Thursday, January 11, 2018

Providence


Propers: The Second Sunday after Epiphany, A.D. 2018 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Fate is the notion that everything is set in stone, that your last day has been written before your first has yet begun. If you believe in fate, then whatever happens is what was meant to happen, and we must make our peace with that.

Chance, on the other hand, is all about possibility—or at least probability. It’s all in the roll of the dice. Chance is very open-ended; anything’s possible. But at the same time it is inherently meaningless. If something really is pure chance, utterly random, then there is no purpose to it at all. It just is, and could just as well not be. There is no sense making sense out of chance.

Throughout history, these have been the dominant worldviews: fate or chance, order or chaos, rock-ribbed reality or random happenstance. Yet both options are deeply unsettling and ultimately unsatisfying. Who wants to choose between a universe either fatalistic or finicky? Neither one quite rings true.

Some have tried to chart a middle course. The Romans, for example, spoke of fortune as the fuzzy intermixture of fate and chance, a leaky borderland between the absolute and the unknown. Others preferred to focus on raw human will: our ability to choose, to chart our own course, to shape our own destinies. Alas, both notions are pagan. The former winds up worshipping a universe capricious and cruel, while the latter deifies humanity as something far worse—building our utopias on the bones of everyone who gets in the way.

The Bible, however, presents us with a world governed neither by fate nor by chance, nor indeed by unfettered human will. Rather, the world we meet in the Bible is a world of story. It is that of an artist painting his masterpiece. Throughout the Bible, God is described as an architect, as a weaver, as a warrior and a woman. And in all of these stories, God is teasing out, God is developing, God is coaxing His Creation along with the co-operation of the artistic medium itself.

God chooses to work with, to work through, rather than just work upon. He works through angels and galaxies, sun, moon, and stars. He coaxes the earth to put forth the trees. He draws forth the snows to blanket the fields. He pours out the waters of chaos—complete with sea monsters to frolic in the waves!—then gives limits to the chaos, saying this far and no farther. Every bit of Creation is an element in a symphony, born and grown in relationship to all the others.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the creation of human beings. We were not the strongest nor the greatest of the animals. We were not the loftiest nor the holiest of spirits. Yet we were placed right at the center of the world, the capstone of creation, the bridge between the physical and the spiritual, the material and the ethereal. And we were tasked to be caretakers, to be gardeners, to steward and explore and sub-create this world that God has made. He appointed us to be the storytellers within the story, to share in the Image of God by sharing in the love poured forth between the ever-creating Creator and His ever-created Creation.

Thus we are given a world that’s not all about fate, that’s not all set in stone. Mind you, there is an end to the story, a goal to which God is leading and drawing the whole of Creation. But there is chance as well, the workings of reason along with the roll of the dice. There are certainties and then there are probabilities. And then there is will—the raw human will that rejected the love of God, that disrupted the great symphony of Creation—but also the will redeemed in Christ that allows for true love, for true and reciprocal relationship, between God and Man. Nature has free process, humans have free will, and God, it seems, delights in both.

The proper word for this is Providence, which describes the interaction of a loving God with the world He will neither enslave to fate nor abandon to chance. Love cannot be forced, and so God will not force His love upon Creation; we are free to sin, much to our own horror and shame. Yet neither will love permit God to give up on us, to flee from us. It is God’s own love unbounded that compels Him to come down in Christ as one of us, to step body and soul into His own Creation, to love us all the way to hell and back!

Providence offers us a worldview that is dynamic, relational, and interactive, a world that only makes sense when we understand it in love—love, expressed not in sentiment, but in selfless self-giving for the good of another. It is a world in which we have a hand, in which we have innate dignity and value, because it is precisely in and through this world that God chooses to meet us, to steward us, to draw us ever and ultimately home in Him.

Today’s Scripture readings are all about calling: the calling of Samuel, the calling of Nathanael, the calling of Christians to live as the Body of the Lord. But we won’t understand the nature of our calling until we understand the nature of our world. Our calling is not fate. It’s not as if God has given each of us one specific job, and our destiny is to fulfill it during our brief span upon this globe. Nor is it simply will, doing whatever we feel like doing while chalking up any consequences to the inscrutable purposes of God.

God calls us by giving to us spiritual gifts, strengths and weaknesses unique to who we are. We all have talents that come naturally to us, or passions that drive us, which other people do not necessarily share or understand. It is our calling, as Christians, to use these gifts for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind. In other words, we are to love God by loving our neighbor. That’s it.

And that will look different for everyone. For some of us it will be painting or writing or sculpting. For some it will be teaching or building or cleaning. For some it could be running for office or raising a family or fighting to defend your country. Or it could be something very quiet—a grateful prayer, a humble life, a peaceful home.

But whatever your calling, whatever your gifts, when offered up for love of God and neighbor, they will enhance the whole of Creation; they will contribute to the sublime symphony that is this wondrous world, this continuing work of God’s own art in which each of us has a hand.

We have been freed, my brothers and sisters, in Christ; freed from sin and self and death; freed, so that we may live free to free others! We all have a calling in Christ. We all have spiritual gifts. And to discern them we need only ask what it is that we love.

That doesn’t mean that our fate is fixed or that our future is entirely open-ended; it certainly doesn’t mean that we should just do whatever feels good at the time. But when we live in faith and love—when we discern our deepest, truest selves and open them unto the service of God, His world, and His people—it is then that Christ shines forth through us out into the world, and brings us all home in Him.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Decade


Pastor’s Annual Report, A.D. 2018 B

This summer marks a personal milestone for your pastor: a decade of ministry here at St Peter’s in New York Mills.

When we first arrived here, in our late twenties, my wife and I were new at everything. We were new at marriage, new at parenthood, new at home-owning, and still fairly new at ministry. Other than our stints as vicars in New England, we had both served as associate pastors in Fargo and Moorhead. We had one kid, not quite a year old, and I was still adjusting from East Coast urban to upper Midwest. I didn’t even know to keep my water softener filled with salt.

A lot has happened in 10 years. We’ve welcomed two more children, and somehow ended up with a pair of dogs that still won’t leave. My wife has served several parishes in the area, helping congregations recover from rough times, while here at St Peter’s we’ve paid off our building loans, dramatically remodeled our basement, grown a large and thriving Youth Group, replaced the roof, established and refined a three-year Confirmation curriculum, offered dozens of Adult Formation classes, celebrated every holiday I can think of, sent delegations to the National Lutheran Youth Gathering, and deepened our life of worship together.

And what’s great about all that is just how little it had to do with me. I’m not being glib.

All those things above were made possible by the Holy Spirit at work in this congregation. They are the result of hundreds of hands, of the blood, sweat, and tears of sainted sinners gathered together beneath this roof to worship and serve the Lord together. I didn’t remodel that basement; you did. I didn’t build up the Youth Group or work each night with our Confirmands to study Scripture and pray daily at home; you did. You, the people of St Peter’s, stitched the quilts and gathered the funds and assembled the care packages and filled up our Angel Tree. You set the Altar for worship every Sunday, not me. You read the Scriptures and chant the Psalms and sing the hymns and welcome the stranger with coffee and food and fellowship. And you do all of this, week in and week out, without grumbling or complaint, for whosoever cares to attend.

You give of your time, your talents, and your treasures. You bring your enthusiasm to Halloween and Twelfth Night. You bring your questions and contributions to our Christian education. You teach our children of all grades in Sunday School. You provide the example to your family and friends that worship is a priority. You Confess your sins, and receive Absolution, and go out into the world to be Christ for a cosmos still very much in need of Him. And we do all of this together, as one, just as Christ prayed we would be.

On top of which, we baptize our children and marry our spouses and bury our dead, here as the Body of Christ, day in and day out, season by season and year by year. And one day you look up and suddenly a decade has passed: a decade of living as Christians sustained by grace in this remarkable place. And we look back, with that peculiar mixture of humility and pride, to marvel at what all Christ has done for the people of New York Mills through St Peter’s Lutheran Church, and through each and every one of you.

And just so you know, I can now mow a lawn and catch a fish and sit up in my deer stand with a bow, and my wife and I can almost—but not quite—manage to hold it all together while raising three kids and preventing our house from burning down. (It only really caught on fire that once.) We’re not the same people who moved here a decade ago. I’m at least slightly less stupid. Hey, give me a few more decades and I might really get the hang of this whole clergy thing.

Thank you for all of your love and support. We, the Stouts, never could have gotten through the last 10 years without your patience, your guidance, and your willingness to look after small children. We thank God for you.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The River


Propers: The Baptism of Our Lord, A.D. 2017 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Every cradle of civilization has been centered on a river.

Egypt has the Nile. Mesopotamia has the Tigris and Euphrates. The Americas have the Amazon and the Mississippi; India, the Ganges and the Indus; and China, the Yellow River and the Yangtze. Rivers provide us with freshwater and fresh fish. They fertilize fields to grow crops. They attract wildlife and waterfowl. And they connect us along trade routes with other civilizations, other human beings.

The Garden of Eden is said to have had no less than four mighty rivers, and the antediluvian civilization of the Black Sea had at least five. In many ways, rivers make us human. They give us opportunity to become more than beasts or brutes.

Yet at the same time, rivers often demarcate boundaries. They are lines we ought not cross. The Roman Empire stopped at the Rhine. The Tiber was Caesar’s point of no return. The Isonzo cut a gash through the Alps that marked some of the bloodiest fighting of the First World War. And in America, well, we’ve had more than one clash over the Hudson and the Rio Grande.

It’s the same in the Bible. The River Jordan marks the eastern boundary of the Holy Land. It runs from the Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. When the time came for God’s people to cross into the Promised Land, to reclaim the inheritance of their ancestor Abraham, God broke open the Jordan, piled up the waters as He had at the Red Sea a generation earlier, to fling wide the gates of Canaan to His people Israel.

The Jordan is the border between the gentile and the Jew, between the promise and the curse. The Holy Land is holy; the pagans, not so much.

And so it means something that John the Baptist stakes the claim of his ministry in the Jordan—and not in the fertile, prosperous, temperate north, up by the Galilee. No, he preaches down south, amidst the wilderness, where the Jordan winds its way to the deepest point on earth, in the salty, stark, and sterile waters of the Dead Sea. And here come the Jews and here come the gentiles and here come all the wayward sinners of every type and stripe, to hear John proclaim in the wilderness, “Make straight the paths of the Lord! The Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Until one day, the One to whom John has been pointing arrives: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And as He steps into those waters, something astounding happens. The heavens are torn asunder, the Holy Spirit of God descends upon Christ as a dove, and the voice of the Almighty I AM thunders, as once He did atop Sinai: “You are My Son, the Beloved! With You I am well pleased!”

This is not the baptism of John. John’s was a baptism of repentance, of preparation, of turning hearts to receive the coming King of Kings. No, this is something altogether different. This baptism does not change Jesus. Rather, by entering into these waters, Jesus elevates Baptism to a new and greater reality.

The borders have been breached! The heavens, torn asunder! No longer does the Jordan mark the boundary between the promised and unpromised lands, but rather between the world of God and the world of Man. And God has invaded! He has not sent to us an emissary or a herald or a prophet but He has come Himself, in full force, Father, +Son, and Holy Spirit, breaking into our world, casting down the devil’s defenses, storming the beaches of the late great planet Earth.

That term, torn open, torn asunder, is very important in the Gospel of Mark. It is used only one other time, at the Crucifixion, at the tearing asunder of the curtain in the Temple that divides the Holy of Holies from the rest of the universe. It is the barrier between life and death; between Heaven and hell; between the ineffable realm of spirits and angels, and the jagged rocks of our own terra firma. And that barrier is battered down.

The eagle has landed. God has touched down upon earth in the person and mission of Jesus Christ, eternal Son of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. We are invaded from above and our world is overthrown—which may sound scary to those with a vested interest in the established order. But it is sweet liberation for the prisoners in the dungeon to see the walls of the castle come tumbling down.

This is what Baptism is for us today. It is the broken border betwixt this world and the next. It is the portal, the gateway, through which God enters our world, through which God becomes one of us. When we enter the waters of Baptism, we are drowned. We die to our old sinful selves. And we are raised up, as Christ is raised, with the Holy Spirit now burning within us. It is the Spirit of God who makes of our bodies His Temple—which is to say, He makes our bodies into Jesus’ Body.

We are possessed, if you will, not with overriding demons but by the loving Spirit of life, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who descended into hell and rose victorious with all the souls of hades resplendent in His train! The Spirit burns within us, burning up our sins, constantly forgiving, constantly refining, constantly raising up a sweet incense of prayer whereby we are daily risen from the dead. And no matter how wicked we are, we cannot extinguish that flame within us. Christ is come, and He isn’t going anywhere without you and me.

Baptism is Christmas continued in each and every one of us. It is the Incarnation of God expanded! In Christ, God became Man. And now, in Christ, Man becomes one in God. We are the vanguard. We are the soldiers of Heaven’s invading army. And we have been sent not to wage a violent war but to wage everlasting and unceasing peace—to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the sick and visit the imprisoned—and to do all this in the Name of Jesus Christ who is making the world and all things new.

And when next we see the River, it will not be as a border, as a warzone, as an outpost in the desert. Rather, it will be the River of Life, coursing through the heart of the infinite City of God, with the Trees of Life along its banks bearing 12 harvests of fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations! We have seen where this mighty River leads, and there is no staunching its flow.

God meets us in the River. God meets us in the waters. God meets us in our Baptism.

And thereby God meets the world in you.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

12 Days


Midweek Christmas Vespers

Reading:

A reading from the works of Charles Porterfield Krauth, who is commemorated by the Lutheran Church on this Tenth Day of Christmas:

Well might Luther write upon the table at Marburg: “This is My body;” simple words, framed by infinite wisdom so as to resist the violence and all the ingenuity of men. Rationalism in vain essays to remove them with its cunning, its learning, and its philosophy. Fanaticism gnashes its teeth at them in vain. They are an immovable foundation for faith in the Sacramental mystery, and the gates of hell cannot shake the faith of the Church, that our Lord Jesus Christ with the true body and true blood which He gave for our redemption on the Cross, is truly present in the Holy Supper …

If it be granted that the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Supper is one which is fixed, absolute, and unchanging, then it must be substantial, and not imaginary; not a thing of our minds, but of His wonderful person; not ideal, but true; faith does not make it, but finds it, unto life; unbelief does not unmake it, but, to its own condemnation, fails to discern it. The sacramental presence is fathomless, like the Incarnation; like it, also, it is in the sphere of supernatural reality, to which the natural is as the shadow.

Here ends the reading.

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Merry Christmas, everyone. It’s almost time for me to stop saying that, but not quite yet.

The holidays can be a stressful time. Wonderful, yes, but stressful too. Clergy know this as well as anyone. For families with small children, the end of winter break is often more anticipated than its beginning. And so it is with a grateful heart that we look forward to our Twelfth Night celebration, the last and greatest night of Christmas, that we might give these holidays the sendoff they deserve.

The reason that Christmas is 12 days is quite simple and quite sensible. In days of old, the western Church celebrated the birth of Christ on December 25, for a number of reasons we needn’t go into here. The eastern Church celebrated our Lord’s Nativity, along with several other ways that God reveals Himself through Jesus, on January 6. Rather than argue and debate as to whose tradition was the nobler and better attested, the Church simply embraced both, giving us a nice long 12-day feast.

I’ve read claims that the pre-Christian festival of Yule in the north was 12 days—every culture that knows winter knows a winter feast, after all—and that Christians co-opted that holiday with all its traditions. But just the opposite is true. It was a Christian monarch in Norway, Haakon the Good, who moved up and lengthened the celebration of Yule so that it would coincide with Christmas. His pagan subjects seemed to think this a pretty good idea, regardless of his reasons, and were more than happy to raise their drinking horns a little earlier and a little longer.

But in a broader sense, the greater Christmas season—or perhaps I should say the greater winter festival—carries on not for 12 days but for 40. It goes all the way to Candlemas, marking the 40th day after Christ’s birth, when His holy Mother and foster-father brought Him to the Temple in Jerusalem. Here He was dedicated as His Mother’s firstborn, and proclaimed by the prophets Simeon and Anna to be both the Light to reveal God to the gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel.

Candlemas has been largely forgotten in our culture, though it is making something of a comeback of late. It has managed to hang on vestigially in these United States as Groundhog Day, if you can believe that. Honestly, of all the Candlemas traditions that could’ve been preserved by our forebears, I’ve no idea why they picked a superstition about large burrowing rodents. I suppose by early February they had grown as sick of winter as we do.

My point is this. Christmas is the celebration of God entering our world, not as some invisible Spirit or ambiguous vision, but as a Child, a baby of flesh and blood, skin and bones, just like us—as one of us. And this tangible God, this God of Body and Blood, has never left us. Indeed, His Body has only grown—into the Church, into the community of all humanity reborn through Baptism, made one in Christ, with Jesus our head and the Spirit our soul.

Nothing is more wonderful than Christmas, because at Christmas we know Emmanuel, God-With-Us, God born in the manger to fight our battles and share our bread and die our death. And that meeting of Heaven and earth, of God and Man, carries on long after the guests have left and the presents have been unwrapped and the leftovers have been eaten.

It is still Christmas: not the crazy Christmas of shopping and baking and kids bouncing off the walls, but the warm and humble Christmas of the Creator of all worlds nursing at His Mother’s breast, watched over by His loving earthly father. There will be perils and trials and losses yet to come, but in this moment our Savior is born, the world has turned, and the whole of the cosmos shall never be the same.

12 days. 40 days. 365. Christ is with us through it all.

Thanks be to God. And merry Christmas.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Love Is Not Nice


Propers: The First Sunday of Christmas, A.D. 2017 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When we say that God is love, we confuse people.

That’s because in our anodyne, watered-down society, we’ve confused love with being nice. And there’s nothing more boring than nice. Nice isn’t even kind. Nice is bland, tapioca, inoffensive, forgettable. Nice neither upsets nor excites. Nice just is. And all told, it’s pretty lame. It’s better than rude, I suppose, but at least rude gives you something to work with.

Love is sharper than that. Harsher, even. Love kills and remakes. Love breaks down and builds up. Love frustrates and enrages and enraptures and drives mad. Love hurts—that bone-deep, broken-toothed ache that we call passion. Nothing is harder than love, whether it’s the nosebleed tang of early infatuation or the lifelong grind of rock-ribbed monogamy or even the how-am-I-not-dead bewilderment of parenthood.

Love is a burning lance right through the heart of you. It purges and purifies. It rakes and refines. It is red-hot life pouring into you and out of you, destroying who you thought you were and making someone new. Through the agony and the ecstasy, it is love that makes us most human, makes us most alive.

So when someone says that God is love, this should terrify and thrill us. It should send us screaming for the hills, only to be dragged back as by a tether. Love is to have your heart torn out and see it walking around outside your body. It’s so awful. It’s so amazing. It’s so real. And when love gets you in its claws, you’re done. God only knows what it’ll turn you into in the end.

The one thing love is not is nice.

Our Gospel reading this morning jumps us ahead to the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth. Mary has completed the ritual cleansing of new mothers, so that she and Joseph may present her firstborn son at the Temple in Jerusalem. And here they have a remarkable encounter with Simeon, a prophet imbued with God’s Holy Spirit, in this time when prophets have been silent for so long. What makes Simeon unique is God’s promise that before he dies—and he is drawing nigh to the terminus of his life—Simeon will see God’s Messiah with his own two eyes.

Drawn by the Spirit to this humble Holy Family in the Temple, Simeon takes the Christchild in his arms—much to His Mother’s bewilderment, one imagines—and calls out to God in his famous song:

Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace. Your Word has been fulfilled. Mine own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a Light to reveal You to the nations; and the glory of Your people, Israel.

We call this in the West the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis, and it is traditionally sung at Compline, our Prayer at the End of the Day. And it sounds very nice, doesn’t it? How nice that Jesus is recognized by the prophets, and proclaimed not only as the Messiah of God’s people but also as the Savior of all nations! It would be perfectly pleasant to end the story here.

Yet rarely do we realize that Simeon is singing his death song. The promise of God has been fulfilled; now, at last, the prophet can die at peace, having seen with his own eyes the Christ who has come into the world. But he’s not quite done yet. Simeon now turns to Mary and proclaims to her a Word that no new mother wants to hear: that her Child shall cause the falling and rising of many; that He shall be opposed for unearthing the truth of their hearts; and that a sword of sorrow shall piece her own soul too. Congratulations, Mary. Your boy is going to die.

Love indeed is a burning lance that pierces us straight through the heart, and twists. But this is not the pain of a sadist, of a torturer. Rather it is the pain of a surgeon cutting out a cancer. Love hurts because it is inextricably intertwined with truth. And yes, the truth will set you free. But first it’s gonna kick like a mule.

See, there is no truth without love, and no love without truth. Simeon could’ve just been nice. He could’ve proclaimed the glory without all the gory. But he was filled with the Spirit of love. And love isn’t nice. Rather, love is true. We must have the diagnosis if we’re ever to hope for the cure.

The other day someone asked me: What would Christianity do if there were no hell? Now admittedly this is a topic that deserves more discussion than can be afforded in a single Sunday sermon, but two thoughts come to mind. First up, if avoiding hell is the only reason we can come up with for preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, then we’re in trouble. We have to ask ourselves whether Jesus saves us or we’re trying to save people from Jesus.

But my second thought is a bit more to the point: What if Heaven and hell are the same address? This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The mystics of our faith speak with surprising accord in regards to the Final Judgment at the End of the Age. When all is said and done, death and hades will be no more. All shall be laid at the feet of the Risen Christ. Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, and God at last will be all in all. Then there shall be no more shadows, no more death—nowhere at all left to hide from the light and life of God.

And all shall be judged. But this is not an arbitrary Judgment, a great Caesar giving each of us a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Rather, the Judgment of God is nothing other than truth—perfect, unfettered, unmitigated truth, which is at once both perfect mercy and perfect justice together. In that final light there will be no evasion, no spin, no propaganda, no polite euphemisms, but only searing truth. Yet right at the heart of that truth will be the Lamb of God, who died as much for the tyrants of this world as for their victims.

And the truth will burn out of us all of our sin and our wickedness, our brokenness and our cruelties, and we will be refined as silver in the furnace. All of our darkness will be purged away—but not before we see how very ugly it all was. If we define ourselves by our sins, by our impurities, then we will experience God’s truth as immolation, destroying the illusions of who we think we are. But if we know ourselves to be God’s own beloved children, then we will experience the fires of truth not as punishment but as purgation, purifying and perfecting us, forging us at last into who we were always meant to be!

For those who love God and love their neighbor, everywhere we look will be Heaven! But for those who hate God and loathe their neighbor, everywhere we look will be hell. It’s the same light, the same truth, the same love of God—even the same pain of being broken down and remade!—yet different experiences. And in theory, the wicked could hold out forever; for whatever else love may be, it cannot be forced. Yet in the end, it remains God’s will that all be brought to salvation in Christ. And we pray every day that God’s will be done.

In some ways this is very comforting. It opens the possibility of salvation for every single sin-stained soul; we might very well all make it home together in the end. But in other ways this can be quite terrifying, for we know that we will have to answer for our deeds, and that our every sin will be laid bare in the light of God’s own truth, for only in this manner can it be truly purged away: perfect justice and perfect mercy poured out on every soul, by Christ, the perfect Judge.

God, my brothers and sisters, is not nice. He is not bland or inoffensive or forgettable. God is not tame. But He is good, because He is love. And love will hurt. Love disrupts and demands. Love breaks down and builds up. Love kills us and makes us alive again! Love gives us what we need instead of what we want and love never, ever leaves us the same as we were when love found us. It is love that makes us human, love that makes us whole.

It is love that will save the world.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Freedom, Faith, and Failure


Pastor’s Epistle—January, A.D. 2018 B

New Year, new beginnings, new resolutions! I wish you the best of luck with all of them.

Of course, the only thing that’s really being made new is us. The earth keeps turning and the sun keeps burning as they always have, regardless of when we flip our calendars. It’s not even the turn of seasons, smack-dab as we are deep in midwinter. Yet new years, like new dawns, offer opportunity for us to turn, for us to change, for us to start our lives afresh. When we make our new resolutions and hang our crisp new calendars, we are resolving ourselves to be reborn, to try again, to turn back to our youth when the sap ran thick. Only this time, we’ll be better. We’ll be truer.

This is a very Christian notion—to die to our sins and rise to new life, over and again, as often as necessary, until that day when we rise in Christ to die no more. This is why the Church connects Confession so closely to Baptism, for in Baptism we were given second birth. And whenever we return to those waters of rebirth, we are absolved and forgiven, washed clean and arisen. Like Christ, whose Spirit dwells within us and whose Body we are, we die and rise for the life of the world, until all is made right at the last.

As always, we must be clear about the sequence of these sacred things. It is not that we resolve, then do better, then are proclaimed worthy of forgiveness. Quite the opposite! We confess our unworthiness, our brokenness, and we are forgiven freely by the grace and mercy and love of God—which frees us now to begin anew. We are not set free by stern resolution and self-improvement. We are freed at the first, thus free then to strive, to improve, to try again—and freed to fall, to fail, to screw things up. God does not free the worthy; God frees us from the burden of being unworthy.

So make your resolutions. Live free. Live true. New beginnings are the gifts of God. And if you strive and win and conquer your goal, hallelujah! Well done! And if you fail, forever coming up a day late and a buck short, well, that’s humanity for you. Welcome to the human race. The sun will set and the sun will rise and Christ will love and lead you just the same. There’s always a new beginning, a New Year dawning up ahead. Someday all will be light and life and glory, as God will be all in all. Until then, have faith that God knows what it is to fail—at least in the eyes of the world—and is somehow even closer to us in life’s valleys than He is at the peaks of our success.

Happy New Year. May Christ be with you through it all.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Monday, December 25, 2017

Wine and Beer


The Blessing of the Wine (and Beer)

Propers: The Third Day of Christmas, St John the Evangelist, A.D. 2017 B

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Rejoice and be glad! And a very merry Christmas to you, my brothers and my sisters, on this third day of Christmas!

Allow me to extend my congratulations. Unless I’ve missed my guess, most all of us have made it through our stressful holiday hazings. The dinners have been cooked and consumed; the presents unwrapped and in some cases returned; the guests have gone home and we are free now to take a deep breath by the fireside, to enjoy our gracious gifts, and to savor the afterglow of mistletoe.

The craziness is done but the Christmastide carries on.

There are parties yet to enjoy: New Year’s Eve, Twelfth Night! But now the peace of Christmas comes to the fore. The music we didn’t get to listen to, the movies we didn’t get to watch, the holiday classics we didn’t manage to read, still lay before us, that we may be of good cheer in this festal season. And it is in this spirit, that today the Church blesses God’s good gift of wine and of beer.

The Scriptures exhort us not to be drunken, not to enjoy the fruits of vine and grain to excess. But in moderation, we are assured, alcohol is intended to fortify our health and to gladden our hearts. According to legend, when miscreants poisoned the chalice of St John the Evangelist, he prayed over the wine and was divinely preserved from their ill intent. We bless wine and beer tonight in memory of this.

A Christian blessing serves several purposes. It is, first and foremost, a prayer, that God work for our good, and we for the good of our neighbor, through the thing being blessed. It is also a reminder of exactly what the thing being blessed is for; that is, what God intends for it and for us through it. Wine and beer are blessings, good gifts. They were most likely the cause of the agricultural revolution, and thus the ground of all human civilization. They are not meant to harm, but to bless, to gladden, to fortify, to be enjoyed—and when necessary, avoided—responsibly.

Finally, a blessing provides us with the intersection between faith and life. The things we bless in Church we then take out into the wide world, seeing them with fresh eyes, understanding that the mundane objects of our everyday life are in fact infused with divine purpose and providential destiny. This wine is not Eucharistic. It is not for use in the Sacrament of the Divine Liturgy. Rather, it is to be quaffed at home, amidst friends and family, or perhaps savored in solitude at the end of a long day. Eating and drinking, the basic processes of life, have a dignity, have a holiness, because God is with us in them, with us in the everyday things of hearth and home.

Let us bless them. Let us bless these humble elements. Let us bless them that we may be blessed, and be ourselves a blessing for others. Let us bless them in thanksgiving to our Lord, who provides daily all that we need, and more than we know.

Raise a glass, for the love of God and St John.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.