Friday, December 24, 2010

The Melodic, harmonic, symphonic Incarnation

Luke 2.1-20

Christmas 2010

And so here we are, gathered together on cold winter night in a warm, beautifully lit and decorated church, again…for yet one more year…for yet one more time to hear the same story told yet again, to hear the beautiful hymns that extol the wonder and joy of the birth of child just like last year and the year before that. This story is the story that brings us together this night. This story is the story that causes the world to rush frantically about in the weeks and days trying cross every gift that needs to be purchased, every cookie that needs to be baked, and every decoration to be hung with the love and care that we seek to express as the snow falls to the ground and covers our lawns trees and houses in dazzling white blanket.

This is a time of year of giving, of sharing the love that we have for one another, yet it is the same story. It is the same act of giving birth to a child that causes us to do what we do. What is it about this story that it has the power to resound throughout the world for ages upon ages? What is it about that one singular night which has begotten so many nights of remembrance? Simply put, this story, this night that we hear about year after year in an unchanging manner is nothing less than the Lord our God who made us and gave us life come down to earth to live, laugh, love, cry, and die among us. This is God made flesh, born into the world.

Sadly this world that God is born into is not a world that rejoices in a symphony of music melodious and harmonious. Rather the world that Jesus was born into was filled with the cacophony of sorrow and unrest. War, sickness, poverty, and oppression afflict the people God so lovingly made, and perhaps saddest of all, the people God so lovingly made had so often visited these afflictions upon one another. Yet perhaps this is one of the reasons this story has resounded throughout the ages. For the same cacophony still rings out in our world. For Jesus comes yet again this year to redeem a world that still lives broken and afflicted to sing again the beautiful melody of love and forgiveness that mends the broken hearted and lifts up the lowly but not before bringing down the powers of discord that sin has placed high among us.

Now if you can’t tell, the musician in me has taken hold as I describe the birth of Christ as the beginning of a song that leads to the glorious resolution of God’s great symphony. Maybe I’m trying a little too hard to be poetic, yet I believe that this metaphor stands true. The world we live in is a world that is desperate need of the love, healing and forgiveness that God brings to us through the birth of that little child, “away in a manger, no crib for his bed.” Wars rage on as our brothers and sisters in Christ fight for their life and the lives of those around them. Diseases ravage places of disaster like nation of Haiti where 2,000 people have died as a result of an epidemic of cholera. The poor, the unemployed, and the underemployed still struggle with the fear and uncertainty in their lives as they figure out how to provide for themselves and their families. Some of us have lost people close and dear to us and grieve that they are not around to share their life and the love with us as they once did. But that’s why this old story, these old songs, and wonderful family traditions have lived from generation to generation to generation. This story is the beginning of a story that has the power to resound in 1st century Palestine. This story has the power to resound in 16th century Europe. This story has the power to resound in 21st century Taylor, WI. Because this story breaks into our lives and welcomes us with love, compassion and forgiveness even when our lives have become full of dissonance.

This story of Jesus being born in a stable and laid in a manger is the story of God’s love for the world that God created, and God has not and will not abandon God’s creation. And this story is a story for the whole world to hear. Just take a look at the setting and players in this story! God comes to a lowly virgin who has little or no power within her society and says, “You will be the one who will bear my Son into the world.” God comes to a simple carpenter and asks him to care support this young family trusting that this all is indeed good. God comes to shepherds, people who live on the outskirts of society who are told to go spread the good news. God comes in this setting to these people so that we just might see that this story, this song is a gift of faith and love given to the whole world and not just the privileged few. When Christ is born a melody ensues that challenges the way we think about our world and our place within it. When Christ is born a melody ensues that ends with a big, full beautiful, resonant chord of redemption and wholeness. Yes this is an old story and an old song, but bursts forth year after year showing us exactly who God is and what God does and that is that our God is a God who is for us. This is what begins with Jesus’ birth and is fully revealed on the cross.

There are so many songs that lift up this very foundational notion, and Christmas seems to have given us some very beautiful songs over the years. From the depth of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear which tells of how this story is a comfort for out whole lives to the clear and simple Silent Night which so perfectly describes the mood of this holy night, our Christmas hymns have been treasure throughout the years. But just four years ago I heard a song come on the radio that captures the clarion call of this night. It’s by the Goo Goo Dolls. Now, kids if you don’t know who that band isyou might try asking your parents, and for some of you older folks out there you may need to ask your kids who that band is, but in 2006 they released the single “Better Days.” I want to share a portion of the words of that song:

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days
Cuz I don't need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

So take these words
And sing out loud
Cuz everyone is forgiven now
Cuz tonight's the night the world begins again

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Neighborhood of Make Believe and the Kingdom of God

Luke 11.1-13


“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, it’s a beautiful day for a neighbor…” How many of you sitting out there today know where that song is from? I certainly do. It’s the song that began every episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. I grew up that show. It fascinating and safe place to use my imagination, to see how so many of the things we use from day to day are made, and to learn a little bit of how kindness can and should be spread throughout the world. In some ways, it’s something of miracle that his show lasted for so long on public television, especially for the way it has been mocked throughout the years. I guess some people just couldn’t get past the idea that image he portrayed on screen could actually be his real personality and the way he really dealt with people on a regular basis.

Now, how many of you knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister? You wouldn’t know that by only watching his television show, but yes he was an ordained minister who was specially charged with serving children and families through his television show. So when I think back to “the Neighborhood,” I can recognize how he sought to imagine a world where God’s kingdom had indeed come and how people loved, laughed, cried, got angry, and even forgave one another in the rule of that kingdom. Mr. Roger’s “Neighborhood of Make Believe” sought to be an example of what it is like to live your life by faith, trusting in God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. He didn’t use specific Christian Language, but he still preached the gospel of a life lived by faith.

The prayer we pray every time we come together in worship and for many of our meetings is the Lord’s Prayer, is it not? That is prayer that doesn’t change from week to week. (Sure the words may be a little different from time to time, but is the meaning of that prayer ever truly changed by saying “sins” instead of “trespasses?”) This is the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples when they ask him to pray. This is the prayer that holds on so very dearly in people’s minds even when the ravages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease work upon our loved ones. And what is at the heart of this prayer? It is nothing other than beseeching, asking, even begging God for God’s kingdom to come right here, right now. In this place, in this time.

In praying for God’s kingdom to come, we are praying for that kingdom that rule of love to rule our hearts as we deal the people all around us in our lives – those who have sinned against us and those we have sinned against. In praying for God’s kingdom we are praying for that kingdom to come where we receive our daily bread – not just the food and water we need to eat and drink every day, but all of those things that we need to live and flourish. But we ask for our daily bread, not for what we want or what we think we might need in the future. In praying for God’s kingdom to come, we are praying that, in God’s kingdom coming into the earth and into our lives, we are delivered from the evil that plagues us brought into the promise that will always hold us dearly and lovingly even though we die. It is a bold prayer that we pray mostly from memory every week or more often depending on our practice. Do we have the courage to pray this prayer? Do we have the persistence to pray this prayer? Do we even have the absolute shamelessness to ask our God something so astounding?

I had another pastor point out to me this past week that the persistence that Jesus talks of in the short parable in our reading is actually much better translated as “shamelessness.” There are times in our lives where we don’t always know what to pray and how to pray to pray it. And again scripture shows us just how much the disciples can be like us when they ask Jesus to teach them to pray. And Jesus teaches us how to pray. That may be one of the more important things to remember when you think about how we may even begin to be shameless enough to ask God of these astounding things. Jesus teaches us. In faith, we find that God enters into our lives and gives us the strength to pray our prayers especially in those when it may be hard to pray. And I tell you, it has been hard to pray this week. It gets to be that way in our lives from time to time, but those are the times in which Jesus holds us up and is as relentless and shameless as he asks us to be in our lives.

We had vacation bible school led by a team of counselors from Luther Park Bible Camp this past week, and they closed every day of bible camp with a shout prayer. Fred Rogers may not have gone for a prayer that was so loud and boisterous, but I suspect he would have agreed whole heartedly with the Spirit behind those prayers. Because, as Mr. Rogers himself said once to a young girl, “the thing God wants most of all is a relationship with you, yeah, even as a child – especially as a child.” The Kingdom of God that Fred Rogers imagined maybe have been a land of make believe, but when we make believe that God’s rule is how we are going to live our lives, it becomes real in our relationships with each other and with God. Be bold. Be persistent. Be shameless. And my God’s indeed come upon the earth.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Praise God!

Psalm 150


There’s a joke that bounces around the halls of seminaries about praise songs, praise bands, and praise worship. It’s usually told with an air of cynicism that all praise music can be boiled down to this – three chords, four words, five times. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this kind of worship, but it usually looks like a service in a big space where the congregation looks up something that looks much more like concert stage with pianos, bass, guitars, trumpets, saxophones, trombones 5-6 vocalists, and a drum set right in the middle. As disparaging as this joke about 3 chords, 4 words, 5 times is meant to be, it does speak to a truth that worshipping God singing “Jesus is my friend” five times with a simply melody and harmony, while entertaining can be a thin worship experience that is designed to be more about entertainment than the depth of God’s presence in our whole life, good time and bad.

Now let me take a moment right now to say that the contemporary service lead by our Sanctuary Singers does not fit the mold of that disparaging 3-4-5 joke. The old hymns that we love are most often old folk songs of the people who gathered in Christ’s name hundreds of years ago, and I’ve to see that the songs that the Sanctuary Singers leads for our contemporary services are the real, authentic folk songs of this parish, especially as many of them are written by the people who live and work in this area of Jackson County and Trempealeau County. Moreover, there is depth in those songs which speak to the profound presence and love of God in our whole lives. Praise songs too often come nowhere near that depth of meaning, yet in this Easter season, hearing Psalm 150 which our children helped tell this morning, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to discount simple praise of God.

We really don’t need to look much further than the Book of Psalms. The Psalmist regales us this day with in which the beginning of each line is Hallelujah! Praise! Praise! Praise! Praise! Praise! and ending with another triumphant Hallelujah! Clearly taking some time to simply praise God is an activity that we should engage in. As jaded about praise music as I and other learned people can be, there can be profound truth about God and what God has done expressed in praise music. But that truth is not something that can be left to the wayside in hopes of making church “fun.” You see songs lifted in praise of God and especially the hymns of praise we find in the Psalms have to carry with them the implication that the wondrous things that God does begin with the sorrow of God reaching down to all the suffering and sorrow of creation in the crucifixion of Jesus who died for our sins, who joined with us in our suffering and death so that we might be united with him in his death and rise up to new life with him in his resurrection.

I bet you didn’t know that a praise song could imply all of that. Yet that is exactly what Psalm 150 is doing in praising God. When the psalmist decries “Praise God in the holy temple; praise God in the mighty firmament,” the psalmist is in fact proclaiming our life, our whole life comes from God whose home is all of creation. When the psalmist decries “Praise God for might acts; praise God for exceeding greatness,” the psalmist is in fact proclaiming the greatness of God in restoring, redeeming, forgiving and most of all loving us, the creation God has made. You see, this praise arises from a God who weeps upon the death of one his friends. This praise arises from a God who proclaims that the poor will be blessed. This praise arises from a God who frees his people slavery in Egypt. This praise comes from a God who walks with us in our pain and suffering and gives us the promise that “[God’s] rod and [God’s] staff shall comfort me.” (Psalm 23.4b) And so we should respond with singing, dancing,

Our songs of praise should never deny or hide the fact that there is wrong, evil, sin and suffering in this world. Instead our songs of praise should be solid declarations that God sees our plights, hears our prayers, and bears our sins. So to simply declare “Jesus is my friend” five times over using only three chords, should always be sung with proclamation that Jesus’ friendship is that of a love in which he lays down his life for my life and for your life. To skip the hard stuff, to make this with all its pains and sorrows just a deviation from the glory the in which we were created until we enter back into the glory of heaven cheapens cross the suffering Jesus went through to bring us back from the dead through his blood. We must always begin at the cross, because in the cross unites us with Christ in our faith so that when he is raised that promise is raised for us as well. Our songs of praise are then statements of belief where we say with all assuredness that yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and we do indeed have life Jesus’ name.

And so this morning, I want you all to join me in singing a simple song of praise. Don’t worry if you are singing it right enough of well enough, for whatever it is it will be a joyful sound to the Lord. It is an African American spiritual called “I’m So Glad, Jesus Lifted Me.” (ELW #860) Let us rejoice in that Jesus has indeed lifted us out of our despair and raised us to new life!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happily after "Happily ever after..."

Luke 9:28-43


“And they lived happily ever after…” This is probably a phrase that you all have heard at some point in your life. It literally is the fairy tale ending. It’s what is said after Cinderella is found to be the one who the glass slipper fits perfectly. It’s what’s said after Prince Charming finds Sleeping Beauty and gives her the kiss that wakes her from her slumber and banishes the curse put on her kingdom. It’s what happens after Beauty finally admits her love for the Beast. “Happily ever after…” The perfect ending to the perfect story of romance and danger, No?

Happily ever after carries with it some very nice imagery. It carries the image that the two star crossed lovers are finally able to be together. It states that their life from there on forward is mired not in sorrow or heartache, but rather in love and bliss and pleasantness. Happily ever after means that all their cares and needs are forever taken care of almost as a reward for the trials they had to endure to be together. It even often means a beautiful castle with the very finest furniture, coaches, and servants. We love our happy endings. In fact, movie directors are told quite often to make the ending their movies have a happy ending because that’s what people will pay money to see in the theaters. Yet, happily ever after rarely ever occurs in the reality of our lives. In reality, when we come to these watershed moments like those in our fairy tales, we instead find out all too quickly that the next day the sun rises and clock still runs forward and life still continues on presenting more that we must face. Maybe that’s why sequels are so popular at least the first and second times. We know that there’s a next, and we wonder what that next will be.

Certainly today, we are not faced with the end to our gospel story. We know that. In fact, it much more like the middle of the gospel story, yet here we come to this mountain top where disciples see a dazzling display of lights and the coming of two men from their ancestral past that had long been gone. What a sight it must have been! To see light shine forth from Jesus’ face. What a sight it must have been! To see two heroes from the past who had led their ancestors out of slavery and through strife. It may not have been the end of the story, but it is no wonder that Peter would rather erect dwellings and stay in this place from here on out than to do anything else. “Master, it is good for us to here, let us make three dwellings…”

At this point of the gospel story, this would be Peter’s happily ever after. Here, on this mountain, Peter and James and John would be able stay forever in the presence of the glory of their God. They would forever be able to bask in the light and glory of the God who had created them and has sustained them throughout the years. In Peter’s words, it is good for us to be here. Here on this mountain their cares and troubles melt away, and they only know the happiness in which they experience right now, at this place, at this time. But God declares that they should listen to Jesus, God’s Son, the Chosen. And Jesus’ words to his disciples from the very first day they met are still the same: Come and follow me. Maybe not that specific phrase, in phrases like “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

The story of Jesus is not a story of happily ever after. The story of Jesus is a story that culminates in the cross in which he wins the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for us all on a cross upon which he dies for us and our sins and transgressions. And Jesus knows this. He knows what he must do. He knows who he must be. He knows he must be the story of redemption and salvation in the world that God has made. And so after that dazzling mountain top experience, there is a On the next day. Jesus knows that life continues forward. Jesus knows that our future contains not only happiness comfort, but also a sadness and sorrow that must be and will be salved.

So instead of Jesus letting Peter and James and John stay up there and erect dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Jesus leads them down the mountain and onto the path which Christ knows will lead to his crucifixion. And the disciples follow.

Our Lord is not only a Lord of the past, but a Lord of today and the next day as well. Jesus goes forth from that mountain top so that the good news that he brings will be brought to the whole of God’s creation. That is what the Christian life is about. It is about a life that is lived moving forward following Jesus and sharing the grace that God has shown us through the Son who gives up everything so that we might live.

This morning we will baptize a new person into the Body Christ. In Jeremy Rommel’s baptism, a mountain top experience in his life will occur. He will be forgiven of all his sins and claimed as a child of God forever. With those kind of promises, you could almost say, “and Jeremy lived happily ever after.” But he is child. He has so much to learn and experience and all of that is laid out in front of him. It is from this moment of joy and grace that Jeremy must go forth with our help and live a life following Christ, not because he must earn some measure of his salvation, but because the salvation he has been given is a grace and a story that lived a shared throughout the rest of his life.

Jesus turns happily ever after into life ever after lived in the love and grace of our God that has claimed us and will not let go. It’s not that we’re not promised a happily ever after in the life to come with the whole communion of saints, but Jesus comes to bring not only reward but real, actual life. Jesus comes to bring us the next day, and what a joyous next day it is.