Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Happy Pentecost!

Vigil of the Pentecost & Whitsunday
“…and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3b)

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian Church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.” (Luther’s Small Catechism; explanation to Article III of the Apostles’ Creed)

Happy Pentecost, everybody!

I hope it’s happy in any event. If there were ever a day for rejoicing—besides the Resurrection of Our Lord—it would certainly be the Day of Pentecost. If we take Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthian congregation to heart, we see we don’t need to be speaking in tongues in order to know we’ve received the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is faith in Jesus Christ.

But don’t kid yourself. This isn’t just about assent to a doctrine. To have the Holy Spirit is to embrace the powerful presence of God in our lives. In the quote from the Small Catechism above, Luther enumerates all the blessings of the Spirit. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life are pretty cool gifts, but so is the knowledge that we’re blessed by God with various abilities and the wonderful news that we are tied through the Spirit to one another.

In the midst of the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic, I find it tremendously comforting to know that we still have community in Christ. Indeed, I’m feeling the Holy Spirit at work when I hear parishioners speak of how they long to gather once more, of how they miss one another’s company. This is the Spirit present with us.

Of course, God didn’t give us the gift of the Spirit just to have companionship. When we look at the lesson appointed for the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23), a few things stand out. First, the miraculous gift of tongues in the First Lesson isn’t just about personal ecstatic experience (funky and delightful as that may be to those who are gifted with it!). The gift of tongues was given that all people would know about Jesus. Similarly, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and tells them they have the power to forgive or retain sins. According to Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, the office of forgiving and retaining isn’t about deciding which things are naughty or nice. “Sin” in John’s Gospel is the lack of accepting the power of God in Jesus. If we, as disciples, “forgive” or “release” someone from sin in this context, we’re actually bestowing on them the message that God loves them, Jesus loves them enough to die for them, their past shame is wiped out, and they are an important part of the body of Christ in the world. To “retain” their sin would be to neglect this proclamation.

The other great thing about the Holy Spirit is that she gives us abilities to grow and enrich the body of Christ. I dig the way Luther says we’re “enlightened” with these gifts. All of us are blessed with some natural abilities. The light really comes on in our hearts, however, when we figure out that A) We didn’t choose to be good at what we’re good at. God gave us these abilities as a gift of grace, and B) God gave us these gifts to be used for God’s glory. It’s rather a weird thing, but acknowledging our abilities as both gift and responsibility makes us both humble and proud at the same time (Don’t you just love a good religious paradox?). But the pride is a good pride—the satisfaction of knowing we’re doing what God has intended us to do.

As we continue to wait patiently through this pandemic, I urge you to consider how the Spirit has blessed your life. You may not find yourself miraculously praising God in Swahili (unless, of course, you actually speak Swahili), but you have been released from the grave sins of doubt and despair, you are connected to the Church of Christ, and you have been given marvelous gifts. What should you do but rejoice?

Thanks for reading, my friend. Stay safe.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Good Time to Pray (Reflections on Easter 7, Year A)

4 Earnest Prayers for Disciple Makers | Living the D-Life
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer…” (Acts 1:14a)

Believe it or not, we’re all the way to Easter 7. My how time flies when you’re locked-down during a pandemic! The First lesson in the RCL for this Sunday (Acts 1:6-14) comes from Acts 1. Jesus is ascending to sit at the right hand of the Father, and the disciples are standing around looking at the clouds with their mouths hanging open (wouldn’t you?). Nevertheless, before Jesus splits, the disciples have to ask him one more time if this is the time when God will restore Israel to her former glory (They just can’t seem to get this earthly kingdom thing out of their heads!). His answer is basically, “Gosh, guys. I dunno. That’s up to my Dad. But you guys need to wait here in Jerusalem because something really cool is about to happen.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d find that a rather disappointing answer. It’s so vague. It’s like asking Governor Wolf when southeastern Pennsylvania will be open for business again. When can we come back to church? Nobody knows the answer. We’re just told to wait.

So what do you do while you’re waiting? Verse 14 tells us they devoted themselves to prayer. Now, I’ll bet many of us have a lot more time for prayer these days now that there’s no place for us to go during a pandemic. Still, worry about the unknown, boredom, frustration, and members of your family doing the rumba on your last nerves don’t exactly create an environment conducive to prayer. But pray anyway.

Okay, Pastor, you say, what shall we pray for? In the gospel lesson (John 17:1-11[i]) Jesus is just finishing his prayer. He asks his Father to protect the saints, to keep them strong in the Word, and to keep them unified. He might’ve been praying for us in our current situation. He rather pointedly is not praying for the world (v. 9). When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Why? Because the world will never get better unless the saints of God are willing to make it better.

Perhaps our prayers at this time should not be to change our circumstances but, rather, to change ourselves. Scientists, doctors, and government authorities will do battle with the coronavirus. Our responsibility is to use this opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with God and with each other. Our job may well be to cultivate empathy, gratitude, and a sense of purpose so we can really know the joy Jesus prays for us to receive (v. 13).

What will happen to our congregation when this pandemic finally subsides? Will we have one big “Welcome Back” mass and then go back to business as usual? Or will this time be used to God’s glory? Will we discover within ourselves a new sense of commitment as God’s people in mission to the world? It’s something we should pray about, don’t you think?

May God bless you and keep us safe, secure in the Word, and in contact with one another.

PS- For a video of this sermonette, click here.

[i] To really get this you might want to read all of John 17.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Never Orphaned (Reflections on Easter 6, Year A)

Famous Artwork: The Last Supper - WorldAtlas.com
If you knew you were going to die—or if you were going on a long journey and knew you’d never have the chance to see someone you cared for again, what would you say to them? Wouldn’t you want to give them something that would cause them to remember you? Something that would stay with them and live with them after you were gone?

In the gospel lesson appointed for Ester 6 in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 14:15-21), that’s where we find Jesus. Here he’s giving something of a “farewell speech.” It’s the night of the Last Supper. He’s already washed the feet of the disciples, and Judas has already left to go rat him out to the authorities. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time left to be with these guys. So what does he do?

He promises them an advocate or helper will come to be among them when he’s gone. Of course, we know he won’t be gone too long this time. He’ll be put to death the next day, but by Sunday God will have him up and around again. He’ll hang out for the next forty days, popping up here and there—just long enough for these followers to get used to the idea that life in him is eternal—and then, on the fortieth day (the day we’ll celebrate this Thursday, May 21st, The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord) he’ll be gone once more. They won’t see him in the flesh again this side of the Pearly Gates.

I guess they moped around for the next ten days (and you could hardly blame them), but then—BAM! On the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost, they found Jesus was right back with them. He was in them, with them, and among them as their helper and advocate. In fact, they came to understand that he had never left them at all.

When we’re kids, our parents are supposed to teach us and guide us. They say things like, “You’ll understand this when you’re older!” Then, suddenly, we are older. We go off to college or to the military, we get married, we move away. Eventually, our parents leave us for their home in Heaven. But we find—for better or worse—that they never really leave us. All the things they’ve said or done or given us or demonstrated have become, in some way, a part of us. We might even find that we call on them in time of need. We ask ourselves, “What would Mom say about this if she were here?” or “What would Dad do in this situation?” And we find, sometimes to our surprise, that we really do understand now that we’re older.

This is Jesus’ promise to us—to be with us in the Spirit of Truth. As Saint Paul says in our First Lesson, we don’t worship a God who lives in shrines made by human hands (Acts 17:24). We can’t even worship in our shrine made by human hands now because of the coronavirus epidemic! Praise be to God that the Spirit of Christ lives in and among us, granting us wisdom and courage to face the current hour.

May the Spirit of Our Lord, who dwells in the Father, also dwell in us!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Can I Get a Witness? (Reflections on Easter 5, Year A)

The Stoning of Saint Stephen - Wikipedia
Nobody said being a Christian was going to be easy.  In the First Lesson for Easter 5, Year A (Acts 7:55-60) we see Stephen paying a pretty hefty price for his faithfulness to God. This poor guy gets stoned to death just for doing the right thing. But, hey! Righteousness, we’re told, is its own reward. If you think you can escape the problems of this world through your obedience to God, you’re kidding yourself and you’re turning God’s favor into some kind of transaction. The problems of this world will always find you. Those problems, however, will take on a different and less frightening look when they’re encountered with a clear conscience and the knowledge that you’ve done what God has called you to do.

Stephen, our hero this week, is described as being full of the Holy Spirit. He’s tasked with helping to create the loving community. He’s one of the first deacons, and his job is to make sure the widows and orphans of the community are taken care of and that the charity done for them is done without partiality. He’s pretty good at this job, and most folks like and respect him. He really knows his scriptures, and when he get5s into theological debates with non-Christians, he speaks logically and intelligently. Unfortunately, some bad guys get jealous of his popularity and accuse him of blasphemy. He defends himself with great verbal skill and speaks God’s truth to the powerful priests—even when he knows this won’t go down well with them. Righteous to the end, he even forgives the guys who are throwing rocks at him!

In the old Lutheran Book of Worship collect series, the Prayer of the Day for Easter 5 asks God to help us love what God commands and desire what God promises. God has called us to create the loving community—a pretty tricky ask when we’re all sheltering in place during a quarantine. Nevertheless, like Stephen, folks at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia are finding ways to connect and be the body of Christ with and for one another. Some who read this message do so because a church member has copied it out and mailed it to members without internet access. Some of our members are doing the grocery shopping for elderly homebound members. Some are planting a garden of vegetables to donate to our Lutheran food bank. Some are gathering as a family, reading the weekly lessons, and watching the sermonette video, creating their own mini-church. Some are doing Bible study on Zoom. Some will soon gather—properly masked, of course—to make meals for neighborhood shut-ins. In these ways and more—and in spite of the pandemic—God’s people are doing their best to make Christ known.

During this crisis many people are willing to put themselves out for love of their neighbors. You don’t have to be a martyr like Stephen, but I think it’s important to remember that the word “martyr” literally means a witness. So keep looking for ways in which you can be part of the loving community. We’re all called to witness so the world can see the unconquerable love of Jesus Christ.

God’s peace and blessings to you all—and stay safe!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Only One Way In (Reflections of Easter 4, Year A)

Jesus Christ "the Good Shepherd" Orthodox Icon | Legacy Icons
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:1)

Boy. I bet Bernie Sanders would really dig the description of the early Christian church we find in the first lesson appointed for Easter 4, Year A (Acts 2:42-47). If you read verses 44-45, it looks pretty much like these guys were socialists. Look: they had no private property, they all contributed as they could to the common purse, and they took what they needed from it. Sounds great—even Utopian, right?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for this system described in chapter 2 to fall apart. By chapter 6 some favoritism started to creep in, and the disciples had to create a sort of ecclesiastic bureaucracy to address it. I don’t consider myself an expert on world economics, but it seems to me that a totally socialistic system—one where the government controls the means of production and the distribution of wealth—will always, in this sinful world, become corrupt. By the same token, a totally free market system—in which everyone looks after their own interest and the only law is supply and demand—will quickly turn into a giant game of Monopoly in which a few will win and everyone else will lose.

But it’s not the system that’s important, is it? What matters is our motivation for supporting a system. When we enter into a social relationship, we’d better be sure we’re entering by the right gate. And that gate can only be Jesus Christ (John 10:9).

In times of crisis we look for leadership, but as Christians we’ve already found our leader. He’s the one hanging on the cross. In him we see the greatest depth of love for all people. We see sacrifice and forgiveness and hope beyond our present alienation. We see how deeply we each are loved in spite of all our mistakes and shortcomings. And we hear the command to love others as He has loved us—in humility, generosity, and forbearance.

Any theory or institution we put our trust in is mere idolatry unless it is born of the law of God and the gracious love of Christ fervently embraced in our hearts. There is only one gate to enter, the gate which acknowledges Christ’s love of all people—even those with values and cultures different from our own. Any other system is empty hubris or greed and will ultimately wound and destroy. Jesus told us to strive first for the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and then all will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). If we look to him, no one will hunger. He’s the Good Shepherd. All the others are poor copies or impostors. We know what he’d have us do and who he’d have us be. It’s up to us to do and be it.

God’s peace to you. Thanks for coming by this week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Stranger on the Road (Reflections on Easter 3, Year A)

Thanks for essential workers, road-worker, social worker, doctor and nurse for their service amid corona virus outbreak
Oh, Jesus. He shows up in the darndest places, doesn’t he? Of course, like those sad disciples trudging their despondent way back to Emmaus in the gospel lesson appointed for Easter 3, Year A (Luke 24:13-35), we don’t always recognize him. Maybe he’s been disguising himself as a healthcare worker or a supermarket employee or a delivery driver or an online teacher or even a friendly neighbor—any number of folks who, during this covid-19 pandemic, have been sacrificially putting themselves at risk out of a loving regard for the rest of us. Maybe our eyes have been kept from seeing him, but make no mistake, he is certainly present. I always feel that my job as a Christian is to see Jesus in others and to be Jesus for others. If I can’t see him, I won’t be able to be him.

What I’ve always liked about this gospel story in Luke is that it takes place in the midst of a journey. That’s a pretty sweet metaphor, don’t you think? Jesus meets us while we’re on the road, while we’re not yet settled or at rest. He just loves that liminal time when we’re not quite comfortable. I imagine Cleopas and that other disciple were pretty bummed out when they made that post-Passover trip back to their home in Emmaus. They must’ve been filled with both grief for Jesus and great disappointment. When the thing you’ve hoped for turns to crap, you find yourself wandering around wondering what to do next. Do you start over? Do you look for something new? Do you get mad, say "screw it!” and assume there’s no point in hoping for anything ever again?

Then along comes a stranger who makes you see something in a new light. He might ask, “Was it not necessary that he Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” After all, all of the prophets suffered. The children of Israel suffered as slaves in Egypt, captives in Babylon, and vassals of a host of conquerors. Could anybody in Israel ever really relate to a Messiah who didn’t know what suffering was about? Suffering sucks, but it also leads to wisdom. And it leads to compassion and empathy and the comfort of knowing that you’ve been understood. God couldn’t give us a Messiah who couldn’t look us in the eye and say, “Yeah. Dude. I’ve been there.”

When Cleopas and his buddy get back to Emmaus, they do a pretty cool thing. The strange guy they’ve met on the road seems to have a longer journey to make, but the two disciples realize that it’s getting on for dinner time, and this guy must be hungry and tired. They welcome the stranger just as if they were welcoming the Lord. After all, didn’t Jesus say that when you have done it for one of the least of these, you have done it for him?[i] So they open their home and their hearts and—by golly!—there was Jesus right in the midst of them after all.

You have to give these two guys credit. Not only were they—in the time of their sorrow, disappointment, and confusion—able to see Jesus in someone else, they also practiced being Jesus. They were loving, welcoming, and generous. In seeking to live out Christ within themselves, they had their faith and their joy restored.

That’s kind of the point. We’re all on the same road, we’re all unsettled pilgrims unsure of our destination. The safest rule of the road will be to keep our eyes open for Jesus. You never know when he’ll show up.

God’s peace. My friend. Thanks again for reading!

[i] Matthew 25:40

If you'd like to see this message on video, click Easter 3.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The New Normal (Reflections on Easter 2, Year A)

Doubting Thomas - Higher Things
Lately we’ve been hearing the phrase “new normal.” It’s funny, isn’t it, how “new normal” always seems somewhat abnormal. We’re enjoined to stand six feet away from each other, stay in our homes, and wear protective masks when we venture into any area where we might potentially run into another member of the human race. We’re working from home, home schooling our kids, and even having church services via our computers or smart phones.

I daresay, most of us don’t like the new normal. I’m sure we can’t wait to get back to the old normal. It felt so much more normal, didn’t it?

But let’s face it: an extremely contagious and potentially deadly virus has made its nasty little way into our normal lives and screwed up everything. Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. The so-called “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918 (see my article at the right) caught the whole world unaware. Yet, after it had done its dreadful work, we were smarter people. We learned a whole lot more about epidemiology than we’d known before. When we get past the first onslaught of covid-19, we’ll be even smarter. I hope.

But back to normal..? I don’t think so. Sometimes stuff happens like a pandemic or a terrorist attack or the death of a loved one or the loss of a job and we just have to figure out how to live in the new normal.

The appointed gospel lesson for Easter 2, Year A (John 20:19-31) is that familiar story of Jesus visiting the disciples and poor doubting Thomas not believing when he’s told that the Lord has been raised. I have to wonder if Thomas really wants to believe. After all, he’s been following this Galilean rabbi around for three years, left his family, lived a life of expectation and controversy, had a shot at fame (or so he thought) and then watched everything turn to crap when Jesus was arrested and crucified. Maybe the poor guy just wants to get back to normal. Wouldn’t you?

But now he has to face it: Jesus has been raised. Jesus is alive. No revolution against Rome. No earthly kingdom. Instead, there’s the certainty of eternal life and the command to love the world in the light of forgiveness. Thomas could, conceivably, hand in his Disciples Union card and go back to his old life, but he can’t escape the fact that Jesus has changed everything and nothing will be normal again. Once he’s seen the risen Jesus with his own eyes, he can’t un-see him. Once he’s heard the command to love and to teach forgiveness, he can’t un-hear it. Once he’s known the love and forbearance Jesus has shown him—the risen Jesus, the eternal Jesus, that is—he can’t un-know it. He’s going to have to live in the new normal.

The historian Eusebius recorded Thomas the apostle heading east and preaching the love of Jesus in Parthia (in modern-day Iran). Christian tradition has held that he continued his eastward missionary journey and brought the gospel as far as India, where he was martyred. It seems he embraced his new normal.

It is not insignificant that the thing Jesus wishes for the disciples, the gift with which he blesses them, is peace. It’s somewhat unfortunate that, in our new normal, we might not find ourselves wishing peace on each other in quite the same physical way in which we did it in the past. Nevertheless, if Jesus can blow a breath—a spirit—of peace on these guys who are about to go out and change the world, he most assuredly can grant us the peace to grab onto the changes we will have to make. Now is a time to recognize that we’re all human, we’re all fragile. Now we can push to the forefront of our minds how small our differences are when we’re confronted with hardship. Now we can see the heroic in everyday life, and recognize the priesthood inherent in our own vocations. Now we can pray for God to lead us forward—not backward—into a new normal, still held safe in the nail-scarred hands.

God bless you, my friend. Stay home for now and stay safe.

For a video version of this message, click Easter 2.