Great mercies for a world in need of mercy

File:Lacura2.JPGWatching for the Feast of the Nativity 2017

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Light for our darkness will echo through our service on Christmas Eve. We will hear the great prophetic word of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and be reminded of the promise that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

We will hear also from Isaiah that “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” a new king from the line of David. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The peace of his reign that will find the lion eating straw like the ox and all the earth will be filled with “the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Of course, the central story of the night is the remarkable birth during the imperial reign of the victorious Octavian – Caesar Augustus who was acclaimed as son of a god (son of the divine Julius Caesar) and savior of the world. Only this birth does not happen in Rome, but in a peasant home in Judea.

Two kingdoms clash – not a game of thrones like Octavian’s Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, but two profoundly different claims upon the world: one a rule of might, the other of grace. Augustus will claim all things for himself – and Jesus will give himself for all. The “census” was a listing of all properties when Rome took over a region so Caesar could claim what he wished. It led to riots and brutal repression under Quirinius. But in a manger in Bethlehem lies a true prince of peace, a true light for our darkness.

On Christmas Day we will hear John declare that the divine word that called the world into being“became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” We will hear the prophet speak of God’s word that does not return empty but “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And the author of Hebrews will confirm that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Light for our darkness. Peace for our world. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonder of “God with us”. Rich and abundant themes. Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– The prophet heralds a coming king who shall bring perfect peace to the world.”

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-3a
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALacura2.JPG By Lacura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For all the boots

File:Boots, Boots, To Go Up and Down in Africa- the Salvage and Repair of Army Boots, Somerset, England, 1943 D13198.jpg

Isaiah 9:2-7

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

I saw a news item last year about people making jewelry out of the shell casings left behind from the Vietnam war. That’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but it is on the same track.

My nephew wants to be a marine. I respect him. I respect him a great deal. I think I understand why such a life appeals to him. He wants to be a guardian of the peace. But I can’t shake the shadows of war. It’s been haunting me since the nightly news showed images and gave body counts each evening from Vietnam. It haunts me since reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. It haunts me since reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It haunts me since seeing footage of the Nazi concentration camps. It haunts me since my father’s war stories stopped being adventure stories. It was an adventure for him as a young man. It was a long ways from shoveling sugar beets on a Colorado farm. It involved the thrill of flying when you navigated by following roads rather than computer readouts. But I recognize that my father ttold it as an adventure story because that helps hide the reality of the friends he lost and the bombs he dropped.

We spend more than 1.6 billion dollars a day in this country for war and the preparations for war. We call it defense, because that, too, hides some of the horror. We unfurl giant flags in patriotic displays at football games and cheer our soldiers when they come home to greet unsuspecting family because that, too, hides some of the horror. We honor their service, rightly, but old soldiers and authors and moviemakers keep reminding us that the underbelly of such adventure is blood and grief. And so we watch Aleppo and the Russians drooping bombs on hospitals and children covered in dust and blood pulled from the wreckage. A city that was great a thousand years before Abraham left Haran appears now as rubble.

When we read Isaiah on Christmas Eve it is pure promise, sweet and familiar, shadowed not by weeping mothers but Christmas trees and candlelight. But the words were first spoken to weeping mothers.

The music of Haydn rings in our ears as we hear these words. But this is not a noble aspiration for a sane and safe world; it is a promise. A promise that one shall come in whom is perfect peace. Peace will not come by bombing the heck out of our enemies, but by kneeling before the holy infant, by kneeling in allegiance to the one who is not only the child of Bethlehem but the teacher from Nazareth who chose not to call on the heavenly armies, but stretched wide his arms upon the cross.

I don’t know how we get there, given the warring heart of humanity. But that is why the promise stands forth with such power.

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABoots%2C_Boots%2C_To_Go_Up_and_Down_in_Africa-_the_Salvage_and_Repair_of_Army_Boots%2C_Somerset%2C_England%2C_1943_D13198.jpg By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It will all be good

File:Martin Schongauer 002.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 25, 2016

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. It was because of such an accident of the calendar that many years ago my parish first created its Christmas Day service. The service was so nice we decided to continue the practice. I know it goes against the cultural tide, but we found it to be wonderful.

It’s not a big service. We gather early in the entryway with hot cider and cookies. We begin at the sanctuary doors with the Christmas proclamation and enter together following the cross and Bible. I don’t preach a sermon, but look for a children’s book to use as the message of the day. The service feels more like a family devotion than the big production of Christmas Eve. It meets a need for those whose big family celebrations are on Christmas Eve (and wouldn’t include worship). And since we are the only church around with a Christmas Day service, we get an interesting assortment of visitors.

And for my own family, for the girls and me this service never seemed like an intrusion into our Christmas. Because of the reading of a children’s story I wasn’t stressed about a sermon, and so our Christmas morning was juice and coffee bread as we opened stockings and started on presents. When it was time, we went to church for the cider and cookies and the worship service. Then it was home again for the remaining presents and the preparations for Christmas dinner. It seemed right and natural to put worship in the middle of Christmas morning. We sang the carols and listened to the scriptures and shared the bread and lingered again over the cider. It anchored all that we did in “the true meaning of Christmas.”

So we will have the big, high-energy service on Christmas Eve with choirs and special musicians and the excitement that a full house and lots of children brings – ending with the traditional passing of the light and singing Silent Night by candlelight. But then there will be that simple, pleasant, morning service filled with kindness, quiet and wonder.

And it will all be good.

The Prayer for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
–We were slaves to our passions but have been freed in Christ by his mercy.

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with God’s word in whom all things are created.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMartin_Schongauer_002.jpg Martin Schongauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The end of stomping

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1216-524, Paris, Wachablösung.jpgThursday

Isaiah 9:2-7

File:CaligaSeptimiusSeverusBogen2.jpg5All the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The Tanach translation of this passage begins:

Truly, all the boots put on to stamp with
And all the garments donned in infamy
Have been fed to the flames,

I love the way it subtly shifts the focus from the destruction of military gear to an end of the human propensity to stomp one another.

I find it ironic that on the night of peace that brought even the German and British armies to a temporary truce during World War I, CBS is advertising a football game as if it were some great contribution to your celebration of the holiday (remember ‘holiday’ means ‘holy day’).

The world continues to spin on its axis, the planet races around the sun, and the sun races around the galactic center – and even the galaxy itself is racing, someday to collide with its neighbor. Babies will be born (my mother is a Christmas baby and my daughter, Christmas eve). First responders will be on duty. Nurses will tend patients. And most of life will continue.

But in a world where violence is widespread and ritually enacted in combat sports, including football, some of us will gather to celebrate the child of peace and to join the angels’ song announcing “Peace on earth.”

The Christmas Eve service may bring a moment’s peace, but its true importance is in pointing towards peace, pointing towards the harmony that should be but is so seldom, pointing towards the peace that is far more than an end to the gunfire but the sharing of a table. We shouldn’t have to be reminded that peace is God’s purpose in the world, but it seems we do.

I watch football, but I am aware that it is ritual combat. Its underlying metaphor is that life is about conquest and victory. Tonight, in churches across the world, we will be reminded that life is about the ties that bind us to one another, to the creation, and to Him who is the heart of the universe. The Christ child comes to restore those ties.

 

Images:
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-1216-524 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Rabax63 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Truly magical

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Watching for the light of the new morn

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are wonderful and magical moments – even though there are no children or family around my tree. As a cultural celebration, I am one of those who finds this season difficult. But as a worship service, I find this night and this morning exquisitely wonderful. They speak to me more profoundly even than the wonderful drama of Holy Week. For this is about the mystery of the God who comes to us. Its focus is not God’s suffering love or life-giving power. It’s not the world’s rejection of Jesus and God’s stunning vindication of all that he said and did. This is about God becoming one of us, of God crossing the great divide between heaven and earth and showing up on our doorstep, in all our human vulnerability and frailty. He is helpless in Mary’s arms. There is no magic that can wave his arms and make their home warm and bright. There is no magic that carries away the stench of the sheep or shepherds. There is no magic that keeps him from soiling whatever was the ancient equivalent of diapers and crying for relief. There is no magic that keeps him from hunger. He is as we are.

God is not a palace god; he is a god of the peasant home. God is not a god of Greenwich, Connecticut or Bethesda, Maryland, he is a god of Baltimore and Ferguson. God is not a god of success and prosperity, but a god who comes to dwell in my living room, with my clutter and torn couch and worn carpet.

God is a god of the peasant home, the god of the exiles far from home, the god of the slaves in Egypt without a home. God is a god of the leper calling out “unclean”. God is a god of the despised Zacchaeus in the tree. God is a god of blind Bartimaeus crying out for mercy. God is the god of the Syrophoenician woman asking only for crumbs. God is a god of the woman at the well shunned by her town. God is a god of the man at the pool of Bethesda with no one to help him get healed.

God is a god of Kobani, and the homeless camps. He sits with the parents of Alan Kurdi. He works as a nurse in the underground bunkers dug in Syria for hospitals. He picks up refuse among the untouchables in India. He huddles with those beneath the overpass on a bed of cardboard.

God makes his home among us, in the places we live, in the places we hurt, in the places of which we are ashamed. He can dwell there because he comes as one of us. Because he throws no stones.

God makes himself flesh and, by doing so, he makes all flesh holy. He makes all createdness sacred. We are capable of bearing the infinite. We are worthy of the divine. To use the metaphor of the Biblical story, as God walked with Adam and Eve in the dawn of creation, he walks with us again. This is not just about the birth of a child; the whole world is reborn.

This is a great and wondrous mystery. I have trouble holding on to it in the press and sorrows of daily life. But every year this day comes and we light the candles in the dark and sing Silent Night and tell the story of the manger and the angel choir singing to shepherds. In the morning we read how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And it is truly magical.

The Prayer for December 24, 2015

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 24, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
–We were slaves to our passions but have been freed in Christ by his mercy.

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with God’s word in whom all things are created.