[Homily] Advent Hope

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There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…

Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:1-10


For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” And again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15:4-13

 In our backyard in North Carolina we had a bunch of fruit trees—apples, pears, and peach. One of our peach trees stood at the very back of the garden. So far back that I rarely paid any attention to it. It was in a place that made it hard for me to get my lawn mower around it–especially when the tree was covered with leaves and fruit.

One day I decided to take my chainsaw to it, and turn it into firewood. I cut it all the way down to ground level–just level with the tops of the grass. I could get by with my lawn mower, and life was good.

Several months later I was mowing the grass and I noticed something. Sprouting up from the base of the cut-down tree was a young sapling. A shoot was reaching skyward—the start of a new tree was beginning. God makes new things grow out of old and broken down things.

Isaiah uses this image–the tree stump–to talk about God’s fulfillment of his promise to David, and their fulfillment in the birth of Christ.

          “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…”

King David was Jesse’s son, and David’s dynasty had come to an end. The line of David had failed—it was a cut-down tree.

Just a chapter earlier the Prophet proclaims that God had lopped down the boughs of Jerusalem with terrifying power. In exercising his judgment against Jerusalem and its King, God has brought them to nothing.

Yet, in the very next chapter we’re told that God’s plan didn’t end there. No, God was not yet finished with David’s line nor was he finished with Israel

David’s line would one day come to prominence again and Israel be restored through Jesus the Messiah who is the fresh growth, the sprout, of the lineage of David.

God had made a promise or covenant to David that he would be the Lord’s anointed and King of Israel—to that end he had been anointed by Samuel (see 1 Samuel 16:13).

Yet, David died and his lineage ended.

There are times—aren’t there—when we begin to wonder if God is really going to keep the promises that he has made to us.

It must have felt that way to Israel as they wandered in the desert for forty years.

It must have seemed that way across the 400 years of silence that elapsed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of thew New.

Yet. God always keeps his promises.

It doesn’t always seem clear when or how he will keep them, but God will keep his promises: to Israel; to the church; and to you.

Our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans both quotes the prophet, and also shows us why–at least in part–we have been given the Scriptures. We need instruction; we need encouragement; and that we need hope.

Hope comes from believing God—from saying despite appearances, what God has said is true; and God will do as He has said.

Hope springs from faith. And our faith is strengthened as we see the ways in which God was faithful to generations before us in the pages of the Scripture.

And in those same pages we are instructed in all that we need to know of God, of ourselves, and of the world.

Earlier this week my kids asked me what about Christmas makes me the most excited?

My answer was instantaneous: My favorite thing about Christmas is putting you two kids to sleep on Christmas Eve and seeing the excitement and the magic in your eyes.

In our hyper-connected, over-informed, and generally cynical world, we don’t often get to experience anything magical, mysterious, or sublime.

We ingest data packets, take our coffee on the go, and move from one thing to another with a speed that would, a century ago, have been unthinkable.

In an age of science and technology we think that “seeing is believing,” and that there is little or nothing beyond our sense perceptions.

We so often forget that we are living in a world that is charged with God’s grandeur; that is home to millions of souls that will live everlastingly; that interfaces with a spiritual realm; and whose history is moving towards the purposes God has for set for it before the foundation of the world.

We so easily forget that Advent and Christmas are a profound part of God’s working in our world and in our lives—it’s the story that stands behind the story of our world and of our lives. At Christmas, the edge is peeled back and we get to see something of how God is at work in our world. Let’s pay attention for the magic.

And May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

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



Concerning the Presidential election

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A friend counseled clergy that we should avoid commenting on any election result until at least a week after the result.

That’s probably good advice; it’s also advice I’m going to ignore.

This has been a difficult election season for all of us, and its outcome is itself difficult for many of us. It has shown that our nation is divide to an extent that few of us realized just days ago.

Mr. Trump has pulled off a stunning upset–one of “Brexit” proportions, so to speak.

Honestly, I’m gobsmacked.

I struggled this morning to explain to my children why someone so habitually demeaning, so palpably angry, and so perpetually dismissive could be elected to the highest office in our land.

It’s surprising that a human being should be any or all of these things. What’s surprising is that most people feel the intuitive need to conceal it beneath a veil of what’s commonly called civility.

Many will say–and with merit–that Secretary Clinton most of these things as well. Yet the fact that she reserved these unsavory characteristics to the private sphere was, at least, a tacit acknowledgment that they were vices.

On the contrary, President-elect Trump made brazen virtue of profound vice. And this has understandably produced fear in those groups who have been the subject of Mr. Trump’s ire.

There have been rallies overnight, and there have been protests.

In the wee hours the President-elect made some effort to extend an olive branch–albeit an awkward and poorly-phrased one–to those whom he has alienated.

It was a small step.

It showed restraint.

Regardless of one’s politics or one’s view of Mr. Trump, he is the President-elect. And I pray God that he turns out to be worthy of that office.




Here I stand

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Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.

Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
  4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
  5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
  6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
  7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.
  8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
  9. Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
  10. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.
  11. Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept (Mt 13:25).
  12. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
  13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
  14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.
  15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
  16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
  17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.
  18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
  19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
  20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.
  21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
  22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.
  23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
  24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.
  25. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish.
  26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.
  27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
  28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
  29. Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed, since we have exceptions in St. Severinus and St. Paschal, as related in a legend.
  30. No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.
  31. The man who actually buys indulgences is as rare as he who is really penitent; indeed, he is exceedingly rare.
  32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
  33. Men must especially be on guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.
  34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.
  35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.
  36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
  38. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said (Thesis 6), the proclamation of the divine remission.
  39. It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition.
  40. A Christian who is truly contrite seeks and loves to pay penalties for his sins; the bounty of indulgences, however, relaxes penalties and causes men to hate them — at least it furnishes occasion for hating them.
  41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.
  42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.
  43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
  44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.
  45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
  46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
  47. Christians are to be taught that they buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.
  48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
  49. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
  50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
  52. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.
  53. They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
  54. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.
  55. It is certainly the pope’s sentiment that if indulgences, which are a very insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
  56. The true treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.
  57. That indulgences are not temporal treasures is certainly clear, for many indulgence sellers do not distribute them freely but only gather them.
  58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.
  59. Lawrence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
  60. Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure.
  61. For it is clear that the pope’s power is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and cases reserved by himself.
  62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
  63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16).
  64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
  65. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.
  66. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.
  67. The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain.
  68. They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.
  69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence.
  70. But they are much more bound to strain their eyes and ears lest these men preach their own dreams instead of what the pope has commissioned.
  71. Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.
  72. But let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence preachers be blessed.
  73. Just as the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences.
  74. Much more does he intend to thunder against those who use indulgences as a pretext to contrive harm to holy love and truth.
  75. To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.
  76. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.
  77. To say that even St. Peter if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.
  78. We say on the contrary that even the present pope, or any pope whatsoever, has greater graces at his disposal, that is, the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written. (1 Co 12[:28])
  79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
  80. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.
  81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.
  82. Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
  83. Again, “Why are funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continued and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded for them, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
  84. Again, “What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, beca use of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love’s sake?”
  85. Again, “Why are the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in actual fact and through disuse, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences as though they were still alive and in force?”
  86. Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
  87. Again, “What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?”
  88. Again, “What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?”
  89. “Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his indulgences, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons previously granted when they have equal efficacy?”
  90. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.
  91. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.
  92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)
  93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
  94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
  95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).


Remember we are dust

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“For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.”
Ps. 103 v. 14

Tuesdays are always tiring for me. The days starts with dropping the kids at the bus stop at 7:35. Most days I head into the office by 8:00 and then meetings begin at 9:30. In the afternoon I leave for Philadelphia for a graduate class which meets from 2:00-4:00, and then I jump back on 309 north to Bethlehem, usually getting home with time enough to eat dinner before leaving for Cub Scouts at 6:15 until about 8:00.

It’s a long day. I doubt that what I’ve recounted here is markedly different from what many of you experience regularly.

There’s nothing wrong with long days. There’s nothing wrong with hard work. Like most things in life, however, wisdom comes in finding what Aristotle called “the golden mean”–the desirable and virtuous middle between two extremes, one of deficiency and the other of excess.

Some of us battle the temptation to work at all hours, neglecting our families, our health, our spiritual lives, our friends. Our culture rewards this, and the workaholic receives almost instant gratification. It’s easy to become self-righteously busy.

Others–sometimes those who in the past have been workaholic–struggle with a deficiency in work. Ministry is, for them, a retreat with work inserted periodically. The boundaries around work time are strict and inflexible. Generous time off is taken in whenever a time boundary appears to have been transgressed. It’s possible to become self-righteously indolent.

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve probably been at both of these extremes for limited periods at different times during my twelve years of vocation Christian ministry.

Do we have to choose between frenetic activity or indolence? 

I don’t think so.

God knows that we have limits, and that each of us has different limits. In this series of posts, we’ll unpack a single idea in various different ways:

Each of us is called to live and work sacrificially and to the glory of God


That sacrifice must be sustainable

If we are to be living sacrifices, there must be a way for us to live sacrificially and do so in a sustainable way, a way that doesn’t extinguish the flame of our faith, exhaust our physical strength, or destroy us emotionally.

Join me to explore what that kind of faith looks like.

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