Friday, March 30, 2012

Palm Sunday Reflections

Read the Passion from St. Mark - Mark 14:1-15:47
Keeping Secrets
Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday – which is it?  It used to be that we would celebrate the Sunday a week before Easter as Palm Sunday and that the entire service would be given over to this.  When the green LBW was issued in 1973 the Day became Palm Sunday/The Sunday of the Passion.  Some suggested that the reason was because so few people came to worship during Holy Week that including the Passion Narrative on Palm Sunday was the only way to make sure that the majority of people in our congregations experienced the Passion.  There is some truth to the fact that attendance at Holy Week services has dropped off in the last 20/30 years.  This is distressing because if we, as Christians, only experience the glory and celebration of Easter Sunday, we have missed most of the important parts of the story.  The fact is that Easter without Good Friday; Easter without the Passion of Christ is really trite triumphalism and is not at all in sync with the Biblical understanding of Jesus’ work and ministry.  On the other hand we do not want to focus exclusively on the Passion and never experience the resurrection, as this is just morose defeatism.  There is at least one well-known movie and an equally well- known musical that skips the resurrection and the result is an equally warped view of the story of Jesus.
So is that why we have linked Palm and Passion Sunday? Perhaps in part.  For as part of our worship on this day we will hear the story of Jesus’ passion, according to St. Mark and we will even have the opportunity to participate in the reading ourselves (the congregation will read the text which is in bold face text). But this is not the only reason.  In fact, I think it is not the most important reason.  The fact is that we really cannot separate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the rest of the Passion.  The events of the entry (the riding the donkey, the waving of palm branches, the crying of ‘Hosanna’) is the prelude to a much more profound story – the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Arrest, the Trial, the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Death and Burial.  To begin and end with the prelude is to miss the most important and most life-changing part of the story.  And so, in our liturgy the Procession of Palms forms the prelude to our entry into the story of the Passion – just as it does in the Biblical text.
One additional comment on the Passion Narrative itself:  I have spoken in many sermons over the last few months about the Messianic Secret that is such an important theme in Mark.  Just about every time someone recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God Jesus immediately tells that person (or spirit) not to tell anything to anyone.  Examples: Jesus casts out unclean spirits right at the beginning of his ministry and won’t let them talk (Mark 1:25); Jesus heals a leper and commands him to silence (Mk. 1:44); Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah and Jesus silences him (Mk. 8:30); after the events of the transfiguration again Jesus tells the three disciples to keep it to themselves (Mark 9:9).  Why?  Well we finally experience the reason for this secrecy in the Passion Narrative – Mark 15:39: the centurion, the Roman captain in charge of the crucifixion – that is not only a Gentile, but a hated member of the occupation force and one of Jesus’ own executioners – looks at the body of Jesus hanging from the cross and finally sees.  This outcast, who represents everything that was hated, is the one who finally confesses the secret aloud: Truly this man was God’s Son!  Only when we see Jesus on the cross can we recognize who Jesus is!  The Christ is not recognized in power and glory; Jesus is not recognized on Easter alone – Jesus is recognized on the cross!  As we gaze at the cross on Palm/Passion Sunday and throughout our Holy Week worship; as we see the cross in our remembrance in Word and Sacrament we then can join the centurion in confessing Jesus as God’s Son, the Messiah – God incarnate.  May we always keep the cross of Christ central in our lives and have a blessed Holy Week remembrance!
The art is by the wonderful artist HeQi.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Reflections on the Text for Lent V - Jeremiah 31:27-34

Read the text here:Jeremiah 31:27-34

Covenant & Hope
The prophet Jeremiah had railed against the leadership and the people of Judah for their unfaithfulness.  God had initiated a Covenant with them; God had made a promise, but the people had a responsibility to be faithful and they had failed miserably. But now the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, the King and the leadership were either in chains or dead and, worst of all, the temple was destroyed. The people of Judah were now driven out of their land and taken to Babylon as slaves.  Everything looked dark.  Hope was dead.  The melody of the covenant had been snuffed out.  There was no future for what remained of Israel and Judah.
Or, perhaps, there was hope.  The angry prophet Jeremiah changes his tune and now speaks words of comfort; The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  Jeremiah takes up the tune of the covenant, but it is a new arrangement.  The covenant, renewed and affirmed by God is not destroyed – it stands and is stronger than ever before.  Take up the tune, Jeremiah tells them, and sing it with all your hearts.  For therein lay your hope.
What is a covenant?  We often use this word to refer to a contract, an agreement that is more binding than someone just giving their word.  In our usual understanding and use of the word, a covenant is an agreement we make are between two equal partners, like in a marriage covenant, and includes promises, especially promises of faithfulness.  Usually these contemporary covenants are affirmed by either legal or religious means (a wedding license along with the exchange of vows set within a service of worship).  But there is a distinction to be made between our common 21st century usage of covenant and the Covenant of the Old Testament initiate with Abraham, renewed with Moses and affirmed by Jeremiah.  The major difference is that in the context of the Old Testament the Covenant is drawn between unequal partners – God and the people of Israel.  So it is God that initiates it, it is God who makes the promises; it is God who determines the expectations. The Covenant is then a gift bestowed which does call forth a response, such as following the Torah, which is to be done in gratitude for the gift.  If we think of the Covenant as a tune, God as the composer, and our calling is to respond by taking up the tune, singing and tune and teaching this tune to others.  Our hope then rests in this.  If the tune dies out then hope appears dead.  But as long as the melody goes on there is hope.
Fast forward to a hill outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha.  There we see three crosses.  The cross in the center is Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son who has been singing the song of the Covenant and who inspired such great hope.  But now, looking on this scene, it appears that the tune has been snuffed out.  Hope is dead.  The disciples have fled.  The only ones who remain are a few women and the disciple John who stand there looking on this hopeless sight.  But the amazing thing about God is that God can bring light out of darkness, life out of death, hope from despair and hopelessness and melody from discord or silence.  Jesus will burst forth from the tomb and the melody of the covenant will continue to be sung.  And we are the ones who are called to take up the song of the Covenant, for in this is hope and trust that God has not abandoned us and will accomplish all that God has promised.  Taking up the song means to move forward, to live faithfully, to love others as God has loved us and to live in ways that reflect our hope and trust in the one who was crucified and rose again on the third day.
I will close this reflection with two wonderful quotes from my friend, retired Bishop and Lutheran Summer Music Chaplain Wayne Weissenbueler:
Hope is not a feeling.  Hope is a choice.  In the midst of despair and seeming hopelessness we can choose to carry on.  There is no greater hope than that.   
Hope is the ability to hear the melody of the future and faith (trust) is the courage to dance to this melody in the present.
May we all, no matter what our circumstances, be able to hear the tune of the Covenant and to sing it with hope, trusting in the promises which God has made to us at our Baptism.
"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo
The quotes above by Bishop Weissenbuehler are from his commentary for the 2011 Hymn Festival at Lutheran Summer Music, held at Luther College.  For more information on Lutheran Summer Music go to: Lutheran Summer Music Program

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reflections on Exodus 20 – Lent III

Read the text - Exodus 20:1-20
Rules of Engagement

Our lives are shaped by rules and laws – are they not?  From the time we are very young we learn to live within rules.  “Don’t run in the hall; always look both ways; don’t talk to strangers.”  These are important rules. These rules keep our children safe, even if sometimes our children don’t like some of the rules.  But even as adults we live under rules and laws.  These are important for our society and for us as well. They keep our communities structured and safe.  I think it is safe to say that we as a whole have great respect for the law and for the rules of community.  And all we have to do is look at the banking/housing crisis from 2008 (of which we are still feeling the effects) to see what kind of pain and anarchy can occur when we either ignore or circumvent the rules or when there are not enough rules to properly guide and regulate.  We would think that our own sense of morality and concern for others would be enough to keep us in line, but then the old sins of greed and power are pretty powerful stuff.  We have been reminded of something which has been a part of the human experience for a long time, going all the way back to the 10 commandments: society needs to be shaped by law for the benefit of all.  But sometimes we may even look to the law to provide more than it can possibly deliver, we may look to the law for salvation.
Now, I wish that life was as simple as follow the rules and you will be healthy and happy, but it is simply not true.  But yet this is indicative of a general perception of the 10 commandments as being sort-of like a GPS or MapQuest to heaven.  IF you keep these commandments THEN life will be better and you will be close to God.  But that is to misunderstand the 10 commandments and to try to push them into a box into which they are not designed to fit.  These 10 commandments are NOT just a set of rules and regulations.  And, more importantly, they are decidedly NOT conditions for acceptance by God. 
So then what are they?  The 10 commandments are first and foremost a GIFT of God to us.  They set forth as a gift the way for us to be in relation with God and with others.  They show us the way to unity with God and others.  Additionally each commandment contains not only a negative law (Thou shalt not…) - but each also contains a promise - a promise of life in unity with God and others, a promise of peace or Shalom or complete well-being which comes to us when we treat others with respect, and we love others as we love ourselves.  The 10 commandments are both a GIFT and a PROMISE.
The law is a gift to us to teach us the way to be in community with God and with others. As we love God, and treat our neighbor as ourselves, God brings us closer to each other and we move towards a more intimate relationship with God as well.  This then is the promise.  God’s love for us is overwhelming, but we so often turn our backs so that we can do our own thing.  God has given us a series of gifts to solidify the Covenant: the rainbow, the law and the cross of Jesus.  All of these are a fulfillment of God’s promise of love and grace to us and a gift to help us move closer to one another and, thus at the same time, move closer to God.  
Now, at this point I would love to now dive into a detailed exposition of each of the 10 commandments.  So, since there isn’t be time to deal with all 10 I am going to focus on only one – the first one.   “You shall have no other gods before.”  Luther in his Large Catechism writes: “Everything proceeds from the force of the 1st commandment … where the heart is right with God and this commandment is kept, fulfillment of the others will follow of its own accord.”
YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE YOU!  Well that's pretty clear cut, right.  And its not particularly difficult either, is it?  In our sophisticated society we've done away with all those pagan gods and goddesses.  We don't have pantheons of gods that watch over the ins and outs of various dimensions of our society, do we?  So why bother with this one, we can just check it off and move on to the next.  Not so quick.  Let’s look at it a little closer.  In response to the question, "what does it mean for us" Luther writes in the Small Catechism - We are to fear, love and trust God above anything else.   And the key word here is ANYTHING.
Do we worship other gods in our sophisticated and advanced society?  Do we worship power or wisdom or reason or sex or violence or success?  You bet we do, and in this we are no different from those ancient societies - except that we're just not as honest and are better at deceiving ourselves.  A god is something which promises to bring happiness and fulfillment and salvation and in which we place our infinite trust.  All we need to do is to take a look around at the internet, newspapers, magazines, movies and TV to see the various gods and goddesses at work.  Power, sex, violence and war, reason and wisdom, success, money, winning are all popular deities in our society. 
The 1st commandment challenges us, as Christians to consider which God or gods claim our ultimate loyalty and infinite trust.  Do we stand at the altar of success or wealth?  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with success and wealth. Unless finding success or acquiring wealth has become the most important thing in our lives, and we sacrifice just about anything for these goals.  What is your ultimate priority in life?  What commands your ultimate and infinite trust and devotion?
Or do we worship the one true God - the God of the covenant; the God that grants life and grace and love unconditionally?  The God who is, through our lord and savior Jesus the Christ, always present with us throughout all things.  Other gods promise much but in the end simply do not deliver.  For other gods are liars - they will not save us, they cannot bring us the things they promise.  The God of the covenant - the God and Father of our lord and savior Jesus the Christ will never abandon us, always loves us and will always keep and fulfill promises made.  This one God calls us to reach out in love and grace; to accept the gifts and promises that God gives to us and to respond by reaching out in kind to others.  God calls us to take seriously the words of the ten commandments, not just because we're supposed to, but because in this way we experience God's promises to us and we can bring these promises to others. 
Finally, God calls us to continually struggle against the gods of our society, and to know that forgiveness is always available when we stumble. 
Above is the sermon I preached on Lent 4, 2009 at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church (with some of the illustrations cut out).  The audio from my sermon for Lent 4 - March 11, 2012, preached at Peace Lutheran Church in Steeleville, is posted in the "media" section of:  http://wartburgparish.com/
The recent sermon is very different than the 2009 text.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Reflections on the Texts for Lent II – Genesis 17 & Mark 8

Read the texts: Mark 8:27-38 and Genesis 17:1-17
Doubt/Disappointment/Promise
I am El Shaddai… I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous… You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…
And with these words from the beginning of Genesis 17, God again repeats and reminds Abram of his promise and of the covenant.  This is not the first time Abram had heard this promise.  The first time was in chapter 12 and this will continue for a while.  The years pass, Abram and Sarai get older and older, God repeats the promise and they continue on.  I can almost imagine Abram quietly rolling his eyes and thinking, “yeah, yeah, promises, promises!”  It is obvious that Abram and Sarai (as they are named at first) doubt this promise.  Abram says all the right things to God, but then his actions betray a lack of confidence in God’s promise. And then there is the laughter.  Abraham laughs at the notion that he and Sarah were going to have children in verse 17 and then in chapter 18 – yet another repeat of the promise, this time by a couple of messengers (angels) – Sarah laughs (18:12ff – pew bible OT p. 11).  The actions and the laughter make it clear that Abraham and Sarah simply do not really believe the promise.  And who can blame them?  It doesn’t make sense.  It defies logic.  It is not the way things happen.  99 year-old men and women just do not have babies.  Who can blame them for doubting!?
In the Gospel text from Mark 8 the focus is on Peter.  Peter has his own ideas about how Jesus’ ministry should proceed.  Things have been going pretty well.  Jesus has become very popular and effective.  Peter seems to have a good sense of politics and knows just how Jesus should capitalize on his popularity so that he can then move into a position to consolidate his power and establish the Kingdom of God.  All this makes sense to Peter.  But Jesus has his own ideas: The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed and after three days rise again.  What! This does not sound like a very good plan for political and military success.  Peter tries to instruct Jesus but is rebuked harshly: Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.  I wonder how Peter reacted to this.  I am sure he was embarrassed, maybe hurt, but I think perhaps mostly he was disappointed – disappointed in Jesus.  This is not what he signed up for.  Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, the King (see 8:27-30 – pew bible NT pg.34); Jesus is supposed to be the one who liberates Israel and establishes the Kingdom of God.  But he is going about it all wrong, and Peter can sense that things are not going to turn out the way he is expecting and hoping. Jesus is turning out to be a major disappointment!
Doubt and disappointment in Jesus! Doubt and disappointment in God! This is not too foreign to us, is it? God’s ways seem odd to us and illogical and we get impatient. After all we know how the world works and so we (Like Abraham and Sarah) just take things into our own hands.  We believe the promises but we have doubts that God will actually deliver on his promises; but more than that, perhaps we worry that God will deliver but in ways that we are uncomfortable with and are out of our control – and we like to be in control.
But disappointment is an even more difficult issue for us, maybe because we are afraid to admit it.  But if we are honest we have to admit that like Peter, we get disappointed with God and with Jesus.  We look around and we see how much struggle and suffering and pain and loss there is and we wonder: where is God.  But when this pain and suffering comes to us we are disappointed with God.  Why is this happening, we wonder?  But we mostly keep this to ourselves because somehow we have learned not to express or be honest about our doubts and disappointments, as if just expressing this will make God get angry with us and things will get worse.  Just look at Jesus’ reaction to Peter, for example.  We don’t want Jesus to come down like that on us!
But let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ reaction.  Why does Jesus get angry with Peter?  It is not because Peter is disappointed in him, it is because Peter is trying to control and manipulate him!  Peter’s motives might be honorable and make sense to him, but he doesn’t have the complete picture.  Also remember, Jesus doesn’t reject Peter; he doesn’t fire or demote him.  In fact a few verses later, Jesus takes Peter with him up the Mount of Transfiguration.  Jesus remains committed to Peter – no matter how disappointed Peter gets or how much he misunderstands or even how much Peter denies Jesus.  Here then is the key to understanding our own doubt and disappointment in God.  There is nothing wrong with expressing doubt, disappointment, sorrow and even anger at God.  God can take it and we need to be honest with God and with ourselves.  The book of Psalms gives us many beautiful models of ways to express these feelings to God.  But then perhaps we also need to recognize that perhaps we do not see the whole picture and that we need to be open to God and recognize we have more to learn.  Because the God revealed in Jesus shows up always and only in the broken places of our lives and world. Like Peter, we are disappointed because we do not get the God we want, the God we've been taught to worship, the God we have a right to expect. But, also like Peter, in Jesus and his cross and resurrection we discover, not the God we may want, but the God we desperately need. The God whose sheds glory to join us in our shame; the God who leaves heaven to enter our hells-on-earth; the God who abandons strength -- at least strength as we imagine it -- so that God can join us, embrace us, hold onto us, and love and redeem us at our places of weakness. The God we meet in Jesus, that is, comes for those broken in body, mind, or spirit to be one with us and for us. This God will understand our disappointments (and doubts), and even expects them. Moreover, this God will meet us in them to teach us anew and again that it is at the places of our brokenness that we sense, meet, and are enveloped most fully in God's strong love.”*
Finally, did you notice that all of the main human characters in our lessons today get new names? Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai become Sarah; Simon becomes Peter.  Those of us who are claimed by God and are heirs of God’s promises have been changed by these promises and this is symbolized by the new name.  And did you know that we too have been given a new name in our Baptism?  The name is Christ and this name makes us heirs of the promise of God’s love and grace and assures us that no matter what, God, through Christ, is with us now and always through every twist and turn of our lives. We do not need to fear the darkness or the crosses that await us to carry, for the cross of Christ provides light and gifts us with resurrected life.
* Quote from the essay “Disappointment with God” by Dr. David Lose, Luther Seminary - found on the website: Working Preacher