Incense and Divine Wrath

Last week at Higher Things incense was used during the last two Evening Prayer services. It was new for many of the kids there. For us, it smelled like Church usually does. The Higher Things staff had a nice description in their service booklet about why we use it. They emphasized the bodily nature of our faith and worship, along with the association of incense with Jesus, both at His birth and death, along with the anointing He received before His passion. They wrote, “When you smell incense, look for Jesus.” A pithy saying.

censing-in-church1Not long after I ran across the following article written by an Orthodox priest. It’s notable for two reasons: first, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon speaks quite openly about the wrath of God, which many Orthodox priests and believers shy away from these days. He writes,

Having determined that repentant prayer alone turns away the divine wrath, we should also consider two ritual gestures in which such prayer may be expressed: the offering of incense and the devout raising of the hands. Since Holy Scripture regards both these elevations as symbols of the soul’s ascent to God. It is no wonder we sometime find them joined in a unified ritual.

Perhaps Psalm 141 (Greek 140) best illustrates this perception. This psalm, still chanted at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church, has been the evening prayer of God’s People since the time it accompanied the Evening Sacrifice in the Temple.

I cite the psalm’s relevant verse in the economy of the Hebrew text:

“Let my prayer be constant, incense before Your face; the raising of my hands, the evening sacrifice.”

The only finite verb here (tikkon, “to be steady,” or “constant,” or “established”) is unexpected, perhaps. At first glance, few things seem less constant, less “steady” than an incense cloud; it can be kept constant only by an ongoing renewal. Otherwise it dissipates.

The prayer must be continuous, then, in order to remain ever in God’s sight. What the psalmist apparently has in mind is the ongoing and permanent ascent of his prayer before the face of God. The incense fragrance, symbolic of prayer, rises up to Him along with the elevation of prayerful hands. Both the incense and the raised hands give expression to his devotion….

Numbers 16 tells a pertinent story: During one of Israel’s desert rebellions, at a time when the Lord in His wrath sent a plague on the people, Moses instructed Aaron,

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation and atone for them (Hebrew: kapher ‘alihem; Greek: exsilasthai peri avton); for wrath has gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46; Hebrew/Greek 17:11).

Lutherans reading this may wonder at a few of Fr. Patrick’s phrases and assertions, but consider incense and divine wrath and what we read above: incense and Jesus are connected. It’s not so much prayer done by us, nor burned incense that turns away the wrath of God, but Jesus does, with whom we also associate the burning of incense and the prayers of the Faithful One.

Jesus, divine wrath, incense and peace with God. It’s a good combination.

Parched for Belonging

601px-Volkswagen_Logo

The following first appeared in Grace Lutheran’s July newsletter

 

601px-Volkswagen_LogoWe are a people who want to belong, to have a identity among others, to be a member of a set, a group. Maybe a secret group, maybe not. We show our allegiance and membership with our Official Team Wear ™. With orange shirts on certain days, or with red license plate frames. Wearing the right color or team logos on your clothes and cars make you members of a club.

And of course there are more than these associations. Watch motorcyclists do the low hand wave to each other when they pass. It doesn’t matter if they’re Harley or Honda riders, they still have the same wave, the little signal of acknowledgment. “You are a member of my tribe,” it says. People who drive Volkswagens do the same, flashing a V sign to one another. To be honest, I don’t know if people who drive Jettas or Passats do it—but drive a ‘70 Ghia or a 64’ Beetle and you’ll see it. This tribe, this society of car drivers, of people “in the know” is compelling to humans. We long for this kind of belonging, for identity. We all want to have a place, and for others to know it.

Of course, in today’s compartmentalized, isolated society, flashing a V sign is the best kind of tribe or club to be in. No expectations, no meetings no commitments. You can be a member of this secret society without having to do more than make car payments and change your oil—things you are doing anyway. It’s a fleeting, transitory connection with a stranger, a self-chosen, self-determined, self-defined “belonging” to something that only amounts to a drop of water for the one who is parched for belonging.

This marks the greatest departure of belonging to the Church, to the Body of Christ. When you were baptized, you were inducted into the most exclusive society ever imagined, with the strongest ties, with the most ancient of founding, with the deepest connection between its members, known and unknown. It is a Society that is a Body, that connects members not based on temporary joys and delights (My other car is a….) but on the eternal identity of us in Creation and Redemption. A baptism is more than initiation. It is death and rebirth, being made a member of the mystical Body of Christ, as our funeral liturgy calls it.

It is the most secret of societies, for we cannot see the Spirit with eyes of flesh. It is the most open of societies, accepting everyone regardless of Team and language, race, and past associations. It it the most exclusive of tribes, as it demands greatest place and bears no competition. The Christ is Lord of all and trumps every other association, interest, tribe or club which claims ownership of even a part of us. It is the most free of all associations, as your belonging is held by the Creator of all, and is not based on your keeping the rules. You can sell your bike or car or switch loyalties to a Texas team (God forbid), and still belong to Jesus.

So why isn’t it enough? Why do we who call upon Him seek belonging with teams and vehicles and clothing and everywhere else the world calls to us: “Join us! Be like us!” Why do those rebels and teenagers who reject “labels” and “cliques” and those scenes join together with other rebels and outsiders and dress and talk and hang with them? Why is Christ and His Church not enough?

Christ and His Church demand change. It welcomes us as we are, but rightly says that who we are is not who we will be. God has larger plans for you. God is making you like His Christ. God is giving you even a share in divinity! This is a painful process as we repent all those cracks and thorns and worms that keep us from being sons and daughters of the King. Jesus eats with sinners and welcomes them. But sinners repent in the presence of Christ and “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11). Our flesh fights against this. It is hard. And we know not where it ends. Christ and His Kingdom and His righteous to be sure. But what does it look like for me? What Christ is changing in us and where we are headed is seen with faith, and not with our eyes.

Who you are is not who you will be. This is true regardless of faith, regardless of religion. We are all moving targets, all going through change. I no longer flash a V sign at Beetles. Even team loyalties can change over time. Who you are is not who you will be. But this becomes a promise and a hope and a fervent joy for us who belong to Christ. Who you are now is not who you will be. God is at work in you giving you His divine life. He is making you into more than who you are already. He is taking you and refining you, making you more purely you. This is His work in His Church. Through His Word and Sacraments, you belong to the most precious, coveted society there is: the Society of Heaven. The People of God. The Children of the Father. Sons and Daughters of the King of Kings.

Not a Throwaway Post

I love my congregation. I’ve told people too numerous to count that serving as Senior Pastor here at Grace feels like God is treating me with kid gloves. Oh, we have our share of drama. Yes, we have conflicts. No, it’s not a perfect place. But it is a great match, a beautiful fit for me professionally and personally.
I’m also blessed to serve with my Associate Pastor, Chris Tiews. We make a good team, with our strengths playing off one another, and how we’re perceived strengthening one another. That’s all.

Persecution of Coptic Christians report on 60 Minutes

60 Minutes has a piece on the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Even long after the persecution and martyrdom of Christians is ignored, we still have hope. Persecution is a mark of the church, after all.

Who do the Worms Eat?

jar1A jar of dirt. A pickle jar filled with dirt from your back yard, sitting on your desk or mantle, reminding you of your origin as animated dust, as organic matter which has received the breath of God. As it stands, a good reminder. A speaker at a conference I attended recently made this the climax of his speech. Keep this jar of dirt in your study, he told us pastors.

A jar of dirt. A reminder that we will end up there as well, once the chemicals dissipate and the water enters the vault. With time and time again, back to dirt and dust we will go. It’s the call to repentance of Lent, from dirt to dirt. It’s the order of things after the Fall, after the primordial days of old. It’s all we knew.

And if that it were it, then the cry of the hedonist sounds loud: eat and drink! It would be worth the stress and worry and concern of hanging onto this life, if it were only dust and ashes punctuated by these brief days of light and joy. It would be worth the lust of gold and pleasures of the flesh. It would be worth stabbing your friend in the back with steely knives if it were all darkness at the end. Pass the bottle and stoics be damned. The worms will win in the end and I’ll at least die with a smile.

But there is one whom the worms did not receive. There is the one who defeated decay and death and worms and corruption. He is my Lord. He defeated the worms and nitrifying processes of aerobic bacteria. He defeated the power of the grave. For me, the worms do not win. The water and bacteria and destruction and thermodynamic heat death of the universe does not win. My Lord broke that system and I belong to Him.

This jar of dirt or flies has no bearing on the Christian. Yes, we should memento mori and dust to dust, but not to dwell. There is more. There is forever.

(Originally written for the Grace Lutheran Newsletter)

crucifix-2-flash

It was several months ago, maybe during the Summer, but I can’t really remember. I stood at the center of the altar, my hands in orans position, the ancient way of prayer, the ancient way of intercession. Pr. Tiews stood to my right, saying the prayers, speaking the intercessions for all people, for you, for the sick, for the world. I was in a meditative mood and I lifted my eyes slightly to look at the image of Jesus there on the cross. The sunlight was streaming in all the windows, reflecting off the brass or bronze of the crucifix.

As I gazed on the corpus hanging there, head cast down, nails piercing his hands and feet, I began to shake a little. I could only imagine the horrific pain of having to push up on pierced hands and feet to catch a breath, and then falling back down on those nails, lungs growing weak. I couldn’t consider the wood scraping against his back, raw and open from the flogging. I couldn’t image the depth of loneliness, the absent horror of being forsaken.

It is hard enough for us, when we feel betrayed and alone, when a room full of people turn on us, when it seems you are alone in this world and when the ones who love you are far away. But to be abandoned by all, and to have God and Father turn away as well? It gives me chest pains to consider it. We cannot imagine this, not really. Whether we were always believers or not, God is always present for us, in some capacity. It is unfathomable to us to imagine God completely gone, completely absent. We’ve never experienced it.

All these thoughts tumbled in my mind and I had an unsettling realization. I can’t do this, I thought. I could never do this. Not for the world. Not for my family. Not even for myself. I felt even more shaky with this realization, and more ashamed by the second. How can I stand before this image of what my Lord did for me and for all Creation and blanch and flee from the thought of being there myself?

The prayers continued, and yet at that moment I was in confrontation with more than just an image, more than just a picture. It was no longer a Sunday for me. It was me and the Crucified Christ and I admitted my own weakness and fear to Him.

Then the prayers ended and the Eucharist Liturgy continued with the preface and the propers, the Sanctus and then the Words. The Verba. And it settled in my soul again then: He did it for me. I am too weak. I am unable. And so Jesus went were I cannot, not even if I wanted to. He went to the cross and in my hands was His Body, crucified for me. And in my hands was the Cup of the New Covenant, His most precious blood shed for my blood, so thickened by sin and cowardice.

He walked the way to Cross and death and the infinity of loneliness away from the Creator for me. For you. For each of us, because none of us can. None of us could do it in the least. And He prevailed. He is the Living One. And His blood is in us. And His body is in us. And His Cross is mine. And His Cross is yours.

Blessings Without End

“Blessings! Get your blessings here! Need more blessings? Come and get them!”

It’s what I feel like on Wednesday evenings. But instead of a packed stadium, and me in my vestments tossing out blessings like peanuts at a game or like Benny Hinn at a revival, it’s the sound of the wind and traffic wheezing outside that I hear.

Some time ago my congregation began offering “Blessings in the Sanctuary” for thirty minutes prior to our Spoken Mass services on Wednesday nights. We advertised them for a couple of weeks, encouraging everyone that blessings are free of charge, and no questions asked if that was desired. Come in and say, “Bless me, pastor,” and we will do it.

Blessings are real things, after all. At the conclusion of the worship service we say, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” That’s more than just saying, “Hey, God loves you and have a great day,” isn’t it? Most certainly. Lutherans like to say that the Word of God is “performative.” It does what it says. If the Word of God says we are forgiven, then we are. If God says, “Light,” there is light. It does what it says. A blessing is not just well wishes or pious church-talk. It’s real.

Yet my associate and I take turns sitting by ourselves in an empty sanctuary, blessings stacked up, ready to be given out. General blessings like the one above or specific blessings for this or that situation or circumstance–it doesn’t matter. They’re loaded and ready to roar.

I don’t need to ask why we don’t have more customers to receive blessings–no strings attached. I know why we sit alone, praying and thinking, ready to bless but no one to be blessed. It’s different. Unfamiliar. It’s probably an awkward time and inconvenient. It’s not on people’s radar. Maybe it’s a trap.

But could it be that people think they’re pretty blessed anyway? That they get everything they need already, and don’t want to waste the blessing? Could it be that they get enough Church on Sundays–and the blessing at the end of the Divine Service is all the blessing they need? Could it be that they have enough love from God and don’t need more?

I think about these things sitting alone in the Sanctuary, wondering if I too would skip the extra blessing, the time with the pastor to tell him about a dilemma and asking for the Lord to make it good. I wonder if the shoe were on the other foot I would be somewhere else. I might be. I have been.

But we remain. I’ll keep blessing people when they come, even if it’s only on Sundays or Wednesdays or both. But here’s a secret: I’m going to bless them even when they don’t show up. I’ll do it anyway, all by myself, asking God’s work and blessing and goodness upon their lives even while they are far away.

God will do it. He will bless them. The Word is performative, after all.

The Grammy Awards Worship Service

leadgrammy2014 Reading about the Grammy Awards really makes me wish that I had seen it. From Katy Perry with the black magic, and then the “Church Service” with the Queen marrying 33 couples (why 33?)–both straight and gay, of course–to Madonna blessing us with her magic wand– what a religious spectacle that sounds like.

madonna

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you are not doing your part of viewing the sacred rites of our culture. Don’t forget, the next worship service will be February 2 at 5:30 pm. There offertory will be performed by Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (seriously??)

.

 

Gaudete Sermon 2013 (Advent 3)

Isaiah 40 is a wonderful chapter, a unique view into the mind of God. These are beautiful words. I spent weeks at the Seminary studying them once, diagramming them. I even drew a chart showing the connections between the words in each verse, and then a paper which explained the relationship. I swam in these words, and it is one of the best memories of my life at the seminary.

This passage is God speaking to Isaiah, but also to John the Baptist, but also to me, and to every preacher sent to proclaim the Word of God. Comfort, speak tenderly, the warfare is over. All flesh is grass, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. “Behold your God,” he tells us to say, and He is coming and his recompense—that means His Work, His Salvation—comes with Him.

Think of this as the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment. God calls Isaiah, the Prophets, the Apostles, the Preachers and Pastors into the back office, pulls up a chair and says, “OK guys. You have all kinds of things to do and say. I’ll tell you to speak against this or that nation, to proclaim other judgments, to teach many facts about me. You pastors—you will be like these priests who serve me, managing the gifts. All of you are busy with all kinds of things.

“But here’s the deal,” the Godhead says. “Comfort my people. Life is hard. Things go wrong. The forces of evil war against them. Cruelty and crime and beatings and even tortures are out there. You know this. Comfort my people.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Speak tenderly to the Church. Be gentle with them because the world is harsh and death is the enemy. Tell them: Your war with God is over. Jesus is your peace. Your sins? All those failures and wickedness and disobedience and harsh things YOU’VE done to others? Forgiven! Forgiven! And you have double grace and love and forgiveness for every sin! Forgiveness in abundance!”

“John will make the way of the Messiah straight. So will you, O preachers of the Gospel. Work slowly and carefully. Don’t be a stumbling block, but help them hear about Jesus the Messiah, clear the way of false assumptions and show them Jesus.”

God continues to shoot straight with preachers:

“All people will see God—God in the flesh you will see with your flesh! God becomes a man! He stands before you and does all these things—and you will see His Glory! Glorified on the Cross for your sins, and Glorified in His Resurrection and Return.”

“Cry out,” says God to His prophets and apostles and preachers. “Remind them that all flesh is grass. Remind them of the Law. That their sins are killing them, even those sins which seem small and maybe even enjoyable. No, sin brings death. Remind them of this, so that they may know me—but so that they may know that all my promises and comforts and peace and tenderness lasts forever. My Word is stronger than death,” says God the Almighty.

“Now go!” He says. “Go and be bold to share this. Don’t be shy, but go up on a mountain where everyone will see you and hear you, so that everyone will know that God has come in the flesh for them!” Who is this God? It is Jesus, who came to serve you!

Finally, God concludes, “My way of salvation in becoming flesh looks weak. It’s not what you will expect, the Son dying on the Cross. But it is strength! It is might, for this is how I defeat the curse of sin and death and hell and satan forever. This is the end of all things, the beginning of all things, this is how I make all things new. This is my might and power: in giving myself over to the enemy for you.”

“And I will be your shepherd and tend you and be gentle with you.”

This is what God would have me and every pastor, every preacher speak to you. This is what God is all about. This is the heart of God. It’s not all of Him, to be sure. His ways are beyond our understanding. He does so much more. But this is the heart of His revelation to us humans.

So dear friends, this is what I preach. When you ask yourself, “When will this misery end? When will the pain be dulled?” When You wonder when it will be that every moment, every object, every story will not bring it to mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s a divorce, a bad break-up, a tragic death, it’s the same. Catastrophic illness or war. These are the worst times of our lives and what we need then is relief.

When all these things are roiling in your life. Remember that God addresses this. There is an end. It will not last forever. This life, these days are coming quickly to an end. Christ has come and brought double blessing and forgiveness for all your sins and suffer. And the day will dawn fresh and new and the pain will subside and it will seem like a nightmare, and then a shadow, and then just the memory that once there had been trauma. And for you, even more comfort because God is bringing Christ to you. Today. This is His healing I speak of, His gift, comfort, recompense and joy. The joy of His Word to us through all the Scriptures and prophets and preachers. Comfort to you, God’s people. Comfort to you.