Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meditation for Holy Wednesday

Upside Down yet Rightside Up:

Holy Wednesday
by Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell, Pastor
St. Philip Lutheran Church and School
Chicago, Illinois

Holy Wednesday
31 March, A.D. 2010
Isa 62.11-63.7; Rm 5.6-11; Jn 13.16-38

His apparel is splendid, yet it splattered a blood red, like the clothes of one who makes wine. It is beautiful, yet it is stained.

What is this metaphor?

Isaiah knows it. At the very beginning of the book that bears his name it is written:

"“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool." (Isaiah 1:18, ESV)

St. Paul knows it. In chapter five of his Letter to the Romans his Spirit-borne words ring out: "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8, ESV)

This is the “great reversal,” God, in a sense, turning right-side up what we had turned up-side down, God forgiving through the blood of Christ what we had made so terribly wrong.

Yes, there is a “Judas” in all of us who steals and even betrays innocent blood. We don’t like to admit it. We say, “I’m basically a good person,” but looking truly into the mirror of God’s Law lays bare our souls. By nature we are centered not on the will of God but solely, myopically, on our own way. Even those in Christ have an “old Adam,” a sinful nature does not hallow God’s name and will.

Yet, as we sang, Christ comes “not in terrors as the King of Kings but with kindness and goodness, with healing in His wings.” The message of the Christianity is, “Through the cross we are reconciled to God.” We are restored to God’s favor, not because of anything we have done, but because Christ, the Eternal Son of God--in his love for us--offered to take God’s wrath against sin upon Himself.

And, so, the way of Christ is “upside down.” It is not “natural.” We find true life in community, in love; that is, in--again in the words of St. Paul--“looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil 2.4)

Meditation for Holy Tuesday

Upside Down yet Rightside Up: Holy Tuesday

by Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell, Pastor

St. Philip Lutheran Church and School

Chicago, Illinois

Holy Tuesday

30 March, A.D. 2010

Isa 49.1-7; 1 Cor 1.18-25 (26-31); Jn 12.23-50

We have heard this thunderous voice before. We heard it in Exodus 19, on Mt. Sinai, when God met Moses on the mountain. We heard it at Christ’s Baptism where God the Father spoke, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3.17) And we heard it, too, on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the Father repeated, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” and then added an imperative, “Listen to Him!” (Mt 17.5)

Indeed, this is exactly why we are here...

700 years before Christ’s birth, the LORD prophesied through his servant, Isaiah, that a “suffering servant” would come whose Word would be like a “sword” and in Whom salvation would “reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49.6); to all peoples.

So it is that the people recognized that when Christ spoke He spoke with authority (Mt 7.29). Yet His Word was--and is--troubling. His Word challenges the “prevailing thinking” about God, about salvation and about life. He came not as a political savior for a peculiar people or a miracle-worker or as a “guru” or “philospher” to show people how to “think” their way into God’s favor.

Yes, there is something seemingly “upside-down” about all of this. As St. Paul wrote in First Corinthians [1.22-25], many among the race of Jews demanded signs--great signals of God’s supernatural intervention as if God would just “wave away” the rebellion of sin --and many Greeks (or non-Jews) sought wisdom--trying in vain to earn salvation through personal effort--but in Christ God deals finally and decisively with our great enemies: sin and death.

This is why the cross is so powerful. It is powerful because on the cross is found the the Eternal Son of God--innocent--nailed and suffering. The cross confronts our fears and avoidances and worldly wisdom. It is shocking. It strikes at something that we know in the depth of our souls: the consequences of sin--our sin--cannot be avoided. The cross is GOD taking sin seriously. Thus, the cross is--paradoxically--where “the Son of Man is glorified.” (Jn 12.23) As such, Christ’s analogy about glorification thunders with authority:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him." (John 12:24-26, ESV)

Yes, Lord, we need Thy presence every passing hour. Let your victory over the cross and grave be our hope. Teach us, because you have dealt finally and completely with sin, not to fear the path you have set before us, for there is no place we would rather be than in Your presence.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Meditation for Holy Monday

Upside Down yet Right Side Up: Holy Monday
by Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell, Pastor
St. Philip Lutheran Church and School
Chicago, Illinois

Holy Monday
29 March, A.D. 2010
Isa 50.5-10; Heb 9.11-15; Jn 12.1-23

On this Holy Monday we return to Palm Sunday, but our reading from John 12 gives us a broader context. The crowds that gathered had heard about Lazarus being raised from the dead. It seems a bit of a circus atmosphere, as if many who are gathered are simply bystanders, gawkers like those who gather to witness someone’s suffering in an auto accident. They aren’t really interested in Jesus, in His teaching. They just want the fountain of youth.

But as Deitrich Bonfhoeffer reminded us in Cost of Discipleship, there is not not simply the well of living water. With the Water comes the Life. There is no life with Jesus apart from following Him, no discipleship without a cross. This is good and right and salutary. We have been “purified from dead works to serve the living God.”

Yes, there it is, always to be kept in mind, in faith: the living God. Jesus lives... He will die. That we know, but Lazarus was a foreshadowing. Death will not keep its hold on Him. For those who drink of the Living Water will never die, and He is the Living Water. In Him is life, and that life is the light of men: your Light, your Life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

God Uses Pathetic Little Men

It has been enlightening reading Exodus again. Wednesday of Lent 5 in The Treasury of Daily Prayer has Exodus 4.1-18 as the Old Testament reading. In this reading Moses tries to beg out of his assignment, comes up with excuses and in the process ticks The LORD off (“Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses.”—Ex 4.14).

Even so, God uses Moses. He gets him a helper (his brother, Aaron) and provides him with a miraculous staff. The LORD doesn’t say, “Forget you.” Of course, this is in keeping with how God operates. In the New Testament St. Paul makes note of this in First Corinthians:

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”" (1 Corinthians 1:26-31, ESV)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The Old Testament reading in my Treasury of Daily Prayer for Tuesday of Lent 5 is Exodus 2.23-3.22. It had been a while since I read this account; in particular, I had forgotten the “end” of this reading.

This particular section finds Moses in Midian, tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Once the “prince of Egypt,” now he is a lowly shepherd in the middle of nowhere. His ancestral people are 400-plus years into slavery.

Yet, here comes the God of the Universe (speaking from a bush that is afire and yet not consumed) and says, “I have heard the cries of my people. You go, Moses, and lead them out.”

Moses, of course, is a taken aback by this, and asks some questions, yet God (of course) does not waiver. In fact—and this is what I forgot about the whole account—God even promises Moses that the enslaved people will end up “plundering” the Egyptians. So, a large nation of slaves will be delivered miraculously from this condition. Pharaoh will, God told Moses, eventually let the people go. Furthermore, when all is said and done they will leave with flocks and herds and gold and silver—some of the great treasure of Egypt…

What is striking me about this on this particular morning is that this must have seemed impossible, if not to Moses then certainly to the “elders of Israel” to whom Moses was sent to tell this story. I can only imagine that conversation! “Hello, Gentlemen. We Hebrews are poor, pitiful slaves. The greatness of our forefathers is talked about, but we are the laughing stock of the nations. We have no power, no wealth. We are in chains. Our people cannot imagine another life. YET, in short order we will plunder Egypt and head back to the land of our ancestors wealthier than our father Jacob could possibly have imagined.”


Yet that is exactly what happened.

Sometimes (in fact, often) God calls us to the seemingly impossible. In the face of this “leaders” need simply to faithfully do the work to which God has called them; that is, “get out of the way” and let God “do his thing.”

I suspect that many pastors, like me, have trouble with this. Like Moses, we are called "out of Midian” to people who don’t know us or even fully trust us. And because most of us are eminently qualified for the task, again in an analogous way to Moses (“Hey, folks, I left everything to go to the seminary. It was impossible, but God made it happen somehow. We can do this!”) we can easily lose our bearings. We know that the calling is of God, but once in the office we are tempted to trust too much in our abilities (“Hey God, you were pretty smart to pick me for this post.”). 

To be sure, the gifts and abilities and even the personal history of Moses were a part of the picture in Israel’s deliverance, but—ultimately—it was not Moses who led the people out of Egypt, it was The LORD, the One who said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

I am being caused to remember that this morning, and that is a good thing for a pastor, no?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Progress of the Recession and Thinking Ahead

I just received this by email. You may have seen it. It’s a by-county time-lapse of the progress of job loss over the last three years. It just reiterates the point many have been making that this recovery will be very different from anything that most American have seen in their lifetime. Every challenge is an opportunity, but one can’t see this and not understand we’re in the midst of shifts that impact every area of life.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Confronted by Costly Grace

I am preparing for the second sermon in a Lenten series on the Christian's stewardship of God's gifts. Thinking of this drew me back to a powerful book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. First published in German in 1937 under the title Nachfolge (discipleship), it is known to English readers as The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer, for those who might not know, was a Lutheran pastor who was killed in a concentration camp for his role in an attempted assassination on Adolph Hitler.

Whatever one may think of a pastor being involved in an assassination plot, Bonhoeffer was a serious Christian at a serious time for Christians. He took up Christ's call to discipleship and his Nachfolge, and his life, is testament of this. The Cost of Discipleship includes some of the most powerful expositions of vocation and Christian discipleship I have read, or will ever read. Here is just one:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace...
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will well all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift of which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. 
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan, 1963: 45, 47-48) 

To read this is to see the truth. It lays bare the souls of those who call themselves Christians. This Lent, it calls us to repentance and, thus, to reconciliation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Perfection is Following Christ

There was a simple but powerful statement about the Christian life in today's reading (Wed of Lent 3) from Concordia Publishing House's Treasury of Daily Prayer.  The reading is from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXVII.45-50. It concerns the passage in Matthew 19 (v.21) where Jesus says, "If you would be perfect, ell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

The Apology says:
"This passage has stirred up many who have imagined that casting away possessions and the control of property is perfection...The abandonment of property has no command or advice in the Scriptures. Evangelical poverty does not come from the abandonment of property, but from not being greedy, from not trusting in wealth, just as David was poor in a most wealthy kingdom... Since the abandonment of property is merely a human tradition, it is a useless service...But , Christ speaks about perfection here. Indeed, those who quote the text in a butchered way violate it. Perfection is found in what Christ adds [at the end of Mt 19.21], 'Follow me'."
The rest of the Article is worth reading, for it speaks of vocation--the unique way each of us is called to follow Christ--but the key point is that there is no perfection apart from Christ. The Word of God lays bare the idolatry to which each of us is tempted. (In the case of the the "rich young ruler" to whom Jesus was speaking in Matthew 19 the issue was attachment to wealth.) Perfection--indeed, true life!--is in Him. The "rich young ruler" to whom Christ was speaking seemed to discover that eventually, for he is likely John Mark, who showed a halting Christian faith in the years to follow this encounter with Christ, including quite a split with Paul, but who is known to history as one of the great witnesses of The Lord. He, after all, is the one whose vocational talents came to be used of God in The Gospel According to St. Mark.