Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Abiding in a Time of Riots (Reflections on Easter 5 Year B)


“I see you’re reading the right book for this morning,” the old man said in his thick German accent. He was standing behind me as I paid my breakfast bill at a Denny’s Restaurant in L.A. in early May of 1992. The night before, the city had exploded into violence when it was announced that several white police officers had been acquitted for beating a black man named Rodney King.
 

The book I happened to be reading at that time was a biography of Adolf Hitler.
 

The old German went on: “We fled Germany in 1937. When times are crazy, people will do crazy things.”
 

“I don’t think we will ever elect someone like Hitler here in America,” I said.
 

“We didn’t think so either,” the old man replied.
 

I remember that morning well. If I close my eyes I can still see the black smoke over the freeway and smell the ashes in the air. I remember the National Guardsman with his M16 patrolling by a boarded up and vandalized store front just down the block from the college where I taught night class. I remember the grocery store closed and locked and the ATM’s shut down and the signs explaining that this was due to “the civil unrest.” And I remember feeling really pissed off. And I felt it all again this week watching the scenes from the riots in Baltimore on TV.
 

The old German was right. When times are crazy, people will do crazy things. And there’s a very thin line separating peaceful normality from insanity. It takes, it seems, only a single incident to detonate an explosion that has been primed for a very long time. What response is appropriate from people of the Christian faith?
 

The appointed lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter 5 Year B seem to speak to me about our current situation in America. We are told in the Gospel reading (John 15:1-8) that we are to abide (that is, make our home, live, dwell, be constantly rooted) in Christ.
 

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
 

And how do we know we are abiding? The Second Lesson (1 John 4:7-21) explains:
 

“…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4: 12-13)
 

At moments of great anger like this it’s pretty hard to abide in love for our fellow human beings. There is pent-up rage from those who feel trapped in poverty and oppressed by a system of exclusion. There is also fear and anger and disgust at the sight of those who let wanton anger lead them to acts of vandalism, thievery, and destruction which violate the laws of God and civilized society. We can only get past the lines which separate us if we are willing to abide in Christ.
 

It has been twenty-three years since the riots in Los Angeles, and yet the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland indicate to me that we have not grown up as a nation, and have not learned anything from past failures. We can point all the fingers we want, create all the public policy we want, and pass all the laws we want, but nothing will change unless we learn to abide in Christ. Apart from him we can do nothing, and our reactions will only be reflections of our angry and fearful selves.
 

To abide in Christ will mean to recognize that God crossed the divide and shared all of our human suffering, prompting us to cross our own social divides and experience open empathy. In the First Lesson from last week’s lectionary, Peter and John crossed a divide by taking a man who was a beggar—one living on public assistance and, subsequently, outcast from the community—and restored him to independence and fellowship. In a pericope which precedes this week’s First Lesson, the same two apostles cross another boundary and share the Gospel with the hated Samaritans. In the lesson assigned for Easter 5 (Acts 8:26-40), Philip, prompted by an angel of the Lord and at God’s behest, welcomes into fellowship a man of a different race, a different nationality, and a different sexual orientation—a man who would otherwise be refused fellowship in the existing culture.
 

I don’t think we’ll ever elect a fascist government here in America, but without a spiritual awakening, all I see is constant repeat of the frustration and anger we’ve seen in the past. Jesus did not come to create an earthly kingdom. Jesus came to bring us to true repentance when we experience his love, his suffering, his resurrection, and his forgiveness. Nothing changes unless our hearts are changed first.
 

Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Touchdown in the Name of Jesus (Reflections on Easter 4, Year B)



I guess the big news around Philadelphia this week is the decision by Coach Chip Kelly to sign the deeply pious if somewhat inaccurate Tim Tebow as a new quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. The 27-year-old Heisman winner is renown for the reverential posture he takes upon those occasions (and there actually have been some) when he completes a touchdown pass. The quarterback will drop to his knees, bow his head, and point upwards as a sign that he is giving God the glory. Granted, there are some who may find this display of zeal a bit excessive or maybe even a tad on the ridiculous side. After all, doesn't God have more important prayers to attend to than Tebow's pass completion? In fact, some makers of Philly's signature snack, the soft pretzel, have begun to twists pretzels into the shape of a kneeling Tebow--a creation which I somehow doubt is meant entirely as a compliment.

But giving God the glory or performing any act in the name of Jesus is just the subject of the first lesson in this week's Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 4:5-12). Here we see the apostles Peter and John who have just scored a pretty big "touchdown" by healing a man crippled from birth who has been begging at the gates of the Jerusalem temple all of his life. This act of healing not only brings the man from dependence to self-sufficiency for the first time in his life, but also raises him out of the shadow of being an outcast--one believed to be cursed by God with his affliction--and places him back within the community. Naturally, the two disciples give God the glory and proudly announce that they have performed this wondrous act in the name of Jesus. The crowd (about five thousand people according to verse 4) goes wild.

Unfortunately for our heroes, this acclaim manages to attract the attention of the ruling elite who promptly have  the two miracle-workers arrested and see to it that they spend the night in the slammer. The following day the boys are interrogated, and Peter--filled with the Holy Spirit as the scripture tells us--proclaims to his captors that he and John have done their work by the authority and in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

"...for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." (v.12)

This intelligence sits uneasily on the authorities. They're perfectly okay with beggars getting healed, but just not in the name of Jesus. They let the boys go, but order them not to do any more miracles or preach anymore in that particular name. Peter and John promptly ignore this injunction, of course, but you can read the rest of this story later. But for now, let me talk a little about the authority of Jesus' name.

Just what is it about acting in Jesus' name? I'd have to say that Jesus' name carries ultimate authority because it is the name of the Good Shepherd (Yes! I finally got around to the Gospel lesson, John 10:11-18) who "lays down his life for the sheep." This act of sacrificial love--the most passionate and honest type of love there can be--differentiates the authority of Jesus from any other authority.

In the world of the text which John's readers would clearly understand, the word "shepherd" was another synonym for "leader." That is, a shepherd of the people was charged with leading the nation but also with its ultimate welfare. In the tenth chapter of John's Gospel Jesus notes those who only come to abuse the sheep for their own purposes (the "thieves" in verse 10) and those who may not seem abusive but don't really care about the welfare of the sheep as much as they care about their own interests (the "hired men" of verse13). In the hired men analogy, the religious leaders of Jesus' time would surely have recognized themselves. They were so busy preserving the sheep pen--the religious institution--that they forgot about the sheep it was meant to serve.

Recently, I officiated a funeral for a very devout Roman Catholic lady who, in spite of her religious zeal, refused to allow a Catholic priest to preside at her memorial. She had grown disgusted after the sexual abuses scandals of recent years by priests and church officials who seemed more interested in protecting the church from lawsuits than in defending and healing the wounded sheep. Indeed, if we act in the name of the Good Shepherd and accept its authority, we must also accept the responsibility which goes with the name. We can't be selfish, fearful, angry, bitter, or vindictive in Jesus' name. Rather, we are called to do all things in the spirit of loving sacrifice which his name evokes. As our second lesson for this Sunday reminds us,

"We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 3: 16-17)

Our challenge is to do all things in Jesus' name. What would it be like if we started the day by praying, "Lord Jesus, let me live in your name today?" Try it.

And if Tim Tebow wants to throw footballs in the name of Jesus, I say more power to him. I'd rather look silly for Jesus than anyone else. Wouldn't you?

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts this week. Please drop by again.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Too Good to be True? (Reflections on Easter 3, Year B)



“While in their joy they were disbelieving…” (Luke 24:41a)

I don’t know about you, but I frequently find myself living in a state of denial. Here’s an example. Back in my show-biz, Hollywood days I was rehearsing a play at a small theater in Burbank. I was called from the set by the arrival of two guests—my buddy Rich (who was visiting with me at the time from Wisconsin) and my neighbor and brother-in-law Bruce. These two had rushed to the theater and interrupted my rehearsal because they had important news to tell me that they figured I should hear without any delay. 

It seems that Rich had been snoozing on my sofa when he heard my phone ring and the answering machine pick up (Remember answering machines? This was about twenty-five years ago, so younger readers may not know what I’m talking about). The voice which recorded a message belonged to my agent, who was calling to tell me that I’d just gotten a recurring role on a network soap opera and that I should return the call immediately. Rich, good pal that he was (and still is), ran next door to my sister and brother-in-law’s apartment. Rich didn’t have a car, so Bruce drove him to the theater to proclaim my good fortune.

I should have been overjoyed by this news, but, instead, I acted like a total jerk and accused the lads of making this story up just to jerk me around. Like Doubting Thomas I insisted upon proof before I could rejoice. This was the career move I had longed for, but somehow I just couldn’t believe that it was really coming true. I called my agent, who confirmed it, and then apologized, to my friends whom I had wronged.

In this Sunday’s appointed Gospel in the revised Common Lectionary, we have that beautiful juxtaposition of both joy and doubt. The disciples just can’t wrap their brains around the goodness and power of God. Eternal life, eternal love, the ongoing soul living forever in the mercy and forgiveness of God just sounds too good to be true, so Jesus has to jump through a hoop to convince them.

Funny, but I still face a protective sense of denial with my congregation in Northeast Philadelphia. God has been overwhelmingly merciful to us over the last fifty-five years, but I just get the feeling we don’t really believe it. We seem to take a pusillanimous shelter in our low expectations, and we say dumb-ass things like, “If we give more outreach money, we’ll fall short on our bills,” or “Young people just don’t want to come to church,” or “People don’t feel comfortable going to Bible study,” or “Our people can’t give any more in offering than they do already,” or “Nobody wants to volunteer anymore.” We seem to find a bizarre form of comfort in our sense of powerlessness.

But aren’t we denying the power of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel to change our lives and our stagnant culture? I mean, c’mon, folks..! We either believe the promise of Scripture or we don’t. If we believe, we should challenge ourselves and others a lot more than we do.

Okay. I’ve already admitted it. I’m as much in denial as anybody else (which, considering the life I lead is not a particularly good thing!), but faith still teaches me this:

Christians are called to be simultaneously joyful and believing. How can we live if we are not?

I hope this was little food for thought this week. Thanks for dropping by, friends.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Thomas' Beautiful Doubt (Reflections on Easter 2, Year B)


Doubting Thomas painted by Caravaggio

Don’t you dig Thomas? He’s a pretty straight shooter if you ask me. He’s one of the few apostles who emerge as a personality in the Gospels. Actually, if I’m accurate, he emerges as a personality in John’s Gospel and he’s only a name in the other three. But he takes center stage on this Sunday after Easter when he earns his nickname of “Doubting Thomas.”

We see Thomas’ character break out in John chapter 11 when Jesus declares that he’s going back to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. The other disciples advise the Lord against this trip as the Judeans haven’t exactly embraced him with love and kisses. In fact, they were perfectly willing to stone him to death as a blasphemer. Seeing that Jesus can’t be talked out of this journey, Thomas rather fatalistically tells the rest of the posse, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11 v.16) Now, this is either some pretty brave talk from a guy who looks forward to being remembered as a martyr, or a darn rational assessment of what loyalty to Jesus really means. Either way, it’s straight talk and you have to admire the guy for speaking his mind.

In John 14, Thomas pipes up again when Jesus informs the twelve that he’s going to the Father, and they know the way he is going. (Jn. 14:1-7) I imagine Thomas shaking his head with a big “Say what..??” kind of look on his face. He takes this saying of Jesus’ very literally. “Lord, we don’t know where the heck you’re going. Do you really expect us to know how to get there?” But Jesus, of course, is speaking about the spiritual way, the process of being, which draws us to reconciliation with God. I love that Thomas doesn’t seem to get it, but, again, you have to love him for speaking up. He doesn’t just nod his head and look like he’s digging it when he doesn’t understand. He’s simple, but he’s honest.

And so, we can’t blame Thomas too much when he can’t seem to wrap his head around the news of Jesus’ resurrection in this week’s Gospel lesson (Jn. 20: 19-31). Stuff like this just doesn’t happen in his world view. And why would he want to believe something which sounds good but could only lead to more of the hurt he’s already experienced should it prove not to be true? So I respect the old boy for his doubts.

There are two beautiful take-aways in this story, I think. First, Thomas wants to see Jesus’ wounds. This may seem like cruel voyeurism, but it’s not the same as slowing down to look at a car wreck on the freeway. I don’t think we ever really know someone until we’ve seen them hurt. When we see others’ wounds and realize that they suffer just as we do, we grow in empathy for them, and that makes us love them more. Perfection is just not relatable. A perfect, impervious god is just too far away from us for us to know how to love him. We love Jesus because he gets us—he’s suffered every way we’ll suffer. He knows us, and when we see him on the cross we know him, too.

But the real beauty of this story might be the importance of doubt. We should be grateful to old Thomas for simply voicing the question we all have: Is this real?

Here we see Jesus at his most tender. He’s willing to prove things to Thomas, but he gently takes him to task by saying that those who have no proof of the resurrection are even more blessed when they believe it.

Why?

Because those who have not seen but move forward anyway have true faith. Faith requires a level of uncertainty.

Without faith, we take no chances. We only rely on what we know in certainty. And how boring is that..? Look at the Hebrew Scripture lesson assigned for this week, Acts 4:32-35. Here those whacky early Christians take a kamikaze plunge into a radical way of living. They actually give up all of their earthly possessions in the belief that they can change the world through loving generosity. They trust the apostles to redistribute the wealth in a way which will preach love and compassion. They brazenly walk away from the traditions of their people and their own families, and they even embrace complete strangers and outsiders with love. They stand against the culture of their time, and openly embrace the possibility of death for their actions and beliefs. Thomas, in fact, is said to have forsaken his homeland in order to spread the word about Jesus to Parthia and India. Church tradition holds that Indian priests reacted to his missionary activities by killing him with a spear.

And how did these early believers know that their actions wouldn’t all be for nothing?

They didn’t.

They had faith.

Without doubt, we have no faith. Without faith, we take no risks. Without risk, we have no growth. Without growth, we have no life.

Oh Wounded God, thank you for giving us both faith and doubt. Help us all to believe in the promise of Eternal Life. Help us step forward in hope and courage. You also have known our moments of worry. Teach us your obedience. May we, like Thomas, be honest, loyal to you, and always seeking your way, Our Lord and Our God. Amen.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Saint of the Month: Archbishop Mark Shirilau


Archbishop Mark Steven <i>Shirey</i> ShirilauI think I can safely say that, barring the outright mentally deranged, Mark was unquestionably the weirdest dude I’ve ever known.

I first met him when I was a teenager and he was about twenty years of age. It was at St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Long Beach, California in the mid 1970's. My family had just joined the congregation, and the pastor introduced Mark to me as the Chairman of Acolytes. He was a chubby, mincing blond young man with a waistline which seemed to magnetically repel shirt tails. He seemed paradoxically precise about every movement he made, and yet totally unconcerned about his personal appearance or the impression he made on others. He was at once exacting and sloppy. Indeed, I never knew him to have a decent haircut as he always gave the impression of having had some thirteenth century monk trim his lank locks by putting a bowl on his head. Mark’s most remarkable feature in those days, however, was his high-pitched, squeaky voice which made Wayne Newton sound like Richard Burton in contrast. This mouse-like soprano would often explode into hysterical, ear-piercing giggles whenever Mark was amused—which he was frequently.

As I got to know Mark, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was dealing with an extraordinary intelligence. His vocabulary, academic achievements, and span of interests were vast. His greatest love—and the thing which made him stand out like a nun in a strip club in our middle-class, suburban Lutheran parish—was his obsessive love of Christian liturgy. In a congregation that was anything but high church, this odd young man was in the habit of genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, bowing reverently as the processional cross was carried, using Latin phrases, and dating correspondences by the feast day of the appointed saint. He fussed over paraments, lamented that the worship assistants were not properly consecrated as deacons, and lobbied for the use of incense and processional torches.

In the summer of 1976, Mark was chosen to be one of two adult sponsors for my high school youth group’s trip to the first All Lutheran Youth and Adult Gathering in New Orleans. The pastor, two sponsors, and ten rambunctious teens (myself included) travelled from Long Beach to Louisiana in a two-car caravan consisting of the pastor’s Ford station wagon and a Commander motor home. Mark scrupulously recorded all data on the travelers—up to and including the serial numbers of our traveler’s checks. I do not have the space to go into detail about the perils of his driving, but suffice it to say that having Mark behind the wheel of a motor home added another layer of adventure to our trip.

One night, between Pecos and San Antonio, Texas, Mark and I were assigned to drive the graveyard shift. I was to ride shotgun and monitor Mark as he drove through the wee hours to our next destination. If you’ve ever ridden in a motor home, you know that they produce a great deal of banging and background noise when they’re rolling. Yet over the din of the wheels and the rattling of the oven door, pots, pans, etcetera, I could hear Mark’s squeaky voice lifted in song. He wasn’t singing a pop tune or an old camp song. He wasn’t even singing hymns. He was chanting the liturgical canticles of the service of Holy Communion—in English and Latin!

As bizarre as I found Mark’s obsession with all things liturgical, I have to admit that he is the one who sparked my interest in the subject and made me realize how we humans yearn for extraordinary time, the moment when we recognize the sacred in space, sound, and ritual. I guess if I admit it, one of the reasons which led me to ordained ministry was the influence of Mark Shirilau.

After New Orleans I saw little of Mark. I was involved with college and later moved to Wisconsin for graduate studies in the early ‘80’s. Mark left St. Luke’s for the richer and grander rituals of the Episcopal Church. When I returned to California to teach at a small college in 1986, my New Orleans buddies assembled for a ten-year reunion. I was greatly surprised by Mark’s appearance. He was tastefully dressed in a tan business suit and sported a gold wedding ring on his left hand. His squeaky soprano had deepened to a respectable baritone, but he was as nonchalant and witty as I remember him being. He was also quite openly gay and proudly announced his marriage to the love of his life, Jeffrey. This was a full thirty years before same-gender marriage was even a blip on the national radar.

Jeff, I should mention, was a thoroughly likable individual. I understood that he had been a former female impersonator, but, when not in a dress, he had remarkable skills with hammer and screwdriver. Jeff was able to do all the “macho” chores which his egg-head husband couldn’t manage. This endeared him to Mark’s parents, Ken and Marge, two of the sweetest and most sincere Christian people I have ever known. Jeff’s death from HIV complications in 1993 must have been devastating for the entire family.

In December of 1987 I attended Mark’s ordination to word and sacrament ministry at a seminary chapel in Claremont, California in the Los Angeles foothills. Only a small handful of family and friends endured the two-hour liturgy. It was unusually cold for LA that Sunday afternoon, and the chapel had not been heated. As the last “Go in peace, serve the Lord!” was chanted, my friend Julie seated next to me hissed in my ear, “I’m so f---ing cold..!!!” (I believe she went to the Lady’s Room immediately after the service and soaked her feet in hot water from the sink.)

It was explained to me that Mark would not be called to the rostered ministry of the Episcopal Church USA—not because he was openly gay, but because he was already a successful electrical engineer. It seems the Episcopalians didn’t need an engineer moonlighting as a priest when they had unemployed priests on their roster. So Mark elected to form his own denomination, the Ecumenical Catholic Church. He would later be ordained as the church's archbishop.

I only attended one service of Mark’s new communion. It was held in the spare room of the home where he and Jeffery lived in Santa Ana, California. A huge altar took up about a third of the floor space, but this was not a problem as only four or five people were in attendance. Friends from St. Luke’s would remark that it seemed as if Mark was “playing church.”

For Mark, however, nothing could be further from the truth. He took worship seriously, believing that where two or more are gathered, Christ is with them.

Little did I know that Mark would cross the continent proselytizing for his new denomination. His sole mission was to proclaim the love of Christ to those who hungered for authentic, historic Christian ritual but had been disenfranchised from the established church because of divorce or sexual orientation. Today there are ECC congregations all across the US and even in Latin America and Europe—even though the clergy, like Saint Paul, must rely on their own means to support themselves financially.

I look at pictures of Mark in full vestments—sumptuous copes and miters which would look over the top on the Pope—and I shake my head. I had mistaken him as a “character,” and one in love with the rituals of the past. Truth be told, Mark Shirilau was ahead of his time. Today Lutherans and Episcopalians struggle to catch up with the radical inclusivity and outreach Mark was showing back in the late 1980’s. Additionally, I must add that his “day job’ as an electrical engineer focused on stewardship of the earth—sustainable renewable energy. Nothing could be timelier than that, and for that alone he deserves to be considered a saint.

Some weeks ago, an old New Orleans buddy wrote me and informed me of Mark’s death in January of 2014. Although I had not spoken with Mark in years, I thought of him often. It saddens me to think this eccentric, good-hearted soul is no longer with us in the flesh, but I rejoice that he has now joined the liturgy worshiping around the throne of God. On a shelf in my office is a book Mark gave me many years ago—The Manual on the Liturgy of the Lutheran Book of Worship. On the inside cover Mark wrote the following:

“The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 1979
To Owen –
Worship is our highest work and truly the joy of life.
God’s blessings forever.
Mark Shirey
 

Gratia Patris Dei,
Pax amorques Christi Dei Filii,
Et communion Dei Spiritus Sancti
Sit tecum semper.”
And to you too, my friend. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Easter Cross


The Cross at San Damiano

When you come through the front doors of Faith Lutheran Church, my parish in Northeast Philly, the first thing you’ll see hanging on the wall opposite you is a replica of the Cross of San Damiano. This icon was purchased as a memorial tribute to an elderly Lutheran lady who doubtless would’ve hated it for being “too Catholic.” I love it, however, because it greets everyone who enters our house of worship with a pictorial reminder of who we are and what we’re all about.

This icon depicts Jesus resurrected. Yes, he’s bloody and wounded, but the wounds of this world have not robbed him of his immortality—and they won’t rob us of ours, either. This cross tells us Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. His image is flanked by the women at the tomb, those key figures in our Easter Gospel (Mark 16:1-8) who were second-class citizens to the men of their day, but were chosen by God to proclaim life and healing to the planet. There’s also the image of a centurion, a hated enemy and outsider to Jewish society of Jesus’ time, but a figure of mercy and compassion and faith in the Gospel (Luke 7:1-10).

For me, the cross of San Damiano represents what every cross represents to Christians—a reminder of the vast cruelty of our sinful world in which all of us share a portion of guilt, and the enormous love of Jesus who endured it all on the cross so we could know one-ness with God. It is a reminder of Luther’s great doctrine that all of us are at once both sinner and beloved, forgiven child of our Creator God.

But I also love this icon because of the legend which surrounds it. The cross was probably painted sometime around the year 1100. It’s in the Romanesque style, and served as a sort of graphic novel for a largely illiterate congregation of Italian peasants. The story goes that Francis of Assisi used this cross as the focus of his meditation while visiting the church of San Damiano near his home town around the year 1205. The church was in a pretty shabby state of repair at the time. While Francis prayed, he heard the voice of Jesus challenging him. “Francis,” the voice is said to have said, “don’t you see my house is crumbling? Go and restore it!” Francis, being of a rather literal turn of mind, took this injunction as an order to repair the dilapidated building. Later, however, he understood the Lord’s command in a deeper sense.

By the thirteenth century, all of pagan Europe had long been converted to Christianity. Francis took the words he heard from the cross to mean that he was to restore God’s house by converting the Christians to Christianity. That is, he was to inspire through love, charity, piety, compassion, and humility a society which was nominally Christian but had lost its sense of wonder at the beauty of Jesus’ love and sacrifice.

I pray we are on the verge of a rebuilding within the Christian faith and within this congregation. This is the seventeenth Easter Sunday I am celebrating at Faith Lutheran, and I think I am seeing an institution that’s dying to some old ways and rising to new adventures in the faith. I don’t think I would have imagined when I first came here a church sheltering homeless people in the basement every summer. I wouldn’t have thought that we’d be celebrating same-gender weddings and even inviting LGBT people to sit on our church council and teach Sunday School. I couldn’t have predicted that we’d give up our traditional Reformation Sunday worship and choose to worship through service to our community on that day. I’m not sure we were up to hosting hunger walks and taking weekly collections for the hungry in our neighborhood. But in Christ, all things are possible. This little church is being re-built and resurrected. We are moving from being an institution to being a cause—from religiously-based social club to the resurrected body of Christ in our world. And that’s pretty darn exciting.

Yes, it’s also pretty scary because we don’t really know where we’re going. But that’s okay. The women in our Gospel story were pretty freaked out by news which seemed too good to believe—and no one believed them at first. But little by little the word must have gotten out, and the story was told, and lives were changed, and something new arose. And that’s the faith which we are called to embrace and let define us.

We're the people of the Resurrected Jesus, just as the cross on the wall of our narthex proclaims. We are always being rebuilt for the healing of the world.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Thoughts on Maundy Thursday



Maundy Thursday is a rather contradictory festival.  First off, I guess, because we can’t seem to agree what to call it. Sometimes we say “Maundy Thursday” and sometimes we call it “Holy Thursday.” The confusion is doubtless because most folks don’t know what the heck “Maundy” means. In case you’re in doubt yourself, let me explain that “Maundy” comes from a Latin root meaning “mandate” or “command.” On this occasion Christians remember two things Jesus was insistent that we do:

“Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) and

“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24).

We usually marry that first command to the ritual of washing feet. In John’s gospel (John 13:1-17) Jesus takes the slave’s job of washing his disciples dirty, stinky feet—an act of humility indicating an end to arrogance and rank distinction and a call to love others in charity and dignity. The second command is an order to keep Christ’s sacrifice alive by gathering together for a common meal.

I’m always up for a good dinner party. In fact, I can’t think of many things more enjoyable than sharing a meal with people I love. But this particular meal is fraught with contradictions. It’s supposed to be a festival meal—a party—right? But it is also a reminder of a pretty unpleasant night in Jesus’ life. So what’s up with that?

Jesus and his buddies are celebrating—that’s the right word for it—the Passover. They were remembering something really cool that God did for their people. God led their ancestors out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and through the parting waters of the Red Sea because God does not desire oppression, cruelty, or bondage for anyone. But there was a catch: God made a covenant with the people at Mount Sinai. Because God was so good, the people were ordered to love God and love everyone else from that time on—an order they (and we) can never seem to obey.

So, on that Passover night which we remember this Thursday, God in Jesus made a new covenant. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.” Before that night, you see, the people were in the habit of going to the temple and offering up ritual sacrifices in order to pay off God for their failure to keep God’s command of love. This was a pretty elaborate ritual, and one from which many—possibly Jesus himself because of his questionable parentage—were excluded. So Jesus gave us a new ritual from which no one would be excluded. No longer would people need to bring animal flesh to burn on the temple altar or splash blood on the altar’s blistering hot sides. In fact, they would never again have to offer sacrifice for atonement for the failures of being human. Instead, we were to gather together to eat the bread and drink the wine of the Passover, the festival of freedom, and remember that Jesus had freed us by sacrificing himself.
But that night when Jesus celebrated with his friends ended with his being betrayed, arrested, abandoned, mocked, beaten, and sentenced to death, making this dinner party both joyful and sorrowful.

When we take the bread we recall his body was broken. In the wine we remember his blood was spilled. We celebrate by remembering how, on that awful night, Jesus took on everything we endure or fear.

When we eat the meal, Jesus is here with us, physically. He is with us when we are anxious, just as he and his disciples must have been anxious and full of foreboding on that night so long ago. He is with us when we are wounded by a loved one. He is with us when we are disappointed by those whom we have trusted. He is with us when we feel abandoned. He is with us when we are accused and blamed and bullied and made to feel helpless and worthless. He is with us when we are held captive to anything toxic in our lives. He is with us when we are grieving. He is with us when our bodies, ache, bleed, and fail. He is with us when we face death. For he endured all of these things on that night.

So we eat this meal and recall that God is with us, and we are with God. We are known. We are family. We are forgiven. In all of our frailty and weakness and regret, God is with us and in us.

Such things, such unity and wholeness are not true because the act of eating and drinking is some magic ritual. They are not so because the celebrant is so holy that he or she can turn bread and wine into flesh and blood. Rather, forgiveness, life, and salvation come simply because Jesus promised us they would, and we believe his promise.

And because we believe, we are transformed.