Monthly Archives: December 2013

Helicopter Money Drops

I made an off-hand comment in bible study a few weeks ago that I’m a big fan of helicopter money drops. That was a slightly snarky way of saying two things: 1) I don’t believe in complex charity or any complex programs and 2) I think that people who are in poverty, relieving the immediate cash crushes often leads to the ability to think longer term.

I look at those two reasons as more or less extensions of simple theology. 1) Complex programs are functions of the law. No matter how perfect the law, we can’t keep it. The law does not save. If we could cure poverty through the application of the law, it would be done by now instead of getting worse. The biblical fact is that the more the law increases the greater the trespass. 2) Just giving people money to solve immediate needs is a simple application of the gospel. We needed our sins forgiven. Absent that, nothing else really matters because we would still be damned. Christ forgave our sins first, and called us to freedom. Absent eternal death hanging over us, we can start to look further down the road. In a much smaller way, just giving money is an act of grace that removes immediate needs and allows greater vision.

The reason I bring it up is I saw this article with the headline: Free Money might be the best way to end poverty. The article runs through a bunch of social science experiments that basically support what I said snarkily. Now the writer and I would viciously part company on who and how and why this works. My reason why it would work is that it is the gospel – alms freely given and received change lives. (If you have ever seen Les Mis you should know the lesson.) The author instead takes it as the call to build a government program to give free money and to disparage “workfare”. The author would make a law of the gospel, and in so doing steal all its power to change lives. He would by force of law take money from some to give it to others. When the government does this, it is not love or even the attempt at love, but part of a transaction of which both giver and receiver and everyone part of the transaction remains guilty. It might be justice, but a justice without mercy and true love. The law does not save. Love saves.

But of course this is the tragedy of 1960-today America. We have abandoned the gospel, yet attempted to achieve its goals through the law. Ever more onerous and terrible laws. Laws that drain away the grace and replace it with cynicism and mandates. Mandates that the connected can get exemptions from or buy indulgences for. Because they like to parade around in splendid clothes (Luke 20:46-47).

Innocents and The Nazarene

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Biblical Text: Matt 2:13-23
Full Sermon Draft

Reading the Gospel of Matthew, especially these early infancy chapters, is a small study in how to read scripture. Matthew’s story and his argument is scriptural. It is also historical based in the life of Israel, but more scriptural because the true meaning of Israel’s history is captured in scripture. The purpose of Matthew’s gospel is to reveal Jesus as the fulfillment of history. And to ponder the strangeness of this revelation that He will be called a Nazarene.

So the opening here is slightly more didactic or teaching in purpose than normal. I think the text invites that, and the context of modern America with all kinds of “Bad Scripture Reading” being paraded as wisdom also calls for it. I hope that the teaching bit helps with the proclamation of the fulfillment passages. My prayer is that being willing to take scripture on its own terms, will open up the grace of God in the midst of horror. And how The Nazarene helps us to receive it.

Incarnate – Christmas Day

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Biblical Text: John 1:1-19
Full Sermon Draft

Our soundmaster included a bunch of the service from this morning. The message is from John, but the hymns and carols selected tell the same story. Merry Christmas.

This Child For You – Christmas Eve

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Full Sermon Draft

This was the message from our Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols. The sermon references many of the key lines from the lessons and how the carols reflect the teaching. I think it stands on its own, but you don’t get the candles and Silent Night.

Christmas Pageant 2013

Just some pictures of getting ready. Thanks to Jenelle for all her work and to all the parents for getting their kids to practice.

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Santa Claus is Coming to Town, or is he?

P&F santaMolly Hemingway (and several others) on the horror of not having Santa growing up. I’m with Ms. Hemingway, Santa was always such a minor trifle I can’t stir up the emotional energy to care. If my child asks, I answer “what do you think?” Ethan (4) just says of course. Anna (10) doesn’t want Santa believer Ellen’s presents to stop. And then I typically ask something like “what is the main purpose of Santa?” Which as the older they get the more it becomes about the naughty and nice list. I have to confess using on David the Santa Scanner, an iPod app that determines which list you are on (controlled nicely by where you press the button and how clean the room is). But my goal is then to ask, “is that what you hear in Sunday School about Christmas?” And the answer is no. I don’t necessarily want to teach them morality although the 10 commandment are a good start. What I want to teach them is God’s grace. We make up things like Santa, but they are only non-toxic when handled with grace. When I give the Santa Scanner to David to scan me and it puts Daddy on the naughty list.

The Violent Bear it Away (A Meditation on Matthew 11 and some current events)

JB headThe appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.

It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.

Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?

The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…

The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)

But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)

God is No Repsecter of Shame

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Biblical Text: Matt 1:18-25
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I’ve just start reading this book, only just past the theses declarations, but I’m somewhat amazed at them. The book is supposed to be the culmination of a generations scholarship on sexuality in the ancient world. And that culmination is supposed to be the upsetting of prior or simplistic thinking. This is what is startling to me: his theses are more or less what I have been taught my entire benighted life in the church and that horrible bastion of it called the LCMS. My guess at what that means is that scholarship is now distant enough from the church that it can “discover” the church’s understanding and roughly agree with it without really knowing.

How does that intersect with a small parish sermon. Well, the text is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Our kids program is next week, so instead of doing John the Baptist, The Return we took Advent 4’s texts on Advent 3.) And Matthew’s account is really about the virgin birth. Coming off of the genealogy, Matthew had something to explain and an Old Testament prophecy to link in (Isaiah 7:14). In the ancient world (which the modern world is growing ever closer to) shame was the regulatory principle. Actions were governed less by any personal sense of a cosmic right and wrong but more by a social agreement upon what is honorable and what brings dis-honor or shame. The gospel disrupts all of that. It is a proclamation of freedom. Freedom from shame and freedom for right action. The core of the shame system was slavery. A slave could not have honor, so it didn’t matter how they were treated. And many were treated as sex slaves. It was an everyday occurrence. So, sexuality would be a defining sphere of shame. Caesar’s wife had to be beyond repute because Caesar was at the top of the honor pyramid and less than that would bring shame. And you can fill in the rest from slave to Caesar and all the forms of human sexuality.

Now the Jews had a much better grasp of sin or personal adherence to a cosmic code, but they were always fighting the honor system. Think of every time Jesus goes to a meal with the Pharisees and takes note of how they are sitting(Luke 14:7) or mocks those who like to parade around in fancy clothes (Mark 12:38-40). Pure honor/shame status clubs. Hence why Jesus calls the woman giving two mites better because she is much closer to the cosmic standard of justice.

Then comes the story of Joseph and pregnant Mary. This is pure shame vs. sin. Mary is sinless. The child is from the Holy Spirit. This is how God has chosen to act. How God has chosen to act, if Joseph goes along with it will bring him great shame. His village was still calling Jesus “Mary’s Child” at the start of his ministry (Mark 6:3). Honor/shame called for stoning. God said this is how I am going to save my people. Honor/shame says that God couldn’t be associated with anything that is shameful or lowering of status. God is born as a baby from a humble virgin. God is Immanuel in the midst of his people. In the midst of their shame. And he brings grace. And grace itself is shameful, because you can’t pay it back, because you are not in control.

God is no respecter of shame. He does care about sin and the law, but he also has given the remedy. Jesus, who saves His people from their sins.

At the Intersection of Christmas, Technology and Finance

Lower Lights NoelNow I suppose by the title I could be talking about how Amazon has taken over Christmas and destroyed my family finances, but for a brief second I want to turn away from that smiling Cheshire Box.

One of my favorite Christmas Hymns/Carols is one that I discovered only recently. Part of the inheritance from my brother was his massive collection of Christmas CD’s. After digitizing them all I guess I picked up that tradition. This year’s addition was the new Christmas album from the Lower Lights. The new one is much like the one from a couple of years ago and if you like folk-y/acoustic settings of what I call the non-staple carols it is pretty. And you can pat yourself on the back for avoiding one more rendition of “Santa Baby”. Their version of The Holy and The Ivy, a song I never appreciated, has been on repeat recently. But their first Album included a Christmas Hymn that I had never heard that just melts my heart.

The Carol is Stars of Glory . It appears to have found a place in hymnals in around the turn of the last century but then been dropped by newer hymnal committees. I can understand why. It centers around the angels’ anthem which is well represented already by Hark the Herold Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard on High which are both bright and cheery. And you then go into the second tier or denomination specific such as It Came upon the Midnight Clear or Angels from the Realms of Glory. There really isn’t room for an angel song that is somewhat introspective. We like our angels loud and glorious. But the first verse of Stars of Glory invites us to consider what is of true worth and to whom it is given.

Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.

The stars, the angels, as the gospel according to Matthew is fond of using, say “look here”. The hours and moments swell in time’s deepening stream. A stream that can seem to overwhelm us. Yet here is the hour, “look”, here is the moment of true worth.

Technology and the web have been about the stream. Our facebook feeds, our twitter lists, our blog pages and tumblr’s – all of them are newest first scrolling off the page in the endless stream. And the type-A personality is stuck with the FOMO (fear of missing out). Hence all the pictures of 20-somethings staring at their phones. It is all stream and no “look” at this moment. Here is Alex Madrigal in the Atlantic thinking about “the end of the stream”. The technologists are figuring out how to say “look”. He quotes a theory dating from 2010 (ancient!) about the flow and the stock. Which translated into a different language is the income statement/cash flow statement and the balance sheet. The income statement and the cash flow statement are two ways finance takes a snapshot of the flow. The balance sheet is “time’s deepening stream”. It is the stock. Balance sheets are often full of things that someone once said “look” but now we don’t know why. It is just there as a stock and a mystery for those interested. “$200 bequeathed in the name of Someone we might not recognize”.

For some reason God chose to send the angels to shepherds. He said “look, here is a moment not to miss, a moment to ponder and rejoice” in a way that would seem destined not to go viral. I mean how many followers or friends could a few smelly shepherds have? Time rolls on. The stream deepens. But God marked that moment with Shepherds and Angels.

See the shepherds quickly rising,
Hastening to the humble stall,
And the new-born Infant prizing,
As the mighty Lord of all,
Lowly now they bend before Him
In His helpless infant state,
Firmly, faithful they adore Him
And His greatness celebrate,

The lowly, the humble receive the message, from the great. The helpless infant is the mighty Lord of all. The virgin brings Him forth in a stall where he is worshiped. The church is the collection, the stock, the saint of all times and all places, who have “looked”. The flow, started by this child, the alpha of creation, also finds its fulfillment, the omega, in this child. Firmly, faithful they adore Him. Sometimes the flow can overwhelm. But God has sent his angels in strange places saying “look”. And he promises to gather, to keep stock. When we are lost in the stream, God remembers and gathers. The Spirit does not forget time’s deepening stream but guides it along its appointed route.

Gaudete Sunday – Special Guests

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The 3rd Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete Sunday. The Sundays used to be named by the first words of the introit (the entrance chant/reading) which were initially in Latin. Gaudete means rejoice. So, depending upon the parish you were a part of as not every parish did the same thing, Gaudete was often given over to a musical celebration – a rejoicing to the Lord with song.

We have continued, or tried to continue, that in various ways. This year we have a saxophone quartet who will be sharing some of the music of the season. They will be playing at the start or prelude to service, a bit during the offertory and then postlude. So, I just want to invite you to come a bit early to get a seat, and plan on sticking around for a little while after service.

(And Kristin, if you’ve got a better photo than my cheesy photoshop, send it along.)