Sermon for December 30, 2012

I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52 

     Grace and peace. Today’s lessons do not focus on the New Year, but continue the themes of Christmas. We are still in the second chapter of Luke, but now in the childhood of Jesus. We have the famous story of the boy Jesus at twelve, in the temple, astounding the scribes and teachers with his understanding and insight.

Centuries earlier, the first lesson is the story of the boy Samuel who was given to the temple by his mother, Hannah. He was trained as a boy for his service in the sacrificial temple.  We have here one of his mother’s yearly visits when she brings new clothes for her son. Like Jesus, Samuel at an early age grows in understanding and insight. He eventually becomes the prophet who holds the nation together in a time of national crisis. His role in the history of Israel cannot be overestimated.

The stories are similar in so many ways; it may be the case that the writer of Luke is using I Samuel as a pattern for his own recollection of the boyhood of Jesus. There is the separation from the parents, the involvement in the temple, precocious wisdom and favor in the eyes of God and people, the sense of greatness yet to come.

But there are differences as well in the two accounts which reflect different historical circumstances. Samuel is given to the temple as a sacrificial gift. And that gift is affirmed by the writer of the story. In more ancient times, the sacrifice or offering of children was seen as a sign of deep religious commitment. Perhaps with the sacrifice of his son Isaac by Abraham in Genesis 22, we have an ancient memory of the insight that Isaac and all children need not be sacrificed to placate a God demanding sacrifice. And so, in the temple system of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, animals were sacrificed for several centuries to fulfill ancient ritual responsibilities. Samuel was trained in this sacrificial temple system. Yet the sense of giving one’s child to God for service in the temple lingers, and is still affirmed in our first lesson this morning.

By the time of Luke (and Luke is one of the later writers of the New Testament), the system of temple sacrifice and ritual is no longer in place. In fact, the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. What takes its place is a religion based no longer on placating an angry God through temple acts, but a faith based on wisdom and insight into the nature of God and the way to live our lives well. Jesus is not dedicated to temple service by Mary and Joseph: he wanders off. Notice how the childhood of Jesus is not temple based, but family based. And Luke makes it clear that Jesus remains loyal to his family. In the temple Jesus is not trained in temple ritual. By this time the temple is replaced by local synagogues, places for learning and wisdom. Jesus meets not priests but teachers or rabbis. They don’t kill animals anymore, they discuss things. And children are not brought to the temple as an act of devotion. They are raised as even as difficult teenagers in families.

In that phrase “my Father’s house” we may have a clue to the insight that was important for the wisdom of Jesus from the very beginning. From childhood, Jesus felt close to God. That closeness to God is embedded in the word Abba. The question before the group of scribes listening to Jesus may have been, “how intimate and close is God to us, to the human heart? Does God dwell in a building, a temple, or in the intimate interior of the soul as human beings work out the will of God in the world?  It will be awhile, and several chapters of Luke will pass, before we sense the personal, public, religious and political implications of this deep relationship with God. But from the beginning, Luke says Jesus felt deeply close to God.

The shift from sacrifice into wisdom for living is echoed in the Colossians lesson. The robe reference here is to the baptismal garment worn at the baptism of new Christians. But note how the baptismal robe, the clothes of a Christian, are really not made of cloth, but a weaving of the heart. A Christian wears kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thankfulness, and joy. This is the tapestry of the Christian robe. This is what it means to be baptized. This is the way Christians act in the world.

So today, we continue in this tradition of wisdom. And as a new year begins, we commit ourselves to these principles. And we also are aware not only of Samuel and Jesus as children, but also the children among us. And we might do well to think about childhood.

Certainly our children are a gift. Children are raised in families. That is a good thing, even on those days when we may wonder like Mary and Joseph, whatever is going on with the teenager we thought we knew. Family life matters. It is the crucible out of which our capacities and values are formed. Families also hold together society. And it is good for us to lift up families when we speak of childhood.

Children also belong in community. It is important for us to create a climate of caring for children at St. Johns. For in this community, our children become aware of those who are struggling. They experience friendship. They learn about Jesus and God. They see adults acting out their faith. And they express and share their unique wisdom among us. Children not only say the strangest things. They also say the wisest things. Children’s time in worship is not so much a time to teach children using object lessons, but a time to raise an issue with children and to listen to what they have to say about that, and to shape a conversation with them.

But the community children live in is more public than either family or congregation. These days especially we think about children and their exposure to violence. We’ll need to change some things, so that more children are safe. These days especially we need to think about how our economic and political decisions affect children, schools, teachers, and families. And we are called to do what we can to lift up the importance of childhood and the nurture of wise children. These days especially, we need to become more aware of the children of the world, children exposed to poverty, suffering from unnecessary cruelty, neglect, disease, and transition.  The national ELCA has been doing much in this area, from the fair trade items made available to congregations, to its childhood advocacy programs, to its rather massive malaria project.

We are called by Samuel and the boy Jesus to lift up the gift of childhood and to treasure it. But finally, I think, this lesson invites us to lift up not only the gift of childhood to us all, but also the various gifts of specific children. You know, each child has unique gifts, perspective, wisdom, and understanding. No two children are alike. We are called by these lessons today to listen to a particular child who is among us, and to nurture the wisdom, talents, gifts, and insights he or she shares with us. With all our emphasis on urban and shelter issues, we don’t have all that many children at St. Johns. And those we have are our most treasured blessing. Each is unique. We thank God for them, and for Samuel, and for Jesus. And we pray at the dawn of this new year that families flourish, that all congregations nurture their children well, that communities, states, and our nation protect and advance the causes of children, and that we all do what we can together to assist children everywhere.


Reflection for Christmas Eve, 2012

Reflection for Christmas Eve, 2012

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
No, it does not sound like reindeer
On the rooftop
Not even a scurrying squirrel
No, not the brushing of a branch
On our frozen shingles

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
No, it’s not the sound of traffic
The bustle of people on the move
Scurrying to shops
Hurrying to assemble gifts
And food
And then themselves
In churches and in homes
To be together
No, not this season’s traffic’s noise

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
No, it’s not the sound of rustling paper
The crinkles that announce gifts given
And received
Around the trees and in those places
We have settled for Christmas
No, not the season’s sound
Of crinkling paper

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
No it’s not the snapping
Cracking of a distant branch
From too much snow
And ice and wind
The breaking that comes
With too much stress
No, not the season’s sound
Of breaking burdens

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
No it’s not faint weeping
Or the fall of tears that come
When human longing
Etches our memoried expectations
Or regret or a missing someone
Surfaces in the Christmas painting
We all create on the canvas of the soul
As our heightened celebration
Draws a deeper sadness in the shadows
No, it’s not the season’s sound
Of quickened sorrows

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
No it’s not the sound of guns
The faint popping of those weapons
Of intimate destruction
That leads to the wailing
In neighborhoods that speak
So many tongues
We cannot count them all
In places distant
And as close as the fear
Of parents everywhere

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
It’s come from somewhere else,
Not our roofs nor roads
Nor assembling
Nor heartfelt ruminations
Nor the fears for those we love
Or need our love
But somewhere farther, fainter, deeper
Somewhere closer, nearer, wider

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
It sounds a bit like animals in a barnyard
Moving slightly in the dark
Breathing deeply
As they rest and dream
And accompany
As they lie nearby

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
It sounds a bit like a newborn cry
Faint and close and near and far away
From the room next door
And distant continents
The quiet cry for food and warmth
And love and life

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
It sounds a bit like people singing
In taverns and churches
Stadiums and malls
But are these human voices?
Or are there other creatures
In this faint choral composition

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
It sounds a bit like cloth moving
Against some straw
As a mother wraps a child
And a father wraps a mother
In swaddling cloaks
Against this chill
Felt especially by
From fear frozen hearts

Did you hear that?
What was that noise?
Some ancient shepherds asked
Of sounds not quite familiar
Of voices not yet fully understood
Of music not quite completely sung
Of urgings not yet fully felt

Do you hear it?
What is this thing?
That comes to pass
The faint sounds of
Angels calling
Animals lowing
Mothers moving
Fathers holding
In this place
And places far away
And long ago
And not yet
All at once
In the space where
A child is born

Do you hear it?
The faint sound of
God calling you
Yes you
To feel
To hear
To see
To go
To do
To tell
A baby’s birth
A light of hope
In this second chapter
In a second chance
For you
For those you love
And those you should
And all those loved by
A newborn God





Reflection for December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

Every Sunday in Advent we have been singing the Advent song as we lit our Advent candles. Each week in advent, we have been sharing a word of the season: love, joy, hope, and peace. This year, Barb Meier and Tim Asplund have been working with the youth of the congregation to develop four new Advent banners based on these words. Love, joy, hope, and peace are really the gifts of God to us this season. This morning just before the big festival, as we pause from our last minute preparations, let us unwrap these gifts that we have been given.

Love. Some say that God is love, and that this one word is all that needs to be said about God. This may well be. Sometimes the less said about God the better. The word love refers not only to God, but also to human beings. In the second lesson this morning, we sense that God is not a God of ritual and sacrifice, but a God of the heart who desires us to be loving people. As we love one another, we express the love of God in the world. And that is what God wants. Love is the true worship of God. This is the season of love, when we want to draw close to those for whom we care, when it is time to renew our commitments to love one another and to be people of love. Love well this Christmas.

     Joy. Christianity has a reputation of being about duty and responsibility and obligation. But at the heart of the faith is a delight in life and others. Christianity is the sharing of happiness with others. God wants us and all creatures to be happy. Joy sometimes seems like the easiest of all these words or gifts from God. Happiness is such a simple thing. And yet joy can be elusive. The lesson from Micah is about a people’s recovery of joy after many years. In the songs of the women in Luke we have the joy and exaltation of Elisabeth and Mary. The joy of the people of God will be restored in the births of John and Jesus. The joy is yet to come.

As we experience this Christmas, may we understand that our joy too may yet come, tomorrow, the next day, or sometime after that. But know that the joy will dawn as the Christ enters our world and our hearts. Know the joy is coming.

Hope. Perhaps hope is one of the most central words in the Bible. Hope is the confidence and faith we have that joy will come. Hope is the longing we have that God will restore us and all creation. Hope is the sense that we will make it through this. You can sense hope throughout the prophets like Micah, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Hosea.

And today, at the core of the song of joy of Mary and Elisabeth is hope: the hope that God will restore the people. In the Christian tradition, the light of this advent wreathe and the light of God’s presence is a symbol of hope. We ourselves become God’s light in dark places and expressions of the hope for the people around us. Let your light shine so that others may see your good works and have hope again.

Peace. Peace is something the Bible speaks of in several ways. There are different kinds of peace. There is the inner peace that comes over our souls when we feel right with God and with others. There is the peace we feel in our relationships when we have reconciled with one another after a difficult stretch. There is the peace of community when we sense that we are working together for the common good. There is the peace of nations when swords become plowshares. There is the peace of the natural world when the lion will lay down with the lamb. In many ways the Bible speaks of peace.

In some ways, peace is the summary word for the other words, for peace comes when we love. Peace comes when happiness, our own, and the happiness of others and all creation, is accomplished. And peace is the goal of hope, that for which we long.

Today, as we close the advent season together, we remember that we are called to be people of love, people of joy, people of hope and people of peace. Come; let us eat for the feast of love, joy, hope and peace, as we complete our preparations. God’s grace is on its wing.

Sermon for December 9, 2012

Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, and Luke 3:1-6 

In Advent, the common lectionary gives us lessons about the end of the world, the coming of the Lord, a final judgment, and the dawn of a new age. So what do we do with these ancient apocalyptic visions of the Bible? We really do not believe that the world will come to an end before we die. We may not even believe that Christmas 2012 will transform society in any way. It may just come and go.

Is there a present moral utility to these ancient tales of woe at the end of time before the dawn of a new age just around the corner? Is there something to attend to as we read of the impending apocalypse in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Malachi, Zephaniah, the teachings of Jesus, and in all of the writings of Paul including Philippians this morning?

I think so. In our time we sense not the end of the world, but the end of our world view, the decline and the demise of our way of looking at things. In our day, what goes through apocalyptic transformation is our way of understanding things or our paradigm. Paradigms, world views, and ways of looking at things: well, they all die. Or as we like to say these days: paradigms shift. Suddenly the old world view does not make the same sense that it once did. These paradigm shifts or endings are difficult days which often give us apocalyptic consternation as the skies darken and we feel shaken.

Let’s look at the paradigms that have waxed and waned in the life of the church in the last fifty years. I believe we are currently at the dawn of the fourth paradigm shift in the church in the last half century. With each shift in our way of being the church you can feel the apocalyptic tension in the air. You can feel the tremors and foreboding whenever you walk into almost any congregation anywhere in the country.

Paradigm I: When I went to seminary, I was prepared to do ministry in a church which was institutional, highly supported by custom, tradition, society, and even government. It was established in every way. I was trained to care for this institution, to nurture it and grow it. I was trained to care for the people in this institution. The discipline of pastoral care had just been invented to foster this end. Chaplaincy, found to be highly useful in World War II began to spread as a model for ministry in civilian life.

If there were problems in the church, they were to be glossed over or covered up, or at the very least handled in the most discrete way possible. Discretion in religious matters was highly valued. Churches, like doctors, lawyers, dentists, and medical facilities did not advertise. Advertisement was beneath the dignity of the church.

The church held influence in society. People felt guilty about all sorts of things and still worried about getting to heaven. Church had a stained glass other-worldly feel about it. It was important for the church to focus on the troubled heart rather than politics or economics. The definition of charity was that if you give a person a fish you feed him for a day.

Paradigm II: Sometime in the 1960’s this institutional vision began to dissolve in an apocalyptic way. A new paradigm of the church as a force for social change began to emerge. The scriptures were read so that they no longer supported society but challenged it. Pastors were no longer chaplains but agents of change and community organizers. The institutional church became an organizational church with programs that brought change or made a difference in the here and now. People felt that the church should be involved in politics and political issues. Advocacy was born, and the church was called to advocate for justice, peace, and freedom. The discretion that was so highly valued was now replaced by calls for transparency. In this paradigm charity was that if you give someone a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach someone to fish you feed them for a lifetime.

Paradigm III: Sometime in the late 1980’s the heavens darkened and the church shook, and a new way of thinking was born. A new paradigm of the church as a techno-global reality emerged. Through international travel, connectivity, and increased technical capacity, the globe became a very small place. With that mixed blessing called globalization, we became aware of the limitations of our own ways of thinking, being, and doing. It seemed everything we wore was from China. In the typical Madison grade school a half dozen or more languages were being spoken by children. We started to talk about global warming and global labor and buying local. We felt economic pressures as we were affected by butterfly wings in Argentina and sneaker factories in Indonesia.

As mountains of information piled on our desks, we questioned our own thinking. What we thought was good, may have been bad as we became aware of more and more unintended consequences. We realized that what we said was good often simply served our own interests or the interests of increasingly pervasive marketing forces in which we participated as critics, stockholders and consumers.

Old style denominations, synods, and religious publishing houses based on old information distribution systems and affiliations collapsed.  Everything became personalized and customized, including the news media and even truth itself. Faith became highly individualized personal journeys. The changes we were trying to affect now involved an intricate awareness of an entire planet, while fitting into everybody’s different faith life. It all was exhausting.

Charity now was that if you feed someone a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach someone to fish, you do not feed someone for a lifetime because the fish no longer are there. And part of the reason the fisheries have died is that too many people are now fishing.  And maybe we should be more careful about what we teach and how we treat the waters.

Paradigm IV: Then in the last few years, global intensity, technical overload, endless analysis and hyper-individualism began to dissolve as a post modern, post liberal, post- email, post everything, emerging church took root in the minds and hearts of contemporary Christians. We are in the apocalyptic throws of this current change.

In this fourth paradigm institutional, organizational and individual faith become irrelevant, as Christians no longer want their own thing, nor insist on the doctrinal necessity that leads to things like theology or advocacy, but create ad hoc fresh connections with others in gatherings that reflect primitive Christianity more than anything else. Basic patterns of worship are transformed to engage people in direct and spontaneous-yet-planned worship. Sermons become time for group reflection and dialog. Cell phones are not turned off for worship but smart phones are incorporated into the religious-communal experience. This church resembles not a worshipping community gathered in a highly stylized form and building, but a group gathering in an old warehouse, café, pub, or day care center for fellowship, food, art, and service in a particular place. As the traditional reasons for being church wane, the sense of a missional church becomes the purpose for being together.

In this emerging missional church, charity is not giving someone a fish, nor teaching someone how to fish, nor wondering about the state of fishing, but the simple act of sitting down with the hungry, eating together whatever we have, and sharing a bit of bread and wine whether they believe in Jesus or not.


All of these paradigms have risen and fallen with apocalyptic thunder and predictions of doom and gloom. As things fall apart and are reassembled in new ways, our emotional and religious lives are filled with the distress of dark days, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The wailing intensifies as paradigms collide. For it seems that old paradigms never really die, they just fade into our subconscious. Our old religious paradigms still dwell within us. We still yearn for the White Christmas of Bing Crosby days, while wanting to be advocates and change agents, while facing the global complexities of our technical era, while moving into a deeper commitment to our missional church here and now: all the while both embracing and rejecting the culture, tradition and institutions in which we find ourselves. In short, we are in an apocalyptic stew with everything beginning and ending all of the time. It’s very upsetting.

In such chaos, old apocalyptic writings like these lessons today hold some moral utility and insight. In times when worlds rise and fall and worldviews collide as they come and go, the lesson from Philippians reminds us that there still is a task to do, something to get done, a mission to accomplish. The world may come to an end, Paul says, but we still are called to do mission together and to get it completed. “Let’s get it done,” he says.

There is something else about Philippians. In his apocalyptic times, Paul treasures his friendship and partnership with his church friends. His genuine and tender affection for these friends permeates the entire letter. When worlds are colliding and we are in an apocalyptic grind, let us attend to the quality of our friendships, the depth of our affections, and our mutual task.

The gospel lesson from Luke overdoses on historical detail regarding the date of John the Baptist. All that precision regarding the date of John is not necessary. We only need a phrase, not all that historical detail. Yet Luke’s precision reminds us that attention to detail matters. Yes, the times may be slippery and sloppy, but we do need to attend to the details of life together, in our mission and in our daily lives. The idea of church is shifting, our world may be dying and rising, but we still have details we need to address with precision as we work together on our mission in tender friendship.

Luke also reminds us in apocalyptic days that rough spots become smooth. Lows become high points. Hills are leveled. The way is made straight. In shifting times, we discover God, roughing us up now and then, smoothing things out, straightening this crooked mess, bringing us down from our highs, lifting us through those lows as we make our way back to God. Or more precisely discover that God is actually coming to us.

The first lesson holds deep insight from ancient apocalyptic. Malachi speaks of God coming to us, God’s coming messenger, God’s refining of our lives, God’s distilling, and God’s scrubbing of the faithful through these transitions. Through it all, God is there, shaping and reshaping our lives and our visions. In the end, God will bring it and us to completion.

There is moral utility in these old lessons for our own changing present. As we move through the institutional church, the alternative church, the global-technical church, and into the emerging missional church, it’s still the church of God, being refined by God for our work together in this place.

So let’s do our work together, attending to the details, in tender affection, recognizing the irony of life in the rough patches, ups and downs, until God is finished.