It’s Advent, and I know that for most, the tree is up and the holiday spirit is on. There is a goodness to the holiday spirit that pervades this time of year. In the darkness and coldness of the coming winter, there is hope and light and warmth.
“Ring Them Bells” is an old Bob Dylan tune. It almost sounds like a Christmas song, but for me, it is an Advent song. “Ring them bells from the sanctuaries… for the world’s on its side, and time is running backward, and so is the bride.” Dylan’s lyrics are usually a bit cryptic and always open to interpretation, but certainly the world is on its side, and it would be fair to say that it often feels like we are running backwards, and if the bride is the church, it is truth enough for us as well. There is so much that resonates for me in the song. It is hard to believe that it was written 25 years ago.
It feels often enough like we are not getting anywhere, like we are stuck in a snow drift with the wheels spinning and we have no idea how we will get free. These are not such hopeful times. By plenty of measures, we are stuck. As a country we are divided and as a church we cannot seem to figure out what we are about. The future seems so uncertain.
Still we put up the tree, we play some carols, and amazingly it brings us to a better place. What was dark and cold becomes bright and warm and hopeful. There is something evangelical about it as well. We can ring it out for the rest to hear…
It’s just my 2¢. It is one of those deceptive phrases. Two cents is not much money but whenever I hear someone “add their 2¢” it is always something that they value more than a couple copper coins! So it was when the widow contributed her 2¢, the gift was significant beyond its monetary value.
Jesus was more than a little critical of some of those who were the active church attenders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees in particular. His criticism was that they had lost too much of a sense of what faith was really about. Instead of being a call to service, it became a matter of showing status and all of the power and privilege that went along with it. He compares the much larger gifts of the rich to that of a widow who places 2 copper coins into the temple treasury, and astonishingly suggests that the widow has given the greater gift because she gave everything that she had; she committed everything.
In many ways I think the reality of what the church is facing is a matter of commitment. I think that even among those who still consider church important, it has been slowly moving to the margins in terms of our priorities. A book I have been reading says this:
“Most churches (with a few obvious exceptions) are drying. Extracurricular activities from music lessons to sports participation are considered by most parents to be more effective at forming good character… than church. Spirituality has become wildly popular but so deeply individualistic that the fastest-growing “religious affiliation” among this under 30 are “none” and “spiritual-not-religious.”*
This is a question I have been asking myself lately: What does it mean to be the church today when it appears that we are no longer going to be the social and spiritual center of the community? I fear that the legacy we have inherited looks back too much and is too “practical.” The church has become maybe too much a building to be maintained, too much of a series of programs to be offered, and our mission has become too much of a matter of raising enough money to keep it all afloat. The widow’s offering is particularly poignant in all of this because Jesus recognizes commitment over content, faithfulness over results. The faithfulness of God and our own commitment are particularly significant in the midst of change.
As most of you know, I believe that the church is in the midst of very significant change. I think we will need to see ourselves more as an evangelical outpost than a religious institution. That is a risk-filled reality that will involve all sorts of experimentation, reprioritizing, failure, and regrouping. It sounds a bit like parenting in the digital age! Everything has changed and there is only the vaguest of directions to follow. Still, there is hope, and there is a God who calls us, like the widow, for the sake of the Gospel!
*Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger, InterVarsity Press, 2015.
I was recently chatting with an old friend. We both have adult children and we both are old enough to see ourselves playing out in the lives of our offspring. The vantage point of a parent is fascinating. There was a time when I was a parent in function, now I am a parent in fact. The work of parenting is pretty much over and I am left to mostly observe. If you have children and are anything like me, you see recognizable positives and negatives. We do make an imprint on the generation that comes after us. They pick up on our strengths and they pick up on our weaknesses and to that they add that what is distinctively their own.
Made in God’s Image
I wonder if that might not be something like what it means to be made in God’s image. God makes an imprint on us that is recognizable. I imagine that God looks on us as children and sees the intimate connection we have with the god self, but it would be hard to miss the part that is “distinctively our own,” we have ventured into a reality that is less than what God intended. In the language of the church, “we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the Lord.”In the language of St. Augustine, we are simultaneously saint and sinner. It is a Lutheran understanding of “saint.” Last evening at confirmation, one of the students said, its like we are completely good, but we sin every minute. That is about as good of a description as there could be!
Of Saints and Sinners
There are those who distinguish “saints” that follow God’s will, and “sinners,” who do not. There are others who set aside Sainthood for those extra-ordinary folks who standout in their faithfulness. Either way, most of us, if we are honest are somewhere in the middle. We do plenty that is saintly and plenty that is sinful. That is a rather Lutheran way of seeing things. “Saints” are not just those who led particularly exemplary lives and so are remembered. It includes those who have not quite lived up to God’s expectations as well, in other words it includes all of us!
The Communion of Saints
In the Apostles Creed, it speaks of the communion of the saints. For me that is a connection not only with those who have gone before, those living and dead who have touched my life with light and goodness, but it also includes those who have not completely measured up. That is good news, because it means there is a place for sinners like me!
Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany where Martin Luther posted his 95 Thesis Against the Sale of Indulgences that started the protestant reformation. Around the tower the title of his most famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God, is inscribed.
We worshipped at the church where the Reformation officially began 501 years ago this past week. I was expecting a much more humble birthplace for the Reformation. That comes from the legends I have heard of Luther’s father being unhappy with his decision to take Holy Orders as opposed to the more financially lucrative career in law that was planned for him, and with the seemingly obvious thought that the vow of poverty would mean that the church was meant more for the work of the Gospel than for a place to be adorned. Like so many things, the reality is not always the same as the mental picture we paint.
Worship at Castle church on the Sunday before Reformation Sunday
The congregation was larger than attends on an average Sunday at Grace, but not by many. Worship was “in the vernacular,” as Luther would have had it, but in this case that was German, so I was left to look at the format and structure of the service. The sermon was 23 minutes long and delivered from a high pulpit. The children (there were about 8) were led out for “children’s church” right before the sermon. They collected 2 offerings. One at the usual place in the service and another “for the work of the congregation” as people exited. This may have been where it all started, but it is not a place where the church is flourishing anymore than any place else I have been. 15% of the city’s residents claim to be protestant and 80% claim no religious affiliation at all. Some of that may be a result of 51 years of socialist rule that promoted atheism but still the numbers are striking.
The pastor greeting the worshippers outside the “Theses” doors at Castle church.
I would like to say that I was completely enthralled by the whole experience but I was not. Yes the structure was exquisite. Yes Martin Luther and Phillip Melancthon are buried in the back of the sanctuary. Yes this is where Luther attached his 95 Thesis Against the Sale of Indulgences. Here is where it all began. Still for me it was not really a “spiritual” pilgrimage. Instead it was an affirmation of how much of a transition we in the church are in the midst of! There was something very empty about Castle Church. That emptiness felt a little too familiar.
Luther had a sense that the Reformation was to be an ongoing pursuit. There was a time when the church was at the center of community (quite literally). The pastors were not simply preachers; they dispensed charity, served as attorneys, took in orphans, taught children and legislated morality. Most of those roles are gone, maybe rightly so, but the change that we are in the midst of now could be even more profound than the Reformation that began 500 years ago.
The gravestone of my Ancestors in Forgue Scotland is so worn that its inscription cannot be read.
The church seems to be becoming more narrow in its focus. More spiritual and less physical. The best of music and sermons can be downloaded to your phone to be watched or listened to at your convince. There are agencies that specialize in all those charitable and social functions that were once filled by the church. If you have a spiritual or biblical question, you can search Google or post it to FaceBook and find more answers than you can read.
I visited the home village of my earliest known Scottish ancestors. The church no longer has a pastor or worships as a congregation, the building is owned by “Friends of Forgue Kirk,” the graves are in the cemetery out back. The stone is unreadable, the site of the house where they lived is a barely evident pile of rocks, which would have been unrecognizable if it were not for a kindly gentleman we met at the cemetery, he knew were Pennyburn was, but you could sense that knowledge disappearing with his generation…
The physical disappears. The structures that we come to depend on fail. The people we depend on fail. It seems like hope is lost. The last stanza of Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” might be appropriate. Sometime in the past the title was added to the tower of Castle Church. It looks and maybe even sounds like the church is the fortress, but really it is the Church. And that is not really about structure at all.
“God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it; for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”
Berlin is a city that “officially remembers.” There is a memorial to the Jews that died in the holocaust. There is a memorial to the homosexuals who were put to death in concentration camps. All around the city are obvious and subtle remembrances of the wall that once separated the East from the West. As there is in much of Europe, there are bronze markers inlaid in the sidewalk in front of the addresses of those who died in the holocaust.` There is even a sign that marks the location of the bunker where Hitler lived out his last days (an appropriately undeveloped site which serves as a parking lot). In the latest remodel of the Reichstag the architect Norman Foster even preserved the graffiti the soviet soldiers wrote on the walls with burnt sticks at the conclusion of WWII. Yes, there is plenty that looks beyond these dark past events, but it would be hard to miss their presence.
My son Ben was 6 years old when the wall separating East and West Germany came down, so anything other than a united Germany is something that he only knows through history. Kathy and I were 4 years old when it was constructed, so the division between East and West and particularly the Communist terror of the East was the truth we grew up with. My mother was 5 years old in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland beginning the European expression of World War II. It is fascinating how having experienced these different realities influences our understanding.
I am a Child of the Cold War
Being born in 1957 means that I grew up with the Cold War. The “Iron Curtain,” otherwise known as the Berlin wall, was the dividing line between ideologies, a separation of people that at the time seemed obvious. This might be a Western view, but it would be hard to miss that West thrived and the East withered. What sat underneath every thing was a great sense that “communism” was an oppressive enemy and that the Berlin Wall in particular, served primarily to keep the East German’s from escaping to the West. At least from a Western perspective, it functioned as a kind of of local containment of the world’s Communist evil. Though this view of communism’s intrinsic evil was fading for me by the end of the war in Vietnam, and the general opening of the east, it was not completely gone. In 1978, one of our classmates was caught trying to smuggle three East Germans out of the country in the trunk of his car and he received a 2 1/2 year prison sentence. We understood this part of the world to be a dangerous place. When the wall came down in 1989, it seemed like an impossible reality.
The East and the West
We visited two former SED sites. Hohenschönhausen prison and the Museum “der runden Ecke.” Both seemed like something out of a 1970’s spy movie and both had a peculiar smell which we were told was the smell of East German plastic. It was distinctive and almost 30 years later it is still there. The past has a way of remaining. The University of Potsdam, where my son Ben is finishing his post-doctoral studies, is not an old institution. It was established in the 90’s on the site of a former SED training facility. The original buildings on campus were used to train the Stasi, among the most hated, feared institutions of the East German Government. On the same campus, he works out the inner working of a chemistry that I will never understand. History should be easier, but this is even harder to understand.
I am told there is a controversy in Berlin these days specifically, and in Germany in general about how central all of this corporate remembrance should be? Indeed, it would be easy to miss– the line of bricks inlayed into the sidewalk and crossing the street that marks the location of the wall. Berlin today is a thriving city. Indeed it would be easy to miss that the hill we climbing to an old and abandoned NSA (National Security Administration) listening post built to monitor East Germany, was placed on a massive debris pile that intentionally buried a Nazi training facility under the remnants of the bombed out remains of the city.
But Do the Victors Remember?
It has long been said that the victors write the history. I think it could also be true that the victors tend to not be bothered with remembering. I have been to the site of Wounded Knee. It is not a likely destination in South Dakota and I suspect most Americans do not even know what the “Trail of Tears” was. We conveniently forget that there were 10 detainment camps scattered across the west during World War II were US citizens of Japanese descent were held, and it is not surprising that there are those who are opposed to the establishment of the new memorial to those who where lynched in Alabama.
It seems that in this era, when the country I live in is considering the construction of a wall, and there seems to be a general sense of the dangers of those who are racially or socially unlike us, we too might consider the past…
The truth is that the movie the “Greatest Showman,” probably sugar-coats P. T. Barnum a little more than might be appropriate. After all, the saying “there is a sucker born every minute,” is most often attributed to him. In his quest for money, he was was responsible for the abuse of both animals and some of the human attractions in his shows. Still, the circus was the vehicle that brought a certain sense of light to those “who were accustom to living in the darkness.”
“This is Me” was the lead song at the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering. The movie may have been about P. T. Barnum, but the song is more about shining light into the darkness. It is about bringing light to those personal truths that our culture might rather keep out of sight. In the context of the Youth Gathering this was a litany of the social and cultural issues of our day: addiction, abuse, race relations, and sexual orientation to name a few.
There is good reason to focus on the often systemic reasons that have made these issues what they are. There is a call for justice. But that, it seems to me, is a matter of the circus master. While it is a worthy effort to deal with those in power who so often are the root causes. There is also the matter of the performers. Those who live with the truths of all that their circumstances have created.
“I am not a stranger to the dark Hide away, they say ‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars Run away, they say No one’ll love you as you are”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the light that shines in the darkness. That light is the light of love. It is truth that God is the one who “love(s) you as you are.” I think we have been taught to feel shame with those things that might be uncomfortable to those around us.
“God helps those who help themselves.” It sounds like it is from the Bible but the truth is, it is not. Sometimes we think we have God figured out but most often find God to be different than we expect. Jesus just finished telling the disciples that suffering, death, and resurrection were in the future. This was probably not what they were expecting but it also was not the first time they heard it either. On the heels of this announcement, a couple of disciples come to him with a request.
Sons of Thunder
There is really something a little presumptuous in James and John’s request when they come to Jesus and say “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” We would have to assume that they somehow thought that they were somehow entitled to make this sweeping request on account of being disciples. It could have been a bucket of money or a palace or a prestigious position, which is closer to what they asked for– “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left…” Earlier in the Gospel of Mark (3:16-17) they are described as the “Sons of Thunder.” In Luke when the Samaritans were unresponsive to Jesus’ message, they wanted to call down fire from heaven and burn them. (Luke 9:54). These were probably not quiet soft spoken disciples. They were the Sons of Thunder after all! So when they asked, it was a request that came from the power and prestige they must have thought they represented.
We live in an entitled society. Those who study such things often say that as power and prestige increases, people’s sense of entitlement increases too. It would be a great thing if the more we had, the more we would be willing to give more. But often enough, the opposite happens. We become more convinced that we deserve all the things that we have.
I think the reason we resonate with the thought that “God helps those who help themselves,” is because we would rather be in control of our own destinies! God might have plans for us, but we have better plans. We would like to let him know that we too would like to sit at the right or the left of Jesus in his glory. For that matter we can think of all sorts of places in this world where we better deserve respect and consideration we have earned…that we are entitled to.
Power in Service and Prestige in Humility
The thing is that Jesus showed power in service and prestige in humility. It is the opposite of what the world would expect and if we are honest, it is the opposite of what we expect too. In the cross, the hope of the world is invested in the very truth that seems impossible. Life is found in death. Hope is found in the places that seem hopeless. God helps those who are unable to help themselves.
There is an expression that I think most people, parents in particular, know pretty well: to be “caught in a lie.” You know the scenario: someone is speaking and most often without even realizing it, does or says something that makes it clear that they have just lied. If you are a parent and this is your child, you meter out the punishment and hope to influence your child’s developing values. As your child grows (hopefully) your methods of parenting change.
A man runs up to Jesus and in the exchange the man pretty much says that he has never broken a single commandment since he was a child. Murder, adultery, thievery, those are seemingly easy, but false witness, fraud, honoring your father and mother… the list gets harder, but he the man says “yes I have kept all of them since my youth.” How is that possible? I think Jesus caught the man in a lie. But instead of calling him out on how unlikely it was that he actually had been able to maintain that level of faithfulness to the law, raised the stakes. If you want to inherit eternal life, “sell everything and give the money to the poor, then you will inherit the eternal life that you desire.” It might not sound like it, but it was the gracefulresponse.
The unrealized truth in all of this is that just like the love between a parent and child, there really is nothing that we can do to inherit eternal life. Inheritance is something that is given with relationship, not something that we achieve! There is plenty in life that we have to work for to achieve, to strive for, and often enough to fail at. In this life there are precious few things that we are entitled to. The love between parent and child is or at least ought to be one of them. I think it is the most helpful model we have of our relationship with God.
The world can be a hard place. There are laws and rules and procedures we strive, and in the end we fail. We might achieve some measure of success, but that next place where we sin and fall short is usually just a few steps away. We fall! “Fall On Me” is performed by a well known opera singer and his 20 year old son. The son begins. He is looking for divine inspiration that does not seem to come and instead his heart is broken. The father, being an opera singer, responds in Italian and we might miss it. He tells his son that direction and meaning will come.And he suggests that it will make him smile if in the time he has left his son brings him along. In loving we are loved. In giving we receive. We fall on each other, and we fall on God, and most often it isa matter of falling.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. Isaiah 25:6
The kingdom of heaven is often described as a great banquet in the Bible, a gathering around a table. There is something that connects people when they gather around food. That it would be a comparison of the kingdom that is to come, is to say that gathering around a table is a holy act. Of course it is about more than just food. It is about the ones who are there and in sharing food, there is more than just eating and drinking. Connections are made and affirmed. It is powerful.
Babette’s Feast∗ is the story of a remarkable and lavish feast prepared for people who not only would never expect such a thing, but would see it as contrary to God’s plan. How a couple of elderly and pious Scandinavian sisters end up with a French housekeeper is remarkable detail of the story. How a French chef ends up preparing the bland and unremarkable food of their piety for years, is the back story. How she wins the French Lottery’s 10,000 franc prize but instead of using the money to return to France, uses it to prepare a feast to honor of the sister’s late father and founding pastor’s 100th birthday is the essence of the story! It is a gift that the congregation really does not want because among this pious congregation there is a certain pride in their meager provisions. However in receiving her extravagant gift, their distrust and superstitions are broken down.
It is no surprise then that Jesus took the altar, the traditional place of sacrifice and turned it into a table. This is my body given for you… This is my blood shed for you. Yes, it is the language of sacrifice. It was the tradition of the temple. Yet Jesus turns it into a meal, bread and wine, a loaf and a cup, shared. As Lutherans like to say, “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
When I first heard the song “Come to the Table,” my mind went immediately to Holy Communion. Much later I saw the video that was put together for the song by the Sidewalk Prophets and I found myself thinking of our Wednesday night supper/services….
∗ A link to the short story by Isak Dinesen is found here, there is also a 1987 film of the story with the same name (it is available here on Amazon Prime, and probably other places as well)
People were taking the children to Jesus that he might bless them. In Jesus’ day it was apparently a common practice, but it is easy to miss the significance of this story. Hebrew fathers had been blessing their children throughout the whole Old Testament. Hebrew parents had been bringing their children to the synagogue way before Jesus’ time for a ritual of blessing. The Talmud contains one of these blessings: That they might be “famous in the Law, faithful in marriage, and abundant in good works.” It is a prayer that is not so different than what we might wish for our own children, that they might work hard and accomplish a lot.
Remarkably it appears that Jesus changed the ritual. You see the the elders of the synagogue, the scribes and the pharisees, while they participated in these rituals, they did not touch the children. In fact they made it a point never to touch anyone, because in doing so, they would have risked becoming unclean. The law had became so self-focused, it physically disconnected them from the community. Jesus changed it all. By taking the little children in his arms, he was showing that faith happened in connection, not in isolation. Jesus was always about connection, most often with the very people that no one wanted to touch! Jesus welcomed everyone.
I think that while we understand this all inclusive grace filled community that Jesus is talking about, we too often approach life in a way that looks a lot more like personal works righteousness! We believe that God rewards hard work with success; that the more we accomplish the more God will reward us. We talk about teamwork but right under the surface is some thing that is much more selfish. I fear this self-focused approach to life and faith creates the same misguidance that the elders had in Jesus’ day. We see faith as something that is so focused on me alone, that others really do not matter. Faith is not really about my personal relationship with Jesus. Faith is always about us in community!
One of the key ingredients of the Faith 5 approach that is central to both the Wednesday evening service and the soon to begin Sunday morning GIFT worship is the 5th step and concluding step, where around a table, the participants bless each other. They make the sign of the cross on their neighbors forehead and say: “Jesus loves you, and so do I.” I am guess that might be as uncomfortable as the “sharing of the peace,” was when we introduced it into worship 40 years ago, but it is a physical reminder of our connection with one another, but in the simple touch and short phrase, we show our connection.