The story is told of the newlyweds who stayed up all night waiting to consummate their wedding. It was the first night of the newlyweds in their bridal suite. The young husband was staring out the window. He looked intently into the starry night while his young bride was waiting patiently in the bed. “Honey, are you coming to bed?” asked the bride. “Not on your life!” responded the young groom. “My mother said this would be the most wonderful night of my life, and I’m not going to miss it for anything.”
Indeed, weddings are wonderful events. Every culture has a special way to embellish the joining together of a man and woman in marriage. I hear there’s nothing like an orthodox Jewish wedding. Though I’ve never attended one, the depictions of them in movies are compelling. It is certainly something to add to my bucket list. Generally, there is boisterous celebration, which is characteristic of Mediterranean weddings. Weddings hold up in relief what is essential about a culture. And, for a wedding to lack the essential something affects the celebration profoundly. Weddings can make or break reputations.
In John chapter 2, Jesus and his disciples, together with his mother, attend a typical Jewish wedding. A profound embarrassment awaits in the wings for the couple and their families in the honor/shame society in which they lived: They have run out of wine! That is a profound failure. The key to success of a wedding is having enough food, drink and music. But, there is something more in Jesus sparing this couple a potential embarrassment. Jesus used the wedding to illustrate the essence of his mission on earth.
Someone told Mary that the wine ran out. Why Mary? Mary’s family sponsored the wedding. Her family’s reputation was on the line. Though Mary’s family was humble in resources, as were most people living in Nazareth, nevertheless she was proud. Mary is desperate to do something to spare her family’s reputation; so, she turns to Jesus and says, “They have run out of wine!” Jesus’ response to his mother rings odd to our ears. “Woman, what has that to do with you and me.” I can’t imagine calling my mother, “Woman.”
This term “woman,” however, is to make a theological point. Just as Nicodemus could not understand what it meant to be born again because his mind was informed by this world, so Mary’s mind is beset by worries and anxieties about potential embarrassment to her family. She feels the impending doom. The term “woman” is to remind Mary of her important work to do together with Jesus. As such, they are not to get caught up in everyday minutiae; they are above it. “Woman” harkens to Mary’s role in the salvation of humanity. As the mother of God, her part in the salvific mission of Jesus is greater than anyone else’s. It is for this reason Mary is to be venerated.
As Eve is the mother of all humans, so Mary is the mother of all who enter the doors of the church into her son, Jesus. By calling her “woman,” Jesus is reminding her of her higher vocation to which she has been called as the mother of the Son of God. Just as Nicodemus could not understand what it meant to be born again—because his mind was informed by this world—so Mary’s mind is beset by the worries and anxieties of her family pulling off a great wedding. “Woman” reminds Mary of her high calling. When she is living by that calling, no worries and anxieties can derail her. Jesus is the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the King. Mary is Woman, spiritual mother of all the saved, as Eve is the physical mother of all who breathe on this earth.
The wedding at Cana also demonstrates the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. He tells the servants to fill the jars with water. He tells a servant to take some of the water that has become wine to the master of the feast. The master of the feast marveled at the quality of the wine. The miracle is not just about extending a wedding feast, sparing Mary’s family any embarrassment. Look at the spiritual meaning of the miracle. It is noteworthy that Jesus does his first miracle at a wedding, because weddings carry so much cultural and emotional import. The miracle signals the spiritual wedding to take place when Jesus as groom and we, the church, the bride, are joined together in the heavenly wedding officiated by God the Father, the father of Jesus. At that time, God will change our water existence into a wine existence. Water characterizes this life. We are born through water in the birth channels of our mothers. Up to 60% of our bodies is water. We need water to survive. We bathe in water, swim in it. Water, moreover, characterizes our existence in another way: water is the symbol of chaos inside us and outside us. It is the source of so much pain. We are water people awaiting our transformation into wine people.
Wine represents festivity, joy in the light, music. If we have been water here, then we shall be wine, transformed into wine people there in the next life. Jesus will make us into spirits.
Pastor's Page - January 2022
The story is told of the innkeeper in Bethlehem, who, when asked, answered, “Yes, I remember that couple. I wish I could have done more for them.”
The innkeeper said further, “I recall he was a man’s man. Though older, he was dignified, having a strong, quiet disposition. His young wife charmed me. Her aura shined with a grounded spirituality well beyond her young years.
He said his name was Joseph. They were from the hill country, from Nazareth to be exact. His accent betrayed his simple background. The Roman census caused the likes of him to take to the road and return to their ancestral homes, so the Romans could get an accurate count of what taxes they could expect from their newest provinces of Judea and Samaria. In fact, Sanballet, the rich merchant from Samaria, was in town. He always traveled with a large entourage. And, my regular customer Thaddeus was up from Gaza.
The dignified man said that his wife was about to give birth. But, there was nothing I could do. Should I displace my rich customers for a simple couple from Nazareth of all places? I rationalized away my ambivalent feelings, thinking, ‘They’ll be alright; someone will take them in.’ Throwing dignity to the wind, Joseph just about begged, ‘Please help! We’re desperate!’
‘I understand,’ I said. But, what rich merchant could I ask to give up his room? Perish the thought! I did not want to make him uncomfortable. Then it came to me. . . Perhaps I can make space for the desperate couple behind the inn, in the barn where the animals reside. That’s all I can do.”
Becoming pensive, the innkeeper said, “I have thought often of that couple that came to my inn on that fateful night so many years ago. It seems like it happened yesterday. I wonder what became of them. My heart continues to plague me. I wish I had approached one of those rich merchants and told him of the desperate couple from Nazareth, asking him to give up his room as the right thing to do. But, alas, I didn’t. I regret that. I have lived with that regret for many years.”
For some, the days after Christmas are a season of regret. They regret the Christmas dinner did not go well. They regret the presents they got. They regret all the energy they expended on a day that is over too soon. But, Christmas can also produce profounder regrets than the turkey being undercooked.
During the holiday season, people regret the choices they made in their lives. Now from the perspective of elapsed time over a year or two, they see the consequences of their choices. They see the effect of their choices on their family and friends in their micro worlds. The choices they made—or failed to make—have not made them any more happy. Ironically, the regrets of the past year or so are all now conspiring to create a New Year’s Resolution that will supposedly wipe away all guilt and regrets—wipe the slate clean so to say. In the narthex of the New Year 2022, the regret laden think they can reverse the consequences of their choices with a flimsy New Year’s resolution. But, William Faulkner said it best: “The past is never dead; it is not even past.” In other words, there is no running from the past. It’s always there. In fact, our present possibilities derive from the past. We are ever growing out of our past.
If the above is true, then the proper way to begin a new year is with repentance. The only way to deal with regret is not to hang onto it, but to let it go in the healing flood of forgiveness in Christ Jesus. There are two ways, then, to begin a new year: thanksgiving and repentance.
We thank the Lord for the blessings of 2021. Though it was a trying year like 2020, we nevertheless have so much for which to be thankful. Gratitude opens us up to experience God more deeply in Christ Jesus under the unction of the Holy Spirit. When we experience God, we see more: we see the symmetry of life, the synchronicity of life, both elements of the beauty that God works in our lives.
If gratitude opens us up to experience the beauty of God in Christ Jesus, then repentance gets us unstuck from the past regrets and voices of condemnation. The best way to free yourself from such regrets is to let God set you free through repentance. Repentance is returning to your loving Father who is your healer, who wants the very best for your life in his Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Is, then, December 31, 2021, Old Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve? I guess it depends on your perspective. It’s really both. If you are not weighed down by regret, then you can appreciate the liveliness of the past. You can appreciate how the past is a font that gushes forth present and future possibilities. How is this possible? Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He holds all time, redeeming it for our good. God will redeem 2021 and 2019 and 2020 for that matter, three very difficult years. God is redeeming them already with each passing moment. In 2022, watch God redeem the three Pandemic years (Romans 8:28).
Pastor's Page - December 2021
The story is told of Rosa, who watched the Christmas lights flickering on the house across the street. Green, red, yellow, blue and white gleamed through her window. She took a sip of tea. She let the warmth settle in her stomach, giving her a sense of calm before an impending anxious moment.
Under the Christmas tree sat a tiny box. It was from Steve. It was neatly wrapped in gold paper and a red bow. A year has passed since Steve’s death and Rosa would not open the box without him.
In her heart of hearts, she knew what was in the box, for she knew the thoughtful man Steve was, always giving the perfect gift; but, truly knowing what was in the box would break her heart.
Every year Rosa continued putting the box under the tree. She never opened it.
Grief is profoundly personal. It affects us in different ways. Though everyone handles grief and loss differently, there is a common set of emotions that those who grieve experience. Noted Swiss-American psychologist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, identified the general grieving process in the following way: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
No matter when it happens, moreover, there is an unrealness to death. No one is ever ready to die and we are never ready to let go of them when they die. Denial, then, may be the initial feeling you have when a loved one dies. At some point, there is anger. Anger is a natural response to the hurts of life. The grief can be so overwhelming that you bargain with God to be rid of it. To alleviate the pain, you promise to make changes in your life. Depression is never too far behind anger, as anger is at the root of some depression. Finally, there’s acceptance.
You meander through the feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There are times you feel that you have accepted the passing of a loved one only to be pushed back into an earlier phase of the grieving process that you thought you had completed. The emotions are indeed complex. There is no straight trajectory through the grieving process. Some days you feel good, ready to move on; other days, however, you get stuck. There are days when I’m at peace with my mother’s death. I smile when I think of her Christmas in heaven. But, I have noticed lately that when I drive into Los Angeles I tear up; I become profoundly sad. The grieving process, then, is personal. It demands that we be patient with ourselves in grief; patient and loving with others in grief.
During “the most wonderful time of the year,” grief is especially hard. The sights and sounds elicit joy and happiness; yet, you’re not in the mood for joy and happiness. And, then, there are the many memories of Christmases past. What should you do? Like Rosa in the story, create new rituals, repurpose traditions so they aid and comfort you in the grieving process. Be honest with yourself: there may be Christmas songs you may not presently bear. Postpone playing them until you’re in a better emotional state. It’s about how 3 you do Christmas. How Christmas is observed varies. How one embellishes the essential truth of Christmas differs from home to home, person to person. What’s the essential truth of Christmas? God became a man in Jesus. In Christ, God is essentially related to you: your joy is his joy; your pain is his pain. So, you do not go through the grieving process alone. God grieves with you. As your companion in this life, God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit has an unfathomable ability to take your pain into himself and thereby heal it and redeem it. So, this Christmas rest in the divine presence of the Christ Child, who accompanies you along the way to healing and acceptance.
Pastor's Page - November 2021
The story is told of a man who prayed the following way:
“Dear Lord, spare me from the stupid, who lack the sense you gave barnyard animals.
"Spare me from the wise, who are only too happy to tell me how the world works.
"Spare me from the indolent, who lecture me on my need to work on their behalf.
"Spare me from the elitists, who continually tell me how they are better than others.
"Spare me from the liberals, who spend my money with reckless abandon, not heeding the consequences.
"Spare me from the conservatives, who ignore change in the world and in themselves.
"Spare me from the moralizers, who continually intone the superiority of their views.
"And, dear Lord, if I missed anyone in this list, then spare me from them as well.”
Of course, this is not the right way to pray. The man prays to be disengaged from others, to be disengaged from life. This is the polar opposite of prayer. Prayer involves us in the lives of others. A most loving sacrifice is to pray for others.
We mount Eagles’ wings in prayer. There are three fundamental types of prayer at which we must become adept if we are to love life and love others through our prayers.
In Jeremiah 31:7-9, we see the first type of prayer. The prophet Jeremiah says, “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob! Proclaim, give praise, and say: ‘O, Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel!’”
In what context does Jeremiah encourage his people to sing, proclaim and praise? Worship. Worship is the first form of prayer. The center of worship is praise and adoration. The people of God praise and adore God for keeping his promise in preserving a faithful remnant from which the messiah would come.
The prophet says, furthermore, God will bring his scattered people from the North and all counties. God will return them to their land and there God will be their father. No matter, then, what is happening outside the context of worship, there is great rejoicing and praise, for the Father is together with his children to comfort them, to empower them. At the center of our worship is praise thanksgiving because our sins are forgiven and the Father is with us. God inhabits the praises of his people.
In Mark 10:46-52, we see the second form of prayer at which we must become adept. It is the prayer of importunity. Blind Bartimaeus illustrates the prayer of importunity. It is the prayer that never gives up when God has placed something on your heart.
Jesus enters Jericho. Then the text says, “He left.” Just those terse comments in verse 46. That’s the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is always on the move; he’s taking care of business. One dare not interrupt the hero in his work.
Yet, there is blind Bartimaeus, who, upon hearing Jesus was about to leave Jericho, shouts out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tells Bartimaeus to be silent. They know that Jesus has important work to do. Do not disturb the Messiah who is busy, least of all a blind beggar who symbolizes God’s disfavor. But, Bartimaeus shouts even louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stops and tells Bartimaeus to come to him. He runs to Jesus and tells him everything. Jesus heals him.
We think that Jesus has bigger things to deal with than our issues. We think that running the universe is greater than our prayer for healing, our prayer for forgiveness, our prayer about the stressful times in which we live. We must never give up on our prayers. The prayer of importunity is the prayer that never gives up because it is buttressed by a loving relationship with Christ. His relationship with you is more important than the abstract, empty universe. Jesus responds to you because of the relationship. In Baptism, you are adopted into Jesus’ family. His Father becomes your Father; Jesus is made your brother.
What does it mean to have a big brother? I was the oldest of my siblings, but I wasn’t the protective big brother because I never had a fight. But, I had a younger brother who functioned as our big brother. I think I was spared many a fight because I was Carl’s brother. The amazing thing about Carl is that he never had a fight. But, he got the reputation not to be messed with. He was one of those alpha males. All he had to do was give someone the look and they ran away. Carl would eventually become a police officer. Likewise, our big brother Jesus protects us because we’re in the family. But, being in the family also means that we can pray in such a way that we never give up until we get an answer.
In Hebrews 7:23-28, we see the final form of prayer, the prayer of intercession. We see that Jesus has a different priesthood than the other priests of tribe of Levi. He is a permanent priest who does not have to make sacrifices for his own sins when ministering, for he has no sin. Therefore he is able to save those who draw near to God through him. He makes intercession for them. Also, he lives forever. Jesus intercedes for us forever. We have been made priests like Jesus. Our job is to intercede for others, to pray for them. The most loving thing we can do is pray for another by bringing that person into our thoughts and feelings, to open ourselves up to such people for whom we pray. Indeed prayer is a loving sacrifice.
Pastor's Page - October 2021
The story is told of a farmer who had some puppies to sell. He painted a sign indicating his intention. He attached the sign to a post at the edge of his yard. As he was just about to finish, he felt a tug on his overalls. He looked down into the eyes of a little boy.
“Sir,” the boy said. “I want to buy one of the puppies.”
The farmer responded, “These puppies come from fine parents. They’re expensive.”
The boy dropped his head for a moment. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of change. He held it up to the farmer. “I’ve got thirty-nine cents,” said the boy. “Is that enough?”
Having compassion on the boy, the farmer said, “OK.” He then whistled. Out of the doghouse ran the mother dog followed by four little balls of fur. The little boy pressed his face against the chain-link fence. His eyes danced with delight at the sight of the puppies. Then the boy noticed something stirring just inside the doghouse. Slowly, another little ball appeared. This one was noticeably smaller. In an awkward manner, he hobbled to catch up with his mother and siblings.
“I want that one,” the little boy said, pointing to the runt.
The farmer responded, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like the other dogs.”
At that, the boy stepped back from the fence. He then rolled up one of the legs of his pants. He revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg ending in a orthopedic shoe. Looking up at the farmer, the boy said, “You see, sir, I don’t run too well myself. I need someone who understands.” With tears in his eyes, the farmer reached down and picked up the little puppy.
We all need someone who understands. At the very least, we need someone who can sympathize with us. At the very most, we need someone who can empathize with us.
Sympathy and empathy are often used synonymously. As such, we miss the real impact of empathy. Sympathy is feeling pity for someone. The pity felt may not correspond with what the pitied person is feeling. Empathy is greater, however. Empathy is to share in the feelings of another; so, any expression deriving from such sharing is always appropriate.
Jesus did not come to sympathize with us from a distance. He came to empathize with us, to share in our feelings. Jesus did not come to take away pain and suffering. He did not even come to explain it or philosophize about it. As the reigning Son of God, he came to fill your pain and suffering with his presence. As he is in the middle of the storms of life, so he is in the middle of your grief, your depression, your denial, your anger, and then your resolution to move forward in hope. What a friend we have in Jesus!
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15, St. Paul says that though Jesus was rich, but for your sake he became poor. The Son of God set aside his divine prerogatives and impoverished himself in this physical world. He became what we are physically to make us what he is spiritually. To accomplish that, he became sin for us to make us righteous. We don’t have a God, then, who sits on high and pontificates about sin and redemption. We don’t have a God who philosophizes and theologizes about pain and suffering. We have a God who enters it! The cross is God’s entrance into our pain.
Mark 5:21-43 shows that Jesus is a friend to everyone. He is a friend to Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter laid on her death bed. He is also a friend to the woman who had a health issue, who suffered much at the hands of doctors.
Jairus, moreover, approaches Jesus directly while he is ministering to the crowds. Jairus inserts himself into that moment, falling onto the ground and imploring Jesus for his daughter who is near death. The woman, however, came at Jesus indirectly. She did so surreptitiously, seeking just to touch the hem of his garment. Faith drove both expressions. Sometimes faith is bold like Jairus. Other times it is quiet like the physically compromised woman, working behind the scenes. Circumstances dictate how faith will operate, whether directly or indirectly. There is, then, no one way to God when hounded by pain and suffering.
The Old Testament book of Lamentations is about grief. The ancient Jews grieved over the loss of life as they knew it. Like the lament psalms, the book commends a relational process as a way to handle grief, pain and suffering. The prophet says to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. What empowers you to wait? The steadfast love of God empowers you to wait; and, God’s faithfulness also strengthens you while waiting on God. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are at the foundation of our relationship with God. Those empower us to wait and be patient in the grieving process.
How you mourn and grieve is between you and Jesus. No one can vitiate your grief with demands of, “Move on! Get over your grief! Life goes on!” Jesus certainly wouldn’t talk that way to you. As a community, we have gone through a rough patch. Beloved people have transitioned from this life to the next; and, in our heart of hearts we are in the grieving process. As we grieve, we have a God in Christ Jesus who not only sympathizes with us, but who also empathizes with. Empathy is profoundly more healing that sympathy, for the Empathic Christ shares in our mourning. Our mourning and grief are his. What a friend we have in Jesus!
Pastor's Page - September 2021
The story is told of a man who, at the age of 43, made the decision to jump out a plane and parachute to earth. The idea of doing it scared him, but he felt compelled to do it so that he could feel like a real man. He boarded the plane. The door of the plane remained open through the duration of the flight. Soon it was time to jump. Trying not to gag in front of others, the man approached the door of the plane once it was above the clouds. “Don’t think, you coward! Just jump!” he heard a voice say in the back of his head. “What’s the worse that can happen? Living with a lifetime of regret or the parachute not opening?” Amid ambivalent thoughts, the man jumped. He fell to earth at 120 mph. After the initial rush of fear, he began to feel elation as he fell. Oddly, he felt peace and serenity. Frantic thoughts no longer passed through his mind. When he hit the ground, he stood up. Tears welled up in his eyes. He cried because he realized that he would never be a real man. That ship sailed long ago.
The real man is made in making a commitment to a higher purpose that focuses his life. The real man is made in committing himself to his family. The real man is made in taking responsibility for himself and his actions. The real man is made and molded in the process of living, not by doing symbolic actions celebrated in beer commercials. The real man values substance over symbolism. Symbols do not make the man; life does. With every successful facing of the challenges of life, the man is made; the woman is made.
What makes the real Christian? It is certainly not symbolic actions geared for the consumption of others. The challenges of life make the Christian as much as they make the man or woman. And, with each challenge you either grow or remain where you are. Life’s challenges arrive at the doorstep of us all. Life is difficult for everybody. There is no trouble-free life. Others certainly make life difficult; they make life a challenge. Yet, we need them. Life would have no soul without them.
Back to my question: what makes the real Christian? What makes the real Christian has not a whit to do with pious words and phrases that get discredited by how you treat people, what you say about people, how you use your tongue as an instrument of divisiveness. Too many Christians are quick to judge others; too many Christians are quick to rank sins; yet, in their ranking of sin, they fail to rank their own sins of the heart that are far more destructive to communities than the notorious sins of alcoholism and sex. What makes the real Christian? Of course, the Christian is one who believes in Jesus Christ as his/her savior from sin, death and the devil. Elementary, Watson! There is something else, however, that makes the real Christian: The Christian has the ability to see the signs and receive them as visitations from God. The real Christian sees the signs when others cannot. Even amid the challenges of life, the difficulties of life, the true believer can see the signs and appreciate their significance. When others see darkness, the real Christian sees light piercing the darkness. Others see death; the real Christian sees life. Others see a distant, angry God; the real Christian sees a kind, loving God in Christ Jesus who is our friend amid the various challenges of life and through those challenges we mature deeper into him, who is our life, our light, and our future.
In Exodus 16:2-15, God performs a powerful sign for his people in the wilderness. As they journeyed further away from slavery in Egypt, the challenges are ever present. There is no getting around the fundamental chaos that is life. The best laid plans can get frustrated by chaos. Though they are on their way to their own land, their own land they can call their own and where they can rest, there never really is perpetual rest in their life. Even in the Promised Land they will face one crisis after another. The issue is how they face such crises. Do they face them as powerless slaves yearning to return to a previous state of enslavement for the comforts they had? Do they sell their souls for security? Or, do they move forward in faith as men and woman who are not enslaved in their thinking? The present crisis that the people of God face is to wean them of any vestige of their former enslaved life in Egypt. The crisis is meant to reveal hidden attachments to Egypt. They must be free of those attachments if they are to grow into the people God meant them to be.
The crisis: no food, no water. How would you react? You would react like them: you would harken back to better times. That plate of spaghetti you threw away you would wish you had again. Nothing like deprivation lays open the designs of the heart. Much of the generational wealth we possess today comes from people who suffered through the Great Depression. Their deprivation taught them to save for tomorrow and make wise investments. The Great Depression was a crisis that we had to experience to become wise with money. The Civil War, moreover, was a crisis that we had to experience as Americans to see how the union that we cherish can easily disintegrate. The Civil War experience should make us wise about the present-day political conversation. A nation can indeed break up when it is not vigilant and wise in preserving its union. About a month ago, I saw the nearly four hours of Gone with the Wind. I came to the conclusion that Scarlet O’ Hara is a metaphor of the South. Like her, the South was beautiful and impetuous. The South was indeed impetuous to engage the North in war. Rhett Butler tried to convince a group of southern gentlemen that it was suicidal to go to war against the North given their industrial superiority. Self-deluded, the headstrong South ran headlong into disaster. The same is occurring today. America has never had it so well. So many of the economic, political and social problems that bedeviled former generations do not exist. In our prosperity and well-being, we are in the process of creating problems about which to fight among ourselves. I guess that reveals the condition of the human heart: it is ever restless; it sabotages itself. The human heart needs a divine savior.
What was the deprivation of the past year of crisis supposed to reveal to us, so that we might be open to God’s sign, God’s gracious visitation? Each of us has to answer that for himself/herself. For the ancient people of God on their way to the Promised Land, their deprivation occasioned God providing for them. God would certainly do that. The issue is whether they trust that God would give them all they need. The deprivation in the wilderness was a sign to learn something about themselves and God. God provided meat in the quail and bread in the morning. The crisis was meant to grow them up for the next phase of their life in the Promised Land.
In John 6:22-35, Jesus fed five thousand people. Experiencing the miracle, some track down Jesus to make him their king in whom they could place all their longings. Jesus responds that they sought him not because of the sign, but because they ate of the bread. They failed to see the spiritual significance of the sign. The sign had a human component: the satisfaction of hunger. But, the sign also had a divine component: satisfaction of spiritual hunger in Jesus who is the bread of life, the bread of heaven. The true believer in Jesus can see the full significance of the sign: he/she can see both the human and divine dimensions. It is not enough for us to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. And, it is not enough for us to be so earthly minded that we fail to see that heaven is our home. The Christian can see more. For the Christian, the worship service is the place to experience Christ in the signs. He/she can see beyond the typos in the bulletin. He/she does not grumble or complain in worship and thereby miss the full significance of the sign.
In worship, there is something we do and there is something only God can do. If we fixate on what we do or on what others are doing, then we miss what God is doing. The more we focus on ourselves, on the ego, the less we experience God. In my childhood church, Peace Lutheran, Pomona, my siblings and I used to watch people in the worship service. We spied how they worshipped, how they acted after worship. We knew the hypocrites and pretenders. We would talk about them. We could spot the fakes. We cringed at the man who picked his nose during worship. We mimicked how people sang, how they talked. We laughed at their expense. I recall my mother telling us on no few occasions: “Keep your mind on God!” She would tell us: “Don’t pay attention to what others are doing. It’s about what God is doing.” Despite her sage advice, I’ve heard my unchurched siblings give as their reason for the not attending worship: “The hypocrites in the church.” Indeed, there are hypocrites in the church as there are in any human organization. Such is life. God is also present among those hypocrites doing his work in the sign, making possible the experience of Christ Jesus in the forgiveness of sins and empowerment through the Spirit.
In the Sacraments, moreover, there is something we do and there is something that God does. At the Eucharist, it is our charge to do everything in remembrance of the life and death of Christ. Indeed, this is how we focus our minds. In the Eucharist there something God does alone, however. Only God can bring together the bread and the body of Jesus, being together the wine and the blood of Jesus so that they become for us spiritual food. The Christian sees the full significance of signs in worship. When you complain and gripe about what is happening in worship, then you are not centered on what God is doing. There is a better way. 4 (cont.) In Ephesians 4:1-16, St. Paul says, “Speak the truth in love.” There is a loving way to say things and there is an unloving way to say things. Complaining, griping and tearing down people behind their backs are not the loving ways to communicate. To speak the truth in love is to reach a maturity in Christ. Paul says that Christ descended to the depths and ascended. Because of his ascent and descent, he gifted the people of God with every spiritual blessing. Christ has established various ministries to build up the body of Christ so that we reach maturity. Maturity is characterized by two things:1) not being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine; and 2) speaking the truth in love. How you speak tells me your level of maturity. To gripe and complain is not speaking the truth in love. It may be true that we need to change a light bulb or two in the church, but to command that someone do it because you have given yourself an inflated sense of your importance is not speaking the truth in love. To tear down someone behind his/her back is not speaking the truth in love. To do such means that you have not matured no matter how pious your words may be. There is always a spirit that animates your words. The spirit in which you say something is just as much a part of communication as the words you use to communicate your idea’s feelings. The spirit provides emotional flavor to what you say. It is the source of our interrelatedness with each other. You must ask yourself in all your relationships: “What spirit animates my words? What are the words I say and what is the spirit that people feel?” Recall the adage: “The medium is the message.” How you say something communicates infinitely more than what you say. Strife in our marriages could be reduced significantly if we paid more attention to how we communicate. Maturity in Christ demands such. You can measure your own maturity in Christ: how are you communicating? Are you speaking the truth in love?
Rev. Gregory O. Rand
He wanted to learn to preach. And, indeed, Pr. Greg did become an outstanding preacher. Carrington Burch once told him: “You preach almost as well as Pr. Tim.” I shall never forget his first sermon. I can recall it as though he preached it yesterday. It remains my favorite sermon that he gave at St. Luke. He set the mood perfectly with his story about the honeymoon trip he and Jennifer took to Ireland. He spoke of the beautiful stain-glass windows of a medieval church they encountered. At the right time of the day, just before dawn or dusk, the stain-glass windows diffused a rainbow of subdued light throughout the church that carried one to the portals of a mystical experience. All he and Jennifer could do was bask silently in the joy of the light.
Preaching is an art. Preaching is also revelatory. It reveals the soul of the one who preaches. Pr. Greg’s sermons were a window into his soul. His sermons revealed to me what preoccupied his soul. The calling on Pr. Greg’s soul was to preach. He did it so seamlessly and creatively. His sermons, moreover, were the way in which he was working through his theology and spirituality. More than that, they were the fora in which he was working through his emotional issues. Martin Luther once said of pastors and theologians: oratio, tentatio et meditatio faciunt theologum, “Prayer, testing and meditation make a theologian.” The prayer, testing and meditation that make a pastor are experienced in the sermon.
Sermon preparation begins with prayer. In our many conversations about everything under the sun, I told Pr. Greg that he must bedraggle his sermon preparation with prayer. Sermon preparation begins with the simple prayer: “Lord, what is your word to your gathered people? What do you want me to communicate?” It only makes sense to ask for God’s input, as it is his word that a pastor speaks forth and the souls to whom he preaches belong to God. More than that, however, God is the creative one. God created the universe and continues to drive it through creativity. There are two essential qualities attributable to God: God is creative as Moses taught; and, God is love as Jesus taught. God’s creativity and love are essentially and mutually related. You cannot have one without the other. Creativity, in fact, is a function of love. God creates because God loves; God loves because God creates. The way, then, to tap into the creativity of God is to pray regularly, structurally and consistently. Prayer ought be the first and last thing a pastor does in a given day. A pastor dare not get so busy that he neglects to pray.
Indeed, the sermon begins with prayer and is ultimately preached in prayer, as the sermon is the place of profound testing. All hell breaks loose on a pastor Saturday night before the sermon. And, it breaks loose yet again after the sermon Monday morning. There is an emptiness that pastors feel on Monday morning that causes them to fill it up with too much of a good thing. Saturday evening and Monday morning are the times when a pastor is most vulnerable to the onslaught of the demonic. His doubts and fears about himself get exposed Saturday night. His inappropriate defense mechanisms come to the forefront Monday morning in processing the unkind and unwise things members might have said Sunday morning.
Anxiety, moreover, roils in us all: the stress of making a living; nurturing a family; caring for children; and life and death issues. The pastor has his personal anxiety to bear; yet, he shares partially in other people’s anxiety. The devil can poke at him from so many directions that at times it becomes unbearable. I recall a pastor in St. Louis who was late beginning the worship service. Everyone wondered where he was, as the 8:30am service was already a half hour late. The elders entered his office and found him under his desk in a fetal position. Pr. Greg and I spoke often about the testing phase. During this testing phase, I counseled a strong prayer life. It is the only way to handle such tests. This is what Jesus did regularly, for no pastor ever bore a heavier cross, actual or figurative, than Jesus, or St. Paul for that matter. Attacks are part and parcel of the calling. They are necessary; they grow us up. They hurt; nevertheless, they drive us to solace and healing in prayer. Such a refuge is not found among fickle people who always disappoint.
Finally, just as the pastor has to have a strong prayer life to deal with the assaults of the devil, so he must also meditate regularly and profoundly on the word of God. It was in this area that Pr. Greg and I were a blessing to each other. Our study and meditation on the word yielded so many delightful conversations. Since his translation to eternal life, my mind has been rehearsing those many conversations we had, some lasting three to four hours. A major theme of our discussions was, of course, Lutheranism. All pastors and theologians are trying to understand our tradition in this postmodern context.
Pr. Greg, moreover, loved to read systematic theology. He had a mind wired for synthesizing ideas. He could easily see the big picture presented in the many pieces. It was toward the end of his life that he came to appreciate even more what Lutheranism offered to the Body of Christ. He came to see that he could rest in the all sufficiency of Christ. He came to see that his cancer diagnosis was not punishment from God, but an entrée to the profound mystical experience that occurs when we are imbued with the light of the beatific vision of Christ after we take our last breath on earth. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Beautiful Shepherd, kept his promise to Pr. Greg: he snatched him from the clutches of death and ushered him to life eternal.
Pr. Greg, my dear brother:
In paradisum deducant te angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternum habeas requiem.
May the angels lead you into
May the martyrs receive you at your
And may they lead you into the holy
city of Jerusalem.
May the choir of angels receive you,
And with Lazarus, that poor man,
May you have eternal rest.
Pastor's Page - June 2021
The story is told of a young man driving his car. He saw an elderly woman stranded by the side of the road. So, he slowed down. He parked his Pontiac behind her Mercedes. And, then, he got out of his car.
As the young man approached her, understandably the woman was anxious. So, he smiled at her to disarm any defensiveness and to quell her anxiety. But, it didn’t work, as the elderly woman continued to look at him with great suspicion because of his shabby dress and his overall poor appearance. The man could see that he wasn’t well received; so, he said as reassuringly as he could, “I’m here to help you. For future reference, my name is Bryan Anderson.”
The tire was flat. So, Bryan changed the tire. In the process, he got a little dirty. When he had finished, the woman asked him how much she owed him for his help. He said, “I don’t want anything. If you want to pay me back, then the next time you see someone in need, then help that person and think of me.”
That same evening, the elderly woman stopped by a small cafe. The place was dingy. Her waitress was a young woman. She was about eight months pregnant. Though she had been on feet all day, she greeted the elderly woman with a smile. Throughout her interaction with the waitress, the waitress had a kind and loving disposition. The elderly woman thought to herself, “She’s such a little thing. She must be tired. Yet, how can she be so kind to a stranger?” Then she remembered Bryan.
The elderly woman finished her meal and paid for it with a hundred dollar bill. The waitress went to get the change. When she returned, the lady was gone. She left a note on the napkin: “You don’t owe me anything. Somebody earlier helped me. I want to help you. If you want to pay me back, then help someone in need.” The waitress, then, found four more hundred dollar bills under the napkin.
When the waitress returned home that night, she thought of how the elderly woman helped her. She wondered how the woman could ever have known how much she and her husband needed that money. Her husband worried a lot about money with the baby on the way; so, she was glad to tell her him about the money. Then, she hugged him and said, “I love you, Bryan Anderson. Everything is going to be alright.”
The good you do to others returns to you. Jesus taught, “Give and it will be given to you.” If you want people to respect you, then respect them. If you want people to be patient with you, then be patient with them.
If we are to make better the micro worlds in which we live, then we have to understand our priestly role to serve both God and people. Martin Luther’s reform of the church gave to the Body of Christ an understanding of every Christian’s role as a priest who serves God and people. In fulfilling that role, we emulate Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
In Mark 10:35-45, James and John make a worldly request of Jesus. When Jesus brings about his kingdom, they ask him to place one of them on his right and the other on his left. They ask Jesus to put them in positions of power and prominence. They are looking out for their own interests and what they can garner from being in Jesus’ inner circle.
Jesus’ kingdom, however, is not like the worldly empires. He did not come to serve himself. His followers are expected to be like him in not serving themselves. Those who want to be first must serve. Hebrews 5:1-10 tells how Jesus served us as our high priest. According to the author, Jesus did not exalt himself. His Father appointed him at his Baptism when he said, “You are my Son.” As our high priest, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. When? In the Garden of Gethsemane! It was there that the burden of the weight of the world’s sin broke tortured him psychologically. He was so plagued that he prayed, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from. But, nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Jesus surrendered. He obeyed.
Because of Jesus’ obedience, moreover, he was designated the high priest. A high priest has priests working with and under him. Who are these other priests? You and I! We are made such at Baptism where God calls us “son” and “daughter.” As priests, we hear from God to instruct people. As priests, we hear from people to tell God. You are to pray. There is no such thing as a follower of Christ who does not pray. If you do not pray, then check your heart, for prayer reveals the condition of your heart as a priest.
As a priest, moreover, you must be mindful of what God is writing on your heart. Such writing informs your prayers. The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34) says that God would establish a new covenant with his people. It would be a covenant written on their hearts, not merely on a scroll. God would do a work on their hearts, opening up their hearts to be sensitive to his Spirit. God renews the heart through Christ Jesus, who came to defeat sin, death and the devil and thereby put his spirit in us. The Spirit is the vital connection to the heart of God. God’s heart is joined to our hearts through the Spirit. What, then, is God writing on your heart for which to pray? God is writing indeed; but, are you reading what God is writing on your heart? You may have to give God a blank sheet of paper on which to write. You make your heart a blank sheet of paper through repentance. Such repentance is an opening of your heart to God, so that he may write messages to you to give others.
On Trinity Sunday, we enter the church half of the Church Year. The Christ half of the Church Year (Advent to Pentecost Sunday) showed us how we have been made priests through the ministry of Jesus, the great high priest. Now, in the church half of the Church Year (Holy Trinity Sunday to Christ the King Sunday in November) we grow in our ministry as priests. Such growth is conditioned on being sensitive to God’s heart and the hearts of the people with whom you live, work and worship. Indeed our times demand hearts open to God to hope and hearts open to people to love. The love we give returns to us.
Pastor's Page - May 2021
The story is told of two men who were imprisoned in the same cell. Though they both were in the same miserable conditions, one was happy; the other, unhappy.
“Why are you always so sad,” the happy prisoner asked the unhappy one. “Why should I be happy?” responded the unhappy prisoner. “I have no luck. Recently, I was free. I had sport and leisure at a world class resort. I had everything at the snap of two fingers. At that resort, life was infinitely better than this dark, dank, dingy, dirty cell.”
After ruminating on his former life for a few more minutes, the unhappy prisoner then asked the happy prisoner, “Why are you so happy? Why are you so satisfied with this cell?”
“You see,” responded the happy prisoner. “Recently I was in another prison. The conditions there were worse. This cell is like a resort compared to what I had. In fact, many prisoners in my former prison want to serve their time here; so, I consider myself the lucky one. I’m happy.”
The moral of the story: Everything is relative. We learn most by comparison. If you want to be happy, then compare your present situation not to what is better, but compare it to what is worse. When your mother taught you to eat your vegetables by saying that there were starving children in the world who would love to eat what you throw away, she was teaching you to compare your life to what is worse. Such a comparative lesson taught you humility. It also taught you gratitude. God would also teach you the same.
The prophet Isaiah says in the 52nd chapter of his book: “How beautiful are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness.” The prophet is speaking to people who are not happy. How could they be? They had lost everything to a Babylonian invasion and then carted off to exile in Babylonia. Their lives had been fundamentally altered. You understand that, as this year of the Pandemic has altered your life as well and has made you at times unhappy.
The temptation of the people to whom Isaiah spoke was to fixate on the life they once had and thereby compare it to their present deprivation and misery. Such a methodology cannot yield happiness, however. The Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land compared their life in the wilderness to the life they had back in Egypt. They fantasized about the abundance of food in Egypt at their disposal. Returning to slavery in Egypt to have access once again to such enjoyment seemed to them a better option than the deprivation and want in the wilderness. Such rumination only made them more unhappy.
Instead, Isaiah encouraged his audience to look at the wastelands of Jerusalem breaking forth into singing, because God was comforting his people. And, how beautiful are the feet of those who reveal that good news to them, the good news of happiness that God was comforting them and empowering them in the wastelands of their lives. Likewise, the message to you: Drop the idealized version of your life; God is in the process of comforting and empowering you in the wastelands of your life so that they sing. How can grief sing? How can depression sing? How can guilt sing? I have no idea. Only God knows how to work in the shadows of life to redeem, heal and uplift.
The disciples of Jesus certainly do not have beautiful feet. They are a sorry lot. Jesus upbraids them for not believing the testimony of the women that he had risen from the dead. What made them such an unhappy lot? Their expectations of Jesus were not met. They wanted a savior on the Roman throne of power, not a reigning monarch in their hearts. They compared their sorry lives to their idealized version of Jesus who would grant them political perks. They did not care about a resurrected savior over sin, death and the devil. They did not want a monarch over their hearts.
Jesus, nevertheless, would work with them through the Holy Spirit. Signs follow their proclamation. The signs were to bolster and strengthen their faith that Jesus had greater fish to fry than the Romans or the Jewish leaders. Jesus came to defeat sin, death and the devil.
Moreover, great signs certainly validated Paul’s ministry. He needed them because he didn’t have the best reputation among Christians. He persecuted them before Christ knocked him off his high horse on the way to Damascus. He killed Christians; so, the Christian community did not trust him. Yet, one of the great signs that confirmed Paul’s ministry was the community that surrounded him. Faithful ones, like Luke and Mark, were committed to his ministry. While others abandoned Paul, Luke remained faithful to him. Paul asked Timothy to send him Mark, because he was most useful. Indeed Mark was most useful. With the gospel he wrote, Mark unified in Antioch the followers of Peter and Paul and their traditions. While being committed to Paul, he used Peter as a source to write the Gospel Mark.
Paul, moreover, always compared himself to the worst case scenario of his own life. He readily recounted his former life as a sinner, calling himself the least of the apostles because he killed Christians. Yet, he knew forgiveness in Christ. Christ was active in the sinner man Paul to heal and forgive. So, he was satisfied with Christ. He was ready to die, to transition from this life to the next. He knew that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, would let him die. But, he knew that Jesus would come to him to raise from death and escort him to the next life.
I recall a pastor saying at a pastors’ conference that his responsibility was to get his people ready for death. I thought that was a strange way to put it; it seemed a morbid preoccupation. Life was hard enough. We need much wisdom to navigate life. Yet, what the pastor said is actually profound. We have no abiding place here. The denial of death is legendary in our society. Indeed can we, however, be like Paul who said to live was Christ, to die was gain? Len Meyers got to that point. Len Meyers told his beloved Margaret that he was ready to die. He was satisfied with the course of his life; he had lived a good life. He was ready to move on to the better life awaiting all who believe in Jesus. That is what Paul meant as well. Can you get to the point that you really believe that to live is Christ, to die is gain?
Indeed your life could be worse. Friday night, Mimi sent me an email asking me to pray for a relative. He is 57. He has two daughter ages 25 and 12. He suffered a stroke. Doctors did not expect him to survive. His prognosis was most pessimistic. I wrote a prayer which I emailed to her. In prayer, I found myself comparing my life to his. All of a sudden, I became grateful for the 7 years I have over Jay. I got grounded in the moment, in the Now. I compared my life to the worse and humility and gratitude burst from such a comparison.
God sometimes has to jerk us into greater awareness in the Now by impelling us to compare our lives to the worst case scenarios of life. Life, being tragic at its core, is replete with them. The awareness that comes from comparing your life to the worst case scenarios opens you to humility and gratitude. Happiness is the product of humility and gratitude.
Pastor's Page - April 2021
Many moons ago, when most Americans were poor, we drove great distances on family vacations to visit relatives. Californians would load up the family station wagon and drive to destinations east of California to visit their kinfolk whom they left behind in their home towns. That was an American ritual that President Dwight Eisenhower made easier with the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s.
I recall one such road trip we took in the mid 1960s to Springfield, Louisiana. That was my father’s hometown. My father and his cousin, Jeff, drove the car. They drove straight through from California to Louisiana. In the 1960s, that was how African-Americans traveled in the South. They drove straight through from one destination to another, stopping long enough along the highway to take care of their physical needs. Even if they had the money to stay in a hotel along the Interstate Highway, racial discrimination barred them from doing such.
My younger brothers and I looked up to Jeff. To us, he seemed bigger than life, because he served in the military in Germany. He taught us Karate moves and told us stories of beautiful German women. My three brothers and I piled onto the back seat of Jeff’s 1963 Impala SS.
To take a long road trip in those days, you had to have plenty of provisions: food and drinks. My mother fried chicken. She made different types of sandwiches. There was an ice chest into which she placed sodas. Together with the suit cases in the trunk, we had room enough only for the essentials.
We took the Interstate 10. At outset of the trip, everyone was upbeat: we were going to visit Grandma in Louisiana. We were going to the country to be with our cousins. What an experience in the country awaited us city boys! On the anticipation alone, driving through California, Arizona and New Mexico was a breeze. The only entertainment we had was an am radio, whose stations we had to change often to find the R&B music we liked. More often than not, country western stations had the strongest signals; so, we got our fill of cowboy dirges. There was no air conditioner in the car; accordingly, we had to time our trip just right so that we would travel through the bulk of Texas at night.
Indeed traveling through Texas in the summer without an air conditioner was like walking through hell. Texas took a lot out of us. We lost the initial optimism with which we had begun the trip. It was hot and uncomfortable. We got on each other’s nerves. When we entered Texas, the mood changed. It was the official South. My father and Jeff, having been raised in the South, became more vigilant, often looking in the rear view mirror and side view mirror. They were more cautious. It was like driving through a rough neighborhood. In Texas, they had taken on a different persona. They feared getting stopped by a Texas Ranger, or worse: the Ku Klux Klan. Jeff told us stories about them. Jeff and my father had an uncle lynched by them. We felt vulnerable in the South, in the heat, in the anxiety that something could happen at a moment’s notice. . .
The Israelites certainly felt this way on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan. How gloriously they set off on that journey after experiencing liberation from Egypt. The way through the desert would not be easy, however. God, then, provided them with provisions: the leadership of Moses; food from heaven, angel food; and water. Understandably, they got weary. They went to the dark side. They attacked God. They attacked Moses. They denigrated God’s provision. God sent fiery snakes among them as a consequence of their choice of going to the dark side. The law says there are consequences to the choices that we make.
Yet, God, full of mercy and love, provides a way out. He tells Moses to construct a bronze snake and place it on a stake. Those who looked upon the posted snake in faith were healed. It took faith to look up at something that caused your demise. Yet, those who did so were healed.We have taken a long journey through the desert of this life. Our destination is eternal life with Christ and all the saints. Understandably along the way, we, too, get weary. Nobody ever said life would be easy. It is hard for everyone. Sometimes we go to the dark side and get bitten.
Yet, God has provided us with all the provisions for this journey in the Crucified One. We look to him for the bites of sin. In the Crucified One, we see our own death. Life is the seed that bursts forth from his death. Jesus, the Crucified One, is the seed that must fall to ground and eventually germinate and thereby produce a great harvest.
Paul says, moreover, we were dead in trespasses and sins, but we have been made alive through Christ. We have been raised up! We have been seated with Christ in the heavenly places: we reign with Christ. Sin, death and the devil do not reign over us. It’s all Easter for us. Easter is our destination; therefore, we do not lose hope.
. . . To get through Texas, we had to keep our hope on Grandma’s house. Wonderful things would happen there. Grandma’s house was worth the heat in the car; it was worth the anxiety of traveling in the South. It was worth it all. Grandma’s house was a place of many gifts, much rich food, and fun with our cousins. Stories and experiences that I still carry in my heart.
Something greater than Grandma’s house awaits us: Easter, our resurrection from the dead. So, do not lose hope. Don’t get weary. Don’t complain. Soon the journey will end. But, how do you want it to end? Already now, you can live with the Easter joy that Jesus gives through the power of the Holy Spirit. John says in Jesus is life. His life is the light of the world. The closer you get to Christ, who is your life, the more Easter light you have to handle the pandemic; the more Easter light you have to quell your fears and anxieties; the more Easter light you have to handle the political swings in contemporary American life. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Pastor's Page - March 2021
The story is told of a boy who belonged to a very wealthy family. His father took him on a trip to the country. The purpose of the trip was to show his son how poor people lived. In relation to them, the father hoped his son would see how blessed he was and not to take his advantaged life for granted. They arrived at a farm of a very poor family where they stayed for several days. The father had arranged everything beforehand. During their stay, the family was very gracious and loving.
On the way home, the father asked his son, “How did you like the trip?” “It was great, dad,” the boy responded. “Did you noticed how poor people live?” asked the father. “Yes, I did,” his son responded enthusiastically. “What were your impressions?” queried the father. “Well” said the boy. “We have only one dog; they have four. At night, we have expensive lanterns around our house to light it; they have the stars above their heads. We have a small piece of land on which our house is built; they have endless fields all around their farm. We buy food; they grow their food. We have a high fence around our property for protection; they have no need for such a fence. Their friends protect them.” The father was stunned by his son’s impressions. He couldn’t say a word. Then, the boy said: “Thank you, dad, for showing me how poor we really are.”
During Lent, the preeminent penitential season of the Church Year, the Lord shows us how poor we are. We are poor, because we are without spiritual resources of our own. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” He was talking about us, the poor ones. Our poverty is especially evident as we face temptation. Every follower of Christ undergoes temptation, testing. Such testing strengthens us by first exposing our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and poverty and then showing us the way out of such testing through Christ. Every temptation is meant to teach us to always consider Jesus first as the way out, not our own psychological resources. Too often we make Jesus the last option.
Abraham got tested. He was the friend of God; nevertheless, God tested him. Why? If he is to be the father of faith, if by his seed the whole world would be blessed, if Abraham is to be the example of faith, then he must get tested. God must test him, so that Abraham’s way of faith and trust in God becomes normative for all people of faith, whose father is Abraham.
Look how God tested Abraham. His test was the opposite of faith. He was tempted to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Child sacrifice was the polar opposite of faith. Child sacrifice was an abomination to God. The word hell (Gehenna) derives from the place in ancient Israel where children were sacrificed. Ancient peoples sacrificed their children for favor from God: good fortune, good luck, or an abundant harvest. Children were sacrificed for the convenience of the living. Yet, God tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac. When Abraham proved that he would follow God’s every word, God stopped him from sacrificing Isaac and then provided another sacrificial victim. God’s strange request was meant to teach that child sacrifice was not the way to curry favor with God. God himself will provide the sacrifice that redeems.
Abraham, moreover, was tested to determine whether his relationship with God was greater than any benefits deriving from that relationship. Is God his friend because of what he can get out of God? Or, is God his friend because he loves him? A theologian once prayed, “O God if I worship you for fear of hell, then burn me in hell. If I worship you in hope of heaven, then exclude me from heaven. But, if I worship you for your own sake, then let me see your everlasting beauty.”
Seeking God for what you can get from God is old, ancient religion. Following God for the perks and good life is not to embrace God as a friend. In your spiritual poverty, you need a friend. God wants to be your friend as you journey through life. God wants to be your companion along the way, your fellow sufferer along the way, your friend. God’s friendship enriches you beyond anything.
As Abraham got tested, so did Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God, the beloved Son of the Father. Yet, the Spirit sent him into the desert to be tested. Why? If Jesus is to be the savior of the world, if he is the one who defeats sin, death and the devil, then he must be tested. He must demonstrate his power over the demonic so that we follow him. If we are to trust Jesus, if we are to trust his word, then he must be tested to prove the authenticity of his word. Jesus’ word is the precious metal on which you can build your life.
In Mark’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, angels minister to him. Though Jesus is the Son God, the beloved, yet angels care for him amid the temptation. If Jesus, having great spiritual wealth and power, has ministering angels, how much more do we need them in our spiritual poverty. As we face testing, we do not fall through the cracks because the angels sustain us. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” That is a petition asking for God’s angels to snatch us out of testing that would destroy our faith.
At death, moreover, we shall all be judged. How that judgment will unfold, we don’t know with any specificity. Just maybe there will be a review of your life to demonstrate how you have used the resources God has given you. There are allusions to that in scripture, as each steward has to give an account. The veil will be lifted, and you will see the many times angels stepped in to protect you. You will see the close calls. You will, then, praise God for his loving providence throughout your life. There has been a divine intelligence over your life that you cannot fathom. You will enter the gates of heaven having realized how valuable a gift your faith was; so valuable, in fact, that God protected it with his holy angels. James 1:12-18 makes it clear that you get tested. You get tested because you are an heir to eternal life with Christ and all the saints.
This life is one vast testing ground. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, after they emerged from the waters of the Red Sea victorious, they underwent a testing period of 40 years. By the same token, you have been freed from the slavery of sin. You have emerged from the waters of Baptism victorious in Christ into whom you were baptized. Yet, you are undergoing a testing period until God ends it. Your life is framed by periods of testing. The Pandemic has been a test. Every stage of your life has been a test, an occasion to strengthen your faith and trust in God. In the end, your faith in God is what matters, for it is of eternal value.
Look at what James says as you face various temptations: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
We change constantly. With some changes we become impoverished. Life has a way of giving and taking. God, however, does not change. God in Christ Jesus in the power of the Spirit is the one constancy in our protean life. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This Lent, we embrace our poverty, for it invites God to enrich us through Christ. St. Paul, moreover, had a big enough God to accompany him in prison. God’s accompaniment of Paul in prison enabled him to be joyous despite the negative circumstances of prison in the ancient world, which had no concept of prison reform or respect for the humanity of prisoners. If you had debt in the ancient world, you and your whole family could be thrown into prison. You lost everything in prison, especially your humanity. Yet, Paul remains joyous. His letter to the Philippians is replete with joy. You have to wonder how he kept such a joyous tone. If anyone had any reason to be anxious, it was him. He was in chains. Yet, he rejoices. He writes these powerful words: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, think about such things.” These are God’s truth, splendor and glory with which God will swallow up death forever.
God’s truth, splendor and glory are Christ who defeats death for us. God’s truth, splendor and glory are forever; they have the power to give you peace now. Do you have a big enough God that enables you not to be consumed by anger? These trying days, we have many reasons to be angry. But, we should not let the sun go down on our anger, as the Bible would say. It’s understandable that you would be angry: life as you know and love it has been inextricably altered. It seems difficult to return to life before the Pandemic. Get angry, but don’t sin. Control your anger; don’t let it destroy the ones you love.
Do you have a big enough God for the crisis today, a God big enough to be your shepherd? A God big enough to swallow death forever with his truth, splendor and glory? A God big enough to wipe away your tears? A God big enough to befriend you, accompany you along the way, who can take into himself your experience of sin, death and evil and redeem them with his love and return to you possibilities for the abundant life in Christ Jesus? This is the God who gives you a transcendent purpose to moor your life in peace, love and joy. Psychologically, now more than ever we need this transcendent purpose.
Pastor's Page - February 2021
In the film Castaway, Tom Hanks plays the role of Chuck Noland. Chuck Noland is a FedEx executive enroute to Malaysia for an assignment. Because of inclement weather over the Pacific Ocean, his plane crashes. He’s the sole survivor of the flight. He washes ashore onto a deserted island. Over the course of four years, he learns to survive on the island. Noland’s sole companion is Wilson, a volleyball on which he painted a human face.
Castaway explores what happens to humans when everything is taken away, when life as they know it gets fundamentally altered. Once Noland’s physical needs are met, his biggest challenge is, of course, to meet his emotional and psychological needs. That is a daunting task without the interaction of people, for we are relational beings. As God says in Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
If you were alone on a deserted island, how would you meet your emotional and psychological needs? For many of you, COVID has been like being on a deserted island: you’re isolated and lonely. What have you discovered that you need? You need God. You need family and friends. You need a transcendent purpose for your life that gives you a reason to live.
The need for God, family and friends, and a transcendent purpose is constant, whether in good times or bad times. At certain times in your life, you experience that need in varying intensities. This is especially true of God. There are times in your life when you need God to be your loving parent to encourage you and guide you. There are other times when you need God to be your friend who accompanies you along the journey of life. What do you need now from God? Whatever your soul needs, do you have a big enough God to meet those needs?
The prophet Isaiah speaks of God who is big enough to make promises and keep them. He says, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make a feast for all peoples, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:6-7)
This is the fundamental promise that God makes in the Bible. It was the promise made to Adam and Eve, that God would find a solution to sin, death and the devil. God’s honor is at stake if God doesn’t deal with evil in a decisive way. God must be big enough to do this, to keep this promise. The keeping of this promise constitutes a feast of the richest and luxurious things: rich food and aged wine. There must be a big enough God to extend such a promise to all, to create the conditions for this experience.
What I miss most about our congregation during this Pandemic is the various meals we had at key times of the year: Oktoberfest, Christmas, Easter, etc. Our feasts were big and generous, reflecting the feast in heaven. Pr. Greg and I were talking about this the other day. He also misses those fellowship meals. He was brought to tears when he spoke to me about the generosity of our congregation. He said that the cards, money and meals have come in abundance and they still come. This reflects the generosity of our big God who has planned for us a most generous banquet of fine things after swallowing up death forever. The Hebrew word for the adverb “forever” can be translated: “with truth,” “with glory” and “with splendor.” God’s truth, glory and splendor are what overwhelms darkness and death. God’s truth, glory and splendor in Christ overwhelm sin, for the love lodged in him is a greater power than sin. This is a God big enough to wipe away our tears shed in this life. And, indeed, we have shed many tears.
St. Paul, moreover, had a big enough God to accompany him in prison. God’s accompaniment of Paul in prison enabled him to be joyous despite the negative circumstances of prison in the ancient world, which had no concept of prison reform or respect for the humanity of prisoners. If you had debt in the ancient world, you and your whole family could be thrown into prison. You lost everything in prison, especially your humanity. Yet, Paul remains joyous. His letter to the Philippians is replete with joy. You have to wonder how he kept such a joyous tone. If anyone had any reason to be anxious, it was him. He was in chains. Yet, he rejoices. He writes these powerful words: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, think about such things.” These are God’s truth, splendor and glory with which God will swallow up death forever.
God’s truth, splendor and glory are Christ who defeats death for us. God’s truth, splendor and glory are forever; they have the power to give you peace now. Do you have a big enough God that enables you not to be consumed by anger? These trying days, we have many reasons to be angry. But, we should not let the sun go down on our anger, as the Bible would say. It’s understandable that you would be angry: life as you know and love it has been inextricably altered. It seems difficult to return to life before the Pandemic. Get angry, but don’t sin. Control your anger; don’t let it destroy the ones you love.
Do you have a big enough God for the crisis today, a God big enough to be your shepherd? A God big enough to swallow death forever with his truth, splendor and glory? A God big enough to wipe away your tears? A God big enough to befriend you, accompany you along the way, who can take into himself your experience of sin, death and evil and redeem them with his love and return to you possibilities for the abundant life in Christ Jesus? This is the God who gives you a transcendent purpose to moor your life in peace, love and joy. Psychologically, now more than ever we need this transcendent purpose.
Pastor's Page - January 2021
I have no way to prove the following. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that St. Luke was one of few churches in the City of Claremont that held public worship on Christmas Eve. Before returning home after the service, I drove around the city. I drove by some of the major churches. There was no sign of life. The city was a ghost town. There was an eerie silence throughout the city. It looked ominous, almost apocalyptic. It brought to mind the silence in heaven after the 7th seal was opened in Revelation 8:1. The silence was the calm before the impending storm.
Indeed, throughout the media, some pundits are predicting a Great Depression in the next two years. Dr. Anthony Fauci says that the Pandemic numbers continue to be dramatic: the worst is yet to come after the holiday season. Other pundits are saying that the worst is behind us. Whom should we believe? What fuels our anxiety most is that we don’t know what expert to believe.
As on Christmas Eve in the City of Claremont, some churches in John’s day were silenced. They were not silenced by an invisible enemy like the Pandemic. They were silenced by an all too visible one. They were silenced by persecution. The persecution of Christian churches happened sporadically throughout the Roman Empire. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was silenced, banished to the island of Patmos for preaching the Gospel. The Romans could silence his mouth; but, they could not silence his spirit. “On the Lord’s Day John was in the Spirit.” In the Spirit, Jesus revealed to him what was to unfold for the Christians undergoing persecution. There are places where no empire can tread, however. And, one of those places is the human spirit that is open to the Holy Spirit. Such spirits do the heroic.
As we face the New Year, like John can we exist in such a spiritual place that the exigencies of life do not scare us to death? John’s spirit is symbolized by the eagle. The eagle transcends all other creatures. The eagle soars high; it is free. To whom should we pay attention in 2021? We should listen to our spirits as they are informed and led by the Holy Spirit. We must be like John. We must soar; we must transcend. What empowered John’s spirit to soar like an eagle?
First, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross made John soar like an eagle. In Revelation 1:5, John says: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom of priests to his God.” The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is where he spilled his blood. The spilling of his blood grants forgiveness. The Bible says, “There can be no forgiveness without the spilling of blood.” John needed forgiveness like all people. He was prone to sinning like us all. Yet, he experienced forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus. Through forgiveness, he was as free as an eagle. Forgiveness made him soar. Forgiveness makes you soar above the sins of the past. Jesus says in the Gospel of John (8:36), “If the Son of Man makes you free, you are free indeed.” Based on this text, I can never understand some people’s understanding of purgatory as a place where souls have yet to pay for mortal sins committed in this life with so many years in purgatory in the next life. If the blood of Jesus makes you free now, you are free now.
The blood of Jesus, moreover, does something else. It creates a kingdom of priests. Having been made holy through the blood of Jesus, we can stand before God and pray. The priest stands between God and humans. The priest bears the concerns of people before God in prayer. The priest bears the concerns of God before people in good works.
Indeed the blood of Jesus made John soar like an eagle. One other thing made him soar, namely his relationship with Jesus. In 1 John 1:1-2:2, John notes that he and the other first century Christians experienced Jesus with their five senses. They heard him, saw him and touched him. After the resurrection of Jesus, John and other Christians in his generation had to forge a spiritual relationship with Jesus. It was hard to transition from a relationship based on the five senses to one centered in the heart. Recall after Jesus’ resurrection Mary Magdalene met him in the garden. Upon seeing him and being thereby overjoyed, 3 she wanted to hold onto Jesus as she had known him. Jesus said, “Don’t hold onto me, for I have not gone to my Father.” In other words, Mary, you’re going to have to know me in an altogether new mode.
It certainly was a challenge for the first generation of Christians to forge a relationship with the spiritual Christ after having known him through their five senses. But they had to, otherwise they could not do the greater works to which Jesus had called them. They could only do those greater works under the auspices of his power as the resurrected Lord in the light. The resurrected Lord in the light empowers us as it did them. As the resurrected Lord in the light, Jesus is more powerful than the darkness. When we fall into sin, Jesus overcomes the darkness of sin with light. Light, however, demands that we be truthful. We must walk in the light as he is in the light. Light is the energy that makes you soar.
If light is the energy that makes us soar, then so does love. Love is fundamental to the Gospel of John. John’s gospel is full of love, light and spirit. Pr. Greg informed me that he is doing deep reading of the Gospel of John during his battle with cancer and it has been a great source of comfort. The Gospel of John can be of profound comfort to you as well in the New Year. You can face anything in the strength and power of love.
An interesting dialogue unfolds in John 21. Jesus tells Peter to follow him. Peter looks over his shoulder and referring to John he asks, “What about him?” Jesus says, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you. You follow me.” John’s remaining did not mean that he did not die as some in his community thought. I think Jesus is referring to two ministries that the church conducts. Peter follows; John remains. Peter does the work of leading the church like Jesus led it. Peter is to provide for the infrastructure of the church, the business of the church.
John does the work of the heart. The word “remain” occurs in key places throughout the Gospel of John. It first occurs when Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit remained on him. Later two of John the Baptist’s disciples heard John say about Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Those disciples followed Jesus, asking Jesus where he was remaining. Jesus invited them to come and see where he was remaining. Upon seeing it, they remained with him. Then John said, “It was the tenth hour.” In other words, all was perfect. Remaining is the place of spiritual work. It signifies the place where the mystic does the deep work of the heart in the context of love and unity. Peter, then, does the active work of leading the church. John does the equally important work of prayer and contemplation. Peter is the bishop. John is the mystic. The mystic writes of love and unity as is foundational to the Gospel of John. The mystic has visions such that you see in the Book of Revelation. The mystic is in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. The mystic is one who deeply experiences Christ.
Inasmuch as John knows himself, inasmuch as he knows how he is gifted, he is able to soar. He is not Peter. He dare not pretend to be Peter. Peter has another set of gifts; John has his. Historically, the church has guilted people into being evangelists who may not be gifted for such a ministry. Churches have made introverts think that they have to be extroverts. Many churches have equated spiritually with talk, giving a testimony, sharing a testimony. All too often the deep work of spirituality has been neglected. This is the work to which John invites us in his gospel. If we do not do the deep work in the heart, how can we ever hear the Spirit?
We don’t know what 2021 has in store for us. These times, however, call on us to soar like an eagle, like John. Forgiveness frees you to soar; a relationship with Christ based on love and light makes you soar; and doing the work you are gifted to do also causes you to soar.
Pastor's Page - December 2020
A Blue Christmas—December 2020
Reluctantly, Elvis Presley recorded “A Blue Christmas” in 1957:
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me
And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doing alright
With your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas
You’ll be doing alright
With your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas
You’ll be doing alright
With your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas
During this wonderful time of the year, we are wont to dream of a White Christmas. Aside from fresh white snow, a White Christmas occurs when everything conspires to create the perfect moments of good feelings that spice up everything, making them merry and bright. In such moments, even the tasks of Christmas seem lighter: the writing of Christmas cards elicits sweet memories that are permitted to unfurl during the holiday season. And, the play of children does not produce feelings of regret, of missed opportunities; instead, their Yuletide fun elicits hope. A White Christmas is the dream; it is the ideal for which we strive during Christmas.
While a White Christmas is the dream, the ideal, a Blue Christmas, however, is the reality, indeed the all too painful reality. A Blue Christmas is a Christmas away from the ones we love. A Blue Christmas comes on the heels of some kind of loss. The days are not spiced with merry and bright. The days, in fact, drag on with no end in sight. Children at play is an oppressive cacophony. There is no rest for the wearisome soul; fueled by depression over loss, feelings bedevil you at every turn.
Throughout the country, moreover, many will have a Blue Christmas 2020. There is a common reality that has smacked us all dead in the face: we have undergone a profound loss of our way of life. It will be hard to hear and sing the old Christmas songs that harken back to better days. It will be hard to wish for a White Christmas with depression lurking in the background. As Dr. Amobi made clear in her seminar on dealing with our feelings during the Pandemic, depression is an insidious animal lurking about us all, touching us in ways of which we are not even conscious until it explodes into profound anger and sadness that debilitate us. Before that happens, we have to already care for our souls.
I suspect that the proper way to care for your soul begins with being honest about your feelings of pain and sadness. Admit that you’re feeling blue, shunning attempts to play act feelings that you just don’t have. Sing the blues! There is a healing power in singing the blues.
Because many are prone to feeling blue at Christmas, on the longest night of the year in the week of Advent IV, historically the Western Church conducts a divine service to commiserate with all who are singing the blues, all who mourn over the death of loved ones. The Blue Christmas divine service occurs on or near the Winter Solstice, December 21, the longest night of the year. The commemoration of St. Thomas occurs on that same day. It is most appropriate that Thomas’ commemoration occur on December 21, Winter Solstice, as he was entrapped in the darkness of unbelief. He could not believe the marvelous news that his colleagues conveyed to him that Jesus was risen from the dead.
Jesus, moreover, had to meet Thomas in his darkness of unbelief and reveal to him that he was victor over death and darkness. There is the key for us having a Blue Christmas. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our singing the blues. It is Jesus who said: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I don’t know how Jesus comforts us. That is his business together with the Holy Spirit. I am tasked with communicating to you that he is with you in the dark; he is singing the blues together with you. Embrace your Blue Christmas. Jesus is embracing it with you. He will lead you to the White Christmas where indeed everything conspires for the good, for all things work together for the good of those who love God. Beyond every Blue Christmas there is a White Christmas hovering in the horizon of hope.
Pastor's Page - November 2020
The story is told of a soul wound. One day the soul wound decided to attack his host. He came to his host in a dream and said, “Look at yourself. You’re a failure. Your life is nothing but a collection of failures.” The man responded, “I know, but I have a wonderful woman who loves me. I love her.”
The soul wound said, “What can you offer her, except your problems? She will leave you soon.” The man responded, “No she won’t. She loves me as I am. She knows my problems; yet, she loves me.” The soul wound said, “Think about it, you idiot. Is it possible to love someone like you? You’re a loser!” The man responded, “If I didn’t have any problems, I would doubt her love for me. I would think that she loved me because I was perfect. I believe her sincerity because she loves me with problems and all.” The soul wound said, “OK, if she’s so wonderful, what makes you think that you deserve her? Doesn’t she deserve a better man than you.”
The man thought about it. In fact, he obsessed about that question. Then, he cried. The next day, the man told his beloved that he did not deserve her. He decided to leave her, so she would be free her to find a better man.
Some years later, that same man died. He found himself at the pearly gates of heaven. But, St. Peter refused to let him in. Instead, an angel escorted him to hell. Surprised and saddened by his fate, the man said to the angel, “Why have you brought me to this place of torment? After all, I committed the biggest sacrifice for love. I freed my beloved to find someone better than me.” The angel responded, “The soul wound serves only the devil. You will stay with the one to whom you have paid attention.”
We all have soul wounds. St. Paul had one. He called it “his thorn in the flesh.” Whatever you call your soul wound, it’s most insidious and clever. It gets you to doubt yourself, to miss opportunities. It makes you believe that you don’t deserve love and happiness. Soul wounds are at the root of your self sabotage. Who, alas, can heal a soul wound?
Luke, the physician, would say that Jesus, the Great Physician, heals soul wounds. Jesus heals your soul wound by speaking into your soul a greater word than fear, intimidation and self-recrimination. The Gospel of Luke is full of the healing words of Jesus, which are words of life, love and hope.
Speaking of the Gospel of Luke, in seminary I recall a professor saying, “Without St. Luke’s Gospel there would be no Christmas.” In fact, without Luke, we would not have the other key celebrations of the Church Year: the circumcision of Jesus; the naming of Jesus; the Ascension and Pentecost. Without Luke we would not have the two most beautiful canticles the church has been singing since his time: the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s Song) and the Magnificat (Mary’s Song). Luke’s legacy is living and still influences us.
Luke, moreover, tells us why he wrote Luke-Acts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many had begun to compile narratives of all that had happened relative to the life of Jesus. He does the same. For what purpose? So that Theophilus, to whom he is writing, may have assurance of the things that he had been taught by word of mouth. Theophilus is a Greek name meaning “lover of God.” Primarily, Theophilus was a historical person connected to Luke in some way. Secondarily, Theophilus is anyone who loves God. Are you a lover of God? Then Luke wants you to fully know Jesus, the object of your love. What does Luke want you to know about Jesus?
Jesus is the Great Physician of your soul. He heals it with his very presence in the context of word and sacrament. In your soul he speaks a greater word than the negative words of your soul wound. He speaks forgiveness, mercy, and love. Where the soul wound speaks up, Jesus speaks more loudly in silence. That’s an odd thing to say: Jesus speaks more loudly in silence. Let me clarify. Medieval theologians (Bonaventure and Nicholas of Cusa) spoke of the “coincidence of opposites.” The person of Jesus is a coincidence of opposites: he is both human and divine. The teaching of Jesus is a coincidence of opposites: The Beatitudes, which we shall hear in the Gospel reading on All Saints’ Day, are also coincidence of opposites in the following way: Jesus says that you are blessed when you mourn; you are blessed when you hunger and thirst for righteousness; and the meek shall inherit the earth. This is in stark contrast to the way the world thinks.
The most glaring example of the coincidence of opposites is the Crucified God. The cross means power in weakness. What did God tell Paul when he asked God to take away his thorn in the flesh, his messenger from Satan, his soul wound? God did not take away his soul wound; instead, he said: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Now that’s a profound coincidence of opposites. God will not take away your soul wound. But, God will imbue you with grace and power in the midst of it. The grace and power come hidden in the words of Christ.
You, accordingly, have the option to pay attention to your soul wound or Christ. Listening to Christ has to take place in silence. Silence invites your total being to submit, to be still. The act of being still in silence is a powerful weapon, for it defies the soul wound that would have you flit about in anxious movement. We must cultivate stillness in the body, silence in the soul and surrender in the spirit. This is the most effective way to listen to Christ.
Like you, I’m still working on my soul wound. The biggest challenge that I have is to ignore it. I have to remind myself that I’m more the cumulative history of my ego. Funny how when you think you have conquered your soul wound, it reemerges in other ways. Like a virus, it mutates into endless images and words. All that we can do is keep looking at it, not fixating on it and sweeping it away in silence. Sooner or later the Great Physician will totally heal it. If not in this life, then certainly in the next life.
Imagine living your life without your soul wound? That’s exactly what the saints in heaven are doing now. They have lost the weight of sin, death and the devil. Without those weights their heavenly experience is most exhilarating. We cannot even imagine it because our eyes are shrouded by sin, death and the devil. For now, we live in the promise that we, too, shall experience what the saints are experiencing. For now as we continue to face down our soul wounds, we have God’s grace, which is sufficient for us, for God’s power is made perfect in weakness. “For all the saints!
Pastor's Page - October 2020
The story is told of a wealthy man who owned a large farm in India. He lived a contended life; he had everything he wanted. One day a wise man told him of the existence of diamonds.
Upon hearing such news, the wealthy man became obsessed with the idea of becoming even more wealthy. He sold his farm. He traveled the world in search of diamonds. He spent all he had on a search that proved elusive. Penniless and despondent, he drowned himself.
Meanwhile, back on the farm that the wealthy man had sold, the new owner took his camel to the garden brook to water it. While the camel was drinking, the man noticed a brightly-colored rock glinting in the water. He retrieved it from the water. He, then, took it home and placed it on the mantel. A few days later, the wise man returned to the property. Seeing the colorful rock on the mantel, he recognized it as the large diamond in the rough of which he had told the previous owner. Thus was discovered the diamond mine of Golconda. It is said that the Hope Diamond originates from this famous mine.
Rev. Russell Conwell told that story over 6,000 times in various sermons and speeches throughout America in the 19th century. He used the story to raise money to found Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He challenged his audiences to seek opportunities in their present circumstances to make a difference in the world. There was no need to go on a long journey in search of opportunities to transform the world. Conwell would say dig in your own backyard.
God certainly digs in his own backyard to find diamonds in the rough. Who are the diamonds in the rough? We are. Throughout the Bible we see God working with diamonds in rough like us. Moses was certainly a diamond in the rough.
Think of the book of Deuteronomy as the last will and testament of Moses. It is beautifully written in Hebrew. It is poignant and full of feeling. Moses knows that his life is waning. He knows that it will not be him to lead his people into the Promised Land. His lieutenant, Joshua, will have that responsibility.
Yet, Moses loves his people. Like a loving father, he is concerned about their wellbeing after he is gone. As he reviews their history, Moses reminds his people that they are diamonds in the rough. Like a diamond in the earth, they experienced pressure and stress in the 40 years they traversed through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. In every pressure and stress, they experienced their God as who one loved them.
Moreover, God chose them. God sought them out to be a treasured possession. God did not choose them because they were more numerous and capable than others. God chose them because they were small and insignificant. This is a radical notion. This is how God still operates: it is the least that is the object of God’s attention and love. This signals that God never gives up on anyone, least of all sinners. God is faithful to the covenant God established with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is faithful to a thousand generations: a thousand means an infinite number of generations, including us engrafted into Abraham through the Messiah Jesus. We are in the rough of sin, the rough of fear and dread over death. Yet God in Christ Jesus, motivated by love, buys the field where we are diamonds in the rough. What is the price of the field? It is Christ! The life, death and resurrection is the all that the Father pays for us. Love does this. Do you see how valuable you are?
The witness of the word, furthermore, motivates the Father. The witness of the word comes through the mouths of the prophets, that God would establish a people in the promised land. God would live with that people, cry with them, shout with them, and commiserate with them. God would allow them to fall to great depths. In falling to great depths they would realize what really matters and thereby bless the world. That’s falling forward: To fall in such a way to leave open the possibility of healing and redemption. Ironically, their fall has accrued to our benefit.
On one occasion, Jesus asked disciples, “Do you understand the parables?” He would ask the same question of you. If the answer is yes, then you are like a scribe that is the master of the house who is able to bring out of the treasury of the word what is new and what is old. The scribe so knows the word that he or she can rightfully apply it to their lives. The scribe, then, is competent in the word that is a treasury of promises of things old and new. The scribe has the ability to preserve order amid change and change amid order. The old and the new are pearls of great value that enrich your life.
During this present crisis, then, what is the order in your life that you should preserve at all costs? What is the change to which you should be open? As the master of the treasury that is your soul and the word, what order does your soul need in your life? What change? You must master the word of God that you may apply it to your life in these uncertain times. The word of God is the repository of things old and new. It is the power to preserve you in Christ and drive you to change under the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor's Page - September 2020
I suspect by now you have had your fill of religious recordings in the virtual world. Like you, over the past several months I have seen recordings from an array of churches, traditional, denominational churches to nondenominational ones. Never in human history has the world been blanketed with the gospel. Technology has afforded local churches the possibility to extend the gospel beyond themselves, beyond their local concerns to the world. It never ceases to amaze me that a sermon crafted and recorded for the members of St. Luke actually went all over the world; if not the world, then certainly all over the country, as I heard from people living in different parts of the United States who watched our recordings, although I did hear from someone in England and Africa. With that kind of power, it is incumbent upon Christians to communicate the love of Christ and not fear and condemnation. Truth be told, sadly, I witnessed a lot of judgment and condemnation, an obsession with the end of the world and what prophecy says about the pandemic and America. Prophecy in the Bible says nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bible says nothing about America. Jesus does indeed speak of natural disasters and political upheavals, but those constitute the nature of the world in which we live. We forget that the world is a finite quantity and will certainly end. When the end is to occur, no one knows; and, gathering texts from the Bible to calendarize the end is as futile as William Miller predicting the second coming of Christ in the 19th century. Every one thinks that his/her age is to worst in human history and signals the imminent end of the world. Because of the radical change afoot in the 19th century, change that had caused so much personal and societal anomie, Miller was convinced that Christ would return in his lifetime. He gathered around himself a group of followers and convinced them of the nearing end of the world. They altered their lives in preparation for the putative return of Jesus. Miller was proven wrong. In fact, he was proven wrong three times. Even Martin Luther was convinced that the end of the world would occur in his day, as life in the late medieval world was fundamentally changing. The church has always struggled with the idea of the second coming of Jesus. In the New Testament, there is consternation about the delay of the second coming of Jesus. Peter says in his second epistle: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Imagine the church amid the Jewish revolt in the mid first century. Great saints were killed: Peter and Paul. These saints did not witness the second coming of Christ, though they had hoped for it, longed for it, taught that it would be imminent. If Jesus did not return in the lifetime of these two great pillars of the church, then might all the talk of the second coming be a myth. Some thought so. But, Peter teaches that the end of the world and the second coming of Christ are in the hands of God, and he ain’t talking. A thousand years are like a day to God. That is a figure of speech meaning that a vast amount of historical time from our perspective is just one day to the Lord, one moment. Funny, some took that phrase literally and crafted a scheme of the history of the world that consists of seven days, each day representing a millennium, 7,000 years. By the way, we are living in the final millennium according to this scheme. So, this explains why Nostradamus, the 16th century French astrologer who predicted the coming of Adolf Hitler in the last century, did not predict a pope beyond the present occupant of the papacy, though apparently he had predicted the reigns of every pope leading up to Pope Francis. ☺ 3 It is futile to fixate on the end; it is futile to speculate about it. It is certainly mean spirited to use speculation about the end to foment fear in the hearts of people. There is enough stress and anxiety about the economy and whether we can return to some semblance of the normal that we knew before this present crisis occurred. We preach Christ crucified and him raised from the dead. What that means is that God the Father controls history. The loving Father of Jesus, to whom Jesus introduces us, prevails. God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Without heaven, God’s abode of power and gracious reign, there would be no possibilities for life. There would be no life without the intelligence and providential care of God, who is constantly working the good from the bad, beauty from the ugly, and life from death. Let us focus on the Father of Jesus, not the political and economic exigencies of our day, thereby giving them a significance we are not warranted to give them. All that we have is today. We are not to worry about tomorrow. Jesus teaches that God, his loving Father, will take of tomorrow and us. Stand secure in the moment, knowing that even the number of the hairs on your head is known to God. If the Father knows your hair count, hair that is here today and gone down the shower tomorrow, then he certainly knows you in your full humanity; you are extremely important to him.
Pastor's Page - March 2020
Commenting on country music, Willie Nelson once said, “Country music has 3 chords and the truth.” Indeed the attraction of country music is that it tells authentic stories to which we instantaneously relate. Country music great Tim McGraw sang one such story:
“I was in my early 40s With a lot of life before me And a moment came that stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days Looking at the x-rays Talkin’ ‘bout sweet time.”
I asked him,
“When it sank in That this might really be the real end How’d it hit you
When you get that kind of news? Man, what’d you do?”
“I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you’re dying”
“I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend I would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin’
Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
I finally read the Good Book, and I
Took a good, long, hard look
At what I’d do if I could do it all again
I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dying.”
Why does it take a bad prognosis from an oncologist to get us to live consciously? Why does it take a tragedy to get us to place a priority on the things that truly matter? I was at a pastors’ meeting where we discussed the grim future of the church. “The church will be very different in 25 to 50 years,” we all concluded. We were not feeling very hopeful. Then one pastor piped up and said, “I wish we had another 9-11.” That’s a sobering thought.
The Lenten Season is about living like you’re dying and the enlightenment and the wisdom that come with such clarity. To live like you’re dying puts everything in proper perspective. If you live like you’re dying, then certainly three things will become immensely important now.
If you lived like you’re dying, then your relationships become important. Jesus says we are to be lights as he is the Light. He notes that one does not a ignite a lamp to place it under a bed, but one places it on a stand, so that all in the house can be illuminated. Be a light to the people in your life, especially to your family. Too often our families are veritable battle grounds of unhinged emotions. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Just as we restrain our emotions at work, we should do the same at home. Let your words be light and life. Say today to your loved ones what you would want say to them on your death bed. We procrastinate in doing this because of two false assumptions: we think we have time; and, we let life happen to us. We’re not proactive about our time. Jilma and I attended the funeral of a family friend. At the repast, his son spoke honestly about his deceased father. Never have I witnessed such an honest, heart-wrenching eulogy. I guess it wasn’t really a eulogy. He spoke about how mean and abusive his father was to him, his brother and his mother. They witnessed how their father was celebrated by others outside the family as being a nice guy; yet, to his family, he was a terror. That has to be the height of hypocrisy: one who is more concerned about what people think of him than actually being kind and generous to his own family, where it really counts.
When you live like you’re dying, then God’s Word becomes important. Heaven and earth will pass away, but not one word of Jesus will ever pass away. As the Son of God, he is the word of the Trinity. He is the power, for by his word the universe was spawned: “Let there be light.” Indeed on your deathbed you will cling to God’s Word. I have ministered to many people on their death beds. My practice is simply to read the Word of God. I read the Psalms. I read the birth of Jesus. I read the death of Jesus. And, I read the resurrection account of Jesus. As I read, in some I have seen a smile come over their faces. On one occasion, as I read to a bedridden woman, she began to writhe back and back. She screamed and tore at the wires that connected her to the various monitors. The nurse had to give her a sedative. It was a weary sight. If the Word of God may be something to which you might cling on your death bed, then maybe it’s a good thing to familiarize yourself with it now.
One final thing becomes important when you live like you’re dying: the Righteousness of Christ. Jesus says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees. His righteousness certainly does. Rest in the righteousness of Christ. He is your joy and satisfaction. His righteousness is the garment that covers you perfectly from sin.
The Lenten Season of the Church Year challenges your to live like you’re dying. When you live like you’re dying, your relationships become important, as do the Word of God and the righteousness of Christ.
Pastor's Page - February 2020
The story is told of a man who was eager to meet his soon-to-be son-in-law. His daughter had gotten engaged unexpectedly. The eager man told all his friends at work that he had a whole list of questions to ask the young man. On Saturday morning after meeting for the first time, the man invited his daughter’s fiancé out for a cup of coffee. As they began to talk, the father asked questions that were weighing heavily on his mind. “Do you have a job? I know you just finished college and all, but how do plan to support yourself and my daughter?” The young man responded, “Well, God will provide.”
The father then asked his second question: “Where do you intend to live? Do you have a house or an apartment all lined up?” The young man said with much conviction, “God will provide.” The father waited a few moments before asking his third question. “Son, do you have any money? Any savings? Anything put aside?” The young man looked his future father-in-law right in the eyes and said, “God will provide.”
The following Monday at work, the man’s friends were eager to know how his meeting with his future son-in-law went. The man smiled and said, “I kinda like the kid. He thinks I’m God.”
Can we, like that young man, believe that God will provide for all our needs? Such a faith is an antidote to the worry that wreaks havoc in our bodies. Faith, moreover, is not directed toward what you can do. Money in the bank does not prove you have faith; it shows you have discipline and wisdom. There are a lot of people who don’t care a whit about God who have garnered great wealth through the application of discipline and wisdom. Bennie Hinn, a prosperity preacher who was big in the 90s, has decided no longer to equate the gospel with prosperity. He regrets the many years that he deceived people with the idea that God wants to make them rich when they give their tithes and offerings to his ministry. Through that deception he enriched himself. But, he has been convicted. He wants to preach a faith that is directed to the big things. Money and wealth are not the big things of life.
Faith must be directed to the impossible things that God challenges us to do. For such things, the appropriate prayer is: “Lord, increase our faith.” What are the big things that are the proper objects of faith for which we need an increase in faith? We need an increase in faith when God is silent. The prophet Habakkuk had a problem with the silence of God in the face of evil. He says in his book, “How long must I cry for help and you don’t hear? I cry violence, and you do not save.” Habakkuk witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. He saw unthinkable horror: the rape of women, the slaughter of children, the maiming of the innocent. It’s impossible to believe in God in such circumstances. No Sunday school faith will answer the painful question of the silence of God amid evil. Many surrender faith because they cannot square a loving, all-powerful God who allows evil to run rough shod over the weak. A member of our congregation had a conversation with his son about this very issue. His son said it is hard to believe in a God who is silent in the face of evil. “Look at all the evil!” He said. “How can I believe in God?” His father responded, “Look at all the good despite the evil.” The silence of God demands an increase in faith. Habakkuk has such an increase when he goes to stand in his fortress. There he will wait and hear what God tells him. His fortress is his prayer and reading of God’s word. He will engage those until his faith is increased to deal with the silence of God. Indeed, an abundance of good comes to those who wait and pray.
We need an increase of faith to drive out fear. Power comes from self mastery. This is the lesson that Paul teaches the young pastor Timothy. “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and self control,” he writes to Timothy. Self mastery needs an increase in faith, because the most difficult battle is with one’s self. Anyone who takes Christ seriously enough to pray on a regular basis knows this. When the self is not mastered, there is fear. When the self is mastered there is more freedom, the power to love. “I never knew there was so much power in telling myself ‘no’” a recovering addict told me. “I thought my power was doing my own thing without anyone’s constraints or restraints. I discovered there is no real power and freedom in that.” Why did Paul emphasize mastery over fear to Timothy? Unlike Paul, Timothy was not a man of the streets. He was not like the rough and tumble Paul who had to be knocked off his high horse on the road to Damascus. Timothy was quiet and unassuming. The quiet and unassuming, we think, are beset by fear and diffidence. They are wary about breaking the rules, violating traditions. Paul had no such concern. Fear had so beset Timothy that he had stomach problems. Paul, accordingly, recommends that Timothy drink a little wine to calm the anxiety. Most of us are like Timothy: we were nurtured in the faith. Fear is our constant companion. We are not bold like Paul; we are cautious like Timothy. But, in this postmodern world people prefer cautious and an easy hand. A bold Paul is not heard. It is the easy, pastoral approach of Timothy that speaks today. It is the loving, mystical John who speaks today. We, like Timothy, need an increase in faith to overcome our fear and realize that we are gifted for such a time as this.
Finally, we need an increase in faith to forgive. Forgiveness must be a hard thing to do because many don’t forgive. In community, we hurt each other. That is inevitable. Hurt is going to happen, because temptations to sin are sure to come, as Jesus tells us. But, woe to the person through whom sin happens. It would be better if a millstone were hung around his neck. Jesus’ conclusion: “Pay attention to yourself.” Pay attention to how you treat people. Pay attention to how you talk to people, especially the people from whom you expect nothing. Yet, what keeps the community alive and vibrant is forgiveness. If your brother or sister sins against you and asks for forgiveness, forgive. That takes an increase in faith to do, which Jesus is glad to give you through Word and Sacrament.
It had to pain your heart to hear the tragic story of the Dallas, Texas police woman, Amber Guyger. Guyger entered a man’s apartment and killed him. Being overworked and tired, she thought she was in her own apartment. She was in the wrong apartment and killed the occupant of the apartment because she thought he was an intruder. This story is one of those complicated situations that needs the wisdom of Solomon. At the sentencing, the brother of the man shot dead said that he had forgiven the erstwhile police woman. He didn’t want her to get any jail time, in fact. As a sign of his peace and forgiveness, he asked to give her a hug. After handing down a 10-year sentence to Amber, following the example of the brother of the victim, the judge came down from the bench and hugged her as well. That’s the power of forgiveness. It calls forth our better angels.
We ask the Lord to increase our faith when God is silent. We ask the Lord to increase our faith in our battle with ourselves. We ask the Lord to increase our faith to forgive and move on. The Lenten Season of the Church Year, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a most propitious time to ask for an increase in faith. Lent is an old Anglo Saxon word meaning “to increase, to lengthen.” With the coming of spring, there is an increase in warmth in longer days. During Lent, let us pray, “Lord, increase our faith.”
Pastor's Page - January 2020
The story is told of a woman who went to a psychiatrist complaining of anxiety. She said, “Every time I lay down on my bed I get this terrible fear that there is something underneath the bed.”
“Wow,” responded the psychiatrist. “I’ve never heard of such a phobia. But, like all phobias it can be treated. It will take 20 sessions.”
“OK,” responded the woman. “How much is each session?”
The doctor responded, “It’s just $150 dollars a session. Trust me: it is well worth it.”
When the woman didn’t return to the psychiatrist, he gave her a call. The doctor asked, “How come I didn’t hear from you. I thought you were willing and eager to tackle your anxiety?”
“Well,” responded the woman, “When I came home and told my husband about the cost of the therapy, he thought we could save money. He just cut the legs off the bed.”
Would to God that anxiety could be treated so easily. In our nation anxiety is out of control, especially among the youth. The New York Times recently reported on a Pew Research Poll that found that 70% of teenagers surveyed cited mental health concerns as their major challenge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the suicide rate is at the highest level since World War II. Hopelessness among the young is especially troubling. In an era of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity, people’s happiness and well-being are certainly not commensurate with that prosperity.
It is always risky to ferret out one factor of human behavior and make it the all-controlling factor over others. Anxiety, nevertheless, has always been a problem. We are born into it and we live in it. We enter another year, 2020, the year of clarity Pastor Greg said in his sermon on the First Sunday after Christmas. The clarity we seek is how to cope with anxiety. Here’s clarity: God is the antidote for anxiety.
Anxiety is a byproduct of being human. You sometimes have a gnawing feeling that you’re not right. You’re preoccupied. You’re not all there. If you have felt that way, then you’re in good company. That is how Moses felt. He had another vision of his life: it was life in the power center of Egypt, in the lap of luxury. Fleeing Egypt after killing an Egyptian who mistreated a Jewish slave, Moses landed in the desert of Media. There he tends sheep. That is a boring and monotonous job for a man with his skill set spawned in the high culture of Egypt. He is a fraction of the man he used to be. All that is left is his doubts and fears. Yet, amid his doubts and fears, the Lord reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush. The Lord tells him that he has heard the cries of his people in slavery. God is ready to do something about it. God is ready to send Moses to stand before Pharaoh to release his people. Moses’ response reveals the profound doubt that he has about himself: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Later Moses proffers one excuse after another why he is not equipped to do what the Lord asks. God’s response to Moses: “I shall be with you.” And, “This is my name: I am who I am.” That response says it all: the antidote to the generalized, personal anxiety that plagues us all is that God is with us. His revelation is his power, for the revelation of his word is the vehicle of his presence among us. Moses was to take the name of God in his confrontation with Pharaoh. That name quelled his anxiety, enabling him to be stand boldly before the Egyptian king. We carry that same name with us when we cross ourselves. Before an anxiety-provoking meeting at work, cross yourself in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When visiting a loved one in the hospital, cross yourself. The name invites the reality of God which quells the anxiety.
Anxiety, moreover, is not only the personal variety that gets generated as we face the challenges of life. Death is also a source of anxiety. We can accept the fact that we shall die. However, apropos to the anxiety produced by any discussion of death is how and when we die. We when I was a boy, I recall telling my mother I wanted to die before her because I couldn’t bear the thought of her dying before me and having to live without her. She corrected me on that. She said that nothing is more painful to a mother than having her children die before her. Dying out of order is painful. The ancients thought of it as a cursed circumstance. Like all humans, the Sadducees in Jesus’ day had anxiety about death. But, they refused to see the solution in the resurrection. They could not believe in a living God who was active in bringing life from death.
The resurrection life of which Jesus speaks is not like this life. If you understand the next life as an extension of this life, then there will be anxiety, for the conditions of this life conspire to produce anxiety. It is never comforting to me at a funeral to hear people extrapolate from what a deceased loved one enjoyed in this life and suggest that is what that deceased loved one is doing now: “He is playing golf in heaven.” The resurrected life is radically different. We really have no way to talk about it except to say that Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil and has thereby granted us entrance into the next life, where we shall be like the angels who cannot die. Who are considered worthy to attain the resurrected life? Those born of God. You have been born of God through water and Spirit; therefore, you are God’s child. Loving parents take care of their children. God cannot do any less than the most exemplary parent. Child of God, your spiritual birth in the waters of Baptism quells anxiety about death.
Finally, talk of the end of the world provokes anxiety. According to some politicians, there are 12 years left on earth if we don’t radically alter how we live, radically cut carbon emissions. Indeed the world is a finite quantity. It will end. The issue is when. Nobody knows, least of all pecuniary-compromised politicians. In Second Thessalonians, Paul speaks of the lawless one who exalts himself above God.
Paul’s image of the end is certainly anxiety-provoking. Yet, in another breath he speaks about always giving thanks for having been chosen the first fruits of those to be saved. Jesus saves us, comforts our hearts and establishes them. Jesus saves, comforts establishes us in the Eucharist, the viaticum for the anxious journey of life that we’re on. The Eucharist is the thanksgiving feast through which we thank God for Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil. When we partake of the Eucharist, we share in that victory. The only response is gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful thing. An article in the Harvard Medical Journal notes, “Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health and deal with adversity.” Everything we do in worship is in gratitude to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The feast of thanksgiving culminates in the Eucharist, the tangible antidote to anxiety.
There is your clarity for 2020. There is the antidote to anxiety that is bound to come in 2020: 1) it is saying the name of God over yourself by crossing yourself (Word); 2) it is remembering your Baptism through which you have been born of God; and 3) it is partaking of the Eucharist, the feast of thanksgiving that makes you happy.
Pastor's Page - December 2019
A wise person once said, “If our greatest need had been information, then God would have sent us a teacher. If our greatest need had been technology, then God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, then God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, then God would have sent us an entertainer. But, our greatest need was forgiveness; so, God sent us a savior.”
The words of the angel Gabriel to Joseph concerning the Christ Child come to mind, “His name will be Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” That is the message of Christmas. And, that is a message for all people.
I have a friend who has gotten on a kick of referring to Jesus as Yeshua. He no longer refers to our Lord by his Greek name (Jesus), but his Hebrew name (Yeshua). He is convinced that everybody in Jesus’ day referred to him as Yeshua. He thinks that the name Jesus is the product of Greek imperialism and hatred toward Jewish people. The reality is that Jesus lived in a bilingual world, actually a multilingual one. In Jesus’ Palestine, Hebrew would have been used as a liturgical language in the context of worship. Aramaic would have been the everyday language and several folks would have had some facility in Greek and Latin. Jesus would have been comfortable with both his Greek name as well as his Hebrew one. Indeed one can refer to Jesus as Yeshua or “Joshua,” which is what both the Greek Jesus and the Hebrew Yeshua mean. The point is that Jesus is a savior for all people, for the Jew and the Greek, the Roman and the German, the African and the Persian. Indeed wherever the Gospel has gone into the world, people have transliterated Jesus’ name into their languages, tweaking it for their linguistic comfort. All this expresses the universality of the Gospel: Jesus is the Father’s gift of forgiveness of sins for all humanity. “He will save his people from their sins.”
Forgiveness is our greatest need. We tend to make other things our greatest need: finances, love, communication or professional enrichment. Those things are important in the pantheon of being human; there is, however, a hierarchy of needs, and forgiveness is at the top. And, if anything other than forgiveness becomes our greatest need that God addresses, then that changes the nature of theology, the church, and the nature of worship. More importantly, the need for forgiveness is a need that all humans share despite their varied circumstances, and that need has eternal ramifications, for through forgiveness we are brought into a loving relationship with God.
Today, we hear sermons about time management or some other modern and postmodern quandary perceived to be our most felt need. God the Father, however, knows best. God knows what trips us up in life, namely sin. It would be the height of absurdity for God to deal with anything other than sin, death and the devil, spiritual realities over which we have no power. Being incompetent in your career will not damn you. The mismanagement of time and money will not damn you. That being the case, the ultimate purpose of worship, then, is the context wherein to meet your savior from sin, death and the devil in Word and Sacrament. Worship is not free therapy. It is not a session on life enhancement. It is place where Jesus meets you to heal, forgive and empower you through the Holy Spirit in God’s chosen media of Word and Sacrament.
We are entering the season of worship with Advent and Christmas. Once again, we shall sing with the angels, Gloria Deo in Excelsis, “Glory to God in the highest.” Indeed glory to God in the highest, for God has done the unfathomable: God has become one of us. In the Christ Child we have a savior who has accomplished wonderful things for us. “For unto us is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the king.”
Pastor's page November 2019
War is hell!” General William Sherman said that during the American Civil War. In making that statement, General Sherman may have referred to war generally. Or, he may have referred to trench warfare specifically. Trench warfare is a military tactic traceable to the American Civil War. During World War I, moreover, trench warfare was common on the Western Front. The land between the trench lines was called “no man’s land.” In describing “no man’s land,” Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier during World War I, said: “No man’s land is like the face of the moon: chaotic, crater-ridden, awful, the abode of madness.”
The in-between spaces of life are like no man’s land. The in-between spaces of life are fraught with anxiety. What are the in-between spaces of life? It is one phase of your life ending and another beginning. In that transition, you have the feeling of being neither here nor there. The place from which you came is familiar; the place to which you are going is unfamiliar. Anxiety, fear and doubt accompany you along the way. Maybe your in-between space is an illness. Before the illness, you had health and vitality. Now, however, you are entering a phase of diminished physical capacity. You are uncertain. You are vulnerable in the in-between spaces of life.
Throughout the Bible, of course, there were many people in the in-between spaces of life, in the haunting place of no man’s land. What wisdom can they convey to us as we find ourselves in the in the in-between spaces of life?
When he wrote his first letter to the young pastor, Timothy, Paul was in the consummate in-between space: he was in prison. Yet, he writes his companion Timothy to encourage him in ministry. There is no self pity in him. Paul tells Timothy no soldier gets caught up in civilian matters. His focus is on the battle that he wages. In that battle, there are casualties. The demonic attacks. They use depression to discourage. Some get martyred. Some get thrown into jail.
Amid it all, moreover, Timothy is to remember Christ Jesus risen from the dead. Jesus is proof that that God is faithful. In the in-between spaces we prove to be all too human. We prove faithless. God, however, is faithful! In the in-between spaces know and trust that God is faithful. God sustains you. God will work the good even in the in-between spaces of life. In fact, the in-between spaces may invite you to reflect on where you have been and where you are going. As you reflect on where you have been, you can see that God has been faithful. If God is faithful in the past, then God will be faithful in the future, for Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever. Hence, the in-between spaces need not spook us. They invite us to be open to the new thing God is about to do in our lives.
Luke 17:11 notes that Jesus was walking between Samaria and Galilee. He was in no man’s land. The inhabitants of no man’s land were lepers. They were discarded to the periphery. However, in their darkness they ask Jesus to heal them: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” As lepers they were forced to live in the in-between space of darkness. It is in those very dark crevices of forgotten and neglected space that Jesus as light of the world deigns to enter. The priests never went there, as the story of the man who fell among robbers along the road to Jericho illustrates. Jesus tells them, “Go show yourself to the priests!” The word of Jesus is powerful. It penetrates the no man’s land of leprosy.
In-between spaces can be isolated. The healing word of Jesus penetrates those spaces. We get ourselves into in-between spaces of sin. We become impure in our isolation. We cry out in repentance: “Jesus, have mercy on me!” Blessed are those who mourn. Such a cry Jesus will not ignore. No in-between space is beyond the reach of Jesus. You are not by yourself in your in-between space.
One final person in an in-between space of life was Naomi. The book of Ruth relates her story. Naomi was in the in-between space of widowhood, poverty and migrancy. Her life was ripped from under her. First her husband died. Then her two sons married Moabite women. That was highly offensive, as offensive as blacks and whites marrying in the 50s and 60s. She had to be displeased with her sons’ choices of brides. Then they died. She is left alone with the Moabite wives of her sons. She tells them to return to their own people. But, one refused to abandon her. That was Ruth, who would become the grandmother of King David.
Ruth clung (Hebrew: davca) to Naomi. That is a rich word in Hebrew. Historically, Jewish mystics have used it to describe the mystic clinging to God at every moment of her and his life, so that they know that they know that they know that God is their refuge and strength. Like Ruth, in the in-between spaces we have to cling to God, for God is the faithful one who will never let us go.
In the in-between spaces, moreover, we need to cling to others in community. Ruth and Naomi formed an indissoluble community. Hence, they were of profound comfort to each other in their mutual crises. When in the in-between space of life, cling to others in the community of Christ. The church is not merely a social organization; it is the place of the mystical union of Christ with his body, the church. Christ promised to be present where two or more are gathered in his name. The church that signs itself with sign of the cross, hears Christ’s word and partakes of his body and blood in the Eucharist is a divine institution; it is a holy place. All the church’s faults are overwhelmed by the love of God in Christ Jesus, for the church has been bedraggled with the love of God in Christ Jesus. The love of God and the wisdom of God seep out from us all too flawed human members of the church. This love and wisdom are worth clinging to in your in-between spaces of life.
Pastor's Page- October 2019
The story is told of a troubled man. He approached a wise man saying, “I’m distraught. I feel lost. I don’t know who I am. Can you please show me my true self?” But, the wise man looked away without responding. Then, the man began to plead, to beg even. Still, the wise man gave him no answer, once again turning his head away from the man. Finally, giving up in frustration, the desperate man turned to leave. As the man was leaving the wise man called out his name. “Yes,” responded the man.
The wise man said, “There it is. There’s your true self.”
The moral of the story: paradoxically, the true self is found by giving up the search for it. There is no perfect self waiting to be had if you would try hard enough to find it. Ironically, the search for the true self leads to the false self. I remember in high school a friend and I prepared to go to a party. We talked about how we would be at the party. We talked about the attitude we would have toward certain people, how we would act. “I’m just going to be me; I’m going to be cool, laid back,” he said. I agreed. It goes without saying that we didn’t enjoy the party because we were in our heads. Because we were in our heads, we missed out on what the occasion was offering.
The false self is the fictive world we create about ourselves. It is ego. The false self is our self-created devices to earn people’s Iove and admiration. We use this same modus operandi on God, attempting to earn God’s love and admiration. This is a futile attempt. We must die to ego. Jesus puts it in very stark terms when says we must hate our father, mother, brother, sister, even our own life. We must die to the fictive world of the ego. The real you is what finds you. It is Christ in you. When Christ finds you, your true self, then there are some things you learn.
First, you learn that “God is your life and length of days,” as Moses says in Deuteronomy 30:20. You become keenly aware that your life is dependent on God. You come to understand that your life is not merely your own. You come to understand that all possibilities for life come from God. On the contrary, the ego is self-centered; better yet, it thinks it is self-generated. If one’s life is self-generated, then there is no sense of connectivity to others, least of all to God, whom we cannot see.
Second, when your true self in Christ finds you, you learn to live consciously. You become keenly aware of every moment of your life. If you want to lengthen your sense of life, then become conscious and aware. In Luke 14:27, Jesus demands that we pick our cross and follow him. That is the cost of discipleship. Then our Lord goes on to explain what builder does not first weigh the cost and the supplies needed before building? Or, what general will not first sit down and strategize how to face an invading army? Accordingly, those who follow Jesus must be keenly aware and conscious of their discipleship. Bearing the cross is to be profoundly aware and conscious. Why? The cross brings pain. Pain makes you profoundly aware. What is the pain that makes us profoundly aware? It is the paradox of being both saint and sinner. It is the paradox of being flesh and spirit. Life under the cross is living with this paradox. The pain that this paradox produces never goes away in this life. It impels us to seek solace and rest in Christ. Pain hitches us to Christ. The devil’s play house is unconscious living. At the core of any addiction is unconscious living; it is the attempt to forget pain brought on by the anxiety of life.
Finally, when your true self in Christ finds you, you learn that appeals motivate you, not commands. Paul told Philemon he had the authority to command him that he give up his slave Onesimus to him. Instead, he appeals to him. He appeals to his heart, knowing that he will do the right thing because his heart is rightly motivated.
I remember a phrase in the 70s that went like this: half of Americans would fare better in the Soviet Union in tyranny because they don’t appreciate the freedom that they have. And, half of the subjects of the Soviet Union would fare better in America because under tyranny, they have come to appreciate freedom. That logic can be applied to Christians. Many Christians have no idea what freedom in Christ is. Some cynically know that pastors cannot command them to do anything. So, they don’t lift a finger to help the church; they constantly take, never considering that they ought to give back in thanksgiving what they have received. Your true self in Christ cannot live with that limited, cynical logic. The true self gives and receives. Indeed to always give and never receive is masochism. To always receive and never give is sadism. Your true self in Christ is not satisfied with that option.
At Crossroads Retreat Ministry, we have a banner that reads: “Lord, teach me to receive, because you teaching someone to give.” Give up the search for your true self! Christ, your true self, has found you. Will you now pick your cross and follow him to the abundant life that he so desires for you to experience?
Pastor's Page- September 2019
Emily Dickinson, the great American 19th-century poet, paid an homage to the moon with the following words:
The moon is distant from the sea,
And yet, with amber hands,
She leads him, docile as a boy,
Along appointed sands.
He never misses a degree;
Obedient to her eye,
He comes just so far toward the town,
Just so far— goes away.
Oh, Signor, thine the amber hand,
And mine the distant sea,
Obedient to the least command
Thine eyes impose on me.
The moon has been a source of wonder ever since our ancestors first gazed at it. They crafted poetry and stories about the moon. They based calendars on the moon’s rotation. 50 years ago on July 20, the world held its collective breath at the vision of men in space suits walking on the surface of the moon. Occurring at the end of the turbulent 60’s, the walk on the moon could not have happened at a better time. The walk on the moon provided a telling metaphor. We were invited to look up from the chaotic 1960s to a transcendent hope. From the perspective of the moon, the political and social strife of the 60s seemed small.
Throughout the Bible, amid trying circumstances, the people of faith looked up to God. The psalmist prays: “I look up to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” In Psalm 3, the psalmist calls God a shield, “the lifted of my head.” John says in the book of Revelation, “I looked up. Behold a door was standing open in heaven.” Like the psalmist and John, keep your head up. From the perspective of a raised head to heaven, to God, problems seem to diminish.
Abraham did something risky in his day. Following the revelation of God, he left his tribe in Mesopotamia. He left what was familiar to him and Sarah. People in those days did not do what Abraham did: they did not leave home and family. But, faith compelled him to leave. He believed that God would make him and descendants into a great nation. He packed up his possessions and followed God’s lead. Can you imagine the conversation between him and Sarah as he proposed to her that they would leave? “You heard God say what? You want to take us away from our friends and family to go where? Are you crazy?!”
They left. Many years came and went. They were still roaming. They had not found a permanent land. They had no child. You better know that Sarah reminded Abraham of his so-called vision that was yet unfulfilled in their old age. All the productive years of their youth were slain at the altar of this vision. The vision placed them in stressful situations from which they had to lie to escape. The vision was paid for by Sarah’s fertility. When women are stressed, they become less fertile. How did God encourage Abraham amid the delays? On one occasion God took Abraham outside in the night and invited him to look up at the night sky. “As numerous as the stars, so shall your descendants be.” On another occasion Abraham was at the Oaks of Mamre. The Oaks of Mamre were a sacred place. Abraham was in prayer in a sacred place. He was constantly in prayer given the precipice along which he walked. During prayer, Abraham looked up. . . He looked up. . .He looked up. He looked up and saw three men. They were God. In the presence of God, he wants to serve God. Abraham shows hospitality to God. He cares for the three men. He sets water before them to wash their feet. He sets food before them. The point of story: God says next year Sarah would have a baby.
Keep your head up? Like Abraham, go the sacred place to meet God. Where is the sacred place? It is the Eucharist. The Eucharist , in fact, begins with a dialogue. The celebrant says, “The Lord be with you.” The congregation responds, “And also with you.” The celebrant says, “Lift up your hearts.” The congregation responds, “We lift them up to the Lord.” You are lifting your heart to the Lord who is present in the Eucharist. All troubling circumstances of your life diminish in the presence of Christ at the Eucharist. From the perspective of Christ the King, all problems seem small. That is a lesson Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, had to learn.
Recall that Jesus attended a dinner at his good friends’ home. Their home was his place of rest. As Martha labored in the kitchen, Mary sat the feet of Jesus, soaking up the wisdom that fell from his holy, mellifluous mouth. Martha was troubled by the fact she was left alone to do the work. She complains to Jesus. Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled about many things.” It wasn’t being alone in the kitchen that troubled her. She was already anxious and troubled about many things. Being anxious and troubled was her disposition. Martha, then, lived life with her head down. The circumstances of life controlled her. She chose to do things complaining. She did everything that way. She was one of those who lost sight of the forest because the trees. She was spooked about everything. She forgot whom she was serving. The details of dinner so swamped her that she was not mindful of whom she was serving. That was how she approached everything. She was the consummate drama queen.
Keep your head up! It makes you mindful. The key to more joy in life is to be fully present to what you are doing; yet, you are not fixated on it, attached to it, defining yourself by a single experience.
Paul had an amazing ability to keep his head up. Through his many toils for the sake of the gospel, he never lost sight of the big picture: to promulgate the word of Christ among Gentiles so that they become mature in Christ. Paul suffered imprisonment, beatings and sufferings to mature the body of Christ. He understood that his sufferings were of redemptive value. That is what hope works. What’s big picture of hope in your life? You will live. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, you will experience grace to grace, glory to glory. Your life will end well and continue beyond its terminal point on earth.
When I was a little boy, I had the idea that the crescent moon was the tip of finger nail of God. I thought that it was always pointing in the right direction. I figured that if I followed the fingernail of God, I would always go in the right direction. A child’s fancy became a lifelong reminder. To this day, I look up at the moon. When it is a crescent moon, I think, “The finger nail of God.” But, now I know it is a metaphor. It is a symbol. Because now I know that God’s finger is in my heart. It is not out there. It is in me. I am invited to lift up my heart to where Christ Jesus is seated in power. When I do so, I shall go in the right direction. Keep your head up!
Pastor's Page- July 2019
There is an African parable about an eagle who thought he was a chicken. As the story goes, when the eagle was an eaglet, he fell from the safety of his nest. A chicken farmer found the eaglet. He brought him to his farm. He raised him in a chicken coop among other chickens. The eaglet grew up doing what chickens do: he pecked about on the ground. The eagle became renowned in those parts: he was an eagle who acted like a chicken.
A scientist, an ornithologist to be exact, came to the chicken farm to see for himself what he had heard about the eagle who acted like a chicken. As an expert on birds, the ornithologist knew that the eagle was the king of the sky. Yet, when he saw the eagle strutting around the chicken coop pecking at the ground, he was amused. The farmer explained to the scientist that the eagle was no longer an eagle. He was a chicken. “He has lived among chickens and has been raised to believe he is a chicken,” said the farmer.
The ornithologist knew there was more to this great bird than the possibilities inherent in the chicken coop. He was born an eagle; therefore, he had the heart of an eagle. The ornithologist took the great bird and set him on the fence surrounding the chicken coop. He said: “Eagle, you are an eagle! Stretch forth your wings and fly!” The eagle moved slightly. He looked at the man. He, then, glanced down at his home among the chickens. It was there he was comfortable, as it was familiar. He jumped off the fence and pecked at the ground like the other chickens. The farmer responded, “I told you he was a chicken.”
The next day the ornithologist took the eagle atop the farm house. Once again he said, “You are not a chicken. You belong to the sky, not the earth! Stretch forth your wings and fly!” Again the giant bird looked at the man. He then looked down at the chicken coop. He, then, jumped from the man’s arm to the chicken coop below. The farmer smiled contentedly.
The next day the ornithologist took the eagle and the farmer to the foot of the mountain. They could not see the farm or the chicken coop. The ornithologist held the eagle on his arm. He pointed high into the sky where the bright sun was beckoning. The scientist shouted: “You belong to the sky, not the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly!” The eagle stared upward. He straightened his large body. He stretched out his massive wings. With the mighty screech of an eagle, he flew.
That parable was told in colonial Africa to inspire Africans to decolonize their minds, to cleanse their minds of the negative images of themselves that the European colonizers foisted onto them as a justification to take their land. African indigenous, Christians had to hear that they were more than what their colonizers defined them to be. Christianity, in fact, is spreading like a wild fire all across Africa as Africans discover their true image of God in Christ. The largest Christian churches are now in Africa. The largest Lutheran churches are not in Germany or America; they are in Africa. As the West gives up on its faith, Africa has taken it up and is thriving. As they come into who they really are in Christ, African Christians are full of joy. Their material circumstances are meager, but their joy is full. Their joy is their power. There is no greater joy than coming into who you really are in Christ. Why peck like a Chicken when you can soar like an Eagle?
Jesus is the joymaker. As the joymaker, Jesus empowers you to be who you really are. There is no greater joy than being who you really are. Jesus takes you out of chicken circumstances and empowers you to soar to great spiritual heights. How?
Jesus says in the Gospel of John that his disciples had not asked anything in his name. Why? They did not know the power in Jesus’ name. In order to come to know the power in Jesus’ name, they had to get into circumstances where they would learn the power of Jesus’ name for themselves. As long they have Jesus in their midst, they would rely on him. To the extent that they did, they did not grow. Their life circumstances would expose their nature. Their life circumstances exposed fear and trembling, doubt. Their circumstances exposed the fundamental anxiety that we all struggle with. Amid those circumstances would they run and hide, cowered by fear? Or, would the circumstances impel them to pray in Jesus’ name. At the beginning of
each worship service, we cross ourselves in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy. That name of God invites the reality of God. The reality of God comes with the name. Sometimes, you have no words in given circumstance. It is best to cross yourself inviting God to give you wisdom, lucidity, enlightenment. Luther commented what imminent dangers he avoided by crossing himself. The disciples would be cast into darkness. They would learn to pray in Jesus’ name. That is joy.
Jesus answers prayer in his name. He answers such prayer to give us joy, not just joy, but complete joy. Complete joy is joy for the moment. My Ph.D. graduation last month was festive, colorful, very moving. Everyone was given a program that shared the biographies about the speakers. They shared information about the graduates: their previous degrees, etc. Instead of being in the moment, I found myself reading the bio of the speakers while they spoke. Throughout the ceremony, my colleague in Hebrew Bible also gave his full attention to the program. He had his head down, engrossed in the program. When I glanced at him, I said to myself, “Enough of this madness! Enjoy the moment!”
The complete joy that Jesus is talking about is full joy for the moment, not joy for tomorrow, not joy from yesterday, but joy for the moment. It was like the manna with which God fed the Israelites. It was food for the moment. The manna was not to be stored; when they did store it, it spoiled. God is a God of the moment, right now. There is no such thing as getting enough grace to sustain you for some amount of time that you designate. You cannot store up grace to such an extent that you can forego Word and Sacrament for a stipulated amount of time. You constantly need grace when it offered. “Give us this day, our daily bread.” Amid the anxiety of life there is a complete joy, a full joy.
Jesus, the joymaker, would enable the disciples to know the Father for themselves. Jesus derives great joy when we come to know his Father as he knows him. Jesus’ purpose was to introduce us to his Father. The Father loves he told Nicodemus. The Father is Spirit he told the Samaritan woman at the well. We are born of the Father; we become spirits like him. What does that mean? We have a future. We shall live. There are pockets of spiritual light in us that darkness cannot comprehend. If we have a secure future, then we can die with confidence. We can surrender ourselves to God in life and in death. We can get to the place where we are above it all, soaring with eagles. John’s Gospel is symbolized by the eagle. We spiritually soar.
Are you in chicken circumstances? Are you pecking at the ground seeking a mere pittance of food? If you do not pray in the name of Jesus, then you are in chicken circumstances. If you do not know your spiritual nature that enables you to soar above sin, death and the devil, then you are in chicken circumstances. If you are ignorant of power of prayer, the power in the name of Jesus, then you are in chicken circumstances. There is no joy in being in chicken circumstances because you are more. You are to soar like an eagle. Jesus, the joymaker, empowers you to soar. With Christ soar above sin; soar above the death; soar about the devil. You are an eagle. There is your joy.
Pastor's Page- May 2019
Will Rogers, the American actor and humorist, once said: “If you ever injected truth into politics you would have no politics.” The political landscape is rife with promises made but not kept. In 1916, two years after Europe was engulfed in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election promising he would keep America out of Europe’s war with itself. 34 days into his second term, Wilson signed a declaration of war against Germany.
While campaigning in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson promised: “We are not about to send American boys 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys should do for themselves.” Two months after Johnson was sworn into his second term, 3,500 troops landed in Danang, Vietnam. Three years later over half a million troops were stationed in Vietnam.
Little wonder we are cynical about politicians and the whole business of politics. Too often promises are made only to be broken. Broken promises, however, have proven very costly.
Recently, I met with four Lutheran pastors from another denomination. We got into a conversation about how to inject politics into sermons. We discussed whether pastors should shy away from being political and taking political stances in sermons. They wanted to take a political stance about the immigration issue because their colleague, a Lutheran pastor was arrested and detained by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were troubled by the ignominious way she was taken out of her home in pajamas before her screaming children. Apparently, she was brought to America as a child. She got educated, eventually attended seminary and got ordained. They were troubled by their colleague’s treatment. Yet, they felt taking a political stance would cause divisions in their congregations, but they felt impelled to say something nevertheless.
Though politics can feel like a cynical game, politics has real-life consequences. People get hurt; people lose their livelihoods and lives. Politics indeed is a matter of life and death; therefore, it should be taken seriously. Truth is at the center of whatever we take seriously.
We take the promises of God seriously because they are grounded in truth and they are of eternal validity. You can trust the promises of God, because God cannot lie or deceive. The truth of God is grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ is the clarion call that whatever he promises, he fulfills. A promise from the mouth of a politician is untrustworthy. A promise from the mouth of Jesus is most trustworthy. What is the promise Jesus gives? It is the Holy Spirit.
As a congregation gathered around Word and Sacrament, we need the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the continuing voice of Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples that he had many things to tell them, but they could not bear what he had to say. Accordingly, like any good teacher his teaching method was process oriented. He dispenses wisdom and insight when his disciples are ready. When they prove themselves faithful in the smaller things, Jesus gives them bigger things. The Spirit would lead them and guide them to the bigger things, the greater things of enlightenment. Their office, a divine office, is blessed and empowered by the Spirit. As they engaged their work, they had access to power through the Holy Spirit. I recall a church that interviewed pastoral candidates. They asked about the quality of the prayer life of the pastors they wanted to call. They wanted to know how much time they spent in the word for their own spiritual edification. They wanted to know the amount of time they spent in prayer. Some of pastors they interviewed were taken aback by such an intimate question. But, the church wanted to know how they cared for themselves, how did they get power to do the job, how they got enlightenment. They knew that the pastoral office was a divine office imbued with power from the Spirit. And, for that reason, it was attacked, at the frontline of spiritual warfare. They wanted to know whether the pastor they called was getting access to the power to pastor. It was a totally legitimate investigation on the part of the congregation.
Not only pastors, but you also have a need for the continuing voice of the Holy Spirit, to which you have access through the word and prayer. When the word is confirmed by your heart through the unction of the Spirit it has real power. When you hear something down in the heart, you move; your total being gets enlisted to move. Just because you can play the notes does mean you can make music. You make music when your skill is so developed that you feel the notes and then interpret them with your total being. My brother’s cello playing used to fascinate me. I knew he was making music when he moved his hands vigorously and moved his body to the music. The music had so captivated him that he moved his body to and fro. Watching his physicality while playing was as compelling as the music he played; actually, it added to the experience. The movement was a joy to watch. So the continuing voice of the Spirit gets us to move.
The Spirit is not only the continuing voice of Jesus in the church and in your life, the Spirit is also the Paraclete, your constant companion called to stand along side you. As our constant companion, the Spirit reminds us to breathe: to breathe in the power and life the Spirit bestows through Word and Sacrament. The power and life produce the joy that transcends your circumstances. I accompanied Jilma during the birth of our sons. We did the Lamaze method. My role was to deflect her fixation on the pain of the contractions by getting her to focus on her breath. She was to breathe in deeply and watch her breath. That is essentially what the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit standing along us, reminds us to breathe in the life and power. To the extent that do, we have joy.. This Pentecost, we pray with church universal anew: “Come, Holy Spirit!” The Holy Spirit in our lives is the promise kept by Jesus.
Pastor's Page - May 2019
In Memoriam: Martha A. Mueller
Culminating on Easter Sunday, the Resurrection of Our Lord, God ended our observance of Holy Week with an exclamation point. The exclamation point was Martha’s transition from this life to eternal life in Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was present with her to shepherd her beyond her thoughts and fears to eternal life in him. She did not die alone. Her death occasioned a holy assembly of angels and saints, presided over by Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He kept his promise to her made in the waters of Baptism that she was a child of his Father, born of his Father through the cleansing waters of Baptism, where her sins were forgiven, death was destroyed and the devil and his minions were defanged. Her prayer together with the Church Catholic of all time and in all places—“deliver us from evil”—was answered, as she was delivered from the chaotic and entropic realities of sin, death and the devil that weigh us down in decaying bodies. Everything Jesus accomplished objectively for humanity through his birth at Christmas, his life in Galilee, his death at Calvary, his resurrection at Easter, his ascension to heaven before the gaze of his disciples, his session at the right hand of the Father and his giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was given subjectively to Martha in her space and time in the waters of Baptism blessed by the performative word of Jesus. His performative word continues to be efficacious because it was spoken by not merely the son of man born of Mary but by the Son of God born of the Father. Martha progressed from grace to grace all the days of her life in her joys and sadness, victories and defeats, in the buoyancy and randomness of life.
The above was Martha’s theology. I have articulated it in lofty terms in keeping with the woman of dignity that Martha was. Her theology was informed by her Baptism. If theology codifies the values for which you are willing to die, what is really important to you, then Martha’s Baptism was the center, radius and circumference of her life. It was the guiding principle of her intelligent, systematic mind. Martha’s Baptism animated every aspect of her life. She did not have to tell you that. You saw it; I saw it. After worship, before she exited the holy space of St. Luke’s sanctuary, I sometimes caught a glimpse of Martha walking down the center aisle from the organ to the baptistery. She would stand silently before the baptistry, touching it as she spoke a silent prayer with her eyes closed, but the eyes of her spirit wide open to Jesus. In her final instructions to her family, she asked that the baptistry be placed at the head of her casket. She also asked that a pall be placed over her casket, which is symbolic of our baptismal clothing in Christ.
Her Baptism, moreover, invited her to go deeper into Christ as she learned to rest in her Baptism in her contemplative practice. Like Mary, she became quite the contemplative, sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing him say deeply in her heart that he loved her, that he had always loved her, even when she felt unloved and unappreciated. It was what she needed to hear as she was cast all too soon in her life into the role of caretaker of her younger siblings. There was a time in America when most Americans were poor, when most families struggled to make ends meet. Older siblings of such families had to pitch in to help their families survive, as both parents worked odd hours to put food on the table. Having to fulfill the role of proxy parent to her younger siblings at a young age, Martha missed out on important teenage rites of passage. She was like Martha, the sister of Lazarus, beset by many worries about the family, as she was front and center to her parents’ struggles with each other. A huge weight was placed on her at an all-too-young age. College and graduate school were her refuge; music was her comfort; music was her prayer. But, the consciousness of not being appreciated dogged her; it was the hidden script of her emotional life. Her needs did not matter when the family’s survival was at stake. Those were the words that filtered what she would go on to experience. It was in contemplation she began to unpack that hidden script. It was in contemplation that she laid it bare. It was a painful process on the road to full acceptance of herself. For us who practice deep, contemplative prayer, our regret is that we did not find the practice sooner in our lives. But, the joy experienced in contemplative prayer soon vanquishes all such regrets. The joy of the moment is too beautiful to hang onto any guilt from the past. Accordingly, Martha’s contemplative prayer was a mere soupçon of the full appreciation and love she now feels in the presence of Christ Jesus. What was hinted at in contemplative prayer has become for her a full blown experience of eternal joy and bliss in Christ Jesus and all the saints in the light.
In paradisum deducant te angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival,
and may they lead you into the holy city of
May the choir of angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, that poor man,
may you have eternal rest.
Pastor's page - April 2019
An unknown author tells the story of a man who fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out.
A subjective person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.”
An objective person walked by and said, “It’s logical that someone would fall down there.”
A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into pits.”
A mathematician calculated how deep the pit was.
A news reporter wanted the exclusive story on the pit.
A self-pitying person said, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit.”
A fire-and-brimstone preacher said, “You deserve your pit!”
A psychologist noted, “Your mother and father are to blame for that pit.”
A self-esteem therapist said, “Believe in yourself and you can get out of the pit.”
An optimist said, “Things could be worse.”
A pessimist claimed, “Things will get worse.”
Jesus, seeing the man, took him by the hand and lifted him out of the pit.
Jesus demonstrates what we need: we need someone to save us. We need someone who saves us not with words, philosophies and creative perspectives that enable us to justify ourselves. We need someone who can save us from realities from which we cannot save ourselves. Relative to that, we need real action, not another “ism.” Mercy is grace in action. As grace in action, Jesus is the epitome of mercy. He has mercy on us who have fallen into a pit from which we cannot save ourselves. Jesus saves us from the pit of sin, death and the devil by his life, death, resurrection and session at the right hand of God the Father.
We have spent the Lenten Season confronting our sin. We know it is an inherited baggage for which we must nevertheless take responsibility. The other day, the vicar and I got into a conversation about inherited, familial features. He told me he was spending the Lenten Season reflecting on the inherited traits of his family that trip him up. He noted that every family has inherited issues that linger for generations. He called them generational curses. That got me to thinking about the vestige that I carry from my own family. I looked at my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins. I looked at the things at which they are gifted and the things that are the source of constant, emotional conundrums. I looked at their successes and their failures. I looked at their coping skills and how they handle the stresses of life. Indeed some of the things they struggle with I, too, struggle with. We inherit the good and the bad from our families. Because we inherit traits from our families, however, does not absolve us of the responsibility of taking ownership of our inherited baggage.
God does not care, moreover, what station of life into which we are born. God cares whether we grow where we are. God desires that we live our lives, not someone else’s. Repentance catalyzes us to grow. At the last women’s retreat at which I worked, a woman spoke to me about feeling guilty about not being extroverted enough to witness boldly to the people into whom she came into contact. She was the consummate introvert. I told her extroverts have their way of expressing their faith and introverts have theirs. “You need to discover what is the spiritual expression commensurate with how you are gifted. Jesus had an extroverted Peter and introverted John.” Repentance produces growth that leads to self awareness and actualization. Repentance is grounded in the resurrection of our Lord, for it unlocks the benefit of the resurrection as an invitation to live a radically new life of peace, love and joy.
Pastor's page - March 2019
The story is told of a woman who came out of her house. She saw three old men with long white beards sitting in her front yard. She did not recognize them. She said, “I don’t know you, but you must be hungry. Please come in and have something to eat.”
“Is your husband home?” they asked. “No,” the woman responded. The men said, “Then we cannot come in.”
In the evening when her husband was home, she told him about the men. Her husband then said, “Invite them in.” The woman went outside and invited the three old men into their home. “We don’t enter a house together,” the old men said. “Why is that?” she asked.
One of the old men explained. “His name is Wealth,” as he pointed to one of his friends. “This is Success and I am Love. Go and discuss with your husband which one of us you want in your home.”
The woman entered her house. She told her husband what Love had said. Her husband was overjoyed. He said, “Let’s invite Wealth into our home.” His wife disagreed and insisted that they invite Success. Their young daughter heard her parents debating which of the three old men to invite into their home. She said, “Wouldn’t it be better to invite Love into our home? Our home would be filled with love. Don’t you want our home to be filled with love?”
Her parents agreed. They both went outside and asked, “Which of you is Love? Come, be our guest.” Love got up and starting walking toward the house. Then the other two, Wealth and Success, followed love. Surprised, the woman said, “I only invited Love into our home. Why are you all coming in?”
The old men replied together, “If you had invited only Wealth or Success, the other two us would have stayed out. Since you invited Love, wherever he goes, we follow. Where there is love, there is also Wealth and Success.”
Indeed, great things follow love. Love is foundational to us as humans. Without love, we atrophy and die. Love is not only foundational to us, it is foundational to God. “God is love,” says the Bible. We are connected to our loving God through faith in Christ Jesus, who is love incarnate. Faith and love go hand in hand. There is an essential mutuality between love and faith.
Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten Season of the Church Year. It is our intent throughout the 40 days of Lent to lengthen the love of God in in our hearts. Lent derives from the Old English word Lencten, meaning “springtime.” The word also has derivation from the West Germanic word Langitinaz, meaning “long days.” It is during spring that days get longer. Longer days with more sun are welcomed in the colder climates, as the sun unveils the earth’s bounty of new life.
Accordingly, more of the Son of God in our hearts produces a rich spiritual bounty. We lengthen the light of Christ through fasting. We put away something to replace it with more contemplation on the word, more prayer, more alms, more of Christ in the Eucharist—indeed more love—so that the loving light of Christ warm our hearts from the coldness of sin. Indeed, many wonderful things follow love.
Pastor's page - February 2019
James Polk, our 11th president, 1845 - 1849, was successful by every measure with which one might judge a president. Upon entering office, he had four major goals. He pursued an aggressive foreign policy which caused the United States territory to grow by a third, as under his presidency our country realized its continental presence from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. He annexed Texas. The Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836 over the issue of slavery. American immigrants into Texas refused to surrender their slaves in the Mexican territory that had outlawed slavery in 1829. Polk successfully executed the Mexican-American War, which yielded to the United States California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, southwestern Colorado, and southwestern Wyoming. And, Polk’s aggressive posture compelled the British to accept his offer of dividing the Oregon Territory at the 49th Parallel. The Oregon Treaty signed in 1846 added Washington, Oregon, Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming to the United States. President James Polk was our most successful president, accomplishing all he did even in one term of office. He proved himself to be an effective executive. The presidents whom we honor on Presidents’ Day would die for Polk’s record of accomplishments. Most of our presidents were at best mediocre in office. I would concede, however, they were all excellent in their private lives before taking the oath of office of the presidency; in office most were not effective leaders. Only a few were. One of the few successful presidents was James Polk.
For all his objectively-measurable accomplishments in office, James Polk is not the beloved president. Abraham Lincoln is the beloved president. James Polk grew the territory of the United States. Abraham Lincoln saved the United States from self-destruction. The war against self is the greater war to wage and win. Granted, Lincoln’s martyrdom cast him into a special class in the pantheon of American presidents. Yet, the war with oneself can be vicious and ugly, leading to many martyrs. Internecine fighting is the worse; rarely is there a negotiated peace. An Internecine fight is a war of attrition. So was the American Civil War. The war-weary face of Abraham Lincoln was illustrative of America at war with herself, the fight deep in her soul. It was America fighting against herself, fighting over how to implement her foundational value of freedom. Does freedom grant people the right to use their freedom to hurt others? Lincoln responded with a resounding no. We love and admire Lincoln because he challenged us to face the demons inside the soul of America, not merely the demons that we perceive in others as a rationalization to take their land. The war inside is the greater war. Emir Abd el-Kader, the Muslim Algerian leader in the fight against French colonization in Africa in the 19th century, whom Abraham Lincoln admired, understood that the internal war in the human soul is greater than the external war against other people. The Sufi mystic gave up fighting against the French to wage the war in the human soul.
Paul says something similar when he says in Ephesians that our fight is not against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers in high places. The mentors and leaders who enlighten us in how to successfully wage war with ourselves are the ones that we love and admire most. They challenge us to define success in such a way that it includes mastery of self. Sadly, I do not see enough self mastery in the public square. What occurs in the public square is symptomatic of what is happening in the American soul. Self mastery has a unique language: speaking the truth in love. During this month when we commemorate our national heroes, the people who master themselves are the true heroes whom we should emulate.
Pastor's page - January 2019
The story is told of an eight-year old boy who approached an old man in front of a wishing well. The boy looked up into his eyes and said, “I hear you are a very wise man. I would like to know the secret of life.”
The old man replied, “I’ve thought about that all my life. The secret can be summed up in four words.
First, think. Think about the values you wish to live by.
Second, believe. Believe in yourself to live by the values you think about.
Third, dream. Dream about the things you can accomplish based on the values you think about that you believe in yourself to live by.
Fourth, dare. Dare to make a reality the things you dream about based on the values that you think about that you believe in yourself to live by.”
Summing up, Walt Disney said to the little boy: “Think, believe, dream and dare.”
What a gift from a wise man! We need more wisdom. We have great intelligence. We have great knowledge. We know more about more things than ever before. We lack wisdom, however. Our politics today proves that we lack wisdom. To provide a commonwealth for all Americans, we seem unable to put the best interests of the country ahead of political partisanship. We need more wisdom in the public square.
We also need more wisdom in our everyday lives. December 25 was like Disneyland: full of idealism, sights, sounds and wonders, heaven kissing earth. January 6, the Epiphany of our Lord, is a subdued Christmas, full of the realism of everyday life where wisdom is so needed to negotiate the grays of life. Our soul needs both. It needs the brilliant, idealistic Christmas. It also needs the subdued realistic Christmas. Christ is at the center of both Christmases. Our souls need the wonder of Christ. Our souls need the wisdom of Christ.
On Epiphany, the magi bring to the Christ Child gifts symbolic of the offices of Jesus as prophet (frankincense) priest (myrrh) and king (gold). Jesus is a prophet who speaks with wisdom. Jesus speaks with wisdom when he tells you not to worry. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Seek first the kingdom now. Live in the moment now. How? God’s kingdom is a reign of grace and peace, love and joy in your hearts through faith in Christ. Peace, love and joy are always possibilities for you at any given moment. Christ our prophet dispenses wisdom that is mellifluous as incense.
Christ is a priest who reconciles with wisdom. The wise one is able to bring together parties at enmity with each other. Christ our priest brings God and humans together through his sacrificed body. He tears down the wall between God and humans in his body; he who knew no sin became sin for us to fulfill the just requirements of the law. In his body, Christ our priest breaks down of enmity between Jews and Gentiles, making of them one people in his body.
Jesus is a king who rules with wisdom. Compare Christ’s rule with that of Herod. Herod rules with anxiety. He was anxious about his ethnicity as an Idumean; he was not an authentic Jew. He was anxious about the Romans, though he was their sycophantic client. He was anxious about their power. Like people in power, he is anxious about competition. The news of the birth of a potential rival troubled him and all Jerusalem with him. He responds to his anxiety with murder. Murder was the way he dealt with people who troubled him, murdering even those in his own family. For potentates like Herod, they utilize power to exert power over people.
Jesus, however, is a different kind of ruler, king. He shares power with people. In the Sacrament of Baptism, our king gives us power in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit couples power with wisdom, wisdom that is so needed in a dark world. There is no getting around the fact that that you face a lot of gray situations in life. In your heart you face many gray situations, as you battle to defeat the remaining influences of sin in your life. To do that, you need wisdom. Wisdom negotiates the grays of life better than an absolute, black-and-white knowledge.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul encourages us to seek the spiritual gifts; it is most appropriate to desire them. He couples the gift of knowledge with the gift of wisdom. You need both. Knowledge is a special light, a great wonder; yet, knowledge must be applied in such a way that it pays attention to the whole context. Wisdom makes knowledge pay attention to the whole context of a person’s life in the application of knowledge. The wonder of knowledge can puff up, however. Wisdom puts knowledge in its place.
The magi (sages) had a tremendous amount of knowledge. They mastered every intellectual subject from mathematics to medicine. Long before the Enlightenment Age in the 18th century AD made the scientific method the basis of knowledge, the ancient sages were paying attention to the cosmos, studying it and exulting in wonder. The true sages saw the cosmos as revealing the glory of God; consequently, they knew they were small in comparison. You don’t get that impression from Enlightenment thinkers: they studied the cosmos to aggrandize themselves, exploiting nature and the cosmos like a machine.
For the ancient sages, however, study of the cosmos revealed to them their place in it. With all their knowledge, the sages still listened to the voice of God that led them to the Christ Child. The voice of God also led them out of danger. The voice of God was the wisdom of God. The sages exemplify to us that we need both knowledge and wisdom. We need both wonder and wisdom. Knowledge produces great wonders. How could your heart not exult in wonder as you surf the internet? Yet, your knowledge will never outpace your need for wisdom, for wisdom addresses the issues of your heart that your head will never understand.
Pastor's Page - December 2018
“Darkness was cheap and Scrooge liked it.”
That is a line from Charles Dickens’s classic work, A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist in the story, was a miserly man who refused to open his heart to the joy of the Christmas season. In his pursuit of profits, he made life difficult for himself and others associated with him. He refused to provide for the proper work environment, so that his sole employee could be productive. He shuns a Christmas dinner invitation. He shouts at charity workers in the street outside his place of business. Scrooge only values business and profits.
One night, Scrooge has a ghostly visitation. His former partner, Jacob Marley, dead for seven years, visits him. Since his death, Marley’s spirit has been roaming the earth as a punishment for his parsimonious ways when alive. Like Scrooge, he put business before people, thereby missing out on life. He has come to warn Scrooge and maybe save him from his ways. He tells his colleague that three spirits will visit him over the course of three nights: the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas future. Each encounter has special significance for Scrooge as he sees himself from a different perspective. The encounter with the three spirits actually happens in one night. Nevertheless, Scrooge awakens a new man. He opens his heart to life. He comes to understand that darkness is not cheap; it has a cost: one’s soul.
In the Victorian Age, the 19th century English-speaking world, ghost stories abounded at Christmas time, of which A Christmas Carol is the epitome. “O tell us a tale of ghosts! Now do! It’s a capital time, for the fire burns blue.” Historians have long busied themselves with theories as to why ghost stories proliferated in Queen Victoria’s world. Some have noted that the popularity of ghost stories came on the heels of economic changes afoot. The Industrial Revolution drove people out of rural areas into cities, where they competed for jobs and taxed the resources of cities. A byproduct of the Industrial Revolution was urban blight and the sense of anomie that people felt in cities, being disconnected from familiar surroundings. They were in a state of real mourning over the loss of a world they had known. They were on edge: every creak in the floors and walls spooked them in their new, unfamiliar environs.
Victorian cities, moreover, were lit by gas lamps. The carbon monoxide emitted from them could provoke hallucinations of shadowy figures lurking about in crowded apartments, castles and churches. Ironically, technological advances caused ghost stories to abound. The telegraph allowed people to communicate at great distances. The tapping of the telegraph receiver became the warrant of ghosts communicating through tapping noises. The Fox sisters in New York alleged to communicate with ghosts through tapping noises. They were later proven to be a hoax, however. Spirit photography grew out of technological advances in photography. William Mumler’s picture of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly hands of Abraham Lincoln on her shoulders was all the rage. Technological advances in the Victorian Age did not diminish ghost stories. They aided and abetted them.
The proliferation of ghost stories in the Victorian Age demonstrates what humans in all ages have long struggled with: that is how do we grieve, how do we cope with loss, with change? How do we especially deal with the loss of loved ones during the most joyous time of the year? Christmas and Christmastide are nostalgic times. The music, the food, and the atmosphere cause you to think of Christmases past. There is real pain at this time of the year.
In the closing weeks of the year, our state has suffered twin tragedies in the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks and the recent wildfires. The wildfires are slated to become the worst in our state’s history. The town of Paradise was wiped out: a loss of 7,100 structures, mainly homes. As last count, 88 people lost their lives. The death toll could still rise, as there are people still missing. However you weigh it, this Christmas will be a Blue Christmas for many. How, then, should we celebrate Christmas given the corporate pain that we all feel as we commiserate with those who have lost everything? “There but for the grace of God go I.” That statement invites humility and repentance.
At its core, moreover, every Christmas is a blue Christmas, as we contemplate the reason for the birth of the Christ Child. He was born to undergo tragedy with us and ultimately die for the tragedy of sin and death. Christmas, however, empowers us to handle pain and tragedy not like those who have no hope. We are never free of the possibility of tragedy in this life. But, Christmas empowers us to transcend it, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love in Christ Jesus. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the King.”
Pastor's Page - November 2018
The story is told of a man who was distraught by all the pain and suffering in the world. One day he got so angry about the negative condition of the world that he pounded his fist on the ground. Then, he turned his head towards the heavens and exclaimed to God, "Look at this mess on this planet! Look at the pain and suffering! Look at all the killing and hate! God, why don't you do something about it?!" Surprisingly, God spoke back to him and said, "I did. I sent you."
On November 1, All Saints' Day, we commemorate all the saints, known and unknown, who had a keen sense of their calling in Christ and through that calling did something to better the world. In the process of living their lives they heeded the moral imperative and tried to do something to address the pain and suffering in this world. We emulate them. We thank the Lord for them.
The author of Hebrews says, "We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses." (Hebrews 12:1) We, the church militant--the church that still wages battle against sin, death and the devil, the church that still lives in this mess of a world--are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who comprise the church triumphant. The church triumphant is a collection of people who did something in their own unique way to better the world. It may have been the grandmother who taught her grandchild how to pray. It may have been the faithful pastor who gave of himself tirelessly to his ministry, never seeking accolades from members, knowing that his meat and drink was to perform the will of God in his calling. He knew that the work was its own reward.
The church triumphant, then, is comprised of the unknown saints who have had an impact on the micro world of your life and the well-known saints who have pushed the macro world of human history along the curbed arc toward justice and righteousness, where God will be all in all after Christ has subdued every enemy under his feet. The resurrected and ascended Christ is presently fighting to vanquish all his enemies. To the extent that we are in Him through the waters of Baptism, we, too, are engaged in that fight. That is why we are called the church militant: we fight and suffer with Christ.
It is because we still fight, moreover, that we need a great cloud of witnesses. The great cloud of witnesses is one of the many spiritual resources that we have to engage this world for the better. In the Old Testament, clouds are symbolic of the presence of God, which is God's glory. The presence of God is God's glory. Think about that for a moment. . . .The ancient church sang, Ubi caritas est, Deus ibi est.. "Wherever there is love, God is there." The presence of God is the glory of God. The glory of God is love. A great cloud (love) accompanied the Israelites along the way through the desert from slavery to freedom. Mount Sinai was suffused with clouds (love) when Moses received the law from the mouth of God. The tabernacle, the movable worship center of the Israelites, was the holy place where God met Moses and the priests in clouds (love) of smoke to guide them along the treacherous path to the Holy Land. The cloud (love) is a theophany of God; it is the presence of God. The cloud (love) was symbolic of the nearness of God and the transcendence of God. Along the treacherous way to the Holy Land the Israelites needed a close God; yet, they needed a God big enough to control history. When the author of Hebrews speaks of saints being in the cloud (love), he means that they are in God. The church triumphant is in God. They die into God and they now live in God. We are surrounded by them inasmuch as God surrounds us. This is a great comfort to us as we traverse a difficult way to eternal life.
The tragic killings of our Jewish friends in Pittsburgh is another vivid reminder that evil has not yet been vanquished. The fight continues. As we fight, let us not forget that love is greater than hate. Love is greater than evil. We overcome all evil with love. Hence, we must remain close to the sources of love, for they are our power. They are our support systems as we live in a world where there is so much pain and suffering.
Armies, moreover, need support systems to maintain a position of battle readiness. An army that outflanks its support system will be made vulnerable to attack and eventual defeat. This was the mistake that Napoleon made when he attacked Russia in June of 1812. His army got stuck in the Russian winter. Oddly enough, Adolf Hitler made the same mistake in World War II 129 years later. Might there be a truth about evil in those two illustrations? Evil narrows the possibilities of life. Evil is prone to being stuck in what it obsesses about. Such obsessions produce a narrowing of the possibilities of life, which leads to death. Evil does not have the freedom that love has. Love expands life; evil contracts life.
The church triumphant is part of our support system. We dare not outflank them by engaging this world without their loving support and prayers. They are the cloud (love) of witnesses that signal that we are not alone. We need their support in prayers, in wisdom and abiding fellowship produced by unbreakable bond of love in Christ Jesus.
Pastor's Page - October 2018
I became a Los Angeles Rams football fan when as a young boy my mother bought me a Rams uniform. When I put on the helmet, I was transfixed; I became one with the team that I watched on television. How I loved the Rams' blue and white!
My love for the Rams softened a bit when in 1980 they moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim, because with the move to Orange County came a uniform change; they exchanged the traditional blue and white for blue and gold. There was something Mickey Mouse about blue and gold. I guess that worked in Anaheim. Nevertheless, I remained a fan.
The team broke my heart, however, when it moved from Orange County to St. Louis in 1995. Understandably, they would change the color of their uniforms from their bright, optimistic Golden State hues to more understated, subtle Midwestern hues. They took on Notre Dame's colors. Five seasons later in 2000, the Rams won their first Super Bowl. I recall traveling to St. Louis in 2000. I was invited to preach at the church at which I did my vicarage. When my plane landed at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, my heart sank as I deplaned and walked about the terminal. I saw Rams gear everywhere. What little attachment I had to the Rams was forever severed that day. I just couldn't square the idea of my childhood team in St. Louis, that they won their first Super Bowl in another city.
"Hope springs eternal," wrote Alexander Pope. My love for the Rams was renewed when they returned to Los Angeles in 2016. This fall, everything is right with the world, as the Rams look like a team poised to go to the Super Bowl. Since the return of the Rams' blue and white, I get a childlike giddiness this time of the year at the beginning of football season. I have gone full circle. Speaking of going full circle, the beginning of fall--actually, the beginning of any season--signals the cyclic nature of life. Trees put on their autumn hues. There is a burst of beauty in the diversity of colors. The season invites us to renew ourselves. It is little wonder that fall has inspired major renewal movements in the Body of Christ. October, moreover, commemorates many saints, including our congregation's namesake, St. Luke on October 18. October commemorates St. Francis, the founder of a mendicant order in the 13th century whose simple teaching of religion as joy brought renewal to the medieval church. Of course, the Lutheran Reformation occurred on the last day in October when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, inviting debate on some theological issues that he thought were important to the health of the church.
Every month is conducive to a certain mood that challenges us to be in conformity with it. October is most conducive to renewal and recrudescence. What does that renewal look like? It is a return to your first love. It is reconnecting with Christ. Renewal in Christ is embedded in repentance. Repentance is the frank confession that you have deviated from what is most important; somehow along the way of life, your priorities got out of whack. Such is life; that happens to us all. Yet, you desire to return to all that is decent, good, kind, and lovely, which is Christ Jesus. Going full circle is always a possibility for us in Christ, for that is the function of love. This October, the month of renewal, may your prayer be: "Renew me, Lord Jesus!"
Pastor's Page - September 2018
"Tame Your Inner Critic"
The story is told of a pastor search committee. They reported to the congregation that they were unable to find a suitable candidate, though one looked promising and should be invited to preach one Sunday.
Here was their report:
Adam: A good man. But, he has problems with his wife.
Noah: His former pastorate was 120 years with no converts.Joseph: A big thinker, but a braggart. He has a prison record.
Moses: He's a modest and meek man, but a poor communicator. He left an earlier church over a murder charge.
Elijah: A powerful man of prayer, but prone to depression.
Solomon: A great teacher, but a serious problem with women.
Hosea: A tender, loving pastor, but our people could never handle his wife's meretricious occupation.
John: He says he's a Baptist, but he doesn't dress like one. May be too Pentecostal: he tends to raise both hands in the air when he gets excited.
Peter: He's too blue collar; has a bad temper, prone to cursing.
Paul: A powerful CEO type, a great preacher, but no tact, known to preach all night.
Timothy: Too young
Jesus: Once grew a church to 5,000, but, then, he managed to offend them all; it dwindled down to the original 12 people. Seldom stays in one place long. And of course, he's single.
Judas: His references are solid, a steady plodder. Conservative. Good connections. He knows how to handle money. The committee recommends that we invite him to preach here one Sunday.
We all have critics. We all have those people who see it as their responsibility to keep us in our places. As any politician, Margaret Thatcher, the great prime minister of England, had her fair share of critics. She once said, "If my critics saw me walking on the Thames River they would say it was because I couldn't swim."
The prophet Ezekiel, Saint Paul, and Jesus also had their critics. How they handled their critics is instructive to us. Each of us has a critic that is relentless in its criticism. It is our inner critic. We must learn to tame our inner critic.
As you face your inner critic, the prophet Ezekiel would encourage you to be strong in your calling. In Ezekiel chapter 2, God called Ezekiel and told him to stand up, so that God could speak to him. Then the Spirit entered him, empowering him to stand up and pay attention.
God tells him that he is being sent to a difficult people, a rebellious people. They are stubborn. Ezekiel is told to say to them, "Thus says the Lord!" That phrase was to be Ezekiel's power, his security, his hard shell against his critics.
When you face your critics, especially your own inner critic, you must be strong in your calling. What is your calling? You are a baptized child of God. You are filled with the Spirit. You are forgiven. You are empowered. Stand up and be strong in that calling.When facing your inner critic, Paul would encourage you to look at the fruit of your life. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul delineates the fruit of his prayer life. He had powerful experiences of God. I suspect that he had to have these experiences to counteract the vivid reminder of his sin. He destroyed families. His sin was cemented deep in his heart. You may ask: "Didn't he become a holy man of God, a powerful man of God?" Funny thing: when the light of truth shines in your heart, you see your sins, especially the ones committed long ago. Though you may be forgiven, former sin may still occasion tears, which is not a bad thing if those tears keep you open to God's forgiving love in Christ Jesus.
Paul, moreover, gives us a litany of his mystical experiences of Christ. He gives this litany in the context of his apostleship being doubted and criticized. He was hounded constantly by critics who never accepted his apostolicity. To authenticate his apostleship, all he could do was point to his many sufferings on behalf of the church and the many people that he birthed into Christ as the fruit of his prayer. Like Paul, tame your inner critic, silence your inner critic by pointing to the fruit of your life. The inner critic does not barter with fact. Its currency is fear, not fact. Call out your inner critic with the following: "God has been faithful in past. If God has been good in the past, then God will be good now in this present conundrum."
I should, however, be fair to the inner critic by saying that the inner critic means well. Every good person has an inner critic. Only narcissistic people and sociopaths are bereft of an inner critic, because they don't care whom they hurt, which they do without the slightest compunction.
Your inner critic wants to protect you. It wants you to be secure into a situation that you control. It gets nervous when you step out of routine. But, the only way to grow is surrender control and walk in faith. Faith will produce fruit that tames the inner critic.
In Mark chapter 6, Jesus faces his hometown critics. They marvel how it is that one of their humble ranks could achieve such brilliance. The way that Jesus handled them was by staying focused on his purpose. Jesus marveled at their unbelief. Then, immediately, he sent out his disciples to extend his work of liberation from the demonic through the preaching of the word. Jesus got back to his purpose. Do you know your purpose? If you know your purpose, then your life will not be derailed by critics, least of all your own inner critic. What's your purpose? You are God's workmanship to do good works. What are good works? Given your context, whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is excellent, etc. Tame the inner critic with good works.
Pastor's Page - July 2018
As we celebrate the 242nd birthday of our nation, a seeming infinitesimal amount of years compared to those of the Chinese, Indian and European nations, let us consider that our nation was spawned amid the fierce competition of nations with imperial designs: Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. By the 18th century, the competition for the North American continent was especially fierce between the English and French. The Native American peoples and people of African descent played off this competition to gain favorable treatment, though such treatment was all too temporary.
America, moreover, has been described as the first postcolonial nation to break away from the clutches of a colonizing empire, namely the British Empire. America would provide the template, the template of freedom, for other subjugated peoples desiring to throw off the chains of empire. As a case in point, the Vietnamese people in 1954 faced off with their French colonial masters. They used our Declaration of Independence to inform their own statement of independence from French hegemony.