Friday, January 31, 2014

Reflections on the text - The Presentation of Our Lord - Luke 2:22-40

Read the text here: Luke 2:22-40
Endless Loop of Darkness
Many of us I expect are familiar with the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day” about an obnoxious TV weatherman who gets stuck reliving Groundhog Day, Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, PA on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2 over and over again.  No matter what he does every day is the same day that he has to redo over and over and over. It is as if he has to get it right until he will be allowed to move on finally to Feb. 3.  He is gotten stuck in an endless loop, destined to continue on and on into eternity.
This film is a comedy, but it seems to me in many ways this film understands and presents a basic truth of the human condition.  Our “Sin,” that is our self-centeredness, has caused us all to fall into an endless loop of darkness.  And it seems as though we cannot escape no matter what we do.  As a result we find ourselves spiraling deeper and deeper into the darkness, estranged from God, from others and even from ourselves.  There are a number of examples that we can point to.  Various addictions, alcoholism for example, can cause us to enter into this loop.  Perhaps it starts with a drink to relax before bedtime, and then a few drinks with friends but next thing we know we are drinking a lot more and things begin to fall apart in our lives and we cannot figure why or what to do about it, and we don't have the strength or conviction to do what we need to do – which is get help to stop drinking. 
But this is not the only example that could be lifted up as sending us into this endless loop of darkness.  There are other addictions that we individually and corporately fall into.  And in fact we all have any number of loops that we struggle with, both as individuals and as a society.  We are, as a society, addicted to wealth and possessions that we seek after at all costs, no matter who gets hurt; we are addicted to violence; we are addicted to entertainment; we are addicted to being right and getting our own way.  And the list can go on and on.  Individual and corporate endless loops of darkness that keep us entrapped.  The result is that we often find ourselves like Phil Connors in the film stuck in this loop.  We can’t get out and we usually begin to find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into the mire and darkness.
This is the human condition and it was not a whole lot different back in Jesus’ day.  The history of Israel is in fact a history of selfishness, betrayal, oppression, violence and darkness.  Periodically Israel has found itself conquered and controlled by outside powers, such as Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, but this has only made the loop of darkness deeper and darker.  And this is the situation Jesus is born into.  And when Jesus is presented in the temple the old priest Simeon takes him in his arms and sings “…my own eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of every people.  A light to enlighten the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” Simeon is saying in effect, this is the solution to the endless loop.  God has entered into our world in order to break open the loops that have entrapped is, and to bring light into the midst of this darkness.
But it won’t be easy.  It never is.  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  Simeon speaks these words to Mary.  And these are words of truth for us as well.  God has called us to light, but (let’s face it) we prefer the darkness (as John says).  It is familiar and it is comfortable.  We may realize that we are in an endless loop of darkness and that it is destroying us, but at least it is a familiar loop, a familiar darkness.  Whereas the light offered by Christ is unfamiliar and scary.  If I begin to break my dependence on alcohol, or money, or possessions or this or that – what will life be like?  If I begin to open my heart to the light of Christ that shines in me what does that mean about my favorite prejudices and priorities? 
           Last week I used the image of a lighthouse to describe what God does for us at Baptism.  We are like a lighthouse where God has lit the light of Christ in us at our baptisms and this light is shining forth from us automatically because of the love and grace that God has showered upon us.  But we can do things to the light – we can do things to help the light shine brighter and farther.  But we can also do things to squelch the light, to limit the light and even to block it out.  Today we remember that Jesus was presented in the temple to God as the light of God’s love and grace which shines forth in the darkness and we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to this light.  To seek after ways to help this light shine forth in our lives, thus working to break the various endless loops of darkness in which we have gotten ourselves entrapped.  And so rather than being stuck repeating the same day over and over again we are rather, led by the light and sustained by the presence of Christ.  For in Christ each and every day is a new day! 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reflections on the text for Epiphany 3 - Matthew 4:12-23

Read the Text here: Matthew 4:12-23
Filling Out the Application

The Greek word that is usually translated as “disciple” is more commonly translated as “student.” And becoming a student to a Rabbi in the 1st century was not an easy task.  To become a student your father would first have to go to the Rabbi and make a formal request, then if the Rabbi was willing to consider it you would need to then go and meet with him and be subject to an extensive interview.  The point was that, of course, the Rabbi needed to know that you were serious, that you would be responsible and that you had an aptitude for the work.  And if you satisfied the Rabbi then you were in and you would become one of the Rabbi’s students.  This meant you left your home and went to live in the home of the Rabbi with all of the other students.  The course of study would be pretty rigorous.  You would be studying pretty much all day; you would listen to the Rabbi talk by the hour and follow him wherever he went.  (And our confirmation students think they have it rough!)
After a period of time you would conclude your studies on the first level.  Most students left the Rabbi at this point and they returned to their homes and to apprenticeships with their fathers or relatives.  A small group of particularly gifted students would be invited to continue their studies into the 2nd level.  And this was even more intensive than the 1st level.  After you finished the 2nd level then the Rabbi would choose one, two or no students from this group to continue on to the 3rd level.  This was the most intensive of all.  And being in the 3rd level also meant that now you assisted in teaching the younger 1st level students.  When you concluded this period of study then you were ready to go out on your own and become a Rabbi yourself.  Three levels, a rigorous and intensive course of study, lots of evaluation! And not only that but the whole thing could take many years.
Our Gospel text from Matthew for this week tells the story of Jesus’ calling of his principal disciples/students.  Now, in the 1st century everyone knew the process of choosing students; they knew what it took and what was required.  And so when we read this account of Jesus’ selecting his disciples it is remarkable for how different it is.  In fact, Jesus – in typical form – doesn’t follow the standard procedure at all! Last week we heard the story from John of Jesus’ calling of Philip and Nathaniel (or Bartholomew).  “Come and See!”  Jesus says. In our Gospel today Jesus calls out to a couple fishermen – Andrew and Peter – who are simply doing their jobs.  And then Jesus calls out to a couple other fishermen brothers – John and James Zebedee - who are working in a boat fixing their nets – “Follow Me!”   And there you have it!  Where is the rigorous evaluation?  How does Jesus know these guys are up to the task? Where is the traditional vetting process?  It does not exist. 
Now if you follow the story of these disciples/students you may get the impression that Jesus really was not selective enough in his choice of students.  These students never seem to grasp the point.  They are always confused.  They are always messing up!  So how did Jesus find these guys and why doesn’t Jesus fire them and get new students?  And not only that, but they don’t even get along with each other very well.  The Gospels are full of incidents and hints about how they don’t like each other very much.  James and John (and their mother even) trying to push their way to the top of the heap; Judas criticizing the spending of money for perfume; Jesus’ group of 12 includes a whole spectrum of different men of differing backgrounds, tribes and political views including zealots and tax collectors.  And that is just the inner 12 – the 3rd level students (as it were).  And in the 1st level (and 2nd?) we even have women – who in some ways are better students than the men!
The point is that there seems to be no criteria for the selecting of students by Jesus – except the willingness to follow!  Jesus calls, and these men (and women) drop everything and follow.  They leave possessions, home, family and friends all behind and they begin to follow Jesus and they listen to him and try to learn from him.  There is a scene from “Jesus of Nazareth” (the wonderful film by director Franco Zeffirelli) where one evening all the disciples and Jesus have turned in for the night and Peter is on his cot next to Matthew and he wonders aloud how his family is and when he will be able to return to them.  After a pause Matthew responds by telling Peter that he will not be returning, he will never be able to go back.  The scene ends with a close up of Peter’s face where by the expression we can tell that as painful as that news is, he knows it is true.
It is true for us too.  We cannot go back, either.  We were bound to Christ in our Baptisms and Jesus has beckoned to us to follow him as well.  We don’t even need to fill out an application form.  We are baptized!  It is not that Jesus is not selective, just the opposite in fact, Jesus is selective?  And he has selected you!  God’s love through Jesus is all encompassing and takes us all into his embrace – “come, follow me!”  And now, will you follow will you leave behind everything?  Will to commit to Christ as your first priority?
Most of us, I suspect cannot fathom leaving everything behind like the disciples did when Jesus called to them.  And of course we live in different times.  But even so, it seems to me that there is at the foundation an issue of commitment and priority – maybe even idolatry.  Is Christ in the center of your lives?  Is Christ your first priority?  Or are there other things, people, relationships, entertainment, other activities, that are more important?  These are among the issues that are raised in this text for today.  Jesus said, “follow me” and these men left everything and followed.  What about you?  Will you make Christ your first priority or only follow when it is convenient?
The text ends with Jesus commencing his ministry of love – his very physical ministry of reaching out to teach and heal and care for others.  And these disciples were right there with him, learning and also reaching out in God’s love to others.  What about you?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Reflections on the text for The Baptism of Our Lord - Matthew 3:13-17

Read the text here: Matthew 3:13-17
This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased…
The year 1521 was an important and dramatic year for Martin Luther.  This is the year that Luther stood before the assembled German nobility along with the Holy Roman Emperor and refused to recant his teachings and writings.  “Here I stand…” he is quoted as saying.  Immediately following this exhilarating moment Luther was bundled out of the city of Worms and secured in a lonely castle called the Wartburg.  There he languished for almost a year, alone.  To pass the time he took on the task of translating the New Testament into German, but the solitude was very difficult for him.  He was immediately beset by doubts and fears and he felt that he was being attacked by demons who kept up a steady chorus of whispering words of criticism, condemnation and self-loathing.  As the time went on the voices got louder and more intense until finally (as the story goes) Luther picked up the bottle of ink and threw it across the room at his accusers – “I AM BAPTIZED!”  He cried!  And the accusers scattered.  Thereafter whenever he felt beset he would simply cry out – “I AM BAPTIZED!”
In our Gospel text from Matthew we meet again John the Baptist who is calling the people to repentance and baptizing them in the River Jordan.  Today Jesus appears to be baptized by John.  At first John refuses, but eventually agrees.  As Jesus is coming up out of the water the Holy Spirit rests upon Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven speaks – “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Then Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tested and tempted by the devil.  “If you are the Son of God…” cries the devil, “then turn these stones into bread… throw yourself down from here… worship me for only I can give you glory.” 
In his baptism Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is confirmed and affirmed.  But immediately that identity comes under attack.  “What does it mean that you are the Son of God,” whispers the accuser, “Doesn’t it mean you can do anything you want; that you are so powerful that you can create your own food out of these stones?  Doesn’t it mean that you can throw off this flawed and vulnerable humanity that you have taken on and never have to worry about mortality? Doesn’t it mean that you are deserving of glory and power and wealth and majesty?”  And to these questions, to these attacks Jesus answers a simple – No – that is not what it means!  You can almost hear an echo in Jesus’ response of Luther’s “I am baptized!” 
For to be baptized is to be affirmed as a child of God, a part of God’s family.  Jesus’ identity was affirmed and confirmed by the voice of God that spoke from the heavens.  This identity is absolute and never changing.  No matter what sinister voices attempt to drown out of the voice of God, no matter what challenges to this identity come his way (and we know there will be plenty of those to come), it all comes down to this simple affirmation – You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased… -  and nothing can change that!
This is true for us as well.  We too receive our identity at our Baptism.  We become children of God – sons and daughters of God.  This is our most important identity in life and it is never changing.  Throughout our lives we will have struggles and challenges to contend with and our identity in the world may shift and change – but our identity as children of God – as beloved sons and daughters of God – will never, ever change.  It is on this that we can depend.  The voice of God speaks at our Baptisms as well – “This is my beloved daughter, my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”  For in our Baptisms we are baptized into Christ and our identity is in him.  In our baptisms we are called to see not only ourselves as part of God’s family but all others who are also Baptized and whom God has also called to be part of God’s family.
But also like Jesus who immediately had his identity attacked, we too must contend with attacks on our identity as children of God and voices that attempt to undermine this identity and calling.  As children we sometimes hear voices that tell us that tell us we are not smart enough, or not pretty enough, or not talented enough, or not cool enough.  As teens, we hear the voices of bullies and those who resort to violence putting us down, calling names; we hear voices pushing us to do things we know are wrong in order to be accepted.  As adults we struggle with those voices that tell us we are not successful enough, or we don’t have enough stuff, or we’re not attractive enough, or have enough money, or we really do need that drink in order to fit in or to relax.  Our identity as God’s children comes under vicious attack from the very moment we are Baptized and we forget that God has already given us an unchangeable identity, a foundation of grace and love that can provide us with direction and strength.  “I AM BAPTIZED!”  Not, by the way, “I was baptized” but “I AM BAPTIZED!”  And this affirmation reminds us of who are and whose we are.
And not only us, but many, many others are also claimed as beloved children of God.  We can easily begin to focus so much on ourselves that we loose our ability to see this identity in others.  We begin to be judgmental – that person is lazy, overweight, ugly, the wrong kind of person, the wrong color and on and on – and God’s voice is drowned out by our own words and actions.
I AM BAPTIZED!  We are reminded today that we have been claimed by God, accepted into God’s family as children of God, through Jesus.  We have been washed clean of our sinful self-centeredness by the waters of Baptism, we have been anointed by the oil and marked with the cross of Christ forever and we are called to let our lights shine forth.  In the small catechism Luther is quite clear that Baptism is at the foundation of our lives as Christians and he encourages us to constantly find ways of remembering, recalling, and making present now our baptismal experience.  The feel of water, the making of the sign of the cross all help ground us in our identity as children of God.  You are God’s beloved, with you God is well-pleased!  I AM BAPTIZED! This is who you are – a beloved child of God!
Art by the incredible artist - HeQi
This sermon was inspired by a chapter in "Pastrix" by Pr. Nadia Boltz-Weber

Friday, January 3, 2014

Another Reflection on Matthew 2

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under… (Matthew 2:16)
By the time you read this article Christmas will be (mostly) over – the presents will have been opened, some of them have been put to use, or used up, or now ignored or even broken; the decorations will go back into their 11 month storage and we will be back to facing the cold, icy winds of January as our lives return to their normal routine.  Things that we have put off “until after the holidays” will now need to be addressed and dealt with.  Any other issues that we have been struggling with but had put aside briefly will now demand our attention.  Christmas came – it left – and life is still the same.
The first Christmas was like that too.  There came a time when the angels had disappeared from the sky, the shepherds when back to their flocks and their lives and while the Magi don’t show up until a little later (actually Monday this year!), nevertheless they only visit briefly and then leave and return home.  Mary and Joseph are ultimately left with a baby to care for, and (according to the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew) the darkness of the Christmas experience itself is not only matched but perhaps surpassed by the fear, the terror, the hate and violence of what happens next.  There is a military action, a security action ordered by Herod the Great – children are murdered and Joseph, Mary and the baby barely escape to Egypt in fear for Jesus’ life.  This is all a part of the Christmas story, but not a part that we spend much time thinking about. 
 The fact is that Christmas is a dark story and at the same time the general celebration of Christmas has always tended to ignore that and to focus on joy and gladness!  Even as far back as AD 742, St. Boniface complained that the way folks were celebrating Christmas was missing the point.  And so it continues.  Every year we roll out the jolly and push the darkness away – we focus on the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the glory, the joy, the sentimental and expect everyone else will do so as well.  And when they don’t we accuse them of attacking the spirit of Christmas. (Exactly what does it mean to "keep Christ in Christmas?" - How is our yearly orgy of consumerism "keeping Christ in Christmas?") But perhaps we need to remove the log from our own eye and recognize that we ourselves are equally guilty of missing the point. 
Maybe now that Christmas is over for another year we can take another look at the story and see it in all of its glory and darkness: see the oppression of the census, the difficulty of the journey, the rejection in Bethlehem, darkness and stench of the cave, the stench of the shepherds, the outcast status of the shepherds, the difficulty and pain of the birth itself in such an unfriendly environment, the fear and escape to Egypt, the violence aimed at defenseless little children, the bloodshed and violence.  Why does this story have to have so much darkness?  Because when we look at that baby laying in that manger we need to see Jesus on the cross.  That is what Christmas is all about, friends. That is how we "keep Christ in Christmas" - we focus on the Cross!  Because the cross is about God’s incredible and overwhelming love for us that leads God to enter into this incredibly and intensely dark, terrified and violent world in order to love.  And this love is as intense as the darkness – more so, in fact, but if we minimize the darkness then we have trivialized what Christ has done for us.  The lesson of Christmas is this – there is no darkness too dark, no fear too intense, no loss or grief too overwhelming for God.  Through Christ God enters into all of our human experiences – even and especially the dark ones and brings light and life and love and grace.
I have been reading a wonderful book throughout this Christmas season called “Pastrix.”  It is written by an ELCA pastor from Denver named Nadia Boltz-Weber.  (The youth who went to New Orleans for the Youth Event will remember that she was one of the featured speakers).  She is the pastor of a community that she started herself called The House for All Sinners and Saints.  She is a colorful and somewhat controversial pastor, but I think she is terrific and the honesty and insight she shares in this book are amazing.  I strongly recommend it  – but be warned, it is not like any book you will have ever read by any other pastor.  The language is a bit rough, but if you can get past that she has some profound and truly beautiful things to say.  In one chapter she shares her experience working as a hospital chaplain.  I, personally, found this chapter very moving, and I felt it resonated with my own chaplaincy experiences.  I want to conclude this meditation by sharing a couple quotes from the end of that chapter (page 86).
She concludes the chapter (called “Clinical Pastoral Education”) by sharing a terrible experience of having to sit with two young children who had just lost their mother in a freak accident.  As it happened it was Good Friday and still reeling from the experience she attended Good Friday services:
…When the reading of the passion began – the account in John’s Gospel of the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus – I listened with changed ears.  I listened with the ears of someone who didn’t just admire and want to imitate Jesus, but had felt him present in the room where two motherless boys played on the floor.
    I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus’ last hours, and I realized that in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share in our human story.  Even the parts of the human story that are the most painful… God was not looking down on the cross, God was hanging from the cross.  God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is…
… God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant in the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital; but instead, God is there in the … middle of it…  There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering.  But there is meaning.  And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus – Emmanuel – which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.
And now for your reading pleasure try these links - each one of these articles or sermons is outstanding and should be read and digested:
And to conclude the season - Nothing is more beautiful and profound than the Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach.  Enjoy this performance from the 2012 Peoria Bach Festival with the owner and author of this blog playing 2nd Oboe D'Amore (and the echo oboe in Cantata #4).  Enjoy and have a blessed 2014.