Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Time to Move a Sluggish Luddite (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year B)

 

“The time is fulfilled…” (Mark 1:15a) 

I often joke that I’m a Luddite. The term refers to a secret society of—basically—domestic terrorists in 19th England who destroyed machinery in textile mills because they feared that the new weaving technology would put old-fashioned weavers such as themselves out of work. Today, it’s used for anyone who, alas, like my own dear self, is resistant to new technology[i]. 

Okay. I guess I’m not so much resistant to the technology as I am afraid I can’t figure out how to use it. I have to ask my daughter how I’m supposed to sinc devices or do stuff on the computer. There’ stuff a fifth-grader could do in his or her sleep that it takes me an hour to figure out. I mean, I’m still using a version of the flip phone because the raised numbers make it easier for me to text than if I use a smart screen. How do you turn off that word prediction thingamajig anyway?

 But the time has been fulfilled. I can’t hold it back. Because of the pandemic and the Bishop’s recommendation to cease all in-person activities at my parish, I broke down (at my wife’s urging, I should add) and asked the church council to spring for the purchase of a laptop computer so I could livestream worship services on facebook. Personally, I’m not a big fan of facebook because I think it keeps us all perpetually in high school. I don’t feel a need to show off my accomplishments, my vacations, or the meals I’m eating. I don’t have to prove I’m one of the cool kids, and I think lots of stuff is better kept private. Nevertheless, the time has come to use the modern technology. If COVID-19 hadn’t driven me to virtual worship, the 21st Century would’ve done so eventually. Bob Dylan keeps crooning in my ear, “The Times They Are A-changin’.”

 Matt Skinner, the Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN wrote a great article on the Working Preacher website about the Gospel lesson for Epiphany 3, Year B (Mark 1:14-20). Professor Skinner opines that, Galilee being so small a place, just about everyone there had probably heard or seen or known about Jesus by the time John the Baptist was arrested. The fishermen might not have had such a sudden blazing epiphany that they left their nets like a dog chasing a squirrel. Rather, they’d been thinking about Jesus and his message for some time. The difference on this particular day was Jesus telling them the hour of decision was upon them[ii]. “If you’re going to come with me, boys, this is the time to do it.” Timing is everything.

 I’m pretty darn convinced that right now is the time for a change. Even if there were no pandemic, the Church needs to find radical new ways to do ministry because the old ways are becoming obsolete. I’ve noted in previous posts that American society has basically killed the Sabbath. Youth sports, once upon a time the extra-curricular activities of public schools, are now a weekend burden for parents. Part-time, gig, and service economy jobs make planning a schedule impossible for many families. No one knows when or even if there will be a Sunday morning left open for worship. Cultural ties which once linked families to their worshiping communities have, for worse or better, fallen away in this day and age. More and more of us find ourselves (again, even before the pandemic) spending more of our lives in front of a video screen.

 Yet, as sluggish as I have been to get on the techno-train, many of my parishioners are older than I and refuse even to consider buying a ticket or standing on the platform. For those who are not plugged-in, I write out the Sunday message and Cindie on our church council sends it the old, old fashioned way—through the US Mail.[iii] 

But it’s not the lack of technology that has me concerned. It’s simply the age of these members. Good, loving, faithful, charitable saints of the Lord that they are, I can see a day coming when they will be worshiping before the Throne of Grace and not from the pews of Faith. The clock is ticking in my ear like Poe’s tell-tale heart. If the rest of us don’t start fishing for people now, there may be no congregation here in about ten years’ time. I see the internet as one fishnet by which we can proclaim the Kingdom. Social media allows us to spread the Word, and I’m hoping that by posting or re-posting or “sharing" or whatever you call it the online worship experiences of our congregation, we can spread a word of mercy and love to those who otherwise might never enter the doors of a church building to hear it.

 The time has come. Throw out your net and see who swims into it!


[i] The Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, supposedly an 18th century weaver and the first to smash machinery. Actually, Ludd never existed. He was a fictional character.

[ii] The word Mark uses here for “time” is Kairos (kairos in Greek). It doesn’t just mean the hour of the day, but implies a momentous occasion. It could translate “The season is upon us.”

[iii] I used to work as a tour guide at Universal Studios. Carl Lemmle, the studios founder, continued to produce silent movies well after talkies had been invented for his distributors in small towns who did not have the funds to convert their movie houses to the new sound technology. It’s important to push forward, but compassion dictates that we sometimes have to consider those who haven’t caught up!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Listen Up, Folks! (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year B)

 

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…” (1 Samuel 3:9) 

Pastor Mary sat back in her office chair and listened patiently as I whined on about my job woes as a special ed teacher in the Los Angeles public schools. I felt it was time for me to get out of the stress of teaching discontented, gang affiliated youths and try my hand at something different. But what?

 “I really wish you’d consider the seminary,” she said.

 Thanks but no thanks, I thought. Yes, it was true that, for as long as I could remember, I had felt an annoying voice in my subconscious urging me to take whatever rhetorical skills I might possess and use them in the service of God’s holy church. I, however, was wearing a mental set of noise cancelling headphones, still hoping I could have a career on stage and screen and become America’s greatest classical actor since Jack Barrymore. It took my pastor and some well-meaning others a long time to convince me I’d be better off—and more useful to the world—by listening to the voice which was pushing me towards becoming a pastor. I can tell you my eventual surrender did not happen overnight.

 I’m not sure that any course correction or radical turn we make in our lives’ journeys ever is simple or immediate. It might take a little prodding and pondering for us to discern our proper path. The lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 2, Year B speak to me of God’s patience with his recalcitrant and children. In our First Lesson (1 Samuel 3:1-20), the boy Samuel actually hears God calling him by name. Unfortunately, the poor kid has no idea this is the voice of the Lord. I find this rather disconcerting as young Sammy was basically “donated” as a child by his mom to be a helper in the Temple. You’d think the kid would’ve learned something about God being around a bunch of priests, but I guess his religious education was like modern Confirmation students—he went through the motions to please his mom, but all the theology spilled out his opposite ear while he was daydreaming about sports and girls.

God has to call Samuel three times and get him to disturb Eli the priest’s sleep before Eli figures out God is at work. I think this is pretty typical. It’s not that God is so subtle, it’s that we are often so dense.

 You have to feel sorry for Eli in this story. Not only does he lose a good night’s sleep, but the prophetic mission to which his young assistant is called spells rotten news for the old priest. Eli has been an indulgent and neglectful parent, and his two sons, who will take over the family priest business, are a couple of lecherous, covetous, selfish dirtbags. God feels that, had Eli been a better dad, the boys would’ve grown up more respectful. God is pretty peeved about this situation, and plans to smite Eli and his creepy progeny. The job of telling Eli the bad news falls to Samuel—as will the job of taking over the priestly role when Eli dies. God’s people have a need for a good priest, and God knows Samuel has what it takes for the job, even if Samuel doesn’t know it himself yet. The writer and clergyman Frederick Buechner famously said, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” God won’t call you to a job and not give you the skills to perform it.

 We have another example of God’s call in our Gospel (John 1: 43-51). There’s some reluctance here too as Nathaniel isn’t sure a prophet can come from a hick burg like Nazareth. Nevertheless, his pal Philip—not with any persuasive speech or by bludgeoning the poor guy with scripture—gently invites Nate to check out Jesus and see if his objections hold water. When Jesus makes a little joke about Israelites being deceitful,[i] Nate fires back that Jesus doesn’t know him. Jesus counters by saying he has seen Nathaniel under the fig tree. Like a lot of stuff in John’s Gospel, we have no idea what the freak he’s talking about. All the same, this seems to change Nathaniel’s mind about the guy from Nazareth. 

It’s been suggested that the take-away we can have from this is that Jesus tells Nate he’s seen him. You know that pharmaceutical commercial on TV for the stuff that’s supposed to cure psoriasis or some other dermatological ailment? The one with Cyndi Lauper and the bald Driver’s Ed guy who says, “See me?” The point of the ad being that folks only saw the gross skin ailment and not the human being who was afflicted with it until this miracle drug healed them of the modern equivalent of leprosy. We all want someone to see us the way we really are, to take notice, to appreciate us and have a real relationship with the real us. Jesus does that. He truly knows us. He sees us for who we are and loves us for it. Maybe that’s what Nathaniel experienced when his friend brought him to the Lord. Nathaniel needed some coaxing, but when he met Jesus, his life was changed.

 Not all of us are being called to Holy Orders, but all of us are called to be servants of the Lord. Perhaps you are being called to some kind of decision. God may be speaking to you by persistently nagging at your conscience, or God may be using a trusted friend to quietly goad you into the way you should be going. I’d encourage you to answer as Samuel is told to answer: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

 May God be with you.

[i] The patriarch Jacob, who was known to run a few cons in his time, was renamed “Israel” by God in Genesis 32:28.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Reboot! (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, 2021)

 



You have to love New Year’s, right? I mean, it always seems like a new beginning no matter how crappy the previous year has been. You make a toast, kiss your honey, look at the clock and say, “It’s twelve-o-two and nothing terrible has happened yet. So far, it’s been a pretty good year!” 

You may feel the same way when you start a new job or move to a new home or begin a new relationship. The newness always offers promise. It’s kind of like when a baby is born. You hold that little person in your arms and say, “She hasn’t trash-talked me or disobeyed me yet.” Or, “He hasn’t dropped out of school to join a metal band yet.” Or, “She hasn’t hooked up with a creepy dude with a neck tattoo yet.” Or, “I haven’t had to put him in rehab yet.”

 No. When that child is born, that child is perfect. Everything about the child is good and promising and joyful and pure.

 I think this is how God feels in our First Lesson for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (Genesis1:1-5). God spoke light and all creation into existence and decided it was pretty darn good. Later, in our Gospel text (Mark 1:4-11), as Jesus is baptized, God again declares this is good. In fact, God calls his baptized child “beloved” and the one with whom God is “well pleased.”

 You see, God really loves what God has made, and there is nothing God has made which didn’t start out as good in God’s eyes. Our faith teaches us that when we were baptized, God declared us good. Baptism, according to Martin Luther in the Small Catechism,

 “…signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned through daily sorrow for sin and repentance, and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

 Isn’t that good news?

 What’s even better is knowing your baptism has an eternal guarantee. As Lutherans, we don’t ask anyone to be re-baptized when they join our congregation after having been baptized elsewhere. You don’t get baptized as a Lutheran or as a Roman Catholic or as any other Christian denomination. You are baptized into the Triune God. Period. Your membership in the fellowship of all Christians never expires or has to be renewed. At any time in your personal cage match with the temptations, irritations, frustrations, and outright tragedies of being a human being on planet Earth you can hit the reset button and know that you were created good and God’s forgiving, loving grace was meant for you. All you need do is believe it. 

May the Holy Spirit bless you in this New Year!

Monday, January 4, 2021

In the Beginning (Reflections on Christmas Two, Year B)

 



“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 14) 

The opening of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) has a beautiful poetry to it. It’s all about the Word giving us light, grace, and truth. The light is shining in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t “overcome it.” (Verse 5) “Overcome” in Greek has a couple of meanings, and John could be meaning all of them. The term in Greek is ou katelaben (ou katelaben is how it looks in the original language—not that you care, I just like to type in Greek!). It can be translated as “did not apprehend, seize, grasp, overtake, comprehend, or suppress.” So when the “light” comes into the darkness, we in the darkness don’t really understand it, nor can we stop it from shining. 

John’s highlighting two things here: The “God-ness” of God is something we can’t really wrap our puny, human brains around, so we probably don’t really get Jesus either. That’s why he refers to Jesus as “the Word” (Or, in Greek, Logos. Logos for you Greek fans). The term is so vague because we really don’t have a word to describe a concept that is so divine. 

These first verses in the Fourth Gospel are the culmination of the early church’s theology. If you look at one of the earlier writings in the New Testament, Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (written sometime around the year 50 CE), you’ll see how Paul thought of Jesus: “…descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4).” That is, when Jesus rose, Paul figured he must’ve become the Son of God. 

Later, (around 66-70 CE) Saint Mark the evangelist will figure out that Jesus was named Son of God when he was baptized (Mark 1:11). He doesn’t bother giving us a Christmas story in his version of the Gospel, but he sees God present in Jesus as soon as Jesus begins his earthly ministry. Matthew and Luke, however, (writing around 70 or 80 CE respectively) see God’s hand in Jesus as soon as he was conceived in the womb. But it’s John, writing around the last decade of the First Century, who finally puts it all together and declares that God and Jesus were one from the start, and God had always desired to be with us, even before the creation of the world. That’s the mystery described so eloquently in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and the one we repeat when we recite the Nicaean Creed: 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

        The only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

True God from true God,

Begotten, not made,

Of one being with the Father;

Through him all things were made.

 

Isn’t that wonderful? Before we even knew we would need him, God had planned to be with us so we could see him, know him, and love him as we see, know, and love each other. We may never understand the mystery of God, and our human vocabulary is inadequate to describe it. Nevertheless, all we need to know is that God is with us, always has been, and always will be—evermore and evermore!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reflections on Christmas One

 22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;[a] this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.[b] 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon[c] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon[d] took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant[e] in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon[f] blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna[g] the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child[h] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)

 Merry Third Day of Christmas! Sometimes, I think, we forget that the Christmas holiday is actually twelve days long. Usually, after December 25th, we’re so sick of hearing “Frosty” and “Rudolph” on the radio that we can’t wait to be done with the whole thing. This year, however, we actually get two Sundays to celebrate in the Christmas season (usually we only get one, but Christmas was on Friday this year).

 There are four things I’d like to point out about the Gospel reading above: 

First: The Law of Moses required the faithful—as a sign of true, “I-ain’t-no-scaredy-cat-and-I-trust-in-God” faith—to offer the first-born of any animal or human as a sacrifice to God. It showed you trusted God to give you more of what was already provided if you could easily part with the first one. Obviously, you weren’t going to sacrifice your kid, so the Law allowed you to buy back your first-born child by offering an animal sacrifice instead. 

Second: Your animal sacrifice was prorated according to your personal wealth. I think it’s interesting that the Savior of the World was only worth the price of two pigeons.

 Third: Simeon’s prayer of praise has often been set to music and used as a canticle during our worship service. It’s sung right after we receive Holy Communion. We’ve met Jesus, so we can go in peace. I just always find this story touching. God let this old guy live long enough—not to see Jesus perform miracles or rise from the dead—just long enough to die knowing God is always active and, if we don’t live to see it, others will. 

Finally: This story really respects the prayers and faith of elderly people. I know we in the church keep asking, “Where are the young people?” All the same, there is something to be said for those who have run much of their race and are now resting in retirement. If I don’t tell you often enough, I want you to know how much I value your prayers, your faithfulness in giving, and your wise understanding that God has a way of making everything work out. To all you “Annas” out there, I offer my sincerest thanks and appreciation. Our congregation could not get along without you, and I love you all very much. May God continue to bless you today as God has in the past.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Choice is Ours (Reflections on the Nativity of Our Lord)

 


“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people…” (Luke 2:10) 

In one of my favorite Christmas stories, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”  I know what he meant. As much as I love Christmas, and I’ve celebrated the night of Our Lord’s birth for the last twenty-two years in the chancel of Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you on which year we sang which anthem or which year it snowed, or which year the candles on the sconces burned down too fast and the ushers had to put them out or risk setting the church on fire. After a while, the years and memories, like the candles, seem to melt down and lose their clear shape. 

But not this year. This year I will remember. So will we all. 

This year, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we will not be able to gather as a family in worship of the baby in the manger. There will be no Praise Team singing, no bell choir, no hugs in the narthex, no pews packed with folks singing the Christmas hymns which never get old. This year, many will not be able to gather with family around the tree on Christmas Day or at the dining table. The feasts will be smaller, the gifts will be sent through the mail and opened at a distance. The smiles will be seen on the screen of a smart phone or laptop. 

We will remember this Christmas, and the long months which preceded it. We’ll remember the shut-down; the death of George Floyd and the riots, destruction, and protests which followed; the fires in the west and the floods in the Gulf Coast; and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath which articulated our brutal divisiveness as a nation. 

The question, of course, is how will we remember these things? Will this be a time of petulant disappointment, or will this be a moment to experience God’s grace? Will we, in the midst of all that has happened, be able to hear the voices of the angels proclaiming God’s intervening presence in our chaotic world? 

Last Christmas I told a story from my late friend, Wayne Martin, a beautiful Christian man whom I’d known from my vicariate congregation in New York[i]. In 1997 I had the honor of sharing a Christmas dinner with him at the home of some mutual friends. As we sat around the table he told us of a Christmas that was vividly in his memory—Christmas of 1944, which he’d spent as a scout for Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. 

It seems that Wayne and two other scouts found themselves pinned down in a farm shed in France on Christmas Day. A German patrol had spotted the three GIs and opened fire with small arms. The American boys tried to return fire, but the temperature, well below freezing, was so miserably cold that they could barely move their fingers. Worse, the grease which lubricated the action on their rifles froze, rendering the weapons useless. One of the soldiers would warm a rifle over a small fire in the shed, then pass it on to one of his two buddies who would fire off a few rounds until the weapon seized again. 

The soldiers kept up this desperate relay for what seemed to be hours until they noticed that the Germans were no longer returning fire. The grease in the enemies’ weapons was also frozen. Both sides simply gave up. Wayne said to his comrades, “I guess Jesus doesn’t want us fighting on his birthday.” 

This year, I think of those three boys, thousands of miles from home, shivering through one of the coldest winters ever recorded in Europe, and fighting for their lives. Did they remember it as a day of fear and desperation, or as a day of grace and salvation? 

Perhaps this year we will remember why we celebrate December 25th. It is not about the gifts or the parties or the family traditions. It is a dark day which reminds us that God has not abandoned us. God has sent his own Son into the world to be a light of hope. 

I think of the shepherds, filled with both fear and wonder, hired men living on a subsistence wage in tents in a field like the homeless who lined the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philly this year. Suddenly, God ripped open the heavens to tell them deliverance was at hand—a baby was born in Bethlehem who would be the Messiah. But what good could a baby do? This baby, born to peasants, homeless in a barn? It would be thirty years before Jesus would proclaim the Kingdom of God had come near. Perhaps some of those shepherds would not live long enough to hear the Good News. 

And yet, they went with haste to Bethlehem all the same. They proclaimed the promise that God was still active, still at work, never forgetting God’s people. They returned to their tents glorifying and praising God—not for what God had done, for their circumstances remained unchanged—but for what God was doing. God had given them the gift of hope. 

Perhaps this year the COVID Christmas will remind us of our mutual struggle and of the responsibility we all have to each other. Perhaps we will, God willing, emerge from this pandemic with a greater sense of togetherness, a greater respect for the fragility of life, and a greater joy for the gifts with which God blesses us every day. Whether this Christmas is remembered with bitterness or triumph will be our choice. 

God’s peace be with you all. 



[i] See the Featured Post at the right for another of Wayne Martin’s Christmas stories.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Saint Katy Inspires

 

I really love Advent Four. This is the Sunday when we get that beautiful story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th Century theologian and church leader, said there were three miracles present in this story: 1) that God would condescend to become human, 2) that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, and 3) that this little girl, Mary, would actually be willing to be the mother of the Savior. Martin Luther believed that the third miracle was the greatest of them all. After all, God can do whatever God wants to do. It’s only when we want God to do God’s thing, when we say “yes” to God, that things really happen. 

This was a pretty big “yes” for a young girl like Mary—to be willing to be the bearer of God’s redemption for the world. In Mary’s day her pregnancy out of wedlock would certainly mean scandal and social exclusion (possibly even stoning!)—to say nothing of the pain and medical dangers of childbirth itself. Luther gained a real appreciation of what she’d agreed to thanks to the influence of the saint we commemorate on December 20th in our liturgical calendar, Katherina Von Bora, a.k.a. Mrs. Martin Luther.

 Katy Von Bora had been sent to a convent to study at the age of five. When she was nine she was moved to a different convent where one of her aunts was a nun. Katy was expected to enter into the religious life and spent the next sixteen years in the cloister. A brilliant young woman and accomplished scholar, Sister Katy became fascinated with the growing Protestant movement. With the aid of Luther, to whom she had written, she and several of her sister nuns made a daring escape from the convent by hiding in a fishmonger’s cart.

 Luther had the audacity to preach that God’s grace smiled no more brightly on cloistered nuns and monks than it did on any other sinner.[i] Subsequently, many men and women in religious life left their vows of chastity and sought spouses. Luther served as something of a match-maker for these former monks and nuns, but Katy had no interest in any of the suggested husbands. She was holding out for Luther himself.

 The Luthers had six children and adopted four orphans. While Luther was out reforming Europe, Katy raised eleven children, managed the enormous house they had been given by the Elector of Saxony (which included managing the frequent guests and lodgers), ran the estate (including livestock), greatly increased the family income, and still found time to advise her husband on his work, brew his beer, and serve as a volunteer nurse when sickness struck the community. She taught Luther respect for the role and capabilities of women, and she is remembered along with her husband as a renewer of the church.

 On Advent Four we give thanks to God for the heroic women such as our Lord’s mother and Elizabeth, her cousin, the mother of John the Baptist. It’s fitting that we should also give thanks for all who have said “yes” to God’s call to be caregivers—for parents of both sexes, nurses, teachers, healthcare workers, and nursing home caregivers among so many others. In this time of pandemic their selflessness is a manifestation of God’s love. 

Peace be with you.

 [i] Acts 10:34