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.
From whence cometh this template of freedom? America has two parents. She is the child of the Enlightenment. Most of the founding fathers and mothers of our nation were influenced by the Enlightenment and the philosophy that derived from it. Two major themes came from Enlightenment thinking. First, reason was a unique light leading people out of the darkness of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. In the 17th century, it was the absolutism of faith, the very Archimedian point of superstition, bigotry and ignorance, which led to the 30 Years War on the continent in the aftermath of the 16th century Reformation. The Enlightenment was a necessary correction to the bloodshed and mayhem caused by the Catholics and Protestants. Many people lost their lives over whose version of the pacifist Jesus was true. Reason became foundational to Enlightenment thinking.
Another important theme of the Enlightenment was the idea that all humans share the same rights by virtue of being human. They are all beholden to a creator who has given them "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Thomas Jefferson expressed these rights as coming from God, not an endowment of government. These rights are universal, available to all humans.
If the Enlightenment is the father of America, then Christianity is her mother. The Bible informs the American consciousness of being a unique nation endowed with the purpose to lead other nations. The story of the liberation of the Jews from Egypt became an attractive analogy that bespoke American liberation from the British imperial power. The Ten Commandments became a source of morality. And, the religious experience of freedom from sin, death and the devil through Christ's substitutionary work also contributed to America's fundamental value of freedom.
Freedom, then, is the meeting place of the Enlightenment and the Christian Faith. America is a continual experiment in the articulation of freedom for all. No other country has changed itself more in ensuring that freedom be extended to its inhabitants. Freedom, then, is uniquely America. Freedom is primary to diversity, economic prosperity or even equality for that matter. However, any cursory view of the political scene today would reveal that freedom is being trampled upon, namely people's individual freedom of expression, belief and freedom to engage in commerce in a way that brings them happiness. People are afraid to express their political leanings for fear of being attacked. As we pray for our nation on its birthday, this present political context must inform our prayers. Let us pray that the political persecution stop. This shaming of Americans for their views is profoundly un-American.
Let us pray for civility, asking that people learn to speak the truth in love.
We must, moreover, move beyond imperial politics, which has absolutized political speech and ideas. The imperial threat to us is no longer outside us in the form of the Spanish, Portuguese, French or British empires. It is an imperial politics that is the threat that is rendering the body politic poisonous. Imperial politics has politicized every aspect of our lives and has had a chilling effect on the exercise of rights in the context of freedom. Secularism replaced God with an imperial politics that is hyper about everything in this life. Secularism offers no bigger picture than this life. If this life is all there is, then how do we not become desperate about it? How do we not become hyper, unable to experience Sabbath rest, letting go and letting God? Imperial politics is the result of kicking God out the public square. The only way to respond to the imperial in any form is to demand the exercise of more freedom. Concomitant with the idea of freedom is the dignity of all people. The expression of freedom while respecting the dignity of others is what makes America the beautiful.
Pastor's Page - June 2018
This June, the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals featured for the fourth consecutive year the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. In this latest NBA rivalry, the Warriors, who play in Oakland, California have won twice and Cavaliers, once. Some are elated about these same two teams playing in the finals, as it is in the spirit of other historic rivalries like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics; others, however, are tired of the same act.
Rivalries are the stuff that sports history, tradition and mythology are made of. Inevitably, we identify with the same cast of characters. Their personal stories become a source of inspiration when we learn of their struggles, their setbacks, and their triumphs in defiance of those setbacks. Indeed, sports imitate life. The commitment, dedication and focus in sports are translatable to other aspects of life, like excellence in music, academics and wealth building. The internal struggles with self, the doubts and fears, the triumphs and failures, are present in any endeavor in life.
And, it is instructive how athletes overcome their battles with self-sabotage and achieve excellence.
For instance, LeBron James, star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, had a nagging thought that left him crestfallen. At several points this season he doubted whether his team would make it to the playoffs, let alone the finals. "We'll never make it," thought the perennial All Pro. "The team's in disarray, going through a transition." LeBron's sentiments were borne out by several blowout losses to weak teams in the months of December and January. He felt the team giving up, settling on mediocrity. "And I was like, 'OK, I am not settling for that conversation. Now that is ridiculous. Now I have got to get into the playoffs.'"
That sequence of thoughts is what we admire in the great people like LeBron James, no matter their field of excellence: the refusal to give up and settle for mediocrity. The biggest battle is the battle with the internal self, the battle with thoughts. Once negative, debilitating thoughts are called out within oneself, the heroes that we admire achieve great things.
We may not be gifted to achieve greatness with a basketball or a guitar, but we, certainly like any accomplished person, must face our thoughts and call out the thoughts that lead to self sabotage, thoughts that keep us from living the abundant life in Christ informed by peace, love and joy. St. Paul, who loved sports and used sports analogies to illustrate spiritual truths ("running the race"; "boxing in the air," to name a couple), challenges us to take every thought to Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:5). Our thought life is the frontline of spiritual warfare. It is incumbent on us to develop discernment about the thoughts that barge in on us. Also, we must learn to ignore thoughts, preferring to go about our day with a quiet mind. That is possible if we decide to take every thought captive to Christ and choose instead to think about whatever is lovely, true, honorable, just, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise, so that the peace of God in Christ would inundate our every moment (Philippians 4:8,9). Such mental hygiene is the key to excellence in all life's endeavors.
Pastor's Page - May 2018
“A Letter From God"
Good morning. As you got up, I watched and hoped that you would talk to me. Just a few words, such as thanking me for something good in your life yesterday or last week would do.
But I noticed that you were busy selecting the right clothes for work. I waited hear from you, but you never slowed down. I wanted to tell you that I could help you accomplish more than you ever dreamed possible if you would spend some time with me each day. At one point you waited in a chair for fifteen minutes with nothing to do. I waited to hear from you.
Then I saw you spring to your feet; I thought you wanted to talk to me, but you ran to the phone and called a friend. I watched as off to work you went and waited patiently all day long to hear from you. With all your activities you were too busy to talk to me.
I noticed at lunch you looked around. Maybe you just felt embarrassed to talk with me. You glanced three tables over and noticed some of your friends talking to me before they ate, but you wouldn't.
There was still more time left, and I hoped that you would talk. You went home and had many things to do. After they were done, you turned on the TV. I waited as you continued watching TV and ate your meal; but, again, you wouldn't talk to me.
At bedtime you were totally tired. After you said good night to your family you plopped down on your bed and fell asleep. I wanted so much to be part of your day. We could have had so much fun and accomplished so much together.
I love you so much that I wait for a thought, a prayer or thanks. Well maybe tomorrow. I'll be waiting.
Your friend, God
Pentecost Sunday and Holy Trinity Sunday remind us of our intimate connection with God, our friend. The Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus' disciples fifty day after Easter (Passover). The Spirit is the intimate voice of Jesus who harkens us to follow Jesus. The Spirit not only harkens but also imbues us with the power to follow Jesus. The Spirit was given to us in the waters of Baptism to be the source of intimacy with God, empowerment and enlightenment about the Word of God.
The Sunday following Pentecost, we celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday. For most Christians, the Trinity is an abstraction, not intimate at all. The Trinity, however, is profoundly intimate. The Trinity says that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in an interdependent relationship. They need each other. They have a mutual relationship without which they would not be who they are. The Father is in the Son and the Son and Father are in the Spirit. Greek thought speaks of the perichoretic union the persons of the Trinity, which means literally the Father, Son and Holy Spirit dance around with each other in a joyous dance of love. The vibrancy and the emotional vigor of that dance spills over onto all of creation. Creation, then, is a product of love. When we cross ourselves we are joining in on their dance. What we say about God is essentially what we say about ourselves. We, too, live in mutual relationships that complete us. Interdependency is at the essence of who we are. No one is an island.
So, dance your way through life with God: follow God's lead, timing and rhythm. You will indeed have much fun and accomplish much.
Pastor's Page - April 2018
He had a premonition that he would die young. Death was his close companion, as he thought about it often. He was never afraid of being physically hurt; therefore, his father's corporal punishment did not work on him. When at eight years of age he heard that his beloved grandmother had died, he jumped from the second story of the family home intending to join her in death. He did not want her to be alone in death.
As a young man, he and his fellow clergy used gallows humor to quell the stress of their divinely-appointed work. They would practice preaching at each other's funeral. Long before he gave his inspiring mountain top speech on April 3, 1968, for years Dr. Martin Luther King had rehearsed in his mind the content of that speech. Indeed Dr. Martin Luther King's life-long premonition would come true. He was assassinated at the tender age 39, at 6:01pm on April 4, 1968, in the city of Memphis, Tennessee. This April 4th is the 50th Anniversary of his death.
Like King, death is our constant companion. Some of us are well aware of this haunting darkness. Others of us are in denial of its reality, pretending that, if we do not think about it, then we can keep it away at arm's length. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On Good Friday, we looked our mortality in the face. We accepted the reality that we shall die. But, we did not stop at the specter of death. Inherent in the acceptance of the reality death is the challenge: how then, shall we live? In the horizon of the Good Friday is the Easter Sunday empty tomb. It determines how we should live in the face of an imminent death.
Sacramentally, we stand at the cross together with Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary, the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and John. We stand with them peering at Jesus. As we look at Jesus, we look at our humanity, our own mortality. Jesus' history is our history. All that he went through, we go through. The waters of Baptism have made our close identification with Jesus.
Jesus on the cross is the Crucified God. Wherever God is there is hope, hope that God will do something about sin, death and the devil. God must do something about them, otherwise God is not just and loving. God has done something: the death of Jesus is the death of death. The resurrection of Jesus is the life of life. Christus Victor has vanquished hell.
Because of the death of death and the life of life, like Dr. King you can be so bold as to rehearse your funeral. More than that, because of the death of death and the life of life, you can really live. What does it mean to really live? Dr. King felt that after finishing his Ph.D. he would petition for a pastorate in a college town, where he could perform both his passions: preaching and teaching. For Dr. King that would have been really living. That was what he really wanted for himself. Coretta, his wife, wanted that for him as well.
But, that was not the calling on his soul. The calling on his soul would reveal itself in time and in various circumstances. Though his calling impoverished him, though it tortured him psychologically, nevertheless if he had the chance to do it all over again, he would have followed the calling on his soul, which, of course, was to lead the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and 60s. Like King, if you can say that you would do it all again if given the chance to relive your life, then you are living by the calling on your soul. Dr. King knew that death was not the worst thing that could happen to him; not following the calling on his soul was worse. The calling on your soul is found when you face your other. The other you face is death. You face it with resurrection confidence and courage, forging an abundant life of peace, love and joy in the face of the chaos of this present darkness. People who live that way are people of resurrection hope and power.
Pastor's page - March 2018
The story is told of a young woman who went to her grandmother and told her about her life. She explained to her how things were so hard and that she did not know how she was going to make it. She wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed to her that as soon as one problem was solved a new one would pop up.
Her grandmother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each under a high fire. Soon, the pots came to a boil. Into the first pot she placed carrots. Into the second pot she placed an egg. And, into the third pot she placed some ground coffee beans. She let the pots continue to boil. She never said a word. Twenty minutes later, she turned off all the burners. She took the carrots out of the pot and placed them in a bowl. She took the egg out of the pot and placed it also in a bowl. Finally, she ladled the coffee beans out of the pot and placed them in a bowl.
Turning to her granddaughter, she said, “Tell me what you see.”
“Carrots, an egg and coffee,” she replied. Her grandmother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did. She noticed that they were soft. Her grandmother asked her to take the egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, the grandmother asked her granddaughter to sip the coffee. She smiled as she tasted its rich aroma. She asked, “What does it all mean?”
Her grandmother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrots went into the water strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, they softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile before going into the boiling water. Its thin, outer shell had protected its liquid interior; but, after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were placed in the boiling water, they changed the water. The granddaughter’s eyes brightened.
Which are you?” the wise grandmother asked her granddaughter.
Indeed before hitting the boiling water of adversity, some are like the carrots. They are hardened in their worldview, which sometimes has no room for God. They are firmly ensconced in their intellectual and emotional systems, thinking that they will give them security and wellbeing. Along the way, life happens. Adversity, ever inherent in life, softens them and makes them flimsy. Others are like the egg. The adversity of life has the opposite effect on them: they get hardened. They may have at one time faced life with optimism and broadmindedness. They got hardened, however. They became jaded. I believe that God must have a special mercy for the jaded, frustrated idealist, people who really wanted the best for the world but got shut down. Who are people like the coffee beans? Who are the people whom the adversity of life did not bitter, but better? You do not have to go very far to find them. They are right in our midst at St. Luke Lutheran Church. In my mind’s eye, I can see several people who are like ground coffee beans. There is no whining in them. At one time, there may have been appropriate lament about their circumstances, but they did not stay there. They got back up. A sweet, powerful aroma follows them. They have become signs of hope for us who have fallen on hard times, heralding to us that difficult situations and circumstances need not harden us against life’s beauty or soften our moral fiber in acting forthrightly on behalf of Christ’s kingdom of peace, love and joy. It is love that gives the ground coffee beans among us their sweet aroma. They are wounded healers having been ground down by the circumstances of life. Yet, whenever adversity touches them, they explode with the most pleasant aroma, blessing instead of cursing; loving instead of hating; listening deeply and compassionately instead of standing on a soapbox of absolutism and dualism. Both Jesus and Paul teach us not to be overcome by evil; instead, we are to overcome evil with the good.
The ultimate good is love. That is a clarion call not to let life’s circumstances change us. The cross of Jesus overcame evil with the good. During this season of Lent, let us reflect on the power of God’s love in Christ Jesus as we continue our commitment of making loving disciples who are not overcome by their circumstances, but who overcome all such circumstances with the good, namely the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Parts 2 and 3 of Handel’s “Messiah” will be presented at Bridges Hall of Music, Pomona College, 150 E. Fourth Street in Claremont, from 3-5 p.m. on Saturday, March 10. These beautiful sections share “the rest of the story,” apart from the familiar Christmas portion. Professional soloists Coril Prochnow, soprano, Suzanna Guzman, mezzo-soprano, Matthew Miles, tenor and Wayne Shepperd, bass and chamber orchestra join the Claremont Chorale share the most beloved work in this timeless choral repertoire. Pre-sale tickets are available from Chorale members or at Rio de Ojas, 250 N. Harvard Ave. in Claremont. Tickets may be purchased online at claremontchorale.org. Tickets are $20.00 each at the door.
Pastor’s Page - February 2018
"The Chatter of Chaos"
A Sermon Based on Mark 1:21-28
The story is told of a group of frogs. They were traveling through the forest when two of them fell into a deep pit. When the other frogs saw how deep the pit was, they told the two frogs who had fallen into the pit that there was no hope left for them. However, the two frogs ignored their comrades. They proceeded to try to jump out of the pit. Despite their efforts, the frogs at the top of the pit were encouraging them to give up. They would never make it out. Eventually, one of the frogs took heed to what the others were saying. He gave up, jumping even deeper to his death. The other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. The other frogs yelled at him to stop the pain and just die. He ignored them. He jumped even harder. Finally, he made it out. The other frogs said, "Did you not hear us?" The frog explained to them that he was deaf. He thought that they were encouraging him the entire time.
Words are powerful. They have a huge effect on others. It is incumbent on us to think about what we say before we say it. It might be the difference between life and death. But, there is some thing else in that story of the frogs to which we should pay attention. We have to develop the ability to turn off the chatter of others, to be deaf to it. Indeed in our families we hurt those whom we love with our words. The childhood adage that sticks and stones can break bones but words can never hurt is not true.
You know the power of words. It is for this reason that the Son of God became the word of God. Jesus is the perfect word about the Father. He is a most powerful articulation of the Father. Words are important to existence. They can make us or break us. It should not surprise you that our enemies have a special currency in words. The demonic knows the importance of words to our existence as humans. So, they distort reality with words, lie with them, dispirit with them, confuse and create chaos with words. At issue this morning is whether we can be deaf to the chatter of chaos.
In the Gospel reading, we see that the crowds are amazed that Jesus teaches with authority. The teaching task of Jesus is his most important during the Epiphany Season, for his words bring enlightenment. Enlightenment is necessary in a dark world. Wherever Jesus is, there in that place is enlightenment. John 1:4 says it best when it says that in Jesus is life. That life is the light of the world. As the Son of God through whom the universe comes into existence, Jesus is an abundance of life. Jesus came to give us life and to give it abundantly. God in Christ lavishes us with spiritual life, physical life, intellectual life, emotional life. Jesus is life. That is his authority. He teaches with authority because he is the source of all life. His teaching and life are commensurate with each other. His teaching and life cannot fail to be commensurate because the whole universe is dependent on his faithfulness. His authority is grounded in his faithfulness. He accomplishes what he promises. As the faithful one, we can draw close to the abundant life in Christ and receive light. We receive a light that steers us through the darkness of chaos. Every response to an intensification of chaos is to draw closer to Jesus, who, alone, can enlighten the way along the dark path of chaos.
In the Gospel reading, we see how chaos sneaks up on us. The people were gathered around Jesus. They are in a holy place. A holy place is any place where Jesus is holding forth, for in that place he is dispensing peace, love and joy. Chaos in the form of the possessed man ironically screams out the truth. Jesus is the Son of God who came to destroy Satan and his minions. At issue is how and when the man screams out. He screams out to intimidate, to invalidate the truth. If the messenger is somehow compromised, then the message becomes invalidated. You don't want to associate with it.
That reminds me of something that happened when I was at UCLA. A new ministry wanted to join the University Religious Conference, a collection mainline denominations. They called themselves the Truth Ministry. We struggled over a year whether to let this new ministry join the historic churches committed to ecumenism and interfaith. We finally relented and let the group join. Then the trouble began. Their commitment to their "truth" gave them permission to speak in ugly, unflattering and demeaning ways about people, especially non Christians. If they were the truth ministry sponsored by the University Religious Conference, then they besmirched our name and reputation. We were profoundly chagrined by the Truth Ministry. They had the words of Jesus, but not his spirit, his authority informed by love. That is the chatter of chaos we must be deaf to. Note how Jesus deals with that chatter of chaos. He commands the man to be quiet. He drives the demons out of the man.
We can do the same thing following Jesus, our epiphany light. We can hear the chatter of chaos in our own hearts. We can hear the disorder. In the name of Jesus, we silence it. We drive it out.
I have made the point many times that the frontline of spiritual warfare is our thought life. We are to take every thought captive through the name and authority of Jesus. This battle you must take seriously. Some of you give your mind free reign. You let it go to ungodly places because you think that the thoughts that your mind generates are valuable. Most of them are rubbish. The focused mind is the beautiful mind. Look at the culture in the West that the focused mind has developed. It is the unfocused mind that is trouble. It is the unfocused mind that is vulnerable to the chatter of chaos.
The unfocused mind in worship is prone to the chatter of chaos. If your mind is focused on the purpose you are here, you won't fall prey to the chatter of chaos. You are here to be meet God in the word and sacrament. You are here to experience the peace, love and joy in Christ. After your sins are forgiven and the Spirit shows you the face of Jesus, you become more and more deaf to the chatter of chaos.
I have respect for anyone with the letters Ph.D. at the end of her/his name. I know the blood, sweat and tears that go into that degree. I know the profound focus. My adviser told me that the qualifying exams are the hardest exams that I will ever take in my life. Some of you told me the same thing. That was not a comforting thought. As I studied I heard the chatter of chaos: "Who do you think you are? You can't do this. Give up! You should have done this in your 30s, you old fool." I heard those thoughts. There were times that I felt like giving up. I got the thought; I got the feeling of anxiety roiling in me. But, I didn't stay in that thought. I surrendered it to Jesus and kept going.
Be deaf to the chatter of chaos and keep on focusing on Christ. He is your life and your light. By the authority of his word you loose the grip of the chatter of chaos. By the authority of his word you experience true freedom. Amen.
Pastor’s Page - January 2018
The story is told of two cats walking on a narrow path toward each other. When they came near each other, neither of the two was willing to let the other pass. They stood facing each other and began aggressively hissing at each other.
"You let me by first!" screamed one cat. "No! I was here first," responded the other. "No, I must be first because I am bigger." "No, I must be first because I am more beautiful." "No, I am wiser than you; you must, therefore, respect me." "I am stronger."
The screams turned into a fight. The cats scratched, clawed and bit each other. As they rolled around, a wiser cat arrived on the scene. He looked at them and began to laugh. The cats stopped fighting and looked at the wiser cat in bewilderment.
"Why are you laughing?" The embattled cats asked. "I'm laughing at you and your behavior. You are wasting your time; you are hurting each other just because you won't let the other pass. The path is wide enough for each of you to pass. Why are you fighting?"
"It's a matter of honor and power," the cats responded. The wise cat was amused. He said, "Someone who is strong and self-confident doesn't feel the need to show such strength to others. That person feels good about herself/himself. Others feel their strength and respect them. Life is beautiful: there is good food; there are wonderful things to do and enjoy. Yet, you are scratching and fighting over perceived slights. Is it really important who passes first? Are the scratches and cuts worth it? Is your fighting practical? Is it rational? Open your eyes and grow up. Look at all the other animals laughing at your irrational behavior."
The two cats were dumbfounded. They had nothing to say. The words of the wise cat made sense, but their subconscious, programmed behaviors and habits were too strong. It was not easy for them to change. Question . . . Did the two cats stop fighting?
Programmed behavior, habits and the subconscious are powerful. They cause wars among nations, tribes, families and clans. We especially reckon with their power at the beginning of the New Year when we purpose to change our lives. We make New Year's resolutions to alter our programmed behavior and habits that trouble us. The New Year emboldens us to change. That is indeed a good thing. People driven by change show they're self aware. Self awareness is fundamental to growth in faith. Repentance drives us to be more self aware. Nevertheless, the subconscious, habits and programmed behavior prove to be resistant. We bemoan with St. Paul that the good that we desire to do we find ourselves incapable of doing. We number ourselves among those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the ones whom Jesus blessed. So, have at it: resolve to limit yourself to one cookie. That is admirable. But, if you fail on that resolution, then get back up. To fall is all too human; to get back up is divine.
Start 2018 in the grace and love of God that are yours in Christ Jesus. He is the power to change the subconscious and the programmed behavior, for he can penetrate the stacks of defenses and rationalizations cluttering the heart.
All that God would ever expect of us in 2018 is not to beat ourselves up. Life is hard enough. Keep on fighting, getting back up in the love and grace of Christ Jesus. Victory will come. If not in 2018, then certainly another time. We are a people that is hopeful, never giving up. Happy New Year!
Pastor's Page - December 2017
In his classic work "The Chronicles of Narnia," C.S. Lewis says that winter without Christmas would be unbearable. Indeed Christmas and winter belong together, especially in those parts of the country where they wish for a white Christmas. There's something incongruous about longing for a white Christmas in subtropical Southern California; yet, the lengths we go through to replicate in this climate that ideal pairing of Christmas and winter as experienced in the colder climates of our country and Europe. The other day I saw a house decked out with long, fake icicles along the front of the house and fake snow on the bushes and lawn. The house looked as if it was taken out of a winter wonderland postcard from Aspen, Colorado. Hovering in the background of the house was a 75⁰ sun catalyzing a brilliant, blue sky. The house looked out of place; it was the epitome of incongruence. But, I must concede that it wasn't as bad as Christmas lights on palm trees.
Fake icicles and snow in Southern California and even Christmas lights on palm trees bespeak something significant about us humans: the culture we create and pass onto succeeding generations is hybrid. Culture is a mixture of many things. Christmas is the mixture of many traditions. If ever there were a multicultural phenomenon, it would be Christmas. Throughout history, the story of Christmas has impacted people from ethnicities too many to number. Each gave something unique to the phenomenon of Christmas.
At the foundation of our celebration of Christmas, moreover, there really is a winter experience, a winter experience for all humans, be they in Southern California or Northern Minnesota. There is a common experience of an existential winter that makes appropriate the coupling of that winter with Christmas. Winter is the season when nature lies dormant. The deciduous trees lose their leaves and hyperactive animals hibernate. Winter can be harsh. Winter is the death of nature. Metaphorically and actually, we experience the death of nature on several levels: in nature, in ourselves and in those whom we love. How could we ever bear this harsh winter of life without Christmas? This winter without Christmas would indeed be unbearable. Christmas in the winter, however, holds out the reality that God is with us in the winter experiences of life. God became a child in Christ Jesus to save us from the harsh reality that causes death, namely sin. The angel Gabriel told Joseph to name Mary's child Jesus, for he would save his people from their sin. Sin is the source of the winter of our discontent. In the waters of Baptism, the Holy Spirit brings us into close proximity with the Christ Child, who in his birth at Christmas, opens up the reality of our bring birthed into eternity after the winter of this life is over. Until such time, in the meantime winter is cold; it is lonely; nevertheless, Jesus accompanies us through this life, giving us the spiritual viaticum that we need as we travel through this dark winter.Indeed winter without Christmas makes this life unbearable. Winter with Christmas makes this life a winter wonderland.
Pastor’s Page - November 2017
The great American poet, Maya Angelou, once said: "If you don't like something, then change it. If you can't change it, then change your attitude." Reformations and revolutions were spawned by people who changed their attitudes long before they made an impact on the world. Sometimes, such people would signal their attitudinal change by changing their names. Through such a name change, they would turn their back on whatever legacy that they might have inherited in their given names.
In 1934, racism in America was an intractable, ubiquitous monster. Many had died trying to change it. Amid such futility, some sought to change themselves. One such person was Rev. Michael King. In 1934, the 35-year-old King took a trip to all the significant, historical sites of Christianity. For all intents and purposes, his trip was a religious pilgrimage. His trip took him to key sites in the Holy Land and Europe. It was, however, his pilgrimage to the various sites associated with the life and legacy of Martin Luther in Germany that changed his life. He saw himself in Martin Luther. In fact, he so identified with Martin Luther that after returning home from his pilgrimage, he changed his name from Michael King, Sr. to Martin Luther King, Sr. He also changed the name of his five-year-old son from Michael King, Jr. to Martin Luther King, Jr. He would go on to have a dream.
Indeed throughout the Bible, there is precedent for people changing their names or having their names changed. God changed Jacob's name to Israel. Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter. Saul jettisoned his Jewish name and called himself Paul. When Michael King changed his name, he was declaring that there was more to him than being African-American. When God changed Jacob's name, he was declaring that there was more to Jacob than his sinful life of deception and deceiving. When Jesus changed Simon's name, he signaled that he was more than his impetuous personality. When Saul changed his name, he signaled that he was more than a murderer of Christians.
Today we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. It is "500 Years and Counting." It is 500 years and counting because the name and legacy that spawned the Reformation are still relevant. What are the name and legacy that produced the Reformation?
It is the name Jesus. His name is the only name under heaven through which people are saved. Jesus' legacy comes with the name. The angel Gabriel told Joseph to call the baby in Mary's womb "Jesus," for he will save his people from their sins. Indeed Jesus liberates people from sin. We are enslaved to sin not only because we commit sin; we are manacled to sin because we are born into its clutches. Sin is a negative spiritual reality from which no one can save oneself. How do we know that? The Bible tells us so, specifically the law. The law condemns us; the law tells us that we are in slavery. In slavery, you have no identity. You belong to your owners, sin, death and the devil. Your personhood belongs to them. The products of your personhood belong to them. In slavery, you have no legacy; you have no family; you have no story, no history, no language. You have no life, for it can be snuffed out of you at the whim of the owner.
Jesus is our emancipation proclamation. He who knew no sin became sin for us. By his life, death and resurrection, the Son has made us free. As a consequence, we have the name and legacy of Jesus. There is power in Jesus' name. It is the power to forgive us of our sin and grant us eternal life with him and all the saints. Jesus imbued his name with power when he said, "Ask anything in my name and I shall do it." As it is bundled with the name of Jesus, we also have the legacy of Jesus. The legacy of Jesus is the abundant life with his loving Father tucked in the security of the Holy Spirit.
It is the name and legacy of Jesus to which Martin Luther was committed. They freed him from his own entanglements with sin. God used him to reconnect the Church to the name and legacy of Jesus. In Luther's day, other people's names and legacies became more important than Jesus. As the people in Jesus' day prided themselves in being the children of Abraham, obfuscating the God who gave their ancestors the true bread from heaven, so in Luther's day people prided themselves in being Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans and Benedictines. Jesus was a victim in the fight over their traditions. For Luther, there is only one name and one legacy that matter: Jesus! It's still about Jesus.
For Martin Luther King, Sr., exposure to Martin Luther changed his life. Martin Luther so opened up King's life that he could see more in himself than the color of his skin. What did the elder King see in Luther? He saw the courage of Luther in facing the Goliath of an all-powerful, tyrannical church which proffered its traditions as the media to get right with God. But, once Martin Luther discovered the truth of faith in the atoning work of Christ Jesus, there was no returning to the rags of works righteousness.
King, moreover, faced the Goliath of racism. The evil of racism, any "ism" for that matter, is that it makes people one-dimensional. Luther occasioned King to discover that he was multi-dimensional. King, in fact, had become so multi-dimensional that race no longer mattered. He went all the way to Germany to find a mentor in Martin Luther. Through Luther, he could see more in himself. God uses people like Luther to lead people to deepen their relationship with Christ. We need mentors to grow us up in Christ. If King could find in Luther a mentor, so can you. Is there a Goliath in your life that seeks to make you one-dimensional? Luther's life and legacy is a clarion call that you need not limit yourself, especially to sin, death and the devil.