What Became of the Shepherds’ Flock?

In his sermon for Christmas Eve, our pastor, preaching on St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, wondered aloud what the shepherds did with their flock after they had heard the angels’ assurance of the birth of the Savior and their promise of the sign the shepherds would find swaddled in the manger. Luke’s gospel does not tell us what became of the flock of sheep.

This morning’s Office of Readings began with the Invitatory psalm—Psalm 95. The antiphon appointed for Christmas framed the psalm, proclaiming:

Christ is born for us; come, let us adore him.

Then, lo and behold, the middle of this psalm, one that begins this office of the Liturgy of the Hours every morning, shone with new light, revealing God’s answer to the wondering question of what became of the shepherds’ flock:

Come, then, let us bow down and worship
bending the knee before the LORD, our maker.
For he is our God and we are his people,
the flock he shepherds.

—Psalm 95:6–7, LH

As David, the shepherd and psalmist, reminds us, we are the flock of sheep. And so, the shepherds do not leave us on the Judean hillside, grazing in the meadow. They bring us with them to the manger. On bended knees, we gather around the manger, and worship in true wonder the One who is our Lord, our God, our Shepherd. Amen.

Practice and Perseverance

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, July 10, 2012. The liturgy features the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, Abbot of Monte Cassino (c. A.D. 540), transferred from July 11.

Readings

Proverbs 2:1–9
Psalm 1
Luke 14:27–33

Homily

Since early 2000, I have studied Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese art that adapts moves designed for self-defense into patterns that carry strange and wonderful names like “Crane Spreads Wings” and “Ride the Wild Tiger.” My teacher continues to remind me that practicing Tai Chi is just that—practice. One does not perfect the practice; even the masters continue to refine their movements throughout their lives.

That’s an insight that helps to shed some light on the treasure we inherit from St. Benedict, whose Rule forms the foundation of western monasticism. In the Prologue, he writes:

And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom (RB Prol. 45–50, The Rule of Saint Benedict, Leonard Doyle, trans., Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press, 2001).

In today’s Church, the religious—monks and nuns—live by this rule in cloistered communities. Others are oblates, who live by the spirit of this rule beyond the walls of monasteries. All of God’s people, as Proverbs tells us, hear His summons to seek to “incline our hearts to understanding” His wisdom. As Jesus reminds us in Luke’s gospel, He calls us to “carry the cross and follow him.” In that way, Benedict writes, “… we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ …” (RB Prol. 50).

These acts of discipleship and obedience are ones we practice, but do not perfect, despite a lifetime of attending “a school for the service of the Lord.” St. Benedict encourages us not to lose sight of the benefits of our practice: “… as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love” (RB Prol. 49). Amen.

Christmas Reflections

The Holy Family

Memories are sometimes fluid and elusive.
We can come to believe
that we recall an event
in the kind of vivid detail
that only arises from personal experience.

But as we turn the memory over and over in our mind’s hands,
and look at it from different angles,
it gets hard to tell when our actual recollection ends
and our memories about the stories of those memories begin.

It’s what happens when we look at faded snapshots
taken when we were children.
Do we remember the lived event
or have we just built a memory
around the image in the photograph,
the stories our relatives have recounted over the years?

It’s hard to tell.
But in the end,
I don’t think it really matters,
because memory is not a transcript, a recording, a documentary.

It’s less than that, but infinitely more.
It’s our personal story,
and even if it’s not accurate in every detail,
it bears the truth of the meaning of the memory of the event.

That’s why our original memories
get overlaid and adorned and filigreed
with snapshots and anecdotes and stories and new memories
about those times when we have shared our old memories
with friends and family.

The picture we can envision
to help us understand ourselves
is of an attic, with boxes and chests
scattered in delightful disarray.

Some of these treasures are well marked,
but others are just a jumble,
waiting for us to come and to sort through them,
to make sense of them,
to put them in order.

This common and familiar experience
is what I imagine we share with Mary, the mother of our Lord.
Luke’s familiar telling of the birth of Jesus
reminds us how she and Joseph
found themselves swept up
in the Spirit’s whirlwind of action.

We know that God’s angel, Gabriel,
had announced to Mary
that the Spirit would come upon her
and she would conceive and bear a child,
the Son of God and Savior of the world.
That’s why the Church calls her Theotokos, or God-bearer.

And Mary remembers all of this, vibrant with detail.

And then the political powers
do what they do,
and upend the lives of the common people
to achieve their own ends.
So Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem
in the midst of her pregnancy.

And Mary adds to her memories.

They end up finding shelter with the beasts.
Then Jesus—God in the flesh—is born among the animals
and rests his head in a feed trough.
Soon the shepherds come and testify to the angels’ message:
“Do not be afraid. A Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is born.”

And Mary remembers this as well.

As St. Luke tells us,
“But Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV)

It’s the treasuring and pondering
that draws a picture for me
of the ministry of memory we share with Mary.
As the years go by and Jesus grows up,
Mary finds time to go to the attic of her memory,
she kneels beside a great big box,
and takes from it some straw,
a long strip of cloth,
a curl of lamb’s wool.
They are reminders to her—
in an age with no cameras
and in a time when she had no money
to pay scribes to write the memories on scrolls—
of the miracle of her son’s birth.

And “Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV)

The Greek words Luke chooses are powerful.
What we read as “treasured” is the Greek word suntereo.
It means “to preserve (a thing from perishing or being lost),”
or “to keep within one’s self, keep in mind (a thing, lest it be forgotten).”
(http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/suntereo.html)

And where we read, “pondered,” the Greek is sumballo.
This means “to throw together, to bring together,
to converse,
to bring together in one’s mind, confer with one’s self,”
or “to encounter in a hostile sense.” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sumballo.html)

It’s the work of a lifetime
to sift through memories such as these,
to keep them fresh in one’s mind,
to sort through the jumble,
to let the conflicts that arise work themselves out.

This was Mary’s work,
but it is ours as well.

We are like Mary in being swept up by the Spirit,
having our lives changed by the birth of God’s Son,
finding our journeys redirected,
walking to places we had not imagined,
meeting people we had not anticipated,
hearing messages we had not expected.

This is what happens when God our Father
gets to work in our lives,
when he breathes his Spirit into us,
when he comes among us in the flesh of his Son,
the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is nothing else for us to do
but to follow Mary’s lead,
to “treasure[] all these words
and ponder[] them in our heart[s].”

And as we do,
we can kneel together
before the manger
and tell one another in gentle whispers
how this helpless infant,
so “tender and mild,”
how this Son of God,
has touched us, changed us,
given us life and freedom,
blessed us with love
that we might follow him,
no matter what and no matter where it leads,
even to the foot of that baby’s cross. Amen.

Waiting and Acting for the Kingdom

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 fifteenth 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.

Author

David Frye, a member of the Spirit Driven Task Force and its Steering Committee.

Scripture

“Now there was a virtuous and righteous man named Joseph who … was awaiting the kingdom of God.” —Luke 23:50–51, New American Bible

Meditation

Today, August 1, our calendar of commemorations leads us to remember the life and faith of Joseph of Arimathea. He was the “virtuous and righteous … member of the council,” who offered his own tomb as the resting place for the body of Jesus.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that while Joseph was a member of the council that had brought about Jesus’s arrest, Joseph “had not consented to their plan of action.” In fact, Luke tells us that Joseph “was awaiting the kingdom of God.”

For Joseph, that attitude—that posture of waiting for the kingdom—turned to action when he offered what he had as a gift to our Lord, when he took a public stand that placed his position and reputation at risk.

We don’t really know what went through the mind and the heart of Joseph as made his decision to serve our Lord. But we can guess. We can feel his worry, his doubts, his fears, his wondering what would be the outcome of his decision.

For Joseph, or for you and me to live in ways that people see as “virtuous and righteous,” is not to live as though we do not face threats because of the actions we take in faith. Instead, to practice virtue and righteousness is to take those stands, even the unpopular ones, the ones that place us at risk, knowing that our lives rest in the hands of our Lord.

Joseph himself handled the body of our Lord, taking it down from the cross, wrapping it in a linen cloth, and then placing it in his tomb. He knew that death was real, that forces in the world could bring down even the most holy and blessed one among us.

And yet, because of his faith, Joseph did not turn aside from what he felt called to do. He turned his waiting for the kingdom into working for the king.

What are the ways in which we wait for the kingdom of God? What are the powers that threaten us? What actions does God our Father call us to take to serve our Lord, no matter what the risk to our safety, our comfort, our wellbeing?

When the Spirit guides us to answer these questions, then we will find a clear path to take. Our actions will show all who see us that we follow Joseph in waiting for the kingdom of God by practicing virtue and by living in righteousness.

Prayer

Gracious Father, stir up your gift of faith in us, so that like Joseph of Arimathea, we may wait for the coming of your Son’s kingdom, taking actions that reflect the Holy Spirit’s gifts of virtue and righteousness; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“Preferring Absolutely Nothing to Christ”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church celebrates the Eucharist on Tuesdays. Father Jerry Thompson invited me to lead worship on July 12, 2011. As is the parish’s practice, the service remembers a saint or other figure, transferring an observance if one does not fall on that particular date. Since July 11 is the memorial of St. Benedict, Abbot, I prepared a liturgy remembering his life and contribution to the Church.

Readings

Reading: Proverbs 2:1–9
Psalm: Psalm 1
Gospel: Luke 14:27–33

Homily

On July 11, the Church remembers and honors St. Benedict as the patriarch of Western monasticism. This movement of many branches traces its roots to his writing, entitled Benedict’s Rule.

Most of what we know of St. Benedict’s life comes from The Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, written in the sixth century.

Born in Nursia, a town in Umbria, Italy, around A.D. 480, Benedict studied in Rome, where he grew discouraged by the increasing coarseness of late imperial culture.

He decided to become a hermit, moving to a cave near Subiaco, a small town about forty miles west of Rome. Word about his holy living spread, and he soon attracted followers and disciples who desired to live according to his example.

After a time, due to conflicts with local residents, he moved to Monte Cassino, about halfway between Rome and Naples. This became the home of the first Benedictine monastery.

St. Benedict wrote his Rule, based upon The Rule of the Master, which was longer and more stringent than his own Rule. His little work is treasured for its balance and wisdom. In its Prologue, he wrote,

Therefore we must establish a school for the Lord’s service. In its organization, we have tried not to create anything grim or oppressive. (RB Prologue 45–46).

St. Benedict filled his work with references to the Scriptures. It helps those who follow his Rule to hear our Lord’s voice, to follow it, and to find ways to abide by it while carrying out the tasks of daily life.

Benedict’s Rule begins with a simple plea:

Listen, O my son, to the teachings of your master, and turn to them with the ear of your heart. Willingly accept the advice of a devoted father and put it into action. Thus you will return by the labor of obedience to the one from whom you drifted through the inertia of disobedience. Now then I address my words to you: whoever is willing to renounce self-will, and take up the powerful and shining weapons of obedience to fight for the Lord Christ, the true king. (RB Prologue 1–3)

The Rule ends by reminding all who follow Benedict’s teachings that the Christian life is always one of beginning anew:

Therefore, if you long to attain the heavenly homeland, with Christ’s assistance carry out this modest Rule for beginners that we have sketched out. (RB 73:8)

In addition to the multitudes of religious in the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions—both monks and nuns—who live by Benedict’s Rule, there are thousands of Christians who have become oblates of St. Benedict. They are not monks and nuns, but they are people who find themselves drawn to the quiet beauty of a life that emphasizes sufficiency, stability, and obedience and that practices humility and hospitality.

They continue their vocations in daily life, while attaching themselves to a religious community and making promises to offer themselves as oblations to the Lord’s service. Lincoln has a chapter of oblates attached to the Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. Colleen Baade, Pastor Gretchen Naugle, Steve Lichti, and I are oblates you might know.

Whether Christians take religious vows, make the promises of oblates, or simply embrace their desire to live out the covenant of Holy Baptism, St. Benedict’s teachings are a guide. Toward the end of The Rule, he writes:

They should bear each other’s weaknesses of both body and character with the utmost patience. No one should pursue what he judges advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others. They must show selfless love to the brothers. Let them fear God out of love. Let them prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, and may he lead us all together to everlasting life. (RB 72:5,7,9,11–12)

Today we bless God for giving St. Benedict to the whole Church as our guide for faithful living. Amen.

Commitment to the One

Introduction

The people of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Hickman, Neb., have organized a Spirit-Driven Task Force, bringing together almost three dozen 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 fifth of a series of weekly reflections 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.

The Rev. Ron Drury, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, wrote this meditation.

Meditation

“Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me. O LORD, God of truth.”

—Psalm 31:5, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW)

Committing our entire being to GOD in a loving relationship is not just “one” of the important choices we make as followers of JESUS…it is the crucial core of our life in Christ!!! These words are also found quoted by JESUS in Luke 23:46, and were the final prayer of our LORD from The Cross and are the central reality of this 31st Psalm.

JESUS in his life and death found comfort and guidance in the plea of the psalmist. They appear to be just as apropos for us and for all in this Season of Easter as well as anytime throughout the church year. In a similar fashion, the refrain from our “Hymn of the Season” for “The Resurrection of Our LORD” proclaims our deepest need:

“Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”

ELW #780, “Shepherd Me, O God”

Our life is not meant to be stuck in the muck of life, but rather one of being lifted up! If our focus is anywhere but in GOD, we are living a less than an abundant life and are dying.

Each of the refrains quoted above are keys to our living this reality as the “Resurrected people of GOD”!!! Please consider placing one or both of these in your heart for continual reflection. We as the sheep of Shepherd of the Hills daily praying for THE GREAT SHEPHERD to receive, redeem and shepherd each of us and everyone, would powerfully impact our serving as we give our all into GOD’S Hands each day! In making Psalm 31 our own we are immersed into the voice and prayer of JESUS. In a small way we gain a glimpse of JESUS relationship with his/THE Father! Only in JESUS can we pray FATHER!

Please take a moment to read and reflect on all 24 verses of Psalm 31. GOD is also our: Refuge; Deliverer; Righteousness; Listener; Strong Rock; Castle; Crag; Stronghold; Tower of Strength; Redeemer; LORD; Truth; Steadfast Love; Wondrous; Protector; Shelter; Trustworthy; and The Encourager! As you reflect on Psalm 31, please listen for the describing and clarifying words of how GOD desires to reveal divine presence!!!

Please pray with me these words from Psalm 31 and our “Hymn of the Season”.

Prayer

In YOU, O LORD, have I taken refuge; incline your ear to me; Be my strong rock; Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me; Shepherd me O God; My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love; from death into life – in JESUS! Amen.

SHALOM
Pastor Ron Drury

Encounter on the Way

Introduction

The people of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Hickman, Neb., have organized a Spirit-Driven Task Force, bringing together almost three dozen 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 third of a series of weekly reflections 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.

Meditation

This Sunday’s Gospel, Luke 24:13–35, takes us on a journey with a pair of travelers on the road to Emmaus. They encounter a man, share with him the earthshaking news of Jesus’ crucifixion and his appearances—raised!—to some women and several of his followers. The stranger, in turn, interprets the Scriptures to show them how they refer to the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

At the end of the day, the travelers say to the man, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over” (Luke 24:29, New American Bible). He does. He shares a meal with them: “And it happened that, while he was with them, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that, their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30–31, NAB).

The travelers remark to one another, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, NAB)

The Church sees in this Gospel the basics of its life: we encounter the risen Christ on the way—the journey of our lives—in the interpretation of the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread. Right here are the fundamentals of our worship: Word and Sacrament. These are the ways—the means, the methods, the media—through which God our Father has chosen to reveal himself to us in his risen Son by the power of their Holy Spirit.

When we gathered for our first time together as the members of the Spirit-Driven Task Force, we committed to immersing ourselves in God’s Word, to digging into the Scriptures, to asking ourselves what they say about the life God desires for our congregation and for us as individuals. We will be blessed when we do that. We are blessed as well by coming to the Lord’s Table and by feasting upon his Holy Meal, because there the risen Lord opens our eyes so we may recognize him.

Like the travelers on the Road to Emmaus, we too can invite our Lord to “stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” We too can say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”

These are the times and ways and places that our risen Lord has promised to be present in our midst and to give us the blessings of faith. When we attend to him and to his Word and to his Meal, then we will find ourselves driven by his Holy Spirit. This is all we need to carry out the mission we have received from God.

David M. Frye
Friday of the Second Week of Easter
May 6, 2011

The Will of the Father, the Way of the Cross

Introduction

The Spirit Driven Task Force is a lay-led group of almost three dozen members of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Hickman, formed to pray and study together and to examine the life of the congregation in the light of God’s guidance in Scripture and Tradition. The group held its first gathering on Sunday, April 17, 2011. This is the meditation I shared as part of the group’s devotions to begin the gathering.

Reading

Luke 22:39–46

Meditation

This week—more than any other—
reminds us that we are followers of “The Way,”
disciples of a Lord who bears a cross,
who carries that cross and us and our sins
into the depths and to his death.

This is the week we mark a procession
from palms to hyssop to garden,
moving from triumph to betrayal,
from trial and to burial.

As we know and trust and confess,
that grave did not contain him,
death did not have the last word.
And in a few short days,
once we have shared in his Supper,
contemplated his crucifixion,
we will gather again to raise our shouts of joy.

But along the way,
we stop in the garden,
with our Lord and our fellow disciples,
and find it is no place of peace.

Our Lord Jesus comes here to pray,
to ask for the bitter cup to pass him by.
But in the end, he himelf is obedient.
And so Jesus, the Son says,

Father, if you are willing,
remove this cup from me;
yet, not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42, NRSV).

We could say that the crucifixion begins here.
It starts with the submission of the Son to the will of his Father.
And so, if we want to be followers of our Lord,
then we begin here as well.
We begin by saying, “Not my will but yours, Father, be done.”

In truth, that is what was said for us
on the day we each were baptized.
Someone, on your behalf and mine,
made a vow to God Almighty,
that we would follow his Son, in obedience,
according to their will, not ours.

Our mission statement says the same thing.
When we are “Spirit-driven,”
then God and his will drive us,
and not the other way around.
The Spirit of the Father
inspires our worship, energizes our witness,
deepens our learning, molds our service,
and directs our support—
all to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our task in these gatherings, as people of The Way,
is to recall one another and our whole community
to the path of obedience to our Lord, to the way of the cross,
to deny ourselves, and to embrace our Father’s will.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and martyr,
writes for our sake in The Cost of Discipleship (p. 88),

To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self,
to see only him who goes before
and no more the road that is too hard for us.

This is the truth: no road is too hard,
no way too treacherous, no solution out of reach,
for us who follow our Lord Jesus Christ
and who bear his cross
marked upon our brows and laid upon our shoulders. Amen.

We Wait with Patience

Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., celebrated the Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 12, 2010.

+ + +

Readings

Isaiah 35:1–10
Luke 1:46b–55 (antiphon v. 47)
James 5:7–10
Matthew 11:2–11

+ + +

Prayer

Lord God, from your servant, Mary, we learn how to wait and to watch and listen with patience and faith for your Holy Spirit to move in our lives. Fill us with the grace to follow her example and to wait with patience; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

+ + +

Message

Quick!
How many words and phrases can we name
that remind of us speed?
Quick, instant, now, immediate,
just-in-time, ready-to-go, no prep,
swift, prompt, on-the-spot.

We have microwaves to zap our portable soup.
Deep in their circuits somewhere, our televisions are always “on,”
so that we don’t need to wait anymore for them to warm up.
We can get instant approval for new credit cards
while we’re standing in line to buy
microwave popcorn, frozen green beans,
pre-peeled carrots, and potato salad.

The morning after last month’s midterm elections
all of the talking heads, the pundits, and the wags
were speculating about the jockeying and hopefuls
for the 2012 presidential election.

The joke, that’s not far from true,
is that many people think that odd symbol
on the altar in churches,
the one that’s really iota-eta-sigma,
the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek,
actually stands for one-hour-service.

That’s the goal, because as soon as we’re done here,
we can mark off worship on our checklists
and get on with tackling the pile of projects, errands,
events, gatherings, and sundry to-dos
that crowd our calendars
until the little boxes bulge from the sheer volume
of our frenzied and frantic schedules.

Or look at our country’s attempts to conduct
a thoughtful and reasoned debate about federal spending.
The political climate of poll-watching
and the instant feedback that office-holders get from their constituents
by e-mailing, texting, twittering, and telephoning
make it almost impossible, at least so far,
for us to look carefully at the ramifications of what we do today
in the lives of our children and grandchildren.

And so we hang on to our hodgepodge of policies and programs,
initiatives and incentives,
taxes and tariffs,
entitlements and equalizations.
As a people, we want results now,
and we’ll do just about anything to get that outcome,
without paying attention to the mess we bequeath to our children,
to the size of the hole we’re digging at this very moment.

Did you see the news article about Jaguar’s newest prototype?
It’s a car with turbine engines
that goes from 0 to 62 miles per hour in 3.4 seconds.
What destination could be so important to reach so quickly?

All of the speed we crave, for some reason,
can leave us a little breathless and harried,
with our lives feeling full and stuffed,
but not in a good way.
Maybe it’s a little like that churning
we get in our guts when we’ve eaten
too much rich food,
dishes we know are not good for us,
but we put them away anyway.

And in many ways,
this time, of all seasons, is the worst part of the year.
Take the regular chaos we navigate almost daily,
and then throw in all of the preparations for Christmas—
the decorating, the parties, the shopping,
the wrapping, the cooking, and the traveling.

Who has time for much of anything?
It takes all we have in us just to show up,
maybe a little late, but at least we made the appearance.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself,
“Well, I’ve heard this sermon before.
Every pastor has this one in him or her.
I knew it. Eventually we were going to get
the ‘let’s put the true spirit of Christmas
back into the holidays’ sermon.’
They must keep this one in a file.

Well, you’re right.
Most every pastor has preached this sermon.
Probably more than once.
Most likely at least once in each parish he or she serves.

But the truth is that while the details may change
as the years go by and we refresh our cultural references,
the reason that we have all heard this message before
is simply because it’s true and we need to hear it.

It’s just natural for us,
every one of us,
you and me,
to want what we want and to want it now.
Immediately, no waiting.

That’s the reality of our human lives.
We cannot hide from this truth
and we cannot hide that truth from God.
He knows that we desire for our wants to be met,
that we want results now and satisfaction right away.

This is probably why Advent
as a liturgical season, as a devotional discipline,
as a time of waiting and preparing,
fights with the secular observances of the holidays
for our time and our attention.

It really is counter-cultural to say,
“Waiting and watching and wondering
are spiritual disciplines worth cultivating.”

But then, the Church is counter-cultural.
It lives under the lordship of Jesus Christ
and not the rule of the powers of this present time.

So listen, again, to the first part of that short reading
we heard from the epistle of James:
“Be patient, therefore, beloved,
until the coming of the Lord.
The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth,
being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.
You also must be patient.
Strengthen your hearts,
for the coming of the Lord is near.” (James 5:7–8, NRSV)

Twice in just two verses
James says to the Church,
“Be patient.”
And between those times
he illustrates patience
with the little picture of the farmer
waiting for the crops to grow,
waiting for the rains to come,
waiting for the harvest to arrive in its time.

Be patient.
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.” (Isaiah 35:4, NRSV)

Wait.
“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way.” (Isaiah 35:8, NRSV)

Slow down.
“…sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10, NRSV)

Listen.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:45b, NRSV)

Pray.
“…for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:49, NRSV)

Watch.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52, NRSV)

Ponder.
“Are you the one who is to come,
or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3b, NRSV)

Wonder.
“…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:5, NRSV)

Confess.
“For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven….” (Nicene Creed, LBW, p. 64)

Eat.
“…this is my body, broken for you.” (Eucharistic Prayer IV, LBW MDE, p. 262)

Drink.
“This is my blood poured out for you.” (Eucharistic Prayer IV, LBW MDE, p. 262)

Live.
“Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” (LBW, p. 74)

Be patient.
He is coming. He is coming soon.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Mary’s Song of Reversals

Introduction

The Congregation Council at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., where I am serving as interim pastor, opens its monthly meetings with devotions. These are the thoughts for the December 2010 meeting. The Magnificat is the Psalmody appointed for the Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 12, 2010. The council read it antiphonally in choirs.

Invocation

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Reading

Luke 1:46b–55, the Magnificat, Mary’s Song (ESV)

46b–47My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.

51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of low estate;

53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,

55as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

Devotion

This beloved passage often goes by the name, Magnificat, meaning, “magnify.” It comes from the first word of the text in Latin: Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum. Whether you call it that or “Mary’s Song,” the simplicity and the power of its words ring out.

Mary sings this song right after her conversation with Elizabeth, her kinswoman. Both are pregnant, Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John, who will grow up to become the Baptist. When Mary had greeted Elizabeth, John leapt in her womb. Elizabeth calls out the Lord’s blessings on Mary.

Beyond the work of the Spirit in her to conceive Jesus, Mary is inspired to share this song. It tells us how the Father’s grace moves among his people to reverse the way things are as part of his plan to bring about the kingdom through his Son. The proud are scattered, the mighty are dethroned, while the humble are raised up. The rich are sent away empty-handed, while the hungry are satisfied. Jesus will proclaim the same message in his Beatitudes and bring it to pass through his death and resurrection.

The song challenges me: do I hear it as a threat or as a promise? When do I lord it over others? When do I act proudly or haughtily? What about the fact that Americans are so well off compared to the bulk of the world’s people? Am I open to the leading of the Spirit in my life the way Mary and Elizabeth were in theirs?

I don’t have final answers to those questions. My responses depend upon what’s going on in my life. I hope to be able to say, with Mary, what she said to the Angel Gabriel when she heard she would bear a son: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV)

Discussion

+ What challenges do you face in submitting yourself to the Lord’s Word and living as his servant?
+ How do you see God at work in our congregation? What reversals has he brought about?
+ What can we do as servant-leaders to help the soul of our congregation to “magnify the Lord,” its spirit to “rejoice in God our Savior”?

Prayer

Our God and Savior, stir up your Holy Spirit in us, so that we may come to you in obedience as your servants. Lead us to find ways to magnify you through our ministry together. Fill us with the joy of your Spirit; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord. Amen.