Thursday, December 31, 2015

Christmas 2 C - John 1:1-18

John 1:1-18
These opening verses of John’s gospel are like an overture of a grand symphony. The themes and images and theology that will make up the twenty-one chapters of John are introduced the most important being the nature of the Word who was before anything began. My friend, Dr. Bob, calls the Jesus in John the magic Jesus. That’s because John’s Jesus always knows what people are thinking and what’s coming next and makes things happen like magic especially in the end when he lays down his life and picks it up again all by himself. Of course magic Jesus is just a fun way of saying John has a high Christology which is the point John makes in the beginning. This Word that was before anything existed brings light and life into the world by becoming flesh as a Son so that the Father can be revealed. If you have seen the Son you have seen the Father. To tell you the truth I prefer a less magic Jesus like the one in the Gospel of Mark and yet there is something compelling about this Word revealing the mystery of the God beyond knowing. I think it is because this Jesus retains so much of his eternal beginning in his earthly end that he really could have blinked his eyes and legions of angels would have done an Armageddon on those who did Him in. But that would have been darkness overcoming light because given the choice God choosing to die as Jesus is how God so loves the world. That’s the twist the world couldn’t see coming. God’s dying is how we are born into grace and truth, the life of God. And like all good magic tricks the only thing you can do is be surprised and amazed and ask to see it again.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas 2 C - Ephesians 1:3-14

Paul spent a good bit of time in Ephesus but it was not as pleasant as the opening of his letter might lead one to believe. He was imprisoned more than once and faced opposition so far beyond his ability to endure that he despaired of life itself. But he stayed on despite feeling himself under the sentence of death because of the opportunities that persecution presented him. It is in the face of external opposition and inner turmoil that Paul makes these claims that seem to fly in the face of reason. You are holy and blameless and blessed with every spiritual blessing. You were destined from the beginning of time to inherit the riches of God’s grace and sealed by the promised Holy Spirit to live for the praise of God’s glory. These are words of encouragement for Paul as well as the Ephesians to see beyond the temporal into the eternal and so endure even though the whole world conspired to persecute the church to death. While we do not suffer such persecutions we do experience hardships beyond our ability to endure and one does not need to be thrown into prison or face wild beasts in the arena to despair of life itself. The temptation is to believe the temporary will never end because what Paul might call “slight and momentary hardships” (2 Corinthians 4:17) are anything but when you are the one living in them. But that is why faith looks to the past, before the foundation of the world when we were chosen by God, and at the same time peers into the future when the inheritance of unfading glory will be fully realized. It does not mean we will not despair of life itself or face hardships beyond our ability to endure. It does mean that all is not lost even if your whole world conspires against you because the present, no matter how long it lasts, is temporary and even if you cannot endure God will. And that is a promise you can count on no matter what.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas 2 C - Jeremiah 31:7-14

Jeremiah 31:7-14
In Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairytale the American theologian, Frederick Buechner, writes “the Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” That is certainly true for Jeremiah whose long career as a prophet is characterized by weeping. From the beginning his was the kind of ministry that no one appreciates because he was a truth teller to those who fabricated and lived by lies. But his was the voice that could not be silenced though like the Truth that would one day come Jeremiah was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and familiar with grief. In the end Jeremiah will die in exile and the last words of his book will describe the burning and looting of the temple in Jerusalem. But despite the overwhelming bad news for Judah and the suffering that will ensue as the consequence of unfaithfulness God speaks a greater truth through the tears of the weeping prophet. On the other side of mourning is joy; on the other side of sorrow is gladness. The young will dance and the old shall be merry for the Lord who scattered them will bring them back to life like a well-watered garden. But this greater truth can only be experienced if one accepts the lesser truth, the first truth about ourselves. That we like Judah prefer an easy word to a hard one and have perfected the art of living illusionary lives believing secret sins can be confessed without being acknowledged. In the end captivity will come if it hasn’t already. But that is the good news for only from captivity do we listen to the greater truth. That in His weeping the Truth dried our tears for His pain purchased our joy, His death our life. And knowing that the Truth has set us free makes it much harder to go back to living a lie. And that is good news indeed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas 1 C - Colossians 3:12-17

Colossians 3:12-17
Paul’s fashion advice to the Colossians begins with the remembrance of who they are in Christ. Remember you are chosen by God. Remember you are holy and beloved or in other words remember you are a desirable object of God’s affection. So what to wear? Paul’s list should simplify our selection and would if not for closets filled with thoughts and ways of being that don’t fit or have worn out or were never very attractive in the first place. And cleaning out the closet is painful even when helped by loving admonishment. But in the end cleaning our closets and improving our fashion sense is only possible if we are helped by those who bear with us and forgive us and encourage and compliment us. You look good in kindness. That compassion really sets off the color of your eyes. You make that patience work, girl. So what to wear? Remember to put on Christ and everything else will fit perfectly. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas 1 C - Psalm 148

Psalm 148
I once heard a Psalty Kids Praise CD that said when a cow goes moo it is praising God. I don’t mean to be a neigh-sayer when it comes to animal praise but I think moo means feed me or milk me or maybe both. Granted the animal praise list of Psalm 148 includes cattle and that might support the moo theory of praise but then it also has sea monsters and fruit trees and all the weather conditions a Texan can experience in the same day. So this is not the sort of scripture that one takes literally or over thinks. This is a noisy over the top psalm because the very existence of all that is was commanded and established and fixed in place by God, which is how you make it on the praise the Lord list. So praise is not about the sound you make but about you being made. Which means praising the Lord does not require one’s circumstances to be praiseworthy. So I guess I stand corrected. Praise can sound like you are hungry or just need to be milked.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas 1 C - 1 Samuel 2:18-26

This is just the beginning of Samuel’s story but the beginning of the end for Eli. It is a tragic tale of a father who cannot bring himself to do what must be done. His sons have desecrated the sanctuary and have turned the people’s sacrifice into profit for themselves. Eli hears the reports and confronts his sons with their sin but cannot bring himself to condemn them to death which is what the law demands. And so in the end it will be Eli and all of Israel that will have to pay for the sins of the sons. The good news in the story is that God’s gift to the barren Hannah is Samuel who is and will be everything Eli’s sons were not and through his intercession Israel will be saved. It is a story that repeats itself throughout the scriptures and all of human history. The practice of faith meant for blessing becomes instead a source of priestly power or superficial ritualized religion or worse the justification for hatred and violence. But God is always working to turn the curse back into a blessing which is why Hannah is gifted with Samuel who in turn is a gift to Israel. And of course that is the story of Christmas. We, like Eli’s sons have sinned against the Lord in thought, word and deed and cannot intercede for ourselves. But Jesus is and will be everything we are not. And so the gift to Mary becomes a gift for the world as God works to turn the curse into a blessing. But good news for us will be bad news for Jesus who is born to die for us, instead of us, ahead of us so we do not suffer the consequence our sins deserve. I know it might not be such a pleasant way to begin the week of Christmas but then our sin is the real reason for the season. And in a strange sort of way that really does make for a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent 4 C - Luke 1:39-56

Mary went with haste to the hill country for good reason. To be unwed and pregnant was not a condition a woman wanted to be found in, especially in a small town where gossip once whispered would grow louder as Mary grew larger. She goes to see Elizabeth who has had a remarkable conception herself which may have made her more open to the extraordinary mother and unborn child who greeted her that day. John leaping in her womb prompted an exclamation which is the proper response to someone leaping in your womb even if this is more than an “Oh my!” Elizabeth recognizes this as one of those moments when heaven and earth meet and all of history pauses to hold its breath as the Holy and Invisible and Immortal is revealed to flesh and blood. And while she proclaims “Blessed are you… Elizabeth knows that Mary’s blessing is hers as well and one thing leads to another and before you know it there is singing. It is a magnificent song that remembers the promise that God has remembered, to show mercy and strength, to embrace the humble and let the proud be lost in their futile thoughts which is a lonely place to be. Mary sings the powerful brought down and the lowly exalted, the hungry fed and the well fed hungry and in the singing I imagine the two unborn may have done a little leaping. It is a lovely thing to imagine, two pregnant women embracing, dancing, singing of “God with us” while the whole world just kept spinning as if nothing has happened. But of course as lovely and magnificent as that moment was the song will not be finished until it is punctuated by a cry of anguish. It is in the finishing that our song begins and the only way to sing it is to enter it, to leave our proud thoughts to themselves and see that the hungry are well fed. And whenever that happens the song goes back to its beginning, “my soul magnifies the Lord.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent 4 C - Hebrews 10:5-10

Hebrews 10:5-10
The book of Hebrews contains some memorable verses like “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” and “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and always” and “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” These verses are not like those. Most of Hebrews is dedicated to carefully constructed and detailed arguments that would make a lawyer’s head spin. These verses are part of the concluding arguments for the case the unnamed writer wants to make; God has replaced the entire legal system of the law with a new deal. It makes sense then that the new deal would require carefully reasoned arguments for the old one was pretty complicated. Even so it must have seemed beyond reason for those first readers of Hebrews for their entire relationship with God fully depended on God being pleased with sacrifices and offerings. Now they were being asked to believe the right relationship with God, which had depended on their sacrifices, had been replaced by God’s sacrifice. We are not so different for though we confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves we often live as if we believe God only helps those who help themselves. The new deal asks us to trust that nothing we do or say or think is a deal breaker because God’s will is to make us right despite what we do or say or think. And that is beyond reason, which is why faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent 4 C - Psalm 80

Psalm 80:1-7
The lectionary offers the option of using Mary’s song, “My soul magnifies the Lord...” in place of the psalm but I think the lament of Psalm 80 helps put both the prophetic word of Micah and its fulfillment in Luke into the proper context which is God’s response to all that leads one to lament. Lament is the question of the scriptures; “How long, O Lord, will the wicked prosper?” and the cry of the abandoned, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” And so it is for us when in days and nights of questioning, with tears for our bread, scorned and derided by life’s circumstance, we cry out, how long, O Lord? But there is within lament’s question the anticipation of Mary’s song for “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” believes there will be a day of restoration. And that is what makes Mary’s song magnificent. She and all of Israel have waited for this day not in silence but in complaint and when the silent God who is always present finally speaks through the offspring of Mary’s womb the centuries of lamenting are forgotten in the infant’s cry. And in an ironic twist the cry of Mary’s offspring on a “hill far away” will be God’s lament which of course is how we are saved.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent 4 C - Micah 5:2-5a

Micah 5:2-5a
The lectionary for Advent 4C begins with verse 2 of Micah chapter 5 and ends before the fifth verse is finished. Maybe that is because the rest of Micah predicts the “one of peace” who comes from the little clan of Judah will do some damage to the Assyrians “and in anger and wrath execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey.” (5:15) It’s not quite the stuff of Christmas carols but then Micah was written to people who had suffered the kind of carnage that calls for revenge. The Christ that was born in “O little town of Bethlehem” is nothing like the Messiah Micah imagined God would send. It will take a prophet like Paul to realize that God chooses what is foolish to shame the wise, what is weak to shame the strong and that the reversal of fortune that saves the world happens when the “one of peace” dies a violent death. Of course that is not the end of the story because the “one of peace” died in order to do serious damage to death itself. So while the powers and principalities (Ephesians 6) may have celebrated on the Friday we call “Good” they were done for good on the Sunday we call Easter. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent 3 C - Luke 3:7-18

Luke 3:7-18
We don’t hear many “Brood of Vipers” sermons in the Lutheran church. It’s not that we don’t all need and even welcome a stern word now and then it’s just that Lutherans draw the line at being called poisonous reptiles. We’re happy to sing “Chief of Sinners Though I Be” and confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean but call us snakes and we might hiss at you. But with or without the snake reference this may be more of a true word for us than we’d care to admit. While we don’t presume to be children of Abraham we bet on being children of grace and bearing fruits worthy of repentance is often a postscript not a priority. Like those who came out to be chastised and challenged by John the end of our confession must be “What then should we do?” Of course the question, as important and necessary as it is, follows God’s answer for Christians of the Lutheran flavor. God’s forgiveness does not depend on our doing; our doing depends on God’s forgiving. True repentance anticipates absolution and in the freedom of forgiveness one cleans out the closet and gives away the extra coat. The good news of John’s exhortation is the end our comfortable relationship with dishonest ways and vain striving after wealth and power. And all of this is made possible by the “more powerful” One who follows John, the only anti-venom for a brood of vipers.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent 3 C - Philippians 4:1-13

“Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice” is a four part round I sang for years at church camp. It's one of those rounds you just keep singing because it has no obvious ending and though not nearly as obnoxious as “It’s a Small World After All” it can get stuck in your head. Maybe that’s the point of these four verses – not the obnoxious part – but a way of living that gets stuck in your head and has no ending unless you choose to stop. Of course sometimes stopping is a choice made for us as anxiety mounts and prayers spoken into the silence of God defy our ability to understand. But then that is why we have to sing “Rejoice in the Lord always” as a round. Four parts compelling each other to keep singing and you cannot tell who is leading or who is following and every measure has a Rejoice. It is through the prayer of our life together that the peace of God transcends anxious times to guard hearts and minds and keep the song from stopping. So rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice!  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Advent 3 C - Isaiah 12:2-6

Isaiah 25:2-6 is the text for The First Song of Isaiah by Jack Noble White. The first time I heard it was some twenty years ago at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Irving, TX when I presided over a funeral for one of their members. The funeral was for a woman who had courageously battled cancer for more years than her original prognosis predicted possible and while we felt a deep sadness at the loss of one so faithful and beautiful and loved we also felt that peace and joy that would be out of place if not for the truth of this scripture set to song. “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in Him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense and He will be my Savior.” In this scripture set to song the physical and spiritual weakness of human flesh, the fear, the doubt, the overwhelming sorrow is lifted with the melody as our singing is joined and supported and sustained by an invisible cloud of witnesses for whom the song is more true than we can presently imagine. Surely it is God who saves me… It is a song of defiant faith against all that would wither the soul with doubt and fear. Surely it is God who saves me… It is a song of courage for times of trial and comfort for times of sorrow. Surely it is God who saves me… a song for all our days until at last we reach the endless tomorrow. Surely it is God who saves me.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent 3 C - Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah 3:14-20
These are the last verses of the short book of Zephaniah. The rest of the book reads more like the first verse of the prophecy. "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the LORD. Zephaniah predicts “a day of distress and anguish, of trouble and ruin, of darkness and gloom,” because Jerusalem has become complacent thinking God will do neither good nor evil and Assyria, that carefree city, is full of pride boasting “I am and there is none like me.” But those who seek humility and righteousness, who accept the Lord’s correction, will sing for joy for they will be renewed in God’s love. The truth of this short book is that spiritual complacency and pride are deadly in the life of the believer. We think that nothing we do really matters because God is like the kindly grandparent who might get a little upset but still has milk and cookies for us at bedtime. Or we are full of our own spiritual prowess and piety thinking that we can overcome sin itself and so judge all others accordingly. The woe that complacency and pride visit upon us is the same as the dreadful judgments of Zephaniah. We forget how to sing the song of the heart’s rejoicing and cannot hear the God who longs to exult over us with loud singing. So accept the Lord’s correction this day. Seek after humility and righteousness and sing a song of rejoicing with the Lord who longs to sing with you.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Advent 2 C - Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1-6
Luke names the powers that rule the world because he is writing an orderly account for the most excellent Theophilus and though he is a physician by training he is an historian at heart. And so he grounds the story of salvation in the names and dates of human history. But Luke the theologian names the powers of the political and religious world to clothe the prophetic word in flesh and blood. The powers of empire and temple cannot hear it yet but the voice that cries in the wilderness will resound throughout the world of Jerusalem and Rome. The mountain of Tiberius and Pilate will be made low. The valley of Herod’s wickedness will be filled. The crooked path of Annas and Caiaphas will be made straight as the rough ways of empire and temple are made smooth. We would do well to listen for the voice crying in our time for the salvation that all flesh will see is not clothed in the trappings of empire or church but in acts of justice, peace and mercy. And closer to home the good news is that when we hear the voice and see that salvation for ourselves the mountain of our pride is brought low, the valley of our fear and self-loathing is filled, the crooked paths that have become well-worn and familiar are made straight and all the rough ways that keep us from loving are made smooth. And that is good news indeed.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent 2 C - Philippians 1:3-11

Philippians 1:3-11
If the Galatians and the Corinthians were like thorns in Paul’s flesh, then the Philippians were the healing balm for the pain in Paul’s neck. It’s not that the Philippians didn’t have troubles of their own it’s that despite the trials they faced they were more than willing to share Paul’s. That is the way of partnership in the Gospel. Or as Paul will write to the law bound Galatians, bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Or to the spiritually arrogant Corinthians, you can babble on in whatever language you like but the language of love is the only one that matters. The Philippians understood that from the beginning when they were the only church to support Paul’s efforts in Macedonia. It’s hard to image how their love might overflow more than it already had but that is Paul’s prayer for those who shared his joy and his suffering. Whenever the church ceases to be conversant in the language of love it is in need of a Philippian reformation that the good work begun on the day of our Pentecost might be completed on the day of resurrection. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent 2 C - Luke 1:68-79

Luke 1:68-79
The lesson that occupies the place of the psalm this Sunday is Zechariah’s Song and expresses the hopes and dreams of a people who have been waiting forever for their fortunes to change and their ship to come in. Zechariah sings it because he is a new father and his voice which had been taken from him earlier in the chapter has returned and that is reason enough to sing. But it is more than a proud father who has high hopes for his son; no less than a prophet of the Most High! No, it is more than that for in a moment of Holy Spirit joy Zechariah sings the longing of every people oppressed by enemies or hands that hate, all people who yearn for light to shine in the darkness and the shadow cast by death itself. In that sense it is a song for us who are often our own worse enemies. Oppressed by thoughts and deeds that lead us far from God we hear a word of promise that in the mighty Savior floating in Mary’s womb tender mercy will rescue us and guide our hearts and minds in the ways of peace. And that calls for a song.