Archive for May, 2012

Sermon Easter 7B – ‘Blessed is the man…’

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

The first of the one-hundred-fifty Psalms is brief and memorable,
with its wonderful imagery of a fruit tree planted by a running stream,
its ever-stretched-out leaves bathing in sunlight,
its roots drinking deeply of clean flowing water,
blossoming with flowers which give forth a healthy scent,
laden with fruit sweet to to the taste.
How different from the useless chaff that grows,
which uses up the precious soil,
but is blown away by the windstorm.
And it’s not just the chaff that’s blown away, either,
but sometimes what seems to be sturdiest and most permanent.

We had three very large trees in the backyard
of the house where we’ve lived for nearly ten years.
I say ‘had,’ because there are only two large trees there now.
The third tree stood outside our kitchen window.
One spring, a nor’easter blew through the Susquehanna Valley,
and this tall tree, solid as could be,
snapped near its base,
crashing into our neighbor’s house.
No one was hurt.
The trunk of the tree had been hollowed out over the years,
and all it took was that one gust of wind
to reveal the emptiness inside.

Psalm 1 exhorts us to fill ourselves with God,
to drink deeply of His Word,
to take delight in him and him alone,
that we might be alive, solid and yet supple,
to be able to resist the storms which will undoubtedly come.
But there is also another way to read the first of the Psalms –
and that is not as an exhortation to holy living
but as a description of the One who is holy.

Our translation of the Psalm reads ‘Blessed are they,’
but the original would read ‘Blessed is the man.’
We understand that there are men and women in worship today,
that both men and women are called to the holy life.
But when we read ‘Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingers in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seats of the scornful;
but his delight is in the Law of the Lord,
and on his Law he meditates day and night,’
we do not simply think of any person,
we think of a certain person.
the One who became man for our sake.

The early Church, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection,
began to read their Bible with him in mind.
That is to say that the disciples, all Jewish at that time,
steeped in the Old Testament,
who had indeed meditated on God’s Law day and night,
began to see Jesus, in the light of his resurrection,
in every story, in every Psalm, on every page.
And in this first Psalm,
can we not see the Righteous One, who knows no sin
and whose only delight is to know and do his Father’s will?
Instead of hearing the Psalm as just instruction to us, ‘be this, not that,’
we hear the Psalm and behold the One who became our righteousness.
We indeed have walked in the counsel of the wicked
and lingered in the way of sinners and sat in the seats of the scornful,
and yet we through grace are made part of the body of Christ,
grafted onto him and made branches of his vine.

Alone, we are exposed,
in him, we are sheltered.
Alone, the storms of sin, evil and death will break us,
in him, we endure them, but withstand them.
Alone, we are turned in all directions,
in him, we have place and purpose.
The life that he has with his Father now flows to us,
and we are one with all who are joined with him,
all who in the waters of Baptism have been joined to him in his death and resurrection,
and whose lives flow from him..

‘Blessed is the man.’
When we say this Psalm in this way,
we’re not reminding ourselves to not be around the wicked,
and instead to delight in the law of the Lord,
we’re praising the blessed One who did that for us,
and who blesses us with a share in his eternal life.
And you known, if we’re blessing Jesus Christ,
the wicked, the scornful, and the sinners
aren’t going to want to be around us anyway.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Blessed is he who was born for us, who was baptized for us,
who died and was raised for us,
who lived our life so that we might live his.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
both now and forever.

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May 20, 2012 at 1:01 pm Leave a comment

Bad Church Signs or Why we still need Luther

Church sign I saw on a BRETHREN IN CHRIST church in our area…

‘Do your best, and Jesus will do the rest.’

Sounds a lot like ‘facere quod in se est,’ which is the phrase that medieval Catholics used, ‘Do what is in you,’ to ‘console’ consciences worried about salvation.

Luther would have had at least a few things to say about the modern variant.

1. How can I be sure I’m doing my best?
2. I know I haven’t done my best, which means Christ can’t do the rest.
3. If I have indeed done my best, I have effectively saved myself, which brings no honor to Christ and begs the question why Christ needed to come for my salvation.

I don’t want my salvation to hang on whether I’ve done my best or not. Indeed, if it does, I know I’m in trouble.

The Veggie Tales had a catchy song in the movie ‘Jonah,’ ‘God is a God of second chances.’ Theologically, though, it’s problematic. I don’t want a second chance, I know what I did with my first. God better change me, or I’m not going to be changed.

The accusation leveled at Lutherans is that they don’t think they need to do anything to be saved. That’s rather a one-sided argument. Lutherans (at least the sane ones) know they have to be personally involved in the life of Christ. They just want the Spirit to be the one inspiring that life of daily death and resurrection.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to (from my point of view) do my best, believing that it is Christ who is the source of anything good in my life and me that’s the source of everything bad. With reference to my salvation, God better do it all.

May 17, 2012 at 9:55 am 4 comments

Sermon Easter 6B

Easter 6B
May 13, 2012

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Whenever I read or hear these verses from John chapter 15,
I think of a special group of men.
These are my college friends, four men that were involved with me in the music department
at Grove City College,
when we formed a singing group we called ‘The Grovesmen.’
We sing mostly gospel and barbershop music,
although I’ve gotten them to sing an arrangement of ‘Beautiful Savior,’
as a nod to my Lutheran heritage.
We did this all through college,
and recorded a tape back then,
and have talked for almost twenty years about recording a CD,
with no success.
We all have families now, you see,
and callings, and busy lives.
But every year in the summer, for eighteen years running,
we get together for a weekend with our families.

We play horseshoes.
Some of us play better than others.
We talk. We eat and drink. We reminisce.
We enjoy each others’ kids.
We pray.
And we sing at whoever’s church we’re closest to.
Usually the same songs we sang almost twenty years ago.
We’re pretty good.
We miss a few chords, but most of them we get, and when we get them,
the chords ring out as clear and true as only men in harmony can sing them.
I sing bass, although my bass range is going away.
There is a pianist to accompany,
although we’re not quite sure how often he practices.
Usually the high school choir director
or the barbershop chorus director leads us.
What is so unique about this group is the lack of any discernible superior in the group.
We’ve been together so long we know our weaknesses and strengths,
and we love each other, so we’re more than glad to subordinate our egos
to the strength of the others.
If there is any leader in the group, I dare say it would be Jesus Christ.
For he is why we sing.
That’s one of the ways I have experienced the community that Jesus envisions for his disciples
in the fifteenth chapter of John.
For without Jesus’ visible, tangible presence among the community of disciples,
what is to prevent them from becoming just another group of people,
with arguments over ‘who is the greatest,’ ‘who is in charge,’ ‘who gets their way?’
It is Jesus’ living Spirit, who is to be present among the disciples,
who is to rule in the community.
He remains the center.
When the Grovesmen sing,
we sing in a semicircle, towards a focal point,
and we listen to each other,
and occasionally we look towards one person who is keeping us together.
But, again, we don’t have a designated leader.
Except for Jesus.

The Christian community is to be bound together by living in Jesus’ love,
his unconditional and self-sacrificing love for us.
If we follow that command to live in his love,
he calls us ‘friends.’
We are his friends and each other’s friends through him.
It seems a rather bizarre statement for Jesus to make:
‘You are my friends if you do what I command you,’
but if friends cannot trust each other to help each other in need,
then there is no friendship.

Are there sometimes stresses in the friendship?
Of course there are.
It’s tense to put 26 people in one place for a weekend.
And that’s what we’re at, with wives and children and all.
It’s tense to put aside one precious weekend a year,
with family and church and work obligations,
It’s tense especially after we’ve sung, when the women have been keeping the children
and the children are tired
and it’s time to take the yearly photograph of the entire group.
But we get through it.

Maybe you’ve had similar experiences of friendship in your life.
In your family.
In a group of women who meet to scrapbook or read together or pray.
In a Bible Study.
In a military unit committed to each other through life or death.
On an athletic team where there are no egos, but simply a group of men or women
striving toward a common goal.
In a group of friends who meet regularly, to share what has happened since the last time,
because they have been bound together.
Bound together by love,
and if it’s a Christian community,
because they have been bound together by a common baptism and by love of the Lord.
The Lord Jesus is still our reigning Lord and friend,
who we are all striving to follow,
and who reveals everything he has heard from his Father,
bringing us into communion with the One with whom he is in perfect communion.
This is God’s vision for the Church.
We fall short, but we are raised up to acknowledge him as both our Lord and friend
and to strive to know him and each other so well
that among us there are no egos, there are no leaders,
except him,
and those who exercise responsibility exercise it humbly in his name.
May we be so blessed as to believe this to be true and to do it.

Alleluia!
Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

May 13, 2012 at 8:21 am Leave a comment

Sermon Easter 5B – ‘Abide in Me’

Sermon Easter 5B

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Ralph Milton, a gardener and blogger, wrote this story about his orchard;
a story very appropriate for today.
He writes,

“I’ll not soon forget the day Sax Koyoma pruned my fruit trees.
He lost patience with me and my timid pruning.
When he finished, my half-dozen trees looked desperately naked. And there were prunings all over my little orchard.

I was convinced my trees would never recover. But that summer they produced the best,
the sweetest, the largest, the most fruit ever.

“Sadly, Sax died in a tragic accident soon after that.
And I could never be quite as aggressive or as skilled when I did the pruning. When we’re thinking of the pruning metaphor in (the Gospel) passage,
it’s not a bit of timid snipping the writer is talking about.
The pruning that produces good fruit is aggressive and comprehensive. Every branch is pruned and pruned hard.

“I find it quite uncomfortable to think what that implies for me. For my church.”

When we think of images of Jesus,
‘the true vine’ does not leap instantly to mind.
‘The Good Shepherd’ is far more popular,
with its evocations of green pasture, still waters, being led.
If we took a poll whether we’d rather be a sheep in Jesus’ sheepfold
or a branch of Jesus the Vine,
I don’t doubt which we’d choose.
Jesus tells his disciples that every branch that is in him
(and pruned hard!) by his Father,
that a branch that does not remain in him is burned in the fire,
and that the branches are to produce good fruit.
There is something less comforting, more intense about being a branch of Jesus’ vine, then being a sheep in Jesus sheepfold.

And yet, we must remember that the images of Jesus’ relationship to us
are not mutually exclusive.
It is not that we are either the sheep of the good shepherd or the branches of the vine, We cannot be a sheep of the shepherd without being a branch of the vine,
and vice versa.
Both images speak to the power and will of our Lord Jesus.

 

The image of the shepherd speaks to the power and will of Jesus to keep us through every trial. The image of the vine speaks to the power and will of Jesus to accomplish his work through us.

The image of the vine and the branches evokes an understanding of an organic unity between us and Jesus.
Where does the vine end and the branch begin?
They are inseparable.

If they become separated, then the branch is no longer a branch, no longer able to drink deeply from the roots,
no longer able to blossom and bear the fruit of the vine.
In order for us to become the disciples we were created to be, we are called to abide in Jesus, to live in Jesus,

for our lives to be so closely intertwined with Jesus’ life that it is hard to say where his life ends and ours begins.

When we moved to Williamsport,
we had a tree along the street in front of our house.
When it bloomed in the spring,
horribly ugly ‘suckers’ appeared on the trunk of the tree.
The city had to come and cut it down,
and we had to have it replaced.
What I was told was that the tree had become infected,
and by the time the ‘suckers’ appeared, it was too late to prune it. The tree was useless and could not be saved.

The image of the vine and the vinegrower
helps us to understand that life in Jesus involves the pruning away
of everything that would sap the life-giving Spirit of Jesus in our lives.
The great comfort is that it is our loving Father who is the vinegrower.
If our lives are in need of painful pruning,
he does so not with an eye to destruction
but with the intent to purge us of whatever would keep us from abiding in the vine, whatever would keep us from producing the fruit of the kingdom.

Our world is full of messages:
avoid pain, embrace pleasure.
Avoid hard work, find the way of ease.
The image of the vine, the branches, and the vinegrower makes it clear that the Gospel of ease is a false Gospel. We will be challenged in our life of faith;
challenged by events over which we have no control, challenged to do things that we have never done,
to forgive people we do not wish to forgive,
to speak truth when a half-truth would be easier,

 

to endure suffering and yet believe.
We as Christians must and will go through difficult times,
times when it seems like we are stripped bare of any goodness,
when it seems as if we will never recover.
When these things happen,
God is not abandoning us,
rather let us remember that the loving Father prunes the branches he loves in order that they may flourish and bear fruit.

To bear fruit.
The image of the vine and the branches
calls us to the understanding that we are not simply sheep,
living a life of ease in a pasture full of grass.
Our lives are full of purpose.
And yet, the image also reminds us that the works we do are not ours, but Christ’s. He supplies all that is necessary for us.
Our lives are intertwined with Jesus’ life,
so that it is not we who act, but Jesus in us.
It is not our worth or lack of worth in the eyes of the world that is important,
but our worth in God’s eyes, as branches of his vine.
We do not focus our attention on what we do,
we focus our attention on Jesus, the True Vine,
whose Word has cleansed us,
who calls us to abide in the relationship he has created with us,
who will produce fruit from us that is perhaps invisible to our eyes.

Pastors have this experience, but lay Christians do as well:
those times when a person you don’t remember says,
‘Those words you said, that kindness you showed, that arm around my shoulder made such a difference.’
You don’t remember what you said or did –
you may not even remember the person.
All you know is that you were trying to live in Christ – to abide in him –
as he called you to do.
It made a difference.
Some of us get a glimpse of the fruit we bear in this life.
Some of us never do.
We believe Christ’s promise:
Those who abide in him bear much fruit.

Jesus says, ‘The branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine.’
I want to conclude this sermon with a story about an unfruitful branch separated from the vine, who yet by God’s grace bore fruit and flourished.
The Ethiopian eunuch had just come from Jerusalem, where he had been worshiping God.

 

He was a Gentile, and as such was an outsider, but even had he wished to convert to Judaism, the Old Testament law
regarding the uncleanness of men

with mutiliated or crushed genitals
prevented him from doing so.
He was unfruitful – in every sense of the word.
But through the preaching of Philip,
this as-good-as-dead man was brought to faith
that in Christ even he might become a branch of the True Vine,
receiving life from the One who is life itself.
If a branch can become separate from the Vine that gives life,
and in so doing become unfruitful,
it is also true that a dead branch may be grafted into the Vine that gives life,
and abiding in that Vine might produce the fruit of praise and thanksgiving.
It says ‘The eunuch went on his way rejoicing.’
We are tempted to think only of ‘helping others’ as bearing fruit.
Cannot simply rejoicing in God’s love in Christ be also the fruit that gives glory to him?

In your baptism, you, like that dead and unfruitful man,
have been grafted, like a branch, into the Vine that gives life. Abide in him, as he abides in you,
Let your life be a participation in his life,
so that your every word and deed
praises and honors him.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

May 6, 2012 at 8:30 am Leave a comment

Review: In Constant Prayer

In Constant Prayer
In Constant Prayer by Robert Benson

This is a very simple, yet winsome introduction to the idea of ‘praying the daily office,’ ‘liturgy of the hours,’ ‘daily prayer,’ etc. for the non-specialist. Benson describes keeping set times for daily prayer as ‘prayer for the rest of us,’ ‘prayer for the whole Church,’ and a necessary complement to prayer for personal needs.

What makes it intriguing for those who already pray the daily office? The drumbeat that the recovery of the office is the key to the recovery of the Church, and the author’s unsparing demolishment of his own excuses for NOT praying the prayers he has vowed to pray – excuses that I myself have used more often than not.

The only thing that bothers me is the occasional use of the tetragrammaton (‘Yahweh’). I wish that all Christian authors would follow Jewish practice and, out of respect, refrain from using this as God’s proper name.

A quick read, but you can take parts slow and savor Benson’s plain-spoken, direct, reverent words and his layman’s insight into theological ideas and the spirit of the age. An example (page 58):

“The prayer of the office can teach me the the world of prayer is much larger than just my own sweet personal self. I may well discover that prayer is not actually even for me.

“If I say the words of the divine office often enough and carefully enough and faithfully enough, I may well find a pearl of great price.

“Here is the pearl: the world is not my personal oyster.”

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May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment


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