Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas 1, 2017, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40 Adoption, a Goodbye and Hello

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
One of my bishops and his wife served as foster parents for children to be adopted, specifically for infants.  They worked with Lutheran Community Services which at that time did a lot of work with adoptions.
Their role was to care for the child during the period of transition between birth and placement in the adoptive parent’s home.
As they reflected on this ministry of theirs, there were two extremely moving moments.
The first would occur in the hospital.
A mother, the birth mom, one who so deeply loved her child that she chose to carry it till birth as opposed to having an abortion, would for the sake of the child, give that child up and hand her baby over to Mark and Carol.
Often these birth mothers were young, barely old enough to have a child, and hardly old enough to care for the child.
Each one had their own reasons for offering their child for adoption.
But one thing was true of all of them, and that was a love for the child so deep that for the child’s sake they would make that gift.
After a time of visiting there would come the moment when it was time.
Mark related one such experience when at the entry to the hospital, the young mother handed the baby over to them, got in her parent’s car, and as they drove away, with tears in her eyes, she simply waved goodbye.

Mark and Carol would then take the baby home with them, care for the child as though it were their own, until the time came to deliver it to the adoptive parents.
This would occur a few days or weeks later, and for them brought some mixed emotions as well.
Now they had to give up the child.
But they had the great joy of witnessing this gift to the adoptive mom and dad.
Often the adoptive parents had been yearning and praying for a child for years and now was the moment that those prayers were answered.
When you’ve had the privilege of giving birth to a child, it’s hard to imagine a joy greater than that of welcoming your child into the world.
And yet, I believe, that for the adoptive parents the joy may be even more profound than for the birthparents, for  the adoptive parents are often in a position of wondering, even grieving, their own inability to have a child—and then, as a  pure gift, they receive a child.

A giving and receiving.
Letting go, and embracing.
A birthparent’s sacrifice.
An adoptive parents’ great joy.

There’s one other experience we should take note of regarding adoption.  Because adoption so often takes place following birth we often don’t think about it, but we should.
That is the experience of the child.
There is a bonding between a child and their parents, a bonding that begins in the womb, is nurtured at the breast, and only gets greater with each passing day. 
For an older child that is adopted, there can be an incredible grief associated with this process.
And even for an infant, there will come a day when they realize that their birth parents gave them up, and that knowledge will bring with it a quagmire of emotions.
Yet in contrast to that is the awareness that their adoptive parents had opened their hearts to them in a most profound way.

What is the point of all this, and why is adoption one of the images that is used to describe our experience of faith?
Good question.
I have to tell you that when I speak to people about the meaning of baptism, the image of adoption has not been one of my favorite images.
My problem is that I find myself debating who the true birth parent is, and who the adoptive parent is.  When used with respect to baptism, the understanding is that God adopts us as his child.
And yet part of me wants to insist, that because God is our creator, God is our true birthparent as well.
In this way, I’d say that our earthly parents are actually foster parents, entrusted with the care of a child that is not their own.
Well, that’s one bias of mine.

But when the Bible speaks of our adoption as children of God, it bears witness to another reality.
There is a profound change in our identity, our relationships, and our life.
There is a letting go, and a latching on.
There is a grief experienced regarding the old, and a joy experienced regarding the new.
It’s an image of death and resurrection.
We have two natures.
We are both children of this world, and through our baptism into Christ, children of God.
When Paul speaks about our status as children of the world, he uses the image of a slave.
Our lives are defined by our actions, we are what we do, and in that each of us is by nature sinful, we are sinners.  Slaves under the law.  Defined by our own disobedience. 
I participated in a parenting workshop once, put on by Lutheran Community Services, in which the presenters made the point that the primary work of an adolescent child was differentiation. 
What they meant by that was that a child would, by nature, differentiate themselves from their parent, often through their disobedience, and doing things their own way.
And perhaps that is true of our relationship with God, as well.  We sin in part, to differentiate ourselves from God and establish our own identity. 
But then something happens as we live out our baptisms in daily life.
We are no longer defined by our disobedience, but by our relationship with God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother.
We are children, adopted by God through our baptism into Christ Jesus, and defined no longer by our own actions, but by the love of God, and Christ’s own sacrifice.
But this new reality doesn’t just happen.
It comes with a fight.
Our old self must die in order for our new self to be born.
We have a lot invested in our old self, so we generally do not jump at the opportunity for the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Even if we acknowledge that our old self is defined by our sins, we struggle to let go of it, because, quite frankly, we chose those sins.  Sinful yes, but hey, they are my sins and my identity.
In my own life, two things stand out.  I built a personal identity around two things that are both destructive to me, and I would say sinful because of that, but they became part of who I am.
For many years, a significant part of my identity was that I was a Scotch drinker, and a smoker.
I have been set free from one of those, I am still struggling with the other.  Part of the reason breaking free of such addictions is so difficult is that we have to give up part of our own identity. 
There are other aspects of our identity as sinners that are more difficult than physical addictions.  The reason they are so difficult is that we don’t understand or appreciate them as sinful, nor do we realize how powerless we are at overcoming them. 
If one is an alcoholic, or a smoker, you probably realize, at least I did, that this is not a good thing.
But there are other things that masquerade as being good, which in fact are part of our sinful nature.
Freedom, for example. 
What do we value more in this country than freedom?
We have a national identity built around being the leaders of the free world, as opposed to other nations whom we see and understand to be living in bondage.
Freedom.  A good thing, we would say.  One of the things we value more than anything else.
Are we called to be free to live according to our own will?
Or are we called to be obedient to the will of God?
In order to embrace one of those identities we must give up the other.  To claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior is to no longer be free, but rather to be bound to the one who loves us.
Another part of our old self is the notion that we are what we have.  We are a materialistic society.  Our homes, our cars, our furniture, our clothes, and, yes, certainly our vast array of toys, define and shape our very identity.
This is never clearer than when fire or flood destroys everything we have accumulated.
Are material possessions a blessing of God or a curse under which we live?  Do our possessions set us free or bind us? 
There are many more examples we might cite.
But the point is this:  That in order to enjoy the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus, there will be a grieving over the old life that we must let go of. 
Everything comes at a cost, there are no free lunches.
To be a child of God means that we no longer children of this world. 
The old self dies that the new self might arise.
What does being a child of God entail?
Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
To love the Lord our God with ALL our heart, soul, and mind, means that we must give up our love for much of what has previously defined us.
Now is when I’m supposed to say: “This new life in Christ will be great.”  That’s true.
But the truth is, it will also be hard.


Monday, December 25, 2017


A flurry of thoughts
filled the silent stillness of night,
too many to sleep
and a child nestled at her breast.



The miracle of  new life
wrapped in swaddling clothes.

My Yeshua.  My child.

A mother wonders.
A father dreams.

The City of David. 
A little village.
No palace.  A cave.
And shepherds round about.

An angel's Song.
Cattle lowing.
Stars above.
A child below.

Yeshua.  Jesus.  Savior.

Jerusalem.  City of God.
David's throne.
Herod's castle.

A wise man's warning.
A prophet's hope.
A fleeing refugee.
A prince in waiting.


Roman crosses beside the road
A constant reminder
of foreign power
and Caesar's reign.

Jesus.  Savior. Messiah. King.

But tonight a babe
in a manger bed.

Doubt and belief.
Faith.  Hope.
"Joseph, take me home."

Heaven's glow
and earth's dark shadows.

The baby stirs.
She holds him tight.

Tomorrow they would flee.
Wailing in their wake.
Bethlehem slaughter.
A holy sacrifice.

"Out of Egypt I have called my Son."

"Let it be according to your Word."
Grace and truth.
Favor for a lowly one.

Sounds of the night.
Dawn's new light.
Madonna.  Child.
Holy breast.

This night she looked down on him,
overflowing with love.
One day she would look up to him,
overwhelmed with grief.

"A sword will pierce your own soul too."
What kind of greeting must that be?
"Simeon, be silent!"

Peace on Earth,
And heaven's glory.
Not seen.

Yeshua.  Jesus.  Savior.  Child.

"Would that the world love you as I do."
Gift of God.
And Hope.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas Eve, 2017 Come!

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
A baby, born in a stable, forced into Egypt as a refugee, a carpenter's son, a rabbi, and one condemned to die-- for us. This one, born a savior, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords is our God.
A young maiden, betrothed but not married, stood before an angel.
"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
"How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Mary would respond.
The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Mary heard, and she came to the manger.
Joseph knew one thing.  The child Mary had conceived was not his own.  There was a moment when Joseph was convinced that this was not right, that Mary had been unfaithful, and that it was time to take care of matters, and dismiss her as his betrothed.  Certain sins just cannot be hidden.  A child conceived out of wedlock is one of them.
And then he dreamt the dream.
And the angel said:
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Joseph heard, and he came to the manger.
They kept watch over their flocks by night.
Shepherds.  The working poor.  Living with the animals they were charged to take care of.
And in the stillness of the dark night sky they saw an angel.
"Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
And then a great heavenly choir sang out:
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
The shepherds heard, and they came to the manger.
They saw a star, rising in the East, and came to believe that this signaled the birth of the one who would be King of the Jews.
They followed the star to Jerusalem and asked about this prince, where he had been born.
"In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel. '
The Wisemen heard, and they came to the manger.
And so we have the Holy Nativity.
A blessed Virgin.
A faithful Joseph.
Two who believed that “nothing will be impossible with God."
Lowly shepherds.  Daring to believe.
And wisemen, stargazers, astronomers, wealthy and privileged.  Foreigners.
All of them heard.
And were afraid.
But they came to the manger.
Kneeling there, they worshiped the newborn King.
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Lofty words for one wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Of this one, it would be written:
That, “though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

That a baby is born -- nothing unusual about that.
That people gathered to celebrate the birth – nothing unusual about that.
That he would be destined to be king, well, even kings come from somewhere – nothing all that remarkable about that either.
But that this one, born King of the Jews, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
That this one would move from the manger and one day hang from a cross was different.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
Born in a stable, laid in a manger, and hung from a cross.
This is the one of which we’ve heard.
And for his sake we come to the manger, and look to the cross.
The miracle of this night is not of an angel’s song, or a Virgin’s womb.
A star in the heavens is no big deal for a God who created the heavens and the earth.
But that this God would come to us, and die for us, is miraculous.
We have heard, and so we come this night to kneel at the manger, remembering the child cradled in Mary’s arms, celebrating the life that was so conceived, and so delivered.
This night we are part of that miracle.
For the manger became a cross,
And the cross a table,
And on that table – this table,
Bread and wine,
His body and blood,
Given and shed for you.
Imagine standing with Mary and hearing the angel’s greeting.
Imagine dreaming with Joseph, the angel’s dream.
Imagine watching with the shepherds the heavenly host.
Imagine following the star to Bethlehem.
How can we not envy those so privileged to welcome Jesus’ birth.
And yet all of that, remarkable as it was, happened to lead us from the manger, to the cross, and to this table.
For it is here that Christ comes, full of grace and truth.
It is here that he offers us forgiveness, life and salvation.
It is here, as we gather in his name, that the Word becomes flesh once again, full of grace and truth.
The angel said to Joseph:
"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,"
which means, "God is with us."
God is with us—
                In the manger.
God is with us—
                On the cross.
And God is with us—
                At the table.
The same God, holy and mighty,
                Yet flesh and blood,
                Living with us and dying for us.
All this points us beyond the manger, beyond the cross, and beyond this table, to yet another incarnation:
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

A new heaven and a new earth, but the same God, with us now and forever.
This is the miracle of Christmas.
Come to the manger.
Come to the cross.
Come to the table.
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cycle of Life

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.  (Isaiah 61:11)

The church is a living organism, not an organization.  A movement of the Spirit, not an institution. 

The difference is most evident in the natural cycle of life.  Organizations and institutions are deeply committed to self preservation.  Living organisms are constantly engaged in the cycle of death and rebirth, of seed time and harvest, of rising up from the ashes.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  (John 12:24-25)

We'd rather be a tree.  At least with trees, the pruning feels less painful that tilling and planting.  And forest fires that destroy the old and make way for the new are few and far between.  We can even comfort ourselves with the knowledge that many trees have a life expectancy of hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Burning the fields.  Tilling the soil.  Destroying the refuse of last year's crop as a preparation for next year's seed time and harvest.  Planting the seed and waiting.  Watching the new shoots emerge from the soil, yet knowing that the harvest is still many months away.  We are an impatient people.  We want the harvest now.  

I knew a farmer who would watch the grain in his field ripen.  When it was getting close to harvest time, he'd leave and go fishing for a week or so.  It was his discipline not to rush the harvest.  

I've been thinking and writing about this quite a bit.  It's a struggle.  I entered ministry envisioning a perpetual harvest.  That the church would simply grow, and grow, and yield its fruit in all seasons.  It doesn't happen like that.  

One of the goals of our church at its inception was that we might become more of an inclusive church than our predecessor church bodies had been.  I loved the statement that inclusivity is achieved with the lead end of the pencil, not the eraser.  Now I'm not sure.  Something had to die.  The soil needed to be tilled.  Yesterday's crop is tomorrow's mulch. 

No where is this more clear to me than with respect to our decisions on sexuality, and specifically our commitment to welcome and include GLBTQ people into the life of the church and full participation in our ministry.  It has not been a net gain proposition to this date.  We thought we could simply move forward, recognizing our diversity, and allowing for all, both those who favor such a move and those who oppose it, to continue to live together, reconciled in our differences.  The truth was that in order to include some, others were lost.  A more inclusive church will emerge, only as the exclusive body dies.  Fact of life.

Is the same thing true with respect to including a broader spectrum of ethnic groups?  I think it may be.  Our unspoken identity as Scandinavian and German cultural centers probably needs to die in order for us to be a welcome place for Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, and other groups.   

Some congregations will experience renewal only as the core group that has dominated the life of the congregation for a generation dies.  This is one of the hardest realities to face.  The lifelong commitment of these saints too often precludes the emergence of new leadership and direction until death creates the opportunity.  That's relatively easy to write in a blog.  Hard to say to someone whose held the reigns of a congregation for 50 or more years.

When we participated in the formation of a new congregation I was, and still am, amazed at the young leadership that came to the fore.  We were breaking new soil.  We don't have adequate resources to start many new congregations today.  And the old ones, just get older.  As I have visited numerous congregations it has felt like I was looking at a corn field, post harvest.  The corn still stood, no longer green, and the cobs long ago picked.  Springtime will come, and with it the plowing of the field and the planting of the seed.  But for now, stalks stand in the field.  And as I age I am aware that soon but very soon, I too will be a stalk that has already yielded its harvest, and now simply awaits the tilling.

I wonder how those of us who have served a lifetime in the church can prepare the soil for the new generation of leaders that is emerging.  Our work is incomplete.  I rather think that my generation of pastors may have served the role of tillers.  Perhaps even sowers.  But the harvest we had hoped for is still a long way off.  Faith is believing that having tilled and sown the crop it will bear fruit, that there will be a harvest, even if we ourselves will not be the ones to harvest it.

My sense of the last thirty  years in our church is that we have undertaken two major initiatives, one with respect to ecumenism, the other with respect to inclusivity.  With respect to ecumencal relationships I believe that the seeds have been sown, and are germinating, and breaking forth from the soil.  With respect to inclusivity I think we are still in the tilling phase, preparing the soil.  

Am I just depressed and not optimistic enough?  Recognizing the cycle of life that is essential to a living organism is not pessimistic.  It is actually optimistic.  Pessimism is looking at the harvested field and concluding that it is all over.  Optimism is gathering in the harvest and setting aside the first fruits to be planted again, next  year.  Pessimism grieves over the stubble.  Optimism sees renewal in the tilling.  I loved the look of a freshly tilled garden, even more so as the stakes marked out the rows of  planting.  There is anticipation and hope in that.

Can we capture that anticipation and hope at this time?

There will be challenges.  I am aware that in my own congregation the loss of even one member will necessitate the re-writing of the budget.  Whenever someone steps back we wonder if anyone is left to step up.  The 800 pound Gorilla in the room is whether this congregation, as a congregation, will weather the transition.  It may close, as many other congregations may close.  The land may need to lie fallow for a time.

And yet we believe.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

In the end, we may be the seed that needs to fall into the earth and die.  But the Word will call forth new life and a new day.  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Year B, Advent 3, Luke 1.36-55, Mother of God

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
You’ve probably not heard many sermons in the Lutheran Church on Mary, the mother of our Lord.
For many of us, to be Lutheran is to reject much of what is distinctively Roman Catholic, and with that, reject any notion of the blessedness of the virgin Mary.
In this we parted ways, not only with Roman Catholicism, but with Luther himself.
Hear a few things Luther said:
God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary's Son, and that Mary is God's mother...She is the true mother of God and bearer of God...Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus. not two Christs. . .just as your son is not two sons...even though he has two natures, body and soul, the body from you, the soul from God alone. (On the Councils and the Church, 1539).

[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ. ..She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (Sermon, Christmas, 1531).
No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity. (Sermon, Feast of the Visitation. 1537).
One should honor Mary as she herself wished and as she expressed it in the Magnificat. She praised God for his deeds. How then can we praise her? The true honor of Mary is the honor of God, the praise of God's grace.. .Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ...Mary does not wish that we come to her, but through her to God. (Explanation of the Magnificat, 1521).
It is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man is able to exult in such a treasure. Mary is his true Mother, Christ is his brother. God is his father. (Sermon. Christmas, 1522) 
Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees...If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother. (Sermon, Christmas, 1529).
(The quotes are assembled from Luther’s works by Dave Armstrong, and published by
Some might say that Luther’s devotion to the Virgin Mary is one aspect of his faith that remained very Catholic, even following the Reformation.
Perhaps even view this as a weakness in his personal theology.
And yet, we should also beware that our resistance to calling her blessed has more to do with our anti-Roman Catholic tendencies, than it does with any scriptural or theological position.
Over and against any and all of our objections to any veneration of Mary is one simple fact:
That through this young maiden, God became human, entering into our world through her womb, and receiving from her his earthly nature. 
Theotokos is what she is referred to in Eastern Orthodoxy, literally, “God bearer”.

Mary was a  young maiden, probably only 12 or 13 years old, old enough to be betrothed according to Jewish custom, but not yet married in the full sense of that term, which would normally happen after she matured, went through puberty, and became a woman.
An angel visited her.
She heard the words that she would bear a child who would be called “Son of God” that is, the Messiah.
And she wondered, how could this be.
In the end, in a perfectly faithful response, she said: “let it be with me according to your word."
When she visited Elizabeth, her relative that was expecting her child in her old age, Mary broke into song:
"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.”
The favor of God shown to her, and to us, in our lowliness.
Mary would cradle the Christ Child in her arms, as shepherds and wise men visited.
She would hear of the angel’s song:
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
And she would hear Simeon’s Song, when they brought Jesus to be circumsized:
29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."
No sooner than all this had taken place, Mary would grasp Jesus in her arms and flee with Joseph into Egypt, a refugee seeking safety for the child in a foreign land, made necessary by Herod’s desire to kill the babe.
As Jesus grew in years, they would visit Jerusalem.
Horrified, they realized as they returned home that Jesus was nowhere to be found. 
Except in his Father’s house, where he was found conversing with the teachers.
"Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
It was Mary who called on Jesus to perform his first miracle, at the wedding at Cana.
And it was Mary who sought out Jesus during his ministry, concerned about his health and wellbeing.
And then it was Mary who stood at the foot of the cross, filled with grief, as she watched her son suffer and die.
Simeon had said:
 "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
Had those words prepared her for the agony of watching Jesus suffer and die?

In all this, Mary reflected the Father’s love, in that she too offered her Son up for the salvation of the world.
And for this, all generations will called her blessed.
Rather than despising the Virgin Mary, we should rather seek to model our faith after hers.
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Let it be.
Let it be that God might look upon us in our lowliness with his grace and favor.
Let it be that through us the Christ might become flesh and dwell among us, full of grace and truth.
Let it be that we might cling tight to the Christ to protect him from the world,
And let it be that we might let him go into the world.
Let it be that we might take our stand at the foot of the cross.
And let it be that we might bear his love to all the world.

I’ve often thought that one of the reasons Roman Catholics are so devoted to Mary, is that sometimes only a mother will do.
You see, there is a part of us that longs to return to the bosom from which we were first embraced, to feel again the love that gave us life, and to know that we are not, nor ever shall be, orphaned.
If Christ is truly our brother, then Mary is our Mother.
As Luther said:
Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees...If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother. (Sermon, Christmas, 1529).
The love that Mary had for Jesus, is also a love she has for us.
But Mary’s love is always experienced as a reflection of the Father’s love and in the context of her love for the Christ Child.
To come to Mary, is to come to the one who kneels at the side of the manger.
To come to Mary, is to come to the one who points us to the one who lies in the manger.
To come to Mary, mother of God, is to come to Jesus, apart from which she is not.
Mary will not save you.
She merely points us to the one, who will.
She points us to the one, whose will is that we might be saved.

It is to stand with Mary,
At the foot of the cross,
And simply say:  “Let it be with me according to your Word.”


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Year B, Advent 2, Isaiah 40.1-11, What time is it?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins. . .”
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
These are the words that the prophet Isaiah was called to speak to the people of Israel. 
Beautiful words.  So beautiful that one could write a song, or two, from them.  As Handel did in the Messiah, or Johann Olearius did in the hymn we’ll sing later.
Words of comfort,
Words of hope,
Words of peace,
Are most powerful for us at those times when we are not comfortable, when our hope is dried up, and when peace seems so far away.
So it was for the people of Israel.
“They had received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins.”
Through the first 39 chapters of Isaiah the prophet spoke words of warning to the people of Israel, words of warning about the judgment that was to come.
In Chapter 10 Isaiah warned:
1 Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
3 What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
4 so as not to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain?

What followed these words of warning was a time of judgment.
Israel was defeated by her enemies,
The nation was destroyed,
And the people were taken into captivity and exile in Babylon.
It seemed that all of the promises that God had made to his people had failed them. 
Promises of a great nation, a Holy Land, and of being God’s Chosen People.
Promises that had been made to Abraham, to Moses, and to David.
And now all was lost.
Had God abandoned his people?
The answer is no, he had not abandoned them, he had judged them and punished them for their sins.
Ironically, it was their prosperity that had become their undoing.
8 Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
9 The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
                "Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah."

The rich were getting richer, and the poor, poorer.

This disparity displeased the Lord and the judgment was a return to slavery.
God’s vision for the Kingdom of Israel was that all of his people would share in its prosperity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the concept of the Year of Jubilee, which was to be celebrated every fifty years.  During the year of Jubilee, or the Year of the Lord’s favor, all debts were to be cancelled, all prisoners set free, and the land was to be returned to the original owners.
Jesus quotes Isaiah in this regard when he begins his ministry with the words:

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Judgment and punishment for Israel.

Words of hope and comfort in their distress.

And finally, a promise of Good News for the poor as the nation is rebuilt.
We live in interesting times.
As Isaiah did of old, there are many prophets today that warn us about the rich getting richer and the poor poorer.
For many, what has made America a great nation was the emergence of a middle class, people who have shared in the great American dream, who, though they are not rich, have plenty.
Today, we are being warned that the middle class is slipping away.  That as the rich get richer, the rest of us are falling behind.
Wages have not kept pace with inflation.  The cost of living, especially for things as essential as health care, has risen astronomically.
One example of this is that the cost of my health insurance now exceeds what I received in salary the first years I was in ministry. 
I am also struck by the fact that the wages I receive as a woodworker are but a fraction of what I received thirty years ago, when adjusted for inflation.
Are we at a time in our nation’s history similar to those days in Israel’s history when the prophets spoke the words of warning?
I don’t know.
I simply don’t know.
What I do know is that sometimes when we feel most secure, we are in fact most vulnerable.
A day of judgment came to Israel.
Everything that they cherished was lost.
That loss was a judgment of God upon them.
Then and only then, did the words of comfort come to them.
It was like a child, being comforted in their parent’s lap, after having received a spanking.
They misbehaved.  They were punished. And now, they are being reassured that they are still loved.
And Hope.

We confess.
We are forgiven.
And we are reborn.
This is the spiritual cycle of life.
There is a time for confession, a time to hear the comforting words of forgiveness, and a time to live anew in the grace of God.
Part of wisdom is to know what time it is.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about this question.
What time is it in the church’s life?
What time is it in our congregation’s life?
Is the decline of the church in America, and of our own congregation, a sign that this is a time of judgment in the life of the church?
Is this a time of comfort where, following a period of judgment, we hear tender words of comfort that reassure us of the never failing love of  God, and that though we have been judged, we are also forgiven?
Or is this the beginning of a new day?  Of the restoration of the church?  A time of hope and anticipation?
One way to put these questions is to ask “have we suffered enough to come to repentance, be forgiven, and be reborn?”
Or are we still secure in our own sins?
One oft quoted adage is that the Gospel is a comfort to the afflicted and an affliction to the comfortable.
I would suggest that one of the ways that you can recognize a false prophet is that false prophets tend to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.  They say that the rich and powerful are blessed by God, but the poor and outcast are under God’s curse.
Is that what is happening today?  That the comfortable are becoming more comfortable while the afflicted are even more afflicted?
Is this a time of judgment?
A time of comfort?
Or a day filled with hope?

In a few hundred years we may know the answers to those questions.
Today, though, all I can offer you is a promise.
That God is present in the times of judgment.
That God speaks tenderly to us when the time comes that we need such comfort.
And that God remains with us until the day that we are reborn and renewed.
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
These were the words of hope and reassurance Isaiah spoke to Israel as they labored in exile, bereft of hope.
These also are words that speak to us today, regardless what time it is.
God is with us.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Year B, Advent 1, Mark 13:24-37, No one is born giggling

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
No baby has ever been born giggling.
And if we knew what was going on in their minds, I’m quite certain that babies would not vote in favor of birth.
There is something quite comforting about being nestled in one’s mother’s womb with the soothing sound of her heartbeat, the warmth of that environment, and being protected from all harm.
If we had a choice, we might never leave.
But we don’t have a choice.
What happens is that when the time is right, that comfortable soothing world starts closing in upon us and we are forced to make that journey into the next phase of our life, down the birth canal, feeling the force of the contractions all the way, and finally, entering this cold new world gasping for our first breath, and as soon as we can, we lift up our infant voice crying out in protest about this new reality.
And that is the way life begins.
We pass through a period of necessary suffering and only then, discover the new world and new life awaiting us.
A lot will change in the years to come as we grow from infancy to adulthood, but one thing that does not change is the experience of suffering of one type or another as we move from one stage of our life to another.  If it were not for the suffering, we probably would never move on.  And when we move on, we also suffer the grief that comes with leaving behind all that was familiar.
In our book study on Tuesday nights, we have been reading and studying Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward”.  In it he talks about the two halves of life, both necessary, but also very different.
Throughout the first half of our lives we devote our selves to building the castles in which we live.
And then in the second half of life, we begin to discover who it is that lives in that castle.  It is through this process of discovery, this coming to know our true identity, that spiritual maturity is finally achieved. 
But, Rohr maintains, there is an uncomfortable truth.  We will not move on to the next chapter in our life without experiencing a ‘necessary suffering’. 
That ‘necessary suffering’ may involve many different experiences.  It may involve times of intense crisis, such as the loss of a loved one, or the struggle against a major disease.
Or that necessary suffering may be more subtle, such as the process of aging, where our self identity shifts from an understanding about who we are and all that we shall one day become, to a recognition that much of our life is now in the past tense.
We move from “I am” and “I will become” statements, to “I was” statements.  And the result is grieving as a necessary suffering.
But, this necessary suffering is not the end, but a journey that we are led on that leads to a new life experience, a new day, a new reality.
24“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
We pray “Come Lord Jesus, Come” as a prayer of hope and joyful anticipation.
What we didn’t bargain for, and would prefer to avoid, is that Jesus’ coming into our world follows a period of trials and tribulations, necessary suffering, that must come first before we see the dawn of a new day.
This is a reality pointed to throughout the scriptures.
It is part of the history of salvation.
The people of God labored as slaves in Egypt prior to being delivered and led out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
The people of God went into exile in Babylon, prior to being able to return and rebuild the Kingdom of Israel.
The people of God were again captive and subject to the foreign rule of the Roman Empire, prior to the coming of the Messiah.
And the early Christians experienced tremendous suffering and persecution prior to the establishment of a Christian nation, under Constantine.
Jesus died, before he was raised.
Peter denied his Lord, and suffered guilt because of it, before he became a pillar of faith.
Paul was struck blind, and only then could he see.
The early Christians would suffer a loss of all things, as a preparation for the new life in Christ.
And again, I will say, no baby has ever been born giggling.
But the suffering that we endure is the necessary pathway to the new life that is promised in Christ.
There is another dimension to this ‘necessary suffering’ that so often accompanies the dawn of a new age—and that is that you never know when it is coming.
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
We live at an epic time in the Church’s life.
Some have described this time as the end of Christendom. 
Ever since the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, we have enjoyed a favored status in the world, and the nation and the church were basically one and the same.
But the times are changing.
Europe and North America, long established centers of Christianity are now becoming increasingly secular.  Christians are now becoming a minority in those countries, especially if you understand being “Christian” as having an active faith and being part of the Christian Church.
The center of Christian is actually shifting South, with major growth taking place in Latin America, Africa, and also in Asia.  Russia and China are becoming Christian Nations.
And yet here in North America, being part of the Church is no longer a given in our society.
Even weddings and funerals are becoming increasingly secular, with no faith component at all in many cases. 
In our congregations we see the ramifications of this every week as we gather for worship.
There is a reason we do not have hundreds of people in worship here at Peace, and it’s not because you are a bad or unfaithful congregation.
And it’s not that there isn’t the potential.
There are 18,000 or so people living in our service area, Otis Orchards, Liberty Lake, and Newman Lake.
18,000 people.
If the traditional percentages held true, there would be approximately 500 to 600 Lutherans in that 18,000—more than enough to have a vibrant and healthy congregation.
But instead, the Church suffers.
Not only us, but the Christian Church throughout this country.
What is happening?
What looms on the horizon?
One of the most depressing things I’ve done as a pastor was to travel from congregation to congregation doing supply preaching before I came here.
What I saw, in most of those congregations, was a sea of grey hair, so much so that I was struck that in 10, perhaps 20 years, no one who was there worshipping that Sunday would still be alive, and there were not children and young families waiting in the entry to take over.
I have come to believe two things.
First that a new day is coming.  I still pray “Come Lord Jesus” every day.   It is a prayer filled with hope and expectation.
But I also believe that the new day that God has in store for the Church will not just magically and painlessly happen, but rather will involve many trials and tribulations, a lot of grief for what is lost, and only as we pass through this time of necessary suffering will we see the coming of the new day in the church’s life.
This is the thing though.
We’d like to be able to be born again without passing through labor and delivery.
But it doesn’t happen that way.  It never has, it probably never will.
But one thing I do believe very firmly is that God will preserve for himself a remnant from which the Church will be reborn.  And he may do so in miraculous ways.
One modern day example of this is what took place in the Soviet Union during those seventy years that Christianity was banned and the official position of the State was atheism.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg was converted to a “Museum of Atheism” during the Soviet Era, and one of the things that happened there was that in promoting atheism the communists related the stories of faith, and preserved the icons, in a mocking manner.
And yet it was through that art work and those stories, even though they were shared by atheists, that God preserved the Christian faith in Russia.
One of our tour guides observed that 70 years of Soviet oppression could not undo 1000 years of Christian faith.
Russia is re-emerging as a Christian nation, not because they are being converted, but rather because the roots of their faith ran deep and are now rebounding to new life.
I wonder if this is what is happening to us.
We are not being persecuted like the Russians, but Christianity is increasingly being seen as irrelevant to people’s lives. 
Many churches will close.  Others will be greatly diminished, just as happened in Russia.
But out of the ashes, God will raise up the Church to a vibrant new day.
So even as the Church suffers the loss of many things, we pray “Come Lord Jesus, Come”.
Through trial and tribulation we look toward the future in hope of the day of the Lord’s coming.
And at the right time, Christ will come.