Reflection for Christmas Eve, 2016

This past spring, Grandma Gertrude had passed away and the family gathered for a funeral just as the snow was melting and folks were thinking about planting their gardens. The funeral was a good one in the Lutheran tradition complete with ham sandwiches and jello along with a hot dish or two, and a variety of bars for desert. And it was, as they say, a good death as well. Gertrude was 94 when she passed. She had lived a full life, had children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. She was the last of seven siblings. Old age and a variety of medical conditions had made life difficult mentally and physically. She had been confined to a nursing home, against her wishes, for a few months. At the funeral the family was sad. But it was time. And it was spring. And the family reconnected at the funeral, then said their farewells, after dividing up the personal belongings. It was, as they say, a good death and a good funeral.

But because Gertrude grew up in the depression years there were far more belongings than were wanted by the coming generations. And so what could not be given to either relative or charity was placed in a rented storage unit with the understanding that the fate of the unit’s contents would be decided by the Fourth of July and emptied by Labor Day. But, as one could have predicted, it was now Thanksgiving, and no one had said or done anything about the storage unit or its contents. And to be honest, nobody had given Grandma Gertrude’s death much thought all year long. It seems that life can be busy for all those grandchildren and great grandchildren. Places to go. People to see.

Until Thanksgiving came. With the coming of the winter holidays came thoughts about the family. Grandma Gertrude was an integral element in the family’s holiday customs. And this year, more than a few of the family had re-assembled for a celebration in the home of one of the daughters who still lived in the town where they had all been raised. Perhaps this Thanksgiving a baton was being passed to another generation.

The dinner went well: turkey and dressing, vegetables, yams, cranberry sauce, a white wine, not too dry. And the conversation around the table was cordial and warm. Talk turned to Christmas and the possibilities for this year. Plans were being hatched.

Then suddenly there was a pause. A silence. An awkward moment. For it seems that several people at the table at almost exactly the same time remembered one of the most important things about Christmas for this family. It was Grandma Gertrude’s stollen: her special Christmas bread, laced with cinnamon, raisins and other fruit, thick, with a firm crust, covered over the top with white icing. It wasn’t Christmas without Grandma Gertrude’s stollen.

As the dreadful possibility of Christmas without the sacred stollen began to surface, the group decided that this would not do. And that the best thing would be to find Grandma’s recipe (several people remembered that she had written it down on a grease stained 3 by 5 inch card somewhere) and then bake the bread using her instructions. That satisfied the group, and the dinner conversation continued.

But the first week in December suddenly came, and it was clear that Grandma Gertrude’s stollen recipe was missing. Had she placed it somewhere before she went into the nursing home? Was it with the kitchen items that had gone to Good Will? Did one of the children have the recipe tucked away somewhere?

Each of the children and some of the grandchildren had a theory about the missing recipe which reflected their own approach to life. One daughter was given to conspiracy theories. She was sure the government was hiding extraterrestrial evidence in New Mexico, that the water was fluoridated as a form of government mind control, and that her phone was being tapped by the NSA. She informed the family by email that she felt the recipe had been stolen. And for awhile the group focused its attention on the stolen stollen. But soon, some in the family decided that the stollen was not stolen, but simply missing.

Two of the more practical children decided that it must be in the storage unit. So they called a group of family members together. And on one very cold morning the second week in December, the group sorted through all of the things in the unit, including the seat cushions of Grandma’s rather dilapidated favorite chair. The recipe was not to be found. So they put everything back into the storage unit, shut the door and promised each other that they would eventually clean out the unit. Someday. But not now. It was too cold. Still, although the recipe for stollen was not stolen, and although it was not in the storage locker, it was still missing.

In the meantime, the more sophisticated of the children decided that the best thing to do was to find a stollen recipe on the internet. There were hundreds of stollen recipes on the web. And they tried two or three before discovering that Grandma’s stollen tasted so much different from the web based digital versions that this approach should also be abandoned. Better to have no stollen at all than a wimpy web digital replica of the stollen beloved by them all.

And that was where the family was headed: hurtling headlong into a stollenless Christmas. And for the first time since they all had made peace with that useful but inherently artificial construction known as a good death, they genuinely started to grieve and weep. For Gertrude was gone. And the stollen was gone. And the recipe could not be found. And it was Christmas time.

Then a few days before Christmas a wayward granddaughter showed up in town. Every family has a least one of these: grandchildren that don’t fit the family mold, who go their own way, and are hardly heard from all along life’s way. One hardly knows where they are living at any time. This wayward one had not made it to the funeral, had not come to Thanksgiving, and had no idea that the family was in such dire straits over a loaf of bread. She was thirty years old. What did she know?

But soon she began to sense how important the stollen was. And this one, for all her waywardness, or perhaps because of it, actually remembered, remembered where Grandma kept the recipe. Gertrude actually used the greasy card as a bookmark in her Bible. She inserted it on the page with her favorite passage: the sacredness of the text and the bread leavening each other all year long. The wayward one had no idea what that favorite passage was. But if the Bible were around, they would have the recipe.

One of the daughters had the Bible, taken on the day of the funeral, now stored in her basement. There it was: the recipe card, toward the back of the book, in the first chapter of Philippians, marking a passage Grandma had underlined several times along with additional stars in the margin:

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and wisdom to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus. (verses 9-11)

And with the ingredients, the proportions, and the instructions; Grandma’s stollen came to life. Several loaves were baked. The children and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, the cousins and nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts ate their fill and all knew again the special warmth of Christmas past in the present: that special warmth that can only be felt by tasting again a Grandmother’s Christmas love.

These days, as the generations rise and fall, as they say, we may be as close as we ever have been to loosing the recipe that our fore mothers and fathers used all their lives to bake the bread of human hope that sustains us in the darker days. These days with each generation, there is less and less interest in the churchly things: those great recipes for human love and justice and beauty and perseverance that generations have used to construct meaningful lives and hopeful hearts: those great recipes preserved by liturgy and conviction, tradition and moral persuasion. In our flight from authorities of all kind, especially religious, we have consigned the great principles of the past to the storage lockers of our grandmothers’ ancient possessions. We are not yet ready to throw them away. But we are also not very interested in sorting through the past to see what is really there. And for many of us, this night has become a brief encounter with things we have almost forgotten or never did really know as we sing those songs and light these candles while we pause along life’s bustling way, vaguely searching for the recipe that makes life worth living.

And all of that is fine, I suppose. We really don’t need the stollen. Or Grandma’s Bible verse. Or all those things gathering dust in the attic of human memory. Or do we? Who are you? And how do you assemble a life of hope and joy? How do you live well? What does your life mean? What is your recipe for what matters? Where do you keep that grease stained card that carries the truth by which you bake the bread of your life?

For this Christian thing called Christmas is really about your recipe, your construction of hope and joy, your renovation of justice and peace, the baking of the bread of your life. Oh yes, that construction will involve dealing with our past, our family, and our heritage: the good of it all as well as the bad. Oh yes, your recipe for life may not involve conspiracies, but still must deal with those assembling forces of collusion that hover around us and sometimes destroy our dreams. Oh yes, your recipe for life may not include being practical, but still must attend to the details by which all principles are practiced. Oh yes, your recipe for life may not involve the internet or innovation of any kind, but it will of necessity be tuned to the future more than the past.

But tuned to the future, based in the practical, aware of the collusions of life, and recognizing the good and the bad in our heritage; we may still not possess that recipe: until, until we listen to the wayward one, the outcast, the sufferer, the rejected, the lost. The recipe for the meaning of life always involves the edgy wisdom of the suffering one, a wild or wilderness voice coming from the margins of the human family, on the boundaries of the acceptable. And every little detail of the Christmas story in Luke and Matthew speaks to that. Jesus is born on the edge of the empire, to a peasant family, vulnerable travelers on the road, in the humblest circumstances, sharing the stable with beasts of burden, honored by smelly shepherds, pondered by a teenage mother who is engaged to a man who is not all that sure about things and is still sort of iffy on this virgin birth explanation.

The story says that it once was and always will be in the wayward one, the awkward one, the one that does not fit, the rejected ones, the disguised divine, that we discover that recipe for fully and completely tasting the joy of life, while we bake our bread of hope, singing a few songs while we are waiting for the bread to rise. We need, it turns out, this story, that narrated recipe, of a humbled God, resurrected from ancient pages preserved in love, to help us recover, renew, and rebuild our own lives and the world around us on dark winter nights.




Readings and Reflection for December 18, 2016

Readings for December 18, 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
A Salutation: Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and 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.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Reflection for December 18, 2016
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 learn 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 our times or of this 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 we live in challenging times. So 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. Joseph needs his boundaries. 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 6, 2016 The Feast of Saint Nicolas

This is the second week in Advent. We light two candles, and we sing of the growing light as we prepare for Christmas. This week on December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicolas. This year we decided to again celebrate the feast of St. Nicolas, especially following worship, sharing of our food together in a potluck, which may include some of our favorite Christmas foods, the fair trade sale for gifts, wreath making, and time together to visit. It’s one of those days when the fun after worship may overshadow the worship gathering. And that is good. It may be good to also focus our time in worship on St. Nicolas. Consider this a sermon on Santa Claus.
Behind the mythic sense of Santa Claus is a real historic figure: St. Nicolas. Our vision of Santa Claus is quite different from the historic figure. Some might say that the American Santa Claus is a corrupted version of the original, just as the name santaklauss is a northern European corruption of the name sanctanikolas. But even our corruption: a jolly old man with a sleigh and reindeer, living somewhere up north, who magically brings gifts to children each year, contains some of the original saint. At the heart of Santa is a sense of gifting, of generosity, of caring for children, of joy rather than sorrow, and attending to those in need with compassion. Oh, the mythic Santa may have lost a great deal at the hands of a consumptive society, but the sense of generosity, caring for the young, and gifting is still there.
That is the memory of the historical St. Nicolas, who died on December 6, sometime in the 4th century in Asia Minor or present day Turkey. Nicolas was an orphan raised by his uncle. At his uncle’s urging, Nicolas became a monk and priest. He spent some time at a monastery in Palestine. Later he returned to Asia Minor. Eventually he became bishop of Myra, a port city.
Little is known about his life or his faith. Much more is known about his legendary compassion. The legends include anonymous gifts to poor, the hungry, to children, and sailors. He was known for his compassion and generosity. The anonymity of the gift was important. Children would mysteriously find a coin underneath their shoe. Food would mysteriously appear at the door of the poor. His compassion involved working with sailors on hunger relief during times of famine. And he was known for supporting young people and adults as they found their way in life. Although he was one of the original signers of the Nicene Creed, which we use in church, he is not remembered for that as much as for his deeds of generosity and kindness most frequently done without any desire for being thanked, recognized, or appreciated. Indeed, it was felt by many that miracles of healing and hope came from this generous bishop.
The wellsprings of such generosity are found in our Christian traditions of compassion, sharing, and service. Compassionate generosity is part of our identity here at St. Johns as we care for those in need in the heart of the city.      Through the centuries in Europe the memory of the generous spirit of Nikolas grew. In the middle ages, on December 6, the day of his death, nuns from monasteries would deliver anonymous baskets of food to the hungry in nearby cities. And a sense of mystery or magic emerged regarding the generosity and kindness. How could so much gifting take place? What is the mystery that undergirds generosity?
Eventually, red became associated with St. Nicolas. Red is the general color for saints’ festivals. And by the nineteen century, with the emergence of the Victorian Christmas, the Santa Claus myth was fleshed out with sleighs and reindeer and the North Pole and all of those things.
But today we recall the one whose spirit of generosity lives on in the Christian community. To be honest, when I think of St. John’s I sometimes wonder if we were misnamed. St. John was a profound theological thinker. A mystic of the first order. And we have theological thoughts. I think we are sometimes known for our fresh theological approach to things. And we do have a mystic side to us. But what makes us special, what gives us our identity, is not profundity, but generosity. For decade after decade, we have been caring for those in need, not expecting to be thanked, not expecting to be appreciated, but with a sense of simple compassion. We delight in our young, and wish them well. We desire everyone to have a coin under their shoe and food at their door. We know that this winter many will need some special care. And we are passionate about providing shelter and financial assistance in the heart of this city throughout the year.
There is perhaps no better day than today as we recall the gift of compassion to lift up the commissioning and installation of a deacon. Today we recognize a member of our congregation as a deacon in the ELCA. Judy was commissioned on November 4 in Peoria, Illinois. And she was installed as chaplain for Triangle Ministry, the joint ecumenical ministry in the Triangle, our largest public housing project in the city. The office of deacon is also founded on these principles of compassion, generosity, and a capacity to quietly and anonymously giving the gift of faith usually behind the scenes as the mission of caring continues.
And it is time now to recognize and celebrate this tradition of caring. To share our food, our traditions, our family life together, to be generous through the season, to raise up the loving spirit that marks this day and this season and our life together.