Thursday, October 27, 2016

Jeremiah, Martin Luther, and Us (Reflections on Reformation Sunday)

Image result for Images of the Prophet Jeremiah
The Prophet Jeremiah as painted by Marc Chagall

As Hebrew prophets go, I have a warm spot for Jeremiah. I dig Hosea and Ezekiel, too. All three of these boys had pretty wacky ways of getting their messages across, but Jeremiah takes center stage in the Hebrew scripture lesson for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah 31:31-34). I thought it might be a good idea to give a little historical background on the old fellow.

Jeremiah comes on the scene as a prophet around the seventh century B.C. He’s pretty mainstream when he starts out, but later he does some wild stunts—the weirdest of which (Jeremiah 13:1-11) is walking around in dirty underwear as a graphic demonstration of the depravity of the people who have fallen away from God and justly deserve a family-sized dose of shame. He’s kind of a tragic guy in that he has the dirty job of telling people who are in power stuff they don’t want to hear. Chiefly, he has to tell King  Zedekiah that God isn’t going to protect the chosen people—no matter how fond of them God is—from the consequences of their own stupidity. The rulers of Judah think just because they are God’s chosen that they won’t get their butts whooped by the Babylonians. Jeremiah counsels negotiation with the enemy, but Zedekiah’s minions, in their arrogance, don’t want to hear that. They chuck Jeremiah in the slammer and advise Zedekiah to face off with Babylon. The result? The Jews get the crap kicked out of them. Zedekiah’s kids are murdered in front of his eyes, and then Zedekiah has his eyes poked out. The elite of Judah are carried off into exile in Babylon, and Jeremiah lives the rest of his life in obscurity in Egypt (See 2 Kings 25).

In today’s lesson, however, we get the kinder, gentler side of Jeremiah. Here he prophesies that God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and that a new covenant will be made that will be different from the old Law of Moses. The old law had a lot of “thou shalt nots” in it, and I speculate that the people must’ve felt that if they didn’t explicitly do any of the forbidden things then they’d be okay. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty complacent spirituality. God doesn’t want to coerce us with a rule book. God wants us to live the love and compassion which is implicit in the Law. God wants the Law to come from within us.

Fast forward over a thousand years and meet another outrageous prophet—Martin Luther. Luther is also dealing with folks who are hung up on the rule book but are missing the point. He’s part of a church which equates rightness with God with going to church, multiplying prayers, paying to have masses said for dead relatives, and buying yourself a little forgiveness through the purchase of indulgences. The church bosses keep control and line their pockets by keeping folks in fear and ignorance, saying, in essence, “Do what we tell you to do and pay your share or you’ll burn in hell!”

Both Luther and Jeremiah saw societies that needed to be shaken up. Whether the people were trapped by a societal arrogance or by superstitious fear, they were trapped all the same. In the appointed Gospel lesson for Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36), Jesus exhorts that a real, genuine, and free relationship with God comes only through continuing in his Word. This isn’t about obeying rules, but, rather about letting the love of Jesus live in us—believing that the Son has set us free.

Now, five hundred years after Luther and fifteen hundred years after Jeremiah, I sometimes think we are in need of some more shaking up. I worry that we’ve dumbed-down American Christianity to the point that we see it as assent to doctrine, and, like the folks in Jeremiah’s time, we assume that because we’ve signed on to the right confessions we are exempt from any further discipleship. Or, we might be like the folks of Luther’s day who are wrapped-up in following the rules and judge righteousness by a litmus test of moral “purity” (usually involving same-gender relationships and reproductive rights!). Of course, it’s not for me to claim that such people aren’t “saved.” Who am I to stand in God’s place of judgment? But I do see a need for a constant reformation—for a call to, as Jeremiah says, “Know the Lord.”

I sometimes think we could use another Jeremiah or another Luther right about now.

Why? I see the Christian Church shrinking in America, and I have to guess it’s because complacent reliance on correct doctrine or judgmental legalism just aren’t speaking to this generation. What will and does speak, however, is looking to the man on the cross, and recognizing the depth of the love that led him to give himself up to all of that suffering. Realizing that such love is meant for us has to touch our hearts. That’s when we know the Lord and truly know ourselves.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Political Arrogance (Reflections on Pentecost 23 Year C)

Image result for The Pharisee and the tax Collector, images

“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

So are you ready to barf yet?

I’m writing this post on the eve of the third and—mercifully—final candidates’ debate of the 2016 presidential election. This entire political season has been a bilious glut of vitriolic rhetoric spewed at the electorate through a nauseatingly endless stream of hateful advertisements and media coverage. I’d call it a giant clown show, but I have too much respect for clowns.

Now, I’m not about to take sides since to do so would violate church policy and threaten the 501(c)(3) status of my congregation (and I think it’s pretty obvious to my readers which side I’m on, anyway!). I will, however, simply point out that this season doesn’t seem to have brought out the best in any of us. There’s been sin on both sides, and the greatest sin of all might just be the way we relish taking sides. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for democracy, and I know we have to have debate and honest comparison of ideas if we ever want to get anything done right as a society. Even Saint Paul reminded the Corinthian church, “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Yet public debate always carries with it the risk that we will end up like the  Pharisee in the parable from our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 23, Year C (Luke 18:9-14). I mean, haven’t you caught yourself saying something like “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people who are voting for that loathsome candidate! Thank you for putting me on the side of righteousness, unlike those sub-human, deluded nincompoops!”

Isn’t that the problem with believing earnestly in a cause? Our passion always seems to suck up a healthy dose of arrogance for our own superior position and contempt for those who disagree with us. Can somebody please tell me the secret of being a passionate advocate while maintaining humility in myself and respect and compassion for those on the other side of the argument? It ain’t easy.

The tricky thing about the parable Jesus tells in this lesson is that the Pharisee (Boo! Hiss!) is actually a pretty good guy if we take him at his word. He really does try to observe religious piety, and he’s a conscientiously generous person (v. 12). In fact, I’ve always thought that Pharisees get a rough shake in our Gospels. Historically, they were folks who honestly tried to do the right thing all the time based on their interpretation of Jewish law. They were the fathers of modern rabbinic Judaism, and they might make darn good neighbors.

The trouble with the guy in this parable is that he seems to think that his actions have made him beloved in God’s eyes, and he’s really quick to look down on someone like the tax collector who doesn’t measure up to his standard of righteousness. Basically, he’s like all the rest of us.

Dr. David Lose wrote a great commentary on this parable for the Working Preacher website. He points out that it’s real easy to reduce this parable to an exhortation to humility. Unfortunately, as soon as we concentrate on being humble, pride in our own humility sneaks in and makes us just as arrogant as we’d been before. When I think of humility, I always think of Uriah Heap, the cringing clerk in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Uriah always references his own humility while secretly despising his “betters” and plotting their downfall. But, if Uriah Heap is a literary example of false humility, the tax collector in our parable is the expression of the broken spirit which is acceptable to God. This poor guy knows he is wholly dependent on God’s mercy, and can claim no merit of his own. This, I think, is what God is asking of us. Such a broken spirit is the gateway to both gratitude to God and love and compassion for others.

I got a little lesson in humility a while ago when I was officiating the funeral service of a man whose wife had been member of my parish. The deceased gentlemen had been on hospice care for a considerable period before his death, and the hospice chaplain had been an amiable rabbi named Brian. Brian asked if he could say a few words at the funeral and I, in the spirit of collegiality and ecumenism, encouraged him to do so.

As Rabbi Brian spoke, I was struck by his calm, thoughtful, and very humble demeanor. The man possessed an almost overwhelming subtlety which shamed me as I thought of my own self-conscious theatricality. He seemed like just the guy I’d want to minister to me in my final days. After the burial, I told him that I thought he had a gift.

“So do you,” he said. And then I got it. I have a gift. If it’s a gift, I didn’t come up with it myself. God gave it to me, and I have no call to boast about God’s actions. I can only be grateful and acknowledge my dependence on God’s grace.

Of course, I’m still stuck with the question of how I can righteously pursue political advocacy. I guess all I can say is that my desire to promote what I believe to be best for society will always carry with it the temptation to sin against my brothers and sisters, and that I must always struggle with this—acknowledging my own weakness and dependence on God. There is, I would hope, something holy in the struggle with sin, if only in that it saves me from being complacent with it.

Thanks for checking in, friends.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Praying for the Chicago Cubs (Reflections on Pentecost 22, Year C)

Chicago Cubs Logo.svg

“And will not God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:7)

How about those Cubs, eh..? Incredible as it may seem, it looks like the 2016 Chicago Cubs might just be poised to win the World Series. I know. Wild, isn’t it? I mean, Chicago hasn’t won a series since 1908! They haven’t even played in a series since 1945. In fact the last guy to play in a World Series in a Cubs uniform died last year.

And yet—year after painful year—Cubs fans have come out to Wrigley Field, praying to have a victorious team who will make the Windy City proud.

You have to admire their faith.

When you think about it, weirder things have happened. Did you ever think you’d see an African American president of the United States? Or a woman president? Did you ever imagine you’d see the day when same-gender marriage was legal in the land? Did you ever think you’d live to learn that a Roman Catholic pope planned to celebrate the Protestant Reformation with the Lutheran World Federation, or that there’d even be talk of full communion between Lutherans and Roman Catholics? Sometimes things take time, but—remember—God created time and he has time for all things

Our Gospel lesson this week in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 18:1-8) is a clever little parable in which Jesus reminds us to keep the faith. God’s time may not be our time, but that doesn’t mean we stop believing, stop working, or stop praying for the things which are righteous. If even the unrighteous can be worn down eventually through our persistence, surely God will be listening and choosing the moment to answer our righteous prayers. In the meantime, our persistent faith builds our character. The time of constant prayer is a time of learning. Remember—God is always righteous. Our prayers don’t change God. They change us.

Two Martin Luthers have wise words which I think apply to this Gospel passage. Martin Luther King is often quoted as saying that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. I think that’s a pretty encouraging thought, don’t you? And, of course, the original Martin Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism that despair is a great and shameful sin.

I really dig the Hebrew Scripture pericope which the RCL pairs with this Gospel lesson (Genesis 32:22-31). It’s the story of Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok. He’s sent his whole family and a sizable bribe across the river to his brother Esau. When we last saw hairy old Esau, he was pretty p.o.’d with Jacob for stealing his birthright, and he was really looking forward to killing him for doing so. Now, years later, Jacob is preparing to meet the brother who hates his guts once again. He tries to make peace, but he’s not sure Esau is willing to kiss and make up. He spends a restless night alone before the encounter, during which he wrestles with a mysterious man. We don’t know if this is God or an angel or who, but Jacob won’t let this guy go until he receives a blessing from him. Even though the mysterious wrestler gives him a nasty kick in the groin and puts his hip socket out of joint, Jacob still holds on. Finally, the wrestler gives Jacob both a blessing and a new name. Henceforth he will be called Israel—which means “The One Who Strives with God.”

In a way, we’re all Israel. We all struggle and strive and hold on for dear life, praying for a righteous blessing. To lose our hope is to lose our purpose. To lose our purpose is a kind of suicide. So keep praying, my dears. Keep striving with God. Hang on until you are blessed.

And GO, CUBS!!!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I'm on Vacation

This week's Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 17:11-19) pretty much preaches itself. I don't have to deliver a sermon on it because I'm on vacation this week. I did, however, use this text for a Thanksgiving Eve service a few years ago. I've made it the "Featured Text" at right. Read and enjoy the story of this great American hero.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Saint of the Month: Shimon Peres (Reflections on Pentecost Twenty, Year C)

Shimon Peres (center) with fellow Nobel laureates Arafat and Rabin
“And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4)

Israeli politician Shimon Peres went home to meet the Lord this week, and a really big fuss was made over his passing. That’s only fitting as the guy had a career which spanned over sixty years in public life, held the record for being the oldest codger (over ninety-years-old!!) to be a head of state, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

I think of Peres as I meditate on the Gospel lesson the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Twenty, Year C (Luke 17:5-10). In order to understand this snippet of scripture, however, I think we have to look at the verses which come before it. In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus is telling his followers not to screw things up. Of course we’re all going to make mistakes—say things we wish we hadn’t said and do things we wish we hadn’t done and generally be our usual stupid, sinful selves. Nevertheless, Jesus is telling us to look sharp lest our hypocrisy damages the faith of others. Chiefly, he’s warning us against intolerance and lack of forgiveness.

It’s that last part—forgiveness—which makes me think of the late Israeli Prime Minister. If ever there was a dude who tried to get along with people who hated his guts, it was Shimon Peres. Not only could he get one of his arch political rivals, Yitzhak Rabin, on his side, but he even managed to get an agreement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, too. I mean, it’s no big secret the Israelis and Palestinians don’t exactly slow dance with each other. After decades of violence, hatred, and mutual suspicion, Peres snuck behind his nation’s back and made the daring move to talk to his enemies. These talks eventually led to the Oslo Peace Accords and the Nobel Peace Prize for Peres, Rabin, and Arafat.

Alas, the peace process hasn’t gone particularly smoothly since the accords were signed in 1994. Even after things went south between the Israelis and Palestinians, Peres continued to push for peace and reconciliation. For me, his persistence embodies Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven (Mathew 18:22).” For a Jew, he made a better Christian than some Christians.

Of course, there are those who believe there will never be peace between the factions in the Holy Land. Forgiveness, peace, and understanding require faith. It’s no wonder that the followers of Jesus in Luke 17 ask to have their faith increased after Jesus admonishes them about the need for forgiveness. But Jesus isn’t listening to excuses. He doesn’t have time for his divine teaching to be answered with some lame balderdash like, “I really wish I could make peace with that person, but I just don’t believe it’s going to happen. They just don’t listen to me or respect me. I guess I don’t have enough faith in them or myself to even try.”

Jesus’ response to this could be summed up as: “What a load of crap! If you had the faith of a mustard seed—and, grammatically speaking, you DO—then you could accomplish miracles. I didn’t give you a command knowing that you couldn’t keep it. I told you what I expect of you. I expect both repentance and forgiveness, and you have faith enough for that already.”

Repentance and forgiveness are minimum requirements. It’s nice to get a Nobel Peace Prize, but reconciliation is what were supposed to be about. My hat is off to folks like Shimon Peres, Lutheran World Federation President Munib Younan, Jimmy Carter, Karen Armstrong, and all of the saints who have faith enough to believe that peace, empathy, and harmonious interaction between diverse peoples are right and achievable goals. Violence, force, intimidation, and animosity only beget themselves. Resentment and un-forgiveness, as the old saying goes, are like drinking poison yourself and hoping it will make your enemy die.

Shalom to you, Mr. Peres. You tried to do what God expects of all of us. I’m glad you got the Nobel Prize, but I hope you know you did only what you ought to have done.

God be with you, my friends.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Good News for October

        I wrote this piece for my church newsletter, but I thought I'd share it online, too.

"The glory that you have given me I have given to them, so that they may be one, as we are one…” (John 17:22)
Martin Luther (1483-1546). German reformer. Luther hanging his 95 theses in Wittenberg, 1517. Engraving. Colored. - Stock Image
Luther posts his 95 Theses, October 31, 1517
             Halloween is approaching, and that means we in the Lutheran Church are getting ready to celebrate the 499th anniversary of that momentous All Hallows Eve when Martin Luther nailed shut the coffin of the Middle Ages by posting a list of ninety-five debate topics to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His challenge to the authority of Church teaching changed the course of Western civilization, but split the Christian faith into a division between “Protestants” and “Catholics.” Today, after almost five centuries of—sometimes violent—division, the split seems to be healing.
            What does it mean to you to be a Lutheran, I wonder? I grew up with a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran mother, but all I remember learning about our heritage as a child was that we were the people who weren’t the Catholics. Catholics, I was told, had to go to confession and repeat special prayers to work off their sin while we Lutherans were simply justified by grace through faith. How little I understood in those days the beauty of the tradition which formed Martin Luther and which he sought only to reform, not to replace.
            Over the years I’ve developed a deeper respect for our Roman brothers and sisters. It was the Catholic monastic tradition which saved the culture of antiquity during the Dark Ages. Catholic spiritual practice also gave us contemplative prayers, the services of the hours, the beautiful order of mass which Lutherans still observe, and the significance of the liturgical year which include the pious observances of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week (some of my favorite things!).
             In the early 1960’s Pope John XXIII (recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Church, but already celebrated for decades in the Lutheran liturgical calendar) opened the windows of the Catholic Church and let worshipers talk openly with their Lutheran neighbors. He also adopted one of the most striking reforms made by Martin Luther, the vernacular mass. In exchange, he gave us the practice of moving altars out from the wall so celebrants could face the congregation, and began the tradition of sharing the peace inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:24.
            For over fifty years Lutheran and Catholic theologians have been in conversation to iron out our differences.  I’ve taken part in theses dialogues myself from time to time, but I amuse myself by thinking that this conversation has been going on successfully for decades around the dinner tables of members of my congregation.
Pope John XXIII - 1959.jpg
Pope Saint John XXIII
            John, now in his mid-eighties, has been a member of Faith practically since the church was built. His wife, Mary, is a faithful member of Saint Anselm Catholic Church. They have been married for over sixty years. There are no doctrinal differences which have kept them from loving each other. Neither were there insurmountable religious disputes between the Catholic Tom and his Lutheran bride, Harriet. When I visited Harriet in her later years to give her the sacrament, Tom—who would not receive with his wife per the church teachings of his youth—still piously knelt on his living room floor when I elevated the host and pronounced the words of institution. To him, the promise of Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist superseded the differences between denominations. These are just two of the many Lutheran-Catholic couples in our congregation who have long ago realized that what our two traditions have in common is far more important than the issues upon which we disagree.
            I’m very excited about the “Statement on the Way” which was recently approved by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This document highlights thirty-two points of agreement between our denominations and, God willing, will make straight the highway to full Eucharistic sharing. I don’t believe our two communions will ever merge back into one, and I don’t think they should. Each of us, on our own journey, has developed a unique personality with which we can bless the other and make comfortable spiritual homes to accommodate the different spiritual needs and tastes of the faithful in Christ. But we can, as separate bodies, proclaim the unity we share in Jesus Christ—the one who came to experience our suffering so we could be present for the suffering and healing of the world.
            As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let’s keep praying for the unity which we will proclaim through the sharing of the body and blood of Christ. In a time when we have seen the legalization of same-gender marriages and the election of an African American US president, anything is possible.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hugged to God's Bosom (Reflections on Pentecost Nineteen, Year C)

"Lazarus at the Rich Man's Gate"
by Fyodor Bronnikov (1827-1902)

“…between us and you a great chasm has been fixed…” (Luke 16:26a)

“That’s my dad,” Brian said. He pointed to the face in the Confirmation class photo taken in 1979 when John, his father, was fourteen years old. I showed him the picture in our church’s Confirmation Book, the photographic record of all the youth who had affirmed their baptisms at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia from 1961 to the present. Brian and I had met to go over the details of his father’s funeral. The 1979 Confirmand had died of a heart attack at age fifty-one, the result of decades of drug and alcohol abuse.

Brian had gone out-of-pocket to pay for his father’s cremation and for the catered luncheon to be served after the funeral. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking up a collection to defray some of the expense he’d incurred as John had died with no money and no insurance coverage. I told him I would.

After Brian left, I kept thinking about John. The day his Confirmation picture was taken might’ve been the last time he ever set foot in a church. I knew some of the other faces in that Confirmation picture. One was of a boy who is today a loving father and husband with a home in North Carolina and a successful career. Another classmate just retired from the Pentagon, a US Navy captain who now runs military affairs at a major East Coast university. One girl is the proud adoptive mother of an honor student. Another girl runs the Parkinson’s unit at the local VA. Why, I wondered, did their lives turn out so well, and why did John’s life turn out so badly?

In the world of the text for this Sunday’s Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus’ hearers might’ve believed that those who received good fortune in this life were favored by God, while those who were on the outside of society were there because God had willed them to misfortune. Maybe they believed, as many do, that the poverty of someone like Lazarus was due to his own fault, or that God was punishing him with sickness and penury as recompense for some unknown sin. I’m certain that many looked at John, who died broke after stints in rehab and multiple incarcerations, as one who had all the crap in life coming to him as a result of all of his poor choices.

But yet I wonder: has John been carried away by the angels to the bosom of Father Abraham?

Here the NRSV Bible fails us a bit in translation. My Bible says that Lazarus was carried “to be with Abraham” (v. 22), yet the Greek actually reads “into the bosom of Abraham” (or eis ton kolpon tou Abraham for you Greek speaking folks). Just think about that image. To be “in the bosom” evokes a lot of images. Most likely, it referred to the tradition of the ancient world of having formal dinners where you ate while reclining on your left elbow. If Abraham is the host, than the guy on his right hand—the side that he’s facing where his chest would be—is the guest of honor. Lazarus, the poor, sick slob locked on the outside of the gate, is now the recipient of all of the hospitality and honor of heaven.

To be “into the bosom” also conjures up the image of a mother nursing her child. Can there be a more tender or nurturing image than that? The one who has gone hungry is now lovingly fed and embraced with an unconditional, maternal love. Or, perhaps, it just means that the Father figure is giving the poor man a great big hug. God is embracing, loving, welcoming, and claiming as his own the one who was despised and overlooked in his earthly life.

So what’s Jesus saying here? I really hope he’s not telling us to enjoy our wealth now because we’re going to roast in hell when we die. He’s certainly turning the expectations of his audience on their heads—but Jesus always does that. Is he saying that God loves poor folks more than the well-off?

Maybe we should figure out who we are in this parable. It’s just possible that some of us might be Lazarus—a guy locked outside the gate, hungry, rejected, and blamed for being a victim of our own misfortune. If so, than we need to know God wants to hug us and call us his child. The world’s estimation of our worth is not God’s estimation.

More likely, however, I think Jesus wants us middle-class, church-going Americans to see ourselves as the rich man. We’re living in unimaginable luxury compared to about 75% of the earth’s population. Even in our own land, the chasm between the wealthy and the poor is growing greater all the time. Without compassion, all of our good fortune is meaningless. Without compassion, we actually miss seeing God and fall in love instead with our own achievements. The sin of the rich man in the parable—about which he had been warned by Moses and the prophets—was not that he was rich, but that he could not find love for the poor.

I am thinking of John, a junkie jailbird, and trying to imagine him being hugged by Jesus. Can you imagine that? If you can, what does it mean to you?

God’s peace be with you. Thanks for visiting my blog.