Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come (Reflections on Pentecost Ten, Year C)




“Thy kingdom come.” How many times have we prayed that? And what do we mean when we pray it? Are you praying for the end of time when Jesus will return and establish his kingdom on earth? Or are you praying for a world worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, one in which the love of God is the motivation in all of our actions and relationships?

I guess we pretty much know what Jesus’ disciples thought when Jesus first taught them this petition. The poor guys whose supplication inspires Jesus’ teaching in the lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Ten (Luke 11:1-13) were looking forward to a glorious earthly kingdom. They were waiting for Jesus to bring back the kingdom they’d heard about when they were kids—the one in which their ancestor David kicked the snot out of all of their enemies and established Zion in glory and victory before the nations of the earth. They must’ve been praying for the rescue of their country from Roman occupation and the restoration of their national pride. Maybe they contemplated making baseball caps emblazoned with “Thy Kingdom Come!” or “Make Israel Great Again!”

But what does this phrase which Jesus tells us to pray mean for us?

I always wonder why the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary marry certain Bible stories together. This week Jesus’ injunction for us to be in continual prayer is wedded to the story of Abraham beseeching God to be merciful to the city of Sodom (Genesis 18:20-32). If you remember from last week, Abraham has just shown pretty impressive hospitality to some wandering strangers. This story is juxtaposed with the disgusting and shameful way the Sodomites treat the foreigners in Genesis 19 (And please note: the context of this story is not a condemnation of homosexuality. The threatened rape of the visitors is more like a prison rape—an act intended more for violent domination than sexual gratification).

Interestingly, God does not actually tell Abraham that He plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but old Abe assumes that God’s righteous anger will be pretty bad news for the town where his nephew, Lot, is living with his family. Abraham, out of family devotion, begins to pray to God for mercy for Lot—even if it means showing mercy to some xenophobic, violent, bigots who probably deserve the family-sized can of whoop-ass he’s certain God will open on them.

God seems perfectly willing to forgive the guilty for the sake of the innocent and accepts Abraham’s first offer. Personally, I think God is just jerking Abraham around. God’s actually willing to be much more merciful than Abraham believes, but he really makes Abe sweat to know this. Abe keeps praying, wheeling and dealing with God for more mercy. I don’t think Abraham’s begging is changing who God is, but God is changing Abraham by teaching him mercy—even for enemies who are outside God’s righteousness.

This, I think, is why prayer is so necessary. We are what we pray, and if we pray for grace we will become gracious. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s kingdom to come. Martin Luther always taught that God’s will and God’s kingdom will certainly come without our praying for them, but we are taught to pray that this kingdom might be acceptable to our selfish hearts. Again, the prayer doesn’t change God, but rather we are asking God to change us.

Unfortunately, I suspect—especially after watching a week of the Republican National Convention—that our idea of the coming kingdom is much more in line with what Jesus’ disciples were hoping for and much less in line with the kingdom of mercy and righteousness preached by our Lord himself. God’s kingdom is not a superpower which glories in its superiority over other nations while worshiping wealth, military might, and victory over others. Neither is it a socialist utopia. Both of these ideas have been tried on this planet, and both have been miserable and painful failures.

The kingdom of God must come from a place of mercy—even for those whom we despise. I must confess that this is tough for me these past few weeks. Terrorist attacks, the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police who seem to have used excessive force, and the utterly insane “retaliation” of sick individuals which has resulted in the murder of eight police officers have not brought as much puss into my heart as has the vitriolic rhetoric of the RNC. This vitriol has made me want to respond with vitriol of my own. My sinful reaction is poisoning me and drawing me further from the cross of Christ, further from the crucified God who proclaimed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As much as anyone else, I need to pray the way Jesus taught, and keep on praying. The prayer our Lord gave us encapsulates everything for which we need to pray: for obedience to God’s rule of justice, mercy, and compassion; for provisions sufficient for our needs and not for a selfish surplus; for forgiveness and the willingness to forgive others; and for safety from all which draws us away from God. Jesus teaches us to pray this from our hearts, and to pray unceasingly.

God will not be changed by our prayer, but perhaps we can be changed into the kind of people who will create the kingdom God has intended for us.


Thank you for visiting, my friends. Pray for me, will you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Some Thoughts on Exile

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”                   (Psalm 137:1)

 Some years ago I encountered a wonderful book by the Biblical scholar Marcus Borg called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. One of the lessons I took away from Dr. Borg was how our Christian Bible is divided into three major narratives—the Exodus Story (Moses and the Red Sea and all that happy jazz), the Exile Story (the children of Judea as hostages in Babylon), and the Priestly Story (the sacrificial atonement of Jesus.)

As a Christian, I’m obviously drawn to the story of Jesus. The other two stories don’t seem to figure too strongly into our theology. Granted, the Exodus story has always resonated with Americans, and not just because ABC-TV likes to run The Ten Commandments in prime time every Easter night. Our immigrant experience commiserates with that of the Hebrew children who crossed through the waters into the Promised Land of religious freedom, milk and honey, and all that. Our African American brothers and sisters also hear their own slavery experience resonating in this tale of escape from bondage.

But what about that other story, the Exile Story? I’m not sure we ever think too much about that one. That’s strange as this narrative takes up almost a third of our Bible. The Hebrew Scripture history books from First Samuel on through Esther tell the tales which involve or lead up to the Exile, and the prophetic books deal almost exclusively with this theme. So what is it?

Historically, this event took place in 587 BC (or thereabouts) when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire and the elite “brain trust” of the Hebrew people were rounded up and deported to Babylon. There they remained, lived, had children, and died until the Babylonians got creamed in a war by the Persians in 539 BC. (By the way, the Babylonians were the ancestors of the modern-day Iraqis, and the Persians were the early version of Iranians. Those guys just can’t ever seem to get along, can they?) The Persians allowed the displaced Jews to be repatriated, and so they returned to Zion to pick up the pieces from their defeat fifty years earlier.

But what does that have to do with you or me? Dr. Borg points out that God had mercy on the exiles, and never stopped loving them even when they were homeless and despairing. Today we are living in a world full of refugees, homelessness, and feelings of alienation. Perhaps this story of God’s mercy will inspire us to remember that God is God of the homeless and the stranger and will move us to compassion in our public policy. For us at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, it is a call to solidarity with the homeless families who are sheltered in our basement during the month of August. As people in political discourse in a land of freedom and opportunity, it might encourage us to look with kindness towards the millions of Syrians who are fleeing an unending and barbaric civil war and searching for any kind of shelter they can find.

Marcus Borg points to another sort of Exile experience which never occurred to me. He suggests that many of us native Americans simply do not feel at home in our own lives. Our daily struggle can be a battle with alienation, feeling flat and estranged from that which gives us vitality and joy. We long to be reunited with the land of our youth—the time when we felt energized, excited, and optimistic. Perhaps our current experience is similar to that of the exiles in the scripture. We have run after false gods, and now we are paying the price. We are called to repentance, a “change of mind,” and a renewed search for the true God of our salvation.

What always struck me about the Exile Story as opposed to the Exodus Story is the fact that the exiles in Babylon, unlike the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, suffered through their own fault. The prophets warned that they had turned away from God by cheating and ignoring the poor, by worshiping idols, putting their faith in military strength rather than in God’s justice, and relying on purity rituals which honored the letter of the law but ignored its spirit. Their arrogance weakened the nation, and they refused to listen to the prophet’s warning to seek peace rather than war.

Yet God did not cease to be God even though His children went astray. True, God refused to protect them from the errors of their ways and the consequences of those errors. Nevertheless, God was always willing to rescue them and welcome them back home. Today things in America and the world seem to be going crazy. I don’t doubt that there are some who wish they could roll the clock back to a time when things seemed simpler than they do now. Politicians may promise us they can do that, but we know that only God’s will brings us home to ourselves. However our current political contest turns out, God will still be God, and God’s will is done either through us or in spite of us. This divine will supersedes our circumstances, and knowing this gives me peace.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Better Part (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year C)








If I do say so myself, my wife is an excellent hostess. She knows how to set a table and make hors d’oeuvres and create an elegant environment when we have guests in our home. She really gives it a lot of thought and prepares well in advance. She always has some wine and snack food on hand just in case one of our neighbors drops in unexpectedly.

Of the two of us, my bride is definitely the “Martha” character from this week’s Gospel lesson in the RCL (Luke 10:38-42). Me? I’m the “Mary.” I’m the one who sits down with the guests and chatters away while my poor spouse is still slaving in the kitchen, shooting me arch glances which unmistakably say, “When are you going to get off your butt and come help me..?!”

I’ll admit it’s pretty unfair. She does all the work and I garner all the enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate all of the elegance which my beloved puts into entertaining our guests, but I sometimes think that all the effort which goes into good hospitality draws us away from the reason why we invited folks over in the first place. Don’t we just want to enjoy their company? Don’t we just want some time for some human interaction, to hear their stories, to be drawn deeper into their experiences, and to share a little of our own?

In the world and culture of this Gospel text, good hospitality was certainly expected. Look at the companion text from the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 18:1-10a). Abraham practically writes the book on being a good host. He sees three wayfarers coming across the desert. The Bible never tells us whether he knows they’re God in Trinity or angels or what. I don’t think it matters to Abraham. Travelers across the dry wilderness will be tired, hungry, and thirsty. At several points in his life, Abraham was just like them. He entreats them to stop, promises them a snack, and then goes and prepares a huge feast for them (Okay. He actually has Sarah and one of the slaves prepare it. Typical dude. He makes the Little Woman do all the heavy lifting while he kicks back and shoots the bull with the guys.) In response to his mercy and kindness, he and Sarah are promised a child.

If she was inspired by the example of her ancestor Abraham, Martha must’ve been stoked to have the rabbi Jesus as a guest in her home. I imagine she cleaned the place from top to bottom, busted out the good china, and started cooking while the rooster was still snoring. She was making so much fuss for Jesus that she had no time to experience Jesus. Sure, she couldn’t do enough for him, but there’s a big difference between doing for someone and being with someone.

When I visit people in my parish, they often offer me something to eat or drink. I appreciate this, but it means that part of the visit is going to be spent with my host in the kitchen occupied with food prep. There’s one elderly couple I see regularly who I don’t think have ever offered me anything, but whose company and conversation I enjoy immensely. They make me feel at home just by showing that they’re glad I came.

Sometimes we get so busy doing church that we forget to be church. Yeah, it’s important that we discuss our budget and fund-raisers and property issues and event planning. I get that. But aren’t all of these issue secondary to hearing God’s word and experiencing Christ? Yes, the books must be balanced and the roof must be repaired, but why? The purpose of all of this is so we can be in relationship with Jesus.

Doesn’t your soul ever thirst for some good, human contact? Have you ever longed to ponder the ultimate questions of faith with someone with whom you feel emotionally safe?

There are a lot of great things about belonging to a church, but the better part is always meeting Christ—in the word, in the sacraments, and in each other.


God’s peace, my friends. Thanks again for visiting. I hope I’ve been a good host.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Outrageous Samaritan (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year C)

The Good Samaritan - Aime Morot 1880

The parable of the Good Samaritan? Yeah, I guess we all know this one. This poor slob falls into the hands of bandits, gets rolled and has the crap beat out of him, and gets left lying in a pool of his own blood along the side of the road. Two very religious folks pass by him pretending they don’t see him or hear his whimpering for help. They don’t want to get involved. Then this foreign guy shows up, picks him up, gives him first aid, takes him to the local Super 8 Motel, and promises to take care of him—a complete stranger, mind you!—until he recovers. That’s a heck of a story.

In Jesus’ day this parable (Luke 10:25-37) would’ve been completely outrageous. Jesus make the hero of the story a Samaritan, a foreigner whom most Jews would consider to be an unclean heretic. This must’ve got a few of his listeners more than a little pissed off if they really enjoyed despising people who were “other” than themselves. Today, most of us have no real clue about the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, so we might try to figure out who would be an equally offensive substitute within our own context. Muslims? Illegal aliens? Donald Trump supporters? Who takes the place of that vile figure for us?

The problem is, focusing on the “otherness” of the hero in our politically correct environment tends to water down the audacity of the parable, don’t you think? I mean, don’t we all already know that God is love and that God loves all of God’s children regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation? Lesson learned among us decent, affirmative action, equal-rights-for-all folks, right?

But that doesn’t make the story any less outrageous. Why? Because the Samaritan actually stopped to help. He actually got involved and took a personal risk to do so because he had mercy and compassion in his heart. In the world of the text, he was taking a societal risk by a) helping a hated enemy and b) coming into contact with blood, thereby making him ritually unclean. You and I might not give a rip about that today, but consider that the Samaritan also put himself at physical risk by stopping in a place where murderous cutthroats were known to hang out. For all he knew, the wounded man might’ve been a decoy, a trap to lure a good-hearted soul into getting robbed himself! (Remember that scene in Silence of the Lambs where the girl stops to help a man with his arm in a cast load something into his van and the guy turns out to be a psycho murderer? It could happen. I’m just saying.)

But what’s really far-fetched in this tale is the fact that the Samaritan not only gives the guy first aid but actually assumes financial responsibility for him. He pays the inn-keeper the equivalent of two day’s income and promises to reimburse him for whatever he spends on the wounded man. What if the guy empties the mini bar? What if he runs up a huge room service tab? The Samaritan is willing to risk this out of pure compassion.

Would YOU be willing to do that for a stranger? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t!

To love our neighbor is to show radical mercy, and that’s a terrifying thing. It might ask us for a lot more than we are willing to give—financially, emotionally, and otherwise. We don’t want to get dragged into other peoples’ problems. Who knows? We might get sued. So we become the priests and the Levites of this story, coming up with ingenious ways of avoiding those in true need.

The lawyer in this story asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. I think this is a lot more than just going to Heaven when we die. If our life really is eternal, shouldn’t we be living it now? When I consider this parable, I consider that the Samaritan represents someone who has truly gained salvation. He has been saved—rescued, really—from his societal prejudice and his fear. He lives in the truth of God’s goodness, providence, and merciful care. This allows him to take risks out of love.

The Samaritan’s pity is a sign of the eternal life within him. His good work did not produce his salvation. His salvation produced his good work.


Let’s all pray for our salvation in this world as well as the next. Thanks for reading, my friend.

PS-Want a good laugh? There's a spoof of this parable and political correctness on line. Seriously. It's pretty funny. Just click on the word Samaritan. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pondering Independence Day (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year C)



I love the Fourth of July. When you’re in Philadelphia, it’s kind of hard not to feel patriotic this time of year. When I was a little kid the Fourth was  a big deal because it was my grandmother’s birthday. We’d always have a special party with hot-dogs and the like on the afternoon of Independence Day, and at night our neighbor would put on a highly illegal fireworks display in the street in front of our house. All the neighborhood kids would come out, and it would always be fun. There are tons of great memories I associate with this holiday.

Now, however, I guess I try to think more about the purpose of the celebration. I don’t want it to be just an excuse for a cookout or a glorification of “America’s great and all the rest of you countries suck.” I want this day, for all of its fun and hoopla, to be a cause for reflection.

This week I’m drawn to the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for Pentecost Seven, Isaiah 66: 10-14. It’s a call for the people of Jerusalem to rejoice over their homeland:

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her— (v. 66:10)

Isn’t this what our national holiday is about? We rejoice for our homeland because we love her, even though we might also mourn over her.

In Isaiah 66 the Hebrew exiles have returned (although most of them had never been to Jerusalem before, they were born in Babylon and only learned about it from their parents) to their ancestral homeland to find it pretty jacked-up. The great temple of Solomon was in ruins, and the city had not been repaired since the Babylonians had torched the place a generation before. There was plenty to cry about. BUT, there was also God’s promise that they were still, in spite of all the mistakes they had made and all the rotten things which had befallen them, God’s very own people. This desolated homeland would become like a mother to them. The place would offer comfort, become a refuge, and be a land of prosperity.

I wonder if the early American patriots felt the same way about their new land when our war of revolution was over. After all, they had pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors, and a lot of what they’d pledged was lost. The war claimed about 25,000 American lives (most died of disease while in the military), cost millions of dollars and ran up a national debt while destroying homes and farms, and led to some very dishonorable behavior towards fellow citizens in the form of retaliation against loyalists as well as riots and desertions. I try to imagine what those first Americans thought when the dust had cleared out and they were left with the responsibility of making a nation out of the wreckage. Did they sense the need to rejoice as well as to mourn?

On this national holiday, I feel a need to do a little of both. I may not believe that the United States is exactly the New Jerusalem, but I’m still pretty jazzed and feel darn lucky to live here. And I still feel that there is great promise in this land. Granted, we’ve done some pretty stupid things in the recent past, and we have some big messes we need to clean up. We are still mourning forty-nine people massacred in Orlando by a lunatic with an assault rifle. Homes are being destroyed and lives lost by floods in West Virginia. Huge parts of this nation are strangled by massive unemployment while heroin use soars. The so-called Global War on Terror continues to take our young people to Afghanistan, and our wounded veterans’ needs are overpowering the ability of the VA to service them. Income inequality is eroding our democracy and turning us into a feudal state, and the hyperbolic rhetoric of this current presidential election isn’t helping the national mood a friggin’ bit.

Rejoice? Mourn? Love? All of the above.

Like those Hebrew exiles who returned to a devastated Jerusalem and those early Americans who tried to carve a nation out of the rabble of thirteen war-weary, debt-ridden, and culturally diverse former British colonies, we in the US can rejoice that we are not abandoned by God. Granted, I don’t expect the Almighty to rescue us from the consequence of our own idiocy, but I don’t believe we have been left destitute either.

One of my favorite quotes in recent political history comes from former President Bill Clinton: “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.” We are still a democracy. We are still rich in resources—the most powerful of which is the imagination of our citizens. We still enjoy fundamental freedoms of expression and of belief, and we don’t have a war raging on our home soil. We are fortunate people, indeed, when compared to many on this planet.

I believe that God is always good to us, just as a parent continues to love a disobedient child. My bishop, Claire Burkat, said when she accepted the episcopal position that she knew God would provide her with everything she needed—no more, no less. The seventy disciples Jesus sends forth in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost Seven (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20) are sent with only the clothes on their backs. They take no extra provisions for their mission. They must move ahead in the faithful belief that God has already given them everything they will really require to proclaim the Kingdom.


As Americans, blessed with overwhelming material wealth and prosperity, we still have a mission to spread some of this prosperity abroad and try to contribute as best we can to peace and compassion around the globe. As God’s church, poised as we are on the brink of fiscal doom, we can remember that we are no worse off than those seventy disciples who set out with nothing to proclaim the Kingdom. As individuals, we will know in our hearts that we are beloved of our Creator, and that on our worst day we will still be the beneficiaries of more blessings than we can count. We have God and we have each other. And it is enough.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Formal Apology to the Turkey Vulture

Dear Brother Turkey Vulture,

First, let me apologize for calling you a buzzard. I know that’s not your correct name, and I’m sorry I used it in my blog post of June 2, 2016 titled “Unclean Love.” I used you as an example of touching the dead and I called you repulsive and disgusting. That was very unfair of me. I’m sorry. I also ask your forgiveness for saying that you’re ugly. I’m sure that to bird lovers and other vultures you’re very attractive. Your friend “Anonymous” wrote to tell me not to be too hard on you. I won’t be. You see, I think we might just have a lot in common.

I, too, live off of the recently deceased just as you do (although I don’t eat them). In my time as an urban pastor I have been called on to officiate over 400 funerals—most of which have been for people I’ve never met. Local funeral directors call me and pay me a fee to do these memorial services. I’m very thankful for this as my parochial income isn’t gigantic, so a few extra bucks here and there really helps me out.

Here’s the weird thing: Just like you, I don’t seem to suffer any real ill effects from dealing with the dead. I’ve buried auto accident victims, drug overdoses, suicides, and even a murder victim. Yes, it’s a little hard to do at times—especially if someone dies way too young. Once I had to bury the infant son of a couple whose wedding I’d performed. That was tough. Even harder was the time I presided at the service of an eleven-year-old boy who died suddenly of a brain aneurism. From all accounts, he was a vibrant, polite, smart, and just plain nice kid. I think the worst thing ever is for a parent to have to bury their child. You don’t ever get over that.

When I was in seminary I had to do this thing called CPE. The letters stand for Clinical Pastoral Education, but we used to joke and call it “Cruel Perverted Experience.” I spent three months—over 500 working hours—as chaplain on the cancer wards at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes I’d have to do “on call” hours. My last on call was a Sunday morning. I remember it was raining enough to make you think of building an ark. I mean really coming down. As I was preparing for the Sunday chapel service, I got paged to the trauma bay. It seems this guy had gotten himself knifed in the groin on a street corner in West Philly. It was, we thought, probably a drug deal gone bad, but I don’t think I ever found out the real story.

The policewoman who accompanied the victim to the Emergency Department described the scene on the street as an ocean of blood with the victim’s blood turning the rain puddles scarlet. She asked me to bless her, which I did. The trauma team was hard at work when I got to the bay, but there was blood everywhere. The guy’s femoral artery had been cut, and blood poured out of him as fast as the IV bags could pump it in.

A real trauma bay is nothing like it is on TV. It’s actually much quieter and calmer. The trauma team wear protective gear that makes them look like they’re ready for deep sea diving, and the attending physician stands quietly behind the precaution tape on the floor in white lab coat with goggles around his neck like a WWII general. He serenely directed the proceedings, calmly rotating the residents, giving each an opportunity to save this life. The paddles were brought out and the patient was repeatedly shocked to restart his heart.

I looked down for a moment to make some notes for the Trauma Chaplain who would follow up with this patient and his family. When I looked up, I saw that the team had opened and cracked the patient’s chest cavity. A resident’s hand was manually massaging his heart in an attempt to get it to pump. For a moment, the scene became surreal. The hand in the chest looked for all the world like someone stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey (no offense to you, I hope). It had lost its humanity, and it was an effort for me to remember that this strange thing was an actual human being. But I came back to myself and began to pray for this man’s life.

This was the only time I was ever paged to the trauma bay at HUP when a patient did not survive. The attending quietly said, “I’m going to call it,” and announced the time of death. The team covered the body quietly and professionally.

Soon afterwards the victim’s family arrived, and, after the attending delivered the sad news, I asked them all into the small consult room for prayer. When I left to preside at the chapel service that morning it occurred to me that I had not fainted or vomited at the sight of the wounded man whose body had been torn apart in an effort to save his life. I was much more wounded by the grief of his family. But I knew at that moment that I could do the job of ministry.

And I keep doing this. I believe, you see, that grief can be a holy thing. We cannot mourn without first being able to love. Maybe that is why we Christians worship before the image of a dying man. We know how beautiful life and love are when we acknowledge how painful it is to lose them. I also believe that every human life—even that of the dullest person you’ve ever met—is in some way epic. We are all part of God, all connected by the Holy Spirit, and we all have the potential to know tremendous moments of joy and horrible moments of loss and despair. We are all connected, and every loss has the potential to make us either more or less human, depending on how we are willing to embrace it.

I also believe that in the odyssey of every human life Christ is in some way revealed—in love, in sacrifice, in faith or (but not often) in the lack thereof. So I will continue my association with the dead if only to fulfill the purpose of pointing to Jesus Christ.

So thank you, dear Turkey Vulture, for taking care of the dead in your way. I find it an honor to take care of them in mine.

Yours,
Pastor Owen

Let It Go (Reflections on Pentecost 6, Year C)

Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:62)

Note: I am publishing this a week early as I will be on holiday the week of Pentecost 5.

You know who my very first celebrity crush was on? Diana Rigg. When I was a kid, I thought she was the prettiest thing on two legs. Today she’s Dame Diana, one of England’s most honored actresses and one of the stars of the TV series Game of Thrones. Although I will always remember this celebrated talent as Mrs. Peel in the 1960’s TV show The Avengers and as James Bond’s bride in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, my favorite Diana Rigg performance was in a 1975 television movie called In this House of Brede.

The movie was based on a 1969 novel by Rumor Godden. It begins with an early middle-aged Rigg entering an English pub and ordering a huge glass of wine. She sits at a table and smokes an entire pack of cigarettes. Then we see her leaving the pub and entering the gates of a convent. Her character has had one last taste of worldly vice, but is now leaving it all behind for the sake of the Kingdom. It’s a very moving story.

Renunciation. That’s kind of what both the Hebrew Scripture and Gospel stories in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 6 Year C are about. When we decide we’re really going to get serious about a life in the Christian faith, there are some things we’re just going to have to give up. I was an actor—and a very unsuccessful one, I might add—before finally realizing that God had other plans for me. I didn’t have too hard a time letting my memberships in the various theatrical unions lapse when I entered the seminary, but, just before I accepted the call to my parish, I was cleaning out some junk in my basement and found my old make-up box. I hadn’t touched the paints and tools inside it for years, and, by the time I discovered it, it was probably just a big hotel for germs. Nevertheless, it felt like amputating a limb to toss it in the trash. But I did. I had become a different guy from the one who used that box, the guy who loved nothing better than to smear goo on his face and pretend he was someone else.

Jesus is pretty darn severe in the appointed Gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62). He warns a would-be follower that discipleship will mean renouncing the comforts of home (v.58). He doesn’t even give another potential disciple a chance to go to his dad’s funeral (v.60). If we’re serious about our journey, we have to recognize discipleship—changing our lives to draw nearer to God’s plan for us—is going to mean jettisoning a few things. It will start with dealing with addictions. No porn or gambling or drug and alcohol abuse. It will mean letting go of some previous ideas about our own identity. It might mean parting ways with some people and toxic relationships in our lives. It’s most certainly going to mean re-prioritizing the way we look at our time and our financial resources.

In the Hebrew scripture lesson for this Sunday (1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21) Elisha gets tapped to be the apprentice prophet to the Jewish people and the successor to Elijah. He kisses his parents good-bye, and then gives away all of his wealth. He’s in a nomadic society which values livestock as currency, so he kills all his oxen, barbecues them by setting fire to the equipment used to drive them, and gives away all of the meat. I imagine this story might have inspired Saint Francis of Assisi when he gave his father back all of his clothing and walked naked into the wilderness to live a life of faithfulness to God alone.

Now I grant that it’s still pretty hard for most of us to renounce the world when we still have to live in it. We’re not all going to sell all we have and give the money to the poor to follow Jesus. But I would hope we look at these lessons as a caution against the idols of this world. We will be freer and happier people when we learn to unbind ourselves from things which draw us away from God.

A detail I particularly like in this Gospel story is how Jesus has no time for the disciples’ societal prejudice against the Samaritans (52-54). The Zebedee brothers are all set to have God avenge a slight they feel they’ve received from their long-time rivals. Jesus, however, doesn’t have time for this. He’s set his face to Jerusalem, and figures that obedience to God demands that you just have to let some stuff go. I wish we all could get behind that.

It’s not just our own stuff we have to give the heave to, either. Collectively, the Church will have to put some things behind her, too. Maybe we have to give up the idea of full-time professional clergy (Ouch!), or giant buildings which cost so much to maintain. Liturgies and musical styles are always evolving with the times in an effort to reach new demographics. It might be swell to look back at the good ol’ days, but that won’t get us where we need to go.


God’s peace be with you, my friends. Keep looking forward.