Tuesday, September 29, 2009

e-vo for week of September 30

Dearest e-votees-

For as many sermons as I have heard and as many as I have preached I don’t remember them very well. I wish I had much better recall and facility for processing homiletical messages--I really do.

I do vividly remember, however, a sermon that was preached about 15 years ago at Cross and Crown Lutheran Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The preacher spoke of the pain he saw his daughter endure as she went through her divorce. The skeleton of the biblical text of Jesus’ teaching on divorce was enfleshed with the painful story of this marriage that did not last. Through the preacher’s pain I was able to glimpse God’s pain as the hopes and the dreams, the vows and the promises came unraveled.

Perhaps this week we will find occasion to encourage and nurture a marriage. Perhaps this week we will have to opportunity to care for someone who is walking wounded out of the ruins of a failed marriage. We might even get the chance to welcome an inconvenient stranger. May we be open to God using us as God’s agents to care for those we encounter.



Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Mark 10:2-16, NRSV

Everyone in our appointed text seems to be erring on the side of being stern and turning the cold shoulder. The Pharisees are using the tragic circumstance of a divorce as a means to perhaps catch Jesus teaching contrary to Moses. The disciples are trying to insulate Jesus from the bother of little children and their parents. The implicit message is that Jesus (aka God) doesn’t have the time or the interest in ones such as these. No one seems particularly aware of the needs of those enduring a divorce nor those of the little one needing a blessing save Jesus.

In terms of divorce, Jesus ups the ante. Perhaps Moses permitted such a thing but God never intended it. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” is part of our wedding liturgies to this day. Divorce is removed from the list of options by Jesus (except for marital unfaitfhfulness as in Matthew 19:9). Yet it still happens. Hearts are still hard. We push away from God’s intentions and from each other. We neglect Jesus’ words and wound ourselves deeply in the process.

In terms of welcoming the inconvenient visitors, Jesus ups the ante. Jesus is indignant that the disciples are turning away small children. Rather than push them off to the side he draws the child into the center and holds that one up as the example of how we ought to be. The disciples try to intervene and disrupt the blessing. Yet it still happens. Jesus heart is still open. Jesus draws the children into God’s intentions. Jesus’ words (and eventually his wounds) bring the deepest healing.

God stir us to be more like Jesus—speaking God’s desires and going the extra mile to welcome people. Soften our hearts. Work healing in us and through us all to your glory. Amen.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

e-vo for week of September 23

Dearest e-votees-

Whenever I preach I begin with a form of Psalm 19:14...

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

That is the often unstated undergirding prayer of these e-votions as well.

This powerful prayer is part of our assigned psalm reading for this coming Sunday. The lectionary reading is actually begains at verse 7--"The law of the Lord is perfect..."--but I wanted to include the psalm in its entirety.

My your day and your words and your meditations and everything else about your day be acceptable to the Lord--your Rock and your Redeemer.



The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19, NRSV

The first part of this psalm is palpable out here in the Pacific northwest. The power and beauty and creativity of God are easily discerned. This is a good place to be for people who like to lean hard into the first article of the Creed "I believe in the God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth". Stunning mountains, cascading waterfalls, pounding surf, and panoramic vistas all point to an artistic and inspired creation. The heavens and the firmament are proclaiming God's handiwork. Do we have eyes and ears and souls that are receptive to what we are being told?

It is possible to get lost in the first article of the Creed and neglect the work of Jesus and the on-going work of the Holy Spirit. That is a trap that some fall into out in this part of the country. I have heard that Bishop Mark Hanson made such assertions as well in the homily at the installation of Bishop David Brauer-Rieke. There is need for God's laws and precepts and commandments to be addressed. We are unable to live them out fully and faithfully. We need to be delivered from our transgressions and our errors. That is what the second Article of the Creed is all about. Jesus took what we deserve. Jesus lived as we cannot. Jesus' "great reward" is shared with us. We are saved.

The Holy Spirit continues to blow about this beautiful and sin-stained world. The work begun at creation and at our baptisms isn't finished yet. We are called and gathered and enlightened and sanctified (as Luther said in the Small Catechism) by the Holy Spirit. As this whimsical and potent force blows through our days and our failures we can dare to pray such things as:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Dear God, stun us with your creative beauty this day. Drive us to the foot of the cross with the law. Help us to rise as Jesus again says "Peace be with you." Carry us by the whimsy of the Holy Spirit to wherever You would have us be this day. Amen.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

e-vo for week of September 16

Dearest e-votees-

This week’s gospel text just sums it all up. Jesus is looking Jerusalem squarely in the face. The disciples are too busy looking in the mirror and fighting for the spotlight to catch the call to “Come and die.”

Where are we looking and what is catching our ears this day?



They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37, NRSV

One of my favorite takes on the disciples (particularly James and John) worried about where they will end up is found in an essay called James, John and Crazy Joe by Gordon Atkinson (aka RealLivePreacher). If you are one who is easily upset by earthy language you might want to ignore the preceding links. I find some of his musings about theology and ministry to be incredibly insightful and true. His book is a great addition to the shelves of those interested in deep and true theological struggles.

Jesus called his disciples and us last week to take up our crosses and follow after him. Bonhoeffer summarizes that as Jesus’ call to “Come and die.” This week Jesus again speaks of his impending doom. He is speaking clearly to them but they choose to remain in the blur and omit the clarifying questions. The silence must have been palpable.

Perhaps to fill the awkward dead space they start talking about who is the greatest among them. Words and laughing perhaps shifted over to declarations and yelling as they argue who is the best. Think about the worst aspects of beauty pageants writ large. The disciples don’t realize that seeking recognition (part of the “theology of glory”) is just about the polar opposite of taking up one’s cross and following after Jesus (part of the “theology of the cross”).

Not only did the disciples ignore what Jesus said…

Not only did the disciples choose blissful ignorance over painful reality…

Not only did the disciples really flunk out of the discipleship lesson of the day…

The disciples chose by their actions to show how ignorant and self-seeking and worldly they really are.

How about us: Are we seeking Jesus’ call even if it means the cross or are there other things calling out to us? Success? Adoring fans? Recognition? Promotion? Title? Fame?

God, give us ears to hear and eyes to see your ways. Help us love the children among us. Help us lift up others. Help us fix our eyes on you and offer our service to our neighbors—all to your glory. Amen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

e-vo for week of September 9

Dearest e-votees-

How easy it is to start a raging fire. How hard it is to extinguish.

Clear warnings come from our assigned epistle text about playing with fire. Will we heed them?



Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

James 3:1-12, NRSV

One of my most vivid childhood memories is experiencing the woods around our campsite burning up as a mysterious fire which began in our Volvo spread its destructive grasp. What started small did significant damage before it was restrained. We never determined with certainty if the blaze was intentional or accidental.

One of the most compelling movie images I have seen in a while (and trust me I have seen quite a few) was the scene in Doubt when the priest played by Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a preaching image regarding gossip. A woman is troubled in her soul about a dream she had and wonders if it has to do with her habit of gossip. When she talks to her priest he counsels her to take a pillow up to the rooftop of her apartment and stab the pillow with a knife. She comes back to report she has done as requested. He asks what happened when she stabbed the pillow. “Feathers.” she replies. The scene shows feathers flying away in all directions carried with the wind—beautifully shot. He tells her to go and retrieve the feathers. She says she cannot for she doesn’t know where they have gone. “And that is what gossip is.” proclaims the priest.

With our tongues we can start raging infernos. We don’t even need to say something directly. We can hint at it or just let a reckless assertion go unchecked. How easy it is to cast igniting sparks about and see what is ready to flare into blaze. Too many of us have pyromaniac tendencies when it comes to such things.

It used to be the case that at least we needed to say things face to face. People would be able to gaze into our eyes and perhaps challenge the wild assertion on occasion. These days we can start blazes with just a few strokes on the keyboard. The internet is a ripe fodder for blazes. We can twitter or blog or spam just about anything we so choose. We can easily obscure our identity. We can cut and paste and alter and repost with virtual impunity. Our audiences are larger than ever and accountability is at an all time low.

How careful are we with our tongues and with our typing? Does fresh and brackish water flood our conversations and our postings? Do the fig trees in our lives yield figs or some unnatural fruit? Do we find ways to put the best constructions on things or do we like to let festering insinuations enter into our thoughts and words and electronic communication?

The raging fire around the Los Angeles area that has been capturing attention in the news ought to capture our attention as well. Lives are destroyed and severe damage is inflicted when fires blaze—whether set intentionally or inadvertently. We need our tongues and our keypads to be tamed. That would be a great focus point for our prayers and our devotional practices.

Dear God, we make many mistakes. Give us courage to change our ways. When others burn us with their words and their actions help us find ways to forgive and renew. When we burn others give us courage and humility to do the hard work of restoration after the fire. Help our communications to be loving to neighbor and pleasing to you. Help us in this area of crucial growth, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

e-vo for week of September 2

Dearest e-votees-

This week's gospel text has the disturbing account of Jesus turning away a woman likening her and her demon-possessed daughter to dogs. (Whatever happening to welcoming the little children?). May we be blessed and changed and unsettled with this unsettling account of Jesus and his ministry.



From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Mark 7:24-37, NRSV

I don't like this exchange where Jesus seems all too ready to dismiss a woman in deep need. It seems that she wins him over with the verbal exchange and he grants a pardon from his original indifference. Good thing she was quick with her wits. I wish this account hadn't made it into the canon.

Texts like these are hard to sanitize and difficult to swallow. So let's not try. Let's be open to Jesus not being as nice and friendly as we have been led to believe in Sunday school and elementary lessons of the faith. Jesus has an edge here. He unsettles this woman and he unsettles us.

When it comes to heavenly feasts and a place at God's table where do we imagine ourselves? Do we presume there is a place for us? If we walk into the banquet do we take the seat of honor up front or are we more humble taking the seat towards the kitchen? Jesus had some things to say about that--pointed things. Do we walk into church with our finery on and expect to be greeted well or are we more worried about how others are treated? James had some things to say about that--pointed things.

Bottom line, nothing that we receive is a matter of what God owes us but rather gracious gifts from God's gracious hand. We have no business being at God's table or in God's house save that God invited us. We are no better than that woman who pleaded for the crumbs from God's table. We are no better than the one turned off by faith in our country seeing way too much hypocrisy and greed. We are no more deserving than others who by poor choice or rotten luck ended up with no job and maybe no home. We are all beggars.

I have always been struck by the last words attributed to Martin Luther. Here is one who knew Greek and Hebrew and translated the Bible into the language of the people. He prayed more than most of us ever will. He wrote so much that in death his hand assumed a writing pose (you can see a plaster cast at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN). He worked so hard for so long on behalf of so many. Yet at the end of his life, he knew his place. Perhaps we too can walk in this world knowing our place and having the sense to invite others, as well, into the place of God's grace. Luther's final words are below.

No. 5677: Luther’s Last Observation Left in a Note

February 16, 1546

“Nobody can understand Vergil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has first been a shepherd or a farmer for five years.

Nobody understands Cicero in his letters unless he has been engaged in public affairs of some consequence for twenty years.

Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years. Therefore there is something wonderful, first, about John the Baptist; second, about Christ; third, about the apostles. ‘Lay not your hand on this divine Aeneid, but bow before it, adore its every trace.’

We are beggars. That is true.”

These were the last thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther on the day before he died. (Luther's Works, Volume 54)

God, we are beggars. We plead for your mercy and your grace which sustain us daily. Help us welcome all to your gracious feast. Even your crumbs sustain us to life everlasting. And you give us so much more than crumbs--you sent us your Son. Amen.