Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Advent 4 - Savior of the Nations

It’s been too long since I posted last. It is that time of the year after all. Despite the texts on being prepared and watching and waiting, I have been caught once again unprepared for Christmas. It is too hard to believe that Christmas is only a few days away. Oh well…

Last Sunday, we sang Savior of the Nations, Come (LBW 28). As I sang this hymn, I think it moved to the top of my list of “Favorite Advent Carols,” and even hymns not to be without when stranded on a desert island. In essence, while an Advent hymn, it contains the whole story, I think. The only thing is that the translation is a composite and at times lacks the power of Luther’s translation of Ambrose’s text. However, there are times when the translation does a wonderful job grabbing the mystery. Anyway, here it is. (From the Lutheran Book of Worship, hymn 28, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1978)

Savior of the nations, come; Show the glory of the Son!
Ev’ry people stand in awe; Praise the perfect Son of God.

Not of human seed or worth, But from God’s own mystic breath,
Fruit in Mary’s womb begun, When God breathed the Word his Son.

Wondrous birth! Oh wondrous child Of the virgin undefiled!
Mighty God and man in one, Eager now his race to run!

God the Father is his source, Back to God he runs his course;
Down to death and hell descends, God’s high throne he reascends.

He leaves heaven to return; Trav’ling where dull hellfire burns;
Riding out, returning home As the Savior who has come.

God the Father’s precious Son Girds himself in flesh to run
For the trophies of our souls, Longer than this round earth rolls.

Shining stable in the night, Breathing vic’try with your light;
Darkness cannot hide your flame, Shining bright as Jesus’ name.

I think perhaps it is the last verse that gets to me. Shining stable in night… the preceding six verses are what that stable light means: that breath of God’s Word, the double ecstasy, the saving from death and hell. The light from that stable was Jesus. There in that stable is born the savior of the nations. Even now at Christmas, we look forward to the Passion. They are not unconnected.

Grace and Peace.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Beyond Choice?!?!??!!?

Yesterday, I was reading my most recent issue (Nov. 2004) of Science & Theology News, which was for the most part, somewhat blah. Then I ran across a review in the Bookends section. James C. Peterson reviewed the book by Alexander Sanger, Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century. The review begins:

‘We got over our shame with birth control. It is time we did so with abortion,’ closes Beyond Choice by Alexander Sanger. As the grandson of birth control activist Margaret Sanger and chairman of the International Planned Parenthood Council, Sanger advocates seeing abortion as another form of birth control. Since contraception is accepted without stigma in most circles, he thinks abortion should be as well. Both are reproductive options that Sanger believes are moral and even essential to human survival.

This appeal to human survival is Sanger’s central argument for the morality and necessity of abortion. He is convinced that the key for the protection of abortion rights is to shift public perception from abortion as anti-life to abortion as a tool for shaping humanity….

Imagine… abortion as a tool for shaping humanity. Further in the article Peterson writes, “Sanger argues that abortion offers the best cost-benefit ratio for society, the pregnant woman and possibly her partner.” So the shaping that occurs is one that is mostly a cost-benefit analysis of whether or not the pregnancy “hurts or helps the reproductive strategies that the man and woman are pursuing.” Of course what are the benefits? Are children simply one more item on a list of goods on the market for us to decide whether or not we consume them? What kind of shaping is happening when a pregnancy is given the thumbs-up or down on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. Surely, this approach would shape humanity, but in the process of shaping, we can either improve the product or malform it.

The problems here are many. Sanger tries to place the decision in the context of helping humanity survive. But at the center is still the couple, and maybe only the woman, deciding if this pregnancy meets her needs. This rationale is not meant to advance or help anyone but the couple decide if they should keep the child or not.

Rather than turn to abortion to shape humanity, how about turning to other practices like equal pay for women in the workplace? Affordable childcare? More than a token six or twelve week maternity leave? Like parenthood, it would seem that these are all practices that could, if done correctly, be self-sacrificing, rather than self-exalting. The well-being of the other is placed at the center of the decision, and not the well-being of the individual.

Throughout it all, Sanger seems to abandon the notion of the dignity inherent in all human beings. Reducing the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy to the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, which is most likely motivated by emotive reasoning, fails to see the life of the child as human.

This rationale will certainly shape humanity… into an even more twisted and malformed version of what it has already become.

Grace and Peace.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


I have recently come across the 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation given by Abraham Lincoln.

It is the duty of nations as well as of citizens to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord....
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.
Intoxicated with unbroken success we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

When held together with the Gospel lesson assigned to Thanksgiving Day, John 6:25-35, I am concerned that we strive after the food that perishes. Our feasts around tables, while enjoyable, miss something when held in contrast with the true feast that matters, the meal that is our Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. Jesus says, "I am the bread of life..." He is the food that does not perish. Even though we are only given a taste, it is the foretaste of the feast to come. The Eucharist enlivens us to go out in the world. The meal where we gorge ourselves, leads us to collapse on the couch, drifting off into a triptophan-induced coma.

Our Thanksgiving must always be one of both praise and repentance, remembering how what we have is only due to God's grace.


Friday, November 19, 2004

Christ the King Sunday – Nov. 21, 2004

This Sunday traditionally marks the end of the liturgical year. This denotation is of course arbitrary, since the argument could be made that Easter is the proper beginning of the Christian year. Thus the Triduum somehow contains both the ending and beginning (especially if the Great Vigil is kept… and it should be!).

For the texts this week, I was slightly surprised that they were not of the blatantly apocalyptic variety to which I have grown accustomed. No sheep and goats from Matthew. No visions from Daniel or scenes from the heavenly court in Revelation. Instead this week, we get a text from Jeremiah, the hymn/creed from Colossians, and the crucifixion scene from Luke with the penitent thief (traditionally called St. Dismas). This passage is one of interest, since Jesus’ words to the thief “Truly I say to you today you will be with me in paradise,” have often been used to support the notion that as soon as one dies the soul goes off to be with God in heaven. However, the Greek is a little ambiguous. It all depends on how you punctuate the sentence. Is it “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” OR “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” But this, I think is a discussion for another time.

In the congregation which I serve, we made an interesting choice. We are doing our “annual” pledge drive. (It’s annual only in the sense that we are reviving a practice that was tried a few times every couple of years, but we are hoping to create a new practice that becomes self-sustaining.) The Colossians text fits right in with that. The basic gist of the text, and it is not at all subtle about it, is that all things are Christ’s. The Greek phrase “ta panta” (I will figure out a way in the future to use a Greek font in addition to transliterating) shows up 6 times in verses 15-20. That all things belong to Christ is the basis of Christian stewardship, but I was struck by some of the other “economic” language.

In the introduction to the creed/hymn, our epistle writer (I tend to think Paul did not write this epistle, but I do hold out a real possibility that he might have written it) writes, “In all strength, may you be made strong by all endurance and patience, while giving thanks with joy to the Father who made y’all fit for the portion of the share of the saints in light;”(vv. 11-12) (I am aware that setting out my own translation, which might be wrong, does entail some hubris, but I wanted to point out some things of interest… ) The “portion of the share” gets translated as “to share in the inheritance” by NRSV, which I think is correct. But this is an “economic” term. We share in the inheritance because, as it states further, we are “rescued from the authority of the dark and brought into the kingdom/rule of his beloved son…” The Greek word for “share” klhros (h= eta, so sounds like “ay”) has in other places a sense of distribution of a country conquered by the Jews, which certainly goes well with the second part of the introduction about being rescued and brought into the kingdom of the beloved Son.

Ultimately we share in the inheritance of the saints in light only be being rescued from one authority, that of darkness, and being brought into the rule of Christ, who is our king. Again the word kingdom or rule comes from the Greek word “basileia.” Basileia is more of an active word, but it implies that there is a king over its subject. There are certainly echoes of Romans here, where we are either a slave to sin or a slave to God. Here we are either a subject of darkness or a subject of Christ, where we share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

The creed/hymn goes on further to talk about this king.

  • He is the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation. All things have been made through him and for him.
  • He is before all things and all things have hung together/existed in him.
  • He is the head of the body, the Church.
  • He is the beginning/ruler (arxh), firstborn of the dead ones, so that he himself might be in all things.
  • In him is pleased to dwell every fullness (pan to plhrwma; w=omega, sounds like a long o), and to reconcile all things to him, after making peace through the blood of his cross.

All things, seen and unseen, are created through Christ and for Christ. How do we talk about stewardship and our giving without coming to terms with this? Even folks who tithe, must wrestle with it, since Wesley has a line in one of his sermons that goes something like, “If you are giving ten percent to Christ, what are you doing with the other 90%?” One hundred percent is what belongs to Christ: all things, visible and invisible, things on earth and in heaven, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities. Again here is another echo from Romans. This time from the favorite funeral passage, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, not depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

What I find interesting is the phrase, “in him is pleased to dwell every fullness.” Not just fullness, but every fullness is pleased to dwell in him. There is a sense that his divinity is in superabundance, and that it cannot be diminished. Despite having died, he is the firstborn of the dead, his divinity is not reduced by that. He was a human, but that too did not reduce his divinity. After all, everything came into being in and through him.

Notice too the beginning and ending of the hymn. “He is the image of the invisible God” and “to reconcile all things to him, after making peace through the blood of his cross.” Christ is the image (eikwn) of the invisible God… Christ pours himself out for us, in the same way that God the Father poured out his love to begin creation in the first place.

So how does all of this relate to Christ being King anyway? Modern humans in the West have little understanding of what it means to live under a king. In America we live under a president. We would never believe that all things belong to the king. I think it’s apparent that most Americans see the need for some of their money to go to the state for various benefits, but they are always seeking to minimize that amount. Even when they want to increase taxes, they try to do so in a way that minimizes how much. Here Christ as our king claims everything. Everything is meant for him. We owe it all to him, being subjects in his kingdom of light. Of course, what does that mean? It means that all of our goods should serve him. So of course, not all of our money should be handed over to the Church. We all need to eat and be sustained bodily. We need to raise our children, put a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. That can all, I think, be seen as serving Christ. But what about the rest? I am literally surrounded right now by boxes of mine that are unused for any purpose mostly. These boxes are things that I have accumulated throughout years. How do these serve Christ?

It is in our king that every fullness is pleased to dwell. We should be free from the need to accumulate more and more, to hoard. Our abundance comes from the one in whom all abundance exists, that is where we should look for our sense of abundance. We share in that inheritance.

Grace and Peace.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

November 11 -- Veterans' Day or St. Martin's Day?

The other day, Nov. 11, it hit me that we in the U.S. have completely forgotten the saints... or at least, replaced the Church's saints with the nation's saints. We have a German au pair living with us, and a few weeks ago, she asked if we celebrated St. Martins day. In Germany, young children make lanterns and parade around town singing songs of St. Martin, who served God, bearing witness to Jesus Christ. In America, we have parades with veterans and bands, extolling the virtues of those who have served their country. Now I am not anti-military. I do worry that at times, the exalting of military men and women could lead to idolatry. Of course, remembering saints can lead there too... but I think it is a bit more difficult, when rendered properly.

St. Martin lived in the fourth century. He was born of a pagan family, and served in the Roman legion. After conversion, he found it more and more difficult to serve in the military as a Christian. I seem to remember that when he resigned his commission, the question was raised whether he was a coward. He offered to be present on the front lines of the battle unarmed to prove that he was not, but he did not feel that he could wield the sword anymore. Further parts of the legend, if I recall correctly, go on to say that he did in fact walk into the battle unarmed. His presence so unnerved the opposing forces, that they ran off.

While he was still a catachumen, Martin had seen a beggar, shivering in the cold. He leaped off his his horse, drew his sword and cut his cloak in two, half of which he gave to the beggar. That night, so the story goes, Martin dreamed of Jesus, wrapped in that same half of a cloak, saying, "Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak." Eventually, Martin is given the bishopric of Tours where he defended Orthodoxy in light of the Arian controversies.

The Lutheran Book of Worship gives us the following prayer of thanks for Martin, Bishop of Tours:
Heavenly Father, shepherd of your people, we thank you for your servant Martin, who was faithful in the care and nurture of your flock; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by your grace grow into the full stature of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Sunday's texts, worship issues and preaching

This upcoming Sunday (24th post-Pentecost, Nov. 14) is the beginning of the end, at least for the church year. Our lectionary readings are all apocalyptic in nature. Even the 2 Thessalonians text is. There Paul speaks out against those who would not work because the end is coming. The Malachi and Lukan texts are much more explicitly apocalyptic. I am drawn to the Malachi text for my sermon, although I suppose that the gospel text will make an appearance or two there.

The carving out of the Malachi text is interesting. I wish the RCL committee had just included the whole fourth chapter of Malachi. It was only four more verses. Anyway, it would seem that the context of Malachi's prophecy helps us with this text. Malachi wrote after the second temple had been built, following the homecoming from exile. In a time that should have seen an outpouring of faith and sincere worship, Malachi sees Israel once again turning away from Adonai. In Understanding the Old Testament, Bernard Anderson writes,
[Malachi] accused them of dishonoring Yahweh by placing polluted food on the altar and by offering sacrificies -- blind, lame, sickly animals -- that would not have been accepted by their governor. The people were going through the motions of ritual but clearly they found the whole thing boring and wearisome... The priests were not guarding the true torah, men were divorcing their Jewish wives to marry foreign women, and social injustices abounded. (pp. 522-523)
In a time that should have been getting better and better, people were becoming more and more disillusioned. Their worship suffered. They wandered, and they began mistreating their neighbors. Everything should be going better for them. But God doesn't seem to be paying off the way that they expected him to.

Sometimes I wonder if this isn't the same situation that the church faces now. The twentieth century was to be the Christian Century. If only we went to church, lived good lives, and did what we were told, things would only continue to get better and better, especially since most in America expected to be able do that more freely since they had thrown off the shackles of the terrible state churches that held much too much authority and power in the old country. But that positive outlook didn't last long. The World Wars and the Great Depression, helped lead to a realization that not much had changed. What good is God if his promises weren't going to be kept? It is the echo of Malachi 2:17, "Where is the God of justice?" People didn't (and don't) feel that there is any tangible benefit to being a Christian. Non-Christians could be just as succesful as Christians.

There doesn't seem to be any tangible benefit to marriage for Christians. The divorce rate is just as high as the rest of society. Neo-pagans can be just as succesful as Christians in the business world.

So now what? Now comes the apocalyptic texts. Normally, I talk about apocalyptic texts in terms of bringing hope to a community living through a crisis. But these texts also work to strip us of our notion that we might make things better on our own, by following certain proscribed routines or programs. When apocalyptic texts arise, we see communities that can't go down any further.

Apocalyptic texts speak to us to help reorient not just our behaviors, but our whole mode of thinking. We are not promised success in marriage or business if we are Christian. What we should strive for is success in our witness. And we don't witness to gain new members in our congregations. We witness because we know that ultimately everything is in God's hands, even if our witness should lead to martyrdom.

We remember that God is the one who will heal all of our brokeness. In fact, Malachi talks about the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings. For us, the Church, we cannot help but see Jesus as our sun of righteousness. It is in the Church that we find that healing. We find it in the water of baptism. It is in the body and blood that we find healing and a glimpse of the age to come.