Monthly Archives: December 2013

Messy Tidings of Comfort & Joy: Matthew 1:18-25

I have to admit, I had a hard time preparing this week’s sermon. On this 4th Sunday of Advent, just two days before Christmas Eve, our celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth into this world…it is a time of comfort and joyful expectation. This story about the announcement of “a virgin who is with a child conceived by the Holy Spirit” is often heard as one of joyful anticipation and wonder.

And the story we know so well typically focuses on Mary, who in hearing the announcement from the angel of the Lord, replies with willingness: “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.” This story – the one we hear in Luke’s gospel – continues by telling us of others who share in Mary’s excitement and wonder in her pregnancy, and together they rejoice in this news of this child that comes – the savior of the world.

But as I read our gospel story today, I noted three things. One, this story comes from the gospel of Matthew, not Luke. Two, the story doesn’t focus on Mary – it focuses on Joseph. And three, if we carefully pay attention to the details, the story we hear is less one of joyful anticipation, but rather one of complicated crisis…..a story full of messiness.

And I imagine that much like the news of any unplanned pregnancy, the announcement that Mary was pregnant was probably met with more of an “Oh crap” instead of an “Oh that’s awesome honey!”

It was a disruption in their lives, but with another twist: in those days engagement was a contractual arrangement rather than a statement of intention as it is today. It was like stage one of the marriage process – you got “engaged,” a public announcement in which negotiations of dowry and other exchanges were made, and then you moved in together. So in those days, the news that Mary was pregnant, and not by Joseph, meant she had likely committed adultery. And adultery in those days was a violation of Jewish law – and under such law, Mary could be shamed and punished publicly, leading to death by stoning. Or, a lesser punishment, but still one probably required by law for a “righteous man,” Joseph could divorce Mary.

The gospel story tells us Joseph resolves himself to pick the second option, the “lesser of two evils” perhaps, and “plans to dismiss Mary quietly.” But complicating matters, Joseph gets a visit in a dream from an angel, who basically tells him, “I want you to break from the religious law and tradition you hold so dear: take Mary as your wife. Oh, and this child, it’s a special one. It’s the savior of the world.” And the story tells us that Joseph follows the command given in that dream. But there’s no statement from Joseph that he’s a willing and glad servant of the Lord, but rather, Joseph is silent.

– And I think that silence is telling in some ways, because what would you say at such a thing?
– How would you explain a decision based on a dream that goes against any rational thought or religious value you hold?
– How will you even keep this quiet, out of the public eye, and honestly, how are you going to deal with the fact the child isn’t even yours?

I wonder, in the midst of such messiness, if there’s something pretty familiar with Joseph’s silence. I wonder, if in the midst of such messiness, if we don’t see a bit of ourselves in Joseph.

I wonder, if perhaps Joseph isn’t a little like us.

And I think that’s why this story is so hard for me to preach on today, because there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of joy, comfort, or hope in it. All it does is tell the truth – that life is messy sometimes.

Sometimes things come in and disrupt our lives, turn it upside down, throw it for a loop. Sometimes the circumstances of our lives push us to the ledge, take us to our breaking point, seem like more than we can bear. I think about the messiness of life in this world….

….remembering a shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, CT a year ago.
….remembering a shooting in a school in Colorado two weeks ago.
….I think about the looming tolls that will affect the City of Portsmouth and its people.
….I think about the loss of loved ones and friends, a failed or strained relationship, hard life transitions, our failing memories and physical abilities.
….And I think about the uncertainty that the future brings for all of us….messiness indeed.

But again, this story tells us the truth….and it gives us something to ponder, just as it gives Joseph something to ponder.

“….for the child to be conceived is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins. All this took place to fulfilled what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look! The virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’”

God comes down….
God, Emmanuel, comes down and is born into the messiness of the world, born to a teenage virgin and an adoptive father.
God comes down, taking on human flesh and experiencing everything that living in a messy world does to us.
God comes down….and while perhaps we don’t know why we need one, he comes as a savior – Jesus, Yeshua, meaning “God saves” – one to save us from all that this messy world does to diminish and destroy life, and give us something else: a completely new way of living among the messiness of life.

And perhaps it is this announcement…this notion that God comes down to be with us among the messiness and offers salvation goes against all rational and conventional thought, a notion I honestly approach with skepticism, reservation, and frankly just seems a bit strange.

Yet perhaps, like Joseph, when we consider that all the messiness of life offers us is a series of decisions and paths that are the “lesser of many evils” – perhaps there’s something to this notion that God comes down and comes down as a savior to the people – to us. Maybe, just maybe, against all rational thought – this announcement of a child to be born is well, good news. Comforting news. Joyful news worth waiting for. News that like Joseph, while we remain silent, we dare to place our faith and trust in as we wait.

And as we near our Christmas celebration, perhaps this story is the one we really need to hear, and it’s one worth pondering in these last few days of Advent: A God who comes down into the messiness of our lives to be with us….to give us hope. To give us joy. To give us light in the darkness. To give us peace.

To give us a Savior. Amen.

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2013 Advent Devotional 3: “Good Morning”

Isaiah 35:1-10

When I read this passage, the imagery catches my attention: water breaking forth in the wilderness (which in Judea was the desert), streams in the desert, thirsty ground springs forth water and the like. God will come again to the people and restore them, and all of creation will spring forth new life.

And it reminds me of mornings in the spring and summer on the farm. I grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota as a kid, and so mornings started early for us….4:30am, while it was still dark outside. And because of that, I got to see a lot of sunrises and mornings – the mist of a fog lifting, the dew on the grass, the hay fields, and on the newly planted fields of crops. It turned everything green – I mean REALLY green, better than any touched up photo or painting. And in that moment, through the peaceful breaking in of the morning, and the life seemed to jump out of it, I felt a sense of joy and excitement at the day to begin. (Which would quickly disappear when my dad would show me his list of farm work for the day!)

This passage from Isaiah paints a similar vision for the people of God. Everything in Judah has been overrun; the people are in the “desert” place in their lives, a place of barrenness and hopelessness. But God provides a vision of new life – and in that vision, God will break through. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.” People will see in the restoration of their livelihood, the very presence and action of God.

I wonder, this Advent, if remembering the Christmas story isn’t like one of those “good mornings” on the farm; an announcement and vision of God breaking in and making all things new as in Judah in days of old.

The announcement of Christmas is that “Morning Has Broken”: The Christ Child comes into this world, and with him comes God’s vision of the past, present and future – a vision of joy and hope and peace.

That brings me to a favorite hymn of mine: “Morning Has Broken.” The lyrics were written in 1931 and set to an old Gaelic carol tune from the late 1800’s. Cat Stevens popularized it by recording it in 1972…and of course, people think that’s where the song originated from. But the imagery is striking, similar to Isaiah 35. And I think it’s a fitting hymn for Advent.

Morning has broken
Like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the word

Sweet the rains new fall
Sunlit from heaven
Like the first dew fall
On the first grass
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light
Eden so play
Praise with elation
Praise every morning
God’ s recreation
Of the new day

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Confirmation as Evangelism (& not as “conversion” – calm down Mainliners)

A conversation I had this past Sunday:

Me: So, what are you doing later today?

Kid: I don’t know.

Me: Wanna come to confirmation?

Kid: I don’t know….

Me: Aw, it’s not a big deal. You just learn about what the church and faith is about. By the way, are you baptized?

Kid: Nope.

Me: Aw, no biggie. We’ll figure that out later. But I’d like it if ya came and checked it out…..also, you wanna read for a Christmas play next week?

Kid: Uh, no?

Me: C’mon, there’s free BBQ later.

Kid: I’ll do it.

In the midst of leading two struggling congregations that yearn for more youth in their pews, I’ve sort of figured out that when a youth comes through the door, I kinda have to seize the opportunity. And it got me thinking:

What if we thought of confirmation as evangelism?

Now before all the Mainline Liberal Protestant readers go Rachel Held Evans or Nadia Bolz-Weber on me here, bear with me. When I say “evangelism” I mean “witness” – simply sharing with them what the church and what the faith is about, and allowing them to take stock of that, ask questions, and in the end make it their own (even if they choose to do so).

And so I’ve gone that route with my confirmation program. I see it as a mission and a witness – evangelism. And so very roughly, this is what I’ve come up with:

– We meet for “regular” programming with three other churches with small groups once a month, rotating between meeting at the churches. It’s a two-year program. But I don’t make our kids do any written “homework” assignments.
– I then meet with our kids at a coffee shop for follow-up conversation: checking in, and then starting conversation with their impressions of what was discussed at the “regular programming” meeting. (I say starting because the conversation goes all over the place…and it gets to good places too!)
– I’ve asked them (and their parents) to do 1 service opportunity a year. They decide what that is. All I require is that it’s outside of Sunday, and if possible, they do it together as a family. It can be with the church or completely separate from it. I ask for them to give me a one-page journal asking, “Where do they think God was present in that moment, if at all?”
– I’ve asked them to at least try one Synod-sponsored Youth Retreat during their confirmation years.
– And I myself have committed to plugging them into roles in Sunday worship: Assisting Minister, Lighting the Advent Candle, Communion Assistant, Reading for Christmas Program. I’ve even asked them to consider doing the children’s sermon in the future.
– And a “capstone” project that I’ve yet to figure out what that is….but I want it to be something they can use to reflect on their confirmation experience, and express where they are with faith, and in the end, if they even want to be confirmed at all.

And, I’ve told the kids and the parents I can’t make them do any of this. The experience is ultimately what they decide to make of it.

Now I admit, it’s the luxury I have when I only have 6 kids. I’ve done youth ministry in larger congregations and I admit, this would be a challenge….but perhaps we should be thinking about our confirmation as evangelism regardless?

2 of my 6 kids are not members, and their families done even attend the congregations I serve. Two of them come regularly with their families, and the other two are part of a family that just came back and are “checking it out.” The one I just invited this past Sunday, and who knows if she’ll come back. The other came along with one of the two regulars my 3rd Sunday there, and he’s been back ever since, on his own.

I guess my point is this: I think I’m doing confirmation faithfully. They’re getting the knowledge about the faith in our meetings, it’s just I don’t have “course/topic objectives” of what I want to pass on.

But more important, I’m showing them what faith is and what the church is about. And that means they have to sit through things or do things they might not like at first, or at all. But I will expose them to as much of the church as possible…and as many people who are part of the church as well. I want to expose them to as many relationships as possible…and then let them decide.

Above all, my belief is that faith is ultimately a choice – God’s love is always unconditional, grace is always extended – but you have to choose to live into that good news. And I want kids to know that, but also to know, the church is a place where they have a place and something to offer – and that the church (not God, for the sake of salvation) needs them to live into that.

And honestly, that’s all I can really do – provide the opportunity. Because it’s God that plants and nurtures the see of faith. (See how Lutheran I am!)

So there you have it. Confirmation as Evangelism. And hey, since I live in a place where evangelism is often about numbers, I’ve increased my confirmation group by 300% in two months! (Proving you can make objective “data” say what ever you want it to!)

Yikes…I think I just cursed myself to fail.

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Advent Devotional Week 2: “Yearning”

Isaiah 11:1-10

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…The wolf shall live with the lamb…the cow and the bear shall graze, their young will lie down together…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” (Various verses, editing mine)

One word sums it up for me: “Yearning.”

I yearn for the world to be a little less violent, filled with a little less hatred. I yearn for that world to take time to sit down with one another in peace. I yearn for people to actually sit down and be honest with each other, even if that means weathering some conflict along the way. I yearn for things to be a little less cynical, a little less critical, a little less apathetic and indifferent. I yearn for things to be a bit more hopeful, to see possibility where things seem impossible.

I wonder, if the future that Isaiah prophesies to God’s people – the promise of God’s vision of the future – isn’t something worth yearning for. It’s a vision of the future I find comfort and hope in – a future that’s not mine, but God’s. One that God alone will usher in.

However, there is one thing with yearning. Yearning without action sounds to me like “whining” and “passing the buck.” Yearning that doesn’t lead to us participating in what God is bringing about in this world is dead faith. True yearning, that kind that touches our heart and soul, is the kind that compels us to act…but to act in a way that submits to God’s will and vision of the future.

And again, that perhaps leads us to the place where in our yearning for peace, hope, and justice, God has a song for us to sing and play – action borne out of our yearning. Action that witnesses to God’s deliverance from our deepest yearnings and cries. “Mary don’t you weep….prepare and wait….God’s gonna come, and God’s gonna do something, just like he did in ages past for his people.”

Mary don’t you weep no more.

Perhaps not your “traditional” Advent hymn, but a spiritual borne out of a time when God’s people were yearning for freedom – freedom from pain, freedom from exhaustion, freedom from abuse, freedom from the bonds of slavery. Yearning that eventually led to freedom (and continues to work towards it on other levels today).

“O Mary Don’t You Weep No More.”

May God hear your deepest yearnings this Advent season….and may you find peace and hope that God will come, that those yearnings will be heard.

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1 Week of Advent 2013: Isaiah & Hymns

I’m a big fan of weekly devotionals rather than daily – for those out there who wrestle with matters of faith and life like me, and in the midst of a season like Advent, prefer to wrestle more deeply with things. So that takes time…more than just a day.

So for this year, I’m taking the Isaiah texts from the Lectionary and coupling them with an Advent Hymn. I love hymns, even at my young age (35!). I grew up with them. Often times, they’re dismissed by my generation and younger in favor of more “contemporary” stuff. But to me contemporary means “singable” – they’re easy to sing along to.

But for me, contemporary means even more than that. Because singable means it takes on a voice – a voice that is heard, and resonates with our soul. Contemporary means song that speaks & gives voice to people and things of the present. And so for me, hymns are contemporary – or should I say, they can be. That said, let’s move on to the topic at hand.

Read: Isaiah 2:1-5
The book of Isaiah in a lot of ways is a book of our time – the nation of Judah was facing conquest from all around – threats to their nation and to their way of life. War was the reality of the day – war waged by kings – political powers – for their interest and gain.

And caught in between are people – ordinary folk. Farmers, laborers, families; people who for the most part go about their days and routines relatively unnoticed. But war affects all people, and often times it’s those without a piece in the game that are most affected. It wears on people. It makes them question and doubt what is right and good.

And as I think about our world today, there are many places where war is fully present – wars in the Middle East and drug wars in Mexico and South America. But also, wars over religion and class and race in the United States – wars where words are used as swords and spears – for the personal gain of an individual or group.

And caught in the middle of all this warring are people. And whether the instruments are sophisticated weaponry of our time, or words, the affect is the same – people are affected by them. The violence of those instruments rob people of life and growth.

And honestly, I – like many – grow weary and question everything around me. And, it makes me a bit cynical and hostile to “prophets and kings” who proclaim peace and inclusivity, but in reality create conflict and division.

The prophet Isaiah announces God’s promise in the midst of that, and a surprising one – one that comes about by peace, not war. “they shall beart their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (2:4)

It is through instruments of peace – a ploughshare and a pruning hook (something used to trim grapevines and the like) – that God will work. These tools of agriculture are God’s instruments – not instruments of war like swords and spears.

This song (scroll to 1:47 in the video) is rapidly becoming my favorite Advent hymn. It was written in a time too, when the Vietnam War wore on people – making them question the world around them. But it, like the prophet Isaiah, offers a word of hope for those of us who feel “caught in the middle.”

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death, that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows, O Prince of peace and pain, brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s, renew our lives again; Lord Jesus, come and reign.

Again, it is the announcment of peace that is God’s promise – a small child, one who will eventually lay down his life on a cross for humanity and from that place, life and growth – resurrection – will spring forth.

Ploughshares and pruning hooks; a tiny child and a cross: instruments of God’s will and action in the world. God’s instruments of peace for a weary and questioning world.

Instruments perhaps, that can shed a bit of light into the darkness of a world that wages war on itself, and offer us a bit of hope in the midst of it all.

Each Winter as the Year Grows Older – William Gay

Each winter as the year grows older
we each grow older, too.
The chill sets in a little colder;
the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.

When race and class cry out for treason,
when sirens call for war,
they overshout the voice of reason
and scream til we ignore all we held dear before.

Yet I believe beyond beliving
that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith.

So even as the sun is turning
to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows,
O Prince of peace and pain,
brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s,
renew our lives again; Lord Jesus come and reign!

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