Reflection for December 27, 2015

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

The boy Jesus. It is fitting on the first Sunday of Christmas to continue the birth story with the only other story we have of the child Jesus. It is found only in the gospel of Luke. This is the year of readings from Luke. So we have this story today.
Remembering the childhood of Jesus reminds us of the significance of childhood. We might do well to focus on children today: our own children and the children of our friends and relatives, and also the children of our community, nation and world. We all want childhood to be a wonderful experience, but in the United States growing up can be a challenge especially if one is black or Hispanic, or if one is facing financial hardships or struggles.
Health care, the quality of family life, the opportunity to learn in school, and sometimes basic issues of safety are challenges for some children. One of the most basic issues facing our children today is poverty.
Twenty percent of all children ages 0–17 (14.7 million) live in poverty. The poverty rate is much higher for Black and Hispanic children. Almost 40 percent of Black children and 30 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty. Almost one out of four children below age five live in poverty. (www.childstats.gov)
As we reflect on the childhood of Jesus it is good to think about dedicating resources to assist children in need, the importance of our schools, our social services, and our efforts to provide for family assistance. So often, as we distribute funds every Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, a few children are waiting with their parents to receive the help the family needs.
Money matters for children. But there is more to childhood than that. We all want childhood to be a wonderful experience, but as we remember the childhood of Jesus, we recognize the difficulties that are always involved in growing up, especially in a world that has become so complicated. It is difficult for children to find their way. We are called upon as parents and friends of younger people to encourage them to find themselves, to discover what is important for them and the world, as we model for each other a compassion that can be shared.
Even in Luke’s highly idealized story of the childhood of Jesus, one can sense the tension between parent and child embedded in the verses. Jesus has wandered off. Parents wonder what happened. The retort of Jesus about the house of the father, has an edge to it which may have been difficult for Joseph. Family life is not always easy for either parents or children, even in this sacred family, even when people love each other very much. And yet they go on, and Jesus, like all adolescents, eventually grows up.
The boy Jesus. Childhood. I am at that point in life where I think about grown children as well as young children. All of us are grown children. Some of us are the children of aging parents. As families age, sometimes the roles of caring are reversed. Those transitions and struggles often involve difficult finances, strained relationships about such things as whether or not mother should continue to drive, complex decisions regarding health and living arrangements. Through it all, children and parents, in both the best and most challenged families still love each other very much, try to practice compassion, and even when the words or actions sometimes sting, go on in love until we say goodbye to our parents and grow up in a completely different way.
The boy Jesus. Childhood. It is not only about the lives of the children around us and our own sense of childhood responsibilities as we grow older. It is also about remembering childhood. As Luke remembers and recalls the childhood of Jesus, we too are called to engage in our own memories of childhood. As we lift up our childhood memories, we learn from them. I think Christmas is especially a time when we recall our childhood, our times when we were young and we experienced the joys of Christmas as a child. As we recall our childhood, we will remember things that will renew our sense of joy. And we will also realize more about why we still struggle with some things. Facing not only the delights of our own childhood, but also its struggles will give each of us deeper insight into what makes us who we are, and what is important as we construct our adult lives.
Today, we recall that Jesus was a child. That he was precocious and also probably challenging for his parents. That he was raised in love. And that it was probably from his parents that he learned the importance of the compassion he taught.
Let us remember the importance and challenges of childhood in our city, state, and nation, and do what we can to assist children in need and those who work with them, especially our teachers, educational staff, and social workers.
Even as we remember our own childhoods, let us recall how difficult it is to grow up, the challenges we all face as children regardless of our age, and the need to grow ever deeper into the compassion which will be more fully revealed in the coming stories of the life of Jesus as remembered by Luke so long ago.

Reflection for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

Luke 2:1-21

Let me tell the story of a young pastor named Jason. Jason grew up in a large city on the east coast, and was a gifted thinker and writer. His passion was urban ministry. When Jason graduated from seminary, in its infinite wisdom, the church assigned him to a small rural congregation nestled in the valley two counties west of where I was serving. Despite the obvious adjustments, Jason was doing well in his congregation. His wife found a teaching job only twenty miles away, and so in many ways the assignment was a good one.
One of the saving graces of Jason’s life was that his small community of less than 2,000 people actually had a coffee shop! Well it was sort of a combination country diner and urban coffee boutique. A double decaf caramel late was out of the question, but still the good coffee served with a slight sense of urbanity worked for Jason.
His weekly ritual involved going to the coffee shop each Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to write his sermon on yellow legal pads. He would sit at the same table with his Bible, gradually creating a small pile of crumpled yellow paper on the floor as various drafts of the sermon came together. With its hint of urban sophistication, the coffee shop was a relief from the drabness of rural life. It was for him the creative place. He was doing his best work on those mornings.
The other regulars, and then of course everyone in town, at first thought it strange to find a pastor writing in the coffee shop every Tuesday and Wednesday. But after a couple of years, everyone understood that Jason really needed the coffee shop in order to write well. And if they wanted to know what was on those yellow sheets of paper, they could always show up at the Lutheran church down the street on Sunday mornings.
One autumn day, a Lutheran farmer in Jason’s congregation died. He was a good man, and was well respected in the community. Their farm was up in the hills above the valley. The man’s wife and son were left now with the farm. The wife’s name was Amanda. Amanda was a strong woman who knew how to make it through the tough times that mark rural life. She brought her Bible to church almost every Sunday, even though her husband and son seldom came. The son was named Mike. He was a loner: a little strange, perhaps. At least the people in town thought so, and that was the talk in the congregation.
The funeral went as funerals go. But Jason noticed that neither Amada nor Mike cried or wept. Their faces were set like flint, facing this ordeal together with inner strength and resolve. Jason admired that, and yet wondered about it, too.
There was a funeral luncheon up at the farm following the service at church. It was a beautiful late September day. During the wake, Jason stepped outside the house. The view from the hillside was stunning. Jason walked up the hill just a bit to an abandoned chicken coop: a twelve by twelve building, with windows and a door in reasonably good repair. A decent floor. It had not been used for years. From the front door of the chicken coop the view of the valley and the town was spectacular with the trees in early autumn color. As he took in the view, Jason noticed Mike watching him for a moment from the front porch of the house.
That November, as the weather shifted, the owner of the coffee shop announced that she had to close the business. There was simply not enough interest in urban coffee to keep the place going. She had to close her doors. Everyone understood, of course. Such closings are a natural part of country living. But when the shop closed Jason was devastated. His creativity died. And without a Tuesday and Wednesday morning ritual and a place to write where he felt comfortable; his sermons began to decline, becoming a jumble of rambling theological truisms about being thankful and the importance of lighting blue candles and the like. He was writing now in the pastor’s office, a small addition to the back of the white church which for Jason was the least creative place imaginable. Without his creative space, Jason was at a loss. He knew it more than anyone else. But the congregation sensed that the closing of the coffee shop was hard on their pastor from the city. Of course no one talked about it. However, a couple people prayed.
The third week in December came, and Jason was struggling with the yellow legal pads in the addition behind the church, when Mike, of all people, stopped by in his pick-up. Jason was surprised to see him. Mike said he came to church to “see the pastor.” He was serious. He wanted Jason to follow him to the farm. Jason thought something was wrong with Amanda. But Amanda was fine, Mike said. He just wanted Jason to follow the truck to the farm. So Jason got into his car and followed him up into the hills.
When they got there, they did not go to the house. Amanda was in town clerking now at the small grocery store. There were a few inches of fresh snow on the ground, but Mike had cleared a path to the old chicken coop. They headed up the hill. Jason noticed the coop looked different. It had been cleaned and painted; the roof, windows and doors repaired. Mike had created a small place to sit outside in front of the coop that took in the view of the valley now covered in snow. When they went inside, the old room was completely clean and painted in a subtle gray. In the corner was a wood burning stove. A cord of firewood was outside by the side of the coop. And in the opposite corner was an old and very simple desk and wooden chair, situated between two windows. On the desk were three yellow legal pads and four pencils. Next to the desk on a shelf was a worn Bible.
Mike smiled and simply said, “I know you’ve been needing a place to write. And this Christmas Eve my mother needs a really good sermon. Come here when you need to.”
Jason did not know what to say at first; but then nodded, and said he would. When Mike left, Jason started a fire, and sat down at the desk. The building, the desk, the light, the view wrapped themselves around Jason’s soul. His creative energy started to come back. Mike was, it turned out, a gifted person when it came to creating space. And so almost every day for the next week, Jason would drive out to the farm, wave to Amanda or Mike if they were at the house, and then made his way to the chicken coop. Gradually the sermon for Christmas Eve wound its way through the crumpled pages on the floor, which were now thrown into a box to light the next day’s fire, until on the 22nd of December, Jason knew he was finished. He was ready to preach.
December 24 had good weather. People came into town. The church was full. And Jason once again preached as he should. The old platitudes were gone, as the story came alive again in his words: the story about a family on the road, their hard times, the hope and also fearful pondering that comes with birth, the visitors both ordinary and wise, and the importance of holding onto a song to sing. The phrases were well assembled, the paragraphs moved the thought along, and the sermon engaged a spirit that was moving. This year Jason focused on the wisemen and the shepherds, not as separate groups but as one in the same: how the ordinary and the wise come together in the presence of the divine. And although some people were lost in his mystic twisting of the visitors, most sensed how the divine light is born as we find the wisdom in our ordinary lives. Jason and everyone felt fine about the sermon, and all wondered how Jason had found his creativity again. For the chicken coop was not yet public knowledge.
The service continued with song, the offering, and Holy Communion, until it was time to light the candles and sing Silent Night. As the lights went down, the little white church glowed with candlelight reflecting in the faces of the people. As Silent Night began, everyone held their candles. Most were singing as they renewed the significance of this moment, beyond the usual constraints of everyday preoccupations, recalling Christmas’s past, until they found themselves again in the presence of the baby Jesus.
But two people were not holding candles and were not singing. Amanda and her son Mike were both standing there, embracing each other. Amanda was crying. Her tears from the losses of autumn now ran down her cheeks as she embraced her son. As the two of them held each other, the assembly embraced Michael and Amanda with their light and the song of their hearts. Mother and child in radiant beams, echoing the faint but real glorias of the angels when we have made it through the worst of times and feel the first stirring of hope born again in country churches and in the darker streets of the city where the light still shines.
As the song concluded and the lights were extinguished, Jason saw in the candlelight moistened by the fresh tears of grief: that tonight he had never really preached at all; that the night itself proclaimed the holy birth of hope; that this moment and this room was God’s creative space to write the message of hope in the hearts of all; that the embrace of mother and child, sister and brother, friend and enemy, angel and demon in this human family is what we sing; that even though Jason had never heard of a hard candy Christmas, he fully witnessed the contours of human struggle for which the child was born. This was God’s message requested by Michael and needed by Amanda. For the ordinary wisdom from everyday life is not so much about the everyday, but about the mystery of recovery from ordinary sorrows: a mystic confidence embedded in the renewal of hope on the road of life, traveling with shepherds and wisemen, angels and innkeepers all witnessed by the beasts of the field. For the light reveals the ordinary truth: that we do suffer, and then we cry, and then embraced by family, friend, and God, we do go on. We go on, remembering the birth of a baby. We go on, straight through to the end and beyond, where in light eternal we find ourselves with the ones we have loved.
As people chatted while they were leaving, Jason decided that he needed to go back to the chicken coop to write some more, to use the Christmas gift Michael had given him. For it would soon be January and there was more to write about the love of God in times of sorrow and loss, in places of dull sameness and despair, and in the deepest moments of human encounter, to that particular group whose faces were shining with the light of a night that was holy.

Reflection on “Lessons and Carols” for December 20, 2015

Today we continue the tradition of a service of Lessons and Carols for Advent or Christmas. Since our beginnings, humans have combined music and song with sacred words and later readings to create the ritual flow for worship. The communal act of creating a rhythm of sacred text and music is deeply woven into the human sense of public ritual. And the service of Lessons and Carols draws deeply from this ancient human ritual rhythm.
The first Christian services to be shaped around the alternation of text and song were not associated with Christmas. Christmas is itself a new addition to the Christian calendar. The late medieval tradition of Tennebrae worship for Good Friday is probably the earliest Christian worship based on a series of readings and music. On Good Friday, a reading from the passion of Christ would be followed by a hymn, as a candle would be extinguished. Often these ancient Good Friday services would involve the growing darkness as seven candles were extinguished, with the same number of readings and songs. In the final darkness, there would sometimes be a loud slamming noise to symbolize the closing of the door of the tomb.
There is some evidence that the Christmas tradition of Lessons and Carols is patterned after the Tenebrae, as the season of Christmas and Epiphany involved the theme of now growing light.
But in the mid 19th Century, in England, Christmas had gotten out of hand. Christmas often does for various reasons. But in England it had then become a time of high revelry which had devolved into drunken violence as mobs grew more and more destructive. Think about our experience here in Madison with Halloween, and you will get the idea. An Anglican pastor, Edward Benson, decided to drop the traditional Church of England Eucharist on Christmas Eve (a rather stuffy service that no one was interested in attending), and replace it with what was then a contemporary worship format: a series of readings interspersed within popular music: the Christmas carols we now know as traditional.
Although there was some success with this as the eighteen century came to a close, the service of Lessons and Carols became fixed in the hearts of English people during World War I. In the dark days of the war, Eric Milner-White’s service at Kings College became a fixture of Christmas, using English Christmas carols and readings from the Hebrew Scripture which implied the prediction of Jesus as the Messiah who fulfills the intention of God.
Lessons and Carols has become ingrained in the English celebration of Christmas. And with the adoption of the many Victorian Christmas traditions such as Christmas trees, mistletoe, Santa Claus, caroling, gift giving, holly and ivy; this service has become part of our Christmas worship experience in America.
But we are Americans. And we are Lutheran. So there have been some adaptations. For us, the service form is not just for Christmas Eve. It can be anytime in Advent. These days in Lutheran worship, we are moving away from the word “lessons” to the word “readings.” Lutheran worship is more of a public celebration and declaration of God’s presence rather than something to be learned as in school. And our form does not used prescribed readings, but uses different readings for the Advent season and our different context.
To be honest, some of the original readings from the Hebrew Scriptures were probably misinterpreted and thus misused. The Hebrew prophets were never talking about a baby Jesus. And to insert Jesus into the material denigrates the suffering and longing of these ancient people and ,well, to miss the prophetic point.
Today as we turn to the longing of the prophets, we are reminded by the Hebrew readings that suffering and longing are things we humans have felt since our beginning, something that is profoundly expressed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus, something that we still feel today, and something that always has been very close to the heart of God. To that end our readings and carols maintain the pattern, but this service today has a distinctive feel.
Finally, for us, the Eucharist is the Lord’s Supper and is always appropriate when we gather for worship. So today we share this fitting feast as we prepare to our hearts for Christmas.
So welcome to this service which involves so much music, prepared by our musicians and Kristie Halverson our director of music.

Reflection for December 13, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Have you ever felt the need to tell someone to “tone it down”? That is what we have in chapter three of Zephaniah this morning. The “toning down” of the prophet of gloom and doom. The third chapter is the “happy ending” attached to the original chapters of condemnation and destruction.
We do not know that much about Zephaniah, but he was writing as Babylonian armies were crushing the tribes and nations around Israel and Judah. In Zephaniah’s view, Jerusalem would be the next city to fall. It was only a matter of time. And why would God let this disaster happen? In Zephaniah’s view it was because of rising corruption, inept government, total lack of compassion for those in need, and the distortion of belief in God so that it became only a crutch to support the shaky system about to collapse. We don’t read from Zephaniah that much, especially those first two chapters. That much condemnation is out of place in a religious climate of feeling good and attracting people to support the mission.
But to be honest, the first two and a half chapters of Zephaniah were too much for the people of his own time. So this more upbeat and hopeful ending, the passage we have today, was added, sometime at a later date. They perhaps come from a time when the feared invaders had themselves been conquered by the Persians and the Israelites were now about to return to Judah to rebuild their nation.
And that is the theme of these verses at the end of this short book of the Bible. The key verse is probably: I will remove disaster from you. God says: I will remove disaster from you. And there are days when that is the key verse of our lives. Life can be going along well, and then we find ourselves up to our waists in trouble and sinking fast. It can be something in our families, or with our health, or a financial thing, or a crisis that involves wondering why we are alive, or a host of other things, but suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a disaster. And it is then we need to hear these words from God: I will remove disaster from you.
In some ways this key verse may be the key to the Christian faith. We have this assurance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that there will come a time for all creation and all creatures when God says: I will remove disaster from you. Even the disaster we know to be death.
Let me lift up five elements of God’s disaster removal project embedded in these verses. In this ancient poem, recovery from total disaster involves five things: moving beyond judgment, regaining our strength, using the broken, gathering together, and a time to sing.
Moving beyond judgment: Zephaniah says it’s time to get beyond judgment, shame, and ridicule. Accept responsiblity, but don’t wallow in failure. The first step in getting to recovery is moving beyond the judgment, put downs, and rejection and then finding ourselves: our strength and what we can do with the help of God to change the disaster around us. Move beyond judgment, rejection, scorn, and ridicule and get into that Philippians passage.
Regaining our strength: Zephaniah’s words speak of regaining our strength. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual strength needs to be nurtured and sustained, exercised and practiced in times of recovery from disaster.
Using the broken or rejected: The recovery is about using that which is broken, that which is rejected and discarded. We may think we want a completely new body or mind. Or we may wish we had a perfect situation. But we live with our brokenness, with all our limitations and disabilities. Recovery is not about being perfect or creating perfection. Look at that reading about John the Baptist we have today. Who are the people coming to him? Tax collectors and Roman soldiers, people rejected by the religious establishment. God builds the kingdom with the broken and rejected, the discarded and the disabled.
Gathering together: A coming together is what Zephaniah sees as central to recovery. A coming back, a return of the scattered, a coming together, a building of the community of friendship. You can’t go it alone in the recovery from disaster.
A time to sing: Zephaniah is a call to sing, boldly and loudly. If you are needing recovery. It may be time to sing. To find again that song of hope in your heart. That is why we keep singing together Sunday after Sunday, to build up your emotional and spiritual reservoir and repertoire. You’ll never know when you need it.
God says: I will remove disaster from you. How? By assisting you in moving beyond judgment, regaining your strength, using the broken, gathering together, and taking time to sing. That’s how.
But important as this practical advice is for recovery, I want to say something else about Zephaniah which moves us a bit deeper. In the earlier chapters, the prophet has this concept of “The Day of the Lord.” The Day of the Lord was a phrase used to mark a festival or a feast. It was a liturgical day of joy. But in the prophets, including Zephaniah, The Day of the Lord became a day when we felt the wrath of God. In the prophets The Day of the Lord became a day of final restitution when God would restore all things. You can see that John the Baptist is in this prophetic tradition in the last reading this morning.
But in Zephaniah, the phrase Day of the Lord, or Coming of the Lord, meant both a time of celebration and feasting and a time of hardship, difficulty, restitution and assessment of what we are doing. And when we ignore chapters one and two of Zephaniah on our way to the encouraging words of chapter three; when we gloss over all of the disasters of life on our way to amusing ourselves to death; then we lose the power and depth of the joy of the coming festivities. It is the refiner’s fire that turns holidays to holy days.
The ancient prophet was onto something. In the human heart, great joy and great sorrow live very close together. Our highs always have shadows. And often we are able to laugh even as our world disintegrates. As we approach this coming festival season, it is good for us to remember how closely joy and sorrow are woven together. They are not opposites as much as partners God uses in the project of making sense out of our lives while we are in recovery mode. This season we will rejoice, and at the same time our hearts will be heavy. And this season, our sorrows will find relief in the promised recover. For as God once said through an old prophet long ago: I will remove disaster from you.

Reflection for December 6, 2015: The Feast of St. Nicolas

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

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. We light two candles, and we sing of the growing light as we prepare for Christmas. But it is also December 6, the feast day of St. Nicolas. And this year we decided to celebrate the feast of St. Nicolas, especially following worship, with a collection of food items for those in need, a 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. For 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 sense 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 the readings. Compassionate generosity is grounded in the friendship and good will found in Paul’s letter to his friends, the Philippians. We all face the refiner’s fire of Malachi and those times in life when things get straightened out as in the message of John the Baptist. For some of us that straightening is harder and more difficult. For some of us the refiner’s fire threatens to consume us. And realizing that happens for some, in friendship for all: we are moved to assist as we can, to be compassionate and generous in the hard times.
Through the centuries in Europe the memory of this generous spirit 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. And we have theological thoughts. I think we are sometimes known for our fresh theological approach to things. 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 even 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.
And it is time now to celebrate that. To share our food, our traditions, our family life together, to be generous, to raise up the compassion and generosity that mark this day and this season and our life together.