Reflection for Advent I, November 29, 2015

Joel 2:21-27, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Matthew 6:25-33

I.

Awake, Awake for Night is Flying is the hymn of Advent. Advent is a time of spiritual awakening. And spiritual awakening means facing challenges. The readings today, assigned for a thanksgiving weekend, lift up three awakenings or renewals for advent in nature, human society, and our own hearts.
The book of Joel is one of the earliest stories of hope for recovery in the Hebrew Scriptures and also in human history. Because of its antiquity, there are things in the book of Joel that are difficult for us to understand or affirm. It reflects the values, themes, and attitudes of the Bronze Age.
In Joel, weather extremes have lead to a plague of grasshoppers. The swarming of these insects was one of the most feared disasters of the ancient world. Massive swarms would move through large areas, eating everything in their path. Crops would be completely destroyed, as all vegetation was consumed by the ravenous insects. Starvation for both animals and humans would soon follow.
The book of Joel is written as the insects have left their destruction and the community is facing the devastation. There will be an emergency planting, but the season will be short and the crop will be meager.
In the Bronze Age, the gods bring both disaster and recovery. The divine will is influenced by human behavior. If we are good, then the grasshoppers stay away. If we are bad, the grasshoppers come. Our own understanding of the interplay of God’s will and natural disaster and favorable weather is more complex. We do not see a tornado as a sign that people have displeased an angry god. And yet we sometimes sense that our human fallibility has made things worse, and may place us in the path of destruction. And we also sense like Joel that God brings recovery, even though we know that God rains on both the just and unjust. For us, the relationship between good fortune and bad and our moral action is more complex. But it still involves the interplay of divine and human action.
There is something to Joel’s vision that is important for us these days. In Joel’s ancient vision, human life is not distinct from creation but part of it. The soil rejoices with the coming rain. The animals give praise to God. And along with the soil and all creatures, humans join in nature’s chorus and also look forward to the renewal of the earth after the swarms of insects.
In our time, we are coming to appreciate the ecological awareness embedded in these stanzas of Joel. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we are still creatures deeply dependent on our soil, our earth. And as we begin our Advent, a time of spiritual renewal, it is good to awaken this sense that God renews us and all creation. The first awakening of this Advent is to care for the earth, the soil, the land, and all creatures, including us. Let heaven and nature sing.

II.

God is not only engaged in the renewal of creation. God is involved in the conduct of human affairs and those who are responsible for it. In the second reading for this season of renewal, we are awakened to the public sphere. In Timothy, Christians are urged to publically pray in worship for those in leadership positions.
This passage is one of several reasons why people think I and II Timothy are written later than most of the other material in the New Testament. The earliest writings of the New Testament seem to almost ignore the empire and government or to consider them irrelevant. The focus is on the coming end the universe (so the empire really doesn’t matter) and then slightly later in the New Testament the focus shifts to building up congregations or matters of internal debate. Then comes a time of persecution and the New Testament begins to demonize the state, using apocalyptic images to portray the persecutors as being of the dark side, especially in the writings of John.
However, that time of persecution subsides, and at the close of the New Testament, the church is becoming established as a force for good in the Roman Empire. And so the attitude toward the state shifts again. In I Timothy we have the beginnings of what might be called Christian citizenship. By the close of the New Testament, we are to pray for those in power. Why? Well, for two reasons. First, we all want civil order and hope for the common good. And with good order, the first century church will continue to do well and grow.
And there is a second reason. There is one God, and Jesus opens a door for all to approach that one God. This is the reason given in verses five and six which in Greek have a meter or cadence and were probably sung or recited in worship. Timothy comes at the close of the pagan era. People are giving up their various local and regional gods. The thought that there is one god is growing. And if there is one god, then that god is for all people, not just for some or for us.
Out of a sense of emerging common humanity, we are called to be a bigger church, a more inclusive church than we were, and we pray for the good of all people. The one God and Jesus are for all.
With a broad vision of God and a desire for the common good for all, we pray for those who lead in society and government: their well being, their wisdom, and their integrity. We pray for our nation, our state, and our world. And prayer for our society, our economy, and our government is the second awakening challenge of spiritual renewal. These days we pray for our leaders and we ask God to use our leaders to care especially for those in need, those suffering from violence and oppression, those in prison, those in danger, soldiers and sailors, and those who are struggling to find a meaning to life. Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

III.

And if Advent awakening begins with creation’s longing, and continues with the affairs of state and its darker streets, it finds its deepest challenge in the human heart, in the third reading this morning, from Matthew. Here is call to quiet our souls, to move beyond our fears and anxieties, our wondering about our present and our future, and to enjoy the life we have been given, to grasp as ours that rare thing called joy. Do not worry. Consider the lilies of the field. The birds of the air. If there is to be spiritual renewal for you this advent, it must involve letting go of those things that are consuming the heart: all of the worries and wonderings, all of the anxieties and stress. For those things rob us of the joy which is ours. And those things bring us into a dark pessimism rather than the light of hope. The third spiritual challenge is to quiet our own troubled hearts. Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay….
Nature. Human Society. Our own hearts. These are the awakening challenges of spiritual renewal. We share Advent’s renewing joy with the soil and the animals. We share it in the darkest corners of our commonweal. And we give it as a gift to ourselves as we move from our fears into hope and growing light. Awake, awake for night is flying. O hear the call, come one, come all, and follow to the banquet hall….

Reflection for November 22, 2015: Christ the King

Daniel 7:9-14, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

At the end of the church year comes this rather awkward festival known as Christ the King Sunday. We Lutherans did not hold the festival until the introduction of the green Lutheran Book of Worship in the 1970’s. And for that matter, the festival itself did not exist until the 1920’s when it was invented by Pope Pius XI in two different encyclicals in 1922 and 1925. Christ the King serves as a closing or end piece to the church year as we begin the new year with Advent next week.
Several things make this festival awkward, at least for me. It feels sort of “invented” or “made up.” Probably all festivals felt that way through their first hundred years or so with the possible exception of Easter. But this one still feels somewhat contrived.
And it comes from a Roman Catholic Pope. And we’re Lutheran. So although we might respect a pope’s opinions, as Lutherans we really don’t look to popes for direction. As Lutherans we really don’t want to agree to anything until we talk about it for a very long time, and then refer it to a committee or two, and then vote on it at least twice, and then talk about it some more. So something that Pope Pius XI invented in the 1920’s may not be highly endorsed in Lutheran circles. It’s awkward.
And then there is this emphasis on royalty and the pomp and circumstance implied in the word “king.” These days we are trying to downplay all of that, as we attempt to make the church more relational, less bureaucratic, and more open to new and fresh ideas and less hierarchical. Indeed, some denominations have changed the name to of this day to the Reign of Christ, to move away from the top down language implied in the festival. But that is only a minor improvement.
And then there is the awkwardness of reading Holy Week readings in November. And the further awkwardness of the metaphysical assumptions which are part of the whole king of the universe thing, but which many of us find odd. We view the universe differently than we did in the 1920’s.
So it’s Christ the King Sunday, and it’s pretty awkward. What should we do? I don’t really know. But I do know that it is important to attend to those things we might not particularly like. That goes ideas as well as people. Just because we find something awkward or someone strange, does not mean that we should disregard that person or idea. At the core of the Christian faith is an acceptance of the person who is different from us. Because at the core of the Christian faith is Jesus, whose life and death reminds us that God accepts us, no matter how messed up we are. So let’s get into the awkward festival.

This room we are sitting in was completed about ten years before Pope Pius’ declaration of Christ as king. This sanctuary dates to the end of World War I or the Great War. The plaster in these walls had not yet fully cured in 1925. Our congregation comprised of German immigrant families was struggling with a building debt and learning the hard way how to do church in the English language. And the older members were wishing that our worship services could just go back to the German. The shift to English was hard.
But the 1920’s were hard in many ways in Europe. It was a decade of great transition. Nations had lost large numbers of young people in the war. People were trying to recover from the destruction. In the boom and bust cycles of the 20’s great inequities began to emerge in wealth and society. Social and economic unrest led to riots and in Russia to revolution.
Extremism blossomed in the ashes of the Great War, especially hyper-nationalism. Intense political movements based on extreme patriotism and hyper-ethnic pride took root in Italy and Germany. The foundations of the fascism and Nazism of the 1930’s was being formed in this decade.
After the senseless slaughter of the Great War, thinking and philosophy had moved to the dark side. Hegel’s dialectical thought devolved into the survival of the fittest for people as well as nations. Metaphysical speculation gave way to the rise of radical materialism. The only thing that exists is what we can touch or see. Man is what he eats. (Mann ist vas er isst.)
Socially and politically, in Europe, the clouds of unrest, violence, cynicism, rioting and revolution, coldness of heart, political intensities that fostered suspicion and hate — all were gathering to create the perfect storm which by the mid-1930’s were leading to the unthinkable repeat of the Great War.
And as these storm clouds were gathering, this Pope named Pius sensed the impending dangers and felt that he should declare that there is someone and something bigger and better than the growing climate of hatred and fear, cynicism and violence toward others. There is something bigger than class struggle, or what we eat, or our national pride. There is someone or something bigger, deeper, and fuller than those things pulling us down this dark hole.
Pope Pius XI said this: Since the close of the Great War individuals, the different classes of society, the nations of the earth have not as yet found true peace. The old rivalries between nations have not ceased to exert their influence. The nations of today live in a state of armed peace which is scarcely better than war itself, a condition which tends to exhaust national finances, to waste the flower of youth, to muddy and poison the very fountainheads of life: physical, intellectual and moral.
True peace, he said, could only be found under the Kingship of Christ as the “Prince of Peace.” We must give up our allegiances to alienation and align ourselves with the greater good. And although for so many reasons we find Pius’ declaration awkward, at the same time we find it hauntingly important, as we stare down our own post-modern darkness, wondering about our world.
For as a good Roman Catholic brother in the faith once said, true peace will not come, until we confront our own hyper-individualism, extreme consumption, radical patriotic and religious calls for terrorism and violent responses, relentless use of prisons to control rather than change lives, growing disparities between the rich and the poor, black and white — not only in this country but worldwide, and our utter lack of ability to work together for a common good.
And on our worst days, as we sit in this room, we look at all of that and we do so wonder about our future. Until we remember that we can let go of ourselves and turn to each other and see in the eyes of the one who is awkwardly different that mysterious force for good. Until we see in the eyes of both strangers and neighbors that common call to align with the good and the true and the compassionate which underlie the things we can see. Until we remember to let God be god. Until we remember that the prince of peace would want us to pray for even our enemies.
Unless we lay down our arms and our defenses and our fears and our suspicions and our hatred, we will never find peace. This awkward pope is still calling us to that end in the name of Jesus.

Reflection for November 15, 2015

Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

n a beautiful October night, we experienced a lunar eclipse. These are fairly rare events. But the weather was good, and the eclipse was almost complete. So for awhile the moon turned red. It was a blood moon. And in the mind of the ancient ones this was a sign that the heavens were dissolving and that the world was coming to an end. The prophet Joel says (2.31): The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. In this chapter of Mark, the darkness of the moon is a sign of the end of time (verse 24). Jesus is actually quoting Isaiah, and Ezekiel as well as Joel. To the ancient ones, the eclipse was a sign that the end was near.
We may not feel that way about a lunar eclipse. Actually we are already into mid-November, planning for the upcoming holidays. But last Friday night in Paris eclipsed the sense of well being we have and caused us to wonder about the future.
And at one time or another every one of us has felt like we were at the end of our rope. Or we have this feeling that things are falling apart. Or that we are facing those forces that threaten to undo us. Or that things are just going downhill. Or that life is shambles. Or that life itself is unraveling. Or that we are going to hell in a hand basket. Or that we are not going to make it through this. Or that the end is just around the corner. Often these are personal feelings that reflect what is going on in our lives, and the disintegration of our world rather than the world.
But sometimes, these feelings are the feelings of a group of people. When groups begin to feel that they are on the edge, these feelings can be exploited by leaders in a quest for power. And sometimes the feelings are shaped in a religious way so that the group feels that God is bringing about the end of the world.
And when that happens we have apocalypse. Apocalypse is the destruction, the melt down, the demise of human civilization and the cosmos itself. It is a theme that is deeply embedded in human experience and conscience, ever since the ancient ones witnessed blood moons. And we have apocalypse in the readings this morning.
Apocalypse is a natural ancient human response to disaster. Those disasters come in many different shapes. Violent storms, floods, earthquakes, and eruptions all create apocalyptic anxiety. Political unrest, change, or the sense that society is going through transition all give rise to apocalyptic anxiety. Economic and financial depressions, downturns, declines, corrections, recessions, slowdowns, and closures all create apocalyptic anxiety. Disease, epidemic, plague, crop failure, food shortages, and the resulting loss of life all create apocalyptic anxiety. War, acts of terrorism, refugee migration, violence of all kinds, human destruction and cruelty all give rise to apocalyptic anxiety.
Apocalypse is driven by anxiety. And anxiety is deep within us. Why? Because in the end we are not nearly as secure as we think we are. And then something happens. Anxieties heighten our awareness so that we are prepared to do what we can as we face the threats around us. Anxiety is not a bad thing in itself.
Apocalyptic anxiety is a biblical thing. The prophet Joel becomes apocalyptic in the face of a grasshopper plague. In the first reading today, the prophet Daniel becomes apocalyptic in the face of religious persecution. Isaiah and Jeremiah become apocalyptic in the face of Babylonian and Assyrian invasions. The seer John in the book of Revelation becomes apocalyptic in the face of a persecution of Christians in Asia Minor by Roman authorities. In the third reading, in the face of a plague that overwhelmed the healing ministry of the church of Mark, the church wonders about the end of the world. Martin Luther became apocalyptic in the face of the Turkish invasion that almost conquered Austria.
And often the apocalyptic vision of a previous disaster is used to interpret the present. Peter uses the prophet Joel to speak of the changing times in the book of Acts. Mark, Matthew, and Luke understand Jesus to use the apocalyptic Hebrew prophets to interpret the current challenges facing the church. People turn to their religion and use the past to make sense of the present in times of anxiety.
So what should we do with these apocalyptic writings and the human anxiety they express? What is this anxiety we feel as we witness the unfolding of events in Paris and elsewhere? Is the world really coming to an end? Are we on the apocalyptic edge of change? Is the anxiety that we feel justified? Perhaps. Let’s not be overly confident in how the future will be.
But as the Bible says, we do not know the day or hour. That is one of the messages of the biblical apocalypse. Yes we can read the signs. But we do not know when either our own life or our social order or all creation will end. We do not know. And we will need to live with that anxiety and uncertainty. We can’t predict the future.
In the meantime, the biblical apocalypse reminds us that we are called to live lives of compassion, dignity, and tender affection. These are the values we want to lift up, especially in crisis and when times are hard. Mutual care and consolation, rather than blame casting, hording, or withdrawal will assist us and bring us together as we live through our days whether our end is far or near. It is difficult sometimes to keep that focus when anxiety spikes in our own hearts or in our culture, and fears cause us to close our hearts to others.
While recognizing how anxiety makes us more alert, ready, and active, we must also recognize that too much anxiety is destructive. It eats away at our bodies and souls. Too much anxiety in the public sphere eats away at the sense of common good that is needed in order to make society function. These days, in our own times, people will use anxiety to sell ideas or things or political positions. We can be used by people who have things to sell. While appreciating the ways anxiety makes us aware, we must also discipline ourselves to limit its destructive power.
And in the end, let us remember the basic biblical message about all blood moons and cataclysmic events since the beginning of time. Yes, there is an ending to all things, and yes, we may be at the beginning of some ending. But in the Bible, since the time of Joel and that first grasshopper plague, the beginning of the end is an opportunity for something new. The beginning of the end is transformed into a new beginning. The sun does set. And then it rises again. God moves the people of God through the cataclysm into something new, into new life, into new hope.
Today, the first phrase of the first reading about the great protector, and the last phrase of the last reading about birth pangs lift us into hope even in anxiety. The biblical apocalypse has as its basic meaning, “we will get through this.” And we will. Why? Because, as the Bible says, God is the beginning and the end. And will eventually take us home.
On a beautiful October night, we experienced a lunar eclipse. These are fairly rare events. But the weather was good, and the eclipse was almost complete. So for awhile the moon turned red. It was a blood moon. And in the mind of the ancient ones this was a sign that the heavens were dissolving and that the world was coming to an end. And even after the events of November, that means that somewhere, someplace something new has begun.

Reflection for November 8, 2015

I Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

The widow’s mite. The third reading today is traditionally known as the story of the widow’s mite. It has been used for centuries as a stewardship reading about sacrificial giving. Jesus says that the woman gives all that she has. Her example is contrasted to the greed of the temple. She is lifted up as an example for giving.
Giving is always a good thing. In fact, it is one way to actually reduce stress and open up happiness in our lives. And this is a good way to read the story. But it leaves us with some questions. Why would the woman give everything? Why would she give so much just to line the pockets of the corrupt temple leaders?
And there is something else, something slightly off about using the story to promote giving. In the heart of this widow something strangely sacred is afoot, something very deep and moving. And to connect her story with the story of the widow and Elijah in the first reading lifts up something stirring in the hearts of these women. To reduce the widow’s story to an admonition to give more to the church somehow makes the story shallower than it is.
For at least a few decades now, people have been looking for another meaning to the story, lifting up the relationship between Jesus and the poor. The story these days has become more about how the poor are treated badly by the established rich and by the institutions of society. God loves the gifts of the poor and treasures those gifts especially. This too is another good way to read the story.
But this interpretation also leaves us with the same questions. Why did the woman give everything? Why would she give so much just to line the pockets of the corrupt temple leaders? And we still sense that even this understanding does not quite get to the widow’s sacred intent. Like Jesus, as we look at the widow’s action we sense that something sacred is happening, something deep and moving.
Again, pairing of the two widows stirs deeper thoughts. There is a parallel between these women, if only we could name it. To reduce the story to an admonition to care for those in need, important as that is, somehow makes the widows’ actions less profound than they are.
So let me approach the two stories together in a different way, so that a deeper sense may come to the surface. For in these women we are touching something deep in the human heart, something at the core of being human, something we all face, and something embedded in the mind of God.
We have two impoverished widows. We could focus on their widowhood. But let us focus on their womanhood. We have two women. Each of the women is at the end of her rope. In I Kings the widow is down to her last handful of flour. In Mark the widow is down to her last coins.
The women have come to the end of their resources. They will soon die. And they know it. For each of them there is a ritual to dying: a final act that will conclude their lives. In these stories we are witnessing the final acts of women of courage.
Ancient women have special responsibilities with respect to death. This connection between women and death probably echoes what was the ancient miracle of birth. Women bring people into this world. And in the primitive mind, women become significant in the time of dying and mourning.
Throughout the Bible, the mourners are women. Women are there for the burial of Jesus and are responsible for the care of the body. Women in ancient Rome formed funerary societies to remember their dead, and the first Christians may have been women in such a society formed to remember Jesus.
The sacred presence we sense in this story is the presence of death and the way that these women respond to their own ending with their final acts. Each of them touchingly forms and executes a ritual to prepare to meet their maker.
The widow’s offering in Mark is amazing because she is preparing for her death. For her, dying is not something that happens to her but is an act of giving all of life away to God. One last time she will go to the temple she loves. And as she embraces her death, she will place her offering in solemn dignity. This is her last act. With this giving of the last little bit, she now offers her spirit to God. Jesus stands in awe of her, knowing that this is a woman greeting death itself by giving all that she has. And in this later chapter of Mark (we are in chapter 12), he senses his own death, his own sacrifice, his own giving of the last little bit, in her dying ritual. A woman is showing him how it is done. And in chapters 14 and 15 Jesus will follow her example. The depth of her offering makes the usual banter about giving and stewardship superficial.
In the first reading, crops have failed. People are starving. The widow is preparing for death. She is doing so by preparing and offering a ritual meal: a last dinner so that her household may die together. The last of the food will be used for a communion meal with her son. The two of them will eat this sacred food together and then wait to die. This is the ritual of a final supper. In this death liturgy she lifts up the relationships that have been important to her.
The prophet Elijah is witnessing a woman offering her spirit to God, her final act, her one last thing, her communion with her son and the Lord of the Heavens. He understands the gravity of the situation and the ritual meal. Elijah stands in awe of her, knowing that this is a woman on a sacred path. As women give all of us life, they also guide us through the passage of death. This is her final act, guiding herself and her son through that difficult passage. In the story, God, through Elijah, transforms this final meal into a meal that continues, a meal that transforms, and a meal that moves from despair to hope.
I think we should pause for a moment and consider how deeply women signify and deepen death as well as birth. Women today still are deeply engaged in the rituals of death. If you walk into a hospice care center, you will see some men caring for the dying. But most of the staff is women: women who offer comfort and care to the dying and the grieving. In ancient societies such as those found in the Bible, women cared for the dead; formed societies with various customs and rituals; led processionals of mourning, wrapped bodies in linens and spices; and continued the memories of the departed with anniversary meals and celebrations.
Lutheran women today stand with the grieving in the face of death with the preparation of countless Jell-O salads, cookies, and hot dishes at funerals. Women often are the ones who send cards of sympathy. And how many times have we witnessed a woman beside the bed of a dying one, waiting for the end. Women are there – at the beginning and at the end. And that is how it is. They guide us in. And they show us the way out.
So two prophets, Jesus and Elijah, encounter two widows who are at the end, performing the last rite, their final act of courage at the end. That is how deeply human these stories are. Oh, they may say something about giving to the church, or about the importance of caring for those in need. But deeper than that is the awesome ending these women are constructing for themselves with the final scrap of life. Together they are constructing rites of closing gifts and communion with the ones they love. And with Jesus, we stand in awe of their sacred rituals, these last acts of the dying; these very sacred, very holy times when in death we encounter the love of God and others.
In death today, whenever it is encountered, women of faith are still constructing what needs to be done. Farewells and goodbyes need to be said. And gifts to both people and causes need to be given. Final details that have marked a life of caring need to be tidied up, as memories of life together are brought to the surface.
And beneath those things in death there are the matters of the soul. The giving away of all that we have to God. The entrusting of the treasure that was our life into the hands of the Eternal One who is waiting for us. This farewell, the last meal, the final sharing, the last gift is somehow changed into a first step into something we cannot describe. That is where these stories live with all their power, while women, then and now, still perform their sacred tasks as they greet the angel of death.