God is about to be born into the world.
It turns out that, for a whole variety of reasons, God's unconditional love is extremely difficult for humans to grasp. But God desperately wants us to grasp it. God yearns for us to realize that we are loved, and to have us love one another. After many attempts, from giving wise laws to prophetic warnings and declarations, in order to get the simple notion of divine grace through our thick skulls, God resorted to Christmas.
To properly understand the magnitude of God's move, we need an image. So, I want you to use your imagination. We are going to create an image of God. We need big, and strong; really massive. I suggest we start with Paul Bunyan. You all remember Paul. He was so big and so strong that he logged off the entire Northwest Territory in about 5 years.
For God though, we need a still bigger image. Perhaps we could think of the Earth as one of the smaller Cat's eye marbles in God's pocket, or of the galaxy as a yo-yo in God's hand. In a few billion years we'll hit the end of the string and start back up. Anyway, you get the idea. Big. Really big.
Now, take this strong, no need to worry God, and cram him into the space of one tiny little baby, fresh from Mary's womb, weak and unprotected. If you can imagine the loss of power, of dignity, even of understanding, then you have some sense of what God went through in order to become Jesus.
And all because God wants you to know grace! Not just understand it, but know in your heart of hearts that it's true. Not true in some general sense, but true about YOU, Cathy or Jane, or Bill, or Joe. God so loved the world, and each person in it, including you, that he came among us as a little child.
You, my friend, are beloved of God. That is the good news, the core message of Christmas. May you feel that love, bask in it, accept it, take it into yourself and let it fill you with warm light. And may you then, because it is the nature of love to be shared, find ways to help the people around you recognize that they too are beloved of God.
Wishing you many blessings this Advent and Christmas.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Harries
Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, spoke at the Luther College graduation ceremony a week ago Sunday. Her overall theme was the need for this generation of graduates to lead the way in finding new ways to live in harmony with the natural world—a message dear to my heart, as you know. Cousteau suggested an important attitude for the graduates to keep in mind as they engage this challenging work: "Don't be afraid to fail."
"Don't be afraid to fail." It's one of the current buzz phrases among people who try to understand and promote innovation. It is a fairly substantial shift in outlook from what I grew up with, and one that many people think is essential to the creative process. The tech industry is one of the only places where attempting to start a company and having it fail is considered a plus on your resume. 95% of new startups fail. And yet the successful 5% that currently support our high standard of living could never have emerged unless all those people tried.
It was the 150th commencement ceremony at Luther. There were about 720 students graduating. The first graduating class had 11 students, and they graduated a year late due to illness and the outbreak of the Civil War. Luther was founded to provide an education to the children of immigrants. Their effort did not fail but it was a near thing that first year. "Don't be afraid to fail" is just as important in the world of nonprofit organizations as it is in business.
I remember reading an article some years ago which argued that one of the greatest innovations from the early days of the United States was, of all things, bankruptcy laws. Bankruptcy laws are essential to a vibrant and innovative economy because they make it possible to try, fail, and still survive to try again economically. Before that debtors were thrown in prison where they had little chance of paying off their debts.
Of course the entrepreneurs are encouraging us not to fear undertaking some great and challenging endeavor. They are not encouraging moral failure. We should be afraid of moral failure and do our very best to avoid it. But as Christians we know that even here, failure is not the end of the story. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The Lord's Prayer assumes that, being human, we will fail from time to time in our relationships with God and with our neighbor. When that happens we are called to respond with forgiveness and reconciliation. We are assured by the teaching and example of Jesus that God will respond to our failures with forgiveness and love.
Go forth with boldness to spread the good news of God's love. Be not afraid.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Harries
In my Easter sermon I used as an illustration one of the trees in our back yard. The bark was peeling off and it looked quite dead. We were afraid it would fall onto the garage, so we had it cut down. Since it was the anchor for the dog's tie-out wire, and there was no good alternative, it was cut about 10 feet up, above the attachment point. Imagine my surprise when four new branches began to grow out from the sides of the stump, turn 90 degrees, and head for the sky! Now 20 years later they perfectly shade our deck. New life emerged where none was expected.
Despite his many predictions, the disciples never grasped that Jesus would have to die, but would also rise again. Only when he appeared to them following the resurrection—on the road to Emmaus, by the Sea of Galilee—did they understand what he had been telling them. Then they were filled with joy. New life arose where none was expected.
We might take those four branches to represent four major teachings of Jesus that are confirmed and completed by his dying and rising again.
Faith. Our faith in the goodness of God is confirmed when crucifixion is overcome, and all the powers of death with it. We know, therefore,
that God will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
Hope. Because of the resurrection we have hope in the communion of saints—that those we love who have died live on joyfully in the nearer
presence of God. We have hope that we too are headed for eternal life. Meanwhile on this earth we hope and believe that wherever there is pain,
suffering, or destruction, there is also the possibility of new life arising where none was expected.
Love. The crucifixion is the ultimate expression of God's self-giving love for us. No one has greater love that this, to lay down one's life for one's
friends."(John 15:13) Yet Jesus lays down his life for strangers, for the sake of the world in general, giving up his own life in exchange for ours.
Peace. "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you." (John 14:27) Jesus shows us how to live in justice and peace—by loving our neighbors as
ourselves, and by following his example of self-giving love. When we love our enemies, as he commanded, we cannot wish them harm. As a result
we seek reconciliation and interrupt the cycle of violence, making room for peace to grow, even where none could be expected.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen!
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Harries
A native of Spain, Egeria spent three years traveling to Egypt, Israel and Syria, around the year 380. She wrote an account of her travels for her sisters back home. In 1884 a partial manuscript of her narrative was found in the library of the Brotherhood of St. Mary in Arezzo, Italy. The eleventh century manuscript had been copied by monks at the monastery of Monte Cassino.
Egeria described how Maundy Thursday was celebrated in Jerusalem at the time. Here is Marion Hatchet's summary of Egeria's report:
The Eucharist was celebrated at 2 PM in the market area, a large basilica built by Helen, the mother of Constantine, over the site of the discovery of the true cross. After the dismissal at 4 PM the congregation moved to the courtyard behind the church, where a cross was erected at the supposed sight of the crucifixion, for a second celebration. Prayers at the tomb followed; then the people hurried home for a meal before meeting at the Eleona. This church was built near the top of the Mount of Olives over the site of a cave believed to be the place where our Lord delivered his teachings to the disciples during the week in Jerusalem before his death. Egeria wrote: "There they sing hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and the place, interspersed with readings and prayers, until about 11 PM. Then they read passages from the gospel which recount what the Lord said to his disciples as he sat in the very cave which is in the church." At midnight the congregation moved from the Imboman, the church at the top of the mount, for a similar service which lasted until cock crow. Singing, the congregation moved down the mount to the church built at the site where our Lord prayed, and from there to the site of the arrest at Gethsemane. Appropriate prayers, hymns, and lections were used at each of the stations. At daybreak the congregation returned to the site of the crucifixion for the reading of the Johannine account of the trial before Pilate. Then the congregation was dismissed until the first service of Good Friday, though "those with the energy go to sign on to pray at the column at which the Lord was scourged."
(Marion J. Hatchet, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Seabury, 1980)
So you see, when you participate in the special observances of Holy Week, (which in our case total only about 3 hours :-)), you are part of a rich and very ancient tradition. These days the greatest value is placed on the newest things and on technical wizardry. I'm no Luddite. I love computers and smart phones and things too. BUT, I think it's also extremely valuable to be rooted by ritual in an ancient and wise faith. I look forward celebrating the rites of Holy Week with you.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Harries
Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days.
Forty is a symbolic number in the scriptures. It represents a fullness or completeness of time. A good long time. Enough time. You may recall that in the story of Noah and the Ark, it rained for forty days and forty nights. And the flood also lasted forty days. Forty years was the length of time Israel wandered in the wilderness before they went into the Promised Land. Moses was up on the mountain forty days when he received the Law. Following that tradition, the season of Lent is forty days long (not counting Sundays, which technically are not part of Lent).
The first thing Jesus did as he began his ministry was to spend a good long time, a fullness of time in the wilderness. Apart from the temptations of Satan, we don’t know exactly what he was doing all that time. But I think we can safely assume that he spent a great deal of it in prayer and conversation with God.
Jesus also went out into the wilderness alone to pray several times during his ministry, much to the consternation of his disciples when they couldn’t find him. The rhythm of contemplation and action has been part of Christian spirituality ever since. All of us need time to pray, time to be in the presence of God, and time to receive God’s love. Then we need to return to the work of the kingdom strengthened and refreshed.
Lent is a time we set aside the church year for self-reflection and spiritual growth. The tradition of giving something up for Lent was ideally not for the sake of self-abnegation, but rather served as a reminder of the special season. During Lent we begin the service with confession for the same purpose: to give a tangible sign that we are in a different season—a season for contemplation and learning.
Lent was the time when new converts to the faith were prepared for their baptism at Easter. That tradition has survived in the form of the special Lenten Study Programs offered in almost every parish. Lent was also a time for reconciliation within the parish community.
This Lent, I encourage you to adopt a new prayer discipline or set aside some extra time for contemplation. I also encourage you to find an opportunity to learn more about your faith through our Wednesday evening study, or one of the many other offerings in the community. May you observe Holy Lent.