Archive for December, 2016

Romans 15:4-13

December 7, 2016

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:4-13

I don’t know how many Lutheran congregations in the United States share a parking lot with a conservative Jewish synagogue but we do at Faith Lutheran Church in Houston. Congregation Brith Shalom is right next door; 4610 Bellaire Blvd. right next door to 4600 Bellaire Blvd.

I first showed up at Faith in January of 2011. Of all the religious institutions along our street, and in our local community, guess who was the one and only one who reached out to welcome me, invite me to his office, and take some time to begin a relationship? Rabbi Teller from Brith Shalom.

Of all the religious institutions in our community, guess which one invited me to participate this past fall in an interfaith panel discussion on prayer? Rabbi Teller as he gathered people on the eve of their High Holy Days with a desire to encourage them to make the most of the spiritually significant time they were soon to share.

Paul would smile at this.

Mutual welcoming. Mutual hospitality. Mutual encouragement. Mutual efforts to repair the torn fabric of creation. Making the world a healthier, more hospitable, more holy space. Seeing the Christian faith grafted on to the ancient stump of Jesse. Seeing the promise of God spoken first to Abraham being realized and fulfilled as people of faith are knit together by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This is beautiful.

Consider then the disastrous results through the ages of people refusing to live in God’s will, playing divide and conquer, join our team or die. Today, of course, is December 7th. The day that will live in infamy.

On this day, in 1941, the United States was attacked in Pearl Harbor. On the same day, also in 1941, German SS officers and Latvian firing squads began a slaughter of the Jews of Riga,Latvia.  Between December 7 and December 9, 1941, 25,000 people, German Jews and Latvian Jews, were put to death by firing squads.

Americans remember December 7th as the beginning of our entry into WW II. At that point, European Jews had already been enduring the horrors of the Holocaust for nine long brutal years.

We wonder today how anyone could have allowed such atrocities to happen. Look around. It is never as complicated as word salad makes it. We reject God’s admonition and invitation to love our neighbor. We dehumanize and scapegoat and destroy. We can do better.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, from the very beginning your intention was to bless all the nations, all the peoples, of the world. Jesus broke down the dividing walls of hostility. Now you call us to do the same, capable though we are, and will always be, of doing just the opposite. Keep us steadfast and diligent in showing hospitality to strangers, in welcoming one another, in loving our neighbor, for only in this will the promise of peace be realized in your world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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John 1:19-28

December 6, 2016

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. John 1:19-28

One of the problems in reading words on a page is the lack of social context. We can’t hear the tone of voice or read the body language (the heart of 90% of our communication with one another.) So I hear the question, “Who are you?” and my imagination runs with it.

Is the question a simple search for information? “We don’t know who you are. Can you please help us know you?”

Or is the question a barbed pre-attack? “Just who do you think you are?”

That matters.

The first question would come from a place of open-mindedness and thus from a position of humility. We don’t learn anything new if we aren’t open to new ideas and humble enough for those ideas to potentially change our minds.

The second – Just who do you think you are? – is the very opposite. It is a power play. It is a threat. It is smug, self-satisfied. It is the kind of question a bully would ask.

The optional identities that his questioners offer to John are all signs that the questioners are bringing preconceived ideas and expectations. They have invested a lot of themselves in expectations around “the Messiah”, “Elijah”, or “the prophet.” If anything, they are seeking validation of what they already know and believe – again, the opposite of open-mindedness and humility. Not hearing the answers they expect, their next question is much softer. “What do you say about yourself?”

John reaches into their memories with a quote from Isaiah. And then John models the humility that his questioners lack. John is a signpost pointing beyond himself. John’s baptism is about preparation, not yet about fulfillment. That will be the work of the one standing among them, the One whom they do not yet know.

Jesus was in their midst and they missed him. As will we if we come to Jesus from a position of suspicion, close-minded, full of ourselves and our pre-conceived ideas. It is only when we let go of ourselves and surrender, let go of control and trust, that Jesus steps forth in our midst and we realize he was there all along.

Let us pray: Thank you, Lord, for John and for all whom you have used throughout the years to reveal yourself to us. Thank you for bursting through our defenses of pride, fear, suspicion, and control to take us by the hand, to put your arm on our shoulder, to gently, or even not so gently, lead us to faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-8

December 5, 2016

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:1-8

When you read through the book of Isaiah the change in tone that comes in the 40th chapter is startling. Scholars attribute this to the life context out of which it was written. The first 39 chapters grew out of many years before, and the initial years of, the devastation that came to Israel courtesy of the Babylonian army. The remaining chapters, beginning with chapter 40, come near the end, and after, a 50 year period where the leading voices of Israel lived in exile in Babylon. Today’s reading makes sense given that background.

Israel has suffered deeply. Now, with the Persian conquest of Babylon, the end of their suffering is in sight. As written in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, it was time to return home. To rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. To rebuild the temple. To return to business as usual. Which is, of course, impossible. Suffering leaves scars and scars live on.

Whenever you have the privilege of talking to someone who grew up in the United States during the post-crash years of the Great Depression, you are reminded of the impact of their suffering. I remember how my Great Grandma Madsen saved tin foil, scraped the last piece of margarine off the paper, tended a huge garden. She was the most frugal person I ever knew. She never forgot how hard life had been. She bore the scars.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…”

Both of the candidates in our recent presidential election promised to make huge investments in infrastructure. Whether that would mean providing jobs to millions of people or millions of dollars of profits to those securing government projects depends on how you look at it. But the promise remains seductive. Huge public works investments helped us out of the Great Depression, or at least helped many survive through it.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This originally meant preparing a way for the return to Jerusalem. But as history would show, rebuilding the city and rebuilding the temple wasn’t the answer that people were really looking for. A nice new city and a sparkling new temple will still be populated by the same fickle people of grass that we have always been. And will always be.

No, we need more than external building projects that we can feel good about. We need the internal building project of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and minds, to align our will with God’s will. We need to learn that good times come and go, that there is more to life than getting what we can and getting out while we can, surfing along booms and busts. Who can teach us this lesson? The One who bore our scars on a cross. The One who we rejected. The One who will never reject us. There is our comfort and our hope.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we are a fickle people. We forget you in the good times and we reject you in the bad times. Yet you love us all the time. As you brought words of comfort to people who had only known suffering, be with those who suffer today. May the scars of our lives be our teachers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.