A Dependable Foundation

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. The liturgy featured the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles, transferred from October 28.

Readings

Deuteronomy 32:1–4
Psalm 119:89–96
Ephesians 2:13–22
John 15:17–27

Homily

Saints Simon and Jude appear in the gospels in the lists of Jesus’s disciples. Sometimes Simon is called Simon the Less or Simon the Canaanæan or Simon the Zealot. This helps us to remember he is not Simon Peter. Jude appears sometimes as Judas not Iscariot or Judas of James or Thaddæus so that Christians will know he is not Judas who betrayed Jesus.

That’s really all we know about these two apostles, their names and that they labored to lay the foundations of the Church. The foundations of a house, when it is ready for habitation, are hidden behind the interior finish and the earth graded back into place around the house. A solid foundation gets no attention; no one who visits our home ever remarks, “What solid footers; what sturdy basement walls.”

This is a good reminder for us as we celebrate the work of Saints Simon and Jude, because their unheralded labors to spread the Good News rest dependably and invisibly beneath us as the footings upon which our lives of faith stand solid.

In the reading from Ephesians, we heard, “… you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19b–20, NRSV). That is a powerful and encouraging word of promise.

It might seem some days—or maybe even most of them—as if our lives are shaky and precarious. Perhaps violent storms threaten to blow off or wash away all we own, while we watch impotently. A devastating diagnosis comes and casts into grave doubt the health we just assumed was ours. The phone does not ring, the letter does not come, and the days turn to weeks and to years since we heard last from a loved one, making the gift of family feel hollow. Controversies arise in the community of the church and division splits the family of God, leading us to wonder what has become of the unity we thought we shared.

These challenges test both us and our faith, but beneath us—always—sits “… the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” a beloved hymn, written by Edward Mote in the 1800s, offers us a reminder of Christ’s utter dependability:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Come, let us prepare for the feast of Christ’s body and blood, the solid Rock, the foundation of our faith, passed on to us by the apostles. Amen.

Formation Under God’s Hand

When the Spirit-Driven Task Force at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church met on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, the members discussed Christian Education. This was a reflection shared during the devotions.

In the second creation story in Genesis, we hear that “the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7, NAB). And later, the prophet Isaiah proclaims to God, “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands” (Isaiah 64:7, NAB)

How long does it take for a lump of clay, pounded, kneaded, picked free of stones, thrown onto a wheel, pressed under strong hands, shaped by firm muscles, drawn up into graceful curves, adorned with patterns, and then set aside to dry, to face the fires, to be glazed and fired again—how long does it take for that lump of clay to fathom the potter’s mind and heart?

How long does it take us to begin to glimpse the splendor of that potter’s creative vision? How long to come to appreciate the intricacy and the beauty of the design pressed upon us, the plan guiding the throwing of a whole set of pieces, the compassion of pounding down a misshapen pot and beginning anew until the lump takes just the right form?

At least a lifetime. At least all the days we have received as gifts from our Master Potter. And so we begin. From the day he washed the dirt from us in Holy Baptism and made us his children, we have confessed, “I believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then we have learned to ask in company with those who have gone before us, “What does this mean?”

And for the hints of an answer, for insights into wisdom that lies beyond us, we turn to the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Confessions, the Church’s Traditions of Liturgy, and her Teachings of Morality. We look in these places for the palm prints, the impressions of the divine hands that shape us, that turn us from formless muddy lumps into creatures fashioned in the image of God, people redeemed from death by the Son’s sacrifice, sinful saints living only by the power of the Spirit.

How long does it take? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Perhaps we ought to ask God, “We won’t ever finish exploring your mind and mission, will we?” Why would we want to? What else could possibly matter more, be more significant, consume us so fully, fill us so completely?

Because we are God’s pottery, we are not God, but instead his handiwork. The shape we have, the grace filling us, the promise that leads us all come from him and not from within us. And so for us to learn about God is to come to appreciate the form he has given us, the marks he has pressed upon us, the design he has worked into his world, the plan for our redeeming. We learn about God when we receive our form, shape, and pattern, our ways of thinking and reflecting, our wisdom and understanding from what comes to us from beyond us.

That’s why we, as God’s pottery, do well when we embrace our learning as formation rather than education. Formation reminds us that our shape comes from outside of us and is pressed upon us. Education leads us instead to focus upon what we draw out of ourselves—the word’s root meaning.

What is the end—the purpose—of our formation? St. Paul offers a prayer for the Ephesians that speaks of us, as well:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:14–19, NAB).

Amen.

Renewed Hearts

Introduction

The people of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Hickman, Neb., have organized a Spirit-Driven Task Force, bringing together almost forty members who have committed to a year of study, prayer, reflection, and deliberation to discern how God is calling the congregation to renewal for the sake of his mission.

This is the nineteenth of a series of weekly meditations with the aim to inspire reflection and encourage conversation among the members of the task force as we journey together in obedience to our Lord’s calling to serve him. You can find an archive of these meditations on the Web at http://widesky.biz/blog/ephemera/spirit-driven-task-force-meditations.

Author
Kurt Kechely, a member of the Spirit Driven Task Force and a member of its Steering Committee.

Scriptures
“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.” —Ezekiel 36:26

“Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” —Ephesians 4:23–24

Meditation
We all need to take time to listen and if we truly listen, our hearts and spirit will be changed. His will is then done rather than ours.

If we all hold on to our own thoughts and our own ways, we are constantly trying to change others to conform to “Man’s” way rather than God’s way.

Reflection
This is a continuation of Rod Koehler’s Reflection from last week as it pertains to this week as well.

  • Take time to sit quietly and breath deep and slowly, rest your eyes.
  • Recognize the blessings that surround us.
  • Like the cool water of a water fall let His peace flow over you and give you restoration.

Prayer
Creator God, I’m thankful that you will renew the spirit of my mind daily to serve you in the holiness of your truth. Take my nothingness and recreate me in the image and beauty of your Son. As you promised to make me alive in Christ, make me more aware of opportunities to serve those whose hearts are broken.  Amen.

“Only Small Things with Great Love”

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Festival of All Saints’ Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010.

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Readings

Daniel 7:1–3, 15–18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11–23
Luke 6:20–31

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Prayer

Loving Father in heaven, bless us with faith through your Holy Spirit, so that we may follow the example of your saints in living and loving obediently; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

Sometimes we imagine the company of saints
as a kind of pantheon of Christian heroes.
We see it like a Justice League of martyrs, witnesses, and apostles,
replacing Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman,
our favorite superheroes with special powers.

We don’t imagine that we could ever match
the holiness of the saints in that company,
attaining the heights of spiritual purity and discipline,
performing the works of extreme charity and devotion,
and offering up prayers of sublime piety and eloquence.

And so we throw in the towel.
We say to ourselves, “I’ll never be a saint.”
We grow content with our lives just as they are.
We keep our heads down
and our eyes on the ground right in front of us.
We lock our spiritual lives on autopilot
and we go through the motions.
We avoid the worst pitfalls that come from straying,
but we also steer clear of the great heights that come from striving.

There are saints whom God our Father has blessed
with almost unimaginable courage and conviction,
strength and stamina, faith and fervor.

I am awed and humbled by the witness of those saints.
One, for example, sticks in my memory.
Our Church commemorates St. Ignatius of Antioch
each year on October 17.
He was born around AD 35,
lived as a pagan, and then was baptized into the Christian faith.
He became the bishop of Antioch in Syria.
Along with others, he was condemned to death
during the persecutions of Emperor Trajan in the early 100s.

While he waited in prison for his execution,
he authored and sent letters.
Copies have survived to this day.
In one letter to the Church at Rome, he wrote,
“Let me be food for the wild beasts,
for that is how I can get to God.
I am God’s wheat and shall be ground
by the teeth of the wild beasts
so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. …

“Even now as a prisoner I am learning to forego my own desires.
All the way from Syria to Rome, by land and sea,
by night and day, I am chained to ten leopards
(I mean the detachment of soldiers)
who only get worse the better I treat them.
By their injustices I am becoming a better disciple….

“May nothing, seen or unseen,
begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ.
Come fire, cross, fighting with wild beasts,
wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs,
crushing of my entire body,
cruel tortures of the devil—
only let me get to Jesus Christ.…

“My desire is to belong to God.
Do not, then, hand me back to the world.
Do not try to tempt me with material things.
Let me attain pure light,
for only on my arrival there
can I be fully human.
Let me imitate the passion of my God.”
(From a letter to the Romans by St. Ignatius)

This witness raises all kinds of questions in our hearts.
Does that inspire me?
Does it frighten me?
Do I find it even a little bit beguiling?
Could I surrender myself so completely to God
that I would trust him and face death for my faith?

I don’t know the answers for myself or for you.
Probably our responses depend upon the day,
the waxing and waning of our confidence and convictions.

But even so, we can learn from this saint’s witness,
from his faith in the face of martyrdom.

He desired to belong to God
and he wanted to imitate the Lord’s passion.
No one can conjure up from within
the strength to do these things.
The power of the Holy Spirit
to make us our Father’s possession
comes from him and him alone.
It’s the same with the will and the resolve
to imitate the obedience and sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ.

God begins working in our lives in small steps,
with tiny acts of discipleship,
with the just the hints of the glimmers of great sacrifice.

That’s what inspires Jesus’s words to us in today’s Gospel.
They come to us from St. Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain.
Jesus announces blessings and woes,
the gracious judgments and reversals
that pour out from his Father’s hands
upon all who live, regardless of their circumstances.

The poor shall be blessed, but the rich will receive woe.
The hungry shall be filled, and the sated will know want.
Those who mourn will come to laugh, while those who laugh will know loss.

This is God’s way, the way it shall be.
So what we do? How do we live?
What’s the shape of life of a saint?
What’s it look like to be one who, like Ignatius,
wants to belong to God and to imitate his Son?

Jesus tells us how to follow him:
“But I say to you that listen,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek,
offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27–31, NRSV)

There are no great programs or initiatives
hiding within that list of admonitions.
There are no ten easy steps,
no seven effective habits,
no secret keys to the life of faith,
no shortcuts to the path and no inside track to the calling of the saints.

Instead, the Christian life, the way of sainthood,
lies totally in the way of the small things.
We love the unlovable.
We do good with no thought of return.
We surrender what we own.
In the end, we even give up our own lives.

But this is not loss. It is no defeat.
It is our calling, the path set before us
as people baptized into the death and resurrection
of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He has given us the strength of spirit
and the discipline of will
and the power of prayer
that we need to imitate him,
to shoulder the cross daily,
to follow him in obedience.

Along that path, we have guides and mentors,
people who have gone before us in the faith.
One of them, Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
offers us some wisdom to guide and encourage us.
She said many times,
“We can do no great things;
we can do only small things with great love.”
This is how God works in us,
how he makes our lives holy
and turns us into his saints for others. Amen.

Question Box: “He descended into hell.”

Introduction

Holy Cross Lutheran Church offers individuals the chance to ask questions about the Church, faith, theology, and the Bible by putting their queries into a Question Box. A question and answer appears in each month’s newsletter. This is the October 2010 installment.

Question

When we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed, I’m not sure what we mean by saying that Jesus Christ “descended into hell.” What does this part of the Creed mean?

Answer

It helps to begin by remembering that the three Creeds—Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—serve the Church and individual Christians by offering summaries of the Christian faith. The Creeds work together with the Canon—the Church’s collection of writings in the Old and News Testament. The Creeds summarize God’s history with his people, recorded in the Bible. The Creeds also help us to understand and interpret the biblical history of God with his people.

In AD 390, an early, formal statement of the faith appeared in a letter from the Council of Milan to Pope Siricius. By the beginning of the eighth century, such statements had evolved into the Apostles’ Creed. This Creed gained nearly universal acceptance across the Church. From its beginnings, the Church has tied this Creed closely to the celebration of Holy Baptism, just as we do today.

The passage, “He descended into hell,” comes from the second article, or part, of Apostles’ Creed—the one that proclaims our faith in Jesus Christ. We say this Creed in English, but it was first written in Latin. The phrase in Latin goes like this: descendit ad inferna. Translations of the Creed have rendered this in a variety of ways: He descended into hell; He descended to the dead.

Both translations help us to confess that Jesus Christ truly died and then faced and overcame the power of death. This points us to the words of St. Paul, who wrote,

When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things (Ephesians 4:9–10, NRSV)

In the time of Jesus and Paul, terms for hell included Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek). They pointed to the dwelling place of people who had died and were not in the presence of God. Not all who resided there would be separated from God forever. The just ones who had died were waiting for a redeemer. We can see this belief at work in the parable of the rich man, Abraham, and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31, the Gospel for the last Sunday in September.

In the Apostles’ Creed, when we confess that Jesus Christ “descended into hell,” we confess that he truly died, and in the time between his death and resurrection, redeemed the just ones who had died before him. This points us to the words of St. Peter:

For this reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does (1 Peter 4:6, NRSV).

Because Jesus Christ is both true man and true God, he shared fully in the experience of knowing separation from God the Father, but at the same time, he alone had the power, through the Holy Spirit he shares with his Father,

…to destroy death, to break the bonds of the evil one, to crush hell underfoot… (Eucharistic Prayer IV, Lutheran Book of Worship, Ministers Desk Edition, p. 226).

Living as Christians: Music

This is the sermon I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Wednesday, March 24, 2010. Midweek services from Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday will explore the theme, “Living as Christians.”

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Readings

2 Samuel 6:1–5
Psalm 98
Ephesians 5:18–20
Mark 14:22–26

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Prayer

You call us to return to you, Lord God, and to leave behind all things that keep us from giving ourselves fully to serve you. Speak to us through your Word, so that we may turn to face you and to give you glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

Last week, we turned our attention
to the conversation God has made us
to carry on with him: our life of prayer.

The Psalms, we heard, have served as the book of prayer
of the people of God, both Israel and the Church,
for thousands of years.

But at the same time, the Psalms themselves
have become the hymnal of the people of God.
We sing the Psalms as hymns.
And sometimes, the psalms lie hidden behind the words of our music,
serving as inspiration.

There’s a kind of wonderful energy
that flows among us and between us and God
when we combine words and melodies and rhythms and harmonies.

That’s what is going on among God’s people
in the passages of Scripture we have heard this evening.
Listen again to a few key verses:
From 2 Samuel:

David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD
with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps
and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5, NRSV)

And from Psalm 98:

O sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things. …
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. (Psalm 98:1,5–6, NRSV)

And from Ephesians:

… be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns
and spiritual songs among yourselves,
singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks to God the Father at all times
and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18c–20, NRSV)

And finally, from Mark,
where we hear how Jesus shared his Last Supper with the disciples,
they end the meal in song:

When they had sung the hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26, NRSV)

This is just a brief sampling of the myriad of passages in the Scriptures
that tell us how prayer and song join together
to give voice to the love and praise the people offer up to God.

And, in fact, not just people.
In Psalm 98, we read:

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the LORD … . (Psalm 98:7-9a, NRSV)

These verses inspired one of our most beloved hymns.
From the mind and heart of St. Francis,
we have received these lines
from his soaring hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King”:

All creatures of our God and King,
Lift up your voice with us and sing …
O rushing wind and breezes soft,
O clouds that ride the winds aloft;
Oh, praise him! (“All Creature of Our God and King,” LBW 527, sts. 1–2)

It’s hard, when we hear a great song,
one that moves and inspires and energizes us,
to sit still, and not to reflect our immersion in the music
with some kind of movement,
even if it’s only to tap our toes quietly inside our shoes.

That is to say that music and movement go together.
Our comfort with this partnership depends a little upon our upbringing
and partly upon the social conventions we observe.

If we went to worship in an African Methodist Episcopal Church,
we would expect people to worship in song with their whole bodies.
But if we went to a Lutheran Church of Norwegian background, for example,
the movements would be subtle, at most.

For us, our movements consist mostly of standing when we sing,
of adopting that ancient posture of praise.
Little children are more adventuresome,
swaying and clapping as they sing their Sunday School songs.

But if you go back and reread the passages we heard tonight,
or look up other verses that tell us about God’s people in worship,
pay attention to the descriptions of the movements:
+ dancing
+ processing
+ clapping
+ playing instruments of all sorts.

It’s a clear pattern and message
that when prayer and song combine in worship,
they enact our praise and thanksgiving to God.

And just as Jesus Christ embodies himself in the Sacraments
—in Water and Bread and Wine—
becoming for us present, tangible, visible,
we embody our prayers in song and movement,
offering up our whole being to the God who made us.

That’s why, when Christians gather for Communion,
standing and moving and singing are all parts of the liturgy.
We might not think of what we do as dance,
but it is—a binding together of body and voice and spirit.

This is what we do.
And so we sing and dance, mixing music and movement,
here and now as our prayer and offering of praise to God.
And we do this as our practice—our rehearsal—for our eternity in heaven,
as John reminds us in his Revelation:

After this I looked, and there as a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation … standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
robed in white, with palm branches in their hands … .
… and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing:
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen!” (Revelation 7:11–12, NRSV)

Living as Christians: Prayer

This is the sermon I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Midweek services from Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday will explore the theme, “Living as Christians.”

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Readings

1 Kings 8:22–30
Psalm 28
Ephesians 3:16–19
Matthew 6:5–8

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Prayer

You call us to return to you, Lord God, and to leave behind all things that keep us from giving ourselves fully to serve you. Speak to us through your Word, so that we may turn to face you and to give you glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

Tonight in our reflections upon the theme “Living as Christians,”
we turn to prayer, our conversation with God.
So far in on our journey together this Lent,
we have faced the truth that evil twists us away from God,
but that He responds, blessing us by His grace
to love Him and to live justly with one another.

We receive God’s gifts of grace and love through Holy Baptism.
In that washing with Word and water,
we die to sin and rise reborn as God’s children and heirs of His kingdom.
Then, as His family, we live together in the Church,
the community God creates and gathers around His Word and Sacraments.

Like any family, the Church is filled with conversation.
Some of the talk takes place among us—
the sharing of the triumphs and the tragedies that mark our daily lives,
the planning we carry out to assure the future of our ministry,
the simple conversations
in which we sustain our friendships with one another,
and at times the disagreements that grow among us.

But some of the conversation passes between God and us.
We hear Him speak to us in His Word.
We witness that Word enacted in the Sacraments.
We reflect upon that Word in Sermon and Song.

And we respond to God’s Word with our own words.
This response is our life of prayer, our conversation with God.

And when we talk with God,
we embody the best that is in us,
the desire He has for us,
the hopes He breathed into us when He gave us life.

In fact, if we recall the story of creation,
we remember that God spoke about this world.
He said, “Let there be…,” and there was whatever He said—
earth, seas, stars, trees, and beasts.

But when it came to humanity, God didn’t just talk about people.
He talked with our ancestors.
He made us for conversation with Him.

And this conversation is prayer.
It’s our capacity to pray to God—to enter into conversation with Him—
that sets us apart from the beasts,
that truly reflects how God has made us in His image
and destined us to share in His divine life through prayer.

St. Paul gives us a glimpse of how praying shapes our lives
when he writes to the Church at Ephesus,

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory,
[our Father] may grant that you
may be strengthened in your inner being
with power through his Spirit,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,
as you are being rooted and grounded in love. (Ephesians 3:16–17, NRSV)

Prayer works in our lives
to give us strength,
to empower us by the Spirit,
to open our hearts as dwelling places for Christ,
to nurture us in God’s love.

But like any of our human relationships,
our relations with God can languish if we do not tend to them.
God desires for us to talk with Him,
to tell Him what is on our hearts and minds,
to share with Him our joys and worries,
and to talk with Him about our confusion and our confessions.

Because prayer is a kind of conversation,
it can take on different shapes to meet the needs of the moment.

In 1 Kings, we overheard King Solomon’s elaborate public prayer
at the dedication of God’s temple.
There is a place and time for us to join together
in such corporate prayer—
conversation between God and the body of believers—
prayer that shares our recognition of His Lordship over us:

O LORD, God of Israel,
there is no God like you in heaven above or an earth beneath,
keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants
who walk before you with all their heart…. (1 Kings 8:23, NRSV)

In this evening’s Psalm, David shows us how to pray simply, honestly,
sharing with God our desires and fears:

To you, O LORD, I call;
my rock, do not refuse to hear me,
for if you are silent to me,
I shall be like those who go down to the pit. (Psalm 28:1, NRSV)

And then, our Lord Jesus Christ reveals to us
how we ought to pray to God our Father,
how we can come before Him in simplicity,
like children telling their father
what weighs down and buoys up their spirits.

But whenever you pray,
go into your room and shut the door
and pray to your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…,
for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:6, 8b, NRSV)

When you want to deepen your prayer life,
there are bountiful resources for inspiration and guidance.
The Psalms themselves are the prayer book of God’s people.
Just about every human emotion—
every cause for celebrating and for diving into the depths of despair—
are there in passionate, vibrant, sometimes alarmingly honest prayers.

We are heirs of two thousand years of Christian tradition
rich with people who have devoted themselves
to cultivating lives of prayer and of offering their guidance to us.

But in the end,
just as children learn to talk
by babbling and imitating their parents,
gradually making sense and then sentences,
we cannot go far wrong when we resolve to stop the blur of motion in our lives,
to sit in quietness and rest,
to listen in peace and then to pray simply from our hearts,
sharing with God what we find in ourselves
and listening to Him when He replies in secret. Amen.

Living as Christians: Church

This is the sermon I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Wednesday, March 10, 2010. Midweek services from Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday will explore the theme, “Living as Christians.”

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Readings

Exodus 19:16–25
Psalm 100
Ephesians 2:19–22
Matthew 28:16–20

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Prayer

You call us to return to you, Lord God, and to leave behind all things that keep us from giving ourselves fully to serve you. Speak to us through your Word, so that we may turn to face you and to give you glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Message

This evening we mark the midpoint
of our weekly Lenten gatherings
to reflect on our theme: Living as Christians.
Along the way on our journey,
we have learned that evil twists us away from God,
but that He blesses us by His grace
to love Him and others by practicing justice.
We receive that grace and love through Holy Baptism,
our dying to sin and emerging washed and reborn.

This is a journey we do not take alone.
We travel through life,
we face the depths of our sin,
and we feel the drenching of God’s grace
as members of a community of believers
making its way together.

We call this community the Church.
By another journey with some twists and turns,
the word “Church” comes to us from a Greek phrase kuriakon doma
meaning the Lord’s house.
Sometimes we’ll run across the term “ecclesiology,”
meaning the study of the Church.
This word comes from the Greek ekklesia,
meaning “the called out ones.”

But no matter what particular words we use,
the truth is that this community
is one that God our Father creates.
He gathers us around the Word, His Son;
He empowers us by their Holy Spirit
to worship Him and witness to others.

The reading from Exodus
tells us a chapter in the history of God
gathering the people of Israel.
He calls them together in a holy place
and He dwells in their midst.
We don’t gather at God’s holy mountain,
but each week we do come here to this place,
hearing and heeding God’s call to assemble around His Word
read in Scripture, proclaimed in Sermon, and offered in Song.

And we see and we feel God in our midst,
washing and claiming new Christians
through the water and Word of Holy Baptism.
Then we receive Jesus Christ into our very selves
as we eat His body and drink His blood
in the meal of Holy Communion.

We kneel before our Lord in our hearts
when we confess our sins
and hear His pronouncement of forgiveness.
We bow our heads before our Lord
as He blesses us with healing
in the touch and oil and cross of anointing.

In all these “many and various ways,”
we find our lives blessed and changed
by our encounter with the living God
here and now in the gathering of this community.

Sometimes we get a little off-the-track
and begin to confuse
the Church as the community of God’s people
with this place, the building in which we gather.

The Augsburg Confession,
one of the basic texts that Lutherans trust
as a true statement of and witness to the Christian faith,
presents a clear and insightful definition of the Church:

It is the assembly of all believers
among whom the gospel is purely preached
and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel. (AC VII.1)

A few insights flowing from this definition can help guide us:
One person cannot be the Church alone:
It is the assembly of all believers.
There is only one Church:
It is the assembly of all believers.
The Church has only one focus:
Worship centers on preaching and the sacraments
that empower witness and service.

These insights help us when we begin to go astray.
Sometimes we might be tempted to say,
“I can worship God on my own.
I don’t need the Church.
He’s real to me in the beauty of nature.”

There are bits of truth embedded in these feelings.
We can pray to God when we are alone,
and in fact God desires us to come to Him daily in prayer.
And when we look at the works of His hands,
we are right to be moved to offer Him our praises.

But for us to live faithfully,
we need to be a part of the community
that God Himself has called out from the world at large to gather around Him.
Even when we annoy one another—
and it gets hard to believe that this broken and flawed gathering
could possibly be God’s tool for blessing us—
it still is the truth that the Church is God’s household of faith.

That’s why St. Paul tell us in his letter
to the Church at Ephesus:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,
built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
In him the whole structure is joined together
and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19–22, NRSV)

We are these citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.
And when we are tempted to despair and to stray,
we can be encouraged and corrected
by remembering that each of us and God’s whole Church
are projects under construction:
“grow[ing] into a holy temple in the Lord,”
who has promised us,
“I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20, NRSV) Amen.

“Arise, shine…”

Introduction

This is the sermon I had planned to preach at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010, as part of Vespers on the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord. The service was cancelled due to another snowstorm.

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Readings

Isaiah 60:1–6
Psalm 72 (antiphon v. 11)
Ephesians 3:1–12
Matthew 2:1–12

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Prayer

Father in heaven, grant us times of quiet thoughtfulness, that we may rest in your Spirit, listen to your voice, and ponder in our hearts the good news of your Son’s birth. Amen.

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Message

Across the centuries,
the voice of the prophet Isaiah
calls to us, saying:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples,
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you. (Isaiah 60:1–6, NRSV)

When we hear this message of hope,
we cannot help but be reminded
that for us, the light of God shines upon us in Jesus Christ,
and his glory has been made known to us in his birth.

His is a light
that flickers in a straw-strewn stable,
that glistens upon the gifts brought by the Magi,
that bobs upon the back of a donkey
as his parents become political refugees escaping to Egypt,
that flashes upon the water running down his beard
when his cousin John baptizes him in the Jordan,
that shines upon the faces of his followers
as they witness his preaching and teaching and healing,
that dries the blood upon his brow
as he draws his dying breath upon the cross,
that radiates victorious from his loving heart
as his Father raises him from the dead,
that illumines his apostles as they witness his ascension.

And on and on and on,
until his light rests upon you and me,
having shone upon us in our Baptism,
having opened our eyes to his presence in his Holy Meal,
having enlightened us in his Word read and proclaimed.

There may be times when we think the light grows dim.
And to be honest, the darkness does sometimes seem to grow,
to surround us with fear and loneliness and loss and faithlessness.
Isaiah says, “For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples….” (Isaiah 60:2a, NRSV)

This is a promise from God,
but not one we like to be true or want to come to pass.
But there it is: darkness shall cover the earth
and wrap us in thick darkness,
like a fog impervious to the light,
like a blanket of blackness wrapped about our heads,
blinding us to the world around us.

God promises us this will happen.
But then, this is not his final promise,
not his assurance of his ultimate plan for us.

And so, as we gathered this evening,
we recalled together his promise of life and light
in his Son, Jesus Christ,
echoing the Prologue of John’s Gospel
that we have heard twice this Christmas season.
In it St. John writes,

What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:3b–5, NRSV)

And so, in our gathering, we proclaimed:

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world,
the light no darkness can overcome.
Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening,
and the day is almost over.
Let your light scatter the darkness,
and illumine your Church. (Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 142)

Can we imagine a greater message of hope,
a more reassuring word of comfort
in the midst of these cold days,
these long dark nights,
these times when the world seems hell-bent on self-destruction,
when our common conversations grow coarse,
when our politics is interminably contentious,
when our Church wonders about its mission,
when our families wither and fracture,
when our work is imperiled and our play seems pointless?

It’s when this all settles on our shoulders
like that blanket of darkness,
and we are tempted to despair—to live as if we have no hope—
that we can find the greatest comfort
in hearing God’s word of encouragement
call to us across the centuries
in the voice of Isaiah, God’s prophet:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1, NRSV) Amen.

Adopted, Redeemed, and Sealed

Introduction

This is the sermon I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 2–3, 2010, for the Second Sunday of Christmas.

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Readings

Jeremiah 31:7–14 or Sirach 24:1–12
Psalm 147:12–20 (antiphon v. 12) or Wisdom 10:51–21 (antiphon v. 20)
Ephesians 1:3–14
John 1:[1–9] 10–18

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Prayer

Father in heaven, grant us times of quiet thoughtfulness, that we may rest in your Spirit, listen to your voice, and ponder in our hearts the good news of your Son’s birth. Amen.

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Message

When I was a boy,
growing up in Pennsylvania,
I loved to read and reread
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
Living in the Keystone state,
I had the chance to see first-hand
many of the historical sites
connected to our nation’s founding.

But in those plainly told stories
of Laura and her sister Mary,
living simply with Pa and Ma Ingalls,
my eyes were opened to the chapter
in our nation’s history
when pioneers settled the land
that we now have inherited from them.

And as we come to the final days
of this white and wintery Christmas season,
I’m reminded of Laura’s story
of a Christmas long ago.

She writes,

But Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty.
Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure.
And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny.
They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.
Think of having a whole penny for your very own.
Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.
There never had been such a Christmas.”
(Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1935.)

This passage helps me to remember what it’s like
to feel the joy of thanksgiving
and the gratitude for having received gifts beyond one’s imagination.

Too often we can lose that childlike sense of wonder and glee,
that delicious ache that makes our hearts feel full
—almost to the point of bursting—
because of the bounty of what we have received.

But if we grow quiet,
rest in the Spirit,
listen to God’s voice,
and ponder the good news
of the great gift we have received
in the birth of Jesus Christ,
I am hopeful we can reclaim that feeling
of overwhelming joy and thanksgiving.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,
he almost sounds a little like Laura.
Our whole reading, Ephesians 1:3-14,
is one long sentence in Greek.
And as Paul carries us along
in his rhapsody of blessing,
his list of God’s gifts begins to echo
Laura’s amazement at the generosity of her parents:

“Think of having a cup and a cake and stick of candy and a penny.
There had never been such a Christmas.”

Listen to what Paul tells us we have received from Jesus Christ:

  • We are blessed with spiritual blessings
  • We are destined for adoption
  • We receive his grace freely bestowed
  • We have redemption through his blood
  • We receive the forgiveness of our trespasses
  • We know the mystery of his will
  • We have obtained an inheritance
  • We are destined to live for the praise of his glory
  • We hear the word of truth
  • We are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14, NRSV)

It’s an overwhelming pile of gifts
and we sit in the middle of them,
like children on Christmas morning,
up to our necks in wrapping paper torn recklessly to shreds
from box after package.

How do we even decide which gift
to pick up and look at more closely
to see what we have really been given?

Think of having blessings and adoption and grace and redeeming blood
and forgiveness and knowledge and an inheritance and a destiny
and the truth and the seal of the Spirit.
There has never been such a Christmas.

This is the kind of God who loves us,
who has made us his children,
who embraces us as part of his family.
He is generous beyond belief,
past our understanding,
overwhelming us with his grace.

And as we sit in the midst of this pile of blessings,
and if we grow quiet,
rest in the Spirit,
listen to God’s voice,
and ponder the good news
of the great gifts we have received
in the birth of Jesus Christ,
questions begin to form
in our thoughts and hearts.

How do we say thank-you to God?
What do we do with these gifts?
How do we take care of them?
How do we share them with others?
What difference does it make in our lives
that God has given us these gifts?
What is our responsibility to be caretakers and stewards
of these gracious blessings?
What will we tell others about the God who blesses us?
How will our lives show the world
that we are children of our Father,
brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and a people marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit?

And this is just a list to get us started.
We have these questions with us
when we rise in the morning and face each day.
These questions surround us
as we gather and meet and discuss
our ministry together as a congregation,
as we work together to meet human needs,
as we worship the God who blesses us.

But, we needn’t feel overwhelmed.
It is enough to know we have received these gifts.
And then we can remember St. Paul’s encouragement:
we are destined to live for the praise of Christ’s glory.
And when we approach each moment with this in mind,
God will show us which gift is the best one
to hold in our hands now and say,

“Thank you for this gift, O God.
Help me to know what to do with this blessing.” Amen.