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I walked into the living room this morning

I walked into the living room this morning. This time of year the entire space looks like a winter wonderland. There is not a square inch that is not filled with Christmas decorations: a collection of ten nutcrackers, five Christmas stockings, two trees, hundreds of lights, five advent calendars, and all kinds of knickknacks, wreaths and evergreen everywhere. The one collection that stands out most though are our currently 18 nativity scenes. They range from tiny candle holder to children’s toys to finely crafted olive wood straight from the Holy Land. We have amassed them over the years always looking for the perfect one. In the process we found out that there probably is no perfect one because we really love having this museum of variety in our living room.

Remember how I walked into the sanctuary last week?
There you will find a similar collection of nativity scenes. There are 26 of them currently. Some display the stable with child-like naivete. Some create a royal palace around the divine child. They come it all shapes and sizes.

nativity
Both at home and at church I am very diligent at making sure to take Jesus out of the scene where possible. The baby simply does not belong in the manger until Christmas. If he is glued in or otherwise attached I will not break the piece but a removable Jesus will be removed. That is good Christian practice to me because it sends a powerful message: Advent is not Christmas!

Advent derives from the latin adventus and means “coming”. Christ is still in the process of coming! He is not born yet. Our job is to be here tensely waiting. There is no fulfillment yet. There are no gifts yet. Expectation is building up. Advent wreath and calendar serve as countdown clocks to tell us: It is not Christmas yet! And there is great reward in expectant waiting.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment showed how important delayed gratification really is: Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of series of children and left them alone with it for 15 minutes. Before he left he told them that they would get a second marshmallow if they did not eat the first one while he was away. Wait 15 minutes and add 100% – sounds like a great deal. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.

Christ is in the process of coming. The baby has not hit the hay yet. There are no shortcuts.

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Who can receive Holy Communion?

The Lord be with you!
Und mit deinem Geiste!
Lift up your hearts!
Wir erheben sie zum Herrn!

This is how over 100 people started the Communion Prayer for our German Christmas Service last Sunday. A few times a year we have multilingual events whereas Holy Communion is usually celebrated once a month. It so happened that our Adult Sunday School class worked on the topic of Holy Communion as well. When I stop by towards the end of their time I sometimes get to attend the final round of conversation and sometimes there are issues they request my input on. Communion was such an issue and their question was: Who can receive Holy Communion?

The short answer is: Everyone!

The main reason for that is simple: Holy Communion is nothing but the Word of God made accessible to those who wish to receive it. It has the same message that every sermon has: God loves you. Everyone is invited to hear the Word of God in the sermon, so everyone is invited to eat and drink the Word of God in Communion as well. Bread and wine are tangible sermons.

Some traditions have tried to limit access to the table by excluding those who are not considered worthy. By that standard nobody would be allowed at the table because we are all sinners. Jesus had Judas at the table of his Last Supper knowing full well he would betray him. He was not excluded but on the contrary Jesus has consistently dined with sinners. That includes you and me. That is also the reason why on Communion Sundays the order of our service includes a Prayer of Confession followed by the Assurance of Forgiveness. We need to acknowledge our sinfulness because it actually makes the Lord’s Supper all the more important.

There used to be a variety of age limits on the participation in Holy Communion. The argument usually went like this: Children do not grasp the meaning of Holy Communion. Yet understanding is not a prerequisite for participation: Family Ministry brings Communion to people in retirement homes and I can assure you that some of the residents do not even recognize that they are holding a cup of grape juice in their hand. What they do understand though is the feeling that there is a group of people that cares for them and that is after all what communion means – being together with one another and with Jesus Christ.

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Jesus just isn’t a good Christian

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
(Matthew 16:24 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 31 August 2014)

Nobody in their right mind likes following Jesus. For the first disciples that meant giving up everything: family, home, job, their very lives. Jesus was a radical prophet who thought kingdom come was right around the corner: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). That is not a life I would want to live and every year there is one sect or the other proclaiming “the end is near”. Jesus told his disciples they will live to see kingdom come, really?

And this whole self-denial thing? What is that supposed to mean? The end of summer is such a wonderful season to affirm one’s own identity with all the labels we attach to ourselves: the schools we attend(ed), the sports teams we support, the party we support in the upcoming elections, you name it. Why would anyone want to give up the wonderfully crafted self-identity that took so much work to develop?

As a church we just can’t afford this kind of radicalism: Imagine Jesus were to rush into the sanctuary one Sunday, yelling at everybody to get out of their pews and follow him into the streets and proclaim kingdom come. Dear Lord Jesus, please check the bulletin: The service doesn’t conclude until the postlude, sit still and be a good Christian at least for this one hour on Sunday morning.

Maybe Jesus just isn’t a good Christian. And how could he be: He was a first century prophet expecting the world to end as soon as the Roman occupation of Israel was thrown off. He just didn’t have the experience of “doing church” for over two-thousand years. We had to learn to live with the fact that life as we know it, that our earth, that people with all their flaws, that institutions are just going to stick around for a while. We have created a home for ourselves, both physically and spiritually.

But then again: Maybe we just aren’t good followers of Christ. Thank God we have those ancient stories to keep us on our toes. A verse like today’s is a constant reminder, that we ought to be more than what we already know about ourselves: Don’t take yourself too seriously, allow your assumptions and your knowledge to be challenged by the still-speaking God.

gissucc

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Walking on Water

Karl Barth (Theology of the Word of God), Paul Tillich (the Philosopher among Theologians) and Rudolf Bultmann (not interested in the historicity of Jesus) vacation together at Lake Zurich. They rent a boat and head out. The sun and heat are brutal and they get thirsty. “I’ll go get a few beers”, says Karl Barth, gets out of the boat and walks across the Lake to the city of Zurich. It’s a beautiful day and the beer is quickly gone. “Paul, you go get us another round of beers”, says Karl Barth. Paul Tillich gets out of the boat and soon returns with a six-pack. The sun is hot and they get thirsty again. “Rudi”, says Karl Barth, “it’s your turn!” Rudolf Bultmann gets anxious. The others start mocking him: “What’s up Rudi, it’s the easiest thing to do!” Bultmann tips his toes in the water. He doesn’t want to be a wimp and takes a big courageous step out of the boat. And Splash! He sinks! In shock Tillich turns to Karl Barth: “Karl, you suppose we should have told him where the stepping stones are in the water? Karl Barth replies: “What stones are you talking about?”

That is a joke that circulates in divinity schools. In reality though I have a certificate that I did walk on the water. I earned it at the Sea of Galilee at one of the spots that claims the be the one where the Jesus story happened. There are dozens of them all around the Lake because bus loads of tourists from all over the world want to make that experience of being like Jesus. Yes, there were stepping stones. I don’t have super-powers. Nobody can walk on water. The disciples knew that and they were scared when say saw Jesus in the dark on the lake. They thought he was a ghost.

This week’s watchword is Jesus’ response to their fear:
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
(Matthew 14:27 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 10 August 2014)

Barth is right: It doesn’t matter whether there are stones or how that worked with the walking on water. What matters is the spoken Word: Take heart!

God’s Word does really work miracles when spoken into the right situations and it’s okay that stepping stones may be involved.

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Fathers of the Covenant

With father’s day coming up soon, here are some biblical thoughts on fathering:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”
Every family has its own stories. God’s people tell the story of being slaves in Egypt and saved from there, please refer to Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The stories we tell make us who we are. What are the stories of your family?

“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God doesn’t care for family values. People of the covenant are mostly called to leave behind their loved ones, please refer to Genesis 12:1-4. Blessing is where the unknown is. Are you willing to leave your comfort zone?

“Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”
Isaac’s faith was tested big time. He trusted his father with his life – literally, please refer to Genesis 22:1-19. How much do you trust your father?

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords.”
On his death-bed Jacob blesses his sons – each of them with individualized blessings. He is disappointed in some of them and brags about others, please refer to Genesis 49. Does that sound like your family? What kind of child are you?

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Can you imagine how tough Joseph’s life was, raising the Son of God as his own? That teenager must have been hell to talk to. That’s probably why the Bible doesn’t contain a single story of Jesus’ childhood. A couple of things become clear in Matthew 2:13-15
1. God himself is part of a blended, non-traditional family
2. A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, please refer to the beginning of this article.