Showing posts with label Holy Days. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Holy Days. Show all posts

Baptism & the Communion of the Saints

Layla's baptismal gown

In baptism we are told that we "take off our sinful selves" and we are then "clothed in Christ Jesus." As a symbol of this new beginning, candidates for baptism in the early church took off all of their clothes, were baptized nude, and then were reclothed in white robes which indicated their new purity in Christ. This white baptismal robe is the origin of the alb worn by many clergy during worship services. The idea of being "clothed in Christ" is also preserved in the practice of baptismal gowns - white gowns for children who are being baptized.

My daughter's baptismal gown was as a connection with the generations that came before. It was made by her Great-Great Grandmother, Serena Hansen. It was worn by her Great-Grandpa Hansen and his three siblings, by her Grandpa Hansen and his sister, and of course by her Dad and his brothers. On the day of my daughter's death and re-birth, only a few members of her family were able to be there -- those who are still living and were able to make the trip to Prairie Hill. Yet her baptismal gown reminded us - and someday will remind her - that all of God's faithful saints, including the loved ones of our family, were watching over her on that day.

It was an intentional choice for my daughter to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism on All Saints Sunday. I have always loved that particular festival, and I liked the idea that it would serve as a constant reminder for her that she is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I also liked the physical connection (the baptismal gown) with the meaning of the festival.

The great Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann has pointed out that we (i.e., all of humanity) are inherently sacramental. By this he meant that we need a physical connection to help us make sense of great spiritual truths. Lutherans have always been hesitant to use the language of "sacramental" to talk of anything except the two Sacraments of Water and Table. But there is much that is sacramental without being a sacrament; to say a thing is sacramental is to say that it is a physical reminder or sign of spiritual grace.

All Saints is a wonderful festival of the church, yet one that can be too abstract a concept for many people. I have found that a sacramental reminder -- something physical to connect us to intangible -- can serve as a wonderful reminder of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Any variety of objects can serve such a purpose -- a picture of a loved one, a spouse's favorite shirt, a cross or Bible from a parent. As All Saints Day comes and goes for the year, placing such an object in the place we say our daily prayers can bring us closer to that Great Communion of all the saints.

(Knowing that some readers of this blog do their own sewing and embroidery work, I have placed a couple of detail shots of the baptismal gown below for your enjoyment)

Wrestling with Mothers Day

As a preacher and worship planner, Mothers Day can be difficult for lots of reasons. In brief:

  • There are those for whom the day is extremely important, because it is a day of celebration. 
  • There are those for whom the day is extremely important, because it is a day of grief and sadness.
  • There are those for whom the day has very little meaning, for a variety of reasons. 

This post doesn't really engage  the debate as to whether to celebrate the day in the liturgy or not. Instead, it is a story that illustrates both the beauty and profound sadness of the day.

On facebook we were discussing times that we had been shown unexpected kindness, and this experience was shared with me by Mary Miller:

I hate mother's day. I really do.  
Before my Mom came to live with us, I would go camping and eat a whole cake, hiding in the woods on that day. So it is a tough day for me. But for the sake of my Mom, I have to tolerate it.  
A few years ago, I was at church on Mother's Day with my Mom and my husband. We went to the service which is entirely in Spanish, because it is our favorite service.  
At some point, the pastor asked the Mothers to stand up. My Mother stood up. I never had children (I'm in my 50's), so of course I didn't stand up when all the other women did.  
In front of us was sat a Hispanic woman probably in her mid to late 30's with a baby less than a year old. It was obviously her first Mother's Day. I had never seen her in church before. She noticed that I didn't stand up.  
After the stand-up and applause for Moms, this stranger turned around and handed me her baby. She let me hold the baby until after Communion. I can still smell his little head.  
The woman did not speak English. I have no idea if she was a documented immigrant or not. We had nothing in common (except that it took her a while (into her 30's) to have a child).
This was the single kindest act anyone has ever done for me. I will never forget it.

(Image:Madonna von der Stra├če, Roberto Feruzzi. Public Domain. Source

Advent Blue

We are about to celebrated the festival of Christ the King, and  it is soon time to begin the new liturgical year with the season of Advent. With the arrival of Advent comes the perennial question: Is the color of Advent blue or purple?

Prior to the changes of the late 20th century, most American Lutheran churches used purple vestments and paraments during the season of Advent. However, in the last 30 years, many churches have started using a deep blue for this season. And so the debate rages: Is Advent purple or blue?

Many who advocate a blue Advent talk about blue being the color of royalty (i.e., "royal blue"). They talk about, rather than a penitential focus, Advent being a time to prepare for (to steal a Tolkien phrase) the return of the King.

Many who advocate a purple Advent talk about purple being the color of penitence and repentance. They often like the parallels between advent and Lent, and may talk about Advent being a "little Lent." Changing to blue, for them, takes the focus off of the most important part of preparing for the return of the King -- repentance.

Unfortunately, "blue adventers" and "purple adventers" often think that the other group is out to ruin this wonderful season of the church. The fact is, if they could listen to one another, they would hear that they are both right. The former liturgy professor at Sewanee, J. Neil Alexander (a former Lutheran, now bishop of the Atlanta Diocese of the Episcopal Church), used to say that we are all held captive by the berries.

Yes, blue is the color of royalty -- but so is purple. Both colors of fabric were very expensive in the days before chemical dyes, because they required such deep, rich colored berries. If you lived around the Mediterranean, chances are your royalty wore purple -- because those were the berries (or other natural dyes) in wide use. If you lived in Northern Europe, chances are your royalty wore blue -- because those were the berries available.

And Yes, purple is the color of penitence -- but so is blue. In the days before chemical dyes, it was nearly impossible to make fabric that was true black -- the color of mourning and repentance. What you wound up with, depending on the natural dyes (berries) you used, was usually either a dark purple or a dark blue. Again, the differences were regional.

So is the "correct" color for Advent purple or blue? Well ... I guess "Yes" is the only answer that works.

Occupy Wittenberg?

It started with one man, a pastor. Fed up with watching the poor in his community get taken advantage of so that those who were wealthy could get even wealthier, he protested publicly in the town square. Making use of the latest technology, his ideas spread. What was a local protest became a worldwide movement, spread farther than could ever have been imagined before. Those in power, those with the most to lose, dug in their heels and refused to hear the very real critique against the corruption and abuses of the current system, but the protest only grew stronger.

Looking out over the past few weeks, and the growth of the Occupy movement, this story is familiar. It started with one blog post, and grew into a movement making use of social media to spread the word. Concerned with the well-being of the poorest in the US, they have lobbed some very real critiques at the current political and economic systems of the US; but those in power have not listened.

But this is not the story of Occupy Wall Street, this is the story that we recount every year on this day, the story of the Reformation. While Martin Luther's critique of Rome and her power structure had a profound theological motivation, he appears to have been compelled to act - above all else - out of pastoral concern for his flock. Watching the poor families under his charge hand over what little they had only to have that money go into the pockets of bishops who already had more wealth than they could possibly spend, Luther could not remain silent. And, thanks to the new technology of the printing press, Luther's ideas spread farther and faster than anyone could have anticipated.

Am I overstating the case? Am I seeing connections where there are none? Have a listen to Martin Luther himself, in the 95 Theses he posted on the evening before All Saints Day, in 1517:
46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
And as he later explains what he means by this thesis:
There are many who have neither bread nor proper clothing and yet, led astray by the din and noise of the preachers of indulgences, rob themselves and bring about their own poverty in order to increase the wealth of the indulgence sellers.

Certainly, Luther is not opposed to wealth. He goes on to argue in other places that the princes and public officials have an obligation - in their public office - to acquire and accumulate a certain amount of wealth ... But that wealth is to be acquired and accumulated for the public good. That is, certain members in society as Luther envisioned it had an obligation to acquire wealth so that they could make sure that everyone else in the town/province had enough. How different would our conversation be today in America if this was how we viewed wealth?

Martin Luther saw the poor being exploited by the wealthy, and he attacked the underlying theological system that allowed such exploitation to take place. At the end of the day, the truth our current system believes in is this: Those who have the most deserve it, because they have worked the hardest. Make no mistake, this is a theological claim. But the Reformation truth is this: "Work" and "deserving" are not a part of the gospel lexicon, but grace and mercy are. On Reformation Day, in a country with a predominantly Protestant Christian population, I cannot help but wonder: Where is the grace and mercy of our political and economic systems?

Reformation Day Sermon

Preparing for Reformation Sunday this year, I happened across this: the first Reformation Sunday sermon that I preached. It is from Reformation Sunday, 2006. While sermons tend to go stale pretty quickly after being preached this one has held up pretty well, and still speaks to me.

Disclaimer: Like all sermons, the text of the manuscript is not necessarily the same as the text preached.

The Pursuit of God

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

On this Reformation Sunday, I want to talk with you some about why we are here.

Not the existential question “Why are we here on the face of this earth,” but why are we here at Saint John Lutheran Church.

For many of us in this congregation, we grew up in the Lutheran church. Our parents were Lutheran, and their parents before that. We were born into and raised in the Lutheran church, and we never left.

Others in this congregation married into the Lutheran Church. You grew up in another tradition, maybe Baptist, Episcopal, or Presbyterian, and married someone who was a Lutheran. Rather than worship at two different churches, you joined your spouse at the Lutheran church.

Still others live in the community surrounding this church. You come here to worship because it is the closest church to your house, and you want to be a part of this community.

I am one of those who grew up in the Lutheran church. By that I don’t mean that my parents brought me to the Lutheran church on Sunday morning, I mean that I spent the much of my childhood inside the walls of Lutheran churches – I grew up in the church.

Many of you know my story. My Dad was a Lutheran pastor, as was my grandfather and my great-grandfather. And not just them, my great-uncle and a number of my great-great uncles were also Lutheran pastors. All told, I am the 12th Lutheran pastor in my family.
In fact, I am so Lutheran that my Episcopal friends at the seminary I attended called me “Little Luther.”
It would seem that I had little choice in being a Lutheran.

But in fact, just as you did, I did have a choice, and I continue to choose the Lutheran church; and I hope you will continue to choose the Lutheran church.

I could find the hymns that I love in the Baptist church.
I could find the liturgy that I love in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal Church.
I could find the emphasis on Scripture that I love in any number of non-denominational churches.

Yet, here I am, here we are, in Saint John Lutheran church. Why?

I can’t answer for you, but I know why I – in a world littered with different churches and different denominations – continue to choose the Lutheran tradition. And it starts for me with the story of Martin Luther.

Martin had just finished his undergraduate studies and was preparing for law school. He grew up in the church, raised by faithful parents. He went to religious schools for his entire education.
He was like many of us – a faithfully person living his life as best he could – yet not terribly committed to the church – after all, he was a college student.
It was then that he was caught just outside the forest in a fierce thunderstorm. With the rain pouring down on him, the thunder rolling overhead, and lightning flashing almost non-stop, young Martin saw no sign of shelter. So he called out to God for help, pledging to enter a monastery if God would save him from this storm.

Well, Martin did survive the storm. You can call it fate or chance, but Luther described it as God’s guidance that this young man who had big plans for a successful career as a lawyer wound up in a monastery.
In fact, Luther would say that God pursued him, leading him to a life in the church.

But it did not end there. Luther immersed himself in both the monastic and the scholastic worlds as he taught at the University of Wittenberg. He soaked in the Bible, teaching from the Old and the New Testament and preaching regularly in the Stadtkirche, the city church of Saint Mary’s.

Spending time as a monk in isolation, Brother Martin had a great deal of time to reflect on his life. In doing so, Luther realized how far he fell short of what he should be. He was very aware of his inadequacies and he failings. He was sure that he was unlovable – that even God could not love such a person.

Interior of the Castle Church,
All Saints, in Wittenberg 
But in his study of Scripture, Luther discovered something else. He discovered a God who loves us so dearly, that we are relentlessly pursued just as Luther was during that storm. He discovered a God who would send the only Son – not for the perfect people, but for the sinners. He discovered, above all else, a God and a Savior that will NEVER abandon us, that will stand by our side no matter how often we fail or how short we fall.

And Luther began to tell the world about this God. He began to talk about the God who adopts us as beloved sons and daughters in the waters of baptism, and never lets us go. He began to talk about the Christ who relentless pursues the lost sons and daughters of God into the darkest places of the world – not to scold them but to save them. He began to talk about the Spirit that transforms our lives, so that even while we continue to sin we become more and more God-like and Christ-like.

For a variety of reasons, what Luther began to say to the world got him into trouble. He was thrown out of the church. The emperor sentenced him to death and put a price on his head. So this young man, now about 35, who once had never thought about a life in the church, who thought he was unworthy of God’s love, went into hiding because of his proclamation of God’s love.

Luther went to a castle called the Wartburg, high on a mountaintop outside of the city of Eisenach. There Luther became depressed. He was sure now that God had abandoned him, that he was right to feel unworthy of God’s love.

But God’s love in Christ Jesus pursued Luther even to that mountaintop. There, once again, Luther encountered the light of Christ, creeping into even the darkest of places in his life. He dove back into the Scriptures, translating the Bible from the Latin into the German. And Luther left that mountaintop fortress even more convinced that God will never abandon those who are adopted as God’s sons and daughters in the waters of baptism.

Why do I continue to choose the Lutheran church?

Because I know that this life is often frightening, chaotic, and sad; and I need a Savior who will stand by my side especially in those dark, tragic times.

Because I know that there are times that I will fail, when sin will overpower me; and I need a Spirit that will strengthen and transform me.

Because I know that I will wander and that I will lose my way; and I need a God who loves me enough to pursue me and find me, who loves me enough to bring me home and never give up on me.

I continue to be a Lutheran because – as it did for Martin Luther – it all began here for me, in the waters of baptism, when Christ wrapped me up in his arms and God said, “You are my beloved son, and I will pursue you wherever you go, and I will never let you go.”

And that, dear friends, is reason enough and grace enough for me.