Comments for Christmas

I want to give you a little Christmas gift, one you’ve probably not gotten before, a present containing five letters, wrapping up a little package of good, important Lutheran theology.

Here you go: c-a-p-a-x. Capax. It’s Latin, and since you’ve been chanting and singing gloria in excelsis, you’re ready for it. Capax comes across in our words capability and capacity. It’s a particularly applicable word for Christmas. In church history, our capax word has been a link, with a question mark, between two other words. The full phrase is finitum capax infiniti. It’s nice because it already sounds a bit like English. We could say this is about the finite having capacity for the infinite. Rephrasing could ask if the mortal has room for the immortal, if created things are capable of holding the presence of the Creator. Do we and our world have capacity and capability for God in us? Capax or non capax?

To me, it starts out sounding like a physics question. You know you can’t empty a whole pot of coffee into a single mug; there isn’t enough capacity. On the other hand, if we had snow you could imagine taking a sledful of it and packing it into one dense snowball. Ratcheting it up a degree, would we be able to take all the air in this room and squeeze it inside an air compressor tank? Or what if we tried to focus the light of the sun to shine directly and only onto our planet? There we’d have to figure the answer is no, non capax, not capable. Our planet couldn’t bear so much solar radiation. Earth would simply burn up, disintegrate, melt away. The sun is too powerful, too overwhelming.

So this is the question of God. Can all of God’s omnipresent infinite size be poured into the body of a tiny baby? Can the God who created the entire cosmos be reduced into the form of one so little and impotent and helpless? Can we encounter all of God’s blazing spectrum of true Light, illustrated in this infant, or is that light so searing and intense that it would burn us up? Can we comprehend our unfathomable God, wrap our heads around this mystery, and hold it in our arms? What about this: could there be any possible validity in this eternal God of all life breathing his last, really dying, put to death, coming to nothing, annihilated on the cross? Capax raises these big theological ideas, which almost come across as nonsense questions.

Maybe we can take a bye on that last one this morning. But another of the lingering capax conundrums is for today, because it has been about Mary. I suppose partly it’s that the chauvinists of history haven’t wanted to grant such a place to a woman, but there was long and fierce debate about a title, of her being called “the God-bearer,” bearing God in her womb, and whether Mary’s body had capacity to contain God and deliver God into this world. The shock of that mystery I find, however, outdone by the beauty of another mystery, as we go on to say that Mary’s breast nursed God, that she was responsible for the nurture and care of God’s life.

To take away a degree of the lofty speculation or pondering Mary’s body so long ago, to place it in your own lap here and now, we also must ask if your stomach is big enough to hold God. Do you have an iron gut that can contain God? After all, this God, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, broke it, and gave it to you, saying “This is my body.” It isn’t that you get a fragment or morsel of God, that you nibble up a bit, as if you took a bite out of a portion of a chicken. In, with, and under bread, you are given God’s body to eat. He promises his presence there for you. You swallow, and God is contained in your own belly.

Can God really do that—become flesh, be born as a human, wander around in a body, be killed, give himself to you in bread, be digested by you, dwell within you? Can the natural things of our world bear the weight of God’s presence and still exist? Capax? Really?

Clearly, it would be easier to answer “no.” It would be tidier to restrict God to heaven, some distant, foreign realm that doesn’t really relate to us and which we don’t have to encounter. Or to claim that God is spirit that pervades all things anyway, and we can’t add to it or take away from it. Or that rather than any sort of “it,” a some-thing, that God is more of an emotion, the sense of goodwill and generosity we feel, that which inspires love in us.

Yet that’s not Christmas. Our answer of capax has to be Yes. Maybe our unimportant, imperfect lives should be obliterated when coming face-to-face with the majestic holiness of God. Maybe that understanding should be too much, making the circuitry of our brains go haywire. Maybe that light is so intense, we shouldn’t be able to gaze at it or stand in its presence. Maybe God is so vast that nothing we say should be able to contain God. Maybe our capacity should always fall short.

And yet, here is God, among you. The full presence of God, arriving in our world to be nursed and swaddled. I saw the term yesterday from Mexico Niño Dios, the baby God. So God went on to grow and mature, was here for us to witness and praise, to beg from and to kill. God is here because God wanted to be like you, to be known by you, to be with you, to be for you.

Are we able to comprehend this, to explain God, to shine a light on God? Of course not. Or not normally. But God did it this way, coming into our world, emptied into our life, so that we could know God, so we could encounter God. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Even when it seems we couldn’t have capacity to receive more, he keeps pouring into us.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he took on your flesh, so you may embody God’s presence for others, so that as you receive his body you may also live now and forever as the body of Christ in the world.

And God was cradled in his mother’s arms so that you may also know you are held in the bosom of the Father, close to God’s heart.

Capax. A miraculous gift, which you can keep uncovering and opening and treasuring. Merry Christmas.


Sermon for Christmas Eve, Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

You know what would be great, if on Christmas we had one of the best reasons ever in the history of the world to celebrate and instead turned it into another lame lecture on morality.

I apologize for starting with rotten sarcasm on this cherished evening. But the appointed Titus reading messes up Christmas, with its aloof austerity and expectations that because of Jesus we have to act proper. I can’t help but point out how in faith sometimes we got it, and sometimes we royally blew it.

Let’s get you up to speed with about three sentences of backstory Bible study. Jesus was born, right? Over the years, he did and said some stuff until he was crucified—killed on a cross—and on the third day rose from the dead. With me?

From that first Easter Sunday (if not before), his followers have been left trying to figure it out, to make sense of him. They called him Savior. They said it was good news, that he showed us God in a way nothing else had, which made a huge difference for our lives and maybe all creation, the whole cosmos. The earliest Christians saw it as an abundance of grace, as forgiveness that left out or forgot or excluded nobody. They practiced radical hospitality and sharing and compassion and peace, because that’s what they understood Jesus to be about, what God wanted for all of us. The earliest practicers of the good news saw everyone as favored by God and had understandings on taking care of each other and including females and class-relations and economics that were ahead of their time.

Way ahead. See, Titus and his next generation came along, seemingly intent on flubbing it up. They decided to ditch the amazing equality and abundant love and the entirety of life absolutely drenched in God’s grace. Forsaking that, they wanted instead to cling to power and re-entrench patriarchy and male dominance and privileges of status. And since, it’s taken us 18 or 1900 years to get back to standing against oppression and allowing women to have a voice and saying you don’t have to be special to be welcome here. Some of those persistent problems we still struggle against, with the church too often toiling the opposite direction, naming sinners to be cast out while claiming divine sanction for ourselves.

And so Titus—that forgettable dog of a reading dragged out all over the world for tonight—botches the birth of Jesus, turning gift into demand. But there it is anyway, showing that sometimes we get it and sometimes we get it backward. Here’s a repeat for you (as if you asked for the reminder): it blathers on about “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.” Lest there’s lingering doubt about what malarkey this is, earlier in the chapter tells women to be submissive to their husbands and take care of children and the household. It says slaves shouldn’t talk back to masters. It was written directly to undermine the grace-filled lives of earlier Christians.

More to the point, I’m just sure you arrived here on Christmas Eve yearning, practically begging, to hear a lesson on what Titus calls “temperance, seriousness, and prudence.” Any “amens” to that? You know already that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s not why Jesus was born. It’s not how we celebrate. Prudish self-control and lack of passion is not the heart of what God is up to. It gets God backward, cramming God into a message of self-serving morality. Worst, it replaces joyful abundance with a lame, droning threat.

A related example of such ditching the good news for a threat is familiar in what we’ve been doing for two months with Santa Claus. He should be the mark of generosity and free gifts this season, but instead we turn him into a surveillance camera of “Santa’s watching and knows if you’re naughty.” It reverses the main point. So, of the discipline-surveillance Santa, Titus is a theological version, which makes it an even more rotten corruption.

To explain, I’d like to switch from sarcasm to sacrament. Sacrament is a word that means something like “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” Sacraments are physical signs of God. We look around us and try to figure out where God is in the midst of our existence. We tend to figure certain people or situations are more blessed, to locate God’s presence as more involved in one place than another.

Titus claims this locale is in acting proper, that good behavior gets you closer to God and so work ethic dictates whether God is with you. Our society goes on to add the association with power and prestige, further guessing that wealth is a sign of blessing, making money our sacrament, our sign of God. Likewise, the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” imagines that dust and debris and grime block God, that clearing away bad things gets you next to God. So our tendency is almost toward anti-sacrament, not about stuff where God is, but what we get rid of or escape in order to find God, separating God from the mess of regular life.

But now visualize Christmas…the birth of Jesus…this baby lying in a manger. We may choose antibiotic sterility, but God was born pro-biota, amid the bacteria, the germs, and—we should be honest—the animal poop! Picture how much spit and saliva livestock drool out of their snouts. Then notice how those suspect, podunk first-timer parents put baby Jesus right in the manger feed-trough where the cud-chewers had been licking! They also came with poor planning, without reservations booked at the inn, had no huffy claims to privilege, were left out in the cold.

That’s where we look to find God! Christmas upends our typical sacramental biases of where we wanted to implicate God. If God isn’t primarily in our morality. If God isn’t invested in the “bigger is better” development program. If God isn’t running an exclusive operation. If God isn’t flashy or austere or high and mighty in any regard. With this ultimate revelation of God for us, our sacrament, our sign of God turns up far from power or glory or success or perfection or acting so self-righteously upright or being neat and tidy. Our sacrament at Christmas is the opposite of the magnificent, immaculate, proper, or in any way “just right” but is rather stinky and crowded and a bit crude.

Yet this also says that God’s presence is in some truly miraculous places. If we are able to see God asleep in the feed-trough, waking only to bawl his head off, with grungy shepherds not lingering out in the labor and delivery waiting room but busting right in—since God is there, God is also able to be many other unexpected places. Most importantly, God is abiding with you, not waiting for you to get your screwed-up act together. God is with you when life seems like a big ol’ mess and way too cluttered and not going well at all. God is most definitely there when things are not “just right.”

In fact, that’s exactly why Jesus arrived, not to be a heavenly boss or to reinforce our dominating stereotypes but to be with you in compassion, in blessing through the worst moments, otherwise you wouldn’t really need a Savior. He was born poor and outcast. He spent time with the sick and the losers around him, not to mope or reprimand but to host a party. In the end he went to the cross and into his tomb so you may know God doesn’t evaporate into thin air but abides with you through it all. That’s what we begin to see tonight, not a conquering overlord sealed off behind a hypoallergenic barrier, but one who is passionate about giving himself away, intimately involved in the care of sustaining life, from a vulnerable baby to the stretch of solar systems, and you in the complex, messy midst of it.

One more word on sacraments of this God, words from Jesus himself. This has been about seeing God in sorrow or suffering or sloppiness. But in our usual sense of sacraments, we typically point to two events that Jesus shares with us, where he promises to be found. We started the service turned toward the baptismal font, and near the end, we’ll gather around this table. In water, and in bread and wine, whether completely drenched in grace or snuck in under the smallest morsel, these common, crude elements of our world become holy stuff because with them Jesus has promised forgiveness for what you’ve done wrong, to connect you again to God, to remain with you in love.

So you may expect, then, the presence of Jesus with you, not just on the most holy and peaceful night of the year, but through the grind of every day. Not just when you get exactly what you want, but in disappointments. Not just when all is calm and bright, but through the disturbing darkness. Not just when things are going well and you’re doing exactly what you should be, but when it’s all screwed up and you’re in pain or you are a pain.

Nevertheless, in Jesus, God is here, always for you. That’s why we celebrate and can say Merry Christmas.


Carol Stories, week 3


That Boy-Child of Mary (ELW #293, 1, 2, & 4)
We’re going to end our carol stories for the year with perhaps the most beloved and familiar carol. With my mostly-German background, that one feels like part of me, the way some of you Norvegian-types respond to Jeg er sa glad. Among our collection, there’s also Polish (Infant Holy, Infant Lowly), plenty of English, as we’ve heard, including some specifically Wesleyan for the Methodist contingent, Danish (Your Little Ones, Dear Lord are We), French (Angels We Have Heard on High), truly American (Away in a Manger) and truly, actually real American (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime). We could go on in claiming our indigenous favorites.

But now we’re going to one that won’t strike probably any of us in that way of matching our own heritage. That Boy-Child of Mary is one of only three we haven’t sung in these midweek services, and that’s probably because it’s not very familiar or intimate or dear to us. So far.

This one comes to us (with a technicality) separate from European heritage. Now, that doesn’t exclude it automatically from being dear. Go Tell it on the Mountain is often a favorite, even though most of us aren’t of African American background. Last week we ended by singing #297, Jesus, What a Wonderful Child, which is getting to be a fun favorite here. And #280 is a Chinese one I really like, but try not to make you sing too much.

That Boy-Child of Mary comes from Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa, surrounded by Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, which I’m letting you know just because they’re fun names to say. Similarly, I could tell you it’s not so near to Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, or farmer Tony in the city of Brazzaville, Congo.

Tom Colvin, who wrote this and also #708 Jesu, Jesu Fill Us with Your Love, was a missionary from Scotland. You can determine for yourself whether that technicality infects its African heritage with more of a global flair. He and his wife lived in Africa for 20 years, mostly in Malawi, and continued to return often in work for the World Council of Churches. His ministry especially focused on community development and refugee resettlement, but he also had a special concern that African Christians be able to use their own musical heritage, so that’s why he used a traditional tune for this carol.

In the words, the focus on giving the name is important for that culture, where a name given to a child expresses hopes or aspirations for what she or he would become. Eight days after a child is born (just like we’ll hear for Jesus in the Bible reading), it’s a big ceremony, with a fancy meal. Family members submit possible names and the father announces them and their meaning. At the end, the name is revealed, and everyone gets to hold the baby. So this is a baby-naming song for Jesus, and our gathering is also a chance to hold him and hope in him. Let’s sing.

Silent Night, Holy Night (ELW #281, German & stanza 1)
Something a little different. This will officially be the 3rd time we’ve done Silent Night during these midweek services. But it is the 1st time that I’ve shown you a video instead of blathering on and…well mostly instead of that.

I’m still going to say a few words after. To start, just a bit of introduction. We’re going to watch a new three minute commercial, which portrays a historical event (or, since they’re Brits in the video, “an historical” event) that actually happened 100 years ago, during the first Christmas during World War I, and it’s an important part of this carol’s history. Listen for Silent Night near the start, both in German and English. You’ll also hear Hymn #774 put to good use.

I’ve said each week that what makes carols and hymns worthwhile is that they become part of our own stories. Well, if this hadn’t happened there’s even a chance we wouldn’t be singing Silent Night. Those German soldiers helped introduce it to English speakers, and also to spread the popularity of Christmas trees. Imagine Christmas without this carol and with no Christmas trees.

Now, I don’t really like that this amazing piece of history is getting used for marketing, for consumerism, for trying to get you to buy stuff. Imagine Christmas without ads and manipulation and commodification.

And, while you’re imagining, imagine Christmas with no war. I know this sounds John Lennon-y, of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and all, but that’s actually part of this carol’s history. That truce that had 100,000 enemy soldiers celebrating Christmas together was almost contagious in its spread. And once you’ve played soccer with someone and traded hats and looked at photos of their loved ones and sung Silent Night, you’re less likely to shoot them the next day. It’s called fraternizing, literally meaning “becoming brothers.” So it almost meant the end of that battle, and maybe of war. Instead, commanding officers issued orders to squash it, and quickly, to get the men to be enemies again. The manipulation isn’t just from stores trying to profit, but from whatever it is that drives nations to violence.

And yet, here is this carol, that almost ended war, that brought opponents together, all because of baby Jesus. This is what he does: makes us all sisters and brothers. And sometimes we really get it. Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed! For a sense of it, let’s sing, letting our voices mingle in German and English.


Rejoicing amid the Darkness

Sermon for 3rd Sun. of Advent  14Dec14
1Thes5:16-24; John1:6-8,19-28; Isaiah61:1-4,8-11; Psalm126
Two words to start our 2nd reading which may seem like an impossibility. Two words from 1st Thessalonians: “Rejoice. Always.” So we should check it out, see if the Bible off-base.

With that, two things that have been on my mind to get us going. I read an interview this week of Eve Ensler, a feminist writer and activist. She says she witnesses in society both rage and joy, and for change “there’s no moving forward without joy.” That also makes me think of the new movie Interstellar. The plot is that earth is no longer sustaining humans; huge monoculture crops are failing and people will starve, so they’re looking for a new home planet in outer space. A line from the poet Dylan Thomas becomes a refrain in the movie: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” So, joy and rage.

Well, rage seems plenty easy and obvious. We’ve got frustrations and grumpiness and upset and complaining, frankly, down pat. It takes no genius to notice life isn’t as it should be and to be angry about it. It may be the place of women in society. It may be the persistent racism of police forces. It may be waste and greed. It may be against criminals or immigrants or Muslims or Israelis or political parties or football coaches.
Rage we’ve got. Raging and yelling ad nauseum against growing darkness is prevalent in our media, in our culture, in our lives. But we also know that the rage focusing on the dying light doesn’t get us where we want to be.

The movie Interstellar was a disappointment to me that way. It was beautiful in the cosmic universe, in pressing our understanding of physics and Einstein’s theories of what happens near black holes and all that. But it was devoid of life, of light, of joy. The humans rage, raged a lot. They raged about leaving earth. They raged that their farming practices weren’t working. They raged that relationships with siblings and with parents and with coworkers weren’t what they should be. They raged about sickness and death. They raged about time being too short and lives too fragile. They raged at what we don’t know, that our human brains cannot comprehend it all.


They raged, and failed to rejoice, to find the good of life, to see value in our planet besides as a place for endless acres of corn. It was blind even to see other creatures with us—no dogs or flowers or woodpeckers. It raged against dying light, but it failed to find much joy in the face of the darkness.

I bring all that up precisely because that is what we are able to do here. That is what our faith is. Rejoicing amid the darkness is why we are here, where it is proclaimed that darkness has been overcome, where with God’s Word even dried leaves will become evergreen.

To comprehend that faith, we should pause. See, when it says, “Rejoice always” that has potential to sound stupid. It can be a ridiculous notion. We simply can’t be happy all the time. Rejoice always? People hunger, so we rejoice? We’re at a funeral, and rejoice? We don’t know our purpose and feel like life is pointless, and we’re supposed to rejoice about it? We’re busy and stressed, and holidays can’t fulfill our expectations, and there’s too much injustice, and our whole world is falling apart, so we rejoice and throw a whoop-de-do party? We know there are times we won’t much feel very merry.

Even at our best, there’s disappointment. When we try our hardest, we could’ve done more. Our greatest successes are no final achievement, but merely pressure that says you need more. If we think we can find perfect satisfaction by trying to cross all the gifts off our list or have the right family gathering or be the most serene, the season simply cannot bear that burden of seeking contentment in those places. Our striving is bound to include lackluster or dark moments.

So if you don’t like trying to pretend everything is hunky-dory, there’s another way people take the imperative statement to “rejoice always”—as an instruction to stay positive and focus on the bright spots.

Sometimes that is worthwhile. A funeral may be a time not just to mourn loss but to recollect life. A bad diagnosis may allow you to put life in perspective. A flat tire may make you pause and breathe and notice the sky and find some gratitude. You may realize you’re not changing the world or solving all the problems, but you can care for where you are. There may be value in staying positive and looking on the bright side…unless it becomes an excuse to ignore or gloss over hard spots and troubling moments, an idea that all should be blissfully, rose-colored, to pretend the darkness is OK.

We have to realize that is not the fullness of our faith, and is certainly not the heart of what God is trying to say to you. You know, people are liable to call illness or tragedy or problems a message from God. But is God causing death, spreading diseases, popping tires, creating despair just to have a conversation with you? If that’s what it would take, I don’t like that shape of your life. It means that instead of listening when you’re in church you’re guessing after the light, after God, looking for evidence where you’re more likely to find absence or distraction.

The point of what I mean comes from our Gospel reading today. We meet John the Baptist, here known more as John the Testifier. It says he came to testify to the Light. Notice he does that by pointing away from himself. Most of this reading is John saying what he is not. “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Christ. I am not Elijah. I am not a prophet. I am not worthy.” I am not the Light.

This negativity is more remarkable because of who John is. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that nobody ever born is greater than John. In this Gospel he is the very first human mentioned. The gospel starts with that beautiful prologue at the very start of creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then verse 6 says there was a man sent from God, this John the testifier. Since the start of creation, he is the first person named.

So John could say, “You know, I’m kind of a big deal.” He could point to his outstanding references, since most of us don’t get to list Jesus on job applications. He could highlight his achievements, that last week Mark said he’s baptized all the people in Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside. At the end of his life, he’d be able to say he reprimanded the king, called Herod to repent and live by a better moral standard. He could even say he suffered, was thrown in prison, and beheaded for his sense of justice and resilience in trying to serve God.

Yet John says, I am not. I am not. I am not. Instead, he points away from himself. He testifies to life. He illustrates the Light, says the dawn is increasing. It’s not time to rage at dying he says, but rejoice at coming. He names Jesus. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he says in the verse after this reading.

That is what we sing as we gather at this table. Here is the Lamb of God, who becomes for us what we may believe in, who connects us to God. In the darkness or gloominess or even in the hyper-electrified fluorescent twinkly sparkly glow of our days, here is the true Light. What comes into being in him is life. There is “no moving forward without joy,” and Jesus is the certain place for your confidence, on whom your hope may rest secure, who fills you with life and God’s promise, from baptism to this table to tomorrow morning to eternity.

The point, then, is neither optimism nor pessimism. It is not to look on the bright side, nor to disparage your achievements as worthless. It’s not to question your happiness or to ignore the bleakness or hardness of our world. The heart of this is not in pointing at what you have done, nor at what you have failed to do and how terrible things are. It doesn’t need to be all about you, but who is for you.

This is the good news. Through it all, we point to Jesus. I am not, but he is the great I AM. As we heard in passages last Lent, Jesus says I AM the bread of life. I AM the good shepherd. I AM the truth. I AM the vine. I AM your resurrection. I AM the light of the world.

“The true Light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” He doesn’t flee from but comes into the midst of the darkness, making it brighter for all. As you come to receive this Lamb of God, notice those around you, that he is shepherd for them and for all the hurting, scattered flock, for all creation. In him is life.

In him, you know that God has come to be with you, to dwell with you, to sustain and nourish you, to have life squeezed out for you, to give you new life, to renew heaven and earth. In him, even as there’s so much else that disappoints or leaves you with rage, still in Jesus you may confidently hope eternally and even—in spite of it all, or through it all—in him you may rejoice always.

SED_wall_1920x1200Hymn: Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245)


a funeral sermon

With thanksgiving for the life of Patricia Josephine Bredeson

13 Oct 1923 + 5 Dec 2014

Hebrews 13; Psalm 23; John 14:1-6


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It struck me, Pam and Sue, when we were visiting the other day how you kept describing two different sides to your mother, two different experiences.

Now, a lot of how we would describe ourselves is that way: when we were younger and immature versus when we grew up, or workplace demeanor versus when we’re having fun. There’s also the Jekyll and Hyde kinds of distinctions, that we can be so saintly one minute and turn to be obnoxious, terrible sinners the next. Those are true and important and even fit with our theology and view of God’s work.

But it’s not that sort of two sides that you talked about with your mother, not those two types of sides to Pat’s personality. In fact, she seemed to dwell more constantly on the kind and gracious side, as I’ll say more about. To start, though, I want to repeat for others how you talked about how this same mother for two different daughters, exaggerating a bit to make a helpful point. Again, it’s not that she was nice to one and harsh to the other, that she spoiled one while neglecting the other. That may be true for others, but not for Pat. That would still be important for our views of God, but I believe she is even more appropriate as an example for us of God’s love.

And so I enjoyed hearing how you, Sue and Pam, each perceived your mother’s care. For the rest of you, Sue talked about her mother teaching her to be a young lady, to dress right and wear make-up, to be prepared and look your best, to be well-behaved and polite and say thank you. And she understood Pam was different, perhaps the more social side. That ended up meaning more time with friends and fewer rules and plenty of enjoyment.

I’ve been reflecting on how both sides of that are fitting for our faith as we live with paradoxes or dichotomies. We would say that God indeed has high expectations for us. We gather to worship in our Sunday best, looking good and behaving as we ought, whether that is phrased in Ten Commandments or in a summary like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” We expect that it’s good and right for us to return thankfulness to God, always to be grateful for what we’ve been given. We figure there is a pattern or plan for the good God wants us to accomplish in life. That is the Sue-side of relationship with Pat, and relationship with God.

And then there is the Pam-side, where those all-important expectations and guidelines are not all-important but fall to second place. As much as we ought to strive to live well in relationship with each other and in respect to God, still there is grace and forgiveness. When we fall short and when we fail and when things just turn out differently, that is not the end of the relationship. That is obviously true of a mother’s love, and is even more abundantly true of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus, whether sinfulness or our lack of love or our forgetfulness or even death.

That also calls to mind another set of those dichotomies or paradoxes, the odd opposites of pairs, as we reflect on Pat’s life and this moment now.

I got to know Pat as always beautifully and immaculately dressed. Her dressed in lovely outfits. Her make-up accented a bright and cheery face, which also was the external sign of a gracious internal demeanor that embodied a stunning hostess. She was always ready to smile and to greet and filled with compliments. So remarkably hospitable, she had an amazing welcome and was always pleased to help. I chose the Hebrews Bible reading because that grace and love and diligent good work and cheerful greeting and blessing and hospitality all seem to have been lived out in Pat. Still as I walk around this space on Sundays in sharing the peace and greeting others, I feel her place in that section near the back, that there’s some of her warmth still there.

Yet it was also there that I first noticed the confusion setting in. Her eyes didn’t have quite the same sparkle as she was beginning to confront the disease of dementia. And in these past years, that had changed some of who Pat was and how you knew her. From being one who could organize a household and planned meals and was a great wife and who could enjoy travels with her sister and would be out and about socializing or meeting new people or shopping, from the vibrancy of life, something indeed was lost. Even in the sign of her always-perfect hairdo something disappeared.

And, as much as we would try to stay positive, we would still very truly and honestly count those as losses in life, not just as transitions but declines. An Old Testament passage that became a well-known song says that there is time for every season, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to laugh and to weep, to dance and mourn. In each of those pairings, we would say there is very definitely one good side and one bad side.

And, indeed, as we gather here today, it is with reasonable lamentation, sorry at losing a mother and grandmother, a friend. There has been sorrow for years, as Pat’s sister Margaret died 20 years ago, and her husband a dozen years ago, as she moved toward death herself in the loss of memory and of mobility.

Yet, in faith, we live with the paradoxes, the dichotomies, the odd opposites that are paired together. Even as we mourn and weep, still we rejoice in a long life well-lived. And even in the face of death, we proclaim we expect something more. In spite of our illness and forgetfulness we are never forgotten. Even when beset by the bad, we trust in God’s goodness. In the midst of a cold, dark season, we enjoy warm, beloved gatherings and bright lights. Even when we fear the end of life, we turn to the birth of a baby, the promise of God with us, an infant who was cradled in his mother’s arms and in his embrace we are guaranteed to remain for eternity. Even at this season, when things are supposed to be happy and we’re supposed to be together, and gifts given, not life taken away, where this could seem like the worst time for death and loss, still we expect it’s good to be in this beautiful place, with the promise of new life in Jesus.

And that’s true even as we face all those opposites of being lady-like versus wild or a tomboy, of high expectations or abundant forgiveness, of great ability or disability, of memory or forgetfulness, of weeping versus laughter, of health versus sickness, of death versus life, we trust it is not just that there is a good side and a bad side, a dark side and a light side. In the promise of Jesus, for Pat and for you, we have one whose embrace holds all together, that nothing can separate you from that love. Even when hospitality fails and love seems to have reached its limit and Pat could no longer welcome people into her home or into her life, still there is the larger welcome, the assurance that Jesus has a place prepared for her and for you, to welcome you into his Father’s household forever, to prepare a table before you. Wherever you are, from birth to death and beyond, through thick and thin, good or bad, in all circumstances of life and for life to come, God is with you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Carol Stories, week 2

Love Has Come (ELW Hymn #292, 2 & 3)
Last week we heard two Christmas hymn histories from the remnant in the hymnal we hadn’t yet heard in these Advent gatherings. Tonight we’ll start with another from that increasingly small (decreasingly large?) group.

I had also said some of the importance of these songs and their back stories is that it makes them fit more into the stories of our own lives. So as a lead-in, in my mind this is always associated with when I was a little kid and how much my mom liked playing this tune in the bell choir at Trinity Lutheran Church. (That is also a nudge to be sharing these conversations in your families.)

For origins, the details are all pretty sketchy. Something is from the Provence region of France, a rural area in the southeast known for its wine. That setting might help locate this tune. Maybe. For a comedy play by Moliere in 1666, it was a drinking tune, Qu’ils sont doux, bouteille jolie, a song about dear pretty bottles of wine that go glug-glug and if only they weren’t empty. Yet maybe it had already been a dancing and drinking song for a couple centuries before that, we just don’t know.

Well, by 1856 it was in a collection of carols of Provence, and that goofy bit of alcohol had been poured over what was probably an even older French text. The tradition is it described two milkmaids (or maybe just one?) in the stable, who are told to go and grab a light——“bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella!” Like I say, details are sketchy. It’s unclear if they were taking the torch to view the baby in the barn, or if they were going to the village to get others and bringing them to see the rosy-cheeked newborn Jesus. At any rate, by the second verse, a whole crowd from town has shown up, knocking at the door (knock! knock! say the lyrics), bringing a platter of goodies, eager to celebrate. Somebody has to shut them up, because the baby is sleeping – Hush! Hush!

The image on the screen for us tonight is by Georges de la Tour, from around 1648. Some people say that he painted it because of the song. Others say the song is based on the painting. Still others say it’s not this painting at all. I’ve also read that children in Provence even now dress up as milkmaids and shepherds and carry torches to church, singing this on Christmas Eve. (That makes it fitting for Gustav the Shepherd to come out of hiding and join us for the first time this evening.
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Yet for our own context, rather than old pastoral locales of rural life, our new words focus on God’s love saturating our lives (love 22 times with this short carol!), love in a variety of settings, not only love in a long ago stable, but love still with us for each moment, love never to leave us. Let’s sing of love.

O Lord, Now Let Your Servant (ELW page 324)

For our second one, I can’t resist pulling the old switcheroo. As a church geek who cares a lot about worship, I’m dropping this one in on you to expose you to some great shared history we often miss.

I’m going to invite you to do some paging through your hymnals to see this. First, turn to hymn #313. This is a hymn setting of what we’ll sing as a chant, and also of what we’ll hear in a Bible reading. It’s listed in the “Time after Epiphany” section of the hymnal, but I’d argue it could go in the Christmas section. See, the Bible reading is from Luke 2. The first part of that chapter is Jesus’ birth in the manger, and angels and shepherds and all. In the second part, shortly after Jesus is born, his parents take him to the temple. Following Jewish law from Leviticus 12, he was circumcised and named on the 8th day, and then an offering was given. And old fogeys Simeon and Anna rejoice in this birth. So this is still about the baby Jesus. Indeed, we’ll hear it as the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday of Christmas on December 28.

And speaking of hearing it in worship on Sundays, why don’t you flip to page 113 in the front of your hymnal for this same set of words sung as a post-communion canticle. The idea is that just as the old geezer Simeon got to meet baby Jesus in the temple and then said he was now content to die, so also we finish Sunday worship and can go away saying that we got to meet Jesus in his Supper at Communion, and so it’s all fulfilled for us, too.

Next, we’ll see three canticles in daily prayer services. Since Latin was the official language for between 1200 and 1900 years of church history, these are often known by their Latin names: the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis. Those are the Latin versions of the first words of each canticle. On page 303 is one we sing here at Ecumenical Morning Prayer each Thursday morning. The father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, sings the Benedictus at John’s birth in Luke 1. Next, on page 314 is a setting of the Magnificat. This is Mary’s song, also from Luke 1, magnifying the amazing work God is doing through her baby. She sang it when she went to visit John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth, and the baby leaped in her womb with joy. We sing another setting of Mary’s song tonight from Holden Evening Prayer. Finally, you can turn to page 324 for a service of Night Prayer or Compline, as we get to our song, the Nunc Dimittis, ”now you dismiss your servant,” sung by Christians at the close of day for 1700 years.

You’ll notice that these three services are set to go with a certain time each day. In ancient rhythms, monks paused seven times throughout the day and even woke up in the middle of the night to pray. It’s also similar to the practice of Muslims who pause for prayer five times per day. Even more, it joins us to the natural rhythms of the world, that day and night, sun and moon, these cycles of life are joined in praising our Creator’s work for us, remembering that from morning until night, from rising until bedtime, from our birth until our death, from beginning to end, we are in God’s care and peace. The day, the purpose of life, all is fulfilled and complete. Let’s sing.


Carol Stories, week 1

Once in Royal David’s City (ELW Hymn #269, 1 & 2)
Grouch Marx said, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” While you’re working on that, there’s also the frog saying, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” Incidentally, this notion appears (less foolishly) in Christmas carols, too, like “Cold December flies away.” Sunday we sang “lo! the days are hast’ning on” and while lighting Advent candles we’re singing “Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too.” And some of us say thanks for the reminder.

Yet time does indeed pass. Innovations quickly become ancient history. This is the 7th year for these Advent midweek gatherings with my little carol spiels. Since long-ago-2008, we’ve been through almost every one in the Christmas section of the hymnal, and eight of ‘em we’ve done twice.

Nevertheless, there are a few in that time whose stories we haven’t heard. Two such, you have the great fortune of hearing first this very evening. Ooh! And since we’re referencing ancient history, we’re going ALL the way back to when I was in elementary school, when my history overlaps this carol’s history. That may sound strange, though it’s just saying what’s important with the carols is the intersection and merging with our own stories, in becoming part of the shape of our lives. Hymns don’t only worm into our ears; we also get to know them by heart, and then live in rhythm with the faith we sing. (A side note: that idea of becoming one or uniting with us, of conforming isn’t just carols. It could define Christmas itself, of God taking on our shape or form, becoming human so we may know God and be known by God and live accordingly.)

So I first heard this carol in elementary school when I was in the esteemed ECBC, the Eau Claire Boys’ Choir, directed by my dad. We were prepubescent, in the technical sense: pre-puberty, before our voices changed, our facial hair came in, and I—for one— became the manly man before you now. Boys’ choirs like this go way back to churches in the Middle Ages, since females weren’t usually allowed to sing, and the only other way to keep those beautiful high notes flowing was with castrati, and if you want to learn about that, ask Rebecca.

In my Boys’ Choir days, I learned that in Cambridge, England at Kings College Chapel’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, this has been the official opening since 1919, with a boy singing the first verse solo a capella. You can still tune your radios to NPR for the broadcast on Christmas Eve. In not-so ancient history at St. Stephen’s, Nathan Bartels led the solo for us as a 6th grader back in 2009. If you’re again looking for a more manly detail, you might like to know that the Lessons and Carols originated when a bishop was trying to keep the men of his parish out of the taverns on Christmas Eve.

For both sides of that, let’s do the first verse in falsetto or high voices, and then the second in your manliest voice. Let’s sing.

On Christmas Night (ELW Hymn #274, 1 & 2)
You might like to know that as stodgy or foolish as we sometimes seem at church, we’re not entirely unrealistic. Our hymnal leaves out the original stanza 3 of that last carol, because of its weird portrayal of what children are like or even should be like. The original wording said:
And, through all His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

So, again realizing that we’re not nearly so perfect as Jesus was (which, after all, was the whole point in us needing him to come to be with us), I’ll tell you some more ancient history of my childhood. This merges less with this carol, but just is a tangent with the tune’s name. You see in your hymnal at the bottom right it is called “Sussex Carol.” That always makes me think of Senora Narciso, the Spanish teacher at my middle school, who was also the advisor for student council. Because I’m a little sinner and always have been, I remember a student council retreat, sitting at supper with some cute girls. Mrs. Narciso asked where they were from. They said “Sussex.” She thought it sounded much more charming than “Eau Claire,” but I remember liking it because of “sex” was part of the name. Enough of that embarrassing confession.

Anyway, I like this tune, this Sussex Carol, because it’s bouncy and fun. It fits the lyric about “great mirth,” and also that amazingly faithful joyful reminder that, because of Jesus, we have no real ultimate reason for sorrow and sadness.

Some history: This also has fairly England-y connections, used frequently with the Nine Lessons and Carols. And the tune comes to us through Ralph Vaughn Williams, a great English musician associated with more than a dozen hymns in our hymnal. In 1906 for the Anglican Church he compiled the English Hymnal, one of the most important hymnals ever. Vaughn Williams was trying to preserve traditional folk music, so he traveled the English countryside and listened, copying down tunes. This one gets its name because he heard a woman singing it the area in far south-eastern England called Sussex. (I’m still childish and a sinner, so enjoyed learning this week some towns in that Sussex County are Horney Common, Great Bottom, and Balls Green.)

For all the English-ness, the text of our carol came a couple centuries earlier from Ireland. Luke Waddinge was a Catholic bishop whose family lost their castle when Oliver Cromwell and the Church of England was waging wars and confiscating property, persecuting and even beheading Catholics.

Somehow, even in spite of that kind of history of Christians treating each other badly and all our smaller sinfulness, there’s still room to rejoice in the angels’ song of goodwill and peace. We need that reminder, so let’s sing.


Who Could Ask For Anything More?

By the time you’re reading this we should’ve survived another Black Friday. Since it’s typically marked by stampedes of people, “survival” does often describe that day. Some avoid it “like the plague,” while others “fight the crowds” but come away victorious. What severe language, invested with so much emotion: Conquest in hunting the best deals! Agony that it destroys families!

Amid it all, our Christian faith offers the gift of a counter-narrative. We don’t have to “buy into” the dominant and dominating structure. When we are captive, we return to the one who sets us free and gives us life abundantly. Our story is indeed focused on the birth of Jesus. But, again, that “reason for the season” isn’t a stick to whack others. It’s better our own measuring stick, a standard for consumer habits along with the rest of life.

With that, we can’t claim that Christmas should be pious and austere. This is a fleshy feast! Our Lord was born into our world, our bodies, our kind of existence. He needed to be cared for and nursed. He was given gold, frankincense, and myrrh and celebrated with glorious choirs. There’s background here for enjoying material good, for a party. Maybe even luxury and delight (both words connected to light—Latin lux—that comes into our darkness, John 1:5).

Yet with the revelation of who this Lord is, our celebration isn’t selfish reveling. A simple test of purchasing and gift-giving might ask: What does it really give and what does it really cost? “Fleshed out,” that could ask: Are kids happier and more beloved through another plastic object, soon to be cast aside? What wellbeing is extracted—for clothing, from the garment worker in Bangladesh? For an iPad, from Africans dangerously mining rare earth minerals or Chinese factory workers? What human and natural resources go into it?

At church we’ve offered alternative gifts, the olive wood carvings and oils that also care for Palestinian refugees, the ELCA Good Gifts that instead invest in poor communities, the Fall Bazaar that supports local artists.

I’d suggest these are important reflections for us as Christians on what we give and why. Giving gifts is good and even godly, but is not equated with spending money on objects. What of society’s goods come at the expense of betterment? When do wants interfere with needs? What is life-giving and worthy, and what isn’t? Further, a word from the 1st Sunday of Advent reminds you, “You are not lacking any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1st Corinthians 1:9). When do we say, “enough is enough”?

But lest we get too high and mighty in moralizing, our infant Lord Jesus also brings us back down to earth. Nothing we give or give up determines his presence with us. Not how much we expend or how meager our funds. With or without packages, boxes, and tags. It’s not from great and glorious traditions, nor abstaining from sacrilegious misbehavior.

After all, our God was born in a barn. In the stink of an unexpected circumstance, he made his appearance. Still he cuts through the crap to come into our midst. Nothing can take away the love of God in Jesus.

Yesterday I was at a store with shelves piled high with kitschy debris. Playing over the loudspeaker was the tidy religious sound of a brass ensemble heralding “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” That’s not only glaring contrast but exactly right. Through the chaos of our lives, “beneath life’s crushing load,” where we need it most, this is exactly where and why our God comes to be with us. “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

My hope for you and my expectation of our faith is, amid accursed cultural clutter and also sensual pleasures of the season, that you again get to delight in the blessing of the eternal enough!

 + nick

 a PS gift to you: With humor that is part of delighting in life, comedian Eddie Izzard re-tells the Christmas story, with Baby Jesus a little too-human and materialistic in asking the wise men for his Christmas and birthday presents. Click the image.