Tag Archives: grace

The Arrival of Love

arrival-posterI joked with Ellen that I wished Hollywood could learn to space out movies as I’ve gone a year with going to the theatre, but there are five that are tempting now. I enjoy movies, but films promising enough to get me to go to the theatre are few. There are a couple a year that I would see, but they don’t make the multiplex. I’d have to go to The Little (the local art film place) on the specific day they are shown. Easier to pre-order the DVD, and most of these don’t depend upon a huge screen anyway. There are the big budget spectaculars like Doctor Strange. The huge screen would be a plus, but going to those would have to be a family thing and dropping $50 plus snacks (if I actually want to watch it instead of listening to the whining about no snacks) on Doctor Strange just isn’t appealing. Again, wait for the DVD. Those are some of the economic reasons that “films for Mark” don’t get made. That, and the fact that “films for Mark”, once you screen out the completely mindless CGI extravaganzas which are just cool, tend to cause thinking. Thinking is an activity most people don’t enjoy, especially mixed in their entertainment. All of that is what makes Arrival such a unique film. It slips though all of those problems and still works on many levels.

The basic premise is all there in the title – Arrival. Aliens arrive on planet earth, and simplistically the plot is about how we collectively react. Close Encounters and Contact are closest to that simple plot, but Arrival, regardless of its containing aliens, isn’t really about the aliens. Although it does work at that level. I suppose because they would be afraid of giving something away, the love story isn’t part of the advertising. Calling it a love story might be a stretch, but love is at the core of the story. Love is also what makes Arrival a film you can’t stop thinking about.

I personally am not concerned with spoilers because if a movie is ruined by knowing about it, it wasn’t much of a movie to begin with, but this is your warning. Stop reading and go see it. What follows will be spoilers.

Arrival is about two questions. The military-state structures want to know “What is your purpose?” The question that over-rides that for the main character is “if you knew, would you live it anyway?” In the movie these are expressed as a contemplation of time. As a Christian what Arrival captures better than anything I’ve ever seen or read is the doctrine of election.

The main character, Louise, played by Amy Adams is a linguist. She is called in by the government to help in establishing communications. The trouble in this is that the Alien language is not phonetic like all human language, but it is ideograms. All of their ideograms are circular. This is never explained, but in the course of the film it should make sense. The aliens do not have a linear sense of the time. The past is not the past, and the future is not the future. Past and future are points on the circle. The circle could be shrunk down to a single point – everything at once, the eternal now, but it can also be expanded to be experienced intimately. No point on that circle is disconnected from any other, but it has its unique being. What that opens up to someone thinking in linear time is future causality. Events in the linear future can seem to cause events in the linear past. In the eternal now or on that circle there is no past or future, just a seamless thread. And if one understands time as such, and has the necessary technology, one can jump to any portion of that thread when needed.

This is the biggest spoiler. The movie starts with a montage of moments of Louise with her daughter Hannah. We see them at birth and at a few moments in life, but we are also introduced to Louise crying over the deceased 16 year old Hannah. You are lead to believe that this is backstory, in the linear past. Louise’s work with the Aliens and Physicist Ian played by Jeremy Renner as her contact partner comes after the daughter’s death. They are scrambling after the answer to “What is your purpose?” to prevent China and a few other states from attacking the aliens. But their work together, which does not include any gratuitous sex or even stray romance moments, grows into a work of love. Their strings are tied together. The big twist is that what we think is the past is actually the future. And it is a future that Louise is becoming cognizant of in the past. The question becomes, “knowing this, would you live it?”

That is the question of election. We are all part of God’s great tapestry. All of our circles are known to him and have been woven into his design. This includes Jesus who submitted to the cross. Knowing that creation includes the cross, would you do it? God answered yes. And he answered it for two reasons. Creation, even one including the cross, is an increase in love. It is a revelation of the God who calls himself love. It is also a revelation of his nature as gracious. Divine simplicity is not found in the point, but in the circle. It is found in how His grace sustains all the moments we are given to experience. The only question we are given is yes or no? Knowing that this is God’s design, knowing that is our circular thread, would we live it? The moments of pain and suffering as well as the moments of triumph. Yes is a submission, an acceptance of God’s election. No is the complete removal from the design.

In the film the two aliens that Louise and Ian interact with they call Abbot and Costello. Their names are ideograms without phonetic content, so the assigning of sounds is a moment of levity. But that moment of levity has a turn. Some of the military personnel they are working with decide that attacking the aliens is a necessity and smuggle a bomb onto the ship with the equipment Louise and Ian are using. The aliens are able to partially stop it, but a touching scene is Louise expressing sorrow when Abbot tells her Costello is dying. By this time, you should know enough to realize “it’s about time”. When you know that, you must realize that Costello took this trip knowing he would die in that blast. The purpose of the trip which the aliens had also revealed is that the aliens would need humanity’s help in 3000 years, so they are providing assistance to humanity now. Costello’s sacrifice was for aliens and people 3000 years hence. Knowing this, would you live it?

Which becomes the personal question to Louise. Ian is her future husband and father of Hannah. All the moments, including the child’s death, are in the future. Knowing this, would she live it? Is the increase in love correct? Is the grace enough to sustain it? Arrival is a love story, just not a decadent one, but one full of grace.

Lesser and Greater

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Biblical Text: Luke 17:11-19
Full Sermon Draft

Recording Note: Sorry, the live recording was unusable, so this is a re-recording after the fact.

I was sure walking into the pulpit this morning that I had failed. I was a page or more short. And I felt like that shortness wasn’t because I had successfully condensed a good word, but simply because I had wrestled with the text and lost. The Samaritan Leper is an easy story to just make into a moralistic word. There is nothing wrong with saying “give thanks”, the law is good and wise, but such often comes off not as “give thanks” but “give thanks because there are starving children in China”. There is always something specious about that old common phrase to get kids to eat. It doesn’t bring about thanks. It rarely made you eat your vegetables. So what I was struggling with was a way to preach not just “give thanks” as the law, but to make thanksgiving like the Samaritan Leper, full of wonder and joy and recognition. I thought I had failed, but somewhat surprising to me is that I got more good feedback than I would have expected. My inner cynic would say that is because it is only 10 minutes long, but I’m going to dismiss him as the crank he is. The Spirit takes the lessor and makes it greater.

Worship Note: Because of the recording problem you won’t hear it, but an important thing was this service started with a baptism. Baptism’s place in the sermon’s conclusion rests partly on what we had all witnessed that morning. Also, I just want to put this here. Lutheran Service Book 788, Forgive Us Lord, for Shallow Thankfulness, was the hymn of the day, surrounded by the staple hymns of Thanksgiving. This is also probably part of the rescue. Those are some of the best hymns in Christendom. But 788 is a powerful text. It is a comparatively modern hymn from 1965. I could wish that the text had a better tune, although Sursum Corda is not bad. It is the text that carries a necessary message about recognizing the greater and less, and not confusing them. The fifth stanza stands out to me: Forgive us, Lord for feast that knows not fast/for joy in things that meanwhile starve the soul/for walls and wars that hide your mercies vast/and blur our vision of the Kingdom goal. I’m sure it was written by a old fuzzy commie, but one that never let his politics become unmoored from the signs and wonders of the true kingdom.

The Narrow Door One at a Time

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Text: Luke 13:22-30
Full Sermon Draft

We had a baptism in service today which always serves as a great visual object lesson. The strongest visual element of the text is the narrow door. As the sermon would proclaim that font is the narrow door. The gracious call of Christ to come into the household of His Father is the narrow door. And that door narrow door is entered one heart at a time.

What this sermon examines is our natural and sinful inclination to want to smash our group through the door, or more appropriately to claim that our clan, whatever its size, is the household. We want Jesus to bless our streets. We don’t want to leave our streets to enter through the narrow door into God’s streets. But that is the pattern of Abraham and the prophets. God’s gracious call followed by a life of faith seeking to fulfill that call. Rarely is that call fulfilled in this world, but we see it from afar. Baptism is our gracious call to be a royal priesthood and holy nation. Baptism is the grace of call calling us to the life of faith. Just like the patriarchs and prophets. Baptism changes one heart at a time, from east to west and north to south.

Worship Note: There were several good hymns today. I left in the recording Lutheran Service Book #644, The Church’s One Foundation. It carries in the first verse the theme of “water and the Word” is the creation of a new house. It carries that over to the universality of the church that springs from its oneness – one Lord, one faith, one birth. The collective multitude of the Holy Bride brought together one by one. And it is honest about that call that in this world is is not a call to immediate peace, but to perseverance, to the life of faith. It is a great hymns encompassing the themes of the worship of the day.

Inheritance

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Text: Luke 12:13-21 (Col 3:1-5)
Full Sermon Draft

The parable at the core of today’s gospel can be highly moralistic. It is something we need to hear, but the parable itself gains it gospel grounding in the life of Jesus. The man at the start gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about life. What the life of Jesus, his questioner’s life and the parable invite us to do is correctly order things perishable and things imperishable in our lives.

When we have those thing properly ordered, then many situations and stations in life become much easier to judge the moral response.

Musical Note: I left in the hymn of the day Lutheran Service Book #732, All Depends on Our Possessing. I think it is one of the sweetest hymn tunes in the hymnal. Nothing flashy, but I’m still humming it. Not an earworm, but it strikes that right blend of melancholy and hope that is perfectly paired with the text. The text comes from the 17th Century Nurnberg church. The attribution is haus-kirche which would be house church, so it probably originated as a pietistic folk song shared among the various meetings much like campfire songs in the 1970s. But this text was caught by Catherine Winkworth, translator extraordinaire. What makes her translations so compelling is that unlike most American German to English translations which are more concerned about an exact translation, Winkworth cares first about the English. It doesn’t hurt that she has some evident skill at poetry. Technically she’s the translator, but most of her hymn translations are relatively free creations that manage to bring German hymns into a pleasant English expression.

Watching & Being Upset

“The first woman (let’s call her Sally) told me she was having trouble finding an Episcopal Church that she liked. I suggested she try St. Such and Such, ‘Oh no,’ she exclaimed. “I could never go there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. To my amazement she said, ‘I would have to look at that big cross they have behind the altar with that figure of Christ hanging on it. It would upset me terribly.'” – Fleming Rutledge

Fleming Rutledge is a great preacher. I say that with a bit of envy at her skill, but also with the recognition that her style is just not something I could pull off. That quote is just the shortest from an even better string of stories making her point. (It is in the book Bread and Wine, a great little Lenten reader.) I could never pull her style off because of two reasons: a) something guilty about using specific people at their worst and b) I always think these are “preacher stories” which are just a little too good to be true. But she makes it work, and stick, and if she used me I’d thank her for putting me on the narrow path instead of being mad (that is her greatness by the way). And her point here is simply that we are told to watch, and that biblical injunction is really to watch ourselves. Because when we do, we don’t like what we see. It is much easier to look away. To look at our neighbor. And to draw that line of grace for thee, but I don’t need it. Staring at a crucifix is recognizing that I put Jesus there. And there is only one way out. His grace, alone.

Give Him Another Year

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Biblical Text: Luke 13:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

Today is one of those days that stuff happening in the service is real important. We had a baptism this morning, and when you have a baptism you have an invaluable object lesson. That is absent from the recording, but you will hear it used a couple of times in the sermon.

From the text there is an overriding theme in the spirit of Lent – repentance. But the gospel text itself is abrupt. A report of a happening, a strong reaction to that report by Jesus and then a parable. This is one of the places where we as readers and hearers of the gospel really have to puzzle it out. Why would they bring this report to Jesus? What was their point? Jesus’ response gives us some clues, but the larger context of Luke which last week’s sermon look at as gives us a good idea of what was being asserted.

The crux of the issue is line drawing. Where is the line drawn that creates the division Jesus claims to have brought? Jesus’ answer is grace. The sermon examines the difference between mercy and grace and attempts to show why grace is that line of division. But the people of that day, just like the people of our day, like drawn their own lines. We draw lines that place us on the deserving side. Whether those are lines of race, or class or language or people or behavior. It can’t be grace, because we are on the right side.

Jesus answer is a clear nobody is on the right side. “Unless you all repent, you likewise will perish.”

The application of this is my attempt at encouragement and example of a proper repentance.

Worship Note: I have left in two of the hymns sung today. Lutheran Service Book 611 Chief of Sinners Though I Be, and LSB 610 Lord Jesus, Think on Me. It was a day of rich hymns because I loved our opening hymn and the baptismal hymn as well which all spoke the same gospel, but I left these two in the recording in their places as hymns of the life of repentance.

God’s Not Going Away

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Biblical Text: Luke 4:31-44
Full Sermon Draft

An honest appraisal first. This I think is one of those sermons that is rich content wise, but attempting to put a title on it and looking at the word cloud makes me think it was probably too full. I can’t tell you exactly what the “sparkler” that one would take away from it was. There are several potentials, but none of them sparkle enough, and there are too many. Looking at it with hindsight, I think I would re-focus it on that title I picked.

The emphasis I believe in the story is on Jesus’ definition of himself. What is this Son of God going to be like and do? The demons and the people are challenging him to smaller definitions. The demons want him to just go away. Go back to heaven and leave creation to its just reward. But Jesus silences them and gives mercy through healing and exorcism. Mercy is not receiving what we deserve. The demons aren’t wrong. Being sinners we deserve them. But Jesus in the incarnation takes on our flesh. God’s not going away. He is bringing mercy. The second challenge is to leave it right there, just mercy. But again God does not go away. He proclaims grace. Grace is when we receive what we do not deserve. We do not deserve the Kingdom, but that is what Jesus is here to give us. In the incarnation God gives us grace, and through the sending of the Spirit to indwell in us we are partakers of divine grace. That is the fullness of the mission of Jesus. Jesus defeats the temptation to sell himself short.

We also struggle with self identity, but our struggle is really the opposite of Jesus. As the sinless one, Jesus is self-actualizing. As those full of the sinful nature, self-actualization in this world is a bad goal. We will know everything we can be in the resurrection. In this world our call is more humble. Learn to love. Instead of holding on and hoarding the good things for ourselves, our end is to learn to serve others. To love our neighbor as ourselves which means giving away ourselves in faith that God will fill us back up. Simon’s Mother-in-law in the text is our example, or at least the more reachable example.

This sermon works through those thoughts I think in a meaningful way, but it is full. It requires your meditation.

On such day’s I’m always glad when the surrounding liturgy and hymns are great supports. I’ve left in a little more than usual. It was a 5th Sunday, so we pull out the bells and whistles of the liturgy including having the choir sing/chant the introit, gradual and alleluia/verse. The introit in particular was gorgeous this morning. I also left in the Hymn of the Day “Son of God, Eternal Savior” Lutheran Service Book 842. It takes the congregation a verse to get going, but they pick up. And I have to say as we sang the song my smile got bigger. You pick hymns in worship planning sometimes weeks in advance. You think the service holds together as a whole. It usually isn’t terrible, but today, I felt the Spirit while singing that hymn. When it so clearly reflects or in this case prepares for the sermon, you know someone else is there working with your terrible material.

Baroque Angels and Wooden Shepherds

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Biblical Text: Luke 2:8-20
Full Draft

The format was lessons and carols, so the main part of the service, singing all the great carols reflecting on the lessons, isn’t on the recording. But, this is the first Christmas Eve sermon in eight years that I’ve felt solidly good about. So, if you are ok with a single lesson and a homily for Christmas Eve, give this a listen. I think it comes close to the strangeness, the holiness, of the night.

And you can still come to Christmas day Divine Service tomorrow at 9 AM. Merry Christmas.

Grace was Never Practical

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Biblical Text: Mark 10:2-26
Full Sermon Draft

This sermon is a little longer than my typical one. The subject from the gospel text is marriage and divorce. Because the contextual density of the topic and because of its high profile in our general culture this sermon takes its time and spells out all the steps. I believe I arrive at the proclamation of the gospel, but it might not be the gospel we always want to hear.

A Hidden Transfiguration

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Biblical Text: Mark 6:30-44
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the feeding of the 5000 which is portrayed as a foreshadowing of the Last Supper, so this sermon is about communion. A moment of self reflection here, compared to most of my sermons which are unified pieces around a single theme and following a single outline. This one is a little more Pointillistic. Two parts, a catechism part which builds up pictures around a review of Luther’s Catechism on the Lord’s Supper and a compare contrast section looking at the Crowds desires and reactions and Jesus’ desires and reactions. Jesus’ desires, expressed in the Lord’s Supper form us into His people. And that is often at cross-purposes with what we think we desire (i.e. the crowds). For me the picture that ultimately emerges is which people to you want to be a part of: those invited to the meal or those looking for a general/king. And that has a surprising number of personal applications.