Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve Sermon

The Nativity of our Lord/Christmas Eve
December 24, 2018
St. Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III

In the waning days of 1968,
a few weeks before the launch of the mission
which would send human beings to orbit the moon for the first time,
Frank Borman, the mission commander,
was told by a NASA public-affairs official
that on Christmas Eve he and his fellow crew members
would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice.
And then the official said,
‘So say something appropriate.’

Borman and his fellow astronauts Jim Lovell and William Anders
were pilots by trade, not poets.
They tossed around several ideas.
They were men of faith,
so they considered a specifically Christian holiday message.
Discarding that, in view of the world audience of many faiths,
they thought maybe a story about Santa Claus
or re-writing the words to ‘Jingle Bells.’
Those ideas were rejected too.

Finally Borman asked a friend, who asked another friend,
Joe Laitini, who had been a speechwriter for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
He told his wife, Christine, about the problem,
and worked on it all night without success,
searching through the New Testament for something appropriate.
At 3:30 a.m. Christine came downstairs and said,
‘Why don’t you begin at the beginning?’
The words that had come to her would be typed on a piece of fireproof paper,
and the page inserted on the back of the flight plan,
to wait until Christmas Eve.
No one but the Laitinis and the astronauts themselves knew what it was they would say.

The astronauts were not trying to evangelize the world fifty years ago tonight,
but the words they spoke were words of faith.
Both their words and the words of the angels that Luke records
witness to a God who brings light from darkness,
life from death, speech from silence.
a God who created the universe and still sustains it,
and a humankind that by grace
can receive God’s kindness and respond to it.

And for many of those who heard the message,
their response was like that of the shepherds long ago.
The wonder brought them up short,
stopped them from their work,
turned their eyes to the skies,
filled them with awe,
for truly they had never seen or heard anything like this before.
The messengers from the heavens proclaiming the goodness of God’s creation,
and giving a blessing to them before falling silent.
The world, the universe itself became enlarged.

Off-duty Flight Director Eugene Kranz would write,
‘For those moments, I felt the presence of creation and the Creator.’

A guest at a party
remembered the emotion of his host,
the conductor Leonard Bernstein,
listening to the final words of astronaut Borman
with a look described as ‘depthless and inexpressible.’

To listen to the Apollo 8 broadcast,
again or for the first time, from the distance of 50 years,
or to view the famous photo of Earthrise,
with the dead moon below
and the inky vastness of space
surrounding the life-giving Earth,
is to feel the awe and wonder anew.
This awe and wonder leads to deeper questions.
Certainly how?
This is the domain of science.
But there is also the question, why?
This is the domain of faith.

St. Luke tells us
that on another Christmas Eve much longer ago,
there were other messengers
sent to give a message to people of the earth.
One rather whimsically wonders whether a higher-up angel said,
‘Say something appropriate.’

This is what they said:
‘Do not be afraid.’
‘Good news of a great joy for all people.’
‘To you is born a Savior.’
‘This shall be a sign for you.’
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
peace on earth.’

If the messengers of Apollo 8
reminded us that Creation itself was a miracle,
then the messengers of Bethlehem
told us that the Creator was saving us from what we had made of the miracle.
That though we had turned away from awe and wonder,
awe and wonder was coming among us still.
That the Creation does not belong to the tyrant and the thief,
but still to the Creator and those on earth with whom he finds favor.
That human beings might find their place in the creation,
in adoration and service of the Creator.

For awe and wonder do not exist for themselves,
but for adoration and service.

In the Bethlehem child,
we behold the creator become creation,
the eternal Son of the Father
stepping into time, into the universe.
If we can grasp the miracle of the living planet
upon which we live our brief lives,
then we may also be able to grasp by faith
this teaching, that a child who was born into the universe
was the one through whom the universe was created.

Beholding Earthrise, we ask ourselves,
was the world created by chance or caprice,
for the powerful and mighty to take,
or through Christ and for Christ,
for the humble and meek to receive?
Both are incomprehensible to our minds,
which means either may be true.
The picture alone does not tell us,
nor does simply seeing a baby.

We must hear the messengers,
and the messengers tell us
that there are signs given to us,
signs of God’s grace and love,
signs of his goodness and ours.

(From official NASA Mission Transcript)

086:06:40 Anders: 
We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

086:06:56 Anders: 
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, "Let there be light." And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. [Pause.]

086:07:29 Lovell: And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. And let it divide the waters from the waters." And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. [Pause.]

086:08:07 Borman: And God said, "Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together into one place. And let the dry land appear." And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth. And the gathering together of the waters called he seas. And God saw that it was good.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas Services

Christmas Eve - Monday, December 24, 7:30 p.m.
Christmas Day - Tuesday, December 25, 10:30 a.m.

Glory to the Newborn King!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Second Annual Spaghetti Dinner, Saturday, November 17

Please join the St. Stephen Faith Family for a spaghetti dinner on Saturday, November 17, from 4-7 p.m.

The menu includes spaghetti with or without meatballs, tomato sauce, salad, drink and dessert. Gluten-free pasta is available

The cost for an individual meal is $8. Profits will be given to North American Lutheran Church Domestic Disaster Response.

I pray you will join us for food and fellowship for a good cause.

Pastor Maurice Frontz

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Sermon All Saints Day 2018

Sermon All Saints Sunday – November 4, 2018
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

What is a saint?
The Greek word for ‘saints’ is hagiois, or ‘holy ones.’
A saint is a holy person,
in much the same way as a sanctuary is a ‘holy place.’

But the word ‘holy person’ only says so much.
We may think of a goody-two-shoes who never laughs,
or a monk meditating on a mountain.
We need a little bit more context.

Some of us know that the Catholic Church will occasionally ‘make’ a saint.
The formal name for this is canonization.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says
that when the Church canonizes some of the faithful
they solemnly proclaim that they practiced heroic virtue
and lived in fidelity to God’s grace.
If you look at some of those whom the Catholic Church has made saints,
you will see that few of them were goody-two-shoes
and not many of them were monks on a mountain.
The Catholic saints run the gamut
from the warrior Joan of Arc
to the teacher Thomas Aquinas
to the Nazi resister Maximilian Kolbe.

We can define saints as does the Roman Catholic Church;
or we can see saints as world-renouncing monks on a mountain
or moralistic prigs we can’t wait to get out of our presence.
But, as I have mentioned before from this pulpit,
my favorite definition was offered by the satirist Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary,
which defined a saint as ‘a dead sinner, revised and edited.’

Ambrose Bierce was an agnostic and a fierce critic of Christianity.
However, I think he was right,
but not in the way that he thought he was.
See, it all depends on who is doing the revising and the editing.

If we take this definition,
and apply it to the story of the raising of Lazarus,
we find Jesus fulfilling the definition
in a way Ambrose Bierce would never have expected.
Jesus takes a dead man and revises him and edits him.

I find it intriguing, and revealing,
that the gospel writer uses the word ‘dead man’ in this passage.
Martha is the sister of the dead man.
The dead man comes out of the tomb.
It is Jesus who names him again
with the name that he had been given at his circumcision.
His name, with his life, is given back to him.
Quite a revision indeed!
Quite an editing to his story.
No longer a dead man, but Lazarus.
The friend of Jesus again,
the brother of Mary and Martha again.

Nowhere in this passage is Lazarus named a ‘saint,’
but according to Bierce’s definition, he is a saint.
Or perhaps we need a more reverent definition.
A saint, a holy one,
is a sinner whom Jesus raises from the dead,
one in whom Jesus’ Spirit is active and living.

Not all sinners are saints,
but all saints are sinners,
in whom God is doing the work of revising and editing.      
Now we may not see the work of Jesus in every saint.
The one in whom the Spirit is active and living may not be as evident to us
as we would think it would be.
And so it may be that there are more saints than the Church knows about.
The ones we do know about we celebrate.
They were not always goody-two-shoes,
nor were they necessarily mountaintop monks.
But they are examples for us,
not because they were perfect,
because they show that God the Holy Spirit
can work in human beings to make them holy.

Well, then, that’s the saints.
But what about us?
What about we who wouldn’t consider ourselves saints?
Well, let’s think about this
in terms of the definition offered by our good friend Ambrose Bierce.
A dead sinner, revised and edited.

Are we sinners –
we have sinned
and we cannot free ourselves;
death and sin are two sides of the same coin.

Are we dead?
We will die, certainly.
From the moment we are born, the one certainty is death,
and when no one remembers our name,
we will become nothing more than a corpse, a skeleton;
an anonymous dead man, a dead woman.
Even those whose names are known to history
are only talked about,
they are never addressed if they are alive.
We may speak about Caesar, Cleopatra,
Washington, Napoleon and Victoria,
but no one speaks to them.

And so, as the ancient text from the Mass from the Dead says,
Media vita in morte sumus –  In the midst of life we are in death.

Dead sinners –
who will revise and edit this story of us?
Who is the one who calls a corpse by name,
who addresses a dead person as someone alive?
It is the same one who commanded the dead to live again,
and by his Spirit we are being vivified, made alive.

God calls us by name –
and calls us son, daughter –
his son calls us brothers and sisters.
Can it be that when we acknowledge and call to mind our sins,
when we seek to turn away from them and to God,
when we receive the forgiveness God offers us through Christ,
and when the threat of the grave looses its death-grip on our imaginations,
that God is doing the work of revising and editing?
Could it be that he does not stop doing this
even if we are ignorant of it?
Even if we are not wholly on board all the time?
Even as we did not create ourselves,
we do not work our re-creation.
All we can do is trust that the great editor
will make us who we are meant to be.

And finally, God revises the ending for us as well.
Instead of the anonymous darkness of the grave,
instead of being forgotten, we are remembered, we are named.
The vision of Isaiah, the vision of Revelation
is the vision of resurrection.
Lazarus was raised into the old, dying world
as a sign of the resurrection into the new, living world,
the world that Christ has won for us and all the saints.
Thanks be to God!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sermon August 26, 2018

August 26, 2018/Proper 16B
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz
St Stephen Lutheran Church

John 6:56-69

[Jesus said,] 56“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
  60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
  66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, I was in a pastor’s continuing education event,
with a couple of Christian therapists talking about their work.
The presentation was in a conversational style,
and at one point one of them said this about work with couples:
‘I always know when I’ve gotten to the real issue.’
I thought this was a little bit egotistical,
but then he said,
‘I’ve gotten to the real issue when they stop coming to marriage counseling.’

Now, that’s a jaundiced view, perhaps;
borne out of one too many failed endeavors at helping.
These do take a toll on counselors, pastors, and the like.
But there was more than a grain of truth there.
People, couples, families, churches, companies, nations,
communities of all kinds, shapes, and sizes
can get very good about talking about anything but the real issues.
We even have a name for it – you probably know it –
‘the elephant in the room.’

It brings a hilarious image to mind.
A group of people standing in a room,
a huge gray-trunked, ivory-tusked, trunk-swishing, snorting elephant in their midst,
and the people are asking each other
why they keep getting knocked over,
why there are peanut shells all over the floor,
why it smells so bad in the room,
and what these huge piles are all over the place.

Anyone from outside can see what’s going on,
but these people can’t, or won’t see it.
So it is when people can’t or won’t see the real nature of a problem they’re facing,
because to see it, and name it,
would entail honesty, commitment, and a decision.

Jesus refuses to let the people
he’s been talking to about the bread of life off the hook.
He names the elephant in the room,
that some of them do not believe.

They had chased him around the lake,
not to learn something but to get more free bread.
They have been questioning Jesus’ claims –
first asking how he could be who he says he is
when he comes from an ordinary Nazarene family.
Then they take him in an absurd literal way
when he says that he will give them his flesh to eat.
Finally, they complain that his teaching is too difficult
for any reasonable person to accept.
All of it dancing around the issue –
refusing to see the problem for what it really is:
that some of them do not believe.

It is not even, perhaps,
that they carefully considered Jesus’ claims
and found them wanting
on some sort of technical or philosophical grounds.
Rather, it is that all of their questions are obfuscations;
efforts to avoid the elephant in the room.

The claim of Jesus involves faith and trust,
and faith and trust is what they do not have.
It’s not that Jesus presented it wrongly,
and if he had just worded his claim a little differently,
they would have gotten it.
It’s not that there are insuperable obstacles in their way.
It’s that some of them are non-believers.
It’s not that they don’t believe in Christ;
it’s that they don’t believe in anything.

Jesus does them a huge favor by naming the elephant in the room.
His words sound like condemnation,
but they are an invitation, a summons.
It is the last possible chance.
For non-believers can become believers,
but only if they are addressed with the real issue.
When they are shown the elephant in the room,
they may – they may – be able to be honest about it
and make a decision to turn in faith and trust.

The word ‘decide’ comes from Latin,
in which it literally means to cut off, or to terminate.
One possibility of existing is rejected, the other embraced.
One road is taken, the other left behind.

In the Old Testament,
Joshua calls the people to decide
between service to the gods of the ancestors
and worship of the God who rescued them from Egypt.
The elephant in the room is that the worship of the ancestors
and the worship of God are mutually exclusive.
The people must know and know clearly
that a choice must be made,
a decision must be reached,
one possibility be cut off or terminated.

Image result for as for me and my house

Jesus calls the people from constant obfuscation,
constant questioning,
to faith and trust.
Constantly taking offense at the exclusive nature of the claims of Jesus
can be nothing more than obfuscation,
attempts to avoid the real issue –
that it is faith and trust are lacking,
and not just the right or perfect explanation.

You can see this easily with children.
There is always a question back,
‘But why?’
And always an answer, ‘But I’m not tired!’
Any explanation can be met with a counter-explanation,
until both parent and child are acting like children.

Image result for child and parent fighting

And all people some of the time
and some people all of the time
are still in that stage.
‘But why?’
Never understanding that it is not the explanation that is lacking,
but trust.

It may need to be said at this point
that even as faith rejects questioning that is meant to avoid,
that does not mean that faith is blind.
To live in trust and faith
does not mean that all questions are bad.
It simply means that questioning in faith
expects and trusts that there will be an answer.

Indeed, an honest question can only come from faith.
A child asks the parent a serious question,
expecting an answer to help them,
to guide them,
or at least to help them understand their point of view.

Image result for child asking parent a question

Today we lack that ability to question from a position of trust.
Our questions are all rhetorical questions,
designed for victory,
rather than to come to appreciation of someone else’s point of view,
or even to seek truth.

Some questions God may not answer until we stand before him.
It is part of faith and trust to accept ambiguity
even as we say, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.’

Image result for lord to whom shall we go

Who knows whether Peter could have said these words
on behalf of the twelve
had he not heard Jesus say,
‘there are some of you who do not believe?’
Perhaps for him,
the naming of the elephant in the room
was the key for him
being able to honestly commit to following Jesus,
to say the words,
‘You have the words of eternal life.’
He would fall on the path,
but he was able to be recalled,
not to turn aside.

Who knows whether or not
we can obey the commandments when it is hard,
if we are not told that obedience is necessary
and disobedience is a real threat?
Who knows whether or not
we can come to faith without knowing that on our own we cannot?
That it ultimately is a matter of the Spirit,
and not the flesh?
So we constantly ask God the Holy Spirit
to stir up faith in us,
to call us through the Gospel,
enlighten us with his gifts,
make us holy,
and to keep us in true faith,
now and to the end of our lives. Amen

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sermon July 22, 2018 - St Mary Magdalene

July 22, 2018: St Mary Magdalene                                                                                            
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I wasn’t quite sure at first why the story of Ruth and Naomi
was assigned as the Old Testament reading for today,
the feast day of Mary Magdalene,
other than they are all three women in the Bible,
when so many of the characters of the Bible are men.
The stories of Ruth and Mary Magdalene are completely unrelated on the face of it.
Ruth is a Gentile who marries a Jewish husband,
and, when he dies, she adopts her mother-in-law’s land and religion.
Mary Magdalene is not a Gentile, and she is unmarried –
Two different women, two different stories,
but one common trait unites them both –
death cannot part them from the ones they love.

Ruth’s call to marriage
had brought her into new covenant relation;
and covenant relationships cannot end with death,
or they lose all meaning.
Economic necessity and ancestral ties
are no longer binding –
what is binding for Ruth is Naomi, Naomi’s people, and Naomi’s God.
We know that Ruth had a choice,
because her sister went back.
But Ruth’s choice had been made
before her husband died,
and we cannot know whether it was her love for her mother-in-law,
or her loyalty to her departed husband,
or the joy she had found in the worship of the God of the Jews,
all of these, or none of these,
which inspired her to remain.
All we have are her words to Naomi:
‘Where you go, I will go,
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’

a cave hewn into rock,
for he who had freed her from evil was dead
and she may as well have been.
Where you die, I will die; there will I be buried  

Even as she had been with him
from the day he had called her and freed her from demons,
she had been with him until his death.
She saw where the tomb was,
and when the Sabbath was over she went to anoint his body.

But the body was gone,
and it seemed as if someone had cheated her out of keeping her solemn vow,
to refuse to be parted from Jesus.
May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.
We do not forget our loved ones when they die,    
we do not turn our backs on them and go back into the life we had before we met them.
We tend their graves,
we dust off their pictures,
we tell their stories to each other
and honor their families as our own
and say their prayers now that they can no longer say them.
May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.

That even Jesus’ corpse had been taken away now was unbearable.
And so she stood weeping outside the tomb,
and we are not to imagine a biting of the lip, a few silent drops running down the face,
but a full-on cry of bereavement, an anguish of despair, an endless overflowing flood of tears.

before Mary Magdalene could become the apostle to the apostles,
bringing the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world,
they each had to come to the moment of truth –
is love strong as and stronger than death?
Ruth says, ‘Do not send me away from my family or my God or I will die;’
Mary Magdalene wails, ‘I will not leave my Lord, though he is dead.’

In a few minutes,
we will pray that we, like Mary Magdalene, may be messengers of the resurrection.
I think that we should pray that prayer.
If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be in the bulletin.
And yet, I think sometimes we say the prayer
and assume that it is that easy,
to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus,
and that if we’re not,
it’s because we need a better technique,
maybe a six-week course in evangelism,
or because it’s not our particular calling or ‘gift of the Holy Spirit.’
There was no technique to Mary’s witness,
and she was not particularly gifted.
Mary Magdalene became a witness to the resurrection
because death could not separate her from Jesus.
Jesus has died,
but there are those who take their stand with Mary Magdalene
in the garden at the empty tomb,
saying, May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.
These are the ones who hear Christ’s voice calling their name;
they find that though he has died, he is risen.
Perhaps it is that the Church needs no evangelism techniques,
but simply to stand at the tomb of Christ and refuse to leave until he calls us.

‘Do not hold on to me,’
Jesus says to Mary Magdalene,
and perhaps we find ourselves wondering at this seemingly harsh word.
Theologically, we can think about the nature of the resurrection in the Gospel of John;
but there are other ways we can think about this saying as well.
Ruth would rather have died than be separated from God,
and thus she was drawn into Israel’s mission,
Mary Magdalene would rather have died than be separated from her Lord,
and thus she was drawn into Christ’s mission,
to be something she never could have dreamed of being –
the apostle to the Apostles,
the first to carry the news that changes the world.
The demands of Ruth and Mary Magdalene are not so they can have a better more comforting life,
but because they have been called to a living relationship.
And so Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus
draws her not into a stagnant holding onto something,
but into a rapturous giving away of herself.
Your people shall be my people;
and your God my God.

And this is the life of the Church,
should the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit
be given faith enough to take her stand at the tomb.
Where you die, I shall die;
there shall I be buried…
but there shall I be raised.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!