Reflection for December 29, 2013

Isaiah 63:7-9, Hebrews 2:10-18, and Matthew 2:13-23 

     Grace and peace to all of you in this season of light, life and hope.  May God give to you and your family continued Christmas joy and love.

     Of course, on Friday and Saturday of this year, the Christmas lesson was from the gospel of Luke.  This is the lesson with shepherds and angels and the touching scene in the manger.  That is fitting for the day of festive joy and light.

     Today, we have a section of the Christmas story from the gospel of Matthew.  This is the year when most of the gospel readings will be from Matthew.

     In Matthew’s account, Christmas is much more difficult.  Substantial problems are embedded in the events surrounding Christmas. You can sense this as we read the story. Complex things are happening. At the same time, even as the difficult things happen, something mysterious is woven into the account, something that gives us insight that leads to joy that emerges even in struggle, the joy that is tested by the pain of life.

     Let us first approach three of the struggles embedded in the account. This is a story of innocent victims. The Bethlehem children are innocent victims of Christmas. This is a tragedy of intense proportion. We do not know how many children are lost. In the traditional eastern calendars the number is set at 14,000; but from what we know today about first century Palestinian village life, this number is too large. It would have been perhaps less than a hundred lives lost. Still, we do know that many young lives were brutally ended.

     In the early church there was a discussion about whether or not non-believers were saved, including these innocent victims.  The decision was soon made in the early church, that regardless of their ability to believe in Jesus, these children were to be recognized as martyrs. In northern Africa they were given a feast day as early as the fourth century, about the time that our earliest creeds were written.

     The prayer formed in their memory lifts up our concern for all innocent victims of violence through the ages. The Lutheran version of the prayer reads: receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims, and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace.

     Let us remember all those who are victims this day, those who innocently suffer, and those who do not deserve their difficult fate.

     A second struggle in this story is the difficulty of the refugee.  This is a story about a refugee family, fleeing to Egypt.  Again, we are reminded by Matthew of the plight of refugees throughout the world. We know that the need for refugee settlement and care continues.  Even this year, Wisconsin has needed to renew its social service commitments to the settlement of more Hmong and Bhutanese refugees through Lutheran Social Services and other social service organizations.  Many of us in this immigrant nation have refugee status somewhere in our personal history, and we can sense from our own past the needs of those who must leave their homes for political or economic reasons beyond their control.  Today, let us remember those who are forced to flee, like Mary and Joseph and Jesus. In the end, this story calls us to practice hospitality to those who must flee.

     A third horror embedded in the story is the fury of tyranny.  King Herod is the story’s example of the tyranny of power.  He not only commits this act of violence, but his entire rule is marked by such events. He drowned his sixteen-year old brother-in-law, the high priest; killed his uncle, aunt, and mother-in-law, his own two sons, and some three hundred officials he accused of siding with his sons in an internal family coup.

     Power is a difficult thing. It is easily misused.  Power may become tyranny. The story reminds us of the need for responsibility in power, for checks and balances in government, and for the sensitivity and compassion of those in power to the commonweal. 

     The presence of Herod reminds us to recognize always the potential for the forces of evil to become embedded in the structures of power and to work as we can to limit the adverse impact of power in the everyday lives of ordinary people. 

      Innocent victims, refugees, and tyrants. Can anything good come out of all this from Matthew? Well, yes. The framework of the story reminds us that good and evil are usually mixed together in profound proportions, often in ways too complex for us to separate. Although the story reminds us of the sorrows of life, the story also points us in the direction of hope. 

      The first glimmer of hope comes from the recognition that the accidents of our lives are interwoven with the fulfillment of our destiny. In Matthew it appears that all sort of accidental occurrences (some bad, some good) seem to shape the course of events. At the same time, Matthew takes great care to indicate that this apparently random sequence of events is following a charted course as outlined by prophets living long ago. 

      So it is with us. Often small accidents of life seem to determine the course our lives take. Relationships form around accidental events. So do personal careers and the courses of national history and international affairs. But in the end, as we move through our lives, no matter how accidental it all seems on the surface, there is the presence of that script, an underlying awareness that a divine pathway is being followed. As we become more and more aware of the script God his in mind for us, hope is kindled in our hearts, even on the worst days.

     The second glimmer of hope is kindled by noting how Joseph and Mary follow their dreams and instincts. By attending to his dreams and instincts, Joseph avoids one disaster after another.  Through his instinctive senses and dreams, God speaks to Joseph and gives him direction in the struggles. 

     The story causes us to think about our own dreams and how we might follow them. What are your dreams?  How is God speaking to you in your dreams?  Follow your instincts, dreams and inner life and find hope born fresh in your heart.

     Finally, the story sustains hope as we see the movement of God in the lives of the characters. This appears to be a story about the first two years of Jesus’ life and how Bethlehem and Nazareth get connected to each other in Jesus’ early personal history. But as Matthew tells it, this is really a story about the movement of God through the pages of history. God is at work in the story. 

     God is still at work in your life as well. On some days, God’s work in your life may be as invisible as it is for the characters in this story. But God is at work in your life. God is not finished with you yet. You are God’s work in progress. 

     This Christmas is a time for blessing. Today’s story with its awareness of innocent victims, refugees, and tyrants, etches the importance of these blessings that we receive as we see the course God sets for us in what appear to be the accidents and details of our lives. Through it all, we are given a vision, a dream of hope to follow, as did Mary and Joseph so long ago.

Sermon for Christmas Day

December 25, 2013 

     Last night candles burned brightly, rekindling the hope in our hearts and illuminating memories moving through our minds. Last night old songs were sung, voicing a joy we feel and the faith we share with generations before us who have sung these songs with us.

    Now this morning we sit with others, a more intimate group, renewing bonds of family, friendship, and congregation upon which the fabric of life is woven and the rhythms of celebration are deepened. Today again in this quieter setting the story is recited, renewing the memory of a child born, shepherds, animals, and angelic songs. 

     Today, with song and with our friends and families, approaching the good news of great joy, we simply break bread and taste wine, recalling the forgiveness and love begun this morning long ago. As we do so, we say the blessings of heaven are imparted to all creation.

     On Christmas Day we remember that a child is born to us, a son is given. God is pleased as human to dwell with us. Through Jesus, God is with us. In Jesus, the veiled Godhead is among us. God enters our lives.

     For some of us, this closeness of God, the nearness of the divine is more visible now than at any other time of the year. Christmas moves us into cyclical alignment with God.  We feel God’s presence near. We pray that the glories streaming into our hearts will stay close by us forever as redeeming grace dawns in our hearts. 

     But for some of us “God with us” may seem an empty phrase depleted of joy by the cares of life. If joy is a faint song in your heart this Christmas, or much more fragile or difficult than you would like it to be, you may find support in the details of the story we have been reading.

     The story of Christmas is a story of joy in struggle and of toil along the climbing way. The story speaks of Joseph wondering about how Mary became pregnant, an enforced census journey for tax purposes, no room at the inn, no crib for a bed,  the humble praise of unsophisticated shepherds, and a government bent on the destruction of Bethlehem children. 

     The details of this birth may rekindle the reminder that Jesus is among all who suffer and struggle. God is with us in dark streets and the shadows of our fears. God is with us even when the candles of hope flicker, when the song we sing is not a carol of joy but a lament sung alone as we wrestle with our fears more than our hopes. God is with us as far as the curse is found.  In the darker street shines an everlasting light sustained by our music floating still through this weary world.

     Further, embedded in the story and our traditions are secrets to embracing joy even in harder times. Go out and look at the stars, tonight or any night. Feel again the depth and scope of the universe created by God. Find the star in your heart and follow it, as it guides you to the perfect light. 

     Joy also grows when we remember that people came over for the first Christmas. Shepherds came to call, even as family and friends do today.  Visiting brings joy. Enjoy some time with another. Make a phone call. Prolong those joyous shepherd strains.

     Joy grows when we give a gift with the delight a child feels when a gift is received. See your life as a gift received and even still not fully unwrapped. Live with expectation again.

     Rejoice that there was at least room in the stable if not the inn. It was difficult, but they found a place to stay. Hospitality prevailed, a virgin sings a lullaby, and this mean estate becomes the sacred manger of the believing heart. Straw becomes the bed of hope. Remember not only that sometimes things are difficult, but also that in the straw lies something good.

      The humble manger becomes the source of joy because the child born will raise each child of earth. The child was born to give us not only a second wind, but a second life.

     Recognize through all the celebrative swaddling cloth, not only a babe, but also the maker of all things, the underlying force for good sustaining the universe.  

     Today the creator of all is with us, calling to us in friendship to join in a new creation. Today, the word of God now appears in flesh. All heaven and all nature sing the chorus as earth receives this creator who comes as child.



Reflection for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20 

     As many of you know, my father died on December 2, and this has been a more difficult Christmas for our family. I’d like to thank all of you who have expressed your care for Judy and me in so many ways. Your care has been a Christmas gift we will always treasure.    

     Earlier this month at a restaurant on the north side, the women’s circle of St. John’s gathered for their Christmas dinner and reflection. We focused on the question, “In this story of Christmas, with whom do you most identify?” In this story are you like a shepherd, or a wise sage, a Mary perhaps?  Since it was a women’s group, no one really identified that much with Joseph.

     But everyone around the table seemed to identify with someone in the story. Some saw themselves in the role of the angels, those who are sharing good news, offering joy, and singing the songs of the season. Some saw themselves as shepherds, people for whom caring is a way of life, simple folk who are faithful in their tasks of watching over their responsibilities by night. Some turned to Mary and Joseph as a young couple: like young couples today, facing adversity together, and working as partners do on the challenges we face along life’s way. One person saw herself as the innkeeper in the story, not playing a prominent role, not even mentioned, but crucial to the story: that person who solves problems in difficult circumstances, a person who makes room for this young Mary and Joseph. Two of us then began to wonder about the other unnamed people in this story, perhaps a midwife who helps in the delivery of fresh hope, or a stable hand who adjusts things so that the animal feeder actually could be used as a cradle.

     This night we find ourselves somewhere in this story. We’re shepherds, caring for those in need, leading ordinary lives, or angelic people offering songs of hope; or sages reflecting on God’s ancient wisdom that leads us out of darkness; or people on life’s way facing the challenges of life either alone or together, or parents like Mary and Joseph, wondering about the future of our children and grandchildren, pondering the times in which we live; or the unnamed ones often completing those unmentioned tasks that make things possible; or those witnesses trekking to Bethlehem to see for ourselves what has come to pass. This night we find ourselves somewhere in this story. And it is enough to simply find ourselves, once again wrapped in these words. Find yourself. Later this evening, or tomorrow, ask yourself, who are you on this night? 

    But there is a deeper gift to this story’s assemblage. For the story has three scenes, a plot, a movement. There is a journey into birth, then an announcement of great joy, and then an exploration of the stable. A journey, an announcement, an exploration. And this time the question is not who you are in this story, but where you are in this story.

     Are you in scene one? Are you on a journey tonight, traveling somewhere, moving along a path, not completely of your own choosing, wondering along life’s way? Are you headed some place?

     Or are you in scene two? Do you have an announcement to make? Is it time to speak up about something? Are you ready to declare something fresh? Or is it time to stop complaining and instead be overwhelmed by the good news that envelopes us? Do you have an announcement to make? Something that brings deep joy?   

     Or are you in scene three? Maybe it’s time for you to explore, to study something, to see and own for yourself, to go to a Bethlehem, to ponder anew what is happening in this world. Is there an issue, a matter, a problem, an opportunity, a challenge that needs to be explored so that hope can once again shine on the dark night?

      Who are you in the story? Where are you in the story? Slowly over the years the story has quickened in our heart. And then something else happens. We see not only ourselves in this story and our own dramas, but we see others, many others embedded in these characters and this plot. We see those in need, our neighbors who may not be reading this story this night, those who come to St. Johns tonight not for worship, but shelter, people everywhere and especially in places where life is fragile, in Palestine and Africa, in Chicago and Milwaukee, and here in central Madison. We sense the drama of human life to which we have been compassionately called to play our roles.

     And then further in the background we discover in the shadows, there in the darkness, the faces of the generations before us and those yet to come. Faces of our beloved dead and those yet to be. People who assist us on life’s journey. People who still proclaim to the birth of hope in the human heart. People who are calling us to see for ourselves the wonder of God’s love.   

    For unto us, all of us, no matter who or where we are, a child is born. And in that birth comes this new vision of compassion and love which we will discover in the coming months somehow never dies.


Reflection for December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25 

     To take the longer view, the deeper view, the graceful view. These are the reminders I’ve heard in these ancient readings today. They call to us to take the longer view. To take the deeper view. To take the graceful view.

     The first reading is from the book of Isaiah and involves the prophet’s words for the king of Judah, Ahaz. In the historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures we sense who king Ahaz was and the times he lived in.  He is remembered as an evil king, one whose reign led to ever increasing disasters, and the ultimate collapse of the country.

     He is noted in the histories for his failure to be true to the Hebrew faith and his desire to follow the practices of other religions. Altars to foreign gods were built in Judah by royal forces. Pagan religions were encouraged, even in the temple, including perhaps human sacrifice. At a time of national crisis, Ahaz even sacrificed one of his own sons.  The worship of the true god YHWH was suppressed. And the writers of the histories as well as the prophets feel that it was his apostasy that caused the downfall of the country.

     But there were probably other causes as well. The Middle East at this time was known for economic injustice, deep enough to cause significant social unrest. Social injustice always and eventually destabilizes societies, and in times of crises such unrest can lead to the unraveling of a nation. The prophet Isaiah points to the economic oppression of the poor, widow, and orphan as the reason for the collapse of the nation.

     Further, there was a huge, overwhelming super-power to content with: Assyria, an aggressive empire, seeking constant expansion and tribute from vassal states and puppet governments and leaders.

     But the immediate problem for King Ahaz was not social unrest, nor an invasion by Assyria, the super-power, but Judah’s neighbors. In the reign of Ahaz, Judah’s various neighbors began to invade its borders from several different directions. Judah faced invasions by Philistia from the west; Edom, Aram, and Ammon, from the east; as well as Syria and Israel from the north. The country was collapsing under the pressure of these forces on all of its borders.

     Ahaz had a solution to this problem. He would make an alliance with Assyria, the super power, so that the super power would invade Judah’s enemies. The incursions would then be over, and Ahaz would still have his kingdom.

     At first the plan seemed to work. Judah’s enemies were all invaded, defeated, and neutralized by Assyria with help from Ahaz. But then, dealing with the super power Assyria was like dealing with the devil. The short term problem was solved, but now Assyria was demanding more and more tribute from Judah in the form of slaves and wealth, impoverishing the nation, eliminating its independence, and taking away Judah’s freedom. Eventually the wheeling and dealing of Ahaz resulted in the demise of Judah. It turns out that Assyria itself faced destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. And the Babylonians were merciless to the state of Judah.

     This is the background of Isaiah 7. These words today are a call to take the long view of things. Do not, Isaiah says, make the alliance with a vicious super power, to solve short term problems. By the time a child grows up, those enemy nations on our borders will be gone. Do not sell your soul to a super power to get rid of them. Think more long term and trust in God to see us through all the twists and turns of time. By the time a child becomes a teenager, all those things we fear will be gone, and another set of circumstances will emerge.

     In saying it the way he does, Isaiah reminds us that the birth and growth of children does call us to take the long view. They grow. And given the right circumstances what grows in them is the ability to see and do the right thing along the way. The best perspective, Isaiah says is the long view. Think about the children who are growing around us. How will they be affected by our decisions? How will they be able to discern and do the right thing when their time comes to guide and shape history? Move past the here and now when you make decisions. Take the long view, crafting the present to place our children in the best possible future.

      Take the deeper view. Now the second reading begins our series of passages from Paul’s ancient letter to the church in Rome. He is writing the letter to engage the Roman congregation in an emerging confederation of Christian groups growing in the Roman Empire. And he is raising money as well for famine relief to the east. We have the opening of the letter this morning. You can see how such ancient letters were written. First there is the name of the person writing. Then follows the name of the person to whom the letter is written. Then there is a greeting. You can see all of these things in these verses of the reading this morning.

    But notice how Paul describes himself. As he does so, he goes deeper and deeper. At first he says he is one who is called and sent. But then he goes deeper. He is called and sent by Jesus. And then he goes deeper. He connects Jesus to God and the hope of God for the universe. And then he goes deeper still and sinks into the ultimate mystery of the resurrection. He is describing himself in the deepest possible way, as he opens this profound and complicated summary of early Christian belief known now as the book of Romans.

     Sometimes we find ourselves in Paul’s shoes. We need to take the deeper view, to sink ourselves not into the superficial and surface understanding, the froth of the season, but into the deeper mysteries of the things that are happening; the birth of hope and healing, the coming of forgiveness and joy, the themes and issues that running deeply in this season.

     Take the graceful view. Finally, the third reading today brings us the Christmas story in the gospel of Matthew. Notice first that we hardly ever use the story in Matthew on Christmas because it is so rugged. It is the story in Luke we have come to love. With its angels, shepherds, pondering of Mary and vast proclamations and intimate joys, Luke is what we think of when we think of Christmas. Today there are no little manger scenes representing the birth of Jesus as told by Matthew. Why? Well, in Matthew, the story is not touching. It is tense. Joseph thinks Mary has been sleeping around. Herod wants to kill the new-born king, Jesus. Babies are killed in Bethlehem by an evil despot who tries to destroy the child. The family flees as refugees. This story is challenging, not charming. So we will probably not use this Matthew on Christmas Eve.

     But Matthew’s story is instructive and reminds us to not only take the long view of Isaiah, not only the deep view of Romans, but also the graceful view of Matthew’s Joseph. In our reading, Joseph has decided to end his engagement to Mary: to do so quietly and respectfully, but nevertheless to end it. It is the reasonable thing to do. Then he dreams, he envisions, if you will. He is refocused, not on Mary’s possible sin, but on Mary’s possibilities for things he cannot yet name.  He loves her. And love helps him see things differently. And he takes the graceful view.

     And how many times, faced with a difficult situation, we too need to remember not to do what is reasonable or expected, but to do what grace calls us to do, dwelling not on the possible sin, but the possibilities ahead of us. We are those who love the world on behalf of God. Let us do what we can to take the way of grace in all our dealings. Knowing that if we had longer and deeper insight we would probably see things differently.

    As Advent draws to a close, and we prepare our hearts to receive now the child, these readings call us now and always to take the long view, take the deep view, take graceful view. Amen   

Reflection for December 1, 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

      This sermon is not for everyone, but probably just a few seated in the room. Sometimes the needs of the few are more important the interests of the many, and with these lessons as Advent begins, that may be the case. For Advent is the call to wake up. Now for the many this theme moves us into preparations for the coming holiday season with the implication that it’s time to wake up and to prepare the way for the coming holidays.

    Yet honestly, most of us are going to prepare for Christmas regardless of these readings. But for a few of us, it really is time to wake up not for Christmas but in our lives; to realize that it’s time to get ready not for Christmas but for a living a new life, walking a new path, or being a new person in some way. For a few of us, this is a critical time in life to wake up, get going, and move out. That is one of the important understandings of these readings. So if you are one of the few, please take these readings to heart.  Each of them gives to us some of the principles we need to wake up, start down a new path, or to begin to make a difference.

      The first reading is from Isaiah the prophet. He writes in a time of national despair. Today’s poem calls these conquered people to think of their country in a new way. Wake up, he says to the new possibility of what our nation might be. What kind of nation should Israel be? Then the poem presents a new insight into what defines a great nation, a nation dedicated to the cause of peace. Isaiah is thinking outside the box of ancient politics and contemporary politics. He sees a peaceful nation not built on power and might, but on three things: wisdom, then doing the good, and then fairness or justice. Those three principles will make the nation great. Wake up, O Israel, the poet says. God is calling you to greatness not based on political or military power. Stand for wisdom, doing what is right, and justice. Those are the principles upon which a new life is built. And if this day you need to wake up in your life, begin with Isaiah’s poem. It’s not about the power, the wealth, the accumulation, or accomplishment. Go for the wisdom, the good, and the just. You can build a new life on this foundation.

     Now the second reading also is tuned to those who are waking up to a new life and a set of new possibilities. The reading from Romans draws attention to the question: how shall we live?  If Isaiah calls us to go for the wisdom the right, and the just, St. Paul calls for shaping the new life around three different principles, in the first century he calls for
      Sobriety: not reveling and drunkenness,
       Purity of heart: not debauchery and licentiousness,
      Mutual affection and friendship: not quarrelling and jealousy.
Sobriety, purity of heart, and friendship. These are the three principles challenging all those constructing their lives. Sobriety means sometimes really watching how much we drink. But it also involves how much we consume, how much we anesthetize ourselves with all sorts of substance and possessions. Sometimes we use so many things; we never can see things clearly. Purity of heart means sometimes rising above the usual sinful lusts that drive humans into sin. But, as Kierkegaard would say, purity of heart also calls us to live close to our purpose, and to not be distracted from the most important thing. Friendship, the kind of deep friendship Paul is talking about refers to cooperation and getting along with others. But he is also talking about deeper affection and compassion and the caring that goes with it. There is no better foundation for waking up to a new dawn than sobriety, purity, and mutual affection.

     The third reading begins the church’s readings from Matthew for the coming year. And this reading does not lift up three important principles but lifts up an important attitude as we construct the new life being born within us. Matthew speaks of awareness, being conscious of things going on around us, and attuned to how God is involved in our lives. Matthew says that when we are building something new we need to be conscious, we need to discern what we need to do. And then we need to be ready to do it. Discernment and readiness are lifted up in this material for those who are facing Advent’s call to wake up in their lives.     

      So these lessons call all of us to wake up and get ready for Christmas. But if you are waking up to new realities this morning, you may want to spend some time thinking about Isaiah’s poem, and focus on wisdom, doing the good, and justice. Or you may need Paul’s words on sobriety, purity and mutual affection. Or you may realize that this is a time for awareness, discernment and readiness to make a change. Or as you talk with God you may discover your own principles that are important as you turn to other parts of this rich and complex tradition of the faith we encounter each week in readings such as these.  But trust that if you are really waking up this morning, if this for you is a new dawn, then God is there for you, offering a helping hand along the new path you are called to take.