Friday, September 28, 2012

St. Michael and All Angels!

Angels Among Us
Have YOU ever seen an angel?  Have you ever heard an angel?  Spoken with an angel or been touched by an angel? 
I know, we modern, intellectual early 21st century types have little use for angels.  Sure, we put them on our Christmas trees and enjoy the once a year emphasis on angels that usually accompanies our traditional celebrations of Christmas.  But, do we really believe in angels?  Or, perhaps the real question is - do angels have any relevance in our post-modern society?
I confess - believe in angels!  Not only that, but I think angels have relevance in contemporary Christianity and in contemporary society; not only that, while I've never seen a being wearing a white robe and flying with wings, I believe that I have seen angels, I have heard and spoken with angels and I have been touched by them - and, I believe you have too.
So allow me start with a couple popular misconceptions about angels:  First, angels do not have to earn their wings. In fact angels very often do not have wings.  Most of the important stories with angels in the bible do not include wingĂ©d angels (including the Christmas story!) Rather angels can take a variety of forms – mostly they come to us looking like ordinary men and women.  The best example is perhaps the story of the three visitors/messengers/angels whom Abraham welcomed into his tent  in Genesis 18 and who brought the news of the impending birth of Isaac. So, very often angels do not look like what we expect them to look like.
Second, people do not become angels when they die.  I am not sure how this popular view got started because there is nothing in the bible that even remotely suggests that people, or children will become angels after death.  And the idea that God would actually take the life of a child or an adult because God needs more angels in heaven runs against everything we believe about God’s love and grace.  Instead, the Gospel tells us that God and the angels weep with parents and those who mourn the death of a beloved child or adult and that that beloved one will live with God forever.
So then what is an angel?  The bible contains lots of stories about angels: Jacob in a dream sees angels on a ladder or a ramp ascending and descending; Jacob wrestles with an angel in yet another dream; the angels refresh Elisha when his spirit was in torment.  And of course there are lots of references to angels in the end times writings of books such as Daniel and the Book of Revelation.  In them God's angels are pictured as a great army fighting and destroying the powers of evil.  But the common thread that runs through most of these stories is that the angels are servants - they do the bidding of God - only.  In fact the word itself - angel or, in Greek, angelos, literally means messenger.  So an angel is a messenger of God.  And what kind of messages do angels bear?  They bring the message of life into the midst of death - or light in the midst of darkness - of hope in the midst of hopelessness.
Consider, the first several chapters of the Gospel of St. Luke.  Mary, a teenage peasant girl, betrothed to marry an older man, Joseph.  They live in what used to be the nation of Israel, but at this time is under domination by the mighty Roman Empire, who rules with an iron fist.  This is a land filled with much despair and anger and fear.  Into the midst of all of this, a young woman hears the words of an angel: Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.   He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.   Into the darkness of oppression and despair come words of salvation, words of hope, words of love and grace. 
And in the very next chapter after we follow Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to the cave where Mary must give birth because there is no room for them in the inn.  We read about angels appearing in the midst of the darkness to a group of unlikely shepherds in order to sing the praise of God and to announce, to bring the message:  Do not be afraid; for behold -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.   Into the midst of darkness and pain, of poverty and hopelessness the angels bring words of light and life and hope.
And then finally, at the conclusion of the Gospels, after Jesus, God's Son, had been arrested and crucified and buried.  We read that early in the morning the women come to the tomb to anoint the body and there they did not find the body, but rather they encountered an angel, in the form of a young man in white garments who proclaims: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.   In the midst of hopeless defeat, of weakness, of hopelessness, of despair, of anger the voice of the angel rings out loud and clear: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
And we still hear this word spoken to us today, even in the 21st century, by the angels whom we encounter.  No, we probably won't be seeing any white robes or wings and the chances are slim that we'll hear much harp music.  But you can expect to hear the proclamation of the angels that even in the face of death, the celebration over death can now begin.  You can expect them to be always popping up when things are at their worst, and when trusting in any solution seems beyond imagining.  The angels have and will continue to bring the message of life and light, of hope and grace when teenage children get in trouble, or when sadistic rulers and governments are brutalizing people, or when people are lonely and forlorn, mourning and despairing, and when trusting that God could be nearby seems next to impossible.
I believe in angels, and I am also convinced that I have heard the fluttering of angel's wings and have faintly heard the music the angels sing when I have been in despair or when a friend reaches out to speak a word of comfort.  And you, too, probably have read the handwriting of an angel when you most needed a letter of support and expected it the least.  You may have even seen an angel's gown whisk around the corner of your hospital room when someone brought you flowers or when you were feeling a sense of abandonment.  And those of us who gather here on this Saturday evening/Sunday morning: didn't it seem that we were escorted by an angel to stand before the altar of the Lord.  I'm not sure who these angels are or really even what they look like, but I know that I have seen their footprints, smelled their breath, wiped off their kisses and heard their beautiful voices in song.
John Ylvisaker has written a beautiful song called Pass My Love Around  - 

I have no hands but your hands, do the loving deed;
I have no feet but your feet, feel the need. 
You are my eyes to see their pain, you are my heartbeat,
do it in my name respond right from the start. 
Pass my love around, you're my hands, my eyes,
I gave you ears to hear their cries. 
Pass my love around you're an angel in disguise. 
My love will make them come alive, my love will make them come alive.


 Painting by the Spanish artist BartolomĂ© Esteban Murillo - 1617-1682

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – Mark 8:27-38 - Pentecost 16

Do You Know Jesus?
Do you know Jesus? Has anyone ever asked you that question? Usually the asker really just wants to know if you are “saved.”  And to that question we Lutherans can answer a resounding “yes.”  For we have been saved by grace, through our Lord Jesus Christ.  But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?  Do you know Jesus?  Well, do you?
Martin Luther believed he knew Jesus.  He had grown up in the context of a church that taught that Jesus was a stern judge who was ready to condemn sinners to the agonies of the fires of hell for all unconfessed sins. For the young Martin Luther, Jesus was terrifying.  He knew he was a sinner and he knew he could not possibly confess all of his many sins for he could not remember them all.  He also knew that despite his best intentions he continued to sin; he continued to put himself first.  He was convinced that he would be condemned and he expected Jesus would do the condemning.  And then something happened.  Luther began to study the New Testament, in particular the letters of Paul and he discovered something he hadn’t known before.  Jesus is not the harsh judge, but rather Jesus reaches out with grace and love to all of God’s children and offers forgiveness and life free and without condition.  It turns out Luther didn’t know Jesus at all.  He thought he did, but discovered there was much, much, much more about Jesus than he ever dreamed.
Peter and the other disciples had been with Jesus for a while.  They were certain they knew him.  Jesus was different than other popular preachers and healers, but being with him was exhilarating.  They were certain that they had hitched their wagon (so to speak) to the right horse – the one that would lead to glory and power! So they were not too surprised when Jesus asked them what the people were saying about him – “who do people say that I am?”  That’s easy, they think you are a prophet or Elijah or John the Baptist come back from the dead. Then Jesus surprises them with the next question – “but who do you say that I am?”  Now, they could all answer this question.  They had probably been whispering about it for months.  They knew Jesus was the Messiah, but they were afraid to say, so from the text we get the sense that there was an uncomfortable silence.  Finally Peter, the (sort of) leader of the group speaks up and says what everyone else had in their minds:  “You are the Messiah!” And Jesus tells everyone to keep quiet.
This command to silence is actually a common response for Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel. Scholars and theologians call this Mark’s “Messianic Secret.”  Why does Jesus want everyone to keep quiet about their belief that he is the Messiah?  Well the next few verses give us the answer.  The people of Judea, along with the disciples had been anxiously expecting the Messiah for some time.  And they knew who he was and what to expect.  The Messiah would be a powerful King, like King David.  He would unify the people, drive out the foreign tyrants – the Romans – and establish the Kingdom of Israel, forever.  He would do this with his power and might and he would do this with violence and the result would be his glorious ascension to the throne of his ancestor King David.  Everyone knew this.  That is who the disciples believed Jesus to be.  That is what Peter is saying when he tells Jesus – “You are the Messiah!”  Jesus tells them to keep quiet because while he might have the title right, he had the definition wrong.
In the verses that follow Jesus then tries to define for the disciples what a Messiah really is.  What does it mean that he is the Messiah?  Jesus tells them that it means suffering, rejection, execution and resurrection.  Peter and the others seemed to have missed the “resurrection” part because Peter then tried to correct Jesus.  THAT is not what a Messiah is, says Peter.  Stop talking like that!  Jesus not only rebukes Peter (rebuke seems like such a gentle word for such a harsh put down), but he then goes on to tell the disciples and others that if they want to be his followers not only do they need to come to grips with this new way of defining a Messiah, but they can expect the same treatment.  Being a disciple of Jesus means 1. Denying oneself and 2. Things are turned upside down – trying to save your life will mean you will loose it and loosing it up will mean you will save it.  It should not be too surprising to note that at the crucifixion all of these disciples abandoned and denied that they even knew Jesus.  And they were telling the truth: they didn’t know him, really.  They thought they did, but they had gotten it wrong.  They had been simply projecting their own ideas upon Jesus.
So, do you know Jesus?  Who is Jesus to you?  Is Jesus the judge that you have to please?  Is Jesus the angry avenger who takes out human sinfulness on innocent people, sometimes centuries later?  Is Jesus the promiser of success and prosperity?  If you do everything that (some interpreter tells you) Jesus wants you to do, do you expect that everything will go your way and that you will be wealthy and influential? Is Jesus only interested in your personal piety?  Is the Jesus you know completely unconcerned with broader issues of justice and hunger but is completely uncompromising when it comes to personal morality? Many in our society believe in these and many other illusions about Jesus.  Maybe for some of us this is who Jesus is.  Our Gospel for today reminds us that we do not have the whole picture. In fact, we only have a little bit of the picture, or maybe we don’t have the right picture at all.  Who is Jesus?  Look at the cross.  Only when you see Jesus on the cross can you understand who Jesus is? Only when you see Jesus on the cross can you understand the resurrection.  Jesus is the one who loves us so desperately that he endures crucifixion so that we might live.  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the one who is calling us to follow him to the cross; to deny ourselves and give of ourselves to others; to love unconditionally as he loved us.  Who is Jesus?  The one calling us to give up our lives to him!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Essence of Faith - James 1-2

Read the text here - Beginning with James 1:1
The Essence of Faith
Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James very much.  He famously called it “an epistle of straw.”  What’s up with that?  We all bring to our reading of the Bible our own pre-suppositions and prejudices and Luther was no different than us.  Just read through the 1st chapter of James and you can see why Luther was so negative about James.  Be doers of the Word and not merely hearers… (James 1:22). Well, Luther was in the midst of a life and death struggle against a Medieval Church that was focused on “doing” things in order to earn your way to heaven.  Now that is not what James is talking about, but we can see why Luther reacted the way he did to this passage.  But the world has changed a lot since the early 1500’s and besides Luther was only a human being too who actually sometimes got things wrong.  This is an example.
James is believed to have been written sometime in the early days of the church – before the destruction of the Temple.  Most scholars place the writing of Book of  James after the 7 undisputed letters of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark, but before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Traditionally the letter was believed to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus who was a leader and central figure in the early Jerusalem church of Jewish-Christians.  This James (not either of the disciples by that name) also took part in the conflict with Paul over preaching and reaching out to Gentiles, which is described in Acts and Galatians.  It should be noted that the book itself does not claim to have been written by this particular James and in fact the form of the book is not even in the form of a letter, it’s almost more like a sermon.  But those are unimportant details.  What is important is that this book gives us a glimpse of the struggles of ordinary Christians trying to balance their new faith in Jesus with their everyday lives living in a world that was at best indifferent to their faith and at worst openly hostile. 
To these Christians James has some very practical and important advice: 1. Faithfulness does not need to be heroic, but faith is not just personal conviction or private feelings – faith is seen in what we do and how we act and live our lives and the priorities we set. 2. Sunday is not the most important day of the week – it is rather the day when we are refreshed and renewed in the Spirit through our worship; when we experience of God’s presence, love and forgiveness in the Sacraments, but that is just the prelude to our real work: our daily lives in the world.  3. All of the distinctions which are important to human society – such as showing deference to the wealthy and powerful just because they are wealthy and powerful have no meaning in the sight of God.  God judges the heart and looks at the work which faith has produced.  (If it is the famous James, the brother of Jesus who wrote this letter, he seems to have come around to Paul’s point of view about God’s openness and love for all regardless of the categories that we humans like to apply. [See Galatians 3:38]).
We too, like Luther are human, fallible and we have our preconceptions about the Bible and church. Part of the difficulty is that God is so much beyond any of us it is difficult for us to wrap our minds around that.  We tend to create our mental ideas and images of God and Jesus in our own image and we then naturally assume that God and Jesus think like we do and have the same priorities and prejudices that we do. James is reminding us that that is not the case! God is beyond us; God has different priorities and God doesn’t accept our ways of categorizing people.  God is open to ALL – everyone, especially those who are poor, suffering or have special needs. 
So what are we to do?  James is clear on this – just live your daily lives in ways that reflect your Baptism.  Show mercy, kindness and grace to all – allow the love of Christ to flow through you.  “Be doers of the Word” which means that if you see needs around you, recognize then that you have a responsibility to reach out in God’s love to help those in need.  But it doesn’t have to be heroic, all it needs to be is faithful.  The rhythm of the Christian life that begins with Word and Sacrament in any given week, extends then into every other area of your life during the week.  So our Sunday worship is not the goal or the climax of the week.  It is rather the prelude:
 “Sunday is not the pinnacle of the Christian week but actually, according to James, was intended to serve and support our Christian lives the rest of the week. Sunday is the day we are immersed again in the Word, have our sins forgiven, receive guidance and encouragement in our Christian lives, hear again the good news of God's goodness and mercy, and are called, commissioned, and sent once more into the world to work with God for the health of the people God has put all around us.” David Lose, Luther Seminary – from “Ordinary Saints.”
I wouldn’t call this straw – it sounds more like meat and potatoes to me!  May God bless your daily ministry!