Archive for February, 2012

‘Living in the Covenant’ – audio

Here is the audio for yesterday’s sermon, ‘Living in the Covenant.’  Please excuse my atrocious French pronunciation.

February 27, 2012 at 10:07 am Leave a comment

Living in the Covenant – Sermon 1 Lent 2012

‘Living in the Covenant’

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

United and Salona Lutheran Churches

Sunday in 1 Lent

February 26, 2012

 

Yesterday, for his thirteenth birthday,

I took my son Michael up to Syracuse

to see the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the musical Les Miserables.

We tend to pass on our interests and our passions to our children.

Some children learn to go fishing and hunting

because their dad has taught them how.

Some enjoy certain foods or movies because they are family traditions.

My wife and I have music and literature to pass on to our children;

and I pass on my love for sports,

which I’m proud to say that Michael does not only like to watch sports,

but is more physically fit than I ever was.

So we made the trek to northcentral New York

to see the musical based upon a book written by the French author Victor Hugo in the early 1860s.

Les Miserables was translated very quickly into English,

and around the time of the battle of Gettysburg,

many officers and men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia

were carrying it around in their knapsacks.

Some sarcastically referred to themselves as ‘Lee’s Miserables.’

 

The main character of Les Miserables is a man named Jean Valjean,

who spent nineteen years on the chain gang:

His family desperate with hunger,

He broke into a bakery and stole a loaf of bread.

For that crime he served five years.

Fourteen years were added to that sentence for his attempts to escape.

Released at last, he finds nowhere to turn but to a kindly bishop,

who takes him in and feeds him for a night.

The embittered Valjean repays the bishop’s generosity by stealing some silver.

When he is caught, the bishop maintains Valjean’s innocence,

and says that he has forgotten the silver candlesticks the bishop has also given him.

Humbled by the bishop’s mercy,

and terrified by his own sin,

Valjean turns from his old life

and takes up a new name.

Within eight years he has become a factory owner

and the mayor of a small town in France.

 

But he finds that his identity cannot escape him.

He discovers that a man has been caught and identified

as the parole-breaker Jean Valjean,

and that this innocent man will receive a sentence

for the crime that he has committed.

The real Jean Valjean is confronted with a desperate choice.

He has responsibilities,

He has people dependent on him,

He has hidden himself so well that he would never be suspected.

He has done so well – living as an upright citizen and helping those in need.

And yet, he has made covenant with God to live for God.

Who is he? Can he escape from who he had been –

Or is he always the convict who must live as a convict,

bearing his shame and his name to save another?

 

The idea of covenant runs through the entire Bible.

Two parties who make a covenant agree to be faithful to that covenant,

to abide by the covenant,

no matter what may come.

This Lent, we will hear read several Old Testament covenants

that God made with his people,

including the covenant of the Ten Commandments:

God promises to be our God,

and we promise to be his people.

 

Today we heard of the covenant that God made with Noah and his descendants,

that never again would the inhabited earth be destroyed by the waters of a flood.

The sign of the covenant was the rainbow.

Nowadays the rainbow is supposed to symbolize diversity of people,

but that is not the biblical image.

Instead, it is God hanging up his bow,

renouncing this weapon –

never to be used again.

Perhaps that understanding has faded over the years,

but it can easily be recalled:

The rainbow is a sign of peace – peace between God and humanity.

 

The remarkable thing about this covenant is that it is unconditional.

In other covenants, there are stipulations when the covenant is broken

by one party or the other.

Not in this covenant.

God makes an everlasting covenant,

that the earth shall never be destroyed again by a flood.

God binds himself by his Word.

He declares his unbreakable intention toward humanity;

to preserve life, to continue life, to maintain life.

 

One wonders whether or not God ever had second thoughts.

Having witnessed the barbarism of humanity over the years,

how we haven’t changed since the time of Noah:

our cruelty to each other,

our ignorance of his commands,

our despoliation of his creation,

our pride and our despair and our indifference,

one would think that God would have ample reason to abrogate the covenant.

And yet, God remains faithful,

because he does not break his promises.

 

When Jesus is baptized, anointed with the Spirit,

And the Father declares, ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,’

The Spirit immediately drives him in the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The Gospel of Mark does not relate the content of the temptation.

But a more relevant question for us is ‘why?’

Why does temptation follow so quickly upon baptism?

Why, after the baptismal covenant is made,

is it immediately tested?

 

It is tested because only there can faithfulness be discerned.

The devil tests the Son’s faith in the covenant declaration about him.

Does God really have the ability to deliver on his covenant?

Jesus himself knows that God has hung his bow in the clouds –

That he will refuse to intervene even if Jesus suffers the death of the cross;

That God has chosen another way – the way of love –

To conquer human rebellion.

Satan asks – can you really trust God?

Wouldn’t it be safer – wouldn’t it be smarter – wouldn’t it be easier –

to rely on yourself rather than upon your Father?

 

We will hear more on this in the Gospel lesson next week.

But let us return to the fictional Jean Valjean.

He has a choice before him –

To give in to the temptation to hide behind the lie he has created –

A lie for a good purpose – but still a lie –

And to let an innocent man take his place;

Or to emerge into the full truth,

Living in the covenant that God made with Jean Valjean

And not with any other man:

‘I will be your Father, and you my adopted son.’

Does he trust that God will provide for him

even if he emerges into the light?

Or does he trust in himself,

in his own cunning, to steal another man’s meaningless life

for the sake of the good life he has created?

Wouldn’t it be safer? Wouldn’t it be smarter? Wouldn’t it be easier?

If the meeting with the bishop in the beginning of the story

was Valjean’s baptism,

then the scene where he appears before the court

and rips open his shirt to show the convict’s tattoo upon his chest

is his victory over temptation.

Valjean believes that God will keep covenant with him,

And so Valjean is empowered to keep covenant with God, no matter the cost.

And he does so throughout all the rest of the story.

'Who am I? I'm Jean Valjean!'

In doing so, Valjean follows in the steps of his master, Jesus.

For Jesus, alone among all of us,

Remained in the covenant which God made with him,

Trusting in the promises that God made,

No matter how distant or full of trouble they seemed.

And in Lent, we are invited,

Gathering around Word and Sacrament,

in fasting and prayer and works of love,

to live ever more deeply in the covenant God made with us

through Holy Baptism,

answering Valjean’s question, ‘Who am I?’

with the answer, ‘I am my sinful self,

but I am also the Father’s adopted child,

forgiven and claimed by his faithful Son,

and I will live each day in this trust and in this promise,

keeping covenant with the one who will always keep covenant with me.’


February 26, 2012 at 9:19 am 1 comment

To Seek the Truth: Ash Wednesday 2012

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III, STS

United and St Paul Lutheran Churches

Ash Wednesday (texts from Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

February 22, 2012

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

For many years I have heard this familiar refrain

from well-meaning ministers and Christian people:

‘This year I’m not ‘giving up’ something for Lent,

I’m ‘taking on’ something for Lent.”

I must confess that I find it rather cheeky

that suddenly in these enlightened times

our generation has suddenly found the secret

to improving the ancient Christian practice of Lent.

Granted, during Lent we always are called upon to refocus our priorities,

to give money to the poor we might not think to do at other times,

to give extra attention to the Word,

to devote more time to prayer.

All of these are well and good.

There is always a sense in which we are doing something more.

So why am I uneasy?

Maybe there’s a good reason well-meaning people

suggest taking something on for Lent rather than giving something up.

Maybe it’s that the practice we all grew up with,

giving up a favorite comfort food or a leisure activity,

is quite frankly so little of a sacrifice for many people

that it hardly qualifies as a sign of repentance.

You give up chocolate? Dunkin’s got lots of stuff without chocolate.

You give up a game on the computer? There’s something else to distract you.

Maybe I have not understood for many years

that the impulse behind a taking on of an extra something

is motivated by the unspoken sense that for many of us,

our Lenten discipline is not really such.

Certainly it is not the response to the urgent calls of Amos for public repentance,

to the fervent pleas of St Paul to be reconciled to God.

But I still am concerned,

because Lent is not to be about what we can accomplish for God’s sake,

but about humbling ourselves before God.

The essence of Lent is not throwing ourselves into a frantic race

to live the faith we should live every day.

The essence of Lent is to seek the truth, for the first time or the hundredth;

and that means emptying our lives

of all that is superficial and needless

so that we might devote ourselves to seeking that truth.

The essence of Lent is to seek the truth.

The truth about God, and the truth about ourselves.

The truth is we were made for relationship with God,

but we want to control that relationship.

The truth is that we want God, but we want him on our terms,

living mostly for ourselves and squeezing God in when it is convenient,

filling our lives with things we can see and touch and taste and manipulate,

and daring to praise ourselves and to seek praise from others

for our piety, for our little faith, for our religious behavior.

The truth is we are created,

dependent upon God for everything.

God gave us our parents, who fed and sheltered us,

God gave us our community, who nurtured and educated us,

God gave us the Church, to tell us that we were sinners

but that God himself had found us in Jesus Christ.

Having learned from the Word,

we humble ourselves in the silence of our hearts,

emptying ourselves of the pretension

that we might be able to accomplish something for God,

something that would make God and others sit up and take notice.

We do not seek the praise of others

nor even for God to praise us,

but only for the grace to live in God’s presence.

It is then that God gives us himself,

so that he might accomplish what he desires through us,

no matter how great or little it might seem to us.

The ashes on our forehead today

can remind us of at least three truths.

When we are lifted high, puffed up and proud,

they are there to knock us down,

challenging us to remember that our lives are not our own,

that we are not made of eternal stuff,

and that the one who made us from the dust of the earth

will return us to the dust.

But they are also a reminder that it is from the earth

that God causes fruit to spring forth.

To be a creation of God

is to be imbued with God’s potential,

for he may implant in the ground seeds that can bear fruit for his glory.

We need do nothing but be empty, waiting for God to accomplish his will in us.

And finally, the ashes in the shape of a cross are testament

that in Jesus Christ, God himself came down to the dust,

Jesus shared in our guilt and bore its consequences,

Jesus was the fertile soil from which the Church sprung forth.

And Jesus is the one who makes both dust and cross

not merely symbols of death

but promises of the new life

which is given to us to seek truth:

the truth about us, that we are sinners always in need of grace;

the truth about God, that he is grace who comes for sinners,

and makes us sons and daughters.

February 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday: The Church Confesses… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Guilt, Justification, and Renewal)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radical message reaches to our own day.

From his unfinished magnum opus, Ethics, we are given an essay on ‘Guilt, Justification, and Renewal’[1]. In this astonishing document, Bonhoeffer dares to confess in the name of the Church the Church’s failure to keep God’s commands in his own time. Then he recognizes the objections some will raise and answers them.[2]

This Lent, may the Church not only remind individual members of their sins, but understand and confess its corporate guilt in refusing to be Christ for the world, so that in the confession of the Church, ‘humanity may be judged by Christ and therefore exist before him,’ and ‘convicted in their guilt, (be) justified by the one who takes on and forgives all human guilt, namely, Jesus Christ.’ [3]

The church confesses that it has not professed openly and clearly enough its message of the one God, revealed for all times in Jesus Christ and tolerating no other gods besides. The church confesses its timidity, its deviations, its dangerous concessions. It has often disavowed its duties as sentinel and comforter. Through this it has often withheld the compassion that it owes the despised and rejected. The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven. The church did not find the right word in the right way at the right time. It did not resist to the death the falling away from faith and is guilty of the godlessness of the masses.

The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and by not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends. The church has looked on while injustice and violence have been done, under the cover of the name of Christ. It has even allowed the most holy name to be openly derided without contradiction and has thus encouraged that derision. The church recognizes that God will not leave unpunished those who so misuse God’s name as it does.

The church confesses it is guilty of the loss of holidays, for the barrenness of its public worship, of the contempt for Sunday rest. It has made itself guilty for the restlessness and discontent of working people, as well as for their exploitation above and beyond the workweek, because its preaching of Jesus Christ has been so weak and its public worship so limp.

The church confesses that it is guilty of the breakdown of parental authority. The church has not opposed contempt for age and the divinization of youth because it feared losing the youth and therefore the future, as if the future depended on the young! It has not dared to proclaim the God-given dignity of parents against revolutionary youth and has made a very worldly-minded attempt ‘to go along with youth.’ Thus it is guilty of destroying countless families, for children’s betraying their parents, of the self-divinizing of youth, and therefore of abandoning them to fall away from Christ.

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering of body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

The church confesses that it has not found any guiding and helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationship of the sexes to each other. It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness. Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say. The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth. It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of Christ.

The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed, while the strong were enriched and corrupted.

The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation. It has not condemned the slanderers for their wrongs and has thereby left the slandered to their fate.

The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquility, peace, property, and honor to which it had no claim, and therefore has not bridled human covetousness, but promoted it.

The church confesses itself guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments. It confesses thereby its apostasy from Christ. It has not so borne witness to the truth of God in a way that leads all inquiry and science to recognize its origin in this truth. It has not been able to make the loving care of God so credible that all human economic activity would be guided by it in its task. By falling silent the church became guilty for the loss of responsible action in society, courageous intervention, and the readiness to suffer for what is acknowledged as right. It is guilty of the government’s falling away from Christ.

Is this going too far? Should a few super-righteous people rise at this point and try to prove that not the church but all the others are guilty? Would a few churchmen like to dismiss this as a rude insult and, presuming to be called judges of the world, proceed to weigh the mass of guilt here and there and distribute it accordingly? Was not the church hindered and bound on all sides? Was not all worldly power arrayed against it? Should the church have endangered its ultimate purpose, its public worship and its congregational life, by taking up the struggle against anti-Christian powers? So speaks unbelief, which perceives confession of guilt not as regaining the form of Jesus Christ who bore the sins of the world, but only as a dangerous moral degradation. Free confession of guilt is not something that one can take or leave; it is the form of Jesus Christ breaking through in the church. The church can let this happen to itself, or it will cease to be the church of Christ. Whoever spoils the church’s confession of guilt is hopelessly guilty before Christ.

In confessing its guilt the church does not release people from their personal confession of guilt, but calls everyone into a community of confession. Only as judged by Christ can humanity that has fallen away exist before Christ. The church calls all whom it reaches to come under this judgment.

The church and the individual, convicted in their guilt, are justified by the one who takes on and forgives all human guilt, namely, Jesus Christ. This justification of the church and the individual consists in their becoming participants in the form of Christ. It is the form of the human being judged by God, delivered over to the death of the sinner, and awakened by God to new life. It is the form of the human being as it is truly before God. Only as drawn into the shame of the cross, the public death of the sinner, is the church – and the individual in it – received into the community of glory of the one who was awakened to new righteousness and new life.


[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.6). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, 134-145. (Quoted text from pages 138-42.)

[2] The critical apparatus in the DBW edition from which this excerpt is taken has several very helpful explanations of the specific problems in German society Bonhoeffer may have been addressing. Nevertheless, multiple interpretations and implications may be taken for our own day, which will no doubt vary depending upon the perspective of the reader.

[3] Ibid., 142.

February 22, 2012 at 7:00 am 2 comments

The ‘Free’ Exercise of Religion…in Tibet (and at Yale)

I am so glad I turned on Morning Edition on my commute.

While we in America debate the revised HHS rules on contraception, apparently, in Tibet, you’ve got Chinese government agents right inside your Buddhist monasteries. Gotta love having a commissar there while you pray. I don’t think self-immolation is the answer, and apparently neither does the Dalai Lama, but it’s becoming a more prevalent form of protest these days. Twenty-one monks have immolated themselves in the last year.

Meanwhile, Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian who is big on dialogue with Islam, posts on his Facebook that the NYPD has spied on the Muslim Student Association at Yale.

February 21, 2012 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

Lent: A Time for Fasting

From a Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod pastor’s blog. Five years old, but still very relevant. The Bible is two thousand years old, and it’s still relevant.

Enjoy your fastnachts/Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday!

 

February 21, 2012 at 10:14 am Leave a comment

Unveiled – Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2.19.12

”Unveiled”

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

St Paul Lutheran Churches, Loganton and NittanyValley

The Transfiguration of our Lord

(biblical texts from Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

19 February 2012

First atomic explosion, "Trinity," July 16, 1945

The area fifty miles from Alamogordo, New Mexico is a desert wasteland. It was called “Site S” by American military scientists. The native peoples who had populated the desert for years beyond count knew the place as Jornada del Muerto: “Death Tract.”

At Jornado del Muerto, on July 16, 1945, at 5:30 a.m. local time, “Trinity,” the first atomic bomb, was test-fired. The results could not have been imagined, even by those who had designed and built the weapon. Within a mile of Ground Zero, all plant and animal life, including rattlesnakes, cacti, and desert grass, was utterly destroyed. An antelope herd that had been seen from the air grazing miles from the blast simply vanished.

When Harry Truman heard of it sailing across the ocean to meet Churchill and Stalin, he muttered, ‘This is the Second Coming, in wrath.’ A writer who was a witness described the scene: “…It was as though the earth had opened and the skies had split. One felt as though one were present at the moment of creation when God said: ‘Let there be light.’”  Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists who had created the bomb, was reminded of two passages from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst from the sky, that would be the splendor of the Mighty One,” and “I am become Death, shatterer of worlds.”[1]

Today we read verses from the Psalms that describe God in similarly powerful terms: Out of Zion, perfect | in its beauty,* God reveals him- | self in glory. Our God will come and will | not keep silence;* before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a | raging storm. He calls the heavens and the earth | from above* to witness the judgment | of his people.[2]

And yet we modern people are not used to thinking of God in this way. Our modern-day Gods have become so domesticated, so tame, that the words of the Gospel of Mark to describe Jesus’ transfiguration and the horrified reaction of Jesus’ disciples scarcely scratch the surface of our limited imaginations: “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them…”[3] God’s glory was being revealed to them, God unveiled, of whom the Bible said that no one could see and live. No wonder they were overwhelmed and terrified.

Part of the reason we don’t think of God in these terms may be because God seems so distant, so absent. Or maybe it is not this at all. Maybe it is not this, that God is not present, but we are not often present to him – the glory and power of God are always discernible if we but look and listen, but if we refuse to be open to him, the power and glory we deny cannot be revealed to us.

In his book Beginning to Pray, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a man who came to him and demanded, “Show me God.” Archbishop Bloom said that he could not show him God, but even if he could, the man would not be able to see God, for it was his opinion that in order to experience God, one must have something in common with him. The man pressed him, and the Archbishop asked the man if there was any passage in the Bible which held particular meaning for him. The man answered, “Yes. The story in the 8th chapter of John of the woman caught in adultery.”[4] “Good, that is a beautiful passage,” the Archbishop said, and asked him to whom he related in the story: the woman with nowhere to turn; Jesus, full of compassion and mercy; the older men who knowing their own sins refused to cast the first stone; or the younger men who reluctantly followed their example. The man thought for a moment, and said, “No, I am the only Jew who would not have left but who would have stoned the woman.” The Archbishop replied, “Thank God that he does not allow you to meet him face-to-face.”[5]

“Our God will come and will | not keep silence;* before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a | raging storm.” In Jesus, the kingdom of God has come in power, power more real than an atomic bomb: power not to destroy us, but to annihilate his enemies: to bind the evil One and plunder his house,[6] to rescue from condemnation those who are under the judgment of the Law,[7] to swallow up death forever.[8] Our God is indeed a consuming fire; He comes to consume all that would keep us from him.

On the mountain, Peter, James, and John are given a glimpse of Jesus’ glorious Power, the Power that Moses and Elijah served, the Power that eclipses the Sun, the Power that the ancient Israelites believed it would b death to encounter. Then Jesus once again veils his power in weakness and descends into the valley, into his own Jornada del Muerto, the way to the cross, the place from where we must understand his true power in weakness and humility before we encounter it in the glory of the Resurrection.

In New Mexico in 1945, power could only be measured in kilotons, in the ability to destroy. That’s how human beings understand power, as the power to destroy. The power of God is love which has the ability to create. That is why this power is veiled in weakness, in the God-become-human Jesus, in his words and deeds, and in his character so that we might be drawn to him, not to be annihilated by his glory but to be transformed by it, so that our lives might be translucent with the light of his love.

‘This is my Son, my chosen One: listen to him! the Father says. Indeed, this is our joy, to listen to him, and then to walk through life bearing his cross, preferring Jesus to the power of the world and preferring to bear with others than to cast them off,[9] to proclaim Jesus as Lord and be the servants of others for his sake, to be transfigured into the image of Jesus. ‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’[10]

And so God is indeed unveiled in this world, not in the flash of light, fiery blast and swirling winds of death, but in the life-giving words and deeds of Jesus and in the transfigured lives of those who hear and do them. Let us glimpse him, let us hear him, let us taste him, let us worship him today, let us allow his light to shine through us, so that this Transfiguration Day may be an anticipation of the great day of the unveiling of his life-giving glory before the whole world.


[1] Manchester, William. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. New York: Bantam, 1974, pp. 377-78.
[2] Psalm 50:2-4 (RSV)
[3] Mark 9:2-3 (NRSV)
[4] John 8:3-11 (NRSV)
[5] Bloom, Anthony. Beginning to Pray. Blackstone Audio, 2010. This story is related in Chapter One, “The Absence of God.”
[6] Mark 3:27
[7] John 8:10-11
[8] Isaiah 25:7
[9] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003: “Suffering and the Cross”
[10] 2 Corinthians 4:5-6

February 19, 2012 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

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