Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon Christmas Day

Christmas Day 2016 – John 1:1-14

‘Full of grace and truth.’
Should not this description of the Father’s only Son,
the one who was born as a child so long ago,
fill us with awe and wonder?
Does it not resonate anew
as we reflect on the past year
and as we look forward to the time to come?

Full of grace.
Grace –
life itself as God’s sheer gift,
and not as something which must be taken;
reconciliation with God as God’s sheer gift,
and not as something which must be earned.
Grace is made tangible in the child who will grow to be man,
who will scatter grace as seed
and die to prove God’s grace to human beings.
Here is grace –
that God does not hold anything against us or anything from us.
Here is grace –
a child, born in pain into the world,
to become vulnerable to each and every one of us,
for to be in community with another is to be vulnerable to another.
Only those who wish to be in community
can become vulnerable to another person,
and so God himself must be born –
must be born and die in community with others.
Full of truth.
Truth cannot be simply equated with historical veracity,
although it is inseparable from seeking to speak in accordance with it.
To speak truth is to represent facts as they are,
feelings and emotions as they are,
God as he is,
without twisting words for personal gain or advantage.
Lies use truth as a cloak,
but truth uncovers itself,
presents itself in unvarnished form,
in flat prose or rhymed poetry.
This child in the manger is truth
because he speaks to us of who God is;
we know that his witness is true
because he did not use it for personal gain,
but gave up everything that his speech might be proved true.

Grace and truth.
How little we know of such things today!
How diseased the concepts have become!
So diseased that we cannot even begin to disentangle
grace and law, truth from lies.
And so we live in a state of perpetual doubt and desire.
In the ancient story,
when the evil one sought to come between us and our creator,
he sowed doubt in our hearts;
doubt that God’s word was truth,
that we could trust God’s word;

doubt that God was grace, sheer gift,
but instead that we should reach out and take
what we desired and what should be ours.

‘He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him,
but the world did not know him.’
This is not simply that people were ignorant
of the historical fact of Christmas,
but that the child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas
is antithetical to the world which builds itself upon the lies of the evil one.
He is antithesis to the world built upon half-truths and cynicism,
deconstruction of the creation,
cloaked power and secrecy and double-speak
and the devolution of language.
He is antithesis to the world which delights to tell young people
that they are only their test-scores and their physical desirability,
and that they must create their own reality to fit their dreams;
that delights to tell parents and parents-to-be
that they are only what they can afford to give their children;
that delights to tell old people that they are only their health
and what they have accomplished,
and that what they cannot control has meant that their life has failed.
He is antithesis to the brutality and violence
which hide under noble sentiments of every kind;
he is antithesis both to the march of progress
and the retreat to mindless tradition.

Instead, he is grace and truth.
To rediscover these things again for the first time
might mean a revolution in our thinking, in our acting, in our speaking.
To act with grace,
that one seeks to reflect God’s free giving in every encounter with others,
holding nothing against the other and forgiving the other.
To speak in truth,
that one seeks to be trustworthy in every word,
whether a hard or an easy one,
refusing to use our words as cloaks for violence or deceit.
In this time we must be known as people of grace and truth.

This can and must be our response to the revelation
that God himself is grace and truth;
for we approach the cradle and find there
nothing that we can use to our own advantage
but instead the grace and truth
that frees us to be gracious and truthful.

May this child capture you,
may he enrapture you;
for from the debt that would enslave you he redeems you;
from the foes which would ensnare you he rescues you;
from the death that would envelop you he restores you.

This is the grace and truth which we proclaim to you.

Merry Christmas!  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sermon Wednesday Advent 1: The Four Last Things

‘The Four Last Things:’ Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven,
have been traditional themes of meditation for Advent.
This reminds us that Advent is not simply a season in which we await a celebration of Jesus’ birth,
but instead a time when we await his coming into our lives,
and his coming at the end of all things,
to judge the living and the dead.
One of my colleagues in the Society of the Holy Trinity posted this gem on her Facebook wall,
written by a Salvatorian monk:

‘Advent is concerned with the future, not the past.
Christ has already been born and all of creation was changed
when Jesus was born of Mary so many centuries ago.
If our waiting is only about looking forward
to a celebration of Jesus ‘birthday’ on December 25,
then both Advent and even Christmas will have little purpose
beyond being just another anniversary on the calendar.

But, because Advent is about looking within
and recognizing those places within us and in our world
where the darkness of sin, fear, hopelessness, and grief still flourish,
we need these blessed days
to pray and watch for the coming of the dawn of that day
when the Sun of Justice will drive the darkness away.
We watch and wait.
We light candles to remind us that the darkness is being conquered
by the One who is the Light of the World.
Above all, we hope.’
We human beings are not good at looking into the future,
especially when our present seems to be so attractive.
Perhaps some morbid people are plagued by the thoughts of their own death.
Most of us, however, have no interest in looking at death
until we have almost caught up with it,
or rather, until it has almost caught up with us.

Those who are Christians have the comfort of the passage
which we have just heard from John 11,
so often read at funerals for the benefit of a grieving family,
or pondered by those whose death draws near.
But to see this passage only as a reason to not grieve at a funeral,
or at least to grieve less,
is to miss out on the opportunity to meditate on death.
We fail to reap the rich harvest, as it were, of pondering our death.

We should meditate upon death for the simple reason that if we don’t,
death can have the power to subconsciously control our thoughts and actions,
Even if we believe that Christ has conquered death,
we are not immune to death’s spectre.
The threat of death makes us anxious
not simply about the threat of judgment and hell,
but about a life that is missing things.
‘I’ll die without really living.
Without really being in love,
or checking off everything on my bucket list,
or having corrected this and that in my life,
or seeing justice done in the world,
or having left a good enough legacy for others.’

The devil has been cheated, by the Resurrection of Christ,
of holding us in thrall to the power of death’s to destroy the soul,
but he instead uses the riches of the world
to increase the fear that we will die
without receiving all the world has to offer.

But if the real meaning of life is to be in union with God,
if death cannot threaten this,
then we are no longer in need of such thinking.
Indeed, to engage in such thinking is to give death back the power it does not have.
We see life as a process of accumulation instead of growing toward God.
In reflecting upon death, we cannot help but reflect
upon what we truly believe our life is all about,
and what we truly believe about God.

This is, of course, not the only thing we could say about death.
We might think about how death really is a gift to us,
in that death curbs the evil that human beings can do.
Can we imagine a world in which Fidel Castro, for example, was immortal?
Part of the plot in the Harry Potter series of books
is that Lord Voldemort has cheated death by splitting his soul into seven,
so that it makes him infinitely hard to kill.
The evil he may do is utterly unlimited,
unless the objects in which he has stored parts of his life are destroyed,
so that he finally may die, and his evil with him.
When he dies, then the spell of fear which he has cast over many is dispelled.
And for us who do not worship the darkness,
to realize that we will die is to embrace the faith
that there will come a time in which we can no longer sin,
in which our love for God will not be marred
by death-fearing inclinations and behavior.
Death becomes our liberation.

There are, of course, many more things to say or think about.
But perhaps it is good to end with that same passage which is read at funerals.
‘Those who believe in me, though they die, will live,
and those who live and believe in me will never die.’
It is through Christ that death becomes not an object of fear,
but an object of curiosity,
not a God, but a thing to be viewed in the light of God and his love.
We do not approach death by ourselves, but with Christ,
clothed in his life, robed in his love.
And we do not do battle with death,
but it is Christ who has battled death for us,
and who is victorious, so that when our death comes,
it is no longer the end of anything,
but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a poem he wrote in prison,
a ‘station on the way to freedom.’

‘Come now, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal,
Death, lay down your ponderous chains and earthen enclosures
walls that deceive our souls and fetter our mortal bodies,
that we might at last behold what here we are hindered from seeing.
Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, actions and suffering.

Dying, now we discern in the countenance of God your own face.’

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sermon Christ the King 11.20.16

Christ the King Year C/20 November 2016
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:33-43)

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

Matthias Grunewald’s magnificent painting ‘Crucifixion’
was originally painted for the altarpiece of the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim,
which is in what is now Eastern France.
The Monastery specialized in hospital work,
and the monks were noted for their care of those afflicted by the plague
as well as their treatment of those who had skin diseases.

Did I say that Grunewald’s painting is a masterpiece?
Maybe so, but up close it is horrible to view.

Jesus’ arms are unnaturally long, stretched to the breaking point.
His fingers, nailed through, are splayed out.
His ribs stick out from his body, as if he had been starved.
One can almost see the lungs collapsing
as his muscles, starved of oxygen, become unable to hold his body up,
and his body begins to fill with poisonous toxins.
He bleeds profusely from his head, the crown of thorns piercing his brow.
His head is bowed to one side, it is racked with pain and suffering;

But an imaginative detail added by Grunewald especially for this altarpiece is this:
Christ’s body is covered with open sores and lesions.
In adding this unhistorical detail,
Grunewald reveals a theological truth:
Christ shares everything with the sick who came to the altar
in a place separate from the world:
as they endured their own slow crucifixion,
cut off not only from the health of their bodies
but also from the love and care of family and friends,
from the daily joys and work of the world.
Isolated from everything,
with nothing but the walls to stare at,
in pain of body, mind, and spirit.

The powers of the world had left them alone.
They could give no glory to the powers of the world.
They were unsafe to the public, a source of horror,
but Jesus lived with them,
Jesus in the people that cared for them;
Jesus in the Word that was preached to them,
Jesus in the Communion which they received
with the Crucified Christ before their eyes,
in his pain and sorrow giving them a blessing.

What does it take to see Jesus as the king of the universe?
This beaten, bruised, bleeding man,
bereft of comfort, bereft of help,
with his disciples fled away,
a curiosity to the crowds,
an object of derision to the powerful ones,
an object of brutality to the violent?
Perhaps what it takes is to be on that level,
Or at least to understand that in some way one is on that level,
that we all are subject to sin and death,
and are afflicted by life.
We are subject to the powers of the world
and to shepherds that betray us.
We are blown by the winds of time and change
and deceived by those who abuse the truth.
When we are ill, people may flee from us,
and death separates us from our very selves.
But this man lives with us through it all;
in the Church that cares for us,
in the Word preached to us,
in the Communion that feeds us,
we too are comforted.

The Isenheim altarpiece does not depict
the two criminals who were put to death with Jesus.
But it only takes a little more imagination
to see them up there;
also bloodied and bowed,
the one who in his rage and despair joins the mockers;
and the one who somehow through eyes caked with blood
sees something else in the man before him.
Somehow there is a hidden majesty in him.
He does not deserve God’s punishment,
but God’s reward,
and surely somehow he will receive it.
For does not this condemned criminal with Jesus
also know the Scriptures?
Though he is unrighteous, hasn’t he also heard,
doesn’t he also believe:
‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous,
surely there is a God who rules in the earth.’ (Ps. 58)

Do we see in the naked, bleeding man
the king of the universe?
If we do, we will look not to the powers of the world for our salvation,
we will pray not to be overcome with jealous anger, rage, and despair,
we will be more interested in what we can do for others
than in what they can do for us;
we will forgive and pray for those who do not know what they do,
for we believe that we have been forgiven for what we have done,
whether knowing or unknowing;
we will see Christ in the weak, the bruised, the broken
and insofar as we are weak, bruised and broken
we will see his love for us.

Those who believe
see that the one who in his last moments on the cross
experienced every pang of hell
is the one who holds the key to Paradise.
He it is who is the faithful shepherd
and is the just and righteous branch of David
who will make all war to cease upon the earth.
He it is through whom creation came,
for whom it was made,
the image of the invisible God,
the Spirit-filled icon of the Father,
the true Messiah of the children of Abraham
who is exalted by people of all nations.
He makes them one in his body, the Church.
When he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead,
we will see him as he is,
rejoicing that the one of the hidden majesty
has revealed himself at last to us, for us.
Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sermon November 13, 2016

Proper 28/26th Sunday after Pentecost/13 November 2016
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. Luke 21:5-19 (NRSV)

Jesus looks at the Temple,
this massive symbol of the power and majesty of Israel’s God,
the pride of a proud people.
And he does not trust what he sees.

He sees with the eyes of his heart
what lurks beneath the surface
of the seemingly peaceful, mighty city.
He sees the abuse in the temple system,
corruption in high places,
the jealousies of the religious parties,
the powder-keg of violent revolution
just waiting for the spark.
The seething anger and the chaos which is to be unleashed.

He sees, and he warns the people,
Do not trust what can be seen.
What is built by human beings can be torn down.
The chaos that lurks beneath the surface of human life together
sometimes bubbles up and overflows,
taking many people with it.

When chaos happens, people often go running in search of security.
Some of them give up on planning and working for the future,
living only for the moment.
Some of them seek leaders who promise to bring the chaos under control.
Some of them, in their despair, embrace the chaos,
trusting that anger is the weapon of righteousness.
Do not go after them, Jesus says; do not panic.
I am with you, he says, to bring you through the storm.

The years after Jesus’ death were hard for the new Christians.
Like their Lord, they became the scapegoats
for all the chaos which was enveloping the world.
The Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah
were accused by their countrymen
of giving Jesus the honor which belonged to God alone.
The Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus as Messiah
were persecuted as ‘atheists,’
that is, those who refused to give honor to the gods of Rome.
Some of them were arrested, some were killed.
There were all sorts of conflicting rumors
about the end of all things and the day of judgment.
What were the new Christians to do?
Who were they to trust? And follow?

This was the message.
Trust God.
Do your daily work.
Pray without ceasing.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Be ready to bear witness.
Endure suffering.
Be ready to help those who are crushed by life.
Proclaim Christ.
It’s not that we don’t know what to do.
It’s not that God never gives us instructions.

We just think there must be more.
That we must somehow bring the chaos under control,
to control the freedom of another person
by a withering argument or righteous outrage,
to in some way alter the course of history, so that we may not suffer persecution.
Many of us seek out the opportunity to be outraged.
We lose sight of the fact that this is the devil’s greatest trap.
The evil one WANTS us to be outraged
for anger is always the seed of violent words or violent deeds.
When we worship at the altar of the false god of anger,
we always mirror the anger of the other;
becoming outraged at their outrage,
refusing to become vulnerable to their freedom.
When we do this, we prepare for ourselves suffering that is not ordained by God.

I recently read a book by Henri Nouwen about preparing for death.
(Not that I am preparing to die soon,
although in a certain sense we should all be prepared to die any moment.)
But there was a quote in there which I wrote down in case I needed it.

'We are fearful people.
We are afraid of conflict, war, an uncertain future, illness, and most of all, death.
This fear takes away our freedom
and gives our society the power to manipulate us with threats and promises.
When we can reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us
with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die,
then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take away our freedom.'

Trust God.
Do your daily work.
Pray without ceasing.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Be ready to bear witness.
Endure suffering.
Be ready to help those who are crushed by life.
Proclaim Christ.

What gives us the freedom to do that?
It is not whether my favored candidate wins,
or my preferred policies are in place.
It is not whether my body is healthy,
or whether my life will be ending soon.
It is not whether people approve of me
or disapprove of me.
When we can reach beyond our fears
to God-in-Christ,
it is then that we become truly free and free to serve others.
Many people live under political freedom
and are never free in spirit.
Many people live under tyranny 
and live with a spirit of freedom which is unquenchable,
which cannot be extinguished.
It is a spirit which allows them to act,
to be salt for the earth and light for the world,
the Holy Spirit which comes from God,

and which is given to us in abundance.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon September 11, 2016 (Holy Cross Day, Transferred)

The Holy Cross (Transferred from September 14)                                                11 September 2016
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III STS                               St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh PA

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

It confronts us, lying on its side, when we come through the door for worship on Thursday night. After most of us leave, some of us haul it to the front of the church and set it upright in front of the altar. When we come back the next day, it is the only furnishing in the room. We cannot escape from it. It draws our attention, commands our eyes to look upon that which we would rather avoid, the sign of our rebellion and the suffering that rebellion caused God.

But, for all of that, the Good Friday service is not a service of despair. The focus is not upon the wrath of God against the sinners who put him to death. Instead, even as we intone ‘Lord, have mercy;’ even as we hear and chant and sing of the death of the Lord at the hands of sinners, we hear and chant and sing of the love of God, who made that awful Friday ‘Good.’

We hear of the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53, who is not acclaimed but rather rejected, and yet by his suffering redeems those for whom he suffered.

We celebrate the victorious Lord of John 18 and 19, who turns Pilate’s questioning on its head, who carries his own burden to the Place of the Skull, who cries ‘It is accomplished,’ with his dying breath.

We sing of the Tree of Death which becomes, by God’s grace, the Tree of Life: ‘Behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the Savior of the whole world; O come, let us worship him.’

And, in the words of Hymn 118,

Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit your equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For your burden makes us free.

Do we see? God himself comes to us in the most unlikely of places. It has to be this way, if God is God-with-us. If God were god for himself, if he simply reigned above the world in blissful perfection, distant from us and to us, and he demanded that we must ascend to his perfection, then the cross would not be necessary. Indeed, it would be foolishness. But God in his wisdom, in his being-for-us, made it otherwise.

It is necessary, for we are all irretrievably caught up in this beloved but unholy world; a world of innocents being put to death and those who put them to death. It is necessary for God-with-us to be with us not where we are at our best, but where we are at our worst – the intersection of indifferent and corrupt religion, power politics, injustice and oppression, torture and humiliation, physical expiration. It is necessary for God to triumph over sin, evil, and death at the place where they would shout their victory the loudest.
The serpent of death became the sign of life for the ancient Israelites. Wrapped up in their sin in the desert and afflicted by that sin, they turned their eyes to the serpent, seeing in that poisonous sign God’s inoculation of their disease. In that foreshadowing, we see the cross, and it becomes not death but life for us. 
It is on Good Friday, confronted with the holy, life-giving cross, that we understand the fullness of what Jesus, the man-for-others, the God-with-us, says to Nicodemus: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’

Martin Luther says, ‘You must think only of Christ’s death, and you will find life…the image of grace is nothing other than Christ crucified, and all His dear saints…Christ on the cross takes away your sin and carries it for you and destroys it. That is grace and mercy. Believe firmly in it, have it before your eyes and do not doubt it. That is to behold the image of grace and form it in yourself…Thus Christ is the image of life and grace, and over against the picture of death He is our bliss and gratitude.[1]

Thomas Traherne writes, ‘If Love be the weight of the Soul, and its object the centre, all eyes and hearts may convey and turn unto this Object: cleave unto this centre, and by it enter into rest. There we might see all nations assembled with eyes and hearts upon it. There we may see God’s goodness, wisdom and power: yea his mercy and anger displayed. There we may see man’s sin and infinite value. His hope and fear, his misery and happiness. There we might see the Rock of Ages, and the joys of heaven…’[2]

On this day, as on Good Friday, we turn our eyes to the Holy Cross, seeing there not the defeat of humanity, but the victory of God, We pray that we may always hold that cross, and him who hung upon it, before the eyes of faith until the day we enter into the fullness of the kingdom he has won for us.

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

[1] Martin Luther, Sermon on Preparing to Die, from Day by Day We Magnify Thee, ed. Margarete Steiner. Fortress, Philadelphia, 1982, p. 142.
[2] Thomas Traherne, Centuries, from Philip Pfatteicher, New Festivals and Commemorations. Fortress, Minneapolis, 2008, p. 447.