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As I write this month Ruth and I are preparing to visit family members living in the area in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a part of our preparations I will be packing a GPS unit for use as we drive in the area. I have made this provision a part of such travel plans ever since such devices became available. The reason is that after living in Texas for so many years driving in Western Pennsylvania is a less than wonderful experience. While I did grow up in the area and begin driving there I have found the experience of returning there and driving frustrating and infuriating to say the least (my children tell me that they would make bets on how long it would take dad to go ballistic while driving there). GPS units, for the most part, put an end to all of that by providing a reliable and easy way to get from one place to another without getting lost (or to have to listen to six people attempting to give me directions).
Of course, such systems, as wonderful as they are, are not infallible. Highway construction, for instance, will regularly throw such systems into the need to recalculate the intended course. And then there are those occasions when I have had the experience of wondering where our electronic guide was taking us. From time to time, I have even wondered whether this bit of electronic wizardry had become confused. Usually this happens when I believe that I know where I need to go and have an idea how to better get to my destination. I have even said, “No, we need to go that way!” And have taken off in the way I believed that we needed to go – to the sounds of protest from the GPS unit. In most cases, however and to my chagrin, I later found that the navigation system had the better idea.
The same thing is true with following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The guidance of the Lord is present and available for us in the words of Holy Scripture. Through the commandments, the teaching and the examples that we find in the pages of the Bible, there is guidance for our course to help us in navigating the trials and troubles of this life. As we become familiar with the wisdom therein, the course becomes easier to discern and we learn that our Lord does have the better path.
We can, of course, choose to follow our own course, thinking that we know the better way. Indeed, we can go in the way we choose to go for as long as we wish. Our Lord, ever faithful, will continue to direct us in the way that leads us to growth in faith, hope and love and our ultimate destination in Jesus Christ. But, He leaves it to us whether or not to follow in the way that He leads.
Now the guidance of the Lord for the journey of life does not come in simple instructions like “right turn in 1 mile,” or “keep to the left.” It comes through familiarity with the word of God. This means that in order to make use of God’s leading one must be in that word and in prayer. Those who are familiar with this way know that in God’s word and in prayer are the guidance needed for this life and the abundance that God provides. And, unlike those systems created by human hands, His leading is ever true.
During the season of Easter during the third year of our Lectionary (Cycle C) the New Testament (second) readings all come from the Apocalypse of John, aka, the book Revelation. The only other time during the that we have a reading from this book is on Reformation and All Saints Sundays. This means that we have a window of opportunity to take an extended look at this New Testament book as a part of Sunday Morning worship. Also, since with our becoming a part of the North American Lutheran Church there have been some changes to our Lectionary, we will hear more from Revelation than we had in prior years. This affords us an opportunity of which I intend to take advantage. A series of sermons in which we can open up this book and spend some time gleaning whatsoever benefit for our lives of faith that we can.
Generally speaking Lutheran pastors have tended to shy away from sermonic treatments of the book of Revelation. I believe that this is in part because of Martin Luther’s thoughts about the book. Luther wrote: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1[:8], “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely”1. Luther also pointed out that many of the Church Fathers2, St Jerome being the notable exception , rejected this book. That said, Luther started his comments with “ I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment”.
Luther’s comments notwithstanding, there has been many the Pastor outside of the Lutheran fold who have made free and frequent use of Revelation. And many the Christian layperson who has attempted a personal or group study over the years, but not always to the best possible result. This is not to criticize, but rather to point out what all who have read Revelation already know: The Jewish, Roman and early Christian symbolism metaphor and imagery found in Revelation requires considerable research to understand. A casual reading of this book of the Bible will not produce a good result.
Then there is the question of what one is expecting to find in these pages. Many people come to this book looking for some manner of forecasting of future events. What I believe is the most important message at this time, when Christians find their beliefs and at times themselves under assault, is the message of Christian hope. This is the message that was the blessing given those who first heard this word. It is a message that is important for Christians today.
1The 1522 “Preface to the Revelation of St. John” in Luther’s translation of the New Testament. Pages 398-399 in Luther’s Works Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I (ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960)
2The “Church Fathers” were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers such as: Clement of Rome (d. A.D. 97), Ignatius (d. 110), Polycarp (d. 155), Justin Martyr (the Church’s first major lay apologist; d. 165), Irenaeus (d. 202), Cyprian (d. 258), Athanasius (d. 373), to name a few.
On Wednesday evenings during the Lenten season, as a part of our evening prayer service we have been engaged in a study of the seven Christian virtues. These seven are comprised of the Three Theological virtues, faith hope and love, and the Four Cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. As we come toward the end of the season of Lent, it would be good to restate these, with some brief comment, in written form.
Of these the theological virtues are fairly well known. As these three come directly from the writings of the Apostle Paul, preaching and teaching on the faith and hope and love either individually or as a group is relatively common. We have all been called to greater faith in God and in Christ. We’re all heard the call to walk in hope. And as regards love, there is perhaps no greater proclamation and the words of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you”. We understand these three as infused in us by God, without our effort
The Four Cardinal virtues (from Latin cardo, “hinge”) because on them all lesser attitudes hinge, are another matter. They are rarely if ever mentioned. This list is said to go back to Socrates and is certainly to be found in Plato and Aristotle. Late Roman and medieval Christian moralists—such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas—took over the list as a convenient summary of the teaching of the ancient philosophers and of the highest excellence at which they aimed.1
To say more about these four, prudence is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. Prudence also directs us to seek the counsel of others, who we know to be sound judges of morality, when in a situation of uncertainty.
The virtue of justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to everyone his rightful due. Justice respects the rights of others, whether those rights are natural rights or legal rights.
The third cardinal virtue, fortitude, sometimes called courage allows us overcome fear and to remain steady in the face of obstacles, whether they be physical or spiritual. Fortitude is not foolhardiness or rashness. It is, however, the virtue of the martyrs. In other words, fortitude is the virtue that helps us stand up for what is right regardless of what others say.
The fourth cardinal virtue, temperance, is the virtue that helps us control our physical desire for pleasure. It is the virtue that helps us to moderate our appetite for tactile and bodily delights, specifically food, drink, and sexual activity. It not only controls our pursuit of pleasurable goods, it also helps to curb our distress when we lack them.
Unlike the three theological virtues, the four cardinal virtues are an outgrowth of habit, can be practiced by anyone, and represent the foundation of natural morality.
I pray that you found these instructions are helpful for your life, in your walk in faith.
March 7, 2019
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
“…The Lord look upon you with favor and † give you peace”
In case you were not aware of it, that † symbol (sometimes simply +) placed in the midst of the text is a signal that it is appropriate, at that moment, to make the sign of the cross over one’s body from forehead to breast then from shoulder to shoulder or to trace a small cross over one’s forehead. It appears throughout the various liturgies in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and in the Lutheran Book of Worship before that. The inclusion of this symbol and practice is a return to an ancient practice that Christians for centuries have found beneficial.
This † symbol was not, however, included in the Service Book and Hymnal or various other earlier hymnals that you might have grown up with. Neither was it a part of the common practice of Lutherans in previous generations. The omission of this ancient practice from the things that we as Lutherans do was one of the ways that we said what we were not. And yet, in more recent years an increasing number of Lutherans have taken up this practice as an outward expression of their faith. In this Lenten season I thought it worthwhile to take this opportunity to provide some explanation about this practice.
When we make the sign of the cross, what we are doing is a) remembering our Baptism; b) remembering Jesus’ death for our sins – the center of our faith; c) Confessing to the world that I am not ashamed to be known as a disciple of Jesus and ergo a Christian; and d) Holding up the cross of Christ as the central core of my identity.
The sign of the cross is ecumenical, in that is used by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, and is slowly increasing in use among mainline Protestants.
The sign of the cross is a treasured part of our liturgical heritage as Lutherans, because the practice was encouraged and used by Martin Luther himself. Luther instructed his followers to make the sign of the cross at both the beginning and the end of the day as a beginning to daily prayers. In the Small Catechism, in the section on morning and evening prayers Luther says: “When you get out of bed, bless yourself with the holy cross and say ‘In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” This same instruction is given for bedtime. Luther also made provision for the sign of the cross to be made at Baptism and the ordination of ministers of the church.
Some folks will read this and think that making the sign of the cross is something that Lutherans must now do. Absolutely not! This is a matter of personal freedom and piety! If that is not helpful to you, don’t do it and don’t feel bad about it if you do not. Whether or not you choose to do this or if you do not it is and needs to remain a matter of evangelical freedom. On the other hand, as we begin the season of Lent we are wise to remember that Lent is a time when we have the opportunity to engage in new disciplines that are intended to be helpful to us in our walk of faith.
February 7, 2019
From time to time I have shared that a particular reading on a Sunday morning is one that has not been read during worship in prior years. I have also shared that this shift is the result of our adopting a different Lectionary (Sequence of Sunday morning readings) as a part of our becoming a part of the North American Lutheran Church. Previously we had been following the “Revised Common Lectionary” (RCL). The RCL is a three year series of Sunday morning readings shared by many of the Christian denominations. The three year Lectionary was initially developed as a result of the Second Vatican Council and initially appeared in 1969. Within a few years, a number of Protestant denominations in North America adopted this Lectionary with a variety of revisions. The three-year Lectionary was introduced to Lutherans in North America in 1973. It was revised (hence RCL) in 1992..
There is value in a shared liturgical calendar among Christian Churches. As a pastor this shared reading sequence has the advantage of providing a large number of resources for the preacher’s work of crafting a sermon for Sunday mornings. There is, as you might expect, a downside.
I have found that the RCL regularly avoids biblical passages that are controversial or in any way harsh, strict, theologically challenging or politically incorrect. Regularly major sections of a reading are passed over to avoid having something that violates these notions as a part of Sunday Worship. This means that as a Pastor I don’t get the opportunity to address these passages and the reactions that some people have to them. Texts that are included in the Lectionary that we use that are omitted in RCL include (but are not limited to) Ephesians 5:22–33; Romans 13:1–7; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 11:27–32; Galatians 2:11–14; 6:1–6; Philippians 4:10–20; Hebrews 12:4–13; 1 John 4:1–6; and Luke 13:22–30.
Since entering the NALC the suggested Lectionary (aka Liturgical Calendar) that we use comes from Sola Publishing. It is based on the Lutheran Service Book version of the Revised Common Lectionary as published by Concordia Publishing House. This means that the readings that we use are often the same as in other churches but also at times they are different. For me this means that when I look to the readings for a Sunday Morning I may well see a text that I have not worked with in the past. And at times I will find that this previously avoided text requires that I work with it and address the issues that it presents. I believe that for the most part this is a good thing. Issues that are kept hidden and not addressed are not good for either the individual or the Church community. And while some ideas are better addressed in Bible Study if only because of the possibility of interpersonal dialogue, there is great value in the preached word, even if the topic is controversial.
The reality is that there are topics that are presented in Holy Scripture that are not easy to hear or understand. There are passages that make us uncomfortable because they hit close to home. Very often these are our growing edges; the places where God in the Holy Spirit can do a good work in us helping us to grow in faith, hope and love. We are wise, I believe, to accept these challenges when they come our way and the Lectionary we use gives us this opportunity.
January 4, 2019
As many of you know I am a strong proponent for regular reading of the Bible by individual Christians. As important as it is to be a part of the gathered community in worship, simply hearing the Holy Scriptures read on Sunday mornings is not enough. I fervently believe that every Christian needs to have a thorough understanding of the Holy Scriptures. This biblical knowledge is needed not only to fully live this life of faith that has been gifted to us by God, but also to be able to discern that which is not biblical or in line with Christian teaching (though supposed as such) or that which is biblical but is taken out of context. The Holy Bible offers us great knowledge and wisdom for living, but to gain that wisdom we need to read it regularly and continually. And in reading it regularly, to discover afresh or anew the wisdom that is there to enrich your life.
As we begin a new year, I thought that I would offer a few pieces of scriptural wisdom fitting for this time starting with a passage from St Paul in his letter to the Philippians.
No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven. (NLT)
This side of eternal life none of us has arrived at a completed faith. None of us are “all we should be.” But by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit we have hope and possibility. The writings of the prophet Jeremiah (29:11) speak to just this hope.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (NLT)
The Bible repeatedly speaks of the steadfast love of God for us and for all of creation. It is so very easy for us to forget this, especially when we encounter hard times, grief and mourning, and the trial and trouble this is so often prevalent in this life. In Lamentations (3:22-24) we find words of solace and comfort, hope and love.
The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” (NASB)
Finally, as we look ahead to the coming year as a people of faith we can all find reason for thanksgiving in St. Paul’s words to the people of Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (NKJV)
As you begin this New Year set aside the time to be in the Holy Scriptures on a daily basis and get to know the God who knows you and loves you.
December 6, 2018
It never fails. Every year for the past 30 years, during or as we approach the season of Advent, someone has approached me and asked why it is that the candles in our advent wreath are blue instead of purple. Oh,and what about the pink candle? I don’t mind. It makes me feel good to know that people feel that they can bring questions to me, whatever they might be. Besides, it gives me an opportunity to teach.
That said: the Advent wreath with three purple candles and one pink or rose colored candle had been around for quite a long time. The sense of the Advent season that was promoted was repentance and as such was similar to the season of Lent. The rose colored candle was tied to the third Sunday of the season and in the Roman Church was called “Gaudete Sunday,” so named for the first word of the entrance psalm prescribed for that day. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Gaudete = Rejoice in Latin). This was seen as a mid season break from the more somber seasonal sense of penitence.
In more recent times the season of Advent has undergone a shift in emphasis from penitence to anticipation, longing and hope. This change is reflected by a change in the colors used to mark the season. Instead of the purple that was shared with the season of Lent there has been a shift to a deep blue or royal blue in the candles of the Advent wreath and the various textiles that decorate the altar, pulpit and lectern. We start out the season with a focus on the promised return of our Lord and, as the celebration of the Nativity comes near, move to a recollection of the events leading up to the birth of our Lord Jesus.
Now, I expect that, given the realities of the secular celebration of the Christmas Season, themes of anticipation and longing focused on the promise of our Lord can get confused with other anticipations. Still, for those who would seek something other than the secular, the holy longing and hopefulness of the Advent season touches a deep chord in the midst of our souls. It speaks to our restlessness with the promise of a Savior in whom we can know peace for our hearts, peace for our souls.
That is the one gift that I expect every person wants. In the face of our restlessness, our anxiety, our confusion to know that peace within, that rest that resides in the depths of our being. It is this gift for which we long above all others. And it is the gift that this season of Advent, whether the candles are purple or blue, prepares us to receive
October 17, 2018
“If you could have one super-power what would it be?” Given our ongoing national infatuation with superhero’s (Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and the like) it seemed like a fun question to play with in a gathering of friends over adult beverages. Responses like super strength or incredible speed, the ability to make oneself invisible or to read minds came quickly to the floor. And with these came the expected noises of endorsement and approval or criticism and rejection.
Then came the suggestion that no one expected – “the power to make others feel loved.” No one had even thought of love as a super-power. Most folk had only thought of super-powers that would benefit themselves. This one, on the other hand, because it is focused outward and toward the benefit of others, set them back. Indeed it probably scared most of those involved because it is the one super-power that they all could have, if they really wanted it. The question is, for all of us, is this the power we want most?
For us as Christians this opens up a contrast between the way of the world versus the way of Christ. The way of the world begins with “me” as the starting point and seeking to define my identity through the status markers of the world such as money, power, popularity, position and pleasure. The way of Christ begins with God as the starting point and seeking to define my identity in response to the love and gifts God has lavishly given me.
Under which “way” would desiring the super power of “making others feel loved” fall? Obviously, it is the way of Christ.
Spiritual teacher, author and lecturer Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” You have the power to make every person you encounter feel loved. Will you use it?”
Blessings, Pr Ralph
June 20, 2018
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3 Continue reading “Pastor’s Ruminations”