23 December 2008

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our king and our lord, the anointed for the nations and their / Savior:*
Come and save us, O / Lord our God.

"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14)

"She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel' (which means, God with us)." (Matthew 1:21-23)

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

The great mystery we celebrate on Christmas is that Jesus is truly “God with us.” Our King and Savior became just like us, taking on our humanity. He identified Himself with us and carried our curse and punishment of sin and death. He also restores us to His image, healing our fallen humanity and giving us new life with the one, true, saving, loving God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When He went to the cross to shed His very real blood, which He had received when He was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, He won forgiveness for our sins and showed us God's unfathomable love. Hanging on the cross, rising from the grave, and ascending to God's right hand, our Lord Jesus showed us that He is "God is with us." He still shows us that He is "God with us" in our Baptism, in the words of Holy Absolution, and in His Holy Supper. Forgiveness from His words of Scripture and preaching instructs and enlightens us. Salvation from His holy Supper comforts and strengthens us. God is with us. Christ has come and still comes to save, forgive, and give us life with Him for all eternity.

Have a blessed and merry Christmas!

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!
(LSB 537:1)

22 December 2008

Christmas Beagles

When the RAsburry household celebrated Christmas on 21 December (yes, a few days early, due to other plans for Christmas Eve & Day this year), the whole family got involved. Yes, the *whole* family, including our "Christmas Beagles."

Here Porthos and Gimli sport their Christmas collars, which they received as gifts last year. (It kind of looks like Porthos over did it on the rum-spiked eggnog and needed the couch to hold him up, but I assure you, that was not the case, at least for Porthos. :-)

Here our "Christmas Beagles" considered playing "Santa Claus" to hand out the presents, and thus take the job away from Son RAsburry, our traditional "Santa Claus." (They're lying down because they were getting impatient from all the pictures being taken while they waited for the treats that I was holding to keep them in place.)

Each of our "Christmas Beagles" even got to open a present - a pair of chew curls each, one (chew curl, that is) basted in chicken and the other basted in beef. It was great fun to watch each of them tear into their present. Yes, the chew curls were placed in boxes and wrapped with care using old Christmas wrapping paper that we didn't mind being torn to shreds. But what was even funnier was watching how Porthos wanted a) to guard his chew curl from Gimli, who was really too preoccupied with his own chew curl, and b) to hide his chew curl for safe keeping (a future snack?) under his bed cushion, behind the couch, or even under the Christmas tree. At first, he spent more time dashing around looking for a safe place to chew than he did actually chewing the darn thing.

Here's one of Porthos' ideas for securing and chewing on his curl. He wormed his way under the couch cover at the back of the couch, then squirmed to the right arm under the white pillow, and finally settled into his "chewing position" on the floor, wrapped up snuggly and securely inside the couch cover. (This picture is from today, but Son RAsburry caught him doing the same thing right after opening his present yesterday.)

And here is the wide shot to see just how safe - and "far" - Porthos got from Gimli.

And when Gimli took a break from chewing to look back and see what Porthos was doing, Porthos dutifully growled as if to say, "Don't even think about it, pal!" But Gimli, the ever-dominant sibling, just went on chewing his own curl (and no doubt thinking, "What on earth is that nut of a brother doing under that couch cover?")

O King of the Nations

O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all / people:*
Come and save us all, whom you formed / out of clay.

"Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you." (Jeremiah 10:7)

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this." (Isaiah 9:6-7)

"Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.' Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek." (John 19:19-20)

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility" (Ephesians 2:13-14)

Christ came not only for one kind or race of people; He came to live, suffer, die, and rise again for all peoples. Christ is King of all peoples and unites all people. Adam's fall into sin brought not only separation from God but also sad divisions and painful conflicts between people--between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between various nations and ethnic groups, even between fellow Christians, etc. Every division and conflict, whether between individuals, nations or other groups of people, is a result of our sin and death as well as a manifestation of the havoc that sin and death still wreak upon us. However, Christ Jesus has come to heal the divisions and restore our human unity. No longer are we enemies with our neighbor. Rather, we are freed in Christ's cross-won forgiveness and resurrection life to serve our neighbor, because Christ died for him/her also. The King who made a cross His throne draws all people to Himself. With the mind of Christ, we pray "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10-11).

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 537:7)

O Dayspring

(This antiphon is used on 21 December, even though I'm just now posting it on 22 December. Mea culpa for being tardy on this one.)

O Dayspring, splendor of light ever- / lasting:*
Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the sha- / dow of death.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." (Isaiah 9:2)

"The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory." (Isaiah 60:19)

"...because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:78-79)

"Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'" (John 8:12)

"And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb." (Revelation 21:23)

All people of all times and in all places live in the darkness of sin and death, separated from the God of light and love. And, as if it weren't bad enough just to live in such darkness, we are so accustomed to sin and death darkening our world and our lives that we think it's only "normal." However, the Son of God reveals to us the truth that there is a better way, the way of light and life. When God’s Light, Jesus the Christ, shines upon us and illumines our way, there is much joy and celebration. As Malachi 4:2 says, “But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings. And you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves.” Like free, frolicking calves released from captivity, we joyously and festively sing our praises to Christ. He has come. We are free. We pray for Christ’s light to continue.

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 537:6)

20 December 2008

O Key of David

O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can close, you close and no one can / open:*
Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the sha- / dow of death.

"And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open." (Isaiah 22:22)

"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 'The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.'" (Revelation 3:7)

[Jesus said,] "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19)

For a person locked in a prison cell or bound in handcuffs, a key is the most welcome sight. That key opens and frees from the bondage and captivity. Since Adam and Eve's fall into sin, we all have been imprisoned by sin and death, even handcuffed by our own sinful desires and actions. Try as we might, we cannot free ourselves from the prison of sin and death, and our sinful thoughts, words and deeds continually bind and chafe. The key--the only key--to set us free from the darkness of sin and the shadow of death is Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh. In His Incarnation, Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension He unlocks our chains of death, opens the prison door of our sin, and frees us to live with Him and His Father and His Holy Spirit for all eternity. And that freedom begins now. It's what we long for through Advent and what we celebrate at Christmas. In fact, our incarnate, crucified and risen Key of David gives His keys of forgiveness and mercy through the ministry of His Church. When our pastor pronounces and proclaims the forgiveness and life of Christ, the Lord Himself opens to us the way of life and closes the prison door on death itself. He unlocks His cross-won forgiveness for us and cuffs the condemnation of the Law. So we pray for Christ to rescue and liberate us from the darkness of our sin and death and all of the misery that it brings. In Jesus Christ the door to life with God is open.

Oh, come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 537:5)

The Porpoise Driven Life

And now for something completely unrelated to Advent or Christmas or much of anything else ... except having a little fun with modern pop-Christianity.

CAUTION: You may find yourself laughing, or groaning, or a combination of both.

19 December 2008

O Root of Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do / homage:*
Come quickly to de- / liver us.

"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit." (Isaiah 11:1)

"In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious." (Isaiah 11:10)

"And again Isaiah says, 'The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.'" (Romans 15:12)

The “tree” of Israel had to be cut down because of its sin and rebellion against the holy, triune God. Throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles we read many instances of God's people forsaking the one true God to worship in the cultural religion of their day, the Baals and the Asherahs, complete with their sparkling graven images and their child sacrifices. The stump of Jesse was dead wood; God simply cut it down. But this He did in an act of pruning (see also John 15:1-8). A new shoot would sprout up from that cut down stump of Jesse. Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is that new shoot divinely given to bring new life to the dead wood of our sinful, idolatrous, death-shackled humanity. As He lay in the wood of the manger, our little Lord Jesus already began His work of delivering us from death to life, from idolatry to true belief. His work, begun in the manger, even before that at His conception, would climax at the cross and empty grave. From the dead wood of the cross, our Savior, the Son of David, the son of Jesse, dies and is "chopped down" to bring life out of death for us. In His Resurrection He gives us victory o'er the grave. Though we were dead in our sins, Christ has made us alive with Him and to serve Him (see Ephesians 2:8-10). We, the Church, are the fruit of His redeeming work. So we pray for Christ’s gracious rescue from our sinful state and our many sins, both now and finally in eternity. We pray for His deliverance and we bear witness to His rescue for all people. This Root of Jesse gives life not just to the stump of Israel, but also to the Gentiles, that is, to all people.

Oh, come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
Free them from Satan's tyranny
That trust Thy mighty pow’r to save;
And give them vict'ry o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 537:4)

18 December 2008

O Adonai

O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on / Sinai:*
Come with an outstretched arm and re- / deem us.

"God said to Moses, 'I am who I am.' And he said, 'Say this to the people of Israel, "I am has sent me to you."' God also said to Moses, 'Say this to the people of Israel, "The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.'" (Exodus 3:14-15)

"The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up." (Exodus 19:20)

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." (Titus 2:11-14)

As God redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery, He also redeems us from our slavery of sin and our "Egypt" of death. Following His mighty redemption God then gave His commandments, His covenant, to His people on Mt. Sinai. Essentially, God was saying, "I've redeemed you; now here's how redeemed people - My people - live. How does God want us to live as His people? Certainly not in any old way we choose, for that would mean living in our self-centered ways, and certainly not in the ways of the shallow, stuff-focused, pleasure-centered ways of the world around us. Instead, we take a good look at the Ten Commandments. These commandments give us plenty to do as God’s people. Yes, they also show us plenty of sin and failure in ourselves as well as in other people around us, but they are truly God's design for life. When we live by His commandments, in love toward God and neighbor, we are living according to His blue prints, so to speak. No, we cannot rely on the commandments to rescue us from sin and death. Only Jesus can to that, and He is our Adonai, our Kyrios, our Mighty Lord. We pray for Jesus to save us with His might—the might that held Him to the cross. We pray for Him who stretched out His arms in weakness upon the cross to come and buy us back to life with God. After all, it's in His outstretched arms on the cross, weak to the naked eye, that He shows the utter might and victory of His love and salvation for us.

Oh, come, oh, come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 357:3)

"The Smallness of God"

Here's a great post from fatherstephen over at Glory to God for All Things on "The Smallness of God." He calls it "an annual December posting," and I can certainly see why it's a post worth pondering year after year. It also dovetails nicely with my previous post on the antiphon "O Wisdom."

Whom have we, Lord, like you -

The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,

The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,

The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.

Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian

We draw near to the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child - the smallest of us all - man at his weakest - utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness - all that we see in His incarnation - is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image we were created to be.

It seems strange to speak of God as humble, and yet this is what is revealed in Scripture. Cultural references to God are full of power and mankind’s own claim to wisdom that somehow the all-powerful God has not straightened things out yet. On this basis some will even come to reject the very existence of God. The power of God is nothing like our power. Though He created all that is, He did so out of nothing. This bears no resemblance to anything we think of when we “create.” And He who created is also He who sustains, and yet in His humility we cannot directly see His sustenance, unless He has given us eyes to see.

The all-powerful reveals Himself in His weakness, and not, I suspect, because it was a “backdoor” plan. Rather I believe the all-powerful revealed Himself most fully, most completely on the Cross because this is indeed what the power of God looks like. I do not know how to fathom the reality that the power that can only be seen in the Cross of Christ, is the same power that created the universe, but I believe it is so.

We never know fullness, until we empty ourselves into His emptiness. We never know love until we are drowned in the waters of His mercy that do not kill but make alive. We cannot see the great until we see Him very small. He who enters the womb of a Virgin will also enter the waters of Jordan, and will also enter infinitessimally small spaces of hades’ yawning gape. And there we shall see greatness indeed, He who is everywhere present and fillest all things.

17 December 2008

O Wisdom

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering / all things:*
Come and teach us the way of / prudence.

"And 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." (Isaiah 11:2)

"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)

"For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." (1 Corinthians 1:21-25)

In our society, many things pass for wisdom, such as the acquisition of wealth, possessions, or power, or notions that all religions are created equal and no one religion should be given preference, especially at this time of year. That said, the world thinks Christ is foolish, not the "Teacher Jesus" or the "Good Example Jesus," but the Jesus who is the Son of God in the flesh, the Jesus who boldly claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) for all people. Unbelief foolishly does not want to trust Jesus to be the only way to the Father. But we Christians know better. Our wisdom is Christ Jesus, the Son of God incarnate. Our wisdom comes in trusting our Savior who came to rescue us from the clutches of sin and death. Our wisdom comes from the One who not only created us but also died and rose to save us. Therefore, we pray for Jesus to teach us His wisdom, the wisdom of new life with the only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Oh, come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who ord'rest all things mightily;

To us the path of knowledge show,

And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 357:2)

O Antiphons

This evening the Church begins the "final countdown" to celebrating our Lord's Incarnation and Birth by using the "O Antiphons" in her Vespers/Evening Prayer. One site even suggests that these next seven days in which the Church uses the "O Antiphons" are a second part to the season of Advent.

During the whole of Advent we focus on the coming of Christ, and His coming in the past, in the present, and in the future are woven together throughout the season. In the past He came in flesh and blood, in humility and death, and in resurrection victory. In the present He comes in grace and mercy by way of His Gospel proclaimed and His Sacraments given out in the life of the Church. In the future He will come again in His glorious majesty and take us to eternity to enjoy His gift of life.

As our time of preparation begins winding down, and the time of celebration is fast approaches, we sing the “O Antiphons” during Evening Prayer (Vespers). One antiphon for each of the seven days before Christmas Eve (December 17-23) is sung or spoken before and after the Psalmody. Each antiphon consists of a title given to Christ in the Old Testament followed by a petition asking Christ to come and fulfill a promise of Scripture. Thus we join with the saints of the Old Testament in longing for our Savior to come and carry out His promised deliverance.

These “O Antiphons” have been put into verse form in the very familiar Advent hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (LSB 357). In fact, Lutheran Service Book nicely prints "The Great 'O' Antiphons" side-by-side with the hymn. So we can incorporate the "O Antiphons" into our daily prayers in a couple of ways: singing/speaking the Antiphon itself, and/or singing the corresponding verse from "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

Fatherly Wisdom-Christ's Birth, Our Birth

From Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome [461]

Fatherly Wisdom-Christ's Birth, Our Birth

From Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome [461]:
"The state of infancy which the Son of God did not find unworthy of his majesty gave way to the state of manhood with the passing of time and, once the triumph of his passion and resurrection had been accomplished, all the actions of humility undertaken for us came to an end. Nevertheless, in adoring the birth of our Savior, we find that we are celebrating the commencement of our own life. For the birth of Christ is the source of life for the Christian people, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body" (Sermon 6 for Christmas; cited from Wright, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, p. 20).

18 Years and Counting

So yesterday marked my eighteenth anniversary of being ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry. (I meant to post something about it yesterday, but got caught up doing several other things that kept me from the blog altogether.) This year, though, brought a most interesting way of observing said anniversary, namely, by *not* doing pastoral things as I was reflecting on my pastoral vocation. I guess a sabbatical leave will force one to do that.

While my usual December 16 anniversary routine was not there, the gravitas of the Office did not escape me. While I am able to take it easy this year (vs. busily - frantically? - preparing one last Advent midweek sermon and trying to look ahead to all of the Christ-Mass preparations), I still thank God for His most undeserved grace and mercy in placing me into His service in His Church, but most of all for redeeming me, the worst of sinners.

As part of my annual observance of being placed under orders ("ordained") to proclaim Christ and Him crucified and risen to save sinners, I like to look back on various quotes and explanations of who a pastor is and what he is supposed to do. So here are some of the words of wisdom that have guided me in the past and, I pray, will guide me in years to come.

As usual, Dr. Norman Nagel says it very well and quite succinctly: “Clergy are worth only what they have been put into the office for: not their own words, but Christ’s.” (“Externum Verbum: Testing Augustana 5 on the Doctrine of the Holy Ministry,” Lutheran Theological Journal, 30:101-110, Dec. 1996).

I also appreciate the way Martin Franzmann captures the purpose of the Office of the Holy Ministry in his hymn "Preach You the Word":
Preach you the Word and plant it home
To men who like or like it not,
The Word that shall endure and stand
When flow'rs and men shall be forgot.

We know how hard, O Lord, the task
Your servant bade us undertake:
To preach Your Word and never ask
What prideful profit it may make.

Preach you the Word and plant it home
And never faint; the Harvest Lord
Who gave the sower seed to sow
Will watch and tend His planted Word. (Lutheran Service Book, 586:1, 2, 6)
That last verse certainly takes on a new meaning when one is resting from pastoral duties, trusting that the Harvest Lord still takes care of His people in the congregation, right now quite apart from my all too feeble efforts.

And speaking of verses that take on something of a new perspective as one is on sabbatical leave, we pastors always need to stop and take a listen, even during such "busy times" as Advent and Christmas. After all, we have life only by the Word of God who came and took on our flesh to save us as well as our congregations. I pray that this prayer enfleshed in a hymn verse will also serve as the prayer of my many brothers in the Office:
Speak, O Lord, You servant listens,
Let Your Word to me come near;
Newborn life and spirit give me,
Let each promise still my fear.
Death's dread pow'r, its inward strife,
Wars against Your Word of life;
Fill me, Lord, with love's strong fervor
That I cling to You forever! (Lutheran Service Book, 589:1)
My favorite ordination anniversary quote, however, comes from Eugene Peterson as he expands on the meaning of the ordination vow by appealing to both Ezekiel (Scripture) and Odysseus (literature). Being "lashed to the mast" of our Lord's Gospel and Sacraments has often served as a sure anchor in the raging waters of various thoughts and emotions that well up within a pastor.
The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is a ministry of word and sacrament.


But in the wreckage all words sound like “mere words.”


But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?

Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

“We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives – in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.

“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give it to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”

That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 22-25, italic original).

15 December 2008

So Close, and Yet So Far

Yesterday finally brought the big day of going to a St. Louis Rams game this regular season. Last February Prof. Egger and I went together to bid on these tickets at the auction for Providence Christian Academy. (I guess everyone else must have realized what kind of season the Lambs, er, I mean, Rams, would have :-)

Regardless of how my Lambs, er, I mean Rams, have done this year (now 2-12, and securely clinching the bottom of the basement in the NFC West Division), sitting down on the 50-yard line, twelve rows behind the Rams bench is still a treat (pictured here from my iPhone, and hence no zooming capability - sorry). You can actually see that the players are real people - big, but still real - and you can take in the interactions among players, both on and off the field. You see, from the top of the Dome, where I would normally sit and have sat many other times, the players look like, well, ants or some of those little folks from that old TV show "Land of the Giants."

It was actually a pretty good game, until the second half and especially the last quarter, that is, when the Lambs let the Seattle Seaweeds (er, I mean Seahawks) come back and win with a last-minute field goal. So close to win number three, and yet so far from getting their act together!

I suppose one upside to the dismal season for my cellar-dweller Lambs, er, I mean Rams, is this: they'll get to go early in the draft, pick up a really good player or two (or a dozen?), and then they'll get to revamp things for next year. Yes, there's "always next year."

And perhaps one upside for me is this: no one else will want to bid on any tickets donated to next year's PCA auction, and those seats twelve rows back on the 50-yard line will come even cheaper? (Well, I can hope, can't I? :-)

Fatherly Wisdom-Why Christ Came

As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation and Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, this little bit from Bernard of Clairvaux goes to the heart of the celebration:
"See," says the Prophet, "the name of the Lord coming from afar." Who could doubt it? Something tremendous was needed in the beginning if the majesty of God was to deign to come down from such a distance, for a sojourn so unworthy of it.

There was, indeed, something tremendous about it; great mercy, immense compassion, abundant charity. For what purpose do we believe Christ came? We shall find it without difficulty, since his words and his acts clearly reveal to us the reason for his coming.

It is to search for the hundredth lost sheep that he came down in all haste from the mountains. He came because of us, so that the mercies of the Lord might be revealed with greater clarity, and his wonderful works for humankind. What amazing condescension on the part of God, who searches for us, and what great dignity bestowed on the one thus sought!

If we want to glory in it, we can quite reasonably do so, not because we can be anything in ourselves, but because he who created us has made us of such great worth. Indeed, all the riches and glory of this world, and all that one could wish for in it, is a very small thing and even nothing, in comparison with this glory. "What are we that you make much of us, or pay us any heed?"

But then again, I should like to know why he determined to come among us himself and why it was not, rather, we who went to him. For it is our benefit which is concerned. And, what is more, it is not the custom of the rich to go to the poor, even if it is their intention to do something for them.

It was, therefore, really our responsibility to go to Jesus: but a double obstacle prevented it. For our eyes were blind, and he dwells in inaccessible light. We were lying paralyzed on our pallet, incapable of reaching the greatness of God.

That is why, in his immense goodness, our Savior, the doctor of our souls, came down from his great height and tempered for our sick eyes the dazzling brightness of his glory. He clothed himself, as it were, with a lantern, with that luminous body, I mean, free from every stain, which he put on.

There we see that swift and brilliant cloud on which, the Prophet had foretold, he would ride to come down to Egypt. (Sermon 1 for Advent 7-8; cited from Wright, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, p. 18-19)

10 December 2008

Twelve Days Medley

And while we're "YouTubing" it, here's an a cappella group called "Straight No Chaser" giving their rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Actually, I'd call it "Twelve Days Medley" and not only does it show some pretty talented singing, but it also gives a few laughs. (HT: Daughter RAsburry for showing this to us at the breakfast table this morning--using my iPhone, that is; no we don't have a computer sitting at the breakfast table.)

09 December 2008

Doll Promoting Islam?

Can a cuddly little baby doll, made by Fischer-Price, promote Islam? Some are saying, "Certainly! Get it off the shelves," while others are dubious and wondering what the big deal is. Here's a YouTube video of an Associated Press report on the matter:

So, what is the doll saying? Is it promoting Islam, or not? Are the parents hearing things? Is the toy company being honest or disingenuous? As one TV commentator loves to say, "What say you?"

Naturalization Ceremony

Last Friday I had the joy and privilege of attending the Naturalization Ceremony for 64 new United States citizens. Actually, I was there first and foremost for Deaconess Grace Rao, born and raised in India, a member of Hope congregation in St. Louis, MO, employed by LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and now a proud citizen of these United States. Here she is, proudly holding her certificate of citizenship in the U.S.

I have heard that many or most people who become U.S. citizens by way of our naturalization process have a great appreciation for our nation, its Constitution, and its way of life. After all, they often come from quite difficult ways of life and harrowing circumstances (war-torn countries, nations rife with poverty and crime), not to mention from governments that may leave much to be desired (e.g. Communist governments, despotic governments), and they actually study, learn, and treasure what it means to become citizens of the U.S.

As I sat in the courtroom at the Federal Courts building, I had to wonder if it might not be healthy for us who are born in this country, us native citizens, to have a "naturalization process" of some kind. Yes, I know there's often the standard citizenship class in grade school, but how many of us are really paying attention at that age? And how many of us would take the "Oath of Allegiance" (below) even as we ponder its details?

In fact, as I waited for the ceremony to begin, I commented to the person next to me, another of Grace's many friends and co-workers present (Grace certainly had the biggest "family" of supporters present :-), "What would happen if we naturally born U.S. citizens had to take the 'Oath of Allegiance'?" We both agreed that more of us native sons and daughters of the U.S. might have a greater appreciation for the nation where God has placed us. We were both delighted that the attorney who addressed the incoming citizens also mentioned the phenomenon that many who are born U.S. citizens too often take for granted the rights and privileges that these 64 incoming citizens now proudly treasure by their free choice.

So, here's something to ponder: How well could we native U.S. citizens swallow and stomach this "Oath of Allegiance" that these 64 new citizens took last Friday? [Commentaries in brackets are mine.]
"I hereby declare on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen [Okay, that part would not apply.]; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law [Wow! Now there's a responsibility of citizenship for you.]; that I will perform non-combatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law [I'm old enough to remember signing up for Selective Service, but one might also think of the draft, and those were for combatant service. What if we were required to report for some other duty to defend our nation?]; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law [Hmm. Could I? Would I?]; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion [This kind of puts criticisms and complaints in a different perspective, doesn't it? And what of certain politicians who would rather see our nation be more like, say, some of Europe's more socialistic countries?]: So help me God." (Printed on the Naturalization Ceremony Program of The United States District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, December 5, 2008)

Fatherly Wisdom: Reversing & Reclaiming Eden

In St. Louis one often sees billboard signs advertising some business that will buy old, ugly, run-down homes in order to renovate them and then, presumably, to resell them for a good profit. One such billboard even says, "Ug buys ugly houses," with "Ug" being the cute, furry, "Cousin It" type of a mascot (or at least ad gimmick) for that particular business. Reclaiming old homes in order to renovate them must be good business in older cities with run down areas, and it certainly has the benefit of bringing beauty out of ugliness.

Such an act of reclamation aptly illustrates the great truth we celebrate on Christmas. As we prepare for Christmas (yes, it's still Advent; yes, we're still preparing; save the real celebrating for "ChristMass" and its Twelve Days!), we prepare to celebrate not just a heartwarmingly familiar story of a cute little baby. Nor do we gather on Christmas Eve/Day merely to sing our good ol' favorite Christmas songs with family and friends. While such hearing and singing is certainly meet, right and salutary, Christmas gives us so much more. It gives us God's very own "reclamation project" for all of humanity and all of creation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ took on our human flesh and blood, bones and organs, reason and senses--became incarnate--in order to reverse the grave tragedy we know as the Fall into sin and death in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3). Our Lord's Incarnation had a particular purpose: to reverse the effects of the Fall in Eden and to reclaim us and His whole creation and bring us back to life with Him. Now that's something to hear, treasure, and sing about!

Here's St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (ca. 202) on how our Lord's coming in the flesh both reverses and reclaims (my words) Eden, that is, God's creation and us, the crown of His creation (and I love the various connections and parallels):
The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband.

As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.

Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed and trampled on the head of the one who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam, in accordance with God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.”

The one lying in wait for the serpent’s head is the one who was born in the likeness of Adam from the Virgin. This is the seed spoken of by Paul in the letter to the Galatians: “The law of works was in force until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” He shows this even more clearly in the same letter when he says: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” The enemy would not have been defeated fairly if the vanquisher had not been born of a woman, because it was through a woman that the enemy had gained mastery over humanity in the beginning, and set himself up as the adversary.

That is why the Lord proclaims himself the Son of Man, the one who renews in himself that first person from whom the human race was formed; as by one person’s defeat our race fell into the bondage of death, so by another’s victory we were to rise again to life.

(Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, 5, 19, 1; 20, 2; 21, 1; SC 153, 248-250, 260-264, as cited in J. Robert Wright, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, p. 11-12.)

27 November 2008

Sabbath Rest for Pastor and People

This little piece will come out in my congregation's December newsletter.

Sabbath Rest for Pastor and People

By the time you read this I will be starting a six-month sabbatical leave from pastoral duties at Hope. This time is intended to be a time of rest and rejuvenation. Yes, I will still remain your pastor, and yes, I will return after May 31, 2009. The purpose of this sabbatical leave is for me to return rejuvenated for longer service to Hope.

After Divine Services on November 9 the Board of Elders read a statement outlining my need for this sabbatical leave, and then that statement was sent to Hope member households. We are also including the statement in this issue of the Hope Lutheran, just in case you haven’t seen it yet.
In this column I want to focus on what a sabbatical leave is and what benefits we—pastor and congregation together—stand to receive. When I began learning in earnest about sabbatical leaves and their purpose, I came across a very helpful document from the Southeastern District of the LCMS. That document is called “Sabbatical Guidelines And Resources For Professional Church Workers.”

These “Sabbatical Guidelines” explain the purpose and rationale of a sabbatical leave in this prologue:
The word “sabbatical” is derived from “Sabbath.” Sabbath time is based on Genesis 2:1-4a in which God modeled and later required (Exodus 17:8-11) the setting aside of 1/7th of our time for re”creation” and restoration. For ancient Israel, Sabbath-keeping was a spiritual discipline that was designed to develop the Israelites’ ability to trust God. A person who kept the Sabbath exercised trust in God by abstaining from those activities that provided material resources. For one day each week, the Israelites would entrust themselves to God’s care rather than to their own ability to work. In short, Sabbath-keeping is a discipline of abstinence from those activities that make us more self-sufficient than God-sufficient.

Historically, in church and academia, the professionals were given a sabbatical every seventh year. The observation was that academic professors and clergy were so worn out after seven years of teaching and leading that they needed a time of rest, recovery, renewal, and reeducation in their field of endeavor. The assumptions were that it paid off for the professional person (avoiding breakdown) and that it paid off for the institution (re-energized and updated leadership). Professional church workers (i.e. Pastor, Deaconess, Director of Christian Education, School Administrator, etc.) need to recreate and restore what has been worn down by day-to-day encounters with stresses and strains of everyday life and ministry.

Nourishing one’s soul and regaining perspective requires a change of pace and place—a pilgrimage. Jesus provides us a good example to follow. He was always moving toward his Father—in prayer, in his teaching, in his travel and then toward the people in care and concern. And the apostles who walked with him were renewed day by day. That’s what sabbatical is about—a pilgrimage with Jesus toward our Heavenly Father. Journeying with Jesus we come to know that there is more to life than suffering or hopelessness. We are moving toward the climax and glory of what is to come. Like the early apostles, we can be recharged by walking with Jesus during an extended time of reflection, spiritual encounter, and community.

Sabbatical typically includes time for travel, rest, prayer, and experiencing different cultures. The best sabbaticals usually are more open-ended than rigid, allowing for the surprises, and possible new direction, that may come. Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness marked a turning point in his ministry. Moses’ time spent tending sheep helped change his perspective on his calling and life. David tended sheep and learned valuable lessons about God’s care and provision. Paul, struck down on the road to Damascus, disappeared into the desert of Arabia for three years, and emerged with a new vision. Therefore, sabbatical is a time to receive, to be nurtured, to reflect on your relationship with God and your own story, so that you can be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized for a life of service to others.
Shortly after this prologue, the “Sabbatical Guidelines” outline the benefits of a sabbatical leave. I was very encouraged to see how a sabbatical leave benefits not only the pastor who takes a sabbatical, but also the congregation. According to the “Guidelines,” here are the benefits for a congregation that grants a sabbatical to its pastor:
A. For the local congregation/school
1) An experienced professional church worker who returns from sabbatical with renewed energy and rediscovered zeal for ministry
2) An opportunity to develop congregational leadership and to come to a greater understanding of the congregation’s ministry by assuming some of the pastoral duties during the interim
3) An occasion for the congregation to reflect and assess their partnership with the professional church worker and ways to strengthen and improve ministry
4) An opportunity to show support and care for a beloved professional church worker and his/her family
5) A time for congregational members to reconsider their commitment and to assess their relationship to the life and witness of the congregation/school
6) Cost effective. When an experienced church worker takes a call and leaves, the congregation loses finances due to loss of momentum, expenses of interim church workers, potential loss of members during an interim period, cost of moving expenses of a new work, lost efficiency while new relationships develop, etc.
We want to be careful with #2, particularly the part about congregational leaders “assuming some of the pastoral duties.” According to Holy Scripture, pastoral duties are given to the pastors, while other tasks in the congregation’s work and life are given to others in the congregation. See Acts 6:1-6.

The “Guidelines” then outline these benefits for the pastor:
B. For the professional church worker
1) A needed break from long hours, high pressure, personal sacrifice, and the 24/7 nature of ministry
2) A time for prayer, rest, study, decision making [sic] and travel
3) A change of scenery and place which can help prevent burnout
4) An opportunity for the worker to discover the importance of doing what they do because of who they ARE rather than because of what they DO
5) The opportunity to develop greater self-awareness and spiritual depth
6) A time with family and friends, to renew and strengthen those relationships
These sound like great benefits for both congregation and pastor, and I look forward to all of us realizing such benefits.

Some have been asking, “Where will Pastor go to church?” Thank you for that concern for my being fed on the Gospel and Sacraments! I will not attend church here at Hope, but I will attend at some of our sister congregations in the area (I think there are a few of them ☺).

So for these next six months I will take “time to receive, to be nurtured, to reflect on [my] relationship with God and [my] own story, so that [I] can be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized for a life of service to others.” I covet your prayers during this time, and I promise that you will be continually in my prayers. I know that you are in good hands with Pastor Rosebrock and the others who will fill in for me. I also know that our Savior, the Lord of the Church, will continue to sustain us during this time of separation, and I am confident that He will use this time to strengthen our faith in Him and improve our life together in His Church.

God bless you, and the Lord be with you, dear brothers and sisters!

Homily - Day of National Thanksgiving

Holy Faith, Holy Prayer, Holy Hands
1 Timothy 2:1-4

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to all of you! Soon the tables will be set for the feasting, and the food will use its enticing aromas to lure us to the table. Soon our stomachs will be content, or a bit full, or crying out, “Ohh, why did I let you stuff me so full?” On top of all this there’s the cornucopia of TV offerings—Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or a movie marathon. But what do floats and pre-Christmas sales really have to do with Thanksgiving? No doubt the football games will glean a big harvest of watchers. But what do Lions and Titans and Seahawks have to do with Thanksgiving? The least they could do is schedule the Patriots vs. the Redskins. Now that would be a proper Thanksgiving theme. After all, isn’t that how it all started?

As Americans we have much to be thankful for. We have many luxuries, many amenities, many privileges and freedoms, even when the economy travels down a rough road, even when terrorists must be fought overseas so that they don’t bring the fight to our homeland. But today let’s set aside what someone once called “turkey theology.” That’s the kind of theology that sees the turkey and the trimmings on the table, quickly gives a formality of thanks to God for all the goodies, but only has eyes for getting to the food. Instead, let’s focus on a different aspect. We observe what’s called a “Day of National Thanksgiving.” Instead of focusing only on the giving of thanks, let’s focus on the national. And our Second Reading helps us do this. How do we Christians live in our nation and among the people around us? St. Paul’s answer is this: We live in holy faith, offering holy prayer, and using holy hands.

St. Paul starts by talking about praying for all sorts of people, especially rulers and authorities. But before we can pursue the holy prayer, we need to have the holy faith. You see, only God’s baptized children, His Christians, His people of holy faith, can offer holy prayer. Holy faith comes first, then comes holy prayer. If we don’t have holy faith, given by God, He really doesn’t hear our prayers. After all, as St. Paul says elsewhere, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23).

This holy faith comes from the God who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That’s the holy will of holy God. He has made us all. He has lamented our fall into sin and death, and yet He still loves us and provides for us. And He has sent His only Son to save us. He wants all people to know His truth—His truth that takes the shape of both judgment and mercy. His truth tells us that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We don’t trust Him as we ought; we argue with Him in our complaints; we fight against Him to protect ourselves and our “turf” of life—which actually belongs to Him anyway, but, hey, let’s not confuse the issue with Scriptural facts. Even as baptized believers we still carry in our flesh those warring, fighting urges. Because of that Old Adam sinner that lives in us, the hostilities run deep between holy God and sinful us. So if we are to have any peace, we must have a mediator.

And here is God’s truth of mercy. As St. Paul says in the verse that follows our Second Reading, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5). The man Jesus Christ brought both sides of the war—holy God and sinful us—back together. He worked out the greatest peace accord of all time. He took the sin and sins of all people of all time upon Himself. It broke Him and killed Him, to be sure, but that’s what brokered our peace with God, that’s what gives us God’s forgiveness, that’s what shows us God’s boundless love. Our Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin, nailed to the cross, and risen from the grave, brought us back to God, to peace with God. That’s God’s saving truth.

This holy faith, then, leads to holy prayer. Since we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we have access to God. We no longer view God as the unapproachable Judge; now we see Him as He really is, our loving Father who tenderly invites us to call upon Him. Now St. Paul’s words on prayer make perfect sense: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions….” St. Paul exhorts all Christians everywhere to pray. It’s the best thing we can do for our neighbor.

But for what do we pray? Too often we are tempted to pray only for ourselves, our individual wants and needs. We are tempted to look out only for our own interests, our own comfort. But notice how St. Paul directs our attention away from ourselves and to our neighbors—all people and the governing authorities. On this “Day of National Thanksgiving,” it is good, right, and salutary to pray for our nation, especially for our leaders.

Our nation and our leaders have been the center of attention lately, with the election, the wars, and the economic downturn and all. So they are perfect targets for our prayers. Multi-billion dollar bailouts of banks and other areas of our economy. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new president assembling his administration to face great challenges; an outgoing president trying to avert economic disaster. It really doesn’t matter what our various political views are; our holy prayer is needed for our nation’s leaders. In fact, when St. Paul encouraged prayers for kings and leaders, he lived at a time when the Roman emperor was most likely insane and most certainly hostile to Christians. No matter who the personalities are or what the politics are the governing leaders are God’s servants. God Himself gives them to us. That’s why we pray for them. We pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for our leaders. We most certainly pray for them to come to repentance and have a change of heart for supporting things such as lax justice or abortion or embryonic stem cell research or policies that make “Joe the Taxpayer” bear the brunt of their greed. Most of all, we pray that God would use our governing leaders to carry out His will of ensuring our “daily bread.”

Now we move from holy prayer to holy hands. You see, in holy prayer, we practice our trust in God our Father to shower His gifts upon us. We trust Him to provide for our basic needs of forgiveness from Him and a peaceful life on earth. Listen again to the reason St. Paul gives for praying for all people, especially our president and leaders: “…that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Then the apostle talks about lifting holy hands, a gesture of prayer that’s not contaminated with anger or disputing.

As Christians we live in holy faith, trusting God’s love and forgiveness through Christ Jesus our Mediator. As Christians we offer holy prayers, our sacrifices that are most pleasing to God because we are exercising our holy faith. And as Christians we also live with holy hands. We live life right here where God has placed us in this world, and what we do is holy, because Christ makes us holy. We rely on His Gospel and Sacraments for life and peace with God—that’s how He makes us holy. He washes us with His holy water of Baptism. He comforts us with His holy words of Absolution. And He nourishes and enlivens us with His holy meal of Body and Blood. These things make us holy, devout, and please to God.

So we live with holy hands in all we do. As Christians, by God’s grace, we are sweet smelling sacrifices to God. God uses us and our hands to bring peace and quiet into this world, peace and quiet into the life of our neighbor—the grocer by providing food; the teacher by giving instruction; the parent by raising children well. The list could go on. The governing authorities have a similar job. God gives them to keep chaos and wickedness from running amok. That way we can live peaceful, quiet lives. And when we live peaceful, quiet lives—confident of God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus—we bring peace and quiet into the life of our neighbor.

So, on this “Day of National Thanksgiving,” it is good, right, and salutary to appreciate the material blessings. But there’s so much more for which to thank God. He has given us the governing leaders to ensure that we may lead peaceful, quiet lives with holy hands. So our holy prayer is indispensable, and that holy prayer flows out of our holy faith in Jesus Christ who achieved the best kind of peace and quiet we can have—peace between our loving God and us. Now there’s something to be thankful for. Amen.

23 November 2008

Homily - Trinity 27

Here's today's homily, for both the Last Sunday in the Church Year and my last Sunday in the pulpit before sabbatical leave (I'll preach yet at Thursday's Thanksgiving Day Matins service).

Looking for Fulfillment
Trinity 27 – Sunday of the Fulfillment

Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 & Matthew 25:1-13

Christ is risen! [R: He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!] I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that, were you? But today gives us quite a mixture of messages—a little resurrection of Easter’s joy of new life in Jesus mixed with a healthy dose of eager anticipation for Jesus to come again in glory. After all, that’s when we’ll get to see and live the fulfillment of our Lord’s Easter victory over sin and death.

And there’s more. In the Gospel reading, we hear of the wise and foolish virgins and the oil of faith as they await the Bridegroom’s coming. Jesus says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the Epistle reading, we hear St. Paul’s exhortation on just how to wait for the Lord to “come like a thief in the night”—he calls us to be sober in our waiting and to put on the armor of faith and love and the hope of salvation yet to come. In the Old Testament reading, we hear God’s promise of what lies ahead: a “new heavens and new earth”; all joy, no more sadness; all life, no more death; all prosperity, no more need; all peace, no more conflict. And on top of all that, today is the last Sunday that I will be with you for the next six months. As you know, effective next Sunday I’ll be on sabbatical leave, a time for resting, reading, praying, and getting rejuvenated so that I can return and continue serving as your pastor.

How do all of these messages meld together to comfort and edify us today? On this “Sunday of the Fulfillment” we look forward to fulfillment, to full life, real life, restored life, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now, I’m going to stray a bit from one of my cardinal rules of preaching—I’m going to insert myself a bit this morning. No, I don’t like putting myself front and center in a sermon, let alone in the spotlight in general, but I also don’t want to ignore what’s on your mind on this last Sunday with you for a while.

As you heard two weeks ago, when the Elders announced my sabbatical leave, I’ve been wrestling with depression and burnout. I used to think that depression was mostly a matter of “having a bad day” or something. But I’ve learned that it comes as a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. For someone with depression even the best of days and happiest of circumstances can seem shrouded in cloudy gloom. For me that gloom has been going by the name of “Apathy.” My motto has been: “Ah, what’s the point?” I know that’s not the “normal me,” but I can’t just shake it with a burst of willpower. And the burnout? One source explained burnout this way: “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people” (Oswald, 59). Yep, that’s been me.

Why do I focus on such things on this Last Sunday of the Church Year? No, not to get you to think, “Poor, Pastor.” Please don’t. Though I do appreciate all of your support, your well wishes, and especially your prayers. Instead, I bring this up because it illustrates the need we all have—the need for our Savior to return and “graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” You see, there may not be a big “S” emblazoned on my clerical shirts – you know, for “Superpastor” – and I know you’ve never seen that big “S” – but we pastors like to think we can do anything and be everything for every one else—run faster than a speeding sermon deadline, be more powerful than a hectic schedule, and leap tall buildings of personal crises in a single bound. However, I, your pastor, am realizing just how finite and limited I am. Yes, we all need such reminders. Yes, we all need the Savior who loves us and strengthens us. Yes, we all need the Bridegroom to come and usher us into His “new heavens and new earth.” Oh, I am so looking forward to His return and to our new life with Him!

When we started making plans for this sabbatical leave, one brother pastor wrote some comforting words in an email. I will always appreciate and treasure them. He said, “The Day is not far off when Jesus will make all things new forever, including us. God grant you already now greater glimpses of the coming rest and joy. Meanwhile, we’ll keep on limping along together on this pilgrimage, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, finding life and strength in Him.” That’s the message of this Sunday of Fulfillment. We may be “limping along,” but we’re also looking forward to our Lord’s fulfillment of all of His promises, His new, full, real, restored life.

For now we’re all “limping along together on this pilgrimage.” St. Paul hints at this in our second reading. The world thinks there is “peace and security” in the things of the world—a new president soon to take office, a stock market rally here and there, or a profitable holiday shopping season. And we Christians too often go “limping along” in trying to find our peace and security in this fallen world. But, as St. Paul says, “sudden destruction will come upon them.” It’s the same thing Jesus had to tell His disciples once (Mk. 13:1-2). As He and they came out of the temple after worship, one disciple marveled at the wonderful buildings and the wonderful stones. But Jesus had to remind them—and us—not to put confidence in such things, because, after all, it will all come crashing down on the Last Day. So St. Paul urges us to “keep awake and be sober.” We are but pilgrims passing through this fallen world. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). I don’t know about you, but when I—fallen, frail, limited, and limping human being that I am—hear that, I can’t help but eagerly hope and pray for it.

That’s the oil in the lamps of the wise virgins in our Gospel reading—the oil of faith. No, not just any old generic faith. No, not just faith in any old thing that comes along. Notice what those virgins were waiting for—the coming of the Bridegroom. Those wise virgins had a plentiful supply of faith in the Son of God who loved them and gave Himself for them. You see, the Bridegroom has already demonstrated His great love for us, His bride, the Church. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him” (1 Jn. 4:9). This Bridegroom, Jesus the Son of God, took on our human flesh—our flesh so shackled by any number of frailties and sicknesses and weaknesses, our flesh so prone to “limping along” in things such as depression and burnout and focusing on the fickle peace and security offered by the world. So the Son of the living God, our Lord Jesus, has restored our frail flesh. He, fully God and fully Man, also went to the cross to shed His blood for us. In His blood we find forgiveness and salvation from sin. In His death and resurrection we find healing, wholeness, and life—full life, real life, restored life—beginning now and realized in eternity. I don’t know about you, but I for one can’t wait until our Lord’s fulfillment, when He comes to take us into His wedding feast.

What will we find once we enter His marriage feast and the doors to this fallen world are shut behind us? Consider our first reading. What a picture! Former things, such as our sin and our weaknesses, will not be remembered. We, God’s Jerusalem, will “be glad and rejoice forever in that which [He creates].” Why? Because He rejoices in us and is glad in us, His people. That’s what Jesus’ incarnation, cross and empty grave tell us. It’s what His washing and His Meal deliver to us. Also, no more weeping, no more cries of distress. “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). No more infants dying young, no more old men coming to the end of their days. In other words, life, full life, real life, restored life. And just in case we think it might get boring, as if there would be nothing to do, remember this: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” We’ll get to enjoy living like we’ve never enjoyed it before. God also says, “My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Yes, our working, our living, our growing will be such a joy—something that eludes us here and now, but something that will be very real.

But here’s something even better. God says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” No longer will we speak, act, and live in ways contrary to God’s good will. Instead, we will be, as they say, “in tune”—perfectly in tune—with God the Holy Trinity, and He with us. It’s how we were created to live. It’s what Jesus came to restore through His life, death, and resurrection. It’s what we can look forward to with great anticipation. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it.

Hebrews 4:9 says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” That Sabbath rest comes in our Bridegroom Jesus Christ, and we will get to experience it fully on the Last Day. For now, even as we limp along, we rejoice in cross-won life and we look forward to His coming fulfillment of that life. Come to His Table, where He gives a foretaste of that feast to come. And while I must now leave you for a time, please remember that our Lord still keeps us together in His Body. After a time of “greater glimpses of the coming rest and joy,” I look forward to joining you again to look forward to our fulfillment in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

20 November 2008

A Sabbath Rest

Hebrews 4 has long been one of my favorite chapters in Scripture, particularly for the promise that "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb. 4:9). Just as God rested from His labors, says the writer to the Hebrews (and, yes, I like either St. Paul or Apollos for that honor), we too may look forward to a Sabbath rest. Of course, Hebrews 4 is speaking of the "rest" of our salvation and eternal life with the Holy Trinity.

However, I think this promised rest will take on more meaning these next six months as I will take a much-needed sabbatical leave - a.k.a. "sabbath rest" - from parish duties. Now that it's been publicized in my parish, I can speak of it here in this forum. Beginning 30 November 2008 I will take a sabbatical leave in order to rest, get rejuvenated, re-establish good study habits, and thus return to parish duties after 31 May 2009 with renewed vigor and focus.

You see, I must admit that I have been battling depression and burnout for the past couple of years. For those years I always thought, "I can shake this off," or "I can get re-focused," or other such self-motivational notions. But when you have that chemical imbalance in the brain that the doctors call "depression," such self-motivation just doesn't go very far or last very long. In fact, with bona fide depression (as opposed to having that gloomy day that hits everyone every once in a while), I have discovered firsthand that someone with depression can walk out the door first thing in the morning, greet a warm, bright, sunny, cloudless day, and it still seems as though the world is enveloped in a cool, overcast haze. My variety of depression has been marked, not by anxiety, but by apathy. Much of what I used to like and love (vocation, interests, hobbies, etc.) just hasn't mattered. "Ah, what's the point?" becomes one's motto with this kind of depression.

And then there's the burnout. I never thought of myself as a candidate for such a thing - never thought it would happen to me (You mean my clerical shirts aren't emblazoned with that big "S" for "Superpastor"? :-). But then, thanks to an article by Rev. Matt Harrison on sabbaticals, I decided to read Roy Oswald's book called Clergy Self-Care. As Oswald distilled several quotes on what burnout is, I'd swear the page in the book turned into a mirror reflecting the real me. Here's how Oswald described "burnout":
• Decreased energy—physically, the individual has difficulty keeping the pace.
• Decreased self-esteem—the individual feels a sense of personal failure related to work or vocation.
• Output exceeding input—the person has poured more and more of him/herself into a job or project, and the expected payoff or rewards are not forthcoming.
• Sense of helplessness, hopelessness, being trapped—the individual is unable to perceive alternate ways of functioning.
• Loss of idealism—the individual’s worldview has been shattered.
• Cynicism and negativism—the individual is down on self, others, the job, institutions, etc.
• Self-depletion—the individual’s resources to continue seem to be diminishing (Clergy Self-Care, p. 59).
Even though Oswald wrote and published those words back in 1991, I was sure that he must have been looking over my shoulder the past several months.

So, anyway, long story short, the past couple of months have been filled with seeing a counselor, seeing a doctor for the physical aspects (How about that, tests certainly can show imbalances and deficiencies in the body), discussing these matters with my congregation's elders, researching the whole notion of "sabbatical leave," and making plans for such a leave. (And that explains the paucity of posts here on the blog, a problem I hope to remedy real soon, perhaps with something of a "Sabbatical Journal" feature.) I must thank the Lord for giving me caring and understanding elders, as well as a very supportive congregation. This is new for all of us, but it's also an exciting time as we think of a renewed, refreshed relationship between pastor and people here at Hope.

What will I do for six months without the hustle and bustle of parish duties? I plan to spend Christmas - on Christmas - with my family in Oregon/Washington (something, of course, that we've not been able to do in 18 years of parish ministry). Reconnecting with family is supposed to be quite healing. I also plan to dive back into reading the Scriptures in their original languages, explore the new (for me) waters of early church fathers such as Ambrose, Chrysostom and others, sit in on a seminary class on patristic commentaries on John's Gospel, enroll in the "Doxology" program, and take some private retreats for prayer and study. Essentially, I'm looking forward to just being fed and "filled up" in order that I may return to my parish with renewed focus and zeal to serve the Lord and proclaim His Gospel.

And one final note before I share the statement that our Board of Elders has read and sent out. I've been amazed by the rapidity with which this news of my upcoming sabbatical has spread, and I've been especially surprised at how many people say, "Good for you!" But I must clarify one thing. The grapevine told me the other day that one report--from a branch on the grapevine most convinced of his "facts"--has put me "on disability." Well, to set the record straight: that's *not* true. I am not on disability; I will be on sabbatical. The goal is to rest and rejuvenate and thus avoid the whole disability thing. Please help the accurate details of my sabbatical story to course through the "grapevine."

Here's the statement that my Board of Elders has approved, has read after Divine Services a couple of Sundays ago, and has sent out to the whole congregation via postal mail:
Fellow Members of Hope:

For the past couple of months the Board of Elders has been discussing ways that our congregation takes care of our pastors. We call our pastors to preach, teach, give out the Sacraments, provide pastoral care to individuals and groups, and administer the day-to-day work of the congregation. This work often involves a seven-day-a-week schedule that sacrifices days off and time with family. Over time pastors need time for rest, renewal, and rejuvenation in order to keep serving the Church and our congregation.

Pastor Asburry has been serving the Church for 18 years, most of that time here at Hope, first as Associate Pastor and now as Senior Pastor. He prepares two sermons each week, one for Sunday and one for Wednesday. He teaches Bible classes, Adult Catechism classes, and a theology class at Hope School. He has also taught Youth Catechesis and Latin at the school. He regularly provides pastoral care to people who are shut-in and hospitalized; he prepares couples for marriage; performs Christian burials; and often provides pastoral counsel and deals with conflict resolution issues that arise. He carries out regular administrative duties and attends meetings of the Board of Elders, the Fiscal Board, the Board of Christian Education, and the Voters Assembly. In addition to this, for the past two years Pastor Asburry has been dealing with depression and burnout. Martin Luther once said something that describes what Pastor Asburry has been going through: “My head is like a dull knife. It just won’t cut anymore.”

The Board of Elders wants to take care of Pastor Asburry so that he can continue taking care of us with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Board has unanimously agreed to grant Pastor Asburry a sabbatical leave beginning November 30, 2008, and lasting until May 31, 2009. Sabbatical leaves flow out of the Days of Creation and are a good way for congregations to take care of their pastors. The 2007 LCMS Convention encourages congregations to take care of their pastors in this way and says, “A sabbatical is a time to receive, to be nurtured, and to reflect on one’s relationship with God so that one may be renewed, refreshed, and revitalized for a life of service to others” (Resolution 6-08). Pastor Asburry’s counselor has also recommended a sabbatical leave to deal with his depression and burnout. This sabbatical leave will give Pastor Asburry time to reflect on his work as a pastor, reestablish a regimen of daily study, reconnect with family, and rejuvenate himself to continue serving Hope Church and School. During this time he will enroll in the Doxology program for clergy study and renewal, attend several retreats and conferences, attend a class at Concordia Theological Seminary, and continue to see his counselor.

During Pastor’s sabbatical leave, Kantor Rosebrock will take care of the administrative duties at Hope, preach at Wednesday services, provide pastoral care for those in the hospital, and officiate at funerals and care for the grieving families. Pastor Preus will visit shut-ins and help with preaching. Pastor Egger and Pastor Maxwell will preside at Sunday Divine Services and, along with Pastor Fritsche and our seminary field education students, assist with preaching and teaching. This sabbatical leave will be financed by donations secured by the Board of Elders so that Pastor Asburry will continue to receive his regular salary and benefits and so that the congregation will not have extra expenses.

Please keep Pastor Asburry in your daily prayers during this sabbatical leave, especially that he may be rejuvenated and revitalized to serve Hope. Also, pray for those who take on extra duties to serve our congregation during this time. Finally, pray that God will use this time of sabbatical leave to enrich our life together as God’s people here at Hope.

Board of Elders
Approved, 3 November 2008
Read after Divine Services, 9 November 2008