That REAL Old Time Religion

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This is one of the oldest hymns that is still sung today, and one of the few hymns sung by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. It has a depth of meaning, and here I am just scratching the surface. But it is a great scratch! I once heard it sung in a German monastery, in their stone chapel. It was glorious! 

 

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

 

Intro

If you were to take a Greek course in college or seminary, which is a strange way to start a sermon I admit, the first verse of the Bible you would probably work on is today’s Gospel text.  Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s pretty straight forward Greek, with the exception of the use of the reflexive “the was was God.” It’s easy Greek, but it is incredibly rich and complicated theology. The Word John refers to the is Jesus. John does not start his story of Jesus with the birth, like Matthew and Luke–he starts with the beginning of time. In the beginning, before all things existed, there was Jesus–the Word, the Logo of God. In verse 14 John writes, Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

In Advent this year we are going to look at various Advent and Christmas Carols. If I’m not doing your favorite carol, you’re in good company, I’m not doing mine either. But the five carols all show us a different aspect of the Advent Story, the coming of Jesus into the world. The Hymn we are looking at this week, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence was chosen today for three reasons: It is one of the oldest hymns still sung today, it captures the essence of the essential mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation, and it is a communion hymn that goes with our celebration of Communion today. You may want to have your hymnal open as I talk about it so you have the words before you. It is on page 347 of your hymnal.

 

 

History

The hymn starts with a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk: 2:20, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” The hymn was originally written in Greek, and was first used in the Orthodox Liturgy of St. James, which dates back to 275 AD. But before it was used in the Great Liturgy, it was sung in churches throughout Asia Minor, modern day Turkey and Greece. In the Orthodox tradition, they sing most of the Liturgy, so it is still sung today on a regular basis in many Orthodox congregations today. People talk about that Old Time Religion, and here we get that in spades.

This Christmas Eve, we will sing Silent Night at a candlelight service, joining with millions of Christians all over the earth who sing that song on Christmas Eve. When I attended the Great Christmas Liturgy in Russia, they sang Silent Night. When we sing Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, we are joining with Christians from almost the beginning of our faith. There is a place in our communion liturgy where I say:

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with choirs of angels,
with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

 

When we sing this hymn with morning we will be joining “the faithful of every time and place.” Our voices will join with voices throughout the centuries who have sung a version of this as they prepare for Christmas, and as they prepare for communion.

This hymn would have remained in the Orthodox Church, and we in the West would have have heard were it not for the Oxford Movement in in the 1830s in England. During that time the Church of England was going through many changes, most brought about by the emergence of Quakers and Methodist. The radical informality of those two traditions were starting to infiltrate the Church of England, and whenever there is something new, there is always a reaction to it. In this case the reaction was to reclaim some of the more ancient liturgies of the Church, and a man named Gerald Moultrie translated this from the Greek, and it is his translation we will sing today. Ralph Vaugh Williams took a French tune, Picardy, and worked it into the tune we sing today.  This is one of the few parts of worship that the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Protestant churches share today.

 

 

Incarnation

This hymn that centers around a very theological subject–the Incarnation of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In Latin, the prefix in- means “in” and caro means “flesh,” so incarnate means “in the flesh.” When we say someone is evil incarnate, we are saying that the essence of evil has shown up in a human being, that the one we are talking about personifies evil. In Christian theology, when we talk about the Incarnation, we are talking about God incarnate, God coming to us in flesh and blood. Now this is one of the most basic, but also one of the most complicated Christian doctrines. If you have your hymnal open, look at the first verse.

 …ponder nothing earthly minded,

for with blessing in His hand

Christ our God to earth descendeth,

 

And later, in the second verse,

King of kings, yet born of Mary,

as of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lords, in human vesture –

 

The doctrine of the Incarnation is front and center for us at Christ

mas. As we sing in another carol, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.” That’s from Hark the Herald Angels Sing, by the way.

Theologians have been wrestling with the idea of the incarnation, since…well ever since there was Christian theology. We see it in both of the readings for today. In John we read that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Epistle lesson, Paul writes: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

And then it goes into what many New Testament scholars believe is one the earliest Christian hymns.

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

Now as theologians have discussed this over the years, and they have, they have come up with a lot of different takes, but almost all of them affirm one thing–God became a man in Jesus Christ because that was the best way to fix a huge problem that plagued humanity. One of the earliest, and in my opinion one of the best theologians who wrote about the Incarnation was Athanasius, back in the Fourth Century. He said the major problem facing humanity is corruption. For him there are two types of corruption that plague us: the first is the corruption of our hearts and wills, which is a moral problem, and the second is the corruption of our bodies, meaning we die, and after death, our bodies rot away.

These were two problems that people could not solve on their own. Our moral corruption was so severe, he wrote, that we can’t deal with it all by ourselves. We needed outside help. On our own, throughout history, we have not dealt with these problems very well. When it comes to our moral corruption, it is true that we are capable of some very good things, but it is also true that that in spite of all our advancements, we are capable of being perfectly horrible. And to make matters worse, sometimes, when we have the best of intentions, that is when we are actually at our worst. For example the various times people in the West tried to “civilize” people from other cultures. In the end there was always more damage than good done. God sent prophets to get us back on track, but when that didn’t work, as we say in the communion prayer:

… in the fullness of time,

out of your great love for the world,

you sent your only Son to be one of us,

to redeem us and heal our brokenness.

 

In the hymn, in verse three we sing,

as the Light of light descendeth

from the realms of endless day,

that the pow’rs of hell may vanish

as the darkness clears away.

 

Both are saying the same thing–God did not send a memo, The Father of all Creation sent his Son, to be one of us, to live as one of us, to take on our flesh. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on OUR flesh, yours and mine. It gets a little cosmic here. But we are talking about God. And sometimes we are not cosmic enough. Athanasius writes,

For the Word unfolded himself everywhere, above and below, and in the depths and breadth: above in all creation, below, in the incarnation; in the depths, in hell: in breadth, in the world. Everything is filled with the knowledge of God.

St. Teresa of Avila says that God is in all things, even an ant. Everything abides in Jesus Christ, and Christ is in all. In the Incarnation God enters the world, and fills it with the divine, including us. Quoting Athanasius again, “He was made man that we might be made God.”

So while our celebration of Christmas, the Incarnation of the Son of God, is filled with things like red-nosed reindeer, and a jolly old man in a red suit, while we fill our holiday with candy canes, and trees and snowmen, and Grinches, and bells and lights, there is a stick of dynamite in the middle of our celebrations. The Almighty God, the Creator of all that is and all that will be, has entered into our world as a man, and has transformed the world by infusing it with his presence. And I say that without a hint of judgment because while we profess the extreme holy and sacred nature of the nativity, we also affirm that God is also found in the candy canes and trees and reindeer and the snowmen, and in the Lights.

 

Holiness

And God is found in this meal. In the second verse of the hymn we sing:

Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

 

I said this was first used in the Liturgy of St. James in the Third Century. It was used as a preparation for Communion. The priest would stand before the congregation and say, Σιγησάτω πᾶσα σάρξ βροτεία, Let all mortal flesh keep silence! This is like when the bailiff in a courtroom announces the coming of the judge, but instead of saying All rise, the priest says, Silence before your God. With fear and trembling stand before him! Put aside the vain thoughts of your mind, and for God is here with you!

This is a holy meal. If God is found in all things in the Universe, there is a special way God abides in this meal. Over the years the church  have differed on exactly how God is present in the Lord’s supper, and in the end I think all are somewhat right, and all are somewhat wrong. The more we try to explain it, the more wrong we are. The more we just accept it, the more right we are.

We do not share this meal alone. In the liturgy, I will say:

Therefore we praise you,

joining our voices with choirs of angels,

with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,

and with all the faithful of every time and place,

who forever sing to the glory of your name:

 

In the hymn we will sing:

 

At His feet the six-winged seraph,

cherubim, with sleepless eye,

veil their faces to the Presence,

as with ceaseless voice they cry,

“Alleluia, alleluia!

Alleluia, Lord most high!”

 

Alleluia indeed! Amen.

Posted in Advent, Advent Carol, Advent Sermon, Athanasius, Christmas, Christmas Carol, Incarnation, Jesus, Musings, Preaching, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Heart of Thanksgiving

This sermon was given the day we celebrated the work of our organist, Ginni Peterson, who has been the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Medford for 57 years. She still has her chops! But, she is retiring at the end of the year. 

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Thanksgiving is almost here. How can we, as Christians, best prepare ourselves for the upcoming holiday, other than preparing a feast and starting the Christmas decorating? What is Thanksgiving really about, and what can mean for us as Christians?

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In the Old Testament Lesson we heard Hannah’s prayer, from I Samuel. Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, one of two, and was childless. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had born children, but not Hannah. And, people being people, Peninnah tauted Hannah. In that day and age, a wife that could not bear children was seen as inferior. Elkanah did not see Hannah that way. We are told that he loved her very much, but that was small consolation to Hannah. More than anything, she wanted to give her husband a child. Every year, when they went to temple, Hannah would pray and pray and pray, asking God to open her womb. She prayed so hard, that when the priest, Eli, saw her, he thought she was drunk.

And one day her prayers were answered. She became great with child, and bore a son, Samuel, who became a great prophet of God. In response to the birth, Hannah prays the prayer we heard this morning. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift God had given her. Although the words Thank You do not appear in this prayer, it is her prayer of gratitude to the God who gave her a child. It is in many ways similar to Mary’s prayer in Luke, where she thanks God for her unborn child, Jesus. Both Hannah’s and Mary’s boys would serve God, and both Hannah and Mary would lose their sons to the service of God. As soon as Samuel was born, he was given to the high priest Eli, to raise for service in the temple. God had other plans for him, and he became one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament. And of course Mary’s boy, Jesus, gave his life for the salvation of the world.

In her prayer, Hannah thanks God by recounting his actions. It a bit like going to an event to thank someone for their service, and recounting how they affected you and others. For example, we are thanking Ginni this morning for her years of service, and we might talk about her skills as a organist, her faithfulness in playing week after week, after week. We might recount the hours of practice she puts in every week before she plays, or we might talk about how just being around Ginni just makes you feel better. Hannah recounts how God looks after the those who are hurting, those who hunger, those who long for justice.

“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” Mary’s prayer is very similar:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”

Both of these women offered thanksgiving prayers for the great thing God had done in their lives, heartfelt prayers that takes us into the heart of thanksgiving, which we will be celebrating this week.

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Every year we have this holiday called Thanksgiving. It is a time of turkey, cranberry dressing, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie. It is a time for families to get together. It is a time to watch football. The first Thanksgiving, back in 1621, was not called “Thanksgiving.” It was a fall harvest feast. Although we celebrate our Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November, the original feast that it took place sometime between September and November.  The original 102 pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower was whittled down to 53 by the time of that feast in 1621. They had managed to get through the first year, but just barely, and as the record shows, around half of them had died. Were it not for the local Wampanoag tribe, they might have all died.  But the second winter, they were more prepared. They had stored up food for the long winter, and had a surplus, enough to have a harvest feast. There were Indigenous people at the feast, 90 of the Wampanoag tribe, including their leader Massasoit, but we don’t know if they were invited, or if they just showed up. They roasted five deer and plenty of wild fowl, some of which might have included turkey, but we don’t know about that. And I am pretty sure they did not have that canned cranberry sauce prevalent at many meals today, or pecan pie.

We don’t if they continued having the feast on an annual basis. The documents from the pilgrims that survived only talk about the first feast. However they did have a thanksgiving celebration in July of 1623, which was not a harvest feast, but a day of prayer and fasting. Toward the end of the 1600s, some of the settlements in the New World combined the harvest feast with a celebration of thanksgiving, similar to what we celebrate today.

The Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777 and then in 1789, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving as well. But these were merely declarations and not official holidays. Future presidents did not continue the Thanksgiving declaration.

It was an editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who researched documents about the first Thanksgiving, who was responsible for it becoming an official, national holiday. She wrote letters to five presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln asking them to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln, seeking to bring the civil war torn country together, worked with legislators to proclaim the last Thursday of November to be a national holiday called Thanksgiving. Now you may be asking, if Thanksgiving is supposed to the last Thursday, why are we celebrating it this week, which is the second to last Thursday. There are five Thursdays in November this year, and according to Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving should be next week.

Well, in 1939, a year in which November had five Thursdays also, FDR broke with tradition, and said Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday, not the last Thursday. He did that because the country was just pulling out of the depressions, and back in that day stores did not advertise for Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving (the good ole days!). Moving Thanksgiving back a week would give stores and shoppers more time to prepare for Christmas. The move was controversial, and for years afterward some states still celebrated what they called Republican Thanksgiving, on the last Thursday.

In any case, this Thursday we will celebrate a traditional meal that goes back 397 years.

But from a Christian perspective the tradition of a Thanksgiving meal goes back to the beginning of our faith.

 

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The Greek word for “thanksgiving,” is εὐχαριστία, from which we get the word Eucharist, one of the names for communion. Every month here we celebrate Thanksgiving, not with turkey and sweet potato casserole, but with the Bread and the Cup. In the Presbyterian Church we call it communion, but for centuries it has been known as the Eucharist, the meal of Thanksgiving. At the beginning of the meal I say,

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The prayer that follows is called the Great Thanksgiving, and starts, It is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, eternal God, our creator. The prayer then goes on to list the things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how at times humanity has lost its way in the world, and how Jesus came to call us back to God, and not only call us but to give us the way to return to God through him.

You made us in your image

and called us to be your people,

but we turned from you,

leaving sin and death to reign.

Still you loved us and sought us.

In Christ your grace defeated death

and opened the way to eternal life.

This mirrors several of the Psalms, where the Psalmist remembers and gives thanks for how God rescued the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptians, and how God gave them a way of living when they were in the Sinai Desert, and finally how God brought them to the promised land.

 

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One of the ways we give thanks is to remember. We remember how significant people have changed our lives for the better. For example I might remember the things I got from my parents that taught me how to good person. Living in the segregated South in the 1960s, I remembered how they taught me to treat all people with dignity. I remember the people who mentored me over the years when I first entered ministry, and those who were there for me when I needed help with something. I remember who my wife has supported me in ministry, and I give thanks to all those people.

As a church, we remember how Ginni has brought the beauty of music to us for the last 57 years. The first time I met with the session, I asked them what they loved about this church–in essence, why they were thankful for this church, and over half of them mentioned Ginni. They talked about how, week after week, she brings angelic music out of the organ. They remembered a concert she had given here.

Another way we give thanks is to tell people of our gratitude. In prayer, we address God and thank God for all the the good we have received from our Creator’s hand. We tell the people around us how they have influenced us, and thank them verbally. For some people that just comes naturally. For others, it can be a hard thing to do. It can be even harder for some people to receive. Back when I was in seminary, we had a class where we talked about our experiences in our internships. One student, I remembered, talked about how hard it was for him to receive thanks after the service when people were exiting, and he was shaking their hands. “They tell me it was a good sermon, but I could only remember how badly it went, and how I could have done it better. What do I do?” he asked us. The teacher just looked at him and said, “You say ‘thank you!’ End of story.”

Some of things we may be thankful for are not things we were thankful for at the time. My father taught me the value in hard work when I was young, and I can truly say I was NOT thankful for those lessons at the time. I am now. But I sure wasn’t back then.

There are experiences we have that, in retrospect we can see how they changed us for the better, but we did not see them that way at the time. Losing a job may have led to a better job down the road, but at the time it can be a very painful experience. At the time we may be yelling at God–“Why did you do this to me? Why did you let this happen?” But down the road, we can give thanks for what happened.

 

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What are you thankful for? As Thanksgiving approaches, why are you thankful? What fills your heart with gratitude?

I want to issue you a challenge. I said that a lot of thanksgiving had to do with remembering. Think back on your life. Who has made you who you are today? Who has had the greatest influence on you? What are some of the things that have happened in your life for which you are thankful.

Over the next few days, I challenge you to tell people “Thank you.” They may be people from your past, or they may be people you see everyday. Counting today, there are five days until Thanksgiving. Everyday tell one person why you are thankful for them. Every one of those five days, say “Thank you,” to at least one person.

And, over the next five days, I challenge you to say “Thank you” to God. You may thank God for the people who helped you along the way, people who are not alive today to hear it come from your lips. You may thank God for circumstances and situations that molded and shaped you. There is a prayer in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, which I pray every morning:

We bless thee for our creation, preservation,

and all the blessings of this life;

but above all for thine inestimable love

in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;

for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And, we beseech thee,

give us that due sense of all thy mercies,

that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;

and that we show forth thy praise,

not only with our lips, but in our lives,

by giving up our selves to thy service,

and by walking before thee

in holiness and righteousness all our days;

What are the blessings in your life? And how do you experience “the means of grace and the hope of glory”? This week, as we approach Thanksgiving, tell God “Thank you,” and maybe with the prayer, you might pray that you can show forth your praise for God, not just with your lips, but by giving yourself to his service.

Amen.

 

Posted in Gratitude, Magnificat, Sermons, Thanksgiving | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mighty Mites

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Lucifer vs. Tit for Tat

During the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, social scientists were working on how to respond to the nuclear threat in ways that would stop either side from blowing up the world. If you remember those days, it looked like this: both sides had enough weapons to completely destroy the other side. If one side fired their weapons, then the other side would retaliate, and fire their weapons, and if that happened you could kiss the planet goodbye. The name for that was Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, appropriately named.

We would build bombs, and the Soviets would build bombs. We build more bombs the Soviets build more bombs. So we build more, and the soviets build more…and so on and so on. The problem is, the bombs that are out there, the greater the possibility they would be used one day. As long as the two nations cooperated, in other words, did not use their weapons, their would be peace. But if a nation defected from the status quo, and attacked, the peace was broken.

When the soviets put missiles into Cuba, that threaten the uneasy peace. During that time, a mathematician and early computer geek, Robert Axelrod devised a computer experiment learn about a simple strategy to navigate the waters of cooperation and betrayal, that might help political leaders navigate the tricky waters of the nuclear dilemma. Axelrod put out a call for other computer geeks to write programs that would compete against each other. The programs that did the best to keep the peace would be declared the winner.

There were three basic types of programs. The first, he called Jesus. Jesus did not attack and did not retaliate.  The second he called Lucifer. Lucifer would attack and keep attacking for the duration of the game. The third was called Tit for Tat. It did not attack, but if attacked, it would retaliate for only one move. He ran these programs against each other 120,000 times. The results were mostly predictable. When Jesus ran into Lucifer, Lucifer no one would win. When Jesus went up against Tit for Tat, it was a drawn, with no battles. But when Tit for Tat went up against Lucifer, Tit for Tat always won–if there were enough Tit for Tat players in the game.

In other words, in Axelrod’s computer simulation, if enough players in the game were peaceful and only retaliated to the extent that the other programs retaliated, they would win. Axelrod wrote several scholarly articles about this that appeared in academic journals of the time, but he wondered if these results were valid in the real world. So he did some historical research.

 

Then Axelrod took it to a second level. Programs that did well were able to reproduce.

 

 

 

The program was simple. It was a computer tournament, where computer programmers wrote programs that competed against the other programs. Each program competed with the other programs 200 times. There were three basic types of programs. The first was, the program would cooperate with other programs, until  attacked, and if that program was attacked it would retaliate and continue to retaliate for the duration of the game. The second type was one that attacked first, but then, when it was attacked by other programs, would chill out, and not retalition.

 

He wrote a program where the characters had one of three basic orientations. The first was attack, and retaliate with everything you got. He called this the Lucifer character. The second was do not attack, but if attacked retaliate with equal force. The third was, do not attack and do not retaliate if attacked. He filled a simulated world with these three characters, and run the program to see what would happen over time. The characters in the program had a limited life span, but they could produce other characters within the program, that shared their characteristics.

He ran several different versions of the same programs, with differing numbers of each of the three characters. When they were all Lucifers, they all died off really quickly. If they were all

 

World War I

In World War I soldiers were hunkered down in trenches that were 50 to 250 yards from each other. There was a constant barrage of artillery and gun fire that was unending. If one side was firing, the other side was firing back, and since one or the sides was always firing, the gunfire never stopped. But there were times of relative quiet. It started at night, when the british troops started taking breaks for meals. They would the trenches get some food, and come back. Here is the interesting thing. The Germans could have just lobbed bombs over the trenches, and onto the food trucks, killing a much greater number of soldiers. But they didn’t. Instead, they started taking breaks for meals. Again, the British could have lobbed their bombs over the trenches and onto the eating soldiers, but they didn’t. One soldier noted that either side could have aimed their shells at the meal caravans on the other, and in so doing would inflict incredible damage, but they realized if they did, the other side would retaliate in kind, and no one could have a meal in peace.

A similar thing happened with snipers. The success of a sniper is the number of men he can kill. German snipers started firing, not at the soldiers, but at trees beside the soldiers. And they would fire repeatedly into the tree at the same, exact spot, proving they could have hit the men standing there, but they chose not to. British snipers picked started also firing at trees, not at people.

There were times when one side or the other would raise a white flag, and the other side would simply stop firing, until the side that raised the flag started firing again.

This all came to a head in the Christmas truces of 1915. As the story goes, it was Christmas Eve night and the British stopped firing. The Germans followed, and each side was allowed to celebrate Christmas in peace. In one area the British started singing Silent Night, and the Germans retaliated by singing Stille Nacht, Silent Night in German. The next day there was no gun fire. Along the lines soldiers started  popping their heads up above the trenches, and were not shot at. Instead the other side would pop their heads above the trenches. In some areas soldiers got out of their trenches, and met the enemy in the middle of no mans’ land. They exchanged pictures of their families, food, and even Christmas presents. Instead of the hellhole it had formerly been, in many areas No Man’s Land became a place of peace on earth, good will to men. This Christmas truce lasted up to two weeks in some places, and soldiers would compete playing soccer, not killing one another.

 

Not until the British started taking breakfast breaks. Unilaterally, they stopped firing during breakfast, so the men could eat. It did not take long for the

 

the Mighty Mites

What does this have to do with the Widow’s mite, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel lesson? Simply this–these kinds of reciprocal Tit for Tat arrangements, whether in computer games or in war, only work when there are a enough people on one side to start the ball rolling. One person could not affect a Christmas truce, but a battalion could. If one person stopped shooting, they would probably get shot. But when a hundred men stop shooting, the shooting tends to cease. It’s not magic. It does not always work out this way. But it tends to, and the fact is, only by having one side change the rules of engagement can the rules of engagement every change.

The widow put in one mite, one small penny, one tiny coin into the offering plate. One mite cannot change anything. But a hundred mites can. A thousand mites can. The one small mite can be meaningless but the many mites can become mighty mites.

Let’s go back and look at the story. There is a line of people putting money into the temple treasury. Many of them are rich people, and they put a hefty amount of money. But then, along comes this widow. She does not have much. She is poor. She places two small coins into the pot, valued at about a penny. But this is who Jesus praises. She did not have much, but what she had, she gave. The temple is not going to get rich on her mite. But she gave what she had. In raw numbers it was a pittance, but in percentages it was a treasure house of good.

That is all that is required of us–to give what we have. I know this is stewardship season, and this all could be taken to mean that you have to give more money. So be it. But it is bigger than that. It is not just our money that makes a difference. It is our lives.

When the woman gave her mite, I wonder if there were other people, who had much more, who also gave of what they had? I wonder if other widows say they could give to. Jesus set up a situation that allowed and encouraged people to give what they had. He still does that. The woman answered the call to give by giving sacrificially. And Jesus responded, not by belittling her gift (“You call that a donation?”) but by praising her.

The way we respond to people, including aggressive people, is crucial. The rule of thumb is, people will respond with what we give them. When we are in an argument, if we can be the reasonable ones, if we can keep our heads when others are losing theirs, if we can give from the well of love that lies within us, we then can change the situation. If we see a wrong that needs to be righted, if we give what little we have, if we respond by an outpouring of love and not of recrimination, if we respond with offers of peace in the face of turmoil, we can change our worlds.

 

postscript

There is a postscript to the World War I stories, a tragic one. The generals on both side were concerned about these random acts of peace. They were there to win a war, and you don’t win wars by celebrating Christmas with your opponents. If you have seen pictures of your enemy’s children, you are much less likely to want to shoot and kill him. The generals understood what was going on better than the men in the trenches. They understood that how their men reacted determined to a large degree how the enemy would react. They understood that if the enemy stops shooting at you, you are highly likely to stop shooting at him.

So one night, after New Years, British soldiers played a German patriotic song. The Germans stood up on the edge of the trenches to hear. And at the last note of the song, the British troops were ordered to fire at the unarmed German soldiers, killing most of them. As you can imagine, the Germans responded with fire of their own, and the brief outbreak of peace among the enlisted men was quickly shattered, and the men got back to the things as usual–killing as many of the other side as they could. There were no more informal truces, meal trucks were not longer safe, and it was not long before poison gas was floating over the trenches.

Because of the horrific nature of that war, it was called the war to end all wars. We know that was just optimistic thinking. The men who saw to the end of WWI kept retaliating, even after the war’s end, with the Treaty of Versailles, which basically destroyed the German economy. That in turn led to many of the conditions that started World War II. Fortunately we learned a lesson from the ending of the First War, and instead of a punitive treaty, like Versailles, we instituted the Marshall Plan, and rebuilt Europe and Asia, including Germany and Japan.

Our mite, what we have to offer, is to respond as Jesus would in world where others are bent on doing any but that. In our relationships with each other here, in our relationships with others outside of these walls, in our relationships with our enemies, we are called to respond as Jesus would respond. One person doing that would be run over by the effects of the world. Two people are an example. Three people stand a fighting chance. A church full of people grabs attention, and a world of Christians who act as Jesus would act can change the world.

When each gives their own mite.

Amen.

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Evangelicals Today

I used to consider myself an Evangelical. But then came the Moral Majority, and the politicization of faith. I felt more and more uncomfortable with my colleagues, and able to say less and less about them. I watched them head off into a different sunset. I no longer need a label to define my approach to faith.

Here is an interesting article about young Evangelicals today. May God be with them!

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A Call to Walk in the Light

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The Abundance of Little

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In 1521 the monk Martin Luther was called to give account for his radical new teaching at the unfortunately named Diet of Worms. There were no worms eaten at the Diet of Worms. The Diet was what they called the Imperial Assembly, and it took place in the German city of Worms–in English, Worms. At the Diet, Luther was told that his books were heretical, and told he must recant, or he would be punished. He had already been excommunicated. Here he was, a poor monk, with nothing really to his name, and now he had lost the only worldly thing that mattered to him–his job as a teacher in the Augustinian seminary where he lived. If he recanted there was the possibility that he could retake his position at the seminary. If he did not, he would be a permanent outcast.

Luther was given a night to consider his position. In the morning he was called back into the Diet, and asked again if he would recant. He said, Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Some record that he also said, Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders, or in English, Here I stand. There is nothing else I can do.

As he uttered those words, he had nothing. He could not go back to the monastery since he was excommunicated. He could not go back home, because he would be arrested, tried, and possibly killed for heresy. He had the clothes on his back, and, fortunately for him, the support of prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, who abducted Luther, and took him to his castle at Wartburg. There, living on the good graces of Frederick III, he started his translation of the Bible.

In earthly terms, Luther never really had a lot. But he had faith, he had conviction, and he had the power of God.

Later he would write:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also:

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is for ever.

john-calvin-9235788-1-402In 1530, a young man named Jean Calvin fled Paris after some riots by a small band of the new sect of Christians who were influenced by Luther. It’s not clear he was in the riots, but the backlash against them made every Protestant fear for their lives, and Jean, who was an attorney at the time, became a refugee, and made his way to Basel, Switzerland, where he joined a group of the Protestant leaders. We know this man better as John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church. The Protestant movement had grown, and there were now Protestant enclaves throughout Germany and France. What Luther started had taken off in a big way. But there were problems with the emerging movement. Luther never intended to start a new denomination. He had no idea what a denomination was! There was only the Catholic Church, and all Luther wanted to do was reform the corruption he saw in the Catholic church. Luther was a theologian, but his approach to theology was more practical than systematic. He dealt with problems as they arose, but did not provide a theological architecture for the new Protestant movement.

Calvin wanted to design the new theology. He wanted to take Luther’s original precepts and turn them into a systematic theology. In Basel, Calvin set to work on his task, but was interrupted by a visitor from Geneva, William Farel, who finally convinced Calvin to move, and become of the pastor of the church in Geneva. Calvin didn’t really want to do that. He just wanted to write, but Farel was convincing.

His stay in Geneva was a disaster. Calvin wanted to build a new church, but the city council of Geneva, who made all decisions concerning the church, opposed him at every front. For instance, Calvin wanted to have weekly communion. The city council limited to communion to four Sundays a year. Calvin wanted the city to close the bars of the town on Saturday night, so people would not come to Church hungover on Sundays, but the city council refused to do so. When Calvin finally refused to serve communion to the bar owners, both he and William Farel were fired and banished from the city.

Which was fine with Calvin. He moved to Strasbourg, where he pastored a church of French refugees and wrote theology.

But he was called back to Geneva, and lived the rest of his life there. He continually fought with the city council on various issues pertaining the church. He rarely won, but he persisted.

At every turn in Calvin’s career, he was interrupted or thwarted. He wrote his books, and preached sermons. He visited parishioners, and led worship. But his dream of being the architect for the new Protestant Church was never fully realized in his lifetime. In spite of all the setbacks he experienced in life, he said this:

Seeing that a Pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.

 

#

We look a the legacy of Luther and Calvin today, and we wonder that either ever doubted their impact on the world. Both Lutheran and Calvinist churches speard over the entire world. Both could be said to have changed the course of history. The movements they started have lasted for almost 500 years, and show no sign of stopping. By almost every measure, they would be considered a success. But it did not feel like it to them at the time. They could not see into the future. They could not know that the movements they started would survive.

But they had faith. They had conviction. They had a firm belief that God would take what they offered, and use it to help build the Kingdom of God. They both knew that God was at the helm, in spite of all the difficulties and dangers that surrounded them. They may not have been sure of their own successes, but they trusted in God, and knew that God’s work would never fail. They knew that God’s provision for them would never end. Again, as Luther wrote:

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us.

And God’s will does triumph–through us.

It does not always seem that way. This week, for example, we see the world with devils filled. First, the assassination attempts in the form of the 13 bombs that were mailed to ex-presidents, vice-presidents, senators, and others. If you kept up with the news, every day brought new potential victims. And just as that nightmare appeared to be at an end when the arrested the culprit, we heard about the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It seems that there are too many devils in the world today. What can we do? There are too many devils, and not enough of us. We have so little, not near enough to face the multitude of problems in the world, or even just in our community. We can echo the words of the disciples in the Gospel lesson this morning: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

 

 

#

This is a familiar story to most of us. Jesus, trying to get away from the crowds, hops in a boat, and heads for a deserted place. But someone must have figured out where he was going, and they headed for the same place Jesus was. When he came ashore there was a crowd of needy people waiting for him. And Jesus had compassion on them. He ministered to them. The sun started to set, and the people were still there. It was getting to be dinner time, and the people were still there. “Send them home,” said the disciples. “They need to eat, and we can’t feed them.”

You may be wondering why there was no food. There were little towns dotting the Sea of Galilee. Why couldn’t the people get something to eat there. The answer is, they could. But there was one problem with that. You see, when it says that Jesus went to a deserted place, the place was probably in the Decapolis. The Decapolis was a region that bordered the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, and was a Gentile region. They was food there, but not the kind of food that the Jews could eat. Had Jesus sent them to the closest town to round up some grub, he would be sending them to break the kosher laws. They might have good barbecue joints there, but the Jews were not allowed to eat pork. And pork was a common food among most non-Jewish people.

So what to do? There were too many people, too many problems. The only way, it seemed, to help the people would involve breaking the Law of God.

But Jesus had another solution. In the eyes of the disciples there was not enough. In the eyes of the disciples, the problem was too big, the needs were too great, and they did not have enough resources to do anything about it.

But Jesus had other ideas.

“You have everything you need,” he says. “Just give it to me, and stand back and watch.”

And we know what happens next. The five loaves and two fish turn into a feast for all, with twelve baskets full leftover.

#

There are those who say that what happened was that the people saw Jesus take what he had, and start to feed others, and when they saw that, they opened up their hearts, and their own stash of food, and all of sudden everyone is feeding everyone else. Maybe that is what happened.

Or maybe Jesus was able to draw on the power of God to serve the people. Maybe there was not other food there, and Jesus pulls the proverbial rabbit out of his hat–although in this case it is fish and bread, not a rabbit.

Whatever you believe about what really happened that, in any event it is a sign that God uses what we have to minister to people. Where we might see little, God sees an abundance. We might look around and say, “There’s not enough!” but God never does. I wonder if Luther ever looked around and said, “How can I do this? I am one person against the Roman Catholic Church, the largest organization in the world. There’s no way!” If he did, he never acted on his fears. He never acted on his feelings of being one very small fish in an ocean of sharks. He did what he felt God was calling him to do.

I wonder if Calvin ever thought, “I have no power here. They fired me once. They could fire me again. The city council holds all the power, and I have none. How can I do this?”

If he did, he never acted on that. He went on doing what he felt God was calling him to do.

Both Luther and Calvin depended on the power of God to do the work they were called to do. They did not focus on what they did not have. They focused on what God would give them. The fact they had little only encouraged them to focus on God’s abundance.

#

I look at the problems of the world, and I say to myself, “What can I do? The problems are so great, I am am so little.” I look at the problems in our community–drug addiction, housing shortage, food insecurity, that fact that you hit five red lights in a row when you travel down 10th Avenue, and I ask, “What can I do? These problems are so large, and I am so little.”

I look at the problems facing the Church of Jesus Christ today–declining membership, aging population, and a society that is growing increasingly secular, not to mention that fact that the political debates in our country have started to become church debates, and I ask, “What can I do? The problems are so large, and I am so little.”

But when I see how little I am in the face of all these, I am reminded of God’s abundance. I may not have enough, but God does. I may be little, but out of my smallness we can see the abundance of God.

We need not look at the world and despair. We need not look at the world, and throw up our hands, and say, “nothing can be done.” Out of our little comes God’s abundance.

This is stewardship Sunday. We will have a dinner, and then we will take pledges over the next couple of weeks. I am supposed to stand up here and say, “Give! Give! Give!”

But I don’t need to do that. You are generous givers.

But I want you to know that whatever your level of giving to this church, and to other causes you support, God’s abundance is there. I have quoted from the song, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The Psalm we read is what Martin Luther based his hymn on. I just want to revisit one passage from the Psalm:

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

… 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

he burns the shields with fire.

10 “Be still, and know that I am God!

Yes the problems are many. Bombs are sent, and synagogues are attacked. The problems of the streets occasionally make their way into our church. We may feel small in the face of them. We may feel that all we have is two fish and five loaves of bread. But out of our little comes the abundance of God.

Amen.

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Free Book!

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So, my copies of the my book Wrestling with the Word finally arrived! I am offering a free copy to the first ten people who message me, via my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/thestillpoint3/), or who email me at thestillpoint3@gmail.com. You will receive a signed copy within two weeks, via USPS.

I do ask, if you get a free book, to please post a review on Amazon. It should be an honest review, but please post a review. Oh, and if you do like it, tell your friends. The book is available on Amazon.

You need to message or email me your name and your mailing address.

I am looking forward to getting your feedback!

 

 

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