Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Reflections on the Feast of the Holy Trinity

My daughter is turning Hindu.

On the one hand, this is not exactly a glowing endorsement of my Christian influence. On the other hand, however, her spiritual journey has led to some of the best conversations I think we’ve ever had. It’s caused me to examine what I believe about ultimate truth and the nature of reality, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my daughter might just be discovering a new vocabulary for some things which I’ve long believed myself from our Christian tradition. To that extent, I think I actually prefer an observant Hindu (or Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or whatever) to a lukewarm, Christmas-and-Easter Christian who never gives any real thought to the tenets of the faith. It’s important—don’t you think?—to actually know what it is you say you believe.

This Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. In theory, it’s one of the six principal festivals of Christianity. In practice, I don’t think anyone gives a rip about it. The problem for me, of course, is that it commemorates a doctrine of the church and not an event or a person. I’m pretty much a story-teller, so I don’t really know what to do when there isn’t a narrative to talk about. Holy Trinity Sunday is usually a good time for a pastor to take a vacation so as not to have to preach a bone-dry, dogmatic sermon which will sound like a theology lecture and leave the folks in the pew staring glassy-eyed with occasional glances at their wrist watches.

Of course, there’s always the boring history lesson I can fall back on. I can tell folks about how the Emperor Constantine called for a church council in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to settle the question of Jesus’ relationship with God once and for all. I can explain the cute trivia that Nicholas of Bari (aka. Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus) happened to take part in that initial convention. I can also point out that the motive for coming up with a settled doctrine was every bit as political as theological—which does not necessarily mean that those bishops in Nicaea got it wrong. But I can’t see that this would have much an effect on my listeners.

No. If this festival day is to mean anything at all, it has to challenge us each to come up with our own definition of what we mean by the word GOD. It’s only then that the doctrine of Trinity can mean anything to us, and only then that we can have a meaningful conversation with people of other faiths or no faith at all.

Yet here is where I have to make a disclaimer. Nobody, not a pastor, a church council, a pope, yogi, rabbi, imam, or saint can really comprehend God. In the Gospel lesson appointed for this feast in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 16:12-15), Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…” (v. 12-13a) This kind of reminds me of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men bellowing, “You can’t handle the truth!” And the truth is, we can’t. We have no real conception of the wonder and vastness of God apart from what the Spirit puts in our hearts. All we do for convenience is construct clumsy analogies. The trick is to try to use these clumsy analogies to lead us to a place of meaning and not turn them into doctrinal idolatry.

For a long time we in the church just said, “Hey. You want to be a Christian? Accept the doctrine of the Trinity. If you don’t, then you’re not really a Christian and you’re probably going to burn in Hell.” I’d hope that we’re progressing a bit from this. What does this doctrine actually mean at its core? For me, I’d have to say that it’s the experience of God as the great I AM. God just IS—God creating and being, God in love and compassion manifested in the person of Christ, and God as the connective tissue of all things. Our Gospel has Jesus say that the Father is in him, he is in the Spirit, and the Spirit is in us (vv.14-15).

That should be the challenge. If the Spirit of God—God’s breath which breathes life into all and the spirit of Christ’s compassion—is truly in me, then it has to be in everyone else, too. That means I have some real thinking to do about how I relate to creation and to my neighbor. If I sin against my neighbor, I’ve sinned against God and I’ve sinned against myself. And this thought drives me to my knees to pray for reverence for all people and all creation.

I’m not sure I get how my Hindu daughter sees God, but I feel pretty confident that contemplation of my own tradition leads me to a place of peace with hers.

Thanks for reading. God be with you.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Taught and Reminded (Reflections on the Day of Pentecost, Year C)


The Southeastern Pennsylvania Lutheran Synod Assembly was last weekend and, as usual, I had a great time attending. I loved hearing the speakers, finding out what’s going on with the other parishes in the five counties around Philadelphia, and participating in the inspiring worship services. It’s really cool for a pastor to be able to just go to church for a change and not have to worry about conducting the service.

At the Saturday morning worship there was an opportunity to ask for private, personal prayer. I approached the prayer leader—a compassionate colleague who had served in Philly—and responded to his question “How can I pray for you, Owen?” with “I’ve been pastor of my church for seventeen years. I have ten more to go before retirement. I am so tired.”

Okay. I admit it. Sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make it. My parish sits perpetually on the precipice of fiscal doom. My lay leaders are often inflexible and stuck in their ways. We have issues with the staff and with the building. On top of it all, we are still a collection of sinners, heirs to all the hurts which come from being born and living on old Mother Earth. So sometimes I need some prayer. Sometimes I wonder how this will all turn out.

And then a blessing. Usually, whenever I enter a contest or play a game I never win. But for the second year in a row my congregation won the Southeastern PA Synod’s “Forward Together in Faith” raffle drawing. This year we were given $1,000 grant to start an innovative program to collaborate with other ministries for the good of our community. We’re planning on turning part of our extensive church lawn (heretofore the local urban soccer field, garbage dump, and doggie toilet) into a community vegetable garden which neighbors would be welcome to cultivate along with church members. The produce we grow would be donated to Feast of Justice Ministries, the Northeast Philadelphia Lutheran Conference’s food bank and advocacy service located at one of our sister congregations. Feast serves about 2,000 local families with food assistance and has recently lost its produce supplier due to budget cuts.

My prayer for strength was answered in an unexpected way. Which, of course, makes me wonder: Was this the Holy Spirit at work? Just what is she up to, anyway? (Please note: since the words for “spirit” in Greek and Hebrew are both feminine nouns, I always, in a spirit of inclusion, try to refer to the Third Person of the Trinity by feminine pronouns. If this offends you…well..suck it up and deal with it.)

Our Gospel lesson for Pentecost in Year C (John 14:8-17, 25-27) tells us pretty much what the Spirit is up to. She has come to us to be part of us, to be God in us (v. 17). And because she is God in us, we will be sustained in weariness. We will be taught God’s ways and reminded of the ways and promises of Jesus (v.26). When we feel we just can’t, she’ll be there to remind us that we can, because Jesus has promised that we shall do the works he has done—and even greater works, too. (v.12).

Of course, I must quickly point out that she very often works in us collectively. Luther reminds us that she calls and gathers the Christian Church on earth (remember this from your Small Catechism?), and so the wonderful works which look so daunting to us as individuals are accomplished when the Spirit unites us in the body of Christ. In our first lesson (Acts 2:1-21) we see her turning cowards into charismatic preachers and xenophobic, insular Jews into international evangelists. She has sustained the church throughout the ages, and she will continue to do so in spite of our fears of declining finances and changing cultures.

Here’s one little example of her miraculous work: This October, as the “kick-off” of a year of celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation will hold a special worship service in the city of its founding, Lund, Sweden. The service officiants will include the LWF President, Bishop Munib Younan, LWF General Secretary Martin Junge, and—drumroll, please—Pope Francis. There may be some of you who never thought you’d live to see the day the Pope would be celebrating the Reformation with Lutherans, but this is what the Holy Spirit is doing. The Old Girl is bringing her church together.

For many churches in my denomination, Pentecost is a day to celebrate the Spirit coming to us. We can think of her descending on Jesus like a dove at his baptism, and be reminded that she descended on us at our baptism, too. It’s not surprising that many churches use Pentecost as the day to celebrate the Affirmation of Baptism or the Rite of Confirmation.  Whether or not we have babies or adults to baptize this Sunday or teens to make their Confirmation, this is a glorious time to sing praises for our faith and celebrate that God has come to be with and in us. It might be a very good time to confess Luther’s understanding of the Holy Spirit:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with (her) gifts, made me holy and kept me in true faith, just as (she) calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true. (Small Catechsim)

Or, we could join Luther in his simple prayer of gratitude, “I am baptized!”

However we celebrate the day, we celebrate in the peace of Christ. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid!

PS-If you want to learn a little more about the celebration in Lund, just click this link here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Freeing the Jailer (Reflections on Easter 7, Year C)

Among law enforcement professional, corrections officers are a rare and freaky breed. I once knew a lady back in Los Angeles who served on the LAPD. She’d started in corrections, but found after a very short time she had to get out. Jailers (guards, bulls, screws, turnkeys, or whatever they’re called) are regularly subject to the threat of physical harm or death, vile verbal abuse, and attempts at manipulation. They are overworked, underpaid, scrutinized constantly by supervisors, threatened by inmates, and need to be 100% vigilant 100% of the time. When they’re not being totally stressed-out, they’re probably bored mindless by the repetitive nature of their work. When I visit the local hospital and see the Philadelphia Department of Prisons officers sitting vigil outside the rooms of hospitalized prisoners, I always try to stop and thank them for their service. They’re often grateful for the gesture. When I’ve visited inside the county jail—and every urban pastor will do this at some point—the guards are far less pleasant. It takes a special individual to be able to do this job day in and day out. Many corrections officers just burn out or move on to other areas of law enforcement.

I rather feel sorry for the prison guard in the First Lesson appointed for Easter 7 in the Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 16:16-34). He has total responsibility over his jail—even over stuff he can’t control like the earthquake in verse 26. The poor guy has to see that the prisoners don’t escape. Should they get out for any reason, he is required—quite literally—to fall on his sword and kill himself. Can you imagine? The stress of this job must’ve made him one brutal s.o.b. Note that Paul and Silas, who have just been pretty savagely beaten, are put in chains in the dungeon without any medical attention whatsoever.

The un-named jailer has no conception of mercy. He figures that prisoners will always run when they get a chance, and he doesn’t even check their cell after the massive quake.  He just gives up. He figures they’re gone, and gets ready to off himself. Maybe he just wants the whole stressful business to be over with. But Paul and Silas don’t want him to harm himself, because his suicide will not glorify God. Prisoners or not, victims or not, they are in the business of proclaiming salvation, and salvation doesn’t speak through despair or revenge or fear.

Salvation speaks through love, and love speaks through compassion and forgiveness.

The mercy shown to this man through two imprisoned Christians caused him to ask the question, “What must I do to be saved (v.30)?” The answer given to him was to believe, which makes perfect sense if you consider that the opposite of belief is doubt, and doubt is uncertainty. We will learn to fear that which we don’t know, don’t understand, or can’t control, and the devil will ultimately teach us to hate what we fear. I love the fact that the jailer’s family rejoices that he has become a believer (v.34). I suspect he must’ve been very had to live with before two prisoners’ act of kindness brought him to salvation.

The jailer has been saved. The man who keeps prisoners sees his own bondage, and chooses to rise above it. He sees the prisoners no longer as enemies, but as fellow humans. He even dresses their wounds, takes them home, and feeds them—culturally acknowledging them as members of his family. Salvation, in this sense, is so much more than going to Heaven when you die. It is a liberation which comes immediately through our one-ness in Christ. This one-ness is unlike any other type of association, because it does not define us over and against another group. In Christ, there is no “them” and us.” There is only “us.” And we are called to see Christ in others and be Christ for others.

The salvation which this man experiences lets the jailer out of the jail he and his culture have made for him. He is saved from suspicion, prejudice, guilt, depression, and an incessant need to dominate and control. He is freed from fear, because the promise of God’s love is certain.

Thanks for reading, friends. I always like it when you stop by. If you’d like to read a really cool insight on “salvation,” check out Peter Marty’s article in the current issue of Living Lutheran. You can read it online if you click his name here: Peter Marty. Just click on the table of contents and look for "Lexicon of Faith" on page 5.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A New Religious Experience for an Old Religious Guy

When I get a Sunday off from church I often worship with another local Lutheran congregation near our house on Saturday night so I can sleep in on Sunday morning. But last week, when our daughter Sandra suggested a family outing to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey, I thought this would be a cool way to spend the Sabbath. My ignorance of Eastern religion is pretty expansive, and this seemed like an adventure to me.

The Mandir is located in the center of a huge compound off Route 130 in the middle of the Garden State. Once you turn off the main drag and enter the compound you’d swear you had left North American and arrived in the Indian subcontinent. The elegantly maintained grounds we experienced were filled with people who were either Indian or of Indian decent. Crowds of slender, cheerful people with beautiful coffee-colored complexions strolled towards the holy marble temple. Some wore Western-style attire, but many were dressed in traditional Indian costume—the men attired in knee-length, light-weight tunics and the women adorned in magnificent saris in dazzling yellows and purples and reds. Occasionally we got a glimpse of some of the holy men with shaved heads and saffron robes. Foreheads were decorated with the mysterious red dots. The crowds chatted in the language of the Old Country—Hindi or Malayalam or some other dialect. The number of Occidental folks could be counted on our fingers. It was, indeed, like being in a foreign land, and I confess to feeling slightly self-conscious at first.

My Anglophile sense of humor was tickled to notice vestiges of the old colonizers which still linger within this strange culture. As shoes are not permitted to be worn within the Mandir temple, separate rooms of shelves are supplied to deposit the footwear of “Ladies” and “Gents.” In the parking lot, a group of young lads were seen playing cricket—as unlikely a sight as one could ever expect to see in New Jersey. We were greeted by a middle-aged docent who possessed such refined, charming manners and impeccable speech one would almost think he had stepped out of the Indian version of Downton Abbey. I remembered that India is home to more native English speakers than any other country on earth, and a British influence still runs deep.

The Mandir itself—made of solid Italian marble—is one of only two such structures in the world. The other marble Mandir is in India. A video in the vestibule informs visitors of how the marble was selected for its strength and beauty, then shipped from Italy to India where it was carved by brilliant craftsmen. Brilliant, however, is too inadequate a word to describe the work on these stones. Every visible surface is elaborately decorated with delicate and intricate carvings. There are lotus flowers, elephants, peacocks, representations of deities, geometric shapes, and all manner of elegant designs woven together in the stately magnificence of the rock. The entire temple structure is enclosed in a superstructure which protects the marble from the New Jersey climate while still permitting adequate natural light to illuminate the luster of the carvings. The delightful sari-clad narrator on the video suggests that this outer building serves as a visual reminder that the true Mandir is “within.”

After familiarizing ourselves with the rules—chief of which is to observe silence—we entered the Mandir itself. Once within the marble structure I felt a splendid feeling of peace and tranquility. Indeed, rarely have I had such a feeling of the presence of the sacred as I had within this Indian holy place. The aroma of a fragrant and pleasing incense was apparent, but I could not locate its source. The sense of contentment was almost incongruous with the onslaught of images in the marble. Immediately one is overwhelmed by the vastness of the carvings. My eyes could not possibly take in the multitude of artwork; nevertheless, the sense of well-being overcame the sensory overload. In the presence of so much beauty, one is forced into stillness. I imagined the power this loveliness had was from the love of the men who had created it.

Since the multitude of carvings was too grand to properly experience, I decided that I’d just slowly stroll through the arches and under the beautiful domes and pick out one or two images to contemplate. The Mandir’s essence forces one into a slow, meditative mode. I had not come to people-watch, but I couldn’t help but observe the behavior of other visitors. Some seemed to approach the experience as tourists. Some were trying vainly to hush noisy children. Most, however, appeared to be religious pilgrims. A splendid lotus pattern dominated the marble floor of the temple directly below the central dome. Worshipers sat around the perimeter of the circle, legs crossed or kneeling, meditating or praying.

I made a tour of the various shrines and paintings which surrounded the room. Before some of the shrines were white collection boxes, oversized versions of the ones one might see on the candle rack of a Catholic church. Some pilgrims dropped in donations. A bouquet of flowers was offered on one of these boxes. Some people bowed reverently before the images in the shrines. Some stood in prayer, gently patting the palms of their hands together in devotion.

The colorful paintings depicting scenes of deities from the sacred texts of this culture had a curious effect on me. I loved the brilliant colors and the attention to detail, although the style of painting reminded me a bit of comic book art. It struck me that the gods represented in these artworks all appeared to be smiling. There was a sense of joy in these devotional works which I rarely—if ever—notice in Byzantine, medieval, or renaissance Christian art. I realized that the experience of being within the Mandir could be summed up for me in one word—happiness.

Before leaving the Mandir I took a moment to stand on the periphery of the lotus and admire the beautiful domed ceiling above it. Since I’d not been to church that morning, I figured this was as good a place as any to say a few prayers of my own.

Back in the vestibule I was reunited with my wife and daughter (and my shoes). We agreed that this had been a moving experience, and we were glad we had shared it. The British-mannered docent thanked us and reminded us that we were welcome to return at a less crowded time and he would give us a personal tour.

I truly value this time within the holy walls of a culture which seemed, on the surface, to be so different from my own. I felt it was a religious experience. There is, after all, only one God, and God may speak with many voices. I reflect that beautiful shrines, chanting, holy silence, floral offerings, and burning incense are not unheard of within my own faith. But, I am more than content to be a confessing, Trinitarian Christian in the Lutheran tradition, and have no desire to change my religious ways. I do lament, however, that the respect the visitors had shown for the Mandir is sadly lacking in my own congregation. I would that my flock would be a bit more considerate of the sacredness of our worship space.

Perhaps we should remove our shoes before we enter?

If you're interested in the Mandir, link to its website by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Divine Upgrade (Reflections on Easter 6, Year C)

My wife just bought a new laptop computer, and the extremely pleasant young person at the Apple store showed us how to turn it on and log on and do some of the nifty stuff a new computer does these days. When we got home, my bride found she was having trouble logging on to the internet. Now, I’m pretty much a Luddite. It’s a miracle I can even figure out how to turn on a light switch let alone use a computer, but—beaming with technological pride—I was able to show her what I remembered the nice young man in the store had demonstrated. A few mouse clicks and yabbadabbadoo! My mate was surfing the net like Bethany Hamilton at Waikiki.

Of course, there’s still lots of stuff I don’t know how to do on a computer (I don’t even know what a spreadsheet is, and I certainly wouldn’t know how to create one!), and I’m a bit embarrassed to possess a machine that’s smarter than I am. I’m really grateful for those tech support phone numbers and for my daughter who works in IT and the teenage girl in my parish who spiffs up my computer every time it starts to go slow. It’s good to have smart, tech-savvy people around to troubleshoot.

What would be even better would be me getting my act together and learning how to use the machine myself. Have you ever heard the saying, “The learning doesn’t start until the lesson is over?” If the teacher is always around to help and correct, we have no reason to learn on our own, to develop our skills, or to grow as human beings. It’s only after the teacher has gone that we really come into our own.

That’s a lesson I take away from the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Easter 6 (John 14:23-29). Jesus knows he’s not going to be around much longer (in the flesh, anyway), and he tries to let the disciples know that this is actually a good thing. Something wonderful is going to happen as a result of his absence. These poor slobs are going to transition from being disciples (students of Jesus) to being apostles (ambassadors for Jesus). They won’t require the physical presence of Christ any longer because they will continue in his Word, and in this divine Word he will always be with them.

Yes, it is true that a loss is painful. Every change, every bend in our life’s river means the loss of something which once was. It’s natural for these boys to fear being without their rabbi. But Jesus tells them not to fear but to rejoice. This is all in the Father’s hands (vv. 27-28). Sometimes we in the church panic when a beloved pastor or other key leader leaves or retires, but these transformative events set the stage for us to grow in new directions while we build on the past. Think of the losses in your life—changes and transitions which may have seemed hard to bear at the time but have led you to where you are now. Pretty cool, huh?

But what’s really cool about this passage is the promise that we will never really be without Jesus. Think about it: are you ever really without someone who has inspired or taught or loved you? My dad’s been deceased for over a quarter of a century, but when I hear one of his favorite hymns in worship I hear him singing just as if he were standing beside me. And Jesus is just like that.

If I can’t figure out how to download the software for my new printer, I can make a toll-free call and a nice tech support person will talk me through the problem. When my heart is lonely and confused, no call is necessary. My support has already made his home with me.

Blessings, my friends!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Saint of the Month: Howard Brooks (Reflections on Easter 4, Year C)

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)

So how are you? Are you still rejoicing? Still amped up with celebrating the resurrection of our Lord? I hope so. Easter is, after all, a pretty long festival in our liturgical calendar. It lasts for fifty days, but, when you think about what it means, we have no reason to stop the party—ever.

So far our Sunday Gospel lessons have been stories of a post-resurrected Jesus. This Sunday, however, we get a reminder of what a resurrected Jesus means for us. It’s simply this: our life is eternal. Death has been conquered, and we are living in the reality of eternity. We belong to God in Christ, and no one and no circumstance is going to change this. Our shepherd knows every sheep in the flock, and he’s got our backs. Our life is eternal. Our problems are temporary.

Personally, I think this is pretty good thing to keep in mind as life—even during Easter season—can hurl some pretty gooey slop our way. Sometimes I just pine for that promise of eternal rest when I try to fight off the weariness of parish ministry and all of its relentless personal and financial challenges. I wish I could take a little break after the onslaught of Lent and Holy Week, but I have Ministerium matters which need attending, people who need visiting, our annual church fair, and a growing number of non-member funerals which this week include a joint service for an engaged couple killed in an auto accident. This stuff just doesn’t let up.

Fortunately, I can take comfort in the promise of scripture when I confront my own sense of bereavement.

Yesterday, Howard Brooks, a dear friend to my wife and myself, was called home after ninety-six brilliant years here on earth. If you ever met him, you would certainly adore him every bit as much as we did. A more lovable man never drew breath. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more engagingly joyful smile. I would go so far as to describe Howard’s countenance as iridescent. When his smile was aimed at you, a smile of your own would have to follow. The man radiated a benign good will which transcended the bitter experience of his young adulthood.

Howard served in the U S Navy during World War II on the cruiser USS Houston. In her second engagement against the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Houston was sunk off the coast of Java. Two thirds of her crew were lost with the ship. The remaining survivors—to a man—were captured by the Japanese. Howard Brooks became a POW in the merciless jungles of Burma, forced into slave labor to build a railroad for the enemy. Oppressive heat, malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, injury, infection, the death of comrades, and the brutality of his captors were Howard’s 24/7 companions for three and one-half years. Survival in this hellish environment was nothing short of miraculous for the men who endured it.

My wife, Marilyn, met Howard and his wife, Silvia, at a community function a few years ago. Marilyn, who is involved with several veterans’ organizations, spotted Howard’s USS Houston ball cap and began a conversation with him. She quickly learned his story. I’m glad she did, as knowing Mr. and Mrs. Brooks has been an utter delight. We’ve shared meals and outings and hosted each other in our homes. I never recall Howard seeming fatigued. He was always charming, interested, and ready to share his erudite learning. Marilyn and I were particularly pleased with the relationship he had with our daughter, a US Army vet. The two hit it off as colleagues. Howard’s personality seemed ageless.

I was always astounded by his vitality and good humor. While touring a museum I once remarked, “Howard, you walk as fast as I do.” He replied, “Yes, but not as far.”

What was his secret? When asked how he had been able to live through the nightmare of his captivity, Howard declared that he never lost faith that he and his buddies would one day be rescued. He never feared that he had been forgotten, and he never doubted the righteousness of the Allied cause. In later years, he found in his heart forgiveness for his captors, and I have never known a man so free from bitterness.

Faith and hope and forgiveness and love. The qualities of Howard Brooks must be the characteristics of all who are in Christ. Marilyn and I will certainly miss Howard, but we rest in the blessed assurance we shall see him again. The sting of death is swallowed up in victory.

“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Howard. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the company of all your saints in light. Amen” (from Occasional Services, Augsburg Press, 1982)

Rejoice, fellow sheep. Christ is risen.

PS- If you wish to hear Howard’s courageous story told in his own words, please click here.

PPS-I plan to introduce a shipmate of Howard’s as next month’s Saint of the Month in honor of Memorial Day, so keep watching!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Boatload of Images (Reflections on Easter 3, Year C)

Wow. I really love this Gospel lesson assigned for Easter 3 in Year C (John 21:1-19) There’s a boatload (pun intended) of possible meanings and ideas here. It’s also a story full of sensory images—a bunch of naked dudes fishing on a lake in the middle of the night, 153 fish in a net and guys straining to haul it in, a charcoal fire and a toast-and-fish breakfast by the lake shore, an emotional interaction between Jesus and Peter, and the sad foreshadowing of Peter’s eventual martyrdom. Yup. Lots of stuff here.

Let’s start with Peter and the other guys going fishing. It makes perfect sense. After all, they were fisherman before they met Jesus. Now, however, Jesus has died and is resurrected but doesn’t seem to want to hang with them like he did before. He only shows up sporadically—mysteriously appearing in locked rooms. So what do they do? I guess Peter just hits the default switch in his brain and goes back to his home town and the life he knew. The trouble is, it isn’t like it was before. This also makes perfect sense. Can any of us ever have an experience like the disciples had with Jesus and then just go back to the same ol’ same ol’?

The boys in the boat aren’t catching squat until Jesus shows up to direct them. Jesus gets them to do the old thing in a new way, and suddenly they get an abundance of blessing. Personally, being a kind of nostalgic guy myself, I love that they go back home to Galilee. It always seems healthy to me to look back from time to time and see where we’ve come from and where God has led us. I love this quote from T.S. Eliot:
 We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. - T. S. Eliot

Having Jesus in our lives gives us a lens through which we can see ourselves and make sense of who we are. We might view our life and family and achievements through some other lens like career advancement or wealth or interpersonal relationships, but we’ll only get a distorted picture. Seeing ourselves through our relationship with Jesus will put everything into perspective.

The comic aspect of this Gospel pericope is Peter’s little swim in verse 7. The Bible says that he was naked—probably stripped down to his Fruit of the Looms to do hard work on this sultry night—and yet he puts his clothes on to jump in the water. You’d think the guy would have enough sense to either wait until the boat reached the shore (and it was only a few oar strokes away) or jump overboard as he was and leave dry clothes to change into later. But no. Good ol’ rambunctious, impulsive Peter gets dressed and then leaps fully clothed into the sea to swim to Jesus. I don’t know what the Gospel writer intended to show by this verse, but I can only interpret it as zealous, silly, unselfconscious joy in the Lord.

Another odd thing about this story is the fact that Jesus is not immediately recognizable. It’s not until the miraculous catch of fish in verse 7 that the Beloved Disciple figures out that the guy on the shore to whom they have been speaking is Jesus. Even when the guys get to shore with their huge catch in verse 12, there is some question as to who their breakfast host might be. What’s up with this? Are they still doubting the resurrection? Does Jesus not look like Jesus? There’s similar confusion for Mary Magdalene in chapter 20 and for the disciples of Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. Maybe we don’t always immediately know when we’re encountering Jesus. You think?

The really cool aspect of this story for me is Jesus’ conversation with Peter while they’re enjoying their breakfast by the lake. My pal Pastor Ben Krey reminds me that, in the Greek, there are two different words used for love in this passage. Jesus asks Peter in verses 15 and 16, “…do you love me?” The phrase in Greek is “agapas me?  This is translated in my Greek-English interlinear as “lovest thou me?” Jesus uses the word agape for “love.” This word means the highest form of love: sacrificial, unconditional love. It is, essentially, God’s kind of love. Peter, however, responds with “filw se, which the interlinear translates as “I have affection for thee.” The Greek word Peter is using is filia, which can also be translated as “brotherly love.” If we were to make the distinction, the dialogue in John 21:15-17 might read something like this:

Jesus: Simon Johnson, do you love me divinely—even more than these other guys?
Peter: Yes, Boss. You know that I love you like my own brother.
Jesus: But do you love me divinely? Like God loves?
Peter: You know I do. I love you like a brother.
Jesus: Okay. Simon Johnson—since you put it that way—do you really love me like a brother?
Peter: Boss..! You know everything. How can you ask me that..? You know I love you like a brother!

Maybe Peter just doesn’t get that divine love thing at first (do any of us?), so Jesus puts it in Peter’s terms. Regardless of the word we use or the concept we have, the message is the same: feed the sheep. If we truly love Jesus, that love must manifest itself in care for our brothers and sisters.

Finally, I love the warning Jesus gives Peter in verse 18. When we’re young, we gird our loins and go where we please. Not so when we’re old. Verse 19 explains that this refers explicitly to Peter’s eventual martyrdom in Rome.

I always remember the first time I was called upon to preach on this passage. It was at the now-defunct Lutheran Deaconess Mother House. Many Lutherans don’t even know about these wonderful women who once wore habits, lived in community, and addressed one another as “Sister.” There aren’t many around these days as we’ve been ordaining women to Word and Sacrament ministry since 1970. Why be a nun when you can be a priest? But I digress.

When I preached to the elderly sisters at the Mother House, many were confined to their rooms and listened to the service over an intercom system. I thought of elderly folks in nursing homes, places much less comfortable than the home were the Deaconesses would spend their final days. Who would voluntarily want to give up home and independence and dignity just to be warehoused? For some of us, we will stretch forth our hands one day and someone will take us where we do not wish to go. It will be solace if we know we have done our share of “sheep feeding” while we still could.

God bless. Thanks for stopping by this week.