Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon - Christmas Day

Christmas Day
December 25, 2016                                                                                      

                                                             Finding it difficult to believe

There is something wonderful about having adult children.  I got to get out of bed this morning when I was ready.  When they did get out of bed, there was complete understanding that any and all family activities needed to keep in mind the appointed hour for worship – and my sermon preparation.  There are many things wonderful about having adult children.

But one of the things you miss is the opportunity to explore outlandish claims as reality.  Young children, with their naiveté and constant willingness to be amazed allow us all to participate in exploring the boundaries for believing things which rational persons would readily label as impossible.

None of the homes in which our children remember living had a fireplace.  But we still found a place to hang our “stockings with care, in hopes that St. Nick soon would be there.” 

One of the social media chains I found enjoyable last night were LCM Alums asking one another which of the “Rain deer tracking apps” had the best sound effects.

What I miss has nothing to do with a dark desire to mislead children, what I miss is the excuse to admit that Christmas Day is nothing, if it doesn’t include breaking the boundaries of believing things which rational persons would readily label as impossible.

The presence of small children allows us to make outlandish claims and never bat an eyelash.  That is why Christmas is just not the same if you don’t have small children around.  Who else is going to believe this impossible story?  Christmas Day is nothing, if it doesn’t include breaking the boundaries of believing things which rational persons would readily label as impossible.

Okay – let’s admit it – there are a lot of things about this story which make it a bit “outlandish”. 

I promise this is a safe space – do I have your permission to risk exploring those parts of the story which we tell this morning as outrageous violations of reasonable thought?

1 – The virgin birth.  Our questions about this have less to do with our high school biology lessons than the absence of a course in the development of Roman mythology.  The earliest of the Christian writers don’t include a virgin birth – Mark, Paul.  As we move forward in history, still before the birth of microscopes, the virgin birth is a way to speak of innocence and the arrival of one so unlike anyone ever before birthed.  There is no biological explanation suitable to explain the person who Jesus emerges to be.

2 – Wisemen from the East.  Okay – you follow a star, I get that.  But when I look at the stars I don’t see them pointing to a particular place on the map.   And that line about the star coming to rest over the place where Jesus was born – a star would have to be continually moving to remain over one spot on the earth, because of the earth’s continual rotation.  Again, astronomy isn’t what we need to learn.  The outlandish claim which the star allows us to make is that the birth of Jesus has implications for every person regardless of their interest in the religious convictions which arise from Jerusalem.

3 – Angels singing to shepherds.  You have to start with the angels themselves.  As a fan of country music, I hear more than my share of references to guardian angels and instances where “Jesus takes the wheel,” but when was the last time someone with a straight face told you they had seen an angel floating in sky and singing a song?  You will tell me – of course it doesn’t happen every day.  The reason we observe this day – Christmas Day – is because it happened in this instance. 

I could go on.  But I imagine you have other activities scheduled for this morning so I will stop there – assuming that I have sufficient by-in to my assertion that Christmas is all about probing the boundaries between what is believable and seem to many an idle tale.

Having small children around allows us to repeat these claims, as if speaking to them, and thus providing the chance for us to believe these things, too.

I long for the presence of an innocence which allows us to believe what any rational person would quickly label as ridiculous and impossible.

(This is corner which this sermon either turns or falls flat on its face.) 

That for which I truly long, is innocence which allows me to believe the future ramifications of the outlandish story first told in Bethlehem.  In so many ways it is much easier to believe in flying reindeer than it is to believe that peace on earth can truly come.

That for which I truly long, is innocence which allows me to believe the future ramifications of the outlandish story first told in Bethlehem.  In so many ways it is much easier to believe in a virgin birth than it is to believe that non-violence and non-resistance will overcome hatred and selfish ambition.

That for which I truly long, is innocence which allows me to believe the future ramifications of the outlandish story first told in Bethlehem.  In so many ways it is much easier to believe in virgins having children than it is to believe that every innkeeper or homeowner will open their hearts and doors so that no one has to sleep in the cold or wet of a winter night.

We waste our time attempting to tell our children stories which amaze and surprise them if all we tell them is gifts of gold and frankincense and muir making their way to a little baby lying in a manger.  Take the risk of telling them that the birth of Jesus means everything about life has changed – and the birth of Jesus means that we are changed and that is why our lives might not look like the lives lived by others.  The little bitty pokes at reality and rational thought invite us into a Norman Rockwell painting.  But the significant outlandish claims made on this day confront us with a whole new view of the world and our life in it.

Oh how I miss having small children in my home on Christmas Day. 


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, December 8

Advent is a time to look to that which is to come.  Advent is an opportunity to anticipate an ending which we may never see in our lifetime.  Advent is a time to speak of things so grand and great that others around us might find it difficult to comprehend our words.

Advent should be a snap for those of us in campus ministry.  We begin a season of preparation, which never reaches its end.  Amid exams and final projects, we have been talking about Christmas, but we won't be together to see the arrival of Christmas.  Each fall we go through this time of preparation and each January we return to report all the great things which have happened - sometimes the stories are difficult to comprehend.

A similar set of events will happen in the houses which were your childhood homes.  A series of preparations have been going on there - without your participation.  When you get home, you will be informed of what is going to happen and when.  There is a tremendous amount of comfort in just being along for the ride, but doing so doesn't make you a full participant.

Preparing and bringing to a conclusion are integral parts of every experience.  Those of us in campus ministry know the shortcomings of only being involved in one and not both.  

I encourage you, over the remaining 29 days to integrate your preparation  with your experience.  Make sure the two are linked - even though they must happen in two very distinct  communities.

I pray for a continued blessed advent, and I wish you a joy-filled Christmas.  I will be back with you come January 11.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, December 7

The story in which we learn of God's call to Isaiah is in the 6th chapter.  This is the story from which we get the popular camp song, "Here I am Lord....."  Isaiah has a vision in which he is in the Temple and he sees God.  The vision of God is so overwhelming that when the request comes, "Whom shall I send?" Isaiah steps forward.

We are too inclined to depend upon our thinking process when it comes to our faith.  Where is the heart?   And what effect does all that we see have upon us?

One of the things I have seen this week which encourages me to respond favorably to God's invitation is the support you offer one another during these stressful times.  It is a wonder like that seen by Isaiah - to observe the jokes and laughter which take the edge off exams and final projects.  It is called community; and it is a lovely thing to see.  It leads one to strive for a similar opportunity in the lives of others.

I am a very cognitive person.  I think a lot about faith and the convictions of Christian faith.  But what I see, those things which move my heart, these are the things which lie behind my willingness to step forward which God is in need of a messenger.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, December 6

I feel compelled to write of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra on this his Feast Day.

Bishop Nicholas lived in the 4th century.  Myra is an ancient city in what is modern day Turkey.  He was known for his acts of kindness, particularly his giving of gifts, by night.  

One tradition has him slipping money to a poor family in order that the daughters would have a diary, thus avoiding a life of forced servant hood.  

If he wanted to leave coins for someone and wanted to make sure they would be somewhat hidden from others he would place them in the shoes of the intended recipient.  Socks and stockings are a luxury seldom enjoyed by those in the greatest need.

Remember that a Bishop's clothing included a red cape.  The instances in which persons actually saw Bishop Nicholas giving gifts were mostly reports of seeing the back side of such a red outfit.

I encourage you to become familiar with the story of St. Nicholas.  Go to wiki and read how this Saint of the ancient church morphed into a lesser version so widely heralded in our culture.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Devotion - Monday, December 5

The text for today is Luke 21:20-28.  This is one of the apocalyptic chapters in the Gospel.  Apocalyptic literature speaks of the end of times.  It addresses the final consummation.  The Book of Revelation is perhaps the best known of this type of literature.

In Luke 21, Jesus is speaking of seeing armies surrounding Jerusalem.  He says "great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people."  

It is most common, in our contemporary culture, to see this type of literature as "bad news."  We hope to avoid the days of which apocalyptic literature speak.  But the 28th verse would have us understand things differently.  Jesus ends this section by saying, "look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Apocalyptic literature exposes where we have placed our trust.  If we have come to rely on our own systems and securities, then we will fear the things of which it speaks.  Those who seek God and God's final hope for the world are inclined to see in the endings the arrival of our redemption.

During these days of Advent, we joyfully anticipate the arrival of Messiah.  But let's not forget that the Messiah whom we adore brings a message which challenges so much of what we have come to accept as business as usual.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon - Advent 2, Year A

Matthew 3:1-12    


The story of John the Baptist figures very heavily in the story of Jesus’ birth.  It is impossible to get through the Christmas story without mentioning this fiery country preacher.  In the four short weeks of Advent (the season in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus) two Sundays are given over to John.  This week we hear a short section of his preaching; next week we will learn of his attempts to determine whether or not Jesus is truly the Messiah.

John is very important in the story of Jesus’ birth.  He is the messenger who comes before Jesus in order to prepare his way.  He is the herald who announces that the Son of Man is coming.  He is the first act of the one-two punch which stirs the Judean countryside and causes alarm among the civil authorities.

And yet, there is something very different about the message of John and the message of Jesus.  They are interrelated, but they are not the same.  Jesus came to remove our sins.  John’s role was to make us aware of just how sinful we can be.

I want to be very careful, from the outset, to point out the reason for discussing this difference between John and Jesus.  It is important to note the difference so that we can dispel the false notions which would have us believe that confessing our sin is all that is necessary.  Too often, in our good southern churches, we have heard a continuation of the preaching of John the Baptist.  What we Christians ought to be hearing is the message of Jesus. 

John convicts us of our sin; Jesus – by his death and resurrection -  proclaims our forgiveness. 

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, the message he proclaimed was a call to repentance. 

The scriptures contain very little of his actual sermons, what we get are a smattering of phrases and comments.  But these are enough for us to realize that John's message was not a pleasant one.  He came with a word of warning, a word of judgment, a call to account­ability.  John, through his preaching, delivered a message, a notice, that Jerusalem and all of Judea must acknowl­edge their sin and returned to God.

The word that is used by John is "repent."  The baptism he offers is a “baptism of repentance”.  To repent is to turn around.  It is to go in the opposite direction from the direction our current course would take us.  To repent is to identify where were are doing wrong and from this point forward to do the right thing.  To repent is to make the changes in our lives which align us with God’s hope for our lives and the world.  To repent is to turn around and prepare ourselves for the in-breaking of Messiah.

I want to be careful, not to repeat what I referred to earlier as the theme most often preached in our good southern churches.  Repenting does not make us right with God and thus assure where we will spend eternity.  Repenting does not complete our quest for salvation.  But we also need to be careful, not to so forcefully separate the messages of John and Jesus that we ignore John’s call to prepare.

John figures heavily into our Advent readings and our Advent preparations.  John is not Messiah.  The Messiah will come after John is finished.   The work of John is to prepare the way.

So, let’s return to this concept of repentance; of turning our lives around.  For john, this is a confession.  But it is also a change in behavior which produces visible changes.  Twice in today’s passage Matthew quotes John saying that we ought to “bear good fruits.”  Once they are called “fruits worthy of repentance.”   

What are these fruits worthy of repentance and are they evident in our lives?

I do not want to make you squirm in your seats – well, not squirm too much.  But it would be a disservice to the appointed Gospel lesson to fail to ask whether we have fully embraced the scripture’s message.  Have you heeded the call to repentance?  Martin Luther’s insistence that we remember our baptism each morning as we wash our face is surely a call to also look each morning at the invitation to repentance.

Let’s approach it from a more tangible side – where is there an absence of good fruits in your life?  Maybe a complete and total turning around is too much to ask or hope for.  But what one thing might you change which would make your life one in which fruits were found.

Maybe you need to stop saying bad things about USC.

Perhaps you need to repent of the way you have found to cheat (just a little bit) on your income taxes.

Is there opportunity and reason to repent of the way you speak of the stranger and sojourner? 

Maybe repentance is needed in the way you use the resources at your disposal?  (Yes, I am talking about whether you live up to the biblical standard of giving a tenth of your income.)

In my own return to repentance, I find myself greatly challenged when it comes to “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the kindest of ways.”  I am so quick to find fault and to blame and to speak ill of them and never even attempt to talk to them so as to understand their perspective.

Where is repentance needed in your life?  How might you live a life in which there is a greater abundance of good fruits.  REMEMBER:  this is not the whole of the story; John’s call to repentance is a preparation for the arrival of Jesus.  But as preparations go, it pretty darn good.

In the first draft of this sermon, I actually had you turn to someone next to you and identify the one thing of which you need to repent.  There is a part of me that would still like to do that.  But I won’t.  Here is what I would challenge you to do – make a covenant with someone to spend ten minutes (just ten minutes) talking about the call of John and how it speaks to your life.  Discover with them where repentance is needed and what you can do to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

I know that this will be extremely difficult.  But I also know such self-reflection will lead to the ability to give your family, your friends, and your neighbors a Christmas gift beyond comparison. 

The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, December 1

The Clemson community had a guest yesterday.  Eboo Patel was here, to share his thoughts on how the world might become a bit better than it was the day before.  Eboo (he prefers folks refer to him casually, and by his first name) is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Coalition (IFYC).  This is a growing group of like-minded students (and student workers) who realize that faith (as an expression of "ultimate concern") must be integrated into our interactions with others.  Rather than setting faith questions aside when we speak with the "other", we must make such conversations central to our coming to see the "other" as a sister or brother.

Within every religious tradition, there are those who claim exclusivity.  There are those who insist that their theological framework excludes those who do not share a confession of faith.

Thankfully, within every religious tradition, there are also those who assert that the exact opposite is true.  Eboo reminded us yesterday of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The "Samaritan" is a follower of a differing religious tradition.  Those in the room when Jesus first told the story would be inclined to think of the Samaritan as the "other."  But that story lifts him as the example of how we are to live our lives.

Your faith in Jesus Christ must be something more than a punch card for heaven.  Your faith in Jesus Christ must align you with that which ultimately concerned Jesus.  Yes, he does preach about heaven and eternal life.  Let's not forget that he also preached a lot about loving the neighbor, caring for the one in need, and about self-sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.

I hope we will all be reunited in heaven.  But I pray for unity now in our tireless commitment to teaching what Jesus taught and to living as Jesus lived.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, November 30

Something in today's appointed readings got me thinking about Sunday's lessons.  This Sunday's Gospel is John the Baptizer, in the wilderness, calling folks to repentance.  

Repentance is tricky, for me.  Trickier than for some other pastors.  I am a firm and non-wavering advocate of prevenient grace.  This is the grace of God which acts on me which makes it possible for me to respond to God.  God acts first - we respond.

So then, where does repentance fit into such a scheme?

We can't be expected to repent first, if it is grace that makes it possible for us to do so.

But if there is no change in our lives, can it be said that grace has been active?  So repentance must occur.

My experience has been so overwhelming and powerful that I have found myself searching for ways in which I might more completely live in harmony with the One who has allowed me to experience.  Overcome by the enormity of God's grace toward me I search for ways in which I can reflect God's goodness and God's hope for creation.  My repentance is a renunciation of those things which do not allow me and my life to share this good news with others.

I don't have a problem with repentance.  My difficulty is with repentance understood as a precondition to God's goodness coming into our lives.

And I have no hesitation in challenging you to repent - to look at your life and to allow your study of scripture to expose where that life is out sync.

John is right - we must turn, continually turn.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 29

It is raining.

I stirred in my sleep somewhere around 3 am when I heard it for the first time.  It has coming and going.  And as I write, some of the moisture is falling from the trees and hitting the roof.  What a glorious sound.

We are so protected from the elements that we too often don't notice something like rain.  We might have noticed dust clouds or marveled that the lake is so low.  But unless we are working the land, we might have only been grateful that not a single football game was a wet, miserable experience.

Scripture speaks of God sending "his rain."  Rain was understood as one of God's greatest gifts.  And it is.  Without rain the crops don't grow, without the crops the livestock don't eat, without........  How marvelous of God, to send us rain.

When you pray, make it a habit to pray for the things which absolutely essential.  Don't cease to pray for an end to cancer; but make sure to thank God for rain, and sunshine, and the winter frost which breaks down the seemingly impenetrable clods of dirt.  

It is raining.  Thank you, God.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Devotion - Monday, November 28

This is a time of the year when preparing is spoken of all around us.  You are preparing for exams; you are preparing for Holiday travels; you may be preparing for gift exchanges; Alex and Caitlin are preparing to enter a covenant of marriage.

How are you preparing yourself as a child of God?

I read from I Thessalonians this morning the lines where Paul says:  "You became imitators of us and of the Lord."  My practice of prayer I imitated from Frank Showers.  My attention to those often overlooked I imitated from David Choate.

The best preparation I have undertaken as been to imitate those who do this well.

There were also verses from Isaiah this morning.  The prophet says:  "cease to do evil, learn to do good;  seek justice, correct oppression."  "Learn to do good."  It isn't always immediately apparent what the "good" is.  It won't always come second nature to us.  We do need to learn how to do good.  This is particularly true when we seek justice and to correct oppression.  These are evils which are systemic and thus easily not seen.

How are you preparing?  And will you allow the preparation for exams to blind you to the need for preparation in other aspects of your life?  Don't mishear me:  STUDY HARD AND DO WELL IN CLASS.  But you need to learn now how to attend to the immediate task while keeping your eye on those things which define us as a person.

Prepare well.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon - Advent 1

Isaiah 2:1-5              

                                                         All the Nations Shall Stream to It

How many of you went shopping on Friday?  I had told myself I wasn’t, then ended up at CVS. So I guess I need to raise my hand as well.  Did you find what you were looking for?  I found something that seemed like what I wanted, but when I pulled it out of the box on Saturday morning, I was terribly disappointed.  Anyone have a similar experience?  That feeling of wanting something, but not quite able to grasp it?

I wonder how many of those who stayed at home and away from the Friday shopping did so precisely because they already knew there was nothing in the stores or the malls which would be the thing most wanted.  That which we seek just isn’t to be found in the shops or the malls or even the lighting displays.  The hope we have for this season will be realized by the arrival of something far beyond the glitter and glitz, by the dawning of something which cannot be wrapped and placed under a tree.

So whether you went out looking on Friday or remained in your home, it is now Sunday and we are here.  And in this place we will turn our eyes and our hearts to the advertisements and promotions which promise eternal satisfaction.

I want to spend most of the time this morning looking at the Isaiah passage.  There is something right at the beginning of this passage which addresses how long we will need to wait for the promotions and promises of God.  It is my hope that by looking closing at just a very few words, we can more closely approximate the day when we live fully and comfortably in this new place and time.

A bit of background.  We have talked in the past about Isaiah having three parts:  20 chapters of warnings, 20 chapters spoken to Israel during the time of occupation, and 20 chapters speaking of the rebuilding and hope.  Part I (from which Isaiah 2 is taken) are those proclamations spoken by Isaiah during the anxious years.  In the eyes of many – let’s call them the establishment - Jerusalem and Judah were flourishing.  But others were disgruntle and angry.  They were looking at the system and voicing their opinion that the system had forgotten them, or ignored them, or at least overlooked them.  Israel was doing well for the insiders and elite, but doing poorly for the masses.  Isaiah speaks of God’s displeasure at the system and its designs.

If you have your bible with you, open it to Isaiah.  Look at some of the lines with which this book opens. 
Vs 7 – Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire
Vs 3 – The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand
Vs 2b – I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.

Many were content with the system the way it was – but others were shouting out in frustration and anger.  Isaiah collects their emotions, pours them into his oracles, and then speaks the word of God in the midst of all this. 

We are about to go from the general to the very specific.  I want you to look at the first phrase of the second verse of chapter 2.  On our bulletins, it reads, “In days to come.”  This is the New Revised Standard Version translation.  Other translations interpret the phrase a bit differently.  Does anyone happen to have a New International Version translation?  The NIV translates the same phrase as “In the last days.” 

“In the days to come.”  “In the last days.”  Same phrase, two different translations.  And while I don’t want to make mountains out of mole hills, these differing translations can also align themselves with differing belief systems with regard to how we are to read what follows and the role we are to play in the unfolding of these promises.

The NIV interpretation tends to be preferred in congregations where the focus of our assembly is in the far-future.  Reading Isaiah’s words as “In the last days,” put the action on that final day, the day of Christ’s return, the day of God’s in breaking.  The NIV interpretation may suggest to us that we see Isaiah’s words as something which will come to pass at the final consummation of all things.  It isn’t something we are to expect now - it is something that will happen at the so called return of Christ.  It isn’t something that will happen in our life-time – and therefore it isn’t something we affect or influence or bring closer by our participation.

I want to acknowledge that the NIV a translation has solid backing.  Those who translate the phrase “In the last days,” have done research.  In fact, this translation is more in keeping with the historic translations favored by the Church from the 16th century till the 20th.  “In the last days” is the mood in the Latin Translations and thus also in the King James Translation.    You can find further support such an interpretation when you cross reference the Hebrew phrase as it ­is used in Daniel 2:8 and 10:14. 

However, I want to attempt to persuade you that this is not how Isaiah meant these words to be understood.  Verse 2 of Chapter 2 is a foreshadowing of the promises outlined in greater detail in Chapters 40-60.  For Isaiah, “the days to come” may be indefinite, but it is not vague.  It refers neither to the end of time nor to some point beyond time.  It is a reference to God’s activity within time. 

To take it back to my opening set of questions:  the promises of God will not forever evade us.  We will find it possible to set aside our longings and our desires and to experience the arrival of that which truly satisfies.  While systems of evil and power and domination may attempt to maintain their stranglehold, God’s people can and will break free.  And all this isn’t some distant last day, it is in the days which will come.  Perhaps those days will come even before Isaiah finishes his book.

To be sure, the prophet Isaiah expects a radical transformation of history, as the remainder of his prophecy demonstrates.  But Isaiah does not speak of some future integration of the things of heaven with the things of the earth.  He is talking about what he sees God doing in the history which we call human history.

It is very important, how we understand those four little words.  If we accept the ­interpreta­tion of the NIV then we are justified in accepting the continued presence of hatred and war and violence and loathing of others.  Such an interpretation would allow us to believe that it is beyond us to live in a world where swords are bent into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  But, if we accept Isaiah’s words as God’s promise which comes within time - then we find ourselves looking for ways that our history might be transformed into a history of peace and good will.  If we join Isaiah in describing the days to come, we are also presented with the chance to participate in the making those very same promises a reality.How we understand those four little words will determine whether we see ourselves and our world as a place where there will always be hatred and war and so we might as well accept it and get on with it.  Or, will we find the conviction to believe that the angels’ song was not a reference to the sweet-by-and-by but an announcement of the arrival of the One who has set us free from such cycles of self-destruction.

Some will sit and wait for the “last days.”  They will resign themselves to the war and hatred and violent talk.  They will forever perceive our world and shared existence as one devoid of words and instructions of the angels.  They will shop till they drop on the Friday after Thanksgiving only to return to their private fortress and discover how disappointed they are with the things they have grabbed up and accumulated.

Others, will listen for the announcement of the angels.  They will insist on seeing today as the “day to come;” the day on which the “mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established.”

Those horrible images I shared from Isaiah 1 are offset by the invitation of Isaiah 2 to not only dream of the days to come, but to make them come.  The Lord will do his part.  Then we are to do ours.  Read verse 5 with me:  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Will we sit back and remain indifferent to “The last days”?  Or will we allow our hearts to come alive at the angels’ song?  Will we see “Peace on earth, and goodwill among men” as a future and far-off possibility?  Or will we join the prophet Isaiah in streaming to the highest of the mountains where God “may teach us his ways… that we may walk in his paths”?

Even those who teach preaching at the seminary admit sermons lose out every week to hymnody.  You are seven times more likely to go home repeating a line from a hymn than a thought from the sermon.  So let’s try to combine both.

I have asked Judi to be ready to help us sing Hymn 538.  We sang this just two weeks ago.  It isn’t really and Advent hymn, and is actually grouped among the Sending Hymns in the ELW.  But I am going to ask you to sing it with me, now.  And remember that the first two lines repeat, as will the last four.

The Lord now sends us forth with hands to serve and give,
To make of all the earth a better place to live. (Repeat)
The angels are not sent into our world of pain
to do what we were meant to do in Jesus’ name;
That falls to you and me and all who are made free.
Help us, O Lord, we pray, to do your will today. (Repeat)


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 22

Laura and I were guests last evening at Clemson's 1st Annual Rainbow Thanksgiving Dinner.  We sat at table with a young woman who impressed both of us.  Over dinner, she spoke of how different she was now from when she came to college.  Others at the table asked how that change would be received by her family when she joined them for Thanksgiving.

This allowed Laura and I to reflect on how difficult it was when our children returned home for holidays, revealing to us all they had learned while away from us.  This caused Laura and I to speak of the hope that as parents we had been open and excited to the emerging individuality of our children - even though it meant they would think for themselves and follow paths of their own choosing.  This is difficult for parents to do.

This morning I was reading from Zechariah 11.  The prophet speaks of shepherds.  He is speaks of the shepherds whose oversight had not resulted in the hope God had.  Zechariah is the last of the books in the Christian order of books in the Bible because Zechariah also speaks of a future shepherd who will do the will of God.  This Good Shepherd will lead the sheep to the pastures God has prepared for them.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all being influenced by "shepherds."  We make choices - and need to make them with eyes and hearts wide open - but the options set before us are revealed by the persons or thoughts we have found ourselves following.  

As we look to ourselves, it is also appropriate to consider our shepherds.  To evaluate them and to decide anew each day if they are leading us to the places we want to go.  

And, if you are fortunate enough to be with family over this Thanksgiving Break, talk with them about the ways you have grown and changed and matured.  Acknowledge that this can be tough for them, and assure them that the new ideas and thoughts you are developing are grounded in shepherds whom they too can come to trust.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Devotion - Monday, November 21

There are many things for which I will be thankful this week (and in the weeks to come.)  One of them is being a part of "us."  "Us" is a reference to those who begin each day with a moment to reflect on God, and how God is active in our lives, and how God hopes we will be active in the world.  "Us," is a community (just as real if it is cyber or assembling) in which there is an abundance of grace and a generous supply of mutual concern.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul makes a reference to "us". There he uses the phrase "household of faith."  This label stuck with me.  

A "household" involves everyone inside as well as everyone connected.  All those in the household may not have the same color hair, the same opinions, or the same ideological emphasis.  But they are of a shared household.  They are bound together.

To call it a "household of faith" does not mean that everyone is in the same place or on the same plane regarding faith.  But it is this faith which defines the household.

In this household, we (us) can be confident of each other's support, encouragement, and instruction.  It is a gift, to be included in such a household.  I give thanks for us - and will continually pray for the rest of you and request your prayers for me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, November 17

I began reading the Book of James this morning.  Our Tuesday night bible study group considered James this fall.  The book is an encouragement to seek the wisdom of God and to follow it.  Martin Luther expressed concern that we might take some of James' comments to suggest we can merit the love and grace of God which has already been freely given.  But Lutherans should willingly embrace this book's encouragement to admit the right and then do it.

The 15th verse of the first chapter occupied my prayers this morning.  James writes, "Let no one say they are tempted by God."  

When we face difficulties, it is appropriate to cry out for a greater measure of assurance that God has not abandoned us.  In our hour of need, it may truly seem as if we are alone and abandoned.  But the wisdom of James reminds us that God is not the one who has placed this obstacle in front of us.  

Be assured - God is on your side, in all things.  However or wherever pain and hardship enter your life it is not as a result of God's actions.  God is the one taking that pain upon himself.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, November 16

This morning I was reading from Luke 15.  Here we find the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The summation of these parables addresses the joy which comes when a "sinner" is found or returns to God.

I am very uncomfortable, thinking of those who are not with Christ as "sinners."  We are all sinners, so why single them out as such/

It isn't much better to think of them as "lost."  At least if we allow that designation to imply that they are "lost to the Lord."  God does not lose anyone; and no one is outside the reach of God's gracious care.

But I will entertain the notion that the one sheep which has become separated from the ninety-nine, or the one coin that is in a different place from the other nine needs to be reunited.  There is something lost; and that may be the confidence that God is attentive and searching.

Life is too often lonely and frightening.  Life tends to contribute to worries that we have become lost.  My bible reminds me that this is an often expressed emotion.  And my bible assures me that I am not lost, that I am not alone, and that I can find courage to face that which is frightening.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 15

In Luke 14:25 ff we read another of the often repeated warnings from Jesus about taking too lightly our promise to "follow" him.  The examples Jesus gives may not connect as well to our lives as others might.  

In Luke 14 he speaks of the man who desires to build a tower, but doesn't first sit down and consider the cost and so he runs out of materials and money before it is completed.  

The other example is of a king who goes off to war without first calculating whether his army is large enough to face the opposition.

I don't know that  I have ever had a member of a congregation build a tower; and none have amassed an army and started their own war.

If these examples leave us flat, we should look for others.  Following Jesus gives us a joy and a satisfaction and an assurance beyond our wildest hope.  But following Jesus must be our hope, our true hope and our final hope.  Following Jesus means acting the way Jesus would act and seeing the world the way that Jesus sees the world.  Following Jesus means making important in our lives the things that were important in Jesus' life.

It is important to count the cost.  It is essential to consider well if we have the courage and dedication to follow through.  So so much to avoid Jesus' disappointment but to avoid the disappointment experienced by so many who come to realize that they have allowed some other goal to come between them and Jesus.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, November 3

One of the student leaders asked me, "Do you really get up early and write those devotions, or do you do them the day before?"  I asked if it wasn't obvious, from all the typing and spelling and other errors.  I do them as a stream of conscious each morning.  This also means I don't have a plan, or even check a record to see if I am saying the same thing I said earlier.

Like - have I said anything about Revelation?  I have been reading this, as one of the appointed daily lessons, for the past couple of weeks.  But I can't remember if I have written anything.  Forgive me if I have.

This morning the verses I read are from the 12th chapter.  This is the so called "War in Heaven."

As with all of Revelation, there is no doubt to the outcome.  The evil one is easily defeated.  There is no possible challenger to God and God's anointed ones.  The Devil is cast out of heaven, along with all of his followers.  There was never any question this would happen.

What does happen is some fallout from this defeat.  The evil one is cast from heaven, and lands on the earth.  In his weakened humiliation, the evil one attempts to inflict as much pain as possible.  So, while he is easily routed, there is still pain even in his defeat.

These words are words of ultimate hope.  These images help us to place in perspective the pain that is inflicted upon us, while holding firm to the assurances of God's victory.

It is somewhat hallow, and I would never speak such words to those in the midst of a crisis, but no hardship or pain should ever be interpreted as God having lost or given up.  We will endure.  We will preserve.  The victory is ours.

Pastor Chris

P.S.  Fall Break is Monday and Tuesday.  There may be a "Friday Devotion" sent out tomorrow from one of our students, but I will be back with you on Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 2

I want to spend one more day on the book of Jonah.  As we discussed this book last night, we were struck by the folks in the book who hear and respond to God.  Jonah is not one of those who does.

Jonah runs away from God.  Jonah reluctantly does what God asks of him.  And when Nineveh repents of its evil, Jonah is frustrated that they do.  

We are too quick to label those who are inside the circle and those who are not.  We are too fast in assuming with whom God is pleased and who is following the way of God.  We distrust the stranger and the foreigner.  We, like Jonah, insist on our own preferences rather than responding to God and living into our relationship with God.

Nineveh has a foreign city.  Nineveh was a place that was looked down upon and avoided.  And yet Jonah is to go to Nineveh and when he does the people of the town hear God's word and respond.

We can learn much from this short book.  We ought to learn much from it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 1

Things have a way of aligning.  This evening we will be discussing Jonah at our Tuesday Bible Study.  This morning, I opened my devotional guide to the same book.

When we think of Jonah, we tend to think of fish.  (It is described as a fish.  We tend to think of a whale - probably mostly because we get distracted when we read Jonah, wondering how he could survive for three days in the belly of the fish, and attempt to resolve the doubt by thinking of a huge whale.)

But Jonah is about much more.  It is about God's insistence that His message be shared.  It is about our tendency to ignore God and even run away from God.  It is about the very nature of God and His attitude toward his children.

Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh.  This is not a city of the Hebrews.  He is to call them to repentance.  He flees by boat, a strong wind blows against the boat, Jonah acknowledges the only way to save the boat is throw him overboard, the crew does, and a fish swallows Jonah.  Jonah has a change of heart, the fish spits him out, he goes to Nineveh, and the city hears the warning and repents - from the least to the greatest.

Then comes the exchange which always stops me in my tracks.  Jonah becomes angry, embarrassed really.  That his words of warning did not result in the destruction of Nineveh.  He is so embarrassed that he asks that he might die.  Then he admits that this is why he tried to flee in the first place.  He said he knew God would repent (the text does speak of God repenting) and that God would not destroy the city.  Jonah says, he knew God was "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to repent from punishing."


What a powerful image of God.  And what a welcome one.

And what a great correction the next time someone speaks of Jonah as a story about a fish.  It is about the very nature of God - a nature which is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and ready to relent from punishment.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sermon - Reformation Sunday

                                                               499 – Will We Make 500? 

I wonder how many of you knew, before arriving this morning, that today would be our annual observation of Reformation?  Had this realization dawned on you at any point during the week?  Were there any discussions or conversations about “wearing red”?

There is something wonderful about either answer to these questions.  If you found yourself responding “Yes,” let’s celebrate your awareness of the significance of an annual lifting up of a series of events and tradition which truly has changed history.

If you answered “No,” let’s acknowledge the end to a terrible time in church life when an annual bashing of the Roman Catholics and everything “Not-Lutheran” is behind us.  And good riddance.

But today is Reformation Sunday.  And this is a significant Reformation Sunday.  Even Pope Francis has had something to say about this Reformation Sunday.  Today we begin a year-long observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  It was on October 31st, in 1517, that Martin Luther penned a letter to the Arch-bishop of Mainz, asking for a discussion of the Church’s practices.  The ensuing discussions and divisions altered religious life and political life and the world as we know it. 

I am not exaggerating.  Do your own Google search.  Be impressed with where Martin Luther falls in the rankings of history’s most influential persons.  And in a world where religious upheaval figures so heavily into current events, you can betch ‘ya bottom dollar that there will be discussions of the Reformation and the Peasant’s Revolt (not to mention the Smalcald Wars.)  The deaths and destruction associated with those events may equal (in significance and scope) the current strive within Islam between Sunni and Shia and within Islam and ISIS.

I don’t know if you will be pulled into water-cooler discussions of such matters, but you might.  It is highly likely that there will be reports in the secular press about the 500th anniversary and the events associated with The Reformation.  And as possibly the only real-life, living Lutheran on your block you might have the opportunity (or the challenge) to speak of these events and their significance.  You might find yourself being asked questions about The Reformation. 

So this week, I want you to take out your bulletin for a different reason. I would ask you to start making a list of the things you really should try to learn during these next twelve months.  Things which are important (perhaps even essential) to the tradition in which we stand.

You can start by putting The Peasants’ Revolt and Smalcald War on the list.

Here is the next thing for your list:  Luther never wanted folks to be called “Lutherans.”  Every copy of the Book of Concord (you also need to have “Book of Concord” on your list) has this quote from Luther:  “Who is Luther that any should be known by his name?  There is but one name by which we are to be known and that is the name of Christ.”

Reading and re-reading that Martin Luther quote is one of the reasons I can get away with saying that Luther would have been delighted with those of you who drove to a “Lutheran” church this morning without remembering it is Reformation Sunday.  Luther wanted us to be Christians, and the sooner we leave behind our fractions and fissions the better. 

But there were some things which Luther was not willing to ignore – even for the sake of the unity of the Church.  Those things are outlined in The Augsburg Confession which is contained in the Book of Concord.  The Smalcald Articles are also in the Book of Concord.  (Book of Concord – Augsburg Confession – Smalcald Articles.  Your list keeps growing.)  The Augsburg Confession was written by the Reformers as a last attempt to prevent the Church from dividing.  It lists the Articles of Faith, most of which were readily agreed to by all Christians.  There are several matters of dispute.  The “Unaltered Augsburg Confession” is the guiding document for our denomination.  Not that every Lutheran pastor or theologian will agree on how to apply the Confession.

Every Lutheran pastor is going to pull from the Augsburg Confession the articles they consider to be most significant and offer an interpretation as to what it means.  So this is your reminder to get other opinions.  But it is difficult to overlook the one which continues to dominate Christian conversation.  And that would be the articles which speak of justification – or as we are inclined to speak of it – salvation. 

Every Christian in the world will readily agree to the Reformation tag line of “justification by grace through faith.”  But not every Christian, not even every Protestant, nor every Lutheran will be in agreement to what it means.  “Justification by grace through faith.”  Make sure this is on your list – and pay more attention to this than practically anything else.  In fact, write it out.  So you can see the words.

As a footnote, let me admit that equating “justification” with “salvation” is its own problem.  The words don’t mean exactly the same thing, but unless you want another thirty minutes added to this sermon, let me get away with lumping them together.  End of footnote.

So look back at that phrase – Justification by grace through faith.  Everyone who reads it or speaks it will give a nod of approval.  Everybody agrees with this statement – until you start to discuss where to place emphasis.  Is it the “grace,” or the “faith” that brings the salvation.

Is it “faith” which makes it possible for us to receive the “grace” which brings “justification”?  Or is “grace” the gift which makes “faith” possible and “justification” a reality in our lives?

This is the stuff of division.  This is the battle which started as soon as Luther was in the ground.  This is the current division within the Evangelish communities of Germany.  It is the discussion which resulted in Halle and Geneva becoming contested centers of Reformation.

There are articles in the Augsburg Confession which address these issues.  Your homework is to read them and form your questions for further discussion.  And, with any luck, you and I will discover together that our newly arrived Parish Pastor has somewhat differing opinions than your worn-out and one-horse Campus Pastor.  A healthy discussion between he and I on such topics could model how we discuss such topics in a way that is healthy and helpful.

There are a few more entries for that list on the back of your bulletin.  The Small Catechism needs to be there.  The three confirmands can attest to my approach to their final instructional meeting.  Pastor Danielle had been meeting with them.  There was one instructional session remaining and that one was to cover the Small Catechism.  We did meet and discuss the Small Catechism, but in the weeks prior to our meeting we reverted to the original purpose of the Small Catechism.  We turned it into poster-sized handouts and told them to put it on the wall in their home where their families could review this material with them.  The Small Catechism was written for parents to instruct their children in the home.

Parents – don’t send your kids to confirmation ministry class to learn about the faith.  Teach it at home.  And if you don’t know the Small Catechism yourself, don’t ask them to learn it.  Another mark of Luther’s reform?  His instruction that every day every Christian would repeat from their heart the 10 commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

I have been missing in action most of this first month that Jon has been with us.  So he and I haven’t discussed a shared strategy for this 500th anniversary year.  It is obvious that I plan to pay attention to this history and am likely to talk about it over these next twelve months.  We are not to hold to the Lutheran identity as if it were in itself that important.  It isn’t.  And at least one of the reasons why our Lutheran congregations seem to be in decline may be due to something which lies at the base of our whole existence.  Our Lutheran Theology is crystal clear that when it comes institutions – there is no reason – ever – to place the survival of a particular denomination above the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the sacraments.

Learn more.  Then decide if this is where you belong or if there is a reason for any of us to belong. 

Learn more.  So you can turn those water-cooler conversations into fruitful discussions of God’s desire to love his children and help them to live meaningful lives.

Learn more.  Not because it will change the way God sees you or how deeply God loves you – but so that you might more joyfully celebration the justification which, by the grace of God, has come into your life.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, October 27

Luke 10 contains the story of the Good Samaritan.  You will recall that the parable is told in reply to a question regarding what one is to do to enter the Kingdom.  When told to love one's neighbor, the man asks, "Who is my neighbor."  The neighbor is the one in our path who could benefit from our help.  We prove to be a neighbor when we aid them.

This simple exchange is all that Jesus asks.  While we may tend to look at changing the world or reversing social trends, Jesus points out doing the simplest and smallest of acts.  Our response to Jesus isn't to make national headlines, it is to care for the wounded individual whose life path crosses our own.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, October 26

One of the tasks associated with reading our bibles is to reflect on where we fit into the story.  Is the story being told to us, or being told about us?  Are we to hear this story as an affirmation of our choices, or should the story challenge us adopt changes?

The professor in my preaching class told us, "Don't take the side of God too quickly."  It was his way of reminding us to consider well the perspectives of those who hear the story and to ask how those to whom we are currently speaking are included in the story.  "Don't always assume they are the heathens!"

There are many parts of the bible which do (and should) challenge our choices and our thinking.  There are many parts which call for us to re-examine our lives and our responses to God's calling.  But let's not allow those parts to overshadow the abundance of places where God speaks tenderly to us, where God affirms us, and where God stands up for us and our needs.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, October 25

The Tuesday Night Bible Study Group is making our way though the minor prophets.  These are the twelve books at the end of our Old Testament, which occasionally show up in the cycle of Sunday readings, but are seldom read from start to finish.  There may be more than one reason why these books don't make it to the top of our devotional readings.

They tend to be rather dark and alarming.  For the most part, these twelve servants of God were pointing out the ways in which the people of God have abandoned God's word and God's way.  For the mos part, these twelve prophets were pointing out that the culture no longer reflected the promises of God but was consumed with self-advancement and amassing more and more wealth.

This may be a great time to be reading these twelve books.  Every four years we complain about the extended election cycle, but a least during this period of time we are asked (and sometime asking) about the direction of our country and our culture.  These twelve books have something to say to us.  They have many things to say to us.

Unlike other portions of the bible which are more easily reduced to individual piety issues, the Minor Prophets ask us to look at the culture around us and ask whether we as a people are doing God's will.  It isn't enough that the prophets themselves are hearing God's word and doing what God asks; these prophets challenge us to examine how that devotion is affecting those around us.  

It should be we, the followers of Christ, who ask whether the culture and the country are were it needs to be.  It is us who need to articulate a vision for the society in which we live and insist that it reflect the vision of God's beloved community.