Podcast: “Obfuscation”

Sermon: January 19, 2020—Epiphany 2 NL2

Mark 4:1-34


            I love the word “obfuscation”. For me, it’s right up there with “soporific” and “farraginous”. It’s a good word for this time in American history when truth is at more of a premium than ever before. As in, “Quit obfuscating the facts!” Or for your parents, “Your claim that you only went to your friend Brayden’s house last Saturday is little more than obfuscation!”

          It’s also a good word to describe the teachings of Jesus—at least, on the surface level.

          We get a veritable feast of parables in today’s reading from Mark. A parable, of course, is a story. But’s it’s not just any story. Jesus’ parables tend to be pithy. They aren’t fables because they have no moral principle. Sure, we can (and we will) sing, “Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil”, but even that song recognizes that we can’t make ourselves be good soil for the seed of God’s Word—only God can do that. They’re allegory to some degree, but Jesus doesn’t make clear what each element of the story is supposed to represent. Even in the Parable of the Sower, the sower is just the sower. They’re more like riddles. They force the hearer to think about what the Reign of God really looks like. They cover up the more obvious meaning; the meaning we want to put on God and God’s Kingdom, and invite us to look deeper. Closer.

          There is obfuscation, not just in the parables, but in Jesus himself. Did you hear what Jesus says to the disciples after he tells the Parable of the Sower? “To you,” he says, “has been given the secret (or the mystery) of the Kingdom of God, but to those outside, everything comes in parables;

in order that,  

          ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,

          and may indeed listen, but not understand;

          so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

          Now, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. This part of Isaiah is the culmination of Isaiah’s call. You know. “Here I am, Lord!” I’ve always wondered what would happen if the songwriter put Isaiah 6:9-10 in the song as well!

          “Say to these folks, you’ll never understand.

                     you’ll look on, but never you’ll see!

                     Harden their hearts, and minds, and wills,

                     lest they turn and be healed.”

          Not such a nice, sweet, domesticated God now, huh? That is one of the constant struggles we’ve had in the church. A struggle since the times of Marcion, who wanted to cut out the entire Old Testament and most of the New! We want to domesticate God and make him into our image. We want him (and I’m using the male pronoun deliberately here) to stay in his heaven until called upon. Until he’s needed. Until we need specific instructions, advice, or help, thank you very much!

          But God is not that kind of deity. God does not stay in God’s heaven. God, rather, in a mystery beyond our understanding, becomes human in the man Jesus. And in quoting these lines from Isaiah, Jesus, God-hidden-in-human-flesh, gives us our first insight about the Realm of God: it can’t be spoken of in a direct way.

          God’s Realm has to be spoken of, rather, in a way that is indirect. A way that uses stories and symbols and motifs. It’s like looking at a faint star. Some night, when it’s dark and clear (and hopefully not 20 or 30 below zero!), go outside and look toward the north. Find the Big Dipper. The second star in the Dipper’s handle has a companion star above it, one that can be barely seen with the naked eye. If you look directly at it, chances are you won’t be able to see it. But when you adjust your gaze just a little, and focus to the side of the star, you’ll find that it appears brighter. God’s Realm is like that. When we try to perceive it directly in this world, we will not see it. We can see and hear and conjecture all we like, but we will never perceive the reality of God’s Kingdom if we try to approach it directly.

          So yeah, Jesus wants to obfuscate our understanding in one sense. Because when we think we’ve got it all figured out, we’ll go right back to placing God where we want God. We’ll call you when we need you, God! That’s not understanding at all. Nor is it healing and forgiveness. No, for Jesus to heal the world—to truly heal its sickness—Jesus teaches and lives in a way that the world never expects.

          He himself will have to suffer and die to heal. Jesus talks about this later in the Gospel. When James and John are arguing about who is the greatest, Jesus takes that moment as an opportunity for teaching. “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

          Jesus’ own life is a parable. God comes into our midst as one of us, as one like a careless, prodigal sower, scattering seed here and there, in the hope that some of it will grow to yield an abundant harvest. God’s Realm comes to us like the seed, which when placed in the earth becomes something greater than we could possibly imagine. God’s Realm comes to us like the tiniest of seeds, which grows into a weed that spreads like wildfire (that is, after all, what mustard can do when sown!). And God comes to us, not as a great king or lord, not as one who threatens to punish us for our sins (although we would deserve that), but as one who becomes humanity’s servant. I want you to reflect on that a moment. How offensive is it that the Lord of the cosmos should be the servant of you and me? It is incredibly offensive because it breaks that image we have of the imperial God in his heaven, who demands that we earn our way. Or our image of the nice, sweet God who is there when we need him. No, the true God is neither. Neither imperious nor nice. God obfuscates those false images in Jesus so that we can begin to learn who God really is.

          And in learning who God really is, the servant of humanity, we learn about real greatness. Real salvation. What it really means to be a child of God.

          Let us pray.

          Jesus, your entire life is a parable of God’s love, healing, and forgiveness, hidden in you. Help us to receive that love in the way you choose to give it, not in the way we would prefer. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

"Good Order?"

Sermon: January 12, 2020—Epiphany 1 NL2

Mark 2:1-22

Sorry, no audio! Go here and begin at about 23:35 for the video.

          If there was one thing repeatedly hammered into my head as a seminarian, it was the importance of good order. A dignified, orderly worship service where the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.[1] Where lay leadership in worship is lifted up and celebrated, but also where the distinctive roles of lay and ordained are observed. Where the administration of the congregation is done as a partnership between pastor and council. Or as I told the call committee that first meeting over Zoom, good order in the congregation ought to be like the old Lucille Ball movie, Yours, Mine, and Ours. Some things are yours as a congregation. Your council has the authority to manage staff, to disburse money, to appoint committees, and the like. Some things are mine, preaching of the word and celebration of the sacraments being foremost among them. Most things, however, are ours. Christian education, pastoral care, prayer, spiritual formation, evangelism belong to all of us. They are to be “our duty and our joy” to perform. All these things, of course, are carried out under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church. Everything in its proper place.

          And good order is always needed in the church. Despite the great disorder that resulted from the Reformation, Luther fiercely maintained the need for good order—in both government and in the Church. As Luther remarked, if too many tried to speak at once, chaos would ensue. If too many hands tried to baptize, the poor baby would drown![2] Good order is essential.

          But…and this is a big but…good order, like every good thing, has a dark side. Good order, when made into an end in itself rather than a means to worship, praise, and proclaim our God, becomes an idol that sucks all the oxygen from the room. It becomes stifling, suffocating, deadly. It kills inspiration and healthy innovation. It makes us, in the late Lutheran theologian Jaroslav Pelikan’s words, “traditionalists” whose faith is dead, rather than adherents of the Church’s living tradition.[3]

          This sort of “traditionalist” backlash seems to be at work here in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus encounters the first human resistance to his work. But let’s step back for a second. It shouldn’t be hard to sympathize with the Pharisees and scribes, just a little. Remember that there’s no birth story in Mark. And while we readers know who Jesus is, the scribes and Pharisees do not. For all they know, Jesus is just another itinerant preacher and healer from a little hick town in Galilee. He pronounces forgiveness on a paralyzed man, thereby committing two errors: 1. He subverts the orderly procedure for the forgiveness of sins as written in Leviticus chapters 4-6, with the requisite sacrifices performed in the Temple by the proper priestly authorities. That’s part of the Word of God, folks! 2. Perhaps worse, he appears to speak on God’s behalf. That is at the heart of the scribes’ questioning. After all, who can forgive sins but God alone? He also presumes to abrogate the usual practices of teachers of his time, by eating with people of low moral character (think of the Garth Brooks classic, “Friends in Low Places”) or by not requiring his disciples to fast. Who does this Jesus think he is?

          Jesus makes his purpose very clear in chapter 1. He has come to proclaim the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom in the human realm. And when God’s Realm breaks into our realms—whether it is those of nation-states or in our own families—the effects will be disruptive. I guarantee it. God and God’s Realm supplant everything that we tend to idolize, even the scriptures themselves. Why? Because something so much greater than the written Word has appeared among us. Something greater than the greatest nation-state, the greatest emperor, the greatest leader is here! The Son of God, the bridegroom of his beloved Church, is among us, determined to bring us poor, fallen sinners healing, salvation, and citizenship in his Father’s Kingdom.

          Is it any wonder that Jesus is a threat? The good news here—the inbreaking Kingdom—is exactly the same as the bad news. The Kingdom has come to us in Jesus the Son of God, which makes everything new. He forgives all our sin, he brings us new health, he deigns to have table fellowship with people, even at this table with sinners like us! But there are consequences to this new life in God. We can’t remain the same we were before. Everything else that we value, especially those “vain things that charm (us) most”, as Isaac Watts once wrote, is subject to God the Father, who has “put everything under his Son’s feet” (1 Cor. 15:27).

          When God’s Realm comes, it can look like chaos to us. Little wonder that the apostles were accused of “turning the world upside down” in the book of Acts (Acts 17:6). Little wonder that so many were killed, not just as threats to the religious order, but to the state. Remember that Jesus was killed by Roman edict, not Jewish. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment. Jesus was a threat to so-called good order, a.k.a. the establishment which kept “the good people” at the top and the peasants in their place.

          But the Son of God and the Kingdom he brings embodies true order. And this true order really is good order. It is justice, healing, purpose, and salvation. It is the order that overturns our old sinful systems and ways and forms us into new people. It is the order which heals the sick, invites the outsider to the table, and even, as we will see, raises the dead.

Let us pray.

Jesus, without your Spirit we cannot possibly embrace the new realm you came to bring. We love our old sinful ways too much. Help us to let go of them and embrace your good order, which is nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Remind us that you share fellowship with even people like us, and that in this meal we are about to receive, you not only forgive our sins, but strengthen us to cross boundaries as you crossed them. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

[1] Augsburg Confession, article VII. “[The church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”

[2] Carl Braaten quotes Luther without reference here in Principles of Lutheran Theology, p. 44.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

"It Begins"

Sermon: December 29, 2019—Christmas 1 NL 2

Mark 1:1-20

Sorry, no podcast! Go to the video here and begin at 26:47.

          It’s the first Sunday of Christmas, the fifth day of the season, and to celebrate, the Narrative Lectionary gives us this reading from Mark. We start at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and in the space of a mere 20 verses, we cover John’s ministry, Jesus’ baptism by John, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the 40 days of temptation in the desert, Jesus’ first sermon, and his call of his first disciples. Quite a bit in 20 verses. But something’s missing. What is it?

          There’s no birth narrative. No baby in a manger. No Mary and Joseph (Mary shows up in chapter 3 and is mentioned in chapter 6, but is not portrayed as “blessed among women” as she is in Luke). No shepherds. No singing angels. No wise men. In short, no Christmas story. Mark’s account of Jesus’ origins is sudden and sparse. This Jesus shows up one day, full-grown, at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, at which point he hears and sees what we already know—that he is God’s only beloved Son. No introduction. No sense that John knows who he is. The only introduction is the one we readers get in verse 1: “The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” a statement that clearly comes in a post-Easter context.

          Why is this clear? Because in Mark, no one knows who Jesus really is, except, as we’ll see, the unclean spirits, Jesus himself, and us, the readers. John clearly was expecting the Messiah, and perhaps heard the voice from heaven, but Mark is clear that Jesus is the only one who sees heaven split open for the descent of the Spirit. Jesus begins his ministry incognito, so to speak. Hence the title of this sermon, it begins. I was browsing the webcomic xkcd and found this little gem:

It Begins
Retrieved from https://xkcd.com/1656/ , on Dec. 29, 2019.

          It fits. Jesus’ entrance onto the scene must have seemed like a minor news story to the people of Judea and Galilee. Another itinerant preacher? Yawn. They were about a dime a dozen in 1st-century Palestine. Another proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom? Double yawn. It’s like the fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. Messiahs and prophets had proclaimed the arrival of God’s Kingdom for some time, and it hadn’t happened yet. It hadn’t happened under the Maccabees 150 years ago, and it didn’t seem to be happening then. And can we please remember that Jesus probably didn’t look like this? (Picture of Diogo Morgado in Son of God, 2014.) He probably looked like any ordinary Jewish man of his time. Remember the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53:2, which says, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Jesus’ appearance and baptism at the Jordan was likely a non-event to the people around him. Only Jesus knows that he is God’s Son. Only Jesus knows that he is sent.

          Which makes Mark’s fast-paced, humbly-told story so powerful. Think of it. God shows up incognito in the world, to save us from the powers that enslave us, in the flesh of an ordinary Jewish man. God shows up as the culmination of his people’s hope in the ordinary, the everyday, the uneventful.

          You remember when I preached part of a Christmas sermon by Luther on Christmas Eve? There’s a part in it that I left out because of time, in which Luther makes this very point about the incognito God. Not only does he come as a vulnerable baby, as true flesh and blood, he also comes as a subject to the Empire his people hated:

This being the very first taxing, it appears that this tribute was never before paid until just at the time when Christ was to be born. By this Jesus shows that his kingdom was not to be of an earthly character nor to exercise worldly power and lordship, but that he, together with his parents, is subject to the powers that be. Since he comes at the time of the very first enrollment, he leaves no doubt with respect to this, for had he desired to leave it in doubt, he might have willed to be born under another enrollment, so that it might have been said it just happened so, without any divine intent.  And had he not willed to be submissive, he might have been born before there was any enrollment decreed. Since now all the works of Jesus are precious teachings, this circumstance cannot be interpreted otherwise than that he by divine counsel and purpose will not exercise any worldly authority; but will be subject to it.[1]

          The incognito God begins everything by coming into the world at the wrong time, in the wrong place. He’s baptized by the wrong man—a man who will end up dead, another prophet ground under the wheels of despotic egoism. He calls the wrong men—men who will disappoint him time and time again.

          And yet this is the beginning God chooses. A humble beginning. A beginning that does not look very kingly or godly at first glance. A beginning that looks like a random newsline on the order of “seagull drops phone into the ocean”! “Man from Galilee shows up to be baptized with everyone else!” But this is the way that God saves us. This is the way God often reaches us. God does not approach in the way we desire, but in the way God knows will be best for us. In ways which do not terrify us, but allow us to approach him. Remember what happened at Sinai. God spoke the Commandments out of fire and smoke, and frightened the people so badly that they felt like they would be struck dead for having heard God’s voice. The most direct way we can see and touch and perceive God are in ways we think are the most indirect. Ways like eating a little bread and drinking a little wine. Ways like hearing his word preached—especially in a short, short sermon like Jesus preached! “Repent and believe in the good news!” Ways like perceiving the Christ in our neighbor. Ways like calling and challenging one another to follow Christ more closely, as Christ challenged Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It’s in those ways, those humble ways, those seemingly insignificant ways that we will see Christ most clearly for our good. Amen.

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

[1] A Sermon by Martin Luther, from his Wartburg Church Postil, 1521-1522, The Sermons of Martin Luther, volume I:134-160, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI), 1906.

"Full Circle

Source: “Full Circle”

Sermon: December 22, 2019—Advent 4 NL 2

Luke 1:5-13, 57-80

Casey came into the living room in tears. “Kristin, honey?”

Kristin’s head perked up from her iPad. Something was quivering in Casey’s voice. “What’s going on?”

“It’s Grandma Sharon. She’s…she’s had a massive stroke. We…we don’t know what’s going on, but we need to get to the hospital in Sioux Falls!”

On 1-90, it’s about 140 miles from Chamberlain, South Dakota, to Sioux Falls. Usually they’d get there in about an hour and 45 minutes. That morning, Kristin kept the needle at about 90 and they got to the hospital in about 90 minutes.

When they got to the hospital, they came into Grandma Sharon’s room. Casey’s mom and uncles were already there. They’d been crying. Casey’s mom, Laurie, said, “They’ve stabilized her, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Kristin, a Lutheran pastor, said, “Why don’t we pray?” Laurie’s eyes narrowed. “All right. But don’t do any of that ‘you’re healed!’ crap I see on the TV!”

Did I mention that Kristin and Laurie didn’t particularly like each other?

Anyway, Kristin gathered the family around the bedside and led them in a super-short version of Morning Prayer. Casey read the Gospel from John (“My peace I give you, my peace I leave you, I do not give to you as the world gives…) and Sharon squeezed his hand while he read it. After a short prayer for Sharon’s healing and for strength for the family, she stumbled into a trap. She read Zechariah’s song—the same song we just heard in our reading, the song usually used to close Morning Prayer—at the close of the prayer time. I’ll read it to you again. Turn to page 7 of your bulletin, and follow along with Zechariah’s part:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The prayer ended with a blessing. After Kristin excused herself for a cup of coffee, Laurie wheeled on Casey and whispered, “You need to get that wife of yours in line! ‘In darkness and the shadow of death?’ Who does she think she is? We need to keep Grandma’s spirits up, not depress her with that ‘shadow of death’ stuff!”

Of course, Laurie’s outburst had far more to do with Laurie than with Sharon. Sharon, lying in that hospital bed, already knew she was “in darkness and the shadow of death”. Laurie couldn’t accept that yet.

We’re all like Laurie sometimes. With loved ones, with our careers, with our lives. We can’t always accept that everything comes to an end. We spend a lot of time and resources to ignore the fact that our whole lives are spent in death’s shadow. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. So we buy stuff. We go on trips. We wax nostalgic about how things were better once. We do anything and everything to avoid the predicament we are in every day.

Zechariah and Elizabeth knew about darkness and the shadow of death quite well. They knew about “enemies and the hands of all who hate them”. They were confronted by them every day, not only with their own ages (Luke tells us that they were “getting on in years”) but by the way their people were in constant subjection to the whims of client kings, tetrarchs, and governors of the Roman Empire. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had written of “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” and “a righteous branch of David” who would bring release to the captives and peace in the land. At that point in their lives they had not seen that peace. They had no reason to hope for it. In fact, in the verses we did not read, Zechariah questions the veracity of what Gabriel tells him (and is literally struck dumb for his unbelief)! Just as Laurie could not accept the bad news, Zechariah had difficulty accepting the good news—the good news that not only would they have a child, but that child would be the forerunner of the long-promised Messiah.

Our predicament is too terrible to accept, and the good news of light and liberation is too good to be true.

But both are true. We are in the shadow of death, but John the Baptist, the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth, points to the One who will bring forgiveness. Freedom. Life. In short, he will point to the Christ Child, who enlightens every darkness.

We’ve come, therefore, full circle. Let’s review.

Back at the beginning, our first parents were created to care for God’s creation and each other. They failed to do that, by first disobeying God’s commandment to not eat from that tree, and then by blaming each other when confronted. The whole of the Scripture we’ve heard has been God’s work, through one family and one people, to repair that breach between God and humanity. Abraham and Sarah (also an elderly couple), Moses, the tribes of Israel, the kings, the prophets—all of these were recipients of God’s promises and instruments of salvation for all people, even when they rebelled against their God-given purpose. And now we’ve come to this story, very much like the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, where a child of promise is born to a couple who does not expect it. To an entire people who, in fact, are despairing of the fulfillment of God’s promises.

But God always keeps promises.

God kept God’s promises to all these people we’ve heard about from Scripture. And God keeps promises to people like Laurie and Sharon and Kristin and Casey, and people like us, that though they and we are in darkness and the shadow of death, the Light that enlightens all darkness is present—both now and in the age to come, where there will be no darkness at all. No shadow of death. Only life, liberation, and love.

When we have the courage to accept that we live this life in the shadows, we can then accept that the Light that evaporates those shadows is with us in all times and in all circumstances. We come full circle. We accept the paradox. And we live differently. Not as people who anxiously do everything in their power to avoid the reality of death’s shadows, but as people who have a confident faith in him who is ready to meet us beyond them. And who, one day, will evaporate those shadows for good.

Let us pray.

Lord Christ, the psalmist said, “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he will sustain you.” Take the burden of our anxieties—about death or anything else that troubles us—and remind us that you enlighten every dark place of our lives. As you are a God who not only makes but keeps promises, keep those same promises to us. Come to us again soon and lift the darkness from this troubled world. Let your kingdom come. Amen.

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

Sermonette: Katharina von Bora and God's Gifts

Painting of Katharina von Bora Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526. Public domain.

Podcast: Katharina von Bora Luther and God’s Gifts

Sermonette: Advent EP 3—December 18th, 2019

Katharina von Bora Luther

          There’s something about the reading we just heard from Schwiebert’s book, Luther and His Times that rings wrong today, nearly 70 years after its publication. “Kathie was no doubt just the kind of wife that Luther needed…a conscientious mother, an efficient housekeeper, a wise manager of the farms, gardens, cattle, and other livestock, for which Luther had so little time.” While unintentional, it portrays Katharina as some sort of superwoman, the standard for a pastor’s spouse, that has stuck through the centuries.

          Katharina was indeed a woman of many talents, who managed the Black Cloister with amazing skill. This is clear through Luther’s letters to her. It also may not be too much to say that her skillful administrative skills prolonged Luther’s ministry, and with him, the Reformation. But let’s not hold her up as the model “pastor’s wife”.

          As an article from Lutheran Quarterly reads, “Today, whoever stands in front of the imposing buildings of the former Black Cloister in Wittenberg recognizes very quickly how misleading it is to call Katharina ‘Luther’s housewife’ by today’s standards. The function that Katharina fulfilled can be described in modern terms more as ‘manager of a mid-sized business with low intensity production.’”[1] God gave her extraordinary talents without conditions, that she was able to put to remarkable use outside the convent for the promulgation of the Gospel.

          And though we may not have Katharina’s extraordinary talents, God has given each one of us gifts, without conditions, for the sake of the Gospel. God has given us each ways to uniquely witness to Jesus the Messiah, God made flesh and born of a woman. As we prepare to celebrate his First Advent on Christmas Eve, and make ourselves ready for his Second, God help us use our unique gifts as God helped Katharina use hers.

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

[1] Martin Treu, “Katharina von Bora, the Woman at Luther’s Side”, Lutheran Quarterly, vol. XIII, 1999, p. 165.

"Grief Amidst Joy"

Podcast: “Grief Amidst Joy”

Sermon: December 15, 2019—Advent 3 NL 2

Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

Grief Amidst Joy

50 years. After 50 long years, some of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem after its utter destruction. The priests had set up a new altar. They’d also funded the foundation for the new Temple. A new Temple! A new place where Torah-mandated sacrifices could be offered again! Where God’s people could again worship God in full.

I don’t know if we can comprehend how significant an event this was to these returned exiles.

The closest thing I can think of is the rebuilding of a beloved, burnt-out church building.

On January 31st, 2010, Edgebrook Lutheran Church, a congregation on Chicago’s northwest side, suffered a devastating fire. The blaze was started by a mentally-ill parishioner. Now, I was at Edgebrook the year prior as the Christian Education Director and had preached there my internship year. These people adored their building. It certainly was one-of-a-kind. It was in an elaborate Swedish style, featuring carvings, stained glass, statues, and ornate woodwork. You can imagine how devastated they were.

18 months later, they built a new building in the same style. As I looked online, it seems very similar to the old building. It looks like they’ve gotten rid of the statues, but it is, more or less, the same building.[1]

And from stories in the Chicago Tribune, it sounds like they are pleased with the new building. “It still feels like Edgebrook Lutheran….It still feels like my church,” one of them said.

But I would be willing to bet that when that new church was dedicated, some remembered the grief of losing the first one.

Even when something new rises from the ashes; something wonderful, something you never dreamed you might see, there still is grief over what was lost.

Our passage from Ezra makes this clear. There is no judgment here against the grief the “old people” feel. It’s a simple acknowledgment of fact. The full range of human emotion accompanies the celebration of the first stage of rebuilding. There is joy. Finally, God’s house is being rebuilt. But those who remember Solomon’s Temple can’t help but weep. They remember the glory of the First Temple. They remember the smells, the sounds, the sense of awe they had there as young people. So what if their memories are romanticized by time? Is it any wonder that they mourn loudly? And is it any wonder that both grief and joy are intermingled at this profound event in the life of God’s people?

Of course not. I’d say we’re in a similar situation today, but every generation is in a similar situation. Think of what Jesus says in Luke 5:

36 Jesus also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’ ”

Many of us have an ingrained fondness for the “old ways” of doing church (whatever we think those ways are). Like aged wine, some of us might say the old way of being church is good. And we need to honor that as part of the same family in Christ. At the same time, God is always doing something new. God always remakes and reforms God’s church in response to the needs of a new era. Thirty years from now, old Millennials and Gen-Xers like me will complain about the way “those kids” are doing things, including church! We, too, will experience grief for what was. So God also will call my generation, when the time comes, to recognize the new thing God is doing among, within, and around us. Abraham recognized it in the call to go to a new land. Moses recognized it in the call to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Ruth recognized it when she followed her mother-in-law to a strange land. Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets recognized the new thing, not only in God’s judgments, but also in the oracles of hope for a restoration of the relationship between God and God’s people. And of course, Simeon recognized it in the Christ Child.

So we honor grief. We acknowledge it. We give it the room it needs. But it doesn’t take all the room, all the space. It coexists along with joy. Because God is doing something new in our world and God is calling the people of Shalom to be part of it.

So what do we do? Do we wallow in past regrets? Do we “should” all over ourselves, so to speak? No. God calls us to look forward. In Isaiah 43:19, a favorite of my erstwhile bishop, Bill Gafkjen, God speaks through the prophet:

19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

God makes a way where there is no way. God in Christ destroyed the power of death even when death had won. God in Christ cleansed us from our sins and made us new people when only death and judgment were our fate. God always makes the way. All that is up to us is to let God open us up to it.

Let us pray.

God of hope, you make a way where there is no way. You are constantly working among us and we cannot recognize it. Open our senses to recognize your work in and around us. Keep us focused on what you are doing and not what we think we have to do. Help us honor what was, while remembering that you are always remaking and reforming your Church to best carry your saving work to your people. Renew our purpose in that mission, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

[1] Photos of the burnt-out church and the restoration can be found here: http://faithenviron.com/edgebrook_chicago.htm

Sermonette: St. Lucy and Holy Light

Santa Lucia Day Celebration at Golden Valley Lutheran College in the 1970s. Courtesy Ruth Blom.
Swedish Santa Lucia Card. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Lucy%27s_Day#/media/File:Ad%C3%A8le_S%C3%B6derberg_-_Christmas_card.jpg on December 10, 2019. Public domain.

Podcast: Sermonette: St. Lucy and Light in the Darkness

Sermonette: December 11, 2019—Advent EP 2

St. Lucy

Imagine being in medieval Sweden. Decembers are dreary and cold. The sun dips below the horizon at about 2:30 p.m. on the winter solstice. No electricity. Your only source of light and warmth for those dark winter nights is fire.

And then some people come from the south, speaking about a man named Jesus who not only said he was the light of the world—the light that enlightens all darkness—but that his followers, too, were the light of that same world. And suppose they told you about a young disciple of Jesus named Lucy, who died in the Roman persecutions 270 years after Jesus died and was raised. Suppose they told you about her bravery in bringing food to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs under the city. Suppose they told you about her integrity in refusing to let the state frighten her into submission. Suppose they told you that she died for her faith, and in her death the light of Christ shone even brighter.

Wouldn’t such a story be powerful? A young girl, braving the darkness—both the literal darkness of the catacombs and the figurative darkness of the oppression of the state for the sake of those Jesus calls brothers and sisters.

To this day, St. Lucy’s day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden. With someone like Lucy, whose name literally means “light”, we remember what our calling is as disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, to be a light in a world that has lost its way. To point, with our light, to the ultimate light.

Even though our lights shimmer and fade, the light that overcomes all darkness never goes out. He rekindles the light he put within us at baptism, so that we can serve as a light for others. Like Lucy, we don’t have to run from the darkness. We don’t have to be afraid. Instead, we can remember that Christ enlightens all dark places of our lives. How powerful to remember that at the darkest time of the year.

Sermonette: John of Damascus and Icons

Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai, 6th c. CE. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_Pantocrator_(Sinai) . Public domain.

Podcast: Sermonette: John of Damascus and Icons

Sermonette: Advent Evening Prayer—December 4, 2019

John 14:8-10; The First Oration by John of Damascus

Philip asks Jesus a question any of us might ask. Put yourself in his sandals for a moment. Ever since Jesus called you to follow out of the blue one day in Galilee, you’ve faithfully done so. You’ve been with him as he’s performed his works: water turned to wine, a paralyzed man regains the ability to walk, 5000 people fed, a blind man sees, a dead man rises. You’ve watched him confront the religious establishment, beginning back in John 2 with the overturning of the moneychanger’s tables. You’ve heard him talk in long discourses about his Father, culminating in the assertion, “The Father and I are one.” Yet, some doubt lingers. Is this Jesus really the Son of God the Father?

Perhaps that’s why, after all Jesus has said and done, after his promise of a place with him in his Father’s house, Philip asks for the ultimate privilege—one denied even to Moses. It takes a lot of gall for him to ask for this. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus reminds Philip, the other disciples, and us, that when we see Jesus, we see God the Father. Jesus, in fact, is the very image of the invisible God. The perfect icon, if you will, of God the Father. In Genesis 1, God creates human beings in God’s male-and-female image. Human beings are created as icons of the divine; Jesus is the perfect representation of that image.

Which is how we get to John of Damascus’ writing. John lived at a time when the role of icons in Christian worship was hotly debated. Some powerful Christians, including the Byzantine Emperor, believed that icons violated the Ten Commandments, specifically this one (which Lutherans and Catholics usually include under the First Commandment):

You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in earth beneath.

Seems pretty clear-cut, right? No images, no likenesses, nothing. Yet, John defended the use of images in Christian worship. And we still use them. Why?

John looks beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of it. One of the great tragedies of the Reformation is that Lutheran and other Protestant Christians tend to think of Scripture in mere literal terms—something that even Luther didn’t subscribe to. While Luther privileged the plain meaning of the text, Luther also insisted that the plain meaning revealed Christ. The written Word of God, for Luther, is the Bible insofar as it reveals Christ and his saving work. When we look beyond the mere words on the page, we find the reason for which the commandment was given. John of Damascus writes that the reason for the commandment is clear—to prevent idolatry, the worship of that which is not God.

Being human beings—hybrids of matter and spirit—we need material things to approach the ineffable, the undefinable, the eternal. Why would Jesus give the church sacraments—means of grace encapsulated in a physical form—if we had no need of the physical? Why would the Christ be born in a human body if we had no need of the physical? Why would God make us in God’s image? John says it clearly—even the body and blood of Christ comes to us in a physical form. Even the written Word of God itself is a physical medium for the revelation of God. This world, made of matter, is fundamentally good, and communicates the divine presence, even in its fallen form

Images, such as the ones you see before you this evening, are simply aids. John says it elsewhere. “For just as words stimulate the ear, so images edify the eye.” Images are not worshiped. They are honored for the same reason that the Bible is honored—they point to God.

They are also honored because they remind us that the best image of the divine is the human itself, in all its magnificent diversity. As Christ is the perfect icon of God, so we too, through Christ, become perfect icons of God. We who were made in the image of God are restored in his likeness through Christ, without any contribution on our part whatsoever. God is always reaching down to us through means we can comprehend—as God did in a stable 2000 years ago.

"Hope Is a Dangerous Thing"

Podcast: “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing”

Sermon: Sunday, December 1st—Advent 1 (NL 2)

Jeremiah 33:14-18

In The Shawshank Redemption, there’s a scenewhere the falsely-convicted Andy Dufresne talks with the other prisoners after spending two weeks in “the hole”, or solitary confinement. Andy was sent there for locking himself in the warden’s office and playing The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s P.A. system. When asked about it, he says, “Easiest time I ever did.” The other prisoners scoff, but Andy is serious. “I had Mr. Mozart with me…in here (points to head), in here (points to heart). That’s the beauty of music, they can’t get that from you…you need it so you don’t forget…there are places in the world not made out of stone, that there’s something inside…they can’t touch.” Andy’s friend Red asks, “What are you talking about?”. Andy responds, “Hope.”

Red is having none of it. “Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You’d better get used to that idea.”[1]

Red has a point. How can Andy have hope when there’s no hope for his release? How can he have hope when that hope can’t be fulfilled? It takes a lot of emotional energy to have hope. It seems bound to lead to disappointment, frustration, even insanity.

One might ask Jeremiah the same questions.

Jeremiah is a prophet of the royal court. But he’s no ordinary court prophet, saying whatever the king wants to hear. Jeremiah says a lot of things that NO ONE wants to hear, including himself, and finds himself in constant trouble. Jeremiah is so disturbed by the prophecies God gives him to say that wishes he could shut up. In chapter 20, Jeremiah says, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in [God’s] name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” He prophesies against the Royal Zion theology that was so popular at the time, which basically said, “Since the Temple is the house of the LORD, and the LORD has promised that there will always be a descendant of David on the throne, the LORD will always protect Jerusalem, no matter what we say or do.” Jeremiah gets in trouble with fellow priests and prophets, the royal court, and even the king, for daring to say that the days of both Temple and king are numbered because of the people’s idolatry. God’s people have, in effect, abandoned God, and as a consequence, Jeremiah says that God will abandon them to their enemies.

But only for a time. And even while Jeremiah is imprisoned at the royal court, he finds hope, even though he will neither see nor experience it himself.

Jeremiah is convinced that punishment is coming. In 33:5 he reiterates “The Chaldeans (a.k.a. Babylonians) are coming in to fight and to fill [the houses of Jerusalem] with the dead bodies of those whom I shall strike down in my anger and my wrath, for I have hidden my face from this city because of all their wickedness.” Jerusalem is destined for destruction, not due to an irreversible divine decree, but rather due to the irreversible course the people have gone down. The people—especially the king, the priests, and other powerful people—are addicted to their own destructive behavior. They are addicted to social injustice. They are addicted to the gods of their own personal preferences. And they love their addictions more than the God who offers them mercy. As late as chapter 38, as the Babylonians besiege the city, Jeremiah tells King Zedekiah of a way out—a way where the city, Temple, and royal line can be spared. One word—Surrender. God promises mercy, if Zedekiah will surrender to the Babylonian king.

But the king does not surrender. He cannot bring himself to do so. Instead, he swears Jeremiah to secrecy. In the next chapter, all hope for mercy is gone. The walls are breached. The city and Temple burn. And the king’s sons are all killed as Zedekiah looks on, before he himself is blinded and led into exile, so that the extirpation of his line is the last thing he sees. Thus endeth the line of David.

Except this horrific end is not the end. This spiritual and physical catastrophe, which must have seemed like the end of the world to many of Jerusalem’s denizens, is the beginning of a recommitment of God to God’s people. Despite the people’s unfaithfulness, God is faithful.

And that applies to us Gentiles, too. This passage, of course, was intended for the Judahites and their descendants—the Jewish people. The reference to Levitical priests makes that clear. And yet, as Paul says in Romans, we Gentiles have been grafted onto Israel’s tree. And our inclusion is only because of the One who asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” at Caesarea Philippi.

Because of Jesus, the most unexpected Messiah, we Gentiles await the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth, which includes all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile alike. Even in this secular world which is addicted to its own “gods” of money, power, and the like, we still await the coming King, who will usher in yet another new beginning, a beginning of God’s mercy and light, a beginning of a new, fulfilled life.

That is the point of the season of Advent. It’s a time not just to remember when God was born in this world as a vulnerable little baby, but also to remember his promise to come again. It is remarkable that throughout the millennia, the Church has held to this promise. Even though we don’t see Christ in that clear and unmistakable way that would signify the final establishment of God’s Kingdom and the remaking of heaven and earth, we still have hope. Dangerous hope. Hope, even though it is hard to see or understand the reason for that hope on this side of glory. Hope, even though we live in this realm where tragedy and senselessness seem to reign. Hope, even though that hope seems foolish sometimes. We hold onto the hope Jesus gives us because we know by faith that his word is trustworthy. And we know, again by faith, that God always keeps promises.

In this Advent season, God re-ignite the light of Christ in us, which brings hope, not just to us, but to all those around us. The Kingdom is coming.

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

[1] The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, featuring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Bob Gunton, (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994), DVD, (1999).

Sermonette: Thanksgiving Eve

Podcast: Sermonette: Thanksgiving Eve

Sermonette: November 27, 2019—Thanksgiving Eve

Philippians 4:4-9

Six months and one day ago, my wife Sarah was in the hospital. We’d been there for four days, waiting for baby Abigail to arrive. To put it mildly, we were both anxious. Because of health complications, Sarah was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday. The medical team began inducing labor on Thursday. Saturday morning came without results. Hardly anything was showing on the contraction screen. Abigail needed to be born right now for Sarah’s health, but Abigail wasn’t moving.

If you’d told me not to be anxious at that moment, I might have smacked you.

Everything turned out all right for us. Abigail was born, over six weeks premature, but healthy. She just needed five weeks in the NICU to learn how to eat. And after another scare, Sarah was okay, too. Looking at Abigail, you wouldn’t even know she was a preemie.

It turned out we had reason to rejoice. Abigail’s name, which means “My Father Rejoices”, certainly fits her and us.

While we have reason for joy—a new baby, a new call, a new house (which hopefully we’ll get to move one of these days!), I am amazed at Paul’s exhortations to rejoice. To not be anxious. If you read the whole of Philippians, you know he’s not doing well. He’s in prison, perhaps in Rome, perhaps awaiting transfer to Rome for trial, which will certainly end in his death. To make matters worse, others are preaching Christ, but not for the love of Christ. No, they are preaching Christ in their way to rub salt into Paul’s wounds. Paul knows that he is reaching the end, not only of his ministry, but of his earthly existence, too.

How can someone be so joyful, so thankful when everything seems to be going so badly?

If you’ll pardon the old-school “three-point” sermon format, it seems to me that Paul finds joy and gratitude in three things outside himself. Paul says “what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Furthermore, Paul is indifferent to the motives for Christ’s proclamation, even if they are to hurt him. He writes, 18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” Paul’s faith in his Lord is so great that he can find joy in the gospel’s spread even as he suffers.

The second thing Paul takes joy in is the church at Philippi itself. Paul writes that all his prayers for the Philippians are filled with joy, because of their faithfulness to the gospel and to him. It’s personal for Paul—they have supported him spiritually and financially from day one. Paul mentions this explicitly. “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.” They were faithful.

And the third thing Paul finds joy and gratitude in is the One who is not subject to the whims of human behavior, but who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His joy and his gratitude are in the One who knocked Paul flat on Damascus Road. Who has guided his work from that moment on. They’re in the One in whom Paul has placed his whole faith. All Paul’s hope, joy, gratitude, and especially love is due to the One who loved him first—who loves us first—Jesus the Messiah, crucified and risen for the life of the world.

And so, in times when we are anxious, in times when we can’t find a single thing to be thankful for or to be joyful about, Paul reminds us to take a closer look. No matter what else, we have Jesus, who did everything for us. Who became a servant of all. Who suffered for all. Who died for all, so that all of us could live. That’s Someone to be thankful for.

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

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