we often neglect the present and the very people the King of Kings came to save, which makes us more like an arrogant horn than the One we seek to serve.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Do not be alarmed. This word of Jesus is the faithful response to alarming events that fascinate and terrify and is the thread that ties these lessons to each other. Do not be alarmed by a time of anguish the likes of which the world has never seen for your deliverance is near. Do not be alarmed by the threat of the grave for your path of life leads to joy in God’s presence and eternal pleasures that defy description. Do not be alarmed by the memory of sins for God has sworn an oath to remember them no more. Do not be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars for the birth of something new is only beginning. To not be alarmed despite events beyond our control and circumstances that threaten means we do not chase after other gods and for a false sense of security multiply our sorrows. To not be alarmed redirects our thoughts and energies from trying to escape this world to provoking one another to love and good deeds for the sake of this world. Do not be alarmed. There's work to do.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
I imagine years later upon reading the Gospel of Mark the unnamed disciple was relieved he remained anonymous. After all moments before Jesus had elevated an invisible widow and two small copper coins above offerings of excess from those who, like large stone buildings, made themselves hard to ignore. Of course we too are enamored by an impressive edifice of flesh or stone, more often than not our own. But the temple was more than just an extraordinary piece of architecture. In the mind of the people it was the only place where heaven and earth met, where the Holy consecrated the profane, where the presence of God hidden behind a curtain kept watch over Israel. The temple had become more important to the faith than the One it was built to house and so Jesus directed the disciple to look more closely. Do you see…? God does not dwell in a house made by human hands but in the heart of a widow. It is a word for us who might be impressed by stone structures of denominations or distressed at their possible demise. Do you see…? It applies to the beginnings of the birth pangs as well, which might indeed be cause for alarm but for the promise at the end of this chapter “heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not.” Do you see…? It is a question for all who are alarmed by personal conflicts within and without, by divisions, by everyday disruptions that make one hunger for something stable and trustworthy. Do you see…? It is in this different way of seeing that God is found for when it appeared all was lost for Jesus all in fact was won. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” the prelude to “It is finished” as the pangs of the old, as alarming as they may be, anticipate the birth of something new. Do you see?
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… It reminds me of “I double dare you” on the grade school playground although that usually involved provoking one another to dangerous deeds that were never very good and certainly not well thought out. The Greek word is paroxysm, which means a sharpening. The only other time the word is used is for the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas that resulted in their parting company. So we are to provoke one another to love and good deeds with the same intensity as a sharp disagreement. This won’t be easy for Lutherans because we prefer a more polite approach that includes the magic word “please” or “If it’s not too much trouble…” If that doesn’t work we still don’t provoke. We motivate one another the old fashioned way aka Lutheran guilt. But the writer of Hebrews provocation is based on confidence, full assurance and unwavering hope in the faithfulness of God. The provocation to love is a response to God’s love, as good deeds are a response to the good deed done for us by Jesus who has opened a new and living way into heaven itself. Now that sounds like something that might motivate a Lutheran. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and do some good deeds today. I double dare you.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
This is a psalm of confidence as opposed to a confidence psalm. By that I mean the psalmist is confident in God who counsels and makes one secure and promises eternal pleasures while those who run after other gods reap the rewards of a Ponzi scheme. The only thing multiplied by their investment is sorrow. The other gods of psalm 16 are the Canaanite deities like Ba’al. I’m confident that the worship of Ba’al is not a great temptation today but running after other gods still is. Martin Luther defines other gods like this: “whoever trusts and boasts great skill, prudence, power, favor, friendship, and honor has also a god...” So when we run after possessions or power or prestige or pleasure we do so at the expense of investment in the One who makes the heart glad and the tongue rejoice and the body rest secure. The other gods call us to run after them while the true God pursues and precedes us for God’s promise is backed by the security of the One who abandoned to the grave made even death obedient to Him. It is because God is ahead of us in death and behind us in life that we with the psalmist can say we will not be shaken. So make a wise investment today, stop running after other gods and let the Lord catch up to you.
Monday, November 9, 2009
The only trouble with writing a daily lectionary based blog is you can’t pick the easy scriptures or avoid the more difficult ones. So let me say first that doom and gloom scriptures with everlasting judgment trouble me even if I count myself one of the wise. And there are plenty of scripture passages that will support the idea that the chance of being one of the wise shiny ones is akin to winning the lottery which is even more troubling because I never win anything. Later verses in the 12th chapter of Daniel are considered by some to be the key to unlocking the riddle of the time of tribulation in the Book of Revelation where most people have a losing lottery ticket and are left behind. That is not to say God cannot do whatever God wants, even sentence the whole lot of us to shame and everlasting contempt. But in light of the cross I find that unlikely and the cross is the key to unlocking the mystery of scripture. There are certainly things worthy of judgment and I count myself guilty on all counts, but as my theology professor Walt Bouman liked to say judgment is a penultimate word, or the word that comes before the ultimate word which is the cross which is grace and mercy and God’s self sacrifice for wise and foolish alike. The truth of Daniel is more apparent in its immediate context. It is a word for persecuted people held captive in a foreign land and more than one of their loved ones are sleeping in the dust. It is a promise that the scales of justice will be balanced and despite a time of unprecedented anguish deliverance will have the final say. Does it mean that everyone will shine and no one will be eternally ashamed? I don’t know, but God does and somehow knowing that the God of the cross has the final say makes even doom and gloom scriptures less troubling.
Friday, November 6, 2009
The texts for Pentecost 23b are connected by the unexpected. The jar that should be empty and the jug that should be dry continue to provide for a widow and her son who had planned to eat one last meal and die. The psalm praises God’s plan for the poor that is more trustworthy than the plans and power of princes. Hebrews declares the One condemned by the High Priest for blasphemy against the Holy One of Israel is the One whose death makes Israel holy once for all. And in the Gospel the widow’s two pennies are worthy of note while offerings from abundance are not. These texts should remind us that God is always showing up in the unexpected. And expecting the unexpected we might be more generous with what we have because Jesus, like the widow, gave us all he had.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
I remember attending a Christmas Eve mass at the Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool and being absolutely captured by the pageantry of the high church liturgy. The procession began with the Grand Organ's introduction to O Come All Ye Faithful that shook the very foundations of the sanctuary. As a thousand voices strained to sing above the chords the crucifer appeared at the entrance to church. Behind him came acolytes carrying torches, the lector with a jewel incrusted Bible, multiple choirs, various officers of the church in ceremonial robes carrying gold maces, the clergy in all their finery and finally at the very end the Archbishop in a gold gilt chasuble and miter holding a crosier in one hand and a small child in the other. The music and the majesty of the moment brought tears to more than one eye including my own for it seemed as if we had been transported to heaven itself. But as much as I treasured the moment there was a part of me that thought the babe in Bethlehem might think it more appropriate to celebrate his birth by finding a room in the inn for people who like his mother were left out in the cold.
I’m not trying to infer that given a different time and place Jesus would have had the same criticism of high church Anglican services as he did for the pomp and ceremony of his own but it does seem as if the church in its effort to anticipate singing with the heavenly chorus might undervalue two pennies in the plate. Of course the value of that offering was not the amount and Jesus’ observation that day was not a challenge to the wealthy to give all they had, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief. But before getting too comfortable with this text we’ll have to look deeper than our pocket books and wallets. Jesus was speaking about the attitude of the heart and in doing so made a clear contrast between those who like to walk around in long robes and those who wear rags, between those who like to sit in the best seats and those who don’t have a place at the table, between those who for the sake of appearance say long prayers and those who in their desperate need pray, Lord save me. God sees the value of the widow’s offering and it is not the two pennies but the widow herself.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Once for all, that is the way the writer of Hebrews describes the sacrifice of Jesus. Instead of the high priest repeating the sacrifice time and time again with the blood of bulls or lambs or doves Jesus’ blood is once for all. While that is something I know and believe I will have to admit that when it comes to my own sin I operate more like the high priest than Jesus. And I’m not even a very efficient high preist for often the sins of the past haunt my present and I find I have to offer the sacrifice of guilt or shame time and time again. As much as we might struggle with forgiving others it is forgiving ourselves that presents the bigger challenge. When Martin Luther felt the pangs of guilt and shame for sins of his past or present he would exclaim I am baptized to be reminded that he was loved by God and forgiven of sins past, present and future. So if you are troubled today by the sins of the past and tempted to offer the sacrifice of guilt one more time take these words to heart. Once for all.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
This psalm begins with a double dose of praise and rightly so. While the plans of princes perish with them the Lord is forever. That is good news for those who would never make it on the palace guest list. The oppressed, the hungry, the prisoner, the blind, those bowed down, the stranger, the widow and the orphan are the ones God seeks and saves. So why is it that the plans of princes and power appeal to us? After all this is not the only scripture that reveals God as opposed to the proud and favorable towards paupers. It should be even more obvious when we tell the story of Jesus the prince of peace born into poverty who calls fisher folk to follow. So what does it mean for us? First of all we might look to find ourselves on the guest list and even if we can't say that justice has literally been denied us we do experience oppression and hunger and captivity. And knowing that God provides for our need we might be more willing to work for those who really are denied justice. We might remember that people living all around us depend on the kindness of others for daily bread. We might remember that visiting the prisoner is in some way freeing for them and us. And when our plans look more like God's and less like the plans of princes our lives will echo the psalm. Praise the Lord.
This always reminds me of one of those fairy tale fables where the poor farmer shares his last meal with a stranger who turns out to be an enchanted prince who then rewards the farmer for his generosity. I suppose this story is just as surprising in that the widow is a foreigner who owes no allegiance to the Jewish prophet Elijah. She has accepted the grim reality that awaits her and her son and is convinced they both will die of starvation. But in Elijah's "Do not be afraid..." she hears something to convince her that giving away the little she has will not simply hasten the inevitable. While we are not facing starvation we do experience times of famine and resigned to our fate give up any hope that help will come in time. A loss of employment, or health, or relationships or struggling with more bills at the end of the month than income at the beginning we find ourselves in need of those same words, "Do not be afraid..." I'm not suggesting there is a magic pot that won't run out of whatever it is we need but there is a place where courage and strength to overcome can be found, a place where the cup is never empty and the plate is always full and it is never too late to hope in the promise of God. When we come to the table of grace, the meal of mercy, there is refreshment for weary and weak souls if only in the sharing.
I've just come in from running the country lanes around LaGrange, TX where Intern Ellen and I are attending an internship conference. It was a crisp morning and I fell into the rhythm of running quickly. With Patty Loveless singing Mr. Man in the Moon in my headset and the sun rising on my right and the harvest moon setting on my left I experienced one of those refreshing moments like a widow's jar that can't be emptied. I think there are moments like that in our everyday and not all of them require physical exercise though it can't hurt. :) My prayer is that your day would include such a moment.
Friday, October 30, 2009
The lesson picks up the story at the point where Mary, the one who was commended for sitting at Jesus feet while Martha took care of the catering, comes to accuse Jesus of not acting in a timely manner. "If you had been here my brother would not have died" is how she greets the One at whose feet she previously had sat in adoration. Truth is she sent word two days earlier and Jesus took his time. So she is right. If he had come when called Lazarus would not have died. Martha on the other hand, despite all the needs of funeral arrangements, met Jesus as he arrived to tell him God would do whatever he would ask. Such is the nature of grief. It changes us. Martha previously intent on serving is compelled to seek and Mary previously intent on seeking withdraws. In the end Mary and Martha's grief is met by the change in Jesus. Jesus wept. That is the Gospel in two words for up to this point the Jesus of John's Gospel is God incarnate who is more Word than flesh. But grief changes us and no more so than when Jesus weeps for when God weeps for the pain we endure we like Lazarus are revived.
I know people have written a lot of scary things based on the Book of Revelation and rightly so when one considers it was written to people who were enduring things that were more than scary. But the truth of the book is good news not bad and in the end I believe it is for more people than those who may be left behind. It is good news for those who weep. God will wipe away your tears. It is good news for those who mourn. God will comfort you. It is good news for those in pain. God will relieve your suffering. It is good news for the lonely. God will dwell with you. It is good news to those who are thirsty. Your thirst will be satisfied. The best news is that all things will be made new which means all the things that might lead us to read the Book of Revelation as bad news for the vast majority of people who have ever lived might not be what God had in mind after all.
The psalm might proclaim the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it but we live as if it belongs to us. I'm not talking about living green and being good stewards of the portion of the earth we inhabit, as important as that is. As the old confession goes we have sinned against the Lord of the earth in thought word and deed by what we have done and left undone. Our hands are unclean, our hearts impure and deceit comes naturally to us. And so the hill of the Lord we ascend is a hill called Calvary where the One whose clean hands were pierced for our sake. The blessing of the Lord we receive is the answer to the prayer of another psalm. Create in us clean hearts, O Lord, and renew in us a right spirit. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord. Not those who are pure in their own right but those who have been vindicated by the God of their salvation and that is good company indeed.
The feast envisioned by Isaiah is a feast of rich food and fine wines for all people. These words must have seemed like a dream to those who first heard them. They were captives in Babylon and the memories of Jerusalem were bitter sweet. A sumptuous banquet on the holy mountain of God which they would have understood as Jerusalem was the farthest thing from the reality of their day to day in Babylon. It might seem the same for us in our day to day captivity to fear or depression, addiction, pride, envy, sorrow, jealousy, lust or whatever it is that has you bound. It is hard to imagine a feast in the midst of our famine but the promise is that God is going to sit down to dine as well. The sheet that covers the nations like a shroud is death and is on God's menu and God will lick the plate clean. The promise to captives gave them the will to endure as it does to all who wait for the final banquet, the feast of victory. God will dine on death and we will have a culinary experience that defies description.