Thanksgiving Grace

Biblical Text: Deuteronomy 8:1-10

A short homily for a thanksgiving sermon that asks what are we giving thanks for? Certainly, for our daily bread which in this land we have an abundance, but also for “every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” We give thanks for this body and life, which should lead to thanks for the much greater grace we have been given in Jesus.

Thanksgiving Rituals

Think for a second about the rituals of Thanksgiving.  Most of them are food: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie with some region and family variation. The further south you go the more pecan pie and mac-n-cheese show up.  In the Midwest the “green stuff” – you know the pistachio pudding and dream whip salad – and French’s Onion green beans are staples. But there are more.  Families still gather, many over great distances.  The annual report of the misery of being stuck in the airport on the “largest travel day of the year” is a ritual. The President pardoning the Turkeys which unfortunately seems to have erased the much deeper ritual of a written Thanksgiving proclamation which has roots in George Washington and before.  And we shouldn’t forget the football games.  And if you skipped any of these things, especially if someone thought you skipped them intentionally, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving.  You can try and add stuff.  Maybe over time new things replace old, but probably not.

That is the American Thanksgiving liturgy.  And this is probably my most controversial claim, the rituals come first. It is through the liturgies that we learn the meanings and become part of something larger than ourselves. How do you know that you are at “the big game?” The really big game gets a Stealth Bomber flyover, although the Blue Angles also count. Having the Goodyear Blimp present is the entry stakes on a big game.  But the invocation of “the game” always starts with the presentation of the colors – the flags and the teams – and the playing of the national anthem.   That is the liturgy of the game and the creation of the congregation of the game.  Mess with the liturgies or rituals and people know that you are messing with the real meanings.  They might not be able to express in words what those meanings are, but they know them from repeated invocation.

We are all creatures of habit.  The real question is not if we are going to have habits – rituals, liturgies.  The question is if we are going to develop good ones, or poor ones.  As Ben Franklin/Poor Richard would say, “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  Few do it, but doing your homework immediately at the end of the school day is a liturgy of success. Not to mention that you get to spend your evening having fun without worry.  This is all in the realm of what the Bible would call wisdom literature.  Does it work this way for everyone? Absolutely not. But this is the thing about wisdom literature as Joshua Gibbs wittily put it, “Ways a man can live by, if he is not so foolish as to think himself special.”

This power and necessity of ritual, of liturgy, is something that the church knew for millennia but seems to have forgotten in some mad push for originality.  But even originality turns into ritual.  The demand for “prayers from the heart” turns into “Lord Jesus, we just wanna ask…”.  The third time through a chorus comes with the demand to “raise those hands in worship.”  Even supposedly non-liturgical traditions have a liturgy.  The question really is what does it teach, what meaning does it encapsulate.  This insight is old enough to have a latin phrase, “lex orandi, lex credendi” – the law of worship is the law of belief. How you worship says what you believe better than what you would say.  Is the man who does not fall asleep watching football on thanksgiving really giving thanks?

The Christian Liturgy I think tells us two key things.  The God who has made himself known is The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit. This God makes His grace present for His people here. He has promised to be here in Word and Sacrament which are the means of that grace.  We don’t show up to give God anything.  We show up to receive his grace.  Wherever two or three are gathered in His name. For which Thanksgiving is a proper liturgical response.

King of Kings

Biblical Text: Luke 23:27-43

I don’t think we moderns understand what the word King means. The last Sunday of the church year is often called Christ the King Sunday. King is one of the three offices that are ascribed to Jesus – prophet, priest and king. But we don’t know what that word means anymore, especially if we are basing it off of our images of the modern British monarchy. This sermon attempts to think through what King means and how it might effect our lives.

Sea of Stars

(Note, in the past I did not post my weekly “newsletter” articles. I don’t know why. I used to tell myself they seemed more congregation specific. But more specific than the sermons which I do post? So, I’m going to start posting them. In the newsletter they are called “Pastor’s Corner” and so that is the category you will find them under. They often, although not always, are reflections on one of the other lectionary texts of the week.)

Did you catch the first images from the James Webb satellite telescope?  The one that basically replaces the Hubble that was deployed over the summer?  Here is a link: I know people have alternate responses to such things.  The militant atheists took the photo of that stella maris, the now much bigger sea of stars, and quipped “imagine thinking that you are in any way consequential.” And if I am staring at those photos as a pure expression the holiness of God, yeah, I get it. A holy unknown god should cause stark raving terror at the vast gulf between it and us.  There is something mischievously funny that every step we seem to make in knowledge of the universe, it reveals that the universe is both infinitely bigger and more strange than we thought.  It is almost like God chuckling, “oh, you think you have plumbed my depths and now comprehend the foundations, that you could answer my question to Job “were you there (Job 38:4)” with a yes? Well now, take a look at this.”  That vastness of space stares back at us as a metaphor for the unknown god.  And if god was simply unknown I think my conclusion would run along the lines of H.P. Lovecraft.  But God has not remained unknown.  God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.

When I think of the last Sunday of the Church Year, sometimes called Christ the King Sunday, my mind takes me to those cosmic images.  That is where our Epistle reading for the day (Colossians 1:13-20) goes. The first thing that the Apostle Paul wants us to know is that “The Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son.”  We have been removed from staring at that vast dark cold sea of stars and been placed in Christ.  The impersonal has been replaced with the named.  The second thing Paul wants us to know is that this is good news.  You could (or at least I could) image a deity where that unknowing and uncaring space was better. You don’t have to think too hard.  Any of the idols or the old pagan gods would be such.  The pagans didn’t seek the gods so much as give their sacrifices to keep them away, to ensure they continued to slumber. Because being on a first name with a pagan god usually ended poorly.  But what Paul wants us to know is that in the Kingdom of Christ we are not insignificant slaves.  In Christ, “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

And in Christ we are far from inconsequential.  In some of that cosmic language Paul wants us to know exactly who this Christ is.  “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  That entire sea of stars – “the visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities” – is his.  Yet in Jesus “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  God was pleased to reveal himself in Jesus.  And He revealed himself for this purpose, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” God revealed himself to make peace.  God revealed himself by putting His “skin in the game.” And more than just skin, His blood.  God left that vast sea of stars to dwell in fullness with us, to save us.

The God who hides behind that sea of stars has come to us.  The God who has the power to make the stella maris, placed all that power in Jesus to save us.  Far from inconsequential, you have been invited into that divine life. You have been transferred from the darkness to the Kingdom.

Two Doomsday Questions

Biblical Text: Luke 21:5-28

The last two Sundays of the church year usually are given over the “last things”. The old word for last things is doomsday which is just Old English Judgement Day. The text for this week is Jesus talking about the Temple. That temple represents everything of the Jewish world. Everything it meant to have a Jewish identity was tied up in that temple. And Jesus is just going to walk out of it. The disciples try and call him back to it. “See the marvelous stones and the offerings?” Jesus replies not a stone will be let on top of another. The entire Jewish identity will come down. That causes shock and two questions from the disciples.

This is remarkably relevant to our situation today. We are lost in conversations about identity. We build identities on some good things, some pretty lies, and some sins. Even the good things can be an idol in the Temple. This sermon thinks about doomsday, identity and the two questions the disciples asked.

Who’s Blessed?

Biblical Text: Matthew 5:1-12

How we use the word saint in the English language has a couple of meaning that are somewhat contradictory. This All-Saints Day sermon ponders those categories of saints a bit and then turns to who and what Jesus calls blessed.

The Law and the Gospel

Biblical Text: Romans 3:19-28 (John 8:31-36)

This is my attempt at a Reformation Day sermon that tries to bring that 500 year old crisis into our day. The core insight of the Reformation is understanding that the Word of God comes to us as a Word of Law and a Word of Gospel. (Gospel has become a churchy word. It simply means good news, but even that feels like a euphemism. I would simply use promise. The Gospel is the promise of God revealed in Jesus Christ.) And I think it might take a bit, but the animating phrase, the phrase that makes it fall into place for me is “do the work.” That’s the modern “woke” phrase and it is so close to the Reformation era phrase “do what you can” or what Luther started with in the 95 theses, “do penance.” The Law demands from us. The law of God is good and wise, human laws less so, but the fact of the Word of the Law is that it always condemns. And our primary strategy is to try and minimize the law. Unleash our internal lawyers to make affirmative cases. Yes, we did it, but it doesn’t matter, because…

The work is never done, except in the cross. That is the gospel. This sermon attempts to make us feel the weight of the law, and to open that bottle of 200 proof grace that Luther stumbled accross.

Grace and Expectations

Biblical Text: Genesis: 4:1-16

Cain and Abel is one of the “Ur-Stories” of the world. Of course the first sibling rivalry ended in murder. You know it’s true. The question for me always was why? And the best answer that I can understand from the text is family expectation. Mom had expectations of Cain, that were not on Abel. This sermon spells out that case. It cleans up what I think is a “preacher story” about the difference in the offerings. Some preacher stories are made up to help the cause, but this one I think hurts it. And then it looks at how families are things of grace, and how our brother – Jesus – is the best brother’s keeper we could hope for.

Wrestling with God

Biblical Text: Luke 18:1-8, Genesis32:22-30

This sermon starts out with a comparison of the metaphors of the hymnwriters for prayer and the strongest biblical metaphors. Our opening hymn of the day was LSB 772 In Holy Conversation (It’s a newer hymn so of course it is under copyright. The link isn’t as helpful as it would be, but it is a start.) The metaphor for a prayer life for the hymnwriters is gentle conversation. The metaphors in use in our texts are wrestling and petitioning an unjust judge. Big difference. The sermon explores the difference and hopefully encourages you toward an intentional prayer life.

Mid-Wit Meme Wedding?

Biblical Text: Ruth 1:1-19

This text used to be a standard wedding text. It is also one of the texts that people use in a certain way that gets under the skin of a certain type of minister – bringing up the mid-wit meme. For my money, Ruth is the best book in all of scripture to really get the gospel. This sermon using that mid-wit meme as a start, attempts to see how Christ is in Ruth, and in so far as our marriages are icons or images or Christ and the church, Ruth’s pledge of faith is exactly right for a wedding.