Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent I - Family Connections - St. Matthew 1:1-17

Advent is a time of waiting and a time of hope. During Advent we anticipate the birth of the Messiah, Jesus who is to be born at Christmas and bring the Kingdom of God into our midst. Advent is also a time when we look forward to that day when Christ will come again and bring the Kingdom of God into our midst in its fullness. But who is this Jesus? Where does he come from?

These are questions were very important to early Christian communities and for this reason Matthew begins his Gospel with the answers to these question by providing a genealogy. Now, the bible has lots of genealogies – especially the Old Testament (Luke includes one too, but in Luke it is like a footnote to the Baptism of Jesus – see Luke chapter 3). The book of 1st Chronicles, for example, begins with 9 long chapters of genealogy. These genealogies can be tedious, which anyone who has tried to read through even 1 of these 9 chapters in I Chronicles will affirm. But Matthew’s genealogy is different. For one thing he places it right at the beginning of the Gospel so that it serves as a kind of prologue. And like any good prologue this one includes some very important information, not only about who Jesus is and where he came from, but also it anticipates the ministry priorities of this Jesus who is the Messiah.

Take a moment to read through the text - St. Matthew 1:1-17

The first point – Jesus is descended from King David and King Solomon. So Jesus is from the House of David and consequently he is the authentic King of Israel. This is not a secondary issue. Remember, as we were reminded in our lesson from last week, that Jesus’ claim of Kingship is one of the charges that prompts Pilate to crucify Jesus. Any claim to Kingship is also a denial and an affront to the Roman Emperor – which was a capital offense. Jesus is truly the “King of the Jews.”

Second – Jesus is descended from Abraham, so he is fully Jewish. There have been in the history of Christianity, and there even continues today, to be misguided efforts to claim that Jesus is not really Jewish (going all the way back to Marcion in the 2nd & 3rd centuries). But Matthew will have none of it. Right in verse 1 of this Gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is a son of Abraham. Jesus is fully Jewish.

Third – Jesus is also descended from Gentiles and from people whose lives are not exactly models of faithfulness. There are five women listed in this genealogy (the 5th one is Mary). That in and of itself is unusual.  Does Matthew include Sarah, or Rachel or Hannah or one of those Old Testament women who are notable as begin faithful to God? No, those are not the women Matthew includes. The women we meet in this passage are: Tamar (verse 3), Rahab (verse 5), Ruth (verse 5) and Bathsheba (verse 6 – listed as “the wife of Uriah.) Who are these women? Tamar played the harlot with Judah is a seamy and sexy story found in Genesis 38; Rahab was the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies (Joshua 2); Ruth was a Gentile who seduced Boaz (all of Ruth); and Bathsheba was the married woman with whom David committed adultery and which also led him to murder her husband (II Samuel 11) - she was also a player in the bloody events which surrounded the succession of Solomon to the throne following David's death. All these women have sin and darkness in their pasts and all were forgiven and were followers of God (just like us!).   Not only that but two of them are Gentiles (Ruth and Rahab).

What does this mean? Jesus the Messiah is the King, who comes to us unlike any other King. He comes into the midst of a world of sin and darkness and he redeems it from within. Jesus, the Christ, is the Savior of the world – beginning with the Jews he reaches out to all peoples of all times and all backgrounds. For in Christ, as Paul says in Galatians – “There is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile)… slave nor free… male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

Finally this Prologue/Genealogy is a proclamation that in Christ, God is making a new beginning – a new Genesis. If it were a movie perhaps the Gospel of Matthew might be known as Genesis II. For in Christ we have a new start, a new beginning. Forgiveness and grace come into our midst and God, through Jesus, is now with us in a new and unique way. The Kingdom has come into our midst and we celebrate this and wait with hopeful expectation for that day when Christ will come and bring the Kingdom into our midst in its fullness. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Sacraments - Penance

Reflections from the Pastor – Pastor S. Blake Duncan
…and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ (St. Matthew 1:23b)
For the last few months I have used this space to discuss what it means that we are a Sacramental church.  Last month I discussed the central and formal Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Through Holy Baptism we are brought into community and become a part of God’s family and through regular (weekly) participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion we are fed, strengthened and nourished with God’s presence and empowered for our ministry in the world.  These two Sacraments are the foundation of our Christian life and ministry.  But the Roman Catholic Church holds traditionally to seven Sacraments, and this was the case during Luther’s time as well.  What about the other 5?
The seven traditional Sacraments of the church are: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance (or Confession and Absolution) and Extreme Unction (or Last Rites).  Now, I think it is important to understand exactly what Luther’s position on these is.  He did not throw them all out, as is sometimes assumed.  He re-defined or re-classified them.  Luther determined that a formal Sacrament of the church needed two things – the Word of God plus a natural Element.  The only two that fit this narrow definition are Baptism (Word + Water) and Holy Communion (Word + Bread & Wine).  Luther actually agonized over this because he wanted to keep Penance (Individual Confession and Absolution) but could not find a way to do it.  So he reluctantly re-classified it as a Sacramental action of the church, but one which he felt was very important and one which he wanted people to participate in on a regular basis.  This is why in the Small Catechism there is a section on Penance (Look in your copy at the very end – there is a section on “The Office of the Keys” and on “Confession.”).  We have gotten away from this.  In confirmation materials little to no time is spent on this part of the Catechism.  It is seen as “too Catholic,” by some or as something which is for many uncomfortable, to say the least.
This is unfortunate, for the opportunity to confess our Sin (and our sins) is a very important part of Christian discipline.  Mental health experts will tell you that we all tend to hold things in, to deny, to ignore to internalize and that this is very unhealthy.  Individual confession is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves, a chance for catharsis and an opportunity to come to grips with things in our lives.  It is also the opportunity to hear again the words of absolution – the promise of forgiveness.  Not in a cheap way that just shrugs and says ok, no problem you are forgiven.  But it is a word which takes seriously our failings and is the first step towards reconciliation and healing. 
Penance or Confession is a Sacramental action of the church, meaning that we experience God’s love and grace and presence through it.  Luther links Penance to Baptism.  The promise that is spoken in the words of absolution is the promise which is given to us as part of our Baptismal Covenant.  Which again is why Baptism is so important and why we regularly need to remember our Baptism.
I will not be scheduling times for Individual Confession and Absolution, however, an order for this is included in the Occasional Services book and it is available to anyone who feels a need for it.  It is also fully confidential. In the same way the other Sacramental actions of Marriage, Ordination, Confirmation and Last Rites are also available.  We do not consider them “Sacraments” but they are Sacramental in that they are all linked to Baptism and through each we experience God’s love and grace and presence.  Next month I will talk about the others, focusing on Last Rites.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Feast of All Saints – Luke 6:20-31 – Called to be a Saint

The Feast of All Saints – Luke 6 – Called to be a Saint
…and so with the church on earth, all creation and the host of heaven,
we praise your name and join their unending hymn…..

Those words, which are spoken each time we celebrate Holy Communion, prepare us for the celebration of the gift of the Sacrament by reminding us that we are joining with the Saints of the past and the Saints of the present at the heavenly Banquet table.  As we kneel at the rail we are there at table with the entire host of the Saints of every age.  What an amazing gift to us this is.  And like many of God’s gifts, this is one that is easy for us to loose sight of.
Think about it for a minute – who are your favorite saints?  One of the apostles, St. Paul, St. Francis, Martin Luther?  Or perhaps it is someone more recent – someone famous, or even someone who was important to you in your life as you grew and learned the faith – a parent or grandparent, a Sunday School teacher or pastor, a teacher or a coach.  Maybe this person is still alive, or maybe this person has joined the host of the Saints who now sit at the Lord’s banquet table.  But on this day – The Feast of All Saints – we have the opportunity to remember and honor the memory of these Saints; we have been given the gift of being able to celebrate the witness of the Saints of all ages who have impacted our lives in one way or another.
So then, what is a Saint?  Simply put, a Saint is a follower of Jesus.  That’s all.  We all know that, right?  We hear that repeated each year.  Perhaps the most popular All Saint’s children’s sermon is the one I used last year = kids, I am going to introduce you to a saint this morning and then you pull out the mirror and they see themselves.  Who me – yes you!  You are a Saint.  We sometimes think of Saints as being folks who lived only in the past, who had a special relationship with God, or who were particularly holy.  But this Festival reminds us that one does not need to be canonized in order to claim the title of Saint – we are all Saints.  And we stand with those Saints of all ages – those both who are well-known and those are not.  And with them we share these characteristics: we are all followers of Jesus, we have all been brought into God’s family through Baptism and we are all sinners who have been saved by God’s grace.  A Saint is a follower of Jesus.
That leads us then to the question of calling.  What is the calling of the Saints?  What is our calling?  Or in other words, to what tasks has God called us?  To answer this question we turn this morning to our Gospel text from St. Luke.


This is in many ways a hard reading.  It sounds a little familiar in places because it is a lot like the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, but it is different from Matthew.  Luke is particularly interested in the issues of poverty and wealth and power and weakness.  If you read through the Gospel of Luke you will find that this Gospel is constantly returning to this issue.  In Chapter 1, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth and when she gets there she sings a beautiful song – My Soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour….. eventually she sings these words: God has filled the hungry with things and sent the rich away empty, Gode has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.  Later in chapter 4, Jesus goes into the synagogue to preach his first sermon – the text he chooses is from the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. There are parables and any number of other teachings which also lift up this theme.
And then we come to this text with its blessings and woes.  These scripture texts are frankly uncomfortable, or they should be.  We live in what is probably the richest nation in the world in a world where the majority of the population lives in terrible poverty.  We cannot then just shrug off these words of Jesus, or spiritualize them.  These words are directed at us – the Saints.  So what is Jesus saying?  This teaching of Jesus is saying that God has special concern for those who struggle, for those who are poor, for those who are grieving, for those who are hungry, for those who are weak.  God holds those who are dispossessed in a special place in God’s heart.  And Luke also reminds us that those who take advantage of those who are struggling, those who benefit at the expense of others are only deepening their own alienation from God and others.
How does this then relate to our task as Saints; to our calling to follow Jesus?  This text from Luke provides a vision of ministry. Those who are Saints are called to find ways of reaching out to heal the rifts that divide people, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, to comfort those who mourn; in short, to be the presence of Christ in the midst of a needy world.  This is not as easy as it sounds, because sometimes it means standing up against powers and special interests.  There are many who benefit from human suffering and misery and from maintaining divisions among people.  We are called to oppose them, and to stand with those who suffer.  This is what it means to be a Saint.  This may seem overwhelming, too much for us to deal with – but this is our calling.
There is a Haitian proverb that essentially says that once you have climbed one mountain, there will be another mountain to climb, and another after that and another after that.  That life gives us a series of mountains to climb one after another.  In other words, once you overcome one hurdle there will be another and another. But that it is in these hurdles and in the task of dealing with them and overcoming them that one finds the presence of God.  God is found on the mountains as we endeavor to climb them.  You can count on it.  Whatever life puts in our way we can be assured that God is there in the midst of the experience, in the midst of the struggle.  And, returning to Luke, then as we struggle to find ways of bridging divides between peoples, of feeding, providing healing, comfort and so on – God is there with us.  And when we fail, when we give up or when we are tempted to put our own interests above those of the community, when we reject others – God is there to help us see and to forgive and give us the strength and wisdom to move forward.
So what is the calling of the Saints?  To live in a way that reflects God’s love and grace and care for the dispossessed; and to be the presence of Christ in the midst of a hurting and needy world.  To support ministries that accomplish this and always seek after finding new ways of reaching out and caring for others.
Finally, where are we Saints bound?  We are bound for the Banquet Table of our Lord – where we will sit with all the Saints of every age and feast at the table of the Lord.  And to encourage us along the way – God will give us a little preview this morning; a foretaste of the Feast to come!  So - Saints – come and feast at the table of the Lord!  And there receive the Spiritual nourishment that you will need to strengthen and empower you to accept your calling to live like a Saint!