Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cleansing Our Temple (Reflections on Lent 3, Year B)




I have a weird love-hate relationship with the Gospel of John. If you're looking for the historical Jesus, most Bible scholars believe you aren't going to find him in John. This Gospel, the “Bad Boy” of the four canonical gospels, was written around the end of the first century of the Common Era—some seventy years after the time of Jesus. The really smart guys of the Jesus Seminar don't think hardly any of the quotes in this gospel attributed to Jesus are authentic. That said, however, the Fourth Gospel is pretty darn poetic and an excellent look at what the early Christian church really believed. Most of our theology about Jesus comes out of John. It's pretty good stuff, too.

In trying to figure out what I should preach this Sunday, I looked up an excellent commentary by Karoline Lewis, the senior professor of homiletics (that's preaching, by the way) at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Karoline notes that there's a big difference in this week's Gospel story (the “Cleansing of the Temple,” John 2:14-21) between John's account and those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John, the cleansing story takes place at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. In the others it happens at the end of the story and seems to be an act of social protest which gets Jesus crucified.

John's account also differs in the reason why Jesus gets so pissed off by the merchants in the temple. In the three earlier Gospels Jesus seems to be reacting against the injustice of the system. The temple market and money exchange was yet another way to squeeze more cash out of the peasants in this occupied and oppressed nation. The prices of sacrificial animals and the exchange rates were rigged and created a greater burden on an already mistreated population. But in John's Gospel, Jesus reacts to the shear impiety of the commercial enterprise.

He told those who were selling the doves, 'Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!'” (v.16)

The temple was supposed to be the place where God and humanity connected, yet the temple activity Jesus sees is more about economics than a relationship with God. I get that. It's so easy to get caught up with the institution and forget why that institution exists in the first place. I know I spend a lot of time talking about church, but much less time talking about God. Maybe the reason I'm uncomfortable with John is that some of his stories really convict me of my sin and shortcomings.

Truth be told, although I've been a pastor of this parish for sixteen years, I still don't think I could tell you what the majority of my parishioners know about Jesus or what they really believe. Sure, we do lots of good works here at Faith Lutheran, but are we really meeting Jesus? Is this a place where we inspire people to be more loving, more forgiving, more whole, more Biblically grounded, more filled with hope, more emotionally centered, and more overjoyed with the capacity to be healers of the world?

I recently asked my congregational council to devote the first half hour of every monthly meeting to prayer, worship, Bible study, or discipleship building. This suggestion was greeted with resistance by those who felt that we really needed to use this time for the “important business of the church.”

This begs the question, of course, of just what IS the important business of the church? Are fund-raisers, repair jobs, and fellowship events more important than creating a relationship with the resurrected Jesus? What are we here for, anyway?

What do we need to do to cleanse our temples? Institutionally, we need to toss out the notion that the church is a business. Our “success” must not be measured by butts in the pews or dollars in the plate. We are to ask ourselves only if we are creating a community of people who live the Gospel.

And what about our own lives? What are we getting hung up on that's keeping us from being people who live the Jesus kind of love? What commerce is going on in the temple of your heart? Is it a toxic relationship? An addiction? A need to impress? A fear of failure or rejection? A self-image which has been handed to you but doesn't reflect who you really are?

John wrote his version of the cleansing of the temple at a time when there was no temple left to cleanse. That awesome structure had long since been demolished by the Romans as a punitive measure following an unsuccessful attempt at revolution. The pitiful rubble of that once-great symbol of Israel's identity could be a painful reminder to some who were mired in the memory of a past which could never be recaptured. For others, it was a statement of the impermanence of human institutions and a reminder that the place where God meets humanity is only found in Christ crucified—and that place is found in repentant and loving hearts.

Thanks again for for reading, my friends. I hope you are finding this season of Lent a blessing.

P.S. - Please check out Karoline Lewis' commentary by clicking on her name.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Saint of the Month: David of Wales (Reflections on Lent 2)


Saint Non's Chapel - Fenster 5 St.David.jpg
March 1 is the Feast of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales and the Welsh people. On this Sunday, March 1, 2015, St. David's Lutheran Church of Philadelphia is dedicating a gorgeous stained glass window depicting the sixth century Celtic abbot after whom the church was named some sixty-five years ago. I have to wonder how a Lutheran church—a denomination not inclined to hagiology and filled with very traditional Americans of mostly German and Scandinavian roots—could come to name itself after a fairly obscure ancient Welshman who is patron of a country roughly the size of New Jersey. Nobody at St. David's Lutheran seems to know the answer to this.

So I guess it doesn't matter.

I've been asked to be the preacher at the dedication service, however, because I am of Welsh heritage and St. David's Day has always been a holiday for me. I'm very proud to be a Welsh-American. We are a noble, Christian, poetic, musical, and darn attractive race of people.

(For that last adjective, just check out Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ioan Gruffudd if you don't believe me. Oh..! And don't forget Tom Jones and Katherine Jenkins. God may not have made the Welsh a mighty nation, but He gave us plenty of good looks!)

But, as usual, I digress.

Before going into the life of St. David (about which virtually nothing is known with any historical accuracy) it might be helpful to take a refresher look at the way Lutherans view the saints. That is, how we view the canonized or otherwise recognized Christian heroes who have gone before us. In the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melancthon wrote:

...our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith.” (CA. XXI)

The article goes on to explain, however, that Christians need not call upon the saints for aid as Jesus has already been the true mediator between God and humanity (see 1 Timothy 2:5). Subsequently, Lutherans have tended to be a little on the cool side where saints are concerned. Lutheran churches bearing saints' names tend to choose such names from the New Testament only, and saints like David get very little attention.

But, if the stories of the saints strengthen our faith, I for one would still like to hear them. I personally think David is a great example for this Second Sunday in Lent. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his followers,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34b)

The life of Saint David was certainly filled with a great deal of self-denial. The legend goes that David's mom, variously known as Non, Nonna, or Nonita, was a really pious Christian girl living in the semi-barbaric Wales of the late fifth and early sixth century. This was just about the time that the Roman Empire was collapsing. Part of ancient Britain had already embraced Christianity, the Empire's official religion, but the fledgling faith was facing a serious threat from invading hordes from which the dwindling Romans could not protect them. Subsequently, Christian Britain migrated into the peninsula we call Wales today. This mountainous country provided a natural defense against the invaders.

Alas for poor Non, she was raped by a Druid chieftain known as Sant, and conceived a baby who would become David. Although the chieftain agreed to take her as his wife, the good girl vowed to remain chaste, and gave herself over to a life of poverty and good works.

There's a story that a Christian preacher, approaching the pregnant Non, was struck mute. He believed this to be a sign that the child she was bearing would be a greater preacher than he.

The little boy was destined to a life of service to Christ. He learned to read by reading the Psalms. He also adopted his mother's love of poverty and simple living. He became a vegetarian. Later, as an abbot and founder of monasteries, David insisted his Christian brothers refrain from the eating of meat or fish. In fact, he was so respectful of animals that he refused to allow the monks to use oxen to pull their plows or carts. The brothers were to pull these vehicles themselves.

All in all, David spread the Christian faith through the founding of twelve monasteries. His rule emphasized self-denial and abstinence. Monks were not allowed to have personal possession, and were frequently enjoined to periods of silence. In addition to the “no meat” rule, David's monks also refrained from wine and beer, and spent weekends without sleep in prayer and contemplation. They were also instructed to study scripture and to write spiritual works. Subsequently, David is honored as the patron saint of poets and vegetarians.

This, I would think, would be quite enough for one lifetime, but when David was about sixty years old he was called upon to put out a theological fire within the church. It seems that some of the Welsh Christians had adopted the teachings of a heretic named Pelagius. If Pelagius were around today, I don't doubt he'd have a mega church and his own TV show since he preached what people love to hear. His basic message was this: Since we are all made by God, we have a little bit of God's perfection in us. This gem of God's light enables us to know right from wrong and evolve to a higher spiritual state. We are all basically good, but the gospel serves to inspire us to a more Godly life. Christian Scientists and Scientologists would be nodding in agreement.

Unfortunately, Pelagius' doctrine falls flat in the face of obvious evil and selfish wickedness in this world. We are all created by God, but the scripture teaches us we all fall short of God's glory.

Some time around 560 CE, David was called to place called Brefi to address this false teaching. We don't know what he said on that day, but we do know that his preaching of the scriptures converted the Pelagians back to orthodoxy. Perhaps he reminded them of their state of selfishness, wounded pride, disappointment, envy, and covetousness. He might have exhorted them to repentance by showing them that, no matter how they strove to keep God's law, they always fell short and relapsed back into sin. Maybe he preached to them that they had not chosen for God to love them, that they had not asked Jesus to take on human suffering and degradation, that they had not brought about the miracle of Our Lord's death and resurrection, promising forgiveness to all by God's grace through sinners' faith. Doubtless he told them that the road between God and humankind is a one-way street which goes only from God to us and never the other way around. He might have comforted them by saying that their salvation had nothing to do with their own good merits, but only with God's love. They would be free to be helpless, erring, and contrite. But they would also be comforted by knowledge that it wasn't all about them. “Deny yourself,” he might have said, “and take up your cross to follow Him.”

A thousand years later, Martin Luther would be preaching the very same thing.

Legend says that while David preached, the Holy Spirit rested on him in the form of a dove on his shoulder, and the ground upon which he stood rose below his feet to become a small hill. This enabled his voice to ring through the valley and be heard by all. So powerful was his preaching that the archbishop of Wales, Dubricius, immediately relinquished his see and presented his crozier to David.

A further legend has it that it was David who instructed Christian Welsh soldiers to wear leeks in their headgear in order to distinguish themselves from invading pagan Saxons while in the heat of battle. To this day the leek remains a Welsh national symbol (used as the collar insignia of Her Majesty's Royal Welsh Guards) although it's connection to David is probably apocryphal.

Besides his blow to the Pelagians, David is chiefly remembered for moving the see of the Welsh church to a spot on the south west coast of the peninsula which today bears his name and the cathedral dedicated in his honor. It is a lonely spot where pilgrims can go to shut out the world and get in touch with their longing for God. We might call it a “Lenten” spot.

So. Thinking of David on this Second Sunday of Lent, let's not put our minds on the things we want, since all we can do is cater to our own selfishness. Let's do the “little things” (as David would say) of praying, fasting, finding quiet time, and contemplating all that God does for us.

God bless.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Rainbow People (Reflections on Lent 1, Year B)


When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ (Genesis 9:16)


You'd really have to be one un-poetic, un-romantic, cyber-brained dink not to enjoy a rainbow. Ever since the time of Noah, the prism in the sky following a rain has been a symbol of hope. I really love them myself.

One rainbow I'll always remember was one I saw out a second-story brownstone window in Madison, Wisconsin in 1982. I had just come to town to start my MFA studies in theater at the University of Wisconsin. A friend from undergrad days had put me up in the third-floor apartment she shared with other students on Johnson street, a few miles from campus.

It was a muggy August late afternoon. I'd been in town for less than a day, but I'd already handled all my paperwork and registration at the U and so I decided to explore my new neighborhood. My hostess had gone to work and her roommates were away. I was told that if they weren't home by the time I got back I could hang out with the students who lived in the second floor flat below her. This was a sort of theatrical commune with about six young actors, directors and writers sharing a three-bedroom apartment.

I started my walk through the neighborhood, but I only got about halfway down the block when the hazy sunshine turned overcast. Another half block and the sky opened up and poured down the most sudden and punishing rainstorm I'd ever imagined. I was locked out of the flat where I was staying, had no rain gear as there had been no sign of a deluge, and I couldn't have been wetter if I'd jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool.

I returned to the brownstone and prayed someone was home in the second-floor commune. A short, bespectacled, and befuddled student named James opened the door. I explained that I was the new MFA candidate who was staying temporarily in the flat above. The students in the commune welcomed me in as if I were a long-lost cousin.

So you're Owen! We've heard so much about you!” I couldn't imagine what they'd heard, but I knew I was grateful to be inside out of the rain. One of the girls lent me her bathrobe and a towel, and my clothes were put in the dryer. I was invited to stay for dinner—a feast of spaghetti—and for the evening's entertainment. This latter was to watch the original and uninterrupted film version of Witness for the Prosecution (the classic version with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich) airing that night on the PBS affiliate. I've wandered into Paradise, I thought to myself. A whole houseful of people as nerdy as I am!

Just as supper was being served, one of the students began to shout. “You guys! Come here! You gotta see this!”

We all came to the living room window and beheld the biggest, brightest, rainbow I'd ever seen. It seemed as if some giant pre-schooler had taken crayons to the sky. I'll never forget how bright and promising that sight was as we all stood before the window in awe and silence.

There I was: wearing a woman's bathrobe, in a home full of people I'd never met before that day, staring at the wonder of God. If this were a movie, this is where the credits would start to roll. I was in a new town, in a new program, starting a new career, with brand new friends. I had come through the water like Noah and beheld the promise of God.

Unfortunately, the rainbow moments in life are only temporary. I soon found out that, at age 22, I had a lot more growing up left to do.

It's the same in the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday in Lent in Year B. Jesus has come through the water and the sky has opened and God's glory has poured down on him. But just as he's being proclaimed “beloved,” the Spirit drives him into the parched desert to deal with temptation, Satan, and wild beasts (Mark 1:9-15). I'm sure he must've thought it'd be pretty swell to bask in the glory a little while longer, but stuff happens in this life. Just as we think we've got the world by the Fruit of the Looms, we suddenly find ourselves in a wilderness of chaos and temptation.

There's the temptation to be angry. The temptation to quit. The temptation to just let everything slide, say “screw it!” and do things are own way. There's the temptation to self-pity. The temptation to doubt and depression.

The promise God gave Noah in the rainbow was a very weird deal, indeed. God simply promised to love and be life to God's creation. Unconditionally. Noah didn't have to promise anything in return. But God did not promise that everything would be peachy from there on out. God did not promise to protect us from our own temptation towards self-destruction.

So we begin the Sundays in Lent by remembering that we will always be God's beloved. And Jesus, who shared our earthly journey, also discovered that, although there are still wild beasts in the wilderness of our lives, there are angels, too. God's baptismal promise of unconditional love still holds—even when we, in our self-absorbed circumstances, feel like we're lost in the wilderness.

In this forty-day wilderness journey, remember that you are baptized. You are rainbow people.

God bless, and my apologies for posting this so late! If you couldn't get out to church last Sunday, I hope these few thoughts will inspire you. Drop by again soon!


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reflections on Ash Wednesday


King David's beautiful daughter Tamar was raped. This story from the Hebrew Scriptures is not one we teach in Sunday School. Indeed, I wonder how many adult Christians in America even know this horrible tale exits in the Bible. You can find it in 2 Samuel 13: 1-22. It goes something like this: Amnon, the eldest son of King David, lusted after his beautiful and younger half-sister, Tamar. On the advice of his evil cousin, he feigned illness in order to be alone with the girl. When he had her isolated, he forced himself on her. She begged him to stop, but he violated her anyway. Then he threw her out like a piece of garbage.

Tamar was damaged goods. No longer a virgin, a victim of incest and betrayal, she was seen as not fit for any other man in the culture of the time. She responded as one would to a death—she tore her clothes and covered her head with ashes. The Bible describes her as “desolate” forever after. The word can mean “ruined,” “lonely,” “isolated," or “destroyed.” The word can also mean “uninhabitable,” referring to a region where no human can survive. Indeed, I don't believe that anyone could enter into the pit of pain, betrayal, anger, and hopelessness where Tamar dwelt to bring her comfort. This is the first mention in the Bible of someone putting ashes on their head.

Ashes are used again in the challenging and frustrating Book of Job. Here the title character immersed himself in the dust and filth of the ash heap—an outward sign of the degradation he experienced through grief and loss. In this most painful of allegories, Job, a good, righteous, prosperous, and grateful man, suffers the loss of his fortune and the death of his trusted servants at the hands of marauders. Before the shock of this personal and financial catastrophe has even had a chance to sink in, he is informed that a windstorm has crushed the home of his oldest son, killing all of his children who were assembled there for a party. This devastating blow, a tragedy which no parent should ever have to endure, is followed by a debilitating skin ailment—possibly an attack of shingles—which sends this now crushed and broken man to the ashes. And there he sits: devoid of his property, his beloved children, his health, and his identity within the society. There he is mocked by his own wife and tormented by self-righteous friends who blame him for his own misfortunes.

The ashes of Job testify to his grief, his helplessness, his longing for the way things once were, and his boiling and unquenchable anger at the injustice of it all.

Later, at the end of this perturbing poem, Job, beaten and submissive to the will of God, will return to the ashes as a sign of his contrition and repentance.

On this day we in the Church mark ourselves with ashes. What ashes are they? Are they the ashes of Tamar? The ashes which say we are ashamed and void of our self-worth? Such ashes cry out, “If you only knew my secret, you would turn from me in disgust.” Or are they the ashes of Job? The ashes which say, “I hurt. I mourn. I feel abandoned by God and I question God's goodness—even God's existence!

Or maybe they are just the ashes which say, “I am sorry for what I have done, and I will try to be better.”

We ALL wear these ashes. And if you don't, you will. The black stain of Ash Wednesday is our way of speaking the inner affliction which—even in the family of the Church—we do not dare to speak aloud. We fear, even in holy places of worship and amongst our fellow believers, judgment and gossip and betrayal. And we are right to fear this, for we are surrounded by our fellow sinners. Our inability to be open and vulnerable is yet another reason for the ashes.

But in the gospel our Lord tells us that our Heavenly Father “sees in secret.” We hide no secrets from God, and we can't hide them from ourselves. On this day, as we enter into the forty-day journey of increased devotion, we have the opportunity to repent and to believe in the Good News. We are wounded, and we need healing, but God, who knows our sorrows and our virtues, will make us us whole through the blood of Jesus Christ. Let's use these forty days, and the spiritual disciplines which our tradition has assigned to them, to be honest with ourselves and let our God bring us to newness of life.

A blessed Lenten season to you all.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Saint of the Month: Emma Dinan

Emma E. Dinan

Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” (John 14:5-6)

Okay. So you've never heard of Emma Dinan. If you did know her, however, I'll bet that you'd love her the same way I did. She wasn't famous or accomplished or anything like that. She was just a happy, somewhat plump, seventy-nine year-old lady from South Philly who would probably remind you of your favorite aunt or your mom. She liked candy bars and church music and spoiling her grandkids.

I promised her daughter, Jayne, that I'd write up the memorial homily I preached at Emma's funeral. I usually don't write these things out completely. I'm kind of lazy by nature, so I just write an outline and then preach off the top of my head. I can't promise that what appears below will be exactly like what I preached when we laid Emma's remains to rest last month, but it'll be pretty close. It will also—I hope—reflect my belief that the way of Christ is seen in ordinary, average people like you and me, and that a saint is nothing more than a sinner saved by God's grace.

First, however, I have to do a bit of apologizing for the recommended text my Lutheran Occasional Service Book suggests for the service of Burial of the Dead, John 14:1-6. We read this passage because in it Jesus reminds us that he will one day come again and take us to himself, “...that where I am, you may be also.” This is intended to comfort us in time of grieving, and I believe that it does. Unfortunately, the lesson ends with words I feel we in the Church have misused for the last two millenniums, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Church dogma, I think, has used these words (written some seventy years after the time of Jesus, by the way, and not found in any other source material of the period) to suggest that some kind of velvet rope has been stretched across the gates of Heaven with the Church standing guard like holy night club bouncers deciding who gets in and who gets left out in the cold. It's as if we've said, “Unless you subscribe to exactly the doctrine we preach, you're just going to go to Hell!” Personally, I think nothing could be farther from what the evangelist intended when he wrote those words.

First, however, we have to know some historic trivia. Before Christians were called “Christians,” (a name, by the way, which was given to us by others. See Acts 11:26) we were known as “those who belonged to The Way.” (Acts 9:2) So when John has Jesus say, “I am the way,” there is a little more resonance. A “way” is a journey, not a static point. It can't, therefore, be a one-and-done assent to a doctrine. It has to be something lived. Thomas, poor old guy, is confused when Jesus tells him that he “knows the way.” He thinks it's a geographic location. I can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes and shaking his head. “Thomas. Dude,” he seems to say, “you know me, right? We've lived together, journeyed together, been chased out of synagogues together, eaten and gone hungry together. You know my way.”

It's the way of Jesus—by whatever religious title we choose to give it—which brings us into relationship with the living God. And, since none of us have physically met Jesus but know Him only through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, I will suggest that in knowing ordinary lovers of Christ like Emma Dinan we have made contact with The Way. The way of Emma and the way of Jesus were, I suggest, very similar. If we can journey in this way, we'll know the Father as Jesus did. If we don't we won't.

So what's the Way?

For both Jesus and Emma the way is love. Generous, unconditional, forgiving—if not always uncritical—love. If you met Emma, you'd find her to be all love and perfectly adorable. Smiling, hospitable, and welcoming. She also had a tremendous love story. Almost sixty years ago, at Philadelphia's famous annual Mummers' Parade, she was introduced to a boy named Joe. She was dating a soldier at that time, but after meeting Joe she gave the G.I. his marching orders and spent the next fifty-five years with an affable, boisterous man who treated her like a princess. Having lost her father at an early age, Emma found in Joe a big brother, a protector, and a lover. They raised three children together and gleefully spoiled a bunch of grandchildren.

But the love of Jesus, and the love of Emma both had a singular characteristic—self-sacrifice. You see, when Christians worship, we don't focus on the image of a man who just hit the Power Ball. Instead we look to the man on the cross. We worship the one who is sacrificing his freedom, his body, his dignity, and his life out of love for people he never even met. Emma and Joe gave willingly of themselves, too. They took in foster children and sacrificed for them. Emma, typical of women of her generation, gave herself as a wife and mother and dedicated herself to her home, kids, and foster children. She decorated wedding cakes to raise money and taught ceramics classes in her home in order that her daughter Jayne might have a good education. After they retired to Florida, Joe and Emma continued to give back, serving as volunteer guides at the Homosassa Springs Nature Park and as helpers at Oak Hill Hospital. Even when they returned to the Delaware Valley to be close to their grandchildren, the Dinans' compassion for others led them to more volunteer work at Kennedy Hospital in Camden County, New Jersey.

The way of giving, however, also includes thanksgiving. I maintain the worst day we'll ever have on this earth will still contain more of God's blessings than we can count. Emma Dinan never doubted this, and she lived her life in gratitude to God. She was certainly one of the most genuinely cheerful individuals I ever met, and deeply thankful and appreciative for any act of kindness shown to her. Nothing gave her greater joy than to take her boys Joe, Jr. and John fishing when they were young. She and Joe both had a spontaneous and adventurous nature. It was not unknown for them to take an idea into their head, jump into their car, and head off on a holiday trip at a moment's notice. They loved travel, and through careful saving managed to visit Europe, touring in France, Italy, and Ireland. In later years, Emma's joy of living expressed itself through her membership in the Red Hat Club, and in the simple delight she took in her Tuesday game of bingo.

But the way of Christ also includes suffering. If I were to tell you that leading a good and virtuous life would garner you only good and virtuous things, I would be lying. Such a belief is not religion. It's superstition. Religion is understanding that our spiritual walk is not about the things which happen to us but rather in how we embrace them. Emma, like Jesus, took up her own cross, believing that God held her in His hand. No one who knew Emma knew, in any likelihood, the depth of her suffering as she was from a generation which believed in keeping private things private. Today, in a generation which puts the most deeply intimate details on facebook, it's refreshing to know that once people believed in bearing their own pain out of respect for others. I know Emma lost her dad early, and that her relationship with her mother was always contentious even though Emma tried her hardest to be understanding. I'm also certain that it pained her tremendously when her physical health declined to the point where she—the ultimate care-giver—had to rely on others to care for her. Most hurtful of all, I think, was the loss of her darling Joe in 2012.

But the way of Jesus must be a way of faith, of believing that God will make it all right in the end. And if it isn't all right, it's because it's not the end. Emma had been raised in the Lutheran faith, having been baptized as an infant into grace at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philly (the same church where, some sixty years later, I would say my first mass). She was an enthusiastic worshiper all of her life. I remember watching her express her love of Jesus by throwing her arms up in praise while singing along with Faith's Praise Team. Her more conventionally Lutheran brother and sister-in-law looked on with horror at this display, but Emma didn't care. She just loved to worship.

We will miss Emma, and we should. If tears are shed for her, they are righteous tears. The pain we feel when we lose someone we love is a reflection of the value of that relationship. Our society may feel embarrassed by such pain, but it is all part of love. As such, it should be honored.

But this is also a time for rejoicing. Faith teaches us that Emma is no longer infirm, disabled, or in pain. She is home with her Savior and with her beloved Joe. Perhaps she is keeping a motherly eye out for her loved ones here, too. I hope so.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Semi-True Story (Reflections on the Feast of the Transfiguration)


It's a semi-true story
Believe it or not
I made up a few things
And there's some I forgot.
But the life and the tellin'
Are both real to me
And they all run together and turn out to be
A semi-true story...”
(from “Semi-True Story” by Mac McAnally)


Poor Brian Williams. He really pooed the scrooch when he told a semi-true story about his exploits covering the war in Iraq. As a professional story-teller myself, I sympathize with the desire to embellish details in order to make the tale more interesting. But news anchors and pastors trade on folks' belief in our honesty—the need people have to know that there's someone who will give it to them straight.

Of course, the Brian Williams' of this world have it a bit easier than I do. The stories they report often have the appearance of plausibility. This Sunday's gospel, on the other hand, the story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9), tends to stretch credibility. I mean, who is going to buy the story of Jesus on a mountaintop miraculously glowing like a halogen lamp, his clothes turning dazzling white, and two long-dead prophets suddenly appearing at his side? Add to this the voice of God coming from a cloud and you might have a pretty hard time getting folks to believe you.

I wonder if we sometimes avoid thinking about the more far-fetched miracles of the scriptures. We don't want to have to confront our own cognitive dissonance, so we just file such stories under "Take It On Faith" and don't pay much attention to them. I once had a confirmation student who left the class because he felt that unless  everything in the Bible was literally true, nothing in the book could be trusted.

So what do we do with a yarn like this? Is it a literally true story that went down exactly as the Bible tells it? Perhaps. After all, there's no one around to say that it didn't. Is it purely a poetic analogy told to make a theological point? The way we answer this depends on how we view the Bible as true.

Here's what I think: I'm going to come down on the side that this is a semi-true story if viewed in the literal sense. I'll bet that there really was a moment when Jesus took his closest friends up to a mountaintop to be alone and commune with God. I believe that in that experience Peter and James and John came to recognize Jesus as one intimate with the Creator God, just as scripture had taught them Moses and Elijah had been. I believe that whatever happened to them on that mountain was so exquisitely wonderful and powerful and personal that they had no way to express it except in the expressionistic form in which it appears in our gospel lesson. So if you're into biblical literalism, this is only a semi-true story. The challenge is to see the truth which lies behind the cultural details.

But to me the more important question might be why is this tale included in the gospels at all and why do we keep coming back to it year after year? Matt Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, reminds us that it's not important to have Jesus all figured out. The story is here in order that Jesus might be appreciated. (See his commentary at www.workingpreacher.org) If we are seeking to know God, and we look any place other than at Jesus—like to nature or art, for example—all we will find is a frightening and uncertain planet or a mirror of our own loneliness. But in the human person of Jesus we see love, compassion, inclusivity, forgiveness, sacrifice, thanksgiving, righteousness, suffering, and faith. In short, in Jesus we see life because in him there is reason to live. He comprises all those things which make being a human worthwhile. In Jesus we are touching divinity.

We may never know exactly what those disciples experienced on that mountaintop all of those centuries ago, but we really don't need to know. What is important is knowing that once upon a time real men found in this real man the metaphoric light of their lives which let them see everything in a new way. He changed them and scared them and filled them with awe and zeal and love. And he is still able to do this. Lovers of Christ are still bringing this light into the darkness of the world. News anchors may play fast and loose with the truth, but the truth of the Bible remains.

God bless you, my friends.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Healed to Serve, Serve to Heal (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year B)

My wife's brother served in Vietnam. He died fifteen years ago from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. Since that time—and even long before it—Marilyn has been a tireless advocate for returning veterans of all conflicts. She collects food and supplies for a homeless vets' shelter, supports the Yellow Ribbon organization in sending care packages to deployed troops, and does many other admirable acts in furtherance of this cause.


I admire what she does and, I must confess, if not for her I probably would not have as much awareness of the plight of returning military. I do know that a lot of the guys who served in Vietnam never really seemed to come home from the conflict. I remember, back in my California days, regularly running into a homeless vet named Stanley on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. He was a nice enough guy, but he just couldn't get it together after all he'd experienced. He used to panhandle on the street. One day I gave him a twenty dollar bill and he teared up, came to attention, and saluted me. I often wonder whatever happened to him. There was something poisonous in the way our society treated those men back then—telling them not to wear their uniforms back home in order to avoid controversy. No parades, no welcome, no thanks. No wonder so many drank or became homeless like Stanley.
for Vietnam veterans.
Vietnam vets welcome troops home from deployment
Today, however, those same wounded and abused vets are the biggest supporters of our currently serving military. Their organizations mobilize to make sure that this generation of troops is treated better than their generation had been treated. They are the first to organize and advocate politically for care of the ones who return, and they always show up in force at homecomings. I respect their lack of bitterness and honest desire to be of service. To me, this looks like healing.

In the appointed gospel for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Mark 1:29-39), we see Jesus perform an act of healing which then results in service. Peter's mother-in-law is sick with a fever, a condition which, in the world of the text, could very likely be fatal. But Jesus takes her hand and lifts her out of bed, back onto her feat. Immediately she is restored and begins to serve Jesus and the others of the household.

A detail I really dig about the way Mark tells this story is the fact that Jesus takes her by the hand. This is a pretty personal thing to do in that society with a lady to whom one is not related. To me, it suggests God's tender care for those who are weak, and the intimacy and tender compassion of God with us during our time of distress.

Granted, the story does seem a bit sexist to our modern ears. After all, the poor old lady was just lying at death's door, and Jesus drags her out of bed to put on her apron and start cooking for the men. We might wish that he'd give her a chance to recuperate and catch her breath before he sends her back into the kitchen. I mean, wouldn't it be a nice thing if some of the guys offered to take her place just this once?


But in the world of this text, Peter's mother-in-law serving at table is the way we know that she is fully and completely healed. In her society, this was her job. The fact that she was back doing it proved her restoration.

Yet the story gets me wondering about what exactly Jesus did when he lifted her off her sickbed. Part of his way of healing was showing a tender regard for this lady as a person. However, I wonder if she served because she had been healed, or was she healed because she was lifted up to serve? As with the Vietnam vets, when the decision comes to give ourselves over to caring for others, God begins to do the work of healing. I believe that if a dying congregation were to dedicate itself to the healing of its neighborhood, new life would dawn upon it. Conversely, those who have received the gift of a healing, be it physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise, should, out of gratitude to God, make an offering of service to those who are weak and suffering. If we don't rise to that obligation we aren't really survivors of our affliction, we're just former victims of it. True healing has to bring with it the baptismal promise of renewal.


A few other things cross my mind about this appointed passage: First, Jesus doesn't permit the demons to speak (v.34). This is explained as being part of the “messianic secret,” the fact that Jesus doesn't want anyone to know he's the Messiah until the time comes. Personally, I think there's just some common sense in silencing the voice of illness and brokenness. Referencing the previous state of sickness, addiction, unhappiness, etc. just gives too much power to it. Healing can mean knowing when to let it go. Secondly, Jesus renews himself by the practice of prayer (v. 35). This should speak for itself, don't you think? Thirdly, Jesus is not preaching with words, but through actions of compassion. The healing mission is the gospel. Finally, whether we are healed to serve or serve to be healed, we still need to hold the hand of Jesus.


Thanks again for visiting, my friends. May you be healed and be healers in whatever way God calls you.