Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christ and the Economics of Christmas

Over the weekend it was reported that US retailers saw a profit of about $52 billion as as 226 million shoppers took to the malls this past (Black) Friday. The numbers were higher than expected (about 74 million more shoppers than predicted) and set records for sales. Economic analysts are hoping this is a good sign.

Over the past several years everyone has felt the economic pinch of recession. People have been out of work, businesses have been forced to close, those who kept their jobs have had to take a cut in pay. Everyone is hoping that this year is the year we turn the corner and go back to better and more profitable times. Yet, there are those who believe the records set by holiday shoppers are based on false hope and misplaced optimism.

Our current recession did not happen by accident. It was a credit bubble that got us here. People were overconfident in their ability to pay back loans taken out to buy homes and cars and hdtv's that they couldn't afford. When it came time to pay back the loans, they did not have the cash and so they defaulted. On the surface it appeared that the economy was booming, but it was based on promises to pay that could not be met. Since the bubble burst, we have all had to cut back and tighten our belts. We have had to live in our current homes, drive our old cars and watch our old tv's. We want to go back. We want what we had a decade ago. We want free spending and big piles of packages under the tree at Christmas.

Christians know that Christmas is CHRISTmas, it is the worship of the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God who has come to save the world from sin. He comes with salvation and he comes to bring peace on earth and good will toward men; but he comes bringing heavenly blessings and heavenly salvation for a heavenly kingdom. He comes to bring forgiveness and eternal life. There is a competing god who comes at Christmas. He brings gifts, but they are earthly and material. They are wrapped in paper and come with low monthly payments but a high interest rate. We are all looking for our god to come at Christmas, but not everyone calls him Christ!

 People who know more than I do have predicted that our economy is still over-valued. They are predicting the likelihood of a further fall from economic glory. The bottom could completely fall out. The optimism on display over the weekend could be just the thing to send us back down into the depths of recession - people bank on optimism and false hope instead of cash in hand and money in the bank. It wouldn't take much to restart the tumble.

 Yet still we are told to spend. Christmas is coming, go shopping. Keep the economy moving. Spend your way to salvation! But isn't that what got us into the recession in the first place?

 For Christians, this serves as a good reminder. False gods don't ever provide what they promise. They are always built on a false hope and give promises that they cannot keep, and like a high interest rate on a credit card, there are always strings attached. You will have to pay and when you can't, when the bubble bursts you are left with nothing.

 But the other god, the true and Triune God, he also comes at Christmas. He comes with real love and with real salvation. He comes, not to give you everything on your wish list, but instead to give you what you need; forgiveness and salvation from sin, the promise of eternal life free from judgment and just punishment. He comes to serve and to heal and to protect and to save. His gifts are free, with no strings attached, no hidden interest rates. Not backdoor fees, just free.

A friend of mine just made it back from a trip to a national retailer. He was wished a generic "happy holidays" by a clerk who admitted to having been instructed not to mention Christmas. How sad. The one who came on the first Christmas is kept from the celebration of the current one. He has been replaced by another god. Yet, of the two gods coming, both promising to bring salvation on Christmas, only one will deliver a salvation that will last and a salvation that will matter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Come Ye Thankful

This is the text of the sermon I preached for Thanksgiving
Grace mercy and peace be to your from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
An almost universal favorite out of all the thanksgiving hymns is the hymn Come You Thankful People Come. It is a thanksgiving classic. From its harvest theme to its familiar tune, it is well loved and enjoyed especially this time of year. While this hymn is thoughtful and meaningful in it presentation of the harvest of earthly goods that we celebrate on Thanksgiving, there is a more profound message in this hymn. We will explore those themes this evening as our meditation is guided by the text of the hymn. We will sing the first stanza now:

Come you thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home
All be safely gathered in ere the winter storms begin
God our maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied
Come to Gods own temple come raise the song of harvest home

Come You Thankful People Come is a harvest hymn. And harvest is a time of celebration. You who are farmers know just how much planning and preparation went in to those fields. There is the plowing and planting, pre-planting prep work that is done in the fields before the seeds can be sewn. The seed is purchased and then planted in the soil for what you hope will be an abundant year. But you never know. You do the best you can to buy the best seed, make the fields the most hospitable for that seed, you put it in the ground, pray that the weather doesn’t too anything too extreme and then hope for the best. Some might say farming is a gamble. Others might say it’s an exercise of faith. But then, when the work is done, the crops have grown and ripened, all the work of harvest is complete and the grain is in the barn, there is joy and relief. There is money in the bank and bread on the table for another year. It’s a time to thanks God for his goodness and to be glad for the blessings of the year.
All of this is evident in the first stanza of our hymn. Come you thankful people. Raise the song of harvest! It’s done. And It’s time to celebrate. God has provided for our needs, he has supplied our wants. He has given us reason to sing.

All the world is God’s own field, fruit onto his praise to yield
wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown
first the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear
Lord of harvest grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be

There is a solidarity that the farmer shares with the Lord; both after all are farmers. Both have gone out into the world to sew seeds hoping for a fruitful harvest but all the while fully acknowledging that where the seeds have been sewn there are also weeds that will grow. While you sew your seed into the ground, our Lord sews the seeds of his Word of life into the hearts of men, so that the seeds will produce a yield of faith – so that Christians will grow up from these seeds who will mature and ripen and produce fruit. Some seeds will produce a yield. But some will not. Jesus tells us that Satan sews weeds in the Lord’s field. Fruitless stalks that mimic the wheat, but that have no faith and produce no fruit. Lord may we be those stalks that carry the grain! May we be counted among the faithful and the fruitful. May we hear your Word, take it to heart, believe it and live it so that on the last day we might be considered wholesome and pure.

For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take his harvest home,
From his field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Give his angels charge at last, in the fire the tares to cast
But the fruitful ears to store, in his garner evermore.

These past weeks you have been out in the fields. And to your joy, from what I have been told ,the Lord has blessed you with an abundant harvest. In spite of the wet spring and the late planting, God provided the conditions that were just right for your crops to grow and be fruitful. God knows what he is doing.The days are coming when our Lord will go out into his harvest field. Jesus even said to his disciples that the harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Who will go out into the fields? Just like the Lord has provided heat and light and moisture for the corn and soybeans to grow, the Lord has provided just the right amounts of the necessary things for faith to mature and grow. Luther taught that faith matures from meditation, prayer and testing (or temptation).

Just like the plants require moisture and sunshine for their growth, Christians require the Word of God and prayer for their refreshing and growth. Christians receive the Word as it is given by God just like the soil soaks up the rain. But then, after the crops have received that refreshing, they require heat, some nice warm days to really get those seed to germinate and to push those seedlings into mature corn or wheat or beans. And so do we. We need just the right amount of heat, we need our faith to be tested through temptations and trials. To accomplish this our Lord turns up the heat, he sends trials and temptations to us that make us grow, that help us to mature in faith by teaching us just how desperate we are for Jesus, so that we receive his gifts and are thirsty for more. And then, when the Lord sends out his angels on the last day to bring in his harvest he will find you mature and ready and fruitful.

Even so Lord quickly come to your final harvest home.
Gather now your people in, free from sorrow free from sin
There forever purified, in your garner to abide
Come with all your angels comes raise the glorious harvest home.

Driving around earlier today I could see a good number of fields that have been harvested. The crops have been brought in, the grain has been stored away or sold and the field is lying there waiting for the winter to come. But not all. There are a few still to be harvested before the winter comes. Until that time there is work to be done.Likewise with our Lord’s fields. He has brought in his harvest from the seeds that have been planted, but not all. There are still fields with crops standing waiting to be brought in out of the cold of the world and in protection from the winter to come. The cold winter of the Lord’s judgment is coming. It will be here soon. May we work while there is still time so that no one is lost and no grain is wasted.Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration. Tomorrow as we are gathered around our tables we will be giving thanks to God for all that he has provided throughout the year, he has blessed us greatly and abundantly. Our thanksgiving feast, as good and rich as it will be, is only a poor comparison to the feast that we will enjoy on the last day, when the Lord of the harvest has brought in his harvest from his fields, where we will celebrate with him forever.Amen.And now may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Veteran's Day

Marysville Ohio has a Veterans Day Memorial Program every year. This year I was privileged to be asked to offer an invocation and a benediction. This is what I wrote: Dear Friends and Fellows Citizens, I would like to begin with a word of thanks. I am truly honored to be here, to address you today. I am here on behalf of the clergy of our county and it is my privilege to offer an invocation; to call on the name of God and request that he bless our nation, its citizens, its leaders, those who serve and especially on this day, those who have served to defend her. On this Veteran’s Day, we ask God to offer his protection to our Nation’s Armed Forces even as they have risked themselves for our protection. May God be with them all. St Paul the Apostle, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote these words concerning those who govern us. He said, “They are God's servants for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:3-4 ESV) If we are to have rulers with the power to bear the sword then here must be a hand to hold that sword. A hand that is strong and ready to wield its power at the very moment it becomes necessary. And if there is to be such a hand, there must be soldiers, men and women trained and equipped to fight, who are prepared to operate the machines and the weapons of war so that those who do wrong might receive just recompense. Because here, in the exercise of justice, law abiding citizens are kept safe so that we can go about our lives and conduct our business without threat, both to our safety and our way of life. Therefore, on this Veterans Day we gladly honor the men and women who have served as the hand on the sword ready to pick it up and fight for us and our way of life when threatened by our enemies. I invite you to pray with me if you wish. O Lord, our Heavenly Father, You are a God who prefers justice over injustice, order over chaos, and peace over conflict. I pray on this day that you would ensure that our nation be a people committed to upholding justice, maintaining order and promoting peace both within our own land and throughout the world. Lord, I pray that you would curb all wickedness and sin among us. Bring justice where there is injustice. Bring order where there is upheaval; bring peace where there is conflict. Lord, I give you thanks that you have provided our nation with authorities to govern. May they be servants committed to the peace and general welfare of all people. Lord you have given to our authorities the power to maintain order. So that there may be peace and order you have provided the men and women of the Armed Forces. On this day I give special thanks to you for our veterans. I thank you for their willing service and their resolute dedication. May the citizens of our nation honor them for their service, respect them for their courage, and emulate them for their selflessness. Finally Lord, I ask your blessing on our proceedings this day. May our attitudes and actions reflect the honor that is due those who have served with honor, even as you have served us through their hands to provide for our protection and for all that we need to support this body and life. I pray this and all things in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Benediction I am privileged to serve as the pastor of St Paul Chuckery Lutheran church and School. St Paul is a congregation formed in the Lutheran tradition, borrowing its name from the 16th Century reformer, Dr Martin Luther. Martin Luther was a theology professor but he was also a pastor and it happened that one who was employed as a soldier came to Pastor Luther with a troubled conscience due to the often violent nature of his vocation. The work of a warrior,after all, involves fighting, and at times even killing. Pastor Luther wrote to this man a letter hoping to calm his conscience and allay his fears. In his letter of response, Dr Luther wrote to him that the office and work of a soldier is honored and instituted by God, that ultimately it is God's work and God's judgment executed in the world to punish those who do wrong and protect those who do right. Elsewhere Luther writes that peace and good government are gifts of God provided for us just as he provides for us our daily needs of food and clothing and a place to live. [SC LP 4th Petition] Clearly without the work and the service provided by our soldiers, both active and retired, our world would be much more dangerous and much less hospitable for honest work and good living. We owe our armed forces a great debt. Union County Ohio is a peaceful community. We have the freedom to assemble here together today giving honor to our veterans, and not one of us is afraid to be here. We are here of our own choice and by our own free will. No one has forced us to come or threatened us if we chose to stay home. Yet even in our own day there are nations around the world whose citizens do not have the same freedom. They do not have freedom to assemble,freedom to speak their mind, freedom to pray to the god of their choosing. We can give thanks to God that we enjoy these freedoms and we can give thanks to God that he has provided us with the men and women willing to serve to protect these freedoms. As we make our way back to our jobs and to our homes let us give thanks to the men and women who have served, often at great risk and always at great cost; as we go home to our families may we remember those who because of their service are separated from theirs; as we leave this assembly to assemble again in our free houses of worship and prayer let us give praise and honor to God who has instituted this right and good office, who defends us from dis order and chaos, who provides for our peace, and who serves us with honorable men and women willing to take up arms and go to fight so that we can live here in peace and prosperity. May the God of all peace and all comfort bless our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.