Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Yes, It IS the End (Reflections on Advent 1, Year C)

Have I mentioned how much I hate the Gospel lessons for the First Sunday in Advent? Okay. Maybe I have. It’s just that I remember those thrilling days of the early 1970’s and the publication of Hal Lindsay’s magnum opus The Late Great Planet Earth, and every time we get these Second-Coming-End-of-the World-Eschatological lessons appointed for our Gospel reading I think of a bunch of long-haired hippies sitting around in storefront churches waiting for The Rapture. I think of that awful movie Thief in the Night and the attempt to frighten everybody into a personal relationship with Jesus—as if that were possible—and I start to feel a bit queasy. I just don’t like Doomsday narratives. I don’t even like the current taste for dystopian stories in our popular culture. (No. I haven’t seen The Hunger Games, and I don’t plan to, either—fond as I am of Jennifer Lawrence!).

But I have to admit, if I were into End-Times Biblical prophecy, these days do look pretty much like the end of the world. In ISIS we face a new and insidious form of Islamic extremism, a mysterious global entity of terror which rivals anything Ian Fleming could’ve made up. Global climate change is causing “hundred year” storms to break out annually. There are wars and rumors of wars—saber-rattling in Russia and China. There is economic inequality and racial tension here in America. Today a third-grader has greater command of modern technology than I do, but has vastly weaker verbal and written communication skills—a fact ignored by those who espouse a tax policy which is perfectly content to see that third-grader languish in a public school system already reeking of rigormortis.

So are these the signs of the end of the world?

I’d have to say, “Yup! It’s the end of something, alright!”

In this week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36), Jesus warns us that things are going to look pretty bad. There are going to be freaky signs and portents which will cause people to faint with fear and foreboding (verse 26). But yet he maintains that these changes are signs of God’s coming kingdom. Do I personally believe that these are signs of the end of all time? No. Not really. But I do believe that the things which are familiar and comfortable are going to be rocked off their foundations and we’re not going to be able to escape that. The Gospel lesson even has Jesus tell us that every generation will face change and loss and uncertainty. No generation will pass away without it.

But here’s the good news:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (v.33)

Our spiritual walk is never about what happens—it’s about how we choose to embrace it. It’s not for us to figure out God’s intentions about the end of our little planet. It is for us to lift our heads and be open to what God is teaching us. It’s also for us, as Christians, to be excited about the new thing God is doing—even if we find it scary and uncomfortable. Old worlds pass away so that new worlds can begin. Bill Moore, a Baptist pastor from North Philly, always used to say, “Man’s desperation is God’s opportunity.” As people of faith we trust in the ongoing truth of the Word of God, and in the Holy Spirit’s ability to work through us and bring resolutions to the problems which confront this age. These resolutions will not bring us back to our past comfort zones. Rather, they will lead us forward to new and different experiences of God’s goodness.

Martin Luther’s world was also confronted with Islamic extremism as Turkish forces threatened Christian Europe. Plagues and wars destroyed populations. Social chaos (some of which was caused by Luther himself!) tore at the fabric of society. Peoples’ very cosmology was upended by the new discoveries of astronomers and explorers. Yet out of all of this craziness came the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Last Sunday I attended a retirement party for one of my colleagues. Claire Burkat, my bishop, was present. In her usually optimistic way she told me how excited she was about the new crop of young pastors and seminarians who are chomping at the proverbial bit to serve our Church. They are already adapting through the use of social media. They don’t mind being bi-vocational—taking secular jobs so as not to be dependent on congregational giving for their salaries. They want to encourage lay leaders and train volunteers for the Gospel. They have a radical vision of what Church could be which might seem odd to someone of my generation. Some old traditions may be going by the wayside, but something new is coming.

So stay awake, folks! Instead of preparing for Christmas this year, let’s all prepare for Christ. I have a feeling he’s up to something.

Happy Advent. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Some Random Thoughts as the Season Begins


“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2a.

I don’t really care what anybody says. My Christmas is not going to be ruined by not seeing tree ornaments and reindeer printed on the cup of my tall dark roast at Starbuck’s. I still love coffee and I still love Christmas and, since neither of them are illegal in this country (Christmas is, in fact, an official national holiday), I plan to go right on enjoying both without any feelings of persecution. 80% of Americans will still be celebrating Christmas whether or not retail chains call it by its Christian name or just make a vague reference to “the holidays.” When 80% of us are still going to parties, blowing up inflatable “Santas” on our front lawns, stringing lights, and spending money like the Apocalypse is upon us, we can’t claim the status of victims. So all of you who think there’s a “war on Christmas” need to get over yourselves and concentrate on something else—like, maybe, global poverty or climate change or our increasing number of wounded combat veterans.

And, for the record, I don’t really mind the excessive secular images for Christmas either. Unlike the Puritans who wanted to outlaw Christmas because of its pagan origins, I still have a fondness for ol’ Santa. He is, after, all evolved from an authentic Christian saint (Nicholas of Myra, d. 350) who was known for sneaking into peoples’ houses and leaving lavish gifts in order to help them out. I think that’s a pretty nifty symbol for what the church of Jesus Christ should be about—selflessness, compassion, and humility.

Okay, so maybe I do get a bit weary of the over-commercialization of the holiday, but that doesn’t preclude the delight I get from my own personal traditions. Marilyn decorates our home tastefully and elegantly every year (and I just finished putting 400 colored lights on a baby Norwegian spruce in our side yard), and we look forward to getting the tree up, visiting with friends, seeing a performance of The Nutcracker, and watching our favorite Christmas movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

But what I really appreciate is the historic tradition of Advent as a prelude to Christmas. The idea that we are living in a dark world yet we yearn for the light seems to make more sense to me the older I get. In the gospel lessons of this season we hear Jesus speak of the End Times—which are actually the Beginning Times for God’s reign. Old things will perish, new things will happen. We will feel fear, but Jesus will tell us to hold up our heads and await God’s Kingdom. John the Baptist will exhort us to repent—to see things in a different way. The Virgin Mary will tell us that she, an unwed, pregnant teenager, is actually blessed among women because God favors the weak and the helpless. In all the rush and chaos of this world, Christians will still light the candles in the darkness and believe that God is in control and creating something which we might not recognize at first as God’s work, but which will be beautiful and glorious all the same.

Who could believe that a baby born in poverty, who grew up to be executed as a criminal, could actually be the Savior of the world? But that’s how God rolls—God takes outcasts and oddballs like Jacob and Joseph, Rahab and Bathsheba, Elijah and Jeremiah and John the Baptist, and uses them to proclaim his glory and love. So don’t be alarmed about the weird cultural shifts in America. Enjoy with defiant delight your Advent traditions. Keep lighting the candles, and keep believing in hope. O come, Emanuel! Come, God With Us!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Our Kingdom (Reflections on Christ the King, Year B)

This is a pretty cool story. The Gospel lesson appointed for Christ the King Sunday in Year B (John 18:33-37) is part of one of the most gripping scenes in scripture—the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate fascinates us as a literary and historic character. Here is our enemy, the dude whose job it is to oppress us, and yet he’s more sympathetic and respectful of truth than those who are supposed to be our brothers and sisters. Our sympathies go out to him as he finds it impossible to do the noble thing in a world filled with anger and hate.

At least this is the way we might think of him. To be honest, most Bible scholars would agree that the characterization of Pilate in the Gospels takes more than a little poetic license. John is writing around the end of the first century of the Common Era, and he’s probably more interested in sucking up to a Roman-dominated world and not too keen on pleasing a Pharisaical Jewish community which is already taking a pretty dim view of the followers of Jesus. Ancient historians such as Philo and Josephus state overtly what the Gospels only suggest—Pontius Pilate was a political thug whose job was to shake the conquered people down for taxes and keep them from revolting.  He was renowned for his corruption, brutality, and total disdain for those whom he was charged to govern.

Knowing what we do about ol’ Pontius makes his cynical comment in John 18:38 (disgracefully omitted from this week’s assigned reading if you ask me!) all the more poignant. When Jesus tells him he has come to bear witness to the truth, all Pilate can answer is, “What is truth?”

This guy doesn’t have a clue. He is enmeshed in the kingdom of this world with its politics, selfishness, fear, and reliance on violence and intimidation. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the need to dominate and destroy enemies. Jesus’ kingdom reigns without victimizing or demonizing or dehumanizing. Jesus’ kingdom does not require armies with weapons and the celebration of victory over vanquished peoples.

And Jesus’ kingdom rests on the true might of service, humility, sacrifice, and love. All the empires of this world with all of their victories are only temporary. Every use of force will only hold the field for a blink of God’s eye. The kingdom of Jesus, based on the Law of God to love God and love humanity, is the only one which will stand forever. In their fear of loss, victimization, and insignificance, the Pilates of this world can’t understand this.

In last Sunday’s Gospel Jesus warned us about false prophets in a time of change and chaos. I pray to God that we, American Christians, won’t buy into the panic of ISIS terrorism and the knee-jerk reaction of some who urge retaliation by denying compassion to the poor and the stranger. Such may be the world’s reaction, but we do not belong to that kingdom.

As I write this post, a congregation of Pakistani American Muslims is preparing to begin a worshiping community in a former United Church of Christ chapel around the corner from my parish here in Far Northeast Philly. May we all remember that our true kingdom is not of this world. May we follow the example of our True King and show honor, welcome, kindness, and hospitality as befits the subjects of his kingdom.

God bless you, my fellow subjects. Long live the King in our hearts and minds!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Crumbling Temples (Reflections on Pentecost 25 Year B)

Image result for images for Emanuel Lutheran church, Philadelphia

I think we have established that I really love churches and church architecture. I have a particular warm spot in my heart for the old Emanuel Lutheran Church down at 4th and Carpenter in South Philly. That’s where I, as a not-yet-ordained seminary student with an episcopal dispensation, said my first mass about twenty years ago. As you can tell from the photo, this was a gorgeous old monster of a Georgian Revival church, built just after the Civil War and holding about eleven hundred German-speaking Lutherans. When I walked into the massive worship space I tried to imagine those eleven hundred worshipers—proud of their new church, secure in their new country after the defeat of the slave-holding South, and lustily singing “Ein feste burg.”

Of course, by the time I got to Emanuel a lot of the bloom was off the ecclesiastical rose. The decaying behemoth sat in the middle of a blighted housing project, and it had only been saved from the wrecking ball because the city decided that the neighborhood required a large auditorium. The vaunted social ministries of the 1960’s and 1970’s had been defunded. The paint peeled off the ceiling of the huge sanctuary and a musty odor permeated the building. The gorgeous clock in the tower had long since stopped keeping time. A tiny congregation of mostly African Americans still sang their hearts out in the smaller ground floor chapel every Sunday, but the end of Lutheran worship in that great structure was slowly but inevitably approaching. Today the Emanuel congregation has merged with another worshiping body, and their once grand temple now serves a Buddhist community. I doubt those 19th century Germans could have imagined such a turn of events.

The sad truth is, nothing in this world lasts forever. The grand Protestant congregations of my childhood are fast sinking under the waves. Since I came to Philly over twenty Lutheran churches have closed their doors or merged. The Pew Research Group tells us that the number of Americans with no religious affiliation seems to be growing—especially among younger adults. Will all of our splendid temples stand empty some day or be torn down to make way for shopping malls?

In the Gospel lesson appointed in the RCL for Pentecost 25 (Mark13:1-8) Jesus tells his disciples that the great Jerusalem temple, at which they so marvel, will one day be reduced to a pile of rocks. You can imagine that these boys find this prediction a bit disturbing. Once they get Jesus alone (probably fearing that public talk of the destruction of the temple might be considered terrorism) Peter and James and John and Andrew ask him when this destruction will take place. They’d like a little advance warning before the break-down of civilization as they know it, but Jesus is characteristically vague in his answer. Basically, all Jesus tells them is that things will look pretty grim, and false leaders will talk all kinds of crap when the world looks to be falling apart. But disciples are not to buy into the hysteria. This is just the beginning of something new.

Frankly, I’m not that comfortable with this answer (especially if you read the rest of chapter 13!). I mean, I really like my traditional church and my role as professional Christian. I like wearing my long robes and being greeted with respect in the marketplace (see Mark 12:38). If God is doing a new thing with the church, I really wish he’d wait ‘til after I take retirement! But I don’t get to make that call, and neither does anyone else.

The world and the Christian church are changing, and we have to keep believing that this is actually a good thing whether we want to or not. Maybe it will do us all good to be back on the margins of society again when we really have to make the effort to be church. Maybe we’ll stop thinking of worship as a commodity we buy to make ourselves feel good, and start seeing a daily and weekly gathering for devotion as an expression of who we are in our inmost selves. Perhaps our love of God’s Law will no longer be our standard of respectability, but will become our desire for the healing of the world. Maybe, when we stop serving our buildings, we will recapture Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers and focus on serving our brothers and sisters in need.

Change is frightening, but it is God’s tool to tune up our priorities.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Let me know what you think, okay?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Faithful Widows (Reflections on Pentecost 24 Year B)

Image result for the widow's mite

“…she, out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44b)

So you have to ask: What was that dame thinking..?! Here she is, the poor widow of this week’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary, who has only a few measly coins on which to survive—and she goes and gives them to the temple! Stupid broad! Does she want to starve to death..?

This totally defies logic, don’t you think? I mean, the temple was the Social Security Department of its day. Those rich dudes who were donating great sums in this story (Mark 12:38-44) should’ve been supporting this old gal and not asking anything from her in return. Isn’t that right? Can I get an “Amen!” for social welfare?

But yet this woman, who may have begged the very coins she contributed, felt the need to give her part to the treasury. Was she just plain foolish with money? Or superstitious? Or maybe she was a person of enormous faith in the goodness of God, and her heart was touched with charity and pity and hope.

I like that last suggestion the best.

There’s another widow story in this week’s lectionary: the story of the widow of Zeraphath and the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16). This poor soul and her son are flat-ass broke and down to their last few scraps of food. The whole area is suffering from famine and the welfare checks just aren’t coming in any more. Then, along comes this weird holy guy—a stranger from another country—who begs for a meal. The widow tells him that she has only enough for herself and her boy. They’re going to have one last good feast before they die of starvation.

But weird old Elijah keeps begging for food. It seems that God has told him that He (that would be God) commanded this widow to feed Elijah’s sorry self. (Prior to this, God had commanded ravens to deliver bread and meat to the prophet. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d want to eat any meat delivered to me from a carrion bird!) Of course, what God commands and what we actually do are often two very distinct things. Nevertheless, this poor widowed mom sets a plate out for Elijah. I guess her devotion to charity and faith in God overcame her fear of privation.

The Bible does not say that the widow immediately hit the lottery. It does say, however, that her daily needs continued to be met from that point on. That’s because God provides. All the time.

My little parish here in Northeast Philly is struggling with finances like just about every other mainstream congregation in America. It’s kind of spooky to watch other Lutheran churches in the city go down like Custer at the Big Horn and wonder if we’re going to be next. But the more I think about it, the problem is not about money. It’s all about faith.

You see, we 21st Century American Christians have to start by believing that our faith in Christ has something to offer this hurting planet. Something like love, charity, hope, and a transcendent spirituality which is worth our effort to preserve it. We have to believe that Jesus has called us to be his ambassadors. If we don’t, why would we bother putting our pitiful coins in the temple treasury? But if we do believe, we can do acts of generosity with love and joy and anticipation.
We also have to believe that our acts of generosity—and faith without action is dead, remember?—will not leave us destitute. We have to have the faith which tells us to love the work of the Gospel more than we fear privation.

There aren’t a lot of wealthy scribes in my parish or eccentric prophets, either. There are, however, a whole bunch of widows. And their faithfulness speaks to me again and again of their unshakable trust in the mercy of God and their titanium-solid faith that the Word of God can bring charity, healing, reconciliation, and true joy to all who embrace it.

God bless the faithful widows. May we all learn from their example. Thanks for reading, my friend.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tears for the Living (Reflections on All Saints Day)

"Raising of Lazarus" Duccio, 14th century

Eddie was killed last week. He was forty-two years old, and his mom called him a big kid who never grew up. He was a part-time heavy metal roadie, a sometime chef, and full-time party animal. He and a buddy were riding on a motorcycle, and some idiot ran a light, struck them, and drove off. A hit-and-run.

I preached his grandmother’s funeral about a month ago, so the family asked me to say some words for Eddie. The trouble is, I can’t quite go to the usual scripture verse like “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live (John 11:25)” because I don’t have a stinkin’ clue what Eddie believed. He was never baptized, and, as far as I know, never darkened the door of a church. So what do I say?

Fortunately, I’ve been looking at the scripture for this Sunday’s All Saints Day mass, John 11:32-44. This is the story of the raising of Lazarus. I’m not planning on raising Eddie from the dead, but I find that the beauty of our scriptures is so often in the tiny details the writers have sewn into the fabric of the narrative.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:33-35)

Jesus began to weep. 

Is there another verse in scripture which tells us so much about our God?

But why is Jesus crying? Surely he knows, if anyone ever does, the oneness with the eternal God. He knows the soul is in God’s hands. He knows the mercy of the Father. And yet he weeps.

I don’t think he’s crying for Lazarus. Why would he shed tears for the friend he loved who is now at peace? No. He’s not weeping for the dead.

Jesus is weeping for the living, because grief is a contagion which infects all who love with open and generous hearts. We weep when others weep because we are powerless over their hurt. Not even Jesus can take another’s pain away—not that he’d even want to. Pain is the price of love, but it is always worth it.

That is how our God loves us—through our pain. He washed in the dirty bath water of our baptism, walked the long and hungry roads with us, wept with us at the loss of friends, and finally—on the cross—endured our helplessness, shame, physical deterioration, loneliness, and death.

This is what I have to tell Eddie’s friends and family: I believe in the Christ of Compassion. I believe that in their tears for Eddie and for one another they are coming near to the heart of God, of God who IS love. I believe that they have the chance through their sorrow to come to know this Jesus who weeps with them, and that they will find comfort in this love.

And I believe that Eddie is in God’s merciful hands. There is no need to weep for him. They can unbind him and let him go.

Peace be with you, my friends. Thanks for reading.

P.S. Just another thought about the assigned readings in the RCL for Sunday, November 1st: The Hebrew scripture lesson is from Isaiah 25. It speaks of the things God will do when God's people are finally delivered. It was probably written as comforting prophecy for Hebrew exiles in Babylon. The phrase I really love the best is verse 8b: "...and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth..." Isn't that the coolest thought? Our disgrace will be taken away! The guy who dropped the fly ball which lost the championship, the alcoholic and the junkie, the kid who never "made anything of himself," the bankrupt, the homeless woman, the victim of sexual abuse--all their disgrace will be taken away. We will be washed clean of every unkind word we thought or said. Our neglectfulness will be forgotten. Our sins will be forgiven. How blessed we are to live in that promise! (Updated 10/29)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on Reformation Sunday

Portrait of Martin Luther by Cranach

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

“Ecclesia semper reformanda est.”
(Trans: “The church is always reforming.” Quote attributed to theologian Karl Barth, 1947)

This Sunday is that peculiarly Lutheran holiday we call Reformation Sunday. It’s the Sunday which falls either on or immediately before October 31st—the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, setting off the Protestant Reformation. For almost 500 years we Lutherans have made a big, hairy deal out of this anniversary. For me, as much as I love celebrating great events of the past, Reformation Sunday serves as a reminder that the reformation isn’t over. Rather, it’s an on-going event in which Christians can rejoice that we have the freedom in Christ to reinvent and recreate our witness and our spiritual practices and do whatever it takes to reach the world with the message of God’s love and grace.
For lots of Lutheran churches, this day will be celebrated with the re-telling of Luther’s story and the singing of a rousing chorus of Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” There will be red paraments and the feeling of smugness at not being a Roman Catholic. I’m not entirely sure Luther himself would approve of all of that, however. I sometimes think that if that great reformer were to drop in from heaven today he might well ask us what we are doing to advance the gospel in this needy secular age, and be less impressed with our mummified homages to the past.

So! In the spirit of Reformation, my parish has elected to celebrate this day with as short a worship service as possible, immediately followed by a day of service to our neighborhood. Some of us are going to visit nursing homes and shut-ins and bring the Eucharist, music, and prayer. Some will be standing on the sidewalk offering prayer to passers-by. Some will be making care packages for homeless Philadelphians. Some will take to the streets with garbage bags and clean up some of the ubiquitous Philadelphia garbage which perpetually blows through our part of town. All of us will be priests doing God’s work.

Of course the OLD religious guy in me still wants to honor the traditions, so next Saturday night we’ll do some old-fashioned Lutheran things—we’ll have a German-inspired pot-luck dinner, we’ll sing “A Mighty Fortress,” and we’ll screen the 2003 MGM bio pic, Luther. (We’ll stop short of nailing anything to the door of the near-by Catholic church. That might be overkill.) We’ll also take time to review a few things which, in spite of our changing world, will remain the same for us:

*      We are put in a right relationship with God only through our faith in God’s loving grace.
*      We are all priests: We can all do God’s work and are all called to be intercessors for one another.
*      God has given us the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. We don’t do God any favors when we make use of them. They are instituted to help us.
*      We are all 100% sinner and 100% redeemed by God’s love all the time.
*      The Bible is God’s Word, but not a god itself. Not every word is literal, and some portions—those which lead us to a relationship with Christ—are more important than other parts.
*      God’s law will always condemn us because no one is perfect, but God’s unconditional love will always forgive us.
*      We meet God only through Christ on the cross, for on the cross Jesus entered into all of our suffering. When we feel lost and helpless, we are still close and dear to God’s heart

With this faith to guide us and this tradition to support us, we are free to go into the changing world and be a presence for Christ in new and exciting ways.

A blessed Reformation Day, to you, my friends. Go reform something!