Saturday, January 31, 2015

Vices and Victories

1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Lectionary 4B, February 1, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

This second lesson sounds so strange with all the talk of eating meat offered to pagan gods. It is completely foreign to us, yet we face similar dilemmas every day. Consider these three modern situations:

Consider Daphne. Throughout her life, she struggled with her weight. She tried her best to diet and exercise, but she had a terrible guilty pleasure - McDonalds. There was something about a double quarter pounder with cheese, a large fry, and a large soda that she just could not resist. 

Then Daphne was diagnosed with diabetes. She then began following a strict doctor-ordered diet that did not include McDonalds. Her friends listened to her complain how she would never be able to eat her favorite food again. But these friends were all thin and athletic. Daphne’s friends could eat at McDonalds without ruining their weight.

Then one day, Daphne was walking out of the local book store and saw her friends across the parking lot heading into Micky D’s. They saw each other and waved. Daphne wanted to join her friends and break her diet, but was that the right thing to do?

Now consider Bruce. He and his wife Caroline are a happily married couple who love watching NCIS together. For years, they have sat down on Tuesday night to enjoy the antics of Gibbs, Abby, and Ducky. Both busy people, this was a time every week that they knew they could spend together. 

Then Bruce started to work on his doctorate. Still working full time, he could only do his school work in the evenings. With a class each Wednesday, he had to spend his Tuesday evenings reading and completing assignments. So Caroline is mostly left to herself in the evenings. She has to decide, will she watch NCIS without her husband?

Consider a third example. Craig is a recovering alcoholic. After a full decade of constantly drinking beer, Craig is struggling to stop this addiction. For the past few months, he has been on again/ off again. His wife Tracy has helped him by keeping all alcohol out of the house. Although she has never been an alcoholic herself, she does not drink. Craig is grateful for his wife’s support. 

But outside the home is another story altogether. Whenever they go out to eat, the beer list seems to always tempt Craig. Now Super Bowl is coming, and they are going over to a friend’s house to watch the game. Craig is afraid that everyone will be drinking beer. He is afraid that he will plunge deeper into alcoholism. Will his friends be drinking during the football game?

Knowledge vs. Love
Here we have three situations that are all too common today. We seem to be surrounded by temptations - not just in the media. Whenever we interact with friends or spouses, they can unintentionally tempt us to stray from what we know is right. For them, eating fast food, watching a TV show, or drinking a beer might be perfectly fine. But for you? That may be a different story.

This is exactly what Paul is talking about in today’s second lesson. He shows us the deep contrast between knowledge and love. Knowledge is self-promoting, arrogant, and conceited. When we use knowledge for personal gain, we often destroy relationships. 

Love is the complete opposite. God’s love that we share with each other restores relationships, benefits everyone, and brings people closer together. That is what Paul means when he says, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” (1 Cor 8:1b NRSV)

Paul shows us how some of our peers can slip into bad habits, sometimes without realizing it. But we can help them onto the right path. If we look at our three stories from before, we can see examples of how we can build up each other in love.
First, Daphne. As she waved to her friends at McDonalds, her stomach immediately growled. She had a smile on her face, but it was only halfhearted. She so desperately wanted to join her friends, but instead she slowly walked to her car. 

Along the way, her phone beeped. It was her friends, who were still standing outside the restaurant. One of them texted her, “Do you want to eat with us? We can go grab a salad at my house.” Delighted, Daphne immediately perked up. They could spend time together and eat healthy!
Next, Bruce. When it was almost time for NCIS to come on, Caroline got off the couch downstairs and went into their home office. Surprised Bruce asked her what she was doing. Certainly she would rather be watching their favorite show? 

“No,” she said, “If you can’t watch it, then I won’t either. I’ll read here with you. We can watch NCIS on Thursday after you have recovered from your class.” Grateful, Bruce set to work on his assignment. He could focus a little more with his wife silently reading nearby.

Third, Craig. He was worried about what would happen during the Super Bowl. While he and Tracy were on their way to their friend’s house, Craig wondered how badly he would slip. Then, as he walked in, everyone shouted a warm welcome. 

They lifted their cans as if they were toasting him. Craig saw that they were not holding beer cans but pop cans. There was no beer in the house to tempt him. Craig was able to enjoy the Super Bowl with his friends and stay sober. 

Love Prevails
These are perfect examples of what Paul is talking about. These simple things - eating out, watching tv, and enjoying a beer - may not be sinful to some. Yet if they cause someone else to sin, then we must refrain from them. Paul is pretty hard on those who do not take these simple steps. He says, if you aid and abet your weak friend to the point of sinning, then you are ruining them and sinning against Christ. We are not alone in this world. We need to help each other.

Now certainly, Daphne’s friends may go to McDonalds when they know she is busy. Caroline might watch her own favorite shows while her husband works. Craig’s friends might drink beer without him. These actions are not sinful as long as they don’t tempt another.

But, in refraining from these things when they are with each other, these friends are building each other up in love. When they think of someone else before themselves, they are being Christ-like. By doing this, these friends have inspired hope and confidence in Daphne, Bruce, and Craig. 

This is what Paul is talking about. By making seemingly insignificant choices, we can build each other up in the body of Christ. I pray that as you consider your friends, family, and fellow church members, you might discover what God is calling you to do. Small, simple changes can make the world of difference in another. May God give us the strength and encouragement to do so. Amen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ordinary Saints

Mark 1. 14-20, Lectionary 3B, January 25, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

An old Gather magazine tells the story of Ben and his mother. One of Ben's teachers gives him a unique exercise: If he had a million dollars, how would he solve one of the world's problems? For Ben, this is not just a school assignment - it is a faith-filled challenge. 

Ben decides to tackle the problem of homelessness in his community. He is already aware of the church program Families Moving Forward where homeless families are hosted in the church. As Ben is working on this project, he is moved to tears. He cries out to his mother, "I just don't understand it, Mom. These kids don't even have a bed. Why do some kids like me have so much, and other kids have so little?" 

This problem is no longer a theoretical project for Ben. It is a real challenge faced by so many. Yet he does not have a million dollars to build housing for the homeless or to provide social workers for these families. Ben's mother then encourages him to make a difference in a way he can: On Valentine's Day, instead of handing out cards and treats to his friends, he will donate one dollar for each valentine to Families Moving Forward. Ben and his mother continue to be involved in this program long after his assignment is finished. (From "Unlikely Disciples" by Allison Johnson, Oct. 2014 Gather p. 17-19)

Ben's story may not sound like a call story, yet it is. He doesn't have some grand vision from God, but he is moved to action. His teacher may not have known what a strong effect this project would have on him. That is where God comes in. God inspired Ben to make a difference in his community, even if it is a small donation.

This small child called by God to help the homeless is a stark contrast to Mother Teresa whom I talked about last week. Mother Teresa gave her whole life to helping the poor and homeless, a sacrifice that truly transformed her into a Saint. We are not willing to make such a life changing decision, and God might not be calling us to it. Yet, God does call us to more realistic ministries. We may not be a saint like Mother Teresa, yet God sees the saintly in us. God calls us to make small differences like Ben did. All of those small donations of time and money add up.

Last week was all about how God calls us - either in extravagant visions or in crowds shouting for change. Yet this week, the focus is on who. Yes, God calls the Saints to life-changing ministries. Yes, God calls seminarians to drop everything to become pastors. Yet God calls you too.

Take Sue Halpern, for example. Sue is the author of the book A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home. Sue taught ethics to medical students. She knew the theoretical aspects to what she taught, yet she rarely experienced these dilemmas herself. Then, after her daughter went off to college and she had more free time from work, Sue realized that her dog Pransky was restless. Roaming through the woods behind her house was not enough for this labradoodle. Pransky was too smart to be content with a quiet life at home. She needed to work. So, over many long months Sue trained Pransky until she passed the test to become an official therapy dog. 

Every Tuesday after that, Sue and Pransky head to the local nursing home and visit the residents. Sue quickly became amazed at how many of these people opened up when they started to pet Pransky. Almost every resident started the conversation by saying, "I had a dog once." Over the months, Sue became amazed at the resilience of these residents. Despite their many ailments, they found joy in seeing Pransky. A simple dog can make a big difference. 

Sue doesn't talk much about faith in her book, yet it seemed like God was working through Pransky. God might have been calling Sue to something more when she first realized how restless Pransky was. Then, as they visited resident after resident, Pransky bought God's simple joy to these people.
Sue is another ordinary person called to ordinary ministry. Sue is someone just like us, and I think Jesus' disciples are like us too. Jesus intentionally chose his disciples not from the elite in his society, nor did he choose from the destitute or homeless. Instead, Jesus chose quite ordinary fishermen to be his disciples. As we continue to read Mark and see how confused the disciples are, we can put ourselves into their shoes and be just as confused.

So, when Jesus says, "Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people," (Mark 1:17 NET), Jesus is talking to us as well. We can do this in so many simple, ordinary ways. We may look at the Saints and think, "But they are so extraordinary! Certainly I can't be like them." Even so, we need not always seek out extraordinary opportunities to make a difference. 

In our annual meeting today, we will hear and read about the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways that we as people of Zion have taken ordinary opportunities to make a difference for each other and in our community. Every Sunday, we welcome each other into this space where we worship God. Every Sunday, we welcome children into our basement to learn about God's love. Every week, many of you return to church for bible study, meetings, and other opportunities to brainstorm what God might be calling us to do.

Through our in-kind donations, we have fed families in Princeton, LeClaire, and Davenport. We have provided towel bundles to children in residence in Waverly and Ames. Through our financial donations, we have supported the larger Church, including programs like ELCA World Hunger, the ELCA Malaria Campaign, and Lutheran Services in Iowa. We also have supported local camps, Illowa, and Churches United. 

What cannot be counted in our annual report is the many ways that you bring God's love into your everyday life. Your faith in God shapes how you care for your children and grandchildren, how you use your time in work or in retirement, and how you donate outside the church.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recently wrote, We "should never discount the ways we bring the fullness of life to everyday existence. Our way of passing on wisdom, of forming community, of weaving together ordinary life events into a meaning-filled tapestry moves our communities beyond mere surviving to thriving...We are the people of an incarnational God. The extraordinary revealed in the ordinary, the infinite in the finite, Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. The incarnation of God's love in Jesus makes all of our lives holy, even the ordinary. Especially the ordinary." ("Especially the Ordinary," July/August 2014 Gather, p. 18-20) Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Samuel's Calling

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Lectionary 2B, January 18, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
The call of Samuel is a beautiful piece of scripture. It is partially the inspiration for the hymn Here I Am, Lord. Ever since I translated this passage as a freshman in college, it  became my personal favorite, too. Why is this story so beloved?

One reason might be how idyllic the first ten verses are. Samuel hears God speaking directly to him, yet he doesn't realize it. The back and forth between Samuel and Eli is amusing. Then, Samuel says, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." What a powerful way for Samuel to present himself before the Lord.

Another reason why this passage might be so beloved is that we wish God's calling to be so straightforward. Don't you wish that God called you directly in a vision and told you specifically what to do and what to say? I certainly wish that God would be more direct.

When we read about saints and other important Christians throughout the centuries, sometimes we hear their call stories. Some of them had experienced God's direct call to specific ministry. Sometimes those calls happen at the beginning of their ministry, like Martin Luther deciding to become a monk after almost being hit by a lightning strike. Other times, a call story can happen in the middle of a solid ministry career. Take Mother Teresa, for example.

"MotherTeresa 094" by © 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 /. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons -

Before she became Mother Teresa, she was Sister Agnes. She spent twenty years teaching in India. Although an honorable profession, teaching did not make her famous. Then, on September 10, 1946, she was on a train heading to Darjeeling in the Himalayas.

"On this day she received a 'call within a call.' God, she suddenly felt, wanted something more from her" 'He wanted me to be poor with the poor and to love him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.'" (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, p. 392) She went to Calcutta and formed the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa sacrificed modern convenience and a comfortable middle class life to serve the poor. She could do this because she had a vision from God telling her exactly what to do.

Internal callings, or direct personal experiences with God, are rarely potent in modern days. Although we certainly experience God in worship and in prayer. God rarely sends us visions with direct instructions. Sometimes, God comes to us not internally but externally. Take St. Ambrose, for example.

Bartolomeo Vivarini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ambrose of Milan was born in 339 not to a Christian but to a Roman family. He was not raised in the faith, nor did he have any interest in converting. Instead, he became the governor of a province in Italy where Milan was its capital. When the bishop of Milan died, the Christian community was a mess. 

The Catholic and Arian factions were at odds, claiming that the other was full of heresy. Arians denied the full divinity of Christ, and the Catholics affirmed that Christ was fully God and fully human. With such a controversy, they could not choose a new bishop from their ranks.

When these fights nearly broke out in violence, Ambrose went to the basilica to try to keep the peace. Then someone shouted, "Ambrose for bishop!" Because he was a pagan, Ambrose was shocked when the entire assembly cried out for him to be the next bishop.

"Ambrose was horrified. Not only was he a layman - he was not even baptized. Fleeing the basilica, he went into hiding to evade the importunate crowd. But when he was finally cornered, he acquiesced to what was evidently the will of God. So within a week he was baptized, was confirmed, received holy orders, and was consecrated bishop of Milan." (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, p. 533)

St. Ambrose did not know what he was walking into when he entered the basilica that day. Even so, he was willing to submit to the will of God when so many enraged Christians could unite under him. This external call for Ambrose was just as influential as an internal call may have been.

Ultimately, God comes to us in internal and external ways. In fact, this is a requirement before a student may enter seminary in the Lutheran Church. A candidate must have an internal call, like crying before an altar and feeling recommitted to Christ. A candidate must also have an external call, like a youth group electing a freshman to be chaplain of the group. 

I think it is important that our lesson this morning did not end at verse 10. The first ten verses may be an idyllic story of God calling a young boy to ministry, but reality hits in the next ten verses. God did not call Samuel to an easy task. He was not called to gently love everyone who already knew God's love. No. God called Samuel to share cold, hard truth with Eli. God told Samuel to tell his beloved mentor that Eli and his sons will be punished. 

You see, Eli may have done a good job raising Samuel, but he was a terrible father. His sons would hoard meat sacrifices for themselves and not share them with the hungry. They would have sex with women who came to the tent of meeting. Eli occasionally chided his sons, to no avail. Eli's sons abused their authority and sinned against the Lord.

So the Lord told Samuel that the Lord had had enough. The Lord will punish Eli's house, and no sacrifice can make a difference. This man that Samuel cared for would suffer because his sons were terrible people. This is a heavy burden for a young man to bear, especially as his first prophecy. "Doom and gloom" is never easy to share, yet for a boy to condemn his mentor? That is too much. So it is no wonder that Samuel hesitated to share this prophecy with Eli.

Yet, when Eli called Samuel to him, Samuel bravely shared all that the Lord had said. Eli did not hurt this messenger lad, but instead accepted his fate. This story that starts so idyllic ends up being a powerful story of the great challenges of ministry. Nobody ever said that life as a Christian would be easy. In fact the opposite is true. 

Let's look back at those call stories. First, Mother Teresa. She left her virtuous yet comfortable life to live among the poor and homeless. She did what she could to provide comfort for these people, including the most basic health care and feeding. She once said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, p. 393)

Indeed, even more important than the physical care that she provided was the way she treated everyone with respect. She valued people who never felt valued in society. In that way, she was God's love. Mother Teresa left her life teaching in a comfortable school so she could embody God's love for those who would not receive it elsewhere. This was no easy task.

And St. Ambrose. After he became bishop, he continued to keep the peace even as he studied the Bible. He gave away his property and opened his doors to all in need. He carefully served the church, personally overseeing all of his roles as bishop. He even baptized and mentored St. Augustine.

Once an imperial leader himself, now Ambrose protected the church from imperial overthrow. St. Ambrose gave up all of the prestige and power that he might have had as a Roman governor. Instead, he became a humble bishop who carefully watched over his flock.

Looking at Samuel, Mother Teresa, and Ambrose, we see how powerful calls to ministry can often be followed by difficult personal sacrifices and dangerous messages to share. These saints were called to ministries that shared God's love to the greatest and the least. Not one of these accepted the status quo. Instead, they created personal relationships as they became God's voice and hands in a challenging world. May we find ways to do the same. Amen.

3 Hand Washings

Mark 1:4-11, Baptism of our Lord B, January 11, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Even though the world outside is bitter cold and covered in snow and ice, I would like you to think back to this past summer. Consider the yard work that you might have done. No matter whether your yard was carefully planted full of flowers or simply has some evergreen bushes, all of our yards had weeds. 

Remember how after spending much time weeding and planting, your hands were quite dirty. Covered in mud, dusted with pollen and flaked with bits of roots, your hands are filthy. Then you turn on the hose and let the water wash over your hands. You watch as all of the dirt and debris return to the earth. 

There is something immensely satisfying about watching the dirt wash away from our hands. Now your hands are clean, ready to move onto the next project. Now you can safely go inside your home without spreading dirt on every surface that you might touch. 

Isn’t this like baptism? We come to baptism caked with muddy sins, dusted with wrong intentions, and flaked with self-absorption. Whether as an infant or as an adult, we come before the Lord dirty with wrongdoing. Then in baptism, we are washed of our sins, cleansed from the eternal consequences of our wrongdoing, and blessed with God’s love. 

At baptism, we cannot sees the dirt of our sins being washed away, yet it happens. We may not have the satisfaction of watching our sins wash away, yet we have a similar satisfaction when we remember our baptism. We have the opportunity to remember our baptism here on non-communion Sundays, and we also can remember our baptism every time that we wash our hands.

Today we hear in the gospel of when Jesus was baptized. Unlike us, Jesus had no sins to be forgiven of. When John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, there was no metaphorical dirt being washed away. We can imagine our baptism as being like hands washed clean after hours of weeding, yet I wonder what Jesus’ baptism could be compared to. Maybe it was like a different hand washing.

Although I only auctioned off a dozen of my grandmother’s snowflakes at the Harvest Feast, I had about fifty more of her snowflakes to stiffen before Christmas. Oddly enough, the best way to stiffen lacework is by dipping them in Elmer’s white glue, squeezing the excess off, and then pinning it flat onto wax-paper-lined cardboard. With two bottles’ worth of glue in a bowl, I set to work. For each snowflake, I dredged it in glue, pressed the extra glue out, and then laid it flat on the cardboard. Over and over again. 

When working with that much glue, there is no clean way to do the job. So, after doing this twenty-five times with the first half of the snowflakes, my hands were completely covered with glue. I felt like I was in preschool again! My hands were so sticky that I had to have Brett turn on the water. Then I enjoyed gently scrubbing all of that glue from my hands. I felt like I was washing away an extra layer of skin. The water became white from all that glue. 

Isn’t this a better image for Jesus’ baptism? He didn’t have any dirty sins to wash away with baptism, yet he still needed to have John baptize him. Before he could begin his ministry, he needed to have this spiritual experience. Whatever was washed away, it must have been as holy as he was. 

Baptism is about a whole lot more than just forgiving sins, though. When Jesus was baptized, he also was prepared to begin his ministry. At his baptism, he received a sign from God. When Jesus was rising out of the water, he saw the sky seem to split open. Out of the abyss, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. 

Yet the most important part of this vision is what comes next: God the Father speaks directly to his Son on Earth. God says, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.” (Mark 1:11 NET) This baptism has given Jesus the emotional strength and willpower he needs to defend himself from the devil’s temptation. For immediately after being baptized, Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the same Spirit that descended upon him.

Just as God descended upon Jesus during his baptism, so also God comes to us in our baptism. We may not hear God speak directly to us, yet even so God’s love is poured out upon us in word and water. This baptism that we receive is more than just forgiveness of sins. It is the restoration of our souls. 

Now hear one last hand washing story, something that some of you experience every day. When I was on my internship, I often visited the homebound. One woman, named Georgia, told me of the terrible pain and suffering she experienced every single day. Her hands were knotted and misshapen by Rheumatoid arthritis. 

She told me of how she literally could not move her fingers when she got out of bed every morning. Georgia would have to run warm water over her hands for many long minutes before she could flex her fingers. Only after this long wash did she feel like she was whole again.  

I cannot imagine what it must be like to suffer from arthritis. From what I have heard on my many visits, it must be absolutely miserable. Even without experiencing it first hand, I can see that this a beautiful description of baptism.

Before God comes to us in baptism, we are broken people. We are misshapen by the cruel world that we live in. We are turned in on ourselves. Yet in the healing waters of baptism, God restores us to wholeness. God takes our weak minds and bodies and prepares us for ministry. God comes to us in baptism, promising to restore us to the best image of ourselves. 

It is no mistake that this sacrament is often used to welcome new members to the church. We are made right before God before we can live out God’s law. This ritual washing is a way for God to claim us as daughters and sons, for God to wash us from our sins, and for God to restore us to wholeness. We and our sponsors make serious promises when the water rushes over us, and in return God also makes some eternal promises.

In baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We die to sin and are raised to new life. God comes to us in the water and the word. God prepares us for all of the challenges ahead. In baptism, God prepares us to be God’s hands and feet in this world. Amen.

The power of the Word

John 1:1-18, Christmas 2B, January 4, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Have you ever heard of a foreign word that simply cannot be translated? No matter how hard people try, something is always lost in translation. Consider the following:

The Indonesian word "jayus" means "a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh."
The Scottish word "tartle" is "the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you've forgotten their name."
The Pascuense word "tingo" means "the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them."
And of course, the German word made famous by Avenue Q: “schadenfreude,” which is "happiness at the misfortune of others,” or “people taking pleasure in your pain.”

Whenever anything is translated from one language to another, something is lost. Each language has its nuances and beauty. The general meaning of a passage can be transferred, but the alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm are lost. So also for the Bible. Hebrew and Greek are beautifully complicated, and their complete foreignness means that a lot is lost in translation. Consider these words from Fred Buechner about a powerful Hebrew word:

In Hebrew the term dabar means both "word" and "deed." Thus to say something is to do something. "I love you." "I hate you." "I forgive you." "I am afraid of you." Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.
Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.
When God said, "Let there be light," there was light where before there was only darkness. When I say I love you, there is love where before there was only ambiguous silence. In a sense I do not love you first and then speak it, but only by speaking it give it reality.

In John’s Prologue, he poetically shares the powerful nature of the ultimate word, the Logos of God made flesh in Jesus. Jesus is fully God, yet distinct from God. Jesus was with God when God spoke the world into existence. Yet Jesus is bringing a new spiritual life into this world. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, a bright light that brings hope to the multitudes.
Jesus is the Word made flesh, who came to live among us. From the beginning to the end of his earthly life, Jesus experienced the world that he created. At the same time, he prepares us for the world to come. Jesus is not just full of grace and truth, he is grace and truth. Jesus has given to us grace upon grace, gifts of forgiveness and new life that we can never repay. We know God because we have seen Jesus.

John uses quite poetic words, the depth of which is lost in translation. In his prologue, John alludes to many Old Testament stories and themes, not the least of which is creation. John shows us that Jesus is more than just a babe lying in a manger; Jesus is the Lord himself in the flesh. Jesus is this God that has been present throughout human history.

Maybe Fred Buechner can shed some light on this passage. He writes: 

"In the beginning was the Word," says John, meaning perhaps that before the beginning there was something like Silence: not the absence of sound, because there was no sound yet to be absent, but the absence of absence: nothing nothinged: everything. Then the Word. The Deed. The Beginning. The beginning in time of time. "The Word was with God, and the Word was God," says John. By uttering himself, God makes God heard and makes God hearers.
God never seems to weary of trying to get across to us. Word after word God tries in search of the right word. When the creation itself doesn't seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—God tries flesh and blood.
God tried saying it in Noah, but Noah was a drinking man. God tried saying it in Abraham, but Abraham was a little too Mesopotamian with all those wives and whiskers. God tried Moses, but Moses himself was trying too hard; tried David, but David was too pretty for his own good. Toward the end of his rope, God tried saying it in John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hellfire preaching, and you get the feeling that John might almost have worked except that he lacked something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet.
So God tried once more. Jesus as the mot juste of God.

This God who has been active throughout the stories captured in the Old Testament is the same God who is present in Jesus Christ. This is made clear in verse 14, even though the true depth of this verse is lost in translation. The NRSV that we heard this morning states,And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is a perfectly good translation of the basic meaning of the text, yet we loose what John is alluding to.

For the verb “To dwell” also means “to spread a tent.” If you recall, when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, and until the Temple was built, God came among them in the tabernacle. The tabernacle is the “portable dwelling place for the divine presence.” God dwelled in a tent, guiding the Israelites through the wilderness. Even after the Israelites settled back in Israel, God continued to be present in the holy tent of the tabernacle. 

So, John is saying that Jesus dwelled among us just as the Lord dwelled among the Israelites. Or put another way, Jesus tabernacled with us. But Jesus wasn’t a disembodied presence locked up in a tent. Jesus lived and breathed among us, revealing God to us in ways that God in the tabernacle could not.
Now, hear some final words from Fred Buechner:

"The word became flesh," John said, of all flesh this flesh. Jesus as the Word made flesh means take it or leave it: in this life, death, life, God finally manages to say what God is and what human is. It means: just as your words have you in them—your breath, spirit, power, hiddenness—so Jesus has God in him. (originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words)


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Harvest Feast Tatting

Finally! I can post all of the items that I made for my church's Harvest Feast fundraiser this past November. During the event, two people asked for me to make new items for them, and I made those last commissions this weekend. So, here is what I made:

Wondrous Window bracelet and pendant
I made this one in University of Iowa Hawkeye colors using Lizbeth yellow variegated thread and DMC black thread. The pattern is from Up and Tat 'Em by Marilee Rockley.

Necklace pendant
I found this pattern on Pinterest: This was my first experiment with metallic thread. I really didn't like working with it, but I must admit that it made for a beautiful pendant! I think people liked it better than the others because of the metallic sheen. I used Swarovski crystal beads and glass seed beads.

Lora's Angel
This angel I crocheted with size 3 thread and edged with size 10 gold thread. It works as a tree topper for a small tree. I have made this pattern many times before with size 10 thread, and this is my first time working with size 3. I might make it again with worsted weight thread for a full size tree.

Bedazzled Butterfly Necklace with earrings
This is the largest piece that I have ever made! I was so proud of this one and really wanted it to be the best seller, but it actually sold for the cheapest. I think that is partly because it accidentally was put on the silent auction table instead of the live auction. 
The pattern is Bedazzled Butterfly from Boutique Tatting by Marilee Rockley. The thread is hand dyed by Marilee as well. I used Swarovski beads - blue bicone and pearl - and blue and green seed beads. The earrings are simple flower and butterfly patterns, I think from here:

Bloomer Bracelet
This bracelet is from the Bloomer pattern in Boutique Tatting by Marilee Rockley. I made this one with DMC black thread, Swarovski red bicone beads, and red and clear seed beads. I enjoyed using the red seed beads in all of the outer picots, but it makes the bracelet really heavy!

Second Bloomer bracelet and pendant
The Bloomer bracelet was too big for the lady who bought it, so I made her another one. She wanted it with teal and coral seed beads. I really like how the second one turned out - I only wish a photo could capture how the beads catch the light!

 Another lady wanted a pendant made of one motif from the bracelet, so this is what I came up with.

Christmas Snowflake
I couldn't make the final Harvest Feast commissions until January because I was busy all November and December making 14 of these snowflakes. It is Late Winter Snowflake by Robin Perfetti. I used Lizbeth white and blue thread with clear iridescent seed beads.

Luke...The Musical!

Luke 2:22-40, Christmas 1B, December 28, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

This holiday season, I watched one of my most favorite movies - White Christmas. I love this story, set in a time long before I was born. The simple love story, the joy of Christmas, and the gift of reunion for the general enthrall me. Most of the music was written into the plot as performances, yet, like every good musical, the four main characters burst into song often. 

As the two gentlemen and two ladies meet on the train on their way to Vermont, they wonder how much snow will be on the ground. Then they start singing, "Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow. It won't be long before we're all there with snow. I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow..." As if it were normal conversation, they sing in four part harmony.

Most of us do not just burst into song instead of talking. Most of us cannot create four part harmony out of thin air. Yet that is the magic of musicals. Somehow, their sung conversations are often more poignant and memorable than simple dialogue.

Usually, this type of spontaneous song is relegated to modern musicals and classic operas. Yet some might consider the first two chapters of Luke to be a musical. Almost every important character introduced in these verses has a poem expressing how they understand God working in the world.

The first song is Mary's Magnificat that we heard last Sunday. Mary sings that God will work through the child growing in her womb to bring justice for all. Then, after Elizabeth gives birth to John, her husband Zechariah sings a long song of how John will lead the way for God to save the world from their enemies. 

On Christmas Eve, we heard the angels sing their song, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:14 NET) Finally, the last song in these two chapters is the one which we heard this morning: Simeon's song. Simeon was not allowed to die until he saw the baby Jesus. So, as he saw the salvation wrapped up in this little baby, he sang how he was ready to die. 

Over the centuries, the church has found these songs to have immense beauty and authority. When monks and nuns created daily prayer services for various times of the day, they included these songs from Luke. Morning Prayer, also called Matins, includes Zechariah's song from when John was born. Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, includes Mary's Magnificat. Night Prayer, also called Compline, includes Simeon's song. Simeon's willingness to die is reinterpreted as our willingness to sleep. 

In some ways, seminaries feel like the monasteries of old. Amidst all of our classes and studying, we would stop to pray and reflect on God's majesty. Every weekday morning, we gathered for a short prayer service. At least twice a week, we practiced Morning Prayer where we sang Zechariah's song. 

We made his words our own as we chanted about God overpowering our enemies. Sometimes we would join together for Holden Evening Prayer when we would sing Marty Haugen's arrangement of Mary's song. 

And every weeknight at ten o'clock, some of us would gather for Night Prayer. Sometimes as few as three of us and sometimes as many as fifteen would gather in the quad to sing acapella. We would sit on the edge of the broken water fountain with our legs inside so we were gathered facing each other. One of us would lead the service, picking notes out of thin air to chant the liturgy. My most favorite part of compline is Simeon's song. Found on page 324 of the ELW, many nights I chanted, 

Guide us waking O Lord, and guard us sleeping.
That awake we might watch with Christ
And asleep we may rest in peace.
Now Lord you let your servant go in peace. 
Your word has been fulfilled. 
My own eyes have seen the salvation
Which you have prepared in the sight of every people.
A light to reveal you to the nations 
And the glory of your people Israel.
Guide us waking O Lord, and guard us sleeping.
That awake we might watch with Christ
And asleep we may rest in peace.

In this song, we hear Simeon proclaim that Jesus will bring salvation for all - for all of Israel, for all the nations, for all the world. Despite his old age, Simeon can see clearly how this little child will change the future of the whole earth. According to Luke, salvation does not mean entry into heaven. For Luke, salvation means restoration. Somehow, Jesus will make the earth whole again.

Even now, Jesus is working in the world to restore personal relationships and national relations too. Jesus is working in the world to bring justice for all people. Jesus is working to end all strife, hatred, anger, and despair.

Simeon somehow could see a whole new world realized in a small child. Simeon could see that all of our hopes and dreams will someday be fulfilled. We anxiously await the day when all will be restored to wholeness, to shalom. Until then, we will continue to sing Simeon's song, as well as Mary's and Zechariah's, to remind us of what is to come. Amen.

The Greatest Gift

Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve B, December 24, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder, what is the greatest gift that you have ever received? Better yet, what is the greatest gift that you have ever given? Well, if you know anything about me, you know that I am a crafty person. Many of you have seen my tatting at the Harvest Feast and in our newsletter. You have seen my crocheting in our prayer shawls.

But here is a secret - I used to be really good at making clay figurines! Every year when I visit my family, I still see the clay gingerbread men and women hanging on their trees. Then I can't help but remember the many hours that I joyfully spent making ornaments for my family. 

Aren't those usually the best gifts? The ones that are carefully handcrafted by the ones you love most? Even if they are small and simple, they show the special thought and effort put into them. Just by looking at them, you can see the love woven deep into their being.

There is a holiday song about something like this. Maybe you have heard it before. It is The Gift, sung by Garth Brooks and written by Stephanie Davis. This song tells the story of Maria, "a poor orphan girl." This girl doesn't have much in this world. When she was on her way to the market, she finds a small bird with a broken wing. Moved with pity, she decides to care for this bird.

Maria cleans it and carefully caries the bird into the market where she spends her last coin on a small cage "made of rushes and twine." She fed it loose corn from the floor of the market and gently tended to this weak bird who slowly became stronger. 

When Christmas came, Maria watched as everyone in town laid presents by the manger. Maria fretted because she had no money to buy an expensive gift "fit for a king." Maria waited until midnight so no one could watch her at the manger. She was crying because she had nothing for the Christ child. 

Then the Lord spoke saying, "Maria, if the bird in the cage is your offering, open the door and let me see." Shaking with fear and tears, Maria did open the door to the cage. The bird flew out of the cage, a brilliant flutter of perfectly healed feathers. Then the midnight bells rang as the bird sang "a song that no words could recapture, whose beauty was fit for a king."

Maria's story is a beautiful one for this Christmas Eve. She thought that she had nothing worthy for God incarnate, yet God knew that she did. God had watched her carefully tend that little bird. Maria, herself an orphan, saw the orphaned bird and somehow they cared for each other. The loving care shared between Maria and that broken bird is their true gift to God.

We give to each other and we give to God out of gratitude. Our gifts are but small ways to share our thanks for God's ultimate gift to the world found in Jesus Christ. Nothing we do can truly share our appreciation for God himself coming to live among us. We offer our gift of worship, raising our voices just like Maria's bird. Even this is a small token of our thanksgiving.

Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph in a humble stable is God's greatest gift to us. That God in Jesus would experience all of our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and our failures, is immense. Jesus willingly removed himself from the clean, holy realm of heaven to dirty his feet walking our roads. 

For Jesus to open our eyes to the scriptures, to love us intensely as he healed the sick and forgave the sinners, he went one step deeper into the darkness of our lives. Then he plunged himself into the darkest part of humanity as he listened to people cry for him to be crucified and mock him as he died on the cross. Yet it was not until he was resurrected and ascended into heaven that we truly realized the gift that God gave us.

In Jesus Christ, we find forgiveness for all our sins. In Jesus Christ, we find a new everlasting life. In that little baby lying in the manger, we find hope for a better world. What a precious gift indeed. Amen.