Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Defining the Good Shepherd (Reflections on Easter 4, Year B)

Flock of sheep.jpg
“I know my own, and my own know me.” (John 10:14)

I always have a rough time with these “sheep & shepherd” passages. This is ironic since I’m a Welsh-American, and there are parts of Wales where sheep are more plentiful than people. Still, having grown up in the good ol’ USA, I don’t have much of a cultural reference for ovine imagery.

Fortunately, however, I can always cheat while I’m preparing sermons and go on the Working Preacher website. This week, Professor Osvaldo Vena of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary of Evanston, IL shared some insights about the gospel lesson the RCL assigned for Easter 4, Year B (John 10:11-18) in which Our Lord describes himself as “The Good Shepherd.” Professor Vena makes the rather obvious comparison that, if Jesus is the “Good” shepherd, then there has to be a “Bad” shepherd too. If we look at John’s gospel in the time it was written, it’s not too hard to figure out who’s getting reamed out here.

John, the good professor reminds us, wrote his gospel around 90 AD. This is some twenty years after the Jewish war with Rome and the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. During the siege of Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders—our friends the Pharisees—high-tailed it out of the capital to a safer location in Jamnia. Jesus, on the other hand, never sought to save his own skin, but was obedient to the Father. He stood up to oppression, got himself crucified, and gave his life willingly out of great love for all people. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep. A “bad” shepherd cares more about himself than he cares about others.

Two things impress me about this week’s lessons. The first is the need for relationship. In verses 14 and 15 Jesus talks about knowing and being known. Isn’t that what all of us really want? To be known by someone for our true selves? Jesus has a relationship with his followers just as he has a relationship with God. To me, this means that God’s people are always called to be in relationship with each other and with the world. The Church can’t end where our congregation’s parking lot meets the street, and our participation in the community can’t end with sitting for an hour in the pew on Sunday morning, politely sharing the peace of God with a handshake, and then leaving the building without knowing the names of most of the people around us. Like the Good Shepherd, we’re called to get to know each other and to become invested in the well-being of others.

The other thing which strikes me here is that Jesus isn’t condemning the theology of the “bad” shepherds, merely their behavior. I write this because I’m having a bit of a hard time with the First Lesson in the RCL, Acts 4:5-12. That last verse is a killer:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we may be saved.”

If you’re like me, you’ve always grown up in America believing that this means, “Believe in Jesus or go to Hell.” That’s a pretty tough positon for me to take as I am preparing for a community event to focus on neighborly kindness with the local Muslim youth center and a Jewish educational organization. So I’m going to run for safety to this verse in the gospel lesson:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (verse16)
As one who is involved in projects with people of a number of faiths, I certainly recognize that we don’t all belong to one flock. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t share the voice of Jesus. I just don’t want to see Jesus pictured as some sort of holy bouncer, standing behind the velvet rope of Heaven, checking his clipboard to see whose name is or isn’t on the guest list. If we dumb down Christianity to mean only that those who confess Jesus are “saved”—that we have justification by correct doctrine—than we really are missing out on the beauty of our tradition, and we’re opening the door to be smugly prejudiced against our neighbors.

I think, rather, that as Christians we’re called to enter into relationship with those who “do not belong to this fold,” and to hear their voices, get to know and understand them, and to be willing to sacrifice on their behalf as well as our own. That would be the most Christ-like position to take, don’t you think?

I welcome your comments. May God bless you this week.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

We Are Witnesses (Reflections on Easter 3, Year B)

Bernardo Strozzi "Peter Cures the Beggar" Italian, 17th Century

“…To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name…” (Acts 3:15-16)

My wife and I went to a beautiful wedding few weeks ago. It was for the daughter of one of our neighbors.  She’s a nice, Christian girl and she married a nice Christian boy and the couple referenced their faith in the vows they wrote for each other. The bride’s brother offered a pious and heart-felt dinner grace at the reception, and her sister gave a tender and sentimental toast. I was very much touched by all of it, and I made a point to compliment the parents of the bride on raising three young adults who were all loving, hard-working, and (miracle of miracles!) active in their church.

“Show me a good kid,” I told the mother of the bride, “and nine out of ten times I’ll show you an excellent parent.” The bride’s mother thanked me for the compliment, but asked, “You know who’s really responsible, right?” “Their father?” I asked. “No,” she replied. She pointed to the ceiling and said “HE is.”

I think this was more than becoming modesty on the part of our friend and neighbor. Rather, it was an honest confession of faith. It’s true that we are called to be Christian witnesses, and that the most important audience to our testimony may be our own children. Still, as I always like to point out, the definition of “parent” is one who has complete responsibility for something over which they ultimately have no control. In the end, we are dependent on the grace of God.

In the first lesson appointed for Easter 3 Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 3: 12-19), we get to hear Simon Peter witnessing. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same guy who was denying Jesus in order to save his own butt just shy of two months ago. He and John have just astounded everyone by healing a lame beggar. The now former beggar is so jazzed that he no longer has to mooch spare change for a living that he’s actually leaping for joy in the Temple. Peter explains all of this to the amazed crowd by saying that he and John didn’t heal the man. God healed him through the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s a pretty powerful statement. It’s a witness to Peter’s own powerlessness and to God’s great authority through Jesus. Peter—a guy who liked to micro-manage everything—has finally learned to turn it all over to Jesus, and the result is that people are being blessed through his witness. I wonder what the other disciples are thinking. Can you imagine them saying to each other, “Get a load of Peter! He’s a new man—brave and modest at the same time!” His bravery and his modesty are both manifestations of his trust in God through Christ, and they speak as eloquently for his life of faith as do his words.

In the gospel reading (Luke 24:36-48) we see another appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. It’s the third time we have him showing his wounded hands and feet and inviting them touch his wounds so they would be absolutely sure that this was their living, breathing, flesh-and-bone friend. He even asks for some lunch and eats it in front of them so they know he’s not a ghost (I guess he was little hungry since he left the disciples in Emmaus before eating dinner! See verse 31).

There are two things which really pop out to me in this passage. The first is that the disciples encounter a real, human Jesus. He’s not a ghost. He doesn’t exist in the abstract. If we’re to witness to him, we have to witness in a flesh-and-bone reality. My definition for the Christian life is always that we see Jesus in others (see Mathew 25:31-46) and be Jesus for others. If we can’t see him, we can’t be him. We need to connect to others, touch their wounds, and be willing to feed their hunger.

The second thing that I take away from this week’s gospel is Jesus’ declaration in verse 48: “You are witnesses to these things.” My go-to-gal for all things lectionary, Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN noted in her commentary on this passage that Jesus doesn’t say, “You will be witnesses” or “You can be witnesses.” He says we ARE witnesses.

We are both people who have witnessed—seen and experienced—the goodness of God, and people called as witnesses to testify to that goodness and power. We are called to claim both the modesty and the courage to speak Christ to this wounded and hungry world. We are marked with his cross and sealed with his Holy Spirit.

How cool is that?

Keep up the witness, and thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Show Me Your Hands" (Reflections on Easter 2, Year B)

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29)

I’m an old movie buff, but I’ve seen so many flicks in my time that I can’t remember them all. I think the scene I’m thinking of was in the 1937 version of The Good Earth, which starred Paul Muni as the Chinese peasant farmer, Wang Lung.

(Of course, there’s nothing like the old Hollywood racism of casting an Austro-Hungarian Jew in the role of a Chinese peasant. I do have to admit, however, that, Chinese or not, Muni was pretty good in the part. He was always good, and won two Academy Awards to prove it. Unfortunately, he is mostly forgotten these days. That’s a shame. But I digress.)

If I remember rightly, there’s a scene in the movie in which Wang or one of the characters goes begging for a job. An employer demands, “Show me your hands.” Upon inspecting the smooth hands of the supplicant, the employer turns him away declaring, “You have never worked.”

Sometimes folks just have to see the proof before they can believe you. I think we’ve always given the apostle Thomas a bad rap for not believing his buddies when they tell him that Jesus has risen from the grave. I mean, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, don’t you think? We are none of us much different from the “Doubting Thomas” of this Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 20:19-31). In an era of “Fake News,” we all want some way to know the truth. We all might be the ones to ask, “Show me your hands.” I want to know if this Jesus thing is real. I want to see if you’ve put work into your faith or if you’ve suffered like I have. I want to see the marks of the nails.

The first disciples took this pretty seriously if you look at the First Lesson from this Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 4:32-35). These guys really put their money where their mouth was.

“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.(Acts 4:34-35)

This early community of Christians probably never heard the word “socialism.” They wouldn’t know a socialist if one bit them on the butt. What they did know was the love of Jesus of Nazareth. They knew the man who gave up everything to die on a cross out of love for people he had never physically met. So they knew how to sacrifice their possessions in order to give life to others. In their generosity they revealed their faith, and the proof was a community that did not have to fear hunger or neglect.

Today we are told that about 20% of our American population has no religious affiliation. Nevertheless, the same polls declare that of these “Nones,” many still believe in God and many still pray. They just don’t want anything to do with the organized church. Our friends at Wikipedia give three reasons for the decline in American religiosity:

1.      There have always been a bunch irreligious folks among us, but these days it’s okay to admit it.
2.      The changing culture, the internet, and other societal shifts have made us more of a self-centered people than a community-centered people (Note that church attendance isn’t the only thing that has declined in recent decades. There’s also an overall decline in civic involvement and membership in secular organizations, too.).
3.      Young people just don’t think too much about eternal things like God, heaven, their souls, or the meaning of life.

But, maybe, those irreligious “Nones” are just waiting for us to show them in real, practical terms what faith in the resurrected Jesus can do. Maybe they want to know that we, like the early believers, have enough faith to sacrifice part of ourselves—our time, our treasure, our talents—to make a lasting change for the healing of the world. Maybe they just want us to show them our hands.

May God bless you and inspire you during this Easter season. Thanks for stopping by! Do come again.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

April Fool! (Reflections on the Resurrection of Our Lord)

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He Qi (Contemporary Chinese Artist) "Women Arriving at the Tomb"

“…who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome.” (From the Eucharistic Preface for Passion Sunday and Maundy Thursday; Lutheran Book of Worship, 1977. This is updated from a similar preface from the Lutheran Church Book of 1886.)

I have to remember to call my sister this Easter. Of course, I should do that every Easter, but this one is special. April 1st happens to be her birthday. Sixty-one years ago our mom was told the surprising news that she was carrying twins. They were expected around May 15th.

April fool!! Mother went into labor and delivered a month and a half early, proving once again that God’s timetable is never ours. There’s a lot of truth in saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”

There’s been a lot of surprising, unplanned, and unexpected stuff in the news lately, hasn’t there? The world has certainly been saddened by the death of eminent scientist, Stephen Hawking, but Professor Hawking’s demise was actually predicted fifty-five years ago when he was first diagnosed with ALS. The current life expectancy for an ALS patient is two to four years. Not only did the famous physicist defy medical science by half a century, but he lived a most productive life and encouraged others with disabilities as he did so. You never know, do you?

And what about those youngsters who’ve been marching in Washington in protest of gun violence? They call it the March for Our Lives. For almost two decades America has seen one mass shooting after another: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary, Las Vegas, Sutherland Park, Parkland, etcetera, etcetera. Over and over again, and nothing has changed. It would be reasonable to expect that nothing will change given our recent history. But, surprisingly, a new generation has taken to the streets to advocate for sensible gun laws, and that new generation isn’t even old enough to vote. And they are making an impact. Who saw that coming?

Life is full of surprises, and Easter is the greatest surprise of all. Here is the story of a good and wise and loving man—Jesus. As a child he surprised the elders of his religion with his understanding of their scriptures. As an adult he perplexed the people of his day by welcoming outsiders and people they thought weren’t fit to be associated with. He astounded everyone with his ability to bring healing to the sick. He amazed the crowds when he, a simple peasant, preached truth and made divine mysteries understandable to them. And he shocked the temporal leaders with his open opposition to their hypocrisy and oppression.

Not surprisingly, however, those leaders accused him falsely and executed him by impaling him on a piece of wood.

But—April fool!—God raised him from the dead. It was natural to expect that such a horrible death would be an end to Jesus, but, surprisingly, the story still goes on. And history bears this out.

Even the most passionate atheist has to admit that something happened in the third decade of the Common Era which brought new life to this planet. Something happened connected to this man Jesus which made twelve scared Jewish peasants want to tell the world. Something happened which turned an ardent Pharisee like Paul of Tarsus into a fearless evangelist. Something happened which led, within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion, to people on three continents worshiping him as their Savior. Something happened which caused Christian martyrs to defy Roman law and go singing praises to their deaths in the Roman arena. Something happened which caused the empire which executed Jesus and sought to eliminate his followers to embrace him as Lord. Something happened which caused the entire Western World to date its calendar from the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Our Easter gospel (Mark 16:1-8) is full of surprising details. Who could imagine that the horror of crucifixion would create a movement and become a symbol for divine love? Who would imagine that God would choose two scared women to be the evangelists who would change the history of the world? Who would tell those women to find Peter, the man who had proven the most cowardly and disappointing, and single him out to bear the Good News?

God’s ways are never what we expect them to be, are they? And if there’s one piece of really freeing Good News today, it’s that the resurrection story reminds us that we’re not the ones driving this bus. We can’t predict, we can’t control, we can’t micro-manage anything. As Saint Paul reminds us:

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is wiser than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

I hope we come away from every Easter celebration reminding ourselves that God is still in the business of surprising us, and that the surprises are far from over.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Learning to BE Loved (Reflections on Maundy Thursday)

Image result for Images of Jesus washing feet of disciples
“For I have set for you an example that you also should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)

My late mother-in-law suffered from Alzheimer’s. One of the worst and most undignified aspects of that dread malady was her frequent incontinence. My wife and I were visiting with her and my father-in-law one day when Mom was quite advanced in her illness. She’d been sitting for some time in her favorite chair when it was time to come to the table for a meal. When we got her up, we realized she had soiled herself. She hadn’t been aware this had happened and was dreadfully embarrassed. My wife took her up to her bedroom to get her cleaned up. She lovingly wiped her mother down and helped her into clean clothes. During the procedure, Mom said to her daughter, “I can’t believe you’re wiping my butt!” My wife replied, “Why not? You used to do it for me.”

We’re all willing to be servants to our kids, aren’t we? We’ll feed them, bathe them, wipe up their sick, find their lost articles of clothing, take them to school, shell out money like a loose slot machine, listen to their complaints, and do everything in our power to keep them healthy and happy. But someday we’ll have to relinquish our mighty position of superiority and acknowledge that they have become our servants, protectors, and advisors. That will be a hard day.

You see, we all have a bit of Simon Peter in us. He glories in his love and respect for Jesus in our Maundy Thursday gospel reading ( John 13:1-17, 31b-35), even though we’ll find that he so quickly denies that love out of fear. He won’t let Jesus do the servant work. The work usually done by a child or a woman or a slave is too undignified for his rabbi, he thinks. Peter wants to make a great show of his devotion. He loves Jesus, but he’s having a little trouble just letting Jesus love him. He keeps thinking he’s got something to prove.

But Jesus sets him straight. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). Peter has to come to terms with the idea that he has no power or control over Jesus’ love. He can’t earn it with his devotion. He can’t work hard enough to be worthy of it. He just has to accept that Jesus loves him and is willing to do everything for him—even die on a cross.

“Could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow;
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”

I think before we really know how to love, we have to know how to receive love. We have to find a way to make it not about us. That’s why we come to the table of Holy Communion. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus commanded us to eat this meal in remembrance of him so we would regularly be reminded how much he loves us.

We are to remember that he loved us first. We are forgiven and blessed because of who Jesus is, not because of who we are. When we get that, we’ll really know how to love others, and the world will get that we are his followers.

God bless, my friend. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

How Brief the "Hosannas" (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

There’s been some trouble at my old alma mater—once known as the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia—now the United Lutheran Seminary, a merger of the Philadelphia and Gettysburg seminaries. About two years ago (if memory serves) some ecclesiastical geniuses realized that rising costs and declining enrollment made it necessary to combine the two schools. Technology and the wonder of “distance learning” enabled the combined institution to reduce staff and share resources. It seems like a great idea, and I’m sure there was much cheering and clapping seven months ago when the United Lutheran Seminary Board of Trustees named the eminent scholar Dr. Theresa Latini as the first president of the new institution.

Unfortunately, the cheering has recently been replaced with cries of “Crucify!” from an angry student body which now views the appointment of Dr. Latini as an egregious act of betrayal.

Here’s what went down: Dr. Latini, in her much younger days, took a salaried position with a Presbyterian organization called One by One. The chief goal of this organization was believed to be to “pray away the gay.” That is, it was supposedly dedicated to “curing” same-gender oriented people of their homosexuality. In the years since taking employment with One by One, Dr. Latini has come to repudiate the mission of this organization, embrace LGBT people with love and acceptance, and completely reject and denounce all forms of so-called “conversion therapy” for the quackery and bigoted sham they are. She has been, I’m given to understand, a great supporter of LGBT rights, and is otherwise a thoroughly qualified Christian scholar who upholds the doctrine, morals, and social principles of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Nevertheless, when her past involvement with One by One was somehow made known to the ULS community, it lit a spark of outrage which burst into full conflagration involving students both gay and straight, faculty, alumni, and the Board of Trustees. The result of this maelstrom has been Dr. Latini’s dismissal which was announced the week of March 11th. I suspect the Board felt it was better that one Presbyterian be sacrificed for the sake of the seminary nation.

I have no dog in this fight myself. I don’t know Dr. Latini and I’m only familiar with the bare outline of these doings which I’ve sketched above. This episode, however, speaks to me as we prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday. How quick the “Hosannas!” get replaced with “Crucify!” What is it, I wonder, which makes us laud an individual one moment and rip that same person to tatters the next? How has sin so infiltrated our collected personality that we glory in scandal or in watching the fall and ruin of other human beings? How very quick we are to take offense, to feel betrayal, and to project our disappointment onto others.

On Palm Sunday Jesus is surrounded by crowds practically fainting with joy to get a glimpse of him. They’re turning their own threadbare cloaks into a red carpet to lay before this humble king. But, by Thursday, Jesus will find himself alone. Only his mother and Mary Magdalene along with one lone male disciple will stand by him to the end.

Where are the others? What were they thinking on that Sunday when they spread their cloaks on the road and waved their palm branches? Did they think Jesus would be their revolutionary king who would restore their egos and make Israel great again?

What do you think you’d want from Jesus? Will we cheer his entry because he’s who we want him to be—our personal therapist in times of trouble or our yardstick by which we can judge others? Or can we welcome him for who he is—the one sent to teach us all much-needed forgiveness, and, in so doing, transform us into the world’s humble servants?

Thanks for stopping by my friend. Have a blessed Holy Week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

No Need for Law (Reflections on Lent 5, Year B)

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"Crucifixion" Salvador Dali 1954

“…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…” (Jeremiah 31:33)

Psychologists tell us that the brains of middle school students are not fully developed. I spent six agonizing years as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles, and I can attest that—fully developed or not—the middle school brain is diabolically clever. These kids may not know much about grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but they could pass the bar exam as jailhouse lawyers.

“I wasn’t chewing gum, Mr. Griffiths. I was only sucking on a wad of gum. My jaws didn’t move. Ergo: I violated no rule against chewing gum in class.”

You get the idea.

One of my colleagues at the last school where I taught refused to post a list of rules in his classroom. His logic was that the average middle school student is capable of devising more infractions than a list can enumerate. He therefore let it be known that any behavior he deemed to be disrespectful or detrimental to the education of others was prohibited and subject to disciplinary action. He further maintained that the students were old enough to know what such behaviors would be.

My fellow educator’s vison for classroom decorum is, I think, something of an echo of that vison which that quixotic prophet Jeremiah has for the new Kingdom of Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In a perfect world, there will be no need for rules and regulations. Everyone will have God’s Law written on their hearts, and covenants will become obsolete.

This is a pretty swell vision to hold onto as we near the end of our Lenten journey. When we contemplate Jesus “lifted up from the earth (John 12:32),” we should find that we have no more need for the Law and its lifeless, static regulations. What we have instead is the picture before our eyes of a man bleeding and dying, mocked, disgraced, helpless as an old lady in a nursing home, and more lonely than we could imagine (or maybe you could. I don’t know). We also see the love and compassion and forgiveness that flows off the cross with his blood. It is a visceral image—forgiving his tormentors, creating family for his mother with the disciple, comforting the dying thief—all as his life is slowly draining from him. With this before us, do we really need a set of rules or any kind of contract?

Like the grain of wheat which “dies” in the earth, we needed to lose Jesus in order to find him. We have to see him suffering for and with us in order to grasp his love, and we need him to ascend to the Father so we can take on his mission here on earth and bear the fruit he intended for us to bear.

The new covenant, as we say in the Words of Institution, is in his blood shed for us. It’s not a list of rules, it’s now a relationship with Jesus. The simple phrase, “What would Jesus do?” is actually rather poignant, don’t you think? But instead of asking for our Lord’s advice on daily behavior, a better question might be: Who would Jesus have us be?

Thanks for stopping by, my friend. Please come again.