Final Sermon for St. John’s on June 11, 2017


     Whether we want it or not, the theme for this day, this year, this decade is change. Today’s young adults are not interested in organized religion. It’s become clear that if churches do not change, they will die.  This congregation has been called to the forefront of this challenge. 70 percent of the people in our neighborhood are between the ages of 18 and 30.  When I stop at the grocery store down the street on my way home from work, I am always the oldest person in the store. Usually by at least thirty years. How will these religiously reluctant young adults down the street embrace meaning, purpose, and faith? How will they address the needs of those who suffer? And what role do we play in that?  This is the matter at hand whether we want change or not, and we are in the middle of this challenge.

A second change will also require the careful attention of this congregation: the challenge that faces social services and care for those in need. Substantial changes in this area involve new ways of funding, new partnerships with emerging organizations, and new approaches to providing shelter and assistance which are both more humane and more effective than some of our current practices.  How long will we use church basements to house the homeless? How will financial assistance be assembled and distributed? How will incarceration work? And how will we welcome new people to our country and city? These changes will be happening as public resources for caring and assistance diminish. These changes already are directly affecting the mission of St. John’s and will require some precise navigation in the coming years.  As important the millennial challenge is, and as important as care and advocacy for the poor is, I suspect that the congregation’s capacity to navigate social service transformations with creative solutions will actually determine our fate.

But as we find our way in these changing times, we have the scripture to guide us. Let me say that again: we have the scripture to guide us. What a trite thing to say. Really? Seriously? In the face of overwhelming change, we just turn to the Bible as our best resource?

But a pastor is not only an agent of change and not only a servant of the people, she is also a servant of the word: dedicated to its weekly interpretation over years that turn to decades. And one of the most important changes in our spiritual lives has been change in the interpretation of the word over the last fifty years.

When I was young, the Bible was the story of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to save us from our sins, so that we could all go to heaven and live with those we love. And in some ways it still is that story.

But by the 1960’s there were some problems with this. It turns out the Bible is not a story. It is not even several stories. It is a collection of material from a variety of sources making quite a few different points about how the divine is active in the human endeavor. Forcing everything into the narrow funnel of salvation left large pieces of the Bible dangling. And after World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam, with the world trying to piece together some existential sense of what life means; the scripture became a source book for meaning and purpose. From the early sixties through eighties, the Bible became a theological book. We found in its weekly exposition meaning for our lives here and now: the possibilities for how to treat our neighbor and how to live lives of hope. I cut my teeth on this stuff.  This was the great era of biblical theology: the time when we made meaning from the pages of scripture. And in some ways the Bible is still the source of meaning and hope as we make sense of our lives.

But there were some problems with this, too. The Bible became in some ways the captive of philosophy and psychology. And with the growth of liberation theology, the Bible itself was liberated from being the source of personal meaning making, to become the story of social liberation from the forces that control and suppress. Jesus was no longer the savior who died on the cross to save us from our sins. The crucifixion became the sign of the ultimate cruelty of the empire. And the resurrection became the ultimate symbol of hope for the human struggle against the forces of oppression and darkness.  And in many ways this is still the meaning made of the Bible.

But there are some problems with this, too. In the culture wars of these recent decades, this approach became the foundation for the agenda of the politics of the left. And in the meantime the old story of salvation became the foundation for the agenda of the politics of the right. While those few people remaining in the boring middle were left to knit whatever meaning they could out of biblical theology that felt old even as it was created.

But now interpretation is at another turning point. I am retiring just as a new approach to scripture is dawning. One of my real regrets is that I will miss the full force of this change in interpretation. It is not really taught yet in seminaries as far as I can tell. It does not yet have a name or a label. And maybe in our postmodern times, labels don’t work very well anyway. But it is coming.  Fueled by new capacities in archeology, anthropology, and ancient sociology, and augmented by a tremendous increase in the first century Christian manuscripts available to us, we now are just beginning to shift our interpretative lens. When I was young, 90 percent of the known Christian writing of the first century was in the Bible. Today the Bible contains less than 20 percent of those known writings. And as archeology now is able to focus on daily life rather than the lives of kings, we are moving away from interpretations based on empire or theology or salvation, into interpretation based on how first Christians lived, what they did, and how they shaped their congregations for mission.

Interpretation of the New Testament is now focusing on congregational adaptation to specific missions of healing, teaching, economic communes, funerary and other social societies, as well as monastic centers, many of which were initially led by women. And here is the thing: this focus provides us with strategic advice on how to shape church life as we face the changes swirling around us. We are discovering with deep detail the insight and practices of our ancestors in the faith as they, in their fluid first century, built Christian assemblies passionate about their specific missions.  And here is another thing: Because the average life span in the first century Roman empire was 35 years, these ancient congregational missions and ministries were developed and recorded by and for young adults. What we read in the New Testament is the activity of the first Christian millennial generation giving shape to new ways to live the faith.  And as we try to figure out how to be church in these changing times, we have the scripture to practically guide us, in startling new ways, one Sunday at a time, one text at a time. Faced with the overwhelming generational change that defines our neighborhood and the changes in caring ministry that will confront us; we will discern our path in light of the practical spirituality and community building of our ancient but very young predecessors. We have the Bible.

    I must say goodbye. But remembering those missional strategies of first  century Christians,  you still have a neighborhood to address. You have a caring ministry to carefully shape and craft.  And you have a Bible to read — in fresh new ways — to help in this important endeavor. Wow. What a future you will have.

We must part now. We all just grow old, and need to slow down a bit. Any decent reading of Psalm 90 says it’s time for me to go. I am actually looking forward to shaping a new chapter of my life. Just as you face uncertainty and change, so do I. But as God will watch over you, God will also watch over Judy and I, even as I lay down the vocation I felt called into when I was a young child just a bit older than my grandchildren.  The voice that called to me then, and has sustained me on this path, is still with me, reminding me to through a Psalm to let go, and to embrace the changes ahead.

  My heart overflows with gratitude for your good will and gracious support through these years. I am thankful to countless volunteers, lay leaders, staff, congregational members, partners in our mission here, and those on the edges of our community who are really at the center of our hearts. I am especially thankful to Judy for her  years of support and wisdom in this vocation.  Thank you.  As I have said to you countless times at the end of my correspondence: thank you for  your partnership in the gospel.     



Reflection for March 19, 2017

Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Let’s begin with the first reading from Exodus. The opening words set the stage. They speak of the wilderness wandering of the people of Israel. After their liberation from bondage in Egypt before they come to the Promised Land, they wander in a wilderness of “sin,” the writer says, as we all do when we move from where we were to where we need to be. The writer says they moved through the wilderness in stages. So it is with us. We move through the wilderness of sorrow, anger, sin and brokenness in stages, sometimes with painful steps and slow.

But there is more in this reading. I must admit that sometimes in my pastoral past, I took some comfort in Exodus 17, because it describes the tensions and challenges of religious leadership. Like most leaders and Moses, pastors sometimes feel the pressures of things going wrong as groups go through the challenges of the wilderness. That’s not really where I have been in these years with you. Actually, as a congregation, you have been gracious and understanding of my challenges and shortcomings, and I thank you for that.

But there is more in this reading than the stages of recovery or the challenges of leadership. Something primitive.

Exodus 17 contains a primitive memory regarding a large crack in a rock near a place called Horeb from which a spring of water flowed, probably in abundance. And according to the last verses of the reading, this story is told not to help us through the stages of life, nor to address problems of leadership, but to explain the name of a particular ancient spring flowing abundantly from a crack in a rock. To the primitive mind, such cracks witnessed to a powerful struggle in which the natural spirit forces challenged each other with massive violence. The spring flowing from the cracked rock would witness to the conflict and struggle of the natural spirits, perhaps the struggle between the spirit of rock and the spirit of water. And so the place was called Massah and/or Meribah. Massah means trial, test or challenge. Meribah means conflict or struggle or unrelenting unhappiness that can erupt with power.

The most primitive memories of this rock cut spring may also involve conflict and challenges among tribes for rights to this water. And it may have become a place for some tribes where strength was tested in rites of passage.

The writer of Exodus is preserving and explaining these primitive names of the rock cut spring: Massah and Meribah. But the writer of Exodus does not want anyone to believe anymore in nature spirits, water and rock sprites or that sort of thing. For by this telling, the people of Israel have entered the land and hold a new religion based not on the worship of nature, but the worship of an elusive desert God.

So Exodus 17 weaves a new story around the place named for struggle, challenge, and violent collision of spirits. Yes, this spring flowing from the fissure in the rock is a place of testing, challenge and conflict; but in Exodus the struggle between God and the people of God replaces the natural violence of water and rock. In the Exodus rendition, the power of the desert God breaks open the stone. And the struggle between Moses, God and the people becomes the new reasoning behind the name of the spring. Exodus 17 is an example of ancient “spin” placed on even older name and tradition. It is an example of one religion re-working the sacred space of an earlier religion for its own purposes.

Then later Exodus 17 itself gets reworked or re-spun: this time in the Book of Numbers. In Numbers chapter 20, the conflict, testing and struggle are between Moses and God. Moses gets angry with God. Moses gets so angry that he disobeys God and strikes the stone in anger, breaking it open. For this angry challenge and testing, Moses will die. But not before he completes his mission of moving the people through the wilderness. The book of Numbers wants to limit the reader’s respect for Moses. Why? Because it is written by priests whose patriarch is Aaron rather than Moses. By the time this version is written there is tension between these two priestly casts; and in their telling of the story, Aaron is lifted up. Moses is portrayed as less than perfect.

So what we have here is story of challenge, trial, struggle, and conflict at an ancient spring, told and retold so that the memories of the conflict are changed with each telling. What we have is the story of the new people shaping the memory to fit new perspectives and realities. What we have is a primitive example of the spin we still put on our stories as we go through our lives and talk about our well springs, rocks and conflicts.

I would like to pause here for a moment and think a bit about ourselves and this story. We shape and reshape the stories of our conflicts. We revise things as we try to face new perspectives and realities. We still spin the stories of struggle that shape us. And sometimes we are so caught up in the spin, we become trapped in the web we have woven, unable to go more deeply into what really happened. We think we have the truth, but what we have is our telling of it.

Lent is a time of self examination: a time when we seriously and honestly admit to God and ourselves, what we have done and what we have left undone. Lent is a time when we realize that we have glossed over or revised our stories so that they are more in keeping with our perspectives and self interests. Lent is a time for re-thinking our own history of challenge, struggle, and conflict and what we have made of it. Lent is a time of moving through the layers of rationalizations we have created until we encounter the God beyond all our reasons. Lent is a time when we stop arguing about what to call the spring of love flowing in our lives and instead bathe together in its waters together.

For beyond all the layers of naming, in the desert of sin, is this remarkable place where water flows, giving us the strength we need to make it through the stages of recovery and renewal. It’s not the name of the spring that matters. What matters is the spring itself, surging through the violence of life, the water beyond naming, the powerful, angry grace of solid rock split open by the waters of life.

Until we sense, as Teilard de Chardin says in The Divine Milieu almost sixty years ago (written in 1957, translated into English, 1960, Harper and Row, the beginning of Part III):

   All around us, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and bursting through. But it is not only close to us, near us, that the divine presence has revealed itself. It has sprung up so universally, and we find ourselves so surrounded and transfixed by it, that there is no room left to adore it, even within ourselves.

   By means of all created things, without exception, the divine confronts us, changes us, and shapes us. We think of it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its layers.

And with that we come to another story of another spring or well, this time in the gospel of John. This is the well of Jacob. This well also has a history, but I’ve already spent too much time on the history of springs. The people remember it as the well Jacob gave to Joseph, his son. By the time of Jesus, the well has become the watering source for the Samaritan branch of the people. Although the Jews and the Samaritans intensely dislike each other, Jesus and the disciples have taken a trip to Samaria. Jesus is tired and stops by the well. He is thirsty, but has no bucket. So he asks the woman at the well for assistance. They strike up a conversation. This woman gossips about the encounter, and as a result, the gospel is shared in this village.

Now this well also drips with conflict, struggle, challenge, and testing. There is more conflict in the story of Jacob than we can name here. The same is true for the story of his son Joseph There is conflict between Jews and Samaritans. There is tension between men and women as lifted up in the story. And the story speaks to the conflict between what is proper behavior and openness to those who do not meet the standards of propriety.

And no one spins a story anywhere in the Bible better than the writer of John, who puts endless theological twists on the life of Jesus. Here John makes a point he often does: that to find Jesus we must dip more deeply. Jesus is about the spiritual. He is focused not on eating, but the bread of life. He is focused not on drink, but the water of life. He is focused on something called eternal life breaking into this life.

And it is this water of life, this bread of life, this new life of the spirit, to which John points Jesus and us, again and again. We are reminded to draw more deeply from the wellspring of our souls, from the well of God’s grace, from the cracks in the solid rock of everyday life, so that the water flows more fully, quenching our thirst for the truth about who we are, and washing us fully in springs of living water and hope.

But more than that. In the deeper reservoir of grace, love, and hope, we are able to renew ourselves, and find new ways to face the challenges, the struggles, the testing, the conflict that still seem to be part of the human experience. In the deep reservoir of grace and love, like the woman in the story, we encounter Jesus whose life and death speaks to the mystery of God’s love that flows forth from the violence of the cross. In the end, perhaps, it is time to name our lives, our places, and our events not after conflicts, nor our ancestors nor heroes or great men and women of faith, but after our ancient and present yearnings for truth, and justice, peace and love, hope and beauty in the midst of struggle.

Reflection for March 12, 2017

Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17 


     Faith seems to be a theme in the three readings today. The first reading describes Abraham: a person of faith who trusts the future that God assembles for his family.

The collected stories of Abraham are found in Genesis, chapters twelve through twenty-five. He is presented as the founding father of the Hebrew people. He is a somewhat mysterious figure and we are not sure whether he actually existed. His story was the legend or mythic memory of one of the confederating tribes which came together to form the tribal alliance that became the nation. The tribe of Abraham probably was the most significant group in the merger, since he is seen as the founding father, and his story is the longest of all the stories gathered into one national history. The myths of the other tribes were shaped into the stories of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Let us recognize that as important as any one group’s story is, it yearns to be woven with the stories of others as the fabric of human life is constructed, and as people come together.

And if we too quickly mold Abraham into an illustration of faithfulness, we miss most of his story. Abraham’s God was active in the details of human life, even those which do not make sense, or in those small events we easily overlook or forget.

Abraham’s full remembrance would recall the great shift in his life when he decided at the “young” age of seventy-five to leave his home town of Haran, in Mesopotamia, in Ur, and to follow the Fertile Crescent trade route north and west, along the northern edge of the great desert and west toward the land known as Canaan near the sea. He may have farmed along the way, but he is mostly on the move, following herds, grazing his animals in the foothills. And he is buying, selling, and transporting merchandise along what was one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world.

His was a family business. The household, if you could call it that, probably numbered around 100 people. There were several relatives including Lot and his wife involved in this venture based on raising livestock both for themselves and others along the trade route as they traded with merchants moving goods through the corridor. Eventually they settle more permanently on the western end of the route, near the sea. At one point, because of drought and famine, the business almost collapsed, but they move temporarily to Egypt where there is food and pasture. Then they regroup before returning to their western grazing areas.

Land is important to Abraham’s storyteller, and in the area by the sea, in Canaan, Abraham buys or acquires control over several large fields, or base camps, or we might say ranches. After his death, his children and grandchildren expand on these holdings so that an actual territory emerges.

Once, when Lot was in trouble, Abraham formed a small army, or we might say Special Forces Unit, to rescue Lot who had been captured and probably held for ransom by a warlord. But by and large what marks the dealings of Abraham is that he had few enemies. He was gifted at getting along. He had a great capacity to work well with the economic, military, and political powers in the region. Abraham is a strong negotiator, who could be shrewd and at times even deceitful.

And there was one way of doing business that worked very well for Abraham. This was what we know as making covenants. A covenant was an agreement between two parties. It may be that the origin of covenants, or mutually binding contracts between parties, is a new invention for doing business in the Bronze Age as trade flourished. And Abraham made effective and long lasting agreements with all who crossed his path. You might say he was especially good at contract law, and made sure that the covenants made benefited all the parties involved: so good in fact, that even God and Abraham make covenants together.

Essentially he was a man of means who learned to trade well and prospered by not seeking conflict with those around him. In these stories he is remembered for this capacity to shrewdly negotiate with a sense of good will in order to strike a good agreement. Eventually the idea of covenants is used to shape our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. God offers us a covenant with very gracious terms.

In his relationships, business dealings, and interactions with others, Abraham often showed two character traits that contributed to his success. He was highly adaptive, adjusting his perspective and understanding according to the circumstances. Even his vision of God involved several adjustments or changes along the way. Sometimes his moral agility got him into trouble, but by and large his capacity to adapt gave him the capacity to succeed.

The second character trait was a sense of hospitality and magnanimity. In dealing with war lords, petty kings, various emperors, family, servants, and business partners, his dealings were marked by a full measure of that desert hospitality that was so important to life in the ancient Middle East. Hospitality is often a theme in the stories of Abraham. And as we reflect on Abraham today, we could do no better than to simply understand that throughout life we will need to always build good agreements with those around us. Let us carefully attend to the details of the agreements we make with our neighbors, friends, and family, at work and at school, in our communities, nation, and world. As we do that we also will need to be adaptable and gracious. And let us do what we can to engage more and more people in the broader social contracts or covenants needed to make our own fertile crescent or these days we might say our blue marble safe and productive for all.

One of the most important things to Abraham was what we would call legacy. The question of his legacy comes up again and again in this story. What will he leave behind after his death? Because he and Sarah are childless so late in life, legacy becomes especially important. When most of us think of our legacy we think of family. But in these stories, legacy becomes more than having an heir. There is something about legacy that expands as we grow older. It involves more than our children. We want to leave something behind that makes a difference. We want to be remembered. We hope that what we stood for and what we did will grow and prosper. We want to see the good things of life continue beyond our frame. Eventually, Abraham’s and Sarah’s legacy is the founding of a nation, this new tribal confederation that blends the patriarchal stories of several tribes into one family story. But then this national legacy is broadened to include all people who seek a relationship or covenant with God. When we think of Abraham’s life we think about our own legacy and what we will leave behind. And that is a good thing.

And then finally, as we recall Abraham, this great negotiator and deal maker, high adaptable and gracious, focused on legacy, we also discover in these chapters that Abraham had a rather strange Bronze Age religion. Somewhere in his desert wandering, he gave up on the worship of the many Mesopotamian gods, and began to hear the voice of one god, one spirit in the wind of the desert blowing over the sand. There was one god, one spirit, one voice that spoke to Abraham as he listened. This voice called to Abraham. There was an intimate relationship between Abraham and the god of the desert wind. The voice became the source of his strength and courage. It helped him adapt. It helped him be gracious. And this faith became part of his legacy. This faith was not a static thing but is molded and then reshaped several times along the way: moving Abraham beyond malice to enemies, beyond the commonly practiced sacrifice of children, beyond family feuding, and beyond superstition. And each time God deepened Abraham’s faith, a new agreement or covenant was forged between this desert trader and his God. 


     Today we also read about Jesus and Nicodemus who comes in the middle of the night, uncertain about where his life of faith is going. Sometimes these journeys into the unknown are not happening in the outer lives we lead, but in our inner lives and spirit. The act of faith is not always a physical transition, but a spiritual change. The gospel of John expresses this inner journey into the depths of the spirit in the words of Jesus. He introduces Nicodemus to uncharted territories of the spirit’s unfolding, along the trade routes of the spirit not yet fully explored. The journey in this third lesson, into the new unknown, is the spiritual quickening that we experience in the lives we lead. Sometimes the door opens to new ways of thinking about God and being the people of God.

Jesus’ words call to mind how our faith gives us the courage to journey more deeply into the unknown life of the spirit. Over the course of decades our spiritual selves are refined and renewed, over and over again. Our views change as our hearts grow. We become more capable of loving and being loved. We reflect more wisely as we encounter more suffering. We draw more deeply upon the wells of compassion that have always been there. We drink more deeply from the font of wisdom we experience in the presence of God. We change our minds about matters of faith as we mature, as individuals and in community.

Lent is a season of spiritual journey, of the deepening of the life of the spirit, of walking more boldly into new spiritual practices and realities, leaving behind older more familiar forms which may provide order and comfort, but may also limit our vision of the broadening rivers of God’s love. Each Lent is not so much a call to give something up, but to take something on as we boldly and with courage face deeper issues in our souls’ formation and reformation, until we feel the birth of something new in the festival of Easter.

This week, a new door may open in your life as well. A new possibility may emerge, either physically or spiritually or both. Or a new reality may need to be dealt with. Or a difference will make itself known in some part of your life. Or you may discover yourself like Nicodemus, probing more deeply the spiritual mysteries of God’s abundant love. Springtime is full of such changes. Through it all, recall Abraham and Nicodemus, who moved into their future, trusting God to be with them.






Memorial Service Reflection for Corinne Groehler, March 1, 2017

Psalm 139:8-18, II Corinthians 4:16-5:1, Matthew 11:28-30


    The Psalm today speaks of God as one who knits: a knitter: one who weaves the threads of life into the tapestry of creation. The patterns of the one who knits are microscopic and cosmic as both great darkness and wonderful light are woven into the stuff of life itself. We will return to God’s knitting in Psalm 139 in a bit. It is sufficient to recall as we begin that God weaves the strands of life just as Corinne knitted so much love.

And knit she did. There were mittens and shawls, baptismal blankets, scarves, and clothes. Stitching of all sort. She assembled kits, and blankets, and cloth for those in need, Woven in, with, and under it all was a sacred compassion that was actually more contagious than her laugh. Our lives, and the lives of so many, were warmed by her knitting.

But perhaps some of her best work involved the weaving of her life, the assemblage of those things that shape what it means to live well. Woven into her life is the story of a love many of us celebrated with her and Ken just a few years ago at the Old Feed Mill in Mazomanie. Do you remember that gathering to recall love’s anniversary? Here were two that loved each other, and out of that love was woven the gift of home and family.

She wove the life of a mother: teaching her daughters how to knit life for themselves: grounded in compassion and grace, courage and persistence, tending to knittings of their own making. Yet in this mother’s weaving were those darker shades of sorrow that come with the loss of a son. All of us, who knew her through and after Jared’s death, know that this sorrow was always present in her heart, even in times of great joy and laughter.

Corinne wove with us the fabric of life in church and community. She engaged us with her laugh and love. She was our friend. She knew how to be a friend, how to be there, how to express congratulations and sympathy, how to write in flourishing script what needed to be said.

And Corinne wove a deep courage into the web of her life. Sometimes knitting requires deep courage in the heart of the knitter as we struggle to pull the strands together in times of adversity. All of us who knew her were impressed over and over again with the courage it took to face grief and then cancer in this last years.


   Oh, Corinne was a knitter. And may we be also. For every one of us has some weaving to do. Some knitting to attend to. We all need to learn about casting on and getting things going. Things badly started will never work out. We all need to learn how to hold the strands so that they come together without getting too tangled. We all are given the needles and tools we need to weave the yarns we spin in patterns not always of our choosing. And some of us will weave with the right hand, and others the left, while each of us intertwines our heritage and family, our loves and loved ones, our work and this community, our friends and strangers, our hopes and fears into something that can be worn and keep us warm in those later years. And then it is time to finish the piece and bind off the life we have been given. May we all weave well the strands we hold, through darkness and light; good times and bad, sickness and health, until it is time to hem our own piece of this life.

All knitting ends with a binding off: a death, a letting go of the needles of life, as the fabric is lifted from the framing tools that created it. The readings from Corinthians and Matthew are about this binding, this letting go. For as we find our frames no longer able to support us, we discover that the fabric we have woven was not intended to stay on needles at all, but to be released. The binding off begins a new reality, we would say in Christ. Paul in Corinthians would say we have a new life through the binding off. Matthew would say it is time to put down our needles. There is a time for the knitter to rest: to stop the movement of her hands and tools, and lean into an unknown future beyond her frame. Badger fans know there is a fifth quarter that always comes when the game is over.


   Corinne was a knitter. And may we be also. But there is something more: something about God’s handiwork. The Psalm today spoke of God as one who knits: as one who weaves the threads of life into the tapestry of creation. The patterns of the one who knits are microscopic and cosmic as both great darkness and wonderful light are woven into the life itself.

As the years go by science allows us to more precisely encounter and make sense of the nature and mystery of the fabric woven by the weaver. And yet, just as Corinne’s knitting always expressed something deeper: a compassionate heart: the compassion woven in, with, through the yarn; so also the intricate and grand strands of life signify not only an astronomy and biology but also the joy and hope and meaning and purpose for which we and all creation long.

I think to me, one of the most interesting things about this divine yarn spinner is the dropped stitch. You know, we all expect God to knit a perfect piece. But then we encounter in God’s work, that dropped stitch, what seems to be a missed loop, a whole in the fabric, a flaw in the tapestry. Yet it is in the flaw, the rough spot, the opening, the loose end, the missing element, the imperfect, the difficult, the problem, the sorrow, the challenge, that we discover the deeper richness supporting the entire project. Compassion is woven in brokenness. For Jesus died, was crucified even, almost as if God were dropping a stitch, telling us that in such a tangled mystery we shall learn the secret of all great knitters. Even and especially in what is deemed the imperfection, the hands will express the love in the knitter’s heart. God, even and especially in the hard times is knitting us into eternal love.

And with this confidence, to this knitter, we now entrust Corinne as she casts off. May she know now the unity which awaits each of us: that deepest weaving of grace and compassion, that place where now Corinne and Jared are united in each other and all the saints in light.

Reflection for February 12, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

      Woven through the Hebrew Scripture is an epic struggle between two religions at the close of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age in what was Canaan and is now Israel and Palestine. This passage from Deuteronomy is part of that epic struggle.

In one corner is the desert religion of YHWH whose cause is championed in the Hebrew Scripture. In the other corner is the fertility religion of BAAL practiced by the indigenous people of Canaan.

The book of Exodus speaks of a group of desert nomads, moving from Egypt to Canaan. This desert people infiltrated the more agricultural land to their west occupied by the Canaanites west of the Jordan River. The Canaanite culture was already shaped around cities and agriculture. These were farmers, not nomads. And this society was experiencing tension and conflict between the urban elite and the agricultural villages which supported the cities. A revolution was brewing in rural areas.

As desert people infiltrated the area, they joined forces with the revolutionaries against the urban elites, and this alliance brought a regime change and a cultural shift. The walls came tumbling down. But the new alliance of peasants and herdsman, although effective, was also tense, especially in the area of religion.

In the stories of Deuteronomy we have a highly spun version of this tension, told from the perspective of the desert people. The struggle between the religion of the desert and the farm is the struggle between the two religions of YHWH and BAAL. A defeated religion would have died, but the alliance created a long lasting struggle between two competing religions views. The religious conflict is found in the political ups and downs of people like Elijah, and the writings of the law and the prophets who find it continually necessary to call the people away from BAAL, back to YHWH, the religion of the desert.

Why was BAAL so attractive? Well, the religion made sense. It was practical. It was practiced so that the crops would be blessed by the god of fertility and there would be an abundant harvest. And it had grand rituals and sacrifices that were big pageants. And it had stories of many gods whose escapades made for great entertainment. And it was sexy. Fertility of the soil was mirrored in the sexuality of the village. Let’s have sex. It’s the religious thing to do. So it was a pretty attractive religion.

And in the other corner was the religion of the desert, the religion of YHWH. Nobody lived in the desert anymore. We grow crops for our food. We don’t follow herds. So maybe we should get with the times. Instead of an interesting pantheon, there was only one god. And that god was the wispy god of the wind that nobody could see. Instead of providing moving sensual experiences, the god of the desert was an abstraction, so abstract that one was not even to use the name of god, let alone understand it. Instead of worship in grand liturgical centers and temples, this abstract god was to be worshipped in a humble tent. Ugh! So actually convincing people to choose the god of the desert, to follow YHWH, was an uphill struggle.

But the religion of YHWH had a few things going for it. Things that made sense as people thought about their lives and their futures. Deuteronomy, written much later than the story it tells, reflects these good things about faith in YHWH as it echoes this epic struggle between the two religions. The old challenges and possibilities for faith in YHWH rise again to the surface in this passage.

The first advantage of the religion of the desert is this thing called human choice. Choice. At this point in human history, religious choice is a very new thing. Notice how choice is important in the passage today. Now we take choice for granted. We are expected to choose, and we are encouraged to think of life as a series of choices. And for some reason, we think everybody should choose their own religion. In some ways , in our consumer society, we have actually trivialized choice. Walk down a grocery store aisle and see how many superficial choices stare you in the face. But in the Bronze and Iron Ages human choice is a rare thing, a new idea, and something precious. The idea that a human being has the freedom to choose is a radical idea. It’s too radical for BAAL. Grounded in agriculture and temples, it is a faith designed to support an agricultural system, an urban empire and an elite, while it keeps all the peasants happily distracted with its spectacular displays. It will push as many people as possible into a non-questioning serfdom where choice is no longer a part of life.

But one who follows herds through the desert has to make constant choices about where to go and when: sometimes several times a day. Choice in the unpredictable desert, following the herds, is a necessity and a given. And everything may rest on the choice a sheep herder makes about where the water and grazing possibilities may exist.

Today, remember that you are not just a cog in some industrial, consumerized, corporate controlled, demographic to be used to support some ideology that is in turn used to support some highly veiled elite. No, you are a person, wandering through a contemporary moral desert and you are facing important decisions. And the younger you are, the more important each decision is. And this old, dusty god of the desert is calling you to remember that you have a will and a choice. Choose, and choose wisely.

Now in this passage there is something else about YHWH that was at first difficult, but gradually made more and more sense. It was the idea that religion had moral implications. Now if you are following the religion of BAAL, and all of the partying that involved, this morality thing at first sounds like a real drag. Ugh! Do we have to? Must we be good? Can’t we just practice the cult and do what we want?

But the faith of the desert actually connected morality and faith. They were intertwined. The morality of the ancient desert is grounded in the universal desert urgent responsibility of hospitality. We are to welcome the stranger at our door. We are to feed the hungry. We do not kill. We do not steal. We respect the sexuality of others. And we tell the truth.

And the truth is that self-centered hedonism may work for awhile, but it all too easily becomes the tool of commercial, political and media manipulators. It starts to break down after time passes, sometimes very quickly, as lives and cultures become depleted of meaning. And when one is constructing a life, or a country, or a faith tradition, one begins to sense how important it is to live the morality of a desert faith. Now, more than ever, we are called to be a moral people. What is the moral decision we need to make this week? And what is the moral fiber which holds us all together? After all these centuries, it’s amazing how relevant the ancient desert is in our own time. For our morality is still grounded in the universal and urgent responsibility of hospitality. We are to welcome the stranger at our door. We are to feed the hungry. We do not kill. We do not steal. We respect the sexuality of others. And we tell the truth.

In this passage from Deuteronomy there is one more thing in YHWH’s favor in this struggle with BAAL. It is that there is a good to work for, to strive for, and to discover. A benefit, a common goodness of life well lived in community. A blessing if you will. In the desert, there was a choice to make, with moral implications, and if there was wise discernment in those choices made, the group would survive and prosper. There is a goodness to life well lived in community. A benefit that comes to all.

Now we have so twisted the Hebrew Scriptures with our emphasis on individual salvation (whatever that is) by turning this whole benefit thing into things I get if I am good, like god is some sort of cosmic Santa Claus and with an elf named Jesus whose job it is to fill our personal lives with all kinds of presents. Ugh!

No, there is a blessing in community, and if we as individuals together remember that we have a choice, a choice that will change our lives and the lives of others, then we are blessed with a goodness beyond our kin. This sustaining common good comes as humans treat each other with moral respect and mysterious love. There is a greater good, benefit, or blessing to which we all aspire, a blessing beyond the pettiness and shallowness of our lives and desires.

Yes BAAL was the attractive one. But the god of the desert somehow prevailed. Humans need to make choices. The choices involve how we treat others, our moral life. And wise moral choices lead to a common goodness.

Now I want to say something briefly about Corinthians and Matthew. Paul says in Corinthians that we need to get beyond what we have been taught in order to find a deeper faith and vision. It’s time in Corinthians to stop the spoon feeding. It’s time to stop the narcissistic use of God and scripture to support our own opinions, life styles, and viewpoints. What have we done to the Hebrew Scriptures? We have chopped them up into little pieces that we read Sunday after Sunday. We use them to prop up some theme we think is important in the New Testament. While most of HB we just throw away and never read because it is hard or because it doesn’t fit our ideology.

As long as we do that, we will miss the power of the most ancient scripture to speak again as we learn more and more about its situation, and the issues it faces. Yes, this ancient material is difficult, and it makes for longer sermons, and I’m sorry about that. But we cannot unlock the power of this ancient faith, a power we most desperately need, unless we let it speak for itself about the challenges of choices, moral decisions, and the goodness of the common life. It’s time in Corinthians to stop the spoon feeding. It is time for us to read the Bible again, even the hard parts, with questioning minds and open hearts as we discover again how God has been active in and shaping the human experience from the beginning of time.

And when we do this with the Rabbi Jesus, oh, my. For Jesus this morning takes that moral choice for goodness and drives it inward. Believe me, if we have distorted the Hebrew Scripture, we have distorted Jesus even more. Today, it’s like he rips open my chest, and taking my heart in his hands, he says here, in your heart is where the ancient choice is made. The moral choice begins inside of you with the first stirrings of struggle between hatred and love. There in your chest that epic religious struggle still continues. And as soon as you begin any form of hate, you are moving away from that elusive voice of the windy god calling to us in the desert of our own times.



Reflection for January 29, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Someone once said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Another person said that the only thing that stays the same is that things are always changing.

And probably both of those things are true. We live in a time of accelerated change and constant flux. Many of us in this room have experienced so much change it is hard for us to remember what life was like. Others of us have grown up with so much change, it is hard for us to find stability in life. But too much stability is not good for us either. This week we renew our American love of large rodents with Ground Hog’s Day on February 2nd. The great comic film for that day has as its theme the tiredness we know as we over and over again we live the same winter day with no sense of relief.

The readings today also speak to what is and what is changing. The readings are from Micah, an ancient Hebrew prophet, Matthew, the gospel we are reading for this year, and once again another late winter reading from I Corinthians.

In the passage from Corinthians, Paul writes about the folly of our thoughts as we go through life. We consider something as wise only to later on discover, as time change, that it was pretty foolish. We put a lot of stock in something, but as things evolved, we sometimes sense we were not that wise after all. Almost every field of human endeavor from science to theology, from economics to politics, from relationships to values: all of that has been guided by wisdoms that have exhausted their usefulness and run into their limitations as we find ourselves over and over again living in a different world. In times of accelerated change, wisdom gradually becomes tarnished and then discarded in the face of new realities. And conversely what was once seen as foolish, something we may have thought outlandish, is now the cornerstone for living.

As things swirl for Paul in a first century that was also a time of great change, he points to something that may seem strangely foolish but in the end is important. He points to Jesus, the odd one, whose humiliating death reveals a suffering God of love in our broken world. In Paul’s world, gods were seen as powerful, almighty forces that needed to be appeased and whose demands needed to be satisfied. Paul, however, stands that wisdom on its head. In the swirling first century, he offers a Jesus humiliated on a cross, revealing the depth of God’s love for those who are broken. What a strange new idea. What change.

Change is swirling in the time of Micah the prophet. The wisdom of the day is that the God of Israel is worshipped in a temple with the sacrifice of animals to atone for sin. The correct worship of God brought the favor of God. And a great religion had been built around this central wisdom. And that wisdom is managed by those in charge, the priests and the kings. But the wisdom of the wise becomes foolishness in the hands of the poet Micah.

For Micah points to something else about God. Does God really care about how many bulls are sacrificed in a temple? Is that really a good thing? And if it is what God is all about, then maybe we should sacrifice humans, too? What would God really want? The blood animals or children? No, it’s not that, Micah says. Then Micah writes a few lines that are almost three thousand years old, but somehow have never changed, lines around which even we, in our own swirling times, can build our lives:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

If you want to boil everything down to the basics, Micah is your poet. What is good? Justice. Compassion. Humility. Walking with God. These speak of a goodness that has not changed. A goodness that draws close to the divine essence. And according to Paul, this God has taken his own advice. For Paul’s God is a god of justice, a god of compassion, and a god who walks in humility with us, even suffering as we suffer for the sake of love.

And I love the grammar of Micah’s poem. It’s phrased as a question. How we do justice, compassion, humility and walking with God is not predetermined by the poet. We are asked to do that in a question that requires each of us to find our own answer.

In their swirling centuries, Micah and Paul challenge the wisdoms of the day, and as things change through the centuries, we have their stabilizing words to help us navigate our own changing seas.

In the beatitudes, the teaching Rabbi Jesus does something similar. He takes the conventional wisdom of the good life, and turns it on its head. The beatitudes also make the wise foolish and the foolish wise.

For those who are humble in spirit are walking with God, and the slings and arrows of others do not matter.

For those who mourn, find in their deep loss a hope that you don’t really know until you have suffered the loss of the one you love.

For those who sit quietly in the corner are generally listening carefully and will in the end have the insight we all need to make it through. Leadership is really a quiet thing.

For those who seek God will find God. It may come to you in surprising ways, but if you look for God, God will be there. And if you are not looking for God, you won’t find God anywhere.

For those who offer justice and mercy, will find themselves receiving it sometime down the road.

For those who work for peace, work for the salvation of the whole world, as they lead us beyond the destructive cycles of violence that consume us.

For those who are bullied will someday lead all of us to understand how important it is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

The wisdom of this world becomes folly in the hands of this Rabbi Jesus, and those who suffer in the end will be precisely the ones who lead us through suffering into new hope. And that is why we still to this day, in spite of all the changes in our world, look to the wisdom in the folly of such teachers as Jesus, and Paul, and Micah with their new ideas.

And those ideas remind us if you are hurting, there will come a time when God will use you to accomplish some wisdom not yet seen. And in the meantime, do justice, show compassion, and walk humbly with God.


Reflection for January 22, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

For decades now, Judy and I have made the drive several times a year between Wisconsin and Peoria, Ill. where she grew up and her parents still live. That means that we go down to Rockford and then continue south on I39 for awhile. It’s usually a peaceful drive. There is hardly a hill or turn in the road. And although the farmland is some of the richest in the world, it is not visually exciting. After awhile we leave the interstate and drive through a few very small towns in central Illinois on our way to the big city of Peoria.

And a couple of those towns are absolutely depressing: dilapidated and dreary beyond description. One especially, feels like the set for a zombie apocalypse movie. As you slowly drive through, keeping below the speed limit and trying to shield yourself from the sense of despair that the place exudes, you can almost imagine zombies stopping the cars and making mincemeat of those who dared to invade this space. Another of the towns along the Illinois River, reminds me of the small river town in which I grew up, only this one in Illinois is much deeper into the dilapidation and decay that comes when the economies of life that supported these places have moved on. Most of the young people leave as soon as they can, for obvious reasons, and no one new moves in. Every time, for awhile on that trip, I feel that sense of depression that comes from a place that has become the place that no one wants anymore, the place that is rejected, and the place where hope has been lost.

These towns are part of the despair we know throughout the upper mid-west, not only on the flat plains, but also in larger cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and even Milwaukee, where economic dislocations have created rust in the factories, decay in the neighborhoods, and hopelessness in the heart. These are the places despised and rejected in our own time and space. And these places are the Naphtali’s and the Zebulun’s of Isaiah this morning. The places destroyed by the empirical forces of their time, the places everyone wanted to leave, the places that bred despair as destruction and then decay overwhelmed: these are the places of which Isaiah speaks. And these places exist all over the world. The big ones that involve extreme violence we hear about on CNN, but everywhere, in every nation, there are breeding grounds for darkness, places of steep decline or sudden destruction that we all wish we could just past through on our way to somewhere else.

These are the places that people leave as we have become a globe of refugees on the move. And the destruction of hope in such Naphtali’s and Zebulun’s is perhaps our most burning issue while millions try to escape the violence, poverty, and emptiness that such places breed.

Human despair is not only caused by places of despair. Human hope and joy can be lost at the hands of a disease, a death of a close friend, the sudden loss of a job, the ending of an important relationship, or even a difficult Wisconsin winter. Any constellation of problems can overwhelm us as individuals and as a people. And it is to this human despair that both Isaiah and Matthew speak.

Isaiah’s wisdom is that what goes around comes around. What is up one decade is down the next. That what is dark will become bright. And that God’s presence is revealed as we travel the cycle from despair into new light, as things come together again, as we make the decision to trust and hope that we will not always be down. God will restore the Naphtali’s and Zebulun’s. We can shine again. It will happen. It is part of the cycle of life.

I think the wisdom of Matthew is more complex. Yes, there is the cycle of life. Darkness is followed by light. Death is followed by new life. But Matthew speaks of the motivations to move into the world of hope again. And this clip of Matthew this morning reminds us that tragedy and companionship matter very much as we crawl out of the emptiness we feel back into a promising future.

John the Baptist’s execution is a tragedy of immense proportion to the cause of religious renewal in Palestine. It is also the event that clarifies and intensifies the mission of Jesus. Tragedy can do that. It can destroy our spirits. But it also can become that which reveals and then intensifies our purpose and our reason for living. In Matthew, the tragedy of John’s death clarifies the mission of Jesus. This is part of the wisdom of recovery in Matthew.

And then there is the issue of companionship in the book of Matthew. I know that traditionally discipleship is seen as the theme of this passage. This is the call of the disciples if you will. From here on the disciples follow Jesus. But this following thing may have been the other way around. Jesus may have followed the disciples. Or at least they were companions to each other along the way. The Galilean fishing industry was more sophisticated and complex than we might think. Fish from the Sea of Galilee were considered a delicacy in the first century Middle East. Galilean fishermen were selling their fish in a variety of places and countries. They were international exporters, capable of sustaining an industry that involved not only fishing, but also preservation, transportation, and selling in a variety of markets and cultures. These people were able to handle several languages and currencies. They navigated various import customs and tax codes. These were sophisticated entrepreneurs. They traveled extensively through the area for business. As we know more about this industry we sense how the recorded journeys of Jesus follow the trade routes of fish merchants.

So there would have been no better equipped people for the mission of the gospel. Jesus followed these fishermen on their journeys, as these fishermen now not only sold their fish, but also shared this new idea of hope in their troubled times. Jesus followed the disciples as much as they followed him. They were companions along the way. Just as we need useful and mutually beneficial companions whenever we rebuild from tragedy, recover from darkness, look for a new light, and bounce back as the cycle of life moves in our direction again. Jesus uses the tragedy to recover. And he uses his companions to help him access the bigger future. And that is how this thing called hope grows. In places and hearts that need new life, wherever they may be.



Anniversary Reflection for January 15, 2017

Isaiah 49:1-7, I Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Well this is the Sunday we recall the 161st anniversary of the St. John’s Lutheran Church. Last January, we celebrated the 160th in a big way. The committee worked for a couple of years to develop a wonderful array of events and display to commemorate our history in mission in this neighborhood since 1856. At the 160th, the bishop came and spoke. Special guests were invited. We had a big crowd that Sunday. A wonderful luncheon followed. A good time was had by all.

But the 161st anniversary is not as big of a celebration, for obvious reasons; and we don’t have a special speaker this morning. And we don’t have the catered meal following worship. But we do have coffee fellowship, thanks once again to the many volunteers who Sunday after Sunday provide the food and hospitality. And I’ll try my best to turn the readings for the day toward thoughts of an anniversary.

Of necessity, and it’s a wonderful and good necessity, anniversaries are focused on the past. We have a rich and full 161 year history of mission and service in this city and neighborhood. Many of us recall important and everyday events in this space and on these grounds as we have lived our lives. You can see much of that history on the 160th anniversary banner back there in the gathering space on the west wall.

But what if we were to celebrate not only the past of our congregation, but also its future? The banner for the coming years would be blank, of course. But as time goes by, it would be filled with significant events. Some of these events we can predict. Others will simply happen. Some will be challenging. Others will be the cause of great joy. What I would like to do is note something about each of the readings for today, and then shape some of the future we are facing together in our neighborhood in light of those passages from the Bible.

Each of the readings is rich in themes. But let me lift up one from each reading. The ancient passage from Isaiah s a reminder that from the beginning, the people of God are called to live our lives not just for us, but is also for the world — not just for Israel, but for all the nations, as Isaiah puts it. We are called to be a people beyond ourselves.

The second reading is the beginning of Paul’s letter to an ancient congregation in Greece. It is one of his longer letters, and although he heaps praise on the Corinthians in this introduction, as the letter proceeds though its chapters; it’s clear that there are several problems. What these words tell us today is that even a congregation that has as many problems as they did in Corinth, even a struggling congregation, is given the strength by God to get through it all. No matter what is being faced, no matter what the challenge, we are strengthened by God for the task, and we will make it through.

The third reading from John is about many things. But in this story, several understandings and approaches to Jesus and the faith become amalgamated or brought or woven together in one story or narrative. In the earliest Christian congregations, the followers of John and the followers of Jesus and their memories are woven together, along with the idea of the spirit, and John’s baptism, along with the identity of Jesus as God’s anointed sacrifice to end all sacrifices just as the old sacrificial system was dying out in the first century. And all that amalgamation is brought together in a congregation that feels like a mystical monastery where people gather to pray, to discern, to discuss, and to learn. The gospel of John with its mystic weavings is probably the work of a monastic community. The mystic tradition of John is built by amalgamating and interweaving various ideas and themes of the people of God into one story of cosmic mystery and significance.

And on this 161st anniversary, as we live into our future, whatever that holds, we will continue to live beyond ourselves, we will amalgamate various themes and concerns into one congregational mission, and we will be strengthened by God for these endeavors.

What will our next few years be like? What might fill in the blanks in a time-line of our future? I think more than ever we will be moved beyond ourselves by forces at work in our society and by the passions in our hearts. We will be serving those in need precisely when resources for assistance are drying up on many fronts. And we are positioned to face those challenges. When I came here fifteen years ago, we were giving away as a congregation approximately $15,000 in the emergency fund each year. The last few years we have been averaging close to $50,000. And in the last couple of years that $50,000 has been amalgamated. Because of our reputation, location, and administrative capacities, Porchlight has located its housing assistance program at St. John’s. Last year that program gave about $150,000 to people for housing assistance as they also came to this place. An additional Porchlight employee now works in the building. Funds are distributed every day and into the afternoon instead of every other morning. Between the two funds, last year close to $200,000 was given as assistance to people who came through our doors. The foot traffic some days is incredible. No wonder we have trouble keeping up the cleaning and the bathrooms stocked with toilet paper. And all of that is wonderful. And the way things are going, our future will involve more of this sort of amalgamation as we are given the strength by God to meet the growing challenges in caring for those in need.

What will our next years be like? I believe that our years will be filled with more art and music. St. Johns always has had a good core of musicians and a tradition of strong musicians on staff. This will continue. And we will find ourselves at the front of renewal of liturgical forms as we face our changing times. And art will be more a part of our lives. The Backyard Women’s Mosaic project is collaborating with our LWF quilters group on new paraments which will begin to be assembled this coming year. The altar, pulpit and pastor’s stoles will take on a new look. And our exterior is getting a makeover as well.

And we will continue to be place of shelter during the day and night, practicing hospitality as well as we can to those who are homeless and the mentally ill. Night shelters in church buildings may slowly over the next decade be phased out, as more and more cities move to a housing first approach to homelessness. But that will take awhile. And in the meantime, the night shelter will be woven with the day shelter for the mentally ill, as we continue to do what we can to serve those who are most vulnerable. Each day, more people come here in the day or the night for shelter than come for worship on Sunday. And with the assistance, refugee settlement, AA groups, and women’s jail ministry, right now, over 90 percent of the people who come through our doors do so to receive some kind of assistance. We know the challenges of living beyond ourselves. And we know what it means to be amalgamated for the good. And we know the challenges of all this can be overwhelming but that God will give us the strength to make it through.

The same financial strengths that enabled us to be trusted as a partner in financial assistance efforts have also been effective at eliminating our own building debt. The gradual transformation of our building to be a center for service as well as for worship left us with a debt of over $700,000 just eight years ago. This month that debt is only $70,000. And before too many months it will be retired. What then? Well, there will continue to be needs for mission and service the building which houses it.

And there is something else. Recently in worship reflections like this sermon, godly play, and adult forum time, we have been articulating a new way to approach the gospel stories of the life of Jesus. The memories of Jesus as told in each gospel reflect the mission and day to day approach of the congregation that does the remembering, as much as anything else. Jesus is a healer in Mark, a social economist in Luke, a mystic in John, and a teacher in Matthew. Hospital, commune, monastary and school are the contexts of the congregations that remembered Jesus. And the congregation both shapes and is shaped by their recollections of the life of Jesus. This gives us a refreshing and useful understanding of how God works in our life together and in this place. This recognition of the importance of the congregational perspective and the unique mission of each congregation will be necessary for our future.

For this congregation so dedicated to caring for those in need is now finding itself in a changing neighborhood. Development has made the Cap East neighborhood one of the trendiest places to live in Madison. 70% of the people in our neighborhood are now between the ages of 18 and 30. That’s one of the greatest concentrations of this age group anywhere. We are sitting in the middle of a millennial ministry. What do we do with that?

Well, confident in God’s strength, we reach beyond ourselves. We amalgamate with others, like the synod foundation, our own foundation, and the Siebert foundation to conceptualize plan and sustain a ministry of exploration and initial interaction. This week we began interviewing for the director position for the community ministry project. We will be doing more, and then more in this area in the years ahead. Our future depends on this. And by our future, I do not mean the survival of St. Johns, but I mean the future of the church, of the ELCA, as it seeks to finds ways to engage a new generation not so interested in churchly things like celebrating a rich and glorious past, but which is known for its passion for caring for those in need.

So our future will be challenging. But we are agile. We are problem solvers. We are motivated by the compassion of Christ to partner with others to reach beyond ourselves. And we are certain that God will give us the strength we need to accomplish and then celebrate our future.

Reflection for Epiphany, January 8, 2017

Isaiah 6:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Well, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Wisconsin. Fog and rain on Tuesday. Cold on Wednesday. Hard to know really what the weather is going to be like. I’m glad it didn’t snow for once on Sunday. Generally, I do think it’s getting colder though. Lake Mendota usually freezes over mid January, and I think it it’s done that again this year. This week I can take my ice tent out on the lake and spend some time meditating on the color white and winter emptiness. Emptiness is a great theme for meditation, especially as we face a new calendar with all those empty days.

In some ways I’m glad 2016 is over. It was a difficult year for some. Perhaps Mariah Carey’s performance on New Year’s Eve before the ball dropped was a fitting way to just get the year over with. And now we face 2017. The way things are going, I may need to spend some more time in my ice shelter contemplating white emptiness on the lake.

At the end of 2016, the governor decided that we could not talk about global warming, at least not on the DNR website. I guess global warming doesn’t exist, or doesn’t involve human activity or something like that. In the old days it used to be that we would deny the findings of science for religious reasons. These days we deny science for political ones, I guess. But whether it’s the church or the state it’s always sort of awkward when one or the other tells people to not believe what scientists say.

Oh well, I guess if I can’t talk about global warming, then perhaps I should talk about cosmic brightness. Cosmic brightness, although similar to global warming, is not quite the same thing. And it’s probably the case that the government will not take my sermon on cosmic brightness off the website. Well, we’ll see what 2017 brings.

Now cosmic brightness is actually a thing. It’s not a scientific thing. It’s a religious thing. It’s a theological thing. It’s an Epiphany thing. And this is the festival of Epiphany. This is actually cosmic brightness Sunday. So it’s good to talk about the growing light of God, in our tradition, in these readings, and in our lives. And if there is some overlay on global warming, well, that is all purely accidental.

Cosmic brightness is our growing capacity to see, especially to see God. We say that cosmic brightness is growing and that God is responsible for it: although we also know that we can either hasten the brightness by what we do or blot it out completely depending on how we live our lives. The word Epiphany means to see. And light, growing light, the light needed to see, to discern, and to find one’s way has always been embedded in the festival of Epiphany. Sages followed the light of a star to the baby. We light candles and string lights all through Advent and Christmas and Epiphany.

And Epiphany with its emphasis on light, growing light, is perhaps the most ancient of these winter festivals. Epiphany was originally a Christian makeover of early pagan festivities to mark the growing light that comes following the winter solstice. The solstice sometimes is still marked today with Nordic bonfires. And as the sun warms the earth in ever longer days, we have a sense of the warmth and light growing in our lives. Cosmic brightness.

The Epiphany season of winter with its cosmic brightness has another meaning for me as well. In January I personally enter the overwhelming brightness of the snow blowing in the sunlight on Lake Mendota. This is the month load the ice shelter on a sled and pull it out on the lake for a day of reflection, meditation, and prayer. It’s good for my body. Good for my soul. And good for that vitamin D my doctor always says I need more of this time of year. I don’t drill holes. I don’t fish. I just sit and think, or walk and contemplate on the lake.

As you know, a bright sunny day fueled by a Canadian high on a snow covered lake can be one of the brightest experiences one can have. It can be a bit disorientating, somewhat blinding. Best to wear a hat with a visor, and a good pair of sunglasses. Even then, the brightness can be overwhelming. The horizon and all the lines one uses to define where and perhaps who one is can be lost in the sun and snow. Cosmic, one might say, in its intensity. Like the brightness of the temple vision of Isaiah with those winged creatures emerging through the bright haze.

Martin Luther’s poem (ELW 868, Isaiah in a Vision Did of Old) on Isaiah’s bright vision captures the intensity of the cosmic brightness:

Isaiah in a vision did of old

The Lord of hosts enthroned on high behold,

Whose splendid train was wide outspread until

Its streaming glory did the temple fill.

Above God’s throne the shining seraphim

With six fold wings did rev’rence unto him.

With two each seraph hid its glorious face,

And two about his feet did interlace,

And with the other two he soared on high,

And one unto another thus did cry:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!

His glory filleth all the earth!”

The beams and lintels in the crying shook,

And all the house was filled with billowing smoke.


Now the first and third readings are about following brightness into the great cosmic mystery, or insight or discernment, following bright star which guides us.

But they also are political. A lot could be said about Isaiah, but it’s clear that the relationship between Isaiah and the king or government was, well, complicated. Like the relationship between the sages and the king was, well, complicated. The people of God are always in a rather complicated relationship with the state. Supportive and supported in some ways. Adversarial in others. As the principalities grind on and on, the people of the brightness know that things will get difficult. Some years will be better than others. But they also know that this too shall pass.  It’s that way with Isaiah and the king, as Isaiah, in the most dismal of times, sees a ray of hope for the future. It’s that way in Matthew with the sages who have a complicated relationship with this king: perhaps too complicated for us to figure out. But whenever faced with the intrigues of confounding principalities, the people of God always find their way through the dark streets by following their star, walking into the light, following their dream, seeking and basking in the cosmic brightness.

And what of that Ephesians reading? What do we do with Ephesians this morning on Epiphany?  Well, Ephesians reminds us that the brightness is cosmic. The Christ of Ephesians is the cosmic Christ. God in Christ is for the world, for all things, for all people, for all creation. In Ephesians, the brightness is for the cosmos. It is creation, the earth, the ancient and future cosmos that longs for salvation. And we bumbling creatures may yet need to learn what God knew from the beginning: that the cosmos needs to be cared for, nurtured, and redeemed. It is the cosmos, the heavens and the earth for which we care because our God is the creator God wanting and seeking the redemption and renewal of all things, ta panta. So whatever the governor says, it is Epiphany. We, who follow the light, who know the brightness of a Canadian high over our frozen lakes, who experience the cosmic Christ, who know of the growing cosmic brightness, also know that we should tread lightly on this earth, using only what we need, and leaving only our footprints in the snow .

Reflection for January 1, 2017

Numbers 6:22-27, Galatians 4:4-7, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 2:15-21

     This is the first Sunday of the season of Christmas and the readings all are tuned to this. But it is also New Years Day and the festival of a new year may be important for us as well. With the New Year perhaps we might begin with the theme of time.

Time is a basic human understanding. Humans become aware of time. It is something deep within us. We tend to time. It becomes an organizing principle for our lives. It is quite possible to live life without a sense of time. Children do it well. Many of God’s creatures do not have a sense of time.

But we humans do, especially as we grow older. We develop and deepen a sense of the past, present, and future. And these three dimensions of human experience together provide the framework we use to approach life. We recall or remember the past. The past shapes who we are and will become. We live in the present, a moment really, that cutting edge as the future becomes the past. And in the present things are real and significant. Then there is the future coming into the present: coming at us with all its inevitable movement. The future is what we look forward to, and sometimes press toward, either with anticipation or anxiety. We live in time: its past, present, and future. In order to be happy we need a balance between these three things. We can be overcome by nostalgia, and that is not good. We can be so overwhelmed by what is going to happen that we lose our capacity to live in the now. That is not good either. But we also can ignore the past and the future challenges and possibilities only at our own peril.

And then we measure and track time. We use watches and calendars, and all sort of numbering and calculating systems and structures to keep track of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and millennia, tracking all this while we witness the future becoming the past on the edge of the present.

And the festival of a new year always draws us into such a consideration of time: its passing and its meaning as it goes by. In our biblical tradition, time is appreciated in three different ways. Time is at first cyclical. It repeats itself, as the days, weeks, seasons and years all rise and fall. The daily cycle of morning, midday, evening and night is compounded by the weekly cycle which is the point of the creation story at the beginning of the Bible. More than anything, Genesis chapter one is a story about what a week and a weekend should be: times of work and rest repeated in a cycle over and over.

The story says that God worked and rested and so should we in a seven day cycle. And these daily and weekly cycles are embedded in the turn of the natural and churchly seasons as we move each year from Advent into Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and the time of the church, before we once cycle back into Advent. Time is cyclical.

But in the Bible our days are also numbered. With each cycle, we do not stay the same. Time is not endless, and we do not have an infinite number of days. We grow older and older and older. And so time has a direction to it. It has a sense of moving along, passing by, having a beginning and an ending from which we came and to which we are headed. The Bible treats time in this way as well, noting for example the number of our years in Psalm 90, or in the movement of all creation in the book of Revelation in its linear trajectory back to God at the end of time. We are all headed somewhere. And that somewhere involves the movement through life, and then death, and into new life. And much of the Bible casts time in this way.

And then there are times in the Bible when time has fullness: when the time is right or ripe. This is the special moment that crashes or floats into our lives often independent of the cycles and linear direction of time. Something happens that breaks into time. At such moments we actually lose track of time. Time seems not to be present. We are absorbed in the now, the significance of this event, this moment, this present state. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with the movement of time, we have trouble living in the fullness of time, appreciating what is happening now. But the Bible is filled with such moments in time, especially as God breaks into our lives.

So today we recall that we are creatures in time. We are defined by our past, present, and future. We experience time as a cycle. Today we start a fresh year in that ever flowing stream of years. And we experience time as the passing of the years and generations as all creation moves not only in a circle but also back to the creator through the miracle of death, resurrection, and new life. And we experience the now, the moment, the present which sometimes lifts us beyond all time in its significance and wonder.

Now these ancient readings today speak of time in its various arrangements. Numbers, it turns out, is actually an interesting book of the Bible, even though at first it appears to be a jumble of rather odd rules and regulations. For example, in chapter five, we have regulation regarding the trial by ordeal of women suspected of adultery followed by the regulation for the creation of a strict monastic order. Then comes this blessing we have this morning. And the blessing is then followed by requirements for the offerings to the temple that should be made by leaders in the community on a regular basis. Numbers goes on and on like this. And much of this material cannot and probably should not be used to shape our lives in specific ways.

But what is happening here in this collection of religious regulation is that ancient patterns of Hebrew worship are being grounded in the memory of the people, its history; and then applied to daily life; as that worship becomes situated in temples, rather than tents or mountaintops, led by priests, according to the cycles of time marked by an agricultural society in the early Iron Age.

And in this slice of Numbers we have this morning, we are reading a blessing that is to be said over and over, recycled again and again, by the priests of the temple as the seasonal and yearly offerings are marked by repeated sacrifice at the appointed times in the calendar. The blessing of Aaron said over and over. It is the reminder that in the cycles of our lives: in each day, each week, each year; we come into God’s presence and we are blessed by God. And even today, we might use this blessing to remember that God is with us as we renew our sense of a coming year.

There is a priestly responsibility attached to this blessing. The book of Numbers is big on mandates. The blessing is a responsibility to be executed by the priest. And even though much of Numbers does not apply to us; I should, as pastor of this congregation, extend to you over and over, as time rolls on, the assurance that God’s countenance will be with us even when we are not sure what the future days or years will hold.

Now the second reading has adoption in it. And so we think of time in a different way. Time in the second reading is not treated in a ritual way that shapes a liturgical calendar as in Numbers. We used to think that when Paul spoke of adoption he was using a metaphor for God’s love for us. But as we have learned more about the churches of the New Testament, we have discovered that they had several important missions: healing or hospitals and care for those in need are two activities that shaped their thought and writing. But adoption of abandoned Roman children was also a very significant mission. In Roman society, unwanted children, especially female children, were frequently abandoned. These abandoned children were left to die. But Christian congregations literally adopted many of these rejected infants. This was a part of the mission of many congregations. And as these children grew in the congregation, this theme and mission of adoption became more important. And for that matter it still is in the church. When Paul writes to the Galatian congregation, as many as a third or half of the people he is talking to were adopted.

There is a special moment in adoption when one literally and legally becomes the child, a member of the family, and heir. This is a special moment in time and stands in the memory of the adopted one beyond all cycles and seasons. And it is to this special moment, literally experienced by so many Galatians to which Paul refers in the reading this morning. We all have those special life changing and soul changing moments, encounters with God and humanity that change everything. And it may be the case that 2017 will hold one of those moments for you.

And in the third reading this morning, time is neither cyclical nor momentous, but is moving on. The shepherds come and go. Mary ponders with the passing of time: what did that special moment mean? And then following the ancient cycle based on the week and a day, on the eighth day, Jesus is circumcised and given a name, a name that is given before birth by angels who are guiding and watching the movement of time on its way back to the creator. Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, sages, and all creation are moving along the edge of time into their future into the coming embrace of God.

Today, may you find the blessings of this year as God’s face shines on you. May you have both days of labor and rest on a regular basis. May you know the joy of a momentous day. And may you sense how we are all moving through this and all the years back to the one who created time itself.


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