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Godspell1As we prepare for our final midweek Advent Vespers lesson of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1 – 18), I cannot stop a memory from my youth to float through my mind.  When I was in junior high, I was in a production of Godspell with my sister’s high school friends.  Several of them had attended the same church, and they were one singer short of a full ensemble.  Thanks to my sister vouching for me, I was admitted into the production, an event that exposed me to my first ecumenical effort and created the foundation for friendships I still hold dear today.  As a result of that musical, I will never be able to think about John the Baptist without the song “Prepare Ye” ringing through my mind.

There are many who question if this passage can indeed be labeled the Song of John the Baptist.  While it may sometimes miss our notice, John is considered a prophet.  In Hebrew literature, a prophet fulfills a minimum of one of the following distinct roles; 1) to speak towards the future of what God will be doing in the world, 2) to give a message from God to the people (like an intercessory or messenger), 3) to experience a mystical act from God, like a vision 4) use mystical abilities on God’s behalf, such as healing someone.  Very often, prophets would prepare the way in battle, similar to the role of a town crier.  A refrain from their vision would be sung repeatedly in a liturgical fashion.  Frequently, these cries were repeated seven times while circling a territory and carrying a sacred object, such as the arc of the covenant.  The prophetic cry or song would become a liturgical ritual, helping to prepare for the battle ahead and serving as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the people.

Luke strongly emphasized that John the Baptist was a prophet, speaking on God’s behalf about the future of the ethical renewal in Israel and how God was bringing salvation to all peoples.[1]  John’s prophetic voice is strengthened as he echoes the imagery found by another prophet in Isaiah 40: 3 – 5.  Isaiah’s image of “the way of the Lord,” references a Babylonian liturgical rite of a festival procession of idols.[2]  Isaiah explains that one will come who will “make straight” (correct) the roadway from celebrating false idols and instead reveal God’s glory.

While we may never know for sure if this passage was indeed sung, it is not a far leap to assume that John enacted the liturgical practice of the sung town crier as he prepared the way for Christ, especially in light of the Isaiah imagery.  We explore this possibility of song as tomorrow, December 18, at 7 pm.  A reception will follow the service.

As I continue to hum “Prepare Ye,” I find myself surprised that a musical with disciples dressed as clowns holds so much liturgical history.  In Godspell, the refrain of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is repeated over and over again in town crier fashion, providing us with an avenue to imagine how John may have sung his prophetic refrain throughout the city streets.


[1] Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke – John (volume 9), a ed. (Grand Rapids: Abingdon Press, 1996), page 81

[2] J. J. M. Roberts, The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, Fully ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2006), page 961

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It is interesting that we will explore Hannah’s Song at our Advent Vespers just one day after the globalized day of prayer against hunger on December 10.  Before we reach Hannah uplifting her prayer of thanksgiving about her son, we learn in the book 1 Samuel that Hannah had been rebuked for reaching for more food at dinner one night by her husband’s second wife, Peniniah.

hannahs-prayerEven in a prosperous household, food can be used as a weapon.  It is presumed that Elkanah’s household was affluent, which was why he could accommodate having both Hannah and Peniniah as wives.  Hannah was barren where Peniniah had many children.  Peniniah scolded Hannah for reaching for more food, stating that the extra food should go to her own children.  At that table, food was used to shame Hannah for the barrenness that was beyond her control.

It was this encounter that prompted Hannah to go to the temple and plead with God for a son.  She made a bargain, vowing that if she is blessed with a child she would give him over to God to be a Nazarite.  Soon after, she gave birth to Samuel, whose name translates “name of God.”  When Samuel was about 3 years old, the family journeys to Shiloh where Hannah gives Samuel over to the priest Eli, fulfilling her promise made in the temple.  It is here in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 we encounter her prayer of thanksgiving.

It was common for prayers of thanksgiving to be sung aloud.  Add that ritual with the literary structure and strong symbolism, Hannah’s prayer often referred to as a psalm or song.  Since Hannah was heading to the temple as she proclaimed this prayer, many traditions sing this song in advance to worship as a pietistic preparation.

Hannah’s song strongly parallel’s the style and structure of Psalm 113, a song of thanksgiving that is accredited to David.  The structure and style of songs of thanksgiving are somewhat formulaic in structure – they tend to begin with an word of praise, refer back to how God has acted on behalf of the people in creation in the past, and look to the future at how God will bring glory in the future.  Such a structure was useful when used corporately in an assembly, as it leads to natural breaks for call and response between the congregation and the cantor.

This structure for songs of thanksgiving is so strong that we see it repeated in numerous psalms, including Mary the mother of Jesus’ psalm of thanksgiving at the annunciation.  The similarities between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song are so strong that some scholars believe that Mary’s song was an adaptation of the familiar song from Hannah.

We explore Hannah’s song at 7 pm on Wednesday, December 11.  Dinner will be held at 6 pm for those interested.  Join us next week as we encounter the song of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-18.

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 4, 2013.  The message was based on Exodus 15:1 – 21.

Over Thanksgiving I got to do something that I haven’t done in a really long time – I held a baby.  While I joke that my cat Cozmo is my baby, the truth is that there is nothing quite like holding a newborn.  Everything about them is fresh – their little hands, their soft animal sounding cries, and that intoxicating scent that emanates from the top of their teeny tiny heads.  For me, holding a baby can be like a breath of fresh air, a moment to pause and recognize how through the gift of creation God is realigning the world back to God’s self.

Miriams Song2This breath of fresh air is the heart of the songs sung by Moses and Miriam.  At first glance, this song may appear to be an emotionally confusing melody that retells the gruesome moment where the Pharaoh’s army sunk into the Red Sea like a stone.  In the midst of victory language and furious metaphors, it can be easy to miss that this is a song about God using creation to restore the world.

In the book of Exodus, this song falls after the detailed narrative of the plagues and the pillar of fire,[1] even though it is believed that the song was created first.  Described as one of the oldest pieces of poetry in our Hebrew Scriptures,[2]  the song was later expanded upon to create the vibrant narrative that Charleston Heston movies are made of.  Historians explain that this song was placed after the expanded story because of its mountain imagery, building the anticipation of the journey to Mount Sinai.

This placement, however, can cause us to forget that song lyrics are often more than they appear to be.  In this song, Egypt was a symbol for the chaos found all over humanity and man-made systems.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “Egypt symbolized evil in the form of humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation, and crushing domination.”[3]  The lyrics of Egypt and Pharaoh are more than they appear to be, representing the brokenness throughout humanity that keeps people in bondage.

Moses and Miriam’s songs use the exit from Egypt as a symbol for how God takes direct action to breathe fresh air into a broken world.   The brief but powerful words of their song show a different side of God than in the other more familiar versions of this memorable story.

The versions we are more readily accustomed to show God working indirectly through the servant Moses.  God speaks to Pharaoh through Moses and his staff.  There are times when even Moses speaks indirectly, using Aaron to serve as his voice.  God speaking through Moses who speaks through Aaron is probably not the most direct approach to liberation.Miriams Song3

In Moses and Miriam’s songs, however, God directly intercedes on behalf of the Israelites.   While the image of God’s outstretched hands may remind us of the story of Moses stretching his staff, this song proclaims how God stretches God’s own hands on behalf of the people.  The image of Israelites passing by Pharaoh’s soldiers may remind us how the sheltering of the lamb indirectly protected the first born children.  The song proclaims, however, God directly shelters the people by the might of his own arm.

A casual reading of this song may seem like an afterthought to a beautifully descriptive narrative of the Passover, but its purpose is to show us the direct action God takes to liberate people from the captivity and bondage found in our humanity.  God doesn’t try to repair the earth by human means, with guns and bombs.  God directly works through the means of creation, using elements that humanity can only take small steps to control.  Try as we might, humanity will not be able to force a flood with the flare of our nostrils.  We are not able to swallow evil into the earth with the stretch of our hand.  This majestic and holy power can only be used hands on by our Creator.

It is said this is the oldest scriptural account where God directly liberates the people from the bondage of their lives.  But it is far from the last.

JonahIt was God going directly to Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones that brought restoration.  It was God speaking directly to Jonah under the tree that helped Jonah begin his new life, liberated from fear to live as a prophet.  God came directly to Job and showed him the mysteries of creation, allowing Job to be freed from his oppression.  While there are many times God worked through agents such as angels and prophets to speak to his people, God repeatedly brought direct action to realign the brokenness found in the world.

The most beautiful example of God’s direct action is when God came in human form as Jesus Christ.  This is the heart of our Advent celebrations.  Like a breath of fresh air, from the moment of his birth people who encountered Jesus were transformed forever.  Jesus spent his entire life realigning the world back to God’s self by releasing people from the captivity of their social and physical oppressions.   Jesus restored dignity to prostitutes, widows, and social outcasts.  He repaired the brokenness of bodies riddled by hemorrhages and leprosy.  He released the demons from the prisons of their human hosts.  All of these things Jesus did directly, in person, face to the face.  Where humanity remained limited by broken systems, Jesus directly liberated countless forms of bondage with the laying on of hands, on the breath of softly spoken words, through a brief brush in the midst of a crowd.

Jesus continues to release us from the chains that hold us in captivity.  Through his death on the cross and the glorious action of the resurrection, Jesus directly liberates humanity and all of creation.  Where we may find social oppression in our communities, through Jesus’ direct action of the cross, we will never be outcast from being in a loving relationship with God.

Where our bodies may fight the demons of illness, addictions, bad choices, and self-affliction, Jesus directly repairs us through the grace of forgiveness and community.

Where we may find ourselves traveling down roads that we would rather not travel, Jesus is traveling directly beside us, lighting our path and serving as our compass through the power of prayer.

We experience the physical presence of Christ in with and under the elements of Holy Communion, and we have been directly transformed by the Spirit through the waters of our baptism.

Miriams Song4Our God is not passive.  While God through the power of the Holy Spirit continues to send agents like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to serve as resources for living into the gift of faith, they are not our intercessors.  Our Triune God works directly with us and for us.  The direct action that started at the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea has continued through time, and remains forever with us through Christ.

This action is what caused Moses and Miriam to break into song.  God works directly for us, breathing life into our broken world, realigning creation, and granting us a liberated life.

Amen.


[1] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 65

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[3] Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love, Gift ed. (New York: Fortress Press, 2010), page 73

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This week begins our Advent midweek worship series, “Preparing the Way in Song.”  Each passage represented in our series highlights a different function of how songs were used to convey messages about God to the people.  Frequently these songs accompany a major shift in culture, serving as a frame for understanding where God is at work in the midst of tragedy or pointing to hope at the change God is yet to do.  These songs are liturgical narratives, often being repeated by faith communities for generations to come.

Our first week we encMiriam's Songounter two songs of praise by Moses and Miriam.  They are considered to be some of the oldest historical passages in Hebrew Scripture.  While presumed to be written down prior to the documenting of the creation stories, the use of water imagery suggests that the oral tradition of the creation stories was prevalent in the culture and influenced the mythological tone of these hymns.

Moses and Miriam’s songs serve as a liturgical ritual to reflect upon the dramatic experience of the crossing of the sea, all the while paralleling the events of the Passover.  In the history of tradition, it is likely that Miriam’s song came first when used in the liturgy, serving as an antiphon (or refrain) to reinforce the thanksgiving voiced by the people. [1]  The assembly would join Miriam’s words as an echoing refrain, breaking up the Moses’ song into sections.  We sometimes follow that structure in our own liturgy when we use a refrain in our Psalmody.  Also, Miriam is referred to as a prophet as the text introduces her song, suggesting that a “hymnic celebration by the people is a prophetic witness to God.” [2]

While researching these songs, I was surprised to learn from the Jewish side of my family that Moses and Miriam’s songs are still used as liturgical narratives in synagogues today.  It has caused me to ponder on many of the liturgical narratives that we use in Christian worship that have carried through the ages, such as singing Mary the mother of Jesus’ hymn of praise at evening vespers.

Our liturgy provides us with a frame work for encountering God in evocative ways in the midst of being in a community of believers.  We unite with our ancestors throughout the ages as we return to the liturgical narratives found in our scriptures, bringing them to life in the present with the sound of our voices.

As we eagerly await the babe in the manger, we stay united in the fulfilled promises of God throughout time through the gift of song.

Join us next week as we encounter Hannah’s Song.


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[2] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 64

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church of St. Louis, MO on November 17, 2013.  This message is based on Luke 21:5-19.

Convo-2013-LogoThis past week Pastor Bill and I traveled to the Ozark’s to participate in the Central Synod Bishop’s Convocation.  Together we explored the theme of “What From our Past Will God Use in the Future”, particularly in light of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

One of our speakers was Susan McArver, a professor out of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina.  Like myself, Dr. McArver is a narrative theologian.  Narrative theology involves noting where God is at work in our personal and cultural narrative, as well as identifying how the narrative of our modern lives weaves, reflects, and informs our reading of scripture and church history.  As we enter into the complex future Jesus outlines for us in our Gospel, one of Dr. McArver’s arguments kept floating through my mind.  She proposed that when we are in the present, we can only look at ourselves in the mirror dimly – meaning, the full light of the reality of our situation has yet to shine upon us.

This is particularly helpful when looking at the Gospel of Luke.  When this gospel was written, the authors were writing about the future that was dimly lit.  While we can look back through the eyes of history and see how the early church played out, the authors did not have that sort of data.   Luke and Acts are frequently accredited as being written by the same author, and when read with that in mind, it was apparent these early Christians were prepared for Jesus to return at any moment.  We in our modern context are far more comfortable entertaining the thought that Jesus may not return for a long while.

When we see Jesus address his followers about being persecuted, we need to bear in mind that Jesus was preparing them to establish the early church, and that early Christians believed that once that church was established Jesus would quickly return.  Jesus’ address is both a foretelling of how this post-resurrection shift will alter the lives of the disciples, as well as serving as a reassurance that Jesus will return.

This can prove to be a conundrum for us as we look at our own narrative and see how it weaves with scripture.  While we acknowledge that Christ can return at any moment, we often operate under the model that history speaks for itself and settle in for the wait.  Weaving our narrative with that of scripture, when we read that our future is filled with nations fighting nations, betrayals by family and friends for our faith, and natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and plagues, we may feel less reassured than our early church counterparts that these are signs of Jesus’ hasty return.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with this passage is that it highlights that we are living in the reality that salvation is upon us and not quite yet.  Throughout the gospel, Luke points to this paradox.  The only one to refer to Jesus as Savior, Luke shows time and again how Jesus brings salvation today.  He heals the sick today, mends the lame today, and empowers the outcast today.

The majority of these actions, however, take place after he set his face toward Jerusalem.  Across the narrative, Jesus brings salvation today, all the while pointing that it is still not quite yet.

We are resurrected people whose salvation is here all the while living into the possibility that it make take a while for Jesus to return.  We live as resurrected people where through Christ we have been redeemed and reconciled to God, unbound to live a full life and strive for peace and goodness on the earth.  Yet, we are a part of this world.  We are affected by earthquakes, famines, typhoons and plagues.  We face limitations because of our sexual orientation and identity, our marital status, age and gender.  Our children fight in wars we do not understand, whether in some far off land or at the school playground.

gap_1Through Christ our relationship with God has been restored despite the complexities of this world, but we still feel the world’s weight and limitations none-the-less.  This is the challenge of living as resurrected people.  We know that salvation has come, but there is still a great deal of waiting that needs to be had before we can see the new heaven and earth where the wolf and lamb will share a meal together.  We live in the midst of the schism of here and not yet.

The schism can feel quite wide, but there is hope.   Jesus tells we gain endurance to see how God bridges the gap by testifying.

Our opening hymn today is the story of how God’s love bridged the schism.  Thomas Dorsey was a prolific gospel and blues musician from rural Georgia.[1]  Like most musicians he struggled to make ends meet, splitting his time playing in both churches and clubs.

In 1932, Dorsey traveled from Chicago to here in St. Louis as one of the featured musicians at a revival.  After the first night, he received a telegraph that his wife had died while giving birth to their son.  He raced home, where his son died the next day.

The agony of such grief caused the well of Dorsey’s spirit to run dry.  He withdrew from his family and friends.  Not only did he stop performing at revivals and clubs, he stopped composing and playing all together.  He had reached a spiritual famine, and remained there for a very long time.

One day, Dorsey suddenly felt compelled to sit at his piano.  Once he took a seat, he suddenly felt a peace like he had never experienced wash over him.  Suddenly a melody played in his head that he had never heard before.  There, in the midst of the famine of his suffering, he wrote his testimony of being totally reliant on God – the hymn we just shared, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Dorsey experienced a resurrection at that piano.  He had felt the schism of here and not yet, waiting to be sated from his spiritual famine.  With abundant love, God bridged that schism at the piano, resurrecting Dorsey when he needed it most.

bridge_waterAs people who live in the midst of here and not yet, it can be easy to forget that there is a bridge between the salvation that accompanied Jesus’ death and resurrection and when Jesus will return.  We are not alone in this time of famines, earthquakes, typhoons and wars.  Our lives are filled with countless resurrections.

This is the true majesty of the cross of Christ.  It is not rooted in one time or one place.  The cross is not a stagnant of what was and what will be.  It is the continual restorative and transformative action of God in our everyday life.  The cross of Christ is the grace filled waters that come down to fill the dried wells of our spirits.  It is the food from the altar that sates the hunger we can never put into words.

Jesus urges us to testify not solely so that we can gain our souls, but to give us and others the endurance to see the resurrection that happens daily within our midst.  In times of great trial and turbulence, it can be hard to see how Jesus continues to build the bridge between the salvation that is here and not yet.

As we think about our brothers and sisters affected by Typhoon Haiyan, we may only see the schism.  It can be hard to find the hope in this story, and so we testify to the grace that we cannot bring ourselves.  As pastor Nancy Lynne Westfield writes, “The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering.”[2]

bridge_winterWe testify how Christ continues to resurrect the world because it can be hard to see the hope of renewal in the midst of typhoon media blitzes.  It can be hard to see the hope of renewal in typhoons within our own lives.  We testify that we are totally reliant on God because each of us has or will experience our own Thomas Dorsey moments of grief, where we await the peace to descend to us on our piano benches.  United together, we share our testimonies to help each other see the grace filled water in the well that appears to be dry.

We testify because the schism between the cross and the new heaven and earth is not as barren as we think.  Christ’s cross is not a stagnant of what was and what will be.  It is the continual restorative and transformative action of God in our everyday life.

We are always being made new in Christ, granting us the endurance to recognize what was, is, and is to come.

Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, vol. 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 312

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., page 311

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christmas_musicThis past December I caroled more than I remember caroling in a really long time.  First there was a Lessons and Carols event at my seminary.  Then a friend had a carol-sing-a-long at her house, where we lit sparklers while singing “Silent Night”.  The international students caroled in our courtyards sharing tunes from their home countries.  Finally I went caroling with the church that I work at, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.

As I have become more involved in the church and my awareness of the church year has grown, I’ve noticed that Christmas has fallen to the back of my mind during the month of December.  The season of Advent is what reigns supreme.  I truly have come to love living in a season that celebrates Christ’s future return to the world, meaning more to me than any Christmas present.  But living so deeply in Advent has made me forget a bit about Christmas.  Add to it that there was no snow on the ground before the big day and my holiday decorations are back in Cleveland, without the carols this Christmas really could have slipped through my fingertips.

It has literally been since my childhood since I last caroled, and I had forgotten how this simple act serves as a beautiful demonstration of what Christmas is about.  We celebrate Christmas because there is no gift greater than Christ coming into the world, allowing us to experience God’s grace in an earthly way. It is because of Christmas we can share in the love and grace of God forever.

This year, as I caroled around the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, I shared the love of God.  Sometimes, people received that gift by singing along, like the little girl who kept singing “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle bells” no matter what tune or words were sung.  There was one family who received our gift by inviting us in their house around the piano, transforming our gift of chorus into an instrumental melody. There were others who couldn’t quite handle the gift, turning away from their window.  Their reaction reminded me that we each have a unique journey of faith that is on it’s own time table, and our job as Christians is to sing boldly to drawn curtains and darkened doorsteps.

Christmas comes so quickly and leaves even sooner.  As we enter into this new year, as we move well beyond Advent and wrapping paper, let us not forget to spread the Christmas message – that God loved us so much God came to live among us as human, dying on a cross for our salvation, and empowering us through a love that is beyond our understanding.

This was an article written for Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, Ohio, originally published in December of 2012 for the January 2013 edition of the “Divinity Digest.”

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Beautiful Ensemble

Tonight my mom and I went saw a jazz trio perform.  My mom is in town for the holiday weekend, and I have to admit going to a jazz concert was a new venture for the two of us to do together.  It was a lot of fun sharing that experience with her, and as I watched these musicians perform I started thinking of what it means to be fulfilled.

I was memorized watching the guy with the stand-up base.  There were times when you could see that he was totally wrapped up in the music, his leg jiggling, his eyes closed, rocking back and forth as his fingers flew across the strings.  There was no doubt that playing music was fulfilled his spirit.

One of the things that I love about my mom is that she is a person who is fulfilled by her work, which is teaching students with special needs.  I recently started a new job working for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan’s Square, and for the first time since moving to Chicago, I am feeling fulfilled.  Like my mom, work fulfills me.  It is more than just the process of going to a job – I really enjoy being in service to others.  I love being a part of a system that is bigger then myself, seeing how that system will move forward because of my individual skill sets and the skill sets of others.  I love seeing these individual gifts brought by different people blend together into a common mission.

This is different then having others fulfill me, which I don’t think I realized before coming to seminary.  There is a difference between needing to be validated from an external source and seeing how the skill sets that God has validated internally merge with others.  It is very much like the bassist at tonight’s performance.  He needed the support of the rest of the ensemble to help showcase his skill sets, and it was only being a part of an ensemble that the uniqueness of his gift were really demonstrated.

I believe this is one of the gifts of being in Christian community with each other.  When we work together as one ensemble, we have the support to let our gifts ring out.  We have the freedom to make mistakes because the rest of our community will carry forth the tune until even when we miss a beat.

I am continually amazed by the joys that come with in community with one another, and how often I am reminded of those joys, even when that reminder comes from the notes of a jazz trio.

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